About the Author
Being a writer is not just what I do, it’s who I am. Even if everything else in the day turns sour, if I have written, then it’s still a pretty good day.
I decided I wanted to be a writer when my fourth grade teacher (Mrs. Harr) gave me a good grade on a creative writing story I’d written. And not only that, she added “I like your ending,” along with a smiley face. At that point, I was off and running. I’ve been writing and making up stories ever since.
I live in Colorado. I’ve tried to live elsewhere, but it’s always too far from my family, so I returned for good some time ago. Colorado is a brilliant location to live in as it’s not very far from either coast, and the local international airport is only an hour away.
Right beside my writing desk, I have a green arm chair and ottoman that I call The Vortex. There are two reasons I call it that. The first is that it’s always trying to suck me in and sit down and do nothing but think and read and stare at the sunlight and shadows as they dapple the walls and ceiling. The second is that once I sit down in the thing, it’s almost impossible to get up, as The Vortex keeps sucking me in.
Visit Christina Pilz’s website for more information. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Stephanie: Hello, Christina! Welcome to Layered Pages. Please tell me about your book, Fagin’s Boy.
Christina: Fagin’s Boy was my paean to the ideas in Oliver Twist. I wanted to write a story that would continue the tale of Oliver and those people in his life. Because while there are some characters who are mean to Oliver, there are many, perhaps more, who are kind. Looking back, I can see that one of the themes is the kindness of strangers, people who help you for no reason, with no benefit to themselves. But when I started writing the story, of course, I had only the idea of taking Oliver on an adventure.
And, in taking him on that adventure, I discovered many things about him that I’d not known. Oliver tends to drink a lot (he’s got a taste for the gin, you see), and drunk or sober, he’s got a violent, flash-paper temper. He likes his creature comforts (this I knew, I think), but he’s also fussy about having enough hot water and soap. Plus he’s a foodie, which, I’m sure, surprises no one. He’s picky enough about his food to turn away peas, but when he’s starving, he’ll even eat eel stew. (Not in this book, though. In the next one, I think, he’ll actually eat eel. And he hates eel!)
Stephanie: I greatly admire Dicken’s stories and find your premise interesting. What inspired you to write this story?
Christina: When I was around 7 years old and my Dad was in the Air Force, we were stationed in Germany. I went to a German kindergarten, and spoke German, and everywhere there was the German culture. One summer we took a vacation in England, and for some reason, my brain became affected to the English culture, which, at the time, was the opposite of the Germany I’d been living in.
During the middle of this vacation, we were in London, and my parents dropped their daughters off at the movie theater to see Oliver! We were placed in the charge of a kindly bobby, and in those days, they escorted you to your seat. My brain was on alert (we were in England, where things felt different) and I cannot forget the moment during the opening credits when we finally sat down. (It was the graphical image of two pugilists.)
Long, long story short (too late!), I remember connecting with the character of Oliver Twist so hard, it was like a blow. He was alone and adrift from anyone who had his interests in mind. People were mean to him, he went through a lot of hard times, and yet, in the end, he found a home in the world. Plus, Mark Lester was so cute, I adored him, simply adored him. I wanted to marry him!
The other characters in that movie were vividly painted in my mind, as well: Jack, and Nancy, and Bill, and Fagin. I thought that the actors who portrayed them all did an excellent job; they definitely left a colorful legacy for me to work with. When Jack Wild passed away, I really came apart; I couldn’t explain to anyone what the trouble was, because, of course, I didn’t know Jack Wild, and had never met him, so why on earth would I be upset about it? But part of my childhood had died, you see.
After seeing that movie, a few years passed until I realized that the movie Oliver! Was based on an actual book, so in Junior High, I checked out a copy from the school library, and boy, was I surprised. To a 7th grader, Dickens is a bit of a slog; the writing style is different, for one thing, and Dickens tended to dwell, dwell, and dwell on the most uninteresting things. Plus I was shocked to find out that a) Fagin gets hanged at the end of the novel, and b) that Jack is harrested (as they say) for a two-penny, half-penny snuffbox, and is simply and unequivocally never seen again.
For years, these ideas chased each other in my brain: Why had the story ended the way that it did? Why did Dickens write so many chapters about characters who were not Oliver? Why did Dick have to die? Where did Jack go? And, most importantly, why did ever single review I ever read about the book have at least one paragraph on what a two-dimensional milksop of a character Oliver was?
That made me mad, and, yes, I thought Dickens was sloppy with his character development; Oliver has no kind upbringing, yet he’s a thoughtful, gentle boy who has perfect diction. But to say that Oliver was two-dimensional and a milksop character? Red flags, man, red flags. As I read the book, and re-read the book, I began to understand that the milksop description of Oliver was somewhat off the mark than you might think.
Take the ur-scene, where Oliver asks for more. I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet who does not know this scene. Oliver takes a dare that has his knees shaking, and yet he goes up and asks for more, in front of Mr. Bumble and everyone. And then, afterwards, he’s locked in a dark room for two weeks. He subsists on bread and water only. He is taken out every day to be flogged in front of the entire workhouse. He wraps his arms around his head and refuses to cry.
Then there is the scene where Oliver is about to be apprenticed to the chimney sweep dude, Mr. Gamfield. Oliver quickly sees that being a chimney sweep is not a good choice, so he is able to convince several people who are insistent that he does go with Mr. Gamfield that he should not go with Mr. Gamfield. Keep in mind, that this is a 10 year old boy who is disagreeing with a) two magistrates, b) Mr. Gamfield, and c) (last but not least) Mr. Bumble himself.
Then there is the pivotal scene where Oliver has had enough of Noah Claypole’s abuse (at Sowerberry’s funeral parlor), and he rises up, the lion in his breast. He attacks Noah hard enough to send the older boy crashing to the ground. Then this small boy walks 70 miles to London to make his fortune.
When Oliver meets up with Jack in Barnet, he hears about a “kindly old gentleman,” aka Fagin. Oliver, in short order, resolves to himself that he will, in time make this particular gentleman’s acquaintance, and, at the same time, usurp Jack’s place. Oliver is all of 10 years old, for crying out loud, but his first plan is how to manipulate the situation to his own advantage.
Are these the actions of a milksop? I think not. That’s what stuck with me. And part of why I wanted to write Fagin’s Boy. Oliver is an underappreciated character, and I thought he deserved to have his story told.
Subsequently, while I honed my writing skills (waiting till the day when I’d be brave enough to write a sequel to something that Charles Dickens wrote), any story I wrote, any character I invented or thought about during those days, had elements of Oliver in them, and, by association, Jack. The two characters were a foil for each other; not that I used the word foil, but I felt, even in my young brain, that the actions of one character went nicely (comfortably) with the actions of the other character. Oliver and Jack were like salt and pepper, peaches and cream, and all my variations on that theme (Mark and Peter, Shadow and Pascal, etc.) were really, Olive rand Jack in different guises. Only the names and circumstances changed.
Stephanie: Is this your first published work?
Christina: This is indeed my first published work. I’m proud of it, because it was such a Sisyphean task, given all the real life stuff that kept trying to get in the way. I love the cover that Jenny Q designed for me; I felt it brought the story to life.
Stephanie: How long did it take you to write, Fagin’s Boy?
Christina: A long, long time, it seems, and much of that time was spent not writing it.
I started working on the project in 2007, which is the first time I was part of a company-wide layoff. I’d been writing stories for a while, since 1993, and that had always been fun and fairly straightforward.
The first draft (which took about six months) was 100,000 words, which I thought was a fairly good sized novel. I put in everything I liked, and nothing I didn’t. Then the story began to falter because I had spread myself too thin (putting in everything will do that do you), and the story felt like an unwieldy monster in my hands.
Then I talked to my editor friend, Kathy, and she was kind enough to have me walk through the whole thing. She very gently pointed out that perhaps the story was one I’d carried in my head for so long, that it was part of a younger me, and as a more mature me, I could develop something more sophisticated.
I put the story aside for a while, and came back to it. And then left it during 2008, 2009, 2010…touching it every now and again to make sure it was still there. I had the idea in my head that I was a writer, and as long as it was there, my touchstone, I could still continue to say that, even though I wasn’t really writing.
Actually, I was writing; under the pseudonym of Sylvia Bond, I wrote reviews for a website called Pink Raygun. The owners of that site were terrifically supportive, giving me free rein, and I spent most of five years writing reviews for a TV show called Supernatural. But long about season 7, I determined that I could no longer spend my time doing that (the emotional payoff began to drain; my readers were terrific, but the subject matter got old), and I bid Pink Raygun a fond adieu and worked on Fagin’s Boy some more.
Then in 2012 I was part of another layoff. I had learned so much from my previous time off, and had a good idea of how the story wanted to go. So I spent as much time as I could rewriting and revising and redeveloping Fagin’s Boy, and during the year 2013, I wrote the second draft.
Since the second draft was so, so, so different than the first one (they’re almost like two different books!), I would say that it took me 6 months to write Fagin’s Boy, three months editing and revision, and two months prepping for publication. So that’s 11 months with much real life stuff trying to get in the way.
Stephanie: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Christina: I knew I wanted to be a writer in the 4th grade. My teacher, Mrs. Harr assigned her class a story writing project. There was a pile of laminated covers of books and magazine articles or just pretty pictures. I picked up the picture that was the back of a Reader’s Digest; it was the picture of a boy and a girl flying a kite and a bear in the woods.
I combined these elements into a story; the boy and the girl lose the kite, and go into the woods to rescue it. The bear comes after them, and they are able to escape. The moral of the story (I put in a moral because I thought it was important; I was a very serious nine year old child) was that you shouldn’t go into dangerous places like the woods. Mrs. Harr really liked the story, and wrote on it. She said, “This is a really good story, I really like your ending.” Then she put a smiley face next to her comment.
For any child, and for me in particular, this type of attention, with good, positive praise, was rather like getting a shot of adrenaline. I thought, hey, I can do this! So I began to write.
Keep in mind that I had no idea what writing was about, and for years didn’t know what a sentence fragment was, among other things, but I began as I meant to go on. I wrote little fragments of stories and plays, took a stab at poetry, found inspiration in Star Trek and Dark Shadows, and kept writing. In Junior High, the stories got longer, and I found someone to illustrate my stories for me; that particular friend, Danuta, is now a terrific artist and paints horses, and gets her stuff sold in all the high-end galleries in Tucson.
Then in 7th grade, based on several short stories I had written in her class, my English teacher Mrs. Meyerlie wrote a letter home to my parents. She commented that I had creative writing talent and should be encouraged to continue. Whether my parents read the letter or not, I have no idea; they never mentioned it to me. I think I came across the letter, one day, sitting on the kitchen counter, and I was amazed at it. That this person, my teacher, wrote to my parents to say that I was good at something, it was like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. I still have that letter, pasted in a scrapbook.
Other teachers have been encouraging, if not instrumental, in helping me along this path: Mrs. Baird at Platt Jr. High, Mr. Craig at Fairview High, Russell Croop (also at Fairview), who monitored my Independent Studies Project, where I worked on creative writing, Dr. Brand at UNC in Greeley, and Dr. Stratman at CU-Denver. There are so many other teachers who helped me along the way I would list them all, if I could. Teachers were the foundation of my experience, and all of them had something to contribute, whether they realized it or not.
Stephanie: What is your day like for writing? Do you write every day and how many words a week do you average?
Christina: It’s a funny thing, writing. I know readers like to hear something specific, like, this was my schedule, and this was what I accomplished. But I’m about to disappoint because it doesn’t always work like that.
I like to think of myself as a disciplined writer, and when I’m doing it, I’m really doing it. But when I’m not doing it, then I can slack off for weeks or months at a time. This is terrible and makes me feel bad!
So let’s look at Fagin’s Boy, which I mostly wrote during the times that I was unemployed. I would set myself a goal to write X number of words a day, but being unemployed made me depressed so it was really hard to stick to that goal, even though I had all the time in the world to write. I would come to the page feeling unfocused and scattered – the caffeine I ingested at the coffee shop didn’t help much either – and would end up working on my 3 x 5 cards, and redoing the outline, and futzing around.
But let’s just say it’s a good day. I’ve had my veggies, and enough sleep, a decent breakfast, and I’m at my desk. I type fairly fast, so when I’m going, I can write anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 words in a few hours. There was one day I wrote 10,000 words in one day, but I got up from the desk and I was vibrating from head to toe, so I vowed not to do that again.
I once wrote 100,000 words in a month but nothing else got done, the dishes were piled to the ceiling, the trash was overflowing the bin, and I had no clean clothes to wear. But I remember that as a very powerful time in my life; I said no to everything else, and just wrote. But, if I’m sane, and if I’m in the middle of a project and I’m committed, I can on average write around 2,000 words a day, and that makes me feel pretty good.
Since I published Fagin’s Boy, I’ve been focused on marketing, so that’s taken time away from writing. I promised myself that I would start writing again on a regular, daily basis at the beginning of March, and so here we are. What’s the plan? 2,000 words a day, full stop. Plus blog posts. : D
Stephanie: What is it that you love most about writing and how has writing impacted your life?
Christina: Writing is one of the few, if not the only area in my life, where I get to say who, what, when, where, and how. My writing is a line that no one gets to cross. I will take input and feedback, but in the end, the final decision is mine. In the rest of my life, there’s more give and take, more teamwork, more getting along for the greater good. But my writing is all mine.
Stephanie: What book project are you currently writing on?
Stephanie: I’m currently working on the sequel to Fagin’s Boy. I figured that while I have the characters in my mind, and all those notes, that this would be the best time.
Also, I feel that Fagin’s Boy explored Oliver’s world a great deal, and that Jack got the short end of the stick, a bit. I had wanted to make Fagin’s Boy a two-person point of view, but I had so many words already, and every time I tried to imagine Jack’s life, I went down a rabbit hole that took me away from what I thought Fagin’s Boy was about. So now it’s Jack’s turn, and there will be more about Oliver as well.
Stephanie: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Christina: Write, write, and write. Keep writing. Write some more.
Don’t let anyone tell you what to write. Don’t let anyone tell you what not to write.
Take care of yourself. Your hands and your brain and your body are part of how you create your stories. If those parts of you are not functioning, and, just as importantly, if they are not functioning in sync, then your stories will suffer.
Read some books on writing, but not too many.
Don’t read those books on writing that have you do little exercises, as I think those are a waste of time. They are a waste of time because the little writing exercises have no context; they are separate entities and will not give you the heady feeling you get when you connect this character with that one, when you sync the details in your plot with the main story arc, or when you create the most perfect descriptive paragraph ever. You get all of those things when you simply write a story.
The books on writing that I feel are the most helpful are those that talk about writing, and how other writers handled their career. Stephen King’s On Writing comes first to mind, and the Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is also a good one. I call these books the kind that are about the philosophy of writing.
Classes on writing are okay, conferences/conventions about writing are fun, but the most important thing to do is find someone to talk to about what you’re working on. That one person, not an editor, necessarily, but that person against whom you can bounce ideas, but who, at the same time, won’t try to direct your writing.
Some people like writing groups, but taking your writing in such an infant state (“Bring two chapters and we’ll critique it!”) tends to make me feel like I am writing in front of an audience. That kind of atmosphere tends to make me, at least, clam up and shut up and stop writing. Everyone has ideas about what you should be writing; it’s hard enough working against that, why on earth would you want to sign yourself up for a group of them?
Stephanie: Is there something you would like to say to your readers?
Christina: A lot of writing comes from the dark places of the soul. I have never, really, have never met anyone who writes or who reads a great deal who doesn’t have a jaggedly bad history. Truth be told, everyone has a story about something that happened to them, something so bad, so miserable and painful, that I’m constantly amazed that they’re walking around at all. But they are, and usually with some dignity, not spilling their misery everywhere. This makes me humble, for some reason, while at the same time, I’m taking notes. While I might not write about a particular miserable event, that knowledge sparks something in me that wants to tell other people’s stories.
The other thing I would like to say to my readers is this: live your life. Live your dream. Don’t let anyone ever, anywhere, ever, tell you what your life is for. There is enough pressure in the world to go to the right school, get the right job, live in the right neighborhood – there’s enough pressure from the outside world telling you who to be, that I think they’ve had their say and then some. Don’t listen to them anymore. Don’t watch commercials – don’t let anyone try to convince you that your life will be better because you have this watch or drive that car. Buy the car you want and then, when you’ve done that, express your inner dream.
I feel somewhat adamant about this point, because upon publishing Fagin’s Boy, I’ve had many, many people (sweet people, good people) tell me that they’ve always wanted to write a book. To which I say, you should write it! To which they respond, oh no, I couldn’t. I want to sit every single one of those people down, and stand over them till they’ve written the first word of their book. I want to be that strict governess with a ruler standing at the ready, and I’d say: Write that book! Do it! Do it now! There’s no reason not to, and no better time. With so many good, indie publishers (who will give you great personalized service) and the self-publishing option that makes it so easy to get your work out there – there are no more excuses!
Stephanie: Thank you, Christina!
Christina: You are more than welcome. It was a pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this character that I’ve cared about for so long.
Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/faginsboytour
Tour Hashtag: #FaginsBoyTour
Publication Date: January 1, 2014
Blue Rain Press
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