Interview with award-winning author Hermione Lee

I had the chance to interview award-winning author Hermione Lee about her dazzling debut novel In the Name of the Otherworld recently. She graciously agreed to answer my questions and post the answers for you. If you haven’t already picked up a copy of her YA fantasy novel, please do.

CP: Where did the inspiration for this novel come from?

HL: Back when I was in middle school, I hated most of my classes as much as any other kid did. I fantasized about a portal that allowed me to escape from the campus. One late afternoon when I was passing the teachers’ office, the fountain sitting in the courtyard of the school mesmerized me and drew my attention. It was fascinating, majestic, even. The bright rays of the sunlight gilded the waters, making it a pool of golden flames. It looked like a magic portal that led to another world. Perhaps the Otherworld. Perhaps I had a secret identity there…. And this became my story.

CP: Do you have a favorite character?  Why?

HL: Alexandria, definitely. Though I must say all the others are pretty impressive, too. I do like Eric very much for his strength and courage, but I relate to Alexandria the most. She changed a lot in the book, learning to love herself, reconcile with her past, and acknowledge her potential and worth. This is basically me when I was writing my book. Alexandria had her adventure, and I had my journey of writing about her and her adventure. Our journeys parallel that of each other’s. We both encountered countless setbacks and frustrations, but neither of us gave up. This made both of us stronger, better, and more confident.

CP: What was the best part of writing the book?

HL: I enjoyed writing some scenes in particular. For example, the fifth chapter when Zack summarizes the last mission to the readers and gives them an insight of what exactly happened last time. I also like the crossing-the-bridge scene that succeeds Zack’s story. The encountering-the-Chirpy-Bird scene in chapter seven was also fun to write. The Chirpy Bird’s one of those flamboyant and boisterous villains that makes it more than easy for readers to hate, me included. I also like the camping scene in chapter eight, the vision scene in chapter twelve, and all of the scenes in chapter thirteen.

CP: What was your least favorite thing about it?

HL: I don’t think I have a least favorite thing about my book. But I do regret it took me so long to get it published. I finished the first draft when I was fourteen, but that version was an utter disaster. Don’t even get me started on it! I only wished I could’ve spent more time improving my craft of writing during the past few years and got my level up sooner. Oh well. At least I learned my lesson now.

CP: Is there anything in the book that is autobiographical?

HL: The mental growth of each character is somewhat autobiographical. Every character in the book is like a puzzle piece. They’re all a part of me. Alexandria the female warrior appears to be fearless and rather impulsive at times, but we learn in the first chapter that she’s actually very insecure. Eric the firm believer (in the good) represents the strong, tenacious, unyielding side of me. Like him, I never stopped believing in my own values. Helen represents my perfectionist personality. Zack is the cheerful and optimistic side of me that takes over my mind when I’m in a good mood. Clarissa is the part of me that is always curious, wanting to know everything in the world. Eileen is the nerdy, shy book-trovert I often am. Daphne, a slightly more aggressive character, is the me when I’m rejected or jealous of someone else.

CP: Would you do anything differently if you were to do it all again?

HL: I would have said no, should I have answered this question before my book was released. But now, I’m going to say, “yes definitely.” I wish I hadn’t made Helen that annoying. Many readers don’t like her standoffishness and aloofness. (Her poignant backstory is revealed in book 2.) I get a bit sad every time a reader hates on her. Of course, I’m happy I managed to kindle some kind of emotion in my readers, but to be honest, Helen is so much like me that it still hurts a little when people criticize her. Many may not realize this, but Helen is a dark, melancholic, easily depressed side of me I always try to conceal. While Alexandria may be the me on the outside, I definitely resemble Helen more on the inside.

CP: How did you come up with the title for the book?

HL: Titles are tricky little things. Sometimes it is very easy to come up with one. The right words flash through my mind, and bingo! That’s the perfect name for my book! I always knew In the Name of the Otherworld was going to be titled that. It just came to me like a lightbulb blinking on in my mind. The title also appears in the eleventh and fourteenth chapter, where Alexandria states she would forever fight “in the name of the Otherworld”. The Otherworld is Alexandria’s home, the only place that gives her a sense of belonging. She’d do anything for the good of it, in the name of it. Alexandria’s discovering her self-worth and true identity in the Otherworld inspired the title.

CP: What was your idea for the cover, and how closely does the cover resemble your original idea?

HL: I actually did a watercolor painting and intended to use it as my cover in the first place. It had the silhouettes of the seven protagonists on the front, a fountain positioned in the middle, and the background was a savanna. It was inspired by the fifth chapter in my book, where the protagonists first arrive in the Underworld. However, Karen of World Castle advised me against it because watercolor covers don’t sell well. Together, we came up with the current version—the black cover with a fountain in the middle. I’m glad I listened to Karen. My old one looks like the cover of a kid’s book, but I am absolutely in love with the current version. It just screams “magic!” at my readers.

CP: Was there a character that you related to more than the others?

HL: Alexandria, like I said before. I would also add Helen, but Alexandria is 90% me.

CP: You are sixteen now.  Are you going to college, and do you know what you want to study?

HL: I turned seventeen two weeks ago, actually. Yes, I’m going to college, and I want to major in English. I plan to become an English professor in Taiwan so I can influence my future students by fostering a profound love for English in them. Also, I hope to revolutionize the English educational system in Taiwan. People here should learn to love English as a form of art and not regard it as a tool.

CP: There is at least one sequel planned.  Do you have plans for any more in the series?

HL: Yes. If you take a closer look at the cover of Marvels of the Underworld (the sequel to In the Name of the Otherworld), you’ll see a row of words: Otherworld trilogy book 2) I have completed the third book in the series and sent it to World Castle. I’m planning to do 1-3 companion novels for my trilogy in the future because I love my characters so much it’s hard to let them go.

CP: Who are the authors who inspire you the most?

HL: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series opened my mind and made me know nothing is impossible. Katherine Paterson and Jodi Picoult, although not authors of my genre, impressed me with their impeccable wording. I have them to thank for expanding my vocabulary, broadening my horizons, and letting me know what real good prose is.

CP: How has your life changed since writing the book?

HL: Drastically. I don’t think anyone stops being an author. Ever since I started writing, I began to view the world around me through different eyes. Whenever a plane was taking off, I’d see a lonely white bird departing for a foreign country. When there was a full moon in the sky, I’d think of evil werewolves lurking in the forest, ready to target their next victims. When I came across a tree, I’d wonder if it was the property of a kingdom of fairies. Writing made me believe everything in the world is possible as long as the magic lives within you.

Ms. Lee’s debut novel In the Name of the Otherworld won the Literary Titan Silver Award for her use of intricate prose and for her original story. It is available in multiple outlets. You may also look Ms. Lee up on Goodreads, and be sure to sign up for their newsletter for more upcoming releases. Thank you to Hermione Lee for answering my questions, and I look forward to reading the next novel in the series!

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