Chinaberry Interviews Author Staton Rabin

November 19th, 2008 by Janet

Each of us here at Chinaberry has his/her own personal favorite authors. Staton Rabin is one of my top three. Several years ago, I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person at a Starbucks in NYC when she was in the final phase of writing The Curse of the Romanovs. I had intended to ask her some questions that I could share with our customers, but I became so mesmerized listening to her talk about the Romanov story that I didn’t want to break the spell. That’s the kind of storyteller Rabin is – spellbinding! Now that we’ve got our blog up and running, I decided to email her with a few questions. Perhaps not as much fun as chatting with her in Starbucks, but you can’t beat your computer for convenience. I’m very pleased to introduce to you Staton Rabin!

We’re currently carrying two of her books (which she so generously autographed!): Black Powder and The Curse of the Romanovs.

Janet:  When did you first decide to make a living as a writer?  And, as a child, did you ever dream of becoming a writer? If not, what DID you dream of becoming?

Staton: When I was growing up, writing was the family business — my parents and my older brother were all writers. I suppose if I’d come from a family of plumbers, I would have grown up to be a plumber.  But when I was a kid, what I really dreamed of doing someday was becoming a U.S. Senator — or a magician.  I still know a couple of good “tricks,” but I never did run for the Senate.

Janet:  So many of your books revolve around time travel.  If you could travel back in time, where would you go?

Staton: I know exactly what I would do.  First, I’d want to meet Abraham Lincoln.  There are a lot of good descriptions of the way he looked and sounded in person, but I think I could learn more about Lincoln in a few seconds of watching him than I could in a lifetime of reading about him.  Second, I’d want to see and hear the late, great rock ‘n’ roll star Buddy Holly performing in one of his “live” shows back in the 1950s.  Buddy wrote and sang lots of really exciting music.  And third, I’d like to go back to RKO film studios in the 1930s and watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers rehearsing one of their dances, and then watch Judy Garland and the rest of the cast filming “The Wizard of Oz” at MGM studios — or maybe watch dancer Gene Kelly filming a movie in the 1940s or ‘50s.

Janet:  I’m so curious to know what a typical day in the life of Staton Rabin is like.  How do you typically structure your days? How many hours per day would you say you’re actually writing?  Do you ever have a difficult time buckling down to the work of writing?  And how do you handle the inevitable “writer’s block”?  Wow, that’s a lot of curiosity packed into “one” question, eh? (I wish we were back at Starbucks. “Barista, we’d like two more green tea frappucinos, please.”)

Staton: I write about emperors and princes, creepy cold-blooded villains, daring girls, nerdy boys, and scientific geniuses — and the seemingly ordinary teens who go on spectacular and extraordinary adventures to change the course of history.  But like most writers, I’m afraid my life isn’t nearly as interesting and glamorous as the lives of the people I write about.

So, on a typical morning, I roll out of bed at around 7:30, grab a bowl of hot oatmeal and milk, walk five feet to my office, turn on my Mac, and start reading and responding to my e-mail.  Then I ask myself, “What work do I need to do today?” while trying not to spill oatmeal on my keyboard.  Since I’m my own boss, I give myself assignments, and then I do them.  So I’ve actually started talking to myself out loud, which can be very embarrassing when I find myself doing this in public.

I usually keep working until I’m done with all the many things I had to do — whether I’m done at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, or at 11 at night.  I do research and write, I edit my work, I communicate with my agents and editors.  I spend most of my time on the “business” part of writing, and very little of it actually writing, except when I’m in the middle of working on a new book or screenplay.

A couple of times a week, I try to get to the gym, and go for long walks so I can get some exercise while doing some thinking.  Part of my job is to give a lot of speeches about writing, and writers also hire me to give them suggestions on how they can improve their own screenplays or novels, or “pitch” their stories.

I don’t usually get “writer’s block” because I can’t afford to — I make my living by writing.  Sometimes, the only “inspiration” I need is to look at my bank statement and see how much money is left in there!

After work, when I go out with my friends, we go to lectures or museums, or see musical plays.  I drive them crazy with my enthusiasm about whatever I’m currently studying and working on.  This week, we heard a lecture about Abraham Lincoln — and I went with a friend to see the dancing Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Show in New York.  Let me tell you, those Rockettes are mind-boggling.  They do several shows a day.   Believe me, my job is a lot easier than theirs!

Janet:  What was the hardest part of writing Black Powder?

Staton: That’s an excellent question, because writing a time travel fantasy is one of the toughest assignments a writer can get.  It’s like playing 3-D chess, because you have to keep track of so many different things at the same time.   And it also requires being incredibly meticulous about details and making sure that everything makes sense—and that there are no holes in the story’s logic or plot.  That’s what I admire most about the best time travel fantasies, like the “Back to the Future” films, which influenced me growing up.  They stick to the rules they’ve set up.

So, without a doubt, the hardest part about writing Black Powder, which is a fast-paced time travel adventure, was to make sure that all the little details checked out (I even checked what phase the moon was in on a certain date in the 13th century for a scene that took place by moonlight!).  And I also made sure that I never broke any of the rules I’d set up for the “world” of this story.  Langston, the modern teenage science whiz who shuttles back and forth between 2010 and medieval England, has just eight days to complete his mission — which is to go back in time and prevent the invention of guns — or else he’ll be stuck in the 13th century forever.  Keeping track of how many days had passed in two centuries at the same time got to be really complicated.  And I also had to make sure that if it was, for example, January 15th, 2010 in Los Angeles, it was the same exact day in the thirteenth century in England.

I remember things got really challenging when, for one scene that took place at Langston’s school in 2010, my editor, Emma Dryden, figured out that Martin Luther King Day would fall on January 18 that year, and Langston’s school would be closed!  Luckily, she came up with a solution and we fixed this.  Working on this book probably drove her batty, but she was a great partner and a good sport about it.  We both share the belief that a book should be the best the writer and editor can make it, and that my readers deserve nothing less.

Janet: What was the hardest part of writing The Curse of the Romanovs?

Staton: Probably the amount of historical research involved.  In a sense, I had to “become” the star of my book, Alexei Romanov, the teenage hemophiliac Russian prince (or “Tsarevich” is actually the more correct term).  I didn’t bleed like Alexei, but I had to learn pretty much what he would have learned about the world he lived in: who all his relatives were; what books he would have read and what he learned from his tutors; the history of his country, Russia; where he spent his holidays, and which palace he’d be living in at which time of year.  I had to learn about the Russian Revolution (Oy!  All those Mensheviks and Bolsheviks!). I even had to learn things that Alexei wouldn’t have known — such as what causes hemophilia, and how it is treated today and might one day be cured.

I got a “D” in Russian history in high school — the only time I didn’t get an “A” in my history classes.  So when I decided to write this book, maybe in some way I was trying to change my own past — just as the characters in my books try to change history too.  I was trying, in a sense, to “rewrite” my own history, so that I would become an expert on Russia’s past and the Revolution, and the royal family—and also on my book’s villain, the mysterious “mad monk” Rasputin.  After all, my own grandmother came from Russia, and she was there when Tsar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, and their children were still alive and ruling their empire.  My grandma and her sisters used to hide under the bed when the Cossacks rode right into their living room on horseback.  But when I started I knew little about Russian history.

So, after planning my rough outline for The Curse of the Romanovs, I spent a year doing nothing but educating myself on Russian history and all the characters in my book.  I read many books and articles, had hundreds of index cards containing my notes on every subject and real-life character in the novel. I even learned some Russian words and expressions. I interviewed experts on hemophilia, Alexei’s terrible disease.

Author Peter Kurth, an expert on Anna Anderson (the woman who claimed to be the famous Anastasia, Alexei’s sister) and the Romanov family, read the manuscript, and very generously endorsed the book.   And on the wall of my apartment was a “family tree” I had drawn for Alexei’s family—going back generations, and showing which of the women carried the gene for hemophilia, and which of the boys were born with it.  Heck, I know more about this boy’s family history than I do about mine!

I also had a Russian history professor at Georgetown check my historical notes, just to make sure that I didn’t make any mistakes.  In fiction, the writer’s first job is to tell a good story — and sometimes that means changing or stretching the historical facts.  As my writing teacher in college used to say, “The truth is no excuse for bad drama.”  But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to make inadvertent historical errors in a historical novel.  So I always try to make sure that everything that is supposed to be true, is.

Amazingly, at almost exactly the same time my book was published, the Russians discovered what they think may be Alexei’s “missing bones” — and also those of one of his sisters, Anastasia or Marie.  DNA testing seems to prove this, but when it comes to the amazing Romanovs, everything is controversial, and probably always will be!

Janet:  Do you have plans for writing another novel in the near future?  Knowing you, you’re probably working on one this afternoon!

Staton: The book that I’m actually publishing myself soon is a biography of rock ’n’ roll pioneer Buddy Holly.  It’s a nonfiction book for teens, called OH BOY! — the title of one of his famous songs.

Janet:  Were you read to as a child?  What were your favorite books growing up?

Staton: Yes, my parents read to me.  They stopped reading to me when I turned 12, and I remember how sad that made me.  So nowadays, when I have a steady boyfriend, one of my favorite things is being read to.  My favorite books growing up (this includes ones that I read on my own when I got older, as well as those read to me as a kid) were My Father’s Dragon, A.A. Milne’s poems (when I was a small child), Little House on the Prairie, and when I got a little older, Ray Bradbury’s stories and books, Gone with the Wind, The Jungle Book, President Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, and My Antonia by Willa Cather.

Janet:  What book is on your bedside table this very minute?

Staton: My library books are actually ON the bed, since I’m always reading before I go to sleep.  Right now, I’m reading Loot, which is a well-written, controversial book about ancient art treasures purchased (stolen?) by the great museums, and I’m also reading guitarist Eric Clapton’s autobiography.

Janet: What are some of your favorite books we could find on your shelves right now?

Staton: For my money, the Sherlock Holmes stories by Doyle are the best fiction anyone ever wrote—and writers can learn a lot from studying them.  I read mostly nonfiction, though, and loved Seabiscuit, and In the Heart of the Sea.  I enjoy reading “National Geographic” magazine every month. I like Dickens, too.  But my favorite classic novel is probably Jane Eyre, and for a modern novel, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Janet:  Do you have any pets?

Staton: I love most animals, and often I will send my friends videos I find online showing some rare baby pygmy hippo born at a zoo or something, and I tell them, “I want one of these!”  I love dogs—unfortunately my landlord won’t let me have one.  If I had dogs, I’d get an English cocker spaniel, an English setter, and maybe also rescue a dog from the pound.  And I want a pocket-sized baby elephant….

Janet:  What is your greatest simple pleasure?

Staton: I know a diner in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where I grew up.  It’s been there since before I was born.  I still go there now.  The prices are like from 1958, the food is good, the coffee helps my migraines, and the waitresses call me “Honey.”  What could be better than that?

By the way, one of my other greatest simple pleasures has been chatting with you.  Thanks, Janet, for giving me the opportunity — and for introducing me to the Chinaberry family of readers.

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