Today’s guest post brings you an interview with Christopher Mannino as he celebrates the release of his YA fantasy School of Deaths. Welcome and happy book b-day, Christopher!
The idea for School of Deaths emerged when I was finishing my graduate degree at Oxford University. I spent four months abroad, far from everyone I knew. Every week, I traveled somewhere I had never been before. I would climb castle ruins in Wales and visit cathedrals in England. One of my favorite trips was to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. I crept to the cliff face of Barras Nose, a stony peninsula jutting into the North Sea and overlooking the ruins of Tintagel, which some believe to be the birthplace of King Arthur. It was dawn, there were no other people in sight, and I had to struggle against the wind, fighting to keep my balance so I didn’t crash into the ocean. I imagined being buffeted by winds, alone, and what that would do to a character. That’s how I came up with the character of Suzie, alone in a world of men, buffeted by sexism.
Returning to Oxford, I envisioned Suzie alone in a strange school. The idea of a school of trained Reapers appealed to me, giving a fantasy edge to her story. In an early draft, the school of deaths resembled Oxford. However a beta reader told me, very correctly, that Oxford was the inspiration for JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I eventually changed the setting drastically to avoid that parallel.
What book had the most influence on you while growing up?
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was my first taste of high fantasy. I read the series when I was eight, and by the time I was fourteen had re-read the series twice more. I’d already been an avid reader, but something about Middle Earth appealed to me deeply, and it remains one of my favorite novels to this day.
In seventh grade, I was given a writing assignment where we had to create an original short story mimicking the style of one of our favorite authors. Essentially, we were writing fan fiction, though none of us knew that term at the time. My piece was a short story about the lost Entwives, and what occurred after they left Fangorn. It was my first time writing anything creative that I enjoyed.
Years later, in Oxford, I was surrounded by Tolkien’s actual home. Oxford was where he lived and taught, along with other writers such as CS Lewis and Philip Pullman. I joined the Oxford Tolkien Society, and often ate at the Eagle and Child pub (where the Inklings, a group of writers including Tolkien and Lewis, would exchange ideas). For me to start my stories there was only appropriate.
What is your favorite part of the writing process? What is your least favorite part?
I love to dream. My favorite part of the writing process is the very beginning, when an initial idea worms its way out of my subconscious and into my thoughts. As I work on the first draft, I enjoy seeing that idea grow, meet other ideas, and change. At this point, the novel is like a movie playing in my mind. Characters act and react with epic music and stunning visual effects. I’m so excited that I want to keep coming back to the keyboard, and keep sharing my ideas.
My least favorite part is all of the things that go with writing that aren’t writing. The long and difficult processes of finding a publisher, and now for marketing are frustrating. The editing phase was not my favorite, but I did enjoy seeing the story improve. With marketing and publishing the idea does not change, and the amount of time required is very high. For people such as myself, who work full-time jobs, the time spent on elements of the writing process that do not involve writing is an annoyance.
How has your work with high school theatre influenced your writing?
I am fortunate enough to be pursuing both of my dreams. Theatre and writing are two of my greatest passions. One way teaching has influenced me, is through my daily work with teenagers. I am a young adult author who interacts with actual young adults on a daily basis. This helps me understand their needs, wants, and desires better than authors who do not work with kids. Theatre is also highly creative. I see the world in a slightly different way thanks to theatre, and the use this ability to create abstract visualizations when writing.
On the other hand, my job makes writing more difficult at times. I am usually the first teacher to school and the last one to leave, because of the many theatre programs I run. Time is not my ally, and I struggle to find time to write. Most of my first drafts are done purely in summer vacations.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Shape changing appeals to me a lot. I’d love to take the form of a bird and soar through the sky, or dive deep under the ocean as a fish. Shape-changing is the most fun power I can envision. However, if I had to pick the most practical superpower, it be the ability to manipulate time. If I could have infinite time to get things done, or perhaps travel through time, my life would be drastically different.
What is something funny/weird/exceptional about yourself that you don’t normally share with others in an interview?
Ok, I did share this in one other interview, but it’s the funniest thing I can think of.
I once saw a dinosaur fly. It’s actually one of my earliest memories. When I was about four, my parents brought my brother and me to a park by the Charles River in Boston (where we lived). I was pushing and pulling on my brother’s stroller, then yelled and pointed towards the river. “There’s a dinosaur flying!” I shouted. My dad smiled, rolling his eyes at his son’s already overactive imagination. I pointed again, very insistently. My mother turned and gasped at the brontosaurus hovering above the river. “Told you so,” I said. The life-size model brontosaurus was on its way to the Science Museum, and was being flown by helicopter. It’s a sight I’ll never forget.
School of Deaths blurb:
Can a timid girl find bravery as the first female Death?
Thirteen-year-old Suzie Sarnio always believed the Grim Reaper was a fairy tale image of a skeleton with a scythe. Now, forced to enter the College of Deaths, she finds herself training to bring souls from the Living World to the Hereafter. The task is demanding enough, but as the only female in the all-male College, she quickly becomes a target. Attacked by both classmates and strangers, Suzie is alone in a world where even her teachers want her to fail.
Caught in the middle of a plot to overthrow the World of Deaths, Suzie must uncover the reason she’s been brought there: the first female Death in a million years.
Christopher Mannino’s life is best described as an unending creative outlet. He teaches high school theatre in Greenbelt, Maryland. In addition to his daily drama classes, he runs several after-school performance/production drama groups. He spends his summers writing and singing. Mannino holds a Master of Arts in Theatre Education from Catholic University, and has studied mythology and literature both in America and at Oxford University. His work with young people helped inspire him to write young adult fantasy, although it was his love of reading that truly brought his writing to life.
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