Inside the Shadow City with Kirsten Miller, an interview

In 2008, I interviewed Kirsten Miller, author of the Kiki Strike series (among other books), for my then-magazine Messenger Girl. All questions and answers were made via email. I was 16. At the end is my original review of Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City.

Me: Where did you get the idea for the Shadow City?
Kirsten: Believe it or not, there really are tunnels (built by real criminals) underneath parts of New York! The whole city is hollow, and they’re constantly digging up something new. In fact, the first scene in Kiki Strike is based on a real incident. A hole opened up one night in downtown Manhattan, and at the bottom police discovered a 150-year-old, perfectly preserved room — with no door. So while the Shadow City is mostly fiction, it was also inspired by fact.

Me: Why didn’t you decide to tell the story from Kiki’s point of view?
Kirsten: Kiki’s true identity is the book’s biggest mystery, and it would have been hard to tell the story in her words without giving everything away. That’s why I made Ananke the narrator. She may not be as cool or dangerous as Kiki Strike, but she ends up being the real hero of Kiki Strike.

Me: Did you do “profiles” of your characters before writing or did you let them develop themselves?
Kirsten: I did write profiles for each of the characters. In fact, there’s a lot of juicy information that I know about them that hasn’t made it into any of the books (yet). But when you’re writing a book, your characters don’t really come to life until they start interacting (and fighting) with each other. So I learned a great deal about them as I was writing. By the time I was done, I almost felt like they were friends of mine.

Me: How did you come up with Kiki’s haunting appearance? Did you plan it ahead of time or did it just sort of come to you?
Kirsten: I knew what Kiki looked like long before I ever started writing the book. I wanted her to be the sort of person who wouldn’t usually be taken very seriously. She’s extremely small, rather sickly looking, and of course she’s a girl. She’s proof you can’t judge a person by her appearance. (And if you do, Kiki’s happy to kick your butt when you least expect it.)

Me: How long did it take you to write Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City?
Kirsten: About two years, but I had another job at the time, so it was harder than it might have been otherwise. The second book, The Empress’s Tomb, took about nine months to write.

Me: What’s your favorite part of this book?
Kirsten: I love it when Kiki takes Ananka to all the Girl Scout meetings, and Ananka encounters the other Irregulars for the first time. But I also love the scene when Ananka follows Kiki into Central Park during a blizzard and watches as Kiki mysteriously vanishes. That was one of the first scenes that I wrote, and it still captures my imagination.

Me: The dedication reads, “For the wonderfully irregular Caroline McDonalds, who first discovered the secret of Kiki Strike but didn’t live to share it.” What’s behind this dedication?
Kirsten: Caroline was a good friend of mine — and the first person to read Kiki Strike. She encouraged me to let other people read it, and without her I’m not sure if it would have been published. Tragically, Caroline died a few years ago. I dedicated the book to her as a way of saying thanks and letting her family know how important she had been to me.

Me: What’s your opinion of rats?
Kirsten: Ha! Great question. I lived in New York for years and never saw any rats. Then one day, my eyes were opened and I began to see them everywhere. I find them very interesting, and I love watching them in the subway. But I’d rather not get too close. All of the rat facts in Kiki Strike are true, so they’re definitely not a species I’d care to mess around with!

Me: Is there really a NYCmap, like the one in the book?
Kirsten: Yes, there is a real NYCmap, and it’s almost exactly as it’s described in the book! (All of the strangest things in the book are real — including Bannerman’s Castle.)

Me: Were the how-to blurbs at the end of the chapters an idea you had when you wrote the first draft?
Kirsten: The “How-To” tips were always part of the book. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to give readers information they could take away with them and use in their everyday lives. In my opinion, everyone should know how to foil a kidnapping or disguise her appearance! And believe me, researching the “How-To” tips was quite educational. I’m far more dangerous than I ever was before.

Me: Do you own a Swiss Army Knife?
Kirsten: Of course! I’m quite handy with it, too. Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of forgetting to take my SAKs out of my handbag before getting on airplanes. I’ve had two or three confiscated.

Me: Did you have fun writing Kiki Strike? What was the best part of writing this book?
Kirsten: I had an absolute blast writing Kiki Strike, but I gotta admit it was hard work, too. The best part has been hearing from people who loved the book. There’s nothing better than knowing that I’ve inspired young people to learn how to pick locks or lift fingerprints. Soon, we’ll all take over the world! (Evil laughter.)

Me: How many books do you intend to have in the Kiki Strike series?
Kirsten: I would love to write a book for each of the Irregulars. Right now, I’m working on #3, which focuses a bit more on Betty Bent. It’s going to be AMAZING! It’s filled with danger, intrigue, secret societies, and escargot.

Review: Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City
Life starts getting exciting for Ananka when she meets Kiki, a girl who’s as strong as she is secretive. After stumbling upon an underground room, Ananka becomes more curious about the city she’s lived in her entire life. Soon, she’s on an adventure with Kiki and four ex-Girl Scouts. An adventure to save New York and accomplish something else at the same time — something only Kiki knows about. Is Kiki really the “good guy” in this story? Or has Ananka fallen in with the wrong crowd? Find out by reading this fast-paced, original adventure story by Kirsten Miller.

Read my recent review of Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers.

Eric Metaxas on cynicism and the human need for heroes

Eric Metaxas, New York Times bestselling author of Bonhoeffer and Amazing Grace, was interviewed on this week’s episode of the Relevant Podcast about his most recent book, 7 Women and the Secret of Their Greatness. I’ve never read any of Metaxas’ work, so I can’t vouch for his writing, but in the interview he shared some worthwhile thoughts about Western culture’s over-cynicism toward heroes:

We’ve fallen into a place in the culture in the last forty or so years, really since the 60s, where we’re anti-heroic—we’re looking for the worm in every apple, every authority figure is suspect, everybody who looks like they have their lives all buttoned up, ‘Oh, they’re hiding something.’—this general negative narrative. And it doesn’t mean that there’s no truth in it, but if that’s the only narrative you put forward, you are lying, basically. Because there are great men and women in history. . . .

We’ve been in this terrible cycle of, we know everything that’s wrong with America, we know everything that’s wrong with the church, we know everything that’s wrong with every hero from George Washington on. Well, that’s not right, because what you do is you denigrate things to the point of being unable to appreciate what’s great about them, and at that point, you really are telling a lie. You don’t want people to deify heros . . . but you can go too far in the other direction. And I’ve argued many times . . . that we’ve gone so far in the other direction that young men and women are genuinely confused about, “What am I supposed to be? Who am I?” The way human beings are created, we need models. . . . Human beings were made to be inspired by other people’s lives.

You can listen to the whole interview here. It begins at 79:00.

Week Three in NYC: City of stories

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

How do you find stories in a city of eight million? Where the default safety feature is zero eye contact, and you’re more likely to hear a person talking to himself or yelling at someone to “back off” than you are to overhear a friendly conversation?

How — in this place — do you find someone willing to open up and share his story with a complete and total stranger so that stranger can turn around and share it with the world? Does it help to resemble a beagle, with big brown eyes and floppy ears, or will that just cause them to make things up, because an innocent person like you will believe anything?

Are they thirsty for human connection, or am I the only one?

Whenever I go to Manhattan, I stand or sit in public transportation for at least an hour and a half and barely say a word. Being quiet is normal for me: I’m only talkative with people I know or am trying to befriend, and then only sometimes. It’s not unusual (at least, it hasn’t been in the time I’ve been here) for me to go more than half a day without saying anything — because no one else is around. I’m in my room (or the kitchen or the bathroom) by myself.

But going for lengths of time without speaking when I’m surrounded by people? That’s a little strange. It’s like I’m an animal being herded here or there, only grunting when a neighboring cow knocks into me. No words, no laughs to lighten things up. Just grunting moos.

Only unlike cows, I’m faintly aware that literally every person I’m smushed against in the sardine can of a bus or train is living out a narrative all their own. Their lives are tracing the pattern of story — each pattern so unique that no other person in any of the City’s other sardine cans has a story anywhere close to theirs.

What these stories are, though, I can’t know, because to ask would be crossing an uncrossable line and the only accepted sound is a grunting moo to the sardine on your right.

But I’m a writer, a storyteller — I can’t spend four months in the same place as eight million people and never write a single true tale.

This week, the ache to tell someone’s story kicked in, and with it came a number of realizations.

It’s not that I’d never thought any of these things before (let’s emphasize the “re” in “realization”), but in my third week of unemployed intern-ment, they hit me a bit harder — square between the eyes.

I’ve been applying to jobs-to-make-ends-meet almost constantly. Mostly food service jobs that will schedule me long hours, pay me decently, and send me to bed each night more than ready for my pillow. I’ve had a couple interviews — in person, over the phone — and I have another scheduled for next week, but nothing’s worked out, yet, so this week, with the ache to write growing stronger and stronger, I started thinking about freelance opportunities. (Something I should think about anyway, if I truly want to write for a living.)

But I don’t know this place — how can I find stories to pitch?

My mind started working, thinking back to my Echo editor experience, remembering how I found local stories, analyzing my tactics. My curiosity, I realized, worked in my favor. My curiosity and my boundless desire to learn — they were what allowed stories like “Dallas, the bull-riding cowboy”, “Bibles on the bar counter“, and “Flying free” to reach print. 

Granted, I was also working with an incredible staff who never lacked feature ideas — “Gloves on, fists up” came via a tip from the News section editor — and writers who were willing to chase after my un-checked ideas (namely, Paula Weinman who, as a freshman, made cold calls, set up her own interviews, and pitched her own stories). But even with the help of Echo staff, the Features section would have been incredibly boring — had it not been for my over-involvement on campus, my radar for the unique, and my interest in just about everything: sports, fitness, art, airplanes, food.

“That’s what I have to do now,” I thought, the pieces connecting in this ball of spaghetti we like to call a brain. “I have to tap into my interests, channel my inner two-year-old and set out to explore . . . everything.”

Or (to give my mom peace of mind) choose a direction — topical, not cardinal — and go with it. See what I find. Stories don’t usually end up being what you anticipate pre-research anyway, and some of the best stories I’ve written started with feeling around in the dark. Exhibit A: “Gloves on, fists up“.

Topics I’m considering right now include parkour/free running, rock climbing, and graffiti. My current strategy is to find places where those things are semi-institutionalized (e.g. Bklyn Beast and Brooklyn Boulders) and use them as a starting point to gain contacts, learn about the topic, and get leads.

I’m up for additional topic suggestions, but I also need to be held accountable so why don’t we use the power of the Internet for both. Please fill out the form below to let me know by what day this week I should have investigated (in person) at least one topic and what topics you think I should consider pursuing. (Please take into consideration that my internship is all day Monday and Wednesday and I have a job interview on Tuesday.)

Bringing you up-to-date:

(This week seemed to revolve around food.)

Chinese Fish Pierogy Banana Bread

Sunday, after church, I went with my housemate, Lili, to a mall in Flushing, Queens, where I applied to jobs and Lili explained everything in the Chinese supermarket.

Chinese supermarket

Monday, in recognition of President’s Day and the United Charities building being closed, I worked from home for my internship. More arson research.

Tuesday, I worked on job applications basically all day (started looking into writing jobs, too), received a call from a Starbucks, and taught my housemate how to make pierogies, while making them myself for the first time.

Wednesday, I interviewed two arson experts, one interview lasting a full hour, the other thirty-five minutes. I got a lot of information, learned a ton and, as usual, stumbled upon something unrelated but interesting.

Thursday, I applied to a few more jobs, but was mostly a lump on a log until Lili came home and we made three loaves and two muffins-worth of banana bread. (I’m not huge on banana bread, but this stuff is awesome. Let me know if you want the recipe.)

Friday, I went job-hunting in two different malls, got side-tracked in Target’s book section (added these books to my reading list), went home, did a quick semi-workout, then hopped back on a bus to get to a train to get to church for youth group — which was interesting from the perspective of a 21-year-old college graduate. I also snapped this fuzzy photo of the Empire State Building from the aboveground subway station in Corona.

Empire State from A-track

Saturday, I went to a lady’s fellowship at church (where Lili and I gave up some of our banana bread), came back to the house, did a full workout including running outside in shorts (in February!), and read all of this Greatist article. I also watched the following video of a human running a loop-the-loop — something I’d always thought was impossible.

NYC stories: I call myself a writer

Being a nonfiction writer has been my reason for not writing.

“I don’t have any assignments,” she says, her voice raising from her throat to her nose.

That excuse doesn’t cut it.

If I am a writer, it’s because writing is an essential part of my being, it makes me who I am. If I do not write, I am no longer myself, but a weaker, lesser form of whom I should be. To fail to write is to fail to fulfill my purpose. To refuse to write is to cheat myself and the world. To say writing requires having an assignment is to imply that writing is only something I’ll do if commanded and, as a result, deny what I have been calling true for as long as I can remember: that I am a writer, and words flowing from pen to page, keys to screen — to me — is better than oxygen.

The tap, tap, tap on the keyboard is synonymous with the beat of my heart, blood pumping through veins filling a body with life. If I am truly a writer — one to whom words give life and who, in turn, gives others life through words — then no assignment is necessary in order for me to piece thoughts together. The blank page calls my name and I must answer with the scratch of a pencil, a click into a Word document, a deep breath, and a new letter, word, sentence, thought. 

If I am a writer, it’s because — assignment or no assignment — I seek stories to be told, words to be strung, thoughts to be shared.

Last night — two and half weeks in — I decided it’s time to start seeking the stories on New York City’s streets. (Tips welcome.)

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

This is another piece I wrote for my internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

“Before you start peppering me with questions, can I pepper you with a couple? I like to know who I’m talking to.”

Those were the first words of Elissa Gore, 62, in her interview last week.

The practically-minded landscape artist has an Ivy league education, an extra bedroom in her New York City residence and, for several years after college, made her living as a medical illustrator.

“I pursued medical illustration as a profession that would support my habit as a painter and a way to use the skills I had,” Elissa said. “I loved the idea of being able to use my skills as a visual communicator to help people.”

Elissa shared her background in art, her thoughts on differences between illustrators and painters, and what she believes to be the most important thing for creators to know about art.

SCA: When did you decide to pursue art?

Elissa: When I was in high school. It was the thing that I enjoyed doing the most. We could take art every day, so I did. I headed in that direction. I have an Ivy league education, but every time I decided I was going to major in philosophy, the next semester I’d spend more time in art studios than anywhere else.

SCA: You’re originally from Philadelphia and now you live in New York City, but you paint landscapes. How does that work?

Elissa: I grew up in a semi-rural part of southeastern Pennsylvania. I was born in Philadelphia but I grew up in the country, and I didn’t move to New York until I was 30. I have always spent at least three months out of the year in the country. Now, I am usually in upstate New York, which is why I show in Cooperstown.

SCA: When you’re working on your landscapes, do you work from photographs or memory?

Elissa: I work from everything. I work from observation, as well as photographs, as well as from the studio. . . . During the past five years, my stuff’s been chosen for the Art in Embassies program for the U.S. State Department, so I have paintings overseas in the ambassadors’ residences. I was fortunate enough to have an art gallery in New York with the same person who’s represented me for the past 20 years. I also have been exploring smaller pieces, sometimes in the studio, sometimes outside. . . . In the past three years, I’ve started traveling more to paint directly from observation of the landscape. I’ve been attending plein air events and competitions, mainly on the East Coast within a five-hour drive of where I live.

SCA: What’s plein air?

Elissa: It’s a French term for painting outside from observation. There is a movement in landscape painting to get more people engaged in painting from life. . . . For the past 10 years, I’ve been teaching a landscape painting class at the New York Botanical Garden, where we trot around from one location to another in this 300-acre park in the Bronx. So plein air has been a continuous part of my discipline for many years.

Part of [the challenge of plein air events] is not knowing the locale. I’m going to completely novel places, where I have to hit the ground and figure out the topography and where the light might be good. It’s great. It’s kind of like a sport.

I’ve [also] been working on landscape paintings that are transitional to abstraction. Those are the paintings I’m going to be showing in Cooperstown in July in the three-person show. Those paintings are all oil paintings . . . and they’re all invented . . . from my imagination. If you spend a lot of time observing nature and observing the real world, there’s a great library of observation you can draw from.

At times, there’s a cross-over between my different ways of working. There are times when I’m working outside from observation and I’ll get the palette knife and I’ll be much more interpretive about the way I’m working.

SCA: You say that you are especially attracted to landscapes with earth, air, and water. Can you expand on that?

Elissa: Without water the plants all die, and the same thing with life. The paintings become paintings about the environment. I’m not an illustrator of a conservation message, but the concept is this is the natural world and it’s very beautiful. Let’s keep it the way it is.

There are different ways of looking at the world and organizing our perceptions. I like to say there’s a painter’s frame and there’s an illustrator’s frame, and they both use the same stuff . . . elements of design and composition and color theory—all the elements are the same. But with the illustrator’s frame there’s a concept behind the piece of artwork that tells a story. Not necessarily a narrative, but something specific that it needs to convey. So the place you enter in the image might have very specific details that make the place identifiable. In a painter’s frame, the place might be identifiable, but there isn’t a concept or story. What’s much more dominant are the formal elements of composition and design. The point of the image is to put together something that’s expressive of the emotional observations of the person making the art.

At plein air events, painters are there all working at the same time. At the end in the exhibit, I can see the ways that 30 different painters are applying paint or how they compose, the kind of images they choose. Many of the most successful plein air painters are illustrators professionally.

SCA: What’s most important for people to know about art?

Elissa: As an appreciator of art or a creator of art?

SCA: A creator.

Elissa: The most important thing for them to know is how they feel about their subject. Because the expressive content of a work of art is the driver . . . You have to have a motivation to make something and the motivation is how you feel about the subject of your artwork. No matter whether you’re sculpture or performance art, a drawing or a painting, the first thing you have to know is how you feel.

Elissa Gore‘s joint exhibit with Joanna Murphy and Jody Primoff opened on July 1 on the first floor of the Smithy Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell