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.

Book Review – Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers

In eighth grade, my best friend told me I should read Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, a book that sat on her bedroom bookshelf under the typical scattered pile of young teenager stuff. “You’d like it,” she said.

I don’t remember if I borrowed her copy or ordered one from the library, but I read it and she was right. I liked it. A lot. More than A Series of Unfortunate Events. More than Artemis Fowl. More than Kate Klise’s Trial by Journal and Regarding the. . . series. More than Ella Enchanted and Donna Jo Napoli’s Bound.

At that point, Inside the Shadow City was the only published Kiki Strike book. Thank goodness the author, Kirsten Miller, blogged. I started visiting kikistrike.com every time I had Internet access and devouring Kirsten Miller’s endless posts about bizarre reality. When book two, The Empress’s Tomb, came out, I immediately ordered it via interlibrary loan and devoured it.

But book three . . . The Darkness Dwellers came out when I was a junior in college. I wasn’t keeping close track of Kiki Strike anymore. I was focused on my own writing and, you know, class. So it wasn’t until just recently that I got my hands on the third book in the series.

I have to admit — I was nervous I wouldn’t like Kiki Strike anymore. College has the dangerous ability to make “literary types” (which I sort of am, but not in the over-analytical English major sense) pretentiously picky about books. And, in my attempts early this year to read and review fiction, I’d failed to find a book I actually liked.

Would Kirsten Miller’s Kiki Strike be as good as I remembered? Would I still like to read the bizarre adventures of young teenage girls running around New York City?

The answer:

YES.

Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers is as good as the previous two books and, I would say, actually takes it up a notch. Kirsten Miller does a great job of weaving multiple characters and storylines together in a way that keeps you on your toes, guessing, and pulls you along into the action — and this is Kiki Strike, so action means more than “stuff happens”. These girls kick butt. They’re also not airheads in any way, shape, or form, which too often happens in so-called “children’s” literature, when authors don’t respect their audience. These girls are smart, resourceful, and remarkably self-aware — all traits that most “kids” possess, but grownups overlook.

I read this book faster than anything else I’ve read recently. I repeatedly found myself staying up later than advisable on work nights to get another chapter in. And Kirsten Miller’s witty sarcasm had me literally laughing out loud. So if you like fun books that incorporate random trivia with adventures that could happen (if adults ignored/paid no attention/didn’t believe what their kids were up to), read The Darkness Dwellers. And if you know an 11-, 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girl who’s interested in more than lip gloss and boys, buy her a copy (start with the first one). Heck, boys those ages might be interested, too.

In 2008, I interviewed Kirsten Miller, author of Kiki Strike, via email for my then-magazine Messenger Girl.

Thought-provoking quotes from unexpected places

It makes sense to expect great quotes from classic literature, but I get more excited when I find them elsewhere: in movies that may never make the honor roll, books that have been sorely overlooked, and friends’ and strangers’ blogs.

Here are some favorites for you to ponder:

So, Charlie, are we going back or moving on? ~Charlie St. Cloud

Your life is an occasion — rise to it. ~Mr. Magorium, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

Wherever you might be, all the people you see share one thing in common. They’ve all got a secret they’d like to keep hidden. ~Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb by Kirsten Miller

[I]t didn’t make you noble to step away from something that wasn’t working, even if you thought you were the reason for the malfunction. Especially then. It just made you a quitter. Because if you were the problems, chances were you could also be the solution. The only way to find out was to take another shot. ~Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen (Anyone who reads Sarah Dessen knows profound quotes are not at all unexpected.)

You can go wherever you want, see whatever you want to. But a place is only as good as the people you know in it. ~I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

A hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart. ~Zeuss, Disney’s Hercules

You cannot wait for Life to come to you. You have to go get it — pursue it in a wild, passionate chase that includes the foreboding depths of challenge and heartache just as much as the ecstasy of triumph and success. ~Kelle Hampton, Enjoying the Small Things blog

To live is to constantly learn, and my friends are the best teachers. ~Amy Bishop, The Wanderer