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.

NYC Week Sixteen: Internship over, or positive self-talk

11:51 pm. MONDAY, MAY 19th.

I’ve been in writing mode all day. I haven’t written much, but my mind has been super focused and soaking up everything. My thoughts are toward the future, as in next week, when I come back from my college commencement and return to my bedroom in Queens, my food service job in Chelsea, and absolutely nothing solid in the writing realm. I’m applying to writing jobs, but there’s no guarantee of one working out in the near future, so the question is, what am I going to do?

School’s over. It’s been over since January. If I’m serious about this writing thing (which I have been, without a shadow of a doubt, since middle school, probably earlier), I need to get a move on. I need to write, whether someone tells/asks me to or not, and I need to write well, whether I’m in love with the assignment or not.

And I need to put myself out there.

It’s encouraging, the confidence people have in me when I don’t have it, myself. These past several months, I’ve been something of a turtle, tucked into my shell, too afraid to try because of the possibility of failure, but those I’ve worked under have continually encouraged me: My boss in University Marketing — when I was preparing to leave Taylor, come to New York for this internship, and then do who-knows-what-else — my boss told me there would probably be an opening for a writer, come spring, summer, or fall. “I don’t know exactly what the job description would be, but . . .” Practically a job offer. And the editor I worked under at City Limits, today when I met him over lunch for a recap with feedback, put out the possibility of collaborating on future investigative projects.

Today is the beginning of a revolution. At least, it feels like it. Toward the end of last week, I started writing right before bed, a habit I kept all through high school that played a major role in my development as a writer. I decided that’s a habit I’m bringing back, to make sure I write daily, whether it’s worthless garbage that isn’t worth reading and might as well go straight in the trash, or whether it’s super poetic prose that brings tears to your eyes.

Yesterday, I bought a friend’s self-published e-book and started reading it — to support him and familiarize myself with his work. Three chapters in, I decided I’m going to review it here. I also offered to help him with editing in upcoming projects. Fiction was my first love, the entry drug to writing, and I miss working on it, so I’m going to get back into it — on the editorial side, as well as writing my own again. (Man, I feel like a writer again.)

Today, after talking with my editor from City Limits, finding out I was the first intern he ever had work, for the most part, independently on an investigative project, and discussing various ways of getting into the narrative nonfiction niche professionally, I went to Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue with the purpose of buying a copy of Writer’s Market 2014. Price disparities between the web site and the store brought me to the decision to get it online instead. (I feel like a traitor, but then I remember I saved fifteen bucks — more than an hour’s worth of wages.) Then, looking through the other writing books, I picked up a copy of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide from the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University. It’s a compilation of professional writers’ contributions on the topic of narrative nonfiction (can you hear the “Hallelujah Chorus?”), covering everything from the ideology (extraordinary ordinary) to methodology (reporting, writing, etc.). Needless to say, I bought it. And immediately began reading. And in no ways regret spending that money.

Then I came home, and though I didn’t write anything substantial until now (unless you count the summaries for my Good Reads post), I was in writing mode the rest of the day. I had a lot to do: cleaning two bathrooms and the kitchen, laundry, two blog posts (this and Good Reads), buying my second Amtrak ticket for my trip, purchasing necessities at CVS, working out (new record: 1.4 in 10:22!). I got it all done, stayed on task, was hardly distracted. And here I am at 12:27, still wired and wanting something else to work on, even though I need to be up in six and a half hours.

Life. I’m getting excited about it again. I don’t have anything specific to look forward to after graduation. It’s kind of wide open while simultaneously closed, because of money matters, but I’m encouraged. Because it doesn’t matter where I am or what I have. I can do good work if I decide to. Today, I decide to.

MondayLunch with City Limits editor + all of the above.

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Took the Amtrak to Albany and went home.

Thursday: Drove almost twelve hours from upstate New York to Upland, Indiana, with my 17-year-old sister in the passenger seat. Reunited with friends and wingmates.

Friday: Visited my former boss in University Marketing (who reiterated what she’d said in January about the job opening). Graduation rehearsal, more reunions. Senior banquet and chapel service.

Saturday: Commencement.

NYC Week Fifteen: How New York City Beat Arson

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

This week, after a long, drawn-out research process that often had me missing the forest for the trees, I finally finished my internship piece to my editor’s satisfaction and he published it on City Limits’ web site.

It is by no means the best thing I’ve ever written, but I wrote it. I did the work (with direction), mapped out the piece, and wrote the 2,000-ish words.

It begins:

On June 14, 1974, an apartment building at 180 Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, went up in flames and took the lives of Carmen Molina and two children who, with the rest of their family—the children’s father and another daughter—were preparing to move out of the building.

The Molinas lived on the building’s third and top floor. The fire escape was gated and locked. The father, Miguel, jumped from the third floor to get help, but on impact, broke multiple bones.

Sonia, 9, the middle daughter, was spending the night in her grandmother’s home not far away. At dawn, she and her grandmother woke to pounding on the door. It was Sonia’s aunt, come with news of the fire.

Read more.

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Mother’s Day. I talked to my mom for almost three hours.

Monday: Finished revising my piece for my internship. Worked out.

Tuesday: Work. Worked out.

Wednesday: Internship over, so I stayed home and worked my creative muscles.


Thursday: Work. Worked out.

Friday: Work. Wrote and read before bed.

Saturday: Read longform articles in preparation for Monday’s post in my new series of blog posts. Choir practice. Ran and then took a walk, because the indoors are confining and, guess what? It was beautiful outside!

Next week, I’m traveling to Indiana for my college commencement, so most of my week won’t be spent in the City. But no worries — I’ll still post for Week Sixteen, the final weekly NYC post. After that, my Good Reads posts will continue and, hopefully, I’ll have some freelance work to link to.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share related thoughts below.

Good Reads: My favorites from this week’s longform/narrative nonfiction

I read a lot of articles every week, and I try to focus my reading on the pieces I want to write, meaning longform or narrative nonfiction. This is a genre that’s published all over the place: in marketing materials (typically company magazines), consumer and trade publications, newspapers, web site — even BuzzFeed publishes longform.

I share a lot of what I read (the pieces I especially like) on Twitter (@Meredith_Sell), but not everyone’s as obsessed with that social media outlet, so I’m introducing a new series of weekly posts: Good Reads.

These posts will share my favorite longform pieces from the past week, all from a variety of sources and authors. If you know of any publications I should keep tabs on, please let me know by commenting.

This week’s picks:

Tangled Web by Kasey Cordell, 5280: The Denver Magazine

An in-depth piece on medical marijuana and a specific strain used for epileptic patients in Colorado. Well-researched and informative — made clear some parts of the discussion I wasn’t aware of. Regardless of your ideas about medical marijuana, I recommend reading this.

Digging Up Dirt in NYC by Garret McGrath,

An interesting shorter feature about an archaeological firm in New York City. Last line: “The big discoveries in the city are always stumbled upon.”

On the Brink in Brownsville by Mosi Secret, New York Times Magazine

A peek into growing up in one of Brooklyn’s roughest, poorest neighborhoods. Shows the ruling power of materialism in the lives of kids who don’t have money and, when they get bored, look for fights.