Ren Koppel-Torres is a teenager on a mission. A fan of fantasy books since young and dissatisfied by the lacklustre female characters written by middle-grade authors hardly in touch with their target audience, she started her debut fantasy novel The Shadow in Her Pocket at nine and finished it at sixteen. Born into a Jewish-Mexican-American family, she currently lives with her family as well as pets (a dog, a rabbit, and a lovebird) in Austin, Texas. Check out more of her work at http://www.lorenalore.com/! In this interview, I talk with Ren about her new book, writing process and diversity in the publishing industry.
What first inspired you to write this novel about three very unique girls?
I started The Shadow in Her Pocket when I was nine years old because I was obsessed with fantasy books, but I had trouble finding a lot of books that I could really connect to. I read a lot of books aimed at different age ranges, and while I couldn’t relate as much to the ones that featured characters who were much older than me, I felt like a lot of Middle Grade books (aimed at middle-schoolers) missed the mark, too. The majority of published authors are adults, and often they don’t remember exactly what it’s like to be a kid, or they underestimate how smart their readers are. I figured, being a kid myself, I might be able to avoid some of the same pitfalls. Plus, I thought it was unfair that so many adventure stories delegated women to the sidelines. So, I decided to write a story composed of the interconnected storylines of three girls: Evelyn, Elodie, and Holly. All three of them come from very different backgrounds and are driven by distinct motivations, but they rely on each other throughout the book.
If you were to describe your novel in three words, which words would you use?
Secrets, magic, adventure.
Of the three main characters, who is your personal favorite: Elodie, Holly or Evelyn?
That’s a tough question, but my best answer would be that I love my characters in different ways and for different reasons. In terms of who I would most easily bond with in real life, I would definitely choose Holly, because she is the most amicable of the three. She’s open, optimistic, and very attuned to the emotions of the people around her—plus, she’s also a very artistic person, so we would have a lot to talk about. But, I had the most fun writing Evelyn’s perspective, because she’s bold, funny, and has strong opinions about everything happening around her, which makes her an interesting narrator. And, while none of my characters were based on myself, and my personality is very different from Elodie’s, I am able to relate most to Elodie’s character arc: she fears not reaching the expectations laid out for her, and she has to cope with the stress of hiding a part of who she is before learning to take pride in being different from the norm.
What is your writing process for this book like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
For my first book, I was definitely a pantser! I didn’t outline at all beforehand. As soon as I decided to write a book, I was really excited, so I started drafting right away. Plus, even if I had wanted to be a plotter, since I was so young and I had never written a novel before, I didn’t understand all of the components I would have needed to flesh out the story. In the beginning, I had no idea what direction the plot would take or what the ending was going to be. I had three characters living in my head, and I just wanted to have fun writing their story! Needless to say, I wrote many, many drafts of my story, and there was a lot of revising and editing to do for the final draft. As I grew up writing it, I think I managed to flatter the heart of my original story while combining it with what I learned about the craft.
As a high school junior in a rock band, you must have an incredibly busy life. How do you find time on a typical day to write, and how do you strike a balance between school and writing?
My schedule is definitely pretty crammed. I don’t have a perfect system worked out, so take this with a grain of salt, but here’s what I do to manage my schedule: I work on immediate, necessary deadlines first. So, if I have a big project due for school the next day, I’m not going to spend a lot of time that night on an article for a magazine due in two weeks. But, I try not to let my personal goals fall behind. I try to write every single day that I have time. Since writing is such a creative, subjective kind of skill, it takes a lot of discipline for me to write on a schedule, but when I’m working on multiple projects at once, I’m better able to focus on them all because I enjoy the variety. Personally, I work better when I give myself deadlines. The perfect book is never written, so I have to remind myself to avoid letting perfectionism get in the way of me sharing my work and progressing as a writer.
What authors or books have the greatest influence on your writing? What are you currently reading right now?
Fantasy authors like Rick Riordan, Brandon Mull, and Madeleine L’engle were a major inspiration for me to start The Shadow in Her Pocket. I also loved Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society and Wendy Mass’ Every Soul a Star. Reading their work gave me so much joy that I was driven to create my own story, both because I wanted to experience the process of crafting imaginative fiction and because I hoped that my writing might have a positive impact on other readers. Since I drafted my story over the span of several years, my writing is also influenced by many authors who I didn’t discover until I was older, namely Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin. Two YA books that I recently read and LOVE are Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko and Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. Yesterday, I finished the book Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I love his mix of deep thinking, difficult topics, and the hilariously absurd.
Right now, the publishing industry has been welcoming many underrepresented and diverse voices of a variety of races, genders and disabilities. As a young Latinx writer, what do you think a publisher can do to promote such voices?
I agree. Especially recently, a lot of authors from marginalized backgrounds are emerging and receiving their due credit, which is awesome! My younger sister has more access to Middle Grade novels written by diverse writers than I did when I was her age. But the work’s not over yet. The truest push for mainstream books by diverse authors won’t happen until the industry leaders themselves are representative of the full population. If the majority of publishers and literary agents come from a single demographic, then a lot of underrepresented writers will be disadvantaged because the industry leaders don’t have the perspective to appreciate their work; readers, then, will be inundated with the same kinds of stories. But, while it is important for the mainstream industry to change, no one needs to rely on prejudiced corporations. There are many different ways to get your story out into the world! Go find independent publishers and bookstores who already value diverse perspectives. Self publishing is a great option, too. Everyone should be encouraged to pursue their goals to be an author, literary agent, or any other industry leader, regardless of their background.
What can readers expect from A Shadow In Her Pocket? No spoilers!
Holly, Elodie, and Evelyn don’t have a lot in common. Holly lives in a coastal village that’s heard only rumors of magic’s existence—until Holly accidentally curses the seasonal monsoon that sustains their crops and way of living. She remembers her father’s stories of the mysterious island of Galdur, whose inhabitants wield magic, and she embarks on a journey to find Galdur and learn how to control her magic. Elodie lives on Galdur, in a palace where nobles live and govern the island. She discovers a Councillor’s plan to frame a peaceful group of rebels called the Deserters and incite an unnecessary war, so she hurries to prove the Councillor’s involvement before the fight begins. Evelyn lives in a secret underground city illuminated by glowing birds, and she can remember nothing of her past above the surface. When she finds a clue that could lead her to missing memories and family, Evelyn sets out to uncover the truth. The three girls are soon swept into Galdur’s army, a militia of sorcerers, when clashes between the military and the Deserters awaken an ancient monster. Holly, Elodie, and Evelyn must pool their strengths, their magic, and the hidden clues of a prophecy to survive and save the others. Buy The Shadow in Her Pocket here!
What are you working on next?
I want to challenge myself to branch out from my first work, so I’m starting a picture book and a YA sci-fi novel. I’ve helped to host a lot of read-aloud events, and these rekindled my appreciation for picture books and their power to connect to so many people in a short period of time. I particularly love the ones that highlight interesting people in history, so I’m writing a picture book that celebrates Latino innovators. As for the science fiction book, I’m still in the early stages of drafting, so nothing is set in stone yet, but it’s heavily inspired by the works of writers like Ursula Le Guin, and it grapples with themes such as the nature in humanity in relation to artificial intelligence, the role of art in a society, and whether uniformity truly promotes unity. In the meantime, I’m also writing a lot of articles for different publications including Writer’s Digest. I have poetry forthcoming in a few literary magazines. And I’m an official team member of a new arts magazine called Pipeline Artists!
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring young writers like you?
My primary piece of advice would be to know your worth. Your passions matter. Your words are important. Surround yourself with peers and mentors who support your goals, and don’t listen to those who discourage you. Remember that being younger than most published writers doesn’t make you any less legitimate. In fact, your perspective—whatever that may be—is the fingerprint of your writing. Your voice and your stories are unique and valuable, and you are the only one who can share them with the world. Work hard, persevere, and be good to yourself. Everyone is always improving, so be proud of where you are now even as you strive to better your craft.
(BONUS QUESTION!!!) If Harry Potter and Elsa from Frozen fight each other in a duel, who do you think will win?
Hmm… My bet is on Olaf the snowman.