I was blessed to be able to correspond with Heather Munn, co-author of Defy the Night, via email and ask some questions. She generously answered them and I am excited to share the Q & A on my blog.
What is the best part about writing a book with your mom? How did you structure the collaboration? Did you take turns writing chapters or did you sit down together and write out ideas?
Our collaboration has always been: Mom writes the book, I re-write it. This happened because she wrote two whole books before ever asking me to be her co-author! (I think she started the first one when I was about twelve, so no wonder, really.) So I’ve used her version sort of as an outline: it tells me what needs to happen, and I re-write it in my own words.
The best part about writing with my Mom is that it’s kept us talking! We’ve always had a weekly phone date to talk about the books, and we’ve hashed out many a plot or pacing problem on a transatlantic call. (Because in fact I did make a lot of changes from her versions–but we always had to discuss them.) It’s been wonderful because in fact, we have a lot of respect for each other’s abilities and what they bring to the books. Mom’s initial plot choices established a depth for the books that I don’t think I could have brought to them on my own at my age, and she’s always respected my instincts for writing and my intuition about the characters. The characters we work with, and the true story they spring from, have become something we both care deeply about, so it’s a real joy to talk about them together. And of course it’s pretty fun to “talk shop” with your own mom.
Your other novel How Huge the Night also featured a teenager during WWII. What is interesting about this particular time period to you?
We realized too late that the publisher had not made this clear on the book cover, but Defy the Night is a sequel to How Huge the Night, although there’s a major shift in point-of-view. (Basically the first book is the coming-of-age story of Julien, the second is the coming-of-age story of his younger sister Magali.)
Mom became very interested when she first heard the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small French town not far from where she and my Dad used to work as missionaries, which is the real town that the fictional Tanieux in the books is based on. (The people of Le Chambon, a town of 3,000 people, saved the lives of over 3,000 Jews during the war, partly because of the leadership of their local pastor–and in fact they were part of a whole network of pastors and towns doing similar work on a smaller scale throughout the central plateau region of France.) Mom thought the story should be more widely known, so that’s why she wrote the books.
I’ve always been fascinated by World War II in general myself, especially by the contrast between the choices people made under occupation. You take three or four “ordinary” people who before the war seemed pretty much on par with each other as human beings, and by the time the war’s over: one has chosen to collaborate with the Nazis so he could keep his job, another has gotten rich by charging the highest price the black market would bear during food shortages, a third has secretly denounced the neighbor she couldn’t stand and gotten her arrested, and the last has sheltered Jewish strangers at the risk of her life. Times like that expose the soul.
Which character do you identify with the most? Do you like Magali?
That is such an excellent question. The truth is, I didn’t like Magali at first, and it made me hesitant about taking on the book. She kind of made me think of the “popular girls” I hated in high school, especially in the way she’s pretty insensitive with her shy friend, Rosa. I was pretty familiar with that as a teen–having friends who think you’re not really cool enough but are happy to hang around with you when the cool people aren’t available.
She also was very different from me in personality, at least as a teen–extroverted and practical and wanting to do stuff, thanks, not daydream about it–and I ended up realizing that I’d given her brother Julien, in the first book, so many parts of me that I had nothing left for Magali! I felt like Isaac when he’d given away Esau’s blessing to Jacob–I want to give you something but I got nothing left!
But then something happened. First, she started talking to me, and she was mouthy and brash and very honest (although sometimes in spite of herself) and I loved that voice. Then I started to realize that her practicality was more like the side of myself that I’ve developed as an adult, since I’ve moved to the country & learned to farm and to ground myself more in the physical world. And then as I got further into the book and the really hard stuff started happening to her, I learned compassion for her. Even people who are jerks to others can suffer, and suffer a lot. In fact that’s pretty much the human condition! Especially according to Christianity–we all hurt others, and we all suffer, and some of the very worst suffering comes in facing how much we have hurt others, but that’s the place where God redeems us. And I’ve experienced my share of that.
So in the end, Magali did turn out to be who I identified with. Actually, I like her a lot. It just took a real journey to get there.
How long did it take you to write Defy the Night?
I wrote a very, very flawed version of the first half of the book in one month during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing month) to jump-start the process and get my teeth into the book. Re-writing that, and writing the rest, and revising and editing, took me about two years in all. (Though I did the bulk of the work in the winters because during the summers I was farming.) Mom’s original version took her several years prior to that, but she really worked on it on-and-off because she’s got a full-time job as a missionary.
Is another book in the works? Will it be a similar genre or completely different?
We’re planning a third book in the series, because Defy the Night doesn’t take us to the end of the war. It ends in 1942 and in the true story of Le Chambon–and of the war in general–that is actually when the truly dramatic things start happening. This one is still totally in the research stage–you can read my comments on the really interesting history I’ve been reading if you go to our writer page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/MunnandMunn)–but the general idea is that it will have more action and probably both Julien and Magali will be main characters. They’ve had their coming-of-age and they’re ready to truly plunge into the work.
We won’t be co-authoring this one, since Mom does not have a plot for it and (though I don’t have one yet either!) I feel ready to work on my own. But we plan to still consult pretty closely about it, because Mom’s still the expert on the history–and because we love talking about these books!
I really enjoyed corresponding with Heather and getting some insight into the story behind the story! Please click on the titles if you are interested in getting your own copy of Defy the Night or How Huge the Night.
Check out my review of Defy the Night here: