Interview: Valerie Estelle Frankel

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Valerie Estelle Frankel, author of Katniss the Cattail
Valerie Estelle Frankel is an English professor and fantasy enthuiast. After earning her BA at UC Davis, she became the youngest person ever to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from San Jose State University. She enjoys dancing, acting, and costuming in what little remains of her spare time, and reads a novel every day, just for fun.

Frankel is the author of a number of non-fiction books in the fantasy area, and has won multiple awards for her Harry Potter parodies: the Henry Potty series. Her latest work, Katniss the Cattail, is a guide to names and symbols in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games series. 

You can read my review here: Katniss the Cattail by Valerie Estelle Frankel.

Katniss the Cattail is an excellent guide to names and references in The Hunger Games – presumably you are a big fan of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy?

Oh yes. Authors don’t spend time writing guides to a series and doing all that research if they aren’t already curious. As a fan, I get the best job ever – writing the book I know other fans will enjoy.

There is a lot of detailed information in the book – did it take a long time to research and write?

Less than a month, actually – I’m a very fast researcher. Plus, Collins appears to have gotten all her Roman history from Plutarch’s and Shakespeare’s accounts – this makes sense, as most characters hail from Julius Caesar’s time. (Caesar’s story, fittingly, is one of a dictator replacing another, only to turn equally monstrous). With only two classic series to read, both of which are free on the web and searchable by keywords, research goes very fast indeed.

Names can be hugely significant, but many readers never grasp the logic behind authors’ decisions when it comes to naming their characters. Do you hope your book can not only enlighten, but also promote active investigation and criticism of books by young readers?

That’s probably every teacher’s hope. I’m sure the authors think along those lines as well: Rick Riordan writes with Greek mythology and has posted a link to the best myth website out there (Theoi.com). When Suzanne Collins named all her Capitol characters from Roman history, she gave readers a hint on how to start learning more.

How do you go about unpicking all the obscure references within a text like The Hunger Games?

Well, I already have two English degrees and a huge background in mythology, which helps. I also read all the available interviews with Suzanne Collins — reading the list of her favorite books gave me a few hints of where to start. Roman stuff was easy. Military names are in history books, though I did web searches so I’d know which era to check. For the flower and plant names like Hazelle Hawthorne, I did research in some botany guides and more importantly, guides like Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers, which detail what all these flowers symbolize (it’s common knowledge that the rue plant symbolizes sorrow. But I had no idea it was also called the death herb and was used to decorate the dead with flower wreaths).

The made-up names like Peeta and Haymitch were tougher. But some scholars (Aimmy Arrowshigh on her website and John Granger the Hogwarts Professor on his) have made some creative links between those names and sound-alikes out of the Bible and other places (Hamish, Peter, Pita, and Pieta are all logical links with interesting symbolism). I came up with a few others when I thought about it. And for the typical American names like Annie and Madge, I used a baby name guide off the library shelf (interestingly, almost all of these names were British in origin. This could just reflect the author’s taste rather than deeper symbolism, however). I found that Madge and Mags mean pearl, to go with all the pearls in the series. Annie and Johanna are a pair of linked names, which makes sense for such opposite women pulling Katniss in different directions. Then I started analyzing my findings and seeing how the names fit together.

Fantasy fiction is a passion of yours – where do you think The Hunger Games sits in the fantasy tradition?

Technically, it’s dystopian. But like Star Wars, it shares some fantasy tropes. We have a classic warrior woman like Artemis or Xena. She hunts with a bow, like so many fantasy characters (in fact, a silver bow is a particularly feminine symbol). And she sacrifices herself to protect her sister and other loved ones – that’s the crux of the heroine’s journey, the big staple of fantasy and myth. Plus, at my last science fiction and fantasy conference, we couldn’t stop talking about it!

Katniss is a strong female heroine – do you see her as a positive role-model for young, female readers?

One of her common criticisms is that she really does act as the adults’ pawn through the first two books—she concentrates on beating the Games, rather than toppling Snow and his corrupt society. Nonetheless, she’s a strong, capable huntress who defends her friends and supports her family. She wins the Games and saves another teen – something no one’s ever done. She’s the pride of her District as she becomes their saviour and then goes on to save all of Panem from corruption. As a movie heroine, she provides a great contrast with Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and all the boy heroes. And she’s far far better than Bella Swan.

The Hunger Games has really exploded – what do you think makes it so popular?

I love the writing style—so immediate and full of action. It really sparks interest from my Percy-Jackson-fan students.

Do you have a favourite character yourself?

Totally Katniss—it’s her story after all. Though Finnick has a very funny kind of charm.

You have a broad range of interests when it comes to fantasy fiction. Other than The Hunger Games, what else have you really enjoyed writing about?

Oh lots. I tend to stay in the world of fantasy, whether I’m writing fiction or commentary. I write both epic children’s fantasy (in a Wizard of Oz or Tamora Pierce style) and children’s humor (I have a series of Harry Potter parodies and I also mix up fairytales on occasion). I’m also writing a kids’ steampunk novel, which is fun because it’s different. Nonfiction is great too, because I really do like analyzing the deeper meanings and finding connections in all my favourite series….it’s just tough to stop myself doing it whenever I read a book or watch TV.

Are you working on anything new at the moment?

Oh yes! Tons. Let’s see. I have a few novels, but they’re going slowly, as nonfiction has seemed much easier to write lately. My book Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey just arrived in the midst of Hunger Games movie week. And I’m putting together two anthologies that will be released later this year – Harry Potter: Still Recruiting, a guide to the (still!) ongoing fandom, and Teaching with Harry Potter. I wrote the definitive work on the heroine’s journey in world myth, From Girl to Goddess, and I need to write a more approachable version of it when my schedule settles a bit. I also have some smaller stuff: essays on Glee, Alice in Wonderland, and The Hunger Games in anthologies, and many conferences on fantasy and fandom. And people are still clamouring for more parodies…

When you write about a popular franchise/series, you open your work up to a huge audience, but it can also be a daunting prospect. Do you feel this, and what advice would you give to writers who are thinking about tackling a major series?

It doesn’t have to be intimidating, if you’ve educated yourself on your topic. There are hundreds of books about Harry Potter, many of which contradict each other (Is it deeper than a kid’s book? Religious? Realistic?). It’s more challenging to create the definitive guide, which contains everything. It seems that some aspect of the story always gets left out. My upcoming Harry Potter: Still Recruiting is meant to be a definitive guide to Harry Potter fandom today. Nonetheless, I know I’ll have skipped something important…

What sort of books do you enjoy?

I love epic fantasy—Lord of the Rings style with the elves and the dark lord and all. Among those, The Obsidian Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory and The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay are my favourites (Game of Thrones is good but a bit violent for my tastes). I actually read a fantasy novel every day, and have consumed an enormous number of novels.

Are there any new writers you’ve read recently who you are particularly excited about?

I think Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente are probably the prettiest children’s books I’ve ever read. Neither is exactly a new writer, but they’re both writing lots of new books.

Favourite word, and why?

Paranomasia. It’s the technical term for a pun. I like puns. A well-crafted pun is its own reword…

Valerie Frankel's, Kattniss the Cattail is available in print and e-book editions at Amazon now. You can find her online at www.vefrankel.com

Useful Links
Katniss the Cattail on Amazon (UK)
Katniss the Cattail on Amazon (US)

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