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writers you love - author q&a

Karen Foxlee talks fairy tales and finding your story

We’ve seen a lot of retellings lately, from comic book movies to fairy tales hitting the big screen. Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is no different, but what author Karen Foxlee did with the classic tale of The Snow Queen is nothing short of breathtaking. Take a peek at what she has to say about her novel and her craft.


Survey Says with Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy author Karen Foxlee:


My best friends call me... Fox. Foxlee. Foxleg. Foxy.

I day-dreamed my way through high school 

And back then, I was… the quiet girl with a wild streak

My favorite color is… YELLOW! GLORIOUS YELLOW!

I got my first kiss when I was… 15

And he was… my first ever real head-over-heels crush. I was way too nervous.

Never have I ever… eaten frog’s legs

And I really, really want to… travel on the Orient Express

I am seriously crushing on… Mr. Darcy (from the pages of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) – even after all these years! What is that about!!!?

I wish… I would not procrastinate so much.

My favorite book is… Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The best book I read in school was… This Perfect Day by Ira Levin. Dystopian fiction at its best.

And right now, I can’t wait to read… The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson. I just found it after years (I read it as a child!).

The author whose work I read religiously is… Ruth Rendell (UK crime writer)

I absolutely could not write without… the beautiful dawn, a cup of coffee and my glasses.

If I wasn’t a writer, I would… be a museum curator

But I knew I was going to write great things when… I found a character called the Marvelous Boy locked away in a vast spooky museum.

My favorite punctuation mark is… a question mark – stories grow out of the interrogation of ideas.

The grammar rule I always mess up is… the capitalization of proper nouns and titles depending on direct and indirect speech (or something like that?)

One word I love is… Zenith

One word that makes me cringe is… cuddle (I don’t know why!!! I like the actual thing – just dislike the word).

The best thing about writing is… solving the puzzle of a story

And the worst thing, sigh, is… feeling lost and overwhelmed by a story.



Let’s get into the good stuff! We asked Karen just a few Qs about Ophelia


Q: You’re a nurse by trade. Where does the writing come in to play, and how on earth do you find the time to do both?

I work as registered nurse on a casual basis, so I fit it around my writing now. It is a wonderful profession nursing, filled with amazing people. It helps me to leave my creative life for a while and get practical and “real” with nursing.


Q: If you could write like any author, whose style would you borrow? What do you most admire about it?

I have so many writers I admire for so many different reasons!!! I loved Marcus Zusak’s writing style in The Book Thief which is natural, fresh, and so completely unique. He stares the brutality of war and death down the barrel while celebrating life and the power of words at the same time. I admire any writer who is courageous in their style and subject matter.


Q: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a retelling of The Snow Queen, which we’ve just seen on screen recently with Frozen. How did you transition from the fairytale to your own story? How do you make a classic character or story unique and modern?

I was captivated by The Snow Queen as a child so it’s no surprise she turned up eventually in one of my stories. I think the Snow Queen is an amazing character in that she is constantly being borrowed by writers and artists of all types. I made her my own from the start without thinking too much. She was just there! I could see her; so pale and pretty and sweet but really – very evil. I could hear her high heels hitting the museum marble. I could smell her. She is really quite terrifying.


Q: I love Ophelia’s full name—Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard. How did you come up with something so original and interesting and perfect for her character?

It is a perfect fit isn’t it? I needed someone to find the boy locked away in that museum room and straight away she was there. I had her name immediately – Ophelia! But that didn’t seem enough, so I added three more names and that felt good. I looked up English telephone white pages for surnames. I seemed to be drawn to the W’s. Writing is magical!


Q: Poor Ophelia’s mother has passed. Why do you think that’s such a common thread in fairy tales?

The orphaned or motherless child is very common in folk tales, fairy tales and even lots of modern children’s stories. For me, it is such a good starting off place in a story – that sounds terrible I know – but having a child facing the world alone gives such tremendous opportunities for story-telling, for change, for challenges, for growth. Also I think readers care more about these kind of characters – as a reader you are drawn to them, worry for them, root for them, want to stay with the story to see what happens to them! I know I do anyway.


Q: One of the big things about Ophelia is that she is very scientific in her approach to life—doesn’t take anything on faith. Why was it important for your story to challenge her set of beliefs?

Yes, Ophelia likes her world ordered and labeled and everything provable. On one level, a story-writing level, it seemed really useful to have a character who didn’t believe, who couldn’t believe, who could be gradually changed by magic. “But I don’t believe in Snow Queens,” Ophelia says. I liked the dynamics of that, how can this story work if she doesn’t believe?


On another level it’s all about Ophelia’s grief. In many ways the magic in the story is about Ophelia opening her heart to new possibilities; trusting her instincts, not questioning everything, just being. Experiencing sadness and excitement and joy. I really like those kinds of ideas.



And now for Karen’s Writer’s Workshop…


Q: What is your writing process like, from start to finish? What’s your favorite part, and what do you dread?

I start with an idea that grabs me. A three hundred and three year old boy locked away in a museum room for instance! The idea gets under my skin and I can’t leave it alone. I ask lots of questions. I get that idea to grow. I write one hundred times more than I need, trying to find the pattern for the story. Eventually everything falls into place and I am very, very, happy and exhausted! I love when my characters become so real that I cry for them and worry over them. I dread not knowing how the story works, how it all fits together. It makes me sick in the tummy.


Q: How did you plan out the series, plot- and character-wise? What was tricky, and what was easier than you expected?

Not really much planning! I’m a terrible planner. I started with the boy; who he was, why he was in that museum room, what his background was, his remarkable journey to our world. Then I needed someone to find him and along came Ophelia. Wow, I was glad to see her! She has to get that boy out of the room and help him save the world. There were challenges and clocks ticking down to the end of time. Quite quickly the story started to have a shape! Probably the trickiest thing was fitting the boy’s story and Ophelia’s story and Ophelia’s mother’s story together. They kind of nest together and it took a while to get it right! The easiest thing was the characters – I had their voices quite quickly and feel for who they were and how they behaved!


Q: This is your first middle-grade novel. How was writing this novel different from your other two? What do you have to keep in mind when writing for audiences of different ages?

There wasn’t that much difference in terms of suddenly loving an idea and wanting to follow it to completion. I guess I eventually became aware that Ophelia seemed for younger readers, but I still wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I loved the story and I wanted it to be the best, scariest, funniest, loveliest most exciting story that it could be.


Q: What’s the best advice about writing, editing or publishing that you’ve ever been given?

I think the best advice has always been: JUST WRITE. Focus on your craft. Love your words. Practice and practice and practice some more. That’s how you become good at what you do.


Q: What advice can you give other writers who are hoping to get their work published?

Same again. Write heaps. Love your stories, worry over them, tend to them, and make them the most perfect stories you can. Don’t give up on them. You should never give up on a good story.


Q: Like all writers, I’m sure you’ve had your share of tough reviews and criticism. What advice would you give to young writers facing the same thing?

Balance. Always try to take something away from criticism but never give up on something you believe has worth! Dust yourself off if you take a knock and sit back down at your desk. Sometimes it helps to have a good old-fashioned cry first – I do. But always pick up your pen and start writing again.


Q: When you’re stuck and have no idea what to write or how to solve a problem, what do you do?

I just write. Writing that feels terrible and ugly and useless but it’s writing. Usually if you keep writing the story unblocks or ideas start to flow, or good writing eventually appears. It’s kind of like turning on a rusty tap. Eventually the water will clear!


Thanks, Karen! Good luck! You can grab your own copy of Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy right here.

published January 28, 2014
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