Nicole Maggi’s Twin Willows Trilogy follows sixteen-year-old Alessia Jacobs into the fray of an ancient rivalry between the Malandanti and Benandanti, warriors with the unique power to separate their souls from their bodies and take on the forms of magnificent animals. Kirkus Reviews said of the first book, Winter Falls, “Readers will eagerly await the next installment in this promising paranormal adventure,” and now it’s almost here! Get to know Nicole and more about her series and writing process, and look for In the Mouth of the Wolf on bookshelves starting June 16.
What inspired you to write the Twin Willows Trilogy?
I was fascinated by the mythology of the Benandanti. I just thought it was so cool, I knew I had to write about them. Not many people know this, but Winter Falls began as a historical novel, set in sixteenth-century Italy, when the Benandanti were investigated by the Roman Inquisition. I worked on it for many months before getting utterly stuck and then realized it wasn’t supposed to be historical. I had to change much of the original mythology to suit my story, but I’ve also kept a lot of it, like being born with the caul, and the edict “You must not speak of the Benandanti,” among other things.
I also wanted to write the kind of book that I loved to read when I was a teenager. My teenage years were pretty tumultuous, and reading was a great escape for me. One of my favorite series back then was The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce; I loved those books so much I wanted to live in that world. So I wanted to write that kind of story, that a teenager could escape into and forget their real life for a little while and live my characters’ lives instead.
Which character do you identify with most? In what ways?
Alessia is definitely the most like me. I was just like her as a teen: kind of a goody-two-shoes, straight-A student (except math, in my case!), with a small but tight circle of friends and desperately wanting to get out of her small town and have adventures out in the big wide world. I poured a lot of myself into her while I was writing.
Which characters were the most fun (or challenging) to write?
Bree is hands-down the most fun character I’ve ever written. She’s the anti-me. She’s exactly what I wasn’t in high school. She smokes, she swears, she has sex with boys in the backseat of their cars—all things I would never have done (well, okay, sometimes I swear). Which is why it’s so much fun to let loose when I’m writing in her voice. Beyond that tough-girl exterior she’s very vulnerable; the stakes are very high for her, and she’s got a lot to lose. It was awesome to dig below the surface and bring all that out.
The other character who was a blast to bring to life was Nerina. She is actually based on someone I met for an hour many, many years ago. I was studying in Europe for a semester in college, and I was in Rome with a friend of mine. We decided to take the train to see the Gardens of Tivoli, and we got off at the wrong stop and were completely lost. The stationmaster spoke no English and went to get someone from the tiny travel agency next door to help. In walks one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen—statuesque, snaky dark hair, perfectly coiffed, dressed in impeccable clothes—just the most quintessential Italian woman I’ve ever seen. She sat down with us and told us the Gardens of Tivoli were closed and that she’d wait with us until the next train back to Rome arrived. She was warm and kind and totally focused on us. But as she’s talking, the stationmaster is sort of hovering behind her, and I realize that he’s completely in love with this woman (and that it’s completely unrequited). And the longer she sits with us, the more men from the village straggle into the tiny train station . . . and I realize that every single man under the age of forty in this village is totally smitten with this woman, that she is like the golden, unattainable goddess that all of them want to snare . . . and while I think she was aware of all the men who had come into the station to bask in her presence, she never once acknowledged them or broke focus with us. When we got back on the train, I thought, I’m going to put her in a book someday. And many years later I did.
Who are some of your writing influences?
I’m always thinking about Star Wars and Harry Potter when I write. Both of those series are classic hero’s journey, and that’s the template I used for Alessia’s journey. Plus, I think one of the best questions a young adult fantasy author can ask themselves is What would J.K. Rowling do? The Harry Potter series is so brilliantly plotted. Each book is an individual hero’s journey unto itself, and then there is a greater hero’s journey arcing over all seven books. The way Rowling did that was masterful and something I aspire to.
Star Wars is much the same, in probably a more straightforward way. While I was writing In the Mouth of the Wolf, the middle book of the trilogy, I thought about Empire Strikes Back a lot. I kept thinking, I need to get to my Han-Solo-frozen-in-carbonite moment.
How do you push through writer’s block?
Well, first I identify whether I actually have writer’s block or if I’m just being lazy. Sadly, it’s usually the latter. So if that’s the case, I keep my butt in the chair and push through, and it usually doesn’t take much to get back in the groove. But if it truly is writer’s block, then I step away from the computer. I’ll do something like go for a walk, cook an elaborate meal, take a long drive, or make a collage, something that gets my brain working in a different way than writing to loosen up my creativity.
What’s one of your own tried-and-true writing rules?
Okay, so this sounds a little crazy, but I swear it works. I learned it from a workshop I took with Donald Maass at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference many years ago. When I’ve finished a book (including edits), I print the entire manuscript out. And then I throw the manuscript into the air and let it make a mess on the floor all around me. Then I gather all the pages in random order and read the whole thing . . . in random order. What this does is keep me very present on every page as I read. When you read a book (in chronological order), you get lulled in by the story and the characters and you tend to miss little things or skim over places where the tension has lagged. By reading it out of order, I’m jarred every time I turn the page and so I’m seeing every page with fresh eyes. I’ll notice a lot of things on this read that I missed before. Once I caught a paragraph referring to a character that I’d cut out of the book two versions previously. Also, it’s really cathartic to toss your book in the air and let the pages rain down around you.
What are you working on now?
I just finished the third book in The Twin Willows Trilogy, The Blue Woods, which comes out in January. Now I’m working on a YA thriller that will be published with Sourcebooks in fall 2016. I can’t say much about it except that my inspiration is the TV show Alias, of which I was a major fan.