For Highland Park’s Franny Billingsley, being named to the National Book Awards shortlist is the culmination of decades of writing.
Even before the announcement, “Chime,” a fantasy novel involving witches, swamps and magic, received a lot of attention, including starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, among others. Billingsley is the author of 3 previous books, and she’s received several awards, including the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for fiction for her novel “The Folk Keeper.”
She is a Chicago native who gave up practicing law many years ago to pursue her dream of writing fiction. She often speaks and gives workshops in local schools. We talked to Billingsley about what the nomination means to her.
So, how does it feel to be a finalist for the National Book Award?
What makes writing both terrible and wonderful for me is that I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m moving through the dark, feeling my way, not sure what I’m going to see when I reach the end. This aspect made the 12 years of writing a challenge. Now that I have reached the end of the novel and stepped into the light, being nominated for the award validates my journey.
What inspired “Chime”?
When I come across something I’d like to write about, I look at it through the lens of folklore, because of the American and British folk songs—especially Scottish ballads—that my father sang to me as a child.
For “Chime,” the inspiration came from my kids, Miranda, 21, and Nathaniel, 17. When Miranda was 5, I read her a story called “A Fair Exchange” from the folktale collection “Maid of the North,” a story about a woman whose baby is stolen by the fairies. My son, Nathaniel, didn’t learn to talk. He was, however, prodigiously musical and had perfect pitch. So I decided to write a story in which the protagonist would be a girl like Miranda with a brother who doesn’t talk. One day, the brother awakens speaking in beautiful complete sentences, and everyone’s delighted—his parents think he turned a developmental corner overnight—but the sister knows he’s not the true brother. She knows the fairies, who love music and don’t care so much about words, have stolen her true brother and replaced him with a changeling. No one believes the sister and her job, then, is to go into fairyland and rescue the brother.
What advice do you give to writers who are trying to get published?
Never give up! The people who get published are the people who simply don’t give up. They may feel as hurt as any other writer when they get a rejection, but they put the manuscript in the mail again, right away. Also, it helps to have a writing group to help you improve your writing, and to support you in the hard times.
As a writer, what are your favorite haunts/aspects/organizations here on Chicago’s North Shore?
There is a vigorous and friendly children’s writing community on the North Shore that hosts events in venues such as The Book Stall. And more generally, there are wonderful places for writers to find community and feedback such as Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Ragdale in Lake Forest (where I’ve taken and taught classes), and Off Campus Writers’ Workshop in Winnetka.
What do you do to give back to your community or organizations that are important to you?
A good deal of a children’s writer’s income may come from speaking at schools. If a school doesn’t have the money to bring me in, I may reduce my rates or come for free—this is especially the case for inner city schools. Also, I never forget the people who gave me their time, energy and love in helping me grow as a writer, and I try to do as much as I can for other writers.
For more information about Franny Billingsley, visit frannybillingsley.com.