My Interview with Christopher Mannino
Please welcome CHRISTOPHER MANNINO, author of SCHOOL OF DEATHS
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you are currently working on or promoting.
I am fortunate enough to have achieved my dream profession. I teach high school theatre at a school with a large and wonderful theatre program. During the summers, and my breaks, I write. Theatre and writing have been my two greatest passions for most of my life. I was a small child in rural Massachusetts, and there developed an overactive imagination, perhaps due to a lack of “real” friends. I found different friends in books and fiction. I later studied history, mythology, and theatre in college. When I finished my graduate degree, I spent a semester abroad at Oxford University in England. Every week for four months I traveled somewhere I’d never been, climbing castles in Wales, or visiting cathedrals across England and mainland Europe. My dreams took new form, and the world of my stories crept closer to the surface. Now, I bring my imagination to life both on stage and in my books.
The idea for School of Deaths emerged on a trip to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. I crept to the cliff face of Barras Nose, a stony peninsula jutting into the North Sea and overlooking the ruins of Tintagel, which some believe to be the birthplace of King Arthur. It was dawn, there were no other people in sight. I struggled against the wind, fighting to keep my balance so I didn’t crash into the ocean. I imagined being buffeted by winds, alone, and what that would do to a character. I developed Suzie Sarnio, my protagonist, who is alone in a world of men, buffeted by sexism.
School of Deaths explores issues of overcoming adversity, while incorporating elements of magic and fantasy. Suzie is the first female Death, and the only girl training to become a Reaper. This blend of unusual circumstances makes for an original and exciting story.
What sets you apart from other authors in your genre?
One thing that sets me apart is that I actually work with teenagers every day. I have more contact with teens than I do with adults. Working with kids, especially in a creative field such as theatre, where we explore imagination and new ideas, allows me to connect more personally with my target audience.
Do you have an agent and/or publisher, or are you self-published?
School of Deaths will be released by Muse it Up publishing.
How many revisions do you make to something before it sees the light of day?
A zillion. Realistically, once a first draft is finished I let it “sit” without looking at it for about a month. Then I reread the entire draft before writing a second draft. I don’t show my work to any readers, not even my fiancée, until after the third draft. Once I feel a work is ready I let a few beta readers look at it before submitting it.
Who or what inspires you to write?
I draw inspiration from almost everything. My travels, especially my time in England, directly influenced my current work, however everything from a sunny day to a moving song has the power to draw out my creativity. Earlier in my life, I went through a “dry spell”. I read the self-help book The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, which helped me realize that creativity can be found within. I am especially inspired recently by a trend in the public schools where fewer and fewer kids are reading for pleasure. I hope to combat that, and encourage the growth of active imaginations and wonder through books.
Do you outline your stories or are you a non-outline person?
I am in between these two extremes. I start with an idea. I have an entire notebook filled with ideas and scenarios for about 20 novels in multiple genres. Just last week I came up with a new idea for a novel, yet at the moment have other works in progress so I added the idea to my notebook and set it aside for now. Once it’s time to develop an idea, I start by sketching out on pencil and paper exactly where I want my book to go. I then use a word document to create a rough outline of about three pages or so. Once that amount of planning is done, I free write, and let the novel take its own course, adjusting my plan as I go, and letting the characters develop in their own ways.
What are your three favorite books?
When I was in seventh grade, I remember a writing assignment in my English class. It was one of the only times I actually enjoyed English. The assignment was to read three books, then pick one and write a short story in the style of that author. This was my first real experience with creative writing, and perhaps one of the roots of my time as an author.
The rest of the class picked three exceptionally easy novels. There were few guidelines on what novels we could choose, so everyone chose the three easiest books they could think of. I recall at least four people listing The Cat in the Hat as one of their three.
My “three” books for the assignment were The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien; The Mabinogion Tetralogy (a four-book re-telling of the classic Welsh myth cycle The Mabinogion) by Evangeline Walton; and The Hollowing by Robert Holdstock (the only choice which was a single read- though technically part of the Mythago Wood series). At the end of the assignment, I chose to write a short story mimicking Tolkien. My story was about the Entwives, and where they went after leaving Fangorn. Later, in college, I was given a similar assignment, and this time wrote a story based on Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion. My teacher told me I should publish my story, which I never did, but it was the first time someone recommended publication.
To this day, Lord of the Rings remains one of my all-time favorite books, and the Mabinogion remains one of my favorite myth cycles. To add a third favorite book, I’d probably say Ken Follett’s historical fiction novel The Pillars of the Earth or the Harry Potter books, which I absolutely loved.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a sequel to School of Deaths called Sword of Deaths. Although School of Deaths was published as a standalone, I had always intended to make it a series. I do also intend to branch into other genres. I have started an adult science-fiction novel, as well as a historical fiction novel set during the American Revolutionary War.
If you could have a conversation with one person living or dead who would it be?
Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is one of the greatest storytellers of our time. His films, anime, and stories inspire imaginations across the world. I admire the way Miyazaki can take ideas and transform them into art, often one hand-illustrated cel at a time. Other animators I admire such as Pixar’s John Lasseter or Avatar: the Last Airbender’s Michael DiMartino have claimed Miyazaki as their biggest influence. I have never seen a Miyazaki movie that I did not love, or think was completely original. I would love to talk about storytelling with Miyazaki.
If you could be any character in literature, who would you choose to be?
Arthur Dent (from Douglas Adams’ classic series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). I also wonder what it’d be like to go exploring the galaxy (as Dent) with the Doctor (from Dr Who) as a guide.
What obstacles, if any, have you encountered in being a writer?
As I mentioned, I am a full time theatre teacher. I spend more hours at my school than any other teacher, as I am often working on productions, and my school (one of the largest drama programs in the region) puts on five productions a year, as well as four improvisation shows. My biggest obstacle is time. My content editor for School of Deaths contacted me shortly before our huge musical last fall, and I had to explain that I could not get the edits done until after the show. Fortunately, she had performed in theatre herself when she was in high school.
I try to make some time every week to write. Now that my novel is coming out, the time involved has become even greater, since I now market as well. Most of my drafting and creative writing takes place during the summers. However, I cannot complain about time, since I am involved with the two jobs I enjoy the most: writing and teaching.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
It comes down to patience and perseverance. Never give up, no matter how frustrating the process becomes. A writer I know once told me “What do you call a writer who never gives up? Answer: Published.”
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Thank you CHRISTOPHER MANNINO for sharing your time with us. I wish you all the best with your writing. Please keep us posted on the latest developments.
Can a timid girl find bravery as the first female Death?
Thirteen-year-old Suzie Sarnio always believed the Grim Reaper was a fairy tale image of a skeleton with a scythe. Now, forced to enter the College of Deaths, she finds herself training to bring souls from the Living World to the Hereafter. The task is demanding enough, but as the only female in the all-male College, she quickly becomes a target. Attacked by both classmates and strangers, Suzie is alone in a world where even her teachers want her to fail.
Caught in the middle of a plot to overthrow the World of Deaths, Suzie must uncover the reason she’s been brought there: the first female Death in a million years.
The Girl Who Looked Like Death
She wanted to scream but no sound came. She wanted to run, but her legs wouldn’t move. The hooded man grinned.
Suzie’s heart pounded as she opened her eyes. Laughter echoed in the back of her head. The terrible laughter she heard every night. She wiped the sweat from her face, pushing aside the sheets. Sunlight spilled into her room from between frilly curtains. Mom would be knocking on the door to wake her soon.
She turned to one side as the dream started to fade. Every night the same nightmare. Every night she heard the laughter. The hooded man with a scythe. The feeling of complete terror.
What did it mean?
Above her clock radio, a worn teddy bear stared at her with its single eye. She pulled the bear to her chest and clutched it with her bony fingers.
Suzie Sarnio. The hooded man had written her name down. He always wrote it right before the laughter began. The man looked like Death. But why would Death have a stammer?
“Suzie,” said Mom, knocking on the door. “Come on, you’ll be late for school.”
Suzie changed, staring at the mirror in her pink-wallpapered room. Each rib stuck out from her chest; she counted all twenty-four. The skin on her face stretched tightly over her skeletal face, and dark patches surrounded each of her gray eyes. As much as she tried to comb it, her long black hair tangled into stringy knots. Her arms hung from her shoulders like twigs, and her legs looked too weak to hold her up. In the past few months, she had lost nearly half of her weight. She glanced at an old picture, taken last year, on the first day of seventh grade. A chubby, pigtailed girl with freckles smiled back at her from the photo. Her braces gleamed in the sun, only a month before their removal. Suzie sighed. She opened the door, looking for a moment at her room. She didn’t want to start another year of school. Slowly, she turned around.
“Hey, squirt, watch out,” said Joe.
“Sorry.” Joe was a pest and a bully, but he was her big brother, and Suzie supposed she loved him.
“Get your skinny butt out of the way already. We’ve got a run before school.”
“Today’s the first day—”
“After last year, coach says we have to practice early.”
Suzie stepped aside, watching the bulky frame of her brother lumber downstairs.
“Later.” He winked at Suzie. “Have fun at school.” He ran out the front door, slamming it behind him, while Suzie went to the kitchen and sat down.
“I’ve made you a special breakfast,” said her mother, carrying a plate and a glass of orange juice.
“Let me guess, something big.”
“I’ve made three eggs, two slices of sausage, four pieces of toast, two slices of bacon, a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, and a doughnut.”
“Mom, I keep telling you, I eat as much as I can.”
“You’re skin and bones, literally. Your father and I are worried sick. You have another appointment with Dr. Fox after school today. Did you take your pills this morning?”
“No, Mom, but I will.”
Suzie gave up arguing. Her parents, friends, and doctors were wrong. She didn’t want to lose weight. Everyone kept talking about anorexia, about eating disorders. The strange thing was Suzie ate more than she ever had before. She ate twice as much as any of her friends, hardly exercised, and certainly never—what was the word the doctor had used—oh right, purged. Gross. No, the way Suzie ate, she figured she should be fat. Only she wasn’t.
Suzie managed to eat most of the massive breakfast. Her stomach ached, but maybe a little would stay this time. She wiped her mouth, rubbing her fingers across the bones of her face. Doubtful.
“Are you ready for school?”
“Go brush your teeth, and I’ll be in the car. Don’t forget, we’re picking you up at one for your appointment with Dr. Fox.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Today’s your first day of eighth grade. Isn’t that exciting?”
Suzie didn’t answer. What would her friends say? She’d spent the summer avoiding them, dropping out of camp and swim club. She was embarrassed. She honestly didn’t want to lose weight, and didn’t have an eating disorder, but she appeared skeletal.
She brushed her teeth in silence, dragging her feet. She put on her backpack and got in the car.
“Honey, you’re nervous, but you’ll be fine. Tell people you’ve been sick, and—”
“I’m not sick, Mom. If I was sick, the doctors would cure me. If I had an eating problem, they’d work with me. I eat more than ever, and I hardly exercise anymore. This doesn’t make any sense.” Suzie wiped a tear from her eye.
“Are you sure this isn’t because of Bumper?”
Bumper. The family beagle for ten years. He had died three months ago, about the time Suzie had started losing weight. Mom believed the two were connected. Dr. Fox agreed. Sure, Suzie missed Bumper, but that wasn’t the problem.
“No, Mom, I was sad for a little while, but I never changed what I eat. If anything, I eat more now.”
“Susan, you’ll be all right. I promise. Your father and I will continue to get the finest doctors, until we figure out what’s wrong with you. Remember what Dr. Fox said last time? For now, the best thing is to go to school and be around other kids.”
She sighed. Mom still didn’t understand, and if Mom and Dad didn’t relate, her classmates would be even worse. They pulled up in front of school, and she gave her mom a quick peck on the cheek.
“Don’t forget. One o’clock.” Mom smiled, trying to hide the strain in her eyes.
“Suzie, my gawd, you look like death.”
Crystal hadn’t changed. The smiling redhead with large blue glasses and the ever-present smell of cherry bubblegum was her best friend. She was grateful Crystal had spent the summer away. “Did you have a nice summer? How was Colorado?”
“My summer was great. Colorado’s cold. Geesh, what happened to you, Suzie?”
“I’ve been sick,” said Suzie. Not a complete lie, obviously something was wrong with her, but she didn’t know what.
“Sick?” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “You look like you’re dying.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Crystaaal. Suzieee,” shouted a voice from across the parking lot.
“Oh gawd, it’s Monica,” said Crystal. “Let’s go inside quick.”
Suzie and her friend started to walk away, but the tall, lanky girl with small eyes caught up to them. Monica. She wasn’t too bad, if you ignored her whiny voice and her inane stories.
“Hiii guys,” said Monica. “I missed youuu this summer. Did you lose weight? The funniest thing happened the other day…”
Suzie realized the worst of the day was over. She got teasing looks from the kids and concerned frowns from the teachers, but like Monica, most people were too wrapped up in their own little world to pay any attention to her. Even Crystal eventually stopped asking questions.
“Tell me again, do you like the way you look?”
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked.
Suzie snapped to attention. The day had blurred by, and she was sitting in Dr. Fox’s office, wearing a hospital gown.
“Suzie, I asked if you like the way you look?”
Suzie was cold and annoyed. The office smelled of bleach, and the fluorescent light overhead hummed like a dying fly. Dr. Fox glanced up from her notes and smiled a dry, lifeless smile she probably practiced in front of a mirror.
“No, Doctor.” She repeated the same answers she had given last time, and the time before. “I despise the way I look. I’m a damned skeleton. You can see every bone. I love to eat, I don’t purge, I hardly exercise, and I actually feel fine.”
“Yes, that’s the strangest part,” interrupted Dr. Fox. “Every test seems to indicate that you’re at the peak of health. No lanugo, no joint issues, no skin problems, and your stomach and the rest of you are actually functioning fine. I’ve almost completely ruled out anorexia, but your weight is still drastically low. It’s like your calories are vanishing into some other dimension.” She laughed. “My husband wishes that would happen with me.”
“May I get dressed now?”
“Susan, I will get to the bottom of this. I have called a specialist in from the West Coast, from San Francisco. He might be able to shed some light on this condition. Your mother and I set up the appointment for next Thursday.”
“May I please get dressed now?”
“Yes, yes. I’m sorry I can’t do anything else for you.” Dr Fox sighed.
None of them knows what’s wrong. To them I’m just another puzzle to solve. She dressed and gave Mom a smirk, turning up her lips on one side to show she was unhappy. Mom smiled and shrugged.
“We’ll figure out what’s wrong, honey,” Mom said. They lied; no one knew.