Meet Janet Lee Carey

One of my favorite books from 2008 was Dragon’s Keep by Janet Lee Carey. Ms. Carey is currently a full-time author of Young Adult fantasy novels, but along the way she wrote several terrific realistic Young Adult books, The Double Life of Zoe Flynn among them. She is the third author of my favorite reads from 2008 to agree to do an interview for Ready When You Are, C.B.

I know this may make me look a bit shallow, so I’m going to get it out of the way up front. I think Dragon’s Keep has a fantastic cover. Were you at all involved in the cover design? What do you think of it?

I wasn’t involved with the cover design, but was wowed by it when I first saw it. I think the provocative cover has helped bring more readers to the book. An author is always pleased with results like that!

After you agreed to this interview I went back and read two of the novels you wrote before Dragon’s Keep and was surprised to find them both just about completely free of fantasy. After looking at your website, novels my students would call “realistic” seem even more out of place. How did you end up starting your writing career with “realistic” books? What led you to move from “realistic” stories to fantasy?

I’ll write whatever story grabs me, but I always wrote both types of fiction. The fantasy novels simply took longer to sell, so it was a while before they hit the shelves. I was ecstatic when Atheneum finally accepted one of my fantasies The Beast of Noor. I’m now writing more and more YA fantasy. Once I take the time to create a world, I want to keep going back to it so I just finished the sequel to Dragon’s Keep, the sequel to The Beast of Noor and completed a new YA fantasy, Stealing Death set in another world all together. More about those books later in the interview, but as you can see, I’m kind of on a roll.

One thing I liked so much about Dragon’s Keep is how personal and down-to-earth the story is. Rosalind the narrator/main character gives us the nitty-gritty of her everyday life both before and after she goes to live with the dragons. I think this helped make the novel more believable somehow. There is “magic” in the novel, of course, but most of the book is well rooted in historical reality of the middle ages. The book’s world strikes me as basically 13th century England with a real dragon in it. I mean that as a compliment; it could pass muster as historical fiction. Were you ever tempted to write Rosalind’s story as historical fiction instead of fantasy? How did you create the fantasy world of Wilde Island?

You bring up such interesting points here. First, you might be interested to know that Dragon’s Keep was rejected for five years. I just couldn’t sell it. One of the publishing houses rejected it because it was “too historical.” I revised and revised and kept hoping to find the right publisher. My agent, Irene Kraas carted it around for a long time. We were both about to give up on it when I took it to England during my Wenny Has Wings book tour with my UK publisher Faber & Faber. I showed it to my UK editor Julia Wells and she loved it. Within the next month, my agent also brought it to Kathy Dawson who was then at Harcourt, and she wanted it too. So after five years of rejection, we sold the book to two houses! Julia Wells and Kathy Dawson both said they liked the novel’s historical feel. I’d done an enormous amount of research to make the history as accurate as possible. Kathy Dawson had never taken a fantasy book before, so it was a great compliment for her to reach for Dragon’s Keep. Faber & Faber published it under the title Talon.

As to the balance of history and magic, you nailed it. Dragon’s Keep is the nitty-gritty daily life of medieval England with the exception of living, breathing, dragons. I never like adding too much magic. I tip the vial, add a few drops, and stir.

I’ll try not to make this question a spoiler, but I was struck by a certain twist in the plot of Dragon’s Keep that echoed the story in Beowulf where the hero kills one monster only to be later attacked by it’s vengeful mother. Was Beowulf a source of inspiration for Dragon’s Keep? What others sources inspire your work?

I read Beowulf in college. Like all the books I’ve read over the years I’m sure it has become a part of my subconscious “storytelling soup.” I wasn’t aware of its particular influence, but I can see the parallels now that you mention it. I was, however, conscious of twisting the typical fantasy archetypes in Dragon’s Keep. I set out to break the mold, to create an imperfect princess, a dragon who is a powerful animal yet not completely evil, a loving mother who is pushed beyond her moral bounds by her obsession with her daughter’s “flaw.”

Fantasy can allow for a greater scope. It has its trials and tribulations, but the freedom of thought and expression fantasy allows keeps me coming back. I love to read them and to write them. I devour good fantasy books, love J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Patricia McKillip, Jane Yolen, and particularly admire Ursula K. Le Guin. When I finish reading an Ursula K. Le Guin’s book, I sigh and say, “Oh, to write like that!”

You mention on your website that you grew up in Mill Valley, California in a house with glass door knobs and that you carried one with you while working on The Double Life of Zoe Flynn. Zoe spends so much time reading fantasy stories, like The Wizard of Oz, that she struck me as someone who might grow up to write a book like Dragon’s Keep. Can we read Zoe as Janet? How close are you to the heroines of your books?

The characters come out of the story as much as the story comes out of the characters. It is a very, “what came first the chicken or the egg?” sort of thing. All the characters have a little something in common with me. After all I have to be able to get inside of Zoe,Will, Rosalind, Miles, Hanna, Kipp – all of them. Yet they are all unique and tend to surprise me. If I’m lucky (and I have been so far) they come to life on the page.

Yet you asked about Zoe, so here goes. Like Zoe, I was a dreamer as a child, and like her, I loved the woods. As to Zoe’s fondness for fantasy fiction, you picked up on my longing at that point to have my fantasy novels published. Dragon’s Keep was still being rejected when my third book, The Double Life of Zoe Flynn, was published. So I put my own love of fantasy into Zoe’s heart.

I’m a big fan of intertextuality and I’ve been accused of going too far with it, but I noticed that in both Molly’s Fire and The Double Life of Zoe Flynn a game of hide and seek features prominently. The game bookends the events in Molly’s Fire and serves as a symbol for Molly’s search for her father and in The Double Life of Zoe Flynn hide and seek also bookends the novel and serves this time as a symbol of the search for a physical home. The story of St. George and the Dragon plays an interesting role in Molly’s Fire, too. Do your books influence each other? Are there certain themes that you are consciously reworking throughout your novels or certain symbols that you find yourself coming back to when you write?

I weave much into each work and, like you, love planting clues and adding many layers within my stories. Hide and seek touches on a deeper theme I tend to revisit; a character trying to recover something that was lost. You see the theme in Molly’s Fire as she’s hoping to find her father. You see it in The Double Life of Zoe Flynn as she tries to recover her lost home. You also see it in the other books. In Wenny Has Wings, Will tries to recover a sense of a ‘whole family’ now that Wenny is gone. In The Beast Of Noor, Hanna has to go after her lost brother who has transformed himself into a beast – the key question there was, “can you rescue someone who does not want to be found?” In Dragon’s Keep, Rosie tries to recover the part of herself she has rejected, to become something much better than a perfect princess — a whole human being.

The books don’t have to be read at deeper levels to be enjoyed. It’s my job to write exciting adventures that make the readers want to turn the pages. But the character’s central longing to find the missing pieces, also translates into page turning. Hopefully the reader wants that unifying conclusion as much as the character does.

What does the future hold for Janet Lee Carey? Will she reamian a full time writer of fantasy, go back to “realistic” stories, alternate between the two, or go off in a completely new direction?

Not to confuse you, but all three! I’m currently writing fantasy full time. As I said earlier, fantasy novels are my passion right now. I have a new YA fantasy coming out with Egmont USA in fall 2009. The title is Stealing Death. In this story, seventeen-year-old Kipp tries to outrun the Death Catcher and his shadow pack to save the life of the girl he loves. The tale is set in a fictional sub Saharan Africa.

In Bound By Three, the next Wilde Island novel after Dragon’s Keep, the Pendragon soothsayer predicts the next Pendragon king will marry a fairy’s child. To prevent this a witch hunter scours the countryside jailing and burning any girls who show fey powers. The tale introduces Tess, a half fey girl caught up in the political struggle who must help her friends escape the witch hunter. I’m happy to be working with my editor Kathy Dawson again. Bound By Three is due out with Dial Books in fall 2010. (Note: this is Dragonswood reviewed earlier.)

The sequel to The Beast of Noor has Miles and Hanna on another adventure. This time we see a romance between Hanna and Taunier as the three teens join with the dragons of Noor to bind the broken worlds. The newest Noor novel will be out with Egmont USA in Fall 2010.
As you can see I’m slowly working on what could become three trilogies! That said, if a realistic fiction story grabs me, I’ll write it. I might also walk down other writing roads. As long as I’m writing, I’m on an adventure. I will remain open to where the next tale takes me.

Yours is one of the better author websites I’ve looked at. Since you’ve been writing, how has the Internet changed they way you deal with your audience and with writing in general? Do you follow any particular websites we might want to know about?

Thanks. My husband designed the overall site. We’re in the process of updating the main pages and giving it a new facelift. I’ve also asked the very talented Jaime Temairik to add new pages into the fantasy mini site for the Stealing Death launch. It’s a work in progress.

The Internet offers wonderful networking for authors! I’m in touch with readers, fellow writers, booksellers, librarians, book bloggers, book communities – it’s indeed a world wide web! I was also lucky enough to be a founding diva for readergirlz. This online YA book community was initiated by award winning authors, Justina Chen Headley, Lori Ann Grover, and Dia Calhoun. There are more divas now, but we four were the founders. Readergirlz was a seminal group using myspace, live chats, sensational book bloggers, Facebook, a website, and newsletter to reach and interact with readers. It created a phenomenal connectivity inspiring readers to dialogue with authors and challenging readers to reach out and volunteer. I’m a retired diva now, but I have to tip my hat to the other founders, the new divas, postergirlz, gotogirlz and to the ongoing group as a whole.

I feature regular posts about my dog Dakota, a Bassett hound who loves to eat books. So I like to end by asking if you’ve ever had a pet with similar tastes? You mention a cat, Uke, on your website. Has Uke ever developed a taste for literature?

My cat Uke sits in the lap of luxury, which is to say that Uke likes to curl up on my lap while I write. She also pads across the keyboard. In September the day I finished writing Stealing Death (I am not making this up) I’d just written the words The End when Uke stepped onto the keyboard. When she walked off again this is what was on the screen below the words The End – mmmmmmmmmm. I took that to be a good sign, her vote that the book was yummy.
Thank you for the great interview questions! It’s been a pleasure to answer them. Come visit me at or pop a question my way at

My thanks to Ms. Carey for participating in this project. If you’ve not read her yet, her work comes with my recommendation. Start with Dragon’s Keep. It’s my favorite and it’s terrific! And I’m not giving it away, sorry.



This interview first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. many years ago when I used to do a lot of author interviews.  While they tended not to get many visits, I always found author interviews fun to do and all but one of the authors I worked with were (was?) incredibly patient and gracious.

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