Kelley Armstrong and Melissa Marr on their middle-grade debut 'Loki's Wolves' -- EXCLUSIVE
YA giants Kelley Armstrong (The Summoning) and Melissa Marr (Wicked Lovely) are incredibly successful on their own — so what happens when you lock them in a room together? The fruit of that teamwork is this month’s Loki’s Wolves, the first in a middle-grade series from the two authors (writing as K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr). Loki’s Wolves centers on Matt, Fen, and Laurie, three teenagers descended from gods who must band together to fight Ragnarok, an apocalypse only they can prevent. We spoke to the two writers about Norse mythology, sleeping habits, and what words count as profanity.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me how this collaboration came about.
M.A. MARR: Well, Kelley and I organized what was called the Smart Chicks Tour, which was a grassroots author-organized tour; and what with it being the first tour we organized, we forgot to allow for things like sleep.
M.A.: It really is. So we were up one morning at the airport with Sarah Rees Brennan, running on no sleep, just donuts and coffee, and she suggested what we needed was a Kelissa book, a Kelley-Melissa book. And we kind of got hooked on the idea because we had both written our YAs for our teen daughters, and then when our sons got older, we decided we needed to do something for them and so we liked the idea of working together — we’d edited an anthology and done tours together — it seemed logical to try and do it together. It’s all Sarah Rees Brennan’s fault, really. We blame her.
K.L. ARMSTRONG: She is completely right. I wrote my YA novel because my daughter was eyeing my adult novels when she was about 12, and I was like, No… So I wrote her something in the same vein, but for her proper age group. Then my sons were like, okay, when do we get our books. My YA, I showed them the first one and said it’s perfectly suitable for your age and they’re like, there’s a girl on the cover. I said, it’s got werewolves and zombies and fighting and there’s no kissing in this book. And they’re like, there is a girl holding a necklace on the cover. No way are they going to touch that.
Boys drive me nuts about that. Girls will read anything, but boys are like, there’s a lady? No.
K.L.: They do [laughs].
Did you show it to your sons as you were working on it? Were they impromptu editors?
K.L.: Definitely they were, and that was very scary! You’re writing it for them. What if they don’t like it? “Sorry Mom, try again.” So yes, my younger son just devoured it, great. My older son, he’s now 13, he’s the kind of kid who likes to read carefully and likes to read sometimes with a pencil to point out the typos. So I said, would you mind pointing out the typos in this book? He charged me $20 bucks for it. [Laughs] But he found them and he liked the book. So that’s good.
You’re not the only author whose kids have done that. Rick Riordan [author of the Percy Jackson series] told me that one of his children likes to copy-edit too. So you’re in good company.
K.L.: See? They know people get paid for that.
M.A.: And it makes sense. My husband’s family is Norwegian and my son’s a myths geek. So he came back and was like, here are the myths that you haven’t included in this book and I would like them to be incorporated. So he was very much about the myths. In fact, my dedication in the book is, “Yes, there were will be goats” because he was very adamant that we include them.
Did they help direct the plot at all?
M.A.: They’re critique readers. And our daughters read too. So they’re your best first readers because, unlike a lot of readers, they don’t have that fear of telling you what they really think [laughs].
K.L.: It really is great having first readers of the proper age. It’s nice to have critique partners who are writers and adults, but you really need somebody who’s the proper audience.
Logistically, how does it work to write a book together?
K.L.: We actually wrote this literally together. We were in the same place for the plotting and for writing. Now the way that it is broken up is I write Matt’s chapters. He is the — I won’t call him the main character —
M.A.: He’s kind of the main character, Kelley.
K.L.: He’s kind of the main character [laughs]. Melissa takes the other points of view. So I write a chapter in Matt, she writes a chapter in Fen or Laurie’s point-of-view. And we really worked together in the same place, which works out great because I’m a morning writer. I’m up at 5:30 writing. So I’m up way before Melissa, and I’m writing, writing, writing. Then she gets up, I share what I’ve got, we brainstorm, we talk, we write some more during the day, I go to bed at an early hour, obviously, and Melissa stays up almost till I would be waking up. So there’s someone writing 24 hours.
M.A.: I always get to sleep before Kelley wakes up.
K.L.: Oh yeah [laughs]. And then she would email me before she went to bed and say, chapter’s done, here are some notes. And sometimes those emails were sent an hour before I got up.
Did you finish it quickly?
M.A.: Finish is a really relative term when you’re writing books. The initial outline — we sit down and we do the joint outline — that we did in a day when we were both awake.
You do have an overlapping time of consciousness.
K.L.: [Laughs] There’s a small overlapping window there.
M.A.: My breakfast is Kelley’s lunch. So we have brunch together and work. What we do is lock ourselves away in a retreat. We go there for a week, ten days, and we just sort of sit down, and when you’re working on it 24 hours a day like that, you know that you have to get X number of words finished before getting back on a plane to go home. So the initial drafting goes really quickly because we have this metaphorical whip over us and the clock is ticking. So we really have to do that 24 hour a day thing. But then revisions, we do that in our individual homes, our individual countries.
Neither of you has written a book with someone else before, correct? Did you enjoy the experience? Be careful how you answer.
K.L.: It’s something that I’ve always been so curious about. I’ve known writing partnerships and I’ve read co-written books, so whenever I meet a writer who co-writes, I have from the first day said, how do you do it? It was very different and very exciting to write with somebody else. It’s brought new things to my writing that I wouldn’t have considered before.
M.A.: And it’s scary too. Because we were friends first. And so we were friends, we’d done this tour together, we’d edited two anthologies together, so we knew we could work together. We’d even done critiques of each other’s novels. But there’s this really scary thing where because you’re friends, you don’t want to do anything to ruin the friendship. I’d rather the book fail than I lose Kelley. It’s this sort of respect where if you don’t have that, I don’t think you could do this and maintain the friendship. Fortunately we haven’t killed each other.
What kind of research did you do for this book outside of your sons bringing you updates?
M.A.: For me, like I said, my husband’s family is of Norwegian descent. When I got married, I felt compelled to learn their myths to make sure our children had both sides of their myth heritage. It’s the way I was raised and I thought it was really important. Some of it was just stuff I knew. But I was an academic before this, so I had my research assistant go and collect critical articles on it, so Kelley and I had those as research too. All the settings in the book are actually places I’ve been, so that helped also. So I periodically would just pull up old family photos. A lot of it was less research and more dredging up memories.
How does this compare to your previous books? This being your middle-grade debut.
K.L.: Melissa had to keep me on a tight leash [laughs]. When I write YA, my YA is very clean. It’s meant for 11 and up. But apparently there are words that I do not consider profanity that are for a middle-grade book.
K.L.: I was schooled by Melissa, who’s a former teacher. Apparently you can’t use “piss.” I was like, no 13-year-old boy is going to be like, it smells like urine or it smells like pee. But she is right. That is a word, although not technically profanity, that is not appropriate.
M.A.: My YA is written for older readers. My YA reads up. It’s probably what they would currently call new adult. Everyone was expecting me to be the problem child here, and it turns out that the sweet, polite Canadian is actually the potty mouth in middle grade [laughs].
Loki’s Wolves is available now.