SELECTIONS FROM FRANNY BILLINGSLEY ‘S LIBRARY
The Folk Keeper, Atheneum, 1999.
Well Wished, Atheneum, 1997.
Franny Billingsley is patient and methodical. She works on only one book at a time and each book takes several years to complete. Before publishing Well Wished (Atheneum, 1997) she embarked on a fifteen year apprenticeship, during which time she quips, “I wrote three really, really bad novels.” But Billingsley also developed her knowledge of setting, plot and character development; more importantly, she found her voice.
According to Billingsley, writing is a mysterious process, the first part of which is coming up with a good idea. With Well Wished, Billingsley was donating plasma and happened to be lying in a bed next to a woman with a debilitating illness that left her profoundly weak. Billingsley began to wonder what it would be like to be an active, energetic, outdoorsy person like herself, but trapped in an uncooperative body. So she created Nuria, full of life and energy, and Catty, crippled by a mysterious illness. Nuria promises to make a wish at the town wishing well to help Catty, but the wish backfires and the girls end up switching bodies.
The initial idea for The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999) came to Billingsley while running. “There is something wonderful about running that allows me to access different parts of my mind that are usually inaccessible.” The Selkie stories of her youth surfaced—stories with characters who are part-human, part-seal. Corinna, Billingsley’s main character inThe Folk Keeper, is an orphan who doesn’t know she is a Selkie. Billingsley gives Corinna the means to find out who she is, but forces her to make a life-altering decision as a result.
Although Billingsley credits inspiration with the initial idea for her stories, she says, “the act of turning that idea into a novel is all perspiration.” There is no muse, no divine inspiration. Just a determination to succeed at a craft she truly loves. For Billingsley, writing is a messy right-brain process. She doesn’t outline or brainstorm. There’s no advanced planning in Billingsley’s initial drafts. She just writes—longhand—because according to Billingsley there’s something about the physical act of writing that allows her creativity to flow. Only after the story pours out is she ready to edit what she affectionately calls her “mess.” She wrote and re-wrote Well Wished for a few years before finally adding the wishing well which is the significant piece that makes the story work. An early draft of The Folk Keeper was already in her editor’s hands before Billingsley conceived of ‘the folk.’
As a child, Billingsley read widely and often. She adored the Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis; I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle; and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. “Asking me to choose a favorite book is like asking me to choose between pizza and ice cream. I can’t narrow myself down.”
In high school, however, Billingsley suppressed her desire to read children’s books because her friends would make fun of her. According to Billingsley, “from there, it was all downhill.” After high school, she received her bachelor’s degree from Tufts and her law degree from Boston University. She became a corporate attorney for a large law firm, but never really felt like she’d found her niche. A visit to her sister in Spain changed her life. Billingsley returned home, quit her job, and moved to Spain. There, she reconnected with all her old children’s books. “They were an antidote to all the gruesome legal documents I’d been reading.” The books she loved as a child motivated Billingsley to create her own.
Billingsley’s current book project is a fantasy based on an old Celtic folk tale and will be set in a time period resembling the 16th century. The work is still untitled, and my not be completed for another two years. Perhaps Billingsley fans will learn to become as patient at the author herself!
Billingsley lives in Chicago in her old family home with her husband, their two children, and her father. She says she owes her father a great debt. “He filled me up with all this great language by singing to us every night and reading to us a great deal.” That immersion in great books with their fantastic vocabulary and mysterious language gave Billingsley the power to create her own worlds, her own characters, her own great books.