Fiction Reboot Author Interview: Marie Rutkoski

Welcome to the Fiction Reboot! Today I am happy to present Marie Rutkoski, author of the Cabinet of Curiosities series and the new release Shadow Society. Dear to my heart is Marie’s dual role as fantastic fiction author and academic; she is currently a professor at Brooklyn College, where she teaches Renaissance Drama, children’s literature and creative writing. She usually lives in New York City with her husband and two sons, but she and her family are now living in Paris for the 2012-2013 academic year. Thank you, Marie, for your thoughts on the writing life!



Marie Rutkoski is the author of the YA novel The Shadow Society, about a girl who discovers that she’s not human and that her kind are terrorists in an alternate world where the Great Chicago Fire never happened. The Shadow Society will be published October 30, 2012. Marie has also written the children’s fantasy series The Kronos Chronicles, including The Cabinet of Wonders, The Celestial Globe and The Jewel of the Kalderash. The Cabinet of Wonders, her debut novel, was named an Indie Next Kids’ List Great Read and a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, among other honors.

Rutkoski grew up in Bolingbrook, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), as the oldest of four children. She attended the University of Iowa. After graduating, she lived in Moscow and Prague. Upon receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard University, she held dual appointments as a lecturer there in both English and American Literature and Language, and History and Literature. Rutkoski is currently a professor at Brooklyn College, where she teaches Renaissance Drama, children’s literature and creative writing.


The Shadow SocietyDarcy Jones doesn’t remember anything before the day she was abandoned as a child outside a Chicago firehouse. She has never really belonged anywhere—but she couldn’t have guessed that she comes from an alternate world where the Great Chicago Fire didn’t happen and deadly creatures called Shades terrorize the human population. Memories begin to haunt Darcy when a new boy arrives at her high school, and he makes her feel both desire and desired in a way she hadn’t thought possible. But Conn’s interest in her is confusing. It doesn’t line up with the way he first looked at her…
As if she were his enemy.

When Conn betrays Darcy, she realizes that she can’t rely on anything—not herself, not the laws of nature, and certainly not him. Darcy decides to infiltrate the Shadow Society and uncover the Shades’ latest terrorist plot. What she finds out will change her world forever . . .
In this smart, compulsively readable novel, master storyteller Marie Rutkoski has crafted an utterly original world, characters you won’t soon forget, and a tale full of intrigue and suspense.


1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences? Your favorite work?

I might be a little more pragmatic than Asimov. I wouldn’t say I’d die. I’d just be unhappy. Or rather, I’d feel like some essential part of me was missing, like a limb or one of the five senses.

I raised myself on Anne MacCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tamora Pierce, LM Montgomery, and Madeleine L’Engle, so most of my early writing experiences were pastiches of their work (we are talking about me as a twelve-year-old). Then in college I wrote awfully serious (and bad) short stories. As for my favorite work…my mood today says Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. But if you asked me on a different day, I’d say something else.

2. Not unlike many an author, I am an academic where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”? How and when did you make the decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it so deserves? On a related note, how do you balance your time as an academic and an author?

I was really nervous about “writing for real.” I didn’t do it until after I’d received my PhD and then I gave myself only a summer to write my first novel. I was kind of dramatic about it. Remember when I said I was more pragmatic than Asimov. I lied. Because it was as if I had said to my desire to write, “I’ll give you three months to prove that I should let you live. If you don’t, you will die.” And I was wrong to take such an approach and wouldn’t advise anyone else to be so extreme with oneself– unless it’s the only way you can find the discipline to finish a novel.

I’m lucky to teach in a department that supports my fiction writing, and it’s now something I teach, too, though I’m trained as an Early Modernist (read: Shakespearean). I write during the days I’m not on campus, on the weekend, and during holidays.

3. You have a very successful and fascinating series that began with Cabinet of Wonders, a whirlwind of magic and fun that I might compare to Un Lun Dun. Now you are working on a new novel, Shadow Society. Could you say a bit about the shift in story and tone?

The Shadow Society, which will be published on October 16, is about a girl who discovers she’s from an alternate world where the Great Chicago Fire never happened and creatures called Shades terrorize the human population. It’s similar to The Cabinet of Wonders in that it thematizes the act of storytelling, it cares about history, and is driven by a lot of action. How The Shadow Society is different: it’s for older readers (it’s YA), it’s set in our time, it’s a romance, and it’s told from the perspective of one character. The Shadow Society strikes close to home for me, since it’s set where I grew up (Chicagoland, that is. Not an alternate dimension). Maybe that’s why I wrote it in first person. As soon as I knew the first line, the story took off: “Knowing what I know now, I’d say my foster mother had her reasons for throwing the kitchen knife at me.” That first line chose the tone and shaped the story.

4. As the author of a humorous “medical” vampire novel (Jacob Maresbeth), and a series that also explores alternate worlds, I am interested in your take on the value of research. How do you go about world building?

I direct everybody to Patricia C. Wrede’s post about this

It’s pretty much all you need to know. As for research, I pulled from many years of academic research on the Renaissance to write The Cabinet of Wonders but didn’t consult anything specifically for the book except where the Roma are concerned. I researched ships and sailing for The Celestial Globe. Otherwise, I don’t usually seek information to put in a book. It’s more as if, during the process of seeking information for its own sake, I’ve found inspiration for books.

5. Both of the series you have released seem to address the feeling of being between worlds, or not in your rightful home. This resonates with me, as my career is strangely bifurcated between two academic fields—as well as fiction. Could you talk to us about the inspiration for the theme? It certainly speaks to many!

I had not thought of this– the possibility that I’m drawn to this theme because I am split between worlds. In more ways than one (I’m living in France this year with my French husband and our Franco-American kids). Hmm. I’m clearly not self-aware enough to answer your question.

6. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?

Lately, I’ve found that reading a book on writing is helpful, like Stephen King’s or Elizabeth George’s. Or, if you’re stuck on a section, try to conceive of it in a different format, from a different POV, starting the scene earlier or later…some people say to skip ahead and write something else, come back to it later. I never do this.

7. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism? Beta readers?

I value my first readers highly. I’m pretty thick-skinned about criticism.

8. We are all looking for agents! Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? How do you find (and get!) a great agent?

Start by reading the acknowledgments of books you love and are similar to yours. Usually writers thank their agents. Google those agents and see what they represent and require from those who would query them. Write a query letter that performs your excellent writing skills as well as tells a good story– your story (your novel AND who you are).

9. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)

I’m not sure I would be a writer had not my friend Neel Mukherjee heard my (nervously relayed) idea for The Cabinet of Wonders and said, “You must write this!”

10. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?

Cheryl Klein (an editor of the Harry Potter books) has a great site that often gives advice on writing:; So does Laini Taylor’s. She also shares pretty pictures of artful stuff and home improvement projects.


Thank you, Marie! You can follow Marie Rutkoski on twitter @marierutkoski, or visit her website: