K.A. Chat

This interview was held by Scholastic Students. These are some of the highlights from the chat.

May 1999


Do you know where the Animorphs live? If so, can you tell us?
I have a definite area in mind for where the Animorphs live. However, I treat the matter with some flexibility. In other words, I am using a fairly large area, drawing several features together into a smaller, more usable setting. So yes, I could name a particular state and a particular area within that state. I'm just not gonna.

Which of the Animorphs was the most fun to write? Which is your favorite?
It changes from book to book. Usually I find Marco the most fun to write because I like his rather complicated world view, the mix of humor and ruthlessness and fundamental decency. As for a favorite character, I like and dislike them all at different times. Sometimes they get on my nerves. Just like real people. There will be times I can't stand Jake or Cassie or Ax, and other times I think they're the best. Depends on how much trouble I'm having writing their scenes.
Lately, Jake has been getting on my nerves because I haven't been as pleased with the two most recent Jake books. So, I blame him. If my next Jake book is really good, I'll love Jake again. I haven't been "mad" at Marco yet, but each of the others has caused me trouble at one time or another. Cassie is the character I use to get into deeper issues, so I tend to like her for that reason.

Will Marco ever get his mom back to normal?
This is an interesting question. I think part of what makes Marco interesting is this strange situation with his mom. Just as I think Tobias is interesting precisely because he's trapped as a hawk. And yet readers often seem to wish I would erase all these difficulties. But if I did, if I cured Tobias and saved Marco's mom and Jake's brother and so on, we'd have six boring kids.

Will Marco ever find a girlfriend? Also, does he like Rachel at all? It seems like he does.
Marco has forbidden me to discuss his feelings, or lack of same, for Rachel. But I imagine Marco will find true love some day, and I doubt it will be with Rachel.

Will Tobias ever be human again?
Full human? I guess that will be up to him. He has the power to morph, including the power to morph back into his old form and stay there. He chooses to be what he is.

In one early Animorphs book, Jake "thought-speaks" to Tobias while he's human. In later books, they say it's impossible. Why?
Well, I could give you some long, convoluted and totally bogus answer, or I could confess the awful truth: I messed up. It happens.

Jake was a controller once. Will any of the other Animorphs ever be controllers?
Cassie is one briefly in number 19. Beyond that, I don't know.

How did you pick Jake to be "the leader" of the group?
He applied for the job, filled out the application and everything and . . . Well, okay, no, he is the leader because we needed a leader. I created Jake to fill the slot.

Will the Animorphs ever change leaders? There's so much pressure on Jake.
Maybe. I heard it was between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Out of all your characters, why did you give Rachel the "killer instinct" instead of Jake or Ax?
Because it was incongruous, which made it more interesting. Everyone expects the guy like Jake to be a little out of control. But a fashion-model-type, mall-crawler? Who expects her to be the one suffering from post-traumatic-stress syndrome and getting a little too into the whole thing?

I know that Tobias morphed Ax in number 33. But will anyone else morph him?
Well, since Ax is a sentient individual, he has rights. And one of his rights is to not be surrounded by five carbon copies of himself. So I think we'll severely limit that morph.

Will the Animorphs ever use the Time Machine to help save Ax's dad from dying?
Hey, hey, you can't go playing around with history. Besides, Ax's dad is alive. It's his brother who's dead.

Will you add another member to the Animorph gang anytime soon?
I'm thinking seriously about it, but have not, as of the outline for book number 42, done it.

There are a lot of rumors going around that Melissa Chapman is going to be in the group. But someone claimed that it would mess up the order, so you're not going to do it. Is this true?
This is the strangest thing, this interest in Melissa Chapman. She was a "throwaway" character, never developed beyond her brief appearance. And yet, there is this continuing interest in her. Maybe I should do something with her, but I doubt as a member.

How do you come up with characters?
Characters start as something I invent. That is, they start off with a few basic personality traits. Over time they evolve. For example, from the start I knew that Rachel would be brave and beautiful. But over time, she developed more of a sense of humor. Then, we began to see Rachel become more and more bold, maybe even reckless. She, like all characters, started off as a basic sketch, and with each book became more developed. After a while the characters seem to be running themselves, with me just kind of watching and going "hmmm."

Do you like the way the Animorphs characters have developed and seem real? Are there any tricks to creating characters that seem real?
I'm glad you think they seem real. Tricks? Well, I start with what we call a "series bible." In that I detail everything I can think of about the series, including, naturally, the characters. I start with a lot of superficial stuff: looks, for example. Move on to their background story, their family, etc. Then I start coming up with detailed info on how they dress, what music they like, their favorite foods, whatever. By the time I'm done, I have a character.

What morph do you like to write about the most?
I like them all to one degree or another. But I'm most fond of the ones in the water: dolphin, shark, etc. I think I find them kind of challenging.

If you could morph into an animal, what would it be?
Dolphin. Or possibly hawk.

What was your favorite animal when you were growing up?
I was big on hamsters. I loved dogs, of course. And always dolphins.

When you were a kid, did you think about people turning into animals?
Not that I recall. You know, at my terribly advanced age I only vaguely remember my youth. It was way-y-y back in the sixties, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

When you were our age (nine to ten years old), what was your favorite subject in school? Did you like reading? Did you have any career wishes?
I honestly didn't think much about a career at that age. I thought I'd probably be a veterinarian. But I don't recall having serious thoughts on that matter.

When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?
I'm still not totally sure. "Want to be" covers a lot of years. I may still decide to become something else.

When did you write your first book?
I started writing the first Animorphs book about two and a half years ago. But the first book I ever wrote was a romance novel, back in 1989. I've written about 100 books in total.

What was your favorite story as a child?
Charlotte's Web. You know, the one about this spider that morphs into a giant alien and goes on a rampage of destruction that flattens New York City? At least that's how I remember it.

Who inspired you?
I'm tempted to make a joke like, "My landlord inspired me; he wanted me to pay the rent." Actually, anyone whose book I've read has inspired me to some degree; though I guess I was most inspired by Charlotte's Web. If I could ever write anything that enduring, I'd be very pleased.

Did you have any role models growing up? What about now?
Personally, I don't think much in terms of role models. I think that's rather a modern concept that was not particularly in vogue when I was a girl. I've never consciously modeled my life on anyone, and speaking just for myself, I don't see how I could. Are there people I admire? Sure. I admire E. B. White, for example. But I don't want to be him. I'll be me.

How did you come up with the idea to write Animorphs?
It started out as a smaller idea. First, I thought I'd like to write about animals. Then it occurred to me that what would be really fun would be to put the reader inside the animal's mind and body. Only then did it occur to me that I needed a science fiction setup to make it work - and a unifying, overarching plot. I needed a way for the kids to use their morphing powers. It was either fight aliens or morph to bust whoever stole the sandwich from the locker. That seemed kind of dull. I started down the alien road and never looked back. So, rather than being one big idea, it was a series of small ideas, like building blocks.

How long did it take you to write the first Animorphs book?
Book 1 took about a month. Now I take a bit less than that. I seldom take more than three weeks on any book. Generally, I write about 6 pages a day for 23 or 24 days. Then I take a couple of days to rewrite. Then I write an outline for a future book, and then it's time to start all over again.

How did you get a publisher to publish your books?
Basically, what a writer does is send her idea to a publisher and they decide whether they'll publish it. In the case of Animorphs, I sent in what we call a series bible. It was in a loose-leaf binder and included some outlines, some descriptions of the characters, sample chapters, descriptions of the aliens, and so on. I sent this, along with a letter, to Scholastic Inc., and they agreed to publish it.

Do you do research to learn about different animals?
I do some research, though not as much as I'd like. I enjoy research but the pace of the series demands I come up with my answers pretty quickly. So I own a humongous library of animal books, reference works, etc. Occasionally, I'll call on an expert. But generally I find what I need in a good bookstore.

Which is your favorite Animorph book?
My favorite book is probably still number 4, the dolphin book. It has lots of action, but some more thoughtful stuff, too. I'm also fond of number 10. I like the idea that dogs are descended from a race of kind, decent aliens.

Do you ever run out of ideas for the Animorphs?
Yeah, I ran out after book number 11. Seriously. I thought well, that's it, I've got nothing here. But then I came up with some more ideas and some more. So I hope the answer will be that I don't run out of ideas. Don't know yet.

Did you ever have times when you were writing that you hated what you wrote and threw it away?
I have thrown away enough scenes to make another five Animorphs books. I throw away lots of stuff. I'll find I've written myself into a corner, for example. Or I'll get to the end of the book and realize I have just found a better way to play it. So I go back and throw out whatever no longer fits.

Does anyone ever help you write Animorphs?
Yes. First of all, anyone who has ever written a book about animal physiology. Secondly, I have some close friends who advise and smooth things out and help me work through ideas.

Do you prefer writing series books instead of single books?
Writing a series is very different from writing a single title. With a single title you can take your time. With a series you have about 15 seconds to come up with a metaphor, for example. It's always rush, rush.

Is writing for children different from writing for adults?
I honestly don't know that there is any difference. I never sit there and think, "Oh, I'd better write this way because my readers are kids." I just write the story. Of course with the main characters being kids, sure that places some limits. Obviously I'm not going to be writing about Jake's new job.

Are there certain lessons you want children to learn from your books?
Big question. On the one hand, no. I want kids to read my books and snap through the pages saying "that's so cool!" On the other hand, obviously something as large and complex as Animorphs will inevitably have a moral dimension. So, yes, I include discussions of right and wrong, moral and immoral in Animorphs. But I'm not looking to impose my own particular vision. I'd be very happy if kids read the books, had a good time, then thought, "hmm, that was an interesting issue."

Do the Animorphs need to be read in a sequential order?
Not really. I think it's best that way because I don't recapitulate the entire back-story each time. But you could read them out of sequence if you were patient with the occasional confusion.

Do you draw the pictures on the covers?
No, I don't draw the covers. Scholastic hires very talented artists for that. Believe me, you don't want to see a cover I'd draw.

On the back of each book, it's always Ax and the Animorphs. Is Ax really an Animorph?
I don't know why it says that. I think of them as a team.

Why doesn't Ax use the Time Matrix to go back to his home world?
The Time Matrix is too much power for anyone to use. He's a smart Andalite. He knows it would end up corrupting him.

Are there different Andalite ethnic groups like there are for humans, such as Hispanic or Caucasian?
It depends what you mean by "different." They do have differences in terms of their fur colors, but it would be a pretty dumb species that would see anything important in something as superficial as fur color.

Over the months and (hopefully) years that you write the Animorphs series, are the characters going to age? Many book series (a good example is The Baby-sitters Club) have been in regular publication for more than a decade, with the characters never aging.
That's a good question. As a writer I'd love to have the characters evolve, including growing older. On the other hand, series have certain limitations. One limitation is that you can't write them in "real-time." Otherwise the characters would already have aged three years. The truth is, I don't think we can show them getting much older. On the other hand, since we never tell their ages anyway . . .

What was that big red eye in book number 6?
There are two answers to this question. One is kind of a technical "writer" answer and the other is more specific. First, the big red eye is what I think of as a "seed." Not every detail of the books is planned out in advance. Sometimes I just stick things in hoping that down the road, in a later book, I'll figure out how to get that seed to grow. When I first put in that big red eye, I didn't know what it was, except that I knew I was lifting an image from The Lord of the Rings. I stuck it in thinking, "This may be useful someday." Answer number two is that I eventually figured out what that seed should be. I believe it's in the Andalite Chronicles, in the last part, when the Ellimist reveals that the Ellimists are not the only super-powerful species in the galaxy, but there is another vastly powerful race, similar to the Ellimists, but evil - as represented by the big red eye. It's against these guys that the Ellimists play their game.

How do you make up the names of aliens?
Sometimes I come up with names just by playing with letters and sounds till I get something I like. Sometimes I'll take a word I see around me and alter it or reverse it. For example, the Andalite word nothlit came about because I happened to see the hotel name "Hilton" through my window. I just kept rearranging the letters until I got the word nothlit. Sometimes a word is deliberately evocative, meaning that it is supposed to make you think of other words. Visser is like that. It sounds a little like "vicious" and a little like "viceroy," and even a little like "viscous."

How do you pronounce the following names: Hork-Bajir, Visser, Tobias, Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul, Ket Halpek, Andalite?
Here's how I pronounce them: Hork rhymes with "cork," and Bajir sounds like "buh-JEER"; Visser rhymes with "kisser"; Toe-BYE-us. Oh, good grief, you asked me a tough one. Okay, it's "ELF-un-gore Sir-RIN-ee-ul Sham-TOOL; Ket Hal-PEK; and finally, AN-duh-lite.

Where did you come up with the word yeerk?
That is a conscious and deliberate "homage" as we say, to J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes about "orcs," or goblins, which are called "yrchs" by the elves.

Where did you get the idea to make the Yeerks alien slugs that crawl into people's heads?
It's pretty much a direct steal from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with some Star Trek thrown in on the side.

Who is your favorite Yeerk?
Oh, gotta be Visser 3. He's the villain. He's the boss of all bad guys. And yet he's really not very good at his job.

How did you come up with the body of a Taxxon?
First of all, there is no truth to the notion that I came up with Taxxons - bloodthirsty worms - around tax time. Not true. Basically, I wanted a big old worm. So I came up with a big old worm.

I was surprised to learn you were female. Do you get comments to that effect, that kids think you are a male author?
It's interesting, the idea that only a member of a gender can write characters of that gender. This would be news to Shakespeare, who wrote a lot of women characters. But in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I have a "male" advisor who occasionally says, "oh, please, no guy would say that."

Is it different, writing from a male versus female perspective?
Yes. I don't want to engage in cliches here, but if a female character has an emotion she usually knows it, and doesn't especially try and hide it. If a male character has an emotion it's usually most visible in the denial. So if a guy is depressed you might write that he says, "I'm not depressed. Never been happier."

Do you see yourself as a role model?
I certainly hope not. I have doubts about making any "celebrity" a role model. You only know about a celebrity by what they do for a living, or what some press agent sells to a newspaper. You don't know them as actual people. If you want a role model, find a real person: a parent or a teacher. The job of a human being is to be a good human being, not to be Michael Jordan or Britney Spears or, on a much lower scale, me. Find a real person, a person who gets up and goes to work and works hard and is decent to other people and kind to you. That's a role model.

Will there ever be a super Chee that will fight for the Animorphs?
You want the Chee to fight? Not me. I like the idea of immensely powerful yet thoroughly peaceful creatures. I think the Chee will stay that way.

Why didn't the dinosaur morph work in present day?
Because I needed it not to. Sure, I came up with some vague "ask Ax" explanation, but the truth is I wanted to do dinosaurs, and yet I couldn't have the kids morphing into T. Rex's every day.

Do you like reading and answering letters from Animorph readers?
I wish I had time to read and answer more. But I receive seven billion pieces of mail per day. Okay, not seven billion. Anyway, too many for me to answer individually. But do I enjoy them? Absolutely.

Do you ever take ideas from your readers?
Absolutely. One was the constant requests for a female Andalite. So when it was time to write The Hork-Bajir Chronicles, I made Aldrea female. I have used other ideas from kids as well.

Do you use the Internet in your spare time? Do you ever go into regular chat rooms?
I'm afraid I have a fairly jaundiced (one-sided) view of the Internet. I realize I'm using it right now, but aside from this sort of experience, I find the Web a huge disappointment. If I want research, I can get what I need ten times faster in any Barnes & Noble. As for chat rooms, they tend to sink rather quickly to the level of the lowest common denominator, which, given the anonymity of the Web, is pretty low. Then again, maybe I'm just old.

Do you make school visits? Do you ever do signings at bookstores?
Nope. I do basically no publicity. I think that a book should be for the reader to enjoy without having to decide whether they like the author or not. The book is what's important, not the writer as an individual human being. So I pretty much cower in my basement and refuse to come out. Actually, I just don't have the time. Time is in very short supply around here. I keep ordering more, but they never send enough.

Will the Animorphs ever morph machines?
Not unless a machine develops DNA. You need the DNA, otherwise no morphing.

Do you have any plans for Elfangor ever making a reappearance?
This is science fiction. We can travel in time but we can't resuscitate the dead. Only soap operas can do that.

I hear you have a new series - can you tell us a little bit about it?
The new series is called Everworld. It will be in the Young Adult section of the bookstore. It is more fantasy than science fiction. Basically it involves a parallel universe where the ancient gods and myths of human history are alive and well and real. It also does involve some aliens. So I threw in everything but the kitchen sink.

Are your books published in any other language?
Amazingly, yes: French, German, Dutch, Indonesian, Hebrew, Spanish, all kinds of languages. Very cool.

Have you written any other books besides the Animorphs series (Not including Everworld)?
Yes, about 100 or so. Mostly Young adult romance series, but also things for Disney, like Little Mermaid books. And I did a horse series called Silver Creek Riders, under a pseudonym.

What does K. A. stand for? Is that your real name?
The "K" stands for Katherine and the "A" for applesauce. Or possibly Alice. In the past I have used a lot of pen names. When I wrote romances for Harlequin, I was Katherine Kendall. I wrote various books for Disney as A. R. Plumb and Nicholas Stevens. I wrote a horse series called Silver Creek Riders as Beth Kincaid. I was also one of the many writers who wrote Sweet Valley Twins, which are all published under the name Francine Pascal.

Where do you live?
I've moved around a lot, and will probably keep doing so. Right now I live in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities.

What are your interests besides writing?
I enjoy reading and listening to music. My musical taste tends toward classical. I suppose my favorite activity besides writing is shopping.

Where do you do your best work? Do you always work at a certain place, or do you change it from time to time?
I usually work in my home office. At present I have a nice office on the top floor of the house. A single big room with a desk and an easy chair and bookshelves and a bed so I can doze off while I'm pretending to be hard at work.

Which do you like more: writing with a pencil or typing on a computer?
Computer, absolutely. I used to use an old-fashioned typewriter. Rewrites were hideous experiences.

What's your advice to kids interested in becoming writers?
Step A is to read. The best way to become a writer later in life is to be a reader now. Step B is to write. Read anything, write anything. Write absolutely terrible stuff, it doesn't matter. Writing anything - trying to tell any story - will teach you how to write. Especially if you take your first draft, and write a second draft and a third, fourth and so on. Writing doesn't just come pouring out of your head ready to go. You have to work on it, repeat it, try again.
I'll tell you a kind of tedious - but useful - trick to help you understand how people write: Copy some passages out of a book. While you write them down yourself, think about how the original writer wrote them, and why the writer did certain things. Another, maybe more fun, exercise is to write the same scene three different ways. Tell a story about a girl walking into class from her point of view. Then tell the same event from another student's point of view. Then tell it again from the teacher's point of view. Each time, get into the head of the person, imagine what they are feeling, seeing, thinking. It may sound like boring advice, but sometimes you have to live through the boredom to discover the real fun.
You cannot possibly fail to learn something from any writing you do. Doesn't matter if it's fiction, nonfiction, poetry, love notes, whatever. Any time you put words on paper (or monitor) you learn a tiny bit more about writing. So write. You can't get published unless you write something. Took me about a decade to figure that out.

Are you proud of what your Animorphs books have grown to?
More amazed, I think. I have an odd take on the word proud. I feel I should be proud of things that are especially difficult. In other words, if I did something for which I have no talent or innate skill, and nevertheless managed to do it, I'd be proud. But writing is basically easy for me.

Katherine, do you have any final words for the audience?
My final word is expostulate. Why? Cause it's a fine word, that's why. Okay, okay... Thanks for coming, thanks for reading. When I invented Animorphs, I thought it would be too complex, too hard-to-follow for a wide readership. I thought it might be a sort of small-scale cult hit. Animorph fans have proven me wrong. I'm glad. Thanks. Animorph fans are the smartest, coolest fans any writer could ever hope to have. I am very grateful.

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