February 27, 2009

Chicago librarian conjures classic fairy tales with a twist in Serendipity Market

As I sat down to interview Penny Blubaugh, one of Chicago’s up-and-coming writers, I couldn’t help but catch her enthusiasm for her debut novel Serendipity Market. If Blubaugh’s book had been sub par, her eagerness would convince me that maybe I just happened to skip over the good part. But that’s far from the case. Serendipity Market is a creative take on popular childhood stories that elegantly evokes an alternate universe of magic and friendship. But at the heart of her novel is a concern for the lack of connection between people in this world. In our interview, Blubaugh talked about the writing process, her future as an author, and her worries about the “Facebook generation.”

Chicago Maroon: So what is Serendipity Market about?

Penny Blubaugh: When the world goes out of sync, the way to put it back is for people to come together, face-to-face, to share stories and humanity. The omniscient narrator Mama Inez and her dog Toby can shape-shift and go into other people’s stories. As a result, they know which people to bring to the Serendipity Market and share their stories in order to put the world back in sync. The book is comprised of pieces of fairytales expanded and twisted around. There’s the story of Cinderella from the lizard’s point of view; there’s Little Red Riding Hood retelling her encounter with the wolf, who is a sexual predator; there’s the Princess and the Pea, but instead of the princess, it’s a prince who’s a gay bachelor looking for his prince, as well as many others.

CM: How long did it take you to write it?

PB: The part with Mama Inez and Toby is about 10 years old. I did it when I was working on my MFA at Vermont College. It came from this dream I had—this is going to sound so stupid—of a market where everyone was buying things under the moon. I wrote up the dream as a picture book, and I read it to my MFA group. They said it was really cool, but it wouldn’t work as a picture book because it’s too visual; there’s nothing left for the artist to do. HarperCollins was having an open submission and they asked people from my writing program to submit novels. I sent them a novel, they said they didn’t like it and asked if I had anything else. Then I said, “Well I have this Cinderella story,” and that was really the beginning. I had all of these little tweaked fairy-tale stories written, and then I thought of the market idea as a connector to tie the whole thing together.

CM: How do you think your life has shaped this book?

PB: I think my occupation as a Young Adult librarian has helped this book just because I read so much YA literature. I think reading widely in that area and just working with YA literature makes you see different tropes and ideas other authors use. Also, this book is very nature-centered, and that’s really important to me. It’s the only place I really start to breathe—if I go away some place and am in nature. The moon is in the book a lot, the sun, the stars. Even the idea of a market, the open air, and the concept of changing trade goods and articles made by hand is very nature-inspired.

CM: Explain to me how you wrote this book. Did you take notes before writing? Did you write in Starbucks?

PB: [laughs] I don’t do Starbucks. Because of work, I’ve managed to get one day a week off, so that’s when I write. This book was easier to write in some respects because it is many short pieces grouped together. I was able to work on each piece individually and then put in the connectors. Generally I start at the beginning of the book and move towards the end. I didn’t take notes before writing. I’m not particularly good at that!

CM: Are you working on anything right now? Do you expect more novels in the future?

PB: I’m working on a book about a group of puppeteers who act as an underground theater troupe going around the city and performing politically-based plays. They’re in the midst of putting on a production when a problematic character from the artistic director’s past appears. The book is really getting there; it’s basically all written, but right now it’s in the revision process. If the revision process goes well, the book should hit the shelves a year or so from this summer.

CM: What would be the one thing you would want readers to take away from reading Serendipity Market?

PB: There’s this whole disconnect now between people. People are saying, “I live in this virtual community. I live on Facebook,” but you never really talk to anybody anymore. I would like people to see that if you get together and meet people face-to-face you can actually have a conversation. Fantasy works best when it tells the truth of what’s going on in the world but tells it on a slant. And that’s exactly what Serendipity Market is about: Our society is splintering, and the way to really bring it back together is to meet people and join together.

CM: Any words of advice for aspiring authors?

PB: Writing takes a really long time, and it’s a really hard thing to break into. It’s hard to get an agent. Once you get an agent, things smooth out a bit. My word of advice would be when your working on the first book, you just have to write. As long as you’re writing something, and you’re writing is good, you’ll eventually get picked up. But that being said, the perseverance is really rough. You can’t really set a timetable with writing. You just have to plow through and keep your fingers crossed.