Erin Bow doesn’t really enjoy being in the spotlight. When we met in early August at her home in Kitchener, Ontario, she was already feeling anxious about the promotional rush for the October release of her second YA fantasy novel, Sorrow’s Knot. She was preparing guest blog posts and scheduling media interviews while juggling her roles as mom to two young daughters and wife (she’s married to author James Bow), as well as a part-time writing gig at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics – a job that combines her degree in physics, work experience at Switzerland’s CERN particle accelerator, and love of writing that eventually drew the budding physicist away from graduate research.
For Bow, who started her professional writing career as a poet (publishing two collections and a non-fiction title under the name Erin Noteboom with Wolsak and Wynn), the attention she’s received since the release of her YA debut, 2010’s Plain Kate, is astounding.
Even now, more than five years after Scholastic imprint Arthur A. Levine Books picked up Plain Kate in a two-book, six-figure deal, Bow still can’t fathom how the novel, about an orphan who flees a witch hunt only to face powerful dark magic on her travels, became such a hit. “I can conservatively say that a Major League Baseball stadium full of people have read my book about this quiet little girl whom no one likes,” she marvels. “That’s just weird.”
It might seem strange to Bow, but those who have read the novel are hardly surprised. When it won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award in 2011, the jury called Plain Kate a book “to be read for generations.” Denise Anderson, director of marketing and publicity at Scholastic Canada, says that Plain Kate is the company’s strongest debut in Canada, with 50,000 copies now in print in North America. (Scholastic declined to provide sales figures for the title.)
Given the astounding precedent set by Plain Kate, it is fair to say that expectations are running high for Bow’s follow-up, which will launch with an impressive 25,000-copy print run. Sorrow’s Knot follows a girl named Otter and her friends, Kestrel and Cricket, from their carefree “sunflower years” into adulthood in a rigid matriarchal society in the village of Westmost. The villagers live in fear of wraithlike creatures that hunt in the surrounding forest. The only forms of protection against the spirits are magical wards and spells crafted from intricate configurations of knotted string, which “bind” the souls of the dead and prevent them from returning to feed on the living.
One of Bow’s strengths is her ability to create fantastical settings that feel lived in. The key to crafting them, she says, is in thoughtful details: “The fantasy world needs a mythology, an ecology, and an economy. People need to have a place to live, something to eat, and they need to have stories that they tell when the lights go out. Lots of fantasy leaves out at least one of those things.”
For a long time, Bow struggled to find the right setting for Sorrow’s Knot. All she had were stray ideas: an image of a girl holding up outstretched hands, her fingers wrapped with cord in a classic cat’s-cradle pose; a character, named Otter, who had inherited from her mother the power to bind the souls of the dead. The novel languished in “generic fantasy land” for more than five years, until a trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota finally gave Bow the backdrop for Otter’s story. “You go there and you can feel it. It’s a luminous, strange, powerful place. The light is different. The way the air smells is different. The way the shadows fall is all different than what you’re used to,” she explains. It followed that the Lakota, who have long considered the Black Hills sacred, would become a model for her invented society.
That inspiration is present from the mythic opening line of Sorrow’s Knot – “The girl who remade the world was born in winter” – and carries through in Bow’s phrasing, which calls to mind typical indigenous images but avoids overused tropes: time passes in “drumbeats,” a creature measures “an arrow tall,” a character is overtaken by anger “like sap rising in the spring.”
Because of the intricate detail of her imaginary worlds, Bow’s novels have been labelled “high fantasy.” The author isn’t comfortable with the hierarchy the term implies – that some books are of inherently greater value. “It’s not like taking vitamins. You don’t have to read what’s good for you, and you don’t have to be ashamed about what you read,” she says. But while adults can be quick to praise an edgy new YA novel without paying much heed to its reception among young readers, in the case of Bow’s writing, kids appear equally smitten.
Joshua Ezekiel, a programmer with the Waterloo Public Library, found this to be the case when he read a portion of Plain Kate to roughly 50 kids in Grades 5 and 6. “I closed the book and I said with a flourish, ‘And that’s the first chapter of Plain Kate.’ I swear, you could hear a pin drop in the room. And then it was just a chorus of kids going, ‘Whoa!’” he recalls.
Ezekiel partially attributes the novel’s popularity with young readers to Bow’s treatment of Kate as a complex and dynamic person – not just a kid. They also respond to the author’s evident craft in shaping a timeless story that rises above the latest fads.
“Chasing trends is a fool’s game,” Bow says. “I write books that I’d like to read.” That means stories that are imaginative and creepy, but not explicit in their depictions of violence and sex, which she finds “boring.” Even with her relative restraint, she’s uncomfortable knowing that very young readers pick up Plain Kate, in which a woman is drowned, the young protagonist is orphaned, and blood magic is performed.
Such darkness is not uncommon in YA, but there is something about Bow’s treatment of it that draws readers in. “In some YA books, the language can be a bit simple,” says Ezekiel. Bow’s writing, he counters, is “poetic, but it’s not dense, especially considering how emotional and dark [it] can be.”
Perhaps readers also sense that the emotion comes from a place of truth. Bow says writing the books allowed her the time and space to grieve the loss of her younger sister, Wendy Ewell, who drowned in 2005. “I wrote the first draft of Plain Kate, about this guy who loses his sister to violence and drowning, before I lost my sister to violence and drowning. Isn’t that strange?” muses Bow. “A coincidence, yes, but sometimes I ask myself if you write the stuff you’re going to need.”
Whatever Bow takes from her writing, one thing readers recognize is her skill. “She never falls off pitch,” says veteran New York publisher Arthur Levine, adding that it is “the mark of a truly brilliant writer.” With the release of Sorrow’s Knot, a novel Levine says builds tension “word by word and phrase by phrase until you’re at the edge of your seat,” he’s more convinced than ever of her talent.
If Levine and Bow’s many fans have it their way, she won’t be stepping out of the spotlight anytime soon.