By fair means or foul, Violet Yorke had to get to Grandmother Olivia’s. Under a threatening gray sky, she stood at the Manhattan street corner, frantically waving at motorcars and horse-drawn buggies, but they all passed by her without a second glance. Wasn’t it against the law not to stop? If it wasn’t, it should be. Compared to this indignity, slipping out of the hospital had been a breeze. She’d simply waited until the morning shift changed and blended in with the departing visitors. Not that anyone would care she’d gone.
Dispirited, she trudged down the cobblestone street, taking care not to step into piles of fresh horse dung. The drivers probably thought she was a street urchin in her ill-fitting threadbare coat that barely skimmed her knees, and even worse, no hat. No self-respecting lady went out in public without her hat. Fuddy-duddy Great-Aunt Florence wouldn’t have approved. And she certainly wouldn’t have approved of Violet roaming about unaccompanied. But this wasn’t the time for social niceties. Violet wasn’t in London under the watchful eye of a battalion of bat-faced maids.
Violet loved the freedom but not the weather. For early April it felt more like February, a cold that chilled to the bone. It had been equally blustery when she’d boarded Titanic at Southampton, the docks swarming with well-wishers. What had Florence said? That everyone would remember Titanic for years to come, and that Violet was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. Violet thought it was a bit premature to make such a declaration, as it was only 1912, and who knew what else might happen? As it turned out, Florence had been right – but not in the way she’d intended.”
PJ McIlvaine is a prolific author/screenwriter/writer/journalist.
PJ is the author of the AmazonUS best-selling VIOLET YORKE, GILDED GIRL: GHOSTS IN THE CLOSET (April 2022, Darkstroke Books), her debut middle-grade supernatural historical mystery adventure about a sassy poor little rich girl/Titanic survivor who sees ghosts in 1912 Manhattan.
PJ’s debut picture book LITTLE LENA AND THE BIG TABLE (May 2019, Big Belly Book Co.), with illustrations by Leila Nabih, is about a determined little girl tired of eating with her annoying cousins at the kid’s table, only to discover that the grown-up big table isn’t much better. Her second published picture book, DRAGON ROAR (October 2021, MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing), illustrations by Logan Rogers), is about a lonely, sick dragon who has lost his mighty roar and the brave village girl who helps him find it again. PJ is also under contract with Oghma Creative Media for a series of Creature Feature picture books (2023-2024) and with Orange Blossom Books for her debut Young Adult alternate history adventure THE CONUNDRUM OF CHARLEMAGNE CROSSE set in Victorian London (Fall 2023).
PJ is also a co-host and founding member of #PBPitch, the premiere Twitter pitch party for picture book creators.
PJ has been published in numerous outlets including The New York Times and Newsday. PJ also does features and interviews for The Children’s Book Insider newsletter.
Also, PJ’s critically acclaimed Showtime original family movie MY HORRIBLE YEAR with Mimi Rogers, Karen Allen, and Eric Stoltz, was nominated for a Daytime Emmy.
PJ lives in Eastern Long Island with her family along with Luna, an extremely spoiled French Bulldog, and Sasha the Psycho Cat.
Can you, for those who don’t know you already, tell me something about yourself and how you became an author?
I’m an extremely prolific, writing in multiple genres from kid lit to adult to Amazon wish lists. I knew I always wanted to write novels, but it wasn’t until my mother passed away that I returned to my first love–prose–after devoting many years to screenwriting. I still have a couple of original screenplays in me, but right now, I’m loving what I’m doing, feeling passionate about what I’m writing, and manifesting good things with a little help from the universe.
What is something unique/quirky about you?
I hate mint, mint anything. I have a thing about toilet paper. I buy in bulk and always carry a roll in the car for emergencies. I don’t eat out.
Tell us something really interesting that’s happened to you!
Back in June, I won a sweepstake to go to a movie premiere in New York City, two nights at the Plaza Hotel, all expenses paid. At first, I thought it was a scam, but it turned out to be real! My husband and I had a great time and it taught me a valuable lesson: not everything you click on social media is fake or bogus.
What are some of your pet peeves?
Slow drivers, hot soda, loud fireworks at midnight, whining, bad puns, people who don’t pick up their dog’s poop, and overbaked brownies.
Where were you born/grew up at?
I was born in Elmhurst, Queens, NY, but grew up in Lake Ronkonkoma, NY. It was considered the boonies back then. No car, no malls, no internet, no cell phones, no computers. How did we survive?
If you knew you’d die tomorrow, how would you spend your last day?
With my family at the beach eating gooey pizza and sipping an ultra-thick chocolate milkshake while listening to John Hyatt, Steve Earle, CSNY, Springsteen, and hits of the 60s.
Who is your hero and why?
Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. He knew right from wrong and wasn’t afraid to speak up. He embodied what a good father and citizen should be. We need more Atticus’ in the world.
What kind of world ruler would you be?
Kind but firm with no zero tolerance for fools.
What are you passionate about these days?
My writing and my family. I still get worked up about politics and such, but it’s hazardous to my health, so I try to limit my anger to a manageable level.
What do you do to unwind and relax?
I watch old movies and gritty international mysteries and thrillers. I’m a sucker for Nordic noir.
How to find time to write as a parent?
I’m a grandparent now, but I’ve learned that you make the time. I wouldn’t be as prolific as I am if I didn’t. I write every day, even if it’s only a sentence or a paragraph. Is it hard? Of course. But it’s also being disciplined and highly motivated. If you can find time to brush your teeth twice a day, you can write something.
Describe yourself in 5 words or less!
Passionate, determined, stubborn, headstrong, positive, optimistic, loyal. Okay, that’s seven words.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Since I was a small child. I used to write comic books and neighborhood newspapers with my brother. I may have toyed with different careers when I was younger, but writing has always been my first love and passion.
Do you have a favorite movie?
If I’m honest, too many to name, BUT–in comedy, hands down. IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD. I have to watch that movie at least once a year and it still cracks me up.
Which of your novels can you imagine made into a movie?
#SeaweedGirl, my middle-grade eco-mystery fantasy, would make a great family movie. It’s got it all: a messy family, an unreliable narrator, secrets and mysteries galore, and a new take on merfolk.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
What inspired you to write this book?
I combined my love for several different things in this book: the Gilded Age, history, poor little rich girls, New York City, murder, Titanic, secrets, haunted houses, tragic love, ghosts, and a ton of mysteries. This is the book I would’ve loved to read as a kid.
What can we expect from you in the future?
More writing! More mayhem! And more murder most foul!
Do you have any “side stories” about the characters?
They all have “side stories”. For example, “Cousin” Bertie is a charming rogue, but despite his handsome, brash exterior, he’s really a lost soul trying to find his way in a rigid world.
Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in Violet Yorke?
Well, the main character–Violet Yorke–is a poor little rich girl who was orphaned as a toddler when her wealthy parents were killed in a “random” robbery gone wrong. Of course, there’s more to the story, and Violet is determined to discover the truth. After a mysterious fire in her bedroom nearly kills her, her Grandmother sends her away to England for her own protection. Another aspect is that Violet can see “ghosts” although this is dismissed as some kind of childhood affectation. In the book’s opening pages, she’s survived Titanic and is on her way to her grandmother’s house and inadvertently crashes her own funeral, since Violet was presumed lost at sea.
Another great character in the book is Hugo Hewitt, Violet’s devoted Godfather. A widower, Hewitt is one of the city’s most eligible bachelors, but he carries the weight of the world on his broad shoulders.
How did you come up with the concept and characters for the book?
I wish I knew. It just comes to me in a flash–I see it like a movie–and replay it over and over in my mind until I’m about ready to burst. That’s when I know I have a keeper.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
The research. I could spend hours Googling. I love researching as much as the actual writing. Of course, you have to be careful that you don’t go overboard and let the research or facts get in the way of telling a good story. In other words, make stuff up.
Tell us about your main characters- what makes them tick?
Common themes: they are all determined, they stick up for what they believe in rightly or wrongly, and they’re ready and willing to fight for a higher purpose or cause, even if they end up losing.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
If I had a do-over, I would probably add more backstory about Titanic and expand other characters, but I wanted to keep the book under a certain word count so you have to be ready to kill your darlings. But all that is material I hope to revisit and explore in subsequent Violet Yorke books if I’m so lucky. We shall see.
Did you learn anything during the writing of Violet Yorke?
Yes! Thanks to my wonderful and patient editor, I learned how to use Track Changes in Word. Once I got the hang of it, it was easy and I kicked myself for not having used it before. I’ll never go back!
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Ooof. This is a hard one. A younger Millie Bobby Brown.
How did you come up with name of this book?
I always had Violet Yorke, Gilded Girl as the title, and the part about Ghosts in the Closet came later. It just seemed apropos.
What is your favorite part of this book and why?
Oh, I have so many, but one that sticks out for sure is the funeral scene. Also, the dog scene with the old fuddy-duddy society dowagers. And the climax in the academy.
Are your characters based off real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?
Entirely from my imagination, but inspired by real people. For example, Violet Yorke combines Gloria Vanderbilt and other poor little rich girls of the day. Some had rich, wonderful lives, others were tragic, lonely figures. Being wealthy and famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reigns of the story?
The characters can run amock if you don’t have a firm hand. The first draft, for sure, let them run wild, but in the rewrite phase, you have to cut back ruthlessly. Some characters who are supporting players demand their own book, but you have to keep them in line. It’s like herding cats at times.
Convince us why you feel your book is a must-read.
As I mentioned before, this book is everything I loved as a child: history, mystery, adventure, secrets, ghosts, unreliable narrators, haunted houses, and Titanic. If you love historical mash-ups blending the supernatural, fact, and fiction, this is the book for you. I had one reader say that if they had read a book like Violet when they were a kid, they would’ve done better in history.
Have you written any other books that are not published?
Yes, but working on getting them published. I also have a couple of trunk novels from way back that I plan to revisit one day.
If your book had a candle, what scent would it be?
What did you edit out of this book?
Oh, a lot of fascinating stuff about the Four Hundred and Caroline Astor, a subplot about Nanette’s secret life and her budding romance, among other things. It was great material but just not in this book; I’ll save that for the future. I also reworked the ending quite a bit from what it was originally.
Is there an writer which brain you would love to pick for advice? Who would that be and why?
Stephen King. I admire him greatly and would love to know how he keeps his writing fresh and original.
Fun Facts/Behind the Scenes/Did You Know?’-type tidbits about the author, the book or the writing process of the book.
I was once sued for 15 million dollars.
What book do you think everyone should read?
To Kill A Mockingbird.
How long have you been writing?
Too long and not long enough.
Do the characters all come to you at the same time or do some of them come to you as you write?
It depends. Some rush at me like a tornado, some are born in the heat of writing, and others reveal themselves slowly.
What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book?
It depends on the book. With Violet Yorke, I did extensive research into the Gilded Age, the culture of the time, politics, poor little rich girls, Manhattan, the Four Hundred, Titanic, etc. Other books, very little.
Do you see writing as a career?
It is my life, not my career. A career I can quit at any time and not look back, and I’ve done that. I could no more give up writing than cut off my arm.
What do you think about the current publishing market?
Slow as molasses, and just as sticky.
Do you read yourself and if so what is your favorite genre?
I read, but not as much as I used to. Honestly, the time I spend reading books is time I could spend on my own writing. It’s a tough balance.
Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why?
I’ve learned to write with kids screaming around me, so I can write with noise and without.
Do you write one book at a time or do you have several going at a time?
I have multiple books going at any time, but I do like to finish one project at a time. For example, right now I have three different adult thrillers as works in progress–an opening chapter, a synopsis, or even just a few pages–but I concentrate on one until I finish the first draft. That method works best for me.
If you could have been the author of any book ever written, which book would you choose?
Stranger in a Strange Land. It was way above my pay grade, but I loved it.
Pen or type writer or computer?
Tell us about a favorite character from a book.
Hmmm…Trixie Belden! She was my favorite teen detective. I don’t think she got as near enough acclaim as Nancy Drew.
What made you want to become an author and do you feel it was the right decision?
I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs…so yes, it was the right decision for me. Has it been easy? No. But no one said it would be.
A day in the life of the author?
Writing, procrastination, heartache…one day you’re high as a kite, the next day you’re a slug. High and lows punctuated by long stretches of silence. Things can come all at one and then not at all.
Do you have any advice to offer for new authors?
Patience, grasshopper. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Describe your writing style.
What style? It’s much easier writing when I’m in the “zone”. By this, I mean when the words are flowing like lava; it’s writing on auto-pilot. I wish I could be in the zone all the time, but the reality is, most of the time it’s wading through a bog. I persist even when I’m ready to junk it all.
What makes a good story?
If I knew that, I’d be Stephen King. But at its core, for me, a good story is a story that rings true to me and that I’m the only one who can tell it.
What is your writing process? For instance do you do an outline first? Do you do the chapters first?
Nope. I’m a panster all the way. Now I may write down a quick synopsis or a brief paragraph of the basic story, but outlines inhibit me. Everything is in my head. Little wonder I don’t have room for anything else!
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Comparing yourself to other writers. Or trying to write to the market. Write for yourself and keep your expectations low. Everyone wants to write a best seller out of the starting gate. The reality is, that the overnight success was years in the making.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
The movie Prometheus. My family knows that if they put that movie on, I come running.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
You have to do both, but do it in your own spin that makes readers want it too even if it wasn’t what they thought they wanted to begin with.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
That I should’ve returned to writing novels sooner than I did rather than sticking to one genre for too long.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
That depends on the book. My adult thriller suspense noir took me two months to bang out, 92,000 words. I burned my brain on that one. Violet Yorke took me roughly a year or so.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Not for me! When I hit an impasse, I take a break and do something else. I let my subconscious do the heavy lifting.
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