The idea of the Hero’s Journey often involves transformation. Whether involving a trip to the phone booth, slipping behind a hinged bookcase, or sliding down a pole into a cave, the journey involves a pendulum like transformation of persona. Kendra Levin, executive editor at Viking Children’s Books by day, has not only studied the Hero’s Journey in the context of the creative writing process, she has dramatically put it into practice. Yes, when she leaves her office at Penguin at the end of the day, Kendra transforms into a professional Life Coach. Not satisfied with that simple proof of concept, intent in fact on being as existential as possible, Kendra took matters even further by writing a book on using the Hero’s Journey to write books, The Hero Is You: Sharpen Your Focus, Conquer Your Demons, and Become the Writer You Were Born to Be.
These are deep waters, clearly. Furthermore, Kendra is the editor of some personal and store favorite authors, such as Curtis Jobling and Kersten Hamilton, and it seemed a pressing matter to find out more about her heroic journey.
Kenny: It is easy to see that epic fantasy narratives mirror the narrative of their creation. For example, Frodo’s quest to put the ring in the fire mirrored Tolkien’s quest to narrate it. Is this principle equally true of all genres?
Kendra: I see a lot of parallels between the Hero’s Journey narrative and the writing process, which is why I used it as a framework for helping writers cultivate a healthier, happier creative process in my book The Hero Is You. Nearly every story, across cultures, eras, and genres, contains some element of the Hero’s Journey, whether in an overt way, like the story of a little guy with hairy feet on a quest to save his world, or in a subtler way. And nearly every writer goes through ups and downs, moments of defeat and moments of breakthrough, while crafting a piece of work, much like a hero on a journey.
Kenny: Let’s think about picture book narratives for a moment. We’ll use Kersten Hamilton’s Red Truck. It is clear that “the hero of a rainy day is… Red Truck.” How does Red Truck’s heroism fit into the hero’s and the writer’s journey?
Kendra: Picture books can be great examples of the Hero’s Journey because their authors are forced to distill the narrative arc down to its essence. What I love about Red Truck and its companion books, Yellow Copter and Blue Boat, and what I think makes kids want to read them again and again, are the moments of doubt. It’s not a given that Red Truck will save the day; we see the challenges and the struggles along the way. We see how motivated Red Truck is to help the children whose school bus is stuck in the mud. We want Red Truck to succeed, and when it does, we feel happy and relieved. The writing process is full of those moments of doubt, but it’s full of that motivation, too. If you want to accomplish your goals badly enough, the motivation will carry you through the doubt to that joy and relief waiting on the other side.
Kenny: In your introduction you write movingly of a crisis in your writing life in which after a dynamic period of creative production you “quit writing and spent several years cut off from being creative.” Did working through that crisis ultimate add dimension to the many aspects of writing that you have ultimately developed and are involved with?
Kendra: So often, the work in life that most inspires and engages us comes out of some challenge or pain we went through in the past. The greatest gift that experience gave me was empathy for other writers and how difficult the process can be. Without that empathy, I don’t know if I would’ve been moved to become a life coach for writers, and I’d probably be a very different kind of editor as well. And I certainly wouldn’t have written The Hero Is You.
Kenny: What book or books of fiction do you feel most embody the principles of the hero’s journey in an instructive way for writers?
Kendra: I think it benefits every writer to read, in addition to what’s current and popular, the early stories of history: folktales, fables, fairytales, and other ancient stories from all over the world. Make sure you don’t just know the ones that have been made into Disney movies; read tales from as many cultures as you can, to see what themes are universal and discover what makes each culture’s style and subject matter distinctive.
Kenny: You write many times about the importance of “building your world.” What is your favorite fictional world for spending time in?
Kendra: As an editor, I spend a lot of time in the fictional worlds of books I’m working on. Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox, and The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry are three recent novels I edited that have particularly immersive worlds: a fantasy Sultanate that’s Middle-East-meets-Wild-West, the fog-shrouded Scottish Highlands during World War II, and a rustic seaside village in medieval France. Outside of work, the last book I read for pleasure was The Secret Garden while I was sick in bed. In the year 2016, it’s a pretty problematic book in a lot of ways, but I loved the vivid descriptions of the moors covered in heather and the lush garden full of wild roses; it definitely cheered me up to spend time there when I wasn’t feeling well.
Kenny: Thanks, Kendra!
Kendra: Thank YOU, Kenny!