Author Spotlight: Carolyn Tara O'Neil
|© Elishia Merricks|
Feb. 18, 2022
We are thrilled to feature Carolyn Tara O'Neil and her debut YA historical thriller, Daughters of a Dead Empire (Roaring Brook Press), out on Feb. 22. Enter to win a copy!
|Book designer: Aurora Parlagreco. Cover artist: Aitch|
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for teens.
Hi! I’m a YA historical fiction author whose debut novel comes out on February 22nd. I love reading and writing YA. The teenage years are a time when you start figuring out who you are in relation to the world around you – how things work and why. That makes it the ideal setting for stories about social justice and revolution. Those themes, and the way teen characters grow and discover themselves along the way, keep bringing me back again and again.
Congrats on your debut young adult novel, Daughters of a Dead Empire! Tell us about the story & what inspired you.
Thank you! It’s a YA historical thriller that reimagines the Anastasia legend. Set during the Russian Revolution, it follows Anastasia as she’s fleeing the Romanov family executioner. Her POV alternates with that of a peasant communist girl, Evgenia, who ends up accidentally rescuing her and winds up on the run, too.
I’ve loved the Anastasia legend for as long as I can remember – I definitely spent middle school memorizing all of the songs from the Disney movie – but it was a love of Russian history that truly drew me into this story. I wanted to explore the turbulent time period, in the midst of WWI when the “age of empires” was coming to an end. There are so many parallels to our world today – steep income inequality, increasing repression, deep political divides. The history was just fascinating, and the legend of Anastasia allowed me to play with it in an exciting, accessible way.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
I’d say it was a little of both. This was the first manuscript I ever queried…. But I went through two attempts of querying, each a year apart, before I finally found my agent. That was back in 2018. We sold pretty quickly, but with everything happening in the world the past couple of years, and with the general pace of publishing, it took a long time to bring the book to market. I’m so glad it’s finally here!
What projects are you working on?
Writing for me is my secret garden – a space for me to enjoy stories all by myself until they’re ready to share with my critique partners. I find that keeping it private helps my stories flourish. But I’m always working on something! ;-)
Do you have any advice for other authors writing historical fiction? Any good research tips?
My advice isn’t prescriptive, but it’s something that worked for me: immerse yourself in the world of your time period before you ever start writing. Read as much as you can get your hands on in terms of interesting popular or academic nonfiction about the period. Read contemporary fiction from the era, if you can, or other accounts set during the time period if it’s too far back. If possible, visit the area, watch movies, listen to music, enjoy the art. Then start writing.
I did something like this for Daughters, and I found that I internalized a lot of the history even if I forgot about researching it. So I’d make things up – like a family nickname for Anastasia, or a military leader’s intense stare – that would later turn out to be true. I still had to go back and check every tiny detail of the story, and run it by authenticity readers and historians, but none of that slowed me down once I got to the actual writing. I had enough of a basic understanding of the time period to shape the world as I drafted.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
Outside of writing, I work with a fantastic nonprofit called Generation Citizen. We bring Action Civics programming to public schools around the country – teaching young people about government by having them carry out advocacy campaigns on issues they’re passionate about. It’s work that feels super important right now, and it definitely impacted the way I wrote Evgenia and Anna. They’re two teen girls who engage passionately in debates about their government and what it should look like, just like teenagers do today.
Where can people find you online?
Carolyn Tara O’Neil grew up in a tiny New York City apartment filled with thousands of books. Every Friday she went to the public library for even more reading material. She now lives in a slightly smaller NYC apartment with slightly fewer books, and still goes to the library every week. Carolyn has dedicated her career to the education and rights of young people. She loves to travel, study languages, and spend endless hours discussing TV, books, great hiking trails, and how we can work together to build a more equal society.
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