The magic of Mira Bartók

  • At top, one of the illustrations that Mira Bartók, who first trained as a visual artist, made for her novel. Above, the cover of the first of two books in Bartók’s fantasy series.

  • Bartók’s award-winning mem-oir “The Memory Palace” recounts how her mother’s severe mental illness impacted her life.

  • “The Wonderling” is the first of two books in Mira Bartók’s fantasy series. —

  • New Salem author Mira Bartók, who won a 2012 National Books Critics Circle Award for autobiography, has turned to fiction for young readers in her new book. Photo courtesy of Candlewick Press

Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2017

Memoirs can be a hot literary ticket. Consider Mary Karr, who wrote the 1995 bestseller “The Liars’ Club” about her childhood in east Texas, then went onto write two other well-received memoirs of her later life.

Closer to home, Valley writer Mira Bartók won much praise for her bestselling 2011 memoir, “The Memory Palace”; her book won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.

But when Bartók’s publisher asked for a sequel, and she tried to write a new book of nonfiction, she found herself drawn instead to fiction. A particular kind of fiction, too — a story about half-human, half-animal creatures who live in a place that recalls Victorian England, though one with subterranean cities and flying, steam-powered bicycles, among other things.

That’s the world of “The Wonderling,” Bartók’s newest book, a middle-grade fantasy story that inspired a real-life subplot which itself reads almost like fantasy: Movie rights to the book, by Candlewick Press of Somerville, were sold to Fox 2000 Pictures (reportedly for seven figures) before Bartók had even written more than a quarter of the novel.

“It’s just crazy,” Bartók, 58, said during a recent call to her home in New Salem. “It’s one of those publishing stories you hear about occasionally and you think ‘There’s no way this could be happening to me.’ ”

But in her case, it is happening, and British director and producer Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot, “The Hours,” “The Reader,” and many other films and plays) is heading the project.

More immediately, “The Wonderling,” for which Bartók has also done all the illustrations, makes its debut next week. The author will read from the novel and sign copies on Saturday, Sept. 30 at 4 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.

At its heart, “The Wonderling” is a Dickensian story — with a particular nod to “Oliver Twist” — about a down-and-out young “groundling,” known only as Number 13, who is part fox, part human, and has just one ear. He and other groundlings, who come in a whole range of animal mixes, live in a grim workhouse and orphanage under the tyrannical rule of the evil Miss Carbunkle.

Number 13, who’s bullied by some of the bigger groundlings at this “Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures,” can recall only the faintest memories of his past. But with the help of a new friend, a birdlike creature named Trinket who gives him a name — Arthur, after the Sir Arthur of legend — he escapes from the orphanage and seeks his destiny in the city of Lumentown, where a select group of wealthy humans rules the roost and groundlings face much prejudice.

In the end, the book works as an adventure story, an examination of prejudice and class struggle, and a study of the importance of friendship and compassion — the understanding that even the most seemingly hateful characters may have a backstory that explains how they came to be the way they are.

“One of the biggest challenges of writing fiction,” Bartók said, “is understanding the cause and effect of past actions.” 

For a tale that mixes elements of Victorian England, steampunk motifs like the flying bicycles, and other magical elements, Bartók drew on a wide range of influences: Charles Dickens, certainly, but also histories of London and England, folktales from different nations, the Harry Potter stories, graphic novels and the work of George MacDonald, a 19th-century Scottish poet and fantasy writer.

Bartók has also written a series of books on ancient and indigenous cultures for children that have been used in schools, and she drew on that work in a more general way for her novel. 

“My influences come from all over,” said Bartók, a Midwest native who moved to Northampton about 20 years ago before settling in New Salem, where she lives with her husband, Doug Plavin, a drummer and music producer.

“I read a lot of poetry, and that works its way in as well,” she added. “And I’ve always been fascinated by folktales and myths.”

Readers of “The Memory Palace” might also see a trace of autobiography in Bartók’s novel, given the adversity she has had to overcome herself. Her memoir recounts an often harrowing story of how she and her sister grew up living with their sometimes violent mother, who had been a brilliant pianist as a teenager until her life was destroyed by schizophrenia.

Bartók has also struggled for years with the effects, such as memory loss, of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), ever since a truck hit her stopped car on a New York highway in 1999. She has gone through lean periods financially when she couldn’t work (she had to go on disability), which makes the new cushion from her book and movie deal all the more rewarding.

“Things are definitely more comfortable today,” she said with a laugh.

From pictures to prose

Among the influences for “The Wonderling” were Bartók’s own drawings. She explains that she trained and worked as a visual artist for years before she publicly revealed any of her writing: “For a long time I thought of myself as an artist who writes,” she says.

About five years ago, she and Hatfield children’s author Jane Yolen, a good friend, discussed possible book projects that Yolen would write and Bartók illustrate. For various reasons, those plans didn’t work out. But Bartók recalls that a couple of the initial drawings she did for the project — of odd, animal-like creatures — seemed to speak to her on their own.

“I said to myself, ‘These are characters, and I need to find out what their story is,’ ” she said.

With the blessing of her literary agent, Jennifer Gates, she ditched her nonfiction book, developed more illustrations, and wrote the first several chapters of “The Wonderling.”

In 2015, Gates began shopping some of those early pages to book publishers. By coincidence, two agents from the Hollywood company Creative Artists Agency (CAA) were in Gates’ office at that time to meet with someone else. They overheard Gates talking about Bartók’s book-in-progress (called a “partial”), asked to see the work, and liked it enough to send it to a list of movie directors and producers to gauge their interest.

In no time, said Bartók with a disbelieving laugh, “We were in the middle of a bidding war between Fox and Universal.” That contest also upped the ante for the book when it came to shopping it to publishers, she noted.

She’s very happy she chose to work with Candlewick, both for the company’s interest in having her do the illustrations (though that made for much additional work for her) and for their design work on the novel. “It looks just the way I imagined it would,” she said. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”

And Bartók’s not done. After she completes a book tour this fall for “The Wonderling,” she’ll begin work on a sequel, one that will delve more deeply into the history of groundlings and offer further adventures of Arthur, Trinket and their friends.

She says she couldn’t have done all this without the support and encouragement of many people: Yolen, who drove her around the Scottish countryside (where she has a second home) and told her of its history, which inspired ideas for her sequel; friends who loaned her money so that she could work on the first novel; and people in her writing group in Amherst, as well as her husband, who read earlier drafts.

“No one writes a book alone,” she said. “I’m a perfect example of that.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Mira Bartók reads from “The Wonderling” Sept. 30 at 4 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. Her website is mirabartok.com.