Interview with Joni Sensel

Please welcome Joni Sensel, author of The Humming of Numbers and other books for kids and young adults.

1. Hello, Joni. Welcome and thank you for taking the time to stop by Damsels in Regress to talk with us.  Your work before The Humming of Numbers included picture books and a contemporary middle-grade novel.  What drew you to writing a historical fantasy?

I’ve always been interested in medieval life and society, and I’ve never thought I fit very well in contemporary times. So I think my stories with medieval settings are basically an impulse to have the best of a simpler era, while fixing some of the drawbacks (like the treatment of women and the harshness of subsistence living). And that’s partly where the fantasy comes in!

2. What type of research did you do to write The Humming of Numbers? Were there any difficulties?

I had a foundation of information about the period and illumination from college classes, my own reading, and previous trips to the UK and Ireland. For targeted research, I read most everything I could get my hands on about early Christian Ireland, the early church there, and illumination, including some fiction set in the period; and I made some only modestly successful attempts to make contact with experts and academics on the topic. (The latter was my biggest difficulty; after knowing other writers who found great listservs or academics willing to share their info and even review drafts, I was disappointed by my inroads there.)

I’ll admit, though, that I wrote much of the first draft based on what I already knew before doing the bulk of my research. I don’t recommend that, but fortunately the revisions I had to make to correct misconceptions (including some bad information in early research) were relatively minor. And when the story is ready to be written, I’ve got to write it then, while it’s hot, or I’ll lose it. But I enjoyed the research and am still delighted to learn more about the era. One of my treasures is an old, out-of-print set of books that are considered the bible of Irish society and culture of the time — my one and only eBay purchase to date.

3. Your main character Aidan has the ability to hear, as your book jacket says, “the humming of numbers, a buzzing energy given off by living things.”  Could you tell us how you developed this magical characteristic?

I’ve always been intrigued by synesthesia (in which people’s sensory perceptions get crossed so that they feel the texture of tastes or hear colors, for instance) and sometimes fancied I had it. Aidan’s abilities are really only a version of that real phenomenon, modified by my interest in theoretical physics, which adds the math element. (I was a physics major before switching to English.)

4. I love the fact that you used two different fantasy elements in this story: Aidan’s ability and Lana’s witchery.  Did that develop naturally as you wrote or did you deliberately look for something that would make Lana even more dangerous for Aidan to be around?

I didn’t initially envision Lana as a witch of any kind. But I wanted a female character who could balance Aidan in personality strength and “apartness” from others, with a strong measure of self-reliance. Given the setting and period, that seemed like a fun way to do it without going very far into fantasy (if at all, which is a discussion that would take another whole blog post!).

5. On a different note, could you tell us a bit about your path to publication?

I wrote screenplays with minor success for more than 10 years before switching to books. When I became interested in children’s books, I applied for and won a grant to self-publish two environmentally themed picture books and created Dream Factory Books to do it. I learned tons about the business from that experience, and one of the books earned an honor from the ASPCA. Then I rewrote one of my screenplays into the novel that became Reality Leak and sold it through the slush. Humming was my second (and unagented) sale to Holt, though I drafted my third and fourth published books before writing it.

6. Could you tell us about your newest novel, The Farwalker’s Quest?

Farwalker's Quest bigThe Farwalker’s Quest is not historical, but it’s a post-apocalyptic, post-technology fantasy, so the setting has a medieval flavor. And like Aidan, some of the characters have extrasensory perceptions and skills. Twelve-year-old Ariel doesn’t think she has such talents, but then she finds an old relic stuck in a tree branch. It turns out her discovery is no accident — and she’s kidnapped because of it. Soon she and her best friend, Zeke, are both swept along on a dangerous adventure that will reveal both their destinies.

7. What are you working on now?

I’m revising what will be the third book in the Farwalker trilogy, if I can convince Bloomsbury to publish it, as well as a YA horror set in Africa and a quirky middle-grade mystery. I have another mid-revision manuscript set partly in Depression-era Montana. If I ever get to work on something new again, one of the candidates rattling around in my head is another story set in early Ireland.

8. And finally, when you were a teenager, what type of books did you read?  Did you have a favorite or one that made a great impact on you?

I read just about anything as a teen, though I don’t remember much historical fiction other than The Witch of Blackbird Pond, probably because I didn’t discover how fascinating history could be until college. When I had read Every Horse Book Ever Written several times, I spent the most time with adult science fiction and fantasy. Biggest influences: Dr. Seuss, then Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, and Tolkien. I can probably count the official “young adult” books I read as a teen on one hand. Or two, anyway. Of course, the category was smaller back in those days! I try to recommend Rosemary Sutcliff to anyone who will listen, but particularly those with an interest in historical fiction.

Thanks so much for visiting with us!

My pleasure; thanks for the chat!

For more information on Joni and her books, visit her website:


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