When Grump author Liesl Shurtliff thinks of the books that have meant the most to her in her life, she always goes back to those she read as a child.
“Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, just to name a few favorite authors. Their books marked me in ways that don’t compare with books I read as an adult, or even a teen,” Liesl told Cracking the Cover.
That’s not to say the author hasn’t read some amazing YA and adult books, but she says, “there’s something magical about a first book-love, that one that got you hooked on reading. It usually happens in that 8-12 middle-grade age range. It did for me, and it’s always been my hope to write books that could be a kid’s ‘gateway book’ to a reading life. It’s a challenge, a privilege, and a responsibility. It’s also wonderful fun!”
Readers may already know Liesl from her previous Fairly True Tales series including, Rump, Jack and Red. Her latest book, Grump, stars the grumpy dwarf who gets tangled up in Snow White’s feud with the wicked queen.
Even though Liesl had already written three books in the series, Grump took her completely by surprise. “I had always assumed Red would be the last of my fairytales, but about halfway through Red I introduced a surly dwarf who in the course of conversation calls Snow White a spoiled brat,” the author said. “That line caught me off guard, but it stuck with me and I started to wonder what the Snow White tale would look like from a dwarf’s point of view.”
Grump was not much more than an idea for a while. He’s introduced in Red, but beyond learning that he lives underground and eats rocks and that his beard is magic, not much about him is revealed.
“Figuring out what he truly wanted, and how that would drive the story forward, using all the events that happen in the Snow White tale, was kind of a mind-bender,” Liesl said. “I had to chip away at it, little by little.”
And while Liesl was chipping away at Grump’s character, she was working on another “mind-bender.” Liesl’s seven dwarves aren’t all male. That’s right, she decided to mix things up by turning to the source material.
“If you look closely at the Grimms’ version of Snow White there’s actually no solid evidence that all the dwarves are male,” Liesl said. “They don’t have names and are either referred to as ‘first, second, third’ etc. or as a collective ‘they.’ Only two dwarves are specifically referred to with male pronouns, so I find it interesting that we assume they’re all male, probably because they’re miners, and that’s typically work performed by men, and once Disney came out with their version of seven ‘little men’ it was stuck in our brains. So here’s to breaking the mold! I love to shake things up a bit.”
Before Liesl became a writer, she wanted to be a performer, studying music and dance theater at Brigham Young University in Utah. Though that didn’t work out, Liesl says what she learned during that time directly translates to her writing.
Liesl’s college acting classes focused on working on character arc and objective, and that’s something Liesl thinks a lot about as she develops her own characters.
“I’m constantly asking ‘What does my character truly want?’ I ask this of every character, both for the overall story and any given scene. If it isn’t specific, then my story is aimless. If it’s specific, but weak, then my story is meh. If I know what one character wants, but not another, then my story is lopsided. Everything circles back to character objective, and that’s something that my acting professors and coaches drilled into my head on a daily basis.
“I also think the shows I studied and performed have influenced my writing style and voice. I did mostly musical theatre, and I think there’s a kind of cheesy-fluffy musical theatre quality to my books, but with a fair amount of depth and emotion in the mix.”
Liesl is currently working on a time-travel adventure trilogy. The first book, Time Castaways: The Mona Lisa Key will release Sept. 18 from Katherine Tegen/Harper Collins. It’s middle-grade fantasy, but a break from fairytales, which Liesl says she could definitely write more of but doesn’t have any concrete plans at the moment.