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Author Interview: June 2006

June 2006

Kirsten Miller is the creator of a new series about a group of girls who protect New York's secret underground world, the Shadow City.

In this interview with contributing writer Chris Shanley-Dillman, Miller discusses how she first became fascinated with the idea of life under the streets and explains where the names for her band of characters came from. She also defines her own conception of "girl power" and details some of her own adventures --- both real and imagined --- in unusual locations. Your first novel, KIKI STRIKE, is an amazing adventure. Where did the idea for this book come from? How did you go about creating the fascinating and intensely diverse characters?
Kirsten Miller: The idea for the book didn't come to me all at once. The Kiki Strike character was the first to arrive. I loved the idea of a young, female mastermind --- a girl who lives by her own set of rules (not all of them good). But, for a long time, I didn't know what to do with her.

Then, one night in 2001, the front lawn of a nursing home on Manhattan's Lower East Side collapsed. When the authorities arrived to investigate, they discovered an underground chamber at the bottom of the hole. It was almost perfectly preserved ---- with tables, chairs, and wall decorations. Apparently, it was the secret basement of a building that had stood on the site many decades before. By the time the original building was torn down in the 1920s, everyone had forgotten about the little room beneath it.

That inspired me to create the Shadow City. As I learned about other tunnels and hidden rooms beneath the city, I began to imagine what it would be like to explore New York's underground world. Since I had to go to work every day, Kiki got to have all the fun.

Kiki Strike couldn't explore the Shadow City by herself, and so the Irregulars were born. I wanted them to be the kinds of girls you'd expect to find in a city like New York --- tough, smart, and ready for anything. Some readers have commented on the Irregulars' ethnic diversity. But that wasn't necessarily intentional. You'd expect to find that sort of mix in New York!

TRC: The Irregulars are a group of five girls who band together to protect New York City and its secret underground world. How did you come up with this name? Were there others you were considering before choosing "Irregulars"?
KM: Kiki Strike names her band of girl geniuses "The Irregulars" as a tribute to another group of young delinquents --- Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars. ("Irregulars" is just a catch-all term for soldiers who fight outside of standard armies). The original Irregulars were Victorian street urchins who worked as spies and errand boys for the world's most famous detective. They were given the tasks no adult could perform.

I adore the Sherlock Holmes stories, but I've always wished there were a girl or two in the Baker Street Irregulars. As a kid, I would have preferred to read about girls who took care of their own dirty work and didn't need to be rescued all the time.

TRC: What kind of research was done for this book? Did you create an actual map of the Shadow City?
KM: My fascination with New York City's history began seven years ago when I moved into a 150-year-old tenement building in SoHo. On my very first day, I noticed a mysterious unmarked door at the end of my hall. Every night after that, I would hear one of my neighbors, an old woman, shuffling toward the door. I watched her through the peephole as she opened the door with a key that she kept on a string around her neck.

As you might imagine, I was quite intrigued. I asked other people in the building where the door led, but no one seemed to know. Then one day, I picked up a book on 19th-century New York and discovered the answer. When buildings such as mine were built, each floor had only one common bathroom. My elderly neighbor had been living in my building for so many years that she had never had a private bathroom installed in her own apartment. She was still using the 150 year-old bathroom.

After that, I was hooked. Much like Ananka, I devoured every NY history book I could find. I was particularly interested in the details of daily life in the old city --- the outhouses, the sewage system, garbage disposal, etc. So by the time I started writing KIKI, I didn't need to do much additional research. I'd already read almost everything I needed to read.

As I was writing KIKI STRIKE, I made my own map of the Shadow City and pinned it to my bathroom door. I like to stare at it whenever I take a bath. I find it's an excellent way to come up with interesting ideas.

TRC: One theme in KIKI STRIKE seems to be the importance of a young woman having strength and believing in herself. Was this what you were trying to communicate? How does this play a role in your own life?
KM: I wanted to create female characters whose strength comes from what's inside their heads, not what's inside their bras. I'm no prude, believe me, but I don't care much for those who think "girl power" means the freedom to wear revealing clothes and dominate guys. Those things can be fun, of course, but "girl power" should be so much more than that.

I suppose I wanted to communicate that, while the world wasn't necessarily designed with young women in mind, if a girl has a little ingenuity and a lot of confidence, she can make the world work to her own advantage.

In my own life, for instance, I've always felt quite comfortable letting people underestimate me. I don't think anyone expected a blonde, preppy-looking girl from rural North Carolina to amount to much. But the only thing that mattered was that I knew they were wrong. So while my doubters' heads were turned, I worked harder and smarter than they did. And I've come out on top more often than not.

TRC: The character of Ananka Fishbein emphasizes the importance of being prepared for anything, and she shares some helpful hints with her extensive lists. Are you as prepared as Ananka? Do you follow her suggestions in your own life? If so, could you share an example?
KM: I'd like to think I'm prepared for anything. I devote a great deal of time to imagining clever ways to escape from danger. I have ready-made strategies for everything from earthquakes to subway accidents. However, I am willing to admit that preparing for disaster might not be the healthiest way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

I'm also pretty good with my hands. I can fix small appliances, open many locked doors with a credit card or wire hanger, and perform emergency surgical techniques. (OK, that last part is a bit of an exaggeration. I've never actually had the chance to test my surgical skills.)

TRC: Your exciting novel suggests you're an adventurer at heart. What's the greatest adventure you've experienced, and did that play a role in KIKI STRIKE?
KM: I guess I've always been fairly adventurous. (I've always been pretty cautious, as well. I suppose most living explorers are.) Once, when I was a kid, my family visited one of Mexico's ancient Mayan cities. My brother, Spike, and I discovered we were small enough to wriggle past the barriers that kept people out of the temples and pyramids. We spent the day going places --- amazing, unbelievable places --- that few people have ever seen. I was only 11 or 12 at the time, but that experience has stayed with me my entire life and probably helped inspire KIKI STRIKE. (Spike and I had guts --- but we weren't dumb. We didn't tell our parents what we had done until a couple of years ago.)

These days, whenever I'm in a new city, I always try to visit any unusual underground locations. I've explored mysterious tunnels under Buenos Aires and Budapest, long-forgotten subterranean dwellings beneath Edinburgh, and ancient buildings that are now buried under Rome, to name just a few. You'd be surprised just how many underground worlds there are. Most cities have at least one. Some, like Paris, have more than their fair share.

TRC: Which character from your book would you most like to be friends with in real life, and why?
KM: I think in real life, I'd be friends with all of the Irregulars. They each have their flaws, of course, but they're still pretty fascinating people. I could get past Luz's bad temper, Oona's bluntness, or DeeDee's slovenly habits.

I'm usually willing to forgive someone's bad habits if they have something interesting to say. In my humble opinion, being interesting is the most important thing a person can aspire to be. I'd rather be interesting than stunningly beautiful or fabulously wealthy. (You might be shocked to learn how many models and heiresses are mind-numbingly dull.) 

TRC: Who or what has most influenced your life? Your writing?
KM: At the risk of sounding a bit precious, I have to say that my family has been the biggest influence in my life. Mostly because they're all a little nuts. My sister, for instance, was always so ribald and hilarious that my parents would routinely send her away from the dinner table so the rest of us wouldn't choke on our food. And for years, my brother pretended to have a criminal alter ego named "Spike" (his nickname to this day) whose goal in life was to terrify my rather proper grandmother. (Unfortunately, he never succeeded. My grandmother's one tough lady.)

But I owe the most to my parents for filling our house with books --- and never telling us what we could and couldn't read. (My sister was quite disappointed to find that THE NAKED APE was an anthropological text.) And I thank my husband, who's also a writer, for knowing long before I did that my weekend scribblings would one day become a book.

TRC: What advice do you give to aspiring authors?
KM: Sit still and write. If you stay there long enough, you're bound to come up with something good.
TRC: What can you tell us about this series? When can we expect the next book? Where are you taking the story?
KM: The next Kiki Strike book will be out in 2008. Like all the other books in the series, Kiki Strike will play a big role, and Ananka will narrate. But the second book will focus a little more on Oona Wong. In many ways, it's her story.

As always, there will be lots of adventure, devious New York society types, and shockingly intelligent rodents.