Several years ago, when Sylvia Grove was working on her doctoral dissertation on early Central American History, she needed something else to do to keep her from obsessing over it. So she started writing a YA novel. She’d written stories since she was little, she says—one tale featured “seashells with walkie-talkies”—but then had gotten “sidetracked by life.” Her first attempt at a novel as an adult featured a “girl who was looking for something she had lost and ended up in the place where lost things go,” but she realized the idea wasn’t enough to carry a story by itself.
The idea of time travel intrigued her, but Grove found the technology of time machines “scary.” So she decided to place Sophia, the heroine of The Glass Sentence(Viking, June), in an alternate 1890s U.S. The novel begins about a century after the “Great Disruption,” which split off geographical regions from one another and separated them into different time periods—past, present, and even future—as well.
Grove’s training as a historian was vital to the development of her idea of regions separated both by geography and by time. “This is a historian’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, thinking in detail about how these places would look,” she says. “It was really fun to imagine these societies and the nitty-gritty of trade and technology.” The plot, which concerns Sophie’s search for her kidnapped uncle, emerged later. A variety of extraordinary maps, some more traditional, and others made from glass, metal, wood, and other materials, which often require magic to be read, are central to the series, which is called the Mapmakers Trilogy. “I’ve studied cartography, but never practiced it myself,” Grove says. “I think, though, that maps are more than just tools. They make powerful statements concerning the way we think about the world, what we see as more or less important.” She suggests with some relish that “my maps could be called ‘alchemical,’ magical and pseudo-scientific at the same time.”
Grove’s road to publication was relatively painless. A friend put her in touch with Dorian Karchmar of the William Morris Agency, who loved the manuscript and worked with her on revisions. It went out to several editors and ended up with Sharyn November at Viking who, Grove says, “plunged into the world headlong and became a wonderful advocate for the book with her publisher, book reps, and others.” The author was surprised to discover how much this sort of advocacy mattered, and found both November’s enthusiasm and their shared love of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock enormously encouraging. Other influences, Grove says, include Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, Madeleine L’Engle, and Ursula Le Guin, whose prose helped “shape my conscious decision to write” and showed Grove ways to incorporate anthropology and cultural history into her fiction.
Although she is not yet used to the public side of the writer’s life, Grove has recently finished a five-city dinner tour to meet booksellers. She also feels buoyed by excellent reviews, in PW, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. She has an almost-complete draft of book two—publication is scheduled for summer 2015—and the third volume is underway as well. When asked what her greatest hope is for her trilogy, Grove replies without hesitation, “To make history cool!”