A lifelong bookworm, Marie Rutkoski always wanted to write a book of her own, but discouraged by her attempts at fiction, she focused on academic success instead. Then in 2006, just as she was finishing her Ph.D. in English from Harvard, studying Renaissance children with reported special powers such as the ability to breathe fire, she got the idea for The Cabinet of Wonders (FSG).
Rutkoski spent the next summer working on a magical novel set in the period. “I felt like this was my last chance to become a writer,” she says. “I had to do it now or never.”
Cabinet of Wonders is filled with imaginative details—and darkness. At the start, Rutkoski's heroine Petra discovers that the prince of Bohemia has stolen her father's eyes after he built him a magical clock. The story was inspired by legend as well as personal history. During Rutkoski's first trip to Prague, her cousin had told her about the clock in the city's center: “There's this legend that the man who commissioned the clock had the eyes of the man who made it gouged out so that could never build anything like it again,” she recalled. The story haunted her. “My mother had been blind as a child,” she says. “And so, blindness was something that has long fascinated me, but also it's something I find really, really scary.”
Even while writing, Rutkoski stayed true to her academic roots. She admits a “geeky” joy in working facts into fantasy, like referencing a real portrait of Queen Elizabeth wearing a dress dotted with eyes and ears. “It's so amazingly weird,” she said. Who would believe that there’s a portrait of a queen wearing a dress covered with eyes and ears?” she said. “It’s kind of a fun little pleasure to include gems of actual historical detail into the book.”
She was thrilled when Charlotte Sheedy agreed to be her agent (Sheedy also represents Lemony Snicket, a writer Rutkoski admires for his bravery). Two months later, TheCabinet of Wonders sold at auction to FSG as part of a two-book deal. Rutkoski called her editor, Janine O'Malley, “very gentle and considerate,” whether discussing big issues in the book or working on line edits.
The Cabinet of Wonders is the launch of the Kronos Chronicles, which will be a four-book series. “I pretty much always wanted to write a series, because I love reading them,” says the author, who is a fan of Snicket and of Philip Pullman. “I love seeing a story evolve over several books, and watching characters develop.” Fans can expect her second installment, The Celestial Globe, next August. “It involves adventures on the high seas, a murder mystery, sword fights and some romance,” she said.
Right now, Rutkoski is on leave from her teaching job at Brooklyn College while she writes the third book and works on her other big project: her newborn son. She says that becoming a published author has had a profound impact on her life. “For many, many years I thought that I wasn't good enought or that I would never be able to create something that could touch other people the way books have touched me,” she said. “There's nothing better than having a lifelong dream come true.”