Gamer, cosplayer, and author Mari Mancusi’s latest novel is The Camelot Code, book one of The Once and Future Geek series for kids. The book follows the adventures of young Arthur of Camelot as he accidentally time-travels to the twenty-first century. Lone Star Lit caught up with Mari via email to chat.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Let’s jump to the here and now because it's been quite a journey to get here — and because you are a self-proclaimed Disney Ninja. How does it feel to be publishing your latest book, The Camelot Code through Disney Hyperion? Tell us your Cinderella story (allusion intended!)
MARI MANCUSI: I’ve always been a huge Disney nerd. I used to work at the Disney Store in college, and after college I moved to Orlando to be close to the parks. My friends and I had annual passes, so we’d visit every weekend and run around and have fun. (Mostly because we had no money for anything else!) It became like a second home to me. And to be writing for the Mouse — it’s definitely been a Disney dream come true. Especially since the Camelot Code publication journey was a fourteen-year nightmare.
A nightmare story sounds like it could be another Disney wordplay, but your personal tale wasn’t fantasy. What happened?
The book had sold twice before — once at auction — yet in both instances, the imprints either closed or changed direction, dumping my book before publication. In that time, the young adult landscape, for which the book was originally written, started to change. They wanted older, crossover titles that would appeal to an adult audience, which started making up a good portion of readership. And “tween” titles with younger, fourteen-year-old protagonists, were being sent to the rejection bin. I totaled up about twenty-one publisher rejections for a book that once sold at auction, most of publishers claiming that since it was “wasn’t quite middle grade and wasn’t quite young adult” they weren’t able to properly position it. One publisher had a solution — turn it into a solid middle grade. They gave me months’ worth of revisions to work on, which I did, only to have them reject it in the end anyway.
To make matters worse, I’d just become a new mom. I had a colicky baby and was going through all sorts of postpartum anxiety and depression. Each rejection made me feel more and more worthless as a writer. And it seemed this book of my heart was never going to find a home.
This sounds like a great time for a Fairy Godmother to appear. Did one?
Better than a Fairy Godmother, it was then my husband took me aside. He dried my tears and reminded me that there was more to this story than its not-so-happy ending. The original advance money I’d gotten from selling it afforded me a chance to move to New York City, a lifetime dream of mine. In New York, I met my husband and when the book got dumped, we moved in together to save money. We eventually got married and had our daughter. Just think — an entire human on the face of this earth because of a book deal gone south. I’d already gotten my happily ever after— just not in the way I imagined it!
At this point, it sounds like you had a healthy glass-half-full perspective, but the book was still without a home. We know how this story ends, but how did you get there?
Then came my own third act. Disney put a call out for submissions to a new imprint called the Rick Riordan Presents line. I asked my agent if perhaps Camelot Code would be something that would fit. She didn’t think it was quite what they were looking for, but suggested we send it anyway, just in case. Maybe they’d want it for their regular middle grade line — you never knew! And hey, it was just sitting there. Why not?
I knew it was a total longshot and sincerely didn’t expect anything but another rejection to add to the pile. But to my surprise instead came an email from the publisher, Stephanie Lurie, who told us she loved it “as much as I did the first time around.”
She loved it as much as she did the first time?
At first, I had no idea what she was talking about! If she’d read it before and loved it — why hadn’t she bought it? Well, it turned out, she had! Unbeknownst to me, she was the president and publisher of the second imprint I sold the book to — the one who bought it at auction. When she left, that was when the book got dumped. And years and years later, she not only remembered it, but she bought it again and gave me the most amazing editor, Kieran Viola, to champion it and give this book its happily ever after at last.
How serendipitous! Have you ever thought, “What if?”
There are certain books you just can’t give up on. Even if takes a fourteen-year journey. I truly believe persistence is the only true secret to publication and now my book — the one everyone told me I should just walk away from — is at bookstores, Target, in libraries — and most importantly — in kids’ hands. It was a rough journey and I don’t wish it on anyone. But it was worth it. And it couldn’t have turned out better in the end.
The next book in the series, Geeks and the Holy Grail, is coming fall 2019. I love these titles and the nod to classic tales.
I’ve always been a huge Arthurian buff — in fact my daughter’s name is Avalon! — and so being able to cherry-pick my favorite Arthurian legends and make them my own in a big time-travel mashup has been really fun. You’ll find lots of Easter eggs in the text, too. For example. Stuart Mallory, the modern-day boy in the book is named after two Arthurian authors: Mary Stewart, who wrote the Merlin series beginning with The Crystal Cave and, of course, Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote Le Morte D’Arthur in the fifteenth century. Le Morte is a text that begat many of our most well-known Arthurian tales, including some of my favorites like The Once and Future King by T. H. White and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
I’ve had such a great time writing this series, and I hope it’ll serve as a gateway to a new generation of King Arthur fans.
You grew up in New England, but you made your way to Texas, and we’re proud to call you a Texas author. How has Texas influenced your writing?
I’ve been in Texas nine years now (married a Dallas guy) and absolutely love it here. We’d met in NYC, where I had to work a full-time job in lifestyle television and write on the side. Moving to Austin allowed me to write full-time, which has been a wonderful opportunity.
I found an instant community with the other writers here, too. Austin writers are so supportive and talented — I feel lucky to be counted amongst their ranks. Also, we have the most awesome librarians in Texas who really go above and beyond for their kids and are so supportive to authors. And our indie bookstore, BookPeople? It’s one of the best in the country and so awesome to work with. We are privileged to have it as our local bookstore.
Anyone who follows you on social media sees you are constantly on the go with author visits to schools, book festivals and signings, room mom-ing, travel — how do you balance writing and marketing and family and…gaming!?
I hate being bored. I love doing things, going places, seeing the world. As an author, I find that a lot of my day (not shown on social media) is sitting at home, by myself, working. Which can get kind of isolating. So, I make it a point to set up events or school visits to interact in person with my target audience. I don’t think you can effectively write for kids if you aren’t around kids! They are different creatures in real life from those you see on TV or in the movies, ha ha!
And I love to travel. I made a personal goal for myself to visit a new country every year. I think going to different places, seeing different cultures, and meeting different people is not only interesting and fun, but it makes you a better human.
I also make sure to make time for family. Since I have an only child and a flexible work schedule, that makes it a little easier to be room mom or cart her around to her five billion dance classes. Also, dance classes are great opportunities to get some extra word count in while you’re waiting! (Though sometimes, to be honest, I just binge-watch Netflix shows!)
You are an Emmy Award–winning TV producer, so naturally, I have to know which of your more than two dozen books you’d like to see translated to screen.
I am working on a book now called Dragon Ops, which will be published by Disney Books in spring of 2020. It’s about a couple of kids who end up trapped in the world’s first augmented reality video game theme park when a rogue AI dragon takes over the game. Think Jurassic Park meets Jumanji with a World of Warcraft twist. It’s action-packed and a lot of fun—I think it could translate well as a live-action or animated movie or a limited series on Netflix. Definitely would be a next-level dream come true!
And now for the lightning round…
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Favorite game? (high score to brag about?)
World of Warcraft. Level 120 horde fury warrior.
Strange habit or writing ritual?
I read everything out loud as I write. Which makes it difficult to write in public spaces like Starbucks…
Something unique that few people know about you?
I collect lucky golden owls, sold at Disney’s Japan pavilion at EPCOT. Each one has brought me a very specific piece of writing luck. They sit on my desk right under my monitor and watch me write.
Team Oxford comma?
MARI MANCUSI always wanted a dragon as a pet. Unfortunately, the fire insurance premiums proved a bit too large and her house a bit too small, so she chose to write about them instead. Today she works as an award-winning young adult author and freelance television producer, for which she has won two Emmys. When not writing about fanciful creatures of myth and legend, Mari enjoys traveling, cosplay, snowboarding, watching cheesy (and scary) horror movies, and her favorite guilty pleasure — playing videogames. A graduate of Boston University, she lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Jacob, daughter, Avalon, and their two dogs. Visit her at marimancusi.com