Interview with Katherine Marsh, author of Jepp, Who Defied The Stars

One of my favourite books of 2012 was Jepp, Who Defied The Stars, by the amazing Katherine Marsh. And I wasn’t alone in my love! Jepp was named a Wall Street Journal Best Children’s book of 2012, and a 2012 New York Times Notable Children’s Book! It received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, and trust me, the list goes on.

I truly, truly loved Jepp. I mean, I finished this book at 2:30am with my husband complaining next to me, hauling his pillow over his head to try and sleep. From the elegant prose to the rich cast of characters–every single one was fleshed out and whole, and fascinating–to the way the historical details of the setting were woven through the text without ever resorting to history lessons. Jepp is the story of a unique character that speaks to universally human truths. I recommend it!

Jepp, Who Defied The Stars


Is it written in the stars from the moment we are born?
Or is it a bendable thing that we can shape with our own hands?

Jepp of Astraveld needs to know.

He left his countryside home on the empty promise of a stranger, only to become a captive in a luxurious prison: Coudenberg Palace, the royal court of the Spanish Infanta. Nobody warned Jepp that as a court dwarf, daily injustices would become his seemingly unshakable fate. If the humiliations were his alone, perhaps he could endure them; but it breaks Jepp’s heart to see his friend Lia suffer.

After Jepp and Lia attempt a daring escape from the palace, Jepp is imprisoned again, alone in a cage. Now, spirited across Europe in a kidnapper’s carriage, Jepp fears where his unfortunate stars may lead him. But he can’t even begin to imagine the brilliant and eccentric new master—a man devoted to uncovering the secrets of the stars—who awaits him. Or the girl who will help him mend his heart and unearth the long-buried secrets of his past.

Masterfully written, grippingly paced, and inspired by real historical characters, Jepp, Who Defied the Stars is the tale of an extraordinary hero and his inspiring quest to become the master of his own destiny.

Katherine, welcome! Jepp is a truly unique story with an equally unique premise. Though the themes in the book around love and identity are universal, Jepp’s own story is something special. What was the first spark that led you to telling this particular story?

I think writers should always pay attention to things that trouble them and one of things that always troubled me was my conflicted feelings about fate and free will. My mother believes in astrology and, during my childhood, she was frequently making predictions and scheduling life events (including even my SATs!) around the stars. As a result, I grew up with some real questions about fate and free will: Was my life written in the stars? Or, as the rational part of me claimed, was all this just bunk? How much are we the creations of our parents? How much is our destiny really our own?

When it came time to write my next book, I decided to try and tackle these questions. I began to immerse myself in the history of astrology and found myself drawn to the time when astrologers and astronomers were one and the same. One of the most colorful of these astronomer/ astrologers was the 16th century Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe. He had a prosthetic nose, a beer-drinking moose, a futuristic castle with running water, and a dwarf, Jepp, who sat at his feet. As soon as I read about Jepp, I knew I had found the vehicle for my story. He’s basically a footnote of history—very little is known about who he was or how he ended up serving Tycho, which gave me a lot of creative leeway. Also, since childhood, I’ve been mesmerized by the court dwarf portraits of the Spanish painter Diego Velazquez and felt inspired to try and tell a story based on them.

A beer-drinking moose! You so belong here on Pub Crawl! Every one of those details you’ve mentioned is fascinating: the world you paint in Jepp is vividly alive, and I loved the way you brought so many historical scenes to life without ever resorting to a history lesson. If you could be transported into one scene in the book, which would it be?

This is wonderful praise, thank you! History is people’s lives and I think if you portray it as such, it shouldn’t become a lesson. As to which scene I would love to be transported to, I think it would be Jepp’s first night at Uraniborg, Brahe’s futuristic castle. As Brahe’s dwarf, Jepp is forced to sit at his master’s feet during a lavish banquet and when he overhears Tycho and his scholars discussing their astronomical efforts it sounds fantastical to him, almost like magic. Later in the book, Jepp refers to science as “man’s own magic” but he gets his very first hint of its revolutionary power under Tycho’s table—the idea that man, and not just God, can understand the world and shape his own place in it. I love that moment, which to me represents the dawning of a new world.

Yes! I loved that scene—a glimpse of a new world, but Jepp still stuck at his master’s feet (literally), in a power dynamic that’s very old world. Stepping to the real world for a moment, tell us about your writing life—what’s a typical writing day like for you, if there is one?

My writing time is actually very regimented in that I only have childcare between the hours of 8am and 2pm. Do I write that entire time? No. I check my email, I surf the web, I snack, I read snippets of other books that inspire me, I beat myself up for writing crap, I rewrite it some more. My output is slow. Some days I write a few pages. Others a paragraph. Others nothing at all.

This all sounds very familiar—especially the snacks. Speaking of reading, what are you reading right now?

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. I’m enjoying it immensely—both plot and language. It’s a book that is crafted, which is my highest praise.

High praise indeed! If you could spend a night at the pub with any three authors (dead or alive), who would it be, and why?

Honestly, I I’d rather spend an evening with my favorite books  than their authors (and while it’s hard to settle on just three, The Master and Margarita, The Graveyard Book and Octavian Nothing are up there). Authors, being only human, are a disappointment. Their books are the best parts of themselves.

Whole casts of characters, I love it! Any last words of advice for aspiring writers?

Don’t write to become a writer, write because you are one.

Today we’re giving away a copy of Jepp, Who Defied The Stars! The contest is open internationally. To enter, just leave us a comment telling us whether you come down on the side of fate, or free will!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

KATHERINE MARSH is the author of the Edgar Award winning The Night Tourist, and its sequel The Twilight Prisoner. She’s also written for Rolling Stone magazine, is a Scorpio, and has taught high school English, where she was only occasionally mistaken for a student. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook or at her homepage. If you still want more, check out this interview on NPR with All Things Considered.


20 Responses to Interview with Katherine Marsh, author of Jepp, Who Defied The Stars

  1. Yuanting Jan 23 2013 at 6:49 am #

    I believe in a little bit of both. 😉

    • Katherine Marsh Jan 23 2013 at 10:10 am #

      Ultimately so do I. But figuring out that balance is tricky. Americans like to believe in free will–that anyone can be or can do anything. But I think compassion for others depends on an awareness that fate plays a role in people’s lives and we do not compete on a level playing field.

  2. Katie French Jan 23 2013 at 8:27 am #

    I think that it is too easy to say it is all Fate. Then we are responsible for nothing. However we do not chose where we are born, what time, to which parents. That is fate and we must take what we have and use our free will to make it shine.

  3. Charlotte Jan 23 2013 at 8:59 am #

    Definitely a bit of both, there’s no single one that completely defines our life. There are a lot of things we have to determine ourselves but yet there are also a lot of things we are unable to control.

  4. Michelle Schusterman Jan 23 2013 at 9:54 am #

    Can I say 90% free will, 10% fate?

    Amazing interview. I’ll be reading this whether or not a win a copy for sure – it sounds incredible!

  5. Alexa Y. Jan 23 2013 at 10:44 am #

    I honestly do not know how I haven’t heard of this book yet, because it sounds FANTASTIC. I sincerely think that this is the type of book that I would enjoy reading!

    Also, I think I believe in 50/50 – there’s 50% attached to fate and 50% attached to free will 🙂

  6. Sondra Johnson Jan 23 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Definitely Free Will. As crazy as my life has been, I can’t believe it was cast in stone at the beginning.

  7. Katherine Marsh Jan 23 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    So many interesting comments on fate and free will! Brings to mind an interesting article I read recently about how we are really bad at predicting who we will be in ten years. We often fail to imagine exactly how much we’ll change–and how much life unexpectedly changes us. Fate plays some surprising roles for Jepp too though his self-determination is also decisive. Hope everyone will check out the book.

  8. Carl Jan 23 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    I’m a dyed-in-the-wool free willer myself but the role of fate in the course of human events is a very important literary theme. Thanks for the giveaway, I’d love to win a copy of Jepp, Who Defied the Stars.

  9. Diana Jan 23 2013 at 4:47 pm #

    Especially as a Christian (gasp! stigma!), the fate vs free will issue is one I think about a lot, especially when it comes to defending my faith. People have so much riding on “fate” and “free will.” Arguments and long stories aside, I ultimately come down on neither side: I come down on the side of God. (And yes, tacky, cutesy catchphrases aside, it is very interesting reading modern fiction as a Christian and analyzing and picking out bits of themes that I agree with and disagree with). Looks like a great book!

    • Diana Jan 23 2013 at 4:50 pm #

      And I’m not trying to say that I stick my nose up in the air and go “well, they don’t believe in God, so they’re “fated” to . . . ” et cetera. I don’t want to turn this into a faith discussion–these issues are just so clearly inseparable for me, personally.

    • Katherine Marsh Jan 23 2013 at 8:22 pm #

      Hi Diana–
      Interestingly, Jepp lives in a world in which belief in God is taken for granted (so no stigma there!). But even among Christians there was a lot of debate over whether people had free will.
      As a Christian, you might find this review of Jepp, by a Christian book review blog of interest.

      • Diana Jan 24 2013 at 3:16 pm #

        Thanks for the reply and for showing me the review. The book is definitely on my list. 🙂

  10. Andrea Jan 23 2013 at 7:29 pm #

    I come down on the side of free will, but I’m a total sucker for fate and destiny. I loved how they handled it in The Adjustment Bureau, where you have to earn your free will. And I love stories that tackle it too, so I can’t wait to read Jepp, Who Defied the Stars. (What a great title!!)

    Great interview! I love the answers to the last three questions. Awesome.

  11. Henrietta Jan 23 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    I’d say a bit of both – it’s comforting to believe in some form of destiny but I think it’s a lot more fun to have our free will to make our own choices. This way, we can experience the different consequences through the choices that we make and we can’t really blame any forces outside of us when we live through the consequences of our choices.

  12. Alyssa Jan 23 2013 at 11:24 pm #

    What a fantastic idea for a novel! I haven’t heard of this one until now, but it’s definitely going on my TBR list for this year.

    I definitely believe that we are each dealt a different hand in life, but of course I also believe that our choices define us, although often the choices we make are based on or limited by our situation.

  13. Shelver506 Jan 28 2013 at 9:03 pm #

    Both in a way. I think there are a finite set of choices for every situation. “Fate” determines that we must choose from that set and nothing else, but free will says that I get to pick which of those choices I’ll make.

  14. Sally L Jan 29 2013 at 3:12 am #

    Wow, this book sounds really interest. I’ll definitely be taking a look at it!

    In terms of the question, I lean towards free will, but sometimes when things happen so perfectly, and you reach a point where you stop and think about how content you are at that current moment, I like to think there’s something helping you make good choices.

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