We were invited to interview the YALFest authors in Houten the Friday before the big festival. Together with many other book bloggers, we made our way to the office of published Unieboek Spectrum where the authors were already waiting for us. I talked to Megan Shepherd (The Cage) David Arnold (Mosquitoland) and Donna Freitas (Unplugged). Here’s what I asked them.
You’ve written two YA series, The Madman’s Daughter trilogy and The Cage. Which one was harder to write?
I would say that The Cage in a lot of ways was harder to write. The scope of my first series was the UK in a certain time period, but for The Cage, this was the entire universe. From a worldbuilding standpoint, it took so much more planning and plotting that I thought. In the first book, these six teenagers are trapped in a very limited world and they don’t know what’s beyond it, which meant that as an author I didn’t really have to know it either yet. But for the second and third books, I really had to think through what this world was about, how the politics work and if there was a religious component, that kind of thing. Just every part of society that you take for granted if you write a book set in the modern world or even in history, which does require quite a bit of research, but the facts are there for you to find.
In The Cage the main characters live in something called The Biosphere. Where did your idea for this strange enclosure come from?
I was inspired by the biosphere projects in the early 90’s. My older sister had to make a model of it for a science class and I helped out. We created all these different habitats and had all these little people and little trees and it just stuck in my mind as being really interesting and strange to have all these different places stuck together. I’ve always been fascinated by these little microcosms and wanted to create my own.
How do you think you would you react to being in The Cage?
I tend to do well in real dangerous situations. In other situations I do terribly if there’s a spider I freak out but actual danger I tend to handle that really well. I think I would be pretty good at not panicking, staying calm and exploring the world. I would spend a lot of time exploring to try and figure out what the heck is going. Just like Cora, I would try to first understand what’s beyond the walls before I would attempt any escape otherwise you get out of the frying pan and into the fire. I hope I would have the sense to not do anything too impulsive.
Your new series is inspired by fairy tales and I’ve read you have an obsession with Disney movies. Which one is your favorite?
When I was little I loved Beauty and the Beast. I just saw the live action one and it was so great That story just really stuck with me. My stepmother used to work for Disney as an Imagineer, so whenever we would go there she would take us behind the scenes and tell us all these stories. I’ve just always loved that world. It’s pure imagination and storytelling at its core. But I love the original fairy tales as well, they’re so dark. My new series Grim Lovelies isn’t based on one particular fairy tale, but more on the atmosphere and feeling of them. It tries to blend the darker parts of the original but also is a lot of fun with that Disney feel.
You write pretty dark stories. Do you think you’ll ever write a fluffy romance novel?
I love reading those, but whenever I try to write a book like that it just doesn’t click. Once I worked on a story about contestants on a reality show and it was much more about family dynamics, supposed to be light and fun and then by the end of chapter one, they’re all murdering each other. Maybe I just have a twisted mind, but I find it very challenging to write a story like that. Things like what David writes are really hard for me because whenever I get stuck I just have something explode. A lot of nuances goes into writing fluffy romances and contemporary YA and I find that very challenging. I have a lot of respect for authors who can do that.
What’s the best advice (writing or otherwise) that you’ve ever gotten?
When I was an aspiring writer someone told me ‘Don’t focus on getting published but focus on writing a great book’. If you write a really great book, and it has to be really great, chances are you’ll get published. Before that, I spend so much time researching publishers and agents and thinking about being an author but not actually writing the book. It was the kick in the pants I needed. After that advice, I stopped worrying about the publication side and started working on The Madman’s Daughter. I just tried to write a really great book, as good as I could at the time.
You publish more than a book per year. How do you do it?
Since 2013 I’ve published seven books and I’m trying to slow down now. I love writing so much and was an aspiring writer for a really long time. I had day jobs, worked in different offices and doing this was my dream. Then when it happened, it was literally my dream come true and I loved it and wanted to throw myself into it. I wish I had gone a little slower because I do feel like I burned out a little bit. Now I feel like I’m on a much better equilibrium. There are still stories I want to tell and I just feel so fortunate that this is my job. I got to take advantage of this before people figure out and no longer want to publish my books. I need to get as much out there as I can.
Your parents own a bookstore. We all have this incredibly romantic idea of owning a bookstore, but there must be some downsides to it as well. Tell us the about the dark side of bookstores.
It really was very romantic. I grew up in a small town and the bookstore was sort of the community hub and everyone came there. My parents knew everyone and to be surrounded by books was the best way to grow up. But one of the downsides was that we made our money by selling books, so to me they were products. Products that I loved, but not something that I wrote. I think this kept me from writing for a long time.
Do you have a recommendation for our YA book club?
You should read The Hate U Give. I love it. It’s very powerful and insightful and politically important now. What else have I read recently? Have you read Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin? It’s an alternative WWII story about a motorcycle race. It’s very strange, but beautifully written and definitely one of my favorite books.
My interview with David ended up with both of us fangirling about a whole bunch of things we liked, such as Salinger, Six Feet Under, Sufjan Stevens and Wes Anderson. Here I’m giving you the version that’s hopefully interesting to non-fangirling readers as well.
We discussed Mosquitoland with our YA book club.What would be a good discussion question about your book?
If I had to pinpoint what that book is, it’s about finding home and what home means? The entire book Mim thinks that home means being with her mom and it takes her actually getting there to find out it’s not true. So I would want to know what home means to you.
Do you have a kind of warpaint like Mim has, that makes you feel stronger?
For me, the warpaint was a connection to her mom, the only tangible thing she had to be close to her mom. So in that way, it would probably be some kind of song, the way I relate songs to people in my life that I love. Right now I’m really obsessed with Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell record. The song Should Have Known Better, do you know the one I’m talking about? I cry when I hear that song and it always reminds me of my son. He has nothing to do with it and lyrically there’s nothing connecting them either but it makes me feel comforted and close to him.
Both of your novels are contemporary YA. Are you interested in writing in other genres?
I don’t plan to. My third novel comes out summer of 2018 in the US and it’s categorized as contemporary, but there is about 5% of that novel that’s not realistic, I’d call it slightly speculative. That’s about as far as I can get to writing something that is not realistic. I really appreciate fantasy and sci-fi when it’s done well, but those stories don’t exist in my head right now. Maybe they will someday.
Can you tell us something about your third novel?
It’s called The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik and is probably the closest I’ve ever come to writing something of my own experience and Noah is definitely the character I relate to the most. He’s in his senior year of high school and feeling very disenfranchised, all very common feelings when you’re growing and you feel like nobody understands you. He goes to a party, gets drunk and confides this feeling to this strange kid he’s never seen before, who then says ‘follow me home, I think I can help you’. Noah follows him home and the kid hypnotizes him. After he wakes up, every person in his life has one sudden thing that has physically changed and he needs to figure out what is going on. I’m really excited about it.
If you would have to cast the characters of Kids of Appetite with YA authors, who would you pick?
From a squad angle, so not having anything to do with the characters, I’d say Becky Albertalli, Adam Silvera and Jasmine Warga. We’re constantly talking. And then Courtney Stevens and Jeff Zentner. Courtney was a year ahead of me and Jeff is a year behind me in terms of publishing their first book. Becky, Adam, Jasmine and I all published in the same year and so we were going through the same things at the same time. Publishing a book is always scary, but the first one especially is really scary and I don’t know if I would have made it through that or would have written a second book if it weren’t for them. That’s my squad.
Do you have a recommendation for our YA book club?
There’s a book coming out in November called Dear Martin, written by debut author Nic Stone and she’s whip smart. This book is not only a really great read but also super important right now. The conversations that happen in that book make me excited for my kid to be old enough to read it. I wish I’d had this book at a young age because I would have understood so many more things that took me until I was well into my thirties to get. The main character writes letters to Martin Luther King and it deals with the Black Lives Matter movement and it’s just terrific.
Your non-fiction is mostly about college age, but your novels for a somewhat younger audience. Do you see a difference between these age groups?
I would say that writing my non-fiction and fiction is very different. It’s like I have two different brains, my non-fiction, and my fiction brain. But my research definitely influences my YA books. I’m constantly sitting around with 18 and 19-year-olds who are telling me the most intimate details of their lives. I literally travel around the country and interview college students and I love it. Sometimes I do an interview and there’s someone you’re talking to and you just wish that you could talk to them for the rest of your life. You think they’re fascinating or they strike you as really intriguing or maybe they weren’t very talkative in the interview but you think something else is going on. They’re in my head and then become characters. Not what they told me in the interview, but I think about them and wonder what happened to that girl I interviewed who was having a really bad morning and she showed up in her sweats. I like to think about the things they say they want or wish for. I’m interested in what are people yearning for, what are ways my stories can respond to that yearning.
The Wired is your first trilogy and I’ve read you found it challenging to write. What was the most difficult?
Worldbuilding is really hard because you have to build something that can carry the weight of three books. And I think the hardest part was realizing – and it’s not like I didn’t know this before – but actually realizing that I had to plan everything I needed in the first book and that’s really daunting. And it took me a while to figure that out, like holy shit if I want that to happen I have to put it here, otherwise, it can’t happen.
What would be a good discussion question about Unplugged?
I would have a couple. Unplugged is a lot about apps that you can download to yourself, so I would ask what would be the top five apps that you would either invent or would want to download to yourself. It’s really fun to think about what you would do if you could change your appearance or your personality. I always think about what I would want to do myself. What experience would I want to have that I can’t. Another question would be, if you had the chance to plug in, would you do it if you knew you could never unplug? If you had the possibility to live in a digital world, would you leave the physical behind.
Is it true you still don’t have a smartphone?
People threaten to buy me a smartphone. It comes up most often when I leave the house all day and I have to remind people that they shouldn’t email me if they want to get in touch with me because I won’t read it until I’m home. I don’t have a smartphone, I don’t want one and I hope I never have to, but I’m worried we’re going towards a world where I am going to need one. The reason I don’t have a smartphone is because I have very little willpower and I think that if I have one I’ll be checking my phone all the time and I don’t want to do that to myself. So the easiest thing for me is just to not have one.
The Possibilities of Sainthood was published in 2008 and in an interview you said that YA was behind on engaging with the religious aspect of teens lives. Do you see a change, almost 10 years later?
I think that’s still true. It’s sort of like the verboten topic. It’s funny because the new book I’m working on has to do with religion a little bit and I sort of swore after that that I wouldn’t go back there because people seem to be really afraid of religion. I’m interested in really big questions, the meaning of life and often that is a place religion touches on. I think because people are afraid you’re going to be proselytizing. They assume you’re going to try to convert them. I got very good reviews for The Possibilities Of Sainthood, but every one of them would say something like ‘don’t worry about the religion, this isn’t one of those books you have to worry about’. I think of religion as a place where you get to play with big ideas, like why are we here and what happens if we die? Those are all questions I like asking.
Can you talk a little more about your new book?
I’m really excited about it. It’s contemporary YA and called The Healer right now on my laptop. It’s definitely a book about life and death and also about being careful what you wish for. It’s about a girl who has the power to heal, like a faith healer. She’s been very sheltered from the world because of who she is and a whole industry has grown around her. People sell her image on candles and such, but she’s angry and wants to live a normal life. And so it’s about her leaving this all behind and trying to leave it all behind and then wishing for it back. I love writing it and it’s due in September 2018.
You have called yourself a food tourist. Is there any Dutch food you’re particularly interested in or something you’ve already tried?
I love food, you can ask the publisher because that’s all I’ve talked about since I’ve been here. I’ve been excited about pancakes and I’ve also learned about poffertjes. I’ve already had a lot of cookies, because of this bakery I’ve found. I have a bag of them, but I’m going to buy even more. Food is my favorite thing, it’s all I want to do when I go to new places.
Do you have a recommendation for our YA book club?
I’ve read this book that I thought was beautifully written which is called The Inconceivable Life of Quinn and it’s about a girl who gets pregnant but has never had sex. It’s very playfully written and really smart. I also have this author I’m obsessed with. I always talk about him in blogs, so he probably thinks I’m in love with him, but if I could have written his books I would love to. They are some of the best voices I’ve ever read ever, he writes amazing sex scenes for YA that are just fantastic. They’re boy-girl romances that literally make me giddy. There are two books, Forever for a Year and the second one is called The Nerdy and the Dirty. If I had a 13-year-old they would have these books, because it’s all you need to know. B.T. Godfried. I teach a YA track in an MFA program which is for all ages, so they’re all graduate students but ranging from people in their seventies to in their twenties. We get to assign books to the entire group, so I made seventy people read Forever for a Year and this old crotchety ex-military guy came up to me saying he didn’t want to read this book, but that it turned out to be one of the best books he’d read all year. So yeah, you can’t go wrong with these.
I want to thank YALFestNL for setting up a very fun and interesting afternoon for book bloggers and of course I want to thank all the authors for the great conversations I had with them. Did you go to YALFest and did you get to talk to your favorite authors?