I was thrilled to get to interview E.C. (Eugene) Myers at the Nebula Awards Weekend. His book, Fair Coin, won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Eugene filled me in about his work, the challenge of marketing a book with a plot twist, and his fondness for the Sweet Valley High series and The Babysitters Club. Be sure to read to the end of this interview (or skip to the end – I won't tell) so that you can hear how Eugene proposed to his wife by way of a Gilmore Girls DVD.
I have attempted to white out all the major spoilers for Fair Coin.
Carrie: Tell me about your books!
Eugene: OK, the first book is Fair Coin, and it's about a boy who discovers that when he flips a particular coin and makes a wish, that wish comes true if it lands on heads. If it lands on tails, it still comes true but with some unexpected consequences. So, what's going on in the story is that he thinks it's a magic coin and that it grants his wishes. SPOILER: [But what's actually happening is that every time he flips the coin, he's actually being bumped to a parallel universe, where the thing that he wants to happen, has happened or is possible. That was the twist in the first book that I've been trying to preserve. But, the second book is called Quantum Coin, so that's sort of a giveaway.]
I have to say that's [avoiding spoilers] definitely a challenge with selling the book, and also marketing the book. Because I personally don't like spoilers. I really like that moment in fiction where you understand something, or something is revealed, that changes your understanding of everything that has come before it. I'm a huge fan of Twilight Zone; that's really obvious if you read Fair Coin. So I didn't want to put it all out there.
SPOILER: [I think there's a challenge there, because it's presented as a fantasy story but it ends up being science fiction. It's very fantasy-based science fiction when you end up dealing with parallel universes and wonky science like that. So I also worry that people would come to the book expecting something and then be unhappy that it turned out to be something else. And that was some of the editorial feedback that came from different publishers: "I really liked the fantasy element, but not the science fiction", or "I liked the science fiction, but I didn't like the fantasy."]
Carrie: Fair Coin was reviewed by Romantic Times, can you talk about that? Note: RT Review contains spoilers.
Eugene: Yes! I was surprised that they reviewed it and liked it, but now, when I think about it, romance is a key element of the story in some ways. The character's name is Ephraim, and he has a crush on a girl in his class named Jenna Kim. Early on, while he's still trying to figure out how the coin works, he makes a wish that she likes him. That's the thing that propels him through this. And a lot of the wishes are based around relationships. His best friend wants him to use the coin to wish that his crush falls in love with him.
These are the big problems for Ephraim, when first of all he sees that his wishes are having negative effects on people around him, but also when he thinks that the coin is manipulating people's feelings. That's the thing that stops him. That's the moral element of that – is it OK to use something to change somebody's feelings for you? That's the thing that makes him want to stop using the coin. SPOILER: [Then of course he realizes that he hasn't really been changing him, he's been switching worlds. Ultimately he ends up meeting Zoe Kim, and he starts to fall for her. So then he starts dealing with what is it about a person that actually makes you attracted to them]. There's definitely more of a romantic angle to the second book.
Carrie: How many books are you planning in this series?
Eugene: They're done. And the first book I designed so that you could stop at the end of the first book. There's no cliffhanger.
Carrie: I find that in the romance world, readers have really specific expectations. We don't mind having all kinds of twists and turns, but we want the book to have a happy ending. Even though this series isn't being marketed as “Romance”, can I tell romance readers that there is some sort of romantic Happy Ever After to the series?
Eugene: Well, there it depends on who you want the main character to end up with. It's a tricky ending. I'm a fan of certain bittersweet endings, where things end well – mostly. Most of the characters end up in a good place. SPOILER: [One of the challenges is that because the characters are always moving from one universe to another, the characters that you see aren't always the same versions. So only Ephraim gets to have a complete arc, because he's the only one we stick with through the whole journey.
Carrie: What drew you to writing in the Young Adult genre?
Eugene: I was in the Clarion West Writing Workshop, and my fifth week instructor, Gordon Van Gelder, told me that I have a really strong YA voice. Then I got involved with the writing group Altered Fluid, and consistently the stories I would turn in to the group for critique were getting feedback that said, “This is a really great idea, but it sounds like a YA story, but the YA tone doesn't seem appropriate for this piece.” For instance, I wrote a story about body swapping sex parties. And it somehow came out like a YA comedy. Now I think it would make an awesome YA! But at the time, I was thinking that I needed to change the style of my work to erase the YA tone since these stories were being marketed for adults.
Then I got the idea for Fair Coin. My wife, who at the time was my girlfriend, loved YA. I told her about the basic premise of Fair Coin, and she said, “This is a great idea! I think you could sell this”. She helped me brainstorm it and she gave me a list of YA books to read that were current, and that were great. I had been out of touch with YA pretty much since I was a young adult. So, I started reading them, and I realized that not only was the story I wanted to tell a YA story, but also that I really love YA fiction.
Eugene: I really like character, and YA is all about the character. No matter what else is going on with the world building, the main focus is on how these teens are responding to it. That really speaks to me, as a reader and as a writer. Also YA books don't need so much time to sell you on the world. You kind of go with it, and get just the minimal amount of information you need to buy into it. The pacing and the world building – to – character ratio is appealing to me. I can read ten YA books in the amount of time it would take me to read one epic fantasy. I like being able to explore so many different stories.
Carrie: Do you feel that being marketed as YA is constricting?
Eugene: YA is very freeing, because you can write in every genre, and it's still YA. Your readers will read whatever you're writing if they like your work. My experience with marketing might be a little bit different, because Fair Coin was published by Pyr, which at the time was publishing primarily for adults. Consequently, I think I got exposure to both the adult market and to Young Adult. So there might be more adults reading Fair Coin than you would typically see with YA books.
Carrie: Who are some of your favorite authors?
One of my favorite authors is William Sleator. His book, Interstellar Pig, is the first science fiction book I ever read. One book that really stuck with me is Singularity. Some of his books are very subtly dark and psychologically interesting. He was wonderful at taking real science and working it into a science fiction story in a compelling way by focusing on the characters and being able to explain that science in a way that is accessible.
I also like Maureen Johnson. I love the way that she writes humor. Her characters are ones I would like to hang out with. Philip Reeve's series, Mortal Engines Quartet, has really complex characters who make mistakes for what they think are the right reasons. He does something I hardly ever see, where the main characters in the first books are kids, and in the last books they are adults and they have kids, so he's kept the adult characters and tells their whole story while still staying Young Adult.
Carrie: Do I remember hearing that you used to read the books your sister would bring home?
Eugene: I did, yes! I loved Christopher Pike, The Babysitter's Club, and Sweet Valley High. I read at least forty-five or fifty of the Sweet Valley High books. I read every thing when I was a kid. I have twins in Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, because identity is a huge aspect of those two books – a major theme is what really makes you “you”. And I really remember the Sweet Valley High where Elizabeth gets into a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend, and she falls into a coma, and when she wakes up, she starts acting like her sister, Jessica. And I loved her car! I always wanted a yellow convertible, like the Hardy Boys, the blue Mustang from Nancy Drew, and the red Fiat Spider from Sweet Valley High!
The Babysitter's Club is interesting because that was probably the only book series that I read that had an Asian character in it. Claudia! She was the artistic type, and I was interested in artistic things, so I identified with her.
Whenever people talk down about YA, I ask, “What are your favorite books?” And most of the time, they mention a book they read when they were a kid. There's something about those books that is so memorable. Maybe it's the way your brain is developing at the time, or maybe it's the way the stories affect you. But when I think of my favorite books, the first thing that comes to mind is something that I read when I was a kid.
On using The Gilmore Girls to propose to his wife:
I love The Gilmore Girls, and I bought the DVDs. My wife had never seen the show, so we started watching it together. So when I decided that it was time to propose, I wanted to do something different. So, I took the DVD and copied it, and edited the menu, so that one of the episode titles was “Will you marry me?”. And I changed the photos on the menu items and put it all back together. So, when we were sitting down together to watch Gilmore Girls, I popped in my special disk and handed her the remote, and said “Oh, I think we're on the fourth episode”. But she clicked into the third episode tight away, and then she clicked out and clicked into the fourth episode right away without looking at the titles, and I'm sitting there, sweating. But fortunately I had swapped out the chapter titles with pictures of us. And that clued her in. I was pretty happy with how that turned out!
Thank you to EC Myers for the interview! Stay tuned for more interviews and conversations from Carrie's journey to the Nebula Awards.