I had the great pleasure of interviewing Leah Bobet and Sarah Beth Durst at the Nebula Awards weekend.
They were both up for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. Durst was up for her book, Vessel ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ), and Bobet was up for Above ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ).
I'd love to tell you that there was ferocious competition and maybe some hair pulling, but actually they seemed like the closest of friends. So there was no drama – just a lot of laughter and some amazing insights into fantasy literature and Young Adult publishing.
To tell you the truth, the really fun stuff in this interview was stuff I didn't include here in detail, because it involved a lot of me talking and because frankly it's tricky to transcribe. This was when we were just sort of chatting for about ten minutes before they had to go lead a panel discussion on YA, and it wasn't so much of an interview as me talking too much and the recorder being on. Here's a summary of that ten minutes:
1. Leah loves Criminal Minds, whereas I can't watch it at all because I can't go to sleep until I have re-written the show in my head so that everyone is OK. We all agreed that the cast is great and that this is a show in which choices matter – something that we talked about a lot in the context of what makes a book affirming.
2. Sarah has naturally curly hair. She says that interviewers ask her about this all the time. As an interview question, not as chitchat. I was flabbergasted. It never occurred to me that this would be an appropriate interview question. But let it not be said that I fail to bring you all the news – her hair is naturally curly.
3. Sarah had to do a Google search once on what it feels like to be stabbed. Apparently you can, in fact, find this information on Google. I mentioned that during my elementary school years I was interested in sharks, and I read a lot of descriptions of shark attacks, so I know what it is like to have your foot bitten off by a shark (a tugging sensation, I've been told). I'm sure it's a TOTAL COINCIDENCE that the interview ended at this point.
Anyway, here's the more coherent, more literary, and less strange portion of the interview,
Carrie: Sarah, I haven't read any of your books yet, and you've written a lot of them. Where should I start?
Sarah: Well, everything I write is fantasy. It's just the way my mind works. I was the kind of kid who checked the back of my closet for an exit to Narnia.
My first two books, Into the Wild ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ) and Out of the Wild ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ), are for ages nine and up, and they are about what it would be like if fairytale creatures lived in the real world.
My next one is probably the most romantic one. It's called Ice ( A | BN | K | S | iB ), and it's a retelling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and “Beauty and the Beast”. I would call that book romantic adventure.
Enchanted Ivy ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ) is my 'going to college' book. Vessel is the one that's nominated now, and it's more high fantasy. It's about a girl who is expected to sacrifice her body so her goddess will inhabit it, but the goddess doesn't come. It's about what happens after you lose your destiny.
Carrie: Leah, I can't wait to read Above! It's your first book, right?
Leah: Yes! I did a lot of short story work and poetry work for years before that, but Above is my first novel. Above was written as an adult novel and marketed as YA, so it kind of inhabits this weird, liminal space.
Carrie: This question is for both of you. Do you find it constricting to have your books labeled as Young Adult?
Sarah: I don't think about it at all. I think that the YA label has to do with the age of the protagonist. When I write, the age of the protagonist is dictated by the story. So Vessel is about a girl who leaves her childhood and finds her place in the world, and for me your teens are when it makes sense to do that. I have another book coming out this fall, The Lost, which is an adult book, and it has a theme of loss in it. So I wanted the main character to be someone who had experienced that, so she needed to be older, and that made it an adult book. But I think inherently the story is the story, and the age of the protagonist is whatever age the story belongs to.
Leah: We all have an idea of what YA means, and we project that onto the category, but really it's just all books. I agree with Sarah. When my agent said, “We should send this book to YA publishers,” I was like, “I don't understand your words.” But she said, “You have a teenage protagonist, and a coming of age arc. And there's a lot of discussion around home and what home means, and how you live in your community knowing that your parents have made terrible mistakes. And how you learn to forgive them for that, and understand that, without making those mistakes yourself. That's very much a function of growing up”. So when my agent put it like that, I could see it.
Young Adult is a different publishing subculture, I've found. Going there was like going to a new high school. There's a lot more emphasis on mutual support. The way you interact with your readers is so different. I find it restrictive in certain ways, because there are some things I would like to talk about that are outside of that young adult experience. They are things that young adults might not have lived through yet. But in certain ways it's also very freeing. There are no sub-genres in YA – it's just “Young Adult”, so everything is on one shelf. You're not on the science fiction shelf or the mystery shelf.
Sarah: There's a lot of freedom to hop genres!
Leah: You can really blend! And people mix stuff! Beth Revis is doing a series of romantic science fiction, and Rae Carson is doing one that combines adventure, romance, and epic fantasy. People just sort of go wild. You're not as bound by tropes if you choose not to be.
Sarah: I hop between subgenres. I did a fairy tale adventure, a vampire parody – oh my god, I forgot to list that one! Forgetting one of your books is like forgetting your child! Well, I did that one too: Drink, Slay, Love ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ).
Leah: And you could do that! You could write three fairy tale books and a goofy vampire book and then an epic fantasy. You couldn't have that career arc in adult. I'm doing the same thing. Above is urban fantasy. The book I'm finishing now is about what happens when you take Dust Bowl era literary short stories and slam them into a David Eddings novel. It's totally different. You can write a big mix of things, and your audience will follow you.
Carrie: You said that you interact with your audience differently in YA publishing. Can you talk more about that?
Leah: You don't ever want to discourage this, but you'll get fifteen year olds emailing you and saying, “Hi Author. I'm fifteen years old. I have a book blog here's a list of twenty-three questions that I would like for you to answer.” I wish I had the guts to do that at fifteen. It's kind of amazing – the book blogger culture. I've found with young adult readers right now – and it's partly because of social media, and partly because of Harry Potter and Twilight and Hunger Games being such social reading experiences – the act of reading is social. I think that in our generation, reading was much more solitary, and now you talk about books with other people, you recommend them to other people, and the author is part of the conversation.
Sarah: I know when I was growing up, I didn't think of authors as real people. I thought of them as dead or as magical, mystical unicorn things. And now you can get an email from somebody who says they just finished your book, or that they're on this particular page. It's so cool, because when you write, you're sort of trying to take somebody on a journey. You're trying to bring them along on this shared daydream. And because of this direct contact, you know where they're walking. You know where they are. It's really cool, because there's somebody out there making friends with the people who came out of your head. I feel really lucky to be writing in a time when there is the Internet.
Leah: Also, the effect is doubled, because we do not love things ever again the way we love them when we are fifteen. It's all-consuming. So every so often you get this blast of all-consuming feeling – love, hate, whatever. And it's such a different emotionally meaningful interaction, whereas in science fiction people tend to be kind of cerebral about things. There are stricter modes of interaction.
Carrie: Do you feel that the internet culture means more harsh comments come your way? How do you deal with that?
Sarah: I haven't gotten that! I mean, not everyone is going to like everything that I write, but I haven't had anyone be just mean.
Leah: I've had people be…confused. Above demands things from the reader, and I knew from the beginning that it was not going to be for everyone. And that's OK- that's why we have lots of books. I've had people get pretty strong in their opinions, but I feel pretty strongly that as a writer, people need places where they can talk about books and they don't have to be polite to me. I feel very strongly about that. People need to be able to express what a book meant to them and works for them and what doesn't, and my opinions and my thoughts are not so important that I should drop into that space on a parachute.
Carrie: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Sarah: Tamora Pierce, I love Charles de Lint, and Diana Wynne Jones, and Robin McKinley.
Leah: Peter Beagle! Patricia McKillip, Isabel Allende, Kathryn Busch, Natalie Hopkinson. And I love Sean Stewart.
On the universal themes of YA:
Sarah: I do think that the coming of age story is why YA is so popular across all ages. Because we all go through coming of age things, whether we're a teenager or an adult. We're always growing, and having these transition moments and so I think it resonates with people, even if you're not still sixteen, that experience of leaving the comfortable, going into the uncomfortable, and coming out changed.
Leah: Yes, and how you cope with that, because it's a very hard thing to do. And maybe because we all do it, we continually underestimate just how emotionally difficult that is. There's a reason people write about it so much. It's about love, death, and growing.
Sarah: The feeling of trying to find your place in the world – that's universal.
On the joy of writing, and the importance of a balanced life:
Sarah: I love to talk about writing, and I love to write. It's the only thing I ever wanted to do. I want to write every day for the rest of my life. It's what makes me happy.
Leah: That's interesting, because I have a bit of a contrast with that. I love writing, but it's not the only thing I do, and it's not the only thing I want. I'm pretty heavily involved in food security and in urban agriculture. I got sucked into a group that's doing civic engagement.
Sarah: A question I never know how to answer is, “What are your hobbies?” I write! That's what I do!
Leah: I have one of those brains that's never happy doing one thing no matter what it is. My job could be lying on a tropical island all day, and I would go mad, because I need to have about six things on the cooker.
Sarah: The other thing for me is that if I don't write on a particular day, it totally affects my worldview. Normally I'm a totally optimistic person. If I don't write – guess what? I need to string words together to feel balanced. It's kind of annoying. I need it! So it's really good that I love it, and that I'm doing it! I'm a nicer person when I'm writing. I think that books and stories are as essential as food, water, and shelter. It's how we cope with the world. And I need that in my life. When I write books, I write them a lot for me, and I try to write the kind of books that I want to read, in hopes that there are enough people out there who like me. But I try to write what I love.
That's actually advice I give to aspiring writers a lot. Instead of the advice being “Write what you know”, I think it should be “Write what you love”. The first reason for that is that it takes a long time to write a book, so if you're gonna do it, you've really got to love it. And the other is that it will shine through. It will come through the words.
Leah: My advice for aspiring authors is usually this is supposed to be fun. Remember that this is only one part of your life. And you have to have a balanced life, and be working toward what makes you happy. And so don't throw your happiness under the bus for this. I came out of workshop culture, and I think that's affected a lot of aspiring writers. I find a lot of people saying, “I HAVE to do this, ” and I'm like, “No. Are you happy? Do you have a good life? Does this fill you up, or drain you away?” Because if it drains you away, you don't have to do it. It's not worth it. Do things that fill you.
Getting back to what Sarah was saying about writing what you love – to me, it's always more interesting to be reading something that's telling me something about joy.
Sarah: Oh, yes! I like books that when you close it, you feel like there's something magic in the world, or in yourself. It takes you on a journey to someplace good. Even if you go through as lot of pain on that journey, it brings you out the other side and you feel like the world is a little bit larger.
Leah: I have a great appreciation for very dark books.
Sarah: There's a place where they can be very healing for some people.
Leah: It's about how we come through. I don't like it when the point of the book is that the world is a very bad place, because it's like, “And? Why are you telling me this as though it is interesting and new?” But I like things that have threads of light.
Sarah: One of the things that I really like about fantasy is I really feel that it is the literature of hope, and of optimism and empowerment. And I love that about it. I love that I can read a Tamora Pierce book and come out feeling that I can conquer the world.
Leah: It's not about whether the ending is happy or not – it's the feeling that your choices matter. That's the difference.
Thank you to Ms. Bobet and Ms. Durst for their time!