Aug 19, 2012

UNSPOKEN and Sarah Rees Brennan

I'm SO excited to introduce you to savvy author, Sarah Rees Brennan, today. This interview has been on hold since March, when I finished an ARC of her latest paranormal YA, UNSPOKEN. The ARC included Sarah's email address (brave!) so of course, I had to tell her how much I loved this book. (also brave for me but kinda stalkerish/fangirlish) She responded very graciously not only to my gushing first email but to an interview request...which she then turned around in .5 nanoseconds. o.O  I really, really like organized people. being one myself and all. ahem. *looks modest*

Sarah's debut novel, The Demon's Lexicon, came out in 2009 - the first in a trilogy -  and got a starred review from the School Library Journal. Critics said that "even teens who don't consider themselves genre buffs will appreciate the solid writing, fast-paced plot and authenticity" Sarah created. She's also co-written Team Human with Justine Larbalestier, a vampire tale with a little zombie mixed in....Now, just from their blurbs, I can tell you that neither of these books fit my usual milieu. I'm not a paranormal fan. The thought of vampires fills me with such intense sarcastic power, my eyes practically roll out of my head and all I can parrot is: "whatever! whatever! whatever!"

BUT...what that reviewer said? True. Sarah's storytelling transcends genre. UNSPOKEN  hooked me with one line: Kami Glass is in love with someone she's never met—a boy she's talked to in her head since she was born. I read the novel in .5 nanoseconds. It was that good. And a bit inspiring. (read about that, plus see Unspoken's book trailer, here.)
Moi:  So Unspoken is set in the Cotswolds, one of the most adorable places on earth. Whyever did you choose it for the setting of this magical story?

SRB: My aunt lives there, so I know the place. ;) I've been to the Cotswolds many times, both to visit my family, and on walking tours, and when I was writing Unspoken I stayed in a small town, visiting others, walking through fields, and getting attacked by a very large fountain and a very small goat. (The countryside can be a dangerous place...)
I knew I wanted the English countryside, and I wanted to write about a small town, somewhere that was really beautiful but also remote: somewhere that seemed like a countryside idyll, until it didn't, somewhere with a lot of secrets under shady trees and amidst loveliness that was almost magical.
In the Cotswolds the town names seem like stories (Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh, the Severn Vale are real places, and Sorry-in-the-Vale seemed to fit right in.) Even the stone there looks like gold from a fairytale: it was perfect.

Moi: I LOVE that Kami is half-Japanese. Talk about if you thought about this ahead of time, or if she just popped out of your head, fully grown. Will Japanese folk-lore get more play in the next two books?

SRB: Kami being part Japanese wasn't the first thing I knew about her (that was that she was a schoolgirl reporter, and then that she had a goofy sense of humour)... but it was one of the early things. I've read quite a few Gothic novels (you know, huge manor, mystery and secrets!) in which the heroine finds herself in a Mysterious and Strange Land, but the heroine herself was always white and English, and of course a lot of English people aren't white! It started to seem weird to me that someone with the same background was front and centre again and again.
Kazuo Ishiguro, a writer of Japanese descent living in England, said: "I grew up with a very strong image in my head of this other country, a very important other country to which I had a strong emotional tie[...]. In England I was all the time building up this picture in my head, an imaginary Japan."

That really struck a chord with me. Kami's never been to Japan, and the stories she knows about it are uniquely her stories, but so are the English stories: she has so many stories. I knew from early on that folklore was a part of the plot, and I didn't want it to be just traditional English folklore. Countries have a lot of variety, have many different kinds of people all living there, making up the fabric of a home, and lots of different stories wind together to become one. I wanted to talk about that in Unspoken, which is so much about imagination and stories: about the imaginary worlds inside your head, and the different people who make up a homeland.
Moi: The most compelling thing for me about Unspoken was your tension. Talk about drafting tension - is there a magic formula to creating great tension between characters? Are you able to tell while you're writing if you've achieved that, or does that knowledge always come w/ beta feedback?

SRB: Thank you. ;) Golly, I have never thought about tension as its own thing: you write the characters as realistically as you can, and the relationship between them as well as you can, and conflict or tension arises because of the people they are: it seems real and you care if the writer's succeeded in making you believe in the characters and care about them.
Kami has a lot of tension with a lot of people: her parents, her imaginary friend, her real friends, the people she's known all her life and the new people entering her life. Tension comes from the characters and the story they're in, the secrets revealed and the truths and lies told: whether you find or lose people as the story goes on, whether someone rubs you up the wrong way or fits with you. I enjoyed writing about Kami and Ash and Jared and Angela and Holly and everyone else, in many different combinations! I'm glad that came through!
I never know if I've achieved anything, but my critique partners saying 'Yes, that bit has the desired effect' or 'Add pain, more pain' or 'This banter isn't sitting right with me' or 'SO AND SO IS A CRAZY PERSON'... always very helpful. They're very helpful people. ;)

Moi: This book is the first of three, right? So how did you plot - a timeline? Rough sketches of each chapter? How is plotting a series different from plotting a single book? I mean, you can't go back to the first one and fix details later, if your third book goes in an entirely different direction, right?
SRB: I've never actually plotted a single book! I'm a series-writing kind of lady: I get so attached to the characters and the story that just one book doesn't seem like enough. I had a rough plan (not chapter by chapter) for the following books by the time the first one was finished: I know how the series is going to end, even if I end up taking a different path. I always know endings, and a few scenes in the middle, and then I figure out how to get there.
Besides, with publishing dates as they are, it is possible to go back and fix things if I absolutely need to. I'm partway through writing the third book now, and the second one is written and with my editor, and I can still change sentences in the first if I have to. Waiting for readers to read the first book is torture, but having it all flow together is achievable!

Moi: Some publishing questions: you've switched houses for this series. Did you have to go out on sub for Unspoken? If so, how was it different than when you submitted for your debut...and do editors give helpful feedback, even if they pass on your project? (you can tell that last one is for me. :)
SRB: I did have to go out on submission for Unspoken, yes! It was more or less the same as for my debut: agent gives you list of editors based on her thoughts (I had more suggestions this time around because I knew more), asks the editors if they wanna read, and then the editors go off with the book. You sit and wait, fainting and gnawing on electrical cords and then fainting again. Normal behaviour! Eventually, someone gets back with an offer. Maybe more than one someone. You then pass out for the fifty-seventh time, this time from relief and joy.
Editors sometimes just say 'Pass' and sometimes give helpful feedback: it very much depends on the editor. I've had great feedback from editors who I didn't end up working with: you remember the great feedback because you think 'Would definitely work with in the future.'

 Moi: Many say that houses have their own editing style. In general, have you noticed a big difference between how houses edit?
SRB: Oh, yes. Every editor edits differently, I think, but even house standards vary: Simon & Schuster did all its edits on paper, so I'd often feel bad about the huge packages going to and fro from Ireland, where I live.
With Random House it was all electronic, and the change in format made a big difference: sometimes I had to print out pages to remember how I used to edit! But then Harper Collins struck a middle ground electronic edits and on-paper copy edits.

Moi: You've got a heavy hitter for an editor - the VP of Random House for Children's Books. Talk about how you earned that attention and if it's made a difference so far in your publishing journey, compared to your last series.

SRB: Well, I've been very lucky with editors. Karen Wojtyla at Simon & Schuster, who edited my Demon's Lexicon series, and Anne Hoppe at Harper Collins, who currently edits my Team Human books cowritten with Justine Larbalestier, are excellent and heavy hitters, to borrow a phrase, as well. All three of my editors deserve acclaim because they are great!
Mallory Loehr, my editor for Unspoken and the other Lynburn Legacy books, is wonderful, though. I met her at a convention before Unspoken was even finished, and I was awestruck to meet Tamora Pierce's editor, because I'm a big fan of Tamora Pierce. She was funny, smart, and loved a lot of the same writers I did, and I thought that one day it would be amazing to work with her. I didn't dream I would work with her so soon afterward. I don't think anybody knows how they attracted an editor's attention... you just send the book out into the wide world, having made it the best you can, and hope it finds a really good home. Unspoken did.

With Unspoken, it was really great how absolutely Mallory kept me in the loop: I heard everything about covers (and I have the best cover ever, thanks to Mallory finding my wonderful cover artist Beth White). I had regular calls and emails, even when Mallory was on maternity leave! She has been amazing, and thanks to that it's been smooth sailing. I really love Mallory and feel very lucky she took a fancy to Unspoken! '

Moi: So how often do people ask you why you haven't written about leprechauns, seeing as how you're Irish and all. :)
SRB: Never, there doesn't seem that much demand for a leprechaun tale. I have however many times declared that I was going to write a story in which a girl is wooed by a hot, hot leprechaun. It's going to be called GETTING LUCKY... ;)
How about 50 shades of green? *snicker*

Moi: Now, a question about the Demon's Lexicon, your first series put out by Simon & Schuster. In reading the synopses on your site, it's clear your premise follows that of other published authors in this genre - there are plenty of demons/evil running riot but no recognized higher power to offset your evil dudes. (The good guys are humans, right?)  And you're not alone in this lack. Everyone seems to agree on the face of evil...but nobody can write a recognized GOOD higher power into their secular MS without controversy and/or genre change. Why do you think this is?

'The good guys are humans, right?' Er, well, no? Some of them? The hero of my Demon's Lexicon series is a demon. ;)
The demons in those books are not Christian demons (hell, heaven and angels are entirely unknowable to my demons as well as to my humans)--they are the creatures from Sumerian legend, made of fire when humans are made of earth, dangerous but not necessarily evil any more than humans are necessarily good. I can't speak for other authors, but I'm not really interested in writing about clear-cut absolute figures of good vs evil.
I'm interested in shades of gray, how people not originally evil turn toward it, how love is born and endures. So that's what I write about. I hope it's what people will want to read about.
Thank you very much for the interview! ;)

Thank YOU for stopping by, Sarah! Next Monday I'll post my top fall YA reading recommendations, one of which the winner of our Fact or Fiction bloghop will choose for his/her very own. Sign up here.
Have a great week!


Jess said...

Thanks for the great interview! I especially liked hearing about Sarah's interaction with her editors and her thoughts on things like tension: "Tension comes from the characters and the story they're in, the secrets revealed and the truths and lies told: whether you find or lose people as the story goes on, whether someone rubs you up the wrong way or fits with you." Love that :)

Thanks, ladies!

Emily R. King said...

I love the use of Japanese fork-lore. This really sounds like an intriguing read. And it's in my genre. Yay! Thanks for introducing it to me, Melodie! Nice to meet you, Sarah!

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Oh wow, I really want to read UNSPOKEN. Thanks for the great interview! I love the cover ... and it's wonderful that the protag is half-Japanese! One of my WiP's protags is half-Hmong and I didn't know that about her immediately either, but it's fun to discover and cultural subcurrents can add a whole different dimension to the story.

Nicole said...

Ah, I love SRB! I'm featuring a post on the Demon's Lexicon later this week, too. Thanks for this awesome interview. Unspoken is definitely on my TBR list!

Russo said...

This novel definatly intrigues me. From the title to the cover to your review. I'm going to check this book out for sure, thank you for the suggestion.

I found your blog from the GUTGAA event. I couldn't resist checking out a few blogs before the event started and following them as well.

Russo @

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Great interview! Best of luck!!
(think some of you guys' organization might rub off if I read interview twice?)

Jolene Perry said...

Great Interview!!!
Thanks so much!!!