Monday, January 07, 2013

Author Interview: Lauren Oliver

By Karen Rock
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Beloved, bestselling, YA author Lauren Oliver, stopped by to chat with us about her contemporary novel Before I Fall, dystopian series, Delirium, and her exciting, upcoming projects.

Here’s what she had to say about her eclectic writing journey:

As a successful writer of both realistic and dystopian fiction with Before I Fall and your Delirium series, what elements are important to you, regardless of genre, in appealing to readers?

I think people read novels to learn, essentially, about people. So it’s important for me to create realistic and well-rounded characters and to show them undergoing transformations.

The story structure of Before I Fall is one of the most unique, memorable, and effective formats I’ve read. Would you discuss your thought-process in telling the story this way? How did it help you fulfill the goals you had for the novel? 

I’m not sure it was totally conscious; I needed to find a way for Sam, the main character, to begin to perceive the consequences of her actions. I thought of it in terms of a physical analogy: a person orbiting around a single set of events and seeing them from different angles.

Some might question if a popular, self-absorbed, charmed protagonist like Samantha Kingston would be relatable to readers. Why was she the right narrator for Before I Fall? How did you transform her into the sympathetic character we root for by the end of the novel?

I always felt that although Sam was not particularly likable, she was deeply recognizable.

And from the beginning I tried to give hints that there were aspects of her character that could were redeemable. She’s not a bad person. But she’s a very, very careless and afraid person at the start of the novel. She moves toward a kind of bravery and integrity over the course of the book.

To what degree do you feel chance versus choice determines our destiny? How does this issue factor into Before I Fall?

Well, I think Before I Fall is ultimately a book about choice, although there are some ultimate “limits” to what we can influence (i.e., Sam cannot ultimately control her death). At the same time, I believe choice, personal choice, has tremendous impact in our lives.

What drew you to a dystopian series project after writing Before I Fall?

I didn’t originally conceive it as a “dystopian” project; that’s a label that was applied to the book afterward. I was drawn to the concept and the character of Lena, and I was very clear about the fact that I wanted to do something quite different from BIF.

What real world issues served as inspiration when imagining Delirium’s dystopian world?

I was definitely inspired by places in the world where issues of love and sex are rigorously controlled and where access to free information is limited.

The question of whether giving up personal control is needed for a stable society is one Lena learns to question in Delirium and challenges in its sequel, Pandemonium. 

What further realizations and/or character growth can we expect for Lena in the next novel in the series, Requiem… and any chance that release date is moved up from March, 2013?

In Requiem, Lena begins to question whether such a thing as free choice truly exists, or whether we are always influenced by the confluence of external circumstances. And sadly, the release date has not yet moved up!

I’ve heard that Requiem will be told in alternating points of view. What prompted your exciting decision to change the narration of the series? What can you share about it with your fans?

In order to keep pushing myself as a writer, I feel I need to keep challenging myself to try different perspectives, different kinds of projects, different voices. So I really wanted Requiem to push the boundary in terms of what I’d already tried.

Thanks for answering our questions, Lauren! Your diverse tastes keep your fans intrigued and guessing. What upcoming projects can we look forward to seeing from you? 

I’m working on a realistic YA called Panic, and after that, I have a book for grownups coming out. I’ll keep doing YA and middle grade and all of it, if I can!

Cynsational Notes

More on Karen Rock
In a quest to provide her eighth grade students with quality reading material, English teacher Karen Rock read everything out there and couldn’t wait to add her voice to the conversation of books.

Now a debut YA series author, Karen is thrilled to pen stories that teens can relate to. When she’s not busy reading and writing, Karen is downloading live versions of favorite songs, watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" marathons, obsessing over reality TV contestants (Adam Lambert you were robbed!), cooking her family’s delizioso Italian recipes, and occasionally rescuing local wildlife from neighborhood cats.

She lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, her very appreciated beta-reader daughter and two King Charles Cavalier Cocker Spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch,” though they’ve managed to teach her the trick!

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on twitter @karenrock5. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Kelly Starling Lyons and Don Tate on the release of Hope's Gift (Putnam, 2012). From the promotional copy:

A poignant story celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s 1862 and the Civil War has turned out to be a long, deadly conflict. Hope’s father can’t stand the waiting a minute longer and decides to join the Union army to fight for freedom. He slips away one tearful night, leaving Hope, who knows she may never see her father again, with only a conch shell for comfort. Its sound, Papa says, echoes the promised song of freedom. It’s a long wait for freedom and on the nights when the cannons roar, Papa seems farther away than ever. But then Lincoln finally does it: on January 1, 1863, he issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves, and a joyful Hope finally spies the outline of a familiar man standing on the horizon.

Affectingly written and gorgeously illustrated, Hope’s Gift captures a significant moment in American history with deep emotion and a lot of charm. 

More News

Faking a Thicker Skin by Jessica Martinez from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing. Peek: "It’s one thing to say we shouldn’t take criticism personally, but writing is personal. And if it’s not, it’s probably not very good."

Taking Action by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "An action plan is exactly what it sounds like–a written plan to take concrete action steps to perform a behavior that leads to accomplishing your end goal. An action plan involves when you will do something, where you will do it, and how you will do it."

New York Times Bestseller Lists and Gender Dominance: A Brief Survey by Casey Wilson from Kidlit at UF. Peek: "Are there more male or female authors on the NYT lists? Do male or female authors rank higher and/or more consistently on the lists? How long do female authors stay on the lists compared to male authors?"

What It Takes to be a Writer by Robinson Wells from Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing. Peek: "I can truly say that whenever I have followed that advice, things have gone well. And when I have not followed that advice--when I've spent too long fiddling around with worldbuilding, or taking some time off to 'relax', or getting caught up in the business side of writing--my productivity and personal happiness has always suffered."

Mary Kole Editorial Services: consulting and editorial services for writers from the agent-author.

Writing Groups: A Field Guide by Jane Lebak from Peek: "Let's check out three distinct species of writing groups."

2012 Cybils Finalists from The Cybils 2012: Children's and Young Adult Blogger's Literary Awards. Special cheers to Cynsational authors Mike Jung, Kate Hosford, Kate Messner, Lisa Harkrader, Laura Purdie, Salas, J. Patrick Lewis, Ron Koertge, and Barry Lyga.

Interview with Ellen Oh from Cari's Book Blog. Peek: "Like the Nine Dragon Waterfall, which is an actual waterfall in North Korea and the legend of the eight heavenly maidens who were said to descend to earth and bathe in the jade green pools. The chance to incorporate these myths and legends were the best part about writing this book."

Now Go Write: Write Blind from Peek: "Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping, not worrying about punctuation or even making sense. Repeat words if you get stuck; there’s no wrong way to do this."

Maintaining Long-Term Success by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "Setbacks are simply lapses in our upward spiral, or small break in our new successful routine, a momentary interruption on the way to our writing goal." See also Organizing: Targets Versus Goals.

PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship ($5000) from PEN America. Peek: "The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship of $5,000 is offered annually to an author of children's or young-adult fiction. The Fellowship has been developed to help writers whose work is of high literary caliber but who have not yet attracted a broad readership. The Fellowship is designed to assist a writer at a crucial moment in his or her career to complete a book-length work-in-progress."

Why Literary Lookalikes Are Important for Kids by Aimee Eubanks Davis from The Huffington Post. Peek: "It doesn't take away from teacher quality policy work when a publisher fosters the career of the next Alma Flor Ada. It doesn't cost a school district money when an author tells the story of Graciela instead of Grace."

Romancing the Writing from Sara Zarr. Peek: "...time does its work and what was new is familiar, and perhaps contempt is bred in the unswept corners, the unmaintained habits of appreciating the lover, the friendship, the career, the salvation." Note: required reading. 

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of Buffy: The Making of a Slayer by Nancy Holder (47 North) is Abby in Rhode Island.

The winner of The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh, illustrated by Layne Johnson (Calkins Creek, 2012) is Alison in Massachusetts.

Check out the Keep Calm and Query On giveaway at Teaching Authors.

More Personally

Happy 2013! Here's a peek into my personal celebrations:

What I gave Greg Leitich Smith for Christmas.
What he gave me!
Here's a closer look.
I saw "White Christmas" at the Zach Theater.
With Greg.
I also had fun New Year's Eve at The Writing Barn (here with Brian Yansky, Brian Anderson & Sean Petrie; see more pics.

Publishers Weekly says of Feral Nights (Candlewick, 2013): "Smith’s fantasy smoothly switches between the three protagonists’ perspectives, while expertly blending the mythical and the modern. The story’s sharp banter and edgy plot make for an entertaining and clever story about loyalty and reconciling differences."

Booklist calls it "sexy, fast-paced" and cheers the "ending that satisfies and should win her many new fans."

In the short term, Cynsations will be posting on a reduced and sporadic schedule. I'm on a tight submission deadline for book two in the Feral series, and that is taking priority. (Also, I played a lot over the holidays.)

Thanks for your patience, understanding and support!

Personal Links
Cynsational Events

Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith Jan. 19 at Young Adult Keller (Texas) Book Festival (YAK Fest). See more information from I Read Banned Books.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Author Interview & Giveaway: Laini Taylor

By Karen Rock
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Laini Taylor, author of the bestselling YA fantasy series Daughter of Smoke & Bone, has been busy touring the country promoting the second book in the trilogy, Days of Blood & Starlight. 

In between attending themed parties thrown by students and packed book signings, she took the time to answer a few questions for us.

Daughter of Smoke & Bone and the recently released sequel Days of Blood & Starlight raise the bar in fantasy fiction series writing. What do you enjoy most about this genre?

First, thank you so much! And the answer is: I enjoy everything the most about fantasy, that is, about fantasy versus non-fantasy. I read all kinds of books, but fantasy in all its forms and sub-genres is by far my favorite, and what I always return to.

When I write, even if I were to set out to write something mainstream and realistic, I feel sure that magic would creep in. I can’t help it. I relish the imaginative possibilities of fantasy, where anything can happen. I love creatures and mythology and folklore and the idea of these things crossing over into “reality.” I love thinking about magic, and what it would be like if it were really part of our lives.

And one of the biggest things about fantasy that I appreciate is its ability to universalize themes in a way that lets us look at Big Ideas like war and honor and sacrifice and love in a resonant way, as human themes that are deeply meaningful in our lives, free from the allegiances and prejudices we bring to stories that happen in our real world.

Laini on book tour at BookPeople in Austin, Texas
I think that fantasy serves a very important function as an allegory for everything we contend with in reality, and best of all: it is empowering. I personally think that the biggest appeal of fantasy is in the vicarious experience of heroism, and acting in the world in a larger way than most of us get to in real life. In books, living through the characters, we get to affect change in major ways. We get to save the world! Besides all that, it is just the most fun!

The imaginative worlds and the creatures that inhabit them in your YA trilogy, Daughter of Smoke & Bone, are stunning. What inspires you creatively?

Thank you! Folklore is a big inspiration. The books that I keep in my writing room versus the downstairs library are chiefly my folklore books: fairy tales, superstitions, myth and legend, creatures, and also books about warfare and battle.

Reading folklore from a particular culture is a great way to go about devising a fantasy culture: within the framework of folklore, you get at a sense of what makes a culture feel cohesive and real, what gives it a unique flavor. Sometimes I draw specific ideas, other times I might just make note of what I think contributes to the overall pervasive sense of a real culture. I make notes in notebooks and end up finding these tidbits later and using them in a kind of patchwork quilt of ideas, just taking my favorite parts and reforming them into some new whole, with additions of my own.

Some great books on creatures are A Field Guide to Demons by Mack & Mack, and Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns & Goblins by Carol Rose.

I can’t say that either of these informed the specific characters and beings in Daughter of Smoke & Bone, but they have definitely been ingested by me and become part of the general imaginative well that I draw from. Weird science and history are also big sources of inspiration.

Neither of your protagonists, Karou, a human raised by Chimera, or Akiva, a Misbegotten angel, fit neatly into their worlds, nor do they seem wholly comfortable with their lives. Were there times, growing up, when you felt as though you didn’t fit in? How might such experiences have shaped you as an author and your work?

Sure, I think that the fantasy trope of the outsider is a great metaphor for adolescence in general. As I said earlier about fantasy serving as allegory for the real concerns in our lives, here’s a great example. There are certain tropes that have huge universal appeal, for the very reason that they are such a part of the human psyche, and this is one of them: the outsider searching for connection, for meaning, for belonging. It’s rooted in basic human needs, and is hugely powerful.

Personally, I moved a lot as a kid, having been a Navy brat, and I had to learn to make friends swiftly. I was lucky for the most part to live in communities where everyone was used to this swift friend-making and reforming of social groups (other military kids), but it was a lot harder when I moved to a civilian community at age 15, where this was not the case.

It turned out all right, but I absolutely remember that time in my life as a powerless one, and not my favorite. I literally fled the country it the day after high school graduation. I couldn’t get on a plane fast enough, back to Europe, to another group of people who swiftly and easily reform social groups: travelers.

Laini with students
It is no coincidence, I think, that travelers and journeys are another powerful fantasy trope. I’m very grateful for my upbringing moving around and living in cool places, for giving me a taste for the exotic and mysterious, which I love in books as both a reader and a writer.

Zuzana and her boyfriend Mik are two of my favorite characters! They bring humor to grim, dark moments such as when Zuzana calls the diabolical, white-mane wolf, Thiago “The other white meat.” Is it important to make readers laugh, even during high-stakes, dire moments?

Absolutely. There were some books that served as my “cautionary tales” while writing Days of Blood & Starlight: books I’d read where things became so unrelentingly bleak for the characters that I just didn’t want to be there. I found myself reluctant to open them back up; sometimes I didn’t open them back up.

When I was writing Days, I knew it would take the characters to a grim place, but I didn’t want it to ever be too much for the reader. I wanted to keep some of the levity and whimsy and rich fun of the first book, and Zuzana and Mik were definitely a big part of the plan for accomplishing this. I love writing them, and I’m glad to hear that readers love reading them.

Their purpose isn’t just comic relief though: they are a reminder to Karou of her old “normal”, and of another way of living besides war and deprivation, and of the possibility of love. They are a living, breathing, kissing exhibit A of a life worth fighting for.

Like another great fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, war is a major component of your series. In Days of Blood & Starlight, a young soldier asks Akiva a heart-wrenching question. “What is it all for?... I can’t remember. I… I don’t think I ever knew.” What do your characters come to learn about war? Or what do you wish they’d learn? How does your portrayal of war differ from Tolkien’s?

Cake is served at a school visit!
Hm. It seems like this could be a question for serious study!

I love Tolkien, and am mindful that he experienced war in a very real way, as a soldier in WWI, and was drawing on personal experience in a way I never could (and thank goodness for that!).

I did not feel in any way equal to the task of depicting war, and I was a little slow in admitting to myself that I had set myself up to try to do that. I was afraid of it, because in some YA novels the wars come across as contrived and unbelievable and I hoped I could do justice to the gravity of the subject matter without taking my readers farther into a realistic depiction than any of us really want to go.

As horrific as some of the events in Days are, they don’t come close to the true horror of war. I went as far as I felt I could (and even that was uncomfortable) for the kind of book I wanted to write, and for the audience I was reaching for.

What I think my characters are coming to grips with is the fact that this isn’t a matter of good versus evil (as is more the case in Tolkien). It’s people killing people, and neither side is in the right. It’s all senseless, this ceaseless cycle of attacks and reprisals.

The thing that interests me is: how do you begin to end something like this? Can enemies learn to see each other in a new way? It has happened, in human history. It clearly can happen, and that gives me hope. The idea was to show how it might happen, where and how it might begin — with a few characters — and how it might take hold and spread. That’s where we are in the series, right in the middle of that sea change. It will remain for book 3 to see them through — hopefully!

How much of the series was planned in advance before you wrote the first novel, Daughter of Smoke & Bone? Did any of those plans change and if so, can you share any of those differences with us? How flexible are you in allowing such changes to your overall plan?

Ha, well, nothing was planned before I wrote Daughter. It all began as a freewriting exercise, and grew very organically out of what appeared in one day’s writing. That said, it took a lot of brainstorming after the initial concept to get the plot to take shape.

For a long time, I tried to make it be a stand-alone novel, but after a while it had clearly become too big for that, so I grudgingly considered two books, and then finally, after finishing Daughter, accepted that it was a trilogy. (As with taking on war, I was afraid to take on a trilogy. It’s all very daunting!)

My plans for the series arc have been fairly loose since then though. I like to leave myself a lot of room to explore, and tend to not think too far beyond the ending of the book at hand. I leave my future-self to contend with future books, and I suppose I have a degree of faith that I’ll figure it out as I go.

There is fear, too, of course, but outlining the whole series in detail just wasn’t ever an option for me. I really have only a shadowy plan, and a hoped-for outcome. The way I write, so much of the plot needs to come out of the characters’ emotional arcs, and that just is something that arising through writing, and never through outlining.

In the past I tried to do detailed outlining up front, and I found that I couldn’t know what the characters would do so far ahead of time, and also that it killed the excitement for me. There were a few moments I was writing toward the entire time, that were the carrots I was chasing, and that don’t happen until close to the end. I knew I wanted to get to them, and the whole book was a way of making it happen in a way that felt natural and—this is what I’m always shooting for—inevitable.

If you were a chimaera in one of your novels, what would you look like?

Definitely a Kirin. In creating Madrigal, I created the chimaera I would want to be!

Thanks so much for answering our questions, Laini! We’ll look forward to the amazing conclusion of your trilogy.

Cynsational Notes

More on Karen Rock
In a quest to provide her eighth grade students with quality reading material, English teacher Karen Rock read everything out there and couldn’t wait to add her voice to the conversation of books.

Now a debut YA series author, Karen is thrilled to pen stories that teens can relate to. When she’s not busy reading and writing, Karen is downloading live versions of favorite songs, watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" marathons, obsessing over reality TV contestants (Adam Lambert you were robbed!), cooking her family’s delizioso Italian recipes, and occasionally rescuing local wildlife from neighborhood cats.

She lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, her very appreciated beta-reader daughter and two King Charles Cavalier Cocker Spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch,” though they’ve managed to teach her the trick!

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on twitter @karenrock5. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three bookplate-autographed copies of Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor (Little Brown, 2012). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Welcome 2013 & Best Birthday Ever

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Austin children's-YA literary luminaries shone bright at the New Year's Eve party at The Writing Barn. It also was my birthday.

My hair & makeup by Barbara Morin of Sirens Salon in Austin.
Because every semi-formal needs cowboy boots.
Cory and Mark Oakes, Nikki Loftin and Dave Wilson
Brian Anderson & Greg Leitich Smith
Samantha Clark & Bethany Hegedus
Gene Brenek
Cory & Shelli Cornelison
Don and Tammy Tate
Frances Hill Yansky & Brian Yansky
Samantha & Salima Alikhan
Mark G. Mitchell & Julie Lake
Is it Greg or James Bond? Who can tell?
Collage by Shelley Ann Jackson, a birthday gift to me from my children's-YA writing-illustrating community.

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