This is the second interview in a series; check out the first interview with Melina Marchetta.
I was on my way to the American Library Association’s Annual Conference, and everyone seemed to be buzzing about this book called Soul Enchilada, which had been nominated for YALSA’s 2010 Best Books for Young Adults list. I bumped it to the top of the to-read pile, devoured it in huge chunks over a long weekend, and then spent a lot of time talking about why there should be a sequel (which — despite a lot of good textual reasons — basically boiled down to “because I want one!”). I loved the multicultural setting and characters, the witty dialogue, the over-the-top plot machinations, and the sly Biblical references and Faustian deal-with-the-devil twists. So when Black Hole Sun appeared a year later, I was thrilled.
There’s not nearly enough straight-up science fiction for teens (yes, there’s some — I wrote about it earlier, and other Hub bloggers wrote about it here, here, and here.), but the Sun books (Black Hole Sun, Invisible Sun, and the recently-released Shadow on the Sun) are an awesome addition. I mean, supercharged old-school Mars setting? Inventive technology and killer wildlife? Messy planetary politics? Messier interpersonal dynamics? Yes, please! Thank you David, for agreeing to talk with me about your teen years and about your books.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
Comic book nerd. Movie buff. TV sitcom aficionado. Avid reader. Closet novelist. Quiet. Completely without fashion sense. Wickedly funny if you were close enough to hear me.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
Since I was six, I dreamed of being one thing: a professional baseball player. Sadly, a profound lack of talent and athleticism led me to fall back on the one gift I do have, the ability to tell lies freely and with great abandon, also known as writing fiction.
What were your high school years like?
This is a tough question because my answer reads like the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Let’s start with the best, which was my senior year, when I found my stride as a person. I was the editor of the school newspaper, on the yearbook staff, played soccer, won academic awards, and pined away for the True Love I was never, ever going to get. How I got there involved three years of the worst time, which included poverty, bullying, tough classes, and a complete lack of understanding of who I was or who I was supposed to be. I did, however, write a novel in Econ class in the 11th grade. That helped because it gave my imagination a safe place to go.
As far as adults, there were two teachers who had a huge influence on my life. One was my ninth grade art teacher, who taught me to stand up for myself. The other was my tenth grade English teacher who, after making us read the above mentioned Dickens, introduced us to the first novel that I ever really loved in school, A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Though not quite a YA in the strictest terms, it was the first novel I ever read that featured characters close to my own age. I remembered that experience decades later when I decided to write YA myself.
What were some of your passions during that time?
Movies, books, and comics. Movies were Star Wars (I had a T-shirt for each day of the week), Close Encounters, and later, Alien. TV was Star Trek and Monty Python. My favorite comics were Marvels — Fantastic Four, the Avengers, X-Men, and Daredevil. Books came in all shapes and sizes. I found Tolkien for the first time, as well as the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen R. Donaldson. You can still see the influence from all of these in my work.
I didn’t play school sports until my senior year, when I joined the school’s first soccer team. Apparently I like kicking things. And music, well, music during my high school days was awful. It was the end of disco, and the New Wave of the early 80’s hadn’t hit yet. The first album I bought with my own money was Blondie’s Parallel Lines. It still sounds fresh today. Sort of.
Most of my weekends and summers were spent painting houses with my brother and father, who worked two jobs. We worked in all weather, including summer days when the temps reached 105 with 100% humidity. Nothing will inspire you to go to college like slapping paint on a wall with the sun bearing down on you, sweat pouring down your back, and wasps chasing you down a ladder.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
Another tough one. My family moved from a neighboring state after my eighth-grade year, so I found myself in a completely new school surrounded by people I didn’t know. In the new school system, ninth graders were separated from the rest of the high school, a move meant to make the transition from junior high to high school easier. The opposite actually happened. Within hours of the first day, I attracted the attention of a sadistic bully who was three years older than the rest of us. He and his friends did whatever they wanted — assaulting other guys, harassing girls, and berating the teachers. Then they decided I was their favorite target, largely because of the Star Wars T-shirts I mentioned before.
After three weeks of bullying I finally had enough and started fighting back. Of course, I was sent to the principal, who told me to stop being a wimp and grow up. Later, my art teacher pulled me aside and gave me some effective advice about dealing with bullies that I have never forgotten and still use. It’s not the kind of thing you put into print, but if anyone ever wants to hear it, I’ll be glad to share. At the same time, I was adopted by three African-American girls in my civics class, who drew me into their social circle — probably out of pity, to be honest — and who I still count among my best friends ever. I have forgotten the names of the bullies, but I remember the names of the people who gave me a place to belong.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
There were several things that had an impact. Writing a novel in class made an impact because I never doubted afterwards that it was possible to write one again. Being the editor of the school paper helped me learn to manage deadlines, edit, and write concisely.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
Best piece of advice ever: Stand up for yourself or no one else will. It was given to me in gym class when I was refereeing a volleyball game and wasn’t sure what call to make, so I didn’t make one. One of the seniors reminded me that it was my job to make the call and that I had to, right or wrong. The lesson has stuck with me. When it’s my job to make a decision, I make it.
Now if I were going back to the ninth grade me, I would give two pieces of advice: One, enjoy all that curly hair because it’s not going to be there for long and two, surround yourself with friends because they will help you far more than anyone can ever hurt you. Love beats hate every time.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
What’s life without a few regrets? That’s how we learn to treat people better going forward. If I could change a few things, though, I probably would. I would be kinder to other kids than I was. I would say sorry and excuse me more than I did, and I for sure would’ve worn four pairs of jockey shorts that day the football coach decided to paddle me for flipping a pea in the lunch room.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
The road not taken. Definitely. When you’re young the future is full of possibilities and opportunities. When you choose one road, then the other roads either narrow or close all together. The journey you’re on can be rich and joyful but I think that a part of us always looks back to consider where another road may have taken us. The tragedy of choice is that life is too often a one-way street — you can never go back. The intrigue of youth is that the possibilities seem endless. Maybe that’s why 17 is my favorite age for characters.
Every Day I Write the Book
Your first published novel, Soul Enchilada, is a unique urban fantasy set in El Paso; Black Hole Sun, Invisible Sun, and your newest book, Shadow on the Sun, are straight-up science fiction. What prompted the genre switch, and did the change alter your writing process (especially the world-building aspect) in any way? Are there other genres you’d like to tackle going forward?
I’ve always been a genre-bender, both in my reading and my writing, where I define myself as a fan of speculative fiction, which is an umbrella for anything imagined. The process of world building for Soul and the Sun books wasn’t much different. The places are both real, so I used maps and photos for realism, then added a couple of layers of created mythos for resonance. My favorite thing to do is mashup conventions of two or more genres to both create something different and to play with tropes. Some reviewers have noted that I always seem to be winking at my audience. For teens, that’s not probably true, but for adults who have the same pop cultural baggage I do, there’s maybe a wink or two or three. Going forward, I’d like to delve into some horror and myth, probably mixing in some hard science, as well.
Nonstop, cinematic action and memorable, highly engaging characters are hallmarks of your work, despite differences in setting and plot. How do you balance character development, relentless pacing, and plot twists, and do you feel that any one element is more critical than others, in terms of successful storytelling?
Character rules. Everything else — action, twists, explosion, etc. — is just to draw the readers into learning about the characters. As a writer, my strength is dialog, followed by characterization via dialogue. My weakness has always been plot, and even though you mention cinematic, nonstop action, my first few novels never saw print because they were called “quiet,” which means they were too focused on character. So I set about writing a novel, Soul Enchilada, that was loud in every way I could make it. That was so much fun, I did the same with the Sun books. Now, I’m used to it, but the most fun for me as a writer are those little moments of poignancy when we as readers understand the characters completely.
In addition to teaching students in both high school and college, you also earned a doctorate in education. Has your career as an educator influenced or colored your work? On the flip side, does being a writer of genre fiction for teens impact your career as an educator?
The two versions of me are like two sides of a coin. When I was teaching, I saw first hand how important it was for teens to see themselves in the books they were reading. My doctoral work and my scholarly articles were primarily about young adult literature pedagogy and adolescent literacy, especially about the power of student choice in reading selections. When I returned to writing fiction after earning tenure, I switched from writing literary short stories to young adult novels because I wanted to practice what I preach.
What new projects can we look forward to?
I’m working on a speculative fiction novel with strong horror tones and a science-based contemporary novel. There are always other projects cooking that I’m not allowed to say much about.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Melina Marchetta: “When you write the first line of a series, do you know what will happen in the very last book of the series?”
When I started Black Hole Sun I didn’t know it was going to be a series, so there was no way of knowing that it would end the way it did. But when I began to revise the novel, the line about Durango’s father molding him into the prince of Mars, I knew that the conflict between Durango and his father would be a story arc that could only be resolved in later stories. At that point, I knew how the conflict would come to an end.
David has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Malinda Lo. Watch for an interview with her in two weeks!
David Macinnis Gill, the past president of ALAN, is the author of Black Hole Sun, Invisible Sun, Shadow on the Sun and Soul Enchilada. He has also published short stories in literary journals such as the Crescent Review and Writers Forum, and specializes in young adult literature at UNC Wilmington. Rising Sun, a Black Hole Sun novella, is available as an ebook from Harper Teen.