2016 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with Stephanie Oakes

Stephanie Oakes is a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award. The award winner will be oOOeM1xi_400x400announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Jan. 11, 2016.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is the powerful story of a teenager without hands, who has spent years of her life in a strict cult. She recounts her horrific life as a cult member as she’s behind bars; including the events that led up to the night a fire destroyed the cult’s encampment and resulted in the Prophet’s death.

The Sacred LivesCongratulations on being selected as a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award Were you surprised to find out you’d been selected?

I was completely surprised! I knew what an incredible year for debuts it had been, and I thought there was no way my book would be in the running. It was such a great feeling to get that call!

There have been several recent YA books that contain elements of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s fairytale Girl Without Hands. I read that author Rosamund Hodge spoke to you about it when she was writing her book Crimson Bound. Why did you decide to write a retelling of that particular tale?

Yes, Rosamund and I chatted about research while she was working on Crimson Bound—that was a fun connection to make. I just loved the story of the fairy tale so much. It was incredibly rich, while at the same time, there were great swathes of the original story that were pretty blank, so there was room to play around with characters, their motivations, and the setting.

It has a rather timeless feel to it yet I believe it’s supposed to be somewhat contemporary. What time period or year is it set in?

It’s set in modern times. I’m a huge fan of fairy tale retellings, but I hadn’t ever read a retelling in a modern setting, so I wanted to give that a try.

The book’s first words are chilling, “I am a blood –soaked girl.” By starting it with Minnow’s brutal act of violence, it really draws the reader in. Was that always the way you’d intended for readers to be introduced to Minnow?

This book underwent so many revisions and rewrites that the beginning changed more times than I can remember. When I first wrote that line, I think it showed up around the third or fourth chapter, but gradually I realized that opening Minnow’s story on that scene was a real hook, so I shuffled it to the front.

People might think Angel is a monster but she’s actually honest about why she’s in the juvenile justice center and does some decent things for others prisoners, especially Minnow. What are you trying to say about young people – or people of any age – who are incarcerated?

I have a great deal of sympathy for young people in juvenile detention centers. The more I researched the forces that often contribute to young people arriving in juvenile detention (factors like race and poverty level, and other factors often completely out of their control), I knew my depiction of that place and the inmates was not going to be an overly judgmental one. These are such complicated issues with a lot of shades of gray. To me, someone like Angel is not a monster—she’s something much more complicated, which made her such a fascinating character to write.

One of the most shocking events in the book concerns Minnow’s little sister. That was very hard to read. Did you consider altering that or is that just as you’d planned?

That part was at one point much more gruesome and extreme, affecting more characters. Eventually, it was edited down to only focus on Minnow’s sister, at the suggestion of my editor. It was a good call!

This is a very dark story. Did you worry it might be too dark for teens? Was it always meant to be published as YA?

I’m a devoted fan of YA, and this book was always intended for a YA audience. I did wonder that it might be too dark, but I knew that there’s some precedent for that in YA. YA readers are kind of game for anything, which is one of the reasons I love YA so much. I also knew I had to write it, regardless of if it was ever published, so I didn’t worry about that too much.

There’s no possibility of a sequel or a follow up book to this one, is there? I bet readers might like to know how Minnow fares.

No, probably not. I’m happy with the ending, and I like that the readers get to imagine Minnow’s future for themselves.

What kinds of books did you read as a teen? (Dark, edgy stuff?). What authors do you read now?

I was actually not a reader of tons of dark, edgy YA as a teen and I’ve even wondered if teenage me would’ve read this book. I certainly hope so! I was a big reader of fantasy and historical fiction as a kid, but over time, I found creepier and darker stories, and now I’m a fan of anything that pushes an envelope. Nowadays, I’m a pretty diverse reader, but the majority of my reading is composed of YA.

Did you ever imagine you’d be a published author? What or who has inspired you to be a writer?

From the time I was in high school, I dreamed about becoming a published author but I didn’t know how one actually went about doing that until much later. With the help of Google, I learned that, though difficult, there were pretty straightforward steps to getting published. Mostly, I learned, it was about perseverance. Early on, I was very inspired by Shannon Hale, whose book The Goose Girl is an incredibly well-written fairy tale retelling, and inspired me to try it myself. She also has a very informative blog with tons of information about the publication process and her writing journey.

What are you working on now?

I’m revising my second YA novel, The Arsonist, another mystery set alternately in modern day California and 1980s East Berlin. It’ll be out in 2017.

-Sharon Rawlins, currently reading the galley of The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson