Saturday, April 25, 2015

Eden West Q&A

Here's a short interview I did for Candlewick last month. I've been asked these and similar questions many times recently, and my answers keep changing—too often, in the direction of unintelligibility. I'm reasonably happy with this version.

Eden West dips into the themes of religion, spirituality, and beliefs, similar to some of the themes you explored in your National Book Award winner, Godless. What keeps you returning to these ideas?
I am interested in faith, and how it serves us, and how it can destroy us. I think faith and religion are hugely important elements of what it is to be human. They infuse our every thought, and they drive life-and-death decisions every single day. So why do so few young-adult books touch upon issues of faith and religion? Most YA novels never mention religion at all. What sort of church does Bella Swan go to? Does Katniss Everdeen believe in God? What about Bilbo Baggins, or Harry Potter? I’m not suggesting that YA books should all contain a religious component — in fact, most of my own books do not — but I do think there’s a lot of avoidance on the part of authors who don’t want to offend anyone or cost themselves sales. People can get very prickly about religion, so it’s a bit of a minefield. I guess I’m attracted to that.

How did you conceive of the Grace, their belief system, and the land of Nodd? Did you do any research to develop the personality and ideals of this cult?
I’ve long been fascinated by cults in particular and religions in general. The belief system of the Grace is made up of bits and pieces of several different groups. I began working on Eden West about fifteen years ago, and one of the first things I found was that there are real cults that are far, far stranger than the one I was creating. The Grace have a strange and frightening worldview, but it is nowhere near as strange or horrific as that of Jim Jones, whose 909 followers committed mass suicide in 1978. Or that of the thirty-nine Heaven’s Gate cultists who killed themselves in 1997. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

In the book, Jacob has a strong connection with Lynna, a girl from outside the fence. What can we learn about love from Jacob and Lynna?
Jacob and Lynna come from two different worlds, yet they find themselves thrown together by geography, by circumstance, and by chemistry. Their efforts to bridge the gap tell the story of how we all struggle to build bridges between our own strange selves and the stranger we desire. In “real life,” love brings together people of different faiths, different skin colors, different backgrounds. Such relationships come with built-in challenges. Sometimes these challenges make love stronger; sometimes they destroy it. That makes for a good story.

What kinds of questions do you hope teens will ask themselves after reading this book?
What is true? We all grow up believing certain things. Sometimes we believe them our entire lives. We are told things as children. Santa Claus will come on Christmas Eve. Genesis is literal fact. Reincarnation is real. The earth is a sphere. Yetis stalk the Himalayas. Guardian angels protect us. Aliens are watching us. Apples are good for you. Some of those things might be true — I don’t know. But I do know that questioning core beliefs is how we learn and grow, and that for me, at least, it is what makes living and thinking an everyday adventure. What is true today might not be tomorrow.

If you could describe Eden West in one sentence, what would you say?
After all this heavy talk about religion and faith, I should say that Eden West is a fast-reading and occasionally funny book about a pair of star-crossed (perhaps) lovers who find each other through a chain-link fence, and together discover what is truly important. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Map of Nodd

We tend to think of world-building in terms of science fiction and fantasy, and it’s true that world-building is central to those genres. But all fiction requires world-building to some degree. True, if you are writing a contemporary story that takes place entirely within a known space—your local Starbucks say, or on the Spanish Steps in Rome—your world-building will be minimal. But most fiction, non-genre and otherwise, requires a bit of set creation. Some books, like Eden West, require a lot of it.

I was thinking about this as I gathered up the various bits of dead matter accumulated during the writing of Eden West: notes, research files, deleted chapters, character biographies, photos, articles, pencil sketches of characters and scenes, and maps. I felt a bit like a contractor cleaning up a job site, both wearily proud and a bit regretful at the waste. A lot of world-building work never appears in the final manuscript. That’s not unusual—most of the labor in world-building is foundation work. I-beams and cinder block are essential to the structure, but not that interesting to read about.

Eden West, set in present day Montana, takes place within Nodd, a fictitious twelve-square-mile compound, home to the apocalyptic cult known as the Grace. One early reviewer mentioned that she wished the book contained a map of Nodd. As is happens, I have such a map! Here it is, along with a detail map of the village.

Click to make bigger.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Week of AWP and Dog Control

It’s AWP week in Minneapolis, and I was just going through my schedule of events. If you’re going, I’d love to see you at any or all of these.

Thursday, April 9
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Totally WIPped
Off-site Event: University of St. Thomas, 1000 LaSalle Avenue
Thornton Auditorium, Room 206
(William Alexander, Marina Budhos, Pete Hautman, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Laura Ruby, Anne Ursu, and series organizers Swati Avasthi and Heather Bouwman)

In honor of the Second Story Reading Series’ sixth season, the University of St. Thomas hosts eight Second Story authors, who will convene to quake with terror, take a deep breath, and read from their works in progress.
Terrence Murphy Hall, located at the University of St. Thomas’s Minneapolis campus, is about six blocks (10 minutes’ walk) from the convention center. The reading is free, you can buy books and get them signed, and there will be a reception with the chance to mingle. A great start to your AWP experience!

Friday, April 10, 2015
10:30 am to 11:45 am
YA and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction: What's at Stake?
Mpls. Convention Center
Room 211 A&B, Level 2
(Heather Bouwman, Pete Hautman, Laura Ruby, Justina Ireland, Anne Ursu)
The world of speculative fiction for kid and teen readers is diverse and deep. This moderated panel, composed of middle grade and young adult fantasy and science fiction authors, will discuss the special craft and genre concerns of MG and YA speculative fiction and the direction(s) in which they see the field headed.

Saturday, April 11, 2015
10:30 am to 11:45 am
And the Award Goes To: Who Benefits from an Awards Program?
Mpls. Convention Center
Room M100 H&I, Mezzanine Level
(Alayne Hopkins, Pete Hautman, Wang Ping, Chris Fischbach, John Reimringer) 
What impact does a state awards program have on the career of a writer? How can these programs serve as a platform for readers to discover local writers? These questions and more will be discussed by Minnesota Book Award winners, some whom have also served as judges for other book awards, and include a perspective from a literary press. Panelists will consider the role of subjectivity in the review process, the value of literary prizes, and the place of competition in the writing community.

Baudelaire, aka Bodie. Six pounds, sixty miles per hour.
Should be a fun and busy week. My list of panels and events to attend is getting huge. I may have to bring my "therapy dog."

BTW, we have discovered that Bodie is an escape artist, and VERY FAST. He led us on a merry (for him) chase through the neighborhood last night.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

An Easter Meditation

My youth is a mystery.

I interact with a lot of millennials and younger people on social media, and I’m fascinated by how they record the minutia of their lives. I’m a tiny bit envious, but mostly I am relieved.

My own youth is largely undocumented. What happened during the first thirty-odd years of my life is contained largely within my own biological and untrustworthy soup of memories, and to a lesser extent in the equally unreliable memory dumps of those who knew me then. Other than that, there are a few photos, public records, and other documented facts—but not many.

That Iggy Pop concert…a great memory, one of the best shows ever—but would I want to relive it? Not a chance. Same goes for that party on the golf course, and the night I lost my virginity, and that South Tucson disco…oh yes, so many events that must be severely edited.

My past is a mystery, even to me. I shudder to think of today’s young people facing the raw records of the future past they are recording today.

I am thankful that so many things I have said and done will never be known. And I am sad that much of it is gone forever, surviving only as fading echoes of that which made me who I am.