Interview: Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld
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Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld have a few key things in common: Both have found success with their young adult novels. Both write cutting-edge stories that blend genres. Both have books published by Razorbill, Penguin Group's snazzy teen imprint.
And they just happen to be married.
Will Justine ever reveal the name of her work in progress? What superpower would Scott love to have? Will they ever write a book together? Keep reading to discover the answers.
Little Willow: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Justine Larbalestier: I always wanted to be a writer. I was telling stories from the moment I was able to talk and as soon as I could write them down I did. Of course, I realised pretty early on that making a living as a writer is really really hard, so I had to figure out some other job that would also give me time to write. These jobs have included babysitter, shop clerk, receptionist, waitress (for about ten seconds), cleaner, IT support, and academic.
Scott Westerfeld: I've always tried to write, but I'm pretty crap at short stories, and as a kid I thought that meant I was a bad writer. It took me until college to realize that novels were my strength. So "wanted to be a writer?" Always. But "thought it was actually possible?" Only the last twenty years or so.
LW: Scott, you've tackled (and combined) many different genres in your work - science fiction, fantasy, dark comedy - and Justine, you've had success with anthologies and novels alike. What genres or other forms of writing would you like to attempt that you haven't yet?
Justine: I want to write every fiction genre there is: crime, horror, western, realism, romance. I want it all! One of the beauties of writing YA is that you can write across genres and still have all your books shelved together.
Scott: I'm not terribly interested in contemporary realism - I think adding vampires or aliens to pretty much any story makes it better. So I've pretty much already tried all the fictional genres that I love. But my fiction incorporates a lot of non-fiction, and I'd love to do a non-fiction book one day. I have an outline for a narrative non-fic about meteorite hunters in the 1800s, which one day in the far future I will try to get to.
LW: Justine, your MAGIC OR MADNESS trilogy is nearly complete. Care to tell us more about MAGIC'S CHILD?
Justine: No! You'll have to wait. Oh, okay, I can tell you that both Sydney and New York feature prominently and all the characters from the first two books will be in it. Plus there are funny bits and also sad bits.
LW: Scott, you've been working the trilogies like nobody's business. Did you plan that or did it happen because it served the stories better?
Scott: I seem to "think" in trilogies. Maybe that's because I'm a genre-head, and trilogies serve the genres I'm working in better than standalones. The world-building in SF and fantasy operates more successfully across many books, because you need room to fully flesh out the fictional space. One of my favorite writing experiences has been my latest book, THE LAST DAYS, which is halfway between series and standalone model. It's the same world as PEEPS, but has different characters and a separate story. It takes place during the same long, hot summer in New York City, and is about five teenagers who are trying to start a band during the vampire/zombie apocalypse that's hinted at in PEEPS. Unlike Cal (from PEEPS) they don't belong to the Night Watch - they're just clueless civilians - so the events unfolding around them are more mysterious from their point of view. But they do play a strange and important role in the meltdown of the civilization.
LW: What other works do you have, er, in the works?
Justine: I'm one of those boringly superstitious writers who doesn't like to talk about what I'm writing until it's pretty much done. That said the book I'll mostly likely write next is codenamed the great Australian feminist, monkey knife-fighting, cricket, Elvis, mangosteen (lots of mangosteens) fairy novel. The actual novel may have all or some or none of those elements. Depends.
Scott: A trilogy set in an alternative World War I. It's a battle of two competing sciences: Edwardian biotechnology versus Teutonic machinery. With airships. That's all I'm saying.
LW: Would you ever want to revisit the characters and worlds you've created? Are their stories done for now or flat-out DONE?
Justine: Right now it feels like I've written everything I can about Reason and her family and friends. But who knows? Maybe another story about them will come to me.
Scott: I'm always wanting to expand the worlds I've invented, but I don't want to get stuck in a rut. There has to be time to create new worlds too. So I'm not sure if worlds like UGLIES and MIDNIGHTERS are over or not.
Little Willow: Your books are peppered with slang for different reasons: Reason goes back and forth between Australia and New York, while Tally and company had a snazzy vernacular. The Magic or Madness trilogy even has a glossary of terms. What are your favorite expressions, either from your books or that you use in your daily life?
Justine: I'm not sure you can write a story with people in it and not use the vernacular. Everyone I know uses some kind of slang, especially teenagers! My favourite part of writing is the dialogue. Early drafts of my novels are pretty much all dialogue. I have to go back and fill in where people are and what they're doing.
Scott: I love slang and am always collecting it. The language in UGLIES comes from Australia ("littlies" and "SpagBol"), from Evelyn Waugh's VILE BODIES ("happy-making" and "bogus"), and from old-school technobabble ("hoverboards").
Justine: Travelling so much (in the last ten years or so I've travelled to ten different countries as well as lots of different parts of Australia and the USA) really makes you conscious of all the different ways English can be used. I'm always listening out for new ways of saying stuff, though I deliberately avoid using slang that's current right now cause by the time a book’s published it most likely won't be. So mostly I make stuff up or use older slang. A lot of the slang in the Magic or Madness trilogy is older Australian slang.
Scott: As I've said elsewhere, teens are generally more interested in language than adults. They produce more slang, more poetry, more neologisms and nicknames, and memorize more song lyrics than their elders. They're still acquiring language in ways that most adults aren't: as a tool for self-definition, for example. That's part of how my switch from science fiction was easy: sf uses a lot of the same linguistic tricks as YA.
LW: If you could have a superpower or wield magic, what would you pick and what would you do?
Scott: Flight! And why anyone would pick anything other than flight, I have no idea. Readers will note that both UGLIES and MIDNIGHTERS have personal flight as a big component. And not just flying: falling, jumping, bouncing and peering down from great heights are all common devices in my work.
Justine: I'd love to have a door between Sydney and New York City. Or between those places and any other place I want to visit. Flying would be good too.
Scott: I have flying dreams.
LW: What inspired your stories?
Scott: PEEPS was inspired by a non-fiction work: PARASITE REX by Carl Zimmer. I realized that the new strands of parasitology Zimmer was writing about was so weird and vampirish that it HAD be given novel form. In fact, as I wrote PEEPS, I was half certain the whole time that someone else must have had the same idea, and would publish the great vampire/parasite novel a month before me.
Justine: Sadly I have no cool anecdotes or sparks of brilliance to share. The ideas that started Magic or Madness bubbling in my head were many. (One of the secrets of writing is that it takes at least two ideas to write a story. One is only enough for a limerick and sometimes not even. For a novel two ideas is the barest of bare minimums.) The main ideas that MorM grew out of were:
1) The things that bugged me about some fantasy books
In most fantasy novels it's very easy to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad. A large part of the reason I'm so fond of writers like Ursula Le Guin and Robin Hobb is that their worlds are more complex than that - there's more grey. I wanted to write a trilogy where you couldn't be certain who to trust.
2) How magic would really work and the conflict it could cause
I was also determined to write a fantasy where the fate of the entire world wasn't in the balance. A small scale fantasy with small scale magic. Books in which magic has no cost are very irritating. It seems so unlikely to me. If magic really existed surely it would require a vast deal of energy. Where would that energy come from? I got to thinking about that and the magic system of the Magic or Madness trilogy was the result. (It's something else that makes me love Le Guin and Hobb and Wynne Jones so much—they never do that)
3) Sydney and New York City
Magic or Madness is set in Sydney and New York City the two cities I know best in the world. And over the past few years I've spent a lot of time travelling back and forth between them and wishing there was a door I could open and instantly be in one or the other, which would be so much better than twenty four hours on a plane!
LW: Tell me more about Sydney.
Justine: I was born in Sydney, Australia and have spent the vast majority of my life there. Sometimes I feel like Sydney has made her way into my bones. Whenever I'm away I miss her. After much trial and error I've discovered I can stand to be away from Sydney for six months. After that I start turning into a basket case. Other than Sydney the city I've spent the most time in is New York City. I'm beginning to love New York too, but it will never be home the way Sydney is.
Most of the Sydney sections of Magic or Madness were written in New York City and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. It was a great way of combatting homesickness. I can write Sydney from anywhere because she's so ingrained in me. I just close my eyes and I can see King Street in Newtown. I can taste custard apple. Smell the southerly kicking in just before a storm.
I also wrote most of the New York sections in Mexico which was a lot harder because my view is an outsider's view. I had to check those sections very carefully on my next trip to New York. I got quite a lot wrong, including having ice skating at the Lincoln Centre. Oops!
LW: How did you two meet?
Justine: One of my favourite writers Suzy McKee Charnas was reading as part of the Dixon Place readings in New York City. I noticed this tall, cool-looking, well-dressed guy and was wondering what on earth he was doing at a science fiction reading. Scott has a much better story about how we met, unfortunately it's all lies.
Scott: Justine doesn't remember the first time we met, so she'll tell you it was at a Suzy McKee Charnas reading. But it was actually a few days earlier . . .
It was the Nebula Awards in 2000, in New York. Justine was researching a book on the Futurians (the SF club which counted Frederick Pohl, Isaac Asimov, and Judith Merrill among its members) and so was in search of 70-year-olds to interview. I saw Justine across the room and asked a friend who she was. "Some Australian academic. Want to meet her?" I said sure, and was escorted across.
Meanwhile, Justine had just collared Daniel Keyes, author of FLOWES FOR ALGERNON, and was negotiating a time to interview him. My friend ushered me forward and interrupted her, "You're researching science fiction writers in New York, aren't you? Well, Scott's a science fiction writer, and he lives in New York."
She looked at my not-70-year-old self, flicked one hand and said, "Not my period." And went back to talking to Keyes.
Thus dissed, I said to myself somewhere deep inside, Oh, yes. She will be mine. . .
LW: Do you have any interest in collaborating on a project? If so, would it be a fantasy novel or something completely different?
Justine: I don't think we've ever been asked by anyone except editors interested in publishing such a collaboration. We've written part of one short story together. It was one of those chain-letter stories where different writers write parts of a story together. (The result was auctioned off to raise money for Clarion South.) We were assigned the last two parts and wrote them together. It was a lot of fun. Since then we've given it a go once but the story wasn't really clicking. We do have an idea that we've been talking about for almost four years now. It's a big project though and at the moment we've both tied up with other stuff. One day . . .
Scott: I suspect we'll do something eventually, but right now the other commitments are too much. We have an idea about dogs in the iron age.
LW: What differentiates a teen novel from an adult novel? Is it more about content and suitability (what television and film would refer to as "adult language" and "adult situations") or word and page count? Has it been more of your choice or that of your editors?
Justine: That's a complicated question. The main thing is the age of the protagonist: Early twenties is pretty much as old as you can go. Other than that, I'm really not sure. There's definitely a distinctive feel to a YA book, but what that is exactly I don't know.
Scott: Young adult novels have just as much range when it comes to situations, naughty language, and length. The defining feature of the genre is a set of themes: Issues of identity, of feeling uncomfortable in one's own skin and finding one's place in the world. Who am I? Where did I belong on this crazy planet? Who made these rules anyway? Clothes, language, ethics, friendship, history, even magic—in YA world, these subjects all become measures and means of self-definition. Of course, most YA has a teenage protagonist, and any realistic portrayal of a teenager will engage those questions naturally.
Justine: I can only tell you on a case by case basis. I don't think Margo Lanagan's Black Juice is a young adult book nor Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter, even though they're both published as YA. (Both are fabulous, by the way.) And there are ways in which Naomi Novik's wonderful His Majesty's Dragon is YA even though it's published as an adult novel. Just to be clear I'm talking about YA as a genre; not about what teens are capable of reading. There are YA books that are as complicated as any adult book and there are adult books that are far more simplistic. Teens readers are as varied as adults are. Probably more.
LW: How did you get involved with Razorbill, the Penguin Putnam teen imprint?
Justine: We've known, Eloise Flood, Razorbill's creater and publisher for years. Scott's worked with her many times. In fact, it was Eloise who kickstarted his career as a YA writer. She kickstarted my career, too. Eloise is awesome. I owe her so much!
Scott: I've been working with Eloise Flood since my very first ghost-writing work on GIVE YOURSELF GOOSEBUMPS. She's built a line that engages genre and still has a cool, contemporary look and feel. That's why my books like PEEPS and SO YESTERDAY, which are set in present-day New York and yet are fantastic in various ways, have come out of Razorbill. I think it's the logical way to maintain Harry Potter readers as they reach their later teenage years. Alas, Eloise is gone from Penguin now. It remains to be seen what happens with the line now.
LW: Is the teen fiction market in Australia comparable to that in America? Are there any hugely obvious differences?
Justine: My publishing career started in the US, so even though I'm Australian, I still don't know a lot about how YA publishing works at home. I'm looking forward to finding out more.
Scott: I'm not sure I know the Oz market from the publishing side well enough. But the consumer side is great: Australians read a lot more per capita than USians, and they read an interesting mix of British, US, and Australian writers. (At the best genre bookshops, you get your choice of three covers!) Of course, there's a lot more funding for writers going into schools, literary prizes with real money attached, and fellowships - all the usual state support for the arts that the rest of the first world enjoys. So the everyday struggle for existence seems less fraught.
LW: What are your ten favorite books of all time?
Scott: I cede my space here to Justine.
Justine: That's too hard a question. Instead, I'll tell you the books that had a big impact on me at various stages of my life. Also, I'm kind of an obsessive reader when I find a writer I like I have to read everything they've written. The ones with asterixes are the ones I reread regularly.
When I was a littlie: Everything by Enid Blyton but especially The Magic Faraway Tree, everything by Patricia Wrightson, Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding and L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books.
When I was pre-teen: Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights*, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette's Puberty Blues, the Conan the Barbarian books, V. C. Andrews' Flowers in the Attic, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy*, all the Joan Aiken, Jane Austen*, Georgette Heyer*, and the S. E. Hinton books.
As a teenager: Albert Camus' The Stranger, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita*, everything by Angela Carter*, Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler*, Kate Chopin, Isak Dinesen*, Howard Fast, Stephen King, Tanith Lee, Ursula Le Guin*, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Conner*, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys*, Gig Ryan, and Anne Sexton.
In my twenties: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, and everything by Octavia Butler, Suzy McKee Charnas, Samuel R. Delany*, Dorothy Dunnett*, Doris Egan, Carol Emshwiller, Elizabeth Gaskell, Zora Neale Hurston, Shirley Jackson*, Diana Wynne Jones*, Robin McKinley, R. A. MacAvoy, Patricia McKillip, Lisa St Aubin de Teran, and James Tiptree, Jr.*
Now: Everything by Patricia Highsmith*, Elizabeth Knox, Margaret Mahey*, Dawn Powell*, Jim Thompson, Megan Whalen Turner, and Sarah Waters.
Many thanks to the happy couple for taking the time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions. Visit their official websites and personal blogs.
Scott also posted about the interview, and I am flattered by his kind words.
Related Posts at Bildungsroman:
Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
The Last Days by Scott Westerfeld
The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld
The Midnighters trilogy by Scott Westerfeld
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Magic or Madness trilogy by Justine Larbalestier
How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier