Interview: Ilsa J. Bick
Current Mood: hopeful
Current Song: Catch My Breath by Kelly Clarkson
In Ilsa J. Bick's latest book, WHITE SPACE, 17-year-old Emma discovers an unfinished manuscript which is eerily similar to a story she's written. Soon, she encounters other characters that challenge her world order and she must figure out if she's trapped in a nightmare or experiencing a new kind of reality.
Ilsa is stopping by Bildungsroman today as part of her blog tour, and she's brought along a love for traveling, storytelling, Stella Dallas, Charlotte's Web, and Star Trek, among other things. Our discussion made me think of Star Trek's famous opening credits in terms of fiction, and the world of the author - because, really, don't great writers explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before?
Before we start going on THAT journey, let's resume our regularly scheduled interview...
Good morning, Ilsa! At your website (and your Twitter), you say, "I'm peripatetic, easily bored . . . and I write books." How do each of these things inform the others? For example, does writing or traveling alleviate boredom? When setting a story in a specific location, do you write more about where you are currently, where you have been, or where you want to be / where wish you were?
Oh, good questions. Actually, I think I started writing stories in my head to alleviate boredom. People often ask if I always wrote, like . . . as a kid? Never did. Never saw myself as a writer, period. But my dad was really into chores. Guy was a maniac about it, too. Every weekend, he'd be out there, mowing and doing carpentry and whatever, and expected us kids to be out there with him, even when it was a trillion degrees. My jobs were things like clipping under and around the fence and every bloody tree with these old, dull clippers. The manual kind, you know? This was before weed-whackers, but I'm convinced that even if it hadn't, he'd have handed me those same damned clippers. (We had a push mower, too. You know . . . the kind with a circular blade and no engine?)
So, I used to daydream a lot because anything was better than focusing on giving every . . . single . . . stupid blade of grass a pedicure. Mostly, I slotted myself into adventures aboard the Enterprise. (I had this thing for Captain Kirk, especially his chest. Do you realize that guy couldn't keep his shirt on for the entire first season? I'm serious. Lost his shirt nearly every episode, probably so people like me could drool over those pecs.) I also did a little Batman, a little Daktari, a lot of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. (I've even written and spoken about why those shows might be important to a then-kid like me.)
That was kind of the beginning, but it wasn't until years and years later that I actually wrote stories. I still tend to get bored pretty quickly, and I always need to be working. (I'm terrible at relaxing. I only know I'm on vacation when my husband tells me so.)
What was the premise of your first completed manuscript or novel?
Seriously? Trek, natch: the first volume of a projected trilogy where Kirk becomes a Borg. I even sent it into Pocket Books. The then-editor wrote me a very nice rejection letter, too: said he liked the story but that it was tad too cerebral for the standard Trek audience. BUT, imagine my surprise when, barely a year later, Shatner, Judith Reeves-Stevens and Garfield Reeves-Stevens come out with . . . wait for it . . . the first in a series where Kirk is brought back by the Borg (and the Romulans). Like . . . oh-kaaay. Hmmm.
When plotting out full-length novels, especially your series, do you have a preferred method of outlining?
Yup. I always outline; it's the way I was taught whilst doing work-for-hire and now evolved in my way of telling myself the story. Now, a lot of the times, I'll write this whole long thing and then never look at it again (and just as often, I deviate from it completely because what looked great as a quick sketch sucks on execution). I tend to come up with an idea - like, with the ASHES trilogy, I came up with a way of bringing down civilization really fast as a first step and then slotted in characters. Normally, the premise kind of suggests characters, although I honestly can't remember from book to book what comes first: location or character. I'd like to think they evolve together. But, anyway, I write all this down, chapter by chapter. In the beginning - when I was doing work-for-hire in other people's universes - I wrote these humongous outlines (like 250 pages; an editor once joked that all I had to do was put in adjectives, and I'd have a book) because you always have to run the outline past an editor first to make sure you don't violate any of that universe's rules.
My outlines now are much sparer and rarely over fifty pages, but I still do them, a chapter-by-chapter breakdown.
Then I put away the outline and tell the story. A ton of times, I'll put in characters and scenes and situations I never thought of in outline form.
What inspired the story-within-a-story premise of WHITE SPACE?
Honestly? My youngest. Every time I write a book, she asks if I'm going to kill her off again. See, ever since I used her name as one of the title characters of a short story, it's been kind of this running gag between us. (On the other hand, her sister is ticked that I have yet to use her name in a story. Actually, I have, but she's convinced that character is nothing like her and so that doesn't count.) Anyway, for my daughter, that particular character in that particular story met a terrible end. Since then, she's decided that I actually kill her off by proxy somehow or other in everything I write. In some ways, she's not far wrong. Just depends how pissed off I'm feeling that particular day. (Honestly, you'd think the kid would catch a clue . . . )
Still, I thought her comment was pretty interesting; you know, that she would get so torqued and be convinced that somehow or other what I did to a character's story had a direct bearing or was a reflection on/of her. It was as if by using her name she somehow became part of the story and what I did to the character was something that I did to her.
So then I started wondering what would happen if a writer started mixing too much real life into a story - and the idea grew from there.
Which character in the ASHES trilogy most resembles you?
The dog? I'm loyal, brave, steadfast . . . no, wait: like Kirk, I was never a Boy Scout.
Okay, seriously . . . they kind of all do because they came out of my head, and you can't write what you don't know. But if I had to choose? I'm kind of a mixture of Alex and Tom, I think.
You've written essays on movies and television series such as The X-Files, Back to the Future, and The Maltese Falcon. What attracts you to such varied universes?
You're going to laugh . . . but other than the piece on The Maltese Falcon, where I was invited to submit the piece, I used to write about the films and television shows that really got to me or made me cry. Like I sobbed buckets during Stella Dallas, and that got me interested in trying to figure out how maternal melodramas worked. Alien scared the pants off me - just such a visualizing amazing film - and so I got hooked on all that archaic, primitive imagery of childbirth and impregnation and all that gooshy, icky basement-of-the-mind stuff.
Mainly, I wanted to understand how, on a psychological level, all that worked: not just how the story was structured but how the visual and aural elements of a film or television show meshed to provoke a certain feeling or reaction. Very shrinkly-dinkly.
What are your top ten favorite novels?
Believe it or not - and you're going to think this is a cop-out - but I don't have ten favorites. I have novels that have stuck with me, but I'll give you the same answer I give when someone asks about my favorite writer: whatever book I'm reading that's telling me a thumpingly good story at that moment is my favorite. For real.
Now, on the other hand, I can tell you about the first book I remember crying over: Charlotte's Web. Don't laugh. When I read that book - when I got to the part where Charlotte dies all alone - it hit me, for the very first time, that parents are mortal. That they can and will die. I was devastated. Blubbered in the classroom as we all lined up to go to lunch. Second grade, I think this was. I still remember my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Lloyd, giving me a hug.
Ilsa's new book, WHITE SPACE, will be available this coming Tuesday, February 11th. On that day, The Mod Podge Bookshelf and Karin's Book Nook will be giving away signed copies of the book, so make sure to stop by their blogs! Also visit Ilsa's website and her publisher, Egmont.