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Our Teen Advisory Board President, Ava, was able to sit down and chat with author Justina Ireland. Justina is the author of the highly anticipated novel, Dread Nation. "At once provocative, terrifying, and darkly subversive, Dread Nation is Justina Ireland's stunning vision of an America both foreign and familiar--a country on the brink, at the explosive crossroads where race, humanity, and survival meet."
1. Q:How did you go about creating the gutsy character of Jane? What about Katherine?
A: I wanted to show a Black girl living her best life and thriving in the 1800s. But mostly I wanted to create her with the same kind of traits that we usually bestow upon male characters: bravado, grit, and swagger. So I looked at characters like Huck Finn and real life people like Doc Holliday and came up with Jane, this ridiculously larger than life girl who takes no nonsense from anyone.
And Katherine is the opposite of Jane, because she’s the girl we usually see depicted in stories set in the 1800s: dutiful, demure, and polite. Between the two of them we get a fuller idea of the range of traits girls can and do have. Girls contain multitudes.
2. Q: What was the teenage Justina like? Did you write much as a teen?
A: I read. A lot. And sometimes went to the mall with my friends. But mostly, I read. And sometimes watched anime.
3. Q:What are Jane and Katherine’s Pottermore houses?
A: Jane is most definitely a Slytherin, because she has no compunctions doing what needs to be done to achieve her endgame. It just happens that her goals are to ensure Katherine is Gryffindor because she believes very strongly in doing the right thing, but she’s also very calculated in the risks she takes. Plus, she loves following the rules. So Katherine I would saw is more Gryffinclaw than straight Gryff.
4. Q: As a Chinese person, I was curious about your decision to ban the Chinese from Summerland.
A: Anti-Chinese racism was prevalent and virulent in the late 1800s. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all immigration to the US from China. But that was the end of a long and fraught anti-Chinese campaign in the United States. Part of that campaign involved running Chinese business people from towns, including burning their businesses, which is why so many Chinese settled into cities where it was less dangerous. A similar thing happened to Blacks in towns as well, and in fact when Oregon was founded as a state it prohibited anyone Black from residing there.
Summerland didn’t end up the way it is organically, but because the people in charge acted upon their racist beliefs. So there are no Chinese in Summerland, but there once were because Chinese settlers were like anyone else looking for a new way of life in the mid-19th century. They settled all over. Likewise there are no Natives in town, for the same reason as the Chinese. I’m of the mind that if there are no minorities in your areas there’s a reason for that and we should ask ourselves why.
But! You will see more Chinese characters and Native characters in book two when Jane and Katherine head out West.
5. Q: I loved the word play in the title! What was the process for coming up with it?
A: That was all my editor. I am terrible with titles. He wanted something that conveyed the American History aspect of the story and also zombies! And then, Dread Nation was born.
6. Q: I enjoy reading about relationships in which enemies become friends (for example, Elphaba and Glinda from Wicked). Is this how you envisioned Jane and Katherine’s relationship from the beginning, and if not, how did their relationship evolve?
A: I did! There’s a lot of unreasonable girl on girl hate in YA, and I wanted to kind of play off of that by showing how jealousy has nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with how you feel. And so, Jane’s savvy enough to understand that her dislike of Katherine has nothing to do with Katherine and everything to do with her response to her.
Plus, I’m also of the mind that dire circumstances create the best of friends.
Dread Nation will be available April 3rd. You can pre-order it here.
On Saturday March 10, 2018, Books Inc. Santa Clara, NYMBC and Christy and Nancy over at Tales of the Ravenous Reader, invited 13 local Young Adult authors and 13 book bloggers to our annual Bloggers <3 Authors event! During the event the authors and bloggers mix and mingled and each blogger had the opportunity to interview an author! Ava, the president of the Teen Advisory Board and daughter of local author Stacey Lee, sat down with Kelly Loy Gilbert, author of Conviction, to talk to her about her writing process and her newest novel, Picture Us in the Light available April 10, 2018.
Note: This interview was originally recorded and has been transcribed and edited for clarification. Any mixups or mistakes in grammar and/or spelling are unintended.
If you weren’t an author, what would your job be?
So I just learned about this job, and this is like my dream job. So I was thinking how it’d be the most soothing thing in the world if someone gave you, like, a color swatch and just a bunch of paints and they were like, “Okay, just mix the paints until you find this exact color.” Oh my gosh, it’d be so fun to find the colors, and it turns out it’s a job! So I feel like for printers, when books go to the print for color stuff, I’m not really sure what it is, but I think what they take colors from, maybe off the computer screens and then at the printers, it’d be fun to mix the colors. So that’s my dream job now, matching the printer colors for book covers.
That’s so cool! I like your Picture Us In the Light art references.
Oh,*laughs*, well I’m not at all an artist, so…
Oh, that was one of my next questions, but that’s okay.
So what draws you to realistic fiction, and is that also your favorite genre to read?
It’s definitely my favorite genre to read. My husband tells me that I have no imagination, like for fantasy worlds and stuff, I just like, I don’t know. I think I have a hard time building those, and I think I’m just so interested in worlds that look like ours, and imagining into lives of people who are so different than me, in the same world. And so I think that’s what draws me to realistic fiction.
And what other genres would you write in?
Well, maybe historical might be kinda interesting. I was reading your mom’s new book. Have you read it yet?
Yeah, I have.
Gosh, I’m so excited. Wait, do you have a favorite of her books?
So I personally have a special connection to Under A Painted Sky because I’ve been reading that since second grade.
Yeah, I know. But I also like her next book, The Downstairs Girl. The writing’s especially witty.
Oh, nice! I’m only one chapter in, so I’m really excited. But yeah, I think historical might be fun.
I’ve always really been into the Victorian era, and also the pioneer era. I just think I’d be such a horrible pioneer, and like, reading all the stories of like, all the things people had to do to survive is so shocking to me. I enjoy reading about it from the comfort of my couch, like, “Oh, I don’t have to ride in a dusty wagon for six months!”
Yes! So I know you don’t write historical fiction, which needs a lot of research. But for realistic fiction, do you have to research anything, and do you have any good research stories?
Yeah, so I actually do a lot of research because I find that all of my characters end up having something that they’re really passionate about or really talented at, that I’m personally not into. In my first book, the main character was a baseball player and I like watching baseball, but I’ve never played it. The book I’m working on now is about a violinist, and I also don’t play violin. But yeah, it was fun. The research was a lot of watching Youtube videos for violins and stuff.
And do you talk to any people who do the talent you’re writing about and do you have good research stories?
Yeah, I try to talk to people who do whatever the thing is, and I feel like it’s so great to live in the Internet era in some ways, because there’s just so much online that you can find. Um, I don’t know if I have any really interesting research stories. Oh, actually when I was researching my first book… so in it, the main character’s father is on trial for killing a police officer, and in a lot of states, that’s automatically a capital offense. So I was doing a lot of research on the death penalty, and it was really horrifying, and I was already really against it, but just reading the nitty-gritty of what happens, and all the ways it can go wrong. I was really shocked that we let these kind of things happen. I think that’s the research that has stayed with me most, and like, everything that went with it.
So what’s the hardest part of writing for you, and how do you overcome it?
Hm, these are such good questions! I think for me the hardest part is… I tend to get writer’s block a lot and I think I’ll just get into these ruts where I’ll get really stuck on something and then I feel like I’m not connecting with any part of the story, and it’s really hard for me to write under any of those circumstances. I think, yes, absolutely it’s hard to write under a deadline. As for overcoming it, I wish I knew, like sometimes I feel like it you just keep at it, it’ll lift. But sometimes it’ll take so long that, um, I’m not really sure even what it is, in the end, that helps me get over it. I think usually being able to see the characters better is what helps me, like when I understand who the people are that I’m working with, then I’m able to have a better sense of what they’d do and how they would drive the story. But it can be really challenging for me to make that happen.
Have you ever quit a manuscript just because you have writer’s block and you can’t overcome it?
*laughs* Um, yes. Kind of a lot of them, actually. I feel like sometimes it’s a sign that’s it’s just not working. Like you thought there was a story there, but then it turns out that there isn’t really. Sometimes I’ll put something down and come back to it years later, and I see it differently, or maybe I’ve taken enough time away from it, and I end up writing it after all.
Do you think writing gets easier as you do it more often?
I think it’s gotten harder for me, actually. Yeah, I think just because, um, like I think when I was writing for just myself, it was one thing, but the added pressure of publishing sort of made it more challenging. Having more voices in your head, feeling like people are actually gonna see this. So yeah, I feel like it’s actually gotten harder.
And do you think developing plot or actually writing it is easier?
So plot is like my weak spot, I hate plot. Like when I write characters, it’s like sitting in a room talking together. Probably developinging it is easier. Once I know what’s happening it makes it easier, but figuring out where it’s gonna go is challenging.
How do you discover and get to know your protagonist?
Um, that’s a really good question. I usually hear a voice, like I’ll picture a characters voice, and then I’ll slowly start filling in details for them. But yeah, it usually starts with their voice for me. And then, I think where they live, also, is really important to me. I think about how that would have shaped them, who they would have known, who would be part of their world. Yeah, so I guess voice and setting for my characters.
Why did you choose to write from a male’s perspective, and how did you get into a teenage boy’s head?
I’d only specifically written female characters before my first book, and one thing that really frustrated me was that everyone always thought I was writing about myself. And I wanted to write something that was different enough that it was clearly not me. I think I was also into just exploring a really different outlook. I think in terms of getting into a boy’s head, I mean, hopefully I did it right, I don’t know if I didn’t because I don’t know any different. But I guess I read a lot from boys’ perspectives. Also, as women, we spend so much time reading books about men in school. The male perspective is still, unfortunately, the dominant perspective, so I feel like it’s easier to tap into it just because we’ve been so immersed in it all our lives.
So since you used to write from a female perspective, how much of that goes into writing the male perspective? Like, is there a huge difference between each perspective?
In some ways, there are things about my characters that are always gonna have the same traits, whether it’s a female or male perspective. I’ve noticed all my characters have a strong connection to where they’re from, all of them tend to have issues from anxiety and insecurities, all of them tend to be experts at something, and so I think that whatever the gender they have, there’s always characteristics that stay the same.
So as we’ve talked about, you like baseball, which fuels Braden’s interests in Conviction, but in Picture Us in the Light, Danny’s hobby is drawing. Is that hobby based off what you enjoy, or did you create it from scratch?
I wish I was talented at art, but I’m not at all. So definitely from scratch. I think I was interested in him having something that he could express himself in. I feel like one of the things about being a teenager that was true, at least, when I was a teenager, is… I feel like so much of your life is already set out for you. You kinda have to follow a certain schedule, like you go to school and stuff. So in some ways they don’t have a ton of control of the world they’re in, and so I wanted him to have something where he was totally in control, and that was his thing. For my first book, that was baseball. He has these kinda moments where he was like, running the show in terms of the games. For my second book, that ended up being art. So I wanted it to be something where he could do that and also a lens that he could see the world through, and that’d make him notice things, and observe things, and think about them in certain ways. So art ended up being his thing.
And did you have to ask anyone how to draw art?
I did, yeah. I did a lot of research for that, too. I have some artist friends that I talk to and then I watch Youtube tutorials of people drawing to try to get tips. Yeah, I’m not at all an artist. My first ever C in high school was in art class, actually.
So how do you decide what special talent your character has?
So it partly has to do with something that I’m interested in and that I can picture researching for, you know, hours on end. I want to be able to see them, just based off of who they are, the family they were born into, and all of that. And also something that their families would nurture so that they have a chance to make that a big part of their lives. Sometimes I go through a lot of things. Like with this book, he was originally a skateboarder, and then he was a graffiti artist. I kinda kept writing, but neither worked, until I found something fits the character.
And you mentioned that in your next book, the talent is gonna be playing the violin. So which talent, out of the three, was the hardest to research for?
I think art, actually, because with baseball, it’s really easy to see what’s happening, and there’s so much written about it, and you can go to games. And I feel like it’s easier to describe because you can describe what’s happening in a game and there’s so much action. And at least with violin, there’re performances to watch. But with art, I feel like it can be really challenging to describe someone sitting there and drawing in a way that’s not super boring. Yeah, so I had to get a really clear sense of what his technique would be, and what he’d be thinking about, in order to make it be part of the story, so that it wouldn’t be like, “Oh, he’s drawing a face! He’s drawing eyes!”
Huh. Very interesting… So I digress. Why do you think there’s a perception that diverse books don’t sell compared to non diverse books?
I think for a lot of years, it’s been true. It’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy because for a long time, diverse books were not the ones getting support from people in the book industry. And so I think when people would be like, “Oh, since this story is about a black protagonist, only black readers are gonna read it!” they would not push it in the same way they would a story that’s considered “universal,” like a story about a white person. I definitely feel like that’s something that’s starting to change, and there’ve been a lot of really successful books that are written by diverse authors that are really breaking barriers. So I feel like the perception is starting to change. Do you feel that way? I know you’re involved in the book world, or do you still feel like it’s not very diverse?
Well, ever since I was younger, I used to read a lot of books with white main characters with their maybe-sometimes diverse sidekicks, but I feel like as I’ve gotten older there have been more diverse POV books. So yeah, I think things are really starting to change.
Yeah, I feel like there are many more than there used to be.
So what do you want readers to take away from your books?
I feel like I’m more or less hoping that my books will inspire empathy, or get people thinking about the characters who live lives differently from the readers do. Yeah, I guess recognizing things outside of their own experiences. I always hoped, in some sense, that the things I’m writing about have to do with the world around us that we could improve. So I hope that in some small way, it would get people thinking a little bit about issues they haven’t thought of before, maybe from a different angle.
Aw, that’s really nice. So anyway, thank you for letting me interview you today!
No problem! Thank you for interviewing me!