I read Numbers last year and was highly intrigued about the sequel, The Chaos, the second book in the Numbers trilogy. Being invited to join the live chat with author Rachel Ward at the Manila International Book Fair presented a golden opportunity to read the book, so I set out to finish it in time for the event.
Numbers: The Chaos is set in 2026, 17 years after the events in the first book. Adam is sixteen and having trouble dealing with life in general, but he’s got a lot more on his plate than the average teen: he has inherited his mother’s gift — every time he looks into another person’s eyes, he sees the date that person will die.
Adam isn’t the only one with a secret — sixteen year-old Sarah has her own demons to battle with. And as if real life weren’t enough, she has recurring nightmares, and when she comes face to face with Adam for the first time, she recognizes him as the fearsome figure in her nightmares. But with too much on her plate, all Sarah wants is a fresh start. She runs away from home, away from Adam.
Meanwhile, Adam sees 112027 on everyone he comes across, and he realizes something huge is about to happen. As Adam comes to terms with the implications of this date, he crosses paths once more with Sarah, revealing their intertwined fates.
I found Numbers interesting enough, but I thought it was weighed down by the grit — a lot of times the main premise (the ability to see numbers) was overshadowed by the juvenile situation. The Chaos gives a new spin to the series — Britain has evolved into a dystopia, expanding the social dimensions of the novel above and beyond the main characters, even though they have their own issues to deal with.
The alternating perspectives of Adam and Sarah helped, too, I think, as the counterpoint enriches the series: two different turns of events, told in two voices, converging down the line into a single, powerful story. I also liked how this book is more hopeful than the first, and the characters more empowered.
I loved how The Chaos surprised me, and so I joined the throng that gathered in the middle of the National Book Store booth at the Manila International Book Fair, for the live chat with Rachel Ward organized by Scholastic. Rachel Ward read a passage from Numbers, and then the participants got to ask questions in turn, and here’s what I managed to decipher from the recording on my phone (sorry, too much background noise!) during the live chat:
Q. Where did you get the idea of making your main characters see death dates?
A. I turned 40 and I was having my mid-life crisis and I was thinking about death… I thought maybe I should look it in the eye and write about it. I was trying to conquer my own fear. It was something I wanted to do, but I thought it was also something people would relate to. I also think when you’re a teenager, you’re just starting to think about the really big issues in life: you’re starting to think about your place in the world, and you’re starting to realize that your parents have their own faults and they’re not perfect. You’ve got all these things going on in your head, including the fact that you won’t last forever.
Q. What challenges did you encounter writing the books?
A. Writing the book was actually quite easy, because I didn’t have a contract… I was just telling myself to write. I did not have any pressure, and it was just really really enjoyable. Tthe challenge of all writers is to make characters that people believe in and a story that would keep turning the pages. It gets more difficult as you go along. With the second book, I had deadlines to meet. I had to rewrite the whole book; I wrote the whole thing from Adam’s point of view and my publisher didn’t like it, and it didn’t work, and they suggested I write the whole book from Sarah’s point of view, and in the end I ended up writing alternating chapters, so I rewrote the whole book. With the third book, I had an even tighter deadline, and my trouble is I don’t plan. A lot of people actually plan out chapters — they know where the book is going and they know what they’re gonna do in each chapter. And I don’t. I [just write] and hopefully it will all work out.
Q. Your portrayal of teenagers is very convincing. Did you draw any inspiration from your own experiences as a teenager? What inspired the scenes in the book?
A. think I didn’t realize how much of me was in the book until quite a long time after I’d written it. It wasn’t until I came to write the second book that I realized that so much of me was in Jem. Although my background is nothing like hers; I had a very stable family, and my character isn’t really like hers — I’m quite polite!
I think as a teenager I was quite lonely and quite depressed and I turned my feelings in myself, but with Jem, they’re the same feelings but she’s more likely to turn them outside, she’ll curse at somebody, or turn very hostile. I think there’s an awful lot of me in the books — much much more than I realized when I was writing them. I think that’s basically what I drew inspiration from, looking back thirty years, back to when I was a teenager and drawing on the feelings.
Q. Your books tackle issues such as juvenile delinquency, sexual abuse, death, violence… What made you choose to write about these sensitive issues not normally taken up in the young adult genre?
A. I do write about sensitive issues, but I don’t think my books are “issue books.” I actually think Numbers is a love story about two young people who feel lonely and isolated, and how they get together. Although there are sensitive issues in there, they’re part of the context and the background, and are reflecting the lives these people are living. That’s what I’m trying to do, so it’s not too heavy, and it’s actually very real, hopefully.
Q. There are quite a lot of sensitive scenes in the book, too. When you were writing the book, were you consciously thinking of toning it down? Was that a consideration?
A. There’s a bit of sex and a bit of drug-taking and lots of bad language. Actually, the first draft, which I wrote for myself, had waaaay more bad language and I edited a lot…I’ve been criticized for too much bad language in the book, and some parents don’t like their children to read it, but I haven’t really had complaints in the UK. For other countries it’s sometimes a bit too much for them, and I do understand that.
The love scene, I wanted it to be real but not too graphic, and it’s very difficult to find the right tone. I had long discussions with my UK publisher about it, and in the end they only edited the love scene very, very slightly. I don’t know if I’m striking the balance or not; I’m not affected by that complaint. I want it to be very very real, and it’s not always easy to find the balance.
Q. The book shows a London that is different from what we know. Is this an accurate depiction of the gritty side of London?
A. I like to think that it is; I really didn’t do any research, I just made it up as I went along. My characters wandered into my head — I didn’t talk to kids like that, I didn’t talk to kids in care. But I do think there’s a fair share of people with that sort of background living that sort of life in London.
Q. Do you think Numbers has universal appeal? Why?
A. I’ve been amazed. The books are sold in 26 countries, and I think it’s because it’s universal among all of us that we don’t want to think about mortality and the reality of life. And also because the experience of being a teenager is something we share in countries all over the world.
At the end of the live chat, I lucked out in the raffle draw, and watched as Rachel signed the books live for the winners. And then over a week ago, I finally got the signed copy of Numbers. Lookee:
Numbers: The Chaos, trade paperback, 4/5 stars
Book #95 for 2011