Before I left on my Angkor Wat vacation in late July, I got to interview New York Times bestselling YA author Alyson Noel, who was in Manila to promote her latest book, Fated, with a book signing organized by National Book Store and Powerbooks.
It was a rainy night, but we paid no heed to the downpour, as we were having a sumptuous Filipino dinner at Cafe Juanita. Alyson very gamely tried out the spread of local dishes, including crispy pata, kare-kare, torta and many more, while we discussed our mutual love for Judy Blume (squee!), the Hispanic influence on Filipino culture, and of course, her books and her work as a writer.
Earlier, I had read Fated and found it fairly interesting. In Fated, sixteen-year-old Daire Santos sees crows and luminous figures that no one else appears to be seeing, experiences strange gaps in time, and is haunted by a phantom boy in her dreams. None of this makes any sense to Daire, not until her mother sends her to Enchantment, New Mexico, to meet her paternal grandmother Paloma for the very first time.
Magic runs rich in Enchantment, and Daire discovers that she comes from a a long line of “Soul Seekers” who pass through the worlds of the living and the dead. As Daire comes to terms with her family legacy, she meets Dace, the boy from her dreams. Daire cannot deny her attraction to Dace, but he also has ties to the enemy clan, and Daire must find out where Dace stands, before the dark forces breach the metaphysical world.
While this is only the first book of the series, I liked it because it is rare to find a YA paranormal romance wherein the paranormal elements are integral to the story and not a mere backdrop to the romance. “Fated” showcases the unique convergence of the Native American and Hispanic culture in New Mexico with authentic detail, providing a rich mythology for the story to draw from: a curious mix of shamanism and Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, “Fated” sets a stage for a powerful story that is ultimately bigger than Daire and Dace, continuing in the upcoming sequel “Echo” (November 2012).
Here’s the interview I did with Alyson Noel:
Q. How did you get started writing?
I was a really big reader. Back when I was 12, there were an awful lot of writers writing about the teen experience in a really authentic way. I loved the books I read — you know, “Charlotte’s Web,” “Little House on the Prairie” — and I could never imagine myself writing a book like that, but when I read “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?” I was kind of like, oh my god, you could write a book like this? And I was so inspired by it because I could relate so directly to Margaret and her experience, and then that’s when I thought I wanted to do that someday, too.
So I started writing poetry and short stories and I took writing classes through the years, but it wasn’t until 9/11, when I was a flight attendant based in New York City… the job was never going to be the same after that day, and I’ve had this dream for decades. It felt that I had nothing to lose and it was now or never that I finally had to go after this dream.
Q. I read that you worked a number of jobs before actually pursuing your writing career?
Out of financial necessity, I’ve been working since I was 12. My parents divorced when I was 12, my dad left us and we had no money. My mom had no education past high school, and she had been a housewife for 23 years; she had no outside skills. She got a job at a department store and raised us on that. So when I was 12, I started babysitting — that’s the only job you can do at 12! — to have extra money for the things that I needed or wanted. When I was 15, I got my first real job. I worked at the department store too, after school and on weekends, to help her keep the house going and to pay for what I needed.
Q. Can you tell us about your journey towards getting published?
A. My journey was a series of mistakes and awkward moments. I had no idea what I was doing. It was the infancy of the internet… The internet was out there but it wasn’t anything like it is today. There wasn’t any blogging and there wasn’t all the information, so I was out there on my own trying to figure it out. I didn’t know any other writers. I thought I was the only one that wanted to write a book, so I finished my book and I just sent it out to publishers.
Of course everyone rejected me, and rightfully so, because the book was in no way ready to be published. And as much as that hurt — because it really did, no one wants to be rejected, by anyone, ever — in retrospect it was one of the best things that happened to me, because it made me determine how bad I wanted it, which was really quite bad. It made me try harder and figure out what it was going to take to get to that point.
It fueled my determination, and so it was about a two and a half year process in total of going through that and finally getting the manuscript into shape where it was ready to get an agent and a publisher was willing to buy it.
Q. Did you start with the Immortals Series?
No, I started with “Faking 19.” I had seven books before the Immortals series, all standalone titles. Six were for teens, one for adults. “Evermore” was my 8th book.
Q. So your other novels were contemporary, what made you decide to jump into the YA paranormal romance?
I take from my own life experience for my books, so I steal from my own life. Some years ago I went through a time of deep grief, I lost three people I loved in five months, and then six months later my husband Sandy was diagnosed with leukemia and I almost lost him. It got me thinking a lot about mortality and immortality, our life’s purpose, the afterlife, the soul’s journey, all these sorts of thoughts that I’d never really thought about until I was faced with them directly. Like always, I am inspired by the things that happen to me, and I wanted to write a book that explored these themes and the best way to do that for me was to go into a supernatural world to explore these themes.
I started writing Evermore on the side; I didn’t tell anyone about it, it was like a secret project as I was under contract for three other books. I didn’t even know if I was going to try to sell it or even tell anyone. I worked on it off and on for way over a year, just when I could get to it, and when I finished it, that was when I realized it was the beginning of a much bigger journey, that it was meant to be a series.
It wasn’t a conscious choice to write for teens. The first story I did just happened to have a teenage protagonist. I didn’t think of it as a teen book; I just thought about it as a story about a girl who was 17. When I got my first book deal they wanted two teen books, and I was already in the target place with another story I did. That’s when I realized that is the voice that comes first, that comes natural to me. My inner 16-year old is very loud in my head, and I’m the most comfortable writing in that voice.
Q. How do you get your story ideas? What inspired Fated and this new Soul Seekers series?
Fated was directly inspired by the research that I did for the Immortals series. I do a lot of research. Even though I write fantasy worlds, I like to make them realistic and grounded in reality and as authentic as possible. For the Immortals, I read a lot of books on metaphysics, I took a three-day psychic spell class, I underwent half-life hypnosis, and it was during this research that I started coming across all these themes that were prominent. I was really interested in the primal practice that dates back thousands of years, and I wanted to know more and explore more but it didn’t really fit with the world of the Immortals, so I shelved it with the intention that I would return to it when it became time to write a new series.
Q. A lot of Fated is set in New Mexico, do you have any experiences or a special affinity with the place?
I love New Mexico. It’s one of my favorite states. One of the first times I ever went there was over a decade ago, and the minute I got off the plane I was completely enchanted by the landscape and the mix of cultures. It has a really rich and interesting history and I just fell in love with it. I knew I always wanted to place a book there, but I didn’t have the right story until it became time to write the Soul Seekers.
I’ve been back many times since, and I traveled there when I was working on Fated to interview Native Americans about life on the reservation, to interview local teens about what it’s like to be in high school there and be a teenager there, and it remains one of my favorite places.
So there’s a presence of both Hispanic and Native American culture there?
Yes, very strong Hispanic, Native American culture there?
Did you need to get help with your Spanish for the dialogue in the book?
I don’t speak Spanish. I’m half Hispanic, my father was Hispanic and it was actually his first language, he learned English in school. But he moved from California to New York, and my mother was not Spanish so we were never taught Spanish as kids. But I did call his mother my abuela so that was a word that was common to me.
I used to flounder a lot, I didn’t have a process, and it took me a couple of years to figure out my process. I’m a big fan of two books that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a process and just needs help plotting: “Story” by Robert McKee and “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. Both are screenwriting books, but I like the screenwriting method because I think it keeps the story really lean and fast-paced and focused. Because the movie film is a very sensitive medium, you can’t waste it on a scene that doesn’t go anywhere. These taught me to write really tight, keep the action building. So I consult those two books every time I start a new book. I’m up to 20, and I would still go back to those two books to consult, refresh, before I begin my outline.
Q. How did it feel, your first time on the New York Times Bestseller list?
Oh my god, it was the most surreal, exciting, amazing moment ever. Evermore was my 8th book, there were no expectations for it out of the ordinary. My seven prior books have done well, but nothing like Evermore. Nobody was expecting anything different — there was no marketing for it, there was no publicity for it; it had a really great cover. Before it hit the stores it went into second printing, and by the end of the week, it had gone into five more printings and it hit all the US bestseller lists and the option to movie rights.
I was at the dentist, my editor called with that news. I was in the chair with a mouth full of metal and my phone rang, and normally I wouldn’t get it, but I was expecting something, hoping for something, and so she called and gave me of all this news. Honestly I cried the entire way home, because it was a really long journey to get to that point. It was really surreal, it’s still a bit surreal. It’s something that you hope for but you have no control over.
Q: How has your life changed since then?
I work harder than ever, and I have better shoes.
*Me: That’s exactly what Lauren Oliver said!*
Did she? It’s true. But I love what I do, and she does have good shoes. I’ve met her.
Q. You’ve written a lot of characters. Who among your characters do you most identify with?
With Ever Bloom, I had nothing in common except our grief — I poured all of my grief into her. With her little sister Riley, that was me at 12, I adored and liked my older sister and annoyed the heck out of her, and she was very patient and kind with me, I wanted to be just like her. With Daire Santos, I’m pretty well-traveled and very independent and self-sufficient, but she’s way braver than me. I could never survive the things I put her through.
Q. How do you deal with writing about sensitive scenes or issues, like sexuality, or death?
I think it’s very important to address these issues because kids are not immune to these things. I’ve had so many kids come up to me at signings, telling me that the Immortals helped them get through the loss of a loved one. That means the world to me because they actually help me get over the loss of my loved ones too, just writing that book helped me deal with those emotions and feel better about what happened.
To refuse to write about these things or refuese to let teens read about these things does not protect teens from these things happening. If you give them an avenue, to read someone else’s experience and learn and grow from that, I think it’s a good thing.
Are any of your books challenged?
Surprisingly, no one’s caught on yet (laughs).
Q. What are your plans for the Soulseeker series?
The next book is Echo, which comes out in November. That will be followed by Mystic and Horizon in 2013. There’s a book every six months and each book will pick up where the last one left off.
How far have you written?
Echo is done, thank God because it’s out November.MysticI’ve started it and after this tour I’m back on it.
Do you have to release a book every six months?
Yes, but it’s actually a slower schedule than the Immortals.
Q. Do you have any other books in the pipeline? What other books do you want to write?
I have so many ideas. I would like to write another adult book. I would love to write another single title contemporary, and I would love to write more paranormal series. I’m just going to see what I’m clamoring to write after I finish The Soulseekers.
Q. What are you reading now?
On this vacation, I read Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald, which I really enjoyed. She’s an Australian journalist who spent a couple of years in India and she writes about her experiences there. It’s super entertaining, I loved it.
I also finished Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, really interesting, well-written and gorgeous book. I’m going to start Game of Thrones on the way home. I’ve only watched the tv series but I’m completely addicted, and I want to see how he wrote this.
Q. Are you friends with any of the YA authors and do you keep up with what other YA authors are coming out with?
I’m friends with Melissa de la Cruz, who is Filipino. She got so sentimental when I told her I was coming, she was like,” I used to go to Powerbooks every Sunday!”
I think it’s important to be aware in the industry and what people are doing. I read less of it (YA) at the moment because I don’t like to read the genre I’m writing it, I’m not reading as much of it as I normally would.
Q. Do you have any advice for young adult writers?
I think it’s really important if you want to write for teens that you have a genuine compassion and empathy for that time in life. It’s a really rich time for a writer because it’s filled with so much self-discovery and first time experiences that will never be felt the same way again. The first kiss, the first love, the first betrayal, it’s secret and raw and powerful the first time but after that you build up these walls and it becomes a little less so. For writers that is really fertile ground to work in but I think you have to have a true compassion and empathy for that time, a real understanding of that time. Kids know when they are being pandered to. It helps to have a real connection to that time.