Friday, July 24, 2015

Interview with (and by) Co-Authors of A 52-HERTZ WHALE, Natalie TIlghman and Bill Sommer

Nat Interviews Bill

Nat: So Bill, how did the process of collaboration on A 52-Hertz Whale start and then evolve? What was it like to work with someone else (um, me) to write a novel? 

Bill: Well, I was nearing the end of Writing School, where I had met Natalie (henceforth “you”), and I became worried that I'd stop doing my homework, i.e. writing. I was slogging through a long, serious novel, and I thought it'd be good to have some “fun” writing to work on as well. There was this voice that I was dying to write in, and it simply had no place in the novel I was already working on. 

So I thought, “You know what would be fun? To write emails back and forth with a great writer, and to do so in character.” Naturally, I thought of you. I figured of course, that we would be collaborating for more or less selfish purposes, each of us taking chances and learning about the characters we were writing as so we could then take all that information back with us and work on solo projects. As far as I knew, “solo” was how one wrote fiction. Little did I know, that almost as soon as we started—I'd guess about ten emails into Darren and James's exchange—the communication between these characters would take on a life of its own. I remember both of us saying things like, “I don't know what we've got here, but it seems cool, and it's a lot of fun.” The story was taking shape with no outside discussion of what could or should happen next. We just went with it until almost the very end, when the circumstances of the plot demanded we coordinate our efforts a little more deliberately. 

Nat:  Is there any part of Darren, as a character, that you can relate to from when you were a twenty-something?  

Bill: An easier thing would be to answer the the parts of Darren that I don't relate to. But I'll say this: the qualities I see in Darren that most closely mirror my experience of my own life in my early twenties are thus: a hugely inflated sense of self-importance, a certain amount of awareness of that sense of self-importance (not that the awareness decreased the self-importance in an way), a screaming desire to skip ahead to the part of life where I was really good at everything and loved by all, and a deep fear that that time might not ever come.

Nat: How did your background in screen writing influence your writing in the novel, if at all? How are the two forms different or similar?

Bill: Well, the time I've spent on set informed Darren's forays into the television world in small ways, but in terms of the approach to writing, the things I tried to bring from screenwriting are external conflict and complication. Those are vague terms, and of course all good fiction has these things, but screenwriting is so distilled. For the most part, a script is filled with characters talking and doing. That being the case, they better say and do interesting things. This is helpful for me when writing fiction as it counterbalances my inclinations to write lyrical descriptions of trees in a meadow and of characters pondering the first time they saw their father cry. 

Nat: Technology plays a huge role in A 52-Hertz Whale. In your opinion, is technology good or bad for writers and writing? 

Bill: Here's how I see it. As a person in modern society, my computer is awesome. In terms of writing, I actually try to refer to it as if it were an entirely different object: I just call it the Distraction Machine. Because for me personally, that's what it is more than anything. I used to write a lot on the computer, but I'm back to the ol' notebook for first drafts.

Nat: How did you find Darren’s voice and what role did revision play in refining it?

Bill: I found Darren's voice in the writing of Dave Eggers and Tom Robbins. Those were the writers I loved when I was in and just out of college, just around Darren's age. The revision process just helped me find places where Darren could be even more Darren because I knew him better, knew more about the specifics of his upbringing and life experience.

Nat: What advice would you give to young writers or those who want to write YA?

Bill: Read and write often (duh, but must be said). But more specifically regarding the writing, write most of the time in the way that feels most natural to you, but also try to carve out time to write in ways that seem too hard for you, or are a direct attempt to copy of the style of a writer you admire, or that combine two styles of writing that don't normally go together.

Nat: You’re not a one trick pony. Besides being a writer, you’re a drummer, too.  Does drumming ever infiltrate your writing? If so, how?

Bill: I'd like to think it helps the rhythm of my prose, but I have no way of telling if it does directly. Also, drumming, like writing, is most interesting when it moves fluidly between being soft and LOUD, restrained and insane.

Nat: What are you reading right now?

Bill: I'm reading The Making of Second Life about the virtual world called 2nd Life. I've never spent time in it (on it?), but I'm going to soon because I have characters in a new project that “meet” digitally long before they meet in person. As research, I'll be spending a lot of time on the Distraction Machine.

Bill Interviews Nat

Bill: Were there any novels or short stories that you feel influenced your writing in A 52-Hertz Whale, either directly or indirectly?

Nat: Yes! I am inspired by writers who manage to incorporate the natural world (especially the ocean and its inhabitants) into their fiction.  I like to learn interesting creature facts while I am reading—I guess I am similar to James in that way (chuckle).  James Lynch’s novel The Highest Tide and Anthony Doerr’s short story “The Shell Collector” are two works that influenced me.  Also, Moby Dick.

Bill: What sort of mental work did you do to transport yourself back to high school?

Nat: I joke that my alter-ego is a 14-year-old boy, especially my taste in music. But honestly, I did a lot of reading that immersed me in the world of high school—books like Sex and Violence, Sin Eater’s Confession, Punkzilla, Eleanor and Park, Cures for Heartbreak, and Saving Francesca.   Every person’s experience of high school is so unique and I love that there are so many different voices represented in today’s YA literature. 

Bill: How much of your characters’ backstories do you know? Do you know how long, say, Sophia and Sara have been friends?  Whatever you do know, do you tend to discover it as you go?

Nat: I tend to discover my character’s backstories as I go, which makes the writing process fun and interesting and sometimes even surprising.  Often, I THINK I know a character’s backstory, but the character or the story directs me somewhere else entirely.   For instance, in A 52-Hertz Whale, Peter’s failed marriage was not something I planned for. I thought originally that he would be married and that he would be struggling with an addicted child, not an addicted sister with whom he had a significant and troubled history. 

Oh, and yes, I know how long Sophia and Sara have been friends—since they met in their first ballet class all the way back when they were kindergarteners.

Bill: James, or some version of him, was a character in a previous short story of yours. What about his role in the other story informed the current version of him? 

Nat: As you said, the story that first gave life to James was “Whale Boy.”  While “Whale Boy” provided the inspiration for the character of James as he appears in the novel, I was writing in close third person—not first person—in the short story.  So I did not know James’s voice and that was something that I had to really learn in the process of writing the novel.  Also, James did not grow in the short story in the way he does in the novel because there is no Darren in “Whale Boy” and Darren is essential to James’s transformation. Additionally, there were so many minor characters in the short story, who I didn’t know as well as I do now.  Charlie, Sam, and Sophia each have much more significant roles and story lines in A 52-Hertz Whale.  

Bill: Did you already love whales, or did you learn to love them as the book progressed?

Nat: I already loved them. When I was in fourth grade, I organized a group of neighborhood kids to go Christmas caroling. Any change that listeners donated in appreciation of our terrible singing was used to “adopt” a humpback whale. I’ve also gone whale watching a couple of times and there is nothing more amazing than seeing an animal larger than the boat itself emerging from the waves. I learned more about whales for the novel by reading The Birth of a Humpback Whale by Robert Matero and The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Phillip Hoare.  

Bill: What do you most like or dislike about the epistolary style in which we wrote?


Like: The many angles and character perspectives that you can introduce in order to better understand and deepen a particular plot point.
Dislike: Writing scenes and making character interactions and dialogue sound natural within the context of correspondence.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Question Behind The Cipher

My second novel is out today.  You don’t know how good it feels to say that.

Scratch that—they are plenty of writers reading this blog, many of them familiar with the heady brew of pride, relief, and gratitude that comes with seeing your book on a physical shelf.  They also know that when you start on the path toward that moment, the road ahead feels long and lonely.  Certain questions haunt you.  Are my characters interesting enough?  Can I actually tie all these plot strands together in thrilling fashion?  And will anyone be interested in a novel about a math riddle posed in 1859, known as the Riemann Hypothesis?

Okay, that last question was particular to me. 

You see, The Cipher took root in my mind when I read about a teenager in India who had possibly solved the Riemann Hypothesis, which many call the greatest mystery in math.  It deals with prime numbers, and the article noted that because modern encryption systems are built on prime numbers—and the fact that, basically, no one understands them—unraveling the Riemann Hypothesis could also unravel all of our electronic secrets. 

It turns out the teenager hadn’t solved the ancient math riddle.  But I thought:  what if he had?  And what if, suddenly, he had a key that could unlock any piece of encrypted information?

I knew it was a book I wanted to write.  The plot came almost fully formed to my mind.  But it was about a math problem from 1859.  And it involved a government agency called the NSA—one that few, at the time, were familiar with.  It felt . . . obscure.  The doubt loomed:  is this going to feel important to people?

I set out to write anyway, because that’s what you do—you write about the things that move you.  It’s the only way to go.

So I dove in.  I researched encryption and the NSA, and I made the characters as interesting as I could.  I drafted a novel in which the chapters are designated by prime numbers.  I could only hope people would find the subject as fascinating as I did.

Just as I was beginning to think the NSA was, indeed, a strange subject for a YA novel, something happened.

Edward Snowden hit.  Suddenly, the NSA was the subject of a national conversation.  In the flood of news that followed, there were reports of the NSA going to great lengths to break Internet encryption systems, just as it does in The Cipher.  My editor and I traded furious emails, watching with a kind of horrified fascination as various elements of the novel were reflected back in real life.

Any doubt about the subject matter of The Cipher being too obscure was erased.

It has only kept up since then.  Apple has made an encrypted iPhone, responding to popular worry about digital surveillance.  Hollywood released the Imitation Game, another fascinating (and unlike mine, true) code-breaking story.  On Sunday, a documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA, Citizen Four, won an Oscar.  Yesterday it aired on HBO.

Today, The Cipher could not feel more timely.  My biggest question, then, has been resolved.  As for the others, you tell me:  are the characters interesting enough?  Did it thrill you?  Did the twists and turns keep you turning the pages?  Now that the book is out there in the world, I’m eager to hear the answers.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Road to Utopia,Iowa Was Paved With Rejection

Utopia, Iowa, my YA novel, is being published by Candlewick Press today (FEB 10) and that’s a most excellent thing. I’m very grateful. But it almost didn’t happen. That is to say Utopia, Iowa’s road to publication was not a smooth superhighway. It was more like a road I drove in rural Mexico one summer not long after I graduated from high school, one that was an obstacle course of potholes and cracked pavement and that eventually went from poorly paved to not paved at all, then to mud, and then ended in what appeared to be a cow pasture. My choices were hang with the cows or go back and try to find another road. I like cows but…

How many rejections did Utopia, Iowa, get? I could probably ask my amazing agent for an exact number, but I’ll guess in the neighborhood of fifteen, including one from the publisher who ultimately accepted and published it (though not the same editor). And also--an important detail- the version she accepted was not that same version that had been rejected.

We’ve all seen the lists of novels that were rejected numerous times and ultimately became huge bestsellers and/or literary classics. To name a few…

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone--at least 11 rejections. (Bazillion copies sold)
Lord of the Flies: 20 rejections (15 million+ copies sold) Classic
A Wrinkle in Time: 26 rejections. (millions sold) Classic

I don’t know how many of these manuscripts, if any, were rewritten during or after rejections. I have read that J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was rewritten after many, many rejections and only then accepted by a publisher.

If you enjoy these kinds of lists here’s a long one at this site.

Obviously, no one knows for sure what people will buy—so there’s that. But also, since there are a lot of critically acclaimed novels and even classics on the list I’ve linked to, it’s fair to say that experienced editors and publishers may also be wrong about the quality of a novel.

So there’s that.

But what I’d like to focus on is I wrote a manuscript that was the best I could write at the time and that was handily rejected. Eventually, we had to admit that it wasn’t going to sell. I left it in my documents and moved on. I wrote another novel and that one was accepted. And then I wrote another and that one was accepted, too.

But I never entirely forgot that manuscript I’d left behind. Something about it, even after years, still interested me. Maybe part of that interest was that it was set in Iowa, the state I grew up in and hadn’t been back to for many, many years. But I also think I felt a connection to it that I never entirely broke free of. So I pulled the manuscript up and read through it. I still liked parts, but I saw a big problem in the manuscript that I hadn’t seen before. There were two stories and they were competing with each other—not working together. I thought about this problem for a day. Did I really want to go back to the manuscript again? It was going to take a lot of work and a lot of time and I could quite possibly end up in the same place—that damn cow pasture. Ultimately, the answer for me was yes. Part of the yes was that foolish stubborn steak so many writers have that serves us for both good and ill, but part of it was that I thought I could fix the story, that I could make it much better. It was worth the gamble.

So I tried.

And that version of Utopia, Iowa, sold on its first submission and made me very happy. I don’t want to say we should never give up on our manuscripts. Most writers have a few they were wise to give up on. However, I do want to say that if you have a manuscript buried in your documents folder that you couldn’t publish, maybe one that came close to being published or one you still feel connected to in some way, it’s worth taking a look at it again. Maybe the time away will give you the distance you need to see it more clearly. You never know. Writing, like publishing, is seldom a straight road.