For those of you who are not familiar with Jenny Davidson's brilliant and bookish blog, she is an intellectual force to be reckoned with that you need to check out. I have not only dozens of books to thank Jenny for recommending (most recently Roger Deakin's Waterlog which I'm loving and quite happily I was able to namedrop him in favorable way of comparison in a recent review for Booklist), but also most certainly see her as a source of inspiration when it comes to deciding to run. She has been published in academia and also has an adult novel out, Heredity, that I thought was smart, dark and a deeply interesting observation of the human condition and then came The Explosionist which impressed me on so many levels, not the least of which that it was one of the smartest books I've read with a teen protagonist in a long long time. (See my Bookslut review for more.)
In light of all this talking about YA and what it means to publish for that audience as opposed to adults, I fired a few questions off to Jenny on the subject. Here are her thoughtful responses:
Did you ever envision The Explosionist as an adult novel? Your background is in adult and academic publishing so I wondered if you originally planned to go that way. If so, what prompted you go with a YA audience? And regardless of whether teens were your initial audience or not, were you ever concerned about writing for them - about having to alter your vision of the book to meet the expectations of teens?
It is my firm opinion that YA is more a publisher's category than a writer's one! I wrote this novel exactly as I would write a novel for adults â€“ I really didn't think about audience in that way. My only notion was that I wanted to write the book I most wanted to read, and that this of course was something like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy or Garth Nix's Sabriel books. My agent sent the novel out to adult literary publishers and children's book editors at the same time, and I was taken aback but pleased when it was the YA editors who were most excited about it. In retrospect the importance of Pullman and Nix should have tipped me off to what I was really doing, but it frankly did not occur to me at the time.
I have the greatest respect for teenagers, and I never thought I would have to make any compromises on complexity or intellectual stuff in order for the book to be suited to a teen readership. I have been fortunate in having a very brilliant editor, Ruth Katcher, who entirely agreed. All of the editing and streamlining I did after the book was accepted for publication as a YA novel was stuff that would have been helpful for a book being published in any market: some tidying-up of plot, some trimming down of unneeded exposition, that sort of thing.
There is a lot of history and philosophy and social science (among other topics) in Explosionist. Was there ever any concern (from yourself or others) that it might be too much for teens? I see such a huge difference between books like yours and say, Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother", and the lastest Gossip Girl, etc. outing, that I sometimes think my head might spin off and I'm a lot older than the kids browsing the teen section. I'm not suggesting that we need to write down to the audience but your book is a big leap from standard teen fare. Were there any worries about that?
In short, no! Again, for myself, I am a great believer in the notion that books can be read on multiple levels; it is not necessary to get all of the references, for instance, to be a good reader of a book, and rereading at a different stage of life can then bring out different meanings. I teach college students for a living, and I find myself with a strong affinity for people in their teenage years, but it's my belief that a lot of people don't give enough credit to younger teens for the urge they might have to learn intellectual things about the world. I know that when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I was starved for intellectual things in a way that even very good high-school history classes and so forth could not satisfy. I was drawn to intellectual novelists like Anthony Burgess and John Fowles for what they showed me about an intellectual landscape that I would later explore more thoroughly at first hand. I think that The Explosionist offers quite a lot in terms of character and story that is to some extent independent of the intellectual stuff, though of course interwoven with it. On the other hand, I am fairly certain that it is the only contemporary YA novel that offers an extended discussion of Edmund Burke's position on the French Revolution!
Sophie encompasses a lot of classic teen characteristics - she wants to fit in, she has a secret crush, she is frustrated at the lack of control she has over her own life. Of course that last bit is blown wide open by a huge plot development concerning her great aunt (and guardian). While Sophie's concern about her future is huge compared to the average teen, her frustration is all too common. Do you think that lack of control over your destiny is a basic theme of teen literature and how significant should it be to books for that audience?
Hmmmm, themes are one of those things that seem to emerge after one has written the book, I did not think about it so clearly as that when I was writing it! But don't you think that lack of control over one's destiny is a thread that runs through all of literature, not just books written especially for teenagers? You can see that I am finding myself fairly strongly resisting the hard-and-fast categorization of there even being such a thing as teen literature. I have always been an eclectic and voracious reader â€“ when I was a teenager myself, I read a lot of books that my peers might have deemed too â€˜young' for them (I was always avidly reading and rereading Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, for instance, as I do to this day!) but also a lot of books that my elders found peculiar in choice and though I would be too young to understand. I still read a lot of YA literature, but mixed in with all sorts of things, and I apply the same criteria to all the different kinds of fiction I read: I am looking for compelling characters and voice, thought-provoking views of the world, vivid and fresh imaginings and powerful story-telling.
From your afterword it is clear that fairy tales and mythic literature played a part in crafting The Explosionist, although it is not obviously a fantasy story (other than its alt-history setting). A lot of readers think they have to say goodbye to fairy tales as they grow older - especially during the teen years. How do you think fairy tales should be read by teens - meaning why do you think they are still significant to their lives as they grow older?
I love fantasy and fairy tales, and I think it's a great pity if people feel they have to put them aside with other supposedly childish things. Fairy tales have a huge amount of literary complexity as well as suggestive meanings â€“ they seem in particular to offer all sorts of help in terms of thinking about transitions to one form or another of a fully operational adult sexuality. The sequel to The Explosionist (actually, I think, the middle volume in a trilogy) is called The Snow Queen and is based fairly closely on that tale of Hans Christian Andersen's. I've just been rereading his stories and find myself absolutely delighted with them â€“ they are strange and striking in all sorts of ways. I've already mentioned Robin McKinley once, but I certainly find her retellings of fairy tales are something else I return to again and again (especially Deerskin and Spindle's End).
I guess what I'm looking for in any novel is its ability to transport me. We have this very strongly when we read books as children, especially when we read books about magic (though I feel I was as thoroughly transported by the mundane details of Laura Ingalls Wilder's prairie existence as by the magic of the Narnia books). You've observed that "mythic fiction seems to go away for awhile when you are 14 or 15 and then return later,â€� and I think this is probably to a great extent true, although it wasn't true for me. Fantasy and science fiction are viewed by many people as slightly nerdy genres, and of course those are ages when one has many practical concerns on one's mind, so that it may be tempting to turn instead to books that offer more practical know-how about what it might mean to be a grown-up. But fantastical or mythic writing seems to me to have just as much to offer in that respect as more realistic fiction â€“ think of novels like Neil Gaiman's (I am especially thinking of American Gods and Anansi Boys), they are very well-suited to readers of all ages but especially, I think, to people growing up and trying to figure out what sort of figure they would like to cut in the world!
And finally - not a question but did you see the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Man of the People"? Against her will Counselor Troi takes on the negative emotions of a diplomat so he can do his job more effectively - it nearly kills her. When I remembered this it seemed to be a similar idea to creepy nasty training program for young women in your book. (Without the aliens of course!) I'm aware I'm showing my Star Trek geekiness here - I must really like you! ha!
Well, I hope you keep this in the final version of the questions, because I utterly loved that show and I certainly had that episode in the back of my mind as I developed the central notion of what happens to teenage girls growing up in the alternate-universe Scotland of the novel! And of course the reason that particular episode struck me (I have no idea who wrote itâ€”maybe you know better than I do how to figure out whether the writers had particular literary or philosophical source texts in mind?) is that it seems to me to express something very truthful about the ways girls and women are expected to suppress their feelings, especially their negative feelings, for the good of the group (whether it is a family or a class or a team in the workplace). I wish it were not so, but I think many of us labor to get beyond such a thing in our own lives â€“ the gothic horror-y register of the "Man of the Peopleâ€� episode and the Institute in The Explosionist seems to capture something truthful about the way this works in real life.