Sunday, 4 December 2011

Interview with Ilsa.J.Bick - Ashes

We recently had the amazing opportunity to interview Ilsa.J.Bick author of Ashes. Ashes has to be one of my favourite books I have read in 2011 and it is one book you do not want to miss. Check out our review of Ashes here.

1. How did you come up with the idea for Ashes?
Someone else asked me if I’d decided to write an apocalyptic novel because that was the trendy theme these days.  Honestly, for me, this wasn’t about catching a wave or anything like that.  In fact, anyone who writes and pays attention knows that the books you see now were acquired at least a year or more before they appear.  If you really want to see what might be trending, you go to Publisher’s Marketplace and see who’s buying what.

So ASHES had nothing to do with that.  I just wrote what I felt like writing.  I mean, really, what teenager doesn’t want to blow up the world?  Also, I’d been brought up on science fiction, a genre in which doomsday scenarios are a staple.  Frankly, I’d read several dystopian YAs and I thought they were okay but that, in many, people were too well behaved.  A ton of the set-ups were . . . not so believable or kind of all the same.  Above all, I wanted to write something that I thought a) could really happen; b) was grounded in real science; c) would be rapid as well as utterly devastating; and d) wasn’t caused by a virus/plague/genetic engineering.
Being a doctor—and a real science nerd—I figured EMPs would fit the bill.  Our Congress held a ton of hearings on the dangers of an EMP attack several years ago and concluded we had no adequate defense.  I know some policy and strategic analysts who’ve been worried about this threat for years.  So it wasn’t such a leap for me.

2. According to you what is the greatest challenge for a writer?
There are so many, where do I start?  If I had to pick one, I guess it would be putting your ego in a box.  Really.  And I’m not talking simple narcissism here.  See, I trained as a doctor; I wanted to be a surgeon; and surgeons and doctors are trained to a) take charge and b) believe in their own rightness.  Letting that go and understanding that there are a ton of other people in this biz who know what they’re doing way better than I has taken work.
Now, it takes tremendous courage to send out a story or novel so some editor can tell you that you stink.  I am actually very shy, with a long history of absolute geekiness, so I already think people are laughing at me.  (I know; I frequently have to lie down and wait for that to go away.)  Criticism of any sort really, really hurts. I take it all very personally, as in there is clearly something wrong with me. 
But when you speak with an editor or read an edit letter, you have to understand that the editor is a pro; you’re a pro; and when it comes to slicing and dicing and changes and all that, pros care about the story.  This isn’t about you; it’s not about liking you.  No one’s out to assassinate or trip you in the hallway, or diss you in the cafeteria.  The reality is that not every word you’ve written deserves to live, and many need to die.  So you have to balance what you might perceive as a personal attack (which it isn’t; an editor who’s talking about changes already likes your work or else he/she wouldn’t have bought it) against the needs of the story.  You can disagree, but you have to do it respectfully.  There’s just not enough air in the room for prima donnas or hours in the day to make you—that sniveling author—feel better about yourself.

3. How would you describe your publishing journey?
In a word?  Bizarre.
I’ve never dreamed of being a writer.  It wasn’t something I ever thought of doing, frankly, other than writing myself into a Star Trek adventure (which I did and failed, miserably).  So it was that show which sparked my desire to write, and then the fun of creating stories and books that kept me going.  But, really, I got started writing on a dare.
As you probably know, I’m a medical doctor: started out in surgery, ended up in child psychiatry, had a private practice for many, many years.  But I’m also someone who’s easily bored, so when I was in my psychiatry residency, I went back to school at night and got a masters’ degree in liberal studies with an emphasis on film and literature.  From there, I started writing, presenting and publishing academic papers on film and psychoanalysis—and then, one day, my husband dared me to take the next step: forget the academic stuff and try writing something creative.  I thought he’d lost his mind, but I never back down from a challenge, or rarely ever.  Two, three years later—and after about thirty stories and six deservedly unpublished books (three Trek because I just had to write at least one adventure where I saved the ship, had super-powers, and everyone on board fell in love with me, and three non-Trek)—I was ready to give up.

Then, quite by accident, I saw an advertisement for a Star Trek fiction competition called Strange New Worlds.  In a nutshell, you could write a story set in any of the Trek universes (the shows) and send it in to Pocket Books.  So I figured, okay, this one last time and then I’m done.  So I wrote a story in about a week, typed it up, sent it in and forgot about it.  It was the fastest I’d written anything to that point, and that was at the end of August 1998.

Long story short: flash forward to November, the day before Thanksgiving, and I get a call from the editor at Pocket Books telling me that I’d won Grand Prize in the competition.  I was floored.  Not only was I paid and published, I won enough prize money to buy a refrigerator J

I also learned a valuable lesson—for me, anyway: write fast.  Any slower, and I tend to censor myself.

Anyway, that first prize winner, “A Ribbon for Rosie,” gave me the confidence to try again and again.  I won several more prizes and then started getting my short stories published—and then that led to a phone call from an editor at Pocket Books who asked if I wanted to write a Trek novel for “The Lost Era” series.  Of course, I said yes.

And that was the beginning.  I would write in the morning before seeing patients and then again at night if I had time after dealing with kids and dinner and all that.  I wrote on weekends.  I set challenges for myself: a story a week, that kind of thing.  When we eventually moved to Wisconsin, I cut back and worked part-time as a psychiatric consultant to a women’s prison and tried speeding up my writing so I would have more product.  Finally, I quit the shrink-job in 2006 or so and devoted myself to writing full-time but didn’t pen my first YA until late 2008.

4. Is writing something you always wanted to pursue? and why the young adult genre?
I’ll answer the second one since I cheated and answered the first part in #3 J  I just like YA, I guess.  I didn’t start here.  My big dream—after writing Trek—was to do original mysteries.  But then I took a workshop on synopses and queries and did this synopsis of a YA novel that I was kind of interested in doing but, obviously, hadn’t written.  After the workshop was over, I decided to send out the synopsis and query to a couple editors, just to see what would happen.  Well, one editor wrote back right away and said that was exactly the kind of book she was looking for and wanted to see it.  After picking myself off the floor, I wrote back and gave some story about how I was in the middle of another project and wanted to give the book another read-through but, sure, you bet, I’ll send that right to you—and then I sat down and wrote my fingers off for eight weeks.  That book eventually became DRAW THE DARK, although how it got that name and ended up where it did is a whole other story. 
But I like YA.  Being a child shrink, I guess I really groove on kids and I like trying to understand how they tick, what they think and feel.  Honestly, adults can get so mopey and, yes, things are bad, but one of the things I love about YA is how redemptive it is. These kids are in crummy situations, ones their society or parents created,and what these books are about is changing the world and making it better. We desperately need that kind of energy and optimism.  We need teens and young adults to realize that they’re the game-changers here.  The adults had their shot.  Time for a change, you ask me.

5. Alex is a very strong young heroine, why do you think it is important for writers these days to portray girls in this way?
Well, I think that’s related to what I wrote in #4, and I also don’t believe that this is something peculiar to contemporary writers.  If you stop to think about it, there have been TONS of interesting books written over the last couple hundred years with very strong female characters.  I mean, look at the work of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and, despite all his sentimentality, Charles Dickens as just some examples. While it’s true that some of what these girls and women want in those books seems very parochial and pedestrian to us, to them and in their time, these characters challenged convention.  That’s why they’re still so appealing today.  So I don’t think the importance of portraying strong female (and male) characters is specific to a certain time or place; what’s important is conviction and strength of character.  Those are the elements which favor a clash or conflict with prevailing culture which then drives and makes the story. 
The message is nearly always the same, too, regardless of time or place: be true to yourself even if this causes you pain or means you’re not the most popular kid in school.  Life is too short to live a lie.

6. Any general advice for aspiring writers?
Dare to be bad. I’m serious. I have this artist-friend—a pretty famous painter, actually—and he hates letting go.  He’ll work on a canvas forever unless there’s some sort of external deadline.  For him, the work’s very Roseanne Roseannadanna: It’s always something.
A lot of writers behave the same way.  They hang on to a story novel, trying to craft and mold every syllable before sending their baby into the world.  I’m not making fun here; I have the same problem.  But I know that if I hold on too long, all I do is write the life and freshness out of the work, and that’s no good. 
Instead of trying to be fabulous or brilliant, dare to tell your story and stretch yourself while you’re at it.  Try something you’ve never done or thought you could do.  Write it and then get that sucker out the door in a timely fashion.  Pretend there’s a deadline and stick to it. Do your best, of course; don’t send out typo-ridden slop on fuchsia paper with lavender scent.Editors are busy, overworked pros who deserve your respect.  But write, send, and then celebrate because you’ve finished a book. What’s more, it’s out the door.  Yay!  You rule!  You’ve just done something so many people wish they could but don’t have the tenacity or courage or grit to see through to the end—only you have.  So pat yourself on the back and order pizza. 
Then, get cracking on the next book.  Take a page out of Trollope’s playbook.  Now, that was one disciplined guy.  He worked a set amount of time every day, seven days a week.  If he finished a book before time was up, he started another.  Like, immediately. 
So you need to do the same.  Write; finish what you write; send what you’ve written to someone who can pay you money; celebrate that you’ve finished; and then, immediately, begin the next project.  Always be working on the next book because that will help when the rejection comes—and it will, trust me.  You will be rejected oh-so-many-times.  Rejection is inevitable and resistance is futile, no matter where you are in your career or who you happen to be, so put that ego in a box and move on.  Of course, if you sell your book or story, pop a cork and then continue. 
But always, always: dare to be bad.     

Check out Ilsa J.Bick's website here
Follow her on twitter:@ilsajbick
Buy ashes here

1 comment:

  1. Ashes is sitting on my bookshelf right now staring at me. Now, I'm going to have to read it soon! This interview left me very excited to check it out!!


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