Last time I was at Books of Wonder it was a madhouse. On Sunday it was pretty much the total opposite, and totally awesome!
I was unfamiliar with most of the authors in attendance, the only one I'd even heard of was Jonathan Maberry, who wrote Rot and Ruin which I highlighted last week in my Fall releases post. So I went to the event just for him, but Matthew Myklusch, Catherine Jinks and Gitty Daneshvari all had great presentations and interesting books as well!
As the audience was filtering in before the panel got started, I got to have a great chat with Debbie, a fellow audience member who happens to be a kids/YA literary agent, and Catherine Jinks about blogging and whether it helps for getting a job in the industry. Debbie and I plugged Scott Westerfeld's excellent blog for Catherine as an example of an author's blog, and I introduced Debbie to Justine Larbalestier's books (I specifically recommended Liar).
Then it was time for the panel to start!
Matthew spoke first about his debut book Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation, about an orphaned boy who has no idea who he is - he was dropped off at a truly depressing orphanage in a basket with just 'Jack' written on the handle. He begins to develop super powers, and discovers he's actually from a place called Imagine Nation, where all of the fantastic things in our world originate. It turns out that Jack's abilities will either make him the greatest hero, or the greatest threat, the world has ever seen. Matthew read from the prologue, and it felt reminiscent of a Roald Dahl story or the first Harry Potter book - rather dark and bleak and some unseen narrator that assures us that from this humble beginning an epic story will emerge.
Catherine spoke next about The Genius Wars, the conclusion of a trilogy. The idea for the first book sprang from a conversation with her brother and her husband, regarding a Professor Gangrene figure of her nephew's. The question was posed "Where do these people get their degrees?" The answer, of course, is the University of Evil. Her reading selection was a little hard to follow, since I know nothing about the books, but I'm interested in the fact that one of the main character's friends is a girl with Cerebral Palsy.
It was kind of interesting hearing from authors who are all over the place in terms of series/trilogies of books. Gitty was talking about the second book in her School of Fear series. The characters all have real fears she suffered from as a child, including a terrible fear of spiders that led her to spraying RAID in her hair every night to keep spiders from nesting there as she slept. Ugh! In the second book, the kids are returning for their second year at a school for kids with crippling fears. She read for us a scene where the kids are trying to convince their principal that they are totally cured and don't need to go back for a second year. It sounds really funny with a great dose of sarcasm.
Jonathan Maberry, it turns out, has written roughly a billion books, but Rot and Ruin is his first YA, and again we're at the first in a series. He spoke a little bit about why zombie stories are actually totally safe to read if you're someone who's totally freaked out by the idea of zombies - because zombie stories aren't actually about the zombies. Instead, the zombie acts as a metaphor and presents an immediate threat to your characters, which is then the catalyst for change. He said this threat or crisis has been the center of storytelling going all the way back to Gilgamesh (who I have a special affinity for, after performing excerpts from the epic in forensics in college. Just about the only time they got me to compete in poetry!) He then asked how many of us had seen Night of the Living Dead - I was sitting in the front so I didn't see how many people behind me raised their hands, but apparently all of the zombie fans were sitting in the same half of the room, which reminded me of Zombies vs. Unicorns debate. He then read from Rot and Ruin, and can I just say that I am SO GLAD I bought a copy for myself because I was getting chills just from the short excerpt he read, with the main character and his older brother talking about how all zombies were once somebody's family.
Then it was question and answer time, and I opened with a question specifically for Jonathan, but I told the other authors they could chime in if they liked. In my opinion it was the most important question of the day: fast or slow zombies? Jonthan prefers slow in books and fast in movies, and apparently tackles the issue later in this series (or maybe it was the end of Rot and Ruin? Listening and taking notes hasn't always been my strong suit). Matthew also said he prefers slow zombies, as they give more time to develop your characters. Catherine says she has a zombie appear at the end of her next book, the sequel to The Reformed Vampire Support Group and he's a very slow, very sad zombie. Slow zombies have pathos she decided. Gitty begged off, saying she had no opinion on zombies.
An audience member says that when she was a kid, kid's books were rather trauma-free, but all of the books we were discussing today had some sort of trauma, whether extreme phobias or fighting evil or zombies, and she wondered how the authors' books were being received. Jonathan answered that since kids today have more understanding and/or awareness of what's happening in the world through all of the readily-available technology, authors would be doing a disservice if they wrote a sugar-coated world. Gitty chimed in that her book isn't actually scary, since she's such a wimp she wouldn't be able to write a truly scary story. Catherine and Matthew both said that any "trauma" in their books is diffused through humor. Another audience member commented that perhaps the issues and trauma aren't new, but rather we're more willing to talk about it today than we were fifteen or twenty years ago. Jonathan responded that he, at least, isn't writing about fear, but rather people's responses to it and over coming those fears. He said that when he's talking to people about his adult thrillers they always ask why he's writing about monsters, and he says he doesn't write about monsters, but instead writes about people and how they defeat those monsters.
The Books of Wonder employee who was acting as our MC asked the next question, wondering, since all of the authors were at one point or another in writing a series, how much of the end they knew when they were starting. And here's where the panel began to get really fun, because it turned more into a conversation rather than each author giving their answer in isolation. Matthew said he's a big planner and knows the broad strokes of the story, comparing writing to a road trip. He's the sort of traveler who would need the entire atlas and GPS to get to his destination. However, he's not so inflexible that he doesn't listen to his characters, and will allow the to pull him off the beaten track. Catherine has written several series as this point, but never sets out to write a series, in part because she fears that she will never get all of them published. Her first series became one because the character wouldn't leave her alone, while with Genius Wars she realized that the character was left in limbo at the end of book one, and at the end of book two the character also still needed a major sense of resolution about his relationship with another character. Gitty says she always outlines and writes a "dreadful" first draft. For Jonathan, Rot and Ruin is his third series. The first one was pitched as a closed trilogy, while his second was an open ended series, where each book is a contained "episode" without an overarching plot tying multiple books together (likened it to the James Bond movies). He also said that when he has to switch gears and go to another set of characters for another series, he almost has to have a grief period - for example, the characters in Rot and Ruin feel so real he doesn't want to leave! Here Catherine had to jump in again to note that sometimes the exact opposite happens and you just can't wait to leave these characters forever! Matthew picked up next, noting that some stories just fit one series type better than the other. For the Jack Blank books, he sold the series as a trilogy, but he made sure that this book, at least, finishes up part of the story, so it sounds like it's not one of those annoying cliffhanger series.
Peter Glassman, the owner of Books of Wonder, came up next, saying that what the authors had been saying about series was really showing how series and children's literature have evolved. The first children's series was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, where each book was a self-contained story, and that was the tradition for decades until Tolkein came along with Lord of the Rings - which wasn't intended to be a trilogy, but the publisher split the book up figuring people wouldn't want to buy a 1500 page novel.
The final question of the afternoon was about what comes next. Matthew has Jack Blank and the Secret War publishing next and is currently writing the conclusion. Catherine is starting an entirely new series that is apparently set in a computer first person shooter game and the character meets a virus (she says her pitching skills her terrible, but I know I'm already curious). Gitty is plugging away on the third School of Fear title, and Jonathan "never sleeps" as he's working on at least three different projects, including a few mini-series for Marvel comics.
Thanks to all of the authors for coming out on a gray afternoon, and thanks to Books of Wonder for putting together an excellent panel of authors! Check back later this week for my review of Rot and Ruin and a truly awesome giveaway!