Interview with Alexandra Bracken

Posted by Goodreads on January 9, 2017
When Alexandra Bracken, the bestselling author of The Darkest Minds series, embarked on her Passenger duology, she was realizing her dream of writing about time travel. The English and history graduate had studied in the colonial town of Williamsburg, Virginia, alongside its living history reenactments of 18th-century life and, while there, often felt as if she'd slipped through a portal to the 1700s.

Bracken wanted to capture that feeling in her writing. The result was Passenger, the story of Etta Spencer, a modern-day violin prodigy who discovers her inherited time-voyaging abilities when she is thrust back to 1776 and meets freed slave and privateer Nicholas Carter. Together the pair embarks on a perilous quest through far-flung lands and times to find a powerful hidden object and save Etta's future.

Now comes Wayfarer, the thrilling sequel and conclusion to the story, which moves from colonial Nassau to Roman Carthage and beyond as Etta is cut off from Nicholas, stunned by revelations about her paternity, and time itself comes under threat.

Here Bracken, 29, who sold her 2010 debut novel, Brightly Woven, while still at college and has written seven books plus several novellas and short stories, answers your questions about time travel, growing up the daughter of a Star Wars collector, and who she'd want to play Etta in a Passenger movie.

(For a recap of the story so far, see Bracken's Passenger "MEGA GRAPHIC" here.)

Charlie: I can't wait to get my hands on Wayfarer! You are so talented. Have you always wanted to write a time travel story? What other time travel tales do you enjoy?

Alexandra Bracken: Thanks so much, Charlie! What a nice thing to say! I've actually wanted to write a time travel story for years—pretty much since my freshman year of college.

I went to school at the College of William & Mary, which is at one end of Colonial Williamsburg (which is also one corner of the "Historic Triangle" of Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg). If you've never been before, Colonial Williamsburg—or CW as locals call it—is a living history reenactment of the town during the 18th century.

The reenactors don't break character while they're on-site, and the whole goal is to make you, as a modern person, feel as if you've time traveled. It's really interesting to juxtapose your modern sensibilities and beliefs against those of the 18th century and see the places where they do and don't align. I wanted to try capturing that feeling, which is why there's a lot of focus on how Etta and Nicholas relate individually to each time period they visit.

The very first time travel novel I ever remember reading was Walker of Time by Helen Hughes Vick in...fourth grade, maybe? More recent time travel faves include The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway, Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness, Susanna Kearsley's The Rose Garden, and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I also, of course, love Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.
Dee: I know you're the daughter of a Star Wars collector, which is so cool. Did growing up with all those toys and things influence Passenger at all?

AB: Yes! My dad was a big Star Wars collector from the time I was in first grade until he passed away a few years ago. I spent a lot of my childhood going to conventions and toy shows and really living in that fandom!

You know, I was originally going to say that the collecting didn't influence Passenger at all, but it actually probably gave me some insight into why some of the time travelers became such collectors of objects from other eras. (You get a little more about important and legendary items that have been lost to time in Wayfarer!)

More importantly, though, I really internalized the heroic journey story structure from watching those films so many times, and I think being such a fan of Star Wars ultimately taught me a lot about storytelling. It's definitely the reason I tend to write stories about "found families" of friends and teams of characters. I really love a good group dynamic!

Madison: Would you want Hollywood to make a movie out of the Passenger books? Any ideas on who should play Etta?

AB: I actually think making time travel movies is tough—I'm sure you guys noticed this, but there's a ton of worldbuilding and rules that come into play, and there are a lot of challenges with translating it to screen. But I would love to see a Passenger movie one day! With Etta, I used both Imogen Poots and Skyler Samuels as references, so I'll go with one of them!

Becca: Do you share your new plot ideas and characters with close friends or family members? Do they enjoy helping you come up with your books?

AB: Definitely. I'm of the opinion that it's actually kind of torture to listen to someone describe, in great detail, a book they haven't finished writing, and I'm also of the opinion that you should shelter your new ideas from outside voices until you have time to really develop and fall in love with them.

So when I seek out my family and friends, it's usually during the revision process—though sometimes I will do a very quick pitch of, "Hey what do you think about a story that's like X meets Y?" or they'll get a vote on which idea they like better. My younger brother was one of my first readers for The Darkest Minds series and gave me some truly great critiques!

Sam: How much research did you do for Passenger and Wayfarer?

AB: A LOT. A lot of a lot. Which I kind of loved, not going to lie! That includes very broad things like how Nicholas, as a young black man, would feel in certain historical eras, to double-checking that characters weren't using words or phrases that were anachronistic (or had changed in meaning), down to the little details of what they would be eating and wearing.

I felt like I was constantly chasing tiny details down that I ultimately would cut or couldn't use (argh), but that's sort of the way of it with historical fiction. For the research itself, I actually saved a ton of books from college that I could go back and reference. I read a ton of research papers on JSTOR and tried to use primary sources whenever possible for a sense of how people felt about their lives and the events unfolding around them. I guess I'm super nosy because I also LOVE reading journals and letters. People tend to be more honest when they don't think anyone else will read it.

I'm sure I still have inaccuracies in the book that slipped by, which sort of kills my little history-loving heart. I did my very best to research absolutely everything I could. I ended up developing a rule for myself that if I couldn't prove or disprove something in the story and it was reasonable and logical for the time period, I could include it rather than kill myself trying to make every itty bitty historical detail align.

Two examples of this: the caravanserai in Passenger (reasonably, one could be in that location, but could I definitely prove or disprove it? Nope.) and a bridge in the Russia section of Wayfarer. The bridge is based on the Rakotzbrücke (Devil's Bridge) in Germany, but there was no reason for the characters to be in that location, and it would have added an unnecessary wrinkle that would have slowed the plot down. I desperately wanted to include the image of the bridge reflecting into a perfect circle on the water as a symbolic and character-illuminating moment for Henry, Etta's dad, and his relationship with Rose, so I decided that surely, somewhere in Russia, there is an old, forgotten bridge that does the same thing. (But shhhh...don't tell my history professors!)

Ana: Do you play any musical instruments?

AB: I don't! I played the clarinet very badly for a few years, but my heart definitely wasn't in it. We're talking, like, second-to-last-chair bad. So naturally my first instinct was to make Etta a violin virtuoso! To get around my almost total ignorance about the musical world, I did a lot of research on different young violinists and their different paths. I also read a bunch of interviews with different musicians to get a feel for how they relate to, and talk about, music.

Carol: Any advice for young writers? I really admire your writing, and I'm hoping to write my own book soon!

AB: First of all, I always like to start by saying that if you're writing, you're already a writer.

The first step to becoming a published author—if that's your goal—is simply just to write. A lot of people believe that writing is a natural-born talent that some people have, but I've always felt like the instinct to want to write and create is innate, and that's about it. The only way to improve your writing is to put the mileage in, practicewise. That means writing stories that'll frustrate you because they're not coming out the way you envisioned. It means writing a lot of false starts for books, and it means struggling in a different way with each new project you start. That's totally normal and even necessary to improve your craft.

One really important thing you can start doing now is to make a weekly appointment with yourself to sit down and write something, whether it's a journal entry, fanfiction, poetry, or a few pages of a novel. When it comes down to it, the only way to finish a book is to teach yourself the discipline of putting your butt in a chair and getting to work. Our lives are so busy—and yours especially, since I'm guessing you're probably still in school! Protect your weekly writing time, and don't let anyone guilt you out of that appointment.

My only other piece of advice is to read as much as you can, in as many genres as you can. I don't write mysteries, but I've learned a lot about foreshadowing and plot twists from reading them. I don't tend to write high fantasy stories, but reading them has taught me quite a bit about worldbuilding. And so on!

Kayla: Which of your characters (from any of your books) is most like you?

AB: Oooh, this is a tough question because they're all a little bit like me...or I guess a better way of putting it is to say that they all inevitably inherit a tiny piece of me. Etta has my focus and determination. My introverted nature manifested in Ruby. Liam has my taste in music and my weird sense of humor, and Chubs and I can both be a little high-strung at times. Vida inherited all of her cussing from yours truly as well! I think, overall, I probably relate the most to Ruby, especially in The Darkest Minds—I was such a lonely kid growing up and felt like I had a hard time making friends because of how shy I was.

Daisy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

AB: I knew from a really young age, actually. I was a voracious reader growing up (I feel like all my GR friends will appreciate this: I won an award in elementary school for checking out and reading the most books in my grade one year!) and especially loved Avi, Roald Dahl, and reading all of the expanded universe Star Wars books.

Some part of me genuinely believed that if reading was fun, then SURELY writing would be as well. And it is, for the most part! I also had the benefit of having a third-grade teacher who had us write and illustrate short stories, which she'd then bind up with cardboard, staples, and contact paper. (You can see one of them here.) Maybe the most unusual thing about it was that I knew from that age that I wanted to write books for kids, not adults.

I wrote a ton of fanfiction in middle school and high school, which ended up being the practice I needed to have the confidence to try writing original material in college.

Sara: You are amazing! Sorry for the cliché question, but I have to know: If you could time travel to any place at any time, where would you go? And how long would you stay?

AB: Aw, thank you!! You know, I might have said the 18th century a few years ago because I've always been intrigued by that time period in U.S. history. The most interesting periods of time tend to also be a little volatile, but I've always wondered what the energy was like through the colonies when they were on the brink of declaring independence. (Reading about it in a journal is one thing and experiencing it is another.)

But after writing Passenger and Wayfarer, I honestly think that time travel to the past would be mostly miserable for anyone who wasn't a white guy. Also, you know, modern medicine is amazing. So I actually think I'd like to go forward into the future. What can I say? I love spoilers, even real-life ones!

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message 1: by Cal (new)

Cal (Cal's Reading Corner) Wonderful interview :)

message 2: by Aryane (new)

Aryane Marques She is very nice :)

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