Interview with Scott Westerfeld

Posted by Goodreads on September 16, 2014
We know better than anyone that the world of YA has become all-encompassing—there are YA conferences, bloggers, vloggers, gatherings, groups, and all sorts of other ways to participate in the world of YA literature besides reading or writing it. Which means that it's high time for a great YA book about—what else?—YA! Scott Westerfeld is best known for the Uglies series, which skewers our societal obsessions with appearance and fame. With Afterworlds he has written a fascinating book-within-a-book, set in the world of New York City YA writers. It follows debut author Darcy Patel, who skips college when she sells her novel.

Scott answers your questions about his writing rituals, offers NaNoWriMo tips, and gives some backstory on one of your favorite Uglies characters, Zane!

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In Afterworlds Darcy Patel moves to New York City and meets a group of Young Adult writers. Aurora asks, Did you go through the same experiences as the author in your new book went through?

I'm from an earlier generation of YA than Darcy, so my experiences were different. Ten years ago the YA community in New York City was more informal, revolving around writing groups at coffee shops or, for really intensive days, hotel rooms. (Watch a video of a 2006 writing session, made by John Green!) But now there are several fixed monthly events in New York with their own mailing lists, etc., which evolved as YA grew in extent and visibility. Those are the scenes Darcy is introduced to, which are probably a lot more intimidating for a newcomer. I sometimes wonder what us old folks look like to the new people coming in, and Afterworlds is partly a response to that curiosity.

But to answer more generally, 90 percent of Darcy's experiences in publishing are things I've either seen myself or been told about by friends. So yeah, that stuff's all pretty real, and the most outrageous and unlikely scenes in Darcy's story are the realest. (You know who you are.)

Maria Lidia: How was the process of writing Afterworlds? Since there are two stories in one book, was alternating between worlds hard to do? Did you write both stories simultaneously?

Several readers also wondered if you chose the names Darcy and Lizzie to reference Pride and Prejudice?

I decided to write both simultaneously, because Darcy is rewriting her book while living her life. The big metaphor of the book, I suppose, is that growing up is like rewriting yourself. We are all made of drafts.

Sometimes, though, one story would get ahead of the other, because I was having too much fun with it. This was a sign to rein myself back in, because I wanted the two stories to talk to each other as much as possible. What Darcy sees in her real life always bubbles up in her novel, whether it's a setting, a new realization about true love, or just a new word.

In a way this book is my 150,000-word answer to the question "Where do you get your ideas?"

A lot of Afterworlds is about names: character names, pen names, the names our parents give us, and the fairy tale power of naming. One thread of that conceit is that Darcy has (unconsciously) connected herself to her own main character by calling her Lizzie. When Darcy realizes this, she wonders, "I should fix this, but should I change my character's name or my own?" We authors can give ourselves new names, after all.

This name thing is also about Darcy's feedback loop with her mother, a once-a-year Pride & Prejudice reader who named her daughter after a fictional character, just as Darcy's novel fictionalizes a traumatic event in her mother's childhood. Because turnabout is fair play, and we writers always get our revenge on paper.

Jessica: Scott Westerfeld, you are one of my favorite authors, and your Midnighters trilogy led me to meet the amazing people I call friends today! I'm very excited for Afterworlds because your main character wrote her novel during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). What is your advice to NaNoWriMo participants who hope to make something out of their coffee-driven first draft?

Rule one: Finish. Every time you don't finish something, you get better at beginnings and middles but lose the opportunity to get better at endings.

Rule two: Finishing doesn't mean just getting to the end; it means rewriting until the book is real. Maybe not perfect or publishable but something that hangs together.

Novels are really big, and you can't get good at them until you've gone through the whole process at least once. Making your first draft into a final draft is the most useful form of exercise you can get out of NaNo.

Rule three: coffee.

"Here's us in 2006, in a hotel room acquired for an emergency intensive writing day (as mentioned in my first answer)." From left, clockwise: Lauren McLaughlin, Maureen Johnson, John Green, and me. Photo credit: Justine Larbalestier.

Miranda: What is your best writing technique? Do you have a writing ritual every time you start writing a new book?

The best ritual is ritual. I write in the same chair, at the same time each day, after the same amount of coffee. This tells my body and brain that it is Writing Time and that there is no escape. You have to find your own rituals, of course, but in a way the specifics don't matter, as long as you're creating writing triggers and not procrastination triggers.

Whether you establish a pattern with setting, music, timing, or a magic incantation, let habit be your ally.

Kristen: As a female reader of your works, I find it profoundly interesting that you choose to write novels from the female protagonist perspective while you are a male author. I was wondering what influenced you to first start writing from the "female perspective" and if you have strong females in your life from which you draw inspiration.

I'm the youngest of three and an only boy, so it's true that my sisters did lots of cool stuff that I looked up to. So when I see narratives with no women in them, it just feels like something's missing. (And I would feel like a pretty crappy writer if I could only write from the perspective of my own gender.)

Sm: As a writer who is currently in automotive school learning to fix cars, I was wondering what other jobs you have done aside from writing and/or ghostwriting, and what were your favorite and least favorite ones?

My favorite nonwriting job was designing educational software, which may be clear to readers of Peeps, Midnighters, Uglies, and Leviathan, with all those explanations of parasites, math, magnetism, and aerodynamics. I've always thought that science and fiction writing have a lot in common because they're both about modeling reality.

I also like explaining stuff, because stuff is cool.

My least favorite job was working in a lead soldier factory, from which I was fired for willful incompetence after a couple of months, thus saving me from horrible diseases that would probably be kicking in about now. A writer's incompetence at everything else is always a blessing.

Yashvi: What are your thoughts about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign? The #WeNeedDiverseBooks is a campaign that started on social media during an exchange between writers Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo, following the announcement of the BookCon 2014 children's author panel, which consisted of only white male authors. The campaign calls for more books with diverse protagonists and more books written by authors from diverse backgrounds. The attempt of this campaign is to promote equal representation of people of all races, religions, genders, ableness, and sexual orientation in YA and children's literature.

It perplexes me how many people write books where everyone comes from the same basic set of backgrounds—middle class, white, straight, etc. It's like writing a book set in a world without coincidences, accidents, and colors. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? It reduces drama and conflicts and narrows the possible variety of points of view. And really, the whole magic of books is to show us the world through someone else's eyes. Experiencing the Other is what novels are for.

Yes, lack of representation has an awful social cost. It marginalizes some people and leaves others with no clue that they aren't the center of the universe, helping nobody. But there's also an artistic cost in letting your heroes all come from the same mold.

Remember, embracing diversity is like doing research. It not just about getting things right; it's about making things BIGGER. While planning Afterworlds, I starting reading a lot about psychopomps and realized that the early Hindu stories of Yama were wonderfully close to the way I wanted to represent the afterworld. So it made sense to make my novelist character a girl from a Hindu family. This made Darcy's journey much richer, because suddenly her world-building was about something she owned—or maybe didn't own—as a nonbeliever. And a hundred new conflicts were born. (Diversity = more plot, more stuff. Stuff is cool.)

Why do some writers avoid all that and shoot themselves in the foot? I don't know. "Don't be boring and lazy and the same as everyone else" seems like pretty obvious advice to me.

"The most important tool for a writer is a neat desktop. Here's mine." Photo credit: command-shift-3.

The character who inspired the most questions was Zane from the Uglies series. Some rejoiced at his death; others are still weeping. Can you give us a little insight into his character and some reasons for his fate?

As I neared the end of the Uglies trilogy, I realized I was writing about a war between Tally's city and Diego. I didn't want to write about a war without showing the real, absolute, personal cost that wars exact. Everyone is the hero of their own novel, so a war story in which only peripheral characters die is a cheat and a fake. Too many movies, TV shows, and books make war seem like a video game. So something had to really hurt, and Zane was the person whose death would most hurt Tally at that time.

Also, the tears of my readers keep me young. (Line stolen from Cassie Clare.)

Anika: In Extras Aya and those around her are judged by their "face" and popularity in society. I always loved this premise because it's so forward-thinking. How would you respond to how much social media has grown to give people influence—power, money, and even job opportunities—based on how many followers or viewers they have? Did you mean to forewarn against that type of society or do you accept that to some degree it's a fair system? (I'm referring to websites like KLOUT that track people's social media usage. I've read articles about people who were refused jobs because their KLOUT was too low.)

Reputation has always played an important part in human society, of course. Even back in 2006, when I was writing Extras, it was already pretty obvious that reputation was going to be made technologically, reduced to a set of scores that could be gamed in various ways. Twitter was launched around the time I started the novel, but it was really Amazon rankings that inspired me. I would watch authors refreshing their book's page every few minutes, trying to read their ranking like tea leaves. (Not that I would ever do that. No, not me.) Expanding that set of practices and anxieties to every social interaction just seemed like an obvious idea with lots of narrative potential.

But much like Uglies and plastic surgery, Extras isn't really some heartfelt warning about what's coming with social ranking systems. It's some satire mixed with a recognition of what's already around us and an exploration of the way human beings react to the system.

That's why I write science fiction: technology + people = drama.

Mhairi: If you were to create a perfect world, would it or would it not be like what you wrote about in your books and why?

I don't want a perfect world. I just want a hoverboard, some airships overhead, and to hang out with my friends and talk about writing. That's why I wrote these books.

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Jason (new)

Jason Are there any plans for additional stories in the Succession series? I thought those were among the best and most creative sci-fi/space opera stories written in the past few years.

message 2: by Lissa Smith Reads'~A Bookaholics Bookshelf (last edited Sep 19, 2014 09:56PM) (new)

 Lissa Smith Reads'~A Bookaholics Bookshelf Dear Scott Westerfeld Scott Westerfeld

My daughter is dying to know, "Do you have any plans on adding to your "Midinghters Series?"

Touching Darkness (Midnighters, #2) by Scott Westerfeld Touching Darkness
Blue Noon (Midnighters, #3) by Scott Westerfeld Blue Noon
The Secret Hour (Midnighters, #1) by Scott Westerfeld The Secret Hour

message 3: by Avi (new)

Avi Hi, my name's Avi Ackermann. I was just wondering about your negative portrayal of Tesla in the Leviathan series. As a fan of steampunk, history, and Tesla, I was dismayed to see that he was a villian.

message 4: by Alyssa (new)

Alyssa Moore Great interview. I think I'll share this with my my 9th grade class of writers.

message 5: by Efrona (new)

Efrona I do not fall interested very often in reading blogs and interviews, perhaps I should pay more attention! We all have excuses for why we are snobbish or reclusive.....mine is not a good one, I'm simply from the old school where computers and cell phone really had little to do with our every day lives. (Yes you could call me older, but really it was not that long ago!) I have found this night quite an enjoyable time reading the interview and quickly went to purchase the Uglies book 1. (regardless that I now know who dies) the YA novel might be the first to keep my interests.


message 6: by Olivia (new)

Olivia Eliza This is from my friend Emma, who loves the Uglies series to the point where it gets embarrassing. Please be nice.
- "I love them! But, what happened with Tally? They just disappeared in the wild! What happened with her relationship with David, they just disappear in the bushes like what happens after that?
I have a more serious question too: I felt that a lot of this story was mocking the modern day treatment of the environment on the part of humanity. Would you say that this was your way of criticizing this?
Thank you so much you don't understand how much I love your books!!! Thank you!"

message 7: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Gomez Avi wrote: "Hi, my name's Avi Ackermann. I was just wondering about your negative portrayal of Tesla in the Leviathan series. As a fan of steampunk, history, and Tesla, I was dismayed to see that he was a vill..."
I wouldn't day he was necessarily the villain he was crazy, a mad scientist, which he was. I love Tesla too, and Behemoth is what sparked that love.

message 8: by Henry (new)

Henry Bailey I like the statement," Everyone is the hero of their own novel."

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