Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Beth Revis

Beth Revis is the most common kind of overnight success in publishing—the kind where the author actually worked long and hard for years. Revis, who hails from rural North Carolina, netted a big deal with Penguin’s Razorbill imprint for her science fiction trilogy, which began with Across the Universe, released in January 2011. The story follows Amy, a teenage girl who is put in cryosleep to travel with her parents to a new planet, and Elder, a boy who has grown up on the ship Godspeed and will one day be the leader of its extremely dysfunctional society. The novel blends elements of mystery, romance, and dystopia into its science fictional premise, and received plenty of advance buzz, including a starred review from Kirkus. It will be released in paperback in November.

When the book hit The New York Times Best Seller list at #7 in its first week out, it was an instant beacon of hope for everyone who wants to see a wider variety of science fiction—read: more than just dystopian novels—being published in the Young Adult (YA) field. But the reception isn’t so surprising, given that the generation ship conceit is perfect to explore the ways in which teenagers often feel confined by their surroundings, trapped by limited choices. Revis’s own background, growing up in a rural area and also being a former teacher, surely helped her fully evoke that sense of entrapment.

Despite this wildly successful debut, Revis’s path to publication was a hard-fought one, and she has the ten manuscripts before Across the Universe to prove it. When I caught up with her for this interview, she was hard at work on the trilogy’s second novel, A Million Suns, due out in 2012.

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Beth RevisYour debut novel is a big science fiction book—dystopian elements, sure, but also with a generation ship and cryosleep and genetic engineering, which are core science fiction trappings. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that it’s impossible to make spaceships work in Young Adult, and no one will buy books about them. Did you worry about that at all while you were writing Across the Universe?

I didn’t worry one bit while I was writing it—I was honestly just writing a story that I enjoyed. I loved the world, and I loved playing with it. It’s weird to say because it’s science fiction, but the entire story was a very organic process—the ship really grew with the story.

That said, after I finished and started trying to find an agent for the work, I became very worried, very fast. I received three rejections that specifically stated that they didn’t think a space SF novel would sell for the YA market. I had several agents who specifically ask for SF on their listings, but who rejected mine because it was a space SF—they wanted an on-world dystopian like The Hunger Games, not real SF.

Luckily, I found a wonderful, brilliant agent who was very eager for the book, and she placed me with the exact right publisher. It’s been a dream since. And I love proving wrong all those people who told me SF would never sell.

In my experience, SF writers usually tend to work from either theme/idea or from character. Where did the germ of Across the Universe start?

The original story came from an idea for a mystery. I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t read the story yet, but I’ll just say that the end of the novel was always that end. I built the entire book so I could have those last twenty or so pages of the novel.

Beyond that, everything started with the characters. I didn’t think about accessibility when I was writing it, but after I finished, I realized that by having one point-of-view narrator be from Earth and one be born on the spaceship, I was giving my readers access to both the native and alien point-of-view.

But definitely the story came from the characters. The themes—such as honesty, nature versus nurture, and free will—came about because the characters were in situations where they needed to think about those things.

Did you always think of the book as a larger story you’d tell over multiple books?

Actually—and this surprises most people—the story was going to only be one book for a long time. I thought that maybe, if people liked it, I might write a companion novel taking place several generations later from the events in the book. But I was talking to my agent just before we started shopping the book—did I mention she’s brilliant?—and something she said sparked an idea, a way for me to expand the book into a trilogy using the same characters.

That said, the end of the novel didn’t change. Actually, nothing changed to “set up” a trilogy—I just originally intended to end the book on a bit of an ambiguous note. Now that ambiguity will be answered, at least partially, in the two successive books. I think most people will be happier to see what happens.

One of the things that sets YA science fiction apart from much adult SF is how accessible it is—generally speaking, it makes entering its world easy for the reader. Do you agree? Was that something you thought about while you were writing?

It wasn’t something that I thought about writing, but it is something that I think exists and sets the genre apart. There’s a big difference between most adult SF and YA SF. In some ways, it’s like the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. I always preferred the space opera style—I wanted the story and the characters, not the setting and the science. I wrote the kind of story that I liked—and my biggest influences were movies and television, more so than books. Firefly is my all-time favorite show. They don’t explain a lot of things on Firefly. You know Serenity is a spaceship, and you even see the engine—and in one episode, the workings of the engine are crucial to the plot—but it’s not like there’s really any hard engineering or science revealed in the story.

That’s not to say there’s no science in Firefly—or in Across the Universe for that matter. There is. I gave the ship in my novel an engine that could, potentially, be used for generation ships in the future, and while I don’t explain what the cryo liquid the people from Earth are frozen with, I do explain that it prevents cell walls from bursting, the primary obstacle we currently face in cryogenic freezing.

There are two kinds of science fiction—those that focus on the science and those that focus on the fiction. I focus on the fiction.

That said—I do know my science. Very observant readers—I’ve had maybe a dozen contact me—have noticed that there’s actually a pretty big scientific “error” in the book. It’s actually not an error; it’s a clue for the sequel.

In the novel, Elder and Amy’s romance is quite nontraditional, especially in terms of Elder’s characterization. I almost read him as a subtle critique of the “love at first sight”-obsessed hero type, and I saw you mention somewhere how flawed Shakespeare’s Romeo is. Would you elaborate a bit on that? (I’m assuming this issue won’t be going away in the sequels.)

Absolutely Elder is the “love at first sight” character, and Amy is much more reserved. I based Elder in part on the character of the Emperor in the manga Fushigi Yûgi by Yu Watase. You have this character who just sees an image of someone—just a visual, an idea of the person—and he falls in love with her. But, of course, we are much more than our outer appearances. I don’t really believe in love at first sight. Perhaps attraction at first sight, but not love. So part of what I wanted to do with Amy and Elder on a romantic level was to show that you might think you love someone at first sight, but you can’t really love someone without getting to know that person.

I’ve always had problems with Romeo and Juliet, and, more recently, some other YA novels that have come out. Certainly there’s a market for them, and some people love them, and that’s one hundred percent fine. But it was very important for me to show that real love requires time—and that sometimes love can be one-sided. I don’t want anyone to get too comfortable with the idea that Amy and Elder’s relationship is sealed in stone.

But I think my biggest point is merely this: Real love requires sacrifice. I would believe in the story of Romeo and Juliet if there was no suicide involved. They took the easy way out. Real love is sometimes a burden and sometimes painful and sometimes requires you to keep moving forward, even if that means leaving the one you love behind.

Did keeping the world’s science consistent ever prevent you from going a certain place in the story, or did it drive and enhance the narrative development? Did you have to change anything in later drafts that it made you crazy to lose, to preserve the world-building?

Actually, for Across the Universe, everything flowed very organically. I do not ever plan my novels before I write them—I had this vague idea of the final scene of the book, but I had no idea how to get there until I actually wrote it out. So the world grew with the story, and I really didn’t have to change or lose anything in that way.

However, for A Million Suns, the sequel, there have been a few things that I’ve had to cut and change. I’ve rewritten the story several times—I’m so glad I’m working with such a dedicated editor. We all have a grand vision for the sequel, and we’re all working towards it. But there have been a few things in particular that just didn’t work for the story or the world and they had to go.

You wrote something like ten books before this one. Were any of those science fiction, or were they all over the spectrum?

I did write ten full-length completed manuscripts before Across the Universe, and I tried to get nearly all of them published, as well, but obviously didn’t. They were all fantasy novels, and they were all YA (with one middle grade exception). They were sometimes high fantasy and sometimes contemporary, but science fiction was a big departure for me. I’m glad I took the risk—and Across the Universe was a risk for me for several reasons: SF—since I’d only written fantasy—told from two points of view, with a boy narrator for half the book, and all in first-person present tense—none of which I’d done before.

On a related note, do you have anything to say about the value of perseverance? How did you keep going?

I kept going simply because I enjoy writing. Some people enjoy video games (like my husband) or watching TV (like my father) or reading (like my mother). In my spare time, I enjoy writing. So I kept writing.

I did want to give up at times, though. Writing is fun—but publication is a soul-crushing, dream-eating monster. And while I did enjoy writing, I always had the goal of publication in front of me, and it really killed me inside to know that the odds were against me and that there was a chance nothing I ever wrote would get published.

I’m glad I kept writing—but it’s easy for me to say that, now, with the book published and more on the way. And now I look back on those ten novels that weren’t published with pride—they are symbols of perseverance and dedication to the craft, etc. But not too long ago, they were objects of shame and signs of failure. It’s just about perspective. So, if you are a writer and you have novels that haven’t been published and you’re ashamed of them—that’s okay. Keep writing until you realize that they’re badges of honor.

Where do you see your work going after this trilogy concludes? Do you think you’ll stick with science fiction or branch out into something else?

I know for sure I’ll still be writing YA. I will probably only write YA. But I’m playing around with a steampunk idea, and maybe a fantasy one from one of my trunk novels. I also wouldn’t mind writing a SF novel that has a great ensemble cast, too. Short answer: I don’t know!

I’m always fascinated by how everyone’s personal reading history affects their work. What were your formative influences, as a child and into adulthood? What books or authors are your big beacons, the ones that loom large?

C.S. Lewis changed the way that I thought about books. I was always a big reader, and when I was a kid, my mom would take me to the library. There was a great set of stairs that hid a wonderful reading nook, and I’d pull books off the shelf and read them under the stairs. I was the kind of kid that just devoured books; I’d plow through them, toss them aside, and grab the next. But while reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I remember thinking that maybe the characters and story were something more, that maybe Aslan was more than a lion. As a kid, this felt like a huge discovery to me. It’s easy to read those books now that I’m an adult and go “Yeah, obviously there’s a bit of an allegory here,” but as a kid, it felt like I was a sleuth fitting together complex puzzle pieces. The idea that a book could be more than words changed my entire outlook on life—I studied literature in college, became a literature teacher, and wrote with this idea that words were magic.

Did you read books for teens growing up, or did you mostly jump from kids’ books to adult books?

It seems so strange to me now, because YA is such a huge genre, but only ten years ago … it wasn’t. The classics in YA are classic in part because there were just so few YA books out there. So I read all the classics—Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Enchanted Forest by Patricia Wrede, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. And yeah, Sweet Valley and The Baby-Sitters Club.

I didn’t read based on labels. I read the books that looked cool. I read the books where cool stuff happened. When I got to college, that was when there seemed to be more of an emphasis on labels. Harry Potter had just come out and I remember thinking, “That looks neat, but I can’t read it, it’s for kids.” I never thought that way until the YA and MG labels started cropping up so strongly.

Then my college roommate and I were at a bookstore browsing, and of course I went to the adult section because, you know, I thought I was an adult by then. And my roommate looked at me, as if she were about to do something bad, and she said, “I wish I could read the books over there, they look more fun.” And I thought, they are more fun. So I crossed the aisle and I bought the books I wanted to read. I go straight to the YA section now without a bit of remorse—and fortunately, since the success of the big blockbusters, more and more people are thinking the exact same things. They want the books that are fun.

Many people talk about the sense of freedom YA authors have, because YA is not usually subdivided into genres in bookstores in the same way that adult books are. There is also a real sense of supportiveness from the larger YA community. Were those reasons part of what drew you to YA as a writer? What do you think makes YA special?

YA is special because it breaks the label. YA stands for Young Adult, but I think it’s pretty obvious that the books aren’t for young people—or, they’re not just for young people. Ignore the label. What you need to know about YA is that YA is about a style more than anything else. In YA, you can almost guarantee that the books are fast-paced, the characters are interesting, and the plot is exciting. In short: Stuff happens. Or, actually: Cool stuff happens. In YA, you’ll get the book with kissing and explosions and a ticking time bomb and death and tragedy and hilarity and comedy. All in one book. And it can be on a spaceship or in a fantasy world or in Paris or in the Midwest, and the characters can be black, white, Asian, Hispanic, or aliens—any of that and more can happen in YA. It’s not about a setting or a trope—it’s about a style.

What’s your writing process like? Do you do a lot of drafts? What’s the hardest part for you? 

I don’t outline, and I write everything in order. I can’t write page two until page one is done. When I wrote Across the Universe, I knew those last twenty pages … but I didn’t write them until I got to them.

This is because my favorite part of writing is discovering the story. I love the adventure, the danger, in not knowing where a story is going. When you turn the page of a book, you don’t know what’s going to happen to the characters next. When I write my books, I don’t know what’s going to happen until the words are on the page, and that’s exciting for me.

Of course, that also means that sometimes—often—I write my characters into a corner or I add something that’s not needed or I mess stuff up. So while I love drafting and it’s just a joy to discover the world, the real work begins as soon as I write “the end.” That’s when I have to break everything I just created and glue it all back together in a way that makes sense.

Also: I’m part German and all stubborn. So, sometimes, something doesn’t work in the novel … and it’ll take me three or four drafts before I can admit it and change it. So that part’s not hard—it’s excruciating.

Has there been anything that truly surprised you about the publication process and the reaction to the book?

The success of the book has been phenomenal, and so far above and beyond my dreams that I’m more in shock than surprised!

Another thing that I really didn’t expect—the community. And really—it is a community. Online, there’s a whole core of book bloggers and writers who blog YA, and it’s just a friendly, giving community based on books. It’s amazing. I sort of expected writers to be these hugely competitive, back-stabbing, snobby people, and it’s just not true. I have yet to meet someone like that. Instead, I just keep meeting these wonderful people who are passionate about books—not just their books, all books.

Are there things you really rely on for recharging your creative batteries or for inspiration?

Joss Whedon is simply amazing—he’s the best writer of my generation, in my opinion. A Firefly marathon will inspire me more than almost anything else (and I gave credit to that fact by naming one of my side characters after his Kaylee, and basing Eldest on the Operative in Serenity).

On a personal level, if I get really, really stuck, the first thing I do is switch mediums. I do all my writing on a computer, so if I get stuck, I move to pen and paper and brainstorm or even write whole chapters in ink. If that doesn’t work, I get in my car and drive. Before I got the book deal, I worked as a teacher in a very rural town that required a forty-five minute commute each way. In those long drives, I’d think about my story and solved a lot of my plot problems that way. Even now, if I get too stuck, I’ll get in my car, crank the radio, and just drive and drive.

Wild card last question: Would you ever want to travel in space, assuming it became more common?

Absolutely! But not like Amy. I don’t want to give up Earth—I want a vacation home on the moon.

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Gwenda Bond

Gwenda-BondGwenda Bond writes young adult fantasy. She is also a contributing writer for Publishers Weekly, and regularly reviews for Subterranean Online and Locus. Her work has also appeared in the Journal of Mythic Arts, The Washington Post, Kirkus, and at Strange Horizons, and she has been a guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition. She holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ program in writing for children and young adults. Readers of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet may know her as everyone’s “Dear Aunt Gwenda.” She lives in a hundred-year-old house in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband, author Christopher Rowe, and their menagerie. She can be found at her blog or on Twitter.