Why do you write for young adults?
What are you, my therapist? Do you think maybe I’m still obsessing about a period in life when I was both a mess and also full of possibility? That’s pretty much your answer right there. I can think of no more intensely soul-searching time than young adulthood. It’s a time when we don’t have all the answers, but think we do, or we should. Truthfully it’s not so different from being middle-aged, but older people just get better at hiding it. I’m far more interested in people who baldly admit that they’re fumbling their way forward than in those who seem to have it all figured out. Of course I’m fleetingly attracted to people who are all grace and smoothness and perfect outfits, but it’s when they show me some vulnerability that I fall in love.
And there is no one more vulnerable than a young adult. Babies aren’t even as vulnerable. No one would leave a baby to figure anything out. No one would expect a 7-year-old to make smart long-term decisions. Suddenly, we reach a certain age and so much is expected of us and we’re left all alone. We’ve had just enough time to have a few rugs pulled out from under us, and yet we keep hoping that the next rug we encounter will be soft under our feet and stay right where we put it. That young person—still full of longing and hope—is who I am on the inside, and that’s who I write for and about.
Where did you get the idea for The Beast Is an Animal?
If you look at my Thanks page, you’ll see that the road to completing The Beast Is an Animal was long. It went through many stages of development. Its true genesis was the prologue, which I actually wrote for an utterly different novel (also a fantasy, but with a contemporary setting). An agent who read that different novel said there needed to be a backstory for the villains, so I sat down at my computer, and in a flood of weird inspiration, the prologue came out of me—twelve pages of freely flowing words that weren’t very different from what you can now find on the printed page. I’m not sure where that foreword came from, but I think it was some kind of hybrid orchid that grew out of all sorts of rich and dirty inspiration—the Grimm fairytales I read as a child, my lifelong obsession with vampires and things that lurk in dark forests, as well as my love of fiction that sweeps you away and makes you feel that anything is possible. I like to think the story itself is original, while it’s certainly informed by everything I see and hear and touch. The emotional inspiration for the novel—that’s all my own.
What’s with all the weird word spellings in The Beast Is an Animal?
I’ve been obsessed with Wales ever since I was little and heard that there were castles there. Wales seemed mysterious and wonderful to me. Full of ocean cliffs and mist. My novel isn’t at all set in the real Wales, although I did finally get to visit there when I was well into the writing (it is indeed a magical place). The Beast Is an Animal is set in a fictional world called Byd (which is the Welsh word for world), and I used Welsh names and places in the naming of my characters and villages. That’s also why “forest” is spelled “fforest.”
In case you’re wondering, Alys is pronounced just like Alice, and Cian is pronounced KEY-en. I get asked that a lot, but really, it doesn’t matter how you pronounce their names in your own head. I just want you to like them, and they’re not the types to mind having their names mispronounced.
What is your next novel about?
My next novel is in-progress so I won’t be giving away any specifics for a good long while, but I will say that it is another dark fairytale with a strong female protagonist. I love fairytales, the darker the better, and I love strong girls and women. So I’m writing another novel that I would want to read.
What books did you read as a child and young adult?
I’m not quite sure why I wasn’t exposed to more children’s books and young adult literature, although certainly there was less of it when I was growing up. I come from a family of readers, but my father didn’t concern himself too much with what I was reading, and my mother worked way too hard to guide my reading, although I remember them reading to me at bedtime. I had some collections of fairytales that I devoured—I loved the really creepy, twisted ones the best. There’s so much crime and punishment—unfair and otherwise—in fairytales. So many dubious lessons about greed and jealousy and marital happiness. I was particularly obsessed with “The Snow Queen,” by Hans Christian Anderson, and the "Grimm Brothers’s “Rumpelstiltskin.”
I also had a collection of thin, illustrated paperback retellings of bible stories that were probably my main source of biblical knowledge (my father was a Presbyterian minister so I was often dragged along on trips to the ecclesiastical store that sold clerical collars and theology books and such). I suppose those bible stories were my reward for being patient.
There were two that stand out most in my head. The first was the story of the good Samaritan, about a man who is beaten within an inch of his life and then actively ignored by the high and mighty who pass him by while he suffers on the road—that one appealed to my distaste for the hypocritically pious. And the other that I was transfixed by was about Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. In the pictures, the person tempting Jesus throughout the story wears a black hooded cloak that completely conceals his features, until he finally throws off the cloak, revealing himself to be the Devil—complete with horns, clawed feet and hands, and blood-red skin. I was simultaneously horrified and drawn to it.
When I was a little older, I remember having a much beloved copy of E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I longed to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I also had a collection of Roald Dahl short stories that looked like it was for children, but the stories themselves got progressively weirder and weirder. Needless to say, I loved it. By the time I was twelve, I started in on Jane Austen, and that began an obsession with nineteenth century literature that lasted through college.
What authors inspire you?
More than any other author for young adults, Philip Pullman introduced me to what was possible. When I read the His Dark Materials trilogy, beginning with The Golden Compass, it was like finding my Platonic ideal of reading. It was transporting and frightening and so original and yet emotionally real and poignant—and gorgeously crafted. To this day, it’s my desert island pick. I’ve read it over and over and still marvel at individual sentences while also being swept away by the story. Will, who isn’t even introduced until the second book in the trilogy, might possibly be my favorite fictional character of all time.
I’m also constantly amazed by Neil Gaiman. It’s difficult to choose a favorite of his books. Coraline might be it, because it’s so perfect in every way (read it; it’s truly perfect), but The Ocean at the End of the Lane made me weep, so I have a deep and warm soft spot for it. It’s simply beautiful.
If there is one writer whose very existence inspires me, it’s Margaret Atwood. Not only do I love her writing (and there is no book more deserving of its status as a classic than The Handmaid’s Tale), I think her brain is the eighth wonder of the world.
What do you have more of than you need? Less of than you need?
I have more pairs of jeans than any human being needs. I possibly need more sneakers. I definitely need more peanuts.