By Kurt Bali
The dog days of summer became the “Dark Days” on July 9 at the Ethical Society of St. Louis when four of the top Young Adult (YA) authors in the field arrived in the Gateway City on the “Dark Days Tour.” Veronica Roth, Aprilynne Pike, Dan Wells, and SJ Kincaid were on hand to speak to fans about their books, answer questions about writing, and to promote their latest works.
Before I continue about the event, I want to say how amazed I am that young adult fiction is so misunderstood as a genre by both critics and the reading public. From my perspective, a good story is a good story, regardless of the age of the protagonist. Anyone remember a kid named Harry Potter? You know, the British wizard who turned his creator, JK Rowling, into the first-ever author to earn more than $1 BILLION in their lifetime? Yeah, those books were classified as both children’s books and YA. I’m nearly 40 and have read all seven books at least five times apiece. If it’s good, it’s good. Period. Now, back to our review…
Veronica Roth was the clear star of the event, hosted by Left Bank Books, as evidenced by both her reception when she was introduced and the line of fans eagerly waiting for an autograph at the end of the night. Roth is author of Divergent and the newly-released Insurgent. These two books focus on a dystopian future (as do the other three authors, albeit in different fashions). Based on the fan response alone it’s safe to say Roth’s books are quite popular.
Aprilynne Pike is a New York Times best-selling author wrapping up her Wings series with Destined. It is the story of a girl who discovers she’s a fairie who must protect the gateway to Avalon, the fairies’ home. And it’s nothing like the stories we were told as children.
Dan Wells has the largest published portfolio of the foursome, starting with his debut novel, I Am Not A Serial Killer. The trilogy focuses on a young man who realizes he has all the sociopathic traits of being a murderer and is trying his hardest to resist those urges. (Note: These are NOT YA books in any fashion.) He has also authored The Hollow City, released July 3, and Partials, also recently released. Partials, the first book in a trilogy, was the tome he was in town to promote and is the story of post-apocalyptic struggle in a world decimated by a disease that must be cured or all life will cease to exist. Wells also co-hosts a podcast on writing, Writing Excuses, an award-winning internet program that can be found at WritingExcuses.com.
The final member of the troupe was SJ Kincaid, promoting her debut novel that was released the day after the event called Insignia. Attendees were given a rare opportunity to purchase the book before anyone else in the country. The book is set in a future where world leaders understand wars are a bad thing because lives are lost. To ensure a minimal loss of life, kids are enlisted to fight wars via video games. Think War Games mixed with The Last Starfighter (Yes, I’m dating myself. Google them. It’s worth it.)
The dynamic between the four authors was interesting. Roth was open and had no problem answering questions from the audience, but seemed uncomfortable in the way people who aren’t fans of public speaking are, but who know it’s a necessary evil for their job. She struck me as someone who appreciates her fans, but would rather talk to them one-on-one. Kincaid, the rookie, appeared shy and unsure when to speak and maybe a little intimidated by her peers. When she spoke, however, she was all smiles and beaming.
Pike and Wells, though, were a completely different story. They dominated the Q&A with a mixture of humor, self-deprecation, and sometimes brutal honesty regarding their works and the world of writing in general. One memorable moment occurred when a member of the audience asked the panel if there exists a forum, such as a magazine, website, etc., where an author could submit work in an effort to be published, receive feedback, and get a little coin, a la Stephen King in the ‘70s. Pike’s answer was a flat-out “No.” There was no malice or rudeness in her tone or demeanor, but my impression of her was that she is someone who is prone to dish out the tough love in order to prevent aspiring writers from wasting their time and talents in a fruitless endeavor.
Wells played off Pike extremely well and vice versa. His experiences with publishing in other genres besides YA and working in other fields such as podcasting, gave him the ability to speak to the audience regarding the best ways to get their work seen and who to talk to. One of the questions asked concerned the recent trend of writers publishing their own work via e-books and whether that was a viable option or one that is respected in the literary world.
“I published an e-book last year because it was just too weird to do it any other way,” he said. “I loved it, my publisher loved it, but the editors said there was no way it was going to get read. I published it myself, and I’ve seen some success from it. But my advice is to e-publish when you already have an audience. It’s great to have these tools but they should be used properly.”
Pike was a little more straightforward in her assessment. “If you’re publishing it yourself in order to skip past the editors and the people who would tell you that you suck or if you think you’re better than your rejections and that those publishers and agents don’t know what they’re talking about, don’t do it. If my early writings were on the internet right now, I would cry. You need those terrible books you write early on to know how bad of a writer you are and how bad your writing is so you can know how to improve.”
The obvious question asked of any writer or panel of writers wasn’t asked until later in the evening. Roth’s answer to what inspires her writing was a little surprising, in that it’s a pretty mainstream character. “Harry Potter. I love what JK Rowling has been able to do with humor in her books,” she said. “Her books aren’t overly funny, but she puts humor in just the right places to lighten the mood. Humor has a place in books even if I’m not very good at it. Harry Potter inspired both as a writer and a reader.”
“The Boy Who Lived” also inspired the protagonist in Wells’ Partials, via the rebooted television version of the sci-fi classic, Battlestar Galactica. “Basically, Hermione is the heroine in my book,” Wells said of Potter’s partner in crime for seven years. “I’ve always thought she was the main character in those books. I mean, she’s the one who did everything and Harry Potter got all the credit!
“I wanted to combine her with Battlestar Galactica and basically re-write that show because the ending was so awful. Partials is Hermione in Battlestar Galactica with a good ending.”
The “what” portion of how inspiration occurs being answered, the panel moved to the “when” that spark takes place. “It’s always when I’m busy or tired,” Kincaid said. “If I’m just getting ready to fall asleep, that’s when an idea hits me. Whenever I’m supposed to be doing something else, that’s when I want to sit down and write.”
The evening moved along smoothly, with the back-and-forth between Wells and Pike and Pike and the audience and the panel and the audience creating some truly entertaining banter. When the subject of villains came up, Pike’s eyes gleamed.
Most writers, myself included, love writing the bad guys because it’s when creating the evildoers that writers get to free themselves from societal norms and standards and really cut loose. But a villain without a personality is just some guy who kicks kittens for no reason, as Roth pointed out. And what’s the fun in that?
“Make your villain relate-able,” Pike said. “The villain isn’t going to scare a reader but making a reader relate to the villain scares them because it makes them see just how much they have in common with the villain. You must make the villain human to give them some depth.”
As the night wrapped up, an audience member asked one of the more interesting questions I’ve heard at events such as this: Where do you get the titles of your books?
Without missing a beat, Pike said, “The marketing people give them to us.” Audience laughter. “No. Really.”
Kincaid saw the word “Insignia” at a local Best Buy and thought it would be a good title. Roth went, intentionally or not, with words that rhyme, theorizing that Detergent would be the name of her next work. Wells agreed with Pike, saying he had only named one of his books and ironically, that was the one with the throwaway title. “I Am Not A Serial Killer was just a placeholder,” he said. “It was just a temporary title until I could think of something better. They loved it. And it’s the only of my books I actually got to name.”
After more than an hour of questions, the panel wrapped up and headed to the lobby to sign books. Left Bank Books provided books for purchase for each of the authors and the authors themselves had cards they could sign for folks without books, a rare occurrence since some authors insist that a book must be purchased onsite before they will sign anything.
I bought I Am Not A Serial Killer and Wells signed it for me. We chatted briefly, and then I left. It was a great experience because all four authors are very good at their craft and at the same time, understand they, as published writers, have a responsibility to promote the art of literature and help craft the scribes of the future. For anyone who enjoys fantasy or science fiction, I really recommend you give these four a look. To get an idea of their work, head to Amazon for Pitch Dark: Dark Days of Summer Sampler. It’s free and it’s awesome. And please don’t let the YA tag scare you away.
Fans can follow all four writers on Twitter at @VeronicaRoth, @TheDanWells, @AprilynnePike, and @SJKincaidBooks. For more information on Left Bank Books, visit them on the web at Left-Bank.com.