Sunday, January 3, 2016

Leah Thomas: Morris Award Interview

Welcome to this year's Morris Interview series.Today we kick things off with Leah Thomas. 

Because You'll Never Meet Me

Bloomsbury USA Childrens 2015
ISBN 978-1-61963-590-6
Ollie and Moritz are are best friends, but they can never meet.

Ollie is deathly allergic to electricity, while Moritz's weak heart would stop beating without the pulses of his electronic pacemaker. Meeting in real life? It could kill them.

Through an exchange of letters, the two boys develop a strong bond which becomes a lifeline during dark times—until Moritz reveals that he holds the key to their shared, sinister past, and has been keeping it from Ollie all along.

A story of impossible friendship and hope under strange circumstances, this debut is powerful, dark and humorous in equal measure. These extraordinary voices bring readers into the hearts and minds of two special boys who, like many teens, are just waiting for their moment to shine. 

How did you hear that Because You’ll Never Meet Me was nominated for the Morris? Did you know about the award before your book was nominated?
Living on California time when the majority of the publishing world is operating from the East Coast is a mixed blessing – it means I can’t send emails after 1pm, but it also means that sometimes I wake up to amazing news. I rolled out of bed (knocking my cat askew) and got the news from a blinking phone, in ALL-CAPS from my editor:

CONGRATULATIONS!! (please imagine confetti bursting out of this word.)”
Here’s what I’ll say about awards awareness: since my book’s been out, I’ve avoided almost everything related to YA news as a precautionary measure against my oversensitive baby brain. I blocked goodreads on my computer, I deleted my twitter account, I refuse to read reviews or articles (unless I have a sad relapse and trawl through the corners of the internet as a form of self-punishment). But things leak in all the same, awards whisperings and the like, the Morris among them: I just never thought these whisperings would apply to this odd little book (I could think of numerous other books who would certainly be finalists, and some of them are finalists!). It was the best kind of wallop, this recognition. It’s sort of knocked me back into the public writing world. 

Did you intend to write a YA novel? In other words, were you thinking of young adult readers as the eventual audience for your book?  

Yes, I always intended to write a YA novel. A YA science fiction novel, to be precise, or science fantasy, or just plain weird. Because while I read all kinds of things, the books that have been formative to me, both as a teen and now in my twenties, remain YA books. I’ve always wanted to be a part of that tradition. I think YA allows for amazing voices, and diverse voices, and human voices, and genre becomes secondary to character, which I adore. And even though I make myself a hermit, the YA community of writers and readers and librarians and booksellers is beautiful and supportive.

 At a panel during NCTE, our moderator asked us a question that yielded really amusing results:“What makes you think YOU can write for teens?” I answered, “As far as I know, teens are people. And I think writers may also sometimes be people.”                           

Your book contains startling and beautiful descriptions of invisible energies: “X-rays emit rich scarlet ringlets.” Because you can do that, please tell me how your brain looks while it is writing.

Whoa, it’s getting abstract in here. We’re going full meta. But I like this question!

 Let’s see: I’m definitely a visual learner, and whenever I’m writing descriptions like that, I’m actively imagining what those things look like: I’m watching ribbon curls, I’m seeing glitter fall, seeing the cotton candy haze of mixing puffs of color – it’s like someone’s vision of a Disney birthday party nightmare, maybe. 

I’m also in the habit of drawing my characters and settings, either during drafting as doodles or afterwards. I’m not a visual artist by any means (I took one art class in high school!) but it’s something I love. At one point two years ago I was really gunning for illustrating a middle grade book I’d written about ghost kids living in a Florida trailer park, even knowing full-well that there are talented illustrators out there who could do a much better job. I think that’s just my brain living and breathing the book, making it concrete in every possible way. It’s part of the process!

When people ask me about whether I’d ever want a movie adaptation, I say, “NO, NEVER – UNLESS IT’S DONE IN STOP MOTION OKAY” because a) I adore stop-motion animation for being beautiful, handmade, and tangible and b) though I love movies, I also really dislike that moment when characters, who readers imagine however they wish to, are assigned a single human face.

So this ramble is what my brain looks like, maybe: a hodge-podge Michel Gondry music video. This question! It’s zany! Thank you!

Do you think the experience of reading spec-fic makes different demands on the reader than realistic or historical fiction? How were you introduced to spec-fic? As a reader, do you prefer it to other genres? 

Full of Easter-Eggish Goodness!
My gosh, I never thought it would! But it seems to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed to learn that readers feel tricked by the “genre-switch” in this book. Which is to say, to me it was always apparent that I was writing a work of science fiction (there’s no such thing as an allergy to electricity, for instance, because our very selves are electric), but it’s also very apparent now that many people trust me, as a writer, not to mislead them, and in tying realism so closely with the goofy scifi elements, I may have done so. I’ve got a lot of growing to do.

It’s been a learning process, for sure, and I think part of the confusion I feel comes from my long-standing love for speculative fiction and my refusal to see it as any different from any other genre, raised as I was by one parent who adores Philip K. Dick and another parent who adores Jane Austen—I’ve always loved things that blur the line! And I’ve always had a weakness for whimsy. While I think I’ll always have speculative fiction leanings as a writer, I don’t always prefer scifi. I love characters, in any genre, and that’s all it takes to really woo me.

As I read about Moritz’s use of echolocation to experience the world I was struck by the way so much of our communication is emitting signals and waiting to hear an echo or reply. Is your book a part of a bigger conversation among stories? Have there been any unexpected responses to the book?

What a wonderful question, and one I think that most authors would answer “yes!” to. You’re shouting into the void when you put out a book, and hoping to hear echoes, and certainly you do. This story is a response to so many things: books and comics and family and mental illness and growing up and studying German and playing in band and…everything. And the responses I’ve gotten from the book, the ones that have been wonderful and unexpected, come from people who relate to the book on a very personal level. One of the first messages to make me cry came from a girl who has epilepsy, who said she’d never seen herself in a book before. My father has epilepsy. I bawled, in the nicest way one can bawl. 

Flash questions

Do you write to music? If so, what did you listen to as you wrote your book?
I’m such a dork about this. I can’t write without music. I thanked musicians in my acknowledgements to BYNMM: Perfume Genius, Owen Pallett, Los Campesinos!, Youth Lagoon. 

Writing advice in five words or less...

Make writing like toothbrushing: necessary.

Do you have a day job? How does it fit with your creative work?
I have two day jobs, in fact! Hooray for America!
For one of my jobs I tutor elementary schoolers in a college prep program for children who’ll be the first generation in their families to go to college, and they help keep me creative! 
 I write before and after work, and on my days off, because for me writing is obsessive, and given the choice between socializing and writing, often writing wins out. My characters aren’t the only hermits I know…who needs sleep, what is sleep.

Three movies you think are worth watching, maybe more than once...
Ugh, I love movies! Let me try to be succinct for once:


BONUS: Leah on cosplay. . .

(From left to right: Maria from Metropolis, Brienne from Game of Thrones, Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, Christopher Johnson from District 9, Edward from Edward Scissorhands, Unit 01 from Neon Genesis Evangelion.)
Again, I’m a visual learner! And I really like the act of creating things by hand, and celebrating mutual love for characters. Cosplaying is the marriage of those things, and it’s also a wonderful way to connect with people. 
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