Gabrielle Prendergast Interview

Zero Repeat Forever, which is Book I of The Nahx Invasion. She teaches screenwriting and creative writing and has written for television, print, and online. She lives in Vancouver, BC and was kind enough to answer some questions about the writing life and her recent publications.

VW: I want to focus on Zero Repeat Forever as I just finished it, but I’d also like to ask a few questions about your writing for Orca Book Publishers. Some writers, even writers of YA fiction, may not know of Orca, which is a Canadian publisher that serves struggling teen readers. I first learned of Orca when I became a teacher librarian. Our reading classes would come to the library, and I needed something that would interest the students. Over the years I read and book talked many novels from Orca imprints. (Two of yours that I recommend are The Frail Days and the recent Pinch Me.) I am deeply grateful for the existence of such books and I know many teens are as well.

I’m wondering how an author decides to write books for ‘undiscovered readers’—a term that is so much better than ‘reluctant readers.’ Does the publisher approach you based on your other work? Do they set specific limitations on vocabulary and the length of the book?

GP: While Orca has a sort of stable of authors who often write these books, they accept submissions from any Canadian citizen or permanent resident. When you’re writing for the “hi/lo” series, they usually contract the books based on a chapter outline and three chapters. My editor invited me to submit for “Limelights” (The Frail Days)  but I decided to submit for “Soundings” (Pinch Me) on my own. The aim is a reading level of about grade 2-4 for “Soundings,” so we just go on what our writing software tells us.  With “Limelights” the reading level was a bit more flexible. The word lengths are pretty strict though. 14-16K for “Soundings” and around 20-25K for “Limelights.” Vocabulary is not exactly simplified but we choose words carefully and use short sentences.

VW: All of the Orca novels I’ve read have an upbeat message; characters often solve problems in original ways. Is this something that Orca asks for or did it occur naturally in your work?

GP: For those series, yes I think that’s what Orca wants, though they don’t specifically ask for it. Since they are aimed at undiscovered readers we don’t want the kids to feel miserable at the end! I also feel that when writing for kids, stories should be resolved in some satisfying way, maybe not in the first book, but by the time the series ends. That said, I always feel like at the end of a YA or middle grade novel the story is just starting, since the characters are still so young with their lives ahead of them. I could write a sequel to every book I’ve ever written!

VW: The storyline of both The Frail Days and Pinch Me involve teenage musicians. One of the things I enjoyed in both these novels was how the characters’ natural creative drive was part of the problem solving. It’s so tiresome that young people are made to think that their creativity is not an asset and that cultivating it is a waste of time. Thanks for helping to prove otherwise! Are you a musician in your life outside of work?

GP: I was a musician as a teen. My band was called Fall Down Go Boom and The Frail Days is dedicated to the other members. Two of them still play together and work as professional musicians in Toronto.

VW: I’d like to turn the conversation to Zero Repeat Forever, the first book of the Nahx Invasion. It’s a work of science fiction in which an alien race of tall, armored anthropoid beings have invaded the world and seem bent on the destruction of the human race. Our human protagonist is Raven, who along with some friends, has survived the initial invasion because she is at a camp in the wilderness preparing for the summer campers to arrive. As survival becomes difficult, Raven encounters Eighth, a Nahx, who, like all Nahx, is voiceless and follows directives he receives in his mind. Circumstances require that they attempt to work together, a situation that creates its own set of dangers.

This may seem like a strange connection, but bear with me. I’m working on an article that has caused me to read and reread Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture.  One of the many things he says about good writing has to do with why readers connect with characters: “The reason why so many vivid, undeniably convincing characters in novels, films and plays so often failed to touch me was because these characters didn’t connect to any of the other characters in an interesting human relationship. And immediately, this next thought came regarding my own work: What if I stopped worrying about my characters and worried instead about my relationships?”

While Zero Repeat Forever is exciting and fast-paced in terms of danger and hope, one of the wonderful things about reading it is that a teen and an alien have a very engaging ‘human’ relationship. This is an achievement because Eighth can’t speak. Did you model their relationship on any that you know? How did you come up with the sign language that Eighth uses?

GP: Oddly Eighth’s side of the relationship is inspired by the way animals form relationships with humans. You know how cats bring strange little gifts to you or dogs seem to be trying to understand you when they turn their heads to the side? And how loving and non-judgemental companion animals are, sometimes even to people who neglect or mistreat them. And of course how they can eventually thaw even the coldest hearts. August [Eighth] is a bit like that with Raven, very loyal, maybe even by his very nature.

Raven’s side is partly Stockholm syndrome, partly the relief of being able to vent all the rage she has built up inside her. She basically has a tantrum in one scene and afterwards she feels like a changed person, all her rage is gone. One reviewer described her as a “hot-head” and that’s fairly accurate. She was having a bad year even before the invasion and never was able to fully process all her feelings. That with the loss of Tucker [her boyfriend] and the terror at what’s happened to the world was too much. Being with August was like a safe place where she could rage and be alone to think and work it all out. And not be judged for it. That’s key.

August’s silence is one of the things that makes him perfect for Raven. She has to verbalize her way into understanding him and everything that’s going on while he just listens. She needs a good listener.

The sign language was inspired by tactical hand signals used in the military, which the Nahx adapted to be a more complete communication system. The idea is that anyone who is denied language will spontaneously develop a communication system with whatever tools are available to them. This has been observed in deaf kids who are denied sign language instruction – they invent their own languages which can be quite complex.

I watched a lot of ASL videos also, just to get a feel for how sign language looks. I also took a course in Auslan (Australian sign language) years ago, so I kept those lessons in mind too. That said, Nahx language is meant to be a “sign system” rather than a complete sign language.

VW: I really enjoyed the settings of Zero Repeat. Although it takes place in real (Canadian) spaces, you needed to make your reader see and feel them. I’m a good example—I live in Southern California, which sadly, is on fire right now even though it’s technically winter. I’ve never lived anywhere that’s truly cold, yet I felt Raven’s suffering when she lacked the proper gear. In creating a dystopian world, do you use any of your own experiences with nature and neighborhoods? (I’m wondering if you’ve nearly drowned in freezing water. . .)

GP: I certainly called upon my childhood enduring Saskatchewan winters. I’ve never nearly drowned, but I have swum in many a near freezing lake. It’s…refreshing! We spent a lot of time outdoors as kids and the winter cold was both beautiful and terrifying. It was important to me that the winter be almost like another antagonist in the book, someone you can’t turn your back on, you can’t trust. Someone who will kill you if given the chance.  

VW: Writers and readers alike are always interested in the title and cover illustration of their favorite novels. Both the title Zero Repeat Forever and the cover illustration of a dandelion splashed with liquid metal are based on important events and themes of the novel. They are wonderful choices for the North American edition! Did you know right away what the title would be? Did you influence the cover art or was that a decision that was out of your hands? Why does the UK edition have a different cover that looks more like a Stranger Things connection?

GP: My agent suggested the title, and I immediately loved it as it was already such an important scene in the book. I had no influence on the cover(s) but loved both of them when I saw them. I think the UK cover skews a little younger and less literary, which is where they wanted to aim the book, I suppose. All they said was that they thought their design would work better. I love them both!

VW: Characters must suffer in order to grow, yet many authors have a hard time putting theirs through some of the worst moments. Both Raven and Eighth suffer mightily. Did you have a hard time with that? How do you manage to drag your characters through a life of torment?

GP: It was easy enough at the time, but the more I wrote, the harder it got to punish them. I don’t think anyone wants to read books about people with perfect lives, so I don’t write them. But, in particular, I didn’t want to sugar coat the reality of war, invasion, occupation. These are present day situations for a lot of people. Some reviewers have praised the “realism” in ZRF, which is ironic given that it’s science fiction. But I did try to keep as much as possible grounded in reality to make it feel real.

VW: As Zero Repeat Forever is the first book of a series, I wonder if you had the general plot outline for the entire series before you began writing or whether the story develops as you write.

GP: I had a general idea but a lot of that has changed. I feel like the world has changed a lot recently and some of my ideas no longer felt relevant and fresh, so I changed them.

VW: Writers tend to suffer because they have to deal with so many rejections. Do you have any advice in terms of dealing with rejection? Have you always had something new coming out, new work, so that rejection was more easy to accept?

GP: I have a neurodivergence that makes dealing with personal rejection sometimes catastrophically hard. But for some reason, I think that makes professional rejection much easier. I get nervous, but I’m never hurt by criticism or rejection or my work because I see that as separate from me.

But yes, I do always like to have a few things lined up, not so much for making rejection easier but more to keep up the momentum of my career.

VW: You have written in a variety of genres and for different age levels. Do you try different methods of writing/different writing styles just to see what works? Or does a specific genre seem like a natural match for the story from the outset?

GP: I pretty much know how each story is going to be told and who the audience is. A lot of that is because I always have a “comparable” or “comp” in my mind. Comps for ZRF included The Hunger Games and Divergent. The comp for Pandas on the East Side was Because of Winn Dixie, etc.

VW: Writers always ask successful authors about their writing routines—such as whether they write daily. Since no two people are alike, I find it strange that anyone believes in a magic schedule. However, I do know that all people have fluctuating energy levels that affect their schedules and can derail their plans to write. Do you have any hints for increasing creative writing energy when you need it?

GP: I try to write pretty much daily, though sometimes I give myself breaks. Writing with a friend (not co-writing, just you writing your book and them writing theirs) helps. At the end of the day, you can compare notes and discuss your word counts, etc.

VW: Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!

GP: My pleasure.

Gratitude: Local Literary Events

I always think about giving thanks after Thanksgiving is over. That’s because before Thanksgiving, I’m getting ready for it. Afterward, I have no desire to shop, either in person or online. So, with leftovers packed in the fridge, I’ve always had a few days freed up from work and toiling around the house.

While I have much to be grateful for—health, family, and friends—I’m thinking about local and lesser known authors who enrich my life. While I regularly read from bestseller lists, prize lists, and the classics, as a constant reader, one of my joys is stumbling upon and reading midlist authors and those who have been published by small presses.

I enjoy the little serendipities that make their way into my days—this is one from a few weeks ago. The tea bag tag says “‘No person has the right to rain on your dreams.’ —Martin Luther King, Jr.” The cup admonishes that ‘Friends don’t let friends write bad books.’ I love this combination: help others hone their craft and then support their way forward. It’s good advice. But stumbling upon writers who don’t get much publicity isn’t that easy.

And so I am making a greater effort to brave bad traffic and get to author events. I always find being tired or overworked is a good excuse not to go. But it also turns out that when I do push myself to arrive, I am more than rewarded.

A bit over a year ago, I listened to the poet and founding partner of Writ Large Press Chiwan Choi read from recent work. Some of his poems were about his wife’s much-anticipated pregnancy and miscarriage. His words were heartbreaking, elegiac. I wanted to take those words home with me, but they weren’t in a book yet. I bought his (then) most recent book of poems Abductions, in which he reimagines his family through an alien abduction mythology, so I still came home with a prize.

Public libraries often have reading events, and I’ve been to several. My local public library has a poetry reading on the fourth Sunday of every month except December. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Charlotte Davidson read her darkly humorous Fresh Zebra, a book of poetry that riffs on a French language primer. (Yes, I know it sounds strange, but it’s full of the off-beat creativity the listener/reader craves.)

The local Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden sponsors a Poetry in the Garden event each April in celebration of National Poetry Month. There, I have heard local poets Cati Porter, Tim Hatch, David Stone, and Marsha Lee Binnquist Schuh among others. At one of these readings, Porter was soon to launch “My Sky of Small Horses.” Knowing this, I was on the lookout for it.

I also enjoyed listening to Tim Hatch at Riverside City College, so I was excited to see that he was on the program for the reading event to coincide with the Inlandia Institute Book Fair at the Tyler Mall in Riverside last Saturday. He plans to publish his work in about a year; meanwhile, his readings range from light to dark as he muses on everything from hair ties to childhood abuse.

Another local author whose work I admire, Isabel Quintero, was also presenting on Saturday. She’s a poet, but I know her through her YA writing. My students loved her novel Gabi: A Girl in Pieces. (Great stuff; I reviewed here.) On Saturday, Quintero discussed her new book Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide. Until I heard her speak, I didn’t know that this was graphic nonfiction. I was happy to hear her say that she had become friends with the cover artist for Gabi, Zeke Peña, and suggested that he be the illustrator of this new graphic work—that the two of them were indeed honing their craft and supporting each other’s way forward. (I was so excited about the book that I bought two and reviewed it here.)

(I couldn’t resist this photo of Tim and Isabel together. They just look like confident, happy authors.)

I hope for one more event before the end of the year. Gayle Brandeis is coming to Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside this Thursday to talk about her latest book The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. I’m waiting to buy the book at Cellar Door because I want to support them for supporting her. But I have read several of her books and enjoyed them. (I have several reviews on School Library Lady.)

So, thank you to all the local authors that I’ve had the opportunity to hear. Your voices inspire creativity. Thank you to all the organizers of author reading events, especially Cati Porter, Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute, because you make it possible for me to bask in creative environments.

Here’s to locally-grown literature. May every community have these enriching opportunities! I encourage you to find and create them. Help others hone their craft and support their way forward. Seek others who will do the same for you.

Authors I Appreciate: Why YA and Neal Shusterman

 

I attended the Writer’s’ Digest Novel Writers Conference in Pasadena, CA during the last weekend of October despite the fact that this meant I would miss two World Series games. (I live with a lifelong Dodger fanatic–it mattered.)

I had a good conference on the whole, mostly attending sessions where agents allowed writers a window into the what and whys of their job. I also had the chance to see how very productive writers like Bob Mayer work, and to take a refresher on the writing software Scrivener with April Davila, just in time to use it for NaNoWriMo.

While the workshop sessions are the heart of a conference (learning tricks of the trade is the main reason people will part with several hundred hard-earned dollars), one of my favorite reasons for attending any conference is to be inspired by the keynote speakers. Listening to them, I don’t take notes; I don’t think about how I plan to use what I’ve learned. I just empty myself and listen. My expectation is to be energized in a broad sense. A good keynote speaker reminds me that the path I’m walking is directed toward meaning. A very good keynote speaker will remind me that the meaning can come from unexpected diversions from that path as well as the path itself.

Both Lisa See and Heather Graham reminded me of the diversions, the way family and career life each lead to experience and storytelling. In honor of the Halloween weekend, Graham did so in a killer Maleficent costume.

But I was anticipating Neal Shusterman’s presentation as I am more familiar with his work. As a high school teacher librarian, I purchased not only most of Shusterman’s novels, but multiple copies of those I liked to book talk. My favorite–and I bought thirty copies of it–was Unwind, a future dystopia in which the US has fought a second Civil War over abortion. The anti-abortionists win, but with the stipulation that if a child doesn’t work out for some reason, parents can agree to have him or her ‘unwound’ during the teen years; that is, the teen can be used for various body-part transplants. If every part of the teen’s body is given life in a new form, he is not technically dead. This engenders some heavy thoughts about what consciousness is and how it gives life meaning. (I’ve reviewed the novel more fully here.) Still, it’s easy to book talk. As a writer, I also realize that it’s easy to pitch.

In 2015, Shusterman published Challenger Deep, a book very different from his previous work. In an afterword, he discusses the relationship of the novel to his real-world family life. His teen son, Brendan, was diagnosed as having schizophrenia, and the novel includes many sketches that he drew while he was, as Shusterman says, “in the depths.”

Challenger Deep is a complex book, a moving and metaphorical (partly hallucinatory) story of mental health treatment and the tricks of the mind. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, rightly so. It’s difficult to describe in a few sentences. (I wrote a full review here.) So I was hoping that Shusterman would take questions after his presentation. I wanted to thank him for his work, which has helped me to do my job to cultivate reading among teens. But I also wanted to know how he would pitch Challenger Deep, considering it’s dive into the brain of a mentally ill boy.

Shusterman gave a presentation that covered the arc of his career. He started with tales of his youthful writing, his time in the elementary school library, and his storytelling career as a camp counselor. He was by turns comic and thoughtful. He ran out of time for questions, so I didn’t get to ask about pitching a complex book, but he did part with a serious story. Years ago, he received a letter from a girl whose best friend had died shortly after the two were ATVing and the friend was thrown from her ATV. The letter writer told Shusterman how his Everlost (Skinjacker) series helped her through her grief. Everlost images a world beyond death inhabited by children who lose their way to the afterlife. Some of the things most precious to them in life return to them there.

The grieving teen’s letter was both poignant and articulate.

Although I had purchased numerous copies of Challenger Deep for my library, I bought another because Shusterman was signing books. I wanted this one for my teen niece. When I got to the front of the line, I asked to take a selfie, joking that it would make my colleagues jealous. Shusterman very graciously agreed. But I also thanked him for his work. I told him as quick a story as I could–there were still some folks behind me in line–about how when I would book talk Unwind to remedial reading classes, teens who had never before read anything willingly literally leapt across the table to grab copies before anyone else could get them.

I wanted to tell him that it was unlikely that these teens would (or could) articulate their feeling in the sort of letter that the grieving girl had written, so he wouldn’t hear from them anytime soon. But that his work was helping them not just to leap across the table, but to leap up and grab those lower rungs of the literacy ladder. When saying this, I felt myself tearing up. Oh my God, I thought, he’ll think I’m a nutbucket. I quickly finished my story, took the selfie, thanked him again, and left.

I worry that by talking too much about YA literature, I’m going to pigeonhole myself. While I am working on a YA novel, I’ve recently completed an adult novel. All of the short stories and essays I’ve had published or that are slated to be published soon have been for adults. But I want to give YA fiction its due.

Days after the conference, I was attending my writing group and discussing my experience. One of the writers commented that earlier that week, a woman had asked him, “What’s the point of YA fiction?” and implied that it was lousy stuff that no self-respecting reader would want to pick up. Another of my group members answered, “She’s not the audience.” And that, I thought, was true.

As my experience shows, YA authors not only have an audience of literate, thoughtful young readers; they create readers whose lives will be forever changed by the experience of their books. For that, we adults owe them our thanks.