Friday, June 17, 2011

Author Interview: Antony John tells us about Piper, Seattle and the Awesomeness of Being a Writer

Today, we are really excited to share with you our interview with author Antony John! We loved (loved, loved) his debut novel, Five Flavors of Dumb and can't wait to see what else he has in store for us. Thanks to Nerds heart YA for making this interview possible!

Q. Can you give us a quick synopsis of "Five Flavors of Dumb?"

A. Eighteen-year-old Piper Vaughan is having a tough time. Her best friend has left town, and her parents have raided her college fund to pay for her baby sister’s cochlear implant. When Piper sees her high school’s rock band, DUMB, performing on the school steps, she snaps. She tells them they should be getting paid for official gigs, and performing on radio stations. Before she knows it, she’s been appointed their manager. Now the question is, can she get this dysfunctional group to play together? And can she do it despite the fact that she’s deaf?

Q. I thought Piper was such a kick-butt girl, it was awesome to see a teenage girl protagonist who is so driven and determined. Was she always written this way?

A. Yes! Of all the characters I’ve written, Piper came to me the most fully formed: smart, sarcastic, witty, offensive, loyal, judgmental, all wrapped up in a bundle of energy and a never-say-die attitude. I was determined that she wouldn’t be a victim, but a fighter. I was also determined that she would have some of the flaws she despises in others, but still be likeable in spite of them. A lot of people have said some wonderful things about Piper, and I couldn’t be happier.

Q. Piper is moderately deaf and part of the conflict in "Five Flavors" deals with her parents getting a cochlear implant for her little sister. As a reader, Piper's feelings on the subject felt extremely authentic. I know that this is a seriously contentious issue in the deaf community, what kind of research did you have to do for this?

A. First off, I decided that this wouldn’t be an “issue” book. Tackling the cochlear implant debate is a worthy topic for a future YA novel, but I think that should be undertaken by someone who has first-hand experience of the issue.

That doesn’t mean that writing Five Flavor of Dumb was easy. In the back of my mind I kept thinking: If I don’t portray the world of a deaf teen accurately, then I’ve failed. It was a worrying thought, and certainly motivated me to do a lot of research—four months, in fact—before I ever wrote a word. I sat in on an ASL class, spoke to audiologists about the latest hearing aid technology, read books and watched documentaries, and enlisted the help of two deaf people, who not only gave me advice, but read and critiqued the novel as well. I’m indebted to everyone who helped.

Q. I've been noticing that most of my favorite YA authors make sure that not only are the main characters three dimensional, but so are all the supporting characters including the parents. Your book totally follows this rule, what made you focus on Piper's changing relationship with her dad as part of the story arc?

A. To be honest, Piper’s parents are in as difficult a situation as she is. Her dad has recently been laid off, and her mom is working harder than ever to compensate. This means that the roles they’ve assumed within the household are not the ones they originally envisaged for themselves. It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine how hard that would be, and also what a toll it would take on their relationship with their smart (and increasingly independent) daughter.

The thing is, it’s Piper’s growing independence that allows her dad to realize how much they have in common, and how similar their temperaments are. It also brings home to him how much he has missed by not fully investing himself in her life up to that point. Their growing relationship felt very real to me as I wrote it, and I think it’s not an entirely uncommon story.

Q. You yourself are a dad, did that influence your writing of Piper's parents at all?

A. Ha! A lot of people have said that it’s refreshing to see parents treated sympathetically, and I can’t help thinking that reflects my own situation as a stay-at-home dad. I desperately want to do right by my children, but I already know how much effort and discipline it takes to create space for everyone and everything that matters in my life. Writing the character of Piper’s dad was a good reminder to me never to lose sight of what’s most important: the kids. 

Q. Seattle is like another character in "Five Flavors," and the reader gets a peak at local hang-outs, history and the incredible rock scene there. Why did you choose to set the story there?

A. At the time I began planning the novel, I was living in Seattle. By the time I came to write it, we’d moved to St. Louis, but Seattle was, as you say, one of the characters by then. A lot of the plot was shaped by the particular geography and culture and rock history of the place, and somehow it infused the novel with this kind of grunge feeling that I really liked. By the time I finished Dumb, I realized that it had become my love letter to Seattle—a city I utterly adore.

Q. Do you write to music?

A. Yes, I do. I have a number of playlists, and toggle back and forth between them, depending on what I’m writing. In fact, I sometimes switch playlists as a way of getting my head out of one project and into another. For Five Flavors of Dumb I had a playlist full of great, pounding rock music. For one of my new books, Elemental, I’ve gone with more classical music, because I’m trying to conjure a world that is slightly off-kilter with the one we see today. Classical music can be wonderfully atmospheric, and helps me think differently.

Q. The cover and the book design of "Five Flavors" are awesome and really convey the rock and roll feeling (the cover has both a stage and a wall of peeling rock posters). Did you get to have any input on those?

A. Actually, I didn’t get any input, but as soon as I saw the cover, I just gasped. Really, it’s perfect. There was nothing at all I wanted to change. The designer, Kristin Smith, really nailed it: from the girl’s pose, to the energy, to the grunge feel. Love it!

Q. Who was your favorite character in "Five Flavors" to write?

A. Probably Finn, Piper’s younger brother. When I planned the novel, he was quite a peripheral character, but as I wrote, he kept pushing his way into scenes, and revealing hidden depths that even caught me by surprise. I’m a planner by nature, but there’s nothing more exciting than seeing one of your characters emerge into someone far richer than you’d imagined.

Q. Do you have a favorite place to write?

A. I almost always write in coffee shops. I have a couple favorites in St. Louis, and haunt them regularly. Writing is an alarmingly solitary experience, and being in a coffee shop makes me feel like I’m still part of the community somehow. Plus, they make good coffee and cakes, so it’s a win-win.

Q. Are there other YA books that you think fans of "Five Flavors" would enjoy as well?

A. Oh, so many. Rather than write several pages of books, here are three rock music-themed novels that I really enjoyed:

Fat Kid Rules the World – K. L. Going. (Beautifully written and insightful.)
Audrey, Wait! – Robyn Benway. (Hilarious and fast-paced.)
Beige – Cecil Castelucci. (Great exploration of music as self-expression.)

Q. Is it too early to ask what you're working on now?

A. Not at all. The ARC of my next novel, Thou Shalt Not Road Trip, will be out later this month (the hardback will be released April 2012), and I’ve just finished the first draft of book 1 of my Elemental trilogy (to be released fall 2012). I have a couple other books in the pipeline too, so I’m certainly staying busy. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Q. Do you have any advice for teens who want to pursue writing as a career?

Image by
A. I’m asked this question a lot. If you’re looking at it as a CAREER—rather than, say, a hobby—then you’ll ultimately need to approach it with the same seriousness and dedication that professional musicians or athletes approache their craft. In other words, you need to practice, do research, and pursue every opportunity you can.

But in a more general sense, I’d also implore writers to remember something that it took me a while to learn. The plot belongs to the characters, not the other way around. A really incredible narrative won’t cut it if we don’t much care for the characters. By contrast, I’ll happily read about someone watching paint dry if I care about them enough. How do you write great characters? EMPATHY. It’s one of the hallmarks of good writing—the ability of the author to get inside the head of a character in such a way that the reader sees the world through their eyes.

Q. What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

A. I can’t narrow it down to one thing, to be honest. I love the opportunity to be creative. I love sharing time with characters I’ve come to love. I love imagining a world that doesn’t really exist. But I also love having a job that I can do anywhere, anytime, so that I still get to be a stay-at-home dad for my kids. Really, I’m so thankful for what I have right now.

Thanks so much to Antony for stopping by our blog! We are thrilled he took the time to talk to us! We wish him luck in the Nerds heart YA Book Challenge... and we can't wait to get our hands on his new books!
If you'd like to keep up with Antony John, you can follow him at his website

Seattle photo from bryce_edwards
Coffee Cup photo from anthony_p_c

1 comment:

Jodie said...

Thanks so much to both of you for taking part in this interview and to TATAL for the great judging post.