Friday, December 6, 2013

Jon Skovron Talks to us about World-Building, Monsters and Hearing from Teens

We are very honored to have Jon Skovron back on our blog for an interview today! Not only do we love his books, but we are totally impressed with how comitted he is to getting out and meeting his readers- he's chatted with our high school TAB group and now he's the moderator for "Shut Up and Write" our panel of authors talking about writing for teens.

Welcome back to the blog Jon!

Can you give us a quick synopsis of your newest book, Man Made Boy?

I still haven’t figured out how to summarize my novels. I either want to explain it all in detail, or sum it up in a one line Hollywood-style elevator pitch. My super-quick elevator pitch synopsis is, “The teenage son of Frankenstein’s Monster goes on a road-trip with the granddaughters of Jekyll and Hyde.” Of course, that’s not really what it’s about, but I think it gives you the feeling of the story. That it’s strange and full of monsters, but also sort of free-wheeling and romantic. My publisher has a much more thorough synopsis.

Since we last interviewed you, you went from writing realistic fiction to fantasy. How different has it been to write in that genre? Is there anything you really miss about writing contemporary realistic?

Not very different, really. At least, not for me. Because I tend to write my fantasy in a very contemporary realistic style (for now, anyway). I would say the only major difference is in how to achieve nuance. In totally realistic fiction, the writer and reader can have a lot of unspoken agreements. We both know how the world works and I can trust that the reader will be able to infer a lot of things, thereby allowing for greater subtly and deeper nuance on my part. That, in turn, creates a deeper intimacy between me and the reader.

But the second I start breaking rules (adding monsters or demons or other things that physics won’t allow) or setting the story in another time (middle ages, future, etc), all bets are off and the reader can’t really assume anything. That trust, that understanding between me and the reader must then be established within the story. That’s why solid world building. Without it, there can be no trust, and therefore no subtly, no nuance, no intimacy.

One of my favorite things about Man Made Boy was the world building, from the “monsters” to the show, there is a lot going on in Boy’s America. How did you decide what that world would look like?

For the most part, the world grew naturally and organically. The only thing I had from the start was The Show, and really even then only a few characters in it. Medusa, the Siren, the Minotaur, the Monster, Charon, and Ruthven. I wrote a couple short pieces, sort of skirting around the idea. One from Charon’s point of view, one from the Siren’s. But then I started getting more and more fascinated by the Monster, who had the inglorious job of backstage security. From there, I imagined his family, and thought it would be interesting if he had a son. Once I had Boy in my head, VI, Liel, Shawn, and that crew came soon after. But even then I thought the whole thing would take place inside the theater. I thought maybe he would solve mysteries or something. Who knows. As I’m sure we’ve talked about before, I don’t do outlines or much pre-plotting. So I was quite surprised when Boy decided to run away from home, and even more so when he decided that what he really needed was a cross-country road trip with a middle-aged werewolf and the granddaughters of Jekyll and Hyde. From there, as you can imagine, the world expanded at a furious rate, so quickly that my research could barely keep up with my writing.

Of course, world-building in that sort of slapdash fashion leaves lots of holes. So once I was finished, I had to go back and hunt for all the weak points. It’s here that an editor or another writer can be hugely helpful in fleshing it all out. Ultimately, the world should expand so far past the page that the reader can’t see its edges.

Are there any sci-fi/fantasy authors who were your role models when you were thinking about
what you wanted the world of MMB to be like?
The only authors I was consciously aware of influencing me for this book were Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, and Patti Smith, who wrote an excellent memoir called Just Kids, about her time as a young starving artist living in New York City during the 1960’s. That book rekindled my own memory of both the joy and terror of being young, broke, and in love in the city. Something I hope I captured to some degree during Boy’s time there. I also re-read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson, and The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, although that was less about style and world building, and more about making sure I remembered the source material correctly. Source material that I unhesitatingly contradicted when it suited the story I wanted to tell.

But giving credit where it’s due, while I wasn’t aware of it, I’m sure there are other sci-fi/fantasy authors who influenced the world of MMB. Authors I’ve read so much that aspects of their aesthetic and style have become a part of my own. Folks like Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Jonathan Carroll, Kelly Link, Holly Black, Anne Rice, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross. Also, when you bring in road-trips and Americana, I can’t deny an influence from writers like Jack Kerouac, Hunter S Thompson, or Tom Robbins. And the films, too! Directors like James Whale, Guillermo Del Toro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, or the Coen Brothers. Illustrators like Ben Templesmith, Dave McKean, and Mike Mignola. Going further afield, musicians like Octopus Project, The Knife, or Zoe Keating are a constant influence on my aesthetic and mood. It all gets mixed together, then filtered through my own view of the world, and comes out…well, I guess like it did!

The mashup of science and magic in MMB is really fascinating. There’s computer coding and biological experiments, all sorts of amazing things that still seem to have their basis in what could happen. What sort of research did you have to do to be able to write this stuff so seamlessly into a modern day setting?

I worked for four years in an Internet Security company that made firewalls and intrusion prevention hardware and software. In other words, anti-hacking stuff. I learned a great deal about computer coding and hacker culture there. But the biological experiments, like wetware hacking, the parasitic mind control, and that kind of stuff, I just have a natural interest in that. I’m always digging around for interesting bits, reading this book, researching that site, following my nose, not always sure where it will lead. But most of it leads somewhere. I have a lot of weird and interesting stuff still on the sidelines, just begging to be used…

Another thing that makes Man Made Boy such a gripping read is that there are some very interesting storytelling techniques. There are IMs and flashbacks, we’re getting Boy’s story as it happens to him and sometimes that means we have to wait till he’s able to tell us what’s happened. Did this make it difficult to plot out the book? Was it clear which piece of the story would be told in which way?

Plot out the book??? Nico, it’s like you don’t even know me! Come now. We both know it was all just a hot mess, chunks of swirling chaos and cool ideas that I then had to go back and make sense of. In fact, I was still adding scenes, cutting scenes, and even cutting out entire characters all the way up to the final revision. My poor, suffering editor…
The back of the book says that MMB was not written on a traditional word processor. Can you explain a little bit about what was different? I kind of have visions of you inserting cords into usbs in your wrists.

Ha! It just means that I didn’t write it in Microsoft Word, or Apple Pages, or even Scrivener for that matter. I wrote in a regular old plain text editor, no formatting. I used a simple markup language called Multimarkdown to indicate formatting, and I wrote each chapter in a separate text file. When it was time to submit a new draft, I used the command line to compile all the chapters and format them. I started doing it to get myself into character for Boy, but over time, I’ve found I actually prefer it. The only other author I know who does something similar is Cory Doctorow. Except he’s even cooler because he does it all on Linux.

One of the things that makes it so easy to fall into the world of MMB is that the characters are so nuanced and human- even if they are monsters. The reader might not want to be friends with everyone that Boy meets, but we definitely want to know the backstory (and further adventures) of each one! Who was the most fun to write?

Medusa was great fun and up until I got to the middle of the book, I would have said her. Except then Claire Hyde and Sophie Jekyll showed up. And those two ladies…I swear, they are like a gift from the muses. They were a constant pleasure to write. At one point my editor and I actually tried to conceive of an excuse to get them into the book earlier. But after a few attempts, I realized that Boy wouldn’t have been ready to handle them any sooner. He had some growing up to do first.

There is a book two coming out in this series. Can we ask about it, or is there too much danger for spoilers? Will it be from Boy’s perspective?

I don’t think I can say a whole lot about it yet. I can’t even tell you the title. It’s pretty much finished, though. It is still from Boy’s perspective. It picks up only about eight hours after the first book ends. And because some people seem very anxious on this point, yes, Claire and Sophie will be back. In fact, pretty much everybody from the first book will be back, along with a bunch of crazy new characters.

Although I will say, not all of them make it to the end. In fact, during revisions, my editor half-jokingly suggested she should start calling me Jon R.R. Skovron.
We agree! Libba you're welcome any time!

You lead our young adult author panel, Shut Up and Write, where authors talk about writing YA. If you could invite any author to join the panel, who would you like to invite?
I want ALL THE AUTHORS! Seriously, the biggest pleasure for me is just getting so many perspectives. I love talking shop with other writers. As we continue with this series and get bigger and bigger crowds, I hope we can start reaching out to authors all up and down the East Coast. One panel I would love to put together would be Barry Lyga and Libba Bray. And who wouldn’t want to see Matt De La Pena, A.S. King, and David Levithan all in the same discussion? Magic, I’m telling you.

From our first panel in October 2013

Our first interview with you was in July 2010. Since then, what have you enjoyed most about being a writer for teens?

Okay, I know this sounds cheesy or whatever, but the thing I most enjoy about being a writer for teens is the actual teens. Seriously. Fan letters, emails, or people just coming up to me at festivals and signings. I love it. Because that’s when I know that what I’m doing means something. It has an impact. There are so many things we do in life, so many jobs where you have to wonder on a daily basis if what you spend eight hours a day doing has any real point. When a teen comes up to me and says something like, “This is the first book I’ve ever actually finished that wasn’t a homework assignment”, that has meaning.

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