Thursday, 16 February 2012

Interview: Leah Bobet (Above)

Hi everybody - I'm here today with an interview with debut author Leah Bobet. Her first novel, Above, is due out April 1st 2012 in the US but if you're based in the UK (like me) you can order this one through Amazon or The Book depository so no reason for a long wait if you like the sound of this one.

I love Leah's answer to question three, about what she thinks is important when creating characters in YA. I'm sure we can all agree that characterisation is one of the most important things for writing a great book and I think Leah's answer was absolutely spot on.

Anyway, without further ado I'll hand over to Leah.

1. Hi, Leah! In case any readers haven’t heard about the book yet, can you tell me a little bit about Above?

Above's a story about Matthew, whose father had lion's feet and whose mother had gills. Both of them fled from the city they lived in to Safe, an underground secret community of freaks, ghost-whisperers, and disabled outcasts hiding below the subways and sewers. Matthew grew up underground, and he's responsible for keeping and telling Safe's histories – and for his girlfriend Ariel, who can shapeshift into a honeybee, and who is so terribly traumatized by what happened to her in the world Above that she constantly runs away.

But when the one person Safe ever exiled invades with an army of mindless, whispering shadows, Matthew, Ariel, and a few friends are the only ones to escape to Above: to the place that locked up and shunned his friends and family. Frantically working to find a way to rescue Safe, Matthew discovers that his histories aren't all true: the invasion – and Ariel's terrors – are rooted in a history of Safe much darker and bloodier than he ever imagined.

And even if he manages to save both his home and Ariel, he may well lose himself.

2. Talk me through an average day when you’re working on a novel. Do you have a set number of words you have to write per day or do you set yourself different targets?

I tend to work in a very project-dependent, time-dependent (read: flaky!) way. I can't remember who said that you never learn to write a novel, you learn to write this novel, but it's very true for me. Each story or novel I work on has its own little personality and needs, and so depending on what I'm working on, where I am in it, and what else is going on in my life, I'll be trying from anywhere from 200 to 3,000 words in a day. Or none. Sometimes the best thing for a novel is to not write it for a little while!

3. In young adult fiction in particular, it’s important that readers bond with the characters - what do you think is the most important thing to get right when you're creating a character?

Their sense of completeness as a human being. No matter who they are, it's the characters who are entirely and wholly themselves – who act in ways that fit their emotional quirks, whose lives are bigger than the page, whose voices and thoughts and reactions are all in sync and, sometimes, contradict each other in the ways that real people's do! – that stick with me as a reader.

4. What sort of research did you have to do for Above? How did you go about doing this?

I ended up doing most of my research for Above on two or three things, actually. I read up on various symptoms of medical conditions and the medications prescribed for them, so I could accurately depict the people in Safe even when Matthew didn't know their diagnoses. I also did a fair bit of reading on the historical background of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital and the general history of mental illness and institutionalization in Toronto. The last one was reference photos of all kinds: luckily for me, there's a great urban exploration community in Toronto who sneak into things like abandoned buildings, subway tunnels, and storm drains and take amazing pictures, so I don't have to! Because I'm probably worse at the photography than I am at the breaking and entering.

I'm sure librarians will kill me for saying this, but the internet was actually my major resource for all of this. Toronto also has a pretty good municipal archives system and a great local history community, so there are a lot of documents scanned and available online. I think my one paper resource was a back issue of Infiltration, an urban exploration zine that I picked up at one of the independent bookstores because it described routes in and out of the subway system. It was the main source for making up the route through the subways and sewers, to Safe.

5. The YA book market is a competitive place, what do you think sets Above apart from the pack?

It's an odd little book: it doesn't really fit into any particular subgenre or follow any particular trend. I was actually pretty sure it was unsaleable when I was writing it, because it was this little literary book that was stuck between about five genres, and I couldn't find much out there like it – and that's not helpful when you're trying to pitch a book to agents!

But that does set it apart in good ways, too: it's very much itself, and very much does its own thing. Matthew has a very strong narrative voice, too, and I think that's what truly carries the whole book: it's an encapsulation of a smart, conflicted, very naive sort of boy who suddenly has nowhere he belongs, but manages to find his place anyway. And I hope Above finds its place too.

6. Some writers relate take great inspiration from music while they’re writing. Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what artists/bands do you like to listen to while you write?

Oh, do I ever: It's a really good thing my roommate has a high tolerance for hearing the same song on repeat over and over and over and over...

My projects – novels and short stories both – tend to grow themselves a soundtrack pretty quickly. Above was written mostly to Matthew Good, Gregory and the Hawk, PJ Harvey, a Chris Cornell acoustic track or two, Finger Eleven, The Grapes of Wrath, The Von Bondies, Madrugada, and Nine Inch Nails's Ghosts I-IV album. I still can't listen to that album without the book rushing back into my head.

It's pretty idiosyncratic, though: the novel I'm roughing out right now seems to be fond of Sandbox, a couple Foo Fighters tracks, Morcheeba's "Over and Over", and maybe two tracks from The New Pornographers' Twin Cinema album. It's really all about mood, and finding songs that have the right mood for the project, or twists of lyrics that spark an idea.

7. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you always been this way?

Two days ago I would have said pantser, or organic writer: I rarely outline, and it tends to kill the story if I try. And then I wrote a whole synopsis for a book I haven't written yet, and it's not yet dead, and I think it actually did some good in terms of really developing the idea and bringing it to life. So, go figure!

It's stuff like that which makes me not really believe in an "always" – or a "never"! – when it comes to writing process. Everything's a tool, and you just use the tools you need to get the effects you want. Sometimes that means using things you've never thought to before, or using them in ways you'd never dreamed of. And that's what keeps this whole deal exciting, right?

8. Can you tell me a bit about your journey with Above? When did you first come up with the idea and what were the timescales involved between the first draft and the novel being accepted for publication?

The idea first came together in early April 2007: I'd read an essay a month before from Eli Clare's Exile and Pride for a philosophy class, and a particular image from it combined with a particular gripe I had about how Secret Underground Societies of Outcasts (tm) get used in fiction, and then the right song came along and tied the whole thing together. I worked on it a bit, and then hit a point where I went Well, book, what do we do next? and it replied Oh, I'll do anything you want me to do. Needless to say, I promptly freaked out – that's not supposed to be up to me! I can't handle these decisions! -- and put the two chapters I had away. And didn't pick them back up until the next January.

By then, some more elements of the plot and structure had somehow fallen together (lots of backbrain thinking! See, sometimes the best thing to do is just ignore them 'til they give it up!) and, around coursework and looking for a job once I'd finished my degree, it took about seven months to finish the first draft. I ran it through about three revisions over the next year, until around Spring 2009 my friends started threatening to hit me over the head, take the manuscript away, and put it in the mail themselves if I didn't just start querying agents already. So I did, and in June 2009 I signed with my agent, Caitlin Blasdell.

She had revision notes as well, and through the summer and fall of 2009, I did two more drafts of Above. It went to editors in October of that year, and sold to Arthur A. Levine Books in April 2010.

The book's releasing this coming spring – April 2012 – so all told, it'll be a five-year process almost to the day. Which is a little staggering to think about.

9. How important do you think social media (i.e. Twitter/Facebook/blogging) is in today’s market for a writer?

I think it very much depends what kind of auctorial persona you want to have. Some people are very excited by engaging with their readers, and love to do contests and giveaways and build those kinds of friendships; some are more shy, or private, or just don't get a charge out of that sort of thing.

Social media's a tool too, and no matter what the market's like today or tomorrow, I think the key is using all your tools in the ways that best fit your individual personality and comfort level – in writing or in the business of being an author. Ultimately the books we write will stand or fall on their own, and none of the social media promotion – or lack thereof! – in the world will matter when it comes down to the book and the reader.

10. What would you say is your worst bad habit when it comes to writing?

Mild perfectionism. This sounds like one of those "Ooh, my trouble is I'm just too dedicated to my job" kinds of weaknesses, but it's most definitely not. I'll fuss over a scene for a week, and a comma for twenty minutes, and occasionally if a book isn't working on enough levels at a certain point, I'll just shelve it and try something else. I break a lot of book ideas this way. And I'm not a fast writer to start with, so it does me no favours.

11. Is naming characters important to you? What processes do you go through to come up with names for your characters?

Names are important, yes: characters will routinely go on strike and refuse to be written if I don't name them properly. Which just means I don't have a handle on the personality yet, but the name seems to be the point of contact for that whole idea in my head.

If they don't show up with a name in tow, I'll usually go with etymology: start looking for names that tie into the thematics of the project, or reflect an aspect of their personality. Look up enough of those, and shake 'em around in your head a little bit, and usually something sticks!

12. What did you hope to accomplish by writing Above? Do you think you have accomplished what you set out to do?

While I wish I could have some sort of serious, mission-statement sort of answer to this, I didn't really have a specific goal in mind when I sat down to write Above. I had a story in my head, and it pulled at me at night and caught on the edges of song lyrics and made me tear up unexpectedly at sights or sounds or smells, and the only goal I had was to tell that story truly and well so that the people reading it would feel, for a moment, what it made me feel inside my head.

There are little things I tried to do in crafting it: for example, writing a story where the characters with disabilities were the heroes and not the helpers; or writing a story where nobody, not one character, was free from some kind of marginalization or discrimination; or just writing a story where all the ways genre tropes sometimes make things simple were taken, turned around, and made complicated – like real life is – again. Whether it's done well at that, I can't yet say: that's something readers will tell me, and each other, when the book hits the shelves. But none of those were driving goals, or the reason I sat down to write it. It was just a story, and it was there, and it was alive, so I put it down to paper as best I could.

13. Do you think your teenage years have influenced you as a writer? If so, how?

Most definitely: my teenage years influenced me as a person, and what makes you as a person makes you as a writer. There's no separating the two.

14. There is a lot of argument within the young adult market as to what is appropriate for teens to read. Where do you stand on this matter? Do you think teens should be protected from reading about taboo subjects or do you think they should have the freedom to choose their own reads?

I think everyone – teens, kids, adults, seniors – should be able to read what speaks to them without interference.

In English-speaking Western societies, we seem to treat ideas something like a communicable disease: everyone's deathly afraid their friends will catch one they don't like, and people are somehow convinced that when you're exposed to an idea just once, you'll catch it automatically and become a total slave to its every detail (and this doesn't just apply to teen readers; check out a political debate or election campaign flyers sometime to see it in action with adults).

And that's really just not true: We argue with things we see and hear and read all the time, no matter how old we are. We all pick and choose bits of things to believe. We have our own ideas about how the world works, and when something shows up that contradicts them, we stop, look at all the evidence, and decide to either go with what we thought before or the new idea, or some mix of the two. And that's how we learn and develop as people, because even if we're not changing our mind on something, we're walking away with some actual reasons to believe what we do; reasons why we thought it was better than that other way of doing things over there.

That's why I don't personally think restricting anyone's reading is a good idea. It gets between people and their chances to think about the world and how they fit in it, and no matter if they agree or disagree with me, I'd rather hang out with people who have reasons for what they believe.

15. What books do you think we should be looking out for in 2012?

Depends on what you like to read! I can tell you, at least, what I'm looking forward to: Incarnate by Jodi Meadows, Winterling by Sarah Prineas, Crown of Embers by Rae Carson, The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, and Michelle Sagara's Silence, which I read in draft, and loved -- it's a sweet and sober and beautiful ghost story, and well worth your time.

16. Aside from writing, how do you like to spend your free time?

Mostly I like to spend more free time than I actually have!

I'm one of those people who can't quite sit still. I have about three trillion hobbies, and all kinds of little interests, and at any given moment something shiny may cross my vision and I'll be chasing off after it. I work a full-time job (on top of the writing thing); I edit and publish an online quarterly magazine, Ideomancer Speculative Fiction; I'm interested in local municipal politics and food policy; I knit, cook really crazy elaborate meals, go to all kinds of concerts and arts events, take bellydance classes (and am thinking about learning to dance swing), read a few books a week, play guitar, design tee-shirts, dream up performance art, plan scavenger hunts, volunteer with groups that pick urban fruit trees and run urban farms, and still like time to hang out with my friends and keep my apartment clean.

Moral: if you are ever in single combat with me and need a distraction, it'll be really, really easy to find one.

17. Thank you so much for your time, Leah. Before you go, could you tell me about any projects you have in the pipeline we can look out for?

Thanks for the questions!

I have a few short stories coming out in various places – The Year's Best Fantasy 10 and a reprint anthology called Witches. I'm also working on a new novel, tentatively titled Light (a bad title, and it will probably change before publication) about a girl who jumps off a bridge and finds out she can fly, and all the consequences that brings.


So there you have it! Click here to visit the Goodreads page for Above and for more information about Leah and her book you can visit her website here.


  1. How did this book pass by me without me even hearing about it???

  2. Awesome interview Carly! This book sounds awesome, and I just read the first few pages on Amazon and she writes beautifully! I can't wait to read it :)

  3. This cover is really very beautiful, and I am most intrigued by the gifts these characters are burdened with. I want to know more about the girl with the bee’s wings.

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Thank you kindly for the comment, you sweet thing.