Today is actually a momentous occasion here at Writing from the Tub as this is the last blog tour I'm taking part in...EVER. Well, not necessarily forever but for now, at least. I've changed my review policy to state that I'm no longer taking part in any blog tours, so C. J. Harper's interview is the last I'll be posting for a while.
That said, I'm so glad that this post is the one I get to host - as it's brilliant! Funny, honest and always interesting, I really loved reading C. J.'s answers and I hope you do too.
I just want to say a big thank you to all the authors and publicists that have let me be included in some fantastic blog tours over the last three years and I'll definitely update things once again if I do decide to open up to blog tours at any point in the future :).
1. Hi, C.J.! In case any readers haven’t read the book yet, can you tell me a little bit about The Disappeared?
Jackson is a teenage genius tipped for a brilliant career in the Leadership, until a violent incident sees him lose his best friend, his prospects and his identity all in one go. He’s dumped in an Academy, which couldn’t be more different from the comfortable school that he is used to. In the Academy teachers are kept in cages for their own safety and all that matters to the students is how well you fight and the colour of your hair. While Jackson struggles to survive he realises that he must unravel the secrets kept in the Academy before he’s made to disappear for good.
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?
The formula for calculating my target word count is very complicated and goes something like:
level of optimism + number of snacks + comfiness of outfit – numbers of hours sleep missed – number of dishes in the sink – super important things to do the internet = number of words expected.
Once my daughter is at school I write in very short bursts that last as long as I can keep my baby interested in bashing a saucepan with a spoon. I get a longer go when he has a nap and if I’m lucky my husband gets home in time for me to do a bit more before I put the baby to bed. In the evening I usually do some faffing, which is mostly putting in all the punctuation that I’ve missed out earlier. I write between 500 and 1500 words a day, usually seven days a week.
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?
I think that you need to create a character that readers will care about. But that shouldn’t mean that they’re without flaws. Initially, Jackson is conceited and self-centred, but I hope that readers will also recognise him as a geeky, girl-shy boy and hopefully they will feel sympathy for him when everything he knows is torn away from him. As a reader, I always feel most invested in the characters that I witness change and grow, so I’ve tried to show how Jackson’s better qualities blossom as the story progresses.
4. What sort of research did you have to do for The Disappeared? How did you go about doing this?
Fortunately, the character of a noodle-limbed coward who would rather read than wrestle was not hard for me to slip into. I was able to draw on my ample experience of never winning a fist-fight, without having to do any field work. However, I did research technical details like how lift doors work, the circuitry of electric fences and some Latin vocabulary. As is the way with research, only a fraction of what I found actually made it into the final story, but if you ever want to go lift-surfing, I’ve got plenty of tips. My noodle-arms really have been put to the test during my research for the sequel to The Disappeared. I’ve learnt to shoot (I had no idea just how heavy guns are) and also attempted to pull myself out of a giant plastic tube. When I’m writing the final book in the series I may just be done with it and make an accompanying exercise video.
5. The YA book market is a competitive place, what do you think sets The Disappeared apart from the pack?
Hmm. Every copy comes with a free cupcake? The Disappeared is (I hope) an exciting blend of dystopian and thriller. I wanted to write a book that was about realistic, flawed, young people rather than gorgeous super-hero teens. Jackson is super-smart, but he is also an annoying, big-headed geek who has never been kissed. Kay is smart too, but it’s never been noticed because no one has ever cared about her, and that’s made her angry and selfish. Neither of them is fantastic looking. Also, that thing about the cupcakes.
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?
Mostly, I’m obliged to listen to the songs on CBeebies since that’s what my baby likes, but he also enjoys My Chemical Romance, Manic Street Preachers, James and The Killers. It’s almost as if he was made to listen to them repeatedly in the womb. I’ve got a definite preference for fast angry songs because I speed up my typing to keep time.
7. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you always been this way?
Every time I hurl my bloody and battered form across the finishing line of a book, I promise my poor husband (who is the one who has to talk me down from plot crises) that This Time I Will Plan. And I do try. A bit. But things just turn up. I usually know key elements of the plot. Characters, on the other hand, just arrive in my head and start talking (it’s so nice to be in a profession where voices in the head are acceptable). Also, I am entirely unable to work in a linear fashion. I never start at the beginning or end with the end. I write whichever part of the story appeals to me at that moment in time. There’s a lot of jumping about. I like to call this the ‘Patchwork Method’. At least I do until I reach the point where I am curled up in a ball rocking back and forth while I try to sew it all together, then I call it an unholy mess.
8. Can you tell me a bit about your journey with The Disappeared? 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?
In 2009 I was teaching a class when I had an idea about how nice it would be to have bulletproof glass between me and my pupils. January 2010 I started writing. At the beginning of 2011 I sent it to my lovely agent, she signed me and we did a round of revisions. That summer, shortly after my agent sent The Disappeared out, I signed a contract with Simon and Schuster. I did another round of revisions with my brilliant editor and handed it in December 2011 (which was lucky because I had a baby about five minutes after that. I highly recommend imminent labour as a motivational tool). So, just four short years after I first twinkling of an idea, The Disappeared is published!
9. How important do you think social media (i.e. Twitter/Facebook/blogging) is in today’s market for a writer?
I think it’s important. Whenever I tell teenagers that I didn’t get a mobile or use the internet till I was eighteen it makes their brains melt. Social media is a big part of life for so many people, which means it’s a great way to connect with readers. I do think it’s important to focus on that connecting though; nobody enjoys a load of aggressive marketing. I love Twitter because I get to chat to other writers and readers. And voice my very informed and not at all ranty opinions on various TV programmes.
10. What would you say is your worst bad habit when it comes to writing?
Browsing eBay. It may not be possible to buy my children all of the super-cool toys that I had in the 80s, but I am having a damn good go at it. There’s also that terrible thing that I do when I’m supposed to be writing something mind-blowing and instead I write something really lame. It’s a tough habit to break. I’m hoping for some sort of patches to help. I should probably check eBay.
11. Is naming characters important to you? What processes do you go through to come up with names for your characters?
When I’m doing my first draft I just type as fast as I can. I don’t stop to think of perfect names so everyone starts out being called Bob (or Bobbette or Mr Bob or Tall Bob because, you know, I wouldn’t want it to get confusing or anything). Often I need to write a bit about the character in order to find a name that I think fits. Also, I’m easily confused if two main characters in a book have a name starting with the same letter or a similar sounding name, so I try to never do that.
12. What did you hope to accomplish by writing The Disappeared? Do you think you have accomplished what you set out to do?
I wanted to take a look at power, prejudice and language and why it’s important to always question what you’re taught. Most of all I wanted to write an action-packed thrilling story. As a teacher I studied books with classes and watched them groan when we got to a long descriptive passage. I gave myself the challenge of writing a book with no boring bits. My favourite comments from reviewers so far are the ones were people have said they can’t stop reading.
13. Do you think your teenage years have influenced you as a writer? If so, how?
Yes, massively. I remember very clearly how a lot of things felt when I was a teenager and that’s influenced what I write in terms of subject matter and content. I’ve barely begun to mine the treasure trove of my teenage angst. So even though my Mum told me that wallowing in my own pain and generally being self-obsessed wasn’t helpful, it turns out it really was. (In your face Mum! *cough* Ahem, I mean thanks for the years of home-cooked meals and all.)
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’m not entirely sure where my dander is located, but I can assure that every time I read about this issue it is well and truly UP. I cannot understand why people want to stop teenagers from reading well-written and sensitively judged stories about suicide or eating disorders or cancer, and yet there is no outcry (or at least not a big enough one) about the way that women are portrayed in many mainstream films. How can anyone object to teaching young people that death is a part of life and yet not mind that teenage boys are watching women objectified and girls are learning that their only value is in their appearance? *growling noises* I would far rather that my daughter learns about the tough issues in life from YA fiction than from Hollywood. Finally, it’s insulting and simplistic to say that no child should read this stuff when some children are living it. Books can be a lifesaver for these kids.
15. Aside from writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
Reading. So much reading. Also, wrestling with children, sometimes for fun sometimes just to get them into the bath.
16. Thank you so much for your time, C.J. Before you go, could you tell me about any projects you have in the pipeline we can look out for?
The sequel to The Disappeared, The Wilderness, will be published Feb 2014. I’ve also got a totally different kind of book coming out in June this year called Have a Little Faith (written as Candy Harper). Faith is in big trouble because her head of year, Miss Ramsbottom, seems to think that she is always blowing stuff up and giving supply teachers radical haircuts. Whereas, as Faith points out, it was actually just that one time. Faith’s diary charts her blood feud with Miss Ramsbottom, and also her attempts to ignore the immaturity of old people, and her quest to find herself a boyfriend who knows how to have a cheese fight.