Message From The Author
Liar, Liar, Airship on Fire
SCOTT WESTERFELD AND JUSTINE LARBALESTIER
TALK LAUNCHES, LIBRARIES AND LINDY HOPPING
By Stephanie Klose
Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier are two of the hottest authors in young-adult fiction today. Both shun contemporary realism in their books, write across genres, have October releases -- and happen to be married to each other.
They sit in the same room while they write, though the hemisphere in which they do so changes seasonally. The couple spends half the year in New York City and the other half in Sydney, Australia, Larbalestier's hometown, which allows them to lead an enviable summers-only existence.
Being married to another writer is "fabulous," Larbalestier says, since they can bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm together.
Liar (Bloomsbury), Larbalestier's October title, is a psychological thriller narrated by a character who readily admits to being a compulsive liar. When Micah Wilkins' classmate Zach is murdered and it's revealed that she and Zach had been seeing each other secretly for months, Micah falls under increasing suspicion by other students and the police. But she claims she had nothing to do with his death.
"I'd been wanting to write about a compulsive liar for a long time," Larbalestier says, admitting to a fascination with constructing a story that would be delivered to readers by a wholly unreliable narrator.
"People want to believe what the narrator is saying to them," even when that same narrator has told them not to.
The author calls it "as much a jigsaw puzzle as it is a novel, but one where the pieces can go together in many different ways." There are at least two wildly different conclusions to draw from the stories Micah tells.
Liar is Larbalestier's first book set in the United States, with no Australian characters, which she calls the most difficult part of writing the book. Even though the author has been living in the States on and off for the last 10 years, writing in "someone else's vernacular was astonishingly difficult."
In addition to the voice of
a native New Yorker, she has captured two aspects of her adopted home that elude many fictional representations: the wildness under the civilization and the claustrophobia that results from living in a small space.
Despite the fact that New York is unarguably urban, there are huge parks throughout the five boroughs where wildlife is rampant -- raccoons, hawks and wild turkeys are common -- and it's possible to be completely alone. Micah spends a lot of time running in the parks, and the complete isolation she claims to have may in fact be real.
Micah's family lives in a small apartment with far too little room. Things are piled under tables and bicycles hang from the ceiling. The reader gets the impression that the slightest wrong move may send everything crashing to the ground. Coupled with the coiled-spring energy of a grieving, secretive teenager, it creates a feeling of low, humming unease.
Westerfeld's October release, Leviathan (Simon and Schuster), also is a departure from his earlier work, kicking off a steampunk trilogy set in 1914.
"It's the real timeline of Word War I," he says. "There's the same assassination that starts it."
Westerfeld enjoyed writing within the framework of real events. Blending a bit of fact into the fiction "means you can be more fanciful and more crazy with the interactions and the characters, but people believe it because Franz Ferdinand just got shot."
One of the fanciful parts of the world Westerfeld's created is a basic philosophical divide. You're either a Clanker, who relies on machinery and logic, or a Darwinist, who lives in a society that has developed animals into tools that serve society.
"I tried to think of biological analogues for every bit of technology that we have," he says, including, "communication, industrial, transportation and war" machines.
So while the Clankers have more traditional airships
with guns, the Darwinists fly around inside a living whale defended by weaponized hawks and bats. Lavish illustrations by Keith Thompson throughout the book help bring the world to life.
At the same time, "I didn't want it to be too much about good nature vs. evil machines," he adds. "In a funny way, if you have a certain bent or turn of mind, the Germans and the machines will look like the good guys. They have these cold, hard-edged, metal, polluting, smoke-spewing machines they use, but they're not messing with life threads. So I was trying to balance it a little bit and make it not a really straightforward parable."
The protagonists are Prince Aleksandr, who has lost his claim to the Austro-Hungarian throne and fled with a rundown war machine, and Deryn Sharp, who has just joined the British Air Service by pretending to be a boy. When their paths cross, high jinks and adventure ensue.
"Putting the romantic leads into those situations is interesting," Westerfeld says, "because the conversations they're having are not just about themselves -- it's about their culture.
"The differences between the cultures are not trivial," he adds. "It's not the bread and butter wars. They're really different philosophies."
Larbalestier calls the world her husband created "actually a lot of people's worst nightmare," pointing out that "a lot of why people fight stem cell research is they're afraid of exactly the world depicted in Leviathan."
In addition to touching on notions of bioengineering, Westerfeld plays with a potentially ticklish topic by calling one group Darwinists. "Especially," he points out, "when it's going to be read by people who are at an age for whom that's most heavily contested. No one is trying to teach 40-year-olds evolution. They just get it or they don't.
But when you're 13, you see that battle going on around you."
Although he acknowledges the possibility that the book will be a target for censors, he is not particularly worried. "Because it's not about evolution," he says. "It doesn't ever talk about evolution.
"I think you get away with a lot more when you're doing something fantastical. I mean, there's very little push-back about the stuff in Uglies," he adds, referring to his popular series set in a world where teenagers are subjected to drastic plastic surgery. "They're drinking champagne, cutting themselves, bombing government buildings and hardly anyone seems to care. You're very protected when you write genre."
Though he thinks that book banners may take an interest in Liar, he believes that Larbalestier has "a level of protection, which is that there's another interpretation. Or that it's a lie or whatever. But once you set something in the real world, the contemporary world," there's a greater chance of people thinking that you're suggesting things or condoning behavior.
Larbalestier isn't worried either though, pointing out that in "every single challenge that has gone to court, the book banners always lose."
In addition to heavy book-writing schedules, both authors maintain significant online presences, with regularly updated blogs and Twitter feeds. This spring, Larbalestier was blogging about the research for her next book, which is set in 1930s New York. "I was watching a lot of videos of Lindy Hopping on YouTube, and I thought I could write this character without actually having to learn how to dance," she says. But when she mentioned that, her blog readers were quick to object.
"I've had a really horrible history with learning to dance.
I said I'd do it if they raised enough money for the New York Public Library, which is in dire straits at the moment."
The library is a cause close to her heart. In a recent blog post, she wrote, "Basically, the city is cutting funding to the NYPL system right at a time when libraries are being stretched to the breaking point because the downturn in the economy means more and more people are using libraries."
On a book tour last year, several of her visits were to very poor schools. Her publisher arranged to give a copy of her book to all of the children who attended her readings and "for some of those children, it was literally the first book they had ever owned themselves." Any other books they read had to come from the library.
Her blog readers ponied up the $5,000 she had set as the goal, so she and Westerfeld bit the bullet and signed up for private lessons.
"We've had 11 lessons now," she says. "We were only going to do five, but now we're addicted," Westerfeld adds.
"It turns out to be really, really fun, and learning all the terms makes it a lot easier to describe," Larbalestier says, adding that they "were so chuffed with ourselves because the basic step we just got and we were like, we're amazingly good at this! Yay!"
But as the couple progressed, Larbalestier says, they changed their tune: "Apparently, no, we're not!"
Still, they'll likely keep on with it, since, she says, "What I love most about it is it's the only time during the week, the only activity I do, where my brain is only thinking about that. Just thinking about where my feet are, whether I'm holding my frame, is my ass sticking out enough?"
And she acknowledges that she'll "have to thank my bullying, horrible blog readers for pushing me into it." G
Visit the authors at JustineLarbalestier.com and ScottWesterfeld.com, or follow them on Twitter at JustineLavaworm and ScottWesterfeld.
EXCERPT FROM LIAR
I was born with a light covering of fur.
After three days it had fallen off, but the damage was done. My mother stopped trusting my father because it was a family condition he had not told her about. One of many omissions and lies.
My father is a liar and so am I.
But I'm going to stop. I have to stop.
I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.
That's my promise.
This time I truly mean it.
EXCERPT FROM LEVIATHAN
"Hey, all you sods, I can fly and you can't! A natural airman, in case you haven't noticed. And in conclusion, I'd
like to add that I'm a girl and you can all get stuffed!"
The four airmen at the winch were letting the cable out quickly, and soon the upturned faces blurred with distance. Larger geometries came into view: the worn curves of an old cricket oval on the ascension field, the network of roads and railways surrounding the Scrubs, the wings of the prison pointing southward like a huge pitchfork.
Deryn looked up and saw the medusa's body alight with the sunrise, pulsing veins and arteries running like iridescent ivy through the translucent flesh. The tentacles drifted in the soft breezes around her, capturing pollen and insects and sucking them into the stomach sack above.
Hydrogen breathers didn't really breathe hydrogen, of course. They exhaled it: burped it into their own gasbags. The bacteria in their stomachs broke down food into pure elements -- oxygen, carbon, and, most important, lighter-than-air hydrogen.
It should have been nauseating, Deryn supposed, hanging suspended from all those gaseous dead insects. Or terrifying, with nothing but a few leather straps between her and a quarter mile of tumbling to a terrible death. But she felt as grand as an eagle on the wing.
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