Ever since Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, readers have been devouring dystopian tales left and right. Now, debut author Erin Bowman has entered the arena with her highly anticipated Young Adult novel, Taken, which takes place in Claysoot, a society where boys vanish on their eighteenth birthday. Readers who have already read the book have fallen in love with Gray, the main character, and his struggle to unravel the many secrets of Claysoot. Today, Erin Bowman discusses her new book, her journey as a writer and the dystopian genre.
Like most writers, your love for storytelling goes back to your childhood. What is your earliest writing-related memory?
I’m not sure about my first-ever writing experience, but I can recall my first attempt at drafting a novel as a kid. In a hardcover, spiral-bound notebook, I handwrote several chapters of Sherlock Hound — à la Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes — only my crime-solving detective was a bloodhound, and Watson a beagle. If I’m remembering correctly, the basic premise involved a stolen bone.
At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to pursue writing as a career?
To be honest, I never seriously considered it as a career option until recently. Writing was always the thing I did on the side, the hobby, an escape into my own secret world. Authors seemed mythical creatures to me growing up. I knew someone wrote the stories I read, but I didn’t ever see it as a potential career path. Maybe this was because children are often warned that pursuing creative ventures can be full of heartbreak and struggles and long, uphill climbs. Even with those cautionary tales, I went off to college and got a BFA in design. I worked as a web designer for several years, continuing to write on the side. Had it not been for the nudging of friends, family, and a critique partner, Taken would probably still be a .doc file on my hard drive rather than a book on shelves. And it was only after signing a contract with HarperTeen that I realized I had an opportunity to make my hobby a career.
Is there a particular teacher, friend, or family member who helped you develop your voice and style?
My mother, a teacher and children’s librarian, is my biggest influence. She didn’t necessarily shape my writing style or voice, but she is completely responsible for my love and infatuation with stories. Had she not put so many books into my hands as a child, I’m not sure I would have developed the itch to create my own.
Where did the idea for Taken originate?
I was working on a separate manuscript when a boy started wandering around my head. He was dreading his eighteenth birthday, and his voice was so clear that I couldn’t ignore him. I started asking why — what happened at eighteen that he feared so much — and the story slowly took shape.
Was it hard writing from a male point of view?
Not particularly. Sometimes it was bit strange — like having an out of body experience — but I sort of feel this way with every character I write. I am not them, but so long as I understand what makes them tick, know their dreams and fears and secrets, I can bring them to life with a little elbow grease.
Taken is considered a dystopian story. What does “dystopia” mean to you? Do you think the genre will continue to grow?
In my opinion, the purest dystopian tales are, by definition, ones in which the protagonist discovers a fatal flaw in his/her otherwise perfect society. There has to be an illusion of a utopia, with the protagonist evolving from content and satisfied, to suspicious, then conflicted, and finally aware of the injustices of their world. Rebellion often follows. (1984, anyone?)
In recent years, I feel like “dystopia” has taken on a new definition, especially in the YA market. The label is being applied to stories where a character rebels against the rules of their world, regardless of whether or not said world is viewed as a utopia by the members of its society. By the genre’s purest definition, I don’t think Taken is a dystopia. But by this evolved understanding of the genre in YA lit? Definitely.
There’s talk that the dystopian genre is tiring, and its growth may level off temporarily, but I think these types of stories will always resonate with people. Our world is far from perfect. Evil things happen every day. Reading about broken worlds and watching people fight back — even when everything is stacked against them — is incredibly inspiring. These stories remind us that even in the darkest of situations, there is always a reason to be hopeful.
Has your background in web design influenced the way you go about writing?
It hasn’t influenced my actual craft, but it certainly helped shape my philosophy regarding the creative process.
During my years as a web designer, here’s what I learned to be true about making art: Some days you’ll throw out everything you create. Other days you’ll produce gold. Most days will be somewhere in between. No matter what, it will take hours of tweaking, polishing, revising, and reshaping to make your art match the vision in your head. Sometimes you won’t even be able to see what you’re trying to create until knee-deep in your own mess. There’s no right or wrong way to get to The End, but it will always take a ton of work. Critique is part of the process. Revision is part of the process. Your first attempt is never, ever the best it can be.
I think this is more or less true for every type of artistic venture. Writers, musicians, painters, designers … they are all creating. Every artist is trying to take something from his/her mind and capture it in the physical world. I’ve been approaching my writing with this mindset, just as I did my design work. The only notable difference now is the end product: words vs. visuals.
What do you hope to achieve as a writer?
Falling in love with a book is like discovering a best friend. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world and the closest thing to magic, in my opinion. I want my stories to be someone’s best friend. I want to provide an escape. I want people to fret over the fate of fictional characters as though they are living, breathing people. If I can do this for even a handful of readers, I’ve done my job.
Be sure to pick up a copy of Taken, available in stores and online now. For more author interviews and the latest genre news, visit our Everything Young Adult Page.