Yes, yes, I know I’ve been remiss with the blogging the past few weeks.
In my defense, work has really been hectic, and there was the matter of those pesky monsoon rains. Me and my books are safe, but a lot of people everywhere else could really use some help. Anyway, here I am trying to make amends and decongesting my backlog of blog posts.
A few weeks ago, bestselling YA author Alyson Noel graced the country and signed a few books for all of us fans. And thanks once again to National Book Store, I managed to spend some time with her and ask a few questions about writing petulant teenagers, the many careers she had to go through before becoming a writer, and just a little tease about what’s coming the next books of “The Soul Seeker”series.
RONREADS (RR): How did you find out that you were going to be here in the Philippines?
ALYSON NOEL (AN): Someone from National Book Store came when I was touring in Singapore and Australia four weeks ago. Someone from National Book Store flew from Manila to Singapore just to interview me. When I learned that she had done that, that she flew all that way for the few minutes that we had for the interview, I was just so glad that she did that, and she invited me to fly to Manila at some point in the future.
I spoke to my husband about it, and I was so impressed that she did that. We were already in this part of the world so we decided to cut our vacation in Langkawi in order to come here and put this signing together. It was very short notice for them. I just sent them an email, that we had a short window for them to make it work. I was just so impressed with what they did.
I also hear from my Filipino readers a lot, so I wanted to meet them. This singing was a last minute thing, but it’s a great way to end this trip when I go home on Saturday.
RR: I found it funny when National Book Store asked on Facebook to guess who was coming here to the country and everyone already knew because so many Filipinos follow you on Twitter.
AN: (Laughs) I know! Twitter is the fastest way to communicate, I think. It usurps everything (laughs).
RR: Did you immediately start writing after reading Judy Blume when you were in sixth grade?
AN: I did, I did. My parents got divorced when I was 12 so I started writing really bad poetry about their divorce and how it made me feel (laughs). It felt like it does now, it helped me sort out my feelings and make sense of my life and answered the questions for myself.
In high school I started to write short stories a lot. I was in the Honors program and I had this one teacher and he required us to read Tolstoy and all these books. After reading he would ask us to write an essay on it and I would write a short story instead. He was a really special teacher and I think he recognized that I had so many problems at home and so he would just grade these short stories even if I was supposed to write essays. We went like that for two years and one day he read one of my stories out loud in front of the class and it was this really big moment. It was the first time in a really long time that I felt like I could do something because of this person who believed in me. When “Faking 19” finally got published I thanked him in the acknowledgements. I went back to my high school 20 years later and he was still there in the same room. It was like a time warp, it was still the same posters on the wall. It was a great moment. I got to thank him. It was kind of full circle.
RR: Could you talk a bit about your first novel?
AN: It’s directly inspired by me and my last year of high school. I was raised by a single mom and we had tremendous financial difficulties. I’ve been working since I was 12 to help my mom or to support myself and provide the extra things that I needed. I was pretty lost and I was just failing myself and failing school and doing a terrible job of it. I poured a lot of that into that character, Alexandra Skye.
The events in the book are fictional, but the emotions that the character has about herself and her life and her worth, that there is no place for her in the world, that was very much my experience. That was kind of my life. That took me 15 year to write (laughs)! But I didn’t work on it everyday and there were years where I didn’t work on it at all. It started as a short story for a writing class that I took and I always wanted to turn it into a novel. Every now and then I would toy with it.
I had always dreamed of being a writer since I was 12. I was a really big reader and my mom was a really big reader as well. But it wasn’t until 9-11, when I was a flight attendant based in New York City, and we took tremendous pay cuts, and I knew that my job was never going to be the same, that I did something about it. I wasn’t getting any younger, and I have been talking about this dream for three decades now. It was a nothing left to lose situation. I finally dug this story up and I’m going to turn it into a novel, and I’m going to see if I can make this dream happen.
From making that decision to getting my first book deal was about a two and a half year process of finishing the novel, having no idea what I’m doing, getting rejected by everybody and rightfully so because the first version was terrible. The rejection letters were all the same — great voice, great characters, nothing happens. It’s a story about a girl wandering around thinking deep thoughts. Somewhere along the way I took more classes and I was introduced to an agent who read the book and told me the same thing and told me to read “Story” by Robert McKee, a big Hollywood screenwriting guru, and he’s one of the go-to guys in Hollywood when they need a script fixed. That book is really great for anyone who has trouble plotting and constructing a story in general. I like the screenwriting method because film is such an expensive medium, you don’t want to waste a shot. It keeps the writing lean and focused and tight. I remember reading the book, getting to page 30 and finding out what I’ve been doing wrong.
I took three weeks and just brutally went back and revised my book and went back to him and he said that it was great and he signed me and within a couple of months we had sold it to my publisher. I’ve been writing for them ever since. I really credit that book for giving me the knowledge that I needed to get over being rejected to being published. It was the silver bullet that I needed (laughs).
RR: What was it like to finally be signed?
AN: It’s just the most astonishing dream come true. I remember I was in a rental car too! I’m always doing something really mundane when I get these really great phone calls. I was screaming into the phone in the middle of the AVIS center and it was just a dream come true. It felt very validating and I worked really, really hard. With any sort of creative art, you go through intense periods of self-doubt. What you create is so precious to you so when you go out there and it gets rejected it really hurts. But for me, I’m grateful for those rejections because it made me try harder, it made me learn what I needed to learn and I can only imagine how that feels for other people.
RR: How have your various jobs — from being a department store sales clerk to a flight attendant — helped you out in your writing?
AN: I think every step leads you to the next. Some of those jobs I liked, some I didn’t, but each step lead to the next and they sort of informed and inspired the writing. I think it works for the writer to have a multitude of experiences and to live their life wholly and deeply and to have an open mind because everything is fodder for storytelling. I would never want to return to some of those jobs again, but I am grateful that I got to do them.
RR: Do you feel like getting published at 39 was the right time for you? Or do you feel like you could have done it sooner?
AN: It was the right time for me. I don’t think I was ready for it earlier. I think it happened as it was meant to. I look at these writers who are just 17 and I think “My God, what do you do next?” (Laughs) I was nowhere near ready for this at 17. For me it happened at the right time, definitely.
RR: You started out with “Faking 19”, which is a “realistic” novel. What made you decide to make that jump from “realistic” novels to YA supernatural?
AN: I steal from my own life experience all the time. I say that if an experience doesn’t kill me, I’m going to find a way to write about it. Seriously, I mine my life for everything.
Years back, I lost three people I loved in five months. Six months after that, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia and I almost lost him. He’s in full remission now, but I almost lost him. It was a very sad time and it got me thinking about things that I had successfully avoided thinking about (laughs). I’ve never really contemplated mortality before that. It got me thinking a lot about mortality and immortality and our soul’s journey and our life’s purpose and why are we here and where do we go.
As much as we humans have been looking for the Fountain of Youth, trying to live forever, what is true immortality? Is it physical or is it spiritual? That was really the thing that I was answering for myself and it came out in “The Immortals”. There’s a big love story there, but for me it was an attempt to answer the question of what is true immortality. I drew directly from the grief that I experienced from losing my loved ones. I wanted to explore those themes and the best way to do it was through a paranormal, supernatural format. And it’s funny because those were the kinds of books that I was drawn to when I was a kid. But then again I’m inspired by my own life a lot. But it wasn’t until I went through that that I was ready to write that sort of book.
RR: When you start out a series, is the whole narrative arc already formed or do you it book by book?
AN: It wasn’t with The Immortals. I sort of wrote “Evermore” on the side, it was a very inspired writing vein. I had signed a contract for three other books and I didn’t even know if I was going to show anyone or my publisher. It was a personal side project for me. It wasn’t until I reached the end of it before I knew that it was really the beginning of a much bigger journey.
“The Soul Seekers” I knew from the start. I really plotted out all four books. I knew before I began writing “Faded” exactly how “Horizon” would end. The journey may shift and change a bit along the way because the more you write the characters reveal themselves to you and you realize things about them that you may have assumed incorrectly. That’s the fun part about it, the sense of discovery. But it will end as I planned.
RR: Having said that you draw from your life experiences a lot, is that also where you draw your petulant teenagers? They’re not always fun to read, but they’re very believable.
AN: I am very much in touch with my inner 16-year-old (laughs). She is alive and well and speaks the loudest in my head. I wrote one adult book, and it was more of a stretch for me to constantly think about how a 28-year-old would react to this. I’ve never had that problem with 16-year-olds. I’m in it and I can feel it.
I had kind of a miserable adolescence, but it gave me a lot of compassion for that time and a lot of empathy for that time. Those emotions are readily available to me. Technology changes, fashion is cyclical, music goes through phases, and it seems so different on the surface, but the inner core of being a teen, that journey of self-discovery and self-definition, is exactly the same as when I was a teen. The outer packaging is very different, no doubt, but that inner journey of finding your place in the world is very much the same. It’s universal. If I can tap into that, people all over the world can relate to that journey.
RR: When did you first get the idea for “Fated”? Was it always going to be Native American mythology from the beginning?
AN: The idea for it came from the research that I did for the previous series, The Immortals. I do a lot of research for my books. All the things that I write about I research pretty extensively, and for “The Immortals” I read a lot of metaphysical books. I took a three-day psychic development course, I did half-life hypnosis, and I couldn’t help but notice during the research that I was doing how often shamanism kept appearing. I was instantly intrigued by this really primal, ancient practice. But it didn’t fit in the world that I created for “The Immortals”, that it existed outside of that, so I just shelved it in case i might go back to that again for my next series.
When it came time to create “The Soul Seekers”, I went straight for that because I thought that it’s such a rich mythology to draw from. It stretches back thousands of years, all the way to Siberia. What’s fascinating to me is that it was being practiced in all these different countries in very similar ways, and all these people had no way of communicating with each other. They’re all doing the same practices. I was really fascinated with that. I read a lot of books about shamanism. I took a three day introduction to shamanism course taught by a shaman and we rattled and drummed and journeyed to the Lower World and met our spirit animals. I had private healing sessions with the shaman, one-on-one sessions. I also interviewed Native American shamans on reservations. I interviewed local kids on what it’s like to go to high school on a reservation. All those things fed into the world and helped create the world Daire Santos lived in.
I did quite a bit of tweaking of the mythology because I in no way am trying to be a scholar on shamanism or Native American mythology. I use it simply as a jumping off point to create this world where “The Soul Seekers” can take place and created this new mythology where Daire Santos is a Seeker and that is a new, modern version of a shaman.
RR: You talk about all the research you do for your books, but how do you know when you have to stop doing your research and actually start writing?
AN: I do a lot of research early on just to get a feel of where I’m going, just to sort of create the map of the world, the concepts that I will be exploring, how I’m going to set the boundaries, things like that. It’s sort of just an instinctive feel that I can finally picture the world and the characters in my head. That’s when I begin writing. But the research continues and it will continue throughout the series. I still read books about shamanism and Native American lore and I will continue to take more classes and things like that partly because I really enjoy it and find it fascinating and I want to add it to my own personal growth. All the research has really enhanced the book and all the things that the characters go through.
RR: Was there any apprehension on the part of your publishers when you decided to take on a mythology that is not as popular as vampires, fairies, or angels?
AN: No, and I really am grateful for that. They allowed me to do something different. As a writer, you want to be constantly growing and changing and exploring new avenues. I had nothing to say about vampires that hasn’t already been said, and I already took on this metaphysical journey with “The Immortals” series. This is the thing that felt right to me and I was just really so pleased that they jumped on board and went along with that. They’ve been my publisher since my very first book, so we’ve been at it together for over 20 books (laughs). We have a really good and trusting working relationship.
RR: What’s the most difficult part about writing “Fated”? Was it the research? The actual writing?
AN: I think the most difficult part about writing any book is always the fact that I have this really clear picture in my head. I feel almost like I’m taking notes with this movie in my head. The challenge is always how to translate this picture I can see so clearly, so vividly and to find the right words to portray that to the reader. That’s always a challenge, and the only thing you can do is to get it as close as you possibly can. It’s the same with every book — translating the pictures to words and hoping that the readers can see what I’m trying to say as clearly as I can see it.
RR: When I was reading “Fated”, I also got the sense that it was more about family than about magic or shamanism. Was that something that you set out to do with this novel or did it come about organically?
AN: Some of that comes out organically. I knew that Daire was a very independent, self-sufficient person with a really clear mind of what her moral compass of right and wrong is. But she’s also really emotionally guarded and having a hard time connecting with people because her life is so transient. I knew that a big part of her journey was going to have to be knocking down these walls not only to succeed as a human being but also to become a Seeker.
But as I began to write, her grandmother really began to fill this big role, a little bigger than I had originally envisioned. I didn’t have the opportunity to have a close relationship with my grandparents, so Paloma is certainly my fantasy grandmother in a way (laughs). I really, really loved her and the guidance that she gives to Daire and how she knows that Daire can get through things that she’s not even sure she can get through. She’s such a great mentor to her.
And then there’s Daire’s relationship with her mother. Her mother had her very young. Her mother can be a little irresponsible, which cause Daire to be even more responsible. You don’t always know who’s the mother and who’s the daughter from the way they talk to each other. I’ve met people with relationships like that and I’ve always been fascinated by it.
I did plan it to some degree but as with every book, when you get to know the characters and get immersed in the journey, they just sort of organically happen and become stronger themes than I would have initially intended.
RR: Where there themes in the book that you never expected to be in there?
AN: That part about family got way stronger. Her relationship with Chay, Paloma’s friend, that was a little bit stronger than I thought and I was really pleased with that. I wanted the grandmother to have a boyfriend, I wanted her to have a life, and I also wanted him to be Native American, really educated, really wise, really smart and no-nonsense and a good mentor for her. It just became a little stronger than I originally envisioned (laughs).
RR: Was it important to have Daire be at least half-Hispanic?
AN: Yeah. I really wanted that for her. She’s half-Irish and half-Hispanic, the twins are half-Hispanic and half-Native American. It was really important for me for them to have that sort of ethnicity. I’m half-Hispanic. My father is Hispanic. That can be a little underrepresented sometimes in YA and I just thought that it was important to remain true to that.
I also know what it’s like to sort of straddle those two cultures. Her Hispanic side was completely shut off from her until she moved to Enchantment and lived with Paloma. she rediscovers this other part of herself and she was raised by her mother before that, who was not Hispanic. I have a very similar experience to that. If there is a movie, we’re going to remain true to that. We’re a very global world, and everyone needs to be represented.
RR: Is there going to be an LGBT character in “The Soul Seekers”?
AN: I do that a lot, but I do it when it fits. I do it because I have a lot of gay friends, and I think that it’s important to show the world as it is, portray the world as it is. I like to think that it helps build tolerance and compassion. But I can’t just stick them in there to have a token character. There’s a possibility of that if what I have in my mind works within the world. But I’m not doing that if it’s just a token gesture. I want it to be authentic and real, but I have a lot of that in all of my books.
RR: What can readers expect from the book after “Fated”?
AN: “Echo” picks up right where “Fated” left off. Each book will pick up right where the last one left off. Maybe a matter of days or weeks, no more than two weeks. In each book, the stakes are raised until we reach the climax. Each book is leading to this ultimate climax at the end of “Horizon”. It’s hard to say without giving away spoilers. I can say that Daire and Dace will continue to see their connections and what the Echo is. They’re going to try to find out.
RR: Is “The Soul Seekers” going to just be four books? Didn’t “The Immortals” start out as three books and grew to six?
AN: I envisioned “The Immortals” as five. But so much happened in such a short amount of time that it took me six. I wanted to get them out of high school (laughs). But the ending was the same. “The Soul Seekers” is going to be four. I think it’s going to happen the way that I envisioned it. I think it’s pretty plotted out. It should just be four books.
RR: Any word on the movie adaptations?
AN: All six of “The Immortals” were optioned by Summit, which was recently bought by Lionsgate. We’ve been in touch with recently. Nothing I can share, but I’m pretty excited. That’s all I’m allowed to say about that. All four books of “The Soul Seekers” have been recently optioned by Cheyenne Enterprises and I’m really, really excited about that. We’re going to meet the producer a few days after I get home. He has a real personal interest in the themes and mythologies that I explore in the series and he felt a real connection to it and has a huge amount of enthusiasm for it. I am thrilled that he has it in his hands because I think he can do something really tremendous with this world. My adult book, “Fly Me to the Moon”, was recently re-optioned by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions and Sharon Maguire, who did Bridget Jones’ Diary is doing the screenplay and she’s signed on to direct. There’s a few things being juggled out there (laughs).
RR: Where do you get the time and energy to be so prolific? You’ve already got 20 novels out!
AN: I have a really good work ethic. I’ve been working since I was 12. I’m a worker, it’s what I do (laughs). I’m used to working and I can’t imagine not working. But I also got a late start. I got my first book deal at 39, and I felt like I had so many stories to tell and I want them told before my time is up (laughs).
RR: Do you have a particular writing ritual?
AN: I go to my office everyday. I brew a cup of green tea, I light a candle, I put on a crystal necklace that a reader sent to me, and I put on my headphones and I put on the playlist that I made for the book. I try to write 10 pages a day, sometimes I do more, sometimes less, but I write everyday. It helps maintain the voice of the characters that way.
RR: How long does it usually take to finish a book?
AN: If I’m really intense and the writing is going really well, I finish the first draft in about two months, and I will take as long as they’ve given me to revise it. This year I have six months each book so I have quite some time to revise them. The first draft, that’s really the hardest part because you’re learning your way, you’re learning the characters way. Plotting is difficult. I really like the revising because that’s when you can really get to tell the story you want to tell.
RR: I think you’re the first author I’ve talked to that actually likes revising.
AN: I know! I love it, I really do. I revise 10 or 12 times before I go to my editor.
RR: You do this out of your own volition?
AN: Yeah, I know (laughs).
RR: How do you prevent your social media presence from being a distraction?
AN: It’s the best way to procrastinate, are you kidding. I don’t know if I try hard enough to not make it a distraction (laughs). But I do limit my time there. I go on Twitter and my social media accounts in the morning before I begin writing. Then I’ll take a break and go through it again, and then go through it again one more time before I retire for the night. When I turn my computer off around seven to have dinner with my husband, that’s it. It’s over until the morning. The whole operation shuts down until the morning. I have no idea what’s happening on there until I wake up in the morning and start again. That’s the best way, I’ve found, to keep it from taking over my life. It’s easy to give your family and friends the back seat when you’re so involved with these other people.
RR: What’s the best reaction you’ve gotten from a fan?
AN: One is I didn’t like reading until I found one of your books. I think for authors that’s music to your ears. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that reading “Immortals” has helped them get over the loss of someone close to them, which is really great because it helped me get over my losses as well, and I’ve had a lot of people say that reading “The Immortals” has helped them see their place in the world differently. It’s given them more power and control over their own destiny and I think that’s amazing.
RR: What advice would you give to young people who want to get into writing?
AN: I think they should read as much as possible. I think reading is the best thing a writer can do. They should read very widely and read outside their comfort zone, books you like and books you don’t like. Every book has something to teach you. You don’t like it, ask why. You like it, ask why.
They should also get into the habit of writing. A lot of people want to be writers and they’re not even writing. I know because I was one of them. I talked about it for decades and I wasn’t doing anything about it. The more you write, the better you get, the more you read, you get the rhythm of the storytelling.
(All photos from the National Book Store Facebook page.)