Interview with Starglass Author, Phoebe North

I took Phoebe North‘s young adult scifi Starglass with me on a weekend beach trip, and I couldn’t put it down, missing out on group board games to stay in the well-crafted world of generation ship Asherah, eager to find out if it would reach its destination before revolution hit and whether Terra, North’s passionate-and-confused heroine, would ever get her love life together.

Starglass is not only suspenseful, it’s intelligent and insightful.  I found myself raving about it for days afterwards, and I am so happy there’s a sequel coming out so I don’t have to say goodbye to Terra’s world just yet.

I was lucky enough to interview Phoebe, who I connected with through my agent and hers, Michelle Andelman at Regal Literary.  (I actually remember Michelle telling me about Starglass right after she sold it, and it was just as good as her enthusiasm led me to believe!)

 Q:  What are the origins of Starglass?

Phoebe: Well, it’s kind of a convoluted story.  Starglass started out as a short story I wrote in graduate school for a class on James Joyce.  I was an MFA, a creative writing student.  I did a YA rewrite of “Eveline” set on a generation ship—a vignette of a ship falling apart.  The ship was culturally Irish. I really liked it, but my professor hated it.  I asked him if I could rewrite it, and he said no, he didn’t want me wasting my time on it.  I heard right around that time that Beth Revis’ Across the Universe had sold and YA scifi was what I wanted to do.  So I got the idea to put a space rebellion in this James Joyce story and expand it into a book.

 Q: Can you tell me more about your relationship with scifi?

Phoebe: I’m just a huge science fiction nerd—it’s where I started in terms of both reading and writing.  I loved Star Trek, and everyone in my family is a Trekkie.  I loved Star Wars too, and I was obsessed with this show, Space Cases, I was really into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders novels, too, and I started doing writing in middle school that was set in that universe.

When you are a big scifi reader, you approach world-building differently—the world-building tends to be more dense [than in other genres].  Jo Walton had an article at tor.com called “SF Reading Protocols” about how scifi authors use a process called “incluing” to construct the universe of their book. I found this helpful.   I think there’s less handholding in world-building in scifi.  You trust readers more to put it together.

 Q:  What was the process of writing Starglass?

Phoebe: It was not very organized process.  The very first version of Starglass didn’t have any of the Jewish cultural elements; it was just a very generic sort of YA space setting (vocational counselors were called voc counselors). I was just trying to tell this story about this girl, but eventually I thoughtyou’re capable of much better world-building than this.

At the time I had named Terra,“Terra Fineberg,” just because Fineberg was my mother’s last name.  Then I thought, maybe she actually needs to be Jewish.  Judaism in diaspora has a lot in common with generation ships, as the people are wandering from their homeland.

I had to answer questions such as, why would there be a ship of Jews in space?  It required a pretty big rewrite to get all those details in.  I really had to interrogate the book to create a universe that feels real and cohesive.

Q:  Starglass has some mature themes, specifically it goes pretty deep with sexuality and death.   Can you tell me more about your experience writing about these themes?

Phoebe: I really enjoyed a lot of YA dystopians, but sometimes they seemed not to answer all the questions they raised.  For instance, if you have compulsory heterosexual marriage, who is that really dystopian for?  Who would that impact the most?  That’s how I started exploring issues of sexuality in the book.

[About Terra’s very realistic grief at her mother’s death] I once read a blog post, by an agent who shall remain nameless, about books with dead parents, and the agent said they never want to see another book that starts with a funeral.  That it’s depressing and kids don’t understand it. I got really angry about that. I wanted to explore loss and grief.  I wanted to approach that really honestly.

Q: I loved Terra’s untraditional romances (untraditional for today’s YA, anyway).  Can you tell me more about your thoughts behind her not-always-logical love life? 

Phoebe: That was pretty intentional on my part.  I knew that I didn’t want her to end up with the first person she ever kisses because she lives in such a small society and her options are so, so limited.  Her romantic arc grows out of that—she’s in a very constrained society but on the verge of entering a much more diverse experience.  It’s like how you know people in high school and then you get to the people in college and your options open up in ways you never anticipated.  In Starglass, there’s no clear love interest. Terra has different romantic encounters and these boys have good things about them and bad things about them, she tries to make the best of whatever situation she’s in.

Q: That’s a great way to sum up Terra—she always seems to be trying to make the best of whatever situation she’s in.  She’s not exactly the most certain or confident heroine.  What was it like writing about someone who could be rather mercurial?

Phoebe:  She is a hard person to be with—it’s hard to be in her head. I come from a similar background and experienced some of the same things. My husband insists that she’s more me than I think. She wants to be loved, and she makes mistakes trying to achieve that love.

She faces these big life choices.  She messes up a lot.  When I think about who I was at that age, I know I did a lot of things that would easily qualify me as an “unlikeable character.”

 Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the sequel?

Phoebe: The sequel’s done—it’s called Starbreak and it comes out in July of 2014, and it definitely closes up Terra’s story. It’s a duology, which I planned from the beginning, for reasons that I hope become clear.  I love the sequel a lot, but writing it was difficult, even though I had it all plotted out before we ever sold Starglass.

I got about 50,000 words in, and was thinking in the back of my head, this is not the right book. I sent it to my agent, she looked over it and agreed.  So I started again from scratch.  At the end of the first book, Terra could go down one of two paths, and in the first draft she did the first thing and in the second she does the second. It’s much better this way. Yay for starting over!

Q:  Do you have any reading recommendations?

Phoebe: I just read In the After by Demetria Lunetta.  It was superintense.  I read it in two sittings.

Q:  What’s your writing routine?

Phoebe: By any means necessary.  I have a lot of tricks to trick me into feeling that it’s not work.  Writing with friends on Google Hangout.  Posting snippets of what I’m working on in forums.  It gives me a little more accountability, because otherwise I’m surfing the internet.  I’m a fairly fast writer, but the minute I think I know what my process is it changes.

Editor Said, Author Said: Nadia Bennet and Eveline Chao on Niubi’s Editorial Process

 

Here's an interview tiwh editor Nadia Bennet and author Eveline Chao, who worked on NIUBI , a humor book about Chinese slang, together.  As the assistant to her agent, I worked with Eveline to get her book proposal  for NIUBI  in shape for submission to Plume.

Editor Said . . .

Nadia Bennet is an editor at the luxury art book publisher, Assouline. Nadia has worked as a freelance editor with clients like Booz & Company and Melcher Media. She started her New York publishing career at Penguin’s Plume imprint, acquiring and editing all manner of nonfiction titles: memoirs, humor, popular science, art, and more. Originally from Los Angeles, she has also lived in Santa Barbara, CA, and overseas in Paris and Lyon, France.

 

 

Q: Where did you work, and what was your position when you edited NIUBI?  How did you come to be assigned to NIUBI?

I was an assistant editor at Plume, an imprint of Penguin group. The editor who was originally working on the book left, so NIUBI was assigned to me.

Q: What was your vision for NIUBI?  

Plume has a series of slang language books that they have been publishing since the 1990s. Because of China’s economic strength in the world, we felt it would be a popular addition. I hoped that the book would give Americans a deeper insight into day-to-day Chinese culture–especially youth culture–and I think it succeeded in doing that, in an informative, but entertaining way.

Q: How many rounds of editing were there with NIUBI?  

I really don’t remember, but I can’t imagine it was very many–maybe one round on my end. Eveline had done very thorough research and had consulted with various native speakers. I mainly checked it for organization and if necessary, cut any repetitive and superfluous sections.

Q: Were there any lessons you learned from working on NIUBI that you applied to other books?

With each book, especially as a young assistant editor, you gain confidence in your editorial choices and decisions. I really mean with everything, each big or small decision, from overall structure–which is the best order for the chapters–to word choice, and so on. Each one of those is a style choice– and like choosing a cover, there’s no science. The decisions come from instinct, experience, and being able to put yourself in the readers’ shoes and knowing who the readers are in the first place.

Q:  What was working with Eveline like?

I’ve said this before and it’s not exaggeration–she was a dream author! I could really tell that this book meant a lot to her. Her research and fact-checking was thorough, the manuscript she delivered was clean and careful. It makes such a difference to work with an author who puts a lot of thought and care into their work–it makes the editor, and the reader, care more. I can’t remember if she ever missed a deadline, but I know that if she was late I had plenty of advance notice. Plus she’s smart and funny, which always helps the process move along smoothly.

Q: The cover of NIUBI is supercute and funny.  What was the process in choosing it?

 

We had used the illustrator on another Plume book and were very happy with his work so we approached him to do this book–as well as new covers for all the previous slang language books in the series. We sent him the manuscript, or at least parts of it, and he chose a few scenarios that Eveline described, to illustrate. From those, we chose one we liked best. (I can’t remember who exactly was involved in choosing, but it was probably me, maybe Eveline, the editor-in-chief, the art department, and then finally, the president and the marketing director weighed in.) There is very little science in choosing a cover, it’s mostly instinct–some we get right and some we don’t.

NIUBI was definitely one of the successes.

Q: I know you’re an editor at an art book publishing house now.  How has your role as editor changed?  What things have stayed the same, if any?

The main difference is that I don’t acquire books now. I work more as a project manager overseeing the production process from start to finish: I hire writers, copyeditors, proofreaders, and work with in-house photo editors, designers, and production managers, while being the main contact with the client (if there is one). The timeline is also much shorter, so many aspects involved in producing a book, that in standard trade publishing are separate, happen simultaneously here–i.e. the design/layout/photo selection and the text development. Plus the text is much shorter, so overall less homework–no submission manuscripts or 80,000 word drafts to read. I get to read for pleasure now!!

What has stayed the same is that I still have an important role in the development and editing of the text. While there is a general approach to the text that I need to adhere to (it comes from discussions between the editorial director, the company founders, and the client), I can work directly with the writer to make sure we reach those goals–through developmental discussions and line editing.

I have loved working with the team to make sure the visual elements and the text align.

Q:  How do you feel your role as an editor has evolved over your career?  

Well, it has changed dramatically just because of my move to illustrated books. This segment of publishing is far removed from the industry changes, because making these books electronic would defeat their purpose as objets d’art. That does of course mean that it is a much more specific niche, so the jobs are fewer. But I do think that because I am involved in many more aspects of the book publishing process I am gaining valuable skills that can be transferred to media production and project management in general.

Author Said . . .

Eveline Chao is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for Foreign Policythe Daily Beast, and the BBC, and is a 2013-2014 Open City Fellow with the Asian American Writers Workshop. She previously lived in Beijing for five years, where she edited a business magazine and wrote NIUBI!.   She grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

 Q: How long did it take you from making the deal to the publication of NIUBI?

My agent sold the book in January 2008, the manuscript was due January 2009, and it came out in November 2009, so it was about two

 

 

years from signing the contract to holding a finished book in my hands.

Q: What were your favorite parts about writing NIUBI?

I love having a filter for looking at the world, and working on a long-term writing project like a book gives you that. What that filter is changes with whatever I’m working on at the time. But for the year I was working on NIUBI, I looked at the world through the filter of language and slang, and I really enjoyed having a consistent thing I was always looking for and thinking about. It was really fun to go to parties, sit in cafes, hang out with friends, hang out with strangers – it didn’t matter who or where – and ask people, “Do you know any interesting slang?” The answers were always fascinating, though they didn’t always make it into the final book. And I enjoyed the experience of walking around on high alert, keeping my ears pricked for any interesting language I might overhear. It’s like being a detective.

Q: Did you feel your vision of NIUBI differed from the publisher’s and if so, how?

Not too much. I’m an unusual case because NIUBI was part of a series of slang books for different languages, so I had the benefit of having seen some of the previously published books (for Japanese and Russian, for example) and knowing the format and also how kooky (and dirty) it was okay to be.

One thing I did bring up with the publisher was that I didn’t love the illustrations in the older books. They agreed the art was outdated and let me be involved in the process of finding a new illustrator. I ended up liking the work of the guy they recommended, Chris Murphy, so there was no drama there.

Q:  How did writing NIUBI change/affect your future writing?

The most valuable thing the book gave me was a feeling of legitimacy. When you’re young and still struggling with writing, you always feel kind of sheepish telling people you’re a writer – or at least I did. Just a few weeks ago I had a pretty typical conversation where someone asked what I do, and I said I’m a writer, and they said, “You mean you’re actually a writer writer, or you just want to be a writer?” And in the past, even after I’d published a few journalism articles, I still had trouble saying I was a writer because it felt more aspirational than real. Once I’d written the book, though, I could feel like, yes, I am. Of course you should have the fortitude to believe in yourself with or without the publishing stamp of approval, and I really admire the writers I know who are able to be totally unwavering in that belief, but, you know. Self-doubt is a demon for everyone.

Also, having written a book demystifies the whole process and enables you to envision writing more books down the line. It makes everything tangible instead of this hard-to-tackle abstraction.

Q: What were your LEAST favorite parts about writing NIUBI?

The feeling of constant, low-level terror that I was going to somehow screw it up? I guess either by writing something terrible, or missing the deadline, or even not turning in a manuscript at all. I had a year to do the manuscript, but because I knew I was going to leave my job at some point (which at the time was editing a business magazine in China), I kept putting off starting on it until I left the job. That ended up being just four months before the manuscript was due, so for nearly four months straight, I parked in a cafe from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every single day, seven days a week, working on the book and trying to just hold myself together and not panic. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and looking back don’t think I could do that again. It’s also clear to me now that I could have worked a lot less hard, and it still would have turned out okay, but at the time it felt like I had to be killing myself for it and that still wouldn’t be enough.

Q:   Were there any changes Nadia asked for that surprised you?

Not really. Nadia was a very chill editor. Her edits felt minimal to me, and they all made sense. I was only ever grateful to be getting an outside eye on everything so I always trusted her judgment. Nadia inherited me from her old boss, who had been the acquiring editor on the book but then left Penguin, so she suddenly had to deal with a bunch of new authors all at once and probably wasn’t sure what she was going to get with any of us.

Q: How did you feel about the book when it was in its final form?  

Now I feel great about the book! But when I first got the advances, it was like I still had PTSD from the writing process, so I could barely even look at it. Other people would read it and tell me it was great and I’d be like, “If you say so.” It took a few months after the book was out, and after I started receiving fan messages from readers on Facebook and praise from people in media, that I finally absorbed that I had really finished this monumental task and could actually relax and be happy about it now. I had coffee sometime that year with a former boss who’s an editor at Little, Brown, and when he asked me how it felt to be an author, I said it was a lot more awesome than I realized it was going to be.