It was a horrible start to the day, ameliorated somewhat by a cheeky Brit up front who called out loudly for some “common courtesy” and then called the driver a “twatter.” I’m pretty sure everyone on the bus appreciated it.
The drive up was largely uneventful, except that I had completely forgotten how quickly I can read when I’m not constantly being interrupted. It’s a good thing I came prepared, book-wise. Everything else…eh, not so much. This was my first time in NYC and it was hot. And loud. And crowded and dirty and most of all, draining. It was also fun and exciting in a frenetic way. Granted, I only saw a tiny part of it, and what I saw was most likely the touristy-est part. But still…I think I could have been more prepared.
Here is what I wish I had brought to New York with me:
- Personal shower
- Change of clothes
- Make up
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Cattle prod
Here is what I actually brought to New York with me:
- Seven books
Their meeting room was quite tiny, however, so Heidi and I ended up standing behind the measly 15-20 seats they provided. (Yes, in answer to your unspoken question – we were there an hour and a half early and still somehow managed to not get a seat. I blame the heat exhaustion.) The event itself was amazing. It was clear from the beginning that these three women are all fans of each other’s work and friends as well. Instead of each giving a talk/reading, they decided to interview each other.
Kristin Cashore started things off by bringing up the interesting fact that all three of them wrote companion novels and not necessarily sequels. Even more interesting is that all three of them wrote the first novel in their respective series intending it to be a standalone. This actually happened twice for Melina Marchetta, both with Saving Francesca and Finnikin of the Rock. Melina said, “I didn’t like Froi; I used him as a tool.” It wasn’t until later that she realized he had a story of his own. However, Quintana of Charyn was always intended as a sequel. As Melina put it, she realized that there was a problem when she was five hundred pages into the book and the pregnancy (no spoilers!) was only five months along. She contacted her publisher, feeling very stressed but as soon as her publisher heard the word “trilogy” all was well.
They then spoke about some of the decisions they made in their first books that impacted their second books in frustrating ways. For example, Kristin Cashore mentioned that in Graceling, she wanted to slow down the pacing a bit and so decided to add in the impenetrable forest and impassable mountain. However, when she was writing Bitterblue, she wanted the pacing to move more quickly but found it difficult because of the forest/mountain sitting there, in the way. Melina Marchetta brought up that in Saving Francesca there’s a part where Tom and Justine are said to have similar musical taste and both enjoy musicals. However, in The Piper’s Son, there’s a scene where Tom thinks “it can’t get worse” than Jesus Christ Superstar. Melina Marchetta laughed, saying that she was all prepared to explain that inconsistency by saying that Tom had grown out of his love for musicals over the years, but that the question has never come up! She also said that she never expected Froi to lead the companion novel for Finnikin of the Rock, based on his actions in that book, but also because he has a “dumb name.” Then Gayle Forman piped in, saying that if there were one thing she could change about Where She Went, it would be Adam’s band name! (Ha!) Kristin Cashore then mentioned that “Po” actually means “butt” in German so the name had to be changed in the translation. And apparently Katsa is somewhat similar to a word for the male anatomy in Italian.
Melina Marchetta said that she doesn’t often read reviews and that she’s come across some good ones and some bad ones. She said that she tries to keep in mind that she’s “not the audience of the review” and that mostly, she stays away. Gayle Forman then interjected, saying, “the opposite of love is indifference, right?” She said that a lot of readers got upset about Adam’s swearing in Where She Went, but for her, his swearing didn't feel like a big deal. She said that swearing doesn’t connect to morality. They all agreed that they write for themselves as readers and for readers like themselves. Not everyone will like their work, but that’s okay.
Gayle Forman led the next question, saying that in her opinion both Kristin Cashore and Melina Marchetta write some of the “most delicious sexual tension.” Melina Marchetta, using the example of Taylor and Jonah (from Jellicoe Road), said that for her it’s about letting the insecurities and damaged places come through. She said it’s about “the belief that they [the characters] are the only two people who could put each other back together again.” Kristin Cashore then expanded on that, saying that for her it’s also about equality in power – “the only two people who could take each other on” – an even match. They both agreed that what you don’t say is often more evocative than what you do say. Gayle Forman said that she also loves that in both Melina Marchetta’s and Kristin Cashore’s novels, the love interests often start out as adversaries which creates immediate tension between them.
Then they were each urged (by each other) to read scenes laden with sexual tension, which I thought was hilarious. Gayle Forman wasn’t going to read, but after Kristin Cashore went, they convinced her to. Here are the videos:
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They moved on and spoke a bit about point of view. Melina Marchetta said that Quintana of Charyn will have multiple points of view, just like Froi of the Exiles, but they will all be introduced at the beginning so that the reader knows what she’s getting into. Kristin Cashore suggested that sometimes simple boredom might be an issue with point of view – it’s more interesting to change perspective when she’s writing.
Gayle Forman gushed a little bit and said that Melina Marchetta is her favorite contemporary YA author and then went on to express some anxiety about how difficult it must have been for her to switch over to fantasy – to which Melina Marchetta replied, “It’s not that dramatic.” Apparently, Kristin Cashore is also switching gears and writing a contemporary novel next. I didn’t know this, but her first and third novels (unpublished) are also contemporaries. She said that for her, it's the character who leads her to contemporary vs. fantasy. Katsa appeared to her with powers, so she wrote a fantasy.
Melina Marchetta spoke about what motivated her to write a fantasy, telling a “New York story” about a two month period where she had switched homes with “Justine and Scott” (ie, Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld) and stayed in NYC. She was riding the train and saw a poster showing a camp in Africa. Then she noticed that everyone in the carriage was speaking a different language and she thought about how “so many people are not in their home lands.” She said that she feels very strongly about refugees and people who lose their homes, and she feared that a contemporary novel would feel too political. She sent an email that day, asking her editor to “talk her out of it.” But when she asked if her editor thought she could possibly write it as a fantasy, her editor replied, “of course you can.”
Some highlights from the audience Q&A (abbreviated):
How do you create characters that are abrasive and difficult to like and then make us like them so much it hurts?
Gayle Forman said that it was quite easy to write Adam, because he's so much like herself. Kristin Cashore said that difficult characters are the most fun to write, and if you (the writer) are having fun, then the reader will enjoy it. Melina laughed and said that she gets a bit sad when people say they "hate Georgie" because that's the character she thinks is the most like herself. Melina Marchetta went on to say that it was important to her that Tom Mackee was genuinely unlikable at the beginning, but that she slipped in little hints, like "a promise to the reader" that he was a decent guy. For example, in the email exchanges between Tom and his sister, his address is "annabelle'sbrother" which is a cue that he's not all bad. Kristin Cashore then piped in to say that she gave Death a cat in Bitterblue with much the same intent.
What was the most helpful advice you've received from your editor?
Kristin Cashore: after handing in her 800 page draft that took three years to write, her editor said "would you consider starting from scratch?"
Gayle Forman: couldn't think of a simple piece of advice but said that her editor often "gives her the key to unlock the book."
Melina Marchetta: "The word 'said' is a good word. Use it." And, "don't be a thesaurus; use a thesaurus."
Melina Marchetta: doesn't let any of her books go to print unless she's 100% happy with what's inside. If she's 100% happy, then anything negative a reviewer might have to say won't affect her. Also gave this sage advice: "stop reading the review after the words, 'I really wanted to like this book but...'"
Kristin Cashore: doesn't like when reviewers try to speculate about what she was trying to do with the book, or about who she is as a person.
Melina Marchetta: the characters are just there, in her mind. She begins by listening to her characters and waiting to see who they bring along with them. She waits for them to come to her and she spends a lot of time listening to their dialogue before she commits anything to paper.
Kristin Cashore: is somewhat the same. She listens to her characters' dialogue and waits for them to reveal themselves.
Gayle Forman: her characters often surprise her and she doesn't always know where they're going to go. Sometimes as she's writing, a scene will come out completely different than she initially pictured it. Her characters sometimes seem to have a mind of their own.
Melina Marchetta then spoke a bit about Quintana's dual nature in Froi of the Exiles. She was confused because Quintana would sound one way in one scene, and then another way a few scenes later. She couldn't figure it out until Quintana finally revealed her secret - it was a big surprise.
On world-building in fantasy:
Kristin Cashore said that with Graceling, she let the world develop more as she wrote it and didn't really pre-plan it out. She said that she regrets that now and she thinks that planning it out before-hand works the best for her. Melina Marchetta said that she does a bit of both - planning and just going with the flow. She uses a lot of her real-world travel destinations as inspiration for her fantasy worlds. They both agreed that making up swear words or using the more "quaint" swear words is really fun. I think Melina Marchetta said "swiving" about five times during that conversation, haha.
Where's Jimmy Hailer? (this from an audience member who called Melina Marchetta "her goddess")
Melina Marchetta: "three words: I don't know." She went on to say that Jimmy was based on a student of hers who was very angry at the time, but has since gone on to become very happy in his life. She said that she feels content to leave him there, to let him be happy. She also thought that Jimmy's absence in The Piper's Son would speak more loudly than his presence.
And look, more awesome people!