Jenn Sommersby has been so gracious to answer some questions for me concerning her wonderful novel Sleight: Book One of the AVRA-K, her writing process, and some information about what we can expect from the rest of the series. So, without further ado, I give you Jenn Sommersby:
Thanks, Shana. I love you for saying such nice things about my book. In 2007 I’d written a short story for a workshop through the Writers Studio. My fellow workshoppers read a very different piece than what Sleight is today, and the overwhelming feedback was that my main character (then named Frankie) was “too old for her age,” which made sense. Frankie was only 13 in that story. I sort of abandoned it for a while, a long while, until I was having a convo with a young magician friend of mine. He was at the house doing a birthday party for my son, and during a break, we got to talking about the history of magic, how it used to be a healing art and not a hocus-pocus thing. Then the wheels in my head started to grind, and I threw myself into researching magic and witchcraft dating back to the earliest days of recorded history. Once I discovered the word avrakedavra was actually an ancient healing spell, the story began to fall into place. And I had a vehicle for Frankie, who eventually morphed into 17-year-old Gemma.
In terms of tangible inspiration, if there is such a thing, it was my daughter’s best friend. I had been farting around writing stuff I’d lose interest in and not finish, until my daughter’s best friend Alysha finished her first novel two weeks before her fifteenth birthday. I’d spent so much time studying about writing, and practicing and talking about writing without actually producing anything I could show people (other than the nonfiction stuff I’d done), I knew it was time to sh*t or get off the pot. So I did.
I was trying to find a venue that hadn’t been done in YA, at least not recently or that I was aware of, something that was enough different from what was out there as to make it saleable. The circus is one of those things that is rather romantic in theory, because few of us ever see the behind-the-scenes—the difficult living conditions, the back-breaking working environment, the stress of continuous performances. And smaller traveling circuses have all but gone the way of the dodo. It’s an important part of history that sadly, for the most part, has not survived the inflexible economic realities of the last twenty-five years or so. The circus is all about the business of show, of making people smile and forget their lives for an hour or two. Look at the crazy success of Cirque du Soleil, and it is an organization that, although it has fixed venues, also travels about.
As the short story seed for Sleight was written in ’07, it was before I’d heard of the HBO miniseries Carnivale; I only heard about Water for Elephants after my short story was done. There. In one sentence, I’ve quieted the naysayers who say I was looking to capitalize on WFE success. So…short question, long answer. I just liked the circus. Who hasn’t dreamed about running away with one?
Well, you are very generous to call it awesome in the first place. Hmmm…what I’d want people to take away… I want them to feel like they’ve made some new friends in my characters. I want them to feel connected to Gemma and Henry, and even Ash, so that they find themselves wanting to know more about what is to come for these poor souls. I want readers to feel as though they haven’t wasted their time but instead have just witnessed a grand adventure that is still unfolding. Oh—and because it needs to be said—I did not copy JK Rowling with the word avrakedavra. I haven’t read Harry Potter especially for that reason; I did not want to be accused of lifting anything from her stories. It’s important for readers to understand that Sleight and the AVRA-K series deal with magic from its historical roots of healing and ritual practice, and not from the magic wand/poof-it’s-a-bunny evolution. The word avrakedavra is very, very old (dates back to Mesopotamia, and is either Aramaic or Hebrew, depending on your source), and was used as a healing spell. Even Rowling addressed this in an interview, that she came across the word avrakedavra and modified it to suit her needs (the avada kedavra death curse)—it is precisely the opposite meaning of its original incarnation.
The writing process…it’s a love/hate thing, like anything else that’s worth doing. Sometimes it rocks and makes me feel euphoric, high as a kite; other times, I rot in a vat of despair and wonder if the new WalMart near my house is still hiring. I have concentration issues, so I need NO INTERNET and total quiet when I’m writing, although soundtracks and certain playlists I’ve put together can really move me along, as well—plus I end up making copious notes about research points for when I do get back to the ’puter. I do my best work in the car. Alone. At night, away from my house and my kids (one of them refuses to go to bed at a decent hour and another still gets up 32 times a night), parked in the lot at my favorite coffee shop. Oh, and with a pen and paper. I don’t take my laptop because I don’t want to get robbed, plus writing the first draft by hand means the second draft happens when I transfer paper to screen. THAT makes me giddy as I see the changes happening. Also, when I’m away from the house writing, I have to stay awake, or else a cop will knock on my window with his flashlight and scare me so bad, I might pee, or a bad guy will try to break into my car, or at the very least, bug me for spare change. The constant need to be vigilant about my surroundings helps keep me awake. Also helps that I’m remarkably paranoid…
Never saw myself writing YA. It sort of just happened. I tend to write very dark fiction—along the lines of Chuck Palahniuk and even some of Flannery O’Connor’s work. I don’t like happy endings, and I don’t like it when everyone gets what they want. For a while, my work was based on my need to shock people. Plus, a lot of my characters were too much like me, which was super boring. After a while, dwelling in this endless sea of unhappiness can get very depressing and tiresome. I needed something different, something fresh to focus on. When the discussion about the ancient history of magic happened, it was like breathing in after a long time under water. It was exactly what I needed to get excited about writing again.
Write a good story. Do your best work. Don’t rush it—this is not a race. And when you think it’s done, rewrite it again. Save your pennies and hire an editor. Please. Find someone to do a line edit, someone who can give you feedback on what is and isn’t working, both in terms of detail and on a more global, big-picture scale. And by all means, get a decent proofreader to look it over before hitting “publish.” That is one thing self-pub/indies just cannot get past—the errors. If you think readers don’t care, that your story will be so amazing that throngs of readers will look beyond your silly typos, you’re dead wrong. Just recently, I saw a comment on the Kindle Facebook page written by a reader who said she didn’t like buying the self-published books because they were usually crappy and filled with errors. Do you want that to be YOUR book? I didn’t think so.
Lastly, make friends with the book bloggers. They’re the lifeline between the writers and readers. If you are good to them—sincere and not nice only for the time that they are available to service you—they will be good to you in return. Like Shana! I’ve made some fantastic friends through the blogging world.
I actually included a playlist at the end of Sleight. It includes some of my favorites—Imogen Heap, Mumford & Sons, Metric, Regina Spektor, Muse—but I’m big into classical music and, of course, movie soundtracks. Hans Zimmer, John Debney, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard… I’m sort of lame when it comes to discovering music, so I rely heavily on my music-head husband and friends to send me new bands and good movie scores. I’m building the playlist right now for Stratagem and am hoping to get some new music from little-known artists on it. The music just has to speak to me, and to the scene. It has to relate somehow to the vibe I’m trying to create—that’s why soundtracks are so amazing. I am in awe of composers and musicians. In awe. Talk about talent…
I am always reading a whack of books. I have Delirium on the go, as well as The Maze Runner. I get a few pages through The Bourne Identity now and again, simply because the action scenes are really well done. When I want to giggle, I read Janet Evanovich; when I want romance, I read Marian Keyes; when I want excellent fantasy, I read Terry Brooks; when I want killer thriller/crime drama, I read Mark Billingham. I’m a huge fan of the young Hannah Moskowitz (Break, Invincible Summer)—she writes WAY beyond her years and experience. A few favorites lately include Trevor Shane’s Children of Paranoia (a thriller) and Blake Crouch’s Run, if you’re into horror. Oh, and people have to read The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson. Phenomenal book. I’m a genre hopper, i.e., I read a ton of different things. I don’t read exclusively from YA (although I’ve read most of the heavy hitters) because it gets tedious, and I crave a different set of words when I’m reading for leisure. I’m a huge Chuck Palahniuk fan. I have a non-YA WIP I’ve been kicking words into over the last few years, very much inspired by Palahniuk’s work. Dark, not for the weak at heart. It’s delicious. (Remember: I love villains.)
How could I not like ereaders, given that I published for Kindle? I was very resistant to them at first, writing smug Facebook and blog posts about how dumb they were and how an electronic screen will never feel as good in my hands as a book and how my paper book will never run out of batteries (which is still totally true). And yet, I have joined the dark side. I have a Kobo and a Kindle, both gifts from loving family members (Sleight is loaded onto both). There is something fantastic about finding a book you want and clicking “buy now.” When it is wirelessly downloaded onto your device and you are cozied up with your blankie, a cup of coffee, and your favorite cat, reading within mere minutes, it is strangely seductive. There has been a lot of buzz about how ereaders will end print books (or as some call, “dead tree books”), but I still go to the bookstore on date night. I still spend hours fondling spines and reading blurbs. And almost always, I walk out having paid my $22.95+ (books in Canada are expensive!), just so I can have the feel of a hardback book in my hands.
Carnage. Lots and lots of carnage. Stratagem is a lot busier than Sleight. The action has been ramped up as Gemma is on the run across foreign territory. I was worried at first that people would find the amount of travel unbelievable, but after watching shows like The Amazing Race, anything is possible. When I was a kid, Around the World in Eighty Days was one of my favorite stories—if Phileas Fogg can do it without the help of private jets, then Gemma can hit four countries in five days, no sweat.
Stratagem doesn’t have the set-up that Sleight did, for obvious reasons. We know the main players now; we know their individual challenges and dirty secrets. But there are more secrets to be revealed, and more malfeasance. And then there’s always the issue of what Lucian will do to make things more interesting—well, he and his minions. Oh, how I love that man…
There is more magic, which is actually more witchcraft-like than anything, and more sleight-of-being (when someone isn’t necessarily who you think they are). As much as I tried to keep the essence of Sleight as firmly planted in reality as possible (beyond the obvious fantastical elements), Stratagem relies more heavily on fantasy than Sleight does. But it’s all groundwork for the third book, which will lean more toward a dystopian atmosphere. Maybe…it all depends on Lucian and what he decides to do in the next little while. He’s in charge. I’m just his lowly secretary.
Thank you SO much Jenn!! I absolutely LOVE Sleight and CANNOT wait for Stratagem–it sounds so wonderful!
This Giveaway is now CLOSED.