Strange Chemistry, the YA imprint for feisty publishing upstart Angry Robot Books, has a superb opening line-up. I’ve featured one of their authors already, but Gwenda Bond’s debut, Blackwood, has been on my radar ever since the cover artwork was released. Now, I know what you’re thinking – “How can he still be judging books by their covers?!” – but the premise of the novel sounds great, too. So, without further ado, and in advance of a review of the book (expect that soon), I got in touch with the author and asked her about the novel, future projects, her writing practices, and her inability to finish Lord of the Rings (which I don’t judge her for, because neither have I)…
I thought I’d start off this interview with something easy: Who is Gwenda Bond?
Easy? I’m plunged into existential crisis!
Okay, not really. I write YA fantasy, among other things (including a fair amount of nonfiction work for Publishers Weekly, Locus, and others). I’m a bit of a cultural magpie, a rabble-rouser with wide-ranging, idiosyncratic tastes. Oh, and I’m married to another writer, Christopher Rowe, and we live in Lexington, Kentucky, with three extremely unruly pets.
Your debut novel, Blackwood, is out in September through Strange Chemistry. How would you introduce the novel to a new reader?
Blackwood riffs on a piece of real history, of course – the Lost Colony of Roanoke – which was located in what was then-known as Virginia, but is now Roanoke Island, North Carolina. It takes that story and melds it with the modern day to present a supernatural solution to the centuries-old mystery. I hope readers will find Blackwood a fun mash-up of that historical mystery with a contemporary gothic thriller about two very modern teens. And I hope the relationship that develops between the smart, at-least-semi-nerdy 17-year-old main characters, Miranda and Phillips, is a convincing one.
What inspired you to write this particular story? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I’ve always found the Lost Colony story intriguing, as I think most people do. And on a long drive with my husband Christopher, I was suddenly struck with the idea of a story about a disappearance of the same number of people now as then, in the same place. I knew I wanted there to be a big, high stakes adventure going on, but also for the characters to be the kind of smart, geeky characters I didn’t usually see in stories with a high concept. I grew up in a very small town, as well, and that definitely informed the story I ended up telling in Blackwood.
My inspiration tends to come from all sorts of places, but especially from particularly interesting history or places or mythology. If there’s any commonality in my work, it’s that I often find myself infusing pieces of the past into the present, to see how they interact. Kind of like a chemistry experiment, actually. So it’s no wonder I’m at Strange Chemistry, is it? A perfect fit.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
At a party. I kid.
I actually came into the genre the long way around. I definitely read some quote-unquote “genre” stuff growing up – the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies collecting great thriller tales, or Edgar Allan Poe short stories, lots of comics via my older brother (X-Men forever – pre-Storm losing her powers, though, of course), and Stephen King and Clive Barker, etc. But it was really when I was in high school and discovered magical realism and literary fabulism – Eduardo Galeano, Borges, all those other Latin American short story writers whose strange and fantastic work was being collected, and people like Jeannette Winterson and Salman Rushdie – that I really fell in love. And then I started meeting people who were in the SF field and reading more and more widely within it, as well as without. Genre fiction has been a part of my life for so long now, I can’t imagine it not being so. I feel very lucky to be part of the community. Many of my closest friendships have come about because of it (not to mention my marriage). I also think it’s made me a much better reader.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Interesting – I probably have a little bit of a different feeling about this than some writers, just because I’ve also been writing for Publishers Weekly, covering all different sorts of categories, for some years now. So I actually do very much feel part of the industry, and what I’d say is – if you have to be part of an industry, pick publishing. Yes, there are obnoxious things, but overall I think we are very lucky. Book people are the best people, and the vast majority of people in publishing are here because they love books first.
I’m incredibly un-fussy about how I work. Probably the only true habit I have is that when I’m writing a first draft I really try to get up early and write an hour or two in the morning. I am definitely not an early riser by nature, so it’s something I had to force. But now I find it such a help. Three reasons I like it: 1) putting writing first really does flip a mental switch, 2) it’s easier to silence the nasty internal editor telling you how bad it all is before you’re truly awake, and 3) there’s something to be said for the mental boost you get having achieved something before your day even really and truly starts… and it also makes me more likely to write again later in the day. Other than that, I find that talking through story problems – the act of articulating them – to Christopher (or other writers at retreats, etc.) is often enough to find the solution.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I’m the cliché, “I knew since I was five” person. I seriously used to scrawl gibberish before I could write cursive and force my parents to look at it and tell me if I’d made a word by accident. I wanted to be able to write stories so badly. (And I have some excellently hilarious pieces of juvenilia to prove it! Sample title: “Life in the Year 2020.”)
I did take a detour when I was older in terms of what I wanted to write. In college I had a screenwriting class and really fell in love with the form. The professor (hi, Dr. Hillwig!) was a truly inspirational writing teacher, and a working writer himself. So, for several years after that, I wrote scripts (something I might like to do again at some point). But ultimately I had this wake-up moment when I realized that the story ideas I was having would be better as YA novels and also that books had always been my first love. That what I wanted was to write novels. So I started learning how to work in an entirely different form, and that took more years.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think there are remarkably interesting things going on in genre today. I’m excited by all the cross-pollination between “literary” (although, ugh, I don’t believe in these artificial designations) and “genre” work and authors, across the board – be it fantasy or mystery or romance. It feels much more open and like those borders are far more permeable these days – which results in more interesting work all round.
And YA genre fiction is absolutely thriving and such a remarkable, inventive, fun place to be. I hope – fingers crossed – there are YA readers out there looking for my brand of strange.
What projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
*Bounces in chair!* I’m very excited about my next book for Strange Chemistry, which will be out sometime the second half of 2013. I just turned in the draft. It’s a near-future urban fantasy set in Washington, D.C., about a 17-year-old girl named Kyra Locke who has to find a mysterious missing relic and save her father – all while navigating intrigue with dangerous deities – and it’ll be called The Woken Gods. These are not Percy Jackson’s dad and company, but gods that are more alien, and a big world to play around in, where the gods woke up ten years earlier and seven tricksters are the primary emissaries to humanity. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to work on after that yet, but I do have one secret project I’m hoping to revise soon and a couple of ideas about what might come next.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Hm. I don’t know! I have a Southern accent of sorts?
But that probably wouldn’t surprise anyone… Okay, I know this will earn me boo/hisses, but I have never made it through the whole The Lord of the Rings. Please, don’t stone me. (Although, I did try when I had the flu a few years ago, something that resulted in Christopher coming up with a brilliant Tom Bombadil rap. I got stuck at Goldberry, it’s true. I’m not proud, but there it is.)
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Having a book out and getting to talk about it with readers. It is really and truly a dream come true. I might have just teared up actually, typing out that answer.
But tears aside, thanks so much for the interview!