In this first in a series of articles on Young Adult fiction, I interview YA fiction writer Anthony Ergo, whose debut novel, Dystopia, debuted at the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) in London last month. You can read my review of the novel here.
Dystopia is your first YA book but I recall that you mentioned you have also written children’s books. What made you move on to YA?
Well, I had the idea for a paranormal story (which became Dystopia) and after the first draft I felt that it wasn’t going to be appropriate for younger readers. For a start, some of the horror scenes are fairly intense! Also, I was interested in exploring themes which were more suited to the YA genre. My book has some complex and intertwining relationships between the main characters and YA allows for room to delve into these areas. Lastly, I’ve read a lot of YA and always wanted to venture into writing for teens and young adults at some point. For me, it wasn’t a case of writing a YA novel specifically, but rather writing a story which ended up becoming a YA novel.
Over the last couple of years, YA fiction has become immensely popular, not only with its target audience but also with adult readers. It’s a trend that seems to have started years ago with books like Harry Potter, which were technically children’s books, progressing to what we now define as YA. Why do you think is YA so popular with adult readers?
For me, YA novels seem to capture a sense of adventure and excitement that books written for adults don’t always seem to. A lot of YA is also written in the first person present tense, which I find particularly appealing in how it pulls you directly into the character’s experiences and emotions. I suppose for older readers of YA it’s an opportunity to become a teen again and revisit experiences such as discovering identity, experiencing first love, etc. There’s something about a teen protagonist, and how they handle the curve balls of life, that makes them all the more fascinating.
Although your novel is called Dystopia, it’s not strictly a classically dystopian novel, but rather a mystery/paranormal thriller set in a dystopian background. It’s a title which will undoubtedly get a reader’s attention. Why do you think the dystopian genre is so popular among young readers? (This was discussed in one of the panels at YALC but you were busy signing books and I was right at the back and couldn’t hear anything!)
My book is a modern day dystopian novel, unlike many others which are set in futuristic/post-apocalyptic societies. I wanted to take a different approach on the dystopian genre; I’ve depicted a broken society but it’s one where the vast majority of the population are not aware of the underlying paranormal threat. A recent reviewer described it as “The Matrix with ghosts”, which I quite liked! I’ve heard a lot of theories on why dystopia is so popular and I have to say I don’t buy into a lot of the psycho-analysis. A dystopian novel allows for escapism and creates an environment where the protagonists are in extreme and relentless danger; this is the appeal for me.
Tell us about the genesis of Dystopia: how did the idea come about? And did you decide that it would be part of a series right from the outset?
The idea started with an idea I had for my main character, Sasha Hunter. She has an extreme form of “triskaidekaphobia” (fear of the number thirteen) and believes that she’s cursed with bad luck. I had a lot of fun with her crippling superstitions and how they affect her choices. I’m also a big fan of the paranormal and horror genres – my English dissertation was on the classic gothic horror novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Once I started to develop the strange environment that Sasha finds herself in, I knew very quickly that I’d need more than one book to portray her journey.
Several reviewers commented on how ‘real’ Sasha, the book’s protagonist, is compared to other YA heroines (I’m looking at you, Katniss Everdeen). Sasha doesn’t see herself as particularly attractive, she suffers from asthma and really seems like a regular girl. I think a lot of female readers will appreciate that. How does a male author manage to create such a convincing female teenage character? Did you draw inspiration from a sibling, a cousin, or anyone else you’ve met in real life?
I’m so glad that people have connected with Sasha in that way. She is indeed vulnerable, afraid, flawed and at times weak, and all of these things hinder her progress. After reading a lot of books where the main character is depicted as strong, fearless, beautiful, etc. I really wanted to devise a character who is just a normal teen thrown into extremely abnormal surroundings. I had hoped that being a male writer would give Sasha a different feel to other lead female characters, and I’m overjoyed that people find her to be so real. I can’t really put a finger on how I achieved this, but I’m fortunate to have the help of my excellent female Editor Kathy Graham (who was particularly useful in guiding me through the romance scenes!)
What inspired you to become a writer? Who are your influences?
My inspiration would have to be my English Teacher from high school. He had an infectious passion and encouraged my reading and writing from an early age. I am also inspired by this incredible generation of young readers, many of whom I was lucky to meet at my book launch at the Young Adult Literature Convention in London. It’s great to be able to get direct feedback from readers via social media and review sites and it definitely inspired me to power through the first draft of the follow-up, Hysteria, in just six weeks.
At YALC, readers were able to purchase the book as part of a special ‘package’ which included a wristband, a signed bookmark and a CD by your band, “Signed in Crimson” with a ‘soundtrack’ to Dystopia. I thought that was a very interesting approach which made your book stand out. Do you think this kind of marketing is going to be the way forward for a writer to attract readers in an increasingly crowded market?
I’m in a lucky position to be able to create both music and literature, which are my two passions. I was working on the demo CD with my band (Signed In Crimson) at the same time as I was writing Dystopia, so the two went hand in hand. I wanted to try and create a special package for the book launch and that was when I had the idea to include the CD as a soundtrack. I was listening to the songs a lot during the creative process of my book and some of the lyrics and themes transferred over.
Finally, when can we expect Hysteria – the next instalment in the series?
The good news is that I have just finished the first draft of Hysteria. I’m incredibly excited to release the follow-up, which has allowed me to explore a new environment and a whole host of new characters. My Editor feels that it’s a huge leap forward from Dystopia so I can’t wait to share it with everyone. I’m planning to release it in October this year, with the third book, Porphyria, planned for early 2015.
Thank you for your time, Anthony. We are looking forward to October!