Monday, May 26, 2008

Interview with Clare B. Dunkle!!!!

Today I am very pleased to bring you an interview with Clare Dunkle, author of The Sky Inside. While The Sky Inside is not the author’s first book—she has written the successful Hollow Kingdom trilogy, for example—it is in some ways a departure from her previous works. (The author’s previous works are The Hollow Kingdom, Close Kin, In The Coils of the Snake, (those three comprising the trilogy) and By These Ten Bones.) (You can read my review of The Sky Inside here.)

What inspired you to write The Sky Inside? Were you nervous or excited (or a little bit of both) about writing a science fiction novel—or dystopian novel—as opposed to continuing on writing fantasy?

I was ready to write something different. I had recently been to a conference with Neil Gaiman, and he had mentioned friends of his who are afraid to write outside their genre, who said, "Oh, my editor would kill me if I did that," or made other comments of that sort. And he said, "Who's doing the writing here? Whose career is this?" In effect, he said, "Grow a spine!"

And I thought, Neil's exactly right. If I'm going to be writing books for years, I can't start limiting myself to certain genres or styles. I'll feel stifled and bored. I've got to try new things, even if they seem like a little bit of a stretch.

I was nervous about it, sure, not just because The Sky Inside is SF but because it has my first boy protagonist. But I trusted my new editor's judgment, and she loved the book. She's never read my trilogy, so I knew she wasn't distracted by what I'd already accomplished. She's been focused throughout this process on what I'm accomplishing right now.

What came first, the premise or the characters? Personally, I feel that while the premise is strong—very strong—your novel does remain character driven. How important was it for you to have resonating characters that readers care about?

When I start a novel, I have a question I want to answer, not an answer I want to frame in a story. My novels start from "I wonder what would happen," not from "Here's what I want to show the world." If I already knew the answer to the question I had at the start, I wouldn't feel the need to write the book. So the premise, while important, doesn't interfere with where the characters want to take me.

The premise of The Sky Inside came from my mulling over Armageddon stories. So many SF books are about the end of the world. I thought, instead of that kind of a future, what if the future saw us having conquered our major problems of overpopulation, pollution, and aggression toward our neighbors? How would we have gotten there, and what would be the price? That's where Martin's suburb came from. We think of it as a dystopia because, let's face it, every society is a dystopia, but it's a world that works very well for a majority of the population—probably better than our society does today. Maybe we get bored at the thought of such a life, but a lot of our peers would describe it as the American dream.

It's very important to me to have strong, interesting characters because I have to spend so much time with them. I have a short attention span, and I can't imagine how boring it would be to try to work with characters who don't have a life of their own. Even though I have some dim idea of how I think a book will go before I start writing, my characters drive what actually happens. That's because, until I watch the characters living life minute by minute, I don't know much about them or their world. They often surprise me, and these surprises show up as plot twists in the books.

For instance, I had no idea that Martin would be attracted to William and be very touchy and super-sensitive about their differences as a result. That happened when he walked into the room with her. I had nothing to do with it. (William still isn't sure what to make of him. He's complicated her worldview.)

But the strangest example of the characters driving this story is the fact that I wanted The Sky Inside to be much more light-hearted, a boy and his dog having adventures in their neighborhood. I was even more taken aback than Martin was at the horrible reaction the Wonder Babies elicited. I thought the little children might be annoying, but I had no idea they'd be treated like pariahs. That wound up deeply affecting the entire plot. You'll notice that genetic engineering and the creation of children as consumer products is a long step away from my original premise. The answer to my original question evolved considerably.

I’ve often wondered when I was reading, and I don’t know if this will come out the right way or not. But in the writing process do prologues come first or last or whenever the inspiration strikes? Is it the first thing you write or the last? I’m always curious if writers—and I know you can only speak for yourself—write their books in order from first to last or if they have an outline and they write portions here and there. I ask this because your prologue seems so right. It has just enough spookiness or eeriness to unnerve the reader and serve as such a stark contrast to the opening chapters.

Sometimes prologues come last (or get rewritten multiple times), but when I wrote The Sky Inside, this prologue came first. I was very interested in the role the television played in this novel, and I wanted to get a feel for how it connected or disconnected the major characters, what it revealed and what it hid.

Besides, when I start a novel, I have to hook myself even before I hook the reader. If I don't get spooked out and fascinated by the world in the first couple of pages, I'll just drop the project and go write something else: survival of the fittest plot!

I always write my novels from start to finish. That's because the characters have to be allowed to do their own exploring as the novel progresses. It isn't about where I think I want to go, it's about what the characters want to get out of this process and how I can help them. They're the ones who have to live it, after all.

Do you have a favorite scene or a favorite quote from the novel? What is your favorite bit that you’re extra-proud to have written?

I debated several times whether I should leave in Cassie's review of Peter Pan, where she says, "Tinkerbell thought she could keep her job if enough little children believed in advertising." Let's face it, I wrote that to make myself laugh, and it works like a charm every time. But I doubted whether I should be so indulgent of my own tastes in a novel. If my editor had protested, I would have removed it.

I'm proudest of my writing in Martin's scene in the suburb park after the vote on the product recall, the scene where he hides out at the top of the slide and he's missing his sister so much. That whole scene is pure Martin. He and I were really in sync that day. And I loved the Jell-O dream he had. It made us both feel better.

I'm also proud that I noticed what Martin noticed in the ruined suburb, that it wasn't the look but the spacing and rhythm of things that made it familiar: sidewalk, driveway, sidewalk, driveway; or garage, kitchen, dining room, living room. I had never noticed this before, but once Martin noticed it, it made perfect sense. It's walking around in a space, the length of time from A to B, that sinks into our bones. That must be why some archaeological sites are never understood: we've lost the rhythm of life in and around them, so we can't figure out what they're for.

What was your first impression of the cover art for The Sky Inside?

I loved it from Day One. I had been very nervous about it because science fiction covers can be downright cheesy, and I really didn't want Martin to have a cheesy cover. I loved the use of the photographs, so that Martin could be a real boy and Chip a real dog.

Your website lists several of your work-in-progress novels. I must admit I grew quite excited to read that there would be a sequel to The Sky Inside. I know it’s still early, but can you tell us a bit more about that. And I was very very intrigued to see that you’re working on a prequel for Wuthering Heights! Can you share any little tidbits—tease us a bit with what’s in store for readers—I must say I’d be eager to read both of those!

When I sent off the manuscript for The Sky Inside, I had no idea that there would be a sequel, but there were so many things I didn't know about the world that a sequel made sense. I like to leave questions in a novel so that readers like me have "jumping off" places to explore it in their minds, and Sky has lots and lots of those. For instance, why did Martin get Chip in the first place, and what will happen when Chip's real purpose and proper owners come forward? You may remember from my website that Chip's direct inspiration is Ribsy in the Beverly Cleary "Henry & Ribsy" books, and Henry has to face the fact that he's taken in a lost dog and that Ribsy already has an owner.

In the sequel, The Walls Have Eyes, Martin winds up bringing both his parents out into the wilderness, and we learn why adventures of this sort are best left to orphans. Martin also has to come to terms with his fears of the past and his feelings of inferiority around the prototypes. The Sky Inside challenged him with a lot of new information, and in The Walls Have Eyes, we see him struggling with that information, whether he'll use it to make excuses or use it to grow as a person.

The Wuthering Heights prequel draft is done, and I think it horrified my editor when she got it—something like sending a rabid Chihuahua through the mail. It's based on a lifetime of mulling over that book; you might say its my own literary criticism of Emily Bronte's novel, but written in the form of another novel.

My take on Heathcliff is that he has no place in Wuthering Heights. He doesn't want to be there, nobody else wants him there, and aside from causing misery to everyone (including himself), he is largely powerless. Think about how the novel progresses: we're pretty sure Edgar would have married Cathy whether Heathcliff had come along or not, that she likely would have died having their first child, and that Cathy II and Hareton would have wound up engaged in order to unite the family fortunes. Heathcliff can't endure these turns of events, but they take place in spite of everything he does to prevent them. By the time Lockwood comes back to visit his landlord, Heathcliff has vanished from the book, leaving scarcely a trace.

For all Heathcliff's brilliance and ruthlessness, he can't change one bit of the plot. Clearly, then, he's a character who belongs in another story, a story where the ghostly and demonic forces that surround him make sense and where he can be who he really wants to be. I give the little boy Heathcliff that story in my prequel. And, just as an act of misplaced kindness at the beginning of Wuthering Heights delivers this imp into Emily Bronte's story, a similar act of misplaced kindness at the end of my book removes Heathcliff from his proper milieu and sets him on the path to Wuthering Heights.

Apparently, where Heathcliff is concerned, kindness doesn't pay. He never asks for it, and he certainly doesn't understand it.

Growing up, whose work did you admire most? Was there a particular author that made you say, “I want to grow up and do that!”?

Well, it's crazy, but I never wanted to be a novelist, so no one's work made me say, "I want to do that." I wouldn't have written a single book if my husband hadn't asked me to write one in 2001, just as a personal favor. It had never occurred to me to write.

That aside, though, I loved Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series and Ursula Le Guin's science fiction and fantasy and admired them both tremendously when I was growing up. I lived in Middle Earth for an entire year and memorized all of the poetry from Tolkien's four books, a great exercise in vocabulary building that I recommend to anyone. I loved Harlan Ellison's stories when I was in high school and read as many collections of SF short stories as I could get my hands on. I read Bram Stoker's Dracula over and over in middle school, and Stephen King's Night Shift, too.

What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest? What does a day in the life of a writer look like?

I write in hour-long blocks, with breaks in between, sometimes three, sometimes five, depending on what else is going on. It's taken years to convince my family to leave me alone while I'm writing, and I still take phone calls from my adult daughters in the middle of writing blocks. The ol' "Mom" role dies hard.

Every book is different, and every day is different. Sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get anything done, but that doesn't hinge on any one type of problem, it's just the unpredictability of the creative process. By and large, though, I enjoy the evolution of the book as it goes through drafts and revisions. I see the growth and celebrate that. And I love working with my editors. There's no ego on either side. It's all about getting to the best book.

Before becoming a writer—a published author—you were a librarian. What do you love (or what did you love) about being a librarian? Did you find the transition from librarian to author an easy one? Did you find that your passions crossed over between the two?

I loved loved *loved* being a librarian. How I came to be a librarian is kind of funny, in fact. I was a graduate student at Indiana University, and I would walk through the library school twice a day on my way to class. I said to myself, "These people look happy and well adjusted. I want to do whatever it is they do." And that's how I wound up switching degree paths and becoming a librarian.

The thing about librarians is that we're collaborative, not competitive. We're part of a team—even a movement. I loved the feeling of working as a team, of being part of a fine group of people. I miss that most of all. It has crossed over to my writing: I firmly believe that my editor and I are a team and that we craft the book together. But when it comes to facing the public, an author has to do that alone, and that can be very hard and lonely.

The Sky Inside is dystopian fiction at its best (in my opinion). Dystopian novels have always been a favorite sub-genre of mine. I’m wondering if you have a list of favorites to recommend. Which dystopian novels make your best list? What novels do you consider to be must-reads?

The novels that most influenced The Sky Inside are Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books (not classic dystopian literature, I know, but Adams' galaxy is very grim in spite of his humor). I've read many dystopian short stories, but none of the major dystopian novels—no 1984, no Brave New World, no Giver. You'll laugh at the reason why: with my overactive imagination, I find that such books traumatize me, and so I hesitate to read the really painful ones. They can send me into a kind of despair for days.

But We was like a lightning bolt when I read it. A dystopian novel gains power when you realize that the author had to flee his homeland to escape a dystopia himself. And I would put other Soviet works onto a best list (for instance, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or The Cancer Ward, or the short stories of Isaac Babel), precisely because they describe a dystopia in action, even though we don't think of them as dystopian novels.

Now going from specific to more general, what are some of your favorite books and favorite authors—past or present, any genre?

My favorite fantasy will probably always be Pope's The Perilous Gard. And if I'm depressed or sick, there's nothing better than P.G. Wodehouse's Mulliner stories. On the other hand, if I'm feeling entirely too hopeful and happy, nothing creeps me out quicker than Robert Aickman's short stories, which I own in a beautiful compilation from Tartarus Press. That two-volume set holds every kind of weirdness there is, and it's a great spur to my imagination.

But most of what I read is nonfiction, and right now I'm devouring all the books by Oliver Sacks. Dr. Sacks is a deeply compassionate writer, and his stories of neurological disorder celebrate the dignity and humanity of his patients in the face of almost unimaginable trials. The more I read of them, the more I marvel. Of course, it's a little frightening to learn just how badly our brain can go wrong.

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

v104n18cvr.jpgMy nobler nature whispers that I should do something grand, such as watch Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa, but the bald truth is that I'd probably use this opportunity to make a few judicious stock purchases. Apple, Disney right before The Little Mermaid, Microsoft, Pixar, Starbucks ... well, you get the idea!

Thanks so much for your time, Clare! I really appreciate it. Now my faithful readers, find yourself a copy of The Sky Inside, newly starred in Booklist, by the way, and read, read, read!

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Nan Hoekstra said...

Thanks Becky and Clare! I added the interview to my post on Anokaberry for The Sky Inside.

Jen Robinson said...

Interesting stuff, Becky! I couldn't read it all, because I don't want to know too much about the book before I read it (and this is one that I definitely want to read), but I'll definitely come back to it later.

Cath said...

I read The Hollow Kingdom and Close Kin a couple of months ago and can't recommend them highly enough. They were wonderful. Thanks for this excellent interview.

Saints and Spinners said...

I'm so glad to see this interview. I've lost touch with Clare Dunkle, but I kept wondering about what she was writing next. I'm eager to read The Sky Inside.