I am always humbled by the connections that I get to make with incredible new authors and emerging artists through this platform. Once in a rare while, I also get to connect with authors who I have admired for a long time. This week, I am super excited – and still kind of in disbelief? – that I get to share an interview that I had the pleasure of conducting with the iconic Charlie Jane Anders.
If Charlie Jane Anders is a new name for any of you reading this, buckle in, because you are in for a wild ride. I was excited to get to chat with Charlie Jane about her upcoming YA debut, the first book in a trilogy, Victories Greater Than Death, which comes out TOMORROW with Tor Teen! You still have a little while to pre-order! Run! (And don’t stop running.) This book is (if I’m counting right), Charlie Jane’s ninth novel-length work, but she is prolific and has won an awe-inspiring number of awards for her longer works, but also her short fiction: the Emperor Norton Award, a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, a William H. Crawford Award, a Theodore Sturgeon Award, a Locus Award, and a Lambda Literary Award. Nbd. (Except, VERYbd).
I had the pleasure of reading an early copy of Victories, which was great, because I full-blown squealed when I heard that Charlie Jane was working on a YA project. Although I do love speculative work, for whatever reason I am a reader that struggles with worldbuilding – so, often, YA speculative is much easier for me to wrap my mind around. That said, though, I’m not an Epic Fantasy person… so sometimes, YA speculative that appeals to my interests can be a challenge to find. I was lucky, because (unsurprisingly to me at least) Victories delivered on everything that I wanted it to.
Like I told Charlie Jane before I interviewed her, I’m not usually an intergalactic-war person, but the characters and the voice of this novel were irresistible. Everything about this story is just fun. As an anxious and autistic person, the protagonist’s best friend, a character called Rachael, was highly relatable. Her needs were represented in ways that were charming and challenging and often not well-executed in fiction, and for me, it was a joy to follow her through this story. Still, the real beauty of this book for me was the absolutely bonkers diversity of the characters. The pub copy comps the book to Dr. Who meets Star Wars, and I grew up watching so much monster of the week TV that the levity of the worldbuilding really struck a chord with me as a reader, even though I’m not a science fiction buff. Suffice to say, I would recommend this book up and down to a wide variety of readers, and I’m thrilled that Charlie Jane agreed to chat with me about it in this space. Without further ado…
You are becoming – if you’re not there already – a prolific author, and most of your work has speculative elements. This book is a bit of a departure, though, in that it is your first book intended explicitly for young readers. I have two questions about this. First, what came first – the story, or the intention to write for young readers?
I started thinking about writing a young adult book in spring 2016, around the time I quit my day job to write full time. I had been noticing for a while that YA fiction was getting more action-adventure-oriented, like there were more books being published like Warcross or Want or Illuminae. YA seemed to be taking a turn towards being a place where you could do something super fun and exhilarating. So I started to think about what I would like to do in a YA, and immediately started to remember all those times when I was a teenager, when I just wished a spaceship would swoop down out of the sky and come take me away from this planet. That led to imagining the story of a girl who’s actually the clone of an alien hero, and her efforts to reclaim her heritage and seize her destiny.
Second, did you find it difficult to adapt your writing style to the voicey, confessional tone that is so characteristic of YA works right now (because I felt like you nailed it)?
In terms of the tone, that took a TON of work. I sat down with a huge pile of my fav YA books and paged through them, getting a sense of which were first person and which were third person, and how they worked on a sentence level. It took a ton of trial and error to get Tina’s voice right, and I had to keep coming back to the idea of her being snarky and funny, but not ironic or wry or self-mocking the way adults usually are. And once I handed in a complete draft, I worked a lot with my editor, Miriam Weinberg, to tighten the book and speed up the pace and boost the emotion in a lot of crucial places.
There is such a wide range of characters in this book, and it has a huge cast. Humans, clones, aliens, teens, and adults, all with very distinct aesthetics, cultures, bodies, identities, etc. Do you have an absolute favourite, or one who you relate to the most? What was the most enjoyable part about creating such a rich and diverse cast?
I had so much fun creating all of these different aliens and creatures. It was a total dream come true, and I spent hours and hours cooking up complicated histories and backstories for the different alien worlds and societies, as well as the galaxy as a whole. And then I also spent hours and hours doing research and talking to people for my human supporting cast, since they come from all over the world. I definitely had different characters on different days, but overall my favorite character probably ended up being Rachael — I love how she just wants to hide away and draw when she’s on an alien ship in the middle of a space battle.
One of the norms in this book is that the characters consistently introduce themselves with their pronouns, and many of the characters use non-binary pronoun options or no pronouns at all. This isn’t prominent in many books. What was your rationale behind that choice, and did you struggle with it through the editorial process at all?
I honestly can’t remember how I decided that everyone should introduce themselves with their pronouns. I was just thinking about the fact that all of these aliens are speaking their own languages and it’s being translated into English, and so it made sense to me that a translator could also give you other important information — like someone’s pronoun. And once I started doing it, it just made sense. I made sure to mention that not everybody actually “hears” the pronouns spoken out loud, the way Tina does. It works differently for different people. But this felt like a good way to be introducing a lot of human and alien characters, some of whom might not have genders or other identifiers that a human would be able to figure out at a glance. It also went along with the overall theme of the book, of respecting other people’s identities while you try to figure out your own.
As a literary agent who represents speculative authors across age categories, I am constantly hearing from editors that sci fi in YA is a super tough sell, and that they have trouble getting these works approved by their acquisitions boards. In comparison to your other works, what was the process like finding a home for VICTORIES, and what made you choose to write sci fi for this age group?
I always hear people say that science fiction is a hard sell in YA as well, but then you look at series like The Hunger Games, Illuminae, Divergent, the aforementioned Warcross, and a bunch of others, and it’s clearly not accurate. That said, I am very nervous about launching a YA science fiction book, just because I’m aware of that widespread misconception, and I’m worried it’ll keep people from offering the book to kids. I think especially right now, it’s super important to get young people (and everyone) fired up about science and exploration and discovery. Luckily, the folks at Tor Teen were super excited to delve into this space-opera universe—and I think the fact that it stands out a bit is not a bad thing.
If an educator was going to teach your book in a high school or college creative writing class, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators who are going to choose this book to put in a young reader’s hands?
Wow, I can’t ever think about people teaching my books to creative-writing students, except as an example of what *not* to do. 🙂 In the case of Victories, I hope they’d be interested in the voice, like we talked about before, and the way I use humor and feels to add to the suspense. (Or at least, I hope I do that.) For high-school teachers generally, I would hope they’d talk about the themes of post-colonialism and what it means to be a hero.
Being a marginalized publishing professional can be super challenging once in a while. You have worked with a few different imprints and editors over the course of your career so far. What has your experience been like working with an agent and an editorial team at a big publishing house? What would you say the most fulfilling part of this process was, and what was the biggest challenge?
I’ve been so lucky with Russ Galen and with everyone at Tor, including Miriam Weinberg and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Everybody has been incredibly supportive and understanding, and nobody blinked when I said I wanted to include so many queer characters in my space opera universe. The most fulfilling part has probably just been talking to Miriam about the characters and the story and how to make them pop — and the biggest challenge has just been breaking in as a YA author, especially during a time when school visits and other in-person appearances are not possible.
Last, but not least, when I’m covering a non-Black author, I ask them to recommend a book by a Black author to go alongside their post. Would you mind sharing a rec with me?
Three that I’ve read and loved recently come to mind: The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus, A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, and Legendborn by Tracy Deonn.
Victories Greater Than Death comes out on April 13th, 2021 from Tor Teen. If you enjoyed this interview, you can find Charlie Jane Anders on her Hugo Award winning podcast with co-host Annalee Newitz, our opinions are correct.
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