Thursday, June 21, 2007

SBBT: Justine Larbalestier

Good morning and a Happy Thursday to you all! This morning Justine Larbalestier stops by. Larbalestier is the author of the stunning and brilliant Magic or Madness trilogy (you can read my review of Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons, and Magic's Child here), a trio of books that wowed me. Justine has more in the works (check out the last question) and writes a smart, entertaining blog here.

There are spoilers in the Book Questions portion of this interview. I apologize for that, but I was still too engaged in the series when I wrote the interview questions.

Now onto the interview...

Kelly: Tell us a little bit about Justine Larbalestier. How do you spend your days? How do you pronounce your last name?

Justine: I spend my days avoiding doing work. So I'm online a lot. Or eating yummy food. Or planning my next meal.

There are three basic variations: Lar-bal-est-ee-er, Lar-bal-est-ee-ay, and Lar-bal-est-ee-air.

Kelly: Beer, wine, or a soft drink?

Justine: Wine. Definitely good wine.

Kelly: Who is your favorite writer?

Justine: Right this minute it's probably Dorothy Dunnett. But if you ask me again later it will be someone different. I'm pretty besotted by E. Lockhart's Dramarama and Coe Booth's Tyrell.

Kelly: Beach, city, or forest?

Justine: All of the above. Sydney is a city that's got tonnes of great beaches and many wonderful national forests in and around it. I get the best of all three just by living in my favourite city.

Kelly: What draws you to Young Adult literature in particular? What I mean is, why teen fiction and not, say, mystery, chick lit, or "literary fiction"?

Justine: Because when I write YA I can write any of those: mystery, chick lit, "lit fic" (whatever that is). I can write whatever genre I want and all my books will be shelved side by side in the YA section. It's very liberating.

Kelly: Coffee, tea, or a triple skinny latte?

Justine: None of the above. I hate coffee. And will only drink tea if I'm dying of thirst and there's no water around. I love water.

Kelly: You've written and edited scholarly works in addition to fiction. (I LOVED the Habermas/Foucault joke in Magic Lessons, by the way)* Do you plan to continue scholarly work on science fiction and fantasy?

Justine: No. Too much hard work. Writing fiction is way more fun. I'm glad you enjoyed the Habermas and Foucault jokes. They were aimed at making my parents giggle. (As are many of the things I write.) They're anthropologists. I grew up in a house whose shelves groaned under the weight of tomes by those two gentlemen and many others. As a kid I thought they had the funniest names in the world. Still do.

Kelly: Movie, Theater, or a Concert?

Justine: Hmmm. Depends on what's on offer. I'm hopeless at these types of choices. I'm all about both/and rather than either/or. I want it all!

Kelly: If you had an entire week and unlimited resources to do whatever you'd like, what would you do and why?

Justine: Other than reverse global warming and ending poverty and social inequality, you mean? You know, I think I'm already doing it. I've always wanted to make a living writing fiction and have my pyjamas be my work uniform. I've always wanted to travel and meet lots of cool people. I have the life I want. I'm unbelievably lucky.

Kelly: Halloween, New Year's, or Valentine's Day?

Justine: New Year's. But it's not really much of a choice for me because we don't really have Halloween or Valentine's Day in Australia. Or at least we didn't when I was growing up. Those days don't mean anything to me. Whereas New Year's means fireworks and the Sydney Harbour Bridge blowing up. Awesome!


Kelly: In your Magic or Madness trilogy, the costs of magic are high. Each use of magic causes pain and reduces lifespan. Do you see a real-life analogy to magic in your books? (Power, money, fame?)

Justine: What do you think? Seriously that question's more useful for readers to answer than the writer. Writers rarely have anything smart to say about their own books. We're way too close to them. I can tell you that I wasn't thinking of a real-life analogy when I wrote I was just telling a story set in a world where magic has bigtime consequences that are worse than a headache or feeling tired. (That's my one quibble with your question: there's no pain when using magic. That's part of its seductiveness. The dire consequences are long term not short. At least not until you're about to die.) I was, however, definitely thinking about the ethical choices my characters had to make. But then I believe everyone has to make ethical choices every single day of their lives. Getting out of bed is an ethical choice.

Kelly: (Spolier Alert!) As a reader, I most appreciated how completely complex some of your characters were, particularly Reason's grandmother, Esmeralda. To the end, the reader is not sure if Esmeralda is good or bad. In fact, at the very end, she's still a complex character, even though we finally see her love for Reason is true. Was it a struggle to maintain the complex nature of her character over the course of the trilogy?

Justine: Now, that I did on purpose. One of my pet peeves is the cardboard villain. All memorable villains are complex. They don't just do bad for the sake of doing bad. They have reasons. And often from their point of view what they're doing isn't bad at all. I wanted to write characters who were complex, who were neither entirely good nor entirely bad. I wanted to understand why they did what they did. Even Jason Blake, who's as close to a villain as the trilogy has, even he has reasons for his behaviour. I was hoping that some readers would feel some sympathy for him. (Didn't work for my dad. He was very disappointed that I didn't have Jason Blake die a hideous and prolonged death.)

Kelly: Magic, reason, and insanity coexist in your trilogy like a set of Booromean rings, each touching upon and sharing an element of the other. Magic shares some reason (Fibs, mathematics, shapes) and some insanity. When Sarafina tries to live in reason, she succumbs to insanity if not using magic. Why did you decide to set up your magical world in this particular way?

Justine: That's a fascinating reading of the trilogy. I hadn't thought of it like that. When I came up with the idea of magic shortening your life span so dramatically. My first thought was, "Well, why use it then?" Obviously there had to be some dire consequence that was not death. Insanity just made sense. And made the damned if you do/damned if you don't set up perfect.
It's really fascinating to me how different writing fiction is from analysing it. When I was a scholar and my job was the analysing of it, my eyes were wide open to all sorts of fascinating and complicated readings, but now that I write fiction story and character and verisimilitude are foremost in my mind as I write, not themes etc. I'm not sure why that's so. Writers are probably too close to ever really know what's going on in their works.

Kelly: (Spoiler Alert!) At the end of your Magic's Child (vol. 3), we learn two things: Tom does not give up his magic and Reason's child has the magic in her. So, I have two questions:

a. Am I wrong to think that Tom may be different? Of all the characters in the Magic or Madness Trilogy, he's the most inherently good and the most interested in the people around him. Does he have a shot of living beyond 30?

b. Will we be seeing more of Magic, Reason's child?

Justine: a. I wish I knew. I would love for Tom to have a long life (for a magic wielder). But who knows how desperate he'll get when he's facing death? It could get ugly. I don't think Esmeralda ever intended to take magic from anyone and yet she did. He's definitely going to be exposed to a lot of temptation.

b. I have no immediate plans to write more in that world. Right now I have no clue what happens to any of them after the final page of Magic's Child. But who knows? I might get a cool idea that I have to write.

Kelly: Speaking of Tom, I thought the dichotomy between Tom and Danny was very interesting. Both of them have a particular talent--Tom designs clothing and Danny plays basketball. Both are not only good at what they do, but exceptional. One has magic and the other doesn't. Are you saying that Tom might be every bit as good a designer without the magic?

Justine: I think he would still be good without the magic but he wouldn't be magical. Tom would see the difference but those without magic wouldn't.

Kelly: I have to admit that I found your portrayal of teenage sex and love compassionate, sensitive, and finely drawn. Has anyone objected to the minimal sexual content present in the Magic or Madness books?

Justine: Thank you so much! That means a lot to me. I thought long and hard about how to write the sex scene and Reason's pregnancy.

There's been one objection from a lovely Texas librarian. She wrote to me about it and I explained to her what I intended and why I had written the books the way I did. She put Magic Lessons back on the shelf. I've heard that a (very) few schools in Australia decided not to take the second and third books because of the teenage pregnancy. And I've seen comments online from people who are squicked by the idea of teenagers having sex and getting pregnant. I appreciate where they're coming from--I'm certainly not advocating teenage pregnancy! However, the vast majority of people have sex for the first time when they're still teenagers and usually when they're not married. Teenagers do get pregnant. And even those teenagers who don't have sex are thinking and wondering about it. I find teen books that don't touch on sex in some way to be fundamentally dishonest to the experience of being a teenager.

This is the great dilemma of writing for teenagers: the tension between writing to reflect teenage experience or writing to be instructive and good for teenagers. I want to write books that even while they're full of fantasy elements remain true to many teenagers' lives. I see the trilogy as a realist fantasy. At the same time, while I love the idea of my books getting people to think about the big ethical questions of responsibility and loyalty etc. I also hope they're entertaining. Story is foremost.

Kelly: What can we look forward to next from Justine Larbalestier?

Justine: My next book will be out in either September or October of 2008. It's called The Ultimate Fairy Book and will be published by Bloomsbury in North America. It's about a fourteen year old girl who has a parking fairy. She hates cars and can't drive but she has a parking fairy and is endlessly borrowed by relatives so that they can get the perfect parking spot. The novel is the story of her struggle to get rid of it. It's much lighter and funnier than the trilogy and was a great relief to write let me tell you. I can only stay in the darkness so long!


* Here's the Habermas/Foucault passage that had me on the floor:

"Tom's father taught sociology at Sydney Uni and had lots of books with tedious titles like Archaeology of the Meaning of the City or The Idea of the Theory of Knowledge, which were written by people with names like Habermas, who Tom privately thought of as Mighty Mouse, and Foucault, who Tom thought of as...well, something pretty rude." (Magic Lessons, 198)


Today's SBBT schedule:

Eddie Campbell at Chasing Ray
Sara Zarr at Writing and Ruminating
Brent Hartinger at Interactive Reader
Cecil Castellucci at Shaken & Stirred
Ysabeau Wilce at Bildungsroman
Jordan Sonnenblick at Jen Robinson's Book Page
Chris Crutcher at Finding Wonderland
Kazu Kibuishi at lectitans
Mitali Perkins at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Laura Ruby at The YA YA YAs