Last Wednesday at the Texas Library Assocation, I had the extreme pleasure to attend the Explore the Science in the YA Science Fiction and Dystopia Genres panel. Speaking was Kiera Cass (The Selection Series), Lauren Oliver (Derlium Series, Vanishing Girls), Jessica Brody (Unchanged), Cecil Castellucci (Tin Star, Stone in the Sky), and Lydia Kang (Catalyst).
What is the difficulties with the crossover of dystopias and science fiction?
Lydia: I’m just happy that there are so many- it opens the door for so many readers.
Cecil: Many readers think that dystopia is science fiction so it gets the dystopia readers into science fiction; in today’s market there aren’t that many young adult readers who start out really into the space science fiction.
Jessica: Not all science fiction is dystopia, it’s just futuristic, and my work borders the two- it both explores the fears of where society goes when science and medicine goes too far and in the wrong direction
Lauren: Dystopia by definition is when society creates utopias and then kills it while science fiction explores technology or future in ways that aren’t currently available, and in a way a lot of science fiction mirrors dystopia by exploring our fears. Traditionally science fiction has been gendered where dystopia hasn’t, and I think that has been the biggest stumbling block for science fiction getting a foothold in younger markers.
Kiera: I actually had to google dystopia when my agent started calling my works that- mine are often called “Disney dystopias” or “diet dystopias” because it’s so accessible for a wide variety and range of readers, but I didn’t go into it writing a dystopia- I wanted to write this story, and didn’t have a place for it. There actually isn’t a lot of science in The Selection saga.
Do you need a science background to write the types of books that you do, and if so how to do you the research for your books?
Kiera: I was a history major so I know how to research really really well, but I don’t know anything about science. I think that to make an excellent series and bring readers in you have to build a really excellent world and research like crazy.
Lauren: I’m a math geek, my first tattoo was the Pi symbol. But I have no science background at all- I have become better about the science aspect as I have grown with writing, but when I started I was not nearly as good as world building as I should have been. I now research like crazy, and for my newest SF book I’m researching and outsourcing my research, and reaching out to experts.
Jessica: I was an econ major and hated science, and am definitely NOT a researcher. I hate it, and really think that it procrastinates my writing. My first book wasn’t set in the world that the trilogy is in because of that fact, so when I got to the second and third book, I had to go back and make the world fit around what I had put in to the first- and that was a HUGE mistake. For those who hate science like I do, get ahold of a book called Physics of the Future, and it will be your best friend.
Cecil: Many different readers demand different science. I speak science- everyone in my family has a science background- so I springboard from science and use that to write my books. I take classes, talked to NASA, took astrobiology classes, etc. It would really be interesting to look at the intersections of science and history/politics to see the interweaving between dystopia, science, and the trends. There seems to be really three tiers to science fiction:
1. that based on real science
2. taking that real science and springboarding it to new science
3. building into the science fiction tropes
Lydia: Science background necessary? No- I’m a practicing internal medicine, I can research, and when I was in school we used to love taking everything and dipping it into liquid nitrogen then smashing it into pieces, which I’m sure endeared me to my teachers. What you need to have is the ability to be able to touch readers with your writing, and know when to ask for help.
Why do you enjoy writing for the science fiction and/or dystopian genres?
Lydia: I was studying for the boards, and read about this girl suffering from this disease, and wanted to turn her into the hero, and the idea started turning over into this grand huge adventure, and torture, and the stakes kept getting higher and higher. And then I took away her sister.
Cecil: I fell in love with reading science fiction from a very early age so it was more a matter of when I was going to write science fiction that if I was going to write it. There’s really no preference to what I write, it’s what the story wants to be, how it wants to be told.
Jessica: I was writing contemporary fiction, and then read a newspaper article about how there was a lone survivor of a plane crash that killed over 100 other people, and it got me thinking about HOW that person could have survived, and what if they were this, and what if they were not human, and then it went into a science fiction explanation, and it completely changed my career path. I got to change medical things, and imagine new ideas and explore new rules.
Lauren: It’s like Cecil said, you don’t pick, the character picks for you. I start with the voice or the idea, and go from there. One day I was talking to my sister about ethics and then we started talking about clones and how it would be different if one were raised as a human and one wasn’t, and that was a story.
Kiera: I never would have labelled myself a dystopian writer- I wanted to write this particular story, and I couldn’t find a place in history to put it, so I said, hey, I’ll just set it in the future and then it can be anything I want it to be. I want to write LOVE stories, because there needs to be that hope.
What part of you lives in your books?
Kiera: My biography? Maybe the little sister? Hopefully the characters are their own people, as I’ve known them longer than my own kids, but really they’re not me- they’re themselves.
Lauren: No one character in my books is ME. Fiction is my way of processing the world- I inhale the world, and exhale stories. I actually didn’t see the reality of the reflections of my life until people pointed it out to me. Teens can explore the anxieties and harshness of worlds yet be in control in books because they can put it down if it’s too much for them, where they can’t put down their world, and that’s one of the wonderful things about books.
Jessica: I’m so paranoid of putting me in there in order to be realistic that I can’t NOT put me in there to some extent or I feel it’ll be fake. In some way there’s something or someone who reflects who I am or who I wish I could be. In Unchanged it’s Cody, and he’s my fulfillment character. My editor actually wanted to take him out, but I fought for him. now he’s a fan favorite, and I forward each of the letters that say “We love Cody” to them. It’s an easy way to me to play with real life in a comedic way.
Cecil: It’s a way for me to paint the broader feelings and work out my feelings- the odd duck out, the feeling of abandonmet, how art saves, all of those are true to me, and true to teens.
Lydia: I’ve actually put in Easter eggs that are personal to me in my books. For example, in the first book the names of the characters, are anagrams of Jane Austin’s characters in Pride and Prejudice, while in Catalyst there’s references to The Glass Menagerie throughout.
If you could write for any TV show current or cancelled, what would it be?
Lydia: Sherlock, and Star Trek
Cecil: Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Deep Space 9, most of the science fiction ones
Jessica: Nashville, Lost
Lauren: Glee, Battlestar Galactica, My So Called Life
Kiera: Hey Arnold, a lot of the older Nick cartoons
What would your characters say to you if they could come to life?
Keira: I would hope that America would say that you were honest, that I wrote it down as it really happened, as she told it to me.
Lauren: I actually hope that doesn’t happen, I don’t want that unbreachable divide to come down, that collapse to happen.
Jessica: I bet they’d call me unmentionable or unrepeatable words. Someone once said, “Give readers the ending they want, but not in the way that they expect.” That’s what I’ve tried to do, and hopefully by the third book it’ll all be clear. If they don’t then have them call me.
Cecil: Well, Tulla has been the only human alone on a space station, so she’d definitely be suspicious. Hopefully, eventually, she’s warm up and we’d have some tea.
Lydia: Well, in my world the best Doctors are computers, and humans are the second tier, basically doctors for the uninsured, so I’m not sure they’d be willing to talk to me.
In the future, do we get lots of separate dystopias or space colonies?
Lydia: If you’re oppressed, you’re already in a dystopia, so we’re already there. So basically, the future is just expanded dystopias at this point.
Cecil: I really think that we’re going to have to colonize if we’re going to survive, otherwise we’re not going to make it.
Jessica: I’m an optimist, so NO for dystopias. I adore Ready Player One, so I really want my own little frozen world.
Lauren: I think we’re going to colonize, and we’re going to take Starbucks and Walmarts with us everywhere, along with amusement parks.
Kiera: I am so lost (breaking down with laughter)
What question have I not asked do you wish I asked?
Kiera: Well, Kiera, how do you feel about Z leaving One Direction? Well, it was really hard at first, but after the first two days of crying, I’m working my way through it. I’m OK now.
Lauren: Lauren, what is your amazing hair care routine?
Jessica: I’m stealing Keira’s. I’m not sure if I can be as hopeful as Kiera, having gone through Spice Girls and the aftermath of Ginger Spice leaving the group, but I’m trying to hold on.
Cecil: Where do you get your shoes? Well, I have size 2 1/2 girls feet, yes GIRLS, so they’re from the kids department. Clogs are best, especially as they don’t make a heel in girls sizes.
Lydia: Salty or sweet? Alternating continuously forever.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Lydia: Everywhere- news, movies, life, online
Cecil: For Tin Star, I was having a pity party: ice cream, wine, and watching Casablanca, and watching how the environment in Casablanca was awesome because the status didn’t matter. Then I got to thinking, what if it was a space station? Then what if they were all aliens? For Gold Rush, I was reading how in the actual Gold Rush the harbors were getting filled with abandoned ships that were being left by prospectors, and then I got to thinking, what if they were space ships?
Jessica: I start twisting reality by asking “what if?”
Lauren: Everywhere, which is why I have books coming out into 2020- Panic came from a little known Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Delirium came from the swine flu epidemic in New York, a current one is from the Slenderman Case.
Kiera: The Selection actually came from crossing Ester and Cinderella- Ester came to become queen because of a king’s drunken offended pride, and Cinderella just wanted a night off and a pretty dress. What if they had boyfriends before all this happened that they had to push away for the betterment of their people?
What did you enjoy reading when you were growing up?
Kiera: There wasn’t all the YA that were was now, but I loved Perks of Being a Wallflower
Lauren: I’m reading SO MUCH now, I’m waiting to start Bone Gap. YA was not huge until I hit high school, and then it was Harry Potter, and that was more the publishers thinking that they could make money.
Jessica: I was not and still not a reader- I’m one of the ‘reluctant readers’ so when I write I write for the teens that are like me. I had RL Stine and the Babysitters Club. Now mostly YA, like The Selection and Rainbow Rowell.
Cecil: Like everyone else, I had to jump from juvenile to genre fiction, there wasn’t YA. I went from Jane Austin to Vonegurt, Bradbury and Asmov. Now I read Two Boys Kissing, California, and mainly just for pleasure.
Lydia: I read power women: Austin, Bronte, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder- they were never apologetic.
What do you do in your free time?
Lydia: What’s that? I have three kids, I work as a doctor part time and my staff knows how to get ahold of me. I guess sleep?
Cecil: As a writer and an artist, I don’t think there’s every any free time- we get inspiration everywhere and we’re always working. We could be at Disneyland with family and then think that’s weird, and that’s the inspiration for the next book.
Jessica: I have four dogs, I do nail art (always have my kit with me). I listen to Taylor Swift and One Direction, I’m constantly travelling a lot for school visits.
Lauren: I’m a very talented sleeper, but very efficient. I read, write, cook. I have two books a year scheduled to be published throughout 2020- because I reward myself through writing, so it’s a vicious cycle.
Kiera: I have two small kids and write, my poor husband is worried about me. 🙂 I’m on tumblr and twitter, and eventually I’m working on the idea of a bakery as I LOVE cake.
Audience question: You have such strong female characters, is there a feminist agenda in your books?
Cecil: Not secret- I wanted to make Tin Star accessible as a science fiction book, and Jezabel says it’s a feminist romance. LOL. I created an RPG for it (it’s a free download), and I wanted to make sure that Tulla is NOT perfect, that she could be anyone. I think girls and women are pounded with this ideal that we have to be perfect and “strong” label, and we don’t.
Lauren: My agenda is NOT top secret. I started a company at 26, and wore high shoes to make sure I was as tall if not taller then the guys. I didn’t end the Delirium series romantically on purpose and upset readers, but I wanted to show girls with agency and choice, and we need to show EVERY girl and not just the bad ass girl.
Cecil: Comic con is at least 50/50 men/women ratio now, and the idea that it’s all or mostly men needs to be thrown over, and people need to catch up to the reality.
Jessica: I went to Smith, an all girls’ college, so it was a requirement that they taught feminism in all the courses LOL. Really, to make science fiction accessible to those are new and to those who are scared of science fiction- maybe science fiction lite would be a gateway. And if that gateway is through these types of books, wonderful. My gateways were The Matrix, Lost, The Timetraveler’s Wife, and those books and movies had strong but real female characters.
Cecil: I think the real challenge is how to get male readers to read books with female protagonists.
Lydia: I contantly thank my publishers for blessing me with gender neutral covers. Girls believe that they can do anything, but they lose that thinking somewhere in middle school, and we need to figure out why and fix that.
Audience question: In an age when our kids and ourselves are overscheduled, when and how do you find the time to write?
Kiera: It broke my heart, but I started my kids in daycare, and hired a family assistant. The kids are fine, and they love it, and I finally had to get into the thinking that writing was my job, and while they were there, I was writing. But when they’re home, I’m Mom, and that’s my priority- and that’s me. It may not be everyone, but that’s where my heart lies.
Lauren: I was so tired when I started, crying all the time, working full time, writing on a Blackberry on the subway to and from jobs, and I still write on a Blackberry when I have time, in cabs, in down time. You have to have the drive to get the writing DONE- carve out the time somewhere, start cultivating the habit to write, and make it non-negotiable.
Jessica: I adopted a routine- I get up at 7 am, I meditate and write a gratitude list that has 10 things I’m grateful for, and then I write until I have my quota done. No social media, no email, no ANYTHING until the writing is complete. I found that if I did social media or email, then that was taking priority over writing- it became THE MOST IMPORTANT email or tweet, and writing wasn’t getting down.
Cecil: Deadlines. Strict deadlines. I can get work done while daydreaming and letting my mind wander- it gets me through the writers block, and I know that while I’m on tour or travelling there may not be time to get writing done, but I know that when I get back I have two weeks set aside to get things done, and I’ll get them down. The mulling time is when I get though and solve narrative issues.
Lydia: I rarely watch TV, and I squeeze it into everywhere. I’m lucky in that I have a very good internal barometer to work into when things need to be done so I can keep myself on track.