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Kick Butt Characters Hop

I want to welcome Ellen Oh who is interviewing Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan!

Interview with Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan Authors of Wasteland

Welcome to the Wasteland. Where all the adults are long gone, and now no one lives past the age of nineteen. Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s post-apocalyptic debut is the first of a trilogy in which everyone is forced to live under the looming threat of rampant disease and brutal attacks by the Variants —hermaphroditic outcasts that live on the outskirts of Prin. Esther thinks there’s more to life than toiling at harvesting, gleaning, and excavating, day after day under the relentless sun, just hoping to make it to the next day. But then Caleb, a mysterious stranger, arrives in town, and Esther begins to question who she can trust. As shady pasts unravel into the present and new romances develop, Caleb and Esther realize that they must team together to fight for their lives and for the freedom of Prin.

Ello - This is one horrible and brutal world you guys have created! You’ve got this world where there are no adults, only children, and you throw in strange hermaphroditic creatures called the variants. How did this all come to you?

SK: Actually, it started as an idea Laurence had a few years ago and grew from there. We both grew up in families where the kids lived in a very separate world from the adults; honestly, on weekends and after school, I would just head out the door and not come back until dinnertime. During the summer, I would be gone all day. Unsupervised kid world is incredibly different from the supervised kind; there are all kind of crazy power dynamics, superstitions, big personalities, strange alliances, and a certain magic that occurs when adults aren’t watching and you’re not reporting back to them. But it can also be a little scary, lonely, and intense. Those are just some of the feelings that lie at the bottom of this book, beneath the futuristic dystopian trappings.

LK: Only living until you’re nineteen is also a metaphor for everybody’s teenage years, which can seem a complete lifetime in themselves, for good and for bad. There’s an intensity during them that comes only once. Some people say, thank god. I’m more positive about it.

Ello - Now you two have been writing together for a while. How did you first start writing together and how do you make it work?

SK: We were both writers long before we started working together: Laurence more with fiction and me with TV. And we both write plays; we first met at a theatre conference. We didn’t consciously set out to write together; we were having dinner one night and I was talking about an elderly friend of mine who grew up in NYC during the 2nd World War. Laurence immediately said, “that would make a great screenplay!” And we just stayed there late talking it out, taking notes on the paper tablecloth. And that became our first graphic novel.

LK: The process usually works this way: we outline it together, very thoroughly. Then we divvy up sections and write them. Then we switch off and each rewrites the other, with a lot of screaming and crying. That’s a joke: it’s just a little screaming and crying. We do several drafts that way. Finally, by the end, we’re reading it word for word, side by side.

SK: Of course, that makes it sound easy… the actual writing-together part was (and is) hard! I like to say that the ideal co-author has four traits: talent, professionalism, sanity, and discipline. A good sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either! Having worked with people who have only had one or two, I’m thrilled to be with Laurence, who has all five. (I hope he thinks I come close, too!)

LK: Now I have to say so. But it’s true!

Ello – How different has it been writing YA versus screenplays and your graphic novels?

LK: Writing YA fiction is harder, to be honest. Graphic novels are scripts and mostly about the story and the structure: no audience will ever read your stage directions. In other words, they don’t have to be that well written! But in a novel, every word is going to be read by a stranger. So all the words have to be good. And when two writers have to agree on every word, it can be, to use a pleasant euphemism, challenging.

SK: See what I mean? Collaboration is really hard, especially in fiction!

Ello - I LOVE Caleb and Esther! They are such fantastic characters! But let’s talk about Esther first. I love that she is this normal rebellious teen acting out in this harsh world. It felt right to me, even to the point that it causes her grave troubles. And her relationship with her older sister, Sarah, who seems so pious at first, but then ends up being quite complicated, felt real to me. Sarah had that right blend of older sister, mothering aspect and Esther was the typical rebellious younger sibling. I liked seeing that normalcy, but then the consequences were intense and severe.

SK: For the record, I actually have a very close relationship with my sister. (She’s a children’s librarian, by the way… which means we always have plenty to talk about!) But there is something about the Esther/Sarah thing that’s very close to my heart. I guess it’s no surprise that I identify mostly with Esther – her impatience, her rebellion – but I also know what it’s like to care so deeply about someone, your love can comes across as controlling and judgmental. What’s most moving to me is that these two have so much in common, yet are so busy acting out and feeling victimized, they don’t get to open up and realize that they’re allies for a very long time. That strikes me as a very familiar and sad dynamic in so many families…

LK: That was the point, of course, to show identifiable feelings in an extreme environment. You’d still be yourself, after all, even in a world like this. And it was intentional not to make Esther a super-hero. We like super-heroes, but it seemed more interesting to make her fight herself, as well as other people. And to screw up, as well as succeed.

Ello – Ok now turning to Caleb. First of all, I want to say that Wasteland read like a post-apocalyptic western to me. I kept picturing Caleb as a young Clint Eastwood. Were you guys thinking western?

LK: Well, we don’t like to reveal the trade secrets of how we get inspired—mostly so we don’t get self-conscious about it—but the movies and books Susan and I have seen and read definitely came into play, including Westerns. If you pictured Clint Eastwood, that’s great, though I’d prefer a better actor. No offense to Clint.

SK: The fact is, we both read a lot, and we also watch a lot of movies and plays. And together, we have kind of eclectic tastes: everything from Westerns, literary fiction, romantic comedies, children’s literature, classic cinema, horror, documentaries, poetry, Hong Kong action movies, biographies, 70s dramas. We always talk about what we’ve just read or watched, too… and after a while, it all just kind of seeps into and informs your work. So it’s really kind of a mishmash of many influences.

Ello – Caleb is a really complicated character. Not the clear good guy, which again, reminded me of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti westerns. I loved that about him.

LK: With Caleb, we were working in the tradition of the male anti-hero, characters who used to be common in movies and books. These guys were both good and bad; as opposed to today, where characters tend to be either/or. (Except on cable TV, where characters are allowed to have more gray areas.) If you start a hero with real flaws or even villainous aspects, then it’s more dramatic when you see the better side of him. We wanted Esther (and maybe the reader) to have real misgivings about Caleb, so her journey toward him would be more interesting.

SK: Exactly. It’s not only more dramatic, it’s more interesting.

Ello – So I find it near impossible to talk about your bad guy, Levi, without spoiling the story because he is such an integral part of the plot. But I can say that I found him quite charming and I admit to constantly hoping that he wouldn’t be all bad.

LK: It’s a (true) cliché that the better the villain, the better the story. Levi was the most fun to write because we could express the rotten parts of ourselves through him. Also, that he had a good if distorted reason for doing what he does (which we won’t spoil, either) makes you realize that there are only so many emotions: some people use them well and others horribly. Seeing your own drives and resentments in a villain can be eye-opening and revelatory—not just about him but about yourself.

SK: I actually really like Levi, too! And he’s not all bad in that as Laurence says, he has a reason for his behavior. But like everyone in fiction and life, he has choices, and the decisions he makes have ramification. He’s flawed, but human.

Ello - I have to tell you that I think you need to write a whole other book just on the variants. I’ll even settle for a short story. I’m just so fascinated by them. What were they based on?

SK: To give you the heady answer, we were intrigued by the idea of discrimination in this world. It seems that people have always needed some other group to look down on and treat horribly… so what better than an entire people who are themselves victims of the environment? We also love the gender flexibility of Skar and her people – the idea that instead of hiding your hermaphroditism, you wear it proudly. It’s part of your identity. As a group, the variants represent a lot of good things– they’re disciplined, proud, and brilliant hunter/warriors – but we don’t sentimentalize them, either. They’re also suspicious, opportunistic, occasionally cruel, and hierarchical.

LK: Again, the notion of complexity in all the characters, so the audience doesn’t always know who to trust.

Ello – Would you be surprised if I told you that there was a biblical feel to your story? Very old testament. (we can take this question out if we don’t want to put any hint of religion in it.)

SK: It’s funny; we didn’t set out to create a Biblical story, but because it’s such a harsh and basic world, certain themes -- family relationships, limited resources, people wandering in the wilderness – just came up that seemed that way. As for some of the names – Sarah, Joseph, Levi, and so on – we were thinking about children having children who have children, and what they would still be naming them after thirty or so years. We thought the Bible would be an important book during apocalyptic times, and that might be reflected in the names people gave their offspring.

LK: These names would still be in the air, long after people would have forgotten the book they came from.

Ello – Please, please, can you give us a little teaser for what’s to come in the next books?

LK: No, we’re sorry. I’m just being silly; we can say this: the second book is a physical journey for Esther and other characters and the third book is their destination. Nothing goes smoothly and time is short.

SK: LOTS of surprises in both books… involving not only Esther, Caleb, Skar, and their friends, but new people they meet along the way. Even our editor was totally taken off guard!

Thank you so much!

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