Dec 9, 2009

Keeping An Eye On... Scott Westerfeld

This week's Keeping An Eye On... author, like me, knows a little something about alphabetical discrimination. A fellow W, Scott Westerfeld is frequently shelved at the end of the aisles. Fortunately for him, his talent also keeps another stack of books front and center on the bestseller table. Unfortunately for him, he got pushed toward the back of the interview queue.

Honestly, I'm not sure how Westerfeld snuck his way onto SF Signal's list of up-and-coming authors. I'm guessing its a lack of awareness because the majority of his work is marketed toward the Young Adult crowd and some of the "SFF elite" still refuse to read "garbage" like Little Brother, The Graveyard Book, or Leviathan. Brainless boycotting aside, you should have heard of Westerfeld by now. There's his Uglies series which frequented the bestseller lists and took home several awards including Best Book for Young Adults from the American Library Association. Or his Peeps books which also earned the same award. Or his Midnighters books that garnered an Aurealis award. Or there's his Succession books. Or any of his standalone novels.

Or there his brilliant new Steampunk alternate history novel, Leviathan, which recently came in first in a Reader's Choice Poll here at Stomping on Yeti. I just finished the book, and the only problem I had with it is that it's sequel, Behemoth, doesn't come out until next October.

Read on to find out more about Leviathan, Scott's feelings on the YA "stigma", and whatever else we felt like talking about.

SoY: I’ve been Keeping an Eye On you, but for those who haven’t, can you tell us a little about your recently released book, Leviathan?

SW: It's a half-steampunk, half-alternate history version of World War I. In this world, Charles Darwin discovered DNA, and the Victorian empire was built on the backs of fabricated species--living airships, talking message lizards, and various fighting creatures. The Germanic peoples (aka "Clankers") went a more mechanical route, and use walking machines with a classic steampunk look. The two main characters are the son of the archduke Ferdinand (a Clanker) and a girl passing as a boy to serve on a living airship (a Darwinist, of course). So basically, it's Romeo and Juliet in an alternate Great War.

SoY: How long do you plan to write in the Leviathan world?

SW: Leviathan will be a trilogy plus one. The trilogy covers an around-the-world trip, so we get to see Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Japan, and the US in this alternate reality, and there's also a fair amount of resolution in the war itself. The fourth book is a large-format, all-color geekfest of deck plans, cutaways, and illustrations of the uniforms, creatures, and machines.

SoY: A lot of your work has been primarily marketed as YA fiction but is often included in lists of quality YA fiction even adults should read. In your mind, what distinguishes YA fiction from adult fiction?

SW: "The age of the protagonists" is the usual answer. But I think it's more than that. Being a teenager is mostly about identity, figuring out who you are and what your place in the world is, while at the same time questioning how adults could have left things in such a mess. YA is really close to science fiction in that regard, which is why I always say that the SF section WAS the young adult section until recently.

SoY: What’s it like competing with Harry Potter and Twilight for attention and shelf space? (You seem to have done pretty well for yourself)

SW: Those books have created millions of new readers, most of whom have grown up with the fantasy genre as their primary reading mode. They've saved many, many bookstores from bankruptcy during an economic downturn, and created a culture where certain book releases garner as much media attention as movies. It would be churlish to complain.

SoY: How do you respond to adult readers who dismiss YA novels as something below them?

SW: Crippling insecurity is a terrible affliction, and we should all be as supportive as possible.

SoY: Back to Leviathan for a moment, one of the highlights of the book is Keith Thompson’s beautiful artwork interspersed throughout its pages. They give a visual aspect to the book which really works well with Steampunk. How did his illustrations come to be included in Leviathan?

SW: About 60 pages in, I realized that I was writing a "boy's own adventure," the kind my parents had moldering in their attic when I was growing up. Like most novels of that period (whether for adults or children), those adventures were illustrated. So I went in search of an artist.

I soon found Keith, who is amazing at both weird creatures and fantastical machines. He's created a style I call "Victorian Manga," a very accessible look that's based on Punch Magazine from that decade.

There are about 50 images in each book, more than one per chapter, so it's quite a bit more illustrated than the books in my parents' attic. But Keith Thompson's amazing work was worth stretching historical precedent.

SoY: You’ve written both vampire books (Peeps) and steampunk books (Leviathan); two of the hottest trends in genre publishing today. First, which subgenre will crash first? Second, when do we get your Zombie novel? And Third, what’s the next big trend in genre fiction?

SW: Well, I wrote Peeps a long time ago, too early to get included on the Twilight "readalikes" tables, so I wasn't exactly trend-spotting. And Leviathan has been in the works forever. But I do have a zombie short story coming out next year (in an anthology to be revealed soon). I would say I loved zombies before they were cool, but there was NO SUCH TIME.

But seriously, it's quite interesting to see steampunk gain some visibility over the last couple of years, after two decades of relative obscurity. I would doubt the genre can ever get big enough to "crash," because it's just too complicated for the average person. (It can certainly get big enough for people who hate trendy things to hate, but that's not a real crash, that's just wankers mouthing off.) To really get steampunk, you have to have a sense of history, a love of technology, and a whole set of notions about how human beings fit into industrialism and colonialism. And frankly, most people don't have the time.

Steampunk will only ever really trend at surface levels. It's like after Mad Max was a hit, and for a while every future included leather jackets, motorcycles, and mohawks, and then people mostly got bored of that (mostly). But you would hardly say that "post-apocalyptic settings crashed." Mad Max-ism just entered the canon of sf styles, which is what steampunk is in the process of doing.

I don't think vampires will ever crash, never ever, but why that is would be a whole dissertation.

SoY: Earlier this month, it was announced that your series Midnighters was being optioned for television by NBC. How involved are you in the development? What can you tell us about the series?

SW: What I can tell you is that I have nothing to do with it. The press release says something about the midnighters "fighting crime," which is news to me and to readers of the series. My guess is that people in TV say "fight crime" as a form of Hollywood-specific Tourette's.

SoY: You’ve been optioned for TV shows, won numerous awards, and often grace the New York Times Bestseller Lists. Out of all of your accomplishments, what has been the highlight of your career so far?

SW: The big story that most adults are missing right now is that today's teenagers are way more smart and sophisticated and cool than we were. I mean, seriously, doing things like writing novels en masse? Just to see what it's like to write a novel?

Being lucky enough to hit during that wave (which partly comes out of the YA boom, and partly from the internet itself) has been a total gas. Being an inspiration to this vastly awesome generation, and having the opportunity to guide a trickle of them toward SF (with fantasy being the overwhelming mode), is the best honor I could think of.

In short, my fanmail is the best thing ever.

SoY: Fill in the blank: “If I can write a book that _______________, I will consider my career a complete success.”

SW: I would hate to be a *complete* success. That sounds like being done.

SoY: Hypothetically, you get kicked off the list for selling too many books. Who do you nominate in your place?

SW: Lauren McLaughlin, whose Re-Cycler just came out (a sequel to last year's excellent Cycler).

SoY: What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?

SW: Let me get back to you on this. Bug me if I don't! [Note: I bugged him. He never did]

SoY: [Obligatory pimpage] Is there anywhere online that readers can follow you and your work? [/obligatory pimpage]


Another little known fact about Scott is that he refuses to experience winter, instead traveling between New York City and Australia as the seasons change. While that seems strange, as I sit here freezing in the slushy Chicago weather, I can't blame him in the slightest.

Hopefully, I'll be able to post my review of Leviathan this week or next. The short summary is that you should either ask for this book for Christmas, buy it for a young relative, or do both. His alternate steampunk world is so interesting that I absolutely cannot wait for the follow-up. Maybe I will have to travel to Australia to find out what happens next. And if I happen to stay there until there is sunlight again, that sounds good too.


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