Monday, September 8, 2014

Interview with Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, authors of STRANGER, YA post-apocalyptic thriller

Stranger (The Change, #1)Welcome back, everyone! Just a quick update before I get to this wonderful interview. This will probably be my last post before the Fierce Reads event in October. I'm glad I got to get in one big set of posts before I deliver, because these authors are amazing and deserve every bit of promotion they get. I hope you'll love STRANGER as much as I did! Without further ado...

Goodreads Book Description:
Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, "the Change,” arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. "Las Anclas" now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.

Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.

Stranger stands on its own, but there will be three more books in the series: Hostage, Rebel, and Traitor.

About Sherwood Smith: Sherwood Smith began her publishing career in 1986, writing mostly for young adults and children. Sherwood Smith studied in Austria for a year, earning a masters in history. She worked many jobs, from bar tender to the film industry, then turned to teaching for twenty years, working with children from second grade to high school.  She specialized in literature, history, and drama.  To date she’s published over forty books, nominated for several awards, including the Nebula, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and an Anne Lindbergh Honor Book. 

Sherwood blogs at LiveJournal ( and Book View Café  ( She has a Facebook account but only visits it two or three times a year, and does not do Twitter.

About Rachel Manija Brown: Rachel Manija Brown is the author of Stranger, a post-apocalyptic YA novel co-written with Sherwood Smith, the collection A Cup of Smoke, and the memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. She wrote the graphic novels The Nine-Lives and Spy Goddess for Tokyopop. She has also written television, short stories, plays, video games, and poetry.

In her other identity, she is a trauma/PTSD therapist.

Rachel blogs at LiveJournal ( She rarely visits Facebook or Twitter.

Author Duo Interview
1. It's not often that I get an author duo on my blog. Can you tell us about how you guys met, figured out you wanted to write together, and a little about the process of co-writing a book?

Sherwood and Rachel: We first met online, back when there were only one or two social media venues, so pretty much all the science fiction and fantasy world was interacting with each other.

Rachel was working in Hollywood, and had been at the Jim Henson Company for a number of years, so the company contacted her with an interesting offer. They wanted her to create a TV series in partnership with a children’s book author who met the following criteria: the writer had to live in or near L.A., had to be well respected in the field, and had to be someone Rachel thought she could work with, but couldn’t be so hugely successful and famous that the Jim Henson Company couldn’t afford them.

Rachel immediately thought of Sherwood, and e-mailed her to ask if she would be interested. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Sherwood had also worked in Hollywood. So they met for the first time and started creating a TV series. The series didn’t sell, but the Jim Henson executives loved it, and gave them a standing offer to come in and pitch anything any time. Sherwood and Rachel found that they enjoyed working together, and it was a very good offer, so they created a new series: The Change. That series didn’t sell either, so they turned it into a novel, taking advantage of all the things you can do in a novel that you can’t afford to do—or are not allowed to do—on TV.

Sherwood: Our process is completely different than the processes of any of my other collaborations.

Rachel: The way we work is unusual in the book world, but more common in television, where writers will sit together in a room and create first the story of a script in discussion, then write it by speaking the dialogue. Sherwood and I sit down and discuss the plot of the entire story, taking notes.

Before we write a chapter, we discuss what will happen in more detail. Then we sit side by side at a computer and write the chapter, usually Sherwood typing but either of us providing text. The result is a book where any given sentence was probably written by both of us together. When we have a first draft, we pass it back and forth for rewrites and polishes and additions.

2. You have a whopping 5 POVs in your book, and all of these characters are really interesting. Do you each have a favorite or one you love to write? Do each of you write each character or do each of you write certain characters?

Sherwood and Rachel: We had to laugh at that “whopping 5 POVs.” This is a common reaction to our book, but the idea that a “normal” book would only have one or two POVs is a very recent one. Up until the mid-twentieth century, POVs were usually some form of omniscient, which meant that the narrative voice could slide in and out of everybody’s mind as needed for the story. Lord of the Rings is written in omniscient. For two sentences, we get the POV of a fox watching the hobbits head toward Bree.

We chose not to write this book in omni POV, in favor of third person limited. But we felt that this was a story about community, not about the more modern-standard lone individual. To convey that, we needed multiple points of view.

Sherwood: As for characters, I don’t have a favorite to write, but for some reason I get a real kick out of reading Mia’s POV after we’ve done the chapter. Her cluelessness reminds me so much of myself, though I was also clueless about science as a teen!

Rachel: I don’t have a favorite to write overall, but my favorite person to write dialogue for is Mia. I love her jittery stream of consciousness way of speaking.

3. I love how you write about all relationships, including LGBT relationships and even a threesome as mainstream in your book. What made you guys decide to do this, and do you expect (or have you already received) backlash?

Sherwood and Rachel: To dispose of the backlash first, we did receive objections for writing a major sympathetic gay character when searching for an agent. However, that is such a long story that we don’t want to recap it here. Here’s the gist of it:

We have gay/lesbian/bisexual teenagers in our books because we know a lot of them in real life. Why shouldn’t they get to read about heroes like themselves?

The reason for the Mia/Ross/Jennie relationship was that we were tired of predictable love triangles in YA novels. In many of them, it would have made more sense for the characters to simply discuss the situation and work out a solution that made emotional sense, rather than lying and cheating and angsting for 300 pages. We felt that Mia and Jennie were so close that they would have talked about their feelings, rather than ending their friendship over their attraction to some guy. The resolution they come up with was one that we felt made sense for the characters.

Also, in real life, people’s relationships don’t necessarily fit into neat little boxes of one heterosexual woman plus one heterosexual man at a time, and neither of us felt that the implication that they should is emotionally honest.

4. Name some of your favorite authors/books.

Sherwood: I have so many favorites that it would take too long to list them all! Here are a few.

Books that influenced me as a kid: Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series, where I finally found girls who got to adventure as well as boys. Mara, Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw sparked a love of history and other cultures. Lord of the Rings, which validated my love of writing fantasy at a time when fantasy was disapproved of.

Shifting to modern times, there are so many wonderful writers these days! I’ll mention some books I loved that don’t have publicity pushes from big publishers: Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest, which is kind of YA and kind of not, about a pen friendship between a girl and a woman, both from cultures under stress. It’s such a wonderful book. Then, for sheer fun, Australian writer Andrea K. Höst’s series beginning with Stray, a high school girl who suddenly finds herself in another world. She has to cope, though she assumes she is perfectly ordinary . . . but somehow the change of world changes her. Delightful, exciting, and romantic!

Rachel: I have too many favorites to list, so I’ll just recommend some books that you might not already know about.

The Rifter, by Ginn Hale, is an intricate and epic portal fantasy that’s full of surprises— one of the most engrossing and well-constructed fantasies I’ve read in years. The beginning is a little weak (and also darker than the book is overall), but it picks up quickly and keeps getting better and better. On a completely different note, Prater Violet, by Christopher Isherwood, is a novella about the relationship between an American screenwriter and a Jewish European director, who are thrown together on the eve of WWII to make a fluffy musical comedy. It packs a tremendous amount of comedy, atmosphere, and emotional weight into a very short space. (Spoiler: Nobody dies in the Holocaust.) I also second Sherwood’s recommendation for Pen Pal. It’s a unique, atmospheric, moving novel.

5. Rachel, this book is completely different from your first book, and Sherwood, while this is closer to what you've already written, it's also different. Can you guys talk about branching out and why you decided to write a YA book?

Sherwood: I don’t really decide what I’m going to write. Being an intensely visual person, I always begin with the image. Then I try to figure out whose story it is, and why they are telling it. The category (fantasy? Non-fantasy? YA? Middle grade? For all readers?) comes last.

Rachel: I’ve written in a whole lot of genres, so this didn’t feel like branching out to me. I’m always branching out.

6. Which Hogwarts house would you be in and why?

Rachel: When I lived in India, I briefly attended a military school that had a house system similar to the Hogwarts houses. The houses weren’t based on characteristics, but simply divided the students into four groups named after major Indian rivers. It was intended to foster friendly competition among the students, not unhealthy rivalry, and so every year the students switched houses. So to me, the house system brings back fond memories of being passionately attached to my house of the year.

On that note, I think I would be in Gryffindor. I think of the Hogwarts house characteristics not as exclusionary—Hermione is obviously intelligent enough to be in Ravenclaw—but is tapping into the most basic and essential facet of the self. For me, courage is more of an essential characteristic than intelligence, loyalty, or sneakiness.

Sherwood: When I was a teacher, I loved the students’ enthusiasm for the Harry Potter books, and of course I read each as it came out. But I was reading as a post-fifty-something Baby Boomer, who was a product of overcrowded schools and the late fifties-and early sixties hardline emphasis on conformity. So while my students compared the houses and imagined themselves in this one or that one, I nodded and smiled, but I secretly thought that if I’d read the books as a kid, I would have been leading a revolution against the house system altogether!

7. Can you give a few words of advice to aspiring writers?

Sherwood: Read, read, read.  Read as widely as you can, about everything.  Observe real people doing real things, and try not to get ideas on behavior from TV and movies because the actors are following a script. They know what’s coming next, which in real life we don’t, and they are moving according to direction. A writer needs to try to understand the world before she can reflect it—and maybe even change it.

Rachel: 1. Don’t worry about breaking the rules. There are no rules. Write what you want to read. 2. Don’t worry about making the first draft perfect. Just get the story down, even if it’s terrible. You can fix it later. Trying to get every bit perfect or even good the first time is a recipe for never finishing anything.

8. Can you let us know a little of what we have in store next for the characters in Stranger in the sequel? Do you plan for this to be a duology, trilogy, or longer?

Sherwood and Rachel:  It’s a four book series. Ross, Mia, and Jennie have POVs in all four books, but the other POVs rotate, with a new POV character in each book.

The sequel to Stranger is Hostage. Ross is kidnapped and dragged to Gold Point, King Voske’s city. Voske’s teenage daughter Kerry is the new POV character. While his friends in Las Anclas desperately try to rescue him, Ross is forced to engage in a battle of wills with the king himself. And he’s not the only hostage . . .

In book three, Rebel, Ross’s past comes back to haunt him, while Las Anclas battles mysterious fires. The new POV character is someone you first met in Stranger, but probably not someone you would expect to get a POV. And that’s just one of many surprises.

Book four is Voske Strikes Back—er, no, it’s actually Traitor. Everybody you’ve been wondering about returns, all with important parts to play in a battle for Las Anclas’s very survival. The new POV character in this book is someone whose perspective you may have been waiting for.

I don't know about you guys, but I'm dying to get my hands on the next book!

Don't forget to enter into this great giveaway to either win their book (US/Can) or a bunch of great swag that I got from many authors at the last event I went to (INT)!
a Rafflecopter giveaway
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  1. Very interesting interview - I've 'known' Sherwood through LJ for years now, am a fan of her books, so enjoyed some new insight into her writing. And Rachel too is fascinating - thanks for the link regarding your gay character and I am so glad you both stuck to your guns on that issue. I've preordered the book, and wish it were here RIGHT NOW. :)

  2. Loved the interview. It's especially interesting to see how script writing has changed they way you write together.

  3. Thanks for the interview! It was great to get to know Sherwood Smith better, and find out about Rachel Brown. The book sounds really exciting. I'd love to win a copy!

  4. The 5 POVs are kind of tricky. I don't usually like books that have more than 2 POVs, because I always seem to lose focus on each character. But, I trust your review and I am going to go for it. Also, I love authors who aren't afraid to put their creativeness inside of books, especially when faced with LGBT scenarios. Cudos to these two authors!

  5. I enjoyed learning more about how you co-wrote this book. Every writer has her own style of writing and I know from my own collaborative projects it can be difficult to mesh different styles so the style, narration, and voice seems to be from one writer.