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Author Talk: Moira Young Answers!

August 8, 2014 | Alice | Comments (8) Facebook Twitter More...

So Moira Young, author of the awesome Dustlands trilogy, agreed to answer some questions for us about the books, the barren setting, and her warrior-like heroine, Saba. I was delighted to get to ask her because I've been loving these books, but equally happy to read what she had to say in response. Read along...

1. I'm always curious with trilogies - did you have the whole arc of the story mapped out in the first place, or did it come as you wrote along the way?

Blood red road moira youngNo planning, no mapping, not a thought of any such thing. The first book of the Dustlands started life in 2006 as Dark Eden, a stand alone, dual-viewpoint story set in an ice age future and it took me pretty much all of four years to write, rewrite, despair, give up, restart and re-vision it into Blood Red Road. If I'd known that it would be the first in a trilogy, I would have been so daunted at the prospect that I never would have set down a word.

It was only as I was writing the last few pages of Blood Red Road that I began to sense that I'd planted the seeds of a larger story and I found myself telling people that this was the first of a trilogy. At that time, mind you, I had no idea what that larger story was. In meetings with publishers, editors, marketing and movie people, I marvelled at this person who looked and sounded just like me as she proclaimed confidently that the three books would be akin to the three acts of an opera; each act fulfilling a function within the story telling arc, each with its own very particular mood, shape and momentum. That is, in fact, how the three books turned out and now I understand that Saba's epic story was growing within me at a subconscious level. Between 2010 and 2014, my job was to feed that story and bring it up into consciousness and onto the page in Rebel Heart and Raging Star. But I didn't know that at the time either.

I didn't know much of anything, to be honest. Almost the moment I finished writing Blood Red Road, it was out of my hands and I was suddenly a person with an agent,various publishers and a movie deal and apparently I'd told everyone it was trilogy and it was all quite impossible to take in.

It's a nerve-wracking way for a novice writer to proceed and I can't say I'd advise anyone to follow my example. I don't suppose I'll ever make a parachute jump or climb Everest so maybe this is the closest I'll get.

2. In some dystopian settings, the destruction of the world as we know it plays an important role in how the new society was built, while in the Dustlands trilogy, we know very little about the Wreckers that came before. Did you have a back story for that world's end in mind?

Yes, I did. But this is Saba's story and it's told in a very close first-person point of view, as if we are inside her head and seeing through her eyes; she is the camera, in effect. We can therefore only ever know what she knows. As she makes discoveries about her world or what might have happened in the past, so do we.

I touched in most details, most descriptions with a kind of smudge effect; I guess you could call it that. I wanted to leave plenty of space for the reader to roam, to fill out the world and the landscape for themselves. The thing is that every reader brings their life experience to a book and interacts with the story accordingly; a 15 year old will read Saba's story very differently from someone who's 19 or 32 or 50. Some readers see it taking place on a planet other than Earth or in this or that specific geographical area of the world; some ask me who the Wreckers were; some tell me who the Wreckers were. Once other people start interacting with the story, it doesn't matter in the least what I think.

3. There's a lot of kickass heroines around these days, especially in dystopian settings. Do you think it's a trend, progress in society, a reaction to society, something about that setting that removes the conventions of our own time and place...? Do you expect to see more women like this in books going forward?

Rebel heart moira youngWell, the majority of writers for young people are women, so I'd say it's natural that many of them feature strong female heroes in a starring role. And most readers of fiction for young people are female as well. Whether or not the fighting female hero continues as a strong theme in teen and YA fiction remains to be seen and I must leave the analysis to those with a better understanding of such things. All I can offer is a few thoughts.

There are many real-life contemporary female heroes fighting oppression; Malala Yousafzai comes immediately to mind. Living under the violent oppression of the Taliban must surely rank as dystopian, at the very least. A writer doesn't have to look very hard to find inspiration for fictional dystopias: our troubled world - past, present or a possible future - offers plenty of examples. I've taken a future setting for the Dustlands and that certainly does free Saba from sexual stereotyping, behavioural expectations etc. So long as the rules of your imagined world are clear to the reader from the start, you can pretty much do as you please.

My first and greatest literary influence is the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz with our Kansas farmgirl Dorothy as the stout-hearted hero, so it's entirely predictable that my first books would feature a female hero. And here I'll just swerve aside for a moment to say that, to my mind, there's nothing more depressing than a drippy female protagonist like the hopeless Bella Swann in Twilight. But, back to female heroes. [Alice note: HA!]

Saba is a hero with the heart of a lion, very much in the classic warrior mode, so in many ways she's larger than life. But I was always mindful that I needed to make her multi-layered and, at times, contradictory. I gave her faults, just like a real person. If readers are going to sympathise and identify with her and stick with her page after page as she makes her choices for good or ill, she needs to be a complex personality. So Saba is indeed remarkably courageous, self-sacrificing, resourceful and determined. But her interpersonal skills are woeful, particularly in Blood Red Road. She's emotionally underdeveloped. She can be brusque to the point of rudeness, she’s short-tempered, stubborn and suffers an occasional empathy deficit. She can be blinkered by loyalty and love. Her misplaced trust nearly brings her world to ruin. But she's willing to learn from her mistakes, to change. She’s an entire symphony of a person, not just one note.

A kickass female hero is easy to write; a believable one who resonates with readers is very much harder.

4. Saba is always willing to throw herself on the bomb and spare others. Is this recklessness because she sees herself as disposable, or as the only one who can do the hard thing and save everyone?

Raging star moira yonugYou could call her reckless, I suppose, but I'd say it's more that her default setting is to act first and think later; she learns by trial and error. She doesn't have a death wish, it's just that she operates from gut instinct much of the time and the circumstances in which she finds herself often call for a snap decision.

It's the physical manifestation of her black and white thinking, her good/bad view of people and the world in general, which is not untypical for someone her age. One of her life challenges is to develop nuance; for example, to learn when gut reaction and action is appropriate and when she ought to pause and consider. For much of Blood Red Road, she runs at everything and everybody full tilt. But we must remember how high the stakes are for her. She stands to lose her beloved brother. Saba stands in marked contrast to Lugh, who's inclined to think for too long and lose the chance to act.

5. In the third book, Saba uses her old identity as the Angel of Death to help with a plan. Do you think she has or will find a peace with that part of her story?

I wonder. I do hope so.

6. I heard that Blood Red Road was optioned for film before it was even released. Do you have a fantasy cast for Saba, Lugh, Jack, and the others?

Yes, Ridley Scott read the unedited manuscript, we met (yes, I met the legendary Ridley Scott!) and it's currently in active development with his UK production company. I'm lucky to have a great team working on it, a team that includes the excellent screenwriter Jack Thorne. My hope is that we cast unknown or little known young actors for most of the parts and break some brilliant new talent.