Monday, 13 September 2010

Simon & Schuster UK Appreciation Week: An Interview with Scott Westerfeld!

What better way to kick off my S&S UK week than with an interview with international bestselling author Scott Westerfeld! I was lucky enough to interview him in-person before a trade dinner we attended back in June, which explains why this post is so long. It seems I couldn't shut up...

Scott is the author of numerous awesome books and series, including Uglies, Leviathan, and Midnighters. Behemoth, the second book in the Leviathan trilogy, is published in the UK on October 1st, and I for one am very excited!

So, here's my interview from June 14th, 2010. Enjoy!


Wondrous Reads: What was your main inspiration behind the whole Uglies series?

Scott Westerfeld: My sister-in-law actually works for a special effects company, and now she does exciting things like make dragons and work on Harry Potter films, but when she first started she would just do things like - this one time - Keanu Reeves showed up with a boil on his hand, and they shot a bunch of pictures. She'd then go through frame by frame and make it perfect. He was a movie star! So I just realised that not only are these people hired to be perfect, to look good, but there's also a giant staff of people to remove every blemish on every photograph or film. That stuck with me as such a weird thing, such a strange obsession we have with this kind of flawlessness, and that was just a natural way to go on to talk about body image and looks and on whose authority do we all have to be perfect?

WR: Did you find it hard to write from a female perspective?

SW: No, people ask me this all the time. It's about a teenager and is set in the future, and I'm neither of those things either. To me, it's more about being a teenager. I mean, it made more sense to be female, because it's about body image, and that's obviously a sharper issue; even though boys do have that, they're not as particular about it as girls are.

WR: What research did you do into that "perfect" world? Did you read any dodgy trashy fashion magazines or anything?

SW: I went more with science, because people were doing some really interesting stuff - scientifically - about what things are universally found to be attractive. Like there were study scientists who were doing some work, and they were bringing i all these populations, like in China and Aboriginal Australia and all these other places, and finding out that there were certain things that everybody thought were beautiful. Like symmetry and other stuff mentioned in the books. So I hope that was interesting.

WR: So, one day, do you think parts of the story might become a reality? Like the hoverboards and chips etc.

SW: Well, we already have magnetic levitating trains, even though they only levitate two centimetres. So certainly some of that stuff could be a reality, maybe not practical, but feasible. And as far as cheap plastic surgery, we're basically on the cusp of that.

WR: Definitely. That whole celebrity plastic surgery lifestyle is scarily popular.

SW: Yeah. It's also very big in South America, and it's interesting because Uglies recently came out in Brazil, and it seems to be huge. Like, half my Twitter feed is in Portuguese now - I have no idea if they hate me or love me, but there's a reaction.

WR: Which of the Uglies books was your favourite to write and why?

SW: Probably Pretties, because that's when the language of the Pretties came into being. There was something about getting into that society, that I hadn't really done in Uglies, that just made it more interesting. All the language and the weirdness and the way that they talked.

WR: Well I must admit, I've only read the first 2 so far - I'm reading the new UK editions with the cool covers.

SW: Oh good, so you like the new covers better?

WR: Yes I do. Which do you prefer - the old ones or the new ones?

SW: I like the American ones best, I think.

WR: The ones with faces? They're nice. I like our new ones because they're more focused on the action.

SW: Yeah, I do think that's a good move, because the first ones were more girly, so it's good to branch out.

WR: Talking of changes, with Extras, why did you decide to change the main character focus and locations?

SW: Well the trilogy is a trilogy, so the fourth one isn't like another book in that trilogy, it's sort of a companion. I guess what was happening was I was thinking about all the issues that pop up in Extras, like fame, and all of a sudden I wanted to write another novel about that. Then I realised it fit so well in the Uglies world, because beauty and fame are not that far apart. They went together well enough that I wanted to use the same universe. It made sense to, even though it was a different story.

WR: They're making Uglies into a movie, aren't they? Next year is it?

SW: Well you never know.

WR: If they do, will you have any involvement in it?

SW: The producers have been very interested in getting not just involvement from me, but involvement from the fans. The producers had a big long conversation with me, and they let me blog about it and ask the fans questions. They actually went through and read all those comments. It's Hollywood, so I don't think I'll ever have that much, but they are paying attention to the way the fanbase and readers perceive and think about it. I think that's cool.

WR: I heard, via IMDb, that Kaya Scodelario from UK show Skins might be cast?

SW: Apparently that's not true. IMDb is basically Wikipedia, but I think she would have been an awesome pick. But I don't think that listing has anything to do with it.

WR: Who would your ideal cast be?

SW: I think they should go with unknowns, because when people are already famous, you already know that they're beautiful. It's hard to see someone not be a movie star when they are a movie star.

WR: Good point! So, as a genre, why do you think dystopia has become so popular?

SW: There's been a recent explosion, I agree. People do want to read more in a genre after they've read it, and something comes along and gets big - whether it's The Hunger Games or Uglies or some combination of the two - and you want to read more. I also think there's been a lot of post-apocalyptic movies, that post-millennial kind of thing, like 2012, or zombie movies. It's like, you don't have to do all your homework because civilization has crumbled! I think that idea will always be very appealing to teenagers.

I think world building is always interesting, whether you're reading a really good novel about living in another country or in the past or the future, it's always cool to be transported somewhere else.

WR: I think you might just be right! Moving away from Uglies and onto Leviathan, what made you write it and is it a planned trilogy?

SW: Yes, it's going to be a trilogy and there's actually going to be a fourth book as well, which is not a novel but an art book. As Keith and I were designing the stuff, we had some cutaways and some colour images that aren't in the books, and we saw them and said we should do an art book -- kind of like the Spiderwick Field Guide. I can actually show you a few.

WR: Yay! Yay! [They all look amazing, by the way]

WR: [Looking pointedly at KAT from S&S] I hope you're going to publish this!

KAT S&S: I believe we are, yes.

WR: Yay! That's the most exciting thing I've heard for ages.

SW: There's some really amazing stuff, so we're going to do a whole art book, which will be the fourth book. We're going to include all that extra stuff that makes the world bigger, like deck plans.

WR: So, talking about the illustrations, did you work closely with Keith Thompson to get it all right?

SW: Yeah. The way we do it is I write a couple of chapters and send them to Keith, and then he goes through and makes some suggestions as to what he thinks will be the right scenes to draw, and we bounce back and forth about what to draw. The after he does sketches, sometimes I rewrite based on what he draws. The one thing is he's a little smarter about some of the engineering -- when I write I know roughly how big something is, but he has to know exactly because the people have to fit in it. Like with the Stormwalker, I was like, "That seems bigger than I imagined it", but he explained it all to me. So that was really fun. We work really well together, and I pay him rather than the publisher.

WR: Oh cool. So did you choose him?

SW: Yeah, I brought the whole project to Simon & Schuster in the US and said here is the artist, here's me and his drawings, and here's what we're going to do. We sold it as a complete thing.

WR: I didn't know you did it like that. I thought you'd have all your writing and then bring him in after.

SW: That's how everybody usually does it. For one thing, I wanted the control, and with this many illustrations, you can't bring somebody in afterwards. He's working a year as well; there's 50 of his illustrations and they each take about a week. So he has to do it at the same time as me, otherwise the book would be coming out a year later.

WR: You are very much a team then. That's cool. If given the choice, would you side with the Clankers or the Darwinists?

SW: I'd probably be a Darwinist, just because the airships are cooler and the Clanker stuff would probably make me a bit motion sick.

WR: Yes, definitely! Can you tell us anything about the second book, Behemoth?

SW: In Behemoth, they go to Istanbul of course, and the Ottoman Empire -- which is an interesting and weird place, especially my version -- are Clankers, but their machines are actually in the shape of animals. So, for example, I'll show you a spoilery piece of art.

WR: [In my head: OMG! SO COOL!]

SW: So it's really cool because we basically created these two very different aesthetics - all the Clanker stuff has hard edges and is very mechanical, and the Darwinist stuff is really flowing and beautiful and more organic looking. So with this we created an intermediary kind of look, because it looks more like the Ottoman Empire, with domes and arches and all that stuff from that period. It was like creating a whole new world.

WR: The artwork's amazing. What else has Keith Thompson done?

SW: This is his first full book, but he did some illustrations for a middle grade book called Nightwing. He designs video games and creatures for movies. He's a full-time artist.

WR: How did you get him on board for Leviathan?

SW: I came out of nowhere and said, "Hey, I like your stuff, it's really cool". I'd already written maybe 60 pages when I realised it was missing something. I was inspired by the old fashioned toys and adventures of the period. I didn't just want it to be about 1914, I wanted it to be like a book from 1914. Books back then all had illustrations, even for adults, with books like Sherlock Holmes and War of the Worlds. What Keith did for the style was look at Punch magazine from the 1910s and 1920s. I call it Victorian Manga, because it's like Victorian art but at the same time it's accessible and cool.

WR: So with the art book you mentioned, will that be due straight after the third book, Goliath?

SW: I'm not sure, it depends on how together we are. I think it should be pretty close after Goliath, it would make sense. We're doing it at the same time, as you saw we've already got some images.

WR: How come you didn't include the colour illustrations in the book? Was it too costly?

SW: Well they don't really fit into the story, because they're not technical drawings. The colour portraits from the Leviathan trailer are the first ones we did, and like I said they really show the different aesthetics of the two sides. We were thinking about what to do with them, maybe put them in the art book. And then Simon & Schuster said they were thinking about including a map, so readers wouldn't get lost. So then they did that amazing map, which you also haven't seen...

WR: No, it's not in our edition.

SW: I know, it's terrible! It's a colour map, so that's what we started doing colour, and that's when the idea for the art book came about. We sort of just backed into it by accident.

WR: I know Leviathan is classed as steampunk. I don't actually know what that is, so I thought I'd ask you...

SW: Steampunk is sort of like nostalgia for Victorian science fiction, and futures that never were. It's a weird mix of the future, like a spaceship, but at the same time it has a very Victorian or Edwardian design. Just those weird juxtapositions of the past and future. Most steampunk is set in the 1800s, so this is later - it's Edwardian steampunk.

WR: Thanks! I now feel slightly more intelligent. Moving on from the Leviathan series to the Midnighters series... if you had a secret midnight hour, how would you choose to spend it?

SW: Well, if I had one of their superpowers, I'd want to be Jonathan and be able to fly. That's always been my favourite superpower - in all my good dreams, I can fly.

WR: Well, Superman is cool for a reason. They've been repackaged here with different covers.

SW: Yeah, I really like them!

WR: Me too, but I prefer the original ones that make a clock on the spine.

SW: That was a really cool idea.

WR: Do you have any plans for more vampire stories in the future?

SW: No, I think the world has enough vampires. I don't have any vampire ideas right now.

WR: So which of your series is your favourite?

SW: Oh, Leviathan. Maybe because it's the thing I'm working on right now, but also working with Keith has been really cool and it's kind of nice expanding from being a novelist to being a novelist and art director, because I do have a lot of control and that's cool. It's been a fun experience to learn how to tell stories with pictures - it's genuinely different. Figuring out what to show and making it balance is important.

WR: How long is the whole process of getting one of the Leviathan books together? Yes, I've gone back to Leviathan! I love it.

SW: Leviathan was a long time because I wrote 60,000 words and then did other things for a year - I wrote Extras, and I wanted to find the right illustrator. The books actually take more than a year - from when I start writing to when I turn in the last piece of art is about 15 months. We don't meet up because Keith's in Canada, but we email a lot.

WR: It sounds like a well-oiled machine. [No Leviathan pun intended, honest!] What other YA books do you read yourself? Do you like other YA?

SW: Yeah, Sarah [Rees Brennan]'s books are wonderful, I'm a big fan of Holly Black, and I really like The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.

WR: How about The Mortal Instruments?

SW: Yeah I've read them and I really like Cassie's stuff a lot.

WR: Well that was my last question, so thank you very much!

SW: Cool, you're welcome!


Mrs. DeRaps said...

Wow. Awesome interview. Like you, I've only read the first two in the Uglies series, but I will read the rest at some point. I love the UK covers, but prefer the US ones. Maybe it's just because I'm used to them. I have Leviathan waiting for me on my TBR shelf--I better get to it soon! And, can't wait for the movie version of the Uglies!

Ryan Woods said...

Great interview Jenny, and a great way to kick start S&S Appreciation Week! :)

Chrystal said...

Great interview. I'm very jealous that you got a sneak peak at the art. :) Very cool. Looking forward to reading many of the books mentioned above. I've read lots about Scott Westerfeld's work, but have yet to read the books you mentioned above.

Cialina said...

OH man. This was such a great interview. I've only ever read Leviathan, but now I think that I MUST read the Uglies. I really enjoyed this! Thanks for posting.

So Many Books, So Little Time said...

I don't need to tell you how jealous I am again, do I? :)

Fantastic interview.

Lyndsey said...

What a fantastic interview. I haven't read any of his books yet but they do look very interesting.

Becky said...

You asked some fabulous questions Jenny. I have to say I hope that we don't get belly sensors in the future because that would seriously freak me out. Hoverboards, now that is a new technology I could embrace.

kirsty at the overflowing library said...

awesome - i love the uglies series - I always thought the whole series would be fab as films!

Fi-chan (Bookish-Escape) said...

Wow a lot of interesting questions and answers! I love conversation-y interviews. :D

and wow, the UK covers for Uglies series are pretty cool! I love the US cover for Specials though. So I guess if I'm buying this series, it'll be a mix of US and UK cover, US cover for book3, definitely.

Carla said...


Cupcake said...

this is so cool, great interview! i love the Uglies series :) and i hope to read Leviathan some day.

Aleksandra said...

Wow, great, great interview :)

Lori said...

This is a great interview!! I love the Uglies series!! I need to read Leviathan asap! Scott is going to be in my area next month and I MUST go!!

Jan von Harz said...

What an amazing interview. you really had some fantastic questions and Scott has some terrific responses. I did not know they were thinking of making Uglies into a movie, but I can see where it would make a great one. Thanks for sharing this.

Elizabeth Briggs said...

Great interview. I love the UK covers for Uglies, haven't seen those before.