In the Best Worlds: Since you write books for teenagers, what were you like as a teen?
Ilsa J. Bick: Enormously geeky, really shy, very isolated with few friends, and not terrifically good-looking: God, that depresses me just to read all that. But it’s the truth. I didn’t travel with the in crowd at all, and they all made fun of me anyway, until they needed help with their homework.
I kind of wrote about this experience for DEAR TEEN ME; you can read some of the gory details here: http://dearteenme.com/?p=240
ItBW: Congrats on the publication of Monsters, the final book in this trilogy! What were some of the obstacles you unexpectedly encountered in writing this story in three installments?
IB: Thanks, and hmmm . . . good question. I think it’s that I didn’t write all these in a row but wrote other books in-between. I’m not sure this was necessarily an obstacle. In fact, that was a good thing because I was a different writer by the time I did SHADOWS and different again, with more completed novels under my belt, when I got to MONSTERS. So, in some ways, I think that coming at each book with more experience and a fresh eye was helpful because I could better see opportunities to re-imagine and expand. If I’d done them all at once, I’m not sure that would’ve been the case. For example, I had a very different ending in mind for MONSTERS when I’d just finished ASHES. Wrote it down and everything. But when it came time to write that final section, I realized that my original idea was okay but not great because, by then, my characters and the situations had grown, in a very organic way. Forcing them to be what I’d imagined a couple years back would like wearing clothes that just doesn’t suit you anymore.
ItBW: You create this awesomely dark world that unfolds right before us. What was your biggest challenge in building an apocalyptic world?
IB: Not pulling back on how horrible people can be and would become. While I know that everyone would like to think that people will pull together, history—and current-day reality—sort of suggest the opposite. In a disaster, I truly believe that many otherwise decent people will behave in ways they never dreamed possible. Look around: people routinely do all the wrong things for what they believe are the right reasons. Why should the Apocalypse be any different? At the end of the world as we know it, I think people will be surprised at the monsters they meet. Some might even be staring out from the mirror.
ItBW: I’m from the Midwest, and I really love that the Ashes trilogy covers familiar terrain. How has the Midwestern landscape influenced the world you’ve written?
IB: Oh gosh, that’s a tough question. Having lived all over (my dad was military) and then worked for more than twenty years on the East Coast, I felt this tremendous amount of relief leaving all that frenzy behind. As a shrink, I think that half the problems I saw stemmed from the lifestyle people thought they had to live and then forced on their kids, who were scheduled up the wazoo and had no conception of anything beyond a very narrow focus (and most of that tied to an urban setting). A lot of these kids’ problems came from being overscheduled, overbooked, overworked, and over-pressurized. Their parents were anxious, and so were the kids. I’d often wondered what would happen if the pace were ratcheted back a tad. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors and way more than my folks ever did. Whenever I got a chance back in D.C. to head to the hills, I did. Taking potential boyfriends on excruciating hikes to see if they could make it to the top without passing out was, you know, my thing.
Coming here, to a very small and insular village, has been a true eye-opener—and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Not that the Midwest is uniform, though. Just as there are different neighborhoods in a city, trying to talk about “the Midwest” runs the risk of oversimplification. But, by and large, I like that I can hop on my bike and be in farm country in about five minutes or, when the breeze is right, know exactly what the farmers are doing to their fields at any given moment (ah . . . the smell of cow manure in the morning: smells like . . . breakfast).
I think the biggest influence the Midwest’s had on my writing is this: not only have I become acquainted with people who are not white-collar professionals, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about all types of lifestyles and industries about which most of us have no clue. I’m talking farmers, miners, lumberjacks, papermill folks, that kind of thing. A ton of kids here never make it to college, or only do a couple years at an extension or tech school. There are people here who believe that a town with 50,000 people is a big city. I’ve met kids who’ve never been on an airplane or left the state and for whom going to New York was a huge adventure. Yes, it’s often times insular, but there is also something lovely about living in a small village where the school has 500 kids, total, K-12; teachers have known the kids forever; and the kids have known each other forever, too.
Still, people here do make assumptions because differences here aren’t huge. The vast majority of folks are white and Protestant (although you’ve got a huge Hmong population in the next town over because the Lutherans, principally, brought them over after the Vietnam War when the U.S. effectively abandoned them). I’ve had long conversations with people who’ve never met a Jew. Ours is, in fact, the only mezuzah in the village. Some folks have a couple interesting ideas of what Jews are all about (like . . . we bury our dead standing up). The things you take for granted on the coasts aren’t here, and that goes for tolerance, too. You can no longer assume that you’re in like-minded company, and sometimes—often—have to be careful what you say. The mindset is completely different.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like I said, where I last came from, people were kind of full of themselves and very focused on letting you know just how hard they worked. Now, that’s not to say they didn’t work hard. We all did. Yet one thing here that is so different from there: people work very hard here, and their opportunities are limited. Kids whose folks are farmers not only do the sports and school, but they get up early and take care of the animals. They work the farm. They can spend a summer walking the rows of a seed field, pulling anomalous weeds, by hand, because you can’t let weird seed get all mixed up in pure stock. And they do that over acres and acres and acres, all summer long. Money is often very tight, and kids aren’t wearing the latest trendy clothes either. Those stores don’t exist out here. Yet this is an accepted part of life. No one talks about the work or complains. They just do it.
ItBW: Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
IB: Sure: I tend to do is pretty much line up my books like Boeing 747s on the runway. Just go to clear them for takeoff, is all.
In a couple weeks, I’ll be going through the final pass-through for Book I of my new Dark Passages Series, WHITE SPACE. Currently, though, I’m in hand-to-hand combat with the sequel, THE DICKENS MIRROR. If you want a general idea what the books are about . . . think The Matrix meets Inkheart and Inception, and that will give you a clue. They’re basically YA horror/psychological thrillers with a dash of sci-fi and, in the case of DICKENS MIRROR, a dash of historical fiction.
Just as soon as I’m done with DICKENS MIRROR—if the thing doesn’t kill me first—I’ll go back to a new standalone I’m about halfway through. Finish that, and then I’ll revisit SAVING SKY, which is the first book in another projected YA sf series that I’ve also got about half-written. I’ve also got ideas for three other standalones that are in the outline phase.
So I’m busy. But that’s how I like it. Otherwise, I just get bored.
Finish these sentences…
My weapon of choice for the zombie apocalypse would be…Frankly? My two feets: I would get myself very far away from where the zombies might be. It’s a military thing, if you stop to think about it. The idea is to live to fight another day, not go looking for trouble.But, if push came to shove, and I had to choose, then I’d go for three different kinds of firearms, because specific guns are made for specific purposes, and there is no all-around weapon that will do every job equally well. So, for those close encounters of the worst kind: Glock 19. For long-range work (and hunting because we all have to eat): AR15/M4 variant. For versatility and the ability to accept all kinds of ammunition: Mossberg 500 pump-action. Love that ratcheting sound, too. Scares the bejesus out of an intruder, though—maybe—not a zombie.
People would be surprised to know…Just how incredibly shy I am. Really. Melt-into-the-wall shy. I only look confident and social. Thank years of acting and forensics. Why do you think I became a shrink? It’s so I can get you to talk to me.
We could be best friends if…Crap. Other than my husband, I have no best friends, so I don’t know. Really.
Thanks so much to Ilsa for answering my questions! Make sure you check out Monsters and the rest of the Ashes trilogy!