AUTHORS FROM TWO CONTINENTS COMBINE FOR YA SCI-FI FUN
By Paul Freeman [January 2018 Interview]
Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, popular authors in the Young Adult, Science-Fiction worlds, work together very closely. It’s just that when they do, they’re usually 9, 844 miles apart.
Spooner resides in Asheville, North Carolina. Kaufman lives with her husband and rescue dog in Melbourne, Australia. While they dash through adventures set in the near future, the two writers rely on today’s technology - Skype, Google Hangouts, instant-messaging, texts and emails.
They teamed to create the award-winning “Starbound” trilogy. Their latest work has just been unveiled. It’s “Unearthed,” the first in a duology. It’s already been optioned and is being adapted into a major film.
Kaufman and Spooner met online 12 years ago, participating in a fan fiction, role-playing game. Spooner said, “Our styles clicked and we became friends almost overnight. We’ve been writing together ever since.”
They learned that they have similar tastes, not only in fiction, but in other areas of life. Spooner said, “We also both love good TV, going for long brainstorming walks, tea, and anything nerdy — science, linguistics, philosophy — and especially anything to do with outer space.”
Kaufman and Spooner get together a couple of times per year, most often during book tours. But they’re constantly emailing and texting. Spooner said, “The emails are a crazy mishmash of work-related and chatting and keeping each other updated on our lives.”
They are long-distance best friends. “Actually, I would say we’re closer to sisters,” Kaufman said, reached by phone in Melbourne.
They’re incredibly inventive — that’s for sure. Packed with action, adventure and romance, “Unearthed” tells a compelling story. With Earth already decimated by environmental disaster, attention has turned to Gaia, the planet of an extinct alien race. Our two teen heroes, Mia and Jules explore a danger-filled ancient temple. They have their own agendas, but the survival of their home world may hinge on their deeds.
The writers lived as flatmates for a while in Australia, while Spooner was on her gap year, following college. But their collaboration has worked primarily via internet communication tools.
For a decade, they wrote purely for fun, their own entertainment and the love of creating. But when Spooner sold her first novel, they realized that, potentially, what they had been working on could also be published. “These Broken Stars,” first in the “Starbound” series, was published in 2013 and the women were established as a blockbuster duo.
From the beginning, their collaborative process clicked. Spooner, who also wrote the “Skylark” trilogy, said, “It never gets boring. If one of us starts to flag, the other’s got ideas. And there’s nothing like someone else’s passion for your writing to keep you motivated. We trade chapters back and forth like presents for each other, and it’s always exciting to read what the other has done.”
In “Unearthed,” Spooner and Kaufman were intrigued by the notion of combining archaeology and science-fiction. Spooner started out majoring in Archaeology in college, until the fair-skinned writer encountering extremely hot, sandy, spider-laden conditions at her first actual dig. Kaufman studied History at university and enjoyed examining other civilizations, as well.
“We’re both nerds,” Spooner said. “Combining almost anything with science fiction is exciting — just add “in space” to the end of anything and it becomes infinitely cooler. We both knew we were going to have a great time writing this one.”
“To be honest, we’re also huge Indiana Jones fans,” said Kaufman, who co-authored “The Illuminae Files.” In fact the spark for “Unearthed’”came during a book tour, on a rare afternoon off, when the pair was watching an Indy movie marathon in their hotel room.
Kaufman said, “We were literally just saying to each, ‘Gosh, why aren’t there more Young Adult books like this that are just fantastic, romping adventures, with the puzzles and the banter and the close scrapes?’ And we were talking very much as readers, rather than as writers, at that moment. We were actually getting quite indignant about it for a while… until we suddenly had this light bulb moment where we went, ‘Hang on a moment — we could write those books, if we want them.’ Within a week, we had begun.”
Their distinctive, relatable characters help make this ride entertaining. Kaufman said, “We really we like to explore characters from different worlds. And occasionally, that is literally characters from different worlds, if we’re really getting into space opera territory. But also just characters from different backgrounds. Today more than ever, we can all use a bit of practice at understanding people who see the world differently than the way we do.”
Jules is a privileged, sheltered academic from Oxford. Mia is a high school dropout, a street smart scavenger from the Midwest. They have snuck onto Gaia for very different reasons.
Spooner said, “They’re ideologically opposite one another — they each think the other’s lifestyle is wrong in some way — and yet they come to respect, admire, and even love each other over the course of the book. It’s always fun to show people realizing they don’t have all the answers.”
Kaufman said, “It’s so interesting to me to see two characters who are coming from the same place, but who perceive it completely differently, because of the lives they’ve lived. Mia has grown up knowing that if she doesn’t do it for herself, nobody else will do it for her. If she doesn’t protect herself, then what she has will be taken. And yet she’s still managed to keep hold of this enormous heart and this generosity, whether it’s protecting her sister back home or whether it’s looking at Jules, who is a genius, but doesn’t have any field experience, and thinking, ‘If I walk about from you, you’re probably going to die… and I don’t want that on my conscience.’
“With Jules, there’s a little bit of my academic curiosity in there,” Kaufman said. “I stayed at university for a long time, earned three different degrees, before I managed to exit. And I do kind of love his pure, scientific inquiry. I also found it interesting to write about the privileges he has that are invisible to him.
“There’s one scene in the book where he’s talking about the fact that he plays water polo for a sport. And for Mia, it is inconceivable that this would happen, because she comes from a city where every drop of fresh water is valuable,“ Kaufman said. “And he’s telling her that he literally swims in it for recreation. And he sort of has an idea that this isn’t going to go across that well, but, at the same time, that clearly hasn’t ever stopped him from doing it. So he doesn’t really get the realities of how other people live. He hasn’t really grappled with them. So it’s watching both of them get their heads around how the other person lives. And what starts for him as a very personal quest to clear his father’s name becomes very quickly about the world and about saving far more people than his father. So watching that kind of coming out of his shell and into having to grapple with the whole world was really interesting to me.”
For all the excitement and fun, readers will also find some thought-provoking themes in “Unearthed.” “You never write a book to teach a lesson,” Kaufman said, “because, as soon as you do, you’re preaching and your readers will, quite rightly, disappear. But we hope that after finishing one of our books, the reader will pause and consider a lot of things, whether it’s that somebody they might have put a label on might have been more complex than they thought… or whether it’s some of the environmental concerns.”
Spooner said, “We never set out to put morals into our books, but Amie and I are both very passionate about issues like climate change, and it’s impossible as an author not to touch on the things you care about. But the state of Earth during these books is not really science fiction — it’s very near-future. If it opens younger generations’ eyes a little, all the better — but really, I think the younger generations are much more aware of climate change — and more freaked out about it — than older ones, because they’re the ones who’ll have to live it moving forward.”
Kaufman took the lead on writing Jules; Spooner on Mia. The book alternates between those characters’ points of view from one chapter to the next. But the authors brainstorm and edit everything together.
Kaufman said, “I told Meg, ‘Oh, I love that line! It’s so beautiful!’ And Meg came back and said, ‘I don’t think I wrote that line.’ And we sort of stared at it like maybe the book faeries showed up. By the end of it, we’ve both had our fingerprints all over everything to such a degree that we honestly don’t know who wrote most things.”
As for the literary works that helped inspire “Unearthed,” Spooner said, “Way too many to list! The names of our main characters are shout-outs to two: Jules is named for Jules Verne, author of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and Amelia’s [Mia] named for Amelia Peabody, the heroine in a series of archaeological murder mysteries by Elizabeth Peters.”
The writing team doesn’t worry about marketing angles while writing. Kaufman said, “The timeline from selling your book to the publisher to the book being on shelves is about two years. So by the time you identify a trend, it’s too late to sell that book. So it’s a very good rule to write what you love and write the story that you think you can tell as well as you possibly can — and trust that it will find an audience.
Spooner and Kaufman, however, did create “Unearthed” with the notion of it being adaptable to film.
Kaufman said, “Most writers would love to see their stuff turn into a film. And obviously it’s always a one-in-a-thousand shot that a studio will even be interested in picking it up. So, on one hand, you wouldn’t want to make any choices within your book that would be purely for the ease of future filmmakers who will probably never exist. But on the other hand, because we’ve now sold a few projects into Hollywood, we sort of began to look at each other at one point and said, ‘This is feeling really cinematic. This is feeling like something that might get picked up.’ So we were absolutely delighted when it was.
“Angie Thomas, who wrote ‘The Hate U Give,’ has this fantastic explanation for book-to-movie adaptations that I love,” Kaufman said, “which is the book and the movie adaptation of the book are like identical twins that were separated at birth and given to two different families to be raised, in that, they come from exactly the same place, but they’re going to end up quite different because of that.”
One of the other projects that has been picked up is “These Broken Stars,” which is being adapted into a space adventure TV series.
Of the filmic future of “Unearthed,” Spooner said, “It occurred to us very early on that we were essentially writing a movie in book form. It’s certainly the most action-y, cinematic sort of book we’ve ever done together, and I’ll admit there was some talk about how good a movie it’d be someday, maybe, fingers crossed! Needless to say we were beyond psyched when Sony and Cross Creek jumped on board at the start.”
Jez and John-Henry Butterworth [“Spectre”] are already on the final polish version of the screenplay, which will be directed by Doug Liman [“Swingers,” “The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Chaos Walking”].
Kaufman and Spooner are writing the second book of the duology that will complete the “Unearthed” saga and will probably be published in January of 2019.
Spooner said, “From that first day, we knew it was a duology. I can’t tell you exactly why, because it involves spoilers, but the non-spoilery answer is that we set up a lot of dominos in book one — and then we get to knock ‘em all down in book two. In the most explosive way possible.”
They’re at home in YA. Kaufman said, “We just focus on telling the best stories that we can and it turns out that the stories we tell are YA stories. We feel there is no need to write down to YA readers or to make anything simple for them. They’re incredibly engaged and demanding readers.
The YA landscape has changed dramatically since these writers were adolescents. Spooner said, “YA didn’t really exist as a thing when I was a teenager. There were lots of authors writing science fiction and fantasy that were similar in terms of the quick pacing and deep character arcs to modern YA — Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones—and there are some classics that are now considered YA, like ‘The Golden Compass’ and ‘Sabriel,’ but it hadn’t taken off like it has in the last decade. It’s amazing to see teens with so many options for books in which they can really see themselves, as young adults — not children, not grown-ups — represented.”
Kaufman said, “We had middle grade books that you might read up till sixth or seventh grade and then we switched, for the most part, to adult fantasy and science-fiction. So we really missed an opportunity to see ourselves in books as much as we would have liked to. Not to say that there weren’t teen protagonists. I grew up on David Eddings and so on. But they were narrated from a more adult point of view, whereas in YA, perhaps the difference is that you’re sort of in the tunnel with them and you’re figuring things out with them, as they go.
“And interestingly, over half of YA readers are actually adults,” Kaufman continued. “And another author who I’m a huge fan of, Sarah Rees Brennan, once said at a panel that I was at that, Young Adult literature is the literature of transformation. So it’s the literature of figuring out who you’ve been and who you’re going to be next. And that’s something that we do in high school, but it’s also something that you do, whether it’s your first day at school as a student or your first day there as a parent, picking your kid up at a new school and not knowing any of the other parents who are there for pickup, when they all seem to know each other. Or whether it’s your first date, when you’re 15 years old or it’s your first date after your divorce — there’s this thing that humans do their whole lives, where we need to figure out who we are and then remake ourselves. I think that’s one of the reasons YA readership spans from teen all the way up to adults.”
As for the key components in a YA novel, Spooner said, “It’s a bit different for everyone, as there’s a variety of types of YA as wide and varied as there are books for adults. But for me, I find the most important qualities in good YA to be: strong characters — not necessarily physically or emotionally strong, but strongly characterized — with tangible arcs; rich settings that transport the reader; quickly paced plots, without too much navel-gazing; and a narrative that asks the sort of questions that teen readers — and the rest of us, let’s be honest — ask themselves as they come of age, questions about identity, purpose, and one’s place in the world.”
Science-fiction is the genre that Kaufman and Spooner find most satisfying. “There’s a difference in humans when we’re looking up and outward into the universe, versus when we’re looking down at the ground and keeping ourselves limited,” Kaufman said. “Science-fiction has a tradition of asking the really big questions. And it has a wonderful habit of taking us out of our current setting in a way that allows us to think about those questions without all of the baggage. It asks the big questions, but it allows us to step away from our own lives, while we consider them.
“Whether it’s as basic as the green people being terrible to the blue people on ‘Star Trek’ — and that’s racism, it’s just not racism with all of the immediate responses we have to racism in our own world — or whether it’s much bigger questions about who we want to be, as a species, it’s so interesting to ask them,” Kaufman said.
Spooner said, “More than any other genre, I think science fiction is an exploration of humanity. Science-fiction asks these vast, humbling questions: who are we, as a species? Where are we going? Who do we want to be? How do we get there, and where could we end up if we’re not careful? Newcomers to the genre often think SF will be harder to relate to, but in actuality I think it’s far closer to home than they might realize. And it’s the perfect genre for young adult fiction — because YA is all about characters asking themselves those same questions as they come of age — Who am I? Where am I going? Who do I want to become?”
Without question, these writers find their work fulfilling. Kaufman said, “It’s sharing stories with my co-authors, the moment when you send a part of the story that you’re making with somebody else to them and they love it and then they build on it and make it into something even more than what you had thought of originally. I love that feeling of working together and building something with someone else. And then when it goes out into the world and readers start to come back to you with their own interpretations, and their own pieces of it and their own emails that say, ‘Well, I think after that ending, so-and-so went and did this… ‘
“Stephen King says that writing is the closest thing we can get to telepathy,” Kaufman related. “I think he’s right. It’s an amazing experience — if I write something and do it well, then the people and places that are in my head are now in your head and we’re there together. And the experience of your co-author and the readers coming to share those stories with you is really extraordinary.”
Spooner loves interacting with readers, particularly at book signings. She said, “I write because of the connection you make with people through words — you imagine a world, and if you do it right, you can recreate that world brick by brick in the mind of someone you’ve never met. It’s a beautiful thing, and something that never, ever gets old.”
For more on these wondrously imaginative writers, visit: www.amiekaufman.com and www.meaganspooner.com