Interview with Rick Yancey!

As you guys know, I'm a huge fan of The Monstrumologist series and was among the legions of bloggers and readers who fought hard to keep the series alive. In celebration of the recent release of the third book, The Isle of Blood, and Simon and Schuster's decision to publish a fourth book in the series, I have a special treat. Author Rick Yancey has kindly agreed to an interview. Peruse Rick's awesome answers below. 

Q: One of the things I love best about young adult fiction is the freedom it offers authors to blend genre elements in a literary way. I think The Monstrumologist series takes advantage of these freedoms better than any other book I’ve read. Could you speak to this idea? What do you enjoy about writing young adult fiction?

A: The YA catagory does offer more freedom to explore genre-bending ideas. In fact, it's how I got into writing for young adults back in 2005. I had written a novel that mashed-up traditional detective fiction with fantasy and it was a no-go from the start. Publishers loved the storyline but declined the manuscript based on the very thing that made it unique. I rewrote the book with a teenage protagonist and the book went on to win numerous awards and found publishers in more than 17 countries. That's the big thrill in writing for teens. You're not bound by any convention except the rules of good story-telling. 
Q: It’s probably safe to say that novels with literary ambitions don’t always sell as well as novels written with the sole aim of entertaining. What advice do you have for aspiring YA authors who want to write “literary” novels? 
A: It's a cliche but true: write with passion about something you love. Don't worry whether you're writing a "literary" novel or a commercial one. Worry about the story. Write to move, entertain, fascinate yourself first. Writers are human (though some of us more than others!); trust that what moves you, entertains you, fascinates you will also move, entertain and fascinate a certain percentage of your fellow humans. Writers enjoy a unique relationship with readers. It's deeply intimate, like crawling around inside someone's head, yet perfectly "safe." I mean safe in the sense that the book can be set aside, thought about, discussed with others who were inside that same head. Emotionally invest yourself in your characters and their lives (the plot) and others will share that emotional investment - regardless of whether you throw in the "big themes" of literary fiction or simply wish to take readers on the roller coaster ride. -One of my favorite aspects of The Monstrumologist books is the incredible use of language. Sometimes I have to stop and read passages aloud, just as I would with particularly arresting poetry. Can you describe your writing process and how you go about crafting language? Pain! When writing these books, I would often say to my wife, "I am a Marine! I love pain!" And she always said, "You're not a Marine." There are certain points in all the books when I feel something building inside, a driving force that pushes me to the limit of my capabilities, a kind of longing, a desire to reach a point where the language isn't just a mirror of what's happening, but is THE THING ITSELF. That's a weird concept to wrap your head around and probably an expert in semantics or symbolism could explain it better. I never get it perfect, but there are times when I get close, and I know it, and it's thrilling and painful and heartbreaking because it's sort of like theater - fleeting, there and then gone forever. Sometimes I will write a passage a dozen times until I get the words as close as possible to the wordless thought, the inarticulate emotion. There is a long flashback in the first book where Will Henry recalls with nightmarish clarity the death of his parents, a death he would have shared with them had he not fled the burning house at the last moment. I struggled for a long time with how to end that passage, to find a way to express his survivor's guilt, his longing for the life he lost, the horrible trap of that trauma and how he could never be truly free of it. As I tried to stuff all those feelings and ideas into a single paragraph, it got shorter and shorter until I was left with this: "I escaped; I am bound. I ran; I remain." I was like, "YES!" The phrasing was metronomic, the alliteration just right, the repetition like the tolling of Donne's bell. Good writing is a slap upside your head. Those moments do not come often (at least for me), and it was not easy, but the pain was well worth it. You've got to be a little masochistic if you want to be left with something you can be proud of. 

Q: The era in which The Monstrumologist series takes place is one of my absolute favorite historical periods (my favorite activist/photographer Jacob Riis even gets a cameo in The Curse of the Wendigo). What made you decide to set The Monstrumologist series in the past, and how did you choose the late 1800s? 

A: The original concept was a middle-grade novel set in the present, Ghosbusters only with monsters. I was thinking cool gadgets, outlandish secret societies, fast-paced action. I couldn't make it work. It kept coming off like a bad Saturday morning cartoon. Then I had this image of a ratty old graverobber digging up something nasty in the middle of the night, and when you think about graverobbing, you think 19th century. So I started from the beginning, writing in third-person, but that didn't work either. Then I recalled what I loved about that era in literature, the epistiary form, and recast it as an old man driven to write about his childhood by demons (personal, not physical) he had struggled all his life to overcome. 
Q: You’ve described The Monstrumologist series as a love story disguised as a monster story. In what way is it a love story? 
A: Warthrop and Will Henry's story is the real guts of all the books. Horror only works to the extent that you care about what happens to the characters. Without that empathy, you're left with the equivalent of a slasher movie, which isn't true horror, but pornography. Whenever I start to get bogged down in the intricasies of plot or the inherent contradictions of monsters stalking the 19th century countryside, I tell myself, "Go back to the characters. These books are about the scariest monster of all - or at least the monster that scares Warthrop the most." Great stories, even horror stories, have emotional resonance. 

Q: You’ve created one of the most sympathetic protagonists in history in Will Henry, but you rarely make things easy for him (the scene in the tenement cellar in The Curse of the Wendigo is hands-down the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read). Fans love Will Henry, and you’ve said you do, too. Can you speak about how it feels to put such a lovable character in such perilous situations? 

A: I've said it many times, monstrumology ain't butterfly-collecting! Beyond that, one of the joys of reading, at least for me, is living through the character . . . I probably will never have to face the Minotaur, but through Theseus I can. Still, there are moments when I'm writing when I just have to stop. I get up and walk away. I can't take it. It's too much. I always interpret that as a good sign. I know Will Henry will get out of the jam (he lives to write about it, after all), but I also know for him to be "real" there will always be repurcussions. I have this habit (a bad habit, some would say) of taking things that happen in my books to their logical conclusion. I shy away from taking the easy way out ("And then the monster was dead and we all live happily ever after") If my goal is to hold a mirror up to human existence, there are certain fundamental facts I can't screw around with. One of these often uncomfortable facts is there are consequences for the things we do and even, especially, the things we don't. In the third book, THE ISLE OF BLOOD, these consequences begin to press down on Will with the force of a two-ton boulder. I don't like that - I do care for him, after all - but there it is.

Follow Rick Yancey on facebook or twitter, and order The Isle of Blood today from Amazon, The Book Depository, or your local independent bookstore today!