Debuting Author Cynthia Hand wants to get the word out about about her first book Unearthly, along with give us a little insight in to her life. Enjoy this lovely interview.
What was it about angels that grabbed you as opposed to witches, warlocks, vamps etc?
Brace yourself: I have a long answer for this one:
Why did I choose to write about angels? This is a question I get a lot these days, and I always feel a little funny answering it, because the truth is, there was never a clear, definitive moment where I said to myself, “you know what? I’m going to write about angels!” It just sort of came about organically.
The seed that became Unearthly was always Clara—I clearly started to hear the voice of this character, this girl who knew that it was her destiny to save a boy who she kept seeing in visions. (For the record, usually in life it’s not a good sign when you’re hearing voices, but as a writer that’s how it usually first comes to me, a voice that wants to tell a story. Call me crazy, but I can accept that kind of craziness. It’s worked out pretty well for me so far. ) So I started to hear Clara’s voice, and she began to tell me about this mission that she was on. Then I lit on this fantastic image of a forest fire, and once I had that, the story began to unroll itself. With the forest fire came the setting of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and with the setting came the character of Tucker, this other, more rough-and-tumble boy who captures Clara’s attention and complicates everything beautifully. So suddenly I had the who, the what, the where, and the when.
Now all I had left to do was think of the why. And write about the how.
The why led me to angels. First off, I knew that I wanted Clara to be special; I wanted her to be a modern-day, bona fide hero. But I also knew I wanted her to be human. I didn’t want her to be a vampire or a fairy or any other kind of wholly supernatural creature—even though I love reading those books; don’t get me wrong. I wanted her to have some unique problems, sure, but I also wanted her to have very normal, human problems. I wanted her to be a high school girl who gets completely tongue-tied around the boy she likes.
I kept mulling over the word “hero,” and then, in one of those freakish writerly flashes of inspiration, I remembered this one obscure little passage in the Bible that talked about heroes—the Nephilim, the offspring of angels and humans.
I’d been interested in the Nephilim since I was a little girl and read Madeleine L’Engle’s book Many Waters, in which the main characters travel back to the time of Noah where there are angels walking around on earth, and some of the angels have children by human women. This idea always fascinated me—what would it be like, I wondered, to know that you’re part angel, the blood of the divine running through your veins? It would be crazy, right? Maybe it would be cool, maybe you’d have all these neat powers, but it might also be a lot of pressure!
As soon as I hit on the Nephilim idea, I knew that’s what Clara was, and all the other pieces of my story tumbled right into place. Then I had loads of fun coming up with the rules and mythology of the new world I was creating. That’s where some of the real joy of writing comes from—it’s just wildly fun to invent all these cool things and see them play themselves out on the page. I also kind of fell in love with how the story immediately began to operate on two levels, the surface level where Clara faces all her real-life challenges, and another deeper, spiritual level where she is forced to confront all of the big questions of life, the “why am I here?” questions.
That’s the tricky thing about writing about angels—they are, at heart, a topic steeped in religious connotation. I never wanted to write a book that advocated any one religion or set of religious beliefs, but I also didn’t want to ignore the spiritual implications of the story. I did a lot of research on angels and their history, which was incredibly interesting stuff, but I also gave myself permission to take the pieces of information that lit up my imagination and leave the rest—to create a world that was fully Clara’s own. So in the end, I just wrote what happened to this particular girl and tried to make the situation as real as possible: if you found out you were part-angel, how would you feel about life? About the idea of God? About your duty to that God? About your place in the world?
What is it about your book/characters/mythology that makes it different to others out currently?
One of the things that’s always sort of bothered me about some angel books is that it feels as if the writer are simply writing about vampires with wings. It feels like the same thing, the same elements, but they’ve just changed the signals. So instead of having fangs and drinking blood, you have wings and can fly. I really wanted to get away from that. I also did not want to write about the Apocalypse, I didn’t want to write about a terrible battle between good and evil. Like I said before, I wanted to write about one girl and her own, personal battle.
Was it difficult to get your first book published? What was the process?
This is a weird question for me, since in some ways publishing my first novel went incredibly smoothly (it was the first novel I ever completed, I never had a single rejection on the novel, and it sold within six weeks of me finishing a draft) but I also took a very long time to get to that point. It was one part talent, one part maturity, and like ten parts sheer, lightning-strike kind of luck, in my opinion.
So it seemed easy, right? And in some ways, it was, unbelievably so—please don’t hate me, lol. But I’d also like to point out that I studied writing in a crazy hard-core kind of way for ten years before I ever tried to publish a novel. I took the school route in becoming a writer, and I’ve always been glad I did. I have an M.F.A. in fiction writing and a PhD in English with a Creative Writing emphasis. I never tried to publish anything, not a story, poem, nada until the end of my first year in the PhD—I wanted to focus on my writing and making my writing as much like art as I possibly could before I distracted myself with worrying about publication (I was also a tiny bit chicken and didn’t want to get rejected before I felt like I really knew what I was doing, to be honest). So, when I finally decided to submit my work, things went fairly well. My first published short story got the attention of my agent, she called me, we talked about what I was working on, and that’s how I connected with her. Then when I had a novel, I gave it to her, and she knew just what to do with it.
How do you develop your character’s individual personalities? Are they inspired by anyone you know or do they have a little bit of you in them?
I kind of discover my character’s personalities. I tend not to base major characters on anybody I know, although they all carrying traces of people I know, in some fashion, which I think is only natural. Many, many of my characters have elements of me in them, and I work out a lot of my own issues through what my characters face and questions they ask.
How would you explain the modern fascination with vampires / the occult / murders / mysteries? What do you think is it about us that is drawn to these elements?
I think the reason that the paranormal genre has gotten so big (in young adult books) is that it mirrors the teenage situation, where you feel like you’re becoming something different and something special. There’s something dark about that time, so the vampire thing and the werewolf thing takes off of that – this sort of change, and I think what draws us to these stories is that we get to explore these dark places from a relatively safe place. Maybe the angels have a little bit different twist on that since, while angel stories can get very dark, there’s almost always a hope for redemption, implicit in the mythology of angels. Forgiveness. Falling and rising up again. And maybe our society, in the darker times we’ve fallen upon, really yearns for stories like that. Stories with hope.
It seems that every book or comic book is being adapted into films now, what are your thoughts on this? Would you like for your books to follow the same process? If so, which actors would you prefer for your main characters?
The film rights from Unearthly have sold, so I’ve been able to ponder this quite a lot lately. One tremendously exciting thing about having your book adapted for film or television is that you would get to see the story so much more visually For me, Unearthly was such a visceral, visual process, and one of the elements I was never quite satisfied with in the book was my own inability to show the reader exactly what this part of Wyoming looks like. I wish I could have included pictures. It’s an incredibly gorgeous, awe-inspiring, magical place, and that would make for beautiful film!
As far as actors go, I’d want to stay with actors who are the right age, so for Clara probably somebody like Dakota Fanning, AnnaSophia Robb, or Saoirse Ronan, an actress with a lot of talent and sensitivity. When I was writing Clara, I saw her as a kind of cross between Rachel McAdams and her spunky, fun-loving energy, and Amanda Seyfried, with her large, expressive eyes and long blonde hair. Christian had a touch of Zac Efron in him, although maybe Christian needs to be a bit edgier, and a Kellan Lutz kind of actor would be great as Tucker, although both Efron and Lutz seem too old to me to be playing 17 year olds.
What future projects are you working on? Can you tell us anything about them?
The novel I’m working on at the moment (currently in edits with my editor) is the sequel to Unearthly, entitled Hallowed, which will probably be out around January 2012. This book continues to follow Clara as she deals with the consequences of her fateful choice in the forest on the day of the fire, along with a whole new set of conflicts and adventures along the way. There will be some new characters, some old characters seen in a different light, with more focus given to the purposes of the other angel-bloods in the story, namely Jeffrey and Maggie. There will also be some rodeo, skiing, and Wyoming sight-seeing, and maybe the appearance of a full-blooded angel or two.
What is one thing you’d like your fans to know about you and your book?
I think if there’s any wish I have for my readers, it’s just that I hope you enjoy reading Unearthly as much as I enjoyed writing it. I loved being in that world, and even if the book had never been published (and obviously I am thrilled that it was) I’d still feel be grateful and in awe of this story and all that it brought to my life. The story was like a gift, and what’s awesome about this whole situation is that it’s a gift I get to share with you!
Who is your favorite literary character and why? Who is your favorite villain and why?
Hmmm, one of my favorite literary characters would have to be Anne from Anne of Green Gables. I love how she is able to see beauty everywhere, even when she herself is in the most terrible of circumstances. I want to be like her!
My favorite villain is a tougher question, and one doesn’t come easily to mind, except maybe the character of Snape in the Harry Potter series. What I love about him is that he’s painted with so many shades of gray—we can never decide if he’s truly a bad guy, although at times he seems so evil, but then at other times he seems so vulnerable and loyal to the right things. I heart Snape.
If you could spend time with any author (alive or dead) who would it be and why? What would you expect to gain from that experience?
My concentration for the literature part of grad school was Hemingway, so I think I’d honestly like to spend some time with him to see what he was really like under all his layers of macho. I’d love to fish with that guy, although I don’t know if I’d expect to be treated very well by him. Another writer I’d love to simply be in the presence of is Harper Lee. Love her. Flannery O’ Conner, because I would want to talk about setting and spirituality with her. C.S. Lewis, and we’d drink tea and talk about how to blend realism with fantasy.
OBS Book Review of Unearthly
Keeping Up With Cynthia Hand