I took Phoebe North‘s young adult scifi Starglass with me on a weekend beach trip, and I couldn’t put it down, missing out on group board games to stay in the well-crafted world of generation ship Asherah, eager to find out if it would reach its destination before revolution hit and whether Terra, North’s passionate-and-confused heroine, would ever get her love life together.
Starglass is not only suspenseful, it’s intelligent and insightful. I found myself raving about it for days afterwards, and I am so happy there’s a sequel coming out so I don’t have to say goodbye to Terra’s world just yet.
I was lucky enough to interview Phoebe, who I connected with through my agent and hers, Michelle Andelman at Regal Literary. (I actually remember Michelle telling me about Starglass right after she sold it, and it was just as good as her enthusiasm led me to believe!)
Phoebe: Well, it’s kind of a convoluted story. Starglass started out as a short story I wrote in graduate school for a class on James Joyce. I was an MFA, a creative writing student. I did a YA rewrite of “Eveline” set on a generation ship—a vignette of a ship falling apart. The ship was culturally Irish. I really liked it, but my professor hated it. I asked him if I could rewrite it, and he said no, he didn’t want me wasting my time on it. I heard right around that time that Beth Revis’ Across the Universe had sold and YA scifi was what I wanted to do. So I got the idea to put a space rebellion in this James Joyce story and expand it into a book.
Q: Can you tell me more about your relationship with scifi?
Phoebe: I’m just a huge science fiction nerd—it’s where I started in terms of both reading and writing. I loved Star Trek, and everyone in my family is a Trekkie. I loved Star Wars too, and I was obsessed with this show, Space Cases, I was really into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders novels, too, and I started doing writing in middle school that was set in that universe.
When you are a big scifi reader, you approach world-building differently—the world-building tends to be more dense [than in other genres]. Jo Walton had an article at tor.com called “SF Reading Protocols” about how scifi authors use a process called “incluing” to construct the universe of their book. I found this helpful. I think there’s less handholding in world-building in scifi. You trust readers more to put it together.
Q: What was the process of writing Starglass?
Phoebe: It was not very organized process. The very first version of Starglass didn’t have any of the Jewish cultural elements; it was just a very generic sort of YA space setting (vocational counselors were called voc counselors). I was just trying to tell this story about this girl, but eventually I thought, you’re capable of much better world-building than this.
At the time I had named Terra,“Terra Fineberg,” just because Fineberg was my mother’s last name. Then I thought, maybe she actually needs to be Jewish. Judaism in diaspora has a lot in common with generation ships, as the people are wandering from their homeland.
I had to answer questions such as, why would there be a ship of Jews in space? It required a pretty big rewrite to get all those details in. I really had to interrogate the book to create a universe that feels real and cohesive.
Q: Starglass has some mature themes, specifically it goes pretty deep with sexuality and death. Can you tell me more about your experience writing about these themes?
Phoebe: I really enjoyed a lot of YA dystopians, but sometimes they seemed not to answer all the questions they raised. For instance, if you have compulsory heterosexual marriage, who is that really dystopian for? Who would that impact the most? That’s how I started exploring issues of sexuality in the book.
[About Terra’s very realistic grief at her mother’s death] I once read a blog post, by an agent who shall remain nameless, about books with dead parents, and the agent said they never want to see another book that starts with a funeral. That it’s depressing and kids don’t understand it. I got really angry about that. I wanted to explore loss and grief. I wanted to approach that really honestly.
Q: I loved Terra’s untraditional romances (untraditional for today’s YA, anyway). Can you tell me more about your thoughts behind her not-always-logical love life?
Phoebe: That was pretty intentional on my part. I knew that I didn’t want her to end up with the first person she ever kisses because she lives in such a small society and her options are so, so limited. Her romantic arc grows out of that—she’s in a very constrained society but on the verge of entering a much more diverse experience. It’s like how you know people in high school and then you get to the people in college and your options open up in ways you never anticipated. In Starglass, there’s no clear love interest. Terra has different romantic encounters and these boys have good things about them and bad things about them, she tries to make the best of whatever situation she’s in.
Q: That’s a great way to sum up Terra—she always seems to be trying to make the best of whatever situation she’s in. She’s not exactly the most certain or confident heroine. What was it like writing about someone who could be rather mercurial?
Phoebe: She is a hard person to be with—it’s hard to be in her head. I come from a similar background and experienced some of the same things. My husband insists that she’s more me than I think. She wants to be loved, and she makes mistakes trying to achieve that love.
She faces these big life choices. She messes up a lot. When I think about who I was at that age, I know I did a lot of things that would easily qualify me as an “unlikeable character.”
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the sequel?
Phoebe: The sequel’s done—it’s called Starbreak and it comes out in July of 2014, and it definitely closes up Terra’s story. It’s a duology, which I planned from the beginning, for reasons that I hope become clear. I love the sequel a lot, but writing it was difficult, even though I had it all plotted out before we ever sold Starglass.
I got about 50,000 words in, and was thinking in the back of my head, this is not the right book. I sent it to my agent, she looked over it and agreed. So I started again from scratch. At the end of the first book, Terra could go down one of two paths, and in the first draft she did the first thing and in the second she does the second. It’s much better this way. Yay for starting over!
Q: Do you have any reading recommendations?
Phoebe: I just read In the After by Demetria Lunetta. It was superintense. I read it in two sittings.
Q: What’s your writing routine?
Phoebe: By any means necessary. I have a lot of tricks to trick me into feeling that it’s not work. Writing with friends on Google Hangout. Posting snippets of what I’m working on in forums. It gives me a little more accountability, because otherwise I’m surfing the internet. I’m a fairly fast writer, but the minute I think I know what my process is it changes.