Canada is not only known for hockey and maple syrup, nope, it’s also known for terrific authors. One of them being, Leah Bobet, who tells the story of a boy who lives underground in a place called Safe, where he finds love with a girl named Ariel…if only she could stop running away. Leah weaves in love and action into this thrilling young adult fantasy novel. So, without further ado, let’s go behind the scenes and see what inspired the idea behind Above and learn some more about the amazing Lauren Bobet.
There were three or four elements that came together to form the idea for ABOVE. The first was reading an essay in Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride; it was coursework for a philosophy class in the third year of my university degree. The author was describing how his disability was diagnosed, and there’s a paragraph about having to stand, barely dressed and in pain, under bright lights for what felt like forever while the doctor used the diagnosis to teach medical students. It’s one of the most effective pieces of writing I’ve ever read: it’s full of shame and display and hurt, and it hit me right between the eyes.
The second thing was me getting kind of annoyed with the whole cliche of outcasts living underground and how it’s treated in fiction and TV. For one, there are lots of people who’d have better reasons to want to live outside of society in a safe place, a place where they weren’t marginalized or discriminated against, not just people with imaginary mutations. And living underground wouldn’t be fun or easy: so many TV shows had reliable technology and marble floors and people who were suspiciously clean living in secret. Really, you’d be stealing canned food all the time and every bad cold would turn into pneumonia.
The third thing was something I’d been wondering for a while: when you stop trying to save someone from themself. When constantly bailing someone out, saying it was okay, being supportive and taking time to help didn’t actually mean they’d get better, but that they’d just pull you into trouble that neither of you could get out of.
Those three things came together once I finally got a hint of Matthew’s narrative voice, and while a lot of other issues came into the book later, that was enough for a start.
What methods do you use to overcome writer’s block?
What I do when a project doesn’t want to be written is…well, you probably shouldn’t try it at home. Unless I can trace exactly why it’s stuck – something I haven’t thought through right, or having gone 4,000 words in the wrong direction, like I did this winter on the novel I’m working on right now – I figure that either my brain’s broken on writing right now, or the story’s not cooked through, and I just go away and I don’t write it. I write something else. Or I just don’t write and spend my time on other things.
Usually, when I duck back in after a month or two, whatever was knotted up in the back of my head on that project has sorted itself out. Or it hasn’t, and I put it away some more.
This is probably the exact opposite of what anyone else, anywhere, will suggest for getting around stuck bits in a manuscript. And they’re probably right. There are lots of things in my process that 1) work for me; and 2) are totally indistinguishable from filthily bad habits that nobody should ever have.
The YA book market is a competitive place, what do you think sets ABOVE apart from the rest?
Above is…it’s just a weird little book. It’s got elements of about five different genres and doesn’t fit into any one of them all that well, which meant when I wrote it, I was pretty sure it’d never sell or be published. After all, what would anyone do with the thing? (I am glad my editor figured out the answer to that one.)
It’s just very much itself. It’s a book with its own distinct personality. And a large part of that is Matthew’s narrative voice, which is really individual and distinct: an encapsulation of a smart, conflicted, pretty naïve sort of boy who suddenly has nowhere he belongs, but manages to find his place anyway. And I hope Above finds its place too.
Writing about an underworld must be difficult. How much of Safe was from your imagination and how much was from your research, and if Safe existed today what place would it look like most?
There was a lot of research that went into building Safe: soil types, where the water table was, how to get electricity and oxygen into an underground space but still keep it from being found. But a large part of it was, well, just making stuff up. I do that a lot. It’s at least informed when I make stuff up!
Most of the layout was just imaginary. I actually had to draw a map in the fourth or fifth draft or so, because places had kept floating around and being different in relation to each other. It was just a space in my head, and I’d never set it straight.
If Safe existed, it would probably look like…the shantytown communities outside Mexico D.F. or Manila or other major cities, all temporary housing cobbled together using whatever you can find and sheer creative ingenuity, but stuck inside a hollowed-out cavern. And very organized, and always a little too dark.
Ariel: There are so many layers to how she can be seen in Above. There’s the Ariel Matthew sees, which is pretty clouded by how he feels about her and who he wants her to be; there’s the Ariel she’s presenting for everyone else, like a mask; there’s the Ariel who’s actually living in her head, inside. And getting her actions and reactions to be consistent with all those layers and mirrors and filters was not an easy thing.
Why did you decide to write from Matthews POV and what were the challenges in writing from a males perspective?
ABOVE is in Matthew’s POV because, well, it’s his story. There are a lot of other people’s stories running through it, but this one is his, and if it was from anyone else’s perspective, they’d be telling a story from off to the side and it wouldn’t be too interesting.
As for challenges in writing a male perspective? I didn’t really find that to be a hard thing to do. Matthew’s a person – Matthew is himself – before he’s A Boy™. I just wrote a person. I wrote him, and didn’t concern myself too hard about what bits he had below the waist. And I suspect it’s when a writer focuses too hard on writing A Boy, or A Girl, that what ends up on the page is some girl’s idea of who boys are, or some boy’s idea of who girls are, instead of a human being.
As a teenager, were you a big reader? If so, what authors most inspired you?
I was; I still am! I usually get in at least a half hour of fiction time before bed, no matter what else is going on and how tired or busy I am. (Last book read: Kendare Blake’s, Girl of Nightmares. Current book: Caitlin R. Kiernan’s, The Drowning Girl.)
I don’t know about “inspired”, per se, but authors who wrote things that are locked up in a little black box in my head, where they are perfect and untouchable: Peter S. Beagle. William Goldman (notably The Princess Bride). Catherine Bush. Sean Stewart. Gail Anderson-Dargatz. Lloyd Alexander. Douglas Coupland. Isabel Allende.
So that’s a weird mix of fantasy novels, magical realism, and Canadian literary fiction, I guess. Which is…what I write, so there you go.
Which books do you think should be on every teen’s reading list and why?
I don’t think anything should be on everyone’s reading list. I worked in an independent bookstore for four years, and the big thing that taught me was how different people’s tastes in reading are – and that every single one of those tastes is right because it works for the person who has it. Every reader in the world has a really solid reason for liking what they like and hating what they hate. As a bookseller you learn to really respect (and enjoy!) that about people.
Books I think teen readers would probably enjoy that maybe aren’t getting enough play, though? Nick Sagan Idlewild. Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts, one of the best LGBTQ books I’ve ever, ever read. Catherine Bush’s Minus Time. Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls is actually getting enough play, but people should read it anyways, because it’s beautiful and when I finished it, I hugged it to my chest and cried my eyes out.
What would you like to say to your readers before diving into ABOVE?
Just that I hope it speaks to you, and thank you!