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ASHES Author Ilsa Bick Answers Our Questions

September 7, 2011

The book I’ve been calling “Hatchet meets the Forest of Hands and Teeth” has finally hit shelves!  Today the author of ASHES Ilsa Bick, joins us to answer a few questions about dystopian fiction, Egyptian Ratscrew and how one young reader reacted to her novel.  PLUS a sneak peak at what we can expect in book two of the trilogy, Shadows. -Nic

Q. What is one thing about you that would surprise your readers?

I am intensely, painfully shy.  Really.  The prospect of walking into a roomful of people, even folks I’m pretty comfortable with and know and who might even be happy I’m there, scares the crap out of me.  Before I agree to go with the husband to any kind of get-together, I always nail down when we’re leaving (the sooner the better) and I tell him to do all the talking while I hang on to his arm like one of those face-sucker spider-crabby things from Alien.  My relatives all know that come Thanksgiving, I’ll be down in the basement, watching football and playing Egyptian Ratscrew.  I’m way more comfortable with kids than adults.  Better yet, come to my house so the husband can entertain while I disappear into the kitchen and cook.  Forever.

See, I was the one who never wanted to go to dances or parties.  Honestly, being such a total geek?  No one invited me anyway, which was completely fine.  I’d much rather hide behind a good book, at home, in my room.  The few times my parents forced me to a school dance—had to pry me out of the house with a crowbar—I pretty much glued myself to the nearest wall.  Felt like a complete dork: horridly overdressed, knobby-kneed, saggy pantyhose puddling around my ankles, the whole nine yards.  Spent a fair amount of time in the bathroom just . . . hanging out.  Looking at the stalls.  Studying the graffiti.  That I remember all this only points up how traumatic it  was.   

Now, performance is a different matter.  Joining forensics and debate, and then moving on to theater in college, and medical school and residency helped a lot. Give me a script or a task, point me in the right direction, show me my mark, and I’m golden.  In fact, I was so taken with the stage that I seriously thought about becoming an actress.  I didn’t, for a bunch of reasons, but learning how to keep calm in front of a ton of eyeballs when I or someone else forgot a line—and how to gauge response—was one of the best things I ever forced myself to do.

I’m convinced that being so shy was one of the reasons I gravitated to psychiatry from surgery.  (Not that I don’t ADORE surgery and the ER, but why I left surgery is a story for another day.) Anyway, there’s this old saw about shrinks: either you’re really normal, or it takes one to know one. 

I’m happy to report that I’m much better now. 


Uh . . . where’s the ladies’ room?

Q. What was your favorite genre to read as a teenager?

Well, I was an omnivore first.  My parents didn’t allow television, and we rarely went to movies (although I do remember throwing up after Snow White because that wicked stepmother freaked me out).  One thing my folks never stinted on was books.  The best present they ever gave me was a subscription to some children’s book of the month club, which gave me my first taste of popular kids’ lit.  I tore through those and quickly graduated to reading classic-classics.  You know, Shakespeare, Dickens, that kind of thing, and a bunch of nonfiction, too, especially science.  My parents both worked, so I hung out in the library until closing and worked my way through the stacks.  One of my fondest memories is of this one elementary school librarian who, on the last day before I was to move on to middle school, handed me a book on astronomy I’d checked out about a hundred times.  She said that it seemed a shame for me to move on and the book to be left behind all by its lonesome with no one to keep it company.  I still have—and treasure—that book. 

In terms of genre, though?  As a teen?  Science fiction, hands down.  Now, I’m sure that Star Trek and, more specifically, Captain Kirk’s chest had something to do with all that, but I discovered Ray Bradbury when I hit middle school and just never looked back.  Once I started making money—babysitting, mowing lawns—I built up this huge library through the Science Fiction Book Club.  In college, I spent an entire winter term reading every science fiction novel I could get my hands on and then working the whole mess into a paper on the accuracy of the science in sf. 

I think what appealed to me was this: when you get right down to it, science fiction is the literature of possibilities, be that the future, an alternative history, a dystopia, or another world.  For a teenager, that’s your life. I mean, you’ve got this oppressive dystopian regime—parents or teachers or kids who snicker behind your back—while, at the same time, you’re focused on the future: where you’ll be, what to become, how to break free.  For me, science fiction was a natural fit because so many of the kids and people in those stories were both dealing with adolescence (heavily disguised) and showing me that, yes, there would be a future.  All I had to do was get there.

Q. What inspired you to write about the apocalypse?

Because it could happen tomorrow?  Because people can be so destructive?  Because civilization is so fragile, only a construct?

Seriously, I’ve lived through some scary times, including the nuclear arms race, but the apocalypse seems much more real to me now.  In part, I’m sure that’s my reaction to 9/11, but I am and always have been very nervous when it comes to environmental issues—and I gotta say, climate change is terrifying.  Mass extinctions are happening.  Environmental degradation is real.  Resources will just become more scarce, and water is the next huge issue.  People don’t realize how much time we don’t have to fool around while the ecosystem goes to hell.

Or maybe they do, on an unconscious level at least.  Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing so many teen and YA dystopian and apocalyptic narratives at the moment.  Now, the apocalypse is and has always been very big in sf, and we’re not talking alien invasion here but possible and probable scenarios: asteroid strikes, overpopulation, pollution, climate change, that kind of stuff.  One thing about some current YA dystopias, though, is that not only are the nitty-gritty details of how the society collapsed pretty vague, but people are also somewhat shockingly well-behaved.  I remember reading one book—a very fine novel, in fact—and wondering why no one had broken into the kid’s house and taken everything.  Having worked with some pretty nasty inmates, being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, dealing with highly disturbed patients . . . I know people aren’t all that nice, especially when they’re under stress.  Just turn on the news for the disaster or riot of the week, if you don’t believe me.  Better yet, go read some history.  As scary as the world is, it can always get worse.

But if I were only about doom and gloom, then I wouldn’t have bothered with this book or subgenre.  Honestly, adults can get so mopey and, yes, things are bad, but one of the things I love about YA is how redemptive it is.  These kids are in crummy situations, ones their society or parents created, and what these books are about is changing the world and making it better.  We desperately need that kind of energy and optimism.  We need teens and young adults to realize that they’re the game-changers here.  The adults had their shot.  Time for a change, if you ask me.

Q. Do you plan to continue writing young adult novels or do you think you might write for adults down the road?

True story: I’m figuring out how to answer this question and the doorbell rings.  It’s the neighbor kid from down the street.  She’s, what, twelve? 

Anyway, she asked if she could buy Ashes and Draw the Dark and any other YA book I might have written because she just happened to notice that her mother’s friend was reading an ARC of Ashes I donated to my local library.  The girl was blown away because she didn’t know I wrote books.  (Like I said, I’m shy; I don’t advertise; I skulk.)  So she read the first couple pages of Ashes and just had to have the book, like, right now.  Oh, and would I please sign it?

I gave her the books, for free.  (Of course.)  And some nice bookmarks and an Ashes button hot off the press.  Told her to be careful biking back home or her mother would kill me.

So now I’m the one blown away.

Would this be the same if I’d written an adult book that grown-ups might like?  I would hope so.  But I love writing YA for all the reasons I’ve already outlined—and because of kids like my neighbor.  She was thrilled to get the books.  The stories are what hooked her, not the fact that I’m her neighbor.  The look on that little girl’s face is the reason I write. 

Q. What can your readers expect next?

More of the Ashes trilogy, for starters: Shadows should hit shelves in the fall of 2012.  Monsters, the final volume, follows in 2013.  Then I slink off to have either a nervous breakdown or a good cry, and probably both.

In between, Drowning Instinct—a very gritty contemporary YA about the relationship between a sixteen-year-old girl and a troubled older man—will be coming in February 2012 from Carolrhoda Lab.  Everyone who’s read it so far has cried his or her eyes out, so I take that as a good sign. 

Sin-Eater, a YA mystery revolving around the murder of a young boy in a small Wisconsin town, should raise some hackles, too, and is set to appear in 2013 from Carolrhoda Lab.

As I write this, I’ve also begun work on a new YA thriller standalone that might make many people very upset, so that’s all good.  And I’ve just finished up the first book in a new paranormal series that has me really worried and gnawing my nails because it’s so weird and like nothing I’ve ever tried.  Think Matrix meets Inkheart-with-a-Vengeance

Q. What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?

I only get one?  I can’t, like, add clever conjunctions or semicolons so I can slip in five or six?


Well, okay, here goes: dare to be bad.

I’m serious.  I have this artist-friend—a pretty famous painter, actually—and he hates letting go.  He’ll work on a canvas forever unless there’s some sort of external deadline.  For him, the work’s very Roseanne Roseannadanna: It’s always something.

A lot of writers behave the same way.  They hang on to a novel, trying to craft and mold every syllable before sending their baby into the world.  I’m not making fun here; I have the same problem.  But I know that if I hold on too long, all I do is write the life and freshness out of the work, and that’s no good. 

Instead of trying to be fabulous or brilliant, dare to tell your story and stretch yourself while you’re at it.  Try something you’ve never done or thought you could do.  Write it and then get that sucker out the door in a timely fashion.  Pretend there’s a deadline and stick to it.  Do your best, of course; don’t send out typo-ridden slop on fuchsia paper with lavender scent.  Editors are busy, overworked pros who deserve your respect.  But write, send, and then celebrate because you’ve finished a book.  What’s more, it’s out the door.  Yay!  You rule!  You’ve just done something so many people wish they could but don’t have the tenacity or courage or grit to see through to the end—only you have.  So pat yourself on the back and order pizza. 

Then, get cracking on the next book.  Take a page out of Trollope’s playbook.  Now, that was one disciplined guy.  He worked a set amount of time every day, seven days a week.  If he finished a book before time was up, he started another.  Like, immediately. 

So you need to do the same.  Write, send, celebrate, and then continue.  Always be working on the next book because that will help when the rejection comes—and it will, trust me.  You will be rejected oh-so-many-times.  Rejection is inevitable and resistance is futile, no matter where you are in your career or who you happen to be, so put that ego in a box and move on.  Of course, if you sell your book or story, pop a cork and then continue. 

But always, always: dare to be bad.

Thanks for joining us, Ilsa. Best of luck on your book tour.

Readers-you can follow Ilsa on Twitter; @ilsajbick and on her own blog: and as always, please share your thoughts in our comments section.

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