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Q & A with Quarantine Author(s) Lex Thomas

September 24, 2012

Last Fall after a freak snowstorm in October I had some extra reading time while I waited the six days and seven nights for my electricity to be restored. During this time I read a lot of forthcoming books, but the one that still haunts me is Quarantine by Lex Thomas. This story of a high school under lockdown, with no adult supervision, after an explosion nearby where day to day life is now a day to day fight for survival is a tour de force that will keep you reading well into the night. Today we welcome the author(s) Tom and Lex to Random Acts of Reading for a Q&A.  

What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?

LEX:

My dad would read me high adventure books like Treasure Island and The Hobbit when I was little. Both of those editions had tremendous illustrations that captivated my imagination, the first by NC Wyeth and the second by Michael Hague. I must have ranked books with amazing illustrators high, because one of the books I remember first reading on my own and carrying around with me everywhere was Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark by Alvin Schwartz. The black and white drawings by Stephen Gammell were nightmarish and gruesome, and I would study them intently as I read and re-read every short story inside. The book was a collection of horror-based folklore, ghost stories and urban legends that, I can see now, was a gateway to reading all the Stephen King and Ray Bradbury that followed.

 TOM: 

Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison. That was the first novel I remember reading for pleasure. My brother told me about the story and I had to read it. Bill was a space marine who had two left arms. He was tricked into enlisting, was always trying to get laid, and always making me laugh. I thought the book was fun and hilarious, and until then I had no idea that a book could take me into such an odd, funny, imaginative world like that. I was very sorry to hear of Harry Harrison’s passing this year. 

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

LEX:

I don’t have a dangerous bone in my body. I’ve never been in a fight. I guess all that potential energy just ends up being fuel for my imagination. 

 TOM:

I went to school for painting, not writing. 

 Do you use social media? If yes, how do you feel about the role social media plays in your writing life?

LEX:

I do. It’s not exactly second nature for me. I don’t really get Facebook. I like Twitter, but I’m such a “writer” that I’m not good about just throwing stuff out there. Most thoughts that seem tweet-worthy I don’t end up tweeting because I spend so much time crafting the delivery that it defeats the purpose, and I end up saying “Aw, forget it.” I think my favorite though is Tumblr. There’s so much media out there, there’s something really nice about being able to curate your favorite things and also to visiting what essentially are other people’s own personal museums and art galleries. You can check out ours at http://lexthomas.tumblr.com/

TOM:

I like Twitter and instagram, but I don’t tweet consistently. It is great for procrastination, and I like seeing what other authors tweet, what comedians tweet, and I like the quotes from writers on the @AdviceToWriters feed.When I tweet myself I find it a huge distraction, because I’m checking it constantly to see how it was received, or I’m engaging in a twitter conversation. But I do like how looking over someone’s twitter or instagram can give you a sense of their personality.   

 What has your favorite event experience been so far?

LEX:

We went to the ALA this year, and it was a whirlwind. We met other authors and got to talk shop. We met with librarians who had already read our book and loved it. We did our first signing and there was an actual line of people waiting to meet us. It was totally surreal. And best of all we got to meet a lot of the folks at Egmont, our publisher. All of our exchanges with them had been via email or over the phone, so to get to hang out with them in person was a real pleasure. It brought this whole process, from coming up with the book idea to seeing it in print, full circle. 

TOM:

It was when Michael Grant gave me book tour advice. He said all I had to remember was: scotch and peanut M&M’s. Every bar will have peanut M&M’s, and a glass of scotch will get you through the worst days. 

What was your favorite genre to read as a teenager?

LEX:

This probably won’t come as a big surprise, but I read a lot of survival fiction. Starting pre-teen, I remember loving Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and digging Jack London. Then, in high school, I really liked James Dickey, both Deliverance and To The White Sea, and in college, I was obsessed with The Beach by Alex Garland for a while. 

TOM:

Horror. I read Sci Fi and Fantasy in junior high, but in high school it shifted to mostly horror, a lot of Dean Koontz, although I liked it better when he went by Dean R. Koontz, and he didn’t smile in his jacket photo.  

What are you currently reading?

LEX:

I’ve got way too much stuff piling up, but right now I’m reading Horns by Joe Hill. I’m pleasantly nauseated.

 TOM: 

The Mailman by Bentley Little. It was recommended to me by another author, and I’ve only just begun it, but so far it’s been cracking me up that it’s an entire novel about an evil mailman. 

What’s your favorite snack food when you’re writing?

LEX:

I’m not much for snacking. I’ll eat a tuna sandwich though.

TOM: 

A constant stream of coffee, tea, and sweets. 

Do you have a favorite place to write?

LEX:

There’s a very quiet cafe near my apartment in LA that’s up in the hills in a residential neighborhood. I’ve grown oddly attached to it. I like getting my $5 coffee, even though I know that’s too much to spend. I like seeing the same staff there everyday and the same clientele, many of whom are there to get work done too. I like being able to sit outside and plug in, because I don’t have a porch or a yard. It’s sort of like a hipster library. That would be a good band name, by the way: Hipster Library.

 TOM: 

I write at that same cafe that Lex does sometimes, but lately I’ve stayed put in the living room of my apartment, sitting at the messy desk at the corner of the room. I close the red drapes, and keep the room dark, and try to make the outside world disappear so I can sink into the world of the book. I’d rather have an office. Actually, I’d love a decked-out shed.

Do you have favorite music to listen to when you write?

LEX:

I’m a real music junkie, but I have a tough time writing to music with lyrics. The words are distracting because I always want to sing along. So, I tend to listen to ambient stuff, electronica, and soundtrack scores. Recently, I’ve been listening to Themes For An Imaginary Film by Symmetry: http://soundcloud.com/johnnyjewel/symmetry-themes-for-an. It’s kind of all those things wrapped into one.

TOM: 

It switches, sometimes I listen to loud, fast music to get me psyched up to start, or when I’m forcing myself to push through a writing problem that I can’t seem to solve. A lot of other times I prefer something with no words, with a vibe that’s dark and creepy, or soft and emotional. The last two weeks I’ve been putting on the song Evil Ball by Sinoia Caves at the beginning of each writing section, and that helps get my head in the right place to get to work. 

What inspired you to write QUARANTINE?

LEX:

Tom had the germ of the idea when he thought what if, instead of cliques in high school, there were gangs that fought to the death, so just walking down the hall would be an adventure. Like all ideas, we wrote it down and filed it away for something to revisit when we were done with the project we were working on at the time. What kept it alive in my mind was that it was a chance to do our take on the teenage rebellion movies and books I loved as a kid. It kept developing and the more we talked about scenes and characters, we realized we could really make something fresh in that genre. 

 TOM:

I remember the initial excitement of the idea occurring to me, but I’m not sure what the inspiration was. I know I was plowing through a ton of Netflix instant watch at the time. My best guess is that I watched a high school movie I really liked and a horror movie I really I liked in the same week, and they mated in my head and popped out a kid. Wherever the spark came from, the idea of taking the world of high school, that everyone can relate to and has strong feelings toward, and making it into a nightmare, with life or death stakes, and no adult supervision- that sounded really fun. 

How do you work/write together? And how did you end up working together?

LEX:

We met in a screenwriting group and discovered we had a lot of the same tastes. We tended to like crazy movies that nobody else seemed to take as seriously as we did. Eventually, we started writing scripts together that were comedies. We always wrote in the same room together because we found that the best stuff came from making each other laugh. When we ventured into writing this novel series, we had to adjust our process. Now, we generally outline together and come up with a game plan. Then, one of us will write the rough draft of a chapter and pass it on to the next guy who will revise it. We’ll do that until we have a complete first draft. We’ll read that, see what we’ve got and begin the process of revision together, breaking off to work separately only when we absolutely need to. The revision process is really about vetting each other’s choices until we’ve got something that is unified.

 TOM:

Lex summed it up pretty well.

Can you give us a hint or two about what’s coming up in Books 2 and 3?

LEX:

This idea started with what would happen if an average high school became a nightmare world. So, that’s really what we’re interested in maintaining. McKinley High is a vast landscape that keeps transforming the longer its under quarantine. There’s so many students that we haven’t had a chance to meet, each one with their own personal history. We want to know what happens in Lord Of The Flies when the ship doesn’t come to the island at the end.

TOM: 

Expect more love, and death, and intensity, and fun. 

Do you plan to continue writing YA, or do you think you might write for adults down the road?

LEX:

Personally, I’ve got ideas that could be classified as YA, MG and adult. I think there’s no accounting for where an audience might come from. It’s really about telling the story you need to tell in the best way possible. Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity and time to write for years to come.

TOM: 

I’d love to do both. 

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

LEX:

The best thing I ever learned was how the three- and four- act structure works. I’m afraid to think how long I’d be floundering as a writer if I didn’t finally embrace the fact that the stories that work best have solid structure. Writing for pay is nerve-wracking enough. Why add to the stress by having absolutely no clue how your story fits together or where you’re going?

TOM:

Finish what you’re writing, let people read it, and face the criticism. Then repeat, until someone pays you. 

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

LEX:

I’ve never had the experience of being out of ideas. But I’ve definitely come to a point where the story just stops working. And a lot of times what that means is that something isn’t working in Act 1, so you’ll have to tear a lot of stuff down to get it functioning again, if it was functioning at all. 

 TOM: 

I experience it in the form of an intense desire to avoid starting every day. I get over it and start every day, but that never seems to make my discomfort any better the day after. 

What was your favorite chapter, or part, to write and why?

LEX:

I like Chapter 20. It’s Sam’s first chapter. It comes about halfway through, and I think hearing from the villain gives a nice jolt to the story. Our editor had the idea to give the reader a window into what motivates Sam to do the awful things he does. We liked that idea a lot. I remember, when I wrote the first pass of it, I was reading Stephen King, so I was in the mood to really go dark. I had a lot of fun shaping Sam’s internal monologue and delving into his childhood. I also love the first line of the chapter — “They think I’m weak.”

 TOM

A lot of times I prefer writing description over dialog. I think I’m more affected by the imagery and the sensual details than I am by what characters say. So, there’s a chapter near the end where our heros have a bloody battle with the blue-haired Freaks in a crowded hallway, and I remember really enjoying writing about trash strewn hallways, gallon milk jugs full of piss, kids wielding shards of shattered blackboard, angry skeletons, and people losing their minds. I remember feeling like I was able to cut loose on that chapter and I loved it.  

Which character speaks the loudest, to you?

LEX:

I think I’d say David. I relate to his sense of responsibility. I have a family, and I can’t help but evaluate every decision I make with my wife and kids in mind. Life is a fine balance between selfish and selfless, and that’s the essence of David’s struggle. What I’m proud of is that characters in this book aren’t always awarded for doing the right thing (in fact, often they’re punished) but they still keep fighting.

TOM:

I’m more into Will. He isn’t necessarily heroic, but I have a soft spot for characters that are a little broken, the ones who try their best but can’t seem to stop making the wrong choices, and can’t seem to think before they act. I’m not like that, I tend to over-think things, so maybe that’s why I gravitate toward the misguided impulsive one.  

Do any of them clamor to be heard over the others?

LEX:

No, the turns of story really dictates whose voice needs to be heard and when.

TOM: 

There are definitely characters that I wish got more of the spotlight, like Violent, the leader of the Sluts. I know following her around would make for really cool chapters, but the flow of the overall story is more important. So for unity’s sake, Violent only shows up where it serves the larger story. 

Any plans for something similar, or completely different from QUARANTINE in the future?

LEX:

Quarantine was our first foray into writing horror, and I’m definitely hooked. I’d love to write some more horror, maybe delve into the supernatural.

TOM:

I’m sure the tone of whatever’s next will feel similar, but I hope it’s different, I don’t want to keep doing the same thing. 

Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?

LEX:

Write to us. We love reading fan letters. They’re the best part of our day! 

TOM:

Draw me pictures. I’m dying for fan art!

Many Thanks to Lex and Tom for joining us at RAoR today!

Please share your thoughts in our comments section.

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