Monday, July 9, 2012

Nine lives and counting with Sarah Wylie

Two-for-one! This post is longer than usual because it contains my Goodreads review of Sarah Wylie’s debut ALL THESE LIVES and a lovely interview with Sarah. So if you already read my review, skip on down to find out what Sarah has to say about writing, procrastinating and playlists.

 Review: If someone you loved was dying, what kind of deals would you make with God or the Universe or whatever might have the power to change things? What would you try if you believed you had nine lives and your twin had been granted only one and it was faltering? This is what drives Dani, the teen protagonist of ALL THESE LIVES.

 I loved this book. That's the first thing I have to say. Second, I've followed Sarah Wylie's blog since before she had a book deal. What drew me there was her humor, fresh take on the world and her oh-so-clever commentary. I pretty much figured I was going to like her debut novel, because I already liked her writing style and spirit. I not only like this book, I'm stunned by the risks Sarah took, or I believe she took, in developing this character, who is flawed and absolutely authentic. Dani tugged at my heart.

 A few reader-reviewers have said they dislike Dani because she is sarcastic and sometimes verbally aggressive, but this is the very thing that is so real in this story. Dani wasn't always this way. She is doing what so many kids, or even adults, do when they're helpless and afraid, she's striking out, and because she's smart she often uses barbed words. Even she knows it's inappropriate. She does it anyway until she learns some things about herself, her family and her friends.

 What is so beautiful about Dani is the way she tries to use up her extra lives to buy her sister more time. Other people see a girl acting up or looking for attention when she does crazy stuff and gets hurt. She never tells anyone that she's bartering with the universe and doesn't believe she deserves to be spared while her sister is destroyed.

When I was a newspaper features writer I did a series of articles on a teenage girl with leukemia. She was undergoing bone marrow transplant, and I clearly remember her younger sister standing in the shadows of her sick sister, their parents, the doctors. It's a tough place for a kid to be. I was awed by how Sarah not only got that but built an unexpected story around it.

Recently, I wrote about Patrick Ness's A MONSTER CALLS, another book with a kid protagonist facing cancer in a close family member. That boy, too, acts out in frustration and tries to survive in a terrifying situation. Both Ness and Wylie found extraordinary ways to help their characters cope and grow.

 Sarah put a short prologue on this story that is breathtaking: This is how it feels to die. It starts from outside and works its way in. Your cuticles, the tips of your fingers. Fire under your nails that spreads into your bones, burning and freezing everything it comes into contact with. Your arms, your ankles, your teeth, your knees, your stomach, and the place where your heart should be. Your heart is always the last to go. One hundred irregular beats per minute, and then zero. But that's just the start. The start of dying. This is the rest.

 Sarah graciously agreed to an email Q&A, which I hope you enjoy:

 Q: How did this story develop? Did it begin with an idea of a girl who thought she had nine lives? Or with a character who is helpless in the face of her sister's illness? Or something else?

Sarah: At the very start, the story was going to be from Jena’s perspective – about her illness and her family’s attempts to cope with it. But as soon as her sister, Dani, showed up, I knew the story was hers. She had such a distinctive voice, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. The idea of Dani having nine lives came along later. I’d figured out that the story was Dani's, but I wasn’t quite ready to start writing it. Something seemed to be missing.

 So I did what I do best – procrastinate. Actually, I called it “making a playlist.” And in the process of doing so, I came across the song “All These Lives” by Daughtry, which isn’t about having multiple lives, but the idea for Dani’s nine lives popped into my mind, and I finally felt ready to write the story. Take-home message: er...procrastinate?

(Insert your goofy blog host laughing and loving that she can now make a playlist and her WIP will fall neatly into place. :D )

 Q: Did you have any personal experience that led to this story idea, or did you become interested through research in how siblings cope with traumatic illness? Was there anything surprising in what you learned?

 Sarah: Thankfully, All These Lives didn’t come from one particular personal experience. But the last few years, I’ve watched many people I care about go through enormous loss. There was a period of time when I was completely paralyzed by this fear of something happening to the people I love most, of being powerless and unable to help them in any way. I wanted to capture that a little bit in All These Lives. Most of the research I did pertained to the medical aspect of the book. I tried to trust the fear and uncertainty I’d been battling with personally in writing the more emotional aspects.

Q: Did the story change much from concept to final book?

 Sarah: I don’t think there were any huge changes to the story from concept to final book. The heart of the book, the characters, and plot were always pretty much what you see in the final version. Which isn’t to say that the book didn’t need quite a bit of revision, but most of the changes were smaller things; things like pacing and consistency (it turns out there are 26 hours in a day!). We also worked quite a bit on Dani’s belief that she has nine lives.

 Q: How would you describe the personal journey for you from idea to publication?

Sarah: The journey to publication has definitely been an adventure. It has been more than I ever thought it would be. In every sense of the word. More surprising, more eye-opening, more terrifying, more humbling. I’ve learned so much about the publication process (and writing! And revising!), but there’s still so much I’m learning. I feel really grateful to work with the people I do, and to have gone on this incredible journey.

Kirkus review
The Book Depository
Book trailer

Sarah's next young adult novel is scheduled for release in 2013.


Bish Denham said...

Great interview! I think this is a story I'd like to read as the idea of the child standing in the shadows watching a sibling die happens all the time. The fight to save a brother or sister would be powerful.

Julie Dao said...

Haha I also call procrastinating "making a playlist!" Loved reading this interview. I've seen this book on several blogs and websites and am really excited to read it :)

Laurel Garver said...

Great interview. "Learning to trust the fear and uncertainty" is a powerful idea!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Bish: I think there are so many conflicting things that happen to the "non-sick sibling" and it affects them powerfully. What Sarah has done with that situation is incredible.

Julie: Your playlists are works of art in themselves, I think!

Laurel: Isn't it? Instead of warring with fear or trying to escape it, as writers we need to accept and use that emotion. I'm just learning that.

Unknown said...

I loved your review and interview. You have great taste and ask good questions.

Liza said...

I too read Sarah's blog since long before (BTW, I miss reading it Sarah!). This book sounds amazing, and I'm looking forward to a can't-put-it-down read.

Donna said...

What a daring idea for a book. My congratulations to Sarah and to you, Ms. Former Journalist, for a fine interview.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Laraine: That's so nice to hear, thank you!

Liza: I hear you! Sarah, we need you blogging a little more often, bringing the fun. I guess she's writing books, sheesh. :D

Donna: Isn't it a great premise? So often that voice isn't heard, and she did it so well.

Jemi Fraser said...

Wow - sounds powerful! I don't know Sarah yet - but I'm going to correct that. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

It's great to meet Sarah! I've seen her book All These Lives around Blogdom the past couple weeks or so. Best wishes to her and her success!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Jemi: Sarah's wonderful, the book is wonderful. (and so are you!)

Stephan: Hi, there, thanks for the great comment! :)

Lydia Kang said...

Dani sounds like a great, complex character that I'd like to know. :)

Unknown said...

I definitely have to read the book. Dani is my kind of character.

I wish there were at least 26 hours in a day. :D

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi Lydia! Hi Stina! I'm glad you both love the notion of Dani.
I wish I could stretch the days longer, too!

Yvonne Osborne said...

I love the cover. And the notion of Dani. Nice job Tricia and Sarah!

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

I'm really looking forward to All These Lives. It's a really great concept, I think. Love that it was influenced by Daughtry. Lol Even if the song isn't about 9 lives ;) Great interview! Great review . You've sold me :D

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

What an amazing premise for a novel. Thanks for this great review and interview. Another book to add to my TBR pile. : )

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Yvonne: I love that cover, too--the color and emotion it evokes.

Carol: I had to go listen to Daughtry after reading that. That song digs deep, so much emotion. and thank you!

Cynthia: Oh, Yay! Hope you enjoy it.

Phoenix said...

Great interview, and book review! You do such a great job at explaining JUST enough of the plot that I'm intrigued and want to know more!

Golden Eagle said...

Awesome interview, and thanks for the review!

Dani sounds like a very real, believable character.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Phoenix: Thanks! That's the way I like to write reviews, not giving away plots but explaining why I think something works.

Eagle: Thank you. And, yes, I thought Dani withstood the believability test and more!

Donna said...

Wow! I'm reading this and passing it on to my YA friends. Thanks, Tricia.