Not one, but two of our fabulous Epic Reads authors sat down to answer some questions this week—each other’s! In part 1 of the truly epic results, Anna Carey, author of the Eve trilogy, and Cynthia Hand, author of the Unearthly trilogy, talk writing, fate, and high school.
ANNA: As you already know, I completely devoured Unearthly. Clara’s voice, the questions of fate and free will, the choices Clara must make in the last pages of the book…there’s just so much to love. You effortlessly blend a rich, literary voice with a surprising, fast-paced plot. I have a hundred and one questions but I’ve narrowed them down to a few.
First off: the series starts with Clara’s vision of the fire and her realization that she, as an angel-blood, has discovered her purpose on earth. The story is about angels, yes, but it is much more about the intersection of fate and free will. It explores the question many people grapple with: What was I put on this earth to do?
How much did your own views on fate come into play when writing these novels? Did that aspect of the story evolve organically as the writing progressed or was it there from the very first moments you imagined Clara and her world?
CYNTHIA: I’ve always been interested in the paradox between choice and destiny. All my life, I could never really decide if I believed certain things were meant to be or if it was all up to me. Here’s what I like about the idea of fate: that it’s not all about me, that there is a greater power than my own in this world that’s shaping my destiny. So many times I’ve looked back on something that’s happened and thought, well, that can’t have been a coincidence. I was meant to become this way or I was supposed to do that thing. It was fate.
But the scary thing about fate is that it’s completely out of your control, and it begs the question, can you mess up your fate? Or it is inevitable that you will arrive at your fate? And here’s what I like about the idea of choice: that I am writing my own story, choosing my path, and there’s a certain beauty in the choosing, in the mistakes and the triumphs along the way. They are all my own. I am responsible for my own life.
Clearly I still can’t decide, although writing the UNEARTHLY series has given me a lot of time and energy to contemplate the question. And yes, that fate-or-choice question was present from the very first time I heard Clara’s narrative voice in my head. She was babbling on in her funny way about her purpose, and I immediately wondered, but what would happen if, when the moment arrives, she rejects her purpose?
ANNA: So many YA novels are set in high school, it’s hard to make that setting feel unique. That said, I was immediately struck by how vivid Jackson Hole High is. The scenes that take place there jump off the page. I specifically loved Mr. Erikson’s history class and how we learn so much about the characters through their interactions there. There’s great, subtle humor in every line.
Where did you draw inspiration from? Was your history class ever divided into serfs/clergy/knights/lords? I know you went to Jackson Hole High School for research. How much did that visit play into the imagining of these rich, uber-specific high school scenes?
CYNTHIA: I’m so glad you liked Jackson Hole High School! When UNEARTHLY first came out there was a reviewer for the Jackson newspaper who suggested that I, being from Idaho Falls, (which is about two and a half hours from Jackson) was jealous of JHHS. My immediate internal response to that was, “OF COURSE I’m jealous of JHHS! Have you seen the gorgeous wood beams everywhere? The ski-lodge-esque cafeteria? The classrooms full of windows? I went to a high school that had no windows!” Jackson Hole High School is a great school.
I did take a research trip to Jackson. I got in touch with the principal of the high school, who was so incredibly warm and welcoming, answering all my seemingly inane questions, and he urged me to come to the school and interview the students and the teachers and really get a sense of the place for myself. I found out that some of the students liked to hang out at the Jumping Tree, and thus the scene between Clara and Tucker at the Jumping Tree was born. The students recommended that I eat at Bubba’s, so I did, and I loved the food so much that that’s where I sent Clara and Tucker on their first “date.” And that trip was also when I stumbled across Aspen Hill Cemetery, which was the most crucial setting in the second book.
I am still a proud and loyal Bonneville alum, for the record. Even without the windows. Go Bees.
That said, when I wrote the first draft of UNEARTHLY, I wrote it very much as Bonneville High. That’s the high school I knew. And yes, I did take an awesome British History class in high school, taught by to-this-day one of the most amazing teachers I’ve ever had: Mr. Eric Haroldsen (who I renamed Harold Erikson for the book). Oh yes, it’s all true. I was a nun in that class. I did survive the Black Plague. And I did almost get burned as a witch. It was such fun to try to capture that British History class. I wanted to recreate it as close to the real experience as I could, because I wanted to depict Clara taking a great class taught by a great teacher, where she actually learns something. So often in YA, high school is depicted as a) boring and/or b) merely social, with all the good scenes in the cafeteria. I wanted to push back against that a little. That, and I thought that some pretty funny stuff could happen in the context of that class, and I live for writing the funny stuff.
Whew, long-winded answer. But I love talking about setting!
ANNA: In just the first book we’re introduced to the idea of angel-bloods (full, quarter, and half), Black Wings, the concept of glory, and “comae caelestis”, which describes the moment when Clara’s hair radiates with light. We even get a glimpse into hell. Can you tell us about your research process for this trilogy? Was it daunting to write about angels, God, or hell? There’s a great ease to your handling of the subject matter, which makes me feel you’re both incredibly knowledgeable and FEARLESS.
CYNTHIA: Ha. And yet I am neither. But I am really into the research-thing, and researching the angel mythology and the theological elements of the book was so rewarding. I basically gathered up everything I could on the subject. I read books. I Googled and surfed. I watched strange documentaries on the History Channel.
After I had completely over-saturated my brain with angel-stuff to the point that if I sneezed, feathers came flying out, I basically cherry-picked what I liked for my book. I dug the character of Semyaza, for instance, who I found in The Book of Enoch (kind of the go-to text on angels) and in a bunch of other myths, so I grabbed him and molded him a bit to make my scary angel Samjeeza. I have always liked the musing of C.S. Lewis when it comes to how heaven and hell might be, particularly the idea that hell is insubstantial and heaven is super solid, and we on earth are somewhere in between. Love that. And then I made up a bunch of things from scratch, and butchered a lot of Latin.
And yes, it is daunting. I found it a very thin line to walk, writing about angels. I wanted UNEARTHLY to be friendly to both religious folk and non-religious. I wanted there to be a very definite God in Clara’s world, the color black and the color white, but I also wanted there to be a lot of gray space, which of course is going to offend people who hate the idea that there’s a definitive black and white and those who are uncomfortable with the ambiguity of gray. I have to be content with the notion that I seem to offend both groups pretty equally.