Across the Ditch: Illuminating Amie Kaufman

Bestselling YA author Amie Kaufman will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival, performing both in the schools’ programme and in a free public event on Friday, 19 May. This is the first interview in ‘Across the Ditch’, where we feature Australian authors and illustrators of children’s book.

Amie Kaufman hails from Melbourne, where she lives with her husband and their dog, Jack. She is a New York Times and internationally best-selling author. Her books have been published in 30 countries, and have won multiple awards, with several of her books destined for the screen. She writes epic tales of survival against treacherous odds, with political intrigue and a romantic undercurrent; the sort of story you can truly escape into, all but impossible to put down.

Amie Kaufman

The first series I read of Amie’s was the Starbound Trilogy, co-authored with fellow Melbourne author, Meagan Spooner. The first book, These Broken Stars, was nominated for both the Aurealis and Australian Gold Inky awards. It is a nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat survival story, set on a terraformed planet in the far reaches of the galaxy, where rich-girl Lilac LaRoux becomes shipwrecked with reluctant war-hero, Tarver Mendelson. It has been described as ‘Titanic in space’, but it is so much more. The other two books in the series, This Shattered World and Their Fractured Life, continue the story, but shift the stage into different settings and with a different leading cast (although our favourite heroes still make an appearance), building into an epic tale of rebellion.

A nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat survival story, set on a terraformed planet in the far reaches of the galaxy…

Angela Oliver: Welcome, Amie. It’s a pleasure to see you are coming to Auckland soon! Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions for us. I’ll start with the basics: what is it that draws you into writing science fiction, and for the young adult market in particular?

Amie Kaufman: I’ve always been fascinated by science fiction stories. My parents were both big readers while I was growing up, but neither of them read science fiction. Still, somehow, through library visits and second-hand book sales, I ended up with piles of tattered sci-fi titles, so something was drawing me to it very early on. I was intrigued by questions about the future, and awestruck by space itself. I love the way science fiction asks big questions – questions about what it means to be human, how what we do today impacts tomorrow, about the individual and society.

As for why I write YA, it really just seemed to me the natural thing to write. My stories just seem to turn out to be YA most of the time. So many of the books that have really affected my life were YA books, and I think YA novels are a very natural place to ask questions about identity, which has always interested me. Also, and I really mean this, YA readers are fantastic. Why wouldn’t you want to write for them?

AO: I can agree with that! Even as an adult, I’ve found YA books to be more insightful, and to have a fresh originality that is sometimes lacking in adult fiction, and the teen years are definitely the formative years.

Your worlds are richly detailed, and deeply imaginative, from the terraformed jungles of These Broken Stars to the war-ravaged landscape of Avon. The plots are engaging and original, with some surprising twists and turns. Where do you seek inspiration?

AK: Inspiration is everywhere. I travel a lot, and soak up new landscapes and cultures, new traditions and world views. But I learn a lot here at home, as well. I read, I watch great TV and movies, I listen to music, I talk to people who aren’t like me.

AO: Each book features new characters facing new conflicts. Which of your characters do you identify with the most? And why?

AK: There’s a lot of me in every character I write, so this is a really tricky question. In the Illuminae Files, I identify a lot with Kady’s sass and inner monologue – a lot of that sounds pretty much like the inside of my head. In the Starbound Trilogy, I probably identify most with Flynn, the hero of book two, who’s a leader of his people, and finds himself trying to talk a lot of people around to peace, when they’re set on violence. I’ve always been a peacemaker, and a talker, and I have no physical coordination, which puts me a fair distance from many of my characters. Perhaps that’s why I make so many of them coordinated? Wish fulfilment?

I identify a lot with Kady’s sass and inner monologue – a lot of that sounds pretty much like the inside of my head.

AO: You have undergraduate degrees (in History, Literature and Law) and a master’s degree (in Conflict Resolution). How have these been utilised in your writing?

AK: I think you use everything you learn in your writing, though sometimes you don’t know it. In my case, I definitely use my degrees. I raid my history degree for settings and conflicts and outrageous things for people to do, and my literature studies help me pick apart the ways a story’s put together. My law degree was about arguing persuasively and holding huge amounts of information in my head, both of which are incredibly useful; the first for writing and the second for managing all my simultaneous projects. And my master’s degree was in conflict resolution – and mediation is essentially about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and really understanding where they’re coming from. Which is, of course, vital to writing characters who aren’t like you.

AO: There’s also a lot of science in your fiction: how do you make it sound so convincing?

AK: There’s a huge amount of science in there – everything in my books is either provable or plausible. We never stretch science. We make it sound so convincing by doing the hard work to really show our readers how it works. We research a lot, read widely, and tap into lots of experts. We regularly consult doctors, an advisor with a PhD in astrophysics, and even experts at NASA.

AO: The Starbound trilogy was written with Meagan Spooner and the Illuminae books are co-authored with Jay Kristoff. Collaborative fiction has always intrigued me: how do you choose your collaboration partner?

AK: My first collaboration partner was Meagan Spooner, and we’d been friends for years before we wrote together. We met writing collaborative fan fiction, so it wasn’t that huge a leap to one day start writing something original, though at first we were just doing it for fun. The idea of publication came later. Jay Kristoff was also a friend first, and hilariously, I had a dream that we were writing a book together, and I’d completely forgotten what the book was about. I spent the whole dream trying to surreptitiously fish for details. Once we stopped laughing, we started thinking about whether that really might work.

I had a dream that we were writing a book together, and I’d completely forgotten what the book was about.

AO: Can you please give us a bit of insight into the process?

AK: When I write with Meagan, the books are dual point of view, which means we each take a character, and take it in turns to write chapters. We pass the book back and forth, and discuss and brainstorm together to work out what will come next. With Jay, we’ve got more moving pieces, so we get together and brainstorm the next section of the book, then allocate each scene to one of our dozens of characters, choose the way we’re going to tell that section – through a blueprint, a security report, an instant message conversation – and then get going, passing pieces back and forth as we continue them.

AO: The new series, Illuminae Files (the first of which won a Gold Inky in 2016), is told via an engrossing dossier of hacked documents: emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more. It moves at a breakneck pace and took me, as the reader, on a wild rollercoaster of emotion. What were some of the challenges you found to working in this format?

AK: Not as many as you’d think! We have an incredible design team, and we all worked hard at setting up the best ways to communicate, so we could pass sections back and forth, and collaborate on how we want them to work. No matter what we ask, they never say no.

AO: I also saw with some excitement that Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B has optioned the film rights to Illuminae. If you had the choice, who would you cast as Kady Grant and Ezra Mason?

AK: I think there’s a good chance it’ll be somebody we’ve never heard of – new teen actors are coming through all the time, and I’d love to see some new faces cast as Ezra and Kady. And of course, Jay and I won’t have any say (Meg and I won’t have any say for the Starbound TV show either) and that’s fine by us. We’re happy to let the experts handle it, and we love our production teams.

AO: Finally, before we conclude, to those of us unable to attend the Auckland Writers Festival in May: what are some pieces of advice you would give to aspiring authors?

AK: Mostly, my advice is to write. Don’t talk about writing, think about writing, blog about writing or prepare for writing more than you actually do it. If you’re just starting out, set aside a period of time each day or a few times a week, and get your head down and do it.

I’d also say that it’s a good idea to get used to having your work critiqued, which isn’t always fun, but always does make it better.

And finally, I’d say to aspiring writers that they should back themselves. There will be plenty of people who think writing a book is a waste of time, but only you can tell your own stories, so grab a pen or settle down at your keyboard, and do it.

For any young aspiring authors, Amie Kaufman is running two presentations through the Auckland Writers’ School Programme: Wednesday, 17 May, when she will be discussing her life, writing and collaborations; and Thursday, 18 May with the theme ‘getting the story started’. You need to be a teenager to attend (bookings are done via school). There are limited places, so get in fast! For more information on the Auckland Writers’ School Programme, visit their website.

gemina: The illuminae files_02

By Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Published by Allen & Unwin

RRP $25.00

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Angela Oliver

Angela Oliver is a dedicated bibliophile with a love of the fantastical. She also enjoys writing and illustrating her own books. Angela lives in Christchurch with her husband, their lucky black cat, and her over-active imagination.