Monday, June 20, 2011

Author Chat: An(other) Interview with Angela Morrison

Today, I'm happy to welcome YA novelist Angela Morrison back to Bloggin' 'bout Books. She and I chatted back in 2008 (read the interview here) when her first book, Taken By Storm, was published by Razorbill. Since then, she's published Sing Me to Sleep and finished the TBS Trilogy. Morrison's currently in the middle of a blog tour for the last book in the series, Cayman Summer. As part of the M + L Forever tour, she's hosting a huge contest over on the book's blog. You can win books and the yummiest swag ever, so click here now.

Okay, now that you've done that, read on:

Me: Hi Angela! Welcome back to BBB. I know you address this in depth on your website, but tell me the Cliff's Notes version of how the TBS trilogy came about - how it started, what happened with the publisher after you finished the first book, how you ended up self-publishing the last two books, etc.

AM: Wow, that's a long story. I'll try. Michael's story was inspired by a dive tragedy I heard about scuba diving off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico. I developed the story under the guidance of amazing mentors at Vermont College. Leesie came in to the picture when I sent Michael to live with his frail Gram who lived in my grandmother's house in the rural Washington town where I grew up. I sent him to my old high school. I let Leesie live on the farm where I grew up. Michael was devastated. Leesie couldn't keep her eyes off him. How could they help falling for each other?

It took me three and half years of revisions, editor's showing interest, more revisions, and rejections before I finally sold TAKEN BY STORM to Razorbill/Penguin. They signed me for two books. Michael and Leesie's sequel, that I'd mapped and started working on because they wouldn't stop talking in my head, was supposed to be the second book. Razorbill's publisher decided he didn't want the second book to be a sequel. They loved UNBROKEN CONNECTION's plot but wanted me to write it for different characters. I refused. UNBROKEN CONNECTION is Leesie's story and no one else's. So I emptied out my idea box, brainstormed with my editor, and wrote SING ME TO SLEEP (March 2010).

That was an incredible experience, I adore that book and feel honored Amabile Choirs and Matt's family cheered on my efforts, but Michael and Leesie were still talking in my head. I owed Razorbill my next YA novel to fulfill my option clause. My agent sent them an updated proposal for UNBROKEN CONNECTION. We heard nothing from them. I needed to write their story and my contract specified I submit a complete manuscript to fulfill the option, so I gave in and wrote it. A week before SING ME TO SLEEP, my editor called me to tell me her last day with Razorbill would be Friday. I lost my advocate at Penguin. I flew up to London, Ontario to celebrate SING's launch and Amabile's 25th Anniversary. The morning after their festival concert--where "Beth's Song" stole the show--Razorbill's publisher emailed me that they were passing on UNBROKEN CONNECTION. And then my agent decided to bail on me, too.

My wonderful readers and all those fantastic YA bloggers out there didn't bail on me. They told me they wanted more Michael and Leesie. I had a book ready for them. So I swallowed hard, released it as an ebook, and then we released a print on demand version via CreateSpace.

Me: What do you, yourself, find so compelling about Michael and Leesie's story? Why did you feel so passionate about finishing it, even if it meant publishing some of it yourself?

AM: Their voices haunted me all the time. I'd wake up in the middle of the night with them talking in my head. And I was dying to find out what they were going to say or do next. I know their story is at last complete because they're quiet now. I miss them.

Me: This is a similar question, but why do you think readers - LDS and non-LDS - find Michael and Leesie so irresistible? What about their story makes them universally appealing?

AM: There's both a desperation and a beauty to the way they love each other. They aren't perfect--they hurt each other, forgive each other, make sacrifices for each other. They are teenagers, but I don't discount how truly they love each other. Romeo and Juliet were even younger, right? Shakespeare didn't discount how impossible it was for his couple to give each other up. I followed his lead. I suppose there's enough R&J in M&L--and maybe enough of everyone's first love--to make them appealing to all kinds of readers around the world.

Me: You wrote CAYMAN SUMMER in a very different way than you did the other books in the series. Tell me about that.

AM: As a thank you to my readers who encouraged me to release UNBROKEN CONNECTION independently, I decided to write Michael and Leesie's third and final journey,CAYMAN SUMMER, on a blog. My most devoted readers became my critiquers and editors. You can read three version of the manuscript--including the final revised version that we published--for free at http://caymansummer.blogspot.com/. It's also available as a Kindle ebook and on Amazon in paperback.

Me: How did writing a novel that way differ from writing one in the traditional manner? What worked better? What was more difficult? What did you learn from the experience?

AM: The blog journey became a thrilling collaboration. I tried to post a new scene every day. Knowing I had readers waiting for it was great motivation. Their comments fed the next scene I needed to write. They even named the new characters. I wish I could write every new novel like that. I felt sick to my stomach the first time I posted my rough scratches, but I came to love the interaction and owe those readers so much. The drafting process worked great on a blog. The revision process was hard to share. To complete the final revision, I had to go off-line for a few weeks.

Me: Michael and Leesie's story is all about compromise. You've been married for a long time - in your opinion, what can be compromised in a relationship and what can't? How did your personal beliefs influence Michael and Leesie's story?

AM: My personal beliefs are the framework for Michael and Leesie's story. Free of editors and publishers, I allowed them to surface even more in CAYMAN SUMMER. Some readers didn't like that. But most appreciated that my truths are the bones and sinews of my art. I can't clothe it in anything else.

Marriage and compromise? Fidelity can't be compromised. The intimate parts of your relationship are private and shouldn't be bandied about with others. You've got to be honest with each other. My marriage and our family is built on our faith, so that is not open to compromise. I think about everything else is. But the word 'compromise' sounds too much like 'combat.' He wins this one. You win that. After being married for close to thirty years, it's not him and me. It's us. He has his work, and I'm grateful he works so hard to support our family. He makes my work possible. We disagree about lots of stuff, but big decisions are discussed over time and then we pray about them. We get to the same page. I guess you could call that compromise, but we work together to figure out what to do. Maybe the word I want is cooperation. That sounds a bit mundane, but I think that's what a relationship is truly about.

Me: One of the things I admire most about your books is their honesty, especially concerning the realities of Mormon teens dealing with everyday struggles. Some adult readers, especially LDS ones, find this honesty too edgy for the teens in their lives. As an LDS parent (and grandparent!), how do you respond to that?

AM: They are honest, accurate, and I fought Penguin to keep them PG-13. Steamy, but not explicit. Sex, love, abstinence are all treated frankly. They are about an LDS girl dating a non-member guy. And she's not perfect. She makes mistakes. Half of the book is in Michael's point of view. He's not creepy, but he wants to love Leesie like he's loved other girls. And she has to make clear why she can't. And try to keep those boundaries. (Maybe that explains their "universal appeal"!)

They very well could be way too edgy. My original manuscript for TAKEN BY STORM had more relationship building and Michael grieving than steamy kissing scenes. We had to cut 30,000 words out of that manuscript. My editor chopped so many tender scenes. And I ended up writing more steamy scenes. Before TAKEN BY STORM released, I wrote several anguished blog posts. (See "Steaminess Issues," "Corrupting the Beehives," and "Mormon Mom Review") I think it's impossible to generalize. Whether my books are too edgy or exactly what an LDS girl needs to read, depends on the teen. I tell LDS moms to read them first and then discuss the issues raised with their daughters. My books are Standards Nights they won't put down. Dating a nonmember guy is a universal experience for LDS girls living outside of Utah. Too many LDS novels romanticize that. I've seen too many young women get their hearts broken or, even worse, leave the church because they fall in love with a nonmember guy. I made TAKEN BY STORM as honest as I could for them.

Me: Since scuba diving has such a large place in the series, I just have to ask: How/why did you start diving? What do you love about it? What (where?) are your favorite dive locations? And how do you feed the need to dive while living in this hot, dry desert? [Angela lives near me in Arizona's very arid Sonoran Desert.]

AM: My husband snorkeled when he was growing up. We got interested in scuba diving on a trip to the Bahamas when we booked a snorkel trip on a boat with real, live scuba divers. We bought SCUBA DIVER magazines and dreamed. When I stopped having babies, we got certified. Swimming is the only sport I actually like, so anything to do with the water I get excited about. I love how otherwordly the underwater world is. When you ride around on a boat, you have no idea what is hidden underneath the surface. It's like a secret planet, and only divers know how to get there. I love diving on Grand Cayman--especially the East End where Michael and Leesie are in CAYMAN SUMMER. The most spectacular dive we ever took was Little Cayman's Bloody Bay Wall. Best wreck? There's this amazing World War II wreck in the Red Sea that is still full of jeeps and motorcycles. Amazing. Surviving in the desert? We have a big, deep pool and my hubby and the kids fill up dive tanks and go in. We try to take trips where we can dive. This summer we're going to Bermuda for a family reunion. There's supposed to be good wrecks there.

Me: Now that you've completed Michael and Leesie's story, what are you working on?

AM: I signed with a new agent, Erzsi Deak at Hen & Ink, who I adore. We've been revising my books that had to sit on the shelf during my Penguin contract. Two very different projects. MY ONLY LOVE is a tragic historical romance based on my Scottish forebears. I turned my great, great, great, great grandmother's big brother into the hottest collier (coalminer) lad ever to come out of Scotland. It's set in the early 19th Century and written with a gloss of a Scottish brogue. That's in submission as we speak. I'm working on the finishing touches of a YA time-travel romantic suspense novel, SLIPPED. If you took Mad Max and Jane Eyre and stuck them in Medieval Europe, you get SLIPPED. My hero, Jag, is more like Mad Max's great-great-grandson. But he's just as hot. Maybe hotter. SLIPPED began live as a middle grade boys novel, but when I finished the first draft, Jag had turned out way too hot to waste on middle grade boys. I'm also collaborating on a musical stage adaptation of SING ME TO SLEEP with Harriet Bushman, the incredible composer who wrote the music for "Beth's Song" and "Take me Home." And, of course, I've got a couple new contemporary YA love stories I want to write. I'm eager to find new voices to take Michael and Leesie's place in my head.

Me: I know you're a voracious reader - what books are you loving right now? Which up-and-coming titles are you excited about?

AM: I got to indulge my taste for all things Bronte to research SLIPPED. I absolute adore JANE EYRE. There is so much spirit in that book that gets left out of the movie versions. And have you read VILLETTE? It is haunting. Right now I'm reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau's JULIE, THE NEW HELOISE. It had me in tears this afternoon--despite all the long philosophical passages.

I'm not even reading books written in this century let alone the newest releases. I've been so busy that I haven't even kept up reading some of my Vermont College mentor's new books. Tim Wynne Jones just won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Fiction. I have signed copies of all of his other books. I highly recommend him. The new book I'm most excited about doesn't come out until next year. My sister-in-law (I claim to be her mentor because she's so brilliant), Jennifer Shaw Wolf's amazing, amazing YA novel, BREAKING BEAUTIFUL, comes out early 2012 from Walker. Oh, my, it is good. I was clutching my heart and saying, "Oh, no . . . no!!" all the way through the first read. She had five agents fighting over it. I don't know when ARCS will be available, but I promise to let you all know.

Me: Wonderful! Thanks so much, Angela.

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