KC: Your debut novel, Still Waters, deals with a protagonist, Jason, who's effectively stuck within a cycle of violence and is forced, throughout the novel, to make some morally difficult choices. What did you find were some of the main challenges in dealing with these issues for a YA readership? Would you have handled anything differently if you had been writing for an older audience?
AP: The main challenge in writing this was that YA encompasses a vast array of books, and they are not all intended for the same readers. I think this is sometimes forgotten by gatekeepers who have content concerns, and that can be stifling. Having said that, I’ve been very fortunate to have librarians champion this book, and I’m so thankful for that support.
I wouldn’t have handled anything differently if I had been writing this story for adults. Telling an “edgy” story is very much a balancing act, especially if it’s set in the real world. I was also fortunate to have an editor who loves this story and understands its narrator, so it is exactly as I would have it.
KC: Jason is basically a good guy in a no-win situation (or at least that's how I read him). Is it difficult to create empathy for a character who does bad things or makes bad decisions?
AP: I think it is, and it’s even harder when readers don’t understand their own internal biases. But that’s the great gift of fiction, that if you can hook a reader you can grow their empathy by attaching them to what may seem to be a bad guy or an unlikeable protagonist. There’s this great trope called “save the cat” (also the title of a book about screenwriting) – it’s the moment early on when the main character does something purely good to clue the viewer/reader that the main character is a good person inside. Once you know it’s there you start to see it everywhere, except in redemption stories (A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me) or in wretched excess stories (Breaking Bad). It’s a useful tool to have in the toolbox.
KC: What inspired you to write this book? What are you hoping your readers will take away from it?
AP: Influences come from many places but I was specifically inspired by a memory of a murder that happened when I was in high school (and the rumors of why it happened which were all over my school) and also by a series of events that happened and students I taught when I was a teacher in a 7th – 12th grade rural school. I was struck by how violent situations devolve, and the stressors we never hear about or see until it’s “too late.”
I wrote this book with a very specific reader in mind – namely many of my reluctant readers and students I taught who didn’t always see themselves reflected in the books around them. Although I use the framework of a suspense story, I hope that beyond enjoying the plot my readers will either feel recognition and therefore a sort of affirmation, or that if these characters and situations are foreign to them that they will expand their understanding and empathy. It’s a pretty lofty hope, I guess, but I dream big.
KC: Jason is pretty much a loner, and lives much of his life in his own head. In other words, he's not the friendliest guy you might meet. As a writer, how do you create interest in a character who basically doesn't talk much and isn't particularly demonstrative?
AP: Well, that’s another gift unique to fiction and exclusive to books - that we can live in the head of another. This book is told from Jason’s perspective, and that made it easier. I feel like the characters I care about the most when I am reading are characters to whom I connect emotionally, and for me that connection is created out of emotion itself; what the character is feeling. So even if you have a “tough guy” who doesn’t show much emotion on the exterior – he’s like the Still Waters in the title – there’s a world going on under the surface. I first connected to the anger in this character, and I think that resonates with many readers.
KC: Who are some of your major influences as a writer? Who are your favorite authors?
AP: It’s my favorite question! Behold, as love-hearts shoot out my eyes. I have too many favorite authors to list, but specific influencers to this book are Andrew Vachss and Jim Thompson. After Dark, My Sweet is perfect, perfect, perfect- everyone should read that book. It’s a masterclass in noir and unreliable narrators.
The Outsiders influenced me deeply, and was an absolute joy to teach year after year which is rare. My kids always connected to it immediately.
And you know this because we were at the residency together, but Laurie Halse Anderson is a YA hero of mine. Her book Twisted was a comparison title I used when querying agents. I took it to get her to sign. I told her about the comp title thing, and she said that made our books siblings. I died. I am dead. I am speaking to you from beyond the grave. ;)
KC: What are you working on now?
AP: I’m finishing edits on my second book, The Falling Between Us, which will come out in March of 2018. It’s about fame and the pressures of fame - the dream of it versus the reality. It’s also about persona – performing as someone other than yourself, and how exhausting that is. The main character is Roxy, the girl-next-door best friend and now secret girlfriend of pop megastar, Joshua Blackbird. When the story starts, the grind of “being Joshua Blackbird” is putting a unique strain on both Joshua and Roxy and their relationship. On the cusp of his second world tour, the push and pull of fame drives them both towards a dangerous precipice…
And that’s coming next year!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Ash. We can't wait to read the new book!!!!