On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball,One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we will be introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books.
This week we’re discussing first books with Amelia Kahaney, whose YA novel The Brokenhearted was published by HarperTeen in October and called “an action-packed, adventure-laced debut” by Publishers Weekly. Amelia made her One Story debut back in 2007 with “Fire Season.”
The Brokenhearted is an engrossing novel with a solid core of noble heart. Anthem Fleet, ballerina-turned-vigilante is a heroine for the ages–one who defies the life that society has given her in order to be with, and then save, the one she loves. By the end of the book, Anthem has become even more than that, though, and is well on her way to becoming a symbol of rebellion for a society on the cusp of riotous change. “Go ahead and try” says author Adele Griffin “to predict the hairpin turns and steep reverses as you race through this sharply–conceived urban odyssey.”
Our thanks to Amelia Kahaney for speaking with us about first books, voice, and the image that inspired her to write The Brokenhearted.
The Brokenhearted is a story about a young ballerina vigilante in a quasi-dystopic society who is sort-of-accidentally given superpowers. The imagery is bizarre, gorgeous, and unique; what was the first image or idea that came to you and inspired The Brokenhearted?
I knew I wanted to write a superhero story set in a city with a vast divide between rich and poor, and the Occupy movement popped up just when I most needed inspiration in building the world of the book. The original call to arms from Adbusters that sparked the first Occupy protest absolutely floored me in its emotional power, and I had it hanging above my desk for months as I wrote the first draft. I love the juxtaposition of soft and hard, of art, commerce, and revolution. The fragile strength of the dancer on top of the brute aggression of the Wall Street bull, all surrounded by tear gas and masked protestors, epitomized the world as a place of good and evil, as a place that needs saving. The simplicity of the image (and of course the ballet component) worked with the aesthetic of the superhero story I was trying to build, and the girl on the bull guided me whenever I lost my way in the first draft.
You’ve written for both a YA and an adult audience. In The Brokenhearted and “Fire Season,” your One Story issue, you have the ability to balance two very distinctive voices. Is there a difference in your approach for each?
A short story may start with a sledgehammer, but the drafting process always ends with the painstaking use of toothpick-sized tools to whittle it into the final product. In contrast, the novels I’ve been writing feel more like throwing plot grenades at the page and then sculpting the wreckage into shapes that make sense.
The challenge of creating movement on the page is the same for both, but short stories require more ruthlessness and economy, more precise emotional calibration, whereas the young adult novels I’ve been working on are looser in their form but demand a ton of action that all has to make emotional sense. The novels also have to be written quite quickly to meet the publisher’s deadlines. So my approach has been different for sure, and the voice in the Brokenhearted books has by necessity been a less interior, less idiosyncratic narration than I’ve ever used in a short story, as I’m more concerned in these books with finding a consistency of tone that allows me to nail the action and pacing.
Your story “Fire Season” was published as Issue #98 in One Story. What has happened in your life between the publication of “Fire Season” and the publication of The Brokenhearted? How did you celebrate when you found out that The Brokenhearted had been accepted for publication?
The Brokenhearted sold to HarperTeen on April 20, 2012 – the day of the One Story Debutante Ball. So after some screaming, calling my mom, hugging my husband and trying to explain to my then-four-year-old what had just happened, I floated down to the Invisible Dog and made merry. It seemed a great coincidence to be surrounded by my first literary champions on the day I was embraced by a set of new champions at Harper.
As far as what has happened between the two publications, I couldn’t really tell you. The highlight may have been having and raising a baby, who is now almost six years old. I also ghostwrote three tween novels, got and lost and got some jobs, visited Maine and Puerto Rico, learned to cook paella, and acquired crow’s feet. All the usual things have happened. On the writing front, the main thing that happened is I learned to write young adult novels and to manage the anxiety of deadlines.
The Brokenhearted has been optioned by New Line–what has that process been like for you? What are some of your hopes for The Brokenhearted as a movie?
My only hope for the movie is that it actually gets made! The optioning process had nothing whatsoever to do with me, except that I received a lovely phone call with the news and then made a few even more lovely calls of my own to family members to share it with them. Not having anything to do with the film makes it that much more fun to think about – there’s absolutely nothing about it that I can screw up, which is such a relief.
I’m so excited to read The Invisible, the second and final book in the Brokenhearted series. When writing The Brokenhearted, did you already know how the story would end in The Invisible? Can you tell me more about the process of writing a series?
I figured out around draft two of The Brokenhearted that I’d been unconsciously laying the groundwork for an enormous revelation in the second book that would change everything we thought we knew about the main character and her family. (Cue the ominous music here.) Knowing I was building toward this enormous twist, which is revealed in all its bonkers glory toward the end of the second book, was probably the thing that sustained me during the difficult marathon months of writing book two.
The process of writing a series, in my case at least, is that the first book developed reasonably slowly, but the second book had a hard delivery date assigned by the publisher, and that date was not terribly flexible. By the time I had my outline approved by my editor for book two, I only had eight months to get the book from outline to finished, copyedited manuscript. Subtract two months for the time the editor or proofreader had the manuscript, and we’re down to about six months of writing time. Subtract a month of procrastination, and now we are close to the truth, which is that I wrote and edited Book Two in five months, give or take a couple of weeks. At some point during the writing process, I had to just accept that this was the timeframe I had and that I could only do so much at the sentence level because I had to focus as much as possible on the action of the book making sense. The first book took maybe a year and a half all told, so for the second book, I shrunk my writing time to a third of what it had been.
It was a difficult six months that was eased somewhat when a friend sent me Death In The Fifth Position, a catty, hilarious whodunit about a string of murders in a ballet company that Gore Vidal wrote under the pseudonym Edgar Box. Vidal claimed to have written this absolute gem of a book in eight days, and he became my spirit guide while I finished The Invisible. I liked to imagine him laughing bitchily at me in the final weeks, telling me that I ought to have written three books for all the time it was taking me to finish this one.
What are you most looking forward to about the Literary Debutante Ball? (And will you be arriving in ballerina regalia, with or without a super-powered heart?)
Like any debutante, I care about one thing above all else when I go to a ball: gossip. I look forward to schmoozing with the literary folks I only see a few times a year or on Twitter, and to hanging with my agent, my editor, and the formidable posse of glamour and glitz that is the Brooklyn College MFA alumni. With any luck, there will be literary mini-scandals and prognostications a-plenty to keep all of us entertained.
As for attire, I have the misfortune not to be built like a ballet dancer and so a tutu-esque ensemble of any kind is out of the question. I am considering a black floral headpiece to jazz things up. And thank you for giving me this opportunity to set the record straight: I never go anywhere without a super-powered heart.