Today I am delighted to spin the spotlight onto my friend and fellow Northwest author, Pam Stucky! Pam is celebrating the release of her newest novel, The Secret of the Dark Galaxy Stone, second in her YA time-travel adventure series, following up on book 1, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse.
She's humoring me by answering some questions today about her writing life, and her answers have made me laugh several times, so I think you'll enjoy them too. Here they are—enjoy!
You’ve written novels in epistolary format (the Wishing Rock series), non-fiction travel guides (Pam on the Map), and lately a YA sci-fi series (Balky Point Adventures)—a very cool variety of genres! Are there other genres you’d like to try writing someday? How about any genres you’ll probably never write?
I've actually also written a screenplay, which, while not technically a genre, was completely different and very fun—a totally different challenge. In screenplays, everything you write has to be something that can be acted. So you can't say, "She was a woman with thirty years of wasted therapy behind her"; you have to figure out: how do I *show* that in a way that an actor can act it? It was difficult but a fantastic exercise, and I think (hope) it helped improve my writing, at least a bit! And even as I write the A's to your Q&A, I'm also at the very beginning of a murder mystery. (It seriously took me a while to get up the guts to google "how to murder someone and make it look like an accident." I swear, it's writing research!!! I swear!!) I'm not sure if it'll be a book or a screenplay yet, but this, too, is an intriguing challenge. Trying to create a mystery is like doing a puzzle backwards: first you figure out the whole picture, then you figure out in which order you should reveal the pieces. Okay, not exactly backwards. But it's definitely a puzzle.
What genre will I never write? Hm ... I would never say never. As with the screenplays and the mysteries, everything is a new challenge and therefore interesting. However, I'm less likely to delve into romance, I suppose. I'm going back and forth on whether I'd ever write a western. Probably not. I tend to think less of "genre" than I do of "what story is interesting to me," though. So if I were to think of an interesting romance or western, I'd give it a try, for sure.
In the Balky Point books, which character was easiest for you to relate to? And who was the most challenging?
I'm always amused when people think one character or another is more "me" than another—because, honestly, I feel like every character carries some elements of myself. I think the main characters tend to be my more public selves—Ruby in the Wishing Rock series; Emma in the Balky Point books. But in the Balky Point books, the Charlies and Dr. Waldo were so easy and fun to write, because they're just my playful selves. (As I'm writing this, I'm noticing: "selves" is a weird word when you look at it!)
I think the most challenging thing for me to write, always, are the bits of conflict. Which, if I'm doing my job, is supposed to come up a good bit in writing! In real life, I'll go to great lengths to avoid conflict. But books need it. So I'll say the antagonists, and the unresolved conflicts, I really have to consciously work on those.
Travel obviously inspires your writing a good deal, in the fiction as well as the travel guides. Do you have plans to visit any new locales (and write about them) in the next year or two?
According to my bank account, there are no travel plans in the near future. But that hasn't stopped me from planning! I visited Australia when I was in college and have been wanting to go back ever since. Lately I've been planning a trip to Western Australia, so I am ready to go when I can. It's such an under visited place, and that's part of what draws me: the possibility of discovery. I would love to be able to spend a couple months Down Under, actually. In my latest book, The Secret of the Dark Galaxy Stone, my characters took the trip for me to the town of Lightning Ridge, in New South Wales, Australia. I went there on my college trip, but for the book I "had to" do more research. I "drove" down the roads using Google Earth (is that the one where you can get to street level?), and their tourism center sent me a huge packet of information. I feel like I've just been there again!
I also can't wait to get back to Switzerland. I'm 7/8 Swiss, and my family took a heritage trip to Switzerland in 2007, tracing our roots. It felt like home, somehow; like my genes recognized it. I want to go back. Maybe in winter, sometime, to one of the carless towns in the mountains. Me, a cozy cabin in the snow, some chocolate and fondue and Swiss wine (it's delicious but they only export 1% of what they produce!). Heaven!
I love that you use humor so often in your writing too. Who/what are your favorite sources of comedy when you need cheering up?
Do you know, this question really stumped me. I rarely seek out comedy, but I really should. There is nothing like a good laugh, like that laugh where you're laughing so hard there's no sound coming out of you and you can hardly breathe ... that's the best! I need to seek out more comedy. I do know that whenever I come across some old Whose Line Is It Anyway episodes, I stop and watch. That comedy that comes from improv, nothing matches that. I actually took an improv class once. I can't remember why. One key lesson that I remember, though, is that you have to let the comedy flow from each moment. You can't pre-plan what's going to be funny in improv, and then try to somehow guide the scene toward your plan; that will never work. The humor comes from seeing a moment, and seeing the humor in that moment. To that end, I'd say that I think of myself as a good observer, and maybe that's part of it. Being an observer, combined with being able to connect random dots, that's where humor comes from, maybe.
I think, too, that what's important in humor is recognizing that humor is not a standalone emotion. Rarely are things only funny. Usually there's something else in there, some recognition of human truth. Recognition that we're all in this together, and "this," life, is pretty odd sometimes. That's why sometimes when you try to re-tell something that was hilarious at the time, you can't. You end up saying "You had to be there," because it wasn't just about the words. It was about the connection, and the situation, and the history of the people involved, their relationship ... humor is so thick, so deep and dense. I think that's why it's hard to do it when you try. The best way to be funny is not to try. I know that's not really helpful, but I think it's true.
You mention A Wrinkle in Time as an influence for the Balky Point books. What other YA books have been an inspiration for you and your work?
Well, there's this author named Molly Ringle, whose delight in the written word is an absolute inspiration ...
First, let me say that I hate labels, and among the labels I hate most are book genre labels. When I write, I write stories I am interested in reading (or, in the case of screenplays, seeing). I don't set out to write a genre. People have told me the Balky Point books are actually more middle grade ... I think their reasoning is that there's no sex, little violence, no dystopia, so it can't be YA because it's too tame. At the same time, I very purposely didn't "dumb down" my writing. There are a lot of "big words" that middle grade kids wouldn't know. Which is fine; my purpose there is that we learn by reading, right? If they're exposed to something they don't know, that's great! One of my favorite compliments of The Universes Inside the Lighthouse came from my niece — who, by the way, spent half an hour telling me everything she loved about the book when she first read it. Anyway, she said, "It gives you a lot to think about." Or something like that. I thought, yes, that's what I want. I want people to think.
What I find interesting is that a YA book is first and foremost a YA book — then it's sci-fi or adventure or fantasy or whatever else. YA does a better job, I think, of recognizing that life is not segmented in the way books are. Life encompasses everything, and I don't see why books can't, too.
So, back to your question. The Fault in Our Stars made me weep so bad ... I was on a plane to Toronto when I was reading it, and I got toward the end and I thought, I need to stop reading this on the plane. I am about to go into a very loud, very wet, very ugly cry, and I don't know that I want to do that on a plane. The fact that John Green was able to elicit such strong emotions from me (and so many others) is inspirational. The Hunger Games books actually sort of disturb me in how popular they are, because I feel like their popularity points to something we've lost. (But that's a whole other discussion!) Still, the writing was so compelling; it kept me reading even while I found myself disturbed. And OF COURSE Harry Potter, which is such an amazing series that, frankly it transcends genre completely. The way JK Rowling built a world so vivid that each of us feels we know it inside and out is indescribable. I aspire to that, one day. It's a tall order.
I don't know what genre "Choose Your Own Adventure" falls under, but I was obsessed with that series in its day, and I still think about how I could do my own version of it. I have some ideas, but haven't fallen on the right one yet. But stay tuned!
Now that The Secret of the Dark Galaxy Stone is out, what’s next for you in the writing life?
I have so many ideas I want to work on, and having just published The Secret of the Dark Galaxy Stone, I'm still in a sort of transitional zone. As mentioned above, I've had a murder mystery in my mind for a while, and I think ultimately that's what I'll settle on. I loved the Nancy Drew books growing up, and I relish a good crime drama. I think it'll be a screenplay. I know the setting; it's based on a real-life setting that I saw last summer on a road trip. I turned a corner and saw the setting in front of me, and thought: I need to set a book here. This is perfect. (I won't say just yet where it is!) I have ideas for a few other novels, and I know what book is next in the Balky Point Adventures. I also have a couple of non-fiction books I want to write. But for now, I think it's the murder mystery.
Going back to being in a transitional zone, that's something I want to talk about because I think we don't hear authors talking about this. Dark Galaxy was my ninth book, though I published all three of my travelogues at the same time, and one of my other books was more of a marketing piece ... my point being that I've hit that post-book zone let's say six times, legitimately. It took me a few books before I realized that every time, finishing the project dumped me into a sort of mini-depression, funk, malaise, whatever you want to call it. I now know to expect it, but in those early days it was disconcerting and troubling. It's a sudden sense of purposeless. Like there's a joy in not having to edit that day, but there's also this feeling of, "Now what?" It's a time when everything is possible, but at which you also sort of need to re-evaluate: am I still on the right path? Anyway, again, this could be a whole other discussion, but I wanted to mention it so other writers who may be writing their first books are aware. It happens. I know musicians who say the same thing happens post-tour. I imagine it's just a post-project thing. What I'm learning is the best thing you can do is jump into creating again. It's tempting to say, "I have worked so hard; I deserve a break!" And that's true, but we creatives are happiest when we're creating. So create.