Swanky Seventeen author J. M. M. Nuanez recently chatted with Christian Heidicker about his contemporary YA novel, CURE FOR A COMMON UNIVERSE (Simon & Schuster, June 14, 2016).
Sixteen-year-old Jaxon is being committed to video game rehab . . .
ten minutes after he met a girl. A living, breathing girl named Serena, who not only laughed at his jokes but actually kinda sorta seemed excited when she agreed to go out with him.
Jaxon’s first date. Ever.
In rehab, he can’t blast his way through galaxies to reach her. He can’t slash through armies to kiss her sweet lips. Instead, he has just four days to earn one million points by learning real-life skills. And he’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal, even learn how to cross-stitch—in order to make it to his date.
If all else fails, Jaxon will have to bare his soul to the other teens in treatment, confront his mother’s absence, and maybe admit that it’s more than video games that stand in the way of a real connection.
Prepare to be cured.
Christian McKay Heidicker has accomplished a handful of things outside of video games. He published a short story called “There Are No Marshmallows in Camelot” on the Cast of Wonders podcast and co-created the Foxing Bureau. He’s never met a cute girl at a car wash, but he does live with the love of his life in Salt Lake City, Utah . . . and he often wonders how in the hell he did it.
JMM: Congrats on your debut novel! Ok – I gotta ask this right away. Are you a recovering gamer? If not, I’d love to know where the idea of a story about an addict gamer came from and the process of researching video game addiction and potential rehabilitation tactics.
Christian: Congratulations to YOU! I’m so excited to read My Perfect Me! I think we can already agree your protagonist is nicer than mine.
I have played a lot of games in my life, but never to excess. In fact, I spent two months trying to get myself addicted to video games in an attempt to write this book from an honest place. I spent one month indulging in as many games as I possibly could (everything from Dark Souls to DoTA to Cookie Clicker to Candy Crush) and then one month restricting myself to only the things Jaxon was allowed in V-hab (no sugar, caffeine, books, phone, computer, electronics whatsoever, etc). The video game month was actually tougher on me than the month of restriction.
As much as I’d like to say I came up with video game rehab, a friend (Hi, Korey!) actually suggested it eight years ago. We started to develop the story, but then we abandoned it. A couple years ago, I asked him if I could transform it into a novel. He oh-so-sweetly said yes.
JMM: I know you warned me about him…and you were right. Jaxon tried my patience many times. This kid definitely has a lot to learn at the beginning of the book! There were times when I thought – jeez, the ego on this kid! The meanness! But then you see how he’s so blind to it because of the pain he has buried deep under his sarcastic contempt and you want him to heal and grow. What was the process like for writing a main character who is maybe not the nicest, who isn’t just hurting and broken but also causing a lot of hurt to others?
Christian: That’s a great question. It was scary.
In the first draft, Jaxon wasn’t too bad, actually. I wrote a minorly flawed protagonist because I wanted the reader to cheer him on throughout his quest. But working with Christian Trimmer (my editor at Simon & Schuster), I realized that kind of story falls flat on the page. Where’s the pain? Where’s the growth? Where’s the character arc?
Christian and I carefully led Jaxon down the dark path toward being a more authentic teenage boy, who hasn’t been granted a whole lot of affection in his life. This makes him sympathetic in a way, but it also makes him desperate, which leads to some pretty unforgivable actions. This process was unnerving because I had to be honest about some of the thought patterns I had when I was a teen. When I was sixteen my thoughts were driven toward success, no matter who I stepped on along the way (especially when it came to meeting girls). I, like Jaxon, saw myself as a hapless hero, who has been denied the opportunity for love. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by media that told me that success meant fighting for the girl, no matter the obstacles. I think a lot of teenage kids are like this, unfortunately. I won’t say most. But a lot. And honestly, I think there are a select few who never grow out of it. (See GamerGate.)
As far as Jaxon’s cruelty to others . . . I genuinely believe a lot of bullies don’t realize they’re being bullies. They’re just seeking affirmation and don’t know how to do it in a way that isn’t hurtful. Transformation only comes with awareness of one’s self, which comes slowly, painfully, and in centimeters. Jaxon’s essentially learning that the way to win love is nothing like what he’s been told.
JMM: Although the novel is definitely about Jaxon and his failures and growth, you’ve got some really stellar secondary characters. They all have their own struggles and triumphs and vivid personality quirks. Did you know you were going to include these characters from the beginning or did they spring up as the writing went along? Also – any ideas for spin-off or companion books about any of them? (Ahem, Meeki. Ahem, Scarecrow.)
Christian: Honestly, when I think of CURE, I think of Soup, Aurora, Meeki, and Fezzik. They are the book to me. No one wants to watch a privileged kid have some serious growing pains all by his lonesome. Without these side characters, Jaxon’s internal monologue would be pretty insufferable.
I had a tenuous idea of what the characters in V-hab would be like before I started writing, but the worse Jaxon became, the more depth the other Fury Burds gained. By bashing their personalities together, the other characters took shape. Why would anyone ever latch onto Jaxon? Oh, because he reminds Soup of his abusive, deceased stepbrother. Who’s going to call Jaxon out on all his B.S.? Oh, the girl who’s had a similar romantic experience (or lack thereof) but lives on the opposite end of the privileged scale. Who would ever want to work in a video game rehab? A recovering gamer, of course. Who could demonstrate that video game addiction is slightly silly in the grand scheme of things? A true drug addict. Who would start a necessary but unfortunately myopic rehabilitation center like this? Someone who loves and was hurt by a game addict.
These characters slowly formed out of the fog, and I did my best to listen to them while Jaxon downright refused to. One vital component to making the secondary characters shine was to admit to myself that I was going to get those who didn’t resemble my experience completely wrong. My girlfriend helped me quite a bit with the thought patterns of teen girls. And Christian Trimmer is half Vietnamese, which I think is important when you have a white dude writing characters of color.
No planned spinoffs yet, although I did have a young reader request a book about Soup. I can’t even begin to imagine how much Christian and my girlfriend would have to help if I were to write an entire book about Meeki. Better to let someone who isn’t a cis, heterosexual, white dude handle that one . . . 🙂
JMM: So tell me about Arcadia, the game that lands Jaxon in v-hab (video game rehab). Did you make up this MMORPG for the book? Or does it exist somewhere other than in the book and in your mind?
Christian: I am SO glad you asked about this.
I really struggled to invent a game that a majority of the players at V-hab could be addicted but also piqued the interest of the reader (gamer or no). I wanted the game to feel electric so readers could empathize with the desire, no matter how ghostly, to check out of this thing called life and go play there for a while.
A part of me thought, what the hell, I’ll just make it World of Warcraft, but then I realized I didn’t know nearly enough about the Azeroth universe and would soon get called out as a noob. Another part of me wanted to invent an MMO from the ground up, but because I’m not a game designer, I kept falling into clichés.
And then I received my eye-poppingly gorgeous cover art.
I called Christian and told him I wanted to change every gaming reference in the book to reflect the sort of adventures you’d have in this thriving, candy-colored world (created by eboy; cover design by Greg Stadnyk). Just staring at the cover made the game digitally blossom in my mind. That’s where Mama Sumo came from . . . and Graham Cracker Plaza . . . and the Jackalope Mount. It was silly and fun, and honestly, at the end of the day, I really wanted to play it.
JMM: I hear you write science education articles for 4th-12th graders. Does the writing process for these articles affect your process for writing novels? Are there any benefits from bending your brain from novels to non-fiction and back?
Christian: I’m so lucky to have the job I do. Just this morning I wrote about Magellan and learned a dozen things I’d never learn when left to my own devices. (Did you know his humble servant, Enrique, whom Magellan kidnapped from the Spice Islands, may have been the first person to successfully, accidentally circumnavigate the world?!)
My stories have absolutely benefited from a deeper knowledge of history and science (i.e. the Silver Lady’s star class in CURE). It can get exhausting, jumping from the real world to a fictional world, but it’s so rewarding that I can’t imagine myself giving it up any time soon.
JMM: How did you find your agent/editor? What was your submission process like?
Christian: I co-wrote a book with Valynne E. Maetani, author of the multi-award-winning Ink & Ashes. (Our book, The Rotten Ones, never went anywhere, unfortunately.) Valynne was networker of the stars and landed us our agent without my having to do anything. My astoundingly wonderful agent John M. Cusick did the rest.
JMM: Were there any major challenges or victories during the revision process?
Christian: The book was originally written in epistolary style. All V-hab players were required to write “recovery blogs” every night for points. In each blog, Jaxon described the events of the day while pleading with his parents to please come and get him. This allowed me to have other characters comment on his blogs and call him out on what he’d lied about, etc. In my first editorial letter, Christian said something to the tune of, “Congratulations! You made blog format work! Almost nobody pulls that off! Now change it.”
He was so right. There were things in those blogs Jaxon only wrote about because I needed it in there for a payoff in the end. You could sense the author’s design seeping into the story.
The title was an even bigger pain. No exaggeration, I think I pitched 75 titles to S&S. CURE began as V-HAB (too much like Vampire Diaries), which turned into MILES IN THE INFINITE SANDBOX (too middle grade), which turned into THE CAKE IS A LIE (too stolen), which turned into THE TETRIS EFFECT (too Michael Crichton), etc. etc.
JMM: Okay – I LOVE your cover – I think the busyness, the colors and outrageous characters all perfectly capture the zaniness of the story, setting, and characters. Who designed it? What was the progression like? And what were your feelings as the cover was being developed?
Christian: I love it too! It’s the one part of my book I can brag about it since I had nothing to do with it whatsoever.
The art is by eboy and the design is by the incredible Greg Stadnyk. Christian just sprang it on me one day; I had no idea what it was going to look like. It’s pretty terrifying waiting to see your cover. I had the worst possible scenarios in my head (please don’t let it be a photograph . . . please don’t let it be a photograph . . .). Then this beaut showed up. I consider myself unreasonably lucky.
JMM: So far, what’s been the best (or most interesting) thing about being a debut author? The most terrifying thing? What about the best thing about being a debut author with a substantial beard?
Christian: Most interesting: Being invited to random events, like participating on an Assassin’s Creed panel, flying to the Texas Library Association to pitch my book to eager librarians, teaching classes on writing and labyrinths, and speaking on magic and hashtags to a graduating university class.
Most terrifying: Readers believing I must be like Jaxon.
Best thing about being a debut author with a substantial beard: Um . . . people don’t forget my face.
JMM: Anything you can reveal about your book release? Will there be a LAN party? Will there be tofu scramble?
It just so happens we’re planning a V-hab inspired launch at the King’s English in Salt Lake City on June 18th (7 p.m.)! It will include, but is not limited to the following contests:
Ping Pong ball levitation*
Sadly, I won’t be able to prepare enough tofu scramble for all those who’ve RSVP’d, but Jes, your questions are so spectacular, I’ll cook it for you any time.
*LANs will be strictly forbidden.
Lightning Round Questions:
Favorite writing snack? Drink?
Protein shakes and Teamaker’s Lord Bergamot.
What were you playing when you were Jaxon’s age? Reading?
Final Fantasy VIII (terrible). As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (wonderful).
Planner or Pantser?
Both. I form a plan and prepare to throw it out at any moment.
Favorite recent video game?
Dark Souls III!
Favorite v-hab activity to gain extra points?
Opening up about my feelings. 🙂
J.M.M. Nuanez is an active member of SCBWI and holds a BA in English. For two years, she and her husband lived in South Korea and taught English in the public school system. Now back in the US, when she isn’t writing, she can be found reading, gardening, or knitting in her hometown of San Diego, California. Also, she is an avid fan of cats, pizza, and YouTube. Her debut middle grade, MY PERFECT ME, comes Summer 2017 from Penguin/Kathy Dawson Books.
After their mother’s suicide, Jack and her little brother Birdie had to move in with their uncle Patrick who’s never been very welcoming, and now that Birdie insists on wearing girls’ clothing, Jack is afraid it may cost them the only home they’ve ever really known.