Emily talked about her young adult debut, a contemporary mystery with supernatural underpinnings just published by Penguin/Random House. Emily’s a member of the Sweet Sixteens, an online group for YA and MG authors debuting this year. Bree rolls with the Electric Eighteens.
ABOUT THE NOVEL
Since sixteen-year-old Riley Strout lost her mother two years ago, her survival has depended on the quirky little family formed from a grief support group at school. Jay, Kate, and Noah understand her pain; each lost a loved one. The four have stuck together in spite of their differences, united by tragedies only they understand.
When Riley sees her mother shopping in a grocery store, she fears she is suffering from some sort of posttraumatic stress episode—until Jay and Kate report similar visions. Noah is the only one who hasn’t shared their experience. He withdraws from the others, skeptical and distant, and then suddenly disappears.
Riley fears the worst. As she, Jay, and Kay frantically search for their missing friend, they are drawn into the mystery surrounding a famous relic that belonged to Jay’s father—something that may contain clues about the afterlife. And in reaching for the ones who are gone, Riley uncovers hidden truths about those she hasn’t yet lost.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily France graduated from Brown University before going on to law school, where she was the editor-in-chief of the law review. She also holds an MFA in creative writing. She finds creative inspiration in all things spiritual, from sitting with Benedictine monks for 4 a.m. vigils in a Rocky Mountain monastery to trekking to Buddhist and Hindu temples in India. Now she writes full-time and lives with her husband and their fearless Tibetan Spaniel in sunny Colorado—the closest place to Nirvana she’s found. SIGNS OF YOU is her debut novel. Visit Emily online athttp://www.emilyfrancebooks.com and follow her on Twitter @EmilyFranceBook.
TALKING ABOUT ‘SIGNS’
Emily, what a fantastic mystery you’ve crafted! You clearly undertook a formidable amount of research to write this book. Tell us about one of the biggest “Aha!” moments where the research really clicked into place. Also, how did you balance the historical element with the narrative momentum? I think it’s masterfully done.
As corny as it sounds, I will always believe this story found me. There were just too many times when my ideas eerily dovetailed with some of the historical research . . . before I’d done the research.
Before I’d ever read one word about the sixteenth century mystery that is at the heart of my novel, I already had the main idea for the story. There was going to be a girl who catches a glimpse of her mother two years after she’s passed, and I had a completely different explanation for what really happened. And then, because I was curious, I started reading about different traditions that speak to some of the things I was writing about. And I’ll never forget when I came across an entry in a theological dictionary and read that one of the most famous religious texts of all time, The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola, was missing. Chills literally moved up one leg, then the other, and then crept across both of my arms. As I read more and more, I realized that the story I had imagined fit perfectly with this actual historical mystery. It was eerie and magical, to say the least. I have such a respect for the creative process. I think there is so much about my own that I will never understand.
As for balancing the historical element with the narrative momentum, that took a lot of work, and I’m so happy you think I pulled it off! I studied what other writers had to say about inserting backstory without losing the pace and pull of the story. I wrote and rewrote some of the historical passages many, many times.
There are plenty of YA novels where one of the MC’s parents dies, but I think SIGNS OF YOU offers a particularly complex and emotionally articulate portrait of grief. Was it painful to write from such a place of raw vulnerability?
Oh, yes. There are parts of this story that still make me cry even on my hundredth reading. My heart and soul is in this book. Every last shred. But to carry this story around in my heart was much more painful than getting it down on the page and finishing it. I have some peace now that it’s really done.
No spoilers, but suffice it to say you’ve found a supernatural hook that feels fresh. I don’t want to get too metaphysical (I mean, I always want to get metaphysical), but I’m SO curious how difficult it was to maintain the characters’ agency when part of their journey is in discovering that many of their choices lie beyond their control.
I love this question because the historical philosophy in SIGNS OF YOU is all about agency. The sixteenth century saint and mystic who is at the heart of this mystery wrote one of the most famous religious texts of all time and a good portion of it is really about decision making. And I’ve always been fascinated by choices. How do we make them? Why, at times, do we want to do one thing but end up doing another? To me, this is one of the great human mysteries. The way my characters view their own agency changes over the course of the story, and I won’t say how I think they come to view it! I don’t want to alter what different readers may take from it. But yes, this issue of agency was one of the most challenging parts of the story.
Your four main characters are beautifully rendered and so very unique. The friendship between them sizzles on the page. Please, tell me your secret! How did you tap into four distinctive voices so fluidly? Did you base Kate, Jay, Noah, and Riley on real people?
Thank you so much. I cannot say enough about the joy that these four characters have brought into my life over the past seven years. They made me laugh nearly every single day and when they were all in a scene together, they made my job easy. All I had to do was put them on the page and they took it from there. I miss them dearly.
The characters are fictional, but the entire book is really a love letter to the friendships of my childhood. The memories I have of biking neighborhood streets, exploring caves, taking night swims, and climbing giant trees with my friends are some of my greatest treasures. There was a sense of adventure and mystery everywhere we went, like the world was keeping so many fascinating secrets that we were just on the cusp of finding. I hope this story captures those feelings and pays homage to one of the best things in life—friendship.
Three things you have within arm’s distance when you write?
Cold bubbly water, cold still water, and something hot. Seriously, the cup count on my desk can climb much higher than three. I have to be surrounded by fluids!
Cotton, linen, wool, or spandex?
Favorite flavor of beef jerky (“none” is a perfectly acceptable answer)?
Original. Because no one is destined to eat Teriyaki. Readers will understand this once they’ve read the book!
If you could transport to any place in the world and any time in history, where/when would it be?
Any time or place I could live in a castle. And swoosh down the dimly lit halls with my candle at night.
Go-to snacks for writing?
Popcorn, crackers, and just about anything else I can pour in a bowl and eat by the handful. My keyboard is really just a fancy crumb catcher.
Go-to snacks for revising?
Candy! Sour patch kids, gummy worms, Junior Mints!
What’s the first thing you did when you heard about your book deal? I called my husband, who was in Spain at the time. I told him to sit down, so he sat by a busy road in Madrid, and I told him the news and then promptly burst into happy tears. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. My husband has been my biggest supporter from the first word of this story.
And last but not least, I simply must know: Henry Clay or James K. Polk? But, but… Who is James K. Polk?!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Bree Barton is a writer, dancer, and necromancer. (Not really but she does like to rhyme.) She writes short fiction and novels under her own name, and financial books that would bore you to tears under somebody else’s. One of her dance students recently told her, “You know that scene in When Harry Met Sally? You seem like you are constantly living in that scene.” If you know that scene, you will understand why this was the best compliment Bree has ever received.
Bree recently traded in her Swanky pants for Electric corduroys, so don’t forget to read BLACK ROSE in 2017…just know that it will no longer be called BLACK ROSE, and it won’t be coming out in 2017. This and other mysteries will be solved in 2018. (Spoiler alert: it was Mrs. Peacock with the candlestick. Obvi.)