Today Amanda Hocking’s latest novel, Freeks, hits the shelves. Hocking is the mega-prolific author of books including the Kanin Chronicles and the Trylle Trilogy, and Freeks is another darkly magical tale, this time set against the backdrop of a traveling carnival. As the daughter of the carnival’s fortune teller, Mara is accustomed to a strange and transient life. When she meets a cute boy named Gabe in the Louisiana town where they’ve set up camp, getting to know him gives her a peek at the normal life she craves. But there’s something lurking in the atmosphere, a darkness that sets off the radar of the carnival’s performers and soon explodes into violence. In order to save the ones she loves, Mara must come into the powers she has long suppressed.
To celebrate her new release, Hocking sat down with Roshani Chokshi, author of The Star-Touched Queen and the forthcoming A Crown of Wishes, to talk about kissing scenes, changing process, and writing that reflects a diverse world.
So I’ve literally lost count of how many books you’ve written, and am in complete and total awe. After The Star-Touched Queen came out in April, I found that my entire writing process changed. Now I have to wear the most aggressive noise-canceling headphones and hope they silence all the voices pulling me in a thousand directions. How has your writing process or experiences changed with each new book? Do debut jitters (asking for a friend, *cough*, me) still rear their heads?
My writing process has definitely changed. Some of it is just a natural part of growing and figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t. But I have found it is much harder to get lost in a story. Before I started publishing, writing was more of an escape, where I would just hang out in this world with these characters and do whatever seemed fun at the time.
But now it’s much more, “Does it seem realistic for them to be angry? How best can I convey their anger? How many times have I used the word ‘sigh’ this book? Is the main character likable enough? Does it matter if they are? What will people think?” The good news is that I do think asking these questions has made me a better writer and made my books better. I challenge myself more, and ironically, I think I’ve started taking more risks with my writing. The bad news is that it has made the writing process less fun than it used to be. Writing a book used to be a solitary activity, and in a lot of ways it still is, but now I have a thousand little voices sitting on my shoulder, judging every word I write.
I still get jitters, for sure, but bad reviews and criticism don’t hit me as hard as they used to. It’s easier to separate someone disliking my book from my actual worth as a person. That sounds fairly basic, but it was something I had to learn how to do. For me, it’s super important to remind myself I am more than the sum of the words I’ve written and the books I’ve sold.
I love that, and can 1,000% relate to all the little voices whispering about what the book should be. Even though the writing process may have become a bit less fun, what are some of the things you look forward to writing about the most? For me, I get giddy when I get to write a kissing scene (yayayay kissingggg) or anything that lets me describe food. 😀
I love kissing scenes, but my favorite things to write are probably the “almost kisses.” I love the tension of two characters that want to kiss but can’t or don’t act on it in that moment. But then, it is super fun to write when they actually do get together and kiss. 😉
I’ve also gotten super into world-building. I probably spend waaaayyy too long prepping before the book and setting up all kinds of details and info just in case I might need it (like what is the city’s average rainfall in March and the main character’s great-grandma’s middle name).
Ha! I love that! It’s always fun to write up character histories and secret backstories. I think that iceberg structure of world building—knowing the information, and just showing the tip of it—makes that believability seamless to a reader. How do you approach world building? Do you start with an image, an idea, an emotion?
I guess it’s usually a combination of all three, for me. I think I usually get an image and a feeling in my head, and start growing a scene around that. With Freeks, I think the first image I had was of Mara dancing with Gabe under lights at a circus while INXS played. That scene itself actually isn’t in the book, but it led to questions and interests that eventually grew into a full-blown story.
Me too! This is part of the reason why Pinterest has become so dangerous to me. I keep calling it book research, and end up with a Pinterest board that’s 99% ostentatiously decorated cupcakes. Speaking of Mara and Gabe, romance is such a big pull for YA books. How do you approach romance in your books?
It varies. The last several books I wrote, I did more of a slow-burn romance, where the characters spend a long time getting to know each other and fighting their feelings before they kiss. With Freeks, I wanted a change of pace. Mara is only in town for a week with her traveling sideshow, so it made sense to me to make her relationship with Gabe more of an “insta-romance” type of thing. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but attraction at first sight definitely exists, and sometimes you just meet a person and you know you like them and want to get to know them more. And sometimes, especially when you’re young and don’t have a lot time, that “getting to know them more” phase involves lots of kissing. I think that works for Mara and Gabe, and the main reason is that they’re respectful of each other—neither is pressuring the other one to do or act a way they don’t want to. And while both Mara and Gabe are keeping some pretty big secrets from each other, they are actually honest about their feelings for each other.
YA romance can be a tricky thing, though. For me, as I’ve become more aware of the fact that young girls are reading my books and perhaps taking them to heart, I’ve reevaluated the way I write relationships. I still want to write love that is passionate, dramatic, and intense, but it’s also very important to me that it’s done in a way that’s respectful, considerate, and open. If readers take away anything from my books, I want it to be that love can be messy and confusing, but it’s worth it, and real love isn’t cruel or controlling.
Yes! I love that, and I think it’s great to reinforce that love and romance should be consensual and uplifting, not demeaning. One of the things I love about your main characters is that they are from marginalized races. Yay! What kind of research did you do and what inspired you to write them that way?
I’d been following a lot of conversations about diversity, both in YA—like We Need Diverse Books—but also in entertainment in general. And I looked at my readers and the people around me, and it’ll come as a shock to no one, they weren’t all white. The world is full of people of all colors and shapes and backgrounds, and it started to seem pretty silly and irresponsible to ONLY have white characters.
For a while, I avoided specifically mentioning the race of characters unless it was important to the plot. I would envision characters as different races, but I was afraid to specifically point it out, because as a white person, I was afraid I might get the representation wrong. I was afraid that instead of helping increase visibility and allowing my readers to see themselves in my novels, I would make a hurtful mistake.
But eventually, I came to the realization that it wasn’t good enough. Leaving it to the readers to imagine white or non-racially described characters as more diverse was putting the onus on them, when I am the writer. I am the one with the responsibility to the young women and men reading my books to see themselves represented and included, to show them a world that isn’t totally monochromatic.
Freeks is my first book in which the main characters aren’t white (which is shameful to admit), and it’s also scary. I don’t know if I got it all right, but that’s not an excuse not to try. When I know better, I do better, and if I make mistakes now, people will point them out, and I can do better next time. I think that’s far better than the alternative of only writing books about white people.
Before I started Freeks, I did a lot of research. WeNeedDiverseBooks.org was a good place to start, with plenty of links and recommendations about writing about marginalized groups you don’t personally belong to. I read a lot of books by diverse authors about diverse characters, read and watched interviews by people of color about diversity, and talked to people who had different backgrounds and experiences than me.
But going into Freeks, I decided the most important thing about Mara and Gabe was to treat them as characters, the way I would any of my other characters. They have all had different experiences that inform their decisions, and while I knew race would be one of those things, it wasn’t the only one.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on the second book of a YA duology that’s coming out next year. Thus far, I haven’t figured out how to define it. It’s my most ambitious project to date, as it’s a vast world with cyberpunk influences and tons of mythology and creatures wrapped up into it. I don’t have official titles for yet, but it has a badass Valkyrie leading the way.
There has been so much conversation about the evolution of YA and what it “is.” For you, what makes your books YA?
For me, I view YA as any book with a main character between the ages of 14 and 21, who is going through some type of growing pains. They may solve a mystery, fall in love, or battle dragons—but through that process, they learn about themselves and grow up. All of my heroines are between 17 and 19, and they’re all discovering themselves and going through various rites of passage. They’re all struggling to figure out their place in the world around them, many are navigating changing relationships with their parents, and they’re also dealing with their first serious romances.
When you started writing, did you have the YA genre in mind?
When I first started writing, I didn’t even realize YA was a genre. I read a lot of horror and romance, but I tended to write more realistic dramas. By the time I was getting serious about my writing career, YA had really blown up. I had moved on to writing speculative fiction, and I had begun to almost exclusively read YA. What drew me to it was actually the genre blending. It seemed like the best place to incorporate monsters and passionate kisses, and it was fun and exciting to write about teenagers dealing with life on their own terms for the first time.
I always get questions about how much of myself is in my characters. If I have any remotely autobiographical character, it would be the flesh-eating demon horse (Kamala) from my debut. I don’t know what this says about me. Ha. Do you find that you give your characters bits of yourself, too?
My characters are soooo much stronger and braver than I would ever hope to be! I deliberately try not to make my main characters too much like me. (Mostly because I never go on any adventures, and prefer to sit at home with my dogs reading a book, which doesn’t make for a very good story). The characters I relate to most end up the sidekicks. Whichever one rolls their eyes the most, that’s probably the one I see myself in.
I’m sure there are a lot of aspiring authors reading this, and I’m tempted to ask the traditional “what advice would you give,” but let’s put a twist on this. What would you GIVE aspiring authors? I’d give them a clock that always squeezed two hours of sleep into one, an extra pair of wrists for when they run theirs ragged, and maybe an enchanted journal that floats above their heads when they sleep so they never have to worry about forgetting to write down awesome dreams.
First off, I totally want that clock. It would probably be the greatest gift of all time.
For the aspiring writers, I would give them noise-cancelling headphones that drown out all the voices and critics when they need to write (but they can take them off for editing) and a magical elixir that bottles up excess inspiration for when they have too many ideas so they can use it when they don’t have enough (it always seems to me that I want to write all the things at once, or I’m going through a dry spell where I want to write no things at all).