With two new books out, Blue Noon (Midnighters #3) and Specials (completing the trilogy that began with Uglies), Westerfeld talks about writing for teens and how he finds his inspiration.
As a YA author, you’ve written about a wide variety of subjects: teen trendspotters, the value placed on beauty by society, and young vampires—all of which required a lot of research. Does the research drive the plot, or does the plot drive the research?
Ninety percent of the research comes first. I mostly blunder around reading stuff and talking to smart people until an idea batters or oozes its way through to my narrative brain.
Peeps came out of Carl Zimmer’s great book Parasite Rex, which is about how parasites are the puppet-masters of the world. Once parasites get into your head—so to speak—it’s easy to see the whole natural world as a bunch of robots doing their bidding. That got me thinking about what it would be like if all of humanity was just a cog in that sort of system, and we didn’t even know it. And then I added vampires.
Of course, no idea is worthwhile unless you can turn it into a story about people. Luckily for writers—and unluckily for history—every scientific idea creates human conflict.
How did you start writing for kids?
I have no formal training as a writer at all, not even a single English class in college. However my adult books are all science fiction, which has some similarities to YA. Young adult books are about figuring out who you are and where you fit into the world, which can be a bit like science fiction, where our familiar world seems alien, changeable, even indefensible.
My first YA idea was for the Midnighters series, which is about a bunch of outsider kids who are secretly heroes. They wear black coats and sunglasses and mysterious symbols, but all for very good reasons. I got the idea right after the Columbine shootings, when goth kids everywhere were being bullied not just by their peers, but also by the media and by school administrators. I wanted to show how kids who put on the trappings of “evil” actually have a private world with its own rules, its own meaning, and even a kind of dignity.
Can you describe your writing process?
I used to be a pre-industrial writer: thousands of words in a spurt and then a few days off. But as I get older, I’ve switched to a mode best described as “slow and steady wins the race.” Basically, I write during the same four hours every day, after breakfast and the all-important coffee, generally in the same room and wearing the same pajamas.
It’s my great fortune to be married to another writer, Justine Larbalestier, and one shared writing ritual we have is reading to each other every few nights. Sharing a book in its earliest drafts keeps it alive, and creates a need for old-fashioned storytelling. When you’re reading aloud, you not only catch the clunky sentences, but can also feel in the air when it’s getting dull.
Do you think you’ll continue to write for this age group?
Absolutely. One thing I’ve realized while writing YA is that teenagers are more linguistically interesting than adults. Teens are tireless generators of slang, nicknames, private codes and other kinds of word-play. They write a lot more poetry per capita than adults do, and song lyrics are a much bigger part of their lives. And when you add in email and text-messaging, they’re also rather “inventive” when it comes to spelling. I love playing with language, and YA allows me more room to invent new collisions between words and sounds and letters.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
I think the world is a pretty weird and amazing place, especially when people look at it closely instead of trying to mystify it. A fascination with the world—the human world, the natural world, all of it—and a love of language are the two things I want to leave my readers with.