Prior to becoming a full-time writer based in Montana, Jeff Giles was living in New York and working as deputy managing editor for Entertainment Weekly. It was during his tenure there that he saw first-hand the passion that YA readers have for their favorite books and movies, and became inspired to dip a toe into the YA author pool. His first novel, The Edge of Everything, has just been released; we spoke to him about making his YA debut, and his progress on a sequel.
You were the deputy managing editor for Entertainment Weekly. When did you realize you wanted to shift gears to write fiction?
It wasn’t so much shifting gears as getting a second car. I had taken stabs at writing fiction, but never really latched onto something I really loved, or wrote something and got swept away by it.
In my work at Entertainment Weekly, I had written reviews and news stories about YA books and film franchises and was always moved by how smart and voracious and loyal the readers were. Everything we did got lots of attention and reaction. There was just lots of energy there that I did not see from other parts of the publishing world. That got me thinking in a new way about fiction. The idea for the opening sequence of my book popped into my head at work one day—I saw a girl stumbling through the woods in a blizzard to save her little brother and their dogs and then she’s shocked to see this otherworldly guy on a frozen lake pushing someone else in. And I thought, “Who are these people? What is this girl going to do?” I had found a story I was excited to tell.
How did you make the transition? Were there any challenges?
I showed about 75 pages of my manuscript to an agent [Jodi Reamer at Writers House] who had said to me once, “If you ever write anything, I’d like to see it.” That was kind of an adrenaline rush because she had some big-time clients. That alone was pretty good incentive for me. And I showed to a couple of friends in the YA field, too. I feel very lucky and grateful; I’m fortunate to have had access to these people that I met through my work at the magazine. That was one of the upsides of working for so long in journalism. I knew who might be a good fit for me, if they were interested.
Jodi read it and had smart notes on it—the biggest one being to write in the third person. I had originally been alternating first person narratives between Zoe and X. That helped me a lot. And we talked about how to handle violence and tragedy, how realistic, how dark could I make it. The YA category changes pretty fast. I’m so impressed by what these authors do. There are all kinds of voices in YA and they are realistic and unflinching.
One of the best moments I’ve had is when I got email about some offers and it was clear I was going to go with Bloomsbury, I called my wife and said “I’m going to sign it. Let’s move to Montana.” She was shocked and ecstatic. We had been going there every summer for years because her father lives there; our whole family loves it.
Leaving New York and friends is tough, and there are things about it I still really miss. But Montana is a great place to write. I’ll never be on a six-day hike alone with a backpack, but I’m less of a nerdy person here.
After I sold the book [in spring 2014] I wrote 80–100,000 words in six months. I had to do it fast. I would write 1000 words a day and fall out of the chair from exhaustion. That first year we lived in Montana, I didn’t even go outside.
What’s the best thing about leading an author’s life?
I love finding out what I can do as a writer. I had written maybe 1000 profiles or news stories and I’m proud of that. But I didn’t know if I could write something scary or romantic or funny; I didn’t know what was in my toolbox.
I have 40,000 times more quality time than I did when I was living in New York City and working 60 hours a week. I have fewer excuses for not going to the gym. And Montana makes you go outside and deal with stuff, go outside hiking or huckleberry picking. In New York I was in my head and neurotic. There aren’t a whole lot of sarcastic people in Montana and that’s something I had to adjust to. It’s been cool to meet so many different people.
Your novel blends elements of mystery, a family drama, and a paranormal romance. What sparked you to write this particular story?
What I’ve heard is that my book is a slightly unusual mix of realistic contemporary fiction and supernatural. People may think, “This is kind of weird, not all fantasy, not all realistic.” But I knew I wanted to write about the real emotions of a family grieving after the death of their dad and then this supernatural guy hits them like an asteroid, out of nowhere really.
Zoe is sick of losing people, sick of being out of control, so she’s going to control this otherworldly problem, doing about 90% of it by herself. I was raised by a quirky over the top mom, and I have a wonderful wife and amazing daughter. I couldn’t not write women who aren’t smart, cool, proactive, and badass. I wanted the mother character to seem real. Parenting is difficult and you don’t always make the right decisions. I wanted her to be loving, loyal, flawed, but doing her best. Jonah is a little like my son was when he was younger. And I wanted the supporting characters to have a little bit of their own arc, their own believable storylines. The people from the supernatural world have to be treated with equal respect. When you’re writing a character you really like and you’re surprised by what they do, that is a blast.
The settings in your book—the fantasy Lowlands underworld, and contemporary Montana—are very distinct. How do they power your story and your characters?
Our family had spent many summers in Montana, but I had never been here in the winter. I imagined the winters as much worse than they are. They’re not nearly as fierce as I thought. And when I moved to Montana I would sit at a desk overlooking this giant snowy wilderness. Spending time with my father-in-law, I learned about trees, animals, ice, and hills. It’s easy to hike around and drive around here and get inspired.
With all that in mind, I knew I wanted to make the weather one of the characters in the book. Zoe is by herself a lot of the time so I needed to create obstacles and dangers for her, and the blizzard was one of those dangers.
As for the Lowlands, I knew I didn’t want to do a version of hell like Dante’s Inferno. I wanted it to be the world’s worst underground prison. I read lots of stuff about the experiences of people being in prison including De Profundis by Oscar Wilde. He writes about the psychology of being in prison. And there are so many hellacious prisons in the world right now, it was not hard to research them.
The worst part of a hell like the Lowlands is not necessarily physical pain, but rather the psychological punishment: guilt, shame, isolation. X was born there, he never did anything wrong. So you have this unjust situation. He has a surrogate family—a father, mother, friends. I wanted readers to get a sense that he has some kind of affection and positivity in his life.
His mother figure, Ripper, is a British woman who died in 1832 and she taught X to be a bounty hunter. His friend, Banger is a slacker, an American guy who says “dude” a lot and died in the 2000s. If there was a hell, I pictured it as people from different centuries, speaking different languages, with different life experiences.
There’s a sequel coming. Can you talk about that?
I’ve finished a first draft. It was probably harder than the first but also a blast. In the first book, I had to set up two worlds, and building a real world was just as hard as building a fantasy one, thinking about things like what kind of car do these people have, are they struggling to make money. Friends who’ve told me, “I love Ripper,” I can say that if you love Ripper you’ll love the first 50 pages of the second book!
While the first book was very much Zoe’s story, the second book focuses more on X. He goes back to the Lowlands to find out who he is, who his parents were. He’s trying to learn his own story like Zoe learned hers. We don’t have a title yet, but the new book is due out in January 2018.
When it comes to writing, I’m slow and steady. I won’t win the race, but I will finish. I had a lot of adrenaline flowing when writing the first book, but this time around I have more confidence in the characters, and in the story—and that I can do it. Fear is a great motivator, but confidence works too.
The Edge of Everything by Jeff Giles. Bloomsbury, $18.99 Jan. ISBN 978-1-61963-753-5