In Corinne Duyvis’s new YA novel, The Art of Saving the World, a portal that provides access to other worlds goes rogue on Hazel Stanczak’s 16th birthday. Located on the Stanczak family farm, the portal previously was known only to a mysterious government agency. After Hazel encounters four doppelgangers from other dimensions who have been thrown into her world, the five of them join forces with a dragon to save humanity from an out-of-control portal as well as an infestation of trolls. Duyvis, a co-founder and editor of the Disability in Kidlit blog, spoke with PW about free will within alternative universes; writing about characters at different points on the sexuality spectrum from a queer perspective; and the impact of the #OwnVoices hashtag that she coined five years ago.

In The Art of Saving the World, you explore the concept that there are other worlds, where our mirror images lead parallel lives. What does such a notion tell us about free will and self-determination in this universe you created?

I believe that our identities are shaped by a combination of genetics, environment, and our own free will; in any given universe, those first two elements are largely outside of our control, leaving only the element of free will up for debate.

If 98% of characters’ genetics/environments are identical, as happens to be the case with the Hazels we see in The Art of Saving the World, it’s no surprise those characters end up remarkably similar. Even so, some Hazels are so radically different it suggests there are likely even more Hazels [with different personalities] out there in the multiverse. Some of their differences can be traced back to different genetics and environments, but other differences have their roots in personal decisions—a specific point in their history where seemingly identical Hazels diverge.

I’ve never liked the idea of destiny, so in the universe of The Art of Saving the World, the Hazels’ decisions and destinies are absolutely within their own control. With infinite Hazels in infinite universes, I think one can make a compelling argument about how The Art of Saving the World strongly reinforces the ideas of free will and self-determination.

Neven is a memorable character, but including a talking dragon among the cast of contemporary characters in a world very much like our own seems rather incongruous. Why did you decide to make Hazel’s mentor a dragon?

There were two things I kept in mind while planning and drafting The Art of Saving the World: I wanted the book to be fun to read, and I wanted it to be fun to write.

My previous YA novels [Otherbound and On the Edge of Gone] were fairly serious in tone, and I wanted to take a different approach with this book. When I realized I wanted to explore the “Chosen One” concept and play with some fantasy tropes, the idea of a dragon mentor came to mind. I basically shrugged and went, “Sounds fun! Let’s see if it works.”

Later on, I considered taking a different approach with Neven’s character, but ended up deciding to keep her. She works well as an early signpost for what kind of story readers can expect. Given the presence of an interdimensional rift and a government agency, the first chapters slant sci-fi, but it’s a fantasy book at heart—both featuring and interrogating concepts such as “Chosen Ones,” “Powers That Be,” and other fantasy tropes. By introducing Neven early, I hoped that it would help manage expectations, instead of blindsiding readers further into the book by taking a sharp turn towards fantasy.

Neven’s presence also made it a little easier for the characters themselves to take the fantasy elements at face value as they get introduced. It’s hard to argue with a talking dragon.

The five Hazels, especially Rainbow Hazel and Prime Hazel, discuss their sexuality and sexual identity in several scenes in The Art of Saving the World. Why did you create characters who were so similar, yet varied on the sexual spectrum?

The protagonist, Hazel Prime, is still questioning her identity. She thinks she might be gay, but she’s not completely sure. She doesn’t know much about asexuality, but when she hears about it, it’s like a lightbulb goes off.

I feel like this questioning stage is important to represent in fiction, especially middle grade/young adult fiction. If all Hazels were on the exact same place on the spectrum, it would feel like Hazel Prime was simply handed an answer on a silver platter instead of having the space and agency to figure it out for herself. I wanted the other Hazels to show her possibilities instead of taking them away and leaving her feeling boxed in.

So, while the Hazels are all in the same neighborhood, they’re on different places on the queer spectrum. Some Hazels are lesbian/gay, while others are bi. All the Hazels we meet are asexual, but that doesn’t mean they experience their asexuality in the exact same way. This also allowed me to write about some of the diversity that exists even within groups: Too often, it’s like there’s only one right way to be—insert identity here—and that’s just not the case.

The Art of Saving the World seems almost prescient, with characters battling to save humanity from an interdimensional rift, and their efforts hampered by government bureaucracy and other obstacles. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic erupted after you wrote this novel. What was your inspiration for writing The Art of Saving the World?

Long ago, I’d jotted down the idea of an out-of-control interdimensional rift, but never quite figured out the story around it.

I’d previously played with the idea of having multiple versions of the same character. My roots go back to comic book superheroes, and meeting AU [Alternate Universe] versions of the characters is pretty standard in that realm. Yet, I hadn’t seen as much of it in YA/fantasy fiction, and even less that explored the themes I was personally interested in.

I’d never been particularly drawn to writing about the “Chosen One” trope or magical destinies. That was in part because every time I encountered stories with those tropes, I ended up with a thousand questions about how and why and what if. What better way to explore those questions than in a novel?

Those three concepts ended up tangling into each other, and became the strange hybrid beast of The Art of Saving the World.

Hazel believes that she is special, The Chosen One, but then discovers differently. What do you want teen readers to take away from reading this novel, a tale with such flawed protagonists, who are full of doubt and anxiety?

There’s a lot that I hope readers will take away. To be kind and patient with yourself. To question whether the powerful truly deserve your trust. To watch who’s taking responsibility and who’s shifting it away from themselves. And for those readers who need to hear about asexuality and anxiety and endometriosis, to get the spark of recognition they need to explore those topics further.

That said, in my experience, it’s better to ask questions than to give answers. “Don’t be so harsh on yourself” is easy to say and hard to do. “Why are you so much harsher on yourself than you’d ever be with other people?” Answering a question like that is far more likely to resonate with people.

This book is basically that question in novel form.

It’s been five years since you conceived of the hashtag #OwnVoices. Can you comment on how the movement has affected you as a writer as well as the publishing industry? How does this novel fit into the #OwnVoices movement?

I never predicted the impact this hashtag would have on the publishing industry. When I first coined it, the idea was to just toss out book recommendations for one evening. I thought that maybe, if it really took off, we’d be using the hashtag for a few days.

Five years later, #OwnVoices has become an integral part of the publishing lexicon: it’s used in deal announcements, manuscript wishlists, query pitches, trade reviews, thinkpiece headlines, and countless important conversations about representation of marginalized groups in different media.

While the concept of “marginalized characters written by marginalized authors” is in no way new, I think that having straightforward shorthand has made it easier to prioritize and centralize these books within the diversity discussion. It’s changed how we talk about representation, in both good and bad ways. One negative result is the excessive identity policing and pressuring of marginalized authors that we’ve been seeing.

The positive results are plentiful, though, and I hope they outweigh the negatives. I’ve seen lots of marginalized authors feel emboldened by the popularity of the hashtag, saying it gave them the faith that people actually wanted to read the kind of novels they hoped to write. It makes it easier for agents and editors to prioritize which manuscripts to represent and acquire, and readers have a much easier time finding books with respectful, accurate, nuanced representation.

An example I keep going back to: when my sci-fi YA novel On the Edge of Gone was released in 2016, it featured only the third explicitly autistic lead written by an openly autistic author. The first two were Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s Rogue and Zack Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller’s Colin Fischer, both contemporary middle grade novels. Now, in 2020 there are over 20 such titles. I suspect #OwnVoices had a lot to do with this change.

Similarly, when my debut Otherbound released in 2014, queer YA novels were still rare enough that you could easily keep track—whereas today alone, there are seven queer YA books released, most by openly queer authors. Or more, even—I might’ve missed some. See? Can’t keep track anymore.

Which, of course, brings me to The Art of Saving the World. In some ways, it’s very clearly #OwnVoices. Hazel has anxiety, I have anxiety. In other ways, it’s fuzzier. Is it #OwnVoices when I’m bi and Hazel is probably a lesbian? Can it be #OwnVoices for questioning asexuality even if we don’t necessarily land in the same place?

I try not to agonize over where the book fits. Queerness isn’t always clear-cut, which can make the hashtag difficult to apply. And you know what? That’s fine. #OwnVoices should be a tool, not a blunt weapon.

The Art of Saving the World by Corinne Duyvis. Abrams/Amulet, 18.99 Sept. 15, ISBN 978-1-4197-3687-2