Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky and several other novels for adults, organizer of the Writers with Drinks reading series in San Francisco and co-host of the Our Opinions Are Correct podcast. Her debut YA novel, Victories Greater than Death, is an intergalactic drama starring 17-year-old Tina Mains, a clone of a decorated space captain who has been raised on Earth. When the beacon in her chest finally activates, signaling her crew that she is ready to rejoin them, Tina discovers that she may not be able to live up to the glory of her previous life and decides to forge her own path as a hero. We spoke with Anders about her inspiration behind the novel, how writing it was different from her earlier works for adults, and a sneak peek at more books to come.
You’ve written numerous sci-fi books and short fiction, set in a wide variety of worlds. Where did your love of sci-fi begin?
I feel like I’ve always loved science fiction ever since I was a little kid watching Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. I was always marinating in all that stuff. Books like The Phantom Tollbooth and A Wrinkle in Time also put the love of science fiction into me. When I was a kid I always just wanted to escape. I had a really severe learning disability and was a weird kid. I think I was definitely a queer kid in a lot of ways. I had a rough time in school; I was flunking out of my classes, but I was also super nerdy. So I always daydreamed about getting away, going to another planet, and finding adventure, but also acceptance, love, and friendship. People would appreciate me out there among the stars.
I had this special education teacher in elementary school who helped me get over my problems with schoolwork by encouraging me to make up silly stories. She really encouraged me to use my imagination. I think that was where my love of science fiction came from. It helped me get through some of that really tough time. Then, as I got older, I found that a lot of the most compelling stories I could tell were about other worlds in one way or another.
What was the inspiration for Victories Greater Than Death?
To some extent, it’s the stuff I just talked about‑thinking about that desire I had when I was a kid and teenager to escape. I used to imagine that a spaceship came down and, instead of me having to go to volleyball practice, I could get on this spaceship, fly away and have cool adventures. Like, what if I’m not really supposed to be here? What if I’m secretly an alien?
As I started working on it the inspiration shifted, because I was thinking, “Why was this person left on Earth? How did this happen?” I started to think about how there was an alien hero who died and they were cloned. That slowly turned into Tina having this legacy and heritage that she’s trying to live up to. I was inspired by all those superhero stories, but also other kinds of heroic stories. There have been like 20 other people who’ve taken over as Batman and they’re all like, “How can I live up to Bruce Wayne?” That was a thing that became a major inspiration. What does it mean to be a hero? It’s the whole Wreck-It Ralph thing; is it better to have people think you’re a hero, or is it better to actually be heroic? The story of Wreck-It Ralph is that he started out wanting people to think he was a hero and to be recognized as such. Eventually, he realizes that he should actually be trying to do good and help people and that’s what’s important. I was thinking about that a lot.
How long did the process of writing the book and finding a publisher take?
I started working on it in the spring of 2016. I quit my day job and was like, “Okay, I’m gonna have to write this.” I was writing The City in the Middle of the Night, which came out in 2019, but I was also, in my spare time, poking at this young adult book. If you could see the first couple of drafts you wouldn’t even recognize it. It was a completely different book! We sold it to Tor Teen in, I want to say, August 2017. So it was actually a while ago! At that point I had about 40,000 words written and that is somewhat similar to what we have now. I handed in the final book and then we had to go back to the drawing board and really rethink it. I was working on it from the spring of 2016 until we got it finalized sometime in 2019, so a few years. I was also working on the sequels. The second book is done. The third book is in progress.
What are the biggest differences between writing YA and writing for adults?
I think that there are a few big differences. First of all, the pacing is a lot faster! In my first version of the book it took too long for Tina to get off Earth and be out in the stars. It took a while for that to happen because I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to really establish this character and then we get her into space,” and my editor was like, “No. We have to get her into space a lot faster than this.” The teenage characters have to drive everything; they have to move the action forward. They have to be making choices that are shaping the narrative, which is true in adult fiction too, but you can sometimes get away with having the characters be swept along by events, more than you can in YA. Things have to be very emotional and very intense. You have to really plug into the emotion of every moment.
The other thing that I always say about the difference between adult fiction and YA is that you don’t have to hold the reader’s hand as much as with adult fiction. I think adults get a little nervous anytime there’s politics, queerness, or anything “challenging” because they’re not used to that stuff. So you have to hold their hand a little bit and be like, “It’s okay. I’m going to get you through this. There’s going to be some intense stuff, but I’m going to keep you safe. It’s all good.” You have to coach them through it. Whereas, from talking to a lot of teens who read YA and just from being around teens, I know that they grew up on the internet. They grew up being exposed to a lot of politics, queerness, and really intense stuff. So they’re ready for it!
I think people often talk about it the other way around—that you have to be more careful with teens. I definitely felt a responsibility to not include triggering or terrible stuff. I wanted to include some positive stuff in the book. For example, I thought it was really important that, in this book, everybody is very clear about consent when they touch each other outside of fight scenes. People don’t touch each other without asking for consent first. I’m going to keep that in mind for adult books as well.
How has the pandemic affected your writing process?
It’s been really hard. There’s been so much bad news, especially in 2020, and it’s hard to look away. You can’t get out and talk to people about all this scary stuff. You just have to sit with it. It drains a lot of your energy and a lot of your focus. The other thing that I found challenging at first: I had a writing routine that I’ve been doing for a really long time. A lot of my best fiction writing would happen when I would take a long walk, go to a café, sit and just write on my laptop or in a blank notebook. That was obviously not going to happen during the pandemic and I had to come up with different writing rituals that would allow me to be productive. I feel like for me to write, I have to make up things that become part of my day. I came up with a new ritual where I would get into bed every night with a blank notebook and a pen and just write in bed before I fell asleep. That was a good way to get more stuff done without just sitting at my computer at home for 10 hours a day, staring at the screen and trying not to look at Twitter.
What can we look forward to from the Unstoppable series and from you? Will you be writing more books for teens?
So currently, I have two more books in this trilogy after Victories Greater Than Death. In the second book, we get to see a lot of the stuff that I hinted at in the first book. We get to see a little bit more of the heart of the galaxy, more of the politics and more of how things are run. We get to visit some more alien worlds and get to know some of these cultures a little bit better. I really believe in not making people wait for too long. The second book answers all the questions that are set up in the first book and then there are new questions that will get answered in the third book, which I’m writing now. It’s a race against time to save everything because, without giving too many spoilers, stuff gets worse in the second book in a lot of ways. It’s that middle book where things just start to go down the tubes! So far the third book is so much fun to write because it’s just nonstop action. There isn’t time to let the grass grow under our feet; we’re just going to keep trying to solve problem after problem as fast as we can. The characters are under a lot of pressure, which is also really fun to write, but it’s the most fast-paced of the three books. I’m really loving that; it’s going in some really wild and wacky directions.
I would love to write more books for teens. I’d like to live more in the Unstoppable universe. I feel like there’s a ton of stuff that I came up with for this universe that I’ve barely even touched on in the books. I created a giant wiki with all these different aliens and things. There’s just so much that I could easily spend another 10 books getting into it.
Will you be continuing the Writers with Drinks series?
I sure hope so. I’ve actually been having a lot of conversations about that the last few days because we’re starting to see San Francisco reopening venues. I would really love to go back to doing Writers with Drinks maybe this summer or fall. It was such a fun thing to do and it was a great way to build community, which is the thing that I always feel like we need more of. We got to raise a lot of money for some awesome nonprofits, which I was really happy about being able to do. So I hope that we can get back to it at some point. Once I’m done with the book launch I’m going to put out some feelers.
Is there anything else we can look forward to from you?
I’ve got two more books coming out in 2021. Never Say You Can’t Survive is my book of essays about how to use creative writing to get through hard times. We posted all the essays online every week during 2020, and it was actually therapeutic to have that. Everything was going to hell, and being able to write an essay every week about things like developing your characters to deal with the fact that everything is messed up, and how to use world building to distract yourself from the state of the world, and so on. That’s coming out in August. I revised it a lot and the book version is a lot stronger and tighter. Then, in November, my first full-length short story collection comes out called Even Greater Mistakes. The sequel to Victories Greater Than Death is hopefully going to come out in 2022, but I don’t think we’ve set a pub date yet. Then there’s the third book and an adult novel, that I can’t talk about yet, which is like half written. Stuff is happening! When I think about doing three books in one year it’s like, “How did that happen? I don’t understand!”
Victories Greater Than Death (Unstoppable #1) by Charlie Jane Anders. Tor Teen, $18.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-250-31731-5