Alex Aster is the author of the YA BookTok sensation Lightlark, as well as the Emblem Island series for middle graders. Book two in her Lightlark Saga fantasy, Nightbane, hits shelves this month. Ali Hazelwood is the bestselling author of The Love Hypothesis and other adult romance novels. In her YA debut, Check & Mate, teen chess champion Mallory finds herself falling for the competition. We asked friends and fellow authors Aster and Hazelwood to interview each other about their new books, which are both due out on November 7, and the many ways their characters take them by surprise.
Alex Aster: Hi, Ali! It’s so great to be speaking this way—I feel like we’re in an AIM chat or something. As you know, I’ve been a big fan of your books since The Love Hypothesis, and I was so excited when you sent me your YA debut. I remember reading it immediately, in one sitting, until 4 a.m., then sending you messages with a startling amount of exclamation points and all caps. That was back in January, and I don’t know how I have survived this long without someone else—other than you :D—to scream about it with.
I’ve seen you mention that this is the book of your heart, something you have been working on for a long time. How long have you been working on Check & Mate? Can you tell us about its inception?
Ali Hazelwood: OMG Alex!!! You were actually one of the first people to ever read the book (if not the first to read it aside from my publishing team) and getting your feedback was soooo validating. It meant so much to me that someone out there liked it—and a writer I love and respect to boot! I’d always wanted to write a story centered around chess, but my agent was a bit worried that a book about chess might be a little too “quiet,” so we temporarily shelved my idea. I was so happy The Queen’s Gambit came out, because it was proof that people were interested in chess as a sport, and in chess players as characters!
What about Lightlark? You’ve built such a complex and fascinating world. What came first to you: the characters, the setting, the idea of a competition that happens every 100 years, the curses? I’m so curious about this!
Aster: Wow, that’s incredible! It truly goes to show that timing can often be such an important piece of the publishing process. For Lightlark, I started writing the first version of the story right after graduating from college. The setting came to me first. I love celestial elements, so I wanted to create a magic system built from the stars, sun, moon, etc. Then came the characters. I wrote several different manuscripts, and the plot varied, but the title, character names, and magic system always stayed the same. It also was always a young adult fantasy novel.
Check & Mate is your YA debut. How did your writing or process differ when switching from adult to YA? Was it always meant to be YA?
Hazelwood: The truth is, when I started writing C&M, I just wanted to write a story about chess, and in particular about players who are at the top of their field and struggle with coming to terms with their talent. As I drafted, I realized that both Mallory and Nolan needed to be in their late teens and on the brink of very important life decisions, and that’s how the book ended up straddling the YA/NA categories!
I’m actually really excited to ask the same question because a little birdie (i.e., you) told me that the first book you wrote was an adult thriller! First, I have to say that I can totally see you as a thriller author, because I did not see the twists in Lightlark coming. Second, I want to read that thriller so bad now! Third, this means that you have written for three age groups: middle grade, young adult, and adult! Is it hard to switch between them?
Aster: You have no idea how happy it makes me that you didn’t see the twists in Lightlark coming! I wonder if you’ll anticipate the twists in Nightbane…! I’ve never really noticed before, but there have been plot twists in every book I’ve written, regardless of age group. I think I put little pieces of storytelling I love into everything I write, because for so long, I was the only one reading my work. If I had to switch between writing middle grade, young adult, and adult at the same time, I think that would be difficult. For the moment, though, I usually have a few months where I’m completely focused on one project, so I will usually read a lot of books from that age group to help me get back into that voice. I’m always looking for new books to read, so I usually turn to TikTok for recommendations. The first time I heard about your debut, actually, was on TikTok. When did you learn your book was going viral? Did it immediately go viral from release day, or was it something that happened weeks/months afterwards?
Hazelwood: So I have to be honest: at the time I had no idea what TikTok was, and I still find it very intimidating—please, teach me your ways! How did you get so good at it? Help, HALP!
But to answer your question, my first book actually went viral in the couple of weeks before it came out, because it was a Book of the Month pick and a lot of influencers had it mailed to them. A lot of it was luck, but I feel like I owe sooo much to that community for supporting my work!
Aster: That’s incredible! The reading community on TikTok is so amazing—they truly advocate for the books they love. One of my first bookish videos that went viral was the one pitching Lightlark, actually! After that, I felt such gratitude to the community for believing in me and my story, that I tried to show behind-the-scenes of how the book was getting published. I also just try to post videos that I would want to see! It definitely does take a lot of time, though, to post consistently on social media. I’ve had to work to ensure I still save a lot of time for writing, especially when I’m on deadline.
Check & Mate is your fourth published novel, and you release one (or more!) books a year. You also happen to be a professor. What is your writing process like? Has it changed at all in the last few years?
Hazelwood: I had to quit my academic job, because I just wasn’t able to keep up with both things—actually, I still cannot keep up with deadlines and emails, because I have no time management skills and my frontal lobes are made of, I believe, soup. I have to say, writing on deadline and on contract has definitely changed the way I approach writing. I started in fanfiction, and that was truly just a hobby—I wrote if I felt like it, and didn’t for long periods of time when I was busy or just not inspired. Now I just have to power though, so that’s definitely been an adjustment.
Please, tell me that I’m not alone and you struggle with deadlines, too!
Aster: “Deadline” is actually going to be the villain’s name in my next book! Yeah, I definitely struggle with deadlines. I had been warned by other authors that writing a series with books released every year can be difficult, because you have to almost have the next book done by the time the previous book releases. I also completely agree, writing as a job vs. for fun has changed my process too. For one, I now write outlines, which, it turns out, actually do make writing books easier! I also try to chart character growth, so I can track progress between books.
Speaking of characters… your books all feature extremely intelligent and skilled protagonists. In Check & Mate, Mallory is an incredible chess player. How does research play a role in your books? Are all of your characters’ specialties typically fields you are already knowledgeable in?
Hazelwood: More than areas I’m knowledgeable in, I choose areas I’m highly interested in, so that the research process is going to be fun for me! And I’m so glad my characters seem competent—that’s actually something I loved about Isla in the Lightlark series. She is so badass and skilled, but has lots of vulnerabilities, too. Was that always part of the plan?
Aster: It was. I wanted Isla’s experience going through the Centennial to be somewhat relatable to the reader discovering this world for the first time. She’s never been to a place like this. She’s trying things for the first time. She’s confused. She’s scared. She makes mistakes. Still, though, she’s capable in her own way. Creating characters probably takes me the longest time out of anything in the writing process.
I love Mallory and Nolan so much. Do your characters usually come to you fully formed, or do they develop while you’re writing the first draft?
Hazelwood: It depends on the story, but for C&M I had a very clear vision of the kind of people I wanted Mal and Nolan to be—to the point that I was very resistant to change parts of their personalities in edits, and I pushed back more than I usually do. I tell everyone that C&M is my favorite baby, and that’s because I had a strong mental image of what the characters would be like, with their flaws and strengths and problems and desires, and they somehow… obeyed and did what I told them to do? Which is kind of unheard of for me!
Have you ever had to deal with characters not doing what you’d like and developing their own ideas on how the story should go? (I feel like Grim is totally the type to go rogue!)
Aster: Yes!! It sounds so strange, but the characters often take the story into their own hands and surprise me. Grim definitely went rogue. Originally, he wasn’t supposed to be such a prominent part of Lightlark. He just couldn’t stay away from Isla, though! And who am I to stop a villain from getting the girl…?
Nightbane by Alex Aster. Amulet, $19.99 Nov. 7 ISBN 978-1-4197-6090-7
Check & Mate by Ali Hazelwood. Putnam, $14 paper Nov. 7 ISBN 978-0-593-61991-9