“We’re probably the only people to ever thank the IRS and mean it, right?” asked Amie Kaufman, expressing gratitude to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for (indirectly) introducing her to fellow Australian author Jay Kristoff in fall 2011. He became her collaborator on The Illuminae Files, a science-fiction series that launches with Illuminae, due out from Knopf on October 20.
Set in 2575, the saga opens as war erupts between two rival mega-corporations battling over a planet whose residents include a sparring teenage couple, Kady and Ezra, who evacuate the planet on a fleet of spaceships pursued by an enemy warship. Also involving artificial intelligence of uncertain allegiance and a plague that ravages the fleet, the novel unfolds through a dossier of hacked documents, including e-mails, schematics, military files, medical reports, and IMs.
Back to the circumstances of the authors’ meeting. Before the U.S. publication of Kaufman’s first novel (These Broken Stars, the launch title of the Starbound series, co-written with Meagan Spooner), she was required to fill out IRS forms, since “my income was heading overseas.” When she groused to a friend, Nic Crowhurst, that she was “fighting a losing battle with the forms,” he put Kaufman in touch with Kristoff, author of the Lotus War series, knowing he’d recently endured the same process. Over brunch, explained Kaufman, the two Melbourne residents “clicked immediately and became friends straight away – and decided to write together some time after that.” The grateful collaborators dedicated Illuminae to Crowhurst.
Kaufman explained that the format of the book they’d eventually write together was inspired by “an anxiety dream” in which she and Kristoff were writing a book together, told through e-mails, but she couldn’t remember what it was about. “In my dream, I didn’t want to confess that to Jay, so I’d try to get him to talk about the story without letting him know I’d forgotten it,” Kaufman recalled. “When I told him the dream, Jay said, ‘That’s hilarious – but I think there’s an idea here.’ ”
Writing a book using an array of communication formats was a new experience for both authors and, as Kristoff explained, “It seemed a cool way to break the mold, so to speak. Once we stumbled on the idea of making artificial intelligence one of the narrators, that gave us carte blanche to introduce different design ideas and topography to make the book itself part of the story experience rather than simply a vehicle for the story.”
Asked how their collaborative process works, the authors both responded in a split-second – but quite differently. “It was mostly character-based,” said Kristoff, as Kaufman quipped, “It was mostly at the pub!” Kristoff said that the two tend to plot out about 100 pages in advance, “since we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” and Kaufman added, “We divide up the labor according to what character each of us is helming,” which does shift.
“We each started out with a suite of characters to write, but as you go, you learn to write in each other’s voice,” Kristoff said. “As we constantly sent our work back and forth, neither of us threw up our hands and said, ‘This is yours’ or ‘This is mine’ – so the [authorship] lines get a bit muddy as the book goes along.” And, Kaufman adds, she and Kristoff came to learn each other’s strengths, which proved useful: “I know when Jay knows something better than I – so I felt free to say, ‘Here it is – make it better!’ ”
Receiving a Rewarding Reception
As confident as they were in each other’s skills, both authors were uncertain about how publishers would react to Illuminae. “Going down this path, with an alternate format and design, we began to think, ‘This is too crazy for anyone to buy.’ So we decided we were really writing it for ourselves,” said Kristoff. They were determined, Kaufman added, “to keep our artistic vision pure rather than make the book more beige. We decided if the novel was so weird and unusual that no one wanted it, and we got shot down, at least we’d go down in flames!”
Turns out that wasn’t necessary, though Melanie Cecka Nolan, associate publishing director of Knopf Books for Young Readers, was a tad skeptical when she first received the submission from agents Josh and Tracey Adams. “I’m not a huge follower of science fiction, and when I saw that the book was described as ‘a space opera,’ part of my brain shut down,” she recalled.
But not for long. Encouraged by a glowing blurb from YA author Marie Lu, Nolan said, “I realized I needed to step outside my comfort zone and took the book home. I found the characters so compelling that I was like a mad person reading it – and stayed up till 4:00 a.m. I went into the office on two hours of sleep and announced, ‘We have to buy this!’ A book doesn’t grab you by the throat very often – but that’s exactly what this novel did to me.”
Both Kaufman and Kristoff credit a roster of consultants and designers for the book’s successful completion. They tapped into the knowledge of experts on space, on “all things medicine and plaguey,” on astrophysics, and on computer hacking (“I have some dodgy friends,” said Kristoff of the last. “The result of a misspent youth!”).
To create the preliminary visuals of Illuminae, Kaufman pulled from his past work as a “creative” in advertising. “That experience definitely helped when we submitted the initial sample of the novel,” he said. “Instead of having to explain what the book would look like, it was easier for me to jump on the computer and mock pages up on Photoshop, so people could actually see it.”
Both authors profusely praise the Random House Children’s Books design team for their colossal efforts in pulling off such a complex project. Yet for designers Heather Kelly and Ray Shappell, it was a very rewarding assignment. “It is a designer’s dream to work on a book like this,” said Kelly. “It took a lot of time to create, but everyone came together to make a package that was as strong and compelling as the story. We had to become our own super turbo awesome team!”
Shappell eagerly tackled the task of designing Illuminae’s cover. “Designing a traditional book cover would have been an injustice to the meticulously crafted story, revealed through such creative and nontraditional methods,” he observed. “The process challenged me to create a unique acetate jacket and case that both visually and technically reflect the structure of the story. What began with transparency paper, Wite-Out, a Sharpie marker, and a whole lot of support has progressed into the most creative jacket I’ve ever designed.”
RHCB will launch Illuminae with a 100,000-copy first printing, national print and online advertising, a social media campaign that includes mock text messages between the characters, a dedicated website, a retail and library merchandising kit, and a two-week author tour that kicks off November 2.
In the interim, Kaufman and Kristoff, who have finished edits on the second Illuminae novel, are delighting in the recent arrival of finished copies of the first. “It’s been an incredible experience working with so many talented people on this project,” said Kristoff. “And actually holding the book in my hands, and realizing how much time so many people put into it, is indescribable.”
Illuminae: The Illuminae Files_01 by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Knopf, $18.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-553-49911-7