Wednesday, January 8, 2014

SICK, by Tom Leveen

In 2012, I interviewed the amazing Tom Leveen about ZERO (selected as an ALA/YALSA Best Book of 2013) and his book PARTY. Since then, he's written the awesome MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRL, and his newest novel, SICK, really is (sick as in cool--per the urban dictionary).

Brian and his friends are not part of the cool crowd. They’re the misfits and the troublemakers—the ones who jump their high school’s fence to skip class regularly. So when a deadly virus breaks out, they’re the only ones with a chance of surviving. The virus turns Brian’s classmates and teachers into bloodthirsty attackers who don’t die easily. The whole school goes on lockdown, but Brian and his best friend, Chad, are safe (and stuck) in the theater department—far from Brian’s sister, Kenzie, and his ex-girlfriend with a panic attack problem, Laura. Brian and Chad, along with some of the theater kids Brian had never given the time of day before, decide to find the girls and bring them to the safety of the theater. But it won’t be easy, and it will test everything they thought they knew about themselves and their classmates.

Here's Tom's answers to some more questions:

I love that your newest novel, SICK, involves misfits and troublemakers. What inspired the story idea, and what do you want readers to take away when they're finished reading?

I'll come a little more clean here than I have in previous interviews - SICK is in some ways the most honest book I've published so far, because the characters are really me and people I knew in high school. That's not to say we didn't all grow up and become productive members of society (we did, most of us). The book is billed as YA horror, but really, it's just another contemporary YA like ZERO or MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRL, except there happens to be a horrific element of a virus turning friends and enemies allike into deadly adversaries. So when asking about what inspired the story, partly it is based on conversations I've had with friends about imaginary zombie apocalypses (apocalpsi?) - if we were in high school, what would we do, etc. But it is also partly inspired by taking a more honest look back and realizing I wasn't the cool guy I once thought. I said, thought, and did some terrible things as a kid, and some terrible things were thought, said, and done to me. SICK is a study on those ideas, about "The Other" and how we treat one another. What I hope people take away is that discussion, that introspection. And if not . . . well, there's lots of action!

The best fiction makes for honest discussion--I've been impressed with your ability to execute that in SICK, as well as in other books. 
ZERO was selected as an ALA/YALSA Best Book of 2013. Congratulations! What about the book do you think draws readers in most, and what aspect of the book makes you proudest?

Thank you! It was an honor to make that list.
 I'd hazard to say that Zero's self-deprecation is a big selling point; her self-esteem has been ravaged when the book begins, and I think we call relate to that regardless of age or ambition. Secondly I think her relationship with the punk drummer Mike is a nice change of pace from other books in the genre; he's caring and sensitive without being syrupy about it, and he's just as human and flawed as Zero is. The part that makes me most proud, though, is the ending and the choices the characters made -- which I know some people get pretty upset over. Despite many revisions and drafts, the conclusion of ZERO has stayed the same from day one, way back in 1993, and I'll defend Zero's actions to my dying day.

Maybe that's better than a neutral reaction--love or hate it, readers still remember it. In our last interview, you discussed your revision process. Has it changed as you've written and edited more books? If so, how?

I don't think my revision has changed so much, per se, but my drafting has, and not always for the better. For the first few books, I was really writing whatever flowed at the moment, then would go back and fix problems after I'd finished the first draft. With a novel like PARTY and all those POVs running around, that got pretty difficult; with ZERO, it was matter of finding the real voice and POV, who owned the story (turns out to be Zero herself. Who knew.). Then I started working with Joseph Campbell's idea of the Hero's Journey and doing more outlines, especially for the more supernatural books like SICK. What I've learned, though, is that I was better off winging it and doing the hard revision work at the back end. I thought by outlining I was saving myself time and effort in revision, but I wasn't; I was just sucking the fun out of my first draft. Readers (and editors!) can sense that; you can tell on the page if a writer is having fun or not, just like you can tell if actors and musicians are enjoying themselves on screen or stage. So I'm transitioning back to freewriting first drafts and spending a long time afterward patching holes, shifting scenes, cutting characters out, refining dialogue...all that "fun" stuff. For me, outlining was too confining, I found myself saying "No" to characters and ideas that would crop up, and who knows what kind of great stories I lost as a result? I'm not recommending "No outlines" for other writers; I'm just saying what seems to work for me.

A really good lesson, and a reminder not to get too bogged down. And you're right--it definitely shows on the page. 
I love your website--it's excellently designed and well put together. What advice, if any, do you have for writers interested in building an online platform?

Thank you! My advice is: Get someone to do it who knows what they are doing. If that really is a college student who'll do it for peanuts, great. But I've learned that asking for favors (i.e. freebies) is a risky bet. When you engage someone to do work for you, like I did with my site, you have recourse if things go wrong. Asking your best friend from Poetry Workshop who "knows a little web design" isn't always the best way to go.

Secondly, you'll see I don't necessarily spend a lot of time on content. I plan on changing that one day, soon, in theory, maybe, we'll see, possibly . . . because I have a job to do, and that job is to WRITE BOOKS. First and foremost. I don't deny the value of online content, particularly if it's good, funny, useful, or just interesting. I really should do more of it. However, right now, I'm working on three different genres of fiction at the same time, and until I'm able to actually sell it to publishers, writing a blog every day just isn't a priority. So my advice is, books don't write themselves. A website dedicated to all your characters is fun and may be useful someday, but not without a book on the shelves first. Pay decent money to get a decent website, don't worry about bells and whistles, do your job.

So true. Having an online platform without the writing to back it up is like having an empty circus tent. 
What are some of your current projects?

I've got two new YA contemporary novels coming out from Simon Pulse: RANDOM in Summer 2014, and SHACKLED, which I think is Summer 2015. I've got a middle grade fantasy project I can't talk about yet; come back in a year and ask again...

Then I'm working on quite a few different YA novels. I just finished one a week or so ago I was super excited about, but have since decided it should never see the light of day. Depressing, that. And I've got a couple of contemporaries I'm working on, but right now my focus is on getting another solid supernatural or horror YA in the pipeline. You'll know as soon as I do!

I'm sure we will! Thanks, Tom, for an excellent interview. 

To snag Tom's books for yourselves, click the links below:

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