Laura Lam Interview
Laura Lam’s book—Pantomime—might not be released until after the New Year, but already she’s beginning to make her stamp on the YA fantasy world, with excellent advance reviews and a big presence online. Laura Lam was raised near San Francisco, California, by two former Haight-Ashbury hippies. Both of them encouraged her to finger-paint to her heart’s desire, colour outside of the lines, and consider the library a second home. This led to an overabundance of daydreams. She relocated to Scotland to be with her husband, whom she met on the internet when he insulted her taste in books. She almost blocked him but is glad she didn’t. At times she misses the sunshine.
To start things off, who is Laura Lam and who is she, as a writer and as a person? Cats or dogs? Sweet or salty? What makes her tick?
I’m a 24-year-old from sunny California who is now displaced in cloudy Scotland. I’m nerdy and quiet until you get to know me, and then I’m still nerdy but I don’t shut up. I’m a cat person (I have a Bengal and a Ragdoll, both of whom are lovable and stupid). My sweet tooth knows no bounds and I have been known to eat entire large packets of Percy Pigs in one go. Stories make me tick—every day I write them, read them, and watch them on TV.
Pantomime, due for release in February 2013 (in the UK/US/Canada), from Angry Robot Books’ YA imprint, Strange Chemistry, is the first of the Micah Grey series and has received some astounding advance praise from authors such as Elspeth Cooper (author of Songs of the Earth and Trinity Rising), who called it “an absorbing, accomplished debut.” What is Pantomime all about and what can readers expect?
I have been so pleased and humbled by the response it’s received so far. I’ve had people say they’ve stayed up until midnight more than once, and that just tickles me pink every time.
Pantomime is about a girl with the unfortunate name of Iphigenia Laurus, who goes by Gene. She’s raised in a Victoriana-inspired world in a country called Ellada. She’s about to make her debut and perhaps become engaged and she feels like the cage of her life is getting uncomfortably small. A runaway called Micah Grey joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice, and strange, magical, and wondrous things reside in R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic.
Readers can expect all the usual thrills of a circus—a ringmaster, contortionists, aerialists, clowns, snake charmers, the freakshow, and a pantomime. Ellada is a decadent but decaying former head of an empire, the Archipelago, which has now fractured into Ellada and the various former colonies. The world has a few slight similarities with the Gentleman Bastard series, in that an advanced, long-gone civilisation called the Alder has left behind a lot of stuff, which the current inhabitants call Vestige. Ellada had the most Vestige, but a lot of it is breaking down or running out of power, leaving them vulnerable and unsteady. The Alder might have also created beings called Chimaera, but no one knows if it’s myth or if they actually existed and might be returning.
Lastly there’s a twist that we’re keeping quiet just now, and I’m very curious (read: nervous) to see how readers will react to it. *zips lips*
Although marketed as YA, as with series such as Cinda Williams Chima’s Seven Realms Quartet, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, the engrossing story of Pantomime and its engaging characters will appeal to fans from both YA and traditional adult markets; do you agree with this and do you expect readers to see it as specifically YA, or as simply a fantasy tale that all readers might enjoy?
I think quite a lot of YA can be read by both adults and teens alike and that it’s a blurry line that people love to investigate or pretend is set in stone. I find it interesting to wonder which books that were originally sold as adult ten or twenty years ago would be sold as YA now and vice versa. As a teen I read mostly adult fiction with some YA, and now as an adult I read about half YA and half adult fiction. I find it really sad and heart-breaking when adults say they flat-out don’t read or appreciate YA, or that it’s not as complicated as adult fiction. I’m a great enabler and love pushing YA on adults who scoff at it and converting them to our side. Muahaha. We have cookies.
We’d like to be enabled: what YA fantasy would you recommend? Anything that stands out as exceptional or different and must-read?
Let’s see. I grew up on a steady diet of Tamora Pierce, Dianna Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, Mercedes Lackey (though I think she was put in the adult shelves), Patricia C. Wrede, T. A. Barron, J.K. Rowling, K.A. Applegate, Philip Pullman, Brian Jacques, Bruce Coville, and Diane Duane. I haven’t re-read all of them to see how they hold up as an adult reader, but they were formative during my teen years.
Then there’s all the fabulous YA I’ve read as an adult. Patrick Ness is always a name I mention—the Chaos Walking trilogy is an incredible series. It touches on themes of war and what it does to humans, making difficult choices as well as the problems of having no privacy. I’ve also read pretty much everything Scott Westerfeld has written, and lately adored Cinder by Marissa Meyer.
Other notable shoutouts go to Earth Girl by Janet Edwards, which has just dropped and is great YA SF, and Kim Curran’s Shift, about a boy who can un-do any decision he’s made which is also out now! I really love that science fiction is making a resurgence in YA fiction lately. Kim is one of my Strange Chemistry stablemates, and I’ve also been very impressed with all the titles they’re bringing out that I’ve read so far, including Blackwood by Gwenda Bond and The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke, which starts out with a bride running away from her own wedding on a camel. Next up on my list is Broken by A.E. Rought, which is a YA retelling of Frankenstein.
Whew! I could keep going on but I’ll stop there.
I did actually originally sub Pantomime as adult to Angry Robot’s Open Door Month in March 2011. It did seem to me like it could go either way, and I hmmed and haahed for a long time before eventually sending it off and letting them decide. I’ve had a few people apply that “C” word of “crossover” to my writing. AR came back and said it felt like it’d be great YA and after my revision request where I re-wrote half the book, it went to Strange Chemistry.
Did you re-write the plot or the way in which the story was crafted? Did you find there were many out-and-out changes that made Pantomime change from its original market, to that of YA? Was it a transformation, or simply a different approach to the story?
The overall story stayed largely the same. The biggest difference was that I wrote the original narrative chronologically, but it didn’t quite work that way. Fantasy-Faction member and author Anne Lyle gets my undying gratitude here. She read the version I subbed and said it was good but the problems I set up at the beginning didn’t quite match the problems at the end, and the antagonist was revealed too late. So I ended up rearranging it and having alternate chapters in the present and the past, which helped the pacing enormously. I also developed characters and subplots and added more magical shenanigans so the book became 25% longer than the earlier draft. It was a lot of work, but it was so worth it. I learned a lot as a writer as well throughout the process—and so hopefully I won’t have to rewrite the sequel so heavily!
My main characters are teenagers going through the angst of puberty, finding their identity, grappling with authority and their place in society, and falling in love for the first time, and so it fits very well and comfortably in YA and I’m proud to be a YA author. Pantomime also has a pretty universal theme—of being a misfit and an outcast and trying to find your way and so I do think it’s a story that adults will enjoy as well, and I hope that people of all ages read my book.
Do you think YA is billed as such because of the age of its leading characters, or for its plot? Issues with identity and authority, first-time love and society are topics that affect pretty much everyone and not just during puberty: what really makes a book YA, or is it a label there for guidance that people look too much into? A book is a book is a book, right—or is it more than that?
That’s a difficult question. YA is something that’s hard to put your finger on, at least for me, but you know it when you read it. You have plenty of books with teen protagonists that are adult books. Look at the traditional epic fantasy storyline of “young farmboy saves the world.” He’ll be a teen throughout that narrative unless there’s a significant time jump. So what makes Tad Williams and Robert Jordan not YA? Maybe it’s because the plot is more focused on the larger, epic stage of the world, and there’s lots of adult characters as well who have their own storylines.
I think it boils down to immediacy and intimacy of characters. If it’s following the “firsts” of adolescence and the emotional intensity of the adolescent experience, then it’s probably young adult. Issues of identity and coming-of-age narratives are common in YA. Those are gross generalisations, but I think for me that’s where the line is drawn, but it’s still fuzzy and there’s always exceptions.
But at the end of the day, yes, a book is a book is a book.
Where did the inspiration for Pantomime come from? Was there anything that really lit the spark and the story exploded from there; or did something plant the seed and the story grew naturally from there?
This isn’t the first book with Micah Grey, technically. I started and almost completed another one with Micah Grey in his late 20s. I was 19, so I was finding the adult voice difficult when I didn’t feel like an adult yet. I kept getting stuck and almost giving up in despair. About a year later, I decided to write some notes on Micah’s backstory and origins. I thought a circus would be a great way for him gain flexibility and performance skills, and I started a “short story” about Micah joining the circus. I tapped into the voice of younger Micah instantly and that turned into its own book and trilogy. I did sometimes go back and tinker with the adult Micah book while writing the YA one as well. That was really useful for me because I always had an idea of where his character was going as a long arc.
Do you think you’ll ever fully finish the adult Micah Grey book? Is it something you’ve plans for, or a matter of focussing on the present for now?
Yes, I do have plans to finish that at some point. It’ll need a hefty rewrite but the core story is good and I’m very fond of it. But it might be a time down the line as I’ve a few other young adult books that I want to work on as well.
The world came as a twist on steampunk because there’s no steam—things are either powered by Vestige or oil. There’s a lot of steampunk and straight alternative history, but not a lot of secondary Victorian-style worlds. I think they call it gaslight fantasy these days.
Elladans are still reserved, interested in propriety and driven by technological innovation like the Victorians, but they’ve grown out of the remnants of a civilisation far more advanced than they can ever hope to be in their lifetime and Ellada will never be the colonial superpower they were in the past. I thought that was an interesting disconnect to examine—going forward when it seemed as if they had slid back.
Let’s talk a little about Strange Chemistry: how does it feel to be part of a new imprint attached to such a well-known and well-respected publishing house?
So far it’s been a dream. I have such warm, friendly relationships with the SC and AR crew. I’ve also become really close with some of my fellow Strange Chemists. A lot of us have met up in person at Worldcon in Chicago and it’s been very exciting. I also got to see Strange Chemistry from the very beginning and be a part of it as it grows and flourishes. I just went to the launch recently and was beaming with pride for our little family.
How did it feel submitting to Angry Robot’s 2011 Open Door? Before that, what moves had you made towards publication—if any—and was having Pantomime published always something you worked towards, or did the book and the story come first, with the notion of publishing sometime later?
I’d made zero moves towards publication before subbing to the Open Door month aside from sending off a couple of short stories. It sounds flippant but I did sub on almost a whim. I’d always heard your first book never gets published, lots of rejection was in my future, yada yada. It was my first book and I knew very little about the publishing industry. But I’ve always wanted to be an author, so publication was always the ultimate goal, but it happened sooner that I thought it would.
I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my writing and I hadn’t even really shown Pantomime to anyone other than my husband and my best friend. I thought I’d get a firm rejection and was surprised when I had the full called in and then went to editorial. I still feel really lucky because the book did need some more work and Amanda Rutter gave me that chance to turn into something I’m really proud of now and started my career as a writer.
In this vein, with having a lack of confidence in your work, how useful do you feel a writers’ group might have been? Is it something you’ve ever thought of and wanted to take part in, or do you feel it might not have worked for you? Would it have helped your confidence, or does the idea of sharing early work with readers make you nervous?
I actually was a part of a writer’s group when I first submitted. We’d just started the month before, and it was one of them who posted the link to the Open Door month. I’d workshopped the first chapter (which was the first time virtual strangers had seen any of my writing!) and they knew it was pretty much done so they urged me to send it off. I still attend meetings though we’ve sort of slowed down recently, and some members have been pursuing other creative endeavours
Then, when a bunch of those who submitted to the Open Door found out we were going to editorial, we hung around on a very long thread on the AbsoluteWrite forums. We later created an online writing group called the Anxious Applicants. We read a couple of each other’s manuscripts and basically held each other’s hands as we all wibbled. That group is still active though we haven’t critiqued anything lately, and we just let in a bunch of people who had their fulls requested for the 2012 Open Door Period.
I’m now a lot less precious about my writing. I’ll show any of my close friends who express an interest and it’s been great having that support group to bounce ideas around. I also have an agent willing to look at works in progress which is really good so she can tell me where I’m veering off track. I’m a lot more confident now, though I know I’ll always have more to learn about the craft of writing.
What themes and issues do you think are really important to current YA readers right now, and how does Pantomime feature them? How to you think readers might respond?
An overarching theme in Pantomime is the message of inclusivity yet also the friction of being an outsider. A lot of outcasts gravitated to R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic, and though the circus has its problems, they’ve accepted their differences and it’s in the end very welcoming of people of all backgrounds. I’m a proponent of diversity in YA and that’s something you’ll find a lot of in my work. I’m hoping readers respond positively to that, as I’ve heard a lot of people expressing dismay at the heteronormativity and homogeny prevalent in of a lot of YA fiction. So we’ll see.
What kind of people can we expect to see in Pantomime: who are they, what are they like, who do they love and how do they live? Can we expect to do away with the half-clichés of the Upper-Class Pretty White Girl or the Raven-Haired Badass Heroine, who, in many ways have become the counterparts to epic fantasy’s Straight White Male?
One thing you’ll notice in my work is that I don’t like black and white characters—everyone’s a different shade of grey (Notice that Micah’s last name is Grey. This was intentional and long before that Christian Grey came into the picture). I have tried to steer away from clichés as much as I can, so hopefully I succeeded. I suppose Gene starts out as an Upper Class Pretty White Girl, but she very quickly veers away from that. I’ve got a sarcastic love interest, but he has his own demons he’s battling which come to light.
Everyone has a past that affects their present, and everyone has hopes and dreams for the future. Many of the people in the circus had difficult lives before the found the haven of the circus on the beach, though the circus has its own politics and obstacles as well. I’m very much a character-oriented writer and love fleshing them out and trying to make them as realistic as possible.
With your love for characters and creating realistic, human people, do you think this makes Pantomime character-driven, where the plot comes second, in a sense, or rather, can the two exist equally without one taking a back-seat? People talk about character-driven or plot-driven—does there always need to be that divide?
Pantomime is more character-driven than plot-driven. Though obviously I have a plot, there’s more conversations than action and fighting, though I have some of that as well. In fact, my first drafts are extremely low-action as I’m figuring out the characters, and then I go in and add some more events in revisions. I really enjoy reading character-oriented books in any genre. But not everyone will feel the same way, naturally. There’s plenty that have a perfect balance of character and action in their plot, which is always a joy. I think Scott Lynch has a great balance of that in his Gentleman Bastards books.
Was there a specific book that made you think “this is what I want to do, I need to write”? What was the trigger for becoming a writer, or did you always write from being very young, and the rest sort of happened along the way?
I have two. One was The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester. I read it when I was 15 and it blew my young mind. It’s Count of Monte Cristo set in space with gorgeous, pared-down writing, an unreliable and frankly unlikeable character, an amazing pseudo-Victorian world, and the most innovative use of synaesthesia in a book.
The other one is really three—the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. Anyone who knows me knows that she’s my favourite author and a couple of people who don’t know me have said my work reminds them a bit of hers, which is really flattering (and scary). We’ve got different worlds and voices but I think her influence has left a mark on my writing.
Do you have a comfort book? That one title that, if you’re down or stressed or just need a hot chocolate and a slab of chocolate, that will be there with you by the fire, even if you only read a couple of pages each time? On the converse, is there ever a go-to book that makes you feel more confident and enabled to write when you’re having a hard time or a difficult day?
The Farseer Trilogy, again, are my main comfort books. I read any of Hobb’s books when I’m stressed out, so I re-read a lot of her books over the past year when I had all the uncertainty with publishing hanging over my head. I just finished the Tawny Man not long ago. Reading her writing always inspires me to try harder and dig deeper.
Margaret Atwood is a writer I savour. I read her very slowly and sometimes her prose depresses me because hot damn, she’s just so good. The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, and The Handmaid’s Tale are some of my favourite books. If I know I want to read something good I grab an Atwood. I got to meet her really briefly at the Word festival in Aberdeen last year and babbled on at her about how much I liked her poem about a cat. I might have frightened her a little.
Another writer I go to again and again is Lynn Flewelling. Her books are just so fun and I can read them in one sitting, which is just what I need when I’m ill or stressed out. That reminds me that I have Casket of Souls on my Kindle!
What’s in the future for you with writing? Pantomime is the first of the Micah Grey series: what comes next? What can readers expect from the next book and is there any projected date, however approximate?
I’m contracted for the as-of-yet unnamed second Micah Grey book. That one features magicians, an abandoned theatre, Vestige & Chimaera, political protests, sneaking over rooftops after shadows, some kissing, and clockwork people. I believe that one is coming out at the end of 2013, but I’m not too sure yet. When I have an official publication date I’ll put that on my blog. I’m also aiming for these books to be a trilogy, but naturally that depends on how the first book sells. Ahem.
I’m also working concurrently on a gothic ghost story with a twist, which I’m really enjoying. I’ve a few other YA book ideas, a historical women’s fiction, and the adult Micah books, and an idea for a screenplay, so even if I don’t have any other ideas for the next few years, I think I’ll be sorted!