First Draft, Ep. 89: Amie Kaufman - Transcript
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Amie Kaufman, New York Times bestselling co-author of the ILLUMINAE series with Jay Kristoff. The latest book in that series, GEMINA, is out now. She also co-wrote the bestselling STARBOUND trilogy with Meagan Spooner, who has also been a guest on this here pod [listen to her full First Draft interview here].
[Gentle rainfall in the background]
Amie Kaufman doesn’t live near me. In fact, she lives just about as far away as it’s possible to get - across the globe in Melbourne, Australia. Given that we spend so much time in different longitudes and time zones, I was so happy Amie was able to make time to sit down with me this summer, while she and Jay were touring to support the ILLUMINAE books. It was the weekend of Book Expo America, which this last year was held in Chicago. Amie had been on the road for weeks already, and was fresh off a full day at the conference. So, we sat and relaxed in her hotel room, while having midday snacks and another author dozed at the foot of the bed. It was one of those conversations you have at summer camp, or during a long car ride, that is to say… it was great. And Amie is great. I can’t wait to share our talk. So, grab a plush hotel bathrobe, order up some room service, and enjoy the conversation.
[Door squeakily opens and closes]
ENNI: Alright… hi, how are you?
Amie KAUFMAN: I’m good.
ENNI: Good. It’s so nice to meet you, and be able to chat with you.
KAUFMAN: Yes, seriously. I’ve been listening for such a long time, so it feels like I’ve stepped inside a book or something. I’m excited.
ENNI: Yay! This is so fun. As you know, I like to start these all with, where were you born and raised?
KAUFMAN: I was born in Melbourne, but my mum is Irish. So, I would say I was raised in Australia, but we would go back to Ireland a lot. I don’t think it’s the case these days, but when I was little, it was cheaper to get kids under twelve on the plane, so my mum was like, “We’re getting the most out of this before they get too old.” We would go back to Ireland, not on holiday, but just go and stay with family. And I kind of lost a lot of summers that way, cause we’d leave the Australian summer on our holidays.
ENNI: Oh yeah!
KAUFMAN: Go over, get the Irish winter. And Irish winter is everything you imagine it to be. We would just stay inside and play, and that was life.
ENNI: That’s really interesting. Would that mess with how you remember the years and stuff? Switching seasons like that is tricky.
KAUFMAN: A little bit, I think. I’m really bad at time, famously bad at time, in a way. I will tell people without hesitation, “Oh yeah it was a month ago.” And they’re like, “It was last year honey.” But I mean it when I say it, and that’s where it goes wrong. I speak with conviction, and it’s not true.
ENNI: And so, obviously, you must have a big affinity for Irish folk lore?
KAUFMAN: Very much. I mean, at university I majored in Irish History.
ENNI: There you go!
KAUFMAN: I read about Irish women’s migration to the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia 1870 to 1914. We could do a whole podcast about that. It’s actually this amazing story about female education and agency. But yeah, I studied Irish history, and I put a bunch of it into my second book, THIS SHATTERED WORLD. It’s a colony, settled mostly by Irish colonists, so I got to retell a few stories, and [inaudible] a few names.
ENNI: You wouldn’t have thought that that would factor into your spaceship story.
KAUFMAN: No, it’s not something you’d imagine you’d find in space, but there’s this cool thing, right? When people migrate to a new country, usually the children will say, “Oh we’re from…” wherever they came from, but the grandchildren will not. But with the Irish, it averages six generations before they start saying, “Not Irish.” Everyone knows the stereotype of the Boston cop who’s like, “Yeah, we’re Irish.” [And] literally no one, in many generations of your family, has set foot in Ireland. It’s a thing that the Irish do. So, we thought, “The hell with it.” They’re gonna hold on to who they are as well in the future, in this colony.
ENNI: That’s so interesting because, you are struggling to call yourself Australian…kind of.
KAUFMAN: Yeah well, I have two passports. So, I consider myself Irish and Australian.
ENNI: Let’s build up to school and everything. I would love to know, when you were younger, how writing and reading factored in for you?
KAUFMAN: I know people who felt they were going to be writers. I wrote a lot, but I did not know that one could be a writer. I don’t know where I thought books came from. And, if I thought anything, I thought authors were dead.
ENNI: [laughing] Authors were dead!
KAUFMAN: Yeah, they had written books in the past, and now we had them. But I don’t think I understood that they were out there, you know? Putting their socks on in the morning and the rest of it. But my primary school librarian, Mrs. Amiak (?), used to expose us to heaps of authors. So, I slowly began to realize, “Ah, that’s where books come from.” And I read constantly. My teachers used to lend me books, and they were amazing. Good behavior – I got a book. Sick day – I got a book. I was that kid reading under the covers with a – well we say torch, not flashlight - but constantly. I loved it, and I used to tell my friends stories all the time. I was the one directing the games on the playground, telling everyone what their parts would be, and what the narrative would be.
ENNI: I was that too! I have a vivid, vivid memory of my mom, at one point, listening in on a play session with me and my friend. And we were playing with my dolls that I was directing the story, right? And later she was like, “Sarah, um, when you and Marie play, you should be less bossy.”
KAUFMAN: “How can I say this in a way you’ll understand?”
ENNI: Yeah, I was like, “Ugh.” I remember the next day being like, “Well, what if they did this next?” Trying to be less bossy, but I was still like, “But this is what needs to happen!”
KAUFMAN: Oh, I know. For me it was also partly a cover, because as much as I had the gift of the gab, I was equally uncoordinated. Like really, from age five, I was that kid who was picked last for sporting teams. And with good reason. I was not very good at being bad at things, and I think if I had maybe made more of an effort to catch up early, maybe I would have caught up. But I hated being bad at it, and being seen to be bad at it, so I didn’t do it. And so, I had to take charge to protect myself. I’d be like: “Well, I’m gonna judge the handstand competition. I’ll tell you guys who’s best. And, of course, as judge it would not be fair if I were to participate in the handstand competition.” So, I would kind of both insert myself into leadership, and also protect myself at the same time. I think outwardly it completely just looked like confidence, but there was a bit of calculation as well.
ENNI: Yeah! Oh, that’s so funny! What a clever way to sort of make up for…inadequacies [laughing].
KAUFMAN: [laughing] I know, right? Turn your weakness into strength… Amie Kaufman age five! [Clapping hands]
ENNI: What kind of stuff were you reading?
KAUFMAN: I read a lot of a British author called Enid Blyton. In Australia and the U.K., everybody grows up reading dozens of her books. And when I came here, it was inconceivable to me [that people didn’t know her]. I think the equivalent would be a whole country not knowing about THE BOXCAR CHILDREN or something. It’s something that’s completely ubiquitous.
KAUFMAN: Yeah exactly. I read a lot of THE BABYSITTER’S CLUB, and I’m not gonna lie, BABYSITTER’S CLUB Super Special #4 – I think it was, in which they get shipwrecked, was formative for me.
KAUFMAN: Oh yeah, that’s why I’ve got so many shipwrecks happening now in my stories.
ENNI: You just loved that one!
KAUFMAN: I was fascinated by shipwrecks - so fascinated. Even though I would not thrive in the wild personally.
ENNI: Before we turned the microphone on, you were telling me that you grew up sailing a lot.
KAUFMAN: I did yeah. So, and I want to specify to listeners as I did to you, that in America it seems to me that sailing is a bit of a fancy thing to do – like people go to a yacht club and they’re in crisp white. But in Australia the whole country pretty much lives on a coast, and everyone’s got a beat up old dinghy that they sail. It’s not a fancy thing to do at all. But yeah, I literally took my first steps on a boat.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, well it’s a family thing. My dad taught me to sail. I think I got my first boat when I was probably seven, and I still remember the actual moment when I learned to sail. It had all been explained to me… how to do it. And they kept pushing me out in the boat, and I would not understand. And get blown back in, or tip over, and I was like: “This is zero fun. What is happening?” And then this one day – I can picture it so crisply… where I was, what I was wearing, and what I was doing – and I got it! I suddenly understood how to steer the boat, and how to arrange the sails so that the boat would go, or stop when I wanted it to. And they couldn’t get me back! I was out there for hours, just back and forth and back and forth, with people yelling on the beach…no really [laughs]! And me being like: “Nope! Nope, I’m gone now!”
ENNI: Ah, it’s like that moment where you get the bike – where you get the balance.
KAUFMAN: Yeah and it takes off! And the world opens up suddenly. It really does. I was doing an event a while ago, and someone asked us what our favorite sound in the world was – which I thought was a really cool question. But my answer was really obscure. It probably didn’t mean much to most people in the audience, but it was… you know when a boat… well maybe you don’t actually! When a boat starts to speed up, there’s this point at which there’s this sort of, “Whoosh, Whoosh” noise that starts up under the hull suddenly, as you just hit a certain pace. To me that’s like the, “We’re going now!” It’s like the moment the bike starts free-wheeling, it’s – you know?
ENNI: That is wonderful.
KAUFMAN: It is peace, and freedom, and wonder, at that moment.
ENNI: So, there’s obviously a lot of really, really, strong feeling tied to [sailing].
KAUFMAN: Yeah, it’s a very big part of my identity.
ENNI: And being alone on a boat? Or do you like a full team?
KAUFMAN: Oh no, I love sailing with people as well. But again, it was interesting growing up, I didn’t like to compete. Obviously, you can’t just take a small child and throw them out to sea in a dinghy and go, “Best of luck!” You know?
ENNI: Right, right!
KAUFMAN: You need to supervise them. And supervising someone in a boat is not the same as supervising kids running around in a park, where you can just run over to them if someone falls down. And so, the way to be supervised was you had to compete in the club races. There would be safety boats around and so on. And it was tricky because I was completely non-competitive, but had to race in order to be allowed out there. So, I would sort of do it, but not be very invested in the outcome.
KAUFMAN: Which sometimes showed. Like sometimes I would have a really fantastic race and be like, “Oh yeah, I guess that was fun.” But sometimes I would be last, but chatting away with my friend, and sort of not caring either. A couple of years ago I got to take part in this amazing regatta which was about teaching women to sail. Because sailing is a male dominated sport, and there’s a lot of yelling, and there’s a lot of swearing on really competitive boats. And there’s very little patience for people making mistakes. And part of that is that when you make a mistake, you can put other people in danger. And part of it is there are very competitive crews. So, a lot of women come in, do not enjoy being shouted at for not knowing something they weren’t supposed to know, and withdraw again.
[This] was a regatta completely set up to teach women how to sail in a friendly environment, with female mentors and male mentors who had volunteered. I ended up on this boat with this crew full of nurses and designers, and doctors and lawyers, and these incredible women who were all highly accomplished and had decided to take on something they were beginners at. And the environment was so beautiful. Someone would make a mistake and everyone would say, “Next time! Doesn’t matter!” And I would just think, “Oh, I feel like I finally found the way that I’d been wanting to do this all along.”
ENNI: That’s amazing.
KAUFMAN: It was glorious. I loved it.
ENNI: That’s so cool. And like you were saying earlier, it’s very difficult, especially when you are an accomplished person, to do something you’re bad at.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, it really is!
ENNI: So, having that sort of like, “This is a safe space for exactly that.”
KAUFMAN: You’re supposed to not know. In fact, if you do know… don’t come here. You’re taking someone’s spot who could be learning. So, part of what I love about sailing, is what other people love about maybe things like yoga, or running, or whatever. [Is] that you can’t be doing anything else while you’re doing it. You need to be concentrating. It’s a way to take yourself out of it. But there is also this kind of joy. There’s this huge environment that you can go out into. And you control where you go, and you control what you do, you know?
ENNI: No traffic lanes on the high seas!
KAUFMAN: No, no traffic lanes, no signs, no anything. Just, you know, you want to turn that way? Go that way. And I get car sick so, there is no space travel in my future. But gosh, I can’t think of anything more incredible than being in orbit. I just…I would love to. I would love to go into space.
ENNI: It seems to me that there are similarities in a way. I am super, super in love with space stories, but I have friends where I’m like, “Let’s go see Gravity!” And they’re like: “No thanks. That’s my literal worst nightmare – floating through the recesses of space with no hope.” And it’s like, “Well, that is the flip side of adventuring.”
KAUFMAN: Exactly. That’s the flip side of adventuring. That’s peanut butter and chocolate. That’s the salt that makes the sweet thing taste sweeter. If something is pure amazement, I don’t think it’s as delightful as something that you have to work a little bit for, or you have to keep the shadow in mind as well.
ENNI: Yeah. Well, we’re gonna come back to spaceships, but, you were reading – the reason I’m kind of drilling into what you were reading, is because what you write is so genre focused - I would imagine that you spent a lot of time reading genre stuff?
KAUFMAN: I did, but I found it in these weird ways. Both my parents were great readers, but neither of them particularly read science fiction or fantasy at all. The first genre that I remember reading would be the Narnia books when I was in third grade – you guys would say third grade, right? We say grade three. Tiny little language differences. I remember reading those. My teacher had them in the classroom, and I read The Horse and His Boy, gosh, four or five times that year. By the time I was in grade five, at one point, my teacher thought something was wrong. That I had become severely depressed because I just sat there all day and stared at my lap. And eventually she realized I was hiding a book down there, and not listening to the rest of class.
ENNI: Oh, my god!
KAUFMAN: So, I was just drawn towards science fiction and fantasy. But particularly, I was reading fantasy, because there wasn’t really science fiction for younger kids at that time. I’m sure it existed, but not in great volume, and I didn’t find it. But when I was eleven, my dad gave me 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Jules Verne. I had spent all these years wanting so badly to go inside my fantasy books, you know? Wanting to go live in that world. Wanting to have magic, and to have these adventures. But I knew, in my heart of hearts, that no matter how hard I imagined it, I wasn’t going to find a portal like they did in these books. It wasn’t going to happen. But when I read 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, I think what spoke to me in it - apart from that I loved that it was at sea because I was a little sailor - was that it was all technically possible. It was science fiction. There was no magic in that book, and given the right set of circumstances, I could have that adventure. He gave it to me on Christmas day, and I didn’t surface – no pun intended – until the 27th. And everything had changed when I came back out again. I started finding the science fiction by myself, buying books at second hand stores for ten and twenty cents. I’ve still got this big shelf full of just random books from random series.
ENNI: That’s awesome.
KAUFMAN: And then I found Anne McCaffrey when I was about fourteen, and that was the end of that.
ENNI: And that’s the Dances with Dragons?
KAUFMAN: She wrote THE DRAGON RIDERS OF PERN series, and she wrote THE TOWER AND THE HIVE series. She was the first woman to ever hit the New York Times Best Seller list with a science fiction book. She was the first woman to be named a Grand Master, which is the highest honor that you can receive. She won Hugo’s, and Nebula’s and you name it. Now I come back as an adult to look at some of those books, and I’m like, “Okay. Some of this stuff is problematic in ways I didn’t spot at fifteen,” but some of it was also ahead of its time as well. Reading her stuff was not just how I completely and hopelessly fell into science fiction, and into space stories during THE TOWER AND THE HIVE series, it was also how I met Meg, my co-author. It was how I started writing my own stuff. Seriously, it was everything.
ENNI: I love how you put that. I remember reading HARRY POTTER for the first time in college and being like, “Whoa. I’m so glad this didn’t exist when I was eleven.” I would have been despondent to not get a Hogwarts letter. I’ve spent a lot of time just being tragically upset that these fantasy worlds were not real.
KAUFMAN: Were not real! And I wanted them to be, so badly. I was in New Zealand recently and we got to go to Hobbiton – the set of THE HOBBIT. And I had grown up with the Alan Lee illustrated version of THE HOBBIT. You know he did the set? So, it’s literally like stepping inside one of my books, and I was just beside myself the whole time. I was nearly in tears, and that’s not something I do. I’m not a crier at all, but I was so emotional about it. And every little detail – nothing was beneath my notice. I couldn’t…oh, it was wonderful!
ENNI: And now you can have a drink under the tree, right?
KAUFMAN: Oh, we got to go to the Green Dragon at the end and oh my….
ENNI: Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of people who write books where the fantastic is married more closely to the possible, or the real. In that context, it feels like spec fiction is sort of like being a time traveler in our world. Like ILLUMINAE takes place five hundred years in the future.
KAUFMAN: It does.
ENNI: So, this isn’t as fantastical. It’s rooted in what would be possible.
KAUFMAN: Yeah and you spend a lot of time trying to imagine what’s going to happen. But I think, when you look at the science fiction that lasts and stores and leaves a legacy – and I don’t just mean books - when you look at something like Star Trek the Next Generation for instance, which I’m massively into. And if anyone’s listening, and they’re going to try it, stick it through the first season, they learn to act in the second season…I promise.
KAUFMAN: But it asks really big questions, and questions that are very hard for us to think about now. Because human nature is to become defensive when there’s a suggestion that perhaps we’re not doing something as well as we could. And all of us are not doing things as well as we could. I think there have been conversations, in the Young Adult community over the last few years, about privilege that have been enormously illuminating, and not always easy. It’s very easy to sympathize with things. It’s a little harder when you realize: “Oh. I’m doing that…and I didn’t know.” And, “Now I have to do something about it, because I do know.” And doing something is going to take energy, and that’s hard. Not as much energy as it takes to not have the privilege in the first place. So, you get on with it.
But I think, if you can set aside the resistance and the barrier that people have to thinking about something now by projecting it to the future, it allows them to consider the problem more objectively. So, whether it’s, “Wow, I can’t believe that race of green people is treating that race of blue people in that way!” Or they ask questions about gender. They ask questions about all the big issues that we’re tackling today, but they do it in such a way that you don’t identify closely with either party. And you certainly don’t with the perpetrator, which means you’re able to judge them more objectively. In really good science fiction, what you want to do is go into the future, have those experiences, but then bring the questions that it raises in your mind back to the present day, “Okay, if that’s what I see in the future, how is that happening now?”
So, I think we all have things we write to, and one of mine is the power of corporations. Which is not something I intentionally did at all, it’s just that when I look back, I’m like: “Oh! Look at that. I keep discussing that thing.” I’ve yet to find a way to express this in a thirty second sound bite. I’ve been trying for years now. It defies that, and I think it defies that because it’s incredibly complicated. But I think the crux of it is, if we can take issues we have today, and view them through the lens of projecting them into the future - and one of the things that going into space does, it puts them on a larger scale as well - you shouldn’t come out of a book with lessons, you should come out of a book with questions, and then answer them yourself. You know if you’re being preached to, you know? I mean, no one likes a book where they clearly… [drops her voice lower], “There’s a moral to this story here, and if you don’t agree with it that’s a judgement on you!” I think the really good books raise lots of questions.
ENNI: I have been talking to a bunch of people who write fantasy and sci-fi recently. And asking that question about whether people are setting out with, not an agenda, but with an explicit interest in using fantasy and sci-fi worlds to [do] exactly what you’re saying. They are better able to mirror our current world, because they are kind of abstractions, and exaggerations of what’s currently real.
KAUFMAN: I set out to do two things. The first thing I set out to do, unashamedly, is tell a really fun story. I’m not just in it to make great moral points. There is nothing in the world more fun than having a book that you cannot put down. And that you are rushing away from things to finish. And that, after it’s done, you have this terrible hangover, and you keep thinking: “Oh, I’ll just read a bit more of…. oh no! It’s done!” I do that. And I get tweets from people saying like: “Damn you woman! I was up till four and now I have to go to work!” And I’m just like, “Amazing! I mean, sorry…” But not that sorry!
ENNI: [Laughing] yeah, exactly!
KAUFMAN: There’s this dichotomy between commercial, and literary. And the unspoken is that it’s good to be literary, and it’s bad to be commercial. And I’m really proudly commercial. I love that people just have really good fun reading my stories, and that they’re sucked into them. If that happens, I’m delighted. But, I also come from decades of reading science fiction, so that means I also can’t help asking questions. But I try very hard not to deliver answers. I try very hard to ask questions, and open up that question for discussion, as wide as we can. And then let people go forth and talk to their friends about it, or think about it themselves. I think it is not particularly powerful if I give you the question and the answer. And, I don’t always know the answer! I write books about questions I’m wondering about. I often don’t know I’m doing it at the time, and then when I look back I’m like: “Oh. Yeah, I see. I see what happened there.”
We’re working on ILUMMINAE book three at the moment, and I’m not going to give any spoilers at all, but I wrote a scene in which many characters – most of whom readers haven’t met yet - come into conflict. And everybody’s right, and everybody’s wrong, including the characters that we would think of as our heroes. I worked very hard at that moral ambiguity. When I sent it off to Jay, I was really nervous that it was just gonna come across as a mush, without enough definition about what was happening. I didn’t tell him what I was trying to do. And when he came back and he said, “Oh my god…everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong!” I was like, “YES!” [Claps hands] Laps around the house…high fiving the dog! But that’s kind of what I want to do, I guess. I worked for many years as a mediator before I wrote, and that was the lesson I learned in that situation. Everybody’s right, and everybody’s wrong. In thousands of conflicts, I never once encountered one where someone was completely right, and someone was completely wrong. There was always more to the story. And so, if there is one message that I do know that I want to deliver, it is usually that things are more complicated than they seem.
ENNI: Yeah. Embrace nuance.
KAUFMAN: Yeah! Shades of grey, you know?
ENNI: Yes, yes, live a human life.
KAUFMAN: It’s more than a book.
ENNI: And I was gonna ask if you’ve ever explicitly changed plot points, or endings, because you’re like, “I don’t want to wrap things up in too neat of a bow?”
KAUFMAN: I’ve changed endings because I tend to rush endings.
ENNI: Oh interesting!
KAUFMAN: Because when I’m drafting I get to the point where I’m just like, “I can see the finish line!” And then I just lunge for it.
KAUFMAN: And my editor, who’s used to me now, will come back and say, “You know you’re missing about three chapters there?” And I’ll be like, “Yeah. I know.” [Sounding resigned]. But I’ve had a rest by the time they come back to me, so I’m ready to do it. But I like endings that don’t wrap things up neatly. I think it’s unfair on a reader who has invested time, and effort, to not give them some kind of conclusion. I like the endings that [it] almost all wraps up, and then the camera pans away and you see a little door opening, or something. And you’re like, “Oh! The next adventure awaits.”
ENNI: Yes! That’s awesome. Okay, I want to get to what brought you to writing, and reaching out and meeting Meg. So, when did all that begin?
KAUFMAN: So I met Meg in – and we worked this out actually - I met her in October 2005. I met her because I was playing these games online. When I was… um, I’m gonna say sixteen? I went to Alta Vista, which was the search engine of the day. There was no Google yet. And I typed the word “PERN” in, which was the world Amy McCaffrey’s dragons were set in. And I found these games online that I had never heard of before, where you log in to what’s like a chat room. And it was collaborative fan fiction. Everyone takes their own character and writes a paragraph. Its most basic form is like: “My character walks in, and sits down, and prepares to chat to you. And your character walks in, and this is the question that they ask.” And you set it in someone else’s world, just like fan fiction, and everyone sort of has agreed upon roles. The difference within her worlds [was], there were hierarchies and ranks, and so on. So, everyone would take one of these different parts, and then you just play your parts and see where it goes. And sometimes the characters all sit around and drink coffee and talk, and sometimes, the world gets changed.
I played these games from ’97, when I found them, onwards. And it turned out I was taking a writing master class, and I had no idea. Because you had to learn how to establish character quickly. You had to learn how to keep plot moving. You had to learn how, with an economy of phrasing, to establish all kinds of things. I had a blast playing them. And I met Meg on one of those games. And you know when you’re about five, in kindergarten or something, and you’re not very good at making friends yet? So, you meet people and you’re like, “Hi.” And you know, “Hi.” “Let’s be friends.” “Okay!” That was how we made friends. Within minutes of talking to each other we were both… we just knew, instantly, that we were going to be friends. And we said that to each other. Like: “Wow. Is this? Are you feeling this? Yeah! We’re friends now, right?”
ENNI: That’s so cute!
KAUFMAN: And that was that. We were just friends. And we’ve never looked back. So, we wrote together on those games for fun. For years and years and years, and had an absolute blast. And it was our leisure time activity. She then started writing toward publication, and she sold her first book, SKYLARK. The game we were on had shut down, and also, I had moved into full time work. I had stopped being a student. And in Australia, that meant I was no longer online during American prime time. Because American prime time was… you guys would all come home from work and log on.
ENNI: What is the time actually for you?
KAUFMAN: It depends on what Daylight Savings is doing, but – I always get it backward, but… you know what? I’m just gonna check. What time is it at home right now? Usually when I do this, I just get sleepy. It’s five o’clock in the morning in Australia right now, and it’s 2 pm while you and I are talking. So, you can imagine in, say, another five hours it hits 7 pm here, and everyone gets home from work and logs on to play this game. It’s about 10 am in Australia. When I was a university student, no problem. Then I got a full-time job, and I had to fall off these games, because they look down on that sort of thing in full-time employment. They expect you to do the job for which they are paying you. Meg and I decided that we were going to just make our own game… for fun.
We decided that, for the first time ever, we weren’t gonna do something set in someone else’s world. We were gonna make our own up. And we were both really into shipwrecks, and really into space, so we decided we were going to do a space-shipwreck world. We thought about who would do characters… who would be fun? We’ll just play a game with them, and then when we’re done with it, we’ll create more characters. Except we never got bored of the two characters, and they were Lilac and Tarver from THESE BROKEN STARS. It was only after she sold her book that we went, “Ah! Maybe we could do something with this other one?” Like, we genuinely hadn’t ever thought of anyone wanting to read our stuff. So, in we went, and we sort of started turning it into something. And [we] showed it to her agent, and the next thing… I had an agent. It was a very non-traditional path. I didn’t do the thing where you write ten novels, and don’t get representation. But I wrote way more than ten novels over those years of gaming. You know, I wrote my millions of words. I just wasn’t doing them to try and get published.
ENNI: Yeah, you did the ten thousand hours [laughing].
KAUFMAN: And then some [laughing]! Sometimes to the detriment of other things I should have been doing at the time.
ENNI: And that story, which is so similar to Meg’s obviously, but it’s just writing because you are passionate about stories and storytelling.
ENNI: And you are one example of a person who then goes on to figure out how to make it a profession. But for so many people – it doesn’t need to be.
KAUFMAN: It doesn’t need to be. And this is a thing that drives me nuts, and I get really passionate about. If someone tells you they play the guitar, or that they paint, your immediate response is not, “Oh, so do you one day hope that you and your band will play stadium gigs?” Or, “Do you one day hope that your paintings will be at the MOMA in New York?” You don’t immediately assume that. Those are perfectly legitimate things to do as a hobby. You know, if you’re learning to speak French, people don’t say, “Oh! So, do you hope to one day be indistinguishable from a French woman?”
KAUFMAN: They get that you’re doing it for a hobby. But when you write, people always respond with, “Oh. So, are you published yet?” And the “yet” implies that you have not achieved “it”, until you have been published. It’s this subtle put-down that comes with writing as a hobby. And it makes me so mad. Because if you write… you’re a writer. And if you write for yourself, or your cat, or your friends, or you write for publication… it doesn’t matter. You’re telling stories. And the joy should be in it above all else. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re sharing the joy or not… it doesn’t.
ENNI: It makes me really happy to witness all of these ways in which human beings cherish story above almost anything else in the world. Like almost everything that we do is a way to communicate and tell stories to one another.
KAUFMAN: We do. Hank Green did a really amazing Vlogbrothers video about this. I think it was called something like “What Makes Us Human?” And he said it is our storytelling that distinguishes us.
ENNI: It is!
KAUFMAN: And I totally believe that. Certainly, the Irish part of my heritage is… we’re so into story. It’s the thing that we do, and telling stories is wonderful and to be cherished. It just frustrates me so much when people are made to feel that their story is not worthy, because it is not published. Or because it’s fan fiction, or because it doesn’t fit some form. That’s just not right. Again, I think it’s the mediator in me who says, “There are very few absolutes in life, and there is always shades of grey.” But people who make people feel like their art is not legit, are just wrong. And it really gets up my nose.
ENNI: So, I’m going to try not to ask you questions that you’ve answered one-hundred-thousand times. But, of course, I want to talk about collaborative writing.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, sure!
ENNI: It’s striking to me that this is how you came about it because, as you said before, you are not a competitive person.
ENNI: So, it seems like you are sort of ideally suited to not being precious about…
KAUFMAN: I’m ideally suited to it in a lot of ways. It’s funny, when I talk to other writers about it, almost the number one response is, “I could never!” And they physically draw back when they say it. And they’re admiring that we do it. They’re not horrified at the concept, but they’re horrified at the idea of trying it themselves. But it’s funny, I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but you’re right. I’m not competitive and so there’s that. I also think that makes me a happier writer, and publishing person, in general. Also, that I came up through this world of these role-playing games, and these fan fiction games, where it was the unexpected thing that someone else would throw in that would make the scene so fun! So, I had that. I also learned very much as a mediator, that anytime you imposed a solution on the parties who are in conflict, they might agree to it, but it would tend to fall apart under the slightest bit of pressure. Whereas, if you allow people to really craft something themselves, that suited both their needs, it would be stronger. And when you collaborate, you tend to get something that’s better than either of you could do individually as well.
ENNI: And really different.
KAUFMAN: And very different to what you would do individually. The thing about collaborating is that you end up with something that is – I mean it sounds trite - but greater than the sum of your parts. And it’s fun! Also, I’m a really social person and I love having company, so it’s a chance to talk to someone. You’ve always got someone in the trenches with you. You’ve always got someone to brainstorm with you. I can always hear Kaylee from FIREFLY saying this in my head, the “Tell me I’m pretty” moment. You know? You can go to your co-author and say, “Tell me I’m pretty!”
KAUFMAN: I don’t feel it today.
ENNI: With you and Meg - and we’ll get into more because I would love to talk about the differences when you’re collaborating with different people - do you feel like you push each other?
KAUFMAN: No, I would say we try to impress each other. Because we are both very open to the fact that some days you’re not feeling it. Some days you sit down [and] you make a legitimate effort to write a chapter. Not a procrastinating effort… you try. And it doesn’t show up. And there’s a point in which you’ve got to be like: “Alright. You know what? I’m gonna answer my emails today. That didn’t happen.” And so, neither of us responds well to that pressure. Neither of us responds well to guilt. We’re more likely to not do the thing. So, we tend to support each other, and try to impress each other. But we definitely, I think, both write for that moment when we hand something over, and the other one goes: “Oh! Right in the feels! I can’t believe you did that!”
ENNI: And that’s feeding so much of the entertainment for entertainment’s sake.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, exactly!
ENNI: If you’re gonna spend this much time doing something…
KAUFMAN: Yeah, and you can’t send someone across a chapter that’s just like: “Well, this chapter is exposition. Enjoy.” You know? There’s got to be something in there that you know is going to please the other person. And you write with other people whose writing you adore. And with both Meg and Jay, I just think they’re so talented, and they’re good at things I’m not good at. Although, I think it took a bit of mental adjustment, I’m now comfortable saying that there are things I’m good at, that they love that I do. It’s also about exercising your particular talent in a way that you know is going to hit the other person.
ENNI: What I would love to hear a little bit about, is that with Meg, you are establishing and maintaining this relationship sort of at a distance. And with Jay, he’s kind of your neighbor. He’s in the same town.
ENNI: What’s that been like?
KAUFMAN: So, we’d met. [Meg and I] actually started out in the same place at the beginning. We were all flat mates at the time. She came out for a year, after college, to live with my husband and I. And so, we started out with bits of THESE BROKEN STARS all over the living room, and then she went home. Whereas, yeah, you’re right. Jay lives forty-five minutes away from my house. And every time we need to brainstorm, we just catch up. I think in part, Meg and I, we’re incredibly close. We talk every day, and we text every day, and we take great care to make sure that we communicate about stuff that’s not the story.
KAUFMAN: We want to make sure that we don’t accidently one day realize the friendship atrophied, because we only ever talked about plot and publishing. We make sure we talk about what we did that day, or who we saw, or you know? “My dogs going to the vet today.” Just all that sort of little minutia of your daily life. I think we’re actually very conscious about it. We think about how to cultivate that communication because we both know that, when we’re working really hard, it could just vanish if we weren’t careful. Whereas with Jay, it’s very easy to see him, so obviously, we catch up. And we tend to plot ILLUMINAE about a hundred pages at a time. Any more than that, and we come up with twists along the way, and we’ve wasted our time. So, we just go into the city and find a pub, and sit around, and eventually get down to work and talk.
ENNI: That sounds so fun!
KAUFMAN: I mean, writing is the best job in the world, but I think I have the best version of it. I really do. Because I get to hang out with my friends, and do my job. It’s incredible.
ENNI: I’d love to hear from the context of, there is an amazing YA community of writers in Australia, but it’s not that you’re geographically that close.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, so Australia has, I believe, about the same land mass as the United States, but there’s 24 million of us in the same place that America has what, 300 million? So, we’re pretty spread out. And the Australian publishing community is very tight-knit. It’s not huge, and it’s very supportive, and very positive. But there aren’t many of us who are also dealing with the American publishing scene as well. A lot of Australian YA is published locally. We have a huge move, at the moment, to try and support more of that. The hashtag, if anyone wants to search, is #LOVEOZYA. It’s a hashtag full of Australian YA, and recommendations, and all this cool stuff.
ENNI: Is that love OZ or AUS?
KAUFMAN: OZ… well we say, “O-Zed.” One of the reasons that Jay and I became close, is that we were the only one that the other one knew, who was debuting into America. We would just catch up for brunch once a month, and swap stories and tips, and try and understand what was happening. And I think in America, when you get a book deal, you join a community very quickly that people often wonder, “How do you all know each other?” But the answer is that you’re adopted incredibly quickly, and warmly and welcomingly, because it’s a beautiful community to be a part of. And in Australia, they just don’t have that many of us [laughing].
ENNI: Right and it’s sort of inherently limited because of numbers.
KAUFMAN: Yes, absolutely. And, the thing is, I actually don’t mind that, to be honest. I think we get a little bit closer to that old-fashioned idea of, the writer who writes the manuscript and sends it in, than other people do. A lot of people I know, talk about wishing that they could go back to those times.
ENNI: I think it’s interesting, the distinction between, say, thinking about writing all the time, versus thinking about publishing all the time.
KAUFMAN: It is a very important distinction. And thinking about writing all the time is A) not a problem, but B) impossible to avoid anyway. If I get any time off at all [pause], I’ll just start daydreaming on a new story, because that’s the way my brain is wired. But thinking about publishing all the time is – it’s about worrying about things you don’t control all the time.
ENNI: Yeah, not a good brain space to be.
KAUFMAN: Not a great brain space to be in, no.
ENNI: You were writing with Meg, and you had that sort of established situation. What made you want to expand and start a new series with Jay?
KAUFMAN: For real, it actually came out of a joke. I was talking about the fact that we were friends, and we would catch up to talk about publishing, and try and figure things out. I tell this story at events sometimes, and people laugh at me… which I think is reasonable. I was meant to be meeting him for brunch the next day, and you know [how] writers sometimes talk about how they have dreams that inspire stories? And usually they’re more of the… like Stephanie Meyer dreamed about a boy standing in a meadow, and wrote a book to find out who he was. But I am less cool than all of those people, so I had an anxiety dream instead.
ENNI: Oh no!
KAUFMAN: You know, like the ones where you show up to school for a test, and the test is in German, and you’re not wearing pants, and all the rest of it? I dreamed that I was co-authoring a book with Jay. I guess because he was on my mind, because I was going to see him the next day. And I couldn’t remember what the book was about in this dream. So, I was panicking. But I couldn’t admit that I didn’t know what it was about because, you know, terrible to have forgotten. So, I spent the whole dream trying to wheedle it out of him, like, “So if you were to describe the book to someone else, how would you describe the book?” and that sort of thing. I still don’t know, to this day, what that book in my dream was about. And it was a dream book so like, who knows? But I did wake up remembering that it was a book that had been written in emails. So, I went along and I saw him at brunch, and I told him the story like this ridiculous thing that happened. But we both went kind of like, “Ha, ha, ha… though, wait!” And we started playing around with the idea of alternate format. We had never talked about it before, and that was what sparked that conversation.
ENNI: So, the format came before anything else!
KAUFMAN: Came before anything else, yeah.
ENNI: That’s so interesting!
KAUFMAN: We started out being, really, just an intellectual exercise: “Okay, so these two characters are emailing each other. Why are they emailing instead of talking? Okay, they’re emailing because they’re separated. What are they separated by?” And we’re both nerds, so the easy leap for us was, “They’re on different spaceships!” And: “But, couldn’t you just take a shuttle between the spaceships?” “Well no, cause there’s a disease on one, and they’re on the run.” “Oh! Where are they running to?” “Well, it’s what they’re running away from.” “Okay, so what happened to cause them to be on the run?” And just brick by brick by brick, the whole thing got built. There was no flash moment [where] the story came all in one. And I know some writers have these crazy moments, where it all shows up, and I really envy that. But I’m not one, so mine get built piece by piece.
ENNI: I think, particularly when you’re working with someone that…
KAUFMAN: You need to build piece by piece together, and take it in turns to put bricks down. So yeah, it started as a laugh, and then the alternate format grew so it was very quickly not just email but instant message, and security reports. And then one of the writers is an artificial intelligence, and it has taken some damages at the start of the book, so the way it writes becomes increasingly strange as it tries, and fails, to compensate for the damage. And that really freed up a lot of [what] we could do. And then we, fairly quickly, decided the book was way too weird for anyone to want to publish. And that it would be too unusual, and too hard to explain, and the production costs would be too high, and practical stuff like that. So, we just wrote a sample for fun, for playtime. You know? I’ve spoken a lot about how writing is playtime, and that’s what it was. No one was more surprised than us when it actually sold!
ENNI: That’s amazing. I think that’s so, so, cool. The thing that’s been popping up for me lately is the brainstorming process. When you’re doing something like that, first of all its super fun and it makes you - at least, I can’t speak for anyone else but for me – there’s a lot of shorthand. When I’m making my own outline, it’s like, “Yeah, yeah, but then this happens, and then this, and this, and this.” And then when you get into it, you’re like: “Oh crap. None of this makes sense.”
KAUFMAN: Ahh, there’s always a point in my outlines where I write, “Shenanigans Ensue.” That’s literally what I write. And later I’m like: “Oh past Amie. Why would you do that to me??”
ENNI: [As though shaking a fist in the air] Why?!
KAUFMAN: [Laughing] Because, then I’ve got to work out 20,000 words, what the shenanigans are. But yeah, there’s a lot of shorthand.
ENNI: When you’re talking it out with someone, you have to ask, “Well why would they do that?” and then you have to answer it.
KAUFMAN: You have to be more explicit about a lot of stuff.
ENNI: It probably saves drafts and drafts.
KAUFMAN: Yeah it does. And also, the fact that we edit each other as we go along. And revise as we go along. So, it’s pretty clean by the time we’re done. It’s not perfect, but it’s cleaner than it is when you write on your own, that’s for sure.
ENNI: Was the format ever… was there gnashing of teeth, “Why did we do this thing?”
KAUFMAN: No, honestly. I think the format and the narrative ended up working together. We worked very hard to make sure that it was a narrative that would work independently of the format. If you and I just sat down for a coffee and I said, “Well, there’s a girl and…” I could tell you the whole story without needing the format. That was important… that it not be a gimmick. But at the same time, the story and the format did weave together, so much, that it’s a story you would only really want to tell in this format. It wouldn’t be as exciting if it was straight narrative, I don’t think.
ENNI: When it is such a unique format, I’m curious about how you thought about extending it over a series. Did you think about switching it up, and going a different way for another book? Or did you always know you wanted to continue with that?
KAUFMAN: We knew that it was going to be alternate format, but we definitely wanted to introduce new types of documents, and new stuff along the way. One of the characters, Hannah, keeps a visual journal, because she thinks with her pen, you know? She draws pictures when she’s processing. We wanted to have her visual journal in there. We wanted to have a female illustrator. And we were trying to think about how to describe the style to our publisher, so they could start the hunt. And our friend Marie Lu, author of THE YOUNG ELITES and LEGEND, and wonderful, wonderful books, is also an incredibly talented artist. She had been posting some of her work on Instagram recently, and we were sort of saying to each other, “It’s sort of like a Marie Lu style, you know?” And then there came this moment where we went, “What if it was a Marie Lu style?” And then we went, “Well, we could never get that.” And she’s a very dear friend of mine, so I thought: “You know? I’ll just ask. I’ll ask in such a way that she can very easily say no.” And so, I loaded it up with: “I know you’re very busy. And I’m sure that there are a thousand things that would get in the way. But I didn’t want [you] to wonder later why I didn’t ask…” So many layers. So many outs, you know? “But would you perhaps…?” And she went, “Oh! I would love to!”
ENNI: Oh, my god!
KAUFMAN: Yeah, and so that’s how that came [about]. Then we went to our publisher and said: “You know, we’d like it to be in a Marie Lu style. And we’d like it, specifically, to be by Marie Lu.” And they thought that was amazing. They were in, instantly.
ENNI: Of course! That’s amazing!
KAUFMAN: So, that’s how Marie came to do the illustrations in the book. There are other new document formats as well, but that’s easily my favorite new document, because she’s so talented.
ENNI: I feel like that’s a really brave choice to [say]… “Let’s write a second book, and let’s do a visual thing.” That’s just really cool.
KAUFMAN: We were talking before about all of the fan fiction writing, and everything else I used to do. One of the characters I used to write, used to keep a diary like that. Because he was dyslexic, but an incredibly talented artist. And so instead of keeping a journal, because that’s writing and that frustrated him, he would illustrate it instead. I sort of borrowed that part of him. He was an original character I had created, for an original setting, and so I borrowed that part of him and gave Hannah his journal.
ENNI: Do you seek out stories that need to be told over several books?
KAUFMAN: It just seems to happen, to be honest. Which is funny because I’m fundamentally a lazy human being. I’m always looking for the quickest, easiest way to do things. I’m that person who looks for the shortcut, that ends up taking them ten times longer. And they should have just done it right in the first place. So, you’d think I would come up with easy short stories, but they just seem to sprawl. Once I dig into them, there’s always more in there than I thought. I swear to god I’m looking! I’m looking so hard for a stand-alone, it just hasn’t happened yet.
ENNI: It seems terrifying to me, but it also seems deeply satisfying, for people to be able to explore a world really fully.
KAUFMAN: It means that you get to keep some stuff in your back pocket for book two, and book three. Recently, when we wrapped up THE STARBOUND TRILOGY, one of the greatest pleasures I took, was in taking things that we had set up in book one, and left lying there ever since, and pulling them into book three. It was stuff we had been waiting for all along, getting to happen.
ENNI: And rewarding readers with that kind of stuff.
ENNI: I drew a gigantic exclamation mark next to that description, because that was phenomenal!
KAUFMAN: We came up with that on tour. We were pretty tired - you get tired on tour - and we were in our hotel room one night. And an Indian Jones marathon came on, and we were like, “Well that’s us sorted.” And we were talking about how much we loved it, and how much we wished that there was YA that had that feeling to it. Because it’s more about the mood, than the specific content with Indiana Jones. We were driving around, and we were brainstorming. And the way we brainstorm is… we literally just start coming up with a list of stuff that we both love, and thinking, “What could we combine out of these lists?”
It’s sort of a given for us, that it will be in space. That’s what we do. We’d been talking about Tomb Raider, because Meg had been playing the latest Tomb Raider game. And we had been watching Indy, and it all just kind of converged. In this one moment, we both just looked at each other and went: “Yes! Yes, this!” We didn’t know what the story was yet, but we knew who was in it, you know? We just had a blast writing it. We had so much fun passing the story back and forth. The characters are so much fun. My agent always says, whenever she asks, “How are you doing?” And I say, “Oh, I’m having a blast!” She knows what comes out is gonna be good, because I write best when I’m having fun.
ENNI: When you’re in this kind of situation, where you’re previously published and in the career with Meg, then you have exciting new ideas like that, do you guys squirrel it away and keep it secret for a while? How did you approach that?
KAUFMAN: From each other, or…?
ENNI: No. Did you write a bunch of it, and not talk to anyone about it? And [then] see how it went. Or…?
KAUFMAN: It was sort of coming up on time for us to tell our publisher what we had in mind to do next. There’s this great phrase, a Phillip Pullman phrase I think, from HIS DARK MATERIALS. I think it’s Lyra who says it. She talks about ideas having a ‘soap bubble stage.’ [in THE GOLDEN COMPASS about ideas having a “soap bubble” phase.] Where they’re very beautiful, but very delicate. And if you touch them, they vanish. And we definitely have a soap bubble stage. Where we know about it, but we won’t talk about it, because it hasn’t solidified yet. So, we said to our agents: “We’re working on something. We’ll be with you soon.” But we didn’t tell them what it was until we’d written our sample. And then we sent along the first forty pages, or so, and a little document explaining the world. And said, “What do you think?”
ENNI: I think that’s what sounds about right to me, is like, “Get the world a little flushed out.” Forty pages is plenty to figure out if it’s working.
KAUFMAN: Does it have any legs? Yeah. And close the door, and go inside by yourselves, and don’t worry about the audience yet. You’ll need to worry about them at some point, but not at the start.
ENNI: Ooh, that’s so exciting!
KAUFMAN: Yeah, it’s lovely.
ENNI: When you guys plot together… cause it’s two books? Or three?
KAUFMAN: It’s two books. So, I’m getting better! Getting slightly shorter! [laughs]
ENNI: [Laughing] Did you know, that you were like: “Okay, this is actually… these are the arcs. There’s two that present themselves.”
KAUFMAN: Ooh, no. No, no. In fact, when we sold it, book two had a one-sentence pitch. Which was vague at best, and a bit spoiler effect, so I won’t tell you what it was. But it was pretty close to “Shenanigans Ensue.” [Laughing] No. I wouldn’t say we had a really strong idea of where it was heading.
I’m quite an outliner, and Meg and Jay are both pantsers. So, both of them, left to their own devices, will just sit down and start writing. With maybe a couple of way points that they know where they’re going to hit. Whereas, I prefer to outline more. So, we all kind of meet in the middle. I once heard Victoria Schwab [listen to her First Draft interview here]. use the phrase, “I’m not a pantser, I’m a join-the-dotser.” And I like that. That about ten points along the way, that you sort of know what you’re gonna hit.
ENNI: Do you know the end?
KAUFMAN: Generally, but it has been known to change.
ENNI: You also have another series coming with Jay.
KAUFMAN: I do.
ENNI: I’d love to hear you talk about how that came about.
KAUFMAN: We had such a blast writing book one. Then I think, at least for me, at the end of it there was this sort of: “Oh gosh. I want to do it again. But what if? How do I ask? What if he doesn’t want to?” I mean, “What if he’s somehow been being polite all this time?” Even though I mean, realistically, who’s polite for that many years, right? But, this is writer brain. “And if I say something, and he says no, then we’re gonna have to keep working together post-rejection!” You know? “It would be like working with your ex!”
Oh, [I] really overthought it. But eventually we managed to circle in, and successfully have the conversation. And realized that everyone was having a blast. And that, of course, we wanted to keep going. And from there, to some degree, it was quite a similar process as it was with UNEARTHED. Of thinking about, what is it that we both love? And what is it that we both want to explore? And from there the story came together. [THE ANDROMEDA CYCLE]
ENNI: Yeah, and we have… [to Jay] You can join in if you want here. You don’t have to be a silent partner.
Jay KRISTOFF: Hello.
ENNI: Jay is here.
KRISTOFF: I didn’t know if I was allowed to talk or not, to be honest.
ENNI: It’s a very casual thing, so it’s fine.
Veronica ROTH: I’m not allowed to talk.
ENNI: Veronica…we don’t want to hear it.
KRISTOFF: Veronica’s not allowed to talk.
ENNI: She’s not allowed to [talk] about your books.
KRISTOFF: She can talk about them if she wants.
ROTH: They’re very good!
KAUFMAN: “They’re very good!” she screams, and then falls asleep [laughing]. So, we’re in my hotel room, at the moment, and Jay has just popped in. Because we’re going to an event soon. And the lovely Veronica Roth is napping under my blanket, at the moment.
KRISTOFF: You should see the state of this hotel room, it’s a disgrace!
ENNI: Very glamorous life [laughing]. But actually, do you want to jump in and help describe what the new series is about?
KRISTOFF: Yeah so, it depends on your age really. If you’re old like me, we’re describing it as THE BREAKFAST CLUB goes to STARFLEET ACADAMEY. And if you’re not old, we’re saying it’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY meets… what?
KAUFMAN: HARRY POTTER, I think.
KRISTOFF: Harry Potter, yeah. So, it’s basically set in a Starfleet Academy type setting. It’s currently slated for three books. Humanity has expanded out of our solar system, and encountered two other alien races. And this station is kind of the first attempt at having those races work together. The book centers around a guy who’s a bit of a golden boy. He’s really good at everything he does. He studies really hard. He’s on the verge of greatness at this academy. And [then] “Shenanigans Ensue” in the first chapter, and he gets stuck with a bunch of losers and misfits, and discipline cases on his squad, on his team.
KAUFMAN: Yeah, so he’s supposed to be leading “Awesome Squad” and instead he ends up with “Loser Squad.”
KRISTOFF: And also, the main female protagonist is a girl out of time, I won’t talk too much about her, but she’s not supposed to be there – literally and figuratively.
KRISTOFF: But it’s a little different from ILLUMINAE. It’s not alt format. It’s first person POV (point of view). Which is something that I haven’t written before, in novel form, and it’s really fun. I’m super excited.
ENNI: Yeah, does it alternate? How does it…?
KAUFMAN: Yeah, it’s going to have multiple points of view.
ENNI: Cool, that’s really neat. We were saying that ragtag groups of misfits are…
KAUFMAN: My thing, yeah. I absolutely love a ragtag band of misfits.
ENNI: It is so fun. Well that is super, super exciting! And that description is pretty great.
KAUFMAN: It’s been a lot of fun to dream up. And we’re really excited to get writing.
ENNI: I really want to talk about the solo project that you’re doing, which I am so excited about. How did you decide to do something on your own?
KAUFMAN: I think one thing a lot of YA writers get, that they roll their eyes over, is people pulling the, “So, are you ever going to write a book for adults?” question. And what they mean is, “Are you ever going to write a proper book?” Which is frustrating for endless reasons I don’t need to list. But I used to get as well, a lot of, “So are you ever going to write a solo book?” The strong implication being, “Because you haven’t really done it, until you’ve written one on your own.”
And my answer was always sort of: “Well, if I can ever find something that’s going to be as fun as what I’m doing with my collaborators, then maybe. But it’s a pretty high bar.” I used to write middle grade, before I was published. We talked about the idea of writing for fun, and writing as a hobby, and that was what I wrote as a hobby. I still read a lot of middle grade, and I love it. So, I had an opportunity to write fantasy. This is the first time I’ve left space, I’ve left orbit and come down to earth. And to write it with my very first ever editor. And it’s just… again, it’s play time! It’s so much fun. I love it.
ENNI: And I’d love to hear the synopsis of it. I mean, not the whole synopsis, but what’s the pitch?
ENNI: That means a different thing when you’re…
KAUFMAN: “On day one…” [laughing] The series title is ELEMENTALS. And the first book doesn’t have a title yet, although it may by the time this broadcasts. I’m working out how to describe it. But it is set in a fantasy world, where most people are regular people. But a small number can shape-shift into either wolves, or dragons. And the wolves and dragons have been at odds for centuries. And, as of twelve years ago, at war. It is about a set of twins who, when the age comes for them to be tested for transformation, discover that one of them can transform into a wolf, and one of them can transform into a dragon. Which is meant to be impossible. The book is mostly about the boy – book one anyway – who turns into the wolf.
The thing that was really interesting for me, was that he’s the non-dominant twin. So, he’s the one who’s always questioning himself. He’s not the one who makes the decisions. We’ve already talked about how, as a kid, I was super confident and always making the decisions? And so, I actually struggled to get in touch with him for a little while. I was really interested to explore that, and I wasn’t quite sure why I was interested. I sort of felt like he was just repeating a lot of the same concerns. That every chapter or so, he’d pause and say: “I’m so inexperienced at making these decisions myself. However will I do it? I wish my twin was here!” It didn’t feel right. And I was discussing this problem with some other writers. And the ever-talented Sarah Rees Brennan, who is a wonderful plot doctor, said to me: “So, your feeling really under-confident about your ability to portray him accurately, and your ability to do this on your own?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Just like he’s feeling really under-confident.” And I was like, “Oh, there it is! Oh, I see!”
ENNI: Those moments of insights.
KAUFMAN: “I’m writing myself! I didn’t know!” And so, every time I had that lack of confidence from then on, [when] I wasn’t sure what he should do, I’d think: “Think about how unsure you are right now. Okay, go!” So, I was writing about myself. I just didn’t know.
ENNI: It’s fun when you have those moments of surprising yourself. And “fun” is a loose translation – that it’s really challenging.
KAUFMAN: Well, it was fun, once I worked it out [laughing]. The working it out was less fun.
ENNI: That is amazing. Really, it’s like the next decade of your life is like: “Oh, well. We’ll read all about it.”
KAUFMAN: Yeah, I’m gonna be busy. There’ll be books. I’m definitely happiest when I’m busy.
ENNI: It’s a good place to be. So, as you know, we like to wrap up with advice.
ENNI: So, I’d love to hear advice for new writers, and maybe people who are thinking about collaborating.
KAUFMAN: Gosh, I’ve actually thought about this, because I always look forward to this part of your podcast. And I always listen to hear what the advice is.
Veronica ROTH: Advice from people who are collaborating?
ENNI: Mm-hum! We’re rapt!
KAUFMAN: I think my advice for new writers is that, the best thing you can do is finish. And embrace that it’s not gonna be great the first time you write it. And that’s okay. Every published author out there, writes first drafts that don’t look like their finished versions. My first ever book I wrote, [for National Novel Writing Month], and it was terrible. I mean, that’s not false modesty. It’s really bad. But it didn’t matter, because then I knew that I could finish the thing. And once I knew I could finish it once, I knew I could finish it twice. And maybe it would be better next time. And maybe better the time after. So, there’s not a heap of value in having one incredibly polished first draft, that you’ve rewritten forty-seven times, but nothing else. The best piece of advice I have for people is to just get it done.
KAUFMAN: And I think my advice for people who collaborate is – cause people always say: “Oh, what do you do when you fight? What do you do when you disagree?” And the answer is that we don’t. But that’s because we set things up well. I think the choosing of your collaboration partner is so much more important than any other part of the process. I’ve heard Jay say before, and I think he nails it, that being collaborators is like being a married couple. In that, you’re tied to each other. And what one does, will affect the other personally and professionally. You also need to learn how to be around each other. You need to learn when it’s not a good day to put that thing to someone. And you need to learn when they need to hear that something worked really well. And you need to pick up on when they’re uncertain, but they’re not necessarily saying it.
And if you choose the right person for your words to get married with, then you will find you have all the tools that you need to do the problem solving. You have everything that you need to make it work. Because usually, when one of you has one idea, and the other has another idea, you’re actually not at odds at all. What’s happening is, you’re both trying to achieve something slightly different. One wants to write an action scene because they feel that the book has slowed down a little. And one wants to write an introspective scene because: “This big thing just happened. And we need to check in with the character to find out how that’s affecting them.” And those are both valid points. So, you look for, Meg likes to say: “Secret option C.” And I like those words. You look for what is it that achieves both of those things? Let’s think them through.
If you have the framework to have that discussion, if you’ve worked it out in advance. And you know how to communicate. And you know how to be respectful about it. And you care more about each other, than about any other part of it. Then you won’t have a problem with those disagreements. We talked a lot, before, about the idea that you get into writing with someone because you love their writing. And you respect what they do. And if you have that respectful relationship, you will remember to never drown out the things that they’re talented at, and the things that they do that you couldn’t.
ENNI: That’s so amazing!
KAUFMAN: Ah, it’s so much fun writing together. And the other thing I would say, which I talked about is, make sure you have conversations that are outside of publishing with each other. And I would, in fact, say that that’s probably my number one piece of advice for published writers in general. Have friends who are not in publishing. Have friends who, when they say, “How’s it going?” are looking for a two-sentence answer. And then they want to move on and talk about something else. Because it’s very easy for writers to only talk about writing and publishing. And I don’t think it’s super healthy. I think the perspective check that comes from other people is great. I think with your co-author, if you actually just enjoy talking to each other, about other stuff outside of writing, it again strengthens that relationship. So, it’s there when you’re both tired. When you need it. Or, something’s hard.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s huge. Well, dude, thank you so much! This was a blast.
KAUFMAN: Ah, seriously, thank you for interviewing me.
ENNI: We’ll do it again in Australia.
KAUFMAN: Can’t wait.
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