Alyson Noël is the author of many teenage novels, including the bestselling Immortals series. A former flight attendant, she has been a full-time writer since 2005. I met up with her during her recent visit to Dublin, promoting Everlasting, the final book in the Immortals series.
So why teenage books?
When I first started out, I can’t say I had this plan or even knew what I was really doing. I just had this story I wanted to tell and it just so happened that the protagonist was a teen. I was very green and naïve, and it was a little early in the internet [age] when there wasn’t this plethora of information. So when I did get my agent and we set out to market it, he started talking about it in terms of it being a young adult book. I wasn’t even thinking about it like that; it was a story starring a teenage protagonist and I was like, well, yeah, of course, it was a young adult book. Then I started writing the second book to take my mind off the submission process at that time and to keep busy and the voice that came to me happened to be a teenage character too. I realised that this is just the voice that speaks to me first, and I really have a lot of empathy for that time. I think that teens and the things that they’re goingthrough can get marginalised by adults; the sort of ‘oh, you’ll get over it attitude’. I like to think it’s honouring that very pivotal time in our lives. We’re in such a rush to get through it but the things that we experience have a way of really defining us later on, shaping us and determining which way we’re going to go next and defining us as adults.
Is the voice you write with your own teenage voice?
In a lot of ways it is. I steal from my own life experiences all the time to inform my books, although there isn’t any specific character that’s me. The character that came closest to being me probably is Alex in my first book, Faking 19. So the characters are certainly fictional but they definitely have pieces of my own experiences within them.
Do you always tend to write in the first person?
It’s the voice I’m most comfortable with. I have one book, Laguna Cove, that’s written in the third person because it’s four different voices. But I sort of become the character when I’m writing. I really immerse myself in it, so it is my voice, it’s happening to me. It is the voice that comes most naturally to me. Writing in the third person feels a little removed from the action somewhat; it’s more like observing through someone else’s eyes, so the first person feels more intimate and immediate, and luckily young adult lends itself well to that.
And why horror, why paranormal fiction?
I’ve always been a big fan of anything to do with that ever since I was a kid. If there was a ghost in it, I always wanted to watch it or read it. So it feels weird that it took me so long because Evermore was my eighth book. I’d written seven stand-alone contemporary novels prior to that. Like I said, I steal from my own life all the time. About five or six years ago, when we lost three people we loved in five months, and then six months after that my husband was diagnosed with leukemia and I nearly lost him too, it was a really life-changing experience. To go through this intense grief of losing loved ones and then facing the fear of losing my husband as well. He’s in full remission now, but it was touch and go for a while. It got me thinking about the themes that I saw in the Immortals, like life and death, mortality and immortality. How we wish for eternal youth and beauty. And what would be the price of that and why don’t we value the process of life and what it brings us more and why are we always trying to get around that? And in as much as it hurts to lose a loved one you know, would it be better if we lived forever? Would we continue to honour these people?
So it was those sort of questions that drove me to write Evermore. And I say drove me. I was really driven to write that book, so it was a strange experience for me writing-wise. I was under contract for two other books at the time, which turned out to be Cruel Summer and Saving Zoë, so I was writing Evermore on the side and nobody knew I was writing it other than my husband. When I finished my contractual obligations and I was free to turn my attention to it, there was this part of me saying, ‘What am I doing?’ It was totally different for me. In many ways it’s teenage girls talking about teenage problems like I was doing before, but I just wasn’t sure what the reaction would be or if anyone would want to read it or if my publisher would even want it. I didn’t start out picturing it as a series; it was just that story. But when I got to the end I said, ‘Oh, this is just the beginning’, and I was about a third of the way through the second book when I knew exactly where the series would end. I thought this is it, this is where it’s going and this is the arc and it’s going to take this many books to get there. And the ending stayed.
It’s never deviated from the idea of how we try to skirt hardship, grief, terrible danger as much as possible, obviously, because they’re painful and unpleasant to experience. But those are the things, when you look back on your life, that have the most profound effect on you, that force you to grow in the biggest way, take risks and chances, change that you never would have volunteered for. So the more difficult Ever’s life became, the more she was forced to grow and mature. Then of course you have the high school angst thing of the other girls who don’t like her, and the drama of learning that your boyfriend is 600 years old.
Is the Immortals definitely over?
Yes, to me this is where Ever’s journey ends. I’ve taken her all the way and I wish her well and hope she doesn’t hate me for all the horrible things I’ve put her through. The Riley Bloom series will continue and that was a direct spin-off from the Immortals, and there’s more books coming out in that. That’s been a real joy to write. And I have a whole new series I’m working on now called Soul Seekers. So I’m pretty immersed in that world now. But I’ll never say that I would never do something else with that world again, just not with Ever and Damen.
So you see these places that you’ve created as actual real places that people could possibly visit?
It sounds crazy but I really see it in my head. It’s like a movie playing in my head, and I’m taking notes, and trying to keep up with the images. Especially when you’re in the flow of it and not struggling, that’s exactly how it feels, just typing the scenes that you see. And to me Summerland is this extremely vibrant real place that I can picture in my head or close my eyes and visit.
Seeing as how you are writing the script of this movie, do you have to discipline yourself to actually write a certain number of pages each day, or do you just write for however long the scene is?
I have pretty tight deadlines so I write every day, seven days a week. I usually write Christmas Day and holidays too, partly because the deadlines are tight and I need to stay on a pretty strict schedule. But it’s really because once I’m in the voice, it’s just easier to stay in the voice and I find that if I take two full days off from writing, it can take me two full days to get back into the book. My goal is usually to write 10 pages a day, some days I get more, some days I get less. Some days it’s 10 great pages, some days they need to be completely deleted the next day and you get to keep two words of that. So I write every day but every day is different.
Do you have a good relationship with your fans?
I think when I went into [writing] I had no idea how gratifying that would be. I didn’t think about anyone buying the book outside of my family. So the fact that other people actually go out and buy it, read it and communicate with you is kind of amazing. Recently, I was on tour in the US for Everlasting and a reader that I had been corresponding with for the last four or five years since the first book came out made it to one of the readings. We had never met and I was teary-eyed. It was the most amazing moment to meet this young girl who I had watched going through high school and is now going to be a junior in college. I felt like her mother, I was so proud of her. It was so lovely to meet her. To have moments like that, touring abroad and then you keep in touch with them through Twitter and Facebook. And I think that is the absolute brightest spot of social networking; it allows a writer to communicate directly with readers and form this sort of community, which is really lovely.
You’re working on a new series coming out in May 2012. Can you give us any clues?
I’m very bad at describing something before I’m finished. But it’s another supernatural, paranormal world taking place in New Mexico, which is quite a change as most of my books are set in Orange County where I’m from. It’s going to be four books and I’m pretty excited about it. I’m a little over halfway through the first book now. It’s been fun to create a new world, new characters, new set of problems, a new romance and a new location. I’ve always been interested in New Mexico. A unique culture and landscape, it lends itself naturally to a lot of supernatural elements, which the story will contain. I like to do a lot of research, so for the Immortals I read books on everything I talk about, like chakras and auras. I took a three-day psychic development seminar and underwent past life hypnosis as well, since I want to create this sort of fantasy world as authentically as I can and have the character approach it as authentically as I can. It’s a great excuse anyway to explore the esoteric themes I have always been interested in. For Soul Seekers, I did a weekend-long course on an introduction to basic shamanism, which was completely fascinating. I’ve been reading a lot about shamanism – American shamanism, African shamanism and all the different types – and seeing what they all have in common.
Is there a book you wish you’d written?
Catcher in the Rye. I had a kind of troubled adolescence and that book helped me realise that my feelings of alienation didn’t make me a freak, that other kids felt that way too. So for that reason, it was such a powerful book for me and really helped me through a pretty tough time. To write that sort of thing that could be like that for somebody else would be amazing.