Friday, May 11, 2012

Author Interview - J.A. Beard

Today's interview is with J.A. Beard, author of The Emerald City.  A fresh take on the classic story of Oz, The Emerald City takes many of the elements of the classic story and gives them a unique spin.

Q: What inspired you to write The Emerald City?

A: I happen to like musicals. A few years back, I was fortunate enough to have the Broadway touring version of Wicked roll into my town. For those unfamiliar with the musical or the book that it's based on, it's a revisionist take on the Wonderful Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West.

It was a great show and I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. After leaving though, I also found myself a bit more interested in Oz in general. I decided I wanted to write a YA book in the setting, an age demographic which is, I suppose, older than the original target audience for the Oz books but younger than the target audience of Wicked. I didn't want to do a straight adaptation. Instead, I liked the idea of more playing with the archetypes in a contemporary setting. Thus, The Emerald City, a sort of Oz-in-a-modern boarding school story, was born.

Q: Tell us about Gail Dorjee.

A: Gail Dorjee is a sarcastic and somewhat impulsive sixteen year-old from Topeka, Kansas. After her parents die in a car wreck, she lives with her aunt and uncle who are a bit put out having to take care of her. Depressed and bitter over her parent's death and her relatives' less than loving treatment of her, she ends up getting sent to a boarding school in Seattle.

Now, although much of Gail's combative nature is a sort of emotional shield to prevent her from having to deal with her grief, there's a core of concern for others that pokes through all of that and really helps motivate a lot of her actions. She's not one to stand by while somebody is picked on. She's also very loyal to her friends.

Q: How did you come up with the plot?

A: Well, it's a very loose adaptation of the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz, so there are certain very broad strokes that were borrowed from that book, but my story definitely isn't a one-to-one correspondence to the other story. I liked a lot of the archetypes more than the individual plot points. Though there are a few things that are a bit more direct shout-outs to the original book.

So instead, I knew the three major plot points I wanted, and then just generated connective scene tissue, as it were, to get from A to B to C.

The overall plot from first to final draft didn't change that much, though there were a few things that got adjusted. For example, originally the main character, Gail Dorjee, was a bit of a juvenile delinquent. She was sent to Osland Academy after stealing a car. Her wealthy aunt and uncle use their leverage to get the charges dropped in exchange for her getting sent to a boarding school.

In that scenario, the car was going to be some made-up brand, a Tornado (though there are a few actual Tornado cars I found, too), to link in with the original Oz story. I decided I didn't really like starting Gail out that way, so instead I kept a lot of the sarcastic and combative personality, just with less grand theft auto. In the new version, she's still brought to Osland by a twister...a cab from the Twister Cab Company.

Q: How long have you been writing?

A: I've been writing on and off for many years, but I didn't get serious about until about three years ago. That was the point I sat down and started seriously studying the craft, spending a lot of daily time writing, et cetera.

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself.

A: I'm married and have two children. I've lived a fairly kind of all-over-the-place kind of life. I was in the Air Force for a while, did corporate programming, and now am finishing up a stint in graduate school where I've been messing around with virology.

I find a lot of things fascinating but have a particular interest in science and history. The former is unlikely to heavily influence my writing, but the latter has lead to an interest in producing some historical works.

Q: Did you have any specific goals when writing The Emerald City?  Any themes or ideas or concepts that you wanted to get across to the audience?

A: Well, first and foremost I wanted to tell an interesting story. Second, I wanted to explore grief. Gail lost her parents six months before the story begins. She's dealing with a bit of survivor's guilt in addition to the sadness that naturally comes with losing love ones. I tried to do a good job of exploring some of the emotion that comes with such tragedy and some of the implications, both through Gail, and, ultimately, through another character who has dealt with similar issues in a much more unfortunate and tragic way.

Third, I wanted to explore, as corny as it sounds, the power of friendship. Although this is a story mostly about Gail, she befriends a number of people with various problems and issues. On the surface, Gail is the strong one. She's the one who disrupts the status quo of the unpleasant social environment of Osland Academy and spends a lot of time sticking up for other people and helping others. At the same time, though, their friendship helps her. 

Q: Would you mind painting us a picture of the Osland Academy?  The sights, the sounds, the environment?

A: Osland is an elite boarding school in Seattle. The campus itself is covered with a a veritable forest of evergreens. There are a lot of brick paths (yes including a main yellow brick road) connecting the various gabled and ivy-covered red-brick buildings. There are fountains everywhere. The green uniform-clad students make a nice contrast with both the red-brick and yellow-brick paths around the school. At the center, right in front of the main building is a small statue of a Cairn Terrier, the dog of the school's founder.

The dog was named Africa. There's an Oz joke in there that relies on knowledge of 80s soft-rock. I'm dubious if very many of my target audience will get it, but it was fun to insert it in there.

Though small (the entire student body is only a little over two hundred students), Osland Academy is a very beautiful place. The social environment is decidedly more ugly. The senior class president, a girl named Diana Ohume, has her own social clique, the Winged, who have no problem making life unpleasant for anyone who stands up to them. The teachers, for the most part, seem to be good-hearted but oblivious to some of the cruelty going on at the school.

There are also more than a few strange things at the school. Gail figures out early on that she's physically incapable of cursing. A teacher's dream, for sure, but also a bit unsettling for a feisty and occasionally rebellious teenager.

Q: As I'm sure you know, many readers like to find their favorite authors on social networking websites like facebook and twitter.  Do you have any social network links you'd like to share?

A: Well, the main places I'm active are:


Q: What do you think of the changes taking place in the publishing industry?  With authors gaining more control over the creation and distribution of their work, what do you think readers stand to gain/lose?

A: Publishing has been a very stagnant industry. Certain business practices, such as the return and pulping system, date back to the Depression! In other words, it's definitely an industry in need of a little creative destruction.

That being said, publishing is filled with people who love books and have spent years bringing that expertise to the editorial improvement and distribution of books. Not every author wants to take on all that responsibility, nor do I think they should have to just because they want to tell a story. There's a strong role for all types of publishers and publishing options.

I think it is, in general, a good thing that authors have more options concerning creation and distribution of their work. Those options, in turn, create competition that can help shake up the publishing industry and help them look into better ways to help out authors and readers while still preserving their bottom line.

Readers benefit from all of this in that they have more choices. A lot of times traditional publishing can limit the scope of what's being published for practical economic reasons. There may just not be enough people interested in a particular niche to justify the outlay involved with taking a book from initial manuscript to final product.

A significantly dedicated author, on the other hand, doesn't have to deal with as much overhead. This means if they write a book that isn't necessarily mainstream, they can still publish it and get it to the people interested in that sort of work. The author gets to tell the story they want to hear, and it's easier for readers to find certain types of books that are harder sells for publishers, even some smaller publishers with lower overhead.

All that additional choice, though, is also a two-edged sword. There's more general "noise" in the system that has to be cut through. There's always potential quality concerns when there are fewer barriers to entry.

That being said, the former benefits outweigh the latter costs. Reviews, sampling, book bloggers, et cetera all help contribute to ameliorating quality concerns. Despite the internet and e-reader revolution, surveys continue to indicate that the single most common way people find books is the same way they always have: recommendations from others.

In the end, this publishing change is just like the rise of the internet itself. There are billions of websites, yet people still manage to find interesting and high-quality ones.

Q: What is the most important piece of advice you can give to the other authors out there?

A: Seek out objective feedback. It's the only way you'll grow as a writer and unless your name is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you have plenty of room to grow. I know I do. Writer and critique groups are great for feedback. Plus, in interacting and analyzing other authors' works, you'll learn to better appreciate the mechanics and techniques you're trying to apply in your own.

Q: Who has been your biggest supporter in your writing aspirations?  How do they
support you?

A: My wife. She's encouraged me and helped convince me I do have something interesting to share with the world.

Q: What book could you read over and over again and never get tired of it?

A: None. There are many books I love, but there are more books in existence than I could ever read. As each book is a unique experience, I'd rather read a new book than re-read one that I've read before, even if I did love it.

Thanks for taking the time to tell us about your work!

Thanks for having me.

 The Emerald City


  1. Congrats on publishing the book!!

    BTW, the cover is gorgeous.