Hey everyone! I’m really excited to have Austin Aslan , author of The Girl at the Center of the World (August 4th 2015, Wendy Lamb Books), here for an interview. First, here’s more about the book:
As sixteen-year-old Leilani and her family learn to live without electronics, farming the land as her ancestors did, she finds strength in her relatives, her friendships, and her strange connection to the Emerald Orchid–the force whose presence caused global devastation–but suffers regret over what she must do to survive.
An exciting and satisfying sequel that continues the thrilling ideas and adventure of THE ISLANDS AT THE END OF THE WORLD.
Native Hawaiian mythology and history is beautifully intertwined in the story.
An eco-thriller by an expert: great choice for dystopian fans who want a new spin. The author has a masters in tropical conservation biology from the University of Hawaii-Hilo.
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And now here’s the interview! Enjoy!
Question: Congratulations! The Girl at the Center of the World released a little over a month ago! What has the response been like?
Answer: Thank you! I’ve been very pleased with reader reaction to the second book in the ISLANDS series. A number of folks genuinely like Book Two even more than they enjoyed Book One. I’m flattered that so many readers are caught up in the series. Two things I keep hearing over and over that thrill me to no end are that readers love my main character, Leilani, and deeply appreciate the strong bond she shares with her family. Boom. Mic drop. Mission accomplished. This past month has been a very wild and satisfying ride!
Question: The Islands at the End of the World was your debut novel. How was the process of writing the sequel similar? How was it different?
Answer: You’d think one of the most significant differences between a debut novel and its sequel would be the fact that one of them was written before knowing the book would ever get published and the other was written as a contractual obligation. But I’ve found that this hasn’t impacted my writing landscape at all. The process for each book remained largely the same. Both novels were extremely fun and satisfying to write, and somehow I was able to sit down with The Girl at the Center of the World and focus on Leilani and her story rather than pesky peripheral things like deadlines and industry reviews and Goodreads noise, etc.
Question: The concept for this series is absolutely fascinating! Where did the idea for the plot come from?
Answer: I lived in Hilo (pronounced HEE-lo), on the Big Island, when I was getting my masters degree in Tropical Conservation Biology. My field sites were high up on the forested slopes of Mauna Loa Volcano. I was coming home from a rainy day of doing pollination experiments with rare Hawaiian flowers and I drove down through the clouds and suddenly had a great, clear view of the ocean surrounding the island. I was struck by how alone and isolated the Hawaiian Islands were (this is something that people in Hawaii think about frequently, and it wasn’t a new thought for me, either).
At that time, I happened to be thinking about a haunting post-apocalyptic book by Cormac McCarthy called The Road. The idea popped into my head that it would be really interesting to set a post-apocalyptic story on the isolated Hawaiian Islands, and the story and characters just started flowing out of me like lava! I thought to myself, Everybody know what happens at the end of the world in New York and LA, but what would a global disaster mean for Islanders? 95% of Hawaii’s food is imported every day. The islands are home to 1.5 million people. If things got tough there, where would all those people go? There are no mountain ranges or Great Plains to escape to. Everyone is stuck. Hungry. No way to escape. When I arrived home at the end of my drive, I started writing the book immediately, that night, and I had my first draft finished 83 days later—all while going to class and doing field work for my degree!
Question: What do you hope readers take away/learn from reading your books?
Answer: Well, first and foremost, I aim to entertain and provide readers with an exciting story and memorable characters. But writing for me goes deeper than that. I do hope to leave my readers with some food for thought, and ultimately my dream goal is for this series to inform conversations among Islanders and community leaders and everyone everywhere about how we should treat and care for ourselves long term. My masters program and my background in science helped me immensely in the writing of the series, mostly in terms of identifying the powerful themes of interdependency and sustainability, which undergird the entire story. We live in a fragile world, and the way that we plan for our future will have consequential impacts.
After writing the novel, I begin to hear a new phrase bandied about: “Cli-Fi.” Climate fiction. The ISLANDS series has often been lumped into this category. Climate and weather and global warming and climate change have nothing to do with this story. However, at its heart, my series is a cautionary tale about human hubris and too much reliance on technology and globalization to make our world work, and it begs for a new vision for a Hawai`i that is much more self-sustaining and locally-operated than it currently is.
But it’s worth repeating: this is a story about a girl struggling to define herself in a crazy, messed up world, and to the extent that I’m able to touch readers on that level alone, I’ve succeeded.
Question: Craziest thing you’ve had to Google for one or both of these books?
Answer: This is a super fun question. I imagine it comes out of having many conversations with authors who worry that the NSA has taken an interest in their Internet search patterns! It’s amazing and hilarious to think about how crazy book research can get! Wouldn’t it be funny if government secret agents have flagged my Google results for research related to these books? (Hi, Uncle Sam!) I’ve done extensive research on how nuclear power plants operate, and more concerning, mapped out the location of each nuclear power plant throughout the U.S. and around the world! I’ve never been to the Marine Corps Base on O’ahu, but thanks to Google Earth, I’ve been able to explore it with enough resolution to write about it with plausible expertise. Combine those searches! Am I on a government watchlist now? Probably not. I’m not remotely paranoid in that way. Nor am I important enough or interesting enough to actually garner that kind of attention. But it’s fun to speculate, yeah? The NSA has probably been less concerned with my inquiries about the native Hawaiian names for exotic fruits and fish.
Question: According to your bio, you’ve done a LOT of amazing things – You were in two movies, you were in the Peace Corps, you were an EMT and a campaign manager, and you’ve traveled the world, from Arizona to Hawaii and Honduras, to name a few. How have all these things shaped your life? How have they affected your writing and the stories you want to tell?
Answer: Setting is put forth as an important character in all of my novels. I’m even sitting on a high fantasy epic that basically takes place not in medieval Europe, but in varied landscapes of colonial Central America. The places and the cultures and the cuisine and the climate all very much mirror my experiences as a Peace Corp Volunteer living in an isolated, high-elevation Honduran cloud forest from 2001-2004. The natural world really does come alive in all of my projects, and while this pattern was never intentional or deliberate, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that it has become a constant thread in my writing.
And my various crazy adventures definitely inform my plot lines! I’ve done so many of the things my characters do! I’d end up boring you with a list, but as an example, one of my favorite scenes in The Girl at the Center of the World takes place along Hilo’s two-mile long breakwater, in which Lei and her friends dive for lobsters. Ninety-nine percent of the sensory details and experiences in that scene (minus the eventual gunfire!) mirror my real-life encounters while lobster diving in those very spots.
Question: Of everything you’ve done, what was your favorite and why?
Answer: My three years as a Peace Corps volunteer located in a cloud forest in Honduras shaped me profoundly and has inspired so much of my writing. I’m super excited about my latest upcoming adventure, too, which I anticipate will touch my life in many substantial ways. Starting in just a couple weeks I’m going to thru-hike the entire Arizona Trail, all 800 miles of it, from the Utah border to the Mexico border. I’ll be setting out on my own, though my wife is making it all possible. She will be my trail manager and will resupply me throughout the adventure. I expect the journey to take around six or seven weeks, and I’ll be posting pics and updates as often as reception allows. So please be sure to follow me on twitter: @Laustinspace, and on Facebook at /Laustinspace!
Question: Working on anything new?
Answer: As a matter of fact, yes! Several projects. Different genres. I mentioned my fantasy project earlier. I recently finished a draft of a new disaster adventure set later in the 21st century. I’m very fond of that project. I’m also developing a series of chapter books with an environmental theme. I have a second fantasy project in the works, as well. In this industry, the key is to keep writing, and I plan to continue doing just that for the foreseeable future.
I graduated from the University of Arizona in 2000 with a degree in Wildlife (seriously…Wildlife Biology). Later that year I successfully appealed my only parking ticket. David Copperfield once disappeared me in front of 2,000 people at Caesar’s Palace, but I found my way back. I have appeared in two movies: The Getaway with Alec Baldwin and The Postman with Kevin Costner (Huzzah!). After college, I briefly drove ambulances way to fast as an EMT. Starting in 2001, I served a three-year stint in the Peace Corps in Honduras. While saving the world, I freaked out way too much about colorful birds and made lots of hideous tortillas. Upon returning to the States in 2004, I served as the campaign manager for a U.S. Congressional bid in Oregon.
From 2004 – 2011 I worked as a professional community organizer in Sacramento, California. I spearheaded several comprehensive strategies to reduce youth violence in the Sacramento region. Out of many worthwhile accomplishments, I’m particularly proud of a successful campaign to remove the name of a sordid Sacramento eugenicist from a county park and a middle school (the school was renamed Rosa Parks). There’s a great Wall Street Journal article about that campaign here. Once my wife completed her PhD in Ecology at UC Davis, we quickly vacated to the Hawaiian Islands, where we set up shop in the rainy town of Hilo on the Big Island.
In Hawaii, I completed a master’s degree in Tropical Conservation Biology. In the spring of 2012, I received a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship for my research on rare Hawaiian plants. While in Hawaii, I penned a YA disaster/survival novel with sci-fi elements and slowly polished the book to a nice glossy sheen.
Then came 12.12.12. The day I got “the call.” ISLANDS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, sold, to Wendy Lamb of Random House, in a two book deal.
These days, I spend my time between Tucson, Arizona, deep in the Sonoran Desert, where I pet scorpions and hug saguaro cacti with my high-school-sweetheart wife and our two young children, and exploring the wilds of northern Arizona while camping in a tent on a punctured air mattress and taking complicated photos of sunsets and the stars.
My writing journey toward publication was tough. I know how heartbreaking the quest for publication is, and in addition to promoting my works, one of my principal aims with this blog is to be a guiding light for other prospective authors out there. I made a lot of mistakes that unnecessarily lengthened my time in the wilderness, and I’ve learned so much along the way. I hope I can pay this knowledge forward as I enter this exciting new phase of my writing career.
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