Alexandra Duncan, who’s debut novel Salvage will be available in April from Greenwillow Books, agreed to be interview by Teen Book Crew member, Ryan W. Alexandra Duncan grew up in a small town in North Carolina and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she is a librarian. Learn more about her at alexandra-duncan.com
(Ryan’s questions are in bold)
If you had to choose, which writers would you consider mentors?
I’ve been extremely lucky to have a community of writers both online and in my own town that I can turn to when I need advice or encouragement. I owe a lot to horror writer Nathan Ballingrud and Y.A. contemporary writer Stephanie Perkins, as well as all the talented women from the Friday the Thirteeners blog group. One of the things I love about the Y.A. writing community is that people seem to embrace the idea that a rising tide lifts all ships. From what I’ve seen, everyone genuinely loves reading and writing Y.A. literature and spreading the word about new and exciting titles.
When did you decide to become a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since before I could spell. When I was a kid, I would draw pictures in a blank notebook and ask the adults around me to write down my descriptions of the illustrations. Then, when I was in fifth grade, our class did a project in which we wrote stories and had them bound in book format. Mine involved a group of girls spending the night in a supposedly abandoned house full of haunted animatronic dolls and a recluse with a tragic past. That was when the idea that I could do this writing thing as a career really clicked for me. I loved reading more than anything, and I knew abstractly that authors wrote books, but the idea that authors were real people like me had never really solidified in my mind until that moment.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
There are times in writing when the story and dialogue are flowing, everything is clicking, and you lose track of time. Then there are times when everything you type feels clumsy and wrong. You’re convinced that what you’re putting down is terrible. You stare at the screen. You get up to find a snack. You start a load of laundry. You check your e-mail. Then you stare and despair some more. During those periods, it’s hard to remember that your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect and that you can fix it later. You have to push through those times and keep creating the raw material that will be your story.
Did you encounter any challenges while writing Salvage?
I had written short stories and novellas when I started Salvage, but I had never finished an entire novel before. It’s daunting to take on such a big project, especially when you’re a slow writer, like I am. When I began the novel, I was working full time as a youth services librarian and earning my Master of Library Science degree. It was a lot to juggle. My husband and I got rid of our TV service, and I spent all of my lunch breaks and weekends working on my book. I would even take vacation days from work just to write. I was lucky that my husband, my family, and my coworkers were all very understanding and supportive. I still work full time as a librarian (and love it!), but I have a much more balanced schedule now.
What inspired you to write Salvage?
Some of my inspiration for Ava’s world came from growing up as a preacher’s daughter in a small, rural church where everyone knew everyone, and there were very strict expectations about behavior, especially for girls. I started sketching out the setting in 2009, when I wrote a short story called “Bad Matter” that was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Part of that story took place aboard the merchant crewe ship Ava belongs to in Salvage. When I finished the story, though, I knew I wasn’t done with the world. I wanted to spend more time fleshing it out and telling stories from it. Salvage grew out of that desire.
Is there a message in Salvage that you want readers to understand?
There are quite a few messages and themes that I hope readers will see, but the major one I hope to get across is that your true family isn’t necessarily the one you’re born into. No matter what they look like or where they come from, the people who love you, support you, and accept you fully are your family,whether you’re related by blood or not.
Do you feel any connection with any of the characters in Salvage?
Every character I write has a little piece of me in her or him, but the character in Salvage I feel the most connection to is Ava. I wrote Salvage for the girl I was at sixteen – someone with huge burdens of responsibility who was caught in a terrible, suffocating home situation. I’m not saying she is me, but some of her thoughts, fears, and insecurities mirror what I thought and felt as a teenager.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Write the books and stories you want to read. No matter what the subject matter, I think a writer’s enthusiasm and love for a story shines through and gives that story life.
Are there any new authors that have grabbed your interest that you would recommend?
I’m a first-time author myself, but there have absolutely been other titles from debut authors in the last year that I would recommend. I especially liked Natalie Whipple’s Transparent, about an invisible girl trying to escape her father’s criminal empire and lead as normal a life as she can. I’m also excited to read her upcoming release, House of Ivy and Sorrow. It’s about witches, and I’m in the mood for a good witch book.
What books have influenced your life the most?
Ursula LeGuin’s novels have had a major impact on me – not just my writing, but the way I think about the world. Her books showed me what excellent worldbuilding should look like, and more importantly, they introduced me to new ideas. I grew up in a small town in a North Carolina farming community during the ‘90s. There was a huge stigma against homosexuality at that place, in that time. It wasn’t a thing anyone would talk about. So when I read LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness during my senior year of high school, it was a gateway into awareness of LGBT issues for me.