Author Interview — Joanna Wiebe

For over a decade now, I have been a freelance proofreader for a handful of book publishers.  I really enjoy it.  I have always loved to read, after all, and the publishers I freelance for offer a wide, eclectic selection of titles to work on.  Many are nonfiction, which I don’t mind at all.  I’ve always been a big nonfiction fan.  But, of course, as a fiction writer myself, I always feel excited when I am assigned a novel.  Such was the case late this past summer, when I was asked if I could proofread a Young Adult paranormal novel with the eye-catching title of The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant.

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And as I read the story, I literally forgot I was proofreading, that this was supposed to be a job.  I was captivated by the words, the plot, the characters.  It was a joy to read.  I reached out to the author, Joanna Wiebe, asking her if she would be willing to do an interview here on The Eye-Dancers blog, and she was gracious enough to accept the invitation.

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And so, without further delay, I hope you will enjoy the interview with Joanna . . .

1.  Your novel The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant, published by BenBella Books, is due out at the beginning of next year.  It is also the first in a series of three novels, called the V Trilogy.  Please tell us a little bit about the book, as well as the trilogy as a whole.

Well, the first book, The Unseemly Education, describes the beginning of a series of pretty major discoveries that our hero, Anne Merchant, will make about herself and the people she loves throughout the series.  In the first book, we see her very focused on what a lot of teenagers focus on: getting the hell through high school and off to college, where ‘real life’ is supposed to start.  Anne has always been a top student, so she expects to become her class valedictorian, but she finds out quickly that all the Cania kids share her drive to become what they call “the Big V.”  By the end of the book, we learn why the Big V is such a big deal to these kids, but we don’t yet know why Anne, who is a far cry from the standard Cania student, has been allowed to come to Cania; we’ll learn that in the second book, and that’s when we’ll see Anne begin to live life instead of thinking life is something that happens after you’ve got through the muck and mire of being sixteen.

2. The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant tackles the issue of regret, and the lengths parents will go to give their children a second chance.  How did you decide you wanted to write about this theme?  Did the idea for the book just hit you, suddenly, as ideas sometimes do?  Or was it something you had thought about for a while?

The lengths parents will go to was an issue I fought to keep central to the story throughout its evolution because, from where I stand, we read a lot of romantic love stories but not quite so many stories of the love between parents and their children.  I’ve experienced the way romantic love comes and goes—I mean, the guy I was crazy about in high school is essentially the opposite of attractive to me today. 🙂  And I’ve experienced how everlasting the love between parents and their children can be.  My dad essentially raised all five of us on his own, and when he died when I was in my early twenties, I felt a desperation to have him back from which I have yet to fully recover.  That said, I’m not suggesting romantic love takes a backseat to parental love—not at all!  They’re equally complex, and that’s what I hope to explore.  Of course, this book isn’t ‘about’ a girl and her parents—it’s a fantasy-paranormal-romance-suspense book. 🙂  But it does center around how desperate a parent’s love for their child can be and how vulnerable that makes them—to say nothing of the powerful feelings children have for their parents: desire to please, worry about disappointing, fear of being unable to be real with them, and ultimately, for some of us, understanding.

The issue of regret is really interesting—I love that that came through for you.  Certainly the parents here feel regret, and some of the kids do, too, but I’ll be exploring Anne’s regrets in greater detail in the second book.  So stay tuned.

3. The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is a wonderful title!  I am always fascinated by titles of stories, and know from firsthand experience that titles sometimes do not come until very late in the game.  Did you know what the title for the novel would be before you began writing it, or did it only come to you in the middle, or at the end, of the writing process?

So glad you like the title!  A few other writers have commented on liking the title, too, which is a great relief to me because I’ve come to understand that I am terrible at titles.  When I was a creative writing student, the other writers in class would tell me how much they loathed my short story titles, but I thought they were awesome!  Stuff like “Prep School Boy’s Last Chance to Dance” and “There’s a Hole in My Boat.”  They’d groan; I’d smile.  With this book, my poor agent and editor had to wade through my suggestions very patiently over a very long period of time.  I’m like, “Shadows and Tall Trees!”  And they’re like, “You realize this is supposed to be something people want to read, right?”  Yeah, I guess I’m brutal.

It was actually my partner, Lance, who suggested “The Education of Anne Merchant” just around the time I was surrendering the final manuscript to BenBella, which happened after the book deal and then-title had been announced.  My editor, Glenn, added the word “Unseemly,” and voila.  I had nothing to do with it beyond coordinating it.  Which is probably why people think it’s good. 😉

4. There are some very memorable characters in the novel.  Were any of the characters inspired by anyone you know, or have known?

Thank you!  I actually worked with a guy named Manish, so (spoiler alert, but not a biggie) when my old coworkers found out I killed him off, they were like, “I knew you didn’t like Manish!”  But I totally do like him!  This minor character just felt like a Manish to me . . . and he needed to die. 😉

The character Stanley is my dad.  No question about it.  One of the greatest things I’ve heard about my book is something my sister Sarah said after she read the chapter where Anne and Stanley reunite; she said it felt like I’d created a new memory of our dad for her.

Oh, and the Pomeranian, Skippy, is the name of my nana’s Pomeranian we grew up with.  That dog had the stinkiest breath on earth, but that didn’t make it into the book, to my dismay.  When you’re writing a story like The Unseemly Education, where a reveal is around every corner, all the little details become clues; so giving Skippy stinky breath might have confused readers, even if it would have made my siblings laugh.

5. The setting for the Cania Christy Preparatory Academy, where Anne Merchant goes to school, is Wormwood Island, Maine.  Is there a special significance to this setting?  Why did you choose Maine as the location for Cania Christy?

Maine is just one of those locations, isn’t it?  I think Stephen King has done something to it; it seems cloaked in mystery and paranormality.  The school needed to be remote and on the East Coast, so it really came down to the Boston area or Maine.  And Maine just felt right.  Wormwood Island is named after the character Wormwood from CS Lewis’s amazing The Screwtape Letters, the significance of which will hopefully make sense to people who read the book.

6. The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is a Young Adult novel in the sense that it tells the story of a teenage girl and her unusual experiences at the Cania Christy Academy.  (Though I believe the story will appeal to readers of all ages.)  Have you always enjoyed YA fiction?  Do you have any favorite YA authors?

I love YA.  When I was what I guess people call a “tween,” I read a lot of VC Andrews and Christopher Pike; prior to that, I read the Hardy Boys.  I guess around the time I was in grade eight or nine, I graduated to bigger books with bigger stories, like The Clan of the Cavebear series by Jean Auel and the novels that would shape my appetite since, with The Jungle and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being chief among them.

It seems to me that the best YA writing ever is happening now and has been for the last decade or so.  I find I don’t have favorite authors as much as favorite YA books, which include The Book Thief, Fiend, and Miss Peregrine’s School—plus wonderfully indulgent reads like Smith’s Lockdown, Meyer’s Cinder, and Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood.

7. Have you always known you wanted to be a writer, ever since you were little?  Or did the calling to write come slowly, over time?

It has been a forever thing, but it really took form after my parents’ divorce, when I was eight and we moved in with my nana.  I was very shy then, and she had a typewriter.  Writing was the most natural response to where I was and how I was feeling, and that’s never changed.

8. If there was only one piece of advice you could give to a new or aspiring writer, what would it be?

Write with a deadline.  Start writing that f***ing book right this second, and tell yourself you’ll have it done exactly four months from now.  We writers make a lot of excuses, and you just know someone’s reading this right now thinking, “It would be so cool to hold my own book in my hands, but . . .”  No buts.  Just set a date, and write.  Don’t sleep.  Don’t watch TV.  One of my favorite writers (okay, I guess I do have faves) is the late Donald Barthelme.  His brothers also wrote and taught writing.  One of the Barthelmes—it escapes me which—was describing his rigorous writing process to his students; a student asked him when he found the time to sleep, and he replied, “Who said anything about sleeping?”  Carve out time to read, to work enough to cover your bills, to sleep enough to stay alert, and possibly to run outside just to freshen your head.  All the time left over is time you should be outlining your story, writing it, revising it, editing it, and ultimately querying agents.  That’s how you move from aspiring writer to published novelist.  At least, that’s what people kept telling me, and that’s what worked for me.

9. Please tell us when and where The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant will be available for purchase, and where readers can discover more about you and your work.

It comes out Tuesday, Jan 14, 2014, and it’s available in bookstores throughout Canada and the US.  If you’d like to keep up-to-date with news, new books, giveaways, and general awesomeness, join me on my Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/joannawiebefiction

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Thanks so much to Joanna for doing this interview!

And thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

27 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. eemoxam
    Nov 15, 2013 @ 19:27:25

    I’m so happy that cleaning is not something she suggested you keep doing while writing, because that’s what I gave up to make time. Good interview!

    Reply

  2. Eli Pacheco
    Nov 15, 2013 @ 20:45:38

    What a wonderful interview. I’m in search of a book for my 13-year-old daughter to enjoy, and it’s been a tough journey. I want to give this one a try.

    Reply

  3. honeydidyouseethat?
    Nov 15, 2013 @ 21:57:03

    Love the title. Will keep a heads up for when it comes out. Love her advice on how to get writing your book. “Start writing that F***ing book right now.” But then again, I’m partial to swearing. 🙂 Speaking of, when’s your next book coming out???

    Reply

  4. daniellethurby
    Nov 15, 2013 @ 22:40:36

    Great interview! I’ll be looking for this book’s release next year!

    Reply

  5. Fashion Mayann
    Nov 16, 2013 @ 06:04:19

    She may be gracious but your excellent interview is gracious too ! I hope that you sleep enough though (it’s good for the brain !) and that you keep watching TV (especially old “Twilight Zone” episodes !).

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Nov 18, 2013 @ 20:12:17

      🙂 I will always find time for The Twilight Zone!

      Reply

    • Joanna Wiebe (YA) (@jruthwiebe)
      Nov 19, 2013 @ 22:19:52

      The Twilight Zone is amaaazing… except it leaves behind ideas in your head that, fifteen years later, feel like your own ideas. I once plotted out a story about a girl who freezes time just as an asteroid is about to hit the planet, so she’s stuck existing in a space where she has to choose when to ‘flip the switch’ to end the world; then I told my hubby about the idea — I was super-stoked and thought I was pretty damn creative — and he was like, “Oh, you mean that Twilight Zone episode?” wa-wa-wah…

      Reply

  6. Francina
    Nov 16, 2013 @ 19:07:18

    wonderful interview < Mike. Thank you for sharing.
    groetjes, Francina

    Reply

  7. fashionassist
    Nov 17, 2013 @ 23:28:48

    Another great post Mike and totally enjoyed the interview…
    Joanna has grabbed my attention re: topic of regret…
    it’s such a biggie and one that hits home for me…
    I look forward to the read in January~
    PS And one final ‘funny’ note…
    I think my little yorkie could give Skippy a run for having the stinkiest breath on earth…lol… 😉

    Reply

  8. Kavita Joshi
    Nov 18, 2013 @ 06:13:26

    what a thorough and detailed interview…loved reading it Mike…very interesting I must say

    Reply

  9. mrsdarlings
    Nov 18, 2013 @ 18:02:43

    Awesome! It’s so nice to get lost in a book!! Good review! Hey! We are about to publish our first book.! We still put a copyright in it though. I think it’s classed under non-fiction? Relationship book. I always got those mixed up as a kid….sorry! Anyway, if your interested it will be on this website…www.marriageofhighvalue.wordpress.com.

    Reply

  10. jjspina
    Nov 19, 2013 @ 01:24:15

    Another great interview, Mike. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  11. 2embracethelight
    Nov 27, 2013 @ 00:05:32

    What a professional and deeply interesting interview. You always have such a classy way of posting.
    yisraela

    Reply

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