Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
Emmy Laybourne is, in her own words, ‘a writer, teacher and a recovering character actress’ who lives in upstate New York with her husband ‘and two surprisingly well-mannered children’. Here she talks to Graham Marks, on Skype, about how she became a writer, the highs and lows of starting out on a writing career, and her novel, Monument 14.
Monument 14 is your debut novel, so what path did you take to get to this point?
In college I focussed on English, on writing; I did a creative thesis, which was a futuristic, sci-fi novella about a slave girl with a computer implanted in her head, and when the computer goes on the fritz she starts killing people every time this happens. But I was also doing a lot of comedy improvisation, and I really loved it…I loved acting and making people laugh, while writing scenes collaboratively with the other actors.
So when I graduated I started working as a comedy improviser – it’s actually something you can make a living at! I joined this wonderful little company in Manhattan that did school shows, called Freestyle Repertory Theatre, and we’d go on the road and head to a small school district in the New York area and do four shows for 3rd, 4th and 5th Graders [8, 9 and 10 year olds].
What I learned doing improv for kids was that if you didn’t have a gripping story they’d start, you know, throwing paper airplanes. Learning how to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end was really important; scenes had to have a sense of action and completion. After a while I’d created a bunch of comedy characters and I started auditioning for television and film and my big breakthrough was a movie called Superstar, playing the best friend to Molly Shannon’s lead character.
For about five or six years I made my living as an actor, but when I had a family I wanted return to writing; we were living in Los Angeles and I went back to university and got a degree in screenwriting, while having two babies. Then we moved to New York, because of my husband’s job, and I didn’t really want to be a screenwriter in New York, because that happens in LA, so I went around with this idea for a novel I’d had in my mind for a while, found an agent and we sold the book. And that’s the story of how I got to Monument 14 through acting.
You mention Bob Stine in your acknowledgements, much better known, of course, as RL Stine of Goosebumps fame; what part did he and his wife Jane play in all this?
Bob Stine is a dear family friend who was a writer on a television show my father produced for Nickelodeon in the late 80s, early 90s, called Eureka’s Castle; my first job was as a production assistant on the show. After I graduated from Vasaar I pitched Bob some story ideas and he hooked me up with his company, headed by his wife, and I ghost-wrote some of the spin-off Goosebump books for him – Bob wrote all of the main series’ titles, but he had people helping him on the spin-offs.
You also mention in the acknowledgements that you showed your agent ‘the first glimmer of the idea’ for Monument 14; do you remember what that glimmer was?
I remember the conversation, which was in a diner; I took my agent out for breakfast and pitched her some ideas and asked her which one she liked the best. I told her I had an idea called We Are ValueMart that would be about a bunch of teenagers living in a superstore after civilisation has collapsed, and at the time the idea was to begin a year into their new life. Then, as I started to work with my agent, expanding the idea, I realised I wanted to show the apocalypse, because that’s so exciting and terrifying.
So she bit on the idea straight away?
She bit! She bit - I had five ideas and this was the one where her ears perked right up; and I also pitched the same ideas to Jane Stine and this was the one she bit on, too.
How much of that idea has changed in the writing, or has it remained quite true to the original?
My creative process is to sort of have a bunch of ideas that sit in the darkness and simmer, and gain strength. It’s hard to tell exactly where they draw their nutrients from, but once I started writing this idea it presented its own shape to me. I originally intended the book to be a lot longer, I wanted it to cover a long period of time, but when I wrote the first, long draft and gave it to my publisher she said that I’d written an incredibly tense, dynamic first hundred and fifty pages, and then it just drifts and meanders and weeks go by and the story gets very flat. She said I had to take all the rest of the action and compress it into a hundred pages, and like a span of one week! That enabled me to suck out all the flab and make the story very lean.
Aren’t editors great at knowing exactly what you have to do?
It’s so great to have collaborators…I am excited by the self-publishing trend, but I worry for people who don’t have an editor really engaged in a partnership with them, I don’t think the work will be as good.
The novel has a really big ensemble cast, including extras - were they a very hard group to manage, or do you think your acting background and experience given you the knowledge of how to handle people?
My acting experience as a character actor helped me to focus on dialogue, focus on how people speak and also how they look at the world, so that their point of view comes through in how they talk. It is a large cast, and it was hard to manage, and a challenge was the little kids, who to start with were just ‘the little kids’, but you needed to know who they were and to hear each voice.
Some of the characters presented themselves to me immediately, fully-formed, like tow-headed Max; he was just there, it was as if he was waiting for me to request his presence. Other characters, like Batiste, changed a lot during the writing and I like it that he has a little arc in the series; he wasn’t quite as easy to pin down for a little while, which is why he has so many different characteristics and qualities.
That’s a very real thing about children, especially younger children, that they’re testing things out all the time, finding out who they are…was there one particular character who was hardest to control? I know sometimes you create them, but they take on their life and live it their way…
It’s so true that characters have their own ideas and start doing things after you’ve formed them…um, you know, Sahalia gave me a lot of trouble; she was very reluctant and hard to control. And Astrid was also a little bit beyond my reach, but we get to know her better in Book 2 – Sky on Fire – we get to meet her in a much more intimate way. She’s complicated, she’s so independent, and it is hard for me to get her to come over…sometimes I imagine the characters coming and sitting with me when I write, so I can give them pointers, but Astrid, she just won’t come.
Give her time!
The other thing that seems obvious to me is that you’d done a lot of research for this book – did you realize when you set out quite how much there would be?
Oh goodness no, I did not realize! If I had I would have paid closer attention to some of the details…for example, in the first book the kids see a television broadcast which says that if you are in an area within a 500 mile radius of NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] you are in danger – a 500 mile radius! That’s a thousand mile circle in the middle of America that I’ve put into danger! And then I have like eight million people I’ve killed and displaced on the east coast, so by book three the scale of the disaster that I’ve created is a little hard to handle and I wish that I had toned it down a bit!
The research thing is interesting…I was told in graduate school not to do too much research when writing – to write first and research second, because it’s easy to change what you have and make it accurate; but if you start researching you can go down the rabbit hole and wind up having a lot of extra technical information and these things you think are so interesting. And really all you want is a good story.
Was there a particular part of the research you did that you enjoyed the most?
That’s a good question, let me think about that for a second…[slightly more than a second’s pause]…I think the research I liked the most was the survival research. I found out how to live in a disaster situation, how do you get water, how do you make traps for game – I didn’t use hardly any of it, but I really enjoyed it, I enjoy that survivalist mentality, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to write this book. I like fantasising about what would I do if...I still case stores that I’m in, looking at how I would survive, do they have chocolate and water?
You’ve created a kind of microcosm - a mirror of the larger society your kids come from, within the Greenway superstore - which includes small kids, pre-teens, young adults, and some peripheral grown-ups; was this reflective situation what you set out to do?
I wanted to write about a society of teenagers and the challenges they would go through to create a stable, healthy society – would they pull it off or would they not? - and that’s really the contest between Jake and Niko. I set these children in a very dark, very difficult situation, and I gave them certain resources and I wanted for them to find the light within and to take care of each other. That’s how I want our world to go.
So when did you know that you had more than one book here with this story?
Well, the proposal I wrote I had the plotlines for three books…and, when the idea was sold, my new publisher told me that all the plots I’d laid out for Books Two and Three had to get sucked into Book One; all of it. So I said ‘All right, great!’. I was terrifically excited, this was my debut book, so I went away and I almost bought myself a little beret, as I fancied myself a writer…a novelist, and I wrote and wrote and wrote.
But it only dawned on me later that what I was left with, in terms of planning, was I had put all of that plot for three books into one book and I had to come up with more plotlines for what I was now intending to be a two-book series…about fifty pages from the end, I had started to think to myself ‘what am I going to do if they ask me to write a third book?’ and I began leaving myself some breadcrumbs. When I wrote the epilogue [to Sky On Fire] I realised I really did have a third book, which I’m finishing writing now.
So are you a really solid plotter of a writer, or more what I think of as a Marco Polo type, as in ‘I’ll go and see what’s out there’?
I’m a little bit of both. I’m more of a plotter…these books have such complicated plots, I have so many characters, I have to work from a very detailed outline. But once I get into the outline I’m often surprised by what happens in the scenes and what the characters do. If I wrote without any kind of guide at all, the Marco Polo type of writing, I’d lose the beginning, the middle and the end, and to me that’s such an important principle in writing, it’s so satisfying. I think later in my career, when I’m not writing on such a deadline as I am now – I have a year to write one of these books, they’re coming out one a year…phew, it’s a lot! - if I had a little more time, I think maybe I’d drift off a bit more.
Do you have in your head a very clear idea of what your characters look like?
I do, yup. And occasionally I’ll run into them on the street.
Do you run imaginary casting sessions?
I see people at my children’s school, and the nearby High School, and I go yes! That’s what he looks like, that’s how she walks, that’s how she talks.
You’ve chosen to tell this story through a male voice, Dean, and in fact you have a number of strong male voices in this book – how difficult was it for you to think like a boy, because you do seem to be able to do that?
I think my work as an actor and an improviser really helped me here…the thing about improv is, it’s a very masculine-dominated world, so I played like a guy; that way of relating to people, that sort of testosterone-fuelled pushing that guys can do against each other comes very naturally to me. I can be competitive and I feel comfortable in that world.
It's hard enough for a writer to get around the UK and see a significant number of their readers, so it must be a lot more difficult in the States; have you been able to go out and do events around Monument 14?
I am terrifically lucky. My publisher picked me and three other debut authors to send on a national tour, so in June of last year they sent us to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Houston…you’re getting the idea, we went all over. It was so thrilling to travel the country and talk to people about the book, and they’re sending us all out again this year.
When you go out, have you devised something, using your acting skills to make a visit more of an event?
I really enjoy teaching, so It’s very easy to use my improv experience when talking about writing, using improv exercises to enrich writing. But in terms of presenting Monument 14, I haven’t come up with anything specially theatrical. Although I have written a comedy song called Monument 14 FAQ, in which I sing the most frequently asked questions and my responses, but that was more just for my own pleasure.
Sounds like great idea – you should put that up on YouTube! Now I think it’s true for a lot of writers, particularly when they’re working on a long project, that they continually have new ideas they simply have to park and put on one side until later. As you’re approaching the end of this sequence, do you know what you’re going to do next?
I do, I do. I have two stories that I’m burning to write; one of them is a one-off set on a cruise ship, and that’ll have a female narrator, and the other is a fantasy series, a post-apocalyptic agrarian world, and that’ll be a three-book series. I’m going to do the one-off about the cruise ship first.