Interviewing Beth Revis is Out of this World!

If you are into YA lit, you would have to have been on another planet to not know that on 1/11/11, Beth Revis's debut novel, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was released into the world! YAY!

Beth's a fellow Leaguer and I just interviewed her about AtU. Here's some fun insights about Beth and her book!

So, Beth, you've been into space and star-gazing since you were a child. If you had the opportunity to go into space, say to the international space station, would you? Why or why not?


I would love love love to go into the stars. I'm nowhere near disciplined (or fit) enough to be a real astronaut, but can I please go into space as a passenger? That would be awesome. I just want to sit by the window and STARE. I'm so excited about some of the advances we've had recently in this area--I've got my eyes on Virgin Galactic --and I really do think this might be a possibility within my life time. 

Also: if that doesn't work, I am ready and willing to be a companion to Doctor Who. Just putting that out there.

When did you start writing AtU?

I started over Christmas break, between 2008 and 2009. I wrote the whole spring semester of 2009--since I was teaching at the time, I mostly wrote during teacher work days and Spring Break and weekends, and I finished writing at the start of summer break. I used the summer to revise, and then started subbing it to agents near the beginning of the fall semester.

Edited to add: I'm a doofus and terrible with numbers; I originally had the dates wrong here. I wrote it in 2009, sold in 2010, published in 2011. Sorry for the mix-up!! --Beth

Did it come as a fully-formed story? Or a small idea?

The idea hit me around Thanksgiving or so in 2008--or, rather, the end of the story hit me then. I had this idea for a great twist, and so for the next few months after that, I spent my time thinking about a story that I could develop that would use that twist. 

That said, when I started writing, I was still a little bit in the dark. A quote by EL Doctorow basically sums up my writing method: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

How did you go about making up the slang for AtU? Was it difficult? Or did it seem natural?

I loved studying linguistics in college--I only took a few classes, but they were so interesting that I considered changing my major. I definitely wanted to include some element of language in the story because, of course, language isn't static and is constantly changing. I did not, however, want to force people to flip to a glossary just to understand what was being said. 

I figured that the first thing in language that changes is the curse words and the slang. You can see that even within the living generations today (consider, for example, that while "cool" is still used, so is "beasting," "wicked," and more. Also, think about how some curse words that were taboo to older generations, such as the f-word, are now quite common in daily usage of some younger generations). So I focused my language development on those two forms, and I tried to make it clear that the words were derivatives of other words that we have now. For example, brilly comes from brilliant, chutz comes from chutzpah, loons comes from loony, and so on. 

The only "tricky" curse word I came up with is frex. Some people think that frex is a derivative from the f-word, and although it is used in place of that curse word, it's actually a derivative of something from their world. I don't want to give it away, but clever readers have made the connection between the worst curse word on the ship and the abbreviation that the word is derived from...

Your first chapter is amazing. How much research did you have to do on cryogenics? Was it easy to find out how the process would be?

I have to say that researching for science fiction is easy--at least, it's easier than if you were an actual scientist. All I had to do was find out why we don't have cryogenics now, and then invent a way to make it work. I quickly learned that the biggest difficulty in making cryogenics work now is that the cell walls break with freezing (think of freezer-burned meat). Once I knew that, I just had to invent something that would fix that--in my case, "blue goo." What is actually IN that blue goo will require years of scientific research!

How did you come up with the blueprint for the Godspeed?

I had a rough sketch of the ship--literally, a pen drawing on notebook paper. And when I say rough, I mean ROUGH.

This is all I had for the outline of the ship, and as you can see, it's super simple. A rough egg shape, divided into three levels. I had a general idea where everything was--for example, the grav tubes, the solar lamp, the engine--but really, what I sent Penguin was not much more detailed that this. 

It's so sketchy for a few reasons, but the most important one is that for me, the details are already in my head. I have the sketch there for simple directions. For example, if I need a character to go past something, I need to remember if the tube is to the left or to the right of him. 

I also broke it down and did another sketch for each level. Here's what the Keeper Level looks like in my notes:

As you can see, it's still pretty basic. But I have to say, when I sent this off to Penguin, I was amazed at how they took these simple doodles and turned it into something as amazing as the diagram that's on the reversible jacket, or the schematics that are featured on the website 

How much of you is Amy? Elder?

I think that when I wrote the book, I was most like Elder. Elder's just so darn eager to please, to be the kind of leader everyone wants him to be. By that point in my life, I'd been writing for ten years and had had zero success--and I was just so darn eager to be the kind of writer that everyone wants, the kind of writer who gets published. Actually, I was just coming off a rather bad break-up with the book I'd written before ACROSS THE UNIVERSE--I'd edited it to death, trying to please everyone else. So Elder starts of that way: doing anything to live up to everyone's expectations. But, like me, he finds his own voice throughout the course of the novel.

Amy, on the other hand, was always supposed to be the kind of girl I wanted to be: strong, super sure of herself, never willing to back down or settle. But when she breaks down toward the end of the novel--I think that's when she's most real, and most like me. To write that scene, I tapped into what it felt like to go to college. I was young (17 years old) and went to a university that was twice as big as the entire county I grew up in. My high school had about 1,200 students--my university had about 26,000 students. And it was 200 miles away. When my parents dropped me off, I was acutely aware of how alone I was: no car, no money, no way my parents could come bail me out if I got in trouble. I was alone for the first time. That's the situation I put Amy in, too.

Besides Amy and Elder, who is your favorite character and why?

Harley. Hands down: Harley. Harley's the artist, and he's the only character based on a real person. I wrote his scene while I was supposed to be grading papers during a planning period at the school where I was a teacher. I needed creative characters, so I made up Victria, the writer; Bartie, the musician, and I needed someone else. I glanced over at my podium, which a student of mine, Charley, had painted with a koi fish. I renamed the student to Harley, put the koi on his canvas, and that was his origination.

(Koi on Beth's Podium)

But, of course, he became a much more involved character. I had another artist in my life--my brother, who was bi-polar. I tapped into that as I was developing the character of Harley. If you read closely, you'll notice that he's given extra medication by the doctor of the ship to treat his condition...and that he doesn't always take his meds...

There's certainly more than a little dystopia in AtU. Do you think the events/actions you envisioned are possible only in a controlled environment like Godspeed? Or could something like that happen here on earth?

I don't think you need a spaceship for something like ACROSS THE UNIVERSE to happen, but you do need control. Right now, I don't see people giving up their freedoms for assumed safety. But one of my favorite quotes (and one I actually found through you, Julia) is by Plato: "This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs: when he first appears, he is a protector." If we let our fear grow--and you can see this happening now, with disease and terrorism and general public fear--then it will get to a point where we'll be happy to hand over our freedoms for the illusion of safety. That's when a world like Godspeed will come true, whether on Earth or on a spaceship.

Can you tell us anything about the next two books? (Those books that everyone is anxiously awaiting!)

Not really! Even the title is secret (hint: if you like the Beatles, you might guess the title of Book 2 & Book 3....)

That said, I can say this: At least two things you think are true from ACROSS THE UNIVERSE...are actually lies.

Whoa! I can't wait! Thanks so much, Beth!


Sarah Billington said...

Sounds completely intriguing. Great interview Julia! And great answers, thanks Beth!

S.A. Larsenッ said...

So, so great!! My copy is still in the mail. Grr....hopefully I receive it today!

Anonymous said...

Hi. This is a question for Beth. Great book BTW.

If you were shopping for agents in summer/fall 2010, how did you manage to get it through the entire publishing process (finding an agent (and a great one my MH but who uses snail mail!) -> editor -> on the shelf) so impossibly quickly? Just the signed with a publisher to shelf part usually takes them a year or more.


Matthew MacNish said...

This is so freaking cool. What an amazing insight into the little things that go into crafting such an awesome story. Thanks for sharing this leaguers!

Oh and Beth? You rule.

Unknown said...

Hi Andy!

I got really lucky and hit the timing just right. Merrilee uses snail mail for queries, but we communicate through email now, so that's faster. And the book was originally scheduled for March but got bumped up.

Anonymous said...

Hi :)
Thank you for the interview with Beth and much thanks to Beth for taking the time to answer the questions with such indepth responses.
Congratulations on your release Beth!
(I've been checking the mail hourly for my copy)
All the best,

Anonymous said...

Hi Beth,

Out of curiosity, did you blind query Merrilee, or have a referral?

Still, even March, which is what, roughly six months, is stunningly fast for a publisher. Now of course if they don't get off their duffs and all start publishing in 3-4 months 90% of them are going to be in Chapter 11 within 5 years (which will probably happen anyway). This is the first of many massive pivot years in the publishing biz and I'm curious to see if there are signs that any of the publishers are in any way agile. Older institutions with existing cash flow have a tendency to stick their heads in the sand. Music biz. Newspapers. Cough cough.

BTW. If you hadn't seen it I wrote up a review of AtU at:

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Well, this interview managed to surprise me, so thank you! You see, I've followed Beth's blog since before she had an agent and I've read AtU (and love it), so I'm intrigued each time I learn something new. And I just did!
Woo-hoo on the launch!

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Beth and Elana, what a fabulous interview! I'm halfway through your book, Beth, and all of this (the linguistics, the Godspeed sketch, the koi) is so enlightening. I love having a glimpse into the creative process.

I have to say it is incredibly satisfying to see my friends' books finally launch. I'm rooting for the two of you. Beth, I hope tomorrow is a blast (liking all the space words??).

Tere Kirkland said...

Great interview, ladies! Beth, I'm reading ATU right now and loving it!

Unknown said...

Thanks everyone!!!

Andy, I cold-queried Merrilee. She picked me up from the slush.

And it IS fast for publishing, but not that fast--it sold early 2010 and was pubbed early 2011, so it's still about a year of production time.

Unknown said...

Ah! I see the mistake!!! The dates were unclear--I've edited to clarify. My bad.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. I read on your blog and figured that out. The original dates in this post made it look like you got picked up fall 2010 and published Jan 2011, that would be RECROD fast for a traditional publisher. The truth is though, as I said, that they are going to need to move to 3-4 month max turn arounds. Their entire biz model is based on gatewaying 2 things: old media reviews, and brick and mortar distribution. With the imminent death/decline of both of those there are going to be a lot of shake ups.

Still. Congrats on getting such a great agent/agency/publisher. I have a very nicely written paper rejection letter from MH myself :-)

You deserve it though, because the book is such a fun read. I never for a moment felt that I had to push myself through any of it -- and that's pretty rare for me even though I read 5+ novels a week.

Krispy said...

The 111pg excerpt has me so hooked. I need to find time to hit up a bookstore ASAP! Great interview! Seeing the sketches was cool, although that bit at the end about Book 2 and 3 made me go WHAT?! Now I'm more intrigued than ever.

Lynsey Newton said...

What a great interview and now I'm completely intrigued with some of beth's answers! LOVED this book so much!

Roberta Walker said...

I am eagerly awaiting my copy to arrive. I don't usually enjoy "space ship" stuff, but this world Beth built sounds absolutely intriguing! Can't wait to loose myself in it!

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Great interview - definitely whetted my appetite to read your book!

mari said...

really nice and interesting interview!
let's see, a beatles songs that has something to do with the first book and the universe... 'here comes the sun', 'i follow the sun', 'lucy in the sky with diamonds', 'i'm only sleeping', 'tomorrow never knows'. it could be so many, though i really hope it will be something like 'hey bulldog' or 'rocky racoon'. that would be fun!