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Q&A with author Rick Yancey: of aliens and reading what you love


Palm Harbor University High

Rick Yancey, the New York Times bestselling author, loves aliens. He'll be speaking about them at the 21st annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Saturday because his most recent novel, The 5th Wave, follows teenager Cassie as aliens invade Earth and exterminate the human race. Recently Yancey, who lives in Gainesville and graduated from Lakeland High, took the time to talk with tb-two* about his latest book, what readers can expect next (The 5th Wave sequel is due in May) and advice for aspiring writers.

What was the inspiration behind The 5th Wave?

Aliens (laughs). I've always wanted to write science fiction. It was one of my first loves and I knew if I became a writer someday I'd probably write something in the science fiction vein, but I hesitated for a long while because it's such well-trod ground. Until I was hooked on the idea of the way popular culture normally approaches alien invasions, which is from a very androcentric point of view. You know, how we'd like aliens to attack us, the kinds of aliens we'd like to come and battle with us. And so I thought, well, if I'm an evil alien, thousands of years advanced in technology and earthlings, how would I go about it, if I wanted to plan it on my own?

What was the most challenging aspect about writing the book?

I had never written anything with a female protagonist or from a female point of view, mostly because I was scared — I'm not a female, I never have been, but as a writer you want to continue to challenge yourself or you can get very stale. So I chose to have my hero be a girl. After just a chapter or two her voice became very authentic to me and that's what I really strive for, not so much creating a believable gender person, boy or girl, but an authenticity of voice. Cassie, the heroine of the book, really came alive for me.

How did you prepare to write from a female perspective?

I basically relied upon my many years of experience being around them (laughs). You know, some of the greatest heroines who are out there were actually created by a man; I mean what leaps to mind is Anna Karenina … and you know, my wife was a great source, being a girl herself; in fact, there are aspects of (Cassie's) character that are my wife's personality.

What research was required for this book?

What got research-heavy was going into areas that I didn't have much familiarity with … the military obviously plays a role, and I've never served in the military (although I've had family that has), so that required some research, particularly how basic training works for green recruits, and how certain guns work (laughs). I imagined the first attack being an electromagnetic pulse that rips through the atmosphere, frying anything that's electronic and pretty much knocking us back 200 years into the past — it took a little bit of research.

The 5th Wave ends with a huge cliffhanger. What can readers expect from the next book in the series?

Oh man, if they think the first book was intense … oh my gosh, things get really, really intense and nasty (laughs). I knew . . . I wasn't going to give away all of the big twists all in the first book and then that makes the next two books — it is a trilogy — sort of anticlimactic. There is a huge reveal in the second book: We discover something, an element of the alien's plan, that was sort of an elephant in the room throughout the first book. I will not give away whether Evan is alive or dead, but we do discover his fate in the second book.

You recently sold the film rights for The 5th Wave.

The film rights were actually purchased very, very early on, before the first book was completely written. It was sold to GK Films, Sony Pictures and to Tobey Maguire's company, Material Pictures. Since the sale, they do have a screenwriter, Susannah Grant, and she wrote the screenplay for Erin Brockovich. They have just recently signed a director (J. Blakeson). They're expecting a script to be finished very soon, at which point they'll start casting the film.

That's very exciting! How much will you be involved with the filmmaking process?

As much as they will let me (laughs). You know, Hollywood takes a lot of source material from different places and they do what they will with it … A movie is a highly different medium. It has its own guidelines and its own laws that govern it. And I respect that — just like they respect my source material. Respect is not the same as love; I may not love it, but that's not entirely the point because movies are so different from books.

When did you realize you wanted to write books?

I was probably 14 or 15 years old. I just never knew how to get there. Just the thought of having to complete a three or four hundred-page manuscript … seemed like a mountain that was just insurmountable. That's what took me the longest, not actually leaning the tools of the trade but the psychological barrier . . . do I have that kind of discipline and fortitude to sit there hour after hour . . . in order to complete a full-length book.

What advice do you have for young adults who are interested in writing?

First of all, read a lot. And that doesn't mean force yourself to read things you don't like — that'd be stupid. It is for fun, ultimately, so read what you like to read and don't worry about people's judgment. If you love 19th century Russian literature and everybody in your class is reading Divergent, don't worry about it. The way we learn to write is the way we learn to talk: We listen to others and start mimicking speech and that's how we come to become speakers. Writers you admire, you admire the way they plot, you admire the way they create a character, you admire the way they put a sentence together, those are the writers you should be reading. And you will end up writing as an instinct, you'll end up emulating some of them, you'll end up echoing some of the stuff that they do and that's okay because that's how we learn, and eventually you will find your own voice. But you've got to have the patience to not force it.

What books were particularly influential to you?

I just read stories that I loved. I didn't care if they were good literature, I didn't care if it was pop fiction. I went through many phases … I went through a big science fiction phase and I read everything: I read bad stuff, I read good stuff, I read great stuff. I went through a fantasy phase that started with Tolkien and went on to Terry Brooks and other fantasy writers. Then I got into crime fiction … I started with Sherlock Holmes and then I discovered Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and those classic 1950s noir kind of writers. Right now I read a lot of narrative nonfiction because I think that's such a cutting-edge sort of genre in literature, where it's sort of a history narratively told like a novel. I think it's just fascinating how these authors take source material and facts and are able to weave a story that is just as gripping as anything a fiction writer could write.

What is the most challenging thing about writing?

Trusting that at the end of the entire process it'll be something that was worth the entire effort.

What has contributed the most to your success?

Having a great support system. I don't mean a support system like someone who reads your work and tells you how wonderful you are, or reads your work and gives you all sorts of critiques to improve it, but I'm just talking about those people that you're surrounding yourself with that have a positive impact on you and kind of have your back. I don't care if you're a writer or not, you've got to have someone who has your back.

Do you have any final words for young adult readers?

Yes, you're so lucky, and I'm so jealous of young readers! You know, when I was that age, there was no such thing as young adult literature. If you had gone to a librarian or a bookstore and said, "Where's your YA section?" they would say, "What are you talking about?" The explosion of books specifically written for young people that has happened in the past 15 years has been extraordinary, and the kind of writers that are producing them, they're some of the best books..