On Writing YA and Adult Thrillers

Guest Blogger: James Phelan

SURVIVOR is the second installment in my ALONE trilogy for Young Adults.  It follows a 16-year-old protagonist, Jesse, in a post-apocalyptic setting in NYC.

The trilogy started because I’d already written 3 adults thrillers and was contracted for 3 more, and needed a different writing challenge.  I also wanted to address some issue and themes about identity and loss, and about what it meets to be and feel “alone” as a teenager.  The post apocalyptic storyline came by way as an analogy of the GFC.  Indeed, book one, CHASERS, formed the backbone of my PhD in Literature which looked at Allegory, Symbology, and Meaning in Young Adult fiction – but I won’t bore you too much with that here.

I will say that young readers are brilliant, and so much better at enjoying a story than us boring adults.  They like the story and get the characters.  ALONE is sold into over a hundred countries and I’m always getting fan-mail and talking at schools all over the world, and the feedback from teens is great.  Adults, on the other hand, seem to enjoy the pace and set-pieces and premise but want to know more, eg who did this attack on NYC (which is never definitively answered across the 3 novels).  The “who” to me is not only unimportant, it’s ridiculous.  I’d worry more about who did the anthrax attacks in 2001, who was doing secret deals in Wall Street to set off the GFC.  That’s worth worrying about.  This is a story, and if you’re after gratification it’s there in spades.  As a general sort of rule, kids seem to read it as an adventure; adults get nightmares.

As my adult thrillers in my Lachlan Fox series follows an investigative reporter into real-world troubling and desperate international scenarios, I wanted to have my first foray into the YA world looking at similar material.  The starting point for me was reading a Ron Charles (book reviewer Washington Post) review of a terrible novel that had 9/11 as its backdrop, where he said that 9/11 made children of all of us.  That it re-awakened a vulnerability and wonder and astonishment in all of us in the face of things that are very big, through the lens of a child’s anxiety.  That struck a chord, and the ALONE storyline began.

My research consisted of two main components: re-reading my favourite books from when I was a teen, and looking into the events that shaped my story.  As each of my novels has dealt with allegorical material of some nature, I refined what to use for this down to three significant events: 9/11, the 2001 anthrax attacks, and the Global Financial Crisis. By having this triple-barrelled thematic backbone I was able to weave my story full of symbology.

The genius critic Harold Bloom says that books are born of books, and I agree.  These are the books that I re-read, and each shaped my trilogy in significant ways:

The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling.

My dad read this to me.  This book, closely followed by The Hobbit, Treasure Island, and The Little Prince, was the standout that started my love for reading. Kipling’s best (that’s Kim, up there with Huck Finn and Moby Dick), taught me that the magic is in the words, not in the man.  To me there will forever be something about Kipling’s writing that reveals an epiphany of parental love. I re-read it as a teen and loved it even more.

Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse.

This changed my life as a young man.  A story about identity, about finding one’s own meaning to life, about doing what you feel you have to do in order to find yourself.  Reading it the first time helped me find the courage to become a young novelist.  I reread it every year; with The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, this is an enduring favourite.  I learned that you can go into the unknown and take a chance, that you can work hard to chase your dreams, that there’s no guarantees.  But you know what?  The joy of it is chasing that dream and never giving up, all in the hope that enlightenment will come.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card.

I read this feverishly.  It taught me human lessons, beyond any non-fiction I’ve read, about war and violence.  As a writer it taught me that you shouldn’t compromise when creating a novel with young characters… and the power of a good ending.  Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy‘s best novel, his most brutal, had a similar affect on me for my thrillers.  Cormac gets that books are made of books.  Every line is honest, a slap in the face, a mirror for us all. Every teenage boy should read                                                            Enders Game.

The Catcher in the Rye,  J. D. Salinger.

Holden Caulfield at 16 is as wise a teenage character I’ve read – he pretty much did it all – yet he embodied the boy-ish naivety needed to make him appealing as a narrator. The setting and voice in the novel was an influence on my for all of my 20’s. Like Yann Martel’s “Pi” Patel (Life of Pi), Holden has left an indelible mark in my mind; it felt as though he was, for a period, a friend of mine… And believe me, I’d much rather have him as a friend than Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski (Ham on Rye).

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank.

I read this in school and several times since.  It showed me that no matter how alone you feel, you are never really alone.  The ideas I interpreted as ‘speaking to friends in a time of crisis’, and ‘who’s to say that when people die every bit of them has to go’, sparked my storytelling bug.  ALONE: Chasers, my sixth novel, was a response to Diary and others mentioned here: a story of survival and a broader discussion about today’s lack of understanding and empathy.  I owe it all to that beautiful girl, Anne                                                              Frank.

So, Book 3, QUARANTINE, is out this October. Before that, September sees the first in a new 13-book YA series titled THE LAST THIRTEEN, which is being published simultaneously around the world by Scholastic.  Book 2 then appears in December, when we’ll also see my 6th adult thriller, THE SPY, published by Hachette, and then 2014 sees the 11 remaining of the THIRTEEN series published, eg monthly from Feb.  And another adult thriller sometime 2014 too.

I love being busy as a writer — it suits me. It’s interesting, always living/being so near the conception and release of a project, not knowing how each is going to go.  To me it’s better being in that situation than where it’s always about the next thing and then not having anything in development.  And it’s been a good run since 2006 — with 25 books contracted, life’s good… but I steel myself that the music might stop some day.  I’ll always write, but will the publishers still be there?  Well, if they’re not, I’m sure we’ll figure something out, because readers will always be there, no matter what the mode of publication and production.  We write in interesting days…

Which reminds me — back to it.

One Comment:

  1. James, I always enjoy hearing how authors get an idea for a book – and then how they carry it through. I’m plotting a new YA novel now and also re-reading my fave books as a teen, and my own diaries from that time in my life. Reading them now as an author – I truly see the YA voice shining through and it’s as if I am reading another kid’s account, not mine.

    Thanks for sharing the novels that affected you and stayed with you. Anne Frank was also a book that had a huge affect on me as a teen, and one I re-read as well. The Little House series is another one as it encompasses one family’s travels through three eras in America: pre-frontier, pioneer, and the settling of America. I think this pretty amazing to have been a part of such tremendous change in a country.

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