Brenna Yovanoff, the New York Times best-selling author of the Gothic and the creepy, the tragically ghostly and the fiendish, organizes the books in her house by the colors of the rainbow.
Brenna Yovanoff: It is not a very good rainbow. A lot of my books are incredibly battered and discolored. So it’s kind of a tattered rainbow with water-spots on it. The YA shelves are a little better than the adult bookshelf over there. The YA covers tend to be a bit brighter. The adult shelf is mostly—well there’s a lot of black and red and off white, but you can still definitely see the spectrum. It took a lot longer than I expected. It was a two day undertaking. I thought I’d just do it in a morning but it did not work out that way.
CS Peterson: At our house the books are organized by chaos. We just memorize location and if someone moves it from one room to another, all bets are off.
BY: Turns out I’m pretty good at remembering what color a book is, and so as long as I know that, I know where to find it. I used to have everything alphabetized but it ended up broken into way too many sections. There was fiction and non-fiction, adult fiction and YA. But then YA fantasy vs. YA contemporary vs. graphic novel. It was too complicated, and when I put stuff back I would put it back in the wrong place. So it was impossible to find anything. But the rainbow works pretty well.
CSP: There is a lot of blur when it comes to hard categories. I remember reading Code Name Verity when it came out and thinking: “This is a pretty hard-hitting, complex story about women spying in WWII and getting caught. What is it doing in the YA section?”
BY: That was another reason my previous system was not very good. Because I would make these arbitrary decisions and then not remember which decision I’d made.
CSP: Your own books are full of the dark and the Gothic, with lots of sharp teeth. There’s moral ambivalence and sympathy for monsters—what draws you to the darker shades in your own writing?
BY: I can’t fully explain it. I’ve always really loved horror movies—even when I was very young, inappropriately young. Part of it, I think, was that I liked the weirdness, I liked being scared. But because I started getting interested in horror so young it has become inextricably linked with nostalgia for me. I have a deep affection for monsters because of that.
And there different kinds of monsters too. I love a good villain, but a ghost is sad by definition. It’s someone who can’t get out of a terrible moment. Although I would say the exception to that is the movie The Ring—that was scary! I know it isn’t technically a ghost story.
I find myself thinking about why a monster is a monster: is it because they look a certain way or because they’re doing terrible things? Those are two different paths on the road to monster-hood. And monsters make a nice metaphor to explore why human beings form these tight little groups that include some people and shun others. It's an idea that I roam around in a lot.
CSP: The consequences of fear, hatred and prejudice show up frequently in your novels. Your characters have to navigate landscapes that are fraught with physical and emotional peril. There is a lot of difficult romance.
BY: I love difficult romance.
CSP: Me too! It makes for a much more interesting story. How do you go about creating these complex relationship arcs in your writing process? Do you come up with the idea of the relationship or does it grow as you write?
BY: I think it's a little bit of both. Many times I won’t know the full emotional impact for the characters or all of the details. But I’ll have a sense of who they are and what their internal obstacles are. Part of it is really thinking, "What would sixteen-year-old Brenna have wanted to read?" When I was a teenager we didn’t have this wonderful, lush, varied field of YA that there is now. There were pretty much only two kinds of books: glossy murder books by Christopher Pike and RL Stine, which I love, and straightforward contemporary problem novels. There would be a girl, and she was pretty emotionally intelligent. She would meet a boy, and teach him to love. As a strange, prickly, robot-girl in high school I would read these things and think: “Wow. I don’t have the skill set for this at all. This is not going to work out for me.”
So a lot of times I think about what would have appealed to me as someone who thoroughly believed, at the time, that romance wasn’t for them. It turned out that the romance I liked was just more uncomfortable than the kind I was seeing. I was not automatically conversant in how all this works. I like to see people struggle more with the kinds of things that seemed difficult to me at sixteen.
CSP: So you ended up writing the books you wish you’d have had to read?
BY: Especially my most recent one, Places No One Knows. This is the book for that specific girl. Other ones are definitely about people that I know. Fiendish was actually a book that I wrote after my little sister, who is very good, and just, and optimistic. She called me when she read Paper Valentine, the book before Fiendish, and said: “Well … I thought it was good but … can you just tell me why is everyone in all of your books so unpleasant?” I wrote Fiendish as reaction to that. I wanted to write a book for her. It’s about somebody who goes out into the world with a very strong sense of right and wrong. She wants to fix things that she sees are broken. She wants people to act right and be kind. So that wasn’t specifically a book that I was craving as a teenager, but it definitely is a book for my sister.
CSP: That’s cool. It’s nice to have an author in the family who can write bespoke novels for their siblings! The world that the sweet character from Fiendish goes out into is very disorienting for her. That happens a lot in your books. In The Space Between, Daphne goes into the world and the world isn’t anything like the thing that she had built up in her head.
BY: This is going to sound so weird but I think that was probably a direct reaction to the fact that I was homeschooled until high school. I thought I knew about high school. I mean I’d read books and I’d seen movies. Then I got there and high school had no resemblance to anything that I took as a primer or a guidebook. So I did start thinking: “What if you thought you knew what the world was going to be like and then you got there and it was completely different?”
I had a pretty good time in high school. And actually, based on my interactions with other people, I was very glad to have missed junior high. I have not met a single person who ever said, “Oh middle school! That was the best time of my life!”
CSP: I’ve never heard that either. Most of our readers are writers who love speculative fiction. Could you talk a little bit about your process—the journey you take through writing a novel?
BY: Oh man! My writing process is so specific and chaotic that I don’t know that it will help other people, but I can say how I get it done.
CSP: Just hearing an author say that can free other writers from a lot of judgement. There is no one right way to write. Hearing the variety of ways authors approach the writing process is really helpful, I think.
BY: There absolutely isn’t just one way. The right way is however you get there. I write super out of order. Other authors do this but I have never met anyone who does it quite as dramatically as I do. I have gone beyond writing my scenes out of order and now I write my paragraphs out of order my sentences out of order. But it gets worse. When I’m writing I’ll know that there’s a word that I want to put there but I won’t be able to remember what it is. Instead of wasting time trying to remember a word I’ll leave a little ",,,," where the word goes. Sometimes I’ll know that it's an adverb and so I’ll leave ",,,,ly" and then I’ll move on. Finishing the draft involves playing the longest game of Mad Libs that you have ever seen. Sometimes I’ll get to a sentence and I’ll have no idea what past Brenna was even thinking about and I’ll just delete it. Other times I’ll think, “I know that word that I didn’t remember then” and I'll fill it in. So this just goes to show that no one has a 'right way.' My way is not particularly good. It's kind of time consuming, and over complicated, but it's how I write all my books. It has never stopped me from getting to the end.
CSP: How far do you go before you go back and start your game of Mad Libs?
BY: It super depends on what I’m trying to do. So if my agent or my editor wants to see fifty pages then I only focus on that chunk. If I’m doing a draft I will be working on the whole thing simultaneously. Before I was a writer I did studio art in college. The only thing I can compare it to is the way you start with a sketch and then gradually fill it in, in layers. That’s how I write my books: kind of by having a sense of everything all at once. This does not mean that I outline or know my plot necessarily, but I kind of know the shape of it. I can’t really explain it any better than that. I’ll dip in and work on one scene over here a little more closely, and then work over there. It means that my first drafts are often big sprawling unwieldy things. But I feel like it keeps scenes more in balance with each other, instead of one part being really good and one part really sketchy.
CSP: Are you methodical as you work on all the different moving parts?
BY: I’m not methodical about anything. I’m like a bird - I flit.
CSP: I love it! Brenna's “flit method.” That’s wonderful! Can you tell us what is coming up next?
BY: I think I’ll be getting back into the monster themes that I had moved away from for Places No One Knows. I'm dipping my toes back into the big dangerous magic pool. I’m really interested in power and legacy, and again, what makes a monster a monster. I'm also exploring characters who are doing things for power that have really devastating consequences for others. I’m thinking about how a narcissistic single focus can make choices that affect the larger world. I’m interested in destruction and how people navigate through a destruction that they did not cause. It’s just happened around them. I touched on some of that in Fiendish, but this is much bigger, more monsters.
CSP: I’m so looking forward to reading it. It's been wonderful meeting you. Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us here at Fiction Unbound.
YB: Thank you. It has been delightful!