Last week I introduced this new feature, Students Want to Know, with an interview with Julia Karr. The response last week was awesome–my kids loved seeing the interview online, more 2011 debut authors signed up, and many readers left positive feedback 🙂
This week my students and I are happy to post our interview with Jeff Sampson, the author of Vesper. I hope you’re as happy with the interview as we are! Thank you, Jeff, for your speedy response and for interacting with us 😀
Summary of Vesper (From Goodreads): Emily Webb is a geek. And she’s happy that way. Content hiding under hoodies and curling up to watch old horror flicks, she’s never been the kind of girl who sneaks out for midnight parties. And she’s definitely not the kind of girl who starts fights or flirts with other girls’ boyfriends. Until one night Emily finds herself doing exactly that . . . the same night one of her classmates—also named Emily—is found mysteriously murdered.
The thing is, Emily doesn’t know why she’s doing any of this. By day, she’s the same old boring Emily, but by night, she turns into a thrill seeker. With every nightfall, Emily gets wilder until it’s no longer just her personality that changes. Her body can do things it never could before: Emily is now strong, fast, and utterly fearless. And soon Emily realizes that she’s not just coming out of her shell . . . there’s something much bigger going on. Is she bewitched by the soul of the other, murdered Emily? Or is Emily Webb becoming something else entirely— something not human?
As Emily hunts for answers, she finds out that she’s not the only one this is happening to—some of her classmates are changing as well. Who is turning these teens into monsters—and how many people will they kill to get what they want?
- When you began the book, what were your thoughts about the story? What encouraged you to write this story?
There were many starting off points for the story. I only knew a few specifics of the plot initially: I wanted the main character to be a geeky teen girl, and I wanted her to eventually become a hero in her own right, because I really wanted to write an action adventure story where a kick ass girl saves the day. But beyond that I wanted to explore the transition from kid to adult, the confusing time when it seems like everyone else around you knows what’s what but you never got the memo. There’s feeling awkward in your own body, wanting to explore your sexuality but being afraid of this new side of yourself, trying to learn to stop caring what people think and gain confidence in yourself. There’s also a very specific and personal story that will play out between Emily and her best friend Megan, which was big on my brain when I first created the series.
- What’s Emily’s first thought or reaction when she finds out she’s starting to change?
Well her first thought is said aloud to her reflection: “You’re not going all Jekyll and Hyde, are you?” Mostly she’s bewildered, because people don’t just change personality suddenly for no reason. At first thinks she might be sick . . . but as she continues to change and finds she’s able to perform feats she never could before, that theory starts to lose weight.
- What was the most challenging part about writing this book?
This was actually probably the easiest book I’ve written, since it stemmed so much from my own personality and passions. But the biggest challenge came when I was revising the book with my agent, prior to sending it out to publishers. When I first wrote the book I imagined it as a paperback series that would release pretty quickly—like, one book every four or six months. But we decided instead to go the trade hardcover route, which is one book a year. So I needed to really focus on deepening the story, and I also needed to revise the ending quite a bit. As it was originally, it sort of ended unresolved, my reasoning being that this was the “pilot” of my series and of course I’d have many books left to keep telling these stories. Of course that lack of resolution doesn’t fly when people have to wait a year to find out what comes next! So ultimately I adjusted Emily’s story arc for this book and moved up some events from later books to the end of this one. The goal was to make the book feel complete without the full story being complete. And let me tell ya, that’s much easier said than done!
- Have you always had a passion for writing or was it discovered?
Creative pursuits have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was constantly drawing and making up stories and devouring books while growing up. As a teen I wrote tons of short stories, and I also had binders with hand drawn covers for various novel ideas I had. So it’s safe to say, yeah, I always had a passion for writing, even though I never fully realized it until much later. It was just something I always did!
- How do you come up with the names for your characters?
Some I pick because I like the sound of them. My main character is named Emily mostly because I always felt like there was someone named Emily in every class I ever had, so it seemed fitting for the type of character that she is. There are a couple characters that are references, though. Emily’s stepmother is named Katherine Michaels after two of my writing mentors, Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant. And a few minor characters have reference-y origins, too– Nikki Tate’s last name is an homage to one of the first characters I ever wrote, and Tracie Townsend is named after Tracie Flick from the movie Election and Taylor Townsend from The O.C.
- Do you like to read other books with similar topics as Vesper?
All the time! I like to read widely, and that includes paranormal and sci-fi action books, too. Vesper was mostly inspired by genre TV shows, but it’s not too dissimilar from books like Scott Westerfeld’s Midnighters trilogy.
- How did you come up with the title Vesper?
Well, Vesper actually went through many different titles. The very first one was Wildeside High, but I thought that was just a tad on the cheesy side and changed it to simply Wildeside. After that it became The Savage Files, Savage being the name of a man interrogating Emily at the beginning of the book. It wasn’t until a few drafts in that it switched to The Vesper Files instead. I needed a name for a mysterious company, and so I grabbed on to one of the meanings of “vesper”—“the evening star”—and created The Vesper Company, with the slogan of “The brightest star, leading the way.”
Eventually the title changed again, this time to The Death and Life of Emily Cooke. It was this title for a long, long time . . . until marketing at HarperCollins decided it was much too lengthy for the type of book I wrote. They wanted something shorter and more evocative. Vesper was already in the book as the name of that company, but I wanted the title to encompass more of the story – so I rearranged the mythology a little bit so that people like Emily are now referred to as “vespers.” There are also religious connotations to the word that will play a little part in the bigger story of the series.
So, all that to say: It was a cool word with a neat meaning that I bastardized to fit my made up mythology!
- Did any other literary works inspire or influence your ideas?
I read a whole lot of sci-fi as a kid and teen, and those hugely influenced me. Books by William Sleator and John Christopher and Madeleine L’Engle; really, anything in the library that had anything to do with other dimensions, psychic powers, shady scientific experiments. So stories like this formed the base of what I wanted to do. The overall style and tone is more influenced by genre TV I watched as a teen, stuff like Buffy and Alias. So there’s a lot of influences going on here. This is basically my homage to all the things I loved as a teen.
- How often did you work on your book? (i.e. Two hours a day, twice a week, etc.)
Most writers will tell you they sit down each day and aim for a certain number of words. I will stress that this is how you should write. I, however, have a really bizarre process that involves sitting around for days or weeks on end, doing anything but writing. Then, as deadlines approach for my first draft, I go on a big writing spree where I think of nothing but the book. I end up writing in a crazed frenzy, sleeping sporadically for a few hours at a time before getting back to work. Next thing I know it’s a few weeks later, I look like a crazy person, and I have a book. I can only assume that when I was procrastinating, my story was secretly figuring itself out in my subconscious.
After the first draft is done, I stop being crazy and my schedule is more normal. Revision is my favorite part of writing, so I tend to sit down for a few hours a day and work on it, making sure I also leave plenty of time to just lay back and think. It may not look like working to the outside observer, but just hanging out and thinking is an important part of writing!
I actually made it a goal from here on out to write my first drafts at a normal person pace. The writing marathon way just leads to everybody having heart attacks, myself included!
- Why did you decide to write from a girl’s point of view?
I mentioned above that I grew up during the ‘90s watching shows like Buffy. The ‘90s was really the “girl power” decade, and there was a boon of fictional girls and women taking charge and being bad asses. For some reason in the past decade this sort of petered out from popularity and, you know what? I missed it. I wanted a girl that readers could relate to, one who would discover her own inner strength and take charge of her (very strange) situation. Initially I didn’t write from Emily Webb’s point of view—I started in third person, more “observing”—but it just didn’t feel right. So I decided to have her tell her story in her own voice, and never looked back.
- What’s one of the best books you’ve read?
This is a hard question, because I’ve read so many books that it’s really hard to keep track! My personal favorite today is different than it was a month ago. But I have a very specific memory of reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card when I was younger. I hit a certain point in the middle, and something was revealed that left me feeling so overwhelmingly devastated that I had to set the book down and walk away for a while. I don’t know if that’s the best book I’ve ever read, but I do know it showed me how powerful writing can be when a reader really connects emotionally to a book’s characters.
- Where do you do most of your writing?
I’m not at all fancy. I have my computer desk in my bedroom, so I basically roll out of bed, walk two feet, sit down, and bam—I’m at work. I only write on a computer, and only at home, and only in silence.
- As an author, and please be honest, does a book ever really turn out as intended? And better yet, are you ever completely satisfied with your finished work?
The vision of the book in my head always feels solid . . . until I sit down to actually write it down and realize the idea was actually vaporous as hell. Writing for me is always about trying to recapture the initial idea of what the book as a whole would feel like. I don’t think I ever fully succeed, but I get as close as I can.
Honestly, you spend so much time reading the same words over and over and over again that they start to lose all meaning. After a certain point in a book’s life, it’s impossible to look at your own work and have any idea how it’ll come across to readers. Especially after proofreaders and copy editors get a hold of it and all the work on the book becomes nitpicky stuff about certain words and phrases. It’s no longer a book at that point, but a bunch of text in need of minor refinements.
It’s not until much later, once the book is done and on the shelves and you’ve had a lot of time away from it, that you can look at it again from a reader’s POV. And no, it’s never quite as good as you’d hoped, and there are things you’d want to change. But I don’t stress it. Someone once told me to not worry about writing THE book, but A book. It’s okay if your book isn’t one hundred percent perfect. If you obsess over that, you’ll never be able to finish anything. So I’m happy to write a bunch of A books and hope that perhaps one day I’ll surprise myself by writing THE book.
To answer the second part of the question: I know Vesper is by no means a perfect book, but I’m satisfied by it all the same. It’s hard not to feel a sense of satisfaction finally getting to hold the finished product in my hands after four long years of lots of work and lots of personal struggle.
- Are you working on a book right now?
Yup, I am indeed. I’m pretty much always working on a book. Two days ago I turned in the second draft of the second Deviants book, which is the follow up to Vesper, and now I’m waiting for editorial feedback before I dive in for more revisions. Just the other day I got a few minor notes that need addressed for a middle grade fantasy book called Monster Slayers: Unleashed, which I wrote under the pen name Lukas Ritter. Once both of these are done, I’m contracted to write some chapters for a potential middle grade series that I won’t be able to talk about (it’ll also be released under a pen name). And after THAT I want to put together another YA series, so that my agent can shop it to publishers while I write Deviants #3. I like having a lot on my plate!
- Why did you think using a girl over a guy as the main character was a better idea?
It was never really a question for me that this was a story for a girl character. The themes I wanted to explore all called for a girl—not to mention, like I said above, this was intended to be an homage to the “girl power” genre shows I grew up with. A boy character going through the same circumstances would not only be viewed differently by his peers while doing the same actions, but would also most likely differ in how what he goes through changes him. I actually do explore a potential boy reaction to the same situation in Deviants 2, but it’s all told via Emily’s observations.
- Did you have a lot of insight from women when writing Vesper?
A little bit, but only after I’d written the book. Going into the first drafts I relied on observation and, well, imagination. Of course I was never a teen girl, so luckily I grew up with a sister close in age to myself. Years of knowing her and her friends shed light on issues they might have had that I would never encounter. But a lot of what Emily goes through—body and confidence issues, growing apart from a previously close friend, feeling like she has no real place in school—are more universal and easy for me to relate to. Not to say I was perfect at playing the part of a teen girl. I had editors, male and female alike, who made sure to point out when something I’d written came off too overtly masculine, and to let me know a particular style of shirt is called a cami, since I didn’t know what that was, exactly.
- Is it hard writing the ending of a book?
Actually, the ending is my favorite part. To me, beginnings are the hardest, and I often spend the most time on them. The goal is to entice the reader into reading the book, and the best way to do that is to start with an interesting question. For Vesper, it’s “Why is this girl climbing out of her bedroom window? Why is there a transcript of her being interrogated?” But you don’t want to be confusing, and you don’t want to be exposition-y, and you don’t want to show your hand too soon, and you most definitely do NOT want to be boring. Then you have the middle, with all your various plot threads up in the air and gradually changing as the plot moves forward, which is quite the juggling act.
So for me it’s a relief to reach the end, because I can tie all those threads together and let the plots collide with a bang. It’s the chance to bust out with the most climactic of climaxes, and to muse on the conclusions your characters have come to because of the events they’ve gone through. Basically, you have all this maintained tension throughout the story—and in the final pages, you get to finally let go and have a rush of much needed release. At least, that’s how it is for me!
- What Hogwarts house would you be in?
Well everybody wants to be in Gryffindor, right? I mean, that’s where all the cool kids get to go! But honestly, I’d be placed in Ravenclaw and I’d be perfectly happy there. I’m all about intelligence, creativity, learning, and wit!