This is the fourth edition of Students Want to Know–Welcome! My students and I are very happy to post this interview with Ty Roth, the author of So Shelly. Since his debut novel released and we sent him the questions, my students have been reading and enjoying So Shelly. Thank you for participating, Ty!
Summary (From Ty’s website): SO SHELLY plunges the reader into uncharted territory as it transposes romantic poets John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley into present-day high school students. Though forwarded in time by two centuries, many events in the narrative have been “ripped from the headlines” of the principal characters’ lives and placed in a modern milieu, and all of their personalities are as true to the characters’ own as one can reasonably draw them based on academic study; nevertheless, even the reader who doesn’t know a jot about the Romantic poets is in for a thrilling read.
High school junior John Keats was never a close friend of schoolmate and literary prodigy Gordon Byron. At his best and worst, Keats was a distant, envious admirer of Gordon’s talents, fame, and “player” lifestyle. That changes when their mutual friend, Shelly, mysteriously drowns. After stealing Shelly’s ashes, the boys set a course for the small Lake Erie Island where Shelly’s body had washed ashore and to where, according to Gordon, she wished to be returned. As they navigate obstacles and resist temptations during their odyssey, Keats and Gordon glue together the shattered pieces of Shelly’s and their own pasts while attempting to make sense of her premature end.
Outrageous, poignant and in subtle homage to Lord Byron’s classic Don Juan, SO SHELLY captures the indomitable spirit of Romanticism while confronting contemporary issues of sexuality, dysfunctional families, suicide, poverty, racism, alcohol and drug use, the hidden costs of popularity and fame, and friendship and while exploring themes of death, dying, grief, abandonment, abuse, and belonging.
- What made you think to write a book using the names of real past romantic authors such as the Shelleys, Byron, and Keats?
I have long been fascinated by the lives and work of these writers. Their true-to-life experiences were so interesting and scandalous (especially Byron and the Shelleys) that it required very little imagination or stretching of the to tell their truly sensational stories. I actually had to rein in some of their more deviant and even depraved experiences. I kept their actual names in the hopes that readers will be inspired to learn more about and to read from these true geniuses.
- Why did you make it a YA book?
Good question. I think that many YA novels make the mistake of skirting around controversial themes and issues (i.e. sex, alcohol and drug use, religious doubt, abuse, reproductive rights/responsibilities, etc.). In my experience, most high school students are a lot smarter and more mature than most adults give them credit. I think it’s healthy for young people to confront the realities with which they are faced, like those mentioned above, in their fiction. The inside of a novel is a safe and effective place to consider such things and to learn from both the good and bad examples set by the characters. The lives of these poets provided ample incidents to explore such themes.
- Where did you come up with the idea to have John and Gordon steal her ashes?
To be honest, it’s not a very original premise; it’s been done many times. However, my primary inspiration was a song from one of my favorite bands, Better Than Ezra. It’s called “Lifetime” and tells a similar story. In general, there are very few wholly original plot ideas left. Nearly every story is somehow derivative of something that has come before. What I find most interesting in modern fiction, however, is the way artists from different mediums borrow from one another for inspiration. For example, when I’m creating at my best, I think my writing feels like a pop song; whereas, some of my favorite songwriters have such a strong narrative voice, they actually compose what I would call mini-novels: Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” most songs by The Script and Taylor Swift.
- Are you satisfied with the outcome of the book?
Not really. I always tell my students there is no such thing as a final draft. There just comes a point when it has to be turned in. I feel that way about my novel. Given a chance, I’d probably re-write it forever, but there came a point when it had to be delivered for printing. With that said, I think it’s a pretty cool story and my editors were fantastic in shaping it. I’m proud of it, and though it’s far from perfect, I feel it can hold its own among most works of contemporary YA fiction.
- Why a sailboat accident?
That was borrowed from real life. Percy Shelley drowned as a result of a sailing accident, so it seemed fitting for my Shelly to do so also.
- Have you ever attempted to write from a girl’s perspective? If so, how’d it turn out?
My second novel employs multiple points-of-view; two of the three are female. I do not find it particularly difficult. I’m a bit of a Jungian and believe we all possess elements of the masculine and feminine, and in the final analysis, I don’t think men and women are that much different in terms of our desires, aspirations, and motivations. Therefore, I have never found it too difficult to tap into my feminine side in order to write from a female character’s perspective. As to how “it turned out,” you’ll have to read book two and let me know.
- What made you choose a “heavy” topic?
I fancy myself a heavy thinker and prefer art of great depth. I recognize the attraction and value of “light” art; I’m just not very interested in reading or writing it. I think the greatest works of artistic genius disturb the status quo and force us to question all that we once accepted as right, true, and good. I want my stories to resonate long after the reader is finished reading. A large number of YA novels are easily interchangeable and easily forgotten. I want to write novels that are neither. That can only be accomplished through the examination of “heavy” topics.
Great questions, Felecia!
- How did you come up with the characters’ names?
The majority of characters are taken from history, either the poets themselves or their friends, lovers, and relatives. Most of the names are exactly as they were in reality; a few have been slightly altered either in spelling or in changing first names, which I do in order to remind the reader that the story is a fictionalization of real events.
- Did the story end the same as you thought it would or did it change?
When I begin a novel, I always see the beginning and the ending scenes, and I remain fairly true to those initial visions. However, for So Shelly, my editor wanted a more hopeful/positive ending than I originally composed, so I lightened it up a bit during the revision process, but I can’t share the original, darker ending.
- Did you have a say in the cover?
Very little. I was consulted more out courtesy than out of my publisher’s real concern for my input. I was totally cool with that arrangement, as I don’t have a single artistic bone in my body. From the beginning of the process, I decided to trust the professionals, and the cover designers at Random House did not disappoint. The cover of So Shelly is beautiful and seductive. I couldn’t be happier. I have to believe that that cover will sell a lot of books.
- Do you find that reading makes you a better writer?
Absolutely! It’s the thing I miss most since I’ve begun writing professionally. I just don’t have the kind of time I’d like to have to read. The one suggestion I would make regarding reading is not to read exclusively in your genre; otherwise, it’s difficult not to become completely derivative of your favorite books and authors. It can cause you to lose your unique voice.
- When you were trying to become a published author, were your friends and family supportive or did they say it’ll never happen?
Other than my wife and children, no one knew I was writing. I wrote for over four years before signing with an agent. In that time, I pretty much kept my writing to myself. I didn’t want to have to explain my constant failures or to justify my stubborn resolve to keep trying. My family couldn’t have been more supportive, primarily by letting me disappear into my physical and mental writing space when they probably would have preferred for me to be more present in their lives. I just hope it has been worth it.
- Do you ever feel like giving up when you’re writing?
Pretty much every day. As strange as it sounds, writing is not that much fun for me. To be honest, I’d rather watch television or read. Writing is always work for me. I struggle with every word and line I write. I’ve never written an inspired sentence in my life. I can very easily imagine walking away from this writing life. I love teaching and I take great pride in what I do in the classroom. It’s currently getting very difficult to be exceptional both as a writer and as a teacher, and if there’s one thing I fear more than anything else, it’s mediocrity. If I can’t do both at the level I’ve come to expect from myself, one will have to go. As of right now, that would be writing.
- When you write a really sad scene in your book, does it affect your mood the rest of the day, or do you leave all thoughts of your book alone when your day’s writing is done?
Interesting question. From the beginning, I’ve been careful not to grow emotionally attached to my writing. I remind myself constantly that it’s just a book. This attitude has been very helpful in dealing with editorial suggestions. I think writers make a huge mistake when they call their stories their babies. I’ve had babies, my stories are not babies. I can walk away from my stories; I’d never walk away from my babies. So, no. The sad scenes do not stay with me.
- Have you ever thought or dreamed about going on some sort of quest?
Well, I’ve climbed a mountain, rafted rivers with Class V rapids, bungee jumped, and finished a half-ironman, so I’ve always been a bit of a “quester.” I do hope to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain someday. Does that count? But my greatest quest is simply to live well.
Thanks for the questions. You guys and Ms. Andersen are awesome!