Please welcome Shari Becker to The Qwillery. The Stellow Project is published on June 23rd by Skyscape. Please join The Qwillery in wishing Shari a very Happy Publication Day!
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Are you a plotter or a pantser or hybrid?
Shari: Hi! I’m excited to be here.
The most challenging thing about writing - for me - is getting down that first draft. I’m a much better reviser. I’m almost always inspired by major scenes, relationships and conversations. It’s like a little movie plays in my head, and I’m a total pantser as I write that movie down. But then I slump as I try to connect those scenes together to form a plot. I hit the bag of chocolate chips, and I wander around my home aimlessly, talking to myself like a crazy person, trying to pull it all together.
The Stellow Project forced me to be a plotter because I got stuck - not just once or twice, either. The pieces of the mystery all had to come together, and when (and if) readers go back to look at the story again, all the clues have to be in place. At one point I was so lost in my own plot that my writing group literally sat me down, and we drew a map of the entire town where the book takes place. We plotted how Lilah would get from the house - to the camp - to the boat - to town, etc. So I guess I’m a hybrid out of necessity. I’m drafting a new novel in Scrivener, and I’m finding that it helps the struggling plotter in me get organized.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Shari: The first book I truly adored was The Secret Garden. I was a shy, anxious, overly-sensitive child, and when I read about Mary Lenox, I just knew that somewhere there was a special place for me. I think I read the book 20 times before I turned 20.
Barbara Kingsolver has been a huge influence on me, too. She’s a longtime favorite of mine. I read The Bean Trees, and was hooked. Her work just oozes with attitude and voice, and her characters practically jump off the page and come to life. Kent Haruf’s novels break my heart. There is a subtle beauty to his writing. I always try to infuse my relationship scenes with precious little touches just like he does. Gary Schmidt has these moments in his writing where it seems like he lets go to some divine, greater power. His sentences are breathtakingly gorgeous and offer so much insight into a character’s mindset. I totally want to be him. I’m also kind of in love with Maggie Stiefvater right now. Scorpio Races is one of my favorite books. It just reads like a gothic fairy tale. Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun has some of the most brilliant voice writing I’ve read, maybe ever.
So he’s not a novelist, but I’m also kind of obsessed with anything by Joss Whedon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a huge impact on me. There were no creative boundaries in that show. And there was always humor - even in the darkest moments.
TQ: Describe The Stellow Project in 140 characters or less.
Shari: Dependent teen finds inner grit when she becomes a pawn in a mystery involving her family, the government and a top secret lab in the woods.
TQ: Tell us something about The Stellow Project that is not found in the book description.
Shari: At its core The Stellow Project is about family and courage. One pivotal scene was inspired by a good friend of mine who was born with a heart defect. She had to undergo so many surgeries as a young child, and still has at least one more to endure as an adult. Her bravery is remarkable, and her scars are her battle wounds.
I went through some really tough times as a teenager, and my sister really helped me face my fears and deal with my demons. I look at my own daughters, and I hope they will always be there for each other, too. Lilah comes to realize that she is ultimately responsible for her sister, and that the ties that bind her to her parents cannot be broken, no matter how misguided her mother and father may be.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Stellow Project? What appealed to you about writing an SF novel particularly one that is both a thriller and dystopian?
Shari: The Stellow Project came to me after a series of scary weather events on the East Coast. It just seemed to me like the planet was telling us to wake up and change our ways. I just had to write about it. My first seed of an idea came as a vision of a girl stuck inside a skyscraper, breathing only because she was enclosed in this glass jail cell.
This first draft of The Stellow Project was actually a full-fledged dystopian set hundreds of years in the future, but I paralyzed myself with the details of world building. I spent days obsessing over what car windows would look like. After an early read, my agent suggested I strip out the hard-core dystopian world and make it contemporary. That kind of set me free.
I don’t think I was consciously aware that I was writing a SF story or even a dystopian. I’m a bit of a conspiracy theory girl, and I am enthralled by the idea that there are things happening beneath the surface of our everyday world — that there are top secret agencies trying to solve problems in ways that we would dismiss as unethical. I think I channeled the X-Files and Lost more than consciously trying to categorize what I was writing. At the same time, it’s probably no surprise that I landed in this genre. I’m really a closet sci-fi geek. As a kid I loved Star Wars and Bladerunner, and I read books like, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The new Battlestar Gallactica turned me into a TV junkie.
TQ: Do you have any favorite dystopian novels?
Shari: Hmmmm …. good question. I really enjoyed Handmaid’s Tale when I read it, something like 20 years ago. I was proud of myself for finishing Cloud Atlas, possibly the hardest book I’ve ever read. From a MG and YA standpoint, I think The Giver is a great beginner dystopian, as is the City of Ember series, which I’m in the middle of reading with my younger daughter. For me, though, the book that really hooked me on the genre was Uglies. Scott Westerfeld’s series came before Hunger Games, before Delirium, Matched, and Divergent, and it was so addictive. Aside from Hunger Games, it’s the only dystopian series I own in its entirety.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Stellow Project?
Shari: Oh, my goodness, probably not as much as you’d think. A lot of The Stellow Project came from my life experiences and imagination. The town of Silver Lake is based on the town in the Adirondacks where I spent my summers as a child.
I had one friend drive up and down the George Washington Bridge for me, however. She also researched the parks in the area. Another friend of mine is a pulmonary specialist, so he talked with me about how Lilah’s body and scars would look post surgeries. My father-in-law is a former pharmaceutical exec who liaised with the FDA. He read over some critical scenes for me, too. I was able to google many of my questions. There’s a tremendous amount of information online about government organizations, weather patterns, satellites. I took those kernels of truth and let my mind spin and weave.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Shari: Hands down, the easiest character to write was Flori. My older daughter swims like a fish, and my younger daughter is so cuddly and physical. I took elements of both of their personalities and mashed them up into Flori. It was just so much fun to write in a seven-year-old voice. She was likes a breath of fresh air.
The hardest character was Lilah. I knew I wanted her to be sickly and weak in the beginning, and I knew she needed to have emotional growth that brought her to a point of bravery and independence. But there’s always this fine line with YA females. If they are too bold and not endearing enough, they come off as harsh and unlikable. There were scenes that I had to rewrite over and over again until I found that balance between sassy and bitchy, between sickly and whiny.
TQ: Which question about The Stellow Project do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Shari: It seems like the most controversial part of the book is the ending. Readers and reviewers have commented that the ending is a cliffhanger, and some are pretty miffed. So I guess the question would be: “Why did you end the story where you did?”
I feel like the story ended at a really important spot. Lilah understood exactly how she fit into the mystery, and she understood what her role would be moving forward. She had become the person she needed to be to tackle her “what next?”
There are classic stories that end in a similar way. Lyra in The Golden Compass heads off into another world. Jonas in The Giver sleds off into the snow, and we don’t know if he survives. Tally in Uglies takes a bold leap that leaves readers gripping their fingernails into their chairs. That said, all of these books did eventually have subsequent follow ups in a series, but they stand on their own as great reads.
So I feel badly that some readers are disappointed, but I also think that part of the fun is imagining the “what next” for yourself. Of course if readers spread the good word, and the book does well, I’ll be able to write the next installment. I already know how it will all play out!
TQ: In your opinion, should SF novels address big issues or just be entertaining or do both?
Shari: I’ll be the first to admit, that at the end of a long day, I’m quite happy to sit and watch mindless television. Sometimes I just want to be entertained. But all stories address issues because our protagonists need challenges to overcome. Personally, I like a novel that makes you think. Science fiction lends itself to bigger issues because - at least for me - its fiction that grows from possible truths. But at the same time, if SF is just big issues, then it risks skewing depressing, and that’s not really what I want to do as a writer. So I guess for me, SF really needs to be both entertaining and thought provoking.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from The Stellow Project.
“I have crappy lungs, not a-little-wheeze-here-or-there crappy, but full-blown we’ll-take-you- down-if-you’re-not-paying-attention crappy.” (This is my favorite line in the whole book.)
TQ: What's next?
Shari: I’m working on a YA paranormal that’s a little like Heroes meets Field of Dreams. I have a contemporary YA that I’m reworking / brainstorming about a teen with helicopter parents who drive her insane, and I’m rooting for a Stellow sequel.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Shari: Thanks so much for having me! This was a lot of fun!
The Stellow Project
Skyscape, June 23, 2015
Hardcover, Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 303 pages
When a killer storm unexpectedly hits Manhattan, seventeen-year-old Lilah Stellow’s dad insists that she and her younger sister, Flori, take refuge at their cabin in the mountains. But instead of joining them with the experimental drug that keeps Lilah alive, he disappears just as news reports name him as a prime suspect in an act of ecoterrorism.
As days pass without her medicine, Lilah finds herself teetering on the edge, caring for her sister, and growing increasingly certain they’re being watched. In her search for answers, Lilah is thrown into the center of a mystery involving an off-the-grid research facility and finds herself drawn in by Daniel, an intriguing boy who is the son of the lead scientist. As she dares to seek answers, Lilah slowly realizes that even the best intentions can go horribly wrong.
Shari Becker was born in Montreal, Quebec, and grew up speaking both English and French. As a child, she spent her summers in the Adirondack Mountains catching fireflies, minnows, and toads. After completing a master’s degree at New York University, Becker worked for Nickelodeon, Disney-owned companies, and an Emmy Award–winning puppeteer. She is the author of two picture books, including the Charlotte Zolotow Award–honored and Junior Library Guild–selected Maxwell’s Mountain. She now lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband, two daughters, and their dog.