Hi guys! Today I have an exclusive interview with an author that is very sentimental to me! It was actually become of Austin Aslan’s books that started my love for Young Adult fiction. I was so hesitant to read The Islands at the End of the World at first because of the length, but when I picked it up and opened it, I devoured it! It’s up in my favorites because it means so much to me! I’m so happy I’m able to interview this wonderful author, and I hope you enjoy this interview!
1. What are your books The Islands at the End of the World and The Girl at the Center of the World about?
Hi, Kester. Thanks for inviting me onto your blog. I’m excited to be here. ISLANDS AT THE END OF THE WORLD is a young adult disaster/survival novel with science-fiction elements. The story involves a catastrophic global blackout but it takes place entirely on the Hawaiian Islands. It’s about a 16 year-old girl named Leilani who is half white, half Hawaiian. She lives on the Big Island but she and her father are on the island of Oahu when the global blackout happens. The islands are suddenly thrust into darkness and isolation. No one knows what’s going on. As days without electricity, without airplane travel, and without food/gas shipments turn to weeks, tensions grow, hunger sets in, and the situation on the islands becomes desperate and violent. Lei and her dad set off on their own to get home to the Big Island by any means necessary. A lot of crazy things happen in this book, and there are some cool science-fiction things going on, too, but this novel is really about a strong father/daughter relationship that’s strained to the limits on a dangerous journey to get back home to family.
The sequel, THE GIRL AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, continues the saga started in the first book. GIRL is different from book one in a number of crucial ways. The difficult geography of Hawai`i, the sense of separation, the urgency to get home—these are all powerful, compelling story elements that come together to make ISLANDS wholly unique. Developing a fresh, exciting sequel to such a singular story was quite a challenge. With GIRL, I wasn’t interested in trying to repeat the feel of ISLANDS out of some unspoken sense of obligation to match what I had already done. I wanted to engage in a new kind of storytelling and a new set of scenarios. The important thing is that I returned to the characters! I think I hit just the right mix of old and new with GIRL.
2. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?
I’ve always been a writer. I once turned in an 11-page short story in sophomore English class for a simple page-long vocabulary assignment. Looking back, one of the greatest insights of my life was long ago identifying writing as a possible way to escape my destiny. Writing is cheap. It costs NOTHING to put pencil to paper and go. What other creative pursuit can you engage in with the potential of making a career out of it without spending a dime? For the cost of a Number Two pencil and a notebook we can stop the globe spinning. We can blow up buildings. We can create and destroy entire lives, entire solar systems. We can make people cry and laugh and beg for more. It’s pretty astounding.
3. Who are your favorite authors, and which ones have had an impact on you? Who has affected your writing style the most?
I grew up reading Stephen King and Douglas Adams and Michael Crichton. Almost exclusively. Not the greatest variety, unfortunately. But I caught up with reading all those books I was supposed to read in high school when I entered the Peace Corps. I read the 100 most influential English-language books of the 20th Century during those years. And it was important for my development as a writer to do so.
4. What are your favorite genres to read and write? What are your favorite books?
I have no favorite child, and the best books I’ve read are all unique enough to defy direct ranking against each other. But for what it’s worth, my best reads have all been somehow transcendental, somewhat epic in form, and illuminate something profound of the Human condition. 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera fit the bill. LOTR does, too. Brothers Karamozov. The Gunslinger and The Shining. Cloud Atlas, for its sheer versatility. And one of the few series I read over and over again: Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. Simply sublime. I don’t know what these books do to my own writing, except to humble me, and ignite my love for the written word.
5. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?
I now write for a living. I NOW WRITE FOR A LIVING! I avoided a mid-life crisis by THIS much. I no longer shy away from that “What do YOU do for a living?” question at parties. I’m cuter. I’m younger. (Not.)
I like to hike and backpack and get outdoors. I thru-hiked the entire Arizona National Scenic Trail last winter. It’s 800-miles long, absolutely gorgeous, and it took me almost three months to complete. You can read more about those adventures here: http://www.gore-tex.com/blog/author/a_aslan/
6. Have you been to Hawaii before? How was living there? How did your experience in Hawaii help shape the story?
I lived in Hilo, on the Big Island, when I was getting my masters degree in Tropical Conservation Biology. My field sites were high up on the forested slopes of Mauna Loa Volcano. I was coming home from a rainy day of doing pollination experiments with rare Hawaiian flowers and I drove down through the clouds and suddenly had a great, clear view of the ocean surrounding the island. I was struck by how alone and isolated the Hawaiian Islands were (this is something that people in Hawaii think about frequently, and it wasn’t a new thought for me, either). At that time, I happened to be thinking about a haunting post-apocalyptic book by Cormac McCarthy called THE ROAD. The idea popped into my head that it would be really interesting to set a post-apocalyptic story on the isolated Hawaiian Islands, and the story and characters just started flowing out of me like lava! I thought to myself, Everybody know what happens at the end of the world in New York and LA, but what would a global disaster mean for Islanders? 95% of Hawaii’s food is imported every day. The islands are home to 1.5 million people. If things got tough there, where would all those people go? There are no mountain ranges or Great Plains to escape to. Everyone is stuck. Hungry. No way to escape. When I arrived home at the end of my drive, I started writing the book immediately, that night, and I had my first draft finished 83 days later—all while going to class and doing field work for my degree!
7. Can you speak Hawaiian? Do you know any words?
I only know a few words of Hawaiian. The book doesn’t have much pidgin, and that was an editorial decision, as much as it was a product of the reality that I have no command of the dialect! My editor also works with Graham Salisbury, and they both long ago came to the conclusion that sales to general audiences dwindle as a direct function of how much pidgin appears in the text. Mainland readers just don’t have the patience to wade through too many unfamiliar words and phrases.
The biggest challenge for me was feeling comfortable and legitimate in writing about a Hawaiian main character and crafting a story deeply-rooted in Hawaiian cultures and traditions, even though I’m haole (white) and don’t come from the islands. I’m not Hawaiian, and there’s two problems with that. The obvious problem is that I don’t “know” the culture. There’s a lot to learn and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll never be an expert, though the book has to feel authentic not only to general readers, but to islanders, as well. The more complex problem is that, as an outsider, I struggle with claiming the right to tell a story set in Hawaii. I’m not only writing as a half Hawaiian when I’m not one. I’m also writing about thorny scenarios involving “sovereign nation” perspectives, and one of my bad guys is pure Hawaiian (though most of my Hawaiian characters are very noble, and I try to make all of my characters, regardless of race, as three-dimensional as possible). This issue has a lot of complexity around it, and I’m most comfortable approaching it with a great deal of humility. Ultimately, I think that any author has the right to tell any story they want to. The question is: can you get away with it? Will your effort be respected? Will the people whose voice you’re trying to assume authenticate your attempt or not? So far, the books have been respectfully received in different circles. I feel that I’ve approached this dynamic with awareness, humility, honesty, and good faith.
8. Did you really appear in the movies The Getaway with Alec Baldwin and The Postman with Kevin Costner? Did you get to meet them? Who’s the biggest celebrity you have met?
Yes. And I did get to meet both of them. I had a slice of Pizza Hut pizza on location with Alec while we waited for the crew to set up the scene for a car chase. Kevin actually directed me in a few scenes during Postman filming. Super fun experience. Those are two of the biggest celebrities I’ve ever been around, if you don’t count national politicians (I’ve worked on projects with more than I can count in another job). I’m looking to round out my rolodex, though; know of any you could hook me up with?
9. What would you do if technology fails? Could you live without it?
We have become so reliant on certain technologies, basic and advanced, that their sudden loss would be catastrophic to the normal functioning of society. How long do you think it would take for the more unstable forces in our communities to run Henny Penny into the street and self-fulfill a falling sky?
Though, to be clear, I don’t think the conditions of your question will ever actually be met. I think that a “sudden lack of energy” befalling our world is highly unlikely. Loss of technology and the power with which to run it is much more likely to be a slow, gradual process that we don’t even realize we’re adapting to, if it happens at all.
10. You’ve performed research on rare Hawaiian plants. How was your work, and have you discovered anything new?
I studied mutualism: some creatures help each other out for so long that after a while they turn into special species that need each other to survive. Plants and birds (and a lot of plants and bugs) can do this. Pollination is one way that plants and birds help each other out. Birds can get food from the flowers of plants. In return, the plants can transfer pollen from one plant to the next by using the birds.
In Hawaii, an example of this is Hawaiian honeycreepers and a type of plant called lobeliads. The honeycreepers have very long bills, which they use to reach the food deep inside the very long flowers of the lobeliad plants. When the bird visits the flower, it gets pollen on its head, and then brings the pollen to the next flower to help the plant reproduce (make new plants). But what happens when one of the two species goes extinct? What happens to the other species? Will it also go extinct? In my study example, the flower is now being pollinated by a newly-introduced bird from Japan. The conventional wisdom is that introduced species are bad for ecosystems, but my research has helped to develop a narrative within the scientific community that this issue is more complicated than we want to realize.
11. Could you describe your reaction when you got “the call” that your books will become published?
“The Call” is a misnomer, at least in my experience. It’s an involved process, spanning many days. I went back and forth with several editors from different houses, and all the while things remained in flux, though at some ambiguous point it became pretty clear that someone was going to make a final offer. I was sick in bed with a cold the day things got finalized. I was pretty ecstatic, and took my wife out to dinner, but it all kind of felt forced at the time.
I dreamed and dreamed and dreamed of becoming a published author, and I half expected my life to suddenly transform into glitz and glamor and whatever once I finally realized my dream (don’t we all day dream about that?). But the truth is that I believe that circumstances don’t change who people are. Change in one’s life comes from within; it’s rarely external. The good fortune I’ve had so far hasn’t changed who I am or how I act or who I hang out with. The biggest difference for me is that I’m now able to make writing my job. But I don’t actually feel that I’m writing more often than I used to. I’m just getting paid to do it now. So, it has freed me up somewhat, but that just means I have more time to attend to the thousand other responsibilities of raising a family!
12. Who was your favorite character to write about and why?
Leilani, for sure.
Leilani was such a miraculous surprise for me. I had no idea I could write someone like her. My “model” for her—my own daughter—was only seven years old at the time I wrote the novel. I did my best to project forward into her teenage years as I wrote. It seems to have worked out fairly well! Leilani is so awesome because she’s every bit as strong as Katniss Everdeen but she’s so much more. She operates in the real world, and her challenges are the kind that any one of us could face on a bad day. Her courage and her wits are exceptional, and she’s constantly saving her father rather than the other way around. She’s mixed race (half white, half Hawaiian), which presents its own set of hardships in our confusing world, especially in the context of a scenario in which society is unraveling at the seams! Leilani also suffers from epilepsy. Lei isn’t intended to be cool or special because she has a disability, or because she’s able to navigate a terrifying world in spite of her setbacks. She’s not inspirational or pitiable because of her disability. It’s just a part of her that she struggles with and manages, at times, to accept. It’s who she is.
Now, there are fantastical elements to this story. Lei finds herself in a position to make a big difference in the world. But she’s no “Chosen One.” I hope that’s sufficiently conveyed in the text. The abilities that she finds she has are not unique to her. She just happens to be in the right place at the right time to seize the moment and the initiative. Her successes and her failures are completely hers to choose. I don’t believe that she operates under any mandate of destiny, as occurs in so many fantasy and science-fiction stories, so, yeah, ironically, this is another big thing that makes Leilani special and unique.
And one last thing, since we’re on the subject. I’m very hopeful that readers will find Lei a very refreshing departure from the star-crossed girl who is inexplicably caught up in romantic engagements even though everyone has bigger problems at the moment. This book doesn’t have any love triangles. Lei is a sixteen-year-old girl who occasionally crosses paths with interesting guys, but the “love” in this has nothing to do with romance. It’s about family. It’s about her father. Something I hope most readers can connect with in a very real and visceral way.
One of the very first decisions I had to make before I started typing this story was whether I wanted my main character to be a boy or a girl. The choice was easy for me. I have a daughter. I could easily imagine myself as a father feeling the burden of keeping her safe if we were in the situation of my book, having to hop islands to get home while society disintegrates. It was scary to think about. I also knew I wanted to write a YA novel, so the youth had to be the main character. Once I was convinced that my MC would be a girl, writing as her wasn’t that hard. I just channeled my daughter as best I could and assumed (for better and for worse, in some cases) that for all the ways we like to portray boys and girls as impossibly different, they’re actually pretty similar. I think it worked out just fine. I was fortunate to find a voice for Leilani quickly, and then I just stayed authentic to that voice throughout the book. When my agent and I were shopping the novel around, an editor at a major publishing house said that she was surprised to learn that I was a guy. I was very flattered by that, and took it as a good sign that I had effectively managed to pull off a girl MC!
13. Have you written any other works? What are also your current plans with your writing career?
As a matter of fact, yes! Several projects. Different genres. I recently finished a draft of a new disaster adventure set later in the 21st century. I’m very fond of that project. I’m also developing a series of chapter books with an environmental theme. I have two fantasy project in the works, as well. In this industry, the key is to keep writing, and I plan to continue doing just that for the foreseeable future.
14. Do you have any tips to any aspiring authors or writers?
Keep writing. And by that, I mean new material. You may not find publication for your first project, no matter how polished and perfect you can eventually get it through revisions. (I’ve written seven books and only published two!) You need a wide array of projects to shop around. As they say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
I love that I’m living proof that perseverance will eventually pay off. If you want to be a published author badly enough, you can make it happen. Writing is one of those rare careers these days where new people still constantly break in and become successful. It is honestly true that agents and editors are looking at the quality of your material first and foremost. Who you are, where you came from, your education level, your rap sheet…none of these things matter in this business as much as your story, your characters, and your voice. Anybody can do this. It took me ten years and six novels to finally make it all the way through the door, but I always trusted in the system to judge me fairly and my learning and growth finally paid off. So, if you really, really, really want to publish a book, you will. The trick is, of course, that “really wanting it” recognizes that there are certain ways to play ball and you have to respect the process and you have to continuously hone your craft and strive to be a better writer. Getting published is like going to the Olympics…you honestly have to train HARD to make it. But it’s also better than going to the Olympics, because you don’t need to be born with an athletic body that predisposes you to competitive ability—you just need a sharp mind and a good story and LOTS of practice!
Thank you so much, Austin! It was fun interviewing you! Thank you for writing such brilliant books that made me interested in Young Adult fiction!
If you want to check out more of Austin’s works or social media accounts, click below to check them out!
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