Blog Interview with Blythe Woolston, author of Black Helicopters

black helicopters

Today’s special treat is an interview with Blythe Woolston, author of Black Helicopters, a brilliant new YA novel that tells the story of Valkrie White, an American teenager raised to be at war with the government. The novel, published by Candlewick Press and set for release on March 26th, explores the charged issue of domestic terrorism from the terrorist’s point of view. I had the privilege both of reading the ARC (Advance Reading Copy) and getting to spend some time with Blythe in Seattle. Blythe’s earlier book, The Freak Observer, won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, which celebrates “impressive new voices in young adult literature.” In Black Helicopters, Blythe puts that impressive voice to good use in creating the character of Valley, whose sense of herself and her mission are crystal clear, if terrifying.

I asked Blythe several questions about Black Helicopters, which aside from having a strong main character and powerful subject matter has an interesting structure – moving from the past to the present to show us what is driving Valley to do what she does.

Q: I loved the way you handled time in the book, bouncing between the past and present. What made you use that structure?

A: I have no idea how to handle backstory gracefully. This structure—with a single day’s events in alternating dialogue with the past—is my clumsy way of revealing what the reader needs to know to understand Valley’s motives  and background. 

Q: Many of the facts in the book are slippery. What Valley thinks she knows, she doesn’t necessarily know, and yet you were able to convey some of the truth in subtle ways. Did that take a lot of strategizing, or did it come naturally?
A: I suppose part of this is a reflection of how I experience and make sense of the world. I am my own unreliable narrator. 

It does bring up an aspect of my writing experience that may be very odd or nearly universal—who knows? I don’t strategize much. I never have an outline or any idea of what will happen in a story when I begin writing it. I just write in scraps, then later I piece them together, like a person making a crazy quilt. Like a person making a quilt, I notice patterns that start to emerge after a while. When that happens, it becomes a more intentional process. 

I don’t want the process to sound effortless. It isn’t. I spend most of my energy at the sentence level worrying over word choice. I let myself have a lot of latency time, and, as a result, I write very slowly. When I read other authors’ posts about word count, I sometimes feel ashamed of my lack of productivity and discipline. But this is just the way I have to work to make the stories I have to tell. 

Q: Your first book, The Freak Observer, is also about a girl in crisis. What draws you to such intense characters?

A: I can’t say that I’m drawn to intense characters, per se, but I do think that writing YA means stripping away the insulation and dealing with the raw current. YA is full of intense characters. It is the nature of the beast. 

Q: What’s next?

A: At this moment, I have another book out with my editor at Candlewick, Liz Bicknell. That book is an experiment—a departure—for me. It began as a short story I wrote while I was at Clarion West last summer. It isn’t a contemporary realistic story; it is historical and unnatural and may be an utter failure. While I’m waiting to hear back on that book, I’m working on a new book and on revising some short stories. 

Even though Black Helicopters is my third book, the whole publishing adventure remains unpredictable. That makes it interesting.

With much thanks to Blythe, I’ll end this post with my favorite thing she said, which is on the subject of talking about books in general.

“Imagine a potter selling a bowl. Once that bowl passes to the hand of the new owner, it could find many uses: It could be used for salad, or keys, or to hold water for a cat. The person who bought it may intend to give it to someone else or they many intend to take it home and smash it with a hammer so they can use the broken pieces to make a mosaic. Only a crazy potter would say, ‘This is how this bowl ought to be used: It should be filled with apricots.’

I feel that way about books. When I read a book, I am contributing my own imagination and brain cells to understanding it. Reading triggers connections and memories and ideas in me that are unique to me. There is no definitive reading.
Books may be made of pages, black and white, but stories worth thinking about are full of ambiguity. This is, I hope, true of Black Helicopters.”

The Book Princess Talks Shakespeare — Guest Post 2: The freeing mask

Frederick Richard Pickersgill painting of Orsi...

In part two of the Book Princess’s series on Shakespeare, she talks about how Portia and Viola, two of Shakespeare’s women disguised as men, react to the mask of maleness:

In my last guest post, I used both Portia and Viola as examples of women who, dressed as men, are freed from convention to be themselves, more powerfully than when they are dressed in women’s garb. But the truth is a bit more complex than that – they feel differently about their disguises, and thus, are freed in different ways.

The quote that I began the last post with, “Conceal me what I am,” (Twelfth Night, 1.2.50), makes clear what Viola feels about her disguise – it hides an essential part of her. Even in disguise, Viola acts fully as herself in the play: she confesses her love for Orsino more or less openly (so that when she is revealed as a woman at the end, he has no doubt about her acceptance of his proposal), and she refuses to pretend she is unafraid of a fight, telling Olivia, in a line that echoes Iago, “I am not what I am” (Twelfth Night, 3.1.141). Still, she feels that her disguise negates her in some way. Iago is the mask – he is an anti-person, a “not what I am,” and Viola feels that her disguise makes her not herself as well, a lie personified. Even when the truth comes out and she is revealed to be a woman, she cannot see herself as such while she wears men’s clothing – and neither can the others, as is clear when Orsino says, “Cesario, come — /For so you shall be while you are a man” (5.1.385-386). Freed by her disguise to be herself, she has created another identity, as a charismatic and powerful young man whom she cannot see in herself as a woman. Societal rules and norms of passive womanhood told Viola that women cannot be powerful, so when she is powerful, she believes there is something wrong, that she is not herself.

In contrast, Portia has no problem with her own power. Living in Belmont, with no living parents and no men to tell her she is inferior – for the only men she knows are wooing her – she is only constrained by her father’s written will. Though she formally grants Bassiano rule over her when they marry, she never really is subject to it. Almost immediately, she dresses as a male lawyer to help him and his friend, Antonio, and is herself again – unfettered, brilliant and eloquent, used to command. While in her disguise, she has Bassanio return the ring with which she granted him power over herself and her house, and thus becomes her own mistress again even when she resumes her women’s clothing.

Portia (Merchant of Venice)

While both Viola and Portia are more powerful, more free, and more themselves when dressed as men, Viola, who believes in women’s frailty and her own impotence even as that belief clashes with reality, and who wants only to return to women’s garb and marry Orsino, does not threaten the social order. By contrast, Portia, who is happy and at home with her power and her public role, who feels no need to be subject to male rule, very much does.