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.”

My Adventure in Seattle

with Blythe

With Blythe Woolston, author of Black Helicopters

This past weekend I had the great privilege of attending the American Library Association midwinter meeting in Seattle, Washington. I was there to talk about my upcoming debut novel, Zebra Forest, published by Candlewick Press. For months, I’ve been looking forward to this trip – what could be better than to fly out to a faraway city to talk about my book with a bunch of smart people who love reading?

I learned a few things in Seattle. First, the people who work for Candlewick Press are the best people in the known universe. Second, life is unpredictable. That second one is a lesson I thought I knew, but it never really seems to stick. I keep expecting things to unfold the way I hope they will, rather than the way they actually do.

In Seattle, I was supposed to speak at two events – briefly at an author dinner on Saturday night and a little bit longer at a “first look breakfast” on Sunday morning. I had a good idea of what I wanted to say – Zebra Forest is a book that hinges on a family secret, and I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of secrets and how they shape, or sometimes misshape, families. I was looking forward especially to talking about how my mother – a zealot for honesty and open communication – really inspired the book by making me think about what would happen if I hadn’t been born into a family where someone told you the truth about things. That “what if” game, which is so essential to novelists, led me to Zebra Forest when I asked myself “what if I didn’t know anything about where I came from, or about the people I came from?”

So I was all set. After meeting the wonderful group from Candlewick on Friday, I spent a relaxed weekend in the lovely hotel W with my husband (AKA Superman), and waited for Saturday night. Then it came. And on the way to the restaurant for the author’s dinner, a most unwelcome guest came with it – the stomach flu.

I tried to ignore it at first. Got to say a few words about my book, and sat down to meet some of the most thoughtful and friendly people, including Jenny Brown of Shelf Awareness, Ernie Cox of Iowa City, Joan Kindig of James Madison University, Diane Foote of Dominican University, and Seira Wilson from Amazon. But too soon my stomach was impossible to ignore, and I had to excuse myself. Just in time, too, since I was about to get reacquainted with everything I’d eaten since coming to Seattle. And the stomach flu is the gift that keeps on giving, unfortunately, so eventually, I had to make my way back to the hotel in the company of the amazing and terrific Jenny Choy, from Candlewick, who took care of me until my husband got back. The awful bug stayed with me all night and into the next morning. Until about two minutes before the “first look” breakfast, I doubted very much I’d be able to make it out of my room, let alone downstairs to say anything about anything, but at the last minute, after much encouragement from the ever steadfast Superman (who really earned his name on this trip!), I was able to get down to the breakfast, speak my piece, and make it upstairs before the next bout of wonderful hit.

At last, a few hours later, it was all done. I was able to get to the convention itself for the afternoon, where I really enjoyed visiting the Candlewick booth, talking to the different librarians who came by, and getting to spend time with Blythe Woolston, another Candlewick author whose fabulous new book Black Helicopters I could not put down. To be able to talk books and writing with an author of her caliber was an experience in itself! But the best part of it all was getting to know the wonderful people from Candlewick: Sharon Hancock, Liz Bicknell, Jenny Choy, Deb Wayshak, Rachel Johnstone, and John Mendelson. They’re not only great at what they do, but they are the nicest people around.

So, that was my entry into the world of book promotion. Unexpected . . . yes. A roller coaster ride . . . in more ways than one. Up next – Kansas City in February. I can’t say I don’t’ feel like holding my breath for the entire flight there, but as the very smart Tracy Miracle from Candlewick said to me yesterday – you can’t be that unlucky twice. Here’s hoping she’s right!