Today we are thrilled to be a part of the blog tour celebrating the release of The Drowned Cities, Paolo Bacigalupi’s follow-up to the Printz-winning Ship Breaker (one of Thea’s favorite books of 2010). Paolo Bacigalupi needs no introduction – darling of the Speculative Fiction community, Bacigalupi’s work has been critically acclaimed and has received numerous awards for his short fiction, his adult SF (most notably The Windup Girl), and for his YA novel.
Here to answer a few of our questions, please give a warm welcome to Paolo Bacigalupi, folks!
The Book Smugglers: Hi Paolo, and thanks for taking the time to chat with us! You are a prolific writer of speculative fiction, running the gamut from short stories, full-length novels for adults, and now full-length novels for young adult audiences. How does your writing change or differ across these different audiences?
Paolo Bacigalupi: I used to think there were clear differences, but these days I feeling like which genre I write in is somewhat irrelevant. The Drowned Cities feels a lot like my adult work, in terms of tone. It’s much darker and more intense that Ship Breaker, for example. I think the things that I continue to retain as I write for young adults is that I pay more attention to pacing and plot, and I like to write about more sympathetic characters. Mahlia and Mouse and Ocho and Tool are characters that I empathize with, so I desperately want them to have a chance at survival and triumph. The broken world they inhabit makes this difficult, but I really want them to win.
TBS: You recently wrote an article for Kirkus expounding on the current wave of YA dystopias and prevalence of heteronormativity, which proved to be a lightning rod for discussion about LGBTQ representation in fiction. You followed up that initial post with a second piece about different reader perceptions and motivations in YA novels, highlighting that younger readers long to see themselves, or avatars of themselves, in stories. In the future, do you plan on writing books that feature LGBTQ characters, with commentary on gender and sexuality? Do you feel that a reader’s desire for self-insertion in a novel is something unique to YA audiences, or do you believe adults also long to be a part of the story, too?
PB: I’m going to have a couple characters who don’t do the whole heteronormative thing in my next YA book, The Doubt Factory, and I’m happy to have them in the mix. I don’t see that as much of a commentary, more just an attempt to fulfill my obligation as a writer to try to represent the world around us. My editor for Ship Breaker, Jennifer Hunt, called it the “mall test.” You generally want your book’s characters to be as diverse as the population you see during an average trip to the mall. If they aren’t, it’s worth thinking about why there’s a difference. A lot of the time, it just comes down to cultural biases, instead of intentionality, and that’s a problem.
As far as whether adults want to see themselves represented in story…. I’m pretty sure we all want that. My wife and I like seeing mixed-race couples in movies for this reason. It matters to all of us. In the context of the Kirkus op-eds though–and specifically in thinking about my role as a creator of cultural objects that young people will read–I have a lot more empathy for kids’ needs and desires than I do for adults. Young people get all sorts of garbage and judgment rained down on their heads by our culture, and they don’t have a lot of control over its content or bias. They tend to be the victims of adult cultural warfare. If my stories can help establish a space for a wide variety of young people to be entertained and have adventures, I’m happy to do that.
TBS: You also have talked a bit about the current state of YA dystopian fiction, which you remark has the tools for social commentary but seems more content to use a dystopian premise for the dominant purpose of entertainment value (e.g. blowing up zombies). What social/economic/gender/cultural/environmental commentary do you hope or intend for readers take away from your dystopias?
PB: LOL. Well, I think whatever I hope readers will take away is often wildly different from what they do take away. When I wrote Ship Breaker, I thought I was writing about sustainable technologies, but most of the fan letters I receive focus on Nailer’s relationship with his father and definitions of family. When you’re writing, a story takes on its own life, and it can surprise you. With Ship Breaker, it turned out that–even for me–it was more important to write about support networks and other forms of loyalty, than it was to emphasize high-tech clipper ships. Both elements are there, but it turned out to be far more of a family and loyalty story than it did a sustainability story.
In terms of the different goals I have when I write, and how those get balanced… I feel like my first obligation is to create a great story. The book has to be genuinely engaging. If you don’t care about Mahlia and Mouse and Tool and Ocho as they war and make their alliances and try to find ways to trust one another and save each other, then the book is already a failure, and it doesn’t matter what other messages or themes I’m interested in. If I’m lucky, maybe I get to also point out that the broken world these characters are struggling through exists because of selfish choices made in the present day. Or it’s possible that after reading The Drowned Cities, someone will see child-soldiering as something concrete and horrifying, instead of abstract and irrelevant, the next time they see a news story about it. But mostly I just hope people will finish the book and remember it, and not feel like I wasted their time.
TBS: Your YA dystopian novel Ship Breaker and companion book The Drowned Cities paint a grimy, bleak future ravaged by climate change, political and economic collapse. In this grim future, violence and ruthlessness abound – especially for our young adult protagonists. In the wake of The Hunger Games and subsequent rise of dystopian YA, we’ve seen many articles from outspoken critics decrying dystopian subject matter as “too dark for teens” or sending the wrong message to young adults. (We disagree.) What is your position in this debate? Is there anything that you feel is too dark or inappropriate for young adult readers?
PB: There are certainly stories that I recoiled from when I was a young reader, so I’m not entirely dismissive of this concern, but it’s problematic to say in blanket fashion “thou shalt not read about X, Y, or Z, because (insert reason here).” Frankly, it’s amazing to me to see how many different constituencies want to ban books. With The Drowned Cities, with its focus on war and violence, there’s nothing in it that I consider problematic for high-school readers. These kids are within four years of being able to kill for their country. At eighteen, we’ll happily slap helmets their heads, give them guns, and encourage them to pull the trigger–and we’ll call them heroes. Our kids are bathed in war propaganda every day, whether it’s “support our troops” patriotic rhetoric, or recruitment advertisements for our armed forces. When the Marines no longer have an advertising budget, I’ll take the question of whether young adult fiction is too disturbing more seriously.
TBS: Your five favorite dystopian novels of all time are:
PB: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley is still ridiculously ahead of its time.
Feed, by MT Anderson pulls no punches and does what a genuine dystopia should do. It’s brilliant and relentless and I’ve never read a better critique of consumer culture. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson deserves recognition, just for postulating an America that only excels at writing computer code and delivering pizza in thirty minutes or less. After that, can I plug Gossip Girl? It fits the dystopian structure, I think. Life is ostensibly rich and perfected, but it’s hell for the individual. And finally, given the increasing powers that our government has to spy on, detain and harass citizens, I think 1984 is becoming weirdly relevant, once again.
TBS: We Book Smugglers are faced with constant threats and criticisms from our significant others concerning the sheer volume of books we purchase and read – hence, we have resorted to ‘smuggling books’ home to escape scrutinizing eyes. Have you ever had to smuggle books?
PB: I once smuggled The Private Life of Chairman Mao into China. It was a banned book, but a Chinese friend of mine wanted to read it, so I got it for him. I remember my hands shaking as I picked the box up in customs, just waiting for someone to make me open it and show them what was inside. That was ridiculously stupid of me.
About the Author:
PAOLO BACIGALUPI’s debut young adult novel, Ship Breaker, was a Michael L. Printz Award winner, a National Book Award Finalist, and a Locus Award winner. His debut adult novel, The Windup Girl, was named by Time Magazine as one of the ten best novels of 2009 and won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. His short-story collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, was a 2008 Locus Award winner for Best Collection and was also named one of the Best Books of the Year by Publishers Weekly. He lives with his wife and son in western Colorado.
For more about The Drowned Cities, check out an excerpt, trailer, and more online HERE.
Want more about The Drowned Cities? If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the following locations, you can meet the author!
Tuesday, May 1st @ 7:00pm
9315 Dorchester Street
Highlands Ranch, CO 80129
Wednesday, May 2nd @ 6:30pm
Boulder Book Store
1107 Pearl Street
Boulder, CO 80302
Thursday, May 3rd @ 7:00pm
Anderson’s Bookshop at Two Doors East
111 W. Jefferson Avenue
Naperville, IL 60540
Sunday, May 6th
1:00pm @ Books of Wonder
18 W. 18th Street
New York, NY 10011
7:00pm @ WORD
126 Franklin Street
Brooklyn, NY 11222
Tuesday, May 8th @ 7:00pm
Barnes & Noble
210 Commerce Blvd.
Fairless Hills, PA 19030
Thursday, May 10th @ 5:00pm
Politics and Prose @ Bethesda Library
7400 Arlington Road
We have ONE copy of Drowned Cities up for grabs! The contest is open to EVERYBODY and will run until Saturday, May 12 at 11:59 PM (PST). In order to enter, leave a comment here. Good luck!