Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Exchanging Words with: Nathan Kotecki

In a new series (er, post?), called Exchanging Words With..., I'll be chatting up some of our area's authors. This week, Nathan Kotecki, whose book Pull Down The Night comes out next Tuesday, was kind enough to let me pester him with topics both relevant and absurd. A reader of classic literature and a writer of young adult novels that pack a decidedly cultural punch, Kotecki is clearly a smart cookie. Below, read up on our (electronic) conversation, and start picking out your best Goth attire now -- this book launch won't be your typical quiet, mild-mannered bookstore fare, and rumor has it there's a pretty fantastic playlist in the works.

Flyleaf: So you've been through this publishing-a-book gauntlet before, which puts you in a unique position. What's been different about your experience this time around, if anything?

Nathan Kotecki: If anything, I still feel very new to this - the paperback of The Suburban Strange just came out less than a month ago, and I've come to realize that the life of this series may well depend as much if not more on the second book as the first - will the series gain momentum? Going through the process for the second book, I was better able to anticipate the flow, from editing and cover design through advance reading copies and early publicity to planning a release and a promotional schedule. But as an author - someone who wants to make a career of writing books - I feel as though I've barely taken off my coat and found a seat at the table.

FL: In The Suburban Strange, we followed Celia, but this time around, you've centered the story on Bruno. What prompted that decision, and how did it change the story itself? Did that create any challenges as far as writing went, or was it easier for you?

NK: I love Celia, but the moment I considered the series potential of The Suburban Strange, it was clear to me that I didn't want to follow her - I've made jokes about "The Suburban Strange: The College Years," which is what would have happened if I had. Rather, this series is about its silent character: the Suburban High School, the epicenter of this supernatural conflict, of which I've just scratched the surface. So, how to structure the series so no human character got too large? I decided that each book would take place in the subsequent school year, but with a kaleidescopic shift in which all the characters who haven't graduated (or died) are retained, but a new character arrives to drive the story forward with a new coming-of-age story that also advances the series arc. I am very satisfied with how that decision has panned out with Bruno (and Celia) and Pull Down The Night, and I've met some brilliant characters who are waiting in the wings for books three and four. I can't say this structure created challenges - if anything, it breathes new life into the series with each book, from my perspective.

FL: As opposed to a lot of YA series (which stick to some popular tropes -- vampires, werewolves, vampire-werewolves-in-love), the Suburban Strange books are defiantly different. Were you worried at all when you set out to write something so centered in Goth culture & music? How have readers responded to this element of your work? Finally, do you think there's a demand for more YA books that fall somewhere off the typical path?

NK: It's a tough call, isn't it? I wanted to do something that felt distinctive and at least a little original, and that carries the risk of not connecting with readers. But I would rather stake my claim for the story I'm interested in telling, than look for trends to follow. I feel strongly that at the core, authors have to write the story they need to tell, and the commercial considerations come later - or the writing is going to be notably lacking in passion. Goth culture and music are part of my composition, particularly their "outsider" point of view and their aesthetic vantage point. I don't expect all the books I write will be so infused with this genre (in fact the next project I'm writing has no traces of it), but it's incredibly gratifying to work the genre into the Suburban Strange series. Of course there are readers who don't respond to that, and I do try to keep those elements at a reasonable proportion so readers can gloss over them if they desire. But I've gotten some great messages from goth kids who can't believe their music is right there in the books, and from kids who checked out some of the music for the first time and enjoyed it. That makes me very happy.

Is there a demand for YA books that fall somewhere off the typical path? I'm tempted to turn that question around and say only that if a book is a success, and it introduces some sort of new path in YA, then maybe it created that demand. I believe all great books are in some way "strange" - they make us look at the world differently, or hold us at bay, forcing us to conform to their rules. That might be an excessively literary answer, but think of how many great YA books you've read that changed the rules in some way. If they didn't, you're just reading another version of a book you already know.

FL: What's your writing schedule like? How do you fit in writing with your day-to-day work, and is that schedule regimented?

NK: My writing schedule really varies. As an author fortunate enough to be getting things published, there's a lot of project management required: you're simultaneously promoting the book that's out, preparing the book that's going to come out, and working on the next book you hope to get into the pipeline for publication. The balance shifts from week to week. There was a lull this summer before the paperback and hardcover releases this fall, and I made a lot of progress with my next project. These next few months are going to emphasize publicity a lot more. But I do get cranky if I go through a day without scribbling at least a little bit.

FL: Is there anything (or about a billion things) you've learned during the publishing process that you didn't know before you'd written your first book? What are some of the major lessons that you've learned, and what would you impart on folks undertaking a writing project?

NK: Wow, there's so much. But I'm always hesitant to universalize my experience - agents operate differently, editors operate differently, publishing houses operate differently, and projects are handled differently. I can say this: I believe strongly in the core concept of traditional publishing, in which an editor shepherds a project through a refinement process that makes it stronger and more polished than it would have been otherwise. I suppose there are any number of valid criticisms that can be made of traditional publishing, but the bottom line is that I have stronger books going onto shelves because the traditional route has served me very well. I won't discount other routes; the traditional route is the only one I know.

To folks undertaking a writing project: First, follow your passion and don't give a single thought to publishing or the market until you have satisfied your bliss as a writer. When you are finished with that phase and can step back and stop viewing your project as your child or your lover, that is the time to consider its commercial potential. Set your expectations low, so they can be easily exceeded: before you query a single agent, you must be at peace with the possibility that no one may take interest in your project. If you get an agent, you must be at peace with the possibility that she may not be able to sell your project. When your agent (and hopefully, your editor) ask for changes, remember that they are professionals whose income is directly tied to the strength of your work. Of course there are lines you will not cross, but the vast majority (if not all) of the suggested changes will not be that radical - I promise. The better you get at separating yourself from your work - taking criticism of your work and not hearing it as criticism of you - the better off you'll be, and the better you'll do in publishing. (That is just me rambling - I'm sure I'll think of other great advice in ten minutes...)

Rapid-fire round! 140 characters or less:

FL: From whom would you rather take an art class, and why: Bob Ross or Claude Monet?

NK: Claude Monet - he might not be as chummy as Bob, but he changed the way the world sees, and that's an astonishing thing.

FL: What's the scariest book you've ever read, or the scariest villain you've found in literature?

NK: William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist - scared the honk out of me. Scariest villain... Maybe O'Brien in Orwell's 1984.

FL: Favorite spot to go on vacation (and what book you would pack next time you go):

NK: I'm always torn between Paris and Rome, but I'd give Paris the edge. I think I'll go against trend and take Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

FL: You found out you got nominated for a Pulitzer! How would you celebrate?

NK: My goodness - I'd settle for a Printz! :) A brut rose and a reception at Blue Hill in NYC - my favorite restaurant.

FL: If Pull Down The Night was a mixed drink (alcoholic or otherwise), what would it be?

NK: Since it's a YA, I'll go non-alcoholic: cranberry tea (Liz serves it at First Night in The Suburban Strange).

FL: Who would play the major characters in the movie version of your books?

NK: So hard! Celia: Nina Dobrev at fifteen. Cassandra: Christina Hendricks or Candis Cayne. Mr. Sumeletso: BD Wong in his twenties.

FL: Which bands or artists, new or old, would be featured on the movie soundtrack?

NK: Chameleons, Cocteau Twins, Book of Love, Killing Joke, Shriekback, Faith & The Muse - all name-checked in The Suburban Strange.

FL: What is the purpose of literature & writing: to entertain or to teach, or both?

NK: Absolutely both - but I'd go a step further: to help us understand ourselves and the world around us.

FL: If your book series could receive a corporate sponsorship from a big famous company (think Nike or Coca-Cola), who would you choose?

NK: I'd go with Bottega Veneta - I know, not so big/famous, but anything that increases my chances of wearing their clothes...

FL: Think about the best mixtape you've ever gotten: what made it so great?

NK: I've received some epic mixtapes in my life, but the common denominator is curation: the gifter really made a beautiful collection.

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