Last week I reviewed Melissa Keil’s YA debut Life in Outer Space, a contemporary with romance and comedy about the disadvantages of indulging in fiction because of the unpreparedness and inexperience in reality – well, that’s how I describe it, which fits with me perfectly. Life in Outer Space is also the first novel to come out of Hardie Grant Egmont’s Ampersand Project, out in stores in February. Today I welcome Melissa to the blog for an interview about her debut and writing.
I was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, and have been a giant book nerd for as long as I can remember. I studied Cinema and Anthropology at uni, and then spent a few more years studiously avoiding getting a real job by dabbling in a bunch of graduate stuff, including Professional Writing and Editing. In between I have been a high school teacher, Middle-Eastern tour guide, waitress, community theatre dogs-body, and IT help-desk person (hands down, my most unsuccessful job to date). Now, by day, I am a children’s book editor, and I spend most of the rest of my time reading, writing, and watching YouTube. My debut novel, Life in Outer Space, will be published in February 2013. It’s a young adult romantic comedy that combines some of my many loves – movies, music, karate, the Astor Theatre, Star Wars, and all things geek.
Q: What was your reaction when you discovered that the Ampersand Project decided to publish your novel? How does it feel to be the first to come out such a project?
I couldn’t quite believe it at first; I knew the strike rate for first time authors, and I was honestly expecting a standard thanks but no thanks letter. I was amazed to be called in for a meeting with Ampersand’s wonderful commissioning editor; a little stunned when she told me they were sending me a letter of offer for my book. Needless to say, I was pretty useless at work for a few days afterwards! It’s so incredibly humbling to know that they have such faith in the story, and that they have such affection for these characters as well.
Q: How long did it take you to write Life in Outer Space? Was the Ampersand Project the goal that you worked towards?
It took about four months to write the initial draft, and then another eight months or so of editing and reworking before I submitted it. I wasn’t working towards any particular goal when I started writing the novel; I really just wanted to write a story that I wanted to read. I was also really nervous about putting it out there, and was planning to just sit on it and fiddle for a few more months, even though I knew I had done as much work on it as I could on my own. But the Ampersand guidelines seemed like the perfect fit for the manuscript, so (after some prodding from my writing group), I took a shot and sent it in.
Q: Why Life in Outer Space?
Well, it wasn’t the original title! My editor and I decided quite early on that my title, The Camilla Carter Project, wasn’t working, but we really struggled to come up with something we both liked. We brainstormed for months, eventually narrowing down a shortlist that we were still both quite lukewarm on. When we hit on Life in Outer Space though, we both knew it was the right one. Apart from the fact that Sam is a huge Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica fan, for me, it encapsulates where he is at the beginning of the book – floating on the outskirts, not allowing himself to be anchored to anything in the world around him. It also, I think, captures something about the orbit-shifting nature of first love. And, it’s the title of a Grand Funk Railroad song – I’m a big fan of obscure trivia, and GFR are mentioned in passing in the beginning of the book.
Q: Where did the story idea for Life in Outer Space start for you? Were you inspired by anything in particular?
I was meeting my writing buddy in a café, where we usually met on Sundays to write. This Sunday, I decided to set aside the manuscript I had been struggling with and begin something new. I had been working on something quite big and ‘high concept’ (there were aliens involved), and I was really itching to write a smaller, funnier story. I had no idea what the new story was going to be, and spent an awful lot of time just staring at an empty word doc, but then I caught I glimpse of a poster advertising the Melbourne Horror Film Society, and the voice of my character, Sam, literally just popped into my head. I wrote the first chapter not really knowing where it was going, only that I really liked this guy and I wanted to explore his story.
Q: How much of Sam, Camilla, or any of the characters are based off of yourself or somebody that you know? (e.g., Sam’s screenwriting stemming from your studies in Cinema and Anthropology at uni.)
I guess there are little pieces of me and lots of people that I’ve cross paths with in all of the characters, but only fragments – I was always a film buff, but never really a fan of horror movies (until I started researching Sam – I’m a converted fan of the zombie genre now). I had never played Warcraft before, but some of my besties were huge fans, and so I ‘borrowed’ little pieces of knowledge from them. I may have also had a small crush on Luke Skywalker when I was a kid. But the wonderful thing about writing is that moment when your characters take on a life of their own; for me, Sam, Camilla, Mike, Allison and Adrian feel like real people in their own right.
Q: Did writing from a male perspective such as Sam’s hold any difficulties, particularly in relation to his interests?
Interesting question! There was a line in an earlier draft where Camilla responds to Sam’s incredulity about her Star Wars fandom by saying ‘boys don’t get dibs on all the cool stuff’. I’m a fan of lots of the same things that Sam is a fan of, but yes, I did have to do quite a bit of research for many of his other interests (I had never played WoW, for instance, but one of my best girlfriends had been playing for years so I was able to get a crash course from her). I approached writing male characters in the same way I would approach writing from the perspective of any character who isn’t myself; making choices about the way they would speak, and the way they would respond to the world around them, but also letting the characters evolve naturally. I guess the most difficult thing to write was the physicality of being in a boy’s body – but Sam always felt real to me, and I only hope that readers feel the same way.
Q: What do you nerdgasm or geek-fest over most of the time?
Oh, so many things! Really great writing and discovering new writers to love. Finding fabulous web series’ on YouTube. The next episode of The Walking Dead; the next season of Sherlock (so far away!) The list goes on…
Q: What’s next for you?
I’m working on new project, a YA contemporary , but it’s still very early days. I’m doing a lot of research on card magic and trying to master a spring shuffle – it feels like bad luck to talk about something that’s still a work-in-progress though! I’m getting to know some new characters, which is always fun and exciting.
Q: What advice do you have for young or unpublished writers who would like to get published? Are there any tips you have in shaping the manuscript so that it’s distinct from others when submitting for such a thing as the Ampersand Project?
I think it’s really important to write the story that you’re passionate about. If you’re serious about a career as a writer, then of course, reading everything you can get your hands on goes without saying, and understanding market trends and so forth is important; but trying to bend your writing to fit what you think publishers are looking for isn’t a great idea. Speaking as an editor who spent a bit of time immersed in the slush pile, it’s really obvious when someone has written something in a cynical attempt to be ‘on trend’. Passion and excitement for your story is really evident on the page – editors are just as excited about finding these sorts of stories, and will be willing to work with you to shape them. Find other writers who you trust to workshop your manuscript with and be sure that the version that you submit is the most polished it can be. I would also suggest having a good, succinct pitch for your book – if the editor whose desk it lands on likes it, there are still a lot of people in-house who they will need to sell it to – make it easy on them by giving them a great pitch.
Sam Kinnison is a geek, and he’s totally fine with that. He has his horror movies, his nerdy friends, World of Warcraft – and until Princess Leia turns up in his bedroom, he doesn’t have to worry about girls.
Then Sam meets Camilla. She’s beautiful, friendly and completely irrelevant to his life. Sam is determined to ignore her, except that Camilla has a life of her own – and she’s decided that he’s going to be part of it.
Sam believes that everything he needs to know he can learn from the movies … but now it looks like he’s been watching the wrong ones.
Jennifer from Hardie Grant Egmont has kindly offered to give away a finished copy of Life in Outer Space to one lucky reader from Australia and New Zealand. This giveaway will end at the end of next week (on February 10th).