Interview with Amy Huntley

Welcome to the continuing series of interviews with the authors who are on’ the 2010 Morris Award Shortlist. Today we have Amy Huntley, author of’ The Everafter.

theeverafter_webThe Morris Award Committee on The Everafter: “Maddy is a ghost, surrounded by things she lost when she was alive. By touching these objects, she relives the episodes in her life where she lost them. Even though Maddy’s dead, she explores the lessons these objects hold — and why are they still important.”

YALSA Blog: Congratulations on The Everafter being on the Morris Award shortlist!’ Where were you when you found out you’d been shortlisted for the Morris Award? And who was the first person you told?

Amy Huntley: My editor called early in the day and left a message saying she had good news about The Everafter, so I hurried home from school to find out what it could possibly be. I truly had no idea that it would be this!’  I checked my email while trying to call my editor and she had sent an email about the subject in case we had trouble connecting.’  So I was actually sitting on my couch, looking at my laptop screen at the time I learned that I had been shortlisted. Then my phone call to my editor went through and we talked about it. I was ecstatic—on top of surprised! I felt incredibly honored to have been chosen as a Finalist for this award.’  My husband was the first person I told about the news. Followed by…my agent, parents and sister and…the whole rest of the world!’ 

amy huntleyYALSA Blog: Ghosts and physics in one book! What inspired such a rational, scientific approach for a ghost story?

Amy Huntley: In college I took a class called “Physics for Poets.” I found the class fascinating, but terrifying as well. The thought that there might not be a god, that everything came down to this random event called The Big Bang, fascinated me in a horrifying way. What if I really was nothing more than matter and energy? What if that meant I’d spend eternity floating around in the universe alone? This notion nagged at me for years. Then one day, in the teacher’s lounge, my colleagues were talking objects they’d lost. One of them said in a very offhand way, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if all those things showed up after you were dead? Just when you couldn’t use them?” I noticed immediately the potential for a story within that idea. The comment was the spark that generated a fusion between my interest in the poetic ramifications of particle physics, Emily Dickinson’s poetry (I am after all an Engligh teacher, and don’t seem able to escape that!) and a ghost story with the potential for time travel to be involved. I admit, too, that I set out to intentionally go some places with a ghost story that I’d never seen one go before, and my scientific interests helped me do that. By far, the coolest thing that happened to me while writing this book was the integration that occurred between my scientific and spiritual sides.

YALSA Blog:’ Lost objects allow Maddy to find times in her life she can relive. At one point in reading the story, I began thinking about deliberately losing things, just in case The Everafter‘s ghost theory is accurate. How did you decide what items Maddy would lose?

Amy Huntley: The answer to this is thoroughly unromantic: I made a list of all the things it seemed likely a girl would lose throughout her life. From that list, I then chose the ones that could have symbolic significance when paired with moments from Maddy’s life that would reveal how she might have died and who the people most important in her life were. This decision was based entirely on the pragmatics of storytelling.

YALSA Blog: The Everafter‘s story isn’t told in a linear fashion. Rather, Maddy revisits herself at various ages, in no real order. First she’s 17, and then 8, then 11, then 17, back to 11. By the end, though, it’s clear to the reader and Maddy that there is a reason behind when Maddy visits the “whens” in her life. How did you craft and keep track of the non-linear aspects of Maddy’s story?

Amy Huntley: I admit this was particularly difficult, but it seemed essential. The use of physics and science in the story required that there be some randomness to the order of Maddy’s experiences, but the conventions of storytelling also require that experiences in a novel come together in a cohesive way. To keep this all straight, I made a chart that had the event, object, age and insight of each vignette. I did need to re-sequence these events a few times, which often meant changing the insight that came with a particular event. Sometimes, I got stuck on a particular age and ended up doing many of the scenes from that time in a row. That required going back and working with the order. I also made a conscious decision to keep one strand of the story—Maddy and Gabriel’s romance—almost exactly chronological. I figured having one storyline be almost all in order would help readers deal with the chaotic order of the others. A near chronological sequence to their relationship also seemed necessary to the romantic tension between them.

YALSA Blog: Science figures in Maddy’s story, but so does poetry, particularly that of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Why Dickinson and Frost?

Amy Huntley: I’ve always been fascinated by Emily Dickinson’s poetry. It doesn’t just deal with death–it deals with death’s mysteries, and with the fluid joining of pain and joy in life. That was what I was going for in this book. I have to admit that once I decided to use her poetry, it helped to shape some of the ideas I used, especially poem 1732 in which she talks about life closing twice before its close and waiting to see if a third event will be unveiled in the future. In fact, when I first saw the cover of The Everafter, I said to my editor, Donna Bray, “I love the way there are two orchids on the cover to represent the two life experiences Maddy’s already had, and that there’s one closed bud to represent the third experience that she’s about to launch into at the end of the book.”’  My editor laughed and told me that was just an accident. It seemed to me to be a cosmic one!

Robert Frost made his way into the book because I love the way “Fire and Ice” hooks into the debate over whether the universe is infinitely expanding or likely to contract some day. I’ve also always appreciated the way he examines dilemma in “The Road Not Taken.” Maddy has to face a lot of dilemmas in the story. And even though the road she’s traveling is well traveled, she’s never traveled it, so it’s a frightening one for her. I thought references to that poem, for those who had read it, could emphasize her journey and the dilemmas she faces along it.

YALSA Blog: The Morris Award is for a “first time author writing for teens.” Why do you write for teens?

Amy Huntley: I love them. I’m a high school teacher, and I hope I never have to give up a classroom full of teenagers. I can’t imagine writing for any other audience besides kids. Perhaps I’m an example of arrested development, but it seems the adventures teens face can be excruciating, and—at least for me—their effects can linger for a lifetime. Everything in a teen’s life is so immediate. Life itself is a true adventure during the teen years, and it’s crammed full of important choices.

YALSA Blog: One thing I’ve heard authors say is that in revising and editing, they have to “kill their darlings,” that is, remove parts of the book they really love but that just don’t work or belong in the final book. Is there any particular scene or character you had to “kill” from The Everafter?

Amy Huntley: Because The Everafteris nonsequential, I wanted to keep it fairly short. I tried to only include the most essential scenes for developing my main ideas and storyline. This meant that in the final hours of revision I was actually adding scenes and characters, rather than subtracting them.’  There were scenes that needed to be shortened, and sentences that needed to be more concise, but I never had to cut a character or scene I’d created. However, there was an idea that my editor asked me to remove, an aspect of Maddy’s personality. I grieved a little in letting go of that, but was eventually able to move forward with the change because it truly was in the best interest of the book. Now with my next book….I anticipate there will be a lot more cutting!

YALSA Blog: What are you working on now?

Amy Huntley: I’m working on a second book—no relation to The Everafterthat will be published by Balzer and Bray. It examines how the pursuit of perfection often gets in the way of our ability to create genuine relationships with others. This novel is less serious than The Everafter. I needed a bit of a break from examining life and death issues.

YALSA Blog: What three books do you think are must-reads for teens?

Amy Huntley: What a tough question this is. In fact, it’s so tough I’m going to cheat in answering it. As a classroom teacher, I’m always attempting to put books in kids’ hands. I keep hundreds of them in my classroom because no one book works for every kid. I want to encourage teens to read what addresses their needs during these difficult, transitional years. There are, though, particular authors that I frequently turn to first when trying to find the right book for the right kid. Among the YA authors are Laurie Halse Anderson, John Greene, Chris Crutcher, M.T. Anderson and Suzanne Collins.

Thanks so much for interviewing me. I’m especially grateful to the Morris Award Committee for singling out The Everafter as a title on their shortlist. This truly has added a new meaning to the word “surprise” in my life experiences, and I appreciate being given the opportunity here to let the committee know how much I appreciate their hard work.

YALSA Blog: Thank you!

About Liz Burns

Liz is the Youth Services Consultant for the New Jersey State Library's Library for the Blind and Handicapped. Liz is active in YALSA and in the YA Services Section of the New Jersey Library Association. She was a member of the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. Along with co-author Sophie Brookover, she wrote Pop Goes the Library: Using Pop Culture To Connect With Your Whole Community, published in 2008 by Information Today. Liz blogs at Pop Goes the Library (www.popgoesthelibrary.com) and Tea Cozy (yzocaet.blogspot.com). She holds an MLIS from Rutgers University, SCILS, and a JD from Villanova Law School, Villanova University. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is her favorite television show. Ever. Her favorite book is... well, it's impossible to pick just one. Or two. Or ten.
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