With Buffy the Vampire Slayer long off the air, feminist fans of paranormal romance have had it rough. Enter novelist and agent Lindsay Ribar. Her debut young adult novel, The Art of Wishing, introduces Margo, an ambitious, down-to-earth heroine and Oliver, her gender-bending genie love interest. Ribar’s conceit may be fantastical, but her execution is both realistic and utterly engaging. She spoke with Our Town about the popularity of paranormal romance, offered tips for writers and kept it classy on the subject of Twilight.
Our Town What makes a book YA?
Lindsay Ribar The answer seems to change on a daily basis, especially since it's still considered an up-and-coming genre. A few years ago, I might have said that YA novels have more simplistic story lines than adult ones, or that they involve a coming-of-age element, or that the voice seems younger and/or tamer. But none of those things is universally true. Not even close. So I'll say that YA novels need to have a teenaged protagonist.
OT To what do you attribute our current cultural interest in paranormal romance?
LR If we're talking specifically about YA paranormal romance, I think it has a lot to do with magnifying (and entertainmentifying) the feelings of otherness that a lot of people have in their teen years. You know: in reality, we think things like "I'm fatter than everyone else" or "I'm nerdier than everyone else" or "I don't like the music that everyone else wants me to like," but in PNR stories, those things become "I have magical powers that I must keep secret" or, well, "My genie boyfriend is being hunted by his evil genie ex-boyfriend and nobody understands how I feel." Everything is bigger; everything is life-or-death. But that's on a metaphorical level. On a literal level, I think it's just really fun to read about magic.
OT I loved that you commented on the popularity of paranormal romance in your book. Why did you make that choice?
LR Mostly because I wanted to ground The Art of Wishing in the real world-- and if you're a teenager (or anyone else, for that matter) in the real world today, you're going to have an awareness of all those stories. Margo, my narrator, has probably seen at least one Twilight movie (likely against her will), and she's probably read Cassandra Clare and seen True Blood on TV. So she has that context-- and the fact that she comments on being "one of those girls" is just taking that context one step further, into the land of self-awareness.
OT How did define the rules of the world you created--in terms of how magic works, etc?
LR My version of genie mythology grew around the first draft of The Art of Wishing, mostly because there were certain things I wanted to do with Oliver, my genie character, and I could only do them if the rules of his magic meshed with the rules of his personality in a certain way. (For example, genies must truthfully answer all questions posed by their masters, and there are painful consequences if they don't. It takes a very specific sort of personality not to resent a rule like that. And Oliver doesn't resent it. He doesn't even mind, and even likes it sometimes. What does that say about him?) Once I had the groundwork of the mythology, I used a little method called Taking Advantage Of My Friends. I'd literally sit people down, lay out the rules of the magic I was writing about, and ask them to poke logic-holes in it, whereupon I would fill said logic-holes with more rules. It was really fun -- or, I should say, it is really fun, since I'm still doing it with books two and three.
OT Writing The Art of Wishing, did you outline? How much did you know about your plot when you began?
LR Before I started writing, I mapped out the first few chapters of the book in my head -- right up to the point where Margo and Oliver, my narrator and my genie, meet for the first time. The story was going to be about their relationship, so I figured as long as I could get them into the same room, I'd be golden from that point on, right? Yeah, not so much. I'm definitely one of those "characters first, plot later" writers, so I pretty much made up the story as I went along. I knew certain midpoints that I wanted to hit, and I knew how I wanted it to end, but I didn't know how I'd get there. There's definitely something exciting about not knowing what's happening until your characters know -- but it also means there are a lot of wrong turns along the way.
OT At what point did you realize you were writing a trilogy?
LR About halfway through the first draft of The Art of Wishing, when my thus-far-unsuccessful attempts to flesh out my villain, Xavier, coincided with a comment that my friend made. Something about how the cultural perception of magic has shifted over time -- the kind of magic that includes things like superstition, religious ritual, etc. How fewer and fewer people nowadays (especially in modern American culture) treat magic as a fact of life, and how that evolution of perception correlates pretty evenly with scientific advancements and such. Makes sense, right? But what if it wasn't our perception that shifted over time, but instead the actual, literal presence of magic in the world? What if there's less magic now than there used to be, and our perceptions have just compensated?
That conversation unsettled me, since by that point I'd already grown pretty confident in what I was writing about. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really wanted to write about that -- about disappearing magic -- and that a genie story was the perfect place to do it. It gave my villain context, and it widened my fictional world. And then I realized that I wouldn't possibly be able to do it all in one book. And I went, "Oh, crap."
OT Who is your favorite character in The Art of Wishing?
LR Oliver, hands down. Don't get me wrong; I love Margo, and I have a ridiculously large soft spot for Xavier, my villain -- but Oliver's been the heart of this story ever since I first thought about writing a genie book. I wanted a magical character whose life is basically defined by the boundaries of his magic, but who doesn't mind living that way. Who might, in fact, be happier living that way. And so, Oliver was born: an easygoing, eager-to-please sort of guy, content to define himself in terms of what his masters want to use his magic for. [But] scratch the surface even a little, and you find questions like “Why does he keep everyone at arm’s length?” and “Why doesn’t he just run away and hide, since he could literally die if he doesn’t?” Answering those questions opened up new layers of character for both me and Margo to deal with, and what does that lead do? More surface-scratching, and more questions with more answers. That’s the real reason he’s my favorite. Because I don’t think I will ever fully figure him out.
OT What’s your writing process like?
LR Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, tea within reach. That's how I write. But as far as the building of stories goes: I'm one of those people who spends ages on a first draft, because it's hard to keep myself from editing as I go along -- which, in turn, is because I like editing far more than I like drafting. I could edit for eons. Which is lucky, because in the publishing business, that's exactly what they want you to do.
OT How does your work as an agent relate to your work as a novelist?
LR My work as an agent is largely editorial: reading books by clients and potential clients, with an eye toward whipping them into shape so I can show them to editors. And I love the editorial process just as much from the note-giving side as the note-taking side, largely because each informs the other. Looking critically at other writers' work is great for distancing myself enough from my own writing that I can look at it through a more objective lens.
OT Any tips for novelists looking for an agent?
LR 1. Don't start looking for an agent until you have a complete, polished manuscript to show.
2. Do your research; you don't want to send your awesome YA epic fantasy to an agent who's only looking for nonfiction, you know?
3. Learn how the publishing industry works. This is the kind of business where you're better off if you know what you're getting into. I recommend Nathan Bransford’s blog as a starting point.
OT So, what do you think of Twilight?
LR That depends. Do you want the diplomatic answer of someone who enjoys seeing books make money, or do you want the feminist rant? I'll, uh, go with the former. Let's just say I'm not the right reader for that particular series.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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