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Scott Westerfeld on writing his novel-within-a-YA-novel 'Afterworlds'

Scott Westerfeld on writing his novel-within-a-YA-novel 'Afterworlds'
In author Scott Westerfeld's new book, "Afterworlds," the protagonist writes a novel at 17 during National Novel Writing Month and gets a two-book contract. (Anna Fischer / Simon & Schuster)

Darcy Patel, the protagonist of Scott Westerfeld's "Afterworlds" (Simon Pulse: 640 pp., $19.99, age 14 and up) writes a novel at 17 during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that lands her a two-book contract. But it comes with unforeseen problems: The book advance eliminates her school's financial aid, and she can't see a way to balance college and a looming book deadline anyway. She moves to New York City instead, where she meets a group of  debut novelists, the so-called "sister debs," and falls in love with older and more experienced novelist Imogen.

Westerfeld, best-known for the "Uglies" YA science fiction series and steampunk trilogy "Leviathan," cleverly alternates between the straightforward story of Darcy's coming of age and the paranormal romance she writes. Her novel features teenager Lizzie Scofield, who crosses into a ghost world after surviving a terrorist attack and falls in love with a handsome ghost who bears a striking resemblance to many Bollywood actors.

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Each enhances the other in ways a single narrative would not: The breathtaking pace of a paranormal page-turner is balanced with the emotional depth of a subtler, character-driven plot. Taken together, the two create a space in which canny readers can deduce even more about the parallels between Darcy's life and her art.

Westerfeld, who splits his time between New York and Sydney, Australia (the hometown of his wife, YA novelist Justine Larbalestier) spoke to me by cell phone while walking the streets of New York City.

How is Darcy Patel's paranormal romance novel different from a Scott Westerfeld sci-fi?

My version of that novel would probably have a little bit less paranormal romance and a little bit more action scenes. There are a lot of characteristics and tics of my writing that I tried to get rid of. For example, whenever I get into a tight narrative corner, I tend to have people jump off things. I have a lot of hoverboards and airships and people jumping off buildings and bungee jackets. Flight and falling are big themes in my work, so I made sure there was none of that in Darcy's story.

Editing the novel provides the structure for the rest of the story.

That's another metaphor for the book. While Darcy is revising, she's also growing up. Those are two very similar processes. When I finish a first draft, I often look back at first chapters I wrote and laugh at them. They're like pictures of yourself in middle school. You're embarrassed to see them. I was so formless! And my haircut was terrible! How did my parents let me out of the house like that?

Darcy wrote her first draft when she was a senior in high school, and she was a callow, callow youth. And now she's living on her own, and she's experiencing real love and knows everything as a real adult, so when she looks back on her first draft, it's one of her many humiliations.

Darcy herself is Indian but as a writer she chooses to make her protagonist a white girl. Was this a marketing decision on her part? Did she believe a white girl would have a more universal point of view?

She thought that the average reader of paranormal romances didn't get to see the kind of guys she was attracted to, these kind of Bollywood actors. To  make it even more universal, she made him attractive to a white girl heroine. It wasn't just about her wanting him, it was about everyone wanting him. She wants to validate her own desires by making them white desires, which is, of course, super problematic.

Darcy's novel is a straight romance, but when she moves to New York she falls in love with another writer, Imogen. When her friends try to pin down her sexuality by asking if she's attracted to women now, she says, 'I'm attracted to Imogen.'

That's the way a lot of people are. I think that she, as a reader of many paranormal romances, just defaulted to writing a straight romance without really being aware enough of her own sexuality to say, Hey, maybe I'm gay. It doesn't really look like that ever really occurred to her, which is an interesting position to put her in, especially when she's working on the book with Imogen, and she's modelling to a certain extent the relationship in the book on her relationship with Imogen.

Like Darcy and her girlfriend, Imogen, you and your wife, Justine Larbalestier, are both YA writers. Did you start off your life as a couple in different parts of your careers?

I had already written some adult novels, but we both had our YA debuts two or three years after we got married. We've both gone on tour together as the others plus-one. In November, we'll go on tour together because in Brazil we have same publisher, and France and Turkey…

How does [Darcy's fictional experience] contrast with your own experience  as a debut novelist?

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I was paid $7,500 for my first YA novel, so the stakes were not high. There were literally no number of sales that could have constituted an abject failure and blacklisted my name forever.

I realize the paranormal romance is supposed to be the part of the novel with non-stop suspense, but my moment of jaw-dropping horror came when Darcy and her sister create a budget in which they deduce she can pay $3,000 a month in rent in New York City on $50,000 a year.

I moved to New York when I was 21 or 22 as a graduate fellow. My income was $500 a month and my rent was $400 a month. Darcy has every two days what I had to last me a month. There was this constant rolling disaster of never having enough money and being ever more in debt. It's a classic tale of New York. She's hoisting herself more on her own petard more than most perhaps.

Darcy jokes that she will live on ramen, but she discovers even the ramen is expensive in New York City -- especially when it comes with delicious kale and pork belly.

Ramen is  a food that's super trendy and expensive right now, and also a signifier of poverty. Which is where Darcy lives. She's half poor because has no real job, and no real income past this one big windfall… but at the same time, she is living the dream and she is being a rock star.

And that's the plight of the first time novelist: You're as happy as you're going to be about the fact your book is coming out, but you are also as insecure as you're ever going to be. Your skin is so thin then that every two-star review on Amazon is an ice pick in your belly.  The difference between being a part-time writer and a full-time writer is like the difference between dating someone and living with them. Some of the romance is gone, but you learn things you'd never know just by dating.

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