In August, one of our teen reviewers got the chance to snag a Skype interview with Shannon Messenger, one of the authors who will be featured at our annual Pasadena Loves YA book festival on September 17. The two series under her name are the ongoing middle grade Keeper of the Lost Cities series and the newly completed YA series she’s here today to talk about, Sky Fall. Read on to learn all about it. (Any of her responses that contain specific spoilers will be preceded by a warning.)
SM: Shannon Messenger
HW: Hadley Willman (from the Teen Advisory Board)
HW: We’re here to talk about your newly completed Sky Fall series that finished with the release of Let the Wind Rise. Could you give us a quick rundown of the basic need-to-know facts of the series as a whole?
SM: Yeah! When you have to do that elevator pitch, I call it Last Airbender meets Twister with kissing. It’s basically about air elementals who are caught up in this big wind war that’s been going on for a while and that one of the main characters is very crucial to, even though he has no knowledge or training of his world. And then, of course, there’s a love story; it’s sort of a little bit of both. It’s not necessarily just a romance, but if you don’t like love stories, then it’s probably not the right book for you either. And I like to also point out that one of the funnest things about the series for me is that it’s a dude in distress. In this kind of book, a lot of the time it’s this hopeless female character who doesn’t have any powers or abilities and then meets this supernatural [male] character who then saves her over and over again. While I enjoy that story, I kind of wanted to do something different, so I flipped it and this time we have a guy who is just completely clueless and the girl who is constantly kicking his butt and saving him throughout the series, which is very fun to write.
HW: Fun to read, too. I read in the acknowledgements of the first book that there was just one idea for this series that kept you up at night and you couldn’t sleep so you just started writing. What was this idea?
SM: This is when you’re going to realize just how boring my dreams are. It was a word. I woke up with the word “windwalker” in my mind. I don’t know why but I did. From that point on, I could not stop thinking about it and every time I thought about that word, I would picture this teenage boy walking on the wind. I would picture Vane—at the time, I didn’t know his name—but I would picture him walking on the wind and I just kept thinking about him. Every song I would hear on iTunes, I would think, “That could be related to him!” Then the same thing happened with the female character; I realized that there would be a girl in the story and everything just made me think of her, too. It was specifically the word “windwalker,” which was the original title that I pitched the book to my editor under. She immediately said, “I love everything except the title, no, we’re not doing that title.” So I’m really good at titles.
HW: So you say that you originally came up with Vane before Audra, which is interesting because it seems like Audra is slightly more of a main character in the first book. Did you, at the start, just plan to have Vane or did she come along pretty quickly?
(SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t completed the Let the Sky Fall (book one), skip to the next question.)
SM: She came along very quickly. It’s funny, their characters really took shape from two songs. Vane, there was this song called “The Haunting” by Anne Berlin that was about being haunted by a girl. That came up not long after I had woken up and had this dream of this word and kept thinking about this boy. That song came on and it uses the word “wind,” which is probably why I gravitated toward it. The song is supposed to be about an ended relationship and you’re feeling haunted by it, but I kept thinking, what if he actually sort of was being shadowed by this girl? And then Audra came to me from a song called “Misguided Ghosts” by Paramore. And what was interesting is for some reason as soon as I heard it I knew not only was it the girl’s song, but I knew it was the girl at the end of her story, which if you’ve read Let the Sky Fall, then you know the decision that Audra makes at the end, and that was what fascinated me. I wanted to know: what would possess this girl to go through all of these things and yet still do what she does at the very end of the book? I wanted to write their story to that fitting point and I think that’s probably why to some extent the first book did focus so much on Audra because it was sort of like, I want to understand this journey that she goes on: she sort of gets everything she wants and then still does this slightly unexpected thing at the end but that also felt very inherent to her character because I knew she was going to do it before I even knew her. The first line of the song is, “I’m going away for a while.” I don’t usually give the title, because if you haven’t read the book, then it’s like, well, now you know the ending. I knew right away that that was Audra, and it was just sort of about piecing together how we got from Vane at the beginning of the story, wondering if he’s being haunted by this girl, to her at the end not really wanting to leave but knowing that she needs to leave for a little while. I was like, I want to write that story.
HW: Did you always plan to have two points of view?
SM: I went back and forth on it a little bit, just because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make the voices sound distinct enough. The very first thing that I woke up at four in the morning and wrote—it’s the very first chapter of Vane and the very first chapter of Audra, those two really really short little snippets. That’s what I wrote. I had those things in my head, I’d heard the song, it wouldn’t go away, and it was keeping me up so I finally just grabbed my laptop at four in the morning and wrote it down. They really didn’t change. I sent it to my friend to just sort of say, “Have I lost my mind here? This is YA, I’ve been writing middle grade, and it’s dual POV, first person, and I do third person, like what am I doing here? Please tell me if this sucks!” She wrote back and was like, “So, I want the rest of the book.” So I kept writing it. I sort of was testing it out to see if the voices would feel distinct because there’s nothing more annoying than reading a book with two POV’s and you have to keep flipping back to go, “Wait, who’s talking in this chapter?” because they sound so similar. I didn’t want to do that. I was like, if I’m going to do dual POV, then I want it to be that you can know from the first sentence, even if we’re not seeing the name at the top of the chapter, exactly what character it is. Otherwise, I’d rather do third person.
HW: Were there any other significant differences between writing the Keeper series and Sky Fall?
SM: My big thing was obviously YA, middle grade, that kind of thing, but I really wanted to not have to invent the sylph world. I wanted the sylph world to just be among us, and yes, I had to write a little bit of the rules of their mythology and how their abilities worked and things like that, but I didn’t want to have to create cities and towns and things like that because I was already doing that for Keeper. I wanted to write a book where I didn’t have to spend an hour trying to figure out what they would eat, where they would just go, and have them eat somewhere that exists. They could go to In-N-Out and eat a cheeseburger and I didn’t have to spend an hour inventing a new food that they would eat. And it wasn’t just laziness; I just thought that it would be a fun challenge of trying to mix fantasy in with our world and make it believable where you would think, “Yeah, there could be a sylph in In-N-Out,” and you would buy that because that’s a hard sell, too. It’s strangely just as hard to sell that these magical beings were walking among us as it is to invent your own world.
HW: Do you have any general interest in mythology that led you to the sylphs and did you do a lot of research before expanding them into your own species?
SM: It’s actually funny. What drew me to sylphs is, while I was doing the research for Keeper, I have this book called the Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, and I’ve read every page in it because with Keeper, I knew I would be incorporating so many different creatures that I wanted to familiarize myself with everything that was out there. That was how I discovered sylphs, and what caught my attention about them was that it literally only had one sentence about them. It just said, “Sylph: an air elemental.” And it didn’t give any mythology or anything, and that appealed to me for two reasons. One, because the Keeper series is about elves which have a nightmare of mythology about them, like books and books and books, and here I was wrestling with that, trying to deal with the question of how do I incorporate this much mythology into a series? It was a really big headache for me and a creature that had zero mythology was just like, “Yay!” It was also cool because then it meant I could make up whatever I wanted. And the wind is something that has always fascinated me. I’m very much a nerd and I get fascinated by weird things like words and wind. The setting of the books is actually where I grew up, so growing up in the Coachella Valley, the wind is really weird there, and there were so many times where I would go out to check the mail and there would be one of those little dust devil, mini tornados in my front yard and it would stroll around for a second and then whisk away, and it would be like, “Why?” So the idea of somebody controlling the wind and somebody who could harness something that can be this amazing gentle breeze that feels so good on a hot day or that’s also a tornado that destroys an entire town, that was a fascinating idea because the wind is so dynamic that way. And I just loved that I would not have any existing lore about sylphs that I would have to try to incorporate. I could just say, you know what? I’ve decided that sylphs are this, and nobody could say, no, they read that they work at the North Pole like I had to deal with with Keeper.
HW: So you’ve said you didn’t necessarily want to have to invent the sylph world too much in terms of making it so separate from what already exists but you also did have to do a lot in terms of generalizing what exactly sylphs could do and some of the commands they issued to the winds. What was the process like to come up with some of those terms and rhyme schemes?
SM: It’s hard to say because the process of building the world for Keeper was so painful. It took like a year and a half, so everything by that account for Let the Sky Fall was like, “Oh, that’s easy,” even though it wasn’t necessarily. But it wasn’t the nightmare that was creating the Keeper world. I knew that I wanted each language of the wind to do something different. I knew that if I was going to have Westerlies be valuable, it was stupid to have it be that only Westerlies did something different and the other three did something else. I found that in things like Greek mythology, they would have a different god or goddess for each direction of the wind, so I started there, seeing what mythology existed for the wind and what things they generally attributed to the wind and then went from there. That was sort of my starting point, but it was a lot of little charts.
HW: When you first did come up with the idea of “windwalker,” did you know that you were going to expand it into a full-blown series or did you originally plan to cut it off somewhere early on?
SM: I always thought that it made the most sense for it to be a trilogy. It felt like the villain was too big of a villain to be taken down in one book. It’s one of those things where it’s like, the villain’s been tormenting this world for years and years and years, and then the teenager takes him down in one book? Oh, that was easy! I knew that it would probably take me three books to get the villain taken down in a way where it would feel like, “Yeah, okay, they really fought, they struggled.” I knew there would be three. At one point I felt like we should do just two, but then I would have to cut something out, so I decided to keep it at a three book arc.
HW: Were there any big developments, scenes, or character moments in the series that you knew from the beginning that you wanted to happen throughout the series?
(Slight spoilers if you haven’t finished Let the Sky Fall.)
SM: I knew that I wanted to have the character Solana, who is just sort of mentioned in book one. She comes in and plays a huge role in book three. I always knew I wanted that. I knew that I wanted to do more with Solana, but I wanted to be very clear that it wasn’t a love triangle. To me, what I define a love triangle as is where you’ve got one character who’s like, “I might love this one, but maybe I love this one, and I don’t know who I love!” To me, that’s a love triangle, and having more than one person is just real. We always are choosing from a variety of people and so I kind of wanted it to be that yes, there’s this girl that everyone is steering Vane toward, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a love triangle because he’s like, no. I wanted that complication there because it just made sense that their world would have this betrothal and everything and I found that idea really interesting, but I wanted it to be very clear that Vane doesn’t waver. He’s not like, “Gosh, she is kind of cute, and we do have a lot in common!” He just doesn’t want to be a jerk when he starts to realize that she’s actually a nice person and he feels bad for some of the crud that she has to go through because of him deciding to end their betrothal. But it’s not like he’s ever thinking, “Gosh, maybe I should go for Solana!” And that was really important to me, so it’s obvious that some people will go: one guy, two girls, love triangle! It is, but it isn’t, and that was something that I knew early on I was going to do. It was fascinating to me about the story to have that idea of, just because there’s another option, to me that feels more like it really does show how committed you are to the other person if you have this perfectly good other option but you’re like, “But I want her. That’s the one I’m choosing. That’s the one I want.” I wanted to be able to do that.
HW: I really liked that about the series. If you could choose one scene that was most memorable for you to write, which would it be?
(More spoilers for book one.)
SM: Probably the In-N-Out scene. I used that as an excuse to eat at In-N-Out quite a lot, which makes me sound like I do nothing but eat cheeseburgers. I really wanted to really capture what it’s like to be in California and be a teenager and where they would go on a date and that kind of thing. Then you add in the whole fact that Audra has been depriving herself for so long, so to have it be that her first meal in a really long time is this In-N-Out cheeseburger, it was way too fun for me. I kept saying, “I don’t know that I’ve captured this scene just right. Maybe we need to go to In-N-Out one more time so that I can really make sure that I’ve described the cheeseburger accurately.” Yeah, my job is hard, sometimes.
HW: A little bit more of a specific question. Are there any real-life counterparts or metaphors for some of the more dark and resounding parts of the story?
SM: I’m one of those authors who tends to be very light-handed with that kind of stuff. I mean, yes, there is deeper meaning that can be read into anything, but I think it’s because I despise those essay questions in English class, like “Tell me the meaning of the red curtains.” That wasn’t something that I particularly enjoyed, having everything over-analyzed, so I try to be more light-handed with that stuff actually and leave it more, what does it mean to you, to the reader? Because I just feel that the more I tell you what it means, the more I’m sucking any joy out of it, like those English classes I had that made me despise all literature because I had to pick it apart so deeply. It took me a long time. By the time I graduated high school, I only read if I was required to read because reading was no longer fun. So I try not to do that too much.
HW: Say that the Westerlies had originally always had it in their nature to give up the fourth language without a fight and technically the series didn’t happen and all the four winds had all along had their representatives. Which wind do you think would take more of a lead in that situation if the pressure wasn’t on for the last Westerly to lead?
SM: I feel like the Easterlies are the ones who probably are the most versatile; they’re powerful and they’re able to make the hard decisions and make the sacrifices, but they’re not as power-crazy as the Northerlies are. I feel like the Southerlies are a bit too laid back, and it would kind of be the equivalent of Italy. You know, if you’ve ever been to Italy, it’s just like, “Wow! It’s really relaxed here!” And you look down the freeway and you’re like, “I can’t tell, is that car’s driving in a lane or not?” That’s what it would be like if the Southerlies were in charge, and the Northerlies are kind of like Germany, and really rigid. Then you have the Easterlies that are a little bit more of an in-between for those two extremes. Honestly, I feel like the Westerlies, they aren’t really meant to be leaders. It’s just that at least they’re peaceful and so I think that’s kind of why I went the way I did with the end in the final book, which I won’t spoil. I really do feel like any of them alone aren’t necessarily better. I feel like you kind of need a little bit of all of them, but out of all the winds that I created, the Easterlies were the most versatile and could sort of do the most things and were the most balanced out of all of them, so if I had to pick one, I would say them.
HW: One last serious type question, and then I have some fun ones. Are there any possible plans for a short prequel or spin-off novel?
SM: I have thought about that. Short stories scare me because the Keeper series actually started as a short story, and if you’ve seen how long those books are and how many of them there are, I feel like I fail epically at short fiction. I have a feeling if I tried to write a short story it would end up becoming another series. As far as going on with it, it would just depend on if I felt I had a story worth telling. I always wondered if I would struggle to say goodbye, and it was a little sad to say goodbye. When I wrote those final chapters, it was like, “I’m never going to write these characters again!” But it also felt very much like their story was done and there really wasn’t something that I felt like, oh, I haven’t done this yet. There are a couple other characters like Aston and Solana that I haven’t done as much with that I could maybe someday try to write a short story with, but I fear that short story would turn into some sort of epic monstrosity of a beast of 700 pages like the Keeper series, so I have not started down that road yet.
HW: Are there any other books in the works?
SM: Let’s just say for all of next year and even into the year after that, my writing calendar is full, and I have some other middle grades under contract that I’ll be announcing soon.
(Her response here has been shortened to avoid spoiling the news before anything is officially announced before a set date, so check out her social media and her website in the coming weeks for announcements! Exciting things are happening!)
HW: Now for the fun questions. My first one is… which wind are you?
SM: I would probably be a Westerly, just because I’m pretty wimpy, and so any sort of fighting I feel like I’d be useless at. I feel like that would probably be me. If Westerly was out, I would probably be a Southerly. I’d just be like, “Why do we all care so much? Can’t we just go relax somewhere?”
HW: Would you ever consider making a Pottermore Sorting Hat-esque quiz for your website to help readers find their winds?
SM: It’s one of those things where I would love to; it’s just a matter of finding time. I would love to someday, but it’s on my list, and I get that with the Keeper series, too, because there’s all the different abilities. People ask, “Can you make a quiz?!” and I’m not good at writing quizzes and it would take me a while. But I hope someday I will have the time and I’ll have a good idea for how to make it not lame. Or maybe someone else will decide to make one for me and I’ll be like, “Go do theirs!”
HW: Which character would you say has the qualities that best reflect yourself in the series?
SM: I feel like Vane has my sense of humor without a filter on, like he sort of thinks and says things that I know better than. I feel like the way that Audra really internalizes everything and takes everything personally upon herself, I do think that comes from me. I’m the type who, I’d rather just step up and say, “I’ll do it, what do you need?” and that’s very much Audra to an extreme degree because of her guilt and everything. She’s very much “Let me do it, let me take it on.” I’m not good at asking people for favors; I’m more the type to say, “Just give it to me, I’ll do it!” I feel like she gets that from me.
HW: Are there any characters that are based on anyone you know specifically? Friends, family?
SM: I actually try really hard not to do that because I like to let bad things happen to my characters. If I’ve based them off of someone I know, then I have to worry if that person is going to get mad at me and wonder why I killed them off or let something horrible happen to them. If someone starts to remind me of somebody, I usually rethink the character a bit and shift it so that I won’t have that problem.
HW: There are a few characters like Gus and Solana that have gifts related to the wind, like enhanced strength or wind storage for later use in battle. What would your gift be if you could choose one?
SM: I would probably want enhanced strength, just because I’m really wimpy, like I can never even open the jar. I have to wait until my husband gets home. “Honey, can you open the jar?” So being able to just step outside and get some enhanced strength from the wind would come in really handy because I am totally a wimp.
HW: Me, too! And to finish off, just three words to describe the finale.
SM: Oh, boy. Three words to describe the finale. Do they have to be connected? (No.) Okay, so, surprising (1), and… I can’t think of anything to say that isn’t a spoiler, see what happens when you try to limit me with words? This is why I fail at short fiction! Extreme…?(2) And, gosh, I want to say something but that feels like a spoiler! Hopeful?(3)
HW: Perfect! Keep them guessing.
(We continued to talk for a minute about the cats running behind her in the background of our Skype call.)
Meet Shannon Messenger at Pasadena Loves YA 2016!