KA: I'm working on a novel, a love story about between a girl skater and an insanely great one...who happens to be a werewolf. I call it my "teenage skater werewolf" book, and everyone's amused by that, but it's true. It takes place during the height of the Reagan era near Chicago, around the outskirts of the punk and skate scenes at the time. It would be shelved in the YA/fantasy section of a bookstore.
Because I wrote essentially a romance, I was really interested in the relationship between my two main characters, the process of bringing these two wary, self-contained, reserved people and discovering why they fall in love and what keeps them drawn together, and how their love for one another fits into their larger arcs as people. My main character had been so emotionally self-sufficient, so almost impenetrable, that she needed the mystery that was central to my skater werewolf to intrigue and draw her out -- and she needed to find someone whose nature was inherently expressive, volatile and passionate to provoke that in her as well. And as I wrote, I realized that I was writing a love story that took place between two essential equals -- that both of them become intrigued and attracted to one another because of an innate respect they have for one another's talents and strength. That was really great to write and explore.
RQD: What artists were you thinking about in relation to this work?
KA: I am definitely influenced by music; for this particular project, music was definitely the strongest non-literary influence, particularly the very early alternative era in the late 80s, just when that subculture was beginning to emerge. Stuff like the Replacements, New Order, the Smiths, early R.E.M., but also records on SST and stuff like Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys. I was also really influenced by the photography of Ari Marcopoulos, who has shot skaters in a really lyrical, poetic, almost dreamy way over the years. That was a feel that I tried to capture in my writing and in the visuals I had in my head.
I'm a filmmaker as well (I have my MFA in screenwriting and directing) and that's a big influence on me always. For this novel, I referenced "River's Edge" a lot, for the time period and a kind of strange teenage Reagan-era nihilism, a fascination with darkness in places that seem to have nothing to offer for the people who live there. I also was inspired by Lynne Ramsay's films a lot, particularly "Morvern Callar," especially in reference to a very silent, very self-contained character. My main character isn't catatonic, but she is quiet and inward-looking, and I looked to the Samantha Morton character to see how to dramatize that a bit. I looked at old episodes of "Headbanger's Ball" and "120 Minutes" and early issues of "Sassy" as well, just as a touchstone for pop culture. (All those old Maybelline and Natural Wonder makeup ads really pulled me back!) I also did my best to recreate a top 40 radio station from 1988 on Pandora: Madonna, Belinda Carlisle, Motley Crue and Depeche Mode was the magical combination.
My werewolf is an artist, and I imagined his work a bit like Egon Schiele's, so I looked a lot at his paintings and sketches a lot. I think something of Schiele's darker, slightly sinister eroticism got into my novel, albeit in a very muted way. And it's not an artwork, really, but the Midwestern landscape -- epic stretches of horizon, rolling fields, stark forests intercut with streams and rivers -- is a really big influence on me.
RQD: What books do you return to over and over?
KA: I actually tend to re-read books often; I like to read my favorite books at least once a year. I think I do it not just for the stories, but because they keep me in touch with the things that made me fall in love with words and reading and books and stories in the first place. But there are definitely some stories that you read again and again that seem to reveal something new about themselves with each reading. For me, it's The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. One's a truly splendid Arthurian/witchy fantasy epic, the other's a decorous yet spiky epic of psychology, but I never get tired of being in those worlds with those people.
RQD: What are you reading now?
KA: I'm working my way through Emile Zola's work this summer; I just finished The Ladies' Paradise, which I loved as a window into the beginning of consumer culture in 19th century Paris, and I'm on L'Assommoir right now. Zola's such a master of action and setting; he would've been a filmmaker if he'd been alive now, his scenes have such movement in them, and they're so dense with detail: the way he describes gestures, fabrics, expressions is so rich. On a less antiquated tip, I also have A Game of Thrones going! High fantasy is kind of my guilty pleasure. And I'm wending my way through St. Lucy's School for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell and it's so truly marvelous.
RQD: What were you reading as a kid? How did those books impact the writing you do now?
KA: The books I read a lot as a kid were big, epic fantasy stories that transported me to a whole different world, made me feel big, wide emotions, and made me believe that I, too, could save my kingdom, travel time or restore peace to the world. Robin McKinley's "The Hero and the Crown" and her Beauty and the Beast retelling were particular favorites, and I also loved "A Wrinkle in Time." That book was one of the first that truly transported me as a kid. I remember being profoundly disappointed that you couldn't tesseract in real life! Like, seriously, totally broken-hearted! I also loved mythology, and would check out D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths and the one on Norse Myths from the library all the time. I also really, really loved Little Women. If I was a kid now, I'm pretty sure the His Dark Materials trilogy would be my favorite thing ever.
My early reading definitely had a huge impact on the writing I do now. It sounds weird, but I felt this strange internal pressure for so much of my writing life to be more "literary," and being an Asian-American, another strange pressure/guilt for not doing work that was more Asian-American or somehow dealing with that aspect of my life. I would try and try and try in my fiction to write something that I felt I should be doing, and of course, that never works. In the end, I looked at the books that I truly loved, the books that I felt had a hand in shaping something of my spirit and sparking my imagination, and they were the fantasy and sci-fi books I loved as a kid, and stuff like William Gibson, Francesca Lia Block, Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman now. It was like a big, obvious wake-up call of where my heart truly wanted to go. Those are the kind of stories that gave my imagination wings as a child, and that's what keeps me going now.
Photo: Ari Marcopoulos "No Cause"