I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with Alexandra Bracken — author of the gripping and adventurous Darkest Minds trilogy — on May 1st at the YALLWEST book festival in Santa Monica, California. Her newest novel, Passenger, is the first in a duology about time travelers.
Have you been sorted into your Harry Potter Hogwarts house on Pottermore?
I have been sorted. The first iteration of Pottermore said I was Gryffindor, and the second iteration said I was Slytherin. I don’t know what I am. I feel that if anything I’m a Gryffin-claw. Everyone says you have to choose to be Gryffindor, and that’s part of it, so maybe I’m just going to choose to be Gryffindor.
In The Darkest Minds there are superpowers labeled by color. What color would you be?
I would really like to be a Blue because I am really lazy and it is sort of like the Jedi power. You can call things to you and push things away. The other colors come with too many problems, like Red with fire starting. Green is also really nice because it’s supercharged intelligence, and who doesn’t want that?
Did you always know what you wanted to do?
Yes. When I was in third grade, I just had this epiphany where I was just like, “I want to write. I want to write books.” There were two prongs to it. First, that was when I started reading Roald Dahl books, and for some reason I just really clicked with his writing style. His books were darkly humorous. Second, my third grade teacher was the first teacher that had us do any sort of creative writing. We wrote short stories about whatever we were learning in class. At the time it was about the solar system, and I wrote a short story about how mercury moves so fast around the sun. She had us illustrate it, and then she bound it with staples, cardboard, and contact paper. I was kind of obsessed with having this little book creation that I made. So I’ve always known. I think my mom still has it. Instead of writing “the end” I wrote “d n” because I thought that was what it was. She was shocked my teacher never corrected me.
I was just kind of obsessed with it, and I knew I only ever wanted to write books for kids. I think because I had so much fun reading when I was that age. I’ve always wanted to sort of somehow replicate that experience on the writing side, even though I tend to write a little bit older than I thought I would.
What is your favorite Roald Dahl book?
That is a good question. The Witches scares me, but I think that’s why I like it the most. The BFG was the first one I read. I don’t know. I like them all in different ways. Actually, if I had to pick, it’s probably James and the Giant Peach.
Was there a time when you struggled to write or felt like it wasn’t right or it was too scary?
I am constantly afraid, but I think fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you are writing. It’s just when you let fear get in the way of your writing, that’s what’s bad. I think if you’re not a little scared, you’re not pushing yourself enough. You’re not pushing to try something new or something that hasn’t been proven before. I constantly have self-doubts. I think all authors do, and if they don’t, they are egomaniacal monsters or something. I don’t know. I think everyone has their moments of: “Is this working? Is anyone going to read this? Is anyone going to like it?” When I was first starting out and I decided to really go for it and try to write novels, I got rejected by… I think every agent in the business at least once. I feel like it was probably between 50 and 60 agents. It really was like everyone at the time. This was in 2007–2008. Now it’s a little bigger, so there are more agents that could have rejected me. It was really disheartening, and you kind of have to always go back and remind yourself that what you love most is the writing itself. It’s not being published; it’s the process of writing vs. the end result.
What was your process of becoming a published author? How did that happen for you?
I was in college and I did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because being a freshman in college wasn’t stressful enough. I decided I was going to try it. I just became obsessed with it. I really figured out how to work it into my routine. I was a History and English major, so there was a lot of reading and writing, but somehow I made it work. I wrote one book in college and sent it to every agent. They all hated it. They all rejected it. So for maybe six months I didn’t write anything, and I was kind of like, “I want to write something. I miss it.” I thought that I would write a book for my friend Carlin, who had really helped me edit the first failed shelf book that will never see the light of day. I thought I’d write a story for Carlin’s birthday. I’d write her a book to thank her. She said she liked my writing, although in retrospect, I think she was probably just being a good friend by saying that. So I started writing this book for her, and that was the first book that I queried and sold, which is Brightly Woven.
I got an agent on my 21st birthday, which is kind of funny. When I found out, I was out at a restaurant, and I had two of my friends with me. There is a picture of me online where I am just screaming after I hang up the phone. I’m wearing a really tragic red headband in it in case you want to Google. I’m next to my friend Carlin who is also excited.
From there I really worked on revising that book with that agent, and we revised for like five to six months. It was a really long time, and she sold it, and then she left the business. So I got a new agent within the same agency. I graduated and could not live off of my writing income, so I went to New York to work in publishing, and I worked on The Darkest Minds for the first year and a half that I was there, and the rest is history.
What is your writing style?
I am a headlights plotter. I feel like that’s what everyone says now, but it’s like I know the main story beats, and then I go back because if I know every single thing that’s going to happen I get bored. I guess I want to be surprised. I want to have the flexibility to be like “actually this would work better” and not think it’s going to mess up the flow of the story. So I write the main beats, and then before I sit down to write the specific scene or at the end of writing each day, I will outline the next scene I’m going to write. By headlights, I mean that I only actually outline and plot in so far as the next chapter basically.
Do you have any writing tips?
To help keep your momentum, the trick I always use is always either outline the next scene after I am done writing for the day, like I just jot down a few bullet points so I don’t lose my train of thought, or instead of reading I’ll take like five minutes out of my night to start writing out the next scene. If I can sit down at my computer and type that bit out, it’s somehow easier, at least for me, to keep rolling through.
What would you tell your high school self?
Dear 16-year-old Alex, Star Wars will rise again from the ashes. It’s okay that you don’t have a boyfriend because you have more important things to do with your life. Just don’t give up. Actually, the main thing I would tell myself, all jokes aside, is to not be so hard on yourself. I have a very bad perfectionist history, where it’s not even so much that I’m constantly trying to manage and constantly reworking, it’s all related to self-esteem. If I feel like I mess up or feel like I look like an idiot, I can’t let go of that feeling. So that was really hard for me to get through as a teenager and even as I went to college. I was so focused on dressing the right way and presenting myself the right way. It just doesn’t matter. Just be yourself. Just be yourself, Alex!
What was your favorite book in high school?
The book that I ended up loving, that I never thought I would and the book that still really inspires me as a writer, is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I didn’t really read a lot of YA because when I was a young adult, even when I was in high school, it really was kind of like a YA desert. There were a couple of stand out books, like I remember reading Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, but like, I can’t remember anything else that I read in YA because it wasn’t what it is today, so there was no like easy access into it. The Things They Carried is such a beautiful book. It was honestly the book that convinced me that writing could be very emotional, beautiful, and meaningful.
A current book recommendation?
If you haven’t read it yet, I have to shout out to my buddy: Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch. It is like the most amazing high fantasy story, if you are into that sort of thing. It’s all about girl power and friendship. There are even more ships than are in my books. I don’t mean relation”ships” — actual physical tall ships. It’s so well plotted, and it’s just a beautiful story.
What are your Bright Places?
When I lived on the East Coast, my bright place was when I would come home. I’m really close to my family. The best feeling in the world is if you live far from your family and you are finally coming home after six months or a year and you see your family. It’s that moment that you see them in the airport. That moment is the ultimate best feeling in the world.
I love Arizona. I just moved back, and I feel very good and comfortable there. There is a place my family used to go in Flagstaff that we had a cabin at, and we finally had to sell the cabin, but I have so many beautiful memories from that time.
Wayfarer, the sequel to Passenger is coming soon!
Yes. Wayfarer comes out January 3rd! It comes out so early next year. I just turned in my big revision of it, which I am excited about. It’s going to be really fun. The nice thing about it is that with Passenger you have to go through so much worldbuilding — with time travel you have to lay it all out, otherwise there are too many inconsistencies and paradoxes — but with the second book now I can just kick off the action and it goes and goes and goes. It involves a lot of fun stuff, like an alternate history because the timeline gets a little shaken up at the end of Passenger. So I get to show the actual ramifications of what happens when you meddle with time and try to make adjustments and changes. I’m really excited for you guys to read it.
Do you have anything planned next?
I have a middle grade project. I’m going to jump back down to middle grade. It’s my first time since I published my Star Wars book. It’s sort of a story about a Kennedy-esque family who founded their small town, and in order to do so, as the young hero discovers, they basically made a deal with a demon. When they tried to break it during the Salem Witchcraft trials, he vowed to come back, reborn in one of their descendants. Unfortunately for the main character, that is him. It’s actually really funny. It sounds super dark, but it’s more like The Spiderwick Chronicles meets Hocus Pocus. It has that sort of tone.
After that I am working on plotting out another YA. It is sort of my take on Hades and Persephone, and it’s not a romance because I do not believe that is a romantic story. It’s set in a post-technology world. It might involve some ecological disasters, so it’s a little bit more in line with The Darkest Minds series than Passenger. So if that was more your jam, I am coming back to the darkness, don’t worry.