Author: Ann Sei Lin
The Branford Boase Award judges loved your world-building in Rebel Skies and the way it also asks questions about identity and belonging. Where did the idea for the book come from and what was your starting point?
I like to tell people that it all started with a paper cut, but to be honest I’ve always been obsessed with paper. I think there’s something really poetic about turning something as fragile as paper into a source of strength, and I also really wanted to write a heroine like that – someone who was full of the kind of quiet steel that could sometimes take you by surprise. My starting image when writing Rebel Skies was of people who could construct these amazing but dangerous creatures out of origami and things sort of spun out from there.
What did you enjoy most working with Gráinne on the book?
Gráinne is an absolute gem of an editor! She has a great vision for every book that she works on and she really understands what it means to write for a young audience. If she ever stops being an editor, I think she’d be a wonderful cat-herder because she really knows how to corral my wilder ideas! Most importantly, I always feel like my concerns are being heard with Gráinne; I feel I can be honest with her about my doubts, fears, and frustrations. That kind of relationship with your editor, a relationship where you feel like you can be open and honest with each other, is really invaluable.
What do you think are the particular challenges for authors telling stories set in different worlds?
I think when you first start out constructing a world it’s difficult to know how much to keep and what to set aside. You have a whole world but only so many pages to introduce people to it. There’s a lot about the world of Rebel Skies that just never made it into the book – things like how the mechanical birds find their targets, the off-screen war in Estia, and details about the different sky cities. When I started out with my first draft it was difficult to know what was important information that the reader needed to know and what I could just cut. I think that this is something that just resolves itself as you write and come to understand where the focus of the plot lies, but in the beginning it can feel like a lot.
Do you have a favourite scene in the book? Can you describe it for us?
My favourite scene is quite early in the book, when Kurara encounters a shikigami for the first time. The floating banquet hall where she works has been attacked and she’s running down this spiral staircase to get away when an origami dragon just bursts out from the wall and the two come face to face. It’s a moment where Kurara gets to really look at the dragon, at the way it’s constructed and how the paper folds together to form it body. It’s a moment where she just goes ‘wow, this creature is really beautiful’ but also ‘Oh God, I’m going to die’!
What advice would you give to debut writers?
Build a support group around yourself. Nothing will destroy your self-esteem quite like publishing (ha, take that mum!) so it’s important to have people around you who will tell you that you’re not quite the failure you think you are. I don’t think I would have coped with my year of publication quite so well without my debut group of fellow authors cheering on my successes, commiserating my failures, and reminding me to take a break when I needed it. Writing is often a lonely and isolating experience, so it’s important to have others around you to keep you grounded.
Editor: Gráinne Clear
What was it about Ann’s writing that most excited you about her book?
The first draft of Rebel Skies immediately won me over with its combination of original world-building, brilliant plot, and its array of nuanced characters – as well the unusual and skilled combination of lyrical yet pacy writing. I was also struck by the complexity of plot that Ann had mapped out for all three books in the series, the intricacies and uniqueness of the world, and the emotional pulls and dilemmas that the many characters face. It was all so impressively rich, and read like the first draft of a much more experienced author. Another element that struck me was how so much of the heart of this book and its world revolved around the shikigami, and the themes of power, personal identity and freedom were all explored so brilliantly through these paper beings. I thought those issues would fascinate teen readers who are, themselves, pushing to establish their identity and how they fit into the world – a perfect match between theme and readership.
What were the main things you worked on with her as editor?
Ann’s first draft was hugely ambitious in scope, and the manuscript originally contained many (close third) character perspectives – so many that it was at times difficult for the reader to discern who was leading the story; who to invest in and root for. Our first big editorial task was to streamline the number of voices without losing the richness of those characters’ individual stories, or the part they had to play in the overarching plot. We tried a few different combinations, removing one voice and then another, until we distilled the story and the emotional focus to one lead character (Kurara), a secondary voice of her mentor and male character (Himura), and interludes from a third perspective (Rei), which provided the second narrative of the novel. This felt like the perfect balance of character, story and appeal to different types of readers.
Initially, Kurara’s abilities as a Crafter appeared a little too quickly and without much development, so we introduced multiple training scenes between her and Himura in subsequent drafts. We used these not only as a way to develop her power and skill in a more organic way, but to also show the growing bond between these two central characters and explain the world of paper magic to the reader.
What do you think marks out the most successful fantasy writers?
For me, the success of a great fantasy lies in the writer’s excitement and passion for the world they have created, and in the thought and care with which they present that world to the reader. I want to feel immediately excited by the initial concept (in this case: living origami! Airships! Flying cities!), but also to be absolutely immersed in that world – to smell the food, to see the pattern of the characters’ clothing, to understand the politics. I want to feel safe in the hands of the author, knowing that while there isn’t room on the page for every detail of this world, that they have considered each and every point – and know everything from the price of milk on Sola-Il to the colour of the buttons on an imperial guard’s uniform. There are also the things that make a great, adventurous story of any kind sing: a main character carrying a hidden power or destiny; a valiant, hotchpotch crew of friends; a ruler with an obsession for power; a mentor and mentee with a tense and exciting relationship. Rebel Skies is so successful because it achieves all the thing that great fantasy sets out to do, and in a way that is entirely Ann’s own.
What do you find most satisfying about being an editor?
My absolute favourite part of the editorial process – whether with a new author or with someone more experienced – is the structural edit stage: when they have delivered a draft, and there are things that need to be bumped up or pulled back, teased out or trimmed away, but the bones of it are there and you can see what the book will soon be. I love climbing into a manuscript, interrogating all the different pieces that go together to create a successful story, and the editorial conversations that follow with the author of how we can make it the best it can possibly be. It is especially satisfying to work with a debut author on this process, as they are coming to it with such fresh eyes, and I often learn a lot in return. I also love how every book and author is so completely different, and that while there are editorial skills and ways of thinking that you can carry from one manuscript to the next, each one is ultimately a new challenge.
What advice would you give anyone wanting to write for young people?
My advice is extremely simple and perhaps overly basic, but truly it is just: read. If you want to write for young people, you must read their books – see what stories are being told and how, interrogate why the bestselling authors are so popular, what engages young readers and what doesn’t. Read within and outside of your own tastes, watch children’s television, and ask librarians and booksellers what children are asking for when they come in search of something to read. Then, with that very solid foundation of what makes great storytelling for young people, write something entirely your own that only you can write.
Rebel Skies is published by Walker Books, 978-1406399592, £7.99 pbk.
Thank you to Ann Sei Lin and to Gráinne Clear for answering our questions.