Author Spotlight: Leah Bobet

This week, we asked Leah Bobet a few questions about her amazing new YA Fantasy novel An Inheritance of Ashes. 

The novel came out earlier this week and we couldn’t be more excited. Here’s a brief synopsis:

The strange war down south—with its rumors of gods and monsters—is over. And while sixteen-year-old Hallie and her sister wait to see who will return from the distant battlefield, they struggle to maintain their family farm.

When Hallie hires a veteran to help them, the war comes home in ways no one could have imagined, and soon Hallie is taking dangerous risks—and keeping desperate secrets. But even as she slowly learns more about the war and the men who fought it, ugly truths about Hallie’s own family are emerging. And while monsters and armies are converging on the small farm, the greatest threat to her home may be Hallie herself.

Keep reading to find out more about this stark, beautiful fantasy:

Q: In addition to your writing, you’re also an editor and a bookseller!  How have your roles outside of writing (but within the publishing community) influenced your characters and how you compose a story?

A: I am—and they’ve definitely changed how I think about story and how it works!

Editing has mostly taught me about craft.  It’s actually a great way to learn how to think critically about why a story does or doesn’t work—because you’ll have to explain what tripped you up to the author in the rejection letter.  Being able to find the issues in the stories on my desk and then turn around and apply those lessons to my own work really helped me develop my sense of pacing, characterization, and plot, and I’d recommend working as an editor, even volunteering a few hours a week, to anyone who’s interested in becoming a better writer.

I think working so much in short fiction has made me personally lean toward a more precise prose style and stories that lean more on implication than stating the characters’ feelings or thoughts outright.  Short stories only give you so much room on the page, so you learn to set up signals for readers to find some important conclusions off the page.  I’ve carried over the habit, I think, and there’s an element of my work that’s always a bit less traditionally novelistic: giving readers every step but the last to a conclusion so they can have the satisfaction of reaching it themselves.

Being a bookseller, though, has leaked into my writing in an entirely different way!  I work at an independent specialty store that really focuses on handselling and recommendations, so much of the job is finding what “a good book” means to each reader on that particular day—and understanding how subjective that is, and how different a relationship two readers can have with the same novel.

So I think working as a bookseller has made me brave.

Working at a bookstore meant learning fast that there’s no such thing as writing a book everyone will like—that’s basically an impossible task.  So I don’t looking over my shoulder too much while I’m writing; I just write my book, the book of my heart, and trust that the smarts and experience of my editors and publicists will get that book into the hands of the readers who will connect with it.

That sense of freedom to basically just do my thing regardless of what’s popular or not has made me feel like I can just be weird sometimes—but it’s also meant I don’t hold back anymore on writing diverse worlds.  I fill my work with the characters I don’t see often enough in my own reading: teenage Black Muslim scientists, families with one mom and two dads; happily married gay couples who are the cornerstones of their families, and angry girls.  Girls who, specifically, have very good reasons to be angry and aren’t punished for it at the end.

I think bookselling has really helped me see the beauty in every book that crosses our shelves.  And that’s helped me really believe in—and commit to—the weird little beauties of my own.

Q: The reader will follow Hallie in this story as she is forced to take some very big risks (affecting both her and her family).  Talk a bit about Hallie as a character, and what makes her a unique and important YA heroine.

A: Hallie, to me, is a kind person, a very loving person, who’s been backed into an awful, no-win corner by a very unhealthy family, a few terrible situations, and one bad, learned coping mechanism: That if someone lets you down, you just stop trusting and do more and more yourself.  She starts the novel in pure crisis mode, practically boiling over with stress, and it’s made her mean and resentful and messy, and not always good at doing the right thing—because in many cases, that’s what an endless state of crisis does to people.

But she wants things to be better.  She is not okay with fighting with her sister, losing her brother-in-law, being awkward with the neighbours.  Even though she has no idea how to get it or ask for it, she wants more.

In short: Hallie’s extremely human.  She is not a perfect, flawless abuse survivor; she’s just human.  And that’s, I think, what makes her important.

I don’t know that female YA protagonists always get much space to be human: to fail, to have bad days and frustrations, to not know what they want, to be stressed out and act out and just plain hate someone.  The imperative to write Good Role Models For Girls Who Are Of Course Nice and Likeable is very strong in YA fiction sometimes—Courtney Summers has written some very smart stuff on that particular pressure—and that gets even stronger when it comes to discussing issues like violence, abuse, and healthy relationships.

How we talk about unhealthy families and relationships in North American culture is improving in the past few years, but it is still so very not great.  High-profile cases like Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, Steubenville (and the list goes on) drive home a pretty bad message: that if you’re not perfect and nice and good enough to prove otherwise, you probably actually deserved it.  Thing is, nobody deserves it.  And nobody—I mean no one—is going to be perfect, nice, and good when someone who’s supposed to love and protect them is hurting and degrading them instead.

When that’s combined with YA’s tendency to really want sweet, nice, non-angry female protagonists—to privilege likeable in our characters—that’s some pretty scary stuff.  Because knowingly or not, the fictional idea that girls must always be nice builds a nasty little message into the stories we write about abuse or danger.  It whispers to people who are already hurt and scared and mad that their hurt, fear, and anger is why they’re inherently damaged goods.  That they’re victiming wrong.  That their rage is why they aren’t good enough to be loved instead of hit.

Hallie Hoffmann is angry as hell, and she’s absolutely right to be: she deserved to be loved instead of hit.  She fails, snarks, screams, hurts people, is messy, and makes mistakes, because that’s what humans in pain do when they don’t have good examples of healthy relationships, and because failing is part of growing.  She starts figuring out how to love people well because she makes those mistakes.  She grows.

And that’s why I think she’s important.  Because I think it’s important to sneak in a little story about how being angry and scared and messy doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the same things every other human being does.  And that being angry and scared and messy doesn’t mean you’re perpetually damaged.  You can heal, and you can grow.

Q: How does one go about researching for a novel such as this?  Talk about your process for building this world and the setting of the family farm.

A: Building Roadstead Farm and the surrounding world was really all about the details and using them to build a logical picture of a world still running at a reduced technology level under advanced decay.  I knew the world of An Inheritance of Ashes had to be strictly consistent, so that when the first Twisted Thing smashed into the window, it could be quite clear just how much Twisted Things don’t make sense.  So I went for first principles: I quite literally started with geography and climate.

Although it only peeks out here and there in the narrative, An Inheritance of Ashes takes place about a century in the future, after a massive economic collapse has wiped out most of society and left the cities we’re living in now to rot.  Since Hallie and Marthe would be growing crops, my first big task was to find a reasonable slice of parkland along the Detroit River where urban refugees might start a farm, read up on the current agricultural products of the area—what people grow, what fish are in the river—and then shift everything one growing zone up the line to compensate for a hundred years of slowed-down global warming.

The next big question was food.  Everything the farm has was sourced to its probable supply lines: Could they get that supply in a world without international imports and a vastly reduced labour force?  What would they grow locally, what would they import from other regions on the continent, and what would have to be made in town—for example, flour or barrels?  I spent an afternoon figuring out if the farm had a source for sugar, all so I knew if they could use it in their tea (answer: nope).  While this was pretty painstaking, it made sure the world was consistent; that everything lined up in the same direction.

The third question was materials, and what might last.  Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us was a great help for figuring out the state of decay in the ruined cities and frontier towns around Roadstead Farm: What plastics, metals, and artifacts would be left to work with and study.

Once I’d sorted out how Hallie and Marthe work, live, and eat, the last component was the question of the Twisted Things—to which there is a science, if you get, albeit shallowly, into quantum interaction with parallel universes.  I had to do some serious thinking to underpin the entropy they release onto everything they touch, calibrate their interaction with the normal world, and set some general rules on how they work.  They’re tangled, but chemically and physically consistent, and it was those consistencies that actually solved the puzzle of the ending when I’d written myself into a tidy little corner!

All in all, though, building the world of Roadstead Farm also meant learning more about what it takes to run a family-owned farm.  While I do a lot of volunteering with urban agriculture groups in my spare time—picking backyard fruit trees, gardening abandoned corners, growing rooftop vegetables, and canning, all of which meant working from my own experience—I’m not a farmer, and especially not in the circumstances Hallie and Marthe work, where there’s less access to the kind of mechanized technology that most modern farms rely on.  Aside from some great documentaries like the Victorian Farm series, I had a great deal of good advice from several first readers and critiquers who currently live or grew up on family farms.  It gave me a great respect for what farmers manage to juggle every day, and I’ve been treating my own food with a lot more appreciation since doing that research.  It’s kind of a tiny miracle.

Q: Do you see any of yourself in Hallie as a character?  What elements of her resonate the most strongly with you?

A: Sometimes, and maybe.  There’s a lot of twisted-up love in Hallie Hoffmann: She adores everyone around her more than life itself, has absolutely no idea how to show them that, and would never believe that they value and adore her back.

As a teenager and young adult, there was a lot of twisted-up love in me that I didn’t have a good road map for expressing.  Hallie lives a lot of the fears and needs of a much younger me; one who didn’t have the kind of ironclad proof I have now of being loved.

I suspect my partner and friends would also have a comment about both Hallie and I carrying vast mountains of work and responsibility, and spending all our time completely convinced that we’re lazy do-nothings who should have worked five times harder.  Let’s just say I’m working on that.

I think it probably says something that the times when I love Hallie most are when, even if she’s wrong or beating herself up for something absolutely unnecessary and perfectionist, she sets her jaw and tries.  Hallie’s brave, she’s tough, and she tries very, very hard.  She loves very, very hard.  She’s a good kid who stayed a good kid even in some bad places, and I admire her for it.

Q: You have a nice following on Twitter. How would you describe your book in 140 characters?

A: Sinclair Ross dustbowl lit, David Eddings-style epic fantasy, healthy YA relationships, Lovecraftian monsters & diversity. #WillItBlend?

Q: What is the biggest thing you hope readers take away from this novel? 

A: That people are complicated.  I don’t think we give people enough credit for being complex a lot of the time, and sometimes understanding that saves a life.

And, equally so, that if you don’t like where you are right now—in space, in your community, or even in your head—you can be somewhere better.  And sometimes being somewhere better is as simple as taking the risk, reaching out a hand to a friend you love and trust, and building that somewhere better to go, whether it’s a new home, a new family, or the best version of yourself.

Thank you so much, Leah! For a sneak peek of An Inheritance of Ashesand for more great YA reads, visit our Singular Reads website.