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Interview w/ YA Fantasist R.J. Anderson

I first heard of R.J. Anderson from my critique partners. They were passing around a copy of Faery Rebels and raving about it. Even more interesting to me was the fact that Rebecca (the “R” in R.J.) was a Christian who wrote YA fantasy for the general market. Not long after that, Rebecca somehow magically appeared on this site and engaged in conversation on a couple threads. I appreciated her comments and thought it would be neat to talk to her more about the “mythology of faery” and writing YA.

From R.J.’s bio: Her first novel SPELL HUNTER (known as KNIFE in the UK) was longlisted for the Carnegie Award and named one of the Canadian Library Association’s Honour Books for 2011; it and sequels WAYFARER (known as REBEL in the UK) and ARROW have become UK bestsellers. Her latest novel ULTRAVIOLET, a psychological thriller for older teens, was published by Carolrhoda Lab in Sept. 2011 and will be followed by a companion novel in 2013.

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MIKE — Rebecca, thanks so much for joining us! Stephen King described stories as “relics,” part of an undiscovered world that a writer is excavating. What kind of world is R.J. Anderson unearthing for readers to discover?

R.J.All my books so far have been rooted in the same fundamental concept — that there are extraordinary magical, supernatural, or extraterrestrial beings living secretly as part of our own modern world, and that only a few humans ever learn of their existence. That’s a fairly standard fantasy trope, but the twist in my books is that these beings find us to be just as extraordinary and awe-inspiring and even enviable as we ordinary humans find them.

For instance, my first book Knife (published in the US as Spellhunter) is the story of a fierce young faery hunter who fights to save her dying people while concealing her forbidden friendship with a human. But it’s not told from the human’s perspective, it’s told from the faery’s, and with one slight exception in my second book Rebel (Wayfarer in the US), so are all the subsequent books in the series. There are thousands of tales about humans being enchanted by the faeries and lured into their realm, for good or ill — but I wanted to write about faeries being amazed and awed by the simple realities of human life.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Even angels long to look into these things,” referring to the unique nature of the relationship between God and humanity. That idea fascinates me, so I keep coming back to it in different ways.

MIKE — That’s an interesting twist on the subject. So, apart from magic dust, what do you think first attracted you to the world of faery?

R.J.It definitely wasn’t the magic dust — in fact one of the first things I did when writing Knife was to deprive my faeries of magic. I was tired of seeing small faeries portrayed as cute, childlike beings accompanied by sparkles, rainbows and magic wands, and I wondered why they couldn’t be tough and fierce and even dangerous instead. That led me to speculate about what would happen if a group of small winged people had to confront the harsh realities of life in the modern world — if they were menaced not by gnomes and goblins, but by hungry animal predators and hazards like lawnmowers and electrical wires. If they didn’t have magic to make their lives easier, how would they survive? And what would happen if their secret existence was discovered by one of those monstrous, gigantic humans?

Though interestingly enough, the Oakenfolk’s struggle for survival didn’t end up being the main focus of the story in the end. The central plot of Knife resolves around the question of how and why the faeries lost their magic in the first place, as well as the exact nature of their relationship to humanity — which turned out to be even more interesting to me, and also paved the way to the second and third books in the trilogy.

MIKE — In his classic essay, The Ethics of Elfland, G.K. Chesterton suggested that a distinct “ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales” and that there are “many noble and healthy principles that arise from them.” So rather than distancing us from the world and making us disenchanted with it, as some suggest, faery tales ground us in reality. Do you think this is true, and if so, why?

R.J. —  I agree wholeheartedly. I believe that fantastic literature has a unique ability to slide past our set opinions and prejudices, and encourage us to consider moral and spiritual truths in a new way. The classic fairy tales and fantasy stories are about the struggle between a simple, humble good and a powerful evil, and they constantly remind the reader that human effort is not enough — that supernatural intervention is required before good can triumph.What could be more Biblical?

C.S. Lewis remarked in one of his essays that reading fairy tales was a great deal healthier for him as a child than reading the so-called “realistic” stories about boys becoming popular at school and winning at sports and so on — the latter provoked him to envy and dissatisfaction with this world, whereas fantasy transported him to a better one. “I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like any fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories.”

MIKE — Mythology and folklore are often anchored, however loosely, in historical facts or events. Some have suggested that faeries and the surrounding mythologies are actually rooted in demons and the occult. How would you answer that?

R.J. — Certainly a great deal of fairy folklore has a malevolent, horrifying aspect, and sometimes the occult and Satanic connections are overt — as in the story of Tam Lin where the faery folk “pay a teind to Hell” every seven years. But there’s also a strong connection to Christianity in western fairy folklore as well, such as the speculation that fairies are the forgotten children of Eve, or the spirits of infants who died unbaptized and couldn’t go to heaven, or the virtuous pagans of ages past. None of which are Biblical ideas, of course, but it does show that many of the Irish, English and Welsh people who believed in fairies did so in conjunction with their belief in Christianity, and not in willful opposition to it.

I personally think the widespread myths about fairies have their origin in the universal God-given awareness that powerful spiritual beings exist in a realm which is invisible to us, and that some are good and some are evil. Like so many aspects of natural revelation it’s become muddled over the years and a lot of unbiblical ideas have gotten mixed up with it, but there’s still truth at the core.

MIKE — So you would disagree with those who say that faery tales are not only a waste of time, but that they are purely a vehicle for evil and occultism. Are there other biblical themes recurrent in the genre?

R.J.Many of the most classic and beloved fairy tales and fantasy stories are tales of sacrifice and redemption, of rebirth and resurrection, of the weak, despised and humble triumphing over the wicked, mighty and proud. The idea of a faithful few — a remnant, if you will — struggling to do what is right in the face of oppression, persecution and temptation also comes up again and again in fantasy literature. There are so many rich and essentially Biblical ideas there to be explored and revisited, I almost can’t imagine why I as a Christian wouldn’t want to write fantasy. After all, Edmund Spenser, John Bunyan, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and many other believers were responsible for shaping the genre.

MIKE — Your novels are categorized as YA. I have an ongoing, but civil, debate with many writers and readers about the YA craze. My two main questions always come down to this: (1) Why is YA currently so hot, and (2) What actually distinguishes YA from general lit? As a YA author, I’d love your take on those questions.

R.J.My faery books straddle the line between MG and YA, since they’re categorized as “10 and up” in North America and “11+” in the UK. My paranormal psychological thriller Ultraviolet is unquestionably YA, though, and I read a lot of YA, so I’ve thought about the genre and what makes it special quite a lot.

I read “adult” fantasy and SF for years before YA fantasy became popular, and one of the first things that struck me when I checked out the better recent YA novels was their clarity and directness — by which I definitely don’t mean that the books were dumbed-down and simplistic compared to the adult ones; in fact some of them had quite complex and multi-layered plots. But they were very tightly edited. The focus was on telling a strong story with engaging characters, vivid language and a meaningful plot, and there was little or no room for authorial self-indulgence. No long-winded descriptions that didn’t advance the story, no pretentious displays of grandiloquent verbiage, no wasted scenes. I found that refreshing, and I think a lot of other adult readers do as well.

Another thing that I believe draws people to YA is its freshness and ingenuity. Because all YA books tend to be shelved together in libraries and bookstores regardless of their content, YA authors are free to blend and combine ideas from a variety of genres: fantasy, science fiction, mystery, historical, romance, western, thriller, horror… I came across more jaw-dropping plot twists, unique scenarios and memorable characters in my first year of reading YA than I’d encountered in years of reading adult novels. And it opened up a whole new range of possibilities for me as an author, as well.

 To answer your second question, what distinguishes YA from adult fiction is not that it’s shorter or less complex or uses simpler language, or that it teaches a moral lesson. Good YA doesn’t shy away from big issues and serious questions, it doesn’t talk down to the reader, and it doesn’t offer easy answers, or necessarily any answers at all. What makes a book YA rather than adult is that it contains characters teen readers can identify with, explores issues that are relevant to teens, and tells the story in a way that teens will find interesting.

But as it turns out a lot of those characters and issues and stories are of interest to adult readers as well, because many of the themes involved are universal: the quest for identity and finding one’s place in the world, coping with conflict and upheaval and loss, falling in love, making mistakes and having to fix them, learning to understand people who are different from you, and so on. The only difference in YA is that these things are happening to teen characters, and they’re happening for the first time. There isn’t that jaded, slightly patronizing tone of “Ah yes, I remember the days of my youth…” that you get in adult literature about teens. In YA novels, the action is happening to the teen protagonists right now or else it’s happened very recently, and there’s a real urgency and intensity to it.


You can find out more about R.J. Anderson and her books at her website. Thanks so much, Rebecca! Great stuff.

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{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Kat Heckenbach February 21, 2012, 8:21 AM

    R.J., your description of the what distinguishes YA fiction from adult is SPOT ON. Perfect!!! So, Mike–what she says, what she says!! That’s what I’ve been trying to say, but haven’t managed R.J.’s eloquence.

    Awesome interview!

  • BJ February 21, 2012, 8:48 AM

    That was a nice interview, I’ll have to check out her books. I thought her description of YA vs MG was very spot on too. I’ve been reading YA ever since I was suppose to have grown out of it, but it’s hard to define to others what special about the good stuff.

  • Heather Day Gilbert February 21, 2012, 8:50 AM

    Lovely interview, and I appreciated the breakdown on faeries, esp. the idea that they don’t have magic, but have to fight. What an imagination, to dream up such a story! I’ll have to check your books out, too.

    • Heather Day Gilbert February 21, 2012, 9:02 AM

      Yup, just read a bit of Rebel on Amazon and I can see I’ll have to buy these books. I love the concept. Also liked the use of “Great Gardener.” Brilliant.

  • Kessie February 21, 2012, 9:12 AM

    Well hey, I think I’ll track down your books now! I’m enjoying the Fablehaven books right now, and they’re giving me an appetite for fairies. 🙂

  • Dave Jacobs February 21, 2012, 10:40 AM

    Thanks for an intelligent interview. Very enjoyable.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller February 21, 2012, 11:04 AM

    Great interview, Mike and Rebecca. I loved Knife and Rebel (the UK titles are better than the American ones, as are the covers, in my opinion) and was disappointed when Arrow didn’t come out here. I still want to read that one. I’ve heard great things about Ultraviolet and think that should be high on Mike’s list of YA reads. Based on what I’ve heard, it’s one you’d enjoy, Mike.


    • Mike Duran February 21, 2012, 11:28 AM

      I agree, Becky. Ultraviolet’s premise sounds interesting. Plus, I really love the cover!

    • sally apokedak February 21, 2012, 12:48 PM

      You can get Arrow on the Kindle, Beck. 🙂 I have it.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) February 21, 2012, 1:49 PM

    I guess my problem has to do with statistics that show most teen pregnancies are with other men; with the fact so so so many teen girls can instantly fall in love with a man that pays a little attention to her; that a man that pays attention like that to an underage teenager usually has nefarious intentions. So I was weirded out and then relieved when the nice guy got left behind in an inaccessible place. The book itself was fine.
    By the way, I babysit for Young Lives, which is a ministry to teen mothers.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) February 21, 2012, 1:53 PM

    One of my books was reviewed by someone who kept complaining about all the spiritual abuse going on in the book and I was thinking, What? Where? But I figured if she saw something I didn’t see I had better deal with it, so I slightly changed the parts that freaked her out. I didn’t want to ignorantly push people’s buttons. If I push buttons, I want to be doing it on purpose.

  • R.J. Anderson February 21, 2012, 2:11 PM

    Thanks to everyone for reading, and for your encouraging comments. I appreciate you taking the time to read my rather long-winded answers to Mike’s excellent questions!

    (May I meekly request, though, that those who have read ULTRAVIOLET try to avoid posting any further spoilers, for the sake of Mike and others who might still want to read it? Thanks.)

  • Tony February 21, 2012, 8:26 PM

    Says a lot about the United States that we chose those horrible covers over the whimsical art on the UK versions. . .anyone else notice that? I’d be more likely to pick the book up with the cool faery drawing than the teen model with paper wings and glitter dust on her face.

    Anyway, these books sound fun. I’ll probably give them a read. I know, I know, it’s odd: I’m a male horror fan who shares a mild fascination with the concept of faeries. . .don’t judge me! 😉

    • Mike Duran February 22, 2012, 8:20 AM

      Tony, I wonder that there’s a stronger connection between Horror and fairy lore than is immediately obvious. I think our fairies have been westernized by Tinkerbell. However, the larger mythologies seem to intersect many horror themes.

  • Heather Sunseri February 22, 2012, 3:32 AM

    Rebecca, I loved, loved your answer to the last question. Your description of YA fiction is simply beautiful.

    • R.J. Anderson February 22, 2012, 6:19 AM

      Thanks, Heather! I’m so glad that it rings true to you and others who enjoy YA.

  • Katherine Coble February 22, 2012, 8:30 AM

    I’m skipping most of the comments because I haven’t yet read the books and want to go into them as unguided as possible.

    I’m sort of feeling like the Odd Woman Out because while I love YA and have been reading it for 30+ years now, I find myself not usually enjoying YA fantasy for the exact reasons that you mentioned, RJ. I enjoy deep and immersive descriptions in fantasy because when I set to reading one I sort of treat it like my Bubble Bath book in that I want to be in there for a long time, be really surrounded and soothed by the experience. Many times I’ve found the economy of words in the YA genre to be a disservice to my enjoyment of fantasy.

    Alas, I’m a faerie addict in that I’ve spent so much of my life delving into all the various permutations of faerie lore I can get my hands on and these books sound like enough fun for me to set aside my long-standing prejudice and dive in. I’ll start with Ultraviolet, since that appears to be a standalone.

    I got a chuckle just now when I hopped over to Amazon to see where I’d start. With all the talk in Christian circles about Fairies Being Bad it cracked me right up to see that Arrow’s Kindle price is $6.66. 🙂

    Enjoyed the interview very much! Thanks for all your thoughtful responses.

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