Interview: Scott Wilbanks on The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster and His Sci-Fi Inspirations

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I told you there was something exciting coming related to The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, and here it is: an interview with author Scott Wilbanks! You'll come to see as you read this interview he is basically one of the coolest people in the world, telling his story with brutal honesty, but still having a wonderful sense of humour. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did; it's a hoot.

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HPC: When I first saw the description for The Lemoncholy Life on NetGalley, I knew I couldn’t turn the book away: ‘Annabelle Aster doesn't bow to convention—not even that of space and time—which makes the 1890s Kansas wheat field that has appeared in her modern-day San Francisco garden easy to accept. Even more exciting is Elsbeth, the truculent schoolmarm who sends Annie letters through the mysterious brass mailbox perched on the picket fence that now divides their two worlds. In this unconventional and enchanting tale, Annie and her new neighbor must solve the mystery of what connects them before one of them is convicted of a murder that has yet to happen…and somehow already did.’ For something that on the surface (yes, I kind of did judge the book by the cover, oops) looked like a regular piece of fiction, I was really drawn in by a description that promised science fiction elements, and I wasn’t let down. I am a big sci-fi fan, so I’d be interested in knowing how you were inspired to write a book that relies so heavily on science fiction elements, but doesn’t involve your stereotypical spaceships, aliens, and apocalypses?

SW: Megan?  From Twitter? Is this you? This is the coolest thing! I’m totally waving at you from New Zealand right now. And, Holy Toledo, you get five gazillion stars for that question!

The short answer is that it’s all my mom’s fault, but seeing as I can’t answer even a “yes-no-maybe” type question with a single sentence—let alone a single word—we’re going to wind back time to my prepubescent years and The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy. It was the very thing that turned me into a book-a-day nerd—all of it sci fi and fantasy—while simultaneously fuelling my “outside the lines” imagination.  (If you ever need a recommendation, give me a holler. I’ll probably tell you to start with something like Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master Trilogy.)

Having gotten that off my chest, we can now come back to my mom. She’s my polar opposite in terms of literary taste. She hates sci fi and fantasy. I mean, she has a deep-down-in-the-bones LOATHING for it.

So, when I found myself writing the manuscript that ultimately became LEMONCHOLY, I was determined to introduce her to the dark side by taking her love for commercial fiction and slipping in a time-travel component while she wasn’t looking. My idea was to give her fantasy-light, if you know what I mean.

Of course, that begs the obvious question. Did I succeed? Did she like it? Uh… nope, though she’ll go to her grave insisting that I made Tolstoy look like a pre-schooler.

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HPC: It seems it’s been forever and a day people have been arguing for or against the legitimacy of heavy-genre fiction (e.g. sci-fi, high fantasy) as true works of ‘literature’. What’s your stance and did this influence your writing of the novel? 

SW: Someone out there is going to eat my lunch with this one, but it seems to me that the argument, by its very nature, presupposes that genre fiction can’t be literary.  I think that the entire world of fiction is composed of genres, of which some novels have literary qualities, and others don’t, but what do I know?  Convince me that Pride And Prejudice isn’t a romantic comedy—a blindingly incandescent one, to be sure—and I might change my tune.

As to the second half of your question, I want people to be charmed by my story—not just by its premise, but by the words within it. I want people to savor the sentences. One of the basic rules of novel writing is to make sure you, as the author, never take the reader out of the story, but I want the reader to stop, to back up, and reread a sentence for the sheer pleasure of it. Does that make my work literary? I don’t know. That’s not for me to decide. But it does make it entertaining.

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HPC: I saw in the ‘Interview with the Author’ at the end of the book that a lot of the story was influenced by events in your life, namely a first date! I’d love it if you could tell my readers a little bit about this as I found it really interesting comparing this book on time travel with real life events.

SW: It’s totally true. I owe the premise of LEMONCHOLY to a botched first date.

We were having coffee, and I thought everything was going swimmingly; that is, until he said, “I think we’re destined to be great friends.” The conversation took a cataclysmic decline at that point, and I drove home with my tail tucked between my legs.  It was during that drive that I decided outcomes are only inevitable if you accept them as such, and immediately conjured up Annie, a contemporary San Franciscan obsessed with Victorian clothes, and Elsbeth, a cantankerous Victorian schoolmarm with an arsenal of curse words to make a sailor blush and a take-no-prisoners attitude, using my hyperactive imagination.  When I got home, I had Annie write a letter to El, asking for advice regarding her lovestruck friend—me—and fired it off to my failed date’s email address.

The next day, I received a call… from him… at work.  Apparently, my email had done the rounds at his office and was a bit of a hit.

“Annie needs to write more,” he said.
“Sadly, she can’t,” I responded.
“Why not?”
“El has to write back,” I answered, as if nothing could be more obvious.

That snippy little retort got me an email in return (from Elsbeth), and a second date.  And a third, which led to a regular correspondence in which I acted as the director, and which, ultimately, cemented the personalities of my two leading ladies.

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HPC: Did you find any struggles that arose with writing a character so heavily inspired by yourself? Was Christian your favourite character to write? If not, who was? 

SW: Struggles? Oh, yes. Breathing life into Christian was a painful experience. I raised some long-buried demons and rubbed myself raw to get that young man onto the page. It left me weeping for the boy I was, wishing I could turn back time and offer him a little guidance, a little hope, because he had so little of either.

That may come across as a little melodramatic, but growing up gay in Texas is not for the faint of heart. I tried to encapsulate my journey early on in the novel when I wrote the following: He (Christian) loved the state of his birth, he really did. It just seemed evident to him that Texas’s rugged landscape bred equally rugged people, and having judged himself as deficient in certain qualities essential to the tall and the proud, Christian had sought sanctuary farther west. 

I was twelve, I think, when I was gay bashed the first time—it happened in the parking lot of a Taco Bell—and the experience left an indelible mark. That experience became a tipping point, taking me from a very outgoing, happy boy to a withdrawn, young man. I became socially awkward, and even found myself stuttering in certain situations.

It only seemed natural, then, that I burden Christian with a stutter, but I deliberately chose not to make his impairment the result of victimization.  Instead, I took a cue from the history books. Did you know that we created a generation of stutterers when we forced left-handed children to write with their right hands? It fascinated me that the suppression of a trait that has strong genetic markers could do this. And it wasn’t lost on me that 10% of the population is left-handed.  That’s the same percentage attributed to the portion of the overall population that is homosexual. So, I flipped the script between left-handedness and sexuality, making Christian a stutterer because he’s so completely suppressed his in order to be a “good person,” according to the mores of an unforgiving society.

In the end, I had to peel off forty years worth of armor in order to make him authentic. And let me tell you what, I… felt… naked. But it was worth it, I think, because I could have never written the resolution chapter between Christian and Edmond, if I hadn’t.

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HPC: Do you yourself have a particular interest in the turn of the century as a historical period? What drew you to writing about the 1890s?

SW: That was an accident! It all goes back to the day I thought up Annie and El. I couldn’t get the image of a cantankerous, old schoolmarm sitting all by herself in a wheat field, talking to a scare crow she’s dressed up to look like Mark Twain, out of my head. “Why is she talking to that scare crow?” I asked myself. “Because she’s lonely. Her husband is long dead, and her daughter is gone, so she has no one,” I responded. I was picking up an old world vibe, but I knew that I wanted to give Elsbeth a modern sensibility.

Annie was the opposite. I saw her as a contemporary San Franciscan who possessed an old world sensibility. So I dressed her in turn-of-the-century clothing, made her a Jane Austen aficionado, and burdened her with the inability to relate to her peers.

Those images created the hundred-year divide, and that led organically to the time travel component.  Ta da!

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HPC: I’m really interested myself in how people work and get things done, so a little bit on your actual writing process to finish: do you have a particular place you write or find yourself the most productive? Are there a particular set of things that need to be in place for things to get done, like a milky cup of tea or a particular album of music you listen to?

SW: Ever since Mike and I bought our home, I’ve been a bit of a gypsy, carrying my laptop from room to room, primarily because Mike flies long haul for Air New Zealand, working through the night, and needs to find quiet nooks in which to sleep (We’re surrounded by families with young children). I recently splurged on an iMac, however. You should see me lugging that thing around the house.

As to the writing, itself, I find that I’m most productive early in the morning. I’ll often hop out of bed, and go directly to my computer to read over and spruce up what I’d written the day before. After that, it’s coffee and a bit to eat before I attack new material.

When the creative juices aren’t flowing, I do some pretty weird things, but they work for me. For instance, my “go to” strategy is to take shower. I know! Weird, right? A good half of the plot twists in LEMONCHOLY came to me in the shower, making me one of the most squeaky clean writers in recent memory.

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HPC: Thank you for taking part in this Q&A, Scott, and thank you for writing such a wonderful novel! As I have said previously in a tweet (or ten) to you, I found myself sobbing through the final chapters because I had grown so attached to your host of characters, both good and troubled. Please, everyone, go out and get a copy of this book as I found it so refreshing, engrossing, and a complete rollercoaster of emotions.

SW: Well, I can say without reservation that this has been a total blast, Megan. Time for me to grab my laptop and head to another room. Mike’s poked his head into the doorframe a couple times, which means he’s ready for a nap.

Cheers!

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See? The nicest guy. You can pick up The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster right now as it was released at the beginning of the month, and I would recommend you do pick it up. It was such a refreshing experience for me and hopefully you can see through this interview just how wonderfully Scott can write!

M x

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