WRITERS TELL ALL
"I can't speak for anyone else, but for me this just felt normal": Akemi Dawn Bowman on the brilliant HARLEY IN THE SKY
Matthew Turbeville: We are so excited to talk to you about Harley in the Sky, an amazing book about a girl who may give up everything to pursue a dream. Can you tell us about how you came up with the idea for this novel and why you felt it is necessary to be told now? What do you feel when you know something—a book, a story—is necessary to be told?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: My first two novels revolved around abuse, trauma, and grief, so when it was time to draft my third book, I really just wanted to write something that would allow me to emotionally recharge. I wanted it to feel magical, while still being grounded in the real world. The circus felt like the perfect setting. And for me, I know a story needs to be told when it makes my heart light up. I’m someone who has a million ideas floating around, but for me to start working on one, I need to feel that spark. I like to think that if it feels important enough for me to want to write, then hopefully it will feel equally important to someone out there who eventually reads it.
MT: The book is a mixture of genres, just like how Harley is a combination of so many races, backgrounds, cultures, and so on. What do you think this says about American youths today, and how does it reflect where our culture is or is headed?
ADB: I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me this just felt normal. I’m multiracial, like Harley, and I’ve often struggled with feeling like I don’t “belong” to the cultures of my family. I’ve always felt like I wasn’t enough of any of the parts of my heritage, and that made it difficult to feel like I fit in anywhere. But I think maybe that’s the point—people similar to me don’t haveto fit in a box. We have a unique cultural experience, and we get to navigate that in new and personal ways. I think there are probably some interesting conversations to be had about what it means to have ownership over a culture, and how cultures grow and change over borders, generations, and time.
MT: There are so many betrayals in the first part of the book. Some are heart wrenching, even when we dislike certain characters—perhaps every character—for deceit and a lack of loyalty on their part. Why do you think this is so important to a story about circuses, coming of age, and the other adventures associated with this?
ADB: I like to think everyone has their own version of messy. It’s what makes us human. I write about characters making mistakes who are also trying their best because it feels real to me. Nobody in this world is perfect, and sometimes I think there’s too much of a spotlight on the mistakes people make rather than the journey that follows as a result of that mistake. People should be held accountable for the wrongs they do, but it’s also important to allow people to grow. Particularly when we’re talking about teenage characters, who are mostly still figuring things out as they transition into adulthood. I don’t expect my characters to be any more perfect than people in real life. And I think those coming of age themes will always feel timeless for that exact reason, regardless of whether they’re set in the circus or some other kind of adventure.
MT: The beginning starts with family of many kinds—I believe Harley refers specifically to the biological family and the found family. Why is family so important in your novels, and is family important to you as a person? Do you think, in some ways, so many young adult novels are about family for a certain reason?
ADB: Family is very important to me. The most important, really. But I also know that having a family is a privilege not everyone has. And I’m particularly aware of how that can feel for young people, who maybe don’t have parents who love them or a support system at home. It can be lonely, and extremely difficult to navigate, because there are so many emotions that come into play when you don’t have the kind of parental love that seems so normal to everyone else. Family is an important part of my novels because I want to give people hope, and let them know that even if they weren’t born with the family they needed, they can still find family through friendships. And I can’t speak for other authors, but it’s possible many of them write about family for similar reasons. Because whether someone has a family or feels the absence of a family, there’s a pretty good chance it plays a big role in that person’s life.
MT: Harley’s parents come across as truly loving and caring for her and her future. Do you think there’s a right or wrong answer on either side, with Harley or her parents, and what do you think is so great about the way you write things and present all of these conflicting views?
ADB: I think there are a lot of ways to be right and wrong. Sometimes what’s right for one person is completely wrong for another. And sometimes people can disagree, but both parties can still be right in how they feel. Not everything in life is black and white; maybe most things exist in a gray area. Hopefully this comes across through Harley and her parents, and the complicated relationships they have with one another (and Popo, too).
MT: The ending also has a lot to deal with family, with dreams, and with both disappointment and success. Can you talk about the ending—perhaps without giving away too many spoilers—but essentially whether or not you think we find ourselves in a sort of reflection of the beginning of the novel, or what the ending means to young people pursuing their dreams?
ADB: I’ll try to remain as spoiler-free as possible, but I like to think Harley fought hard to chase her dreams, and although the outcome wasn’t exactly what she’d planned in her head, she learned a lot about compromise and adjusting along the way. Even when we imagine our goals, it would be very hard to imagine the journey. Because the journey is often out of our control. Hopefully Harley’s story is a reminder for some people to be flexible, and to not be so hard on themselves and the people around them if things don’t go to plan.
MT: My heart still breaks, even after finishing the novel, of a really horrible (in my opinion) betrayal Harley commits to get what she wants at the beginning of the novel. Do you think there are certain betrayals we cannot see past, and do you think it’s realistic for those affected by this portrayal to even want to have anything to do with Harley? While it makes sense in the book, obviously certain characters (and readers) my take issue with Harley’s actions, and I wonder what you think her actions say about Harley.
ADB: Nobody gets through life without messing up. Sometimes it’s intentional, and maybe more often it’s by accident. But how we make amends, and how we turn the mistake into an opportunity to learn is so much more important, I think. Everyone gets to decide for themselves what they’re willing to forgive, and I could never make that decision for someone else. But Harley’s parents love her, and Harley knew she did something wrong. They worked through it in a way that felt right to them. I think perhaps any judgements towards Harley by the end of the book says more about a reader’s tolerance or limitations to forgiveness than they do about Harley.
MT: What were the really formative books in your life, and what books and happenings in the real world and other media you’ve consumed that have helped informed Harley in the Sky? The book is brilliant, and I’m so interested into what books really affected this, even if they had nothing to do with circuses at all!
ADB: I don’t know if this is just a “me” thing, but I’m not someone who can read other books when I’m drafting. I find it incredibly distracting, and I actively don’t want my writing to be influenced by anything else. I really lean into my own style of writing, because it feels natural to me. I have no idea if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it works for me. I will say though that there have been books over the years that have most definitely inspired me to want to be an author. Sometimes it’s the incredible worldbuilding, sometimes it’s the lyrical way someone can tell a story, but mostly it’s that magical feeling when a book comes to life, and characters feel real.That’s when I know a book is a gem. And it makes me want to write books that can be gems for other people. A recent favorite of mine that I will never stop talking about is THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE by Samantha Shannon. It’s truly a masterpiece.
MT: What is editing like for you—well, really, the whole writing process? Do you write in a certain way, space, or place? Do you need to clear your mind or do you just write freely, not letting anything affect you? How is editing for you, and how many drafts do you go through before completing a novel? For books like Harley in the Sky where circuses are involved, how much research did you have to go into?
ADB: I’m trying to be better at fast-drafting, mostly because I have multiple projects going on at once. My default style of drafting would slow everything down, as I’m someone who likes to edit as they write. In the past, I’d write a chapter, and then go back and edit line by line. But it isn’t necessarily the most time efficient work style, because I’m constantly making adjustments. Nowadays I try to just write as much as I can when I have the time available, because I know I can always go back and fix things. But I need to get the words down first. I tend to have a very skeletal outline, where I only really know the beginning, middle, and end. And HARLEY IN THE SKY went through many rounds of revisions—several on my own, and then several more with my editor. I also did alot of research when it came to the circus life aspect in Harley’s story. Originally, the circus was meant to travel by train, and I watched an entire documentary on what that looked like. But ultimately it didn’t feel right for the story, as I wanted the characters to explore the world a bit more. I also watched more trapeze clips on YouTube than I can even count, and read many, many articles on circus life. It was a lot of fun to research!
MT: What other young adult, and perhaps adult or middle grade books and authors would you suggest to readers of Harley in the Sky? I’m sure this book is developing quite the fanbase, especially with such high praise from critics including myself, and I wonder if there are any other authors you might recommend while we wait on the next great novel from you!
ADB: DON’T READ THE COMMENTS by Eric Smith, I’LL BE THE ONE by Lyla Lee (which comes out later this year!), THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER by Emily X.R. Pan, and anything by Ashley Herring Blake, Sara Barnard, and Brandy Colbert.
MT: What do you think this says about young women too, throughout the book, and in the many compromising positions Harley is forced to deal with as she navigates her way through this part in her life? What about seeing the world and really trying to commit to something affects Harley as a young woman?
ADB: I think there are a lot of important discussions about how we view women when it comes to having aspirations or goals that are long overdue. It’s also why I find it interesting that people would feel so unforgiving towards Harley. Because I’m not sure male characters are held to the same standards of morality and perfection. There are countless novels that exist where male characters make mistakes, are morally gray, or are even unapologetically the villain, and yet there are people who love them despite their flaws. And then there’s someone like Harley, who makes a mistake, acknowledges it, and tries to make amends in ways that feel right to her, but is put into a category of unforgiveable behavior. I think that speaks to real-life, and the double standards that exist when it comes to gender.
MT: Do you have another work in progress? Can you tell us anything about it, and what we can expect in your next work, and when to expect it?
ADB: I do! I’m actually working on two projects at the minute. The next book that’s set to publish is my sci-fi debut called THE INFINITY COURTS. It’s about a girl who dies and wakes up in the afterlife, only to discover it’s been taken over by an artificial intelligence posing as a queen. It combines my love of robots and superpowers with Jane Austen and period dramas, and I’m seriously so, so excited to share more soon. I also just turned in edits on my middle-grade debut called GENERATION MISFITS, which is about a group of sixth graders who meet through a shared love of J-Pop. It has Breakfast Club vibes, but with all the heart and worries of being eleven years old at a new school where all you want is to make friends. It’s very close to my heart! Both are set to publish in 2021.
MT: Thank you so much for joining us and talking to us about Harley in the Sky. We at Writers Tell All truly loved the book and cannot wait to read more from you. Please feel free to comment on anything you feel we didn’t touch on, or you want to elaborate on below. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us, and thank you for this book. It is phenomenal and we hope all of our readers will pick up a copy and dig in to Harley’s story!
ADB: Thank you so much for chatting with me, and for all your thoughtful questions!