Matthew Turbeville: Alexandra! It’s so great to interview you for Writers Tell All. This is extra special because you’re also a recording-artist/voice actress. Can you tell us what it’s like to record for books and works by other authors as opposed to recording for your own novels? Do you have more freedom recording for your own novels?
Alexandra Monir: Thank you so much!! I actually have only recorded my own audiobooks. But I am a recording artist/songwriter, so I am very much at home in the studio, which made the audiobook recording process so much fun.
MT: This book is about hope. Possibly a last hope for those on Earth. Many of your characters are traveling in hope of reaching alien life. Can you tell us where you got the idea for the first and second book, and if you do believe in this hope, and where this also might spring from?
AM: I got the idea for The Final Sixwhile listening to a radio interview with an aspiring astronaut who had applied for the experimental MarsOne mission. This was a woman who was married, with a family and a full life on Earth, who was willing to leave it all for the chance to see and to colonize Mars. That was so wild to me, and then I had the thought—what if it wasn’t a choice? What if people were drafted to space, just like people have been drafted into war? And the reason for this particular draft would be to find a new home for humanity, after all the climate change crises here on Earth. A lot of this theme came from my own concerns about climate change, though I certainly have a lot of hope that our current and next generation can save the Earth. But I also have hope for what lies beyond our planet, too.
MT: One person is left on earth, and the other narrator is sent on the mission to search out alien life. You’re writing from two different point of views—how do you summon the ability to write from two very different voices, and what is writing this like? How hard is it to switch back and forth between the voices? Do you work with outlines and heavily plotted details so you can do one voice all at once, or do you have other methods?
AM: It is definitely a challenge- I hope I managed to succeed at it! The best way I could think of to differentiate the voices was to wear my actress hat while I wrote—to put myself in each character’s shoes while writing their chapters. Reading aloud also helped a lot, too—that’s usually when I would notice the spots where Leo’s voice might sound too much like mine, and then I’d revise to fit his character better. And yes, I do work with outlines!
MT: What books influenced this and what other books were the most influential during your “formative years”? Which book or books would you say most influenced this series?
AM: I’ve always been fascinated by space, so I think that longstanding interest was the biggest factor influencing and motivating me to keep writing this story! As far as particular books and movies that inspire me: Contact, Interstellar, The Martian, Gravity, and Arrival are all amazing and furthered my love of space-set stories!
MT: What’s the hardest part about writing these novels, and any novels? I have come across writers—and even have this problem myself—of challenging my own characters because in a way they’re your babies. You want to protect them. What do you find the hardest about writing these great characters, voices filled with such life, and what necessary evils do you have to do in killing your darlings?
AM: I actually don’t mind throwing difficult stuff at my characters—I feel like that’s the only way a good story gets told!—but if I struggle with anything in terms of killing your darlings, it would probably be that I often get attached to certain scenes that may or may not work with the plot, but because it’s a beautiful character scene, I’ll have such a hard time cutting it! But I’ve learned that when something doesn’t move the story forward, alas, it has to go!
MT: When setting up a series like this, how do you map things out? Is the whole series mapped out, or are you unable to plot more than one book at once? Are you more in the mode of jumping from one place to the next without planning much ahead? The books seem so well thought out and crafted, I’m sure you must do a lot of planning? What is it like writing such well-written series?
AM: I usually have an overall view of where I’m going across the series, but in terms of detailed plotting, I have to go one book at a time, especially because you can have an idea of what you want the story to be, but it inevitably evolves as you’re writing. So if you outline too far ahead, in my experience that can sometimes box you into a corner!
MT: When you write these novels, you push the limits of characters and usually have cliffhanger endings to chapters to keep the readers going. How do you arrange to keep readers turning the page, and what do you think the hardest part of this aspect of writing novels might be?
AM: I think cliffhanger chapter endings are so important, because you have to give your reader a reason to keep turning those pages! I like to end my chapters on either an exciting reveal or an intriguing question, and in either case, it has to up the stakes of the story. The challenge is making sure it’s organic to the story and not just throwing in an “Omg!” twist out of nowhere- you have to read through the manuscript a number of times to make sure your cliffhangers are authentic and serve the story.
MT: What do you think is so appealing about being chosen? In so many great young adult series, including your own, the protagonists are somehow singled out, incidentally or purposefully, and they are considered chosen, some characters even called “the chosen one” or “the chosen ones”? What do you think the draw is like for young people who read these books?
AM: Great question! I think the answer is that it’s wish fulfillment. At all levels of life, but especially in adolescence, we’re dying to be chosen: to be noticed and asked out by the guy or girl we like, to be chosen as the lead in the school play, to be voted Homecoming Queen, to be picked by a top-choice college, etc. I think book series like Harry Potter and so many others take that wish fulfillment and dial it up to 100- you’re being chosen for something so huge, which creates a lot of drama and story complications, but underneath all that is the wish fulfillment we’re all secretly hoping for. To be the special one, plucked from obscurity for a great adventure!
MT: Your dialogue is great, and as I mentioned, your voice is alive and refreshing. Do you ever feel that there’s a character you prefer writing, and are there ever any characters you dislike writing? What about scenes? What are your favorite scenes to write, and what are your least favorite scenes to write? Do you relate to any characters in particular, and if so, how?
AM: Thank you so much!! I had a lot of fun writing the snarky dialogue between Beckett and Naomi, actually! ;) Overall though, it was the conversations between The Final Six that I loved writing the most—their banter, friendships and fights allowed me to write normal teenage emotions and relationships in the midst of such a heightened, high-stakes world. Those relationships helped keep the book grounded, I think!
MT: A famous writer once told me never to view a character as a complete villain, as all people are complex and very few are completely evil. She instead implied that I should look at one’s wants versus another’s. How do you feel characters and their different wants play out in the novel, both for themselves and against one another? What do you think is important to having any sort of conflict exist for characters?
AM: That’s a great way of looking at it. The characters’ differing wants really are the crux of the conflict in this story. For example, what Beckett is after is diametrically opposed to what Naomi and Leo want, and that conflict has MAJOR repercussions. You have to have the conflict, because that is the key to a story- there really is no story without it!
MT: Again, there’s a sense of hope in this book. How do you see hope playing out in the novel and the series, and do you think any of this is influenced by what’s going on in the world today, and do you see hope in our world, a potential for hope, or the need for hope? The book offers some beautiful possibilities and I wonder what all this means both inside and outside the realm of The Life Below.
AM: I absolutely see hope in our world, and a perfect example of that is the young climate activist, Greta Thunberg. I think with people like Greta in our next generation, fighting for our world, we can and will make it a better one!
MT: Is there a book as a follow up to The Life Belowplanned? Do you have a work in progress already in your hands, on your desk, in your iCloud perhaps? Maybe you’re just already beginning to plan the novel? You seem like a hard worker!
AM: I do have a new novel coming out, in December of this year actually! It’s unrelated to The Final Six and The Life Below—it’s a superhero novel based on a well-known character, and I’ll be announcing the details soon! I have some other projects in the works, too- lots more to come! J
MT: Alexandra, thank you so much for being interviewed for Writers Tell All. We are thrilled to be able to talk with you and understand (or hope to understand!) your books, your writing process, your characters, and so much more about your writing style. Thank you so much for letting us have a look into your brain and your creative process. Feel free to leave us with any parting words!
AM: Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful interview! I love reading other writers discuss their process, so hopefully mine can be helpful to your readers too. JAnd while there is no one “right” way to write a book, the key is to just keep writing—even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard, because that’s when the breakthroughs often happen!