In our ongoing feature Between the Sheets, TrunkSpace picks the imaginative brains of authors to break down what it takes to create the various worlds and characters they breathe life into via the tools of their trade… sheets of paper. While technology continues to advance and change the pop culture landscape, the written word has remained one of the most consistent and imaginative art forms.
This time out we’re chatting with author Joelle Charbonneau about her new novel “Time Bomb,” how real-life teenagers served to inspire her writing, and why she’s learning to accept the fact that she’s a member of the author’s club.
TrunkSpace: You’ve released a number of novels over the course of your career. As you gear up for the release of “Time Bomb,” does it have a different feeling than it did with your earlier works, and if so, why?
Charbonneau: Every book release feels different and I tend to get more nervous with each one. When I first started writing, I never really thought people would read the words that I wrote. That made it easier in many ways to face the moment when the curtain goes on up on a new novel. Now I know there will be an audience for the book, but unlike my professional performance days when I can see the faces in the audience, I have no way of gauging whether or not the story speaks to readers. I can only hope that the story I tried to tell is one they will think about after the final page is turned.
TrunkSpace: “Time Bomb” focuses on seven students who are trapped in their school after a bomb goes off. Obviously this is a work of fiction, but are you nervous as to how it will be perceived in the current social and political climate following the tragic events that occurred in Parkland, Florida?
Charbonneau: This is a tough question. The obvious and very honest answer is yes. The anxiety level is incredibly high for parents and teachers and students after everything that has happened. And “Time Bomb” is a novel with danger in a school, which could make it a hard book for some readers to pick up. However, it is my great hope that “Time Bomb” is also a book that will lead to discussions about some of the issues that teens face every single day. Books help us walk in the shoes of characters who are both similar and different from ourselves. Exploring other points of views creates empathy and opens our minds to new ways of thinking and hopefully new ways of talking to each other. I think since the tragedy on Feb. 14th, the students of Stoneman Douglas High School have demonstrated with their amazing strength and words that our world can use all the empathy and open-minded conversation that we can get.
TrunkSpace: Much of your career has been spent writing the continuation of series that you created, including The Testing trilogy and The Rebecca Robbins mysteries. Was there something freeing creatively for you in working on “Time Bomb” and getting to essentially start from scratch?
Charbonneau: Starting a new project from scratch is both terrifying and incredibly wonderful. Terrifying because I do not yet know the characters I am writing about and with a book like “Time Bomb” that is six times as nerve-wracking. After all, there were six point of view characters from very different backgrounds that I had to shape from a concept into three-dimensional teens. But it is wonderful to feel the moment when each character’s voice clicks into place and to know that unlike a book in a series, a standalone story will be complete (or as complete as any story can be) by the time I reach the final page.
TrunkSpace: As you look back at the work, what are you most proud of when it comes to “Time Bomb?”
Charbonneau: I’m most proud of the array of characters in “Time Bomb,” which were created through conversations I’ve had with students who opened up to me about their lives and then were willing to read the draft of the manuscript and offer their critiques so I could continue to make the characters stronger. High schools are filled with students of a variety of cultures, religions and economic circumstances, many of which I can appreciate, but cannot claim as my own. The students who talked to me about their school and family lives, their concerns about how they are perceived in the world and the limitations they sometimes feel compelled to put on themselves gave me the building blocks which became what I hope is the heart of the book. Those teens gave me a true gift by allowing me to hear their joys and sorrows and I can only hope I have made them proud. (And if I have made any mistakes, they are completely mine.)
TrunkSpace: Your background is in theater. Do you think that has helped you in your career as a writer, specifically from the standpoint of crafting dialogue?
Charbonneau: Well, my background in theater has certainly helped when it comes to getting rejected. I’m a true champ at that whether it be in theater, opera or in writing. But I do think that I use the training I’ve had as an actor when I write dialogue. I often find myself speaking the words aloud and then altering words in order to find the specific voice or speech pattern of a character, which I’m sure confuses the cat who thinks I am talking to him.
TrunkSpace: You do a lot of visits and Skype sessions with students. How important are those events to you, not only to your career, but from an inspirational standpoint? Does inspiring the next generation of writers help to refuel your own creative tank?
Charbonneau: My first published books were for adults, so I had no idea when I wrote my first young adult book that school visits and Skypes were something that is often a part of a YA writer’s life. As much as I love writing, I love school visits and virtual chats more. Teens are strong and fun and give me hope for the future. They are also snarky and throw shade with the best of them, and I love every moment of it. I really hope that some small part of my visits inspires the students I talk to because they greatly inspire me. They remind me to question everything about the world – especially my own preconceived ideas – and to approach life as if anything is possible. I think of both of those things when I sit down in front of my computer and face the blank page. Then on the days when I think I can’t possibly fill the pages, I remind myself those teens believe I can and that I don’t want to be the one that ever lets them down.
TrunkSpace: How long did it take for you to discover your voice as a writer?
Charbonneau: All writers take time to develop their voice. I came to writing late. I was not the girl who dreamed of being a writer. I was a theater girl through and through. I loved reading other people’s lines and putting my own spin on their story. When I finally did start writing, I needed practice. Lots and lots of practice. I can see glimpses of my voice in my first manuscripts, but it took until my fifth manuscript for my own voice to consistently shine through. And I keep working on making it stronger with each book. I guess you could say, me and my writing voice continue to be a work in progress.
TrunkSpace: Regarding the process, is writing a labor of love for you or does it feel more like labor? Do you enjoy the process?
Charbonneau: In one word – yes. Yes, I love the process. Yes, it is a labor of love and yes it feels like labor. The more I know about writing, the more critical I am of myself as I write, which can be hard to set to the side so I can lose myself in the story. But I love the process of creating the world and exploring an idea that I am fascinated with. More often than not, I am writing to find out what I think about something so it is no wonder that the process of writing a first draft is equal parts frustration and fascination.
TrunkSpace: And what does that process look like? What are the ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing?
Charbonneau: Wait!? There are ideal conditions for putting in a good day of writing? I guess that probably gives you a good idea of how I write. I am a mom, so I tend to write when and where I can. I’ve written poolside during swim lessons and on the sidelines of taekwondo lessons and sitting on the grass in a concert in the park where my husband’s band is playing. Because my writing process is what would be called by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I only have a vague idea of where the story is going when I start writing. I have the conflict in my head and I do some world building about the location and the circumstances surrounding the story, and then I write. I have tried outlining because that seems like it should guarantee that every day is a decent writing day, but for some reason it just doesn’t work for me. I find that each conversation my characters have veers me away from the outline and into previously unseen territory. So, I have finally decided that outlining isn’t meant for me – at least not on the first draft. I have to just follow where the story goes. To do that, I find I have to write seven days a week in order to keep the story straight in my head. Sometimes that means I get five to six pages written while my son is at school. Sometimes I am writing at 2 a.m. to eek out one page before I go to sleep. Lucky for me, my desperate need to find out what happens next in the story means that I am willing to write anywhere and anyplace as long as it gets me closer to THE END.
TrunkSpace: Do you self-edit as you write?
Charbonneau: I self-doubt a lot, which means I do tweak things a little bit on the pages I’m writing that particular day. But for the most part I don’t go back and edit until the draft is done. Part of not outlining is that often I don’t know exactly where the story is going to take me. So it is hard to edit since I have no idea what parts are necessary, need to be fleshed out or are just plain old silly. But I do keep a word document with questions that I think might need to be addressed or sections I want to make sure I pay attention to when I go back and edit.
TrunkSpace: Where are you the hardest on yourself as a writer?
Charbonneau: Because I wasn’t someone who dreamed about being a writer when I was younger, I find that I have a hard time believing that I belong in the author club, which can make me doubt every single word that I write. I’m always thinking that another author would be able to tell the story better or have the right words instead of the ones I am using. So many authors were writing fiction throughout elementary and high school. They majored in English and took creative writing classes. Me – well, I sang and acted and sometimes danced. So every day is a fight to remind myself that it’s okay to doubt because all writers do that. It’s okay to have bad writing days because everyone does that, too. And when I go to conferences and festivals, I have to remember that when other people see me, they don’t see the girl that doesn’t feel like she belongs. They see an author. And if they see that, then maybe that’s who I really am.
TrunkSpace: What are you working on now and what will people be able to read next?
Charbonneau: Right now I’m working on a project that has yet to be announced. So, shhh! It’s a near future, alternate history adventure that involves a young artist who has lost her mother and in trying to finish her mother’s final painting discovers that nothing about the world she is living in is real and that words are more than the things we use to communicate – they have the power to inspire, to control and in the wrong hands the power to destroy. As for what people will be able to read next, the final book in my fantasy duology, “Eden Conquered” will be out in June. It is the continuing journey of a brother and sister’s fight for their kingdom’s throne and the story of how far people will go to gain the power they most desire.
“Time Bomb” is available March 13 from HMH Books for Young Readers.