Young-adult mastermind Cecil Castellucci: "There’s no way I can write a 'Hunger Games'"

Comic books! Sci-fi! Post-apocalyptic awesomeness! YA's genius Renaissance woman Cecil Castellucci opens up

Published March 14, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

  (Laurent Castellucci)
(Laurent Castellucci)

In an age of dystopian knock-offs, young-adult writer Cecil Castellucci breaks the mold. She’s a shapeshifter who genre-jumps into realistic fiction ("Beige"), slice-of-life graphic novels ("The Plain Janes"), and science fiction (her latest, "Tin Star"). A former indie rocker who performed in the band Nerdy Girl and solo as Cecil Seaskull in the ’90s, Castellucci gives her characters indie-girl charm. Whether they're dropped into a punk-rock dad’s Hollywood crash pad or stranded in outer space, they always project a winning combination of naiveté, skepticism and passion. The basic integrity of her characters make you want to be them – or at least want them to exist in your orbit.

Castellucci herself is as likable and strong-willed as her characters. An artist and science fiction obsessive, she was a strong believer that young-adult writing was a respectable art long before the genre became fashionable. She is now a bit of a young adult ambassador; you’re just as likely to see her moderating panels and trumpeting others’ work as promoting her own.

Her new science fiction novel, "Tin Star," the first in a two-book series, is an eerie and seductive tale about a disillusioned girl abandoned on a time-ravaged space station. We caught her in her adopted home town of L.A. before she jetted off on a book tour.

We’re going to start talking about “Tin Star.” It’s a science fiction book set in outer space, but I notice that there are references to contemporary issues like immigration and imperialism. Does science fiction allow you to get at politics in a way that you couldn’t in a more realistic book?

Yeah, I do think that; I think there is a long tradition of that. I think that it’s a way to talk about ideas that maybe make people uncomfortable in a safe way because it’s an alien; it’s not Earth ­­— it’s different places. I think that’s one of the reasons why teenagers love science fiction so much. And before there was a real formal YA [young adult] marketing category that a lot of kids went straight to genre books, and I think it was the first time they could explore different kinds of political ideas without having to make a decision about how they felt about politics yet. You could explore different ideas.

It could prompt you within the family structure to talk about politics without actual specific references to Republicans or Democrats…

Exactly. So you can explore that and it’s sort of safe. You can bring up a different idea and "I dunno, this alien said it." It’s safe to talk about at the dinner table.

You began by writing about these girls in the real world, and then there was this switch to science fiction. What inspired you to go there?

Well, first of all, my first love is science fiction, so my heart has always been a science fiction writer. But when I first started writing, the voice that came out naturally was contemporary young adult. My first book is about a girl who’s obsessed with post-apocalyptic science fiction films and comic books. So I think sometimes I just needed to write to the side, before I was brave enough to jump into outer space. But I have been practicing in the sense that for the last few years I’ve been writing adult short speculative fiction and publishing those, so those have been the palate cleansers between my contemporary novels and gearing me up to writing a larger tale.

I also wonder about writing for teenagers. It seems like it would pretty difficult. I work with teenagers all the time and they’re living in a really different world than I lived in when I was young. How do you tap into what they’re interested in? I’m sure you think about who you were when you were a teenager, too, but how do you do that but also address the kind of things they're interested in and keep it current?

Well, I think that’s a really, really interesting question. I think, first of all, it’s easy to tap into that because everybody has been in high school and been a teenager and felt awkward and alien in their own bodies in that way, so that’s something that is pretty universal. I think that’s also why adults like young-adult fiction — because it’s the same thing; it’s a rite of passage that we all went through. I think that in writing for teens there are certain things that will always remain the same as well. There will always be like a music kind of thing with kids, there will ways be a regular uniform like jeans and a T-shirt. That’s been popular for 60, 70 years now, it’s not going to change really. There are certain things that you can latch onto that are the universal thing that transcends time.

I do think that writing contemporary young-adult fiction in these days in extremely difficult and I think that's why you find a lot of books set in the ’80s, before there was Internet or mobile phones, because once you start having the technology, a) not only does it remove a whole lot of obstacles and conflicts that you can have, like "I don’t know where you are! Really, why didn’t you just text me?" And, b) technology changes so fast that if you write an iPad or an iPhone in one contemporary the book, two years later that could be completely obsolete and that immediately dates your book.

And what I see is that there’s a huge trend toward people writing books taking place in the ’80s because that way it’s safe. There’s historical fiction and there’s no technology to be reckoned with. But also it does take place now; you’ll notice in contemporary YA novels, there’s barely any technology. It’s almost as if nobody has a computer, nobody has a cell phone. It’s sort of this invisible thing that’s there and kind of referred to sort of so that it grounds it, but is not specified. And I think that that’s a real challenge for young-adult writers today.

Yeah, I’ve seen some people use it really well. I think David Levithan used it really well in "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" using the instant messaging in that book, but sometimes contemporary novels seem to be a technology-free environment and you think, “Well, how can that be?”

Yeah, and I think one solution is that people will make up technology: it’s not a smartphone, it’s some other thing that doesn’t exist yet. Because if you make something up that doesn’t exist , even if it’s a contemporary thing, we can all just sort of agree that it is standing in for that kind of technology. My suspicion is that maybe it’s not AOL instant messaging like it was, you know, in 1999 or 2000, but like jeans and a T-shirt there’s still going to be some kind of instant messaging that will happen in the future. So I think things like that are safe to use because there’ll always be something that’s sort of similar to that.

A lot of your main characters are trying to break free of groupthink or trying to gain independence from a kind of a controlled way of thinking. Why are you concerned with that? Why do you think that’s a thread that runs through so much of your work?  

Well, I think because I’m always trying to get away from groupthink. There’s so much pressure. That doesn’t stop when you’re an adult. There’s groupthink everywhere, so I think that’s something that I’m always just trying to be on guard about for myself so that I can be myself and happy with that. And also I think a lot about finding your tribe, your true tribe, and I think that’s part of the passage of growing up. Finding who you are, what kind of adult you want to be and where you want to point your body towards and you live, hopefully, your very long life. And I think that finding who you are as a person is the sort of key to that.

Are you conscious of trying to inspire young people to do that? When you’re writing, are you really thinking about who’s reading this and that you want to point them in a good direction and make them think about being true to who they are, and find the right people?

I never sit down and be, like, "I will let the youth know…" First of all, teenagers smell bullshit if there’s any kind of message in there at all. I think that’s something that I live in my life and so it’s a natural… I never actually thought about it until you just pointed it out; I’m like "yeah, you’re right…" I mean, I guess I knew it, but I was always an odd duck growing up and I always had to fight really hard to be the person that I was, which was very different and it was difficult sometimes to stand my ground. Because there’s so much pressure to sort of cave in, especially when you’re young and you don’t have that core strength or that experience to be like, "No, this is wrong!" or "You guys are messed up" or "I think what I’m thinking is right; it’s fine what I think." And, so I guess I’m just passionate about people being themselves. I don’t know!

You seem like somebody who is always true to who they are, but you’ve also found your tribes in different ways. You were an indie rocker when I was writing about rock music for a living, so clearly you had an indie rock tribe. And I’m wondering what’s similar about indie rock and YA -- or do they have anything in common? Do you feel like you did this thing and then you broke away and now you’re doing this other thing? Or does it feel like there’s a flow there?

I always knew that I wanted to tell stories and I didn’t really care how I tell stories. That’s why I’ve done performance-art pieces or was in a band; wrote a novel or made movies and, you know, wrote books and comic books and stuff. I’ve always felt like I just wanted to follow the way that a story wants to be told. The similarity between indie rock and YA is that indie rock is kind of like the small obscure part of rock and roll that a lot of juggernaut huge things comes out of because they are fresh and new and exciting and sort of like bucking against what is the mainstream. That’s why it’s indie rock. And YA, even though it’s got juggernaut books in the YA world that have made tons of money and stuff like that, it’s always put at the kids' table. People still ask me when I’m going to write a real book. Well, I’ve got 12 real books (Laughs). You think I’m going to start writing a "real" book; I’ve already done that. It’s still a little punk rock to be a YA author, I think, and it’s the same thing with comic books. Comic books were pooh-poohed for many, many years and not [thought of as] being serious literature. And they’ve got a great history of self-publishing. And I don’t feel like I’m jumping tribes. I feel like I’m adding to the people tribe or something, to the tribe that I want which is this glorious island of misfit artists.

You seem to be really interested in promoting YA writers. You travel all over the country, moderating panels. And I think a lot of people would say, I just want to focus on my writing. Why do you think that’s important?

I think some of it stems from the fact that it’s really tiring to have people dismiss my work because it wasn’t adult literary fiction. And here in Los Angeles, I’ve been to this reading series because I go to adult things and I also go to young-adult events, and, you know, there I’d be at the big kid table and say, "Hey, maybe I could maybe read?" Because people would be reading and they’d have one story in an obscure literary magazine and I’d have three novels out and I’d never be invited to read. Finally this one person was like, after I sold my fifth book, "Oh, so you really are a writer" and I was like "Yes I really am a writer!" (Laughs). I don’t understand. And that was less than 10 years ago.

But I sort of felt like it was important to make sure that YA was taken seriously, and the only way to do that was to promote the entire genre and I was very upset that the L.A. Times Festival of Books did not have a YA stage. They had a Kid City and I had to read for my first novel; I was reading on the stage between Thomas the Tank Engine and like Take Five or some music group. And, you know, there were like 4-year-olds in front of me and I thought, "No teenager is going to be caught dead in Kid City; this is ridiculous."

We need our own space, so I petitioned the L.A. Times Festival of Books for like three years, I think. I met with them every year and was like, "Please, let’s have a YA stage, please, let’s have a YA stage." And [now] we do. They tried it out and it was wildly successful and now it’s a permanent stage. And that’s good for everybody and that’s good for me; it’s not just for me, but if we lift everything up we can start to eliminate these little pooh-poohing gestures of, like, "Oh, it’s not real," or “Oh, it’s not, you know, it’s not considered." Which is despite the fact that YA has made enormous strides in the past two years and we’re in the true golden age of young adult fiction; it still happens.

There’s this sort of barrier, and maybe that goes back to when you were talking about finding your true tribe. I’ve always felt like an outsider, the way that I think, the way that I move through the world, me even wanting to do all these different things, and people saying to me, "You should only pick one art, and do one art and that’s it; you can’t try to be everything." Well, why not?

"The Fault in Our Stars" was Time’s book of the year.

Yeah. I think when we talk about John Green, it’s actually kind of hard because he’s become such a cultural phenomenon that I think he sort of moves beyond… but, absolutely, yeah.

Your books were very realistic and now you’re writing science fiction. Teenagers, the way they operate, they’ll read one book -- as a librarian I see this all the time -- and they say, "I want another book like that one!" And If I find one that’s kind of close, they want another book that’s also just like that one. It’s like they’ve found this little world and they just want to keep living in it. "Perks of Being a Wallflower" or "Across the Universe"; they just want to stay there. And I’m wondering, is it hard to switch genres? Also, how do you respond to the big books that are hitting so hard that the publishing industry wants another one so badly. Are you ever pressured to write "Hunger Games" or write another "Fault in Our Stars"; how does that play out for you? Or do you do your own thing and no one ever asks you to try to follow up on somebody else’s big hit?

Well, yes, I think that one of the advantages of constantly being the outsider and a little bit punk rock is that I just do what I do. There’s no way I can write a "Hunger Games," there’s no way I could write a "Fault in Our Stars" because a) these books have already been written, and b) it would be unnatural for me to write in those voices and in those kinds of worlds. I just can’t do that. I can write a book about someone with cancer, but it would be in my own voice… even "Tin Star" is not quite like all those other science fiction books.

No, not at all.

It’s slightly different and I feel like… every one of my books is very different, and I think that in a way it’s a little bit reinventing the wheel every time because a girl who loves "Boy Proof" is probably not going to like "Rose Sees Red," so it’s like I’m kind of starting from zero every single time. No one’s ever pressured me to write anything other than what I’m writing because I think that I write for those outsider, I’m saying "girls" because mostly I think that’s who reads me, but for those outsider souls who are just a little bit on the outside and who march to the beat of a slightly different drum. Of course I’m interested in having a huge hit; that would be amazing! But I’m not really interested in writing something that’s not authentic and organic to where I am and what story I want to be telling at the moment.

"Tin Star" is a book about someone who has almost been brainwashed at the beginning of the story and, along with the entire group that she’s with, they’re like pioneers in a way, and kind of like Puritans. What inspired you to write this book? I can’t think of another YA book that’s really like it.

It was two things, actually. One thing was I tried to imagine a vision of this girl on a space station having to eat squirmy bugs and it was the choice between living or dying. Having to seek sanctuary, but not having a sanctuary for her kind. At the same time I was having that strange idea, I was watching "Casablanca." I was really fascinated with "Casablanca" being this limbo place for all these characters who were desperately trying to escape this terrible Nazi Germany that was taking over and nobody could leave where they were and nobody could go back to where they’d come from and  it was kind of this limbo place. So, um, I just thought about that girl being on a space station and I thought it would be cool if it were in outer space.

As for Brother Blue and a sort of pioneer thing, it goes back to… At the time I had just gone through a big disappointment with a professional person who is cool, or up there, or whatever, and I really kind of got deceived and, not betrayed, but I saw the man behind the mask. And it just made me think about how we can follow these people who everyone thinks are cool and then someone is like, "Wait a minute, the emperor actually is not wearing any clothes. The emperor is actually naked in the street." And that sort of shock of pointing to something and having people say to you, "No, you’re crazy; you’re wrong." That was the inspiration for Brother Blue. I think that we’ve all had moments like that. But I think that in order to go into outer space -- I mean once they leave they can’t ever go back to Earth -- it has to be someone that that’s charismatic and that messed up because it has to be a sort of cult leader because otherwise it would be too terrifying to actually leave.

Right, it kind of reminded me of Jonestown a little bit.

Right. I did look back at some newspaper articles about Jonestown when I was writing the book. That kind of guy, you know.

This is somebody with so much power and you just think Why aren’t people thinking for themselves? Why can’t they see what I’m seeing? When that crashes it becomes so obvious and everything is exposed to the light.

Yeah. And I was interested in the fact that Tula is the only human there and in a way she has to shed her humanness in order to survive. But then she’s confronted with humans again and has to figure out how not to be an alien anymore. What happens when you basically have to be reborn; your choice is either to die or be reborn as something completely different than anything you’ve ever experienced. You’re growing up and anything that’s mirrored back to you is not anything that you can even understand, so you just have to process that. It makes Tula a little bit strange because she’s sort of shed that.

She becomes more human when she’s shedding the humanness... I want to talk to you a little bit about classics because some people are concerned with so many teenagers reading YA that they’re becoming less and less able to read classics. Which classic science fiction books would you recommend to your fans?

You know, I don’t know if I would go with something like that, I mean, "Wrinkle in Time," of course, but I would probably go with"The Tripod Trilogy" by John Christopher, anything by Ursula K. Le Guin, even though that’s fantasy, not science fiction…

Okay, any book that was written before 1990, what would you recommend? It doesn’t have to fall into any specific category.

Okay, then I would do "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin, I would do "The Enchantress of the Stars" by Sylvia Engdhal, I would do "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L’Engle, I would do "The Tripod Trilogy" by John Christopher, I would do anything by James Tiptree Jr. [pen name of Alice Sheldon], especially her short story "Houston, Houston Are You There?" or "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." I’m totally blanking!

Oh yeah! I would say "Dune" by Frank Herbert, "The Foundation Series" by Isaac Asimov, I would say any Ray Bradbury, I would say any Kurt Vonnegut, I think all of those kinds of books are really gateways to interesting ideas about science fiction.

I want to talk with you a little bit about the L.A. literary scene. L.A. has always been known as a problematic place for authors. Why stay here? Why not go to New York? Do you think of L.A. as having a lot of literary possibilities?  Do you see it growing?

Yeah, I think the greatest thing about Los Angeles is that everybody in America thinks all we are is movies and bad television or whatever; that it’s just Hollywood and that’s it. But there’s this entire vibrant art scene that’s living in the belly of this beast and when you’re trying to do interesting work, that’s really the right place to be because it’s absolutely in opposition to what mainstream culture is. And I think that something like being an author of novels in Hollywood is definitely a unique place to be. So I think that it’s very, very vibrant and I think that’s good.

Everybody else, stay in New York, don’t come to L.A.! L.A. has a really really amazing literary [community] and it’s just gotten bigger and bigger over the last 10 years, I’d say. The L.A. Times Festival of Books, I think is the biggest book festival in the United States of America. Well, that’s because there are readers here and there are people here who are in love with stories. That’s the entire economy of our city is stories. So I think that’s what makes it really vibrant. I think that the nice thing about being an author of books in Los Angeles and not in New York -- I’ve been to New York, I love New York, I grew up in New York, but it’s really competitive and there’s like this group thing that’s over there where you kind of have to step in line and do things a certain way and in Los Angeles, it’s kind of the Wild West and you can really be your quirky self out here. And I love that it’s the outsider, vibrant place of American literature. I don’t think I’ve met one author from New York who doesn’t come to L.A. and then see something, like the L.A. Times Festival of Books or anything, and they’re like, "Wow! This is really great! Gosh, I had no idea!" It’s like a constant joyful discovery that we’re not this illiterate blob.

I think the same happens in the visual arts scene from what I’ve heard, here in Los Angeles. It’s crazy brave and new and whatever. And theatre here, a lot of theatre things start here in Southern California and Los Angeles and then go out. So I think it’s a really great place for experimentation and bravery and I think that’s what’s so wonderful about being a Los Angeles writer.

Tell me what’s next for you? Are you writing another book now?

I just finished "Stone in the Sky" which is the sequel because "Tin Star" is a duet, so I just finished that, just handed that in. And I just did the final touches, I have a graphic novel about hobos in 1932, about a young girl who dresses up as a boy, called "Pearl in the Rust," that’s coming out on Dark Horse comics. And I just opened up the documents to start a new novel, so…

Is it going to be science fiction?

It is going to be science fiction-ish. And I’m not 100 percent sure if it’s young adult or if it’s adult. So that’s kind of exciting.

By Sara Scribner

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Books Cecil Castellucci Hunger Games John Green Tin Star Ya Young Adult Fiction