Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Author Interview: Elisa Ludwig

by Jennifer Sheffield

Hi, Elisa! Congratulations on the imminent release of Pretty Sly!

Synopsis: Following the events of Pretty Crooked, Willa Fox was ordered to stay out of trouble by a juvenile court judge. But that was before her house was ransacked . . . and her mother went missing. Now Willa and her crush, Aidan, decide they must violate her probation and hit the California highway in search of her mom. When Willa and Aidan wind up as the focus of a national police chase, their journey becomes dangerously criminal. Soon Willa realizes it's easier to escape the law than the truth. And that everything she thought she knew about her mom--and her life--was wrong. (Check out the book's trailer on YouTube.)

Pretty Crooked, the first in the series, reads as a Robin Hood tale, with the twist that Willa is stealing from people in her own crowd. How would you characterize Pretty Sly?

PRETTY SLY is a kind of Bonnie and Clyde story, as Willa blankets the West Coast in search of her missing mother, with her romantic interest Aidan in tow. As a national manhunt for them heats up, a series of mishaps and circumstances force them to rely on Willa's criminal tactics for survival. So you have action, adventure, road tripping, thievery, car chases and lots of kissing. Oh yeah, and a night in a movie star's house.

How did you first come up with the idea for the series? Did you have the three-story arc in mind when you started Pretty Crooked, or did it come to you during the writing process?

The idea came about when Colton Harris-Moore, the Barefoot Bandit, was in the news for his criminal exploits in the Pacific Northwest. I was fascinated by the idea of how a kid could break into houses, steal planes, dodge the FBI and become a folk hero in the process. In the PRETTY CROOKED series Willa's character has more of a benevolent goal in mind (at first, just evening the social playing field in her school, but later it's to save her mother and find out the truth about her family), which makes her a bit more relatable for teens. I always had a three-story arc in mind but the specifics of that arc, the ways the mysteries unfold and some of the themes have definitely changed in the writing and editing process.

Which character(s) in the series do you find the most difficult to write, and which come the most smoothly? Does it change from book to book? Do you have particular strategies to help you along with this?

Overall, the beauty of writing a series is that once you pin down those characters in the first book, it's much easier going forward. When it came to writing the sequels, I could really concentrate on all of the plot twists (of which there are many!) because I already knew the voices and motivations of Willa, Aidan, Tre, et al. I would say Willa herself was difficult to write in the first book, especially, though it got easier with the other two. It was a fine balance to achieve—she had to be naive enough to believe that what she was doing was "right" while clever enough to pull off her heists and schemes. All the while she is gradually becoming more self-aware and more independent. Plus, she needed to be likable, even though she's a crook! There was no particular strategy per se, but it just took several revisions to hone the transformation her character goes through and her internal thought process along the way. (Sadly, my only strategy is hard work, but I'd love to know if anyone out there has any others!) As for the smoothest, I have always found Tre easy to write for some reason, even though he is technically the least like me of any character in the book. Go figure.

How do you feel about Willa and her decisions/motivations? Aside from my assumption that you have rather more impulse control than she does, in what ways do you find yourself like or unlike your protagonist?

This is certainly a high-concept book, so the onus was on me as the author to make a highly unbelievable story seem real enough that my readers will go along with me—or at least humor me! That often included giving her rationales and motivations for behavior that most of us would not agree with. So while I don't condone stealing as a solution to any problem and I think it becomes clear to readers that Willa has to pay for her mistakes, I also hope that readers see this book for what it is—a fun fantasy. As the series moves on, of course, her motivations become even deeper and more complicated. She wants to find out more about her family and who she is, and that process, though dramatized here in an extreme way, is really what growing up is about. As for me, well, I was very different from Willa in high school! I was a shy, Doc Marten wearing, poetry-writing girl who didn't really get the appeal of the popular crowd. About the only thing we have in common is our sense of humor! But maybe, just maybe, I could have been swayed by a bad boy like Aidan.

Pretty Sly takes Willa on a rather unusual tour of the West Coast, some very scenic and some not so much. How (without giving too much away) did you plan her route? I know you like traveling; have you been to the places that Willa visits along her mad journey?

This was one of the most fun aspects of planning this book, for sure. I picked their first destination somewhat randomly, but from there I looked at maps. The route actually changed a few times in revisions—it's not a straight line, as you noticed. I chose some of the places because they seemed logical, some because they seemed scenic or had dramatic potential, and others for the names! And truth be told, I have only been to Santa Barbara and that was when I was 12. I would really like to go to Carmel and the Painted Hills, though!

How is the third book in the series progressing? Have you been finding surprises as you work, or is it fitting close to a plan?

The third book is actually now in copy-edits, so it's pretty much complete. Actually, the third book surprised me quite a bit. The mysteries Willa uncovers take her to a very different place, literally and psychologically, in the final installment. I'm really excited about it, because I think it's a fitting conclusion to the series, but at the same time, it's not an obvious one.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about Pretty Sly, or about you as an author?

About Pretty Sly: I think this might be my favorite book in the series, if I'm allowed to say so! About me: I just feel really, really lucky to be doing what I love to do.

And now for our "3 for 3" book questions:
1. What were 3 of your favorite books from childhood/teen years?

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson: The fantasy world was so evocative... I remember this book inspiring a lot of my play.

Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball by Paul Zindel: Nobody did quirky outsider characters like Paul Zindel and I really wish people still read his books. (Also, I still think the 1970s and 1980s has the lock on the best YA book titles.)

Mom, the Wolf Man and Me by Norma Klein: Again, title! I loved all of Norma Klein's books—they always had sophisticated characters with unconventional parents, sort of the edgier Judy Blume.

2. What are 3 books that you've read recently that surprised you?

Destroy all Cars! by Blake Nelson: I loved the voice in this book—he gets the smart, disaffected and alienated teen boy perfectly. The story isn't groundbreaking, but I was drawn right in because the characters were so believable.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: This book stunned me with its economy. She gets us so deep into these characters in so few words. Miraculous and beautiful.

Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang: I don't often read too much outside YA these days, but this hilarious and boastful memoir was a great palate cleanser. I loved all of the descriptions of food and once again, the voice was pretty spectacular.

3. What are 3 books that influence/d your work?

The Sweet Valley High series is a big influence on Pretty Crooked, in that I wanted it to be as fun and page-turn-y as these books were for me in my childhood.

That Summer by Sarah Dessen. This was one of the first "newer" (i.e., not from my era) YA books I read when I first started thinking about writing YA, and I am continually amazed by its pitch-perfect realism. There's a reason Dessen is a perennial bestselling author—she just nails the teenage experience in the most relatable way, year after year. Maybe it's less influence and more awe.

King Dork by Frank Portman. See above. This was something else I read in that same era, about eight years ago and it made me want to write for teens. It's funny, it's smart , it's timeless and it has all the makings of a classic.

Thanks for joining us, Elisa!

Elisa Ludwig studied writing at Vassar College and Temple University, but she wanted to be a writer long before all of that. Technically since she started writing, editing and publishing The Elisa Bulletin which she printed out on a dot matrix printer and sold for ten cents a pop.

In the intervening years she has worked as a freelance writer, covering the following topics: hot dogs, insurance, cyber theft, penny-pinching, drug development, weddings, other people’s books, music, movies, restaurants, mental health issues, diets, engineering, whiskey, furniture, real estate and travel. But writing about teenagers is her favorite subject.

She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and son. Her novel PRETTY SLY is the second in her PRETTY CROOKED trilogy, with the third installment coming in 2015. You can visit her online at www.elisaludwig.com.

Thanks for reading!!! Elisa Ludwig's Pretty Sly comes out next Tuesday, March 18!

If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to order a copy of Pretty Sly, or the first book, Pretty Crooked. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Next up: On March 25th, come check out Cordelia's interview with Robin Herrera, author of Hope is a Ferris Wheel.

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