Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Interview With Lani Wendt Young, Author Of The Telesa Trilogy

Hi Guys! *waves* Thank you for coming by. I am lucky enough to have an in-depth interview with one of my favourite authors. I hope you enjoy...

*(ME) (LANI)*

Name: Lani Wendt Young
Age: 39
Occupation: Writer / Domestic Goddess *LOL*
Place of Birth: Apia, Samoa
Place of Residence: Auckland, NZ
Marital Status: Married ( 19 yrs and counting…) *blimey, that's a long time*
Children: Five.
Favourite Author: Too many. C.S Lewis, JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Maya Angelou, Stephenie Meyer, Toni Morrison,  Sophie Kinsella, Sia Figiel,  Marian Keyes, Raymond E Feist and Jenny Wurts
Favourite Book: Who can possibly choose one?! *not me, that's for sure*
Favourite Singer/Band:  U2, Eminem, Lauryn Hill, Bob Marley, Sade,  Eric Clapton, Coldplay, John Mayer,
Favourite Food & Drink: Diet Coke, Doritos, donuts, faiai fe’e ( octopus baked in coconut cream)
Best Holiday Destination: Home. Samoa.
Favourite TV Programme: Greys Anatomy,  True Blood, Game of Thrones, Good Wife, Desperate Housewives. *you had me up until Desperate Housewives*
Favourite Past Time/Hobby: reading, dancing, pretending to run.

I'd like to ask a few questions about you personally before asking about the book, if that's okay...?

Firstly, I'd like to know what it is that you enjoy doing most apart from writing? 
Reading. I only discovered e-books last year and my Kindle is my bestest friend now. I used to buy books everywhere I go and lug them around with me and electronic books have changed my life.  I also enjoy baking. I am a dessert freak. Im not very good at cooking savory dishes so it’s not uncommon for my family to eat canned tuna fish with rice for dinner…and then have three different kinds of pie. And choc chip cookies. And sticky date pudding. Yummy.

Did you always know you wanted to be an author?
Before I wanted to be an author I wanted to be the Prime Minister of Samoa. And a super model.  And a vet. And a lawyer.  And a superhero. But writing was always my strength, my passion. I just never thought one could make a proper living from it.

If you couldn't be an author, what would you like to be?
I’m a qualified high school English teacher and worked in schools in Samoa for about eight years before I had my 3rd child and decided to stay home and be a full-time mum. I enjoy being in the classroom and interacting with teenagers.

Who would you say are your writing influences?
The Bible. Shakespeare. C.S Lewis. Enid Blyton.  I grew up in Samoa which did not have a lot of books readily available so I was in a constant state of HUNGER for stuff to read. I spent a lot of time at the public library, re-reading the classics and lots of very ragged, very old books. We also read a lot of British/English stuff – like Enid Blyton and the Swiss Chalet Girls series. As a teenager, I was obsessed with stories that had strong female leads  - Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew and the X-Men comics. As an adult I discovered Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan and Sia Figiel – and I continue to be inspired by the way they integrate culture and feminism into their writing.

Do you have your own muse? 
I have five of them. My children. They range in age from 17 to four years old and being their mother is like living in a non-stop creative furnace. My eldest daughter brainstorms a lot of the Telesa stories with me, my son tempers our wild ideas with scientific reminders “that’s impossible, you can’t write that, it doesn’t make sense!”  Children are constantly discovering wonders and mystery in the everyday world around us – and when I’m not too tired or irritated with them – I get to see the world the same way they do. It’s a great blessing to be a mother and I’m grateful for the many ways they inspire and add to my writing.

What was the first book you read?
My mum would read to us. I remember reading The Wild Thing by Maurice Sendak. Loving  it. The Narnia series has always been and always will be a huge influence on me. I read all Enid Blyton’s books – and was very captivated by the Faraway Tree in particular. The thought of these imaginary amazing worlds accessible at the top of a tree…or in a wardrobe…were fascinating concepts for me.

What was the first thing you wrote?  
Short stories. When I was 10 I wrote a story about a mango tree that had feelings and thoughts. My teacher read it out loud to the class and told everyone I had a great imagination and would be a writer one day. A spark of a dream was lit that day. When I was 15 I wrote a story about a girl who falls in love with a sea prince – who changes into a silver dolphin. My English teacher accused me of plagiarism and called my parents. She said there was no way a kid my age could write a story like that. I was hugely offended… I made sure that I got the highest marks for the national English examinations that year.

*butts in* Oh my goodness! That’s like, wow! I guess looking back on it though, it may be seen as a compliment.

Is the first thing you wrote also the first thing you published?
No. When I grew up I got very busy with university and raising a family. It wasn’t until a year before my 30th birthday that I realized I couldn’t keep saying “I’m going to be a writer ONE DAY WHEN I GROW UP” because heck, I was all grown up. I set a target to submit my stories to a publisher before I turned 30. On my birthday, I posted my collection of short stories to 4 different publishers. All of them said no. They told me to submit stories to journals and collections and competitions to get started. I took their advice and that’s how I began getting my work published.

What was it that made you decide to be an Indie author as opposed to pursuing a publishing contract?
My first book was written on commission. I was hired for a year to research and write a book about the tsunami that hit Samoa. The project was then funded by the Australian govt who paid for it to be printed. I worked with the editor, printer and distributor on every step of the book process. The experience showed me that writing, printing and publishing a book are NOT deeply mysterious and complicated things.  When TELESA started getting rejection letters from agents and publishers I didn’t sit around and wait. I continued to refine my book, get a cover design, plan a promotional campaign… and by the fifteenth rejection, I was ready to go indie. It’s hard work but I’m loving the writing journey and for a control freak – there’s so much to love about self-publishing.

I know you were born in Apia, Samoa - so i know that must be the inspiration behind TELESA being set in Samoa - but having said that, I would like to know what the inspiration was behind the actual premise of the story... specifically the following...

(i)                  Why did you decide to write a Paranormal book?
Toni Morrison said, ‘if the book you want to read has not yet been written, then you must write it.’ That captures why I wrote this series. Fantasy/magic/paranormal elements – have always been my favourite kinds of fiction. I love the escape that they provide from reality. I love the possibilities that are inherent in them. I’ve always wanted to read a paranormal/fantasy story set in Samoa and there aren’t any. In fact, there’s not a lot of novels written by Samoans, set in contemporary Samoa and TELESA is the first Samoan Young Adult novel of its kind.

(ii)                Why did you want to write about Telesa - were they something people believed in when you were younger or are they something you made up?
There are many legends and stories whispered in Samoa about ‘teine Sa’, spirit/demon women who have supernatural powers. They are guardians of various areas in the islands – like rivers, forests, a particular village etc. They curse, bewitch, poison, and kill those who defy their rules and disrespect their lands etc.  There is a lot of fear and respect given to these legends and many people believe in their existence. As a child growing up in Samoa, I often questioned my father and other elders about the ‘teine Sa’, because I wanted to know more about them. Who were they exactly and where did they originate? People did not like my questions and I got very few answers. Mainly because ‘teine Sa’ are such a taboo topic and also because, few people really know much about them at all. I took that unfulfilled curiosity and used it to dream up the Telesa women in my books. They are nothing much like the original legends as they are my creative interpretation of them.

(iii)               Was the love story between Leila and Daniel pivotal to the story?
Yes, Telesa is first and foremost, a love story. But there are many different kinds of love and I have explored several of them in the books. Readers have connected strongly with Daniel and Leila’s love story and that’s been very exciting to see. In our Samoan culture, ‘young love’ is frowned upon in many ways, with sex being a very taboo topic.  In the second book, I take on more taboo topics in our traditional culture – child sexual abuse and domestic violence. TELESA is crossing generations as its being read by many parents AND their teenagers – for example, at a recent book signing event I met a grandmother who came with her daughter and grand-daughter who have all read the book and loved it. It is my hope that TELESA can be the springboard for family discussions about a myriad of topics, including those which have been considered ‘taboo’.  But for me, the key love story in TELESA is the relationship between mother and daughter, between Leila and Nafanua. I am very interested in the often complex and complicated relationships women have with their mothers.

During the writing process, some authors say that characters voices pop unbidden into their head and demand to be written - is that the case for you and your characters?
For me, it’s not so much characters voices that ‘speak to me’ but scenes, pivotal moments in the story that grip me and demand to be written.  I’m a very visual person and my works in progress play out like a film in my head.  I wrote the ending of TELESA first. Before I even knew what was going to happen in the book.  We get strong tropical storms in Samoa and I was looking out the window at one such violent storm when lightning lit up the sky.  It was fiercely beautiful and terrifying at the same time. And right then, I could see the final show-down between Leila, Nafanua and the Covenant Sisterhood.  As Sarona struck at Leila with shards of lightning, again and again while she writhed in agony on the ground. And then that pivotal moment when Nafanua decides to break her Covenant vow with her sisters, to turn away from generations of tradition – and instead, choose her daughter above all else.  That scene almost wrote itself. So did the scene where Leila’s elemental powers are finally unleashed. Talk about a kiss that sets a person on fire… LOL

Would you say you relate well to Leila? Is there a part of you that relates to any of the sisters?
Leila’s quick readiness to condemn people and go on defensive-offensive attack mode, is a lot like me when I was a young adult. Thankfully, I had no elemental powers or else I would have been sizzling people left and right during my early years…lol. All the rest of Leila is bits and pieces I’ve taken from various women in my life. Same with the Sisterhood.  I have three sisters and tons of cousins and so I have an endless array of inspiring sources for my characters.

How long did it take you to come up with the idea for your trilogy?
I’m not very good at planning stories in advance. I don’t map a book out before I write it – which makes them rather messy… So I started writing TELESA with an idea about a young girl with ‘teine Sa’ powers who falls in love with a rather delicious boy – and then as I wrote, other ideas flowed and got in the way, making the story their own.  It took me about six months all up to write TELESA but that was after a lifetime of storing away little nugget ideas and ‘filmclips’ of scenes in my brain.

What I suppose I mean by that is, do you have a plan for where the trilogy should end before you write the rest of the story or do you think the ending will come to you as you begin to wind the story up?
I start each book with a few powerful scenes in mind and then work backwards to fill in the gaps BUT even those scenes are not set in stone. In the first book, Jason was supposed to die but then as I wrote the book, his character ended up taking over more ‘air-time’ and I liked him way more than I thought I would. So I couldn’t stand to have him get killed off at the end and rewrote that scene. Sarona didn’t even exist when I wrote my final show-down scene. It was all about Leila and Nafanua. But while writing the novel, Sarona ‘s role kept growing until she was a mega-villainess in her own right.

Going back to TELESA, how many drafts would you say there were before you were satisfied enough for it to go to print?
Countless drafts. Every time I submitted it to another agent/publisher, I edited it some more. Even after I released it as an electronic book, I still wasn’t happy with it and went back to redraft and re-upload it. Thank goodness the print book can’t be changed because I’m sure I would be wanting to draft it again!

 Does writing come easily to you? I know some authors say that writing is a steep learning curve, would you agree?
Writing is a breeze. I love doing it. It’s crazy exhilarating to create people and chart their stories. BUT revising and rewriting and improving my writing – that’s what is hard work. That’s what I dread but I have to do it because otherwise everything I write would be rubbish. I have so much to learn. I do a lot of research, I study a lot of other writer’s techniques. I read voraciously. When I find a book I like – I ask myself why and identify what can I learn from that author’s technique?  I watch a lot of movies. I think that writers have a lot to learn from movies and television. Both good and bad. Especially when it comes to writing action and event sequences. Knowing how to make reading flow, what kind of dialogue is realistic and what to do to leave readers hungry for more.  After I watch a great movie – I come home on FIRE, just burning to get at my laptop and start writing. An example, the recent Avengers movie.  That blew me away. The dialogue in particular was witty, profound and captivating. The portrayal of some of the characters was epic.  When I think of a TELESA movie one day? That’s the kind of movie I hope it will be.
There are many different kinds of writer and people need to be certain of what kind of writer they are trying to be. I’m not writing to impress and astound with my grasp of imagery and language – no, I’m writing to tell a story. I’m a storyteller. And I’m always hoping and trying to improve.

Was it any quicker or slower to write WHEN WATER BURNS?
The second book in the series was quicker to write than the first, but required more courage. It’s tough to write a second book knowing that readers all have their expectations for what it will be, based on their experience of the first one.  I put a lot more of myself into the second book – my humor, sarcasm, anger and more - because maybe I’m getting braver? Or it could be I’m getting dumber…I’m not sure, LOL.

When do you hope to release the third installment? Does it have a name yet or just a working title?
The third book is titled, The Bone Bearer. I’ve already started it and if I was a chiselled, disciplined writing professional, the book would be written in six months and out by Dec 2012. Sadly, I am not a chiselled masterpiece of writing perfection. And there’s all sorts of things that are on my schedule for the next six months – like the day-to-day life with my children. And  like book events in Australia, Hawaii and possibly the USA. Im speaking at schools, libraries and writing festivals in the coming months. And while those are all excellent opportunities to connect with readers in person, they all force me to get out of the writing cave and interact with the real world. (very painful process) 

Once the trilogy is complete, do you intend to take a break from writing or do you already have plans for the next book?
I have two other books on hold, very different from TELESA. One is a ‘chick-lit’ contemporary romance set in Samoa. The other is a MOM-Memoir inspired by a lot of my blog Sleepless in Samoa.  I would like to finish them and get them published. I have to confess though that the TELESA world has more stories in it for me. I’ve already begun a novella written from Daniel’s perspective – that retells key sections of book one and I would like that to be released very soon. Before the third book is published. ( I hear whispers of November…November…)  There are a few characters that I would like to take further with books of their own. Tavake from book two. Keahi. And Teuila. And without spoiling too much…Nafanua deserves her own book. (thank goodness that in the world of fiction, people are never TRULY dead…)

I know I've asked you so many questions already and I am so grateful to you for answering them all, but I'd like to ask one last one... Is there anything, non-spoilery of course, that you can share today with your fans about what we can expect for the end of the trilogy? (I personally am an old fashioned romantic and would love Leila and Daniel to have a Happily Ever After, but I know you can't tell us that)
All I’ll say Keren is that I too am an old fashioned romantic at heart…

Thank you Lani for taking the time to answer my questions. I will be so sorry to see the trilogy end, I hope it ends well for L & D. I know that even though there'll come a time when I will read the last word on the last page, I will keep a piece of Samoa buried in my heart. It really came alive for me whilst reading TELESA.
I want you to know I truly love your writing and I look forward to many more books from you. You have a fan-girl for life!

Thank you so much Keren. For the interview opportunity and for the book support. Writing can be such a solitary activity that it’s a real joy to connect with readers, especially those who can add so much more insight and inspiration for the writing process. It’s so humbling to know that there is a Telesa fan all the way over there in the UK. Thank you.

*Thank you Lani! This has been a truly interesting interview. I am delighted that you took the time to answer so many of my questions. I know that usually people only ask about 5 or 6 questions but I didn't think that gathered enough information ~ so I wanted to ask things that really got to the heart of you.
Telesa was an extraordinary book, I will always have a piece of Samoa in my heart ~ I can't wait to read and review When Water Burns so thank you for sending me a gorgeous paperback ~ I really love looking at the cover, both front and back!*

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Thank you to everyone who came by to read this interview. I hope I asked all the questions that you would have thought to ask. 
I really appreciate the fact that Lani answered quite so many questions. But then I always have been quite nosy! 

Hope to see you all again soon!

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