Six Questions with Eugene Myers
I first met Eugene (E.C.) Myers at Starry Heaven, a peer-to-peer novel writing workshop. I was introduced to an as-yet-unpublished novel, but I have to say, I was smitten by his work. As I mention below, I think Eugene really nails the feeling that kids have in that age, that age where you’re still tied to your family but you’re branching out. It’s a terribly awkward but also exciting stage in our lives. And I get to live that through Eugene’s fiction, which is why I heartily recommend you give him a try.
When I heard that Eugene had sold Fair Coin to Pyr books, I was really excited, and now that his release date has finally rolled around, I asked Eugene to stop by for a bit of a chat. He was gracious enough to say yes.
Here’s what he had to say.
1. You’ve just come out with your debut novel, Fair Coin, which is the story of Ephraim, a sixteen-year-old who discovers a strange coin with magical powers. I know that you have some other YA projects as well. What is it about YA that captures your interest? Can you share any works of literature or seminal moments in your life that led you to want to write YA?
One of the recurring themes in the science fiction and fantasy short stories that I write is identity. This idea particularly resonates in YA fiction, which often features protagonists who are struggling to find their places in schools, clubs, groups, societies, families. Teens face many exciting, stressful, difficult, and scary turning points from the ages of 14 to 19—which includes significant milestones like the beginning of high school and graduation—that present opportunities for them to figure out where they fit in and who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives.
I’m also fascinated by stories where people discover untapped potential; learn something new about themselves, their friends, and the world around them; or realize their purpose in life. I have explored scenarios like this in adult stories, especially through fantasy and science fiction, but they feel to me like a more genuine fit for young adult fiction. On some level, every YA story is about characters figuring out the rules of their world, how to relate to people, and what their unique capabilities are; high school can be as alien a setting as another planet. Writing YA gives me a framework to tell the stories that already interest me, to an audience for which these issues matter.
I had heard from a few people that my writing style is well-suited for YA, and I had an idea for a YA book, so I started to read YA again to see what they were all about for modern readers. I realized that these were the books that turned me into a voracious reader when I was a kid, though they weren’t so stringently categorized back then. These were the books that shaped not only the reader and writer that I am, but the person I became
I had wandered away from YA as grew up, but I found that YA stories were still as exciting, immediate, and compelling as I remembered. I love their emphasis on character and personal conflict and the sheer imagination of the world building and plots, which are fully realized in books a quarter the size of many adult novels. I like spending time in new literary worlds, but I’m a slow reader with limited leisure time, so I appreciate getting a complete story without dedicating a month of reading to one book.
Basically, I love YA, and once I remembered that, I wanted to write it. If I have my way, I’ll spend my entire career writing books for young readers. If one of my books affects even one person the way the books of C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Roald Dahl, Gillian Rubenstein, William Sleator, E. Nesbit, Robert C. O’Brien, and so many other authors reached me, then I’ll count myself a success. YA books have power; many have stuck with me since I first read them decades ago.
2. Your style really nails the feel of living through high school—that strange mix of awkwardness and feigned confidence that kids have—and it seems to me that walking this line is no easy thing. We pass those years by and it may be difficult—at least, it’s difficult for me—to return to that place mentally to the point that I could write with an authentic, high-school-aged voice. Can you explain your process for staying true, for lack of a better term, to that voice? Is it a matter of channeling your younger self? Reading in the genre? Something else?
Thank you! I’m glad that comes across successfully.
It’s really important for me to read widely in the genre, books of all types: science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, romance. Because I enjoy reading YA, this is hardly a burden, and it exposes me to so many different voices, styles, and perspectives. Part of it may be channeling my younger self, or perhaps I haven’t completely grown up, but it’s pretty much like finding the voice for any protagonist: I start from the situation and as I write I shape the character that the story demands. I may not figure it out until I’ve reached the end of a rough draft, and then I have to go back and make it consistent throughout in revision. It’s a bit harder to get the dialogue down right, but I mostly rely on instinct there. I also seek out good television shows and movies that feature young adult characters or are set in high school, which is a great excuse for watching TV.
3. You’re a self-admitted videophile. What do you think writers can borrow from film to help their writing? Do you use any of those techniques yourself?
I don’t consciously borrow any techniques, but I think we internalize good story structure and pacing from watching movies—as we do from reading books—as well as an ear for dialogue and a sense of which scenes are needed to tell a complete story. Most mainstream movies are crafted very precisely to have plots that are easy to follow and carry out clear, identifiable themes through the narrative. And, in turn, we’ve been trained to have certain expectations from films.
I studied film in college and started out writing screenplays and teleplays, so that absolutely informs my approach to fiction writing. I’m still very visual as I imagine scenes, and my drafts are heavier on dialogue than descriptions of action or setting. Watching movies often inspires me, and I often look for movies made or set in the time period I’m writing in, or that deal with stories or characters related to my story, in order to ground me in the right tone. My works in progress always occupy space in the back of my mind, so I try to feed my subconscious plenty of material to work with. The smallest detail from the most unexpected source might make an interesting and surprising connection with my book.
4. Are there any movies or series that can teach very specific things to a writer, and if so, which ones and what do they do well?
I attended a screenwriting workshop where writer Charles Murray taught the film Back to the Future as the perfect film, and many of his observations translate to prose fiction as well. He spent a lot of time pointing out how clues are planted in the opening scene of the movie; by the time Marty is skateboarding his way to school, only a few minutes in, you already know a lot about him and Doc Brown, and later events have been set up and foreshadowed, even if they seemed like insignificant details at the moment. This recurs throughout the movie, such as the now famous “Save the Clocktower” flyer, which is pivotal to the plot. The movie doesn’t waste a single scene or detail. Really, go back and study it a couple of times. It’s a great movie, one of my favorites, and it’ll be the most fun homework you’ve ever had. It’s also a terrific YA story.
Now that more and more television shows feature story arcs like Lost, I think we can also turn to them to figure out how to interest readers in characters, reveal important information, and advance plot. Many U.S. shows, especially on cable, are having 13-episode runs, and are very tightly plotted so every episode carries its weight. An even better example are British series, like Downton Abbey, which are typically 6 to 8 episodes long and juggle multiple character arcs and plot threads, and successfully balance humor with drama and tragedy.
When each hour of television costs studios millions of dollars, and viewers are increasingly impatient with more options to choose from, you have to keep them engaged every step of the way and make them feel like their time investment and loyalty is worth it. I’m fond of saying that Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is the perfect example of a novel first draft, with its meandering story lines, retconning, changing premises, ambiguity, and—to many—unsatisfying conclusion. Had Ron Moore been able to go back to revise the series as a whole before it was broadcast, he could have made sure the continuity was consistent, set up the plot reveals earlier, fixed the clichéd dialogue, and layered in the show’s themes more successfully. The series is still an amazing accomplishment, but the creators lost too much trust along the way and disappointed loyal viewers by the end.
5. Conversely, the two mediums are not the same they both have their own strengths and weaknesses. So what should the young writer avoid translating from film to the written form?
There can sometimes be a tendency to overdescribe, to give so many details of the characters and their surroundings that there’s little room for them to live in the readers’ imagination. Movies are very visual, and you may be tempted to force the reader to imagine everything exactly the way you pictured it, but books are collaborations between the author and her reader. Movies also might excel at action scenes, but they are rarely as satisfying on the page, even in the hands of a skilled writer. Written fiction offers the opportunity to get into the characters’ heads, so you can do more than simply describe what they’re saying and doing, and you should exploit every tool at your disposal to tell a story.
6. Quantum Coin, the follow-up to Fair Coin, is nearing completion. Can you give us any insights as to what we can expect? Can you also share what the biggest hurdle in the writing of the second book has been?
I mentioned Back to the Future earlier, and I’ve been describing Quantum Coin as Back to the Future II. I set up the first book to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and ending, but that doesn’t mean that Doc Brown can’t turn up with a flying DeLorean and tell Marty that he has to come back with him to fix a terrible situation. So it goes with Ephraim, and I’ve tried to make his struggles more personal, uncomfortable, and difficult in the next part of his story. The stakes are raised even higher, and the poor guy has a really rough time of it.
Quantum Coin required a bit more research than Fair Coin did, and I tried to get many details as right as possible. It was also challenging to stick with plot points that were cemented in Fair Coin and make sure I maintained continuity between the two books. I was fortunate in that I wrote the first draft of Quantum Coin while I was querying agents on Fair Coin, so I had some flexibility in tweaking both before Fair Coin went into production. But Quantum Coin was also the first time I’ve really had to do major revisions on a book under the pressure of deadlines. It was hard work, but also a lot of fun, and in some ways, it’s a story that’s even closer to the kinds of YA adventure books I love than Fair Coin is.
Traditional knowledge says that movie sequels are rarely better than their predecessors, and I know it can be hard to meet readers’ expectations, but I hope people will pick up and enjoy Quantum Coin. I’m so happy they’ll have a chance to read it, when I was never even sure Fair Coin would be published, and I think the two books fit together really well.
He was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York, where he survived an improbable number of life-threatening experiences—most miraculously, high school—with ample scars as proof.
His science fiction and fantasy short stories have been published in a number of magazines and anthologies such as Sybil’s Garage, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Sporty Spec: Games of the Fantastic, and Touched by Wonder: A Symphony of Fantastic Tales. His romantic short story featuring horny zombies, “In the Closet”, received an Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008; his nostalgic short story about horny cavemen, “My Father’s Eyes”, also got an Honorable Mention in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 3; and he was a finalist in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest.