Friday, 21 January 2011

Author Interview: Laura Bynum

Novel: Veracity

What is Veracity about? 

Veracity is both a cautionary tale about what happens when we give up ownership of our words and thoughts for the promise of false security, and a love story between a mother and her daughter.

The main character, Harper Adams, is six years old when a pandemic kills her parents and half of the United State's population, giving rise to a totalitarian government. The Confederation of the Willing controls the populace via government-sanctioned sex and drugs, a brutal police force known as the Blue Coats, and a device called the slate - a mandatory implant that monitors every word a person speaks. To utter a forbidden, Red-Listed word often results in death. Harper works for the Confederation despite her aversion to it, believing it's the only way to keep her daughter safe. It's when Veracity's name is added to the Red List that Harper joins the resistance, a band of freedom fighters who possess a book that, in the most important way, has the power to set them all free. 

Veracity has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell's 1984amazing references that still blow me away. 

Why did you write the novel? 

Veracity was inspired by a series of events that took place a few years back that began with the passage of the Patriot Act and the ensuing loss of a few crucial constitutional rights, an announcement that the 2004 election might be delayed as federal officials were worried about potential terrorist attacks, and when a certain member of the cabinet, who owned a good amount of stock in Tamiflu, went public with a suggestion that we stock up on said drug in response to what was looking to be a world-wide pandemic, the bird flu. (Not a bad idea, but a huge conflict of interest.) Even more than these issues themselves and the power shifts each one portended, it was the lack of public debate that bothered me. The lack of questioning. It was white-coat syndrome of the highest order. Publicly elected officials telling us what to think and us thinking it. I believe that the healthiest countries on earth are those that are the most diverse. I believe we glean from each others’ wisdom bits that enhance our own.

I believe in thinking critically. In knowing the difference between opinion and fact and in recognizing what the word ‘agenda’ sounds like in all its forms. I believe in knowing how to recognize hate, despite the vessel carrying it, and being responsible for our own truths. I believe in knowing where each of our opinions came from, why we cling to them, if they’re right or wrong and if it’s just maybe time to change one or two. I wrote Veracity because a world filled with thinking people is much more interesting, and because ignorance inspires hate and knowledge, compassion.

What is the most terrifying aspect of the future world in Veracity for you?

Without a doubt, it's the loss of critical thinking. As I wrote in another interview, I believe that, as the phoneme is to the word, and as the word is to the sentence, so is language to freedom. We lose our ability to discern the truth, and we've put ourselves up for sale, lock, stock and barrel. And I see it happening more and more, every day, though I believe it's reversible. We just have to want it more than the alternative. 

What made you want to be a writer?

I came out of the womb with a story in my head, so I can't give you that particular genesis, but I can tell you when I discovered I couldn't continue avoiding it. I'd gotten my degrees, had my corporate job, but it felt like I was on the wrong path. I was miserable living my 'getting the bills paid but still starving' life.  There were things I needed to say, truths I felt that maybe only I and few other people saw. So I wrote Veracity. And, I'll mention, that trend towards writing socially conscious stories continues in book two. 

If you could, would you change places with any of your characters?

I love my characters for various reasons, even Jingo, but I think it's Ezra's completely care-free attitude regarding what people think of her that I covet the most. She understands what she's doing and why she's doing it and is her own judge, jury and executioner, and I admire that. I learned a long time ago that it was my opinion about myself that counted, but knowing that and applying it can be two different things.

How long did it take you to write Veracity?

The first draft took a year and a half as I was working full-time, raising kids, and all that - all the same things every other first-time novelist goes through. After the Maui Writer's Conference, where I won the Rupert Hughes Award for Veracity and, consequently, gained representation with the Writer's House in NYC, I believe there was another eight or so months of editing. Then, after selling it to Simon and Schuster, there was another period of editing with my publisher, not much, but it took some time as I was being treated for breast cancer. I should back up and explain that, the very day I had a biopsy on my left breast, we received not one but two bids on Veracity. A couples days later when I signed with Simon and Schuster, I found out it was cancer. I was in the middle of a move to Virginia (from Illinois) so it was craziness. I had surgery in Champaign, Illinois, then two weeks later, moved to my little hometown in the Piedmont region of Virginia, began radiation in Charlottesville (about an hour away), and edited Veracity, all at the same time. I don't remember writing chapter two at all (a late-in-the-game addition). It was a circuitous route getting Veracity finished, but I believe all of it, every curve and bend in that road, added some essential element. 

What was the hardest scene for you to write?

The first chapter, most definitely. When I'm doing readings, I can't get through it without misting up. I was divorced from my first husband just before our daughter (my eldest) was born. It was just Alex and I in the world for a while. Our relationship is the basis for the relationship between Harper and Veracity. When Harper is screaming herself free in the farmhouse closet, I think of what she's given up in order to save her daughter, and of what it would be like to have to lose your child to save them. And I think of how lucky I am that, of all the potential moms in the world, they chose me. 

Did getting Bachelor and Masters degrees in Communications help with your writing?

Absolutely. Part of what I focused on, especially with my master's, was how people absorb information and how they determine what's true and what's not. This process has become so intrinsically linked to marketing, it's scary. I don't think most people realize that, for every commercial or news story out there, there's a group of marketing execs sitting in a room with the sale reps, tweaking everything to oblivion to achieve some particular end. My marketing studies put me in that driver's seat and, damn, it's a scary place to be headed. Most people don't realize that they're a demographic, being targeted every time they watch a commercial or go to a political rally or watch the news. 

Why did you start doing your 'sound bites' audio series?

I love this question! And I love that you listened to them (any or all). In 2004, I think, a girlfriend and I began what Joseph Campbell calls a 'Hero journey'. We wanted to know who we were when you scratched the surface and what we truly believed. We wanted to revisit all the sacred sources in our lives - our parents, our religious leaders, our political narrators, history - and see if we were what we purported ourselves to be. So we did a world religion study and figured out where we fell within that spectrum. Then, being Americans, we decided we'd better know what that was all about, so we went down to the local Independent Media Center with a copy of The Idiot's Guide to the American Government, and made seventeen episodes of Sound Bite - a five-minute radio program that went through the makings of government, our concordant rights and so on. It was a blast, and very enlightening. It's amazing how few people know their rights, or what the first amendment provides, or that Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life, and so on. You can't know what you're losing until you know what you have, so we thought it was important. I should also note that this took place, again, right around the Patriot Act. Apparently, an act that caused much upheaval in my life, in the best of ways. 

When and where do you write?

Veracity was written almost exclusively in the bookstores of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (mostly the Borders). Now, I write in my office. My best, most creative hours are between 5pm-midnight, though I often start early and work in two hour blocks. If I can focus on something else for an hour in between, I get a more macro perspective on the story when I go back to it. 

What’s the best/worst thing about writing?

The best thing about writing is getting that writer's high. That sense of something divine slipping through you via a beautifully turned sentence or a scene playing out just so. The worst thing about writing is that it's very secluding, which can also be wonderful. (Note - I have twins.) 

What is something you didn’t know about the publishing industry before you had your first book published?

That there would be so much variety to the ways my story could be developed. We've had some early interest in a movie and a graphic novel. The sources of interest have also been surprising. My first international sale was Turkey, a delightful surprise. We haven't yet signed a contract for a movie (or graphic novel), but to know the interest is out there, as well as the possibility, is, frankly, amazing. 

Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?

Write anyway. Even if you think you're cranking out junk, if it's in your soul to write, do it, and then edit. I became the writer that I am through editing. I was merciless with myself and that was key. And another bit of advice, straight from my agent - pare down ruthlessly. 

Any tips against writers block?

Watch a movie that inspires you, or read a book that really got your creative juices flowing when you last read it. It's that garbage in, garbage out theory in reverse. 

How do you discipline yourself to write?

There are times I have to force myself to do it, but I'm blessed with this second novel, as I was with Veracity, in that I can't wait to get to my computer and work. I tend to believe that if you aren't craving that story and those characters, maybe you're conforming to someone else's idea of what makes for good story. Open up that Pandora's box in your writer's self and see what comes out. It may be that you think you're supposed to be writing romance but you really want to write westerns. Being authentic with yourself, and your story, makes it easier. 

How many rejection letters did you get for your first novel?

My agent was very kind to keep that information to himself, but I will say that the main theme we got with our 'thanks, but no thanks' responses was that Veracity was a tweener. Which means it's hard to market, being somewhere between two genres - for me it was fiction and science fiction. I knew going in that it would be hard to place Veracity in the store. I knew from being a marketing major that this was going to be an issue, but I wasn't going to change the story. I knew it would require a bit of a groundswell on my reader's parts to get the word out, and I've been lucky to have had the passionate readers I've had. The rejection wasn't easy because every author's goal, obviously, is to get their words and ideas into the public realm. But I believe things happen for a reason and, for me, the timing wound up being perfect. I was given some of the best news of my life during one of its darkest times. 

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