Austin Aslan Interview (Debut Author Tour)

Austin Aslan Interview!

What inspired you to write The Islands at the End of the World?

I lived in Hilo (pronounced HEE-lo), on the Big Island, when I was getting my masters degree in Tropical Conservation Biology. My field sites were high up on the forested slopes of Mauna Loa Volcano. I was coming home from a rainy day of doing pollination experiments with rare Hawaiian flowers and I drove down through the clouds and suddenly had a great, clear view of the ocean surrounding the island. I was struck by how alone and isolated the Hawaiian Islands were (this is something that people in Hawaii think about frequently, and it wasn’t a new thought for me, either). At that time, I happened to be thinking about a haunting post-apocalyptic book by Cormac McCarthy called The Road. The idea popped into my head that it would be really interesting to set a post-apocalyptic story on the isolated Hawaiian Islands, and the story and characters just started flowing out of me like lava! I thought to myself, Everybody know what happens at the end of the world in New York and LA, but what would a global disaster mean for Islanders? 95% of Hawaii’s food is imported every day. The islands are home to 1.5 million people. If things got tough there, where would all those people go? There are no mountain ranges or Great Plains to escape to. Everyone is stuck. Hungry. No way to escape. When I arrived home at the end of my drive, I started writing the book immediately, that night, and I had my first draft finished 83 days later—all while going to class and doing field work for my degree!

What is next for your writing career?

I recently finished a draft of a new disaster adventure set later in the 21st century. I’m very fond of that project. I’m also developing a series of chapter books with an environmental theme. I have two fantasy projects in the works, as well. In this industry, the key is to keep writing, and I plan to continue doing just that for the foreseeable future.

What's next for you in general?

Movie deals! Fame! Fortune! A villa on the Mediterranean! Politics! Power! Actually, probably more of the same: family life, schelping kids to events and activities, travel, hiking, writing, and some book tours, hopefully.

Did you grow up thinking that you wanted to write or what did you want to do?

I’ve always been a writer. I once turned in an 11-page short story in sophomore English class for a simple page-long vocabulary assignment. Looking back, one of the greatest insights of my life was long ago identifying writing as a possible way to escape my destiny. Writing is cheap. It costs NOTHING to put pencil to paper and go. What other creative pursuit can you engage in with the potential of making a career out of it without spending a dime? For the cost of a Number Two pencil and a notebook we can stop the globe spinning. We can blow up buildings. We can create and destroy entire lives, entire solar systems. We can make people cry and laugh and beg for more. It’s pretty astounding.

What books did you read growing up?

Stephen King and Douglas Adams and Michael Crichton. Almost exclusively. Not the greatest variety, unfortunately. But I caught up with reading all those books I was supposed to read in high school when I entered the Peace Corps. I read the 100 most influential English-language books of the 20th Century during those years. And it was important for my development as a writer to do so.

What are you reading right now?

I’m catching up on some classic sci-fi. Reading Arthur C. Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END right now. Also Ray Bradbury’s MARTIAN CHRONICLES. Just finished binge-reading many Heinlein classics, including STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS.

Do you listen to music when you write? If so what?

Not really. If I do, the music can’t have words or I’ll listen to the lyrics and get distracted. But I’ve listened to everything from techno to electronica to movie soundtracks to classical music to Gregorian chant while writing.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Well, I have some free time right now, and I’m thru-hiking the Arizona Scenic Trail. (I’m home for Thanksgiving break at the moment.) It’s 800-miles long, absolutely gorgeous, and I’m shedding pounds like crazy. It’s taking me almost three months to complete. So, yeah, I like to hike and backpack and get outdoors.

Where is your favorite place to vacation?

The Big Island of Hawaii, of course. I do try to spend a month there every year, mostly carrying the luggage for my wife who continues to have ongoing field research there. But I crave new places and experiences. My various crazy adventures definitely inform my plot lines! I’ve done so many of the things my characters do! Setting is put forth as an important character in all of my novels. I’m even sitting on a high fantasy epic that basically takes place not in medieval Europe, but in varied landscapes of colonial Central America. The places and the cultures and the cuisine and the climate all very much mirror my experiences as a Peace Corp Volunteer living in an isolated, high-elevation Honduran cloud forest from 2001-2004. The natural world really does come alive in all of my projects, and while this pattern was never intentional or deliberate, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that it has become a constant thread in my writing.

Do you outline your writing or just go for it?

There is certainly no one right way to write a book, and there’s no one way for each of us to write. I have written seven novels, now. I can honestly say that I haven’t written any two of them the same way. I’ve used colored note cards, no cards, written fast, and written slow. I’ve thought ahead, blazed ahead, written endings first, endings last. I’ve slogged forward when I didn’t want to write, and held back when I did want to write. I’ve rewritten in the middle of a draft, I’ve moved forward without ever looking back. I’ve shared first lines (for God’s sake) with anyone who will listen, and withheld entire completed manuscripts from my wife. I’ve outlined, I’ve kept a dream journal, I’ve forced daily quotas, I’ve rewarded myself for meeting milestones, or not. I’ve stuffed books in drawers for months, I’ve glued myself to a chair for weeks. I’ve used paper and pen, typewriters, computers. I’ve drank coffee, tea, beer, wine, whiskey while writing. I’ve written standing up, I’ve written in bed. I’ve killed my babies, I’ve carried golden calves to the hilltops. Passive voice has been used by me.

Once, I even handily used an adverb!

I’ve honestly used every strategy for writing that I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve broken every ‘rule’, and each method was correct at the time.

We can build myths about how we are supposed to write, and get stuck doing things a certain way without stopping to consider that other strategies may work, too. We must seek to avoid a very real danger: that novice writers will think particular strategies will get them further than others. This may be true for a given individual, but each writer has to feel out that path for him or herself. We risk closing those doors for the eager writer who doesn’t understand this.

There are a ton of different ways to plot, a ton of different tools. We should encourage folks to share out what works for them. More tools makes us more versatile. But we shouldn’t encourage folks to warn others about what doesn’t work, or what isn’t right.
Find what works for you at the time, and do it. But don’t limit yourself to only doing that, all the time. And never limit the creative process for others by suggesting that there are wrong ways to write.

What was living in Hawaii like? (Ex stereotypical surfing lifestyle)

The Hawaiian Islands are so profoundly material and sensuous and concrete that in spite of my own instinct to write a story about sustainability and the dangers of nuclear materials and how great the mysteries of the universe are, the raw, material power of Hawaii kept pushing up through all of it and pushing me out of the way. If you’ve ever stepped foot on the Hawaiian Islands, you know what I’m talking about. That place assaults the five senses like no other place on earth. Sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes. It made my job as a storyteller SO simple.

For a story with so many big ideas, it would have been very easy to get lost in geo-politics and science fiction tropes and the struggles of a cast of dozens of characters. I very easily could have succumbed to the temptation to try and pull off some Hawaiian version of Stephen King’s THE STAND. But those islands really held me in check. There is so much of interest happening right in front of Leilani and her dad that I couldn’t afford to get bogged down with all that other stuff.

What kind of research went into this series?

It’s amazing and hilarious to think about how crazy book research can get! Wouldn’t it be funny if government secret agents have flagged my Google results for research related to these books? (Hi, Uncle Sam!) I’ve done extensive research on how nuclear power plants operate, and more concerning, mapped out the location of each nuclear power plant throughout the U.S. and around the world! I’ve never been to the Marine Corps Base on O’ahu, but thanks to Google Earth, I’ve been able to explore it with enough resolution to write about it with plausible expertise. Combine those searches! Am I on a government watch list now? Probably not. I’m not remotely paranoid in that way. Nor am I important enough or interesting enough to actually garner that kind of attention. But it’s fun to speculate, yeah? The NSA has probably been less concerned with my inquiries about the native Hawaiian names for exotic fruits and fish.

What was most challenging about building this world?

One of the very first decisions I had to make before I started typing this story was whether I wanted my main character to be a boy or a girl. The choice was easy for me. I have a daughter who was seven at the time, and it was easy for me to imagine her as a teenager. I could easily imagine myself as a father feeling the burden of keeping her safe if we were in the situation of my book, having to hop islands to get home while society disintegrates. It was scary to think about. I also knew I wanted to write a YA novel, so the youth had to be the main character. Once I was convinced that my MC would be a girl, writing as her wasn’t that hard. I just channeled my daughter as best I could and assumed (for better and for worse, in some cases) that for all the ways we like to portray boys and girls as impossibly different, they’re actually pretty similar. I think it worked out just fine. I was fortunate to find a voice for Leilani quickly, and then I just stayed authentic to that voice throughout the book. When my agent and I were shopping the novel around, an editor at a major publishing house said that she was surprised to learn that I was a guy. I was very flattered by that, and took it as a good sign that I had effectively managed to pull off a girl MC!

The biggest challenge for me was feeling comfortable and legitimate in writing about a Hawaiian main character and crafting a story deeply-rooted in Hawaiian cultures and traditions, even though I’m haole and don’t come from the islands. I’m not Hawaiian, and there’s two problems with that. The obvious problem is that I don’t “know” the culture. There’s a lot to learn and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll never be an expert, though the book has to feel authentic not only to general readers, but to islanders, as well. The more complex problem is that, as an outsider, I struggle with claiming the right to tell a story set in Hawaii. I’m not only writing as a half Hawaiian when I’m not one. I’m also writing about thorny scenarios involving “sovereign nation” perspectives, and one of my bad guys is pure Hawaiian (though most of my Hawaiian characters are very noble, and I try to make all of my characters, regardless of race, as three-dimensional as possible). This issue has a lot of complexity around it, and I’m most comfortable approaching it with a great deal of humility. Ultimately, I think that any author has the right to tell any story they want to. The question is: can you get away with it? Will your effort be respected? Will the people whose voice you’re trying to assume authenticate your attempt or not? At the very least I feel that I’ve approached this dynamic with awareness, humility, honesty, and good faith.

What was your favorite scene to write?

One of my favorite scenes in The Girl at the Center of the World takes place along Hilo’s two-mile long breakwater, in which Lei and her friends dive for lobsters. Ninety-nine percent of the sensory details and experiences in that scene (minus the eventual gunfire!) mirror my real-life encounters while lobster diving in those very spots.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Keep writing. And by that, I mean new material. You may not find publication for your first project, no matter how polished and perfect you can eventually get it through revisions. (I’ve written seven books and only published two!) You need a wide array of projects to shop around. As they say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

What is your favorite pizza brand?

I adore a deep dish pizza from a local Arizona chain called Oreganos. Oddly, I’m also a huge fan of Papa Murphy’s Take-and-bake pizzas.

Do your characters resemble anyone else?

Leilani is modeled after who I project my daughter will be like when she turns sixteen. She was only seven when this book was written, so any connection to how she’ll really turn out is, of course, coincidental and purely speculative. If you knew me, you’d realize right away that Lei’s dad, Mike, is completely me.

Rapid Fire Round!
Mac or PC               

Hotdog or Hamburger          

Facebook or Twitter           

Books or Movies   

Apple or Android           

Young Adult or Adult Books       

Pepperoni or Sausage Pizza        

Earbuds or Headphones       

Online or In-Store Shopping        

Flip-phone or Touch Screen        

Theater or Theatre           

You can find Austin Aslan on his website, Facebook and TwitterYou can purchase The Islands at the End of the World here or The Girl at the Center of the World here!

Also click here for my interview with Karen Bao, who was also part of the Debut Author Tour this year! The giveaway for here is right below!

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