Sweet Sixteener Kali Wallace recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Sarah Benwell about her YA contemporary debut novel, THE LAST LEAVES FALLING (January 29, 2015 from Definitions in the UK and June 2, 2015 from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers in the US).
Sarah Benwell lives in the picturesque city of Bath. Which is nice, but she’d much rather be off exploring deserts and jungles elsewhere. Having seen a good chunk of the world, Sarah is a keen advocate for diversity in life and on bookshelves, and she loves nothing more than acquainting herself with both.
Author photo by Jess Howley-Wells
And these are they. My final moments. They say a warrior must always be mindful of death, but I never imagined that it would find me like this….
Japanese teenager Sora is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Lonely and isolated, Sora turns to the ancient wisdom of the samurai for guidance and comfort. But he also finds hope in the present; through the internet he finds friends that see him, not just his illness. This is a story of friendship and acceptance, and testing strength in an uncertain future.
Kali: Congratulations on your book release! THE LAST LEAVES FALLING is a beautiful book. I am not ashamed to admit it made me cry my eyes out. Why did you choose to tackle such difficult and important topics as terminal illness and suicide? What made you decide this was the book you needed to write?
Sarah: Gaaaah, thank you!
I think I ended up writing this book because it is so important. But it started out as something very different, as a book which simply explored suicide, against the pressures of life today. In the initial chapters, Sora, Mai and Kaito formed a suicide pact, and the book followed their journey towards that end (whether or not they ultimately went through with it). But it turns out the story was all wrong for them. I was forcing my characters to make desperate, irreversible decisions in the name of plot, and ultimately I couldn’t go through with it. So I relinquished control to the characters and the story’s focus shifted. To choice, control, and dignity.
The moral and legal debates surrounding end of life choices and the right to die are – correctly – impassioned. We’re all connected to it. Whether we’ve watched someone fight or languish, or have simply wondered what if this were me? Whether we’re for or against it or somewhere in between. Of course we are all passionate. It affects us all.
Debating is good. The issues are complex and the potential for harm if we get it wrong is very, very real.
Last Leaves offers one perspective – the voice of one, lone, fictional teenager – but I hope that it’s done in such a way that readers can approach the issues and explore them safely, and make up their own minds.
Kali: How did you get into the head of a Japanese teenage boy going through everything from the diagnosis of ALS through all the stages of his illness and changes in his life?
Sarah: Empathy, I guess? It’s like method acting, almost. I don’t have ALS. I’m not in a wheelchair or facing the physical degeneration Sora does. I’m not Japanese. But I do know what pain feels like, and fear for your health or the health of someone you love, and navigating relationships. If you take what you know physically, and apply it to what you know about a fictional situation… voilà.
Key to being able to do that, though, is research. You have to arm yourself with knowledge. But I sought out the voices of people with ALS. And I talked to friends who use a wheelchair, or have limited mobility, friends who’ve dealt with the uncertainty, the pain, the meds.
I asked questions. I asked them to read my work and pull me up on anything I got horribly wrong.
This book is much, much better for the insight/perspectives people offered. I’m so, so very grateful.
Kali: In his isolation Sora searches for connections in ways that are both very typical for a modern teenager–on the internet–and more unusual, in the death poems of samurai. How did this combination come about?
Sarah: It sort of just happened naturally. Everyone is made up of new or current things, and our histories. They coexist within us and around us. It seems particularly evident in Japan, though. I love how much of a contrasting culture/ environment it is, and loved having the opportunity to explore the way those contrasts work together.
Kali: What is it liking working with different publishers in different countries? Are there any differences between the two versions of the novel?
Sarah: It was awesome. My editors had very different approaches, but were both very trusting and gave me room to play with their comments to make the story even better.
It was also weird. The final US and UK manuscripts ended up differing considerably. The core of Sora’s story is the same, but there’s an entirely different plot thread running through each text.
Kali: And finally: Do you have another novel in the works?
I do! I just turned in a draft of what I hope will become Book 2: LGBTQ South Africa, music, kissing and heartbreak. 😀
Lightning Round Questions:
Favorite time and place to write?
Late. Like, 10 p.m.-4 a.m. I like the dark-and-quiet stillness of it, and my brain seems to work better then.
Favorite book when you were sixteen?
Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett. I’m not sure I could have picked a title.
Music to write by?
Yes. Always. Unless I need performance poetry or prose or dialogue in the background. But there’s always a soundtrack. It varies from project to project.
Robot revolution or zombie apocalypse?
I am SO READY for the zombie apocalypse. Bring it. *fight face*
If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?
Right now? Khayelitsha, South Africa. I have book-brain. 🙂
If you could time travel anywhere in history right now, what time period would you visit?
I don’t knowwww. I feel like we get fed a lot of misinformation about what time periods were really like. Can I have a TARDIS to visit everywhen to find out, please?
Name a band you loved when you were sixteen that you still listen to.
Yesss. I have a ridiculously needy writer-cat. Atticus. He likes eating my post-its.
Autumn. Bonfires and frostiness and falling leaves. ❤
Do you write longhand or type?
Longhand for notes/ thinking, type for solid words.
About the Interviewer:
Kali Wallace studied geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. After a lifetime in Colorado, she decided on a whim to trade the mountains for the beach and now lives in Southern California. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, including Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. In her YA literary horror debut, SHALLOW GRAVES (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books, Winter 2016), a murdered teenage girl is resurrected as an undead creature with dangerous powers, and she must find a way to reconcile memories of her old, normal life with the magical underworld to which she now belongs, a world populated by monsters from international folklore as well as the people who hunt them.