Sweet Sixteener Erin Teagan recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Sarah J. Schmitt about her YA fantasy debut novel, IT’S A WONDERFUL DEATH (October 6, 2015 from Sky Pony Press).
Sarah J. Schmitt is a K-8 school librarian and Youth Service Professional for Teens at a public library. Prior to immersing herself in the world of the written word, she earned her Masters of Science in Higher Education Administration and Student Affairs from Indiana University where she worked with first year college students as they acclimated to college life. Sarah lives outside of Indianapolis with her husband, two kidlets and a cat who might actually be a secret agent. She is an active member of SCBWI, ALA and the Indiana Library Federation and is a regular participant at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop.
Seventeen-year-old RJ always gets what she wants. So when her soul is accidentally collected by a distracted Grim Reaper, somebody in the afterlife better figure out a way to send her back from the dead or heads will roll. But in her quest for mortality, she becomes a pawn in a power struggle between an overzealous archangel and Death Himself. The tribunal presents her with two options: she can remain in the lobby, where souls wait to be processed, until her original lifeline expires, or she can replay three moments in her life in an effort to make choices that will result in a future deemed worthy of being saved. It sounds like a no-brainer. She’ll take a walk down memory lane. How hard can changing her future be?
Erin: What was your revision process for the book? Do you feel like the book has changed a lot since you first started writing RJ’s story?
Sarah: IT’S A WONDERFUL DEATH was actually my 2012 National Novel Writing Month project so you can imagine the amount of revision (and editing) that goes into a full length novel that is written in twenty-three days. LOL. When I finished NaNoWriMo, the book clocked in at just over 63K words. In the final draft, it’s about 10K longer, so yes, it changed a lot as a result of the revision process. I spent almost six months layering in subtle foreshadowing and playing around with RJ’s choices until I felt the story really delivered the message that I wanted.
Erin: Your main character RJ is smart and snarky, but also selfish and self-absorbed. Even with these faults, I still rooted for her from the beginning. Did you find it challenging to write your book from her point of view?
Sarah: I actually didn’t have much trouble writing RJ. By the time November 1 rolled around, I knew her inside and out. I knew that she was a flawed person but I also knew that fear was a motivating factor for her from an early age. Knowing that, I had empathy and knew that she was capable of change. As for her voice, well, it’s very similar to mine, though RJ lacks an internal filter. Whereas I (hopefully) come off as teasing, given the right lens, snark and sass can definitely come off angry or bitter or just plain mean. It was actually harder for me to keep the supporting characters from “liking” RJ right away. Al, the handler for Cerberus, is a good example of someone who really intends not to like RJ. It’s fun to watch her give RJ a taste of her own medicine.
Erin: What was your journey to publication like? Have there been any surprises along the way?
Sarah: Surprises? Not really. Unless you count my first publisher closing four months before my book was due to hit the shelves. I’ll give you a second to let that sink in. Yes, originally, IT’S A WONDERFUL DEATH was going to be released in October 2014 by a UK publisher. However, on June 10 of that year, they announced they were closing the imprint and letting all the authors go. Talk about a kick to the gut. I kept telling myself this was business and it wasn’t personal. But in all honesty, it felt personal. Fast forward one year and four months and I don’t think I could be happier. While I loved my first editor, I think the timing with Sky Pony has been the best thing that could have happened for my release. And in the end, all the ups and down are totally worth it.
Erin: Your depiction of the afterlife is so creative and unique. I love that Death is a surfer-dude in a Hawaiian shirt. How did you come up with this idea? Did RJ’s story come to you first, or your vision of this afterlife?
Sarah: RJ’s story came first. I knew I wanted to write a story where the character who could easily be an antagonist got a chance to show what’s inside her head. But as I was working on the story, I realized there were some pretty serious themes at work. And anyone who knows me can tell you that I don’t do serious for too long. So I knew I wanted to have a colorful supporting cast that were fully developed. I don’t like books or movies where it feels like the supporting cast comes into the story, delivers their message and then run off set to wait for their next line. Bringing the Afterlife to life required making it clear that these characters had other things going on in their world than just RJ’s problems.
Lightning Round Questions:
What are you reading right now?
DUMPLIN’ by Julie Murphy. It’s so wicked good.
Favorite snack or drink while writing?
Twizzlers and Diet Dr. Pepper
Favorite place to write?
A cat named Agent C.
Your writing tip for aspiring authors?
Read everything you can get your hands on and then write something, anything, every single day.
If you could say anything to your sixteen-year-old self, what would it be?
Those bullies who have been harassing you aren’t your enemy. They are your muses for your first book. Literary Karma is sweet!
About the Interviewer:
Erin Teagan has a master’s degree in science and worked in biochemistry labs for more than ten years. She is an active member of the SCBWI and the co-chair of the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference. She lives in Virginia with her own two little scientists, a ninety pound lap dog and a husband that regularly puts himself in danger with all of his extreme sports.
Her debut middle grade novel, THE FRIENDSHIP EXPERIMENT (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall 2016), is about Madeline Little, genius-scientist-in-the-making, who keeps her life in control by creating standard operating procedures like “How to Fake the Bubonic Plague to get out of a Party” until her life flip-flops at the start of middle school and she realizes science might not have all the answers.