Interview: Robin Wasserman

By October 28th, 2010

Robin WassermanAuthor website

Robin Wasserman wrote her first science fiction novel when she was ten years old. Unfortunately, it was only sixteen pages long and a rather blatant rip-off of E.T., so it wasn’t exactly the best launching point for an illustrious publishing career. But two decades later, she tried again, and is now the author of the Skinned trilogy, as well as Hacking Harvard and the Seven Deadly Sins series (which recently aired as a Lifetime miniseries). She lives in New York, where she spends much of her time hunting for the perfect cupcake.

Q. Your Skinned trilogy brings up some interesting questions about what it means to be an individual, or even a person. Given the way Wired ended, could you share your thoughts on the subject? Did your own beliefs change at all as you were writing the trilogy?

A. For me, the questions have always been more important than the answers, and one of the pleasures of writing this trilogy has been forcing myself to return to the kinds of crazy, open-ended questions I used to torment myself with in childhood: What if what I see as blue, everyone else sees as red? What if the world goes away when I close my eyes? What if I’m the only person with real thoughts in my head, and everyone else is just programmed to act that way?

(On that last one, maybe you can see why I didn’t have a whole lot of friends as a child!)

I think the best thing about genre fiction is getting to take questions like that and give them concrete substance–build a world where the answers actually matter. As they will, if you ask me, in our own world at some point within the next fifty years. One of the things I do believe, even more strongly now after writing the trilogy, is that humans and machines are getting closer together with every passing year, and it’s only a matter of time before that clear dividing line between us–and with it, our conception of individual human identity–is going to disappear.

Q. Your characters don’t really forgive, but they do seem to accept the past and move on. Why did you depart from the usual apologize/forgive script, and do you think it’s possible to forgive the kinds of things they have done to one another?

A. I’ve always figured that if you’re going to set a book in an imaginary world, your characters’ emotional responses had better be as real as possible. Because something has to ground the book–something has to make the reader connect with these (in my case, mechanical) people whose lives are so incredibly bizarre. Which is a long way of saying my characters don’t always forgive because forgiving is hard. And sometimes impossible. The things these characters do to each other are life-changing, life-destroying–and sometimes unforgivable. And I think that while it would make a nice, neat, fairy-tale ending to just brush them away with a kiss or an eloquent apology, that’s not how it works in the real world and so it’s not how I wanted it to work in the books. I hold grudges . . . so do my characters. But sometimes, with a lot of effort, they’re able to put their grudges and their anger aside, because some people are worth having in your life no matter what they’ve done.

And in the end, what is forgiveness, if not accepting the past and moving on? You can’t change what’s happened. You can only decide to get over it.

Q. The mechs in your books don’t age or get sick, and their brains and memories can be downloaded into a new body if need be. However, they do not escape all harm. They can feel pain. Why not make them impervious?

A. The short, easy answer to this question–the dirty little secret that they’ll probably take away my writer’s club membership card for revealing–is that they can feel pain because I needed them to feel pain, because it made for a better book.

Which is to say, I needed them to feel something–writing about characters who move through the world with no physical sensations would have been significantly trickier, especially since I knew there would be a romance. And it made sense to me that if you were going to program a human-like machine to move through the world, you would want to find a way for its processing of its environment to mimic human sensory perception. Especially when it comes to pain, which, when you think about it, is nature’s best survival mechanism. If stabbing yourself in the eye didn’t hurt, people would probably try it out of curiosity much more often. (Well, if not people, then certainly toddlers.) I wanted to write about characters who felt something . . . just not, in their minds, the right thing.

Q. Is there a lesson or a new perspective you would want your readers to walk away with at the end of this trilogy?

A. I’m never a big fan of books that come with lessons, at least not the kind that the author is consciously trying to impose on her readers, but I do hope that the trilogy at least raises some interesting questions and leaves readers wondering what they would do if they had the choice between humanity and immortality. More generally, I wanted to write a book where science and technology act as both redeeming and destructive forces in the world, where new developments can be miraculous and apocalyptic all at once, depending on what you choose to do with them, because I think playing with those ideas in fiction helps us understand them in reality.

Q. You wrote an essay for our anthology Mind-Rain, on Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, called “Best Friends for Never.” In it, you look at the Uglies Series with a sympathetic eye to Shay. Do you usually root for the underdog?

A. Absolutely! I am the precise opposite of a fair-weather fan–as soon as a team or person starts to dominate, I jump right off the bandwagon. (This is why, for example, I still root for my beloved Phillies . . . but I loved them a lot more back in the 90s when they were lumpen and rag-tag.) But Shay particularly touched my sympathies because, as I explain in the essay, I’m always looking out for my fellow sidekicks–especially when, in Shay’s case, they truly deserve to be stars.

In other words: TEAM SHAY FOREVER!

Q. Do you think that Shay and Lia have anything in common?

A. Well, they both have a serious sense of entitlement, and they’re both very angry people. These are not unconnected. Shay and Lia feel like they deserve more than they get. In Shay’s case: Tally’s loyalty, David’s love, Zane’s approval, not to mention freedom. In Lia’s case: Walker’s loyalty, her father’s love, Jude’s approval, not to mention her old human life. In both cases, losing the things that are most valuable to them, the things they believe they most deserve, fills them with rage and sends them spiraling out of control–they do anything and everything they can to try to reclaim what they’ve lost, in increasingly twisted ways.

Q. The Skinned and Uglies series both take place in dystopian worlds. Why do you think dystopian fiction is so appealing, especially in young adult novels?

A. Because what is adolescence, if not a dystopia? Think about it: You’re stuck in a world that is neither of your own making nor your own choosing. Everything you do (when you wake up, where you go, what you do there, when you come home, when you sleep) is prescribed by other people; all behavior is monitored and graded; infractions are punished severely (both in small ways like grounding and detention, and in large, mystifying ways like your Permanent Record). Big Brother is watching. The beauty of dystopian novels is twofold. First, this agony is finally acknowledged–the world is finally portrayed as it is. Second, the main character gets to TEAR IT DOWN. What’s more appealing than that?

Can you tell I was not a big fan of high school?

Q. What do you like best about being an author?

A. I love hearing from teen readers, especially the occasional email that tells me my book has, in some small way, changed someone’s life. When I was growing up, books saved me; they were a refuge and an escape, they changed everything–and there’s nothing I’d love more than being able to do that for someone else.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I’m just finishing up my new novel, a murder mystery crypto-thriller about a girl whose boyfriend gets accused of murdering her best friend. To prove his innocence and save herself, she must travel to Prague, battle secret societies, and track down an ancient Renaissance device with mysterious powers–and she has to do it before the killers catch up with her and finish what they started. It’s called The Book of Blood and Shadow, and will be out in Spring 2012 (by which point I’ll hopefully come up with a more succinct way of describing the plot . . . ).

Q. If you could tell us to read one book this year (other than yours, of course!) what would it be?

A. White Cat, by Holly Black. I’ve always known Holly was brilliant, but until this book, I didn’t know how brilliant. White Cat is a fantasy noir set in a world where magic is a crime. As soon as you hit the last page you’ll want to start it all over again. It’s just that good.

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