Today, Hilary Badger stops by Fantasy Literature to talk about her YA debut novel, State of Grace, which I thought was interesting and compelling. We also discuss the complexities of language, the challenges of writing, and the importance of research. And one lucky commenter will win a copy of State of Grace!
Jana Nyman: How did the idea for State of Grace come to you?
Hilary Badger: I wanted to explore that feeling of a creeping doubt in the system that I remembered feeling really strongly as a teenager. At school I was served up chunks of palatable ideas about the right way to live, but from about age 13 I started to feel like I didn’t agree but that maybe I was the only one. Like Wren, I spent a lot of time squashing those feelings and just trying to go along with the flock.
As an adult, I work as an advertising copywriter as well as writing fiction. As a result, I’ve sat in many, many marketing meetings. I’m always struck by how brands want people to feel good about their products and about themselves. In contrast, organised belief systems often have a real self-punishing element to them. So I started wondering what type of belief system today’s marketers would dream up if they were starting from scratch, and who their target audience would be.
Your professional life enriches and complicates the story in a way which wouldn’t be as convincing without that level of personal experience. Which was the most difficult scene to write — and conversely, which was the most rewarding?
The most difficult scene — can I say all of them? Before writing this novel, I had written many books but all of them for younger readers, as well as one longer non-fiction book. It was an incredible challenge to write a long-form piece of fiction. I sweated bullets the entire time. The worst scene to research was definitely the deer kill. I watched a lot of awful YouTube clips and visited many hunting forums that were so distressing because they seemed to revel in the mechanics of death.
The most rewarding — I guess the opening scenes, because I was really striving for a unique first-person voice and I felt I established that in those scenes. Also, a writing teacher told me always to imagine a real place when creating a world, even if it’s only a foundation to build a completely made-up place on. I once visited the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in Cape Town and it was so unbelievably beautiful, so verdant and gorgeously lit that I thought it must be the closest thing to an actual Eden. So I had Kirstenbosch in mind when I was describing the world, and that was a pretty pleasing place to revisit.
I’ve only seen Kirstenbosch in photos, and I’m so jealous that you’ve been able to visit it in person! If I were living in a similarly beautiful and Edenic location, I would have a hard time wanting to leave, and I have a new appreciation for Wren’s narrative journey. Wren is a relatively passive figure for much of State of Grace, preferring to convince herself that everything is fine rather than examine the strange events and memories which intrude upon her previously happy life in paradise. How did you come to that decision, and did it create any challenges for you?
I wanted to capture the apparent impossibility of bucking the system when you’re just one lone voice against many who accept the status quo. And then, obviously, the journey towards accepting it isn’t impossible to go your own way. I think it is quite difficult to let go of a neatly boxed up pat solution to life’s quandaries, when on one hand you have paradise and on the other, just a lot of unanswerable questions. I don’t think Wren is passive. I think she just takes a realistically long time to find her way.
That makes sense, especially because confronting unanswered questions can be a slow process. Do you intend for readers to use your novel as a springboard to classic social commentary novels, like Lord of the Flies or 1984? Were the allusions to those works, such as the scene with Brook and the deer or the refusal to use negative-sounding language, deliberate or a happy accident on your part?
I wanted the book to work on two levels: on one level, just a great story with characters you cared about. But secondly, as a commentary on the merits of accepting chunks of received wisdom unquestioned. The negative-sounding language idea was straight from my copywriting experience. There’s no negativity in adland!
I think that would be incredibly challenging, and I don’t envy you at all! I don’t know which would be harder, writing ad copy or fiction. When you were writing State of Grace, was it your plan to write one book or a series, and did your writing process evolve as the story progressed? Did that affect plotting and character development for State of Grace?
I originally intended State of Grace to be a two-part series but through working with some talented and amazing editors it seemed clear to everyone that the book would work best as a stand-alone. As it was my first YA novel, the process of plotting was very much a case of finding what worked for me. First I tried just writing to see what evolved, but I found that too directionless. It was too hard to build pleasing character change as I had no real sense of where I was going. Then I tried minutely plotting the whole thing, but that didn’t work either as things I thought would work ended up not working when I got to writing them. I found the best approach for me was a broad sense of the key plot points and character moments, but to come up with ideas for scenes as I went along.
The backstories for Wren and Blaze are complex and devastating. I’d love to know more about Fern, Gil, and Brook. Do you have histories plotted for all of the major characters in State of Grace?
I definitely had their backstories all worked out and, as with most first novelists, I put all of that detail in early drafts. But of course I ended up cutting it all out of the actual book so I could come into the action where the story truly began. All of the characters had suffered some kind of trauma or emotional difficulty or self-doubt, which is what led them to be where they are. So although their backstories are different, they are all searching for some reason for the unfathomable things they’ve experienced — an answer for the unanswerable “whys” of life. And they’ve found a coping strategy — it’s just not one they can necessarily live with. Brook’s backstory is also a twist, which I love in a book.
I’d hardly be a female writer if I didn’t say I profoundly connected with The Bell Jar as a teenager. I also love Australian author Kate Grenville’s writing. Her book Lilian’s Story captures the experience of difference so movingly. I particularly remember a scene where Grenville describes Lilian entering a garden party and having to cross “the terrible sunlit stage of the lawn”. As a teenager, I knew that feeling exactly.
As far as specific influences for the book go, I read a lot of YA when I was writing it. There’s obviously a huge number of dystopian YA books around. I wanted to appeal to those readers but also create a spin on the genre: hence, in my book there’s a seeming utopia that turns out not to be one after all. In terms of creating a fully realised imagined world I was just in awe of Patrick Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go books, plus the UGLIES series (by Scott Westerfeld) and Matched (by Ally Condie). I love how well-imagined the worlds are in their books.
I haven’t had a chance to read any of those books yet, but they do sound interesting. What writing project are you currently working on?
I am working on a second YA novel. It is so thrilling to be working with new material. Particularly as it’s a thriller! With one novel under my belt now, I understand a bit more about what works for me and not to flip out if I have a writing session where ideas aren’t coming. I have a huge passion for this new story, so I’m loving the process a lot more this time around.
Finally, a feature of our Author Interviews is that we like to ask authors about their favorite cocktail recipes — either as they relate to the author’s creative process (as a relaxation aid while writing, for example) or something involved with their work. Are there any drinks which remind you of State of Grace, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?
Great question! I’ve never been asked that before. The beverage I most associate with publishing State of Grace was…breastmilk! I finished the first draft shortly before I had a baby, then redrafted during naptimes. So there was a lot of milky action going on. Zero cocktails though, of course.
Of course! I hope everything goes well with your novel-in-progress, and thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions!
Readers, do you have a favorite dystopian novel, or is there an author whose world-building really appeals to you? Let us know in the space below!
One U.S.-based commenter will win a copy of State of Grace.