Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Eleven Up: Interview With Jeff Sampson

If you're like me, you crave a YA heroine who can handle her own. I'm not talking about the girl sniveling in the corner with the first aid kit while the boys fight around her. I'm talking the kick-ass, get out of my way or I'll crush your eyeball with my stilettos type heroine. Interested? Then let me introduce you to Jeff Sampson's newly released young adult novel, VESPER (Release Date: January 25th Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins). Here's the blurb:

Emily Webb is a geek. And she’s happy that way. Content hiding under hoodies and curling up to watch old horror flicks, she’s never been the kind of girl who sneaks out for midnight parties. And she’s definitely not the kind of girl who starts fights or flirts with other girls’ boyfriends. Until one night Emily finds herself doing exactly that . . . the same night one of her classmates—also named Emily—is found mysteriously murdered. The thing is, Emily doesn’t know why she’s doing any of this. By day, she’s the same old boring Emily, but by night, she turns into a thrill seeker. With every nightfall, Emily gets wilder until it’s no longer just her personality that changes. Her body can do things it never could before: Emily is now strong, fast, and utterly fearless. And soon Emily realizes that she’s not just coming out of her shell . . . there’s something much bigger going on. Is she bewitched by the soul of the other, murdered Emily? Or is Emily Webb becoming something else entirely—something not human? As Emily hunts for answers, she finds out that she’s not the only one this is happening to—some of her classmates are changing as well. Who is turning these teens into monsters—and how many people will they kill to get what they want?

Sound epic? It is. And it's only going to get better because Jeff was kind enough to grant the Apocalypsies an interview!

CG: Hi Jeff! Thanks for doing this. I'd like to start by asking you, what inspired you to write VESPER?

JS: I grew up watching a lot of action-adventure genre shows featuring awesome female leads: Buffy, Alias, Xena. I always wanted to do my own spin on the superheroine archetype. I also always loved sci-fi books by authors like William Sleator, John Christopher, and the queen herself, Madeleine L'Engle. Seriously, if it involved crazy experiments, other dimensions, space travel, freaky mind powers, etc. etc., I was SO there. I used to fantasize about being able to teleport like the kids on The Tomorrow People, and I was always disappointed that putting my fingers together didn't pause time. Thanks for the disillusionment, Out of this World! So when an editor I was working with at the time suggested I write a certain genre topic (which I won't say, as it's a plot point!), I figured this would be a great way to take all my own ideas, put a new twist on this particular genre trope, and finally do an homage to all of my influences.

CG: How hard was it for you to write from a teen girl’s POV? Did you have to do anything to “get into character”?

JS: I went all method, Daniel Day-Lewis style. I actually went undercover at a high school as a teenage girl. It was basically Never Been Kissed meets Too Wong Foo, and oh man, the times me and the girls had-- Yeah, no. (Though I'd totally watch that mash up.) Actually it wasn't really too hard for me. Of course I was never a teen girl, so luckily I grew up with a sister close in age to myself. Years of knowing her and her friends shed light on issues they might have had that I would never encounter. But a lot of what Emily goes through -- body and confidence issues, growing apart from a previously close friend, feeling like she has no real place in school -- are more universal and easy for me to relate to. Not to say I was perfect at playing the part of a teen girl. I had editors, male and female alike, who made sure to point out when something I'd written came off too overtly masculine, and to let me know a particular style of shirt is called a cami, since I don't know what that is, exactly. That's short for "camisole," right, but isn't that like a lacy Victorian-era umbrella? I should Google this.

CG: What kind of research did you do while writing VESPER?

JS: Research? People . . . research? As you can tell by the end of my previous answer, I don't know the meaning of the word! I'm going to have to admit, for this book I mostly just made everything up. I spent years writing work-for-hire books within established settings, and writing those was like writing historical fiction, only the history books are giant tomes full of made up lore about dragons and faux-hobbits that often contradicts itself. So with Vesper I just decided to create my own mythology and do whatever the hell I wanted. Especially since I chose to just ignore all previously established rules of secret genre topic. I was free, dammit. Free! HaHA! Most of the research I did do is really nitpicky stuff about what time the sun sets, what phase the moon should be when the sky is described, the weather patterns for a particular day -- the book and series is set in a specific time period during Sept. and Oct. 2010. Other than that, I set the made up city of Skopamish, WA where I live, so if I ever needed to research setting, I just went outside.

CG: What was your biggest challenge in writing VESPER?

JS: The ending. Oh lawd, the ending. See, when I first wrote the book I was imagining it more as a paperback series which would release on a quick schedule. I sort of wrote it as a pilot, to use TV terms; an origin story which clearly doesn't end when you reach the last page. But hey, it's okay, the next book is in 4 months! Tune in next time, same Vesper time, same Vesper channel! Only ultimately we decided to go the trade hardcover route, and, uh, that much open endedness doesn't really fly when you need to wait a year for the next book. Basically I needed to make the book feel complete . . . without actually being complete. Oh man, the headaches. I ended up moving some plot points from later books into the end of the first one, as well as finessing the interrogation transcripts that frame the story. It's still clear when you reach the end of Vesper that there's questions left to be resolved, but I think now you still come away feeling like you got a complete story. I hope. Guess we'll see if readers agree!

CG: Did you know all along how your story would end?

JS: I do indeed. I am an obsessive outliner. Like, crazy person obsessed. I consider them my first drafts. Plus I think it's fun, as a reader, to pick up on the little hints and foreshadowing the author puts in about future stories, like with Harry Potter. So the entirety of the Deviants series is mapped out -- though I do keep it fast and loose enough that I can change things on the fly if I need to, like with the previous example of moving up events into Vesper that weren't originally planned for that book.

CG: Tell us a little about your road to publication.

JS: I had a very bizarre and supremely lucky path leading up to my YA debut. As a teen I became pen pals with Animorphs author K.A. Applegate -- also known as Katherine Applegate and her husband, Michael Grant -- which somehow led to me outlining a few books in their Remnants series. I got paid what seemed like an obscene amount and, flush with hubris and cash, I quit my dinky job at a movie theater and decided that my tender 18-year-old self was to be a Big Famous YA Author. Make up stories for a living? Yes, please! I spent all that money in like three months and ended up getting a new, equally dinky job, then spent a couple years writing a book that's not fit for human consumption. A sample from it was enough to get me a gig writing work-for-hire Dungeons & Dragons novels for the young reader imprint of Wizards of the Coast. I got to work under the editorial guidance of the amazing duo that are Nina Hess and Stacy Whitman, so it was sort of like a crash course in writing that I got paid for. Vesper was originally with the two of them, in fact, though because of some corporate mandates that led to Stacy being laid off and a bunch of books being canceled, my little series found itself homeless. It all worked out in the end -- Stacy of course went on to found the Tu Books imprint for Lee & Low, and Vesper got picked up by my fab agent, Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary. After some polishing, we sold it to Kristin Daly Rens at Balzer + Bray, and I couldn't be happier with how things have progressed. It was a looooong road, but the destination was most definitely worth the bumpy ride.

CG: What’s a typical writing day for you?

JS: Let's see. I wake up. I read the internet. I idly think about writing. I play a video game or read a book or watch TV instead. Then I go to sleep. Wake up. Repeat. Eventually I realize that at some point I need to actually, y'know, write and end up producing like 30,000 words in three absolutely insane days that involve no sleep and a lot of stress. I do not recommend this style of writing. I think a lot of it is letting the book percolate in my subconscious while I endlessly procrastinate. But I learned lately that I'm way too old to still be doing writing marathons -- as in, my body is staging mass protests and I end up not shaving, which leads to looking like Alan Moore -- so I'm giving the whole "write every day!" thing a shot. You know, like writers who aren't insane.

CG: Do you use a critique group? At what stage in your writing (rough draft, first draft, final draft, etc.) do you show your work?

JS: I did have a crit group way back when I wrote my first couple books. Some of them are now big shot authors, and the rest are sure to follow. But the turn around time for the work-for-hire books got so fast, and coupled with my bad writing habits, I ended up never having time for the full critique cycle. Instead, I got used to the idea of letting my editors (gulp) see my horribly untidy first drafts. I actually kind of like it this way, since I end up working from the ground up with a sort of partner in crime who ultimately ends up being there for the entire life of the book. They hear my not-fully-formed ideas, they see my rambling outlines, they discover that every other line in every book I write describes someone doing something with their eyes or nodding their head. They still seem to like me despite this, so I'm safe. For now.

CG: Can you tell us anything about your future projects?

JS: Soitanly! I am in the midst of finishing up the second Deviants book, which for now we're calling Havoc. It is like Vesper times ten -- the crazy sci-fi/paranormal stuff is cranked up like woah. I also finished up a D&D children's book a few months back called Monster Slayers: UNLEASHED, which I wrote under the pen name "Lukas Ritter." It and its ridiculously over the top title (which I love) comes out in June. Beyond that, I have, let's see . . . Deviants 3, a super top secret children's book that if I talk about will lead to my mysterious disappearance, and probably another YA genre series with a kick ass female lead that I've wanted to write for a long time. Uh, let's hope my typing can keep up with my ideas.

CG: Since we’re the “Apocalypsies” we’d be remiss if we did an interview without some Apocalyptic questions. Here we go: If you find yourself in the midst of the zombie apocalypse and could only choose one Joss Whedon Character to aid you in your quest for survival, who would that character be and why?

JS: Three characters immediately come to mind. First is Buffy Summers herself, because hello, she made a living out of massacring the undead (even if her usual flavor of undead is a bit more self aware). Then Buffy's pal Willow Rosenberg, because you know a super powerful witch can cut a swath through a horde of slobbering zombies, and it'd be all sparkly CGI and awesome to see. And then we have River Tam from Firefly, because Reavers are basically Space Zombies, and her biggest moment of badassery was taking out a whole slew of Reavers in what I consider an iconic scene from Serenity. Of the three? Well, Buffy is a bit stern, and River is basically crazy, so I'm going to go with Willow. I think we'd have some pretty great conversations during the non-zombie-fighting portions of our new lives in this post-apocalyptic world.

CG: If you could only take one Joss Whedon series with you to watch in the hopes that you would survive and manage to find a working television, which show would that be and why?

JS: Buffy. Hands down Buffy. I was, and still am, obsessed with that show. Buffy and I had our rocky moments over the years, but I basically went through high school with the characters, and later met several amazingly close friends because of our shared love of all things Whedonesque. A very close runner up would be Firefly, but since it has one half season and a movie compared to Buffy's seven seasons, there would sadly be far less t
o watch while waiting for the next wave of zombies to saunter onto our lawn. I'm thinking variety would help when you have a lot of time to kill.

Jeff Sampson is a pop culture fanatic with an abiding love of TV and movies, much like his main character, Emily. VESPER is his first novel for young adults. Jeff lives in Tukwila, Washington. Web site: http://jeffsampsonbooks.com


  1. Haha great interview! Am looking forward to reading Vesper. And I agree, Buffy totally rocks :)

  2. Go, B+B! And Buffy! And Vesper!

    I might just have to make a special trip to B&N tonight... I've learned to bribe the munchkin with chocolate chip cookies. Yes, I am Mother of the Year. Why do you ask?

  3. Hah! I love the answer about going undercover. I don't have a female YA MC, but I do have girl characters, and their voices can be damn hard to write. Luckily I have a 15 year old kid. Sometimes I make her write my dialogue.

  4. All I want before I die is that guy's T-shirt in Firefly. Today is THE day for VESPER! This is so exciting!!!! (P.S. Jeff, HitGirl is all mine... all mine, you hear me?)

  5. I've purchased my copy and can't WAIT to dig in! Great interview!

  6. That's short for "camisole," right, but isn't that like a lacy Victorian-era umbrella?

    Tee hee. Very fun interview and sounds like a very fun read! (And I'm with you on Willow... but only if she stays non-evil.)

  7. Vesper sounds great! Can't wait to read it!

  8. I lOVED this book! Can't wait for book #2