First, here's the book (from bn.com):
Until now, high school junior, John Keats, has only tiptoed near the edges of the vortex that is schoolmate and literary prodigy, Gordon Byron. That is, until their mutual friend, Shelly, drowns in a sailing accident.
After stealing Shelly's ashes from her wake at Trinity Catholic High School, the boys set a course for the small Lake Erie island where Shelly's body had washed ashore and to where she wished to be returned. It would be one last "so Shelly" romantic quest. At least that's what they think. As they navigate around the obstacles and resist temptations during their odyssey, Keats and Gordon glue together the shattered pieces of Shelly's and their own pasts while attempting to make sense of her tragic and premature end.
Q: For as long as I’ve known you, your area of interest has been the Romantic poets. What drew you to Byron, Shelley, and Keats? And why the Romantics and not, say, the Beat poets?
A: I think it’s the philosophy of Romanticism that drew me to the poets rather than the reverse. The Romantic Movement’s emphasis on passion, emotion, individuality, excess, spontaneity, optimism, idealism, sensuality, rebellion, etc. is darn near irresistible, especially to a young person, which is why I always thought Byron, the Shelleys, and Keats would make great characters in a YA novel. The Beats, although they share some of these traits with the Romantics, have always come off to me as dour and defeated. Unlike the Romantics, they seem more resigned to the “suckage” of living than determined to overcome it.
Q: How did that interest evolve into a YA novel? And when?
A: The notion for a novel using Byron, Shelley, and Keats as central characters has been with me for a long time. Until recent years, however, life always got in the way of my pursuit of a writing career. Once I found the time to write, I was hesitant to tell the story based on their lives (especially Byron’s) to a YA audience. However, after three failed attempts to find representation for three safer novels, I decided to go for it. I had yet to read it, but by then, John Green’s Looking for Alaska had prepared the YA audience and book buyers for the type of literary novel with sexually explicit language and scenes I would need to include in So Shelly (Spring Awakening did the same in musical theater), so from the beginning of the querying process, I had ample interest in the novel and my agent had little trouble placing it with a major publisher (Random House/Delacorte).
Q: What do you hope teens (or anyone who reads So Shelly) will take away from your novel?
A: That is such a good question. On one level, I want my readers simply to enjoy the twists and turns of the plot, but the teacher in me wants to spark an interest in poetry in general and the Romantic poets specifically. As an artist, I hope to challenge the readers’ notions of everything they once thought right and wrong, true and false, or good and bad. I believe that art, to be meaningful and lasting, must do more than simply replicate forms that already exist or blandly reinforce the status quo from out of which they emerge. I definitely didn’t want to write the “next” anything but to be the first something else – if that makes any sense. So Shelly is a layered text. As I said, it can be enjoyed entirely on the level of plot. On another, it’s a loosely biographical introduction to the lives and personalities of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. It can also be read as an indictment of the many forms of abuse heaped upon young people by careless and/or evil-intentioned adults. On still another level, the novel satirically questions the current state of YA literature. It does all this while confronting issues such as sexuality, inequality (socioeconomic and racial), suicide, faith, civil disobedience, and others.
Q: Aside from the book you’re working on now, is So Shelly your first finished novel? Or will we someday find a drawer of Ty Roth manuscripts that go for millions at Sotheby’s?
A: I have three other finished novels, but, I see now that none of them are in a publishable condition. I think there are kernels of very good writing in them, but they each need major re-writing. I have no desire, however, to re-visit them or to ever see them published. I consider them necessary failures or “beautiful mistakes.”
Q: How long was your journey toward publication, from when you started writing the book to making the sale?
A: I began writing So Shelly in May of 2007. It was placed with my agent within six weeks of beginning the querying process in August of 2009. I agreed to a two-book deal with my publisher on October 1 of that same year, and it is finally reaching bookstore shelves in February of 2011. In total, it’s been just under four years.
Q: Even though we’re still wearing our party hats in celebration of So Shelly’s release, what comes next? Can you tell us something about your next book?
A: Not long ago, my agent and I submitted a manuscript to my editor that we hope will be book two. It’s not a sequel, but it does take place in the same setting as So Shelly, and some of the minor characters return. My goal with my novels is to replicate a real world high school in which the students graduate only to be replaced, but many of the teachers and administrators stay the same. I hope that this will build a comfort level for my repeat readers who, when they begin my stories, will immediately feel comfortable with the familiarity of the setting and with a few of the minor characters.
I’m also working on a sort of sequel which will tell the love story between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, who I introduced at the end of So Shelly. It’s been done before in the Jane Campion movie Bright Star, but I’d like to put the same modern high school spin on it as I did with Shelly.
Q: Finally, this is an oddball question, but given the dire fates predicted in my debut year, the end of days is always on my mind: What is your plan for survival in a zombie apocalypse?
A: I love zombie stories! I believe in the old notion of strength in numbers, so I would try to hook up with as many other survivors as possible in order to share resources and the responsibilities for defense. Once plentiful enough in numbers, the plan should be to go on the offensive, to actually seek out and destroy the brainless bastards.
Thanks, Ty! Congratulations on the release of SO SHELLY! And readers, if you haven't picked up a copy yet, get to the store!