An Interview with YA Author, Heather Demetrios

Something Real Cover ScanHeather Demetrios inspires. While she was a few semesters behind me when we were at VCFA together, I was always impressed by her exuberance, positivity, and talent. I am still thinking about Something Real–a satire about Bonnie™ Baker a reality TV star trying to lead a normal life–and her love interest, Patrick Sheldon. (One of the things I am very exciting about is discussing this perfect boyfriend with her.)  It is no surprise that the novel released to critical acclaim and won the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discover Award.

This past fall, Heather also released the first of a fantasy “cycle,” Exquisite Captive, that is–forgive the pun–exquisitely written and on  Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of 2014. Heather was also recently was on Bustle’s  13 Female Young Adult Authors That Owned 2014. And she certainly has. 

It is my pleasure to introduce Heather Demetrios as we discuss her creative process, how she navigated writing in multiple genres, and what makes Patrick Sheldon the perfect book boyfriends.

Demetrios Author Photo 2015When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her other novels include Exquisite Captive, the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, and I’ll Meet You There. She is the founder of “Live Your What,” an organization dedicated to fostering passion in people of all ages and creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com and www.darkcaravancycle.com, or come hang out with her on Twitter (@HDemetrios) and any number of social media sites.

Melanie: Nalia and Raif carry a lot of heavy emotions, such as guilt, shame, and anger. How do you stay close to them to write their voices so authentically? Did you find it difficult to stay in their heads?

Exquisite Captive CoverHeather: I think it comes down to really trying to put myself in their skin, in every moment. So much of writing is feeling around for things in the dark and I just let them lead me through. Nalia and Raif have so much in common. Both of them were used as child soldiers, both of them have been enslaved. People that are important to them died violently. I’ve never experienced any of this, but I worked hard to go to those darker places. Sometimes, when it’s hard for me to get in their heads, I try journaling in their voice and just allow a stream of consciousness onto the page. That gives me a chance to check in with them and make sure I’m not imposing my own plot or character ideas onto them. They’re very real to me and I try to listen hard to get them right. It became difficult to stay in their heads when I let the plot take over, when I micromanaged too much.

Melanie: You have quite the mythology around the Arjinna world and its people. How did you approach building each “caste” and what was the most challenging aspect for each?
How did you get that very cool map drawn?

Heather: I began working in earnest on this while getting my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My advisor at the time, Coe Booth, had me write a travel guide to Arjinna and draw a map. I ended up giving that map to my editor so that the illustrator who drew the gorgeous map in the book had something to work off of. Mine was pretty awful, so I’m glad they got a real pro to do it!

The map and the travel guide were the single most important things I did for the novel. Through creating a culture and mythology, I was able to set the foundation for the magic system and castes. The caste names, with the exception of the Ghan Aisouri, are all types of jinn found in Arabic folklore and other stories of jinn (Moroccan, Persian, etc.). I did a lot of research into jinn mythology and the more I read, the more I felt like an elemental magic system made the most sense. Jinn are creatures that were supposedly created from “smokeless fire,” and this elemental genesis really stuck with me.

Arjinna map

I settled on four castes—one for each element—and then realized that a race that could access the magic of all four would be the most powerful, which was how I figured out where the Ghan Aisouri got their power from. I wanted there to be different ways to tell the jinn apart, so I also assigned a color scheme that would act as a visual cue to the reader and provide a way for the jinn to classify one another on sight. So, for example, the Marid gain their power from water, so I gave them blue eyes and blue chiaan, my name for the magical energy all jinn have. The most difficult thing was trying to figure out how chiaan itself worked and it was through exploring the relationship between Nalia and Raif that I could see how the energy of different jinn might feel. Raif is a Djan, so his earth energy gives Nalia a sense of being grounded, whereas the Ifrit have intense, manic energy.

Melanie: You write fantasy and fiction. Not many authors would be comfortable trying out different genres. What were some of the things you noticed about writing fantasy that helped you in your fiction writing and visa versa?

Heather: In both cases, you have the same goal: to create an immersive world that draws the reader in, with complex characters you feel for and a story you can’t put down. Whether my story is set in a high school or an underground jinn club, I’m still working toward that goal. I think my realism has taught me how to create more nuanced characters and a certain intimacy that you might not always get in epic fantasy. With the creation of the Dark Caravan Cycle, I had a crash course in plotting. This helped me discover that the only way I can keep my plots form being cliché is to have it all come organically from the characters. So, I can’t have cardboard characters or else my plot won’t hold up. So, the realism helps me create characters like Nalia and Raif, and my fantasy gives me the chance to bring fast paced energy and twists and turns to my realism.

Melanie: Both of your novels, Something Real and Exquisite Captive, deal with young women in situations where they feel trapped. What is it about this theme that keeps you returning to it?

Heather: This is my theme! I had to write three books before I realized that I am obsessed with this idea of breaking free. I grew up in a broken home and my teenage years were pretty unhappy. I often felt trapped in situations where I had no power either because I was underage and couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, or because we were broke and my options were more limited than those of many of my peers.

I'll Meet You ThereWriting characters like Chloe, Nalia, and Skylar (from I’ll Meet You There, which comes out this February), I have a chance to help young protagonists get that hard won freedom they so desperately want and need. It’s immensely gratifying. I think this theme is especially appropriate for YA. Even if you have the greatest home life and money and this and that, you’re still a teen and therefore answerable to a slew of authority figures. There is always someone around to rain on your parade. Being an adolescent is all about making those leaps and bounds toward freedom and independence.

Melanie: This is more a comment that maybe you can respond to. With its pretend TV clips, dialogue, and other “TVesque” moments, Something Real seemed like a lot of fun to write.

Heather: Those interpolations are what made me want to write the book in the first place. I loved getting to show the wider world of the story through the media. So much of what Chloe and her siblings deal with is public commentary on their private life. They are commodities, being purchased and sold (ah! Slavery is, apparently, another of my go-to themes). I loved slipping into the style of gossip columnists, like my fictional Haute Cocoa, or the experts writing articles. I also wanted there to be scripts so that we could see how their “real” life is like any other form of entertainment.

Melanie: Can we just talk about Patrick for a while? He’s like the perfect book boyfriend and as you know I am totally into discussing those. 🙂 What kinds of things did you consider when crafting him?

Heather: Oh, that Patrick Sheldon. Of COURSE we can talk about him for a while! Patrick came to me as his own guy, but he ended up being totally perfect for Chloe. He was just sitting there in her government class and I was, like, why hello, you! I dig guys that are smart and a little bit rebellious, but kind and thoughtful. Iconoclastic jerks are lame and boring. Iconoclastic boys next door: yes, please.

Patrick doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him—it’s not that he’s an egoist or anything, he’s just really comfortable in his own skin. He accepts himself and because of that, he can be Chloe’s rock. He’s not angsty, but he is passionate—he’s got strong opinions on all kinds of things and has dreams for his future.

I wanted Chloe to have a significant other who gave her the space to figure out who she was, but would call her on her crap, too. I wanted someone who could be sweet and romantic, someone who could show her what it meant to be loved by someone with no strings attached. I think when you come from a bad home situation, you need someone who can be home to you, but who doesn’t steal your identity or try to mold you.

I like that Patrick has a good home life, that he does the reading for school, and that he pulls the girl he likes into janitor’s closets when he should totally be in his first period class. I’ve had a lot of girls email me since the book came out, asking where they could find a guy like Patrick, wishing he existed. I’ll say this: Patrick is his own guy, but he’s based on my husband in many ways. So I tell them to hold out: Patrick Sheldon might be a fictional character, but guys like him do exist. Just keep those standards high and don’t settle for anyone less than someone who will respect and support you, someone who will gently push you to be good to yourself.

***

Special thanks to Heather for taking part in this Q&A. I look forward to seeing what 2015 holds for her.

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About Melanie J. Fishbane

My novel, MAUD: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017 through Penguin Random House on April 25, 2017. I hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here I talk about my writing process, things I love, and creative people who inspire me.
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