Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Zeroing in on a Great Story

Children’s author Margo Lanagan talks with Chapter 16 about the pleasure of writing with collaborators

It may seem like getting three acclaimed authors to write one novel would call for super-human powers, but all that’s needed, it turns out, is the hard work of mere mortals—plus lots of communication and a sense of adventure. Zeroes, coming to shelves in late September, is the result of the collaborative efforts of Australian authors Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti, as well as Scott Westerfeld, who divides his time between New York and Australia.

The book is the fast-paced story of superhero teenagers, whose powers—quite unlike those you’ve read in any other superhero novel—are as frustrating as they are potent. Scam, for one, can speak in a voice that tells people precisely what they want to hear. Flicker is blind but can see through others’ eyes, while Crash can dismantle the technology in a room. These three are part of a group of misfit teens whose talents for manipulation, as they reunite to fight a new enemy and come to understand their powers, make for grand entertainment.

Margo Lanagan, the World Fantasy Award-winning author of short stories and YA fiction, recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email prior to all three authors’ appearance at the Southern Festival of Books:

Chapter 16: Scott Westerfeld describes this book’s protagonists as “six kids with superpowers that kind of suck.” That’s an apt description. Whose idea was this book? Who approached whom first?

Margo Lanagan: Scott had been thinking about one of the superpowers (Scam’s voice) for a really long time, but what prompted him to suggest the series was reading Deb’s short story collection Bad Power, which involved people having superpowers that kind of suck—or at least having superpowers but no strong moral compass to ensure that they were always used for good. The two of them started cooking up the series and asked me to join them.

We wanted the powers to be really cool in some ways and just a darn nuisance in lots of other ways—to make day-to-day life problematic for our characters. For example, Crash’s power is to bring down technology, but when she’s being good and not crashing everything, the pressure of all the surrounding electronics is physically and mentally painful. She can barely function in hi-tech environments, so this limits her range of movement to places where she can cope with the e-load.

Chapter 16: How did you three collaborate on this novel? Did you assign characters/chapters to each other?

Lanagan: We dreamed up six characters, and we each wrangle two of them—and those two will be “ours” all throughout the trilogy. When we’re devising the plot, we get together face to face and hammer it out over several days, ensuring that we keep all six characters regularly in sight. And once we’ve worked out the plot, we go our separate ways and write our characters’ chapters. Then we circulate the chapters and give each other our two cents’ worth on each other’s chapters, as we work out how the whole story’s going to fit together.

Chapter 16: Is the book being sold and marketed in Australia as well? Deb is Australian as well, yes?

Lanagan: Yes, Deb is Australian. (And Scott is nearly Australian. He’s definitely regarded as an Australian author in terms of the genre scene here.) The book is coming out in Australia and the U.K. at roughly the same time as it hits U.S. shelves.

Chapter 16: Speaking of which, can you talk a bit about the major differences between publishing YA fiction in Australia and the States? Do you see differences, for instance, in your readership and their preferences?

Lanagan: Well, the population being one-tenth of the U.S. population, the readership is also one-tenth the size, so the scale is quite different. I think YA appeals to the same demographics in Australia as it does in the U.S. —i.e. it’s not just young people reading it but a substantial general readership as well. The Australian market picks up a lot of U.S. and U.K. YA, and there’s a really healthy community of writers of YA books set in Australia and New Zealand, many of which don’t make it to overseas markets.

Chapter 16: What does it mean to you to be honored by the American Library Association, as you were in 2009 with the Printz Honor for Tender Morsels?

Lanagan: Oh, it’s terrific that my stories have reached that far and made that much of an impact! It’s a tremendous affirmation of what I’m doing—something to remind myself of when I’m working away and feeling as if nothing I write is working or worthwhile.

Chapter 16: Have you already started on the second Zeroes book?

Lanagan: Started? We will have handed that baby in to the publisher before we leave on our U.S. book tour at the end of September. A few rough edges will have to be smoothed off it still—we’ll do that when we get back to Australia—but we’ll have done most of the heavy lifting.

Chapter 16: Will this be your first time in Nashville or even Tennessee? Anything in particular you’re looking forward to about the book festival?

Lanagan: This is my first time in Tennessee. Barring the ALA Conference in New Orleans in 2006, this is my first time in the South. I plan a good long ramble through the exhibitors’ hall to see what’s happening. As well as finding a few new Southern books to explore, I’m really looking forward to finding out about what guests Michael Crummey, Geraldine Brooks, David Levithan, and Ron Rash have been up to recently.

Chapter 16: OK, this begs the asking: If you could have any superpower, which would it be, sucky or otherwise?

Lanagan: I want what Plastic Man’s got—the power to exist as neither entirely liquid nor solid, to assume any shape, and to stretch and shrink my body to any degree I wanted. With that power I could, for example, be comfortable in any airplane seat. Also, superhuman strength and agility will always come in handy for something, don’t you think? And it’d be great to be immune to telepathic attack. You just never know when those sneaky telepaths are going to try breaching your defenses.