An Interview with Adrienne Young
by Dani Hedlund
What inspired this book?
The original idea was a warrior girl on the battlefield who sees her brother on the other side. I didn’t know exactly what kind of setting I was going to do, but I knew I wanted it to be something different—familiar to fantasy but something that hadn’t been done. I also knew that I didn’t want to have to justify or explain the warrior aspect of the girl. So I thought Vikings would be perfect because, in Viking times, women warriors were not an exception to the rule. I felt like it was the perfect fit.
Talk to me about some of the elements that make this book different from the normal fantasy genre.
I’m dealing with a lot of themes about hatred and prejudice, and that really is the underscored theme of the book. There’s definitely clan rivalry and all of that, but I also tried to provide something beyond people-versus-people, exploring what’s underneath that and behind that, especially something that is ingrained from birth. The female aspect was another thing—having a strong, fierce female character but not having to justify it or come up with reasons why she’s so strong or why she’s so fierce.
One of the things I find so interesting in this book is the idea of converging mythologies and the different ways these clans define themselves. What was it like to create those mythologies throughout the book?
It was really fun. I tried to use Norse mythology as a guideline. None of the mythology in the book is real or historically accurate—I created it all—but I tried to use the same kind of origin stories and mimic the Vikings’ relationships to their gods. I did try to stay true to the spirit of Nordic mythology, but it’s definitely all created.
I assume you don’t fight people with lances and axes as a daily profession, so I’m sure a lot of research was necessary in order to lean on those histories and myths. What was that research like?
I really love research. I’m like a research junkie. Even when I’m not researching for a book, I hear about something interesting and then I’m researching it for two hours, for no reason. I love history and I love art as well—I studied art history in college—so I’m definitely bent that way and have a natural curiosity toward those kinds of things.
When it came to researching everything—from weapons and fighting styles to what kind of pots they cooked in—I had a lot of fun, even though it was time consuming. As far as the fighting and weapons, I tried to be as descriptive as possible to really paint a picture. There are parts that have a lot of blood and gore, and I strived to capture everything based on my research.
Did you ever become emotionally connected to the things you were researching only to realize that putting them all in was slowing everything down?
That’s extremely hard. In adult fantasy that’s not as much of an issue because you can have a slower pace, a lot more information, and world building, and the reader doesn’t get bored. But in YA fantasy, pacing is so important and focusing on the character is important, so there were definitely things I had to sacrifice, things I thought were cool but soon realized, “I cannot write a whole scene about that.” There were definitely things that were not included for the sake of the young adult reader.
The book opens in a really dramatic fight scene and then we have more conflict as it goes on, but there are moments of down time as well. You have everything from warriors recovering from battle to big moments of character development to literally waiting for a mountain to thaw. What was it like keeping that balance between intense adrenaline and in-depth character development?
It just felt natural to me. There’s a lot of energy and action, and the natural progression to me was to go inside, to go internal to relieve all of that tension. But then, of course, we go back into that intensity, which I think is important too. I love action in books, and sometimes it’s done really well and sometimes it’s not. I wanted to make sure there was a healthy dose of action and it wasn’t all about how this character or these characters feel in their dialogue. I really like to focus on the external while also exploring the internal processes and what’s happening inside the character.
A lot of our writers tend to stumble into the YA genre by accident. They have a couple of strong younger characters and when their agents are like, “We’re going to sell this as YA,” they completely freak out and the entire thing confuses them. Was that something that happened to you or did you always go in wanting to write YA?
I definitely started writing YA with the intention of branching out. I had written two other YA books and one adult book before I wrote Sky in the Deep. I love the YA genre. I love to read other categories too, but I definitely wanted to break in with young adult and really settle into that category. I would love to write middle grade too, and I would love to write adult in some form.
Talk to me about what your writing career has been like. When did you start getting into it, and when did you realize you were good at it?
I have been writing since I was really little, like poetry and all kinds of stuff. My third-grade teacher was the first person to say that I was going to be a writer. All through high school I entered writing competitions, and I was in journalism, so it’s always been an active interest of mine. But I never honestly believed that I could be a published author. So in elementary school, I remember being in the library looking at these books on the shelf and imagining what it would be like if I wrote a book and it was on the shelf and my name was on it.
I didn’t really latch onto that dream until I was a young adult, around twenty-three, and I was dabbling with writing a full book instead of just writing short stories and poetry. Once I got to the end of that book, I wondered if maybe I really could do it. So I started researching how you even do that, how you even publish a book.
I was super intimidated by it, but I had a friend who was also secretly writing, and she was in the same spot as me, both of us thinking that maybe we could get published. We became critique partners, and we started the whole journey together. We researched agents together, made query letters together, did everything along the same lines. I don’t know if I would have really gone after it at that time if I hadn’t connected with her.
I wrote a couple books, queried them, and didn’t get an agent. I started working on this adult book and finished it, and then I got the idea for Sky in the Deep. It just took off in my brain. I finished it super fast, started querying it, and got my agent. It sold six months after I started writing it, which was the totally crazy part, but it was a long time getting there. It was probably about five years of querying and rejection before I started Sky in the Deep.
When you wrote this book, did you write it full time in those six months before selling? Or did you have another job?
I have four kids and I’m a stay-at-home mom, so when I got super serious about trying to get published—probably the year before I got an agent—we started a schedule. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to have hours, I’m going to have days of the week where I work, and we’re going to have to figure out a way for me to actually do this.” I did a lot of writing at night, like late into the night, and a lot of writing at coffee shops, long after they were closed, with my critique partner.
I wrote the book in about four weeks and revised it in two weeks, and then I queried it, which was so stupid—I don’t know why I did that. I knew better too because I had queried a couple of times before that, with other books. I just had a very strong feeling of urgency with this book, that I had to get it out there right then, and so I was trying really hard to finish it and get it into agents’ email boxes.
Since you had experience querying, how did you go about the process? Did you have a couple of agents that were listed on the back of books you loved? Did you use a search engine like queryletter.com?
The first couple of times, I queried everyone under the sun. I was like, “I don’t care who you are, take me, sign me!” But by the time I had written Sky in the Deep, I had learned a lot about the industry, and I realized that I didn’t just want any agent; I wanted a really good agent. I wanted to increase my chances of selling my book and increase my chances of sticking with one agent, because, you know, a lot of authors wind up leaving their first agents.
I made a very short list of about twelve agents and decided that these were the agents I was going to query with this book, and that was it. If they didn’t take it, I’d write something else. I queried the first batch of six with the contact information I had from querying before, and I think I got four or five requests. Getting full requests at that rate had never happened before. I thought that this was maybe going to happen, and while I was waiting on those responses, I decided to send out the other ones a few months later. When I did, my agent Barbara emailed me back the next morning, and that also had never happened before. She wanted to look at the full manuscript, and I sent it to her. She read it overnight and called me the next morning. I was totally shocked. She immediately offered her presentation. I was blown away. I had offers from a couple of other agents after that, but I wound up choosing Barbara and I’m so happy I did. She’s been really amazing.
Talk to me about the process after you sold it. Did you go through several rounds of edits with the actual publishing house? Were there big changes in the manuscript?
I did one light round of edits with Barbara, and then we went out with it right away and it sold a few weeks later. My editor had told me she didn’t want to change very much, so I didn’t expect heavy revisions, and there really weren’t any. We did one round of revisions, and then I sent them back, and she had a couple nitpicky things that came back, but it was pretty simple.
What is your advice for new writers that are in the position you were in when you first started writing novels? If you could go back in time and give yourself some stern advice, what would it be?
It would be to calm down. Once I decided I was going for this, I wanted it so bad. I thought if I could just write a book, I could make it happen. But I’ve never met any author who sold their first book, or at least sold it to someone they wanted to sell it to. I really wish I had given myself the time and the grace to just learn. I learned a lot through the first two books I wrote, and I really needed that. I needed that time. I also needed to learn about the industry, what agent representation was and what the relationship between a publishing house and an author looked like. When it finally did happen, I felt well-equipped to enter this world, even though it was still super intimidating. I’m so grateful for everything that I learned and for having all of that time to develop my craft.
What are you up to now?
I’m working on book two. Sky in the Deep is a stand-alone, but I’m writing a companion novel that’s coming out in 2019. So I’m trying to finish my first draft of that. I’m going to turn that in probably within the next month.
Are you writing at the same crazy rate: four weeks to write it all down and two weeks to revise it?
No, this is a different experience. Well, I might actually end up writing my first draft pretty quickly, but this has been a different experience because I’ve never written before with an agent and an editor involved. I’ve always just liked an idea and sat down and messed with it. It’s not like that now; I have a deadline and I’ve already been partially paid for this book. They bought two books, and when I pitched the idea, they liked it—but it wasn’t fleshed out. I hadn’t marinated it at all. I was just like, “Uh, this and this happens,” and then once I really started working on developing the story, I realized that it wasn’t going to work. I wound up having to pitch a different thing to them, and that’s what I’m working on now.
Because I wrote Sky in the Deep so fast, I thought that I’d just knock this one out too, but every story is really it’s own animal, and all of the books I’ve written have been different experiences. I wish I had remembered that when I started this project. Now it’s all coming together, and I have a pretty clear picture of what’s happening, but it took a while to get there. I had to really sit on it for a bit, and now my deadline’s coming and it’s like, Hurry up and write!
I have a writer friend who judges the success of his books not by how many languages they’re translated into or how much money he makes or how high he gets on The New York Times bestseller’s list, but whether or not he set out to say one thing and he believes the book said it. What is the one thing you really wanted to say with this book?
I think it would be to not be afraid to change your mind. When I say that, I’m talking about those big foundational core believes. Sky in the Deep is sort of a manifestation of something I went through a couple years ago. I had to adjust some core beliefs I had that I’d been taught my whole life when I realized that I didn’t subscribe to them anymore. It was super scary breaking away from that stuff and starting new, developing my own world view and my own paradigm, and being confident in that, willing to just create my own life apart from what people had told me to think. That was a terrifying experience, and I think many people are in that position, especially now with everything that’s been happening in the last couple of years. I really hope this book speaks to people who have prejudices and hatred in themselves—that they maybe don’t even realize they have—and shows a tiny bit of light to someone, enough to think of what it might be like if they didn’t believe or think something anymore.