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Q&A with Robin Wasley - Dead Things are Closer Than They Appear



By Leah Golder


We are delighted to welcome Robin Wasley to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, Dead Things are Closer Than They Appear, released on the 13th February 2024.


High school is hard enough to survive without an apocalypse to navigate.


Sid Spencer has always been the most normal girl in her abnormal hometown, a tourist trap built over one of the fault lines that seal magic away from the world. Meanwhile, all Sid has to deal with is hair-ruining humidity, painful awkwardness, being one of four Asians in town, and her friends dumping her when they start dating each other—just days after one of the most humiliating romantic rejections faced by anyone, ever, in all of history.


Then someone kills one of the Guardians who protect the seal. The earth rips open and unleashes the magic trapped inside. Monsters crawl from the ground, no one can enter or leave, and the man behind it all is roaming the streets with a gang of violent vigilantes. Suddenly, Sid’s life becomes a lot less ordinary. When she finds out her missing brother is involved, she joins the remaining Guardians, desperate to find him and close the fault line for good.


Fighting through hordes of living corpses and uncontrollable growths of forest, Sid and a ragtag crew of would-be heroes are the only thing standing between their town and the end of the world as they know it. Between magic, murderers, and burgeoning crushes, Sid must survive being a perfectly normal girl caught in a perfectly abnormal apocalypse.


Only—how can someone so ordinary make it in such an extraordinary world?



Hi Robin, welcome to The Reading Corner! Thank you for speaking with me about your latest release Dead Things Are Closer Than They Appear. This dark novel is a perfect blend of fantasy, romance, horror with sprinkles of comedy throughout. Perfectly paced with a wonderful blend of action and anticipation, peppered with quiet moments of raw human connection and intense emotions, this thrilling and fantastical apocalyptic novel is one our readers won’t be able to put down.


Thank you so much for the kind words! And I’m so thrilled for the opportunity to speak about Dead Things Are Closer Than They Appear!


I love the combination of all genres within your novel Robin! You have carefully selected and balanced the best aspects of fantasy, romance, horror, and comedy within your novel to craft this wonderful concoction of love, fear, alarm, connection, and humour. Did you always intend to create such a well-crafted and immersive blending of genres?


That makes me so happy! Honestly the best part of blending genres as a writer is having no limitations on how weird my stories are allowed to be. But most importantly, I started as a reader and enjoyer of all things genre-mashy, and what I love most is never knowing what I’m gonna get, being constantly surprised or amused or anguished or horrified in quick succession. I love feeling everything everywhere all at once (plug for a fave genre mash!), going from one extreme to another—it’s so fun and exciting to experience, and I wanted to be able to create that too. With Dead Things, my goal was to build an emotional rollercoaster, to hopefully have readers burst out laughing in a moment of high tension, or start crying suddenly in a moment they think they’re safe, or find moments of beauty in the depths of hell. To me, these kinds of juxtapositions heighten each emotion, make them hit that much harder. To me, that’s how the world feels—often overwhelming, and never just one thing.


Growing up, I was obsessed with the supernatural teen dramedies from the CW, especially Buffy. This kind of genre-mashed storytelling is engrained in me. I’m drawn to that combination of contemporary life mixed with the fantastical where magic and monsters are tools to tell a story about someone surviving just being an ordinary person. In Buffy, for instance, high school is hell (literally), but the demons and vampires are metaphors for boy problems and cheerleading try-outs and complicated friendships. When creating the magic and the horror elements (zombies!) in Dead Things, the idea that they would represent internal turmoil and real life struggles was always at the forefront of my mind.


The world building in your novel is one of my favourite aspects of your writing. I truly felt, as a reader, that I could imagine and picture the world and environment that the characters are living in and manoeuvre through those same settings alongside them. From Sid’s home, to the café she works at, to the campus of Mountain Ridge Academy and the school where they find refuge. As we know, worldbuilding is integral to fiction, imperative especially to the genre of fantasy. Was this something you were conscious of when delving into the genre of fantasy?


I love hearing that because worldbuilding has always been my biggest challenge, something I work on the hardest, that forces me to think of every little detail and how it would work and make sense in a real situation or place. Is now the best time to admit that I initially created the zombies because I needed to make it harder for my characters to travel from place to place? And only then did I consider how the zombies would actually make sense in the context of the story? LMAO, because that is exactly what happened. As a character first writer, I definitely wove the world together almost in reaction to the journey I’d already created. The world, the town, the magic, all the fantastical elements—they were a means to support the character arcs I knew from the very beginning. The world had to work with them and not the other way around.


A contemporary setting on its own seems manageable, making a town feel like our world—we all have a frame of reference for a touristy town like Wellsie, so I could draw inspiration from places I’ve lived or visited. But it grows ever more complicated the more UNreal aspects you throw in. Weaving magic into a modern context is all about maintaining balance in order to keep the world as plausible as possible. Figuring out how this town existed in the real world, how much mythology is known and how much isn’t, and how I could keep it contained so the story could remain about one town and the people living there rather than entire world…took a lot of thought. Our world is so interconnected with communication and knowledge at our fingertips that figuring out ways to keep my characters cut off from civilization meant a lot of time slowly answering questions like “if magic is unleashed in this town, how does it not spread?” and “why wouldn’t the outside world intervene?” and “why couldn’t they just call for help?”


One thing I ultimately had to make peace with is that some things are gonna be more believable than than others once you start involving magic. My experience watching the CW taught me that every fantasy requires a certain amount of suspension of belief, but if you see a hole NO YOU DIDN’T.


One of my favourite aspects of any novel is the feeling of being truly and deeply connected to the characters. You wonderfully craft such great and diverse characters; ones that any reader can feel connected to in a plethora of ways. Do you have any specific processes when crafting characters and portraying them on such intimate levels?


As I mentioned, I am a character first writer. I can’t be invested in a story if I don’t care about the people, if I’m not emotionally impacted by who lives or dies. As long as I’ve been a writer, my stories begin with voice and dialogue—not just the main character’s voice, but all of the characters’ voices, and how they interact and talk with one another. I hear whole conversations in my head. I know where all my characters begin and where they end. How they get there (the plot) and where they exist (the world), come later as a means to support that journey from point A to point B. For me, a story exists so a person becomes someone they weren’t when it started. And Dead Things was always intended to be about growth and how each person contributed to each other’s journey.


When creating an ensemble, I love figuring out how they talk, how that complements or clashes with others, how their words are unique to them, but somehow exist in the same world. I love building in little commonalities, not just in some of the speech habits between friends or family, but in every character having some connection to at least one other person, whether it’s curly hair or love of BTS or growing up in non-biological families. In the end, no matter how different they might seem, they aren’t.


My process for creating characters always stems from the firm belief that every character, main or side, should be written with Main Character Energy. They all have to be the heroes of their own stories. So often side characters are created to further the main character’s arc, and that should be part, but not all, of their reason for existing. Each character has to be a complete person, with backstories, motivations, and arcs that are wholly unique to them. The story has to be made better, richer, and more complex by their presence. And with this specific story in which every single ordinary person matters, it was crucial that they be intertwined as much as possible, that you couldn’t erase one person without affecting everyone else.  


Focusing specifically on the character of Sid, the development of her character throughout the novel drives the plot and makes the narrative welcoming and relatable for readers. Constantly quipping about how there are only “four Asians in Wellsie” and being one of those who took longer to discover their power within a group of Guardians, Sid becomes the relatable and significant ‘outsider’. A heroine who took a little longer to find her place and role within society, she resonates so well with themes of belonging and self-assurance. Can you speak more about the presentation of race within your novel and the importance of representation within literature?


I grew up in a small white town, not seeing myself represented in books, to the extent that it never really occurred to me to write an Asian American character until I was a full-on adult. Because I was a full-on adult the first time I saw an Asian American character in a YA book. Even now, as we slowly crawl toward more Asian American representation, there are so many Asian American experiences that have yet to be told. When there are so few stories, there’s a danger for us to be seen as a monolith, for non-Asian readers to have a preconceived notion of what the Asian American experience looks like. And for Asian American readers, there can sometimes be disappointment if an experience doesn’t reflect ours completely since we’ve waited so long to see ourselves. But all of this just drives home how much we need more and more stories to paint this picture of what it means to be Asian American. For that reason, I always knew I wanted my main character to be a transracial Korean American adoptee, to demonstrate one of the many different lives an Asian American can have.


I think it’s important with any kind of identity to not just have it mentioned once and then never again—that’s not how identities work. I did not want to do that for any of the characters. For Sid, though adoption and the many issues surrounding transracial adoption weren’t intended to be the focus of the story, her experiences as a transracial adoptee were built into her character from beginning to end. It was meant to affect her worldview, her sense of self, and her concept of family. Even in a magical apocalypse, the foundation of someone’s identity should inform their emotions, their decisions, their actions.


Not seeing yourself reflected either in the people around you or in the books you read has a very real affect on all of us. And it would for Sid, too. I knew I wanted to draw on Sid’s experiences of growing up in a homogenous town as part of her insecurities while at the same time, having meeting other people, especially diverse friends, help her see herself more fully, to help her understand that at her core, she really is just like everyone else.


Following on from the themes of belonging, I love the explorations of family within the novel. Through Sid and Brian, two characters who are family oriented and focused on reuniting with and protecting their siblings amidst the chaos of the magical, postapocalyptic Wellsie, we experience intense and pure familial love. Both Sid and Brian present different and yet equally significant non-nuclear family dynamics. Both Sid and Matty are adopted, and Brian and his sisters are not blood relatives, with Brian later taking on a parental role after the tragic loss of his parents. Representation of different family makeups is essential, and so refreshing to see presented so beautifully. Was this presentation of different family dynamics a must for your novel? Are there any other dynamics within the family that you wished had more representation within literature?


My family is Korean, Mexican, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Colombian, Norwegian, Greek, Black, random white. For me, that is normal. For me, blood has never determined family. For me, family is made, not born.


In representing different kinds of families and ways of growing up, I was aiming for a couple things. 1.) I wanted to portray an experience that is completely ordinary to me. 2.) I wanted to create a connection between Sid and Brian—that they would specifically relate to this aspect of each other’s lives without having to explain, one that was just as completely ordinary to them as it is to me. 3.) I fervently believe that readers don’t have to personally relate to an experience to care about a person or to be invested in a story, that reading about different lives actually makes a story even more fascinating than one that matches our own.


Dead Things, to me, is ultimately a story about empathy. I think one of the greatest problems facing our world is this resistance to empathising with people who either don’t look like us or haven’t lived exactly as we have. Sometimes that manifests in extreme ways, to the extent of complete dehumanisation. Sometimes it’s people being unable to relate to characters in books who are a different race but somehow being able to relate to warrior princesses who ride dragons as long as they’re white. Sometimes it’s people asking me to this day if not being blood-related to my family means we have less of a bond.


In writing diverse stories, I think authors are normalising the fact that everything is normal to someone. And hopefully we are all broadening what is normal for everyone.


I couldn’t help but root for the development of Sid’s and Brian’s relationship from their very first run in (literally!). But the way you organically crafted the development of their romantic relationship, pockets and moments of emotional connection within the chaos of Wellsie at the library and the school and up in the trees, makes it all the more raw and remarkable. It seemed inevitable they would come together at the end of the novel, but was this the case for you when writing? Was it always your intention and the natural conclusion of the novel to have these two characters unite romantically?


The very first scene I wrote for this book many, MANY years ago was Sid and Brian stuck in a tree. That scene hasn’t really changed throughout this entire process and it was the one scene I knew I would never cut no matter what. Before I was a YA fantasy writer, I tried my hand at writing adult romance, and that’s probably why characters and relationships are my strengths. I always wanted the romance to be prominent in the story. First, it’s SO fun to write. I loved building a relationship between two people who were both very emotional at their core (both water signs!) that manifested very differently in terms of personality, but also meant they’d match so well on a deeper level. Writing their conversation, banter, even silence, came with such ease, without even having to try, and that was my hint that they were supremely right for each other. A top-notch OTP.

 

The romance also formed another thread within the overall knot of character relationships. Like every other connection featured in the story, I wanted it to grow little by little, to demonstrate ways that different people give you different things, and how you change one another. For Sid, Brian was such an imperative catalyst to seeing and accepting herself as she is, to improving her relationships with her friends, to understanding and appreciating different kinds of love. It’s not to say that she only believed in herself because a boy did, but that the more she learned about herself from the people around her, the more she was able to love others and be loved in return.


The depth and breadth of powers within the novel is extraordinary. I am truly in awe of the power of your imagination to create and develop such a variety and vast amount of powers which differ so much from the cliches and classics of superhero narratives. The tying of the characters power to their personality is so clever and I loved trying to guess what I thought the power of each character would materialise as. Focusing on Sid, a character who shows immense amounts of empathy and emotion throughout the narrative, her power evolves as something quite exceptional and extremely powerful. The ability to mimic and embody the powers of others, and her realisation of this, seemed to catalyse the turning point of the novel as hope reigned prevalent once more for our characters. How much fun did you have when crafting each character’s power? And how intentional was it that Sid’s power held so much importance for the novel and was only discovered later in the narrative?


I definitely collected ideas over the years because coming up with a ton of superpowers is surprisingly hard! You always want to have some in there that aren’t the standard ones everyone expects (shout-out my little brother for coming up with the Mountain Dew one). Also, choosing powers that help your characters survive, but don’t make things too easy is a challenging balance to achieve. But above everything, it was really important to me that the powers be intrinsically tied to who each person was at their core, whether it manifested literally or not. I didn’t want the story to be about the powers as much as I wanted it to be about the people. Thus, figuring out powers that worked both for plot and character meant switching powers MANY times throughout the writing process. For Sid, though, her power always remained the same from the beginning and was always intended to evolve the way it did, to have something that she initially deemed useless actually save them all.

 

I want to take a moment to mention the concept of the “strong female character,” which I think has come to mean someone who kicks ass physically, a go-getter, a person who makes the plan and executes the plan, and doesn’t just react to things happening to her. And honestly, I find that personally unrealistic. While I love bad ass women, I wanted to write a main character who wasn’t a born fighter, who was scared and uncertain and didn’t immediately know what to do when facing a zombie apocalypse. Because I think a lot of us would be scared and uncertain and not immediately know what to do when facing a zombie apocalypse! A lot of us don’t have strengths that are easily visible to everyone or to ourselves. There are qualities that we take for granted, downplaying their importance in the grand scheme of things. Emotion, empathy, especially for women, are traits often set up to be a flaw or a reason why we couldn’t survive in a brutal world—I wanted to write a story where those are the best qualities about her.


Magic is not always the extraordinary—sometimes it’s the ordinary in us, it’s the little things that make us human that are the most precious. For Sid, being just like everyone else, is her greatest strength. And just as nobody becomes a hero overnight, nobody becomes a fully self-actualised human being overnight. So making Sid’s power gradual was meant to show that it’s a journey for life. We’re never actually done. And in this story, as she grows and changes, so does her magic.


I cannot miss the opportunity to ask about the brilliant sidekick and companion that is Chad, the fluffy white cat who only favours those who are either allergic or indifferent to her presence. How did her role within the novel materialise within your writing process? 


This story went through countless iterations through years of writing and rewriting—in some of these versions, different members of Sid’s family had more prominent roles (and some of them may have died…), but I always knew there would be one member of Sid’s family who would survive until the very end (I am revealing this so that the animal lovers can read with peace of mind). While at first Chad was another way for me to balance the darkness with humour, she became a full character just like the others, someone who couldn’t just be there to be there. Every character had to matter. Every character had to contribute to the fight. Including the cat. And obviously, I knew she also had to be adopted.


However, I did not anticipate that she would become EVERYONE’S FAVORITE CHARACTER. From my agent to my editor to every reader I’ve spoken to. She is their number one and it’s not even close.


Finally, Robin, where can our readers get their hands on your wonderfully witty, tear-jerking, beautiful novel Dead Things Are Closer Than They Appear?


At present, I’ve only sold North American rights, so in North America, it can be found anywhere books are sold. BUT we’ve recently allowed Simon and Schuster to distribute in the UK, and it can now be ordered via the Waterstones site!


Thank you so much again for your time Robin!


Thank you so much for your thoughtful and detailed questions! I had so much fun!



Robin Wasley is a YA fantasy writer with a soft spot for orphans, found families, and funny girls with no special skills who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. She grew up in a family of adoptees, never truly seeing herself reflected in the books she devoured. As an adult, when she saw an Asian American girl on the cover of a YA book for the first time, she cried.

Robin lives in Boston and works in scientific publishing, but she writes so readers can laugh, cry, and scream “Why are you like this?” Her favourite things are genre-mashes, bubble baths, Cheetos, and pie. When not writing, she enjoys baking and binge-watching entire seasons of TV in a single day.

Find her online at @robinwasley on Twitter and Instagram.

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