STARBURST: You've described I Belong to the Earth as a homage to Wuthering Heights. When you were writing it was that your intention from the beginning?
J. A. Ironside: Yes and no. In part it's a homage but the aspect that does jibe with Wuthering Heights - namely the ongoing haunting or curse centered around a pair of lovers who allowed selfishness and a toxic form of love to divide them - is in part a reaction to the huge number of YA fantasy books that center on a love triangle as a central theme. I think there's something unhealthy in that dynamic - in the person at the top of the triangle viewing their self-worth through the lens of having two people fighting for their affections. It was also a reaction to people who describe Wuthering Heights as a sweeping romance because while it was many things, it definitely wasn't that. It cheapens the brilliance of what is essentially a rather unpleasant book with unlikable characters to just boil it down to a romance when it was an intelligent and somewhat scathing social commentary on just how toxic certain forms of love can be and how keeping women sequestered in the way they were in 19th C Britain, led to them contributing to their own downfall. So yes I acknowledge the excellence of WH and I'm a bit cheeky borrowing the author as a walk on part but really I wanted to look at the theme of love - of all kinds - under a very unforgiving lens
Is that why the audience sees the romance between Haze and Katherine from the eyes of a third party observer (be it Emlynn or Helen) rather from the perspective of the lovers themselves?
Yes in part. For one thing the MC - Emlynn - starts her story as very much an outsider. There's the accident and her brain injury, her stutter, the fact that she has an affinity with the Dead - all things which mark her out and not in a good way. Helen is an outsider too in this trio of characters in that she wants normalcy whereas Kate wants adventure and Haze has his own dark motives. So both are somewhat excluded. And as you said it means that the reader isn't drawn so much into what is a very toxic love story.
During the book Emlynn also has a romantic story of her own, was that to serve as a foil of sorts to the dynamic between Kate and Haze?
Emlynn's own romantic subplot did serve to show a 'healthy' approach to a romantic love - which even so is complicated in itself simply because people are complicated - as opposed to the self-involvement of Kate and Haze's relationship. But it also was a developmental stage for Emlynn because after the accident she has cut herself off from other people. She's dropped contact with old friends, has serious trust issues and doesn't make new friends. So it also show's Emlynn starting to heal and accept more people into her life again. The risk being that people can leave you, via death or other means so to open yourself up to friendship or family or love is to potentially get hurt in the future. So it signals both of those things.
Often when reading books or watching films we judge the characters for not spotting certain things sooner, or for taking certain actions. Do you think that we take for granted that we have a certain distance from the material that the characters do not share? I.e. judging Emlynn for not noticing certain parts of the pattern sooner?
That's a complicated answer. In some respects, if you're really in the MC's head, you might not see certain aspects of a situation because you are experiencing it as the MC does. I think in the horror/ paranormal/thriller/mystery type genres in a lot of cases you do have a distance a perspective as the audience that is not afforded the MC. In Emlynn's case, she is a classic reluctant hero. She really wants nothing to do with the situation, she just wants all the weird stuff to stop happening. She is also blinded to the situation in many ways. One, because the Pattern naturally protects itself - there's a part of the book when Emlynn can really see the scope of the pattern and it's when she's being driven back from hospital - so she's outside the field of influence. Another aspect is that she's been closed off for so long that she is far more used to ignoring supernatural phenomena than confronting them. Finally the huge emotional strain she is under after the accident, after her mother's death, the strained relationship with her family and a certain healthy amount of self involvement, all get in the way of her seeing what's happening. So I think that yes as the audience it's easy to judge - it's even part of the fun, we love it when we cotton on to something before the MC does most of the time - but I also think it was in keeping with the situation.
Without spoiling the story for people who haven't read it yet there are no easy answers in this book, either in terms of the ghosts or for Emlynn's issues for her family. Was this element important to you and do you feel that too many YA books fall into the trap of trying to make the ending too tidy?
The family dynamic, especially between the three sisters, was very important to me because I haven't seen that dynamic explored very much in YA fantasy. It's difficult to say what 'too tidy'is, because one person might like all the loose threads accounted for while others like things left wide open or indeed, on a double ending where you're not really sure but you pick the ending depending on which makes the most sense to you given the evidence. I personally like to have a few open threads. Perhaps the biggest one I have left open is what really happens to Kate and Haze? A lot of people have said different theories on this and it's really interesting to hear them. No one is wrong or right incidentally. As regards the family dynamic, I felt that evidence of change (that's not too spoiler-y is it?) would be more likely than a rounded finish because people are complicated and interactions are hard so something too tidy wouldn't have worked, in my opinion. In other YA books I'm nearly always far more angry over a contrived or unearned ending than one with no loose threads.
One thing that is interesting about I Belong to the Earth is it doesn't feel like anyone is receiving punishment as such, rather they are living the consequences they have created for themselves.
Thanks. Yes that was ultimately what I was aiming for. We all make good and bad and indifferent choices and generally we are all called upon to live with them to some degree. Plus I wanted to get away from the idea of judgment because ultimately, who is the fit person to judge the others? It was a deliberate contrast with the notion of sin that is sort of buried in the subtext of the book - notably most in Helen's worldview.
This idea of living with those choices even extends to a character who acted under the influence of possession, something that is normally used as a way to have characters commit certain actions and allow the author to maintain them as blameless. Were you tempted to let the character off the hook as other writers may have done?
No. It was very important that, especially given the circumstances of those actions, that that character should accept some responsibility even if it wasn't fair. There are too many books that allow similar actions whilst under the influence of something else, to explain why a character acted badly but not make them accountable. I've always thought that if you were in a situation that made you act so against your natural inclinations - via possession for instance - wouldn't you start to doubt yourself when that influence was lifted? What made you such an easy target? Was there something dark in you that made it easy for that outside influence to use you? And this is exactly what happens to this character who no longer trusts themselves anymore. To the extent that there is a companion novella coming out early next year that explains how they come to terms with what they did and what they did next. Should be released alongside book two which is roughly scheduled for release January 2017.
So there will be a book two?
Yes. It's all written and ready. There are several novellas in between the two books. And two further books finish off the quartet.
Did you know there would be a sequel when you were writing I Belong to the Earth or did you find yourself wanting to revisit the characters after you had finished writing?
I Belong to the Earth was originally intended as a standalone novel. I'm not sure when it became a quartet. I think the easiest explanation is that the characters wouldn't leave me alone and as it turns out there are many more mysteries for Emlynn to solve.
What is it about writing a quartet out of what you thought was a single book story that most excites you?
It's always the character journey for me. In book one, I was still getting to know them. Now I know them all really well so watching what they do next and how they react and grow and change is fascinating. I don't think you can come out of a situation like the Pattern and not be changed in some way so exploring that has been great fun
Recently Zharmae Publishing (the publishers of I Belong to the Earth) has announced that it is shutting down. What does this mean for the series, and where will you be taking it from here?
I actually requested my rights back a few weeks before this happened. I had reasons for deciding to end the contract which I won't go into. Ultimately it is a big bonus for the series because book 2 has been ready for publication for over a year now so actually it's sped up the timeline. I will be re-releasing book one and publishing all the others under my own imprint. Having creative control means that I can correct some minor flaws, find more appropriate covers and that fans will have to wait less time between books.
To close the interview, if you could say one thing to any of your characters, who would you chose to talk to, and what would you say?
Ooh that's a tricky one. I think it would probably have to be Emlynn and I would say 'don't be afraid to ask for help' since her greatest flaw is that she never asks anyone for help.
You can purchase I Belong to the Earth at Amazon.