Ask Again Later by Francesca Zappia
Release Date: Fall 2014
Published by: Greenwillow/Harper Collins
Francesca Zappia's debut ASK AGAIN LATER is about the ultimate unreliable narrator, a schizophrenic teenage girl unable to tell the difference between reality and delusion who discovers -- thanks to her Magic 8-Ball, her little sister, and a boy she thought was imaginary -- that sometimes there really is someone out to get you.
or, a slightly more thorough synopsis from Chessie's query:
Despite being a paranoid schizophrenic, Alex Ridgemont knows Abraham Lincoln isn’t really chilling in her dad’s La-Z-Boy, communists aren’t really coming to kill her family, and the unbelievable little boy she met when she was eight just wasn’t real. Knowing these realities are all that keep her away from her mother’s mental-hospital zealotry and keep up her chances of getting into college and having a real life.
Here's something you probably didn't know. Over two years ago, I stumbled upon a blog post calling for the formation of a critique group for YA writers. A group of five we formed until two dropped out, so I advertised for the crit group here on Christina Reads YA; Chessie, Kate, and I needed two more to join our ranks, and so they did. For about half a year, we kept up our emails and critiques and weekly Skype chats. Then, due to unforeseen circumstances, the group disbanded. For the most part, we've all stayed in touch.
And now (!!!) I cannot tell you how excited I am for Chessie's contemporary debut (I got to read one of her science fiction manuscripts (not AAL), and that manuscript was fantastic!). Please join me in giving Ms. Francesca Zappia a warm welcome as she agreed to answer my questions today, and get excited about her upcoming 2014 YA title, Ask Again Later!
|Artwork has been taken from Chessie's website with her permission.|
AAL was definitely rare for me genre-wise, but in other aspects I feel like it has everything my other stories have. As the writer it sometimes feels pretentious to put labels on your own work, because everything's subjective. What I want to try to deliver with every story are casts of characters that look and act and feel like real people, that the reader can get involved with. Characters are everything for me, because if the reader is invested in the characters, they'll really feel it when I do the other thing I'd like to be known for, which is crushing hearts. (This is a wish of a lot of writers, I think--but we're writers, and the bigger the emotional reaction we can wring from the reader, the happier we are!)
2. For readers who might be on the fence about AAL, do you have some comparison titles or authors? Or, in case it feels weird to think on your work that way, maybe one of your CPs or your agent or your editor or etc. has said AAL reminds them of X and X?
I am notoriously bad at coming up with comparison titles for my own stuff, but my agent originally compared it to two different books: Liar by Justine Larbalestier and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon. In Liar, the narrator is a compulsive liar and therefore extremely unreliable. Alex, the narrator of Ask Again Later, is also extremely unreliable, but she doesn't know she's doing it. And the wonderful Dahlia Adler compared it to It's Kind Of A Funny Story. I assume it would also appeal to fans of John Green's books (whoa gettin' crazy here) because the characters in this book are very smart and (I hope) occasionally funny.
3. This is something that I'm really into, but what books define you as a reader? (These don't have to be your favorites. They're more like the books that you wish you could have written, that you wish you could hold onto forever, that as a writer, you strive to match. They have the elements that you look for in every book that you read.)
Harry Potter. I mean, literally, the entire Harry Potter series. Not only are they my favorite books, and the books that inspired me to start writing in the first place, but they're so good. In every possible way, they're good. They're complex and the world is massive and all the characters are so deep and yet it's got such simple, universal messages.
But apart from that, in YA, I have a special place in my heart for the Graceling Realm books, especially Fire. Again, absolutely wonderful characters. I will also always save a spot on my shelf for the Hunger Games trilogy, which I think will stay at the pinnacle of YA dystopian. Suzanne Collins created a world--perhaps not plausible, but certainly worthy of suspended disbelief--to showcase a myriad of problems with our society today, and managed to do it in a way that never felt preachy. The cherry on top was Katniss's character (all the characters, actually) who always felt true to the world she lived in and the situations she was faced with.
4. Mental illness seems to figure heavily into the plot and character arc for AAL. I saw in some of your previous interviews (The Page Sage, Chasing the Crazies, OneFourKidLit, The Writer Librarian, QueryTracker Success Stories) that you'd written that Alex and Miles as well as your fascination with mental illness heavily inspired the story. Several times I've written (unpublished) posts about the current portrayal of mental illness in young adult literature, so I'm curious to know your thoughts on the topic.
I've also written a lot of never-published blog posts on this topic, haha. I could talk about it for a long time. Of the YA books I've read or heard about that include mental illness, there seem to be a few recurring tropes: the illness used as the catalyst for a thriller plotline; the idea that medication or therapy for these illnesses is bad and should be tossed out to regain some sense of self; mental illness leading to the use of drugs and alcohol and similar behavior*; or the idea that the mentally ill character is "broken" and needs to be "fixed." While these certainly aren't bad or wrong, it seems as if they're treated like rules rather than options.
Alex and Miles both deal with mental problems, though Miles's involve autism. Alex does take medication and sees a therapist, but it's the central struggle of her character to be able to function without a hitch in the real world, all on her own. She doesn't like her medication or her therapist, but I wanted it to be clear that she knows they'll help her. She still has some reservations on treatment, but she's not about to throw any of them out.
The last point, about fixing broken people: I have seen a lot--a lot--of YA lit in which one or more characters, usually love interests, believe themselves to be broken or are seen as broken and in need of fixing. That was another thing I was careful with when it came to both Alex and Miles. They don't see themselves as broken, and they don't see each other as broken. There are parts of Alex's world that she genuinely likes, and Miles is well-adapted to working around his emotional and social problems. They don't fix each other, they just understand each other and make things a little easier to bear, like any struggle gets easier when you have someone to share it with.
*which it does lead to in some cases, but not, I would argue, in all of them.
5. Top five favorite scenes to write? Or, if too spoilery, favorite scene to write?
Haha well I'm afraid it would be too spoilery to explain them in any sort of detail, but some of my favorite scenes were when Alex was hardcore hallucinating. I got to step out of the contemporary mindset and into almost-horror for a few paragraphs.
But my absolute, hands down favorite part of the whole book is (what is right now) Chapter 34.
Psh, Chessie, now that was just cruel. I have to bookmark this page so that I'll remember to pay extra attention to Chapter 34. (Although a part of me right now is kind of like this: O.o. You did say that you loved crushing hearts...)
Want to find out more information? Visit Chessie at her website (where she blogs and posts the awesome artwork that has been featured here), her twitter, or her tumblr, or add Ask Again Later to your Goodreads shelf. OR do all of the above. You won't regret it. This is a 2014 title that is HIGH on my list, and should be on yours as well!