Scott Westerfeld on all things Uglies

Way back at Comic-con 2011, Scott Westerfeld graciously allowed me to corner him at the last possible moment – on the last day, after his last signing, literally minutes before they turned off the lights – to talk all things Uglies and more. (But I should probably warn you – after four days of Comic-con-ing, my brain matter was virtually leaking out my ears, so I’m a bit of an idiot in this interview…) 

Byrt: Scott, you were writing dystopian before it really became the new hot thing, so how did you first discover it? When did you first fall in love with dystopian?

SW: I think the first kind of post-apocalyptic-y book I read – which is not the same as dystopian, but kind of the same – is the Tripods series by John Christopher. Those were totally formative for me (it was the same kind of thing: civilization has fallen, there are evil alien overlords). So I grew up with those and I think those were the first dystopian/post apocalyptic type of thing I read.

Byrt: With the Uglies, you were taking on fun things in terms of modern culture – our obsession with celebrity and our obsession with beauty. Were you inspired more by modern day things you wanted to take aim at, or did it come from that old love of dystopia?

SW: There was a part of the Tripods series, where when you turn 16 you get capped – you get this plate put in your head, which is supposedly a sign you’re a man or an adult, and of course it turns out to be a terrible thing  – and I pretty much ripped that off from John Christopher in the Uglies. And the other aspect of it was I had these friends, and a sister-in-law, that do special effects/visual effects, and one of my sister-in-law’s jobs was to erase a boil from this famous movie actor’s hands because He Can Have No Flaws!  So I was watching the way that the people on the screen who kids idolize and want to be, are actually – not only are they chosen for being incredibly beautiful, but then they have these visual effects guys go through and fix every imperfection they have. So it was more about representation in terms of photography and movies than it was about plastic surgery itself.

Byrt: How damaging is that for teens, do you think, to have this impossible ideal?

SW: I think it’s why we all, when everyone looks at any picture of themselves, their first reaction is: ggaahhh, what a terrible picture of me, why are my pictures so bad? And it’s because you don’t have a lighting guy and a makeup guy and a special effects person and everybody else who can go through it and make it perfect. It’s not damaging, but I think it can be if you don’t become aware of it. And so all I really want to do is, not so much send a big message about personal appearance not being important as just make people aware of it. Once you see through the curtain, you are armed and forwarned, and you make it less of a big deal. You just have to get over it – just like many other things in our culture, you have to realize that it’s trickery and it has nothing to do with you.

Byrt: The evil sci-fi plot of distracting people from the really important things in life – do you think there’s any parallel today, with our obsession with celebrity culture, in that people aren’t paying attention to politics, etc?

SW: Well I think people have always been that way. We’re monkeys, we’re villagers, and the village gossip is always going to be more important to us that the fact that the crops are failing, or what else is going on. I think that’s just a function of the way we’re wired as social beings. So celebrity culture is probably not that different from Paleolithic village culture, where people worried about who Crog was sleeping with more than the fact the goat people were coming to wipe them out. It’s not that surprising and it’s not that different, it just –  like all things – has been perfected by technology and capitalism.

Byrt: What made you decide to switch gears to steampunk (from dystopia)?

SW: The Uglies was successful, so I said to myself, well, they’re going to have to publish whatever crap I write next, so I might as well write whatever I actually want to write. And so I made a big list of all the craziest things that I would ever put into a book – living airships, walking machines, girls dressed as boys to do cool stuff  (all the stuff that’s in there). And I sort of wound that all together into one big World Word I ish tapestry – and I played Diplomacy as a kid, so I liked the politics of World War I –  and I just thought it would be a fun melange of things to do. And illustrated books – like the old fashioned boys own adventures – were also a thing I wanted to recapture, which is why the book ended up with these lovely Edwardian illustrations by Keith Thompson. So it was more about making a weird list of everything I thought was cool and chucking it into a book, which is not my usual receipe. Or anyone’s I don’t think. Hopefully.

Byrt: Do you feel responsible at all for the steampunk trend?

SW: Steampunk has been around since 1987 – I think, if anything, I may have legitimized steampunk in YA in the United States. It was already happening in Britain with Philip Reeve and Skybreakers, whose author’s name I’ve forgetten –

Byrt: Ship Breaker?

SW: Skybreaker – there are many books in that series, why am I spacing… It’s a British steampunk series. I think steampunk has been more common in the UK than the US. It just never crossed over here because it’s all Victorian – I don’t think we got it. All I’ve done is made it a little easier to sell in the US, and hopefully those guys will find a home here.

Byrt: Anything else you’d recommend?

SW: Certainly the Skybreaker series, Philip Reeves’ books, The Hungry Cities chronicles. Not YA, but perfectly good for YA readers is Cherie Preist’s Boneshaker series  – Ganymede, Dreadnought, all fantastic books, full of derring do and Steampunk goodness (it’s Civil War steampunk, so it’s very American). And many more I’m sure, but that’s what I’ve got now though. Here, on Sunday, at Comic-Con…

Byrt: Now you did announced today, on your spotlight panel, that there is movie news on the Uglies front.

SW: Yes! There is a company called Lola that does facial special/visual effects – they did Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt getting older and younger), they did mapping of the twins in The Social Network (the one actor playing two parts, so they had to map a face onto another body), and same thing with Captain America when they turned whats-his-face into a 90 pound weakling. They also just recently did the Harry Potter stuff, where they did the schlubification of the Harry Potter cast, to make them look old and schlubby looking. So what they do is facial special effects, and they are just the perfect people to handle something like Uglies, where you want people to be ugly and pretty and to really do something at a technological level to make it kind of real and interesting. So they are on board and they’re funding the development, and they have a sister company called Hydraulx which can do all the hoverbord-y explode-y stuff. They have found this wonderful screenwriter, Jake (Pullman), and it’s all sort of falling into place.

Byrt: What’s your involvement going to be, going forward? You’re not doing the Suzanne Collins-

SW: Not at all, that’s outside of my field of expertise. But they really are listening to me, we’ve had a lot of really good conversations. They get what the books are. They pay attention, not only to me, but to the fans. When I did a blog post a while back saying, what would you have me tell the producers of this film? There were 360-something comments, and they read them all. The next time I talked to my producers they were like, oh yeah, we went through that. They’re going to get the books and the story, as well as the special effects. The story is going to be maintained and it’s going to be awesome. Hopefully.

Byrt: And in the meantime you’ve got the Uglies manga coming out.

SW: Yes, there’s the wonderful Uglies manga, by artist Steve Cummins and writer Devin Grayson, who has written Nightwing and Batman stuff for DC, and lots of other stuff. And I outlined the whole series, and it’s going to be four 200 page mangas, all of which are from Shay’s point of view. So it’s basically the Uglies series, but told from a very different point of view. It starts 6 months earlier, back when Shay and Zane knew each other as Uglies, and the Prims were an Ugly gang rather than a Pretty gang. And so it’s a very different take on the whole world, and you’ll learn that Tally doesn’t always necessarily percieve the reality of the situation.

Byrt: Was it hard to hand it off,  in any way, to other people? Or do you still feel firmly in the driver’s seat?

SW: I’m approving every character design, every frame, every panel, every script line, so it’s not really that bad. It is more about the fact that I’ve never written a graphic novel before and I have respect for the fact that if people get good at doing a thing, you should let them do it, and not pretend that you can do it too. Not to say anything bad about people who venture out bravely, like Suzanne Collins, into new media – I think that’s amazing too, but that’s not for me. But I’ve really enjoyed learning about how to write graphic novels from watching Devin and Steven and my editor at Del Rey manga all work together on this, and sticking my oar in when somebody says something that’s not happy making.

Byrt: You also mentioned teasingly that you might even be working on something you’d call a paranormal romance?

SW: Yes I am! It’s the one novel-y thing I’ve written – unillustrated, not a graphic novel, just a regular prose novel. But we’ll see what comes of it…

Byrt: Is this something your male readers can follow you to?

SW: I’m surprised at how readers, male and females, are a bit more robust than marketing categories would have us believe. And I think once you’ve found an author that you really get, I think you follow them anywhere. So I’m not worried about that.

Byrt: My last question – you’ve done steampunk, you’ve done dystopian. Are we ever going to get a space opera?

SW: I wrote a space opera! 

Byrt: What?!?

SW: My adult books – The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds – are total space operas. I have gone there. I don’t know if I’ll ever go there in YA form, but it has happened. That itch has been scratched.

Thanks again to Scott Westerfeld for taking the time!

Shay’s Story, the Uglies manga, is out now.

And you can find more on all things Scott Westerfeld here.