YA giants Levithan, Westerfeld, Clare and Black visit Mount Holyoke

Photo by Kate Flaherty ‘19  Holly Black (left) and Cassandra Clare (right) visit Mount Holyoke in Sept.

Photo by Kate Flaherty ‘19

Holly Black (left) and Cassandra Clare (right) visit Mount Holyoke in Sept.

BY BEATA GARRETT ’20

On the night of Tuesday, Sept. 11, in Gamble Auditorium, Mount Holyoke welcomed four young adult (YA) authors to speak about their recent series and to share their writing experiences. The panel included Cassandra Clare, Holly Black and Scott Westerfeld and it was moderated by David Levithan. Black and Clare promoted “The Golden Tower,” the fifth in their Magisterium Series, and Westerfeld returned to the world of his bestselling “Uglies” series with his latest novel, “Imposters.” From tips on worldbuilding and using tropes to politics and revolution, the authors touched upon a wide array of topics that demonstrated how they navigate their writing.

The panel began with a discussion of each author’s writing process. “Writing a series is a little bit like doing a magical trick. Will the rabbit come out of the hat? […] and at the end it does,” said Black. All authors on the panel have collaborated with other authors before, and shared their collaboration experiences. Black and Clare write in the same room as one another, switching laptops after 400 words. Levithan and Westerfeld prefer, in Levithan’s words, to have “chapters live next to each other” and collaborate on outlines, then send chapters through email. Westerfeld loves collaborating because “you find out all kinds of things about people when you write with them. It’s like staying [...] in their house.”

The authors also discussed worldbuilding; from creating a series “Bible” to keeping track of lineages and languages to dealing with a large cast of characters, they each touched upon the difficulties of what Clare called  “building all these stories from the ground up.” Black and Clare discussed the limitations of writing from the perspective of a single protagonist, and Westerfeld agreed. To keep track of a large cast of characters, “you sort of have to write two stories in your head,” he said. All three authors also have different perspectives on keeping a “Bible” of their worlds. Clare produces a compendium, Westerfeld builds models of scenarios because he “physicalizes a lot of things” and Black doesn’t use one at all.

For all the authors, their worldbuilding centers heavily on politics. Clare said that “you can’t write [your stories] another way. You can’t pretend your ideologies, the things that you value, are different than the way they are.” 

For his new book, Westerfeld focused on the revolution portrayed in “Uglies” and wanted to demonstrate that “the world doesn’t just keep getting better, there are setbacks.” This point particularly resonated with Linda Zhang ’20: “I felt Westerfeld was very realistic in the way he talked about revolution and how change actually happens.” 

Westerfeld, in rereading the “Uglies” series, said that “It was interesting going back to ‘Uglies’ and kind of breaking it” because “our ideology and history and way of perceiving the world is shaped by language.” He wishes in hindsight that he had provided a more explicitly diverse cast in the series as “people will default characters to whiteness.” 

Other literary influences and popular tropes also factor strongly into how the authors dealt with narratives in their recent books. Black noted the strong influence of a certain book series on her “Magisterium” series: “You can’t write a magic school book without referencing Harry Potter,” she said, “and one of the questions was, ‘Can there be another magic school book?’” Clare added that “[they] got to set up a kid who got to be a magic anti-hero” and managed to “subvert expectations in a way that was pleasurable to [them].” Westerfeld discussed being influenced by Shakespeare when writing “Uglies.” “‘Uglies,’” he noted, was “very twisty,” featuring “lots of things that are also in Shakespeare, such as letters arriving too late.”

The panel ended with advice for aspiring authors. All of them emphasized the importance of writers stepping out of their comfort zones. Levithan advised aspiring authors to let themselves fail and “try and try again until you hone [your stories].” Similarly, Westerfeld suggested “try[ing] to finish everything [that you write]. One of the things you’re learning is to write the whole thing.” Black said that “you have to write for your reader-self, not your writer-self” and think most about what gives you pleasure as a reader. Critique partners are also essential. Clare advises aspiring writers to read a lot and venture “out of your comfort zone” because “if you only read one genre, you’re only opening yourself up to one way of writing stories.” 

At the event’s conclusion, Kelian Disher ’20 said, “As an aspiring novelist, I grew up reading ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ and ‘Uglies.’ I love immersing myself in worlds, especially fantasy and sci-fi, and it was great attending this panel and hearing the nuances of what’s behind the scenes. It’s encouraging me to try new things.”