November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Marie Lu and Alex London Talk About Debt, Society and ‘Proxy’ | SLJTeen Interview

Marie LuIn the futuristic world of Proxy, kids born into poverty are called proxies and pay off their debt by serving criminal sentences for the children of wealthy families, designated Patrons. For every minor offense a Patron commits, his Proxy does manual labor; for every major law broken by a Patron, his Proxy suffers at the hands of the Guardians. Marie Lu, author of the “Legend” series (Putnam) knows a thing or two about dystopian worlds, where things that are wrong are made to look right, truth is hard to come by, and heroes are few and far between. She’s the perfect person to sit down with Alex London to talk about the observations he makes about society in his YA debut novel Proxy (Philomel).

So, let’s talk debt. Apparently our country has some. Do you think the debt crisis could someday hijack the society we live in?

I think it already has! About 40 million Americans have student debt. So not even counting medical bills and credit cards and car payments, young people are entering adulthood with huge debt burdens. Right now about 35% of student debtors under 30 are having trouble making their payments. That’s about 2.4 million young adults who are viewed, in the language of debt, as delinquent. I think that has a huge impact, not just on how you enter on the path to adulthood, but even in terms of how our society imagines of us. I feel like 30 years ago a conversation about YA that used the word ‘delinquent’ would be talking about S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Now it goes without saying that we’re talking about debt.

ProxyDude, let’s not even get started with student debt. I’m already seeing it have a crippling effect on my former college mates. And speaking of the effect debt has on young people—Proxy asks a compelling question: what effect does financial debt have on us as humans? What was your inspiration for writing a novel with a central theme of the impact of debt?

It’s a theme in Proxy because I’m fascinated with how debt impacts our relationships and by the morality we assign to debt—the idea of owing a debt to society or that good people pay their debts and bad people don’t.

I couldn’t agree more. Having debt is so linked now with one’s character. It’s a warped view that overwhelmingly favors the rich.

Like in Game of Thrones: “The Lannisters always pay their debts.” It’s a promise and a threat! And a luxury they have that the peasant class doesn’t.

Agh, Game of Thrones! Don’t remind me….

Even in our time, you can lose your house because of debt; your car, everything you own can be taken by the repo man. Somehow, a debt overrules every other obligation and we accept that, even though there’s no reason it has to be that way. It’s not an innate moral feeling we’re born with. Even when we talk casually, people say things like, ‘I owe you one,’ and ‘Can I borrow a stick of gum?” and “extra credit.” Owe, borrow, credit. The language surrounds us and we rarely question it.

Did you always know you wanted to write a novel about debt?

Nope! I knew I wanted to use a medieval concept of the Whipping Boy in a futuristic setting—that concept was there in the beginning, but I didn’t know how some poor kid would end up a whipping boy, or how some rich kid would end up having one… then, looking at my own student loan bills, it seemed like debt was the obvious answer! Debt makes you a proxy.

In creating the system, though, I wanted Syd and Knox to have very different ideas about what it means to owe something to someone. For Knox, debts are basic questions of societal order—you owe something, you are a debtor until you pay it back. That’s just the way it works. The person on the other end of it doesn’t really matter. Syd can’t ignore the person on the other end of his debt, but he also doesn’t see him as a human being, just as an instrument of his suffering. In a way, the story is about these two boys learning to see each other as whole people, rather than as parts of transaction.

That’s one of my favorite things about Proxy, the development of Knox and Syd’s relationship. It’s no secret that I love stories that throw together two people from opposite sides of the tracks and force them to understand the other person’s point of view.

Empathy is a major project of everything I write, even—and perhaps especially—in a world as brutal as Proxy’s. I think it’s such an important journey for teenage characters to go on, seeing that they are not the center of the universe and that their perspectives are not the only ones that count.

I think you do this magnificently.

Thanks! You do it so well with June and Day in Legend; it’s nice to know Knox and Syd can keep up. You think they’d get along in real life?

I could see Day and Knox butting heads a lot, what with their egos! But I think Day would take a liking to Syd immediately; they come from similar hardships and would totally get each other. June might empathize more with Knox’s upbringing. Or she might just end up muttering with Marie in the corner about boys.

I guess she would understand his point of view, but probably not sympathize. When we meet Knox, he uses people for his own enjoyment—that’s basically the extent of how he interacts with people. It’s all transactional to him.

On that note of relationship, let’s talk about Syd. Another unique thing about Proxy is that your main character, Syd, is gay—and yet the plot does not revolve around his sexual orientation (or consequences thereof). He simply is. Publishers Weekly said that, “the matter-of-fact presence of a gay lead in an action driven story is welcome and overdue.” What impact do you hope having a gay main character in an action-packed YA-thriller will have on the genre?

I have no idea, but I like to believe we are in an age when no single facet of your identity limits the kinds of stories you can see yourself in.

In real life we’ve knocked down closet doors from pro sports to the military, and on TV we have gay vampires, and gay show choir singers, and gay kings and swordsmen (can you tell I watch Game of Thrones?), so I like to think, possibilities are opening across genres for all kinds of people to be in all kinds of stories. As a gay man who loves action movies, I always wanted to see an action hero I could identify with that way. It’s not part of the ‘plot’ of Proxy, but it is part of who Syd is, how he sees the world. It affects the story (spoiler alert: Syd doesn’t ‘get the girl’), but it doesn’t dictate the story. In that sense, his sexuality is something new for this kind of book.

But there have been gay characters in all kinds of YA novels for a while now, from Cassie Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments” series (S & S), for example, or David Levithan’s entire body of work, or Bill Konigsberg’s. Malinda Lo was writing sci-fi and fantasy with queer characters while I was still learning the Dewey Decimal System.

All fantastic writers with fantastic books who have paved the road! I’m thinking especially of Malinda’s Adaptation (Little, Brown, 2012).

Yes! There are countless pioneers before me in this. So many pioneers that I feel like I’m probably less pioneering, as arriving with a lot of luggage at well-populated frontier spa.

And now I’m picturing Syd looking rather anxious at a frontier spa.

I can’t picture Syd in one of those robes! He’d be so uncomfortable.

I bet he’d enjoy himself once he’s on the massage table. Nobody leaves a Swedish massage unhappy!

I don’t think Syd likes strangers touching him. He has trust issues.

On second thought, you’re right. Knox probably gets Swedish massages daily, though.

Knox is right at home with anything decadent.

Knox is an interesting (and risky) character to write. He’s not exactly likable, for one—at least, not when we first meet him. I loved his transformation, though. Any specific inspiration for his character?

Me.

As scary as it is to admit, I am (or rather was) far more like Knox than Syd. First of all, Syd is handy—I am not. Syd knows how to fight. I don’t. Syd grew up hard and grew up poor. I grew up, like Knox, with an excess of privilege and comfort. Syd is not in the closet, but as a teen, I was. Knox, as a defense mechanism, as a response to the smothering cutthroat world of wealth he lives in, keeps the generous parts of himself hidden. That’s his closet. He isn’t hiding his sexuality, he’s denying his empathy. Denying a part of yourself can be destructive. It was for me. It is for Knox.

Alex LondonAlso Knox is dashingly handsome and, well… I think it goes without saying he’s based on me there too.

He’s also a total smart ass.

Guilty!

I never would’ve guessed it, dude (she says with a straight face…). Now, you used to be a librarian. How did your background inform the creation of Proxy?

I’ve wanted to write for teens for a long time. Even before I was a YA librarian, I worked with adolescents in war-affected areas, and I was always amazed by the capacities of young people to shape the world even as they were still shaping themselves. I was amazed by the power stories had to get these young people through some truly horrific experiences. Whether it was the Eastern Congo or a slum of Bangkok or an isolated enclave in Kosovo, storytelling was a vital part of the life of every young person I met.

Next time we hang out, I must sit with you and hear details about your past work. It’s absolutely fascinating. When did you find yourself drawn to YA literature?

After I burned out on that sort of travel and started serving teens at New York Public Library, I fell in love with young adult literature. I fell in love with the process of matching the right book to the right kid at the right time, and seeing what an unexpected story could do for a teenager, whether it was armor against the blows that this world deals out to the young, or whether it ignited new ideas or confirmed secretly felt old ones, or just provided pure joyous imaginary wandering. I knew I wanted to be a part of creating those experiences. There’s nothing easy about being a teenager and there shouldn’t be anything easy about writing for teens. Everything is in flux and writing means getting into a dialogue with the flux. It can get bumpy. And that’s where it gets fun.

I should add, for all the big ideas in Proxy, my main concern was, truly, that it actually be fun. My writing philosophy was kind of, when in doubt, blow something up.

I think we might have similar writing philosophies.

I think we do! Get the pages turning and let the reader decide what matters. So there’s talk of debt and poverty and forgiveness and empathy, because they matter to me, but there are also genetically engineered armies and killer robots and a joke about making out with a horse.

Okay, so now I have to ask—

The horse joke is NOT autobiographical.

Okay okay! Just curious.

Before we’re through, I need to make a confession. I changed a main character’s name as I revised Proxy from “Mary” to “Marie” because of you. What can I say? You made an impression on me that I had to honor with a seriously passionate and deeply flawed character about whom I shouldn’t say much more, for plot reasons. Except that her flaws bear no relation to you.

I’ll add, aware of the irony, that I’m in your debt.

I am so flattered by Marie’s character! She’s awesome, especially with her flaws. I love it. Who doesn’t love a character with flaws? And you can pay your debt by always letting me read your manuscripts ahead of time.

It’s a deal! I’ll gladly be your proxy. Just don’t get in too much trouble. For my sake.

Want to hear more from Alex? Sign up now for SummerTeen: Hot Books for Young Adults, an all-day virtual event featuring 6 panels and 18 young adult authors! Can’t make it on July 24? Not to worry–register now and we’ll let you know when the event archive is ready for on-demand viewing.

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Dodie Ownes About Dodie Ownes

Dodie Ownes left the glamorous world of retrospective conversion and disco to jump on the library vendor train. Since then, she has been learning at the feet of the masters about all things library. Dodie lives in Golden, Colorado, where even the sign which arches the main street says "Howdy."

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