Author Interview (#2): Gabrielle Zevin on Because It Is My Blood

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of Gabrielle Zevin’s Birthright series. All These Things I’ve Done was one of my favorite books from 2011 and the second book in the series, Because It Is My Blood, was one of my most anticipated books for 2012 (and key to one of my favorite BEA 2012 moments).

I was lucky enough to interview Gabrielle Zevin about All These Things I’ve Done last year. After finishing Because It Is My Blood I saw there was still a lot to talk about where Anya and her story were concerned. Happily, Gabrielle is here to answer some of my questions about her latest novel Because It Is My Blood.

If you want more preliminary information about Gabrielle and the start of her Birthright series, you can also check out our earlier interview.

***Because this interview focuses on the second book in a series, it may have some minor spoilers for All These Things I’ve Done.***

Miss Print (MP): Because It Is My Blood is the second book in your Birthright series following All These Things I’ve Done. The last time we talked about All These Things I’ve Done this book’s working title was All The Kingdoms In The World. Can you tell us anything about why the title changed?

Gabrielle Zevin (GZ): While I liked ALL THE KINGDOMS OF THE WORLD as a working title and on an intellectual level, I had always worried that it wasn’t expressive enough of Anya’s dilemma in the novel — that is to say, the extent to which she can’t escape her birthright no matter how far she tries to run from it.  But the main reason it changed is because I had a better concept for titling the whole series! I was talking to my editor about the title and I said to her, “Wouldn’t it be cool if all the titles of the series together formed a crazy run-on sentence synopsis of the book?” So you have half the sentence now: All these things I’ve done/because it is my blood… It’s spine poetry basically.

MP: Because It Is My Blood picks up soon after All These Things I’ve Done and continues some of the same plot threads as Anya continues to struggle with the disparity between who she is and who she would like to be. How did you keep this story unique while bringing up recurring themes from the first book in your Birthright series?

GZ: I had two major goals going into the second book. The first was that I wanted Anya to travel far from home. I wanted her to see a place other than America. I wanted her to get a sense of the life beyond New York City. I think it’s hard to find yourself when you are surrounded by the same people you’ve known your entire life. So, in a sense, everything — her hair, her boyfriend, her identity, and literally the clothes off her back — are stripped from her. The second was that I wanted Anya to have a Big Idea. This might seem like a small thing but I so often see female main characters in YA who never come up with anything. The girls are chosen; the girls have special skills (magic, beauty); the girls have friends that have big ideas. I wanted Anya to have an idea that came from her own unique set of experiences. I wanted Anya to use her brain creatively to try to improve her situation.

Another thing I think that makes the story feel different than the last one is that I wanted to write a protagonist who truly got older. Anya is seventeen in the second book. She quotes her father less. She is more questioning of her faith. By the third book, she is a full-fledged grown woman and her voice reflects that.

MP: Once again Anya makes her way through a New York City that is hauntingly familiar but also very different from the one we know today. Of the locations we’ve seen thus far in All These Things I’ve Done and this book, have you had a favorite to feature?

GZ: The Rose Reading Room at the NYPL’s main branch, of course! But it’s probably too much of a spoiler to say what happens to it. (I’m sure you can imagine how important this location is to book three.)

MP: Working off the last question, which location has been your favorite to reinvent in Anya’s New York?

GZ: Other than the NYPL and the Metropolitan Museum, I loved writing Liberty Children’s Reformatory, the former home of the Statue of Liberty. I had a lot of fun writing Anya’s… Um, let’s just say departure from Liberty.

MP: One of the interesting things about this series is the narrative structure. Although Anya narrates her own story, she does so at a remove with the benefit of hindsight and often retrospection in the form of parenthetical asides and comments directed to the reader. As a writer, how did you go about structuring Anya’s story? How did you decide when to share different details both of the story as it happened and as Anya reflects on her own story?

GZ: Anya Balanchine is not a reader and she does not come from a society that cares about reading. I had a sense that the only books she read were the ones her nana  or Imogen read, or the ones she had to read for school. Her idea of storytelling is a bit old-fashioned. In the third book, readers will find out where Anya is telling the story from and why she is telling it at all. As she gains in confidence as a writer however, Anya resorts to less formal trickery. By the third book, her writing will become more modern and more fluid. My idea had always been that the prose would mature with her.

In terms of structure? In a certain way, all narrators, not just Anya, tell their stories postmortem to the events of the story. In Birthright, the challenge has been to write a narrator who knows everything (who is definitely retrospective) but still has a voice that reflects her various ages throughout the story. This dilemma, along with the narrative asides and chapter titles, requires me to know everything about the story in advance. There is very little I’m discovering as I write in this story.

MP: While Anya does visit new places and meet new people in Because It Is My Blood, many familiar faces from book one also feature. With these returning characters we see many dramatic changes in circumstance and, in some cases, attitude and behavior. Can we expect as many surprises and upsets from the latter half of the series?

GZ: Yes. I think actually readers will be shocked about the story. A frustrating thing about writing a series is that people sometimes assume you are telling one type of story when you are really telling a different type of story. Book three will take us to even more foreign countries. (Japan and more!)  And we will see Anya in ways we have never seen her before. The only thing I would say is that this is ANYA’S STORY, not ANYA AND WIN’S STORY.

MP: Many of the characters in this series, including Anya herself, operate in grey areas with what Charles Delacroix calls a “flexible attitude toward the law.” As such it isn’t always easy to identify the heroes and villains of the story although it does make for some exciting characters. Which characters were the most fun to write this time around? Were any harder to write as Anya’s opinion of them changed?

GZ: Yes, you’re right to identify this. Anya is not an unreliable narrator, but she tells things and sees things from her point of view as we all do. I love writing villains because I don’t think of them as villains. No one ever thinks that they are truly a villain. Everyone has their reasons. I love writing Charles Delacroix. I love him more than his son. I love him because he is a good man who wants to do good things but he is operating in a system that is corrupt, which forces him to be corrupt. Anya will learn to appreciate his motivations even more as the series continues.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project? What’s in store for Anya in book three?

GZ: Book three Anya is a grown up as I mentioned before. Hers is not a love story or at least not the love story that people probably think it is. Starting on page one, important people will die and the body count only grows from there.

Thanks again to Gabrielle for taking the time to answer all of my questions so eloquently here.

For more information about Gabrielle and her writing you can also visit her website.

If you want to know more about Because It Is My Blood be sure to check out my review.

Thanks to Esther Bochner at Macmillan Audio I also have a clip to share from the audiobook of Because It Is My Blood: You can listen to the clip on my website.