Harley in the Sky is a complex book about family, identity, and everything that makes circuses so magical. I loved this story about performing and training to pursue your dreams and the way it shows the work behind the scenes as well as the wonder audiences see. And, of course, I loved Harley–a resilient heroine who is willing to pursue her dreams no matter the cost. Today I have Akemi Dawn Bowman here answering some questions about her latest book and one of my favorite reads of the year.
Miss Print: Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: I think it’s been a combination of big dreams, a lot of hard work, and all the stars aligning at the exact right time. I feel very lucky to have the publishing team that I do, but it took a good 4-5 years of querying before I got an agent. And in that time, I wrote (and re-wrote) four different manuscripts. I’m a very weird mix of thinking I never deserve anything good while also refusing to give up on the goals I set for myself. I guess it puts me in a strange headspace when I find success, because I am constantly plagued by self-doubt. But I’m stubborn too, and writing has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. I’ve always known I wanted to create stories, and characters, and worlds. And whenever I’ve dealt with rejection in this business, I don’t hear “no.” I hear “not right now,” or “not this particular project.” So I’ve always been good about working on something else, to give myself the very best chance at making it in this industry. And eventually, after hundreds of rejections, I found my wonderful agent and still can’t believe I get to do this as a job!
Miss Print: What was the inspiration for Harley in the Sky?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: I think the inspiration came from two things. The first was that I’d just finished writing two very emotional and very heavy books, and I wanted to write something a little bit lighter, and a little bit more fun. The circus has always seemed so magical to me, so it felt like the perfect way to combine real-life with something that always brought me joy. And the second inspiration came from my experiences with mental health, and specifically what it felt like to be living and coping with something I didn’t have a diagnosis for at the time. A lot of people—especially on social media—seem to equate seeing a therapist or having a diagnosis as the only way to validate a mental illness, and that isn’t fair or accurate. There are many, many people who are unable to seek treatment or therapy for a number of reasons. They may not have access to it, they may not be able to afford it, they may not have family who are supportive, or they may have a personal situation that prevents them from seeking care. They might also choose not to go to therapy because they are already coping in a way that feels healthy and right for them. Mental health isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and managing a mental illness doesn’t look the same for everyone. And I guess I wanted to write this story so people like Harley can feel like they’re doing okay—that their experiences are valid, too, even if they don’t have a label.
Miss Print: It’s hard for me to pick a favorite thing about this book because it does so many things, so very well. However, it’s fair to say that the circus setting and Harley’s dream of becoming an aerialist are major parts of the story. What kind of research did you do to nail the setting? Do you share Harley’s love of the static trapeze?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: Thank you! I love the circus, and particularly the static trapeze. It’s always the act I look forward to most. There’s this otherworldly quality about it that makes me feel like I’m in a dream. I did a lot of research for this book—articles, circus documentaries, and many, many YouTube clips to help capture the setting. Originally, the circus Harley winds up in traveled by train. But it really limited how many interactions Harley could have with the rest of the troupe, so I made some changes halfway through drafting and switched to traveling by trucks and caravans. It meant that some of the research never really got used, but I think it was for the best. Still, there’s something really cool about the way a circus can transform an empty plot of land into something that fills people with so much nostalgia and wonder. I wanted to show the behind-the-scenes work that’s done, to kind of balance the way Harley sees the world versus reality. Because there’s more to the circus than just the glamor and the beautiful performances, and Harley is definitely prone to romanticizing things!
Miss Print: Harley in the Sky came out in early March right when shelter in place and quarantine orders were going through. How do you think Harley and the other characters would do with quarantine?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: I think Harley would very much be missing her circus family. She likes to be on the move, and a big part of her love for the circus isn’t just performing, but performing with people. Plus, it would be hard to train without a spotter! Vas on the other hand would probably be coping quite well. He could happily work on his music in a room alone and not feel like he was missing out on anything. He’s a bit like me, in the sense that being told to stay home and self-isolate doesn’t exactly feel like a punishment. Especially when he’s got his violin nearby!
MP: Do you have a favorite scene or a scene you are excited for readers to discover? (I really loved seeing Harley with her grandmother!)
Akemi Dawn Bowman: Oh, I’m so glad you loved Popo! She’s near and dear to my heart. I’m excited for readers to learn about Harley, and how messy she can be but also how hard she tries. It’s so, so human to make mistakes. Harley stumbles quite frequently in her quest to follow her dreams, but she cares so much, and I hope it’s a reminder to readers that nobody is perfect, and that it’s okay to mess up as long as we keep trying to be better. Also, I’m biased, but I love the scenes between Harley and Vas and can’t wait for readers to meet them!
Miss Print: Can you tell me anything about your next project?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: Absolutely! The next YA book I have coming out is called THE INFINITY COURTS, and it’s basically the sci-fi/fantasy mash-up of my heart. It’s about a girl who ends up in the afterlife, only to discover it’s been taken over by an artificial intelligence called Ophelia who is posing as a queen. It combines my love of robots and superpowers with my love of period dramas, and I’m just unbelievably excited about it. Even though all of my published novels so far have been contemporaries, I actually started out writing fantasy, and the book I found an agent with was a sci-fi. In a lot of ways this story feels like getting back to my roots. I’m nervous for sure, because it’s such a jump from what readers have known me for. I also have my middle-grade debut releasing next year, which is called GENERATION MISFITS. It’s about a girl who meets an unlikely group of friends through a shared love of J-Pop. I was home-schooled for a lot of elementary and middle school, and this book is a nod to my experience of going back to a public school and feeling totally out of place.
Miss Print: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
Akemi Dawn Bowman: Keep writing. There’s so much in this business and industry that writers have zero control over, but the one thing you can control is your writing. Every book, every page, every sentence—it’s all practice, and it’s all getting you one step closer to your goal. And try not to compare your journey with anyone else’s. Everyone is different, and most of the time what people share on social media is their highlight reel. It’s not the reality of all the rejections and bumps in the road. Keep your eyes on your own path, and remember that every word you write is one more than you had yesterday.
Thank you again to Akemi for these great answers! I’m definitely taking a lot of this to heart myself.
You can also read my review of Harley in the Sky here on the blog.