Gabrielle Zevin’s Birthright series has been one of the rare series that I followed closely as it published. It also has a very special place in my heart for many reasons including my love for the series, fondness for the author, and the fact that these books saw me through some really difficult moments in my own life. I truly can’t overstate how special these books are.
Gabrielle is here today to talk about the final book in the trilogy, In the Age of Love and Chocolate, as well as the conclusion of the series in general.
***Because this interview focuses on the final book in a series, it may have some spoilers for books 1 and 2***
Miss Print (MP): This series has undergone a few changes since we last spoke about Because It Is My Blood and All These Things I’ve Done. Can you tell us anything about the decision to shift Birthright from a four book series to a trilogy?
Gabrielle Zevin (GZ): This isn’t a pretty answer, but I’ll give you a candid one. The decision to shift from four books to three was in part determined by the fact that the series hasn’t been as popular as my publisher (and I!) hoped it would be. I made the decision to shift to three books pretty much as soon as the first book came out in September 2011. The readership is passionate, but small, and seems to mainly consist of strong, loner types, not unlike Anya Balanchine herself. However, the events that were going to happen in In the Age of Love and Chocolate are very similar to my conception of book three even when it was a four book series. And book four, when there was going to be one, was always going to push the series in a different direction. I could at some point decide to write a book four if the fortunes changed for the series. However, and perhaps I should have led with this, I feel like Anya’s story is emotionally resolved by the end of the third book. She has learned what she needed to learn. She has “come of age.” And the first three books of the series, when taken together, are a bildungsroman. (Also, the sentence formed by the three titles can safely have a period.) What I feel about the three books as they stand is that they form the complete Anya Balanchine story. They form a novel about her, but there are perhaps loose ends left in the world (and the other characters of the world) that I could explore at a later time. On a side note, I almost wish I’d written all three books at once and had just published a standalone 1,000-page novel called Anya Balanchine.
MP: Working off the last question: In condensing a projected four book story arc into three did you end up losing scenes? How did you go about making this transition?
GZ: On some level, I think I was wrong to ever think this WAS a four book series. This series is about a character, not a world or a high concept premise. (I’ve probably said this about a million times since the first book came out, but it’s true.) This is about a character growing up and becoming a woman. In a way, even if the books had been wildly popular, publishing the fourth book wouldn’t make any sense for the publisher, because it would be an adult novel. I mean, YA novels don’t tend to be about characters in their 20s and 30s and beyond. (Frankly, the third book, in terms of its themes and storyline, is probably an adult novel already!) I would love to see Anya as a mother, as a widow, as a grandmother like Nana even. So, no, I didn’t particularly lose scenes because I had to rethink the whole thing. The ideas I lost don’t particularly feel like losses because they wouldn’t make sense in the series as it exists. But yes, you might for instance notice, that Anya and Win are on the verge of making a trip to Russia at the end of ITAOLAC – that was definitely something that was going to happen.
I keep circling around your question a bit. And I’m still not sure that I’ve answered it. Something I want to say is that Anya’s journey is not unlike mine in writing the series. She starts off thinking her life will be one way – recall that she wants to be a Crime Scene Investigator in book one! But life happens, and she learns to make the best of the situation she finds herself in. Perhaps, this is adulthood: getting some things and living without others.
MP: Over the years these books have also had a few title changes. In the Age of Love and Chocolate was initially going to be called In the Days of Death and Chocolate. What prompted the title change?
GZ: By the time I went to write the third book of the series, the first book had already come out, and the reception, as I already mentioned, had been somewhat disappointing. When I started writing the third book, I was in a dark place and that came through in every decision I made for Anya. In the Days of Death and Chocolate was filled with darkness and poison. I made a lot of decisions in it that were transgressive (and perhaps even interesting), but didn’t necessarily honor the characters or the foundation I’d built in the previous two books. I suppose I almost wanted to punish Anya. The original third book was almost out of copy editing when I began to have a recurring sense of anxiety. I dreamt of Anya and began to fantasize that I was seeing her places. I wanted to avoid her because I felt she was angry with me. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I called my editor and I cried a little and I decided to write the book again. I threw out all but one section. The only prose that’s the same from In the Days of Death and Chocolate is a couple paragraphs of the Yuji Ono storyline. Once I began to write the book again, I realized that the major theme of the new version was what it means to love someone as a flawed adult versus as a “perfect” teenager. Thus, In The Days of Death and Chocolate became In the Age of Love and Chocolate. Series are typically written at such a fast pace that there’s no time to pull a move like that. I was fortunate that my publisher was supportive. On a side note, I feel certain that some of the things I did to Anya in the original book three would shock (and possibly appall) you!
MP: Given all of this upheaval, it seems like the book itself went through a lot of change itself. Is there anything you’re particularly happy to have fixed or otherwise changed in the final version of In the Age of Love and Chocolate? Is there anything you’re sorry readers won’t be able to see?
GZ: I mentioned that the previous version of the third book was rather transgressive. In rewriting the last book, I began to think that the most transgressive thing would be to write a “dystopia” (and I think we’ve already discussed my problems with that word) that was hopeful. So, no there isn’t much I miss. And in a way, writing that other version was enormously helpful. I learned things about the characters in going down that road, and some of those things definitely inflected and deepened the relationships of the final book. But to answer your question: Through a series of unusual circumstances, Nana appeared in the original third book, and I miss that a little. And there was a storyline with Mr. Delacroix that I had grown a bit attached to. But I don’t truly miss either of these elements, because I believe they both transformed into something better.
MP: I have never made a secret of my love for Yuji Ono or Mr. Delacroix or Anya herself in my reviews of these books. As I read this final installment, I was especially struck by the evolving relationships and dynamics Anya has not just with the obvious suspects like Win or Natty but also with these not-always central characters like Yuji and Mr. Delacroix. Anya, in fact, grows a lot in terms of her relationships and interactions throughout the story. Was this a character change you always knew would be in store for Anya?
GZ: Thank you, and no you haven’t! Yuji Ono and Mr. Delacroix are some of my favorite characters to write, too.
I had always known Mr. Delacroix would be important. In my initial conception of the story, I wanted to play with the idea of what a “parent” is in a love story with teenagers. Parents so often come off as simple, mustache-twirling villains. I knew that he would go from Anya’s enemy to her friend by the end of the story. I thought it was a good lesson for a teen reader (or an adult reader) – the idea that enemies can become allies can become friends and that life is long.
And I loved writing Yuji Ono. I wanted to write a love story that was about something other than romantic love. And – I think we’ve spoken of this before – it was a goal of mine in the series to depict cultures outside of America. So often series seem to depict America, but don’t imagine the world outside of it. I want my readers, and particularly my young readers, to get a sense of how very large the world is. It was the same reason I sent Anya to Mexico (and to the Marquez family) in the second book.
One last thing I’ll say. I think there’s a great deal that can be learned from the people we consider to be antagonists in our lives.
MP: There is a lot of talk about this series being “dystopian” which isn’t quite accurate for a few reasons although the story does start in the future and, in some ways, it is not the best version of the future. Can you talk a bit about how you feel about the dystopian label here? Did it influence your choices in writing this final book in the series?
GZ: Yes, the dystopia label bothered me the entire time. I asked my publisher not to refer to it that way, and I think they tried to honor my request. But it was too late. 2011, the year ATTID came out, was the year of the dystopia! “Chocolate is illegal” was what got emphasized, because that was the simplest thing to sell and to talk about. But for me that was never the heart of the story. The reason the dystopia label bothered me was because it made readers expect a certain thing from the series, and the series didn’t end up being like that thing they were expecting. I think those who disliked the books often disliked it for that reason — a gap between what the cover suggested (recall that the hardcover of the first book had a jacket that mentioned the paper and water scarcities, chocolate and caffeine being illegal, and the year 2083). It is a Dickensian family saga. It’s, as I’ve said many times before, a book about characters, more than it ever was about the world.
However, my difficulties with the dystopia label didn’t particularly influence the third book. I had to disregard everything outside of the story and the characters. I particularly thought about the characters a lot, and that was what was really important in approaching the third book. Something that occurred to me: characters don’t ever know they are living in a dystopia. For them, it is just the world.
I did have some fun with the word “dystopia” in the book however. At one point, I think Anya tells Natty that she’s the only person she loves in this whole lousy dystopia, or something like that.
MP: This series has always made clever use of its futuristic setting (the series, for readers who aren’t aware yet, starts in 2083) by reinventing familiar places notably including the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. In the Age of Love and Chocolate once again brings Anya to some new and slightly familiar areas. How did you decide what to reinvent this time around? Throughout the series do you have a favorite location that Anya visits?
MP: Your question just made me remember something I cut! At one point in the original third book, Anya finds the head of the Statue of Liberty. Someone had stored and saved it.
I knew the most important locations in the third book would be the places where Anya opens nightclubs, and as I conceived of the book, I kind of kept thinking what landmark might I reinvent as a club? I like Leo’s club at Alacatraz and the Dark Room at the NYPL, of course. I’m also partial to the brief trip Anya and Theo take to Hershey, Pennsylvania. I liked Anya getting to experience chocolate from a different perspective. For the third book, I’d say my favorite location is not a retrofitting at all. I loved writing Anya’s trip to the farm in Niskayuna. It’s probably my favorite part of the whole series.
MP: Another fun thing about this series is that, because paper is scarce and books are rare, Anya references a lot of classic books. Dickens and Austen are two that are quick to spot in the text, however it seems that an entirely different book was your inspiration for this series. Can you tell us a bit about that and how you decided which books to reference in the story?
GZ: I’m not sure that this book had one primary reference, but I thought a lot about stories where the love takes a long time to work itself out. I’m thinking of Persuasion (probably my favorite Austen novel) and Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, and Anne of the Island (the third Anne Shirley book). A theme of all these books is what it really means to love someone over time and through many obstacles. I thought about what it was to love someone even when you are certain that things can never work out, when love is beyond hope. I thought about what it was to love someone when they were no longer physically perfect, too. To answer your question: most of the references you’ll find in the third book, I chose for thematic resonance more than anything else.
MP: Now that the Birthright series has ended, can you tell us anything about your next project?
GZ: I have a book out for adults right now called The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It’s very different from the Anya Balanchine books, but in an odd way, I know I would never have written it if I hadn’t written Anya first. Anyway, the new book is about a curmudgeonly bookseller who finds a baby in a bookstore.
MP: I want to end on an up note saying that I really appreciated the determination with which Anya faced her challenges and also the hopefulness that can be found throughout In the Age of Love and Chocolate. I was proud of Anya’s changing outlook and I loved the continuing theme of moving forward–especially Mr. Delacroix’s pronouncement to Anya that “We are where we are.” Since that has become one of my favorite quotes it only seemed appropriate to ask if you had any quotes or thoughts you returned to when looking for encouragement or optimism.
GZ: Thank you. I like this question very much. Maybe I’ll refer you back to the epigraph of In the Age of Love and Chocolate, which is excerpted from the poem “Sweetness” by Stephen Dunn. Simply put, the poem is about how we get through tragedy, and it’s one of my favorites: “Often a sweetness comes/ as if on loan, stays just long enough/ to make sense of what it means to be alive,/ then returns to its dark/ source. As for me, I don’t care/ where it’s been, or what bitter road/ it’s traveled/ to come so far, to taste so good.”
Thank you again to Gabrielle for taking the time to answer all of my questions so eloquently here. (Thank you also to her for being so kind when my email ate the original answers and I had to ask her to resend them!)