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"To this day, I can’t actually believe it when people tell me they read my book and enjoyed it."

Interview: Laura Liddell Nolen, Author of ‘The Ark’

Laura NolenLaura Liddell Nolen grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The daughter of a comic book collector, she learned how to handle old comics at an early age, a skill she’s inordinately proud of to this day. Laura began work on her first novel, The Ark, in 2012, following the birth of her daughter Ava, a tiny rebel and a sweetheart on whom the novel’s main character is loosely based. Completion of The Ark was made possible in part due to an SCBWI Work-in-Progress Award. Laura lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and two young children, and their dog Miley, who is a very good girl.

Welcome to Blogcritics, Laura! Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Ark. 

Thank you! It’s been an exciting process. Thanks for having me. 

Tell us all about it.

The Ark is about a girl who can’t seem to get it right. Sixteen-year-old Charlotte Turner has been behind bars, off and on, since she was twelve. Even before that, she felt trapped – hemmed in at every angle by her parents’ relentless drive toward status and achievement.

But when The Ark begins, Char really is trapped. She’s stuck in prison, and there’s a meteor headed straight for Earth. Because of the date of her latest conviction, she’s ineligible for a spot on an Ark.  The most she can hope for is to apologize to her family, all of whom have been awarded salvation. She doesn’t know whether they’ll stop by the prison before they leave, but if they do, she hopes not to botch her final chance to make things right before she dies.

Did you have a mentor who encouraged you? 

No, but I have a critique partner, Jenna Wolf. We’ve been meeting together and encouraging each other for almost five years.  Thank goodness, too! I’d still be working on my first draft if it weren’t for her. 

The ArkDid you have any struggles or difficulties when you started writing? 

I struggled mightily with the idea that I was worthy of spending my time doing something I love so much. Writing doesn’t pay buckets of money, as you may have heard, so it’s almost never the smart move. Better to practice law, or become a schoolteacher — anything with a steady paycheck!

And then there’s the tiny voice of reason in the back of your mind, trying to convince you that you’re totally crazy for even attempting to do this in the first place.

You’re just a fill in the blank: corporate lawyer, stay at home mom, small-town girl, whatever. What makes you think you’re up to this? Where are your credentials?

And it’s right — if you’re just starting out, you may not have any publishing credentials. If you quit now, you never will.

I can’t provide you with the total solution here- these are things I still struggle with. But I will say that everyone starts somewhere, and writers generally start badly. The more you write, the better you get. To this day, I can’t actually believe it when people tell me they read my book and enjoyed it. There may be other readers who agree with my harshest inner voice. And that’s okay. There are people who like my stories, and I’m committed to doing right by them.

At the same time, I have room for improvement, so I’m just going to keep writing. 

What was your inspiration for The Ark?

I was pregnant with my first child, a girl, and I thought, here’s this person I’ve never met, and I love her so much it hurts. I would do anything for her. What if that’s not enough? What if she can’t find her way in the world despite my dead-level best efforts?

So I created Char, another girl I fell in love with, and gave her all the “flaws” I’m most afraid of. She doesn’t see the world in black and white. She doesn’t follow rules she can’t make sense of. She’s fiercely independent, but not as independent as she believes herself to be. Her understanding of good and bad are much more complex than mine, a quality I find inspiring in others and terrifying in a daughter. And I gave her friends and enemies who bring out those attributes in her, as well as a mother who really, truly loves her. The Ark is about Char’s journey toward knowing herself.

In real life, I’m more like Eren. He’s happy to follow the rules. His life has given him no reason to question authority. But if you think about it, in some ways, that’s way more screwed up than Char’s point of view.

Eren thinks he’s a good guy because his decisions are based on a deep-seated belief in right and wrong. In his mind, he always does what’s right; therefore, he must not be a villain. But reality is a lot messier, and sooner or later, Eren will have to confront that. 

Who is your target audience? 

I’m after any reader with a sense of adventure. My stories are based on a lifelong devotion to space-themed television sagas, and I’m definitely taking certain social issues into consideration as I write, but the action comes first.

That being said, it’s a young adult book, and I’m really proud to work in this genre. It’s exciting to be right on the cusp of adulthood, but it’s also full of the terrifying potential for self-doubt that comes with self-discovery. And speculative fiction is the perfect space to explore that. 

Did your book require a lot of research? 

In writing The Ark, I ended up doing a lot more research than I expected. The book is set fifty years in the future, just after World War III, so I thought I’d have more leeway in coming up with technology. After all, the sky is the limit — future tech hasn’t even been invented yet! But the more I wrote, the more I felt the need to ground Char’s universe in realistic, nearly-current technology. I also found myself double-checking little details about stuff I thought I knew. Handcuffs, Braille, motor boats, Kevlar, so-called “assault rifles,” you name it, I looked it up!

Although I did have lots of fun with the cars. Automobiles of the 2060’s won’t drive unauthorized users, and if they think you’re trying to commit a crime, they shut down entirely. Considering the GPS systems we use today, it wasn’t that much of a stretch. So that gave me some fun rules to work with, especially when you add an escaped convict trying to fight her way into space.

The spaceships were another story — definitely fun, but requiring way more research than any other part of the book. 

What do you do when your muse refuses to collaborate? 

I’ll try anything. The last time it happened, I took my kids to the zoo. There is nothing like the sight of toddlers making faces at giraffes.  Sometimes I switch gears and work on a new story, but that’s a dangerous move. New stories will do anything to get written, especially lie. They’re notoriously deceitful. They’re always trying to convince you how fun and easy they’ll be to write. If I’ve already got a story I believe in, I can’t listen to the new story. I have to press through with the current one. 

What is your advice for aspiring authors? 

This may seem obvious, but read books about writing. No matter what your genre, there are tons of guides to help you get started, plus quite a few that cover the overall craft of writing, like Bird By Bird or On Writing. There are books about crafting mysteries, building a universe in fantasy, and creating romantic tension. There are books devoted to each specific element of writing, like dialogue, plot, and character development. Once you know they’re out there, it’s hard to stop reading these how-to guides. After all, you want to be the best writer you can, right?

But you have to stop. Once you’ve digested a few, put them down in order to write. Otherwise, you’ll be in your head too much. Read a bit, write a bit. Just not at the same time. 

George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”  

I love writing! I find it exhilarating. I love books and movies that are packed with breathless action, so getting to create those situations for my readers is quite a buzz.

But my husband might give you a different story — he might say I tend to fall into crippling rounds of self-doubt, followed by paralyzing grapples with writers’ block.

Allegedly.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.

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