Today, our souls are prepared to talk with J. L. Powers about Broken Circle, her new YA fantasy, out now from Akashic Books!
Adam wants nothing more than to be a “normal” teen. But: His mother died when he was only four. His father is an assassin, a voodoo god, the reincarnation of Buddha—or something even stranger. And his grandfather insists that people are out to kill the entire family.
But maybe Grandpa’s not all that nuts. You see, Adam is set to collide with a world that hovers between life and death, where entities charged with shepherding souls of the newly dead compete to control lucrative territories known as Limbo.
“Adam can’t even grow a man beard yet, but he can do something his friends can’t do—go to Limbo and back. Prepare to root for him as he makes new friends, discovers who he is, and saves a few souls in the process. This is a fast-paced, page-turning story!” —Skila Brown, author of Caminar
“With a perfect balance of real-world and mythical, Adam’s story explores life, death, and everything in between. Anyone looking for a thoughtful take on life’s big questions will find it here, paired with fresh details, a fast-moving story, and bold world building.” —Amy Rose Capetta, author of Entangled
Welcome, J. L. Powers! So, tell us . . .
What was the spark that ignited this book?
I co-wrote this book with my brother. He called me up from Maine one day, which he was visiting with his wife, a pediatrician, who was interviewing for a job. He said, “I was sitting here at a coffee shop, thinking about death.” (My family is sort of weird, we do things like this.) “And I started thinking what if you had a kid who thinks he’s just living a normal life, and his father’s been keeping it secret all these years that he’s actually the Grim Reaper? Want to write this book?”
You betcha I did.
My brother and I grew up in a religious family, and we were confronted with the question of our eternal souls—where we were going after we die?—at a very young age. Like, two years old young! Death is something I’ve always thought about—I don’t know how to NOT think about it—and it’s interesting to me that it’s a topic we avoid talking about in western society, until we have to. And we have all sorts of euphemisms to avoid talking about it. I was reading somebody’s facebook post just the other day, and his partner is facing a terminal illness, and he was so angry that the doctor skirted the question and didn’t outright tell him, “Look, spend every waking moment you can with your loved one because you are nearing the end.” We are so scared of death—and yet it’s something we ALL do! Wouldn’t it be nice to be better prepared and to understand it as a normal part of life, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist until it does….? To not be afraid? Yes, it is an unknown, and we become attached to our lives here, and we all fear the possible nothingness. But since everybody dies, perhaps we should begin to see it as a natural process—and prepare ourselves better for it.
So our book is sort of funny, sort of creepy, and sort of philosophical. And I never would have written this exact book, which is the start of a series, without my brother.
You have set a high bar for author pic fashion!
Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
I do have an agent and she is a lovely person and somebody I’m very grateful to for the partner she’s been all these years. But actually, she did not sell this book. Somewhere in the process of writing and revising, I came to realize that perhaps this particular book wasn’t her “cup of tea.” There’s nothing wrong with that because it isn’t the same kind of book I’ve ever written, in fact, it’s distinctly different from anything I’ve done before. But I felt like perhaps I should be in charge of selling this one myself.
In addition, in the last number of years, I’ve become outspoken about my love for independent presses and my dedication to supporting them. I work for Cinco Puntos Press, one of the most important publishing companies out there if you care about “diverse” books, and this past year, I launched my own publishing company, Catalyst Press, and I’m publishing African writers and African-based literature. In fact, I’m politicized on this issue. Authors of all kinds need to support the critical and important work done by independent presses. So I sort of knew I wanted to direct this book towards an independent press. Cinco Puntos and Akashic are friends and allies, and it was very natural for me to see if Akashic wanted to publish this book. I couldn’t be prouder that they did!
What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
Sara Zarr once told me that she re-types her manuscripts when she revises them. That has turned out to be brilliant advice. When you start off with a blank page, none of the words seem sacred. Everything is up for grabs. You cease to be afraid of changing things, and even vast, complicated revisions don’t seem as complicated when you aren’t cutting and pasting etc but rather re-typing. It might seem daunting to many, but fortunately, I’m a very fast typer…
What was it like watching the cover come together?
Akashic Books really works with their authors to create a cover that makes everybody happy. I’ve been published by many publishers, and the small independent publishers have been much more accommodating in this regard. For this one, Akashic asked us for our ideas on the cover.
What unusual swag do you wish you could make for this book?
My brother and I actually suggested cuddly throw pillows, manifesting your favorite personification of death. But maybe most people don’t want to sleep with the Grim Reaper tucked under their head….
Ha! I would totally buy one.
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
Since I only went for two semesters before I had a baby and that sort of derailed my MFA at Vermont (I already had an MFA in writing from the University of Texas-El Paso, so I didn’t feel the need to complete the degree), I had just two advisors—Alan Cumyn and Sarah Ellis. Both of them are such lovely people with kind and generous spirits, and I’m grateful for both. Although I didn’t work with them, I also really enjoyed creating relationships with Tim Wynne Jones, Kathi Appelt, and Cynthia Leitich-Smith, among others. I did the picture book seminar with Sarah Ellis and that really stretched me. I had never spent a lot of time reading picture books before that, and I didn’t yet have my own child. (I do now and I “get” the picture book genre like never before!)
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
“Favorite” might be stretching it a bit but my goodness, the food offered in the dorm could be—let’s just say “interesting”! And when I was pregnant, it was doubly interesting. Sometimes offerings were amazing and other times completely inedible.
Mirroring our own amazing/indedible offerings, ha ha. What was special about your VCFA graduating class?
I was part of the Keepers of the Dancing Stars class. I’m sure everybody feels like their class is special, and I certainly can’t deny that they all are—but my class was extremely warm-hearted and supportive, and as we say, “keepers for life.”
What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
I teach college writing and creative writing and the two semesters I was at Vermont, I was teaching online classes while there. I didn’t have a choice as the semesters overlapped. But it was extremely difficult to work (particularly in the summer, when I was getting roughly 60-70 new essays every other day) and do the program. I know I didn’t get to attend as many lectures as would have been nice, or participate fully in campus life while there. I’m not the only student who has faced these kinds of issues. I saw other students come with their families and rent a house, etc, and I know they, too, didn’t get to participate fully in campus life. If you can leave behind work and family obligations while you’re there, that really, truly is best. You’ll be able to take advantage of everything you can while there….
Thanks so much for stopping by, J. L. Powers! Welcome to the mortal realm, Broken Circle!
J.L. Powers is the award-winning author of three young adult novels, The Confessional, This Thing Called the Future, and Amina. She is also the editor of two collections of essays and author of a picture book, Colors of the Wind, the story of blind artist and champion runner George Mendoza. She works as an editor/publicist for Cinco Puntos Press, and is founder and editor of the online blog The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature. She teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at Skyline College in California’s Bay Area, and she served as a jurist for the 2014 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature.