Catherine Linka knows books. So it shouldn't have surprised her when, before her award-winning debut novel A Girl Called Fearless was even published, she was asked to write a sequel. With the release of A Girl Undone, the former buyer for an independent book store has become one of the biggest names in the Young Adult book market. But the wide-reaching appeal of the Fearless series transcends both age and gender. It's a compelling coming-of-age tale, wrapped in a romance, encased in a political thriller, and as each suspenseful layer unfolds, the plot only deepens:
Avie Reveare lives in a dystopian America where most adult women have died from cancer caused by hormone-treated beef. The male-dominated landscape, barren of female leaders and voters, gives rise to the Paternalist Party which runs the government and the lives of the women who remain. Highly coveted as they reach child-bearing age, girls are kept under surveillance and denied higher education as they're molded into the most ideal mates money can buy. At 17, suddenly finding herself "contracted" to marry an ambitious Paternalist politician, Avie goes on the run in a quest for the freedom to learn and to be with the boy she loves. Even as she's hunted by the government she defies, she'll find help in strange places. But ultimately, she'll learn the only way to save herself is to fight for the freedom of others.
As a screenwriter, I was impressed with how visually the books read, allowing us to see everything Linka writes in rich imagery. Her characters have such emotional depth, they come alive on the page. They may soon come alive on screen as the books are optioned by Universal Cable Productions for television. In the meantime, reading has unique rewards. I always enjoy talking to fellow writers, but chatting with Linka is enriching as well. Her passion for public causes infuses the personal yarns she's chosen to weave and yet, her books are never preachy, just tightly-knit page-turners. I spoke with Catherine Linka about the craft of writing novels, the art of creating evolving characters, and how, by ennobling a relatable heroine, she empowers young women to be leaders in their own lives:
Devra Maza: Avie's story is so compelling. How did the idea for her world first come to you?
Catherine Linka: It was completely accidental. I imagined a US which was transformed by a catastrophe where 15 million women who were voters, mothers and consumers were lost. It would impact everything economically and politically, from stores to music to government to businesses. No one would remain untouched. I thought about how all the wounded single dads would raise the children who survived. It made me wonder what would happen to just a regular girl. So I started writing and 40 pages later, I realized I was writing a novel. Avie's voice came to me almost immediately, the world was so vivid.
Maza: What attracted you to dystopian spec fiction in the first place?
Linka: Great Sci-Fi and great spec fiction ask big questions about morality, ethics and justice which is why I think these stories really resonate. It was interesting to ponder how far I could take that in the real world, so the books have probably the most attractive dystopian setting you'll ever read, not burned-out, bombed-out landscapes. In Undone, Avie's been branded a terrorist on the run. Everyone is looking for her. Jessop Hawkins who owns her contract, as well as homeland security, has her in their sights, so his beautiful, modern, high-end home in Malibu turns the whole notion of a prison on its head. For Avie, it's a gilded cage.
Maza: Your characters are so layered, anyone could've been the lead. Telling the tale from the point of view of an adult would've made for a dramatically different series. Instead, you chose Avie who is on the cusp of being denied the very things that could make her a leader, like the right to vote and go to college.
Linka: It's why I love YA, because there's always tremendous possibility. The characters are at an age when they're growing and changing. Avie is so young and naive; she has no idea what she can achieve. But by the end of Fearless, she has done things she never would have thought herself capable of at the beginning. To write Undone, I had to take Avie beyond someone who knows she can survive to someone who realizes, if she's going to live with herself, she'll have to be able to sacrifice herself. And there's no good-looking guy doing it for her.
Maza: Yes, but there's a really hot guy waiting in the wings. And he's the ultimate modern hero in that he's an activist fighting not just for the woman he loves, but for all women's rights. The fact that he leads this charge as a young man, makes him one of the sexiest YA heartthrobs. This is what a man who loves women really looks like.
Linka: Absolutely. I feel the reason Yates is so appealing is because he is completely dedicated to this. He's suffered. After his sister's suicide, which he suspects is actually a murder, this is the way he finds purpose. He's always believed in Avie. Even when he's not with her, he's a steadying force. I have a really soft spot in my heart for Yates.
Maza: So soft, you made room for a second hunk. Avie also has her moments with Luke. So the activist-city-boy has some competition from the guitar-playing-mountain-guy. Ultimately the love triangle grows Avie in different ways.
Linka: I had no intention of having a triangle, but my editor said "put a person of interest at the end of Fearless" and I was really thanking her when I wrote Undone because that gave me someone who could take Avie and the plot in a new direction. Luke knows how to survive in difficult situations, but then Avie has to keep him alive in ways she never anticipated. Ultimately, Avie goes from physically saving Yates to morally saving Luke. Then, as we get to the end of Undone, Yates is in the background, verbalizing everything that she is thinking about herself. When she becomes the person she really wants to be, that's when they can be together.
Maza: On If List, fans can suggest the actors they'd like to see play your characters. Authors should always keep an open mind, but has anyone caught your eye?
Linka: Well, I'm walking in the mall, going to Abercrombie & Fitch, and I'm almost knocked over when I see - Oh. My. God. - It's an eight-foot-tall black and white photo of Yates, and I almost fall on my face. It's actually a picture of Canadian model Matt Aymar. He is shirtless. He is brooding. His hair is kind of just flopped down on his face, and I almost can't breathe because it is so Yates.
Maza: No wonder the girls in Fearless are fleeing to Canada.
Linka: Just to make your travels more interesting, look up Pietro Boselli. My daughter thinks he'd make a great Yates. He has an engineering PhD and is the Channing Tatum of Italy.
Maza: Hmmm. I can see the picture book now: a bunch of gorgeous male model activists taking a shirtless stand for women's rights. (Sigh.) For now, let's talk about your book covers. The snow and ice encroaching on the blue skylines could represent both the physical and mental journeys Avie takes. She'll have to go through that cold, fractured world in order to come out whole and stand free in the sun.
Linka: I love your interpretation! I honestly did not know how St. Martin's Press would communicate this story so I was excited when I first saw the cover for A Girl Called Fearless. The shattered glass around Los Angeles really does convey the idea of a broken world. There's also pink script to evoke the romance that I wanted to get across. Then for A Girl Undone, they amped up the intensity. The glass is sharper, the colors are deeper, the California coastline is rocky. I love the way the sky goes from benign to much more frightening, and yet there's possibility in the colors of the sunset. In Fearless, Avie is standing still, like she's making a decision. In Undone, she's going forward.
Maza: Fans can see a third book cover on Wattpad where you've posted a prequel, A Girl Defiant, which is Sparrow's story. She's the stunning techie-savant/spy with the bird's-wing eye-makeup. The fire of its cover tragically foreshadows her shocking exit in Fearless.
Linka: Yes, Sparrow's story is the most Romeo and Juliet part of the entire series. She's been betrayed by her father and the young man who she loves, so she is deeply, deeply hurt and has nothing left to lose. I think whenever you bring in a character, that character represents possibilities. Sometimes they already exist in your head, but you don't understand everything about them yet. Then, as you start writing, you learn more and that takes the plot in ways you might not have anticipated. Characters can come to you as living people very quickly so that meeting them changes the story.
Maza: And sometimes the story changes the character. Jessop Hawkins, who "contracts" Avie to become his political wife, goes from a determined villain in Fearless to a more multidimensional one in Undone. He even flirts with some redemptive qualities.
Linka: If I had known there was going to be a second book, I wouldn't have made him quite so horrible in the first. Having to show the other side of him really required a lot of work. He's an example of what men can become without the influence of women, so I wanted to show how Avie, even though she's very young, is like a conscience, one that's not going to stop saying things, so you see she influences him as much as he takes her to the dark side.
Maza: When did you first start thinking about the second book?
Linka: I'd written the first book when I got the contract from St. Martin's, and they said, "Oh, we want you to do a sequel," which I had never intended to do. Suddenly, I had this deadline for 100,000 words in 15 months and I had no idea what the second book was about, so I was immediately plunged into writer's block. But since I was doing a final rewrite of Fearless, I was able to cut the original one-page epilogue that tied up the plot lines and leave more ambiguity in the story so I'd have places to go.
Maza: And Avie does evolve. I love that she has real teenage flaws and learns from them. In Fearless, she records a video message on her phone where the background gives her location away. Then in Undone, she turns the tables on her mistake, using the media's cameras for a big reveal. With surveillance such a huge theme, it's a great example of tight writing as you twine both character arc and metaphor together in a climactic plot point.
Linka: Avie's been hiding the coded information that exposes the Paternalists, but realizes the only power she has is by getting it out to everyone, and she does it quite chicly. A lot of times you're seeing dystopian worlds where the girl is immediately the kick-ass superhero from the get-go, but Avie must go from being incredibly protected and sheltered to taking charge.
Maza: Avie's dad deals her away in the hope that saving his company will save lives, but Avie has to wonder, "Who saves me?" As her father, that's his first job, but he doesn't take her side until she's hunted. Not exactly a stirring endorsement of fathers.
Linka: When I wrote Fearless, I thought a lot about every dad who sold his daughter and what their motivation was, how they're hurting and the lack of balance they have without women. Also, we are a country that turns every single holiday into a consumer event. So in a situation where you have high demand and low supply, the value of girls is going to go way up. So I thought, what if men were offered a million dollars for their daughter, or in the case of Avie's dad, a 50 million-dollar-deal that could fund his company's cure for opiate addiction, and Avie's the casualty.
Maza: Naming characters in fitting ways is always fun. Avie Reveare brings to mind Paul Revere's ride, sounding the American Revolution's alarm. Did you do that with everyone?
Linka: It's really a mix. Maggie Stanton was named after Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Yates is named for my favorite poet, except I changed the spelling. Luke was raised in a very religious community so I wanted a name that had that feel to it. With Roik, the bodyguard, I wanted a name that had a sharp consonant at the end of it, something short to the point, as opposed to Gerard who has an elegance to his movements as domestic manager. So every name has something to do with sound or meaning, either symbolically or emotionally.
Maza: It's hard to imagine young women marching for their rights the way their grandmothers did. "I am woman, hear me roar" has devolved into "I am on my cell phone in public." It's great that Yates is a feminist. It would be great if the Fearless series inspires your female readers to proudly own that word as well.
Linka: I find it very troubling when women say, "I'm not a feminist" and yet they agree that we should be able to have any career we want, be paid the same salaries as men, and have control over our bodies. That's why I'm so glad when I see someone like Emma Watson going in front of the United Nations to lead a new campaign on feminism. I'm very pleased when I hear my books get girls to question what could happen in a hypothetical world because it makes them more sensitive to what they see around them. Certainly, my older readers talk about how chilling the books are because they see all the historical and current events parallels.
Maza: And even more chilling things are happening to women around the globe that is not YA material. That said, what do you think shaped you to become a writer who draws on world events?
Linka: I studied international economics and politics, and I have two master's degrees. If I hadn't spent all those years thinking about money and marketing, I probably wouldn't have envisioned an America in which teenage girls are scarce resources to exploit. So, while I did not have an agenda, I'm conscious of global politics. It was ironic when I'd write something so over the top, like the character whose older brother sells her for a car, and a few weeks later, there'd be a case where that really happened to a girl in the Middle East. We see how gender imbalance affects the value of women in China and other countries. It's shocking to find that the things that I imagined would happen in a fictional world are actually occurring.
Maza: Nuts and bolts time: What was your writing process for these books, from conception to launch? Aspiring writers want to know.
Linka: I'm a lark, so I'd write every morning. It took five months for the first book's first draft. I don't outline. I like to start writing a story, get a sense of the characters and think a lot about what they want and the problems that they're dealing with. When I've written a few drafts, I go back and break it down scene by scene to look at whether it's moving the story forward or not. Sometimes a book is like channeling and the story comes from a place that is so deep inside of you, it's like you're just tapping into something. But then you have to go back and there's a long, long period of editing so that it's in the shape of a story. I rewrote the first book for three years. It took six years from the time I first conceived of the idea until the publication of the second book.
Maza: So obviously perseverance is key. What other advice do you have for budding novelists?
Linka: Read, Read, Read! We're now in a world where we don't value being quiet and sitting down and reading uninterrupted. Not only do books give you the depth of language, but they show you how words are used in context. You're getting cadence, how words flow, the rhythm of the words and it will introduce you to how emotions are expressed. All of that is something you can pick up from reading, at least an hour every single day if you want to be a writer. Not enough adults do that, so I don't care how old you are, but reading, and reading especially good versions of what you want to write, is what you have to do.
Maza: Wonderful words. I hope people sat still long enough to read them. Any advice for how girls can become fearless in their own lives?
Linka: I would say, challenge yourself. Find something hard to do and do it, or at least don't be afraid to try. You learn so much even if you fail, and you really don't know what you're capable of. I did not know myself until I was put in a situation where I wasn't sure if I would get through it whole. That taught me how strong I really am and that is the emotional source of these books. I realized after writing them that this is my story in disguise, because it's what we know emotionally that fuels our stories.
To read more about the romances of writer-activists, go here. Purchase A Girl Called Fearless and A Girl Undone. Read A Girl Defiant. Cast your vote for actors to be in the Fearless TV series. Watch Emma Watson's speech to the United Nations on gender equality and join the UN HeForShe campaign. For more on Catherine Linka, follow her on Twitter @cblinka and visit CatherineLinka.com. For more on the author, follow Devra on Twitter @DevraMaza and visit DevraMaza.com.
Photo Credits: Fearless series book covers, courtesy of St. Martin's Press; Catherine Linka and Devra Maza, courtesy of SFV Library; Linka portrait, courtesy of Brad Buckman; Linka Undone signing, courtesy of Nicole Maggi; Linka Fearless launch, courtesy of Kathy Christie; Matt Aymar for Abercrombie & Fitch, courtesy of Bruce Weber; Pietro Boselli selfie courtesy of Pietro Boselli; Emma Watson, courtesy of UN.org; Linka Amazon bird-watching, courtesy of Robert Linka; Linka book balancing, courtesy of Catherine Linka; William Butler Yeats (1908) charcoal on paper, by John Singer Sargent. I Am Malala book cover, courtesy of Little, Brown & Co.
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