Balancing gravity and humor in a tale of teen pregnancy
In their debut YA novel Mothership, authors Martin Leicht and Isla Neal create an uproarious, action-packed tale narrated by an expectant teen mother at a boarding school in outer space. While those attributes alone should make readers curious about the book—the first in a planned trilogy—the best part of this futuristic adventure story is its pitch-perfect blend of the serious and the hilarious.
A chat with the authors revealed them to be just as funny as we hoped they’d be.
Teen pregnancy is traditionally treated as a serious topic in YA literature. What inspired you to take a lighter perspective?
Isla: Well, I think it was something we wanted to be silly about, while still treating seriously, if that makes any sense. What makes the humor in this book work, in my opinion, is that underneath it all there is a confused teenage girl, worrying about huge life decisions she never thought she’d have to face before. Plus lots of gastrointestinal jokes—always good for a laugh riot.
Martin: I’ve always felt that humor is an effective way to explore any serious emotional subject. Humor is how we deal with loss, hardship, death, etc. It’s not just how we cope with these things, but how we gain some perspective on them. With Mothership, we wanted to take the issue of teen pregnancy seriously, but have really strong, funny characters that deal with the situation in a realistic way so that it never came off as preachy.
Mothership blends the genres of science fiction, action and adventure, humor and romance. What sparked this genre mash-up?
Isla: It was all kind of born out of a joke that wouldn’t die—the idea to write a book that was “Juno meets Alien.” The project seemed like a natural collaboration for Marty and me, because Marty loves sci-fi and I love girly YA novels. And we both like to think we’re pretty funny.
"Humor is how we deal with loss, hardship, death, etc. It’s not just how we cope with these things, but how we gain some perspective on them."
Martin: I’ve always enjoyed cross-genre stories—in books, in film and on television. Humor can punctuate an action beat, romance can raise the stakes in an otherwise esoteric science fiction universe, and so on. I think it adds variety to the experience and keeps things fresh.
Elvie’s use of slang (new words like “blink” for “text message” and abbreviations like “obvi” for “obviously”) is part of what makes Mothership so much fun to read. How did you come up with her unique voice?
Isla: Elvie’s voice was one of those things that just sort of came out organically—it was completely unlike anything either of us had written before, and it just worked. I hate to be one of those infuriating authors who pretends like she’s merely channeling the voice of her character, but it really did feel like that for this book. We spent a lot of time tweaking the story and discussing plot ideas and story elements that needed to be enhanced or changed in revisions, but Elvie’s voice—that was there from the first sentence of the first draft.
Martin: There was a lot of discussion early on about Elvie’s use of “future-slang.” We didn’t want it to sound alien or silly. The book only takes place 60-some years in the future, so we wanted the way she and the other characters spoke to sound very natural and contemporary, so that it felt familiar to readers today but still showed an evolution of the language. It’s important that even if you don’t know a word Elvie is using, the context of what she’s saying will make it abundantly clear.
Mothership blends serious themes like individual vs. group priorities with genuinely funny moments, like the odd food combinations Elvie and Ducky (Elvie's best friend) eat. How did you work on achieving a balance between the serious and the hilarious?
Martin: I think that if you have a firm grasp on your characters, especially your protagonist or narrator, they will give you that balance. You need to appreciate how your characters would feel in a given situation and make sure their reactions in each moment are believable.
Isla: Finding that balance was one of the really great things about collaborating with another author—which for me at least was a completely new experience. Marty and I took turns writing drafts of each chapter, and then we’d give our draft to the other person to look at, and that person would make changes, and then we’d swap again. Each chapter probably went through at least eight revisions, back-and-forth and back-and-forth. It was a little tiring, but the wonderful part about it was that you could just throw something at the page—a joke or a completely out-there idea or a sappy, touching moment—and you knew there was a talented, funny author on the other side who would either love it and keep it, or one-up it and make it even better (or, often, axe it completely). It felt a little bit like an improv show, where two comedians are really just trying to make the other person on the stage laugh. If we both liked something, then we figured it was probably worth sticking with.
What was it like working together?
Isla: It was quite the experience! We are both fiercely loyal to our ideas and our words, which can be good but can be difficult, too. We seriously spent a good 40 minutes arguing over a single word one day. (Not to brag, but I won.) So it got a little exhausting at times. But I think our book is a trillion times better for having both of our voices in it. It’s definitely greater than the sum of either of our talents.
Martin: I still maintain that I was on the right side of that single word debate. Sometimes we would have very different ideas about what the thematic underpinning of a scene was, and our different drafts would reflect that. It’s very easy to be sensitive and protective of your work, and to have someone change it in a draft can sometimes be frustrating. What is important to remind yourself of is that if your partner is changing something you liked into something else (or vice versa), it isn’t because they hate your writing but because they have a different view of what’s important in the scene, or you’re simply not conveying what you think is important as effectively as you think you are. Then you get into more serious conversations, sometimes going on for days, but ultimately you end up with a much stronger passage.
Who was your favorite character to come up with and write?
Martin: Elvie is the easy answer because she’s just a really fun character and would be a lot of fun to know in real life. But Cole Archer (the father of Elvie’s unborn baby) was great to write, too, because I enjoyed tweaking the cliché handsome boy character to make him something a little more relatable—and a whole lot funnier (one hopes). There are also a few characters that don’t get much page time in Mothership that I’m very excited to delve into deeper in the next two books.
Isla: Elvie for me, too, but a close second was Elvie’s dad. He’s more than a little bit based on my own father, who’s an utterly hilarious worrywart with a game plan for every ridiculous situation you can dream up. Several of the sillier moments with Elvie’s dad are actually based on real-life incidents with my dad. (Luckily, my father has a very good sense of humor and was tickled pink to have a character based on him.)
Elvie’s best friend Ducky is the epitome of a video game geek—while also being a loyal and dedicated friend. Is he modeled on anyone you know?
Isla: I think he’s Marty.
Martin: There’s more than a little of me in Ducky, although he’s probably a bit nerdier than me in some ways. Not personality-wise, but he’s definitely better at video games than I ever was.
The ship on which Mothership takes place is “an old recommissioned low-orbit luxury cruise liner.” If outer space cruises were available now, would you vacation on one? Where would you go?
Martin: I probably wouldn’t go because I’d get too motion sick, even in orbit. I have enough trouble getting on a cross-country flight.
If you could choose only a few “classic flat pic” movies for late 21st-century viewers like Elvie to see, which would they be?
Martin: Oh, God, I could list a page of movies or more! I’m that annoying friend that’s always going, “You haven’t seen Such-and-Such? We have to watch Such-and-Such this weekend!”
Isla: (rolls eyes) He’s not kidding.
Martin: I’d want them to watch John Ford films like Stagecoach and The Searchers, and Hitchcock films like Vertigo and Rear Window. I think Elvie would love Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier and I think Ducky would have a major crush on Rita Hayworth in Gilda. I would want to make sure they didn’t miss underrated (or at least under-watched) gems like The Iron Giant, The Rocketeer and Serenity. I also think they’d be real big fans of television shows with strong characters and witty dialogue, so I’d include copies of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," "Firefly" and "Gilmore Girls." And yes, I totally love "Gilmore Girls."
Isla: I’d pick The Sting. One of my all-time favorites. So funny and smart and clever, and the performances are amazing. Plus, Robert Redford and Paul Newman are eternally charming. Elvie would have mega-crushes on both of them, definitely.
Martin: Wait! I thought of about 50 more . . .
Isla: Hush, now, Marty.
Can you give us any hints about what’s to come in the second two books in the Ever-Expanding Universe trilogy?
Isla: Elvie is going to go from preparing to be a mother to actually having to be one, and the alien-human love triangle we saw sparks of in book one will get even more complicated. She’s going to learn some surprising things about her family and herself. We will also come to discover that there’s a much bigger threat to the world than anyone had heretofore imagined.
Martin: And the authors will finally find a way to use “heretofore” in a sentence.
Read a review of Mothership.