Anna North's dark, gripping and wildly creative debut, America Pacifica, goes where few Iowa Writers' Workshop grads have gone before: a futuristic end-of-days setting where the buildings are made of sea-fiber and solvent-huffing hoodlums roam the streets. Still, North's story of a young girl in search of her mother (and her island's history) is remarkably universal, with characters as real those found in any contemporary fiction.
We sat down with the author to chat about dystopias, female protagonists and the pressure of happy endings.
America Pacifica is a difficult book to categorize. To what extent do you consider it a post-apocalyptic or sci-fi novel?
I definitely consider it post-apocalyptic, but whether it’s sci-fi is a more difficult question. I think the reputation of science fiction has really improved a lot over the years, but a lot of readers of literary fiction still tend to think of sci-fi as badly written, or as not concerned with character. This isn’t true—there are a lot of wonderful and beautiful sci-fi novels. Sometimes I call America Pacifica “literary sci-fi” so that people know I care about emotions and sentences, but I do look forward to a day when that kind of marker won’t be necessary.
The creation of a fantasy world like America Pacifica requires creating a universe larger than the book itself. Did you have the entire landscape and rules of the Island in your head before you began to write, or did you develop as you went?
I developed as I went, but my knowledge of the world had to be pretty far ahead of the story. So if Darcy was going to a particular neighborhood I had to know where it was on the map and how long it would take to get there before she set out. I drew a lot of maps, and I kept a map of the whole island in my desk and referred to it constantly. A lot of the rules—things like the absence of cameras and phones and Internet, and the general difficulty of getting your hands on metal—I established very early on, because I did a lot of thinking about how hard it would be to get a bunch of stuff across the Pacific. But others, like the toxic seawater, actually came in much later drafts.
The dystopian setting and strong female lead brings to mind the (wildly popular) Hunger Games books. Have you read that series and how do you feel about the comparison?
I haven’t read the Hunger Games books, because someone recommended them to me while I was in the thick of writing America Pacifica and had banned myself from reading dystopias until it was done. But I’d like to read them. They sound like the kind of thing I’d really enjoy, and I’m happy they’ve done so well. I think we need more books about girls swashbuckling and having adventures.
Speaking of strong female lead, Darcy is quite a character. Had you always imagined her as book’s focal point? Or did you develop the concept first and the character second?
I started with the idea of writing a post-apocalyptic novel involving a missing person, but Darcy came fairly quickly after that. In my very early stabs at a beginning, she had a different name and lived in a totally different place—a mainland full of tent cities that people got around by bicycle. But she was pretty much the same person—she was always someone young who has to seek and search, and carry a lot of responsibility mostly on her own.
Along similar lines, I see your publisher is doing cross-promotion with YA markets. Were you ever pressured to publish this as a Young Adult book? What do you think makes it decidedly adult?
I was never pressured, but I did have an agent suggest to me that I make Darcy several years younger and try to sell the book as straight-up YA. I felt strongly that Darcy should be 18, because I wanted her to be an adult, but only just. Over the course of the book, I wanted her to be finding out what kind of adult she would be, the way you do when you’re still very young but not a child anymore. I didn’t want it to be about coming of age quite so much as I wanted it to be about the fashioning of a grownup self. The fact that it’s less about the (very real) perils of adolescence and more about what happens afterward may make it more adult than your average YA book. But I think it’s getting tougher and tougher to make these distinctions—young readers have always read books for adults, and now more than ever, adults are reading YA.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that book’s second half and ending definitely diverge from norms within the YA/sci-fi genre. Did you feel pressure to wrap things up neatly? Did you always know how the book would end?
I always knew more or less what the last chapter would look like. It was probably the fastest to write because I had it all planned out in my head. But my first draft did end a bit more ambiguously than the finished one, in a way that my advisor found way too sad. I think she was right—not because sad books are bad, but because it hadn’t really had the effect on her that I was going for. So I did end up making some changes, but I never felt pressure to make things too neat or tidy. I think that would be contrary to the spirit of the book.
I see you’re an Iowa grad. Were you working on America Pacifica while you were there? If so, how did it differ from what your classmates were up to?
I wrote pretty much the entire first draft while I was at Iowa, which was a wonderful place to do it. Work set in the future was pretty uncommon there, though one of my classmates did write some post-apocalyptic stories set in Maine (another wrote very compelling fantasy). I worried about this a little before I got there, but it turned out to be totally fine. Everyone was very respectful of America Pacifica and treated it like it was a serious book, and even though futuristic stuff was pretty uncommon, the diversity of my classmates’ work was really impressive. I got to know a lot of people who were taking big risks and trying new things in their writing, and I never felt like I had to conform to one specific mode or do things in a traditional way.
You’re also a writer for the smart-lady blog Jezebel. How does writing in the online (and feminist) sphere influence your fiction?
Writing online means I read a ton of news every day, which is really good for my fiction, because I end up having a lot of ideas and facts swimming around in my head all the time. It’s also exposed me to a lot of writers I might not be aware of otherwise, which is a good thing for any fiction writer. I do think my interest in female protagonists and especially female protagonists doing heroic things was set before I started working for Jezebel, but working there and also reading the other great feminist blogs I became aware of as a result has given me a better understanding of the politics surrounding women’s writing and women’s stories. And I think being more politically aware is making me a better fiction writer, even if my work doesn’t end up being overtly political
We have to ask: what’s up next for you?
I’m working on a novel about a dead female filmmaker, told in the form of a filmography composed by the four people who loved her most.