Scandal Beneath the Big Top: Gwenda Bond on Her New YA Novel

i Oct 3rd No Comments by

I first met YA novelist, Gwenda Bond, through her husband, spec-fi author, Christopher Rowe, who happened to be a studio mate of mine at the time. One of the gazillion reasons I am so passionate about the Carnegie Center is its ability to connect writers from all walks and prove again and again that no author is an island. I attended Gwenda’s last book release for her novel, The Woken Gods, and was completely impressed by not only the caliber of the novel but just how cool and accessible her vibe is as an author. She freely talked about her process and upcoming projects and I knew I had to find a way to talk to her about craft one day. Today is that day, because Gwenda agreed to have a conversation with me about her newly released novel, Girl on a Wire.  And below the interview, check out a sneak peek of the the prologue! You can learn more about Gwenda’s writing on her website!

Gwenda Bond is the author of the young adult novels Girl on a WireThe Woken Gods and Blackwoodwith Lois Lane: Fallout up next in May 2015. She has also written for Publishers Weeklythe Los Angeles Timesand the Washington Post, and lives in Lexington with her husband, author Christopher Rowe. (Photo credit: Sarah Jane Sanders)

Tell us some about Girl on a Wire.

Girl on a Wire is about Jules Maroni, a sixteen-year-old daredevil high wire walker from a legendary circus family. The Maronis have fallen on hard times despite being world-class performers. When they get a chance to join the Cirque American, a show seeking to return the big top tent circus to its place of glamour and glory, Jules convinces the family to take it—but things become more complicated once they arrive. Old, possibly magical items believed to possess unlucky magic begin to be planted at the Cirque, and Jules must team up with Remy Garcia, the son of a rival circus family, to find the culprit before tragedy strikes. It sits at the intersection of many of my obsessions—the circus, high wire walking, girl daredevils, classic screwball comedies (particularly the memorable heroines and romances between equals in the best ones), multi-generational family mysteries.

When was the moment you knew you needed to write this book?

I have always been obsessed with circuses and wire walkers, and love circus books—but I never thought I’d write one. I didn’t think I had anything new to add. But then I got the flu over a New Year’s when we had house guests, and one of them kindly watched the entire PBS Circus miniseries with me, which I’d stockpiled on the DVR. A few days later, an idea for a modern circus story with two multigenerational circus families collided with a character that I’d had rattling around in search of a story—a girl who was very influenced by 1930s screwball heroines—and so the circus book was born.

Do you have a favorite character?

Jules is definitely one of my favorite characters to write. She’s a performative narrator, ambitious but vulnerable. But, honestly, all these characters were a pleasure to write.

What was your favorite part of research for this title?

The endless watching of various types of circus acts on YouTube, probably. And researching and selecting the sites for Jules’ outdoor stunt walks. I didn’t have to do that much circus research, because I’d been accumulating bits of knowledge about that for years.

What was the most difficult scene to write?

There is a tragedy that occurs past the midpoint of the book that I tried and tried to figure out a way to avoid. I even wrote a whole draft without it. But, in the final revisions, I knew it had to go back in. So far readers seem to be responding to it with as much sadness as I felt about it. It was the right decision for the story though.

Which character was the most challenging to pin down?

Remy! The ever-elusive male lead. It took me a little while to crack him open and figure out what he was about.

Where can we buy your book?

You can buy it anywhere fine books are sold as of Oct. 1 or get the e-book for the Kindle, and you’ll be able to get signed copies here locally. Plus! Come to the book launch party at Morris Book Shop on Saturday, Oct. 4, where there will be lots of fun going on.

What does your writing process look like? Any rituals that ensure literary gold? Rewards system?

I do a lot of revision, but that’s my favorite part. So to get a draft down is often the hardest part for me; the more books I write, the more I see the flaws during that part of the process, and it can be painful. I really rely on a routine, writing most of my new words first thing in the morning and sometimes adding a writing session later in the day. I often spend a big chunk of weekends working.

How do you get past the dreaded “middle section” of a novel?

I actually love writing middles. It’s beginnings that plague me, and I rewrite them a bazillion times. Often, I find the middle is big trouble for people who don’t do any planning or outlining or story-mapping up front. I don’t do a detailed outline, but I usually have at least an idea of the shape of the story, of some big moments that will give it shape, and write toward those. I also enjoy middles because the project is no longer so new that I’m not sure if there’s really a book there or not, but it’s also not close enough to the end that I have to be anxious about emerging and letting the world take a look at it.

How do you choose names for your characters?

They either come to me with names, or I play around until something feels right. If a character isn’t clicking for me, I will sometimes change their name or gender flip them. Sometimes even after a whole draft is done. (Deviant, I know.)

Are you a plotter or a pantster?

I touched on this a little above, but I’d say both. Though the longer I do this, the more I plan. Some of that is necessity—wandering in the forest without a map gets a lot more dangerous when you have a deadline and someone has already paid you money. Or when you really want someone to pay you money once you emerge from wandering in the forest. And there are proposals and outlines that just have to be done. But…stories are never completely tamed; they will always have their twists and turns and surprises, and thank god for that. I’d be really worried if something mapped exactly onto an outline I’d done, ever.

What is your favorite part of the publishing process? Least favorite?

Do you have a thousand years? The uncertainty, I suppose, is my least favorite. It never gets any easier, or rather, some parts might get easier, but then other parts will be harder. If selling a book gets easier, then that probably means expectations and pressure are higher. If selling a book is harder, well, that is also a problem (though these days there’s the indie path, a new option for writers trapped in publishing jail because of Bookscan numbers or whatever reason). Waiting to see how people react to a book never gets easier either.

The best part is without a doubt the collaboration with awesome, amazing, whip-smart publishing people who really care about books and making them the best they can be, and helping get them out in front of readers’ eyeballs. I’ve been so lucky to work with some great editors, designers, copy editors, publicity and marketing people. And my agent is the bee’s knees. Book people are the best people.

Do you have a favorite conference to attend? What is it?

I don’t know—I’d say anywhere enough friends are. I like conferences.

Do you work with a writing group? How’d you guys meet?

I don’t have a writing group per se, and my first reader is always my husband, local writer Christopher Rowe. We’re actually writing a book together at the moment. So that’s handy. Although sometimes stressful for him! I think there is no filter in how you react to your spouse, so sometimes he gets the prickly reaction to criticism or “this isn’t working yet” that I have no trouble pushing out of the way for other people. We are lucky to have a lot of writing friends, and do go on retreats where we help each other plan and plot and fine-tune. I believe we all met just through the publishing world, and also science fiction and fantasy conventions. Because: nerds.

Favorite writing utensil?

Laptop or Alphasmart Neo.

How hard is it these days to start and maintain a career as a fiction writer?

I have nothing to compare it to, but I do think it’s difficult and I also suspect it has always been hard. For all sorts of reasons. It took me years and a few trunked novels to get to a book that was ready to see the light of day. And it took longer still to sell my first one. But you need that ability to persevere—if it’s easy at the beginning, it won’t be easy forever, and vice versa. All careers have ups and downs, and it can be difficult to see from the moment, but having a sense of perspective and focusing on the work and the process as much as possible seems to be the best strategy for me. I always tell new writers: Every writer’s path is their own. Unique by definition, so don’t try to imitate or be derailed by envy. Focus on what is in front of you, on making the work only you can make, and finding its place in the market.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently doing last edits on my next book, Lois Lane: Fallout, a young adult novel about, yes, that Lois Lane (could there be any other?). It’ll be out in May. And Christopher and I are also finishing up revising the book we’re doing together, which is for younger readers, a middle grade novel, in the biz parlance. Then: on to the next bookish adventure.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you do for a living?

Spy! Con artist! Empress!

Er, but really almost certainly something bookish or media-related.

Worst job you ever had?

Waitress at a country club. I had these panty hose (because of course we had to wear ridiculous skirted tuxedo uniforms) that I called the Frankenhose because I cultivated an insane number of runs in them—one thing I’ll say about the uber-wealthy, they will up a tip if they think you can’t afford run-free hose. ;-)

Do you read reviews? Why or why not?

I read the ones that make their way to me, mostly. I read them indiscriminately only when I’m really up or really down.

Favorite fan experience?

All of them! Knowing that someone connected with a book never gets old.

Prologue from Girl on a  Wire
by Gwenda Bond

I planted my feet on the wire that ran parallel to the rafters. My new act involved a series of ballet-inspired moves, building to a trio of slow but tricky pirouettes, and the barn was the best place to practice. If I mastered these moves today, I’d be showing them off at the next show our traveling family circus offered—Fridays and Saturdays, entry for twelve bucks.

Before taking my first step, I peered thirty feet down at Sam, who was only just getting around to the stall-mucking. As far as I was concerned, it was the most important of his duties as caretaker of my mom’s coterie of enormous white horses.

“Sam, hurry up,” I called down, wrinkling my nose at the strong, musky smell of manure, hay, and horse sweat in the barn. “Please. It reeks in here.”

“You’re supposed to be rehearsing,” he said, and brushed overgrown sandy hair out of his eyes with his forearm. “But if it’s that bad, take a break and come back later.”

Sam had come to live with us the year before. I’d gotten so used to having him around that he felt like my brother instead of my cousin. I’d even gotten used to his annoying habit of being right all the time.

Late-afternoon sunlight streamed through the open back doors, a sadly natural spotlight to go with the unwelcome odor.

“I bet the Cirque American doesn’t smell like this,” I said.

“We’ll never know,” Sam said. “But I promise you that horse manure smells the same everywhere.”

To that, I said nothing.

The Cirque American. Pronounced Americ-ah-n, even its pronunciation was glamorous, with the ah sound promising a classy continental vibe. Its financial backing also had a pedigree, since the owner, Thurston Meyer, was an actual billionaire. The Cirque was a brand-new touring production aimed at adults, not kids—no sad elephants or angry big cats, just old-style glamour and logic-defying feats under a big top tent. Lots of the most famous family names in the business had joined up already. Despite the fact that my father happened to be the best wire walker in the world, we’d never gotten an offer to work on any show this size. Until now.

And Dad had turned the unbelievably great offer down flat.

Our tiny circus was already in serious danger of dying. Even the presence of the Amazing Emil, as my father was known onstage, wasn’t enough anymore. Traveling a circuit takes money, and these days it was obvious we weren’t making enough. Mom had wanted to join the Cirque, but didn’t challenge Dad when he refused to budge. My grandmother Nan, whose brilliant career as a trapeze flyer and expert tarot reader had become a quiet retirement of tutoring Sam and me, took his side. Sam hadn’t bothered to vote.

Our family had finally been given a chance. And nobody but me was willing to fight for it.

After the family meeting at which my father had delivered his decree, Nan insisted on consulting her tarot deck. She’d immediately started in on some mumbo jumbo about “bad blood” and “old threats.”

“There’s no need to discuss it further,” my father had said, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “We Amazing Maronis will never accept any job that includes working alongside the Flying Garcias.”

I stared at both of them, mystified. I didn’t even know the reason this crazy old rivalry existed. The Flying Garcias were a Latino family of trapeze artists, as legendarily gifted as us, but far more successful. Our paths hadn’t crossed in decades, and as far as I knew Nan had never performed anywhere near them. But every so often the Garcia name would come up, and I’d be reminded anew that we were all supposed to cling to this ancient feud, no questions asked.

Well, that made zero sense with the way things stood. Soon enough, we’d be stuck in the middle of Indiana year-round, out of cash and off the circuit, with no way to remake the Maroni name. Dad would probably end up working a factory job, and Mom would land behind some desk, answering phones instead of being the Amazing Vonia and controlling her magnificent white horses with only her voice and a few hand gestures—while wearing a costume that made her look like an equestrienne superhero. I had no idea what would happen to me.

Just thinking about it made me feel queasy, never good this high up in the air.

I’d been mulling how to change the course of things. With the start of the Cirque’s inaugural season and the expiration of Meyer’s offer coming up fast, I couldn’t wait any longer. I whirled on the wire and traipsed easily over to the ladder nailed to the wall. There was no net to dive into. Dad never took a bad step. I didn’t either if I wanted to live.

Descending the rungs, I called over to Sam. “Mom and Dad went to buy feed, right? And Nan went with them to shop?”

Sam didn’t pause in his busy mucking away at the other end of the barn. “Yep.”

That was a two-hour errand, minimum. Perfect.

I’d stashed a pair of jeans and a few other things in a navy hard-shell overnight case that used to be Nan’s. I pulled the pants on over my practice tights, swapped out my walking slippers for my favorite pair of red sequin ones, and shut the case with a satisfying click.

“See you later,” I said, picking it up. I gulped in the fresh, clean air as I slipped out the open barn doors into the brisk early evening. This was it.

I had to hike past our neighbors’ cornfields to get to the highway. The road met my two requirements: a decent amount of traffic and enough trees to hide behind while I waited for a ride that looked safe. I wasn’t going to hop into the first semi or pickup that blew past. Being bold and being stupid aren’t the same. They’re as different as falling and flying.

Tucked behind a wide tree trunk, I watched traffic fly past and prayed that my overnight case wouldn’t be needed. Living in an RV during peak season was a familiar way of life. Camping wasn’t. Finally a blue hatchback hit the horizon going not a mile per hour over the speed limit. There was enough light left to make out the shape of a woman’s bouffant hair on the driver’s side.

I grabbed the overnight bag, left my hiding spot, and leapt over the ditch to the roadside. Then I raised my free hand and dropped an invisible racing flag.

The brake lights flashed as the car stopped.

I zipped over to open the passenger door. “Thank you, thank you,” I said, checking out the woman to confirm that she wasn’t a serial killer. Early thirties, with masses of curled hair around a kind, tired face I expected to see more makeup on. She looked as harmless as a friendly crowd. Tossing my bag in the back seat, I climbed in.

“Your hair is extraordinary,” I told her.

The woman couldn’t keep from smiling, but her eyebrows lifted. “How old are you?”

Sixteen. “Do you really want to know?”

She said nothing.

“Eighteen.” What she wanted to hear. “My name is Jules.”

She ticked her finger on the steering wheel, frowning like she’d decided that picking up a hitchhiker—even a blonde one in shiny red slippers like me—hadn’t been the best idea. “I don’t see a car anywhere. Did you have trouble?”

“Not really. I just need a ride.” I had to get to the truck stop before my parents noticed I was gone or my plan wouldn’t work. “We should probably get going.”

She put the car in drive. “Where can I drop you?”

“The Flying J off Exit 85?” I suggested. It was a good forty minutes’ drive.

A long moment of consideration. “That’s out of my way, but all right.”

I high-beamed my brightest smile. She cringed. Okay, maybe an audience needed that smile and one person didn’t. I adjusted it to normal wattage.

“What are you doing out here anyway?” she asked.

No reason to lie. “Running away to join the circus.”