An Indies Introduce New Voices Q&A With Alexandra Duncan

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Alexandra Duncan is the author of Salvage (Greenwillow Books), a spring 2014 New Voices title for young adults and a Kids’ Indie Next List pick. Her short fiction has been published in several Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Duncan is a librarian who lives with her husband in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Salvage tells the story of Ava, a young woman in a community among the stars that treats women as commodities. After being caught with a young man, Ava is sentenced to death, but she escapes to the wasteland that is Earth. “Salvage takes a coming-of-age story in a futuristic setting and grounds it so deeply into the personal experience of its readers that it transcends its genre,” said Kenny Brechner of Devaney Doak & Garrett (DDG) Booksellers in Farmington, Maine.

Where did the idea for Salvage come from?

Alexandra Duncan: Salvage grew out of a short story I wrote in 2009 called “Bad Matter,” which was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The story featured the merchant crewe that Ava is a part of, and I knew when I finished it that I wanted to explore their society more fully. Some of my inspiration for their cloistered world came from growing up as a preacher’s kid in a very small, rural church where everyone knew everyone, and there were very strict expectations about behavior, especially for girls.

I picked up other parts of my book from a combination of research and direct experience. For example, my travels in Haiti and Nicaragua when I was a teenager went into creating the look and feel of the Gyre. Ava’s struggle to learn how to read came from my college job as a reading tutor for disadvantaged middle school students. Her split background is a reflection of my own experiences as a child of divorce shuttling between two new families.

Our New Voices panelists want to know: Will there be a sequel?

AD: There won’t be a direct sequel, but I’m currently working on a companion novel. It follows Miyole, who is a child in Salvage, on her adventures as a teenager aboard a research ship.

What advice would you give a young reader interested in writing?

AD: Seek out other book fanatics and people who love to write. Writing looks like a solitary profession, but the fact that you do part of it alone only makes it more important to have friends and writing buddies who will encourage and inspire you.

Did a particular teacher foster your interest in writing?

AD: I had some truly fantastic teachers when I was growing up, but it was actually my dad who made me want to be a writer. My parents were divorced, and my dad lived several hours away. Whenever we had a weekend together, he would spend the whole car ride telling me an epic fantasy story that was part Lord of the Rings, part Dinotopia, and part Choose Your Own Adventure. I would sit in the passenger seat and draw the characters he made up. This went on for several years, until he started encouraging me to make up my own stories and tell them to him.

What is your earliest memory related to reading?

AD: My mom used to read to me at bedtime when I was in preschool. She read all of the classic picture books, but I particularly remember Goodnight Moon, Pat the Bunny, and a picture book version of Rapunzel where the illustrator had drawn Rapunzel wearing a sword. What was this? Girls could have swords? I think that might have been the beginning of my lifelong interest in fairy tales. And swords.

Were books an important facet of your childhood? What book(s) did you read as a child?

AD: Absolutely. My parents were huge readers, and our house was always full of books. I was one of those kids you had to check on to make sure I was actually sleeping instead of reading under the covers. In elementary school, I read every The Babysitter’s Club and Goosebumps book I could get my hands on, but my favorites from that time were The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. In middle school, I read all of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and a lot of Star Wars novels. In high school, I discovered Neil Gaiman and Ursula LeGuin. Of course, I read a lot of classics and assigned books, too, but the ones that have stuck with me are the ones I chose to read myself.

At what point did you start calling yourself an author?

AD: Only very recently. I’m used to calling myself a writer, since I’ve been selling short stories for a number of years now. I started doing that when I had to put down “writer” on my taxes. This “author” thing is new, though, and I’m still not used to it. Writing a book is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little girl. What if I jinx myself by saying I’m an author, and then I get hit by a bus or fall into quicksand before my book comes out? I think I’ll have to hear other people say that I’m an author a few more times before I really believe it.

If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three titles would you want to have with you?

AD: I actually think about this a lot when I’m doing things like driving or folding laundry, because I’m a big nerd. My first choice would be Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I have a hard time convincing people that I’m not trying to be pretentious when I tell them how much I love that book. It’s one of those titles you can read over and over again and find something new and beautiful each time. Besides, all the whaling advice might come in handy on the deserted island. Next, I think I would need some kind of wilderness guide, like the U.S. Army Survival Handbook, because otherwise I would end up getting gangrene or being eaten by a shark. I’m not a natural survivor. Finally, I would need something to help cheer me up and remind me of human civilization. For that, I nominate Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Dipping into a Jane Austen novel before bed was the only thing that kept me from having horrible zombie nightmares when I was reading World War Z by Max Brooks. I think it would be equally helpful on a deserted island.

If you were a bookseller, is there a book you would say every child just has to read?

AD: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I tell every patron in the library where I work that anyone who is, has been, or knows a 12-year-old girl needs to read this book. It’s one of those novels with so many moving parts, and each of them has a purpose that you don’t see until they all come together in the end. Plus, time travel!

Salvage, by Alexandra Duncan (Greenwillow Books, Hardcover, 9780062220141). Publication Date: April 1, 2014.

Learn more about Alexandra Duncan at

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