Javier Ramirez of The Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois, who was on the kids’ Indies Introduce committee that selected Dunlap’s young adult novel, said, “Putting her own spin on the age-old story of star-crossed love, Shannon Dunlap’s incredible first novel is a solid reminder as to why I continue to read and sell books on a daily basis. I challenge anyone out there to read the prologue of Izzy + Tristan and not fall head-over-heels for this lovely debut.”
Dunlap is a graduate of the MFA program at New York University. Before that, she was a weekly columnist for The Phnom Penh Post. Her work appears in the anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?: True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (Signal 8 Press), and she has written for The Harvard Business Review, Fah Thai magazine, and Brave New Traveler. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
Here, Ramirez and Dunlap discuss her debut YA novel.
Javier Ramirez: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer and why did you choose to write for the YA audience?
Shannon Dunlap: When I was in preschool, we spent a day learning about the post office and had to act out different roles: the person working at the counter, the person delivering packages, etc. I turned to the teacher and asked, “Can’t I just sit by myself and write the letters?” That is, it’s hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer.
But the desire to write a YA book wasn’t kindled until I started to imagine the story that would eventually become Izzy + Tristan. So many qualities of the characters in the medieval legend — their passion, their recklessness, their fears and moments of fearlessness — reminded me of being a teenager.
JR: What drove you to write a contemporary version of the tragic, age-old love story between Tristan and Iseult?
SD: When I first read the story in college, it stuck with me. I loved how quirky it was: dragons, duels to the death, love potions, a gang of lepers, etc. But it wasn’t until over a decade later, while living in Brooklyn, that I started to realize that so many of the themes of that wacky 800-year-old story still haunt us today: our fear of people who are strange to us, our struggles with those in power, our helplessness in the face of forces that are beyond our control, our desperation to find a place or a person in the world to call home. I wanted readers to feel that thread of connection, too.
JR: Why start with a prologue for Izzy + Tristan and how did you come up with such a fantastic one?
SD: The prologue was the first part of the book I wrote, and it has changed very little since that day. Most writing doesn’t work that way; it’s all about the hard task of revising and thinking and revising some more. But if you’re lucky, you can also be graced with those little moments of magic. Izzy’s voice coming to me in the form of that prologue was one of those moments for me.
JR: The game of chess acts as a very clever plot device in Izzy + Tristan. Are you a chess grandmaster?
SD: I’m the worst chess player! Truly awful! But I am fascinated with people who are gifted at the game. When Izzy + Tristan was still just an idea, I saw the documentary Brooklyn Castle, about the youth chess scene in New York City, and I loved it. Here were kids who were passionately battling it out on the chessboard, like modern-day knights. It connected with that medieval story that had been kicking around in my brain for ages.
JR: What’s next for you?
SD: I’m deep into writing another YA book that I’m really excited about. Again, it’s a re-imagining of a very old story that resonates with our modern predicaments, but it’s otherwise very different from Izzy + Tristan, and that has been a fun challenge for me.
Izzy + Tristan by Shannon Dunlap (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 9780316415385, Young Adult, $17.99) On Sale Date: 3/12/2019.