For this installment of The Debut Author Series, I tried something new with the questions. When Katya reached out to me, I happily invited her to interview. We started with the standard set of questions I’ve asked every author so far, but this time I kept going, asking questions and sparking conversation. The interview process with Katya has been amazing. She’s incredibly sociable, friendly, and so easy to love.
Without further ado, meet Katya de Becerra. She is the author of the upcoming novel, WHAT THE WOODS KEEP (September 18,2018), and OASIS (TBD). She currently works as a cultural anthropologist in Australia, emigrating there in 2006 after having lived in the US, Russia, and Peru.
What drove you to write your first book?
I’m a bit of a late-bloomer when it comes to writing fiction. Having said that, I’ve always been writing something—jotting down story ideas, penning one terrible poem too many—but I haven’t really started writing in earnest until about five years ago. The thing is, I grew up with an expectation that I’d do something “practical” with my life, preferably something involving working in academia, and writing books for a living just wasn’t considered… practical enough? It was only after I left my hometown, and travelled a bit before settling in Australia that I realized: I simply had to write. I was ready. I started working on what eventually became WHAT THE WOODS KEEP when I was halfway through my PhD in anthropology. I remember being stressed about my research and exhausted after months of tension-filled ethnographical fieldwork. I needed to do something that allowed my brain to “switch off” from academia and do something other than pursuing research participants, transcribing hours-long interviews and coding data. Fast forward a couple of years, and I was looking for a research job while simultaneously querying literary agents.
What kind of struggles have you faced while juggling both worlds? Any advice to those querying with day jobs?
My main struggles have always been: time (or lack thereof) and learning how to quickly switch between academic writing and fiction. I’m usually pretty busy at work (I conduct research and teach a subject in a postgraduate program), so I do most of my bookish writing on weekends, but when I’m on a book deadline, sometimes I escape into a quiet café and write during my lunch breaks or steal away some time at home after dinner (I just can’t do early mornings – I’m not built that way). As for the switching back to my book voice/tone after a whole day of academia, I rely heavily on book-related soundtracks and visual moodboards. Sometimes, a single glance at just the right image or even simply hearing the first chords of that one special song gets me going.
My main advice to those in similar situations would be: don’t be tough on yourself (you do need that day job so you can support yourself and your writing career!), but also keep your priorities straight. I know so many people who tried querying agents, got rejected a few times and decided to stop because they got completely demoralized, demotivated and just tired of it all. I know it’s tough—I’ve been there! But also: my agent found me in her slush pile, so it not impossible! Just be realistic, find a routine that works for you, and try and stick to it as much as you can. Set your daily goals—write 500 words, query one agent, etc.—and do what you can to hit those goals. Something is going to give. But it takes time and effort.
Which came first, WHAT THE WOODS KEEP or OASIS?
WHAT THE WOODS KEEP came first. My earliest drafts of it go back to 2011, if not before. I actually started writing OASIS as a 2014 NaNoWriMo project while I was querying WHAT THE WOODS KEEP. Technically, I “failed” NaNo that year, since I didn’t reach my 50K words target, but… getting agent representation based on my first book gave me the boost of confidence I needed to get my stuff together and finish OASIS. Later on, those first 20K words and a detailed outline I produced as a result of my 2014 NaNo sprints became invaluable as they set the mood for this book and its ragtag group of characters. As the laws of serendipity had it, I finished OASIS just in time for it to be pitched to my now-editor while she was still considering WHAT THE WOODS KEEP. My agent sold both books in 2016, to be published in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
You began WTWK in 2011 and OASIS in 2014. How many drafts do you think OASIS or WHAT THE WOODS KEEP went through before querying?
I’m such a messy record-keeper! I have the weirdest archiving system that even I don’t fully understand (and I invented it!). Plus I backup everything everywhere, creating a new file pretty much for each revision, no matter how small. I actually tried to go through my folders just now and count how many revision files I had for each of the books, but I lost count at about 30 for WHAT THE WOODS KEEP and at 50 for OASIS.
Having said that, in terms of major self-directed revisions for WHAT THE WOODS KEEP that I’ve undertaken before getting my agent, it’d have to be . . . one. The truth is, after I’ve revised this book based on some extremely useful feedback from my test readers… still I wasn’t getting anywhere with agents. It didn’t take me long to realize I had to do something huge with this book so make it stand out, so I completely re-configured its supernatural aspect, added lots of cool physics stuff as well as my own version of the X-Files feel to it, and voilà – it worked!
What is WHAT THE WOODS KEEP about?
Without spoiling anything, it is a book about a girl—Hayden—whose world is turned upside down after she inherits her late mother’s estate in the woods of Colorado, and all the eerie things that come with it. It is a book about an identity crisis—about what happens when everything you thought was true is crumbling down, forcing you to deal with the hostile reality. My debut is also my ode to all things Young Adult and urban fantasy (WHAT THE WOODS KEEP is cross-genre with the elements of mystery, science fiction and dark fantasy). I wanted to interpret the familiar YA fantasy tropes: a girl coming into her own while dealing with her parents’ legacy, the nature-vs-nurture debate, and, of course, The Forest as a symbol for the unknown and terrifying. Last, but not least, this book deals with topics that are very close to my heart: unbreakable female friendships, complicated inter-generational relationships, and different ways people perceive the world and how those perceptions can clash, leading to conflicts.
What inspired you to set your other novel, OASIS, in Dubai?
What a cool question! Thanks for asking it.
I’m an archaeology geek, and have been following the progress of a number of active excavation sites around Dubai for years. I’m also obsessed with travel, and sometimes I fall in love with a place to the point it enters my bloodstream and stays there, enticing me to come back again and again. For me, Dubai is one of those places. As it’s a hub for many Australian international flights, I always look forward to getting there and resting for a few days before hopping on a plane again. I enjoy my visits to Souk Al Bahar, and love the experience of seeing the expanse of the city and what lies beyond from the top of Burj Khalifa. At some point, the stars must’ve aligned, and all these aspects of my life came together, inspiring me to write OASIS. If my debut is my way of saying “I love YA/urban fantasy”, OASIS is my tribute to the adventure stories (but with a psychological horror twist!).
I’m a great admirer of both urban fantasy and horror! I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with both.
Thank you! And I can’t wait for you—and the world—to read my books and judge for yourself!
How do you think living in different parts of the world has effected your writing?
Being an expat has fundamentally altered my idea of “home”.
Before I left my country of birth, whenever I’d hear the expression “home is a state of mind”, I’d understand it on a logical level, but not emotionally. Now that I’ve been separated from my hometown and my parents and many of my close friends by a great distance since 2005, “home” for me is, first and foremost, an emotional state of mind. It is crucial to one’s physical and mental wellbeing to belong somewhere. In both WHAT THE WOODS KEEP and OASIS I endeavored to capture that universal human need for belonging, while exploring the role of the physical place as well as emotions in capturing that elusive feeling of “home” and its many dimensions.
What part about writing most energizes you? What most exhausts you?
Hearing that someone loved something I’ve written is always energizing!
At the moment, aside from my agent and editors, only three of my friends have read an early version of WHAT THE WOODS KEEP. I remember freaking out over the silence that followed after I shared the book with them and then breaking into a celebratory dance (I’m a super-awkward but happy dancer) when I got a text from one of them informing me she just missed her bus stop because she was so much into my book. That was such an amazing moment for me.
That’s quite the feat! Did they tell you which scene caused it?
I was one of the big revels in the second half of the book—to say more would be a huge spoiler! But I can probably tell you this: one of my test readers was super into the house-in-the-woods vibe of the book while another was digging the romance. I’ll stop talking now!
In terms of the writing process itself, I totally live for the beginnings of new projects. It’s all about that preternatural excitement when I get my first glimpse of an idea and sit down to write. And then there’s also that moment in the writing process when things just “click” and everything starts to fall into place—oh, the overwhelming clarity that comes with it! As for the exhausting part… My aim with each new book I write is to make it uniquely its own, in its voice, style, concept; so I panic whenever I catch myself imitating myself, in terms of the narrative structure or character development or something else of the sort. That process of figuring out what each new book is going to be can be relentless in terms of the amount of mental energy it consumes—but so worth it in the end.
What process do you use to set each book apart from the last? Do you try to cultivate new voices or try new structures or techniques?
It’s a bit of everything: voice, structure/technique, as well as the general feel of the story and the key concepts at its heart. Both WHAT THE WOODS KEEP and OASIS are told in the first person POV, but the narrators and the mysteries at the core of these two books couldn’t be more different. In my third book (a secret project at this stage), I’ve tried something completely new with the narrator’s voice (new for me, that is)—it was a bit discombobulating to write but I think—I hope!—it worked.
What part of you do you feel leaked into your books?
There’s actually a lot of me in both WHAT THE WOODS KEEP and OASIS. The latter is fueled by my yearning for adventure (Indiana Jones and Lara Croft movies were a steady part of my diet when growing up), while the former centers on the unbreakable friendship between two girls who have found each other and wouldn’t let go, no matter what. To be honest, what Hayden and Del have in WHAT THE WOODS KEEP is the kind of friendship I was missing when growing up and the kind of friendships I treasure now. I’m cautious when making new friends, but once I befriend someone, I’m all in.
I’m convinced that if I ever find you at a convention I’m going to scream, “Katya” and run for you. Just a warning.
My heart! And I will be running for you as fast! (I can be a bit loud, too, but I promise I’ll aim my excited screams away from your ears, not to deafen you upon contact!)
Does your family support your writing and the subject matter?
My husband has pre-ordered WHAT THE WOODS KEEP the moment it was available for pre-order! His support for me and my writing is boundless. My parents are supportive of me in general—and I’m so lucky to have that unconditional love thing, even when we disagree on things (we are opinionated people!). Having said that, when I told them I was going to publish a Young Adult book, their first reaction was pure shock. It’s partly my fault: I can be secretive and superstitious about the book stuff, so this news must’ve really snuck up on them.
Did they initially view Young Adult as a lesser genre?
Nope! This was never my experience, at least not with my family. I grew up in a house filled with books of all kinds; and my parents and grandparents always encouraged reading across genres, cultures, formats. As a kid/teen I could be reading Mikhail Bulgakov in the morning with my breakfast tea before school and then switching to Tove Jansson before going to sleep. I was never censured nor ridiculed for my reading choices. So this strange prejudice toward Young Adult books I come across sometimes is a total (unpleasant) surprise: like that time when a friendly colleague asked me why I wouldn’t write “real” books instead. I know this comment wasn’t intended in a malicious way, but I think my changing facial expression said it all. It totally befuddles me when people think of YA as some kind lesser kind of literature—some of the best books ever written and adored by millions of readers are YA! Why wouldn’t I write for teens? They’re amazing—just look at the great things young people are achieving today!
What was the publication process like for you?
It took me a while to get there, but mostly because, as per my point earlier, I’m a bit of a late-bloomer when it comes to writing fiction. I actually blogged on this very topic recently, calculating that it took me about 4 years of self-directed revisions to arrive at the version of WHAT THE WOODS KEEP that I felt was good enough to query, another year to find an agent, and then six months of being on submission before receiving my offer. After signing the contracts with my publisher, the editorial process has been a bliss. My editors really get me and my books, so I couldn’t be happier. I guess, the speed of things in the traditional publishing industry has been a revelation for me: things can move agonizing slowly, and then lightning fast. Many industry professionals told me about this, including my agent, but I had to experience it all on my own skin to really understand what they meant. This is not a bad or a good thing—it’s just how things are.
Best money ever spent as a writer?
Going to science talks!
Hayden, the protagonist of WHAT THE WOODS KEEP is a science-minded narrator who draws on physics to understand and explain the world around her, so it was super-important for me to get the science of things right. Hence, whenever we have a physicist giving a talk in my part of the woods, I can be found queuing up for the tickets. In the past two years I was lucky to see not one, not two… but five (!) amazing scientists present live on stage. A particular highlight for me was attending Professor Lisa Randall’s talk that was a part of her book tour for DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS. Let me spare you my gushing fangirling and just say: Lisa Randall is THE PHYSICS QUEEN.
I love your site bio. How do you think your PhD in Anthropology effected your books?
Thank you! My anthropological background definitely influences how my brain thinks, especially in my approach to conducting research and weaving it into the story. I’m genuinely curious about how things work, and can lose hours, if not days, just reading up on a topic, no matter how obscure. At the same time, anthropology has taught me to gather as much information as possible before making definitive statements, which can mean sometimes I over-think things!
Would you consider yourself a Gardener, planting plot seeds then running with them, or an Architect, carefully setting every action and twist, when plotting?
I’m more of a Gardener in the sense that I have a general idea of what the book’s key themes would be, but not the details of how I’ll get it all done. Though, it’s different with each book. WHAT THE WOODS KEEP was a bit of a struggle for me because while its plot and the narrator’s voice came to me relatively easily. It was the structure of the book and its supernatural concept that I had to work on a lot to get it right. At the same time, OASIS came into existence in two big chunks—one half of it was written during a NaNoWriMo and then the rest when my first book was on submission. Sometimes, I find that the idea of a book changes as I get deeper into the writing process—and when I get that lightbulb moment, I’d like to go explore!
If you could tell your teen self one thing, what would it be?
I would just reassure my teen self that it does, in fact, get better. Oh, and I would also advise her to get started on this whole writing thing earlier—though I doubt she’d listen to me.
No one listened to anyone during that rebellious Know-it-All phase, but you wouldn’t even listen to your future self? To be fair, she’d probably question the science behind your time travel and multiple timelines.
Yep, the teen-me would totally question the science behind time travel that brought me to her doorstep! And then she’d freak out over the time travelling paradox and throw a ninja star at me or something (the teen-me was heavily into the martial arts and owned a number of showcase weaponry that I’d be too scared to touch now!)
Your favorite, under appreciated novel?
You got me really thinking with this one! I mean, there are so many books I absolutely adore, but it’s not like they’re forgotten gems—other people have adored them too… But after much contemplation, my answer is: PLACES NO ONE KNOWS by Brenna Yovanoff. That book… It was a revelation to me. I don’t think I truly knew what a “book hangover” was before I read this book. I remember how after I finished reading PLACES, I went to Goodreads to share my love and was very surprised that not everyone felt the way I did (shocking, right?). I think sometimes you’re just in the right place to love certain books, and to me PLACES just hit the spot.
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