Today I welcome Toronto-based writer Leah Bobet. Leah’s debut YA novel, Above (Arthur A. Levine Books), tells the story of Safe, a secret refuge beneath Toronto, and the damaged beings that make it their home. Leah stopped by to chat about her character’s mutations, Toronto’s inspiring past, and the book that still terrifies her.
Danielle: Welcome Leah! In Above, most of the characters have mutations that force them to live below ground. How did you decide what each character’s mutation should be?
Leah Bobet: A couple of ways, actually! Some of the characters in Above came directly out of what the plot needed; for example, Ariel turns into a honeybee because it’s a pretty direct metaphor: She gets upset, and suddenly she’s this other person who’s all about running—and stinging whatever gets in her way. Other characters, like Violet or Corner, have real medical conditions that I’ve read about in other places, and wanted to include because they’re the people who really do experience those funny looks and dismissals and exclusions every day. They’re people who might really need Safe, because society doesn’t always treat them all that well.
And with some characters—Jack’s lightning-scars, and his ability to short out your microwave or TV; or Atticus’s crab-claws—well, I just thought it was really cool. There is no point in writing fantasy novels if you can’t put things in just because you think they’re cool, after all!
D: You did a lot of research about Toronto when writing Above. What was your favourite part about exploring Toronto’s underground system/psychiatric history?
LB: My favourite part was finding all the amazing photo references that are out there. Toronto has a solid archives system, and there are people, like Agatha Barc at Asylum By the Lake (http://www.asylumbythelake.com/) and Michael Cook at Vanishing Point (http://www.vanishingpoint.ca), who are doing amazing research and photography now to add to that. It was like peering into another world and getting to see what happens in the ground beneath my feet, or behind doors I can’t get through on my own.
Another world that’s actually home, though: There’s something about seeing a faded photograph from a world that was dead long before you were born, and realizing that that’s your block, or somewhere you walk by on your way to concerts, that’s remarkably humbling. And kind of amazing at the same time.
D: What about writing about the paranormal attracts you?
LB: How much is possible—and because of that, how many more stories you can tell. You can say a lot of things about people when you can put it in terms of real monsters and real magic, instead of just sticking to the metaphors. And saying it with real monsters and real magic puts the wonder back into the story you’re telling in ways you can’t duplicate.
D: What is your favourite Halloween memory?
LB: When I was fifteen or so, and just over the “Oh, I’m too old and mature to go trick-or-treating,” my high school best friend (now in a geek band! Check them out: http://debsanderrol.com/) and I decided we were going out for candy. We made it to maybe the second house around the corner from her place when the first skeptical adult asked, “Aren’t you a little too old for this?” I think we started laughing at him, and couldn’t stop laughing for about six months, because here we were, having finally decided we were too old for putting on ridiculous airs about how we were too old for things, and just…well. The irony was amazing.
This was an inside joke for about the next year. It was awesome.
D: What kids/YA book scares you the most OR which book did you love to read around Halloween when you were a kid?
LB: Oh, that’s hard. Odd things tend to scare me: It’s not so much gore or ghosts, but cruelty or the totally world-shaking sorts of threats that really work me up.
Come to think of it, the YA book that scares me to the core is probably C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, the fourth Chronicles of Narnia book (an old one, but a good one!). It’s the book where Eustace and Jill are sent to rescue Prince Rilian, who’s trapped under the spell of an enchantress. When they find the enchantress, the young man who lives with her is actually really grateful to be there: He explains that every night, he has fits of insanity, where he has to be bound to a silver chair or he’ll turn into a snake and kill everyone in sight. What actually happens at night is that he remembers who he is, and begs whoever’s in sight to release him from the chair, which is what’s brainwashing him for the next day.
This was absolutely terrifying when I was younger (and actually, still is): The idea that you wouldn’t know what was real and good for you; that you’d be collaborating in your own torture somehow, is one of the most terrible and despairing things I’ve ever seen in a book, period. I don’t think I’ve read anything in a YA book that’s hit me that way before or since.
D: Thanks, Leah!
Leah Bobet is a “writer of literary science fiction and fantasy with a love for mythic prose and an obsession with the secret hearts of cities.” You can find Leah online at leahbobet.com.
You can read my review of Above here.
This post is part of the month long feature Happy Hallow’Read! Don’t forget to check out more Happy Hallow’Read posts and the spectacularly spooky giveaways! (Details here.)