Growing up in San Francisco, Natalie Whipple fell in love with anime.
The novelist’s lasting passion for Japanese animation has certainly influenced her books, like the witchy “House of Ivy & Sorrow,” not to mention her love for gaming and a high school history class lesson about the Cold War. Now living in South Jordan, the BYU graduate and self-professed “card-carrying nerd” continues to channel her passions into her work, which now includes writing for a headline-making Kickstarter success story, “Torment: Tides of Numenera.” The upcoming computer role-playing game hits its $900,000 goal in six hours, according to BBC News.
Whipple, likewise, has enjoyed her own success, now the published author of five books with a sixth on the way — the sequel to her “Relax, I’m a Ninja” young adult novel. But before she sets up her table at Salt Lake Comic Con, Whipple chatted about her passions, their lasting influence and the importance of writing for a younger audience.
I understand you grew up watching anime. Which ones, and have they had any lasting influence on your work?
I discovered anime around the age of 10, when my mother found “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” in a bargain movie bin at the store. (This was before Disney brought attention to Hayao Miyazaki, before they re-dubbed the films.) She bought them, me and my siblings watched them and fell in love. I didn’t know what anime was then, all I knew was there was something different about those movies and I liked it.
A couple years later, Cartoon Network began to play a few anime, and I gobbled those up — “Sailor Moon,” “Dragonball Z,” “Gundam Wing.” I would take anything I could find, and back then (the mid ’90s) it was hard to find much. The only store that carried anime on tape was Suncoast Video, and it cost $25 a video. I found a few friends who liked anime and we’d all pitch in to buy more shows. I got to see “Evangelion,” “Utena,” “Tenchi Muyo,” “Fushigi Yuugi,” “Magic Knight Rayearth” and “Escaflowne” this way. I even watched “Pokemon” and “Yu-Gi-oh” just because I wanted to get my hands on everything I could.
These shows have definitely had a lasting influence on me. Anime in general has played a huge role in how I see stories, but it also inspired me to draw and make up my own worlds. The first stories I ever created (never published) as a teenager were heavily inspired by “Sailor Moon” and “Magic Knight Rayearth.” And even if you read my published work I’m sure you can see some anime flair in there if you know what to look for (especially in [my] I’m A Ninja series).
You’ve talked about this on your blog, but I was wondering if you could speak to the importance of writing a “younger” young adult book. Comics are largely in a similar situation, with a majority of its books aiming older, somewhat to the exclusion of a younger audience.
I think it’s really important that there is a variety of age levels considered when it comes to both books and comics. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with material that is aimed at an older audience, but it’s important to remember that media skewed to a younger audience is also vital to keep kids reading through the difficult junior high years. There is a lot available to elementary school kids, and then a lot that fits for high schoolers, but those younger teen years are still lacking in options (when kids may not be ready for an extra helping of sex and violence or they may just not want it in their reading materials).
The goal is to make lifelong readers, right? Well, if you ignore the needs of junior high schoolers—an age group that is known for taking a sharp dive on reading—then it’s harder to get them to either keep reading or get them back on track in their later teen years when they are busy high school students. Though writers may not get a lot of respect for writing younger YA (or upper MG), it’s super important, and I applaud those who do.
What interests you about the Cold War era of American history, and why did you choose that as an influence in “Transparent”?
This inspiration actually hails back to high school AP American History! The Cold War was our “decade” for the essay portion of the test that year, so we spent extra time on it, and I found it so fascinating. Growing up in the ’90s, a relatively safe time for our country (9/11 happened my senior year and changed that), it was interesting to envision this deep and very real fear Americans had following WWII and the threat nuclear war had on their everyday lives. Having studied that time period, it seemed most realistic for an “anti-radiation drug” that accidentally caused mutations to be created in that era.
I heard writing the sequel, “Blindsided,” was a unique challenge (as sequels can be). Could you talk about what it’s like to approach a sequel, how you overcame any hurdles, and if you felt the same way going into the “Ninja” sequel?
Sequels are hard because they aren’t as “exciting” to draft. When writing the first in a series, you’re discovering the world, characters, and it’s all new and exciting. In a sequel, you know the characters and a lot about the world already—you have to focus on a strong plot that carries your characters through another arc of growth and change. It has to feel similar to the first book without being the same. It has to have a strong impact, otherwise why continue the series?
“Blindsided” was particularly difficult because of the turnaround time. I didn’t know I would even be writing a sequel to “Transparent” until my UK publisher, Hot Key Books, came to me and asked if I had one in mind. They really loved the first and wanted more. So I agreed to write one, since I always had pictured more to the story. Hot Key wanted it done fast. I had nine months to draft, edit and basically finish the book. That’s not long to write a book you didn’t plan on writing!
The ninja sequel, “Trust Me, I’m a Ninja,” was a similar challenge, but a little less pressure because the I’m A Ninja series is my indie project. I didn’t have people waiting on me—I only had my own deadlines to meet. If I had to push it back, I could. I managed to get it out when I wanted, but it was tough. The final book in the series will probably take longer for me to publish because I’ve kind of burned myself out this year.
You’ve talked on your blog about “Relax, I’m a Ninja” is such a collage of your interests and history. Are there any specific influences that you’d love to dig into for a project that you haven’t yet?
Actually, there is a story I have in mind that entirely revolves around one of my nerdier interests — esports. I’m a huge fan of the “League Of Legends” pro gamer scene. I watch the North American and European pro leagues religiously, and I keep tabs on the other leagues around the world. I’ve been to Los Angeles to watch the broadcast of the games live. I have favorite teams and players and even my favorite esports casters. I will eventually write a novel that takes all of this as inspiration, though it’ll probably be a contemporary YA novel and not fantasy/sci-fi.
Both in the “Transparent” universe and “House of Ivy & Sorrow,” these magical and super-powered characters have drawbacks to their abilities, or have to pay a cost to use them. Is that a theme, “power comes with consequence,” that resonates with you and comes out in your work?
“Power comes with consequence” is certainly something that resonates with me. In “Transparent,” I really wanted to give my “superheroes” drawbacks. So often in the comic world, characters have powers without much drawback. The superheroes I was always drawn to were characters like Rogue in X-Men, who had a strong power but it came at a huge cost, too. And “House of Ivy & Sorrow’s” magic system took some inspiration from “Full Metal Alchemist” and its law of equivalent exchange. I loved that concept in FMA, so I suppose I am naturally drawn to it.
But it’s also practical as a writer to have powers come with consequences. If there is no limit on a magic or superpower system, then it opens up too much room for plot holes. If things can be solved easily with magic, but the characters don’t use it, then it makes for a weak plot. But if the magic has limitations and they can’t use except under a certain circumstance or at a specific cost, then it’s more believable. Most magic systems you see in novels will have some kind of restrictions set on it for this very reason.
On a slightly different note, the upcoming “Tides of Numenera” has a strong focus on story and character for a game, from what I’ve heard. As a prose author, what is it like writing for a video game?
It was so fun! I grew up playing RPGs, so it was one of my bright-eyed dreams to write for one someday. I still can’t believe it came true! Writing for “Torment: Tides of Numenera” was very different from novel writing, since I wasn’t in charge of the entire story like I am with my books. It was a much more collaborative process.
I worked with the team at InXile. They assigned me a specific section of the story, then I wrote up a detailed document of what things would look like, how the story was supposed to progress, what kind of combat and conversations would be taking place, and samples of how the dialogue might go. If they didn’t like what I proposed, I’d have to change it to make sure it fit the vision of the game. I wish I could have worked on it more (they were hoping to have me learn to script some of the actual dialogue in the game), but I didn’t have enough time, since it would have become a part-time job hour-wise. I’m still pretty bummed that my busy publishing schedule prevented me from doing that.
Natalie Whipple will be at Salt Lake Comic Con all three days.