TOKYO Cynthia Hand was busy with life, working and raising a child, and hadn't had any desire to write for quite some time when she began to hear a voice in her head, speaking lines.
It turned out to be Clara, the heroine of her debut novel, "Unearthly," which Hand said "felt like a gift" the entire time she was writing the book, planned as the start of a trilogy.
The latest in a number of paranormal books featuring angels, Unearthly centers on the teenage Clara, who is one-quarter angel and has just received visions of her "purpose," which is a mission each part-angel has to complete in their lifetime.
Set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the book is a lush evocation of the mountain landscape -- a landscape that turns dangerous with a summer forest fire that is at the heart of Clara's destiny.
Hand spoke with Reuters about her book, angels and the genre of young adult literature.
Q: You said you started to hear Clara's voice?
A: "It's funny, because hearing voices is never a good thing, but with writers it sometimes comes to you that way, that you start to hear lines. I started to get these lines about the fire. Some of these ended up in the prologue to the book when she talks about seeing this boy, and there being a fire.
Then I hit pretty early on that she thinks this is her destiny, but what would happen if, when she gets to that moment, it's different from what she thinks. She has to make that choice between what she thinks she's supposed to do and what she really thinks is the right thing to do. I knew that choice was going to have to get made, I wasn't exactly sure how she was going to go about it."
Q: We've had so many vampire and other paranormals in books, but now it's angels. Why do you think that might be?
A: "I think in some way there could be a backlash from vampires, like people not wanting it to be quite so dark, but actually a lot of the angel books out there are very dark. I think it can go to a sort of dark, apocalyptic place. There's a certain beauty to angel mythology - the flight, the wings, the use of light - that are unique among the paranormal situations.
But I think the reason that the paranormal genre has gotten so big (in young adult books) is that it mirrors the teenage situation, where you feel like you're becoming something different and something special. For a long time, there was something dark about that time, so the vampire thing and the werewolf thing takes off of that - this sort of change. Maybe the angels have a little bit different twist on that since it's not that dark a place, you don't have to embrace the darkness of becoming something dark. But implicit in the angel mythology there's a lot of light and dark contrast.
One of the things that's always sort of bothered me about some angel books is that it feels as if they're writing about vampires with wings. It feels like the same thing, the same elements, but you've just changed the signals. So instead of having fangs and drinking blood you have wings and can fly. I really wanted to get away from that. I also did not want to write about the Apocalypse, I didn't want to write about a terrible battle between good and evil. I wanted to write about one girl and her own, personal battle."
Q: So many young adult books are set in high schools. When I was that age, the last thing I wanted to read about was school.
A: "I think high school is sort of a double-edged sword. It's hard to get away from that if you're writing about teenagers because teenagers go to school. It's a place they're familiar with and you can use that familiarity in ways to help you out, but you do also have to be conscious of the drawbacks of that and how it can be a place that's so familiar it doesn't really have any sparkle for them.
I think that does create a lot of cliches, there are a lot of 'difficult cafeteria scenes,' but the cafeteria's kind of like the jungle. You've got all of that going on."
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A: "My soapbox for advice is always: to study. I think of writing as being like an art, like painting. Certainly you have to look at other people's paintings, that's a big part of it, and you have to practice, but you also need some techniques. You can do that yourself, you can study technique through books and take little classes and get a mentor and through groups, but you're going to need technique.
Keep at it, persevere. Do your research - not only the genre you write but the market. My husband, who's also a writer, likes to say that publishing a book is like getting on (U.S. reality TV contest show) "American Idol" - you have to pick a song that showcases your talent in the best possible way, but also you have to pick a song that's relevant to the time. And that takes research."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)