Where did you get the idea for the Feud series?
One night, at the age of 16, I had terrible insomnia and I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about the different personalities of my siblings and myself and how we will all follow different paths. That gave me the idea to create three different families loosely based around our differing personalities. I decided it would be fun to take these families and place them in a fantasy world where the obstacles we all face could be magnified to a whole new level. I wrote out the plot for the three books that night.
How long did it take you to write The Sparks?
The summer after my sophomore year in high school, my parents came to us and said they were taking away the TV, Internet and our cell phones. They called it Summer Unplugged. I threatened to call child protective services but they aptly pointed out that I no longer had a phone. That summer I was so bored that I started reading and writing a lot. I finished The Sparks that summer. Editing took another year, but now I try and write a book every summer.
Tell us about the awards that you have won?
I’ve been so fortunate. The books have won national and international awards for Best YA Fiction and Fantasy from: Florida Authors and Publishers Association, Florida Book Festival, New England Book Festival, Midwest Book Festival, Southern California Book Festival, and the International London Book Festival. I also won an International Moonbeam award and an Indie Fab award for Best Young Author.
What drew you to write YA Fantasy?
I wanted to write something that I would want to read and that would appeal to other kids my age. I wanted to appeal to boys who have lost interest in reading and I also created strong female characters that girls will love.
You took a gap year after high school so that you could visit middle and high schools around the country. Why?
When I first published my book, I was asked to speak to three classes of 8th graders that were struggling readers, many of whom were at risk of dropping out of school. Each student received a copy of the book. After the visit, I started getting emails and calls from teachers and parents telling me that the event had been transformational. The students had devoured the book; many had never read a book before. Now they were reading and a few students had started a book club and one was even writing his own book. I realized I had the opportunity to make a difference. So I founded my charity, Sparking Literacy, and I spent the next year visiting middle and high schools to inspire teens to read, write and follow their dreams.
Tell us about Sparking Literacy?
Sparking Literacy is a 501(c) 3 non-profit that fundraises so that every child at our events can receive a free book. We also do assemblies and author events for free for schools or organizations that have significant at risk or underprivileged students. For $10/child we can provide an event and a book. Only 1 in 300 underprivileged kids owns a book of their own. So a book can truly change a life. We’ve got the letters to prove it. We are a volunteer organization so that 100% of donations go to programs and books for kids. You can find out more at www.sparkingliteracy.org.
When did you first start writing?
Like a lot of kids, I was bullied in middle school. I doubt you will ever find a kid that says, “I rocked 7th grade! That was the best time in my life.” I was short and fat and had a bowl haircut with braces. This was not a great time in my life. But I discovered I could come home and pick up a pen and create a whole fantasy world that I could control, when the rest of my life felt out of control. I learned that I loved to create characters because their potential is limitless.
What are your other interests besides writing?
I love stand up comedy because like writing, it requires an ability to look at the world in a unique way and find the humor in that. I’m currently a student at the University of Michigan in the acting program. I’m also part of an improv group called Midnight Book Club that performs every month on campus. I love photography and am currently working on a coffee table book of cool photographs.
When do you find the time to write?
If you love something, you find the time. I write during any hour that I can get free. I try and write 1,000 words a day. It’s gotten tougher to keep up in college but I try to make time to write during the weekends and breaks—I get the most writing done in the summer.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I’ve usually got a notebook or computer on hand so any time I feel even the slightest bit inspired I can write. I am a big fan of writing in bookstores—it’s an interesting feeling to be surrounded by the works of people who have achieved what you are trying to accomplish.
What is your family like?
My family is nothing like the families in the book, I better clarify that up front. My parents are incredibly supportive and have allowed me to follow my dreams. I have two siblings: a brother and a sister. They are great; we are very close. I am the youngest. My brother and I used to fight a lot and that dynamic inspired my idea for the three feuding families in the books. We don’t fight anymore, as we’ve outgrown that phase, but it gave me plenty to write about.
What were you like as a child?
I lived in a fantasy world all the time—I was always inventing stories and reenacting them. I lived in costumes. I had a cat suit that I particularly loved. I wore that cat suit until the legs only came to my knees. It’s weird…for some reason when you dress like a cat all the time you don’t make a ton of friends. But anyway, that’s why my parents signed me up for acting classes. I started taking acting classes at the age of six. I loved it from the start.
I understand you still have the acting bug. What are you doing now?
I am currently studying acting at the University of Michigan so I am currently focusing on campus productions. I was the lead in a short film that was just selected as a finalist at the New Filmmakers Film Festival in New York. So that’s cool.
What’s your favorite part of acting? Favorite thing about improv?
My favorite part of acting is initially stepping into the shoes of a character and just beginning to break them in: finding out what they want, how they talk, how they move, etc. My favorite part of improv is when you are easing into a scene and the really good lines just start flowing, especially when you’re working with a talented partner.
Were you a big reader as a kid?
In 5th grade, I started at a new elementary school when I moved to Naples, FL. They had a reading contest for whoever read the most books. I ended up reading like 200 books, which was a bit of overkill as the next highest kid read about 75 books, but apparently I’m more competitive than I realized. I just really wanted to beat this girl in my class who told me she was a better reader.
Were you drawn to a certain genre as a kid?
When I was younger, I really disliked reading. My mom would read me the books that my brother liked and I just never got into them. One day she was at the bookstore picking out books for us, and she mentioned to the owner that I didn’t seem interested in reading and he asked her about my personality and interests. He recommended that she try some fantasy books for me. She brought home a few of those books and from then on, all I did was read and write. I love young adult fantasy.
Were there certain authors that you really liked?
I’ve always loved Rick Riordan, and every kid in my generation loves JK Rowling. My mom started guarding the Harry Potter books and reading them aloud to us, because otherwise I would read the whole book in a night and then tell my siblings what happened. We would barely leave the house until we had finished each book. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series has also been phenomenal.
Do you work with an outline or do you just write? Do you ever get stuck?
Normally, I have a basic idea of where the story is going when I start writing a chapter. But there have been times when I am writing the chapter that I suddenly decide to take it in a new direction. Sometimes I struggle with writing a chapter or a character in the book, so to overcome that I’ll take a break and work on another project.
Do you have a favorite character in The Sparks?
It alternates a lot. In general, I’ve always been a fan of characters that are only around for one book and that are very big and eccentric. I really like Michael Taurlum because he’s kind of the epitome of what’s wrong with the Taurlum family and he’s just such a child. So it was really interesting to write about him and make him such an aggressive, haughty character.
If your book was made into a movie, which actors would be cast as the main characters?
I’ll try my best at this one. (Disclaimer: this would be one expensive movie . . . )
- Neil: Brenton Thwaites (or Kyle Prue, if Brenton Thwaites is not available)
- Saewulf: Michael Fassbender
- Darius: Luke Bracey
- Lilly: Alexandra Daddario or Emma Watson
- Rhys: Dane DeHann
- Jennifer and Victoria: Teresa Palmer
- Bianca: Leven Rambin
- Michael: Chris Hemsworth
- Carlin: Mark Strong
- The Emperor: Benedict Cumberbatch
- Jonathan: Rico Rodriguez
- Sir Vapros: Mads Mikkelsen
- Quintus: Jonah Hill (Cameo Role)
What was your favorite part or chapter to write in The Sparks?
I really, really enjoyed writing the fight between Darius and Jennifer. It’s interesting when you write characters separately, then give them a chance to interact together. Jennifer is one of my favorite characters. Neil describes her as the model assassin so it was really fun to write her in that type of setting.
How did you come up with the title?
The entire book is based on a family feud so that was the reason for the series name, Feud. But the individual titles are The Sparks, The Flames and The Ashes; these are symbolic of the Vapros family motto which is “Victory Lies Within the Ashes.” The Vapros can turn a person to ash when they kill them. For them that is a macabre way of saying, “You have to bust a couple of heads to get what you want.” So the titles reveal that there is going to be a lot of bloodshed and a climax to this storyline, which we are building up to in the series.
How did you pick the names of the families?
I based the family names on Latin root words: Taurlum is based on the Latin word for bull, Celerius is the Latin word for swift and Vapros is smoke.
How did you get the idea for the three families?
In the first book, there are three main families and since I have a brother and a sister, I loosely based these families around the three of us—their mannerisms, their traits, resulting in a black-and-white version of us blended with a more honorable, respectable side and a more aggressive, audacious side. So the Taurlum are based off my brother, the Celerius off my sister and the Vapros off me, a little bit.
What can you tell us about the challenges of getting a book published?
It is really difficult to get published as a first time author in the current environment. I went to a writing conference and signed up for “speed dating” with agents. That is how I got my agent. So I recommend any opportunity to meet face-to-face so you have a chance to sell yourself. Even with a great agent the publishing process is ridiculously slow. For The Sparks I decided to go with a small, independent publisher so that I could get it out before college applications. I don’t recommend young people jump into self-publishing unless they are willing to pay for professional editing and other services. There is a certain credibility that comes with being vetted and published so I would try that first.
Do you have advice for other high school students wanting to write a book?
Yes, write everyday. I started writing 500 words/day in middle school. Now I try and write 1,000 words/day. I think this discipline is important to developing your writing skills. It’s difficult when you a balancing a lot of different activities and homework, but writing should be a release from all that stress. Unplug for a bit and you might be surprised at the extra time that you have to write. Also read lots of different types of materials. Read different genres and authors. It will help you develop your own voice.
Tell us about the audiobook of The Sparks?
Teachers have been begging for the audio book because it is a great tool for struggling readers. I was dragging my feet as I was planning to do the narration myself. Then my team recommended that we get auditions for the narrator. The auditions were fantastic. We have hired a great narrator, Jon Eric Preston, that I think readers are going to love. He reads in an English accent as the book takes place in a pseudo Victorian era and that is how I picture it in my head. But his voices are fantastic. I think fans of the series are going to love hearing the characters come to life.
Can you tell us a bit about the second book, The Flames?
The second book in the series focuses on the remaining family members (spoiler alert!) and their friends, as they begin to kindle the revolution. It’s a lot about personal growth for the characters, like Neil, Lilly and Darius. It is the book where we start to reach that giant conflict that the characters have been stepping toward in the storyline.
One of the big themes of the second book is about what happens when a person experiences a complete absence of hope. Things will always get better. My best friend from childhood committed suicide and I really want other teens to understand that whatever seems so overwhelming in your life today, won’t be what’s important to you down the road. When my characters experience this loss of hope that is when they gain their advanced powers. Something good can come out of something that in the moment seems so terrible.
Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Thank you for sharing this journey with me. The series only gets better and more intense from here and I can’t wait to see what you guys think of it all.
Tell us where we can find your book and more information about you.