Interview with J. Leigh Bralick

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I was a military brat, so I grew up all over the country. Not only did I get to live a lot of places, but we were constantly taking road trips either to move from one base to another, or to visit relatives in other states. That was honestly one of the biggest influences on my writing and my love for world-creation. All those places I saw, all those different small town/big town, east coast/west coast, north/south, midwest/southwest cultures made a huge impression on me, not to mention the physical beauty of all the places we visited. I've always been deeply drawn to nature and I can't imagine what my life (or writing!) would be like without those experiences.
When did you first start writing?
I think every writer wants to claim "I've been writing since I was in utero," even if they got the itch to write in a college creative writing class. I didn't start writing in utero. Much too cramped. But, I know I always loved storytelling and used to draw picture books before I could write. I distinctly remember my first attempt at a story came when I was six. It was a book about a puppy. It was epic. It was heart-wrenching. It didn't get past chapter two, but that's not my fault -- the computer ate it. Well, that devastating set-back made me give up the whole enterprise in despair, but when I was ten I decided my defeat had lasted long enough and I took up the pen once more. But it was really my junior high English teacher, Mrs. Russell-Rader, who inspired me to want to _be_ a writer.
Describe your desk
Well, I have a huge desk. I used to have one of those nice little desks with the hutch on top, but it didn't have nearly enough elbow room. So I got a big flat desk that houses my two (sometimes three) computers, whatever books I'm using for reference (or classes), sketch pads and pencils, note cards, notebooks, and usually an assortment of coffee cups which I'm convinced will be useful as some kind of scientific experiment.... Seriously, though, I love my desk.
What's the story behind your latest book?
I actually got the initial inspiration for The Madness Project from a guy. I know, I know. I never got to know him very well, but he was mysterious and would disappear for months at a time and was always cagey about what he did. I knew he had some kind of law enforcement job. So I got the notion maybe he worked as an undercover cop, and I just started wondering what that experience would be like. I read through some memoir-type accounts of ex-undercover cops, and was just intrigued by the whole idea of living with people you know you are going to betray, but trying to befriend them and build relationships with them all the same. It's terrible. It's heart-rending. It's utterly fascinating. That's how Tarik was born. It started off as a psychological study, and I think at its heart the novel will always be a psychological study: what would that experience do to a kid who was already uncertain, who was desperately seeking his identity and his place in the world?
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
I love world-creation and everything that goes into that -- inventing landscapes and cultures, myths and languages, histories and politics -- but I think the greatest joy comes in meeting these fascinating characters and being able to witness their stories. You'll hear a lot of writers talking about how their characters are stubbornly independent and do what they want to do. That's a hard thing for non-writers to grasp, but it's really true. Sometimes writers have to really take control and make sure their characters don't derail the story, but most of the time, it feels like I'm just a witness to their lives. And I love that. I love the ways they surprise me, the ways minor characters will step up and do something delightfully unexpected, the way relationships form where you didn't even expect. It's mesmerizing.
What do your fans mean to you?
It's hard to describe. I write because I have to write, but I publish what I write because of them. It's a surreal and humbling thing to hear from readers who are passionate about your works. I still feel a little giddy every time I get a good rating or review on a book, or get some other kind of feedback from readers. It makes me so happy to think that I've somehow been able to provide something enjoyable to them.

I think the thing that makes me happiest is when I hear that readers have fallen in love with one of the characters. It's funny, I think of writing success as having lots of people get to know my characters. I love those guys so much, and I want everyone to fall in love with them too. It's like when you meet a really awesome person, and you want to introduce him to your friends because you just _know_ that everyone will think he's awesome too. It's kind of like that. And when fans tell me they love Yatol and Merelin, or Tarik and Hayli, it's the best feeling ever.
What are you working on next?
Right now, I'm working on Book 2 of the Madness Method. Or, I'm in the planning stages, anyway. I plan to kick it off officially with NaNoWriMo. I also have a YA dystopic novel that I've been toying with for a while, so I'd like to get that written.
Who are your favorite authors?
My favorite author of all time is Dostoevsky. That man is a sheer, mad genius when it comes to understanding the human psyche...especially in all its...aberrations. If I could have 1/10th of his insight, I would die a happy girl. For modern writers, I'm a huge fan of David Farland (who's also just an amazing mentor and teacher), Brandon Sanderson, Ursula LeGuin, and of course, one of my first (and always one of my greatest) inspirations, J.R.R. Tolkien.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I've got a normal full-time job too, and I'm also taking classes so that I can end up in either a nursing program or a research degree program in immunology or cancer research. We'll see. Besides that, I sing in a couple of choirs and train in Krav Maga, read, do odd projects, and spend time with my critters. I keep pretty busy, but I think I got that from, well, both my parents, actually. I can't stand being idle. There's too much life to live.
What is your writing process?
Usually I'll start with just an idea -- it can be a plot idea, a theme idea, or a character idea -- and I'll spend a bit of time thinking about the story that it carries, the cast of characters, the world. I'm not huge into outlining, but I'll try to at least come up with a sketch of the major character arcs and plot points. And then I just dive in. I keep notes on new characters or places as they appear, and I'm always scribbling down questions I come up with about the plot, motives, relationships, etc. I always spend a bit of time editing the last section I wrote before diving into my next writing session. That helps keep everything fresh in my mind, and also cuts down on the amount of final editing I have to do. When I get near the end, I'll start rereading the whole novel, so I can make sure I've remembered all the threads and questions that need tying up in the ending. I'm also obsessive about reading my works out loud -- to another living soul if I can find one willing to humor me.
Are there any particular themes you like to develop in your stories?
One of my professors -- she was just a genius and utterly inspiring -- once mentioned in a class that writers often have a particular question, or a particular kind of character, that they are trying to come to terms with, explain, describe, or maybe just explore. I'd never thought about it that way, but it's really true. I can say with some confidence that pretty much all of the stories I've written have revolved around the question of identity -- discovering one's own identity and place in the world. Usually this happens by taking normal characters and throwing them into a bizarre new world (like in the Lost Road Chronicles), or taking an extraordinary character and situating them firmly in a very normal world (like The Madness Project and a few of my other WIPs). This may be why I write mainly YA, because isn't this a question that most teens are dealing with? Who am I, and where do I fit in the world?

Speaking of writing YA novels, I think that one thing I've always really hoped to show in my books is that love is so, so much more than just thinking someone is pretty and wanting to dive into a physical relationship with them. Sadly, I find that many YA novels give this bizarre picture of love as being immediate, irrational, and entirely physical. Love is so much more than that. It's so much deeper, so much more beautiful. And it's entirely worth waiting for.
Published 2013-10-25.
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