Thursday, August 23, 2012

Interview With Antony John

by Jillian and Katya

Hello everyone! Today on the Lantern, we have the pleasure of talking to YA author Antony John, author of Busted: Confessions of an Accidental Player, Thou Shalt Not Road Trip, Elemental and today, we'll be talking to him about his fabulous sophomore novel, Five Flavors of Dumb.

Antony, welcome!

Five Flavors of Dumb is the story of a girl, Piper, who unwillingly becomes the manager of an up-and-coming band. She is determined to make it work, despite the fact that she’s been hearing impaired all her life. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to this idea?

My background is in music, and I’d always wanted to write a YA novel about a rock band. But there are rather a lot of those, so I knew I needed a new perspective—something to make readers think differently about music and, perhaps, themselves too. Anyway, one evening I was chatting to my wife and she basically said: “Wouldn’t it be cool for you to write about music from the perspective of a deaf person?” In that moment, the character of Piper Vaughan came to me, and the novel really just took off. Seriously, I stayed up till 2AM and planned large chunks of the book right there and then.
You did a great job at it, too: novels with a focus on music are nothing new, but your story has a heart all its own that makes it feel like something fresh and unique. What in your opinion sets Five Flavors of Dumb apart from other music-focused novels?

I can't say that this sets the novel apart, but I will admit that I allowed myself to feel music as viscerally as Piper does in the novel. She's coming to rock music as something new and exciting, and I tried to recreate that experience for myself. It wasn't difficult, either. I knew a fair amount of Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix's music, but I'd never bothered to read much about them, and doing so opened my eyes to their life experiences, and the way that music afforded them a way out of bad situations. To a point, the same is true for Piper: music is a last resort, but also a way to unshackle herself from a bad situation and, ultimately, to find out who she really is. Once I got my head around that, writing the book became not only easier, but also fresh and exciting.

One of the most engaging elements of your novel is how the characters interact with each other. Did you have a favorite relationship to write about?

Definitely . . . well, two, actually. Piper's relationship with her younger brother Finn felt particularly meaningful to me, as it is wrought with the misunderstandings that siblings either unwittingly or knowingly perpetuate, while also reminding us that that bond can be something truly beautiful. The other relationship that felt particularly satisfying was Piper and Kallie. I loved the idea of setting them up as polar opposites in everything from appearance to social groups, and then breaking down the divide until we appreciate the things that unite them. I'm particularly proud of this relationship.

In various media, characters with impairments or disabilities often suffer character arcs that merely revolve around those aspects of their lives. Your heroine Piper, however, is much more a person first and a character with a hearing impairment second. As easy as the execution of her character seemed in the novel, did you ever feel worry that you might somehow be unconsciously offensive with her character?

Uh, yes. I mean, seriously, YES. I spent many sleepless nights mulling over the fact that I might have gotten something wrong. What if deaf teens felt misrepresented? What if just one said, “That’s not how it really is”? I knew I’d feel like I’d let them down. Realistically, no more than a handful of books featuring deaf narrators will be released each year. If mine had failed to give deaf teens a narrator they could root for, and failed to shed light on deafness for hearing teens, then it would have been worse than a flawed novel. It would have been a wasted opportunity. The first is inadvisable; the second, inexcusable. So I did a ton of research, spoke to everyone from deaf teens and adults, to ASL instructors, to audiologists, and admissions officers for Gallaudet University. Research doesn't guarantee that you'll get everything right, but it certainly reduces the likelihood of getting it badly wrong!

Five Flavors of Dumb manages to retain a "feel-good" quality without treading into the territory of cheesiness or sappiness. How did you manage to strike such a balance?

I'm glad you think so. To be honest, I felt sure that as long as music (in all its angsty glory) remained at the heart of the novel, then it would never descend into outright cheese. After all, who ever referred to Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix as cheesy?

Every author's path of writing and becoming published is different. How did your path begin, and what led you to writing YA novels?

I became a full-time stay-at-home dad in 2005 and while I loved it, I also realized I needed a creative outlet. Previously, I'd been a composer, but this time, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I've always loved YA novels, and writing for teens came fairly easily. That being said, my first novel was a stinker. The second, called Busted, was better, and landed me an agent and publisher. 

I'm often asked if I'd consider writing for another audience. The simple answer is no. I'm still very connected to my teen self, and pretty much every idea I come up with is geared toward a YA audience. Not only that, but writing YA is incredibly gratifying. There's an opportunity to explore almost any subject and write in almost any style—which is very liberating for a writer—while at the same time keeping the focus on telling a story (something that seems to be forgotten in adult literature).

What is the best response you have gotten from a reader?

I'll probably never have as much fan mail as I've had for Five Flavors of Dumb, and I've kept a whole lot of it. Some of the most touching messages have been from deaf teens who understand firsthand that desire to hide or keep a low profile, and who appreciate Piper's determination to overcome others' preconceptions about who she is. Even though authors are more accessible today than ever before, I never anticipated how many people would write to me (I respond to every one, by the way), and I'm enormously grateful to those who have assured me Piper struck a chord with them. 

What is the best piece of writing advice you've ever received or come across?

I vividly remember an acknowledgment in a Jonathan Safran Foer novel in which he thanked someone for always reminding him to "feel more." I think that's tremendously good advice. As long as we truly empathize with our characters, we're unlikely to simplify or marginalize their feelings. Interesting, three-dimensional characters are at the heart of good YA, and readers won't connect with a character that doesn't ring true. 

What are three contemporary YA books that you believe everyone should read?

Oh, this is so hard. I could list a hundred books . . . maybe more! But here goes:

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff. This completely blew me away when I read it. I believe that the best dystopian novels are like circus-mirror reflections of our own world. Written in the shadow of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, this book really shook me up with its depiction of a seemingly random war that may ultimately prove to be apocalyptic.

How to Save a Life, by Sara Zarr. That thing I mentioned earlier about "feel more"? Well, Sara Zarr is as good as it gets in this category. Here she writes from the perspective of two contrasting girls, maintaining two distinct voices while allowing both characters to grow and develop. Something else I really admire: the changes are subtle shifts, not sudden U-turns. Everything feels simultaneously understated yet also vital.

Feed, by M. T. Anderson. I admit it—I think this book is genius. I’ve heard many readers complain about the tiresome use of vernacular, but then, that’s the point. Anderson is holding up a mirror to the world, in all its thoughtlessness and repetitiveness.

Okay, last question: Your latest novel, Thou Shalt Not Road Trip, came out in April, and your next, Elemental, will be released this fall. Can you share with us what else lurks ahead in your writing future?
Elemental is a trilogy, so that has me pretty busy for the next couple years. Thankfully, I really like the first book in the series (I think it's some of my best writing) so it's an exciting venture for me. That being said, my undiagnosed ADHD demands that I continually look forward to future projects, and all I can say for now is that there will be more contemporary YAs in the future, as well as more fantasy novels. Hopefully lots of both!

Antony, thank you so much for talking to us today.

Everyone, you can contact Antony though Facebook, at:, or you can visit his website at

Five Flavors of Dumb is available on Amazon, both in the US and the UK.

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