By James Phelan
SURVIVOR is the second novel in my ALONE trilogy. It’s a YA thriller with a teenaged protagonist, set in a post-apocalyptic NYC. Some say it has zombies in it. Some call them vampires. I’ve termed them Chasers – they’re infected and it makes them really, really thirsty, pretty much for any liquid on offer. I guess it’s a little like THE WALKING DEAD, minus all the soap opera crap.
SURVIVOR is published this May by the good folk at Kensington. It’s published in the UK by Little Brown, and in Australia (my home) by Hachette. It’s been translated to several languages, which is pretty cool, and it seems to be doing well in Russia (who knew they’d enjoy a post-apocalyptic NYC?).
The trilogy came about in 2008. My life as a professional, full-time novelist had started three years earlier, aged 25, when I signed with Hachette to write two adult thrillers. I’d worked at a broadsheet newspaper for five years, while doing my MFA, always with the goal to being a novelist.. The novels did well, and I signed on for two more. When I delivered the 3rd international thriller in my Lachlan Fox series, I knew I needed a break from that world. Titled BLOOD OIL, it was a dark and angry novel. It had taken me 6 months to write and edit, I was earning good money, and had book 4 due a year away; I had time to kill. I wanted a new writing challenge, a different head-space, to fill that time. I turned to YA. Writing more than one book a year made business sense to me – it’s the kind of perpetual production that you need to do these days, to keep in the minds of book buyers amid the huge amount of volume being published.
So, deciding to write a happy book full of hope, I decided to destroy a city, put some teenagers in what was left, have them chased by some 28 DAYS LATER type infected, and see how they survived.
When I first mentioned YA to my agents, they sent me to meetings with publishers to see what kind of commercial YA they were looking for. That was the most boring few weeks of my life. In a nutshell, they said that “all teenage boys want to read about are stories of teenage spies.” Fools.
So, I took a risk and wrote ALONE 1, titled CHASERS, un-contracted. Being YA it’s shorter than adult fiction, at just 60,000 words, and it took me 16 days to write. It just poured out, because it was a story that I had to write. It also formed the backbone of my PhD in literature, which looked at allegory and symbology in YA fiction. But I won’t bore you with that here.
Creating the character Jesse as a first person narrator, I wanted to write about a boy who saves the world. We meet him on the day of the event in CHASERS (Kensington, 2012), where he must find the inner strength to go it alone, and then 12 days later in SURVIVOR, where he must survive the worst. Not that I want to give too much away, but by the end of book three, QUARANTINE (out later this year), Jesse is faced with his biggest challenge yet: to save us all.
My inspiration for ALONE was a few books that I thought every teenager should read, and which I re-read prior to hitting my keys: THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, LIFE OF PI, ENDER’S GAME, SIDDHARTHA, and THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL. The latter was what really gave me my narrative framework, while PI and ENDER gave me the courage to do my big twist ending.
Thankfully, my agents loved the MS and sold the trilogy, and the feedback from readers has been phenomenal. CHASERS has been out in the US for a few months and is currently on the 2014 YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers List. I talk at high schools about once per week, which is not only a nice break from the keyboard but also re-invigorates my creative energy from all that teenage enthusiasm. SURVIVOR and QUARANTINE I wrote back-to-back, after taking time out to write my 4th Fox thriller. It was a fun exercise, and I still remember, a couple years on, thinking as I was finishing up, that I didn’t want the journey to end.
I made sure that SURVIVOR ticked a lot of narrative boxes. It’s not just vampires and zombies – it’s a thriller, it’s got adventure, it’s about friendship and identity, and it crosses over into an adult readership. Through reader feedback I know that the novels appeal to those who loved titles such as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, but wouldn’t be seen dead, so to speak, with a Twilight novel.
The success of ALONE has meant that publishers were coming to me willing to make big contracts based on my high concepts ideas. I’ve since signed with Scholastic, who gave me free reign on a 13-book series, THE FINAL THIRTEEN. It’s a thriller series about a battle to control the dream world, taking place over 13 YA novels.
In North America I’ve got a great team of publishers, big guys in Hachette and Scholastic, and independents in Kensington and Kane/Miller, and I love that mix and the different approaches that they bring to publishing. Utmost in all considerations for us when selling my work is finding the right publisher for each project, one that will not only champion each project but fit our bigger picture in nurturing my long-term career as a novelist. Over the next few months my publishers will bring out all five of my Lachlan Fox thrillers as ebooks in the US. It means, with the ALONE trilogy by Kensington, and my next 13 YA titles, that I’ll have 21 novels published in the US over an 18 month period.
I’m now eight years on from my first book deal and I couldn’t be happier. Every day, I get to do what I love. Writing. Travelling. Making music. Hanging with friends. Reading. Thinking. Wondering about what’s next.
James Phelan, PhD (Literature), is a 33 year-old Australian writer. His thriller novels featuring New York-based investigative journalist Lachlan Fox, FOX HUNT, PATRIOT ACT, BLOOD OIL, LIQUID GOLD, RED ICE, are being published in the US by Hachette 2013. James has written for newspapers and magazines, and has contributed to anthologies and serialized novels, including: PICTURE THIS (Penguin), and WATCHLIST (Vanguard). His ALONE trilogy of Young Adult post-apocalyptic novels are: CHASERS, SURVIVOR, QUARANTINE. James is working on two new series: adult suspense thrillers, and 13 YA thrillers for Scholastic Australia. His books are sold in over a hundred countries.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.