Writing a trilogy is a massive undertaking for any author, but few can claim the era-spanning commitment Diana Rodriguez Wallach has made to her Anastasia Phoenix series. While the trilogy’s publication history spans just two years—it kicked off in March 2017 with Proof of Lies, continued the following year with Lies that Bind, and concludes this month with END OF THE LIE—Rodriguez Wallach has been hammering away at the story in some form or other since her junior year of high school, when the idea for the YA spy thriller was sparked by the true account of a Boston University professor who was once an Eastern European spy and propagandist.
The series, about a teenage girl who must reevaluate everything she’s ever known about her family when her older sister goes missing, went through countless revisions over the years as Rodriguez Wallach started a family, racked up multiple publishing credits, and began teaching creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her work, which includes the YA contemporaries Amor and Summer Secrets and Amigas and School Scandals, has earned accolades from Paste Magazine and Bustle; in 2018, Proof of Lies was shortlisted for ITW’s Best Young Adult Novel award.
The Big Thrill caught up with Rodriguez Wallach for a spoiler-free chat about Anastasia Phoenix, Nancy Drew, and wrapping up her most ambitious project to date.
Anastasia’s story is an epic one that juggles dozens of characters, locations, and subplots. Can you tell me a little about plotting out the story that unfolds over the course of the three novels? Were there any tools or habits that were especially helpful?
Well, first off, prior to writing this series I considered myself a “pantser.” I wrote my first YA trilogy organically, with no outline and just a vague idea of what the initiating incident and climax would be. That seat-of-my-pants approach greatly changed while writing my first thriller, Proof of Lies.
Essentially, I learned that a thriller will read like a wild goose chase if you don’t plot out your clues in advance. And in order for my protagonist, Anastasia Phoenix, to follow clues, I needed to plot the book from other characters’ points of view, especially “the bad guys.” Despite this being a first-person series told only through Anastasia’s eyes, I have outlines for her sister, her parents, her boyfriend, her friends, and every bad guy. I ask myself: “What do they want? Given that, what steps would they take behind the scenes to achieve this?” Then when I combine all of those outlines and motivations together, I get one merged timeline that will take Anastasia on her journey step by step, uncovering well-plotted clues along the way. It was a steep learning curve to get to this process.
Disinformation is a theme that surfaces frequently throughout the trilogy, as Anastasia must constantly decide who’s trustworthy and who’s feeding her lies. What do you think makes that theme so relevant to YA readers?
At the time I started writing Proof of Lies, Trump hadn’t been elected yet and “fake news” was not a household term. In fact, I hadn’t really heard of the concept outside of wartime propaganda. The entire plot point stemmed from a journalism professor at Boston University who used to be the Deputy Director of Disinformation for Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. While I never had the pleasure of taking his class, I knew of Lawrence Martin-Bittman’s story as a real-life Communist spy who went on to teach budding journalists how to tell when they were being fed disinformation.
I’m a big believer in “write what you know,” and I graduated from BU as a reporter, not a spy. So when I decided to write a series about espionage, I remembered Bittman’s story and it ultimately allowed me to focus my spy elements around a field I knew well—journalism. Plus, I’m a conspiracy theory junkie, so it was a lot of fun Googling world events and twisting them in my novels based on actual online theories.
In terms of today’s teens, they’re growing up with “Fake News” being shouted in their faces daily. They’re also living in a world where they are influencers. Teens, like the rest of us, spread information with every post they share, retweet, and like. So I end this series with a “Note from the Author” where I ask them to use their power wisely and check their sources. Disinformation campaigns are real, and given the prevalence of social media, it’s up to us to be part of the solution.
You open END OF THE LIE with a quote from Nancy Drew, and I understand you’re a longtime fan. How do you think those stories helped shape you as a writer?
Nancy Drew is the classic teen female detective. As much as it’s said that every love story has roots in Romeo and Juliet, I feel every strong female lead solving crime has roots in Nancy Drew. She opened the door to what is possible for girls, evolving from the Hardy Boys into a character that is so much more than a sidekick. So I always joke that Anastasia Phoenix is Nancy Drew mixed with Buffy Summers in the world of Alias and Jason Bourne. Anastasia’s a blend of many of the characters I love, which is why it felt fitting to end the series with a direct homage to Nancy’s inspiration.
On a similar note, you’ve mentioned in other interviews that Christopher Pike is a major influence, and a big part of the reason you write YA. What are some of your key takeaways from reading Pike’s novels?
Christopher Pike made me love not only reading, but YA. I was that geek who ran to the bookstore as soon as his next book came out. I re-read Remember Me as recently as this past year, and Sati is one of my favorite books of all time. I feel toward his novels the way I’m sure many twentysomethings feel toward Harry Potter. They’re the books of my youth.
In fact, when I first decided to write a novel, I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it. It wasn’t until I finished the manuscript and got an agent that I told my parents. Honestly, their initial reactions were skeptical. “Oh, you wrote a book? That’s…great.” But then when I told them the novel was young adult, their tones completely changed. “Oh! I can see you doing that! That makes so much sense!”
I know there are a lot of writers jumping into YA because it’s “hot” right now, but that’s not why I’m here. This is my genre. There are no plans to “write a real book,” as I’ve been asked before. My ultimate goal would be to write a novel that a kid is still talking about years from now, because it inspired him/her to pick up a pen.
You’ve been developing the Anastasia Phoenix series since high school, when you first heard about the ex-spy-turned-university prof who inspired the story. How does it feel to finally be done with something that’s been a part of your life for so long?
It feels soooo good! I can’t even describe it. Anastasia and I have hung out daily for so many years, I started to think of her as a real person. I couldn’t give up on trying to publish this series, because I couldn’t give up on her. When I wrote the concluding scenes to END OF THE LIE, especially the big scene in Prague at the end, I literally cried while typing. I felt so sad saying goodbye to these characters, but also so overwhelmed with satisfaction when I typed “The End.” No matter what I go on to write from here, Anastasia Phoenix will always hold a special place in my heart because of the perseverance it took to get these books on the shelves. I’m so proud of the series, but I’m also excited to clear my brain for what’s next.
Now that you’ve wrapped up this trilogy, what’s next on your slate?
I’m actually in the midst of writing my first YA horror novel, and I’m loving it! It’s a duel point of view, told by a girl and a guy; and this is my first time ever trying to write from a male point of view. It allows me to really shake the dust of Anastasia out of my head and try to think like a man. It’s also a nod to the horror movies I love. Going back to middle school, a friend and I would always rent Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Exorcist is probably one of my favorite movies ever, and I’m that crazy person who went to see the first Paranormal Activity in the theaters because of the commercials of people screaming. I’m still trying to figure out how to translate all the creepy thoughts in my head into words, but it’s been a ton of fun so far!
Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of the Anastasia Phoenix Series, three young adult spy thrillers (Entangled Publishing, 2017, ’18, ‘19). The first book in the trilogy, Proof of Lies, was a finalist for the International Thriller Awards for best Young Adult Novel. It was also named by Paste Magazine as one of the “Top 10 Best Young Adult Books for March 2017.” Bustle also listed her as one of the “Top Nine Latinx Authors to Read for Women’s History Month 2017.” The second book in the series, Lies that Bind, debuted March 2018, and was named an Amazon “Hot New Release.” Diana is also the author of three award-winning young adult novels: Amor and Summer Secrets, Amigas and School Scandals, and Adios to All The Drama (Kensington Books); as well as a YA short-story collection entitled Mirror, Mirror (Buzz Books, 2013).
In 2011, she published a highly regarded essay in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins). It was the only essay chosen from the anthology by Scholastic to be used in its classroom materials. Diana is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses (Twilight Times Books, 2015), and she is currently on staff as a featured blogger for Quirk Books.
In 2010 Diana was named one of the Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch by LatinoStories.com, and she placed second in the International Latino Book Awards. She is an advisory board member for the Philly Spells Writing Center, and is a Creative Writing instructor for Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. She holds a B.S. in Journalism from Boston University, and currently lives in Philadelphia.
To learn more about Diana, please visit her website.