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Interview: J.L. Pawley talks about Air Born, the first in a new YA series


J. L. Pawley, is a prolific author from Auckland. She completed her first Diploma in Creative Writing when she was just 17, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in English and Media Studies by age 20, graduating in the top 5% of her class from Massey University. The following year, after working with reluctant readers in a local high school, she wrote the first draft of what was to become Air Born, the first in the YA urban fantasy series, Generation Icarus. Jessica talks to NZ Booklovers about Air Born.


Tell us a little about Air Born.

It’s a high-flying scifi story about a group of teenagers who suddenly grow birdlike wings – but they don’t know why or how. Never having met before, they band together for survival. They find themselves caught between both religious and scientific extremists, when all they want to do is be left alone and learn to fly. The group call themselves the Flight, and although their story happens in the USA, they come from all over the world – including New Zealand!


What inspired you to write this book?

The year after I graduated university with an English and Media Studies degree, I was working as a teacher aide at Whangaparaoa College. Of course, being a TA means working with students who are usually very reluctant readers – and their school-assigned novel wasn’t helping the cause. I became determined to write a book that even my reading-avoidant year 9 students would be interested in. After I surveyed them to develop some criteria to guide me, I sat down to plan this novel. I began by asking myself two very simple questions. One: If I could have any superpower, what would it be? Two: How can I give my characters this superpower in a way that is biologically/physically believable?


What research was involved?

Quite literally, months of Googling! I researched, planned, and note-took for at least three months before I started writing the actual draft. There were two major directions I had to research. The first focused on birds, and which biological adaptations a human body would need to develop (not just wings!) in order to fly. This included metabolism, body temperature, flapping technique, and so on. The physics and sheer weight/shape of the human body were frustrating for a long time, as I couldn’t give a human plane-sized wings just to get them off the ground. It had to feel real. But once I landed on the idea of cancelling out the anchoring effect of human legs with a kite-like tail, which the characters would have to make themselves, the rest just fell into place.


The second most important direction of research was location and language. Having only briefly been through America when I was very young, I relied heavily on Wikipedia and Google Maps (Street View and satellite imagery were indispensable) to find the best settings and describe them accurately. I also spent an absurd amount of time checking my US language. Cookies vs. biscuits, living room vs. lounge, for example, and many more tiny tweaks to the language that not even growing up watching Hollywood movies can help with. I wanted my American teenagers to sound as authentic as possible. It’s still an ongoing process!


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

The first draft was written whenever I could find the time (usually in the evening) over about five months in 2011, and it has been in and out of development since, as I worked on the rest of the series. However, the rewrite with the guidance of the Steam Press editing team started with a totally blank page for the first time since that very first draft. Using the experience and development I’d had with the story for the previous five years, plus the detailed outline I’d worked on with the team, I completely rewrote the book in less than 3 weeks. I had put my Master’s thesis on hold, and notified my two casual/contract jobs that I wasn’t available that month, and told my friends and family not to expect to hear from me. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you’re practically cut off from everything and everyone!


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I have a whole playlist on Spotify already … but some of my favourites include Wild Things by Alessia Cara, and Top of the World by Greek Fire.


If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Age- and ethnicity-accurate actors. The seven characters in the Flight are white, black, Māori, biracial (African American/white and Hispanic/white), and Chinese. I’d hope any casting agent would respect that. It’s one of the most common aspects on which I get positive feedback from teen readers – the diversity.


What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

I enjoyed the action sequences and snappy dialogue that developed as I got to know the characters better. Especially as they often surprised me – sometimes I didn’t know something was going to happen until I wrote it, or a character would suddenly have a trait for a reason I didn’t know until I was writing the second or even third book. Reaching the ‘Aha!’ moment, when the character finally reveals why they are like/did that, is unbelievably satisfying. But the flying scenes were the most fun. I really had to stretch my imagination and lose myself in the visualisations.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I haven’t yet. There’s always been something else I need to be working on. I’m waiting until I actually have the printed copy in my hands to even believe it.

Although, when I heard the news about the first overseas contract being finalised and signed, I went to a family dinner and finally popped a bottle of bubbly my writer friends gave me in early 2016 for being shortlisted for the Tessa Duder Award, for a totally different book I’d written. But first I accidentally froze it while waiting for it to chill in my parents’ freezer!


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I haven’t had time to read many, but I couldn’t put down Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. My brother raved about it, and he almost never reads. I read it shortly before the movie was announced – it is going to be so good!


What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’ve just finished the main rewrite for Air Born‘s sequel, and I’m waiting for the first round of feedback from the editors, so I’m already onto the redevelopment for book 3. It was originally going to be a 4 book series, but it just might have to be 5 – we haven’t quite managed to find the time to have a meeting about it yet, with the buildup to the launch of book 1! After Generation Icarus, it’ll be time to move onto developing my second series, which Steam Press has also already signed.


Karen McKenzie

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