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Interview: JL Pawley talks about Take Flight

J L Pawley, known as Jess to her fans, is a young New Zealand author who is passionate about engaging teenage readers. With a Master’s degree in English, a Bachelor’s degree in English and Media Studies, and a Diploma in Creative Writing, she considers herself a certified book nerd. Still, she always makes time to connect with her fans on social media and credits them for her surviving her experimental years in self-publishing. She talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Take Flight.

As it’s the second in the series, the characters and their relationships have now been established, and the conflict is beginning to accelerate. As before, the whole plot takes place in the US. The Flight gets barely a few pages before the Big Bad Guys, the Evolutionary Corporation, shows up and finally achieves what they were trying to do for most of the first book, Air Born – they take the Flight captive. Only two of them escape and seek help from the Angelist religious movement, mostly because of the sudden announcement that there’s a new “angel” in town. The Angelists have been assimilated into a large evangelical megachurch in California, eager to use the winged teenagers to re-engage an increasingly-secular population with the Christian faith. But the Evolutionaries soon get in the way of the Angelists’ grand plans, and the majority of this book focuses on what happens when science is stretched so far that the element of humanity is lost from the search for knowledge.

The Flight struggle to survive a situation that is tragically all too real for too many normal teenagers the world over: told they are lesser and unwanted; detained and abused at a higher power’s whim simply because of how they were born. They are confronted daily with authority figures who are just itching for an excuse to pull the trigger, and with philosophical quandaries such as How do you define the identity of a human? when all they want to do is be normal, to hang out with their friends and girlfriend/boyfriend, and figure out their place in the world. The Flight are pushed to their limits, physically and psychologically, as they fight to survive long enough to escape.

Would you mind giving a quick summary of each of the characters that make up The Flight?

There are seven winged teenagers in the original Flight, and a new winged character is introduced via the Angelists. All of them take on bird nicknames in an expression of solidarity, and their wings are very large – nearly 4m across. Significantly, their feathers match their natural hair colour, and their bird names are more strongly linked with their personalities than their appearances.

The first book opened with Tyler, a.k.a. Hawk, the son of an African American Air Force hero and a white academic, who was lining up to follow in his father’s footsteps before his wings unexpectedly threw his life into a spin. Most readers initially think he’s supposed to be the ‘leader’ of the Flight, but his self-doubt and the dynamics of the small group complicate this assumption! He’s in a fledgling (pun fully intended) relationship with a blonde British expat girl everyone calls Kestrel, who was something of an introverted bookworm and teacher’s pet at school, but is beginning to come out of her shell with the friendship and support of the Flight.

Then there’s Tui, proudly Māori, and hailing from West Auckland. She’s practical and pragmatic, and while she’s nurturing by nature, she doesn’t tolerate fools lightly. Like Hawk, she’d mapped out her whole future and had been working hard towards nursing school both at college and by long-time involvement in St John Youth (a real cadet programme that has a strong presence here in NZ). Hawk occasionally teases her by calling her ‘Mom’, as she’s the big sister figure who keeps the Flight on track, and the others come to rely on her as their medic-in-residence. Tui’s in a steady relationship with an African American guy, Falcon. He adores her and doesn’t care who knows it. As an athletic geek, he’s used to mixing up people’s expectations, delighting in obsessing over comic books, movies, and conspiracy theories, and then confounding people with his basketball skills. Falcon’s the clown of the group, although his jokes are usually terrible both in quality and timing.

The most mysterious members of the Flight are Owl (white) and Raven (Chinese). Owl would probably be identified as being on the autism spectrum, finding language and social interactions very difficult, but behind his awkward and naïve ways hides a sharp and logical mind. His relationship with Raven is entirely aromantic and asexual, but they are still deeply attached and emotionally interdependent. Raven is the most visually striking of the Flight simply because she is so much smaller than the others; she appears to be about nine, although the Flight believes she is around the same age as them (17). The reason for her stunted growth, and her muteness, will be explained when (spoiler alert!) she finds her voice in this book – quite literally, in fact. For the first time ever, she is of the narrators telling the story.

Last, but certainly not least, is Condor. He didn’t take his Flight name until near the very end of the first book due to his inner conflict between his strong Catholic faith and his loyalty to the Flight, who are either entirely secular or just uninterested. He also was something of a seventh wheel in the first book, his romantic interest in Kestrel going entirely unrequited and unnoticed. He feels he's supposed to be on a mission for God, as instructed by the dying wishes of his devout Mexican grandmother, but exactly what that mission is, he has no idea. His drive to serve God is compounded by the guilt he feels about sins he committed in his troubled youth, and his desire for redemption, which he has thus far hidden from his Flight friends. Condor is the only one who wants to give the Angelist church a chance, which further drives his sense of isolation within the group. Therefore, when the “White Angel” is revealed in Take Flight, it’s unsurprising that he feels inexorably drawn to her.

What research was involved in writing the book?

I completed the majority of the hard research (biology, physics, etc.) when I was preparing to write the first draft of the series way back in 2010-2012. But research is ongoing as I write and rewrite and edit, particularly when it comes to other cultures and languages that I want to represent accurately and fairly in the story. Additionally, as the action all takes place in the US, my research often centres on large geographical factors like weather and climate of the various locations, as well as smaller details, such as terms for different types of roads (freeway vs. interstate, for example) and what is the driving age in different states. Sometimes a whole hour of writing will be derailed as I hunt for information that will tweak just one or two sentences, even just a single word. What does a handgun sound and look like when it fires in real life, as opposed to Hollywood? How fast does human hair grow? And so on. Good science fiction must rely on real science, of course!

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I sit and write whenever I can, for as long as I can. I don’t have a specific routine. Compared to those authors who won’t let themselves leave the computer until they’ve written a minimum number of words, for example, I must seem very inconsistent!

However, I do have a clear pattern in how I bring a book from idea to completed manuscript. Before I start drafting, I need to know where I’m going. If I don’t have a clear ending to aim for, the draft meanders and fizzles. Fortunately, I haven’t had that issue in quite some years, because I now know that I need to sit down and bash out a full plot synopsis, usually in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, before I ever write the first sentence. While there will inevitably be sections where it's loosely stitched together with ‘somehow x will do y and z reacts like this’, there is always enough detail in this document that, as I refine and develop the idea, I can later chop up the synopsis into a chapter-by-chapter summary. Frequently this will cover ten or more pages. I’ll have a word count goal, which I average out over the chapters, which makes sure I don't have too much or too little plot for the book. When I'm happy with this, I start with chapter one, and begin turning the summary into actual prose, powering on through the draft like a train. If I get a good streak of writing over many sessions in a row, and the flow is strong with me, then I can easily pin down thousands of words a day. The plot can change even as I'm writing, of course, and after the draft is finished and editing begins, sometimes entire sections are thrown out and replaced. But as long as I know where I'm going, it doesn't really matter how I get there, or if the destination itself changes along the way (although this rarely happens because of my need to work out the plot so thoroughly before I start).

This rather clinical system doesn’t work for everyone, and I know some creatives would view this as a rather stifling and prescriptive way to work. However, I need this skeleton around which I can build the muscle of my story, as otherwise the manuscript ends up bloated with unnecessary fat and fluff, which is what happened with my early attempts at writing novels (which were always 110,000+ words and took ten chapters to even start!). This way, I know I need A to happen within the space of, say, two chapters so I can move onto B and build up to C at a good pace, keeping the narrative strong and sleek.

The series is in development for the screen – can you give us any updates about this?

I was extraordinarily lucky to be heavily involved in the development of the producers’ “story bible” – that it to say, their reference compendium of the characters, plot, timelines, etc. – so they fully understood my vision of Generation Icarus. It is highly unusual for the author to have such input. They interrogated me (and the book editors) during hours-long meetings about every aspect you can possibly think of; major and minor character appearances, ages, motivations, even their names; the grand overall arch of the plot as well as smaller scenes and actions; how the Flight fly, how they wear clothes, what they eat. They used this information as a deep foundation on which to build their pitch for a TV series; a general hook, the first season’s episode-by-episode breakdown, summaries for future seasons, visualisations, budgets, etc. They have also drafted a few example scripts, which is very exciting. Currently, the producers are ‘pitching’ or discussing the project with several different studios in Los Angeles. There’s been great initial feedback; another well-respected writer has signed up to be on the script team, for example, but it’s likely we’ll be waiting to hear about a green light for some time yet, as these multimillion dollar decisions aren’t made lightly! Fingers and feathers crossed …

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

Knowing for certain it was going to be published! While still having the freedom to completely overhaul the original draft that I had, and subvert the expectations of those few who had a chance to read the early version of the series online, years ago. I’m simply a much better writer now, both in professional expertise, and from life experience and maturity. I’m more confident in writing male voices, and I’m better at writing more nuanced characters of colour, for example. While there are elements of the old story in Take Flight, I started this book from a new blank page, both for the synopsis and the manuscript.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Kept writing the third book! I tend to save celebrations for launch parties. Although, I did have a small extra celebration at home when I saw the cover for the Chinese translation of Air Born last week.

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

My favourite new adult release so far this year is “Gate Crashers” by Patrick S Tomlinson, a worthy successor to Douglas Adams and his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books. Extremely irreverent with many laugh-out-loud moments, while still being a great example of modern scifi.

My favourite teen read was “Mortal Engines” by Philip Reeve, which I picked up because of the pending Peter Jackson film adaptation. I can see why he selected it! Again, some very pointed humour, excellent if brutal action, and you will not see the end coming. I’ve now read the first three in the series and will be starting the fourth shortly.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

As previously mentioned, I’m hard at work on book three of Generation Icarus, the title of which we recently announced: Sun Strike. It’s fully drafted and been though one round of editing already, and I’m going through an intense sculpting stage at the moment, making sure the new narrator’s voice is distinct, that there are multiple levels of tension, etc. etc. The aim is to have it ready for proofreading by the end of next month. After that, it will be straight into the fourth and final book, which we have also just revealed will be titled Free Fall.


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