Ira Bloom: Hearts and Other Things You Pour Into a YA Novel
If you haven't already rushed out and ordered your copy of HEARTS & OTHER BODY PARTS, then you have not yet begun your journey down what is almost certain to be the YA paranormal romance everyone will be reading and talking about this summer. You'll find yourself believing in witches, vampires, demons and other kinds of monsters. What you will have the most difficulty believing is that this novel is the first for author (yes, he can officially use that title on business cards, resumes, and -- shudder -- tax forms now) Ira Bloom. It's too seasoned, too nuanced, and just too good to be the product of the new kid on the YA block. (Oh yeah, and he has a Y-chromosome, too! How rare is that in the YA paranormal romance marketplace?)
We had the privilege of snaring an interview with Bloom before his schedule becomes swamped with such requests. Somewhere along the way, you'll probably see a link to Amazon to pick up this book. You'd be smart to click on it.
In reading HEARTS & OTHER BODY PARTS, I was put in mind of Arthur C. Clarke's oft-quoted maxim: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Certainly Norm and his father are the embodiment of this, given the treatment for Norm's condition. Can you give us some of the background on any research you had to put into the explanations to make the modern Frankenstein a plausibility?
I’m glad you asked this. I basically started HEARTS & OTHER BODY PARTS with Norman, the “monster,” because I had this idea about a boy with acromegaly who was cryogenically frozen at the moment of death to give his “mad scientist” father time to reassemble his body from spare parts. In general, a lesson I’ve learned the hard way is not to research too deeply, because reality sometimes imposes itself into my stories in inconvenient ways. My first (not even remotely publishable) book, which I spent almost eight years on, was about polymorphism and evolution with a focus on neurology and neurochemistry, so I had a great deal of medical stuff in my head. For Norman, I researched acromegaly (gigantism) with a focus on benign tumors of the pituitary gland, and I read a few articles on recent developments in cryogenics. I was already well familiar with human growth hormone from long chats with my son’s endocrinologist.
In Esme Silver, you take Clarke's maxim and turn it on its left ear, because Esme and her two sisters are both witches. But her approach to casting spells is more along the lines of "Any sufficiently deconstructed magic is indistinguishable from technology." Did you have any specific inspirations for Esme and her characteristics that set her so apart from her younger sisters, Katy and Ronnie?
Personally, I need to have a unified field theory for magic, some explanation for why it works. I loved Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS series because his treatment of magic was so intricate and well considered. The Silver sisters Esme, Katy and Veronica represent three approaches to magic in the world of HEARTS. Esme, the oldest of the three sisters, a very intelligent girl but a skeptic, specializes in potions because they can be achieved without faith or talent by following instructions to the letter. But she takes it to the next level by deconstructing the process and teaching herself the minutia of alchemy from a chemist’s perspective. Not to contradict Clarke, but he really has no influence in this world, which includes supernatural beings with eldritch or spiritual characteristics that defy scientific explanation. Katy’s magic is another thing altogether. She has a pure talent for magic due to a favorable relationship with the cosmos, as well as her natural gift for necromancy. She is a conduit for eldritch forces, a medium at the crossroads of our world and the others. Magic works for her because she’s Katy. Veronica, the youngest, brings faith into the mix. Magic doesn’t come easily to her because of a gift for it, nor does she have Esme’s ability to understand it on an intellectual level. Veronica throws herself into magic with everything she’s got. She has this irrepressible tenacity. She wills magic to work for her.
With Zack Kallas, you get a character who straddles the line between both views of technology and magic. He's a vampire, which can be viewed by Esme as a supernatural being. (Hey, she has a demon cat that ate corpses centuries ago -- but more about Kasha later.) To Norm, and his scientist father, Zack's vampirism has a completely valid scientific explanation for every aspect, including the mesmerism and the emotional control. So the boundaries between magic and science really get blurred here. That's not really a question, I suppose, but it's an interesting discussion point.
I’m so glad you picked up on that. When I wrote the book originally, it was 537 pages, far too long for a debut YA novel. Before submitting it to my editor, I had it down to 390 pages. As you can imagine, I had to cut a lot, and we cut even more together. I cut out most of the stuff about vampire society, and originally there was an entire discussion about the medical causes and implications of vampirism. Kasha’s demonic take on cosmology was originally 36 pages, and we got it down to 9. Unfortunately, that stuff doesn’t make for very entertaining reading. While it was interesting, it dragged the action to a stop. I’m very gratified that enough of it remained for you to have gotten that from the book. There is a scientific explanation for vampirism from Norm and his dad’s point of view, but as with alchemy and magic, it isn’t the whole story. No question asked, no answer given.
Esme's familiar, Kasha, is a talking cat -- his current form since he's actually a demon with contractual obligations. I love the Faustian aspects brought to bear here, with Kasha and his Yiddish demon lawyer, and the way Esme works out her own deal with Hell. But we know that such deals always have their unforeseen pitfalls. Are we going to see any fallout from that in further appearances of Norm and the Silver sisters?
I have notes for two more books in this series. Each sister would get to be the protagonist in her own book. Most of the characters would stick around, and we’d get some new ones as well. I don’t know what hat you’re pulling these questions from, but you nailed this. And let that be a lesson for kids everywhere: don’t try summoning demons at home. Demons may look all cute and cuddly when they’re puking up gophers onto a rug, but they are not trustworthy in the least.
What I found in H&OBP that distinguishes it from other paranormal romance fiction in the YA market is that, while the main characters have their supernatural/super scientific aspects about them, they're forced to play out their actions against the backdrop of the public school system -- no Hogwarts, no Monster High, but Everytown PS 60, USA. Was this important to you when you sat down to tell their story? And do their classmates know about what the Silver sisters are capable of doing?
Well there are a number of ways this can be handled. Neil Gaiman, for example, is the master of throwing his protagonist into a rabbit hole, another world with a portal to ours. And most fantasy writers build their own worlds: that’s pure creativity at work there. But I tend to use the world we’re all familiar with. I’m a huge fan of Christopher Moore, and his books are generally set in our world. What I like about that model is the easy suspension of disbelief and the way regular folks react when exposed to the underlying weirdness of the clandestine societies that live among us. It’s the juxtaposition of our common experience and the unexpected that makes it so much fun for me.
Esme’s classmates have some suspicions about the Silver sisters, but as witches living secretly among us, the girls are expert at hiding their supernatural powers in plain sight, so to speak, under the guise of Wicca. There’s irony here, as the secret witch society hiding among us perilously fails to grasp the existence of a secret society of vampires, who in turn are unaware of the existence of demons.
Kasha is a demon that one can actualy read about through existing ancient Japanese tales. From your author's bio, it's easy to guess that this came through your experiences teaching Japanese, running a vintage kimono business, and studying Japanese textiles. But where does Kasha enter the creative process? Was he the spark, an afterthought, or like any other cat, did he force his way in like he needed to be there and then wander around feigning disinterest in the room?
I can never get tired of talking about Kasha. When I brought the Silver sisters into HEARTS & OTHER BODY PARTS, each sister had a distinct trait (brains, talent, beauty/tenacity) but each also had an affinity for animals. Katy loved dogs, Veronica loved horses, and Esme was a cat person. In the chapter where Kasha is introduced, I brought him in as a prop, a feral cat with somewhat uncivilized behavior. I was having issues with my cat, Akira, who is at once the most affectionate and the most randomly psychotic cat I’ve ever met. In the scene, Esme was in her comfy chair reading a good book, and the feral cat came inthrough the cat door and chased the other cats away, so he could have her lap. She pet him and said “Where have you been all night?” And the book went on. I always reread and revise what I’ve already written, and every time I got to that page Esme asked the cat where he’d been all night. And then one night while I was reading it over, she asked him where he’d been all night and he answered, “Out by the barn.” That’s when I knew this was no ordinary cat.
I never could get my head around what he was thinking, that’s why he isn’t a POV character. At some point it became clear he was a demon, so I did some research and found out that he was a Japanese corpse eating demon cat. I became fascinated: why eat corpses? Eventually it all became somewhat clear, assuming you can trust what Kasha tells us, which personally I don’t.
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