Interview with Stephanie Oakes

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The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephane Oakes is the 2015 Young Readers Porter Square Book of the Year. (Which means it’s 20% off for the rest of the year.) Bookseller Rebecca who originally nominated The Sacred Lies for the award (and clearly has excellent taste, because she also nominated our adult winner) interviewed Stephanie Oakes.

PSB: The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly had an amazing debut year - it got great reviews and was a Morris Award finalist, not to mention the fact that it won our inaugural PSB Book of the Year competition! Were you expecting anything like this response? (What was the coolest/most unusual thing that happened during your debut experience?)

SO: Thank you! I’m so excited to be a PSB Book of the Year. What an honor! As for the great things that happened during my debut year, I truly wasn’t expecting any of it. I wonder if other authors can relate to this, but by the time the book was finished, I’d worked with it so much and looked at it so closely, I didn’t have any perspective on it anymore. I really had no idea how it would be received. The coolest experience is always meeting readers who’ve liked the book. I don’t think that will ever get old!

PSB: Tell us about your path to pursuing writing and publishing Minnow Bly. Was it the first novel you completed?

SO: The writing and revising process took a very long time, both before I had a publisher and afterward. It’s been said before, but the old adage “Writing is re-writing” was very true of Minnow Bly. It took a long time and a lot of tinkering to get it right. Minnow Bly was kind of the first novel I completed. There was a version before this one that had a similar plot but was—still amazingly, to me—a dystopian novel. There were hovercrafts and post-apocalyptic cannibals, and while I’d definitely write a novel with those elements in the future, that particular book just didn’t work.

PSB: You've mentioned that your interest in fairy tale retellings is part of what inspired Minnow Bly (which is in part a retelling of "The Handless Maiden"). Did you always plan to pair a retelling with a contemporary realistic setting?

SO: No, I had originally written Minnow Bly as a dystopian novel. I love genre fiction so that’s what I always thought I’d be writing, and I’d love to go in that direction more in the future. But, when it finally dawned on me that Minnow Bly was meant to be a contemporary realistic novel, I knew it was right and didn’t look back. 

PSB: I have to say that my favorite relationship is the one between Minnow and Angel. Complicated and painful at times, but it really anchored the juvenile detention sections of the book. How did Angel's character develop while writing?

SO: Angel was definitely a character that snuck up on me. When she first appeared, she existed mainly because I knew Minnow probably would have a cellmate. “Insert cellmate here,” is probably all the planning that went into her. But, over time, her voice became more prominent and I realized she was a really great foil to Minnow, and I really fell in love with her attitude and messed-up-ness (official writing term).

PSB: Minnow Bly is at once a powerfully moving contemplation of faith and a searing indictment of the juvenile detention system (not to mention so much else!). These themes go seamlessly together in the book, but was there one that came first in the creative process? (And if so, how did one inform the other?)

SO: The very early ideas of the book centered around the idea of a cult somewhere in the wilderness of the northwest. Around the time I came up with the basic plot, I was also doing some non-fiction reading about cults in my free time, and eventually the two melded together. The juvenile detention center came later, after I ditched the dystopian idea. This was one of those very unintentional and very lucky decisions that you make in writing sometimes, because I eventually realized that the themes I was developing with the cult could be re-established in the juvie setting. 

PSB: Reading Minnow Bly was such an affecting experience. It was one of those books that required mental digestion before I could move on! Are you working on anything else readers can look forward to?

SO: In about a year, my second book, The Arsonist, will be published with Dial/Penguin. It’s a multi-generational, part-historical, part-contemporary mystery set alternatingly in Monterey, California and 1980’s East Berlin. It’s going to be a big book, and it’s been such a wonderful challenge, and I’m really excited for people to read it.

PSB: Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview. Last question: Anything that you'd like to recommend to devastated readers of Minnow Bly?

SO: I really loved All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry. It deals with similar themes around religion and community, and it’s just so original. Something Like Hope by Shawn Goodman is great for readers who want a fantastic book set in a juvenile detention center. And The Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey is great if you’re one of the few people who made it through that scene (you know the one) in Minnow Bly without squirming. The Monstrumologist series is top-notch bloody, historical, paranormal horror.