An Interview with Chandler Klang Smith
Words By Dani Hedlund
What inspired you to write this book?
There were a lot of different elements. The first picture I had in my head was of a girl standing on the garbage island and seeing these dragons flying over the city. I felt like there was some connection between the girl and these creatures, but I didn’t really know what it was.
In terms of what actually propelled me through the narrative, one major inspiration was Jane Austen. I was interested in marriage plots, and I was fascinated by the fact that Jane Austen is often considered a romantic writer when I actually think she’s a dystopian writer. She describes this world where people—especially women—have incredibly limited choices, and yet they are defined by the choices they make, even under the pressure of those circumstances. So I wanted to write a dystopia with a marriage plot at the center of it, and that genre device propelled me through the first third of the book. Once the three young people were loose in the city in Part Two, it became a different kind of story, so I turned to fairytales and quest narratives as models.
It’s interesting that you mention Jane Austen because there was certainly a lot of free indirect discourse in your writing, which she pioneered. It was great to see all of these idioms and the different styles of the characters bleed directly into the narrative.
That was something I had a lot of fun with in this book. In the past when I worked on longer projects, I usually had one point of view character and everything filtered through them, or at most a secondary character would get a minimal number of point of view sections in comparison. For this book, I wanted a cacophony of voices and perspectives, both in terms of multiple third person points of view, but also through different documents I inserted into the texts: business memos, diary entries, letters, screenplays, a video game script. It’s such a challenge to nail one voice and then completely change up your game, so it kept things interesting for me.
Clearly you’ve melded a lot of genres, everything from the marriage plot we see in literary fiction to sci-fi fantasy elements to dystopian satirical comments on society. How did you manage all of that?
Something I thought a lot about with regard to genre is that it seems like genres exist because they encode different elements of the human experience. There’s something that we’re getting at when we write horror, there’s something we’re getting at when we write fantasy, or literary fiction. There’s something real that those genre forms crystalize around.
For example, when I introduced the character first known as Leather Lungs, I wanted this character to be an intrusion, a terrifying and faceless figure of authority. I found myself thinking about stories I heard or read that scared me when I was a kid—mostly urban legends—and the way those urban legend characters get introduced. I wanted the vibe to be frightening, the feeling you have as a child when there’s something deeply unknown that seems associated with a new category of adult concerns… the serial killer with the hook for a hand, who your parents are powerless to protect you from. Even though the book ends up being this patchwork of different types of genres, I was using the same mechanism for each one: what is this emotionally for?
One of the things I’m really interested in is the way you’ve managed to take all these different genres and make something new with them. In regards to that, talk to me about what you’ve done with your dragons.
Part of the reason I was attracted to dragons is because they come loaded with so many contradictory associations. In the West, we tend to associate dragons with greed and evil, sometimes even the Devil incarnate, like Saint George versus the dragon. But in Asian cultures, they’re associated with luck and power and royalty.
In a lot of kids’ literature, we see stories of a misunderstood monster. In these stories, the figure at the center is often a dragon that the adults in the story think should be exterminated, but the innocence of a child can see something more. I wanted the dragons to be misunderstood but also truly monstrous, to truly cause destruction and produce the dystopian conditions in which the story takes place. When I thought about a world where there’s a city that’s been burned by dragons for the last 50 years, it seemed like the possibilities were endless.
I also just really like dragons. I collected dragons when I was a kid; I had ceramic ones and those pewter ones that hold crystals in their claws. I played Magic the Gathering, and the dragon cards in that were always my favorites. So it was almost like they had been in my subconscious all along.
Another aspect of the world that I really love is the product placement. I love that when you describe products, you go into the marketing slogans and the consumer base. It was not only this great commentary on society and bureaucracy and the income gap, but also on what we want as humans. What was it like to create that element?
Product placement is such a big part of the way we experience the world. It goes along with all the different kinds of media in the book. One form of media that’s constantly in our lives is advertising. It was important to me in order to understand the psychology of the characters, not only to demonstrate what they want, but why they want these things. What are the messages that are informing their perspectives? In the first chapter, there’s the commercial for the How Fly, the flying car that Duncan has, and it allies that vehicle with this idea of sexual dominance and affluence.
There’s also a kind of advertising going on in the novels Swanny reads that gives her these romantic ideas of what her future could be. There’s advertising consumed by the character Sharkey, who’s living in Torchtown and reading books about “Lifestyles of the Ostentatious,” about what the aristocrats’ country estates are like. Everyone is constantly being influenced by either literal advertising or other constructed fantasies of the things they find desirable, and those desires then guide their actions.
One of the aspects of my company is helping new creators get their first books published, and the first thing I always tell debut writers is try to do one thing—don’t try to do twenty-five things. Clearly that advice would not have worked with you! How did you keep it all straight without having one aspect of the novel overpowering the other?
It took me a really long time to write this book. Part of it was that I took on more than I could easily do all at once. There was a lot of narrowing down what I was attempting to do with a particular subplot, or even a particular chapter or scene.
For example, there’s the part where Ripple watches a propagandistic short film that’s encouraging people to enlist in the Metropolitan Fire Department. I remember struggling with that because I was trying to convey too many things at once. I always knew I wanted it to be a video, but initially it was more like a documentary that I was using to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of exposition, that showed the sad state of the city and the fire department, and it wasn’t clear to me why it would exist in the world of the story. Ultimately, I was like, “OK, it’s an army commercial,” and when I had that one point of comparison, that one thing I was going for, it was a lot easier to nail that and put it in direct conversation with similar texts in our world.
Pretty much anytime I had too many things going on at once, too many competing goals, the writing became incoherent and messy. The only advice I would give another writer is to be laser-focused on what you’re doing at that moment in the story. Make this the moment that matters, and don’t try to do everything all at once.
My high school teachers always said that a huge difference between genre work and literary fiction was that literary fiction is character driven and genre fiction is plot driven. Did you focus more on getting to each plot point or making sure your characters led you there?
I would say that, as a writer, I’m more oriented toward character than plot events. That sort of speech you got reminds me of a distinction that author Stephen Wright made between commercial and literary fiction in a workshop I took with him at the 92nd Street Y. He said that commercial fiction tells us to go to sleep, and literary fiction tells us to wake up. I wanted the plot elements not only to be entertaining on a surface level but also feel like they mattered—to startle and unsettle the reader out of complacency. And, for me, the only way to achieve this is to use plot to get at character.
I think sometimes when we set up this distinction between plot and character, there’s this idea that character gets explored through scenes where someone is isolated in a reverie and they’re lost in thought and out of relation with other characters and their environment. But for me, the most interesting aspects of character often emerge from the friction they experience—not just with an antagonist, but with anyone else in their lives, and with the way they fit or don’t fit in with their environment. I wanted there to be direct conflict in every scene because that was something I had shied away from in my previous work, but it’s such a great way of defining a character against everything they’re not. It gives the work the feeling of being plot driven even though I’m really using that as a way to explore character.
I want to talk about the lusciousness of the book’s language. What was it like to balance the really minute single word choices versus this sprawling epic that you’ve created?
The parts of the book where I’m most pleased with my language are close third person passages where I feel like I captured something about the vocabulary and the diction of that character. If I didn’t allow myself to attempt to be virtuosic with the language, I don’t know if I could have written something that was so ambitious in scope. When you’re trying to make up a whole world, you have to sell it, constantly, not just to the reader but to yourself as well. You have to make yourself see and feel it. So I probably did it as much for myself as for the reader.
What was the entire seven years like between your first vision of Abby with the dragons and the galley proof you now have?
It was a long process, and I was very plagued with self-doubt. Sometimes you go down a rabbit hole with something before you realize it isn’t working, and then you have to scrap a bunch of pages, which can be incredibly difficult. At the very beginning of the process, I wrote a sort of outline, my very first impression of what I thought the shape of the story would be, and that was a lifeline for me even though I ultimately ended up diverging from it. I would go back to that document and be like, “Okay, I have some sort of plan about where this is going.” Lying to myself, basically!
One of the hardest things for me to write was the story of Ripple and the fire chief. I couldn’t quite figure out that relationship for a long time. Ultimately, that was something I made some major changes to, even when working with my editor. I had to be very patient with myself. Whenever I could get myself laughing again or feeling other emotions—when I could get myself to really care—that was the sign there was something still there. I just kept chasing those moments.
What was your relationship like with your readers? Did someone read the book chapter by chapter? Or did you save the final drafts for your friends, only asking them for opinions once the book was complete?
The one person who read everything multiple times was my partner, Eric. He read pieces when they were first drafts right off my computer, or sometimes even things I had written by hand that I’d read out loud to him. He also read the entire book multiple times when I was going through the editorial process, which was incredibly helpful.
He was the one person who saw it at every stage. Other than that, I generated a lot of this material in that writing workshop at the 92nd Street Y. Stephen Wright and my classmates were really supportive, and their enthusiasm would push me to write the next chapter. But at a certain point, after I’d been in that workshop for almost two years, I realized people didn’t really have any idea of the shape of the book as a whole… because they couldn’t. They were reading it in twenty-five page chunks.
That was disheartening. I thought, “Maybe I have chapters that work, but that doesn’t mean the book as a whole is ever going to be something that someone is going to be able to get through.” That was when I started working on it pretty much in isolation, until I finished a draft and did my agent search and connected with my agent, Bill Clegg. He was incredibly helpful in giving me feedback before we went out to editors, assisting me with large-scale structural issues that no one else had seen. It’s a lonely process, and I think that was part of why I had so much self-doubt. Even if I did have confidence about a particular passage or chapter or character, I would think, “But is this going to matter in the context of the book? Have I made it matter enough?” It was pretty scary.
Talk to me about the agency process. When did you feel like you were ready to start sending the book out?
I finished that 92nd Street Y workshop and then pushed through and finished the draft I had been working on. I had an ending, but there were things I realized I wanted to see throughout the entire book, so I had to go back, chapter by chapter, and add in certain elements. I think getting to the end of that process on my own, post-workshop, took a little over a year.
When I was done with that, it was early spring 2015. At that point, the book felt like something I’d been carrying around for so long, by myself, and I had lost all perspective on it. I was excited about it, and I did feel like I had fixed the things that needed fixing, but I felt like more could be addressed in the manuscript. I was definitely open to editorial suggestions, and that was when I started sending it out to agents.
Once I decided to start working with Bill, it gave me the confidence to further excavate this crazy site that I had been excavating for so long. Bill was such a sensitive reader, thinking about things like theme and the Lovecraftian nature of the dragons. He convinced me more was there to uncover if I just kept digging. It’s really great when someone is pointing out not only mechanical things to make the story flow more smoothly, but also things that could deepen the meaning and make the book more important.
The two of us went back and forth with various revisions over the summer of 2015 and into the fall, and then it was in October that we ended up going out with the book to editors. So that was another chunk of time, but it felt manageable in comparison to the years I had already been working on the book.
How did you hunt down your agent? Did you just get on queryagent.com? Did you go through every single book you ever loved and figure out who represented them?
I had worked in a couple of literary agencies myself, and I also went to the MFA program at Columbia, so I already followed publishing news and books I was excited about. I’ve always been curious about the industry, so I definitely had a handful of people who were on my radar, and Bill was one of them. I teach writing workshops for Sackett Street, and I tell my students that when you’re searching for an agent you should look at the acknowledgements of books that you love, and also at Publishers Marketplace. You can see who represents a particular author and anyone else the agent represents. Finding an agent who can put your book in meaningful conversation with the other works they’ve represented is important.
Do you only write long form, or do you dabble in short stories or poetry?
I’ve never really been much of a short story writer. Over the last few years, I’ve written a couple of pieces of flash fiction (I had one in Gigantic that I was pretty happy with) and I’m an admirer of short stories—I love Kelly Link and George Saunders—but I feel like, for me, as soon as I get invested enough to want to write about a character, I always have too much to say. It ends up just taking over. After this long project, I thought I should give myself a break and work on shorter things that I can actually finish, but then almost immediately I came up with the idea for another book. As Alice in Wonderland says, I give myself good advice, but I very seldom follow it.
This is the girthiest debut that’s fallen on my desk in quite some time. Usually agents will scoff at anything over 80,000 words for a debut. Was that ever an issue?
I was worried about that before submitting to agents. I remember there was some thread online where people were talking about the word counts for different genres, and scrolling through, I thought, “Maybe my book is science fiction. Wait no, maybe my book is fantasy,” because the word counts were higher for fantasy titles. Ultimately, I just felt like this was how long it had to be. When I see it in galley form, it actually seems much shorter than it did when I was writing it.
I have a writer friend who marks the success of a book not by how many copies he sells or how many languages it’s translated into, but by whether he set out to say one thing and he believes he’s said that thing to the reader. What is the one thing you really wanted to say with this book?
The idea of inheritance was central to the book. Swanny and Ripple are both concerned about disappointing their parents. Abby doesn’t know who her parents are or what her legacy is early in the book. I was interested in how we make sense of the legacies we have, and how we come to make peace with the fact that we might not be fulfilling our potential or the expectations that have been set for us—feeling like the sky is yours on one hand, like you can do anything, but then feeling limited by everything that’s come before.
What is the next project for you?
I’m working on another novel, and it’s another weird genre-bending thing. This one really leans heavily on elements of noir. It’s about an obsessive love affair between a man and a woman that takes them into a heightened fantasy space that’s sort of outside of reality. I was interested in the fantasy lives of characters in The Sky Is Yours, but now I’m literalizing that even more in this project and making that fantasy a realm they end up inhabiting and playing out different versions of their lives. I’m excited about it. I’m trying to do something very different that still experiments with narrative and genre in some of the same ways.