Tuesday, January 1, 2013

APOCALYPSE NOW: An Interview with A.G. Howard, author of SPLINTERED

For the final interview in our Apocalypse Now series, we're kicking off 2013 with Anita Grace Howard, whose wonderful debut YA fantasy novel, a dark Alice in Wonderland spinoff called SPLINTERED, comes out today from Abrams/Amulet books.

Booklist says, "It’s a deft, complex metamorphosis of this children’s fantasy made more enticing by competing romantic interests, a psychedelic setting, and more mad violence than its original."

Summary: This stunning debut captures the grotesque madness of a mystical under-land, as well as a girl’s pangs of first love and independence. Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now. When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, Alyssa must pass a series of tests, including draining an ocean of Alice’s tears, waking the slumbering tea party, and subduing a vicious bandersnatch, to fix Alice’s mistakes and save her family. She must also decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.

Anita's a friend and publishing mate, so I'm honored to get the chance to interview her today. Follow us down the rabbit's hole, won't you?

What inspired you to write your own take on Wonderland? Does the original tale hold a special place in your life? When did you read it for the first time?

I've always been a huge fan of Carroll's masterpieces, but the spark actually lit back in in April, 2010, when I first saw the Tim Burton & Disney Alice adaptation. I'm a very visual person, and the Burton cinematography was so vivid, techno-colored, and evocative that I didn't want the movie to ever end. So I came up with my own settings in my mind, and played out Wonderland continuations and scenarios. The idea became too big to contain in my head and I needed to get it out on paper.

I read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its companion novel, Through the Looking Glass, when I was around twelve or thirteen years old. My dad was always a Disney fanatic, and I grew up on VHS renditions of every Disney fairy tale adaptation: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and of course, Alice in Wonderland (along with many more). I can't remember if I borrowed the Lewis Carroll books from my school library, or if I actually coerced my parents into buying them, but I read and savored each scene (although I secretly imagined the Cheshire Cat as a handsome young prince locked inside a spell...I'm a hopeless romantic; even to this day, in my mind, every story needs a prince). I read the books once again when I started writing Splintered, for a refresher.

What other books did you love as a child?

The three books that most influenced me as a child (and later as a writer) were:

1) The Cat in the Hat. I remember sitting on the couch and looking at the pictures. Suddenly, I was somewhere else. Transported in time and space to hang out with a funky cat and his candy-striped hat. I got to make a HUGE mess of someone else's house, and then used magic to clean it up. YAY! But when my mom sat down and actually read the words to me, the real magic began. My ears tickled with rhyme and rhythm. And to this day my ear is always tuned in to the cadence of sentences and words.

2) The Wind and the Willows. My first grade English teacher introduced me and my entire class to this tale, a few pages each day. I couldn't wait for that small window after lunch when she would read. The pleasures of country life and the dependability of good friends. This book greatly influenced my appreciation for individual characterization and scene setting/building. The Devil-may-care Mole, impetuous Mr. Toad, shy Badger, and discerning Rat, all going on picnics, joy rides in old-timey automobiles, and hanging around in row boats. These animals ... they knew how to party. And in the process, they taught me some valuable life lessons. Subtlety at its finest.

3) Charlotte's Web. I think I first read this in third or fourth grade. I cried. HARD. It was the first book to touch me viscerally. I loved Charlotte. She epitomized beauty, but on a level I wasn't familiar with. Spiders had always been scary and ugly to me. But Charlotte, she was beautiful inside. She cared about Wilbur when no one else did. And she threw herself into making his life better, in spite of how weary or busy she was. E.B. White gave me my first experience with a selfless character. And when Charlotte died, my love for the bittersweet ending was born.

In the tradition of CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll, your book starts out in the real world (and in your case, a world of after -school jobs, prom, family issues, unrequited crushes, and skateboard parks) and then plunges into fantasy. Was it difficult for you to switch gears from one to the other?

Not at all! Maybe because growing up, I always had a very vivid imagination and could slip into a pretend world of fantasy at the drop of a hat. I guess I never lost that ability, and it plays a role in my writing today.

I love this description of Alison's asylum, which hints of the sensory images and fantasy elements to come: "It stands out blood red against the clear sky. It could've been a gingerbread mansion, but the white shingles on the gabled roof look more like jagged teeth than icing." Did you take a different approach to describing Alyssa's surroundings when she was in the fantasy world versus when she was in Texas, or did you write them as parallel to one another?

I actually do have a lot of settings in Alyssa's real world that parallel Wonderland, although of course the descriptions are much tamer in her real world. It was a conscious decision. This ties into the previous question, because it serves as foreshadowing to help ease the reader into the fantasy madness of Wonderland, so things already seem a shade familiar to them. I wanted to aid their suspension of disbelief, so they could settle into the faster paced rhythm that takes over the plot during the creepy and strange tour of Wonderland.

What inspired Alyssa's unique and macabre artwork, which makes use of pinned insects?

In the beginning, it's more survival tactic than inspiration that leads her to euthanize and preserve bugs and flowers, because she can hear their whispers. Killing them is the only way she can silence them. But Alyssa's a pretty sympathetic girl, and feels guilty for cutting their lives short, so she opts to do something constructive with their bodies. She also has images in her mind, too strange and morbid to be earthly, but too haunting to dismiss. She finds that making mosaics helps cleanse them from her subconscious, so she can think more clearly.

Alyssa is shocked to learn that the version of Wonderland she encounters is quite different -- and even more sinister -- than the original Alice's. The introduction of the "White Rabbit" in particular is vivid and disturbing. How did you decide what to change? Did you have both books open in front of you, or did you write from memory?

When I reread the books, I kept a spiral handy and jotted down the characters/scenes I loved most. I wanted a colorful/vivid world that was familiar in some ways, but unsettling and bizarre enough to turn the tale on its head. To help me visualize, I started gathering pictures into my Splintered synopsis and character folder. I was drawn to images tinged with an "aura of Alice," but completely different from the original, which inspired me to not only warp the settings, but warp the original characters in unexpected ways.

Besides the fantasy elements, SPLINTERED showcases an extremely detailed and clever mystery. Did you have everything worked out from the beginning, or did you come to see the twists and turns only by writing them?

I usually only do skeleton plots, which allows for flexibility when I'm writing. But I did have to write a rather detailed outline of the scenes in Wonderland since it gets a bit complicated—who Alyssa and Jeb would meet, what roles the creatures would play in their "quest," and even what "tasks" she'd be expected to complete in order to come home. It still didn’t turn out exactly as I'd planned. The characters all had a few surprises for me along the way, most especially Morpheus. And most especially at the end...

How did you reconcile writing for an audience that may only be vaguely familiar with Alice? Did you find yourself having to explain certain things, or did you assume that most people knew enough to understand the references? Do you recommend that readers dust off the original before reading yours?

For one, I intentionally chose some scenes and characters that are familiar to almost everyone through media saturation. Pictures of the Hatter's tea party, the caterpillar smoking his hookah, Twiddledee and Tweedledumm, the card guards...these can be seen online and television and even as themes in miniature golf courses and amusement parks around the world. But for the less familiar characters/scenes, I needed to have a way to bring the readers up to speed. So, throughout Splintered, Alyssa turns to her mother's copy of Lewis Carroll's masterpiece to help her solve riddles. When something came along that I thought needed clarification, I would let Alyssa comment in her narrative, referring to what she remembers in her mother’s copies of the original book(s).

And yes! I hope everyone reads or rereads Lewis Carroll's works, either before or after my book. It's not "necessary" to understand my novel, but I wrote Splintered as a tribute and a companion to the originals. Nothing would be more satisfying than to see a whole new generation seek out the Lewis Carroll's works. They're creations of pure literary beauty--vividly allegorical adventures for readers of all ages.

SPLINTERED is genuinely creepy, in the most delicious way. Did you have to censor anything? How aware of your target audience were you as you wrote, or did that not factor in?

It never seemed to be an issue. Maybe because, in spite of being contemporary, Splintered has a fairy tale-ish quality to it. If you look back in history, the fairy tales of old—told even to children—were often creepy and disturbing on some level. The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, for example, were particularly dark and violent. Our generation is hyper-aware of violence and tragedy due to disturbing images of terrorism, war scenes, and random shootings, etc... touted by the media day in and day out. I think that makes dark fairy tales even more universally acceptable for teens and adults of today, because they parallel our lives: twisted and terrifying at some turns, poignant and amusing at others — a charming and alarming tangle of emotions that anyone can relate to and appreciate.

Since we're the Lucky 13s, we have to ask: Do you have any superstitions or good luck charms?

Well, I used to keep a special ring on my computer desk. It had a blue-lace agate setting. Agates are considered stones of communication, enhancing speech and written communications. They also assist in reaching higher spiritual planes, strengthening intuition and inner knowing that can assist in inner attunement (if you're into all that...I liked it because it was pretty, but I'd never wear it in any real social situation—too gaudy for me.) I kept it in a Wedgwood china dish along with my antique butterfly letter opener right next to my monitor. It's long since been misplaced, and I'm still writing, so I guess I just crafted an entire paragraph to say NO. Leave it to a writer, right? ;)

How do you plan on celebrating your book's release?

I'm so busy working on another YA book to fulfill my 2-book contract for Amulet, and bringing this one into the world in a BIG way, that there won't be much time for celebrating.

Honestly, for me, the most wonderful moment WORTH celebrating, was when Splintered sold. I had a very rocky climb to get my YES. Seven years of querying and writing books, to be exact. So nothing will ever top that moment when I finally had my validation. All that follows hereafter...well, it's just really tasty icing.

Thanks for the great questions, Sarah! And thank you Lucky 13s for having me over today!

A. G. Howard wrote Splintered while working at a school library. She always wondered what would've happened had the subtle creepiness of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland taken center stage, and she hopes her darker and funkier tribute to Carroll will inspire readers to seek out the stories that won her heart as a child. She lives in Amarillo, Texas.

Where to buy the book:

Barnes & Noble



Where to find AG Howard:



This interview was conducted by Lucky13s member Sarah Skilton, whose Contemporary YA novel BRUISED will be released March 5, 2013 from Abrams/Amulet Books. The interview was part of an ongoing series of interviews with The Apocalypsies -- YA, MG, and children's book authors who debuted in 2012 (or in this case, January 1st, 2013 :)


  1. Happy pub day, Anita! I hope you get to celebrate a little bit today, even amid your deadlines.

    What a wonderful interview, Sarah! You answered some of the questions I've been wanting to ask Anita.

    Happy New Year to both of you!

  2. Thanks so much, Cat. I'm glad you got to see answers to questions you were thinking about. And a big Three Cheers to Anita on her debut day!