Recently moving from Portland to Seoul, Carly Anne West’s current project is writing the prequel novel to the amazing video game Hello Neighbor, as part of Scholastic’s AFK (Away from Keyboard) initiative. Wanting to learn more about her career and Hello Neighbor: Missing Pieces, I was able to interview her for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were the novels that you loved reading? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Carly Anne West: Ghost stories are a constant favorite, but the stories that unsettled me – the ones a little left of center – always piqued my interest, too. Authors like Madeleine L’Engle and Shirley Jackson had a way of conceiving a world in which characters didn’t do the “normal” things. They weren’t ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They were complicated and beautifully flawed characters, and their stories were just as strange and complicated. I guess that’s a long walk to say I loved A Wrinkle in Time and Jackson’s story collection, The Lottery. I could revisit those a million times, and it would never get old.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to build a career as a professional writer? Was there a specific moment in which this goal crystallized for you?
West: Yes! I remember it happening at a very inconvenient time. I was over halfway through my undergraduate education (and already deep in student loan debt), majoring in broadcast production. I was taking a screenwriting class one semester, and I remember being SO EXCITED about this class. With screenwriting, though, format is critical, and too much encroachment into the scenery, subtext, and atmosphere translates into stepping on the toes of everyone else involved in the production. I think it was after my third or so scene submission – each running far too long in the setup – that my professor wrote on the page “Why don’t you just become a novelist instead?” I’m sure it wasn’t meant to be life-changing advice – he’d had enough of me by then. But it did change the course of my life.
Yanes: You got an MFA from Mills College. How do you think this experience impacted you as a writer? On this note, do you feel that people need to get an MFA in order to become a professional writer?
West: I’ll answer the second question first: No. I have nothing but praise for my writing program and all I got from it, but there are many, MANY paths to writing, and that sort of expression should not be and IS not limited to the confines of expensive degrees or storied programs. I was extraordinarily fortunate to get into Mills, and I wouldn’t take that experience back for anything. I met some of the most important people in my life in that program. (Victor LaValle was my very first workshop instructor, and he remains one of my most treasured mentors. Kathryn Reiss taught me to write YA, and Yiyun Li nominated me for my first award, praise that frankly melted me.) My writing group, made of authors Nina LaCour and Laura Joyce Davis and Teresa K. Miller – each award-winning and crazy brilliant – is nearly thirteen years strong and counting. They and my writing program shaped me as a writer and taught me the business of writing – a quality that can’t be overlooked if one wants to make a career out of this craziness.
But is it necessary? No. The most key ingredient to making a strong writer is the undying and maniacal desire to be a writer, or at least I’ve found that to be so. After that: write, write, write and read, read, read. Never stop learning to be a writer. Never be satisfied that you’ve learned the craft fully. Never stop.
Yanes: Your next book is Hello Neighbor: Missing Pieces due out on September 11, 2018, and it functions as a prequel to the video game Hello Neighbor. What attracted you to working on this franchise?
West: This opportunity was unlike any I even knew existed. I was completely unaware of how this corner of the business worked, and what it would mean working within a world that had already been conceived. I think I was ridiculously lucky in this scenario because I got to contribute to Hello Neighbor’s canon. The universe is fairly new, so I got a lot of freedom to be able to discover the characters and their struggles in partnership with the developers. I also loved the aspects of the game that were first person (because I love writing from that perspective) and adaptive, given that the game is built around a complex AI.
On top of that, the opportunity meant working with Scholastic and their outstanding editors (Chloe Fraboni is uh-mazing), and getting to take part in the launch of their new AFK initiative, which focuses on books for people who love gaming and want to see their favorite gaming worlds expanded. The developers at tinyBuild have been incredible to work with, and the game itself is so incredible and so creepy, I couldn’t pass it up.
Yanes: Given that Hello Neighbor is about a mysterious neighbor, did you ever have to deal with mysterious neighbors or a creepy house as a kid?
West: Growing up in the suburbs lends itself nicely to its own level of creepiness. I lived mostly in those neighborhoods where people didn’t necessarily know each other, but they somehow knew everyone’s business. Nothing creepy, though. Not until I moved out on my own and my husband and I lived in a legit haunted apartment, complete with whispering voices, phantom dishes in the sink, and cats who would never set foot in one particular closet.
Yanes: A portion of the story involves Nicky Roth, the main character, conducting research. While research moments in stories can be boring to read, your research and clue-gathering in this novel is incredibly exciting. How did you manage to keep information gathering so engaging?
West: Thank you! I think every writer of mysteries fears committing the dreaded “info drop,” where the reader learns everything at once, and the pacing gets jammed up by the delivery of clues. I’ve found that writing mysteries is like planting bulbs. You dig a hole in Fall to see the daffodils in the Spring. Planting early makes for colorful results when you least expect it, like, oh! I forgot I’d planted those!
Again, though, I was really fortunate to have a world in which to maneuver that was completely off-the-wall and seemed made for allowing Nicky to go down all sorts of twisty, windy paths to get the answers he’s looking for. The developers of the game gave me SO MUCH to work with in this world.
Yanes: Hello Neighbor has managed to build a devoted fan base that includes children, teens, and adults. Given that Missing Pieces is so smart, what steps did you take to write the story, so that adults and children could equally enjoy it?
West: I get asked this question a lot because my first two novels were YA, and I’ve published a handful of short stories for adults. The answer for me always seems to boil down to this: The primary difference between my writing for adults and my writing for kids is the age of the characters. That’s pretty much it.
I try really hard not to adjust the complexity of the story to try to match the reading age, mostly because I have yet to find a reader who reads “their age.” If a reader can find themselves in the struggles and uncertainties and pains and joys of the character taking them through the story, then the story has achieved a mighty feat.
Yanes: What was it like working with tinyBuild and Dynamic Pixels to craft the story for Missing Pieces? Were there any guidelines you had to follow, or were there any areas of the game’s mythos you were free to explore?
West: It felt as though I was free to explore everything! Aside from some key moments that were set in the mythos by the creators, tinyBuild essentially gave me free rein. At first it felt like an incredibly daunting task to ensure that I paid tribute to the game’s qualities and evolving canon, while also putting enough details in the book to satisfy such devoted fans. I think the most surprising challenges I found had more to do with the timeline of the actual game; it takes place before cell phones or Google!
Yanes: When people finish reading Missing Pieces, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
West: Well, of course I hope they want to read the next book, and naturally, I hope they’re even more stoked to play the game than they were before! I also hope they find themselves in at least one of the characters in the book; the kids have been especially fun to write.
Nicky is a genius with gadgets and quickly becoming a professional loner. He doesn’t like that designation, but he feels powerless to change it. Aaron is struggling with a secret and shouldering a heavy burden, which isolates him, too. He’s a master lockpick without the ability to essentially unlock his own prison. Enzo and Maritza lost their mother at a young age and lean on each other for support, but their father’s job sometimes puts them in the middle of community division that will gain more importance as the storyline progresses beyond this book. Trinity is brilliant, and because of her intelligence, she’s sometimes called on to be a mediator or voice of reason, and the civic responsibility instilled in her by her parents further reinforces that role, but she’s a kid trying to navigate relationships just like the others, and her friendships with Enzo and Maritza are sometimes tested when she sides with Nicky.
All of them are good kids who sometimes do bad things, and I hope readers take from this that they don’t have to be defined by their most regrettable decisions. They are amazing, and they are loved, and they are important, and they have an important place in this world.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
West: The second book in the series, Waking Nightmare, is out in January 2019, but for now I’m chugging along on book #3. Really excited to share more when I can!