Queer Autistic Author Corinne Duyvis Talks About Her New Radically Diverse YA Novel, "Otherbound"

"From one email to the next, I went from 'unagented writer, dejectedly planning next book' to 'book deal!' which was probably one of the most bizarre experiences in my life."

Jun 18, 2014 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

Out this week from Amulet Books, Corinne Duyvis' "Otherbound" is the story of Nolan, a boy trapped between two worlds: Every time he closes his eyes, he's transported to an alien landscape -- and someone else's mind. Amara, a girl living in a parallel universe, is navigating a world of magic, danger, and horror, and as Nolan and Amara become aware of each other, they realize that the only way to save each other is to work together. 

This book is already an exciting and wild ride, but more than that, it's an example of much-needed diversity in children's literature, and it couldn't be coming out at a better time, given that the We Need Diverse Books campaign is still going strong. The book features queer sexuality, disability, racial diversity, and so much more, making it a refreshing break from the endless Wonderbread of summer blockbuster YA. 

I had a chance to catch up with Corinne and chat with her about "Otherbound," diversity, and other delightful things. 

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Photo: Maija Haavisto

xoJane: Reviewers are talking up "Otherbound's" diversity: The characters in both worlds are of multiple races, multiple sexual orientations, and multiple levels of ability and impairment. Clearly this was structured into your worldbuilding from the start, but how did you avoid turning "Otherbound" into an "issue book"?

Duyvis: Part of this answer is straightforward -- it wasn’t an issue. Amara’s attraction to another girl is never singled out as different from her attraction to a boy. Nolan’s amputated foot influences parts of his life, but it happened so long ago that he’s used to it, and he has much bigger concerns. That said, other elements do play a larger part: Nolan feels estranged from his family, particularly his father and sister, who are exploring their Nahua heritage in a way Nolan is unable to. Amara is a servant, which is a large plot point, and which is tied into all kinds of issues of identity and disability and culture.

Various reviews have pointed out the themes of privilege, power dynamics, agency, gender fluidity, class … While many of Otherbound’s diverse elements are sort of “in the background,” I explored a lot of concepts that could easily turn it into an issue book. So why isn’t it one? I’m sort of thinking my way through that answer as I’m writing this. Perhaps it’s simply that nothing in the book hinges on these issues.

I could have told this story with straight, white, abled characters, and focused on the fantasy and adventure aspects rather than the implications of bodily possession/invasion. The flap copy would read practically the same. For an issue book, you can’t do that. The plot would fall apart. So that may be what it comes down to. I wrote a fantasy book, then integrated the elements of diversity and explored the natural consequences. If I’d highlighted those concepts first and wrote a fantasy book around it, the results may have been very different.

For the record, I think issue books get a bad rap sometimes. It’s incredibly important to have more diverse main characters in non-issue books, but I don’t want it to be at the cost of issue books, or to disparage them in the process. Issue books are amazingly valuable, particularly to teens struggling with the issues being explored. I want both kinds. I also want more books that act as combinations, but that plea probably deserves a post of its own.

xoJane: "Otherbound" takes a radically different and fascinating approach to legends of bodysnatchers, magic, and control. When did the idea for the book come to you, and how long has it taken to bring it to fruition?

Duyvis: I looked through several of my old notebooks but I cannot remember when the aspect of the bodily possession first came about -- or what it looked like in the beginning. I think it’s just one of those random “what if...?” ideas I jotted down at some point that grew wildly out of control. It must have been around late 2010 or early 2011 that it started to develop and I began mashing different ideas together -- the blinking, the bodily possession, the instant healing, the dual worlds, etc.

I was working on a lot of different projects at that point, and this was one I didn’t plan to write for a long time yet. Still, due to all sorts of circumstances, I ended up taking the leap in September 2011. After finishing the draft in about a month, several months of revision took place. I completed those and started querying in April 2012. Amulet Books offered on the book in September 2012, with a projected publication season of spring 2014, and here we are!

xoJane: With your publication date rapidly approaching, you're marking a major milestone in this book's life. Did you encounter obstacles, frustrations, or dismissal along the way as you worked to find it a home with the right agent and publisher?

Duyvis: When I queried the book, I felt optimistic. Between the book’s concept and my publishing history, I thought I stood a good shot of finding someone new soon. I'd just broken up with my first agent, I'd given this book all that I could, and I was ready for the next step. My first week of querying saw an 80% request rate from top agents. Then, lukewarm compliments. One- or two-line rejections. After a long -- and, yes, frustrating -- summer, I mentally shelved the book and attempted to move on.

Then, from one email to the next, I went from “unagented writer, dejectedly planning next book” to “book deal!” which was probably one of the most bizarre experiences in my life. People often wonder whether the diverse elements in the book made it a harder sell, and that’s hard to say, because you rarely know what’s behind an agent’s rejection. I never experienced any open pushback, however. My editor never asked me to tone anything down or change any of the characters. Five out of seven professional review outlets praised the diversity. Readers are hungry for it.

All in all, I’ve had an easy time with those aspects. At the same time, I feel awkward about admitting that. It may give off the impression that selling diverse books is no longer an issue in publishing -- and it is. I’ve heard too many stories from authors with different experiences to see my experiences as anything but “luck” and finding the right people at the right time. Many authors have been asked to make their characters straight or white. Others were told that a book like theirs would never sell. Some were told that readers wouldn’t be able to connect to their characters, or that the market made it difficult. And apparently, these writers were told this by agents and editors who later publicly stated they wanted more diversity in their submissions.

I also know of writers who did get their books published the way they’d originally envisioned them, but had to fight tooth and nail to make it happen. Unfortunately, even the editors who do buy these books aren’t always as clued-in or supportive as they may seem. So it can be hard, yes. But -- thankfully -- it isn’t always. I sincerely hope that the more diverse books we see in the marketplace, the less pushback any of us will see.

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xoJane: Representations of disability in YA and children's fiction are woefully lacking, and when they do appear, they're often bad. What are some of your disability pet peeves -- and how should your fellow authors be addressing them?

Duyvis: One of my big pet peeves -- and I’ve actually got a longer article about that in the works for Disability in Kidlit -- is the magical disabled person. Not the disability superpower, which is a different trope, but the mystical ability. Ooo, this autistic person can detect the way the universe is put together. Ahhhh, that schizophrenic person can communicate with aliens. Wow, this blind person can see the future! Usually the disabled person in question is grossly dehumanized and Othered.

Another pet peeve: the disabled family member who’s just there to make the main character look sympathetic. I think what’s behind both these tropes -- and, honestly, most disability tropes -- is the fact that many people don’t ... get disability. They’ve probably never heard of disability communities or self-advocacy or disability politics. They think disabled characters are mainly interesting for how they can affect the plot or the characters around them, and don’t build disabled characters with the same care and thought as they do other characters.

xoJane: You're one of the driving forces behind Disability in Kidlit: Can you tell us more about the project and what the response has been like?

Duyvis: The project was started by Kody Keplinger and myself in 2013. We wanted to discuss the portrayal of disabilities in MG/YA fiction in a way that was largely aimed at writers, to help them create less problematic characters, but was also meant for anyone to use as a resource. One of the things we planned from the start was to only invite disabled contributors.

“Nothing about us without us,” as the saying goes!

Though it was originally envisioned as a month-long project, we ended up turning Disability in Kidlit into a more permanent affair based on the wildly positive responses we were receiving. Authors liked us, disability activists liked us, we were flooded in submissions -- it was marvelous! We ended up asking Kayla Whaley to join us as a third organizer, and the three of us have been working on the project ever since. While the flood of submissions has (unfortunately) died down, we regularly hear from people about how helpful our site has been, and it’s often linked to as a resource, so we know that what we’re doing is genuinely helping people. It makes me all kind of happy.

xoJane: I always like to know what authors are reading, listening to, or otherwise enjoying. What's been on your bookshelf/playlist/etc lately?

Duyvis: I’ve been listening to an awful lot of Disney and Broadway music. I’m getting ready for a trip to the United States (pssst, come to my signings!) which is a mite stressful. This kind of music is so familiar -- and often upbeat -- that it really helps me calm down. Seriously, if you’re feeling iffy, try the combo of “Be Prepared” and “Go the Distance.” It works wonders.

I’ve been trying to make a dent in my TBR pile so that I’ll be able to accommodate all the new books I’m bringing back from the US. Recent stand-outs are "Far From You" by Tess Sharpe and "Code Name Verity" by Elizabeth Wein in YA, and "Better Nate Than Ever" by Tim Federle and "All Four Stars" by Tara Dairman in MG. I was also intrigued by "The Elementals" by Saundra Mitchell and "What’s Left Of Me" by Kat Zhang.

xoJane: You just announced a deal for a new project (yay!). Can you tell us a little about it?

Duyvis: Yes! I’m thrilled with this one; it’s very close to my heart. It’s called "On the Edge of Gone" and it’s about a 16-year-old autistic girl 20 years in the future, a destructive comet, a damaged generation ship, and the flooded, destroyed city of Amsterdam. It’s out in 2016 from Amulet Books/ABRAMS.

xoJane: Finally, a key question for our readers: Cake, or pie?

Duyvis: Cake. As much as I love apple pie, that’s the only type of pie I love. Cake offers me so many more options!

"Otherbound" is out now in bookstores, so hop to it!