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Interview: October 2009

October 2009

David Whitley's debut novel, THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER, is the first book in a trilogy that follows two orphaned servant children attempting to survive in a city where their fate is dictated by their worth.
In this interview with Teenreads.com's Sarah Rachel Egelman, Whitley elaborates on this complex fictional city --- from its lack of religion to its 18th-century influences --- and discusses the inspiration behind its unusual and rather dangerous economic system. He also describes the significance of his main characters' names, lists some of his favorite dystopian novels, and shares details about what readers can look forward to in the second installment of the series.
 
Teenreads.com: Many children's and young adult books focus on orphaned children. You use this convention (albeit with a twist) in your debut novel, THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER. Why? 
 
David Whitley: In Chapter 17 of THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER, Mark, one of my main characters, mutters that “all children are orphans in this city,” because, in Agora, children are legally property until the age of 12. It is acceptable, even commonplace, for parents and guardians to trade their children back and forth for gain, as readily as any commodity. But on the day they turn 12 they become adults, and Agoran society expects them to make their own way in the world. There is precious little time for them to experience what we think of as a childhood!
When writing for child protagonists, it’s vital to give them an independent existence. All of their choices and trials will mean nothing if they can simply fall back on a helpful adult to rescue them. Lily is an orphan because I needed her to be fiercely individual --- to never have had anyone she can rely on but herself. And as for Mark, his whole character is shaped by the fact that he is not really an orphan. His father sold him, and that betrayal still stings.
 
TRC: Names have a lot of significance in THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER, often giving readers clues about the intentions or personality of the character. How did you choose the names "Mark" and "Lilith" for your protagonists?
 
DW: In a city where people are called “Theophilus” and “Snutworth,” I wanted my main characters to have contrastingly short, simple names. At the same time, I liked the idea of each name having another meaning, one that might hint at their future paths in life. Mark may be awkward and illiterate when he first appears, but his name is also a unit of currency --- a sign that he may soon take to business with natural ease. Lily, on the other hand, with her quiet ways, seems entirely suited to her flower namesake. But she discovers that her full name is “Lilith,” who in some Jewish myths was the first wife of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Lilith was no submissive, gullible innocent, like Eve --- Lilith was banished from the Garden for demanding equal power and status to Adam; she was the world’s first feminist. Lily may seem quiet now, but she also has the fiery potential to undermine a supposed “Paradise” by demanding change.
 
TRC: The economic system of Agora, the city in which the story is set, is a sort of perverse barter system. How would you describe it?
 
DW: On the face of it, Agora’s system is entirely fair. Everything is conducted via trade --- if you want to buy something, you must offer something of your own in exchange. It can be goods, services, food, or even your own emotions or memories, but the important part is that both buyer and seller agree that they are of equivalent value.
But of course, the danger is that with no money, and no set prices, all goods are only as valuable as the buyer decides. Even if you trade in gold and diamonds, your wares are worthless if no one wants them or if you lose your good reputation. Fortunes and lives can change overnight; everyone is at the mercy of the ever-shifting market.
 
TRC: In the book, one character is addicted to "glitter," the consumption of other people's emotions. Did this idea spring from the reality of drug use, psychology, or something else?
 
DW: When I first started planning THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER, I thought about all the different things that you would find in a city where anything could be bought and sold. The trade of people’s emotions came to me almost immediately. It certainly wasn’t too much of a step away from real life to picture people buying emotions --- most drugs, legal and illegal, are ways of buying a pleasurable emotional state. But actually, what interested me more was the other side of the deal: that in dire straits, people might sell their emotions to the highest bidder. I wanted Agora’s marketplace ideology to permeate their souls, and tearing out pieces of their emotions for profit seemed very fitting.
 
TRC: Agora seems at once set in an alternate past and an alternate present. How do you imagine this civilization time-wise?
 
DW: The feel of Agora is very much a city of the Enlightenment --- a time when ideas were at their most powerful. So, in appearance at least, Agora is an 18th-century city. Its fashions, architecture and technology are all from that historical era.
But at the same time, this is not a historical novel. Some of Agora’s attitudes are different. Lily is discriminated against because she is poor, and because she is a servant, but it would never occur to anyone to comment on her being female or dark-skinned. And, of course, as Agora is sealed off from the outside world, there are no armies. Perhaps the best way to think of it is an 18th-century city that has been left entirely isolated for a long, long time. It has continued to develop until the present day, but in quite a different direction from the rest of us....
 
TRC: In Agora, astrology is important, but there seems to be little other communal rituals and the temples are abandoned. Is this a civilization that has shed its religiosity? Or, is astrology the spiritual expression of the city?
 
DW: Agorans don’t understand religion. Everything in their lives revolves around business deals, around tangible goods that they can hold, and have, and understand. Tell an Agoran that they should give some of their time to an invisible, spiritual being, who offers them rewards in another world, and they would see it as a very foolish deal indeed.
At the same time, their lives are very dangerous. Everyone worries about the future, and they need to have faith in something, just for their peace of mind. Astrology fills this gap. It appears comfortingly mystical, separate from everyday business, but ultimately it sells itself as a practical predictor of the future in this world, not the next. I wanted to use astrology because of its wonderful symbolism, but it has to be said that it suits the Agoran mindset very well. Agora’s highly paid Astrologers are more management consultants than mystics --- follow the stars, and they’ll guide you to more wealth.
 
TRC: Are there characters you sympathized with more than others as you were writing? Did you have the story totally plotted out in advance, or did you ever surprise yourself?
 
DW: I always try to sympathise with every character I write. Even if their actions are unforgivable and I would never act like them myself no matter what, I need to know why they are doing it. And understanding is the first step towards sympathy. I sometimes find it surprising, even alarming, how easy it is to empathise with the more morally dubious characters, once you start looking at life from their point of view...
Having said that, there are some characters who are easy to sympathise with. I particularly love to write about Dr. Theophilus. There is something very uplifting about his story --- a good man who has suffered much and nearly given up, but who finds new hope in the actions and ideals of his friends.
I have to plan everything out in advance. By the time I had written Chapter 7 of THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER, I already had a framework for both of the other two books in the trilogy, and knew what the final scene of the third book would be. I’m rather obsessive that way! I worry that if I don’t plan, then some of the ideas, or characters, won’t receive their due attention, and that I won’t be able to foreshadow and intertwine all of the elements that I want to use.
Then again, this system still allows for plenty of flexibility. There were some minor characters in the original plan of THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER that became more important as the story developed, and until I wrote it out, I could never have truly understood Agora’s subtleties. And there was always the chance to add a new element. I remember going to a museum when I was halfway through writing the book and seeing a huge and elaborate doll’s house. In an instant, I knew that one of the characters, Cherubina, had to possess it. A couple of days later, it appeared in her sitting room, and now I couldn’t imagine her without it!
 
TRC: What aspects of the world today do you see in Agora? What aspects of Agora frighten you the most?
 
DW: I see Agora all around us: every time a new product is marketed as capable of changing your life; every time people make life decisions based on clever advertising or specious fads; every time anyone looks at a huge, complicated set of problems and proposes a “one-size-fits-all” solution.
I’m not saying that this is always bad. This kind of thinking has created a culture of enormous convenience and ease, but at the same time it frightens me how everything in Agora is seen in terms of saleable value. Human minds and emotions are not neatly divided into packages --- we are fundamentally messy, contradictory and surprising. It’s one of our best features, to lose it would be to become inhuman. There are plenty of people in Agora who have forgotten that.
 
TRC: THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER is clearly in the realm of dystopian literature. Do you have some favorite dystopian novels?
 
DW: My absolute favourite would have to be FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury. A world where all books are burned is always going to be pretty horrific reading for a writer!
But it’s more than that --- Bradbury’s society is based around the idea of making everyone equal and content by destroying any form of radical thought. Books are burned because the best way to make everyone conform is to remove all possibility of thinking in other ways. It’s a thread that stretches through all dystopias, from Plato’s REPUBLIC (noble but deeply flawed) to Orwell’s 1984 (terrifying but weirdly stable). It is the real tragedy of Utopian thought --- the aim of universal happiness is admirable, but in practice it too often produces a nightmare.
 
TRC: This is the first book in a trilogy. What might readers be able to expect from the sequel, and when will it be releasing?
 
DW: Mark and Lily’s adventures will continue in THE CHILDREN OF THE LOST. They have gained some dangerous knowledge, but there is much more still to discover.... But now I’m in danger of spoiling the ending of THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER for anyone who is just about to read it! And of course, I’m longing to tell you at Teenreads what happens next, but I don’t want to give too much away about their future, as anyone who has already read the last chapter of THE MIDNIGHT CHARTER can appreciate! The labyrinthine streets of Agora will give up more of their secrets in September 2010...
But if, in the meantime, you would like to read more about Agora, do visit http://www.davidwhitley.co.uk, where some of my characters would be delighted to show you around...