Interview with Em Bailey
One of my favourite reads for the year was Shift by Em Bailey. It’s a dark, psychological YA novel and I gave it 5 stars when I reviewed it. Today, I am excited to present an interview with Em.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some of my questions, Em. And without further ado:
The characters in Shift really stand out for me. They all have layers and none of them turn out to be as stereotypical as they might seem on the surface. Which characters came to you first when you were writing and can you tell us a little bit about what inspired them?
Miranda Vaile came first — and in fact the whole book grew up around her character. She was ‘born’ after I passed a group of teenage school girls shopping in town one Saturday. I was struck by how similar they were to each other . They even seemed to have the same laughs and gestures and it was like they were almost trying to become the one person.
This got me thinking about how when you spend a lot of time with someone (or with a group of people) you sometimes start to ‘merge’ a little. You might use the same slang words, for example, or start dressing in similar styles. It’s perfectly understandable of course — it’s one of the ways we can make ourselves fit in with other people and I think it especially happens while you’re at high school and being accepted can be so important.
Then I started wondering: what if there was someone — a school girl — who was extremely good at this kind of merging? Someone who was quickly able to adopt the style and attitudes of other people — to the point where she almost seemed to be leeching them of their personalities. This was the start of Miranda.
Olive was the next character. She came about after I overheard a couple chatting about what they were like at school. (I figure eavesdropping is a legitimate research tool when you’re an author!) The woman said that she used to be an ‘alternative princess’. Olive Corbett is my interpretation of this phrase — she’s deliberately positioned herself outside of the mainstream but even though she’d probably deny it she definitely has some princessy, self-absorbed aspects to her personality.
In some ways the most interesting character for me to create was Olive’s best friend, Ami because it actually felt like she developed herself! Ami was very different in early drafts, but as I wrote I couldn’t shake the feeling that Ami had a big secret. I tried to ignore it for a while as I knew including this secret would involve completely re-writing the book, but eventually I told my editor and she said we had to put it in. I did have to re-write the book as a result but it was the right decision.
Without spoiling anything, some aspects of the story are left a bit ambiguous. Was this always the sort of book you planned to write for the start?
I did many, many drafts of Shift and the story changed considerably from version to version. In some drafts I made it very clear what is going on with Miranda but ultimately I decided that it was more interesting and intriguing to leave an element of ambiguity. Originally we had planned for Shift to be the first of three books but again in the end my publisher and I realised that Shift worked best as a stand-alone title.
I notice from your bio that you’re an Australian currently living in Germany. Has living overseas affected your writing?
The biggest effect has been that I now call myself a full-time writer. When I was still in Australia writing was more like a hobby that I did in the evenings after my ‘real’ job finished. When my family and I got the chance to move to Germany I realised it was an opportunity for me to start taking my writing more seriously. It was a little bit terrifying because once something changes from a hobby into a career it puts a whole lot of pressures on it that weren’t there before, but ultimately I am happy with how it’s worked out. I don’t think I would’ve been able to write Shift if we hadn’t moved here.
The actual experience of living in Germany hasn’t come though in my writing yet, but I am sure it will eventually — but maybe not in a really obvious way.
What are you working on now/next? I read elsewhere that you’re going to continue writing YA. Will it be fantasy/speculative fiction or more mainstream?
After finishing Shift I declared that I’d never write a YA novel again — it was too exhausting and demanding. But it’s amazing how quickly you forget the pain! I’m actually in the process of planning out my next YA title at the moment but it’s at such an early stage that I don’t think I can even describe it yet.
One of the things I’m happy about with Shift is the way it crosses genres. I like that people can read it as either a straight ahead thriller or as a sci-fi title. It’s an approach I’m definitely interested in exploring more in future books.
Thanks for those thoughtful answers, Em. I think if I hadn’t already read the book I’d want to pick it up to learn more about the characters, if nothing else. Also? You should ALL read Shift, it’s really good.
Finally, there is a brand-spanking new (and suitably eerie) book trailer to go with the UK release:
If your interest has been piqued and you haven’t yet picked up Shift, you can find it on iTunes/iBooks, Kobo, Amazon (with the slightly inferior UK cover), and wherever you buy paper books, like Readings (they even have a web-based preview through Bookish), QBD and Dymocks. And you can add it to your to-read list on Goodreads.
Shift by Em Bailey
I came across Shift by Em Bailey while browsing some ebook store (I don’t actually remember which one, probably Kobo since that’s where I bought it). It was the blurb that first intrigued me, so allow me to post it here:
Olive is not crazy – although there was that incident last year and that spell in the psych ward, but now she’s taking her meds and staying away from the toxic ‘in’ crowd. But when new girl Miranda turns up, Olive knows that there is something very dangerous about her, even if everyone else doesn’t. But who will believe her, when everyone probably thinks she’s crazy anyway? That is, everyone except her best friend, Ami, whom her mother disapproves of for some strange reason. But all is not what it seems in this page-turning thriller and there are twists and turns that you just cannot predict.
This isn’t an SFF book. At most I’d tentatively call it magical realism. It’s full of psychological drama and there is blurring of reality so you’re not always sure what’s real and what isn’t. It’s also a book about mental illness about being weird and about dealing (or not) with those things.
I really loved it.
Honestly, there was only one aspect I disliked about it and it’s not the sort of thing that would bother everyone. The author is Australian (this is her first YA book, but she has written books for younger readers as Meredith Badger) and the book is indisputably set in an Australian coastal town near either Melbourne or Sydney (my theory is Melbourne, but I may be biased). It’s definitely Australia because they have high schools like we do (years 7 to 12) and wear school uniforms in state schools (I only recently learnt this is a bit of an Australian quirk) and, well it all sounded Australian. But. It also felt like the most direct mentions of Australianness had been removed or carefully not mentioned. At one point the main character goes for a run through the forest, not the bush. There’s a scene near a fig tree, which in itself isn’t that strange, but no gum trees were ever mentioned even thought they must have been ever-present. It just bothered me a bit. A setting made slightly generic but not completely. I would have enjoyed seeing more Australia in it.
Mind you, that was a very small component. The rest of the book — the characters, the plot — was top notch. Olive was great. She was a flawed narrator but that was part of the charm. We were so deeply inside her head that we could only guess things she didn’t know herself a little while before they happened. The way some events were foreshadowed, you had to be paying more attention than Olive was to notice.
The other characters were also very believable. Creepy Miranda was particularly well drawn and mysterious to just the right extent. The secondary characters of best friend, ex-best friend and love interest were also well crafted. I’m not sure that I can properly say what I liked about them without spoilers, however.
And the ending was great. A perfect mix of suspense, action and, well, spoilers.
Even though it’s not really fantasy or science fiction, I think this is still the kind of book lovers of SFF YA would enjoy. And lovers of mainstream YA too, particularly of the darker variety. I loved it. One of my top books read this year. (Oh, and isn’t the cover great? It’s particularly apt, too.)
5 / 5 stars