Scott Westerfeld on Hoverboards, Machiavelli, and Impostors

Scott Westerfeld on Hoverboards, Machiavelli, and Impostors

Thirteen years ago, Scott Westerfeld invited readers into the Uglies universe—a dystopian world where all citizens receive cosmetic surgery at the age of sixteen to turn them “pretty.” The four-book series follows Tally Youngblood as she fights to overthrow the oppressive Pretty regime. Now, Westerfeld welcoming us back into Tally’s world with a new series. The first book, Impostors, introduces readers to twin sisters Frey and Rafi. Rafi spent her life being trained in etiquette and politics, while Frey trained as her body double. Frey’s existence is a secret, but what happens when she gets a taste of what it means to live life as her own person? Earlier this month, we joined other readers in an intimate conversation with Westerfeld about this exciting new series. Here is what we learned:

On his favorite time to talk with readers:
“I almost would rather talk to readers when they’re halfway through a book than all the way through, because all the way through, it’s like, I’ve landed all the punches. People are going to say more or less the same thing. But readers halfway through are like, ‘What’s going to happen with the thing?’ And I’m like, ‘The thing? That’s not important. That’s just a thing that happens in Chapter 3.’”

On Machiavelli’s influence on the series:
“There are quite a few reversals in the book. When I reread Uglies, I was like, this book has a lot of reversals. There are a lot of unexpected things that happen; there are a lot of twists and turns. I wanted to bring that all the way up to the max in Impostors. All the drama of the Machiavelli era is about assassinations and plots and secrets—people pretending to be other people. Machiavelli was my dude.

“He was from a time of city states, and this is sort of what’s happening in Impostors. All of these cities used to be part of one regime, one program, with the Pretty Committee telling everybody how to look and how to think, and now the cities have all seized a certain amount of freedom for themselves, so they’ve gone off in different directions. Each of these cities is almost like its own country, its own little world, and they all have a lot of high technology, but there’s lots of ways you can use technology. You know, you can have a terrible surveillance state like what Frey grows up in.

“Frey, the main character, she’s one of two twins. Basically, her father made sure that he had twins so that he could have two copies of the same daughter, one of whom would be the actual heir, who would be trained in etiquette and charm and would be the soft hand to his more dictatorial presence and power—that’s Rafi. And the other one, Frey, is the spare, and she’s a body double. She’s a perfect body double because she not only looks the same and has been raised to walk the same and talk the same, but she actually has the same DNA.

“Not too far into the book, Frey is used as a hostage. Her father is making a business deal, but nobody trusts this guy, so he says, ‘Well, you can take my daughter, who everyone knows is the most precious thing to me, and she will secure the deal.’ So Frey, who’s waved to the crowds and stands in places where there might be snipers or kidnappers, but has never had to pretend to be her sister 24/7, suddenly finds herself in another city, alone for the first time, without Rafi waiting in the wings to switch at the last moment. Because no one knows there are two. He hid the fact, from the beginning, that he had twins.

“Well that’s super Machiavellian, right? That was the era where you’d send your kid to be raised by your allies so that you’d be sharing court culture and stuff like that, and there would be loyalties both ways. Also, if you messed with your allies, they had your kid, so you would try to keep following the treaty. So there is something very Machiavellian about the plot.”

On the ways climate change inspires his writing:
“I do think global warming is the issue that fundamentally underlies everything else that we’re doing. Our future depends on it, and our planet depends on it. It’s very slow and very hard to see, and that makes it a very difficult thing to write about, a very difficult thing to dramatize. If there were an asteroid coming toward us and it was going to hit us in two months, we’d probably work on solving the problem a little faster. Global warming is just there. It’s just a fact. It’s just reality. I think anybody who’s young really has a bigger stake in it. If you’re 15 now, that’s another 35 years you have to deal with this more than I do. So I do think it’s the big issue of our time in a sort of low key, subtle, lit fuse kind of way.”

On the dehydrated food he’d pack on a long dystopian journey:
“I would probably go with the CurryNoods. You can’t go wrong with the CurryNoods.”

On designing the hoverboard in the book trailer:
In 2010 or so, I got invited to a rural school in Indiana and they were doing an Uglies all-school read. Everyone who wanted one could get a copy, and this whole school read the book. They flew us out and when we got there, it was so cool and so amazing. The art class had done pictures of the characters and they’d done some costumes. The math class had made maps of Tally’s journeys using real cartographic skills. The shop class had made hoverboards.

“That was actually the coolest part because the hoverboards in my head—because of who I am, where I live—are very much Apple hoverboards. You know, sort of white extruded plastic, tyrannically minimalist, no features, no stuff, just this really smooth shape. But this was Indiana, so these were NASCAR hoverboards. Like, they had spoilers on the back. Not spoilers in the sense that readers talk about, but those things like air intakes. They had the stripes. They had STP stickers. And not only were these hoverboards local, but they were also very personal. They had lots of stickers of people’s favorite cartoon characters, and manga eyes or googly eyes. They had random Sharpie drawings, like when you get bored and draw on your shoes in school. These hoverboards looked like a kid’s backpack about two weeks before the end of the school year, covered with buttons and stickers.

“When we made the book trailer for Impostors, I said that’s something I really want to include, because that was how I realized that the Uglies readers know stuff about the book that I didn’t know when I wrote it. They know stuff about the reality of that world because they’ve lived that reality in a way that I haven’t, because they read it as kids. I wrote it as an adult. They embraced it in the community of other children, other readers, other teens, and that created the world in their heads to a level of detail and realism that never had existed in mine. And that’s happened in a million different ways and a million different settings. I have been taught by my readers the way Uglies should work and the way Uglies really should look.

“So when we did the trailer, I talked to the prop master and told him that whole story. He spent all this time tricking the hoverboard out and making it look like a kid—a kind of bored kid—had owned it, and had owned it for a while. It’s super personal and says, ‘Mine’ on it. It has different handwriting, like if different people had signed your hoverboard. It has different stickers on it. It has some eyes and random tape. Like all the crap you put on your bike, all the stuff that you use to decorate your room and your sports equipment, just all that clutter that comes with being a kid. I think there’s something really cool about that.

“Impostors takes place 15 years after Uglies, somewhere between 15 and 20 years later, and the Pretty regime has been overthrown. People don’t get the operation anymore and as a result, it’s a really different world. It has a lot more complexity, it has a lot more danger, the cities aren’t all the same. They’re all different, so they’re like the hoverboards in Indiana. Everything is localized. Everything’s been personalized. That world has gone off in all different directions, so when you travel from one city to another, a lot of things change. Some of the cities are kind of like utopias. Some of them are much more of dictatorships. They’ve all gone in different directions.

“I wanted to capture that in one simple image, which was this hoverboard.”

Scott Westerfeld is the New York Times bestselling author of the Uglies series, which has been translated into 35 languages; the Leviathan series; Afterworlds; Horizon; and many other books for young readers. He was born in Texas and alternates summers between Sydney, Australia and New York City.

Kelly Gallucci
Kelly Gallucci is the Executive Editor of Bookish.com, where she oversees Bookish's editorial content, offers book recommendations, and interviews authors like Leigh Bardugo, V.E. Schwab, and Sabaa Tahir. She's just coming off of moderating an author panel at New York Comic Con. When she's not working, Kelly can be found color coordinating her bookshelves, eating Chipotle, and binging Netflix with her pitbull. She is a Gryffindor.

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