In Scott Westerfeld’s graphic novel Spill Zone, a mysterious spill contaminates Poughkeepsie, New York and transforms it into a haunting and unearthly place. Addison, a local teen, gets more than she bargained for when she enters the Zone to take photographs. The first book was tantalizing and creepy, and it left us wanting more. The sequel, The Broken Vow, is one of our must-reads of summer 2018 and we’ve been counting down the days until it hits shelves. To celebrate the book’s publication, we chatted with Westerfeld about the origins of the spill, Addison’s growth throughout the series, and his desire to explore the Zone himself.
Bookish: The Spill Zone series is your second foray into the world of comics, and you’ve said that working on the Uglies manga gave you the tools you needed to write Spill Zone. What did you learn from that experience that helped you the most?
Scott Westerfeld: The main thing I learned was that in each scene the images and the words should do two different jobs. If the dialog is expositing, the images should be pushing the narrative forward. If the dialog is exploring character, the pictures should be world-building. If a character says “trust me,” the art should say “don’t.”
The more interesting way to have two mediums working together is to have them push against each other. That’s my guiding principle for comics.
Bookish: What was your process like as you collaborated with Alex Puvilland, the series illustrator?
SW: Alex is a great storyteller, and would often slow down my pacing. He turned a lot of four-page scenes into six pages, or eight, especially silent scenes, where the otherworldliness of the Zone was being explored. It fills the books with creepy absences, which is perfect for a series about a lost city.
Sometimes he added dialogue, which usually has an odd and amusing flavor, because Alex is French—so I’d get his drift and rewrite it in idiomatic English. But there’s also a climactic passage in The Broken Vow where he wrote four new pages without consultation, and I didn’t change a word, because it was just perfect.
Bookish: The local hospital is an important setting in the series. It’s a place Addison is terrified to go because it seems to be the heart of the spill and it’s also where she believes her parents died. In the series, the hospital closely resembles the Hudson River State Hospital, a real abandoned building in Poughkeepsie that is rumored to be haunted. Did that location inspire the one in the book?
SW: Yes, it did. I’ve always been fascinated and creeped out by abandoned buildings. I used to explore them in my youth, sneaking in to see how reality can crumble into distorted versions of itself. Alex actually went to Poughkeepsie, and used a lot of “urban explorers'” pictures to recreate the hospital.
Bookish: Addison takes photos of the Spill Zone to support herself and her sister Lexa, but her journey also represents creating art after loss or trauma. What made this a theme you wanted to explore in this series?
SW: A lot of life is watching certainties get obliterated. You lose loved ones. Your body betrays you. Your once-stable country shambles and shudders. Even when life is good, you don’t know when the next earthquake is coming. But you have to keep on working.
Poughkeepsie, where Spill Zone is set, was once the center of a thriving ice industry. Ships floated glaciers down the Hudson in winter, and they were stored in giant ice-houses in Po-town, to be sold over the summer to New York. And then a strange technology called refrigeration came and destroyed everything. But old ice-houses are still beautiful, even though they represent loss and economic tragedy.
Bookish: The Spill Zone often feels like a mirror for Addison’s grief—a place trapped in time, where everything feels wrong, and there’s a sense that something important is missing. Returning to the Zone means that she has to confront the losses she’s experienced and her own choices on the night of the spill over and over. Aside from her financial obligations, what drives her back into the Zone?
SW: I think you’ve answered your own question. She’s looking for some kind of closure for her grief, for what happened. She’s looking for answers and a way to heal.
In a way, she’s like any person growing up in an industrial town in the USA. She has to face nostalgia at a young age. The past looms larger than the present, and things seem to be slipping away all around her. The underpinnings of reality don’t seem particularly solid. Art is sometimes the only way to capture things that are fading out.
Bookish: I’ve heard you say that the bravest thing Addison does is not going into the Spill Zone but “dealing with normal life after normalcy is stripped away.” Why do you feel that way?
SW: When you’ve lost people you love, the hardest part is continuing to live without them. Your normal life is forever altered but you still have to deal normality. Going to funerals is tough, but getting up and putting on your clothes and eating breakfast the day after a funeral is often a hundred times tougher.
Bookish: We learn more about Vespertine in Broken Vow—both where she came from and how she came to be trapped in Lexa’s doll. Was her character always conceived of as a doll, and what is it about dolls that you think continue to creep us out?
SW: Yes, Vespertine was always a doll. But her creepiness is more about the weirdness of childhood than that of dolls. Children live in their own Zone, creating imaginary friends and dark spots in the house. Spill Zone partly is about that kind of power spilling into our safe, adult world. So having a doll as a key character made perfect sense.
Bookish: Addison is offered a million dollars to go into a dangerous area of the Spill Zone to retrieve a box of radioactive dust. Would you venture into the Spill Zone for a million dollars?
SW: I’d probably go in for way less, like… nothing? Sometimes I’m too curious for my own good. And I love getting the perfect photo, especially from somewhere precarious and forbidden.
Bookish: We get a glimpse in this book of the place where the spill came from. It’s portrayed as being far less defined than our world, both in shape and color. As a reader, it seems to be a place beyond our comprehension. How do you view that world?
SW: What you said. It’s the unknowable. A world outside the range of our senses. My description for Alex was “phantasmagoric mathematical glory,” which means almost… nothing. But he’s a genius, as is Hilary Sycamore (the series colorist), and those would up being some of my favorite pages in the book. It’s like looking at another world through eyes you didn’t know you had.
Bookish: In the book, Addison says that the Spill Zone changes you and her buyer replies, “All the best art does.” What art has changed you?
SW: Okay, here’s a list of art that has changed me in a Spill-Zone way—by being creepy, otherworldly, and mysterious: the choreography of Pina Bausch, the music of Xenakis, the novels of Samuel R. Delany, the photographs of Cindy Sherman, the clothing of Issey Miyake, and the films of Park Chan-wook.
Bookish: The conclusion to the second book is immensely satisfying, but there are still a few questions left unanswered. Do you hope to return to the Spill Zone universe? If so, what would you most want to explore next there?
SW: After the first book was published, I was hanging out with Alex in LA, and we got a review emailed to us on our phones. The reviewer said, basically, “Spill Zone is great because of the questions it doesn’t answer.” And we were like, “He’s going to hate book two.” Because we really do answer the big questions: Why did the Zone come to be? Whose fault was it? Why is Vespertine so damn creepy?
True, we don’t know what happens next, but us puny humans never do.
If I did decide to tell more stories in that world, it would be about another Zone in another part of the world, or another part of history, where people react to mysteries in a very different way. That’s what’s interesting to me about Spill Zone—not the mysteries of the Zone, but the weirdness of normal people who go to a boring job next to a giant wall, never really asking themselves what’s on the other side.
Scott Westerfeld is the author of the worldwide bestselling Uglies series and the Locus Award–winning Leviathan series, and is co-author of the Zeroes trilogy. His other novels include the New York Times bestseller Afterworlds, The Last Days, Peeps, So Yesterday, and the Midnighters trilogy.