David Weber has written over two dozen New York Times best selling novels, including his best-known works set in the Honor Harrington series. His fiction ranges from epic fantasy (Oath of Swords), to space opera (In Fury Born), to alternate history (1633), to military SF (Mission of Honor). With A Beautiful Friendship, he now enters the realm of YA fiction.
Q: So what inspired you to try your hand at writing fiction for young adults?
I've always wanted to write for younger readers, but most of what I do is fairly hardware-heavy military science fiction. I have done the three fantasy novels in the Bahzell series (and I'm working on the fourth book in that series now), but by and large I’m best known for military sci-fi. I probably have more relatively young readers that some people might think, despite the fact that most people would think of combat in which a lot of people get killed — including quite a lot of good guys — as being overly "adult" for some younger readers. And I've always thought that Robert Heinlein pretty much had it right when he talked about writing young adult novels: write it just the way you would for an adult, but leave out the cussing and the sex. Mind you, there seem to be a few people out there writing young adult novels today who don't think you should be leaving either of those out.
Science fiction written for a young adult should do three things.
First, and most immediately important, it should entertain the reader. It should make the reader care about the characters, want to find out what happens to them, and enjoy reading, exactly the way an "adult" book should entertain its intended readership. In short, it should be a satisfying reading experience which repays the reader for the time invested in it and, hopefully, encourages that reader to want to read other things.
Second, it should serve as a gateway to other science fiction—to all other kinds of reading as well, of course, but specifically to science fiction. It should introduce the reader to the wonder and the imagination of science fiction and to the fundamental optimism of science fiction. And it should do it in a way that causes the reader to step up to an increasingly complex palate of writing styles and story matter and concepts.
And, third (and perhaps most important of all), I personally think a young adult book should illuminate. I'm tempted to say teach, but that's too cut-and-dried a verb. Younger readers are by nature much more open to the world about them that the majority of older readers. Younger readers are also in a much greater state of flux. They are growing and changing — becoming, if you will — on a week-to-week, day-to-day, almost hour-to-hour basis. What they read, what they see on television or in the movies, pours into that permeable mold at the heart of that growing, changing, maturing human being. They have questions, they have concerns, they have worries, and everything they encounter becomes grist for answering those questions, dealing with those concerns or worries, one way or the other.
In recent years, young adult fiction has begun dealing with issues that it stayed away from in the past because writers and editors — and parents — thought kids weren’t ready to handle them yet. In many ways, stretching the boundaries of YA fiction is a very good thing, because it gives kids the opportunity to find books that are going to speak directly to their concerns. But I also think we may have gone too far in this respect. It's as wrong to suggest to young readers that the dysfunctional and the ugly and the destructive are the norm as it is to suggest to them that everyone else's parents are Ozzie and Harriet and that everyone else's world is one in which bad things never happen to good people.
My personal feeling is that young readers need to see characters they can identify with solving problems, confronting danger, having to make difficult moral decisions, but that it isn't necessary for them to do it in a moral wasteland or to have them solving those problems or confronting those dangers despite all of the adults around them.
Of course there have to be villains, and there has to be darkness if only to underscore the light, but I think there are ways to do that which will engender confidence and a sense of hope in a young reader without oversimplifying or trivializing the reality of the struggle or the difficulty of making the right decision.
So that's the modest little task — ha! — to which I have set my hand in A Beautiful Friendship.
Q: Has being a Dad affected your writing?
I don't really know that being a Dad has affected my writing. It's affected my awareness of how a given book of mine might impact a younger reader, but I've always tried to be aware of that. It's why I had a rather interesting discussion with a children's collection librarian at our local library when I suggested that perhaps one of the titles would be more appropriate for a more mature audience. The librarian was rather affronted that I should criticize the book's inclusion in the general children's collection . . . until I pointed out to her that I'd written the book in question. I'd say that (obviously) my experience as a Dad has had a greater effect on me where this particular book is concerned than in most of my other fiction, but mostly that's because it's confirmed my awareness of how the world grows and changes on an almost overnight basis through a kid's eyes and experience. At the time I went through that myself, I wasn't taking notes; now I am.
Q: Has writing YA had an effect on you as a Dad?
I honestly don't think so. That may not be a properly introspective response, but Sharon and I became parents rather later than most people do. We'd had time to talk about our attitudes towards children and about child rearing. And since we came to parenthood later than most, we'd had a greater opportunity to observe what other parents had done which seemed to us to have worked... or not. I tell people that I was undoubtedly a better father at 49 than I would have been at 25, but that at 25 I would have had the energy to keep up with them. That much is true. And when someone quoted the old saw to me about "The older I get, the smarter my old man becomes," my response was "No, he doesn't get any smarter, but he sure does get a lot more patient!"
So I'd say that writing YA hasn't changed my attitudes as a parent, but I didn't think that having written the book specifically targeted at a younger audience may have made me even more aware of that consideration of how a book is going to impact a personality which is at a particularly malleable stage in its development. My parents' attitude was always that the kids should be allowed to read pretty much whatever they wanted to read on the basis that if we understood what was in the book we'd be ready to handle it and if we didn't understand what was in the book it would go right over our heads. I think that attitude has much to recommend it, but I also suspect that even while my parents were adopting that attitude, they were being rather more careful about the books which were allowed to enter my orbit than I realized at the time. I was already inclined in that direction myself, but thinking about YA fiction from the perspective of someone actually writing it has, I think, made me even more conscious of that sort of parenting consideration.
Q: Are your kids reading your YA fiction, and if so, what was their reaction?
My twin daughters are nine and my son is eight, so A Beautiful Friendship, which is my first official YA, is targeted for a slightly older readership. I figure Megan and Morgan will probably be about ready for it in another year or so. At the same time, I think it's hard on a kid whose parent is a writer. On the one hand, there's all that pressure for them to read their mom or dad's books, and people want to know what they think of them. And on the other hand, they just want Mom and Dad to be Mom and Dad. I believe it's a mistake for someone who writes to push a child to read his stories until and unless that child wants to read them, and I also believe that a lot of children of writers are hesitant to read their parents' work because they think they'll be obligated to like it whether they really do or not, or that they may hurt their parents' feelings if they don't like it. Or, possibly even more important given the . . . pragmatism of childhood, that if they don't like it Mom or Dad will get really, really mad at them! So I'm not going to be holding my breath waiting for my kids' critical response to Daddy's books. I'll be delighted if they want to read them, and even happier if they actually like them when they do, but in the meantime I'm concentrating on steering them towards books I think would be good for them and towards some really old books that were my favorites when I was a kid.
Q: From one parent to another, why should someone buy this novel for their teenaged son or daughter?
Well, first because I hope their son or daughter would enjoy the book. Second, because I honestly believe it's a good book and that their son or daughter will enjoy it. Beyond that, what I've tried to create here is an exciting book with characters who are real people young readers can identify with — and care about — and in which decisions and responsibilities matter.
It's a book in which a young protagonist has to make decisions which have life or death implications, not just for herself but potentially for an entire intelligent species. Yet it's not one in which that youthful protagonist has to make those decisions despite the stupidity of the adults around them, or in some sort of alienated isolation. It's a book which confronts a young reader but doesn't batter him or her — in which the protagonist's travails are real, dangerous, frightening, but not bleak.
And it's about a protagonist who is resilient, smart, independent, brave . . . and not afraid to ask for help when she needs it. I hope it's the sort of book which, while entertaining, will encourage a reader to think about issues of moral responsibility and recognizing that while doing the "right thing" may not always be easy and may not always end up with "everyone living happily ever after," it's what moral human beings to . . . and that they sleep better at night because they do.
Q: Any childhood experiences inform your writing of this novel?
That's kind of like asking if rain causes you to get wet. Every writer's experiences inform all of that writer's writing — it works that way. There are some specific experiences of my childhood which color Stephanie's attitudes and responses, of course. It's a tiny bit different because Stephanie is female, which I wasn't, but my own . . . social interaction skills with kids my own age left a lot to be desired. And I was inclined upon occasion to be something of a rules lawyer in negotiations with my parents, as well. The moral decisions I had to make in my life when I was a teenager didn't have the sorts of implications for people beyond myself that Stephanie's do, but my experiences in those years did a lot to shape my perception of the qualities a morally responsible person has. In that respect, they shape everything I write, and they shape Honor Harrington just as much as they shape Stephanie Harrington. Beyond that observation, it would be very difficult for me to parse out which of the experiences that went into writing any given book come from childhood, young adulthood, or my current ancient and decrepit age bracket.
Q: How does writing YA differ from writing adult fiction?
The main differences between writing YA and adult fiction, for me, were that I had to reduce the number of viewpoint characters and I had to write about a character who wasn't fully in control of her own life.
I tend to write adult fiction which has lots of viewpoint characters, and I use even secondary characters as viewpoint characters in specific scenes. I may even create a character to use as viewpoint for just a single scene. I don't think that works as well in a young adult novel. I think the number of internal perspectives needs to be pruned back a bit, at the very least until the reader's had an opportunity to become completely familiar and conversant with the literary universe of that particular novel. And since you're writing for a younger audience, you have to concentrate as much as possible of the developed viewpoints in the younger character or characters in the novel. Because of the nature of A Beautiful Friendship, there have to be some adult viewpoint characters. If nothing else, the treecats are adults of their own species. But the total number of viewpoint characters needs to be held down and the younger characters have to be allowed to take point as the primary viewpoint characters in the book as a whole.
The other way in which YAs in general, and this one in particular, differ from the kind of book I usually write is that my protagonist is a child subject to the direction, discipline, and rules of her parents and the other adults and adult authority structures, like the Sphinx Forestry Service. All of us are actually constrained by rules and requirements, but I think that for young readers it's more evident that they are constrained more than it is that the adults around them are. That's something that has to be "real" in the young adult characters they read about, and it's something that an adult writing a YA has to be conscious of. The writer needs to provide realistic constraints arising from the characters' youth and at the same time to "play fair" with the characters' attitudes towards and responses to those constraints or limitations. And it's important for an adult writer to not gloss over the sort of burning sense of injustice a young person can feel when they believe that they've been unjustly limited . . . or when they see someone else being treated that way.
Q: How is this novel related to the Honor Harrington novels?
This novel takes place around four hundred years before the Honor Harrington novels. The book is set in the very early years of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, when Manticore is a brand-new, frontier star nation, far removed from the great economic and military power it becomes by Honor's day. Stephanie isn't in the military, there isn't any great war looming on the horizon, and the book is more concerned with exploring the new worlds of the Star Kingdom, creating the foundation for the later Star Kingdom Honor serves, and dealing with struggles and conflicts that are . . . smaller and more intimate, perhaps, yet no less important. Obviously, I hope that it will serve as a gateway to the Honor Harrington books as younger readers transition to more adult fiction, but this book can be read in complete isolation from the rest of the Honorverse and, hopefully, will be a satisfying read on its own merits and its own strength.
Q: What’s in it for those hardcore Weber fans who’ve already read the original novella that’s at the core of A Beautiful Friendship?
Well, about two thirds of the book. :^)
The novella "A Beautiful Friendship" really is about the first third of the complete novel, and even the portions of it which appeared in the novella have been reworked. Virtually all of the action and all of the characters are the same, and I don't think I actually changed any of the existing dialogue. But some scenes were significantly rewritten to do things like shift viewpoint perspective to Stephanie and to take the opportunity of a novel's greater word count to further explain and illuminate some points that were moved through rather quickly in the shorter version.
The rest of the book is entirely new, with a completely new (and dastardly) villain, and extends the situation at the end of the novella considerably further forward in terms of the future development not simply of human relations with treecats but of the Star Kingdom as a whole. And, frankly, throughout the entire book a confirmed Honorverse reader will find himself getting a much better and more comprehensive feel for the planet Sphinx than it's been possible for me to do in the adult books. The focus of this book is on Sphinx; the focus of the adult books has been on the wars being fought to defend Sphinx (and the other planets of the Star Kingdom), which means I've actually had very little time to spend "at home" on Honor's birth world. In this book, I finally get to spend that time.
Q: What are the future plans for Stephanie, Climbs Quickly and their friends?
Any idea when we’ll see more adventures in The Star Kingdom?
At the moment, Jane Lindskold and I are finishing up a collaborative novel which follows directly from A Beautiful Friendship. There's another one already in the works beyond that one. So, yes, there should be more books coming, and sometime soon, I hope! As to what will transpire in those books, well, let's just say that Stephanie and Climbs Quickly will continue to live "in interesting times."