VANESSA LEN is a bestselling Australian fantasy author who writes about about girl anti-heroes, monsters, and enemies who are maybe in love. Never a Hero is the brilliant sequel to the bestselling Only a Monster – where the line between monster and hero is razor thin. Good Reading for Young Adults caught up with Vanessa to discuss her new book.
ABOUT THE BOOK
MEET VANESSA LEN
Why did you choose London as the setting for your novels?
Only a Monster and Never a Hero are about time-travelling monsters, and London seemed an ideal setting for time-travel. There’s an incredible amount of information about it, from its early history to the present day. I was even able to overlay old maps on modern ones to figure out exactly where the characters would have to be standing to time-travel to lost landmarks.
What is your favourite aspect of writing YA fantasy books?
I’ve always loved fantasy and science fiction – I think it’s so cool to be able to build and explore worlds that only exist in the imaginations of you and the readers. It’s particularly fun to write young adult fantasy because the characters are often experiencing big life events for the first time – first love, first grief – and through those experiences they change and adapt and grow. I enjoy following characters who are learning about themselves at the same time that they’re facing new challenges, and exploring new worlds.
What was your process for creating the world of the monsters?
The first thing I did was try to identify what exactly I love most in stories. I made a huge list of all my favourite books, TV shows, movies and characters. And then I looked for commonalities between them, trying to figure out exactly what I liked. I ended up with a distilled list that included very specific things like ‘time travel’ and ‘characters who turn out to be more than they seem’. That list became the initial building blocks for the world of monsters.
After that, I spent about three years developing the world, the model of time-travel and the characters before I started writing the book.
Who is your favourite character?
My favourite characters to write are the ones who shake up conversations by being a bit blunt or grumpy or rude. In this series, I really enjoy writing Joan’s grandmother and her cousin, Ruth.
Is there someone in your life who has inspired your character Joan?
I didn’t base Joan on anyone, but I did give her a similar background to mine. Like my Dad, Joan’s Dad is Malaysian Chinese. When I was a teenager, I always wished that I could read about characters who looked like me having big, exciting adventures. Joan isn’t anything like me, though – she’s much braver and more inclined to jump into the action!
What gave you the idea to write a novel from the side of the monsters?
The series has a central rivalry between a monster girl and a monster hunter. I was originally inspired by that feeling when the hero of the story isn’t necessarily the hero of your story. When I was growing up, there wasn’t much representation of people who looked like me in the big blockbuster action films and TV shows I loved. But I did sometimes see myself represented in the ‘bad guys’. I’d notice that sometimes Asian characters would turn up just for the fight scenes, and they would get beaten up and killed by the story’s hero.
So the first seed of inspiration was that feeling when a hero – maybe even a good, upright and decent hero – isn’t necessarily on your side; when they’re fighting against you rather than for you.
What are you hoping your readers take away from this series?
I was particularly interested in how narratives can shape how we see people. Narratives can confer empathy for characters just by showing characters’ backstories and their relationships with loved ones. (And they can deny that empathy by not showing it.) I wanted to create a world where you can understand and feel empathy for everyone’s perspectives – even if those perspectives seem irreconcilable.
What can you tell us about the next book?
Only a Monster is about a sixteen-year-old girl named Joan who learns that she is a monster – and then finds out that the guy she has a crush on is a monster-slayer. The sequel, Never a Hero begins a few months after the end of the first book. And just like in Only a Monster, there are lots of twists and turns and secrets to learn about the monster world. And this time, there are a few more enemies around!