Sunset Rising: A Conversation with Laura Rees

By Jessica A. Kent

Tucked away in the back of the Boston Public Library, beyond the arched ceilings of Bates Hall and the paintings of Galahad adorning the Abbey Room, is an office, trimmed in dark wood and warm lighting, with a window that overlooks Huntington Ave., young adult novels stacked on the sill, and a National Geographic poster of the Amazon rainforest tacked to the wall. And though the large wooden desk is free from any type of clutter or notes, it doesn’t mean that work isn’t being done.

The office belongs, for the time being, to Laura Rees, the 2017–2018 Associates of the Boston Public Library Writer-in-Residence. The fellowship is a nine-month residency at the central branch of the BPL in Copley Square, for an author working on a project of “fiction, non-fiction, a script, graphic novels, or poetry, intended for children or young adults” (Assoc. of BPL). The fellowship requires 19 hours a week at the Library, and gives a $20,000 stipend, the intention of which is to “Provide an emerging children’s writer with the financial support and office space needed to complete one literary work.” That’s exactly what appealed to Rees.

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“The draw for me was being able to devote the time to my own writing that I would have devoted to freelancing, and still make the same amount of money or a little more,” Rees explained as we talked in her office on one of those rare warm February afternoons. When she was applying for the fellowship, she researched every past winner (Rees is the fourteenth), and how they came to apply, what works were produced out of the residency, and where their journey took them. “I feel like it’s a career launcher, honestly, this fellowship. I went into the application thinking, ‘If I get this fellowship, it’s going to be the launch of my career.’” Recent fellowship holders include Lisa Rosinsky, whose debut novel, Inevitable and Only, was published this past fall; Natalie Coward Anderson, whose novel City of Saints and Thieves, was published in January 2017; Annie Hartnett, whose acclaimed novel Rabbit Cake, was published in March 2017; and Jennifer de Leon, whose debut novel, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, will be published in 2020.

The fellowship commenced with a reading and reception this past October at the Library, a kind of changing of the guard, when Lisa Rosinsky, the previous writer-in-residence, gave a reading from the novel she wrote while on the fellowship. Afterwards, she handed a copy of Robin & Mariana, a modern, queer re-telling of the legend of Robin Hood, to the Associates, wrapped in a ribbon. Rees then read a bit from her first chapter to an audience of BPL affiliates, friends, and family, introducing the public to her main character Sultan Ferry. The fellowship is complete in May, and she’ll turn over the final manuscript in October, when the next fellowship winner is inducted. Then, it will be up to her to find representation and get her novel published; though the fellowship will help open doors, she knows that “I still have to write a good book.”

From There to Here

Laura Rees, 31, was born and raised in Ohio, completing a BA in English from Malone University. After taking a brief detour to Hawaii, she ended up in Boston about five years ago. For Rees, writing began early. “I have been a writer since I popped out of the womb. I have really never had a stronger interest than writing. We still have boxes full of stories that I wrote and illustrated when I was a child, so I was writing all the time, all the time. That’s all I wanted to do.” The trajectory wasn’t straight up, and Rees’s passion for creative writing became impeded by undergraduate writing workshops, venues where she had to produce stories. “I kind of lost the flame a little bit when I was studying and had to be doing it. So I wrote less during college. And then a couple years after college I picked it back up again and really ran with it and decided I wanted to do something with it professionally.” Which led her to apply to the fellowship, and ultimately led to this desk at the BPL.

But Rees’s entrée into writing a novel took a round-about route, through non-fiction, memoir, ghostwriting, and editing. A few essays exist, as well as a “pretty cohesive first draft of a memoir of my time in Hawaii,” but, interestingly, fiction always remained elusive. “Fiction was really daunting to me,” she confessed. “It was too open-ended. I feel like fiction is more vulnerable than non-fiction or memoir because you’re creating something out of nothing. When you’re writing memoir or non-fiction, there are truths that you stick to. You’re writing about real life and that’s your framework, something that actually happened. But with fiction it’s just completely out of your head. You’re creating something new, and something that’s completely you, in a way that doesn’t have to adhere to reality or a string of events that actually happens. It’s more vulnerable and shows more of your imagination and your mentality than memoir does. I was too scared of being critiqued for my fiction than when I was writing memoir, and so I didn’t branch out, didn’t think that I would write fiction because it was too scary.”

And what about now, that she’s in the middle of writing a lengthy work of fiction?

“While my belief about the vulnerability hasn’t changed, my relationship with it and comfort with it has changed,” she responded. “It’s more exciting than daunting to me now, and it’s allowing me to discover different ways of writing, different ways of thinking about myself and about people and psychology than I have before. It feels like an expansion of what I was writing before and the way I thought about writing before, so I’m more comfortable with it. I like the vulnerability now. It’s taking me to a good place, writing-wise.”

Shaping Sunset

The place where she’s going, writing-wise, is the novel Sunset Sultan. The book centers around 16-year-old Sultan Ferry, the youngest – and last – person in the world due to a global fertility crisis. As such, he’s become the fascination of humanity and the focus of his own reality television show, where he’s filmed 24/7. But he’s a teenager who wants privacy and adventure, so he and his best friend Dev (the second youngest person in the world) take off to the Amazon rainforest, chasing theories that untapped tribes there have figured out a way to procreate. That’s where the large map of the Amazon on the wall, looming as a muse, comes into play; the research Rees is doing is bringing her into the rainforest, into its geography and flora and fauna and tribes, in an attempt to understand the place well enough to represent it in fiction. Her research also includes behind-the-scenes production of reality television shows. “Lots of Google Earth and watching YouTube videos.”

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The idea for Sunset Sultan developed in undergrad, when one of Rees’s professors postulated the theory of finite genetic combinations: What if, when all the possible gene permutations happen, humanity stops reproducing? The idea fascinated “angsty, apocalyptic undergrad me,” and she wrote the first few chapters of a novella about the parents of the last person born, and their constant media attention. The idea stuck around, and when searching for projects for the fellowship, Rees came back to the book, deciding to focus instead on the child of the couple. The parents still play a role, but previous versions, mostly written in third person, were scrapped in order to focus on Sultan as, quite literally, the star. The novel’s point of view has evolved as well, into first person present, capturing the immediacy and focus of the teen’s story.

The quiet of the office we’re in is in direct contrast to the buzzing library just a few entranceways away, and that kind of juxtaposition – the crowds giving their attention to every nook and cranny of the library, and the secluded office tucked away behind the walls – lends itself towards understanding the kind of themes Rees is surfacing in her novel, which addresses issues of surveillance and privacy. Young adults today live in a social media-rich environment where they are their own stars, playing out their fifteen minutes of fame on the app of the moment, crafting and demonstrating their lives for anyone willing to watch – and there’s always someone willing to watch. “Most teens feel a pressure to perform, like everyone’s looking at them, watching them, examining their behavior, like they’re on a stage of sort. Every teenager feels like they’re the star of their own play. Taking that theme to the extreme, the entire world is watching this teenager [Sultan] and living vicariously through him: the social media presence and news stories, everything that’s surrounding him.” Rees wanted to juxtapose those themes of privacy and freedom against the question of responsibility. Sultan bears the obligation to play a role – entertainment, expectation, a last hope – for everyone else. “Figuring out how that responsibility is internalized, and what parts of it he wants to keep and what parts of it he wants to do away with, is something that is dealt with throughout the book,” Rees explains, stressing that juggling freedom, privacy, and responsibility will be his conflict.

YA Literature Renaissance

Since a young adult novel is the focus of her time here at the library, we talked a bit about the state of young adult fiction today, which seems to be in an ever-expanding evolution. The concept of novels for teens or young adults developed in the 1960s, and authors like Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, and Robert Cormier dominated those early years of publishing (CNN). Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine brought genre into the mix in the 1990s, but young adults novels – what are typically categorized as books marketed to ages 12-18 – as a true slice of the publishing pie weren’t prolific.

Then along came a young wizard.

Because of its massive appeal, 1997’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of the series, exposed the success of and desire for middle grade/young adult novels. Bookstores expanded their teen/young adult sections, publishers recognize the need in the marketplace they could fill, and published YA novels jumped from 3,000 titles in 1997 to 30,000 titles in 2009 (McSweeney's). In 2017, “Juvenile Fiction” sales were $181.7 million, up 2.1% over 2016 (which was up 3.8% over 2015), and accounted for roughly 27% of all book sales, according to Publisher’s Weekly.

The young adult novels of recent years are genre-defying, honest, and inclusive. The Young Adult Library Services Association, in their white paper “The Value of Young Adult Literature,” explains that though YA was “once dismissed as a genre consisting of little more than problem novels and romances, young adult literature has, since the mid-1990’s, come of age as literature – literature that welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking” (ALA). Leigh Bardugo, author of The Language of Thorns, insists that “YA keeps changing—it keeps challenging itself, expanding, demanding more of its stories” (Booklist). And while Rees is a relative newcomer to the YA world, she understands that YA has a unique role to play. “It’s very straight-forward, and not that it’s not nuanced and profound in its own way, but it's unapologetic about feelings. Teenagers tend to have a lot of really strong feeling about a lot of things, and are figuring things out. YA tackles that.” One sees this in the presence of the heavy topics that surface in YA novels today, and how the main characters are very often facing or experiencing these challenges for the first time in their lives. “YA is … probably a lot more political and challenging than it used to be, and I think that’s a good thing. Encountering different points of view in story form in literature, in fiction, is a really effective way for teens to start thinking about big themes, important things that that they’re just starting to grapple with and understand. I think YA does that well.”

The Craft of Writing

When asked what her favorite novels are, and what writers have influenced her style, she affirms that they’re one in the same. She credits her English undergrad degree giving her a solid foundation in literary fiction, which has influenced her style. “Things like Ishiguro and Murakami, light sci-fi, magical realism, that kind of stuff is my preferred reading. I feel like all my favorite novels have influenced my writing.” But the author with the earliest impact on her writing style was Kurt Vonnegut. Rees admits that although she’s moving away from Vonnegut’s influence with Sultan’s story, “I still like his bird’s eye view of things. He writes with a kind of detached observing narration that I very much enjoy and have copied at times.”

Rees credits her writing community – “little pockets of communities, actually, that make up my whole community” – with her development and growth. She’s currently in the master’s degree program for Literature & Creative Writing at Harvard Extension School, and credits her faculty and fellow students with being great encouragement. Out of those classes formed a bi-monthly writing group, who trade projects regularly. (“We’re very harsh, so it’s great.”) And if there were one piece of advice she could offer to growing writers, it’s to find a writing community. “It’s really hard to see your own work objectively, so getting those outside opinions and critiques are valuable to understanding what you’re doing well, and what you’re doing not so well.”

For Rees, writing is in the editing, and her process begins with pouring out whatever’s in her mind onto the page, whether there’s coherence or not, full sentences or fragments, discernable or indiscernible plot. She’ll then go back and begin straightening it all out, revision after revision. That’s where the writing group, and a number of miscellaneous writing friends willing to give feedback, come into play.

She also credits the literary community of Boston for influencing her writing career. “I feel like Boston is maybe the best place or at least one of the best places to be in the U.S. for literature, for being a writer. There’s a lot going on, a lot of organizations and groups and programs.” Like…? “Grub Street is huge, the writing conferences that they put on and the classes. There are MFA-equivalent programs at most of the local colleges that are fantastic. Obviously the libraries. The central library of Boston is a fantastic resource for connecting people and research. There are a ton of meetup groups on MeetpUp.com and Craigslist, I scour those frequently. There are a number of book clubs or writing circles in Boston and greater Boston.”

It'll be a few months before Rees has to give up her space at the large desk, with the window that lets in the sounds of traffic from below. And though the focus is on Sultan right now, when asked about future themes in future work, Rees circles back to the apocalypse. “I can’t imagine that I won’t write more about the end of the world, and society’s downfall. I have several novel ideas that fit into that general perspective.” The theme of privacy and freedom will probably resurface as well, as other projects she has in the back of her mind include exploring themes of escape, “or being in one suffocating place or mindset or environment and needing to get out, journeying out of that mindset or environment into freedom.” For now, Rees is shaping Sultan Ferry’s journey as she’s shaping her own, within the coridors of the Boston Public Library. It may be a while before we get to hold Sunset Sultan in our hands, but we’re eagerly awaiting its arrival, and Rees’s rise as a new voice in YA fiction.

Find out more about Laura Rees at her website, www.lauraerees.com. More information about The Associates of the Boston Public Library can be found hereThe application for the 2018-2019 Writer-In-Residence has just opened, due April 5.