Written by: Rylee Thomas
As the spring semester wound to a close, I had the honor of interviewing Caragh M. O’Brien, the author of two wildly successful young adult dystopian novel trilogies: Birthmarked and Vault of Dreamers.
Once a high school English teacher, O’Brien began her career as an author by writing romance novels. It was wonderful to chat with O’Brien about Birthmarked, the first of her two dystopian trilogies, which I’d just begun reading. Birthmarked tells the story of sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone, a midwife who delivers babies in the harsh wasteland outside the walled Enclave, which she must then hand over as a “quota” to the privileged class inside. O’Brien’s second trilogy, Vault of Dreamers, welcomes readers to the prestigious Forge School of the Arts, where every waking moment of its students’ lives is televised. Rosie Sinclair, a student filmmaker at the school, dreams of succeeding at Forge. However, when she skips her sleeping pill on night, she discovers a ghastly reality behind the cameras.
Read on to learn more about O’Brien’s inter-genre, many-layered journey through the world of writing and publishing!
Rylee Thomas: So, let’s talk about Birthmarked, which I just started this week. I’m about halfway through the story so far, it’s been gripping. I haven’t read a dystopia in so long. I wanted to ask you, how did you create Gaia as a character? Why did you want to write the story of a girl who’s a midwife and also a bit of an outcast? I was very intrigued by that.
Caragh O’Brien: Well, I knew I wanted to write about a female character who had a job that would lead her into life and death situations. Because it’s really helpful to write a story where the stakes are high, you can’t get much higher than births, you know. So that was important to me. And I’d always been interested in midwifery. And I wasn’t aware of a lot of books about midwifery. There’s one called The Midwife’s Apprentice, which is a middle-grade novel. Very dark and very harsh. I read it not that long ago and was surprised at how hopeless it seems. But it’s the reader’s hope that things will get better for that character that drives the story. And it felt like it hadn’t been overdone to do midwives. So, that’s why I chose to have her have that job. And that helped form her character, because then she was involved with a lot of ethical decisions, too.
Rylee: Absolutely. From what I’ve seen so far, that definitely holds true. All the situations she’s driven into are fascinating. I also wanted to ask you about what inspired the world that Gaia lives in?
Caragh: My husband and I, and two of our children, were driving across the country back in 2008. We were driving across the southern states where there was a drought at that time, and I saw a lake that had no water left in it anymore. And I thought, Oh, well, climate change is happening. This is, you know, over a dozen years ago, and I started thinking, Well, what’s gonna happen to regular people — you know, like, not like the superstars who will build their islands of safety, but what’s gonna happen to regular people when climate change happens. I used to visit Lake Superior a lot when I was a kid, because I grew up in Minnesota. So I just chose that symbolically. And imagined the lake gone. And I thought, okay, so the lake is gone. We’re living in the future. It’s dry and regular people are surviving still. What would they be like? So that was it was a question I was posing to myself. I mean, it was related to what I was seeing out my window, with that fear that climate change is going to be having an impact on people now. And not in the distant future, but now. That was the first time I felt it so immediately, and that’s why I wanted to write about it. Of course, things have gotten much worse in the last 12 years. We do feel it now, as is even acknowledged by a lot of people who were completely oblivious or ignoring or denying it at the time. So that’s what that was about.
Rylee: That’s so fascinating. Thank you so much. On another note, Dr. Wright mentioned to me that you’ve written novels in many different genres. For example, you started in romance, I think, and transitioned to dystopia. That’s something that seems so unique to me. I was wondering what caused you to switch genres in your writing?
Caragh: I read romances a lot when I was a teenager, and they were just so delightful and so fun. And so feminist and so underrated. So when I first finished college, I decided I was going to write a romance. How hard can it be, you know? And I wrote one, and it was accepted right away, I thought, well, this is great. I can write romance novels. But then it took another 10 years for me to write something else that was published. So, it’s a lot harder than it looks. And in the meantime, I was writing other novels that were not romances, they were family sagas and more mainstream or literary things, and none of them were published. So, you know, I would try something and if it didn’t work, I would try something else. And so then I had another little set of romances that were published, I think five more. And then I thought, Okay, well, one of these doesn’t pay very much. Vance was offering like $5,000, which is still going, right from what it was back in the 80s. But still hardly went anyone gets paid very much for romance novels. I didn’t want to keep doing that. I thought, well, if I can’t earn enough from my writing, I want to go contribute to the world with something else. So, I went to become an English teacher. And I did that for a good spell. And then one year when I was on sabbatical, that same trip that I was driving West, it was my husband and kids. That’s when I started writing Birthmarked, which was just, you know, the best novel I could write at the time, I wasn’t thinking, particularly that it was young adult, or that it was dystopian, but I, you know, I was teaching high school English, so I knew a lot of teenagers and respected them a lot. And it made sense to me. Gaia. 16. So, I wrote the best book I possibly could, and I sent it out. And my agent said, Yeah, this is a young adult dystopian novel. And I was like, Oh, I guess you’re right. It is. So, what happened is that all along, I wrote what interested me the most, and sometimes, things are sellable. And sometimes they’re not. But I just write what I care about, and then I have practical considerations. So like, when I reached a point where I needed to be making money, and I couldn’t do it with romances. So I stopped writing and went to go be a teacher, but it turned out, I couldn’t stop writing. I liked doing it too much. And then Birthmarked sold in a three-book deal, and it was going to pay me, you know, something commensurate to what I was earning as a teacher. And I realized, I guess I should stop teaching to write.
Rylee: That’s amazing. Did you expect that Birthmarked would be sold as a three-book deal? How did that get accomplished? Is it different than selling a single book?
Caragh: Yeah! First of all, I didn’t think it was going to be sold at all, right? Because I’d been trying to sell things out there so long. But when I sent it out to agents, quite a few asked to see the manuscript. Three or four, I guess it was, ended up requesting the manuscript, and three of them offered me representation. So, I knew something unusual was happening with this book. But even so, I thought, oh, you know, it’s just impossible to sell books, it won’t happen. But my agent was able to sell it. And he said, they would like it to be through a three-book deal. So, we’d have sequels. And it was only at that point that I realized, oh, I have to write two more books. Because I thought it was a standalone novel. But he’s like, Can you write two more books? And I was like, Yes, I can write two more books. So that’s when I knew it was a trilogy.
Rylee: Wow, that’s cool. So, you intended it to be a standalone at the beginning?
Caragh: I did. I won’t spoil it for you, but the ending it has now was not the original ending. The ending it has now is a much stronger ending would have been. It would have been the correct ending, even if we weren’t doing a trilogy. But knowing it was going to be three books, I changed it.
Rylee: Oh, that’s cool. I’m at the part where Gaia saves the baby from the dying mother. I love that it gave the book a stronger ending. I’m not very far yet. But I’m very intrigued to see where the story goes.
Caragh: Yeah. Oh, you’ll see.
Rylee: So, on another line, do you have any advice for college students who want to be authors?
Caragh: Well, do you feel like you’ve had good direction, and that you have a sense of how to go forward with writing?
Rylee: I feel like I do. I’ve done many workshops while I’ve been here. That’s the advice that I’ve been given by people who have published things in the past. They’ve said, you know, learn as much as you can while you’re at school, take as much criticism as you can, and be very open to what others are saying. And that’s kind of how I’ve been going about it.
Caragh: Yeah, I think that that’s good advice. I think learning stuff from workshops and fellow writers is a great way to get a spark and discover how much you like doing it. Because if you’re enjoying reading other people’s things, and enjoying writing the stories, and enjoying studying the stories that you use as examples, if that’s the thing that lights you up, that’s a pretty good indication that that’s a nice direction for you to go. Other people, they take those classes and it just feels like labor. It’s not going to work for them. Because most of the writing you do is just this sort of private, solitary artistic experience, with no outside eyes and no monetary reward. So if that’s where you get satisfaction, then you’re going to be fine.
Rylee: That’s great to hear. I enjoy those workshops. I love reading what other people write. And I like to have my things workshopped. Whether it’s predominantly positive or negative, feedback that I’m receiving, I enjoy the process.
Caragh: I think I can add to that. One of my professors, when I was in college, said that if you’re good at editing other people’s things, then that helps you become a better writer yourself, because you’re able to unpack what’s going on in a story and the craft underneath it. So it’s never a waste of time, if you’re spending, you know, an hour or two, looking at somebody else’s work trying to figure out well, why is this working? What could make it better? My favorite stuff to do is always the line-by-line editing. But what’s hard is the global editing, or writing a first draft. Just trying to get the main ideas down is a real challenge for me. So, you have to be able to do both, believe it or not.
Rylee: I always benefit from the line-by-line edits, too. I’m writing a novel right now, and I’ve rewritten my first few chapters, so many times, I completely structurally reworked them. I don’t know if that’s the best strategy, but that’s what I’ve been doing.
Caragh: Well, it’s a good strategy, because it brings you pleasure. But I think some of the best advice I got was to the end. Because to me, it’s tempting to go back and rework and rework, but you might find by the time you reach the end of the novel, that you don’t even need those first three chapters. And it’s going to be especially painful to cut them, if you’ve devoted six months to them. So, if at all possible, I would urge you to get to the end of the book. You will know so much more by the last page than you did, you know, 30 pages in. It’s just hard. It sounds like you’re like me, in that it’s much harder to write a first draft than to revise.
Rylee: That’s definitely true.
Caragh: So try to get to the end. But here’s some comfort: you don’t have to know how it’s ending while you’re writing it. So, if you’re done with the first third, you just have to figure out what’s happening on the page while you’re writing it. There are plenty of people who say you should outline things, you know, just follow your outline. But that’s not how it works for me at all, if I tried to outline things, I just waste all the time doing it. The only way for me to see the novel or understand the characters is to be in a scene with them, imagining what they’re saying, seeing, and smelling, and what their emotions are. That’s the only way I can make myself go forward. So I keep having to relearn that, because I keep thinking, Oh, it’d be so nice to have a structure first. But structures don’t work for me.
Rylee: I feel the same way! Lots of people advise me to plot things very carefully. I have a five-page outline. But whenever I create something like that, I always deviate from it so much my characters go in a completely different direction.
Caragh: Yeah. I mean, it is helpful if it helps you think through your characters. But when I’m sitting down with the page, and the people are trying to talk, I have to be there with them doing it to know what’s going to happen. And I do so much more thinking than what shows up on the page. So for instance, one of them can be talking about, you know, how to find her mother. To do that, you have to know if they have vehicles, how far away the mother is, why she would want to find her mother, if she’s going alone, how old she is, etcetera. I mean, there are so many other things you have to think about, just to get somebody in a car, on a bicycle, or in a wheelbarrow. And is it raining? There are just so many other things that you have to imagine, just to get them out the door. So, I like to do all that thinking while I’m trying to write.
Rylee: Definitely. That’s awesome. Do you have any advice for if you have an ending in mind, and you have — hypothetically, you know — a lot of the first part of the book written, how you would go about the middle part? Do you have advice on writing the middle of the book?
Caragh: Is that where you are?
Caragh: Yeah, maybe just skip the middle. I mean, can you just get to the ending?
Rylee: I guess I could!
Caragh: Yeah, and maybe the middle doesn’t even need to be there. If it feels like that. If it’s not interesting to you, you don’t write it. If you can just get to the ending, then that maybe means that you don’t. Maybe the characters don’t need to grow in the ways you think. Is it important? I don’t know.
Rylee: That’s so true. That’s definitely something to think about for me.
Caragh: Yeah. You could try writing the ending and then backtrack and say, Oh, well, I guess I needed to set this up better. I don’t know. Because I don’t know what’s happening with your book. Is your novel is young adult, right? This is so cool.
Rylee: Yeah! Young adult. Paranormal fiction.
Caragh: It’s cool because there are so many different genres you can go into with fiction. So interesting. Do you have any other questions?
Rylee: Yes! I was wondering if, growing up, certain authors or books inspired your writing style?
Caragh: My style? Yeah, probably. I like writers who are very direct and clear. Like, I’ve always liked Jack London’s stuff. I started with The Call of the Wild. And then some of his other novels too. Strunk and White’s book on writing when I was in high school, too. It’s nonfiction. But the concept of omitting needless words was compelling to me. I took the advice in White’s book to heart, and I’m glad I found it at a young age. Because it would have been tempting, I think, to get super flowery, to add lots of adjectives and adverbs if I had not run into that so soon. So, that was good. I liked Captain Blood. I liked The Girl of the Limberlost. I liked Anne of Green Gables and the Tolkien novels, and CS Lewis. Phantom Tollbooth. I just read whatever I could find. And I liked almost everything.
Rylee: I always loved Anne of Green Gables and CS Lewis. Those are some of my favorites. My dad loves Jack London, though I’ve never read his books myself.
Caragh: Oh, yeah, good stuff. They’re symbolic for all kinds of people. It’s all about civilization, even though it’s about dogs. I mean, that was a great, great book.
Rylee: That’s cool. My English teacher from high school loves Strunk and White’s book, and he would always take a lot of his advice for his students from that book. When I was first figuring out that I loved writing and wanted to improve, I would always insert so many adjectives. I just had thesaurus out and I thought it was making it better. I learned very quickly that it was not.
Caragh: Yes! But it’s hard to see that, because it’s so lovely to have all those words that seem to express exactly what you want. And so it’s hard when you discover that they’re slowing down the idea. People want to get to the real concept. And if those words are in the way, it slows it down. It’s called Elements of Style. Stephen King also has a great one on writing advice.
Rylee: I’ve seen pieces of his advice on social media. I should get around to reading the book!
Caragh: What’s your major?
Rylee: English and communication. Double major. I just love books. I don’t know what I want to do with my life other than writing books, even though I feel like I should have a backup plan in case you know, I can’t be a full-time author.
Caragh: People say to get good at what you do. So, you write, if that’s what you’re good at. If you teach, that’s what you’ll get good at. I wanted to write, but I loved teaching, too. That was kind of cool, discovering that I could love something else as well, because I thought I only loved writing. But, I love teaching too. So, if you do end up finding a backup career to support yourself, it might turn out to be something you love to do as well. And then writing fits well around that most of the time. I did not know about MFA programs until after I graduated from college. But obviously, there are graduate programs in writing. There are some advantages to going to them, though for some people, they’re not necessary. However, there are some for writing children’s books. Maybe you’ve already discovered that the Vermont College of Fine Arts has program spots specifically for earning an MFA in writing for children. My niece just graduated from that in January. It’s a two-year program. And there are other universities across the country that offer programs for writing for young adults. You can go there and focus on that, and get support from teachers for that. I received my master’s from the writing seminars at John Hopkins. And it was not for children’s writing, even though that’s what I ended up doing. It was a one-year program, which for me was good, because I did not want to spend a lot of time getting my degree. I wanted a foundation, and then I wanted to be turned loose. So, you find things that suit you. A lot of the writers I know just wrote all the time, and you couldn’t stop them. And they’re publishing just fine. There’s a cool article that I only recently discovered that was written back in 2010, called, I think MFA versus NYC. If you haven’t run into that yet, it’s an interesting perspective on how MFA programs have created their own culture, for writing. It’s juxtaposed against New York City as, like, a place where people actually publish books. It’s interesting to think about how people rarely go back and forth between the two worlds. If you get going in academia, and you’re writing short stories that end up in anthologies, you can end up being a faculty person in the MFA program. Whereas if you don’t do that, and you are in writing novels that get published in New York, you might find a career that way. This is to give you a global picture about the options ahead of you.
Rylee: I love all those ideas. I want to go to grad school in some capacity, whether it’s an MFA program, or just getting my master’s in English. It’s silly, but I look at it as a way to keep figuring things out. You know, stay in school long enough that you have more time.
Caragh: There’s something to that. Good programs, fortunately, are not expensive. When I was able to get my master’s, they gave me a fellowship. And they paid me to be a teaching assistant. So I didn’t have to go into debt to get my degree, which was helpful. Just throwing that out there. My father in particular was very surprised and impressed by that, because the thing he thought that as a writer, I was going to be just, you know, dependent forever. But, you know, it was cool because it gave me a degree, and it’s a way to sustain yourself.
Rylee: Wow, that’s cool. I’m glad a lot of those programs come with some compensation.
Caragh: Yeah, for sure. Wow. Okay. Did we get through all the interview questions that you had for your article?
Rylee: Yes! You touched on everything with your answers.
Caragh: Well, that’s great.
Rylee: Thank you so much, Caragh!
Caragh: Thank you!