ASHES by Ilsa J. Bick
Alex has run away and is hiking through the wilderness with her dead parents' ashes, about to say goodbye to the life she no longer wants to live. But then the world suddenly changes. An electromagnetic pulse sweeps through the sky zapping every electronic device and killing the vast majority of adults. For those spared, it's a question of who can be trusted and who has changed... Everyone still alive has turned - some for the better (those who acquired a superhuman sense) while others for the worse (those who acquired a taste for human flesh). Desperate to find out what happened and to avoid the zombies that are on the hunt, Alex meets up with Tom - an Army veteran who escaped one war only to find something worse at home - and Ellie, a young girl whose grandfather was killed by the electromagnetic pulse. This improvised family will have to use every ounce of courage they have just to find food, shelter, while fighting off the 'Changed' and those desperate to stay alive. A tense and involving adventure with shocks and sudden plot twists that will keep teen and adult readers gripped. (From Goodreads)
You can read my review here.
I'm very excited to have Ilsa J. Bick here today. I was lucky enough to be able to interview her in person, and let me tell you, it is fascinating to listen to her talk and share her stories. Please take a few minutes to learn more about this amazing author!
An early draft of Ashes existed before you rewrote it. What was different about this first version?
Everything. The basic premise in terms of a wave of an EMP sweeping the globe and bringing everything crashing down stayed the same. Everything else changed. The characters, who they were, what they did, what they were like, who came into the picture, the adventures that they had, all of that was incredibly different. It was actually supposed to be much more paranormal. I was going to tie it into a covert CIA operation that actually did exist, called the Stargate program, where they had psychics trying to look for secret weapons. There was actually a movie made about this. I thought that it would be interesting to take the real thing, go one step further, and make it work. I wrote and finished it, and I was actually supposed to workshop that novel. I had never workshopped a novel; I play well with others, but I write the book for me. I have enough self-doubt as it is that I worry about beginning to write for a committee. The workshop ended up being cancelled. I put the book away and thought I would come back to it later. I wrote another book and then pulled this draft back out, and was very glad I had never workshopped it. When I looked at it again, I understood why it wouldn’t have worked. So I got rid of the Stargate program, the paranormal elements, everything except one scene and the basic premise. Everything else is new
In Ashes, many of the teenagers become radically different after the EMP. Are hormones the key to the change?
I leave that very fluid, and I leave that up to your imagination. I don’t want to nail it down to one thing or another. The reason that I have kids changing so much is that adolescent brains are really, really complicated monsters. Their sleepwave cycles are different, their moods are different, they’re a wash of hormones, they’re gaining function, it’s all of those things. For adolescents, it’s where they are in life. Can hormones help with being one of those triggers? Of course. But the brain is so complicated, with so many chemicals, that it’s not unifactorial, it’s multifactorial. That’s also the basis for how the human body and intelligence and other things work.
Do all of the Spared (the teens not changed) have some kind of mental issue, even it it’s unknown to them?
Yes, there’s something different about them. And I know why. But even though I know, it may be that the readers will never know, because there’s no science that can explain this. You can have a lot of people hypothesize, but they can’t run any tests, so it can never be proven. And that’s fine with me. As long as I have plausible hypotheses, that’s all that matters to me. I don’t want to nail it down, because while that’s really interesting, I’m more interested in how people will deal with the situation.
On several occasions in the book you skip ahead several days. What prompted this decision?
I think that readers are really intelligent. And I know that it upsets some people that I skip ahead a couple of days. But I leave you enough clues and give you enough information to fill in what happened. It doesn’t help the story if I walk you through all the bad things that happened, the 25 miles they had to cover in those days, whatever. It doesn’t matter. In a few sentences you can get through all that. It helps keep the pace going, and you give your readers credit for having some brains.
If Alex and Tom could have one electronic device back, what would they choose?
I don’t know. When they had power they could have used, they decided not to because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. If you have one thing, you want something else, and then you want something else. It’s very important to be able to start to let go and deal with what’s real. So probably nothing. And that goes for Chris and all the others too. Ellie would want her iPod back.
If you personally were in Alex’s shoes, having survived an EMP, how do you think you would fare?
I’d think that I would have about five seconds of panic, like everybody else. But I don’t think anybody knows how they would react in an emergency situation until it’s upon them. I really believe that. I’ve been in a lot of emergency situations as a doctor, and I know that it’s a maturational process. I remember the first time that I worked in the emergency room and a trauma case was brought in, and a really wise intern grabbed me by the wrist and told me, “Before you do anything, take your own pulse.” I thought, “Yeah, fine, old guy,” but then I realized what he was telling me. In survivalism circles you say the same thing. In an emergency situation, in the first three minutes, as long as you’re not in danger, you have to sit down, hug a tree, do yoga, and get yourself calm, because you’ll end up dying if you don’t. I think I would be pretty freaked out, but since I do know how to deal with things like finding water, making fire, building shelter, finding food…I’ve done all those things. As long as you have a couple of skills, you can get yourself busy doing something when you know you have to do something. And I think that working toward getting yourself safe, finding food, all those things…I think I’d be okay. Would I be happy? No. No more toothpaste? What am I going to do? I’d have to learn how to make soap. I do a lot of survivalism stuff; I’ve also taken classes in edible plants, how to make soap, things like that, because I want to know. I think that I have enough book knowledge and practical knowledge that I wouldn’t starve – I wouldn’t necessarily be well-fed – but I know how to snare, and I’m not squeamish about having to gut a fish or a rabbit. I think I’d have trouble making toothpaste. But I think I’d be okay.
You spent some time in the military. What are some of your most memorable experiences from that time?
Unfortunately if I talk about them I’ll probably get into trouble. Here’s what I can talk about. I had not necessarily been really thrilled about joining the military; I needed the money for med school. My dad was in the air force, so I had been around military people all my life. I went to Bethesda Naval Hospital, I worked in a PX, so the idea of being around soldiers didn’t freak me out. I actually have a lot of fondness for soldiers. I think a lot of the time, especially in YA, we lose sight of the fact that a lot of people fighting are young adults. I can’t tell you the number of kids I’ve met on this tour who are in the military. I meet them everywhere. I was just talking to a kid the other day who’s shipping out to Afghanistan. But being around the military and being in the military are two different things. If you’re a doctor, you’re used to being in charge. In the military, there’s nothing worse than being the sergeant who has to teach a bunch of doctors how to march. Doctors don’t take direction very well because we’re used to giving direction. You don’t want to be arrogant, but you do have to believe that you know what you’re doing. So to cede that control to commanding officers, who are not necessarily as skilled in what you’re doing as you are… With other doctors, rank almost doesn’t matter. But rank really does matter when you’re dealing with people who are commanding officers. The idea of somebody telling me what to do really bothered me. I spent so much time fighting through medical school to get here, and to get competent, and now you’re going to tell me that you’re more competent than I am? So I was a little concerned about that. But then what happened was a really interesting thing. What I came to discover during the buildup to Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When the buildup started, people were really concerned for their friends and spouses. All of the sudden, you’ve got all of these guys in a crummy situation, where everyone is scared but everyone is still doing their job. The amount of pulling together and camaraderie that happened… They call it the esprit de corps, and you think it’s a bunch of hooey that’s only on a movie, but it’s actually true.
You have an English degree, but you were in the military, worked as a child psychiatrist, and now are a writer. What’s it like juggling all those different hats?
In terms of psychiatry, I actually don’t practice anymore. I haven’t had a full-time practice or seen patients in five years. I don’t do forensic psychiatry anymore either. I have to keep up my certification and keep learning new things about psychiatry, and the stuff that I learn I can put into books. In terms of film and television, I don’t write about that anymore either. The only job I have right now aside from keeping my cats and husband happy is writing. That’s what I do right now. I used to write at four in the morning, go to my practice, and take care of my children. Then in 2006 my husband said to me that in order for me to reach the next level I would need more time. So we looked at our finances, we scaled back, and he told me not to worry and to write.
What are your writing habits?
I just sit and write. The bad thing about that is that I don’t have any habits. I actually should get up more than I do, because once I start writing I’ll just sit there for hours and hours. I get pretty focused. I do have a certain order that I do things in the morning. Anthony Trollop and I probably could have been best friends. He would sit with a watch and write a certain amount of minutes every day. If he finished one book in that time, he would start another. Could I do that? No, but I do have a set routine. And it is nice to have a cat nearby, as long as he doesn’t want to play. I do only know how to work when it’s quiet and I have my space. I have to have my coffee in the morning. When that setup isn’t there, it gets a whole lot harder. The only thing I have, which is actually a reminder, is an “’ego” box that my husband made me. He said when I sit down at the computer, I need to take my ego and put it in the box. I need to realize that some words deserve to die. I don’t know everything. I need to put my critical mind away (the one that tells me I suck), stop letting my ego get bruised and just write.
What inspires you while you’re writing?
If anything inspires me, it’s envy of other people. I’ll read books and think, “Why can’t I do that?” Sometimes what inspires me is to read someone who writes a great story, but there’s something missing for me. I think that I wouldn’t have done it quite that way. I think, “Would I like to do that with an Ilsa spin?” So I’d have to say envy and a sense of competitiveness. I like to keep learning; I don’t want to do “wash, rinse, repeat,” because that’s boring for everybody. Ashes was a really big departure for me because I tended to write smaller, character-driven books. Ashes is actually highly character driven, even though it has a thriller element. I just wanted to try something where I would really have to keep up the pace and force myself to just do it.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
When I go to Europe, I’ll be researching for the second book in a new series. It’s a very strange book. I’m trying to do something I haven’t done before. It’s more science fiction. If you think Matrix meets Inkheart and go from there, you get an idea of what type of book it is.
Can you tell us anything about the second book?
It gets a lot worse. Not everyone is going to be happy. And yes, I do know how it ends. Shadows comes out in the fall of 2012, and Monsters will be released in the fall of 2013.
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