Interview with Scott Westerfeld, author of Youngbloods.
The best and worst day for a fan of any series is the day the last installment comes out. Whether it’s that show you’ve been watching every week or that book you’ve waited a whole year for, there’s a sense of ‘Finally all of my questions should be answered’ mixed with the anticipation of wondering ‘Will they stick the landing?’ that slowly gets replaced with ‘What will I do with my life now? What will I look forward to?’ If you’ve been reading Scott Westerfeld’s Impostors series, I’m sure you’re feeling all of this right now. If you haven’t been following this series, now is a great time to check them out–the last of the four books, Youngbloods, was recently released!
The Impostors series follows Frey, a royal bodyguard to her twin sister. The siblings are used as political pawns by their tyrant father, who sets in motion a series of deadly international political events. This set of four books follows up on a series from the early 2000s, Uglies, which had a different protagonist, Tally Youngblood. While the new books will give you enough context to read on their own, I also recommend the Uglies books because they also have all of the things that make Scott Westerfeld’s books impossible to put down: cool future tech, political shenanigans, and Big Plot Events that make you feel ALL of the emotions.
We had a chance to chat with Scott Westerfeld about the Impostors, Youngbloods, hoverboards, and the questions that keep fans awake at night like:
What is your favorite sandwich?
Tacos is a sandwich.
At GateCrashers, our whole thing is about making new hobbies and interests accessible! For people who may not have read any of your books, is there anything new readers should know before they pick up a Scott Westerfeld Book™? What can people expect to find in your books?
The best compliment I’ve ever gotten is someone calling my books “page-turning novels of ideas.” I like big concepts that make people think, but also explosions, chase scenes, and inter-character High Drama.
What I’m mostly interested in is when a character’s philosophy turns into action. When do you rebel against authority? When is it necessary to tell uncomfortable truths? When is it okay to lie? How big does an emergency have to be to pull the brake on the subway, even if that means making hundreds of people late?
Moments when you have to make decisions like [that] make for interesting stories, and it’s really important to work through them in books before you face them in real life.
The last book in the Impostors series is out! What do you want to tell us about Youngbloods?
The most obvious Big Deal in Youngbloods is the return of Tally Youngblood, the main character from Uglies. It’s twenty years since we’ve seen her, and despite being the most famous person in the world, she’s been in hiding most of that time.
We see her from Frey’s perspective, of course, who is only a teenager, and grew up in the world that Tally made. This allows a lot of looking back at how Tally’s choices in the original series shaped not only a planet, but also the people growing up in it.
This series has a lot of themes that touch on the worries and conflicts people were seeing about 5 years ago until now: constructed identities in the age of social media, governments moving towards fascism, and how the government and policy should evolve as technology rapidly changes around AI/ML/surveillance. But also, a lot has changed in the last five years! On one hand, the destruction of the Rusties was always a virus, but on the other, the pandemic has turned out pretty different from most fictional portrayals of pandemics. 🙁 How much of this series was written/outlined pre-pandemic, and have any of the global events since influenced the direction this series went at all?
I started writing this series in 2015, so I certainly didn’t know the world was going to go quite this bonkers. The Brexit vote had just happened, so the idea that people were making terrible political choices was in the air.
Here’s what I mean: I was at a conference hotel the morning after the Brexit vote, and ran into a young British scientist who was stunned by the result. Overnight, her world had shrunk from 27 countries she could work and live and do science in . . . down to one. Her own grandparents had voted to gut her future, because they didn’t like having a Polish immigrant bartending down at their local pub.
And I was, like, “I bet a lot of similar bad and fearful choices would happen after Tally freed the world from the Pretty Regime.” And as I wrote the series, the world just kept on proving me right.
There’s a lot of cool sci-fi tech in this series, like DNA data storage, but also some terrifying tech, like dust. They show up in so many different areas of their lives: fashion tech, transportation tech, medical tech, etc. What research do you do to make these technologies in wildly different domains seem plausible? How do you decide what needs an explanation vs. what readers are willing to suspend their disbelief for as ‘magic future science stuff’?
People know (and care) a lot more about how people work than how technology works. What makes the hoverboards in Uglies memorable isn’t the details of magnetic levitation, it’s the way the characters use them as vehicles of self-expression and freedom. It’s the same with modern-day still like smart phones and the internet—what’s interesting and weird is the way people use them: making tiktoks and taking photos of their food and creating whole new languages to talk about dogs.
If you get the humans right, the rest will follow.
In the Impostors series, there is a lot of focus on how different characters confront and process grief and trauma, but that means a lot of traumatizing things happen to characters. How do you approach writing trauma, especially as it relates to younger characters? Do you ever worry your books will be seen as “too dark” for young audiences?
Teenagers are dark AF. When you listen to the stories young people tell each other, they’re often about mortality. Teens love slasher movies, urban legends about escaped murderers, and tales of real-life car crashes. Because teens are at the moment of their lives where choices really start to matter. They have enough freedom to really mess up their lives. So they seem to gravitate towards reminders that they’re playing for keeps now.
Of course, I don’t wallow in tragedy. But people do die in my books, and it’s important that my characters work through those feelings in a real way.
Your early 2000s series Midnighters meant a lot to me growing up because it had Dess, a woman character who was good at math. Since then, you’ve written a lot of women characters who are mathematicians or scientists, from Nisha in Afterworlds to Dr. Nora Darwin Barlow in Leviathan. This is very salient to me, because women are generally underrepresented in these fields, and I am a woman in a technical field. But other fans are really excited about seeing themselves represented, too! Your characters represent many different ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and disabilities. How do you approach writing this diversity of characters?
Writing diversity all starts with living in a diverse world. I try to make sure that my life is full of different kinds of people, with different brains and different bodies and different ways of seeing. Sometimes that takes effort, because the easiest path is to hang out only with people of your own class, race, upbringing, or whatever. But that’s boring—and it would make me a boring writer!
Once you start that work, it becomes easier, and I’ve made a lot of big and small choices to keep that work going. Like, I live in a diverse city, and most of the media I consume is from non-English-speaking countries. Research is important, of course, but having real people (and real art) in your life to listen to and learn from is way more important.
What will you do now that this series is over? What’s next for you? Can you tell us anything about the Uglies adaptations?
I was on the set of the Uglies movie late in 2021, and it looks amazing. The whole production team has done a great job of bringing that world to life. The cast and director are huge fans and immense talents.
Even watching raw footage without effects or music, I could see the love and attention that has gone into the film. If it’s half as good as it looks so far, I think fans are going to be very pleased.
How do you decorate your own hoverboard?
Hoverboard decoration is extremely personal, so I like to do it by hand myself. I start with a base layer job custom paint job, spray paint with stenciled shapes and lots of different colors. Then I add a lot of words, names, and random diddles with Sharpie, when I’m bored. It usually takes a few months before it feels like MY board.
You can find the Youngbloods and the rest of the Impostors series today at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.