We’re celebrating the paperback release of J. Anderson Coats‘s critically acclaimed 2012 debut novel, The Wicked and the Just., available tomorrow, September 17, from HMH Books for Young Readers. As per our Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks tradition, each member of the group has asked Jillian a question, which she graciously answered below.
About the novel…
Cecily’s father has ruined her life. He’s moving them to occupied medieval Wales, where the king needs good strong Englishmen to keep down the vicious Welshmen. At least Cecily will finally be the lady of the house. Gwenhwyfar knows all about that house. Once she dreamed of being the lady there herself, until the English destroyed the lives of everyone she knows. Now she must wait hand and foot on this bratty English girl. While Cecily struggles to find her place among the snobby English landowners, Gwenhwyfar struggles just to survive. And outside the city walls, tensions are rising ever higher—until finally they must reach the breaking point.
A Kirkus Best Teen Book of 2012
IndieBound Summer 2012 Kids’ Next List
★ “Brilliant: a vision of history before the victors wrote it.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
★ “[An] unusually honest portrait of the effects of power. [Coats] offers us a potent historical novel.” —Horn Book, starred review
★ “This debut novel reverberates with detail, drama, and compassion.” —School Library Journal, starred review
Our J. Anderson Coats interview:
From Sue: I loved THE WICKED AND THE JUST — and I loved the atmospheric cover image on the hardcover edition. The paperback cover art is a striking change, and just as compelling. Could you talk a bit about the different appeal of the new look?
I love them both for different reasons. The design teams really outdid themselves!
The hardcover is intriguing and melancholy, with the girl in silhouette and the castle behind her lit from the sunset (or sunrise, depending on your point of view). The figure is solitary and kind of downcast; you get the sense that she’s probably in trouble and definitely on her own to deal with it. I like how it’s not clear which of the main characters it is; it could easily be either one. The color scheme and the overall tone of the hardcover is delightfully ominous, visually gorgeous, and evocative of the setting.
The paperback cover, on the other hand, does a fantastic job of capturing the characters and their complicated relationship at a glance. It’s easy to tell who’s who; I love that Cecily is looking up while Gwenhwyfar is looking down (and kind of sneering, too, which totally fits). They’re simultaneously connected and in opposition to one another, and neither of them is happy about it. I like that there’s less emphasis on their hair and clothing than there is on their posture and facial expressions. The overall effect is punchy, sharp and real – just like the girls themselves.
From Sharon: I absolutely love Wales. I can see how inspiring it would be for a writer, and you captured the country beautifully in your story. How did you research Wales? Do you get to go there?
That’s my dirty little secret: I’ve never been to Wales. I was hoping to go in 2012, but finances fell through so the trip was pushed to the back-burner. I’m very much looking forward to rescheduling, though!
I had a bit of an advantage when it came to book-research. I was the kind of unbalanced teenager that had research interests, so I was deep in the DA section of the library by the time I was thirteen. So a lot of the background content I had going in.
One of the most significant challenges for W/J was a scarcity of pre-rebellion primary source material concerning Edwardian planted towns, since a lot of the records kept by English authorities in Caernarvon were lost in the rebellion itself. The rebels were aiming for the tax records, but everything else went up too. (There’s a lot of stuff on the castles and the minutiae of their construction, but not on the towns themselves, although since W/J came out, this book was published.)
I had to approach the problem creatively, researching other towns founded by Edward I in other places, general medieval urban culture, and the North Wales planted towns in later ages when the records are better. When you’re a historian, you’re part garbage collector, part treasure hunter, part psychologist and part microfilm wrestler.
From Laura: The characters in THE WICKED AND THE JUST are beautifully drawn. Do you have a specific process for creating your characters–character sketches and the like–or do you get to know your characters as you write the story?
I’m not a sketcher. I admire people who can have this level of mastery over their characters from the drop. My characters develop over the course of the story, typically in response to situations or when put into contact with friends or family or rivals. I suspect I’d need to do fewer revisions if I went this way, but really, I don’t know what I don’t know until I need to know it.
From Jess: I loved both Cecily and Gwenhwyfar – they aren’t very nice, but I found them both sympathetic and fascinating. Was it difficult finding each of their voices for the dual narrative? Did one come to you more easily than the other?
Cecily spoke to me from the beginning, clever, singleminded and more than a little entitled. In earlier drafts she was even more snarky and unbearable and I had to tone her down!
Gwenhwyfar was a little more elusive. All I had of her initially was her pure undiluted rage. She came into focus more gradually, and in response to her interactions with her brother and would-be sweetheart. They did a lot to soften her rough edges and define her inner life.
From Cat: You chose to write about an era that’s not normally found in young adult historical fiction. What have you found to be the pros and cons of publishing a book set in the thirteenth century?
“Pros and cons” is a toughie. I chose this setting and these characters because that’s where the story was. It wouldn’t be the same story in Revolutionary France or Tang-dynasty China; it would be entirely its own thing, relying on nuances of the world and what made it tick to be effective and relevant.
That could be a pro or a con, depending on your point of view.
It’s a con that genres like high fantasy are allowed the sort of complex plots, odd-bird characters, strange place names, and intricate politics that are considered problematic and offputting in historical fiction.
It’s a con that historical fiction is still considered a tough sell despite the recent success of several high-profile titles and a dedicated audience.
But here’s a pro: There are budding teenage history geeks out there, and I want to be on the front lines of handing them books that let them know they’re correct that history is in fact awesome. And that they’re not alone in thinking so.
There are kids who don’t think much of history because all they’ve ever had to judge it by is social studies. I want to hand them real stories about real people who feel familiar, who have the capacity to be cruel and kind and stupid and thoughtful and loving and vindictive just like we all do.
There are kids who might like history if it was more real. I can’t unindoctrinate them, but I can hand them a story that doesn’t pull any punches, that presents the past in all its corrupt, seamy glory, and let them decide for themselves.
I’ll follow the story every time. Wherever it takes me.
Heh. Lots of stuff. But here’s the biggie:
We need community. Seriously. Find some other writers you get along with and make time to hang out regularly. They can be in person or online or both. But there’s going to come a time when you need to crab about a deadline or a bad review or you can’t face another scene of your crappy WIP and you just need to hash it out with someone who understands. Non-writer friends and family sympathize and cheerlead, but when it comes down to it, you need to be around other writers because they get it.
Before I had a deal for W/J, I knew very few other writers, and I certainly didn’t hang out or share things with them. I had imposter syndrome like you wouldn’t believe, and I was pretty sure I didn’t “deserve” to hang out with “real” (read: published) writers until I was one of the gang. So I came late to this party, but it makes a huge difference and I value my writer-colleagues all the more now that I know what I was missing.
From Katy: I love that you don’t show us medieval Wales through rose-colored glasses, Jillian. I’d love to know what drew you there in the first place–what seemed most romantic (in any sense of the word)? And what struck you as most horrific?
When I was in the sixth grade, my gifted enrichment program did a unit on medieval culture. One of the books available for our perusal was Castle by David MacCaulay. (If you’ve never read it, Castle is a slice-of-life tour through a fictional castle in Wales with the most lovely and detailed illustrations.) This book pulled me so firmly into the medieval world that I don’t think I’ve ever really left. Castle made the middle ages feel familiar, approachable and real.
I went straight to my library and systematically checked out every book on medieval Wales, then the middle ages in general. When I’d read them all, I started harvesting titles from bibliographies and bugging my mother to get books for me on interlibrary loan. This was how I learned how crass MacCaulay’s anglicizations were, but by then I was well into the weeds.
What drew me in was also the most horrific: the circumstances and aftermath of the fall of native Wales in the 1282-3 English invasion. There was a ton of collaboration going on among the Welsh nobility–a lot of craven self-serving pandering mixed with some good ol’ fashioned backstabbery–and I was frantic for some kind of counterrevolution that was not forthcoming. The fall of native Wales was not a nice story. It was not clean and pretty. It was too human for thirteen-year-old me to really look in the eye. It made me want to know what led to that sort of collapse.
And it led to a story I needed to tell.