E. J. Wenstrom - Rising Stakes, Tense Twists, and Emotional Resonance
E. J. Wenstrom believes in complicated heroes, horrifying monsters, purple hair dye and standing to the right on escalators so the left side can walk. She writes dark speculative fiction for adults and teens, including the young adult dystopian novel Departures and the award-winning Chronicles of the Third Realm War series (start with Mud). When she isn’t writing fiction, E. J. Wenstrom is a regular contributor to DIY MFA and BookRiot, and co-hosts the Fantasy+Girl Podcast. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about her book, Departures.
Please give us a short introduction to Departures.
Departures is a young adult dystopian set in a world where everything is perfectly managed and optimized. As a result, people live longer, are healthier, and don't deal with a lot of the stressors and hassles we do today. It's a great system--unless you don't fit into the Directorate's vision of optimization.
What inspired you to write this story? Was there anything that made you want to tackle this?
The seed for this story was the idea of a teen girl who wakes up in a panic because she was scheduled to die the night before, and shouldn't be waking up at all. From there, I built out the world around her, the "why" behind her scheduled departure, and the plot just fed itself from there.
Tell us more about Evalee. What makes her tick?
Evalee grew up in a world that she just didn't fit into, for many different reasons. She's spirited, adaptable, and impulsive, which can sometimes get her into trouble. But what really makes her tick is the people she loves. It's a small number, but it drives her in every way--starting with her sister Gracelyn, who is in many ways Evalee's opposite and is a perfect Directorate citizen.
This story questions the choices people make and whether a life dedicated to avoiding the bad is much of a life at all. Why did you find this important to write about?
You know, it's not where I started. Most books have a few different themes. I often don't know mine until after I've written at least one draft, so they must come from somewhere in my subconscious. But, we live in a time when we can track everything from our steps to our sleep cycles to our heart rate. I think a lot of us are asking ourselves about the ways this improves our lives, and the ways it may be quietly detracting from our life quality too. Already this data is used at a macro level as well as the micro level. It's not hard to take it a step too far and imagine a world like the DIrectorate where that data is used to avoid the negatives of life as much as possible. But of course, avoiding life's negatives is not the same as living a live that is fulfilling and enriched.
You write complicated heroes. Why?
Well, in part, I think my brain just runs toward the contrarian, so give me a traditional white knight character and I'm bound to start picking him apart until he's something much more complex. But I also think complex characters are just more fun--I like a character who makes you wrestle with both good and bad qualities. Especially when it comes to female characters, complexity and perhaps a little unlikeability doesn't just feel fun, it also feels important and a bit rebellious. We need female characters who are free to be flawed, and still also can be heroic.
What fascinates you about Dystopian worlds?
Dystopian worlds are like fun house mirrors--many of them hone in on a quality of today's world that is perhaps a little troubling, and then blows it up to examine exactly why we should be concerned, and explore on a deep level what these aspects of the world could mean, both for the world at large and on a very personal level.
Readers say the book is thought-provoking. Does it contain an underlying message? What do you hope readers will take away from this?
From my perspective, there are many messages one might take from this book! If I had to pick one, I suppose I'd consider Departures to be an examination of the ways we grow up and grow together--or apart.
Why did you title this "Departures"?
That's really hard to answer without giving away spoilers. But at its base level, this is a story about a world in which Departures, or deaths, are scheduled as a way to keep a society in perfect order and avoid all unnecessary pain. It's also about two sisters who are thrust into very different worlds, and how they fight to get back into reach of each other.
The story is told as a duel narrative. Why did you decide to write it this way?
This is a story about siblings. To fully get into the depths of their relationship, both sisters' perspectives were crucial. It also allowed for the best, closest, most intense exploration of the two very different worlds these two sisters find themselves in.
Readers say that your writing style puts you right there in the moment, living and breathing with the characters. How did you pull this off?
It absolutely makes my day when readers say this! I consider putting the reader in the moment with the protagonist the most important part of my job as an author. I try to create a sense of immediacy in the prose with a deep perspective from within the characters' minds, emotions and physical experience. Is a character angry? What is that experience for this unique individual--an aggressive person might instictively ball their hands into fists; an impulsive person might blurt out their feelings without meaning to; a reserved person might get a tension headache from the held back emotion. It starts with knowing your characters.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
Honestly, I don't think I do. I get up early every morning and just try to write a little every day. It keeps my head in the story, which I think is the most important thing, whether I write 200 words or 2,000. Then, I surround myself with incredibly smart, talented critique partners and ask them to destroy my manuscript completely--it's the best way to learn!
What are you working on right now?
I'm writing what I call my witchy murdery manuscript: Five witches are forced back together by an old professor's will, then start murdering each other to avoid having to face each other again, motivated by a terrible incident they hid in their shared past. I'm having great fun with it.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
Readers can see my other novels and get a free novella on my website, EJWenstrom.com, or find me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok at @EJWenstrom.