Christine at The Bookish Daydreamer and I were fortunate enough to be granted an interview with J.C. Carleson, a former CIA officer.
She wrote the fantastically thought-provoking The Tyrant's Daughter, and shares some thoughts about the book, career choices and other things in our Q&A.
Q&A with J.C. Carleson
Author of The Tyrant's Daughter
Knopf Book for Young Readers
Q: Since we’re very much the Twitter/social media age, could you describe THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER for us in 140 characters?
After fleeing a war in her homeland, a teenage girl discovers that her new life in the American suburbs is filled with as much tension and deceit as her past.
Q: You wrote THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER based on your own experiences of being in war zones.
For those who haven’t read your book yet, can you briefly talk about your experiences and why you wanted to base your novel off of them?
These same questions popped into my head throughout the years, and throughout the conflicts. For every deposed, arrested, assassinated, or exiled leader we read about in the headlines, there is always also a family. Sometimes the family members remain in the public eye, fighting to succeed or avenge their husband or father. But more often they seem to just fade away into a life of quiet exile. I wanted to tell the story of someone who was on the periphery of a war, for whom the question of guilt or innocence wasn't entirely clear...to anyone.
Q: Readers choose certain books to escape the real world and immerse themselves into a different one. Why do you think it’s important to experience the world you have created, based on real life experiences, in THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER?
On a deeper level, I think that it's so important to appreciate just how drastically our reactions to the world are shaped by our experiences. For most western readers of YA fiction, the topic of war, for example, is a Big Important Subject, of course, but it's also fairly impersonal. Unless you or someone close to you has actually spent time in a conflict zone, it's a natural tendency to think of war as something that only happens elsewhere, to other people.
We're quite fortunate, really, that it's something we're typically only exposed to via newspaper headlines or in big-budget Hollywood movies. But the headlines can't ever capture the smaller stories, the more personal vignettes -- the stories that might resonate just as much with an American teenager as a Syrian teenager. Those unreported stories, though, those small tragedies and individual upheavals, are the very stories that allow us to truly understand and empathize across cultures and across situations.
Q: What central theme and message do you hope your readers get from reading this book?
Separately, I also hope that readers feel themselves transported enough by the story that they feel compelled to ask themselves: What would I do in this situation?
Q: Your characters are based on real-world counterparts that you met during your overseas work. How did they impact you and your world purview, outside of providing inspiration for your writing?
For example, Laila's constant sense of disorientation and hyper-vigilance are very much based on my own experiences living in different countries. Once you leave the tourist zone in a foreign country, for example, a stranger approaching you on the street, speaking rapidly, may be totally benign, or may represent an immediate threat. Is he asking for directions? Trying to sell you something? Warning you? Shouting threats? When you don't speak the language and your grasp of cultural norms is weak, your brain has to be on high alert all the time, scanning for clues and insights that might help you decipher each and every encounter. It gets to be exhausting after awhile.
Early in the book, Laila reacts strongly, even angrily, to the overabundance on American grocery store shelves. That was another example of reverse culture shock that I actually experienced shortly before starting this book. I returned to the U.S. after several years away, only to discover that the varieties of mayonnaise available here had grown exponentially, and my first reaction was to be sort of appalled. I had grown used to choosing between two brands of mayo, and then all of a sudden I was staring at a shelf full of an unbelievable variety of flavors and sizes and fat contents and configurations. I just stared at all of these choices and felt irritated and overwhelmed.
I also interviewed a number of friends who had emigrated to the U.S. as young adults, specifically asking them about small details (like the mayonnaise) that shocked them. Surprisingly, almost every single person commented on libraries -- describing them in glowing, amazed terms.
Q: Before THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER, you’ve largely been known for your motivational, non-fiction work. What’s been the biggest (and most interesting) transition toward writing young adult fiction?
Q: And a follow-up question - is there a particular reason why you wanted to transition to also writing young adult fiction?
(I’ll be honest - I think it's awesome that you're so versatile! - Jess)
And maybe because I didn't study creative writing, I approached my new career more as a lifelong bookworm than as a trained writer. And since my reading tastes are nothing if not eclectic, then I suppose my writing choices have followed suit. Honestly, I just try to write something I'd like to read. (And you probably won't be surprised to hear that, although I'm sticking to young adult fiction for my next book, it is wildly different from anything else I've written to date!)
Q: A lot of your readers are at that point in their lives, where they’re in the early stages of trying to figure out what they’re interested in pursuing for a career. I think it’s safe to say that you’ve pursued two career choices that are likely of great interest to many of those readers.
What’s the best piece of advice you can give to readers who are interested in pursuing a federal position in the defense sector or a writing career – especially in light of the challenges that exist in both sectors?
(E.g. Hiring freezes/sequester spending cuts in federal jobs, etc.?);
Before I even applied to the CIA, I had already spent a considerable amount of time studying and traveling overseas. And once I started working for the CIA, my passport obviously filled up quickly. Some of my experiences were grand, bucket-list-cross-offs, and some were harsh eye-openers. All of them have shaped me, and shaped my writing, profoundly.
A narrow point of view and a limited exposure to cultures and communities other than your own will limit you in many fields, but none so much as in the intelligence field or in writing. Get to know the world!
Q: Whew! That was kind of a heady question!
On a lighter note, what’s one book that you’re reading or looking forward to reading right now?
For some reason the first few pages didn't resonate me the first time I picked up the book, but I recently started it again as a book club read, and I am so glad that I did. It's an amazing book that draws you into a reality-based world that is even wilder and more fascinating than anything completely fictional.