Author J.C. Carleson This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 18, 2014
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It’s irrefutable that teenagers have a lot on their plates, but it’s also safe to say that Laila, the heroine of J.C. Carleson’s novel, The Tyrant’s Daughter, has had a more challenging life than the ­average 15-year-old girl. Her father has just been assassinated and her family is forced to flee from the Middle East to the United States. Not only does Laila have to navigate the halls of an American high school for the first time, but she must face the hard truth surrounding her father’s death and the stark consequences of her family’s legacy.

In her first novel for young adults, writer and former CIA officer J.C. Carleson intertwines adolescence, politics, and morality, making for a stunning and emotional adventure.

Lydia Wang: You didn’t initially set out to become a writer. When you were a teenager, though, did you enjoy writing as a hobby?

J.C. Carleson: I didn’t really spend much time writing as a teenager, but I did spend many, many hours with my nose buried in books. I was the kid who had a book in front of her face on the bus, at the dinner table, in front of the TV, in the dentist waiting room, in the car, etc.

The inspiration for The Tyrant’s Daughter came from your experiences as an undercover CIA officer – that’s so cool! How did your work in the CIA’s clandestine service mold you as a writer? How did it shape your work?

I had a fabulous time working for the CIA; it was such a rewarding job. On the one hand, I can say that my time there definitely helped my writing, because it gave me the confidence to decide that, yes, I certainly do have quite a few stories worth telling. But, on the other hand, I have to say that my experiences there may have initially stifled my writing a bit, because I had a hard time stepping away from a “just the facts” mindset and a strict adherence to the realities of espionage (as opposed to the Hollywood version). The problem is, the “realistic” version, with all of its bureaucratic details, isn’t always as much fun to read. It took me a while to learn to loosen up and embrace the creative freedom of fiction.

Laila, the novel’s protagonist, is 15. In your note at the end of the book, you share your hope that readers come away “feeling as if faraway issues are now a little more personal.” As a teen, I was definitely able to relate to Laila’s inner monologue and feelings. For this reason, would you say that The Tyrant’s Daughter is strictly a young adult book? If so, why did you make the choice to write for young adults?

The original small kernel of story that first came to me was actually about the book’s “King of Nowhere” – Laila’s six-year-old brother. But I knew right away that this wasn’t a children’s story. The subject matter was just too dark and complex. But at the same time, I needed the protagonist to be someone who was, at least initially, blameless for her circumstances.

I liked the idea of using a teen narrator because, although Laila is old enough (and smart enough) to recognize and confront painful truths, she’s also young enough to be open to changing those “truths” as she takes charge of weaving her own story. That said, I’m certainly hoping that the book will catch on with adult readers as well, particularly since some of the observations that Laila makes as a teenage “innocent” are very much designed to make readers of all ages question their own assumptions.

Throughout the novel, Laila struggles to balance her new life as an American teenager with her loyalties to her family, her heritage, and the problems brewing in her home country. What was your high school experience like, and did you draw inspiration from your own adolescence when writing scenes involving Laila’s high school world?

I was an exchange student twice during high school (on two separate continents), so I am very familiar with the feeling of disorientation Laila experienced. Unlike Laila, however, I chose to move temporarily into another culture. But even though I was doing something I had very much wanted to do, I also experienced many highs and lows, just as Laila does. One day might seem a grand adventure, with everything shiny and new and fascinating. The next day could be exhausting, though, and I would crave the ease of familiarity.

The book’s conclusion was pretty open-ended – or, at least, I thought it was. Was this intentional? What do you think Laila’s future will hold?

The ending was the subject of much debate during the revision process, because not every reader is comfortable with an open ending. I did consider writing a more definitive conclusion, but I ended up feeling very strongly that it would be unrealistic.

At the conclusion, Laila is very determined and sure of her motivations, but she has no way of knowing what’s waiting for her on the other side of the door, so to speak. (I’m answering this carefully to avoid spoilers.)

And this is the way the world works – war zones and political conflicts change on a dime. Anyone who claims any degree of certainty under those conditions is, frankly, setting themselves up to be proven wrong. As written, the only thing that Laila can be sure of is her heart.

What’s your writing process like?

I’ve never been someone who can work in little bits and grabs of time. I’m a very slow writer, and it takes me a while to warm up and get my words flowing. As a result, I tend to have sort of all-or-nothing writing days – I either manage to clear my calendar for an entire day, or I use what snippets of time I can get for other things, like research or answering e-mail. Fortunately, I tend to make up for my turtle’s pace by writing fairly clean first drafts.

Who are some of your all-time favorite writers?

Too many to mention, and all over the genre map! The names that pop into my head at the moment are Khaled Hosseini, Margaret Atwood, Gillian Flynn, and José Saramago. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll probably have another set altogether, as I tend to fall in love with whatever great book is in my hands.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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