Kiera Cass: A Natural Selection
Glittering gowns, gorgeous jewels, life in a palace—you would be crazy not to love a chance at such things, right? Well, America Singer’s not thrilled. She is one of 35 girls given a shot at a royal life by competing for the heart of the handsome Prince Maxon. But for America that means turning her back on a secret love named Aspen, who is a caste below her. As America tells us, “I didn’t want to be royalty. And I didn’t want to be a One. I didn’t even want to try.”
America is the creation of author and WonderCon Anaheim special guest Kiera Cass, who placed her young heroine at the center of a proposed trilogy of books that began with The Selection in 2012. America’s resistance to fit into a neat little box of what society, her family, and others think her life should be might just reflect the author’s attitude.
On her website, Cass describes herself as follows: “I was born and raised in South Carolina, a proud child of the ’80s. Also, my dad is Puerto Rican, and my mom is super white. I have neither a Hispanic or a Southern accent. No clue why. Growing up, I was awkward. I didn't understand fashion at all (not that I do now) and was never into what was cool while it was actually popular. But I didn't mind it so much because I had a few really great friends and wonderful outlets. By high school, I was a seasoned dancer, a diehard theater buff, and in a chamber choir that at one point was tied for third in the nation competitively.”
But now this one-time awkward teen from a third-place chamber choir is basking in the glow of her book The Selection being a #1 New York Times bestseller.
The cover for The Selection is aimed squarely at young girls who want glamour and the swoon factor, as well as a bit of sci-fi fantasy from a tale set 300 years in the future. To play this up, the publishers, Harper Teen, have a “cover reveal video” that documents the photo shoot for the cover of the next novel, The One, coming out in May. The video shows us the model trying on various gowns while wearing The Joker Converse high-tops—geek and glamour!
The YouTube video reveals what it takes to market a book these days, and Cass is a model for a new generation of authors. She self-published her first book, The Siren, in 2009, and then had The Selection picked up by Harper Teen. She has supplemented the printed books with e-novellas and actively engages fans through her website, an online journal, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, and YouTube. It sounds exhausting, but Cass juggles it all with an engaging and accessible social media presence that genuinely connects with fans.
Cass’s fans will have a chance to connect with her outside of the virtual realm at WonderCon Anaheim on Sunday, April 20, at 12:30 in Room 213 in a Spotlight Panel moderated by her editor, Erica Sussman, editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books. Check the programming page for more details.
This interview was conducted in mid-March via email by Beth Accomando.
Toucan: How did The Selection come about? What were your inspirations for it?
Kiera Cass: It came from wondering about the “what ifs” in two different stories: Esther and Cinderella. I was always curious if, before she was shipped off to the palace, Esther maybe liked the boy next door. What if she had to let a part of her heart die? And Cinderella never asked for a prince. She asked for a night off and a dress. We assume she was happy because she got her man, but what if she wasn’t? What if she didn’t want to be a princess? It’s a tough job!
Those two ideas married in my head, and I knew I wanted to write about a girl who came from a humble background and would get the attention of a prince, but she wouldn’t want it because she was already in love. And I knew she would go through something that would show her more of the world than she ever thought she’d see, and that thing became The Selection.
Toucan: The Bible and Cinderella are pretty diverse influences. Does that reflect your tastes?
Kiera: I’m interested in all sorts of female characters: sacrificial ones, angry ones, lonely ones, flirtatious ones. I think it’s possible to pull from history, real life, and fairytales to make interesting characters for young women to read now. I also think it’s important to show a variety of female characters, and I hope people find that in my books.
Toucan: Why do you think the books were such immediate hits? What do you think audiences connected with?
Kiera: Oh my goodness, hits? Uh, I don’t know. I’m not completely sure that they are! For me, it’s about writing something I enjoy. I want to be honest to what the characters tell me happened, and I want to be connected to what’s going on. The fact that others have enjoyed the books so much is a thrill to me. Mainly because I’m my own biggest fangirl and am always happy to gush over the tiniest details with anyone who will sit still long enough to listen!
Toucan: Tell us about the caste system in the book.
Kiera: The caste system was born out of necessity. I knew that Aspen and America were in love. But if that was the case, why hadn’t they just run off yet? I knew there was something (a big something) keeping them apart. It turned out that it was socially unacceptable for them to be a couple.
Once the system was in place, I realized that it was much darker than I’d imagined. People had been forced into a box with no hope to change their circumstances. It was disheartening to look into the specific pasts of America, Aspen, and Maxon and see what one man’s plan for power did to their lives personally. I wouldn’t want to ruin that for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but their family trees are all detailed in The Selection Stories.
Toucan: What do you hope readers take away from The Selection Trilogy?
Kiera: I’m not really sure if there are any takeaways. I certainly don’t set out with an agenda for my books, so if anything happens to come out of it, it’s usually discovered by the readers. They’ve already shown me little things laced through the books that I never intended to be there. Teenage readers are pretty savvy these days. They don’t get enough credit.
Toucan: The Selection had a TV pilot almost immediately but it did not get picked up. How did you feel about that? What did you think of the casting, did it capture the characters as you had pictured them?
Kiera: As far as casting, I’m very happy that I wasn’t in charge of that. I’ve never had a dream cast, so I’d do a rotten job! There were actually two different pilots, and they were worlds apart as far as representation goes. Unfortunately, the author is kind of on the bottom totem pole when it comes to film adaptations, so I really had no say in how they went. But it was an interesting experience. If anyone wanted to try to do something in the future, I’d still be open to it.
Toucan: The Selection has been compared to The Hunger Games and The Bachelor; is that a fair comparison or do you feel that the media just likes to put labels on things?
Kiera: I get the relation. It’s a dystopia and there’s a lottery. Beyond that, I don’t think there’s much else there. And I think we can all agree Suzanne [Collins]’ work is superior! She asks very hard questions with her books, and mine are much lighter.
It’s one of those comparisons that work, though. When you throw those two things together, you get a pretty clear picture and that helps an unsure reader make a quick choice about if it’s the right story for them or not.
Toucan: How have the books changed in tone or style through the development of the trilogy?
Kiera: Well, I certainly hope they’re getting better! In college, I studied history. It’s been helpful in lots of ways, like making me a great researcher. But I studied real-life stories. I’m still learning about arcs and tone and dozens of other things that make books beautiful. I hope that readers will see an improvement from the first book to the last.
Toucan: The Elite is darker than The Selection. How did your fans respond? Did you like the darkening tone?
Kiera: It is darker, and I think, in many places, it gets even darker in The One. Overall, it seemed like people enjoyed it. I think if it had gone too far it would have been offputting for the hardcore fans, but it didn’t. Not to me anyway. But I felt comfortable with everything because it felt real. None of it was forced, and I think that’s what matters.
Toucan: A recent post had a picture of Zac Efron and a discussion of how that image made you think about Aspen. Do you have a cast in mind if the books become a film series?
Kiera: Nope! As I said, I’d be awful. Every once in a while I get a flicker of a maybe, but no one stays in mind for long.
Toucan: It seems Aspen needs a little love from your fans. Why is that, and why does he have a “sacred place” in your heart?
Kiera: People ask often if any of my characters are based off of real people, and in some ways they are. Both Aspen and Maxon hold parts of my husband Callaway. The way Aspen is passionate comes from him. The way Maxon is kind of dorky comes from him.
Both of these boys have characteristics of the love of my life, so they’re both very special to me. It’s one of the reasons it stings so much when people ask for Aspen to die! He matters to me!
Toucan: You also posted a floor plan of America’s house. Did you draw that? Was that something you drew early on in writing the books?
Kiera: Yes, I drew it. It was one of the first things I made. Mostly because as I was writing the first few chapters, which take place in America’s home, it was kind of sloppy and confusing. So I made it to understand. I do lots of little things like that, especially sometimes when I get stalled, because it helps me get back into the story. I love all the details.
Toucan: You are young and The Selection is just your second book, so has the success surprised you? How has it changed your life?
Kiera: The entire journey has been a surprise. Every time something cool happens, like we sell the rights to another country or one of the books hits a bestseller list, I’m always blown away.
It’s the most incredible thing in the world to me that I can call myself a #1 New York Times bestseller. But, most days, I just go by Mommy, and I love that title, too. It is life-changing, and I am hugely honored, but I’m also aware that this is a season. I probably won’t write forever, so I’m just trying to enjoy each experience as it comes.
Toucan: The Selection Trilogy is considered Young Adult (YA). Do you plan to continue writing for that audience or would you like to try writing something outside of that?
Kiera: I think the oldest I could ever write is New Adult. The younger voice feels much more natural to me, and I think I’m the most authentic there. I’d never say never, but there are no current plans.
Toucan: The books are aimed at young girls, but do you see the fan base as broadening from that?
Kiera: Well, first, I love my teenage readers. Teenage girls are amazing and, as I said, don’t get enough credit for their passion and intelligence. And they’re also enthusiastic, and because of that, the books are reaching a wider audience. I’ve had girls tell me they read The Selection with their mothers or aunts, that they begged their libraries to get more copies, or that they made their friends get into it as well so they had someone to talk about it with.
And, yes, more and more men are making their way into my signing lines as well! I appreciate that they aren’t deterred by the dresses on the cover and want to know what the talk is about. Probably the cutest was a middle-aged man who came to meet me in the Philippines. He said it was a guilty pleasure. I told him I didn’t care! It doesn’t matter to me why anyone reads my books, I’m always happy to have a new reader.
Toucan: What books did you read as a young girl?
Kiera: Growing up, YA wasn’t really a thing yet. I diligently did my school reading, which was hard, because so often it’s nothing close to what students are interested in. In high school though, I found two books that changed things for me. I read The Rapture of Canaan [Sheri Reynolds’ story focuses on a smart, passionate young girl who can’t help questioning the rules of her strict religious society], which is an adult book told from a teenager’s point of view. Soon after, I discovered The Perks of Being a Wallflower [Stephen Chbosky’s book concerns a 15-year-old boy who goes by the name “Charlie” and who writes letters to an unknown recipient about his life, and his fear of starting high school because his only friend recently committed suicide]. Now, even though I’d never been through what Charlie had, I could tell an immediate difference in the voice. It was the first time I felt like there were books for people like me, and I think I’ve been hooked ever since. I have a young soul, and I love YA literature.
Toucan: What have been some of your favorite books?
Kiera: Of course I love Harry Potter and Twilight. I still hold Perks close to my heart, but I also really love The Book Thief. It has very lovely writing, and, while I think I’m a pretty good storyteller, I think there’s plenty of room for my writing skills to grow.
Toucan: Did you ever read comics? If so what did you like?
Kiera: I do have one Sailor Moon manga I managed to find with the beautiful Japanese writing that reads from right to left. Always loved Sailor Moon! But beyond that, I haven’t read much.
Toucan: Are you a movie fan? If so do you have favorites?
Kiera: Love movies! My personal faves include That Thing You Do!, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pride and Prejudice, The Wedding Singer, and of course, the One Direction documentary, This Is Us.
Toucan: What are you reading now?
Mostly my own manuscripts! Unfortunately, I’m a very slow reader, and it takes me a long time to get through my own books, much less anyone else’s. The last thing I really enjoyed was The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, which I got to read early but should be out now.
Toucan: How do you write? What’s the process for you and is it always the same? Do you have a writing ritual—always the same place or time?
Kiera: Not exactly. For a long time I didn’t have a place to write at home, so Panera was my office. These days I have my own works space, and I love it. I also have two kids and a home to run, so plenty of times, I just have to squeeze work in whenever I can!
As far as for the actual writing, that can be different each time, too. I wrote The Selection from start to finish, asking America what happened next. With The Elite, I wrote scenes I knew existed, and strung them together. With The One, I started at the end and worked my way forward. So, really, it just depends on the story.
Toucan: I understand fans are asking for a graphic novel. How do you feel about that?
Kiera: Oh, I’d love it! It surprised me when they started talking about it because I wasn’t sure there was enough action to carry a graphic novel. But when I sit and think about it, there are some really lovely scenes that I think would be great in that form. Who knows? Maybe one day.
Toucan: Is this your first WonderCon Anaheim?
Kiera: This is my first WonderCon! My hope is to just see tons and tons of people dressed up. I love costumes, and I admire the time and effort people put into making things just right, so I’m giddy about that!
Toucan: Do you ever get ideas from fans?
Kiera: So far, no. But it wouldn’t surprise me if I did. They’re a creative bunch, and I like them.
Toucan: Do you have any advice for young writers just starting out?
Kiera: Read everything. Daydream often. Get a thick skin.
Toucan: Tell us about your e-novellas. How did they come about and are there any more in the future?
Kiera: The novellas were born from extra material I had from working on The Selection. My editor asked me why Maxon acted a certain way in one place or why Aspen said something in another. So I decided to hop in their heads and try to understand them.
When the books started doing well and people started asking questions about the boys, we thought it might be fun to extend the pieces I’d made and share them. It’s been a fun addition to the series. And if my publishers ever asked for more novellas, there are a few things I’d be happy to work on!
Toucan: As an author, do you enjoy doing these kinds of side stories that can go in a different direction?
Kiera: I really do! One thing about the world that fascinates me is that every time I look at it, I see new things. I feel really fortunate that I’ve gotten to share a fair amount of that, and I hope it makes the world just as rich for the readers.
Toucan: We’ve heard that you are working on a book not in The Selection universe but dealing with “children trained in academies to be perfect friends can be purchased by the wealthy as companions, and a forbidden romance ensues.” Can you tell us more about it?
Kiera: At the moment, there’s not much more to say. I’m working on it slowly, but hopefully there will be more to share soon.
Toucan: For The Siren, you said the idea came from a dream and the idea of oceans eating people. Can you talk about your creative process, can ideas come from anywhere?
Kiera: The Siren was a dream, The Selection came from wondering what if, and my post-Selection project came from desperately wishing I had help around Christmas time. Yes, ideas can come from anywhere. I have one person in my head who came from dreaming up a girlfriend for Harry Potter before Ginny was a thing. But it’s spun off in different directions so many times that if I ever wrote her story, you’d never tie her to Harry’s.
So yeah, daydream, ask questions, look at news stories, pull from your friend’s quirks. There’s inspiration everywhere!
Toucan: You self-published The Siren. Do you feel like that is a means open to writers now that wasn’t that viable perhaps a decade or more ago?
Kiera: I chose to self-publish after querying The Siren to over 80 agents and not finding a good match. For some people, it’s Option A, and for some it’s Option B, but there are plenty of great things about self-publishing.
If you’re writing something timely, it moves much faster than traditional publishing. If you’re a control freak, you get to have your hand on every little thing. And I think the stigma surrounding it is ebbing, so there’s that. But the downside is that because anyone can do it, there’s a ton of awful writing out there.
I personally prefer traditional publishing. I like having several eyes and hands on my projects, all trying to make it the best it can be. It’s also encouraging to have a team behind you with a plan to make it successful. Also, it’s practically impossible to get your book into a store without them, and, for me, that was a big deal. I wanted my work on a shelf.
I encourage anyone who wants to do this to really do their research and be ready to constantly self-promote. It’s doable! But it’s very challenging to go it alone.
Toucan: What can you tell us about The One? Can you reveal anything?
Kiera: I WANT to tell you everything! I’m so tired of keeping the secrets! But I have to be careful, so for now I can say that there are some teasers for the final book up on my site under the FAQ section, and one question I get a lot is if there will be an epilogue, and I can tell you, yes, there is.
Toucan: Your FAQ section includes things like a playlist, how old the characters are, and which you like best. Does this reflect the kinds of things your fans are most interested in?
Kiera: Absolutely. I make the playlists mostly for myself, but I share them because people asked about what music I listened to when I wrote. And I do a lot of research when I build my worlds, so I like to share what I have. Anything that isn’t a spoiler, I’m happy to share.
Toucan: What role has social media played in your success? Does it allow fans more access to you? Is social media a part of the job of being a writer today or do you genuinely enjoy it?
Kiera: The social media side of things can become a job itself, so I think it’s important to only get involved in the areas you like. I happen to like a lot! Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, YouTube . . . I think that’s everything. And I use them all in different ways.
I think it’s been helpful to be available. I think it does readers good to know I’m more than the name on the spine of my book. But do I think it’s all necessary? Yes and no. Plenty of authors grow their audience these ways. Still, Stephenie Meyer hides away and is hugely successful. J. K. Rowling has a Twitter account but rarely says a word. They’re doing pretty okay. For me, it’s fun, so as long as I keep it in moderation, I won’t be stopping for a long time.
Toucan: Why do you keep an online journal?
Kiera: I actually write less and less, mostly because it’s hard to keep up. But I feel that between the Tweets and Vines, most people can keep up if they want to. If I have a bigger thing to talk about (like that I was recently diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder) then I take the time to make a post.
Toucan: You do a lot of events at schools. Why is that? What do you enjoy about it?
Kiera: I like my teenage readers! Lots of times they can’t come to my events, so I like to come to them when I can. It seems like there are lots of young people out there wanting to write, and it’s hard to learn about that process, so I’m happy to share what I know.
And I’ve had a lot of help from school librarians. They usually only invite me if they have some excited readers, so it’s always worth the trip. Lots of love for the librarians!
Toucan: There’s a lot of Selection fan art on Tumblr. What do you think of that?
Kiera: Tumblr is perfect in that in allows you to share several different types of posts, and I really do love some of the fan art that pops up there. The reason I even made an account was to collect all the things people were making.
I just have to take a minute to stop and applaud my incredibly creative fans. It’s not just art they’re making, but alternative universes, fan fics, playlists, and sometimes just plain old ridiculous text posts about how Maxon would look in glasses. That’s a thing.
Personally, that’s one of my favorite things: when you get so far into a fandom you can poke fun at it. BUT only with other people who love it as much as you do. These are the rules.
Toucan: You also use YouTube. What kinds of videos can people find there?
Kiera: My YouTube Channel is several things. Mostly, you’ll find videos about the process of making books. Going through it myself, I wished there was more out there to explain things like what an editorial letter was or what a royalty statement looked like. I’ve shared as much as I can, hoping to help young writers not feel so intimidated by the process. But there are also videos of me just being silly, and lots of videos of my kids. It all sort of runs together.
Toucan: We understand you were a diehard theater buff, so how did you end up as a writer?
Kiera: Writing was accidental, but theater had been fading out long before that came along. I think the thing I worried about most was that I’d end up traveling a lot or not have time for a family. Theater life always seemed crazy to me. So I moved on to other majors, planning to go on staff with my campus church at Radford, and then getting to be a stay-at-home mom.
The irony is that I started having babies and making books at the same time, so both of my children go to daycare fulltime to I can write and do appearances. There are days I feel really down about that. I’m hoping I’m doing something they’ll be proud of, though, and I genuinely love my work, so, yeah, it’s just funny how things work out sometimes.
But, yes, I still love theater. Always excited to see a good show! I’m not sure I could write that though. I don’t know if I have that kind of skill.
Toucan: On your website you mention that you were never into what was cool. Why did you feel that was important to mention? You seem to have a very personable presence on your site that makes you seem very accessible and open to your fans.
Kiera: I shared it because it seemed to be a big theme when I was growing up. Like I always understood things after it was worth having them make sense. I sometimes wonder if other people feel that way, so it felt worth mentioning.
I hope I come across as accessible! It’s getting harder as the fandom gets bigger, but I want people to feel comfortable on my site, when they tweet at me, or when they meet me at an event. I’m stoked they care, and I basically want to make friendship bracelets with them, and eat nachos.
Toucan: Can you talk about the local tragedy that kind of led to your writing?
Kiera: Yes. Glad I’m typing this because sometimes I get a little teary eyed.
I currently live in Christiansburg, VA, but in 2007, I lived in Blacksburg, VA, just around the corner from Virginia Tech. My husband worked there, and because we went to a campus-based church, almost all my friends were students. On April 17, 2007, a gunman opened fire on the campus, killing 32 people then himself.
To say it changed me is an understatement. Even as someone who simply lived in town and wasn’t a student, I lost people I knew. I crumbled. It’s just one of those things that’s too big to process. I stopped smiling. I couldn’t remember things. And any emotion that deviated from numb, even happiness, would leave me in tears.
Around Christmas time, I saw a therapist, and she was nice and gave me some methods to cope, but I still wasn’t myself. By the time the first anniversary came around, I had the idea of giving my issues to a character and seeing what she did with them. I was always an avid reader, and I loved movies, so looking back that makes sense, but I didn’t know what possessed me at the time.
That exercise gave me so much clarity. The space gave me room to work out things I was feeling, and part of it was just being a fantastic distraction. But I never finished that story. I woke up from a nap with the idea that became The Siren, and once I got into the habit, several people lined up with stories to tell. America was third or fourth on that list.
I’m a spiritual person, and I genuinely think writing was a gift. It pulled me back from the brink, and I’m grateful to God every day for it. Even on the rough days, I’m always aware of how fortunate I am to have this outlet, and what a privilege it is that I get to share my work with other people.
Toucan: We know you love cake. What is your favorite type of cake? Do fans send you cakes? Any interesting cake decorations?
Kiera: Ohhhh! I love a good vanilla with buttercream. Also, red velvet with cream cheese frosting. Chocolate on chocolate is good… And there’s a store in town that does a cinnamon roll cupcake that’s just the best!
One of the funny things is since everyone knows I love cake, almost every event I do has some waiting for me! Or will have cupcakes to take home. I think it’s so sweet that they pay so much attention. I’ve seen a few do the cover art, and those are always really impressive!
See Kiera Cass at WonderCon Anaheim 2014, April 18-20 at the Anaheim Convention Center. Click here to buy badges. Badges are available online only this year; badges will not be sold onsite!