An Interview with Scott Westerfield: ‘Uglies: Shay’s Story’

I recently had the great pleasure to speak with author Scott Westerfield about the new manga Uglies: Shay’s Story, an original tale in the Uglies saga. While readers may remember Shay from the original novels, her story has never been told until now. When it’s over readers will never again see the Uglies series in quite the same way.

Westerfield and I discussed working with the talented Devin Grayson and Steven Cummings, his love of manga, and why he enjoys writing for young readers.

You don’t talk down to kids, and I gather you have a lot of faith in young readers. Am I right?

Teenagers are very good readers. They read with more focus than adults, and are more into language. At any given moment, more teens are learning foreign languages, generating slang and nicknames, writing poetry, and memorizing song lyrics than adults are. As such, they’re fun to challenge linguistically. Writers for adults are always worried about throwing them “out of the story” if the language becomes too flashy. Kids are much less fragile. I can go crazy with invented slang and neologisms, and be fairly confident that my readers will have their friends speaking pretty-talk soon after they’ve read the book.

Do you ever feel like you’re writing for the adults that these kids will be?

I’m more writing for the kid this adult used to be.

You must have been inspired by some of the things you read when you were a teenager. What were they?

I read mostly science fiction. John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy in particular was influential on the Uglies series. I was probably also influenced by roleplaying games. The process of gaming out my own adventures, orally and collaboratively, was key to developing me as a storyteller.

How did the idea of bringing the Uglies universe to a graphic novel format take off? Whose idea was it?

I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time, and finally the rights became available when the movie deal was changing to a new studio, so my agent slipped in and separated them. I’d also been wanting to write something from Shay’s point of view for a while. She’s a secondary character in the books, sometimes a sidekick and sometimes an antagonist, and I’ve always encouraged readers to see the story from her perspective, simply as an exercise. As Robin Wasserman (Book of Blood and Shadow) has said, sidekicks are heroes trapped in someone else’s story. That’s a pretty interesting place to be.

I worried that writing a novel from Shay’s point of view would be kind of boring, too close to the original. But having both a new medium and a new POV has given the project its own life and direction.

Were you a comic book reader? What is it about the visual storytelling format that attracts young minds? Did you initially think that this was going to be a good fit for your story?

I read Daredevil, Captain America, and Green Lantern as a kid, and read a lot of manga now: FMA, Death Note, Nana. I decided that manga would be best for Uglies, because you can denote a character’s beauty with visual codes–sparkles or whatever–rather than trying to draw beauty itself. (Note: We did not use sparkles. It’s more about hair, height, and looking older.)

They really brought out the big guns for Uglies: Shay’s Story. How closely did you work with Devin Grayson and Steven Cummings? What was the work process like?

I went in with the central assumption that I don’t know how to write comics, and that I was there to learn from these artists. (And I read Scott McCloud, of course.) Devin is best known for her work on Robin, so I knew she appreciated that sidekicks like Shay were important. I also loved her work on USER, and figured she could get the sometimes brutal dynamics between Shay and Tally right. I basically wrote a longish outline, and let her do a first draft of the script, which I then edited. It was very a great opportunity to see that transformation from story to script.

Steven is great at nature and cities. One of the key themes in Uglies is the relationship between the city and the wild. The idea that nature doesn’t need an operation to be beautiful, it just is, is one that keeps coming up. Indeed, all four books start in a city and involve a journey across the wilderness, before winding up back in the city again. So Steven was perfect for that. (The Rusty Ruins are awesome, and there’s a two-page spread of a forest that’s fantastic.)

I approved all the pages at both the pencil and ink stages, and then again when Yishan Li had elegantly toned them. There was a lot of dialog between all of us about the way characters, technology, architecture, and clothing should look. It really is about building a world. In book two, just getting the new pretties in the morning was a serious job.

How does Shay’s story fit into the chronology of the established Uglies universe? Does Shay’s story run side-by-side with Tally’s?

It starts six months earlier, when Shay and Tally haven’t met yet. The initial incident is when Shay meets Zane, leader of the early Crims, back when they were uglies. So there’s a lot of backstory before we get to the original novel’s timeline.

An interesting thing happens then. I hadn’t realized how little time Shay and Tally spend together. Shay is usually forging ahead of Tally. Whether going to the Smoke or New Pretty Town, or joining Special Circumstances, she’s always ahead. So there’s really another whole set of conflicts and challenges to explore. And in many cases what happened off-screen in the novels was really something quite different than readers may have thought.

Shay is a different kind of character than Tally. What was it like to jump in and examine your universe from a different set of eyes?

Tally is a reluctant revolutionary, who is brought into this conflict between the city’s authorities and its dissidents against her will. She rises to the occasion, but the novels are about learning as you’re swept along by history, and choosing sides along the way.

Shay is much more active than Tally, however. She’s a born rebel, who pushes everyone around her faster than they want to go. (She’s why Tally gets as far as she does.) So Shay’s story has a lot more momentum, and a lot more physicality. She’s on her dorm’s hoverboard team, for example, and her trip across the wild is full of a lot more derring-do than Tally’s. Shay really is a better character for graphic novels, because she spends less time in her own head and more time, like, hoverboarding.

Where is this going from here? Can we expect more graphic novels in the future?

There will be three Uglies mangas, telling the story of the original trilogy. I’m also working on an original story in graphic form, but that’s all still secret.

Last question: Your fans wouldn’t forgive me unless I asked for an update on the Uglies movie. Any news to share?

Just got a round of questions from the screenwriter, who’s been very good about keeping me in the loop. He expects to have a first draft March 23, the day that Hunger Games comes out. (Coincidence? I don’t think so.)