The young adult novel space may seem overcrowded with vampires and sub-par fantasy stories over the past few years, but screenwriter-turned-author Adam Sass is set to change this.
With his debut novel Surrender Your Sons, Sass will tackle the stigma of conversion camps but with a deadly twist.
We caught up with Adam to discuss his new book (due out on 15th September 2020) plus queer representation in horror.
Tell us how you got into writing?
I actually started in screenwriting! I shifted into novels when I started reading YA and fell in love with the imagination and new story possibilities I was seeing take place. They were taking risks where film and TV were timid. Also, I first started writing in the years I was a barista at my local Barnes & Noble Café. I’d scribble ideas on the backs of pastry bags as I looked out on the bookshelves, imagining my books on them one day.
What is your research process like for your stories?
It’s the most fun part! When I’m preparing to write a story, I’ll do a long blue sky period for weeks where I follow the threads of certain images, ideas, and locations that interest me. Try to live in them as much as possible so that when I go to write them, I’ll have as much flavor as possible. For example, in my upcoming novel Surrender Your Sons, I knew it was going to take place on an isolated Costa Rican island that had no plumbing or electrical grid, but people had to be able to live there for months and years. What did those systems look like? What challenges did it place on the story? How would it affect the characters physically? Everything plays a part.
Why did you decide to make Surrender Your Sons a young adult novel?
Surrender Your Sons originally began with more aged-up characters who were college age, but this story was about disenfranchisement. Parents making decisions for their kids, and there was nothing the kids could do about it. Making the characters underage middle and high schoolers only adds to the oppressive feeling of helplessness at the start of the story. It’s a feeling that all teens (and former teens) can relate to, whether or not they’re as oppressed as these characters—that feeling that someone else is making huge decisions about your life that you have no say in.
Can you tell us the nucleus of the character of Connor?
Connor comes from low-income country folk. His mom is a hyper-conservative religious zealot, so his coming out went horribly. He’s short and scrappy, like a terrier—always with a sharp remark for people, which gets him in trouble constantly. But even in his darkest moments, Connor always finds the humor or heart in a situation. He’s an unstoppable force. Connor came about because I was advising a young family friend through a pretty bad depression. It was a struggle to communicate everything I wanted to teach them about being a queer person, how joy can follow pain, but because he wasn’t a close relative and he was very young, I was discouraged from saying too much of value. Everything in Surrender Your Sons is what I wanted to tell this person.
Which character was the most fun to write?
Villains are always the most fun, and there’s so many in this. The most exciting one to write was also the strangest—a character named Miss Manners. She’s an instructor at the conversion camp, but a very mysterious, sinister presence throughout the story. She wears a housedress covered in colourful lemon patterns, but the hem is torn and filthy (because she’s in a jungle). Every time she reappears, it’s shocking—like the shark in Jaws.
How many drafts did it take to get the story to a point where you were happy with it?
A literal trillion. This book began in a different age category and even genre, but it was always about Connor escaping an island conversion camp. Everything else about it has been up for grabs for years. The first version of this was my first book, which are famously chaotic messes, so it needed a lot of rebooting before it was suitable for everyone’s dollar.
How long did the story take to put together?
Yeah, similar to above, it took about 7 years to go from concept to finished book about to hit shelves. A lot of that time was for me to try and fail, make the book better, and most importantly, learn a new industry I knew nothing about. That’s really the thing people miss, is that you have to meet people in the industry, learn how things work, how they don’t work, and how it all meshes together. That took the most time.
Conversion camps is certainly a very topical element of your story, how did you mix this with the horror element?
It mixed quite easily. Conversion camps tap into classic horror elements: paranoia, isolation, doubting yourself, mind control, cults, being held captive. When I was coming up with book ideas, I really wanted to tap into a primal fear of mine. Like Jaws did with the ocean, or Psycho did for showers. My fear was being held against my will and losing my sense of identity. That naturally led me to this nightmarish camp, which took the very elements of conversion therapy to their extremes.
Who are your favourite authors to read?
Within YA, I love L.C. Rosen and Rory Power. Both of them cut beneath the surface for me—Rosen with humor and Power with unhinged narratives. However, YA is my work, so to relax, I read nonfiction. I’m big into David Sedaris and Mary Roach. Stiff was everything to me.
What sort of horror films do you enjoy?
Anything with dread. Body horror is another. That’s another primal fear. Foggy, dread-soaked movies from the 70s and 80s speak to me: An American Werewolf in London, Don’t Look Now, Suspiria, and Poltergeist. Movies where characters are swept up in their normal lives until the horror comes barreling in. That’s what happens to Connor: he’s worried about his boyfriend, worried about school, worried about his mom acting cold to him, and then BAM—he’s on an island, and his only worry is getting out alive.
Do you feel there is still not enough queer representation in horror outside of some stereotypes?
I mentioned earlier that I was drawn to YA because I saw these novels taking more risks than film and TV. I still see that. Queer representation in YA has work to do still, but they’re light years ahead of the rep in film and TV, which as far as I’m concerned is in the Dark Ages. I see fear and timidity stopping truly great stories from reaching audiences who are starving for them. It’s not just about representation; it’s about the specific given circumstances that queer characters can bring to a narrative. By limiting the kinds of people we tell stories about, modern-day horror audiences are only experiencing a fraction of the stories they could be.
What is the plan for your follow-up novel?
No concrete plans to announce yet, but it will be a new novel not connected to the world of Surrender Your Sons. I can say that it’ll be frightening, exciting, funny, and very, very queer.
Can you name the last book you read that truly shook you to your core?
Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig. A young closeted boy’s girlfriend goes missing, and he becomes the prime suspect because to tell his parents and police his whereabouts would be to out himself. So, he sets out to find out what happened to her before that reckoning comes. It’s Hitchcockian in the best way where an ordinary person is thrust into a rapidly unfolding nightmare because of circumstance.
Pre-order your copy of Surrender Your Sons by Adam Sass on Amazon.