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Interview: June 2011

June 2011

In ASHES, ASHES, Jo Treggiari has created a truly frightening but completely possible post-apocalyptic world wherein 16-year-old Lucy must survive by foraging, building a shelter in Central Park, and finally learning to trust another person, despite the fact that people are disappearing in the night.

In this interview,'s Usha Rao asks Treggiari about her own set of survival skills and how they match up with Lucy's. She also talks about the inner workings of her introspective protagonist, setting her story in Manhattan, the creativity inherent in YA lit, and --- despite her dystopian ways --- her optimism for the future. The disasters that befall the humans in ASHES, ASHES --- plague, earthquakes, floods, tsunami --- are relentless and epic in scope. What made you decide to create such a harrowing set of circumstances for your characters?

Jo Treggiari: I guess I could say I wanted them challenged to the outer limit of their abilities. Adversity tends to bring out people's true characters --- the worst and the best of them --- but it goes further than that. One of the coolest aspects of being a writer is having the ability to completely reconfigure landscapes and determine events. I like to anchor my fantasy in reality, and since New York City is such a symbol of human ingenuity and power and solidity, it seemed like a good place to set a post-apocalyptic novel. I think we have a basic human fear of being helpless in the face of natural disasters. We can control so much in this modern world, but before a flood, hurricane or earthquake, we are reduced to miniscule creatures.

TRC: Do you foresee that global change and resulting disease and other factorscould pose a similar level of threat to human safety and security?

JT: I have a lot of hope and confidence in science to find solutions and answers, but there's no denying that humans have been hammered by both disease and the changing climate, and that over-population and dwindling resources are a cause for concern. I think awareness of the problems we face is half the battle, and I'm hopeful that we, especially in the Western hemisphere, are cultivating a more global view.

TRC: You vividly imagine how Lucy, the teenage protagonist of ASHES, ASHES,survives for an entire year on her own in the wilderness after the plague hasclaimed her family. How do your survival skills compare with Lucy's?

JT: I did a lot of research for the book. I definitely acquired some knowledge, especially in the areas of foraging, wilderness survival and hunting, but I will add that none of this is practical knowledge. I hope that I would be able to build a basic shelter, but I'd still be wary of eating anything I managed to catch or dig out of the ground. I would absolutely stay away from mushrooms. My mother used to go out and pick them, but my sister and I always let my dad eat them first, and then we would watch him anxiously for any adverse symptoms.

TRC: Lucy --- who has had a typical middle class, urban upbringing until then ---has to pick up her survival skills from a handbook that she finds at a derelict bookstore. Do you own survival handbooks? Do you think everyone should have such a book and/or have actually learned some survival skills?

JT: I do own a foraging book and an herbal medicine book, and I love those worst case scenario books that tell you how to survive a volcanic eruption or a great white shark attack. I was fortunate to attend an elementary school that combined book study with hands-on experiences, so for instance, when we studied the Vikings in Newfoundland in the 1300s, the class built a sod hut. This would be a framework house covered in sections of turf that continued to grow afterwards. And I also learned how to snare and skin rabbits. I think that it's fun to learn about plants and animals, and go camping. I certainly encourage my kids to play outside as much as possible and ask questions about what they see around them. And learning skills in a hands-on approach makes it interesting, and I think gives kids a lot of confidence in their own abilities.

TRC: Lucy has always believed that she has no special talents, unlike her athletically gifted brother or intellectual sister. Yet Lucy is the one to survive the plague that claims the rest of her family. Is Lucy's talent her ability to survive?

JT: I think so. Obviously once you read the book, you find out that she is special in another way, but what I found to be the most attractive quality about her was her stubbornness and her commitment to survive no matter what.

TRC: Why does Lucy choose to remain isolated for such a long stretch of time, when it appears the other survivors were all drawn to finding companionship?

JT: I think she felt very vulnerable in the shelter, and once she realized that no one in any position of authority was coming to save them and that people were mysteriously disappearing in the middle of the night, she left. She was already a bit of an introspective loner, used to exploring by herself, and I think that type of personality can keep company with themselves. She was probably less lonely living alone than she was surrounded by people at that point, if that makes any sense.

And then once she was in the Wilds, the amount of work she had to put in just to survive every day also helped keep her memories and sorrow at bay. I think it's a natural reaction to personal tragedy to want to hide away, to close yourself up. Lucy has the perfect excuse to isolate herself, but she also uses her situation as a means of avoidance. Her decision, partly forced upon her, to join up with the Scavenger camp is her first step towards working through her loss in a healthy way.

TRC: What does meeting Aidan represent to Lucy, who until then has strived so hard to keep to herself? Other than the obvious attraction between them, what is it about Aidan that allows Lucy to be drawn out?

JT: Just meeting another human shocks her out of the cocoon she has woven around herself. In a way she has almost forgotten that other people exist beyond the narrow parameters of her own world. At first she is as suspicious and wary of him as she is of any other humans, but I think because he is relaxed and easy-going, she is also able to partly relax (even though at the time she is up a tree and scared of heights). Then of course, he makes a selfless gesture and leads the dogs away from her. Although she is naturally distrustful, she judges him by his actions, and comes to rely on him, and then slowly she is able to let other people back into her life again.

TRC: In this post-apocalyptic world, not only does science not have any answers tothe problems facing mankind (who have to rely on herbs and traditional ways to survive), it ends up functioning as a threat to Lucy and her friends. Do you view science as a positive, negative or neutral force in the world?

JT: I do place many hopes for our future well-being in science. Before I chose to major in Creative Writing and European Literature, my inclination was towards Biology. I believe that scientists will find solutions to problems besetting us now --- alternative fuel sources, cures for disease, solutions to poverty and starvation. I'm actually quite an optimist.

TRC: Lucy has to eat some pretty horrible things to survive in the wilderness. InLucy's shoes, are there any foods you would not be able to eat? What foodwould you miss most?

JT: I've been a vegetarian since I was 12 years old. I do eat dairy and some eggs, but no fish or meat. Obviously this would make things even tougher for me. I think it's probable that I would give up vegetarianism in order to survive, but I would try to get most of my nutrients from plant-based foods. I would definitely miss ice cream (raspberry and pistachio in particular) and coffee. Not sure I could survive without coffee. There is an alternate made with the plant chicory, but it falls massively short.

TRC: Your story is set in New York City, which is featured very prominently in the book. I was expecting to learn that you were a native New Yorker, but found instead that you live in Nova Scotia, Canada and spent your childhood in England, Canada, Italy and California. What made you decide to set the story in New York?

JT: I've only recently moved to Nova Scotia from New York where I lived for almost 10 years. (I love NY and miss it). It seemed like the perfect place to stage an apocalypse, and it allowed me to do so on a grand scale. There is such a majesty about the cityscape, an energy you can feel just walking around the bustling streets. Re-imagining it as a wasteland was such a powerful image for me.

TRC: You've been a music producer and a boxer. What drew you to writing YA books?In what ways do your other interests influence your writing?

JT: I think you write what you love, and I love reading young adult fiction. I do also read and enjoy nonfiction and adult lit and graphic novels as well, but I feel that YA has a breadth of subject, narrative and style that is unique. Actually, most of the time as a reader, I feel that I would be quite happy and satisfied if I read nothing but YA for the rest of my life. The genre is so diverse, and to write for readers who are open and sophisticated and in some instances experiencing life-changing moments for the first time is so thrilling for a writer. It allows me to re-examine all the swirling emotions I felt as a teenager and write in the most truthful way I can.

All my experiences find their way into my writing in one way or another. If it's not quite as exciting, I can always use poetic license and recast it in a stronger light. The book I'm working on right now uses a lot of my experience as a boxer.

TRC: What is it that you're currently working on?

JT: I just finished a coming-of-age urban fantasy adventure with great white sharks, and my current work-in-progress (see above) is a neo-gothic tale that combines contemporary YA with surrealism. Of course I would love to write another book based in the ASHES, ASHES world.