Reporting by Ava S. and Colleen W.
Teen Press members Ava and Colleen sat down with BookTok sensation Alex Aster, author of the recent YA fantasy novel, Lightlark. Here’s what she had to say about her book, her movie deal, and much more!
**No Spoilers Here!
Colleen: If you could describe your latest release, Lightlark in one word, what would it be?
Alex Aster: I think I would describe it as (I hope) dazzling. I know that’s a strange word to say about your own book, but I really tried to have it be atmospheric and have that kind of aesthetic, even though it’s this deadly game. Hopefully, it’s dazzling. I hope that’s not a pretentious thing to say.
C: How did you get the idea for Lightlark? What made you think of Isla and all the other characters and want to write about this game?
AA: So I actually came up with this idea maybe like four years ago, because I saw a really old church. I just kept imagining what world would exist. And I’ve always liked celestial stuff like stars and moons. So, I started thinking about, “What if there was a world where there are different celestial forces?” And then I started thinking, “Who would be the person who would struggle the most in this world where so many people are so powerful?” And then, I thought of Isla. “What if she doesn’t even have powers? What if she’s been trained to be put in this horrible situation where she’s basically going to die: what would she do?” So that’s kind of how it started.
Ava: If you were to belong to a realm in Lightlark, which would it be?
AA: I think I would want to be part of Starling even though I would be dead if the curse was real because I’m older than 20. So, I guess I would want to be part of Starling post-curse, just because Starling was definitely born from my love of stars, their shape, and their silver. I just think it’s so magical and almost Christmassy, and their powers are really cool. I would want to be able to throw things and be able to control things with telekinesis.
C: If you ruled your own cursed kingdom, based on your life and your personality, what do you think your curse would be?
AA: My curse was something that was real; just finish books and then not give them a good chance. Maybe like one of those curses where you climb up the mountain, but then when you get to the top, you’re at the bottom again. It was totally my fault. I wrote so many books, and I was in such a rush. I was so impatient. All I wanted to do was get an agent, it wasn’t even getting published! I was so focused on that, that as soon as I would finish a book, even before I finished the book, I would query agents and I would shoot myself in the foot because I never took the time to really edit it and think about it and be strategic. I loved seeing the [query] emails and getting responses because I knew one of those responses could be a request, and it could lead me to an agent. I never was patient. So I think my curse would be to never give myself the best chance and just finish a book and not be able to edit it because I chose not to edit the books. I definitely failed for longer than I would have if I had just really focused.
C: Do you have a favorite character from Lightlark and why?
AA: I definitely like Isla obviously, she’s the main character. But I like her because I think that it’s admirable that she just doesn’t give up. If you know you’re going into a situation where you literally have no powers because everyone else is so powerful, and you’re going in you have to pretend to be this and then you’re actually letting yourself be vulnerable and falling in love and stuff… I would literally be hiding in a closet the whole time being like, “Please don’t kill me!” So I think she’s my favorite character and she also makes terrible decisions, too. I like that because she’s normal. I am kind of ambiguous about her age but you know, this is like her coming of age story. She’s never been in any environment except for her room. She’s going through everything for the first time. I liked that she allows herself to make selfish decisions because I think that’s very real. If anyone was going through that for the first time, I think that that’s what they would do, too.
C: Are there any characters, or scenes in Lightlark that are based on real people or events in your life?
AA: That’s a good question. I definitely think Celeste being like, very straightforward and very honest is like my sister. She’s honest to a point of hurt. I definitely was inspired by my sister. She’s very straightforward and will tell me the truth. She was the first person who ever read my books. She would tell me this is bad, or this is really good. I always was looking for her approval. If she likes it, I figure I’m probably doing something right. I think that’s honestly it. I wish I did do that because I feel like I would maybe write better characters because it would be based on a real person. Maybe another book. I think Lightlark was made because of my sister, or people who read the early versions. She read the first version that was written like four years ago and she loved it. She would ask me for a new chapter every night, so I would write them for her. She hasn’t read the most recent version, because now it’s like a real book. I think for her, it’s a little strange now that it’s printed. She can’t like tell me what she truly feels if she doesn’t like something because it’s done. I hope she does read it. I mean, without that encouragement from my sister really wanting the chapters, I would have never finished the first version of Lightlark I wrote when I had parted ways with my first agent.
C: Could you pronounce all the characters’ names?
AA: I know I’m the annoying author that decides pronunciation that’s not the typical sounds. I’m Colombian and so a lot of these names are kind of Spanish like Azul, which means blue. Isla (ees-lah) is like how you say island in Spanish, but I don’t really like the sharp “I” sound. So I liked Isla (eyes-lah) and I know it’s normally Isla (eye-lah). I just liked Isla because it’s almost like a snake; you have all of the pronunciation. That’s how it’s pronounced and the rest are normal like Cleo, Celeste, Grimm, or Azul. For the audiobook, I had to make a voice note and say “eyessss-lahhhh”.
Ava: Can you tell us the details about your movie deal? Has casting started? What was kind of your reaction when you found out about the movie deal?
AA: So this happened this year. I want to say it started four or five months ago. I had film agents from my last book Emblem Island which is a middle-grade series. Then, when I got the Lightlark book deal I asked them “Would you want to represent Lightlark, too?” But there were so many months of edits, and you don’t want to send out the first draft that sold because the book changes a lot from the publisher when we’re editing it. About a year after when we had the final version of Lightlark, which was early this year, we kind of played around with submitting it. We knew we had some people who were maybe interested, but it never really felt right. So we decided to just wait to submit it until the book came out to give it the best possible chance because once it’s out people can see what the reception is and if it has good sales. That was definitely the plan. But then someone from Temple Hill reached out.
I knew about Temple Hill and that they produced Twilight, Maze Runner, and all these huge movies, but I didn’t get my hopes up because this had happened a lot before for my other series; I would find out someone was reading it, and then you would just never hear anything. At the end of the day, even though Lightlark had hype and everything, if the book is bad, no one’s gonna make a movie from it and spend all this time and energy and money.
I really didn’t have my hopes up, but eventually, Temple Hill reached out and said, “Would you want to join with us, and we’ll try to together get a movie deal?” How I’ve learned it happens is you can kind of team up with people, like a writer or a director or a production company, and then try to go to studios together with a better package. I not only knew it would be the smart decision, but I also really wanted to work with them. So I said yes, of course. I honestly was a little naive. I didn’t know how the process worked at that point. I expected it to be like, right away when we would get answers and stuff. And it was a long time. It was weeks before we heard anything.
I honestly, truly thought “Oh, they just don’t want to work on my book anymore. Like they just forgot about it or something because it’s been such a long time.” Then one day, I was at my sister’s apartment, and I got this call that Universal had read it and was really interested in making it into a movie. That’s when I created that video that’s super unflattering- the one of me in like a bathroom like gasping for air- because I just, I couldn’t believe it. That was my genuine reaction. I mean it’s like a dream come true. It really doesn’t feel real, but at that point, I knew they were interested in making a movie. They [Universal] did a preempt which means they didn’t want it to go to auction and compete against different studios.
I was able to negotiate to be an executive producer which was so cool because that means I’ll be involved in casting and stuff. That was months ago, and I’m so glad I was able to announce it before the book comes out because sometimes you just can’t. They let me do it because I just knew people would be excited about it. I feel like TikTok has seen my entire journey. I mean definitely not the years where literally no one wanted to read my books and all I got were rejections, but TikTok has definitely seen the whole journey of Lightlark. I really just wanted to share with everyone if it could happen to me with the eighth book I wrote, it could happen to anyone and I just didn’t even know it happened.
I didn’t know you could sell the movie rights before the book came out. It’s like, a little bit unusual, but it’s happened before with Twilight and Divergent and The 100. I just truly did not think it would happen to me and Lightlark. In terms of where we are in the process, it’s actually happening right now. A script is in the works, casting and everything is happening. I can’t really talk about it. And that’s been one hard thing. They were like “We know you have this presence and stuff, but you have to be careful with what you say.” They’re definitely giving me a lot more ability to talk than they would normally let people because everyone is basically involved. This whole community made this happen, I can’t not tell them. (Well, there are some things I can’t.) But things are happening quickly. I’m just really grateful that the people at Universal, the executives who are actually handling it, the people at Temple Hill who are handling it, everyone just really loves the story. It feels very surreal. It didn’t feel real until it was in the Hollywood Report. They can’t back out now, you know. It’s actually gonna be a movie.
Ava: So what are some of your favorite books? And specifically, are there any books that inspired Lightlark?
AA: I was looking at the bookshelf that my mom had saved for me, and it was really funny. I’m definitely gonna make a video about it. I saw Legend by Marie Lu and the pages are very yellow. It’s hardback. I opened it up and it’s a second edition, so I got it as soon as it came out. I love it so much. It was one of those books that came out and did so well and it was amazing. I couldn’t imagine being an author like that. And now, the fact that Marie Lu’s quote is literally on the cover of my book at the top?! It’s really special and full circle because that was all I ever wanted. She was a huge inspiration; not just her book, but her career. She’s such a good writer and she’s also very successful and she’s so nice. I’ve met her a few times and the fact that she blurbed Lightlark blows my mind.
But other books were Shatter Me. That’s like had a huge kind of resurgence on BookTok. I bought it with the original cover with the girl on it, so I probably have the first edition of that. That was a huge inspiration because it was also very unique in the way it was written. In terms of inspiration, Lightlark was definitely inspired by The Hunger Games. It’s not really like The Hunger Games where there’s a game where you’re like trying to kill people and stuff. It’s more like court politics, but I definitely was inspired by the idea of a situation where people are thrown into a space and they have an end goal and they’re betraying people. I also was definitely inspired by One of Us is Lying because I loved the idea that everyone’s lying and everyone has secrets. I really wanted there to be a mystery element to it where at the end you would have a plot twist. My goal was that, even if you maybe guessed one of them, you wouldn’t guess all of them. I wanted to have mystery be a big part of it and for it to actually work.
I think all of the beautiful, glittering fantasy and YA also inspired it. I wanted it to have really pretty dresses and stuff but also have thriller elements. Any YA book that was published around 2000 I ate up. They really fed my dream. They’re the only thing that would distract me from any problems I had or anything that was going on at school. It was really important to me growing up.
Ava: How’s it feel now to be working and living alongside authors who you’ve loved and admired for years? Do you feel a part of that community, or are you still a fan girl at heart?
AA: It’s definitely strange. Now some of my best friends are Chloe Gong and Dustin Thao and Adam Silvera, and it is strange because when you start, you don’t see them as authors, you just see them as people and friends. I’m still a fan girl with authors that I don’t know as well. I haven’t met Tahereh Mafi yet. If I did, I probably would be like, “Oh, my gosh!” I think I would die. Part of me definitely still feels like I’m just a person who reads and wants to be an author. I truly haven’t gotten the experience of having people read my book (or it just doesn’t feel like anyone’s read it yet because I haven’t met readers). I definitely still feel like a fan girl. I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes, but I think I separate the work from the person, except for the times when I’ll text Chloe and ask her, “Hey, so what is this thing that you’re teasing?” That’s the perks of being friends with an author. I think it’s weird, though, to think like, 12 year old to me would never think that I actually did what we wanted to do. You know, I think that’s the weirder part.
C: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? And what was the first thing you remember writing?
AA: I think I honestly knew from when I was six years old that I wanted to be an author. I would do what a lot of kids do; get the paper and fold it and staple it and like make my own little books. I did that my entire childhood. I just thought it was so cool. When I really knew and I started writing books, I was 12. I loved YA, like the golden age of YA when all this paranormal stuff was coming out. One day I thought, “I think I could write a book.” So I just got my laptop and started writing it. It was obviously horrendous, but I wrote the book and actually finished 400 pages, and I was really proud of myself.
When I was 12 I started querying, but I got literally only rejections. So then I realized I needed to learn. I went to Barnes and Noble probably when I was like 13 and I got books like Guide to Literary Agents and Guide to Publishing, and I just wrote down all these literary agents. Then I would sit in the cafe with a stack of books and look in the acknowledgments and see who the agent was, and I would write my queries. I’d write like 10 different versions of queries. I literally only got rejections for the first book, obviously (it was very bad now that I look at it). I really, really knew I wanted to do this and was going to actively try to do it when I was 12. I just never stopped. I would just write books, write books, and even in college, I would write books.
Ava: Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you deal with that?
AA: Oh my gosh, yes. I have writer’s block right now for book two. I’m a stubborn writer. If it’s gonna come out it’s either one or the other for me. Either I can’t write it all, or I sit down and I write 10,000 words in a day and most of it gets kept. You know it’s not like I’m the best writer ever, it just takes me months to be able to get to the point to sit down and produce that. It’s not fast, even though I could technically write a book in two months or something. Instead, it’s like writing it in eight months, because for six months, I can’t write anything.
I prefer to have more time to let it sit. For Lightlark, I had years to think about it even though I wrote it in three months, and then maybe three months of editing. That was fast, but I was thinking about it for months or years before that. With this, I have such tight deadlines because it’s a series. I can’t just sit down and know what’s gonna happen. I guess how I get through it is I read a lot. And I watch movies. I try to remind myself why I love to write and what I’m trying to create. So I’ll read something and I’ll be like, “That’s what I want. That’s what I want to make someone feel.” I’m more trying to inspire myself. Then at some point, you just have to sit down and be like, “I know you don’t want to, but this is your job.” I’ve written so many books at this point, a lot of which will never be published, and it gets easier in the sense that you know how it works now, but it doesn’t get way easier to write. You just come up with different challenges, I guess.
Ava: What is your favorite thing about being a writer?
AA: I think my favorite thing is that I can do my job from a coffee shop. I really like coffee shops. I love coffee and I just like the ambiance and I like pastries and I like the tables. I think that’s my favorite part: I can actually sit there and do work. Another thing is that I can create worlds for a living. The best part is for most of the time I’ve been writing, I truly was writing just for myself because no one else was ever going to read it. So I think it’s really cool now that people are going to read my words which still doesn’t feel real.
C: Are you excited about going on tour?
AA: I am super excited. I’ve never done this. I’ve never gotten a book tour and again I haven’t really met people who have read the book so it’s so nice to meet both of you and talk to you about it because I really haven’t. I think it might be some pressure relief because right now I just don’t really know what people are thinking or if people like it. So I think it’ll be really cool to meet people in person who have read it and are super excited about it. It feels very surreal to think that someone’s going to buy a ticket to meet me and hear me talk about Lightlark. I’m super grateful because I’ve never done this. It really doesn’t feel real that it’s happening.
Ava: If you were a kitchen utensil, what would you be and why?
AA: That’s so cute. I think of utensils as the things you hold in your hand. So it might be like, those things that you use with coffee? I honestly think that’s the most magical thing in the world. I went to an event once and they were serving matcha lattes, but they didn’t have a machine. So it’s like, “How are they going to froth the milk,” and then they pulled that thing out and it was just like a magic wand that you could use to whip up things. I would be that just because I think it’s like, super cool. I’ve never been asked that.
C: Can you kind of give us an outlook of what’s next for you? What’s on your plate? Give us the details.
AA: Right now I’m writing the second book in the Lightlark series, which is tough because I’m also obviously promoting the first one. I’ve honestly kind of taken a few weeks off because I just can’t do both. It’s definitely more pressure now. I sold it as a two-book deal, but I’m hoping to do more books in the series and we will see very soon if there are going to be more. I will also be working on the movie stuff as the executive producer. I realized it’s like a job, I have to do it and it requires work, not just fun stuff. I think that’s probably going to be a big part of my next two years. I’m also working on some adult books. I really love the adult genre, especially romance, so I’ve been working on that kind of behind the scenes whenever I have time. I’m definitely also thinking about other Lightlark-adjacent projects, but I don’t have any news yet about anything.
C: Is there anything so far in your interviews and with people you’ve talked to that you’ve wanted to be asked? Or that you’ve wanted to talk about and just no one spoke to you about it yet?
AA: That’s really a great question. I really like to talk about the fact that, because this blew up on BookTok, and because videos are only 15 seconds or 10 seconds long, I feel like a lot gets lost in terms of how hard the rejections were. I would hate for someone to quit because they got rejected 10 times so that clearly means they’ll never be an author because they haven’t gotten a movie deal or a book deal. I would hate for that to happen, because, for years, that was me. You would see people like that, and you would think to yourself, “I’m obviously not good enough so I need to stop or quit”. I really don’t like to share the cool things that are happening without being like, listen, this was not the case for so long.
I don’t want to discourage people. When I was writing, I would see someone else get an agent or something, and I’d be like, “There’s something wrong with me. I’m not good enough.” I don’t want that to be the case, so I like to talk about the fact that I did fail, a lot more than I’ve succeeded. I’ve only really succeeded for a year, but I failed for over a decade. But then after the book deal, no one wanted my books for two years, because the book sales hadn’t done well because we were in a pandemic and young adult was such a hard industry to break into.
I like to talk about that just because, truly, I feel if you don’t give up, if you keep going, eventually something will happen because you get better. No one is born an amazing writer. It takes practice, like anything else, any other skill in the world. You would never expect to be born amazing. You have to practice. Every book you write is practice. I post about like “I got a movie deal with Universal and the producers of Twilight and my book is coming out and… ” it’s like blah, blah, blah. That sounds so cool, but I also want people to know it didn’t happen overnight because that’s just not how it works.
I was really inspired by listening to interviews where people would talk about writing for 10 years or failing for this long because then I could relate. I can keep going and it might happen for me. I remember listening to Stephanie Garber, who talked a lot about how she was writing for so long and got so many rejections and really was in a bad place. Then Caraval was one of the biggest books ever. That always was so inspiring to me, because whenever you see someone get something huge, you kind of assume, “Oh, it must have just been they were either lucky or they were way better than me,” and that’s just not true. There is luck involved, but I feel that eventually if you work really hard and you keep going, you will get lucky. For me, the luck was obviously BookTok. I did not know that was gonna happen. It’s obviously better to just talk about the cool stuff that’s happened, but I wouldn’t want anyone to be discouraged. If anything, I would want people to be inspired. If you have a dream, if you keep going, it’s not going to happen in a year, but it could happen after 10 years. I truly believe that if anyone has a dream, if they just keep going, and don’t give up, something will happen because you’ll get better and also, eventually you’ll get lucky in some way.