Image Source: Chandler Klang Smith
Chandler Klang Smith's debut novel is unlike anything you've ever read. The Sky is Yours transcends the boundaries of genre, transporting the reader to a burnt-out dystopian future in which twin dragons circle the skies tormenting an urban metropolis, and a Jane Austen-esque heroine, a futuristic YouTube burnout, and a feral ingenue raised on a mountain of trash find themselves in a love triangle that threatens to tear the very city they live in apart. Here's the thing, though: as you travel through the action-adventure, coming-of-age, snarky-yet-sincere story, it's damn near impossible to pull yourself away.
Combining a handful of different narrative techniques that serve to flesh out the inner lives of the strikingly original characters, Smith's prose is conducive to a thoroughly obsessive-compulsive read, one that will leave you thinking about the world you just inhabited long after you turn the last page. I caught up with Smith by phone a full month after I'd finished reading the book, and I still felt like I'd been in the thick of it only the day before. Our conversation — which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity — appears below.
POPSUGAR: First and foremost, what were your inspirations for the book? What were you reading, researching, [and] immersing yourself in to get yourself in the right mindset to create the world in The Sky is Yours?
Chandler Klang Smith: There wasn't really a single influence for me, it's more like everything went into the blender at the same time, as fate would have it. But one book that's definitely important to me is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It really couldn't be more different than my book in a lot of ways because it's set in an imagined past instead of an imagined future, and the sense of humor is obviously very different — but the thing that I was really so taken with about that book was the way that she builds an imagined past while still having a propulsive forward action in the narrative. And also, of course, the sort of sprawling quality of it. I felt like that book kind of gave me a lot of permission to really invest in world-building in a way I'd never done in my fiction before. I also really love the book Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. The way he imagines the city, and the way that city becomes such a character in that book. Also, of course, that book has a monstrous creature that's destroying parts the city, too. That was something that really resonated with me, for obvious reasons based on what I was doing. I had barely started writing this book when I read that one and I was just like, "There's something in the air."
I also love The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme — I even have a chapter titled "The Dead Parents" — because it's like a kind of postmodern collage, and I find that very interesting. Stylistically, I obviously went in a really different direction — my book is much more character-driven and has more full scenes and stuff — but yeah, I think those were the big influences. In terms of the different styles within the book though, I would say that Jane Austen is definitely an influence and that's where I kind of got the structural idea for the first part of the novel. I was like, "Well, what if there's this sort of Jane Austen marriage plot but it's in this really postmodern setting?" And it's so interesting because people often think of Jane Austen as such a romantic writer, but to me she's really a dystopian writer because she's writing about people who are in this incredibly constrained and stifling society, forced to define themselves by that limited range of choices. So I was sort of like, "What if instead of that being historical, that's futuristic."
PS: In that case: which came first, the characters or the plot?
CKS: The very first idea I had was having a girl on a garbage island, having her see the dragons over the city, and there being this kind of feeling of that all being part of the same system. That was the first real vision. But in terms of actually being able to write it, the first piece of the narrative I came up with was the marriage plot. Then came the three main characters, and I was like, "Okay, so I'll get them in this house, and I'll sort of start spinning the world out from there." I knew that I wanted them to get expelled from the house and thrust into the city, but my idea about how that would actually happen was pretty hazy at first.
Early on in the process — I was maybe 60 or 70 pages into writing it — I was starting to really feel like I had no idea where it was going. And I had this one night where I just decided, "Okay, I'm just going to figure out the whole book." And then I wrote an outline — well, it wasn't even an outline, because it was in paragraph form — but I wrote this sort of summary of where I thought it was going. It ultimately changed a ton, though. I did this combination of writing forward, sort of hitting a wall, and then usually stopping and reoutlining what I was going to do next. I always had to have some kind of an action plan, but I'm not the kind of person who writes that at the beginning and sticks with it.
PS: What genre — or genres — do you think the book ultimately inhabits?
CKS: I see different pieces of the book as drawing from specific genres, and the book as a whole then becomes this weird amalgam of those. The first third is basically a marriage plot. Abby's story draws from things like that Steven Spielberg movie AI, and the idea of characters searching for their origins — she has a quest narrative. Dunk's also a quest narrative, but more from something like, to be really cliche, sort of a Joseph Campbell, Star Wars thing where he encounters this father figure that he has to overcome. Swanny — well, Swanny is a murder mystery, but also definitely a touch of gothic romance, like Jane Eyre or Rebecca, where the woman's involved with this guy but he's got a dark secret. When I was writing Torchtown, I also thought a lot about things like Oliver Twist or the movie Gangs of New York, with the setting being a raucous and lawless environment that has it's own type of laws.
PS: Speaking of New York — I couldn't help but get the vibe that the book was set in NYC, though the location is never explicitly addressed.
CKS: I know. When I first started writing it, I was working for a literary agency in a office near the lipstick building in the real Manhattan. And it always seemed like — well, there was just something really weird about that building to me. I thought it was sort of comical, but also somewhere that a supervillain would live. And then I found out that that it was where Bernie Madoff was doing his whole money laundering scheme, so it just took on this outsized significance in my imagination. I was like, "Well, that's going to be one of the defining landmarks of the city in this book." I mean, ultimately, I'm not going to say that I completely invented the city in the book . . . [I wanted] to give myself the freedom to make stuff up but also have the geography [and] the convenience that lends to storytelling, instead of having to start from scratch.
PS: So let's talk about the actual characters for a bit. Which of the three characters in the love triangle — Dunk, Abby, Swanny — was the easiest to write, and who was hardest?
CKS: So, I would say that Dunk's part was the hardest to write. When I first came up with his character — actually, this was before I knew how I wanted the book to end — my original plan and the reason his name is Duncan Ripple is he was initially going to get into an altercation with a dragon, and because he's as dumb as a brick, he was going to go back into the sky again thinking he was going to defeat the dragon and get knocked into the ocean and die. That was my original plan for his character, but clearly, he transformed a lot. I initially saw him as this beacon for satire and derision, and then of course when you spend a lot of time with a character you end up kind falling in love with them, or at least things about them. So I was like, "Well maybe he can change. Maybe he can grow a little bit." So for that reason his arc changed a lot as I continued writing.
But Abby is the one that I feel the most tender toward, because she's such a sort of slightly other-worldly character. It allowed me to be really lyrical, which was nice. And then Swanny is probably the closest to me, not such a flattering comparison because she's such a brat, but she's definitely the one that's the most similar to me in terms of personality, so it was easy to imagine her reactions to things that were going on in the story. And her relationship with her mom was definitely something that, while not based at all on my relationship with my mom, it was something that definitely carried a lot of emotional weight that I could relate to, where it's both a dysfunctional relationship but it's also incredibly important to her. I've observed that with mothers and daughters throughout my life, and I was really interested in exploring that type of thorny relationship in fiction. So, yeah, they kind of all had different appeals and challenges for me.
PS: I know you mentioned Dunk's origins, but outside of him, how did you come up with such bizarrely original and awesome names? And were there real-life inspirations behind the characters?
CKS: There's not a single model that I was drawing from, but there were definitely traits that I recognize and that I find interesting in people that I wanted to put into conflict with each other. One of my initial ideas with this book was that I wanted there to be direct conflict in every scene, which, of course, is not an achievable goal — nor is it actually something that would probably work. But that was how I started out, constantly wanting to have characters having friction with each other and thrown into conflict. But the names, that's a good question.
I mean, as I said, Dunk started out sort of as a pun — what would the name be for somebody who gets just knocked into the ocean by the dragon? And then Abby's name, as you read the book it becomes clear why that's her name. I really don't know how I came up with Swanny's name. I mean, obviously, Lenora, her middle name, is taken from The Raven, because she's in love with death, and she's very tempestuous and sort of full of these emotions. And swans, I sort of associate them with those ponds at Versailles or something, I picture a swan as this sort of aristocratic bird that's also kind of mean. Ultimately, for me, when I figure out the right name for a character, that usually kind of comes along with this immediate rush of ideas and impressions about that character. So I can't really set out to do it. It's more like it sort of arrives in my brain. It's almost like giving your character a face or something.
PS: I loved how you used different formats and styles of narrative in the book — how did that come together? It must have been super complicated to map out.
CKS: Well, to go back to the question of my influences on this book, one thing I should have mentioned is that I'm a big fan of House of Leaves. I know it's a real love it or hate it book for a lot of people, but I loved it. That was one of those books that I had heard about for a really long time, and would pick it up in the bookstore and flip through and be like, "This just looks sort of pretentious and incomprehensible." But then when I actually read it, I found it incredibly propulsive. I read an interview with Mark Z. Danielewski where he was talking about controlling the speed at which people read, the same way that an editor controls how quickly visual information is delivered in a movie. I thought that that was so interesting. I was like, "Wow. It really is true that getting information in these different formats just controls the way you receive it so much, even if it's the same information." So I was kind of inspired by that book to feel like, "Okay, well, what are some ways that I can mix this up? What's the not-obvious path, and how that I can take advantage of the fact that this exists in words?"
As writers, we're always competing with all of these other mediums. But we're not robbing them of their power and using it for ourselves. So I was like, "If I want this to feel like a video game, I'll make it a video game script," or, "If I want this to feel like an Army commercial, I'll make it a screenplay." So, yeah. I was really excited about the possibilities of that.
PS: What would you say your favorite part of the book is?
CKS: The last chapter in part two, I was really pleased with that. It brings everything to a head, everything that's been going on throughout the middle section of the book. But I also really liked writing Osmond's character. He was hilarious. I would actually be laughing a lot of the time when I was writing sections where he has a lot of dialogue. It was never hard to write an Osmond scene. It was more just a question of when to pull him offstage, basically. But he was always this spot of hilarity for everyone around him. As for Osmond's brother Humphrey, when I first wrote a scene in his office, it was like, "What would he have in this office? He doesn't have books on his bookshelf. What would he have?" And I was like, "Oh, he would have those dummy heads with toupees on top on display." And everyone else in the novel changes, but Osmond and Hummer are exactly the same. The brothers are both set in their ways, constantly bickering. But they're very content with it, even though it's always a source of conflict. I'm always interested in those family relationships that are full of strife, but also kind of non-negotiable. I think there's something about it that's very fun to explore, and it reveals a lot about a character, what they'll put up with.
PS: One last question: what is the one piece of advice that would you give to POPSUGAR readers?
CKS: Trust your imagination to sometimes be smarter than you are. It's worth following a really weird chain of thoughts or ideas to its natural conclusion without necessarily thinking that you have to turn it into something logical. You have to allow yourself license to be creative. Allowing yourself to daydream and to see if it takes you anywhere interesting is always worthwhile.