E.J. Wenstrom is joining us today to talk about her novel, Departures. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Tonight, seventeen-year-old Evalee is scheduled to die.
She’s planned her celebration for weeks, and other than leaving her sister Gracelyn behind, she’s ready. The Directorate says this is how it should be, and she trusts them, as all its citizens do. So tonight she dresses up, she has a party, and she dances. Then she goes to sleep for the last time … except, the next morning, Evalee wakes up.
Gracelyn is a model Directorate citizen with a prodigious future ahead. If she could only stop thinking about the shuffling from Evalee’s room on her departure morning. Even wondering if something went wrong is treasonous enough to ruin her. If she pulls at the thread, the entire careful life the Directorate set for her could unravel into chaos.
Swept away by rebels, Evalee must navigate a future she didn’t count on in a new, untidy world. As the Directorate’s lies are stripped away, she becomes determined to break Gracelyn free from its grasp—before Gracelyn’s search for the truth proves her to be more unruly than she’s worth to the Directorate.
What’s E.J. Wenstrom’s favorite bit?
E. J. WENSTROM
The initial seed of an idea for this novel came to me in the form of a girl who had abruptly lurched from unconsciousness to realize she was, in fact, still alive, and something had gone terribly wrong. She was supposed to be dead. As I started getting to the work of drafting and turning that seed into something with a story around it, I slowly came to the realization I was writing a dystopia.
This was exciting—I love dystopia and its myriad tropes! But the enthusiasm was quickly followed by intimidation, as this is a genre with the shadow of many spectacular classics and beloved modern blockbusters hanging over it.
But, what do you do? You keep writing and see where it takes you. As I wrote, all the other dystopian greats I’d read over the years sloshed around in my mind and fueled my inspiration.
My absolute favorite bit? The watchlizards.
In this novel’s world, the Directorate has utilized technological advances to optimize citizens’ lives in every possible way. Which requires a lot of careful monitoring, to make sure no one strays too far from those optimal ranges for sleep, for nutrition, for stress management… you get the idea.
In step with this, I wanted to tap into that classic dystopian Big Brother is watching feeling, but true total surveillance would really cramp the plotting potential as Gracelyn did some undercover digging around into the Directorate’s workings.
What I needed was random surveillance. Because a benevolent government wouldn’t watch its citizens every move, anyone could tell you that was no good. They’d monitor just enough to make sure everyone was safe and optimized.
Which brought me to a need for further worldbuilding. What could offer this sort of randomized observation? I kept drafting, and slowly the idea of randomized AI surveillance bots started to form. Then I remembered the salamanders from Fahrenheit 451, a detail that I’ve always found striking and odd, even if it was thematically apt.
And with that, I had an idea—the watchlizards were born. A constant looming presence throughout the Directorate’s quads, crawling in and out of cracks and crevices and keeping watch over citizen lives with their bulbous lens heads with an ever-running live feed.
And I love them. I just love them so much. I made little pins of them (working with a brilliant illustrator) for the release and in-person events. In a speculative world, to me, there’s nothing like that hint of menace manifested into a character or creature to amplify the story’s tension, and I had so much fun weaving these little guys throughout the novel.
I created these little guys to be an unsettling reminder of the Directorate’s hold over its citizens’ lives…but every time I think about them, I can’t help but smile. They were just too much fun to write!
E. J. Wenstrom believes in complicated heroes, horrifying monsters, purple hair dye and standing to the right on escalators so the left side can walk. She writes dark speculative fiction for adults and teens, including her new release Departures and Royal Palm Literary Awards’ Book of the Year, Mud, the first novel in her Chronicles of the Third Realm War series. When she isn’t writing fiction, E. J. Wenstrom is a regular contributor to DIY MFA and BookRiot, and co-hosts the FANTASY+GIRL Podcast.