Ally Carter: ‘I think Molly Weasley is as strong a character as Katniss Everdeen’
The author of three bestselling series discusses feminism, TV’s huge influence, the YA world and the inspiration for Embassy Row
Ally Carter: “I hurt for Grace a lot. I feel very guilty for what I did to her!” Photograph: Liz Ligon
“You can fall in love with the boy next door – but it doesn’t mean his country isn’t at war with yours.” When Ally Carter plans out a novel, she tries to find a one-line “hook” to share with her agent and editor before writing. The above refers to the first in her recent Embassy Row trilogy for young adults, which has just concluded with Take The Key & Lock Her Up (Orchard Books, £6.99). For her heroine, Grace, granddaughter of the American ambassador to a fictional small European country, the “boy next door” lives in the Russian embassy.
She compares her writing method to building a house: “You don’t want to decorate the room before you’ve finalised the floor plans.”
“We have a long history of making the Russians the bad guy,” Carter reflects, whose extensive pop culture knowledge influences her writing. She was a reluctant reader as a child – one of her favourite compliments from readers today is “I didn’t like to read until I found your books” – but adored the TV shows of the 1980s, and still cites television as an influence today. “I think any kind of story you can mainline to your brain is a good thing,” she says, citing Joss Whedon and Shonda Rhimes as excellent TV writers. “They’re just great writers, and no matter what medium a great writer works in, you can learn from them.”
Unsurprising, then, that her own writing process draws heavily on the screenplay format. Her “very rough” first drafts are written using screenwriting software, just getting the dialogue down, before she completes a prose draft. “I write such plot-heavy books that I need to know very early on if the plot is working . . . I need to know that before I start layering in beautiful language!” She compares it to building a house: “You don’t want to decorate the room before you’ve finalised the floor plans.”
Carter’s current American editor at Scholastic, David Levithan (also a YA writer in his own right), is happy to view drafts at an early stage, but Carter knows she’s lucky. “He knows what my rewriting process looks like,” she notes, and adds that it helps to have known Levithan for years – the trust is there. A decade into the business, with three bestselling series under her belt (in addition to Embassy Row, she has also penned the Gallagher Girls series and the Heist Society quartet), she still counts her blessings.
“I know how lucky I am. I do have a lot of writer friends, and you hear all the ways it can go wrong, through nobody’s fault. It’s just a weird business, with lots of moving parts, and things go off the rails sometimes. I’ve been really fortunate.”
Yet she does have occasional gripes about the world of YA, in particular the tendency to focus on “the super book” as of late, the massive bestseller at the expense of all other titles. And then there’s the fact that YA fiction is often dismissed because it is so often read by teenage girls.
To ask her if she views her work – featuring brave, adventurous and powerful young women – as feminist feels almost too obvious, and she laughs. “I think if you can’t qualify these books as that, you probably can’t qualify most books!” Carter is nevertheless aware of how we can often speak reductively about novels with “strong female characters”. “I think Molly Weasley is as strong a character as Katniss Everdeen, and Molly is a stay-at-home mom, feeding a family of nine on a government salary. That’s a kind of strength on its own, but we live in a society that doesn’t value that kind of strength, because it’s what women have always done.”
Describing the heroines of each series, she says, “they’re all fighters, they’re all smart, they’re all very loyal.” Cammie of her Gallagher Girls series, which Carter suspects now would be published for a middle-grade audience, is more optimistic than the others, while Kat of Heist Society “knows who she is”. And Grace of Embassy Row is “a survivor”. “I hurt for Grace a lot,” she admits. “She’s the character I feel worst for – I feel very guilty for what I did to her!”
When we meet Grace in the first book of the trilogy she has already lost her mother in what everyone insists was a fire and she’s sure was a gunshot wound to the chest. She’s been hospitalised for these apparent delusions and still suffers panic attacks, something Carter was sure to carefully research. She’s relieved readers have responded positively to this, particularly those who experience similar anxiety issues.
As the series unfolds, we see that Grace has been through more than we might imagine – and there’s more to come. The world she inhabits is high-stakes, where a party among teenagers or even a ball thrown over the wrong fence could lead to a diplomatic incident. Carter was inspired years ago by a friend of hers whose son was in college and hoping to enter the foreign services. “I don’t know how I feel about that,” the friend confided, “because that will mean my grandchildren will grow up in embassies all around the world.”
I didn’t want to get it exactly right, because embassies are kind of boring. It’s not all spies and stealing nuclear launch codes. Mostly it’s issuing visas. That’s not the most gangbuster book
Immediately “kids in embassies” began whirling around at the back of Carter’s brain. Several years later, on book tour in Washington DC, she visited the city’s own “Embassy Row”. Driving down the long street she realised that every fence was a border, every patch of land legally a separate country. And then at the end of the street there was that “creepy house at the end of the street that every neighbourhood has” – the abandoned Iranian embassy. “That’s when I knew I had to write it, that’s when it really felt real for me.”
Part of her research included handbooks that the US government provides to children of diplomats who are relocated, as well as snippets of information from friends-of-friends. She also watched documentaries about diplomacy, and was reassured that some centuries-old traditions or ceremonies still exist today – which made her fictional old-fashioned monarchy of Adria more plausible.
“I had to make it a bit more like embassies are in the movies. I got to cheat a bit because it was set in a made-up country, and I knew I wasn’t going to get it exactly right. Honestly, I didn’t want to get it exactly right, because embassies are kind of boring. It’s not all spies breaking in and stealing nuclear launch codes. Mostly it’s issuing visas. That’s not the most gangbuster book in the world.”
Grace and her friends encounter far more than issuing visas in the trilogy, including dealings with the royal family. Carter referred to the second volume as her “Anastasia book”, partly inspired by the story of the lost Russian princess as well as a general fascination with royalty. “I’m old enough to remember when Diana and Charles got married, which was when royal fever hit the US,” she recalls, and now cites Kate Middleton as a modern-day idealised princess. In Carter’s world, though, the fairytale is deconstructed; despite the bright covers this is a darker, more cynical world than Disney.
Carter’s next novel will be published in spring 2018, a standalone novel she describes as “a gender-swapped YA Romancing The Stone”. After the intensity of Grace, her new heroine is much more “of an irreverent character, which is a lot of fun”. And she’s already planning the next book, with a list of more than 30 ideas on her phone that she’s musing on. “When you’re a writer, you get ideas,” she says simply – keeping the drama and angst between the pages, and out of her life.
Claire Hennessy is a YA writer, editor, and reviewer