“Sci-fi for teens,” shouts the header of Phoebe North’s Web site, making her intentions as a writer as clear as dilithium crystal. North has long been a fan of science fiction and fantasy (she was writing Anne McCaffrey fanfic before fanfic was cool, and she carries a handbag version of the TARDIS). This past July, she made her first official contribution to the genre with Starglass (Simon & Schuster), a young adult novel set aboard a generation ship, the Asherah, which left Earth hundreds of years ago to escort hundreds of primarily Jewish colonists to a new home. Yes, North is taking the diaspora to the stars.
Describing herself as both “culturally Jewish” and agnostic, North says that while she was interested in setting her novel on a generation ship from the start, the elements of Judaism arrived later. “When I was first writing it, I was using generic sci-fi terminology,” North says. “Then one character said ‘Oy,’ and I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ ” That led North to think “about Judaism in diaspora, which is very different from Zionism, and I fixed on that and drew that out of the narrative.”
North’s interest in writing for teens grew out of her time at the University of Florida, where she earned an MFA in poetry. “I just kept coming back to these themes about childhood and all the fantasy literature I’d always loved,” says the author. She took some children’s literature classes “just for fun” and wrote what she calls “my first bad novel,” which nonetheless confirmed her belief that her future as a writer was in young adult fiction.
Other “bad novels” followed—North doesn’t intend for them to see the light of day, but she isn’t averse to “poach[ing] them for parts”—and she queried Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary with one of them, about a merman. North received a “very nice rejection” from the agent, but just a few days later got a follow-up email from Andelman, who had seen a snippet of the novel that would become Starglass on North’s blog; she wanted to see more when it was ready. Eight months later, North sent her the manuscript, and within two weeks they were revising it, a process that took around six months. In November 2011, Navah Wolfe at Simon & Schuster acquired it in a two-book deal (the second book in North’s duology, Starbreak, arrives in July 2014).
“I can’t imagine having better supporters for the book,” says North of her editor and agent. “I never felt that they were pushing me in ways that surprised me. They were both teasing out aspects of the novel that were already there. [Starglass] went from 75,000 words to close to 100,000 words, but it’s a much more mature novel.”
North now lives near New Paltz, N.Y., with her husband. Aside from looking forward to the arrival of their first child in February, along with Starbreak next summer, North has enjoyed hearing from readers in the months since the book was published. “Terra is kind of a complicated character,” she says of the heroine of Starglass. “I always knew I loved her, but I wasn’t sure how people would react, if they would find her irritating—which is a totally valid response.”
She’s working on other stories, but won’t divulge details just yet. “I’ve been blogging in one form or another since I was 18, so I’m very much the kind of person who’s an open book,” she says. “It’s hard keeping things secret. The process [of publishing] gets more closed as you get more into it.” Still, she’s fairly certain that, for now, she’s sticking to “sci-fi for teens,” as opposed to stepping outside the genre or writing for a younger audience. “I’ve thought about all those things,” she says, “but right now my passion is where I naturally end up—writing more geeky sci-fi.”