I was all over it immediately," says author Rachael Craw. "As soon as the Proxy appeared and I realised what she was, I was like, 'this is awful, I love it, let's do this'."
Some writers map out every beat of their stories before they start; some make everything up as they go. Most fall somewhere in between, but I haven't talked to many whose way of "falling in between" involves as much planning and as much on-the-fly improvising as Craw's does.
The Christchurch-born-and-raised writer pushes towards both extremes simultaneously. In this regard, she's a little like the main character of her young adult adventure trilogy Spark, Stray, and Shield: a genetically modified super-soldier struggling to understand what free will means when even your deepest desires can be the result of genetic programming. Can you be trapped and free at the same time?
The out-of-nowhere appearance of the strange silver-eyed girl called the Proxy occurred while Craw was working on the second of the books, which have their roots deep in pop culture. Influences go back as far as Buffy The Vampire Slayer: kick-ass teen girl heroine, superpowers, crushing burden of responsibility, angst, seemingly doomed love, more angst, over-controlling adults, rebellion, adventure.
At one point in Craw's series, our heroine's best friend comments that she wishes she had superpowers. No, our heroine replies, you really don't. Craw makes both points of view entirely understandable.
Our heroine's name is Evie, also the name of Craw's youngest daughter. A little way into Stray, Evie is recuperating from an unpleasant medical procedure forced on her by the not-to-be-trusted government agency in charge of genetically modified super-humans. Evie wakes up in a hospital bed. In the middle of writing the scene, Craw asked herself, who is in the next bed over?
"So I had her look. There was this girl with silver eyes and white hair. Who is she, where did she come from? As soon as I worked out the answer, she took over the whole story and changed the shape of it. I was so sad when I saw where that was going to force the story to go; I actually cried. But she fitted into ideas I already had floating around, she was the engine that made it all make sense. I was chilled and excited to see how dark and ugly things were going to get. Probably that doesn't reflect well on me!"
The implications of that turn to the dark side extend right out to the final scene of Shield, now out. It was an easier book to write than Stray, partly because it's a more hopeful one, although Craw does not promise a happy ending.
"I had decided from the get-go that I was writing a story about a broken system. This is a corrupt and broken world and it's going to remain corrupt and broken. The whole thing is about free will - the idea of having to choose who you are and how you live in a system that will always be broken. So yes, it's a dark story and a dark world, but I want there to be hope."
The other thing that made Shield the easiest of the books to write is that Craw came to it cold. She had a pre-existing draft with Stray, the second in the trilogy and the book that won her the Children's Choice category for YA in this year's NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
"The thing is, Spark was my first novel," she recalls. "When I wrote the first version, there was so much I didn't know yet. I sent it away to Chris and Barbara Else, [of Wellington's Total Fiction Services, well-regarded literary agents, who also offer a manuscript assessment service]. "I went through three assessments of book one with them, and while I was waiting for that first assessment, which took a couple of months, to keep myself sane, I started book two."
Every time a new version of Spark went back for another assessment, she wrote more of Stray. By the end of the third assessment she had a complete version of the second book. "Then I had a year of mentoring with Chris Else, working and reworking Spark, and I didn't look at Stray at all during that time. So when I got a publishing contract for the trilogy and suddenly had tight deadlines to meet for the second and third books, I thought, well, good thing Stray already exists.
"But my style had changed so much. Even before I came up with the Proxy and the story changed around her, it was choking and oppressive being bound by the draft version.
"To be honest, it was my hardest book to write; it nearly broke me. I wish I'd been brave enough to dump it and start from scratch. So when I got to Shield, which I did write from scratch, it was so much simpler. It was all just freeform stream of consciousness writing. And it has a more positive story, even though it's a hard story in many ways."
Now Craw may get to see one of the books adapted for the screen. Spark has been optioned by Miss Conception Films, a Wellington-based company co-founded by producer Ainsley Gardiner with the mission to "make films with strong female protagonists".
Gardiner has produced short films Two Cars, One Night and Tama Tu written and directed by Taika Waititi, with whom she collaborated on the feature films Eagle vs Shark and Boy. Most recently, she produced The Pa Boys with writer/director Himiona Grace.
Craw says writing the book was akin to a cinematic experience "as I tried to capture in words the intricate detail of everything I could see, hear and feel in my mind".
by Rachael Craw
(Walker Books, $22)