Belly Up to the Bar with Joelle Charbonneau

The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a poisoned wasteland. Humanity survives in the United Commonwealth, where the next generation’s chosen few rebuild civilization. But to enter this elite group, young candidates must first pass The Testing.

Cia Vale is proud to be among the chosen like her father before her. But his warning to Trust No One steels her for the toughest challenge, to decide who is her friend and who will do anything to pass The Testing.

testing

Tom Pluck Beer Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Joelle. What can I pour you?

 
 
 

Joelle Well, I’m mostly a diet Pepsi kind of girl.  But let’s live dangerously.  Pour me a Sauvignon Blanc and let’s walk on the wild side!

 
 
 

Tom Pluck Beer I loved THE TESTING. It reminded me of Ender’s Game, the post-apocalyptic Fallout video games, and the Tripods series by John Christopher. Tell us a bit about the protagonist of THE TESTING, Cia Vale:

 

Joelle Wow!  Thank you.  As someone who read and loved Ender’s Game when I was just out of high school, I am stunned and amazed to be compared to that story.

Cia Vale is a young girl who has just finished her high school education.  Despite the fact leaving home will mean leaving behind the family whom she loves, Cia wants nothing more than to be chosen for The Testing so she can sit for the examination that determines those who go to the University and become the next generation of leaders.  Cia comes from the smallest colony of the newly recolonized United States (now United Commonwealth).  She has pushed herself to learn as much as possible so she can help rebuild the world the way her father has.  But though she is well-versed in physics and calculus, coming from a community where everyone wants the best for everyone has in many ways made her unprepared for the sometimes less than cooperative spirit than exists in other parts of the country.

Tom Pluck Beer Cia and Tomas make a great team. They’re both skilled and smart, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Cia can handle herself and knows machines, which is refreshing for a heroine in any genre or reading level. But Tomas isn’t dead weight either. I also enjoyed the puzzles and challenges Cia had to get through, which make the SATs seem like a breeze. What was your inspiration for the book?

Joelle  For the last decade, I’ve worked closely with my private voice students as they navigate the testing, application and audition process required to be accepted into college.  The pressure on our high school students is greater than ever before. The need to be better and brighter than the other applicants has never been more keenly felt.  Students are hyper aware that every answer they give could impact the quality of their future. Trust me when I say that I get a lot of phone calls from my students during these months. The teacher and parent in me is worried that the benchmark of success has risen too high and that the tests we are giving are not the type of measurements we should be using to judge our students.  The writer couldn’t help but wonder how much worse the process could become and what tests a future world might want to institute in order to select the next generation of leaders.   And I think it’s safe to say I truly hated taking the SATs.  It was one experience in my life that I’m glad I never have to repeat.

Tom Pluck Beer I see a lot of parallels to education today in the book, which I think will resonate with readers of all ages. How “the right school” makes all the difference, the importance placed on standardized tests, and the tough decisions we make as children, like whether to cheat or not, or whether to team up or look out for number one. Do you think school is a lot tougher for kids today?

Joelle  I do think that school is tougher for kids today.  More than anything I think that our education has changed in the past fifteen years and not necessarily for the better.  There is so much emphasis on test taking.  Teachers are hamstrung by the need to structure their classes in order to achieve high scores.  The problem is that the true measure of a student is not who gets the best grade.  Sometimes those that learn the most do so because they have been challenged, fail that challenge and then are forced to pick themselves up and face the challenge again.  We need to allow our students the chance to fail in order to give them the tools to succeed.  I think that is often forgotten in the midst of judging students by the number they get on a standardized test.

Tom Pluck Beer Your books are known for their humor. The frisky grandpa in Skating Around the Law, and Paige in the Glee Club mysteries. Was it tough to go life or death in a forbidding future for THE TESTING?

Joelle  Ha!  I love Pop in the Skating books and Paige is a great deal of fun to write.  But strangely, while writing a darker themed book was a different challenge, I didn’t find it that it was any more difficult to write.  Perhaps because I wrote the first book for me.  I didn’t know anything about the young adult side of the publishing business.  I just had an idea and I wrote hoping that I could bring the world in my head to life.  For me, writing something not funny was an exciting chance to push myself without having to worry about anyone’s expectations.


The Testing’s book trailer

Tom Pluck Beer I admired the world-building in THE TESTING. The future is familiar enough- post World War 3, with all sorts of weapons of mass destruction laying waste to the Earth- but also refreshing, in that the civilization that has risen up isn’t led by mohawked bikers, it’s smart people banding together. There is something sinister behind the United Commonwealth, but it’s not obvious at first. I hope it was as much fun to write as it was to read. Is science fiction a genre you’d like to return to?

Joelle Thank you again for such a lovely compliment.  I had a wonderful time exploring the world of The Testing throughout the three books of the trilogy.  I think that all societies have a balance of good intentions and bad execution.  The circumstances that forced the creation of the United Commonwealth government also created the need for the leaders to advocate for the advancement of science.  If you can’t drink the water or eat the food you can’t live.  The choices that are made to continue the advancement of society under those conditions can be difficult to make and feel sinister.

Until writing this trilogy, I was a fan of science fiction, but was never certain I could effectively build a world from the ground up.  Turns out, I love the challenge and I am hoping that I get to turn my hand to a new science fiction story in the very near future.  Fingers crossed!

Tom Pluck Beer The Testing trilogy is also your first foray into YA fiction. I recall on Twitter that you said you enjoyed the freedom that writing YA gave you. Care to go into detail now that you have more than 140 characters?

Joelle I did say that!  To be completely honest, I didn’t set out to write young adult.  The story idea I had required a teen protagonist in order for it to work.  The story also required suspense, relationships, science fiction world building, a bit of mystery.  There is also a bit of a romance and who knows how many other elements that are typical hallmarks of different genres.  As writers, we often hear that the first question a sales or marketing department asks about a new book is “Where does it get shelved?”  For that reason, it can often be hard for a new author to combine elements from multiple genres.  There can also be restrictions based on how much or low little violence, explicit language should be in various adult genre books.  But Young Adult isn’t divided on shelves by category distinctions and while some young adult books shy away from violence or explicit words, other books use them liberally.  The only rule is to create the best story possible.  Which I think is a rule all writers and readers can appreciate.

Tom Pluck Beer Last but not least, being a dystopian novel that puts young people in a challenge, it will be compared to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. While those books put the kids on a murderous reality show, The Testing is set in a more dangerous world, which reminded me a little bit of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, where the earth has turned against us, and the stakes are much higher. Have you read any of those books, and what would you say to the fans who pick up yours?

Joelle I will say that I have read both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.  Both are very strong books which some similarities, but funny enough I found the purpose of those books to be very different.  Dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels have a great deal in common, but I am hoping that readers of other dystopian books will find The Testing to have a story that is compelling and characters that make them want to keep turning the pages.

Tom Pluck Beer I said that was the last question, but this is for extra credit. You are about to be cast out into the wasteland outside the Commonwealth. You can choose one last piece of music to listen to, a book to bring with you, and one last meal before you go. What are they?

Joelle EEEK!  Just one song and book?  Okay, well, if I only get one song it will be One Day More from Les Miserable.  And the book would have to be The Stand by Stephen King.  As for a last meal – well, I’m thinking Lasagna.  If for no other reason that it would be a good idea to carb up!

 
 

Tom Pluck Beer Thank you for dropping by, Joelle. I truly enjoyed the book and wish you great success. I found it smart and entertaining, a little more Star Trek than an explosive science fiction tale, but just as much fun.

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Joelle Joelle Charbonneau is a former opera and musical theater performer turned author of funny mysteries and not so funny young adult novels. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son. THE TESTING will be published 6/4/13 by Hought-Mifflin-Harcourt.

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