A post-apocalyptic future, diverse characters and a refreshing lack of love triangles are all elements that make up "The Deadly Nightshade," a newly-published novel by College sophomore Sara Albert who wrote under the pseudonym Justine Ashford. Albert, who is pursuing an English major with a concentration in creative writing, sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian to discuss her novel and her experience as a published author:
The Daily Pennsylvanian: Why did you decide to write under a pen name?
Sara Albert: I decided to write under a pen name because I like the anonymity of it. I get to separate my personal life from my writing life, and this way they can exist in entirely different spheres. Things that I write under my pen name are usually major works, like books, whereas things that I write under my real name are usually articles or short stories that I prefer to keep separate.
DP: How did you come up with your pen name?
SA: So the first name is just my middle name, [Justine]. The last name, Ashford, I wanted to keep kind of similar to my real name, and I basically just went through a random name generator, clicking it until I found something that sounded good — it’s not an exact science.
DP: What was the process of writing and getting published like?
SA: It took about two years to write the book. It was a super long process. I started writing second half of [high school] senior year, and I just finished it over winter break. I actually finished writing the book probably the summer of [high school] senior year, but after that it was all editing and revisions. I probably went through it 30 or 40 times revising it. I sent it to a lot of publishers, got a lot of rejections and eventually I decided I was going to publish it no matter what, so I edited it, designed the book cover, published it and now I market it. I’m an indie author, so I self-published my book through Amazon, which means that I’m in charge of everything.
DP: What do you think the difference is between self-publishing and getting a traditional publisher?
SA: Getting an actual publisher is a lot more prestigious, but at the same time, you don’t get as much control over your product. I actually prefer self-publishing because I like being in control of the work, and I don’t know how I’d feel about someone taking it and saying, oh we need to change this, and being in control of the cover and everything. But other than that, the major differences are that in traditional publishing, you get a lot less royalties. It’s the publishing houses that keep most of the money — I think maybe 20 percent of your sales — whereas right now I’m getting 75 percent of my sales.
DP: Have you sold a substantial number of copies, or is this more of a way to get your first major work out into the world?
SA: It’s a little bit of both. So far, in the past two months, I’ve had about 450 downloads of my book, and it actually reached top 10 of its genre on Amazon, so that was pretty cool.
DP: Where did your idea for the novel come from?
SA: The book itself is based on a short story that I wrote. I had a desire to see a Katniss-esque person from "The Hunger Games" combined with Alice from "Resident Evil," who’s this super badass character. Also, the thing about young adult fiction — and this is a young adult book — is that there isn’t a lot of PoC [People of Color] representation, and I wanted to have a PoC character. My character’s Hispanic, and that’s very rare in young adult literature.
DP: As an English major, has your experience in the Penn English program influenced your writing?
SA: I’ve taken two creative writing classes at Penn, and I think they’ve been really helpful. Professors here are great, and they’ve really helped me with my writing style and developing my ideas. After I took my first class at Penn, which was a creative writing class, I looked at my book again and made some really extensive revisions.
DP: Have you ever asked professors or peers to read your books?
SA: Over the summer, I had my boyfriend and a few other friends read it, and they gave me some really nice feedback. They told me what they liked and didn’t like, and that was super helpful in my last rewrite.
DP: What are your plans for the future? Are you going to continue publishing books?
SA: I hope so! It’s hard to make a living just from writing books, unless you’re like a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, so ideally when I graduate I would have a different job, but I’m always going to keep writing books, because that’s just what I love to do. Hopefully, I can get a job in publishing or something in that field.
DP: Are you working on anything new, or are you on a break from writing?
SA: I don’t write that much during the year, since there’s just so much work, but I think over the summer I might work on a sequel to this book, depending on the feedback I get. There’s also a different book that I’m thinking of writing, but I might save that for my senior year for a creative thesis.
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