INTERVIEW: James Phelan on ‘Chasers’ (Hachette Australia)

James Phelan has followed up his successful adult thrillers with a new trilogy for YA readers, ‘Alone’. John Webb asked him about the first book, Chasers.

The four young central characters in Chasers seem quite resourceful in dealing with a difficult situation. Do you think they reflect the skills of a current younger generation?

I think teenagers are as resourceful as any age group, particularly so when we are seeing this story’s events through the eyes of 16-year-old narrator, Jesse. Characters are more stylised than people we know and stories in novels are the more dramatic moments, so 16-year-olds in fiction, such as Holden Caulfield and Picene ‘Pi’ Patel, seem more resourceful than we’d expect. I put Jesse into a post-apocalyptic world and tried to be true to him while letting the chips fall where they might—extraordinary circumstances brought out some unique methods of survival for him.

This is very much a New York story. Do you think this will be a problem for readers unfamilar with the Big Apple?

I chose New York because it’s the world’s greatest city and its most inglorious, its most frenetic and its most lonely, and it has played a key role in spawning two global events that have shaped the opening of this century. Australian readers will see New York as Jesse sees it—through Australian eyes. The setting is a backdrop to the series but is a minor component compared to the story of Jesse that unfolds on the page. I tried to make every word of his so true thatit hurt, so that by the final chapter when our truth is skewed it hurts all the more but at the same time it’s an uplifting revelation because the lies preceding it were beautiful: they’d saved a life.

The parallels with 9/11 are drawn by the book’s narrator. Were you trying to make a metaphorical link between the nature of terror and horror?

I’d written three novels for an adult audience that dealt with terrorism and 9/11. The third one, Blood Oil, was very dark: my response to where we’d gone as a society. Chasers was a departure as it was an entire world that I created—a world forever changed from the end of the prologue. Jesse is aware of 9/11 (he was headed on a field trip to the memorial when the disaster struck) so it seemed logical he’d think of it in the context of what he’s seeing all around him. Linking real events in his mind was something he employed to cope with the situation at hand—this kind of thing has happened before and people have overcome it, so he can do that here too. It deals with horrors as Jesse sees them: illness, mortality, heartbreak and loss.

The characters in Chasers seem quite nonchalant about their distant families and the plight of their peers in the city. Is their emotional disengagement symptomatic of their shock or a deeper question about the way in which youth today operates?

I can’t answer this any further than the final chapter explains the situation. I just trust that as a writer I’ve created something that doesn’t pander to kids. From the feedback I’ve had most readers have read it as an honest story full of hope and the belief that one can go on no matter what.

Chasers dwells heavily on the existential angst of the loneliness of the four main characters. What sort of  answers do you think a younger reader can give to the endless questions the situation throws up at the protagonists?

The situation in this story is a simple matter of survival in a world filled with danger. I think at the end of this first book many of the questions that it threw up are turned on their head. The main question that remains is ‘Are you ever really alone?’ Some readers will like or hate certain characters or moments, which is great, because I never write to make everyone feel or think the same thing. As for answers, I take kids too seriously to doubt that they’re already far smarter than me and can see answers that I couldn’t ever anticipate.

This interview first appeared in the 2010 Term 2 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

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