All Four Kids: An Interview With Lisa Ann O’Kane, Author of Essence

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Kathryn Holmes here, excited to share my interview with Lisa Ann O’Kane, whose debut ESSENCE came out on Tuesday! I got to read the first few chapters, and I was definitely hooked. Here’s what you need to know about the book:

Essence-144dpiAutumn escaped a cult, but now she realizes she’s fallen into another. 
 
Growing up in San Francisco’s Centrist Movement, sixteen year-old Autumn Grace has always believed emotions—adrenaline, endorphins, even happiness—drain your Essence and lead to an early death. But her younger brother’s passing and a run-in with a group of Outsiders casts her faith into question. 
 
Ryder Stone, the sexy, rebellious leader of the Outsiders, claims Essence drain is nothing more than a Centrist scare tactic—and he can prove it.
 
Autumn follows Ryder to his Community of adrenaline junkies and free spirits in Yosemite National Park, and they introduce her to a life of adventure, romance, sex, drugs and freedom. But as she discovers dark secrets beneath the Community’s perfect exterior, she realizes the more she risks in search of the perfect rush, the further she has to fall.
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KH: In your bio, you mention that this book was inspired by a summer camping out in Yosemite National Park. How did you get from that initial setting inspiration to the finished story?

LAO: Simply put, Yosemite National Park is one of the most awe-inspiring and gorgeous places I have ever been in my life. I also like how isolated it is. I rarely left the park the entire summer I lived there, and when I did, I often found the outside world jarring and a little too stressful for my liking.

Yosemite’s landscape certainly inspired my story, but the other park employees who also lived there were even more inspiring to me. Some were there because they loved the place, others were there for the money, and still others were there because they felt like they had to run away from something.

I always knew I wanted to write a novel about Yosemite and the people that inhabit it, so when I came up with the initial idea for Essence, it was easy to plug the story into the setting. All the other pieces: the cult in San Francisco, the radon gas, the Mammoth Mountain volcanic threat… All those pieces just kinda naturally fell into place.

KH: What interested you in writing a near-future setting, rather than a contemporary setting or a more distant future? 

LAO: I have always been a huge fan of YA contemporaries, but I knew a contemporary setting wouldn’t work for Essence, because I needed the country to be slightly different than it is now in order for San Francisco’s Centrist Movement to exist. I also needed Yosemite to be abandoned, so I figured a near-future earthquake was a good way to ‘shake up’ California’s social climate. (Haha, wow. That was a pretty terrible pun. ☺)

I chose the near-future over the distant future because I believe the strength of Essence lies in the interpersonal relationships between the characters. I didn’t want to distract readers from these relationships by introducing too much technology or futuristic world-building.

KH: I’m fascinated by the cult you’ve created. How did you develop the Centrists’ beliefs and behaviors?

LAO: Why, thank you! I have always been intrigued by the psychology of cults, particularly by idea that people who are raised in these cultures generally grow up very susceptible to manipulation and control. How tragic—yet logical—for someone to finally stand up for themselves and leave their cult only to accidentally fall into another cult.

I did a lot of research to get ideas for the Centrist Movement’s treatment of its followers. I also researched Theravada Buddhism and Taoism to formulate the foundation for the Movement’s beliefs.

The Essence theory itself—and its belief that your emotions can tick down your lifespan like a gas tank—was modified from the Taoist concept of yin and yang. I have always liked the idea that every dark must have a light, and every good must have an evil. Therefore, the Centrists believe positive emotions are just as dangerous as negative ones, and they try their best to repress everything.

I tried to imagine how scary it would be to grow up believing you might run out of Essence and drop dead at any moment. I also wondered how liberated you would feel when you finally broke free from that fear. That’s what my main character Autumn faces when she finally decides to forsake her Centrist upbringing and join the free spirited, commune-like Community in Yosemite.

KH: What made you want to be a writer, and why do you write for this age group?

LAO: I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, and I have always been drawn to the teen and young adult experience, because I love writing about all the personal growth, uncertainty and insecurities that come along with it. As a teen, I certainly didn’t know who I was yet, so I sought validation from pretty much everywhere. I also felt things with a passion and recklessness I could never (and would never) hope to recreate in my life today. It’s nice to be able to revisit the intensity of those feelings in my novels.

KH: What’s your writing process like? 

LAO: I am definitely the hare, not the tortoise, so I have to accept the reality that some days, I will write 2,500-3,500 words, while other days, I won’t be able to squeak out a single one. That being said, I find I am my most effective when I’m not trying too hard, so my writer’s block cures are typically bubble baths or long walks with my dog Lexi. As soon as I start focusing on something else, the ideas usually begin presenting themselves again.

KH: What are you working on next? 

LAO: I am always scheming for something new. Right now, I am particularly excited about potentially shifting into the New Adult genre for a little while. I have been drawn to college-aged characters for years, and I am so excited New Adult is finally beginning to gain momentum and credibility in the marketplace.

KH: And finally, as this community is fearless, we want to know something you’re afraid of and something you’re not afraid of! 

LAO: I am terrified of Ferris wheels. This sounds strange, because I have skydived and bungee-jumped. I also love rollercoasters, but Ferris wheels creep me out like nothing else. I think I’m skeptical of the fact that you aren’t usually strapped in on those things, and I always picture that little bucket either tipping upside down or straight-up falling from the sky. *Shivers* I don’t even like thinking about them.

I am NOT terrified of going on solo paddleboarding trips. When I first bought my board, I planned to only take it out when I had a friend or two with me. Recently, though, I have realized life is too short to constantly live in fear of the unknown. I’m not stupid about my trips—I try not to stay out after dark, and I always let someone know where I’m going—but I have had many of my best days all alone in the middle of a mangrove swamp or a Tampa Bay estuary.

KH: Thanks for stopping by our blog, and congrats on your debut! 

LisaAnnOKaneLisa Ann O’Kane is a young adult author and former vagabond who once camped out in Yosemite National Park for an entire summer, an experience that inspired her debut novel ESSENCE. Her background is in zookeeping and environmental education, and she has been kicked, cornered, bitten and chased by nearly every animal she has ever loved. She currently resides in Florida, and she is now a huge fan of shooting stars, indoor plumbing and keeping both her feet planted firmly on the trail.

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Kathryn Holmes grew up in Maryville, Tennessee, where she was an avid reader and an aspiring writer from an early age. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and piles upon piles of books. A graduate of The New School’s MFA in Creative Writing program, Kathryn works as a freelance dance journalist, among other writing gigs. Her debut YA novel, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND, comes out in early 2015 from HarperTeen. You can find Kathryn online at www.kathrynholmes.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Kathryn_Holmes.
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