Storytelling Can Change the World: An Interview with Ashley and Leslie Saunders




AMERICAN DYSTOPIAN FICTION is alive and well — even flourishing. The spate of books that started with Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008) and progressed through Ally Condie’s Matched (2010), Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2011), Marie Lu’s Legend (2011), and Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing (2013), among many others, did not just signal a post-economic-downturn correction to the trend of Harry Potter–style fantasies. It also marked a dramatic shift in the publishing industry’s attempts to address a young readership that is far less sanguine about its future than preceding generations of American teens and young adults. The result has been narratives for young people that depict the future bleakly, albeit with a promise that sufficient grit and resourcefulness will allow a plucky protagonist to survive. 

Indeed, dystopia seems weirdly to offer some solace in the current socioeconomic climate. It also offers an opportunity to start thinking through the issues facing us, individually and collectively. Fortunately, dystopian narratives for young people are also becoming steadily more sophisticated, suggesting that their power lies in more than their ability to return investment for a culture industry eager to trans-mediate content into profitable storytelling. Some stories are upping the intellectual ante of the dystopian genre, generating added thematic and even political value through the topics they are engaging. 

One such story is Ashley and Leslie Saunders’ The Rule of One, released in October 2018 by Skyscape, an imprint of Amazon. (A sequel, The Rule of Many, comes out in May, and the first book has been optioned as a television series.) In some ways, The Rule of One follows conventional dystopian paths: the world has suffered an ecological collapse, post-apocalypse America has descended into authoritarian rule, intimidating technologies surveil the population, and a smart group of young people struggle not just to survive but to resist the encompassing awfulness. The novel’s twist comes when we learn that a major way the fascist government keeps the populace under control — and attempts to address the problem of diminishing resources — is through a one-child-only policy, with each family limited to bearing and raising a single new life — “the rule of one.”

The drama focuses on a set of twins — Ava and Mira — and their family’s attempt to keep them both alive by having them play a single person, trading off days to keep the fiction intact and the secret of their dual reality hidden. Eventually, though, the secret comes out, and Ava and Mira launch themselves into the wider world in an attempt to find a better way to live. The plot follows their journey and their efforts to question, resist, and perhaps even overthrow the rule-of-one regime. Narratively, Ava and Mira trade not only days but also chapters, respectively describing the difficulty of their shared lives — and their life-threatening secret. Since the book is written by identical twins in their 20s (they are both now 30), the story easily convinces; the authors have thought through their characters intimately, and readers will find the idea of sharing a life compelling.

Even more compelling, I found, was the dystopian twist they give to the theme of sexual and reproductive freedom. Americans cherish these freedoms, valuing the right to bear children and raise families, and have often pointed to the former one-child-only policy adopted by China as a major political difference between our democratic way of life and repressive socialist regimes. At the same time, reproductive freedom presents challenges of choice, with feminist thinkers and activists arguing that women should have autonomy over their bodies, including the decision to become pregnant and carry a child to term. As such, reproductive freedom varies considering your political orientation, so the Saunderses have struck a particularly rich narrative vein, raising questions about what reproductive freedom actually means.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Ashley and Leslie, meeting them in Los Angeles’s Union Station for coffee and a chat. When I spotted them, the only identical twins in the vicinity, I knew immediately who they were. And while they have distinct voices and personalities, they did have a tendency to finish one another’s sentences. So, in transcribing this interview, we agreed not to separate out their individual voices; with their permission, we present them as a set of twins speaking together about what is truly a joint effort in storytelling.

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JONATHAN ALEXANDER: Thank you so much for joining me. This is very exciting. I guess the first thing I’m going to say is: “Wow, you really are identical twins.” [Laughs.]

ASHLEY AND LESLIE SAUNDERS: Yep. Get that out of the way. Yep. Verified.

Verified. Okay, The Rule of One is such a powerful book, and there are so many different threads in it that I think are going to resonate with young readers. Basic question: Where did the idea for the story come from?

We have always wanted to tell a twin sister story. That was the basis for creating this story: to give an accurate portrayal of a relationship we feel has never been reflected in any story we read or saw. Twins are stereotyped a lot. They’re sexualized, they’re caricatures, they’re Disney-esque. It was really important to us to tell an authentic twin sister story. And we love high stakes and adventure. Lord of The Rings is what inspired us to be storytellers, and we wear the ring. We’ve worn the ring since we were 13.

Okay, so that totally makes sense. The rule of one. The one ring.

You’re the first person to ever say that.

The one ring that binds them all.

Thank you for putting that together.

I’m a nerd.

Good. Then we’ll get along swimmingly. [Laughs.] So then we asked ourselves: what are some really high stakes that we can put twin sisters in? Then we just kind of jumped off from there.

There are so many dimensions to this book … overpopulation, environmental collapse, technological monitoring and tracking. What are you seeing in the world that concerns you — and that has consequently made it into the novel?

We wanted to create a really plausible story about how a country like the United States would enact a one-child policy. So we did a bunch of research on climate change and what the future of the country might be. And then we wrote this story. It actually started out as a screenplay about seven years ago. We had just graduated from college, and it was the first time that we found out about climate change. We dove into a bunch of books, studied for about a year, because we wanted to really educate ourselves about the background of the story. And it just blew our minds — the fallout of climate change, it just blew our minds. We did not understand why everyone was not on red alert. This is our future, this is what’s happening! So that became a large message for us in the book. But in a way that wasn’t “preachy,” where people like our family, who aren’t necessarily believers in climate change, would be able to read the novel. So we imagined some subliminal messaging going in about this very possible future. Then we built the world around the kind of climate change that would lead to a one-child policy in America.

It’s amazing that a lot of the stuff we wrote about is starting to happen, and that’s scary. As we mentioned, there’s a screenplay version of this story, and we came out to Hollywood to pitch it. Everyone told us that it was not possible … that it was not plausible … that the world of surveillance, microchips, border walls — all of that, they told us, was not believable in America, with Obama. And then now everyone is like, “Did you know the future?”

So were you also thinking about China’s former one-child policy?

Yes. That’s what we were inspired by. We did a lot of research about that, and we just thought about how such governmental power could be in the hands of a few, and how they might use climate change as a way to gain power and to scare the masses into a surveilled state, getting microchipped …

Yeah. A brilliant thing about the book — and I think the best YA does this — is that it takes these larger social, political, cultural issues and then shows them manifesting in individual characters. You’re at a great advantage because you have two really good characters, obviously playing one person in the book. But they develop their own views about what’s going on, and they have their own perspectives. So while they play one person in real life, they’re two separate people. What’s interesting to me about that, not only as a plot device, is that you take these political issues and you make them personal at the level of reproductive freedom, which is not something I’ve seen in a lot in YA. That’s a very personal issue that a lot of Americans take very, very seriously — control over one’s own body, one’s own freedom to bear children or to terminate pregnancies — these are hotly contested issues. They are at the core of a lot of cultural debates, and they are also highly personal. Is there more of a backstory there for you? Because it’s a brilliant move, I think.

Do you think it is? A brilliant move? No, no. So, another interesting point is that we originally had it in the story that pregnancies after the first were forcibly terminated. When we were originally conceiving the story, we got pushback from the Texas government. We wanted to film in Texas, and they told us that they would not allow us to film. Somebody in the Texas Film Commission told us we couldn’t because Texas is an anti-abortion state — anti-woman’s right to choose. So, they came at us. But, actually, it was better because it made us think about what we wanted to say about a woman’s right to choose, and the government being able to go even further into your bodies: in the story, you get sterilized after you have your first child, and men do too, so it’s a larger issue. It goes beyond just a woman’s right to choose to consider the man’s right as well, and it’s something we actually explore more in the second book.

Very intriguing. So you got fairly far with the film version. Do you still have hopes that The Rule of One will be a film?

Actually, right now we have a development deal for a television series. We just turned in our pilot a couple days ago. We’re going to be the writers. Yes!

Excellent.

It was a power move on our part, because we know that, in the feature film world, we wouldn’t have power enough to direct it, but in the TV world, the writers have all the power, so … we love television.

You want a series.

Yeah! We want a series. It’s so interesting because we thought the world was just the skeletal 120 pages of the screenplay, but the story really blew up into this book … the world expanded.

And I think that’s what a lot of viewers want, they want some serious world-building …

And that’s what we want, too. TV is so great because you get to stay with the characters longer. And it’s great for books, for adaptations, because a reader wants to see their characters fleshed out through TV. And I think it’s even getting better, because in adaptations like The Handmaid’s Tale, the writers can go beyond the source material. You can just keep going, which is fascinating with television adaptations. And now Margaret Atwood is going to write a sequel to Handmaid’s Tale!

It’s so interesting how literary writers are themselves inspired now by television. I suspect that people are going to want to know about your writing process. And you obviously must get along really well.

We do. We do. We live together, too. We are roommates. And we were wombmates. So, we have just a really unique bond. We just have the same viewpoint and perspective; we’re on the same wavelength and want to tell the same story. We knew at the same moment we wanted to be storytellers. We were 13. We just looked at each other when we were 13, and we were, like, we want to tell stories. We’ve been visualizing this moment in our life since we were 13. We’ve just always wanted to be here doing this. Together.

So, we heavily outline together. We walk and talk. We walk miles. We walked 250 miles around the Silver Lake Reservoir to outline the sequel, and we get a high from it, you know? You get to be outdoors, so you’re not always in the writer’s cave. We’ll come up with characters together, we’ll flesh them out together. We’ll flesh out the chapters together. When we outline, we know every single thing a character is going to do before we go in separately and write it, and then sometimes we’ll surprise each other on the page.

For The Rule of One, which trades chapters between the two characters, did you write those together or separately?

For the book, Leslie wrote all of Mira and Ashley wrote all of Ava, and then we edited each others’ pages daily. She’ll write two pages, and I’ll edit it, and I’ll just make it all red. And then she’ll do the same for me. We’re not the type that just pounds out a draft. We craft it over months and try to perfect it.

Have there ever been any major disagreements about where to take the plot, how to craft a character…?

We always are like, “The best idea wins.” Because it feels like we’re doing a puzzle, or unlocking this intricate door lock, and we are trying to find the right key. It’s interesting that we both have that feeling. There’s this high we chase in writing, this feeling we chase, and you unlock this door that won’t open … because it literally feels like you’re coming across a locked door and you just keep trying all these different keys, you keep trying all these different ways you can open a scene up, and once we find it, we know it at the same time. And when we know, we both get this surge of electricity and we just high-five each other. We do that in public a lot!

In Silver Lake … [Laughs.]

So people are like, “What are you doing?” People got to know us around the reservoir and would be like, “Hey — are you outlining?” And then we would tell them that our book is coming out, and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And now that it actually has come out, people are like, “Hey — you really were writing a book!” Because everyone in L.A. is like, “I’m writing a book.”

Everybody’s got a screenplay.

Yeah, everybody.

So I have to ask you a little bit about your own background. You’re both from the South, from Texas. In your novel, you’re grappling with some very personal issues for your characters, some very hot-button political issues. I’m imagining that probably — like me, also from the South — you have a fairly conservative background in terms of family. So you’re out there pushing a little bit on some of these issues. How does that work with your family? Are they supportive of you?

Oh, yes. Our family’s over the moon. They all love the story — from our grandparents to our parents to our aunts and cousins, everybody loves the story. And it’s really interesting, because they’re all very conservative, and we were initially worried. We were especially worried about our grandmother reading it, because she’s combative about politics. But it’s interesting, because we tried to write it in a way where anyone could read it and it wasn’t just like, “Trump supporters can’t read this book.” We didn’t write it pushing an agenda. This is just how we see the future, how we view the world, and that’s how our characters view the world.

When Ava and Mira meet Lucia, an immigrant from Mexico, we’re not trying to push buttons. We’re just trying to open people’s minds, comparing Lucia to Mira, who is an American white female, yet she is also an illegal person. And so we’re trying to put that in there to make people ask, “Oh, what if I was in this situation?” They could actually identify with this white girl who is going through a terrifying situation. And we’re trying to show, with her meeting Lucia, what it means to be illegal, and how it’s a fine line who belongs in a particular country — because our characters don’t belong either.

I wanted to touch on this character of Lucia because she does seem such a timely character, an immigrant displaced and looking for home. She helps your readers see your characters a little differently. I totally get that you’re wanting to walk a fine line about not, as you say, pushing an agenda, but you’re still wanting to be sensitive to some of the pressing issues you have identified as important to you. You also say the United States was once the most — well, you have one of your characters, Rayla, say, “The US was once the most idealistic superpower in the world. Our power lay in our equality, our liberty, and our democracy of the common people, but look what we’ve become.” Is this your view?

Yes. And, like, what is to come? We wrote that in the happy Obama era. And then now … Look, we’ve learned about the United States being the greatest country in the world, but that is not necessarily the future. Just because we were doesn’t mean that we’re always going to be. The greatest nations always fall. Are we at that point — especially with the weight of climate change, if we don’t do something about it? We’re the nation that’s balking currently at climate change, we’re not engaging with the rest of the world on climate issues. We’re taking steps backward. It’s pretty scary.

Yeah, definitely. Do you think YA has a responsibility to educate young people? Not necessarily to convince them of a particular political stance, but at least give them a sense of what’s happening in the world, introduce them to important issues, provoke them to think critically for themselves?

Yes, yes. First and foremost, we love just telling a great story that’s entertaining. We want to entertain. We want people to want to read it. But we believe you have to put messages in there, your own viewpoints about the world, because young people — that’s when everyone is forming who they are; it’s such an important age. When you’re in your teens and early 20s — that’s when you’re forming what you’re going to put out in the word. So, as writers, we can get someone to listen at least. They can be like, “Well, okay, I don’t agree with that but I did like Lucia, and I wanted her to stay in America.” And, you know, you have to put those things in there, because otherwise, that’s what … storytelling is what can change. We believe storytelling can change the world, can change perspectives, and the more you put out there, the more you can get people to think.

I think one of the big contributions you’re making to YA is your handling of sexuality. So much sexuality in YA, dystopia in particular, revolves around the love triangle, but you’ve moved the center of gravity to some really personal but also simultaneously political issues. But you’re not preaching — you’re presenting the issues in their complexity.

Yes, we’re glad that that came across. It was really important to not be preaching. So we can have all kinds of people reading it, like our grandmother. She knew the book had a political message that’s not hers, and she was worried about reading it. But then, when she read it, she loved all the characters and what they did, and she said, “You wrote about Nazi Germany.” And we were like, “No, we didn’t.” But that’s how a lot of our family is understanding it, like they’re trying to separate it from the world that they voted for and equate it with something in the past that’s not current.

Fascinating. Do you imagine yourselves, at some point, not writing dystopia?

Yeah. We’d like to tackle all kinds of themes. But we’re essentially sci-fi, fantasy authors. We’ll always write genre.

You are such great examples of young people who decided to write very early and have stuck with it. What advice would you give to a young writer?

What worked for us and what we truly believe in is that you have to find a story that’s really inside of you and that’s a slam-dunk pitch. If you can pitch it in a sentence and everybody’s eyes light up, that’s what you need to go for, and then never give up. It took us seven years to get to where we are. We’ve been working on the same story for seven years, in different formats. And we just never stopped pushing, and we never gave up because we truly believed in it. And now people are like, “Wow, it worked for you!” People think it just happened quickly, but it didn’t, it took years. That would be the message. Find something that is truly in your heart and never stop believing in yourself.

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Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. His most recent book is Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017).

 

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