An Interview with Diana Renn, Author of Latitude Zero

DianaRenn_AuthorPhoto_1Fans of Young Adult fiction will be pleased to hear that Diana Renn has released a new novel, Latitude Zero, which sends Boston-based protagonist Tessa to Ecuador to investigate a mysterious death. Diana took time out from her launch to speak with Dead Darlings about her new project.

Dead Darlings: Latitude Zero builds upon the successful strategy you developed in Tokyo Heist, of a teenaged heroine traveling overseas to solve a mystery. Can you describe which story elements you wanted to maintain, and which elements you thought deserved a fresh approach?

Diana Renn: It was important to me to maintain the international intrigue and the mystery elements. In the planning stages of Latitude Zero, it occurred to me that I could set the story only in the bicycling world. Bicycling culture is rich and fascinating, with its own lexicon and a variety of roles that people can play. Opportunities and motives for murder abound. All the elements for a page-turning mystery could be found in that world. So I actually outlined and drafted several chapters of a bike mystery, thinking the heroine might not venture abroad at all. (And thinking I could avoid all the research into another country that Tokyo Heist required!)

Then I realized I did not want to write a “cozy” mystery set exclusively in that world. I did not want to restrict the setting to New England, either. As in Tokyo Heist, I wanted the mystery to play out on a larger stage, an international stage, and for higher stakes. And I wanted to write another “voyage” book where a young woman learns about herself both through solving a mystery and through experiencing another culture. A key difference between the books, though, is how the main characters get to another country. In Tokyo Heist, Violet is brought along on her father’s business trip to Japan, which is convenient — maybe too convenient — since the van Gogh art mystery also plays out there. In Latitude Zero, I needed a different way, and a more plausible way, to get my pluckier heroine abroad. So Tessa goes to Ecuador on her own, as a volunteer for a bicycle advocacy organization and an undercover sleuth.

The second element I kept was mystery. Tokyo Heist was a story that began with “mysterious elements,” but it wasn’t a true mystery; it took many drafts and editorial guidance to bring it in line with genre conventions. Latitude Zero, however, was a mystery from the get-go. I went into it more confidently planning a crime, suspects, alibis, red herrings, and all those mystery elements. I went with a murder mystery instead of theft, too, for a higher-stakes mystery, and I put the heroine in more immediate danger, with a villain constantly breathing down her neck. Putting more pressure and danger on the sleuth brought Latitude Zero more into thriller territory, which felt fresh and fun to me.

91TswcKgzGLDD: The theme of moral choice appears in the first paragraph of Latitude Zero, and continues through the rest of the book. “We rode through the busy parking lot and looked for the easy way out. Riding close to Jake’s back wheel, I followed his crooked path…” Can you talk about this in the context of your target audience?

DR: You’re right, moral choice is a strong theme in the book, as Tessa is a character whose moral compass has gone somewhat askew even before the book begins. In the opening chapters of the novel, she makes a series of bad decisions, despite her natural impulse to do good, and she has trouble finding her way back. She spends much of the novel in a state of “moral disorientation” and must figure out where to draw the line between right and wrong. Similarly, other characters have made bad decisions but are not necessarily bad people. As a result, Tessa has to work extra hard to figure out who the suspects are and to identify the mastermind criminal in the end.

Even if they’re not off solving international mysteries, teens are wrestling with important moral issues in their own lives. They are faced with new pressures and tough decisions at every turn–socially, academically, on every front — and having to anticipate consequences. (Or, sometimes, not thinking of consequences until it’s too late). They are figuring out what is “right” and “wrong” for them personally, and weighing that against what parents, teachers, society thinks is “right” and “wrong.” They are constantly analyzing human behavior — their own and the behavior of others. (Teens are natural sleuths this way). And they have a keen radar for hypocrisy. I thought a teen like Tessa, who I believe is very relatable in terms of her personal dilemmas, would be the perfect person to sniff out corruption . . . and to grow a lot from solving this particular type of mystery.

The theme of moral choice came partly out of the fact that in Ecuador, the equatorial line was incorrectly mapped, and subsequently moved after modern GPS technology pinpointed it more accurately. It got me thinking about where we draw our own lines, and whether or not the concepts of “right” and “wrong” are absolutes or relative. These are meaty questions that I think teens can latch on to; I remember debating this when I was a teen.

DD: Latitude Zero is the most intricately-plotted fiction I’ve read of yours. Can you discuss issues involved in writing a thriller? Did you bring any tools to this project that you hadn’t used in prior novels and stories?

DR: This book definitely has the most complex plot I’ve attempted. It’s interesting that you use the word “tools” in your questions, because I felt like plotting this book was similar to building a machine, or a structure. It was frustrating when the parts wouldn’t come together, and incredibly satisfying when they finally clicked into place! I’m also the kind of person who builds stuff that looks okay (like IKEA furniture) and then later notice all the parts I didn’t use. Then I breathe on it and it comes apart. That happened with the plot in this book a couple of times. I thought I had it, and I didn’t. I had to dismantle many scenes and chapters and redo them. Fortunately, I figured out some techniques along the way so that I didn’t have to rewrite the ENTIRE book from scratch, over and over again, which I did with previous projects.

I had a lot of moving parts to keep track of: two main crimes (a theft, a death), and suspects for both of those crimes. Every suspect had to have a motive, an opportunity, and an alibi. Eventually I came up with lots of visuals to help me keep track of my plot. Mind maps with the crimes in the middle and the suspects and motives radiating outward. Timelines. Maps of the areas I wrote about, so I could figure out chase scenes. And a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the major plot points and the subplot. (In that chart, I also noted questions I wanted the reader to have, to keep the pages turning. If I couldn’t put a question into the chart, that indicated a problem — a plot coming to a standstill). This was the first time I used graphic organizers and other organizational methods when drafting. Even though a lot of things changed along the way — including the mastermind of the crime — forcing myself to work out the basic mystery elements off the page saved me a lot of revision agony.

Then, once I’d figured out the mystery pieces, I had to work on pacing to make the book more of a thriller. Finding the balance between the mystery plot and the thriller pace was a new challenge for me. The complex mystery plot demands explanations and reveals. The thriller demands compression. At times I had to pare down the plot points to pick up the pace — but then on a subsequent revision I’d have to add explanations back in because I’d created a logic gap. Finding creative ways to let my sleuths puzzle out the mystery without resorting to endless dialogue or internalization was a constant challenge.

DD: As someone with extensive experience teaching English as a second language (ESL), what do you think Latitude Zero and Tokyo Heist have taught you about how young people function in cultures different from their own?

DR: I spent many years working with people from other cultures who came to the U.S. to study. Many of them were young, teenagers or in their early twenties. They came with big ambitions and very clear goals, which included improving their English so that they could get into school here, or passing the TOEFL, or getting a job, or earning a graduate degree. Some adjusted well. Some didn’t. All went through some degree of culture shock and homesickness. Some were eager to connect with Americans their age — and some were eager but found it wasn’t so easy.

My characters are young Americans traveling abroad, which is a somewhat different journey. They have a different set of goals, and language learning may be lower on their list. But they too experience some of the complex emotions my ESL students had. Even though they are racing against the clock to solve mysteries, I allow them moments to process the culture, to feel disoriented, to sense that their expectations of a culture may not perfectly match the reality.

In Tokyo Heist, for example, Violet comes to realize that Japan is not like a manga or a Miyazaki movie; she has to let go of some of her romantic, entertainment-fueled notions and let herself be surprised and mystified by Japan. Similarly, Tessa in Latitude Zero finds her expectations challenged. She learns that South America is not just the lush paradise she sees in a brochure. She works in a women’s shelter and confronts poverty, which is at odds with the well-off host family she lives with. She learns that Ecuadorian hospitality and friendship is sincere. She appreciates that it’s not a land taken over by violence and drug cartels. And she meets a Latin American guy who refuses to salsa dance. I tried to blow her mind as much as I could by challenging her expectations, because she was a character with blinders and she needed to open her eyes.

I think young people visiting other cultures can grow immensely from that experience. But some people are more adventurous than others. Some may be more prone to homesickness, or shy about reaching out and meeting people. That happens at any age. So while I drew on some experiences of people I knew — and my own experience as a young traveler — in the end I had to think about how my particular characters would navigate a foreign culture and weather the challenges.

DD: Having relocated to Ecuador half-way through the story in an attempt to solve the mystery of cycling phenom Juan Carlos’ death, Tessa draws a group of friends into her investigation. Was it hard to strike a balance between allowing Tessa to solve the entire mystery herself and relying on friends for help?

DR: It wasn’t too hard; it was actually a relief. Having one character puzzle through clues and theories alone, all the time, gets tedious. I was thrilled when Tessa was able to reconnect with her friend Mari in Ecuador and they could team up to crack the case. (They team up a little in Boston too). They both bring different skills to the table, and I think they complement each other well — more equals than sleuth and sidekick. Tessa is an aspiring investigative reporter who also hosted a kids TV show. She has acting skills, media savvy, and a desire to divulge the truth. Mari is a bike mechanic, and bilingual. They both had connections to the victim, Juan Carlos, and their own personal motives for solving the mystery.

Other people in Ecuador come to play smaller roles in the investigation as well, including a boy named Santiago, who helps his dad run the bicycle advocacy group that Mari and Tessa volunteer at. I wanted the team to be multicultural and to draw on the characters’ different strengths, though yes, in the end, Tessa is the one who as the “a ha!” moment. But she couldn’t have figured it all out alone.

DD: The collaboration with Santiago in Ecuador allows Tessa to reflect on her U.S.-based boyfriend Jake, who got her tangled up in the Juan Carlos mystery in the first place. To what extent do your YA readers look to fiction for guidance on relationships? What role do narratives like Latitude Zero play in their emotional development?

DR: While Latitude Zero is marketed primarily as a mystery/thriller/adventure story, it has a great deal to say about relationships — both friendships and romantic relationships. It’s not a guide to relationships per se, and it’s definitely not a romance. But I hope Tessa’s relationships might spark questions in the readers’ minds. Should she be spending more time with her female friends, one of whom needs her emotional support as her mother battles cancer? Has Tessa wasted too much time with the wrong guy, or did she gain anything valuable and lasting from that relationship? When is it time to leave a relationship — and is leaving a failure or a victory? Should she be resolutely independent, or open herself to the possibility of meeting someone new? How do you balance romance and friendships and work and personal adventure? I don’t have an overall message about relationships in the novel — Tessa, and readers, must decide for themselves — but I do hope the relationships raise questions that young female readers in particular might ask as they navigate their own relationships.

DD: Reflecting on the period of time involved in the development and release of Tokyo Heist and now Latitude Zero, what changes have you seen in the YA landscape?

DR: It’s only been a couple of years between the two books, but I notice some movement away from dystopian/post-apocalyptic tales and to some extent paranormal novels. Maybe a sense of fatigue with those sub-genres. People in the industry say the pendulum seems to be swinging toward contemporary fiction and really strong voices, and the bookshelves in stores do seem to reflect that. Writers like John Green and Rainbow Rowell have set the bar high. That said, excellent YA fiction continues to be published across all sub-genres, and great books can still be published regardless of trends.

In particular, I’ve noticed an explosion of mystery/thrillers for teens in the last couple of years, whereas when I was writing Tokyo Heist it was hard to find many examples of YA mysteries — mysteries for middle grade was far easier to find.

Also, adults increasingly read YA now, and most of the bloggers we depend on to spread the word about our books are past their teen years. When I wrote Tokyo Heist, I only pictured young readers and maybe some gatekeepers — teachers, librarians, parents. Now, when I think of a YA audience, it’s a huge mix of people. I mean, it’s basically everyone.

DD: Given this window of opportunity, are you inclined to stay the course with YA mysteries that have an international slant? Looks like your next release, Blue Voyage, is cued up for 2015. Can you give us a sneak preview?

DR: I love writing about international intrigue and globetrotting teens, and Blue Voyage — coming fall 2015 — continues the theme. It’s about a teen girl who gets entangled with a gang of antiquities smugglers, and it takes place entirely in Turkey. It definitely has mystery elements, but falls more on the “adventure” side and is probably more character-driven than the previous two books. It has shadow puppets, yachts, caves, an underground hamam, a cute hotel bellboy, and baklava. Lots of baklava. I can say no more.

As for a fourth book, will I continue the international mystery theme? Not sure yet . . . I think I’m overdue for a great trip to spark some new ideas!

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