After finishing, and loving, Dead Things Are Closer Than They Appear I knew I had to reach out to Robin. As an adoptee, this book was everything to me! Prepare for a set of great answers we talk about titles and representation!
Dead Things Are Closer Than They Appear
High school is hard enough to survive without an apocalypse to navigate.
Sid Spencer has always been the most normal girl in her abnormal hometown, a tourist trap built over one of the fault lines that seal magic away from the world. Meanwhile, all Sid has to deal with is hair-ruining humidity, painful awkwardness, being one of four Asians in town, and her friends dumping her when they start dating each other—just days after one of the most humiliating romantic rejections faced by anyone, ever, in all of history.
Then someone kills one of the Guardians who protect the seal. The earth rips open and unleashes the magic trapped inside. Monsters crawl from the ground, no one can enter or leave, and the man behind it all is roaming the streets with a gang of violent vigilantes. Suddenly, Sid’s life becomes a lot less ordinary. When she finds out her missing brother is involved, she joins the remaining Guardians, desperate to find him and close the fault line for good.
Fighting through hordes of living corpses and uncontrollable growths of forest, Sid and a ragtag crew of would-be heroes are the only thing standing between their town and the end of the world as they know it. Between magic, murderers, and burgeoning crushes, Sid must survive being a perfectly normal girl caught in a perfectly abnormal apocalypse.
Only—how can someone so ordinary make it in such an extraordinary world?
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Interview with Robin Wasley
Let’s first start off with my FAVORITE element, the adoption representation. Talk me through Sid’s character evolution from concept to the page. What is your favorite moment of Sid talking about her being adopted in the book?
First off, thanks so much for interviewing me! I’m really excited to be doing this with a fellow Asian American adoptee because, as you know, we do not often see ourselves represented in books, especially fantasy books. Not only did I not see Asian Americans in books growing up, but even now, I haven’t seen a lot of experiences like mine. For that reason, I always knew I wanted my main character to be a transracial Korean American adoptee and I always wanted to convey that this is an Asian American experience.
When I was creating Sid’s character, I wasn’t aiming to write a story about adoption or to discuss the many issues surrounding transracial adoption specifically, but I was intent on building it into her backstory, to have it affect her daily life. Not just her experiences growing up in a racially homogenous town, but also her view of family, other people, and the world. I think it’s important with any kind of identity to not just have it be there as a throwaway trait that has no impact on the character at all. Even in a magical apocalypse, the foundation of someone’s identity should inform their emotions, their decisions, their actions. For me, blood has never determined family. For those of us whose family is not made up of biological members, family is about sharing a life and choosing them every day. Sid’s fervent need to find her brother is rooted in her knowledge that family is not guaranteed, that it’s made—and it’s strong enough to overcome her personal fears and insecurities, and it motivates her to do things she never thought she would.
As for my favorite moment of Sid talking about adoption, it’s probably the conversation between her and Hyacinth, not just because it’s a moment of connection between two people who grew up in non-biologically related families, but because the story she tells about her curly hair is one of my own stories. When my parents came to meet me, I was the only baby with hair—curly hair—and it was how they recognized me. People will definitely think Sid’s me (she’s not), but I did draw from personal experience. Note: one of my favorite things about Sid in general is her loyalty to her cat who is also adopted and is a member of her family no matter how mean she is.
While we’re on the topic of family, all of Sid’s family members are so detailed and full of character the moment we meet them, did any of them go through significant change throughout drafting? How did you construct their characters?
Let it be known that in my acknowledgements, my message to my family is “This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.” People are also going to think I modeled Sid’s family after my own family…and okay, fine, my niece’s conflict with her nemesis Madeline is a true story LMAO. I’ll say there are definitely aspects of my siblings that inspired Sid’s, but my main goal was to build Sid and her siblings as people who obviously grew up together, and who give off the same messy ridiculous vibe that makes it obvious they’re related. It’s the same thing I tried to do with Brian, who is also not blood-related to Hyacinth and Daisy, yet their mannerisms, their way of looking at people, their facial expressions, their matter-of-fact directness all show that they’re family. For both sibling groups, they had to feel like different people who are actually kinda the same.
And I always knew that Sid and Brian would connect on that level. That he would get that part of her life that most people didn’t.
You have a bunch of different side characters in DEAD THINGS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR can you share tips for aspiring writers for how you maintain their voices and own character in respects or relation to the main character of Sid?
My book has a large cast and I WILL NEVER DO IT AGAIN. Oh God, I probably will, because dialogue and relationships are my favorite things to write, but I’m telling you right now that writing more than four people in a scene is the bane of any author’s existence. All that said, the book was always supposed to be about the ensemble. It’s not one girl who saves the world—everyone saves someone, and thus all of them.
I say this a lot, but my main goal for each project is to write every side character with Main Character Energy. LIKE BTS. No one in that group is expendable—if you take one away, they cannot succeed. For DTACTTA, I did have to cut some characters because believe it or not, THERE USED TO BE EVEN MORE, and every time I cut someone, there were always significant rewrites that followed. Because they were all written in a way that fully integrated them into the story.
Thus, my tip for aspiring writers is that no character should just be there to be there. Even if the story isn’t following them specifically, they all have to have backstories and motivations and arcs separate from the main character; they each need to contribute to the plot and the emotional development of each other, and all their relationships have to have different dynamics. While every side character will forward the MC arc in some way, that can’t be their sole purpose for existing. They have to be the heroes of their own stories, too.
Talk us through your title, what inspired it and did it ever have a different title?
It was initially titled “A Completely Random Girl,” inspired by one of the first things Sid says to the villain. “I’m just a random girl. Forget I was ever here.” This book was always supposed to be about a hero who was just some girl.
When I was told I needed to change the title, I was at a loss, because many of the suggestions just didn’t hit the right tone. Tone is really important for this book—it’s very voicey, there is a lot of humor, but it’s also magical and dramatic and romantic and horrific. Finding a balance that fit the book, but wasn’t either totally absurd or too all caps FANTASY was difficult.
Enter the T-rex from Jurassic Park. At the last minute, when I was pretty sure we’d be going with some fantasy-centric title that wouldn’t suit the story, I happened to be watching that moment they were fleeing the T-Rex in the jeep and there’s that shot of the T-rex in the side mirror with “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” It hit the kind of humor I wanted, while also hinting a bit at the story: a girl who had no idea of the hell that was about to be unleashed on her town.
Let’s chat about your world because it’s contemporary fantasy, so how did you come up with the ‘magical’ pieces of your world and merge them with our world?
I grew up on CW shows, so my book took a lot of inspiration from that combo of contemporary life mixed with the supernatural, where fantastical elements are honestly just tools to tell a story about someone surviving being a person.
One of the biggest challenges for me was figuring out ways to keep the world contained. I wanted the story to be smaller scale, about the town and these specific people, not the entire country. So the modern world, having communication and knowledge at our fingertips was a problem. I conjured a lot of the magic elements as a means to get around questions like “why couldn’t they just call for help?” and “why couldn’t they just drive south and get there in two minutes?” But there were also realities of our world I knew I wanted to keep in—for example, I didn’t want to ignore that guns are a clear and present danger to kids, and that, throughout the book, guns are used against them while they themselves remain unarmed. Because that’s what happens in our world now except we don’t have magic to survive it.
Figuring out how this town existed in the real world, how people outside the town would just let them exist was also a challenge. But in Buffy, for instance, Sunnydale is built over a hellmouth, where demons wander around in broad daylight and LOTS of people die suspiciously, and no one in the town or the world really questions it. And when presented with what’s actually going on, they’re always like “everything makes so much sense now.” So there’s always a certain amount of suspension of belief in all fantasy OR AT LEAST THAT’S WHAT I TELL MYSELF.
A theme you discuss in your book is power and who should have the power, specifically the magic. Did you always know you wanted to chat about that theme or did it just develop? What draws you to discussions about the right of certain groups or for everyone, to have magic and power?
I spoke a little bit about this in the 2024 YA Fantasy Debut Panel we did (everyone go watch that—there are some amazing Jan/Feb fantasies!), but I think what I wanted to do was write a chosen one who wasn’t really, a villain who professed to want power in the hands of the people but didn’t really, and then to explore what it really entails to have power and to share it.
Sid just happened to be there when magical shit goes down. She’s a normal girl who just lives in a town where magic is buried in the ground. She is meant to start off self-absorbed, to be average and to yearn to be extraordinary and better (for once) than the people around her. The villain has the same desire, yet they end up on opposite sides. Writing Paul Ford was inspired by my brief stint as a teaching assistant for a high school political science course in which the students argued that socialism wouldn’t work here because the motivation of human beings is always to have more than someone else—it was about status, not just about individual gain, but rather, gain in comparison to others. For people who grew up in the west, I think our culture focuses on that and a more collective mindset has to be learned. And it’s what Sid learns in the end, that you don’t have to be better than anyone to matter, and in order for power to truly be shared, people have to be in community with each other, to believe that no one wins unless we win together.
In many ways, you show some images of found friends and unlikely friendships in DEAD THINGS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. What does the themes of friendship and these characters who have prickly outsides, but might be hiding pieces that resonate, mean in relation to your book?
When speaking about empathy, I think it’s really important to convey that we’re not gonna love or even like everyone we meet in life, but we don’t have to in order to care about them. We don’t even have to know someone to care. And I think people’s unwillingness to care about strangers is seen from the books people are unwilling to read based on some notion of “relatability” to the real-world conflicts that people decide to care about or not. You can’t always relate to everything about another person, but you can always relate to something because we are all human. Furthermore, people don’t have to be nice or perfect or likeable for them to be worthy of empathy.
But in small and large ways, I built in little commonalities—every character has a little connection to at least one other person. Sometimes it’s something small, like having curly hair or growing up in a restaurant. Sometimes it’s something more personal, like growing up in interracial families or being the only BIPOC in a town or suffering childhood abuse or being orphaned at a young age. No matter how different they are, they also aren’t, not really. And because of all the criss-crossing lines between characters, if they’re tied to one, they’re tied to them all.
By the way, the mean one, Eleni, has always been my favorite character.
Do you have a magical theme song for your book? Or, alternatively, a song that would play every time Sid entered the screen if this were adapted into a movie?
I tend to think of songs for moments rather than characters, but I think if I had to choose an overarching song for Dead Things, it would be “Strangers” by the Kinks. The line “Strangers on this road we are on—we are not two, we are one.” Though, in the movie version in my head, I always imagine “Not Today” by BTS playing during one specific battle scene, and I aways imagine “In My Blood” by Shawn Mendes playing during the tree scene.
If Sid could give you one piece of advice, what would it be?
That “average” gets a bad rap. At some point in our lives, we’ve all been that person in the middle of the pack, not the best, not the worst, feeling like everyone else is somehow beautiful and good at everything while we, alone, are not. Sometimes we are not extraordinary in a way that is easily visible to everyone and that is okay. That doesn’t mean we don’t matter. Everyone has a gift to give; everyone is capable of changing someone else, and therefore the world, in some way.
Do you think you’d survive in your world and if so, how long, till the end?
Let me be clear: if there’s ever a magical zombie apocalypse, I want to go in the first wave. If I’m being real, in Sid’s position, I would not have left my house and I would have let my family fend for themselves. Just kidding. Maybe. I reference “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy at one point in the story, when Sid says she definitely wouldn’t chain people and eat them a little bit at a time, AND SAME. A lot of apocalypse stories like to explore the best and worst of humanity, going into great detail about what people are willing to do to survive. I can’t begin to express how much my survival instinct is not THAT strong LMAO.
About the Author
Robin Wasley is a YA fantasy writer with a soft spot for orphans, found families, and funny girls with no special skills who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. She grew up in a family of adoptees, never truly seeing herself reflected in the books she devoured. As an adult, when she saw an Asian American girl on the cover of a YA book for the first time, she cried.
Robin lives in Boston and works in scientific publishing, but she writes so readers can laugh, cry, and scream “Why are you like this?” Her favorite things are genre-mashes, bubble baths, Cheetos, and pie. When not writing, she enjoys baking and binge-watching entire seasons of TV in a single day.
Her one dream in life is to become best friends with BTS.