For the author of a new YA (young adult) book about a time-traveling teenage girl, it seems only fitting that the thing that inspired her to write a novel in the first place was her own traveling experience.
Mandy Buehrlen grew up in Beaufort and graduated from Union High School in 1999, but it wasn’t until she spent a year working as a volunteer teacher at underprivileged schools in Chicago for the AmeriCorps program that she really poured herself into writing. Getting to live outside of the “bubble” of her usual experiences inspired her creativity.
“My writing just became more prevalent,” said Buehrlen, whose debut novel, “The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare” was released Tuesday, March 4, by Random House. “There were so many stories.”
Buehrlen, the daughter of Donna and Don Massmann, Beaufort, and Royace Buehrlen, Gasconade, said her road to publication has been pretty long. It was about eight years ago that she started writing seriously, and “57 Lives” isn’t even the first novel she’s written. It’s just the first to be published.
Buehrlen, who works full time as the web designer and social media/creative director for Young Adults Book Central, a social networking book review website much like Goodreads.com, only exclusively for YA and kids books, currently lives just outside of Detroit with her husband, Joel Kocevar.
From Childhood Dream to Book-Shelves Across the Country
Buehrlen, whose married named is Kocevar, but who goes by her maiden name for her work, said growing up she always knew she wanted to be an author.
Growing up on a farm, she lived too far from the library for many trips, so if she wanted stories to read, she had to write them herself.
“I wrote all the time when I was younger,” said Buehrlen. “I would write these little stories and staple them together.”
But after high school, Buehrlen didn’t know how to turn her dream of being an author into a reality, so to make money, she found work as a web designer (she had already soldered her first circuit board at age 9, built her first computer at age 13 and began coding and designing websites a few years after that).
She studied for a while at Southwest Missouri State University, but could never decide on a major.
“I would sit in these classes, and I would ignore the professor and just write stories,” said Buehrlen. “So finally I realized I just needed to stop and figure out what I wanted to do.
“That’s when I started thinking I would like to write a book at some point.”
So around 2005, Buehrlen said she sat down determined to write a full book, “just to see what would happen.”
It took her about two years, but she finished the novel and gave copies to family and friends to get their feedback. When they liked it, she was encouraged to move forward, but not too quickly.
Buehrlen said she took a few years learning the process of how to get a book deal. She ended up getting a literary agent, the first step, which is hard itself.
Unfortunately, that agent didn’t work out and Buehrlen’s first book went nowhere.
“Things like that happen,” she said. “It’s hard to find a good agent, one you trust with your career.”
Luckily, by that time, Buehrlen had made a number of author friends who were mentoring her in the process of getting a book published. That’s how she found her current agent.
Determined to land a book deal, Buehrlen sat down and wrote the novel that became “57 Lives” in just three months. The agent she had found loved the story, accept Buehrlen as a client and began submitting it to publishers.
“It was a whirlwind almost,” Buehrlen remarked.
She signed a deal with Strange Chemistry, an imprint of Angry Robot, which is a United Kingdom sci-fi publisher that has recently branched out into YA books and distribution in America.
Here “57 Lives” will be distributed by Random House, said Buehrlen.
The deal was signed in February 2013, and the book was released this week.
Buehrlen has already completed the second novel in what is now the “Alex Wayfare” series. There is no date yet on when it will be published.
She actually envisions four novels in the series.
Buehrlen wrote this synopsis of “57 Lives” for her own website:
“When 17-year-old Alex Wayfare discovers she’s a Descender — capable of traveling back in time to her reincarnated pasts — she becomes addicted to exploring her past lives, especially when the same blue-eyed boy shows up in each one. But the more Alex descends, the more it becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want her to travel again, and will stop at nothing to make this life her last.”
Why Time Travel?
Buehrlen’s publisher identifies her book as science fiction (sci-fi) since it involves time travel, but she thinks of it more as fantasy.
She said the time travel detail comes from a love of history that she developed, oddly enough, after leaving school.
“I had always wanted to write something about time travel, just because I love writing about past periods, putting myself there and wondering what it was like to live in that time period,” said Buehrlen.
“I was watching this show, ‘History Detectives,’ and I started finding all these really interesting segments. One was about Amelia Earhart and the mystery surrounding her disappearance,” she said. “During the episode, they take you through all these time periods and . . . after watching a lot of those shows, I thought, I can’t pick one time period and write about it. I want to write about all of them and the parts that really fascinate me.”
Buehrlen said in “57 Lives,” Alex travels back in time for only a few chapters each time, “but it’s nice because I can very quickly pinpoint a mystery in history, and it can be exciting and adventurous, and then I can put her back in modern day.”
Buehrlen noted that originally the main character’s name was Susan, but she switched it to Alex to make it more gender-neutral.
“I wanted it to be boy friendly,” she commented.
“With YABC, I’ve seen a lot with these teenage boys and what they say about books, what they pick up, and if the author’s name is a girl, they think it’s a girl book.”
That is why Buehrlen used her initials instead of her first name on the book cover.
Buehrlen said it was the popularity of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” book series that sent the YA genre soaring.
“There were always plenty of books there, but a lot of readers didn’t know to look for YA novels,” she said.
What makes a novel YA is the simple fact that its main characters are teenagers, Buehrlen noted. It doesn’t meant that the book is intended only for teens or that the content is for a young audience.
“It’s still really smart writing,” said Buehrlen. “Adventurous. A lot of times the stories are more exciting, more adventurous because teenagers aren’t saddled down with mortgages and families, so you can do a lot more with the character.
“I think that’s why a lot of authors gravitate toward writing it because you do have this kind of free character who is able to go anywhere, do anything.”
Buehrlen, who has been running yabookscentral.com since 2009 (it was founded in 1998), knows a lot about the business of promoting YA books from her work.
The YABC site, as it’s known, is used in schools and libraries across the country, said Buehrlen, and kids can post their reviews and thoughts on various books.
As the director, Buehrlen manages a staff who write book reviews and she also works with publishers and authors doing interviews and promotions for their works.
‘Consume Art, Create Art’
With one book published and a second on its way, Buehrlen is excited about her future, although she isn’t setting her sights too high just yet.
“I don’t have any visions of grandeur,” she said. “I want to just write a book and get it out there so someone can read it.”
For now, Buehrlen said her mantra is simple: “Consume art, create art.
“If I can live in a way, where I’m free to consume as much art as I can and then in turn, create as much art as I can, then I’m living a pretty good life,” she remarked.
“That means I have to have a revenue stream of some sort, so I do have my website, and I get decent revenue off that, so as long as I can continue to sell my work, and as long as the pay is comparable, I’ll be happy.
“I don’t have a goal of hitting the best seller list or selling so many copies,” said Buehrlen.
Advice to Aspiring Authors
Looking back over her own experience, Buehrlen offered these tips for other aspiring authors:
• Don’t let others read your work until it’s finished.
“I think one of the best things I did was not letting people read, because then they start giving you their opinions,” said Buehrlen.
“The time for opinions is when you are done with the book, and you want to know what you can do better.
Don’t even tell people about your book. Make it intimate, just for you. See if you can finish it,” Buehrlen suggested.
• Read as much as you possibly can.
“You really can’t go to school to learn how to write artistically. You can learn plot structure, but . . . you need to consume as much artistic writing as you can, or the type of writing you aspire to, and the more you consume that, the more you will learn how to write in a similar style.”
• Do your research.
“If you want to do traditional publishing, it’s a business,” said Buehrlen. “It’s not an artistic passion at that point. You want to go about it like you’re starting a business.
“There’s a lot of information out there, you just have to be smart about finding it,” she commented. “It seems daunting at first to find out how you go this path of traditional publishing.”
Buehrlen said one of the best things she did was join an authors group with people who had already gone through the process.
“I have a wonderful group of friends, and we each read each other’s things and critique it,” she said. “But you have to be very selective on who you let read your work because some people just won’t get it.
“The first book I wrote, I sent it out to a freelance editor to get his opinion . . . and he said I needed to rewrite the whole thing, gave me two stars out of five.
“But at the same time I’d also hired a second freelance editor to get another opinion, and she loved it,” Buehrlen said. “It’s so subjective, so if you’re going to ask for professional help, it needs to be someone who gets your artistic vision.
“In my critique group, they understand what I’m trying to get at,” said Buehrlen. “They don’t try to change my plot line — say things like, ‘Well, I would have gone this way’ or ‘I don’t think you should have done this with your character’ — but a lot of people will do that.”
‘Urban Exploring’ in Downtown Detroit
One of the things Buehrlen does when she isn’t writing or reading is “urban exploring” in downtown Detroit. A hired tour guide takes her and her husband through abandoned buildings.
The tours can be an intense experience, said Buehrlen.
“You’re constantly afraid for your life, because it’s a bad neighborhood,” she said, “and you’re in abandoned buildings so there could be someone in the building, you could come across someone there.”
Buehrlen, who takes photos on the tours, noted there’s an eerie yet beautiful quality to these abandoned buildings.
“I love time travel and different time periods, and it’s like you’ve stepped into a time capsule in some of these buildings,” she said. “This one building has been vacant since the ’70s. In one school they had a forest growing in the middle of the library. It’s hauntingly beautiful.
“Some of the places have only been abandoned for maybe five years, but they are already so overgrown because nature just reclaims it.”
Buehrlen said she started taking the tours because she wants to write a post-apocalyptic novel.
“I wanted to actually put myself in an area that feels completely deserted,” she said. “But once I started researching and spending a lot more time in Detroit, I realized the story is Detroit, and Detroit has already gone through an apocalyptic scenario.
“So the story is present day. I don’t have to do any time travel.”
Don’t expect that book to be coming out any time soon, though.
“That will be a hard book to write,” said Buehrlen, “an intense series.”