Author Interview: Phil Duncan, YA Debut Novelist, on Structure, Character Naming, and Working with a Local Press

Yancey Muncy is an ordinary teenage boy. He’s a middle child, flanked by two super-smart siblings, and he’s plagued with acne, an unfortunate nickname, and a big-time crush on a girl he has never spoken to. But at the start of Wax, Phil Duncan’s new young adult novel, Yancey has an even bigger problem. He’s dead.

Phil Duncan is the author of the YA novel Wax.

Phil Duncan is the author of the YA novel Wax.

Phil deftly weaves the story of what happened before Yancey’s death with his real-world afterlife, which begins when his parents strike a deal—for reasons of their own—with an evil scientist. It’s a book about siblings, bullying, and a particularly important school social event, but it’s also about getting a second chance in life.

Wax was published by RainTown Press, a small press in Portland, Oregon, in October. Phil, a Portland resident, recently served as a Creator-in-Residence at the Tokyo Wonder Site-Aoyma in Tokyo, Japan, and he is a former Jacob K. Javits Fellow. Wax is his debut novel. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Goddard College, and he received his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Washington.

Welcome to the Seven Questions Series, Phil!

1. Tell us about Wax. 

Wax is a young-adult novel that centers on teenager Yancey Muncy and the “second-chance” life he leads after he’s brought back from the grave by a power-hungry scientist. A modern remix on the Frankenstein story, Wax explores average teenaged life with heaping doses of action, comedy, a little romance, and just enough horror to keep readers on their toes.

2. The story unfolds with two parallel narratives informing each other—one featuring Yancey’s life before he died, and one focused on the events after his revival. Why did you choose this intricate but effective structure? Did you always intend to tell the story this way or did the idea develop during the writing process?

This was a key element I had in mind from the very beginning of the writing process. I thought it would be interesting to move back and forth between Yancey’s two lives to show how the decisions he made in the present were influenced by situations in the past. I’m a fan of non-linear narratives in what I read, so I was definitely influenced by writers who can accomplish this far better than me. I wanted to challenge readers to piece parts of the story together on their own, even if it meant forcing them to flip back a few pages now and then to get that satisfying ‘ah-ha’ moment.

3. How did Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein inspire and/or influence Wax? Were there any other books or characters that influenced your take on scientists and their creations (or re-creations)?

phil-headshotI like the original Frankenstein story because it gives the reader an interesting outsider’s perspective on humanity. The Monster is very complex–both loathsome and sympathetic. He feels things deeply (some may say melodramatically), he’s verbose (some may also say overly so), and ultimately he makes some pretty devastating decisions. As this legend was reimagined and remixed over the decades, we lost a lot of these elements in favor of the square-headed, bolt-necked, groaning-moaning Frankenstein Monster. So I really wanted to recapture the tone of the original and put a more modern, humorous spin on it with Wax.

As for other influences, I drew from a lot of different places. I see the Marvel comics of my youth, Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, and The Simpsons’ Springfield peppered throughout the story to varying degrees of success.

4. You do an incredible job of withholding the details of Yancey’s death until late in the novel. Sometimes that technique can misfire by making readers feel manipulated or by not having a strong enough payoff, but you handled it in a way that keeps readers engaged and turning pages—and when we finally do learn what killed Yancey, it’s so satisfying. Do you have any tips to share with other writers on how to successfully withhold a major plot element?

This is a great question. When I teach writing, I always use the “onion metaphor” for my students. This is in no way an original metaphor–I would actually like the meet the originator so I can shake his/her hand. Basically, at the core of your story-onion you have the big pay-off–in Yancey’s case it’s the way he died. So my goal is tell the story in a way that peels the outer layers of the onion away at a pace that isn’t so slow as to make the reader bored or so fast that it dilutes the pay-off. The biggest tip I can give to writers is to know exactly what the story’s resolution is from the beginning and work backwards, dropping enough subtle hints along the way so that your readers don’t feel burned or tricked.

5. Your characters have wonderful names—Yancey Muncy, Dr. Royal Blankenship and his son Percy, and even the town of Effington. What’s your philosophy of character naming, particularly for a young adult audience?

I let my ear guide my character names. If it sounds cool and flows naturally, then I’ll explore it. If it sticks and just feels right, then I’ll use it. I think that having interesting names is especially important when writing for younger readers, as they will latch on to a unique name over a ‘Steve Jones’ or ‘Rachel Smith.’ It’s just another way to spark the imagination and let the reader really take ownership of the character in their minds.

6. How did you connect with RainTown Press? What are some of the benefits of working with a small press in your community?

Seven Questions LogoFrom the beginning, I wanted to explore the opportunity of publishing this book locally with a press that loved YA and would work hard with me and on my behalf. As this is my first novel, it felt more natural to cut my teeth with a smaller, local press and really involve myself in the entire process. Luckily, I found RainTown Press, submitted to them first, and they graciously agreed to publish my book. I have enjoyed the experience; especially the grassroots feel of the entire process and being able to work directly with the publisher on everything from book design to marketing. This is something I probably wouldn’t have been able to do with a larger publisher. So now, armed with this experience in the different facets of the publishing industry (not to mention a lot of contacts in my home city), I have more knowledge and confidence to further my writing career in whichever direction it goes. This is something that I wouldn’t have gained had I pushed the book out of the community, and I’m very grateful for this.

7. I have to ask, Phil—are you planning a sequel?

The million-dollar question! And one that I don’t have a definitive answer for. The feedback has been incredibly overwhelming and positive for Wax; to the point where I was recently threatened at a book event with physical harm if I don’t write the sequel. Part of me wants to give the readers another Yancey Muncy adventure and part of me wants to leave them to imagine their own. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks so much for participating in the Seven Questions Series, Phil, and definitely keep us posted on any plans for a sequel! 

Wax is available in print and ebook editions through Amazon and direct through RainTown PressPlease visit www.philduncanwrites.com for more information.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Books, Fiction, Seven Questions, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Author Interview: Phil Duncan, YA Debut Novelist, on Structure, Character Naming, and Working with a Local Press

  1. Great interview, Laura.

  2. Judy Fleagle says:

    I really enjoy your seven questions interviews. Always interesting and informative!

    • Thanks, Judy! I always love hearing what authors say about the creative process, and I was especially excited to ask Phil about his characters’ unusual names, which is one of many fun elements in his novel.

  3. The naming question is very interesting, and I think it depends a lot on genre. If you’re aiming for something really realistic, where readers are supposed to think it’s a true story, then you should probably be careful to keep the names realistic (though some writers equate “normal” with “boring” — real names have a lot of variety, after all).

    Other than that, though, yes, they should be memorable.

    People complain about Pynchon’s names sometimes, but when I hear casting news about the movie of Inherent Vice (who’s playing Japonica Fenway or Jason Velveeta or Sauncho Smilax or Petunia Leeway) I always know who they’re talking about. 🙂

    • Good point about memorable names suiting the work, Anthony. In the case of Wax, they heighten that comic, superhero sort of approach, and I found great joy (as an adult reader) in meeting each new character. I feel the same way about reading Pynchon! But I can see how a different sort of story, one that feels memoir-like or “true” as you put it, would need a different approach.

  4. Laura, I love your Seven Question Series, and Phil’s book sounds fascinating … strange names and all. What would happen if we had a second chance at life?

    Thanks for another fascinating post 🙂

    • What’s so smart about this book is how it gets to these wonderfully entertaining moments, but still has darkness and depth and that very compelling second-chance theme. It’s hard to pull off a work that is so fun to read, but also serious at its core, and I think Phil did a great job.

  5. Pingback: Phil Duncan Writes » Blog Archive » Interview on Laura Stanfill’s Blog

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