Have you heard me talk about how much I love Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp? If you haven’t, it’s a sure sign I should be talking about it more! Because let’s get this straight: I LOVE Archivist Wasp. It’s a mind-blowing, fantastical post-apocalyptic buddy journey to the underworld. And now Nicole Kornher-Stace has written a sequel, Latchkey.
Obviously, I had to ask her for an interview about it. And luckily enough, she agreed! So I’m thrilled to bring you a chat with Nicole Kornher-Stace, where we talk about YA books without romance, writing a sequel, and characters recovering from trauma.
For readers who may be unfamiliar with it, can you describe your new book Latchkey?
I guess for this one I should start at the beginning, with the book that Latchkey is a sequel to. Archivist Wasp was my YA debut back in 2015. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic future so distant that humans have gone full circle back into preindustrial society, complete with its own mythology and customs. There are also ghosts. The idea — though this never comes up in the book specifically, because it’s a very close third-person narrative and the protagonist has no clue about this — is that there have always been ghosts, but by the same logic of light pollution blocking out the stars from sight, human interference historically has prevented most ghosts from interacting noticeably with the living world. In Wasp’s world the population is much attenuated and spread thinner across the landscape, and ghosts are very much a part of daily life.
She’s an Archivist, which in this world is sort of a holy ghosthunter historian, selected from a pool of girls chosen from birth, allegedly by Catchkeep, the goddess of the dead. These girls are then made to fight to the death in sacred ritual combat for the privilege of becoming Archivist. The Archivist lives apart from the rest of the town, feared and respected and reviled in equal measure, enslaved by the Catchkeep-priest. Nobody has any idea what the world Before was like, or what destroyed it, or how to prevent that from happening again, so the Archivist’s job is to capture ghosts and collect notes on them to try and piece this mystery together. But it’s difficult, because most ghosts have been too weakened by their long years wandering to remember how to talk, let alone who they used to be. There are exceptions, though, and Wasp runs into one of them, the ghost of a near-future genetically engineered supersoldier who needs her help to find the ghost of his partner, lost somewhere in the underworld. It’s basically a buddy quest with weird mythology. On the way to finding this lost ghost, Wasp learns more than she expected to about her own world as well, and discovers the truth behind the system of power that creates and enslaves Archivists, and has been so doing for four hundred years.
Latchkey takes place just over three years later. (Coincidentally, the book will be released just over three years after Archivist Wasp.) The brutal and oppressive Archivist system has been overthrown and Wasp — having reclaimed her given name of Isabel — has, along with the other girls marked for potential Archivist service, integrated herself into society. Things have been peaceful, apart from the slowly spreading rumor that Catchkeep wouldn’t have allowed Her priest to have been overthrown if the town were still under Her protection. As such, an opportunistic raider army approaches from far across the Waste toward Isabel’s town. Isabel heads up a task force to hide those townspeople unable to fight in the ancient tunnels beneath the town. There she learns a whole lot more than she expected — about her town, about herself, and about the world Before.
It’s a bigger book than AW — more characters, more action, more complexity, more scope and scale, more going on in general. I had to rewrite it a number of times before I got it to where I wanted it. Even so, I always had fun with it. I hope it’s at least half as much fun to read.
The events of Archivist Wasp haven’t left Isabel unscarred. What was the process of writing Isabel’s trauma?
Really my only goal there was to show that she went through some shit in book 1 and it’s not the kind of thing — mentally, physically, emotionally — that you bounce back from in one piece. She essentially came back from the dead, made and lost the only friend she’s ever had, completely uprooted the framework of her first sixteen years of life. And where Latchkey begins, she’s spent three years having nobody she trusts enough to talk this out with, to help her process any of it.
Having never written a sequel before, I had no prior experience trying to imagine what comes after an adventure that nearly kills you. What costs you pay, and go on paying. I wanted to make sure she had physical injuries that stick with her residually, because I know from my own experience that injuries tend to do that, sometimes forever. In terms of her psychological baggage from book 1, and how she handles it, I extrapolated similarly: how would I, another person with questionable people skills, react in Isabel’s position? Pretty much how she does in the opening chapters of Latchkey. She’s spent sixteen years being one person, a few short days (in underworld time) not only learning who she really is but also who she could potentially be, only to be catapulted into the demands of a power vacuum she has no real desire to fill. When Latchkey opens, she’s been spending three years desperately trying to rebuild herself into this person she’s not entirely sure how to be — or whether, deep down, she even wants to.
Do you consider Isabel/Wasp a heroine or an anti-heroine?
Hmm. I’ve never really thought about it! I would say that she (much like the ghost and Foster, which is a major reason she finds herself able to relate to them so well) definitely acts according to her own moral code. As such she often comes up with her own solutions to problems that are dramatically different than — if not in direct violation of — her external directives. But she is fiercely compassionate, which sometimes gets in the way of her job, and leads to her frequent punishment for disobedience. I think it’s very important to differentiate here between anti-heroine and female protagonist who isn’t conventionally “nice.” Wasp/Isabel is absolutely not conventionally “nice,” although she’s definitely kind. I feel it was very important to write her that way because there’s a (comparative) serious dearth of not-“nice” female protagonists, and I wanted to add one to the mix. I wanted her to have been hardened by her circumstance, but not to have lost her empathy, her compassion, her drive to help the ghosts that everyone else just sees as an infestation to be dealt with, a threat to be defused. At the same time, she’s never learned how to interact with living people, and all the living people she has dealings with want her dead, and I needed to reflect that in her personality.
I feel that most labels are pretty subjective, but when I think of an anti-hero, I think of a person who, in the process of serving her own interests, kind of stumbles sideways into serving the greater good unintentionally. In the beginning of Archivist Wasp, she does make the self-serving bargain with the ghost that was the catalyst into her journey, as she sees no other way out of a situation she’s tried and failed many times to escape — but, full disclosure: the bargain was a later addition that wasn’t in the original draft. Initially I had her agreeing to help the ghost for the same reason she’s always helped ghosts: she finds them more empathetically relatable than any of the living humans she’s ever known, and she has previously advocated for them in many subtle and not-so-subtle microrebellions against her Archivist directive. I saw Wasp’s agreeing to find Foster as a natural continuation of her motives. But then I realized in edits that it would be more interesting if I made her relationship with the ghost even more complex than it was already, and so I added in this deal that they make — though both of them are lying re their ability to hold up their end of it.
In Latchkey she’s possibly even more conflicted, as her position now forces her to interact with many more people, though the one person she’s ever really related to has been gone for three years. She’s extremely conflicted, but she still retains those same core values that carried her through AW. She just expresses them differently from most people.
I really loved that Archivist Wasp (and Latchkey!) don’t include any romance, although in your acknowledgements you mention you were often pressured to include it. Why did you feel that it was so important to stick to your guns about keeping the books focused on friendship?
Ooh. I love this question. Really I have to go back to when I was maybe twelve-thirteen years old and I watched the movie Aliens for the first time. (Bear with me, this will make sense in a second.) I loved that movie. I still do. But what I really imprinted upon, as an impressionable preteen, was the all-too-brief, almost throwaway relationship between Vasquez and Drake. They don’t get much screentime together. They have hardly any lines together. And yet I found them deeply compelling. I had never seen before (and honestly have very rarely seen since) a relationship like theirs between a woman and a man in any form of media. You see the brothers-in-arms thing all the time, in pretty much literally every war movie/book/etc that exists, but as soon as there’s a woman involved, the quality of that relationship almost invariably starts veering toward — if not romance or sex, at least sexual tension. (Hell, even in All You Need is Kill, the book that was the basis for the movie Edge of Tomorrow, they end up sleeping together. I was SO HAPPY they left that out of the movie YOU HAVE NO IDEA.)
Anyway, preteen me was fascinated by Vasquez and Drake. I still am. Because their relationship is so refreshingly left open to interpretation. Maybe they’re having sex with each other, maybe they’re married with kids back home for all I know, but the story steers clear of it because it doesn’t matter. (I haven’t looked to see whether there’s a canon answer to this somewhere, and I’m not sure I even want to know. I like to think they’re space marine buddies who watch each others’ backs and have epic drinking games and in-jokes and bets on who can do more pushups and have generally Seen Some Shit together, and that’s the basis for the relationship, full stop, end of story. Because media seems to have this generalized notion that this is a totally legit basis for a relationship as long as either none of the people in this relationship are women or all of them are, and I take issue with this all day long.)
Refreshingly, there are more media depictions these days of the kind of relationship I could really have used more of as a teen. But they’re still very much in the minority, and I felt I needed to do my tiny part to add another example to that list. Especially, I felt (and feel) that if I’m going to write books for teens, I want to write books for the kind of teen I was: the kind of teen that bounces off of the concept of romance, no matter how thoroughly bombarded they are by it in media. I grew up feeling my lack of interest in romance meant that I was missing out on something Important, some other layer of meaning or relevance that (seemingly) everyone else could relate to effortlessly, and that I was weird for finding, say, Vasquez and Drake about a million percent more relatable than … well, any other relationship I could have pointed to in a book or movie or TV show at that time. It was important enough for me that I refused to compromise, and luckily finally ended up with a publishing house that never asked me to add in a romance just to make the book more “relatable to teens.” Which, frankly, is a generalization I find deeply insulting.
It’s the most amazing thing to see reviews of these books that single out the lack-of-romance trait for praise. I think my favorite review pull quote ever for Archivist Wasp comes from the School Library Journal Printz Award blog, which mentioned that “there was no romance and yet this is the deepest love story I’ve ever read.” Like, that right there is why I will stand here on this soapbox forever.
On a related note, Latchkey moves beyond individual friendships to focus on community. Why did you make this decision? And was it harder to write?
I’d never written a sequel before, and honestly I hadn’t even read many. What I have done is seen a lot of sequel movies. (I’m a very visual person, and I have easily learned as much about plotting books and framing scenes from movies and TV and comics as I have from novels. Possibly more.) So I started thinking about what good sequels do. What I found is that the ones I tend to like best are the ones that move away from the theme and structure and tone and conflicts and motivations of the first story entirely. Usually not all of those at once, but I wanted to try to see how many of those I could mess with between books one and two.
One thing I pretty obviously had to do in order to broaden the story is add more characters. Archivist Wasp is a buddy quest to the underworld and, as such, the focus is tight on the characters of Wasp herself and the ghost she travels with. I had to expand that for sure. Combined with the fact that Archivist Wasp ends with her finally beginning to integrate herself into the town of Sweetwater and the townspeople’s trust, I couldn’t very well walk that back and reinsert her into a solitary situation like the one she escaped in AW — even if she’s a very solitary person by nature. We see a lot in Latchkey of how hard she tries to fit in, accept trust and friendship, allow her peers to become family, even though her heart’s never quite in it. It makes of her a type of character I don’t typically see in books, although I would have loved to read about as a teen (are you sensing a pattern here?) — she’s not antisocial exactly, she just has no idea how to be otherwise. The one person she ever ended up really clicking with is gone. She’s in mourning for her past difficult decisions even as she tries to move ahead and remake herself into something that goes against pretty much her entire personality.
As for whether it was harder to write — YES. YES IT WAS. Some people will probably complain that the book starts off too slowly, but I felt it very important to lay the groundwork for her relationships with the townspeople, the ex-upstarts, and the vanished ghosts, all of which are complicated and utterly at odds with each other. Her motivations are at war with each other, and I needed to take the time to convey that properly. But it was a real tricky balance to hit. Hopefully I stuck the landing adequately.
I’ve read at least one short story, “Last Chance”, set in the Archivist Wasp universe. Do you have any others out there? Which of your short stories would you be most likely to recommend?
Actually, Archivist Wasp kind of grew out of a short story. I had the concept for the worldbuilding and mythology in my head but wasn’t quite ready yet to write the novel, so instead I wrote “On the Leitmotif of the Trickster Constellation in Northern Hemispheric Star Charts, Post-Apocalypse,” which appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 4. Half of it is written from the perspective of an anthropologist in a time much farther in the future than even Wasp’s very post-apocalyptic world, and the other half is the very bare-bones version of Wasp’s buddy quest into the underworld. Tonally and structurally it’s completely different from the novel, as it’s mostly a deep(ish) dive into the mythos, as described from a remove of centuries.
“Last Chance” is the only one I’ve written in that world since writing Archivist Wasp, but I hope to write more in future. Maybe some ghost/Foster stories next. Hmm.
What books would you recommend to readers who enjoy your work?
Funny story, actually! When my publisher for Archivist Wasp was approaching writers for blurbs, they asked me if I had any suggestions. I of course drew a total blank and went to social media to ask friends if they had any recommendations. Leah Bobet (author of Above and An Inheritance of Ashes, both excellent) basically was like OH DO I HAVE A SUGGESTION FOR YOU.
She put me in touch with Karina Sumner-Smith, author of the Towers trilogy: Radiant, Defiant, and Towers Fall. I had never heard of these books, but a little research informed me that they were about a.) an outcast teenage ghosthunter in a b.) post-apocalyptic society, who c.) uses a particular knife as a key part of her ghosthunting kit, and d.) buddies up with a ghost and goes on Adventures to solve a Mystery. And yet, for all the thematic similarities, are utterly different books than mine. They’re super great and if you liked mine and want some topically similar stuff, these may well be your jam.
What are you working on now? Do you have any other releases we should be watching out for?
Currently I am failing to sell my first middle-grade novel, which is a space travel survival story, kind of like if Hatchet was set on an extrasolar planet. 11-year-old Jillian’s parents are tasked with acquiring raw materials on other planets to help save an Earth population deeply damaged by resource scarcity, and on Take Your Child to Work Day, they bring Jillian along on what by all indications will be an uneventful, totally safe mission. Things go horribly wrong, of course, and Jillian has to keep herself and her parents alive for a week on an unexpectedly hostile planet before they can be extracted. Her only help and companion is SABRINA (Semi-Autonomous Bio-Reconnoitering Intelligent Nanobot Array), an intricate artificial intelligence that can shapeshift into pretty much anything at will and got its dorky sense of humor by watching way too many cartoons on its time off. Portal technology, mind-control parasites, lots of science. I had a ton of fun writing it, but it’s proving difficult to categorize, apparently. Which seems to be the case for all my books, so I’m used to it by now!
I’ve also just drafted another book that’s kind of an indirect prequel to Archivist Wasp in that it deals with the world Foster and the ghost lived in, and the war in which they fought. It’s a standalone, though, and the main characters don’t appear in either of the Wasp books.
No forthcoming releases until I figure out how to publish one of both of these. Finding homes for my books is always super hard, and I don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon. Meantime, fingers crossed!
About the Author
Nicole Kornher-Stace is the author of Desideria, The Winter Triptych, the Norton Award finalist Archivist Wasp, and its sequel, Latchkey. She lives in New Paltz, NY. She can be found online atwww.nicolekornherstace.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @wirewalking.
Preorder Latchkey here: