(Please note: This is a reprint of a 2011 interview)
Ilsa Bick, the author of “Ashes,” a wonderful new YA title about survival and morality when civilization is coming to an end, met with me to talk about her life, her writing, and what’s next.
Bick is an animated speaker, and after a day in Naperville and Plainfield speaking in front of two huge groups of middle school students (over three hundred students in each group), she still spoke excitedly about “Ashes” and her other books.
About “Ashes” she said, “I wanted to blow up the world and pick something that had never been done.”
One of the main ideas in the book is that under stress, people behave horribly. Bick said, “In the end, if there is a direct threat to your survival, all the nice stuff goes away. There are no moral absolutes at the end of the world.”
In “Ashes,” Bick uses many of her unique perspectives to create a world filled with terror, horrors beyond belief, selfishness, cruelty, and at the same time characters with integrity who exemplify personal sacrifice.
Bick’s love of hiking and her military background are showcased in both the remote setting, a fictional Waucamaw Wilderness (based on the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula), and in the survival techniques that Alex, the protagonist, and Tom, one of her traveling companions, use to keep them and Ellie, the third in their group, alive.
Bick’s background as a child psychiatrist both in private practice and in the military perhaps helped her portray humanity at its worst — and it gets pretty bad in the book — but also at its best.
When we discussed the huge variation in how the characters in Ashes react to the end of civilized life, she said, “The people in the book are part of me and pieces of everyone I’ve ever known.”
In “Ashes,” Alex maintains her humanity, but there are still two more books to come in the trilogy. And, according to Bick, it’s going to get worse. (Many of you who have read Ashes are now thinking what I thought, “It gets worse?”)
“Ashes” leaves the reader with many unsolved mysteries. Where are Tom and Ellie? What secret has Tom been hiding? Why did Alex’s sense of smell return? Why did she change? And of course the biggest mystery, what happens on the next page? The page that every reader is dying to read — the one that explains what happens to Alex in the five minutes after the book ends. Because Bick leaves the reader hanging.
The book actually has no beginning or ending, because, as Bick said, when the world comes to an end, nothing will be tied up neatly. Again, beware; there is NO ending to Ashes. The story just stops. Right in the middle of the action.
So her fans will hang for a year until the publication of “Shadows,” the next title in the series. It’s all written, but Bick is mum about what happens. Even her daughters don’t know. She did drop a few hints about the next book. The action will be shown from various points of view, so the reader will have a connection with more of the characters. And even though Alex is heading away from the town of Rule, those characters are still important.