'Angelfall' author Susan Ee discusses her hugely popular debut
If you love a kick-ass heroine, a little romance, and a good apocalypse (let’s be honest — who doesn’t?), then Susan Ee’s Angelfall is the book for you. Don’t believe me? Check out the reviews on Goodreads. Or Amazon. Or Barnes & Noble. When was the last time you saw that many happy readers? Seriously, don’t let this one slip by.
In Ee’s (pronounced “E” like the letter) debut novel, the world as we know it has been destroyed by angels. Gangs roam the streets and food is scarce. Seventeen-year-old Penryn is just trying to keep her family together, but when angels fly away with her little sister Paige, Penryn is forced to pair up with the injured angel Raffe to rescue her. Together, Penryn and Raffe will risk everything to journey to the heart of the angels’ stronghold in San Francisco. Ee gave EW a call to talk about Angelfall, her legions of dedicated readers, and good eye candy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you talk a little bit about the idea behind this book? Why angels?
SUSAN EE: I’ve been fascinated with angels for a long time. Classic angels are associated with destroying entire cities and turning people into salt. In “Revelations,” they’re the harbingers and quite likely the executioners of doom. Yet, we portray them as cute little cherubs or beings who bend over backwards to make us happy. Like unicorns and vampires, they must have an amazing PR department. It was time to clear up the PR fog and see what happens when we unleash them on the world.
Are you religious yourself? Is that where the interest came from?
The book itself is neither from a religious perspective, nor is it against it. It’s written from a pure entertainment perspective, no underlying meaning behind it.
Let’s talk about Penryn. Her name comes from an exit off the I-80 in California. Is there a story behind that? Were you driving by it one day when you just thought, “this has to be the name of my protagonist”?
Yes, actually. I drive by that fairly regularly on Highway 80 and every time I see it, I think, “that’s a great name, I really like that name.” Some readers love it and some readers don’t love it, but in either case it caught my attention every single time. So I had the name before I had the story in mind.
I love it. I think it’s exactly what you need for this kind of character.
Wonderful. I have a photo of the exit sign on my blog.
I bet you get excited every time you drive by it.
[Laughs] It has a new meaning to me now, that’s for sure.
So, what went into creating Penryn? Was she inspired by you at all? Or someone you know?
Angelfall’s a fantastical story, but I wanted both Penryn and her world to be real before the attack happened. So, it’s set in Silicon Valley, California, and it’s in the here and almost-now. Penryn herself is not modeled off anyone, but she is the kind of girl who many of us might know. She sits in the back of the classroom; she’s likeable, but no one really knows her that well. She is the girl who has a lot on her mind and doesn’t have time for typical teenage issues. She has real world family problems that don’t go away just because the world ended.
What about Raffe?
[Laughs] I wish Raffe was modeled off someone I knew. He’s just pure yummy fantasy. He’s a combination of real-world traits that I’ve seen in guys and wishful thinking. Although Angelfall is told in the first person from Penryn’s point of view, I wrote a lot of pages of the story from Raffe’s perspective to get to know him.
Would you ever consider releasing those pages?
I’ve had requests to release scenes from Raffe’s point of view and it’s an interesting possibility that catches my attention, but right now what people really want are the future books. [Laughs] One thing at a time. I think my readers would get mad at me if I spent more time on this other stuff than the next book. But there are a lot of pages written from Raffe’s voice, so that was an interesting experience.
Is that ever frustrating — to sit down and write so many pages you know won’t ever end up being a part of the finished product?
It’s really amazing how many pages go into it. I probably wrote three solid books for the first book. At least two of those volumes were not released. I feel like that adds to the texture of the book that is released. That’s one of the reasons why the readers love it. They get very involved with what happens because it feels more real. The reason it feels more real is because each one of these characters has their own stories going on. Penryn has hers, but so does Raffe and so does everyone else who’s in there. The parts that we get to see are the parts that get weaved into what Penryn sees. So, it sometimes can be painful that it never sees the light of day, but at the same time I feel I need that for Penryn’s story as well.
Speaking of the two protagonists, I love how you wove the romance into the story. It never overcame the basic plot and it just felt really natural to me. So, how important was Penryn and Raffe’s relationship to you? When you set out to write Angelfall, was it as a romance? Or did that come later?
When I started I thought I was writing a romance, but every time I was going there, anarchy and violence exploded onto the page. [Laughs] So I just went where the story wanted to go and let the characters do what felt true to them given the circumstances. I suspected that there would be a romance thread from the beginning, but the story never quite goes where I think it might go. I suspect that what the readers are feeling is the fact that the characters did what they wanted to do and what felt natural to them instead of me planning it out ahead of time.
NEXT: Ee discusses movie possibilities, fan interaction, and her unconventional road to publication…
Penryn’s mother was the most interesting character for me. What inspired you to include a paranoid schizophrenic?
The mom is a surprising favorite among the readers. She takes up very little space on paper, but seems to take up a very large amount of emotional space among the readers. Penryn is a normal human girl without super powers, but she’s not a typical girl. For her story to be extraordinary, she needed to be forged under extraordinary circumstances and I wanted those circumstances to happen in the normal human world. This is a girl who grew up in a world with hidden dangers and fears. So when the outside world goes crazy, she’s capable of rolling with it. She doesn’t like it, but she can handle it better than most. It just instinctively felt right to me that Penryn grew up in an environment where her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic.
This book is really scary at points. It’s gotten rave reviews, but were you ever worried that it was going to be too much? Especially considering some of the responses to The Hunger Games?
Yes, I was worried and I’m very happy that the readers overall have enjoyed it so much. No story’s for everyone and it can’t be watered down to be that way otherwise it just wouldn’t be fun for anybody. It’s a post-apocalyptic story where the world has devolved in anarchy and monsters are roaming the streets at night and… Enough said. [Laughs] It’s hard to water that down to a point where it’s not scary.
I think I speak for all readers now: are we going to learn more about what caused the apocalypse?
Absolutely. This story is about the characters and the experiences, but we’ll discover things as Penryn discovers them, so it will be teased out a little bit.
You have a really interesting and very personal story behind your road to publication. Can you tell me a little bit about this story and how it influenced Angelfall?
Sure. For personal reasons, I chose to self-publish without showing it to agents or traditional publishers first. I was hoping to find my little tribe of readers. I honestly was not expecting very much, but I felt I didn’t need the whole world to read it, I just needed my tribe of readers, the people who would enjoy it. But somehow, a huge number of people discovered it on their own. I still don’t know how. And then, [it] reached a stage where it got too big for me to handle on my own, and at that stage I got an agent and a publisher. It just relaunched, so I’m very excited to see it being introduced to a whole new group of readers.
I felt ashamed that Angelfall sat on the Internet for a year before I found it.
It’s really amazing how a book just gets thrown out there and somehow somebody finds it and their friends read it and it just moves on, virtually all by word of mouth. The readers have been so good to me. The reviews… They practically make me cry when I see them. The people on Goodreads with their .gifs… Fantastic. I love my readers.
On that note, I saw on your website that you held a book cover contest for Angelfall. You also let fans vote on your author photo. Obviously, your fans are very important to you in the whole publishing process, more so than you normally see, I think. What’s the basis for this relationship? Why are the fans especially important to you?
I wrote the first draft of Angelfall during a breakup of a seven-year relationship, and when the book was ready, I needed to find my readers. I had lost a relationship that was very special to me and I needed to reach out for new connections that could hopefully soothe that loss. I couldn’t wait the one or two years it would take to get the book through the traditional publishing route and finally to the public. That’s why I self-published it without showing the story to agents or publishers. The whole reason I write is to make that connection with the readers; it’s all about the fans. They discovered the book and the whole reason why the publishers wanted it is because the readers were so positive about it. They were so enthusiastic. It’s fantastic now that it’s being relaunched, the feeling’s very much like we got through this road together. We have more people coming in being introduced to the book and everybody’s excited. It makes the whole ride so much more fun to have everybody involved.
I’m intrigued by the book cover contest because I think the art is so beautiful. How many entries did you receive?
I love the cover too. I can’t remember exactly how many entries there were, but the entries were anything from very amateurish designs to very sophisticated-looking covers. It’s kind of amazing, the broad range of presentations that people come up with with the same description of the story. As soon as I saw this cover, I just knew. I just felt it in my bones. It was an artist from Serbia and the base artist is from the Philippines, so it’s sort of an international collaboration.
Any plans for a movie?
Producers have started to circle around the book, but there are no plans at this stage. The readers would love that, though. [Laughs] It’s a favorite topic among the fans.
Do you have any actors in mind?
There are a couple of YouTube videos out there with fan-casting. It’s so cute. So, I’m leaving that to the readers. There’s a whole thread on who they think would be great to be cast and… There’s some good eye candy.