INTERVIEW: Jo Treggiari, author of ‘Ashes, Ashes’

Ashes, Ashes focuses on survivor, Lucy “Lucky” Holloway, a teenage girl. While an epidemic killed her entire family and most of humanity, Lucy avoided becoming sick and dying from the plague. Then when natural disaster decided to wipe out what was left of human civilization, she still found a way to live.

Despite all the loss she had suffered through Lucy is still very much a teenager, clumsy and insecure. All on her own she found the courage to keep waking up every day with just a single survival guide to tell her how to live. It is lonely and brutal. Lucy thought she would have to keep hiding and scavenging for what little food was left for the rest of her life, however long that may be.

Then one day she met another survivor, a teenage boy named Aidan. Lucy had an aversion to other people and had trouble trusting them. In the end, people need other people and faith pushes Lucy to Aidan’s direction. She joins a community of other survivors where she learns again what it was like to live and work with other people. She also faces her fears, finds deeper courage and new truths begin to unravel. Is there hope for human beings to survive?

Ashes, Ashes is a dark imagining of what could happen to our world and exposes the fragility of human beings. The author, Jo Treggiari  hones in to a world that gave you a feeling of: this could happen. Yes, I do recommend you read the book especially if you like young adult dystopian novels. It is very well written and the touch of suspense will definitely hook you. I love that the female main character is honest. Even though I am way past the age, she felt like a true teenager and someone relatable despite the extreme situation she is in.

I love Jo and I “twitter” with her constantly. I finally asked her to do an interview for the blog and was delighted that she said yes!

According do your mini-bio, you trained as a boxer and owned your own record label! How did writing Young Adult novels come about?

TREGGIARI: I’ve always written- journals, short stories, horrendous poetry, half-finished books. Writing down my thoughts and feelings was my way of dealing with whatever life threw at me. And I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a kid- I’d be the one with her head in a book in all the family photos, so it just felt natural to me to want to write. There was a bit of a gap when I had the label where I spent so much time writing press releases and publicity pitches, that I expressed myself through bad paintings instead, but eventually I found myself back to writing again. I could also draw many analogies between writing and boxing: getting knocked down, getting back up again, having the stuffing pounded out of you…

How did you come up with a character like Lucy Holloway? Was it difficult to write from a teenager’s point of view in such a dystopian, survival story?

TREGGIARI: Lucy sort of popped into my head fully-formed. I felt as if I knew her. I wanted to have a teen girl as my hero but I didn’t want her to be some fantasy kick-ass girl, I wanted her to feel real- strong but insecure, conflicted, hot-tempered, stubborn…because to me the book is about what constitutes bravery and how making a moral choice can differ depending on your perspective. Forcing those type of choices on my characters just worked so well in an extreme post-apocalyptic scenario. You know how a terrible tragedy can bring out the best and worst in people? And I didn’t want her to be a super ninja, warrior type because how many 16 year old suburban girl assassins do you know? However the cold-blooded, slightly ruthless thing did work well with Del’s personality.

Why did you decide to make Lucy the main character as oppose to Del who appeared more “tough” (at least in the beginning)?

TREGGIARI: I love Del! I hope that her moral dilemma and conflict comes through for people cause she’s easy to hate at first. She’s just so proprietary! and I’ve certainly known girls like that.

I think it was probably Lucy’s softer shell that made her a more appealing main character to write. She seems tough but that’s because she’s bottled so much inside and is really practicing avoidance. Taking her from a solitary existence and throwing her into a communal situation forced her to deal with her past in a way she wasn’t before. I hope I get to write more about Del at some point because I find her fascinating (and obviously I know a lot about her back story and the reasons why she is the way she is). I also wanted to play with stereotypes a little; you know the jealous girl, the bitch, when in fact there is far more going on below the surface.

If you were in the same situation as your characters, what would you miss the most? What kind of food would you miss the most? What kind of every day items would you want to have that they don’t?

TREGGIARI: I would miss my family most of all unless they managed to survive by some miracle. Sweet potato tempura sushi rolls and Thai food are my most favorite things to eat, and pistachio ice cream. I dream about them. Being a vegetarian I would probably have to eat some meat and fish and that would be hard but necessary. I think hot water would be extremely difficult to do without. Trying to wash lard soap off with freezing cold water is very unpleasant. And all the soft comforts of life- blankets and slippers and puppies…

What do you think Aidan missed the most from his previous life? How about Henry or Sammy?

TREGGIARI: I think the answer for all of them is family first. But I think Aidan probably also missed the irresponsibility and fun of his previous life. He has been forced into a leadership role in the commune and it’s mostly hard work and no fun. Henry misses being surrounded by a wide assortment of girls. Sammy would like his health back, I’m sure. And all of them have somehow lost their youth. The exciting, silly, lazy, free, fun aspects of being a teenager don’t exist anymore.

Can you talk more about Sammy and “S’ans”? I thought it was interesting that you built up a zombie-like urban legend within your book. What made you go a different direction with the plague survivors? Besides their skin, what else could have the plague affected health-wise?

TREGGIARI: The S’ans are survivors of the plague but the disease has scarred and ravaged their skin. I actually embellished real hemorrhagic smallpox symptoms which normally has an almost 100% mortality rate. In the book there is a hint that the survivors may eventually recover completely. As soon as I read about blackened, charred skin and red eyes, I was reminded of zombie myth and of course so many Post-apocalyptic novels incorporate zombies. So I wanted to honor that tradition but twist it a little. Along with the skin afflictions, there is also danger of brain swelling and imbalance. Sammy and the 2 other S’ans are survivors with weakened immune systems and superficial disfigurement. And as with victims of leprosy and other debilitating diseases, there is such a prejudice against the sufferers that I wanted to comment on that too. I loved the idea of the S’ans using Venetian Carnival-style masks to hide their faces, and hooded cloaks to conceal their bodies. I could just imagine how eerie and beautiful that would look. Despite his suffering Sammy is an upbeat teen and I think his relationship with his brother, Aidan is lovely.

You seemed to have done a lot of survival technique research for your story. What was that like and where did you go to get your information? Did you learn anything in particular that you thought was awesome but didn’t get to use in the book?

TREGGIARI: I read a lot of books. I did not dismember any snapping turtles although I did pick a few up and examine them. They all tried to bite me, by the way, and even the small ones weigh a ton. I read foraging and herbal medicine books. And I had already done a lot of camping and tree-climbing, and building temporary shelters so I knew about that. There were some edible bulbs and roots I learned about that I’d like to try cooking sometime. Weird recipes I could try out on my husband.

Why did you choose New York as the setting for Ashes, Ashes?

TREGGIARI: I lived in NY for almost 10 years and I love it. It just exudes permanence and solidity and wealth and it was the perfect city (and symbol) to bring crashing down. I was making quite a large point about how despite our technology, we are fragile and only a flood or earthquake away from annihilation. I felt I had permission to be as crazy with it as possible since it was so unlikely. Of course, lately NY has been hammered by some crazy weather….

I know it was a little worrying for you when Hurricane Irene hit and you were relieved when it was over. What do you think about the possibility of a real disaster like in Ashes, Ashes wiping out civilization?

TREGGIARI: It was definitely worrying. Actually north of the city was hit badly with flooding (Woodstock, Phoenicia and environs) and I have family and many friends there. I remember when we first moved to the east coast from the west coast, I was relieved because NY doesn’t have earthquakes, and then hey, what do you know?! I don’t worry about a global natural disaster though everywhere on Earth is vulnerable to something. A global pandemic seems more possible. Unfortunately much of the world lacks the resources the Western Hemisphere has so there is more likelihood of disease following a natural disaster. Sometimes that ends up being the bigger threat to survival.

What do you want your readers to take away from your story? What was your favorite part when writing this book?

TREGGIARI: I guess (without getting preachy about it) I’d like my readers to think about what constitutes real bravery. Is it the person with the biggest muscles or the most weapons or it someone who tries to do the right thing no matter what, or who thinks of others before themselves? There are small acts of bravery and they are no less than the big bombastic acts. I loved writing the action scenes but I also loved writing the quieter scenes. The tsunami (which I took from personal accounts by a friend who survived the Indian Ocean tsunami) and the dancing scene are two of my favorites. And I love the sequences when Del, Aidan and Lucy are traveling to the Octagon Tower.

The chase at the end of the book had a touch of suspense and a little bit of horror. Was that genre an influence? What was your biggest inspiration?

TREGGIARI: You mean the way I moved them into the basement? I wanted to raise the level of action of course- it was the penultimate scene- and I had to bring the dogs back in because dogs hunting humans freaks me out. I love horror so I wanted to dabble with it a little and there was already the whole zombie stereotype/S’ans connection so it seemed to fit.

My inspiration for the scene? I just needed to bring everything to a head in the most complete way possible but like throughout the book, there are no easy solutions or answers. It was important to me that even at the very end, Lucy faced a moral choice. Other than that, my inspiration is probably every horror, action movie I’ve ever seen.

Are you writing a sequel or working on a new book? Can you tell us about it?

TREGGIARI: I have a companion book and a sequel outlined and I hope I get to write them! I just finished an urban fantasy which combines Celtic myth with coming of age and great white sharks, and right now I’m working on a neo-Gothic, horror YA.

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Visit Jo’s website at and follow her on twitter @jotreggiari.

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