'Don't Turn Around': Michelle Gagnon chats YA debut

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Michelle Gagnon’s Don’t Turn Around hits shelves today. The first in a planned trilogy, Don’t Turn Around follows 16-year-old Noa, a computer hacker who uses her skills to stay off the grid, safely anonymous. Check out the trailer and first two chapters here. In honor of her YA debut, Gagnon chats about the inspiration for the book and shares what she learned from the hackers she consulted for the book.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you come up with the idea for Don’t Turn Around?
MICHELLE GAGNON: I was really fascinated by some of the things happening with Anonymous, the hackers group. I don’t necessarily agree with everything they’ve done, but I thought it was a really interesting use of technology and the fact that there’s a whole group of people who can take over systems and fight things from behind the scenes. And teenagers are such amazing computer whizzes, they are far better than most of their adult counterparts. I thought it would be interesting to see what a couple of teenage hackers would do if they actually formed their own group that targeted issues that were more their concern. Out of that, I got the idea for Peter’s group, Alliance, which is loosely based on the Anonymous model. And then Noa waking up on the table, that was just something that an editor and I had discussed. I kind of took the idea and ran with it, and I created this fictional illness that was only effecting teenagers.

This is your first young-adult novel. Why make the switch to YA?
I’d never really considered doing young-adult novels, but one of the things that a friend pointed out to me is that I’ve actually had a teenage character in almost every adult novel that I’ve written. He suggested that I work with characters who were just teenagers and tell everything from their perspective. It was fun to go back to that mindset of being young and having everything be so important and critical. Having all the emotions be so much more intense, and having such a very clear sense of right and wrong, which I think tends to get muddier as you get older.

I hear you had your own computer meltdown while you were writing. What happened?
I had such a computer meltdown! I have no idea. That’s the great irony of this book is that I am such a luddite — I spend a lot of time at the Apple store at the Genius help desk. And I had a bunch of hackers who were helping me with this book, and they thought that it was absolutely hilarious. And now, working on book 2, I’ve split my time between San Francisco and L.A. I fly Southwest, and one of the flight attendants on one of the flights a couple of months ago—while I was working on book 2—handed a glass of wine to the person next to me and spilled the entire thing on my keyboard. So that was the demise of my next computer. So apparently with each book in this trilogy I’ll be suffering from horrible computer failures that I’m going to have to claw my way back from.

So you worked with actual hackers for the book? How did you meet those people? 
I have a good friend who runs an IT company called Rocket Science. That’s a real thing. They don’t do exactly what I say they do in the book. They are more of an IT support company. But the place is full of 20-year-olds who know more about computers than any person has a right to. The head of that company is a good friend of mine, and he referred me to some people.

Did you learn anything interesting?
What they really drilled into me is that there’s a difference between hackers and crackers. Hackers there’s not really a malevolent intent behind it. They’re trying to test systems and find doors, but not necessarily do harm. If anything they consider themselves to be White Hatters who are doing this for the good of the companies and the networks that they’re infiltrating. And then there are crackers who are more like the equivalent of a teenager spraying graffiti across a wall. Not a graffiti artist, just trying to deface something. And the hackers very much look down on the crackers. I wasn’t aware at all that there were these two very separate camps, and that was something that they clarified for me.

Anything else you want to add? 
Going through this I really learned a lot about the foster care system, and one of my great sources of frustration was that it was really hard to find groups that were actually helping kids in the system. A lot of the stuff that I put in about Noa’s childhood and her upbringing was based on real stories that I found. Kind of by chance I found out about an organization call Rising Tides that another friend of a friend recently established. [Rising Tides is a] non-profit where you can directly support foster teens who are aging out of the system. You can directly help kids who turn 18 and have absolutely no one to rely on. It’s really amazing idea and an amazing group. So I’ve been working with them a little bit to start supporting them and helping them get off the ground.

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