Interview with Vivian Vande Velde, Author of 23 Minutes


So, I’ve read several stories (a couple books reviewed here) in which the time travel is of the  “Groundhog Day” type, where the protagonist can travel into the past, but usually no farther than a day ago, or sometimes just a few hours ago, sometimes repeatedly. Vivian Vande Velde’s newly published 23 Minutes, (2016, 176 pages), is my favorite by far! The author has wrung the maximum amount of suspense from the format. It’s also really funny. I was thrilled when Ms. Vande Velde agreed to answer a few of my questions about the book.

First, a Goodreads summary:

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret ability: she can travel back in time twenty-three minutes to relive events she wants to change. But Zoe has learned from experience that this is more curse than gift. Things almost never end well and people just tend to think she’s crazy.

But when she steps into a bank to get out of the rain and finds herself in the middle of a robbery gone horrifyingly wrong, Zoe knows she’s the only one who can help. The problem is, she has only a limited number of tries to make things right. Plus, a single mistake could get her killed—and not even time travel could bring her back from that.

Zoe has always considered herself a loser, about as far from a heroine as a girl can get. Now she has to dig deep to find a strength she never thought she possessed.

Author Interview

viv-picVivian Vande Velde is the author of 36 books (including 1 picture book, 2 books for adults, some for teens, and some for younger readers). Her books have been on state young readers award lists as well as library recommended lists, and have won the Edgar (for best young adult mystery), Anne Spencer Lindbergh Prize (for fantasy), and 2 prizes for her body of work. Although she has lived in Rochester, NY most of her life, her books have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Danish, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, and Turkish.

TTx2: What was the easiest aspect of writing 23 Minutes? The hardest? Was it hard to make the story suspenseful but not too gory?

VVV: With 23 Minutes I wanted to explore what it would be like for a character (at that point I didn’t know who) to try out different solutions to a problem, and also for the character to see (as an aside to the big problem that she was trying to fix) that people would react to her differently, depending on how she treated them. I did the same sort of thing with another of my books, Heir Apparent, but there it was played mostly for laughs. (Well, given that Heir Apparent’s main character, Giannine, is stuck in a one-step-beyond-virtual-reality type game and keeps getting stabbed, decapitated, poisoned, etc.  But I think most readers feel pretty confident that Giannine will escape the game.)

The trickiest part with 23 Minutes was trying to figure out how to immediately let readers know this story was meant for older readers than many of my other books and to get readers genuinely worried that everything might not work out well for Zoe or for any of the other characters. I’d been fiddling with the idea of such a story for several years. But then I came up with the opening line: “The story starts with an act of stunning violence.”—and that immediately sets the tone.

The easiest part was what came right after that first sentence: the short introductory chapter that summarizes what happens (few laughs there), then the detailed chapter of what exactly happens the first time Zoe lives through it.

The hardest part was making things different each time Zoe goes through the same period of time so that it wouldn’t seem repetitive, but we could still see her struggling to make changes when she is the only one with a memory of what happened before.

The goriest part comes at about page 3, where two people are killed during a hold up at a bank—the robber shoots a bystander just as a bank guard shoots the robber. Again, I strongly felt this explicit description needed to be there, right at the beginning, to let people know what they were in for. After that, I felt I could back away a bit and hope that readers would still be on the edges of their seats.

TTx2: What do you like best about writing YA books, as opposed to middle grade books?

VVV: Middle-grade books can be fun, and I do enjoy writing them. However, my YA books are closer to what I would read on my own for pleasure, exploring weightier themes and asking the kinds of questions I like to explore. That’s not to say there aren’t middle-grade books of substance. But most of mine are lighter reading.

TTx2: If you could time travel anywhere and hang out there for a couple weeks, where/when would you go, and why?

VVV: Oh, you did me in with that “hang out there for a couple weeks.” I do like my modern conveniences: my contact lenses that let me see farther than about three feet (my unaided eyes’ limit), indoor plumbing, central heat and air conditioning, microwave ovens, freezers that provide unlimited ice no matter what the season… 

As much as we complain (and rightly so) about gender inequality, ethnic bias, and religious intolerance, we are today much improved from where we were.

That said, I’d love to peek in on classical Athens, Renaissance Italy, early 1900’s United States. I’d also love to be able to wear (without getting overheated, and without the whalebone corsets) the beautiful dresses and hats, not to mention hair of—for example—the PBS series Poldark.

TTx2: Zoe was such a great character. Would you consider writing a sequel?

VVV: Thank you, I’m glad you liked her. I have to admit, I can’t imagine I would be as gutsy or as resilient under the same circumstances.

Even so, I don’t normally write sequels. One of the reasons I became a writer was because I enjoyed mentally writing sequels to books I didn’t want to end. (Or I’d make up new endings for stories I felt ended the wrong way.) So my books do tend to be a bit open-ended.  I have occasionally written what I consider more companion pieces than sequels. (For example, User Unfriendly, Heir Apparent, and Deadly Pink all presuppose the same slightly futuristic gaming technology, but feature different characters, each confronting their own problems.)

I won’t say I’ll never write a sequel to 23 Minutes, but I certainly have no plans at the moment. On the other hand, I very much appreciate your asking.

TTx2: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions!

My Review

The plot of this book kept me on the edge of my seat. The bank robber shot and killed someone. Zoe goes twenty-three minutes back in time to try to get a better outcome, but her first attempts just make things worse. She quickly learns what works and what doesn’t. Zoe realizes one of the bank customers can be an asset so she teams up with him. It doesn’t hurt that he is a cute, older guy, although each time she goes back in time he does not remember her and she has to convince him to work with her, a total stranger. She only has twenty-three minutes to effect a happier ending for the people in the bank, twenty-three minutes to save lives.

This book is great on so many levels. Zoe is an awesome character. Because she has had problems with her biological parents she is living in a group home, and perhaps as a survival strategy, she has learned to read people very quickly. She can smell a phony a mile away. But although Zoe judges people quickly, she is open to changing her mind when evidence suggests otherwise. The author has nailed the voice of a smart, scornful fifteen-year old. I would totally want to be friends with Zoe!

My favorite aspect of the book is what I will call the “meta-discourse” –Zoe’s inner dialogue about what people are really communicating. Examples:

A foot comes down on the … paper, and it belongs to the guard. And the guard asks, “Any trouble here?” “Not at all,” the young guy says, “except for…”–he indicates the paper under the guards’ shoe–“the fact that you appear to be stepping on one of our papers.” Oooh, our. He’s aligning himself with her: the two of them vs. the guard.

“Thank you,” Jacket says to the guard. He sounds like a perfect example of impeccable manners–but he’s also clearly saying, You can go now.

As someone with a dull name, I have major name envy of  Vivian Vande Velde. It’s worth the twenty-nine seconds to listen to her explain her name!

Vivian Vande Velde’s website

I’ll try to do a list post soon of all the short-term time travel books I have reviewed.

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