Interview With J.C. Lillis, Author of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart

by REBECCA, June 5, 2013

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart by J.C. Lillis

Friends, today I am so thrilled to bring you an interview with the wonderful and amazing J.C. Lillis, author of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, which I reviewed on Monday. Many thanks to J.C. for being here! She has generously offered the chance for one lucky Crunchings & Munchings reader to win an e-copy of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart—the form is at the end of the interview. Welcome, J.C.!

REBECCA: How to Repair a Mechanical Heart is your debut novel (and damn, what a debut!). How did you find your way to this story and these characters? 

J.C.: Aw, thanks so much! I’d been trying to write a book about fandom for years and years, but I never really hit on the right concept or the right characters. The basic idea for HTRAMH was inspired by a fandom I was lurking in a few years back—I won’t name names ‘cause it would just be mortifying for all involved. 🙂 There was this big debate surrounding some real-person shipping; basically, some fans were writing slash and then tweeting it to the boys involved, and there was this growing sense of horror about the fourth wall crumbling and real lives being affected. And as a writer, I just started thinking about it from the boys’ perspective: how would it feel to read fanfic about yourself, if you were a young guy still trying to figure yourself out? What if you really did have feelings for this guy you were being shipped with, but were terrified to show it?

At first I thought I’d write about two teen TV stars with a huge fandom writing slash about them, but I felt like it would be funnier and more manageable to make the boys small-potatoes vloggers who attract an unlikely little cult following. I also thought it might be interesting if the guys themselves were anti-slash at first. Spoiler alert for people who haven’t read it yet, but that scene where they first stumble across the fan community and die of embarrassment when they see all the fic about them? That was the first scene I imagined, and then the characters and their situation just kind of filled themselves in from there.

REBECCA: HTRAMH is the most delightful expression of fandom, and it seems way too spot on to be written by anyone but a fan! Can you talk a little bit about your own relationship to fandom and geek culture? 

J.C.: One of my favorite topics! I’ve been fandom-hopping since I was a teenager. It’s been a huge, huge part of my life, for a bunch of reasons. I’ve used it as a form of escape and distraction, I’ve used it to try on different identities, I’ve used it to jumpstart my own story ideas and recharge my passion for writing. It’s funny, I always sort of figured I’d phase out the fangirling once I was officially a grownup, but I still do it! I’ve mellowed out a lot—fandom isn’t as angst-ridden for me anymore; now I just have fun with it.

Cersei LannisterI had to stretch a little writing Brandon and Abel, because they love the heroes of Castaway Planet and I usually obsess over the villains. Nothing makes me swoon like a good complicated baddie. Like, I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan and I adore Cersei Lannister. It’s a problem. At my day job I sit in this awesome Bermuda Triangle of geekdom where we all watch GoT and have sigils on our office doors, and my poor Stark and Targaryen friends have to listen to my weekly Why Cersei Doesn’t Suck apologetics.

REBECCA: HTRAMH has a lot to say about fan fiction and slash fiction, and also about real person fiction. How did these fan fictions inspire you? Do you know if there are any fan fictions about Brandon and Abel?

J.C.: Well, there’s bad fic in every fandom, and I did use some of that as inspiration for the terrible Cadsim slash Brandon and Abel are so up in arms about. But as a general rule, I love fanfic. Love it. I don’t understand writers who get all proprietary about their characters and put out these public statements denouncing fanfic. I mean, fanfic is the ultimate compliment—it means you created a world so compelling that people want to be a part of it themselves. They want to play with it, revise it, extend it—not just passively consume it. To me that’s just straight-up awesome.

Since the book came out, I’ve gotten some Brandon/Abel fanart, which pretty much made MY ENTIRE LIFE. And one reader is working on an alternate-universe Brandon/Abel steampunk fic.  She tweeted me about it and I had the stupidest, dorkiest grin on my face the whole rest of the day. So yeah—if anyone gets an idea for Brandon/Abel fic, they’re yours. Have at it!

REBECCA: In the novel, Brandon and Abel are huge fans of Castaway Planet—how fun was it for you to make up an entire show and its fandom?!

J.C.: SO MUCH FUN. Like, I want to make fanart for the TV-show-within-the-book. I don’t even want to know how geeky that makes me. My daughter’s going to dig up this interview in ten years and just facepalm.

I’ll tell you something funny that totally wasn’t funny at the time. The show was originally called Planet Fear, and then at the eleventh hour—like literally two days before the book’s release—I found out there was this sporting-goods chain called Planet Fear and my friend’s lawyer husband advised me to change it to be on the safe side. Which meant I also had to change the name of the fan convention and the ball, which were originally FearCon and the FearBall. I’d used those names for so long that the thought of changing them made my eyelid twitch. I sat in my room with a thesaurus, my Descriptionary, and my laptop for about five hours and rattled my brain until I came up with an alternate name I could live with. (I was delirious . . . I think at one point my husband actually heard me say “What about Planet Bob?”) And then after I picked names and did a search and replace for everything, I had to proofread the manuscript again, for like the five hundredth time, and I wanted to KILL THE BOOK with fire.

But yeah, other than that? A blast, making up all the actors and characters and fans. I still think about the people behind the forum names. I think I could write a whole book about lone detective. (Or hey_mamacita, because girl has issues.)

REBECCA: HTRAMH is freaking hilarious and also heartbreaking (my favorite combination!). How in the hell did you strike such an amazing balance? Do you think humor plays an important role in fandom? Do you think fandom plays an important part in learning about ourselves?

J.C.: First of all, thanks, ‘cause that’s a gigantic compliment. Yeah, the older I get, the easier it is to see the humor in fandom. When you’re wrapped up in it, it’s easy to take it too seriously—I’ve been guilty of that a few times. But if we can’t laugh at ourselves and the absurdity of ship wars and tinhatting and all that, then it stops being fun. Plus that’s just me; I don’t think I could write a story without humor, because that’s what pulls me along while I’m writing and keeps me interested in the characters. Nothing’s more boring to me than a book with zero sense of humor.

As for the second part of your question—yep, I do think fandom can play a huge part in helping people figure themselves out. Like, back when I was young and confused and destroying myself over some stupid non-relationship, getting into X-Files fandom snapped me out of self-pity and made me think of myself as this ass-kicking lone wolf. . .which was a silly self-dramatization, but it was just what I needed at the time. And I think you see stuff like that play out in HTRAMH, too, with the boys using Castaway Planet fandom as an escape and then as a way to expand their definitions of themselves (like when they go to the ball dressed as each other’s favorite characters). Fandom definitely plays a huge part in helping them sort out themselves and their relationship.

REBECCA: You have written such an amazing young adult novel; are you a YA reader? What are some of your favorite YA reads?

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia BlockJ.C.: Ooh, yeah, I love reading YA. The ones I still reach for over and over again are the ones I grew up with: Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books, anything by M.E. Kerr, Ellen Wittlinger’s books like Hard Love and Razzle. I love reading books by other indie YA authors, too—I just reviewed One by Leigh Ann Kopans, which is a great read for anyone who loves superheroes.

When I’m deep into edits, I tend not to read as much YA. I’ll go for something totally different—I’ll pick up some nonfiction or some Iris Murdoch, or I’ll spend the night with my favorite Edward Gorey anthology.

REBECCA: Are you working on anything new right now? Might the world be so lucky?

J.C.: I am! I’m so excited about it. It’s another YA novel, and it’s something I originally wrote years before I started HTRAMH. It’s about a teenage boy and girl who are in forbidden-love with each other and miserable about it, so they sign up for this experimental self-help program to rid themselves of their unwanted feelings. It’s really different from HTRAMH, but at heart it’s another quirky comedy-romance, so hopefully people who enjoyed Brandon and Abel’s story will like this one, too.

I feel kinda bad because my original plan was to tidy it up and put it out by late spring/early summer, but the more I got into the manuscript, the more I wanted to change. I’m a way different writer now than I was in 2005. So it’s going to take a little longer than I hoped, but that’s the beauty of indie publishing. You set your own schedule, and if life intervenes or you want to put the book aside and walk away for a few days to clear your head and/or tear out your hair, you can totally do that.

REBECCA: Can you tell us a little bit about what your experience with self-publishing has been like? How did you choose to go that route, etc.

J.C.: Basically, I just really, really hate querying. I’m kidding. But not really.

Here’s what kept happening: I’d write a book, edit the hell out of it, send it out to a very small handful of agents, and then I’d get all wrapped up in a shiny new story and when I’d come lumbering home from my day job, THAT’S what I’d want to work on. The querying would get shoved on the back burner, and then I’d just quietly stop doing it.

I got a couple “almosts” from agents I queried, and I know some people would probably consider me a quitter for not persevering with that, but seriously: I LOVE being indie. I decided to go for it after my husband passed me this article on the new world of indie publishing and was like, hey, you should consider this. It’s been the perfect fit for my temperament and working style, and I haven’t regretted it for a second.

The best part is that the whole indie writing community is pretty damn amazing. Supportive, helpful, welcoming, hilarious. I love being a part of it, and I love that I get to decide everything—from what my cover will look like to what my next blog post will be about. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve got a bunch of great “teachers” now in my fellow indies, and it’s a total pleasure to cheer them on and learn from their successes.

REBECCA: I have a theory that everyone has at least one hidden talent, no matter how random or seemingly useless. Will you tell us yours? 

J.C.: I can name all fifty states in alphabetical order in under twenty seconds. Also, I have never once ripped off a piece of packing tape without getting it stuck to itself. (Truly useless. Sorry.)

REBECCA: What is your favorite food or drink to make while writing? Snickerdoodles, like Abel, perhaps? (Bonus question: do you have a favorite snickerdoodle recipe? Ilove snickerdoodles.)

SnickerdoodlesJ.C.: Ha! I WISH I had time to bake snickerdoodles, but I’ve got a six-year-old and a day job, so I don’t have much free time. I try to funnel most of my spare minutes into writing. (And by “writing,” I mean “procrastinating on Twitter” and “dreaming up new blog entries about vintage pantyhose ads.” That counts, right?)

I do have a weakness for peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Not those crazy deep-fried fat bombs Elvis used to make—just peanut butter on wheat bread with sliced banana and a little cinnamon sugar on top. My go-to comfort food, especially at 11:30 at night when the words aren’t coming and I start getting unwelcome visits from the I SUCK fairy.

(Betty Crocker has a great snickerdoodle recipe if you’re so inclined.)

REBECCA: And, finally: cheese is very important to Tessa and me, so we’ve got to know: what is you favorite cheese? Tell us all about it!

J.C.: God, there isn’t a cheese I wouldn’t eat. My daughter HATES all cheese, which makes me suspect she’s a changeling. I think smoked gouda takes top honors. I don’t know, though. Ask me next week and my loyalties may have shifted to Camembert.

REBECCA: And there you have it, folks: smoked gouda, and please write some Brandon/Abel fan fiction! Thanks so much, J.C.!

J.C.: Thank you so much for having me on the blog!


All you need to do is fill out the handy form below and leave us a comment on the blog telling us what you are the biggest fan of! TV show, band, book, movie; it doesn’t matter, just fill us in on what you geek out about! The giveaway will stay open for two weeks; I’ll announce the winner here on June 19th. UPDATE: Congrats to We Heart YA, the winners of a copy of How to Repair a Mechanical Heart!



  1. M.E. Kerr!! I know J.C. Lillis must be on the level. This sounds like a delightful book.

  2. Margalit

     /  June 13, 2013

    Great interview, and I’m really hoping for a print version!

  3. Urb

     /  June 5, 2013

    Two books stood out last year for me. HTRAMH was one of them. It also has one of the best covers! I already have this lively, engaging, sweet novel, so,if I win, I’d like to pre-order your next book. As far as fandom goes, I ship Jordan Castillo Price. She designs her own covers, and is amazingly frank and humble about her awesomeness. I’ll ship you too!

  4. weheartya

     /  June 5, 2013

    So loved this interview! As she said, it’s important to have a sense of humor about oneself, and it’s clear that she does. 🙂 Also, her next book sounds really good too — maybe like a YA Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Can’t wait to read ’em both!

  5. Arrrrgh, I so want to read this. No e-reader or device, though! 😦 (One of these days, I’ll get with the program…)

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