TFFOS: Ilsa J. Bick -- Guest Post & Giveaway

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It's been a good ride, and here to wrap it up is ILSA J. BICK. She attached a little author blurb that I'm sure will do her more justice than I ever could:

Ilsa J. Bick is a child psychiatrist, former Air Force major, film scholar—and an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories and novels.  Her 2010 paranormal mystery and first YA novel, DRAW THE DARK (Carolrhoda Lab), earned a starred review from SLJ; won the 2011 Westchester Fiction Award; was named a 2011 Best Children’s Book of the Year by Bank Street College; and made VOYA’s 2010 Perfect Ten List.  ASHES, the first novel in her new YA post-apocalyptic thriller trilogy, appears this September from Egmont USA.

Very Clickable Links: {website} · {goodreads} · {amazon} · {book depository}



Picture this: Saturday night . . . no, Sunday.  Sunday?  You have to think a second, no mean feat because you’ve been up since five the day before and everything’s starting to blur.  But, yeah, it’s Sunday, early, a little after one and you’ve stepped outside for a quick break because the last patient—a guy whose Harley lost a close encounter with a two-ton semi—was a real horror-show.  Honestly, they don’t call bikers without helmets organ donors for nothing. 

The outside air’s heavy and thick as cobwebs; the day’s heat, still radiating from the sidewalk, cooks a discarded wad to the sole of your sneaker.  Prying the gum off takes energy you don’t have, so you leave it.  Sleep would be good, but the bars let out at two and things will only get worse because these are the small hours of a hot Sunday at the ass-end of August: a time when a half dozen belts make otherwise sane human beings a little cranked, a little reckless, a lot violent—and, frequently, all three.  

As if on cue, you hear the siren first, thin and sharp.  If sound had a shape, this would be a stiletto and you flinch, your heart kicking up a notch.   Well before the ambulance screams around the corner and races up the hill, you’re already pivoting, getting ready, expecting the worst, and not daring to hope for the best. 

Most importantly, though, you take your own pulse.  Not really, but it’s the idea of the thing.  Panic, your chief resident said, and you’re no good to anyone.

Now why do I bring this up?  I mean, this is supposed to be a post about YA post-apocalyptic novels, right? So what does my book, ASHES, have in common with my memories as a surgical intern working the ER?

Here’s what I think.  (Bear in mind that since I am a shrink and a tad navel-gazey by nature, this might seem a little loopy, but it makes sense to me.  Which might not be saying much.)  A lot of the work I did back then was ordered around a survivalist’s mentality: steps taken in a specific order to address an immediate problem and everything geared toward keeping the patient alive long enough to make it out of the emergency room.  (Me, too, I guess.  When I trained, the hours were twenty-four on, twenty-four off; the pace could be brutal; and—yes, it’s true—I lived in a Monty Pythonesque hole in the middle of the road, ate gravel and frequently woke up before I went to sleep.)  What happened once the patient was transferred to a ward or surgery or what-have-you, I rarely knew because my focus remained on a narrow, very discrete and specific window in time: just get through this job, and move on to the next.

Survival’s a lot like that, and living under the shadow of looming disaster is on people’s minds these days.  Some is tongue-in-cheek, but even the CDC got the hint. (  I do think there’s a reason for all this attention, too.  In another venue (, I wrote that the world feels as if it’s accelerating from bad to worse: global warming; overpopulation; diminishing resources; ongoing threats of terrorism; a crummy economy; mass extinctions . . .  Heck, if you don’t like the disaster du jour, well then, it’s like the weather: wait five minutes and see what turns up.


In such a mélange of dread, hopelessness, and fear, it’s not such a surprise that so many dystopian and apocalyptic novels are floating around.  There have been similar historical epochs—the Communist threat and nuclear arms race jump to mind—when survival, how to live through The Bomb or escape the mind control of those nasty Reds, was front and center.  I remember these silly and yet deadly serious drills they had us do in school: the alarm would sound, and we’d dive under our desks.  All that good, heavy-duty made in the U.S.A. plywood, don’tcha know.   I recall stories about folks building bomb shelters and, of course, you could never be sure about just exactly what your neighbors might be up to.  Not surprisingly, that same time period saw scads of apocalyptic and cautionary, dystopian films and novels. Think the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, A Wrinkle in Time, the first Night of the Living Dead.  Really.  Check out Amy Sturgis’s excellent post if you don’t believe me.  (

Now, a very smart psychiatrist once taught me that, all those fancy names aside, there are only so many human emotions: love, hate, envy, compassion, to name a few.  Focus on the basics, he said; keep your eye on what lies in and at the heart.  The rest is window-dressing.


The same holds true with disasters, whether they happen in the ER or on a hiking trail.  No matter what their shape or size, the steps you take to survive are pretty much the same across the board.  Beyond a fondness for acronyms—only military and government circles seem to love them more—working an emergency room has a lot in common with survival.  In medicine, we talk about ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation); there are algorithms galore for which med to give when and under what circumstance.  Above all, there are always rules and decision trees, one step following another and then another. 

It’s the same in survivalist circles where people talk in terms of threes: what you must do in those first three minutes, three hours, three days, three weeks to have any hope of making it.  These parameters all make good sense, too, because there are certain tasks that must be accomplished in a fairly specific order.  You can’t skip one and hope to make it up later because new and more problems will crop up. 

So the first order of business—if, say, you’re lost or your canoe’s overturned and all your gear’s on the bottom of the river or there’s a storm headed your way and you’re still five hours out from any kind of shelter—is pretty straightforward.  For those first three minutes, calm down.  Take your own pulse.  Hug a tree, if you have to.  (Former Boy and Girl Scouts out there know what I’m talking about.)  But get control of yourself, or you’re toast.

Once you’re calm, then you can afford to let go of the tree (or, in the ER, glove up and slap in that CVP line, push in that med, whatever).  If you’re out in the wild, you move on to the next three hours when you must find shelter and get dry and warm, or you’ll become hypothermic and die.  (Okay, okay, there’s some wiggle-room but not much.)  In three days, you’d better have found water, or you’re dead.  By three weeks, give or take, you need some kind of food supply, or all the water in the world won’t save your life.

After that, there are no rules, no guidelines, no nothing in the books or manuals because survival is the goal and endpoint.  You reach a kind of stalemate with nature: things might get better, but what you’re most worried about is that they shouldn’t get worse.  But it’s not as if you’re going to set up shop in the wilderness and live out the rest of your days because, long-term . . . well, you’re only waiting around to be rescued.  (Unless you manage to stagger back behind your front lines, the military’s the same.  During my Air Force survival training exercise, our final task was to vector in the helicopter that would airlift us to a shower and beef stew.)

This implies, of course, that there is something to return to: a life, your home, the world as you knew it.  But what if there’s no hope of rescue? Worse, what if there’s no home—no world—to which to return?   

That’s where my post-apocalyptic novel, ASHES, comes in.  To be fair, I guess you could call the book an apocalypse on top of an apocalypse.  Alex Adair is only seventeen, but the world’s already blown up in her face twice over.  Her parents are dead; she’s got a brain tumor that’s only biding its time.  Sick of endless rounds of failed chemo, she takes off on a last backpacking trip, pretty much determined never to return—

And then the world comes crashing down around her ears.

All of a sudden, this kid is working hard to stay alive.  She’s completely, totally focused on those first three minutes/hours/days/weeks, and everything she does—building fires, making debris shelters, all that survival stuff—is a means to that end. 

But what happens next?  Having a life isn’t the same as struggling to stay alive.  So I’m curious about the compromises people are willing to make and the rules they’re willing to break in order to survive—and where surviving leaves off and living begins.  Conversely, what’s truly worth dying for?  Where are the heroes when the world ends?  What places will emotions like compassion and love and hate—or traits like courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice—occupy? 

At the end of the world as we know it, logic fails.  Chaos rules.  There is no good or evil, only life or death.  Our side versus theirs.  No one can tell you what to do, which side to choose or how to prepare for life the second after you realize that you’ve survived.  Other than the basics, there are no acronyms, no algorithms, and there will be no single, new normal. 

There will be only what rises from the ashes. 




It could happen tomorrow...

A cataclysmic event. An army of "The Changed."
Can one teen really survive on her own?

An electromagnetic pulse sweeps through the sky, destroying every electronic device and killing billions. For those spared, it's a question of who can be trusted and who is no longer human...

Desperate to find out what happened and to avoid the Changed, Alex meets up with Tom---a young army veteran---and Ellie, a young girl whose grandfather was killed by the electromagnetic pulse.

This improvised family will have to use every ounce of courage they have just to survive.



Ilsa J. Bick has offered up one finished copy of ASHES (available now because Ilsa's gets her lovelies early) to giveaway! For an extra entry, comment with your thoughts on Ilsa's musings, in purple up above.

To enter, fill out the form below. Open Internationally.