Wednesday 8 January 2014

Guest Post: Joanna Wiebe on the inspiration for The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant +++ Giveaway! (US/CAN)

The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant || Release date: January 14th 2014

So many secrets for such a small island. From the moment Anne Merchant arrives at Cania Christy, a boarding school for the world’s wealthiest teens, the hushed truths of this strange, unfamiliar land begin calling to her—sometimes as lulling drumbeats in the night, sometimes as piercing shrieks.

One by one, unanswered questions rise. No one will tell her why a line is painted across the island or why she is forbidden to cross it. Her every move—even her performance at the school dance—is graded as part of a competition to become valedictorian, a title that brings rewards no one will talk about. And Anne discovers that the parents of her peers surrender million-dollar possessions to enroll their kids in Cania Christy, leaving her to wonder what her lowly funeral director father could have paid to get her in… and why.

As a beautiful senior struggles to help Anne make sense of this cloak-and-dagger world without breaking the rules that bind him, she must summon the courage to face the impossible truth—and change it—before she and everyone she loves is destroyed by it.


Joanna Wiebe on the inspiration for The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant 

I live on a misty island. When you live on an island, you live with a sense of being one misstep away from falling off—the way the ancient Greeks must have worried their ships would simply tip over the edge of the earth. The island I live on is way too big to fall off of, but fears aren’t rational, are they? 

On this island are spectacular potholes, which are not your average tire-popping dips in the road. They’re called the Sooke Potholes, and they’re a series of natural pools, tucked away in the woods, that look like this:

Photo Credit:

After a morning swim in the potholes—or, if you’re like me and can’t swim, a read on the rocks while your family swims—you’ll walk past modern-day ruins teetering on a cliff. A ruined building. A hotel that was dreamed and planned and invested in. A hotel they broke ground on. A hotel they started to build. And then stopped:

Photo Credit:

Those ruins are, to me, a dream interrupted. 

And so was born the fictional world of Wormwood Island, where half-realized lives vie for one last shot at completion… while surrounded by a beautifully destructive land. This is the setting for my debut novel The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant, which tells the tale of the sixteen year-old daughter of a mortician who’s shipped away to the Cania Christy Preparatory School only to find herself chin-deep in a tidal pool of dangerous secrets. 

I’m a huge fan of the HBO series Six Feet Under, which is one of the reasons Anne was raised by a mortician in a funeral home. I love the obvious strangeness of living in a House of Death, with all the ins and outs of reconstructive artistry, “celebrations of life”, the complex process of grieving, and what it’s like to grow up alongside death. And, ever since my beloved dad died about 10 years ago, I’ve been especially curious about the way we think about death. Is it a part of life or the end of life? Why do we feel the presence of the departed for so long after they die? Why do we cringe at the word “dead” and insist on the softness of phrases like “the departed”, which suggests the ability to return?

The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant gave me the chance to explore those questions—with a little romance and a lot of mystery. 

First, the romance. When it comes to big pink hearts, I’m torn. I Love-Adore-Need-Require a great love connection as much as the next person, but I don’t want romantic love to be the motivation for resolution of every story I read or write. I don’t want the girl to be saved by the boy. I don’t want the girl to do dumb things the boy has to correct—after all, I have yet to know a single girl or woman who’s actually had to be saved by a dude. Further, my background is in short stories, where happily-ever-after is rare; I adore Alice Munro, Allan Gurganus and Anton Chekhov, none of whom has written any stories I can recall where the boy and girl get together in the end and all is perfectly well. 

(Although, to be sure, in my book, there are references to my fave happily-ever-afters, like Cinderella, Sixteen Candles, and Pride & Prejudice.)

So I have this gnawing need to end love somewhat tragically—or at least to leave it unresolved. Is that what happens in this book? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out—but let me be clear: I don’t like to read books that leave me unsatisfied or angry, and so I’m not about to write one that would do that to you or me.

Next, the mystery. This book is shelved as fantasy, and it’s of the paranormal variety. But when I was writing it, I was thinking of it as a mystery first. Not a whodunit. But rather a whatthehellisgoingon. My inspirations here were less from books—though I was reading Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Series while writing this, so maybe a little—but rather from films like The Usual Suspects. (Can Kevin Spacey do any wrong? No. I’ve even forgiven him for K-PAX.) 

I love twists. I love wondering what’s about to happen. I love furiously turning the pages again and again and again until—just as you think you really should get to bed already—you get that OMGWTF moment and can’t even consider stepping away from it. The Usual Suspects was that, for me, in film version. And I’m hoping that The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is that sort of book for readers like you.

K, so, now you know where the book sort of comes from. Let me close by showing you the faces of a few of the real-life people who were on my mind when I was crafting the kids of Cania Christy.

At 5’10”, Anne is a combination of every tall girl I’ve ever met who hasn’t hunched to seem like the rest of the crowd. She’s got wild, super-unruly blonde hair, like Beyonce’s (pre-pixie):

She also rocks a naturally curvaceous, muscular body, which she’s struggling to get used to. Think P!nk, sans tattoos:

Anne’s friend Molly Watso is small, but her cool toughness makes her seem larger than Anne. Molly’s inspired by the always-interesting Ellen Page, who’s a Canadian like yours truly:

Finally, Ben Zin is the all-too-perfect, entirely unattainable rich boy Anne is drawn to, for reasons that go beyond his gorgeous exterior, reasons that will make perfect sense by the end of the book. (There’s no Insta Love here!) Although all Cania kids are physically flawless, Ben has always been this way—much like Hayden Christensen:


Ben’s mint-colored eyes are similar to those of Damon Albarn (whom I loved back in the days when he fronted Britpop band Blur): 

So there you have it! My primary inspirations. I hope I haven’t overshared here. The worst thing, I think, can be learning too much about a character or setting before your imagination has had a chance to pump air into its lungs and shape its edges. But I think there’s still plenty for you to discover… 

The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant is the first in a trilogy published by Benbella. It hits the shelves of bookstores—real and online—in the US and Canada on Jan 14, 2014. You can read early reviews for it on Goodreads or on my website, and you should totally either friend me on Goodreads or follow me on Twitter

Hope you enjoy! Thanks for reading. And I’m excited to respond to any Qs you have in the comments below. 

Thanks to Joanna for writing such great and informative guest post - I really enjoyed reading this!

And thanks to BenBella books I have a copy of  The Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant to give away to one lucky reader. 

Competition is open to readers in the US and Canada and closes January 17th 2014.
Winner will be notified by email.
Book will be shipped directly from publisher. 

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*This is a sponsored giveaway.
 *Please be advised that books/prize will be sent out via the sponsoring body.
*Books may take up to 28 days (longer if sent from overseas) to arrive.
 *Please note that I cannot guarantee delivery of prizes and cannot take responsibility for books lost in the post.**
 ** Alternative prizes may be offered.  


  1. This entire guest post by Joanna Wiebe was really interesting! I like how she bases the setting of her new book off of where she lives. I also love that she bases one of her characters looks on Hayden Christensen because I think he's one of the most gorgeous actors in Hollywood today, haha!

    Thanks for the giveaway!! Really excited for when this book comes out!

  2. Thanks, Nia! It was fun to write and think through --- so many sources of inspiration!! :) I hope you enjoy the book...

  3. I am SO glad to read this guest post because it really made all the difference to me in my desire to check this book out. Those pictures are BEAUTIFUL and I really like that although she doesn't go for endings that make you angry as a reader, she's still not necessarily going to throw in an HEA just for kicks. Great, great post:)


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