Zoe Hana Mikuta, author of "Gearbreakers," on Religion, Writing, and Tattoos
When a publicist pitched me Gearbreakers, she described it as "high-octane." Now that I'm more than 80 percent through the book, I have to agree that Zoe Hana Mikuta's debut is just that: thrilling, dynamic, so fast-paced it spins my head and sets my heart to racing.
I was lucky that in addition to receiving an advance e-galley of the book to read and review (eyes out for that, coming next week!), I had the chance to email over some interview questions for Mikuta.
She recalled that as a child she told herself stories to fall asleep, and said, "I was always a big reader and writing as an art form always pulled me – it’s the practice I get the most comfort out of, definitely."
"If I’m remembering correctly, I always was trying to go for longer pieces," Mikuta added. "Of course in middle school there was no plot in sight for any of it, just me rambling and having a good time with it."
Of course, now that she's a published author (Gearbreakers released on June 29, 2021, and is therefore available for purchase), plot is a necessity, and the book has one that I can only define as rambunctious, just like its cast of young characters.
Gearbreakers tells the story of a dystopian world ruled by an empire, Godolia, which keeps people in line and crushes dissent using giant mechas, machines that come to life when Pilots hook themselves up inside them and physically step on any enemies. It tells the story of Sona, a Pilot who despises the empire, and Eris, a rebel who also despises the empire. The two girls come to realize that maybe, just maybe, the answer to their desire to destroy their overlords might be in trusting each other. And maybe they should fall in love while they do so, idk, just a thought.
Mikuta, who has chosen to minor in History of Religion, said she's always been interested in religion and what it means for humanity.
"The search for meaning and purpose!" she said. "The search for origins! It’s just all so dire and gorgeous all at once."
So it's no surprise that part of her inspiration for Gearbreakers involved religion. She said she wanted to write about mechas that were scarier and more deified than any she'd encountered in various media before.
"I had an idea a while ago without much surrounding it: the very bare theme of religion smearing into technology as a possible progression for the world, fantastical or otherwise," she said. "My interest in religion definitely fed into the creation of the Gearbreakers world. From there I basically just added everything I knew I liked: found family, girls loving girls, tattoos, and a lot of fight scenes."
One aspect of the story that Mikuta said soon-to-be-readers may not already be aware of is the tattoos. After each successful mecha kill, a gearbreaker (the name assigned to people like Eris who literally break the gears of the mechas) gets a new tattoo.
"It’s one of my favourite bits in the book, those tattooing scenes, because it’s following that adrenaline of oh are we going to survive this? to we survived it and now we get to be reckless kids for the night and it feels okay again," Mikuta said. "I am absolutely genuine in saying that Gearbreakers, though heavy on the sci-fi, does have a contemporary beat that I just adored writing. I classify it as a love story above all else."
I think it's so cool when people's interests outside of writing align with what they write about, and of course after reading Gearbreakers it just made sense that Mikuta had an interest in religion. I asked her about the most fascinating thing her studies have taught her.
"I’d have to say just how consistent religion is all over the globe," she said. "That’s kind of like, duh, right, but it still gets me every single time, how it would be centuries before these disparate cultures interacted with one another, and yet they were developing theologies simultaneously. It’s so interesting that it’s ridiculous, but I think that just might be the human condition."
Mikuta's passion for writing and excitement about storytelling bled through every answer to my questions, and even though we didn't conduct the interview over the phone I felt like I was listening to her talk while reading her answers. The way she writes is honest and vibrant, and this is true both for her book and for her interview answers. It was so obvious she loves writing, and when I asked her why she writes, her answer vibrated with joy.
She said she writes because it's fun.
"I get such a big kick out of the stories and characters and worlds I create," she said. "The themes I put in my writing reflect the person I was when I wrote them, what I needed from them – Gearbreakers, for example, has a lot of hope in it, the idea that no matter how bad the world seems to get, there’s good moments that seem to hover, and those are the ones to put stakes in. In that way, writing consistently makes me grow up."
Mikuta said the most thrilling part of the writing process for this book was writing the fight scenes. These involve humans, mostly teenagers, going up against humongous (their size cannot be overstated, these things are massive) mechas and just...using all their force of will, impressive skills, and sheer gumption to defeat them.
"Just the image of five-foot-three Eris facing off against a near 200ft robot alongside a truck full of renegade children—it’s absolutely ridiculous, that they think they have a chance, that they keep going back to it, and winning (of course I make them win – most of the time)," Mikuta said. "I have a fight scene playlist for writing those specific parts, to get into the mindset, and when I’m stuck, I’ll sit back with my earbuds in and my eyes closed and run through the fight that way first."
According to her website, Mikuta is 20 and a college student, and when she began writing her debut she, like her characters, was 17. She is so close to the age of her characters and her readers, and spoke about why she thinks it's important to write for teens.
"I think it’s so important to have stories pointed to people around that age range because it tends to be a very reactive time in someone’s life, this shift into an individual, and I definitely know the impact that stories can have on that process," she said. "Both reading and writing stories have helped me to solidify, to myself, what I like, what I weigh as important in my life, and the people I want in my life."
As much as writing is a delight, I will be the first to admit there are definitely parts that are difficult and make you want to tear your hair out, scream, scratch at walls...in general give up.
For Mikuta, the hardest part was balancing character creation with the physical plot. Her early drafts' emphasis on the plot left her with "static characters," she said, and it took effort to fix that.
"I found it to be super frustrating, but that was just because I hadn’t done heavy work in that area yet," she recalled. "It was just something to practice at and I’m so glad I did, because my next projects are definitely thanking me for it. Those couple of months, though, where that was the main project, were really hard because I was really hard on myself. It’s something I have to keep reminding myself of – I’m still learning, and I’m not always going to get exactly what I want on the page right away. It’s a long process but it’s okay because I have lots of time."
Which is excellent writing advice in and of itself — to keep practicing and know it will take time — but Mikuta also encouraged aspiring authors to, essentially, follow their hearts when it comes to writing.
"Write what you want and the rest will follow," she said. "It’s cheesy and true. Plus readers can absolutely tell if you didn’t have any fun writing it."
It wouldn't be a proper interview, in my opinion, if it didn't end with some book recommendations. Obviously you should all pick up Gearbreakers, upon my recommendation if nothing else, but Mikuta recommended a few books as well.
These include Counting Down With You, Tashie Bhuiyan's debut, as well as Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (which I haven't read because I'm a wimp) and Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers (on my list!).