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November 17, 2018

Interview with Katrin van Dam, Author of COME NOVEMBER

Posted by Dana C
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We have a Q&A with Katrin van Dam, author of COME NOVEMBER.

 

Tell us a little bit about COME NOVEMBER and introduce us to Rooney.

As the book begins, Rooney Harris is entering her senior year of high school. She’s been forced into a quasi-parental role because her mother is so wrapped up in the Next World Society, a group that believes that on November 17, they are going to be transported to a new planet to re-start human civilization. Rooney’s very frustrated with her mom, and feels responsible for her younger brother, Daniel. She really just wants to get through senior year and go off to college like everyone else, but her mother’s beliefs derail her plans.

Rooney definitely isn’t me, but we do have some things in common. We both believe that we need to be in control of every situation and we tend to be a little too convinced of our own rightness. We both default to anger when we’re out of our depth. And Rooney may also sound a little bit like me. Beyond that, she’s totally her own person.

What sparked the idea to write COME NOVEMBER? Did the plot come first, or your characters?

I started writing the book in 2011. I was full of anxiety about the state of the planet and I got it into my head that I wanted to write something, but I wasn’t sure what. In May of that year, there was a lot of press about a doomsday prophet who convinced a bunch of people that the Rapture was coming. I kept reading articles about his followers and wondering what the heck was going to happen to them when the world failed to end. Around that same time, I read a fascinating piece about Easter Island, and a theory about what caused the civilization there to decline. Those two ideas were bouncing around in my brain and then one day they collided and I thought, “What would happen if you combined the cult thing and the environmental catastrophe thing?”

How did you approach creating Everett?

As the leader of the Next World Society, Everett had to be someone who could come across as either impressive or a con artist – he needed to have a little ambiguity. For believers, Everett’s way of speaking might make him seem intelligent and credible, but a skeptic could easily read him as someone who’s hiding something behind a lot of flowery language and a fancy accent. I also needed Everett to serve as the mouthpiece for a catalog of facts about climate change that are real and important. So I made him someone whose primary form of address is the monologue: he enjoys the sound of his own voice and is used to commanding the attention in a room.

What about creating the Next World Society?

I just tried to imagine all the different kinds of people who might be drawn in by someone like Everett and by his message. In the first draft of the book I included a few additional storylines that tracked some of the other members of the NWS – people who were really tearing their families apart in order to follow Everett. Ultimately those characters got cut, but I’m still really moved by the idea of people having to make that terrible choice.

Have you always been interested in environmental/climate change issues? How did you research these areas?

Yeah, I’m a little obsessed. One of my friends likes to call me “Cassandra” because I can’t shut up about it (I used that for the character of Anjelica in the book). There are a few writers who have shaped my understanding of what we’re facing. Elizabeth Kolbert is one; she’s such a strong, vivid writer and makes things so clear and easy to understand. There’s also a book by Mark Lynas about how the planet is going to respond as the atmosphere warms that I was very influenced by.

I also read a lot about flood plains in New York City. My original outline for the book actually included a massive hurricane hitting New York and causing catastrophic flooding. But by the time I had a few chapters written I realized there was just WAY too much incident in the book and some stuff had to fall by the wayside, so I eliminated the whole hurricane storyline. And then the following year Superstorm Sandy decimated huge swaths of New York and I thought, “it’s a good thing I cut that part, since everyone would assume I added it in response to what happened.” But yeah, Cassandra saw that one coming.

COME NOVEMBER is chock full of fleshed out supporting characters, including Rooney’s mother, Anneliese. Can you tell us how you developed this character?

Anneliese is the one character who was loosely based on a real person. Not her involvement with the NWS or anything like that, just the way she talks and looks. That childlike quality. This woman was related to a friend of mine, and I remember talking to her once, and her saying, “it was just super… DUPER!” in this breathy, excited little-girl voice, and I thought that was hysterical, and so alien to me that it really intrigued me.

Where did Mrs. Fisher “come from?”

Mrs. Fisher was inspired by a newsletter from the wonderful Quaker boarding school my husband attended. I love reading their communications because they’re always so thoughtful about caring for people and for the world. Back when I first started working on the book, they sent out this letter about a Ghanaian scholarship student who was just crushing it at the school. He sounded like an all-around spectacular person: A great student, athlete and human being. And I thought that was such an interesting background for a person, so I borrowed it for Mrs. Fisher.

For the aspiring writers who may read this, please share a bit about your path to publication.

I’m not gonna lie: It was brutal. I had never written anything like this before, only short licensed books for much younger readers. And I wasn’t at all sure that I could actually pull it off. So I worked in complete isolation for three years. Literally didn’t show the draft to another living soul until I was reasonably confident that I had written an actual book. And then I showed it to my husband, and he liked it, so I thought, “Okay, I guess I need to go find an agent.” And things progressed really quickly: I got an agent in, like, a day and a half, and within a month we heard we were going to get an offer and I thought, “Oh, this is easy. Why does everyone say it’s so hard to get a book published?”

And then that offer fell through and no one else wanted it. It was just a flood of rejections. So based on the feedback we were getting I spent about six months doing a massive rewrite on the book. I cut around 150 pages and reworked huge sections of it, and still no one wanted it. And the flood of rejections turned into a trickle. And two years passed, and I basically gave up hope and moved on to trying to focus on the next book, when we suddenly got the offer from Scholastic. Let me just say, it’s a good thing I have a day job and a fulfilling home life, because I would have lost my mind if all my emotional energy had been focused on publishing this book.

How has your background in theater and children’s entertainment informed your fiction writing?

Having trained as an actor, I’m always very focused on the way characters sound. I have to be able to hear them in my head and on my tongue, and I’m very critical of anything that sounds inauthentic or not like the way humans talk and behave. I’m much more confident about dialogue than I am about plot.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

I don’t really have favorite writers, but I have favorite books. In the YA space, I love Eleanor & Park and I’ll Give you the Sun and Two Boys Kissing. Some of my favorite novels for adults are Corelli’s Mandolin and The Time Traveler’s Wife. If a book can make me laugh and cry without ever feeling manipulated, it will have my heart forever. Bonus points if it also makes me think about something I never would have come to on my own.

When you are not writing, what are your favorite hobbies & activities?

I love to cook, love to have close friends over for a meal. My husband and I go to the theater a lot, since we both come out of that acting background. We do a fair bit of traveling – we recently went to Australia to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef, which was a bucket list item for me. I used to love dancing, but my body is all busted now, so I take a lot of walks in the park to satisfy my need for movement.

What are you writing now, and when can will we see it?

I’ve been working on and off on a book about Rooney’s younger brother, Daniel. As I was finishing COME NOVEMBER he was the character I was most interested in spending more time with. I think Rooney’s arc leaves her in a good place at the end of the book, but Daniel is more up in the air. I wanted to know what happened to him. And as for when you can see it… that’s only partly up to me. As I learned from the process of selling this first book, you can never make any assumptions. But I hope that COME NOVEMBER does well enough that people want to hear more from these characters.

Where can readers find you online?

I just launched my website at katrinvandam.com and I really hope people check it out. The look of it is very inspired by the beautiful cover art that Maeve Norton created for the book, so every time I look at it I get all happy. I’m also on Instagram at @katvandambooks.