Today's Q&A features Megan Crewe, author of the semi-dystopic semi-post-apocalyptic survival disease YA thriller set on a small Canadian East Coast island The Way We Fall. Kaelyn lives on a small island, but when a deadly virus sweeps through, the government shuts it down, and the race for survival begins. You can find my review here. :) You can also find Megan at her website or on Twitter. The second book in the triliogy, The Lives We Lost, is set to come out in January 2013.
A: One of the inspirations for THE WAY WE FALL was the idea of someone trapped in an apocalyptic situation, writing to someone far away to warn them and/or let them know what had happened. I liked the idea of my main character having someone concrete who was outside the zone of the disaster, to focus on when hoping things were better elsewhere and when trying to explain how the situation was changing. To some extent, Leo ended up symbolizing all the unknowns beyond the borders of the island. I was hoping the format would make the narrative feel more real--that it would enhance the sense that readers are getting a glimpse inside a catastrophe that could almost be happening right now.
Including that element definitely made the writing more complicated. I had to develop a character that the reader never actually "sees" other than through Kaelyn's memories and show why he's so important to Kaelyn. It was also tricky handling the shift as Kaelyn writes more and more for herself and not so much for Leo anymore. And simply writing in journal format in general requires a lot of care, because I wanted it to feel as believable as possible, so I had to take into account factors like where Kaelyn was when she was writing, and why she would be writing then and not earlier or later, which you don't have to consider in regular first person. But I'm glad I put in the work, because I'm very happy with how it turned out! :)
Q: Kaelyn seems like a regular teen girl at the beginning, then takes on more responsibilities and finds this inner strength to carry on through the hardest times. Was writing Kaelyn difficult, or did her voice come easily? Did you draw on any real-life experiences or people you know?
A: Kaelyn's voice is very similar to my own when I was her age, probably because our personalities are similar in many ways. That was a little difficult for me to accept that at first--I felt like I should be giving her a more separate, distinctive voice--but when I tried, my critique partners told me it sounded artificial. So I went back to writing her the way that felt more natural, which everyone liked better.
As I was writing, I thought a lot about the journals I kept as a teen, the sorts of things I'd record and the sorts of things I'd leave out. And I'm very scared of viruses and epidemics, so I drew on my fears and the factors that I find most scary in portraying the outbreak and characters' responses to it. Thankfully in real life neither I nor anyone I know has been sick with a mysterious deadly illness!
Q: How did you come up with the disease and its symptoms? It was rather interesting, starting with something innocuous like the itch and the cough, but then it gets worse. Did any of the research surprise you, make you look at some things differently?
A: I read several books on epidemics, viruses, and the immune system before coming up with my disease, because I wanted to make it as realistic as possible. Many serious illnesses start with common flu-like symptoms like coughing and fever, because those are standard bodily responses to infection. The coughing and sneezing also create an easy way for the virus to spread. The more serious symptoms were inspired by parasites like the Cordyceps fungus, which can control insect behavior in order to spread itself, and Toxoplasma gondii, which causes rodents to be less afraid of cats (again, to help them spread the parasite from animal to animal) and may influence behavior in people as well. I don't think there's anything scarier than knowing a disease will take over your brain and make you think and act in ways you can't control.
What surprised me the most from my research was how little scientists still know about many deadly illnesses and how to prevent them, and also how close we've come to having a serious outbreak in North America. I'd say I'm even more nervous about epidemics than I used to be now!
Q: Why set The Way We Fall in Canada? How important was it to set it here than in another country?
A: Before I started writing THE WAY WE FALL, I'd been thinking of how few books, especially how few young adult books, are set here in my country. I know when I was a teen, I would have loved to see familiar locations and cultural details in the novels I read more often. But if even the young adult authors who live here aren't writing stories set here, how can we expect anyone else to? So I decided that from now on, if I have a story for which a Canadian setting fits, I'll set it here. And with THE WAY WE FALL, it fit perfectly. There are many small island communities off the coast of the maritime provinces (though mine is made-up), and our winters would provide the perfect setting for some of the events in the sequel.
Q: The two covers for the book are striking in their own ways, the blueish one focusing on Kaelyn, her fear, her wide eyes, while the yellow one reminds me of a biohazard warning with Kaelyn alone on the street. What are your thoughts on the covers? Do you favour one over the other?
A: I love both the original cover that's on the ARCs (and the Australian edition) and the final cover that appears on the finished book. The bluish cover captures the mood very well, but the concern was that it didn't suggest the apocalyptic situation in the book very clearly, which I can understand. I was impressed when I saw the final cover, because it manages to combine that sense of isolation with the striking biohazard yellow. It captures so much of what's important about the story. And I think the color and typography also makes book stand out compared to many YA covers right now, whereas the bluish one might have blended in a little. So while I do love both, I'm particularly fond of the final version.
Q: It was nice to read the first book in a series with an ending that wasn't a cliffhanger, an end that made sense, that leans towards something more in the next book. Is there anything you can share about The Lives We Lost? Will we meet Leo soon?
A: I'm glad you felt that way about the ending! I find books that end leaving nothing resolved until the sequel very frustrating, so I've tried to make sure that even if certain plot points are left hanging, there's some sense of resolution at the end of each book in the trilogy.
I can tell you that THE LIVES WE LOST is still from Kaelyn's point of view, but it's in regular first person rather than journal format. The reason for that is that there's quite a bit more action in this book, and I didn't feel I could tell it properly if I was relying only on what Kaelyn would be able to write down. You will see all of the characters still alive at the end of THE WAY WE FALL again, and you will get to meet Leo right away (the book starts immediately after the end of THE WAY WE FALL, with Kaelyn meeting him as he comes off the ferry). You'll find out what's been happening on the mainland all this time, and Kaelyn will make a surprising discovery that sets the events of the rest of the trilogy in motion.
Thanks so much to Megan for answering my questions, and thanks to Kaitlin at Hachette Book Group Canada for facilitating the Q&A. :)