Q&A with Kat Rosenfield (aka Auntie SparkNotes) About Her New Novel, INLAND! Plus We're Giving Away Signed Copies!
INLAND, a teen novel about mermaids by Kat Rosenfield/Auntie SparkNotes, hits shelves on Tuesday, June 10! I read an advance copy of INLAND, Kat's second novel, and LOVED IT—even as a YA lit junkie I've never read anything like it. But before we get into details, bust out your 18th Century reading monocle because PENGUIN AND KAT HAVE GRACIOUSLY DONATED SIGNED COPIES OF INLAND to the SparkLife HQ, which we're giving away to five lucky Sparklers/Manklers! Before you read, click here to enter the INLAND sweepstakes for a chance to win!
Okay, now read!
Q: How did the writing process of INLAND, your second novel, compare to the process for your first, AMELIA ANNE IS DEAD AND GONE?
KR: There was a lot less terror involved, just because I'd already written one book and was reasonably sure that I could do it again… probably. Hopefully. (I guess it wasn't actually a lot less terror. More like a tiny tad less.) Also, INLAND's setting and subject matter wasn't at all familiar to me when I started out, unlike with AMELIA, so I did much more research for this book—traveling to Tallahassee, driving miles and miles along the Gulf Coast, reading about marine mammal anatomy and migration patterns, that sort of thing.
Q: What made you want to write a supernatural story after AMELIA ANNE? Did you start with the idea or with the knowledge that you wanted to try something in a more fantastical vein?
KR: This is going to sound really weird, but the idea for INLAND originally came about because I didn't want to write a fantasy, and especially not a mermaid fantasy. This was all happening a couple years ago, when everyone was talking about mermaids—they were supposedly going to be the next big thing in YA fiction, after sparkly vampires—and every time I heard about it, I was just, like, Barf, not interested.
But at the same time, I found myself wondering if there was any way I could make this idea interesting to me. If someone put a gun to my head and said, "Write about mermaids!", could I find a way to tell that story in my own way? Eventually, the idea began to take shape of the sea as a character in and of itself, and of what it might be like to believe that you were somehow part of it—and of telling that story in a real-world setting, where we naturally assume that anyone who believes in that sort of thing is crazy. Suddenly, there was a really creepy, sinister story there that I desperately wanted to write.
Q: Your writing is so visual—does your inspiration ever start with a specific image? If so, what was it for INLAND?
KR: At the very start, the inspiration for INLAND actually came from the poem, "Inland," by Edna St. Vincent Millay; it's a poem in which she describes the horror of being taken inland and far away from the ocean, which she loved intensely. Those words really captured for me that sense of all-consuming connection that the women in this story feel with the sea. But once I had that as a foundation, then the thing that came next was definitely the image of this sinuous, shadowy, almost grotesque creature in the water: what a human being might look like if everything that made her human had been leached away by too many years down in a dark, cold place.
Q: The mermaid in this book isn't always kind. Are there are a lot of dark mermaid stories you used for reference? Are they traditionally a lot more violent than how most people perceive them now?
KR: Oh my gosh, yes. There's an enormous amount of mythology out there in which mermaids (or sirens, or sea nymphs) are portrayed as killer seductresses whose primary goal in life is to drag men to their deaths, which is certainly echoed in INLAND. But the story I looked to most was Hans Christian Andersen's original "The Little Mermaid," which—I'm sorry to say—is not the delightful tale of aquatic whimsy that Disney would have us believe. One of the things that really struck me about it was not only the violence that the mermaid has done to her in order to become human—the sea witch literally cuts her tongue off as a price— but how much violence she inflicts on herself, and is willing to keep inflicting on herself. Even if she can make the prince fall in love with her, one of the stipulations is that every step she takes on earth for as long as she lives will be like walking on hot coals and sharp knives. She's in non-stop pain, her feet are constantly bleeding. For me, the biggest takeaway from that story—and the theme that I ended up exploring in INLAND—is that even if the mermaid succeeds in her quest to become human, she'll spend every day in voiceless agony, in a place where she doesn't belong, surrounded by people who will never know or understand her.
Q: Even "loser" teen protagonists are usually described as attractive. Perhaps they don't wear enough makeup, or they wear too much, or they have the wrong clothes or lack confidence, but they're good-looking despite themselves. I thought it was brave to start the story with a character who is actually unattractive. Did this risk ever cross your mind? What do you think about the physical descriptions of teen characters, generally?
KR: I get tired (as I'm sure many people do) of reading book after book where protagonists—especially girls—are, like, the Taylor Swift music video version of "ugly." Or where the heroine just needs a makeover, or to lose weight, or to have some guy tell her, "You're beautiful because you're not like other girls." It's an unfortunate thing where even books that are trying to subvert appearance-related cliches end up reinforcing the same tired idea that the most important thing a girl can be is pretty and desired. (This piece from The Toast about Flaws Only a Protagonist Could Have sums up my feelings on this subject nicely.)
In the case of Callie, I didn't set out to actively flip the bird to that trope, but at the same time, I was very intent that this not be an "ugly duckling" story. She has to start out the story looking the way she does—she has medical problems which impact her appearance, and she's also so lonely and exhausted and downtrodden that she just doesn't have the energy or inclination to try to make herself look better—but it was also important to me that her physical transformation over the course of the book not be about beauty, but about destiny. What makes Callie attractive isn't that she becomes thin or pretty (which she doesn't), but that she becomes exactly who she's supposed to be.
Q: I've read so many teen novels and I've never read a book like this. It's so unique. What's your favorite aspect/moment in INLAND?
KR: Without giving away major plot points, I think the last chapter of the book before the epilogue is probably my favorite. I really struggled with the ending of this book—I had to rewrite it several times—and that chapter, which was the last thing I wrote, came together in a way that was so unsettling and not at all expected.
Q: How long did this book take you to write? (Aspiring novelists always want to know!)
KR: This is a tough question, because I had to write INLAND in bits and pieces whenever I had a spare few hours between freelance gigs. I think it took me about a year working that way to get a draft I could show to my agent.
Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
KR: I use a very loose plot map that allows for occasional pantsing. I do need to have some sort of guide to write by, though, or I end up taking the literary equivalent of what my family calls "Alaskan field trips" (basically, wanding very, very far off the intended course.)
Q: Without spoiling, I probably can say that the ending is surprising and very interesting! Did you know from the outset how you wanted Callie's story to end?
KR: As I mentioned above, I did struggle with the ending a bit, and it was one of the things that changed most as I revised and rewrote the story with my editor. But I always knew that the ending would leave room open for more than one interpretation. I felt, and still feel, that this story's questions are more interesting than its answers.