In late September, Kat Falls, author of the middle-grade novels Dark Life (2010) and 2011’s Rip Tide (both from Scholastic Press), lived through a schedule that may sound a bit, well, inhuman. She moved into a new house – a 125-year-old scaled-down version of her 119-year-old former residence, 10 blocks away in Evanston, Ill. – spoke on a Dystopian and Beyond panel at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville; survived the first day of teaching her fall-semester Writing for the Screen and Stage class at Northwestern University; and hit her local library to promote her newly released YA novel, Inhuman, first in the Fetch trilogy. Fortunately, unlike Lane, the 16-year-old main character in the book, she did not need to deal with the spread of a virus that causes humans to mutate into animals. Falls temporarily ignored the unpacked boxes in her new home to speak with PW about obsessive research, exchanging feedback with other novelists, and teaching girls to embrace their fierce side.
What sparked the idea for Inhuman?
I am a big sci-fi geek. Whenever I read some weird science fact that makes me feel slightly nauseated or seems wrong, I file it away. When swine flu came out, and I heard that there was pig DNA on the virus, that grossed me out. It sounded like a horror movie in the making. And they’re using viruses to transfer DNA in plants. I thought, it’s only a matter of time before they do that with animals. That’s when the wheels started spinning. What if a virus like that got out in the world?
When did you come up with this concept?
When I was done writing Dark Life [in early 2010] and Josh Adams, my agent, was trying to sell it, he said, “I’d like you to come up with an idea for your next series.” He told me, “I’d like you to try YA so your readers can grow up with you.” I went, “All right, let me think about it.” I took the dog out for a walk. He said, “Stay in the same genre, near future, sci-fi, so if that’s what they liked with Dark Life, they’re finding the same thing.” I could see technology gone wrong, science gone wrong, and I remembered the swine flu thing. One of my favorite movies is The Island of Dr. Moreau. I’ve always liked human-animal hybrids. If I did something with a virus that drops into humans, I could have these “manimals,” and I could be playing homage to one of my favorite books.
Have you finished the second book in the trilogy?
Not even close! I’m about a quarter of the way. But since I outline, I know exactly where I’m going. I write like a screenwriter. I brainstorm five to 10 scenes that are pivotal set-piece scenes. I know the major scenes and the theme of each book.
So you know whether raffish bad-boy Rafe will be OK and if Lane will end up with him or with handsome border guard Everson?
Yes, I do! I do know the arc of the story. Changes can happen, but I very much doubt my final ending will change.
What do you see as the main message of the book?
I’ve had people ask me what the metaphor of the story was. Is it about people with HIV, that they should be put behind a wall? [In Inhuman, a 700-foot-tall partition separates people who are infected with the virus from people who are not.] No. Part of the drive for me to write it is I had a scary man approach my daughter in front of our house when she was much littler. [Falls was inside and unaware of the exchange.] I’ll always be indebted to my neighbor, who saw Vivienne’s body language and walked over and said, “Viv, do you know this guy?” The guy took off running. It was right in my front yard. He was doing the classic, “I lost my cat. Will you go in the bushes and look for it with me?” [Later] she said, “I didn’t want to be rude.” She knew she felt uncomfortable, but she couldn’t bring herself to be rude to someone who was being polite to her. She froze.
So you’re trying to prevent girls who read your book from being dangerously polite?
So many times girls go toward nice and forget to embrace the fierce. I wanted it to be a girl learning to embrace her fierce side. It’s the walled-off ferocious side that she doesn’t really know is there that the wall represents – all the animals’ wild side. The two boys are id and superego. Rafe is id. He’s the wild man who’s selfish, interested in basic survival things, food, sex comfort. Everson is the rule follower and he upholds the morals of society, which is the superego. She comes in and she’s both. She is ego. She behaves very selfishly sometimes. She wants her dad back. She doesn’t care she is breaking quarantine.
You and your husband, Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, have three kids – Declan is 17, Vivienne’s 14, and Connor is 11. Do you get their input on your books?
Yes, I do. [With Inhuman], I would read the chapters aloud to them. If I saw my daughter’s eyes stray to her cell phone to look at texts, I knew I needed to rewrite. If I’m going to compete, I’m going to have to make sure that story is gripping and that I can grab hold. I’m constantly asking myself if a scene was fun. Fun can be defined as: what is scary? Did it gross me out, did it make me shriek, did it make me sigh? I want to make sure the reader’s reaction is an emotional reaction.
With your screenwriting background, are you thinking about movie rights to Inhuman?
It hasn’t gone out yet. My agent has a co-agent in L.A. He was going to wait and let word of mouth accumulate. Disney has the movie rights to Dark Life. They bought the rights before it was published. It’s sitting in a vault somewhere.
If you sell the movie rights to Inhuman, would you like to write the screenplay?
No. Once I’m done with all the editing, I don’t want to see it again. I’ve spent so long with it. And I’m on such a tight schedule for books two and three.
When do you write?
I prefer to write my first drafts at night, and I stay up really late, until 3 or 4 in the morning. I’m just dreamier, I’m looser, at night. Rewriting or doing draft two, I’m great when the kids are in school.
What did you read growing up – and what do you read now?
Sci-fi. They didn’t have YA when I was growing up. I went straight to Stephen King, who was my favorite. I love Dean Koontz. I also read historical romances. And I love Jane Austen, but what woman doesn’t? [These days,] my favorite is Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts [series]. Her dialogue is amazing. And I thought The 5th Wave was brilliant. The Handmaid’s Tale was truly one of my favorite books. What was hard in writing mine was making sure I stayed away from tropes that have been overused at this point.
What changes, if any, did you make to Inhuman near the end?
I kept it clean. My editor and I talked about it. I figured once a 12-year-old hears that manimals are in it, he is going to want to read it. When I finished the last draft, and it was going to ARC, I figured, ‘I don’t need that language.” Instead of “kick-ass girl,” I have “fierce girl.” I took out “shit.” I just changed it to “crap.” It read exactly the same.
You’ve written all of your books in the first person. Why do you like it?
I wrote both series in third person for the first draft. It’s my screenwriting background. [With Dark Life], an agent wrote me back and said, “You should try flipping this into first person.” It was actually an easy flip.
The wiki for Dark Life said the first book in the Fetch series would come out in fall of 2012, but it’s fall 2013. What happened?
It wasn’t done. I had hoped I could write it in a year. I took two years to write Dark Life and nine months to write the second book. I thought I had sped my process up. I had not realized I would do obsessive research. To create the world in a way that was rich for me, it took me too long. I read way too much about viruses.
How much of your research made it into the book?
The virus I modeled the most was syphilis. It’s the one that has this protracted mutation that can go on for 20 years where the subject can get dementia. Look at pictures of syphilis mutations. It’s horrible. Viruses can seriously mutate you. Like leprosy. In a way, I was thinking of the feral zone as a leper colony.
Unlike a lot of other writers, you don’t seem to do much with social media. Why not?
I can’t get on the Internet, or it’s like a pretty shiny object, and I’m like a raccoon, and it will suck me in. If I’m in front of a computer, I should be writing. I have to put that [Internet-blocking] program Freedom on it. Otherwise, I’ll go, “I need to know what they did for quarantines in the 18th century.” I’ll find an hour has gone by. I have to cut myself off from that.
Are you in a writers’ group?
Very much so. I love them. They keep me on schedule. There are four of us: Molly Backes, author of The Princesses of Iowa, and pre-published authors Debbie Kraus and Logan Turner. They’re still working on their novels, but they’re fantastic novels. I couldn’t do it without their feedback. They especially tell me when they know I’m trying to be funny, and it’s not funny.
How does the group work?
It’s exactly like a book group, but we’re reading each other’s writing. A few days before the meeting, we email it. We print it out, mark it up, and bring it with us to the meeting. We spend two hours talking about those 20 pages. It’s very intensive. Whoever’s up is the host and provides snacks – and wine.
You’ve placed collages of cut-out photos propped all over your office. How do they inspire you?
Before I even start writing, I’m gathering images. Then I make the collages. I found pictures, mostly taken from the documentary Life After People that was on the History Channel, and printed them out on cityscapes. What would look like if people weren’t there? I prop these up, and I tape them to the wall depending on what scene I’m writing.
Will you publish one book at the same time each year until the trilogy ends?
I hope so, but I don’t want to commit to that. That is my intention!
Inhuman by Kat Falls. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-545-37099-8