I always gravitate toward the intense subjects," explains Dutch YA author Marieke Nijkamp, whose debut and follow-up are being brought to U.S. readers by Sourcebooks. "I greatly admire people who can write romance or comedy well, but I love writing tragedy. I love how all-encompassing it is. I love how it's about extremes. I love how it's about change. And I love trying to find hope in the darkness."
Nijkamp certainly does not shy away from heavy subjects. Her first book, This Is Where It Ends (Sourcebooks, 2016), follows four teens whose world is being turned upside down during a school shooting. Her next novel, Before I Let Go (Sourcebooks, 2018), deals with teenage depression, suicide, and the guilt harbored by a girl who feels that she didn't do enough to prevent her friend's untimely death.
Nijkamp began to write This Is Where It Ends after having a conversation with a friend about high school experiences and school safety after a high-profile school shooting, an incident that prompted Nijkamp to try to understand the personal circumstances of the people involved. "I wanted to understand the human stories of a school shooting," Nijkamp says. "Writing This Is Where It Ends, and, specifically, writing it from four points of view, let me explore those stories." In the novel the story takes place in one day, unfolding minute by minute.
Before I Let Go developed in a different way. Nijkamp wanted to explore the themes of grief, friendship, and isolation, which she calls "the stories that shape us." The book tells the story of two girls trapped in a small town. Corey moves away but promises to come back for her best friend, Kyra. But shortly before Corey returns, Kyra dies. "Corey is left to figure out not only what happened, but also what role she herself played in it, and whether she was the best friend she could have been," Nijkamp says. "That's where a lot of her guilt comes from, and I think that's a struggle a lot of us recognize."
The book is set in Lost Creek, Alaska, a moody place that feels destined for tragedy. Nijkamp explains that she loves the idea of setting as character. "As a reader, I love it when a story has such a strong sense of place that whatever happens there couldn't happen anywhere else, for better or for worse,"
she says. "Before I Let Go allowed me to play with that, with this isolated community that has very consciously turned its back on the rest of the world and lives by its own rules. In Lost Creek, winter is harsh and there is no way to escape."
Working on these emotionally intense stories can be stressful, and Nijkamp says that she makes time to decompress while writing. "I had to very consciously make time for things that were not writing related," she says. "So that meant going for long walks, reading a lot, hanging out with friends."
It's not just the writing that keeps Nijkamp busy. Nijkamp has degrees in history and medieval studies, so it's no surprise that she does deep research on her novels' subjects. This research has included reading firsthand accounts of shootings, listening to 911 calls, reading through hundreds of pages of investigative reports, and talking to real-life victims. She has also kept up with news and social-media feeds as active-shooter situations develop and familiarized herself with the psychology of being held at gunpoint. "As much as possible, I immersed myself in what we know about school shootings, though it surprised me at times how very little that is," Nijkamp says.
Nijkamp hopes that her books will help start conversations among teens so that those with depression or mental illness will feel less alone and less stigmatized. But she stresses the importance of seeking help beyond books. "Books can certainly be therapeutic, but so is actual therapy or finding the right medication," she says. "Books can be safe havens, but it's far more important that teens have safety around them in real life too."