Miranda Kenneally is probably best known for her Hundred Oaks series, stand-alone books that feature girls who attend the same high school in Tennessee. Her latest addition is Breathe, Annie, Breathe, which introduces Annie Winters, a newly graduated senior from Hundred Oaks High, whose boyfriend, Kyle, has recently died. To honor his memory, she decides to train for the Country Music Marathon in Nashville despite a deep-seated aversion to running. What she isn’t counting on, however, is Jeremiah, a fellow runner and extreme-sports junkie, whose sudden interest might complicate her life and compromise her training. PW spoke with Kenneally about her new story and how it fits into the Hundred Oaks series.
You now live in Washington, D.C., but are originally from Tennessee. What still appeals to you about Tennessee as a setting?
It’s honestly just what I know. It’s where I grew up. I have such an emotional connection to Tennessee that it just makes sense to set these stories there.
Throughout the new novel, Annie is grieving for a boyfriend she cared deeply about, and the process she goes through seemed realistic. Were there any real-life events that inspired this story?
Actually, no. My grandfather and my aunt died when I was a teen and they were very important to me. But I never lost a close friend or someone I really cared about in high school. I did know a girl in school whose boyfriend died and I remember seeing how it affected her, mostly in terms of how she reacted to it, like turning to alcohol so she wouldn’t remember what was going on. But most of the feelings [Annie felt] were my own. This story took a lot of revisions, because at first Kyle wasn’t coming across as a real person. I actually had to write scenes between Annie and him that didn’t end up in the book, but that helped bring him to life.
Flashbacks play a key role in this story, since that’s how we learn about Annie’s and Kyle’s relationship and how he died. How did you approach writing a story where you have to weave two stories together?
It was very difficult. Generally, you want to start writing where the story starts – which I felt was when Annie began training for the marathon to honor Kyle’s memory. My editors thought I should start where Kyle dies. I knew, though, that I wasn’t going to be able to show him on the pages in real time.
I actually considered having the running schedules that start each chapter be his, and having the training notes be his as well. But that seemed to take away from Annie and her other love interest. It also gave Kyle too much of a voice. So it seemed best to just weave Kyle’s story in with Annie’s random thought processes. I probably spent more time thinking about this – how to tell Kyle’s story – than any other part.
You mention in the acknowledgments that you trained for and ran a marathon. Was that part of your research for this book? How much of your training experience mirrored Annie’s?
I am not nearly as good a runner as I used to be. I can’t go out and run 10 miles anymore. But I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2005. And I ran the Country Music Half Marathon in Nashville in 2004. But I didn’t get the idea for this book until 2011. Still, I definitely used my own experiences from those runs. For instance, when I trained, I had all sorts of stomach problems. Like Annie, I couldn’t figure out what to eat. I tried to give Annie all the same gross problems I had such as blisters and chafing, to make the book seem as realistic as possible.
Annie’s marathon starts as a way to honor her boyfriend’s memory but turns into something else. Without giving too much away, what do you think is the message of her journey?
Annie didn’t think she’d be able to [run a marathon] at the beginning of the book. But she keeps working and studying and getting the help she needs so she is ultimately able to go after her goals. She figures out that it is okay to lean on other people. She learns we all grieve in different ways and in our own time.
Many of your Hundred Oaks protagonists seem to be athletic, competitive girls. What makes Annie unique compared to the other girls in your series so far?
I will say that my girls, or at least those in two or three of the books, are much more athletic. Annie’s more of a normal girl. People ask me if I was a jock in high school. I am actually pretty bad at sports. But I ran a marathon. So, eventually, did Annie.
I think readers will relate more to Annie because she doesn’t have that athletic background. I want to make my girls relatable. Readers tell me they weren’t always able to relate to a character in one of my books because of the sports they played, but they could relate to her in other ways, like her romance. This will be the first book that readers might be able to relate to my main character because of the challenges she faces in her sport.
Jeremiah is another runner that Annie feels a connection with pretty quickly, despite her grief and longing for Kyle. Where did the inspiration for his character come from?
In my third book, Things I Can’t Forget, Jeremiah’s older brother, Matt, was the love interest. Jeremiah had just a few sentences and was in only one scene but made such an impression on me. All he did in high school was play sports and talk about girls. I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to explore the ramification of those actions. In this book, he struggles with keeping his family happy and doing the other things he likes, like being a daredevil – and finding a life balance like Annie. In terms of where he came from, though, I have no idea. I just started writing, and he kind of showed up.
What other familiar Hundred Oaks characters might readers expect to see pop up in this book?
They will see Jordan Woods and Sam Henry, Ty Green and Matt Brown. Those are probably the big four.
Can you tell us anything about the next book in your series?
I think it’s coming out in July 2015. No title yet but it’s about a girl who is a musician. She gets the opportunity to shadow a really famous young country singer. And, of course, it changes both of their lives. It’s partially inspired by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Breathe, Annie, Breathe by Miranda Kenneally. Sourcebooks Fire, $16.99 July ISBN 978-1-4022-8479-3