Erin McCahan began her career writing for adults, but, through her work as a youth minister, quickly realized her true audience was teens. Her third novel for young readers, The Lake Effect, is set against the backdrop of Lake Michigan; it follows 18-year-old Briggs Henry during a pivotal summer before college, while he works for an eccentric old woman and reckons with his vision for his future vs. that of his father. McCahan spoke with PW about her love of Lake Michigan, intergenerational friendship stories, and her first experience writing a male lead.
How did you come to writing for teens?
I tried over the course of 17 years to write for the mainstream adult audience. I had weird little successes, but was never published. I worked as a youth minister, with 12- to 18-year-olds, and thought, “I’ve got tons of fodder right in front of me.” So I tried writing YA and boom—I sold a book.
What was your road to publication like?
During that first 17 years it was awful and rocky. Rejections are awful. My journey included a con artist agent, too. It was when the internet was just getting popular. I kept getting weird letters from a woman, offering to publish my book for $300. I was strung along for a year while in grad school and finally communicated with Diana Gabaldon in a lit forum on CompuServe, who told me it was a scam! Later, I discovered a book, Ten Percent of Nothing, written by FBI agent Jim Fisher, about that same scammer agent!
I sold my first YA book with an agent, though that agent is no longer in the field. I had sent out three dozen queries, and received a response from an agent saying that my manuscript wasn’t for him, but a friend was looking for something similar. In 2014, when my first agent left, my editor at Scholastic suggested the names of four potential agents to approach. I contacted Faye Bender, who has since become a friend in addition to agent.
You’ve now published three novels for young adult readers. How has the YA publishing world and community changed since I Now Pronounce You Someone Else was published in 2010?
I think the YA audience is much bigger now. There are so many choices now. More adults are reading YA, too. It’s become more accepted; adults no longer have to be closet readers of YA because there’s not as much stigma attached. The writers of YA are better too because there’s such a broad audience.
What inspired the plot of your most recent novel, The Lake Effect? When you begin a new project, where do you usually begin?
Lake Michigan. Some people find inspiration from the mountains, the desert, or woods, but I’m inspired by Lake Michigan. I see the creator behind creation there; it’s meditation and prayer; it’s invigorating and calming. I wanted to make the lake inseparable from the plot.
From the start, I knew I wanted an intergenerational story and I knew I wanted it set on the beach. These two pieces were around for a couple years before I had an actual plot.
I tend to chew on an idea until I have a beginning and an end. I don’t outline because I know the middle will change.
What finally clicked?
I didn’t want to tell a story that’s already been told. A life-changing experience has to happen for a story to be YA. Profound tragedy usually happens to the protagonist, but by the numbers, that thing is not going to happen to most readers. Take texting and driving PSAs. Accidents involving texting and driving are going to happen, even if it’s not going to happen to you specifically. Teens aren’t necessarily reckless, they just know the odds are in their favor. So, I thought, how do I get a life-changing moment for Briggs that actually happens to those around him?
The Lake Effect is set in the beach town of South Haven, Michigan. Why this particular beach town? Were you already familiar with South Haven?
My husband and I have been going to South Haven for 15 years. I grew up going to Grand Haven, an hour north of South Haven. When my husband and I were newly married he saw South Haven online and wanted to visit. We went once and immediately fell in love.
South Haven is everything that I think the book is. Quirky, interesting, complicated, diverse, fun, and relaxing. And again, there’s that lake.
Each of your characters have singular and distinct personalities (especially the eccentric Mrs. B). How do you approach character creation?
I keep my characters in my head for so long before I start writing that I can see them (metaphorically). They become so real to me that, at the end of a day spent writing alone, I feel like I’ve been with people.
You tend towards writing multi-generational and inter-generational friendship stories. What appeals to you about this type of story?
It’s such rich material to me. Plus, I really loved my grandparents; they and their friends were such characters. Being with my grandparents offered a break from what I perceived as the monotony of my teenage life. Everything in high school felt the same; it was a ball being around my grandparents. Intergenerational relationships can be complicated, fun, and heart-wrenching; there is so much depth to those stories. And they can be hilarious. I realized this when working with the youth group; the interactions between the old ladies and the kids were always hilarious.
Your most recent book tackles pushing back against expectations, parental and otherwise. Did you work from personal experience?
It was more my husband’s experience with his father. His first career was in business because his dad was in business and would not entertain the idea of my husband going into anything else. He hated it. My husband then went back to undergrad to get the needed science credits to go to medical school. I took a lot of the elements of my husband and his father’s awfully fraught relationship and gave them to Briggs and his father.
This is your first time writing a novel from a male point of view. Was this notably different than your experience writing female leads?
It was so hard! I wrote a huge chunk, maybe a third, in third person. I sent the pages to my editor and she asked for it back in first person. For weeks I had nothing. I thought there was no way I could write in the voice of an 18-year-old guy. When I finally hit on short chapters, I got his voice. It just worked.
Did you do research to portray a male first-person point of view?
I drew on my experience of working with teens [as a youth minister] and every once in a while I called friends with teenaged sons with questions. Facebook was a huge help. I admit that I “Facebook stalked” the teenaged sons of Facebook friends.
What types of novels do you gravitate towards in your own reading? What have you read recently and recommend?
I read more nonfiction than fiction. I enjoy social history and just started a biography of Washington Irving. I’m late to the party, but I also just finished All the Light We Cannot See. I’m a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut, too.
What can you tell us about your next project?
I’m not committed to my next project yet; it would be such a departure from everything else I’ve written. I’m chewing on an idea that does not lend itself to humor in any way, which makes me hesitate. I don’t have anything on paper yet!
The Lake Effect by Erin McCahan. Dial, $17.99 Jul. 11 ISBN 978-0-8037-4052-5