Katie Hafner, a seasoned journalist and the author of six nonfiction books, tells me she gave up on writing a novel when, as a young girl, she read Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home. “I thought, I could never do this. But I’ve mellowed and am not so harsh with myself. Maybe I’m not Sylvia Plath, but I can still do it.”
And she has, brilliantly: her debut novel, The Boys, is forthcoming in July from the revamped Spiegel & Grau, which launched as an independent publisher in December 2020 after being a longtime Penguin Random House imprint. It’s Spiegel & Grau’s first acquired novel and the first one it’s publishing.
The Boys brings together the nerdy Ethan and the convivial Barb (“If Barb hadn’t come along, I’m sure my social life would have remained a pathetic zilch, and I’d have suffered my way straight into a solitary middle age,” Ethan muses). They meet in Philadelphia while working at Rita Receptionists, a company whose philosophy is that every call should be answered by a human being, and their first date at Miss Flo’s diner seals the deal when they decide to play every song on the tabletop jukebox. Ethan has some darkness in his past, and he’s enamored when Barb doesn’t probe. They bond over the Furby (that famously annoying electronic toy from the late 1990s) he keeps on his desk and his moonlighting job reverse engineering inventions to settle patent disputes. As he explains it: “It’s like being given a slice of cake... then being told to unbake it and produce the recipe and list the raw ingredients.”
They ultimately marry (at Philadelpia’s Mütter Museum of medical oddities), but after they become foster parents to twin boys, Tommy and Sam, their marriage begins to deteriorate. The pandemic has them together 24/7 as Ethan becomes obsessed with caring for the boys. And when the world loosens up and he takes them on a biking trip in Italy, things really get bizarre.
The very first page of the novel is a letter Ethan receives from Hill and Dale Adventures: “In our 27 years of operation, we have not encountered a guest with requirements as unique as yours. Unfortunately, your unusual circumstances made it difficult for us to meet your needs, and those of your two boys.” The letter concludes with the admonition to never return for future excursions. Intrigued?
The story for The Boys, Hafner says, “fell into her lap” during a bicycle trip in Scandinavia with her daughter in summer 2017. Someone told a story and her daughter said, “That’s a novel!” It was only two to three sentences, but Hafner says that she didn’t want to hear more. “I wanted my imagination to take off. As a reporter you’re tyrannized by facts. I’ve had sleepless nights about tiny things. ‘Did I get that right?’ The novel was a chance to be totally in control. The perils of a journalist writing fiction is going over the top, but I did incorporate my journalistic experience to ground the novel.”
Hafner credits her agent, Jim Levine of Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency, for his “wonderful capacity to believe in his writers beyond what they believe in themselves. He’s the real hero,” she insists. “He never said, ‘Stay in your lane.’ ”
Levine, who has represented Hafner for over a decade, says that sometime after her 2013 memoir, Mother Daughter Me, “she was noodling with the idea of writing a novel and reached out to me. I told her, ‘Go for it. Just put something on the page, the concept, the voice, a scene, some dialogue,’ to see if she had the chops for fiction—which she did.” While Levine says he gave Hafner the impetus and support for her eagerness, he credits his colleague Cristela Henriquez for providing the editorial feedback.
“Jim sent the book around,” Hafner says. “But then I saw a New York Times article about Spiegel & Grau going independent. Julie [Grau] had wanted the memoir that went to Random House.” Hafner notes that Grau told her she’d always thought of her as “the fish that got away.”
In fall 2020 Levine sent The Boys to Cindy Spiegel, who immediately liked it. “Katie is a fan of Cindy and Cindy is a fan of Katie,” Levine says. “And the new company is exciting.” The contract was signed in March 2021 for North American rights.
Spiegel says she’s been following Hafner’s work for years. “I’ve been circling around her and when I got this book, I read it right away,” she says. “I was excited that she was such a good novelist, such literary language. It’s not an easy transition; nonfiction is a whole different way of creating, and Katie pulled it off. The book also has a moving way of thinking of the pandemic. It’s not a big deal in the book, but it’s a reality. This novel is a high-wire feat.” She calls the book “audacious and bold,” adding, “When I got to the second part of the book, I started laughing out loud and couldn’t stop. For a week, I would burst out laughing when I thought of it.”
Spiegel also notes that “Katie wanted a novel with no evil villains; she wanted all the characters to be good. And they are flawed but not evil. The book is smart, literary, serious and fun from the very first page.”
Let me say here that the genius of this novel is its amazing reveal; to say more would be a spoiler. “Katie took a risk,” Spiegel says.” I never saw anything like this in fiction before.”
Neither have I. The Boys is a treat with a surprise inside. Readers will undoubtedly agree.