Alternate realities and what-ifs plunge readers into a moody world created by Kate Hope Day. Her debut, If, Then, is a family drama with a tinge of sci-fi mixed into it.
Set in the very atmospheric Pacific Northwest, Day follows an ambitious couple – Ginny and Mark – as their professional and personal lives begin to crumble. Woven into their story are two other neighbors whose lives are also plagued with questions of how their lives could have turned out.
I chatted with Kate Hope Day about how her background as an academic and her obsession with Lost helped create her thrilling debut.
How were literature and writing introduced to you as a kid?
My dad is an English professor and my mom is a librarian. I definitely grew up with a lot of books in the house and reading was something we did every night before bed. I grew up wandering college campuses and going after school to where my mom worked to wander the stacks. It’s no wonder I grew up to study literature in college and grad school. I grew up fully preparing to be a college English professor myself, but I am very grateful life took a little turn and I get to write books as opposed to writing critical essays about them.
You have a Ph.D. from Pitt, was your career path always going to be a professor then?
I worked for a bit for HBO and I always had an interest in photography and film, but I missed the written word. I went to grad school and planned on being an academic. I graduated in 2008 during the economic downturn. Most universities lost their funding. I also had my first kid that year and I began to wonder if that is what I really wanted. To be an academic, you have to want it so much. You have to be willing to live in maybe somewhere you don’t want to live or be prepared to move around.
That year was when I got the idea for this book. I began a different dream; one that suits me better.
How did the idea for If, Then come into mind in 2008?
I can pinpoint it to two big life changes that got me thinking about life’s what-ifs. I had my first kid and we moved to Oregon. It was very different from everywhere I had lived.
Having my first child got me thinking about the feeling of being split in two. I was the person I was before I had a kid and then the person after. Also, the sense of wanting to be in two places at once. That was the central emotional impulse behind the book. The book is much broader than that. We all have those narratives in our heads: what if I didn’t take that job or what if I had stayed in that relationship. You have these parallel narratives in your mind that are ongoing, especially if you make a change.
Moving to Oregon is a place that is very unique. It has interesting geology and has a magical sense to it with strange, unpredictable weather. I was inspired to write something that was set in Oregon. It’s the perfect place to think of strange things to happen in the novel.
As someone who didn’t go to an MFA program, how did you go about writing this novel?
I had to learn how to write a novel as I went along. I would write a little then go back an do some structure work. By the time I had a second full draft, I had a lot of plot charts and emotional arc charts. There are four characters, and I would often break them out and look at them like their own novella to see what each section was doing to make sure I was hitting all the moments of emotional development I wanted to get to.
With the alternate realities, I had to have the timeline of the four characters plus four characters. I had a Google calendar to try to match it up to a certain time of year to make sure everything was consistent.
How was learning to write a novel and transitioning from that academic frame of mind?
I can’t say enough how helpful it is to spend seven years [in school] just reading novels. I personally would not trade that for a traditional MFA. Part of what I studied in graduate school was narrative theory and structure. I spent a lot of time looking at the structure of a novel. When I was teaching, my students and I would outline the structure on the board to follow the character arc and other aspects of the novel. Writing fiction is a different beast though. I had a certain knowledge that was part of my bones, but I had to learn how to write dialogue and put characters together in a scene.
I maybe had a quicker learning curve because of the past experiences I had, but I still worked a lot on learning the craft of writing a novel. The structural components definitely came easier for me.
What literary crafts were the hardest for you to get right?
When I started writing, I definitely led into that more intellectual mode where my characters were thinking alone and having interior struggles. The hardest thing for me to do was to get characters out into the world to do physical things and interact with each other. The irony is now I have gotten so much more comfortable writing physical scenes with proactive dialogue that my critique group has to remind me to go back to write those interior scenes.
Were these ideas of multiple realities something that always interested you?
I have two answers. The first one is my serious answer.
In graduate school, I spent quite a bit of time taking classes in philosophy, history of philosophy, and science. I had the experience of reading that kind of work so that when I had the idea for the book I went back and read people who are working in metaphysics and counterfactual theory. Any time you read a book it’s like stepping into an alternate reality.
My more cheeky answer is that I am still processing the show Lost. I’m still trying to understand some piece of that. Someone asked me why I think there are so many projects in the air right now about the multiverse and different realities like Russian Doll and The OA or Stranger Things. The creator of Russian Doll said it took her seven years to get the project going, which is just about as long as it took me to get my book done.
I think maybe all of us are just trying to figure out some part of the mystery of Lost. I also think there are reasons right now we might want to think about different ways events may have unfolded and different universes where it did.
That makes sense. Lost went off the air in 2010, which was nine years ago. It’s an interesting cycle. Lost inspired lots of people in many ways but people couldn’t write what inspired them right then because they would be accused of copying the ideas. So you wait two years, spend seven years working on it, and here we are.
Patrick Somerville, who created Netflix’s Maniac also wrote a book called The Cradle which was inspired by a storyline in Lost where a character creates a cradle for a baby. When I heard that, I realized I wasn’t alone in being preoccupied with the show.
It’s interesting how certain cultural moments will happen and then it takes artists so many years beyond that to have their own take on the topic.
I was just re-reading the Kirkus review and it ends with “a suburban drama built to leap from page to screen.” Is that something in the works?
Yes. It is in the works and I can talk about one part of it. Another part is not public yet and it’s killing me. The part I can talk about is that it has been optioned by Heyday Films, who helped create the Harry Potter movies and Gravity with the hopes of making it into a TV series. It’s a neat process that had its ups and downs, but I am very excited about it. I have a little bit of a TV background myself, so it has been interesting being a part of how this book would work over many seasons. That’s a very different thing than a novel. The novel is around 75,000 words; it’s a tight book in terms of storyline. A series needs to be fleshed out. It’s been interesting talking to the woman who has been adapting it and writing the pilot.
A little bonus question: I asked Julie Langsdorf this the other day. I know you and Julie are friendly and are big supporters of one another. If people loved If, Then, what will they love about her book White Elephant?
The books are two sides of the same coin. Her book is about neighbors as well. There is the same kind of family drama. If you enjoy the darkness and strangeness of If, Then but you’re needing something with a sharp wit to get you going after the fog and moodiness of my book, then you couldn’t do better than White Elephant.
Both of us used Tom Perrotta as a model for several things. We used his books to figure out how to structure ours with pacing and moving in between characters. If you like Perrotta, you’ll like our books. Mine is more like The Leftovers and hers is like Little Children.