It starts with an itch you just can't shake. Then comes a fever and a tickle in your throat. A few days later, you'll be blabbing your secrets and chatting with strangers like they’re old friends. Three more, and the paranoid hallucinations kick in.
And then you're dead.
Really, in this day of super bugs and super viruses, is that not one of our worst nightmares? Well, hold on to your box of Kleenex because Megan Crewe has written a powerful, gripping, creepy tale of just such an occurrence--and how one girl struggles to hold on to her humanity among such a crisis.
As BOOKLIST said: "This is the kind of book that makes you look up in alarm when someone near you sniffles. It viscerally conveys the horror of sudden, brutal illness and the struggle between being humane and saving your own skin."
This is very true, as I started the book when I had a cold and it so creeped me out I had to put it aside until I was well again. So I was very excited to be able to interview Megan about her new book!
1. The virus in THE WAY WE FALL is so realistic—it plays into all my worst hypochondriac fears! What sort of research did you do? Did you become germ-phobic while writing the book and find yourself washing your hands twenty times a day, just to be on the safe side?
Megan: It was very important to me to make my virus as realistic as possible, so I read several books about viruses and epidemics (the key ones are mentioned in the book's acknowledgements). I also checked some of my ideas with an author I was acquainted with, Jacqueline Houtman, who to my good luck also happens to be a microbiologist. I've always found viruses and epidemics scary, and it was pretty terrifying realizing that the facts are even more frightening than what I already knew. I've definitely become even more careful about hand-washing and other precautions like not touching my face when I'm out in public places.
2. What most surprised you about your virus research? Did any of the research take the story in a new or unexpected direction?
Megan: I think was surprised me the most is how mysterious many viruses still are to scientists. Even though Ebola first emerged 35 years ago, no one's sure where it came from or how to prevent new outbreaks for happening. I read about a case in the US not long ago where people started dying mysteriously, and it took weeks before doctors were able to determine the cause was a virus. After seeing this, I had to revise my imagined timeline for the story: how quickly the doctors would realize there was a real problem, how soon they might be able to test for it and attempt to create a vaccine. It also made me decide not to specify the source of the virus, because it seemed implausible that anyone would have figured that out in the timeline of the story, especially as they're losing resources. Which suited me just fine, because I think it's creepier not being sure how the virus emerged!
3. The journal entries were such an intriguing way to tell this story. How did you come to choose that form?
Megan: When I first started planning THE WAY WE FALL, I wasn't thinking of writing it as a journal. But as I figured out what sort of story I wanted to tell and imagined it on the page, I felt more and more that journal format was the only way that story could be properly told. I wanted my main character's relating of what was happening her to be part of the book, for it to feel like a record left by someone who was living through the epidemic, and to capture all the little moments that can make a big difference in a desperate situation, but are hard to fit into a more traditional narrative structure. My idea of how a journal format story could work was influenced by Susan Beth Pfeffer's novel LIFE AS WE KNEW IT, which I'd read a few years earlier. I found the format worked extremely well to make the events in her story feel real, and my appreciation of it stuck with me.
4. Which of the characters do you have the most in common with?
Megan: Definitely my protagonist, Kaelyn. In fact I'd say Kaelyn's probably the most like me (or at least, like me as a teen) out of all of the characters in all my books. Like her, I often feel socially awkward and uncertain, and I was even more so as a teenager. I gave her my love of animals, because it fit her character and made an interesting trait, but also because a lot of the information I needed her to know I'm familiar with myself, which made her easier to write authentically. The way she thinks and expresses herself is very similar to how I wrote in my own journals at that age.
5. The epidemic is such a ‘trial by fire’ for Kaelyn. Do you have an event or trauma in your past that shaped you in a similar way?
Megan: Nothing like what Kaelyn goes through, thankfully! And I think, unlike Kaelyn, I've always had a pretty strong sense that I deserve to be able to pursue my dreams, so I didn't have quite so much insecurity to overcome. The most difficult period I've faced was a struggle with depression in my early twenties. For a time, I wasn't able to feel enthusiastic or passionate about anything, including my writing. Being through that made me appreciate how important it is to have passions and pursue them, how empty life is without them. Since then I've tried as much as possible to focus my attention on the activities and people I love, and to cut out those that get me down.
6. Kaelyn has a number of epiphanies through her interaction with and observation of nature. Has that been true for you as well?
Megan: Growing up in a large city, I haven't had as much chance to observe nature as Kaelyn has. But I did read a lot about wildlife, and we always had pets in the house, and it fascinated me to see how animal behavior is often reflected in the ways people behave.
7. THE WAY WE FALL was so different from your first book, GIVE UP THE GHOST. Did that worry you at all while you were writing it? Did you have a sense that it would be a much ‘bigger’ book than your first one?
Megan: The funny thing is, I actually don't think TWWF is *that* different GHOST. First person teenage girl narrators. Somewhat anti-social main characters. Contemporary setting with a speculative twist. Dark themes relating to death. You see? :)
The part I was concerned about is the journal format, because this is the first book I've written using that style, and I was worried both about whether I was pulling it off effectively and whether it would turn off readers (there seem to be a fair number of people who just don't like the format). Several times I second-guessed myself, but I just couldn't see writing the story any other way. And to be honest, I never thought of TWWF as being a "big" book--it seemed kind of quiet and thoughtful to me (which I also worried about, but that was the story I wanted to write, so I went with it). I've been taken aback by but incredibly grateful for the enthusiasm with which it's been received.
Thank you, Megan, for answering our questions and best of luck to you on your newest book!