Web Exclusive Q&A with Author Kat Falls
Sixteen-year-old Ty lives on the bottom of the ocean floor. He works on his family’s sub-sea homestead, where he grows food for the “Topsiders” who live in stack cities above the water. This modern world is the result of global and economic disaster, forcing people to live in cramped quarters and survive on scarce food and supplies. North Shore author Kat Falls spun the tale of this young boy and his adventures through the rough underworld in Dark Life, the first of her oceanic series. Released May 1, the book combines the interest of her oldest son: the ocean, pioneers, and superheroes. Sheridan Road was lucky enough to chat with Kat while she was busy writing in a forest-enveloped cottage right here in Northbrook. As an author, professor, and mother, Kat told us about all sides of her life and even gave us the inside scoop on her next book, Riptide.
What drew you toward writing for children? Was it your kids?
I hadn’t ever thought about writing for kids before. I have three and I read aloud every night—usually middle grade adventures because they read great aloud. I liked doing chapter books with them rather than picture books when they were little because this way they have to sustain the story and now it’s just ingrained.
I felt like I really knew the form from having read it aloud. When I was coming up with the idea for the book, I was trying to incorporate what my oldest son was reading and interested in at the time. I tried to combine three of his interests into one story as a writing exercise. I had been thinking of film ideas to do as a script, but I knew being underwater would be too expensive. I very quickly decided I’d do it as a middle grade adventure.
What were your son’s three interests that you mixed into the book?
When he was 11, we’d go to the library and he’d always take out books about pioneer kids. His favorite book was Old Yeller for a long time. He loved any book about the ocean; he’d take out giant nonfiction books on dolphins and sharks. And he was obsessed with the X-Men. I figured out I put a pioneer boy under the ocean who gets X-Men-like powers because of the water pressure.
How old are your children now? What do they think about all of success of your book?
14, 11, and 8. They’re thrilled. Their friends read the book, especially the 8- and 11-year-olds’ friends. It’s great because the little sister in the story is based very much on my daughter and her relationship with her big brother.
They love it because I kept the story fast and scary. When I was coming up with the ideas for this, I always tested them out on my kids. I know how kids love gross stuff. Whenever I find something gross about the ocean or a really disgusting ocean creature, I always test it out on them for squirm factor. If they’re revolted, I know I’ve got a winner.
Tell me a little bit about the new book.
I’m right on the brink of finishing. I’ve already completed the first draft and now I’m polishing. It’s called Riptide—the official name as of yesterday. I had been calling it “Cold Sleep” for a long time, but I made a list of metaphors and places in the book and [the publisher] pulled riptide off the list, which is a major setting in the book and also a metaphor that works really well through the story. I always like titles that have double meanings. A riptide is where lots of currents come together in one place and create really turbulent water. This book is about the boy learning about the bigger world. It’s still the ocean frontier, but it’s the top of the ocean rather than the bottom. He’s getting to know the townships, which all have their own agendas and goals.
How do you know so much about the ocean?
I’ve done so much research. I’ve got my handy-dandy reference book that I have with me all the time: Ocean: The World’s Last Wilderness Revealed. But in my office at home, I have so many. This is my favorite because the pictures are so glorious that when I just need to feel like I’m in the ocean, I just spill through this. They have everything: geology, all the rock formations, and different kinds of seaweed. It is my go-to bible. The great thing about the book is, if I went on Google instead, I would get lost for two hours reading about seaweed, at least this contains everything.
When were you at Ragdale? During the writing of this last book?
I was actually at Ragdale right at the end of the first book when I had all of my editors’ notes. That was May last year. And then I was there in January this year, starting this book. I wrote 38 pages there in two weeks. It was my first kickoff. Thirty-eight pages for me in two weeks is a lot. I don’t usually write that fast.
I can’t even tell you how lovely that place is. It’s so warm and nurturing. The entire staff makes you feel so comfortable and lets you do anything you want so there’s no guilt. The friendships I made there were great, it’s like grown-up summer camp.
Prior to this, what type of projects have you been involved with?
I’ve always written stories and had a literary journal in high school. During college, I fell in love with film and was dissecting film stories. When I came out of college, it’s just what I did. I didn’t study film, I went to an engineering school. I moved to New York City with my boyfriend, and I made an independent film that was terrible.
Then I started writing screenplays. The first one I wrote got optioned really fast; a producer fell in love with it, and I thought this was easy and “Look! I got this check.” It actually didn’t occur to me to consider another form because I was so in love with film. After my first son, I couldn’t fly to L.A., I couldn’t take meetings, and I was annoying the agent I had out there. So I tried writing an adult thriller, which is now in a drawer where it deserves to be. But it was a good learning jump.
What drew you to Northwestern and the North Shore?
My mom grew up in Oak Park, and I knew Chicago from our grandmother. I came to Northwestern for the MFA program. I was living in New York, and they offered me money to go to school there. I was really excited and I studied under [the famous mystery writer] Stuart Kaminsky. I got my MFA in two years, and I was completely ready to move to L.A. I had my U-Haul packed, I had a job lined up as a script reader, and then realized I had fallen in love with Chicago and I didn’t like L.A.—I never did. I couldn’t see myself living there; I thought I’d be very unhappy. So I canceled my U-Haul, and my best friend, who was going to go with me, said, “Alright. If you’re not going, I’m not going either.” And then I met my husband two weeks later. So I feel like I was supposed to stay here.
How did you end up in Evanston? Was it Northwestern?
When we got married, we were actually living in the city. We lived in Wicker Park. I always thought after living in Evanston for two years during grad school that when I was old and married with kids, I’d move back because it seemed like such a perfect place to raise kids. All of sudden, I woke up one day and I realized I was old and married with three kids, and I didn’t even know how it happened! Trying to teach a kid how to ride a bike on North Avenue doesn’t work. So I thought it was time to move.
How long have you been teaching at NU?
Six years. My best friend, who has since moved, was teaching at Northwestern and he told me I should just teach a class. My kids were no longer toddlers. There was a period of time when I had three little ones, where I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t teaching—you’re just doing this intense caretaking, where you kinda lose yourself and you’re just putting out fires every day. I really felt like I was losing part of myself—the writer part. I was just throwing ideas in files. I knew I would write again, but when you’re in the thick of it, it feels like you’re never going to. Emotionally, I just felt used up.
My friend was great; he found a way for me to teach just one class. When we had TA-ed together at Northwestern (we got our MFAs together), he knew how much I loved it. I had so much fun: I love meeting the students, reading their work, critiquing it, and talking about scenes and stories with them. I just teach one class here and there, I can’t do any more. Balancing the whole juggling act of parenting, writing, and teaching can be difficult.