Marieke Nijkamp’s debut, This is Where it Ends, spent an outrageous sixty-four weeks on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, and today, her long-awaited sophomore novel about a complicated friendship, even more complicated grief, and the danger of idealizing illness releases. It’s also the release day of a brand-new voice in YA you won’t soon forget: that of Rachel Lynn Solomon, whose fantastic You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone explores twin sisters, Jewish identity, and moving forward when everything you know changes. We paired them up to chat with each other about settings, characters, goals, and what comes next.
Rachel Lynn Solomon: It’s so great to chat with you, Marieke! The setting of Before I Let Go captivated me from the beginning—even before I read the book, actually, because the cover is so striking and, well, chilling. The fictional town of Lost Creek, Alaska, is truly one of the central characters in this book. You just know as soon as Corey lands in Lost Creek that not everything is as it seems. How did you decide to set the book there, and how did you go about the process of creating this eerie little town?
Marieke Nijkamp: Given the nature of the story, I knew I wanted Lost Creek to be fairly closed off from the world and instead be its own cosmos, following its own rules. I also knew I wanted the setting to be inhospitable, surrounded by a harsh winter. (Though of course it’s people, not nature, who effectively make Lost such a cruel place to be.) So I went hunting for ghost towns in Alaska and found one that fit my vision for this setting. That part is standard for me, by the way. I don’t know why it’s so important to me, but I like knowing that historically speaking, geographically speaking, my fictional towns could be real. #nerd
Anyway, I used that skeleton and went on to build Lost Creek from there, tweaking the rules and the entire concept of what the town considered “normal” as the town took shape. It’s a lot like creating characters, to be honest! (Setting as character is one of my *favorite* things.)
Speaking of creating characters, one of my absolute favorite things about You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, you know, aside from how it’s a fantastic exploration of life, friendship, and religion, is how the central relationship of this book is one of siblings and specifically of twin sisters. What was it like, exploring that?
Solomon: Setting as character is one of my favorites, too. You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone was always going to be about sisters from my very first nugget of an idea. It’s really only half a story without the dual POVs. Sister relationships can be so complicated; sisters love each other so much, but they also know how to hurt each other the worst.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to focus on sisters who are both fiercely ambitious. I think, too often, twins are portrayed as opposites in every way—for example, one will be a slacker, and one will be applying to Harvard. I wanted to explore a different dynamic. While Adina and Tovah don’t have a ton in common, they’re both passionate characters determined to achieve their goals of becoming a viola soloist (Adina) and a surgeon (Tovah). They’re cutthroat at times, unashamed of going after they want. And though their dreams are different, they each harbor the kind of jealousy you can only feel toward a sister, and they often feel eclipsed by the other.
While we’re talking about complex relationships, we’ve got to discuss Corey and Kyra, the best friend whose mysterious death Corey returns to Lost Creek to mourn. Though Kyra’s not alive at the start of the book, you use a nonlinear structure peppered with letters and other narrative devices to help the reader get to know Kyra. She really lights up the page whenever she’s on it. How did you go about forming the layered relationship between Corey and Kyra when Kyra’s not actually in the present-day timeline?
Nijkamp: Goodness, I loved Kyra. For me, the book started with her, this talented, brave, lonely girl who wasn’t accepted by the town she calls home. While the reader experiences the events in Before I Let Go through Corey’s eyes, Kyra is the focal point of the story. She’s always present, even when she’s not. So in the present-day timeline, when she isn’t physically present, she’s still there in the way she’s remembered by Corey, in the way the town has woven a cult-like web around her memory. She’s there in the flashbacks. She has a voice (and that was incredibly important to me) in the letters she wrote to Corey and the notes Corey discovers along the way.
And the tension between all of those allowed me to create those different layers—and even different realities at times. After all, truth and interpretation and the stories we tell about each other are such central themes to the book. The relationships we form change our understanding of the world.
Of course, conversely, when things happen to throw our world off its axis, that also strongly affect our relationships, as Adina and Tovah discover when they get their test results. It doesn’t just change how they relate to each other, but to everyone around them. For example, you also explore their individual relationships with their mother, as she deals with HD.
Solomon: While Adina and Tovah are struggling with the fallout from the test results, their mother’s Huntington’s disease is worsening. I spent a lot of time thinking about the parents in this book because I wanted to show the impact this disease can have on all members of a family, even the ones who aren’t suffering from it themselves.
It was important to me that their mother be a whole, vibrant person. Huntington’s disease could not be her sole defining characteristic. So she enjoys her job as an elementary school teacher, old movie musicals, and knitting, and she has a fun meet-cute backstory with the twins’ dad. The mother-daughter relationships aren’t as central as the sister relationship, but I did really enjoy exploring the different, sometimes tense connections she has with each girl, especially after the test results come back.
Speaking of writing characters who deal with illness or disability, Before I Let Go explores mental illness in a way I haven’t really seen before in YA. In general, there are so many more varied narratives surrounding mental illness than there used to be. How do you feel the way we discuss mental health in YA is changing?
Nijkamp: One thing I noticed in living with disabilities, speaking about disability representation, and discussing disability tropes on the internet, is how often and easily we default to disability as inspiration. Now I wanted to do a lot of things with this book, and I can only hope I managed to pull off some of it, but central from the very first word I put to the page was the knowledge that I wanted to explore that inspiration porn trope… and subvert it. Kyra didn’t live to energize the people around her. She didn’t die to inspire Corey. And she deserved so much more.
That I could do that in YA (with all queer characters nonetheless!) is a testament to how far we’ve come. I’m heartened to see more varied and inclusive narratives surrounding mental illness in YA, as well as more #ownvoices stories. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to mental illness representation and disability representation in a broader sense, we still need far more—and especially (always) far more intersectionality. (And I’m super excited to see what 2018 and beyond will bring in that regard!)
Now to take that awkward segue and wrap this up: what’s next for you?
Solomon: Hardcore cosigning everything you mentioned about disability representation. Up next for me: I’m revising my 2019 contemporary YA, Our Year of Maybe, a dual POV about a kidney transplant between best friends, complicated by the fact that the donor is in love with the recipient. Then I’m planning to rework a YA romantic comedy I drafted last year. I’ll be at ABA Winter Institute at the end of January, and I’m looking forward to setting up some Pacific Northwest events with local authors later this year! What does 2018 hold for you?
Nijkamp: Tour! A few things I can’t talk about yet! Copy edits for Unbroken, my disabled YA anthology! And always, more super queer stories about friendship and heartbreak and probably murder, because that’s how I roll.