What kind of question would you like answered?

Q: Colin mentions the hole he feels in his stomach. Did you get the idea because you had felt it before?

I wrote all these stories in high school and college in which I called that gnawing stomach pain “the night feeling,” because for most of my life I experienced it primarily at night.

(The feeling, insofar as I can tell, is some variant of worry/fear/sadness/insecurity/etc. I still get it, although now I often feel the physical pain of sadness or anxiety in different places, especially the center of my chest, which is why you will sometimes notice me pressing my ribcage when I’m on stage or in public or talking to someone.)

So that particular observation came from my own past. But more generally when writing Katherines I was interested in how false the distinctions are between mind, spirit, and body. Constructing the mind as separate from the body can be useful at times, but it can also be really destructive, as it is for Colin.

Q: How did you come up with the unique format in which you wrote the book?

The structure of the book was all about trying to deconstruct what makes a story work, what organizational tactics help a narrative make sense in the mind of one’s audience.

This is something Colin struggles with very openly, but in a way all the characters in the novel are dealing with the problem of story—or at least the problem of collecting and sharing their stories in a way that will make people listen and pay attention.

So the novel has 19 chapters for obvious reasons, but it’s interspersed with these jumbled flashbacks through which Colin is trying to organize his thoughts and feelings.

This was meant to reflect the relationship we have between chronological narrative and emotional narrative.

Q: When you were writing the book, did you come up with personalities for the different Katherines or were they just numbers?

Not really. Very early on in the process of writing the book, I wrote a draft of the long list that Colin finally shares with Lindsey when he’s learned some things about how to organize facts into narratives.

Obviously, I had to rewrite the list a lot as I discovered things about the plot and the Katherines, but the important thing to me was that Colin really doesn’t distinguish among them (except for K-19), because to Colin this whole process is identical, and he’s so focused on HIS role in it (as dumpee) that everyone else is dehumanized/diminished.

Q: Were there any other title ideas?

No, I actually came up with the title before I came up with the book.

After college, for a strange project that is too complicated even to get into right now, I created this fictional bibliography of books written by a fictitious author, and one of them was called, An Abundance of Katherines and was about an anagrammatic genius. It was just a total throwaway thing; the same fictitious author wrote many other books about many other obscure topics. But that one stuck with me

Q: Colin is so very different from most of your characters...Why did you decide to write a character like him?

So we tend to imagine love monolithically, especially when we’re talking about romantic love. There is this assumption that everyone’s experience of romantic love is identical, and that romantic love is this THING sitting out there somewhere that you eventually stumble upon (or as the saying goes, fall in to).

But in fact, romantic love is different for every person who experiences it, because all of our brains are wired differently, and this is especially the case for someone like Colin, whose brain is exceptionally good at making certain kinds of connections but not particularly good at making connections that would traditionally be seen as emotional.

I wanted to write about this, and even find a way to celebrate it, because I do not think it’s fair only to imagine romantic love as a thing. And so I wanted to write about Colin, because I wanted to argue that people like Colin can and do make emotional connections; we just aren’t defining the words emotion and love broadly enough when we talk about them.

Plus I wanted to write a story about story (I’m kind of obsessed with stories and what they do/why they matter; see also, TFiOS), and I wanted to write about a character for whom understanding the importance and nature of narrative is a matter of legitimately high stakes—so his kind of a brain was a natural fit for the theme.

Q: Where did you come up with the idea for the footnotes? And where was the first one used?

In college, I often felt like most of the really interesting stuff in academic nonfiction was in the footnotes, because that’s where the author’s voice came through.

Also, I’d read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which contains a lot of endnotes, and I loved them, because:

1. They can function as a kind of competing narrative that comments upon and—for lack of a better word—problematizes the central narrative.

2. Also, sometimes exceptionally intelligent people (like David Foster Wallace or Colin or E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver) feel this need to qualify and refine and analyze everything they say, because they feel this urge to be both understood and intellectually precise. They want to be both very clear and very accurate.

Footnotes can serve as a way of attempting to achieve that precision and clarity. But I think that at least on some levels, precision and clarity are in competition with each other.* As discussed in the novel, human memory is not in the accuracy business; it’s in the narrative business. Colin eventually starts to feel that when it comes to being understood, telling stories empathetically works best.

* Like, eventually footnotes and endnotes and footnotes-within- footnotes and so on in the ceaseless attempt to be clear in precisely what you are trying to say leads to the reader being confused and annoyed and altogether less engaged. 

 

 

Q: Do you have saved drafts of when the novel was in first person? Can we read them?

I do have those drafts, yes, and you can read them all if you outlive me, because they will all go to a university library. But until then, I don’t want to share any of my work in pre-published form, because I worked very hard to make the book I wanted to make and I don’t want to compromise the story by introducing competing narratives—particularly ones
I’m not happy with. 

Q:  Katherines is written in third person unlike the rest of your books. Why? Did you ever try writing in first person?

I felt like Katherines needed to be written in third person, because it’s about a guy whose brain does not lend itself to narratives, and who struggles to tell stories in ways that other people find interesting.

For a while I tried to write it in first person with all these tangents and footnotes to the foot and the story never really moving forward.

But it was infuriating to read, and I felt like it was already challenging enough to empathize with Colin. My hope was that creating a little narrative distance would make it easier to understand Colin.

Q: It seems unrealistic that Colin would have so many girlfriends named Katherine. How did you pick the number nineteen?

Well, it’s totally unrealistic that Colin would have so many girlfriends, let alone girlfriends named Katherine. I wanted it to be a high enough number that it was completely impossible. (I chose 19 because it is prime—but more than 17 and less than 23.)

You eventually learn that Colin’s definition of “dating” a girl is very different from, like, anyone else’s definition, but even so, it’s a ridiculously high number.

I wanted to establish right at the outset that this was not going to be a typical realistic fiction novel, but instead something of a magically realist one. In all of my books, there are fantastical elements—I grew up reading and loving magical realism, and I think it made me unafraid of telling impossible stories as if they weren’t impossible.

With Katherines, I wanted these fantastical elements to be grounded in reality, but only just barely. (Like, it is possible if you live in the city of Chicago to date 19 girls named Katherine. It just isn’t…you know…possible.) Colin’s entire life is lived out on that edge of possibility, and what causes him so much pain is that the process of growing up is pulling him away from being oh-so-special toward being just another human.

I wanted to try to express that phenomenon in a bunch of different ways.

Q: What was your inspiration for Colin?

I’d been interested in child prodigies ever since I read Salinger, so that was a big part of it, probably. I’m very conscious of the debt that I, like all YA writers, owe to Salinger, but I’m also very conscious of the size of his shadow. The Glass kids–Salinger’s original prodigies–are more than sixty years old now. I wanted to try to write about a different kind of prodigy with a different set of anxieties.

Q: What inspired you to write An Abundance of Katherines?

I’m really interested in why we are all so obsessed with mattering–why peoplein our historical moment are so fixated on fame and notoriety and leaving a legacy. (It says something the word “individual” did not take on its current meaning until the 18th century.) So that was part of it. Also, at some point in your adolescence you become aware that you are not quite so special as you’ve been led to believe, and this is a pretty difficult thing to reconcile, and I wanted to write about a young man who was experiencing that in the most extreme way possible.

Also, I wanted to write a book about getting dumped, because I’d just been dumped when I decided to write the book. But then I started dating the woman who is now my wife very early in the process of writing the book, so I had to write this story of a bitter, angry guy railing against his exes while I myself was falling in love.