My ideas really come from everywhere. A conversation I have with a friend, an article I've read, old folk tales, completely out of the blue. Yes, even dreams can be fodder for story ideas. Often, it's a character who comes to me first to tell me a little about her or his life. Other times, I get just enough of an idea to jot down a paragraph overview of the story. That's about the most outlining I do, actually, that first blurb of an idea. From then on, the story grows as I write, with a combination of character development dictating the story and surprise twists--even to me! I have tried strict outlining on paper or in a program, but I find that I'm too willing to toss off the outline when my story takes a new direction and, for me, it isn't terribly effective. That doesn't mean I don't outline at all--it just means that my outlining takes place in my head, during non-writing moments, in preparation for the next scene. I do a lot of staring off into the distance.
As for research, I do a lot of it. I'm a Google search junkie and sometimes fall down the most interesting internet black holes in my quest for knowledge. Which can actually lead to more story ideas.
2. Nobody But Us tackles a variety of hard-hitting issues from foster care to domestic abuse to teenage sexuality. Was there ever a point you thought about toning it down? Or did you know going in you would address these issues?
The original manuscript was even tougher than the final product in the sense that the characters had less relief in the course of their lives than they do now. It was important to insert "good things" as well as the not-so-good. As for toning it down . . . no. Not because I hated my characters or anything like that, but because this is realistic fiction and these kinds of issues--abuse, teenage sexuality, difficulties in foster care, especially for older teens--happen. Not all the time, of course. Not every abused girl falls through the cracks. Not every fostered teen faces struggles the way Will does. But some do. The systems meant to protect our children are put into motion every day by people who care and work hard, but are often overwhelmed. And the system in place isn't perfect, especially for those who need help beyond a roof and a meal, like these characters.
Going in, one of the themes that hit me strongest from the beginning and stayed with me the whole way through was this idea that kids and teens slip through the cracks, and what happens when there isn't anyone to pull them back through? One of Will's fundamental struggles in the story is how he can become the man he knows he supposed to be when he's never had a good role model, when he's never had anyone say to him "this is how you become great," when no one, before Zoe, has ever cared that he does (and the one time this comes close to happening is shrouded in guilt). With Zoe, I wondered how a girl, a super book-smart girl, navigates a world that she's afraid to face? I don't think the issues are easy to read, but they're questions that intrigued me as I wrote.
3. I said in my review that this book ripped my heart out. Did you ever think to maybe, just maybe, give Zoe and Will a happily ever after?
I know, I am MEAN, MEAN, MEAN! There are moments when writing this story that I waffled a bit. I'd think "C'mon Kristin, their lives are so CRAPPY! Can you really do this last horrible thing to them?" Honestly, though, the ending was the same from the very beginning of this idea and, despite my pity for these characters, never changed. I have my own theories as to why that is, but I'm reluctant to tell them because I'd rather my readers determine for themselves how and why Will and Zoe weren't meant to have a happy ending.
(To be fair, in my mind, the character who narrates the last chapter does eventually get a happy ending--or at least heals over time, grows, throws off the chains of cyclical abuse and find joy in life. How? Because that character finally gets the support s/he needs but didn't get before.)
4. Do you have any future books planned/written?
I have lots of novels in process! I'm one of those that works on several projects at one time. There's another contemporary to come in 2014. I have hopes that there will be a rather quiet middle grade magical realism out in the world at some point. I'm also working on a gothic horror retelling of an old French tale, a third contemporary taking me back to dual POV with a travel element and am starting to worldbuild for an epic fantasy story that won't leave me alone. It's enough to keep me busy for a while!
5. What books are you most looking forward to in 2013?
I'm so lucky to have read a number of fabulous books coming out in 2013 already--Charm and Strange by Steph Kuehn (made me weep!), Starglass by Phoebe North, Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley. I'm also looking forward to getting my hands on Marissa Meyer's Scarlett and the next book in Rachel Hartman's Seraphina series, plus the last book in the Divergent series.
6. If you had a $50 gift card to spend at the book retailer of your choice, what books would you buy?
I'm a big-time library user, so the books I actually buy tend to be well-cultivated: books I want to read over and over again. Books I simply adore. Books whose authors have impressed me so much I blindly buy and read anything they release. I would like to add a couple of Melina Marchetta's earlier books to my library (I've read them all, but don't have them all). I would probably also replace my well-worn copy of the Anne of Green Gables series. It's a classic I turn to often, when I simply want to read something lovely and comforting. And I'd probably get a cookbook or two. Something focused on the foods of India or foraged/wild foods. With beautiful photos. I love to cook.
NOBODY BUT US will be released January 29, 2013 from HarperTeen. You can check out my review here: http://theirishbanana.blogspot.com/2012/12/review-nobody-but-us-by-kristin-halbrook.html