At dinner one evening during a bike ride with her daughter through Scandinavia in 2017, San Francisco author Katie Hafner began a conversation with one of the guides about how to deal with their “problem guests.”
Hafner, a technology and health journalist, learned that if the travel company really does not want anyone as a returning customer, they will send them an unequivocal letter.
“I kind of went into journalistic mode and asked, ‘So, who got the letter?’ “Hafner, who lives in Noe Valley, recently remembered the phone.
“When he told me that, my daughter and I looked at each other, our imagination went crazy and she said,”To is a novel! ‘
“Most people would just say, ‘Yes, it is’ and forget it. But, I thought, I will try to write it.”
Hafner devoted the early, surreal weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 to writing a draft of his clever, cleverly crafted debut novel, released this month, “The Boys.”
It opens with a letter from fictional tour company Hill and Dale Adventures to Philadelphia engineer Ethan Fawcett. “It would be best for you not to return for future excursions,” it says.
Then we spend the next 250 pages discovering why, including a revealing plot revelation midway through the book that cannot be explained without spoilers, but which makes Hafner’s book a loud pleasure to read.
Basically a love story and a character study of a whimsical, unlikely couple, “The Boys” is about Ethan and Barb, who marry and decide to foster two young Russian orphaned boys, only to see their lives shattered while handling care for boys with contrasting attachment styles.
Ethan is an anxious introvert who is phobic about starting conversations with strangers and is described as “wired to quarantine.”
Chill Barb, on the other hand, has a sunny disposition and possesses “breathtaking serenity.”
The book is also a gripping exploration of loneliness and the ways trauma survivors can go extraordinarily far to avoid facing their mental wounds.
Hafner spoke to The Chronicle about extracting her professional literature for the sake of fiction, working on related aspects of the COVID pandemic – which is a brilliant depiction of a person having a panic attack while shopping in disguise – and tackling a story with a narrow secret. nuclear. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: Tell us how you went from hearing a good treat of a story on your journey to starting to translate it into a novel.
ONE: I did not think about it for a few months. Then I woke up one morning and just started writing, maybe even on my phone, what I thought would be the opening scene. It’s actually the book’s opening scene where Ethan gets mad at Barb for putting walnuts in the cookies because the boys have allergies.
Then I headed up to Napa with my husband, Bob (Wachter, president of the UCSF Department of Medicine), who was on a business trip. He came back from a meeting and I read him the first few pages. He leaned a little on his head and said, “Really?” (clay). He thought it was so funny.
Question: Without giving any spoilers, can you share how you managed to keep a key fact secret until the right time?
ONE: Shankar Vedantamthe wonderful guy who makes (the podcast) “Hidden Brain,” did an entire section on “The Sixth Sense” and talked about our anchoring bias. If you go into a book or movie and think that things are a certain way, you are rooted in these facts and ignore others.
The book I love that does this well is Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” She has a big reveal in the middle. But I really wanted Ethan and Barb’s relationship to unfold naturally and for readers to relax in it.
Question: Talk about developing Ethan. He is eccentric, even quirky, but sweet enough, it is believable that Barb would fall in love with him.
ONE: I wanted him to be quirky and lovable at the same time. I wanted things to be a little weird, to be a little Wes Anderson-weird. Like Ethan moving back to his mother’s room where nothing has changed and he lives with the sticks and the yearbooks.
For years, I have idolized Anne Tyler. I love how she makes quirky and I thought, how can I make quirky and make it work in my own voice?
Q: You made Barb an expert in loneliness, and in 2016 you wrote a story for the New York Times on the same subject, reporting from a call center for lonely elderly people in England. Were you able to use other things in “The Boys” that you learned while reporting?
ONE: My reporting life has completely informed this book. I do not understand why more journalists do not write fiction, because it gives you such good material.
The story of loneliness affected me so deeply. As I was sitting there with someone answering the calls in Blackpool, England, a woman who had not used her voice for a week called. I could not believe the loneliness she felt when she started crying. Barb was supposed to be a loneliness expert, it fit perfectly.
Question: It also fits in with creating your novel during the COVID pandemic, where the whole world was focused on issues of isolation and our need for connection. Did you work in more pandemic realities as real-life events unfolded?
ONE: I did. For example, the trip (shopping) Ethan is doing exactly what happened to me when I went to Whole Foods on 24th Street when the pandemic started. I wanted bok choy, and when I got there, this man hovered over the bok choy and sneezed, and I started freaking out. I decided that Ethan should go there and turn around and run out the door and leave his carriage.
Question: To get your pandemic facts correct, you rejected your ideas from your husband as you have the benefit of living with a COVID expert?
ONE: I wrote this so early in the pandemic that I guessed a bit (how the world would change). I remember asking Bob, “What do you think if there’s a scene in Italy where there’s a sign on the door that says you have to get vaccinated to get in?”
And he said, “Well, it’s a little far out. (Laughs.) I’m not sure it will ever happen.”
By Katie Hafner
(Spiegel & Grau; 256 pages; $ 27)
Commonwealth Club presents Katie Hafner: In conversation with Carol Edgarian. Virtual event. 17:30 on Monday 18 July. Free for members, $ 5 for non-members; $ 30 for both with book. Application necessary. www.commonwealthclub.org