Sunday, January 3, 2016

Book Review and Interview: THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS by Marieke Nijkamp

(Okay, this cover fits the plot and theme beautifully.  Whoever designed this gets the rest of the day off.)
Marieke Nijkamp's novel THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS tells the story of 54 minutes inside an Alabama high school where a senior is holding the student body hostage.  The novel is told from four distinct points of view, including the shooter's sister who's trapped in the auditorium with everyone else.  So high tension, right?  Right.

I'm always in awe of authors who can write "important books" that I actually enjoy.  Because let's be honest, "important books" can be, at times, a little heavy-handed to put it lightly.  The success of Nijkamp's novel is that it deals with important issues (not only school shootings, but also sexuality and abuse) while at at the same time remaining compelling and thought-inducing without become preachy.  That's difficult to pull off, really.  Also, the fact that I completed this novel in two days while surrounded by my four (loud, rambunctious, and attacking) children speaks volumes of just how much I enjoyed this book.

Really, what's amazing to me is how Nijkamp can cover such a short amount of time in a 300 page novel.  She does this with a lot of internal monologues that not only explain the necessary backstories of these characters that brought them to this moment, but also by exploring their dreams and fears.

THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS is going to draw the attention it deserves, and I can't wait to make it available in my classroom, although I'm betting by the time I do, many of my students will have already read it.  Nijkamp has written an important novel that needs to be read by teens and adults alike.

Here's an interview I recently did with Marieke:

Me: Before we get to your excellent debut novel, THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS, let's start with you--I'm giving you 50 words max to introduce yourself...and go!

Marieke:  My bio says I am a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, geek. And at the heart of everything, that’s me. I am also an author, activist, optimist. I’m a daughter, sister, aunt. I’m disabled. I’m queer. I’m religious. I believe in love, hope, the Oxford comma, and a sprinkling of magic.

Me:  That's an excellent and thorough list!  So of the items on that list, which are the top five that influenced in the writing of this novel?  And how?

Marieke:  Ooh, that is a great question! Let's see...

Storyteller - I've always loved telling stories, and I've always felt surrounded by them. Curiosity fuels me, because I'm constantly wondering what motivates people, what dreams and fears are hidden behind closed doors, why the world is what it is, and what it could be.
Sister - Sibling relationships are a massive part of this story and, in one way or another, of all of the stories I tell. 

Queer - Because seriously, we need more queer ladies as main characters of stories. And queer dudes. And queer people all across the gender spectrum. (On that note, we also need more genderqueer main characters.)

Love - When our world is turned upside down and nothing is ever the same again, I think most of us deal with fear, anger, denial, the whole gamut. But I also think that, in those extreme situations, we reach for our foundations, the things that matter most, familiar smells and sounds that stabilize us, and above all, for the people we love.

Hope - My stories explore darkness, not bleakness. The most important part of any story, to me, is hope.

Me:  Yeah, even though TIWIE is very dark, it definitely ends on a hopeful note.  I think a lot of writers shy away from tackling difficult and complicated issues but you certainly didn't, and the end result is a great success.  What struggles, if any, did you face while writing about a school shooting, easily one of the most complicated and controversial topic you can deal with in YA?

Marieke:  My biggest struggle was staying true to the characters and the situation. For every hour I spent writing, I spent another researching. I read first hand accounts of shootings, I listened to 911 calls, I plowed through hundreds of pages of investigative reports, I talked to people, I kept up with Twitter feeds as active shooter situations unfolded, I familiarized myself with the psychology of being held at gunpoint. As much as possible, I immersed myself in what we know about school shootings (which is both a lot and not a lot at all). And I tried to translate that to the book. 

Now, of course, THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS is still fiction. The story isn't about the technicalities of a shooting; it's first and foremost about characters being put in a harrowing situation where their world is turned upside down. So I allowed for that, too, in the way the story unfolded. But I wanted to ensure that any poetic license remained respectful to real life.

Me:  A lot of teenagers will be reading this book, I guarantee it.  What do you hope they take from it?

Marieke:  Hope. THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS is no easy story, but like I said before, the most important part of any story, to me, is hope. My four main characters, Autumn, Claire, Sylv, and Tom├ís, face what may well be every student’s worst nightmare. A situation where nothing is safe and survival seems impossible. But even though it's a story of revenge, it's also a story of love. It's a story of anger but also friendship. There’s family. There’s sacrifice. And ultimately, there’s the belief that even when the world seems to have stopped turning, when everything has fallen apart, the darkness is never absolute. There is always hope.

Me: With this book about to come out, I'm guessing you've started work on the follow-up.  After writing something so powerful and heavy, did you find it difficult to detach from the novel to start the next one?  And without giving too much away, what similarities do you see between TIWIE and the next novel?

Marieke:  In this case, what really helped me detach from this story is knowing it's a book now, out there in the world. It's for readers now, to love, to hate, to connect to, to reject. It's no longer mine, and that's okay. As far as I'm concerned, that's the beauty of books. They exist in conversation between writer and reader, and I've said my part. :)

Besides, there's nothing quite like discovering a new story either. With new songs for new characters and new secrets to explore. And oh, there are secrets. It intrigues me that, more than all the things we do say, it's what we don't say or can't say that shapes us. So there are always secrets. And there's community. Death. Love. And fierce friendships that burn brighter than the stars.

Me: Best high school memory?

Marieke: One of my proms :) Specifically, the one I blogged about, here: :)

Me: Book that had the greatest influence on your writing?

Marieke: I think a lot of books have influenced my writing, because they were so formative for me as reader. But if I'd had to pinpoint a book that influenced the way I approached TIWIE, I'd have to say Elizabeth Scott's haunting, chilling LIVING DEAD GIRL. It's one of those books that challenged the way I thought about writing and the way I thought about YA.

Me: You've been sentenced to death for a crime you did not commit.  What is the menu for your last meal?

Marieke: Pigeon. I'm not even kidding. Every Easter, my gran used to make pigeon ragout and although I've been a vegetarian for about fifteen years now, that would still tempt me. 

Me: And now it's time for a dinner party!  You can have one writer, one musician, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person (all living, of course) at a dinner party.  Who are you inviting?  (Yes, your family and friends will already be there.)

Marieke: I'd invite Tonke Dragt, who wrote my very favorite book when I was a kid. I'd totally cheat on that "all living" stipend and invite Freddie Mercury, because how could I not? I'd also cheat on the "actor/actress" part somewhat and invite Stephen Fry. Not for his acting, but for the gazillion other things he does (and brilliantly so). And I'd invite JKR. Because duh.

Me: As always, I'd like to give you the last word.  Anything you'd like to say to finish this up?

Marieke: Thank you so much for having me! <3

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