Kevin Emerson’s newest middle grade novel, Drifters, is a mystery/sci-fi about a 13-year-old girl searching for her missing friend on the Washington coast. While a tale with multiple timelines and universes, Drifters is also a simple story about holding onto friendship. It is also a love letter to the PNW coast.
RK: What was your reading life like as a kid and young adult? Did you have favorite books? Authors? Genres? What do you read now? What one book would you recommend everyone read, or at least give a try?
KE: As a kid and teen, I mostly read Choose Your Own Adventure books, comics, and mysteries. I loved a series called The Three Investigators, which was a Hardy Boys knock off. I also remember liking the Chronicles of Prydain, and trying to read The Lord of the Rings but thinking it was boring (I loved it as an adult). Around sixth grade, some classmates turned me on to Stephen King, and I spent most of middle school and high school reading his books, as well as Clive Barker, John Saul, and those types. Finally, senior year, I took a dystopian fiction class that introduced me to Vonnegut and Huxley and so on, and set me on a more literary path through college. I didn’t discover the great children’s and YA books until I was a teacher in my twenties. Philip Pullman, Sharon Creech, Jerry Spinelli, those were the authors who really inspired me.
These days, I read a lot of middle grade and YA, but then a few years ago I challenged myself to read every short story in The New Yorker, every week. Partly because I felt like I hadn’t read nearly enough short fiction, and partly because with older kids in the house, my time and attention has been pretty fractured. But that has been an excellent practice that has also exposed me to a lot of new authors.
The one novel I recently managed to read was Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. I devoured that book and fell in love with the style and worldbuilding, and would recommend it to everyone.
RK: Can you tell us where the idea for this big book came from? What kind of research was required to write it?
KE: The original ideas for Drifters are actually more than twenty years old! The idea of things and people disappearing, of a spyglass that lets a young person see them, and of a town on the coast that is at the edge of something, were all part of the very first middle grade manuscript that I wrote back in 2001. I never quite got that story over the finish line, but those ideas stayed with me, and when I was planning my next book after my Dark Star series (Last Day on Mars and its two sequels), my editor wondered if I had any sci-fi ideas that took place on Earth. Twenty years later, those ideas finally got their time, though in a very different story and style.
I really wanted Drifters to function like a mystery, so I read a bunch of Nordic Noir novels to get in the mood to write a detective story in the deep winter dark. I also took trips out to Ocean Shores and Whidbey Island and the other places that Far Haven is made from. If you look at the map in the book, you can see the elements of the real Washington coast that I incorporated, places that I love!
RK: Drifters involves societal issues, isolation, depression, drug use…and the disappearance of some of those people experiencing those feelings – where did that come from? (And where did they go?)
KE: I feel like it comes from everywhere in our society these days. We have so many people falling through the cracks here in Seattle and around the country, so much inequality and also a seeming disinterest in really fixing it. It is easier to treat these problems, and people, as invisible rather than to really face them. In a way, I also thought of “the drift” in Drifters as a metaphor for capitalism, especially the way it is sucking the life out of the little town of Far Haven.
But then isolation and loneliness are also key issues for my readers, aka young adolescents: this feeling, exacerbated by their phones, that they are on the outside of a world that is happening without them, that is more vibrant and happy and perfect than their physical reality. A lot of Jovie’s experience of being adrift in the book is due to what is playing out on her phone, contrasted with her actual life. I’ve seen these dynamics prey on my kids, especially my daughter (now 16), and I really wanted to explore how this impacts friendships, but also how you can fight it. I think we writers for young readers have an obligation to find the hope in things, and so I set out to explore what it takes to hold onto a friendship, and to be a good friend.
RK: One of the eeriest scenes in the book (for me) is the quick look at another universe. What was it like to build a new universe? What were your notes like for ALL the worldbuilding you did? Drifters is filled with detail, science, imagery, and I, for one, would love to see your storyboard. Do you storyboard?
KE: I have pages and pages of notes, but I’m afraid they wouldn’t be very fun to look at! They are all separate files inside the Scrivener document where I drafted the story (Scrivener is a wonderful writing app). I have to spend a lot of time organizing my notes. Many ideas come to me while I’m doing other things, and I log them in the Notes app on my phone, so then I have to take time to move those notes into their proper places and delete redundant stuff. I have long documents of notes about plot and character, but then specific pages about, say, cosmic ray detectors, or wormholes, etc. I also had to keep a detailed timeline document for this book, because of the historical and future events.
When it comes to the other universe that Jovie visits, much of the worldbuilding for that setting is actually influenced by my previous trilogy, the Chronicle of the Dark Star. You don’t have to have read that at all, but if you have, the spaceship and the scenery of that universe may look familiar. I have been interested in this image of a very old universe, where most of the stars have died, and who might be there, for many years now. I also like having small connections between my books. Young readers love that stuff (and so do I!)
KE: I think Drifters will stand alone, though I do have an idea for a sequel, should it come up. Otherwise, readers can go back to Chronicle of the Dark Star and my first middle grade sci-fi, The Fellowship for Alien Detection, for a few clues and links to some of the mysterious elements of Drifters—again, not required! My next planned novel is in that same universe as well, and the organization that you meet in Drifters, Barsuda Solutions, will play a significant role in that plot.
Kevin Emerson is the author of 22 novels for middle grade and young adult readers. Also a singer and a drummer, he lives in Seattle with his family. Find out more about at www.kevinemerson.net and https://www.instagram.com/kcemerson/. Also: Enjoy past nwbooklovers.org mentions of Kevin from our archives.