An Interview with Danya Kukafka
by Dani Hedlund
What inspired you to write Girl in Snow?
There was no bolt of lightning—I was mostly inspired by things that I was touching. I loved the book The Perks of Being A Wallflower, which I was reading around the time I came up with the idea for Girl in Snow, because I thought it did such a great job of creating the voice of a troubled yet sympathetic teenager. The main character is messed up, but you understand why and you feel for him. Around the same time that I read that book, I had watched an episode of some show, Law and Order maybe, where there was a murder, and the person who committed the murder genuinely did not remember doing it. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen. Those two sources combined to create the character Cameron for me. I built the storyline around him and the idea that he could have done something terrible without knowing it, in the hope that the reader could still feel sad for him.
I’m very interested in the structure of this book. You have three narratives: two in third person, and one in first person, with random interjections that the character would like to say but can’t. How did all those voices come together?
The story is told from the perspective of three characters: Cameron, Jade, and Russ. At first, I wrote the entire novel from Cameron’s perspective, but I could not find a reasonable way for the book to end. Around the same time, I had written a short story for a class at NYU. The story was well-received, and the character in that story was an early version of Jade, a teenage girl who is in love with this boy she’s known her whole life. I decided to try adding her in, and once I did that, it really opened up the whole story. I was finally able to have enough characters to get to an ending that made sense. Russ was the last character to come in, and I devised him with my agent. The book was very short, and my agent wanted to make sure that I was not publishing a YA book. She felt strongly that this was an adult novel and that an adult perspective was important. I’m very thankful that she pushed for Russ because his inclusion opened the story up even further. He was really fun and surprisingly easy to write in the sense that I felt like there was something missing. His inclusion made the book richer and more textured.
I’m always fascinated by the tenuous line between YA and other genres. I’m constantly reading really dark books in which very dark things happen, but all of the characters are under the age of 25, so it’s considered YA. I look at the publisher and think, “You’ve got to be kidding me. These people are eating each other.”
I have some fourteen-year-old cousins, and my grandma asked me, “Do you think they could read your book?” My honest answer was, “I don’t know.” That’s a really interesting line because my cousins are very smart, very mature readers, but I realized that I had not intended it for a fourteen-year-old audience. I had intended it for an adult audience.
There’s a lusciousness to your prose. It’s very literary, and I was intrigued by seeing that style bleed into a “murder mystery” book. What was it like to pay such close attention to narrative detail while writing in a genre that tends to cultivate a quick, easy reading experience?
I was aware of the genre that I was writing in, and I was aware that I wanted to do something different with it. I really intentionally messed with form, and wondered how I could do it differently. Jade’s screenplays are a good example of that. It’s been interesting to see whether people read it as a murder mystery or whether they hoped to read it as a murder mystery and were disappointed because it doesn’t flow like a thriller. Or whether they found something more in it, which was of course, my goal.
As a character, Cameron is fascinated by the little things, the details of living that aren’t very perceptible. You do a beautiful job conveying his worldview. Did you find yourself meticulously studying people’s actions in order to write this character correctly?
Initially, Cameron had many more tics that I ended up taking out with my editor because we felt there were too many. He had a real fascination with birds at one point and he made all kinds of lists. Cameron has a way of categorizing things and seeing them through an artist’s lens, but also a really boxed lens. He’s just trying to understand how he can perceive the world, and himself. I settled on his fascination with the human body, and I’m very happy that I did. He’s an artist, so that choice made a lot of sense. I’ve dabbled in art and drawing before, and it is by no means my thing, but it helped me to understand how he might see the world in that way.
I’m curious about the timeline. This book takes place in 2004-2005. Why set it back more than a decade?
I was a teenager during that time, so I remember what it was like to not be on social media when you’re in junior high. Well, I had a secret MySpace page that my parents didn’t know about. I was such a rebel. Actually, the decision to set it in that time frame came from thinking about how differently teenagers now must live. They’re on Instagram, they’re on Snapchat. They have all these ways to communicate who they are to each other, and back in 2005, that was sort of coming to the forefront. We were dabbling in it, but we didn’t have the tools for it yet. Facebook didn’t even exist then. It was a really interesting time to be fourteen or fifteen. I remember specifically having a cell phone that could only send or receive 50 texts per month. It’s so different from how things look now. I wanted to give my characters that sense of freedom. Especially since the book is so much about what you see versus what you think you see versus what is real, that I didn’t want to add the extra layer of social media in. Plus, I don’t know how it looks for fourteen-year-olds now. I don’t think I would have been able to communicate in their language.
I’m interested in why you chose this fourteen to fifteen-year-old range for your characters. Most novels like this feature characters who are a little older—characters who can drive, who have a bit more freedom in that sense. Why did you choose this earlier age?
It’s so interesting being on the cusp of being a teenager but not actually being there yet. Cameron and Lucinda are high school freshmen, and Jade is seventeen. Jade has a little more knowledge of what it’s like to be a person. She’s almost out of high school and has to think about what comes next. Cameron’s not even there yet, and he still has to figure out if he’s a child or an adult. That comes into play a lot when he’s thinking about his obsessions and this girl who died who he may or may not have loved. I think it’s a really volatile age, and that teenagers in books should be treated like real people more often, because they are. Their feelings are much more intense than our grown-up feelings. I think we all kind of dull out as we age, and teenagers have the most intense spark.
The press copy tells me that you started writing this when you were nineteen. Tell me what the last five years have been like for you with this book.
Each of the five have been very different from each other. I started this book when I was in college at NYU. I remember starting it in a dorm room, and working on it that summer while I was waitressing in the city. I kept workshopping little bits of it during undergrad, but it was hard to find classes in undergrad that wanted to work on a novel. I took one class that was really wonderful with an editor at Holt named Barbara Jones, and she taught specifically a novel writing class. I gave her the first thirty pages of this book, and she was so encouraging. She’s probably the reason I finished it.
I had finished a really messy draft by the time I was out of college, but after school I moved briefly to upstate New York. I was working as a diner waitress for about six months, and that’s when I added Jade’s chapters, and finished the first real draft of the book. Since then I’ve been working as an editor at Riverhead, so I’ve been working full time and writing. I wrote all of Russ’s character and did all of my revisions while I was at my job.
How has being an editor—working on the publishing side of things—changed the way that you write?
It’s changed a lot, in a very good way. The combination works well for me in the sense that I am much harder on myself. I see how much work goes into every single book that comes out, and that has been really encouraging for me. That has also really helped me to put in the work on my own in the sense that when I’m writing, I’m not thinking, “Oh, this is going to be published.” I’m thinking, “This is going to be thrown out and re-written twenty more times.” I know that going into it, which makes the writing process a lot less frustrating.
Obviously, as an editor, sales and marketing are a huge part of your job. You have to consider what demographics will read what content—whether or not a story will be marketable. Being both an editor and a writer, do sales and marketing influence the way that you write, or do you try to shove those thoughts away?
It probably does influence the way that I write, but I try to shove it away. I try to think more about the specific reader than the market. As an editor, my job is to fall in love with a book, and my goal when I’m writing is to make someone feel that way as well. Whether that’s because of the content or the sales angle or whatever, I try to let all of that go and just write something compelling that will keep people reading all the way through. I imagine an editor sitting at their desk, trying to ignore Twitter on the screen next to them, and really losing themselves in my book. That’s what I hope for.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King always talks about the ideal reader, the kind of person that he thinks will most love his book. What kind of person do you think this book will really touch?
Hopefully, people in my age demographic. I think there’s a certain nostalgia for adolescence in a sense. We all want to let it go, but we’re not that far away from it. When you’re learning how to be a person in the world, it’s easier to remember your roots when you’re closer to them.
I also hope that the general mystery readership will come to the book. The people who like big thrillers. That’s women of all ages, and some men too, I hope. We’ll see.
Do you only dabble in long form? Do you do short work? What is your writerly spectrum?
I’m very committed to long form. I’ve tried to write short stories, and I’ve kind of succeeded at it sometimes, but my heart is really in the novel. I really struggle with short form, and nonfiction is a mess for me. So just novels, at least for now.
What are you working on now?
I can’t say too much about it, but it is another novel. Everyone has told me that second novels are hard, but I’m decently through a really messy draft. It feels really good to be doing something new.
How does writing your first book over those five years of angst compare to this second book?
I feel much less alone in it. I work closely with my agent, and my editor. I have a lot of really smart readers who have read my past work. I also feel like it will be interesting to see how the process changes once my first book actually comes out. I also want to take my time with the next book because I know it’s important for the writer to do as much work as possible before you get other people involved. I’m really hoping to put as much of myself into it as I can before I bring it out to anybody else.
I have a writer friend who marks the success of his books by whether or not he was able to embody a single idea and relay it successfully to the reader. What’s the one thing you really wanted to say with this book?
The idea I was trying to explore was whether you can do a bad thing, but still be a good person. That’s really where Cameron’s character originated for me. If someone does a terrible thing, do they know that they are committing a crime, and if so, how do they grapple with that? I hope that, whether Cameron committed the crime or not, the reader can still love him anyway.