A Conversation with Kim Savage, Author of AFTER THE WOODS
In a time when YA seems to be continually centered around fantasy novels and contemporary issues, debut author Kim Savage has written a thriller, for which I am, well, thrilled. AFTER THE WOODS deals with the aftermath of an attack on a teenage girl in the woods near her home. Over the course the novel, Julia deals with post traumatic stress disorder from the attack, and is forced to question the motivations of the people closest to her. It’s a tense, honest, and thrilling debut, and I had the opportunity to chat with Savage recently. Our conversation is below.
Kurt: So to get this started, why don’t you take a few lines to let people know who you are. But to complicate your life some, you have to use 50 words exactly. Go!
Kim: I am a former journalist and academic consultant from the Boston area who tries to write the kinds of books she loves to read: fast-paced, complex, sophisticated, and suspenseful novels for readers of all ages, mainly about intense female relationships that have the power to heal or destroy. Boom!
Kurt: You’re one word short, but I’ll forgive you. A 98% is perfectly acceptable by my standards.
Kim: Thought I had it with Boom! I’m terrible at math, says Yet Another Writer.
Kurt: I’ve read a lot of YA novels lately, but AFTER THE WOODS is one of the only YA thrillers I’ve run across. What draws you to the genre?
Kim: I’m going to highjack this question a bit and say that I’m drawn to psychological suspense (and over the straightforward thriller). I love to get physical reactions from books I’m reading. I need the rush. I also need to be surprised by a plot turn I didn’t see coming. And, layers. I need layers of meaning that unfold long after I’ve finished the book. That last one’s not particular to psychological suspense, of course. For instance, I’ve spent the last four days having revelations about Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!.
Kurt: You certainly evoke a physical reaction with this novel, especially in that brutal first chapter. Do you find writing dark, visceral moments like that difficult? Does it affect your mood for the rest of the day? How do you get in that mental place to write scenes like that?
Kim: I suppose I compartmentalize. And if I’m not in the mental space to write a scene, I won’t write it. I might edit or do social media stuff instead. But if I’m resisting writing a scene over and over again—and this can happen with a funny or romantic scene just as easy—it probably means I’ve gone wrong somewhere. Thatwill certainly affect my mood!
Kurt: There aren’t a lot of YA thrillers out there, unfortunately. What draws you to the genre?
Kim: I want to see a character use their intellect and street savvy to solve what I throw at them. As a reader, that engages me on a much more visceral level than, say, dudes leaping from train car to train car. I guess it’s just a personal preference, but it’s hard-wired, because as a reader, many of my favorite novels sit squarely in that genre: Shutter Island, Gone Girl, Rebecca, The Silence of the Lambs, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Memento (the film) took my breath away.
I’m also drawn to noir, which I’d like to see more of in YA.
Kurt: Yes, some variety in YA would be nice! Noir-ish YA would be fantastic! Like the movie Brick, which is fantastic if you haven’t seen it.
I think what makes your book effective is that it deals with Julia’s life after the attack in the woods instead of making this into a hunt-down-the-attacker novel like a lot of writers would do. Why did you choose to tell the story you did, which in a lot of ways is Julia dealing with PTSD?
Kim: Girls get abducted. Statistically, the most time passes, the less chance they have of coming back. What do you do with the girl who comes back? How does she fit back into her old life, and mainstream society? What if she starts to question what really happened that day? My novels always begin with questions that I find intriguing. I don’t find the abduction of Julia nearly as interesting as what happens after.
I also wanted to tell a story about survivors. Terror is terror, whether it’s brought by Sadam Hussein or Boko Haram or Deborah Lapin or Donald Jessup. Liv was being terrorized, and sought freedom in a permanent solution. Julia went inward, and when her physicality failed her, she relied on mental strength to outwit and survive Donald. Liv and Julia are both fighting oppression, and they both prevail in different ways.
Kurt: One of the things that I thought was really interesting was your choice to have Donald Jessup, the attacker, already dead very, very early in the novel. I thought it was a gutsy choice as most writers would want him around, at least by having him in jail and therefore an ever-present specter, but you didn’t do this. What was your thought process on this decision?
Kim: Early in the novel, when Liv tells Julia to move on, she’s being insensitive, but she also has a point. I mean, what teenager wouldn’t want to get back to her old life? I want readers to see that Julia is behaving erratically, and for that reason it was important that all immediate threats to Julia be blunted.
Along these lines, there’s a clue about what happened to Donald buried in the novel. I must have buried it too well, because I don’t think anyone has ever caught it. Did that sound like a challenge?
Kurt: That’s definitely a challenge! All readers should email you when they find it right? Who doesn’t love interactive books?
Okay, to wrap this up, let’s do the lightning round. Answer these questions however you’d like–with or without explanation. It’s up to you.
1. Since you’ve written a novel about survival, let’s start with an oldie but a goodie: You’ve been stranded by yourself on a deserted island ala Tom Hanks in Castaway. What one book, one cd, and one miscellaneous item of your choosing would you want with you?
Kim: Item or human? Because I’m thinking Benedict Cumberbatch would be super-helpful. You know, peeling bananas. Catching fish. Anything, really.
2. The woods in your novel is a terrifying place. What’s the scariest place you’ve ever been?
Kim: Inside Hill House, by way of Shirley Jackson.
3. Thrillers like you’ve written are usually centered around some sort of mystery. What’s a mystery you would like to know the answer to?
Kim: When Donald Trump will finally announce this is all just his own well-funded social experiment, and America failed, and we can move on.
4. The characters in your novel deal with trauma in their own ways. What’s your go-to comfort food when you’re feeling particularly stressed out by life?
Kim: Were there but one. Mostly, though: cheese, juicy Spanish reds, and coffee.
5. Dinner party time! What one writer, rocker, actor/actress, and miscellaneous person of your choosing would you like to invite? (Yes, all living, please.)
Kim: It was David Bowie until recently. Ok: Gloria Steinem.
Kurt: And finally, I’ll give you the last word.
Kim: You won’t know this, but I am a HUGE fan of pranks. I’ve strung bikes in trees. Decorated conservative lawns with leftist political signs. Created an imaginary college suite-mate that people believed existed for months. If I can’t read DON’T GET CAUGHT soon, well.
Let the Prank War begin, Dinan.