Author Interview: Amber Novak on "Text of Kin"

Ana: Amber, an excerpt from your novel “Text of Kin” was submitted in the ABNA 2010 contest. I remember being completely blown away by your excerpt and feeling that you were destined to win the YA category - you opened with, of all things, a deranged murderer planning for his next victim, and then brought us the two most realistic and well-characterized twins I’ve yet to see in literature. I was blown away at the amount of suspense you were able to create in a few short pages, as well as the incredibly deep characterization of each member of this extended family: from the twins with their own individual personalities, to their harried mother, to their distant father, and to their grief-wracked step-mother. Can you tell us more about your novel and where it goes from the end of the excerpt? What sorts of themes do you explore and what do you hope the reader will take away from the experience?

Amber: I’m so glad you enjoyed reading the excerpt of "Text of Kin", Ana. And thanks for the interest in my writing.

"Text of Kin" is first and foremost a romantic thriller. My hope is that readers will tear through it and have a blast solving the mystery along with my protagonists. That said, it was also really important to me to deal with issues that actually affect teenagers. Hopefully, the vast majority of fifteen-year-olds aren’t being stalked by a murderer, but a lot of young people struggle with depression, insecurities, and absentee parents. I wanted "Text of Kin" to be a page-turner, but also portray teen situations and dynamics authentically.

The Amazon-posted excerpt introduces readers to Cadence and Sarah, fifteen-year-old twins who are still reeling from their stepsister’s abduction and murder last New Year’s Eve. In the wake of her death, their stepmother sank into depression and their dad all but forgot about them, not once in eleven months making the three-hour drive to visit at their mom’s home in Austin, Texas.

Just shy of one year after the murder, Cadence and Sarah are invited to reunite with their father and his wife by spending winter vacations with them in Dallas. But the visits come with a condition the identical twins didn’t think would ever be applied to them: separation from each other.

"Text of Kin" takes place over the three winter holidays - Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. The girls, tag-teaming between their divorced parents, make a pact to stay in constant contact with each other by texting and talking on their cell phones - thus the title of the novel. The sisters are rarely in the same place at the same time, so the story unfolds from their alternating points of view.

As the twins struggle to put their family back together they also each find romance. And one of the girls becomes the target of their stepsister’s killer. Come December 31st, the sisters may be separated for more than just the holidays.

Ana: I remember being really hooked by the twins' frustration at being forced to separate from one another. The reason for the request was understandable and sympathetic, and yet I couldn't help but be very frustrated for the girls! What was your inspiration when writing your novel? Were you influenced by a specific author or work that inspired you to add your voice to this genre?

Amber: The plot of "Text of Kin" came to me after a day of geocaching with my nieces and nephews on the central California coast. Geocaching is a key plot point in the book. It was the first time I’d ever gone geocaching, and not only did I have fun, but all three generations of my family had fun. It was a really great, shared activity for all of us, ages three to sixty-five. So naturally, my mind took that sweet, wholesome family experience and added in a murderer, teenage lust, and clinical depression.

Ana: Haha, awesome - a good thriller author knows precisely how to twist lovely activities into horrific plot lines. One of the things that struck me most in “Text of Kin” was the absolutely originality of your writing style. Many stories have twin-protagonists, but it’s rare to find novels that really treat twins as individuals instead of carbon-copies or automatic foils to one another. And, of course, you’ve also included a serial killer in the making into your YA novel, and not in the cutesy “all the main characters will be fine” sense that teen detective series usually convey - “Text of Kin” really does seem to be a ‘thriller’ in the true sense of the word. If you could compare your novel to any other existing work, which one would it be and why?

Amber: Thanks, Ana. Writing about twin protagonists and not falling into cliché was one of the really fun challenges of this book. Because the narration of the story alternates between both sisters’ voices, I got to really know Cadence and Sarah as individual characters rather than a literary contrivance.

"Text of Kin" is dark at times, but then again, being a teenager can be dark, too. And you’re right, I definitely didn’t “play nice” when I wrote this. I don’t want to read a thriller unless the stakes are high, so I won’t patronize young adult readers with a sanitized version of what I would want to read.

I didn’t research any young adult literature until after I wrote "Text of Kin". Not even "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" (is this blasphemy?). In a way I think this was really fortunate because it allowed me to write without any preconception of what the genre’s boundaries were.

Before writing "Text of Kin", though, I had read Marisha Pessl’s "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" and loved being taken on such a great ride. In general, I like books that make the reader want to do the work of unraveling mystery or subplots. "Text of Kin" isn’t similar to "Calamity Physics" in plot or narrative structure, but I wanted it to be the same type of fast-paced thrill read interspersed with the romance and realities of being a teenager.

Ana: Is this your first or only finished work, or have you written other novels? If you have written other novels, how do they compare to this one? Do you have any more novels planned, either as a follow-up to this one, or as a completely different novel or genre?

Amber: "Text of Kin" is my second manuscript and a product of National Novel Writing Month. I developed it, wrote it, and revised it while “on a break” from rewriting my first novel.

I needed some distance from my first book in order to come back to it with fresh eyes. Its plot unfolds nonlinearly, it’s told from multiple points of view, and it spans a century of interrelated stories. All this makes for what I think will be a fantastic book, but it is a serious pain in the ass to write.

Unlike "Text of Kin" my first book is literary fiction. But at its heart it is still a mystery, and the reader gets pulled into decades of intrigue while piecing the puzzle together. An excerpt from this manuscript was accepted for workshop at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which was a really productive experience for me. I’m hoping to have it polished by the end of this year.

Ana: I was first introduced to your novel through the Amazon Breakthrough Award contest of 2010. What prompted you to enter the contest, and what were your overall feelings towards the contest in general?

Amber: I heard about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest from a writer in my critique group who had made it to the quarterfinals the year prior. He encouraged me to enter the Young Adult category. It was a really fun experience, and great to get feedback from the judges. I think the contest does a great job of encouraging and supporting unpublished and self-published authors.

ABNA is insanely huge, so I’m impressed that it functions as well as it does. My only regret is that a lot of people are discouraged from reading the great excerpts available to the public through this contest because they don’t have a Kindle or aren’t able to download Kindle software to then download excerpts. And by “a lot of people” I mean me. Ironically, I couldn’t read my own, or anyone else’s excerpt because I was Kindleless and working off an archaic operating system that wasn’t compatible with Amazon’s free software. I also know people with multiple advanced degrees who can’t figure out how to download my excerpt from the site. I get that Amazon wants to use the contest to advertise Kindle, but a lot of people are frustrated by the technological hurdles you have to hack through to read quarter- and semi-finalists’ work.

Ana: I completely understand - it's my understanding that the non-USA entrants have the same problems with the Kindle excerpts. Are you currently published or self-published? Where can readers obtain a copy of your novel for them to enjoy? If you’re not currently published, how can readers “sign up” to be notified when your novel does become available?

Amber: I’ve begun submitting "Text of Kin" to agents and am cautiously optimistic with the interest I’ve gotten. So for now I’m going to attempt the old-fashioned route of publication with this book. If and when it does get printed, you’ll be getting an advance copy. And a large bribe.

Ana: Haha, I can honestly say I'd be much more psyched about the former than the latter - I've been fretting over your twins and their serial killer since last year! Amber, thank you so very much for being willing to participate in this guest blog interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Amber: I entered "Text of Kin" in the Amazon contest again this year, and just found out last week that it was selected as a quarter-finalist again.

Before-mentioned downloading woes and scurrilous Kindle-promoting aside, the first few chapters are available from Amazon for the staggering price of $0.00. “Purchase” it directly from your Kindle by searching Amber Novak or online at this link:

Text of Kin - excerpt from 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Entry

Thanks for running such a great blog Ana, and for contacting me. This has been fun!


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