Karen Rivers writes:
When I began writing A Possibility of Whales, I had an idea that I wanted to write an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for a new generation of kids, taking into consideration both all that is different about being twelve-going-on-thirteen in 2017 and all that is, in fact, still the same.
Nat loves her mother. Well, okay, she loves some tenuous idea of her mother. The truth is that her mother left Nat and Nat’s famous superstar dad, soon after Nat was born.
Yes. It’s complicated.
A Possibility of Whales (see my ARC, festooned with sticky notes) is a complicated book, its beautifully drawn young protagonist a collector of words in multiple languages, with deep interior longings and a generous, surging heart. I asked Karen to tell me more about how this book grew in her mind and on the page.
[Uma] Nat’s facility with words, her lively imagery, the synesthetic quality to her perception—these are delightfully eccentric traits and they make her entirely memorable. How did Nat grow into her particular kind of quirkiness?
[Karen] Nat’s childhood is unusual. Her dad is famous and also very particular about what he believes – not owning “things” is a big part of that, he follows an experiences-not-stuff philosophy. Nat is naturally synesthetic – something I also have but didn’t know had a label until very recently – but I also think her upbringing lends itself to a heightened interest in the intangible. Her “collection” of words, for example.
Photo courtesy of the author
[Uma] I was struck by how much you normalize the trans character, Harry. You pull the reader along so that after a while the issue of gender becomes secondary to the growth of the friendship. Talk about how where and how Harry’s character emerged and grew.
[Karen] My son has a very close friend who is trans and I’ve been observing from a distance how his journey has unfolded. One thing that I notice in particular is that amongst the group of friends, he is just who he is, a boy like them, without question. There were some decisions on the part of the school that I still question profoundly, which must have been terrible for him, which were traumatizing even from an arms’ length. But afterwards, the kids just moved on. They didn’t give the fire (started by misguided adults) any air. It gives me hope for a future where people are simply able to be who they are, period.
[Uma] I was fascinated by the sheer wackiness of Nat’s phone calls to The Bird, and how they turn into something tender and important in ways we can’t understand until the end. No plot spoilers here, but tell me how you made the entirely improbably scenario of an impulse/prank call feel so plausible?
[Karen] I think the call in the book works because The Bird can tell that Nat is nervous and that she isn’t setting her up as a punch line for a laugh. As an adult who happens to not be in a hurry, The Bird behaves in a compassionate way – she pauses, she listens, she waits to discover what the call is really about. (What would it be like, I wonder, if everyone were to be like that all the time? We’re always in such a hurry, always angling away from situations that feel as though they might demand something of us. I think the fact of listening–the impulse to NOT hang up, to not avoid someone else’s needs–that’s when we are the most human, when instead of rushing away from something uncomfortable or awkward, we pause and give it space.) The Bird listens, listening is a form of love, and love is all that Nat needs, that all of us fundamentally need, don’t you think?
[Uma] Listening is a form of love. There’s a thought for the impatient among us–that would, I must confess, sometimes be me–whose first instinct is to make the connections, complete the thought, move on with the conversation. Thank you for this book, which tells me instead to stop, to breathe, to listen.