A Possibility of Whales – Interview with Author Karen Rivers
After moving from California to a small town in Canada, Natalia Rose Baleine Gallagher is on the lookout for a new best friend. Her dad, the famous Xan Gallagher, is often recognized and chased by paparazzi, so they moved to a small town in Canada to escape the public eye. Nat has never met her mother, but she’s out there, somewhere. She knows that she could easily Google her or pick up a gossip magazine to find out who her mother is, but she prefers the possibilities. The possibility that her mom is out there thinking about her, the possibility that she had a good reason for not being a part of her life when she needs her the most.
Being in middle school, Nat is facing wavering friendships and changing bodies all without a mom by her side to talk things through and help her figure it out. When she meets Harry, she thinks she’s found the perfect new best friend, someone who understands. But Harry is dealing with troubles of his own, as his family struggles to understand why he identifies as Harry instead of Harriet and how he can make friends with other boys at school so he has a place where he feels like he belongs. A Possibility of Whales is funny, charming, and is filled with lots of relatable moments that will make you feel much less alone as you navigate your own bumpy middle school experience.
We absolutely loved getting swept away into Nat’s mind and universe and we think you guys are going to absolutely love this story! That’s why we asked author Karen Rivers to chat with us about writing A Possibility of Whales. Read on as she shares with us about how Judy Blume’s classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was a big influence for her, the significance of whales in her own life, and her words of wisdom for kids trying to survive middle school.
A Possibility of Whales – Interview with Author Karen Rivers:
Tell us a little about what inspired you to write Nat’s story and how it came to be.
KAREN RIVERS: When I sat down to write A Possibility of Whales, I was really planning to write a tribute to Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which is a book that was so important to me at that magical, pivotal age of twelve, when I was looking for myself in the pages of a book. It was a different time back then, of course. Our parents were less open to talking about puberty and sex ed was very much less … informative. I started with that as a jumping off point. Then I started to dig a little deeper. How would it be different in 2018? What’s new in the world? What’s going to always be the same? As a single mom, I know quite a bit about what it’s like to try to be all things to your kids, and what it feels like when your kid needs you to be the one thing you aren’t. In Nat’s case, she needs her dad to also be her mom. Then I thought, what would be more difficult that being a motherless girl going through puberty? It would be being a trans boy in the same time frame. But I didn’t want to write a book about transness so much as I wanted to give trans kids a glimpse into a window, too, as much as I was able to do that. I stirred all these ingredients together, set them to simmer, and when it was cooked, I realized the story I wanted to tell was really about family: what family means, how we make our homes, how we choose our friends, how we choose who to love, how we fill up our lives.
Whales hold an important significance for Nat in the book, are whales also special to you?
KAREN: Whales are a huge part of my life! My first novel was really a jumping off point for me to talk to students about keeping whales in captivity and how and why that’s so very wrong. I’m very passionate about whales. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest—on Vancouver Island—and have been so lucky to see so many whales in the wild. It’s a magical experience, every time. It’s a harbinger of everything good, seeing the fins rising out of the bottle green sea. Every time, no matter how many times they come by, someone shouts, “Whales!” and we all run towards the shore so we can see them again.
What are three words you would use to describe Nat? How about Harry?
KAREN: I think they’d be the same for both of them: Brave, Fierce, Kind.
From first crushes to puberty to feeling alone in the world, Nat’s struggles are so relatable and feel so honest. Did you draw from any of your own middle school experiences and feelings when writing this book?
KAREN: I think as a writer, I’m always mining the old veins of my life, looking for missed gold. So much of what we go through, we assume everyone experienced, and then we look back and realize, “Oh, that WASN’T your experience? Just me?” When I was ten, I was forced by circumstance to leave a very comfortable, small private girls’ school and move to a public school. The experience was very overwhelming. It hurled me well outside my safety zone. I think that experience comes through in a lot of my books: The alien feeling of being “new” and “different” of not knowing who is who, of having to try to figure it all out without having any idea how to do that. I was never very good at social negotiations. I was always hanging back, observing, hoping to figure out the rules before I jumped in. Of course, the rules were always shifting, so it meant I always felt like an outsider to one degree or another. I think Nat has a bit of that, running in parallel to her fear that people like her only to get to her famous dad, she has that outsider’s eye.
Nat’s BFF Harry is a transgender boy struggling to be accepted by his family. What are you hoping readers take away from Harry’s story?
KAREN: I hope readers see that Harry is just a boy. I think in our culture, we seem very inclined to demand people to explain themselves to us when they are not what we expect them to be. Harry doesn’t want to have to supply answers or to have to pave the way for people who don’t understand him. He doesn’t want to explain, yet even his own dad doesn’t want to understand. But Harry just wants to BE. I’d like all kids, all people, to think either about what it would be like to be constantly asked to explain or to think about whether they owe the world an explanation.
Did you have anyone in particular in mind when writing Nat’s dad, the famous XAN GALLAGHER?
KAREN: Oh, definitely. It’s no secret that he’s The Rock! With a dash of Matthew McConaughey thrown in.
What’s the best part of writing a book and what’s your biggest challenge as a writer?
KAREN: Writing a book for me is always about figuring out what I’m writing and why I’m writing it. I never really know when I start. Sometimes I have to draft a book several times to find the crux of it. It’s amazing to me when I figure it out. I’m so excited, each time. This book felt like a book I was reading at the same time as I was writing it. I had no idea what was going to happen. Every day that I sat down to write it, I was so excited to discover what was next. It felt like it took me on a journey and it was a journey I was just so happy to be on. I love Nat. I love Harry. I love Xan. I love Maria. I love The Bird. I just loved spending time with all of them and figuring out what they were trying to say, what they needed to say.
My biggest challenge is always time management, not taking too much on, overestimating how much time these things take. I tend to never say ‘no’. Learning to set limits is a lifelong struggle. I tend to forget to budget time for, say, getting my hair cut or seeing a movie. Balance in all things!
Are you able to share a little about what you’re working on next?
KAREN: I have a YA coming out with Algonquin in the Fall, called You Are the Everything. It’s about two teens who are in a plane crash. It’s about survival and death and loss, but it’s ultimately a love story, a story about yearning. Can love change everything? It’s also told in the second person, which is my very favourite voice.
Any words of wisdom you’d like to share with your readers?
KAREN: I feel like so many kids in middle grade think that they aren’t OK, that they never will be, that they are fundamentally broken. I think they are all asking the question, all the time, of everyone around them. They ask their friends, their parents, their teachers. “Am I OK?” They do it through their actions, by acting out, by withdrawing, by calling attention to themselves by hiding, or by being perfect. They all need reassurance. They just need to hear it. “You’re OK,” is what I want to tell them. “You’re better than OK. You’re going to be just fine. You’re going to be great.”
Isn’t that what we all need to know? That everything is going to be okay?
We hope that Karen’s words of wisdom and joining Nat on her journey to discover herself and the true meaning of family helps you feel reassured that everything will be okay. A Possibility of Whales is out today from Algonquin Young Readers. If you love reading Nat’s story, you’ll love Karen’s equally amazing other books, The Girl in the Well is Me and Love, Ish.
In the mood for another truly inspiring read? Check out our interview with Tami Charles where she tells us all about her powerful debut novel, Like Vanessa!