This past weekend, I had the opportunity to interview Nightfall authors Peter Kujawinski and Jake Halpern. After 14 years of day, comes 14 years of night in the new young adult thriller, Nightfall. When the sun starts to set, twins Marin and Kana see their parents engaging in odd ritualistic practices, like hanging up “a massive rat head they’ve never seen.” The people of the island are also getting ready to move to the Desert Lands. But when the twins’ friend, Line, goes missing right when everyone is beginning to depart the island, Marin and Kana go looking for him; thinking their parents wouldn’t leave without them. They find Line, who is injured, and race back to the ships, only to see that they have already set sail.
“That’s when they realize that they’ve been left behind,” said Peter who explained the story’s premise. “They’ve been left behind in a place that they know as intimately as anyone’s bedroom, but now it’s totally alien to them because they’ve never seen it in the dark.”
Appropriately, I met with Jake and Peter during night fall at 57th Street Books in Chicago’s Hyde Park to discuss their new novel, their own fears, and why they find writing about young characters so compelling.
How did you come up with the concept of 14 years of light and 14 years of dark?
Jake Halpern: I think that we’re both scared of the dark, and in a sense, we’re all scared of the dark. We both like to go camping, and we were talking about how at night, in the camp really far out of the city, it’s dark, in a way that it’s not in the city because of the street lamps, headlights, iPhones, and whatnot. We talked about how that intense darkness triggers a primal fear in us.
My wife, who is a scientist, explains that there is a reason for that. Back in the cave days or whatever, the night was filled with danger; you could fall in a hole or get killed by a saber-tooth tiger. Our brains were hardwired to be fearful and cautious while we were in the dark. And now, it’s not as dangerous, but the brain is still firing.
So, we thought, “Okay, we’re really interested. Can we write a book where they’re grappling with darkness in this profound way?” But then, we thought to just make the night super long. The night is scary enough, and when you’re a kid and scared, you’re only like “It is two hours until dawn!” But what if that’s not the case? It’s going to be fourteen years. It was like playing with how we can elongate night and tap into that fear as much as we could.
There is a major horror aspect to this novel. Knowing your fears of the darkness, was it hard building up the suspense and crafting the scary parts?
Peter Kujawinski: I, for one, feel like I’ve gotten a bit more afraid of the dark since writing the book, since you kind of go there and let your imagination run wild. Any time you let your imagination run wild—Jake is absolutely right—something that is hardwired, as instinctive to any human being as a fear to the dark, then yeah, you do get a little bit more nervous.
To tell you the truth, there is definitely a horror aspect to it, but I hope this reflects the types of books I like to read the most. Some are horror; some are not. But I’d call them all psychologically suspenseful. This is the type of suspense that Alfred Hitchcock is known for best. It’s all in your brain. The fear of someone chasing you down a dark alley is always much more fearful than the actual turnaround and seeing somebody, because you don’t know what’s behind you. Knowing is where all of the suspense is; so it’s a very slow reveal.
It’s not as if it’s A Nightmare on Elm Street—or even The Walking Dead kind of thing—where you know what they are from the very beginning. It’s a very slow reveal because it reflects the way we like our suspense teased out. To me, it really increases the tension throughout the book. Ultimately that’s what we wanted. We wanted this book where you have to stop yourself to not look at the next chapter or jump ahead because you’re so curious to find out what happens.
What is your collaborative process like? Do you trade-off writing chapters, are you on the phone all of the time—?
Peter: On the phone. All the time.
Jake: Peter is right; we were on the phone all of the time. It’s constant communication. I feel like we write best when we’re talking most often, partly because it’s a practical thing. You want to make sure I’m not writing something that he’s writing, or that our understandings of the characters are the same. Also, sometimes, he’ll call me up or I’ll call him up, and we’ll say “I’m going to read you something.” And it’s funny because we’re grown men, and we’re reading to each other like we’re in sixth grade.
And I’m reading him something over the phone, and it’s like instant editing. I think this is the most important thing in our collaboration: I trust his judgement enough that when I’ve written something and I’m really excited about it and think it’s good, I always listen to him. Because at this point, I know when he’s telling me something it’s not a criticism of that he didn’t like my writing, but that there may be a chance to make it better. That is a constant thing we have going on.
And yeah, there is a plan, like “I do this chapter, you do this chapter.” People ask that it must be a pain, and it can be cumbersome sometimes, but the value added is that we’re having fun doing it and it’s dynamic. When he’s like, “that idea is fucking scary!” That’s the height, I get off on it, and it’s my biggest thing.
[spoiler]I don’t remember whose idea it is, maybe it was [Peter’s], but at the end of the book, there are these tattoos, these skin markings and they glow at night. We set it up early, and Marin’s mother is from this far off land they’ve got these scalpels that they’re supposed to mark themselves with. And Marin doesn’t want to do it because it’s her mother’s culture and they’re leaving this island, so she’s fighting with her mom, and she doesn’t want to do it because her mom’s done it. At the very end, it is pitch-fucking-black, and we’re in this cave, and they have to climb this wall. And she can’t see shit. She’s freaking out, but she’s a badass, so she reaches out behind and grabs the scalpel, cuts her skin, and it’s not massive light, but she can see the holes near her fingers. We talked about it, and when this idea came over the phone, we were like “Ahhhhh!”[/spoiler]
Speaking of badass characters, what made you choose to write about 14 year-olds rather than adults and a young adult novel?
Peter: This book is not written in any specific way. It’s the way I would have wanted to written it if it was for purely adults. We didn’t dumb down anything about it. I guess what I found most compelling about it is that when you’re 14—that ages 14-17 time—it’s not only you reacting to the world around you, it’s just all of these things going on in your life.
I think the way I found it to be very powerful for me is the idea of the twins at 14—I have four and half year old twins—boy and girl. I still remember taking them home from the hospital, and they were as close as they were ever going to be. And now they’re four and half and still incredibly close, but you see them develop their own distinct personalities. When they’re fourteen, I can well imagine them being quite different people. And yet, they’re still family and they share everything together.
It’s a great example of when you grow up and become a teenager, a young adult and in your 20s and 30s, you need to develop your own sense of self and yet part of that is making sure you maintain ties to with your family because that grounds you. So I find that evolution to be fascinating. When then, you put in all the crazy stuff that’s been happening to [the characters]: they’re left behind, they’re in the dark. It’s just like huge material. I just find it very compelling.
Jake: It’s funny… we go to a lot of schools for this, and we see a lot of kids who are about 13-14. At first, it’s kind of intimidating to go into these gyms, and there’s 400 13-year-olds. I didn’t know how to talk to them at first. But there is one thing I learned right away: Don’t condescend. Talk to them like adults. Right off the bat, talk to them like you would a room full of adults. If you do, the way they respond is almost instantaneous.
With the book, it’s the same way. Yeah, they’re kids, but we kind of think of them as adults, and they’re put in a very adult situation. Because when their parents left them behind, they have to step it up. I definitely think some of it was informed by going to schools for previous books, meeting them and understanding that they are at this age—this weird spot—they can be like numskulls doing stupid kid stuff or there are moments when 13-year-olds can really step up and act like adults.
In the book, the parents are preparing to leave, and when the kids see their parents doing these crazy preparations, they are like “WTF?!Why are you doing this stuff?” And the parents are like, “Oh this is the way we roll… we have this ritual.” When the parents leave, the kids are basically debating, “Are our parents so stupid that they literally do all of these rituals and don’t know why they do them? Or are they lying to us?”
Peter: Either option is very disappointing to them.
Jake: That’s right, spot on. And that’s what it means to be 14. Like when you’re a kid, your parent is like God. Our kids are still young, and they think we’re awesome. When you’re 14, they think “Dad messed up, man. Dad dropped the ball big time.” The first time you’re realizing that, it’s powerful.
If you could spend one day with any character from Nightfall, who would it be?
Jake: We’re laughing, but to be totally honest with you, we both have crushes on Marin’s mom, Tarae. We both imagine her as this beautiful—she’s from the Southlands—so we imagined her as this exotic beauty. We’re always joking around with each other about who Tarae would like more me or him.
Peter: Yeah, we’d have to go with Tarae.
Jake: That’s the truth.
Peter: If you want the honest truth.
Jake: He’d joked, “I’d give me all of my royalties to run off with Tarae.” This is what you do when you’re old dads.
Nightfall works as a standalone, but do you have plans for a sequel or to expand upon its universe?
Peter: The second one. We are writing a story in that universe called Edge Lands. It’s based more in the Desert Lands. In this time zone, there is these 48 hours of days and nights, more similar to what we have going on here. There is an island there that only has one activity, and that is to host the funeral rites for the world’s dead. All of the world’s dead come from all the world, floating from all of these different cultures and religions to this island. The reason for it is because it’s the closest inhabited island to the massive drop off. The way people thought of it 500 years ago where the world ended at giant waterfall, well in this particular world, it does. They have funeral rites, and they are based off the funeral rites Jake saw when he was in India and places like that. The book centers on these two people who are caught up in a lot of difficult circumstances. It’s exciting.
We’re writing the book now, and we’re really gunning to be done in the next couple months, especially with the first draft. But we’re really excited about it. We still have ideas for a pure sequel to Nightfall, and that is definitely on the table, but right now, we can only do one book at a time, and this is the one we’re focused on.
Jake: If you like Nightfall and like the creepy, surreal quality to the book, then you will feel like you’re right back there. But we didn’t want to feel like we were just cashing in on a sequel just because it’s the safe move.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and would like to impart on aspiring young writers?
Peter: The best advice—I wasn’t given it—but I was reading this book by Ernest Hemingway, called A Moveable Feast. It was about his time in Paris. He talked about how the only way he was able to conquer his demons and self-doubt—and any writer will have that, it’s just part of writing, it’s intrinsic to it—is to write every single day. To not be surprised that sometimes what you think during the day you’re writing it is some of the worst stuff you’ve ever written is actually not that bad. When you think the stuff is amazing, it’s probably not that great. And the more that you can bleed from writing, and it becomes something you need to do every single day, then I think you’re on your way.
I agree. Sometimes when I’m stressed and think what I’ve written is awful, I just submit it, and the response is usually, “That was really good.” And I’m like, really…?
Jake: There is magic in just hitting the send button and not letting yourself talk yourself out of it. Sending it before the demons of doubt paralyze you. “Ahhh, hit it!” and then later worry about whether it’s any good or not. I had an editor—she was really good—she said something to me when I was writing my first book. “Get me some shitty writing.” I was like, what? “Shitty writing, get me a first draft.” At first I thought it was weird, but then I thought “Oh, I can do that! I can give you some really shitty writing. That’s not a problem.” It’s got to start somewhere. You’re not going to write gold right off the bat.
Peter: It just doesn’t happen that way.