Novels often go through many renditions, but Amelia Brunkskill’s debut novel, The Window, transitioned through different genres. The manuscript was essentially three different books before being rewritten as the kind of YA thriller that keeps you guessing. In the book, Jess is dealing with the sudden loss of her twin sister, Anna, whose body was found on the ground, appearing as if she fell from her bedroom window. Jess believes there may be more to her sister’s death and starts digging for answers. It’s a gripping story of loss, secrets, and identity.
I recently chatted with Amelia Brunkskill via email about her writing, her debut novel, and being a writer in Chicago.
This novel wasn’t originally a thriller. I’m curious about the process of changing the story into a different genre.
This novel has had so many renditions! While it always had a mystery at the heart of it, it was originally meant to be a noir graphic novel (that phase did not last long), and then it became rather Nancy Drew-ish, and then it leaned more contemporary. Finally, my editor, who is brilliant, pointed out that I already had some of the slipperiness and the beats of a thriller, but without enough payoff, so she recommended that I really double down and push it harder in that direction. I was excited but also nervous about doing this, because I realized it would involve reopening up the plot and making some major changes, but then I thought of a good direction for it, and so I deleted a third of the novel, and began rebuilding it as a thriller. It was painful at times, but also really interesting to see how you can recast a story into a different genre.
Did you outline the story, come to the plot twists organically, or through trial and error?
I definitely struggled with this, because I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, and I find it so disappointing when either I see the twists coming a mile away, or if I just don’t buy them. So I really wanted the twists to all make sense and be believable, without forecasting them too much. I actually made lists with headings like “exciting/horrible things that can happen to people” and “how someone can discover something” as part of the brainstorming process, to force myself to come up with a variety of ideas and then try them out for size.
I really wish I was better at outlining, because it seems so much more efficient, but whenever I plop down at my desk and try to write out an outline, I end up either checking my email or spiraling into a panic. So instead I have to try writing a random scene using one of my list ideas and see if it feels right.
Do you have a personal connection to twins or is there something that made you gravitate towards telling the story through a twin’s perspective?
I’ve always been interested in twins. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up, and I think that I believed—very idealistically—that if you had a twin, then of course you’d be best friends, and having a best friend who’d move with you seemed really convenient.
Also, I find the idea of having someone who looks exactly like you fascinating, so I love stories about identical twins and doppelgangers.
Your novel is about secrets and about how sometimes you don’t really know someone you’re certain you do. What about this idea interests you?
There is something just so devastating about realizing that you’ve missed something important about someone that you love, especially when they are no longer around to talk through it with you. I think there is so much that we all don’t know about each other, even those that we are closest to. It can be so easy to simply assume that everything is fine, especially for people—like Jess—who are not good at picking up on social cues, and who instead rely on people being very blunt and straightforward about what is going on in their lives.
In addition to YA, you also write adult fiction, short stories, and plays. Is there one form or genre that you prefer? How do you balance writing in so many different formats?
Well, first a disclaimer: I do write them all, but not necessarily at a professional level. Having said that, I like switching formats at the end of a big project—it feels like a nice way to take a breather without stopping writing altogether.
Case in point: I signed up for a playwriting course while I was querying for an agent, and I found myself really enjoying it, so I took a bunch more courses after that. Then my current agent offered me representation, and I’ve been focusing on young adult novels since then, but I would love to circle back at some point and spend more time on playwriting again.
Short stories I tend to just fit in whenever I get a good idea for one, which—for better or for worse—is not very often. In terms of adult fiction, I have a trunked adult thriller that’s missing about 75-100 pages worth of plot, and every year or so I peek at it, hoping that that missing segment of plot will become obvious to me, but so far, no such luck.
What are your favorite things about being a writer in Chicago?
The writing community here is pretty wonderful. While there isn’t exactly a huge central nexus, especially when it comes to young adult fiction, I’ve found that people are incredibly kind and supportive when you make an effort to show up to events. I’ve also made some close writing friends through StoryStudio Chicago, where I’ve taken a number of classes.
Another of my favorite things about being a writer in Chicago is the bookstores, which are fantastic. The Book Cellar is my neighborhood bookstore and it has a very special place in my heart—the staff recommendations are always great, they sell coffee, food, and wine, and they put on wonderful events with absolutely show stopping book cakes—but after that it’s about a ten-way tie for my next favorite bookstore because there are so many incredible ones.
The Window by Amelia Brunskill
Published April 3, 2018
Amelia Brunskill lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog, Max the corgi. She is a librarian who drinks excessive amounts of tea and does not always return her books on time. The Window is her first novel.