Q: What inspired you to write I Know Your Secret, and how did you create your cast of characters?
A: I have loved thrillers my whole life. Two years ago, when I was sitting down to brainstorm a new book idea, it finally occurred to me to try and write one for middle grade readers.
I wanted to work on something fast-paced, high-octane, and fun, but that also had emotional stakes that would feel real to readers. A good thriller has all of this, plus characters that readers care about, so the challenge was laid out for me!
I create characters from a mix of my own traits and a dash of people I have met.
Ally is my quiet, animal-loving side, the girl who wants to connect with people but needs her alone time too.
Gemma is who I aspired to be when I was in seventh grade: grounded in her sense of self, quick to speak up when things aren’t right and comfortable in her own skin. But, like seventh-grade me, despite these strengths she doesn’t always see the big picture and like all of us, needs trusted friends to help her find her way.
Todd is seventh-grade me who got frustrated but struggled to verbalize why or to ask for help. He is based partly on a boy I knew when I was 12 who expressed a lot of anger that I suspect covered a need for understanding and support in a tough family situation.
Last is Owen, who is perhaps most like me now and at 12: excited to connect with people to the point of being slightly overeager and at times lacking a filter. He has good intentions but can overwhelm and be a touch annoying.
Q: The story takes place over a day at school. What was it like to structure a plot that occurs during a short period of time?
A: It was fun! But boy did it require editing.
I wanted a ticking clock counting down to the moment when Gemma, Ally, Todd, and Owen either obey their blackmailer to the letter (breaking a few school rules along the way) or face their own secrets being revealed.
Each of them has a secret they are desperate to protect, but following the mysterious and at times sinister instructions doesn’t feel like a great choice. So giving them very little time to think things through or plan forced them to rely on each other early on and make choices that amped up the tension.
The downside to all these good story elements was that I had to work and rework the timeline about a thousand times, only to hand it in to my editor who discovered a slew of other timing issues I didn’t see on my own.
But I am lucky to work with a fantastic team at Scholastic who made sure the tight structure and short time period fit in everything needed to tell the story.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: Yes and no. I wrote a very detailed outline before embarking on my first draft, so the ending was set before I wrote the first word of the story. But as I wrote I discovered new layers to the characters, which created more nuance to the plot, and that meant the ending became more complex than the original concept.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: I love this question! My primary hope is that they enjoy it, that it’s the sort of book they cannot put down. I hope that readers are able to connect with the characters, finding one or more that mirror their own experience and at the same time gain something from the ones who are different.
One of the things Todd, Ally, Owen, and Gemma learn is that people have different experiences that impact their actions, and that when we understand those experiences we have more compassion for those actions. I would love for readers to take this in as well, to be a little slower to judge each other.
Lastly, some of the topics in the story, like poverty and mental illness, might not be things kids have opportunity to talk about. I hope the way these issues are touched on in the story encourages kids to ask questions and speak openly about them.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am delighted to share that in December 2022 there will be a companion thriller to I Know Your Secret!
I Know You’re Lying is also set in Snow Valley but takes place a year later, with a new set of seventh graders facing a mystery that could change their lives in the course of a single school day. It’s a new cast but you’ll see some familiar faces and sites along the way.
I am currently in edits and yes, again there are quite a few timeline snarls to work out!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: For the latest on my books, as well as giveaways, sign up here for my newsletter.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb