Q: What inspired you to write When the World Turned Upside Down, and how did you create your four protagonists?
A: I was inspired to write When the World Turned Upside Down by the complete awe I feel about everything we've all been through around the pandemic.
Everything we’ve gone through, the children have been right there with us. The walls of protecting children from the truth necessarily had to break down in this pandemic. Seeing empty streets, hearing the sirens, and being forced out of school are pretty clear signs that something is wrong. I wrote When the World Turned Upside Down to look closely at how children managed this madness we were all thrust into.
In terms of the protagonists, they kind of just emerged as I started writing. They are based on two elements of New York life: multicultural communities and apartment life. Apartment buildings are worlds unto themselves and in buildings like mine, you have people from all over the world living together in one building.
The friendships that emerge among young children don't have the same boundaries that emerge as children age. So I wanted to look at that moment when children are drawing away from each other and yet are thrust back together by a crisis.
Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The editors chose the title from the very first line I wrote when I was pitching the book. The line was: With one little announcement from her teacher, Shayla’s world turned upside down. That morphed into “It was a Wednesday when Shayla’s world turned upside down” when the pitch was revised. They plucked that phrase out as the title and it stuck.
The title signifies how 2020 felt. Like everything we knew was shaken up, flipped inside out and turned upside down. It encapsulates how destabilizing life in the pandemic was, and how that feeling of uncertainty only grew as we witnessed George Floyd’s murder and nationwide, people started to raise their voices for justice.
Q: What do you think the book says about the role of community in a time of crisis like the pandemic?
A: I think crises like the one we are living through right now always highlight how much we need each other. Humans are communal beings, yet through technology and other modern advancements, we can isolate ourselves and survive.
We are, of course, still relying on others for our survival, but we are removed from them and we don't see their hand in the systems we are relying on to be comfortable and stay alive. When those systems break down, it quickly becomes apparent that systems work because of the people powering them.
It also becomes apparent how much we need each other. The friends in the book become an ecosystem, helping each other through tough times. Then they begin to reach out to others in the building and they begin to learn about this larger world inside their building that they weren’t even aware of. Then their sphere of awareness grows even wider when protests erupt.
Ultimately, humanity is one big community and we have many different communities inside of it. I think the book points to our value, our power, and our voice inside our various spheres of influence: personal, interpersonal, communal, and worldwide.
Q: What was your writing process like?
A: In my day job, I'm a project manager. So for this book, I decided to rely on my project management skills to carry me through the process. I've been writing for many years, working on the same novel for more than a decade, so I know firsthand how easily a novel project can become quicksand.
I was determined to find a more efficient way of working this time around. My process was to build the book from the inside out. In my first draft, I didn't worry about the words, I just focused on the bones of the book. I got the plot in place and shared it with the editors.
With their feedback, I fleshed out the structure of the book, then added the next layer—the character dynamics. I made sure the characters’ identities as well as their relationship to each other was fully fleshed out.
After feedback on that draft, I just had one or two chapters to restructure, then I was finally free to focus on craft. I tightened the writing and edited the chapters for flow, removing redundancies. In separating out the tasks by drafts, I feel like I’ve discovered a superpower. This book was completed quickly, and I'm using the same strategy for my next novel.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a YA novel about a girl with powers and a mysterious family history. She loves her powers, they are part of her, but she really wants to just be a normal girl.
After a childhood in isolation, she’s thrust into a city and starts learning what it's like to be a teenager with friends and crushes and homework. Her journey is interrupted as her powers take center stage and she has to learn who she is and decide on her destiny.
It’s set in my hometown of New Orleans and it's been very fun to write. It’s part of a two-book series and it comes out in 2022!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yes! I am super passionate about people finding their voices. I realize that ultimately that’s what all my writing is about. On my site, kiburabooks.com, I share some reflections on the writing life and it’s all focused on helping people identify blockages and find their voices.
So I’d like to share a wish to everyone who reads this that you will find a way to put your barriers and self-criticisms in a box where they belong and move forward to bring your best self and your vision for your future to life.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb