Monday, January 16, 2023

Q&A with K.L. Anderson

Photo by Nicole Butler


K.L. Anderson is the author of the new novel But First You Need a Plan. She lives in Seattle.


Q: What inspired you to write But First You Need a Plan, and how did you create your character Cassie?


A: About 10 years ago, I had an idea to write a story about a relatively young married couple who cannot communicate until a terrible event upends their lives and forces them to start talking. I am always interested in the ways people communicate, or fail to do so, and what the consequences of poor communication are. What is the worst thing that can happen if you never talk to your spouse, to your family, to anyone, really?


At the same time I wanted to write something with a compelling plot, in which a hidden secret is revealed over the course of the story, and in which the main characters are regular, relatable people thrust into an extreme situation that results from their own bad decisions.


When I wrote the earliest drafts of But First You Need a Plan, I was a bit younger than I am now, but already feeling like I was in a rut. It was a happy rut—probably more of a transitional period than anything, from being a person who was in school and living in a different city every few years to finding a partner and starting a career and a family and then at some point realizing I’d been living in the same place for 10 years.


For me, there is some low-level anxiety that comes with this, the idea of stopping, of committing to a routine and letting your life unfold against a backdrop of stability (even though this is what most of us are looking for).


I passed along some of this anxiety to Cassie, but also gave her financial insecurity and unrealized dreams and poor decision making, and the compounded stress of dealing with all of these challenges simultaneously.


I ended up with a character who is very much not me but that I still understand and root for. I really relate to her simmering need to do something, or create something, or make any kind of a difference in a world that feels immense and unknowable and uncontrollable, and also her paralysis because she has no idea what to do or how to go about it.


Q: How would you describe the relationship between Cassie and her husband, Danny?


A: They are like a case study in terrible communication. They fell in love hard when they were very young, thinking that what they shared was the only ingredient to a lifetime of happiness. But 10 years and two kids in, life is showing them how wrong they were. This is why Cassie has dreams about talking to Danny, why she has an affair.


In many ways, they are also an old-fashioned couple. Repeatedly, we hear them talk about being regular people who don’t ask for special treatment and don’t feel like they are owed anything. Danny is in the traditional protector role—the reticent man who would do anything (and sometimes horribly misguided things) for his family. Cassie thinks she wants a protector and tolerates a great deal because of it. But the passive wife role she’s settled into doesn’t fit her, and her protector is letting her down by putting people she loves in danger.

I do think there is still love between Cassie and Danny. I wonder what would have happened to them if they’d figured out how to talk to each other sooner, or if they’d had parents who were better role models for healthy communication.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I had a completely different ending in mind for Cassie and Danny, but I couldn’t make it happen. There was too much deceit and betrayal for them to come back from, and it was really important to me that Cassie grow to become a person with agency, rather than falling back into the rut that she exploded out of early in the book.


After the first draft was complete, I knew what the ending had to be, at which point I went back to the beginning and completely reworked the entire manuscript to put in all the pieces that would lead me to this conclusion.


This seems to be the way I write in general. I cannot stick to an outline. For me, each story is a puzzle, and I go through the manuscript as many times as I need to in order to solve it, swapping out whatever pieces don’t fit with new ones until they all connect in the right way and the story falls into place. I suspect this is a very time-consuming writing approach, but it seems to be the only one that works for me.  


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title is a phrase that was in an earlier draft of the manuscript but was later cut. I presumed the title would immediately come to me when the manuscript was done, but it didn’t (it never does). So I read through the full manuscript several times before landing on this phrase: but first you need a plan.


Truthfully, I don’t remember now which character said or thought these words, but I don’t think it matters. Throughout the book, there are numerous instances of characters trying to work out plans, making unwise or hasty or even terrible plans, and losing sight of their plans and going off track. I like the title because it’s squirrely and indecisive. It conveys desperation and things gone wrong, and the feeling of not knowing what to do.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have been working on two other novels that I started before I wrote But First You Need a Plan, and that are complete or nearly so. One is a multi-POV story about the importance of human connections in the modern era, and the other spans three decades in the life of a woman who tries to overcome ordinariness by solving a mystery from her deceased grandmother’s past.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This book was the 2021 Leapfrog Press Global Fiction Contest Winner, which resulted in its publication. I was about ready to give up on the manuscript when I heard about this contest and entered, more or less on a whim. That summer, when I was taking a break and pondering whether to walk away from writing completely, I received the unexpected news that I had won.


People can contact me through my website ( or on Twitter (for now) and Instagram @klandersonland.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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