Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Q&A with Abbott Kahler



Abbott Kahler is the author of the new novel Where You End. Her other books include The Ghosts of Eden Park (written as Karen Abbott). She lives in New York City and in Greenport, New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Where You End, and how did you create your characters Kat and Jude?


A: In 2019, I watched a fascinating documentary titled Tell Me Who I Am. It tells the story of identical twins Marcus and Alex Lewis, the latter of whom suffered a traumatic brain injury resulting in an unusual case of amnesia. Alex remembered nothing except for Marcus’s face and name.


In this tragedy, Marcus saw an opportunity: he would recreate his and Alex’s history, inventing a past that bore no resemblance to the one they’d actually lived.


The documentary made me think of my mother, Katherine, and her identical twin, Judith.


More than identical—they were mirror twins, a rare phenomenon that occurs when a single embryo splits later than usual; looking at each other was akin to looking into a mirror. My mother is right-handed and my aunt was a lefty; their hair parted naturally on opposite sides. They communicated in ways no one else could understand.


I began to wonder what my mother and her twin would have done in this extraordinary situation, and was inspired to write Where You End.


Kat, one of my protagonists, suffers the same form of amnesia as Alex, and her twin sister, Jude, recreates an idyllic—and entirely false—history.


As Kat begins to untangle Jude’s web of lies, she has no idea of the dangers she’s inviting. Her desire to know the truth—and, ultimately, herself—jeopardizes not only the twins’ unique bond, but their very lives.


Q: As someone who has focused on nonfiction, why did you decide to venture into fiction, and which genre do you prefer?


A: Fiction was always my first love. When I was a kid, maybe 10 or 11, I began writing short stories and submitting them to Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines.


They were strange, demented tales full of murderous matrons and wily con artists and charming psychopaths; at some point, my mother began to question where she had gone so horribly wrong.


Shockingly, none of them were published, but I kept writing fiction and collecting rejection letters.


I worked as a journalist for six years before trying my hand at book-length nonfiction. Over the course of writing four nonfiction books, I’ve often encountered fascinating characters and incidents from history, but there wasn’t enough primary source material for me to craft the kind of nonfiction narrative that appeals to me (nonfiction that reads like fiction).

I began to imagine filling in the blanks of these characters’ lives, blending fiction with fact, which is what I do in Where You End—taking inspiration from the Lewis brothers and my unusual family history and imagining an entirely new story.


“Good fiction is the truth inside the lie,” as Stephen King has said, and I tried to respect the genres’ symbiotic relationship—evading truth, while also feeding on it.


Q: What do you think the novel says about twins?


A: Writing Where You End made me think about the 19th century Gothic literary trope of the doppelganger—a second, sinister self that often brought harm or death.


I wanted to play with this trope in the novel, especially with regard to Kat’s view of Jude. If Kat wants to relearn her history and identity, she has no choice but to trust Jude.


Imagine her absolute terror when she begins to question that trust. Why would Jude lie to her? Has Jude changed, or has Kat herself changed? What happened that is so unspeakable? Could Jude be leading her to harm?


And if Kat, in the hope of answering these questions, investigates Jude’s stories, will the twins survive the fallout?


Q: The writer Joshilyn Jackson said of the book, “Where You End’s ingenious structure and breakneck pace had me feverishly turning pages. But it’s Abbott Kahler’s sharp-witted and intrepid heroines, portrayed with such depth and compassion, who elevate this haunting inquiry into the indelible power of memory.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think Joshilyn Jackson is a brilliant writer, so I was thrilled by this blurb!


When I was writing Where You End, I never thought of it strictly as a thriller. To me, it’s a twisted love story between two sisters, and I wanted Kat and Jude to transcend all of the well-worn twin stereotypes and become real, believable people with a very complicated relationship.


I also really appreciated the Kirkus review of Where You End, which hit on the same themes: “At once a vertiginous paranoia tale and a melancholic meditation on identity.”


The twins might look identical and be very dependent on one another, but they are wholly different people with their own distinct personalities and thoughts and fears.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just finished my next nonfiction book. It’s titled Then Came the Devil and is slated to be published in May 2025. It tells the true, wild story of a group of people who fled Europe in the 1930s with the hope of creating a Utopian paradise on the Galapagos island of Floreana.


The three sets of exiles—a Berlin doctor and his lover, a traumatized World War I veteran and his young family, and an Austrian Baroness with two adoring lovers—turned against each other. In the end, two settlers died and two more went missing.


It’s a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie and truly stranger than fiction. I’ve wanted to write this story for more than 10 years, and it’s so deliciously creepy; I loved every minute of the writing and research (which included a fascinating trip to Floreana). 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I actually did quite a bit of research for Where You End. I studied old photos of Philadelphia from the 1970s and 1980s, looked up advertisements for long-defunct products and shops, and read books about Erhard Seminars Training, also known as EST, which was a popular—and bizarre—personal development program in the 1970s.


I also studied twins’ secret languages, a phenomenon that has a proper name: cryptophasia. It was very important to me that Kat and Jude’s secret language had a structure and cadence that seemed organic and true—a language that came as naturally to them as did English.


In a starred review of Where You End, Publishers Weekly said their language “feels like a plausible evolution of a two-decade connection rather than an authorial contrivance,” which was my goal.


Also, a fun fact: My father is also a twin.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Abbott Kahler.

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