‘The Boys’: She’s a quivering introvert, she’s a ray of sunshine and there’s a pandemic going on
Over dinner one night while on a bike trip with her daughter through Scandinavia in 2017, San Francisco writer Katie Hafner struck up a conversation with one of the guides about how they treat their “ problem guests.
Hafner, a tech and healthcare journalist, learned that if the travel company really didn’t want someone to be a return customer, they would send them a straight-forward letter.
“I went into reporter mode and said, ‘So who got the letter?’ Hafner, who lives in Noe Valley, recalled by phone recently.
“When he told me, my daughter and I looked at each other, our imaginations went wild and she said, ‘This is a novel!’
“Most people would just say ‘yes it is’ and forget about it. But, I thought, I want to try to write it.
Hafner spent the surreal first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 writing a draft of his clever and skillfully crafted debut novel this month, “The Boys.”
It opens with a letter from the fictional tour company Hill and Dale Adventures, to Philadelphia engineer Ethan Fawcett. “It would be better if you didn’t come back for future excursions,” he says.
We then spend the next 250 pages finding out why, including a jaw-dropping plotline revealed halfway through the book that can’t be explained without spoilers but makes Hafner’s book a laugh-out-loud delight.
Fundamentally a love story and character study of an eccentric and unlikely couple, “The Boys” is about Ethan and Barb, who marry and decide to take in two young Russian orphan boys, only to see their lives shattered. as they care for the boys with contrasting attachment styles.
Ethan is an anxious introvert who is phobic about starting conversations with strangers and is described as “wired for quarantine”.
Even-keel Barb, on the other hand, has a sunny disposition and possesses a “breathtaking serenity.”
The book is also a poignant exploration of loneliness and how trauma survivors can go to extraordinary lengths to avoid facing their psychic wounds.
Hafner spoke to The Chronicle about exploiting his non-fiction reporting for fictional purposes, working on relatable aspects of the COVID pandemic — there’s a brilliant portrayal of someone having a panic attack while he was shopping masked – and approaching a story with a devious secret at his heart. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Tell us how you went from hearing a big tidbit of a story on your trip to starting to flesh it out in a novel.
A: I didn’t think about it for a few months. Then, I woke up one morning and started typing, maybe even on my phone, what I thought was the opening scene. It’s actually the opening scene of the book, when Ethan gets mad at Barb for putting nuts in the cookies because the boys have allergies.
Then I went up to Napa with my husband, Bob (Wachter, chairman of the UCSF Department of Medicine), who had a business trip. He came back from a meeting and I read the first few pages to him. He kind of tilted his head and he said, “Really?” (laughing). He thought it was so funny.
Q: Without spoilers, can you share your approach to keeping a key fact secret until the right time?
A: Shankar Vedantamthe great guy who does (the podcast) “Hidden Brain”, did a whole segment on “The Sixth Sense” and talked about our anchoring bias. If you go into a book or movie believing things are a certain way, you are anchored in those facts and ignore others.
The book that I like and does it well is “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler. She has a big reveal in the middle. But I really wanted Ethan and Barb’s relationship to flow naturally and for readers to relax into it.
Q: Talk about Ethan’s development. He’s eccentric, even peculiar, but kind enough, it’s believable that Barb falls in love with him.
A: I wanted it to be original and adorable at the same time. I wanted things to be a little weird, a little weird like Wes Anderson. Like Ethan going back to his mother’s room where nothing has changed and he lives with batons and directories.
For years I idolized Anne Tyler. I love the way she does quirky, and I thought, how can I do quirky and make it work in my own voice?
Q: You made Barb an expert on loneliness and in 2016 you wrote a story for the New York Times on the same subject, report from a call center for lonely elderly people in England. Were you able to use other things in “The Boys” that you learned while reporting?
A: My life as a journalist completely informed this book. I don’t understand why more journalists don’t write fiction, because it gives you such good material.
The story of loneliness touched me deeply. When I was sitting there with someone taking calls in Blackpool, England, a woman called who hadn’t used her voice for a week. I couldn’t believe the loneliness she felt as she started to cry. Barb must be an expert on solitude, that was fine.
Q: It also aligns with the staging of your novel during the COVID pandemic, when the whole world focused on issues of isolation and our need for connection. Have you worked in more pandemic realities as real life events evolved?
A: I did it. For example, the trip (to the grocery store) that Ethan takes is exactly what happened to me when I went to Whole Foods on 24th Street when the pandemic started. I wanted bok choy, and when I got there, this man was hovering over bok choy and sneezing, and I started to pass out. I decided that Ethan should go, run away, and run out, abandoning his cart.
Q: To fully understand your facts about the pandemic, have you bounced your thoughts on your husband, since you have the advantage of live with a COVID expert?
A: I wrote this so early in the pandemic, so I was sort of guessing (how the world was going to change). I remember asking Bob, “What do you think if there’s a scene in Italy where there’s a sign on the door that says you have to be vaccinated to get in?”
And he said, “Well, that’s a little far. (Laughs.) I’m not sure that will ever happen.
By Katie Hafner
(Spiegel & Grau; 256 pages; $27)
The Commonwealth Club presents Katie Hafner: In conversation with Carol Edgarian. Virtual event. 5:30 p.m. Monday, July 18. Free for members, $5 for non-members; $30 for either with book. Registration required. www.commonwealthclub.org