The Big Idea: Katharyn Blair
Posted on January 26, 2021 Posted by Athena Scalzi 1 Comment
How did Katharyn Blair know she was on to something compelling for her novel Unchosen? It involves her office, and something she was thinking of, waiting for her in it.
So everyone thinks you’re the prophesied “chosen one.” Probably because you told them you were (you had good reasons, seriously). Now you’re humanity’s only hope. Now what?
When I set out to write Unchosen, I had no idea what the plot was going to be. I had an inkling that it would be set on the ocean, a vague hope that I would be able to pull off a new take on zombies, and a deep love of pirate history. But I knew the main character would be the not-chosen-one. The issue I faced was making sure that all of the elements worked together instead of against each other. And I had my work cut out for me.
The trickiest part about having an unchosen protagonist was finding a way to make it so that Charlotte, the main character, could claim something that wasn’t true—that she was the Chosen One—while still being a sympathetic, likeable character. I find that making your protagonist a liar comes with a unique set of challenges. How could I make it so that she could develop genuine relationships with people she was deceiving? How does that work?
And then there was the worldbuilding around the crux of the story: the Crimson, a virus that is passed through eye contact that turns people into zombies. As an avid Walking Dead fan, I’ve become very familiar with the traditional threat/stakes of zombies. I wanted to do something a little different, while also making sure not to veer so far into the weeds that I was creating a different sort of monster, entirely. And it was very important to me that these things were scary. Eventually, I figured out a system that worked.
It’s important to note that I’m a thirty-one-year-old mother of three. A full-grown woman. I have a couple years’ worth of experience doing MMA training—Ju Jitsu and Krav Maga and Muay Thai. Still, every time I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I have to walk across my hallway. And at the end of my hallway sits my dark, empty office. My wonderfully comfy writing chair rests under a window, vacant and expectant in the shadows. And I can rest assured, no matter what, that if I have seen or read anything that’s even vaguely frightening that day, I will imagine it standing in my office (I don’t think I will ever stop seeing the Bent Neck Lady from The Haunting of Hill House— it’s burned in my brain). I knew that if I could think of a take on zombies that scared me when I pictured it in the middle of the night, I was on to something good. When I eventually thought of Vessels, with their red eyes and still-eloquent voices, I was freaked out, so I knew I was on to something.
While I thought about the issue of Charlotte’s relatability and started fine-tuning the Vessels, I dove into research for the backbone of the story: the history of piracy. I’d long since been fascinated by the rather (sometimes) subversive role of women in piracy, and I read a wonderful book called Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostituted, and Privateers who Ruled the Seven Seas by Laura Sook Duncombe. Anne de Graaf’s story stuck with me, percolating in the back of my mind as I set to sort out what exactly this book would be, because I had a lot of things going on at once:
Pirate lore! A virus/curse! Prophecies! Backstories! Zombies!
And I knew I needed to really get in the weeds if I was going to untangle everything and find the heart of the story.
And the heart of the story is about a girl fighting to save the ones she loves. Specifically, her sisters. I’m the oldest of four sisters, myself. I know what it’s like to love someone so much and at the same time kind of want to strangle her because you know she used your mascara without asking again. While everything else—the history, the worldbuilding, the stakes—all needed ironing out, the heart of the story was always clear. I could hear Harlow, Charlotte, and Vanessa without any static. I knew if I leaned into the love they had for each other, the rest of it would work out.
That optimism was eventually right, though it took a couple of failed drafts to get there. I found that every aspect of the story leaned on each other, making a tangled web that made sense to me one day and confounded me the next. It took months of work and the guidance of my lovely editor, Sara Schonfeld, to get the book to a place where every element was perfectly balanced.
And at the end, the story finally made sense. The Vessels were scary, the lore was clear, and the stage was set for an unexpected girl to save the world.
Unchosen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|IndieBound
Read an Excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
In a world where you catch a virus through eye contact, the shy finally come into their own.