This is what’s going on in Siobhan Vivian’s The Last Boy and Girl in the World: It’s raining in the little riverside town of Aberdeen, and it won’t stop. That’s why the city is sinking and why the government insists the whole community must leave. But high school senior Keeley doesn’t want to go. As the evacuation deadline approaches and her town begins to disappear beneath the floodwaters, Keeley’s feelings about her friends, her longtime crush, and her family come into urgent focus and she must decide what to do.
Quite a set-up, right? Early readers of this book were hooked. From the starred review in Publishers Weekly:
In this multifaceted novel, [Siobhan Vivian] focuses on the psychological responses to impending disaster while addressing universal themes of first love and betrayal. The book examines many forms of loss and illustrates how rebuilding can be even harder than seeing what is loved destroyed. Keeley is a realistically flawed heroine, and Vivian allows readers to feel intimately connected to the depth of her regret and her urgent need to reconnect with pieces of her past.
We loved this story so much we made it the May selection for the ParnassusNext subscription box and invited Vivian to speak here in the store this coming Sunday, May 15, at 2 p.m. Here’s an excerpt from Vivian’s conversation with Stephanie Appell, our manager of books for young readers, part of the exclusive interview all subscribers will receive in addition to their signed first edition of The Last Boy and Girl in the World.
The first thing I want to ask about is the book’s epigraph, “Inspired by true events.” Can you tell me about the events that inspired this book?
SV: The idea for this book came to me via a series of paintings my friend created based on the razing of a town called Livermore, Pennsylvania.
A combination of environmental and economic reasons prompted the US government to seize the town of Livermore and pay its residents to leave. After all the residents had vacated, a dam was built and the town was permanently flooded. In some cases, they did not even demolish the homes.
All of my friend’s paintings explored that event through the perspective of young people. There was one piece in particular that I found so arresting. It depicted a group of girls staring out at a lake, with the smallest hints of their former homes visible underneath the blue water.
I stood in front of that painting for maybe an hour and started plotting the book.
I’d love for you to talk about setting. By the end of the book, I think readers will both feel like they know the streets of Aberdeen and some of the locations — the high school, Keeley’s bedroom — as well as Keeley herself does, and feel a real sense of loss at what’s happened to the town. How did you go about constructing a setting that feels so real and lived-in?
SV: I did a ton of research. I found a historical society in Western Pennsylvania that preserved all the Army Corps of Engineer documents, land surveys, etc. I even got to see the names of the families that lived in Livermore and how much money each one settled for.
I also discovered a bunch of newspaper articles, personal narratives and photographs recounting what it was like to live in Livermore during that time.
But lots of details came directly from my own hometown, which was small and a very insular place to grow up. it was a square mile, and we had our own middle school and high school. Everyone knew everyone. There was no escaping who you were or the perceptions people had of you.
I’m going to try not to go on and on about what a fabulous and deeply human character Keeley is, because I want readers to meet her and discover her for themselves. What I’d like you to tell us about, though, are her flaws, and why it’s important to write characters who aren’t perfect, who make mistakes and don’t always make great choices.
SV: Keeley is the closest I’ve ever come to writing about myself. She embodies all my flaws, all my quirks, all my unlikeable qualities. I really thought a lot about how I would have experienced her situation, what things I could process and what things I’d just completely avoid thinking about. She goes through a lot in the book, and most of those experiences, she is emotionally unprepared for.
It’s strange to me how frustrated or turned-off readers can sometimes be by an imperfect narrator. Actually, to be honest, I have no idea why anyone would want to read a book about a perfect person who always makes terrific choices. To me, that sounds like the most boring person on earth.
I love it when characters do things that infuriate me. When they make choices that have me screaming into the spine. That means I am invested in them, in their journey. Also, it’s fun to watch someone make a mess of things. That’s why reality TV is so popular!
I’m not writing a train-wreck, mind you. Just someone who is learning and growing and changing based on the consequences of her decisions.
I also don’t think that mistakes should always be earth-shattering. To me, life is about choices, and most of those choices don’t present you with black-and-white sides of right and wrong. And as an author I love, love, love sitting in that gray area.
What do you love about reading YA, and what do you love about writing it?
SV: I love the stakes. I love that every decision a teen makes crystalizes some aspect of who they are, or plants a flag where they’d like to be. It’s such a rich timeframe to hang a story on.