Kenneth Oppel on his YA thriller The Nest, where normal is scary
If something was very wrong with someone in your family, wouldn't you do anything to make that person better? That's the question Kenneth Oppel plants at the heart of his YA novel The Nest. When Steve's new baby brother is born with serious medical issues, an angelic wasp appears to the anxious 12 year old, offering to make everything go back to normal. But normal comes at a price.
In his own words, Oppel talks about the inspiration behind The Nest, which is a finalist for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
The writing bug
"Here's how The Nest came about: I was actually partly through the first draft of my most recent book, Every Hidden Thing, and I hit a bit of a block. When I hit a block, I'll go through the other ideas I have that I think — most often delusionally — are going to be so much easier and better than whatever I'm working on. And one of the ideas I looked at in this case was The Nest. For 10 years I'd been looking at this idea. And for whatever reason — I don't know why — it all came together. I wrote the whole thing in eight weeks. It was intense. It was like a torrent. I just sat down every day and wrote and wrote. It's the only time I got to the computer eager to write! I guess that's the good thing about taking 10 years to write it. It took me 10 years to write it in eight weeks."
The new normal
"The biggest influence for The Nest was very personal: the birth of our third child 11 years ago. She was born with Down syndrome, and it really made me re-evaluate how we look at what normal is and what that means. Is it possible for anyone to be truly normal? Is it a certain model of behaviour we must all try to live up to? All of us have weaknesses, flaws, things that make us 'less than.' It made me think about how we value people, and how we look at who's worthy, who's lovable. For sure I was drawing on my own experiences for the emotional core of this book, because at the beginning when you have a baby who's 'different,' there's so much you don't know. There's surprise, there's worry, there's questioning about what her prospects were going to be.
"I now had this notion of a baby born into a family with something that's very worrying. And in the book, the oldest child in the family, Steve, who's 12, starts having dreams about an angel creature who offers to fix the baby, offering him a perfect baby to swap for the original baby. Steve just wants things to go back to normal. He wants them to be safe. We're all trying so hard to get perfect bodies and partners and lives, and I think sometimes it can lead us to make choices that aren't beneficial to ourselves and to others. Kids really want to fit in. They want to be part of a pack, and they want to be accepted. It's very lonely to feel like you're outside of normal. I wanted to show that no one is really normal, and we're better for admitting that we're flawed."
"The illustrations in the book were the result of a lucky chain of events. When the manuscript was done, I sent it to my agent, who is also Jon Klassen's agent. And my agent said, Oh wow, Jon would be perfect for the cover, and I said sure, if he agreed to it, that would be fantastic. My agent didn't think that Jon would have any time to do interior art. And then, once the manuscript was with my publisher, they actually approached him to do the interior pieces. The idea was that they wouldn't be conventionally illustrative pictures. They're more like a stage set before the actors come on, or after they've left. You've seen something terrible that just happened, or that's about to happen. The text is quite intense, and Jon's drawings have this deceptive stillness to them."
"I did know at one level this was going to be a monster story. There is a monster in the house (or just outside), and no one knows except Steve. On the plain surface, that's what younger readers are going to take away from it. I was really inspired by Alien when I was younger. That's the most structurally similar thing I can think of. The slow discovery of a space that's supposed to be safe and is so not safe, one that assumes these terrifying proportions. Steve's commando-style faceoff at the end, with his baby brother Theo strapped to him in a baby carrier — it was very Alien-like to fight off all these freakish wasp-type things. And it shows such courage — a courage that, in Steve's case, comes 100% from this love of a baby brother he's finally come to appreciate fully for who he is."
Kenneth Oppel's comments have been edited and condensed.