by Sophie Schmidt
As the summer is coming to a slow close, don’t put down your beach books yet. There is still time to dip your toes into the water and crack open a new summery book to stave off the autumn vibes. One of the best books to do this with is The Lake Effect. The main character Briggs finds himself a summer job on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan in South Haven, Michigan. We caught up with Erin McCahan, author of The Lake Effect, to discuss Michigan, her book, and what it was like to have such a personal connection with the setting.
Justine Magazine: Hi, Erin! So glad you could chat with us today. To get things rolling, why don’t you tell us a little bit what The Lake Effect is about?
Erin McCahan: Yes, of course! I tried to encapsulate it, so what I came up with is that it’s about how one summer, one old lady, and one girl next door completely upend 18 year-old Briggs Henry’s life.
JM: I love it! So what inspired this story?
EM: I love South Haven! We go to South Haven every summer and have been for 15 years. I knew I wanted to set a story at the lake; I love the lake. People find inspiration in the desert, or the mountains; I find it at the lake. I knew I wanted to set the story there and I knew I wanted it to be a teenage guy and an old lady. The dynamic is hilarious and the misunderstandings can be great, especially if she’s not really that great at English. It took years to come up with a plot that would really involve the lake. This one has to take place here at the lake, and not just any lake, Lake Michigan. It can’t be any resort town, either, there has to be something about the lake that speaks to the character’s heart. The nature of YA is that there has to be a major life change or there’s no book. Most people’s lives don’t change over the summer, so how do I stay true to life, and have the main character experience a life-changing event while that event happens to someone else. So it’s all of these little details that coalesced into The Lake Effect.
JM: That’s so cool. I love how you took your time with this idea and let it incubate for a while instead of rushing it. One aspect I really enjoyed was the quirky cast of characters you have. How did you come up with them?
EM: I chew on an idea and a character for a very, very long time before I start writing. I let it sit so long that I can picture each one and I can see them interacting with each other. I know who they are before I start writing. How I get there, though, I don’t know. I just keep them in my head 24/7. Some authors write this down, but I don’t. I still know who they are, and thinking and listening to them because they have to be real to some degree. Otherwise they’re wooden characters.
JM: Who was your favorite to write?
EM: Mrs. B! I love her. She’s 84, she knows who she is, she’s to the point her her life where she can say whatever she’s thinking and so what. Her language a little bit off, so she was just so much fun to write.
JM: I love Mrs. B! She reminds me of all of the Golden Girls combined in one character. How did you decide to write her dialogue?
EM: I’m so glad you liked her. I have really great friends who are Serbian. I would write down their turns-of-phrase that I absolutely love and that are quirky. I love them dearly, and it’s always fun talking to them. One of them says, “The way how” instead of “the way you do it.” He combined two phrases, and it was fantastic. I wrote it down and thought, “I’m giving this to a character some day.” There’s this cute, funny, tiny old lady from church that I love, and I thought, “Why don’t I just make her Serbian, but used her physically,” and that’s how Mrs. B was born.
JM: She is such a sweet character! I love her relationship with Briggs, too. What part of the book was your favorite to write?
EM: All the exchanges between Briggs and Mrs. B for sure.
JM: They have such a fun dynamic. I also love how they interact with the setting. How did your personal knowledge and love for the area influence the writing of this book?
EM: The draw of the lake really pulled me in. This might sound creepy, but voices carry when you’re on the beach and people don’t realize it. This book evolved over lots of summers. I would take a notebook and a pen with me, and I would write down conversations I heard between groups of teenagers. The character Maddy is entirely a real girl. I don’t know her name and I’ve never met her, but there was this cute-as-a-button teenage girl in a hot pink bikini. She was tan and would play volleyball for hours. She would go up to strangers and ask them to play volleyball with her; she was darling. Somewhere in South Haven, the model for Maddy exists.
JM: That’s so cool! Maybe you’ll get to meet her one day. So how would you say writing this compares to your other novel Love and Other Foreign Words?
EM: It was so different; it was so much harder. I wrote the first third of the book in third-person and submitted them to my editor. She said it was great but she wanted it in first-person from the guy’s perspective. Of course I wrote back, “Sure, you’ve got it!” then I’m sitting at my computer screen going, “Oh no, how do I do this? I can’t do this.” She was super supportive and encouraging. It took a year to find his voice, a lot of sending in pages and her saying, “Nope, not there yet” until I could really find my footing with him. Writing from a guy’s perspective was really hard. I’m not a guy. I don’t have teenage sons, so I would call my friends who do and asking my husband about their mannerisms.
Thank you to Erin for taking time out of your day to sit with us. Make sure you check out The Lake Effect — perfect for any kind of weather.