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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors to add to your summer reading list.

In 'The Boys,' amid colorful characters, a long-buried reaction to a family tragedy

Katie Hafner grew up in western Massachusetts and now splits her time between New Hampshire and California.
Katie Hafner grew up in western Massachusetts and now splits her time between New Hampshire and California.

"The Boys" is a novel about Ethan and Barb, a modern day couple. He's smart and sort of socially awkward. She's kind and a dynamo. They meet, get married, and discuss having children.

Ethan is very nervous, for reasons that become clear early in Katie Hafner's first novel.

To help out, Barb finds a way for them to temporarily take in what seem to be two young boys from Russia, Tommy and Sam. Then the pandemic begins and Ethan begins obsessively parenting the two.

That's the basic plot, but Hafner said it's very different on an emotional level.

Katie Hafner: I mean, it's heavy, but it just doesn't go into huge, dark places. I wanted to write a book that was populated with people who are — at their core — good people.

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: While this is not a dark book, there is a lot of loss. And there's a lot of playfulness. But Ethan's loss of his parents when he was a kid is a profound factor in this story.

My own husband — we grew up together in Amherst, and he died at age 45 when my daughter was 8, which was the age Ethan was. Watching a child kind of square herself with grief at age 8 was something I wanted to explore.

So in the character of Ethan — is there any paragraph or a piece of the story that you want to point to, and how he internalized that loss when he was really little, and now he's in his mid- or upper-30s.

So the parents went on a trip to Hawaii when Ethan was eight and they didn't come back. They drowned.

So in part two of the book, he's explaining to another character, Izzy, he's opening up to her. He says to Izzy, "When they were packing for Hawaii, I stuck a couple of Pecan Sandies with a note I wrote into a sandwich bag."

I'll just read this one paragraph:

"They were in a pool when they —" Izzy started to ask.

"No," Ethan interrupted, a bit too loudly. Impatience was creeping into his voice. "One of the things they were trying to entice me with was the pool at the hotel, so I knew there would be a pool. I didn't know about the ocean. When the accident happened. I thought she had gone into the deep end of the pool. But she had gone into the ocean and got caught in an undertow. My father went in after her. When their things came back, there was the brown leather bag. The baggie with the Pecans Sandies was still in it, and the cookies were totally crumbled, and the note was there in the middle of the crumbs, all oily from the cookies. I'm pretty sure she never saw it."

What was Ethan going through as he was trying to raise Tommy and Sam?

Well, first of all, he was completely neurotic about safety and so he wanted to keep them safe at all costs, which means he kept them inside most of the time. And then he wanted to be the perfect parent.

He wanted to learn Russian and he was reading "Anna Karenina" to them so that they wouldn't lose their Russian. But he was using a translation app.

And their cat had died — they wanted a new cat, Barb loved cats. [Ethan] said, "We can't get a new cat because the boys, you never know [they could be allergic]."

And she's just rolling her eyes at Ethan, like, what has happened to you?

And after a while ... she's so frustrated with Ethan, that she locks herself in her office.

Ironically, perhaps, what she has studied at university is psychology. And not just psychology, but the effects of loneliness on one's health, especially among older adults.

So suddenly here comes the pandemic and loneliness and social isolation are like a big thing, and so she turns into this kind of [research] superstar.

How much of who you are, in addition to the personal aspects of your life, comes into how you write a novel — since you're a journalist as well?

I think that when people transition from journalism to fiction, it can be perilous. It's both liberating and paralyzing because it's, "Oh, boy, I can make anything up." It's like, "Oh, no, anything could happen!"

But I really I drew a lot on my reporting. I did a big piece for The New York Times on loneliness and isolation among older adults. So I love having drawn on my reporting.

There's this one scene where some eccentric uncle decides to walk up and down Manhattan, eating at every restaurant that he finds in the Manhattan Yellow Pages in 1984, and it takes him seven years.

So I could have made up any restaurants, but I actually went — because I'm a reporter — I went to the New York Public Library. I looked at the old microfilm and found the 1984 Yellow Pages, and the restaurants that started with A and the restaurants that started with Z.

And it's like, [no reader] would have noticed. Right?

I would say that for some of us, this is a book you read once, and then you go back and you read passages — and you see them in a whole other way. Do you think your readers are reading this twice?

Actually only one and a half times! Because if you go back and you read the first half, it's like, "Oh, right!" Because I drop clues right and left.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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