Senior at Vanderbilt talks about her speculative fiction novel
Kat Zhang’s novel “What’s Left of Me”—the first book of the Hybrid Chronicles—takes place in an America like our own except in one respect: every person is born with two souls in their body.
For most of childhood, the two souls coexist harmoniously, sharing their body and their life like siblings. By the time the child reaches a certain age, one of the souls—the “recessive” soul—fades away naturally. Except, sometimes, it doesn’t.
Eva is a recessive soul who never faded away. She and her sister Addie secretly share the same body, keeping Eva’s soul hidden from everyone in the outside world. If Eva is discovered, the girls will be sent to an institution for Hybrids, who are considered dangerous and unstable.
Eva’s existence is little more than a passenger in Addie’s head until the girls meet two other Hybrid teenagers, who know a way to let Eva “out” to move the girls’ body and act of her own will again. Eva desperately seizes this chance to live again.
What begins as one girl’s lust for life quickly unravels into a taut plot of intrigue with a corrupt government, underground movements, the paranoia of authority and the lengths to which individuals will go to not just exist, but to really live.
Zhang, a senior at Vanderbilt University, agreed to a phone interview with the Cluster. After discussing that her book was not, as many readers have labeled it, “dystopian” in the true sense—it does not take place in the future as the consequence of present actions, but instead takes place in an alternate reality to our own—she went on to talk about her book, the writing process and the experience of completing a novel while still in college.
Cluster: Where did the idea come from?
Kat Zhang: Basically it came from the idea of the little voice in the back of people’s heads. It could be called your internal monologue or whatever. When I explain it to younger people, I refer to it as the voice that tells you to do your homework when you’d rather be playing video games. I started thinking, what if that voice was a whole other person? They couldn’t control your body, they could only talk to you. I kind of imagined what it would be like to be stuck in your own body like that, how frustrating that would be. That’s how we got to Eva, and the rest of the story kind of took off from there.
C: Could you explain how a Hybrid works? Is it essentially two different people in one form, or one person with two personalities?
KZ: I guess that’s something I sort of left up to the reader. It’s definitely a complicated question. I think different readers see it in different ways. Most people interpret is as two people occupying the same body, but it’s interesting to see it as two facets of the same person. Everyone’s got different facets. I think it’s interesting to see it either way.
C: Could you tell us about the relationship between Eva and Addie?
KZ: It’s a really special relationship. Actually, it’s one that came surprisingly easy for me to write. They have a strange relationship because they are sisters, but they’re not really sisters. They share the same body; they’ve had, up until this point, identical experiences. They’re really only different in the way people perceive them and in their innate differences. I think of them as two people who have to be bound together, and because they’re bound together they have this very special relationship.
C: Speaking of Addie and Eva, is there any significance to their names?
KZ: I’ve had people point out to me in that their names reminded them of Adam and Eve, but I didn’t intend that. I did choose the name Eva for the definition. In Hebrew it means life, or the living one. …When I wanted to come up with a character who is literally trying to regain her life, it seemed like a natural name for her. With Addie, the name just kind of felt right.
C: A lot of reviews I’ve seen say your book takes on the issue of “what it means to be human.” Was that what you were going for?
KZ: I think a lot of times when I write—especially this one, because it was one of the first major projects I undertook—I didn’t think a lot about how I wanted to send a message. I just told naturally the story I thought needed to be told. In my head, it was always about this girl who had been denied this chance to live by society, and her fight to regain her life and to show the rest of the world that she deserves this life and that just because she’s doing it differently doesn’t mean she’s doing it wrong.
C: How did you find the balance between a busy college life and a demanding book project?
KZ: It does mean sometimes there’s less time for other things. One of the good things about writing is it is done in spurts. Sometimes my editor will need something at the end of the month, so it will be a really busy month. Then I might have time after that; while she’s reading things might be a little more chill. Most of it is time management. I might be in fewer clubs on campus. Mostly I think it works because I like writing so much and I really enjoy this project. It’s sort of like a job and a hobby at the same time.
C: What did you read while you were writing? Did any of that have an effect on your book?
KZ: I was so busy in high school reading high school reading list books, I didn’t read a whole lot of young adult fiction at the time. Personally, I wasn’t reading a ton… I think I was actually inspired by books I read when I was 12-13. “The Golden Compass”, “Ender’s Game”. For “The Golden Compass” I think it was the whole world. It was the first time I felt like that world could be really real. I really loved the main character. Still now, when I read books, or when I try to write, the most important thing to me is the characters. With “Ender’s Game”, I liked the complexity of the characters and how they were multifaceted. That didn’t exist in the books I’d been reading before.
C: What does your writing space look like?
KZ: I’m not super picky, mostly because I have to write anywhere. Generally, if I can choose, I like to be somewhere really quiet because I get so easily distracted. So, quiet, kind of dim. I do a lot of my writing at my desk or on my couch or on my bed or something.
C: Did you ever have issues with writer’s block? How did you overcome that?
KZ: It was a big problem. I was 12 when I decided I was going to publish a book, but I never finished one until I was 17. Between 12 and 17 I would start all these books that I would never finish. In a way it was just all about pushing through. Have you heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)? That was actually what helped me finish my book. I’m a perfectionist, but having that helped me finish. Once you have it out there, you can revise. That’s how I push through now.
Zhang is currently preparing for graduation from Vanderbilt and for a book tour to seven cities in the U.S. The second book of the Hybrid Chronicles, “Once We Were”, is scheduled to hit the bookshelves this fall on Sept. 17. For more information, visit her website at katzhangwriter.com.