Kat Falls will be at the Loft, Evanston Public Library, at 2 p.m., Sun. Jan. 22, to meet and talk with teens about her books and the process of writing. Photo by Vivienne Falls

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The Book

“Rip Tide,” Evanstonian Kat Falls’ new book released just this past August, is the sequel to the Evanston author’s 2010 “Dark Life.” Both books in the middle-grade (generally considered ages 9-12) series are set in a vastly changed world of the future; both books are exciting and filled with action and zippy dialogue from cover to cover.

In “Dark Life,” Ty, the 15-year-old male protagonist, his parents and little sister, Zoe (based on Ms. Falls’ daughter, the author says), are one among a number of deep-sea farming families who also live in the sea full-time. A considerable portion of the world’s land mass, especially that of North America, is now deep under water. Buildings, vehicles and other trappings of life “before” now lie below, pieces of it occasionally swept by a current into inhabited areas of ocean.

What land is left is overcrowded, a fact that has encouraged the bravest to become sub-sea pioneers. This is possible because of “Liquigen,” a liquid form of oxygen that enables a person to breathe underwater. Scientists and engineers have also developed scooters and subs for maneuvering under water, as well as architecture that makes undersea life homey and comfortable.

Those on land need the food produced by Ty and communities like his in order to live, but the Topsider government treats them terribly, appointing for them “representation” that has no interest in their wellbeing. They have no power or say in their government.

Further, there is little interaction or understanding between those who live on land and those who live in the sea, leaving everyone misinformed. While some Topsiders look down on Ty’s people and sneeringly call them “dark life,” (organisms that thrive in the absence of light), others are curious about them. This is one factor that prompts Ty to help Gemma, a Topsider girl the same age as he, in the first book searching desperately for her missing older brother.

The two teenagers run up against the terrifying Seablite Gang, outlaws who have previously attacked and looted only government vessels. The government has been helpless to stop the gang, which has moved on now to the destruction of the farm of one of Ty’s neighbors. How the teenagers attempt to stop the gang’s depredations is sure to engage young readers and keep them interested till the end of the book. The existence – or not –  of “dark gifts” in some of those who live under the physical pressure of tons of seawater and the revelation of the special relationship between Gemma and one of the pirates just piles on the excitement.

“Rip Tide” begins not long after the events of “Dark Life.” By the end of the first paragraph on page 1, Ty and Gemma are already heading into “the biggest trash vortex in the Atlantic,” where “a piece of history could broadside [them] at any time.”  At the end of the first chapter, Ty is in the middle of the book’s first brush with danger; by the end of the second, he has discovered an engineered catastrophe. Before long, Ty’s parents have been kidnapped and he and
Gemma seem to be the only ones working to find them.

Ms. Falls’ training and experience as a screenwriter are ubiquitously throughout both books. Not only do events critical to the development of plot and character relationships march forward, quickstep, but also the characters act like real people. Dialogue, for example, is laid out one or two utterances at a time, interspersed with movements and gestures that real people make. What Ty and Gemma, Zoe, their parents, acquaintances and foes say and do comes off as real. The fact that Ty is the protagonist and not Gemma, though her story is as compelling, gives the reader the knowledge of what makes things tick in this world for one to act accordingly. Ty needs to explain only what his friend – and the reader – needs to know. Were Gemma, a foreigner to the undersea life, the main character, the amount of material she would not know and explanation necessary to involve her, would be too great – and finally too slow, for the young reader.

New vocabulary exists for new things in the world of these books: “surfs” or “surfeit population” and “townships” – whole communities that dwell on single, huge subsea vessels – for example. The kids’ futuristic slang sounds realistic: “Glacial!” exclaims one teenager. The kids themselves feel like real kids.  It is easy to see how the books appeal so much to the age group for which they are written.

The Author

Kat Falls, originally Moynihan, did not grow up in Illinois, though her mother, Cornelia (as Ms. Falls says, “What are the odds, right?”), a teacher of French, grew up in Oak Park. The family lived and raised their kids, Kat and Timothy, in Silver Spring, Md., where Ms. Falls’ father, Cornelius T. Moynihan (Senator Daniel Patrick is his half-brother), a professor of materials science and engineering, taught at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Ms. Falls “always wrote” as a child, she says, “short stories, the school journal.”

She says she “always knew [she] wanted to go to New York” and get involved in the independent filmmaking scene there. But first she went to college; her first year at Skidmore was so expensive her parents urged her to transfer to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate Troy, N.Y., where her father was teaching by this time, and where she would receive a discount as a family member of faculty.

At sciences-based Rensselaer, Ms. Falls earned not a B.A. degree, but a B.S. – bachelor of sciences. Though she did communications, she says, she “did many science classes.” She was also able to take classes nearby at other schools as well.  After graduation, Ms. Falls went to New York City. There, she studied at The New School and got an M.A. in media studies while working full-time. After that she came to Evanston for the first time, to do graduate studies in screenwriting at Northwestern University.

Ms. Falls came to know Evanston while doing her Masters of Fine Arts in communications at Northwestern. She was about to move to Los Angeles to try her hand in the film industry, but at the last minute decided not to go; she cancelled her flight and stayed in Chicago. She says she feels it was fate – she met her husband-to-be, Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, two months later. Ms. Falls says she had to convince her husband to “cross the line” and consider Evanston, but when he saw it, “he fell in love with” it. He agreed that Evanston would be great for the kids, Declan, Vivienne and Connor. They feel, she says, that it “makes for interesting kids,” too, a different thing entirely.

Ms. Falls worked on writing screenplays, but discovered that she “hates production,” the actual making of the film. Several of her pieces were optioned, but none ultimately produced. She teaches the craft at Northwestern on a part-time basis (“I’m haphazard; I can’t teach full time,” she says.)

Between her father’s science studies infusing the home, her own studies at college, her taste for reading speculative fiction and her self-confessed love of research, Ms. Falls’ foundation for writing science fiction was established. The time came when, caring for the family and daily demands on time, she “felt bad about not writing.” She “was doing exercises and journaling” to keep a hand in, and “tried an exercise in which [she] tried to write a screenplay that would interest [her] son,” 11 at that time.

She says, “[I] thought, ‘If I can do that, I can write a middle-grade novel.’… I like the idea of the kid keeping the story in their head from day to day.” And “I
kept in mind [my son’s] tastes. If a book didn’t catch him right away, he wouldn’t read it.” She says she “wanted the tension so high and the kid so invested they wouldn’t put down the book to answer text messages.”

The author did extensive research to ensure that the book’s physical science and theory were possible and accurate. She “went to architects designing deep-sea living spaces,” and read articles on the subject. Even her invented world’s “Liquigen” is currently under development in this one; it is a “fluorocarbon liquid infused with oxygen molecules” that “in the next 15 years they figure they will be able to thin … enough for humans … for deep-sea divers to avoid the bends.”

Ms. Falls says she rewrote the first chapter and the first page more than any other part of the book. “I wanted one image that would convey” the atmosphere of “this world, both strange and beautiful.” She says, “It was a gut thing, knowing when the first page was done. “

“Rip Tide” was published at the end of this past summer, in some ways a harder task, says Ms. Falls, than her first book: It was under contract already, with a deadline, when she was writing it. It has been receiving excited reviews from young people who loved the first book – online at Goodreads and KidsReads,
for example.

 “Dark Life” has won several distinctions and awards, among them a Juvenile Literary Award by The Friends of American Writers. Disney and Gotham Group are developing it for film production; Robert Zemeckis is to be the director.

Kat Falls is already at work on her next book, also under contract with Scholastic. It is the first of a young adult trilogy (Publisher’s Weekly calls it a “dystopian romance”). This first novel is titled “The Fetch” and is scheduled for fall 2012. No doubt Ms. Falls’ son Declan, and probably daughter Vivienne, too, will soon be immersed in it, ignoring text messages till they get to the end.