June 8, 2016

Light at the End of the Tunnel • A Hundred Hours of Night (+ Interview with Anna Woltz)

A Hundred Hours of Night book cover
Driven by emotional turmoil, fifteen year old Emilia de Wit books herself a ticket to New York City. She’s always wanted to visit, and she believes there’s no better place to escape from everything. Her arrival is immediately marked by unforeseen things that would make any traveler feel distressed, but the day is saved when fate leads her to cross paths with a few kind souls. Her magical experience is quickly cut short when Hurricane Sandy comes to town – leaving devastation and darkness in its wake.

A Hundred Hours of Night is neither long nor loud, in the way that some novels can be. But it resonated with me so, so strongly. It is, most likely, in large part due to the fact that I was living in New York when Hurricane Sandy struck and experienced the aftermath in person. Woltz does a really great job showing readers what New York was like during Hurricane Sandy. While it could certainly have included a wee bit more detail, it does encompass the entirety of Emilia’s personal experience. But the descriptions really hit home for me – the way New York was before the storm, the way things were after (especially in Manhattan), the actions and attitudes of people before, during and afterwards. I personally witnessed a good number of the things that Woltz included in Emilia’s story, and I felt that she captured a tiny bit of what it really was like.

The plot is simple: a girl leaves her home, driven by intense emotions, to escape to New York City… only to be swept up in the devastation of a hurricane. It seems straightforward, sure, but it was surprisingly nuanced. And that has a lot to do with how well-crafted the characters are, particularly Emilia herself. In crafting Emilia, Anna Woltz created a character who is smack dab in the turmoil of the teenage years; a character who, without a doubt, reflects so much of my personality when I was her age. Emilia isn’t perfect, and she certainly doesn’t always make the best choices. But she’s smart, she’s independent, she’s kind and she finds herself changed after what she goes through.

I’m so glad I took the opportunity to read A Hundred Hours of Night. It was a wonderful surprise to fall in love with this story, and to see my younger self so keenly reflected in a main character. I would certainly recommend reading this one, and I do hope that there will be another Anna Woltz novel for me to devour in the future. (Oh, here’s a fun fact: This novel was translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson! I didn’t know this until I had finished reading it, but I think the translation was really good since it conveyed a lot of what Anna had intended with this story.)

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books | Publication Date: May 10, 2016
Source: Hardcover received from the publisher (Thank you!)

When Emilia de Wit ran away to New York City, she planned everything to a T. Plane ticket, purchased. Cute apartment, rented online. Subway map, printed and highlighted. This was no ordinary trip -- this was Emilia's declaration of independence. Her chance to escape the life her parents were ruining. To get away from the horrible scandal that had rocked Amsterdam, the scandal that was all her dad's fault. To see if her mom, the glamorous, world-famous artist, would even notice.

New York steals Emilia's heart at first sight -- even though absolutely nothing goes to plan. She didn't plan to end up homeless on a stranger's doorstep. She didn't plan to make friends with Seth, Abby, and Jim. And she could never have known that Hurricane Sandy would be barreling up the coast, straight for the city. All she wanted was to get away from her parents, her problems, her life . . . and when the storm hits and the power goes out, Emilia feels farther from home than she could have imagined.

Anna with her book!
It was a real treat to be presented with the opportunity to meet Anna in person while she was in New York on vacation.  I'm so pleased to be able to share snippets of that conversation here with you today! I hope you enjoy getting to know a little more about Anna, her writing and her latest novel.

Alexa: Hi Anna! It's lovely to meet you. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Anna: Well, I've been writing since I was twelve. So, it feels like I've been a writer forever really. I never thought of anything else to do. I always wanted to become a writer, and it's so exciting to be a writer now, to have these translations, and it is just so amazing to walk into a New York bookstore and see my books.

Alexa: How did it feel when you first saw your first book on a shelf? Whether it was in the Netherlands or over here, that is.

Anna: I can't actually remember what it felt like in the Netherlands. It was a long time ago, almost fourteen years ago. But I do remember what it was like to see my book in stores here. It was my first morning in Brooklyn, and I just accidentally walked past a Barnes & Noble. I thought to myself, "Let's have a look." And I was coming up in the elevator, and suddenly, in new teen fiction, there was my book and this whole stack. I got quite emotional! I was taking a few selfies, and then they came up to me, asking, "Are you the author?"

Alexa: It must have been so overwhelming to see all of your hard work on display in a bookstore! So, speaking of your book, is this your first book that was translated into English?

Anna: It's the first book that got translated into English.

Alexa: It makes sense because it is set in New York and it is about something that is considered, now, a big part of New York history. So, you were here right? During Hurricane Sandy?

Anna: I was here during Hurricane Sandy, yeah. (Alexa's Note: So was I!) I lived in NoHo then. It was really scary! We don't have any hurricanes in the Netherlands. They just do not exist. So, it was such a strange experience just to hear people say on the news, "There is going to be a hurricane." The mayor of New York was telling people to buy hurricane supplies. Living in New York, I just got used to being able to buy anything anytime. And then, suddenly, they tell you to stock up on food and make sure you can last at home for at least five days. 

Alexa: Were you alone in your apartment? I would have been so scared to be on my own.

Anna: I was alone in my apartment. And I was definitely scared! There's a scene in the book where the lights flicker and go out, and that happened to me.

Alexa: Were you able to go out of your apartment during the blackout? 

Anna: I went walking by myself, and I didn't even have a flashlight! But the most amazing thing happened, and I wish I could have used this for a scene in the book but it didn't end up working out. That first night after the hurricane, I was walking downtown all by myself, pitch black. A little further ahead, I saw a guy walking with a flashlight. I went up to him and asked whether I could join him for a bit so we could share his flashlight, and he agreed. We chatted for a bit, and then on this one corner, he stops and tells me that this was his street; mine was still blocks away. Suddenly, he gives his flashlight to me. I don't know his name or where he lives, so I had no way to return it. And he says, "No, don't worry, you need it more than I do." It was the best gift ever.

I was stunned, really. I had been through these really scary hours alone, and on the first day of the blackouts, most people weren't really sociable as they were focused on surviving and staying indoors. And then this guy gave me a flashlight. I still have this small yellow flashlight back in the Netherlands, and I'll keep it forever.

Alexa: That's a beautiful story! And such a generous gesture. It's definitely a memory to treasure. Speaking of New York, you've lived here for a few months and you've visited a few times. So, out of curiosity, what is your favorite place to visit and favorite place to eat?

Anna: Favorite place to go to? I think it's amazing how many different neighborhoods there are. Just walking around from one neighborhood to the other - it's really so many cities in one. That's really amazing. Three years ago, I'd wake up and think, "I'm really feeling West Village today" or "I'm feeling Central Park." And you can just go there! It feels like cities within a city.

As for favorite place to eat, one of them is mentioned in A Hundred Hours of Night - Dos Toros.

Alexa: I still need to try that place! Okay, let's talk about writing now. When you were writing at the age of 12, were you already writing novels? Or did you start with short stories, poetry...?

Anna: I tried to write novels. I didn't finish them. But it was always my aim to write novels, real ones that would be published. I wasn't just writing for fun. I mean, I had lots of fun, but I did write with the aim of getting published.

Alexa: Were all your stories contemporary?

Anna: They were... they were really, really bad. *laughs* They were really romantic, with all these dukes in them. Amazing heroes and, sort of, well, wishful thinking really. 

Alexa: Hey, nothing wrong with that! I enjoy those types of stories.

Anna: When I look back at it, it was just practice, practice, practice. I think that's the most important thing if you want to write. You really have to realize that it's not easy to write a whole book. But I think people who haven't written a book think writing is easy. But that's just not true! For me, it gets harder and harder actually. I get more experienced but I'm also getting more critical of what I'm writing, and I want to get better and better. So, I end up rewriting so much!

Alexa: I can see how that could potentially make writing stuff harder. So, what is writing like for you?

Anna: Well, it starts off with inventing a story and finding a topic. As for ambiance, I need absolute silence. I need to be at home. I love my home! I live in the city center of Utrecht, which is a really old city, a bit like Amsterdam but smaller, but just as pretty. I need to wear comfortable clothes. And I drink water and have mostly healthy snacks. I don't write when I'm hungry!

Alexa: Fair enough. I don't think I can really do anything properly when I'm hungry either.  So, writing, what is your favorite part of it? Least favorite part of it?

Anna: I love imagining a story, and then trying to write it down in a way that makes you believe it. Like, right now, we're able to talk about Emilia like she exists. I invented them! That's just such an amazing feeling. To be able to invent people, and have them come to life.

Alexa: Okay, back to A Hundred Hours of Night - did you get to give any input on the cover? Because it's perfect for this book. 

Anna: Actually, this photo was taken after Hurricane Sandy in New York. A journalist took this photo. My Dutch publisher was looking for a cover photo or image or drawing, and they came up with things I didn't particularly like. I went online and started searching, and I found this picture. I was so amazed! They didn't Photoshop anything, so these three - to me, these are Emilia, this is Jim, this is Seth. I was so happy finding that, especially because it was actually taken during that time.

Alexa: That is even more perfect! I didn't know that, but now that I know this - I can't help but feel like your book was meant to exist. You came to New York, experienced the hurricane and were inspired to write this story. And then you found this cover, and it fits it perfectly! Okay, that's the end of our interview. Thank you so, so much for sitting down to chat, Anna!


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