Author Interview: Julie Lake on Galveston’s Summer of the Storm

Galveston’s Summer of the Storm by Julie Lake (TCU Press, 2003). From the catalog copy: “When fourteen-year-old Abby Kate boards the train in Austin to spend three weeks with her grandmother in Galveston, she’s full of excitement—about the train ride and the prospect of days on the beach, exploring Galveston with her cousin Jane, family picnics, and her grandmother’s good food. But things go wrong even before she gets to her grandmother’s house. Abby Kate gets off the train briefly in Houston—and the train leaves without her. Stranded in the railroad station, she is befriended by a man traveling with his two sons and eventually reaches Galveston safely. Then word comes that Abby Kate’s young brother, Will, has diphtheria, and she will have to stay in Galveston indefinitely. Abby Kate is still in Galveston on September 8 when a massive hurricane strikes the city.” Read an excerpt (PDF file).

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I was doing some research about ten years ago on a fairly boring insurance project (I wrote on staff for an insurance magazine at the time) and I was going through a box of old documents–ledgers, old insurance brochures, etc. I came to this black and white photograph of storm wreckage from the 1900 Galveston hurricane. I’d heard about that storm and knew there might be some images of it in that file, but nothing prepared me for the reality of that image. The devastation stretched on and on and on.

My eyes were drawn to a point in the middle of the picture, to the single sign of life in that unbearable landscape—a child, a little boy in bare feet, who stared towards the camera. I felt as if I’d been sucked back in time and the hurricane became real.

What was the timeline between spark and publication and what were the major events along the way?

For the next year or two I found myself thinking about what it would be like to survive a hurricane of that magnitude. I sort of became obsessed with hurricanes in general and this storm in particular.

I’d be interviewing an insurance agent for an article about how to prepare a business for natural catastrophes–things like the importance of backing up computer data offsite, how to keep taking care of clients despite power outages, flooding etc.–and I’d start asking things like, “What is it really like to be in a hurricane? How did you feel? What was it like afterwards?”

A lot of these people had grown up on the coast, and they shared all kinds of stories, like cleaning up the house afterwards and finding snakes in the kitchen. The story began to come alive in my mind.

I began to read books on writing fiction and took a class. I also did some market research to see if there were already a lot of children’s books on the 1900 hurricane. I found there were many adult books, both fiction and nonfiction, but very few geared toward teens or upper elementary students.

I brainstormed my idea with Robin Krig, a librarian in Katy, specifically my concern that the story would be too sad. Robin listened and then said, “So it’s a little like Number the Stars” [by Lois Lowry (Houghton, 1989)]. That was a very pivotal moment for me. To have my spongy draft of a story compared in any kind of way with such a powerful piece of children’s literature.

Another important milestone was when I sent an early draft to my sister’s fourth grade class. As a new fiction writer, it was great to hear that they laughed at the funny parts. The kids, however, all shared one major criticism of my story–that I didn’t kill enough people. And in their helpful way, they made specific suggestions on who needed to die, when and even how.

I was like, “How could they kill off Ian? He’s one of my favorite characters.” But I realized they were right. I was trying to write an historical novel about a storm that had killed 6,000-8,000 people, and not have Abby Kate, my main character, suffer any significant personal loss. I was trying to protect her.

I have a saying now taped to my computer: “Spare no one. Not the characters. Not your readers. Not even yourself.” I really believe that. Sometimes, as writers, we flinch when we get to the hard part of the story. We want to rescue our characters too soon, and in a sense, rescue ourselves from dealing with important, often painful issues.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical)in bringing it to life?

I think the hardest thing was tapping those emotions of frustration and sadness and hopelessness that were appropriate for my characters to feel at certain points of the story.

After the hurricane scene, I really wanted to get Abby Kate out of the rubble, away from the dead bodies, and back home to her family in Austin. I wanted so much for her to be okay. It was tough writing those scenes showing the aftermath of the storm and letting the healing process play out in a natural way.

Many readers have told me that they like how the story didn’t just end after the hurricane. That they liked how I showed the characters struggling at points to find their footing and dealing with all the different kinds of emotions we have when we face these sudden, life-changing events.

Do you feel that authors have a responsibility to young readers to offer an element of hope in their stories?

I really do. Children and teens need to know that even when life is very difficult that there is always room for something good to happen, and that things can get better, though maybe in a different way than you might expect or hope.

I really wanted to have a positive scene at the end of my book, something that would show Abby Kate taking some kind of power. After a lot of crumpled pieces of paper, I finally had this “aha” moment. Suddenly I knew what she needed to do. Something that was within her ability to do and something that would make a real difference for one of the other characters in the story.

When we talk about disasters, we often focus on physical rebuilding of homes, businesses, etc. There’s another type of rebuilding that has to happen, too. The emotion restoration of the people themselves.