Kate Alice Marshall’s young adult debut, I Am Still Alive, is a searing story of survival and self-reliance. When 16-year-old Jess Cooper discovers that her father has been murdered in the cabin they share in a remote area of Canada, a nail-biting and tense story unfolds as Jess fights to survive the elements and get some vengeance.
You describe the area around Jess’ dad’s cabin so vividly—is it based on a place you’ve actually visited?
The lake and the woods are a composite of a lot of places. Some I’ve visited, hiking and camping, but most were drawn from memoirs, travel narratives and a handful of documentaries. The exact geography and layout of the lake and the woods are completely invented, but the sights and sounds and feel of the place were all drawn from real-world sources.
Jess keeps herself alive, in part thanks to using the pages of a really terrible thriller novel to start her fires. As a reader and writer, was it hard to think about burning a book, even to survive?
Not at all, actually! A book is an object; a book is not the story within it. Context and culture imbue the object with meaning and value, but it isn’t sacred in itself (or we wouldn’t pulp vast numbers of returned books every day). Book burnings are horrific in large part not because of the destruction of the physical object (though in cases where there are not other copies in existence, that’s a great loss in itself) but because of the destruction, real or symbolic, of what they represent—ways of thinking, types of people, ways of life. Jess’ act in burning the book is the opposite of that. She’s preserving something of value, at the expense of one copy out of tens of thousands of a paperback. She hasn’t destroyed the story, or anything it represents; she’s destroyed paper and ink, and saved everything that she is and that she represents.
But I do think she should write the author a nice thank-you for his help.
Jess confronts so many challenges—from natural elements to hostile humans—and she’s also wrestling with the terrible feeling that even if she does survive, she has no family left to return to. When developing her character, how did you balance out that hopeless feeling with the will to survive?
The core of Jess’ character always boiled down to one fundamental truth: She is worthy of survival, in and of herself. Her reason to survive isn’t that someone is waiting for her, or that she has something to go back to. It’s that she has value. She is worth fighting for, even when everything has been taken from her. She is enough. That gave her a streak of ferocity and determination that meant that even when things are at their worst, even when she falls into despair, she’ll pick herself back up again and keep fighting.
Jess’ story is made even more challenging due to her physical disability. Why did you choose to introduce this element into the story?
Jess’ injuries and disability were part of the story from the very early stages. Before I started writing, I decided that Jess would have injuries lingering from the accident that killed her mother, leaving her with both physical and emotional wounds. From there, it was a matter of following through on the consequences of her disability in every aspect of the story—her relationship with her father, her approach to survival, her limitations and her strengths.
Let’s say you were dropped into Jess’ story with the same supplies she’s got in hand—how long do you think you would survive in her shoes?
Not long, I think. I don’t have quite the grit that Jess does, and she has some advantages I lack—at least a little bit of experience with a bow, for instance, and her father as tour guide at least for a few days. I’d certainly have better odds after writing this book than before, though!
There are so many great survival stories that will appeal to teen readers—and now, thanks to you, there’s another one! What other wilderness or survival novels have you enjoyed reading and would recommend to young readers?
Most of my old favorites are for younger audiences. I read Hatchet (and its sequels) and My Side of the Mountain over and over as a kid, which is why I’ve always wanted to write a survival story of my own. The Martian isn’t YA, and Mars is a little different than Canada, but it definitely provides that same thrill of watching someone problem-solve their way to survival in a deadly environment. And I’m really looking forward to reading Notes from My Captivity by Kathy Parks.
Jess’ mantra becomes “Smart, Not Strong.” How would you say that motto has played out in your own life or experiences?
Jess’ mantra is really about recognizing your strengths and your limitations. I can’t say I’ve ever particularly been in a situation where my physical strength (or lack of it) was important to the outcome, but I’ve worked hard in my life to know myself. That means recognizing what I’m good at, as well as where my failings lie, and using my strengths to get around my weaknesses.
What are you working on next?
I’m always working on a lot of things all at once. In addition to my game writing, I have two YA novels in the works—a mystery/thriller and one that’s very dark and spooky. I just wrote a middle grade novel on a bit of a lark that I’m hoping to polish into shape soon, and I have a fantasy novella coming out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. So I’m keeping busy!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of I Am Still Alive.