As New York Times Bestselling author Ally Carter took a cruise through Southeast Alaska in 2014, she had the initial idea for her new young adult thriller “Not If I Save You First.” Standing by the rail at night as the ship sailed through expanses of wilderness, Carter noted she couldn’t see a single light.
The Oklahoma-based writer always has to ask herself a central question when she plots her books: why do the teenaged protagonists not go to the adults for help in resolving the story’s conflict? Carter has handled this problem in numerous ways in her other works, like the Embassy Row books and the Gallagher Girl series, and knew that Alaska’s wilderness provided a unique answer to explore. If somebody gets into an emergency situation out in the wilderness, 911 won’t be a simple call away. When Carter arrived in Skagway, a tour guide told her about his experience living off the grid in a cabin, which made her wonder what that life would be like for a teen girl. And so, Carter’s idea for her latest novel was born.
“Not If I Save You First” follows 10-year-old Maddie, the daughter of a Secret Service agent and best friend of the president’s son and other main protagonist, Logan. She thinks she and Logan will always be inseparable, but after a kidnapping attempt is made on the president’s wife, Maddie and her father leave D.C. to live in a remote cabin in Southeast Alaska. Maddie’s one connection to her past life, Logan, dwindles along with his letters. Yet circumstances push the pair together six years later, and when someone kidnaps Logan, Maddie must use all her survival skills as she tracks rescues him in the Alaskan wilderness.
The tone and characters in the story fell into place when Carter got a solid grasp of Maddie’s character.
“One of the things I’ve always really liked playing with is in the other books that I’ve written is the subject of confidence and femininity and how they’re not mutually exclusive. A girl can love fingernail polish and sparkly dresses and doing her hair and her makeup and giving herself a facial but that doesn’t mean she isn’t super smart and really tough and really strong and really amazing,” she said, giving the example of how Maddie carries several tools wherever she goes, one of them being a sparkly hatchet. She’ll fish for her dinner and chop wood for the fire, but she also likes lip gloss and teen magazines.
Carter said since this is one of her most realistic books, she spent quite a bit of time researching Alaska and survival skills.
“I’m probably more nervous about the release of this book, and especially about going to Juneau, then I have for anything in a long time. For the most part my books are pretty farfetched. Nobody is every going to come up to me and say ‘I went to a boarding school for spies and you got it wrong’ because that probably doesn’t exist and if it does, they certainly aren’t going to admit it to me. But people really do live in (Alaska),” Carter said.
She read books about Alaska recommended to her by Alaskan librarians, and spent time gathering information on Park Service websites about plant and wildlife, learning what berries are poisonous and how far away a bear can smell blood. She learned from survivalists what kinds of tools a person would never leave home without and how to start a fire. She even called upon research she did for past books for her portrayal of the Secret Service.
Despite all the attention to detail, Carter tried to keep some details in the story fairly general. She doesn’t even mention in the text that the main body of the story takes place in the Tongass National Forest, though it can be inferred.
“I’ve learned to more encompass the spirit of the place and the bigger picture things and not necessarily worry about the micro-level detail. Hopefully I did okay. Hopefully Alaskans will enjoy and appreciate the book. I wanted to treat the people and the environment and the natural resources there with as much respect as possible,” she said.
While in Juneau, Carter will visit local schools, discussing how she began writing, what writing a book is like, how books get published, and her visit to Alaska. Carter grew up in a rural town and didn’t initially realize being a writer was a career path she could pursue. She wants young people to be aware of the possibilities.
“I think a lot of people think that writing is for people with degrees in English literature from New York and they already have a friend who is a literary agent. Writing is not always like it is in the movie where there’s some kind of montage of a person sitting by a roaring fire and they’re typing out on an old fashioned typewriter and they have to finish their book by the weekend because they want to get it out by Christmas which is three weeks from now. It’s really, really, not like that. The truth is that anyone can write and publish a novel. I firmly mean that. You could be on the Moon and working on your novel. That would not hinder anything. As long as you’ve got internet access you can be involved in the publishing industry,” Carter said.
The hard part is writing a book that is publishable, she said. The first book Carter published she wrote at night while working a fulltime job. That wasn’t her first attempt at writing a book though. Her first try was when she was around 12 or 13 years old. It didn’t go how she envisioned, but she learned a valuable lesson from the experience. Her mother, an English teacher, gave her some advice Carter wishes to pass on to other writers: rough drafts and finished drafts are quite different.
“I was very down on myself because what I had written was not very good,” Carter said on her first book attempt. “I think my exact words were ‘It’s not as good as the opening paragraph of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and she said ‘Well that’s the greatest novel ever written so maybe we lower our standards. Also, you should never compare your first draft to somebody else’s finished draft.’ That is something I have to remind myself almost on a daily basis.”
Carter will launch “Not If I Save You First” at Juneau’s Nugget Mall Hearthside Books location on Sunday, March 25 from 3-5 p.m. There will be a Q&A and book signing.
• Clara Miller is the editor of the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.