Three Ways to Disappear: Author Q&A

What's the significance of your book's title?

 The tigress known as Machali. Ranthambore National Park. Photo credit: Katy Yocom

The tigress known as Machali. Ranthambore National Park. Photo credit: Katy Yocom

Three Ways to Disappear is a reference to the three siblings at the heart of the book—Sarah, her twin brother Marcus, and their older sister, Quinn—American children who were raised in India by their parents. Marcus’s sudden death at age seven is one disappearance, a loss that informs his sisters’ lives forever. The other two “ways to disappear” can be taken to reference the ways Sarah and Quinn each cope, as adults, with the legacy of the tragedy. But disappearance is also a theme because tigers—a species on the verge of extinction—play a central role in the story.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A few years ago, a tigress at our zoo had a litter of cubs. From the moment I learned of their existence, I was obsessed. I visited the cubs weekly—soaked them up the way you’d soak up a painting at a museum. I always thought of my tiger obsession as something slightly embarrassing. At the same time, I was hungering to write a novel, but my brain kept telling me, “Katy, you can’t write a novel about tigers” … until one day a friend told me: “You know, actually, you can.” Two days later, I was on my deck, planting impatiens, and the first line of the novel whispered itself to me. And then the second line. I set down my gardening spade and raced inside to my computer. An hour later, I had a beginning and a good idea of the arc of the entire novel.

It’s a story of two sisters trying to find their way past tragedy. But tigers, both real and metaphorical, figure prominently in the story. Tigers are fierce predators, but as a species they are critically endangered. Their wildness and vulnerability echoes that of my characters.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction.

What was it like to win the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature?

It was exciting beyond words! I'm so grateful to Ashland Creek Press for offering the prize and to JoeAnn Hart, who judged the contest. If you don't know the work of Ashland Creek Press, I highly recommend them. They're a boutique press with an emphasis on ecological and animal themes, and their books are beautiful. JoeAnn Hart, author of Float, selected my manuscript as the winner and had this to say about it:

"THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR begins with a focused lens on the endangered Bengal tiger then expands its reach with every page to reveal the interconnectedness of the natural world and fragility of all life. ... [This] ambitious and moving novel addresses scarcity, climate change, family dynamics, cultural conflict, human accountability, women’s economic autonomy, and most of all, love, in all its wondrous forms. This is a story not just about saving the tigers, but ourselves.”

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After a nomadic existence constantly embracing risk, American journalist Sarah DeVaughan returns to the country of her childhood—a place of unspeakable family tragedy—to preserve the Bengal tigers of India, while her sister Quinn looks to forge a new connection with her sibling by casting aside her fears that India will also be Sarah’s undoing; in the end, the gifts India bestows and the price it exacts leave the sisters’ lives changed forever.

When will your book be published?

It's due out in 2019 from Ashland Creek Press.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

 The author at Kanha National Park.

The author at Kanha National Park.

About a year and a half. After I had the initial idea, I quickly realized there was no way I could write this story without traveling to India. I spent three weeks there visiting tiger preserves. It was a stunning experience—I never imagined I’d be lucky enough to see tigers living in the wild in some of the most beautiful spots on earth. The trip still seems like a dream to me—even more so, the fact that it was funded by grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. I can’t begin to express my gratitude to these organizations, which do so much to bring art into the world.

After traveling to India, it took me months to process everything I’d seen and experienced, including a number of close-up tiger sightings. Success in the form of a completed draft finally came at a writing residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, Nebraska—another organization to which I owe a huge debt of gratitude.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

When I tell people my book involves tigers, people inevitably reference Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, though the stories are very different.

 Ranthambore National Park. Photo credit: Katy Yocom

Ranthambore National Park. Photo credit: Katy Yocom

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The tiger cubs at the zoo get direct credit! As for the family tragedy, Sarah’s life as an itinerant journalist, the events that unfold in India—I’m not sure. Inspiration is a mysterious thing.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

A forbidden love affair, a suggestion of magical realism, a collective of village women lifting themselves out of poverty. Characters torn from their families who make unorthodox new families of their own. A family of Bengal tigers struggling to survive. And India itself—the sights, the smells, the sounds, the amazing people. A lot has been written about the India of cities and slums. The India I write about is rural India, where villagers compete with endangered tigers for food and water. I loved the people I met there, and I hope that shows in the book.