Author Interview with H. M. Bouwman

In the second world, Kinchen’s little brother Pip is kidnapped by Raftworld’s king. In West Africa in 1781, twin sister and brother, Venus and Swimmer, are forced aboard the slave ship Zong. In the Mekong River Delta in 1978, Thanh and his sister Sang try to flee postwar Vietnam by boat. Somehow, marvelously—and with the help of the kraken—these three stories converge in A Crack in the Sea. This is H. M. Bouwman’s second novel for youth.


A Crack in the Sea brings together multiple interwoven stories and viewpoints: Kinchen and Pip in the second world, Venus and Swimmer in West Africa in 1781, Thanh and his sister fleeing Vietnam in 1978. How did you juggle the multiple lines of the story as you wrote the book? Was it difficult to weave the story together so that each part needs the others?

HB: It WAS difficult to weave all the story lines together, but it didn’t seem that hard at the time, because it always felt like it would EVENTUALLY make sense. Wait–let me take that back: I can remember getting really stuck at several points and floundering, not sure how the stories linked up or where they were going. The Kinchen/Pip/Caesar plot in particular went through several very different permutations.

But mostly, it didn’t feel that hard because each draft got me closer to something that worked–it felt like there was a story there that pulled everything together, and I just had to pick away at it long enough to uncover the architecture, and eventually I’d see how it all worked.

After I’d written the first draft, one thing I became sharply aware of was that the story would be challenging for anyone who hadn’t read a lot of multiplotted novels before (which means: lots of my potential kid readers!). So I made sure that the narrator helped to tie some of the stories together (for example, with the section header for part three–“In which we take an enormous detour that will eventually lead us to our destination; I promise”–which assures the reader that the story about Thanh will eventually tie in with the other storylines).

For this book, you’ve drawn on the historical voyage of the slave ship Zong (during which over 100 living captives were thrown overboard so the owners could claim insurance losses). Yet your book is also fantasy—there’s a portal and a second world and the possibility of magic. What challenges did you face in composing a story that combines pain-filled historical events with the lightness of fantasy and magic?

HB: I think the main challenge is philosophical, followed closely by the practical. The philosophical issue is simply: Is it fair to tell a “what if” story about something truly terrible that really happened, or will doing so automatically diminish the truth of the actual history? And if you can answer that philosophical question by saying, “I think it is theoretically possible to tell such a story,” then the practical question quickly follows: How might you tell THIS fantasy story in a way that doesn’t diminish the real history behind it? In writing A CRACK IN THE SEA, I wrestled with both questions: Is it fair to tell such stories? And if so, how can one tell this story? I believe strongly in the power of fantasy (and story more generally) to suggest alternatives to how things really are; but I suspect I’ll always struggle with these questions–at least for as long as I write historical fantasy. And that’s appropriate, I think.

What is your favorite part of the writing and publishing process?

HB: The writing itself. Publishing is great, don’t get me wrong. But the writing is the only thing that you yourself can control–you can sit down every day and write. And every day, when you’ve written something, you can feel good about it (and about yourself!). Every day you can feel like you’re getting closer to the real story–even at the inevitable junctures where you are just feeling your way in the dark, because eventually you’ll find a switch on the wall and the light will flick on. You can’t control the publishing process–not any part of it, really–so it’s not worth your while to invest too much emotion in it or to look for validation there. You can only find validation in the work itself: the act of writing each day.

Let’s talk about sea monsters. Your story includes two lonely kraken. Sharks. And plenty of fish. (Pip can’t recognize people’s faces—even his sister’s—but he sees every fish as an individual and can talk to them.) What made you decide to give sea creatures an important role in the story? And—if you could be any sea creature, real or imagined, what would you want to be?

HB: One of my kids loves sea creatures of all kinds and used to read fish fact books aloud to me endlessly. We visit aquariums, watch fish documentaries, read books about octopuses, and so on. I think he started me musing on fish and ocean life more deeply: how little humans know about everything ocean-dwelling, how unexplored so much of the ocean is, how strange (to us) so many of the creatures there are. And of course I love the mythology of ocean creatures–like stories about giant squid and kraken.

If I could be any sea creature…? I don’t know. Octopuses are so smart, but they live only a few years… Maybe a humpback whale? I’d love to know what they mean when they sing.