Pitt Chat

Pitt Chat with Katie Coyle

Photography courtesy of
Alex Schoenfeldt

After Katie Coyle’s debut novel for young adults was released in the United Kingdom in 2013, Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the “40 Best YA Novels” of all time, along with the classics Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and the Bell Jar.  In January, the novel was published in the United States as Vivian Apple at the End of the World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015), generating more positive buzz.

Coyle (A&S ’12G) began writing the story when she was an MFA student in fiction writing at Pitt. It’s about a teenager on an epic road trip in a post-apocalyptic search for truth. This fall, Coyle published a sequel, Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle, and the New Jersey native is already busy on her third book. It seems she’s heeding the advice of a commenter on the website Goodreads: “Dear Katie Coyle, please keep writing these for my daughters and my daughter’s daughters.”

Why young adult fiction?

I think the questions we ask ourselves as children and teens—What kind of person am I? What kind of person will I be—are ones we should never really stop asking. But young people in particular are encouraged to engage directly with issues of identity. As a reader, I’ve always been drawn to characters engaging in this process, and I find it an incredibly fun and rewarding period to write about. As far as I’m concerned, I write for anyone who’s interested in reading my writing.

In the novel, women are expected to be subservient to men, which vexes Vivian. Is there a message in the novel about feminism?

I wanted the fact that Vivian was a girl in this particular world to be front and center. One of Vivian’s central struggles is figuring out how to be an outspoken, active, complex young woman in a culture that equates femininity with silence and passivity. To a less dire degree, I had to negotiate the same tension as a girl, as I think a lot of women do.

You’ve packed many big ideas into this book. How did you find a balance between those and crafting human, relatable characters?

Vivian herself was the seed from which the story and its accompanying “big ideas” grew. The first thing I wrote was the first chapter, in which Vivian’s conflicts and desires are laid pretty bare—what she wants more than anything is to become a bolder, more independent person. That particular struggle is very familiar to me. As a reader, I would rather read far more about that sort of personal journey than the more macro level ideological issues that Vivian also comes up against.

How did pursuing an MFA influence your first book?

My time at Pitt helped me determine the kind of writer I wanted to be—I honed my voice there, and I also latched onto the subjects and themes that have shaped my work so far.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which is one of the best dystopian novels I’ve read—expansive and surprisingly witty and warm. I also just read Get in Trouble, the new collection from my favorite living writer, Kelly Link, and loved it.

At the end of the world, Vivian turns to her friends for strength and hope. Where do you look for these things?

Part of the message of Vivian Apple is that you can build your own family if the one you’re born into falls short, but I’m lucky in that my own parents are wonderful, supportive, sane people. I lean on them a lot, as well as on my husband and friends, but I’ve always drawn strength from stories and their characters, from Jane Eyre to Veronica Mars.