If, Then: The Road Not Taken

A debut novel takes on visions of what could have been, or could be

interview by Sheila G. Miller

In Kate Hope Day’s new novel, If, Then, you can almost feel the gloom and fog of an Oregon mountain town pressing in on you. Put up your hood—the downpour is coming, and it’s not just rain. Day’s book takes us into the lives of a group of neighbors who live near the base of a dormant volcano known as Broken Mountain. Their lives get complicated when they begin seeing flashes of their lives, but different—a mom who didn’t die of cancer, a different partner, a new pregnancy. Day sat down with 1859 to explain just what it is about Oregon that inspired this type of imaginative work.

Kate Hope Day

How did you develop the idea for this first novel?
It came out of two big life changes—having my first child and moving to Oregon. The main emotional impulse behind the book was trying to understand the feeling when you have your first baby. Writing the book helped me think it through both in terms of time—the person you were before and the person you are after—and then in terms of the idea that there’s just never enough of you. You want to be in two places at once. That’s the central emotional impulse out of which the book grew. That’s where it started for me, but as I got going with it, I felt it was tapping into something much more broad. Everyone can relate to that question of, what would my life be like if I’d taken a different job or married someone else? The other lives you might have had. It’s a very human question.

And Oregon?
I’m from Pennsylvania, though my husband is from the Pacific Northwest. We moved here and I had never been here. I wrote the book basically in tandem with falling in love with this place. I have a kind of outsider’s perspective on Oregon, but I can’t imagine ever leaving. It’s just a magical, weird, wild, beautiful place, and I think that’s all in this book. There’s a lot of mud, and fog. I think every regular thing I did, which didn’t always feel regular to me because I was new to Oregon, made its way into the book—driving through the fog with a baby in the backseat, going on forest hikes with my kids, and learning about mushrooms, and lichen and things like that.

There are a lot of storylines to follow in this book, including more than one for several characters. How did you stay on top of them?
I had a lot of charts. I’m working on another book now and it’s not nearly as chart-intense. Each character had their own sort of plot chart. At one point, I had a Google calendar for each of them because I was trying to match it up in terms of weather and climate and what would be typical for Oregon in October. I also would break the book out for each person, so I would read them on their own, and then I’d put them back together. This book took about five years to write, but the first three or four of those I wrote primarily during my kids’ nap times. … It went considerably slower those first few years, and I’d never written a novel, so I was teaching myself how to do it. The next novel is almost done and it has definitely gone faster. It helps that both kids are in school. And I’m getting paid, so I have a workspace now and I can treat it more like a career.

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