In a genre filled with stories set in dystopian futures, debut young adult (YA) fiction author Katharine McGee wanted to write about a future that was more realistic and not filled with doom and gloom.
“I wanted to write a novel that was futuristic without being dystopian; so, you know, it takes place in the future, but it’s definitely not a dystopian future – it’s not dark, it’s not bleak, there isn’t an evil dictator taking over the world, and there are no children fighting to the death.
“The story is, therefore, not an action adventure story; it’s not about saving the world, it’s about relationships between people,” she tells us over Skype from her home in New York.
Set in 2118, The Thousandth Floor takes place within a super-tall, super-large skyscraper located in what was once New York City’s Central Park.
In Gossip Girl vein, the story centres on a group of mostly rich, privileged teenagers who live on the top floors of this mega-structure, and their secrets and relationships. Additionally, the novel starts off with the death of one of these characters, whose identity is only revealed near the end of the book.
McGee tells the story from five alternating points of view: those of the perfect, genetically-engineered Avery; recovering drug addict Leda; party girl Eris; hacker extraordinaire Watt; and independent, working-class Rylin.
“Those kinds of stories (about relationships between people), I think, are more interesting when you get to hear from different people.
“So I have always loved books where multiple characters get to narrate because I think it makes the world and the characters’ relationships feel richer,” she says.
She adds that her favourite moments on ensemble TV series like Game Of Thrones (GoT) and House Of Cards are when the viewer thinks they understand a particular character as seen from another character’s point of view, only to get into the character’s mind and discover they are actually totally different.
Giving the example of Jaime Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire fantasy novel series (adapted for TV as GoT), McGee notes that readers initially hated him when seen from Ned Stark’s and his brother Tyrion’s points of view, but eventually grew to understand, and even love him, after he started narrating his own point of view.
“So I hoped, with five characters (in The Thousandth Floor), I could create some moments like that for the reader,” she says.
“I hope it explores the way that you don’t always know what people are thinking and that miscommunications can harm relationships; and that’s what makes it fun – the sort of different interplay between the characters.”
Planning and plotting
Having to juggle a rather large group of characters while ensuring they each have distinct personalities and storylines certainly isn’t easy.
McGee shares: “I absolutely planned it out!
“The characters came to me, and I wrote up a page about each character and what they want and how they relate to the other characters.
“And then I did some thinking on how I could create the most interesting story out of those characters.”
This included considering what the characters wanted, what they actually needed and the conflict essential to draw readers in.
“You know, the best way to create tension in any kind of story is to make something that one character wants be an obstacle to what another character wants, and the obvious way to do that is a love triangle,” she explains.
There are, in fact, several romantic pairings in the story, including more than one love triangle.
The central one, however, involves the perfect Avery, her best friend Leda and her adopted brother Atlas.
Says McGee: “I came up with that relationship because I was trying to think, what was a forbidden love story I could tell in the future, because there’s nothing as fun as forbidden love, really.”
She notes that it’s not easy to come up with such a romance in the modern age.
“I couldn’t think of a good way to sort of have an enemy situation because the country’s not at war.
“A lot of the dystopian novels have a forbidden love aspect that is about ‘I’m on one side and you’re on the other’.”
However, Avery’s pseudo-incestuous attraction to Atlas fit the bill perfectly.
“Once I came up with it, I thought, why not?
“It’s really taboo, but she’s already so extreme (in her genetically-engineered perfection), so why not have this extreme love?”
McGee also shares that it is quite difficult to write romance when you have both sides narrating their point of view.
“It’s tricky for me as the writer to keep the mystery and questions going when you know both people in the romance.
“So, for instance, there is a romance that builds between Watt and Avery, but that is one of the few where you are ‘hearing’ both characters.
“Atlas and Cord don’t have narration so that I can kind of keep a little bit of mystery going for the readers,” she says.
From editor to writer
McGee was working as an editor with Alloy Entertainment, a division of Warner Bros Television Group, when she came up with the idea for The Thousandth Floor.
Alloy generates content for movies, TV and books, which are usually developed in collaboration with independent writers.
Among its properties are the books, and TV adaptations, of Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries.
However, McGee wanted to develop the idea herself.
“I wanted to write it myself, but because I was working for them – and I love them and trust them – I wanted to write it with them, so it’s shared copyright,” she says.
She shares that her editor is her former colleague, while the company also acts as her book agent and has managed to option the TV rights to US broadcast network ABC.
Her editorial experience – mostly in YA fiction – means that she has spent years thinking critically about what makes a good story and the sorts of emotional and story turns that attract readers.
She adds with a laugh that, sometimes, she wears too much of an editor’s hat while writing, continually going back and revising what she has already written.
McGee is, in fact, currently revising and editing the first draft of her sequel to The Thousandth Floor, which is planned as a trilogy.
Some of the narrators will be different in this next book, with one likely to be Atlas, she hints.
She also shares: “I can say that there’s more romance, there is a surprising new character and one of the characters won’t make it to book three.”