Books

‘The Boys’: He’s a quivery introvert, she’s a ray of sunshine, and there’s a pandemic going on

San Francisco novelist and journalist Katie Hafner wrote “The Boys” as the pandemic was taking hold. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

At dinner one night during a cycling trip with her daughter through Scandinavia in 2017, San Francisco writer Katie Hafner struck up a conversation with one of the guides about how they handle their “problem guests.”

Hafner, a technology and health care journalist, learned that if the tour company really doesn’t want someone as a return customer, they send them an unambiguous letter.

“I kind of went into journalist mode and asked, ‘So, who’s gotten the letter?’ ” Hafner, who lives in Noe Valley, recalled recently by phone.

“When he told me, my daughter and I looked at each other, our imaginations went crazy and she said, ‘That is a novel!’

“Most people would just say, ‘Yes, it is,’ and forget about it. But, I thought, I want to try to write it.”

Hafner devoted the early, surreal weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 to writing a draft of her clever, skillfully crafted debut novel out this month, “The Boys.”

It opens with a letter from the fictional tour company Hill and Dale Adventures, to Philadelphia engineer Ethan Fawcett. “It would be best for you not to return for future excursions,” it states.

We then spend the next 250 pages discovering why, including a gobsmacking plot reveal midway through the book that can’t be explained without spoilers but makes Hafner’s book a laugh-out-loud delight to read.

Fundamentally a love story, and a character study of a quirky, unlikely couple, “The Boys” is about Ethan and Barb, who marry and decide to foster two young Russian orphan boys, only to see their lives splinter as they handle caring for the boys with contrasting styles of attachment.

Ethan is an anxious introvert who’s phobic about starting conversations with strangers and is described as “wired for quarantine.”

Even-keel Barb, on the other hand, has a sunny disposition and possesses “breathtaking equanimity.”

The book is also a poignant exploration of loneliness and the ways trauma survivors can go to extraordinary lengths to avoid facing their psychic wounds.

Hafner spoke to The Chronicle about mining her nonfiction reporting for the purposes of fiction, working in relatable aspects of the COVID pandemic — there’s a brilliant portrayal of someone having a panic attack while grocery shopping masked — and tackling a story with a sly secret at its core. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

An anecdote told to author Katie Hafner by a tour guide inspired her novel, “The Boys.” Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Q: Tell us how you went from hearing a great tidbit of a story on your trip to beginning to flesh it out into a novel.

A: I didn’t think about it for a few months. Then, I woke up one morning and just started typing up, maybe even on my phone, what I thought would be the opening scene. It is in fact the book’s opening scene, when Ethan gets pissed at Barb for putting walnuts in the cookies because the boys have allergies.

Then I went up to Napa with my husband, Bob (Wachter, chair of the UCSF Department of Medicine), who had a business trip. He came back from a meeting and I read him the first few pages. He kind of cocked his head and he said, “Really?” (laughing). He thought it was so funny.

Q: Without giving any spoilers, can you share how you approached keeping a key fact secret until the right moment?

A: Shankar Vedantamthe wonderful guy who does (the podcast) “Hidden Brain,” did a whole segment on “The Sixth Sense” and talked about our anchoring bias. If you go into a book or movie believing things are a certain way, you’re anchored in those facts and disregard others.

The book I love that does this well is Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” She has a great reveal in the middle. But I really wanted Ethan and Barb’s relationship to naturally unfold and readers to relax into it.

Katie Hafner’s “The Boys” will be released July 26. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Q: Talk about developing Ethan. He’s eccentric, even peculiar, but sweet enough it’s believable Barb would fall in love with him.

A: I wanted him to be quirky and lovable at the same time. I wanted things to be a little odd, to be a little Wes Anderson-odd. Like Ethan moving back into his mother’s room where nothing has changed and he’s living with the batons and the yearbooks.

For years I’ve idolized Anne Tyler. I love how she does quirky, and I thought, how can I do quirky and make it work in my own voice?

Q: You made Barb an expert on loneliness, and in 2016 you wrote a story for the New York Times on the same subject, reporting from a call center for lonely elders in England. Were you able to use other things in “The Boys” that you learned while reporting?

A: My reporting life has completely informed this book. I don’t understand why more don’t write fiction, because it gives you such great material.

The loneliness story affected me so deeply. When I was sitting there with someone taking the calls in Blackpool, England, a woman called who hadn’t used her voice for a week. I couldn’t believe the loneliness she felt as she started to cry. Barb had to be a loneliness expert, it fit perfectly.

Q: It also fits with setting your novel during the COVID pandemic, when the whole world became focused on issues of isolation and our need for connection. Did you work in more pandemic realities as the real-life events evolved?

A: I did. For instance, the (grocery shopping) trip Ethan makes is exactly what happened to me when I went to the Whole Foods on 24th Street when the pandemic started. I wanted bok choy, and when I got there, this man was hovering over the bok choy and sneezing, and I started to flip out. I decided that Ethan should go there and flip out and run out the door, abandoning his cart.

Katie Hafner’s husband, Dr. Bob Wachter, a leading authority on the coronavirus, provided insights for the novel. Photo: Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

Q: To get your pandemic facts right, did you bounce your ideas off your husband, since you have the benefit of living with a COVID expert?

A: I wrote this so early in the pandemic, so I was kind of guessing (how the world would change). I remember asking Bob, “What do you think if there’s a scene in Italy where there’s a sign on the door that says you have to be vaccinated to come in?”

And he said, “Well, that’s a little far out. (Laughs.) I’m not sure that’ll ever happen.”

The Boys

By Katie Hafner

(Spiegel & Grau; 256 pages; $27)

Commonwealth Club presents Katie Hafner: In conversation with Carol Edgarian. Virtual event. 5:30 pm Monday, July 18. Free for members, $5 for nonmembers; $30 for either with book. Registration required. www.commonwealthclub.org



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