Jennifer Lynn Alvarez on testing the limits of loyalty in YA thriller Lies Like Wildfire
A mistake during a day out in the woods turns a group of teens' lives upside down in Alvarez's new novel.
Hannah Warner is heading to college soon, but she'll have one hell of a summer first.
In Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's new thriller Lies Like Wildfire (out Sept. 7), Hannah has to fight to keep herself and her friends safe from the biggest mistake they've ever made. The group, who call themselves the Monsters, are having a typical day out in the forest when an argument over smoking sparks a wildfire that destroys their town.
"The original idea started because I wanted to write a thriller about five teenagers who just graduated high school, have their whole futures in front of them, and then they make a horrible mistake," Alvarez tells EW.
Using her own experience with wildfire, the author tells a gripping tale about the line between loyalty to the people in your life and the value of telling the truth. As the number of secrets increases and things get more precarious, Hannah, an aspiring FBI agent, goes to great lengths to make sure her friends keep their mouths shut.
Below, Alvarez opens up about the messy relationships within the Monsters, crafting complex characters, the power of lies, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you choose to make a wildfire the event that kicks off this thriller?
JENNIFER LYNN ALVAREZ: What was so compelling about wildfire for me was the criminal aspect of it. It's extremely easy to do, and for these teens it was truly an accident. Normally they would willfully have done something, like stolen something or killed somebody, but to face prison time over an accident is rare. They are facing real prison time, huge fines, and public hatred over an accident if they get caught. What compelled me is how to make the stakes high without making the mistake really big. This fun moment turns into this monstrous tragedy.
The other compelling thing about fire is it's the only natural disaster that a human can cause. I've really thought about that, and I can't think of another. We can't cause earthquakes or hurricanes, but one person, even a child, can cause a wildfire that can kill, burn, and destroy.
What made Hannah Warner the right character to put at the center of this story?
She's the sheriff's daughter, so while the stakes are high for all of them not wanting to tell the truth, hers is one of the highest because she's living with the man who is hunting her. He's one of the investigators trying to find out who started the fire and she's living with him, so she, out of the whole group, knew best how wrong it was and how much trouble they were in. Her perspective brought that fear to the others, and it was fun to write the tension between her and her dad.
You start each chapter with the number of fatalities and the status of the crimes in each part. Where did that idea come from?
Living in a wildfire region, when there is a fire as a resident, you check the stats every day. You get updates every day, and you rate your level of fear based on the stats of the day, like how many people have died and how contained the fire is. It lets you know how much danger you're in, so I wanted to include that for readers who may not have experienced wildfire. I wanted to bring some of the realism and authenticity into the story.
Did any of the central five characters surprise you in some way while writing?
They all surprised me, honestly, but what surprised me most was Violet. She only visits the town in the summer, but she had never thought of herself as an outsider, and neither did any of the Monsters until the tension between the friends increased. That was a surprise because I thought of her as one of the Monsters, tried and true. It left her a bit on her own, and it helps build a little sympathy for Violet, who has everything and is beautiful and rich and is going to Stanford, but she's alone in being an outsider to this town.
Which character dynamic within the Monsters group did you find the most interesting?
I really enjoyed writing Hannah and Drummer because she has this crush on him and he doesn't reciprocate, but they have this deep friendship. Both of them are romantically challenged in opposite ways. He has countless relationships and none of them worked out; she has none and she wants one. They both just don't know how to connect but have such a strong connection with each other. He's afraid if he dates her, he'll lose her, because he loses everybody he dates. I thought it was an interesting dynamic to write.
Speaking of the dynamic with the Monsters, what did you want to explore about friendship, particularly at that age?
I wanted to explore loyalty and keeping each other's secrets. Teens are intensely loyal to their friend group; their friends are like family to them, and sometimes even more so than their actual family. Often teens find themselves holding the secret of one of their friends, or as a group they have a secret that some might be more invested in than others. The struggle of being loyal to your friends and knowing when to draw the line is interesting.
With Luke and Violet, we have two teens on opposite ends when it comes to socioeconomic status. Did you intend to incorporate class as a theme in Lies Like Wildfire?
It was not intentional, but none of the Monsters are wealthy except Violet. They were raised in the same town with the same advantages, but Violet is way ahead of the rest of them. What comes to light is that it gives her the luxury of telling the truth, whereas the others have more on the line. They need college and their reputations, or to not be kicked out of their home. She can handle any repercussions: fines, not going to college. She doesn't need money, and it's fascinating to explore how her wealth would enable her to not worry so much about the consequences as the others who feel much more vulnerable.
What are some of your favorite fictional groups of friends?
The first thing that came to my mind was Harry Potter and his friends. They have that loyalty to each other, which is beautiful when it doesn't involve crime. Also, I love Outer Banks. I just watched the second season, and those friendships are also complicated, but it's an example of friends like family. I love those kinds of fictional relationships, and then it was also fun to challenge them and put them under pressure. Outer Banks does that well, and you have the romance and some criminal acts, but at the end of the day they have to decide where friendship ends and the truth begins.
Outside of Hannah's friends, her biggest relationship is with her father. What do you think we learn about Hannah through her dynamic with him?
With her dad, we see her protectiveness. She's trying to protect him from having to arrest her. There's a lot of self-preservation in the book, but when it comes to her dad she's trying to spare him because he had to arrest his wife, Hannah's mother, when she was a kid. She really is trying to protect her dad, and he doesn't press her as hard as she should, and it's because part of him knows and he doesn't want to arrest her either.
There are huge secrets throughout the book. What did you want to explore about secrets and the impact of keeping them?
I consider the book a cautionary tale. If you read it, you learn there's a clear message that these huge secrets are not healthy. I wanted to explore how these mostly happy kids with their futures in front of them start to change for the worst because of a lie and how it's toxic to the friendship. You're also going to understand why they did lie, and that was another aspect I wanted to explore. Although there's plenty of young people who are brave enough to tell the truth, this particular group is just struggling with the lines of loyalty and the ultimate fear of being rejected by their hometown. Everyone in town wants to string up whoever started that fire, and they don't want to face their loved ones. They burned down their high school — their teachers and everyone they grew up with would be disappointed in them.