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Evanston writer Kat Falls enters world of young-adult hero novels

Updated: January 10, 2014 6:03AM

Just when you think young adult novels set in a dystopian world and featuring a feisty young heroine have run their course, along comes another to blow that theory out of the water. Kat Falls’ “Inhuman” is one such novel.

A self-professed “sci-fi geek” Falls, a Chicago area-based writer, already had written two middle-grade books — “Dark Life” and “Rip Tide” — when her agent suggested she pen a young adult novel so her readers could grow up with her. She immediately knew it would be set in the future (the previous two were set in a colony on the ocean floor) but it was an article about the swine flu that really got her imagination working on overdrive.

“I discovered there is pig DNA in the swine flu virus and that really grossed me out,” Falls says. “I know that wouldn’t turn me into a pig but something about that idea just gnawed at me.”

Thoughts and ideas began to go viral in her imagination, and another dystopian world was born. The first of what promises to be an intriguing trilogy, “Inhuman” is set in an America ravaged by a virus that mutates humans into “manimals.” The area east of the Mississippi River is known as the Feral Zone, where those infected are quarantined; west of the river behind a great black wall live those not infected.

In this safe world, Falls has placed 16-year-old Delaney Park McEvoy (Lane to her friends), who is about to begin one unimaginable adventure. She is stunned to learn her father is a Fetch — someone who illegally goes to the Feral Zone to retrieve items left behind (such as great art in a now-abandoned Art Institute of Chicago). Discovering he now is in peril on the wrong side of the wall where all sorts of manimals threaten, she sets out to find him.

Falls feels teenage girls are “hungry for stories about teenage girls.” She wanted to create a character who was leading a life that a lot of girls could relate to. In the book, Lane’s father has pushed her to take survival and self-defense classes but she’s never taken it very seriously; she’s lived in a safe, guarded environment all her life.

“I didn’t want Lane to have super skills going into this situation, but she does have smarts and resilience,” Falls says. “Sometimes I think girls are taught to repress their fierce nature but I think it’s something they should be in touch with when it’s needed to survive in a tough world. You can’t always be nice and polite.”

Falls always knew she would write in some form but didn’t figure it out until after attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an engineering school where her father taught. (She later got her MFA in screenwriting at Northwestern.)

“In college I had to take a lot of math and science, which I think serves me well now because I’m not intimidated by scientific journals,” says Falls, who also teaches screenwriting at Northwestern University. “I can actually dissect the language and that’s come in handy.”

Falls lives in Evanston with husband Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, and their three children who range in age from 11 to 17 and serve as her test audience as she writes.

“When I read a chapter out loud and see my daughter’s eyes drift over to her phone, I know that’s a sign that I need to rewrite,” Falls says. As for her husband: “Sci-fi is not Bob’s thing,” Falls adds, laughing. “I show it to him very, very late in the process.”

Falls is at work on the second novel in the series and says she is completely comfortable writing for the young adult audience having “channeled my inner 16-year-old.”

“I feel such interesting things are happening in young adult novels. The genre gives me more leeway to be ridiculous and adventurous and create things that I think adults might not appreciate in the way a teenager might. Plus I’m just having way too much fun creating these stories.”

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