Iowa native Kodi Scheer shifts from a career in science, medicine to writing
The science of a psychological thriller
Kodi Scheer’s new novel, “Midair,” is a dark tale of four teenaged girls on a trip to Paris. The narrator, driven by a need for revenge, plans to take her own life in a dramatic and unforgettable way. Her plans go awry, however, and she is left to live with abiding regret.
In this e-interview, Scheer who grew up in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa, talks about the themes of “Midair,” why she considered publishing the book under a pseudonym, and how she shifted from a potential career in science and medicine to a life as a writer and instructor.
Tell me about the origins of this story. What was the initial spark that grew into the novel?
It began as a short story that followed the girls into Purgatory, after a suicide pact. But the story felt bigger. And maybe it wasn’t literal but figurative Purgatory, in Paris, where reality didn’t meet their expectations.
A line stuck in my head: “I wasn’t a complete monster — I was just a teenage girl.” I wondered if one of the characters, Nessa, felt that she’d been wronged by another girl and I kept ruminating on the destructive power of revenge.
So I knew that 30-something Nessa was reflecting on her once-myopic worldview that caused the death of one of her friends. She examines, in great detail, how self-absorbed she was at 18, as well as the sequence of events that led to tragedy. Plus the shocking self-punishment she instigates.
Basically, we all do stupid and selfish things when we’re young, but most of us are just lucky that we didn’t face any real consequences.
Your first book, “Incendiary Girls,” was filled with stories in which the human body is portrayed in unexpected, and often troubling, ways. Issues of body autonomy seem central to “Midair.” Is that a theme you were consciously pursuing in the new book and is this novel thematically connected to the story collection?
In terms of body autonomy, I didn’t set out to pursue that theme in “Midair,” but it did eventually bubble to the surface. Young girls don’t have a lot of agency. Unfortunately, what little power they do have is often related to their bodies and sexuality.
I wanted to write about a marginalized (and maligned) group — which is to say, teenage girls — without pandering or making things shiny and pretty. I was also influenced by what I was hearing outside the classroom. I teach introductory writing classes at the University of Michigan, so I spend a lot of time with the under-20 set and I’m amazed at their use of profanity and language that’s demeaning to women. Not in a knee-jerk “get off my lawn” kind of way, but I wanted to explore where that was coming from, and also represent it accurately in the novel.
I’ve seen “Midair” described as a “crossover Y/A novel.” Is that how you would characterize the book? Did you have a specific audience in mind as you wrote it?
I wanted to write a book about being young that wasn’t glossy and varnished — more Robert Cormier (“The Chocolate War”) than John Green (“The Fault in Our Stars”). “Midair” can’t really be classified as Y/A because there’s too much salty language and sex and drugs. But that’s what teenagers do. It seems silly to pretend otherwise.
I think “Midair” could be classified as suspense, especially given the structure — you know from the first flash-forward that Nessa didn’t commit suicide, but that one of the other girls died on the trip and Nessa feels great remorse for her role. She begins to reveal details of the trip and the mystery unfolds as to who perished and why Nessa feels so guilty.
Given the dark and adult themes, did you have any concerns about how the content of the book might be received?
I strongly considered publishing this book under a pseudonym. I suspected that it would strike a nerve — I was consciously working with controversial and highly emotional content. People often have strong feelings and reactions to this type of content, which is both understandable and expected. My editorial team and I ultimately decided that readers of “Incendiary Girls” might enjoy “Midair.”
You grew up in rural Iowa and attended the University of Iowa as an undergraduate, but you didn’t study writing. Instead, you have a B.A. in cognitive neuroscience. What led you to follow that up with an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and a career as a writer and teacher of writing?
I’d planned on a career in science or medicine, but I found myself more interested in people’s stories than their pathologies. Even a medical record tells a narrative — after all, we’re the storytelling apes. We can’t help but use narrative to make more sense of the world.
After I graduated from Iowa with my B.A., I worked in a neuroscience lab for a couple of years and took some creative writing classes. I loved writing fiction but didn’t really see it as a career option until I learned about M.F.A. programs, ultimately deciding on the University of Michigan. I’ve been a writer and educator ever since, though my background in science has influenced my work, especially “Incendiary Girls.”
What are you working on now?
I’m a little superstitious about saying much about new projects. I may or may not be working on a novel that takes one of the minor characters in “Midair” and explores her story.
What: Kodi Scheer reads from “Midair”
Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
When: 7 p.m. Monday