Kate Hope Day had just had her first child and had recently moved to Corvallis, so maybe it was inevitable that the questions would work their way into her sleep-deprived mind: How did I get here? Were there other possibilities? What would have happened if something had turned out differently?
"That had me definitely thinking about those 'what if' questions," said Day, the author of a new novel, "If, Then." In the novel, Day's first, four characters grapple with the idea of "counterfactuals," those "if, then" statements such as the one that a character in the novel (a new mother) ponders: "If I'd remembered to pack my birth control pills on our camping trip to the Redwoods, Leah wouldn't exist."
In the world of "If, Then," those counterfactuals take on a life of their own for four characters who begin to see themselves in parallel realities. For example, Cass, the new mother, starts to catch glimpses of herself pregnant again — even as she's on the brink of returning to the project that could define her academic career. The visions begin benignly enough, but eventually they take a darker turn.
The novel has found an audience — and it's caught the attention of Hollywood. Heyday Films, the company that produced the "Harry Potter" movies, has optioned the book and is considering a television adaptation.
Day will talk about the novel at a Monday night event at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. (See the related story for details about that event.)
The 41-year-old Day would seem to have the ideal background to pull off the high-wire act of "If, Then," which she describes as a literary novel with its toes dipped into the pool of speculative fiction. In graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, she participated in an interdisciplinary program that included studies of philosophy and the history of science. In that program, she came across the work of philosopher David Lewis, who wrote a book called "Counterfactuals." (A quote from the book, "I believe, and so do you, that things could have been different in countless ways," serves as the epigraph for "If, Then.")
But Day also has studied (and taught) Victorian-era novels, and it's easy to see how those might have influenced "If, Then": In those novels, she said, "there's a strong sense that the story is going somewhere, but there's also a sense that the characters have strong interior lives."
And that describes the key characters in "If, Then:" Ginny is a surgeon whose work often takes her away from her family, including her husband, Mark, a wildlife scientist. Samara is a young woman mourning the death of her mother; the mother died on an operating room table, despite the best efforts of surgeon Ginny.
The fourth key character, Cass, is the one most like Day — which could explain why Day said she was the hardest character in the book to write. In part, that's because Cass is a more internal character than, say, Mark, who has more physical action in the novel.
But Day joked about another possible reason: "Also, I think you just get sick of yourself."
The action takes place in a small town called Clearing, Oregon — an amalgam of various Oregon locations, including Corvallis, that Day loves. For example, Clearing has a Linus Pauling Middle School, just like Corvallis. But Corvallis does not have a Niels Bohr Elementary School.
Nor is Corvallis nestled against what appears to be a dormant volcano, the way that Clearing is in "If, Then."
The complicated plotting involved in "If, Then," with its main characters and their alternative timelines, provided a challenge for Day: "I had a lot of plot charts," she said. "At one point, I had a Google calendar for all these characters. ... Many hours were spent keeping track of who's doing what at any given time."
But the work paid off: Day landed an agent, Brettne Bloom, and the book sold to Random House in just a couple of days, part of a two-book deal.
Of course, that speed belies the work that Day put into the novel: That newborn son who prompted the initial wave of questions? He's 9 now. (Day said she was working on the book in earnest for five or six years.) Day and her husband, Kevin, have another son now as well, who's 5.
That second novel is a different experience for Day, in part because she's working against a deadline. The manuscript is usually close at hand so she can pull it out and work on it when she gets a spare moment — waiting for a son to wrap up an after-school activity, perhaps.
"A novel is a big thing, and you work on it for a couple of years," she said. "To keep it in your mind and alive is half the battle, because it can die."