Anna and Her Sister: An Interview with The Window Author Amelia Brunskill

In her debut novel The Window, Amelia Brunskill tells the story of Jess Cutter, a Montanan girl whose twin sister Anna is found dead below her bedroom window. Jess—as thoughtful, mild, and low-affect as her twin was sporty, ebullient, and gregarious—investigates, turning up secrets about the person she felt closest too, and discovering she didn’t know her as well as she thought.

A cool yet simmering read, The Window is a worthy entry in the teen sleuth young adult genre, addressing the challenges of growing up, personal identity, and finding your place in society in-between Jess’ amateur gumshoeing.

It started when Brunskill began thinking about twins. We spoke about The Window and writing by phone.

What started you on the road to writing The Window?

I got this idea, probably three or four years before I started writing it. I was interested in the idea of a twin and what it would be like for someone who had this very intense relationship with their twin to suddenly lose them, and how would they navigate that. Especially at a time period—your teenage years—where you’re still figuring out who you are, and when you’ve had a lot of your identity bound up with this other person, and also just the experience of being a twin.

I guess I meant in a more general way. I mean as a writing career, what got you started.

I guess that was it. I wasn’t really writing at that point. I wasn’t really a writer. I didn’t start writing it until several years later and I thought it was going to be a graphic novel. Then I realized I do not have the artistic skills to actually do that. I tried, it did not work out. (Laughs) And so I began writing it out narratively, and that’s how I got started.

Where did The Window come from? Was it one inspirational event or various things? You touched on the twins, of course.

Yeah, it started with the twins, and then it really…I felt fairly quickly, the voice of Jess kind of emerged. It’s interesting, because some people read The Window and they just see her as being quite introverted—which is fine. In my head I do think of her as being somewhere on the spectrum, but very high functioning. But…I saw some of that informing her voice and her perspective on the world. So that was definitely part of that. Someone who’s very literal and has a hard time making connections, and I think a bit beyond what people might typically find in the teenage years or in general. For me it was beyond just being a little bit socially awkward. A very intense struggle for her. And I think a lot of it started with her.

Did you start out thinking it was going to be young adult lit? Any feelings about the label or genre in general?

I think I always very much thought of it as “young adult,” but in part just because that’s the age of the protagonist. It’s very much her as she’s being and thinking, immediately… With adult literature it’s more about people looking back to a time when they were in that period, and they have distance and perspective on the events that occurred, whereas YA is more “This is happening”. And while there are exceptions, to me it was always a very logical fit with the young adult category.

And I like the young adult category. I think there’s a lot of freedom and flexibility there. And it’s also very interesting because people are in completely different spaces within that time. I feel like you have 18-year-olds who have been very sheltered and quite naive… you have 12-, 13-year-olds who have gone through some pretty major life events already… And that’s something I kind of want to explore a little bit in the book. That two people who are literally twins can be having completely different experiences. So, yeah, I think I very much enjoy being part of the young adult literature arena.

Any literary inspirations or shout-outs? I’m kind of getting a Robert Cormier vibe off The Window.

Ohhhh… Yeah, I love Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War… I mean, it was a little traumatic reading it at that time, because I was reading it in middle school. I think it was one of the darkest books I’d read, and I was fascinated by it. He is about secret lives and what’s going on underneath, and people having different agendas… So, yeah, I loved his work…

I also…it’s not YA… but I love Smilla’s Sense of Snow and I love the character of Smilla. She’s kind of ruthless in a way. She’s unstoppable and she’s not very likable, necessarily, but she’s incredibly appealing because she’s just going to do whatever it takes to figure this out. And I really liked that. And the book…the language was beautiful too, so I definitely thought about that. Of course, a lot of differences, but a sort of mystery with an interesting protagonist.

The Window struck me as a fairly cool narrative. Not a potboiler.

Jess isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator. In some ways she’s an incredibly reliable narrator, but she’s a tricky person… She’s a bit of a difficult person. People have a little bit of a hard time with her and so part of it…it’s meant to be sometimes difficult to tell whether people are reacting because they’re hiding something or because they just have discomfort with her… So it’s a little bit more of a slow burn, perhaps. There’s a little bit more, “So, what is going on?” There’s not a body count. It’s more…are her perceptions misleading her, are her ideas of what’s suspicious or not playing out? Or is she just so mired in the grief that she’s looking for explanations that simply aren’t there?

While on the one hand…definitely something was up, so she’s not wrong in that. But that’s the question. People’s reactions to her saying, “Oh no, you just…you need to let this go,” that’s not necessarily an unreasonable reaction for people to be saying that. But some people might be saying that with more of an agenda in mind. So, yeah, it’s supposed to be more of a build.

Do any other characters stand out for you?

Interestingly, I had maybe the hardest time with Sarah. Sarah is one of the characters that takes you a while to figure out what her personality is. By the end I loved her, but it took a while. Also, Mona, originally, didn’t exist. I fell into that trap accidentally, where you realize that you have a female character that you really like—a protagonist—and she’s surrounded… You know, there are a couple of other female characters, but mostly it’s men and boys around her. The editor looked and said, “There are too many boys with problems!” And I said, “Oh, yes, there are! There are too many boys with problems!” (Laughs) So I’m thinking, okay, how can I strengthen her female relationships? How can it be more about the girls and women in her life, and [how] they can play interesting roles.

What are you reading these days?

At the moment I’m reading All Our Wrong Todays. I’ve just started it. It’s speculative and it’s pretty interesting so far. Before that, I read, I think it’s called Himself, and it was set in Ireland in the 1970s, and it’s sort of like a magical mystery, or mystery with magic. So that was pretty interesting as well.

Also, I’m part of a debut group of middle-grade and young adult authors, so I’ve been reading a lot of arcs.

Do you have any recommendations of local writers you believe more people should read?

There’s definitely a bunch of YA authors in Chicago who are great. There is Caleb Roehrig… He recently published White Rabbit, and that was a lot of fun. And then Gloria Chao wrote American Panda, and I really enjoyed that as well.

Any writing mentors in your past or now, or bits of advice you favor while working?

Well, as I was drafting, I took several classes at Story Studio. That was really helpful. Rebecca Makkai teaches A Novel in a Year series… I didn’t technically work on this project during that, but I thought a lot about that content, and it was very helpful as I was redrafting. So that was really useful. I also took a class with Abby Genie. While I was at Story Studio I workshopped the first two chapters with Molly Backes. She taught a YA course…a general fiction and a YA course…and that was really helpful. (Laughs) I’m just going to keep on listing people, so I’ll cut myself off there!

The Window is published by Delacorte Press and is available in most bookstores. Brunskill tweets @ameliab.

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.