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    Julia Hannafin struggled with novel ‘Cascade.’ Then the great white sharks came.
    • May 30, 2024

    Julia Hannafin didn’t initially set out to write a novel. 

    When the Berkeley native began work on “Cascade,” out now from new independent press Great Place Books, it was envisioned as a short story. But after one page grew to 30, a friend suggested making the project longer. 

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    Hannafin, who uses they/she pronouns, was up for the challenge. They had previously worked as a staff writer on “The L Word: Generation Q,” the Showtime series that aired from 2019 to 2023, and as an assistant to screenwriter Eric Roth while he was writing the script for Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” 

    Their debut novel follows Lydia, a woman who has recently lost her mother to a drug overdose. Reeling and unmoored, she takes a job tagging sharks off the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, and nurses an infatuation for her boss, Michael — the father of her ex-boyfriend Julian.

    Hannafin answered questions about “Cascade” via Zoom from their home in Los Angeles. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

    Q: In the book’s acknowledgments, you write that Lydia has been with you for a while. How did she arrive to you?

    I feel like all my writing starts with some sort of voice in a moment. I was writing about someone who was having this summer in the Bay before departing to these islands, looking at a researcher, starting to crash and fantasize over them. And as I kept writing that voice and this sort of wanting, I feel like she started to show up, and I learned what details that maybe started as closer to my own life weren’t actually hers. I think I’ve found her over time.

    I started writing the book at the end of 2019. I thought it was a short story, so it was very brief. It was one page, then it was 30 pages. And the more I kept writing, the more she kept growing. My editors in particular really helped me make some choices about [making clear] who this person is, as opposed to what I am tempted to do often, which is stay in a sort of mysteriousness.

    Q: You grew up in Berkeley, which is near the Farallons, right?

    The Farallons are about 30 miles from San Francisco, so if you’re in the Berkeley Hills, up high, and it’s super clear, you can see them. They look like a series of triangles behind the Golden Gate Bridge on the horizon. I knew about them just from that. Then when I started to write about a researcher and had this sort of young person’s voice in my head, I talked to a cousin about it who’s a marine biologist, and she said, “I think you have your setting really close. I think you should set it on the Farallons. So it sent me on a research journey to learn way more about them than I ever knew.

    I did ultimately go there on a whale-watching boat with my girlfriend. I was about to turn in a revision to my editors, and I hadn’t been there. All of what I knew about the islands was from reading and watching YouTube videos, and I had this fear all of a sudden: “What if I turn it in and there’s something essential that I get wrong?” There’s a whale-watching boat that you can go on. You don’t get to step onto the islands; the land itself is protected and restricted just to researchers, but you get pretty close within 20, 30 feet or so. And it didn’t break my image. It felt like I had been there before in my mind in some strange way.

    Q: What kind of research did you do into shark tagging?

    In the first draft of the book, they were researching seals, but I made a mistake. Seals are tagged on land, but I had them tagging seals on a boat, and I really wanted them to be on the water. So I thought, “How can I maintain this thing that I like about what I’ve written?” And the answer was sharks, which ended up being scarier and more dramatic and more thematic. I didn’t know anything about it, but there was an ecologist and biologist, Adam Rosenblatt, who helped me a lot in fleshing out what that looks like. He’s a scientist at the University of Northern Florida working with alligators, but he had been on some great white shark tagging expeditions. So I got to call him and ask him basic questions, and he really pointed me in some great directions. But the perspective that I have as a beginner, newcomer, outsider is actually really helpful, because Lydia only learns as much as she learns when she’s there. And so I felt in some ways very aligned with her perspective.

    Q: How did you go about capturing the feelings of somebody who’s so beset by grief, and has this complex relationship that is obviously upended when her mom dies? Was it difficult to do that?

    When I first started writing it, I didn’t know that the death was the driving force behind Lydia. That was a big thing that I had to learn about her; she was coming from this loss. And then what is that loss? What are the specificities? I grew up with two moms, and I lost one of them to breast cancer when I was 19. And so I think this feeling of being a young person, being really connected to your parents, but having a foot out the door into some kind of adulthood and then losing a parent is very familiar to me. 

    Q: What do you think draws Lydia to this expedition? Is it the sharks themselves, or something else that she’s trying to find out there around the islands?

    I think part of it is a sort of alternate family. She’s been close to Michael, this researcher, through her relationship with his son Julian. When that relationship ends, she has this opportunity to take his place. She has a feeling that she could find another way to exist in a family, and especially in a family of men, as opposed to the family of women that she’s come from. So the prospects of belonging in an entirely new way, not connected to any of the language that she had before, both in terms of gender and in terms of this wild island where you’re not going to have any of the comforts or routines you had before, that all goes into her seeking. I’m not sure she totally knows [that] when she is taking the leap, but I do think she knows she wants distraction and she wants something else.

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    ​ Orange County Register