Cameron Whitley doesn’t know if he killed Lucinda Hayes. Like, he genuinely doesn’t know. Lucinda is a clever, beautiful ninth grader, a golden girl who resides in Broomsville, the fictional northern Colorado suburb where the new novel Girl in Snow takes place. She has been found dead. And the night in question, well, Cameron has blocked it out.
When she began writing this story five years ago, Danya Kukafka was 19 and finishing up her sophomore year at New York University. She had just read Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and had recently seen a particularly harrowing episode of Law & Order in which a suspect cannot remember committing the murders for which he’s eventually arrested. All of this led to the question: “How can you love somebody if you suspect that they’ve done something truly horrible?” Kukafka, now 24, said recently in Manhattan before the release of Girl in Snow, her debut novel out now. Put another way: How far can a writer stretch her reader’s empathy before it fractures?
An avid reader of novels that bridge the divide between adult and YA literature—like Julie Buntin’s Marlena, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, all of which feature teen characters and explore adult themes—Kukafka initially thought she had written a young-adult novel. And after she had developed Cameron’s narrative in Girl in Snow, Kukafka added in the alternate perspective of another teen: Lucinda’s classmate and foil, Jade, who loathed her.
A couple years ago, while she was working as an editorial assistant at Riverhead Books, on the advice of her agent she incorporated the novel’s only adult voice, that of Russ, the cop assigned to Lucinda’s case. “It became a novel once I added Jade in,” she said. “Russ just opened it up even more and pushed it fully into the adult sphere.” But Kukafka still hadn’t solved the murder.
In late 2015, having spent nearly a year revising Girl in Snow, Kukafka sent the manuscript out on submission. At around 5 a.m. the next day, she and her agent received an email from Marysue Rucci, Simon & Schuster’s editor-in-chief. She had stayed up through the night reading the book—and she wanted to buy it. Now, two years later, Girl in Snow has finally emerged. And The Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins, whose work is a blueprint for Girl in Snow’s literary thriller genre, wrote a blurb.
In concept, Girl in Snow has all the trappings of a pulp crime novel, but it also comments on those thriller tropes with playful self-awareness. “I knew I was using the trope of the beautiful dead girl,” Kukafka told me. She was “not particularly interested in” Lucinda, she added. “I was more interested in the things people project onto her.”
“A lot of this book is about perception and how we see each other—what we see versus what we think we know versus what is actually true about people,” Kukafka said. Each narrator’s observations about the dead girl reveal far more about themselves than Lucinda. This is why Cameron makes such a convincing suspect; infatuated with Lucinda, he regularly spied on her during what he calls his “statue nights.” And, just as Lucinda is the object of a certain mythology ascribed to conventionally beautiful white women, Cameron is the object of his community’s deep-held biases: He’s mentally ill, and certain episodes—the moments he describes as “tangled”—make him look really, really guilty.
“We’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives,” Kukafka said. “The way we see ourselves is not the way other people see us.”
In this way, Lucinda’s own reality is almost a footnote; the resolution to her crime, when it comes, almost an aside. With Lucinda, Kukafka punctures the Laura Palmer mythology. (“In death, Lucinda exists much as she did in life, as a manifestation in other people’s minds, an artistic rendering, an object of both desire and jealousy,” wrote Jenessa Abrams in a Guernica review.)
Now, five years after Kukafka started writing as Cameron, the crime has been solved. Kukafka is about to embark on a multi-city book tour, including a return to her own Colorado hometown—and she’s already started writing a new book. “It’s different, much different,” she said. “Some people have been like, ‘Is this going to be a series?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, my god, no. I am so done with this story.’”
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