DRIFTERS: Holding onto Friendships in the Time of Isolation by Kevin Emerson
At the center of Drifters, my new middle grade novel that features multiple universes and a multi-century plot, is a very small story about two 13-year-olds who fell out of friendship, and about what it takes to get that friendship back.
It’s the part of the story that I’m most proud of. It’s also the very last part that I figured out.
I wrote the bulk of this story during the isolation of the pandemic, but though that time was extremely difficult, it felt, at least for a while, strangely bonding. We may not have been seeing one another, but we were doing something big, in community, together. I saw this in my children, as they logged into school every day. Was it awesome? No. But they knew they were part of something important. Then, when our state opened back up and they returned to in-person school, I was taken aback to see the old anxieties of isolation returning in force: I’m talking about the isolation that comes from having everyone in your world and beyond right in your pocket, and yet feeling like you’re somehow utterly alone.
My older daughter started getting sucked into friendship dramas and struggling with what to do. I’d had the idea of “the drift” in Drifters for a long time, but it was only as I revised that I began to zero in on how, for adolescents, the place where these feelings can be most intense is in their friendships. They are just learning what it means to be a good friend, and what it takes to maintain a friendship, through lives that are changing so fast. I realized that the mission of my novel was to find a way to fight this loneliness and isolation by thinking about what it takes to be a good friend.
Drifters is, first and foremost, a mystery novel. I wrote it like a missing person case, even reading a bunch of Nordic noir (which fit the Pacific Northwest climate of the story, too) to get the beats of a detective story right. The novel has been praised for being an “extraordinary adventure” (Booklist) and for having “a satisfying action plot” (BCCB), but the real engine of the story is the fractured friendship between Jovie, our main character, and her former best friend Micah, the girl who’s gone missing. Jovie is determined to find Micah, but if she does, how can she fix their friendship?
When the story begins, Micah has been missing for months. The investigation into her disappearance has stalled, both for lack of evidence, and, unbeknownst to Jovie, because of the drift, a force besetting Jovie’s small town of Far Haven and causing people who are lonely or isolated to be forgotten completely. But Micah and Jovie’s friendship actually ended nearly six months before that. From Jovie’s point of view, Micah had started acting distant, and choosing risky friends over her. A big fight over text ended things for good. Though Jovie felt rejected and hurt, when Micah disappears, she still feels major guilt. Of course, Micah was the one who pushed her away, but Jovie can’t shake the feeling that there was something she missed, a way she could have helped. After all, Jovie had been wrapped up in her own drama with the recent separation of her parents, and Micah had been so supportive during that time. Had Jovie failed to do the same?
The truth, which Jovie uncovers midway through the story (and which the author finally figured out in the third draft), is that Micah had been hiding what was, to her, a devastating failure: her trip to a big-time Shakespeare camp the previous summer was a disaster. Micah was the theater star of Far Haven, and this humbling experience left her not only questioning her talent, but also her worth and her dreams. Suddenly, her future seemed uncertain. Compared to all those happy lives and successes she followed on her phone, she felt like a fraud. And rather than share that with Jovie or anyone else, Micah hid it, out of embarrassment, which made the isolation worse.
When Jovie discovers this, she realizes that, on the one hand, she couldn’t have known what Micah was going through if Micah didn’t want to say, but on the other hand, maybe Micah would have told her if she’d been more available, more open and observant. It’s hard at that time in your life—at all times, really—to make sure you center your friends and their experiences and try to be there for them. And sometimes you can do everything right and people still aren’t ready to share.
All of this is especially difficult these days, when we are also managing the intense pressures of social media. That very thing that promises to make us more connected (and does, in many ways) can all too easily increase our feelings of loneliness and isolation. The drift that is capturing characters in Drifters, while cosmic in origin, feeds on that very real spiral we can feel, where one bad beat knocks you off course and suddenly it seems as if the whole rest of the world is moving on without you, post by post, happy, smiling, effortless. As if you’ve vanished completely.
This all makes it harder than ever to connect, to look beyond yourself and be available, to see one another clearly, but that’s what it takes. We all have to fight the drift into our own doubts, into our screens and away from our self-assurance, but we also have to fight the drift away from one another. It takes hard work to resist that creeping sense that there is more-more-more that you-you-you should be doing. To take a deep breath, to look outside yourself. We don’t need to be perfect at it. We just need to try. It can seem easier than ever these days to retreat, to not engage, especially after the pandemic years that took so much away, but as Jovie says near the end of the novel, “that’s the drift talking, and this is how we fight it.”
Kevin Emerson is the author of Last Day on Mars and The Oceans Between Stars, as well as The Fellowship for Alien Detection, the Exile series, the Atlanteans series, the Oliver Nocturne series, and Carlos Is Gonna Get It. Kevin lives with his family in Seattle. You can visit him online at www.kevinemerson.net.
DRIFTERS Blog Tour
5/9/22 Nerdy Book Club @nerdybookclub
5/10/22 Bluestocking Thinking @bluesockgirl
5/11/22 Charlotte’s Library @charlotteslibrary
5/13/22 Maria’s Mélange @mariaselke
5/16/22 Teachers Who Read @teachers_read
5/23/22 Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers @grgenius
5/27/22 A Library Mama @alibrarymama
5/31/22 Unleashing Readers @unleashreaders