Summer-set YA romances are starting to arrive, and the familiar tropes are in bloom: young love, beach trips, bonfires, theoretical physics.
That last one may not seem like it fits in with the more common plot points of a YA romance, but Harriet Reuter Hapgood‘s debut novel The Square Root of Summerproves that time travel and young love go hand in hand.
As the protagonist Gottie Oppenheimer is dealing with growing up, finding love, and grieving her recently deceased grandfather, she also has to grapple with periodically falling into wormholes. That’s a lot for your average teenager to figure out.
MashReads spoke with Reuter Hapgood about the origins of her cliche-bending novel, her love of teen tropes, and what time travel has to do with love.
Even Reuter Hapgood has trouble describing her book
“I keep referring to it as a time travel, quantum physics, grief, romance, summer book.” But every aspect of the story is equally important, and jumps out to different readers. “I sort of describe it in a different way depending on what my mood is that day. Other people have described it to me in different ways; some people focus on the time travel, some on the romance, some on the grief.”
The most fantastical parts of the book were inspired by real events and emotions
“What I set out to write was a summer coming-of-age book about bereavement and the way that that can mess up your linear perception of time, and make you both want to fast-forward through your life and hit pause.”
Bereavement is something that Reuter Hapgood understands well and inspired Gottie’s story. “The whole book is sort of an homage to my family. My grandmother who died, and who was the reason I started writing the book, the weekend before her stroke I was spending the weekend with her and we’d had a conversation about particle physics and quantum leaps… [so] I thought I’d make my main character a fan of physics and interested in those things as a shorthand. I was writing the book a couple of years later but remembering those conversations helps brings back emotions.”
The time-travel aspects of the novel came later
The first draft of the book had no time travel, but had the rest of the plot, including grief and first love. But when Reuter Hapgood read over that draft, she was hit with scientific inspiration. “Of course that’s what it should be about, of course that’s what she’s exploring, spacetime issues. I’d written the book without actually writing it. I wrote a note to myself on the wall saying ‘I believe in time travel.’ I sat down and reworked the book… putting the time travel into it.”
“That’s my favorite part of writing. You don’t really know what it is you’re doing, you can kind of be so focused on one part of it and then several drafts later it all comes together and you kind of start thinking ‘oh I’m a genius, how did this happen?'”
Gottie is way better at physics than Reuter Hapgood
“I read a few books. [A friend gave me] a physics for dummies kind of kids book with illustrated guides and stuff. The thing with lots of maths and physics is when you look at the actual equations that explain what’s going on, it’s far too complicated to understand, but if you see it in a little diagram or picture, you can kind of wrap your head around it at the layman’s level. So I looked at picture book and stuff.
I wanted to find theories that would work… but Gottie’s theory of time travel [is fictional], you can’t prove it wrong.”
The wonder of physics has a central role
“The book opens on particles and how they can be at two places at once and they can interfere with their own past and they just pop up. It’s so weird when you read about it and you can kind of picture that just about and look around the room where you’re writing and think ‘this room is full of particles doing just that.’ That idea that a little particle can just leap somewhere. I had to simplify things for the book, but there’s theories that certain particles can go back in time and interfere with their own pasts and then it pops up somewhere else. Thinking about it, this tiny, tiny thing, it’s mind-blowing that that’s going on in the universe around you at all times. Everything about physics is cool, as far as I understand it.”
The time-travel isn’t heavy, nor is it entirely definitive
“I had people go ‘is she really time traveling or is she just overly imaginative?’ I let people come up with [their own answer].” While Reuter Hapgood wrote the novel feeling like the end was concrete, she was surprised to find readers with differing opinions.
“As much as I’d love to explain to people what the book actually is, I think you have the responsibility as an author to say ‘I’ve signed off. It is out in the world, it belongs to readers to interpret how they will.’ When I read books I hate when authors are proscriptive. I want to let things live in my own head a bit and interpret things myself. When people raise that question to me I sort of give them an enigmatic smile.”
When it comes to YA tropes, Reuter Hapgood is an expert
“I did a masters in fashion journalism, and one of the things we had to do at the end was like an academic thesis. You didn’t necessarily have to do it about fashion, and I was so into teen TV that I wrote an encyclopedia on teen television. It wasn’t just Dawson’s Creek, it was also the ’90s canon of My So Called Life and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, which is the early 2000s, and the OC, and One Tree Hill and all of those things. All the characters and settings and tropes and clichés that occur in those kinds of small town teen television dramas.
I love teen TV. They’re such perfect coming-of-age settings: small towns, small group of friends. They spit out all these kinds of stories and they cover things from first kiss to first sex to prom to divorce and they kind of run the gamut of every teen experience you could have and they do it dramatically.”
She also loves Dawson’s Creek
“I would love to one day write something as romantic and wonderful as the Joey and Pacey storyline.”
Where she would go if time travel was real
“I would go back to being a little kid. In Nottingham, just sledding. A snowy day with my dad in the park, and my brother and sister. Just something kind of innocent and fun.” She’s already revisited her youth to help write this book, and realized “I don’t need to revisit that. Just going back doing something purely fun with no huge emotional resonance.”
The Square Root of Summer goes on sale in the US on May 3rd.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.