Julia Hannafin

On Obsession, Sex, Grief, Addiction, and Their Debut Novel ‘Cascade’

Cover of Julia Hannafin:  On Obsession, Sex, Grief, Addiction, and Their Debut Novel ‘Cascade’

In Cascade (Great Place Books, 2024), Julia Hanafin’s debut novel, story and form swim in sync. Lydia, a young woman grieving her mother’s death from an overdose, flees normal life to work for her ex-boyfriend’s father on the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco. As part of a small research team tagging and monitoring great white sharks, Lydia also observes her boss and an infatuation builds. A close present tense keeps us riding the waves of Lydia’s grief and desire. It’s not always clear what’s happening in Lydia’s head or to her body as she seeks love, and that’s the point. I spoke with Julia over Zoom about getting the research right, working with an indie press, and writing an ending that leaves room for interpretation. 


Devin Kate Pope: You mention in Cascade’s acknowledgments that the book came out of a short story. Can you tell me more about how that happened?

Julia Hannafin: It never became a successful short story. But I thought when I started, I was writing a short story. It came out of a conversation at the house of an old teacher who is a friend of mine now. Her high school boyfriend was over and we were having tea, and he told a story about tagging elephant seals. His description got me writing a short story about someone young describing a researcher and admiring him and looking at him in this new way. I sent it to a really dear friend of mine, Nicole, who I often send first attempts to, and she said, I think it should be longer. I kept going. One page became three pages became thirty pages. And then I really felt like, okay, I’m starting a novel and I have to see it through.

DKP: I imagine that could be a mixed realization.

JH: Yes, yes. There’s something exciting about realizing that you’re setting up these longer questions and I like that, especially when it pushes me into research or learning about stuff that I know nothing about. And also it feels daunting. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of writer who is contained and has these snappy contained worlds. And that hasn’t been me so far.

DKP: The world you created in the book is pretty wonderful. And it’s a complex one to create because the characters are all involved in scientific research on a remote island. How did you manage your research for the novel and hit the right balance of story and science? 

JH: I don’t have a science background at all. I’ve never been on an expedition like in the book. I loved hearing my friend Nancy’s old friend describe tagging seals and then I talked to a cousin of mine who’s a marine biologist. I tapped the people in my life who I thought might know something about something. My cousin suggested the Farallon Islands as a setting, which growing up, I had known something about, but not much. Having a specific place helped me focus my research. I read everything I could, I watched a lot of YouTube videos, and then at a certain point, I did feel like, okay, I’m sort of off a science cliff, and I need more help. A friend recommended this really cool program that’s called the Science and Entertainment Exchange supported by the National Academy of Sciences. The program connects writers with scientists in the field that has something to do with their story in an effort to have better depictions of science in art. I got connected with this ecologist, Adam Rosenblatt, who works out of the University of Northern Florida  and whose primary research subject is alligators. He had been on shark tagging expeditions and knew a lot about that world. I created a fictional version based on all the research that I had done, and then ran everything by him to find out how it continued and what would happen when things went wrong.

DKP: Did Lydia’s story and the science angle come to you as a pair, or did the different parts come to you at different times in the process?  

JH: I guess a little bit of both is the answer. I love the idea of someone like Lydia, this young person having this intense crush and staring at someone, observing someone in this intense way. That parallel always felt really clear to me—that your observation of someone can change the person that you’re looking at, and that could be a parallel to a scientist’s observation changing the animal that they’re observing. I think the thing that was surprising, maybe, was just how it ended up relating so much to grief. That there was grief in the science and in the way that the island was changing, as well as in Lydia’s life. The correlation to parenting came later, when the orcas attacked the shark, that pivotal moment in the book. I found out that after the attack, the animals left on the island would primarily change in the way they parent. So that was something that I found in the writing of it that was really exciting and made me feel like I was going in the right direction. 

DKP: What did you learn from taking a project from idea to published book? 

JH: In terms of finishing the writing of it, I had written a book before this one that I tried to publish, and didn’t. I think failure is too harsh of a word, but the failure of that first book helped free me up to write something that I knew I really liked in the second one, not thinking of it in terms of ‘will someone else like this?’ but really trying to find what I felt to be meaningful in it. Following that thread the whole time kept my stamina up to finish the draft. I also think keeping in contact with old teachers has been something that’s really meaningful to me in my writing. The teacher I mentioned before, Nancy, was someone who read my first draft, almost as a copy editor. She’s a big grammar person in a way that I am not. Talking to her about the strange choices I was making with my commas in particular really prepared me for the official copy editor on the book pointing out some of those same choices. I felt like I had a little background to know what I was doing intentionally. And then it was an old professor from college who I had kept in touch with who connected me to Great Place Books. He was the person who said that he had these two friends starting an independent press and that they were looking for novel submissions. Writing something that you really enjoy yourself and staying connected to the people who’s teaching and writing you admire have meant a lot to me.

DKP: I love that answer and you lead right into my curiosity about your publisher, Great Place Books. What was your experience of working with them?

JH: I love everybody who runs it—Alex, Monica and Emily. Alex and Emily were my editors on the project. What I felt from them immediately was this passion and rigor, because they’re writers and editors themselves. They’ve both published and are on both sides of the thing. I felt a lot of trust and faith in them, and them in me, immediately. They were really in the manuscript with me. I’ve had friends who’ve published books with large publishers, and they had experiences with editors that were more like, “You’re good to go” after one pass, and then sent off, which I think I would feel nervous about. There’s something nice about hearing you did it right, but I really wanted editors to be in the weeds with me, like a sort of witness to my decisions and showing me things that I couldn’t see about my own writing. I have really found that with Alex and Emily, tenfold. They also have lovely classes. I’ve taken a few classes that Great Place Books has offered now, and have met some really thoughtful, interesting writers through them. So I’m a huge fan and really excited about everything that’s coming up next for them, like Euphoria Days by Pilar Fraile translated by Lizzie Davis [out on August 20, 2024]. 

DKP: I love their focus on translation and finding books that fall outside the fold of bigger publishers, in content or form. Your book is in first person present tense and is also without traditional chapter breaks. Could you tell me more about those editorial choices? 

JH: There have been passes where I went through and changed it all to the past tense and then changed it back to present. The novel initially started with a chapter where Lydia is at home in the Bay, and that chapter was in the past tense. I had this idea of the novel sort of clicking into the present once Lydia was on the island. Something that Alex in particular really helped me with was figuring out where the novel started and how much Lydia knows about what she’s up to, why she’s going to the island, and what access she has to this loss that’s behind her. I think, ultimately, the present tense felt the most honest. It honored thematically the things I was most interested in. There are a lot of physical sensations in the novel. The work is hard and physical and she can’t forget her body, but she would like to. That inability to construct a larger narrative when you’re so present felt really important to what she’s going through.

DKP: Something else I noticed through the book, connected to physicality, is how sad and lustful the book is—often at the same time—which isn’t the most common pairing. What were you wanting to explore or achieve through pairing grief and sadness with sexual desire and gender exploration?

JH: I love the idea of the book being equally sad and lustful. I definitely intended it to be that way. I think I knew that it was lustful when I started writing it, and then I learned how sad it was. I had to loop back around to honoring where Lydia was actually coming from and what is being untangled in her lustfulness and obsession. I grew up with two moms, and one of my moms passed when I was 19, to breast cancer. I had an experience of entering a very intense relationship within a year of her loss. I think there was something about the possibility of transformation that falling in love or falling in an obsession with someone else can offer. Love to me, in the past, could feel like a way to build a new version of oneself or climb a ladder out of whatever you’re experiencing. That mix of a genuine attraction, but also an ulterior motive for what you want love to offer you, that felt real to me in Lydia. Especially because so much of her relationship with Michael, the main researcher on the island, is not actually lived. So much of it exists in her head, and then from her head, it travels into her body. I think this mix of avoidance and wanting a transformation, attaching that transformation to someone else, is an important part of the story.

DKP: Was desire and obsession present in your previous writing, too? Or were these new themes?

JH: I think my first book was more about loss. But there was some desire and obsession in there, too. I’m trying to write a new book now, and there’s some of the same theme in that as well. I do seem to be interested in that sort of obsessive type of desire, loss, and how one’s mind can create an experience that feels real and is very convincing, but may not be. I’m always interested in the gaps between what a character is doing, what they know about what they’re doing, and if there is a moment where they fall into the crack and they’re like, oh, I can see myself clearly. I like driving characters toward that kind of moment.

DKP: Another theme you write about is generational alcohol use—something that’s near and dear to my heart and often present in my writing. It’s such a widespread issue, with a lot of writing about it, how did you approach writing about alcohol and drug dependency in this book?

JH: Close to my heart, too. And I also am going to be writing about it for a long time or trying to write about it for a long time. How would I say I approached it? I think it felt important to me that it not be a super coherent story. I wanted the mystery and the gaps of understanding that exist when trying to understand or fully comprehend someone’s using to exist in the book. So this sort of fractured memory of Lydia retracing Blake’s addiction, what she knew, when she knew it, what shifted, when it shifted, and trying to follow that through. Keeping it fragmented until a certain point in the book felt important to me. And then, even when the moms get their own narrative, there’s still mystery and lack of understanding that Lydia is not going to be able to solve.

So much of the generational experience of alcoholism and addiction, at least that I felt in my family, are these mystery feelings, right? A memory you know isn’t yours but feels like yours. Trying to trace them. Admitting that they’re there. Acknowledging that even though I didn’t experience it, it has an impact on me. In the book, I wanted Lydia to be moving through some of those mystery feelings and trying to find a place for them. I was also interested in her drinking and upping her own usage in a way to understand her mom and to feel in her body some idea of what her mom may have felt. That was the emotional drive in Lydia. 

DKP: In life and writing, I understand the desire to have a neat ending. But in Cascade, you resisted that, with the alcohol storyline and with the overall story. How did you find the ending?

JH: I love thinking about the lack of ending in all of these spaces or the lack of a bow being tied. Achieving sobriety or sobriety changing isn’t the black-and-white solution or devastation that it often claims to be, there’s shades of gray in all of it. The ending was definitely hard. I kept searching for something clear at first, but I also felt strongly that the books and movies I love the most have open-ended conclusions. Miyazaki movies are the movies that I honestly rewatch the most out of anything, and the characters go through something life changing and mysterious. Like in Spirited Away: she’s able to transform her parents back from being pigs, but she is forever changed by the experience. You can’t take away her new history. I felt really strongly that it’s not really a coming-of-age story. Lydia is acting something out and she’s avoiding loss, and she’s pursuing this obsession. She almost drowns, right? She makes it out of the water, but there’s no neat conclusion. I think the one thing she’s carrying with her is this new sort of spiritual connection that maybe she now holds to her mom, but I don’t know that she’s learned anything you could put in a sentence. Ultimately, after trying and searching for something more clear, I felt confident ending in that ambiguity and sensation.

DKP: I thought it was wonderful. You mentioned Miyazaki, are there other books or movies that were touchstones while writing Cascade?

JH: I was reading a lot of Lucia Berlin’s writing at the time that I was starting to write this story. I love all of her short stories. She’s written in some physical places that are dear to me. She lived in the Bay Area and wrote about Oakland and Berkeley in beautiful, vivid ways, and also just writes, I think, the experience of being an addict and then the experience of loving an addict so vividly and without pity across all of her short stories. So I found her writing deeply inspirational. Tengo miedo torero by Pedro Lemebel. It’s a short novel by this Chilean writer. There’s an amazing obsession story in that book between an old gay man who is a drag queen and a young revolutionary. The ways in which they have a romance is real, but also very much imagined. It was really inspiring to me. I was also reading a lot of Victoria Chang’s poetry at the time—oh I guess her poetry collection Obit came out the year after I started writing my book, but I loved the strangeness of grief that shows up in her poetry. She’s got an amazing poem in that collection about after her mother died, trying on her dentures. And it’s been this image and physical sensation for me. It’s grief logic where everything’s topsy-turvy, but it makes so much sense in my heart. 

DKP: Can you tell us about what you are working on now or next?

JH: I’m writing another novel. It’s a ghost narrator who is brought back by someone who the ghost loves, but the ghost doesn’t know anything about who they were or why they loved, or in what way that they loved. Everything I try to start writing these days turns out to be a ghost story so I’m following that thread.



Born and raised in Berkeley, Julia Hannafin now lives in Los Angeles. They have written episodes for television. Cascade is her debut novel.

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