It hadn’t even occurred to Rebecca Hanover to write a novel. But one day, she was on the phone with her mom back home in Tennessee, talking about the day to day stuff – what the family was up to and was she eating enough fiber. “And then out of nowhere, my mom says ‘What if clones came to high school?’” Hanover says, laughing.
It was an idea that stuck. It took a few years, but “The Similars” (Sourcebooks, $17.99, 400 pages) came out this year with the tagline “Six clones. One elite boarding school. Countless deadly secrets.”
It’s the San Francisco author’s first novel but by no means her first foray into writing. She left her hometown near Memphis for Stanford University, where she majored in English and drama. For her senior thesis, she performed a one-woman show she wrote herself.
“Afterwards people said, ‘yeah, the performance was good, but oh my gosh, the writing was so funny!’ It was the first time I saw people react to my writing,” she recalls.
After graduating, Hanover headed to Manhattan to see what she could do with her degrees.
“I arrived a week before 9/11,” she says. “I was 22, had no job, and after 9/11, I was afraid to fly.” Hanover found a haven in bookstores and gobbled up the four Harry Potter books that had been written at the time. “It was a formative time for me. I became obsessed with Harry Potter. The books sparked something in me; I just wandered through bookstores, wondering if maybe I could write kids books someday.”
But first, Hanover figured out how to combine her college majors. She got an internship at the “Guiding Light” soap opera, eventually working her way up to the writers desk and winning a Daytime Emmy.
“It was a dream job on so many levels,” she says. “Everything I learned about storytelling, I learned there. It was like writing boot camp. It all happened so fast.”
It helped her with revisions also, which can be the bane of any author’s existence. “Producers would call with changes, and you’d have to fix things quickly. You have to write without ego.”
Hanover wrote for “Guiding Light” until the show was cancelled in 2009. By the end, she was working for it remotely, as she and her husband had moved to San Francisco. After the show ended, she worked briefly for Google, had her first child and wondered what was next. “I wasn’t getting any younger. So I thought about writing a young adult novel. I had been reading them like crazy. I love the escape, the drama. I read them totally for fun. I guess I was subconsciously researching.”
And her mom randomly made the comment about clones attending high school.
“I think what drew me to it was that it was a high concept idea. ‘Gossip Girl,’ but with clones; a juicy, delicious high school experience. But I wondered if it was an idea that had legs, if it was something that would excite me to write for several years. And even all these years later, I’m still excited about the idea!”
“The Similars” takes place in the near future, in a remote boarding school in Vermont. Narrator Emma has lost her best friend, Oliver, during the summer, and now she’s back for her junior year, along with six new students, all clones including one who is Oliver’s clone. Emma’s emotions go from devastated fury and sadness to eventual acceptance.
But “The Similars” is anything but simply a “Wow, clones in high school!” book. Hanover delves deeply into all the ethical ramifications of having illegal clones in society, including civil and human and rights. She also manages to throw in some mystery, a few guns, drug dependence, evil villains and personal assistants everyone wears on their wrists.
Hanover had two sons during the time she was writing “The Similars,” so it took a few years. Luckily, her older sister is a neuroscientist and could help. “I wouldn’t say it was super research-intensive, but my sister was an invaluable resource, because she could explain things to me in a way I could understand!”
And once Hanover decided on a boarding school setting – because “I wanted these kids to not be able to get away from each other” – the world she created for them came more easily.
The end result is gratifying. Kids are enjoying the book, and adults are telling her they haven’t read a fiction book in years, but are reading “The Similars” in one day. The book’s last chapters tumble out in crescendo, with the very last pages decreasing in intensity but providing answers to some of the mystery surrounding Emma and her friends.
There is one aspect to the story that begs to be followed up on. And rest assured: Hanover has a two-book deal with the publisher.
“I’ve written the sequel to conclude the story, but left a few doors open,” she says. “It’s my soap opera training!”