Kritzer’s ‘Catfishing’ honored for both mystery and science fiction

By Anne Murphy

The awards Naomi Kritzer has won this year for her new young adult novel Catfishing on CatNet are almost beyond her imagining. Within the span of a week in April, the Highland Park author received the Minnesota Book Award for Young Adult Literature and the Mystery Writer’s of America’s Edgar Award in the Best Young Adult category.

Catfishing, which is set in the near future, tells the story of a 16-year-old girl named Steph who moves with her mother every few months or so and yearns for some stability in her life through an online community called CatNet. Users of the social medium upload pictures of cats to a website. It seems welcoming, but the website is run by an artificial intelligence called CheshireCat. From Steph’s first interaction, a mystery unfolds raising questions about online privacy, social networking and the importance of personal friendships in one’s life.

Catfishing on CatNet is based on Kritzer’s short story, “Cat Pictures Please,” which won the 2016 Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Society and the 2016 Locus Award from the science fiction and fantasy magazine Locus. “An editor who liked my writing asked if I’d consider expanding the short story,” Kritzer said. “I started thinking about where the story might go, what sorts of human characters might live a great deal of their lives online, and Steph quickly took on a life of her own.”

The daughter of two professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kritzer was enthralled as a child with C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans, the essays of George Orwell and The Curse of Chalion by Minneapolis author Lois McMaster Bujold. While attending Carleton College in Northfield, where she earned a degree in religion in 1995, she took a course in creative writing.

Her first short story was published in 1999. Several fantasy novels followed, and she gave up her job as a technical writer at the University of St. Thomas to devote herself full-time to writing fiction. Her early titles included Fires of the Faithful, Turning the Storm, Freedom’s Gate, Freedom’s Apprentice and Freedom’s Sisters.

A story with feline characters seemed inevitable. Kritzer’s household includes four cats, in addition to husband Ed Burke and daughters Molly, 19, and Kiera, 16. Catfishing is also connected to some of Kritzer’s early reading.

“Among the stories from my childhood that I revisited in some ways with this book is “The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin, which features a nerdy, isolated teenager whose life improves with new friendships, one of which is with a deeply eccentric mastermind,” Kritzer said.

“My friends were such a central part of my life as a kid,” she said. “Like a lot of nerdy kids, I struggled to make friends and it was always devastating when one moved away or left school. I think it’s easy to forget as an adult how important friendships are to kids, yet how dependent they are on the whims of others to maintain those incredibly important relationships.”

Online friendships can be real friendships, Kritzer added. “Sometimes online is the first place where LGBT teens can connect with other LGBT teens, or the first place where people with a niche interest can find others who are as excited about the topic as they are,” she said.

“People in general, not just teens, should probably be more aware of the degree to which large corporations—Google and Apple in particular, but also Amazon and Facebook—can track not only our virtual but our physical movements,” she said. “The AI in my story is benign and uses this information for good purposes mostly, but the algorithms used by the large corporations are really not focused on our well-being.”

Naomi Kritzer, winner of the 2020 Edgar Award for her young adult novel, Catfishing on CatNet, poses in the backyard of her Highland Park home with her feline friend, Balto. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“I think it’s easy to forget as an adult how important friendships are to kids, yet how dependent they are on the whims of others to maintain those incredibly important relationships.”

Kritzer is currently at work on a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet. Titled Chaos on CatNet, the novel is due out in April 2021. “I’ve had two short stories published this year—‘Monster’ on Clarkesworld and ‘Little Free Library’ on Tor.com,” she said. “I expect another short story to come out soon, ‘The New Decameron.’”

When she is not writing, Kritzer is reading. “I bought The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly and The Stars and the Blackness Between from Red Balloon Bookshop last week,” she said. “I have A Paradise Built in Hell checked out in e-book form from the St. Paul Public Library, and Nevil Shute’s Requiem for a Wren is on my coffee table at the moment. The book I finished most recently is the Sarah Dessen novel Someone Like You, which I also checked out from the St. Paul Public Library in e-book form. I highly recommend its e-book collection for anyone casting around for something to read.”

To be part of the Twin Cities’s vibrant literary community was once also beyond her imagining, Kritzer said. “There are so many fantastic writers here,” she said. “In 1997, when I was just a couple of years out of college, I joined a writers’ group, which I’m still in. The Wyrdsmiths have given me an amazing amount of encouragement, support and feedback, as well as camaraderie and friendship. I know we’re just one writers’ group of many in the area, and that collaborative aspect of the literary community is something I value so much.”

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