How a manmade lake gone horribly wrong inspired Amelia Kahaney’s YA Thriller All the Best Liars
"The narrative potential felt limitless, the sense of doom palpable."
This post was written by Amelia Kahaney, author of All the Best Liars.
The Salton Sea is a 350-square-mile body of water in the middle of the California desert, created in 1905 after an irrigation system accident. In the mid-20th century, it was a tourist attraction—it drew more annual visitors than Yosemite—but it has since become a literal cesspool, killing wildlife en masse and exposing communities around it to toxic fumes. It also became the unlikely inspiration for my tale of childhood friendships gone violently awry.
Several years ago, seeking inspiration for my next book project on a trip to my hometown of San Diego, I was becoming antsy. I knew I wanted to try to write from the point of view of teen girls—maybe more than one—and that I was interested in trying to write a thriller, but that was all I had. And the ocean, palm trees, malls, and highways of my youth just weren’t giving me anything I thought I could use. All around me, things felt too mild, too pleasant, too easy.
I decided to take a trip east, out to Palm Springs, where my aunt and uncle had recently bought a vacation home. This was in August, an unpopular time to visit the desert. The day I arrived it was 120 degrees, which feels exactly as uncomfortable as you’re imagining. Walking outside in the middle of the day wasn’t just unpleasant, it could be dangerous. After a few days spent alternating between the air-conditioned living room and the pool, I remembered the Salton Sea, a place I’d always meant to visit but never had. All I knew was that it was a manmade lake, and that something bad had happened to it. But the more I read about it—a vacation hotspot turned ghost town, its dangerously high salinity, eerie views of a post-apocalyptic landscape—the more it tugged at me. Maybe there’s something there, a part of my brain whispered. Something you need.
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Optimistically calling it a research trip, I recruited my younger cousin Alana to drive out there with me. She was a college student at the end of her summer break, not too far in age from the characters I vaguely had in mind, and a cool, collected, and willing copilot in whatever boondoggle I’d throw her way. The next morning, with the thermometer already at 105 and rising fast, we set out. In less than an hour, the beautiful tourist-friendly enclaves of the desert cities had fallen away to rutted roads dotted with tumbleweeds and dust devils, abandoned houses with caved-in roofs, and at last, to the edge of the massive Salton Sea, its surface calm and glittery, its very existence mirage-like, incongruous out here in this dry, cracked landscape.
We pulled the car as close as we could and walked toward the blue-white lake, the hot desert wind carrying the smell of rotten fish hitting us in the face. To our left, a lakeside shack echoed with what I hoped was just the skittering of rats. The juxtaposition between the prosperity and order of where we’d started our morning and the desolation surrounding us now felt so American, so unequal and so unfair. Out here, I could easily imagine an envy bordering on desperation, a person drawn into crime, all kinds of secret, violent acts. We drew closer, covering our faces with our shirt collars as the smell grew more putrid. Death was in the air.
“Oh god.” Alana pointed to the lake’s shoreline. “They’re all dead.” On the surface of the lake were hundreds of silvery fish floating on their sides, eyes open to the blazing sun. Some of them had decomposed to not much more than skeletons. Others had pecked-at middles, bodies ravaged by birds who couldn’t afford to be choosy. On the shore was the remains of a seabird, its body bloated and distended. There was a sickness here, the result of human industry and error that had created a body of water where none should ever have existed, and now what had for a time been an oasis had turned on itself, beauty turned to ugliness, the impetus toward life swallowed up in death. The environmental implications, the death of so many creatures, was at that moment awful enough to bring tears to my eyes. We walked toward the shack, though the noises coming from it were unnerving. We wanted to get a better look, to figure out what it had once been. But then something slithered from a cracked door into a patch of weeds. We held our breath and listened. Was that the shake of a rattle? It seemed likely.
That was that, then.
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We ran to the car, hearts in our throats. As much as I’d wanted to come here, I was now desperate to leave this place where everything was wrong, where the ghosts of vacationers past had long since departed. I had my dark inspiration. I would try to sketch out some characters who had grown up on the outside looking in, who lived a few degrees closer to the world of the Salton Sea than to the perfect midcentury bungalows in the desert valley. And then one of them would move up in the world, would leave the others behind, and the left-behind ones would never forget it. The narrative potential felt limitless, the sense of doom palpable.
That day, the first seed of what would become All the Best Liars was planted. The Salton Sea didn’t make it into the final draft, but my visit there lived at the edge of the pages as I wrote: the shadow side of the bright desert landscape with its aquamarine pools and majestic mountains. There’s always a part of most any place in this country that begs to be forgotten, to be hidden, to be ignored because it doesn’t fit, isn’t flourishing, isn’t well. There’s a part like that in all of us, too. A salty space that can only fake it for so long before its true nature is revealed. It was this part of us that I wrestled with in crafting a story about three friends who change over time into something else, something dangerous. Until a lake opens inside one of them, inhospitable to life.
Get your copy of All the Best Liars by Amelia Kahaney here.