The Story Behind the Story, Part II

A friend asked me to post the talk I gave last Tuesday night at the Foundation for Children's Books in Boston. So here it is: I’ve known since I was 9 that I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t always know how to go about it. Growing up in a small, blue-collar town in Indiana, I didn’t know any writers or even anyone who’d gone to college as an English major. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school in my mid 20s that I began to read seriously and consider the connection between reading and writing.

I had lots of professors in graduate school but the one I remember most was this cranky old guy named Dr. Bruner. He was a New Critic. New Criticism is a type of literary analysis that requires the reader to closely read the text and the text only. Forget looking at the writer’s work through the lens of colonialism or feminism or anything like that. Nothing matters but the words on the page.

We had no syllabus. Dr. Bruner would simply tell us what pages to read and you were expected to come to class, ready to discuss. He introduced something called thematic penetration, meaning that the writer’s themes penetrated the dialogue, description, setting. He’d sit us in a circle and go around, expecting us to use this technique, and say, hit it, Day! You were expected to say everything you could about what was happening. It was terrifying.

I stumbled. I was lost. Until we read Sons and Lovers. D.H. Lawrence, wanting to write about sex but being too soon before his time, had to find other ways to signal to the reader what he was up to. We’d spend hours on single Lawrence paragraphs, trying to decipher the hidden, double meanings in his lengthy descriptions.

This idea, that themes are imbedded in the text, that words and sentences can have multiple meanings, really spoke to me. And, I know you’re going to be surprised by this, it was perfect preparation for writing middle grade fiction.

Because middle schoolers are full of things hidden, aren’t they? And I’m not talking about what they intentionally hide. I’m talking about the things underneath, in their unconscious. Kids at this age have very big feelings, but they often don’t know why or have to language to talk about them. And it’s these unconscious feelings that I like to explore in my fiction.

In my new middle grade novel, A MILLION MILES FROM BOSTON, 12-year-old Lucy can’t wait to leave her home in Boston and travel to Pierson Point, Maine, where she spends summers at her family cottage. This is the place where memories of her mom, who died when Lucy was six, are strong and sacred.

From the beginning this was a very difficult book to write. I wanted to write about Lucy’s distorted memories of what happened to her mom without being too heavy. I also wanted the reader to read Lucy’s actions, feelings and thoughts through the lens of her unconscious grief, yet this had to be done so subtly.

And I also thought, does the world really need another dead mother book? In the end I decided yes.

But unlike other dead mom books, where the event as more of a plot device, in my book Lucy’s memories (both conscious and unconscious) of the death and how her family dealt with it, form the main plot. I want the reader to see how a traumatic event that happens in a child’s life will forever color the way she sees the world. AND also to see what happens when memories of that event are distorted, when the truth is hidden somewhere deep inside.

I also knew that I had to tie Lucy’s experience to my other characters’ experiences as well as the reader’s experience. And so by introducing other plots lines – the annoying, mean boy from school who shows up at their summer community, the humorous, flawed neighbors, Dad’s new girlfriend, the camp Lucy runs, the older girls she looks up to, her incredible bond with her wonderful dog Superior -- I was able to create a story where Lucy, and the reader, realize that we all tell stories, in some way, to ourselves to protect ourselves from things that hurt and are painful.

This is a story about transition, of a girl not only moving to a different stage of “knowing,” but also moving from elementary up to middle school. It’s about realizing that kids who bully are often bullied themselves. It’s about special summer places and the joy of exploring a beach on a lazy afternoon, finding pleasure in sighting an eagle, digging for clams, counting stars in a cloudless night sky and smelling the fire during a clambake.

It’s funny, sometimes sad, but a mostly a hopeful book about friendship, facing our fears and learning to let go yet still hang onto the things we love.