As writers and illustrators of children’s books, we have the cutest fantasies. Who else dreams that their work will someday be decorated by a sticker?
And then there’s the conference fantasy, where the agent or editor of your dreams holds your manuscript overhead and says, “This is brilliant!” and she just happens to have a contract in her pocket, which you sign on the spot. It’s almost better than the sticker.
But here’s the thing. People are sometimes asked to send off stories or art, and there are similarly wonderful career-transforming moments. Usually, though, nothing quite so dramatic happens.
And yet… conferences are magic. Truly. Every picture book I’ve ever sold has come directly from my time at an SCBWI conference, specifically the one in Los Angeles. I’ve sold four picture books and have interest in a fifth; each one sprang from an idea or conversation I had at that summer conference, starting with my first one in 2008.
My future editor, Arthur A. Levine, had been in Seattle that spring for a conference, and through a happy accident of seating, we’d chatted through the evening, and he invited me to submit something to him someday. At the time, I was writing an epic novel about a pirate in part because I’d given up on picture books, and in part because, well, I can’t really remember why, which was ultimately the problem with that novel.
At our local spring conference, Arthur had offered sage advice from his then four-year-old son. “When in doubt, write about dinosaurs.” At the time, this didn’t strike me as anything other than adorable. (Who was I to write about dinosaurs, anyway? At the time, I was merely thirty-seven.)
When registration opened for the summer conference in Los Angeles, I really wanted to go. But I couldn’t. We had a family reunion that weekend. And what kind of jerk puts anything in front of family? As it turns out, I am that kind of jerk.
In Los Angeles, Arthur reassured us about the picture book market, which at the time was feeling kind of battered. On the flight home, I resolved to send him a thank-you note for being so encouraging. I looked out the window, and I thought about dinosaurs, and specifically their teeth, and even more fantastically, about who might love their teeth most of all.
Arthur ended up publishing the answer to that question—The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy—five years later. A year or two after I sold The DTF, I mentioned to Arthur at another Los Angeles conference a letter I’d written to my daughter when she asked for the truth about Santa. He said he thought it sounded like a picture book as well. A dear friend I’d met at the Los Angeles conference, Samantha Berger, gave me an idea for how it might be done. I wrote it. Arthur bought it.
Last summer, Samantha and I came up with an idea at the conference while we were eating pizza poolside. So far that has turned into a two picture book deal with Arthur.
These aren’t the sort of things you can predict when you’re thinking about going to a conference. The standard fantasy—that someone might love your work and buy it on the spot—pales in comparison to what really can happen. You go to these conferences and meet people who inspire you. You make friends. You hear words you didn’t know you needed to hear, things that make you laugh and cry, things that feed your mind in ways your everyday routine might not. All of this becomes the fuel of story.
I’d never thought to dream about what comes from inspiration and connection and friendship. And yet this combination is so much better than any contract, and why I’ll go to every SCBWI conference I can.
Fantasies are great and all. But real life? It’s better.
Martha Brockenbrough is the author of the YA novels The Game of Love and Death and Devine Intervention, and The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy, a picture book. Both are with Arthur A. Levine at Scholastic, as is her forthcoming picture book, Love, Santa, as well as two Bigfoot picture books written jointly with Samantha Berger. Martha also wrote the nonfiction middle grade Finding Bigfoot for Feiwel & Friends. In addition to her work on SCBWI's Team Blog, she is the founder of National Grammar Day and author of Things That Make Us [Sic]. Visit www.marthabrockenbrough.squarespace.com and on Twitter @mbrockenbrough.
I don't know a better word for Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life
, published earlier this year by Doubleday.Heart-wrenching
, yes. But more than that. Not just the heart. The brain, the stomach, all the organs and muscles. It is a full-body-wrenching experience, this book.
It's too early to say whether this is a Great Novel, whether it is a novel for the ages, a novel that will bear numerous re-readings and critical dissections and late-night litchat conversations; whether it will burn long or be a blip on the literary landscape. Who knows. It's not for me to say. What I can say, though, is that working through (sometimes rushing through) its 700 pages was one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life.
There are passages and situations in this book that many readers will not want to live with, will not want in their minds' eyes, and I can sympathize with that. Yanagihara's own editor said
, "I initially found A Little Life
so challenging and upsetting and long that I had to work my way through to appreciating it. ... (My private little descriptive tag for the book is 'miserabilist epic.')" Miserabilist
isn't the right modifier for me, despite the many miseries in the book, but there's certainly an epic quality to the novel's expanse, at least in the everyday vernacular sense of epic
. In a genre sense, though, A Little Life
is seldom epic; indeed, it's often the opposite: instead of expanding across history and myth and fantasy, telling digressive and episodic tales of heroes and villains, it narrows the world, history, and myth into ahistorical psyches and bodies, constructing a world less of event than of feeling.
The central character in the novel, Jude, suffers relentless, overwhelming abuse through his first fifteen years, and that abuse leaves him physically and psychologically mutilated for the rest of his life. We are not spared descriptions of what happened and of what its effects were.
I do not usually read detailed descriptions of child abuse. I can think of very few works that benefit from such descriptions, and too often they seem to me to be a cheap and morally dubious way for the writer to try to gain the reader's sympathy for characters — who, after all, is more sympathetic than a child?
Now and then, though, a story justifies the detailed pain it describes, and this is, I think, very much the case for A Little Life
. Without the detail, Jude's character would not make much sense. The events of the book are so extreme — extreme not only in pain, but in (occasional) joy — that to have the appropriate weight, the descriptions of violence done to Jude first by others and then to himself by himself must be vivid. And they are vivid. They serve to place us into Jude's body, to learn his world through his pain, which is the primary fact of his world.
In many ways, A Little Life
fits into the classical mold of the melodrama, though there is a kind of moralism to melodrama that is absent from A Little Life
. (Which is not to say that this novel lacks a moral or ethical vision — not remotely — but rather that it's not a book by Elizabeth Gaskell
.) But Jude's childhood, particularly, is straight out of melodrama: the villains are grotesquely villainous, the (very) occasional heroes are saintly, and Jude's sufferings are extreme. Indeed, the representation of Jude's childhood is not just melodramatic, but gothic, complete with a monastery teeming with horribly malevolent monks.
The gothicism reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates, but A Little Life
is more consistent and successful than any Oates novel I've read (and I've read quite a few, which is to say maybe 10% of her output). Oates's Wonderland
, for instance, has an extraordinarily vivid, gripping first section, and there are some similarities in the way Oates presents the psychological experience of violence to the way Yanagihara presents it. But Wonderland
falls apart after its beginning, unable to sustain or even really justify the intensity of its opening hundred pages or so. One of the many impressive qualities of A Little Life
is how consistent it is, how well it sustains and modulates its intensity through hundreds and hundreds of pages recounting fifty years of Jude's life.
Though it is focused on Jude throughout, A Little Life
is not only about him, but also about all the people who are important in his life, including three friends he met at college and who become his closest friends for life. Another of the impressive qualities of A Little Life
is its nuanced charting of a group of male friends through three decades or so of knowing each other. We see how they know each other differently, even as they know each other together: Jude's relationship to each of his friends is different, and their relationships to each other are equally different. We see the friends in good moments and bad, and we see especially how friends who have known each other a long time can also hurt each other deeper than anyone else — and how the bond still holds even as its intimacy metamorphoses. We see how Jude and his friends change over time as they become successful, as their lives gain new depths and contours, and as they suffer immense loss.
The relationships in A Little Life
are complex, too, in their flows of desire and sexuality. Garth Greenwell has suggested
that this may be "the great gay novel" that some
people have been calling for, and that may be true, but it's far more queer than gay: the relationships throughout the book shift from the sexual to the asexual, hetero to homo to bi to whatever. (No trans characters, alas.) Identities of every sort are slippery throughout the novel, and with Jude, two of the primary identity categories in contemporary American life, sexuality and race, remain ambiguous or unknown from first page to last. (In conversation, a character says of Jude, "...we never see him with anyone, we don’t know what race he is, we don’t know anything about him. Post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past. ...The post-man. Jude the Postman.”) At one point, an apparently heterosexual character's thoughts are presented to us as he considers the limits of his heterosexuality: "he’d had sex with men before, everyone he knew had, and in college, he and JB had drunkenly made out one night out of boredom and curiosity". The most important relationship in the book is one where the characters are described as "inventing their own type of relationship, one that wasn’t officially recognized by history or immortalized in poetry or song, but which felt truer and less constraining."
One interesting, risky choice Yanagihara made was to set A Little Life
in a timeless New York City. Though the book spans decades, its New York doesn't really change, and there are no references to any identifiable historical events or to buildings and places that have significantly changed over time. There are few, if any, references to any sort of technological details that would fix a scene in a particular time. This is a world without Giuliani, without gentrification, without 9/11. It is not just a novel that doesn't really concern itself with political or social history, but rather a novel that goes out of its way to erase political and social history from its universe.
This should make me hate the book. But much as I like some political and social history in my fiction, what I like more than that is fiction that takes risks and strives for unique effects and vision. The risk Yanagihara takes in A Little Life
is to make its setting obviously a fantasy, but not a fantasy like a big fat trilogy full of orcs and mages. That sort of fantasy lives and dies by its "worldbuilding"; A Little Life
does the opposite: it builds its world not from references to culture, history, politics, etc. but through the psychic life of its characters. It is filled with the physical world, but the physical world it is filled with is Jude's, and what overwhelms Jude's physical world, to the point of nearly obliterating time and space, is his body. Jude's nervous system is to A Little Life
what the Shire and Mordor are to The Lord of the Rings
We are not, though, plunged into a psyche and its sensorium in the way that we are in, say, Woolf's The Waves
. The narration in A Little Life
is not stream of consciousness, but instead a fairly close third person limited point of view sprinkled with free indirect discourse. The point of view characters can change from chapter to chapter, but the perspective is still close. There are also a few important first-person chapters. The writing style is neither avant-garde nor especially "difficult" — indeed, if the book holds your attention, you'll likely find it to be frequently a page-turner.
The risk of setting the book in a rather blank world, a world of place names more than places, ends up paying off in spectacular and surprising ways. It produces some of the effects of stream of consciousness without being stream of consciousness because the way it presents its world is the way its focal character seems to perceive that world. Jude, unlike some of the other characters, is staunchly apolitical and apparently uninterested in history. He is (as we are) haunted by his personal history, but not a history of the world. In the monastery, he was only able to think about his immediate reality, and that habit of thinking goes unbroken for the rest of his life. He carries the monastery with him forever. Though his friends seem mostly to be conventionally liberal, and he has a strong desire for what he thinks of as justice, he holds no apparent political opinions, and enjoys working his way up in a corporate law office, a place other characters consider soulless and evil, but which is the only place Jude consistently can escape his terrors — it's a different kind of monastery for him, one that is comforting rather than scarring.
Yanagihara chose to make all of the characters successful in their professions and wealthy. This is another important part of the fantasy. They came from a variety of backgrounds (including racial backgrounds), but after college they all fairly quickly find professional and economic success. This is not, though, a book about the wonderful glamour of wealth. It's also not a book about the corruptions of wealth. The wealth of the characters seems primarily to be a plot device, as denuded of actual economics as the setting is denuded of actual history. The book's most determined (and determining) goal is to follow the effects of almost unfathomable childhood abuse on Jude throughout his life, to see how pain shapes him physically and mentally, and that goal would get messier without the ease of travel and association that wealth, power, and fame provide the characters.
In that way, A Little Life
is not so much like a melodrama as it is like a classical tragedy, where the focus on royalty allows a kind of world-historical gravitas even when the world and history aren't really the work's concern.
And in truth, if Jude and his friends hadn't been as wealthy and successful as Yanagihara allowed them to be, there probably wouldn't have been as many pages to the book, because Jude would not have lived very long. It's hard to imagine him as a high school teacher, for instance, or a retail clerk; hard to imagine him making it through a life where he didn't have access to world-class health care and where he couldn't call in favors from well-connected friends and family. Jude has, as he acknowledges, an extraordinary life as an adult. That his struggles are still so painful, so unbearable, heightens the tragedy. We weep not because the pains of the rich and powerful are more painful than our own, but because we can extrapolate back to ourselves: we, without private drivers and personal assistants, without doctors at our 24-hour beck and call, without the means to fly across the world at any moment, without the ability to wrangle the press in our favor or to summon gaggles of lawyers and lawmakers — we would be crushed. As readers, we bear the pain alongside Jude, we feel our way along with him, but we only make it through because he can.
(Perhaps there is, then, a kind of political subtext to the book: To survive the kind of childhood Jude had, or even one more ordinarily traumatic, you'd have to be brilliant, highly successful, and wealthy. That most of us aren't even one of those things, never mind all three, allows some perspective on the cruelties of our systems.)
The world as these characters experience it is huge, punishing, and vertiginous: "They all ... sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days." Here is one of the meanings of the novel's title: To survive, these characters must find ways to make life little, to bring it down to a comprehensible size, because otherwise they are lost. The struggle is all-consuming and agonizing, often unsuccessful, but the few and fleeting successes feel worth fighting for, worth fighting toward.
Why follow Jude's struggles, why subject ourselves to his pain and suffering? What pleasure is there in reading a book that fundamentally asks, "How much can a person bear? What sort of childhood can't be escaped?" Why keep turning the pages?
I don't have a simple, clear, or even perhaps convincing answer for that, but I will say this: I've read few novels with such vivid characters. I'm not a particularly immersive reader, and I suspect I resist imagining characters in novels as flesh and blood people more than many readers do. And yet the characters in A Little Life
, particularly Jude and Willem, seemed to me alive both while I read about them and after. I could imagine them outside the stories that the novel tells. I could think about a "Jude-type person" or a "Willem-type person". I would have vehement opinions about who could play them in a movie adaptation.
How Yanagihara achieved this effect? I'm not entirely sure. The magical alchemy of fiction. It is far more than the sum of the words on the page. Partly, such an effect relies on what we bring to the words from our own experience. Even though my own life has been and is very different from that of the characters, I still felt, again and again, that the novel expressed something very deep within myself. It unlocked and unleashed emotions I hardly knew I had. And that, too, is part of its purpose: to extend imagination, to help us think and feel our way toward sympathy. In one of the first-person chapters, a character says, "Most people are easy: their unhappinesses are our unhappinesses, their sorrows are understandable, their bouts of self-loathing are fast-moving and negotiable. But his were not. We didn’t know how to help him because we lacked the imagination needed to diagnose the problems." In that sense, A Little Life
is a pedagogical novel, a novel that seeks to teach us — or at least to exhort us — to open up our imagination so that perhaps we might better help each other somehow, somewhere. And so that we ourselves might be able to be helped.
I sweated through this book, I wept through it, I felt excitement and joy for the characters, pity and fear. Some days, I had to set it aside because it was all too much to bear. But I went back, always, until finally I reached the last pages, which were heartbreaking and beautiful, indescribably sad and also somehow liberating, even life-affirming, but not in some shallow, Hallmark way — instead, in delineating all the ways that even the most privileged life can go wrong, and showing when letting go of life is, if not acceptable, then certainly understandable, A Little Life
illuminates the dignity in its title: these lives, some of them cut short, some of them filled with suffering, feel, in the end, immense.
He knew it was the price of enjoying life, that if he was to be alert to the things he now found pleasure in, he would have to accept its cost as well. Because as assaultive as his memories were, his life coming back to him in pieces, he knew he would endure them if it meant he could also have friends, if he kept being granted the ability to take comfort in others.
I’m about two-thirds of the way through a book I am reading to review for Library Journal. The book is called J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing by David Attwell. It is a sort of writing biography of Coetzee and is quite good. If you are a fan of the writer, this is one you will probably want to look out for.
I am also still working my way through all the lessons in the James Patterson Master Class.
Over the weekend Patterson and Coetzee provided a fascinating opportunity to glimpse and compared the writing process of two well-known writers. The writing process has always fascinated me. Everyone has one and goes about putting words on paper or computer screen in a variety of ways. Some writers fetishize certain objects —they have to write with a particular pen in a certain color on a particular kind of paper, or while pounding away at the keyboard there has to be particular piece by Mozart playing and there has to be a cup of tea/coffee in a certain mug placed just so on the desk — and claim to not be able to write without them. Some writers need to have a title first, or write the last sentence first or start in the middle or always begin a new project on the same date or sit down to write at the same exact time every day.
The actual writing part though, there are only so many ways a person can go about it, nonetheless, it remains a perennial and dreaded question at book readings, the moment someone in the audience stands up and asks, “so how did you go about writing this book?” What is wanted, of course, is the secret that only “real” writers know. The password, the handshake, the mystery revealed, the drug, the prayer, the key to it all so that said audience member can go home and write that novel they have inside them and make millions doing it. No one wants to hear an author say the truth, I sat down and wrote for six hours every day, seven days a week for four months (or more) and wrote and rewrote and wrote some more and tossed out and started over and wrote some more and rewrote over and over until it was done. What’s an author to do? Tell the truth no one wants to hear or make something up? The third option is avoiding answering the question entirely. I have heard all three answers at one time or another.
Of course in Patterson’s online writing class he has to address the question, he is the teacher and it is his job to explain how to write a novel. Patterson takes the truthful route but at the same time he makes it sound rather easy. To write a novel, one must first write an outline, do not begin writing without an outline, your book will be doomed. For Patterson, an outline is not the kind you had to do in school with the Roman numerals and the letters and headings and subheadings. He means a narrative outline. There are still numbers but the numbers correspond to chapters and basically what you are writing is a summary of the chapter. With such an outline you can work out plot and pacing before you get in too deep. You can find the slow bits and the holes and fix them before they grow out of control. That’s the idea anyway.
And it seems like a good idea that is really useful for a plot-driven James Patterson sort of novel. Heck, it is probably a good idea for a variety of novel types. It is neat and tidy. And of course once you have your outline, you know how you are going to get from point A to B to C. You know what happens in each chapter. All you have to do is fill in the details. Easy!
Coetzee’s approach is so much messier. No outline, just write. Draft after draft after draft. He makes notes as he goes. He changes character names and locations and plot and then he changes them back again and then he changes them again to something else entirely. It is organic and labyrinthine. It is a journey in which the ending is not known in advance, but is rather a sort of quest; a quest for a story, a quest for an answer to a question, a quest for understanding, a quest for any number of things. No bones about it, it is a lot of work.
And I find myself wondering, do the two approaches reflect the differences between commercial fiction and Nobel Prize winning fiction? Could an author whose process is like Patterson’s win a Nobel? Could someone whose process is like Coetzee’s be successful at commercial fiction and spend 24 weeks on top of the bestseller lists? Which comes first, the process or the desire to write a certain kind of fiction? Do people who make outlines naturally make a course for more commercial fiction? Do the messy organic writers automatically find themselves in literary fiction? And what about other kinds of writing, genre and nonfiction in all its variety? Is this a chicken or egg question?
Maybe. Probably. Likely the answer is a combination of all sorts of factors but it is interesting to consider.
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
Tagged: J.M. Coetzee
, James Patterson
, writing process