Touring the Backlist: SPARROW
Stop #2 on the backlist tour is Sparrow. This is where I hit my sophomore slump. Lucy the Giant had been well received and I was worried my second novel wouldn't be good enough. I had two projects in mind-- one was an historical fantasy, the other was a contemporary called Sparrow. The thing about Sparrow is, the heroine's grandmother dies. My own grandmother was alive, but not in the best of health. A bit of magical thinking had me afraid to write the death of a grandmother, for fear that it would happen. So I didn't do it. The book sat there, and my editor wondered what I was up to, and I Did. Not. Write.
I pushed the book aside and life happened. A year went by. My grandmother passed away in her own time, and my family mourned. Still, I avoided writing, until my publisher called me and asked if I had another book like Lucy. The trouble was, they wanted exactly the same book. Something about a girl with self-image issues (but not weight issues!) who goes somewhere and does something etcetera, etcetera. All I could say was, "I already wrote that book." But they were confident I would think of something.
Then my boyfriend said, "What about that Sparrow thing?" I wrung my hands, and explained it wasn't up to snuff because of a million things. He asked to read it. When he was done he said, "This is it. This is what they want." Turns out he was right. So I married him. (Well, not right away, but that's another story.)
Writing death in YA is difficult. There is so much romanticized (or ignored) death in kid lit. It's either a matter of course-- Cinderella's an orphan, so is Snow White. In fact, it's a requirement in fairy tales for one or both parents to die before anything interesting can happen. But by the time you reach the teen years, there's a good chance someone close to you has died-- be it a grandparent, a teacher, a pet, a classmate. As an author, you are faced with telling the truth about death, about how empty and helpless and angry and numb it can make you feel. Because, face it, if you haven't experienced it anywhere but in a fairy tale when the real thing comes along, it's like a freight train.
So, when I lost my grandmother, I tapped into what that felt like. In return, I got a letter from a reader who said it helped her feel less alone when her own grandmother died. It made me glad I'd written the book.
Now, remember that other book I'd considered writing? The historical fantasy? That's what I'm working on now. It's called Drosselmeyer. I've struggled with this idea for years off and on. The mother dies before the story starts, and I could not write it. And then I lost my own mother, and I thought, "Maybe now I can write this book."
In Drosselmeyer, I'm trying to pay attention to the way I felt after losing my mother, the strange sense of denial that she's just in the next room because she always is, and the renewed shock of remembering that she is not. Shortly after she passed away, I had a conversation with someone who had lost his mother a few years before. He told me I would feel better over time, and then it would hit me all over again and suddenly, there I'd be, sitting in traffic, crying, even though it had been years since the funeral. Grief is an emotion that is always fresh, it turns out. But, over time, the crushing weight returns with less frequency, and for shorter durations.
Can you think of a book that depicts grief in this way? The unwanted visitor that smothers you, then goes away for a little while, only to return again? There's a place for that book. But Drosselmeyer is not about grief. It's an adventure. It's about saving the world. It's about first love. It's about clocks and mice and the mysteries of the planet. But it's also about how you face up to all those things when you are grieving, and how a young man saves himself from despair while saving the day.
If you are curious and want to learn more about Sparrow, you can read a synopsis on my website, or hunt down a copy of your very own. If you want to learn more about Drosselmeyer, you'll have to wait. I'm writing as fast as I can!