There are plenty of moments– in drafting or revision– when an author thinks of her readers. She must.
I’ve wrestled with this a lot over the years, in making the transition from thinking of myself as a poet first, to thinking of myself as a children’s author. There’s some vague sense, in poetry-land, that one should NOT think overmuch about one’s readers. As a poet, I felt like I was supposed to be inventing new ways of playing with language. Communication was not the primary goal. Certainly not in any clear way. I was not supposed to be concerned with people “relating” to me.
Or I felt this way, in any case. Maybe it wasn’t true. But it felt true.
Obviously, one does not write a book for five year olds in an attempt to confuse. This is not to say one cannot offer complexity, multiple readings, surreal images, odd twists. But on a very surface level, a book for kids has to appeal in some basic way–if not in narrative, than in sound or image or character. Maybe I can say that there needs to be at least a veneer of simplicity.
But oh, reader: DO NOT MISTAKE SIMPLICITY WITH EASE! They aren’t the same at all. Simplicity can be difficult to execute. And often difficulty is easy. This is something I wish I’d learned sooner, accepted sooner.
Point is– I think more now about how my readers will approach my work. I respect my readers deeply, and while I hope to challenge them in ways, for reasons that may or may not always be clear–I’m not looking to arbitrarily confuse them. As I write, I think first about what I want to write/say. Then I think about whether that will actually come through, and about whether it’s what I should say.
So usually, the book I end up with is mostly the book I intend for you to read.
But part of what’s so hard about this book I’m now finishing, Seven Stories Up, is that there’s a goal for this book that nobody but me will ever care about.
Is that weird? I want to talk about that, for some reason…
You see, my previous book, Bigger than a Bread Box, is set in 2012. Rebecca, the main character, is struggling with her mom, Annie. And in this book, set in 1987, the main character is Annie!
Now, the plots are largely unconnected. Obviously, you don’t have to read one to understand the other. They don’t link up directly– any more than one summer in your mom’s childhood would link directly to your childhood. Readers of the first book will see things new readers don’t. Small details, objects, references. But the books don’t share a clear narrative.
Still, there is all this other stuff– all of these tiny things that have to make sense, that pertain to character, that I’m wrestling to make right. Because I know so much about Annie as an adult, and am working backwards.
What kind of kid might grow up to leave her husband suddenly–in terms of childhood personality traits? What kind of events might contribute to a southern-born but agnostic Christian marrying a Jewish man? Becoming a nurse? What would Annie’s relationship with Ruby (her own mom, Gran in the first book) have looked like in the “past” knowing what I know about the “future.” There are a million of these details, and I’m forever dodging or interrogating them.
Time travel is HARD, it turns out. Getting all the details right, the back and forth, the “past changing the future” stuff. It’s the hardest writing I’ve ever ever ever done. I’m years behind schedule with this book, and I just did a full rewrite. I hereby challenge any writer to try it.
But for me, the hardest part is the personality stuff. Annie-as-a-kid has to turn into Annie-as-an-adult, and Ruby-as-a-mom has to become Ruby-as-Gran, and the personality of the family has to change too, as a whole, because I’m making a major shift in that family’s fabric. And yet, I can’t let the family change so much that Rebecca wouldn’t be Rebecca in the “future.” Nature/nurture, and all that…
I’ve trapped myself between time travel and a distant sequel. It’s nuts!
So that’s the work I’m doing. The work I can’t expect anyone else to notice or appreciate. The work they WILL NOT notice, if I do my work right.
But it’s critical to me, because I believe so much that this is how families are. A mother affects a daughter. A change in a mother, at a young age, would affect the daughter she grew up to raise. A major shift in the life of a grandmother, fifty years back??? You see where this leads?
So I thought I’d ask you guys– is there any writing you’ve done that you JUST HAD to do, knowing full well nobody would ever care, but you?