In fact, one of the greatest challenges of living in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area for me is that, though the weather is quite frequently amazing here, we don’t really, truly, get a summer that’s hot, hot, hot?and I miss it. But somehow, this past week, we’ve had something pretty close. It’s been unseasonably warm and dry (well, duh?it’s always dry) and the fog belt has been belted in, like so many unsuspecting children in the back seat of the car on a summer road trip (uh….). The garden is bursting at the seams. L is doing a fun summer camp and we’ve been biking there in our shorts. Then he has swimming class in a town beyond any mention of fog so I sit on the sidelines baking. Online classes make?my time a little more my own, too. I went to yoga the other day for the first time in months.
And I do not. Feel. Like. Doing. Any. Work.
Suffice it to say that my huge enthusiasm for my new writing studio has waned some, simply because, while I love being in here, it also feels like an imperative to get off my butt and actually produce some writing. I’d love to! I really would! But man, it feels challenging.
This is not just because summer is so very, very tempting. It’s also because B and I are making some Big Life Decisions that are occupying a lot of brain space. And along with that, I’m in that very weird, somewhat-exciting, somewhat-terrifying place of starting a new project. A novel. It’s the same novel I started months ago, during NaNoWriMo, which I promptly relegated to the back burner once the book proposal and revisions entered in. But now that all of that is done, I have no excuse but to write the damn thing.
When I was a kid, my mom used to remind me, every time I started something new, that change was hard for me. Man, that was an understatement! The first day of?Kindergarten wasn’t pretty. Starting high school sent me into a ten-day long depression that I still shudder to remember. Going away to?college was awful.?I’m not at all good with transitions. And so here I am, with one project to bed, sort of, and another on my desk. I know what needs to happen in the book, mostly. I have the premise all tied up. But I have a major problem to solve?I’m trying to write a character who’s a stand-up comedian, and frankly, I’m not that funny (actually, I’m hysterically funny, but only in person, and only to a small handful of other human beings). This?is making me completely overwhelmed. In my more productive moments this week I’ve Googled “how to write humor” and done a few exercises that have been marginally entertaining. Then I kind of stare at the paper and freak out. I think what I really need to do is just jump in with both feet, get messy, and attempt to be funny along the way.
But I’d much rather be sitting in the sunshine with a good book and completely avoid it, because it feels really hard.?
So, as I said,?I went to yoga the other day. During class, I had a bit of a facile realization but one that’s nonetheless reminding me something about the artistic process. The class was an hour long, and about halfway through, I got to that point that every yogi gets to in a yoga class: the moment when you really and truly hate it and wish you could go home. Your body hurts, you’re sick of mindfully breathing, the teacher is so annoying, and your thoughts have taken over and are running you ragged. Then, five minutes later, you calm down and remind yourself that the only way to get to the other side is to breathe and press on. Next thing you know, you’re done.
This is kind of like writing a book, I thought to myself. Not very much like writing a book, but enough like writing a book that I should remember it.
Here I go: breathing, pressing on, and attempting to wow you with my comedic prowess. Wish me luck.
I was asked to join a book group, and the first selection was the new Jhumpa Lahiri novel, The Lowland. I had read her Pulitzer-Prize winning book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, last year, and liked it well enough?but I don’t recall feeling that it was the best choice for the Pulitzer or that she was soon to become one of my favorite writers. But, wow, The Lowland?this is a beautiful book.
Novel, rubber tree, fancy new iPhone filter
The novel follows the lives of two brothers raised in Calcutta, one of whom stays in India while the other goes off to the States to study. Their paths diverge in stark ways, until one brother’s choices throw his wife into the life of the other. Back in Rhode Island, basically estranged from their families, Subhash and Gauri live with their daughter Bela carrying deep secrets that threaten everything: their relationship with each other, with their daughter, with their careers.
The novel spans about seventy years, and Lahiri deals with this by playing with time. Some passages snail along; then, there will be a ten-year gap between chapters. She compresses three?no, four?generations into under four hundred pages. At the end of those 340 pages, I felt sure I could have read another hundred.
In the book group, reactions were somewhat mixed. Some felt Lahiri had not developed certain characters or scenes well enough. But for me the book was almost perfect. It managed to be technically excellent?so I was reading it thinking, wow, that sentence is exactly what it should be?and also emotionally knifing. I kept rereading passages not because I was confused about what had happened but because I wanted to feel, again, the immense pain and tragedy she manages to render in a few short sentences. The book’s themes are relevant and important to me: it’s about motherhood and parenting, about being a parent?and a child; and about career and women’s difficult choices around career. It’s a book about revolution and tradition and the bonds of family.
Here’s a teaser:
He was never invited into the room. For some months he received no indication of Bela’s progress. Sitting in the waiting area, with a view of the door Bela and Dr. Grant were on the other side of, made him feel worse. He used the hour to buy groceries for the week. He timed the appointments, and waited for her in the parking lot, in the car. When it was over she sat beside him, shutting the door.
How did it go today, Bela?
It’s still a help to you?
Would you like to go to a restaurant for dinner?
I’m not hungry.
Would you like to write her a letter? Try to speak to her on the phone?
She shook her head. It was lowered, her brow furrowed. Her shoulders were hunched, pressed toward one another, as tears fell.
Absent, the latest young adult novel by Katie Williams, imagines the world of seventeen-year-old Paige Wheeler, who has died in a freak accident at her high school. Trapped in the school, she keeps the company of Brooke and Evan, two other teens who died there. When Paige hears a rumor about her death that she believes to be untrue, she tries assiduously to right it, learning along the way that she can possess the living when they think of her.
Katie Williams is also the author of The Space Between Trees (2010). Her short stories have been in The Atlantic, American Short Fiction, and Best American Fantasy, among other publications. I caught up with Katie over a cocktail and an email.
Q: How long did it take you to write Absent?
All told about three years. That seems like a long time for such a slim book, but my editor and I were committed to getting it right.
Q: You and your agent Judy Heiblum had to decide whether to market The Space Between Trees as young adult (YA) or adult fiction. With Absent, you clearly wrote from a YA perspective from the beginning. What challenges does writing YA present? What do you enjoy about writing for that audience?
Young-adult readers are smart readers, and the worst thing an author can do is condescend to them. But it’s also true that YA readers are newer readers, which means more immediacy, an even balance of plot and character, and sleek prose. Honestly, I think adult literature could take a note or two from YA.
I love writing YA because this is the age where most people become readers, where you reach for a book not just because it’s required for a class, but because you realize that you love to read. It’s an honor to be part of that.
Q: In Absent you create a world of the dead, a world with its own set of rules. Paige can “hover” by putting her mind to it; she can’t step off school property or she winds up where she died; and she can’t touch anyone, feel anything, or taste anything, at least not at first. How did you decide what that world would look like? Was it great fun to create, or did the logistical challenges feel overwhelming?
One of the powers of fantastical writing is the ability to literalize the abstract, to take an emotion, a concept, or a wish and make it real in the story. For example, before her death, Paige felt very much trapped in her life in high school, so the rules of the ghost world make this feeling literal: She is physically trapped in the school. When she tries to leave, she is brought back to her most terrible moment. If you’ve experienced a terrible moment, you might identify with the idea that a small part of you always lives in that place. While many of the fantastical elements came from this concept of literalizing the emotional, other rules came from the simple need to apply logic to the world. How can a ghost both stand on the floor and also be incorporeal? I felt there should be a reason for this. One of the challenges of fantastical writing is applying logic to the illogical, sense to the nonsensical. As you might imagine, this is sometimes great fun and other times headache-inducing.
Q: It’s funny, because another thing you do in the book is create the world of the living, specifically, the world of a modern-day high school, with all the requisite groups (the stoners, the popular kids, the nerds). How heavily did you draw on your own high school experience when you created this world?
Sure, my high school had these sorts of social groups. It’s interesting to me that high school is so very codified. I think it’s because young people are putting together their sense of self, and so there’s a lot of false sorting that happens as a way of negotiating identity: If she is like this, then I must be like that. Part of what the story tries to do is see the use and limitations of this idea and to ultimately move past it.
Q: One thing I notice?and admire?about your writing is how remarkably visual it is. For example, in the novel there’s a scene where Paige and a boy named Lucas Hayes meet in a circle of trees. He leaves before she does, and she says, “It struck me that someone later, seeing them, would imagine two people walking side by side.” When I read that line what struck me was that I might never have thought of that. Do you consciously write with a very visual eye or does this just come naturally to you?
Aw shucks. Thanks. I’ve always considered storytelling a visual art, that language is a code to communicate images. One of my first writing teachers, Charlie Baxter, encouraged me to begin a story by closing my eyes and calling up an image. It could be anything?let’s use your example from the book, two sets of footprints next to each other in the snow?but whatever the image is, it’ll have dramatic potential because your subconscious mind has given it to you for a reason.
Q: Another thing I really loved about the book was the subtle and not-so-subtle animal symbolism. The basement of the school overflows with croaking frogs killed in biology class, and there is a great presence of flying creatures, in particular, a moth. In fact, that moth graces the cover of the book. What is the moth supposed to symbolize?
Thanks! The ghost frogs are my favorite.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t decode the moth here; I want to leave that for the reader. I will say that the moth is introduced because one of the characters, Evan, used to put his lamp to the window at night to draw moths to the light. Paige thinks that the moths’ batting is senseless and pathetic, but Evan finds it beautiful.
Q: Can you say anything about your writing process?
Hmmm…I write four days a week, six when I’m on school break. I find it best to write in the morning before my mind is full of the day’s detritus. I’m good for about three hours when I’m writing new material, longer when I’m editing. I usually write first drafts in chronological order, and I only kind of, sort of use an outline.
Q: Do you read reviews of your work?
My editor sends me the reviews from the professional outlets?Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and such?and I read those. I don’t look at Amazon or Goodreads reviews, though this is to take nothing away from my readers’ opinions, which I’m sure are often observant and smart. To paraphrase (the most excellent) YA author Melina Marchetta, I’m not the intended audience for those reviews; other readers are.
Q: What’s next for Katie Williams?
I’m working on two new novels right now. One is a low-magic historical fantasy about a woman who arranges marriages for picture brides; the other is a near-future science fiction about a teenager cast in an empathetic reality TV show.
Bay Area folks can hear Katie read from Absent twice this summer:
Reading and Signing at Books Inc. Berkeley, 1760 4th Street, Berkeley, CA, Wednesday, July 24, 7-8pm
Reading at Chronicle Books Anniversary Party, San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA, Sunday, August 18, 11am-2pm (exact time TBD)
I thought it was really interesting that two blog posts today were about the immersive (I think I just made up a word) world of fiction. The Living Notebook writes about Absorption today, about fiction that “brings us further into [a] dream, overwhelming our senses until the dream seems real.”
And over on popcorn, Karen McHegg discusses books that “create a world different from the one [she] lives in.” You can read about those books here.
It made me think: which books have most absorbed me in recent years? My first thought was Emma Donoghue’s brilliant novel Room. I also felt immersed in the strange world of Karen Russel’s Swamplandia and the more-real-yet-also-quite-strange one of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.
Which books have absorbed you lately? Head on over to popcorn and tell Karen McHegg.
And me? Today I’m immersed in three-year-old land. L. had a touch of pinkeye, and I knew I’d get the stink eye if I sent him to school.
I was just settling down for what feels like a hundreth revision of my memoir when I read this post by the living notebook.?I especially like when he says, “Revision is a trade off?for every change, the novel gains one thing and loses another.” But I guess that’s true for everything; the road less traveled, and all that.
Speaking of roads less traveled, I learned a sad thing the other day. I went to grad school with journalist Jim Foley, who was kidnapped in Libya and held for six weeks in 2011, then released unharmed. I learned the other day that Foley was kidnapped again in Syria, on Thanksgiving day 2012, and has not been heard from since. The work he has done is brilliant and obviously extremely risky. When I found out he’d been kidnapped again all I could think was I doubt I’d have had the gumption to go back in the field, having been abducted once.
On this website, freejamesfoley.org, you can sign a petition and leave notes for whomever may be reading, if you’re so inspired.