Friday, April 12, 2013

The winding road

9781467706971fcOne of the first questions I inevitably ask when I’m auditioning to be an author’s editor (what, you think you’re the only one who’s nervous in those initial conversations?) is “where did this manuscript come from?”

I love hearing about inspiration, about the unlikely kernels from which books grow. Sarah Aronson’s Believe has such a story, a Sarah tells it well.

Janine Collins, the protagonist of Believe, first took root in my mind thanks to a pile of tabloids. They were mostly People, and I was reading them in of all places, the hair salon. 

It was May 2006. I was in a particularly open mood for inspiration. My creative thesis for VCFA had just been approved. I had one more packet before graduation. My advisor, Tim Wynne-Jones had encouraged me to have some fun—do something different—go out with a bang.

I opened the magazine. The first thing I saw was a retrospective of Jessica McClure. Almost twenty years earlier, on October 14, 1987, she became famous after falling into a well.

I remembered that story as well as the media circus that followed her. Back then, this kind of attention was unique. CNN was a fledgling network. The 24 hours news cycle that we all take for granted now had yet to mature. That day, as I read the newest update, I couldn’t help but judge what she had done with her life—how she had used this “gift” of fame. When I got home, I looked for more stories about her. To my dismay, I found out that one of the EMT’s who had saved her had killed himself—he became depressed when his fifteen minutes of fame ended.

Fame is a theme that has always interested me, particularly this modern kind of fame. I was also very interested in exploring faith. I asked myself: what if Janine was the sole survivor of a suicide bombing? How would faith communities respond to her? What if the bombing had crushed her own beliefs?

It took me many tries and many drafts to figure out how best to tell this story. I probably drove my friends crazy. At one point, in complete confusion, I deleted everything but the prologue. A few times, I wrote sections in third person. In general, I like to re-imagine my stories, but at times, this story shook my confidence. The first turning point came after Norma Fox Mazer read a chunk of the book. She sent me some ideas, but unfortunately, we never got to talk about the book as we had planned. After her death, I kept looking at her advice. It almost felt like I was decoding a secret message. I was determined not to waste her wisdom. At that point, there was no way I could forget about this novel.

In the end, I focused back on character. And motivation. And theme. I embraced the idea of a girl with a public story that had dominated and, perhaps, ruined her life. I immersed myself (without judgment) into our world of social media, reality TV, 24 hours news and religion. The story became clear.

I knew the book was ready to be submitted when People published another update about Jessica. This time, for Janine, I didn’t read it. I didn’t need to.

Needless to say, this is a story that captivated me. Not only was Sarah’s Janine caught in the maelstrom of our peculiar culture of celebrity, I thought Sarah captured beautifully the ways in which that maelstrom magnified an essential—maybe the essential—teenage question, which is, of course, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” What am I going to do with my life is a question every teenager faces in our culture. In Janine’s case, the answer is also the subject of great national fascination.

I’m thrilled with how Sarah’s “something different” came out, and I’m not alone in this regard:

“I was fascinated by this thoughtful, twisty, and convincing story about faith in the media age. Halfway through, I felt so deeply for Janine that I found myself looking at my own hands and wondering what I'd do if I were her.” -Nancy Werlin, New York Times bestselling author of Impossible and The Rules of Survival

If you’d like an early look too, name the source of my essential teenage question in the comments. First three get an ARC.