It was a real joy to be invited, for the third year in a row, to launch a novel at my favourite local indie, Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, NH. Here is what I said.
Sunday 9thJune, 2pm, Gibson’s Bookstore, Concord, NH
Thank you so much for coming today. There must be many competing activities on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in June. That said, sitting in an awesome bookstore like this is one of my favourite ways to pass the time – and I suspect you might agree.
On the note of awesome bookstores I’d like to say a big thank you to Michael Herrmann, Elisabeth Jewell and the whole team for making today possible: this is my third book launch in as many years at Gibson’s, a place that quickly became my spiritual home when I moved to the US in July 2016.
I realise that many of you might not be regular readers of Young Adult fiction– though, interestingly, the statistics tell us that most YA readers are over the age of 18. Well, if you are a sceptic, I hope that by the end of time together I’ll have won you over to the joys of YA and the truth that it really is for everyone.
As Far As The Stars has been my hardest book to write so far. That might surprise you as the five novels, both adult and young adult, that I wrote before it haven’t shied away from some pretty challenging topics from transracial adoption to immigration to eating disorders. So what made this one particularly tricky?
It was the coming together of two seemingly incompatible experiences: first love and grief.
How is it possible, I asked myself, to capture, on the one hand, the dizzying excitement of falling in love and, on the other hand, do justice to the grief that follows a tragic loss.
As the tagline on the dust jacket says:
Can you fall in love when your life is falling apart?”
For those reading this book who have faced loss, especially in relation to a tragedy (some of whom I know are here today), I wanted to present the experience of grief with sensitivity and integrity.
I still don’t know whether I got that balance right. But I struggled and dug deep and did my best – and I hope that was enough.
So what’s the story about?
Well, there are things I can’t reveal as I don’t want to spoil the reading experience but I think I can share just enough to wet your appetites.
Some of you might remember how, in late August 2017, a total solar eclipse swept through the US. This is the setting for my novel. Forty eight hours before the eclipse, two 17 year olds – Air, who is American and Christopher, who is English– meet at Dulles Airport in Washington DC to collect someone they love: Air her brother and Christopher his father. Only, it soon transpires that the plane is missing.
Air needs to get to her sister’s weddingin Nashville, TN, which is taking place at the exact moment of the eclipse: she was going to drive her brother there and for reasons you’ll find out when you read the novel, Christopher decides to go with her.
So these, essentially, are the ingredients that make up the book:
- A story of first love.
- A shared tragedy.
- And a road trip through the US.
I often start novels with a bird’s eye view chapter that throws the reader straight into the action of the novel and plants clues for what’s to come. Here’s the opening to As Far As The Stars:
READING 1: PROLOGUE
Let me unpack those three elements to the story I mentioned earlier: the story of first love; the shared tragedy and the road trip.
First, falling in love.
Being something of a hopeless romantic, I’ve wanted to write a love story for a while, especially a story of first love. But I was afraid of cliché. Haven’t people been writing about love for thousands of years? How would my story be original and authentic rather than derivative? And most significantly, did I have anything new to add?
Well, ironically, the very thing that stumped me – writing about grief and love at the same time – proved to provide a solution to my cliché conundrum.
By framing the love story within a tragedy, I was able to make the circumstances and so the story, unique.
Another way to fight cliché is to create original and believable characters. Here’s a little about my two protagonists:
Air is a brilliant physicist. She is focused and determined and her dream is to get into MIT and then to be recruited as an astronaut by NASA. She is not interested in girly romance.
Christopher’s an introvert. He’s an only child raised by a single dad and currently studying at an all-boys boarding school in England. He’s an artist who spends his time folding small bits of found, scrap paper into objects. He doesn’t know what to do with his life and he doesn’t have a clue about girls.
Through these characters and their particular situation, I hope that I’ve side-stepped at least some of the clichés of writing about love.
Then there’s the second element to my story: the tragedy.
My plots are often triggered by news reports and the story of the missing Indonesian airliner a few years back played around in my storytelling brain for a while.
I still find it incredible that a big metal container can fly hundreds of people through the sky.
And I always get the chills when I hear about an airplane disappearing. There’s something eerie about so many people going missing at once.
And, of course, this makes for a suspenseful story: the questions of what happened to the plane and whether there will be any survivors, propels the narrative.
Whilst writing I also did some research into something called Ambiguous Loss, coined by the psychologist Dr Pauline Boss. She describes it a grief that has no real closure– for example where bodies aren’t found, as is often the case with a plane crash or other tragedies like war or natural disasters. There are other subtler forms of ambiguous loss too, like divorce, where you lose someone you love but they’re still present or alive in some form.
Through the novel I try to unpack how devastating it is, not only to lose someone you love but to lose them under circumstances that makes conventional grieving impossible.
Finally, there’s the road trip element.
I don’t know about you but I love road movies and road novels too. Alongside my ambition to write a love story, I’ve also always wanted to write a road trip story.
The confined space; the limited time; the sense of journeying in both a physical and a spiritual sense creates a wonderful intensity.
It also gives the novel a gaol: Air and Christopher need to get to Nashville in time for Air’s sister’s wedding.
Add into the mix a gorgeous vintage car– a mustard yellow Buick convertible (which belongs to Air’s missing brother, Blake) – and you have yourself the ingredients for pretty enticing road trip.
(Hold up model): I like to have props around me that remind me of the novel I’m writing: this one was particularly fun and my two-year old daughter, Somerset, who has a thing for cars right now, loves it too!
Before I finish I’d like to come back to the promise I made at the beginning of my talk: that you’d bewon over to reading a YA book, even if it isn’t your usual cup of tea.
So why, YA?
I hope that everything I’ve said so far has sold it for you but let me throw in a few more enticements.
Most obviously, young adult fiction concerns itself with the one experience every single one of us in this room – and every human being that I know of – shares: growing up.
We read books on thousands of different subjects with hosts of characters whose lives and experiences are thoroughly different from our own – and there’s a real pleasure in that.
But what makes YA fiction so appealing, is that, depending on our age, it either mirrors or echoes back, an experience that we all go through.
Growing up is all about firsts. Our first love; our first car; our first big failure – and maybe our first big success too. It’s also often a time when we first lose someone we love.
It’s about finding ourselves and our place in the world and definitions ourselves independently of our parents.
It’s about dreaming about the future – and fearing the future too.
And because it’s about so many firsts – and because it’s about being young, a time when we believe that the world pretty much revolves around us– everything is lived out in hyperbole: every situation and experience and relationship is the worst and the best and the greatest.
When you’re young, there’s little room for moderation.
All those elements make for good fiction: our YA characters feel deeply and so we feel deeply too.
On that note of intense experience and firsts, I’ll leave you with a reading from the middle of the book when Air decides to take a detour to show Christopher a place that she loves: a waterfall that she used to swim – and jump into – with her brother.
It’s a scene which holds many of the strands I’ve discussed this afternoon.
READING 2: JUMPING FROM THE ROCK
I’d be delighted to answer some questions. After that I’ll do a signing over there – and, more importantly, do grab a yummy star cupcake on your way out.
You can find As Far As The Stars in any good on or offline bookstore.