I’m always thrilled to see books by writers whom I can claim as my students. Not because I think I taught them how to write that book–do we ever do that, really? The most I can do is recognize students who have the talent and drive to take a book from idea to completion. After that my job is to point out how a writer can lift a story into the light.
For me, Caroline Gertler’s middle grade novel, Many Points of Me, was about light—the luminosity of stars, the sheen of freshly applied paint, the light of artistic inspiration and finally, the inner light that allows Georgia’s grief and anger to grow into resilience and hope.
I asked Caroline if she’d write to me about these layers and how they emerged as she worked on the novel.
[Caroline] Thank you, Uma. I love your take here, because light is such an important concept to me. I’ve mostly thought about light in terms of painting. I did an MA in art history, specializing in 17th-century Dutch art, and my absolute favorite artist is Vermeer, known as the master of light. I wish I had thought consciously during the writing process about how to play with these layers of light, as it would’ve been interesting to approach the novel from that angle—at least, at later stages during the editing process. But it wasn’t something I was aware of as I was working (and I didn’t have the benefit of your wise eyes on it!). This is one of the more exciting parts to me about having my novel out in the world—hearing readers’ responses, seeing how the story resonates with other people.
[Uma] I found the use of present tense oddly touching, given Georgia’s assertion about her father in your opening sentence: “Here’s the thing about when your dad was a famous artist: he still lives. He still is.” But coming to terms with the death of a loved one is often about accepting that they no longer are, that what you must own instead are feelings and memories. Will you talk about how it felt to explore that tension in your writing?
[Caroline] That opening sentence really encapsulates what you describe about the conundrum of death—accepting the beloved no longer are, and only live on in your memories. The “what if” question that drove this story for me, is “what if your father was a famous artist—the world feels like they know him, own a piece of him—but you didn’t have as much of him as you wished you could’ve?” I wanted to explore how Dad’s memory would live on for Georgia, when she has his art, and some memories of him (which are still rather fresh while she’s young, but sadly, will fade somewhat, eventually), but she wishes she had more, and can’t get away from his constant presence through his art. That presence being both a sad reminder, and a blessing.
As far as voice, I’m exhausted right now by the first-person present-tense of this novel, having lived in it for so long. My current book that I’m working on, I initially drafted in first person past-tense. Then switched to third person, to get as far away from first-present as possible! Now, I’m writing it in first person-past tense, and I think I’m settled into that voice for this book. Fingers crossed. My revision process in the early stages is drastic—page one rewrites for the early rounds.
[Uma] Finally, what kind of work did you do—on or off the page—to layer in the mystery elements of the novel?
[Caroline] You know my writing history almost as well as anyone, Uma, as one of my first classes in writing for children was taught by you—at least fifteen years ago, now. Back then, and even when I started writing this story, my intention was to write a surface-level, fun mystery.
[Uma] I remember that. But drafts are like that. Drafty. They teach you how to write the next round and the next and that is all you need.
[Caroline] I didn’t want—or know how—to dig deeper emotionally. But as I matured into my self and my writing, I came to accept that my stories would never resonate or have narrative drive if I didn’t access more emotion. Plus, I’m not quite the plotter/mystery-conjurer that I wish I could be! I’ve also come to realize that in a sense, all novels are “mysteries,” in that they’re driven by a question, or set of questions, that need to be answered on some level by the end. And the best novels keep readers turning the pages because they need to know what happens.
So, the mystery in this novel ended up emerging more organically, by getting to know my characters and what they wanted, what was driving them. At some point very late in the revision process—I think just before my agent sent the manuscript on submission to editors—I did sketch out the mystery in a few lines on a separate piece of paper, just to make sure it worked.
[Uma] Every book teaches the writer how to write that book. What did this book teach you?
[Caroline] I learned so much about revision through the process of writing Many Points of Me. I had a beloved James Bond-type scene in the novel which I held on to for years, until that very last revision before going on sub to editors. In a previous version, Georgia submits Dad’s sketch to the competition on purpose, because she’s desperate to win, and doesn’t have anything else that works for her entry. And then, she tries to get it back by breaking into the office at the Met where the entries are being held. I had so much fun writing that scene of her escaping through the internal corridors of the Met, evading the guards, but by the final drafts, that scene didn’t make sense anymore for what the book had become. It was a prime lesson in “killing your babies.” But by the time I realized it had to go (several people had gingerly suggested it over the years), I was ready, and knew what had to happen, instead.
I’m so happy to have run alongside on the very first part of this book’s journey. Congratulations, Caroline Gertler.