Taking the Time a Book Needs

LeonardThis is the story of one book. It wasn’t a book at first, just an idea that came from Karen Leonard’s ethnographic study and filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart’s exploration of the history of a group of mixed-heritage families of Yuba City, California. The story–my fictional rendering, that is–went through many revisions. Maybe 40-odd rounds of reworking and chopping, rethinking and changing.

It will be published next year, my novel about a girl who longs to play softball in Yuba City, California in 1945. A girl from a family in which the mother is from Mexico and the father from Punjab. We have a title now. We are in the thick of edits. We will soon be talking about things like jacket design and flap copy.

How many years did all this take, exactly? I was shocked when I looked at the dates on some of those files I’d saved on my hard drive, files that migrated from one computer to the next as I kept on chewing away at this story I felt driven to tell. I started this novel in 2003, all of thirteen years ago. And I am so very glad it did not get published right away! It has needed all this time.

Louise de Salvo asks why so much writing advice is about not judging your work, when in fact we need to make so very many judgments about it as we go forward. It’s a fair question. I’ve been a writer for more than twenty years but this story needed me to step back and judge it, and judge myself, many, many times before I could understand how it needed to be written.

Orphanhood, Updated

Writers have long opened up the horizons for child characters by the simple expedient of killing off their parents. How could Mowgli have been taken in by the wolfpack if his mother and father hadn’t first been eaten by a tiger? From Frodo Baggins to the Baudelaire children, orphanhood is a plot device that has generated an inexhaustible list of characters. Parents simply get in the way. So much so that some characters, like Peter Pan, choose to abandon their parents and run away, choosing orphanhood as the path to adventure.

Mind you, Mowgli didn’t start this trend. Mike Mariani argues that without orphans the novel itself may not have been conceived.

detectivesassistantSince it’s such a common trope, it is even possible to write an orphan story today without making it seem hackneyed and trite? Try Kate Hannigan’s The Detective’s Assistant, (Little, Brown, 2015) a middle grade thriller based on the true-life story of Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton’s agent. From the time the Right Reverend deposits young Nell on the doorstep of her Aunt Kitty, the “waif’s last relation in the world,” it’s clear that Nell had better do her best to hold fast to her severe, mysterious aunt. And she does. There is no better detective’s assistant than this determined orphan. She and her aunt solve a series of mysteries in this breathless and rollicking book, wending their way through American history in the process. It’s stroke of genius to combine the orphan role with the narrative voice of a kind of junior Dr. Watson–with spunk.