A teenager once wrote to me wanting to know something about me for a report. She fired off the usual litany of questions – what kind of pets do you have, where did you grow up, why do you like ketchup so much. But she included one that I couldn’t answer adequately. She asked, “What topics do you like to write about?” This question was difficult because the phrasing was such that it turned the whole process inside out.
Topics? None. I have no topics that I like to write about.
And yet that’s misleading because there is no topic in the world which I would NOT like to write about.
The truth is, topics, for me, are irrelevant. I want to write about characters and emotions, and when I say emotion, I don’t mean how the characters feel exactly – although that’s part of it – I mean something larger and more elusive than that. I’m talking about the subtle threads of emotion that are common in human experience and define, to some degree, what it means to be alive. I refer to that wellspring in the gut that makes us shiver or soar. It is satori – the wisp of knowledge that we can’t put into words, but we sense that if we could grasp hold of it we’d understand something about the human condition that is essential.
I find that kind of emotion in odd places – usually in the details of life. I find it watching people eat ice cream, which is why all those eating scenes made it into Fat Kid Rules the World. When I watch people eat ice cream I have to look away because of the intense beauty of human beings in their unguarded state. As a novelist I climb inside them and experience the world in their skin.
Some of you may have heard the story behind the writing of The Liberation of Gabriel King. I wrote this book for the first time on my commute into Manhattan when I was working at Curtis Brown. I wrote it long hand into a spiral notebook because I did not yet own a computer and when the book was done, I stuck the notebook away where I stuck all my notebooks so it could get yellow and dusty in a milk crate.
About three years later, after Fat Kid was published, I was working on my second novel – another YA – when 9/11 happened. I’m not going to go into my own experiences of 9/11. There are as many of those stories as there are people in the US and beyond, but what I will say is that after 9/11 manuscripts began to pour into Curtis Brown that wanted to deal with this topic – the event of 9/11 – and part of my job as an assistant to two agents was to read through the slush pile and weed out the inappropriate submissions.
It frustrated me to see how many 9/11 manuscripts we received – not because they were trying to capitalize on the event (because I sincerely believe these authors were working through something and legitimately wanting to help) but because I felt that the writers were missing an opportunity.
What I wanted to see were manuscripts addressing not the topic of 9/11 per se, but fear, in general . . . The kind of fear that we feel throughout our lives, but which becomes magnified when airplanes fly into buildings. So I found myself thinking about that spiral notebook stuck in my milk crate and about the two kids captured in those pages who decide to overcome all their fears.
I also thought about my own fears. As a child I was desperately afraid of growing up, and it seemed to me during those turbulent post 9-11 days as if I knew something – maybe I had some intuition about the perils of adult life that were warning me not to move on, yet the path ahead was inevitable. I would grow up whether I liked it or not.
There were all sorts of fears during childhood and each one was – at that time — as significant to me as the fears of terrorists and crumbling buildings. In fact, what I most remember about my childhood was the dichotomy between an idyllic life growing up on the old Borden estate where the greenhouse out in the woods was overgrown with vines, and if you knew where to look there were gravestones and waterfalls and rusted old fountains, contrasted with the reality of a school day that I hated from the first day of kindergarten through the last day of my senior year.
In first grade, I used to go to the nurse every time we had a substitute teacher. I didn’t eat in the cafeteria until fifth grade because I was too small to reach the food which was placed on top of the lunch counter. I lived in fear of the front doors of the school which were too heavy for me to open on my own, so every morning I had to wait for someone else to open the doors and then dart behind them. But what if they were too slow? What if those HUGE, solid, metal-framed doors closed while I was still trying to get in and I was crushed, like a fly between a wall and a swatter? School was a battleground of fears for me and as a result, childhood was a battleground of fears – and it did not matter how realistic or trivial those fears really were . . . each one was real to me.
When I finally took that old notebook out of my milk crate, I started rewriting nearly from scratch — but what remained was the emotion behind the scenes and the characters – Gabe’s fears, and Frita’s bravado. The feeling of a hot summer night when you are sitting on the front steps with your mother and father and the crickets are singing and your best friend has just gone home, and at this moment – these people you love are all that you want in this world, but even as you KNOW this to be true, your Pop is pushing the firefly ever so gently off his palm and the fear is there, however intangible, however little you can name it, that soon you will grow up whether you like it or not, and there are problems lurking in the world that are beyond your comprehension.
This is the state of childhood – the tension that Grimm’s fairy tales captured so well, allowing children to taste and explore that fear and question how it is to be lived. Children know it exists – just as I know and you know. It’s a part of who we are as human beings, and what we do with that fear defines us individually and collectively.
For those of you who have read The Liberation of Gabriel King you know that Gabe comes to a conclusion about how he will live with fear. It is one conclusion – one of many. It is one of hope because I believe hope is the great antidote to fear. And it is one of empathy because I believe that empathy is the greatest skill we can teach our children. Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” and I believe this to be true because without imagination we can’t put ourselves in anyone else’s shoes, or imagine their fears, or rate their fears on par with our own. And maybe in the end it is only empathy that prevents hate . . .
What I hoped to capture was the feeling of an in between time, when life is about to change, just as summer changes into fall and 1976 changes into 2011. I wanted to capture the shifting of grounds on a national scale that occurred before and after civil rights, and how it felt for these two children because behind these feelings there is a truth lurking. I can not pin it down, but if I’ve done my job you will feel something in your gut and maybe as you turn these pages, you will feel something intangible about life and fear and triumph that will remind you of who you are, and who we can all be together.