All Behind the Book essays

Behind the Book by

I have been deaf since childhood. A question I get a lot is, “Can you hear music?” My answer, “yes,” is often met with shock and disbelief. But disabilities, including deafness, are on a spectrum. I am a deaf person who benefits from hearing aids, and those hearing aids help me hear music. The music I hear might not sound perfect, but so much of what I do hear, I love.

In the early ‘80s, while my friends were rocking out to tunes on the radio, I preferred listening to the vintage albums that my older siblings brought home from thrift stores. Bacharach and the Beatles, Sergio Mendes and Joni Mitchell—even though I couldn’t understand the lyrics, my hearing aids and my parents’ exemplary turntable and speakers helped me hear voices and instruments and melodies and harmonies, bass lines and drumbeats pumping through my feet all the way to my chest.

But I wasn’t just hearing the music. I was seeing and feeling it, too. I’d sit on the floor and pore over the records’ unique album covers: 12-and-a-half inch squares featuring photographs and illustrations and fonts, a fantastic introduction to the best—and worst—of graphic design. If I was really lucky, there might be lyrics on the album cover, too, and I could sing along. I’d pause my study (and my singing) for the tactile part of the experience: flipping the record over to place the needle down on the B-side, or pulling a different record out of its crinkly, vellum sleeve to start anew.

In my newest book, Animal Albums from A to Z, each letter of the alphabet is represented by its own album cover, with each cover showcasing a different genre as performed by various animal musicians. This book is meant to be a celebration of that visual and tactile experience that I’ve described. But the unavoidable truth is that music is still meant to be heard. As I painted and collaged and cut out letters with a katrillion X-Acto blades, I dreamed about making music to go with my art. With the help of more than 60 talented musicians—many of them friends since childhood—that dream came true. I left the cherished isolation of my studio in the woods to collaborate with old and new friends in a recording studio (and beyond), and now there are 26 silly songs in 26 different genres, all accessible via a QR code on the title page of the book.

My hope is that this book replicates some of the deep sensory joys of music: that readers young and old might pore over my illustrations like I pored over those old album covers; might turn the pages like I flipped a record to its other side; might sing along with the lyrics as I did—and that they might remember these songs fondly, the way I cherish the songs of my own charmed childhood.

Photo of Cece Bell by Tom Angelberger.

The author-illustrator discusses creating the 26 original silly songs that make up Animal Albums from A to Z.
Behind the Book by

Before March of 2018, I never intended to write a sequel to There There. When I first decided to do it, the mean voices inside immediately began judging me. Like it was lowbrow. Like it belonged in the Marvel universe of decision-making, like people would think it was a cash grab even though I made the decision before the success of There There.

The idea first came to me when I was sitting in a Penguin Random House warehouse signing an insane amount of books ahead of the publication of There There. That is not a romantic place for a novel to be conceived. I feel embarrassed to share that it came during that moment, but that is when it came. The sales reps who were helping me to sign all these books played a Spotify radio station based on the song “There There” by Radiohead. “Wandering Star” by Portishead came on and right when I heard it, I knew I wanted to write a sequel and that it would be called Wandering Stars. I didn’t at all know at first where the follow-up novel would lead based on this title, but I knew with strange certainty it would be the title. I could never have guessed all the unexpected places it would lead me.

Some of the earliest writing I did for Wandering Stars was about Maxine Loneman experiencing the death of her grandson. I was on a run in Baltimore, and I thought of Maxine and Tony in the afterlife and then of all these afterlife experiences of the characters from There There. That was the original conception—there was going to be a lot of weird afterlife stuff. And then in early 2019 I was in Sweden for the translation of There There. I almost didn’t go on this trip. I was to go to Italy, Sweden and Amsterdam. I’d traveled so much in 2018 that despite these being really cool sounding places, I didn’t actually want to go.

It was cool in the way land acknowledgments are cool. Until they aren’t. And it’s like, okay but what are we gonna do that means more? What’s the next step?

Just before I was to leave I went to a Lunar New Year festival at the Oakland Museum with my family, and we parked at the Lake Merritt BART parking lot, which is notorious for break-ins. I think I wanted something bad to happen. I even left my backpack in the car. And then it did. Someone stole all of my luggage, my passport and my backpack with my computer in it, plus even my son’s toys and some of my wife’s clothes and jewelry. I was upset but also excited because I thought it meant I wouldn’t have to go to Europe. But my agent insisted I should. And she was right. So I got an emergency rushed new passport and only missed the Italian portion of the trip.

Anyway, so then the organizers in Sweden asked if I wanted a private tour of a museum. They said there was a Cheyenne exhibit. I ended up getting this really weird meta-tour where the person leading me through the museum kept explaining that they knew the museum shouldn’t have all this stuff and that they were trying to find ways to return it but weren’t entirely sure how yet. It was cool in the way land acknowledgments are cool. Until they aren’t. And it’s like, okay but what are we gonna do that means more? What’s the next step?

When we came to the Cheyenne exhibit I looked at old regalia and felt that familiar sadness I feel at museums, wondering about why anyone thought showing stolen stuff directly related to colonialism was a good idea, when I caught sight of a newspaper article clipping that said “Southern Cheyennes in Florida, 1875.” I know enough about my tribe’s history to know we were never in Florida. Not as a people. When I came home from the trip, I ended up falling deeply down a rabbit hole researching why some of us were in St. Augustine, Florida, from 1875 to 1878, at a prison-castle called Fort Marion that was shaped like a star. St. Augustine was also the very first European settlement in the continental United States. It should be noted, and some know, but many do not, that Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, not in North America. His discovery of the United States is just as false and meaningless as his legacy as some kind of hero. He went home in chains and will always be remembered by people who know the history as an awful human being.

But how would I connect this piece of history with the aftermath of the powwow from There There?

It was in the research that the moment happened. This was maybe six months after Sweden and first finding out about Fort Marion. I’d been reading a book called War Dance at Fort Marion by Brad D. Lookingbill. I was immersing myself in the world of Fort Marion and beginning to write what would become the beginning of Wandering Stars. I got to the end of the book and it listed the names of the prisoners. The character I had already started writing I’d named Star. And there in the list of names was a Southern Cheyenne named Star, and not far below him, someone named Bear Shield. I immediately started crying seeing the names. That I had already written a character named Star was one thing, but to see a family name from There There was just so overwhelming. I became convinced at that moment that I would make a generational tie between one of the prisoners at Fort Marion and one of the families who survived the shooting at the powwow at the end of There There.

Writing a novel is a strange experience. Things go into it and things come out of it. It feels. It’s like this porous thing.

I have found in writing these two novels that there are things that go into the work, and also things that come out of it. For instance, the spider legs that Orvil Red Feather pulls out of his leg in There There, that was something that actually happened to me. In a West Oakland Target bathroom, just like Orvil. And then the week after I wrote the bat scene from the Thomas Frank chapter in There There, we had a bat fly into our house. The bat did what they call a flyby on my wife and niece. It felt so related to the bat I wrote into the novel and my wife definitely blamed me writing it in for what happened. And then my wife’s medical insurance had lapsed without our knowing and we ended up having to spend $10,000 to pay for rabies shots. One of the first things we did with advance money from There There was to pay that medical bill.

Writing a novel is a strange experience. Things go into it and things come out of it. It feels. It’s like this porous thing. You have to be open to what it can become, I think. You have to open yourself up to what might be possible for it to become that you might never have imagined. It can be a kind of collaboration with your unconscious, and with something else. The process, I guess. It can feel like it takes everything you have. And it does.

Read our review of Wandering Stars.

Tommy Orange author photo by Michael Lionstar.

The author shares the moments from his life that became part of the story of his hit debut, There There, and the song that inspired his sequel’s title, Wandering Stars.
Behind the Book by

Sade Dawodu, wife of a beloved bishop, has gone missing. As investigative psychologist Philip Taiwo tries to uncover the truth, he exposes an ugly underbelly of corruption and control. In this essay, author Femi Kayode tracks his interest in the facade religion can provide back to its source. 

After high school, I became swept away with the born-again pandemic that hit its peak in the early ’90s in Nigeria. I bought into it all: the rousing choir, the flamboyant pastors, the speaking in tongues and the hug-your-neighbor-and-tell-them-Jesus-loves-them. Because I am a closet voyeur, I attended only the Pentecostal churches that had large congregations. I would remain on the edge of the crowd, close enough to give the illusion of participating, but still distant enough to observe.

I loved the pastors; always smartly dressed, and almost certainly with an American accent. They are almost always men, with equally flamboyant wives who were seated to the side of the altar, piously urging their husbands to “Preach it!” The sermons could make even the most confident stand-up comedian surrender their crown; wry humor met with deep insights sprinkled with what I considered an uncommon understanding of the human condition.

My wife was raised Catholic. Since one of our shared philosophies is “A family that prays together, stays together”—quaint, right?—and we were all so joyfully (now, we would say ignorantly) patriarchal, she started accompanying me to my church, which held services in a music hall on Lagos Island.

On this particular Sunday, the pastor came on stage, an energetic GQ cover model. The choir, resplendent in their robes, walked solemnly behind him. Absolute silence. The lights dimmed, and a spotlight fell on the pastor. Boom! The backtrack of Kirk Franklin’s “Stomp” came on, and the pastor began to rap! The whole church stood up, dancing. 

Read our review of ‘Gaslight’ by Femi Kayode.

The music ended. The pastor was sweating, breathing hard. The congregation high-fived each other. The choir looked like the Sound of Blackness when they were handed a Grammy. Amid the thunderous applause, I shouted into my wife’s ear. “Did you like it?” She answered, eyes alive with happiness and devoid of judgment, “It was a wonderful performance.”

That honest response has stayed with me for the 20 years since it was spoken. Performance. Through several church attendances, across the different countries we have called home in the past two decades, I could never shake that word from the edge of my consciousness. Performance. The stage replaced the altar. The lights meant to create a celestial atmosphere became props. The congregation on high alert, an audience primed for the main event. The price of entry was in the offering box. Action! 

As this transformation unfolded in the theater of my mind, the writer in me pondered: What was going on backstage? Do the pastors wear makeup? (I have since confirmed that many do.) Do they throw tantrums like petulant divas? Yes, indeed. These questions and many more kept me awake when sermons lost meaning, choirs became sound effects and I grew too jaded to put my faith in the word of man. The sameness grated on me, like I was stuck in the reruns of a blaxploitation TV series. The recycled plot prompted my mind to travel behind the curtains, and I started seeking answers outside the script playing out in front of me.

Gaslight chronicles my journey behind the performance. It is a diary of my evolving faith. A journal of my steadfast belief that no matter how great the act, man is not God.

Photo of Femi Kayode by Nicholas Louw.

The author’s second Philip Taiwo mystery peeks beneath the facade of a picture-perfect Nigerian pastor and his wife.
Behind the Book by

She’s written love stories starring monsters and Greek gods, but with Hunt on Dark Waters, Katee Robert has written the high seas fantasy adventure of her dreams.

There’s something about pirates that remains timeless. We gravitate toward the idea of a reckless captain standing at the helm, the salty sea breeze whipping their stylish coat, the horizon an endless blue of possibility. The world feels big in a way that it really doesn’t anymore. Historical—and fantasy—pirates exist out of time and space, and the only rules they follow are the ones they make up. 

Obviously, reality was a bit less glamorous and more rife with scurvy and poop decks, but the mythos of pirates continues to attract and seduce. It certainly does with me, at least.

It’s hard to say when my fascination with pirates began, but I suspect it was the moment I boarded the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland when I was very young. The “briny” air wrapped around me and I sat with wide eyes through scene after scene of glamorized and entertaining glimpses of what a pirate’s life might be like. I was hooked.

Fast-forward some 30-odd years, through my deep obsessions with pirate nonfiction books, the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise and the TV show “Black Sails,” to name just a few influences. When it came time for me to circle back to my first love, fantasy novels, it was also an opportunity to mix two of my favorite things into one grand adventure.

I will admit that pirates seemed to be a bit of a long shot. While pirates have been a staple in genre fiction since the beginning of time, they’ve kind of fallen out of popularity in recent years. There’s probably some really interesting reasons why, but I love them and I’ve been on the hunt for spicy pirate romances for ages. They exist, to be sure! But there’s never enough to feed my voracious reading. One book is never enough!

Read our starred review of ‘Hunt on Dark Waters’ by Katee Robert.

Really, though, it all boils down to the fact that I’ve been chasing the high of Pirates of the Caribbean, both the ride and the movies, since my formative years. I saw the first movie in theaters five times. I was addicted to the way my heart beat faster as the music swelled and the sheer possibilities that unfolded when Jack Sparrow grinned and said, “Bring me that horizon.”

I wanted to recreate that feeling while writing—and hopefully for the reader while reading. That moment of looking out at the horizon and having no idea what it might hold. The thrill of a fight against a monster on the deck of your ship. The magic and mystery that comes when things and people aren’t quite what they seem, but you’re seduced despite yourself.

And, because it’s fantasy, everyone is freshly bathed and there’s indoor plumbing!

She’s written love stories starring monsters and Greek gods, but with Hunt on Dark Waters, Katee Robert created the high seas fantasy adventure of her dreams.
Behind the Book by

When Sandro and Bash connect at a party before the beginning of their senior year of high school, they’re surprised by an honest, genuine friendship that grows into something deeper. The Long Run is a frank, funny and beautifully written story about two South Jersey boys finding happiness and hope in the unlikeliest of places: each other. In this original essay, author James Acker reflects on the personal experiences that did—and didn’t—inspire his first book.

I’m 10 and I’m freezing. I’m sitting on top of the rotted wooden playhouse in the biggest tree in Gavin’s backyard. He’s already jumped and the rope’s been returned to me and he’s screaming: Jump! Jump! I jumped, you jump! That was the rule! And I know I’ll be fine because Gavin is fine but he’s always been luckier than me. Jump! Jump! You’ll regret it if you don’t! But I know I won’t jump because I know other ways down. I’ve got something to prove, but it’s not worth the broken ankle. Jump! Don’t you wanna say you did?

I’m 13 and I’m freezing. I’m wandering around an abandoned house on Main Street with boys I won’t be friends with much longer. The house is old and no one’s lived there for years and it was easy enough to break into. I know we shouldn’t be there, but something keeps me wandering. Jump! Jump! You’ll regret it if you don’t! RJ finds a kid’s growth chart inside the closet of what must’ve been a child’s bedroom. It’s in crayon and faded and she only grew to 4 and a half feet. I decide it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen and RJ puts his foot through it. The boys tear the house apart, and today, I am one of the boys. I want to destroy. Jump! Jump! I want the story. Don’t you wanna say you did?

I’m 16 and I’m freezing. I’m in my driveway at 3 in the morning, throwing out bedsheets because my wrestling diet has gotten away from me again. I remind myself that shame is part of growing up. I remind myself that all of this will be useful to me one day. I remind myself that new bedsheets will cost more than new laxatives, and I remind myself that Steph from bio said I was looking real sexy lately. Jump! And if I keep looking sexy and I keep making weight, maybe I’ll start making better memories. I’ll finally start enjoying myself. My high school experience. My childhood. Jump, James! If I leave with the right memories, I’ll have done my job. You’ll regret it if you don’t! If I leave with the right stories, this will all have been worth it. Don’t you wanna say you did?

It’s hard not to think that I’m only writing coming-of-age stories because I don’t like my own. My childhood felt like “Supermarket Sweep”: Fill your shopping cart with whatever you can find. Experience what you can while you can. You’ll sort through it all after time runs out. Jump. I’ve spent a lot of my 20s sorting out my shopping cart. My debut novel is dropping right before I turn 30, and I’ve begun to wonder if my stories are all that interesting. Did I receive store-brand trauma? Was there anything unique in all that crying? Should I have stopped my sweep and considered what I was grabbing before moving on to the next aisle?

“As an adult, I can look at my childhood with a warm, detached fondness. But if I could speak to myself at that age again, I would ask him to live in the moment. Not for the moment.”

The Long Run began as an attempt at capturing what my life felt like in high school. The desire to get this story out had been a long time coming, and I expected all the right anecdotes to present themselves in a polite single-file line. I’d spent a childhood collecting these memories. Where else were they supposed to go? The sweep was over. The buzzer had rung. Now was the time to prove that it had all been worth it. The stories meant something, so why was I staring at an empty page? Every idea for a chapter stayed a bullet point. None of my anecdotes would fill in their blanks. I had nothing.

So I wrote something else. I couldn’t write a memoir, so I wrote what could have happened. I used everything in my shopping cart, everyone I’d met and everything I did, and I wrote a different story. A familiar story. I filled my little New Jersey suburb with different boys in familiar houses. Different names with familiar struggles. I wrote about kids I wished I’d been friends with. Parties I wish I hadn’t skipped, meals I wish I’d eaten, conversations I wish I’d had. And if I couldn’t put myself on the page, I’d split that angry, crying boy into Sandro and Bash. Two parts of myself that never agreed. A lover and a fighter. An asshole and a crybaby. I wrote the love story I never got between two boys I always knew. If I couldn’t agree on my story, I could at least tell theirs.

As an adult, I can look at my childhood with a warm, detached fondness. But if I could speak to myself at that age again, I would ask him to live in the moment. Not for the moment. That kid did so much just for the story, just to say he’d done it, and today I’m left with shreds. Wonderful shreds, but incomplete stories. Sparks of a feeling, never the full picture. 

Writing The Long Run felt like filling in those blanks. Connecting the dots between those snapshots of childhood. A morning on a rooftop. A night in a driveway. Flashbulbs of memories, finally put down to paper. It felt like a lifetime of collection finally coming together. Even if some memories didn’t make the cut, those moments still mattered. They were still useful. Every story mattered. And I’ll spend the rest of my career as a writer trying to put them all together.

Read our starred review of James Acker’s ‘The Long Run.’

Author photo of James Acker courtesy of Bernadette Bridges.

The debut author set out to write a memoir, but when his high school experiences refused to coalesce into prose, he had to find a new way to tell his story.
Behind the Book by

My friend writes a book. It’s a utopian work of speculative fiction, clever and imaginative and hopeful—a brilliant blend of art and activism. I bring flowers to her book launch and find a seat near the back of the cozy community garden where we’re gathered. Even before the reading starts, the space is abuzz with conversations about the worlds in her book and the limitations and radical possibilities of our current world. The evening feels magical. Fairy lights twinkle and apartment buildings tower above. 

As the event planners set up the stage, I turn to the person sitting next to me—one of the few people I don’t know here—and introduce myself, excited to talk to someone new during the social scarcity of the COVID-19 pandemic. This person is easy to converse with: They tell me about their recent move to the city to start an MFA program and the angry activist nonfiction they write. I am intrigued; I love angry activist nonfiction. I promise to introduce them to some of my activist-writer friends, give them suggestions of bookstores to check out and places to write. I want to know so much more about the project they’re working on, and I’ve gotten through only a tenth of my questions when they say, “What about you, Lamya? You seem like a writer. What do you write?” 

I freeze. 

I, too, wrote a book. A memoir: a retelling of stories from the Quran as queer, brown, immigrant narratives, interspersed with stories from my queer, brown, immigrant life—a book I hope is both art and activism. But I don’t know how to answer my new friend’s question because I wrote under a pseudonym. 

Read our starred review of ‘Hijab Butch Blues’ by Lamya H.

I wrote anonymously for many reasons, most of which are predictable and boring. Privacy. Safety. That I’m not out to my family. That my writing—in which I talk about God as nonbinary, the queerness of Musa’s (Moses’) miracles, Maryam (the Virgin Mary) as not liking men—could be considered controversial. That I’m complicating prophetic figures who are important in a lot of religions, writing about them as flawed, as making mistakes. I’m speculating about their sexualities, not for the sake of provocation but because these prophets feel like my friends—beautiful and messy and real—and their journeys have helped me figure out how to live. That it’s scary to anger people with power; it’s scary to be Googleable. That I want to write in complicated ways about Islam and still keep going to my mosque. That I want to write in complicated ways about the Islamophobia of queer communities and still be invited to potlucks and spoken word readings. 

I wrote a book so open and honest that it was only possible for me to write under a pseudonym, but what I didn’t anticipate was the grief I would feel, even though I don’t regret my decision. Grief like in this moment at the book launch, unable to speak about my book with my new friend. Grief in a broader sense, too: the limitations my anonymity places on my ability to use the book as a starting point to create intentional spaces and communities. After opening night for a play called Coming Out Muslim 10 years ago, I joined a space created by the artists for queer Muslims to connect, which led me to find the chosen family and organizing community that I still participate in and am infinitely grateful for. My book won’t be able to do that for others in the same way. 

“It’s scary to anger people with power; it’s scary to be Googleable.”

And there are smaller pangs of grief, too: the loss of specificity in my book when critiquing certain spaces for homophobia or racism, which inadvertently ends up protecting these spaces; not being able to share my book with the myriad folks who helped me learn how to write at writing retreats and workshops; not being able to thank my friends by name in the acknowledgments. 

But my choice to write anonymously hasn’t stopped me from experiencing the joys of my book starting to go out into the world. A few weeks ago, someone whose name sounded familiar commented on my Instagram. It turns out she had written a beautiful essay some years ago that was foundational in teaching me to use stories and vignettes to talk about bigger concepts such as racism and homophobia, an essay that I had annotated and read over and over. I sent her an advanced copy of my book in gratitude, and it felt exciting to connect virtually, despite the anonymity. Another person emailed me about doing an event about racism against South Asians in the Arab country I grew up in, and they said I can present with my camera turned off, that her organization will do whatever needs to be done to protect my privacy. It’s a reminder that I don’t owe using my real name to anyone. I don’t owe my face being on the jacket cover. I’m allowed to write on my own terms. It’s possible to stay safe while still using my book as a tool for connection and conversation. 

“What I didn’t anticipate was the grief I would feel, even though I don’t regret my decision.”

At my friend’s book launch, in the moment before I respond to my neighbor’s question about my own writing, I think of that joy, that sense of connection. I think about how I can selectively choose to invite people in, that my writing anonymously is also an act—however small—of wanting to make the world a better place. My new friend is waiting for my answer. I take a deep breath. 

“I do write,” I say. “We should get coffee sometime. I’d love to tell you about my work.”

Headshot of Lamya H by Lia Clay for the Queer Art Community Portrait Project

Lamya H, the author of Hijab Butch Blues, reflects on what was gained and what was lost by writing her debut memoir under a pseudonym.
Behind the Book by

Maddie Hathaway grew up on the Renaissance faire circuit, living in an RV and attending school online. After her mom’s death from cancer, Maddie has been looking forward to returning to Stormsworth, her mom’s favorite faire. But Stormsworth’s new owners are making big changes, and their son, Arthur, thinks Maddie should play the role of the faire’s princess, though Maddie is certain she won’t be a good fit for the part—or its costume. The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway is a whimsical but grounded portrait of grieving, healing and falling in love against a truly magical backdrop. 

I’m asked why I write YA during almost every panel, Q&A or interaction with readers. 

The nice answer is that I love writing coming-of-age stories. There’s something so poetic and timeless about teetering on the point of decision, of having your whole life change. I don’t think that feeling of potential energy as you stand at the top of a slope, looking downward and wondering if you will soar or land in a crumpled heap or both, ever really goes away. For me, attempting to lasso that feeling and pin it to the page is a thrill and a challenge I’ll never tire of. 

That’s the nice answer. The truer answer is far less pretty.

I write for teenagers because somewhere in my nearly 31-year-old muscles and sinew and suspiciously achy knees I’m still 16, my back against the wall of a funeral home chapel as I’m told over and over again that I’ll bounce back, that I’ll heal because I’m young. Like grief cares about age.

I’m still angry about that moment. If I think about it too deeply, my chest feels like a cauldron, bubbling and swirling as I stir in over a decade of hindsight, a dash of lessons learned and a heaping spoonful of indignation, well aged. I suppose writing YA novels is my way of reaching my hand back to myself and anyone else who was ever disqualified from the ultramarathon of grief under penalty of youth. 

So it’s no surprise that my third novel, The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway, fits neatly into the Ashley Schumacher Literary Canon of Teenage Disgruntlement Concerning Grief. Over the course of the book, my main character, Maddie “Gwen” Hathaway, mourns the death of her mother and the departure of her best friend from the Renaissance faire circuit (and therefore from Maddie’s immediate vicinity), as well as the complete redesign of the faire that Maddie’s mother loved most—a place where Maddie hoped to find closure but instead finds compounded grief.

I should also mention that Maddie is fat. Like me. Like so many of my family members, of my friends, of my world. This is important. 

I’ve tackled different kinds of grief in my writing. Mostly I’ve explored the grief of losing people, because that’s the one that aches the sharpest for me, but like Maddie tells her love interest, Arthur, on the night they meet, “I don’t think grief has to mean death. I think there are lots of different types of grief.”

I used to grieve my body. Not in the acute way that a death is grieved, but in the way of the dull ache I’d feel when I couldn’t find my size in the trendy brand-name stores everyone wore in high school, or when the drill-team teacher chastised me for eating more pizza at lunch: “Remember, girls, Spandex never forgives or forgets.” Sometimes it seemed like the world was not built for me. Well-meaning adults would offer obtuse platitudes. You’ll grow out of it, they’d say, or it’s just baby fat, or—the most witless of all—oh, honey, you’re not fat!

Spoiler alert: I did not, in fact, grow out of it. But I did grow into it. My own skin. My life. My body.

I learned that a lot of social conditioning went into how I felt growing up, that a lot of companies and nameless, faceless Wall Street gods stood to benefit if they could keep me in the shame cycle of buying products to turn myself into the ideal that they put on billboards and magazines. I gave Maddie a dose of that too, in the form of faire posters that advertise with clip-art images of thin princesses and muscular knights. I felt compelled to give Arthur the same insecurities, but reversed, so while Maddie wishes that she could take up less space, Arthur, who is insecure about being so thin, wishes to take up more.

When I was growing up, I never felt more understood or seen than I did in the pages of books. Not just because I was a voracious reader but because, when I was reading, I could be anybody—or, more specifically, anybody could be me. Any vaguely described character could look like me, and I would superimpose my own body onto theirs, rounding out thighs and chests and stomachs until I was the one running through enchanted forests or falling in love or saving the village from a dragon.

My dedication for this book reads, in part, “To anyone who hasn’t felt at home in their skin: I hope this story helps you lay out a rug, place a frame, hang up your coat, and stay awhile. Ad astra per aspera.” Through adversity to the stars.

I don’t grieve my body anymore, but I think I will forever carry the grief that I once did. Maddie is lots of things. She’s brave, observant, a great friend, someone who tries to tame the world and make it kinder for herself and for others. She is also fat. No superimposition or apologies necessary. My hope for Maddie and Arthur’s story is that it can be an oasis for those who are still struggling to see the beauty and validity of their own bodies, those who have not made it to their stars—yet.

Read our review of Ashley Schumacher’s ‘The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway.’

Author photo of Ashley Schumacher courtesy of Hannah Meyers.

The author of The Renaissance of Gwen Hathaway explains why she hopes her new novel will be an oasis for readers “struggling to see the beauty and validity of their own bodies.”
Behind the Book by

Oliver Darkshire’s debut memoir, Once Upon a Tome, gives readers a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the oldest bookstores in the world—including its (possibly) haunted bric-a-brac, resolutely old-fashioned booksellers and dangerously towering stacks. In this Behind the Book essay, Darkshire tells the surprisingly modern story of how his book came to be.

I never intended to write a book. I was, in fact, against it for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was an apprentice rare book dealer, and I had no wish to add “author” to my list of impoverished career choices. It rather felt like adding insult to preexisting injury. Secondly, I’d become accustomed to the strange ways of the shop and had developed a form of Stockholm syndrome in which the daily parade of peculiarities and cryptids seemed almost normal to me. I’d deluded myself into considering my life somewhat prosaic, even as I yelled at a 70-year-old man to get down from the top shelf at once and he threw (mercifully poorly aimed) almanacs in my general direction. 

Lastly, and most importantly, if you get involved in the world of rare bookselling, you very quickly dive below the pristine, genteel surface into the dark underbelly. In the shadows of the collecting world, the habit cheerily referred to as “bibliomania” thrives in the damp and dark. Once one is lost to the urge of buying and collecting books, there really is no way back up the slippery slope to the daylight. It starts with a simple purchase of something nostalgic, and it ends when your body is found centuries later submerged in a tomblike ocean of first editions and literary ephemera. I often liken being in the business of antiquarian books to running a casino or dealing in illicit substances: You may sell to customers all you like, but you never sample the merchandise. My conscience could handle being involved in hawking books, as I could still muster some shred of denial as to the extent of my participation in organized crime, but the act of writing a book seemed like a step too far.

Read our starred review of ‘Once Upon a Tome’ by Oliver Darkshire.

It was the Twitter account that started this whole mess, vanity being the sin that leads to all such downfalls. As a bookstore, Henry Sotheran Ltd on Sackville Street in London has kept a low profile since the late 20th century. It’s been through phases of popularity and desolation since 1761 when it was founded, but it was enjoying a few decades of peace and quiet when I ruined everything. Thinking myself very clever, and with the confidence of the young, I decided I might “help” by taking on some of the social media. I also thought it might be nice to have a place to vent about the odd things that happened at the shop—though I did have to move a stuffed owl out of the way so I had enough room on my desk to plug in a mobile phone among the stacks of reference books my colleagues assured me were vitally necessary, and which I never found reason to open. 

It didn’t take long before a few stories that I leaked onto the internet—such as a thread about a singular and ill-fated visit from a Health and Safety inspector—threw the account into the public gaze, and it accelerated into the kind of popularity (or perhaps notoriety) an antiquarian bookseller dreads. Very soon my life was a frenzy of managing “likes,” which didn’t seem to mean anyone liked anything, “retweets,” which sounded like a hate crime, and direct messages, which were very confusing because Sotherans was still in the process of adjusting to the phenomenon of email (a dark art to be sure, but business is business). People would wander into the store asking for the person who “does the tweets,” and my quiet life was over. Pandora’s box was open, and it could not be closed again.

“It starts with a simple purchase of something nostalgic, and it ends when your body is found centuries later submerged in a tomblike ocean of first editions and literary ephemera.”

I don’t know if anyone in our musty old bookstore really knew what to make of our ever-increasing internet popularity. The notion of a “meme” was soundly ridiculed as inconsequential until I made a passing reference to my love of a tuna sandwich online, which took on a life of its own in the minds of our followers and eventually culminated in people sending us cans of tuna in the mail. My colleagues held the internet in the same esteem as a bucket of vipers: a situationally useful catalyst for change, if one is in particularly dire circumstances, but not something to be handled irresponsibly. As our following grew larger and more prominent, I found myself telling more and more of our tales and traditions to the wider public, who devoured them insatiably. A suspicious gourd? Tell us more, Oliver. A secret cellar in a forgotten basement? Give us pictures. 

One day, as I brushed dust off a case to try and get a peek inside (I was hunting for a copy of “The Iliad,” which it eventually turned out had been sold years earlier), the phone trilled in the self-satisfied way it always does when it interrupts you in the middle of something important. Sighing, I picked up the wretched device to see that I had a message from someone claiming to be a literary agent. He thought Sotherans would make a great topic for a book. Now, I wasn’t born yesterday, so I accused him of being a fraud and went back to my book hunting, satisfied with a job well done. Alas, he proved quite persistent. More messages appeared. Would I be interested in lunch? This was the fatal blow, as I can be lured almost anywhere with the promise of a tuna sandwich. 

Two years later, here I sit with a copy of Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller in hand. The stuffed owl looks at me reproachfully. I cover it with a tablecloth.

Headshot of Oliver Darkshire by Joshua Williams

When a rare book dealer took over a 262-year-old bookstore’s Twitter account, he got a lot more than he bargained for.
Behind the Book by

Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s eponymous new imprint gets off to a roaring start with acclaimed poet and editor Margot Douaihy’s debut mystery, Scorched Grace. Set in New Orleans, Scorched Grace follows Sister Holiday, a former punk rocker who investigates an arson spree that threatens her community. The endlessly fascinating character represents everything Douaihy loves about hard-boiled mysteries—and how they can move forward into a more complex and diverse future.

Mysteries are my enduring passions—and vital instruments of expression. As a closeted queer woman growing up in the scrappy city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, I made myself small. Searching for headstrong characters in books and on TV felt much safer than getting to know myself.

I tore through detective stories and I watched every PBS “Mystery!” program. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes were my North Stars—their certainty and ratiocination soothed me. Jessica Fletcher introduced me to the American cozy mystery and the fine art of meddling! But Raymond Chandler’s private investigator Philip Marlowe was my favorite fictional sleuth. 

Chandler’s devil-may-care brio and unsentimental yet poetic barbs were my playground. The voice-driven experience and gritty tone of his hard-boiled mysteries seduced me. My favorite PI characters bent the law when needed, collapsing the binary of criminality and justice. I hated Marlowe’s misogyny and dangerous stereotyping, but I was inspired by the opportunities for subtextual engagement. This thematic richness married with the pulse-pounding thrill of a murder mystery was too delicious to ignore. I turned my lifelong interests in mysteries, queer theory and nuanced female characterization into a creative praxis. The result is Sister Holiday, the unexpected sleuth and sardonic narrator of Scorched Grace.

In a reversal of the wiseguy archetype, my hard-nosed, hard-boiled sleuth is a 33-year-old, tatted-up nun who, as she tries to smoke out an arsonist, interrogates herself and her own imbricated identities. Sister Holiday is a budding detective who will one day take permanent vows with the Sisters of the Sublime Blood. If that seems like a wild dialectic, it should. Genre is a stable yet fluid space that invites the new into the familiar.

Read our starred review of ‘Scorched Grace’ by Margot Douaihy.

In The Long Goodbye, PI Marlowe describes himself as “a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. . . . I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things.” Sister Holiday is also a lone wolf, of a kind; an out queer woman when she lived in Brooklyn, she has since taken a provisional vow of celibacy as a novice nun in her New Orleans convent. But she still considers herself to be “extremely gay.” Sister Holiday is devout and unapologetically punk and queer. The more diversity we can bring to genre, the better. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed, there is real danger in the illusion of a “single story.” 

In her trenchant Crime Reads essay “The Unspoken Criminality of the Female PI,” Emily Edwards observes how canonical femmes of early PI stories “were fatales or Fridays, honeytraps or helpers. Rarely the sleuth in charge.” In my contribution to the genre, I wanted to join other feminist PI writers by giving Sister Holiday both decision-making agency and magnetism, with high camp and dark humor adding contours. She leverages her alterity and viewpoint to make surprising syntheses, connect disparate clues and take unconventional approaches.

A transgressive character needs transgressive interiority and exteriority. I used the cadence of prayers and song lyrics to blur clues, observations and memories in Sister Holiday’s narration. This let me seed red herrings and (re)direct the reader’s attention, fundamental elements of sleight of hand. With Holiday’s gold tooth and concealed tattoos, I tried to present the protagonist as a mysterious text herself, a code to be deciphered. My goal was to write a character that surprises herself and the reader, keeping everyone guessing until the very end.

Picture of Margot Douaihy by Chattman Photography.

Margot Douaihy reveals how she created Sister Holiday, the queer, crime-solving nun at the center of her debut mystery, Scorched Grace.
Behind the Book by

A tale of dragons and queens that sprawls across an entire world (and over several hundred pages), The Priory of the Orange Tree has become a modern fantasy classic in the eight years since its release. It was originally billed as a standalone novel, so fans were surprised and thrilled when Samantha Shannon announced not only that she was writing a prequel, A Day of Fallen Night, but also that even more books were to follow. In this essay, Shannon explains how the next installment in the Roots of Chaos series came to be.

When I started The Priory of the Orange Tree in 2015, I intended for it to be a standalone novel. Ever since I was young, I had dreamed of dragons—and from the start of my life as an author, I knew I wanted to write about them. It was just a question of when, and how. In 2015, I had my chance. 

That year, I submitted the first draft of The Song Rising, the third installment in my ongoing Bone Season septology. My editor was taking an unusually long time to get back to me, which left me without a project to work on. I would later discover that this was because I hadn’t quite hit the mark with the draft: The Song Rising would require a comprehensive overhaul (and remains the most troublesome book of my career to date). Unable to move on to the fourth installment until I knew the rough shape of the third, I had a window of opportunity to work on a book about dragons.  

I had never meant to write anything but the Bone Season series until all seven books were finished. I wanted to get each installment to my readers as swiftly as possible. Yet as I considered my situation, I realized that if I spent too long using just one voice and living in just one world, my craft could begin to stagnate. As a writer, I consider it crucial to push myself out of my comfort zone every once in a while, to ensure I can adapt and grow. For the sake of both the series and my own ability, I needed to branch out. 

“Ever since I was young, I had dreamed of dragons . . .”

I decided to return to third person—the perspective I had always used in my teens, before the protagonist of The Bone Season took me by surprise with her voice—and to take my first steps into a new subgenre: high fantasy. By doing this, I hoped to strengthen my creative muscles and cultivate a more lyrical and mature writing style, which I could then use to develop my protagonist’s voice in the Bone Season books. 

Between tough rounds of edits on The Song Rising, I worked on the manuscript of The Priory of the Orange. It soon ballooned in scope. Fitting an epic journey into the space of a single novel was a challenge, but I was resolved to do it. By the time it was done, I had built multiple countries, an enormous cast of characters and a backstory that stretched back for centuries. And I knew this world had more stories to tell. 

I was still determined not to commit to another long series. Ten years into writing the Bone books, I’m still in love with the story and characters, and I have to weigh my schedule carefully each time I consider working on something else. Despite my best efforts, writing Priory and its prequel, A Day of Fallen Night, has caused significant delays in the Bone Season series. I feel a great deal of guilt because of this, and it has, understandably, frustrated some of my long-term readers. At the same time, I can’t regret the dragon books. The Mask Falling, the fourth and most recent Bone Season installment, is by far the strongest—my favorite book of my career. I firmly believe this was because Priory improved my writing, as I suspected it would. Working on Priory was an alchemical process, allowing me to unlock another stage in the lifelong process of being a writer. 

When I decided to write another book in the world of Priory, I did it with a clear vision. My aim with the Roots of Chaos cycle is to write a series primarily made up of standalone novels. They will work together to tell an intergenerational story that spans thousands of years, but each may also be read as a self-contained story, hopefully in any order. This means readers aren’t left waiting for the story to continue—each book is its own adventure. 

Read our starred review of ‘A Day of Fallen Night’ by Samantha Shannon.

A Day of Fallen Night begins five centuries before Priory and covers the period known as the Grief of Ages, or Great Sorrow—a devastating war between wyrms and humankind. When I wrote the first book, I mentioned this period frequently and thought that exploring it further would be useful for demonstrating the magical imbalance that forms the bedrock of the series. During this era, siden (one of the two branches of magic, associated with flame and earth) spun out of control, birthing the fire-breathing wyrms. Showing this era would also allow me to explore parts of the world I had never managed to reach in the first book, such as the beautiful Queendom of Sepul and the snowbound North. 

I knew it was a gamble to start afresh with a new cast. Many readers have told me they connected with the characters in the first book. I initially worried that they might only want to see this world through those characters’ eyes—that even I might not be able to imagine it without them. By the end, however, I loved the new cast even more than the first. I can only hope they grow on readers, too.

Photo of Samantha Shannon by Louise Haywood Schiefer.

A Day of Fallen Night reveals the origins of the conflict between humans and wyrms—and blazes a trail for what’s to come.
Behind the Book by

The books I’ve written so far began almost accidentally. Not the day-to-day, year-to-year accumulation of words—no accidents there. But the inciting moment or the controlling idea that ended up as the buttress for the whole contraption was unplanned, and usually came from me just playing around with words. With Big Fish, I was passing the time taking care of my baby son and writing brief modern myths while he napped, and after a couple of years, I discovered I had enough of them to make a book. The Kings and Queens of Roam, a long and complicated story about two sisters, two men, blindness and revenge, began as a couple of pages about an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician was drawn from a character in a discarded screenplay.

This Isn’t Going to End Well, my first nonfiction book, followed this same script but in a different way. The accident didn’t come in the form of an unforeseen inspiration but in the accidental discovery of my brother-in-law’s journals, 10 years after he died. They were hidden in the back of a closet beneath the stairs of my sister Holly’s home, covered in dust and protected by a herd of camel crickets. My brother-in-law, the writer and artist William Nealy, died in 2001 by what the death certificate described as an “intra-oral gunshot wound.” Then in 2011, his wife, my sister Holly, died herself of what seemed like a dozen different things, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and grief. My remaining two sisters, my wife and I were cleaning out her house when I found the journals. There were about 15 of them, and they dated from 1977, when William was 25 years old. I put them all in a glass-doored bookcase in the hallway outside of my office and finished the novel I’d been working on, Extraordinary Adventures.

Read our starred review of ‘This Isn’t Going to End Well’ by Daniel Wallace.

Two years passed before I took them out of the bookcase. It took me that long to parse through all the incumbent taboos, the ethical considerations and my own desires. Were they mine to read? Did I even want to read his journals, and if I did, why? What did I think I’d get out of that? William’s suicide was, like all suicides, the kind of tragedy that changes the course of many lives; even after 13 years, it felt fresh. And though he’d left three long suicide notes, two to Holly and one to his mother, they somehow felt insufficient to explain what at the time I saw as the ultimate betrayal of my sister, of me, of everyone who loved or knew him. I was mad at him for killing himself and stayed that way for a long time. But eventually I dove in, was mesmerized from the very first page and knew almost immediately that I would be writing about this, about him—that William’s story would become a book. To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.

But this was a bit of a leap. I’d never written a book of nonfiction before, had never wanted to, had no idea how to go about it. Even so, I thought, all writing is hard; how much harder could it be?

As I discovered over the next five years, very hard. Very. Very. Very hard.

Each book presents its own challenges, its own problems to solve. You would think that with practice a writer could skate from book to book without breaking a sweat. But nothing about writing has gotten easier for me, and each book has taken longer than the last to finish. So I was ready for a learning curve. But writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.

“To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.”

I was drawn to becoming a fiction writer in the first place because of the freedom of that form. In a novel I’m constrained by logic and time and character, but I’m in charge of the constraints; I make up the rules I am then expected to follow. In writing a so-called true story, you enter a world that’s already been created, telling a story that has already happened and maybe already been told. A novel is a story only one person (the novelist) has access to; a story about an actual person is a story dozens, maybe hundreds of people know at least a small part of. If you knew my brother-in-law, or my sister, or me, you are in some tangential way a part of the story; you have feelings about it, about him. This meant that in order to write the book, I actually had to leave my office and talk to people. I had to interview them. I recorded conversations and quoted from them or used them as “background.” Suddenly it was as if I were collaborating with a small village.

This turned out to be more fun than I thought it would be. I was able to see old friends and meet new ones, and as a reporter, I got to ask them questions a civilian could never get away with.

On a craft level, I didn’t know how to create a scene from my own life that’s as compelling as one I could make up, with all the bells and whistles of inventive possibility. Is imagination possible in this ready-made world I was writing about?

Yes—kind of. It’s not really imagination, though. Writing nonfiction is closer to reimagination, where you’re calling forth a memory and giving it life on the page. Memories half a century old are dim, fragile and fleeting. You have to pin them down the best you can and take a long look at them, editing them for meaning and clarity and supplying supporting details (what the room looked like, what the weather was like that day, what you were wearing) that might be, at best, stabs in the dark.

“Writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.”

But the hardest part of this project was writing a book about people I knew and loved. There was so much I wanted to say about them! So many stories. The first few drafts of this book were twice as long as the final version ended up being, which is not unique for early drafts. But each time I had to cut a scene, I felt like I was cutting out a part of their lives, and I believed (and still believe) that without all these stories the reader wouldn’t get to know them for who they were. The story, for instance, of William hunting down the man who stole the motor off my mother’s pool filter, or how he tried to save a man’s life at the drugstore. And what about the time Edgar (William’s best friend who died in 1993) was robbed and tied to a chair in a hotel room, left there until he was discovered by the staff eight hours later? The time Holly wrote a song about our father and rented a recording studio to record it? And so many other cool things. I could write another book about them, I think. And maybe I will.

This Isn't Going to End Well audiobook cover
Read our starred review of the audiobook, narrated by Michael Crouch.

This Isn’t Going to End Well isn’t “drawn from life,” the way my novels are; it’s full of people who actually existed, same as you and me. In this book I’m not trying to create or imagine a life, I’m trying to reconstruct one. I think I’m also trying to resurrect my sister, my brother-in-law, their best friend—a risky enterprise (see: “The Monkey’s Paw”). In this book I share details from their lives that would embarrass them, were they here, and, in some cases, get them into a lot of trouble. But they’re not embarrassed or in trouble because that’s one of the pluses of not being alive. Which is the real difference between this book and all the others I’ve written, and the most stubborn of facts I can’t deny or get around: Their deaths are what made it possible.

Headshot of Daniel Wallace by Mallory Cash

The acclaimed novelist wondered how hard writing a memoir could really be. As it turned out: very, very, very hard.
Behind the Book by

The main character of Some Desperate Glory, Emily Tesh’s debut novel, is a vicious, ambitious teenage girl brought up in an isolated community of humans intent on avenging the destruction of Earth. Kyr is anything but “likable”—and, according to Tesh, that’s the point.

A few years ago, I had an idea for a novella. I thought of it as something squarely in my comfort zone: a cute little queer romance between two very different people, one of them Large and the other Chatty. (If you have read my Greenhollow Duology, cute queer romance novellas about Large Gruff Type x Chatty Weirdo is about as precisely my style as it is possible for a story to be.) The fun part of this one would be the setting—in space!—and actually, perhaps there could be a cute alien involved? And I’d just been rewatching “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which contains one of my favorite villain-to-awkward-teammate arcs of all time, so could I maybe do a Zuko thing?

I wrote one scene: the protagonist reenacting the death of the Earth, racing against time to save a doomed world, sacrificing their own life and still failing. It’s still the opening scene of the book, almost unchanged from that rapid first draft. But after I got 500 words into my cute little romance, I thought: This isn’t cute. This isn’t little. And this would be better if it were about the Zuko-esque character’s awful sister.

“Girls don’t get to be shitheads. And if they are, they don’t get any sympathy.”

I’d spent years mostly writing stories with male protagonists. But I changed all the pronouns in my opening scene, and suddenly I had a monstrous, cruel, ambitious, abused, horrendously angry beast of a character: Kyr. She began as an echo of Azula, a major antagonist in “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” who unlike her brother, Zuko, never gets a redemption arc or a second chance.

Kyr is awful. She really, truly sucks. I found that being subtle about it didn’t work; we have expectations about teenage girl characters, words like “relatable” and “likable.” Male characters are allowed to be complex, difficult, morally gray, even outright shitheads and still get sympathetic antihero arcs. But female characters aren’t supposed to behave that way. Girls don’t get to be shitheads. And if they are, they don’t get any sympathy.

I didn’t want anyone to mistake Kyr for “relatable” and “likable.” If you want to write a villain redemption arc, you have to start with a villain.

Read our review of ‘Some Desperate Glory’ by Emily Tesh.

Kyr is the villain. The monster girl, the unlovable and unworthy. I remember writing an early scene in which she mercilessly bullies a small child in a glowing triumph of self-righteous arseholery and thinking, is this clear enough? Will they even let me do this? Do I have to tone her down? I was a long way outside my creative comfort zone. But you can feel it, as a writer, when the thematic underpinnings are locking into place: justice or vengeance, heroism or self-destruction, the past or the future. Kyr proves in that original opening scene that she can do what every lovable teen protagonist has to do sooner or later: sacrifice herself to save the world. I had to spend the whole book turning her inside out, remaking her, undoing her, until she finally found a way to do the opposite: sacrifice her cruel and narrow and hateful world in order to save herself.

Picture of Emily Tesh by Nicola Sanders Photography.

In Emily Tesh’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’-inspired debut, Some Desperate Glory, a teenage girl realizes her community is a militaristic cult.
Behind the Book by

Claire Forrest’s first YA novel, the effervescent and emotional Where You See Yourself, follows its protagonist, Effie Galanos, through her final year of high school. As a wheelchair user, Effie has been treated as an “obstacle” by her school, and she hopes that things will be different at a prestigious, big-city college. To get there, she’ll have to find the courage to speak up about what she wants—and what she needs. In this essay, Forrest recalls her own commencement ceremony and offers some advice for this year’s graduating seniors.  

The year is 2009, and I sit wearing a bright purple polyester gown at my high school graduation. One of my classmates delivers the commencement speech, something about how grades aren’t the be-all and end-all of life. I try to take it in, because this is the moment, right? Everything I feel, every decision I make from here on out, feels vitally important.

When I remember my high school graduation now, I think about how the district chose a venue that wasn’t accessible to everyone. One of my classmates and I had been told that sitting in the cushioned auditorium seats, with our wheelchairs in the aisle next to us, would be a fire hazard. Instead, we were assigned seating across the room, away from our peers, and we weren’t allowed to march in procession with our class. We decided to go against what we had been told and, choosing to miss the ceremony’s opening remarks, rolled through back hallways and down the aisle like we should have been allowed. There was no pomp and circumstance for us.

At the time, though? I pushed that down. This was my graduation day, and just once, I wanted to be “normal.” It took many years of unlearning what society taught me to realize that being disabled is normal. The long process of learning that I can hold “disabled” and “normal” in both hands is what led me to write Where You See Yourself.

And so, with all due respect to our class speaker, although I agree that grades don’t define you, I wish that day that I could have told myself some other things instead.

Adults all around me said that college would be “the best years of your life.” I would have told myself that there would be no singular best years of my life. Every year has had its own mix of joy, heartbreak, challenges, memories and uncertainty. I would tell myself to make the most of my next four years, but that they won’t define me.

“The long process of learning that I can hold ‘disabled’ and ‘normal’ in both hands is what led me to write ‘Where You See Yourself.'”

Instead of focusing on my fear of moving away from dear friends, I’d tell myself to focus on the fact that I hadn’t yet met everyone who was going to love me. I will never be done making friends. There are so many inside jokes yet to be made, so many hourslong phone calls to be had.

I wish I’d known that those friendships would ebb and flow. That I would learn how to bless and release those relationships that have particular seasons that run their course, and that’s OK. I would advise myself to see things not just from my side but from my friends’ viewpoints as well. Like Effie and Harper, the best friends in my book, I would need to learn how to humble myself and apologize to those I love dearly when I was in the wrong. I also would need to learn how to express my needs so that those friendships could continue to grow and to change.

When it comes to being disabled—yeah, that thing I was pushing deep down in my pursuit of “normal”—I would have told myself that the people who love me would do the wrong thing sometimes, or wouldn’t speak up when I wished they had. There would be times I’d wish I would’ve spoken up for myself, too. Advocacy of any kind involves making mistakes. I would cringe. I would learn. I would do better next time.

I wish I’d known that a college professor would say the word ableism in class one day, and it would be the first time I’d ever hear of it. Later, when I’d Google it in my dorm room, it would crack my heart open in a way nothing ever had before. Learning about that would be the key to unlearning so many things in my life.

I wish someone had told me that being in a wheelchair doesn’t make me undateable. I wish someone told me that being dateable doesn’t define my worth.

I would tell myself that I was not, in fact, starting on the singular path to the rest of my life. I would always be pivoting, and for as many times as I’d start over—in my jobs, my relationships, the stories I’ve left unfinished—none of those new starts would wipe my slate clean. I would never be starting from scratch. I would learn as much from every wrong turn as I would from every right one.

I would tell myself that as much as I want to leave high school in the rearview mirror, my memories and feelings about that time would have a way of popping up again, much like how the songs from Taylor Swift’s Fearless album that I blasted through my headphones as a teen would get remastered and remixed when I was in my 30s. That I would start to think about how what we were told about fire hazards at graduation, and all the other inaccessibility issues throughout my schooling, really was just plain wrong. I would wish I knew then what I know now, and to address those complicated feelings, I would start to write a book. I might have been done with high school, but high school wouldn’t be done with me.

I wish I could have told myself all of this that day as I sat in the aisle in that hideous purple gown. I’m also glad I knew none of it.

So to readers embarking on their life after high school, I’ll say this: When it comes down to it, all you can do to figure out the rest of your life is to start. Your future is before you—everything, all of it. Go write your first page. But do so with the comfort of knowing you can always, always revise it.

Read our review of Claire Forrest’s ‘Where You See Yourself.’

The debut YA author reflects on what she wishes she could have told herself on her high school graduation day—and what she’d say to the class of 2023.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Behind the Books