She wears impractically high heels, no matter where she goes.
She’s always on a treadmill or a stationary bike, barking orders at her long-suffering assistant via her AirPods.
When she gets off the elevator, she hurls her jacket out and expects someone to materialize and catch it—and place a perfectly heated latte in her hand at the same time.
She’s the archetypical Big City Woman, and I love her. Perhaps more importantly, I’m curious about her. Every time some new iteration of her shows up in a show or movie or book, I find myself wondering where she’s coming from, and when the last page ends or the credits roll, I wonder where she’s headed.
That’s where Book Lovers—in its earliest draft, titled City Person—came from: my fascination not only with this kind of character and her potential origins but also with the way that stories tend to treat her. Like she’s someone else’s cautionary tale, a villain to be defeated, the foil to the small-town sweetheart the hero actually belongs with.
In this last scenario, she’s often a symbol of the life the hero needs to leave behind. She’s an addendum to the high-pressure job that keeps him from answering his parents’ phone calls. The one calling to check on how his business trip is going and to hound him for taking so long when the mass firing he was supposed to conduct at the local toy factory should have been an in-and-out job.
She’s representative of the shallow, empty life he needs to break free from to take hold of his happy ending.
Don’t get me wrong: I love these kinds of transformational fish-out-of-water stories.
I’m also a big believer in not taking one particular character’s journey as an indictment of a different kind of journey. Just because one guy decides to give up his high-powered job in the city to work at his new girlfriend’s small-town bakery doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. It takes all types, and no one type is any more or less worthy of love.
But what does it say if this one character, the high-strung Big City Woman, only ever shows up to act as another woman’s foil, to prove how worthy and good that other woman is by comparison?
Or if, when the Big City Woman finally gets her love story, it’s the same kind as the ones she’s been making cameos in for all these years? The kind where she leaves her life in the city, meets a man who’s her polar opposite and finds the true meaning of life on a charming Christmas tree farm.
What does it say about the way we see women like this if they’re never allowed a love story unless it hinges on them giving up everything we find so compelling about them?
That’s why I wrote Book Lovers. Not just because I thought it would be a blast to figure out what made this kind of woman tick but because I wanted to give her a different story, one where she wasn’t a foil or a villain or a cautionary tale but just another person, deserving of life-changing love and a happy ending—herversion, not somebody else’s.
Photo of Emily Henry by Devyn Glista, St. Blanc Studios.
In her latest romance, Book Lovers, Emily Henry celebrates the much-maligned archetype of the urban career woman.
Literature has always had the power to create realities around itself. Indeed, this ability has been one of fiction’s obsessions over centuries. As different literary devices come in and out of style throughout history, one of them has remained relevant for at least a couple of millennia: the framed narrative. We are all familiar with this form of storytelling, which can be found in works as dissimilar as the Odyssey, the One Thousand and One Nights, the Decameron and Ethan Frome. For expediency’s sake, here’s a made-up example:
The express train had been streaking through the stormy night for hours, which is why it was curious that the man who came into my compartment was shivering and soaked to the bone. He took the seat opposite mine, wiped his face, and, after struggling to light a wet cigarette, started to speak in a whisper that grew louder as he warmed up:
This, of course, is followed by the story that explains how the man came to hop on board a fast-moving train in the middle of the night. But that’s not quite relevant right now. The most important part of this example is that final colon. This is the graphic boundary between two different planes of reality—and what a beautiful coincidence it is that the colon should resemble a hinge! Of course, not all framed narratives feature this punctuation mark (although a lot of them do: Borges, a master of the framed tale, often uses them just like this), but it provides a helpful way of seeing how these two levels interact. On this side of the colon, what passes for the real world; on the other side, the realm of storytelling.
Part of why this is such a successful device has to do with the geography of the text. The frame is quite literally closer to you, the reader, than the story it contains. And it’s this physical closeness to reality (to the person holding the book) that makes the framing story more believable. Meanwhile, the framed story, by virtue of being removed, serves as a tacit reminder of that closeness. (Also, the soaked man’s tale may turn out to be outlandish, but wouldn’t that, by contrast, make the circumstances of the narrator in the compartment even more plausible and believable?) We experience this more acutely in those stories where we forget there was a frame, only to, in the final chapter, return to it. After the soaked man’s account of his adventures, we find ourselves, once again, in the safety of the compartment. The feeling upon returning to the frame—and this is quite telling—can resemble that of waking up from a dream. We are back in “the real world.” In short, framed stories create a gradation of reality. And in this scale, the frame is the closest we can get to the referential world.
Yet when we read Don Quixote, Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights, we think of the knight-errant fighting windmills, of the creature seeking revenge on its creator, of the mercurial antihero roaming the Yorkshire moors. These are the characters and events that immediately come to mind. However, this is not what these novels are, strictly speaking, about. Don Quixote is about a person reading a translation of an Arabic manuscript. Frankenstein is about a sea captain writing letters to his sister. Wuthering Heights is about a housekeeper talking by the fire as she does her needlework. This is all that happens in these novels—on this side of the colon. The fact that we tend to forget these scenes containing the stories shows how effective these frames are at mimicking “the real thing.” Because it is always there, reality can afford to be taken for granted, disregarded and even forgotten.
These stories (about the mad knight, the friendless monster, the haunted lover) have severed their ties to the referential world. They are quite literally surrounded by fiction (the tales about the translator, the captain, the servant). Their context is no longer life but literature. This, of course, enhances the verisimilitude and lifelikeness of the novels—because literature is no longer trying to copy anything outside itself.
Framed narratives show us something important about the way in which we understand the world through fiction. If a proper context can be created around a story, it will stand a much better chance of being believed, since the parameters of truthfulness have been established beforehand. The referent for this sort of fiction is another fiction. And it is we, in the end, who have been framed.
These were some of the thoughts behind my latest novel, Trust. What is the relationship between literature and reality? To what extent is our everyday life a framed narrative? And what are the stories that frame our quotidian experience?
I became interested in how many historical accounts regularly reveal themselves to be, at least to some extent, fabrications—narratives distorted for political gain. Still, these fictions have a direct impact on our lives. Although we know that with some regularity they will be questioned, transformed and even debunked, a great part of our identity is defined by these stories.
Another of these public fictions is money. It’s an all-encompassing illusion with all-too-real effects. There’s nothing material or tangible that links a dollar bill to the value it represents (and in this, money resembles language). Its value is the result of a long series of conventions. It’s make-believe. All money is, at heart, play money. And all of us have gathered, voluntarily or not, around the board.
Trust, then, explores the very material consequences fiction can have. The book is made up of four different “documents”—a novel-within-the novel, two memoirs and a diary—and the reader is enlisted as a textual detective in order to come up with a possible version of the truth behind these stories. Part of this quest will challenge the contracts we enter into when we engage with narratives of any kind—literary, historical, political, financial. More than asking itself how literature imitates life, Trust interrogates how the stories we tell shape the world around them. We understand the world through stories. Is it that surprising, then, that their texture, slant and tone should condition what we perceive to be true?
I wouldn’t say that Trust, as a whole, is a framed narrative in a traditional sense. But each layer in the novel creates a reality for the others. It’s hard to reveal more without giving too much away. Let’s just say, expanding the little example I made up at the beginning of this essay, that once the soaked man is done with his story, neither his listener nor the reader will be so sure about that train’s destination.
I was only six months late turning in The Puzzler to my publisher. I say “only” because, honestly, I’m shocked I finished writing this book at all.
This is for two reasons. First, like most writers, I hate writing. By which I mean, the actual act of writing: sitting in a room alone, hunched over the keyboard, struggling through sentence after sentence with no feedback for weeks or months. I much prefer, as Dorothy Parker quipped, having written.
Second, I love the subject matter of my book. This may not seem like a problem at first glance, but it turned out to be a huge challenge. The trouble was that I loved the topic too much.
I’ve been a puzzle nerd since childhood, when I’d spend my days poring over Games magazine and drawing huge pencil mazes that filled up my living room. When I decided to write a book on the history, joy and science of puzzles, it meant my research would consist of, in part, doing puzzles all day—crosswords, Sudoku, jigsaws, mazes, logic puzzles. I’d start my morning of “work” by doing a crossword puzzle. But after finishing one from the Wall Street Journal, I’d tell myself, “Well, I should probably do the crossword from New York Magazine too. It’s research, after all!” After I finished that, I’d say, “Maybe I should also do the crossword from The Week.” This went on for hours every day.
Was this useful research that would yield insightful passages in my book? No. But I’m a puzzle addict, and I’m good at self-delusion. So I’d continue my “research.”
The thing is, I’ve always preferred researching my books to writing them. As a nonfiction writer whose mission is to immerse myself in my topics, I like nothing better than diving deep into a subject. I wrote about religion in a book called The Year of Living Biblically, which is exactly what it sounds like. I spent a year following all the rules of the Bible as literally as possible, from obeying the Ten Commandments to growing a huge Moses-like beard. The research was a joy; I relished learning about every obscure part of the Bible.
But this book on puzzles was on another level. The research for this one was just too alluring, like brain candy. I embarked on this puzzle book after spending several months working on another book, about the post-truth era, and finding it slow going. So my agent, who knows I’m a puzzle-head, suggested I write about my passion, and my editor at Crown kindly let me switch topics.
Immediately, I was joyfully overwhelmed. I went down hundreds of rabbit holes. I even went down a rabbit hole about the phrase “rabbit holes,” which is from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book that contains dozens of puzzles. For my chapter on secret codes, I spent three days trying to decipher the encoded teenage diary of legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow. That ended up resulting in about five words in the final book.
Then I started researching a chapter on Sudoku and other Japanese grid-based puzzles. The problem is, there are many, many variations on Sudoku—hundreds of them, with names like “Moon or Sun” or “Two Not Touch.” I convinced myself I should try them all out for the sake of comprehensiveness. That took days out of my schedule. It was as if I were a food writer doing an article about spaghetti and had convinced myself I had to try every form of pasta ever created, from tagliatelle to pappardelle.
But I couldn’t help myself. I love the feeling of doing puzzles. I love the aha! moment, that rush of dopamine, when you solve it. I love that feeling of certainty in this increasingly uncertain world: There is a right answer, and I’m going to find it!
I knew I had to eventually distill all this research into a written text, but I dreaded it. I find the writing part lonely, depressing even. As James Joyce said, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.”
Partly, the pain is due to the lack of feedback. After having written, I love to give talks at bookstores, where I can see the audience’s faces. I can see if they’re laughing or if their eyes sparkle—or if they’re busy looking at their phones. I love the immediacy of it. During the initial writing phase, though, months often go by before I get any response.
So how’d I finally buckle down and write the darn thing? I give credit to puzzles.
A few months into writing The Puzzler, I had a conceptual breakthrough: What if I reframed the act of writing? Instead of seeing it as a chore to finish, what if I saw the act of writing itself as a puzzle? When I had to arrange the chapters, I decided to see them as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and this was empowering. It was, if not fun, at least not torture.
As I solved each writing problem, I focused on the aha! moment and learned to relish it. Consider my chapter on secret codes, for example. Much of it is devoted to a sculpture on the grounds of the CIA’s headquarters, part of what is considered one of the hardest unsolved puzzles in the world. (The sculpture itself contains a secret code that not even the CIA has cracked.) “Well,” I thought, “what if I wrote this chapter as if it were a spy thriller?” Puzzle solved. I got my dopamine hit.
And it turns out, reframing problems as puzzles became one of the big themes of The Puzzler. I’m an advocate of what I call the Puzzle Mindset. Instead of seeing the world as a series of hard-to-win battles, I try to view it as a puzzle—to see the world through the eyes of an engineer, not a warrior. Even using the word puzzle can help. When I hear about the climate crisis, I want to curl up in a fetal position. But if I think about the climate puzzle, I feel motivated to find solutions.
Without the Puzzle Mindset, this book would still only be about 10% written—if that.
It was all fun and games until he had to actually sit down and write his latest book.
Jenny Tinghui Zhang, a Texas-based Chinese American writer, holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Wyoming, and she is now a prose editor at The Adroit Journal. Her first novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, reveals storytelling skills both vast and specific, bringing shadowy history to light while also displaying a remarkable talent for sensory detail.
Zhang was inspired to write this incredible story after receiving a request from her father, a man of boundless curiosity who has explored nearly every inch of his adopted country. Once Zhang completed the book, her father returned to the site where the novel’s finale occurs.
In 2014, my father was driving through the Pacific Northwest for work. One evening, while making his way through Idaho, he passed a small town called Pierce. His headlights caught a historical marker on the side of the road. He saw, in those lights, the words “Chinese Hanging Tree.” The marker detailed an event in 1885 when five Chinese men were hanged by white vigilantes for the alleged murder of a local white store owner.
My father carried that story with him all the way back to Texas. During one of my visits home, he told me about the marker and asked if I could write it into a story so he could figure out what really happened. His research online had yielded few results, he lamented.
I took the request as a joke. My father has always entertained many curiosities. He’s an Aquarius, a perpetual fixer, a man who reads books about the universe and math and string theory for fun. When he was a child, my father had the kind of mischievous and inquisitive energy that eventually matured into a certain genius. He refused to sit and ride the bus, preferring to hang off the back and balance on the bumper. He played clever pranks on his parents. In high school, he joined the high jump team—back when the conventional jumping form was to do so headfirst.
When my parents immigrated to Oxford, Mississippi, for graduate school in the early 1990s, there was no room for that kind of man. They lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in the married graduate student housing section on the Ole Miss campus, just down the way from the fraternities. They attended classes and worked multiple jobs that paid as little as $2 an hour. And they tried to raise me. Our tenure in America and the fulfillment of their American dream—all of that would be hopeless without a job following my parents’ graduation, the responsibility for which rested on my father’s shoulders. At one point, he flew out to San Jose, California, for the trial period of a job that had the potential to turn into a permanent position. My mother and I waited in Oxford, hoping that this would be the one. He called and spoke about the weather, how the job was going, the mountains that braced the city. I was always worried he wouldn’t make it back home.
In the end, my father got that job. His company moved us to Austin, where we upgraded to a nice two-bedroom apartment right across from the Barton Creek Mall. When my mother and I visited him at his office, my father proudly showed us the break room, where we could grab handfuls of free coffee creamer and play pool. He looks unstoppable, I remember thinking as I watched my father hold court in that break room.
A few years later, that same company let my father go in a series of layoffs. I came home from school one day and was confused to see him already there. “Your dad got laid off today,” he told me, smiling wide. It was a maniacal kind of smile; there was no joy behind it. Over the next two years, my father would stay rooted at the computer, scrolling through job sites and updating his resume. When the phone rang occasionally, he would leap up to take calls from recruiters. I always felt an oppressive hope during these calls—maybe this would be the one. But things never worked out for him, whether it was because he lacked the skill set, or the English, to make the final rounds.
With our finances and my college attendance on the line, my father accepted a job at Time Warner Cable as a field technician. He spent his days driving around Austin and climbing poles, helping old ladies with their cable boxes, fixing wires and signals. It wasn’t the job he dreamed of having with his engineering degree, but it was something.
My parents moved out of Austin years ago, but I remain here. When they come visit me, my father always speaks about the city with a familiarity that can only come from having crawled every inch of it, for better or worse. Your dad did a job there, he tells me about Montopolis, Anderson Lane, Travis Heights. The gated neighborhoods of West Austin. The now-gentrified pockets of East Austin. I wonder if he is telling me, or reminding himself.
Today my father has a different job, one that takes him all over the United States—places that most folks only ever pass through to reach their final destinations. His job is to seek out these forgotten, overlooked places in order to determine where the signal for his company’s radios falters.
It sounds lonely and excruciating to me, and I often worry about his safety out in these primarily rural areas, but my father loves it. His job has allowed his curiosities to grow, unrestricted by the walls of a cubicle. He makes pit stops to inspect strange roadside attractions, takes pictures of the mountains in Oregon, orders beers at steakhouses in Virginia. He shares these artifacts and stories with me and my mother, leading us down long, meandering thought experiments of what really happened and wouldn’t it be funny if. When he is out there, driving through the endless fields, hills and forests, I know that there is all the room in the world for the kind of man he is, the one who was put aside in my family’s desperation for a stable foothold in America.
It was this exploration that led him to that historical marker in Pierce. Just another pit stop. Another curiosity along the way. My father asked me to write out the story of what happened, and I did. It turned into my debut novel, Four Treasures of the Sky. I took the story he told me and worked my way backward to an imagined beginning. What I didn’t realize was that the story was not really about what happened in Pierce. It turned out to be about a girl named Daiyu who is kidnapped from her home in China and shipped across the ocean to America before making her way back home through the American West.
This journey is not without struggle, as you can imagine. Faced with the threat of bad men and women, anti-Chinese racism and the question of fate, Daiyu pushes forward, traversing strange landscapes and lonely days. Her journey takes her to places I have never wandered, but places I imagine my father has and will. Perhaps unconsciously, I am thinking of him when I think of her.
Right before the COVID-19 pandemic, my parents decided that they would start traveling more for pleasure. They went to Rome—the first trip abroad they’ve ever taken in their 30 years in America, not counting all the trips back to China to care for their parents. We were never able to travel much during the years when my father didn’t have a job, but for the first time, they could imagine Paris, London, Washington, D.C. They wanted to visit New York City, having worked there as a delivery runner and a hostess during their grad school years. This time, they would experience it as tourists, not two people trying to survive.
When the pandemic hit, all of those dreams disappeared. Instead, my mother began accompanying my father on his work trips. It’s a good deal: When my father is done with his job assignment, he turns into a tour guide of sorts, taking my mother to the roadside attractions, national forests and waterfalls he finds on Google Maps. My mother is a good adventure partner. They wander together, propelled by my father’s curiosities.
Last summer, my father got another job assignment in Bend, Oregon. My mother went with him, and after the job finished, they drove over to Idaho, to Pierce. I had begged them not to—I was afraid that they would be attacked, given what was in the news lately. But my parents went anyway. They walked through the town, all 0.82 square miles of it, and documented their journey, sending me videos and pictures of the historical markers, the inns, the fire department, the old courthouse. They walked to the woods nearby, back to the historical marker that started it all.
In the videos, taken by my mother, my father walks ahead, charting the course for the Chinese Hanging Tree. The forest floor is lush and verdant. The pines shoot upward. My father overcomes hills, skips down valleys, cuts through the trees. He is wearing a pale blue polo and baseball cap. His hands are at his waist. When they reach the site of the hanging, my parents stop. The camera points upward, to the ceiling of branches and leaves, and what little sky can manage its way through. It catches my father in this shot: He is looking around, breathing hard.
“It’s just here,” he murmurs. There is no sentimentality in his voice, no grand gesture of reunion. Just acknowledgment and the respect of observation. The true pleasure of his exploration, I realize as I watch the video, is in sharing it with those he loves. His stories are not simply just thought experiments; they are reminders that no matter where he is, he is always thinking about us. In a way, Four Treasures of the Sky is my attempt to tell him a story, too.
The camera points back down, this time stopping at my father. “Now that we’ve seen it,” he says, “we can go.” He turns, plodding his way through the brush, making his way toward whatever curiosity comes next.
Zhang’s author photos by Mary Inhea Kang
Jenny Tinghui Zhang makes her debut with Four Treasures of the Sky, a spirited tale of Chinese calligraphy and one girl’s journey of self-acceptance in late 19th-century America, inspired by a request from her father.
Many readers became familiar with Ashley Woodfolk via her contributions to Blackout, last summer’s collaborative YA smash success co-authored by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon. In her new novel, Nothing Burns as Bright as You, Woodfolk’s prose blazes like an inferno as she tells the story of two girls whose connection flickers between best friendship and deep, complicated love. Riveting and powerful, it’s Woodfolk’s best work yet. Here, she explores how embracing vulnerability allowed her to craft a novel fueled by pure emotion.
Every writer I know has a preoccupation with a single subject, a thing they can’t help but write about. If you look at any author’s body of work, you can almost always find a thread of thematic sameness permeating their writing, an echo of something that haunts their stories like a ghost. Maybe it’s the impossible pursuit of perfection, and their characters are always striving to be the cleverest or prettiest or best version of whoever they are, but failing again and again. Maybe it’s an obsession with acceptance, and their novels examine all the ways humans can feel excluded and all the desperate things we do to feel worthy of love. As for me, I use my novels to dig into the painful inevitability of loss.
I have always been someone who feels deeply and intensely. Sadness for me is a black hole sucking at the universe; happiness, an endless fireworks display. For years I’d felt like my emotions were too much: too big, too wild or too overwhelming for other people. This was rooted in loss, in a fear of it, because I’d lost numerous friends and partners after I showed them all of me. So I learned to shrink. I cried in secret. I laughed at things that hurt my feelings. I swallowed my fear and dimmed my joy and ignored my own anger. These decisions to hide my true feelings felt like safety. It seemed like this limited, more palatable version of me was the version that made people stick around.
Enter: the pandemic. COVID-19 has forced so many of us to confront loss, literally and figuratively. We’ve lost millions of human lives, job security, money and both physical and emotional closeness with friends and family. We’ve had to cancel plans, to say goodbye to the normalcy that used to govern our lives, and we’ve lost so much time.
Facing loss head-on in this way forced my hand when it came to how much of myself I showed the world. I no longer had the energy to hide the real me, and as people who couldn’t take Ashley-at-full-volume fell away, I saw so many things more clearly. While I know now that my emotions were always valid—that my deep capacity for empathy and full-bodied feelings is in fact a superpower—the world being on fire stoked the flame that had always been burning inside me. And feeling my feelings in all their untamed glory made me braver when it came to my writing.
While I’m proud of all my novels, Nothing Burns as Bright as You has a rawness and vulnerability that, before the pandemic, I had been too afraid to show. My first book, The Beauty That Remains, deals with the aftermath of untimely death. Each character in that book has lost someone close to them unexpectedly, and the novel is threaded through with how music and friendship help them all grieve. When You Were Everything is a novel about a friendship breakup, and what it’s like to slowly lose the person who knows you best, in a way you can’t seem to stop. And in my series, Flyy Girls, each character loses something too: their reputation, a brother, their innocence, a dream.
In all of these novels, I couch the feelings of my characters in very concrete, understandable devices. There is always a reason for their sadness, an explanation for their obsessions, an answer to all their questions. I think this was just another way I was hiding. In my latest novel, I hide nothing.
The experience of writing Nothing Burns as Bright as You was unlike writing any of my other books. Once I let go of rationality and leaned fully into what comes naturally to me—feeling—this book poured out of me. It is a story that shows what it feels like to be a troublemaker, to be a Black girl, to be in love with your best and only friend. It is about the push and pull of codependency, recognizing toxicity in others and in yourself, learning your worth no matter the cost. It’s about loss—of innocence, of expectations, of relationships you want to last forever. And it examines my own latent queerness, something I had ignored and suppressed for years. With this novel, I was finally able to grieve the queer girlhood I never got to fully experience without the filter that characterized my earlier work. The result is the most emotionally honest novel I’ve ever written.
What I learned over the course of the pandemic, in therapy and through writing this book is that while my feelings are real, they are my responsibility and no one else’s. It is my right to feel whatever I feel fully, but it is also my job to choose how I allow my feelings to affect others. Learning to separate feelings and behavior has been key to identifying and healing some of my own toxic behaviors. I now know it was often my reactions, not my feelings, that played a role in some of my most painful relationship losses, and I hope this book can be equally illuminating for readers.
Emotions don’t always make sense, but before Nothing Burns as Bright as You, I was afraid to write a character who felt as wildly as I did, afraid she would be brushed off or misunderstood. Sometimes you love a person just because they love you, you make decisions because they feel right in your gut, you change the course of your whole life because of a single sentence someone says. I wanted to write fearlessly—to write a novel that was full of pure, maybe volatile, but always true feeling. I hope I succeeded.
Author photo of Ashley Woodfolk courtesy of Ashley Woodfolk.
Bestselling YA author Ashley Woodfolk reveals why Nothing Burns as Bright as You is her most “emotionally honest” book yet.
Allison Saft’s second YA novel, A Far Wilder Magic, is an enchanting fantasy tale about two young people, Margaret and Wes, who are drawn together in pursuit of a mythical fox purported to hold alchemical power. Throughout the story, Saft creates magic that feels astonishingly real. Here, she offers a deeper look at A Far Wilder Magic and explores how she gave life to the imaginary world of New Albion.
The idea for A Far Wilder Magic came to me in a glimmer of what felt like magic. For much of 2019, writing felt impossible. I’d recently finished revisions on what would become my debut novel, moved halfway across the country and was desperately trying to figure out what my next idea would be. I wrote a quarter of a new book and immediately trunked it. I despaired that I would never fall in love with a book again.
In writing circles, inspiration is often figured as a lightning strike, or else something that seizes upon you at 2 a.m. and refuses to let go. Now that I’ve gone through this cycle a few times, I’ve come to understand it as something that dwells beneath unturned stones. You have to go looking for it. In that fallow period in the months before I began outlining A Far Wilder Magic, I began searching for it in books.
I found it in The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. It’s a delightfully odd book and easily one of my favorites. Few other books have managed to capture my imagination in the same way. I reread it every year, weeping inconsolably through the last 50 pages of my yellowing paperback edition.
And it isn’t just me. Every year, on the first day of November, thousands of people share the book’s first line on social media: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” TheScorpio Races possesses a powerful magic indeed, to compel its readership to treat the races like an event we can set our calendars by, and I was determined to understand the workings of the spell Stiefvater had woven.
During that 2019 read-through, what struck me most about the novel is that the most magical thing in it isn’t the mythical water horses or the race itself. It’s the atmosphere that informs every choice Stiefvater makes. It’s the way I feel when I close the book each time: like home is a place I have never been before. That was the most important lesson I carried with me as I set out to write A Far Wilder Magic: Magic isn’t a thing, it’s a feeling.
It was something of a revelation, since I most often find myself gravitating toward magic that works like science. In New Albion, where A Far Wilder Magic is set, magic is alchemy. In our (real) world, alchemists strove for purification and perfection. Among their goals were the transformation of base metals into gold and the distillation of an elixir for eternal life. Alchemy was a philosophical pursuit as much as it was a scientific one, and I wanted to capture both of these aspects when I put my own spin on it.
Just as real alchemists did, practitioners of magic in New Albion aim to make sense of the world, to demystify it. Industries have sprung up around alchemized goods, from cosmetics to fashion to military technology, and becoming a licensed alchemist affords social status and political clout. Yet as New Albion modernized, its inexplicable magic began to vanish. All but one of the mythical beasts have been killed, and the last one is hunted each year in a sporting event. When magic is a part of everyday life, when it is in itself mundane, an author needs to create a sense of wonder for the characters—and by extension, for readers—in other ways. That challenge, I think, was what drove me as I wrote.
I’d argue that the true source of magic lies in point of view. The details that a character notices allow me to conjure an entire world. My job as an author is to convince readers that there is magic in even the smallest things. To do this, I think about what associations my narrator attaches to a particular place. What memories does a particular smell awaken for them? What are their eyes drawn to when they step into a room? What gossip have they heard about another character?
Page by page, my setting and characters accrue meaning and texture and history. I can convince my readers that my protagonist is someone with a life, one that began before the reader and will continue after they close the book for the last time. Through the protagonist’s fears, desires and memories, the setting becomes a place the reader could visit, if only they knew the way. Books like that fill me with yearning that almost knocks me breathless, a nostalgia for something I’ve never had at all. That, to me, is far more fantastical than any alchemical reaction.
Sometimes I feel as though Margaret and Wes, the main characters of A Far Wilder Magic, are friends I could call. I carried them with me for months, imagining that they walked beside me and wondering how they would respond to the things around me. Envisioning the world through their points of view made me permeable to wonder in a way I’d never been before.
In a way, A Far Wilder Magic is an archive of the things I was enchanted by as I drafted it: the color of a wave when struck by sunlight; the humbling, silent enormity of the redwoods; the whisper of the wind through the grass; the view from a mountaintop; people, from their most insignificant, charming quirks to their immense capacity for kindness and cruelty. And maybe most of all, the things you notice about the person you love.
The title of A Far Wilder Magic refers to a specific line in the book: “Like this, she looks more wolf than girl, like some magic far wilder than alchemy runs through her.” Although Margaret and Wes initially dislike each other, in this moment, Wes sees something pass over Margaret’s face that renders her almost mythic to him. Throughout the book, he can’t stop noticing small things about her, all the little details that build to something unaccountable. Without even realizing it was happening, he’s fallen in love with her. The wildest magic in New Albion isn’t alchemy. It’s something more intangible.
Author photo of Allison Saft courtesy of Lisa DeNeffe.
YA fantasy author Allison Saft explains how she created alchemical wonders in A Far Wilder Magic.
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