I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 12 years old in the late 1980s. I discovered it on my mother’s bookshelves, and I was fascinated by the story, not scared as much as I should have been but stilled by possibility, intrigued. I surely didn’t understand a lot about the book (much as there were things that went way over my head when I read her copy of Fear of Flying), but I carried it with me as I grew. From this and other books, I decided I was a feminist. I also decided I wanted to write books of my own like Margaret Atwood. In my latest novel, I used an epigraph from The Handmaid’s Tale, and the light flickering in my heart when the author (through her assistant) gave me permission to use the quote was glorious.
After watching the first three episodes of the Hulu series last night, I wonder if this book influenced the kind of woman I decided, young, I wanted to become: independent, ignoring traditional gender roles, not under the thumb of any man. I didn’t want to marry, but falling in love and wanting to give my boyfriend health insurance changed that, so after a quick visit to City Hall married I am today—together going on 23 years; we would have been together no matter a piece of paper. But when I was young, when I didn’t see marriage in my future, my ambition was to be a professional woman as well as a single mother. I decided as a teenager that I didn’t want children after all, and I’ve stuck to that over these decades—it’s always felt to be the right choice. I wonder now how I came to these decisions so young and if the books I read—The Handmaid’s Tale high up among them—led the way. The ambitions I built for myself were men’s ambitions, the dreams giant dreams I was determined to go after even though I was small. Even though I was shy and quiet and if you’d known me then, you may not have realized I had it in me. Oh did I. I’ve since reached a number of those dreams and stared those ambitions in the face. I’m living the life I told myself I could even though there were men in my life who said it wasn’t possible, who laughed at me. I would have died if forced to fit the ideal of a “woman” for someone else.
When I was 12 years old, The Handmaid’s Tale felt far away—it felt like an other reality, impossible to ever find ourselves in now. I didn’t understand so much. Last night, as I watched all three available episodes in a row before bed, the reality on the screen didn’t feel as far away as I expected and remembered. It didn’t feel so impossible and other. When women were dismissed from jobs that male coworkers could keep I bristled. When women’s bank accounts were closed and the funds given to male spouses or male next of kin, I felt alarmed. When women were no longer allowed to own property, to have any control over their own lives in the first of many growing ways, when women were accused of being “gender traitors,” and more and more, I began to see how something totalitarian and terrible could come to pass perhaps here, perhaps one day, and never before did I feel that after the few times I reread this book over the years. Naive? Or, since the election, has the world I know changed that much?
The adaptation is a good one so far, and I usually hate when a novel I loved is brought to the screen.
Writing a novel is a mess right now. I’m close, but I’m not done yet. I’m not done yet, I’m not done.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say, is the truth of it. I don’t know what I should say. I don’t know what my words mean. I haven’t found the meaning yet, though I’m digging in the dirt still and I’ve pulled out some stones and I’ve got a good hole going, I’ve gone deep in places even though so much is still so shallow.
Writing a novel is the most difficult thing and also the easiest thing in the world, because what else can I do? I said it was a gift to be allowed and able to do this, didn’t I? I told myself to not forget that the last I wrote here, didn’t I?
The worst of it is wanting to say something important, something memorable, especially when you’re surrounded by a fog and your mouth is full of jelly and everything itches with possibility but you can’t scratch every spot, you only have two hands.
Writing a novel is a messy pursuit. This close to deadline I’ve taken to wearing the mess on my sleeve—hair a jumble, roots screaming, T-shirt occasionally on inside out and I don’t realize until hours later. Makeup? I laugh. Bumping into signposts on the street? Yes, that was me, I’ll try to pay better attention.
I used to tell myself I could not do something. I would set limits. I would say, “I am a slow writer. A good day is five hundred words.” Then I blast through that number with barely a glance over my shoulder and I realize I can do things I thought I couldn’t. And also, I put myself in a small box. And also, I don’t do well when there are rules. And also, every book is different and if you sit in the audience at an author panel you’ll hear that a thousand times and you’ll be like yeah, yeah, yeah, but in fact it’s true.
Writing a novel is an exercise in hope. You hope you can finish it, first off. If you have an agent or an editor, what you are hoping is that your agent or your editor will see a spark in there somewhere and help you finesse and dig it out. If you don’t have those people yet, you are hoping this novel will be the way to lasso them to you. If you are not yet published, you hope this will be the one. If you have been published before, you hope you won’t get kicked off the boat. You hope to not disappoint anyone. You hope to not disappoint yourself. You hope you will make it to your pub date and an actual book will come out. You hope, too, that you make it through the gauntlet of reviews. That people will read it. Yes, that actual living people will read it. Will anyone? Will anyone? Three years between books—is that too long, is that too late?
These are not things you should think about when you’re writing.
Instead think of how it will feel when it’s all over. Think of how you can print out the novel then, and allow it to take up physical space in the real world. Only the space of it. The weight of it in your hands. The weight of all your work. Lie down on a bed, set it on your stomach, feel it hold you steady. You did this. You wrote a novel.
Look, it has been difficult to write much of anything that feels worthy lately, living in this world. This morning the news is a child suicide bomber who killed 50 people at a wedding. The suicide bomber was no older than 14. There is flooding, and people have lost their homes. There are fires, and people have lost their homes. There are so many people in this city right now who don’t even have a home. I walk through the park early every morning to get to this place where I write, private, paid-for, electric key fob for entry, twenty-four hours a day someone guarding the door downstairs, and all around me in the park I cut through, people on the benches sleeping, huddled, sleeping on the grass, backpack protected in their arms or under their heads, sleeping sometimes with their cardboard signs “please help me get home.” In the winter, in the snow, someone made an igloo behind the benches, a fort really, a white belly in which to sleep, but I wonder if the cardboard on the ground kept out the cold. In the morning, it was empty, but I imagine for some hours of the night it was safe inside. In summer, people sleep out in the open. It’s hot. Two girls on a bench in the middle of the park, one lying down with her head in the other’s lap, the other sitting upright, guarding every door, but her eyes had closed. She’d succumbed to sleep. I wanted to stay and watch their bags for them, so nothing would get stolen, but I kept walking, it’s not for me to look. There used to be a woman who danced around a cardboard box in the mornings, a handwritten sign on it saying she wanted to open a dance school, a frightening frenzy in her eyes that kept me from looking her in the face and I feel guilty for it, but she is gone, I haven’t seen her in a few mornings, more, maybe, I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t count. Sometimes I think about how that tree nearby was where people used to be hung. There was a young man with intricate tattoos who slept on a flattened box under the construction awning right outside the building where I write. He slept on his back. He twitched in his sleep. I wonder what he dreamed. One morning his sign said, “I wish I was dead.” He is gone, too. This morning, two men with loaded carts were there in his place, fighting. I walked the curb like a balance beam to avoid them. Sometimes I get yelled at if I come too close, What are you looking at? But I wasn’t looking. The worst thing is we’ve been taught not to look.
Today, they got my order wrong at the café, but I didn’t say anything, pretended I didn’t mind, though I did. I mind so much. But who am I and does it even matter? Today, I don’t think there’s any air-conditioning on at my writing space. I guess because it’s Sunday. I guess because most people are away on vacation. But I’m here and I have nowhere to go on vacation, and I’m trying to write, and I’m hot. I think about the absurdity of my life all the time now. I was flown to a small city in South Carolina two weeks ago to talk about a book I wrote. I stayed in a nice hotel and whenever I was in my room, I wore the hotel’s robe. I never thought I would be the kind of person who would be flown somewhere and stay in a place that had a special robe. So I wore the robe. I got every last second I could out of that robe. I don’t even know if anyone cared that I was there at the book festival, but I did. Who am I, I thought, and why is this happening to me? I stared in the mirror at myself in the hotel’s white robe, just made myself stand there, just made myself look.
I have two weeks left to finish my novel. The deadline is real. There is so much more I want to say that I haven’t yet gotten down in words, and the jumble of them and the stress and the worry of being good enough and the panic of what might happen if I’m not. And yet, think of it, look: You are writing a book. What kind of life is this? I may have dreamed of it when I was young, but in a hazy way, on a cloud, for lucky people, unreachable for someone like me. I’ve always wanted impossible things, things I should not want, things someone should take away out of my hands. That’s my personality. I had an innocent crush on Axl Rose when I was fourteen years old. I only recently learned that he’s a monster. I had posters on the wall of a monster when I was fourteen. There were things I wished for then, I can vividly see them. I wanted someone to love me. I didn’t know if anyone ever would. I am in my room with the door locked and outside my stepfather is making noise in the kitchen, loud, so I can hear it. Back then, he was the monster I knew. My world was so small then, it was bad and small and I was nobody and I was nothing and no matter how many times I wished for all the things, I never thought I would be sitting here decades later, loved, and with my dream come true. My book is due in two weeks. Someone wants to publish a book of mine, and here I am writing it. I looked across the table at the person I love last night, who loves me back, and he has brown eyes, dark, deep, I could never get tired of staring at them, but when I was fourteen I didn’t know for sure if he would even exist. He looks nothing like Axl Rose.
There is a girl who killed her father with a gun. Was that yesterday’s story in the news? Was that last week’s? She was protecting her family, her mother, her siblings. For years they had been abused by this man, terrorized by him, watched him flaunting that gun, and the police didn’t help and no one helped and so what did the girl do? What did she do for her mother, for her siblings, for herself? She got that gun, and she waited for him to be asleep on the couch, and she shot him in the head.
She turned fourteen in jail. This is true.
Her mother called the girl her hero. Also true.
These are only some of the things happening in the world, and here I am, in my private locked space, writing a story I made up in my head? There are no monsters on my wall anymore. This morning, I tell myself, Just get the words down. The words for this story. That’s all you have right now. Your book is due in two weeks, and it’s not going to be what you want it to be, not yet. The world is going on without you. Let it. There will be another terrible thing tomorrow; you will read about it; you may cry. You will take it in, you will carry it, you will worry, you will think of how small you are, but you are here and so many people in the world have nothing and you should never forget that.
Yes, there are bad things everywhere, all around you, but you have been given this gift and you can’t squander it. Look.
There is one thing—well, a few things… but here’s just one—that I’m often asked about The Walls Around Us, and it’s about the books mentioned within the story. The books that appear in the library of the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. The books that Amber wheels around on her book cart to each of the young female prisoners, to see if they might like to pick a title to read today. Here’s more on how and why I chose the books that appear in the story…
“Most girls weren’t too interested in spending voluntary time flapping the pages of some stale, old book, but there was always someone needing the escape like a gulp of fresh water in the desert. Besides, not every book in our library was old. Some were fresh faced and still had the new-paper smell, and reading a new book before anyone else got to was like getting the first hot lunch and not the murky, lukewarm depths of the middle of the line, or, worse, canned-bean cold like the last few trays.
“Some were books we shouldn’t have even had, judging by the well-thumbed sections paged down for sharing, but thinking of what some girls did under cover of a strategically draped blanket while reading a certain section of The Clan of the Cave Bear made me squeamish. The point is, every book we had could save us in a different way—only, we had to open it. We had to drop our eyes to the page and drink in the words that were there.”
—Amber, in The Walls Around Us
One of the questions I asked myself while writing The Walls Around Us was what would my crime be, if I were one of the girls locked up in Aurora Hills at thirteen or fourteen or fifteen? What might I have done to end up behind those walls?
Out of all the characters, Amber was the one I related to the most. I, too, had a stepfather I wished could have vanished from our lives, and I, too, found an escape in books and clung to them for many years as if they were a life raft. If I’d committed the crime Amber is accused of, if I’d found myself spending the rest of my teenage years locked up in Aurora Hills, I would have handled my time much the way she does: That book cart would have been my saving grace, my most precious thing.
Maybe it’s because of this that the books Amber and the other girls encounter on the book cart and in the prison library were books I encountered at some point in my life, books that made an impression on me somehow, books that mattered. Every book mentioned has some kind of personal connection or resonates to a piece of my past in some way. Clan of the Cave Bear is the book we passed around and read to pieces in junior high (corners turned down at certain passages). Same with the Sweep series when I was a fully grown adult working in a publishing company and a group of us got addicted to the delicious series about witches. I slipped in some of my current favorite authors (Libba Bray, Jacqueline Woodson, Sara Zarr) while acknowledging Sister Carrie, a book I was forced to write an essay on in an independent study my senior year of high school that ended up breaking my heart in a definitive way. Isabelle Allende is there. Sylvia Plath is there. Zora Neale Hurston is there. And how could I not mention Jane Eyre, one of my favorites as a teenager, the book I chose for my acting class final presentation? My monologue was a scene from when young Jane was locked, so cruelly, in the red room. I was a terrible actress, but I performed with great conviction.
There are also the books called out in the epigraphs. It felt fitting to begin with Margaret Atwood, because she’s where my life as a writer began: I discovered her books on my mother’s shelves when I was twelve years old, and they are what inspired me to put my own words down on the page.
In The Walls Around Us, the story in a book is sometimes all a girl may have to herself in the world, now that her freedom has been taken away. I understood this deeply when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I would have been the girl in Aurora Hills who gravitated toward that book cart, who read every single title in that library at least once and probably more, who found an escape route in those pages… and stayed as long as she could. Surely that’s why I write books today.
What three books would I want to be locked away with in Aurora Hills and read and reread for eternity? Hmm… Probably The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, whatever Libba Bray is writing right now (you and I know it will be genius) and, for old time’s sake, The Handmaid’s Tale. How about you?
Once upon a time, there was a writer who was filled with doubt and questioning her every move. She was stuck. She had published three books, but now that she was facing what would be the fourth she didn’t know what to write or how to write it. She thought for sure she should try to be more commercial and relevant and give people what they wanted from her, if only she could figure out what that might be (???!!!???). She worried about all of these things until she worried herself into a stupor. And before her, staring back with ugly intensity, was a blank white page.
That writer was me. That blank page was my next novel.
I got out of this slump because The Walls Around Us pulled me up by the throat.
But how did I get from the death glare of the blank white page to the beautiful book object that is The Walls Around Us with its gorgeous and sinister vine-covered jacket?
I think we’re all hoping for a formula or a trick of the trade that will unglue us from that awful stupor. I don’t have a formula. I don’t have a good trick. Being stuck is not usually something that you can wave away with a nice nap and a walk around the block to clear your head. (I tried.)
There are those who say that writer’s block does not truly exist and that you must simply do the work and stop making excuses—you must sit yourself down in a chair every day and write, and that’s how you get unblocked. But forcing yourself to write when you’re not feeling it can be a waste of time and energy… and heart. The answer to being blocked isn’t flooding the room with random words and trying to choke your way through making them worthy.
Sometimes the answer is putting your novel aside for a while and writing something else. Yes, a whole new novel, even if you want to smack me for saying it. Sometimes the answer is some other creative pursuit that has nothing to do with books or writing.
Sometimes the answer is not thinking so hard about what everyone else wants of me.. That’s what happened when I was facing my fourth book. I was thinking of reviews I’d read of my previous books. I was thinking about how my books often confuse readers, because the explanations are left open to interpretation, and I was thinking that I needed to be more plain and clear. I was thinking about how my language and style don’t grab everyone. I was thinking that I really should add a romance. I was thinking of what a YA book is—what the most popular YA books are—and I was thinking to myself: OKAY, DO THAT.
And as I thought all these things, the blank page gazed back at me and sneered.
I was trying to be someone I’m not. And I did that for years, when I was writing under different names and mimicking voices for a paycheck, before I ever published under my own name. I didn’t want to do that anymore.
So this is how I got unstuck. I’ll warn you—it’s kind of ugly: I reached a breaking point. I banged my head against my desk and maybe I cried and maybe I had a series of really bad days as I warred with myself, stomping around my apartment and my life. Then something in me snapped. I realized I’d come to a place where I cared way too much about what everyone else thought of my books (lines from reviews swimming in my head, questions buzzing in my ears) and I’d hit a wall. All that caring flipped over and turned into CARING NOT AT ALL. I stopped reading reviews, of course, but there’s more to it. I stopped weighing myself against those reviews.
I would never be able to write a book for everyone, so the best I could do was write a book solely and completely for myself. And maybe someone else would see themselves in it, the way I have in books, again and again.
If I wrote a book for myself, what would it include?
Surreal, strange happenings that aren’t fully explained? Check.
“Unlikable” girl characters careening through the pages free and as alive as they’ll ever be? Check and check and check.
Voicey writing flooding my paragraphs. Oh my yes, check.
No romantic subplot. No easy commercial handle. No fear of being weird. In fact, I was embracing all the weirdness and rolling around in it and streaking through the forest with a crown of weirdness on my head.
This is The Walls Around Us: my weird and wild book about killer ballerinas and a ghostly prison. It’s everything I wanted to write and then some. And, because of that, I had no idea if anyone else on the planet would even like it.
Anyone who attended the New York launch event for The Walls Around Us will remember I was interviewed by a writer I love and admire, Libba Bray, whose books are daring and true and wonderfully strange and completely her. She called The Walls Around Us my “middle fingers book.” Let me explain.
This comes with a possibly offensive visual. I was writing with Libba in a café here in New York and I was somewhere deep in the wilds of The Walls Around Us, and I said that I had stopped caring what anyone might think of me or what I was writing. I told her I was writing this book for myself and putting in every single thing I wanted and reactions be damned.
Then, to illustrate how I felt about the publishing world and my own place in it at that defiant moment, I lifted my arms and raised my middle fingers in the air and waved them around like a maniac. Sorry. But there it is.
That came to illustrate this book for me: not so much my two middle fingers and acting ridiculous in a public café, but being defiant. Being myself no matter what. Not caring one iota about what was presentable and serviceable and… commercial.
So it was that The Walls Around Us came to be.
In a (weird? wild?) turn of events, this book that was my strangest… this book that didn’t even try to be likable or easy… this book that didn’t care what anyone thought of it… this book has found its readers. In fact, it has become the most well-received book I’ve ever published. If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll see some of the amazing things that have happened to this book and, thanks to the book, to me.
What’s the lesson in this? I’m a better writer when I’m not trying so hard to make everyone else happy. I’m more free on the page. More daring. I go deeper. And all that shows. And maybe, just maybe, readers respond all the more to a book that feels unique and specific to the writer in all its strange glory. Maybe they recognize the honesty in there, and that honesty is compelling. I think they do.
When I work with other writers on their novels, privately and in workshops and classes, I like to push the writers to go deeper. To not just do the easy thing. Even if it means tearing up what you have and starting over… Even if it means getting stuck first until you unstick yourself and break through that wall.
Because the writing on the other side of the wall is so very worth it.
I look back at my career and all the pages I’ve written over the years—pages that include unpublished novels and unfinished scraps of novels and of course the novels I have published. I look at all I’ve written and I know that the best writing came out when I was not trying to fit a mold or write toward a trend or appease an audience.
It came when I was alone in a dark room with only my book and me. When I was scared. When I had no worldly idea what might happen. When I took the biggest risk of my life and made a leap.
It wasn’t just the writing of The Walls Around Us that changed me—it ended up changing the trajectory of my career. I decided to leave the Big Five publisher I was with and I took this book proposal elsewhere, finding a home at a smaller, more boutique house. I landed happily at Algonquin Young Readers, a fledgling imprint at that time just about to launch its own first season of YA and children’s titles when I signed with them. This was the best decision I could have made for myself, for the book, for my career. But at the time, it was scary to go somewhere new and start over.
Once upon a time, in the future, I’m sure I’ll be facing new struggles. Writing is never a snap of the fingers and a word count from the gods. But I found something during my time with The Walls Around Us and I’ve been carrying it with me ever since: Confidence.
Simply put, I trust myself more now. I know I’ll find it. I know how.
If you’re struggling with what you’re writing—if you’re afraid to be your true self on the page—I dare you to stop listening to the outside voices and try listening only to yourself this one time. Write the book you most want to write. Write as if your fingers will fall off tomorrow. Write as if a ship of aliens is about to land on Earth and ask for one manuscript out of all the piles of pages on our planet that would communicate who you are to them, and this is that book.
Write the book that is the most unapologetically YOU, no matter how long it takes.
And know this: I want to read it. Let me know when it’s time and I’ll be there beaming at you from the front row, lifting my middle fingers if it comes to that, clapping my hands if it comes to that, or just simply grabbing your book off the shelf and drinking in every word.
The paperback edition of The Walls Around Us is available March 22. In the past year since the hardcover released, The Walls Around Us became a #1 New York Times Best Seller and garnered seven starred reviews from trade journals including Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist. It was named the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Pick for Spring 2015, a 2015 Edgar Award Nominee for Best Young Adult, a 2016 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, the winner of the 2016 Cybils Award in Speculative YA Fiction, and a Best Book of 2015 by The Boston Globe, NPR, School Library Journal, the Chicago Public Library, The Horn Book, and Book Riot.
Its author is shocked and very grateful. Now she’s hard at work on her next novel with Algonquin Young Readers, and whenever she feels stuck, she recalls her own advice to be daring and true, and she pushes that much harder.
But if you like to hold a book in your hands, I will also tell you this: The paperback edition of The Walls Around Us comes out this month, on March 22.
You are invited to come celebrate the paperback release with me at my favorite neighborhood bookstore, McNally Jackson in New York City, with one of my favorite YA authors, Courtney Summers, on Tuesday, March 29, at 7pm! This event is free and open to the public! You can RSVP on Facebook here.
My career has felt like a long series of searches, and nothing is ever illuminated until I am practically standing right on top of it. Trying to get published, to get an agent, in the beginning, was crushing. I slipped back in my archives to see if I should share a post, found something painful, read a few lines, and closed it. You get the picture.
I remember when I found YA—that was a wonderful moment, and it took a long time to get there. I remember when I found an agent, that dream I’d been longing for and it had come true after dozens and dozens of rejections over the years with previous manuscripts. I remember when I discovered that being published wasn’t all balloons and inflatable palm trees on swimming pools, and I felt crushed by that somehow, but I also felt as if I’d known it was coming all along, because I somehow didn’t fully believe I was allowed to be there at all. I remember when I found a new publisher, a smaller publisher, Algonquin Young Readers, and actively chose to make a leap and not be with the “Big Six.” (Haha—it was six big publishers then… now it’s five.) That was right for me. And now, as I work on my new novel, I realize it’s become a solid home for me, and I want to pinch myself.
Earlier this month, I found a new place.
My first teaching residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts went so very well, even I swear while I was living in that tiny dorm room! There was a point when I called E one night and I was trying to explain how I felt about being there and I said that, before this, whenever I was teaching somewhere or doing an author thing I’d be trying to adapt myself into what I thought people wanted me to be. I’d be faking it till I made it, you know? I’d work to fit myself in and I’d try very hard and often I’d succeed and no one knew how hard it was, but then I’d be exhausted. Flattened. Drained. But there at VCFA, I told E, I felt like I was being myself. I was teaching as I would teach. I was talking as I would talk. I was genuinely interested and inspired and fired-up and excited by everything going on around me—and none of it was forced, none of it was me trying to fit in. I’ve never had a job like that where I felt like I could be entirely myself and that was the right person to be. The community welcomed me in, and it was all of them—the faculty, the staff, the students, all the wonderful and talented and dedicated and engaged students—that helped make it such a perfect fit.
(And yes, I will fully admit the residency was exhausting, but in a different manner… I slept, happily, for a few days after I got home, but my mind was buzzing.)
I’m back in New York now and about to embark on all the work that’s coming to me this semester—I have five students I’ll be advising over the course of the semester, and in February their first packets to me are due. So we’ll see how I feel after I make it through this very, very busy winter and spring. (Speaking of busy: I’m also teaching not one but two Djerassi workshops and going to the AWP conference in the middle of this, so wish me luck.)
But right now? I feel like I’ve found yet another new home.
Between Algonquin and VCFA, between the books I’m writing and the students I get to work with, I’m in a strange, bubbly, inflatable-palm-tree-on-a-pool kind of place.
Does this mean I’m happy?
I was much better at blogging (and had more readers!) when I was angsty and unpublished and wanting to drown a box of rejection letters in the sea. But this is where I am right now…