Three years ago as of this week, the novel I’d consider the “Book of My Heart” was published. On Saturday, June 14, when Imaginary Girls is officially three years old, I will tell you all why it connects so deeply to me and why I’d consider it the book of my heart apart from all books I’ve written or will write. I’ll also hold a giveaway for some elusive hardcovers!
So what is a book of an author’s heart, you may ask—and why say such a thing about one book and not others, when we love all our books and put pieces of ourselves into every one? I’ve asked a few author friends to share the book that holds a distinct and special place in their heart and tell us why.
Here is Camille DeAngelis—author of the incredible Mary Modern, Petty Magic, and the forthcoming Bones & All (St. Martin’s, March 2015), which I am dying to read (hint-hint, Camille!)— sharing the book of her heart…
Guest post by Camille DeAngelis
This is a tale of two novels, written in the same year. Both have very young protagonists. One novel, Bones & All, I didn’t so much write as exorcise; it is a dark and deeply unsettling story and I never really expected we’d find a publisher for it, but we did. I worked on revisions in a weird mood mix of gratitude and melancholy, because it’s the second novel—the one without a publisher—that’s the book of my heart.
* * *
A hundred years! It was beyond imagining, like setting out for the moon on foot.
* * *
I read Philippa Pearce’s wonderful novel Tom’s Midnight Garden in fourth grade, and like all the very best books, it redrew my definitions of what was possible in art and in life. Years went by, I forgot the name of that novel, but I never forgot the story itself and the deep delight it gave me. I’d do a web search every now and again, but without the title or author’s name I could never seem to find it.
I was in my mid twenties when I discovered it again, one evening at my friends Ailbhe and Christian’s house in Galway. We were relaxing with talk of books and writing (probably over red wine in proper glass goblets; I have classy friends), and when Ailbhe spoke the words Tom’s Midnight Garden I practically imploded with excitement. (The book is a classic in the U.K. and Ireland, but in America, sadly, people usually haven’t heard of it.) That night I ordered a copy online and loved it just as I had when I was nine. I promised myself I’d come up with a story that would give me as much joy to write as Tom’s Midnight Garden had been to read.
* * *
The girl smiled up at him as if she’d looked straight through the lens into the future. It was a sad smile, no parting of the lips, but her pale eyes seemed alight with secret knowledge. Her hair—brown, probably—was pulled softly away from her face with a ribbon, and it fell, barely tamed, down her shoulders…
Of course she must be dead by now—she’d be more than a hundred and ten otherwise—and yet it seemed preposterous, somehow, that those eyes could be closed forever.
* * *
A time slip is a particularly satisfying plot device—travel is premeditated, but a slip is an accident. There can be no planning for marvels, no arranging for adventure!
Then I wondered about a time slip without the slip—like a pen pal from the distant past (or distant future). What if you could get to know someone really well, love him even, all the while knowing you could never touch his hand, never look upon his face?
Around the time I reread Tom’s Midnight Garden my sister, inspired by our niece and her baby brother on the way, said, “Think of all the people we’ll love who haven’t been born yet.” Two characters took form, a girl and a boy—two characters living in the same house, sleeping in the same room, but not knowing each other, never seeing each other. They’re twelve years old and a hundred years apart.
How to bring them together? I knew there’d be letter writing involved, albeit a one-way correspondence—but there had to be something else to initiate that connection. I’d been reading up on Spiritualism and mediumship for a different project, and the tidbits I’d collected began wending their way into this one. A talking board? Why not?
* * *
Josie laughed. “My mother isn’t as mysterious as everyone seems to think she is—not by a mile.” A picture loomed up: of her mother as a wild-haired voodoo priestess dressed in a mantle of feathers, wearing an alligator-skin belt studded with tiny dolls all stuck through with pins. She laughed again.
“I do wonder, though,” said Mabel. “Perhaps there are things you’ve never noticed…”
* * *
The novel poured out of me. I breathed it, I dreamed about it. I loved my characters like they were real people, my own family. I thought of them and welled up as if I’d actually known them.
I wrote about two sisters living under the thumb of their mother, who is charismatic and cruel and has frightening supernatural powers (or so it seems). The younger sister is a tenacious, spunky little kid, the truest portrait of my sister that you will ever find in my fiction; and I particularly relished the scenes involving her favorite plaything, a filthy old doll named Mrs. Gubbins who is possessed “in a good way” by a protective spirit. It probably goes without saying that the elder sister is a twelve-year-old version of myself, bookish and serious, taking on responsibility for everybody else’s happiness. And I wrote about her best friend, a boy from the future who does everything he can to be able to say to her, “you’re going to be okay, both of you.” That said, I tried my best to temper my sentimental impulses. I didn’t answer every question or tie up every loose end. I used “big words” and gave my characters feelings they couldn’t articulate.
The Boy from Tomorrow has a more overtly fantastical plot than Bones & All, and yet it’s dark in a much more realistic way. The protagonists have to deal with divorce and child abuse and mortality—not so much their own as their loved ones’, which is actually much more terrifying. In a very practical sense, these characters help each other to grow up—to paraphrase Garrison Keillor as “Mr. Blue,” they learn that life offers more to those who ask more of it. And so they ask, and they are that much happier for having mustered the courage.
* * *
The one good thing about the worst day of your life is that, by definition, all the days to follow are bound to be better; but that is not much comfort while you are in the thick of it.
* * *
The Boy from Tomorrow has been “on sub” now for more than a year and a half. We came very close to an offer from one prominent children’s publisher, but I had to relinquish my cautious optimism when a sales rep expressed concern as to how his religiously conservative district would receive the book. “Could she take out the Ouija board?” the editor asked, and I could only react with a palm to my forehead.
I have amassed a virtual stack of complimentary rejections. Some editors say it’s too sophisticated, it’s not a children’s novel at all; two or three have said they’d be willing to read the next draft, though I’ve run out of ideas for improvement at this point. It’s been a year since the last revision, and I find myself feeling this book is everything it was meant to be.
Of course, it’s tempting to sigh, “It’s the best thing I’ve written and nobody wants it,” but I’m too old now—old as in wise—to indulge in that sort of talk. So what is there to be learned from a situation like this? Is it any different for me, handling this “failure” as an already-published novelist? Nope. It’s only a reminder that I write first and foremost for myself. And as I wrote on Nova’s blog back in early 2012—just as I was working on this “book of my heart”—listening to one’s ego at a time like this will inevitably lead to confusion and resentment, whereas I choose to be happy regardless of how many books I’ve sold or how much money I have in the bank.
I may give the very best of myself when I tell a story, but the resulting book is not a reflection of my worth, as a writer or a human being. Yet I am a better person for having written The Boy from Tomorrow—a gentler, more compassionate person. I created people, not through motherhood but imagination, and these lovely, earnest, wise people became my teachers. I have learned through my writing practice that the more I love, the more I am able to love—and when I think on that, publishing the story starts to feel rather beside the point.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of Petty Magic, Mary Modern, and the forthcoming Bones & All. She’s vegan and writes about cannibals. Visit Camille at cometparty.com and follow her on Twitter at @cometparty.
Come back tomorrow for another Book of Your Heart guest blog!