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.
Today I have Tessa Gratton here to celebrate the book birthday of her new novel The Strange Maid, the second United States of Asgard book, and to tell us why she considers it a book of her heart…
Guest post by Tessa Gratton
When I think of “the book of my heart” I think of dragons. The monstrous sort who remove their hearts from their chests and hide them inside heavily guarded boxes. I imagine a book holding my heart hostage, or secretly delivering my heart to others.
I haven’t ever been sure what “a book of my heart” means, and there seems to be no strict definition. It’s “the book that means the most to me” or “the book about themes or issues that mean the most to me” or “the book I love the most.” I could answer every one of those questions with a different book. But only after the fact, once the book is published and I regain some perspective.
When I’m actually writing a book, my heart has to be fully committed, or I’d never make it through. In that sense, every book I write is a book of my heart. Though I feel differently about different books, and I love them differently, I love different things about them.
My heart is the house of my passion and the home of my courage. My heart is the part of me that empathizes with fictional characters, and struggles to connect with real people. It is the piece of me that longs for communion.
My heart is the reason writing is so hard. While my mind plays with structure and learns how to efficiently break rules of grammar, how to communicate and outline and plot and connect ideas with ideas with ideas into complicated patterns of story, my heart is the voice that constantly asks why.
Why am I doing this to myself? Why struggle to tell this particular story? Why make myself be brave? Why go to the hard places when an easier one might do just as nicely for the plot? Why try and try and try again, through rejection and hundreds of thousands of deleted words? Every single book has to answer those questions.
For me, it’s just not worth it if I’m not emotionally invested.
That isn’t to say I can’t write for fun: I desperately want to have fun as much as possible when writing. It’s just that I also need that one thing connecting myself—my heart—to the story.
But now THE STRANGE MAID is coming out, and I am really upset. I feel like anybody who reads it will have the terrible, terrifying chance to see my most intimate flaws. Not only my characters’ strengths and flaws, desires and mistakes, but all of mine whether they have anything to do with the book itself or not. This book suddenly has made me feel vulnerable in a way no other book has. Does that make it a real “book of my heart”?
I’ve been trying to write it since 2008. It’s been through a dozen iterations. I’ve come back to it again and again in some form between my previous novels and projects. I rejected entire concepts and directions and drafts. But I kept coming back to it. It’s been a historical novel, it’s been high fantasy, it’s been a road trip adventure. Signy has been an orphan, a priestess, a debutante, and a daughter of a Valkyrie.
While I struggled, I wrote four other novels, three of them published by now. I wrote them for plenty of reasons, and pieces of my heart are imbedded inside them. But with THE STRANGE MAID, I kept returning to the same core: a strange little girl who gives herself to terrible darkness because of how passionate she is for everything. And that passion is her strength. She doesn’t understand why, but she embraces her own dark, strange, mad heart. And people are afraid of her for it.
I realized (finally) that this book I kept pushing at, kept returning to and struggling with (kept being terrified of) is about our fear (and hope) that what girls desire could turn them into monsters.
Which is something that I’m always arguing against: this societal fear of teenaged girls being powerful in and of themselves, and loving things for no other reason than they love them. It’s something I felt when I was a teenager. I was afraid of myself, because I loved things I was not supposed to love. I was terrified of being a bad person because of what I wanted—sometimes just because I wanted anything at all. Don’t be too ambitious, we say. That thing you scream over is stupid, we say. You’re too emotional. You aren’t allowed to feel desire of any kind.
No wonder it was hard. I was writing a book about trolls and Valkyrie and riddles and gods of poetry and love and betrayal, and oh yes: a whole lot of my own personal baggage.
And now other people are going to read it.
Launch is always exciting and/or panic-inducing. You know your methods are imperfect, you know that there will be failure involved. You might not succeed in communicating anything to readers—the entire point of writing. You’re putting this thing you created from nothing into the world for strangers, to try and communicate something to them, whether it’s entertainment or issues or themes or to scare them or make them cry.
So when your heart is in a book, part of that thing you’re communicating is yourself.
For better or worse, THE STRANGE MAID is definitely a book of my heart.
I fight to create every book into a book with my heart embedded inside. I think a book of my heart is one that begins there.
An excerpt from The Strange Maid by Tessa Gratton:
We make camp in the shell of a farmhouse, surrounded by mostly intact troll walls. There’s no fire, but we have a small battery-powered lamp. Its even light is more eerie than flickering flames might have been, illuminating rotting old chairs and a table still set with a runner and vase. I sink onto the worn rug while Unferth settles with a groan on a short old sofa printed with dull cabbage roses. He sips his screech and says, “Tell me, Signy, why you love Valtheow the Dark most of all.”
I reach for the flask. The blistering trail it leaves down my tongue gives fire to my words. “Nothing about her was half-done. She did not symbolically bleed, she poured her own blood out for sacrifice. She tied a rope around her neck. She… embraced passion and war like they were poetry, not only things to be described by it.” I gather my knees to my chest. “Since Odin first told me her name I knew she never hesitated to embody death, the way it feeds life.”
“Why do you want to be like her?”
“It’s exciting! It – it thrills me. It’s this…” I close my eyes and recall my Alfather again, arm around me so my ear presses to his thrumming heart. “An itch like madness, that I was born with. That drives me forward.”
“Everything worth doing is dangerous, Unferth.”
He contemplates me as he drinks, one hand loose on the arm of the couch, his injured right leg stretched out so his pose is languid. The more I talk about this the more I want to make him understand, to press it into him if I have to. Instead I grab the flask from his hand and plop down beside him on the couch. My legs hook over his outstretched thigh and our shoulders touch as I drink. He sets his head against the wall. I let the vertigo of liquor sway me against him until I’m leaning. The upstairs floor groans gently. The electric lamp buzzes. I can hear the rush of my own blood in my ears.
“What would you do with that power if you had it?” he asks.
“Change the world,” I murmur contentedly.
“Don’t you mean destroy your enemies and paint your face with their blood?”
“Isn’t that the definition of change?”
“No good reason to aim low.”
His shoulder trembles and I realize he’s laughing. I poke his ribs and he catches my hand. He turns it over and smooths out my fingers until he can see the binding rune. As he taps my scar with his thumb, a hot line sears from my palm to my belly. “Death chooser,” he says, “Strange maid.”
“What?” I whisper. The runes bound together into my palm are an odd variation of death and choice and servant. After parsing them out years ago, I had assumed they only meant to mark me as a Valkyrie. A death chooser.
“This binding rune is from a very old thread of language…” his breath touches my temple, curling down my cheek until I turn into it. There are his rain-colored eyes. He says, “Death is linguistically connected to otherness, to foreigners and… strangeness. Death and stranger, like different fruit on the same linguistic branch. You can trace all kind of names through the binding rune. Like… Alfather – Valfather. Valborn, Valkyrie, Valtheow, death born, death chooser, servant of death, death maid… strange maid.”
My breath catches in my throat.
The Strange Maid is on sale today!
Tessa Gratton has wanted to be a paleontologist or a wizard since she was seven. She was too impatient to hunt dinosaurs, but is still searching for someone to teach her magic. After traveling the world with her military family, she acquired a BA (and the important parts of an MA) in gender studies, and then settled down in Kansas with her partner, her cats, and her mutant dog. You can visit her at TessaGratton.com.
The posts in the Book of Your Heart series:
Come back tomorrow for another Book of Your Heart guest blog! And look for the giveaway of Imaginary Girls on Saturday, June 14!