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.