The Next Big Thingedit
So, I am a lucky woman, and two of my dear writer friends have tapped me to participate in this internet meme in publishing deal called The Next Big Thing.
The idea here is that you, a writer with a book in progress or coming out soon, answer several questions about the project, then link back to five other writers who are also willing to discuss the things they are making and then they link to others and so on.
A chain letter.
Now, I am the girl who always broke them, chain letters, I mean, and in my son’s young life he has never once gotten the pile of stickers that would result from a swiftly delivered set of responses to chain letters. Why? Mom dropped the ball.
I’m not immune here either. Again, I am going to break the rules and only send letters to those I like.
So I have linked only to two other authors, those that tagged me. Zoe Zolbrod is one, author of the wonderful book Currency (Other Voices Books) about travel and smuggling and sex, a wonderful read which you should seek out. She is also contributor to The Nervous Breakdown and is currently working on a memoir she discusses here. Also tagged is Bee Ridgway, friend of my lucky youth, who has a book called The River of No Return (Dutton) coming out on April 23rd of 2013 which, if you are smart, you will pre-order because it is a time-travel adventure that dishes up Regency romance in the most whip-smart and delectable way. She discusses the fascinating back story of that novel here.
I know, that is only two writers. But, if you like, send me an email and I’ll send you links to all the other amazing people I can think of who are making up stunning books right now, because, hell, we all need audiences nudged in our direction.
All that said, I would take any excuse to talk about my current project, a speculative fiction post-apocalyptic travel adventure, about two teenage girls and their father and family friend who have to leave the crumbling ruins of a flooded Manhattan to get north to their family farmhouse and a possible fuel source that could transform their tarnished world.
Here are my thoughts on the standard questions of the meme:
What is your working title of your book?
The working title of my book is Leaving A-Men, though I have to admit that, at the moment, that title is already beginning to feel too small for the story. A-Men, the location in the title, is a place in which the characters spend only a tiny bit of the novel, the first two or three chapters. The place looms large in my imagination, though, as A-Men is the nickname they’ve given their home on the roof of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City (I always imagined that AMNH would get shortened still further if you had to say it all the time).
So, though the impact of the journey is completely tied to how they lived there, and what they had to leave behind, the majority of the narrative happens out in the bigger world, one that is beyond A-Men: the Hudson River, the Berkshires Hills.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’ve been an essayist for a long while, and since 2007 I have been writing memoir and personal essays about climate change for the book The Time After (Front Forty Press, 2009) and the online journal Tikkun Daily.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading non-fiction books on the climate apocalypse. But when hurricane Sandy hit New York this fall I also spent a lot of time on the phone with family who had a building in Red Hook, and the rising sea levels I write about so often suddenly had a new urgency: I could picture the water coming down Van Brunt Street.
At the time I remember thinking about the books my son Dexter had been reading constantly since the summer: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, Treasure Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Something started to form in the gap between my daily grown-up reading and the stories Dex loved. I started wondering: what if there was a way to bring readers on a journey that felt epic, but had all the force of global changes we are beginning to see in storms like Sandy?
Then one night in early November of last year, lying in the dark next to my son in his bed as he finally fell asleep, a picture came into my head of a small family, launched into an adventure through a wildly changed East Coast in just a stolen canoe, and the first words of the novel came with it:
We left Old City after the last full moon, after the waters came up again above 95th street. The garden we had in the park went that week, and the hives, and more. We were tired and Father said the stairs were killing him. Couldn’t climb to that rooftop one more time, but then, no stairs remained, after all.
We left in a canoe that Father and Bix took out of the window of a shop. Cribbing it. Couldn’t believe there was one left. So rare, that old arched bottom: fiberglass. They even found paddles.
And, just like that Nonie and her sister Bix, their Father, Allen, their dead mother, and the entomologist Keller who would come with them, were all residing in my brain, ready to be let out onto the page. It has been a great three months with them so far.
What genre does your book fall under?
I would call it speculative fiction. The narrator is also a teenage girl, so one might want to place it in the YA genre, though it lacks some of the hallmarks of that kind of book. I feel reluctant to categorize it that way at the moment, though, since it is still unfinished. I am trying to channel Maurice Sendak when said to Stephen Colbert “I don’t write for children. I write, and then someone says, ‘That’s for children.’”
I’d like to have a good nudge from readers (or an agent) who could tell me if this is YA or not.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This one is hard for me. The narrator, Nonie, is, of course, the first person I’d want to cast. But she’s just a kid, a young teen, but that’s hard to cast as anyone I name-check will be far too old by now to play her. I’d picture Abigail Breslin, maybe when she was younger, or Anna Pacquin as she was in The Piano. Bixie, her older sister, makes me think of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, if she’d been a gender rebel with very short hair. Allan Mayo, their father, would be perfect played by someone earnest, compact and passionate like Matt Damon. For their family friend Keller, who mans the boat along with Father for the voyage, I’d basically want any actor who’d be just like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Swoon.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
I suck at these:
Nonie and her sister Bix live in the ruins of a post-climate change Manhattan on the roof of the American Museum of Natural History until one horrible storm that destroys the world they know and sends them north in a canoe to find a new home and an energy source that might restore the world.
See, someone with marketing skills should do this for me. I always shoot myself in the foot.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m hoping to find an agent for the book. I’ve been an independent musician for fifteen years, and I’m here to say that getting something seen by a wide audience requires the help of people who know better than you do. An agent would be an amazing gift.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I began the book on November 1st, 2012 and I am still writing. I crossed the 50,000 word threshold of the manuscript this weekend. The chapter plot I’ve made (which has been pretty accurate so far) tells me I’m looking at a final word count of something greater than 80,000, so I comfort myself that I am more than halfway there. Chapter Ten was just finished today. Eight more to go. Think I’ll be done by April 2013.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Well, I’d say that the book has lots in common with other speculative fiction post-apocalyptic dystopias. That genre could include things that directly address the climate apocalypse like World Made By Hand, The Road or Oryx and Crake, or even David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas which posits a dystopian future that is linked to climate change. But it also has a great deal in common with other genres, especially ones with thoughtful, quiet young female narrators. A Wrinkle in Time, comes to mind, as do the Earthsea books, and the classics To Kill a Mockingbird and Housekeeping. And I know that I owe a huge debt in terms of lyrical speculative fiction writing to Ray Bradbury, who I read voraciously starting at the age of eleven. Additionally, it has a deep kinship with classic travel adventures of the American road and river like Huckleberry Finn.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Climate change and my son, no doubt.
Dex is eight now, and has been a constant companion on my travels as a writer about the environment. He and I listened to the unabridged audiobook of 20,000 Leagues three times this summer while we drove to see the tide pools on our favorite island in Maine. And once there, he declared to anyone he met that there were changes happening to those pools that could only be the result of ocean acidification. He’s the kind of kid that gave me a lego version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for Mother’s Day. His understanding of the changes to the planet, and his stake in our environmental future, fuel my writing every single day, and I would not see it through the magical lens that this book requires without his imagination and his reading list.
I was also inspired by the great Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy. I was lucky enough to attend a workshop with her this summer, during which she had us imagine a relationship with the people who might inhabit this planet in 200 years. Nonie’s travels are set in a much more recent future, but I wanted to extend that thought, to imagine what people in 60 or 100 years might endure as a result of climate change, and write the book for them.
Finally, I am writing it for the people who are reading it now, among them my upstairs neighbor Rosie, my friend, the music critic Monica Kendrick and my godfather Tommy in Brooklyn, a retired city planner. They couldn’t be more different. Rosie is the daughter of missionaries, a died-in-the-wool Republican and devout Christian who teaches literature in a Christian college. Monica was raised in Appalachia and lives and breathes independent music and speculative fiction, a pure rebel and city girl with a tender heart. And Tommy is a tough Greek grandfather, dedicated to golf and his kids and the New York Times. All of them have been reading my book chapter by chapter, and all of them are in love with Nonie and her family and world. For them the journey is about her, about the language and the story. And since none of them come at climate change from where I stand, the fact that the book makes them more open to news, activism, conversation about this extremely crucial and tricky subject, is a beautiful thing.
People need a way in to climate change, and maybe literature can build a road.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I am writing this book not just from the soap box of someone who cares passionately about environmental collapse. In fact, this book works as a story about a family, about the dawning maturity of a young woman who is quirky and open, obsessed with the ocean and fossils, missing her mother. I have filled the world of this book not only with the difficulties of living on a planet with rising seas, but with the familiar things that every human longs for and many of us will recognize. Nonie and Bix’s future isn’t so distant from our own that they don’t remember recorded music or electric lights. And so, as a writer, I get to populate the book with touchstones from my own childhood, parts of New York and New England and the Hudson River that I have loved my whole life.
When I was small, my parents, bohos who fled New York City when I was born so my mom could cook at Alice’s Restaurant and my father could make Shaker furniture, would take me back to the city to visit relatives. When we were there, I used to fantasize that I would be left behind at the American Museum of Natural History. I loved that huge whale, I loved to stay in that room for hours. In Leaving A-Men, my narrator gets to do just that, but in a world where things are slantwise and wrong.
I think what makes great speculative fiction, great novels in general, is their ability to render real that which is so strange as to be nearly unreachable. Sometimes that is simply the interior life of a character very different from us, in a distant city or time. But sometimes it is in a world that may or may not come to pass. And we will happily travel with the characters into that world if it feels to us as lush and true as our own. Nonie’s world feels true to me. And I hope that, through its genuine and earnest heart, readers will open to the characters, and maybe to the impacts of climate change as wel