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  • I read a lot, and I have a lot of opinions, so I can't believe I haven't made a list like this before. If you are even a little bit like me or you want to get a peek into my psyche (you probs don't), these are the books to read.
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Posts Tagged ‘feelings’

The dead girl on the cover

Posted on May 13th, 2011 by annakjarzab

Recently, I was talking to an editor (not my editor), and she was telling me that she was using the cover of All Unquiet Things as a comp title for the art form for one of her upcoming books. She was saying that the cover of AUT is the perfect direction for this title also, and, not having read it yet but knowing a little bit about it, that makes sense to me. But she was also saying that now, a year post-AUT and post-Before I Fall, you can’t really do the “dead girl laying sideways on the grass” thing anymore. It’s just too common, probably because the “dead girl” trope in YA lit is also common. It’s something I hear people complaining about a lot on blogs, actually, sometimes in reviews of AUT. “Oh, another dead girl book, how original.” Setting aside the fact that nothing is really original anymore, and hasn’t been since the ancient Greeks, and we’re all telling the same five stories over and over again anyway, it’s true. You do see a lot of dead girl (and, I would argue, dead boy) books in YA lit. (You see them a lot in adult lit, too, but let’s focus.) And there’s a reason for that.

People die in high school.

All of the time.

Recently I was having dinner with three of my friends, and one of them (my roommate) mentioned that a friend of a friend had recently died. My roommate’s birthday was several months ago, and she’d bought a pretty, blank notebook and brought it with her to the party for her friends to write notes in, since it was her 30th and she wanted a tangible reminder of that night. This friend of a friend had come to the party and wrote in the notebook and a few days ago she’d been going through the notebook looking for a gift card she remembered leaving in there and came across the friend of a friend’s note. This reminded me of going through my junior high school yearbook in which there is a note from my friend Rebecca, who died about a week after she wrote it, right before finals week. I was moving to California, and she wrote, “Don’t forget me!” I haven’t looked at the yearbook in a long time.

The conversation segued on to the (slightly morbid) topic of people we knew who died in high school, and everyone had a story to tell. Some had several. I couldn’t help thinking of my aunt, whose best friend died from illness when she was fifteen, or my brother, whose baseball teammate had died in a car accident when he was fifteen. One of my friends knew several girls in high school who lost their lives to violence. As common a trope as it is in YA, it’s actually more common in life. If you’ve listened to the exclusive interview on the All Unquiet Things audio book, I think (I recorded that a loooong time ago) I mentioned that about a year before AUT was published (way after I’d written the thing) I was doing some Googling around and found out that a murder not unlike Carly’s had happened in one of the very towns I mention in the novel. It was, of course, entirely coincidental and completely heartbreaking. But this stuff happens, every day in fact, which is why we write about it. That was very clearly driven home to me at dinner with my friends.

And the thing about teenage death is that, while it is never, ever easy to lose someone who is close to you, or even to tangentially experience the death of someone in your peer group, everything is heightened in high school. It all seems more immediate and intense and of-the-moment, because you’re so young and you’re so promising and you’re so alive. Not to quote myself, but allow me to quote myself:

“Murdered.” It was a ludicrous word; it didn’t make any sense when used to describe Carly. How could Carly be dead? She was so alive.

Poetry, I know. But anyway. That stuff sticks with you long after you’ve graduated, when your life is nothing like what it was in high school, when your life is not anything like you even imagined it might be in high school. When other memories have faded, or you feel like all those events happened to someone else whose memories were implanted in your head (this is how I feel all the time about my high school years, for no particular reason), you still remember your deepest losses and brushes with death. And they still come up, years later, over glasses of chilled wine on the patio of a tiny bar in Hell’s Kitchen.

I guess I don’t have a very clear point to close out this post, which is probably pretty frustrating to everyone who managed to read through to the end (but! if you did! you can use the comment tool now! so you can comment! if you want! no pressure!!!), but I’m just saying…death is not a cliche. Or maybe it is, maybe it’s the biggest cliche there is, but that doesn’t make it less scary or less mysterious and it certainly doesn’t make people less inclined to talk about it.

I think people who follow the publishing industry find “dead girl/boy books” exhausting because they (the people, not the books) are jaded; there are so many books, and they all get lumped into categories because that’s the easiest way to process them. And I’m not saying I’m not jaded. I’m totally, 100% jaded! But I also know that All Unquiet Things and, say, Thirteen Reasons Why and Before I Fall and If I Stay (to use some random examples that I can speak to because I’ve read them) are completely different books. They all happen to have a dead girl in them (or, in the case of If I Stay and Before I Fall, girls who are neither dead or alive but in some sort of ‘tween state which eventually resolves itself), but other than that they’re not at all alike. The writing styles are totally different–my voice and Jay Asher’s voice and Gayle Forman’s voice and Lauren Oliver’s voice are all distinct–the characters are different, the plots are different, etc. I think saying, oh, just another dead girl book, is a disservice to all of those stories, because they’re so much bigger than that. And furthermore, I think teens like them (no joke: Thirteen Reasons Why, Before I Fall, If I Stay–all HUGE bestsellers) because their themes are so relevant to the lives they’re living.

I, for one, am looking forward to more “dead girl” books, because I actually haven’t figured out how I feel about my own approaching death, or that of my loved ones (because obvs we all die eventually). Reading books and engaging with the ideas they contain is how I process my own fears and dreams and feelings. The work is not yet done. By anyone! I’m not just talking about YA fiction here. I just finished A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Pulitzer prize winner, current ladyfic lightning rod) which was ALL ABOUT death! (At least, I think it was. I’m not sure I totally plugged into Goon Squad and therefore may have slid over some of its Very Important I’m Sure themes.) There was even a dead girl (actually, he was a boy, but same diff in this context). Now I’m reading One Day and I’m pretty sure that one’s going to be all about death, too. All books are about death (talk about a cliche). Now I’m just spiraling away from my central point. End of post.

The Gift and the Price

Posted on February 6th, 2010 by annakjarzab

All Unquiet Things is a mystery; I think we all know that. But for me the mystery is sort of a subplot in comparison to the emotional journeys the characters take in the story, and from the reviews I’ve read (i.e. all of them, because I’m incorrigible), it seems like readers are really happy with the way in which the characters are developed, grow and learn throughout the novel. So that’s great.

AUT might pose as a mystery, but what it’s really about is grief. It’s about what happens to us when we lose a person, and how we battle feelings of guilt and remorse, anger and the deep, unrelenting sadness that comes with that sort of finality. Neily and Audrey have surface reasons for investigating Carly’s murder, but the truth is that neither one of them (Neily most obviously, but Audrey, too, in a much subtler way, I think, because she’s much more restrained emotionally) can let go of Carly. There’s a sense that if they can keep getting to know her and spending time with her (via memories, and also the things that they are learning about her life outside of them), they can keep her alive in some way that is meaningful and fulfilling. This is an illusion, but it’s a true illusion–their investigation brings them to a place where they can not only get her a piece of justice, but also where they can square their memories of her with the truth of her (insofar as anyone can ever get to the “truth” of anyone else) and put her to rest in their minds and hearts.

There’s a part in the book where Neily and his friend Harvey talk about what we can reasonably expect from people, and what the point of loving them is. There’s a sense–at least, I hope there is–that having people in your life who you care about so profoundly that when they are gone, really gone, it leaves a hole in your heart so big you think it might be possible for you to fall into it and never emerge is a huge gift, the greatest one there is in the human experience. There’s a reason why all of the kids in the book are wealthy; it’s not because I was hoping to provide a sordid peek into the lives of the truly privileged, although that’s a side effect of what I was really trying to accomplish–this isn’t Gossip Girl, and I’m not saying that in a dismissive way, but it’s true. You’re not supposed to aspire to these kids’ lives. The point of making them so wealthy is to contrast possession and privilege as a result of having a lot of money with the real riches life can provide for us, if we’re open to them, and that there’s no heirarchy in love except that which we create by being to a greater or lesser degree deserving of love and giving it freely to others.

But when you talk about love, you always have to at least think about loss. Loss, and the terrible pain that can come with it, is the price we pay for caring about other people. This is not to give the impression that AUT is a cautionary tale when it comes to talking about that stuff; I meant the journeys Audrey and Neily take to reinforce the idea that love is totally fucking worth it, in spite of the way it can shred us, because it’s the only thing that can redeem us in the end. Does their discovery of Carly’s murder fix anything? Absolutely not. They don’t miss her any less, and I don’t think they ever will. What it gives them is a sense of peace that comes from the fulfillment of their last act of love for her–this dangerous, foolish, reckless mission they undertake despite the physical and emotional risks it poses.

My grandmother died last week. In spite of the fact that she was sick, it was wildly unexpected and totally devastating to me and my entire family. My grandmother helped to raise me, she cooked for me, she counseled me, she disciplined me, she tried several dozen times to teach me Polish (her first language), though naught but the occasional vocabulary word and a vague idea of how to pronounce things actually stuck. She opened her house to me when I needed a place to live the summer after graduating from the University of Chicago, and it was in her basement that I finished AUT and started the book formerly known as MB, which I’m working on now. She was a complete inspiration–independent and opinionated, she had a very strong sense of right and wrong and she expected a lot of people. She appreciated hard work and best efforts, despised laziness and complaint. She went to church every day until she got sick; she taught me to pray the rosary. She was pretty much my hero. It’s impossible to believe that she’s not alive any more. That was the refrain at the wake–“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.” I thought she’d live to 90, possibly 100. This was, is, and will continue to be a complete shock to me, and I don’t know when I’ll get used to the idea.

In the last week, I’ve wished (when I’ve even occasioned to think about it) that AUT hadn’t been published yet, that I could revise it one more time using my evolving understanding of what it means to grieve in order to talk more intelligently on the subject, but it’s too late now.

Although, I did write a scene in which Carly and Audrey lose their grandmother. Audrey says on the subject, when Carly’s father comes into her room to tell them both that Mams (their fathers’ mother) has died:

I remember Carly’s expression of utter disblief. Se seemed stunned to find out that one major loss didn’t immunize her against others.

Carly didn’t speak very much at the funeral, but she did say one thing that’s followed me ever since.

“How many people are we going to lose before the universe decides we’ve had enough?” Carly asked me. I didn’t answer, but if I had known what was coming I would have said, “All of them.” Horrible, but true.

I remember writing that passage in a state of complete obliviousness. When writing about Carly losing her mother, and the way in which that affected her, I thought a lot about what it would be like to lose my own mother, especially at such a young age, which was a hard place in my mind to go, but go there I did, for the sake of the story. But I didn’t even say, “What if Grandma Helena died? How would I feel?” when I was writing that passage above. I’d already lost a grandmother (my grandfathers have both been deceased since I was a very small child, and I have no true memories of them, only what I’ve cobbled together from pictures and other people’s stories), and since that event had a lot to do with why I even went back to AUT in the first place I guess I might have been thinking about that, but honestly I don’t remember it. I certainly never thought I’d lose my other grandmother. It seems completely delusional to think someone might live forever, but aside from a few moments of panic as a child, I was never afraid of that inevitability.

There are other things I remember from writing that scene. I remember how sad Carly’s question is, how resigned–she’s not expecting an answer from Audrey, she knows that the answer Audrey wants to give in retrospect is the truth. And I also remember thinking how that there is a glimpse of the old Carly, the pre-Miranda’s-death Carly–she’s not just asking on her behalf, she doesn’t say “How many people am I going to lose before the universe decides I’ve had enough?” She says we. She means Audrey, too, and Carly’s father, at least. At most, she’s asking about the world. She recognizes the cosmic unfairness of what death does to the living, of what it means to have someone that you love ripped from your life. But Carly’s mistake is that she focuses on the price, not on the gift. It’s hard not to, when the wound is fresh. But time does heal all, except Carly doesn’t get enough time.

Lord, this is morbid. I’m sorry. It’s hard to talk about the heavier parts of living and feeling and writing without getting all maudlin and dark on everybody, and I hope that if you’re truly bummed by this post you’ve stopped reading by now. But as hard as this past week has been for me, I’ve also been realizing how well AUT has prepared me for what I’m going through now. What I’ve written in there is a very honest portrayal of what I think this growing up, getting hurt, learning to love, learning to lose process is all about, and what it gives us. I take comfort in a lot of the things I wrote in AUT, because I really believe them, and I haven’t stopped believing them.

When I originally decided to sit down and write this post, I wasn’t intending to give writing advice, but it’s pushing its way to the surface anyway. If you’re a writer–published, not published, just starting out, whatever–please, please, please, take advantage of the writing process to really sift through what you think and feel about the world. It might prepare you better for things you never even imagined.

I want you to be happy

Posted on May 3rd, 2009 by annakjarzab

Yesterday, my friend Carmen, who I’ve been close friends with for eight years now, got married to her boyfriend of five years, Tim. I’m dumb, because everything went so quickly I barely took any photos–Mel took frillions, I think, so I’ll be okay on this front, but I don’t remember posing for a photo with Carmen and Tim or anything. Le sigh. Oh well. I’ll never forget how gorgeous Carmen looked in her dress, or the way Tim looked when he saw her walking down the aisle. They’re a wonderful couple and they deserve all the best.

I haven’t been to a lot of weddings, but it’s my impression that lots of people, when choosing their readings, go for 1 Corinthians 13. You know, “Love is patient, love is kind…” I don’t blame them, because that’s a great passage, and perfect for weddings. But Carmen and Tim chose Philippians 4:4-9, which the Internet is telling me is different than what they read, but at the wedding yesterday it went something like this. “I want you to be happy; always happy in the Lord. I repeat: what I want is your happiness.” I just loved that. It really brings home to me the reason people enter into and stay in relationships for their entire lives, or rather what makes it possible for people to stay together forever. Because love is patient, and love is kind, but many times we as people are not patient or especially kind. What is important to remember about marriage is that when you make those vows you’re promising to live in service of the other person, to sometimes sacrifice your own happiness for theirs, and they in turn promise to do the same for you. Balance and compromise without resentment are the key to making relationships work, I think. I don’t know, I’m no expert, but it makes sense to me. Living in the service of someone else’s happiness–and having them live in the service of yours–seems both liberating and difficult to me. I’m sure Carmen and Tim will rise to the occasion admirably, as they’ve been doing for years unmarried.

The wedding was fun, although, like I said, a whirlwind. I think I might’ve stepped on broken glass (I didn’t get hurt or anything, but I do remember that) and slipped on the dance floor because someone spilled a drink. I knew I was going to fall–I predicted it when I was talking to my mom earlier that day. Oh well, it was towards the end of the night and it was dark and I don’t think anyone saw. I got a little maudlin towards the end, as one tends to do at weddings, so thanks to Jackie and Shannel for putting up with that!

People kept telling me how nice it was of me to come all the way from New York for a wedding and I was kind of taken aback, like, obviously I would. Carmen and Tim are a couple I championed from day 1, plus Carmen’s one of my best friends, there’s no way I wouldn’t come. I got to see a lot of people I literally haven’t set eyes on since graduation. I wonder if I can write off some of the travel as a research expense, because I talked to the best man, Mike, about his hometown, Rescue, CA, which inspired the setting of my third book, GR, as I mentioned before. It was knowing Mike in the first place that even brought the little town to my attention, and I’d always wanted to write about it, so here we go. This summer will be all about GR and MB (revisions, I’m sure, are forthcoming).

Being back at Santa Clara also made me think about college. High school isn’t the best years of your life, and certainly college doesn’t have to be. It would make me sad to think that people are going around loving college and then leaving it and never being that happy again and thinking that’s normal. But I will say that college can be a blast, and should be. For those teens just going off to college this coming fall, enjoy it. Have fun. Be smart and safe. Join organizations and meet tons and tons of people. Especially if you want to write. You should laugh a lot and accept that you’ll make some mistakes. Don’t take more eight AM classes than is absolutely necessary. Take a lot of pictures. Try to stay in touch but also know that some people fall off the face of the planet and that’s okay, too.

My thoughts are sort of scattered right now and coming out in bursts because I’m tired and I have to get on a plane back to New York in a few hours, but I’m so glad I came. I wish it hadn’t gone so fast and that I’d taken more pictures, but I’m happy to have seen everyone and to have celebrated Carmen and Tim’s marriage and I’m feeling a healthy amount of yearning for the life I left behind when I graduated. I’m happier now, but I sure was happy then.

ETA: I had the craziest dream last night! I was hanging out with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner in New York. It felt very realistic, which always sort of creeps me out, when dreams so closely approximate real life that it’s difficult to separate them from it. So weird!

The Freshmen

Posted on April 25th, 2009 by annakjarzab

Music is a big part of my writing process. Not that that’s original, but it’s true. The playlist for All Unquiet Things is extensive, the result of almost seven years of work, and each of those songs can conjure up a particular scene for me. Damien Rice’s “9 Crimes” is a slow, tortured ending to the book, and Mum’s “We Have a Map of the Piano” is its conteplative beginning. Music is a huge part of that book, more than my other books so far.

Last night I had drinks with Joanna and my friends Abby and Cambria, which was wonderful, of course–lots of publishing and YA book talk with a generous sprinkle of relationship talk, which seems to be a constant topic of conversation with most of my friends lately (or maybe it’s always been?). It was lots and lots of fun, as always, and, as always, made me wish Joanna lived here.

But okay, so I was standing on the street corner later that night, a real New York streets with a bar on the corner and a famous restaurant with twinkle lights in the trees and a row of beautiful brownstones and a film shoot taking place across the street, and for the first time in probably three or four years I heard the strains of The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshmen.” For the young ones who didn’t grow up in the ’90s, that band, a milder grunge ensemble, was pretty much a one-hit wonder, with “The Freshmen” being that one hit. I remember them playing it at our eighth grade dances. It’s sad and plaintive, a song of mourning for lost relationships and long-ago mistakes.

“The Freshmen” was a central song on the AUT playlist the first time I wrote it, when I was in college, but for whatever reason it fell off when I rebooted the book in grad school. The truth is that I’d forgotten about it. But when I heard it last night, I was remembering the book the way it was, thinking about it the way it is now, and sort of marveling at how much time and work and dedication and help it took to get to the point I was at. I just turned in my copyedits yesterday when J and I had lunch with my editor. I know I still have first pass pages to go, not to mention the actual release of the book and the excitement and terror that actually comes from having people unrelated to me read it and form their own opinions, but as for writing, well, I’m pretty much done. AUT is basically finished, and I feel a little sad about that. The book has been my project for a good chunk of my life now–my entire adult life, actually–and no matter how many other projects I had simmering on the stove, it was always there to go back to. It’s a weird feeling to know that it’s as finished as it’s going to get, and that soon it’s going to be a real book and not just a file on my computer.

It made sense to me that I heard “The Freshmen” last night, at the end of this journey with AUT. I don’t want to sound cheesy or maudlin or anything, but I was a little sad. Not weepy–GOD NO–but a little touched. As Cambria reminded me, I’ll probably never work on a book that long again. *Shrug* I guess there’s nothing to do now but celebrate.

Stress

Posted on March 3rd, 2009 by annakjarzab

Stress is my eternal enemy. To be honest, I’m not very good about dealing with it. When I was in college, I decided to get a double degree, so I needed forty extra credits to graduate. As a result, I ended up overloading nearly every quarter. Also, I became a huge joiner sophomore year, so by my senior year I had all these external responsibilities. I was a supervisor at my job, in charge of hiring, firing and scheduling my merry band of misfits, second-in-command of our undergraduate literary magazine, an officer in my sorority, a Senior Senator and appropriations committee chair (lots of work, little respect, no compensation), and a member of the peer judicial board. Also, I had friends and a life and ten roommates. My grandmother died that year, and my father had a stroke. Needless to say, I was very, very busy and very, very stressed out, and the fact that I made it through 2004-2005 with my sanity intact is a miracle.

My body, however, did not fair so well. It got to the point where any attempt to relax, even for forty minutes to watch an episode of Law & Order with my roommates, would result in terrible stomach cramps the origin of which are a mystery to me. Forget taking a nap–I would get sick the moment I laid down.

Okay, so I didn’t go to the doctor, because I was sure it was all psychological. And sure enough, the day I graduated all my symptoms went away. I spent the next three years bored, but healthy. And then I got my book deal. And then I started having inconvenient, irritating friend problems. And then it was winter and I got homesick for my family and California. And now I can’t lay down without stomach issues and my shoulders feel as though a great weight is upon them and I wake up after restless sleep feeling twisted and achey. I have got to do something about this.

AUT revisions are stressing me out big time. I feel the pressure to finish them and get on with it, but mostly that’s internal. I’m excited about everything that comes next, so I’m busting my butt to get these revisions done, and I’ve accomplished a good chunk of it–now all I need is to carve out the time necessary to make the last changes. And, actually, I’m felling really great about what I’ve gotten done so far, and I’m pretty sure I know exactly how to fix the rest of the little problems in the MS. It’s just this last final push, when my energy is so low, that’s standing between me and being able to wave a fond farewell to AUT as it makes its way to copy edits.

And, okay, the friend stuff is problematic. This is probably the biggest stresser in my life that I have no control over. It’s coming at a really inopportune time and every attempt to deal with it just makes the situation worse because the cognitive disconnect between me and this person is so great. Generally, I don’t deal with tough interpersonal problems by withdrawing and being distant and withholding my friendship–I like to confront things head-on, fix them, and forget about them–but the situation is such that my only option currently is to shut it down. I’m perfectly happy to discuss issues in the hopes of reaching a satisfactory conclusion, but I’m not prepared to teach somebody how to be a good friend. That’s not my job. We’re all adults, it’s time to act like it. Take what you want and pay for it, says God.

But what I realized yesterday is that as much as AUT has been stressing me out, in so many ways it has saved me. It has given me something to focus on that is productive and satisfying and meaningful. I wrote AUT for many reasons, but one of them is that I was trying to puzzle out what it means to be human, what it means to grow up, what it means to love people, to forgive them, to ask for forgiveness. My characters are not flawless or perfect, and they don’t always mean well, but they are searching for a way to be good, to repair what has been broken to whatever degree it can be repaired. These revisions have given me extra time with them, and it has been so great for me because it reminds me what I value.

So my strategy is this: take lots of deep breaths, have faith in my own principles, and focus on the work*–not only what I can give it, but what I can get from it. Already I feel a little lighter. Confession is good for the soul. Thanks for listening!

*Also, plan a vacation. Cambria and I are buying tickets to London tonight! (I think.) I need a break, even if it’s not going to happen until May.