We need to talk about a book I just finished reading. It’s not a new book. It’s not even a book written in the 8-12 year-old genre, which of late, has been the only world I’ve been in.
You might already know the book just from the title of the blog entry. If not, I promise I’ll reveal it in a minute.
We need to talk about this book, which was recently recommended over coffee by my friend and fellow writer, Paula Garner. As I walked into the coffee shop, Paula’s nose was buried in the pages. As I sat down to join her, she slid in her bookmark; I could see she was close to the end. She didn’t immediately put the book aside — rather, she held it and let it sit on her lap while we greeted one another.
For the next five minutes or so, she shared why she loved the book. I wanted to hear every word. Not so much because I’d been dying to pick it up. (I’d heard about it before, but I’d never had the desire to read it.) I wanted to hear her perspective because she’s a writer and I’m a writer. I wanted to know what moved her. She admired things I never even think about: Sentence structure, flow and fluency (among many other things). Paula’s like that — she sees things in writing that I don’t necessarily notice, but that I’m learning to appreciate.
Then, Paula asked if she might read me a brief excerpt from the author interview in the back of the book. “Sure,” I said. I loved talking books with someone who’s so passionate about them. I felt completely indulged, sipping a coffee and being read to! The interview revealed the author’s insecurities about the manuscript before its publication — even before its contract was signed. Revealed how, for twenty years, the author wrote several novels and received mediocre reviews. Revealed how this novel received so many agents’ rejections that it could have easily been left on a C: drive forever. Revealed how, after being fed up with the naysayers, the author sent the manuscript directly to an editor, and the next week a contract was presented.
Why is all of this important?
Of course, it’s an inspirational example of a writer’s perseverance. And of course, it’s a mini lesson about solid writing. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
I read the book. And I couldn’t put it down. And I thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. And I lingered over every sentence. And I thought about the author’s process as she wrote it — how she built tension, how she nailed the dialogue so pitch-perfect, how she wrote a story with characters that I loved and hated at the same time.
The book is about a mother who’s not very fond of her son. Actually, she can’t stand him. I’m a mother, and I’ve had my share of moments of “frustration” with each of my three children, so I began reading the book with the attitude of, “Even though I can’t relate to the topic, I ought to read it because the writing’s great and the author never gave up.”
What happened as I READ the book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, was startling.
The story takes place through a series of letters a mother writes to her estranged husband two years after their almost-sixteen-year-old son murders several classmates and school staff members, Columbine-style.
The writing engrossed me. Not because of the topic (what a downer), but because the voice was multi-faceted, witty, enraged, confused, mortified, conflicted, defiant and humbled. The voice was honest, painful, true, believable. A mother who hates her son — what a horrible notion. But Shriver’s writing somehow weaves in just enough of everything (dialogue, action, narrative) to make the reader see just why she’s justified feeling this way. The son IS horrible. So horrible, in fact, that I believed the author must have written from a place of deep, dark pain and memory. The anguish Shriver describes, the constant guilt and unease her character feels with her son, her marriage and others who also can’t stand her child, is palpable.
Halfway through the book, I remembered something Paula had read to me: Lionel Shriver, the author, has never had a child of her own.
As I continued to read, I was mesmerized by how a writer can so inhabit a character, bringing him/her to life in such vivid color as to convince the reader this is REALLY happening. I strive for that myself, hoping my middle-grade audience of 8-12 year-olds will believe that a 42-year-old woman can write from the perspective of a twelve-year-old protagonist.
In no way do I put myself in a category of excellent writers like Lionel Shriver (though it would be nice). I do, however, know I believe in my story. I know the message is true. That its heart beats along with my own as I write every scene. That I’ve actually cried when my characters have cried.
Reading We Need To Talk About Kevin, I’m reminded that excellent writing comes from a sacred place. One need not live the story in order to write it; excellent writing comes from a place where the writer believes the story from deep within.
And so, one of the most desperately depressing books I’ve ever read has provided me one of the biggest boosts of hope about being published as a middle-grade author.
Finally, here’s a 2 minute video of Lionel Shriver, discussing her thoughts on We Need To Talk About Kevin
P.S. The book is being made into a movie, coming out in 2011, starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller.