Category Archives: YA fiction

The Monday Book: THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL by Nadia Hashimi

pearlIt’s been awhile since I devoured a novel so thoroughly as this one. Hashimi writes in a simple, straightforward way. (And be warned, a couple of times the point of view shifts because the copy editor didn’t catch it.)

The book follows two women, Rahima the young daughter of a drug addict, and her great-aunt Shekiba (maybe a few greats in there) a century earlier. Rahima has only sisters, so by Afghani law she can be turned into a son until she is “too old.” That time comes all too quickly for Rahima, who like two of her sisters is married off to sons of the warlord her father serves (and owes for his opium).

Rahima tries to draw strength from Shekiba’s story, told by her unmarried aunt, who grows increasingly impation with Rahima’s mother when she follows her husband into opium despair. But that’s after several more tragedies pretty much rip out her heart.

Told with not as much sentiment as one might expect, and showing the unique ways in which women can find power in the strangest places, the story parallels Rahima’s brief life as a schoolboy and Shekiba’s man-guarding of the palace harem. (The king couldn’t trust men there, so he got ugly women to do it. Shekiba had been harmed by a fire, before the plague carried off her family. She managed to live independently for a bit, too, before her father’s brothers figured out the land was available. Nothing goes too well after that.)

Although the book is intense in its depictions of violence and toxic masculinity, it also shows the ways in which women work together or gang up against each other to work their will. And it is a gripping read, moving quickly through the action with just the right amount of characterization. Dressed in period clothing and speaking Afghani to one another, you still feel like you know these people. Nothing new here, just the usual family jealousy and economic troubles revealing what’s in people’s hearts.

Hashimi combines words in an interesting way, unique almost. Prosaic yet lyrical, as in this quote: “The human spirit, you know what they say about the human spirit? Is is harder than a rock and more delicate than a flower petal.” And for all the cultural awareness of the work, there are some lovely character moments that transcend setting, as in when someone tells Rashima she must accept her destiny, or naseeb: “The hell with naseeb. Naseeb is what people blame for every thing they can’t fix.”

Heartily recommended.

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The Monday Book: ME MYSELF AND HIM by Chris Tebbetts

Sorry for the missing Monday books, folks. Jack and I have been everywhere but home for May and June. One of the fun places I was brought this next Monday book. I met Betsy Kepes as a fellow workshoper at Kettle Pond Writing Conference in the Adirondacks. She offers this interview with Chris Tebbetts, a writer from Vermont whose book Me Myself and Him is out July 9. Enjoy!

me-myself-and-himI think this is your first YA? How many books have you published before this? And I think this is your first solo book?

This is my second YA. In 2006, I co-authored a book called “M or F?” with Lisa Papademetriou. It’s a contemporary romantic comedy, with a Cyrano-inspired plot line, and two protagonists telling the same story from their own perspectives. We each took one voice and wrote their respective chapters. My protagonist is gay, and his sexuality is not the problem of the novel.

This is my 21st book (not counting the ghostwriting I’ve done), and not my first solo venture. That was a fantasy adventure series called THE VIKING – my first novels, but those were work for hire, after which I fell into co-authoring, and have been only co-authoring since THE VIKING, until now. So technically, this is my YA solo debut, and also the first book I’ve ever published in the usual way (if there is such a thing) – by writing it with no contract, and then selling it through my agent. It’s been an unusual trajectory, compared to other author friends, but one that has suited me well.

The MC is Chris and you’re a Chris–I think some autobiography is here? Ohio too for both the real and imaginary Chris. 

The prologue of the book, where Chris falls and breaks his nose, is essentially autobiographical, written from the memories of when that happened to me at age 19, in Ohio where I grew up.

This character and I have a lot in common, and there are emotional truths throughout that come from my own experience – like being the gay third wheel to my straight friends — but the two story threads that flow from the inciting incident, and most of the plotted events of the story, are fictional inventions.

As you noticed, a lot of the book is about lies, and the nature of truth, and (my personal fascination) the way in which two seemingly conflicting ideas can both stand up against one another. People often assume that writers are their characters, and it was interesting to me to tackle a story where that was closer to being true and untrue at the same time, in a more direct way than usual.

One idea I picked up in my research was the suggestion that the opposite of a profound truth is often another profound truth. For instance: Life is beautiful—and—life is a suffering. Both completely true. Or: We are physical beings./We are spiritual beings. Both completely true. And etc. That notion, of the yin/yang of all things, fascinates me, including the yin/yang symbol itself, which is made up of two pieces that are simultaneously identical and opposite to one another. A lot of the writing of this story flows from that fascination.

Did you have the idea for the two plot book from the begin or did that evolve as you wrote it? 

It evolved as I wrote it. The original story was going to be solely about Chris going to California to live with his dad for the summer, but as I drafted those early chapters, the pages just kept coming and coming, and Chris kept not leaving Ohio, for reasons I couldn’t even understand. It was as though the story itself was reluctant to change locations, and eventually, I decided to listen to that impulse, and respond to it. The parallel realities in my narrative emerged from there.

I’m also a fan of the movie Sliding Doors, which does the same thing. That was an additional inspiration for me, once I realized I might want to explore more than one outcome from the same incident.

Do you think teens are especially interested in “What if…?”s? Certainly Chris is!

“What if?” is a huge interest of mine. I give a lecture about creativity and fear (among other things) where I talk about my own revelation, that “What if?” is great for storytelling, but it’s also fertile ground for personal anxiety. I’m someone who has suffered from panic attacks, and for me, that kind of anxiety always stems from “what if?” questions. What if the elevator stops between floors? What if the house catches on fire? I have to wonder if my tendency to ask “What if?” in a storytelling context has some relationship to my tendency to ask the question in a more worrisome way. So while it’s tempting to wish away some of that tendency toward anxiety in my life, I know that it’s also part of what makes me a storyteller.

I like how the two stories become more and more intertwined as the book goes on. And how what seemed the “bad outcome”– having to leave Ohio as a punishment– generates the best outcome for Chris. The problems of lying are central here and what lies can lead to. It makes the book complex and interesting. I think of the lies most teens make– myself included– and that teen readers will find this fascinating. Did you ever lie as a teen and have the outcome be radically different from what you thought it would be?

I wasn’t a big liar as a kid or teen – not compared to some of my friends. But what this makes me think about is the way in which I was gay at that age, but without being out, even to myself. There was always an element of both conscious and unconscious suppression, as I tried to fit into the (straight) mold I thought I was supposed to fit into, and as I figured out who I was. So in that sense, my teen years were marked by their own kind of lie.

Also, to answer your question, as I did finally grapple directly with my sexuality, there was a lot of fear that my life would be a certain way, that some kinds of happiness would be unavailable to me, that I would lose friends and family — none of which turned out to be true. So again, that was a kind of lie I told myself, even if I didn’t know it was untrue at the time.

A lot of this book is about the relativity of truth. If I believe someone’s lie, and if I’m never corrected in that assumption, then that lie becomes my truth. Or if two people have two different understandings of a given issue, aren’t both of those understandings true, for them? I don’t have hard answers for this kind of thought experiment, but it’s one I particularly like to engage in.

I’m curious why you included Gina, the Born Again character. She has a parallel in Mitch, though we don’t find out much about his religious background. Gina is an enigma for Chris, and a bit for me too.

The original inspiration for this story came from my interest in the intersection of science and religion. At some level, physics, like religion, is about looking for the one truth that rules supreme over everything else. In physics, we have things like the so-called god particle, or the Theory of Everything. In Christianity, we have God himself.

That’s why I gave the physicist father character a secretary who was born again, to let my protagonist Chris be exposed to both sides of that dichotomy. Chris is neither a physicist nor a religious person—for that matter, neither am I—and yet, I’m interested in both.

Gina, my born again Christian character, was also inspired by a co-worker I had at Friendly’s, back in my teen years. At that time, I was very judgmental about religion and religious people. This co-worker really changed some of my thinking about that – not by making me any more or less religious, but simply by showing herself to be a funny, thoughtful person whose life was about more than just that one thing. We joked around at work, played racquetball, went out for food…. Nothing earth shattering, and I’m pretty sure she had no idea of the impact it had on me, but now here she is, showing up in my story. That may reflect some of the enigmatic quality you saw in her. It was important to me that Gina be neither vilified nor celebrated for her religion.

Did you come up with the idea for the charts and boxes and diagrams from the start? It is also a delightful way to create “choices”. 

Thanks! Yes, those charts and boxes were part of this novel from the very beginning. That just happened in a creatively organic way, as a reflection of how my own mind operates, and how I often organize my thoughts. From there, I suppose they “took” in the writing for exactly the reason you mention – it was a great way to explore the various possibilities of any given choice, or fork in the road.

Chris has a very difficult time dealing with his father. I’d say this is quite typical (I’m thinking of my two sons and their father. It wasn’t/isn’t as bad as the Chris/father scenario but there is lots of wariness related to being “judged”.) I find this a very strong part of your book, especially the scene after Chris stays out all night with Swift and then he and his dad have the “breakfast talk”. Do you think all parents and teens live on different planets?

If I had to pick a yes or no answer to that question, I’d have to say yes. It’s so common to detach from one’s parents as we swing into adolescence, and (as was the case for me, starting around fourteen) to want as little to do with them as possible. I’ve certainly never kept nearly so many secrets from my parents as I did in high school.

That said, a lot of teens have great relationships with their parents, and I’d say that was true for me as well. (Can you see a theme here? I’ve never been one to confidently stick to yes/no thinking. I’m a master of shades of grey. ☺).

It was interesting to write a character who was so much like me, in so many ways, but not in every way. Specifically here, I mean, to write a character who detests his father as much as Chris does in the book. For my own part, I adored my father. He was an amazing man and one of the most well-liked people I’ve ever known. I honestly am not sure where that element of the story came from for me, and I’m curious about what readers will make of it, including readers who knew my dad.

What was it like to write the two parallel stories? Did you write one first and then the other, or write them simultaneously?

I wrote the whole thing in chronological order and in the alternating chapters as they appear in the finished book. Part of the fun (but also the challenge) was in fitting together all the puzzle pieces in a way that allowed the reader to learn things from one half of the story that inform their understanding of what’s going on in the other half, even if the characters themselves are limited to what they know within the confines of their own, singular reality.

I love it that this is a book about a gay teen boy but that is not the central part of this book. Yes, a character falls in love for the first time, that is what matters. Did you have access to any books like this when you were a teen? 

Thanks for saying that. It was definitely part of my thinking. I have one other YA book with a gay protagonist, and one of the driving ideas behind that book was to have a young gay character whose problem in the story is not his own sexuality. In ME, MYSELF, AND HIM, you don’t even learn that Chris is gay until maybe page 75, and that was very much on purpose.

Ultimately, I hope there’s room on the bookshelf for books that tackle the difficulties of queer identity for young people in this world, as well as books about what I call incidentally queer characters – where their sexuality isn’t invisible to the reader, but where their stories are about something else altogether. Right now, I’m reading BLACK WINGS BEATING by Alex London. Next up is DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram. Those are two good examples of the kind of book I’m talking about.

As for my own teen experience, I’m old enough that those kind of societal cues were few and far between when I was a teen. My first exposure to gay characters came more through tv shows and movies than through the books I was reading. The landscape has changed significantly over the years, and I’m glad for the more diverse reputation you see in books these days, even if we still have a ways to go there.

 

 

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