“When I’m lucky enough to have a good day of creating, I rise almost as if in a trance from my chair and step out the back door feeling momentarily dazed.”
This March I’ll be speaking at the Associated Writers Program’s annual conference in Boston with authors Clay Carmichael, Debby Dahl Edwardson and Kelly Bennett, discussing World Building When Writing for Children and Young Adults. In a recent conversation with Clay, the question came up, what happens when you’re building more than one fictional world at a time—and are moving between worlds yourself? Clay, who always knows just the right thing to say, wrote the beautiful response that follows. It’s about art, success and the psychic balancing act between two very different fictional worlds.
I have a new young adult novel, Brother, Brother (Roaring Brook) coming out this August and I’ve been working on final things with that manuscript, but also writing talks, visiting and Skyping with students—American and German—about my 2009 novel, Wild Things (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press), which is happily on three state award lists this year.
Both take place in North Carolina, but one is for younger readers and the other for teens; one has a cat, the other dogs; one an eleven-year-old girl, one twin teen boys. In Wild Things, the girl spitfire goes to live on the red clay of the North Carolina piedmont with her sculptor-uncle, while my other more passive main character in Brother, Brother seeks out his twin on the private island of a powerful, conservative U.S. senator.
Going from one book’s world to the other is a bit whiplash inducing some days, not so much due to the different characters and places, but more because the emotional landscapes and character’s challenges so differ. It’s a bit of a psychic balancing act and requires a good emotional memory. Zoë, in Wild Things, approaches every situation with an animal fierceness and an open mouth; while Brother, the titular protagonist of my YA, is quieter and pretty much resigned to being flattened by whatever steamroller life sends his way. Most of the characters in Wild Things are trying to help Zoë, while most of the characters in Brother, Brother are trying to snow, use or control Brother any way they can.
There is some common ground. In both books, the animals are wiser than the humans who control their fates, their four-footed love purer than anything the two-leggeds generally manage. In both, the heroes—and I think of them as heroes—wrestle mightily with what could have easily been dire fates, and in both they prevail, each in his or her own large-hearted way.
Even so, it’s challenging going from one world to the other—though really, when I think about it, that’s just what authors do. The ability to be simultaneously and deeply in two or more worlds for extended periods is an author’s job description. When I’m lucky enough to have a good day of creating, I rise almost as if in a trance from my chair and step out the back door feeling momentarily dazed. The sleeping cats and the backyard bird feeder in the pecan tree seem, for a second, foreign. I know where I am, of course, but it takes me a few minutes to make the transition from the emotional, psychological or physical scene I’ve just left on the page to my real back yard. In those moments, I’m in kind of limbo, transported in the Star Trek sense back to the home world of my life.
“At least it’s less dangerous than real travel,” a friend of mine once said.
“Don’t bet on it,” I told him, tapping my head. “Gets pretty crazy up here. Some dicey situations and twisted individuals.”
We laughed, but also exchanged a knowing look. He’s an artist too, knew what I said was true. I mean, in a way, if you’re not risking it all on the page and the places you travel to and the people you meet aren’t new or strange or dangerous or tragic or heartbreaking or revelatory or joyous or scary as hell, what’s the point?
— Clay Carmichael 2.4.13
Clay Carmichael is the author-illustrator of three picture books; the middle grade novel Wild Things and the upcoming young adult novel Brother, Brother. She lives with her sculptor-husband in Carrboro, NC. www.claycarmichael.com
Clay, Zu Vincent, Debby Dahl Edwardson and Kelly Bennett will discuss World Building When Writing for Children and Young Adults at the AWP conference in Boston, MA on March 8, 2013: https://www.awpwriter.org/awp_conference/schedule_overview