Casaubon's Book

Some of you may know that a publisher contacted me last year about turning a piece of short fiction I’d written from an adult perspective into a young adult novel. There are several reasons I wanted to do this – the first is that in many ways, the young adult fiction market is much more vital than the adult fiction market – a lot of adults read YA fiction, while the reverse is rarely true. There’s the potential to reach a large audience this way. The other, more important reason to me is simply that teenagers and young adults have to know about our future, and they need a vision of a viable world. For the last century, America has sold variations on a vision of the future that is simply incompatible with human life and liveability – we need to offer up another vision to younger people and fiction is one place that becomes possible. So I set about switching the viewpoint, and writing not from “Noah’s” perspective but from another one entirely. I’m going to post very rough drafts of the first two chapters over the next couple of weeks, but then you have to wait until I find someone to publish it (the original publisher is still a possibility) to find out how it comes out. Here’s the original short story, btw. – Sharon

I’m not moving to any farm.

Daddy Ham says we’re going home for good, and that things will be better there for all of us. They don’t have worry so much about money there. We’ll have good food. It will be cooler, and safer. When the power goes out, people up there live too far apart to smash things and fight. It will be home.

It will never be home.

Papa James says that he knows there have been lots of changes, but that I have to be brave for Grace. Gramma says she’ll miss me but we’ll visit and won’t it be wonderful to live in the country with all that wonderful fresh food and animals. Grammy Rose says she’s proud of how adaptable and brave I am. Uncle Reg says I should eat a ripe red tomato for him. Nanny says she can’t wait a minute until we get here, that the chickens need me to collect eggs and that I can have a lamb to take care of for my own. Grandpa Noah says “Right” when Nanny says all that, but I don’t think he is really listening. Moses is jealous of us, and signed that he wishes he could go to the farm. I told him I wish it too – he can go instead of me.

I’m still not moving to any stupid farm. I don’t want to touch eggs that came out of a chicken’s butt. Lambs poop everywhere – everything on a farm poops all the time. There are tomatoes in the supermarket, and Grammy Rose grows them on her balcony. And I don’t want to leave my home and my school and Gramma and Grammy Rose and go where there’s nothing but trees and white people.

I don’t see why we have to. Papa James still has a job, at least some of the time, although they don’t call him out to work so much anymore at the hospital. Daddy Ham hasn’t been working, but he could get a job any day now – this is Atlanta, there are lots of jobs here, right?

Besides, when they adopted us, they promised the judge that they would always act in the best interest of the children. I told Papa James that moving all the way to a farm in freezing cold New York was not in my best interest, and that maybe the judge would come and take me away. I didn’t mean it though, about going back, and I think he knew, because he laughed and told Daddy Ham what I’d said.

Daddy Ham feels worse about it than Papa James, I know, because even though he laughed too, just for one moment he looked really upset. Grace is excited about the farm, and she’s so little that she doesn’t really remember before we were all a family, or understand why Nanny and Grandpa Noah are different. But I know Daddy Ham knows that this isn’t fair to me.

“Angie, we’re going to lose the house. We can’t pay for it anymore.” He looks miserable, and I feel a little bad about it, but I still don’t want to go.

Daddy Ham is really thin and not too tall – I’m only twelve and I already come up to his nose. He has really dark blue eyes with pale skin and a ton of curly dark hair and glasses, and he’s the one who takes everything seriously and worries a lot. Papa James jokes and calls it “neurosis” and says it is a “Scottish-Jewish thing,” but I don’t really know what that means.

“We could live with Grammy Rose – that’s what Uncle Reg is doing – you can have Grammy Rose’s office for you and Papa James, and Grace and I can sleep on the floor in the room with Uncle Reg.

“No, honey, there’s not enough room for you girls. And if I could, I’d take Grammy Rose and Uncle Reg and everyone with us. That neighborhood isn’t really safe anymore and it gets hotter every year, so hot it makes Grammy Rose sick sometimes. And Uncle Reg doesn’t have a job either. We need a good, safe place for you girls to grow up and be safe and healthy, and the farm is the right place.

I get nervous because Daddy Ham looks like he’s going to cry again. I heard him once say to Papa James when he thought Grace and I were watching tv that he felt like a jerk because he couldn’t support his kids anymore. Then he cried – and I didn’t know what to do, so I just pretended I was watching my show. But I kept feeling like I was supposed to do something, and it made me want to throw up inside.

I almost asked him if maybe I could stay with Gramma for a while, but I didn’t. And I know that she’d say no anyway. She always says that if she could have taken us girls, she would have, but it is hard for her even to take care of Moses with her knees and her eyes, and the place she lives is really just for old people. Most of the folks there aren’t happy that even Moses is there. They get mad at him if he jumps or runs, and it is a lucky thing that he can’t make much noise anyway because he can’t hear, or they’d probably kick him out and Gramma too. It’s only because she’s so nice to the boss guy that runs everything that she can even keep Moses. Once, and she told me it was a grown up secret, she said that she only took Moses because he wouldn’t have made it in foster care, and she knew Grace and I would be ok.

I told my friend Mikky that I had to move away, and she said I could come live with her and her Mom, but I don’t think that’s real, and I didn’t even bother telling Daddy Ham. Nobody ever really means it when they say you can come live with them when you are just friends. People only do that when they really, really want a kid, like Papa James and Daddy Ham, or when they are your family, and lots of times not even then. Those people in the foster homes who said I could stay a long time never really meant it.

When we were playing video games I told Mikky everything I remembered about the farm and the mountain. How there are only six neighbors on the whole road up the mountain. How Nanny is nice, I guess, but Grandpa Noah doesn’t really seem to like kids, and he talks in another language a lot and prays all the time. Nanny says he talks more to God than he does to people sometimes. About the animals that are always pooping (which made Mikky giggle) and about the dirt that always needs digging, and all the work, and how Grandpa and Nanny were trying to get us excited about these boring little packages of seeds. About how Uncle Jeff lives in a trailer with a little house built on the side that looks like he put it together out of old junk.

Mikky was sad I was leaving, but she was a little jealous too – she said she’d never been to a farm and kept asking me about the baby goats and sheep and rabbits and whether they were cute. She asked if maybe she could come visit me, and I said sure, but I don’t think she could buy a train ticket, since she’s a free lunch kid just like me, and her Mom won’t let us play at my house anyway, cause Daddy and Papa are that thing that isn’t in the Bible. I don’t really think she’d let Mikky stay overnight with us.

I went home after that, and Grace was sick again and Daddy Ham was helping her with her inhaler, and the house was full of boxes, and Papa James gave me a couple and told me to start packing my stuff. I got mad and said I didn’t want to go and didn’t want to pack, and that he was just like everyone else, telling me to pack up my stuff and leave again. He told me to get to work packing and save the drama for later, that we had work to do.

Papa James is very tall and strong, and he’s really dark, almost as dark as me, and much darker than Grace whose father was white anyway, at least I think so. He spends all day at the hospital lifting sick people and taking care of them, and he’s got big muscles and a very quiet voice. He’s older than Daddy Ham, going gray a little bit, and where I sometimes mess around with Daddy Ham and don’t always listen to him and try and make him mad, I don’t usually try and make Papa James mad, because it seems like if he got mad, it might be for real. With Daddy Ham you always know that he’s going to forgive you and not stay mad, but I don’t know about Papa James.

This time I really wanted to make him mad, so I told him that the boxes were just like the garbage bags all the social workers used to make us pack our stuff up in, and he was treating me like trash too by making me move after he said we could stay. The I said that he and Daddy Ham were just like Miss Edie. I was really yelling by then. That was the meanest thing I could think of to say, since they both knew that we had to be taken out of Miss Edie’s house really fast after she smacked Grace in the face so hard she left a mark and twisted my arm hard when I tried to fight her to keep her from getting at Grace. Miss Edie’s was the next-to-last place we were before we came to their house and finally, we thought, got to stay.

Papa James looked really mad at that, and I thought for a minute he might hit me, even though he didn’t move. I was ready to run into my room though and lock the door, just in case, even though neither Papa nor Daddy has ever hit me, and they promised they wouldn’t ever. Lots of people said that, though, even though they always said they wouldn’t do it, or do it again, and I figure better safe than sorry, so I got ready to run.

But Papa James didn’t even yell, and when I turned like I was going to run away from him his face changed and he didn’t look mad anymore, just sad. I saw Daddy Hamish standing in the doorway, looking at me like he was worried about me or something, but he didn’t say anything. Papa James just put down the boxes and sat down and told me to sit too. He told me that this was not the same thing as when Grace and I were foster kids, that he was sorry if it made me feel bad to move, but this was everyone going together, that he and Daddy Ham would never go anywhere without me, and that sometimes you all have to do the best thing for your whole family even if it is really hard.

He talked to me about things that I sort of know about – about no rain and why everything gets hotter and dryer every year, and the diseases he sees people in the hospital with that never used to be here. He talked about jobs, and being afraid there won’t be enough food for us, and how hard it is to find work. He talked about things being dangerous, and oil, which I didn’t really understand. I thought the world was always dangerous.

I didn’t mean to cry, but I did, a little bit, and I yelled that my whole family was here, and I was leaving everyone – and that I couldn’t go away from Moses, because my whole family doesn’t live in one house, and I have to take care of my little brother even if we don’t live together, because Gramma can’t really. What will Moses do when the other kids are mean to him without me to tell them to go to hell?

“Oh, Angelina!” Now Daddy Hamish came over and got down on his knees and put his arms around me, even though I don’t usually like to be hugged, because I’m too old. I let him this time. “Oh, sweetie.”

He looked up at Papa James like he was about to ask him a question, but he didn’t. And then Papa James nodded anyway, as though he already had, and Daddy Hamish told me something amazing.

“Honey, we can’t take Moses with us right now, because your Grandmother wants him to finish out his year at the school for the deaf, but we’ve been talking to Etty and to Moses’s social worker, and we want to bring Moses with us too – to have him as part of our family. It isn’t definite, but you are right, it isn’t fair for your family to be in so many places, and we want Moses to be part of our family. We’re going to move now because we need a place that isn’t going to be foreclosed on anyway, to adopt him, or they wouldn’t let us but once we get back to the mountain, we’re all going to start getting ready for Moses to come.”

I admit, I’d been hoping since the very first day they told me that they wanted to keep Grace and me forever that eventually they’d take Moses too, but except for once, a long time ago at the beginning, when they’d said they couldn’t, I never asked. It isn’t smart to ask for too much. They might be just telling me what I want to hear, or maybe they’ll forget about Moses when we’re gone – I’m not sure I believe them all the way. And that still leaves Gramma here, and everyone else. My family still isn’t all one piece. I felt a little better, though. A little.

Comments

  1. #1 Laurie in Mpls.
    March 17, 2011

    Wow. That is going to be a *heck* of a book! Sharon, I am SO looking forward to the previews, and can virtually guarantee that I’ll pick up a copy when it comes out. I read YA fiction actually quite a lot (working on some by Harry Turtledove right now, in fact), and find that it’s often better written than adult fiction. Not always, but a lot of the time. And THIS looks like it’s going to be GOOD.

  2. #2 Birger Johansson
    March 17, 2011

    Well written, but empathy can be painful. It is actually easier to read about Cornwell’s serial killers because that is so obviously made up. Reality is scary.

    From Profile: “The princess writes about dark things”

    Hmm…If you ever want to write about brighter things, there is a big “ark” to the East -it’s called Scandinavia!
    Especially the Norwegians have such an overheated economy that you can support a family on relatively menial jobs like processing the fresh fish, and still live well.
    No nut cases with guns, no war amputees in line at vet centers. I mention this, because not all countries believe in screwing blue collar people. And (gasp) people are prepared to pay high taxes in return for a social safety net!

  3. #3 Sarah
    March 17, 2011

    Hey, I was just getting into that….. where is the rest??? ;-)
    Not a YA but I’ll look out for the publishing date.

  4. #4 Beth
    March 17, 2011

    excellent

  5. #5 Apple Jack Creek
    March 17, 2011

    Is there a pre-order list yet? :)

  6. #6 Sarah in Canberra
    March 17, 2011

    Wow! I loved this. More, please!

  7. #7 alice
    March 17, 2011

    Great writing….have you thought of a graphic novel? I read this in pictures.

  8. #8 Mary in Maryland
    March 18, 2011

    Sounds good. I would offer that deaf folks are pretty noisy as neighbors–stamping feet or slapping pans together to get one another’s attention. Mine also enjoyed music by vibrating the building with the bass. Good neighbors, but I did laugh when Moses was billed as “quiet because deaf.”

  9. #9 Julius
    March 20, 2011

    I enjoyed that, it seems very promising and I’ll be very tempted to buy the book when it’s done. I agree with your points on YA fiction too, there’s maybe a risk of being preachy but it’s still a good way to get a social/political message across, and not just to teenagers. See also Cory Doctorow’s YA novels (Little Brother and For the Win) – much more techno-optimistic than you perhaps but also with important points to make about society.

    It’s also interesting that this feels much more like a proper ‘story’ than the original story you linked to. That one is a good scenario and an enjoyable read, but it’s sort of just that – a scenario, not a narrative. This piece seems like you’ve taken that outline scenario and started populating it with genuine characters and narrative. Whoa, I’m starting to sound like I know something about writing. I don’t, but I do hang around writers too much and maybe it’s starting to have an effect…

  10. #10 Tyrone Slothrop
    March 21, 2011

    Nice.
    It’s a nicely written piece, about a nice teenage girl (not without some sharp edges, of course – it’s important that teenage adoptees be allowed their sharp edges! But they’re no too sharp for her to be essentially nice, which is important also) and her nice family.
    They’re nice to one another!
    It’s always important to be nice, isn’t it?
    The story so far nicely incorporates many important liberal talking-points (1).
    So the story has an important message, which is nice.
    And it’s a nice story, which is important.
    And… and… nice… er… important… er… excuse me, I have to go and…

    *goes and kicks wall a couple of times. Hard*

    Ouch. There, that’s better.

    This story lacks balls.
    It lacks life.
    It lacks credibility.
    As much as I admire your blog, I have to say this bit sucks.

    (1): gay marriage (including adoption), mixed-race relationships, solidarity with the differently abled and of course the whole peak oil/AGW thing – gun control seems to be sadly lacking, but hey, it’s only a first chapter, right?

  11. #11 Sharon Astyk
    March 22, 2011

    I’m actually rather relieved I got this comment, Tyrone ;-) – too much niceness does suck. Thanks for being blunt. AS for the last bit, well, name me a book that gives it all away in the first chapter, and I’ll attempt to mimic ;-).

    Sharon

  12. #12 Tyrone Slothrop
    March 22, 2011

    Thanks for understanding the spirit of my comment.
    Actually, as a writer of children’s books who tries not to be completely irrelevant to the problems of his time, I understand the struggle for the right tone of voice only too well.
    (I’m prone to erring on the side of negativity though. At the moment I’m doing a post-apocalyptic thingy. Two weeks ago I sent my characters into a radioactive swamp. Then Fukushima happened. It was, shall we say… unpleasantly synchronistic?)

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    March 23, 2011

    It is funny that you see this mostly as an issue of relevance – I don’t at all. I’m not writing about gay mixed race foster parents because they are an “issue” but because that’s how any number of the gay families around me found their kids. I’m not doing it to be relevant – heck, I’m the child of a gay family – it is just what is.

    Sharon

  14. #14 Tyrone Slothrop
    March 24, 2011

    Eh? We all write to be relevant, I’m sure.
    I mean, we choose what we write about and how we write about it. We write what we think will interest or amuse the reader, we write what we think the reader needs to know, or perhaps needs to think about. We write what interests or amuses *us*, we write about stuff we need to think about because it aids our thinking.
    Etcetera.
    These are all ways of being relevant to our readers (the reader in some cases being the author him/herself).

    No one writes down something just because it’s true. A great many statements are true (France does not, at present, have a king. Spiders have eight legs); we choose which ones we write down. We write down what is relevant. Whether this relevance should be artistic, political, personal or otherwise* is a matter of taste.

    A Dutch writer once said: ‘”It really happened” is not an excuse!’
    Only he said it in Dutch, of course.

    Gay mixed race foster parents are not “an issue”. They are at least three issues. (They shouldn’t be any issue, they wouldn’t be if I had my say but I do *not* get to have my say, unfortunately.) By writing about such a family, you chase away that part of your audience that says OMG TEH GAYZ. And also a part of your audience that says Meh, this is a bit heavy on the issues, could do with some focus.#
    And that’s even before Peak Oil and AGW arrive on the scene.

    I’m not saying one should try to be a crowd-pleaser but… well… preaching to the choir is not the most productive use of one’s time, is it?

    Plus, I don’t believe in Angelina. She seems to be in her early teen years. Most kids at that age want to fit in with their peers. They are very aware of what is ‘abnormal’ about themselves or their families and they either hate it (the ususal solution) or defend it fiercely at any chance they get.
    Angelina does neither.
    Yeah, right.

    *or, preferably, all of the above
    #this part includes me, if you hadn’t guessed.

  15. #15 Sharon Astyk
    March 25, 2011

    Tyrone – I haven’t chased away my conservative Christian audience (quite substantial, actually) in all the years I’ve been writing about growing up in a gay household and gay and lesbian issues. Gay mixed race families are actually quite common in the world – my parents had non-white foster kids in ummm…1987 – and much more common in the world of foster parents, where gay families make up a bigger than average proportion because that’s a good way for them to find children.

    Am I choosing what to write about? Sure. But were I to choose a heterosexual family that would be just as explicitly an issue of “relevance” – there is no way to make any writerly choices that aren’t about relevance. But the whole “this is an issue…I am trying to raise this issue” simply isn’t what you are seeing. If Ham (remember, based on the Noah story loosely, so I have to have a guy named Ham in it ;-)) had a wife, would you accuse me of trying to be heterosexually relevant? ;-)

    I’ll take the critique about the niceness, but I think the issue of relevance is probably at least as much about how you read as how I write.

    Sharon

  16. #16 Tyrone Slothrop
    March 27, 2011

    Points taken.
    I shouldn’t have presumed to know how your conservative christian audience would react – that’s a mindset I’ll never really understand, anyway.
    And the ‘That’s an Issue’-thing is indeed about how I read.
    But the way I read it is triggered by the way you write it. You breathlessly rush us through a very long exposition; theyaregayheisblackheisscottish-jewishthekidisdeaf… etc.
    I thought that all these points must be very important to you, if you choose to make them before starting to tell the story.
    Because there’s hardly any story yet, is there?
    A bunch of people are moving to a farm. That’s about it, so far. Not exactly nailbiting, edge-of-the-seat stuff. The rest is just a long list of the people involved, and how they relate to one another.
    Of course, you might say that the characters and their relations are the whole of the story. But in that case, why do you just list them? It’s almost all telling, and hardly any showing!
    If the characters and their relations are the whole of the story, then you might consider taking your time to introduce them. Have them walk around and do stuff. Give them conversations of more than three sentences. Describe them. Describe their surroundings. Does papa James sit on the bed when he tells Angelina the news, or is he just standig in the doorway? Or does he say it while he’s walking her to school? Or whatever?
    On the other hand, if there is a story apart from the characters, why don’t you just go ahead and tell it, introducing the characters when and as needed?

    Whew, long post. It may sound like I’m telling you your job, but in fact I was only trying to explain why I read it as I did.