Why I Write YA

Dear Blog,

When I was a kid, I would look in the mirror sometimes and get this awful, vertiginous outside-of-my-body feeling: is that who I am, am I real, is all of this even possible? There were no words for it really, but it scared me and I'd run away from the mirror, heart pounding, trying to find a way to feel normal again.

As a teenager I was drawn to extreme sensations, like most teenagers are, and I enjoyed the feeling. It didn't happen as often, but I sought it out, staring at my face in the mirror until it became strange, and myself in the universe was suddenly such an absurd and frightening proposition, my smallness and the mere fact of being this particular human being, flesh and bone and secret thoughts, seemed so miraculous and awful and hilarious.

I never get that feeling anymore. I can stare and stare at the mirror, and there is my face staring back, and all the feeling I can really muster is a bit of regret that I'm not as cute as I used to be. I see my face getting older, and I think to myself, how strange, but it doesn't really feel strange. Not as strange as it felt being young.

When I was in high school, I wrote all the time. A few short stories, but mostly long missives in my journal, dramatic letters, a lot of awful poetry, and random scribblings about anything, everything. I wasn't trying to make something for other people to read; writing was not yet a craft. I was trying to snatch life out of the air, grab hold of something you can't really hold onto and smash it into the page, so it would sit there, stilled and mine, something I could savor instead of something that kept slipping by me. Everything was so beautiful and so terrible and so very very very and I needed words for it, I really needed words for it.

I got older, maybe a little jaded, certainly more accustomed to being the person I had become. Writing became a craft rather than a kind of grasping. Still, the purpose of writing (and reading, too) was at least partly to bring back that sense of looking in the mirror as a kid: the familiar becoming eerily strange, the ordinary becoming magical and frightening. I take a lot more care with my life than I did during my reckless teenage years, but where books are concerned, I'm still going for the high, for the motorbike on the highway at three in the morning, whipped by the wind, the stars like points of pain, and everything too much and also not enough, never enough, for the appetite I had discovered.

I don't want to be that girl anymore, but I still want to write about her. I can't seem to stop writing about her. But instead of writing about the angst and self-destructive behavior, I find myself surrounding her with magic, turning all the emotion of adolescence into real danger and impossible can-this-be-so moments with terrible, terrifying stakes. In many ways, fantasy seems the best way to honestly represent adolescence.

For years I was writing "magic realism," as it's called, ostensibly for adults. It took a while for me to realize that most of my protagonists were teenage girls, and that I couldn't seem to write a single story without a ghost or a troll creeping in. My first novel, Shade and Sorceress, teeters a bit awkwardly between middle-grade and YA. I thought I was writing a middle-grade fantasy, the kind of thing I devoured with a flashlight under the covers when I was a kid. I would still like to think it is flashlight-and-blankets material, but in the subsequent Tian Di books, as my heroine Eliza got older, I found I was more sure-footed, the voice and the narrative a better match.

Now I would place myself firmly in the YA camp, and it is amazing to me, given that I was writing, essentially, about teens and magic twelve years ago, that it has taken me so long to figure out that YA fantasy is what I want to write. Or, not even what I want to write - it's just where my writing takes me, time and again. What I've slowly found my way to is the "craft" part of it - the knowing your genre and studying it and being deliberate about it. Writing YA fantasy on purpose, with care, instead of sort-of and by-accident.

Now I think that all along these young protagonists of mine have been an attempt to express a certain intensity of being that I could barely grasp at the time and which easily eludes me now, all the strangeness and newness of being a young person in the world: the mirror, the man, the open road, the sand and the sea at midnight, the isle of Skye at dawn, how every day was fight or flight and every night was victory and defeat rolled into one. I remember walking the dog and the way he’d bolt after a squirrel, then cavort around the bottom of the tree, looking up longingly at what got away from him every single time. And I know just how he felt, I feel the same way: it is moving so fast, and we can’t catch it, we can never catch it. He was used to it, like I am, but still it’s painful sometimes, like we are barely touching life. And what we want is the beating heart between our teeth.

Which is why I write YA.

Reflectively yours,

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Published on February 25, 2013 11:27 Tags: adolescence, fantasy, mirrors, ya
Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)    post a comment »
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message 1: by C.G. (new)

C.G. I'm glad you are writing YA - it definitely sounds like your niche and you're good at it.

The only poetry I've read of yours is the series you did written in Whedon character voices - and they were excellent!

message 2: by Lioness (new)

Lioness Judging by Shade & Sorceress, I would say that yes, YA is definately where you were meant to be. A study I read recently said that in ebooks anyway, more than half of those who read YA are adults. Many of us will read it in any format if it is good- as yours is. Really looking forward to the next in the series.

message 3: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Egan Thanks you guys :). Book 2, by the way, is coming out next September. I'm very excited to see it as a real book instead of a Word doc on my computer, as it is... shh... my favourite of the three.

message 4: by C.G. (new)

C.G. I have that marked on my mental calendar already! Will be looking forward to another book launch here again.

message 5: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Egan That's what I'm hoping for! We'll see, though - K turns two this march so I'll have to pay for THREE tickets if I bring the boys. I really can't leave them with Mick for more than a few days since, as he keeps having to remind me, he actually does have a job ;).

We will all be out for sure this summer though ... if I can get my hands on copies in August we'll do a late-summer launch. And I've been meaning to write you an e-mail by the way but since it always takes me forever to get to anything on my mental to-do list, I'll just say here that I appreciate your support so so *so* much - friends like you have been hugely important for me throughout this whole book-adventure, truly. Thank you. *gets emotional and runs away*

message 6: by C.G. (new)

C.G. *hugs* You're welcome. It's not hard to support someone I like - and who writes so well! ;)

I look forward to seeing you and the boys in the summer.

message 7: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Butcher Excellent blog, Catherine. As much as is possible, you have captured youth and writing perfectly. I haven't read any of your work -- yet. But after reading your blog, I shall definitely search it out.

message 8: by Catherine (new)

Catherine Egan Thanks Kristin! I just read your latest blog post - it seems like we are thinking somewhat along the same lines these days ;).

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