Today I was pondering why we do things that we don’t immediately (or ever) succeed at. Certainly I didn't succeed at writing The Beast Is an Animal for a very long time. And it was a big question for me as to whether I ever would succeed.

It seems to me there are two reasons we keep trying:

1) We’re determined to succeed one day.

2) We enjoy the task. 
 
Some people can keep driving forward for just one of those reasons. For example, if you need a passing grade in a class, you’re going to keep working at a subject you don’t enjoy (see: Peternelle, 11th grade, Algebra II). Alternatively, you may know you’re never going to be a great artist, but you take art lessons anyway, because you love to express yourself that way (see: Peternelle in any art class ever taken). Disaster strikes in the absence of either motivation. The task is so hard that even a passing grade isn’t enough to keep us going. Then sheer loathing for the task takes over, and we run away as fast as we can, or waste time with our friends at coffee hour (see: Peternelle, freshman year in college, Statistics).
 
If I’m going to do something at all challenging, there usually has to be some joy in it for me. This isn't such a good thing. Sometimes you just need to buckle down and do something. Not all parts of our jobs are there to give us joy. I just read the definitions of Type A and Type B personalities, wondering if that made me a Type B. I think of Type A's as being competitive and driven to succeed at whatever the task, enjoyable or not. The definition I looked up tells me that Type A’s are also really anxious and at greater risk for heart disease. Type B folks are calmer about getting things done. They don’t stress. (Um. That’s definitely not me.) Type D folks are passive and altruistic, tend toward worry, and are at greater risk for illness. Yeah, not really me either (at least not the passive/altruistic part). There should be a personality type that correlates with hurling yourself into things you like, procrastinating mightily the things you don’t, and being pretty anxious all the time. We could call that Type Y for yeah, that’s me.
 
As a Type Y, I need ways to relax that also make me happy on some level. So that disqualifies reading the newspaper or spending too long on social media (I've discovered the latter works best for me in short bursts). My way of relaxing is to do something that rewards me and feels productive or creative in some way, but is utterly without negative consequences. Baking definitely qualifies. Lately I’ve enjoyed knitting, but I’ve learned that if it gets too hard and takes too long to complete a project, then it’s defeating the purpose. I’ve also learned to enjoy a certain kind of failure: the New Yorker Caption Contest. I never win, and I doubt I ever will. This is starting to become an accomplishment in and of itself—doing something that makes me laugh that won’t ever earn me a penny or land my name in tiny print one week in the New Yorker. Wow, I think that’s called doing something just for the fun of it.  It feels…healthy? Very Type J for joy.
 
And what is more joyful than getting lost in a book? There is a very particular charge I get when I'm reading something that delivers on all levels—art, emotion, and pure enchantment. This month’s book recommendation is a novel full of joy and magic—The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. Don’t read it because you should, read it because it will remind you of a time in your life when (for the most part) you did things just because you wanted to. 

Here’s how it goes with me and the New Yorker Caption Contest. These are last week’s contest finalists.

Caption contest image one, May 2017.png
 

And here’s my entry.

 

One of the most illuminating things about meeting so many booksellers and librarians in the last few months is hearing about the challenges they face in placing books in kids’ hands. It’s not an easy job they have—and certainly they’re not in it for the riches. But it’s not the reluctant readers that are their biggest challenge (at least not from what I've heard).

The biggest obstacle is us—the gatekeepers. I heard from booksellers that parents regularly insisted that their reluctant reader would be wasting their time on a graphic novel. They wanted their child to read a “real book.” Being a parent who listens to other parents talk, this doesn’t surprise me too much. I can remember when the Harry Potter series was first exploding and parents would brag about their seven-year-olds reading it. I’d have to suppress my urge to eye roll. I can remember my own parents bragging that I could read the newspaper at that age. But isn’t the point of reading not that you can decipher the words, but that you can derive meaning from them? As someone who has made my living by making books for other people to buy, my attitude is only: Please read. Please love books. Please want them and escape into them. And beyond that, whatever floats your boat. 

So snobbery is certainly one roadblock for booksellers and librarians—the notion that one’s child is or should be a genius and read like one. One bookseller told me that she had a parent come in asking if they had a version of Noam Chomsky for toddlers. Which, among other things, is hilarious.

But way more difficult is the barrier the gatekeepers construct around subject matter.  There are some parents who don’t want their kids to read anything that might disturb them—and we could have a whole conversation about how we learn to cope with our world via reading. But what I was even more fascinated by is this: Over and over booksellers and especially librarians say that they have to be incredibly careful about sexual content. Parents will explicitly state that they’re fine with violence and spookiness, but sex? Not fine.  

I just got back from the Texas Library Association meeting in San Antonio, Texas, which was such a wonderful experience, and this was a very active conversation while I was there. Librarians were happy to know that there’s no sex in my book, because it means they can recommend it to a wider assortment of kids. On the one hand, of course I’m pleased that my book is open to all kinds of readers. On the other, I felt guilty that my book might be chosen over one that has sexual content. I think my book is terrifying in many ways, but apparently way more terrifying to some parents and adults is the notion that adolescents are sexual beings and have sexual thoughts.

I’d guess that many adults look at teenagers and think about what was going on in their own heads at that age and it freaks them out.  Suddenly your child is someone with secrets and privacy. Suddenly your child is someone unfamiliar to you. This can be something we embrace and are curious about—look at you, fine young person, let me learn something new about you today. Or we can approach it with revulsion and a desire to take back the control we thought we had at one time.

These thoughts have especially percolated in my head as I’ve been reading Megan Abbott’s The Fever,  which has been very hard for me to put down since I started it. The novel is written from a few perspectives, but the central protagonist is Deenie, a teenaged girl who feels like she’s changing in ways she can’t control. If that isn’t a metaphor for adolescence, I don’t know what is. And this is the really poignant thing about of all of this: At the same time that we adults are afraid of the changes in our kids, they’re just as terrified. In The Fever, a number of teenaged girls in the public high school are struck one-by-one by a strange ailment. Seizures, twitches, hallucinations—each suffers in different ways, but in all cases they lose control over their bodies and to some extent their thoughts. Wild theories spread as to what has caused the ailment—from HPV vaccinations to the town’s toxic lake. But what bubbles right up to the surface of this novel is sex. That our children are having it, thinking about it, and sometimes victims of it in ways that we wish we could protect them from. We see these girls—not even at the age of consent—who nonetheless have sexual feelings they can act upon, and bodies that other people with sexual feelings want to act upon. And yeah, that’s pretty terrifying.  There’s a powerful refrain in the novel—the girls often appear facially different to themselves, to each other, and to their parents. Almost as if they are transformed, or possessed.  It’s no coincidence that classic stories of demonic possession (which often focus on girls), show the possessed child spewing sexual profanity. There is truly nothing more terrifying to us than the collision of untouched adolescent girls (and boys) and sex. Nothing more terrifying—and yet such is life.

And if such is life, my goodness, we should really want our kids to read about it first, shouldn’t we?

I’ve rattled on long enough. By all means, if you’re looking for a thought-provoking novel that you can also lose yourself in, get yourself a copy of The Fever. I’m planning to deep dive into everything else Megan Abbott has written.

Happy spring. Don’t worry about what the birds and the bees are getting up to. If we cut back on the pesticides, they’ll do just fine. 

As always, thank you so much for reading.

Peternelle

PS: If you enjoy this newsletter, forward it on to friends and recommend they subscribe as well? My heart will swell with gratitude. 

My copy of The Fever, which I've looked forward to getting back to every day since I started it. I don't feel right when I'm not loving what I'm reading, so Megan Abbott is making me a happier and more well-adjusted person right now.

 

January 1978. Rudolph Nureyev is a guest on "The Muppets," and I'm ten-years-old. Not even an adolescent. But I had feelings, people. FEELINGS. See Miss Piggy's face? That was me, age ten.

Muppets image.png
 

I have some new people to thank. I was lucky enough to attend the Texas Library Association Meeting in San Antonio this past week, and I had a fantastic time. Librarians are heroes, and their passion for books and commitment to putting the right book in the right reader’s hands is so inspiring. I was so lucky to get to meet so many librarians and was so flattered by their interest in The Beast Is an Animal. I’m very grateful to the Texas Library Association for inviting me, and especially to meetings coordinator Anne Glasgow and panel moderator, librarian Donna Maher. I’m also grateful to the other YA Horror and Fantasy panelists I appeared with—Kim Liggett, Courtney Alameda, and Kara Thomas. It was lots of fun. I’m continuously blessed to be published by Margaret K. McElderry Books. My publisher, Justin Chanda, and editor, Karen Wojtyla, were both at the meeting and in addition to talking up my book to everyone, they treated me and the other S&S authors to some lovely dinners. And the marketing staff worked tirelessly—especially the ever-kind and charming Anthony Parisi, Nick Elliot, Christine Naulty, and Amy Beaudoin.

Since The Beast Is an Animal published on February 28, there are a whole host of new people to thank. First is Cristin Stickles at McNally Jackson Books for hosting my wonderful launch event on March 1. I’ve spoken in front of large audiences before, but I have never been so terrified in my life. This wasn’t just any large audience—this was an audience of family, friends old and new, and publishing colleagues who are also friends old and new. My life truly flashed before my eyes. In the end it was a wonderful experience and I’m hugely grateful to Emily Gould for introducing me and asking me such interesting questions—while taking time from her own writing and family to do so. Last I want to thank everyone who came—you know who you are. I don’t take for granted that you spent a few hours on a weekday evening just to support me and my book.

Special thanks to my dear friend Pamela Milam who went out in the cold and snow with me to all the Barnes & Noble bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as to the independents Shakespeare & Co and Kunokuniya Bookstore in Manhattan, to help me sign all their unsold stock. She’s a friend, champion, and social media advance team all in one.

Last, I had a wonderful time at the NoVa Teen Book Festival in Arlington, VA, March 10-11. They arranged for me to talk to 80+ students at South Lakes High School in Reston, and that was so much fun. The school’s librarians, Linda and Kathy, were such fantastic hosts, and the students and their teachers were inspiringly engaged and asked excellent questions. It was my first high school visit, and as I said to one of the student organizers of their book club, they set the bar really high. The festival itself was also a wonderful experience, and I enjoyed meeting so many YA authors whom I’d admired from afar. I was awed by how much work the organizers put into it, purely for the love of books. The organizers and all the booksellers at One More Page Books were so inspiring. I’m particularly grateful to author and organizer Danielle Ellison, who seemed to have thought of everything and whose passion for YA literature is palpable.  I’m so grateful to have been invited.

Since I last posted, this thing happened, which is that my book published! I’ve looked forward to that date for more than a year. As I wrote that, I wondered, well haven’t I looked forward to it even longer? Haven’t I been looking forward to it for years? Possibly—it’s hard to remember now. I tend to race to the next milepost, and then the next, and I don’t give myself a lot of time to enjoy whatever I’ve accomplished. Because there’s always so much more to do—and there are always so many ways to imagine that one hasn’t yet measured up. What I really aspired to all those years that I worked on The Beast Is an Animal was for it to be worthy—to be worthy of my agent feeling that it was worthy of publication and for a publisher to then find it similarly worthy. Worthy. I used that word multiple times on purpose. It’s a loaded word. It’s heavy. A lot to drag around. Now I hope my book is worthy in a different way—that enough people will buy it that my publisher will think the whole enterprise was worthwhile. And that therefore the next book is worthy of publication. And on and on. To the next milepost and the next.

Something else happened on February 28, 2017, the day my book published. My father died. My father, Jan Walter van Arsdale, Sr., was a bright, handsome, charismatic man. He wanted to be a poet, and I recalled today how often he went to “Writers Conferences” when I was a kid. I put that in quotation marks because the concept sounded fancy and mythical to me as a child. To him, being a published writer was probably also fancy and mythical. He wanted it, badly. But it remained out of his grasp as it does for many of us. He self-published a volume of poetry when I was about eleven. He also wrote many, many sermons, and was thought to be an excellent preacher. He was tall and prematurely gray, and had a beautiful voice. And he had a gift for drama. My favorite service he performed each year occurred on the evening of Good Friday, the most morbid day in the Christian calendar. I used to love how he’d have all the lights in the sanctuary go out after Christ says his last words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and then dies. After a minute or so in the pitch black, my father would smack two hymnals together with a loud crack and all the lights would blaze on again. It was spectacular.

My father was a difficult man; I tried and failed to feel worthy in his eyes. He suffered from bipolar disorder at a time when it was even less understood than it is now. Lithium destroyed his body over the decades. And what the lithium didn’t do to wreck him, he did himself. He could be mean, very mean. He could be frightening. His highs were high and bizarre and his lows were low and dark—and silent.

But always what I remember about my father is that he desperately wanted to be good. No, that’s not right. My father desperately wanted to be great. Correction: My father desperately wanted to be great, while wishing he were someone who simply wanted to be good.

I’ve realized even as I write this the extent to which the subject that I wrote so much about in my novel—the quest to be and believe that one is good (worthy)—was a part of my father’s life as well. More consciously, whenever I talk about my belief that we are not good or bad, but that good and bad exist in all of us—I’m certainly thinking at least in part of my father.

As often happens after someone we love has died, I’ve had flashes of memories of my father over the last few weeks. One was that my father admired Walt Whitman. And I thought of one of Whitman’s most famous poems, “O Captain! My Captain!,” which he wrote to eulogize his great hero, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was also a hero of my father’s. I believe that my father wanted to be a hero himself. I think for some people he accomplished that goal. He did many great and terrible things in his life—as we all do. My father wasn’t my hero, but he was a man I loved. And for him, I offer this beautiful poem, and my understanding, and my belief that he was someone worthy. 

As always, thank you so much for reading.

Peternelle

Another of my father’s heroes was Martin Luther King, Jr. I tried to find the particular drawing of him that my father had framed on our wall, but I couldn’t. Instead, here’s a picture of King in his jail cell in Birmingham, after he was arrested on Good Friday—April 12, 1963. You can find a beautiful description of his letter and all that informed it on BrainPickings, one of my favorite sites. 

It’s now less than a week until publication (2/28) of The Beast Is an Animal, so let’s all take a quiet moment to listen to my heart beating. Yes, that’s right, you can hear it through whatever device you’re currently using.

In the last month, I’ve been happy and relieved to get several nice reviews, excerpts of which you can read here. So far, this is probably my favorite. (And not just because of the seal GIF, which is admittedly awesome.) It made me feel—wow, she really got what I was doing! That has been one of my biggest fears, that people would read it and scratch their heads. She said, “Where has this book been all my life?” Which, you know, I could ask myself. And the answer would be: percolating.

Since I last wrote, I attended Winter Institute, a big conference organized by the American Booksellers Association. It was so much fun, and I describe why here. In March I attend the NoVa Teen Book Festival, which I’m so excited about. Not only do I participate in a number of panels with other authors, I get to visit a high school where teenagers have read my book—actual readers of my actual book. And we’re going to talk about it! Truly, I can’t imagine anything more rewarding or exciting than that.

I’m also doing a Skype conversation with a group of teen readers at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, on Friday evening. If you know of a reading group or classroom that would like to order books and have me Skype in for a conversation, please let me know. I’m happy to talk not just about my book, but about writing in general, as well as how to be a good editor of your own work as well as others’.  This goes for groups of adults as well as teens and middle-graders.

Okay, the last thing about me: One of the blessings of having my publisher acquire two books is that it’s freed up some of my time to do other writing. So I’ve now written an essay that appeared here—which is about the ways in which my novel is eerily, weirdly, sadly applicable to our times. In short: There is a wall in my book, which fearful people build to keep out the monsters. Yikes. Why does that feel like a newspaper headline? In the coming weeks I hope to have announcements about more essays, which are currently in the pitching and writing stage of things.

Now, for goddess’s sake let’s talk about someone else, because this is what I look like when I talk about myself too much:

Photo by © Barbara Morgan

Photo by © Barbara Morgan

 

I’ve been watching “The Man in the High Castle,” which imagines what the world would be like if a dictator had won WW2. Hm. Anyway, one of the more fascinating things about watching it is that you’re often challenged to ask yourself: What would I have done in that situation? Would I have kept quiet and stayed safe, or would I have spoken up for myself and others? What’s brave and what’s foolhardy? What’s selfish and what’s caring for the ones you love?

My reading right now is glorious. I don’t know why, but when I started Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye years ago, I didn’t get past the first quarter. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it—I did. It may have been the usual excuse, which is that I had so much reading for work that I couldn’t read for pleasure. Now the only thing that gets in the way of my pleasure reading is my social media addiction, and I’ve been working hard to curb that. So any time I feel tempted to avoid work by checking out Twitter, instead I pick up Cat’s Eye. And if that isn’t a cure for spending time in other ways, I don’t know what is. I love Margaret Atwood, no secret there, and in Cat’s Eye she is at the height of her powers. Sentence by sentence I have never felt such suspense, such terror that something awful was about to happen. She alleviates this terror by showing us her protagonist in the present—we know she survived—but that makes it just bearable. And what is her protagonist threatened by? Not a rival empire or some otherworldly force of evil. No, she’s a grade school girl threatened by other grade school girls. And it’s terrifying. Each perfectly-shaped sentence carries so much implicit threat and certainty of doom that I’m finding it the most propulsive reading experience I’ve had in a long time.

Okay, one last thing about me. (I know. I’m terrible.) My book event at McNally Jackson is Wednesday, March 1, at 7PM. If you can’t make it, you have until tomorrow, February 23, to pre-order a signed, personalized copy.

You must have people with birthdays coming up. And Mother’s Day! Wouldn’t Mom like a copy with her name in it? Of course she would.  Plus, I’ll include one of these nifty bookmarks that I drew my very own self:

Illustration by P. van Arsdale

Illustration by P. van Arsdale

As always, thank you so much for reading.

Peternelle

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I was lucky enough to be invited to the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute at the end of January. If it was inspiring to be with small groups of booksellers on my pre-sell tour, it was like a rocket launch to be surrounded by hundreds of booksellers, many of whom had already read my book or very much wanted to.

I’m so grateful to the Indies Introduce panelists, especially Joy Dallanegra-Sanger of ABA and Billie Bloebaum of Third Street Books, for choosing me and The Beast Is an Animal to be among the short list of debuts included, and for allowing me to do my first-ever reading from the novel.  Billie called me when I was hiking on an island off the coast of Maine last summer to give me the news that I’d been selected. I shouldn’t even have had cell service, and I’ll never forget the thrill of getting her call while I stood in the woods.

I especially want to thank my publisher, Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster for sending me to Minneapolis in January, and for hosting such a lovely bookseller dinner for me and their other authors present. Jason Wells, the VP of children’s publicity and marketing, was our shepherd and charmer-in-chief, and I cannot express enough gratitude to marketing director Chrissy Noh, marketing manager Emily Hutton, and head of children’s sales Christina Pecorale for talking up my book so passionately over and over and over again and persuading even booksellers who claimed not to like YA fantasy that they really should read my book.

I also want to thank fellow S&S author Shaun David Hutchinson for sharing a signing table with me and being such a lovely colleague all weekend.

Finally, once again, I was brilliantly guided and watched over and generally lucky to have Faye Bi as my publicist.  I don’t know how she’s as focused on my book and responsive to me as she is while also having so many other responsibilities, and I’m so grateful.

It's now just over a month until publication of The Beast Is an Animal, and it's time to start thanking some of the people who work so hard behind the scenes to launch a book (specifically mine) into the world. Often people are surprised to find out how long it can take between a book being finished and being published—usually a year or more. That’s not because it takes that long to print a book; it’s because it takes that long for the publisher and author to spread the word about a book and get people to read it in advance of publication. Then, ideally, by the time the book publishes there are booksellers who are ready to hand sell it to readers.

One person whom I must lavish with praise and thanks is Nikki Terry of Orange Custard, my talented web designer whose wisdom I have come to rely on. I wanted a website that would be clean and pretty and also do about five million things, and somehow Nikki managed to make it work, and she’s still making it work every time something new arises. Life can be hard and stressful, and we all need people who make our lives easier—Nikki is most definitely one of those people for me, and I’m deeply grateful.

At Margaret K. McElderry Books, my editor, Karen Wojtyla, and publisher, Jason Chanda, perform the miraculous juggling act of publishing a full list of books while also making me and my book feel special. They and Anne Zafian, the deputy publisher, as well as marketing director Chrissy Noh, have been doing the advance work of both planning the details of the publication as well as communicating the kind of passion and enthusiasm for the book that make all the difference to the sales force.

Having worked with many publicity departments and publicists over the years, I have some inkling of how hard their jobs are and how much they have to do—and against very difficult odds—to get their authors and their books the attention they deserve. I could not be luckier to be working with publicist Faye Bi and publicity director Katy Hershberger.

I just recently returned home from a pre-publication tour that Faye arranged for me. The pre-publication tour is strictly about meeting booksellers—and there is no more joyous experience than talking to passionate book people. And if those passionate book people also happen to have read and enjoyed your book, well…that’s pretty much heaven for an author right there.  

In Boston I was warmly greeted by store manager Beth Przbyla and her colleague Sophia at the Prudential Tower Barnes & Noble. They interviewed me and even took some video and it couldn’t have been a nicer first experience. The S&S National Accounts Manager John Muse was my charming and gracious host for dinner with a group of kind and witty booksellers who made me want to become a local. They were Katherine Ferguson (Harvard Bookstore), Lauren D’Alessio (Wellesley Books), Leo Landry (An Unlikely Story), Amy Brabenec (Brookline Booksmith), Clarissa Hadge (Trident Booksellers), Katie Eelman (Papercuts JP), Christina Anderson (Concord Bookshop), and Chris Abouzeid (Belmont Books).

In San Francisco, I enjoyed meeting Sandy Graves at the El Cerrito Barnes & Noble. S&S Retail Account Manager Kelly Stidham was my friendly and wonderfully gracious host for dinner with a group of bright and lively booksellers who made me feel like a friend, not just an author. They were Olivia Moncial (Mrs. Dalloway’s), Hannah Walcher and Shannon Mathis Grant (Books Inc.), Jane Bramley and Mary Ann Hill (Hicklebee’s), Susan Kunhardt (Book Passage), Patty Norman and Grace Bogart (Copperfield’s), Caitlin Jordan (Kepler’s), and Alison Nolen (Linden Tree).

In Seattle, S&S Retail Account Manager Christine Foye was my sparkling and vivacious host for a dinner that took place the evening of the inauguration. It was good to talk to book people on such a dark day. My inspiring beacons that evening were Christy MacDonald (Secret Garden Bookshop), Rene Kirkpatrick, Anna Eklund, and Mel Barnes (University Bookstore), Justus Joseph and Lauren Banka (Elliott Bay Book Company), Alison Webb (Eagle Harbor Book Company—note: she had to take a boat to come!), Suzanne Droppert (Liberty Bay Books—she also had to take a boat!), Lillian Welch (Island Books), and Rene Holderman and Emily Adams (Third Place Books).

I know there are many people working behind the scenes in the sales force and marketing departments whom I don’t get to see and appreciate. So for all of you who aren’t named here, please know: I know you’re there, and I’m so grateful.

Dear friends,

As I write, it’s 42 days until the publication date of The Beast Is an Animal. I think it’s 42, because I just counted it day by day in my planner with my index finger and that seems scientific. And that also means it’s 43 days until my book launch event at McNally Jackson Books on March 1!* I am very excited about this, and I hope all of you in the New York City area can come. I’m especially excited that the brilliant writer, publisher, and thinker Emily Gould, with whom I worked years ago at Hyperion, is doing me the honor of asking me questions at my event. My greatest fear was that my book event would be boring, and Emily is constitutionally incapable of being boring. If I, on the other hand, break into desperate tap-dancing, please tell me to stop.

This entry is a bit more me, me, me than usual, but them’s the breaks, pals. It had to happen eventually. I’m an AUTHOR. I think you need to forgive me because of the whole 42 days until publication thing. So here’s something: If by any chance you can’t be at the McNally Jackson Books event, you can still order a copy signed and personalized by me, and have it sent directly to you (as long as you do so no later than February 23).

One more me, me, me: Today I leave for Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle to meet a load of booksellers in each town, and I’m really excited. Expect many nerdy-happy, whee-I’m-meeting-booksellers posts on social media. But I also haven’t packed yet. And you’re no help in deciding on outfits, because I’m already going to be on Amtrak by the time you get this. Fine, if it’s really all up to me, I’m going to be dressed comme ça (courtesy Alexander McQueen).

Last, what to read? I have two friends with books just out or coming out soon, and you should buy or borrow and read these books not (only) because the authors are wonderful people, but also because they have meaningful things to say. Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is on my soon-to-be-read shelf, because I’m confident it’s going to change my life. I attended his book launch event and he said something that has stuck with me ever since: “We can choose to remember people for how they lived, and not for how they died." And another friend, Jeff Giles, has an original, page-turning YA novel coming out on January 31 called The Edge of Everything. He imagines a hell in which the damned become bounty hunters who are sent up-top to collect the incorrigible. The heroine, a young girl named Zoe, encounters both bounty hunters and incorrigibles, and she’s forced to define for herself what justice and mercy mean. It’s terrific. I was lucky enough to read it in advance, and it’s stayed with me.

Happy New Year, dear ones. A year is just a collection of days during which a variety of things happen. Some things will be better than others, and I hope the majority of your days include some joyful things.

* Eagle-eyed social media observers may think: Wait a second, wasn’t the book launch event at McNally Jackson supposed to be February 27? It was, but it changed. And March 1 is better, don’t you think?

Thank you for reading and subscribing.

Peternelle

PS: If you like this newsletter, please tweet about it, post about it on Facebook, forward it to friends, and encourage everyone to subscribe. Also, The Beast Is an Animal is an exceedingly anti-fascist book, so consider it your moral responsibility to preorder a copy. KIDDING!

PPS: I'm kidding only about the moral responsibility part. It really is anti-fascist.

This is the magnificent stamp I will use when signing books. I love it. 

cape woman.png
 

This is an accurate representation of my demeanor when meeting booksellers. 

 

Dear friends,

Two days ago I received my first review from an industry publication. I can’t share it with you yet, because it hasn’t been posted online. It's confidential (they actually wrote that part in red). So I’m not going to talk about the contents of the review. I’m going to talk about how it feels to have your first novel reviewed for the first time.

It’s a milestone, receiving my first review, one I’ve been waiting for with trepidation and anticipation. I’ve worried that while I think I’ve done one thing, reviewers might think I’ve done something else entirely. This, to me, is much like life. I often move through my days wondering if I’m performing well—if my reviews at the end will be good or bad.

I’m my worst critic (I'd better be, because if anyone else is an even harsher critic of me than I am, I don't want to know about it). I'm constantly evaluating myself and finding my performance lacking. Maybe because I so often wither under my own gaze, I'm deeply uncomfortable judging works of art. Someone made that, I think to myself—with their hands and heart and head. I don’t envy anyone faced with reviewing a novelist's performance. At their best, novels are complicated creatures. Like people, they can please you at one moment, disappoint you the next. At the end you have to collect those moments together and ask yourself how you feel about the whole creature. It’s like deciding whether a person is good or bad. It feels. . .unforgiving.

I wrote a novel about a girl who wants to be good, but is terribly afraid she’s bad. She grows up in a world where that’s an either/or assessment. You can’t be both—you have to be one or the other. I didn’t put it exactly this way in the novel, and I’m not giving anything away by saying this, but I think what matters more than whether the people and books in our lives are good is whether the people and books in our lives are worthy of our love. To me the real question is if we’re changed for the better on the other side of our time with them; if ultimately we wouldn’t want to go back to the time before we’d known or read them.

So, marking the milestone of receiving my first review, I very much hope that once you read The Beast Is an Animal, you won’t want to go back to a time when you didn’t know my heroine, Alys, and her heartbreaks and longings. And that you certainly won't want to go back to a time when you didn’t know what flits, flaps, creeps, and floats in the deep, dark forest.

Now, my friends, the gift-giving season is upon us, and you must know people who want a book. A book with a beautiful cover that will grace any shelf or tabletop! And here’s the thing: While my book isn’t available in bookstores until February 28, you can preorder it wherever books are sold now! And you can give your dear ones a card that tells them that what lies on the other side of January is a sliver of hope that goodness can be found in the seemingly darkest places.

I was recently asked by a blogger to name my favorite Christmas book, and I couldn’t think of anything particularly seasonal that I personally associated with the holiday. When I was in college, my mother always gave me a fat, juicy paperback in my Christmas stocking, something I’d curl up with for days after. A book I recently whipped through like that was the first in Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy. The second is waiting on my shelf. I know what you're thinking: Peternelle, you're recommending I spend time with vampire-zombies at Christmas? The jokes write themselves, people.

And because I’m not completely subversive, here’s my favorite nonreligious Christmas song of all time. It's just the way I like my Christmas songs: full of melancholy and Judy Garland.

Wishing you peace in these final days of 2016, and here’s to finding—and making—goodness in 2017.

Thank you for reading and subscribing.

Peternelle

PS: If you like this newsletter, please tweet about it, post about it on Facebook, forward it to friends, and encourage everyone to subscribe. Also, repeat after me: "The best way to spread good cheer is singing loud for all to hear that Peternelle's book is currently available for preorder."

This month's inarguable point is brought to you by Hiddy Hilda.

 

Dear friends,

I wrote a novel about fear, monsters, and a wall. It was supposed to be a fantasy. I started this novel long ago--long before this election season and conversations about actually walling ourselves in. 

Fantasy literature has always imagined not just what might be, but what already is. Monsters are all around us--and they’re in us. We do bad things, and we let bad things happen. We can try to run from this truth, and we can build barriers, but we can’t get away from the monsters until we figure out who and what the monsters actually are. This is much of what my novel, The Beast Is an Animal, is about.

After walking around in a soup of despair for several days, I thought about what has convinced me before that there is too much good in the world to succumb to what’s bad. So here are a few things that might help you do the same.

Art: See left. One of my favorites—The Giant, by Francisco de Goya. That’s a monster to love.

 

Music: "Familiarity" by The Punch Brothers is one of my favorite songs of all time. It's about disconnection and the desire to connect. And it's simply beautiful. 

Reading: If you want to get thoroughly away, V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is a wonderfully original, so-skillfully-imagined fantasy that hooks you right in. There are four connected worlds, one of which has been overcome by black magic and was sealed off from the other worlds. But it turns out the black magic wasn't completely locked out after all. An oldie but a goodie is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle. In that novel, the most evil place, the place most dominated by IT, isn't chaotic, it's orderly--in an awful, awful way. That has powerfully stayed with me in the decades since I first read it. Finally, it's never a bad time to read or reread A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, and this would be a particularly good time. It's a book for adults and teenagers, imagining one particular way Fascism might take over the United States. Spoiler alert: The women don't fare so well. Make this your motto: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. 

And finally, some news about my book: The publication date has been moved up to February 28, 2017! You can preorder a copy here, which I highly recommend.

Hang in there, my friends. Look at something beautiful. Listen to something that sweeps you away. Read something mind-expanding.  Donate even a few dollars to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. None of those things will press the rewind button on what happened last week, but a few of them will do some good, and I’m pretty certain they’ll all make you feel at least marginally better.  

Thank you for reading and subscribing.

Peternelle

PS: If you like this newsletter, please tweet about it, post about it on Facebook, forward it to friends, and encourage everyone to subscribe? You'd be really surprised to know how many people don't subscribe to this newsletter. I mean, we're talking millions of people.

Hello friends,

My website is up and running and it is lovely. I hope you visit regularly and have a look around. Already there are some events on the Events page. Which is good, because an Events page without events is an existential crisis. There are some FAQs you might enjoy if you've wondered how and why my first novel, The Beast Is an Animal, came to be.

Please take a look at the Thanks page as well--it's a running narrative of all the people who have helped The Beast Is an Animal get its start in life. It's also a little glimpse into how the process of finishing a novel and finding a publisher can go. A number of people have said that since I've been an editor for so long it must be easier for me to be an author--at least I'm a little less confused by the process. That's definitely true. (Although one can quickly forget everything one knows when one is an author oneself. Trust.) Also true: Being an editor didn't make it any easier to write the book. I hope that's reassuring to all writers frustrated with themselves for not getting it right the first or even the tenth time.

I'm often asked why I write for young adults, and I answer that question on my FAQs page. A related question is why adults read YA fiction. What are those readers looking for? Someone who doesn't read YA once said to me, "YA is so accessible." Which can be true. But not always. YA is tremendously varied, and multiple genres exist within the YA category. Sometimes the designation can feel a little arbitrary. Two recent examples: Nova Ren Suma's The Walls Around Us and Robin Wasserman's Girls on Fire. Both books could be read by sophisticated readers thirteen and up. Both are about adolescent girls who alternate between the roles of victim and victimized. Both ask really important questions about what adolescent girls are capable of--good and bad and everything in between. (Which my book does as well.) Both are gorgeously well-written. One has a supernatural element (gracefully and organically incorporated), and the other doesn't. One is categorized as YA and the other as adult. I recommend them both highly, and if you have a reading group I think it would be fascinating to read them side-by-side. Or make your own reading group of one.

And hey, if you're reading anything wonderful, tell me!

Wishing you a lovely October--

Peternelle

PS, Hiddy Hilda is a little creation of mine that started on Twitter. Find her here. She is not me. But there are similarities. 

Your October doodle is brought to you by our sponsorAnxious Moments with Hiddy Hilda)

hilda with book.jpg
 

I have a bias against acknowledgements in works of fiction, even if they're palced in the back of the book where they're supposed to be less distracting. The real-world intrusion of acknowledgments pages at the end of a transporting reading experience is jarring to me—like someone accidentally leaning up against the overhead light switch at a party and everything seems suddenly too bright and oh my god our foreheads are really shiny and what’s that in your teeth?

But thanks are also really important. I take them seriously, and I want everyone to know that this book would not be what it is without a number of people other than me. Instead of listing those names in a way that won’t mean a whole lot to you, I thought I’d tell a story instead--the story of how The Beast Is an Animal came to be. As time goes on, these acknowledgments are going to grow, and I’m going to start thanking people who didn’t help the book itself, but helped the book reach its audience. So think of this as The Beast Is an Animal’s ongoing journal of thanks. The Beast thanks you for your interest, and so do I.

Years ago, my family and I lived in an apartment one floor below Simon Lipskar and his family. Simon and I have sons the same age, and although I was a book editor and he was a literary agent, we met first as neighbors. I think (I know) I was in my pajamas at the time. When I wrote a middle grade novel that I should have shown to no other human being on the planet, I nonetheless showed it to Simon, and he handled it with way more delicacy and seriousness than it deserved. I will never forget the kindness and complete sincerity with which he simultaneously convinced me I should put it in a drawer and also that I should keep writing and he’d read whatever I wrote. It took me a few years to be inspired again, and then I wrote another middle grade novel that was a fantasy set in contemporary New York City. He said it wasn’t for him, but he wanted me to be at Writers House (his agency), and he made me feel like family. Again, something I will never forget. So he passed that novel along to a lovely agent named Steven Malk who read it many times and couldn’t ultimately see it working for him. Along the way he had some questions about the villains in that novel, so I decided to write a prologue to help fill out their backstory. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything. It flowed out of me like magic. I loved that prologue. I secretly loved that prologue more than I loved the novel that it was meant to introduce.

When Steven passed on The Manuscript-That-Shall-Not-Ne-Named, Simon said, okay, let’s think about who else at Writers House we should show it to. He described Rebecca Sherman to me, and I said, yes, please: her. Rebecca read it while I held every cell in my body in suspense, because at that point I was genuinely despairing that I would—that I could—ever write anything that anyone would want to read. Rebecca replied almost exactly this way: “Please tell Peternelle that I loved the prologue and would she consider dumping everything else and writing a novel like that?”

Simon forwarded that email to me, and said, “This is what Rebecca says, and I’m sure you’re not going to want to do this.” Remember, by this point I’d been through multiple drafts with this novel, and she was asking me to press delete on a 250 page novel that I’d worked very hard on.

I said (essentially), “Simon, she loves 12 pages that I wrote? I have zero problem deleting 250 pages. I relish the thought of deleting 250 pages.” Because she was absolutely right. The novel I wanted to write all along—the novel I needed to write, the novel I would myself want to read—was the novel that would eventually flow directly out of those 12 pages. Not the one I’d written. Something else. Something dark and fairytale.

This began a process that (to me) took ages longer than it should have, but seemed never to daunt or discourage Rebecca and her associate agent, Andrea Morrison. Between them, they read multiple drafts, versions, partials…I couldn’t even tell you how many. And through it all, they kept the faith that the writer who wrote those twelve pages could write a novel that would match them.

I didn’t always have that faith. There came a point in 2015 when I got very close, but still it wasn’t there. Rebecca and Andrea knew it wasn’t quite good enough, but they were finally at a loss for what to tell me to do. They even had an intern read it, and among them they gave me a set of edits that threw me a bit for a loop. Not because they were wrong, but because I could no longer see the novel for the cloud of anxiety and fear of failure that hung over it. Mostly, I think I was tired. I knew the novel wasn’t right. I knew that in my gut. But I wished it were otherwise.

At that point I decided it was time to stop being so private about my writing. I hadn’t shown my novel to anyone, not even to my immediate family, and many close friends and family members didn’t know I was writing a novel—largely because I dreaded being asked “so. . . . how’s the novel coming along?” every time I ran into someone. The answer would have been “It’s not,” followed by me bursting into tears. Not what I wanted. Plus, as an editor, I felt I should have been able to do it myself. Of course that’s ridiculous.

So, once I got desperate enough, I turned to two friends, both of whom I met on Twitter, which is why I’m going to link to their Twitter accounts when I mention them here. Bless Twitter. It has brought some truly dear people into my life, not the least of all these. Catherine Nichols and Tim Walker both read it and had advice that sometimes dovetailed, sometimes mirrored, and sometimes contradicted what Rebecca and Andrea said. Catherine had tremendous insight into a central relationship in the novel that really changed the course of things for me. And Tim gave me some of the best editorial advice I’ve ever received. He said, take all the notes you have from everyone, put them in a new word document, take away all the formatting, and forget who said what. Then decide what feels right.

Bingo.

As with all great editing, the point was not to tell me how to fix the problems or what to write. The point was to tell me where the readers were tripping and slowing down. Sometimes I followed their advice, sometimes I didn’t, but most important, I knew where the problems were, and what they were, and I was newly inspired to come up with my own ways to fix them. By the time I came back to it, I was ready. I wrote whole new chapters. I deepened relationships. I answered questions I’d refused (stubbornly) to answer before.

I sent the novel back to Rebecca and Andrea in January of 2016. I waited about a week. I was in suspense, but I was also calm, because I felt I’d done everything I could.

This was the moment when I also sent the novel to another friend, Pamela Milam. I’d only let her read the prologue and first chapter before. Now I let her read the rest. Let’s just say her response made me feel like I hadn’t completely embarrassed myself. Okay, she raved. She said I’d done something special. And of course all any of us has ever wanted is to do something special. So that meant a lot to me.

I was standing in a knitting store on West 79th Street when I got an email from Rebecca saying that I’d done it. The novel was ready to be submitted to publishers. Cue happy tears while clinging to skeins of yarn.

Then Rebecca masterfully chose who to send my novel to and how to describe it to those editors and publishers. The person who responded most enthusiastically and immediately and in a way that said she really got it was Karen Wojtyla, editorial director at Margaret K. McElderry Books. She and publisher Justin Chanda made it clear that they also thought I’d done something special. Again, that’s really all any writer—anyone—wants to feel.

Once they’d agreed to acquire two novels (The Beast Is an Animal and another novel I didn’t even have the idea for yet)…well. If I had more space and less natural reserve and decorum I could tell you all the ways in which this changed my life and answered a lingering question that had hung over me for years.

Karen then edited the novel—because now I had an editor! And she pushed me so carefully and strategically that I felt neither over-edited nor under-edited. This, my friends, is an art. And she got me (perhaps most important) to finally, finally, tackle a few problematic sections that I just hadn’t been able to fix until that final go-round.

After that, Simon & Schuster’s managing editor and the copy editor, Beth Edelman, also took cracks at it, and found yet more. There was one mistake in particular they caught that still causes me to shudder. Thank you. Thank you.

Now I must pause to recognize the as-yet-unsung in all of this—Karen’s associate editor, Annie Nyobo. Annie, I feel your pain. I’ve been there. It’s hard to be an editor and an assistant at the same time. It often feels thankless. I hope I never give you reason to feel that way. Thank you.

And what was the satin bow on all this wonderfulness? THE MOST GORGEOUS COVER THAT EVER COVERED A BOOK. Sonia Chaghatzbanian designed the cover I would have dreamed up if I could have dreamed that well. And this, to me, is a life lesson. Because if you’d asked me what I wanted to see on the cover, I would have said, “Whatever you do, please: Don’t put a girl on the cover. That’s been done to death and it would be all wrong for this book.” And I would have been incorrect. Because this cover…I sigh when I look at it. I want to fall into it. It gives me joy.

And that is how The Beast Is an Animal became a book. Stay tuned for further adventures.