I got to speak to students at Harper College last week—about the Beatles. When I told family and friends, they paused and shot me a puzzling look that said, What do you know about the Beatles? I love that pause, slightly accusatory but curious. Even though I’ve read many books about the Beatles, I wouldn’t call myself an expert. But my new book, Because the Sky is Blue, opens in June 1967, the day Sgt. Pepper’s came out. The main character, Nicholas, a boy, sits outside a circle of older boys, rapt with the music. The scene is fiction, but it’s based on my own vague recollection of that night. And I’ve been fascinated ever since by each stage of the Beatles’ remarkable run: the long struggle to master their craft, being discovered, dealing with fame, the evolution of their art. Evolution is a big word, but fitting when you think about the breadth of what they achieved in ten years. And the great bulk of their artistry spanned only six or seven, before they were 30!
Anyway, I got to read to them this early chapter of the book, which is a sequel to my first novel, When the World was Young. Students were attentive—at least they seemed attentive. How can one ever know? When my students are chatting, I sometimes tell them to pretend to pay attention; that’s enough for me. It’s a joke, which I always find more amusing than they do. But the Harper students were in fact attentive, as evidenced by their thoughtful questions and their ability to find connections with what they’d already studied and what I had to offer. It’s always a pleasure to speak to people who are open-minded and inquisitive.
Two other thoughts come to mind regarding all this:
1) No, I haven’t heard back about the new book, other than that the editor loved it. Fiction sales have not exactly been soaring lately. So you need to go out there and buy fiction, any fiction, if you want publishers to keep putting books on shelves...or on devices...or however they will appear before our retinas.
2) When you write a novel, you think about those characters daily and obsessively for a year or two or more. They become not quite real but real enough that you anguish over their fate. After the book is written, you don’t think much about them. You’re on to new characters, new settings. All this meshes with psychological research: if you’re in the middle of a project, your brain continues to think about the project, even after you’ve consciously put the work aside, which is what we English teachers sometimes call incubation, which is why we have students begin an assignment in class. A brief paragraph or two will suffice. Getting back, ahem, to my original point, when I’m invited to read my work aloud, after having spent years on the work and then putting it out of mind, I feel like I’m running into old friends. Hard to describe the satisfaction of hearing their voices and finding that they still exist on some plane. No, I’m not delusional. No, I’m not compensating for any lack of intimacy in my life. Still, those characters and their voices move me. They’re a part of me.