For most of us, entering the world of books is like very young children, when they read to us. As listeners, we are as involved in storytelling as our ancestors, our oral inheritance. Heard or read, accepting a story is itself a form of creation, creating a new galaxy in our universe of thought with landscapes and characters that didn’t exist before.
It is common to stay away from fiction in our lives. After middle age, interest in stories seems to wane. Despite the challenges and complexity of the novel, it is still this intrinsically interesting creation of the world, and there is an inherent youthfulness in its creation. Perhaps that’s why childhood stories resonate so strongly, they are a combination of creation and new life.
Each mind’s eye is unique. Everyone imagines themselves in Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house, the dark woods all around, the rattle of the sugar grass, the candy on the walls, just as everyone remembers loving or hating the illustrations and vaguely understands Others have imagined the same story, but differently. I remember sometimes covering a photo with my hand so as not to spoil the story while I was reading it. I can’t be alone.
When writing childhood, like I just remembered those fairy tales, that little phrase, i can’t be alone This is an essential. Summoning adult experiences in fiction is an imaginary act, but summoning or inhabiting children is slightly different. What would it be like to look up at a giant white cloud if I remembered to cover up the photo so as not to spoil the story, or if it didn’t hurt to throw my whole body on the grass. When I was trapped in the classroom, I smelled that the grass was being mowed. Wandering around the door of the room, half-hiding and half-listening. If I knew, and I remembered what it was as a kid, wouldn’t everyone? I can not confirm. Writing is a leap of faith, especially when writing as a child.
I start a new book with very few things: worldviews or personal truths—sometimes less, maybe just pulling echoes of emotions, images, or phrases. Then, if it’s going to be a novel, it needs what a novel needs: a story to express it, and people. What will happen? Where will it happen? When, who will tell it?This book, my sixth book, is the first to answer “who” two childrentheir names soon emerged: Amy and Lan.
Writing is a leap of faith, especially when writing as a child.
I had this story early on: three families sharing a large and beautiful farm called Fries. They also shared the values of how Frith should function; they wanted to raise their children in nature, away from the dangers of the city, and grow as much of their own food as possible. Like many of us, they want to be part of the solution, but they are caught up in crises big and small, and the existential crisis is their romantic relationship. The book will be called Friesian Farm, or Echo Green, an allegory about the impossibility of maintaining the Garden of Eden.
I have it all, but I have a fundamental problem: my story is not Amy and Ran’s. Amy and Lan’s story is pre-fallen, not about Frith’s problems, but about its miracles. The only people who can say it are Amy and Lan themselves—both seven years old when the book begins.
I have written about children before, but they are not children, they are adult characters from childhood, or from memory. This book is not Amy and Lan’s childhood memories, but their childhood. At first I tried to resist, writing about the past in third person as I “usually” do. I rewrote it several times, sometimes whole books, more often parts. I know what’s going on, but the book can’t seem to find itself. The tone is uneven.
As a writer, I hate having to put characters in hindsight, that’s not the theme of this book. Frith feels uncomfortable in the nostalgic glow, just as uneasy when touched by retrospective anger or cynicism. In short, Amy and Lan haven’t grown up, and their adult lives are irrelevant. They didn’t look back. They’re just — there. They are children. They are in the moment. So, I gave them the present tense, and then, intimidated by the assignment, I spent some time trying to write just one of them or the other, just Amy or just Lan, but that didn’t fit either: they were best friends. Negotiations took too long, but I gave in and they all spoke out.
Their childhood, like all childhoods, is the most precious and dangerous thing imaginable, and a story that needs to be told—perhaps to better see themselves.
Writing people is no different from method acting. Writers study characters, ask themselves what they would do in certain situations, how they might feel, fit in as much as possible, and then hope to take over writing through preparation and working instincts. There’s an element of the game, of course, improvisation. Writing children is immersive, games and improvisation are necessarily more obvious, the first-person voice requires a monologue, and there’s no way around it. Especially Amy, she won’t shut up. Lan is quieter on the surface, but equally busy on the inside. Neither child was interested in the structure of my novel.
Each time, I set out with a vision of a perfect book, but halfway through the discovery I wasn’t sure it was a book. Amy and Lan No exception; surrender takes time, understanding takes time. Amy and Lan Aren’t adult stories told through a child’s eyes? in between or to kill a robin, most of the time children simply refuse to notice what is going on in the adult world. But the adults are all there. Parental quarrels and happiness, sex, self-deception and all kinds of vanity, are ultimately not options for any child. Parents rule the world. As best they could – and they did – Amy and Lan couldn’t escape this.
Writing and reading about childhood is like time travel. All our childhood is there, right behind us, right in us. Young, unformed, we were more alike than we were later, and the state of being a child, no matter how different our lives were, was our shared experience. Amy and Lan have a child’s perspective and a child’s humor; they laugh at the fart jokes, they sing over and over and roll in the mud. They sat together in the bathtub, staring up close, close, close at the soap scum floating on the water, thinking it looked like little icebergs, and imagining tiny polar bears on them. Their childhood, like all childhoods, is the most precious and dangerous thing imaginable, and a story that needs to be told—perhaps to better see themselves.
Amy and Lan’s parents want to revive the tired land. They want to break the rules and leave the fierce competition. change the world. They want to raise healthy kids without feeling guilty every time they send them off to exhaust-filled city streets. They have had great success. Amy and Lan had a great time – until they didn’t. All childhood is over. It always feels awkward.
Amy and Lan Sadie Jones is now available through Harper.