A Book Needs Space: The Craft of THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa

I took a break from my craft series for a couple months. And then I handed in the first draft of a new book this week! Which means that this weekend I can finally turn my attention to writing about craft in The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa.

Yoko Ogawa’s slender, stunning book, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, is a challenging one to use as a writing lesson, because while I can describe a hundred smart and wonderful things about it, that doesn’t mean I know how to translate its beauty into advice to other writers. It’s not helpful for me to say, “See how perfect this is? Now go do that.” 

And it is that kind of book, the kind that pulls you into a narrative dream and holds you there so gently, with such soft hands, that it’s hard to figure out how you got where you are. When did it happen, and how?

For me, it had already happened by the time I’d gotten to the end of page 3. And I think that the “how” has something to do with a sense of spaciousness.

What do I mean by a sense of spaciousness? Well, it’s pretty hard to nail it down exactly, but I’ve been considering this a lot, and I think it has to do with a combination of things. One is unflowery, unfussy prose. Another is revelation of character through brief, searing lines of plot or observation. (You know those beautiful moments in books when a single sentence seems to capture the essence of a character, and just like that, you feel like you can see into their soul?) Another is a gentle, no-rush kind of pacing. Another has to do with themes that lend themselves to spaciousness. And another is the way Ogawa hooks this story into two real-world entities that have power, meaning, and spaciousness outside any book: mathematics and baseball.  

You didn’t think this was going to be simple, did you? :o) The Housekeeper and the Professor is a book that seems spare and uncomplicated as you read it, but I think it’s deceptively so. There’s a lot packed into its 180 pages. The reader who feels suspended in a narrative dream is actually perched on top of a lot of strong, invisible foundations. Today I’ll try to look at those foundations a little closer.

I’m not going to harp on the unflowery, unfussy prose, because I think you’ll see that for yourself when I share examples from the text. Instead I’ll talk first about the revelation of character, then get into pacing and themes, then say a little about the allusions to mathematics and baseball.

All page references are to the 2009 English-language paperback edition published by Picador.

First, a brief overview, with no spoilers: A housekeeper is assigned to work in the house of a professor of mathematics who lives in a small city on the Inland Sea. The professor, who’s sixty-four, sustained a brain injury in an automobile accident seventeen years ago and lost his ability to form new memories. “He can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night” (5). He can only remember new things for eighty minutes. 

As a consequence, every morning, when the housekeeper arrives at the home of the professor, she’s a stranger to him, as is her son who often accompanies her. And every day is predictable in some ways, yet thoroughly unpredictable in others. 

Told from the perspective of the housekeeper, the book is about the inner lives and growing relationships of four people, all of whose real names are not used: the housekeeper; her son; the Professor; and the professor’s sister-in-law, who lives in the main house across from the professor’s cottage. The book contains small, quiet, satisfying revelations. You learn more information about all of the characters over time. But the journey is as satisfying as the destination. This is one of those books where I wasn’t reading to find out what happens; I was reading for the pleasure of spending time with the book.

Now, let’s talk about character.

In the hands of a clunky writer, a character’s inability to form new memories would be a gimmick. There are no gimmicks here. Almost from the first line, these are people you believe in, with thoughts and dilemmas that suspend you in a state of wanting, along with these characters, to understand what it means to be human. 

Here’s how the book opens:

We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.

“There’s a fine brain in there,” the Professor said, mussing my son’s hair. Root, who wore a cap to avoid being teased by his friends, gave a wary shrug. “With this one little sign we can come to know an infinite range of numbers, even those we can’t see.” He traced the symbol in the thick layer of dust on his desk.


This opening is the first of many times when the Professor embarks on an explanation of a mathematical concept. You, the reader, might immediately groan, thinking, Oh no, he’s going to lecture, he’s going to mansplain math… But only two pages later, on page 3, our narrator, the housekeeper, addresses that concern with this description:

But the professor didn’t always insist on being the teacher. He had enormous respect for matters about which he had no knowledge, and he was as humble in such cases as the square root of negative one itself. Whenever he needed my help, he would interrupt me in the most polite way. Even the simplest request—that I help him set the timer on the toaster, for example—always began with “I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but…” Once I’d set the dial, he would sit peering in as the toast browned. He was as fascinated by the toast as he was by the mathematical proofs we did together, as if the truth of the toaster were no different from that of the Pythagorean theorem.

It’s this description of the Professor peering in as the toast browns, caring about it as much as he cares about everything else, that captured my heart on page 3. With that tiny act, Ogawa shows us something essential about the Professor’s character. And Ogawa repeats this method of revealing character over and over again, sharing small, isolated moments of searing revelation.

Here’s another example of a small moment, one where we learn the Professor’s particular, yet socially clueless, sympathy toward children:

Just then, there was a cry from the sandbox. A little girl stood sobbing, a toy shovel clutched in her hand. Instantly, the Professor was at her side, bending over to comfort her. He tenderly brushed the sand from her dress.

Suddenly, the child’s mother appeared and pushed the Professor away, picking the girl up and practically running off with her. The Professor was left standing in the sandbox. I watched him from behind, unsure how to help. The cherry blossoms fluttered down, mingling with the numbers in the dirt. (46-47)

I’m not sure the professor understands what’s just happened in that moment, but we do. And we can see him and feel for him (at the same time as we might feel frustrated with him).

Here’s one more, shorter example: “I wondered how many times I had said those words since I’d come to work at the Professor’s house. ‘Don’t worry. It’s fine.’ At the barber, outside the X-ray room at the clinic, on the bus home from the ballgame. Sometimes as I was rubbing his back, at other times stroking his hand. But I wondered whether I had ever been able to comfort him. His real pain was somewhere else, and I sensed that I was always missing the spot” (169-170).

Maybe when I use the word “spacious” to describe this kind of characterization, what I mean is that nothing is crowded, every detail is illuminated and clear, and allowed to be the star of the scene it’s in. Every description is given the space it’s needed. As a result, the characterizations seem clean and spare, but not because the characters are simple people with simple lives. They are complex people with difficult, tragic, sometimes frightening lives. But we can see them clearly, because Ogawa draws them with precise lines on a spacious page. 

I almost want to say that it’s like each character is standing alone, visible to us in a bright, uncrowded room, but that makes the characters and the book sound sterile, which is completely wrong. In fact, they live in rooms full of things, especially books, papers, baseball cards, and food. And their lives, thoughts, and feelings are deeply entangled. But reading this book, the reader does not feel entangled. The reader has room.

This is partly because Ogawa gives every moment in this story the same weight as any other part of the story. The moment with the browning toast, for example, is just as important as other longer, more emotionally fraught scenes in the book. And this gets us into pacing. 

This book is composed of a lot of different kinds of passages. Tiny plot moments, like the Professor watching the toast brown. Longer scenes, like one where Root gets injured and the Professor and the housekeeper rush him to the hospital; one where they all go to a baseball game together; one where they have a party. Passages where the housekeeper is musing about the life of the Professor; passages where she’s doing a little snooping in the Professor’s house, hoping to learn about his past. Occasional passages where the housekeeper is telling us something about her own past. Also, lots and lots of passages about math.

Pacing isn’t something I can demonstrate using short examples, because it depends upon how all the parts of the text sit in relation to each other. But I can try to explain what Ogawa does, and what it’s like to read: She simply and straightforwardly lets every passage take as much time and space as it needs. It’s okay if a math explanation fills up several pages. It’s okay if some of the most beautiful and revealing character moments for the Professor — like his ability, every afternoon, to see the evening star before anyone else can (page 79) — take less than a page. There’s a way in which the weight of any one part of this book has nothing to do with its length. All the different needs of the text are balanced in their significance. 

How does a short description manage to carry as much weight as a many-paged scene? I think it’s partly because of what this book is telling us — its themes. Browning toast is, in fact, as important as the Pythagorean theorem. The housekeeper tells us so. A child is as important as a mathematician. A moment when a man with a brain injury is sad and confused is as important as the most fundamental mathematical discovery. Everything is connected, everything matters, and everything gets to take up space.

One thing I took away from the pacing of this book is that I want to try to worry less about the moments when my text feels uneven. I’ll always listen to feedback from my readers when it comes to my pacing — but ultimately, there are other aspects of a text, particularly its style, mood, and themes, that can bind seemingly disparate parts of a book together. Maybe that’s something I can talk about more sometime using one of my own books. It comes down to a book being a web, and that’s a really complicated thing to try to talk about!

Here’s another interesting thing Ogawa does with pacing: While it becomes pretty easy, pretty quickly, for the reader to know who the Professor is, this makes a fascinating contrast with the other characters in the book, who come into focus much more slowly. Especially the housekeeper herself, who’s the narrator, but who’s always talking about everyone else, hiding herself in the background (much like a housekeeper). Honestly, it took me a while to even notice the housekeeper as a character. And then I began to care about her experience deeply.

A lot of our revelations about the housekeeper’s character relate to math. With a quiet, patient kind of wonder, the housekeeper absorbs every math lesson the Professor gives, and we see what that’s like for her. We watch it touch her daily life—and reshape her entire outlook. 

“There was something profound in his love for math,” the housekeeper says. “And it helped that he forgot what he’d taught me before, so I was free to repeat the same question until I understood. Things that most people would get the first time around might take me five, or even ten times, but I could go on asking the Professor to explain until I finally got it” (23).

Just as the Professor explains math to the housekeeper, Ogawa explains it to the reader, and explains it well; we understand it because we’re sharing the housekeeper’s growing understanding of it. Consequently, we can understand the way it’s changing the housekeeper. One day, while cleaning the kitchen, she finds a serial number engraved on the back of the refrigerator door: 2311. Unable to help herself, she pulls out a notepad and gets to work trying to figure out whether this is a prime number. “Once I’d proved that 2,311 was prime, I put the notepad back in my pocket and went back to my cleaning, though now with a new affection for this refrigerator, which had a prime serial number. It suddenly seemed so noble, divisible by only one and itself” (113).

Later, she reflects on the relationship between math and meaning: “In my imagination, I saw the creator of the universe sitting in some distant corner of the sky, weaving a pattern of delicate lace so fine that even the faintest light would shine through it. The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth” (124).

(It’s worth mentioning that this book’s sense of spaciousness is also aided by descriptions of actually spacious things. It’s hard to imagine something more spacious than infinite lace!)

Slowly, we watch the housekeeper’s relationship with the Professor—and with math—change her entire concept of herself. Here, the Professor has just watched her cook dinner with utter fascination and respect: “I looked at the food I had just finished preparing and then at my hands. Sautéed pork garnished with lemon, a salad, and a soft, yellow omelet. I studied the dishes, one by one. They were all perfectly ordinary, but they looked delicious—satisfying food at the end of a long day. I looked at my palms again, filled suddenly with an absurd sense of satisfaction, as though I had just solved Fermat’s Last Theorem” (135).

Honestly, the mathematics in The Housekeeper and the Professor is one reason it’s tricky to use this book as a craft lesson. It’s clear Ogawa has enormous mathematical expertise, which breathes life and meaning into this story — but not many writers are going to have that expertise at their disposal, and not all stories can be about math. I also wonder what it’s like to read this book if you’re indifferent to math, or even hate it? Baseball, which is extremely math-based, plays another huge part in this book — I wonder how the book reads to people untouched by both math and baseball? I happen to adore both; I lap up baseball movies and math plays like Arcadia or Proof with the purest joy; so it’s impossible for me to imagine reading this book from the perspective of a baseball-hater or a math-hater. It’s hard to imagine that reader having the same experience I’m having.

Nonetheless, the point remains that Ogawa is harnessing the essence of other disciplines, math and baseball, and using them to expand her story — and it works for a lot of readers. It creates a kind of magic similar to Victor LaValle’s use of fairytales in The Changeling. Things that we understand in a different context, like math or fairytales, can expand the meaning of realities that otherwise don’t make sense, or hurt too much. Like a person who’s lost a part of their brain that they need in order to make new, sustained relationships. Or a housekeeper who’s been alone, unsupported, and unappreciated for most of her life.

And here again, Ogawa makes spacious choices. Is anything more spacious than math? Math defines space, and the infinity of space. And one of the complaints most often brandished at baseball is that there’s way too much empty space in the game :o). Math and baseball serve as themes helping to create the book’s spaciousness.

So. I’m not convinced that this post is the most useful entry in my craft series, especially for any of you looking for nitty-gritty writing advice. But I do hope you’ll read Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, and maybe my thoughts will combine with your own to help you come to some conclusions. I’ll end this post with a spacious image:

“As we reached the top of the stairs that led to the seats above third base, all three of us let out a cry. The diamond in all its grandeur was laid out before us — the soft, dark earth of the infield, the spotless bases, the straight white lines, and the manicured grass. The evening sky seemed so close you could touch it, and at that moment, as if they had been awaiting our arrival, the lights came on. The stadium looked like a spaceship descended from the heavens” (88).

Happy writing!


The Housekeeper and the Professor filled with post-it flags.
Reading like a writer.

Some Resources to Get You Through This Bumbling Attempted Coup

U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann speaking to the only lawyer still willing to argue Trump’s case in Pennsylvania, Rudolph Giuliani, on Tuesday:

“You’re alleging that the two individual plaintiffs were denied the right to vote. But at bottom, you’re asking this court to invalidate more than 6.8 million votes, thereby disenfranchising every single voter in the commonwealth. Can you tell me how this result can possibly be justified?”

Hello everyone. You might expect that while we are having to endure this comical yet terrifying attempted coup, my subconscious mind would be having a field day, giving me creative dreams as usual. But here’s the dream I had Tuesday night, after that disgraceful show in Michigan: A Republican demagogue, anticipating his loss in the next election and wanting to prime public opinion, begins shouting as loud as he can about how the Democrats are going to steal the election. He loses the election. Then he tries to steal the election, again by accusing the Democratic victors of stealing the election. Rank-and-file Republicans fall in around him, supporting his baseless claims. A depressingly shocking number of voters believe him.

Not a lot of creativity there, subconscious.

For me, the most stressful part of all of this is how terrifying the GOP has become. A massive web of baseless lies that are believed by a gigantic number of people is terrifying. It’s what my books are about. Of course, as a fantasy writer, I’ve always known I’m writing about real life.

 I found a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show helpful in contextualizing the crisis that’s been created by the Republican Party. In it, Ezra talks with Anne Applebaum, who studies authoritarianism. As a writer, I appreciated that the episode included a close study in character. The character of real people, of course, like Lindsey Graham and Laura Ingraham, but writers are naturally interested in the characters of real people. It’s how we write believable imaginary people! Anyway, check it out if a grim perspective will help you get your feet on the ground. Don’t check it out if what you need right now is comfort or reassurance, however. Those are valid needs too. And I have a couple of TV recommendations for that as well!

About a month ago, I finished watching Jane the Virgin, which now has a permanent place in the upper echelon of my favorite TV shows of all time. It is so funny, so sweet and full of heart. It has political relevance, in a way that will make you feel hopeful. It’s about families, writing, relationships between women, parenthood, magic, and it has characters you’ll love so much that when you finally finish the last episode, you’ll wander around feeling bereft for a while, or at least that’s what happened to me. The plot is so absurd that you don’t have to worry too much about bad things happening. The voiceover narrator is an absolute delight. I love this show so much, and if you’ve never seen it before, now might be the time!

Also, last week I started watching Crash Landing on You, a South Korean TV drama in which a South Korean heiress has a hang-gliding mishap that drops her into the North Korean section of the DMZ. A very serious (and brooding) captain in the North Korean Special Police Force finds her and reluctantly decides to help her hide. It’s very, very funny and keeps surprising me with its sweet moments — one of my favorite combinations in a TV show — and like with Jane, I’m falling for all the characters. Each episode seems to be incrementally longer than the last episode, to the point that my addiction to the show is interfering with the rest of my life, but I’m enjoying it too much to care. :o)

By Source, Fair use,

These are my recommendations for today… Hang in there, everyone. 💗

Online Event Tonight and Exclusive Map Giveaway

A couple time-sensitive pieces of book news for those of you not on Twitter, where, among other things, I’ve been posting my sister’s careful scrawled calculations of the vote count in Pennsylvania :o).

One, Flatiron Books invite me to chat with Melissa Albert, author of the gorgeous and chilling Tales from the Hinterland, tonight (Friday) at 8:30pm ET as part of  #yallwrite

 Info at @YALLFest and https://www.yallwrite.org/schedule#specialevents

Come join us! I for one will be exhausted yet (I suspect) calm, and Mimi and I will have plenty of bookish stuff to talk about!

Two, Penguin Teen has organized an exclusive map giveaway for anyone who preorders Winterkeep. Here’s the entry form: http://bit.ly/WinterkeepPreOrder

Tag @PenguinTeen with any questions. And enjoy! :o)

Pictures to Distract You: A Snowy Day, and Tools of the Trade

Hi, all. Waiting is hard. So here are some pretty pics to distract you. 

Friday was the day I’d scheduled to take some time off, go for nice walk, and get some pictures of the fall foliage.

In typical 2020 fashion, it didn’t go quite as planned… 

So I went with it.

Everything is great.

Here are some scenes…

…of October…
… in Massachusetts…

…just for you.

Now for some pictures of inside things. I don’t know about you, but this is a pretty stressful time for me, and I’m using every tool in my toolbox to stay healthy and well. One of those is — always — writing, and hardly anything gives me greater comfort than having fun with my writing tools.

I’ve explained before that I write by hand. Then, when I’ve written a sufficient amount that I start to worry about the house burning down, I transcribe my writing into a Word document, using voice recognition software. If you’re curious about the kind of notebooks I’ve written in previously and what my writing used to look like — and if you’re a writer who wants a reminder of how normal it is for writing to be hard — go check out my old post, Pictures of a Book Being Made

In recent years, I have some new tools.

Writing by hand has always been my way, even before I developed a disability that makes typing prohibitively painful. I’m left-handed, but not too long ago, after doing some realistic thinking about how much pain I work through on a daily basis, I began to teach myself to write right-handed, so that I can increase the likelihood I’ll be able to write forever. 

Now, after much practice, I alternate between hands pretty regularly as I work. The right-handed writing is slower and messier, and my hand gets tired faster. But it’s fine.

I’ve also started using smaller, lighter notebooks. This is partly to save my hands, and partly because the most recent books I’ve been writing feel different, and have been asking me for new supplies.

In particular, they’re asking me for smaller, lighter, less intimidating notebooks — and stickers. :o)

I’ve been hunting for stickers that feel like my books. Stickers that match my characters, my plot, the feelings that imbue my story. Then, as I write, I plop the stickers onto the page… And it helps. It gives me ideas; it slows me down, so that my writing is more thoughtful; it gives me joy. 

The two stickers on the left are the work of Katie at BearandFoxCo.
The sticker on the right is the work of Audrey Miller at CloudCatArts.

I’ll share some pictures of my stickers… And include, with some of them, samples of my right-handed writing, so you can see what I mean about that. Anytime you see handwriting, that’s my right-handed work. And anytime you see a sticker created by an individual/independent artist, I have gotten permission to share it.

Here goes.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

This is an image from a cityscape washi tape, superimposed over some pale-blue sky washi stickers I can no longer find a link to.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design. (I colored her right eye red!)

I got a whole series of ship pictures on Etsy, but alas, they no longer seem to be available.

I found these butterfly/moth washi stickers on Etsy.

There’s one more artist whose work I wanted to share, but I didn’t get permission from her in time. Her Etsy shop is on a short break at the moment, but keep the shop of Helen Ahpornsiri in mind; she creates animals using pressed flowers and plants, and the results are beautiful.

And that’s my distraction for today.

Everyone, give yourself a break over the next few days and then however long this takes. Try not to check the news compulsively; wear masks to protect the vulnerable; forgive yourself for being stressed out. And hang in there.


Some WINTERKEEP Blather, Plus All Eight New Covers

Hello, lovely people.

I have another craft post planned for sometime soon… I’m hoping to write about The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, if I can just figure out how to articulate what I want to say. It’s such a beautiful book! One of those rare books I got out of the library, read, then decided I needed to own.

Until then, I wanted to share a little bit of blather about Winterkeep (January 19, 2021), plus display all eight new covers — the new USA and UK covers for Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue, and Winterkeep — altogether in one place. If you don’t care about the blather and just want to see pretty pictures, scroll down.

So. The first few drafts of Winterkeep were written in many, many points of view. It was early days, and I was trying to figure out how to tell the story I wanted to tell. I pretty much allowed anyone a point of view, sort of as an experiment, to see how each character felt, and figure out whose feelings were most important. Then gradually, across revisions, I whittled those POVs down. In its final form, Winterkeep is told from five points of view — and only three of them are human! 

One is Queen Bitterblue, whose POV will be familiar to those who’ve read my book Bitterblue. Bitterblue is a little bit older now, twenty-three. She’s always working, always doing the best with the problems facing a young queen, and at the moment, she’s worried about two of her advisers who died mysteriously in a shipwreck in Winterkeep. She’s also worried about a friend, a Keepish man she’s sort-of-maybe romantically involved with, named Katu Cavenda. Everyone says Katu is traveling… so why does it seem like he’s actually disappeared? These questions, among others, bring Bitterblue to Winterkeep, to figure things out for herself.

Another point of view is Giddon, a character who’ll be familiar to readers of Graceling and Bitterblue. Remember what a jerk Giddon was in Graceling? He actually told Katsa once that he was confident she’d want babies someday, because after all, she wasn’t “an unnatural woman.” YUCK! 

Then, when I started to write Bitterblue, I discovered that Giddon had evolved. I was touched by the friendship he began to develop with Bitterblue, which surprised me while I was writing. I realized that over the course of the last few years of his life, he’d taken responsibility for his behavior and grown up a bit. After all, he was only eighteen years old in Graceling, and he hadn’t encountered much pushback against his viewpoints yet. I like to think that Giddon paid attention to the good influences around him and rethought a few things. Anyway, now he’s back, and he’s had a few more years to grow up even more.

Another point of view is a Keepish girl named Lovisa Cavenda, age 16, who’s depicted on the USA cover (below). Lovisa’s a sneak and a secret keeper; she’s a manipulator and a survivor. Katu Cavenda’s niece and a student of politics and government at the Winterkeep Academy, she lives in the dorms but sneaks home frequently, spying on her own parents, who are important political figures in Winterkeep. If I had to choose one character at the very heart of this book, it would be Lovisa Cavenda. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself in an impossible situation… Will she find a way out?

Another point of view is a telepathic blue fox, who has a special, exclusive mental bond with Lovisa Cavenda’s mother, Ferla Cavenda. And trust me, though Ferla has a warm hearth and a warm coat with a fuzzy hood it’s cozy to ride inside, Ferla’s mind is not always a comfortable place! The rules of foxkind are fairly strict. What happens to a fox who can’t decide whether to follow the rules?

Finally, my last point of view is a gigantic sea creature with thirteen legs and twenty-three eyes who lives at the bottom of the ocean, protecting her treasures (sunken anchors, sunken human corpses, sunken ships). All she wants is to be left alone… but the machinations of humans and the interests of her undersea world keep interrupting her peace.

Those are my five points of view! Together, they tell the story of Winterkeep, which is, above all, a story of relationships. I hope you’ll enjoy watching these five characters come together.

And now for my shiny new covers. 

First up are the USA covers. In the USA and Canada, Graceling is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Fire, Bitterblue, and Winterkeep are published by Penguin Books. These covers were illustrated by Kuri Huang (@kuri_huang) and designed by Theresa Evangelista and Jessica Jenkins. Shown below in series order.


One of my absolute favorite things about this reboot is that both my USA and my UK publishers are updating the series, and both went with a beautiful, rich, textured look — but they’re so different from each other. Below are my new UK covers. In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, my books are published by Gollancz. The covers were illustrated by Micaela Alcaino (@micaelaalcaino) and designed by Tomás Almeida.


And that’s my update for today. Hope you’re all hanging in there. More soon. 💜

Writing Emotion: The Craft of H IS FOR HAWK, by Helen Macdonald

Today in my craft post, I’m going to talk about a straightforward skill… while referencing a book that’s wonderfully un-straightforward.

H Is for Hawk is a memoir by Helen Macdonald that weaves together several threads, the three biggest of which are: her experience of training a northern goshawk; her analysis of T. H. White’s memoir about training a northern goshawk; and her grief following the death of her father. In terms of balance and weaving, it’s beautifully done. In terms of psychological insight, it feels searingly true. And in terms of the expression of emotion, it’s stunning.

It’s also an uncomfortable book at times, in ways that recommend it. And it’s a fascinating memoir for a fiction writer to read while thinking about how to write character. H Is for Hawk left me with a lot of questions, for the book and for myself.

If you just want the straightforward writing lesson, which is on the topic of writing emotion, jump ahead to the *** below. If you’re interested in a fiction writer’s thoughts about memoir, read on.

I sat down to read H is for Hawk because a friend had described its structure and I was intrigued. I’m not a memoir writer; it’s far too personal a style of writing for me. But I like to read books that differ greatly from my own writing, and I especially like to learn to write from them. After all, the more a book diverges from your own writing, the more it can stretch you into a broader perspective of what’s possible. I was curious about what a memoir that weaves separate but related threads could teach me about writing a work of fiction that weaves separate but related threads; but I was also curious about what it could teach me that I didn’t know about yet.

Here are some of the unexpected questions that arose for me while reading this book:

In terms of writing character (if one can use that word with a memoir, and I believe one can; more on that later), what are the differences between memoir and fiction?

For example, what advantages does the memoir writer have? Does a reader come to a memoir with a greater willingness to believe in a character than they bring to the reading of fiction? A fiction writer often has to go through a lot of contortions to keep a character believable while also fulfilling the necessities of the plot. Push the character’s behavior too far outside the characterization you’ve so carefully established, and the behavior becomes unbelievable. The reader is left thinking, “I don’t believe they would actually do that.”

In contrast, in a memoir, a character is an actual person. They did what they did. The memoir writer reports what they did and we believe it, because it’s a memoir. Any “unbelievable” behavior consequently brings power with it: amusement, surprise, shock value. (This is not to minimize the work it requires to make any character in any kind of book engaging. I don’t mean to suggest that a memoir writer has an easy job creating character, only that they may have a believability advantage.)

Okay then, what advantages does the fiction writer have when writing character? Well, the fiction writer can make shit up; that’s a pretty huge advantage. The fiction writer also generally doesn’t have to worry about getting sued for defamation of character :o).

Another huge advantage: Though it’s true that as a fiction writer I sometimes encounter readers who mistakenly assume I’m like my characters, for the most part, fiction readers remember that fiction is made up. This means that the fiction writer is unlikely to be accused of having done the things their characters did, or judged for that behavior. In contrast, a memoir writer writing about her own actions is opening herself to all kinds of very personal judgment. All writing requires courage and involves exposure… But this takes things to a whole other level! Fiction writers have some built-in emotional protections that I tend to take for granted, until I read a memoir and remember.

This leads me to another question that arose while reading this book: What is the place of the memoir reader when it comes to judging the people inside the memoir? For example, Helen Macdonald writes a compassionate but blistering exposé of T. H. White in this book. It’s an exposé that T. H. White wrote first; anyone can learn from White’s own memoir that he was heartbreakingly, sometimes sadistically abusive to the goshawk he trained. But Macdonald presents it anew, and she presents it with an analysis of White’s psychology that shows us more about White than he ever meant us to know. She shows us the abuse, familial and societal, that brought White to this place. She shows us his heartbreak, failures, and shame. White feels like an integrated, complete person in this book.

But also, she shows us what she wants to show us — she shows us the parts of White that fit into her own book, about her own experiences. She’s the writer, and this is her memoir. To be clear, I don’t mean this as a condemnation — I’m not accusing her of leaving things out or misrepresenting White! This is a part of all book-writing. You include what matters to the rest of your book. Everything else ends up on the cutting room floor. As far as I know, Macdonald did a respectful and responsible job of incorporating T. H. White into her book, and I expect she worked very hard to do so. I believe in the T. H. White she showed us. But I think it’s important to remember this part of the process when reading any memoir. Even when a writer is writing about themselves, their book has plot and themes, it has content requirements. There’ll always be something specific the writer is trying to convey, about themselves or anyone else, and there’ll always be stuff they leave out. No book can contain a whole person.

Personally, when I read memoir (and biography and autobiography), I consciously consider the people inside it to function as characters. It’s hard to read H Is for Hawk and not come away with some pretty strong opinions about T. H. White. But I keep a permanent asterisk next to my opinions, because White was a real, living person, but I only know him as a character in this book. No matter how many books I read about him (or by him), I’ll always be conscious of not knowing the whole person.

As a fiction writer, I find all of this fascinating. I think it’s because I see connections between how hard it is to present a compelling character study of a real person and how hard it is to create a believable character in fiction. What are the differences between a memoir writer who’s figuring out which part of the truth matters, and a fiction writer who’s creating a fiction that’s supposed to invoke truth? Also, I’m fascinated by how much all of this lines up with how hard it is to understand anyone in real life. How well can we ever know anyone? How much can we ever separate our own baggage from our judgments of other people? There’s a third person getting in the way of my perfect understanding of T. H. White: me.

Next question: How does a writer (of memoir or fiction) make a character ring true to the reader? How does the writer make the character compelling and real?

A writer as skilled as Macdonald knows how to bring her characters, human or hawk, alive for the reader. One way she does this is by keeping her characterizations always in motion. White is many, many things — kind and cruel, sensitive and sadistic, abused and despotic. Macdonald’s hawk, Mabel, is also constantly growing and changing. Mabel is a point of personal connection for Macdonald, but she’s also always just out of reach. And of course, Macdonald herself is a character in the book. Macdonald lays bare her own successes, failures, oddities, cruelties, kindnesses, insights, ambivalences, and delights, and lets us decide. Personally, as I read, I felt that I was meeting a human of sensitivity and compassion; an anxious person whose need for both solitude and connection was starkly familiar to me; someone consciously composed of contradictions; a person of deep feeling who cares about what matters; a grieving daughter; a person I can relate to. Or should I say, a character I can relate to? Having read this book, I don’t presume I know Helen Macdonald.

Here’s something I do know about Helen Macdonald though: She’s a damn good writer. In particular, as I read, I kept noticing one specific thing she does so well that it needs to be called out and shown to other writers.


All page references are to the 2014 paperback published by Grove Press.

Okay, writers. When it comes to writing a character’s emotion, there’s a certain skill at which Helen Macdonald excels. Namely, she conveys emotion via action.

Put differently: rather than describing an emotion in words, Macdonald shows us a behavior, one so meaningful that we readers feel the associated emotion immediately.

Here’s an example. For context, Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly one March, throwing her into a deep and unexpected grief. Listen to this description of one of the things that happened next:

“In June I fell in love, predictably and devastatingly, with a man who ran a mile when he worked out how broken I was. His disappearance rendered me practically insensible. Though I can’t even bring his face to mind now, and though I know not only why he ran, but know that in principle he could have been anyone, I still have a red dress that I will never wear again. That’s how it goes.” (17)

While there is some effective emotional description here — like when she’s rendered practically insensible — the real punch in this passage is the red dress. Macdonald tells us that there’s a red dress she’ll never wear again, and immediately I get it. I get that the identity of the man is irrelevant; what’s relevant is the passion she had for another person and how it connected to her grief, and I feel that passion and grief because there’s a red dress she’ll never wear again. I can see the dress, hidden away in the back of her closet. I don’t have a dress like that, but I could. I get it.

Here’s another moment. This one takes place at a much later point, when Macdonald has been grieving for a long time and is finally noticing that she’s capable of happiness again:

“But watching television from the sofa later that evening I noticed tears running from my eyes and dropping into my mug of tea. Odd, I think. I put it down to tiredness. Perhaps I am getting a cold. Perhaps I am allergic to something. I wipe the tears away and go to make more tea in the kitchen” (125).

It’s hard to write about tears in a way that doesn’t feel like a cliché shorthand for sadness, grief, catharsis, whatever you’re trying to get across in that moment. Macdonald succeeds here. This dispassionate report of tears conveys what Macdonald needs to convey: that grief is layered; that a person can have many feelings at once; that sometimes your body knows what’s going on before the rest of you does; that when you’re grieving, sometimes happiness brings with it a tidal wave of sadness. But imagine if Macdonald had listed all those things I just listed, instead of telling us about her tears dropping into her tea. Her way is so much better, and it conveys the same information!

Let me be clear, it’s not bad to describe emotion. In fact, it’s necessary in places. You need to give your reader an emotional baseline so that they’ll know how to contextualize how plot points feel for the character. But if you can find a balance between emotional description and the thing Macdonald is doing here — using action to convey emotion — it will gives the emotion in your writing a freshness, an impact, a punch that you can’t get from description alone. It will also give the reader more opportunities to engage their own feelings — to feel things all by themselves, rather than merely understanding what’s being felt by the character.

It’s hard to write emotion. It’s especially hard to figure out non-cliché ways to explain how a character feels. Sometimes it’s fine to use a known shorthand or a cliché. Sometimes it’s fine to use emotional description. You want a mix of things. But Macdonald’s book reminds me that whenever I can, I want to look for ways to use plot to convey feeling. Show what my character does in response to a stimulus. Let the reader glean the emotions from behavior. Your character is happy? Show us what they do with their body. How do they stand, how do they walk? Does it make them generous? Does it make them self-centered and oblivious? Remember that an “action” doesn’t have to be something physically, boisterously active. If you’re writing a non-demonstrative character, it’s not going to ring true if they start flinging their arms around or singing while they walk down the street. But maybe instead of “feeling ecstatic,” they sit still for a moment, reveling in what just happened. Maybe instead of “feeling jubilant,” they listen to a song playing inside their own head. Internally or externally, show us what they do.

Here’s Macdonald describing her childhood obsession with birds:

“When I was six I tried to sleep every night with my arms folded behind my back like wings. This didn’t last long, because it is very hard to sleep with your arms folded behind your back like wings.” (27)

I can feel the devotion to birds. She doesn’t just love birds; she wants to be a bird.

Macdonald goes on to report that as a child, she learned everything she possibly could about falconry, then shared every word of it, no matter how boring, with anyone who would listen. Macdonald’s mother was a writer for the local paper. Here’s a description of her mother during the delivery of one of Macdonald’s lectures:

“Lining up another yellow piece of copy paper, fiddling with the carbons so they didn’t slip, she’d nod and agree, drag on her cigarette, and tell me how interesting it all was in tones that avoided dismissiveness with extraordinary facility.” (29)

What an endearing depiction of a mother’s love for her tedious child :o).

And here’s a scene that takes place at a country fair, where Macdonald has agreed to display her goshawk, Mabel, to the public. Macdonald is sitting on a chair under a marquee roof. Mabel is positioned on a perch ten feet behind her. There are so many people at the fair, too many people for the likes of both Macdonald and Mabel:

“After twenty minutes Mabel raises one foot. It looks ridiculous. She is not relaxed enough to fluff out her feathers; she still resembles a wet and particoloured seal. But she makes this small concession to calmness, and she stands there like a man driving with one hand resting on the gear stick.” (206)

Oh, Mabel. I get the sense that when it comes to the writer’s need to convey emotion, Mabel is a challenging character. Macdonald does such a wonderful job creating a sense of the gulf between a human’s reality and a hawk’s reality, the differences in perception and priority. But she also gives us moments of connection with Mabel. Since Mabel is a bird, these moments of connection are almost always described through Mabel’s behavior.

I wonder if Macdonald’s intense connection with the non-human world, and with hawks in particular, is partly what makes her so good at noticing behaviors and gleaning their emotional significance? And then sharing it with us, the lucky readers.

That’s it. That’s my lesson: When you’re trying to convey feelings, find places where an action or behavior will do the job.

And read H Is for Hawk if you want an admirable example of writing emotion! Also, Helen Macdonald has a new book, just released: Vesper Flights. I’m in.

Reading like a writer.

To the Student Stuck in a Toxic Home during the Pandemic

A number of friends and mental health professionals helped me with this post. You know who you are. Thank you.

To the student for whom school is a safer place, but now you’re stuck at home in a toxic environment during the pandemic,

I see you. You’re not invisible. In fact, a lot of people see you and are thinking about you. I can’t tell you how many of my friends and colleagues have brought you up in the past few months, and expressed worry for what you’re going through. Hang in there.

When schools started sending students home in March and April, I thought of you immediately. I waited with you to see if schools might open again in a few weeks, but of course that didn’t happen. I waited with you hoping this country would get its shit together and start prioritizing realistic approaches to containing the pandemic, so that you’d be able to go back to school in the fall. And now it’s clear that many of you won’t be able to do that. It’s also possible that those of you who can go back won’t be able to stay there for long, though I continue to hope it won’t play out that way. I, and a lot of people, wish you didn’t have this uncertainty pressing down on you right now.

Hang in there!

Here are some tools from my own PTSD toolbox that might help. Some are more immediately helpful, some are stopgaps and temporary coping mechanisms. Some might spark ideas for you:

When possible, create distance from the toxicity. In my own experience, sometimes the smallest amount of distance can help. If you can safely go for a walk now and then, do it. If there’s a physical spot where you can be alone sometimes, find it. If you can spend time online with friends, or even socially-distanced time outside, do it. Are you caring for siblings in some way? Is there some way in which you’ve been placed in the position of caring for your own parents? If so, that’s a lot. If you ever have the opportunity to take some time to care for no one but yourself, I hope you won’t begrudge yourself that. You deserve care as much as anyone else.

For some of you, maybe there’s even some other home where you could live (if only temporarily), like the house of a safe relative or family friend. Have you considered whether that might be the case for you? Give it some serious thought. This is important, though: Before making any major decisions or drastic changes, talk it through with a trusted adult. If you don’t have a trusted adult, talk it through with a youth crisis line (see below). Your safety is the most important thing, and setting off an internal family drama may not be worth it and may even be dangerous. Also, you don’t want to move yourself into a situation that’s just as harmful, or even more so. This leads me to the next step.

Reach out to people who can support you. This might be friends, other family members, teachers, therapists or counselors, anyone in your life who actually sees and cares who you are and what you need when they look at you. Reaching out to trustworthy supports might give you a place to vent some steam and get some validation, and it might also lead to some practical help. Don’t be afraid to consider professional organizations and helplines too. The first two organizations below are geared to helping kids and teens in danger of physical and sexual violence, but according to my professional source, they’d likely help if the threat is emotional too. The third organization is open to helping with any kind of crisis:

Safe Place
Here’s a link to find a Safe Place site near you.
Or, to use TXT 4 HELP, text the word “safe” and your current location (city/state/zip) to 4HELP (44357). Within seconds, you will receive a message with the closest Safe Place site and phone number for the local youth agency. You will also have the option to text interactively with a professional for more help.

SafeHouse Center
They have a National HelpLine, available 24/7, at 734-995-5444 (English and Spanish). Advocates and volunteers can answer questions, give support, and provide information and referrals.

Crisis Text Line
Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime. Crisis Text Line is there for any crisis. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds, all from their secure online platform. In the UK, text HOME to 85258. In Ireland, text HOME to 50808.

Note that while these are (inter)national organizations, there are a lot of local organizations as well. Do a little poking around and see what might be available to you, or ask someone you trust to do so.

Journal. This one definitely isn’t for everyone, but if it’s something you can do safely and if it appeals to you, give writing a try. It can be immensely clarifying — and can help with plans and goals — to write what you’re going through and how it feels. I have a journal now, and years of journals stashed somewhere or other, and I’ll probably never look at them again… I don’t know that I’ve ever once gone back to look at something I’ve journaled. But I 100% know it helps me feel understood while I’m doing it, which is what matters.

Do creative projects. Again, this one isn’t for everyone, but my larger point is this: If you can find an outlet for your distress, and most especially, a way to express it, so that there can be some way you’re telling the truth of your experience to the world rather than bottling it up — it can help. It can allow you to take back your ownership of yourself and your experience, and it can give you power against the lies to which other people are subjecting you. I would venture to say that everything I write is some version of this. (But you don’t have to write a book! I also knit, sew, draw, do collage, take pictures, or even get pleasure out of arranging items symbolically in my house. You get to decide what creativity is, and what helps you feel better!)

Find an anthem. This is also in the category of self-expression and connection. Find artists who seem to get what you’re going through, and spend time with them. (Of course it doesn’t have to be musicians. A book, or a character in a TV show, can do the same thing!) Some of my anthems over the years: “Girl” by Tori Amos. “Oh Father” by Madonna (the link opens a YouTube video).  “No More Drama” by Mary J. Blige. “Cold As It Gets” by Patty Griffin.

Trust your sense of things — while having compassion for your self-doubt.
If you live in a toxic home, there’s a good chance that the toxicity around you includes other people’s denial of the fact that it’s a toxic home. Trust your own unhappiness, anxiety, avoidance, self-loathing, fear. Trust your sense that all is not okay. This self-trust can be challenging no matter what kind of abuse you’re experiencing — but I want to give a special shout-out to people experiencing emotional abuse. It can be especially hard to believe your environment is toxic if the damage is “merely” emotional. In fact, it can be hard to metabolize a word like “abuse” when the abuse is “merely” emotional. Surely no one’s abusing me? Surely this is just regular life, not abuse?

It’s okay if that word doesn’t feel right to you. You get to decide what words apply. But trust the panicked feeling you have, the one that’s driving you to want to escape. Trust your gut. Something is wrong, whatever you want to call it. A person in your situation deserves help and relief, just like anyone else.

At the same time, this is important: Depending on your situation, you may not be able to do much with your gut realizations at the moment. And if there’s not a lot you can do to fix your situation right now, there might be limits to how helpful it is to realize how bad your situation is. So, also have compassion for the ways you end up doubting yourself. It’s normal and okay to doubt yourself; it’s not a weakness. Your self-doubt may even be a temporary survival mechanism, working hard to keep you safe and get you through this, which is important. Your self-trust, in the meantime, will outlive this situation and be a source of healing someday.

If you can, hold onto your sense of humor. This might not be possible, depending on your situation. But if it is, it can be another release. Example: I once went through a stretch of time during which I had relentlessly recurring dreams that I was moving to a new home that wasn’t emotionally safe for me. When I say relentlessly recurring, I mean that I had some version of this dream every single night for three months. Every single night for three months. Except for one night! One night during this stretch, I had a dream that I was moving to a new home and it was perfect. It had an elegant dining room, fancy staircases, a lounge — it was noticeably bigger and fancier than any of the other homes in any of the other dreams I’d had — and I belonged there, I could be myself there, I was emotionally safe there. I was so, so happy. So were all the other people who apparently lived in this home, because it seem to be sort of like… a gigantic, perfect hotel? It wasn’t until I woke up from this dream that I recognized this “hotel.” We were on the Titanic.

I’m sorry, but that’s hilarious. Thank you, unconscious, for cracking me up. If there’s anything right now that cracks you up… Hold onto it.

Hang on. Someday you’ll be able to build your own life. You will. For now, whenever you can, do get whatever help you can. You deserve it.

I hope something on this list is helpful. If nothing else, remember that I, and so many other people, are thinking about you and pulling for you. There are even people who’ve dedicated their lives to looking out for you; reach out to them. We know there’s light at the end of your tunnel, so hang in there. You’re not invisible. We see you!


A Book Is a Story — But Which Story Is It?: The Craft of THE CHANGELING, by Victor LaValle

Before I start talking about Victor LaValle’s beautiful book, a point of housekeeping: Now that an eon has passed, I’ve finally updated my praise and awards page for Jane, Unlimited. I have a bad habit of never getting around to this task until it’s time to start clearing things out for the new book. The nice thing about it is that I get to revisit a book that’s dear to me, years after I’ve stopped thinking about it. Jane is a book that divides readers for sure. I want to thank everyone who got that book and took it into your hearts and brains. If you don’t know about Jane, Unlimited, here’s a quick intro: An orphan named Jane arrives at an island mansion owned by a friend, then quickly starts to get the sense that strange things are afoot there. At a certain point, when Jane needs to make a decision, the book breaks off into five different decisions she could make — and each decision takes her into an adventure in a different genre. There’s a mystery story, a spy story, a horror story, a sci-fi story, and a fantasy. They’re all connected and interwoven; and yes, the multiverse exists :). It’s a weird book and I’m very, very proud of it! If you’re curious, I’ll point you to the NYTBR review, which is concise and generous and does a good job expressing its flavor.


So. Today I want to talk about the craft of using existing, well-known stories to fortify your own story — thus building ready-made narrative magic into your story’s foundations.

Reimagining a classic story is, of course, an age-old tradition. There was a time when I read all the King Arthur retellings I could find, though this list shows me that I missed a great many. Some of my all-time favorite books come from this tradition: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, a retelling of the old Scottish ballad that takes place in a fictional college in Minnesota in the 1970s; Deerskin by Robin McKinley, which I held close to my heart while I was writing Fire and which is based on the Charles Perrault fairy tale Donkeyskin; Ash by Malinda Lo, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Every writer who goes down this path has their own take on whatever story they’re reimagining, disrupting the familiar in their own unique way so that we can get some objective distance and consider the story again in a new light. One of the best things about stories is the way they all change and grow in meaning and significance with every new story that joins the pantheon.

Victor LaValle’s The Changeling is a modern-day, New York City-based retelling of the old changeling folktale. In the classic version of that tale, fairies steal a human baby and replace it with something else, usually a (creepy) fairy child. In LaValle’s retelling, the focus is the emotional journey of the baby’s father, Apollo Kagwa, whose wife Emma Valentine starts acting odd after their baby is born. Horror ensues. In the wake of the horror, Apollo must figure out what the heck just happened, and how to move on.

LaValle’s take on the changeling story is unique in plenty of ways. For example, the way race and gender factor into the power dynamics. The choice to center the point of view around a father. The extreme horrificness of the violence that occurs. The story’s broad-ranging modern-day New York City settings, from a fancy Manhattan restaurant to Apollo’s home in Washington Heights to an abandoned island in the East River to upscale suburbs and a forest in Queens. These are the sorts of alterations commonly made by writers retelling old stories: time, location, culture, tone. When we know we’re reading a retelling, we expect changes in these categories.

But LaValle does something else too: he infuses this book with many, many stories that aren’t the official story he’s retelling. The Changeling is a book positively swimming in story. And one of this book’s charms is that as a consequence, Apollo spends a lot of the book making mistakes about what story he’s in. LaValle uses stories to illuminate, but also to mislead. I think it makes for a really unique approach to characterization.

It also steers Apollo through a character transformation that I find exquisitely touching, for reasons I’ll try to explain without spoiling the plot too much.

Apollo Kagwa’s father, who disappears before his fourth birthday, is a white man from Syracuse. His mother, Lillian Kagwa, is a Black woman, an immigrant from Uganda, who raises him and who recognizes early on that her son lives and breathes stories. Lillian can’t find enough books to satisfy young Apollo. He also has a mind for business. When Lillian discovers that Apollo has been selling his books after reading them, she helps him establish a used bookselling business. In due course, he grows up to be a rare bookseller.

Unquestionably, this is the story of a man who knows all about stories. As a rare bookseller who spends his time digging through rude and racist people’s basements looking for valuable treasures, Apollo deals in stories. He seeks stories out, recognizes their value, owns them, sells them. He also builds stories around himself as protection and comfort, often repeating to himself, in moments of anxiety or fear, the mantra, I am the god, Apollo. I am the god, Apollo. And he uses stories to comfort and ground himself — particularly Maurice Sendak’s picture book Outside Over There, a changeling tale that Apollo believes his missing father lovingly left for him.

So. Apollo knows stories. And yet, as I said above, as this story plays out, LaValle gives us evidence that Apollo is often wrong about what story he’s in. He admires the wrong people in his life as heroes (for example, his father). He misses the incredibly powerful sorcerers right in front of his eyes: his wife Emma; Emma’s sister, Kim; Emma’s friend, Nichelle; his mother, Lillian. As he moves through the world, he imagines he sees fairy tale traps where there are none, and he misses the huge, important fairy tale turning points, the moments that really matter. The clues are right in front of his face. Sometimes the women in his life even announce them aloud to him, and he still disregards them. Like all of us, the story Apollo tells himself about his own life is flawed and distorted by his own wishes, heartbreaks, assumptions, and biases. Among those biases, by my reading, is the tiniest edge of unconscious condescension to women. Or maybe even that’s going too far; maybe it’s simply that Apollo fails to see and appreciate the women around him fully. He’s a good man. But he doesn’t quite get it.

And yet, Apollo’s story is one of transformation. Over the course of this book, through a great deal of trial and tribulation, Apollo learns to see what story he’s in, who the heroes are, and who has the power to create a safe world for him and his family. And who are these heroes? Ultimately, women. What Apollo learns is that he’s in a story in which he needs to see and respect the intelligence, insight, and power of women. Black women, specifically. By my reading, this is a tale of a well-meaning, vulnerable, flawed man learning feminism.

Maybe you can see why I love it?

And I also love how it’s done. I love the way this book swirls with stories, and the way both the reader and Apollo are moving along on different paths through the stories, trying to understand which of the stories matter to Apollo’s story, and how.

It makes me think in a fresh, new way about how to weave other stories into one’s story, whether one’s story is a retelling, or just a story with narrative influences. There’s no end to the creative approaches to this — but if you’re imbuing your own story with other stories, I do think it’s a good idea to choose a deliberate approach. There’s a danger in trying to use other stories in your story as a shortcut for creating mood and meaning. The author who throws lots of existing stories into a book might create the impression of depth, but you want to make sure it’s not just an impression. You don’t want to use other stories to obscure an empty hole or a weak foundation in your own story, or make it seem like your story has meaning it doesn’t have. I say this as a writer who’s familiar with that moment when, after trying to shoehorn a known story into something I’m writing, I realize I’m being lazy. I’m trying to make someone else’s work do my work. Or maybe I realize that I simply don’t know enough about my own story yet, and I’m using those other stories to obscure that fact from myself.

If you’re alluding to another story in your story, there needs to be a reason. Ask yourself, what structural function are these references performing? What manner of tool are they? What do they accomplish? Why have I chosen the stories I’ve chosen?

There doesn’t need to be a profound or complicated answer, but there needs to be an answer. For example, in Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, Miranda’s favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, for what turn out to be some pretty straightforward textual reasons. In the space of that book, it ends up being a perfect allusion. In the review of Jane, Unlimited I linked to above, the reviewer notes that it turns out there’s a reason Jane wears Doctor Who pajamas. Though I wouldn’t call Jane my most straightforward book, there are some pretty straightforward reasons I dressed her in those pajamas! You can have simple or complicated reasons for referring to other stories in your story. It can be a reason that’s quiet, subtle, and small. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. But you have to link those stories to yours in meaningful ways, and you also have to make sure that your own story is the biggest and most relevant story in the book. If you find yourself trying to create depth in an insubstantial story by borrowing someone else’s story, then I recommend spending some time focusing on the hard work of your own story.

And if, in the process, you find yourself jettisoning some of the references to that other story, or even abandoning that other story altogether? That’s fine too. One of my current works in progress started out as something of a Peter Pan retelling. It’s now come so far from that point that the only remaining allusion is a couple of names — that I’m probably going to change, because the book doesn’t need them anymore. That book needed to grow the way it did. J. M. Barrie’s book was my path in; my story needed to start with his, then diverge. Another example: Earlier in this post, when I explained that Jane, Unlimited is about an orphan named Jane who comes to a mysterious house, maybe you thought of Jane Eyre. In early drafts of that book, I kept trying to work in versions of actual scenes from Jane Eyre. For example, I tried hard to find a place for a scene paralleling the one where Jane almost gets run over by Mr. Rochester in the dark. Eventually, I let all that go. At a certain point, the needs of my story became a lot more important than strengthening allusions to Jane Eyre (or Rebecca, or Winnie the Pooh, or any of the other texts that Jane, Unlimited references). I found a balance with all the allusions — or I hope I did, the reader is free to disagree! — and tried hard to focus on my story, my versions, my point. I think Jane still swims with those other stories, hopefully in ways that create depth, and part of getting to that point was letting some of it go. Often it doesn’t take much to invoke a story that’s part of our cultural consciousness.

To demonstrate that often it doesn’t take much, let’s return to The Changeling. I want to show an example of what I’ve explained about how this book uses stories to elucidate Apollo’s failure to recognize his own story. I’ll focus on one scene that I think encapsulates the skill with which LaValle layers story over story over story — to tell Apollo’s story about misreading his own story. It’s also wonderfully written, so that’ll be fun to talk about too :).

The scene I’m going to look at takes place over the course of Chapters 11 and 12. The setting is a fancy New York restaurant that evokes a fairy tale aura. If you want to read along, you’ll find this scene on pages 41 through 51 in the 2017 Spiegel & Grau hardcover edition. Point of view shifts in this book, but these two chapters are told from Apollo’s point of view.

First, some context: in the scene after this scene, Emma Valentine gives birth to their child. (That’s an incredible scene too! It happens in a stopped A train on its way to Washington Heights!) This means that the scene I’m about to talk about is Apollo’s last chance to understand his own story before everything changes. As I think you know by now, he fails. He barrels into  parenthood still unable to see what’s in front of his eyes, and the consequences are catastrophic.

But first, he has dinner at a restaurant! Or rather, he doesn’t have dinner, because the items on the menu are terrifyingly expensive, so he just fills up on bread — but we’ll get to that.

Let’s start with the opening of Chapter 11. We’re on Duane Street, a fancy street in lower Manhattan. Apollo has just been digging through the old, abandoned books of some rude people in Queens. Now he’s meeting Emma and Emma’s friend Nichelle for dinner at Bouley, which is a real New York restaurant. Or rather, it used to be; it closed in 2017, the year this book was published.

Here’s how the chapter starts: “Entering Bouley Restaurant felt like stepping inside a gingerbread house. …. when he opened the door and stepped into the foyer, he found himself surrounded by apples. Shelves had been built into the wall, running as high as the ceiling; rows of fresh red apples and their scent enveloped him. The door to Duane Street shut behind him, and Apollo felt as if he’d stumbled into a small cottage off an overgrown path in a dark wood” (41).

(By the way, if this room sounds too playful, magical, or wonderful to be true — here’s an article that includes a photo of Bouley’s apple entrance: “What’s David Bouley Going to Do With all Those Apples When He Closes His Flagship Restaurant?“)

So. With these opening lines, LaValle accomplishes two things: (1) he fixes a real-life restaurant firmly in the world of fairy tale. And (2) he signals to us what story Apollo thinks he’s in. Because we all know that when Hansel and Gretel step into a cottage off an overgrown path in a dark wood with walls made of gingerbread, cake, and candies, things do not go well for them.

I don’t want to take any of the fairy tale references in this book too literally or drag them out too far. Though LaValle can be pretty explicit sometimes about what he’s referencing, his touch remains light, and I don’t want to beat it to death. But as I said before, Apollo doesn’t eat anything but bread during this dinner. He tells himself it’s because he’s afraid of the bill, but we also know that on some unconscious level, he thinks he’s inside the story of Hansel and Gretel. And if you’re inside that story, you know damn well that it’s not safe to eat the food! Of course, as it turns out, Apollo could eat anything he wants safely, because Nichelle is paying for the dinner. Apollo’s wrong: his story isn’t Hansel and Gretel.

This is a pretty straightforward example of how this skilled writer uses a conscious and deliberate reference to a widely-known story that then shows us that Apollo is a little bit lost inside all the stories of his life. Also, as settings go, this description of the foyer of Bouley is evocative and beautiful. The sentences of this book are eminently readable. It’s something I noticed again and again: despite a fair amount of description, my eyes never glazed over and I never struggled to picture what was being described to me. LaValle doesn’t use flowery language or waste words. He tells you what it looks like and he tells you how Apollo experiences it. And he attaches it to story spaces we already know, spaces that are part of our cultural language of stories, so it feels familiar and right. For me, at this point in the book, it was enjoyable to be a little bit lost with Apollo, because the language was so lush and the setting so fairy-tale familiar; because I myself, sitting outside the story, could go eat something if I got hungry, without worrying about evil witches; and also because I had some grounding that Apollo doesn’t have. Apollo doesn’t know that his own book is called The Changeling. He’s just trying to survive each new story, whatever it turns out to be, as he steps into it.

LaValle does a good job creating sympathy in the reader for Apollo’s mistakes and confusions. Consider Apollo’s experience as he moves further into Bouley: “The dining room’s vaulted ceilings had been laid with eighteen-karat gold leaf sheets, and on top of that a twelve-karat white gold varnish, so the ceiling seemed as supple as suede. The floors were Burgundy stone, overlaid by Persian rugs. If the foyer felt like a woodland cottage and the waiting area a haunted parlor, the dining room became an ancient castle’s great hall.….Apollo felt as if he was trekking through realms rather than rooms. If there had been men in full armor posted as sentries, it wouldn’t have surprised him. And in fact, when the maître d’ reached the right table, there was a queen waiting there. Emma Valentine, too pregnant to stand” (42).

This is one of the dangers of being a story man: If your entire life is steeped in story, you’re going to see those stories everywhere. Surely that makes it confusing to isolate which story is yours?

On the other hand, Apollo totally notices that Emma is a queen — but then he dismisses it. This is another danger of a life steeped in story: you make associations and assume that they’re metaphors. Emma isn’t like a queen. She is a queen — or if not a queen, some other category of extremely powerful and important woman. Maybe one of Apollo’s problems is that he’s so steeped in story that he can’t get hold of what’s real? Or maybe he believes in magic within the context of a story, but he doesn’t believe in magic in real life? Or maybe he lives too much inside stories, and needs to wake up and live his real life?

This is what good layering does. It leaves the reader with lots of fascinating and fun questions!

By the way, Emma has her favorite stories too — and LaValle’s choices for her illuminate her character to anyone who’s paying attention. The most important movie from Emma’s childhood, which she watched repeatedly in her hometown library in Virginia, is a Brazilian movie called Quilombo, “the only movie in the entire library that had black people on the cover. Of course I wanted to watch it!” (28). It’s a movie about the slave uprisings in Brazil, and it “shows tons of Portuguese people getting killed by those slaves” (28). At dinner, Nichelle brings it up: “This girl tried to get me to watch a movie about a slave uprising when I was busy trying to figure out how to marry that boy out of New Edition” (47). While Apollo is worrying about eating the food, LaValle reminds us that Emma is engaged in matters of disruption to major power structures. Ding ding ding! Pay attention, Apollo!

But Apollo is too hungry and anxious to pay attention. The dinner progresses as dinners do. Apollo, not knowing that Nichelle is buying, becomes more and more horrified as Nichelle and Emma order delicacy after delicacy. Nichelle gets roaring drunk. Emma, who rarely sleeps anymore, is drifting, half-asleep in her seat. “Apollo, meanwhile, had ingested nothing but tapwater and the restaurant bread. While the bread tasted magnificent, it wasn’t enough. By dessert, Apollo and Emma had low batteries, but Nichelle seemed wired to a generator” (46).

Near the end of the dinner, Emma leaves the table to find the bathroom. She’s thirty-eight weeks pregnant and “That flan wants to come back up,” she says quietly (47). When she leaves, Nichelle, like any good soothsayer in any good folktale, takes the opportunity to try to tell Apollo what matters.

First, she tells Apollo that “There’s a nude photo of your wife in an art gallery in Amsterdam.” Then she explains that before Emma married Apollo, Emma went to Brazil, where “she had a few adventures” (48). In particular, “Emma met this Dutch photographer down there in Brazil” (49).

Nichelle goes on to explain that one day while the photographer was taking photos in an abandoned factory, he needed to pee, so he left Emma alone with the equipment. And she decided to take a picture of herself, setting up the shot with a timer. “She makes the shot in front of a wall that’s been half torn down so you can see she’s standing inside a man-made building that’s gone to the dogs, but over her right shoulder you can see the forest that surrounds this factory. Two worlds at once. Crumbling civilization and an explosion of the natural world. / “Emma walks into the shot, and just before the shutter clicks, she pulls off her dress and takes that photo nude!”

What’s the photo like? How does Emma look? “Wiry and fierce, naked and unashamed. She’s looking into that camera lens like she can see you, whoever you are, wherever you are. She looks like a fucking sorceress, Apollo. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen” (50).

So, here’s Nichelle, telling Apollo what he’s glancingly considered before in a fond, condescending sort of way: Emma is a sorceress. Nichelle is saying this to Apollo in simple, straightforward words: Emma is a sorceress, with a great capacity for adventure.

What is Apollo doing during this conversation?

He’s sitting there thinking to himself, “Dutch photographer? / Dutch fucking photographer?” (49)

And when he finally speaks, what does he say?

“‘And the Dutch guy?’ Apollo asked. ‘What was his name?'” (59)

This moment is, of course, the stuff of everyday real life and the stuff of fairy tales. Jealousy and possessiveness, leading to a character’s blunder or misbehavior. In fairy tales, we see jealousy as an archetype — like the queen who decides to destroy the young woman who’s usurped her position as the fairest of them all. In Apollo’s life, it comes across as fairly typical and annoying sexism.

Nichelle’s response to this question contains everything. Everything this book is about; everything that leads to catastrophe, and ultimately to Apollo’s growth and transformation: “Nichelle watched him quietly for seconds. She narrowed her eyes when she spoke. ‘I’m trying to tell you something important, and you are focused on bullshit'” (50).

For just a moment, Apollo gets it. He falls “back into his chair as if Nichelle had kicked him” (51). He tells her he’s ready, he’s finally listening.

And then the maître d’ appears, sprinting across the restaurant, shouting for Apollo, because the baby is coming. Which means that everything is about to change, and it’s too late.

Apollo’s failures in this scene are familiar and understandable, even when they’re annoying. He’s hungry, distracted, and worried about his wife who’s probably vomiting flan in the bathroom. Also, Nichelle is completely, obnoxiously drunk, so why should Apollo recognize the power or truth of her words? Maybe I should clarify that at this point in the book, I didn’t appreciate that Emma was a legit sorceress either. We haven’t learned the stakes yet, and we don’t know how much we’re going to be needing a sorceress later. But more to the point, most of this book is from Apollo’s point of view, and right now Apollo is hungry, distracted, and worried. There are more important things to worry about, or so he thinks. And I care about him. Even though as the reader, I’m better positioned than he is to recognize his mistakes, I’m right there with him.

This all comes down to LaValle’s skilled balancing of story and character. So much comes across in this one scene, and there are so many other equally rich scenes. If you like to sit in that place where spinning stories come together, you should read this book.

I’ll close my study of The Changeling by adding this: I know enough from my own experience as a writer to suspect that while LaValle was writing this book, he wasn’t always certain what story he was writing either. As we write, our story keeps surprising us, interrupting us, frustrating us and sending us off in the wrong direction. But not only did he find his own story (and Apollo’s too), but he did a beautiful job weaving all the other stories in.

If you’re writing something that alludes to other stories, I hope you’ll find LaValle’s use of classic stories exciting, rather than intimidating. When you ask yourself, Why this story?, it’s an opportunity to figure out how far along you are in establishing your own story. If you don’t have an answer yet, maybe you need to be focusing less on the classic story and more on your own story. If you have a few answers, but you’re completely overwhelmed and not sure how many references you should make or where anything is going — take a moment to congratulate yourself, because that sounds to me like progress. When you’re in the middle of writing something, there’s always a sense of overwhelm and confusion about how well you’re balancing things. You have a few potential answers? Great! Soldier on, and after a while, check in again. What’s your story now?

And that’s that. I hope you’ve enjoyed my post about the balance of story in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling!

Reading like a writer.

Checking in Again — Plus, Cognitive Dissonance and Restorative Justice

Hi there everyone.

This is such a challenging time.

Every day we’re having to sit and watch in disbelief as people lie to our faces about COVID-19, how bad things are, and what to do about it. We watch in disbelief as nonviolent protesters are arrested and accused of violence — while the police use tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons against them. We watch in disbelief as white women pull guns on Black people after saying the actual words, “White people aren’t racist… No one is racist.” Our president lies so often, so willfully, childishly, self-centeredly, and so without compunction that FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics, has a Donald Trump archive that is 107 pages long. And now I read that we’ve started executing federal prisoners again — despite what we all know about how flawed our criminal justice system is.

It can be hard to keep on top of how awful everything is.

I wanted to provide a few clarifying links, and recommend a book.

First, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of people in denial around you — and the capacity for people to lie to themselves and others about reality — I want you to know that you’re not alone. Also, you’re not crazy. Also, THERE IS AN OBJECTIVE REALITY. Keep hold of it. And if you don’t know what cognitive dissonance is — this might be a good time to learn! A couple links —

Cognitive dissonance, when handled badly, is a killer. It makes people inexcusably ignorant, hurtful, and destructive. I find it helpful to learn about it, so at least I know what we’re up against — and also so that I can be better equipped to watch for it in myself, because after all, I was socialized into this society too. Maybe you’ll also find it helpful, especially now. When you’re surrounded by people who are lying to themselves… It can be incredibly disorienting! And distressing, if these are people who profess to care about you. Learn about cognitive dissonance and shine some light through the bullshit around you.

Next, on the not unrelated topic of “The Letter” (“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published on July 7 at Harper Magazine and signed by 153 writers, artists, academics, and journalists). I really liked Hannah Giorgis’s thoughts about The Letter, over at The Atlantic: “A Deeply Provincial View of Free Speech“. Giorgis skewers The Letter’s vagueness. She also reminds us of what free speech actually is, and what threats to free speech actually look like. An excerpt: “Any good-faith understanding of principles such as free speech and due process requires acknowledging some basic truths: Facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.” Yes!

Finally, I’m listening to a really great audiobook: Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair, by Danielle Sered. Sered is the director of Common Justice, which is a program in Brooklyn that provides a survivor-focused alternative to incarceration for violent crime. What I love about this book is that while I’ve been aware that our criminal justice system is broken — and that it’s a lie that prisons keep anyone safe — I hadn’t realized that there are workable alternatives already in play. Sered presents an alternative to incarceration that creates not just safety, but healing. The program is very survivor-focused. Survivors are deeply involved in decisions about how the people who harmed them are held accountable. And since most people who commit violent crime have also been victims of violent crime, the program helps those who’ve caused harm to heal too. The book is realistic about why people harm each other, and about how to change the system. It’s a good introduction to the growing movement of restorative justice, and reading it makes me hopeful.

A heads up that Sered has a crystal clear grasp of what it’s like to have PTSD and is searingly articulate about how it feels to want and need a person who harmed you to accept responsibility for what they did. If you are a survivor — of any kind of harm, not just violence — parts of this book may be gutting. I recommend taking breaks now and then.

Also, if you don’t have time to read a book or if you can’t access it right now while the libraries are in flux, I can recommend a recent podcast episode on the same topic. It’s from the The Ezra Klein Show and it’s the episode called: “A former prosecutor’s case for prison abolition: Paul Butler on how our criminal justice system is broken — and how to fix it“. I learned a LOT about how broken our criminal justice system is from that episode. I noticed that Ezra also has an even newer episode, an interview with sujatha baliga called “The transformative power of restorative justice.” I haven’t listened to that one yet, but it’s on the same topic, so I’m guessing that’s also an interesting and informative conversation.

Okay! So those are the things I wanted to share. Hang in there, everybody. I’ll be writing another craft lesson blog post soon. Also, in Winterkeep news, I expect to have a cover (or several) to share with you soon! Be well, everyone.