(I don't blog much about my authors' books while they're in-progress toward publication. In part, this is out of respect for the writing/editing/revising/ publication process: a lot can change for a story as we work on it. It's also out of respect for readers—because I think it's mean to taunt you with tales of fantastic books you can't yet buy! Thus this series of publication-day "Editorial Love Story" posts was born: to celebrate the fact that, at long last, an author's book is out on shelves, and to offer a glimpse of each book's unique "making-of" story. I hope you'll enjoy and be inspired by this post, and that you'll soon have a chance to read this great book, or share it with a reader who you think might like it!)
This editorial love story post--and it’s a long one!--is about connections. One of the most amazing parts of being an editor (and I suspect it’s much the same as a writer or artist of any sort) is that the ideas and experiences that intrigue/fascinate/perplex you inevitably find their way into the art that you help shepherd into the world. Which is kind of the point of my job, really: it’s when a book connects with you as an editor that you, in turn, ask yourself if you can see it doing so on a larger scale, for thousands of other readers, too. If the connections the story has captured are vivid and new enough that they’ll seem as magnificent to the whole reading world as they did to you.
It’s 1997, the start of my sophomore year of college. After a year of living with a horrid assigned roommate (seriously, the only thing we had in common was that we had the same first name), I’m finally living with a friend, in a dorm room in a cool building near all our other friends. We’re no longer clueless freshman. It’s going to be great.
And it is, at first. But partway through the year, something unexpected happens. Almost overnight, my roommate unravels in front of my eyes. At first I just think she’s being annoying; that she’s being weird; that maybe she’s been drinking too much or is enamored with some odd guy or is trying on new personalities the way you kind-of do in college, and that’s why she’s acting strangely. But then it intensifies. She doesn’t sleep. She hallucinates. She talks about meeting people I know she’s never met, but she believes these encounters like they are real. When I leave our dorm room for class, I come back to increasingly bizarre scenarios. My friends and family recount confusing stories, outright crazy lies they’ve heard from her when she’s answered our phone. She’s losing weight, rapidly. My R.A. is no help, so finally a friend and I call her parents. They swoop in, take her home for a weekend, and return her to a few days later, announcing that she just needed more rest, and a good family dinner. They suggest that maybe we’re not a good match as roommates and she’ll move into a single room next semester.
My roommate’s only been back for a week when her off-kilter behavior turns downright scary. This time my R.A. listens, sees the signs. We call her parents together. They swoop in again, this time taking her and all of her things home in one afternoon. This time, she doesn’t come back. Months later, she starts calling: medicated, painful phone calls. She’s been diagnosed. She’s trying to piece together what happened in that crazy month because she doesn’t remember any of it. I remember it all too well, but am afraid to tell her. The phone calls are hard for us both, and slowly, we drift out of touch altogether.
But the experience isn’t one I can shake. I tell my family and friends that if I weren’t so sure of being an English major, I’d probably want to become a Psych major, to study mental illness, instead. Because I don’t understand what happened, but I want to. I want to know how it could be that what was true inside her head was so different than the reality around her. I want to comprehend what it felt like for her. I want to understand the inexplicable.
Fast-forward. It’s 2009. I’m an junior editor at HarperCollins, and it’s the era of anonymous blogs. A new one has popped up: INTERN SPILLS. It’s the blog of an anonymous intern in publishing, and everyone’s reading and chattering about it—authors and publishing folk alike. No one can figure out who it is, or where she works, which intrigues us all the more. This blog defies the standard style of anonymous blogs, though—there’s snark, but there’s more to it than just that. There’s real wit and smarts and heart, between the snarky observations and the salacious insider-y tidbits about working in publishing. There’s a voice. And it’s a hell of a voice. And it gets stronger with every post.
It’s 2010. INTERN has started talking on her blog, occasionally, about her own writing efforts. INTERN has also begun talking on her blog, occasionally, about reading more YA books. All the while sustaining a voice that’s clearly put-on: an exaggeration of the author’s own voice, perhaps, or maybe an altogether made-up one, but it’s exceedingly controlled and well-sustained regardless.
I’m still a young editor, but already I’ve been trained by my editor-bosses to pounce, when your instinct tells you to do so. Cautiously, and without promising anything at all on behalf of your company, but to pounce all the same.
So I shoot an email off into the ether, introducing myself to this INTERN persona, asking if, maybe, perhaps, INTERN is writing YA? Hinting that, if so, I’d maybe, perhaps, love to see it. INTERN responds. She doesn’t give a clue to her identity, but acknowledges that she’s trying her hand at writing YA. She’s still polishing, she says. It may be a little while.
It’s okay, I say. I’m happy to wait. Editors are good at being patient, once they’ve found a voice worth waiting for.
It’s 2011. INTERN and I have kept up an occasional, still-half-anonymous correspondence. I try hard to keep myself from asking in each email about the book, about its progress. I am learning that books come ripe when they’re ready, and never before.
And sure enough, before the year ends, there’s a manuscript in my in-box. It’s from an agent, one who has taken on a new client. She has a name, the agent explains, but she’s perhaps better known as INTERN.
And this manuscript. This manuscript. It is raw, still. Still on its way to becoming a wholly book-shaped thing. Right now it’s all specificity and not quite enough universality. But there are lines in it that give me chills ("When she died, it was like my house burned down.") I don’t know it yet, but these lines are going to haunt me for two more years, until others finally read them too. And perhaps well beyond that point, perhaps forever, the way the best lines in the best books do.
And that voice. It’s a thousand times more powerful as a narrative tool than it ever was on a blog (and it was pretty darn effective back then). This author has an ability to craft a stunning metaphor that combines the two unlikeliest of things, drawing connections I’d never imagined, making me see things anew.
And the story—it shakes things up inside me, in a way that scares me and stirs me all at once. It’s the story of a girl, caught off-guard by a spiral of mania and mental illness. It puts words to the things I thought were inexplicable. It helps me understand things I have wanted to understand for almost 15 years now, and I know if it does that for me, it can do that for other readers, too. It terrifies me, and it challenges me, and most of all, it connects, deeply.
But this manuscript is also bigger than just being a book about a single thing. It is a book about everything. About love. About loss. About grief. About family. About change. It makes me laugh and cry and see hope-squirrels and love-bisons everywhere I look, even though I didn't know that such things existed until I read this story. It makes me feel things, deeply, which is probably the greatest compliment I can give to a book, whether it’s one I’ve experienced as a reader or an editor or both.
And so I pounce again. I buy INTERN’s book. This one, and her next one, too. We work, together, until her story has transformed into one I wish I could time-travel and give to my nineteen-year-old self, sitting in a half-empty dorm room. Because it gives words to the things that I had no words for back then. But it also gives words to something more important—the simple experience of being human. Which, I think, is the pinnacle of what a book—any book—can do.
INTERN has a name now. It’s Hilary T. Smith. Her book has a name, too. It’s Wild Awake, and it comes out today. It is powerful, it is profound, it is startlingly funny, and though it is fiction, it is also deeply personal. It has brilliant passages and lines full of truth: stark and gorgeous and chaotic and painful and real. It is a book about connections: about finding them, about releasing them, about recognizing them for what they mean at every point in your life. I hope you will read it. I hope you will read every book that Hilary T. Smith ever writes. Because that voice. It is magnificent, and it is only just the beginning.
Friends: Want to help Hilary celebrate her the debut of WILD AWAKE, her first novel? Buy a copy for yourself or a teen reader you know (especially the ones who are craving contemporary realistic reads, or stand-alones instead of trilogies, or love interests of an entirely different sort than the hott-boy-with-abs-and-blue-eyes-sort); or for an adult you know who likes remembering what it felt like to be a teen; or especially for a teen trying to make sense of mental illness. You can get it from your favorite bookseller, or check it out at your library.
Also, follow Hilary on Twitter, or read her blog, or peruse her delightful Tumblr and send her a photo of yourself with WILD AWAKE. And if you're reading this on 5/28, join in a WILD AWAKE-themed rap battle at 7pm Central Time (details here), and check out the plan for a week of WILD AWAKE celebrations here.
Happy publication day, Hilary and WILD AWAKE! May your book find countless readers and make powerful connections for them, and may it live for a long, long, time.