Too Old to Write YA?

We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.

(from Roger Angell’s piece in the New Yorker, “This old Man,” 2/17/14)

 If you haven’t read the essay from which the above excerpt is taken, don’t miss it. It’s a gloriously written, truly felt piece that perfectly describes what it’s like to walk among you with a sound mind in an aging body. Do yourself and your horizons a favor, and read the whole thing. Today, though, I’d like to narrow the focus a bit, and take a look at a particular sub-genre of “elders”—dare we call them “poplars?”—older authors who write fiction for young adults.

I don’t know how many of us there are, but to judge from my informal survey of colleagues and from the regular round of faces I see at state and national book festivals and conferences, I’d say a fair number of writers for young readers are already, or on the verge of, collecting social security. Which means they are also fair game for the naysayers who insist that, if your phone is dumb and your jeans sit at the waist, you have no business authoring books for anyone under 20. Beyond the fact that jeans and phones are irrelevant if you write historical fiction, how much sense does this dismissive prejudice make when it comes to novels set in the here and now? Or for that matter, stories that travel to tomorrow and beyond?

What compels any writer to write the book she does? I never sit down and tell myself, I’m going to write a young adult novel today. Or, Now for an adult short story, or, I feel like a picture book. I write what I need to write, go where I have to go; many of my most pressing personal emotional issues can be traced back to adolescence, so that’s often the age of my protagonists. If I don’t learn and grow from the journeys I take in my writing, neither will my readers. I never write down to young readers or “up” to adults; it’s simply that blooms of one kind seem to beg for a slender vase, flowers of another sort look better in a wide goblet. The arrangement in either case calls for skill and caring and yes, passion.


The young woman I was at thirteen was probably more idealistic, more romantic, more passionate than she has ever been since. The turmoil and heart-clutching theater of that period in my life keep calling me back. But at the age I’ve been blessed to reach now, I have lots of other periods calling me back, too: I’ve written short fiction that was published (and therefore labeled) as adult, YA, and middle grade; a picture book for young readers and a graphic novel for older ones; poetry; novels—books for all the juicy stages of me and you. So the logic of demanding that a YA author be young escapes me. I can appreciate, barely, the conviction that a teen author will have trouble portraying credible adult characters, whose experiences that young writer hasn’t yet lived. But to suggest that older writers have such heart fog they can’t reclaim their past, can’t revisit the young woman or man who helped make them who they are today? Not so much.

In fact, we mature types have what might be considered an edge over those still embroiled in the pangs and ecstatic highs of adolescence. We’ve been there, done that; and we have “crossed over” to the other side of that roiling time. By going back to it, we are, in effect, offering our young readers, not a helping hand, but company for the road. Someone to walk beside them, someone who can convincingly testify that they’re likely to get out alive. And maybe even wiser, happier for the trip.




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Facing up to my Shame



By Tim Wynne-Jones


Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate advising us that we ought to be ashamed of reading young adult novels caused some seismic activity on the faculty listserv, earlier this month, and we were all, I suppose, happy to see a well-wrought rejoinder by Alyssa Rosenberg in The Washington Post. I’ve just read Graham’s piece again and it’s actually harmless, well written and quite interesting. Do none of us ever question our reading? More to the point, do we not all care a great deal about how reading impacts on our lives and especially on our writing lives? Upon rereading the article in Slate, I went on to read pages and pages of commentary. I was encouraged by the fact that most people disagreed with Graham, but not quite so encouraged by the disposition of some of the commentators. But that’s freedom of speech, for you. The Internet introduces you to a world of opinions some of which you’d be happy never to have heard.

Many reviewers made the point that YA is not a genre. Amen. And many people made the point that reading at all is already a very good thing. Amen to that, too.

My only point here today is about holding sway over the books I read. I seldom acknowledge the injunction that there is a book, let alone a type of book, that I have to read. And yet I can suddenly and with great fervor want a book someone mentions that, for whatever reason, strikes me as hugely pertinent right at that moment.

In a good year I might read sixty books. I have my own little Oscar Night every New Year’s, where I decide upon the top five or six titles. Last year I see in my notes that Robert Cormier’s Fade stood cheek by jowl with How It All Began by Penelope Lively and Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lahane. The latter two are adult books, but the Lahane is a mystery and therefore, I suppose, only worthy of Ms. Grahams scorn, despite the excellence of his prose, since the mystery genre also gets side-swiped in her obloquy (or lowblowquy I’m tempted to call it). But is the Lively book literature by Graham’s standards? It’s such a cracking good story; can it possibly be good for me? Because there is, I think, in Graham’s rant, a whiff of prescription if not proscription. In 2012 my top picks included Robert Harris’ The Fear Index, a thriller in a way, but also a quite brilliant retelling of Frankenstein, which, come to think of it is also a thriller. Does that make the adult grade? Here’s my point: I fear that what Graham is talking about is “literature” and I’m not all that interested in “literature,” as such. I like Shakespeare and John Le Carre, Jane Austen and Barbara Kingsolver. I also happen to love The Fault in Our Stars and Wolf Hall, not to mention The House at Pooh Corner. I like Story. I don’t find enough Story in, say, Don DeLillo or Michael Ondaatje, but that’s just me. The words get in the way, to my mind. There’s a lot of shimmering surface dance. Is that what Graham thinks we should be reading?

I can’t read everything nor do I feel the slightest compunction to keep abreast of the times, let alone every brilliant new release in the field in which I write. What I read matters too much to me to be either cajoled or bludgeoned into reading anything but what I need to read for my own weird reasons and well being.

To me, youth is a renewable resource. I read YA and children’s books – Heavens! Let’s not forget picture books – because, at best, they replenish the sense of wonder, the vibrancy of what it is to be new to the shocks and joys of becoming fully human. I believe books for young people are about getting a grip and books intended for adults are about letting go. I’m quiet prepared to let go, bit by bit, and take my place in the line-up tottering towards the end of this mortal moving walkway. I don’t read young adult books out of nostalgia – God forbid I should be a teenager again! – but out of a profound and ongoing need to keep getting a grip. Keep holding fast.


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ImageI’m just home from a minor, unskilled role, helping with a wedding. One of the authors who has been part of my writing life for more than a decade, now, is a graduate of VCFA and has taught there a few semesters, too–Deborah Wiles. I got to see one of the first copies of Revolution, a story of the 60s and of Freedom Summer and of her own childhood memories spending summers with her family in the South. Her house is a home full of warmth, music,friends, good food, quirky stuff, and generosity. Since her youngest child was getting married…all the more so. We told a lot of stories and talked about traditions and family stuff that swirls in everyone’s life.

As we writers think about our characters and their families, sometimes we’re trapped by what we know–only able to play in our own playgrounds. We coax up a motivation that seems to fit perfectly for our protagonist and plan a scene using logic: what would make sense for this person to do or say under the circumstances? There’s nothing like a wedding to remind me that actions and reactions can be a tangle of barely-understood yearning and other emotions we hide even from ourselves. When a writer gets it right, though, we know.

A student recently included Eleanor and Park in her annotated bibliography and she wrote this: “One scene really hit me— Christmas Day the stepfather is in a seemingly good mood, but the more he drinks the family knows it is too good to last. Sure enough, he comes to dessert and wants to know where’s the pumpkin pie? He curses and flings rice pudding, and leaves. Then ‘Eleanor’s mom picked up the bowl with what was left of the rice pudding, and then skimmed the top off the pile of pudding on the floor. ‘Who wants cherry sauce?’ she said. They all did’ (199).

Up with families in all their messy glory–the gift to writers that keeps on giving.


by | May 26, 2014 · 2:52 pm

Trung Rain



Cu nvm.”  So say the Trung, as they refer to a particular type of rain, “the rain that falls when hunters are soon to return.”* The Trung live in Yunnan province in China; the language itself is one of many dying languages. According to one study, of the close to 7,000 world languages, approximately 50-90% will be gone by the year 2100. These figures are startling and saddening, and raise a large number of cultural questions.

But what does Trung rain have to do with writing? How does it affect me, granted a rather small way to look at things? My first response was to the sheer beauty and unusualness of the word. Reading it shifted my usual way of seeing things. It woke me up.

Rain is not only a natural phenomenon. It is also a cultural one. For the Trung, or, more likely, their ancestors, hunting is central enough to merit a word for a type of rain, one which is experienced only when hunters are about to return. We also hear something else in that word for rain — the desire for one’s loved ones to return. Rain filled with longing.

We also hear language working, turning and shifting upon itself, until it articulates just the right and culturally nuanced message. Not just “rain” or “sprinkles” or “showers” but a word that swells with hunger, desire, history, terrain, an image from the last hunt when your husband was mauled by the claws of a tiger: The rain that falls when hunters are soon to return.

Rain, its beauty and strangeness. Since I’m listening as a cultural outsider, the name for rain sounds differently in my ears than it does in the ears of a native Trung speaker. For me, the word rain has become defamiliarized. I hear the word slowly. I hear it poetically. That which has been taken for granted, in language and the world, has shifted to center stage in my consciousness.

Rain, a word in my novel. I’m currently taking a short novel through its zillionth draft. The novel takes place in NYC. In a few scenes, it’s raining. The hunters, though, are not coming home. There are no hunters. It’s contemporary NY, actually Staten Island. How do I describe the rain so that it has the same impact for the reader as the Trung word for rain? Right now, as it sits in my novel, rain slides prosaically and barely noticed. How do I prolong the rain, the word or words for it?

Maybe I should just let it rain and be done with it.


Not every word and sentence needs to be defamiliarized and not every drop of rain or tree leaf needs to be seen with new eyes or in a prolonged fashion. Sometimes we, our sentences and paragraphs and novels, just need to get on with things. On my walk to the bank later today, I can’t pause at every interesting pebble or gaze into every puddle nor, if they were making the same walk, can my characters. There are, after all, accounts to be transferred, bills to be paid. On page such and such, a character needs to be able to get out of her car and walk to the front door by the end of a brief sentence. (We’re much more interested in what will happen once she steps through that door and sees. . . .)

But now and then our sentences need to be slowed and our perceptions need to be more than automatic. Perception and the physical world, to borrow from Shklovsky who coined the term defamiliarization, needs to be made more aesthetic. We need prose to make it through a day, but we also need poetry to deepen it. We need Trung rain. Now and then, language and the world must “appear strange and wonderful” (Shklovsky quoting Aristotle).

The task is to decide when and why — to what purpose. How does the moment of shifted perception finally matter to our novels and to the characters within them? After all, the Trung don’t think about their word for rain; its simply part of how things are for them. But still. . . . When rain shifts, when a word shifts into something slow and rich and full of depth, into what new world are we stepping?

*Ross Perlin, “Vng Gyey Svr: How to Read the Dictionary of an Endangered Language,” Harper’s, August 2013.

Mark Karlins



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The New Sincerity

I am happy to report that the old saying is true: if you live long enough, you may come back into style.

Next time I lecture, I will be doing a time-warp survey of literary critical theory, ending up with what some say is the post of postmodernism: metamodernism, or the New Sincerity. I like the way they capitalize it: It feels more sincere.

In the meantime, here’s a music video for your enjoyment that they say epitomizes metamodernism. It stars real astronaut Chris Hadfield, in space, singing David Bowie’s Major Tom.” It makes me cry. But apparently that’s cool now.


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Plot on a Peg

In April Susan F. talked about how each book needs to find its own way.  I found this comforting.  Finding our stories.  Does it ever get any easier?  Are there really writers who find the one true way and stick to it? The desire line approach, the colored pencil diagramming, the stick-it-all-in-a-blender strategy.   For me every book seems to demand its own working method.  When I’m done with a solid first draft I think, “Okay, now I’ve got it.  I know how to write a novel.”  However when all the hurlyburly’s done and I’ve started a new project I can’t even remember what worked before.

So.  Last month I was in the Museum of London.  They have an exhibit about the Rose Theatre.  The Rose was built in 1587 and was the first place that Shakespeare’s plays were staged.    One of the artifacts in the museum is a document that hung on a peg backstage.  It was a list of entrances, exits and props.  What was this called?  The plot!

This discovery has led me to inventing a new idea about plot.  What about an outline that simply listed the characters and the objects in each scene?  What would be revealed from such a bare bones listing?  What would happen to a plot were one to introduce an alpine chicken orchid or a shingle froe to a stage?  I’m going to call this writing approach “Start With The Stuff.” You heard it here first.

Sarah Ellis





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Names on a Map


I spent some time last week with friends out in the Gulf Islands of Canada, and I was reminded again -as I usually am when I travel – how intriguing local place names are. I’m sure my fascination with place names was heightened recently by reading (for the first time, sad to admit) the opening novel of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust is a master of details, including the naming of imaginary towns, churches, houses, and roads in one direction (by way of Swann and the village of Combray) and the other (the Guermantes way.)  I think it’s in the naming of people and places that our imaginations first begin to engage with stories.

The lighthouse at Georgina Point...

The lighthouse at Georgina Point…

Out on Mayne Island, I studied a map and found the following place names, by category:


Village, Miner’s, Bennett, Piggott, Gallagher, Campbell, Oyster, Horton, Dinner, Kadonaga, Naylor, Reef, Maude


Edith, Helen, Laura, St. John’s, Crane, Georgina


Heck’s Hill, Mt. Parke

Road Names:

Minty, Latour, Felix Jack, Tinkley, Tinker, Cotton, Skana Gate, Isabella

I wonder about the women: Maude, Helen, Edith, Laura, Georgina, Isabella. Were they mothers? Sweethearts? Daughters? I wonder if Miner’s Bay was named for miners on the island or for a family named Miner. I’m delighted by the existence of Cotton, Minty, Tinker and Tinkley Roads, which sound like the names of mice in a Beatrix Potter adventure (Tinkley is the naughty one, right?) If you go from Heck’s Hill to St. John’s Point, will you have been walking in a heavenly direction (or if headed round trip the opposite direction while picking blackberries could you say you went to Heck and back for those berries?) The story behind a road called Felix Jack needs to be told, though the strangeness of “Kadonaga” Bay might be explained by the Japanese Memorial Garden,  planted in honor of the Japanese-Canadian families whose land was taken from them during World War II. I imagine the Kadonaga family, suitcases packed, waiting on the dock at Miner’s Bay for the steamship which would take them from their homes.

Members of the Japanese-American Community days before their forced evacuation from the island....

Members of the Japanese-Canadian community days before their forced evacuation from the island….

Next time you travel, make a list of the place names around you. They might surprise you – or make you wonder…and don’t stories begin with wonder?

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Arrival, Village Bay Ferry Dock, Mayne Island

Right now, I’m wondering about Maude. Who might she have been? Though the timeframe is wrong, and the origin of the place names is off,  I begin to imagine someone like Maude walking up Heck’s Hill with her friends, one who might be named Georgina Campbell and another who might be named Hamako Kadonaga, looking for berries. It’s late summer, 1941…by the following April, Hamako and her sister, mother and grandmother will be sent inland to an internment camp; her father – I imagine someone who might have run the fish saltery near Emery’s Store – will be sent farther inland, as Japanese-Canadian men between 18-45 were – and forced into hard labor until the war was over.


Maybe the story is told through letters from one girl to the other. Maybe Hamako addresses her letters to Maude Miner, Cotton Road, Mayne Island, British Columbia….who knows? I’m playing a game – let’s call it an experiment –  “Names on a Map.”

Berry Picking circa 1910

Berry Picking circa 1910


by | April 28, 2014 · 2:11 am