Two-for-one! This post is longer than usual because it contains my Goodreads review of Sarah Wylie’s debut ALL THESE LIVES and a lovely interview with Sarah. So if you already read my review, skip on down to find out what Sarah has to say about writing, procrastinating and playlists.
I loved this book. That's the first thing I have to say. Second, I've followed Sarah Wylie's blog since before she had a book deal. What drew me there was her humor, fresh take on the world and her oh-so-clever commentary. I pretty much figured I was going to like her debut novel, because I already liked her writing style and spirit. I not only like this book, I'm stunned by the risks Sarah took, or I believe she took, in developing this character, who is flawed and absolutely authentic. Dani tugged at my heart.
A few reader-reviewers have said they dislike Dani because she is sarcastic and sometimes verbally aggressive, but this is the very thing that is so real in this story. Dani wasn't always this way. She is doing what so many kids, or even adults, do when they're helpless and afraid, she's striking out, and because she's smart she often uses barbed words. Even she knows it's inappropriate. She does it anyway until she learns some things about herself, her family and her friends.
What is so beautiful about Dani is the way she tries to use up her extra lives to buy her sister more time. Other people see a girl acting up or looking for attention when she does crazy stuff and gets hurt. She never tells anyone that she's bartering with the universe and doesn't believe she deserves to be spared while her sister is destroyed.
When I was a newspaper features writer I did a series of articles on a teenage girl with leukemia. She was undergoing bone marrow transplant, and I clearly remember her younger sister standing in the shadows of her sick sister, their parents, the doctors. It's a tough place for a kid to be. I was awed by how Sarah not only got that but built an unexpected story around it.
Recently, I wrote about Patrick Ness's A MONSTER CALLS, another book with a kid protagonist facing cancer in a close family member. That boy, too, acts out in frustration and tries to survive in a terrifying situation. Both Ness and Wylie found extraordinary ways to help their characters cope and grow.
Sarah put a short prologue on this story that is breathtaking: This is how it feels to die. It starts from outside and works its way in. Your cuticles, the tips of your fingers. Fire under your nails that spreads into your bones, burning and freezing everything it comes into contact with. Your arms, your ankles, your teeth, your knees, your stomach, and the place where your heart should be. Your heart is always the last to go. One hundred irregular beats per minute, and then zero. But that's just the start. The start of dying. This is the rest.
Q: How did this story develop? Did it begin with an idea of a girl who thought she had nine lives? Or with a character who is helpless in the face of her sister's illness? Or something else?
Sarah: At the very start, the story was going to be from Jena’s perspective – about her illness and her family’s attempts to cope with it. But as soon as her sister, Dani, showed up, I knew the story was hers. She had such a distinctive voice, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. The idea of Dani having nine lives came along later. I’d figured out that the story was Dani's, but I wasn’t quite ready to start writing it. Something seemed to be missing.
So I did what I do best – procrastinate. Actually, I called it “making a playlist.” And in the process of doing so, I came across the song “All These Lives” by Daughtry, which isn’t about having multiple lives, but the idea for Dani’s nine lives popped into my mind, and I finally felt ready to write the story. Take-home message: er...procrastinate?
(Insert your goofy blog host laughing and loving that she can now make a playlist and her WIP will fall neatly into place. :D )
Q: Did you have any personal experience that led to this story idea, or did you become interested through research in how siblings cope with traumatic illness? Was there anything surprising in what you learned?
Sarah: Thankfully, All These Lives didn’t come from one particular personal experience. But the last few years, I’ve watched many people I care about go through enormous loss. There was a period of time when I was completely paralyzed by this fear of something happening to the people I love most, of being powerless and unable to help them in any way. I wanted to capture that a little bit in All These Lives. Most of the research I did pertained to the medical aspect of the book. I tried to trust the fear and uncertainty I’d been battling with personally in writing the more emotional aspects.
Q: Did the story change much from concept to final book?
Sarah: I don’t think there were any huge changes to the story from concept to final book. The heart of the book, the characters, and plot were always pretty much what you see in the final version. Which isn’t to say that the book didn’t need quite a bit of revision, but most of the changes were smaller things; things like pacing and consistency (it turns out there are 26 hours in a day!). We also worked quite a bit on Dani’s belief that she has nine lives.
Q: How would you describe the personal journey for you from idea to publication?
Sarah: The journey to publication has definitely been an adventure. It has been more than I ever thought it would be. In every sense of the word. More surprising, more eye-opening, more terrifying, more humbling. I’ve learned so much about the publication process (and writing! And revising!), but there’s still so much I’m learning. I feel really grateful to work with the people I do, and to have gone on this incredible journey.
The Book Depository
Sarah's next young adult novel is scheduled for release in 2013.