My addition to the Book of Your Heart series on my blog…
(Originally posted here)
In December of 2006, I was working as the senior production editor at Grosset & Dunlap / Price Stern Sloan, managing the copyediting of a great many mass-market children’s books and movie tie-ins and every known version of Mad Libs, and I was also quietly, in my downtime, a writer. I would get up early before work and write at a coffee shop near the office until it was time to go in. That December, I started writing a short story called “Werewolf.” (I may or may not have been listening to this song on repeat, from an album and artist my little sister introduced me to.) The story was about two sisters, the older one who lives with a violent, rageful man and the little sister who lives with her because she can’t live with their parents. The sisters dream of escaping to Paris. Instead they rarely leave the house. There wasn’t actually a werewolf in the story, but just go with it.
I wrote this short story on the side, cheating on the adult novel I was telling myself I should revise, again, and try to query agents with, again. The story started off as a diversion, a simple piece of writing that was entirely separate from the disappointment and hope and years of work that had gone into the novel. Untainted. Fun.
The original sketchy, unfinished file of “Werewolf” from December 2006 contained this paragraph from the POV of the little sister, Chloe, about her older sister, Ruby:
“I knew her another way. She did have a tongue, and she used it to lick peanut butter off a spoon, her most favorite snack. She was beautiful, truly, what I wouldn’t give for the way our collective features arranged themselves on her face, for the greener eyes, for the silkier hair, for the five distinct freckles that cast themselves over the bridge of her straighter, smaller nose. But he hadn’t seen her when we hennaed our hair, the mud we’d mixed for the most copper color dripping down her face and turning her ears orange. he hadn’t seen her after a crying fit, hadn’t seen her throw the rocks at our parents minivan when they picked up and drove it away. No one else had seen her that way, only me.”
I wrote that and sat up straight in my chair—or let’s say I remember I did. Let’s say I knew something important had happened. Let’s pretend.
In truth, I worked on that short story—changed its name from “Werewolf” to “Mythical Creatures,” but never changed the heart of the story between the two sisters, Ruby and Chloe, never ever let go of that—from the end of 2006 through 2008. I brought it to a short-story workshop with the full intention of polishing it up and sending it to a literary journal. That was its fate, if I were lucky, I figured.
I didn’t know it would become a novel.
I didn’t know it would become a YA novel, and that I’d become a YA author.
I didn’t know it would become the novel of my heart, the most true piece of writing I’ve ever set down on the page. The novel about my hometown. The novel about two very close sisters. The novel that became a love letter to my own sister—and though my sister is really the little sister, and I’m the big sister, pieces of us are tangled up in both Ruby and Chloe.
The novel that was wishful thinking. The novel that would become very important to me, in a whole other way.
Imaginary Girls was published on June 14, 2011, three years ago today. Though Imaginary Girls wasn’t my first published novel (haha, you think that I’m talking about Dani Noir, don’t you? My first published novel was actually a paperback series novel written under a pseudonym, on assignment), and though Imaginary Girls wasn’t the first original novel I wrote (that was a novel called Bardo, which got me my MFA, but not much else), Imaginary Girls was my first true novel. The first novel that was really me and felt worthy at the same time. If I die tomorrow, the creative part of my life will have been complete because I wrote this book. I would have no regrets.
It’s the book of my heart for this reason, yes, and another. I’m going to tell you about the other.
I always knew that it was a book dedicated to my little sister, but something happened during the writing of this book. Something that feels so connected to everything the book is that I can’t now separate it. While I was writing Imaginary Girls, she was going through some health problems and having difficulty getting a diagnosis. She was having trouble with her eyes. She kept getting tests. I was aware of this, and concerned, but it didn’t truly hit me until she called me one day with the news. I was under deadline, frazzled, a mess, doing revisions and unable to focus on anything else. But I remember stopping everything and sitting on my bed while she told me over the phone from where she lives in Philadelphia.
She told me that the test results had come back. She had been diagnosed with MS. It was the summer of 2010.
She was just about to turn twenty-six years old.
What can I say here to explain how I felt about my little sister so you can sense the impact? How much I love her? How when she was born, when I was nine and a half, it felt like she came into this world for me and only me? How can I explain how after that phone call it all came down on me and I didn’t know what to do and there was nothing I could do and my heart felt broken and I cried for two solid days? Why I had to suck it up and tell my agent what was going on, and ask him to please tell my editor, and that I wasn’t going to make the deadline because I couldn’t word an email to explain it myself? Because how could I work on a stupid book? How could I think anything I did was important when my sister, at not even 26, was facing this? How can I explain how I Googled “multiple sclerosis”—the symptoms, the treatments, the reality, the possible future—and how until that moment I didn’t realize what exactly this degenerative disease was, and that there is no cure? There is no cure. How can I even put to words how it felt to be so helpless, apart from my sister, knowing I couldn’t do a thing, realizing I had no true sense of what she was going through, and I didn’t know how to express to her how I would always be there for her, forever forward, until we were both old ladies, and how empty those words sounded? How much I loved her, how much I meant those words?
Oh, maybe you know. If you’ve read Imaginary Girls, it’s there. The way Ruby loves her little sister, Chloe? What Ruby does and would do for Chloe to keep her safe?
It’s there. It’s all right there. It’s in the book.
That’s why it’s the book of my heart. For that reason and all reasons beyond it. Because it felt like the first real piece of me I published and put out in the world, because it features my hometown in the way I sometimes remember it, but mostly because the beating heart at the center of the book is really my heart beating.
It’s what I didn’t know how to say to my sister—before I even knew I’d need to say it.
I’d written it down already. It was in the book all along.
To enter a giveaway to win a signed hardcover or paperback of Imaginary Girls, visit the original blog post. (Giveaway runs through June 30.)