Today, Wither author Lauren DeStefano is stopping by to guest blog. Today, she’s sharing a post previously written on her blog. In it, Lauren talks about the stories she’s written that we won’t see, and how these unseen stories have shaped her as writer. Some excellent thoughts, and food for thought for any of you aspiring to be a published author, yourself!
At a recent signing for WITHER, a person boldly strode up to me and informed me that, because I was so young, I had not failed enough to truly appreciate my success. There may have even been a not-so-subtle implication made that I didn’t deserve to be in that chair signing books. And as I was straining my smile muscles, it occurred to me that the literary world only really knows me for my debut novel. And, fine people of the internet, I feel it’s important to tell you that I was not born on the day WITHER was sold, though sometimes it seems that way. For the past year and a half, this one story has been my entire life. Writing it, first, but then perfecting it to the best of my abilities. I have been surrounded by a fantastic publishing team, a fantastic agent, and some fantastic fellow writers. And it’s all I’ve been able to talk about, because it’s all I’ve been able to think about. It’s Rhine this, Linden that, Cecily, Jenna, Gabriel, Vaughn, June Beans, what comes next, who lives, who dies. I’m not even ashamed to say that the emotions of these characters have affected my moods, woven their way into my dreams. I pretty much can’t blow my nose without thinking about this latest world I’ve created.
WITHER is my first published story, and it’s been surreal to prep it for the world, and to have so many people working with me and loving it as much as I do.
But there are other worlds. There are stories you will never see. And I feel like it’s important to at least put this out there: The stories you will never see, lovely internet readers, define me as a writer just as much as those you will see. There is a story I wrote to cope with the unexpected death of someone I loved, which is what spurred me to query. There is the story that landed me an agent. And there is a story of two sisters that still superimposes itself over everything I’ve written since. These are invisible to the world, and I’m not saying they’re good or not good. But they matter to me like WITHER matters to me. So I’m going to share little pieces of them with you.
In no particular order, here are the unpublisheds:
#1 In bed that night, I pulled the blanket around my shoulders until I was in a cocoon. One pea in a blanket. For a moment I could almost pretend that the hotel bed was big and endless, that I could pull the blanket over my head and discover a dark cavernous forest. When my brother and I were six, we burrowed under the hotel blankets at Disney Land, and the brown darkness was perpetual, his black eyelashes the only thing I could see with certainty, a polyester sky tenting off of our heads as we crawled. You can’t play with us, we told May; you’re too big.
#2 There are wingchairs, paisley green and yellow. She imagines there are fields and streams within the patterns. There are so many hiding places in this world. There are so many chances to slip and fall through space. She wonders where her sister has gone, if she’s behind clouds, if she’s invisible, if she made it to what the Catholics call heaven.
There comes a point where the sorrow collapses into itself, and her body is too heavy from all the living and breathing, and all she has left is to wonder. Where are you? she thinks. But there’s never an answer.
#3 In the dorm, the girls part in the hallway for the policemen. These men are an invasion. They disturb the delicate placement of the murdered girl’s things. They rattle her mirror as they open and close drawers; they knock her homemade skirts from their hangers and leave footprints on the polished wood. But they can find no evidence in her underwear drawer, no motive in the rainbow of bras hanging on the doorknob. In the end they can’t even find a diary. They find only a notebook on her nightstand in which she might have written something useful. A policeman carries it down the hallway in a plastic bag. Upon opening it he would find only one thing had ever been written. In pink pen, inside the cover: Abhinav.
#4 She ran further, down the street where she’d read Eliot aloud. It was foggy now; a spring rain misted up from the concrete and grass, filling her lungs with warmth on its way back to the clouds. There was the smell of flowers living, and of bodies decomposing. She might have been screaming her sister’s name; there was a burning in her throat, and her fists were clenched. She heard the echo of her own voice answer from the dark road.
#5 As the youngest, she unwittingly cinched the fate of her father’s adult life. He would have no great child to admire his work and take over his business, no son to mold into a man. He would have only daughters, whose long hair clogged the bathroom sinks, who every day moved further from his understanding.
He regarded her with disenchantment, the way an artist would frown at his botched masterpiece.
#6 After Kennedy was shot, people had needed those flowers. 1963, the longest November, the quietest Christmas. The snow could not melt fast enough. In the spring of ’64 the violets were welcomed with festivals, with hot dogs sizzling on grills, men drinking beer and flipping burgers with aprons that read Genius at work. Fool on the grill. Women wore hoop earrings, served hors d’oeuvres, bounced babies on their hips. Cigar smoke filled the fresh air, musty and sweet. Kiss the cook.
#7 That night, she dreamed of the city beneath the mushroom cloud. There was a spinning lighthouse, strips of yellow light sweeping over the sleeping bodies, searching. A fisherman was screaming out in the ocean, where the waves were roaring and the wind wailed, heavy with lovers and mothers and sons dressed up in buttons and belts; later they would walk over the edge and plunge vigorously into death. The screaming fisherman wanted his daughter; her name wove through the smoke and moved the hair on a sleeping body’s chin. But this was no place for a little girl to hide.
She wanted to say this was the wrong place to look, but she had no voice, no weight. She was wind, rising up, being carried away.
In the morning her bed was empty.
#8 Everyone heard the girl’s mother scream. It echoed far out into the ocean and again into all of New York’s sleepy salty ports. The white buildings where they sold fishing poles and worms rattled for the sound; the windows shook.
They pulled the body from the water with translucent yellow sticking to the skin; that yellow had once been a dress, he knew—there were still metal buttons where the pockets had been. Her black hair spilled out over the edge of a fisherman’s arm, dead as any fish he could have caught, but with seaweed on the arms, and the black eyes of a girl. There were clouds in those eyes, gray, moving slow in a blinding white sky. A dangerous sky, his father would call it. The weathervane warned of a storm but that didn’t matter now. No ships unraveled from their ropes and headed into the wide ocean, no fish would be tangled in nets and tossed, flopping, onto wet decks in wide-eyed heaps with silver skin shining.
There was only that scream, his mother in her brown dress and white gloves clawing at the mossy wooden dock. Water and dirt, her pointy shoes tearing away from their hard stem heels. She reached for her daughter but the fisherman wouldn’t give her back. Two women in flower hats held her there on her knees so she couldn’t scramble back up to the oxygen. Later those women would say they thought poor woman would fling herself into the ocean if they let go.
Where is the rest of her? he wanted to say. They had his sister’s arms and her legs and her long dark hair dripping back into the ocean, but there was something gone. Something bright and warm. He waited for her fingers to clench but they didn’t.
“She’s gone,” someone said. Women drew crosses on their foreheads and chests and shoulders, muttering.
Take those clouds out of her eyes, he wanted to say. They don’t belong.
#9 Gram started knitting in 1965, when my uncle Ricky was drafted to Vietnam. My father was eleven; he wore his brother’s old coonskin cap and ran around the kitchen with a Johnny Eagle toy rifle. The trigger clicked, he yelled “bang!” and Gram’s shoulders lurched. She would try to shush him, suggest playing outside, and my grandfather would say, “Jesus, Ellen, let the boy be a soldier.”
She would think of her Ricky with his hair down to his waist and his blue coke-bottle sunglasses and his brown suede coat, huddled in ditches while men with narrow eyes and yellow faces shot at him. She bought a homemaker’s almanac and size 10 circular knitting needles; she made him a sweater.
#10 When June was four and I was twelve, my mother entrusted her to me. We were at a carnival or a theme park; there were people everywhere, and walking with her hand in mine I moved like the slide of a zipper, severing the crowd that closed again once we’d passed. I was strikingly aware of how small and light she was, and it seemed so dangerous to me that she was out in the world, that any arm could grab her, any coat could open and sweep her into its shadows and take her away. And if I let go, they would.
#11 Andrew always worried for her, navigating the back roads to Abbey Street after midnight to find her. In moments like those his love for Caroline was painful in a way no one but I could recognize; I remembered how he looked when we were younger, standing on the dock hugging his arms while I swam further and further away, not Anna the sister but Anna the fish. How helpless and discontent he’d seemed, how small. He had never braved the water for me, sure of my safe return, sure that soon we would be peas in a blanket again. It was Caroline that finally made him jump.
#12 “What’s this?” Gram said. Everyone looked at her; she was standing in front of Andrew’s closet and her eyes were wide and bewildered, like she was startled by some greatness she’d just found. All day she had been wandering his small apartment like she was trying to find him, staring into cabinets with confused eyes and poking her head into the bathroom, the dresser drawers, the refrigerator.
She was holding his guitar by the neck in one hand. “A body,” she said. “I found a body.” Her fingers moved across the tight strings and there was an instant of accidental sound. It fired through the apartment like a warning shot. Then it was gone.