Behind the Book: Learning Not to Drown
Originally published on Pulseit.com March 31, 2014
Where I grew up, there was both a swamp and a lake. I remember the lake as being icy cold but everyone spent the summers swimming there anyway.
The swamp was across town: a low area that every spring would become a small pond of thick mud and sharp reeds that smelt like rot. When it was wet, I was afraid of going near it. I was sure I’d get sucked in, and I’d slowly die as I inhaled breath after breath of silty water.
But by the end of summer the swamp became the perfect place to explore.
One year, I was playing “war” with a group of boys I babysat and their neighbors. We were running through the dry swamp with our squirt guns. It was hot and humid, and the lowest areas of the ground were still thick with algae and mosquito-filled mud, but we raced through the growth and the muck and didn’t care that our clothes got dirty and our shoes turned brown and swishy. It was war, and we needed to shoot the enemy with as many rounds of water as possible.
I crawled out of the undergrowth looking for the boys, getting shot squarely in the face by the enemy as I did so. Before I could shoot him back, I heard the scream of one of my boys.
Tearing through the thicket, I found the younger brother in a thick cave of branches, still screaming, pointing at a long, dirty bone.
I nudged it with my toe until it flipped over. The youngest boy suggested it was a human bone. It was long enough. The shape was right. One of them plucked the bandana off his head and we used that to pick it up and pass it around, the buzz of mosquitos filling the silence. There were scrape marks and we debated, then decided it was a bear that had been chewing on it. The bone was tossed down and we ran to the kids’ house.
We didn’t play much in the swamp after that. We blamed the bugs, or the possibility of bears. But we all knew it was because of the bone. It was human enough for us to believe it was, but not enough human for any of us to tell an adult. I may very well have told one of my brothers. I have a vague recollection of the two of us crouching in the small cave of bushes, gazing at the bone and him dismissing it as a dog treat and me as an idiot.
I’m not 100% sure if it all happened, and if I were to ask my brother, he may or may not remember. That’s the tricky thing about memories: they don’t come as a complete story, they implant in each person’s head differently, and can flee at any given moment. I know for sure there was a swamp and I know for sure there was a lake. And I know they both had a profound affect on my childhood.
When I was writing Learning Not to Drown I knew the lake was not just a setting – it was a character. It was complex, not just the lake that I spent lazy summer days swimming in, but also the swamp that I became so terrified of.
In the same way I combined the lake and swamp into one, I took my own memories of having an incarcerated brother and mixed them up with my imagination and with stories I had heard from many different sources – friends with incarcerated family members, people with loved ones who had addiction problems, and strangers who wrote their stories on message boards. I ground it all up until it no longer represented any one person, but a multitude that came together to create Clare, Luke, and Peter.
I wrote this in February of 2014 for DearTeenMe.com. It appears that website is no longer in service, so I have transferred it here so it may live on.
Dear Teen Me,
You are standing in the door your grandmother’s kitchen watching a bat do circles around the room. It’s sticking close to the ceiling, so your mom has run to grab a broom. Your brother hears the commotion, walks into the room, and with one smooth movement grabs the iron skillet from the stovetop, and whacks the bat out of the air.
There is a moment of complete relief. The bat, which followed you up from the basement when you grabbed a jar of grandma’s canned peaches, has essentially been taken care of. There is also a moment of sorrow: you didn’t want the bat dead; you only wanted it to leave.
Your brother puts on a glove and gently picks the limp rodent up. Tomorrow will be trash day, so you follow him outside to the curb. He starts to open the can, but instead decides to place it on top of the lid. In case it wakes up. In case it was only in shock.
To your mom and grandma, he’s the hero of the night.
He will keep going outside to look at the trash.
There will be more bats, later that month, but he won’t use the frying pan again. He’ll use the broom, eventually pushing them out the kitchen door.
You’ll spend a lot of time thinking about that summer. Later, your brother will commit another crime, go to prison yet again, and be released for a short while. At this point, you’ll be in your 20s, with a degree in Communications that has gotten you nowhere even close to figuring out what you want to do with you life. On the weekends and holidays, you will try your hardest to bring your brother closer to the family, thinking that maybe you can be the one to change him. You’ll pick him up from his shack, even though you are a little terrified every time you go there because the single room he shares with his friend is in the middle of the woods, and you don’t like the way his roommate’s eyes follow you. But you’ll keep going there to pick him up because you want to do anything you can to keep him out of prison, and you think maybe including him in family functions will somehow fix that.
But it won’t. It can’t.
The next time he goes to prison, he’ll be found guilty of sexual battery.
It is going to take you a long time to process that as Truth. You’ll want to believe he is more the guy that put the bat on top of the trash than the one that killed the bat in the first place. You’ll make excuses for him. You’ll spend years in therapy trying to figure it all out. And you’ll eventually take every emotion you’ve gone through and give it to a fictional girl named Clare. And in helping her accept the truth about her family, you’re going to accept the truth about yours.
One day you’ll have to make the decision of whether or not to have your brother in your life. You’ll need to consider things like your own emotional well-being and whether you trust him around your children. It will be one of the most difficult and painful decisions you will ever make. But it will also be one of the best.
But right now, the two of you are sitting on grandma’s porch, rocking in rocking chairs and watching a delightful lightning storm while you wait to see if the bat is okay. You’re talking about hobbies – his are cars and girls and parties, yours are running and knitting and reading – you don’t have much in common, but you enjoy each other’s company. That’s fine for now.
Twitter tells me this is “Stories for All” week, so I thought it appropriate to share something that I’ve been thinking about since last December.
For the holidays, I always buy the kids in my life books. I go to my local independent book store (usually Children’s Book World or Book Soup – both have a fantastic staff and great selection) and pick my favorites selections. I have a running list so I don’t buy anyone the same book twice, and I have read every single book I gift. It is one of my favorite parts of the season.
Last December, I was standing in the YA section wondering what to get an eighteen year old boy. I was stumped. In the past year I had read lots of books that girls would enjoy, but not many that I knew a heterosexual eighteen year old male might find interesting. There was one novel he’d probably love. Historical fiction involving spies and pilots during World War II, full of narrative tension and action. But, I sighed, both main characters were females, so he probably wouldn’t like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
I was standing in the book store about to make a mistake. I was going to walk away from an excellent selection based on the gender of the main characters. I thought about my own book, Learning Not to Drown. I wondered Read more…
Die Mitte Von Allem has been awarded the Deutsche Akademie für Kinder- und Jugendliteratur e. V. (German Academy of Literature for Children and Young Readers) Book of the Month for June.
On January 20th, Die Mitte Von Allem, the German translation of Learning Not to Drown was released. Me being classic me has been trying to think of what to write for my blog post about it for a little over two weeks. (Now you know why it took me ten years to write a novel.)
Every time I tried writing this post, one consistent thought came to mind: It’s weird having a book translated into a language I can’t read. It’s completely and totally bizarre.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad weird. I’m thrilled. But it’s still strange.
So how did this translation come about? Last May my editor at Atheneum emailed me the news that they had made my first foreign sale to Magellan in Germany. This fall, while on a visit to Berlin, I met with my publisher and my publicist. I found out that the title would be Die Mitte Von Allem (The Middle of Everything) and was shown this beautiful cover – which, by the way, I love. It could not be more different from the original, but it feels right. It feels like Clare’s story is behind that cover. As strange as it is to have it translated into words I can’t understand, it blows my mind that Clare and Luke and Peter… and Skeleton… are now living in another language. Thanks Magellan, translator Petra Koob Pawis, and all the German readers choosing to spend some time with the Tovin family.
“What inspired you to write Learning Not to Drown?” is the first question I’m asked in interviews.
I sometimes say that the United States incarcerates more of their population than any other country in the world. Or that we spend a million dollars each year to incarcerate the residents of a single city block. I might note the war on drugs has done very little to keep people from doing drugs and has contributed to the over-crowding of our prisons. I could talk about the 3.2% of the US population- almost 2 million citizens of my country– that are either incarcerated or on probation.
But the real reason I wrote a about a girl who has a brother in prison is because my brother is in prison.
A long time before the book came out, I was already thinking about how I might answer the “what inspired you” question. Even writing this blog post has taken me months and several drafts to figure out what I want to say. And although I was (and still am) nervous about admitting the truth, I decided that it is better that it come from me than someone finding it and feeling like they’ve found buried treasure.
So when I’m, asked, I am honest… and then most of the interviewers get all sidetracked. They want to know how much of the story is me and how much is fiction. I tell them that if I wanted to, I would have written a memoir, but I decided to write a work of fiction out of respect for my family. I talk about how writing is like making a smoothie. How my husband and I go out to the garden and pick some kale and grind it up, then we add bananas, yogurt, strawberries, peaches and blueberries. How it all becomes part of the mix and it is impossible to separate the kale – the me – from the other stuff – the research and imagination. But unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. The moment I say I have a brother in prison, like my protagonist Clare, the most interviewers have already concluded that Clare’s story and mine are one in the same, intertwined, names have been changed to protect the innocent.
And they are wrong.
Yes, having a brother in prison made me the first resource for researching this book. But when I started looking outside my own story, I wasn’t just researching to write a book. I found myself searching to understand who “we” are – the families out there like mine, who struggle to fake perceived “normal” while hiding our actual “normal.
In high school I never talked about having a brother in prison. He was quite a bit older than I was, and being the youngest of seven kids, it was easy for my oldest siblings to blend into each other in my friend’s eyes. It was easier for me, most days, to forget where he was, the only reminder that I had that seventh brother was the last picture taken before he was locked up that hung in my dad’s photography studio, right in line next to the rest of our family. That, and the letters, or the collect phone calls. No matter how much I tried to pretend or forget, the truth was always waiting for me.
While researching, I found no shortages of documentaries and journalists covering problems with our current prison system. And I was amazed how people on message boards or chat rooms spilled their feelings behind the comfort of their keyboards, the protection of anonymity. The thing that surprised me the most? The openness my own family and friends showed when I told them about Learning Not To Drown, and the stories they told about themselves, about their incarcerated loved one.
There were stumbling blocks along the way. In my research, I dug up new information on my own brother – something that I didn’t know before… facts that threw me into a depression so deep and so wide I didn’t know if I could find my way to the surface. But with the help of a good therapist and by helping Clare come to terms with her own situation, I eventually did. Just weeks before the release of the book, I found out more information. Which brought me to another realization: most families don’t know the whole truth. We will never know the whole truth.
There are approximately two million people in the US correctional system today. My book is about their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunt, uncles, cousins, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and friends. It is for the ones who live in the greyest area of all – where crime and punishment isn’t as cut and dry as good guys and bad guys.
Learning Not to Drown isn’t about me, it is about the families, the friends, the lovers, the children. The ones left at home. The ones forever stuck. Stuck between believing the people we love and believing the victims. Stuck between hope and reality. Stuck between love and fear. All the while, hoping to find a way to refuse to let the sunlight be stolen from our lives.
Oh Learning Not to Drown, it feels like just yesterday that I was anxiously awaiting your arrival, pacing my office with on the phone with my editor, agent and publicist, obsessively checking Goodreads for any reviews, preparing for a my very first book signings and parties with.. itchy skin and an upset stomach… as well as brand new sharpies. And look how grown up you are now!
Maybe it was because of the sheer amount of people who came to welcome you into this world or maybe it was from the lack of sleep when you arrived, but I kind of forgot to post pictures here of your first week in this world. It’s a good thing, actually, I was so wrapped up with being in the moment of having my debut novel come out that I forgot to chronicle your arrival.
So to celebrate your 6th month birthday I am finally posting pictures of your release week.
Many of you around the world continue to ask me via various social media outlets if Learning Not to Drown will be translated and released in your country. Other than Germany (release date TBA), there aren’t plans for international releases yet, but my publisher is working on it.
As much as I love hearing that you are excited about my book and want it in your language, there isn’t much I can do about it… but…
You can help!
My editor wants to hear from you! She wants to know where in the world people are interested in Learning Not to Drown. And, if she has letters from you, she can bring them into acquisition meetings to show that there are already readers who want the book in those areas. That can make a huge difference.
If you want to see Learning Not to Drown in your country, write a letter to my editor using the contact form here:
PLEASE DO NOT SUBMIT THIS FORM MORE THAN ONCE! Thank you!
Behind every cover is not just the story written by the author, but also one of how the visual representation of that book came to be. This is the story of how Learning Not to Drown ended up with its incredible cover.
You might be surprised to hear that most authors get little to no say in what their covers look like. Since I can be really
picky, controlling, hands-on, I wanted to give my suggestions on what I’d like to see. I also am very aware that I don’t know anything about what makes a good cover for a book and the professionals Atheneum/Simon & Schuster definitely do, so I timidly asked my editor if I could give them a small list of some artists that I thought would represent my work well. My editor told me that YA books usually have photos on the front, but, decided to give an illustration a chance. It turns out that Edwin Ushiro was on both my list and theirs. He painted a beautiful swimmer inspired by Clare, surrounded by water both dark and light, tumultuous and calm. I immediately hung his painting in my office across from my desk, where I could easily be inspired by Edwin’s art. But, early testing of the cover came back with some tough results – most people thought the book was mid-grade, not YA.
Michael McCartney at Simon and Schuster got to work on designing another cover for Learning Not to Drown while I continued to work on edits… and continued to have stress nightmares about my cover.
When the final jacket came to me, I fell in love.
Although the photo was taken years before my book was completed, it looked like it had been created just for Learning Not to Drown. I instantly looked up the photographer – Kelia Anne MacCluskey – and almost passed out when I discovered that she took the photo WHEN SHE WAS ONLY SIXTEEN.
I haven’t been able to meet her yet in person, but I was able to connect with her via email and do an interview. After finding out more about Kelia, I was even more impressed – not only is she the photographer (at that time largely self-taught), but she also was the model, AND she taught herself how to use photoshop through online tutorials and experimentation. She is a true artist, and I look forward to see much more of her work in the future.
AS: I love that the photo looks almost like a painting. Can you tell me a little about the process from taking the photo to manipulating it?
This morning I woke up to some great news: Learning Not to Drown is being translated into German and will be published by Magellan GmbH & Co. KG! I’ve got a fair amount of German blood in my body, making this an especially proud moment for me.
They aim to publish within the year, but it might take up to eighteen months. As soon as I get a specific date, I will let you know.
I made the announcement on twitter and immediately my notification feed was filled with questions about when it will be translated into other languages and released in other countries.
And the answer: I have no idea. I wish it were as easy as seeing a message from you and *BAM* it would appear perfectly translated in your language in your country. The process can be complex, but my editor and the foreign sales department over at Atheneum are working on additional foreign contracts, and hopefully the future will hold more translations for Learning Not to Drown.