AMY BRASHARES: FROM SISTERHOOD TO THE HERE AND NOW
In Ann Brashares new novel for young adult readers, The Here and Now [due April 8 from Delacorte Press], 17-year-old Prenna James came to New York at the age of 12. She traveled a long ways to get there... across time. Now she has a chance to save the Earth from the dystopian future in which she was raised - if she doesnt let falling in love get in the way.
This riveting journey is worlds away from Brashares' phenomenally successful series of books, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
I was eager to explore some new ideas and new themes, Brashares tells Pop Culture Classics. And this one started to seem fun and interesting. And it ended up taking me into directions I hadnt really gone before. At that point, I was kind of in.
I think if I had known, at the beginning, how difficult some of the issues with time travel would be, I may have been intimidated, but by the time I had to grapple with all that, I was deeply in with the story and the characters and I just wanted to see it through.
Brashares hadnt previously been preoccupied by the notion of time travel. I needed to think about all the different iterations of the future that are possible here and what the rules for this book are, in terms of how you deal with the paradoxes - Are you changing time when somebody loops back? Is there a new future thats created? People handle it in different ways. I wanted to have a consistent approach, but also to think about sort of creating the world that she came from, as well as representing the world she goes to, which is our world, or our time. But also to make up a whole, plausible world in between.
In this genre, Brashares could allow her imagination to soar. But contemplating endless possibilities is a challenge in itself. Boundlessness is wonderful, on the one hand, paralyzing on the other hand. So I had the pleasure of the one and the pain of the other.
Time travel is such a cool idea and Ive loved it in kind of a glancing way. And I definitely have read and enjoyed stories that involved time travel before. But I guess I realized the difficulty of actually getting down to the nitty gritty of trying to tell a story involving time travel and not dragging your readers through the nitty gritty. You want to give them sort of the blossom on the plant, if you will, and not have to worry about all the roots and the soil and the gardening that goes into it. You want that effort to somehow enrich the book, but you dont want them to necessarily have to see the labors. So I guess I didnt realize that you have to follow every thread. You have to figure out, Okay, so theres the version of the future that happened before anybody traveled and then the version of the future after they did and if there are different sort of layers of traveling. Then theres the different iteration for each one. And there naturally are going to be paradoxes of all sorts. So I guess, the complexity, it was kind of a Gordian Knot, The more I thought about it, the harder it felt to unscramble it.
Once I got in, I was really interested in the perspective of somebody who comes back and also, the inability, even if youve seen the future to accept it, really believe in it, much like we are sort of incapable of believing in our own death, our own end. We simply cant accept it. We cant believe it, hard as we try, just as we cant contemplate infinity. Our brains just arent made for it. Maybe you just cant live, if you can imagine your own death, if you can imagine your own nonexistence. But I was fascinated by that idea.
The themes in Prennas time travel tale are timely, indeed. I dont want the book to be too much of a message book, Brashares says, but at the same time, its amazing, the apathy that we all, as a culture, feel toward what are clearly significant changes in our climate. And its not so much apathy as, we just seek comfort. And the people whove seen all that, who are part of Prennas immigration, whove experienced all that, theyre all too willing to shroud themselves in all the comfort that we are.
Brashares had to work to get inside Prennas head. Some characters, I blend into them a little more. Sometimes I have to do a little bit of work to find, like you do with your children almost, to say, Okay, lets not over-identify here. Lets keep some boundaries, because it makes for clearer thinking some of the time. Her life experience is so different. Maybe the way she processes things feels very human and universal in some sense. But I cant relate to the things that shes seen.
There are certain characteristics she has that I aspire to. I feel like so many of the people whove been through what shes been through are so cut off emotionally, just sort of haunted and damaged. Shes so resilient and, in some basic way, optimistic, still trying. She still thinks things can be better. Her will is very strong and her desire to connect to other people, on a human level, is very strong. And those are characteristics that I really do admire.
While shes writing, Brashares isnt thinking about how the reader might react to each passage. It would be a mistake to try. Its too hard to be self-conscious. I feel like writing, or maybe the creative process generally, is sort of like the gas and the brakes. The gas tends to be the creative mind, where youre just trying in that vulnerable way to just put stuff out there, to really immerse yourself in the characters, to imagine to imagine. And then, sometimes, you do need to edit yourself. You need to be more analytical. And thats when you start thinking about, Okay, I am ultimately communicating with a reader. And how is this communication working? Does it make any sense?
One of the things that was hard about this book is that there were so many layers of it, in terms of time, but also layers for me working on it. I did a draft and then another draft. So again, with all the overlays of my different drafts and my different efforts, thinking and rethinking the book, sometimes it was hard to say, What have I already said? What have I not said? What does the reader know? What does the reader not know? And thats more the editing process than the writing process. Its hard when they get all mucky and blurred together. Its so much easier, when its sort of Okay, this is the creative part and this is more the analytic part.
Raised in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Brashares studied philosophy at Barnard College, then worked as an editor.
Many readers will picture The Here and Now on a movie screen. It may well happen, but Brashares didnt let that prospect dwell in her consciousness.
Again, I think before you start writing something, and maybe after youre finished writing something, you tend to think about those things. Or I think about those things a little bit. When youre actually writing, I feel its almost like, you stop believing in your characters, if youre sort of looking past them to how it plays or will anybody want it or will anybody buy it or will it be optioned for film. It almost feels like, when youre writing, you dont want to look past your characters, you just want to look at them. So I dont entertain a lot of those thoughts, because I think its distracting and I do think it takes away from the characters and my relationship to them. But I would say, again, after its done, or before you begin, when its more theoretical, I think about it. Im not the most visual person in the world and so I like to think that a good story will translate into many different kinds of media. And I like to think that this one will, as well. But I dont write it with the idea of, How will this scene look on film? Im really a writer, when Im writing.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was made into a movie, then a sequel. Brashares says, I had some trepidations, but I also had - and maybe this is part of the self-preservation - just the feeling that the book was mine and the book would always be mine and I would suffer for its shortcomings and feel some pride in the things that I felt were good about it. But the movie, I have very little to no control over. So I wanted it to be good and I wanted it to be well received. And, for the most part, I was really happy at the end. But to preserve ones sanity, you have to feel like, There wasnt much I could do here. Once I had agreed that I wanted it to be made into a movie, I wanted to give this away to be developed creatively by another set of people, I had to think, the movie belongs to them. This does not belong to me. So I built a little bit of an emotional firewall, I think. But I really genuinely wanted it be good. And its an analogy to the book. So I wanted it to represent itself and represent the book well.
Theres no better publicity for a book than a movie. As a writer, you just have to be grateful for that kind of exposure, because its just the biggest, best kind of exposure you could hope for. And, if it does drive people back to the book, if they have read it, or to the book, if they havent read it, I feel like thats really lucky. And there are interesting discussions about the differences and what you like better and what you feel works and how the experience of the movie changed your view of the book and vice versa. Theres definitely a lot of interesting play between them.
The Sisterhood books struck striking an immensely responsive chord with readers, Its hard to analyze why - and I almost think its a mistake to, Brashares says. Its almost like, when you are drawn to another person. Its just a strange, intuitive combination of things. So, for those books, I think people are really drawn to the idea of friendship and a genuinely loving friendship. Hopefully a reader almost felt included in that circle. And I hope the stories are good and they feel authentic and kind of naturalistic. I really like to write as naturally as I can. Im powerfully attached to the characters emotional lives and I want to provide that for the reader. And I feel like, when I do, thats the best thing that I do. As a writer, I guess thats the thing that I care about most.
Of course, the massive success of the Sisterhood books raises expectations for Brashares subsequent efforts. There always is that. Again, its one of those things that I sort of trip and stumble over before I actually start, and I worry about a little bit, and it does feel a little bit like a burden, but a high-class burden, if you will. It is hard to have expectations be high. Its easier to write to low expectations than to high ones. But the fact that Ive had success with those earlier books is just the luckiest, nicest thing. I just dont want to take that for granted at any point. So once Im engaged with a book and engaged with the characters and the stories, those burdens tend to fall away. And then they reemerge again when the process is done and its time to publish and theres expectations again. But I guess the price of success is high expectations and its a price I feel kind of lucky to get to pay.
The transition into adulthood is a backdrop in Sisterhood and The Here and Now. I tend to go back to it again and again. Its not always a conscious choice. I feel like thats a fascinating time of life. When youre experiencing the world with some degree of independence, as a kind of an adult, or near adult, experiencing love and loss and responsibility and freedom for the first time, its very, very powerful. And novelists, from the beginning of novels, have really focused on that period of life, because it is so consequential. When were under the care and protection of our parents, you hope its less eventful. But once youre beginning to be out there on your own, youre building your life. Youre figuring out who you are and becoming that person. So its just this fascinating juncture of life, from every angle.
During her own adolescence, reading was vital to Brashares. In the early part of that phase in my life, when Im just beginning to develop into my own independent thinking person, I would say reading was probably as important to me as its ever been. You cant really see inside another persons head - except in a book. People can sort of talk you through their experiences, but theres a kind of a mind meld, an emotional meld, that can happen in fiction. Thats partly why I love books above all. And so, getting into the thoughts of characters and seeing the general irrationality of thought, insecurities and the vulnerabilities in a lot of good YA [Young Adult] literature, that was real sustenance to me, and a real comfort. My reading, as Ive gotten older, fills other needs, not that one, as much.
Young adult readers flock to books penned by Brashares, who has written adult novels, as well. Her writing style disarms tweens and teens. I think you inhabit the character youre writing. I try to, at least. I try to write a very closely aligned point of view. And although it would be fun to try it sometime, I tend not to write from a more godlike, omniscient height. I tend to be right down in there, trying to see through the characters eyes and feel the things theyre feeling. So, if thats a 16-year-old, thats how I am when Im writing her. And if its a 22-year-old, thats how I am, when Im writing her. So Im not writing from a distance. Im writing from there.
Brashares lives in New York with her artist husband, Jacob Collins, and their children - Nathaniel, Samuel, Susannah, and Isaiah. The kids age range is 18, 15, 12 and three. All but the toddler have read some of moms books.
Theres some ambivalence about it, which I completely understand, Brashares says. I belong to them in such a very particular, mother way. And this is a different side. And I think its strange to have your mother talk in a different voice, even a little bit disconcerting, probably. So the older kids have all read my books. Only the 12-year-old has read The Here and Now. And I think hey have enjoyed and appreciated them to some extent, but again, its almost like, if your mother was a singer and you went to hear her sing, its like, Ooh, thats sort of a public artist person thats not quite my mother, that doesnt quite belong to me. But theyre all interested in a lot of the things that Im interested in, get exciting about a lot of the same things. So often Ill have a new idea and well be in a car or at the dinner table and Ill bat it around and theyre always so eager for stories. Theyre all like addicts to storytelling and narrative, just the way I am. So its really fun to have such a group of people that have such clear affinities.
It would be natural for Brashares to be nervous about her 12-year-olds reactions to The Here and Now. Thats something I really try to talk myself down from, because I dont want her, in the case of this book, to have any burden of response. Its so tough, when somebodys watching you for your reaction, particularly if its your mother. I just hate to have her have that. And, as a parent, particularly with younger kids, you want to mask your vulnerability to a certain extent, because its freeing for them to have parents be pretty strong and put-together. And, as they get older, to show them your vulnerabilities is actually very useful to them, because it helps them grow up and know that thats what it is to be an adult, as well as every other age. But for her, I didnt want to put any of that on her, so I tried to just be very even about, Oh, you finished it? You liked it? Oh, Im so glad. And not get into it too deeply.
Its difficult to write, while raising four children. Im so distracted, particularly since we had kind of a late addition to our family, our little one whos just turned three this month, because my youngest was almost 10, when he came along. So thats been like time travel, basically. So it is hard to find time. But I find that I kind of will wait until a project comes to me and sometimes attaches and feels like Oh, I really want to do that. And then I do it. I wish I could say I was really disciplined and really into a routine, but Im not. Im really bad at that. I guess I really do have to feel like Gosh, I really do want to be in that story for a while.
Its healthy to have the family as an escape from the writing and vice versa. Theres some tension between the two. If Im really, really deeply in a book, which isnt a lot of the time, I tend to have these periods of deep immersion, where I write somewhat quickly, because Im so far in. And its one of my very few stretches in my life as a parent where Im... I had a dream once, that I wanted to go to jail, Brashares says, laughing. Its so funny. Because I just wanted to get to have to be with my book. It was obviously not a very bad, punitive kind of jail. I just wished that I could be in a room and lock the door and I would be allowed to do that. And its unusual for me to have a period like that and not be really, really happy to be in the kitchen with everybody, making dinner and doing all the things we do.
When she hears from young adult readers, telling her how much her books have moved them, Brashares feels well rewarded for all her work. I love that. I was so attached to reading at that age, I feel like, if I can provide that kind of experience to readers, then Im happy.
Whats next for the author? Im in that kind phase of trying out different things, turning them over and seeing what feels like its really going to grab onto me and what Im really going to grab onto. And so thats where I am right now. I have a couple of things. One feels very promising. One feels potentially also promising. And the truth is, though, you cant just sit around waiting for the muse. The way that the muse comes is by sitting in your chair in front of the computer. So you cant just wait for something to take you over. You have to work to get to that point, where it takes you over. And thats what Im pushing myself to do now.
Visit the authors website, annbrashares.com.