At the end of August, I decided it was time to start my next book. It had been a few months since Saint Anything came out, and the promotion side of things was winding down. Moreover, it had been a year and a half since I finished writing that book. Normally, I would have started a new project somewhere in that 18 months, worked myself into a fit when it wasn’t working, and abandon it. I know my history and my cycles. So I decided I would Wait Until I Was Ready.But then, my kid went back to school. The summer ended. Everywhere around me there were fresh starts, sharpened pencils and empty, brand new notebooks. It felt like the whole world was writing, except for me. (By The Whole World, I mean everyone I follow on Twitter. The hashtag #amwriting is a powerful thing, especially when you, um, aren’t.) I had a nugget of an idea that I thought I could stretch into my skeleton (first line, first scene, climactic scene, final scene). I was ready. Right?I knew I was doomed the moment I tried to start the second scene, around page 3. I just felt tired. Was already dreading having to do backstory. Writing the simplest of sentences was like trying to brain surgery. Blindfolded. UGH. UGH. There are not enough UGHS to convey this feeling. You’ll just have to take my word for it.I have been here before. I was here with the book I set aside before I wrote Saint Anything. It is very familiar, in the way that places you dislike and dread can be. But the upside is that when I find myself back here, the landmarks becoming familiar, I have FINALLY learned to stop, turn around and get out. This is progress. I used to finish books that weren’t working, then send them to my agent, who would tell me what I already knew in my heart and had for awhile (”This is not your next book. I’m sorry.”). That’s a lot of time wasted, a lot of miserable days. The older I get, the less I enjoy being miserable. Better to accept things aren’t working on page 15, as I did yesterday, than on page 415.
So here I am. #notwriting. UGH. But honestly, I feel a sense of weird relief, as well. I don’t have to sit down and suffer today: I just don’t. I’ve published 12 books, and the most recent one, I think, is one of my best. If it’s the laurels I’m resting on for awhile, I’m okay with that. I hope my readers are, as well. Hopefully the right idea will come, and I’ll know the moment to begin it. For now, though, this is where I am. And I just don’t want to be sad every afternoon anymore.
(Note: it should be said that writing this little blog post, these few paragraphs, flowed more easily than anything I’d done on that book. Pretty telling…..)
..is that you don’t want to admit that you did, or assume it, even if you know it’s true. Like doing so will put them at risk again, because who the hell are you?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This time two days ago, I was on vacation in Cape Cod with my extended family. My parents have a house outside Falmouth and I’ve gone pretty much every summer of my life, first as a kid, now with my own family. It was our last day, our last afternoon, and my daughter really wanted to go for a final swim even though it was overcast and I’d already packed our swimsuits. I was totally not into it and tried to convince her to do something else, but the whining got to me and we went down to the beach, with my cousin’s daughter in tow.
When we got there, two of my aunts were already seated in beach chairs, getting ready for their daily swim, which they call The Ladies Swim. It’s another one of those longtime traditions, women of a certain age (now in their seventies) meeting for gossip and exercise together in the late afternoon. We chatted about how I was leaving the next day as the girls played in the sand, and then I got into the water to swim. A few minutes later, they headed out on their normal route.
It was still cloudly, but the water was nice, and I was thinking I was actually kind of glad I’d gotten dragged to the beach, even if my own kid was now whining she was cold and wanted to stay on the shore. I kept swimming around, about ten feet from the sand, alternately watching the kids and keeping an eye on my aunts, because we just do that there whenever anyone is swimming in the water.
After about fifteen minutes, I could see them headed back in: P. was in front, N. behind. I looked back at the kids, answered my own child when she shouted a question at me. Then I looked again out the in the water. I saw N. P was gone.
At first, I figured I just couldn’t see her. There were a few boats on moorings between us, and I assumed she was probably behind one of them. But I stood up anyway. When I did, I heard N yell, “P? Are you all right?”
I looked back at the girls. Still on the beach. Then I finally spotted P, or actually the slope of her back. She was facedown in the water, only that and some of her hair visible. N looked at me. “Sarah, she’s not swimming anymore!” I dove back in the water and started towards them.
I’ve been swimming all my life: I learned in those same waters, on that same beach. But I don’t have a great form by any means. Still, I hauled ass out there. N and I got to P at the same time. I grabbed her and rolled her over, so her face was out of the water. She was blue. I yelled her name. No response. Again. Nothing. Then I hooked my arm around her, making sure her face was turned up, and started towards shore.
My daughter and her cousin were still playing, obvlivious. I screamed at them to run for my husband and tell him to call 911. They took off, and I kept swimming, N. beside me, pushing P along. She was unresponsive, but I was talking to her, telling her I was there, it was going to be okay. We were about 70 feet out, and finally I felt my feet hit the ground. We dragged P up on the beach. She was still blue.
I have never taken a CPR class, only read a book about it. Everything I know about water rescue I learned from Baywatch. I am dead serious. But we were the only ones there and I knew I had to act. So I opened her mouth and breathed in, hard. Then I pumped on her chest, trying to remember how many times I was supposed to do it. Nothing. Another breath. More pumps. I looked up at the beach path, praying i’d see my husband or someone else who could handle this coming. No one. I breathed in again, then heard a soft gurgle. I rolled P on her side, and I saw her hand reach out to N’s leg to touch it. Oh my God.
Another gurgle. She was responding. I put my hand on her back and told her me and N were there, it was okay. She moaned, still reaching for N, who took her hand. Then, finally, I heard footsteps. My husband. An ambulance was on the way.
The next half hour is a blur. I remember leaving them there, running as fast as I have in recent memory to P’s house to scream for her husband and tell him what happened. Standing barefoot in my dripping bathing suit on our dirt road, waiting for the ambulance. The terrified look on my daughter’s face when I finally found her, and trying not to look scared to her. Following a paramedic down to the beach, saying, “I don’t even know CPR really,” and him saying, “Anything helps, and clearly you did.” Seeing P sitting up in a beach chair on the shore’s edge, shivering, her husband beside her as the medic strapped on an oxygen mask. Did she know where she was? he asked. The beach. What day is it? Monday.
When they’d taken her up to the ambulance, my aunt N and just stood there on the sand. The sun had come out: it was a gorgeous day, suddenly. We couldn’t stop talking, either one of us, about what had happened. I told her we were bonded for life now, and she laughed. It was good to laugh, finally. Then I went home, where my daughter and her cousin were watching Dora and Friends and eating Pirate Booty. Is P okay? they asked. I think so, I told them. They nodded, returned to their program.
I went into our bedroom. We had dinner plans, things to do, and I told my husband I’d take a shower and then get stuff together. “Really?” he said. “You don’t even want to take a moment after that? You saved her life.”
I shook my head. “I don’t even really know CPR or mouth to mouth,” I said. “I just wish someone else who knew what they were doing had been around.”
“You DID know what to do,” he said. Then he gave me a hug. “I’m proud of you.”
That was the first time I felt it. That weird disconnect, feeling like I shouldn’t take credit for something so big, much bigger than me. I was there, I did what I could. But it all felt very fragile, like if I even talked about it too much she’d be back in the water, facedown, punishment for making it about me. I honestly still feel weird, two days later, sitting here at my home in NC, writing this. Which also feels strange, and like I’m making it my story, not hers. But writing is how i deal with my world. I needed this, even if I don’t post it. Maybe it will take that image of her face when I first rolled her over in the water, blue and dead-looking, out of my mind each time I close my eyes. P is okay. She’s in the hospital, probably released in next couple of days, and that’s how I want to think of her. I am hopeful time will make it happen. I am good at revising, both on and off the page. If I can, I will clip that image, delete it, forget. But I will also take that CPR class I’ve been putting off forever. Because you never know.
Okay, so it’s late June, the holiday weekend is approaching, and of course that has me thinking about food. (Everything makes me think about food, though.) That aside, I was tweeting the other day about my bean salad recipe, and someone asked for it. So I figured I will share it here on this page, where it can live in perpetuity.
I got this recipe from the Food section of my local paper, The News and Observer, many years ago. It quickly became my go-to recipe for cookouts, potlucks, family events and just about any other occasion where I am asked to bring something. It has all the hallmarks of a great recipe: it’s easy, has only a few ingredients, makes a bunch and you can do it at the last minute. (Although it’s better if you let it sit a few hours, or even overnight.) WIN!
Here’s what you need:
A can of black beans
A can of kidney beans (dark or light red, you pick!)
A can of Fiesta corn (once called Mexicorn, i.e. corn with peppers mixed in)
Open all cans, pour them into a strainer. Rinse. Dump into a big bowl. You’re halfway done! Wasn’t that easy? I KNOW!
Okay, now onto the marinade:
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
3 Tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar (okay, you might have to make a trip for this, but you’ll be making this so much in future you’ll use it up, I swear)
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon of cumin (Okay, these two are an investment too, but you’ll use them!)
1/4 teaspoon of pepper
1/4 teaspoon of salt
Whisk all together. Pour over bean/corn mix. Toss. If you WANT you can add some chopped green onions (if you’re feeling fancy) or if you are lazy like me, some dried minced onion. Or leave it out. It’s totally up to you! Put in a container, cover, and stick in the fridge, ideally for a few hours, although you can serve it right away or after an hour or whatever.
See, wasn’t that easy??? I KNOW. This is why it is my go-to. Take it to wherever you’re invited, watch people enjoy and be prepared to pass the recipe on. Lazy cooks (or thrower-togethers of beans, corn and marinades) unite!
Happy summer, everyone!
All ready to go!!
(Warning: possible spoilers ahead! I say possible because I have never been a person who had not read the book. Which is a weird thing to realize. But I digress….)
1. Before I wrote Saint Anything, I was working on another book that was a total disaster. The story wasn’t there, the male character had ZERO personality, and I wanted to cry every time I opened the document. NOT GOOD SIGNS, y’all! So I set it aside. (You can read the entire story about that experience here.) When I got the idea for Saint Anything, though, I felt so bad for the girl in that other book that I wanted her to get on the page SOMEHOW. So I put her ex-boyfriend, a character I kind of loved because he was such a blowhard, in the book, as well as her dad. During a scene at Sydney’s house, her brother’s lawyer mentions his daughter Isley. That’s my girl, the one whose story I couldn’t finish. I still feel bad about it. But at least I got her in a published book.
2. The idea for the carousel in the woods came from two places. One was my daughter and her BFF tromping around in the woods behind our house, where they discovered the remnants of an old homestead and a bunch of rusted out cars. I loved that idea of finding something out in the middle of nowhere and kind of claiming it as your own.
The other was a public radio story I heard about a similar thing for a bunch of kids in Ann Arbor. It was called “Heyoon.” You can listen to it here.
3. One of the hardest part of the book was writing the scenes with Sydney and Ames. Gayle Forman said she thinks he’s my first real villian, but for me, it was more complicated than that. I went though a situation in high school where I was friends with an older guy and got in over my head. I was uncomfortable with his attention, but felt like it was rude to say so, or that it might disrupt my friend circle if I spoke up about how I felt. For years I’ve worked through this many ways, but it took until my forties until I was ready to put down words about it. I wrote about what happened in this piece for Seventeen.com that came out the same day the book went on sale. Now, pub day is stressful enough, in good and bad ways. But then I found myself in an LA hotel room, with this very personal part of my life suddenly out there for everyone to read. I mean, I’d written it: it was my choice. But the truth is tougher than fiction, in this case. I’m proud of the piece and honored so many people have related to it. But I’ll never read it, or any scene with Ames, without feeling that same unease. It’s just part of me now.
4. The storyline with Rosie, Layla’s sister, came completely from my first time going to Disney on Ice. I was so intrigued with cast members, wondering what kind of path you took to get a job like that. Did they have Olympic hopes? Or was this what they were always aiming for? I was completely overthinking things (as I tend to do) and I certainly wasn’t assuming THOSE ice skaters had drug problems or had been under house arrest. But clearly, this is where my mind goes after a few hours of Disney songs and a lot of convention center popcorn. Related: I love my job.
5. A lot of people have commented about how much food there is in Saint Anything. I guess I was hungry? It was winter, I was writing: I’m sure I was, actually. The lollipops, though, became a bit of a superstitious thing for me. (Everything can be a superstitious thing for me: I am very suggestible.) See, they give Dum Dums away at my bank. Free candy! What’s not to love about that? Anyway, during the writing process when I was feeling unsure/scared (basically every day, that’s how I work) and I’d find myself in the bank, I’d think, “If I can find a bubble gum and a root beer Dum Dum, it means I’ll finish this book and it will be good.” Cut to me spending WAY too much time picking through their supply, desperate, while other patrons looked at me like I was crazy. Writing is such an unsure thing: I am always looking for something to reassure me. I am still doing this, weeks after the book is out. Needless to say, I have a LOT of root beer and and bubble gum Dum Dums. Which is not a bad problem to have, I guess.
Anyway, that’s five things. Thanks again to everyone who has read the book, said kind things, posted pictures of themselves reading it at the beach, lake, in a hammock, everywhere. I wish I could buy you all some Dum Dums. Really.
So it’s been about seven weeks since Saint Anything came out. In that time, I have been to seventeen cities in fourteen states. (This isn’t counting pre-tour, where I was in an additional five cities and two other states.) I’ve done a ton of readings, school visits and pizza parties. I saw the book hit the New York Times list, which is INCREDIBLY competitive these days, and hang on there for five weeks. I’ve gone from not knowing what to say about the book to having a well-honed 30 minute spiel I can basically recite on cue. I’ve met SO many readers, who waited patiently in line to tell me THEIR stories, one of my favorite parts about being on tour. I’ve been given donuts, cookies, necklaces, woven bracelets (Gerts!) and a lot of lollipops, not to mention enough cards and letters to fill a Ziplock gallon bag almost to the point where I can’t shut it.
I’ve cried because I was so tired, laughed because I so was tired, and just been SO TIRED. I’ve stayed in a hotel where they gave you soft slippers at night, one where someone ELSE’S dried, crusty washcloth fell on me when I pulled the shower curtain shut, and a dozen of various qualities in between. I met Chelsea Clinton, B.J. Novak and Jodi Picoult. I drank some little bottles of wine on planes (okay, many little bottles of wine on planes) and ate too many turkey sandwiches to count for breakfast, lunch, dinner and second dinner. I met girls who have been reading my books since middle school or high school and are now adults themselves. I have been lucky to see worn, SO loved copies of my backlist that have survived move after move, summer after summer, and the occasional coffee spill, dog chew or dunk in the pool. I am REVERENT about these copies, their folded down pages, their highlighted sentences, their ripped and soft covers. I’ve had girls tell me my books got them through high school, which is the GREATEST compliment, as it was books that helped me survive those same years. I’ve met mothers of my readers, boyfriends, husbands, best friends, children. It’s been the greatest thing, and I wouldn’t be able to explain what it was really like well even if I WASN’T so rusty at writing as I am right now.
All I can say is this: it meant the world to me, every bit, every person who came through the line with something to say because of something I wrote. It is the kind of thing I could have only dreamed of twenty years ago when I was rolling silverware at the hostess station at the Flying Burrito, listening to Tom Petty’s “Freefallin'” on the restaurant stereo and wondering if I’d ever really be a writer. I cannot believe I’ve been lucky enough to do this twelve times. As I sit here, on this hot Sunday afternoon in NC, I honestly can’t imagine doing it again. What could ever top this? And how do I even follow up something that has been so special?
These are the questions I’ll be mulling over in the coming weeks. It is my hope that during that time, Saint Anything will continue out in the world fine without me promoting it constantly. I’m proud of the book and all my publisher and I did to get it noticed. I can’t lie: I know I’ll write again, because I have to. I’ve already been on the biggest writing break of my life and it’s making me crazy nervous. But I’m not sure what it is that I do next will look like. I never am, though. Almost twenty years and twelve books in, the writing is always the thing that surprises me. I can’t wait to see what it does this time.
Thank you EVERYONE for your support of Saint Anything, my backlist, and me. There’s a reason I dedicated the book to you. Thanks for listening.
…but were afraid to ask. Or not. Anyway, some articles that have popped up recently:
Want to hear about how it might be my last book for awhile (but I really hope not!): I tell EW all about it.
Or about what changes I’ve seen in the almost 20 (!) years since my first YA book was published? Answer: a lot.
OR the not so surprising truth that I really didn’t like high school. Are you really that surprised?
OR (whew!) 7 Reasons You Should Read Saint Anything: Just pick one!
Hopefully more stuff to come! Thanks for reading…..
Okay, so yesterday, May 5th, was HUGE for me. SAINT ANYTHING, the book that is basically my HEART right now, was released into the world. I got up at 3:45am in NC to fly to Los Angeles, where I had a great event with so many wonderful readers to celebrate the launch. And the tour began! But something ELSE happened, too. An essay I wrote for Seventeen.com was published on the internet, and with that, one of the most personal experiences of my life was suddenly public. This was my choice. I wanted to put it out there. But still, it was jarring, in a way I had not expected.
The article’s title (which I did not write) is I Thought Dating An Older Guy was Cool—Until I Sensed Something Was Very Wrong. It’s a little misleading, in that I did not ever actually DATE said older person, although that was what he wanted. It’s the whole point of the article: how as a teen, you have this need to please, to not rock the boat, especially when it comes to your friend group and community. The article is also about feeling unsure and guilty about signals sent or not sent, getting in over your head, and what happens when you realize you have a voice and that’s enough. Just writing it was kind of wrenching to me: I’m not sure what I expected to happen once everyone ELSE saw it. All I know was that I was in a strange hotel room in LA and this part of my life that was pretty intense was suddenly RIGHT there and I sort of freaked. I called my husband, who told me to calm down, all was well, go for a walk. So I did. Then I came back, turned on my laptop, and saw something amazing.
It wasn’t just me. What happened, what I felt, how it affected me: I wasn’t alone. People were retweeting the article, and telling me bits and pieces of THEIR stories. Other authors I respect and admire gave it a signal boost to THEIR teen readers. This thing I’d always been so ashamed of was going wider and wider before my eyes, and as it did I saw what had happened to me was something that had also happened to SO many other girls. Wow. I’m still in awe of it, still amazed. As I write this, the full article I posted on Tumblr has almost 20,000 notes–and for that, I must thank my friend John Green, who gave it a huge signal boost there. As I write this, I am looking at a picture of myself from a day I wrote about in that article. I was fifteen, and in a picnic in the woods. For years when I looked at this shot I just cringed, remembering that day, how awkward and scared I felt later, and how that girl on that rock in that army surplus tank top has no idea what she’s doing. It made me feel kind of sick, to be honest. Now, though, I see her as so many OTHER faces, voices, names on Twitter and Tumblr. It wasn’t just me. It is such a comfort.
Thank you ALL for reading the article, for reading this, for sharing stories and kind words. Thank you to everyone who retweeted it or reblogged or pointed out to their followers it was worth a look. All I wanted was to let some other girl know if she, too, was in over her head, she wasn’t alone. But it turned out this one heard it too. It helps.
Have a good day, everyone.