Kelly Barnhill is the Minnesota Author in the Spotlight here on Booksnob during this fabulous month of August. She has written a great guest post on the process of writing The Witch's Boy and how books astonish not only the reader but also the writer. Read on.
When Books Astonish Us
There are, somewhere on earth (though I, as yet, have not seen them) finished copies of my new book The Witch’s Boy. They are sitting in boxes in a cool, dry space, biding their time before they begin to migrate into the world.
I cannot stop this process. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.
It is a strange feeling, really, this moment of quiet before the book comes out. When I can still trick myself into thinking that it still belongs to me. It doesn’t, of course. A book belongs to whoever is reading it. Everyone knows this. Everyone but writers.
I have a peculiar relationship with this book, with The Witch’s Boy, one that is very different from my previous books. I started this book several years ago while hiking through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We were staying in historic cabins along the Skyline Drive, and as the name implies, we were up on the ridge of the mountains. Next to the sky. Any hikes we wanted to do required us to go down.
My son, who was five at the time, practically ran down the trail toward a gorgeous bridal-veil waterfall at the mouth of an extraordinary ravine. He was full of boundless energy and kinetic movement. On the way down. On the way up, it was a hard, slow slog. To keep his spirits up, I told him a story. About a boy named Ned who stole his mother’s magic to protect it from bandits. About a desperate plan and a daring escape and a wolf.
It felt real.
It felt separate from me.
It was a real story.
Later, in the dark of the cabin, in a brand new composition notebook, I began writing it down. I tracked Ned’s progress; I monitored his mood; I uncovered his story bit by bit. And what I found surprised me. I was not, as I had assumed, writing a story about an adventure. I was not writing the story my son had heard. Not anymore.
I was writing a story about grief. I was writing a story about the palpable nature of loss. I was
writing a story about survivor’s guilt. I was writing a story about fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons. The story as it unspooled onto the page was wildly different from the story I imagined I was telling when I began it on that trail with a tired little boy all those years ago.
And maybe that’s the nature of this work. Our stories sit in the quiet places of our hearts and minds and make their way forward at the earliest opportunity. If I knew at the outset that I was writing a story about grief, I might have resisted. It’s too sad, my brain would have said. It will be too hard.
This book was incredibly hard for me to write. It took a lot out of me. It nearly broke me. I nearly quit again and again and again. I’m glad I didn’t, because once again the book surprised me.
The book about grief became a book about hope. The book about loss became a book about connection. And healing. And deep joy.
Our work as writers sometimes takes us into dark places. And sad places. And tender places. But this artistic bait-and-switch is important, because it allows us, as artists, to arrive at that deeply human territory of wonder. We love, we lose, we love again. And we are astonished.
If you would like to win a copy of Kelly's book, The Witch's Boy, please enter here: The Witch's Boy Giveaway