Whenever I speak to someone about something I’ve written, I am always at pains to point out that it is fiction and therefore totally made up.
Sometimes – like with works of epic fantasy – it’s easier for people to swallow: I don’t usually need to break a sweat trying to convince someone I am not a warrior mage from Dervine, for instance.
But when you write contemporary YA – which is the genre/category of my upcoming novel – the line between the characters of fiction and the author who brought them into being becomes blurry.
All novels are, by their nature and definition, works of fiction – but there’s no denying that they also serve to crystallise many fragments of the author. It may be elements of our psyche, our history, our politics or our worldview, but some hidden shards of us end up in the final product, like tiny cracked eggshells accidentally sprinkled into the pudding.
The degree to which this happens varies from author to author, novel to novel.
I’ve recently been poring over my printed manuscript, going over some notes from the editor and immersing myself in the novel’s aura, and today a quote came to me from the abyss.
Okay, it was from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but “abyss” had more gravitas.
Towards the end of that book [SPOILER ALERT, if you’re 17 years behind …], in the penultimate chapter titled “The Parting of the Ways”, Harry is forced to recount the trauma of what just happened to him at the end of the Triwizard Tournament. He’s witnessed Cedric being murdered in front of him; witnessed the spectral reincarnation of his dead parents for a cruel, infinitesimal moment; and seen the Dark Lord rise again.
In short, he’s had a bloody shit night out and the thought of talking about it is too painful.
When I first read this novel at age twelve, there was a line from this chapter that stood out to me. In subsequent years, as I’ve attempted to recover from some of the trauma I’ve put myself through in life, that line has glowed in my mind with the ferocity of a lightning bolt-shaped scar:
“Once or twice, Sirius made a noise as though about to say something, his hand still tight on Harry’s shoulder, but Dumbledore raised his hand to stop him, and Harry was glad of this, because it was easier to keep going now he had started. It was even a relief; he felt almost as though something poisonous was being extracted from him; it was costing him every bit of determination he had to keep talking, yet he sensed that once he had finished, he would feel better.”
The part in bold is what resonates with me, now, as I look at the mess of papers that constitutes my manuscript’s current draft.
I had the same feeling when I started writing this book: that something toxic was being extracted from my blood; with each sentence I pounded out on the keyboard, a few more drops of latent venom leaked out of my veins, slowing filling the vial.
It finally escaped my body and became contained in its own vessel: the manuscript that sits before me now, marked in editor’s pencil and illuminated by the afternoon sunlight.
Yes, it’s entirely fictional. The characters are made up, and so is the story. It will be read, first and foremost, as a tale. But the themes this novel tackles are so close to the bone that I drew plenty on my own past in fleshing out some elements.
My writing process for this novel reflects Harry’s experience and exhaustion, too. I had to plumb some deep reserves of determination to keep writing when I was so shattered, but I knew that once I finished, I would feel better.
I do feel better now.
Moreover, writing this book represented a Parting of the Ways of my own. That vial full of poisonous venom has left my body and is contained in the manuscript now. Now that it’s outside of me at last, I can see it more clearly. I can experiment with it. I can open it and close it. I can hold it in my hands and feel its weight.
My task now is to make some final touches and then send it into the world, where my work can, I hope, serve as balm for others whose skin right now is as burnt and raw as mine once was.