I always get a very particular kind of nervous when my mother reads my books. She’s a voracious reader and isn’t afraid to tell me what she really thinks, which is both incredibly valuable and maybe a little bit terrifying. So when I gave her the ARC of my upcoming release (the young adult novel Questions I Want to Ask You, which comes out today, yay!), I wasn’t surprised at her first question: “Why so much swearing?” (She does not love curse words.)
What surprised me more was her second question: “Who is this book for?”
I wasn’t sure what she meant at first. The book is pretty solidly YA; the main character has just graduated from high school, and the book takes place the summer afterward, but there are none of the characteristics that I consider the hallmarks of adult literature (retrospection or elevated language or a certain kind of overtly graphic violence and/or depictions of sexuality, among others).
When I asked her what she was talking about, she said that it was easy for her to picture the audience for my first two books, which were about nerdy high school kids who reminded her of me as a teenager. It wasn’t hard for her to imagine teenagers reading them who were like me and my friends. But this new one was different—it was about a boy who wasn’t nerdy and ambitious and eager to leave his hometown; it was about a boy who never wanted to leave the place where he grew up, who lacked curiosity, who’d been forced into the position of having to ask questions and to care about their answers. And it wasn’t easy for my mom to imagine who might want to read it.
In trying to answer her question, I first had to set aside the initial panic of worrying that I’d written a book for which there was no audience. (Fingers crossed that my worry is unfounded.) Then I explained why I’d wanted to tell this story in the first place: I’d hoped to try and understand the mentality of some of the people I’d grown up with, people who were very different from me but with whom I’d shared so many similar experiences. People who maybe weren’t readers back then, but could have been, if they’d found the right book.
“I have two audiences in mind,” I told my mother. I explained to her about the YALSA category of reluctant readers, the idea that it wasn’t enough for me to always write for my teenaged self but that sometimes I wanted to try and reach out to kids who aren’t like what I was like back then, to give them books that I hoped would reflect their experiences. Then I talked about writing to learn, writing to tunnel my way into the heads and hearts of other people so I could try to understand them, to increase my capacity for empathy.
I have questions sometimes about whether that’s okay, if I’m to be completely honest. Writing a book like this means it’s not #ownvoices, in that I’m neither a teenaged boy nor someone who was ever in the type of circumstances my narrator faced. And there are times when I think that matters a lot, and there are narrators whose experiences I would not try to relate through fiction even as an empathetic exercise because there are others who are far better positioned to do so than I am, and while I would love to think there’s room for all of us, that’s not always true as a practical matter, and there are places where I have more to offer.
In this case, though, I’d like to think there’s a space for me to enter. Having grown up in a town much like the one in the book, I was able to observe some of the class and cultural tensions first-hand. I keep in touch with many of my classmates both in real life and online, and I’ve had years to observe the ways various people have and haven’t changed, which has allowed me to imagine the types of experiences that make people want to stay close to home after they become adults versus the types of things that make them want to leave. (Reading lots of Elena Ferrante hasn’t hurt, either—her extraordinary Neapolitan novels tackle this question with a level of sophistication I can’t even hope to attain.)
What’s most important to me is that I’m branching out from the types of narrators I chose for my first two books, narrators I knew intimately and who were, in many ways, safe. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine what they’d be thinking about in the situations I’d placed them in, what they’d do, what types of secrets they’d keep and who they’d hurt to keep them. But if I ever wanted to grow as a writer, it seemed crucial that I expand my range, that I learn to burrow into the consciousness of someone with whom I could find common ground, even if the ways we related to one another weren’t initially apparent.
Moving out of my writerly comfort zone was a daunting proposition, of course, and it’s telling that for my first real outing I chose a narrator who might as well have been the boy next door. This highlights, for me, the challenges of stretching both my technical and emotional writing muscles within the scope of realist literature—we don’t have to travel far from home to do some learning. Which is exactly, I think, what my narrator was trying to teach me in the first place.
Whether my answer to my mom’s question was satisfying is, as you can imagine, a whole other topic.
Michelle Falkoff is author of the young adult novels Questions I Want to Ask You (May 29, 2018; HarperCollins/HarperTeen), Playlist for the Dead and Pushing Perfect. She is also the Director of Communication and Legal Reasoning at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, where she is a Public Voices Fellow through the Op-Ed Project. You can visit her at michellefalkoff.com