Cynthia Hand’s new novel The Last Time We Say Goodbye will make you feel. To give you some idea, BTCers, I got teary in The Fault in Our Stars, but sobbed in TLTWSG.
In this chat with Cynthia, she talks about why YA should tackle the difficult issues, her TBR pile and the Unearthly novella just waiting to be written.
The Last Time We Say Goodbye was an emotional read (understatement of the year). Was it as emotional to write?
It was very emotional, since it was a story so close to my heart. My own brother died when I was twenty years old, and when I first started drafting The Last Time We Say Goodbye it was nearly impossible for me to write because I was having a hard time separating my own story from the story I was trying to tell. But after a few weeks of basically writing in circles, my main character, Lex, arrived on the page, and she wasn’t me; she was completely her own person with her own voice and her own view of the things, and as I came to know her through writing her, her lost brother formed into someone different from my lost brother. Then the writing got easier, but it never really got less emotional.
Is there anything you’d say to readers about dealing with loss?
I was fairly young when my brother died, and at the time it felt like I was completely alone in that experience and that none of the twenty-year-olds around me could understand what I felt. But now, more than fifteen years later, I’ve seen how grief ultimately comes knocking on everybody’s door. We all must go through losing the people we love, which means that we are also never truly alone in it. I find so much comfort in that, but I’ve also seen, over the years, how everyone grieves in a slightly different way.
I’d also like to say something about numbness, which is so often grief’s bigger, uglier, cousin. I honestly think numbness is your body simply trying to keep you alive—if you lived in a state of raging, unmitigated grief for very long, your body couldn’t physically handle it. So you go through periods where you shut down—you feel nothing. THIS IS NORMAL, but people don’t talk about it much, and dealing with the numbness can actually be a bigger problem than the grief.
Several years ago I had a friend whose husband suddenly died, and a few days after the funeral she and I were sitting out on her front lawn watching her kids play, and she turned to me and said, “I’m a horrible person,” and I said, “Why do you say that?!” and she said, “Because I don’t feel anything. I didn’t even cry at my own husband’s funeral.” I told her about my experience with numbness, about how for months after my brother died I felt nothing outside of a few moments of terrible pain every now and then, about how I was able to rattle off the details about how he died without any emotion at all, about how I even lost my sense of taste and smell for a while—I was that numb. My friend looked so relieved when I shared that with her—and that’s what I would say to anybody who has experienced a loss: 1. You are not alone.2. Numbness is normal.
This story comes from a personal place for you – how long has the idea been with you?
I wrote the first words of the story in my idea journal on October 12, 2011, when I was in the middle of working on my book Hallowed. Truthfully, the idea terrified me, because I knew what it would take for me to write something like that. So I didn’t work on it again for a long time.
Why is it important for YA to tackle difficult things like loss, suicide and grief?
It’s like I said earlier—so we can feel like we are not alone. It helps the people who are going through these things find comfort in the fact that someone else understands, and it helps the people who haven’t been through those things better understand what the first people are going through. Young adults, more than anybody, I think, need that sense of connection.
I also feel that suicide in particular needs to be talked about, since it affects such a huge part of our population and teens often have a very romantic notion of it. That’s one of the things that pushed me through the fear and emboldened me to write this novel—because I felt like it would be useful for teen readers to see a non-romanticized account of what suicide does to a family.
Was there any particular music you listened to while writing?
Music is a crucial part of this novel—Lex listens to music constantly as a way of drowning out the world (mostly Bach), her mother is an Elvis fan, there’s a school dance where one particular song gets under Lex’s skin, her boyfriend plays her music at another critical moment, and, perhaps most importantly, Lex’s brother and his friends listened to the song “Stairway to Heaven” as a kind of touchstone between them, which becomes a kind of touchstone for Lex as well. So my playlist was very eclectic this time—Bach and Led Zeppelin and Elvis, along with some songs I threw in that resonated for me with the emotions of my book. Perhaps my favourite of these was, “The Sun Will Rise,” by Kelly Clarkson, which is a song that always makes me feel hopeful. You can listen to my playlist by going to my website (www.cynthiahandbooks.com); there’s a player you can listen to in the sidebar.
You’re a big reader of YA yourself (we loved your wrap up of the books you’d read in 2014), what’s the book you’re currently recommending to friends?
So many great books already this year! For contemporary I just read The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, which was amazing. Anderson’s narrators always feel so authentic to me. I also devoured Pierce Brown’s Golden Son the moment it arrived—I love how visceral his world is, how life or death things are all the freaking time. And then this week I read Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest, which gave me a big case of writerly jealousy—I was immediately so completely engrossed by the story and the characters, and Holly Black manages to give us those unforgettable stories again and again and again.
What’s on your to-be-read pile at the moment?
The Difference Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes, Winter by Marissa Meyer, Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge, and about fifty I still have in my pile from last year.
We loved the Unearthly trilogy (Team Tucker forever), was there anything you did differently when writing contemporary fiction as opposed to paranormal?
Not really. My process is pretty similar no matter what I’m writing, be it paranormal or contemporary or fantasy or non-fiction, even, although I will say that writing standalones feels slightly different—you don’t have to make such big plans, or keep so much information in your head all the time the way you must while writing a series, but you also have to solve all of its mysteries in a standalone, instead of saving them for the next book. I enjoy writing both.
Do you miss Clara, Tucker, Angela, Christian and the gang as much as we do?
Heck, yes! Sometimes I listen to my playlists from those books just to feel them again. I also have a Christian novella that is half-written that has been awfully tempting to me these days.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I am. We are just finishing up the official first draft of My Lady Jane, which is a book I’m working on with my writing besties Jodi Meadows and Brodi Ashton. I describe the novel as being like a YA Princess Bride—we took the story of the Lady Jane Grey, who is a tragic figure in British History, and rewrote her ending and added magic and made it a comedy. It has been so much fun to work on—exactly what I needed after writing The Last Time We Say Goodbye. Go to www.ladyjanies.blogspot.com to read more about that book, which will be on shelves sometime in the summer of 2016.
I also have another contemporary in the works, but that one is also very personal / emotional and I am going to take a while (like maybe another year or two) to write it.
In the meantime I am writing something fun and light that I hope will be able to come out about Christmastime 2016.
And. . . (good grief, am I this busy?) I am working on a how-to book for writing your first YA novel, which will help youdesign a writing plan for yourself based on your personality as a writer, which is how I’ve always worked with my college students. So basically I’m collecting all of my wise-teachings and hand-outs and methods that I use to teach fiction writing at the university and rolling them into a pretty little book.
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