Saturday, June 6, 2009

While I was underground

This is conference season, so for the past two months my blogging took a back seat to an intense round of edits on my novel. I thought if I could block everything else out and concentrate hard I could get it right, finally. And again I have rediscovered that the word "infinity" is the distance between "here" and "the end."

I take time to return to my blog today for a few reasons. One is fan demand (thanks, Janet!). Another is that I have just returned from seeing my son Jackson sing with the Westminster Choir at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. While he used his voice brilliantly, I lost mine altogether due to the spate of new allergens encountered in the low country. So if I want to communicate at all, it will be through writing. 

And, as usual, I am using my writing to to heal from painful chaos so I might make sense of my life.

Because I came home to some rather odd news. An independent editor I hired to help me with my novel wrote to say that while she was at BookExpo America she learned that THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY will be published by Algonquin Books in spring 2010. Good news, right? Publication is the result of a lot of hard work and through personal experience I can attest to the fact that it is the long awaited answer to the dream of its author: Heidi W. Durrow. 

Somehow, while I re-worked my own writing challenges with my head beneath the sand, I missed the announcement that the book had also won the 2008 Bellwether Prize, a cash and publication prize awarded to an author whose work promotes social change. Some of you may know that I had long considered submitting for this prize, since I believe the core issue of my novel—aberrant body image—is holding women in our country back and that change will only come one woman at a time as we learn to accept the gift of our own corporeal individuality. I have always hoped, through my novel, to help inspire that change.

By now I'm pretty sure we're all on the title page together here: the novel I'm referring to would be the novel I have been living and breathing for six years now, THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY. 

I remember when I first pitched my novel to an editor at a conference, four years ago. She said: "No matter what happens with this book, don't let anyone talk you into changing its name. It's brilliant."

Now, in deference to Durrow's publication success in the same genre, that's exactly what I must do. Even though titles are not copyrighted, common marketing sense dictates that I now leave behind the one sure thing that has guided me all these years, a concept so inextricably woven into the fabric of the story that ripping it free will leave a huge thematic hole. I must also give up the idea of submitting for the Bellwether, since although Durrow's theme of biracial identity is different than mine, her book is based on a girl who survives a fall from the top of a building. (If you read the interview at her website, you'll see that even though it was a different article, she was inspired to write it by something she read in the newspaper just as I was.)

I am left feeling that I woke up to find someone else living my life—and doing it more successfully than I could. Case in point: you can find the interview I would have given (with pertinent facts substituted of course) at Heidi's website. And the cover design is one I would have envisioned for my own book: the words of the title placed in a vertical column against a blue background, with a stylized stick figure falling below. 

While my head was in the sand, another author blew past me—and I was unaware that I was running a race. If you think it makes me feel any better that Durrow's original Bellwether submission title was LIGHT SKINNED-ED GIRL, and that the publisher no doubt influenced the title change, it does not. This beautifully archetypal title was not mine to own, yet I can't help but feel bereft. Even if I didn't have laryngitis, I wouldn't know what to say. I am having trouble looking at my husband in the eye because he has been so tremendously supportive of me and at present I just don't know what any of this means for the future of my own project.
I will rebound from this in time, because rebounding is what I do. But let me put the challenge ahead into perspective: I have, in the past, cried when a computer crash made me lose six hours of desktop publishing work. So it will take me a while to recover from six years of identifying my writing with a title that I couldn't have loved more if it had sprung from my own body.

At present, I am the Girl Who Fell. I can't believe the ride is over, and I am wondering how I'll ever make my way back up to that place where hope lives. Yet, like my protagonist, I will do it. Because that is not only the kind of story I want to tell, it is the kind of story I want to live. 

I have received so much incredible support from my writing friends in the development of THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY, for which I am incredibly grateful. I'm sure we'll have some great conversations about how Penelope Sparrow will rise again under a title that I hope to learn to love. But for now, thanks to my laryngitis, I have a great excuse not to talk about it until I re-orient to the reality of my new circumstances.