Guest Post: Author Karen Rivers on Writing a Love Story
Here is one thing that I know: It is easier to imagine a perfect love story than to live one, and goodness knows that I’ve tried. Some days I think I’ve been lucky, to have had so many opportunities to not just fall in love, but to stay there. Or to walk away.
Other times, I feel cursed, like a fairy-tale princess, unable to continue to want what I thought I wanted at the start. Which is to say, I have always been great at yearning, mediocre at real beginnings, and terrible at endings.
When I sat down to write YOU ARE THE EVERYTHING, I knew I wanted to tell a love story, but I wanted to specifically tell a love story that began with one person, alone, falling in love with the other, who was unaware. It seems to me that this is one of the quintessential human experiences: The crush.
Not stalking. Nothing scary. But simply yearning.
I also wanted to explore something else, something that has to do at least peripherally, with social media and how we instinctively have learned to curate our lives, presenting only photo-worthy moments to the world, unfolding an Instagram calendar of laughter and white teeth and shiny hair and warm embraces. It seems to me that to grow up in a world where everything is curated in this way is to add an element of constant striving, but worse than that, an element of never quite measuring up. Can reality ever be as good as the stories you tell yourself?
I set out to tell a love story that has already been imagined, rehearsed, perfected. Elyse Schmidt draws her life in a graphic novel, Me and Josh Harris: A Love Story, unfurling on paper a wittier, more clever, less shy, happier version of herself. A version of herself who is both in love and who is worthy of love. Into her story, she draws Josh Harris, who has been the boy of her dreams for as long as she can remember.
But when he finally, through a set of unimaginably terrible circumstances, notices her, can it ever be quite as good as it was on paper? Or does she “love” only what she believes she knows, but can’t really know for sure?
This distance between what we think we know and what we do know, the gulf between what we believe we want and what is real — that is one of the veins I wanted to explore. I thought that’s what the novel was going to be about: the graphic novel vs. the reality.
But when I sat down to write, the plane crashed. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but planes do crash sometimes and I had to go with it. “Let your characters lead the way,” is the one rule that I live by, when I begin to write.
I was as surprised as anyone. Definitely as surprised as Elyse.
But isn’t that the magic of telling stories? Sometimes the stories take us to unexpected places, including into the side of a mountain.
So there I had Elyse and Josh at the back of the plane, the part that has broken off from the rest, able to make a choice that will decide if they live or die.
This will be a love story, I decided.
When I was twenty-one, something happened to my heart. The thing that happened to my heart shouldn’t have been unexpected (at least, to me) because it came after many years of depriving my body of what it needed, specifically calories, food, nutrition, hydration. For a long time, I had punished myself ferociously for not looking the way I felt I was expected to look and the time came when I had to pay the price. To make a long story short, I died. For a moment, or two, or maybe three, my heart stopped beating. In this pause between life and death, I felt at first panicked, and then safe.
That feeling is something I took with me to this story: The proximity to death, that terror, then finally, the sheer force of will that says, No.
A relinquishing of control, while still battling for the choice.
Will I live or will I die?
Elyse’s experience is at once both different and the same.
This is the first true love story that I have ever written. I wrote it entirely from my heart, which twenty-seven years later is still doing what it needs to do to keep me here. I want people to know that it’s the book of my heart. I want them to know that my heart broke while I wrote it, but that it also wrote itself, it told itself to me, and all I did was write it down. Which, after all, as a writer and a survivor myself, is all that I can do.
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,” said Mary Oliver and I agree, wholeheartedly, that’s all we can do.
We imagine, we love, we see, we imagine, we listen, we write it down.
I hope that all the people out there who have ever loved someone quietly, from afar, will see themselves in this book. I hope they will love it, too.
About YOU ARE THE EVERYTHING:
When Elyse Schmidt and her not-so-secret crush, Josh Harris, are the sole survivors of a plane crash, tragedy binds them together. They become superstars in today’s social media-driven world, and they move with their families to the wide open spaces of Wyoming for a chance to live their lives quietly, together. It’s as if their love story is meant to be. Everything is perfect, or as perfect as it can be when you’ve literally fallen out of the sky and landed hard on the side of a mountain—until suddenly it isn’t. Elyse’s whole world begins to unravel, culminating in a shocking conclusion that will have readers flipping back through the pages to reread this incredible story.
About Karen Rivers:
KAREN RIVERS is the author of twenty-one novels for children, teens, and adults, including the highly praised The Girl in the Well Is Me, All That Was, Before We Go Extinct and A Possibility of Whales. She lives in British Columbia, Canada. Find her online at karenrivers.com or on Twitter @karenrivers.
—School Library Journal, starred review“Philosophical readers will find much to love here; Rivers picks apart the nuances of friendship and romance, with their attendant loyalties and conflicts . . . [You Are the Everything] is an unusual and compelling novel that skillfully plays with narrative perspective.”
—Booklist, starred review“In a novel that challenges concepts of time and reality, Rivers examines wish fulfillment and subconscious defenses . . . [and] evokes the surreal quality of the world that Elyse sees.”
“Well-written and emotionally resonant, this is an unusual and poignant story . . . that explores unfulfilled dreams and ideas of what might have been.”
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
SLJ Blog Network