I love a good behind-the-scenes. Not just knowing the story of a thing, but what it took to make it. How the sausage is made, if you will. Maybe that’s why I liked doing theater in high school. Why I like visiting my cousins farm and helping with all of the things (sometimes literally seeing how the sausage is made). Why I gobble up behind-the-scenes articles about movies I’m anticipating, why I want to hear all the time about people’s jobs and how things work. Why I said yes to being on the vestry at church, and a delegate to our Diocesan convention. Seeing the rough and raw aspects of how a thing is made are catnip to me. Heck – this was (and probably still is) one of my all time favorite segments on public television:
But today isn’t about my love of crayons, it’s about a book that goes behind the scenes on the process of book publication. It’s called “Afterworlds” and it is written by Scott Westerfeld. He wrote a series that I read about 6 years ago that started with a book called “Uglies”. They were interesting YA sci-fi books set in a sort of futuristic earth (maybe? It’s been a while, and I don’t remember exactly), but to me they weren’t anything really special or life-changing.
“Afterworlds” isn’t life-changing either, but it is special, and part of that is due to the structure, which is built as a novel-within-a-novel. Darcy Patel is the young (just graduated high school) author who wrote a book during NaNoWriMo (though it’s not explicitly stated, she wrote it during November, so…duh) and decides to make a go of it for a year or two in New York City, exploring the publishing scene, doing rewrites and living life as an adult on her own before going to college.
The novel she writes is “Afterworlds” – the story of Lizzie, a young woman who is the sole survivor of a domestic terrorist attack, which she escapes by pretending to be dead, during which she becomes dead for a while, and discovers a secret power and falls in love with a young man. That story is a paranormal romance – a common trope in YA novels. Think the vampires and werewolves like in Twilight, or The Mortal Instruments books by Cassie Clare (neither of which are very good…but they are examples of the genre). This one has a unique take, because the love interest is a psychopomp – a spirit guide – who is based on a Hindu death God named Yama.
The two stories alternate chapters, with us seeing the progression towards Darcy’s finished novel. There is a lot of discussion in the book about whether or not it was ok for Darcy to co-opt Yama – a serious religious figure for millions – for purposes of “YA hotness”. I can’t help but look at this now, and wonder if perhaps Westerfeld wrote the Lizzie story first, and then in discussions of the story, figured out that he as a white man shouldn’t be the one writing the novel that co-opts a Hindu deity. And thus was born the story of Darcy, a young American woman of Indian descent. He easily puts this all on her – this is the religion she grew up with, and she recognizes the problems, even if she plans to go forward in spite of them. This “absolves” Westerfeld, and allows the Lizzie story to be a talking point for Darcy’s story, and to have the discussion instead of merely letting a Lizzie-only Afterworlds novel out into the world and taking all that flak himself.
Which isn’t to say that I think Darcy’s story is extraneous or pointless – actually, quite the opposite. I LOVED Darcy’s story more than Lizzie’s. Perhaps because it has that behind-the-scenes trope that I mentioned loving above with how books get published. It also had another of my favorite tropes – “setting up house” – where Darcy goes apartment hunting, and eventually gets an apartment and we sort-of see her fill it in with her life. There’s a lovely romance in this story too that I won’t give away, except to say I was slightly surprised, and yet not. And again – the writing process. The timelines of how long things take. The book tours (the pre-book tour!), chatting with librarians, being at BEA, the pressure on modern authors to maintain a social media presence in order to publicize their books. Fascinating. All of it.
Did I enjoy the book? Yes I did. The Lizzie story was slow for a long time, but eventually picked up, and it was broken up by the even more consistently good Darcy story, so my qualms about that part of it shouldn’t be an issue. Books sometimes require patience. And I would definitely recommend the book to anyone who is interested in a modern, more realistic piece of YA, while maybe still looking for a guilty pleasure (since it has that paranormal romance built-in as a plot device). If you’re interested in the modern publishing process – how long things take (even if the timeline at the beginning is slightly rushed from what I’ve heard), what goes on, what gets done…it’s a good, engaging read. I only wish that the book didn’t end when and where it did. I could easily have sunk into Darcy’s world for a long time and thoroughly enjoyed myself seeing what came next.
Details: “Afterworlds” by Scott Westerfeld, published 2014 by Simon Pulse.