I met Gayle Forman at the LA times Festival of Books, years ago, when it was still held on the UCLA campus, when my daughter was still a baby, in 2009. She was part of a YA panel that included Jandy Nelson and Sonya Sones. It was a panel on death in YA. I was dipping my toe into the genre, finding my way and learning all I could because I had an idea and I was attempting to write that idea into a book.
I settled into a middle row early on and watched as the room filled with other eager writers. Sonya snapped a photo of the audience, I smiled big and waved at the camera and became a face in the crowd of her memory. Little did she know, that this panel and its authors would fuel a growing fire inside me to follow my dream.
Sonya was the moderator and dove into the role with gusto that was refreshing and informative. I listened to Gayle, Jandy and Sonya wishing I could know each of them better. Gayle and Jandy had chemistry, a connection based on ideas and perspectives of the world.
Their connection was genuine and contagious and I wanted to be connected to that free flow of ideas and liked-mindedness. To be friends with them too, to sit and talk about how plants could tell moods, how the number eleven is everywhere in my life, that I speak to dragonflies and how hawks circle me, and wasn’t that was similar to them? Symbols and character voices are a part of the world I live in, but they were new and I wanted to affix to those who successfully tamed their sensory perceptions and wrote engaging, heartfelt, sometimes joyful and then heart-wrenching stories.
However, since I’m not a stalker, I did what I could. I bought their books and waited in line to have them autographed. I remember the smell of the books. Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, thick hard cover with a heart and bold type artwork. The dark hair and blue eyes peering upward from the bottom of the soft cover of Gayle Foreman’s if i stay, and Sonya Sone’s One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, and I thought, my mother dies too. Torn between finding some shade and breaking into all the books at once and the desire to meet them and have them sign my books, I gave into the second and got into the long winding line, had my name written on a post-it so they could autograph my book especially to me, without misspelling my name.
As I inched toward the white pop up tent where they sat, joking with each other, their inside jokes and secret language easy to spot twenty people back, I began getting nervous. Would I say something? And if I do…what???? I was new at the whole YA thing. I hadn’t found my voice, figured out my story or have an inkling if I could write a whole book.
I was worried about starting out so late in life, I was forty, was that too old to begin a career in young adult publishing? I handed a book to Jandy first, she has soft eyes and an inviting smile. Gayle took her books too and I see both of their eyes on me. And before I have the thought to speak, I hear my nervous voice, the higher pitch version coming out of my throat and saying,”I’m trying to write a YA book too. Do you think it’s too late to start?” To which both Gayle and Jandy say, “NO!”
Jandy tells me she’s forty-four and this is her first book. And Gayle says something that I can’t quite recall, but it’s as if they give me permission to get over myself and do it, because they do it. She smiles at me. Jandy takes a picture of Gayle, and Gayle uses it as her author photo for a while. And for an instant I’m in on an inside joke.
I read Gayle’s work voraciously. I wonder how she uses such clear simple language and yet conveys so much to the reader. I’m in awe. I find her first book, Sisters in Sanity, and study how her writing has evolved, and see what makes her voice ping my heart every time I read it.
Then yesterday, I finished Just One Day and the book is full of moments that change a girl’s life. And I think, yes, in a way Gayle did that for me.
“…He said that earlier, about accidents, about never knowing which one is just a kind in the road and which one is a fork, about never knowing your life is changing until it’s already happened.”
I love this, and she had that same effect on me. The idea I had when I showed up at the LA Times Festival of Books was the seed for What Death has Touched. It took me a while to find my way, and figure out the story and work my craft to shape it, but I did it. And if weren’t for the kindness of a stranger, a woman I admire, along with a smile and a “yes you can” I don’t know if my dream of writing a young adult novel would come true. I wouldn’t have met all the authors, agents and editors I call my friends. My life would be less complete, definitely less rich, because all I ever wanted to do was write stories, it’s just I got sidetracked by another career for a while.
I hope that you too have those encounters in your life. The small moments when the click happens and a shift occurs, quietly or even with a bang. I hope you ride out the storm and find yourself happier because of it. Because for me life it about growth and change, without those what’s the point? And without happy accidents the jourey less fun.
So thank you Gayle Forman for continuing to inspire me. And I can’t wait to read Willem’s side of the story!