Katherine Locke: Five Things I Learned Writing The Girl With The Red Balloon
Ellie Baum feels the weight of history on her when she arrives on a school trip to Berlin, Germany. After all, she’s the first member of her family to return since her grandfather’s miraculous escape from a death camp in 1942. One moment she’s contemplating the Berlin Wall Memorial amidst the crowd, and the next, she’s yanked back through time, to 1988 East Berlin when the Wall is still standing.
Nobody knows how she got there, not even the members of the underground guild–the Runners and the Schopfers–who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall. Now as a stranger in an oppressive regime, Ellie must hide from the police with the help of Kai, a Runner struggling with his own uneasy relationship with the powerful Balloonmakers and his growing feelings for Ellie. Together they search for the truth behind Ellie’s mysterious travel, and when they uncover a plot to alter history with dark magic, she must risk everything–including her only way home–to stop the deadly plans.
* * *
Cats belong in boxes. Stories don’t.
When I was writing The Girl with the Red Balloon, people asked, “What is it?” and I said, “It’s the story of a girl who–,” and they’d interrupt me and say, “No, no, I mean, what genre?” and I didn’t know how to answer them. Historical urban fantasy? Historical time-travel with fantastical elements? Alternate history because magic? And a few times, that nearly tripped me up with this book. It had to be something, right? It has to fit somewhere. Someone has to shelve this book, therefore someone has to know what it is, and what about the metadata on Amazon? How will it be labeled? And if it has to be something, I have to pick because then there are conventions in that genre I need to adhere to! If I don’t adhere to them, then everyone will know I’m a fraud because I just picked that genre out of a hat!
Look. Cats belong in boxes. Stories don’t. Yes, it can be helpful for marketing, and yes, readers have certain expectations in certain genres, but it isn’t one hundred percent necessary. It isn’t a precursor to getting published, or to success. When I was writing Girl, I had to learn to let it go. When someone asked me what I was writing, I started answering, “I don’t know.” It was honest. I wrote the book I wanted to write: it’s historical, and contemporary. It’s both science fiction and fantasy. It has time-travel, but only one jump…so is it reallllllly a time travel book? Does that matter? Not really. I wrote the story I wanted to tell, and it blends genres until I can’t see distinct colors anymore. I’m really glad I didn’t force my book into a box. I love cats, but my book is not a cat.
I worried my book was too Jewish. It isn’t.
There’s Yiddish and Hebrew in the book. There are two Jewish protagonists and only one of them is a victim of the Holocaust. I talk about Shabbat, and prayers, and Jewish stories. One of my main characters, Benno, tells Jewish stories to a girl on the other side of the ghetto fence, and she tries to tell him that when the Jewish people are gone, she’ll tell his stories. And he gets angry with her, the same way I get angry with gentiles telling Jewish stories now. Because we’re not gone. We’re still here.
I’m aware that publishing continues to view certain stories as ‘too niche.’ Publishing believes the only people who want to buy those stories are the people within those communities. That stories with marginalized protagonists will be books that live in the margins.
I worried about that a lot with Girl. I worried that a girl saying the Shema in the first chapter, and a girl who does Shabbat on Friday nights throughout the book, and who says the Mourner’s Kaddish for people who die in the book, and a boy who sings in Yiddish to his sister and dreams of escaping to a land that doesn’t even exist yet would alienate non-Jewish readers.
But I also worry that the only narrative Publishing seems to like about Jewish people is the Holocaust, where Jewish people die, where Jewish people are victims, Othered, and memorialized in their Otherness.
I worry a lot, I know. It’s kind of my thing. But this was a worry I couldn’t shake until recently, until people started reading the book and saying that a Jewish voice mattered to them as a Jewish person, and from gentile readers, that they learned and connected to the victims of the Holocaust through Benno’s life. He mattered to them, and what happened to him and the people around him, matters to all of us.
The book wasn’t too Jewish. I was too worried.
Some stories are born with structure. Other stories have structure thrust upon them. It’s like greatness, but more necessary and more mundane.
The first draft of Girl was 93,000 words and only three sentences survived. I know. That’s still vaguely nauseating to me and I rewrote it well over three years ago now. That first draft included a ten thousand word scene that wanders through a circus for no discernible purpose other than to include a flashback so Ellie could learn about her grandfather’s story. It’s a hot mess of a draft, I won’t lie. The fact that my critique partners had to read through that…I really should apologize to them again. Maybe buy them cupcakes or something.
When I rewrote it, I outlined everything and marched right down my outline. If left to my own devices, I would regularly write full length novels where people walked around cities, holding hands and having feelings. That would be the book. And then I’d be confused about why it didn’t accomplish the thing on paper that it did in my head. Because in my head, a book hurtles toward an inevitability. And without an outline, my books tend to flop about on a deck like confused fish.
I wrote an outline. I followed it. And I wrote each POV in a separate Word doc and copy-pasted into a master document (don’t bother telling me about Scrivener. It has its place for some books I write, but it didn’t work for this one.) The last POV I wrote was Benno’s. He’s Ellie’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, and his POV takes place in 1941-1942. I wrote his POV straight through, and then chopped it up, inserting chapters into the main narrative to explain plot points or to foreshadow or to increase tension.
The book wasn’t in my head in that exact order. I had to sit down with all the pieces and construct it, again, and again, and again. Some books, and some writers, have to work harder to find their narrative structure. That’s okay.
You won’t get everything right.
I had to let go of getting everything right. I did a ton of research for the book, and even with all of that, I had to learn that I wasn’t going to get everything right. And some of this was more theoretical: when you’re writing something in history, there will be people who disagree with your interpretation of the mood, tone, or level of oppression at that exact moment in time. The way we view and treat history is inherently political (as we are seeing firsthand these days on our screens.)
But on a practical level, there are some details that are difficult to research: exactly how this part of the city smelled on summer mornings; the way that East German cigarettes smelled and whether they burned your nose or your throat or clung to your hair in different ways; the finickiness of an East German toaster; the sound of a light switch; the sound of Stasi boots on wet streets. Some of this you just have to invent and guess and imagine. You cannot research every single detail of the book. Get the important stuff right–laws, dates, locations, racial relations, food, clothing, slang, names, gender relations, etc–and the rest, wing it. It’ll be okay.
Pride isn’t hubris.
Full disclosure: I’m still working on this one, plus learning to separate anxiety about how a book performs as a Product from my pride in having written this book.
We’re socialized to talk about our work in such a way that we don’t sound like we’re bragging. Bragging is bad, we’re told, so we avoid it. “Congrats! You wrote a book.” “Oh, you know. It has a long way to go. But thanks.” As I was writing it and getting feedback and then sending it into the world, I had to work on training myself to say, “Thank you! That means a lot to me.” Because that’s the truth. And having a long way to go doesn’t diminish the fact that I wrote a book and it accomplished what I set out to accomplish, and that’s awesome. I did the thing! I did the thing well! I met my own expectations which is honestly shocking because I am, like many of us are, my own worst critic.
Being proud of the work you’ve accomplished is not bragging. It isn’t hubris. It is not your fatal flaw. And it is critically important to developing resilience and continuing to create. “I wrote a book, it is awesome/it’s going to be awesome, and I’m really proud of myself” is a legitimate statement. Start practicing it now.
* * *
Katherine Locke lives and writes in a very small town outside of Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, time travel, and magic. When she’s not writing, she’s probably tweeting. She not-so-secretly believes most stories are fairy tales in disguise. Her Young Adult debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives September 1st, 2017 from Albert Whitman & Company!