Interview with Author Debbie Levy

YOGcover-largeCM: When did you first develop an interest in writing?

DL: I’ve loved to read since I was a little girl; my love of reading led to an interest in writing. Thanks to my mother, I still have some of the “books” I wrote as a seven- and eight-year-old, with titles like Something Happens to Tuggy and The Captured Boys. (You can see the covers on my website here: http://debbielevybooks.com/about/.)

To me, switching from lawyering to writing doesn’t seem like such a giant leap. So many lawyers are word people, and although I know we like to make jokes about impenetrable legalese, excellence in lawyering often depends on excellence in writing. (Not always, I know. But often.) Anyway, there was no single moment when I decided to make the career change. I’d always been interested in writing. I left the practice of law to work as an editor at a newspaper chain that covered the legal profession. And then I left that to write books for young people.

CM: What made you decide to write books for children?

DL: Once I had kids of my own, I rediscovered books for kids. Once again, my love of reading these led to an interest in writing them. Favorites in our house were the Frog and Toad books (by Arnold Lobel) and the George and Martha books (by James Marshall). And, oh, all of Shel Silverstein’s poetry!

CM: What directed your interest to the history surrounding WWII?

DL: I think the combination of my mother being a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and my father being a bona fide war hero (he enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor, served on a destroyer-escort in the Mediterranean, and was awarded the Legion of Merit after his ship was torpedoed and he tirelessly tended to the wounds of his shipmates, saving the lives of many) made this interest inevitable.

CM: Your book The Year of Goodbyes is a true story based on your mother’s experience fleeing Germany in WWII. How did that personal connection make it easier and/or more difficult to write the story?

DL: The personal connection made it easier because it produced in me a certainty that I wanted—even needed—to tell this story in the way I told it. It also made it easier because I had my mother, living right here in Maryland near me, to interview endlessly, and I had her treasure trove of documentation and artifacts, and I had access to her friends (acknowledged in the book) who also survived and made it to this country.

The personal connection made it harder because—well, because it was personal. It was painful to unearth the memories—for my mother, certainly, who had lived them, but for me as well. But because of that certainty I felt about wanting/needing to tell the story, the pain was something we were both willing to go through.

When I talk with students in schools I visit, sometimes I bring up two seemingly contradictory lessons for writing, and also for life, that I’ve taken from working on The Year of Goodbyes.

First: Be Vulnerable. To do the research for a book like this, which involves investigating and revisiting the deaths of my own family members in the Holocaust, was hard. It opened up old, old wounds and memories for my mother. It meant months of sorrowful research for me. But we both opened ourselves up to the sorrow and the pain, and it made her an incredibly good source for this book, and it made my writing so much better than it was in all the other ways I had tried to write her story—because here I wasn’t telling the story from a distance. Making yourself vulnerable—by which I mean, able to be hurt and to be sad—makes you honest and real and that shows in your writing as much as in your relationships.

Second (and exactly the opposite of the first lesson): Be Invincible. Yeah, be vulnerable but also be invincible about the things you care about—unstoppable, unbeatable. After I’d written a draft of the book, I read an article in the online magazine, Gawker, which began like this: “Remember when you were in like sixth grade and your teacher asked you to read “Number the Stars” and you quietly thought to yourself . . . ‘jeez Louise, how many of these Holocaust books are there?” Well. A comment like that could stop a writer in her tracks. It’s like saying—you dummy, don’t you know the world already has as many books about the Holocaust era as it needs? But it didn’t stop me in my tracks. I was vulnerable in letting myself absorb the story, but invincible in believing that actually, the world *could* use my mother’s story. Maybe I was right and maybe I was wrong, but that is where a willingness to be vulnerable and a steeliness about being invincible led me on this project.

CM: Why did you decide to write The Year of Goodbyes in verse?

DL: I tried writing the book as a straightforward narrative. I really did. It didn’t work. The story seemed to have a will of its own, and practically insisted on channeling itself into the free (and blank) verse format. As you know, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes begins with one of the handwritten entries from the poesiealbum.  Writing the narrative in free verse seemed to flow naturally from, and echo and honor, the poesiealbum entries.  Also, one of the things I love about poetry is how much expression can be packed into an economical package. Each word matters so much. I wanted to write my mother’s story in that way—where each word mattered, the way each friend and relative mattered to her.

Another things about writing the book in free verse: Although people, including pre-teen people like mother at the time of the story, don’t walk around talking and thinking in poetry, I do think that free verse is good at capturing something essential about the way we think and react, especially under stressful conditions. It’s urgent and attentive. It creates rhythms, and then changes the rhythms, like a heartbeat that quickens, and then calms, in the face of danger.

Finally, I’ll point out here that the story is told in the first person—the reader is in the head of my mother as narrator. My intention was to make the reader feel as close as possible to the tension, emotions, and events experienced by my mother as a pre-teen. I wanted the reader to experience this real-life person as someone with a young person’s voice. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable doing this if I had not worked in close collaboration with my mother. But I was lucky enough to have her.

I didn’t write The Year of Goodbyes the way I did for the sake of novelty.  I just tried to find the most immediate and accurate way to depict my mother’s last year under the Nazi regime, which in turn, I hoped, would illuminate the shared experience of others who have been persecuted.

CM: Was it easier or more difficult to write the story in verse?

DL: Weirdly, wonderfully easier. I struggled for a long time to write something else. When I turned to verse, the story unfolded.

CM: What was your research process like?

DL :A good answer to this very important question would require another blog post entirely! I’ll just say that I am grateful for my legal training and career. When I was an associate at the D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now called WilmerHale), I developed good research skills, really picky, skeptical research skills. Working as a lawyer instilled in me the notion to keep digging, to make sure I don’t draw conclusions before they’re warranted. You don’t have to be a lawyer or go to law school to develop these skills, of course! I’m just giving credit where credit is due.

CM: Is there any advice about writing you would like to pass on to aspiring writers?

DL: Read. Read a lot. Not so you can imitate the writing you like, but so you know what you like, and what you don’t.

CM: What would Jutta want people today to remember about about WWII?

DL: My mother died in 2013, but I know what she would say because she was asked this question many times when she spoke about her experience and when we did presentations about The Year of Goodbyes. She would want people to remember that an event like the Holocaust can happen again. She would want people to remember that demonizing others, scapegoating a minority, refusing to acknowledge the humanity of people who don’t look like you, speak like you, or worship like you—these are all ingredients for the rise of demagogues and their willing followers who would rather blame The Other for their problems, or their nation’s problems, than look for thoughtful and rational solutions.


dl_about_1Debbie Levy writes books—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—for people of all different ages, and especially for young people. Before starting her writing career, she was a newspaper editor with American Lawyer Media and Legal Times; before that, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now called WilmerHale). She has a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and a law degree and master’s degree in world politics from the University of Michigan. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Rick Hoffman. Theyhave two grown sons. Besides writing, she loves to kayak, boat, and fish in the Chesapeake Bay region, swim, bowl duckpins, and tramp around the woods. And, of course, she loves to read.

Find more information about Debbie, The Year of Goodbyes, and her other books on her website.

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Adeline and Elise By Laurel Burlew

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Far away, tucked behind the mountains of Ramun and bordering the Zendain forest, there sat a kingdom named Aldea. It flourished under the rule of the wise King Florian and his kindhearted wife, Queen Jada. They were beloved by all, and the people of the kingdom greatly despaired when the King and Queen were taken from them in sickness. Left behind to rule was their only son, Henry. Though only twenty years of age when he ascended to the throne, King Henry dedicated his life to serving his kingdom and sought to find a bride who could rule alongside him.

He searched far and near, and met every eligible princess from the east to the west. Yet the King found no one suitable as a bride. Giving up his quest, Henry returned to his kingdom and decided he would rule it on his own.

Now, there lived in the kingdom two sisters who were very poor. The eldest, eighteen-year-old Adeline, had taken care of her sixteen-year-old sister Elise since their parents had died when they were young. The two sisters worked for a seamstress, and though they had little in the way of money, they had each other. During work hours, Adeline and Elise would sing to pass the time. They had lovely voices, though the seamstress often praised Elise above her sister.

When they went home each night to their small cottage, which was shared with other families on either side and above them, the sisters would play on an old pianoforte that had been given to the family long ago. The neighbors often stopped to listen.

On the days when they did not work, Adeline and Elise walked to the library and brought home books of all sorts. Though they did not know the foreign languages of kingdoms nearby as many accomplished women did, they did know how to converse with the traders who came through the kingdom. And although they did not know how to dance fashionably in proper assemblies and balls, their father had taught them at a young age to waltz beautifully.

When it reached Adeline’s ears that the King was in want of a wife, an idea sparked in her mind. The law of their kingdom stated that if the King could not find a wife among the noble women, he could choose a woman from among those in his kingdom. Knowing this from the many books she read over the years, Adeline devised a plan.

Early one morning, she arose and went out before the sun had risen. She walked quickly and made it to the palace gates a little after the golden sun had risen over the peaks of the Ramun mountains.

“I wish to see the King,” She told the guards who stood watch.

“No peasants see the King unless summoned!” They replied.

Adeline was not in a mind to let anyone dissuade her. She left, but she came back the next morning at the same time.

Again, she said, “I wish to see the King.” And again the guards sent her away.

She came back a third time and asked to see the King. But once again, she was sent away. Adeline went to the palace gates every morning for two weeks. The guards became perplexed and asked why she wanted to see the King; she only replied that it was urgent business. On the fourteenth day, the guards were so curious that they decided to let her enter the gates.

“Surely,” one said to the other as she approached the palace in the early morning light, “she is not dangerous at all. Indeed, I feel as if I know her now. She wishes to see the King—why not let her in and see what happens.”

Adeline walked into the grand palace, welcomed by a double door entrance. She came into the magnificent foyer and was stopped by another guard. “Why are you here?” he asked, his large frame filling her view.

“I am here to see the King.” Adeline replied. She was sent away by the guard, and as she left through the gates she waved goodbye to the two guards who let her in.

“That’s it,” they said to themselves, “she will not come back now.”

She did, however, return the next day, asking to see the King. The guards at the gate let her in once more, but she was turned away by others. Day after day, she returned when the golden sun shone brightly on the palace. The guards at the gate admired her persistence and began to advocate for her, hoping she would be allowed to see the King. Servants of the palace took notice of her and hoped that she could, one day, see the King.

Many attendants and maids wondered why she wanted to see the king. Adeline became a great mystery and source of curiosity among the palace staff, and nearly everyone knew who she was. A month after she began setting foot in the palace, the King heard of her. One bright morning, he requested that she be brought before him when she came to the palace. The guards of the gate, who had become friends to her, met her with smiles on their faces.

“The King has requested to see you this morning, Adeline,” one of them said, the other grinning from ear to ear.

Adeline’s smile spread from the center of her heart outward, and when she smiled it was so radiant that one of the guards felt as if she were the sun. As the young woman passed through the gates, he hoped with all his heart that she would find what she was looking for.

She was led through the grand palace and brought into the throne room, where the King received guests. Adeline’s heart sped, but she maintained her composure. She smoothed out the fabric of her skirts and straightened her auburn bun atop her head, taking in a deep breath before the doors swung open.

All was silent as she walked through the hall of the throne room, up to the seat of the King. Adeline curtseyed to the ground, bowing her head and spreading her skirts out.

“Please, stand,” the king said after a moment’s silence. She lifted her head and stood up.

Adeline looked into the eyes of the ruler, which were as golden as the morning sun she had come to know so well. “Your majesty,” she said, nodding her head once more.

“I have heard much of you, and I am curious about you. Tell me your name.”

“My name is Adeline, your majesty,” she replied.

“Why is it, Adeline, that you have come to see me? I hear from my advisor that you have come every morning for the past six weeks. You have your chance now—please, speak.”

Adeline took in a deep breath. The King tilted his head, waiting. “Your majesty, I join with all of the kingdom in mourning over the loss of the late King and Queen, your parents, over a year ago. They were the kindest and wisest of rulers, truly loved by every subject. You stepped into this role at a young age, but have demonstrated a knowledge and discernment that surpasses your years. I have heard of your quest to find a suitable bride, searching near and far—but to no avail. I have come to suggest to you a very suitable bride, one who is loving and kind and accomplished.”

The King raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Ah, I see. And tell me, Adeline, who is this woman you suggest I marry? You?” he asked, tugging at his short, dark beard.

She smiled, shaking her head. “No, your majesty. The woman I am speaking of is my younger sister.”

“I see,” he nodded. “And why is it that your sister is not here, Adeline? Why could she not come herself?”

“Because she is only sixteen, your majesty. She is not yet old enough to be presented in court, and because of this she cannot come before you now. But she will be seventeen in a year, and I would like to present her to you then. If, of course, you have not found a bride by then.”

The King sat back, seemingly intrigued. Adeline continued.

“I do not think your majesty would care to simply meet her a year from now—that would not do. I propose that I come to you every day for the next year, and each day I will tell you about her. You may decide every day if I should return or not. If you decide that you do not like what you hear, or if you meet another woman who is better suited to you, I will be dismissed and will never return. If, however, you would like to know more, I shall come back the next morning and tell you about her,” she paused before adding, “What do you say to this, your majesty?”

Tension filled the room from the golden laced ceiling, down the pillars, to the polished marble floor upon which Adeline stood. The King tapped his fingers on the arm of his throne. There was no harm, he thought, in hearing about this young woman in his kingdom. If he met a woman who was well suited for him, he would not need to hear of her again—and if, for some reason, she peaked his interest, it would do no harm to learn more about her. It may even be quite interesting. Adeline intrigued him, and he decided he would allow her to return the next day.

Upon hearing the good news, Adeline’s smile spread through all around her, and the King found it to be quite infectious when he realized he, too, was smiling. Adeline curtseyed once more, and began to make her way out of the large hall.

“Wait!” the King called, standing up and advancing a few steps. “Are you not going to tell me anything about her today?”

Adeline turned. “Her name is Elise.” With that, she left.

Adeline returned to the town and went immediately to work. She met Elise there, who noticed that Adeline was up to something. The elder sister was decidedly quiet, however, and would not say a word about where she had been. Early the next morning, she woke up and headed again to the palace. The guards let her in, and she was greeted with fondness. She entered the throne room, where the King was waiting.

“Your majesty,” she began, “what would you like to know about my sister today?”

He thought for a moment. “Tell me what she looks like.”

Adeline nodded. “My sister Elise has beautiful eyes—green, like the color of grass that shines beneath the morning dew. Her hair is long, and in the sunlight it looks like honey. When not braided, it flows down to her waist in soft curls. And she has the fairest of skin, as many often tell her.”

The King seemed satisfied with what he had been told, but there Adeline stopped.

“Well, go on,” he urged. “What else?”

“I am afraid that is all I can tell you today,” she replied.

He sat back in his throne, sighing. “As you wish. Come back tomorrow.” Adeline nodded, curtseying before exiting the room.

The next morning, the King was once again in his throne room, eagerly awaiting her entrance. Adeline moved to curtsey, but he waved a hand, stating that a gesture so formal would not be needed every day. They were, after all, to see each other every day. He did not want to waste time on formalities when they could be speaking. Adeline laughed, noting how eager the king had become, but acquiesced.

Adeline told the king of her sister’s many accomplishments—in singing, drawing, dancing, reading, sewing, playing the pianoforte. During the following weeks, Adeline’s conversations with the king grew longer and longer. He became increasingly interested in the lives of the two sisters who lived in his kingdom.

One day, Adeline was taken down an unfamiliar corridor, to the other side of the palace. She was escorted through a large carved door, behind which lay a garden more beautiful than anything she had ever seen. She was not sure she could call it a garden—the word was too plain, too simple. Trees of every kind laced the edges of the oasis, and flowers carpeted the ground. Golden-laced cobblestones peeked through the emerald grasses, glimmering in the sunlight. Butterflies and hummingbirds fluttered through the air, and a stream flowed through, the sound of the trickling water echoing like a beautiful melody.
She stepped through the garden, enchanted with everything she saw, and came up to the king. “Your majesty,” she said as the king turned to her.

His golden eyes sparkled. “This place is my sanctuary,” he said, “I come here when I cannot think…or when I think too much. Or, when my advisors are getting on my nerves.” He chuckled. “Come to think of it, I come here often. It is so—”

“Peaceful,” she finished, looking up at the willow tree next to them.

The king nodded. “Precisely.”

“Your majesty, what would—”

“I grow tired of hearing people call me that,” he said, holding a hand up. “It seems that no one can address me in any other way nowadays.”

“That is perhaps because you are the king.”

“Yes, quite so.” He nodded to himself, looking around the garden. “But I cannot stand being only called ‘your majesty’ and ‘sire,’ because I feel as if one day I will forget what my own name is. Please, from now on, address me as Henry. That is my name, and I would like for a friend to call me that.”

“Do you consider me to be your friend?” Adeline asked, tilting her head. Her hair, which had been pulled back into a ponytail, fell across her shoulders.

He smiled, with one half of his mouth curving up more than the other. “Yes, I would like to say we are friends. I will be seeing you for many more weeks, and it would feel odd if you only ever addressed me as ‘your majesty.’ Please, address me as you would a friend.”

She nodded. “As you wish, y-…Henry.”

The king broke out into a grin that outshone the entire landscape. He was so full of joy that Adeline did her best to soak up the moment. They remained silent for a few seconds, then Adeline remembered something.

“What would you like to know about Elise today, Henry?”

His expression changed. “Ah, yes. I was out here watching the sunrise this morning, looking over all the flowers.” He walked through the garden, Adeline joining him. “I wondered which her favorite is.”

Adeline thought of all the days she and her sister ventured out to the fields surrounding the city. They walked among the hills and picked flowers to make crowns and wreaths. There was one Elise always reached for.

“Her favorite is the sky flower,” she said, pointing to a delicate blue one a few steps away. The small flower had perfectly sculpted petals that mirrored the color of the sky above.

Henry nodded. “My mother always loved that flower.”

“Perhaps that is a sign,” Adeline suggested. They chuckled.

“What about you, Adeline? What is your favorite flower?”

She described a fiery orange and red flower that was hard to find; the dragon wildflower, which always stood out to her amongst the green grass. It was then that Adeline saw the sun and realized how long she had been there.

“I must go!” She gasped, heading toward the palace door.

“Why, what is the matter?”

“I am late for work!”

“Work?” Henry asked, caught quite off guard. “You work?”

She stopped, spinning to look up at him. “Of course; my sister and I work for a seamstress. And I am afraid I have been late for the past week. I cannot be late again—I must leave right away!” With that, she left.

“Adeline, what is going on with you?” Elise asked one evening, as they walked home from work. “I wish you would tell me.”

“All in due time.” Adeline replied, looking to the vast summer skies. She could already feel the air changing, bringing in a new season.

The summer warmth faded and the world spun, bringing a crisp chill into the air. Adeline answered questions about Elise’s favorite books and music choices, childhood memories, and thoughts on the world. She was a good storyteller, Henry noted one day, as she perfectly described the day Elise scraped a knee jumping from one side of a stream to another and fell into the water.

The weather turned colder and snow blanketed the earth. Adeline found it difficult to make it to the palace on some mornings, yet she never missed a day. During the cold months, her conversations with Henry became longer and she found herself feeling quite at home speaking with him every day about life. All of those who worked in the palace had become like good friends to her, and she cherished the conversations she had not only with the king, but also with the others.

Seemingly as quickly as it had come, winter retreated into a corner and spring began to shine through, bringing warmth back into the land and making the long walk wet from rain instead of icy from snow. On the first day of spring, Henry asked if Adeline would play the pianoforte and sing one of the songs she told him Elise knew well, and though quite nervous—for, she had only ever played for her sister—she agreed. She chose a valley song that she and her sister both learned as children. Her hands felt shaky and her fingers slipped on the ivory keys a few times, yet the king told her she played—and sang—beautifully. Adeline assured him how much better it would have been if Elise had performed.

On her way to the palace one morning not too long after, Adeline slipped on the road and scraped her knee badly on a rock hidden beneath the mud. When she arrived at the palace, the staff was shocked to see her leg bloodied and took her immediately to be bandaged. The king insisted that she borrow a carriage for the ride home that day.

Adeline assured him she was quite alright, and after a short conversation about Elise, she left with a limp. From a window in the palace, the king watched as his friend traversed down the muddy path. He stopped himself three times from rushing out to help her, for she had a stubborn disposition and refused any assistance. Adeline fully recovered from her injury a short time later, though Henry insisted she would have healed quicker if she had not made the walk each day and let him instead make a carriage available for her.

Shortly thereafter, Adeline realized that nine months had passed since their first meeting, and she was disheartened when she thought about their time as friends coming to a close. Yet, she reminded herself that it was all in the interest of her sister.

“Do you think I will like her, Adeline?” Henry asked one fine morning, only a week before the year was up. They sat under a large willow tree and listened to the stream that ran in front of them.

Adeline turned to look at the man beside her, and realized her heart was torn in two. “Yes, I think you will like her very much,” she decided to say. How could anyone not love Elise dearly? She was most accomplished at many things, and had a heart of gold. Which, Adeline told herself, would do well in such a palace.

“I hope we will remain friends through the years, no matter how things turn out,” he said absentmindedly. Adeline left the palace that day without saying much more.

The last week passed, and Adeline suddenly found herself waking up on the morning of her sister’s seventeenth birthday. The sky outside was grey and dismal, the way her heart had become. The last of the evening stars was still shining, though not as brightly as Adeline had remembered it being in the past year.

She went to her sister and gently woke her up. “Put on your best dress, and let me do your hair.” Elise, rubbing her eyes sleepily, did as instructed. Adeline braided her sister’s hair and pinned it back, framing the young face nicely.

The two set out, one silently following the other. The sound of shoes clicking on the cobblestone streets was all that protruded the silence. Elise struggled to keep up with her sister as they passed the city and began up the long path.

“Where are we going?” Elise asked, breathless. Her sister would not reply, but kept her eyes forward. Adeline slowed down to a gentle walk, and the incline was not so bad at the time so Elise felt like she could talk.

“I do not know the reasons why you determine yourself to make this awful walk all alone. I don’t know where you go, or why. You have been absent from work many mornings, and have left me alone much of the time. You haven’t noticed the changes in me in this past year, so I will have to tell you what you have missed in my life.”

“Oh, sister,” Adeline said rather gingerly, “I wish you would be quiet. We are almost there. Please, be patient.”

That was when Elise looked up and realized they were in front of the palace gates. Two ominous guards peered down at the women, and Elise thought of retreating behind her sister. But after a moment’s silence, one of them broke into a grin.

“Adeline! You don’t look so well this morning. Probably cause of this weather, y’know? Today hasn’t been the best day for spring, what a shame. Who’s this you’ve got with ya? This is a shock, a real shock! Ain’t it, Teddy?”

Teddy, the other guard, replied, “Aye, it is indeed! She looks an awful lot like Adeline, don’t she? Adeline, is this your sister? She must be! Look at them—the very same face structure! Course, this one’s a little shorter and plumper, and she’s got different eyes.”

“Her hair isn’t as dark as Adeline’s, either, I reckon.”

The two men continued to talk, and Adeline passed through the gates after saying ‘good morning,’ greeting them like friends. Elise hesitated, looking up at the towering palace and realizing she was not prepared for whatever lay within.

“You know those men?” she asked, catching up with her sister.

“They are my friends,” Adeline replied.

The doors were opened for Adeline before she reached them, and Elise’s mouth hung open. Surely her sister could not have taken on a job at the palace—could she? Everyone they came across seemed to know her so well.

“Carslile,” she called to a man who was carrying a tray—before she said anything else, the man told her she would find “him” in the old library. She nodded and walked up the grand staircase without any hesitation.

“I must tell you, dear sister, our lives may very well change this day. I have been coming here, to the palace, every day for the past year.”

“I…gather that much,” Elise replied, trying to keep up.

Adeline nodded, looking at her sister. “I have been meeting with the King.”

“The King? But…That’s impossible!”

“It is quite true. I have come here each day to tell him about a woman he may marry.”

“Oh?” Elise asked, “You know a noblewoman?”

“It is no noblewoman,” Adeline said, “It is you.”

“Me?!” Elise stammered, nearly tripping. “I—I don’t understand!”

The sisters came to the top of the staircase, where Adeline took Elise’s hands in her own. “I realized some time ago that you have grown into a very accomplished young woman. I know of no eligible bachelors in our society of friends, and though I may never marry, I should like to see you happy and well taken care of.

“Last year I came to the palace, requesting to see the king. When allowed an audience with him, and I told him of your many talents, your kindness, your joy, and of the very nature of who you are. He has been getting to know you through me for the past year, waiting until you may be presented publicly. Now that time has come, and I am to officially introduce you. The King is the kindest of souls I have ever met and the best of men—a person could not be made better, even if the Creator tried for a thousand years.

“I do not know what will happen today, but the King may very well fall in love with you at first glance. I do not expect you to do the same, only consider what your future could be, if he offers. If not, no harm will come because your heart has not been entwined to his.”

The sisters reached the door to the library and Adeline sighed. She took one more look at her sister, then boldly walked into the presence of the King.

“Your majesty,” she addressed him, which caught Henry off guard, “may I present my sister—Elise.”

Elise, still quite shocked, stumbled, but recovered and curtseyed. Henry crossed the room and bowed. The three spent nearly an hour in the library, Adeline only moderately listening to the conversation between the King and her sister.

She finally realized someone was speaking to her, and turned to see a delicately smiling Elise. “Are you ready? We must go to work.”

Adeline nodded, rising from the couch. “Yes, of course.” She looked at Henry, holding back tears that so desperately wanted to escape, and curtseyed. “Thank you for seeing us, sire.”

Henry nodded in return. He looked at the sisters, then addressed Elise. “Would you be so kind as to return tomorrow morning, Elise? I have something I would like to speak to you about privately.” He glanced at Adeline, adding, “If your sister does not mind.”

“Not at all,” Adeline replied. Elise accepted the invitation, and the sisters departed.

Adeline realized as the sisters walked home that her heart had indeed been torn into two. Yet, she determined, she would be happy for her sister, as she had always planned. Adeline heard nothing her sister said the entire day, but devoted herself to work instead. The sisters went to sleep without much conversation between them, and in the morning Elise arose early and left Adeline alone in the house.

She came back after some time, smiling as if the sun had shone for the first time in her entire life. Needing to be on her own, Adeline walked among the hills behind the city that afternoon, letting the gentle breeze catch her up and take her where it desired. When she returned home, the sun had just dipped behind the mountains and a blue hue was blanketed over the earth. Elise was at the old pianoforte, playing gleefully. Adeline was not feeling up to joining her in a duet, even after Elise implored, and went straight to bed instead.

When morning came, the sisters readied themselves for work as usual. But before they had even had their breakfast, a knock came on the door. Adeline answered the door, with Elise only just behind her.

“You have been summoned to the palace.” Raymond, one of the King’s servants, announced. Adeline noticed a grand carriage waiting behind him.

She turned to her sister, saying, “Get your coat on, and don’t keep the man waiting.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, Adeline,” Raymond returned, a smile widening across his face, “but your sister isn’t the one who’s been summoned. You have.”

Adeline looked at him, then back at her sister, and back at Raymond. A confused look wrinkled her forehead. “I do not understand. Elise is not summoned?”

Raymond shook his head. “No, you have been summoned. Best not to keep the King waiting, eh?” he said, gesturing for her to get into the carriage.

Adeline felt her sister hug her and usher her into the carriage, and before she had time to think she was at the palace, being escorted into the grand castle. She was instructed to follow one of the servants, who took her down corridors and hallways she knew all too well. The great wooden door was opened for her and she looked out at the garden, which was brimming with life and color. She stepped out into the green meadow, being told he was in his usual spot. The door closed behind her and the only sounds that invaded Adeline’s thoughts were those of the wind rustling through the trees, birds harmonizing among the branches, and the stream laughing as the water swirled and ran downhill.

The King was standing under the golden sun, his back toward Adeline. She walked through the garden, each step heavier than the last. She did not know why he had called her there, other than to thank her for introducing him to his sister. Perhaps, because she was the only living relative, he would ask her approval of the match, as was tradition in all marriages in Aldea.

When she neared him, he turned to face her. Adeline’s heart nearly stopped beating, for she saw on the King’s face a look that she hadn’t recognized before. It was one of kindness, and softness, but also something else she could not quite place.

“Hello,” he smiled, closing the gap between them.

“Hello, Your Majesty,” Adeline curtseyed, feeling quite awkward and out of place in addressing him as such.

Henry must have felt the same, for he was taken aback and furrowed his brow.

“Why such formality, Adeline? I thought we were friends.”

“We are, sire,” she replied, “That is, I would always enjoy your friendship. But with your upcoming announcement of an engagement—”

“Ah, yes.” He smiled to himself, as if lost in a thought. “Adeline, I would very much like it if you would call me Henry, always.”

She nodded her head. “Of course. As you wish.”

He smiled, but his brows turned up as if he were trying to communicate something she could not understand. “Did your sister tell you of our conversation yesterday?”

She shook her head in response. “I do not believe so, your m—Henry.”

“Well, then I shall have to relay it to you.” He took in a breath, looking up at the blue skies that loomed overhead. Clasping his hands behind his back, he looked down at the grass upon which he stood. “I will not be marrying your sister Elise.”

Adeline was shocked, taken aback for a moment. “Oh.” She managed to say after a few moments of silence.

“She is all of what you told me before—she is charming, kind, intelligent, and a well-rounded young woman. But I am afraid neither she nor I felt any sort of connection, and I found after the two of you left my palace the other day that I already had made a decision to marry another, in my heart.”

Adeline felt the blood leave her face, and her heart sank to the pit of her stomach. “I see. I am very happy for you.” The words came out, though she could not make herself feel any joy in them.

“You are?” he asked, turning to her. “You do not even know who it is I have decided to marry. What if I have chosen a conniving, evil woman who wants me for my money and power?”

Adeline smiled a little, shaking her head. “You are a wise man. You would not marry a woman like that.”

“What if I decided to marry a girl with no brains, who couldn’t tell her fork from her spoon and could not rule alongside me?”

Again, Adeline shook her head. “You would not marry a woman like that, either.”

Henry looked at her, his golden eyes alive with more sunlight in them than the sun itself. “You are quite right. I do not desire to marry a woman like that at all. I have thought long and hard about it, because I wanted to ensure the best decision for my kingdom as well as for myself. And what I found is that the woman I love—the woman I hope would do me the honor of being my wife and the queen to this kingdom—is nothing at all like the woman I was expecting.”

Adeline remained silent, unsure of his meaning.

“She is more selfless than any other being I have known. Though she can be quite stubborn at times, it is always for the right cause. She knows and loves those around her equally, and makes no distinction between the classes. All of my staff loves her dearly, as does her family. In short, she is the most beautiful and accomplished woman I have met, and I know that none other would be capable of being queen as she.”

Adeline nodded her head, holding back tears. “I look forward to your endless happiness, and I would very much like to meet your queen one day.”

Henry smiled. “Adeline,” he said. “It should be no mystery to you—you are the one of whom I speak. The woman I wish to have as my wife and partner, the queen of Aldea. That is, if you will have me.”

Adeline opened her mouth to speak, but no words came forth. Henry found himself down amongst the grass, on one knee, offering to her a ring that shone brighter than any other that Adeline had ever seen. Her heart all at once was completely mended, and more than that, it was overfilled with joy. She accepted without hesitation, and was immediately embraced by the man she loved so well.

Henry wished to summon Elise to the palace at once, that she might join in celebrating the engagement of her sister. He had spoken with her the day before about it, and Elise encouraged him to waste no time in speaking to Adeline, for she was truly happy for them.

When the King announced his engagement to the kingdom, his subjects were delighted. The palace was full of joy and merriment, and all of Adeline’s friends could not have been happier for her. Arrangements were made for the wedding and in only a few weeks they were King and Queen. The kingdom rejoiced, for the King had found a queen who was lovelier and more gracious than any the kingdom had ever known, and the two ruled as one. The Queen was loved by all, especially her sister, who happily married two years later.

King Henry and Queen Adeline ruled for many years; under them, the kingdom prospered as it had never before. And truly, they lived happily for the rest of their days.

THE END.


IMG_4907Laurel Burlew has been a writer for the majority of her lifetime. Though her focus is in speculative fiction, she has written in a variety of genres and constantly strives to push herself outside her comfort zone, including writing this fairy tale. When not writing, Laurel can usually be found with a book in her hands or at a piano. She is currently studying English Literature at her local university. You can follow her on Instagram @laurelanne.b and find more of her writing on her blog at www.hbauthors.com.

I Am Building A Forest

By Meghan Hollister

I Am Building A Forest is made up of about 1500 photos, all shot with my Canon T2i DSLR with a 50mm lens. No color grading or editing was used on any of the photos. Lighting and color effects were achieved with small LED lights. Adobe After FX was used for post-production editing.

Several sets were constructed using foam core, wire framing, found book pages, and other found paper. From sketchbook to final product, this project took about 6 months. This was SUCH a labor of love. As well as A LOT of trial and error. With this being my first stop-motion film, everything was self-taught using the infamous and wonderful Google.

I Am Building A Forest was part of a larger art installation where the film will be projected amidst a life size forest, also made from found book pages.


meg profileAfter graduating with her Bachelor’s in Fine Art in 2011, Meghan continued her to explore her professional artistic career via employment as Product Photographer, Art Educator, and Freelance Artist, working with organizations such as The Figge Art Muesum, and VSA Iowa, as well as exhibiting within  venues in and around the Quad Cities’ Area. In 2013, Meghan co-founded the Midwest’s first ecological art gallery, Zola. After some time in gallery work, Meg decided to launch a freelance design studio that combined all of her loves: and Studio No. 2 was born.

Meghan recently relocated to Colorado Springs, and currently lives with her wonderful Partner In Crime, cat Ponyo, and lovely Shepherd Dog Filomena. When Meghan’s not making art, you can find her making other things: Italian food, strange vegetarian dishes, or lost somewhere outside: hiking, gardening, foraging, and doodling.

Interview with Author Lisa Jensen

aliashookCM: When did you first become interested in writing?

LJ: Well, it’s not like I ever had a plan. I’ve just always loved to write. I kept journals from the age of 12, and corresponded for years with a couple of overseas pen pals. Out of college, I worked in a movie theatre and a bookstore —I could see movies for free, and take books home to read, if I was careful not to damage them! After a few months, I answered an ad in the local alternative weekly newspaper for a part-time film critic, dashing off a one-page review of some film I’d just seen. And I got the job — evidently because I was the only applicant who actually sent in something written!

Years later, I still have that job (I’m the full-time critic, now). I also reviewed books for the San Francisco Chronice for several years, as one of their many freelance stringers. And working in journalism has taught me plenty about deadlines, word count, editing, and compromise — all useful stuff to know when you start writing books.

CM: Why did you decide to write a Peter Pan story for adults?

LJ: I think the lure of eternal childhood is something that only appeals to children. As you start to grow up, move away from the home environment, and get to know yourself better, as your horizons broaden, the thought of being stuck in childhood forever would be horrible. It would for me, anyway.

And then, a few years ago, in my day job as a film critic, I was writing a review of a live-action Peter Pan movie. Of the actor playing Captain Hook, I wrote that he really made us feel the tragedy of an adult trapped in a world run by children. Instantly, a voice popped into my head—Hook’s voice—looking around the Neverland and telling me exactly what he thought about this so-called paradise for children. I hit “save” on my review, opened another doc, and started writing down everything he said. That’s when I decided this was a Neverland story that needed to be told!

CM: What drew you to Hook’s story in particular?

LJ: I’ve always loved Captain Hook better than Peter Pan, as a character. For one thing. he’s a lot funnier, and has better lines! Peter always reminded me of all the bratty little boys I went to school with, so I never really fell under his spell, even when I was a child myself. And besides, I’ve always had a thing for pirates!

CM: What was your favorite Peter Pan scene to translate into your own book?

LJ: The scene where I actually show the moment when Pan cuts off Hook’s hand — and how, and why it happens — was very powerful for me to write. And I think it’s a pretty stirring moment in the book. Besides that, I really enjoyed inventing a complete society of merfolk in their underwater Mermaid Lagoon — which is a part of the Neverland that J. M. Barrie never shows us!

CM: Who’s your favorite character in Peter Pan?

LJ: James Hook, definitely! His voice, talking in my head, telling his side of the story, is what set me on course to write this book. And boy, did I love setting the record straight! As I went along, I also knew that I wanted to write a love story for James, and I had a fabulous time imagining who that lucky woman would be, and why. My heroine, Stella Parrish, has her own story to tell, as well, and I wanted her to be a real match for James, in wit, spirit, and courage.

Maybe it would have been fun to write more of the book from her viewpoint, but James’ voice was so strong in my head, I just had to let him take over. But their scenes together, as their relationship deepens, was the most fun part of the story to write.

CM: Was it difficult to write about a story that people are so familiar with?

LJ: Surprisingly, no, because my view of the characters is so different from what people think they know about them. And, of course, I’m not telling the same story that Barrie told. My story is about what happens long after Barrie’s ends, and so I felt at liberty to create entirely new groups of pirates and Lost Boys, and fairies and Indians. Only Pan and Hook, ageless and eternal, remain the same.

CM: What are you some of your favorite (non-Peter Pan) fairytales?

LJ: I’m a big fan of Beauty and the Beast, which is the subject of my next novel. It will be my sort of twisted — well, let’s say unorthodox — retelling of the classic tale! I also loved the Alice In Wonderland and Oz books when I was a child. (Do those count as fairy tales?)

CM: What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you? The most fun?

LJ: Plotting, is definitely the most difficult! I usually come up with a great idea, and then I flesh out the characters and setting, and write a few scenes of dialogue with the characters talking to each other. And everything is all great, and then I think, oh, wait: now they have to do something!

The most fun for me is writing dialogue, for sure!

CM: How much of your books do you outline or plan before writing?

LJ: I never used to outline at all, which is why it took me so long to write a book. Just flailing away, hoping a story comes together by magic is not a good game plan! But once you get a book published, I’ve discovered, and you have a working relationship with an editor, he or she might ask you for a fiction proposal. (That is: a lengthy synopsis of the plot as a means of getting an idea approved — as opposed to having to write the whole book first!)

This is common in non-fiction; you can sell an idea for a book based on a proposal and a couple of chapters. But fiction writers, particularly first-timers, are usually asked to submit the entire book. So, while writing an outline/proposal is new to me, it makes so much more sense to actually know where the story is going!

Of course, if you start with a proposal, or any kind of outline, it’s not set in stone. Everyone knows that things will change in the writing process — the story may shift direction; characters will occur to you that you haven’t even thought of yet; entire subplots may be added, or subtracted. But as a general blueprint for themes, characters, action, setting, and, oh, yes, plot, a proposal is invaluable. Keep it short, and stay focused — I recommend 10 pages, or less. Save the details for writing the book itself.

CM: What was your querying/publishing process like?

LJ: Chaotic! I had a New York agent for my first novel, The Witch From the Sea, and while her agency sold the German-language rights immediately, she was never able to sell it to a US or British publisher. The German-language editions were gorgeous — hardcover, and trade paperback — but nobody I knew could read them, including me. My agent and I amicably parted ways, and it was another four years before I sold the book myself to a small, indie publisher in the US, and got a copy I could actually read!

I rewrote my query for Alias Hook dozens of times, sent it to scores of agents, then reworked the manuscript with two or three interested agents, each of whom, ultimately, declined to represent me. It was very disheartening. But I’d heard of an indie publisher in England, Snowbooks, that did not require you to submit through an agent, and finally, I was so weary of the whole process, I just thought, why not? I didn’t hear anything back for a long time, and so I thought it was just like sending a query to an agent who doesn’t respond if she’s not interested. Seven months later, I got an email telling me Snowbooks was going to publish the book!

Snowbooks offered no advance, and the royalties were not huge. But they did produce a good-looking book. And there were other perks: the publisher at Snowbooks knew an editor at Thomas Dunne Books in the US, and sent him my Hook manuscript. We chatted on the phone for about 20 minutes, and then he made an offer to publish Alias Hook in the US. They came out with a beautiful hardcover edition in 2014, and a paperback in 2015.

In the meantime, my editor at TDB showed my manuscript to an agent he knew — the intrepid Irene Goodman! She must be the only agent in NYC I had never queried (I’d read somewhere that she wasn’t interested in fantasy, which is what I thought Alias Hook was.) But in the end, she queried me, calling me up on a Sunday and offering to represent me. She also fell in love with my Beast book, which had been on the back burner, and sold it to Candlewick, which will be publishing it in Spring, 2017.

So, the moral is: a) Get your book out there, by any means possible! You only need one person to fall in love with it. And b) Never, ever give up!

CM: Do you have a favorite Peter Pan movie/book adaptation (other than your own)?

LJ: Well, the 2003 movie, Peter Pan, is the one that inspired me to write Alias Hook. (Thank you, Jason Isaacs!)

CM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

LJ: Keep reading: get inspired by books you love, and learn from the ones that don’t work for you. Keep writing: it doesn’t have to be perfect; the act of writing begets better writing, if you just keep at it. And never give up!


LJ By ST 2014
Photo by Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel

Lisa Jensen is a film critic and newspaper columnist from Santa Cruz, California. Her reviews and articles have appeared in many publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, where she reviewed books for 13 years. Her adult fantasy novel, Alias Hook, was published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2014. Her YA fairy tale fantasy, Beast: A Love Story, will be published by Candlewick in 2017. Her swashbuckling historical novel, The Witch From The Sea, was published in 2001.

Connect with Lisa:

Facebook
Blog
Goodreads
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Interview with Artist Taryn Knight

snow white-p
Snow White by Taryn Knight

CM: What is your background/education in art?

TK: I got started in art at a very young age. It was one of few things that I was really passionate about, and something I knew I wanted to pursue as a career for as long as I can remember. Whenever adults would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d always say “a children’s book illustrator!” or “an artist!”. As far as education goes, my experience is pretty limited! As a kid I took a few painting classes, and last year attended a couple online lectures, but I never did go to art college. I work best at my own pace, and felt like art college just wouldn’t work well for me.

CM: Did you work other jobs before freelancing? What are some of the benefits and challenges of freelancing?

TK: Freelancing and running my Etsy shop are my first and only jobs, actually! I’m only just starting out in my career, so that may change, but as of right now it’s the only thing I’ve ever known. It definitely comes with many benefits and challenges, yes – being able to work from home and in my own time is something I really enjoy, but it also means keeping myself in line and making sure I don’t procrastinate and miss deadlines, or overwork myself and stress out.

alice
Alice in Wonderland by Taryn Knight

CM: How did you develop your personal style?

TK: It was a long, loooong, never-ending process, and still is! I tried so many different styles and techniques before I even knew what I wanted my work to look like and represent. Once I finally decided that, it became easier to make stylistic decisions and develop it into what I wanted. I feel like developing my style was like building Frakenstein’s monster, in a way – I’d watch animated movie or look at illustrations and pick out certain things I liked about the faces or proportions, and try to make it my own and incorporate it into my art.

CM: What are some of your favorite things to draw?

TK: I just really love everyday people, like maybe a lady walking her dog or someone caught in the rain. I find simple things like that really charming and enjoyable to draw. Some of my favorite projects I’ve worked on are probably fanart pieces, or any time I get to draw plants and trees!

CM: What materials/programs do you use most often?

TK: Definitely Photoshop and my Wacom tablet. I use them almost every day, and they’re often my favorite materials to work with.

CM: What artists have had an influence on your work?

TK: Far too many to recollect! I’m really inspired by Laika films (The Boxtrolls is a favorite of mine), Renaissance paintings, and illustrators like Mary Blair and Claire Keane.

lucy and tumnus1
By Taryn Knight

CM: Many of your pieces feature characters or elements from books. Do you often find inspiration in mediums other than art, and do you have any favorites (books or movies) that have influenced or encouraged your art?

TK: Yes, absolutely! I’m often inspired by books and films, as well as music, nature, and just people in general. There’s something about watching/reading my favorite film or book that just fuels my creative fire! Familiar stories like Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland are my favorite.

CM: Do you ever experience art block? If so, how do you deal with it?

TK: I’m sure every artist does at some point, and I’m definitely no exception! Whether it lasts a day or a week, I find the best way to get over it is to just draw my way through it. I try to work on small, un-intimidating pieces like flowers or small portraits.

CM: What is a style/medium/new art challenge you would like to try in the future?

TK: Some day I’d love to work with gouache or watercolor! I don’t work in traditional media very much, so I’d really like to conquer my fear of the paintbrush in the future.

hogwarts luggage
By Taryn Knight

CM: What are some of the most important lessons about art you’ve learned through your own experiences?

TK: Artists are often faced with a lot of decision-making, so I learned a lot about being independent and making my own artistic choices. I would often catch myself thinking things like “I’ve never seen that done before, I can’t do that” or drawing something a certain way just because it’s how someone else did it. I learned how to draw that way I would, not the way someone else would.

CM: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

TK: Start where you are, learn all you can, and be determined! If you’re just starting out, don’t stress about developing a style – start with learning the basics, with anatomy, form, and color. Challenge yourself and set artistic goal! Be persistent, and don’t get discouraged!


Edited with Polarr Photo EditorTaryn is an American artist currently living in Colorado and working as a freelance illustrator. Outside of art, her hobbies include reading, blogging, and obsessing over her fandoms.

 

 

 

The Man Behind The Book (Thief)

By Clare Moore

bookthief1Throughout your life you read hundreds, probably thousands of books. Of those thousands, a hundred become your favorite. Out of those hundred, maybe five are special. The books that change you, so you’re a different person after you read them than you were before. For me, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was one of those books.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of Markus Zusak’s internationally acclaimed book, which he’s celebrating with a book tour in America. Since he’s from Australia and rarely makes it to the States, I knew I had to get to one of these events and see in person the man whose book changed my life. I was not disappointed.

He began his talk at the Norman P. Murray Community Center in Mission Viejo with a story, which I am not going to repeat because I could not do it justice and I don’t have an adorable Australian accent. But he used this story to illustrate his 4 keys to writing well:

  1. Use stories from your own life.
  2. The small details make a story believable.
  3. The unexpected outcomes are what elicit reactions from your audience.
  4. Edit well.

I was so struck by this points, and how well illustrated they were in his story that I felt I had to share them with other aspiring writers. As Zusak pointed out himself, writing is not about being brilliant or doing something complicated. The key to good writing is to do the simple things well, which he does in The Book Thief by following the four points he outlined.

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Markus Zusak

Another tip he shared that I think is good for aspiring writers is to hear is to be selfish. Now, this doesn’t mean don’t share your dessert, but it does mean that you need to safeguard your time. If you’re going to finish writing your book, you need time to actually write it, and that means that sometimes you have to be selfish and hoard your time. It might mean getting someone to babysit your kids for a weekend so you can be alone to write. It might mean not hanging out with your friends at the mall on a Saturday because you need to finish a chapter. Value your time, and guard it well.

Another tip, which ties into his 4th key of writing, is to realize that writing is rewriting. The whole room cringed when he talked about writing long sections of his novel only to toss it all away, but writers have to be able to throw things out even when it’s painful. Editing is how stories become good, and more editing is how they become great.

Note on over editing: you can make things more perfect by editing too much, but that doesn’t necessarily make them more right.

Lastly, I’ll share one more insight from the man, the myth, the legend. Writers need chaos. Just like necessity is the mother of invention, problems are the mother of writing. Writing isn’t about imagination, but crises. It’s solving problems that leads to imagination through creative ways to solve the problems. That is how we get stories.

I won’t share much about the actual book because I don’t want to spoil anything. If you haven’t read it, go do so now! It is a masterpiece written by a master writer, though he’s so humble he would never admit it. But if you’re looking for a book to help you understand the art of writing and telling stories, this is one you need to check out. Because, as Markus Zusak said, The Book Thief is about stories. It’s the story of Liesel and the stories of the people around her. And, most importantly, it’s about how telling her own story is what saves her in the end.

Check out Markus Zusak’s gift for oral story telling and his awesome accent in this Ted Talk in Sydney.


Profile PhotoClare is one of the two fabulous editors behind Ampersand. She’s also a quadruplet, a Lord of the Rings nut, a teacher, and a dedicated Dodgers fan. She highly recommends reading The Book Thief and guarantees that it will change your life. If it doesn’t, you’re reading it wrong.

 

On Lolita and the Power of Literature

By Tiffany Klinger

e75a1e6fad254fb4b1d7afb431131a88“If there’s anywhere I can read Lolita and not feel like people are judging me,” I told my sister as I packed my bag for Paris, “it’s here.” A few months ago, when I got on the subway in Times Square, early on New Years Eve, and I pulled out my small copy of Lolita – chosen for the easiness in which in fit in my handbag – and cracked open the book for the first time. I quickly realized I wasn’t sure if I was up for the piece of literature, perhaps I was not quite so worldly and literary as I thought. Everyone tells me its “must read.” But my “must read” list is increasingly long – I wasn’t sure if I should spend precious reading time on a book that seemed more likely to corrupt my mind and cause me to lose hope in the human race more than anything else. When I arrived, finally, down at Wall St., I closed the book and didn’t open it again till I was packing for Europe, rummaging through my half-started books, trying to decide which were both small and interesting. I picked up Lolita again, determined to try it another try – a fresh start.

While I was on a train to Rome, as the Italian countryside passed me by, I found myself immersed in this world of Humbert’s– flinching all along the way, wishing myself to read the pages faster, but getting caught up in Nabokov’s vivid and strange descriptions. But halfway through the novel, I put the book down knowing I would have to pick it back up again. I knew that Humbert and I– we would continue this journey together, even if I was kicking and screaming the whole way.

When asked a few months ago what my favorite books were, I promptly replied with the usual: Gone With the Wind, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Anna Karenina. Following my response, it was quickly pointed out to me that I must enjoy the “hated protagonist.” I laughed, as I had never made the connection myself, but I started wondering why I was so attracted to these characters. They were strong and brave – but mostly strong when they should have backed down, and brave when they should have been timid. They are manipulative, admired from afar, but respected by no one.

This past summer, Gary Saul Morson, professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, wrote a lengthy article in Commentary, “Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature” and put my jumbled thoughts into precise wording. As Morson explains why the study of literature is so important, he points out how reading great literature teaches us to empathize like few other disciplines:

“When you read a great novel, you put yourself in the place of the hero or heroine, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become your bad choices. You wince, you suffer, you have to put the book down for a while…And so, page by page, you constantly verify the old maxim: There but for the grace of God go I. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as that direct sensation of being in the other person’s place.”

Perhaps we all have experienced what Morson is talking about, I have this feeling that we do – but I think we forget the lesson when we forget the importance of the lesson. Literature – great literature – has the power to transform our minds., and stretch us beyond our own personal worlds, where we worry about who understands us, rather than how we understand others – and therefore, how we choose to react to others.

Lolita was teaching me just that – empathy. Here was a truly despicable protagonist that somehow, I didn’t hate. Suddenly, I could see Humbert’s side of things, the way you see everyone’s side of the story in Anna Karenina – the misunderstandings, longings, and desires. Humbert knows society does not allow him to have what he wants, such as Anna and Vronsky know this also but they fight anyway. And as humans, as champions, we cheer for them all the way, even though, perhaps we see their foreboding demise (does society always win?). Perhaps we also know, if Humbert has been born centuries earlier and Anna lived in today’s society, both of their sins would easily be forgiven – or not considered sins at all (how easy morality is shaped!) Perhaps it is empathy that allows us to realize these truths.

In his afterword, Nabokov teases the reader a little, imagining that most people wouldn’t make it to Part II, citing those who were hoping Lolita to be a lewd book, would suddenly be bored. Stories of controlled obsession rarely entice readers for too long (“Anna, just sleep with Vronsky already”, we might say, or “Scarlett, do whatever you have to do”). We want there to be a breaking point, a satisfactory destruction, a moment where the passion fully overtakes the individual. But Lolita hardly allows us that satisfaction. I found myself wishing Humbert to get caught, or perhaps he’d lock Lolita in the basement, or maybe she’d shoot him in a moment of rage. Instead, we are subjected to Humbert’s witty and paranoid world. We join him as they stop at different hotels, and travels across barren America, descriptions of ugly classmates, play dates with random friends, monstrous fears of Humberts, and details of Lolita playing tennis or dancing or theater-acting. These are only details of everyday life; the maddening details of a love struck obsessed man (you became convinced it isn’t simply lust).

Only towards the end of the book do we sense some action is coming, some change, some grand destruction. But within the grand destruction – the climax of sinning against society – is a confession that I think surprises Humbert himself. Even seeing Lo married to someone else, pregnant, dirty, old (ish), and unkempt, Humbert still loves her (“my Lolita!”), and pleads her to go with him (she refuses, though doesn’t seem to mind his presence). Is Humbert a reliable narrator? Of course not. After all, he claims in the beginning that Lolita seduced him (unlikely). But even if Humbert is not reliable, to imagine he loves Lolita beyond the perfection of youth, that he is not simply “criminally attracted to young girls”, not simply a pedophile, is to imagine that society might forgive his transgressions if they are wrapped up with a pretty bow in the name of love (“I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais!”).

And perhaps we will, we do – somewhere deep inside, it makes things better. Because love means you think about something or someone beyond yourself. You put yourself aside, love means being at the mercy of someone else, being vulnerable, being open, being completely “not in control.” We understand how hard it is to allow yourself to be in that state. But this isn’t the sort of feeling we get from Humbert. In the end, Humbert realizes (to his credit) that he does not even know Lolita at all. He was in love with an illusion, an idea, a fantasy he thought he could project on Lolita. But she never quite fits the mold, she always weasels her way out of it somehow. The fantasy Lo seduces Humbert, she gives him sly glances, she acts older than her age, but looks younger than her years, and she is a vixen, a starlet, yet pure and tantalizing, enjoys the relations between her and Humbert. But the real Lo, the girl, is dirty and unkempt, creative and daring, confused and forgiving, starving for attention and a sense of normalcy, detests her so-called father’s touch.

But we, the reader, we don’t get off too easily either. We have to make a choice right around page five. Humbert knows we will judge him and find him guilty. Humbert knows he sounds crazy and deprived (can he really be crazy then?). He is not a character lacking self-awareness. He is not a character easily dismissed into the Disney graveyard for villains. Perhaps Scarlett O’hara is forgivable because she completely lacks self-awareness. Perhaps Anna is forgivable because she simply doesn’t realize her mistake till its too late. But Humbert knows. He knows from the beginning what he will try to do, he knows his own passions, his sins, everything is premeditated, thought-out, fabricated. Does that make it easier or harder for us to pass judgment?

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”

For certain, it makes us uncomfortable. But in that moment, in the interim of neither guilty nor not guilty, we find ourselves out on the limb, standing with Humbert as he awaits his verdict, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…look at this tangle of thorns.” And so we must decide, not whether Humbert is guilty or not guilty (after all, he is guilty), but whether or not we choose to learn, and be empathic – not for an end purpose, but for the purpose of being able to say, “I understand, I feel what you feel, I believe you.” We have to decide if we can, for 200+ pages, put aside our social constructions, expand our worldview, and simply listen.

It’s an art form lost, but nevertheless it’s an art form necessary. Literature affords us such a practice. It asks nothing of its reader but the opportunity to tell a story, to share an experience, to describe an emotion. It simply asks us, for a short moment in time, to be an unbiased witness.

I am not such a good listener as I would like to be. I find myself pointing out discrepancies, flaws, and lack of sound logic or reasoning, and I often think of arguments I would make against an author’s claims. And though I do believe critical thinking is likewise a necessary art form, in a world where we often judge and forget what it’s like to be judged, it doesn’t take much for the lesson to hit home.


Tiffany holds her B.A. in Media, Culture, and the Arts, and attempts to pursue all those things simultaneously. She currently resides in the D.C. area.
Follow her on Instagram: @tiff_kling