Copyright December 2008 Audrey Beth Stein
All Rights Reserved.
The first definitive clue was the iPod. Or maybe it was the presence of email. At any rate, between the two I knew it was no longer 1984. And yet Meg Powers, who had been sixteen that year--when I was nine--was now eighteen, and I was thirty-three. I was now undeniably older than my favorite book character.
I know this sort of happens a lot, when people re-read an old favorite years later... you come at it from a new perspective, you connect to different characters, you understand things you missed before. And if you're reading a series as it comes out on a slightly slower schedule than the book's internal time, like that mini-generation who grew up with Harry Potter--reading the first book in elementary school and the last one in college--the age thing probably creeps up on you so you barely notice. But this is a little more complicated than that, because I was reading a new book about Meg, published eighteen years after the last one was published, its action taking place three months after the last one took place, its world the world of now rather than the world of eighteen years ago.
I am tempted to use the word "mindf**k" here.
Even though the book, Long May She Reign, uses that term in a much more
And that context--the story in the book, the story of the book, the story of time passing, the story of author and reader--is why I'm writing this now.
* * *
When I was seventeen, I wrote a college essay about a favorite book character--Meg Powers--who I'd known then for eight years. Her author, Ellen Emerson White, had written The President's Daughter when she was only a sophomore in college, though I don't think I knew that until later. There had been two sequels to the first book--the most recent in 1989, which would put Ellen Emerson White in her mid-twenties; I'd been so ecstatic in high school to discover the third book that I actually created a holiday around it, giving copies to friends and teachers alike, and then simply assumed Meg's story was finished being told. When I was seventeen, the real thrill was finding my own words for my feelings about Meg... and I have been writing seriously ever since.
Writing, ever so slowly, changed my relationship to the work of my favorite author. I would still re-read The President's Daughter, White House Autumn, and Long Live the Queen, along with Ellen Emerson White's other books, and I would occasionally sense her voice sneaking its way into my own work. I would still find comfort in the books I loved. Yet as I was maturing as a writer, I also began to see their flaws, particularly in the early books. Sometimes I wondered if that meant I was a better writer, if I was looking in the wrong place for a model of accessibility and continued relevance. I had been telling people for years that the beauty of Ellen Emerson White's books was that you could begin reading them in fourth grade and keep reading them into adulthood and they would still resonate... was I wrong? Had I been too close to them emotionally to be impartial? What would I think if I was encountering them, brand-new, in my twenties? The first novel she'd published (not one about Meg) was actually in a pile of books I was considering getting rid of... I was extremely conflicted about letting go of it (I haven't), but I had to admit on a re-read that it had never captured me the way most of the others had.
I don't know if that would have been the extent of my thoughts if I hadn't started teaching. I taught my first creative writing class shortly before turning thirty, and I have been teaching memoir and now also novel development to adults across the writing experience and age spectrum since then. It's possible some of this would have come anyway with age; it's also possible that teaching is simply forcing me to articulate what's inside. What I know now is that youth often shows more in what isn't being said, that craft often gets better with experience, and that talent may be able to hide a gap from a reader without resolving it for an author. It makes sense now that there are a couple of Ellen Emerson White's books that haven't stood the test of time for me, just as it makes sense that the coming out story I was trying to tell at age twenty-two wasn't working for people in their forties even while people younger than me were loving it. It's not the age of the author, or the age of the character, or the age of the reader--it's the combination. With "age" here being a bit of a shorthand. It also makes sense to me, intuitively, that those books that do stand the test of time do so in large part because of their strength in portraying complex family relationships... relationships like the one between Meg and her mother that were explored more and more deeply as Ellen Emerson White got older, but which were spot-on and engaging psychologically from the beginning. I am humbled by that, still, because I know how hard it is to write particularly about mother-daughter relationships--even and maybe especially in fiction--when you are young and your mother is still alive.
The President's Daughter still holds a dear place in my heart, and there are passages in White House Autumn, Long Live The Queen, Life Without Friends, and The Road Home that bring me to tears every time. When my students ask me about what books I like, sometimes I mention these, and sometimes I don't. The days of seeking out the Young Adult section of the bookstore in case maybe there is a new book by Ellen Emerson White have long been over... the last time that worked for me was around nineteen ninety-five. There are other authors whose new books I will seek out, but they are few and far between and too often disappointing. Mostly, these days, I read memoirs--a one-book-per-author genre--and I try to find the balance between others' work and my own: a memoir, nine-and-a-half years in the writing, needing to reach its audience; a novel, spun from a story written longer ago than that, early-captured as an MFA thesis, still being crafted; occasional bursts like this one. It amazes me, sometimes, to realize that I've been writing seriously for more than half my life.
It was in researching publishers for the memoir a few days ago that I stumbled across the new imprint (new like a toddler is new, it turns out) Feiwel & Friends. And immediately remembered that Jean Feiwel had been Ellen Emerson White's editor, which I knew because Long Live the Queen had been dedicated to her, for being "really swell," all which was a good sign, even if a little frightening that I actually remembered it. Though if I hadn't, I might not have looked any further at the website after reading the part which said "we do not accept unsolicited manuscripts"--and I might have missed the part which announced a new book (new like "how could I have missed this for fourteen months?" new) called Long May She Reign.
Even before seeing the author's name, I knew it couldn't be anyone else.
But I still felt a little like a Christian watching Jesus rise from the dead.
Which might be why I waited until the next afternoon before I walked into Harvard Square to buy the book. The--gasp--seven-hundred-and-eight page book.
It was around dinnertime when I left my apartment, and around four in the morning when I finished. The mindf**k part began before dessert, and it's probably what made me toss aside these words about Ellen Emerson White from my college essay and spend much of the next day on her newly-discovered-by-me website: " I guess I'm afraid that she won't be the person I have pictured all these years while reading all the books she wrote. So I'd rather she remain as just another character in my imagination."
* * *
The first thing I learned (which wasn't really news): "Ellen Emerson White lives in New York City. She is wicked private."
The second thing I learned: the rest of the books in the series (which had all been out of print) were being updated, a la Judy Blume replacing the sanitary napkin belt of the original 1970 Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret with adhesive pads in 1998. In other words, if you were a new reader stumbling across The President's Daughter in the bookstore, you'd be reading about DVDs and Coke rather than Atari and Tab.
(There's a lot behind that Ah.)
(Which promptly gets even more complicated upon learning that the updates actually include some make-the-books-better rewriting, not so much to change the story, it seems, but enough to enhance it. Enough that, both as a reader-fan and as a writer, I will choose to read them. And, they are already in print, although they were not in either of the two Harvard Square bookstores I visited yesterday.)
(And, I think about my own, related, writing challenges: First, writing about eight months of my life as a twenty-one-year-old, beginning when I was twenty-two, choosing the present tense because I figured--even if I wrote fast--my perspective would change over the time it took. I had no idea that it would take nine-and-a-half years to finish, that all of those years would inform the story, and that the world could change so much in less than a decade. Second, beginning a novel I knew would take years to finish, one that traces roughly twenty years in my characters' lives, and choosing to give Emily my birth year even though that meant the ending chapters take place in what is still the future. This method has allowed me to grow along with my characters, and yet it forces me to wrestle with questions like whether an event like 9/11 affects the story line, and wonder what might still come along, and be glad the book isn't set in a place like New Orleans.)
So, at the moment, I can read The President's Daughter, White House Autumn, and Long Live the Queen in their original form and pretend I am still the me that is younger than Meg, and since I own these books I can do this whenever I want. But I have to admit I am a little nervous about what will happen when I read the new versions... will Meg shrink in my eyes? Will she suddenly become an indisputable member of a foreign generation? Will I feel old, the way I do when the twenty-two year-olds at my day job start texting in the middle of a conversation and send business emails without capital letters? Will I feel like I'm suddenly stuck in that generation, still younger than Meg but also younger than all my peers? Will the Meg I've known all these years, the Meg I've looked up to since childhood, disappear?
Can I hold both versions of Meg in my head simultaneously? Can I hold them both in my heart?
Isn't it fascinating that a replacement of Tab (which I never tasted) by Coke (which I don't drink) can cause such soul-searching?
As a writer, and as someone who knows a bit about the publishing industry, I absolutely understand making these changes. Make the new book sell. Make the old books sell again. Make them relevant to new readers. And if you're going to be making changes at all to books you wrote twenty-odd years ago, and you have the focus and stamina for it, heck yeah tighten them up a bit. As a new reader, I'd be oblivious, and yet appreciative if I knew. As an old reader... well, I suppose it makes sense that as Meg's relationships get more complex, my relationship with her does as well. There's a certain elegance to it, actually.
I kept reading the message boards on the website, struck first by the overlaps between Ellen Emerson White's voice and Meg's, and second by the way she talked about her characters. They were alive in the way that Emily and Zack have been for me since I wrote On the Eighth Day and began morphing it into something else, alive not only in the pages of a story or novel but also in what never made it to the page and what hasn't been written yet and what might or might not be written in the future. They had minds of their own; their author had hunches; they surprised her. She cared about them. She was bothered when other people misunderstood her characters, and she'd take the time to explain or defend them, the way you might defend a little brother all grown up. I found that endearing.
Here and there I found myself wanting to jump into the conversation, but it seems that these days, when it comes to the internet, I am the "wicked private" one. Controlled, as Meg might say. Very, very, controlled. I'm sure part of it comes from writing a memoir, needing to put up boundaries in other places in order to be honest and open on the page. Part of it from the general lack of privacy in this day and age and the myriad of problems it can cause, from physical safety to presenting a professional persona to the ultimate disconnect of internet relationships. Part from the amount of personal writing I do share on my website. But maybe also nostalgia for the day when an author was a mystery, never seen and never met, and the book itself was all you needed or even wanted. Maybe I'm still hoping I can be one of those authors, see my book on someone else's shelf and they never even know it's me. In any case, I kept reading, and Ellen Emerson White the character came alive on the screen (she writes on the train just like me; she converses about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; as I'd sensed, the fundamental shift in Meg's character is reflective of something that happened in her own life) and questions were answered that I'd never even asked, and others that I'd always wondered, and new questions arose in my mind and somehow I knew it wasn't right to ask, although I'm not sure whether for my sake or hers. New book possibilities had been hinted at and what I sensed most was their frailty. That whether they were written at all--not published but written--depended on everything from the market to the author's desire to Life Not Interrupting, and that words posted by readers to that message board could in fact disrupt the equation. It was something I'd talked about with my students, how easy it was for a book to simply disappear before it was finished being written down, and how careful we needed to be with each other. I fully accepted my responsibility in that arena as a teacher, but I didn't want to go near it with one of my favorite authors. Certainly not when it affected one of my favorite characters.
But I still wanted to say something.
Like, at the very least, thank you. And, please.
Hence this essay.
* * *
I suppose I should start with how amazing it is as a writer who has loved a character for a long time to be brought back into the world of that character with eighteen more years of experience on both sides. What a joy, and what a gift.
To find a passing reference in the book to another set of characters I'd cared about, and learn that they had in fact stuck it out--so cool.
And then to seek out more, and come upon the author's voice--talking about the work, talking about the characters--and not be disappointed--such a gift.
If you're reading this, Ellen: Thank you.
I could go on, but there are books to read--and to write. And I've learned by now that most everything winds up there eventually, in some form or another.