‘Because I want to know what happens next.’ by Ari Goelman
One month after I published The Path of Names I did an author visit at the New York City middle school where my sister teaches English. I did a brief presentation, read two passages from The Path of Names, and then opened it up for questions.
In planning the event, I worried about this part. What if no one asked questions? I teach at a local university, and I know the silence I sometimes get when I ask, ‘Any questions?” A moment before the class will have been full of quiet chatter, the clatter of keyboards, but suddenly, all is silence. Tumbleweeds drift through the ghost town where my class used to be.
In my recollection, middle school was not an easy place to show yourself to be interested in books. I went to middle school in the 1980s, and I have a distinct memory of a popular kid in my grade furtively borrowing fantasy books from me so his friends wouldn’t know he liked to read. In return, he’d loan me the latest Tom Clancy book, slipping it into my backpack when no one was looking.
Things seem to have changed. When I looked at the auditorium full of two hundred middle school students, and asked, “Any questions?” most of the students in the auditorium immediately held up their hands. It reminded me a little of the math class in the movie Better Off Dead, where everyone (except John Cusack’s character) has a question.
Their questions ranged from the easily answered (“When did you start writing?”), to the moderately hard-to-answer (“How long does it take you to write a novel?”), to the unfortunately unanswerable (“Where did you get the idea of combining a summer camp story with ghosts, mazes and the Lower East Side?”) The easiest question, though, had the shortest answer. One of the eighth graders asked, “What was it like to get your novel published?”
“Awesome,” I said.
Luckily, no one asked, ‘Why?’ Because, after a decade of effort, I’m still not 100% sure why I’ve been so determined to write and publish books.
It has something to do with the pleasure of connecting with other people – of writing a book that I would have loved to encounter when I was myself a middle grader who loved to read. (And who was totally unabashed about that love, contrary to the prevailing social winds of the time.) After publishing The Path of Names, it was great to get out in the world doing readings and connecting with young readers.
But that’s not all, nor even the biggest part of, what keeps me writing.
I think – I’m not sure about this – but I think it has something to do with the urge to know what happens next. When my oldest daughter was four or five, she went through a period where she would ask me ‘what happened next?’ at least a dozen times every day. Sometimes I was in the middle of telling her a story, sometimes it was by way of telling me I should be in the middle of telling her a story.
I think that desire – to find out what happens next – is what made me such a voracious reader, and what these days brings me to the computer to write. As a writer, I find there’s only one way to find out what happens next in the stories I’m telling. I might think I know where the story is going, but until I write it down, I’m never really sure.