The Case for the Companion Novel by Lisa Graff
As a rule, I’m not a big fan of sequels. I love series (Baby-Sitters Club 4ever!), but straight sequels—follow-ups to stand-alone novels whose existence is not crucially necessary to the completion of a story—those I generally tend to steer away from. Lots of people feel differently, of course. Children, in particular, seem to clamor for sequels. When readers aren’t sending me photos of delicious-looking cakes they’ve baked from recipes in A Tangle of Knots (seriously, there are some astonishingly skilled child bakers out there!), they are nearly always asking me when I’m going to write a follow-up to a favorite book. An excerpt from one such adorable letter:
“Here comes my last and final question I want to know if your going to make a series or at least a second book for ATOK (A Tangle Of Knots) and if you do please let me know I would really appreciate it. Please write back to me when you have the chance, THANK YOU.”
I absolutely understand the desire to read more about a beloved character. Cracking open the cover of a sequel feels like having your favorite aunt stop by for tea after you thought she’d moved to Antarctica. But all too often sequels can feel like listening to your favorite aunt tell that same yarn about her piano recital over and over again—no matter what new spin she puts on the story, it can get a little stale. I suspect that many teachers feel this same staleness when teaching sequels in their classroom.
This is why I’m an enormous fan of what is sometimes referred to as the “companion novel.” In fact, I’ve written two—Lost in the Sun, which sprang from my earlier novel Umbrella Summer, and a forthcoming follow-up to A Tangle of Knots entitled A Clatter of Jars, which Philomel Books will publish in May 2016. To my mind, the companion novel combines the best of both worlds. It integrates characters, settings, even plotlines from a previous novel, but is still completely its own book that can be read independently of the first.
The writing of such a novel is not without its challenges. In some ways, the going is a little easier—before I scribbled even a single word of A Clatter of Jars, much of my work was done for me. I’d already created a world, already established a tone. And I had, fully-fashioned and ready to be used, the perfect character to tie together all my disparate storylines—the “man in the gray suit,” who plays the role of Fate in A Tangle of Knots. Enigmatic, ageless, and seemingly all-knowing, the man in the gray suit spends his time in the first novel rerouting each character’s path in unexpected ways, and as such he seemed like an obvious and necessary addition to my follow-up.
Unfortunately, A Clatter of Jars takes place entirely at a children’s summer camp, and after several drafts I conceded that even in a fantastical world, having a mysterious man in a gray suit continually pop up in this setting was downright creepy. Writing a companion novel can be frustrating at times—the author is forced to follow rules and ideas and timelines that might not fit perfectly with the new story she wants to tell. But they don’t call necessity invention’s mother for nothing. After much brainstorming I found an inspired stand-in for the man in the gray suit—an Australian tree frog. This new character was just out of place enough to feel fantastical, but not so alarming as to send fictional parents scurrying to rescue their camping children. As soon as that little frog made his way into the story, I knew I’d found the ideal balance between the nostalgic tone of the first novel and the slightly more whimsical nature of this new one. (There are also—to assure the fan from the letter above and any others out there—cameos from Cady and others from A Tangle of Knots.)
My hope is that reading A Clatter of Jars will feel a bit like visiting your favorite aunt’s house after someone else has moved in—the wallpaper’s familiar, but the brand-new people you meet inside have unexpected stories to share. And, you know, if you still want to spend a little time with your aunt, well, Antarctica’s not really that far away.
Lisa Graff (www.lisagraff.com) is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of the National Book Award nominee A Tangle of Knots, as well as Lost in the Sun, Absolutely Almost, Double Dog Dare, Umbrella Summer, The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower,The Thing About Georgie and Sophie Simon Solves Them All. Originally from California, she lived for many years in New York City and now makes her home just outside of Philadelphia. You can find her on Twitter as @lisagraff.