IN SIGHT OF STARS and THE SHEER LUCK OF THE WELL-TIMED TITLE by Gae Polisner
It’s always odd when it is claimed a book has come out at a certain — or even a “perfect” — time, because those of us who write, those of us who weather the long and often slow journey of being an author, know that there is often little control over when a manuscript is finished, and when it actually becomes a book and releases. There can be years, sometimes decades, in between.
Much was said of my last book, THE MEMORY OF THINGS, which takes place in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York City, coming out with a spate of other middle grade and young adult “9/11” novels on the fifteenth anniversary in 2016. But the truth is, I began writing that story in early 2010, and began imagining it in my head long before that.
In fact, in an email to an agent I recently found from around that time, I was myself surprised to see this description of an early draft of not THE MEMORY OF THINGS but THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO (then apparently still called Frankie Schuyler in my computer!):
“Frankie Schuyler” (YA) 56 pages. Thirteen-year friendship between a teenage girl and a risk-taking young boy that brings love triangles together culminating in New York City on 9/11.”
Those who have read THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO, which takes place over the course of one brief summer in the life of 16-year-old Francesca Schnell, will recognize how much that manuscript changed as I wrote and revised, and that 9/11 plays no part whatsoever in the story.
Likewise, IN SIGHT OF STARS may be coming out at a time when mental illness discussions are in the forefront of our national conversation, and, as such, School Library Journal noted:
“In a sea of recent contemporary novels about teens with mental illnesses,
this one stands out for its strong writing, likable protagonist,
and overwhelmingly positive messages.”
Yet, I began this story even before THE MEMORY OF THINGS, and it was almost purchased by my original editor, Frances Foster, before I ended up abandoning it for a while and focusing on THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO instead. I didn’t return to IN SIGHT OF STARS until after THE MEMORY OF THINGS was sold to my editor, Vicki Lame in mid 2015, which is all to say it was a long time in incubation (years!) before Vicki read it, saw the beauty and potential in it, and said let’s make this book together!
That it comes out at this needed time is either coincidence or serendipity, or both, but the story started out more about art than mental illness — and, for me, it remains not so much a story about mental illness as about mental health, as well as about our perceptions and misperceptions about the world around us, and how they affect our actions and beliefs.
To this end, the first scene I ever wrote in the book was the one where Klee draws on Sarah’s paper:
[Sarah] works across from me. Her hair spills onto her paper like a shiny
black waterfall, and her hand moves the charcoal in tight gray lines.
. . .
I stare at her hair, then at her hand, then I reach out and trace the
strands with my charcoal.
“Hey! What the fuck, Alden?” Her eyes search mine, then dart back
to my marks on her paper. “What the hell is your deal?”
I yank my hand back, burnt, but it’s too late, several kids have jerked
their heads around. And I’m already an alien for showing up here senior year.
Originally the first lines of the book, now, not appearing until pages 9 – 11, this scene was the catalyst for the whole story that came after, because, as the daughter of an artist, and a writer myself, I know the danger in touching someone else’s work. You don’t. Not without their permission. And, the thing is, Klee knows this too. And, so, in that moment I also suddenly knew a ton about Klee and who he was going to be when we meet him: a kid who knows better, but is in such a fragile place he can’t stop himself. He gives in to an impulse, feels utterly compelled. It’s literally the first instant when Klee is out of control. The first inkling we have that he is. And Sarah forgives him. More than that, there is something about his impulsivity, his compulsion, that draws her to him. Yet it will ultimately be the same thing that undoes them. To me, this interaction is one where love, pain, and art all collide.
The story evolved from there, from asking myself the question, “But, why?” Why was Klee in that fragile state? Why was it so intrinsically related to art, and specifically the art of Van Gogh?
What resulted, is a story that, as School Library Journal stated,
“. . . destigmatizes mental illness, emphasizing that everyone needs a little help sometimes.”
I hope so. And, really, that last part most of all. Because, here is a truth: We all suffer. And we all break now and again. We all need a little help sometimes.
Happy reading. May the stars never be far from your view.
Gae Polisner is the three-time Nerdy Book Club award-winning author of The Memory of Things, The Summer of Letting Go, and The Pull of Gravity. A family law attorney and mediator by trade, but a writer by calling, she lives on Long Island with her husband, two sons, and a suspiciously-fictional-looking small dog she swore she’d never own. She is an avid swimmer, and when she’s not writing, can be found in a pool, or better yet, in the open waters of the Long Island Sound. In Sight of Stars is her fourth book, a YA/crossover to adult title, and has received early rave reviews including a starred review from Booklist.