The Chicken or the Egg? by Jonathan Auxier
What came first, the chicken or the egg?
It’s an old question — and a cliche. And yet, sometimes cliches have a way of shedding light on our unique circumstances.
This week, I have a new book out in the world. Sweep is the story of a girl and her monster, set in the world of Victorian chimney sweeps.
This book took over ten years to write. All my books have changed over the course of their writing, but none so much as this one. And now, looking back, I understand why: the book changed because I changed.
At the beginning of the story, eleven year-old Nan Sparrow is a child, abandoned and alone, forced to find her way in a brutal world. But then, she discovers a miracle: a tiny golem made of ash and soot — no bigger than a lump of coal. He was born inside a burning chimney, and Nan has to care for him. As the Golem (who she names Charlie) grows, he becomes larger and more imposing — he becomes Nan’s protector.
This is the moment when the book became most difficult to write: I thought I was telling a story about what it meant to be a lost child … but which character was the child and which was the guardian?
It makes sense, perhaps that this was the struggle. When I started writing Sweep, I was in my mid-twenties. I was, in many ways, still a child myself. But then I had my own miracle: I became a father to three little girls. Instantly, my role as someone’s child became secondary to my role as someone’s parent.
At one early point, Nan comes across a riddle written on a board:
For Nan, the answer is simple:
“What am I?”
“I am an egg.”
When I wrote that scene, I genuinely thought that was the correct answer to the riddle. But as the book (and its author) grew, I realized there was more to the question. Later, near the end of the story, Nan encounters the riddle again, and this time, she sees things differently:
“What am I?”
“I am a bird.”
This moment was a genuine surprise to me as I wrote it — surprising because I realized it had been woven into the story long before I even understood what I was doing.
I felt like my own character was teaching me something about my own transition from an egg to a bird — a journey from child to parent.
JONATHAN AUXIER is a NYT Bestselling author of strange stories for strange children. His first novel Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes was an ABA New Voices pick and a BookPage Magazine “Best Book” of 2011. His bestselling Night Gardener is a Junior Library Guild selection, an ABA IndieNext pick, an Amazon Editor’s Pick of the Month, and winner of the TD Book Prize and ILA Book Award. His newest novel, Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster hit stores this week. He lives in Pittsburgh with his family and their adorable pet umbrella.