August 04

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How Authors Sneak into Their Stories by Christina Uss

I was feeling sort of lost in 2018 after a painful round of editors’ rejections for my latest novel, ERIK VS. EVERYTHING. I wondered if this beloved book of mine would ever see the light of day. 

ERIK VS. EVERYTHING is the story of Erik Sheepflattener, a modern boy whose family looks to their Viking heritage to inform their daily lives. The Sheepflattener clan doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear. Except for Erik. Fear, anxiety, worry, and dread are his constant companions since his parents keep signing him up for activities he doesn’t want to do. He endures, longing to be allowed to live his dream of avoiding stuff.

There is a great deal of silliness in the book. Erik ends up bedeviled by a one-eared squirrel named Mr. Nubbins. I took enormous pleasure in inventing quotes from ancient Sheepflattener family lore, which advises we think about the many uses for teeth, wear the best possible socks, and philosophically contemplate the essence of goats and turnips.

But it’s not just a silly story. It’s my story. I snuck a big piece of my childhood into this book.

I was a kid who was scared of so many small, everyday things: talking on the phone, riding the school bus, answering questions out loud in school, playing any sport involving balls, piano lessons. In fact, until middle school, I thought everyone was scared of these things, but they’d mastered their fears in a way I never could. In double fact, I still pushed myself to do things that made me miserably anxious well into my adulthood, until I discovered psychologist Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person and recognized myself in its pages.

The first scene I wrote for the book—Erik before his weekly piano lesson begins, feeling his heart hammering in his chest as though Thor himself is tunneling through his ribcage—came straight out of my memory banks. I can still smell my local piano studio’s scent of wood polish and dusty lampshades, hear the semi-musical plonks and plinks from behind the closed doors, see my hands shaking in time with my hammering heart. Thus, the rejections of Erik’s story, of my story, felt personal.

I got lucky in 2018, though. I attended my favorite annual writing conference organized by the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I was in a session led by a writer I adore and admire, Linda Mullaly Hunt, most famous at that point for her amazing Fish in a Tree. I thought she might give me some insight on how I could revise my novel so an editor would find it irresistible.

     Instead, Linda got right inside my head and insisted I had to write the stories only I could tell. She said there were young readers out there who needed to hear them. I suddenly had a vision of a kid reading my book who was enduring under the weight of small, scary childhood obligations. This reader would know she wasn’t alone. She’d be able to imagine people like Erik’s sister, Brunhilde Sheepflattener, willing to take up arms against the slings and arrows of outrageous daily anxieties and fight for her. 

The vision expanded—I could come to this kid’s school for a visit, invite her and her classmates to put lists of things they feared or wished they could avoid into a bag, and I’d grab the mythic hammer Mjolnir to smash the bag into harmless nothingness. Then I’d give the kids Norwegian SMASH snacks and temporary Viking rune tattoos and tell them they were under the protection of the Sheepflattener clan forever henceforth.  

I created a notebook called “Christina Vs. The Editors Who Say No” and wrote myself sustaining pep talks so I could go on collecting rejections without changing my story. My dear agent, a protective Brunhilde if there ever was one, never wavered in her belief we’d place the book with the right publisher. Eventually, my agent got me on the phone with an editor at HMH Kids. When I blurted out that the book meant so much to me because I was Erik, she murmured, “So am I.” And I knew my book would see the light of day.

In that daylight, there will soon be a bookstore event with snacks, temporary tattoos, and an activity involving me whapping attendees’ fears with a baseball bat into harmless nothingness. (The hammer Mjolnir wasn’t available.) In that daylight, I will connect with readers and tell them how authors sneak into their books, and sometimes lay their hearts bare amidst turnips and squirrels.

Christina Uss (www.christinauss.com) writes books whose characters discover how to happily be who they already are, including The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Holiday House 2018), and The Colossus of Roads (Holiday House 2020). Her third middle-grade novel, Erik Vs. Everything, came out August 3, 2021 from Clarion Books (formerly HMH Kids) and can be read before piano lessons everywhere.