Since I don’t have a new book coming out in 2017, I’ve decided to rewind a little, and discuss/spotlight a different novel of mine every month. I’ll write a little bit about each, answer questions about each on my Facebook author page, possibly release some bonus material, and give everyone an opportunity to catch up on books I’ve written before 2017. As an added bonus, each book I’m discussing will be value-priced at $1.99 at online retailers. (Of course, I also encourage you to go to a local bookseller and purchase/order a copy there.)
In honor of the Women’s March on Washington this weekend, as well as the countless marches occurring around the country, I’m starting with Wide Awake – which is very much about protest, and using your voice. A new version of Wide Awake with both a new afterword by yours truly and a copy of my Margaret A. Edwards Award Acceptance speech is available now – and the time couldn’t be more appropriate for it. I am not going to replicate that afterword here. That was written over the summer – which already feels like a very different time. This essay is written . . . well, now.
So one of the best things about being a fiction writer is the ability to alter reality simply by writing down an alternate version. This becomes frustrating when you desperately want to actually alter reality, and reality does not oblige. If your mind works at all like mine, and if your politics are at all similar to mine, the past two months have been about wishing for a different reality, having a childish desire to wake up and find it’s November 7th again. Fiction writers can create any loopholes they want. (You wanted the electoral college to overthrow the election results? Yeah, you were definitely hoping a fiction writer was in charge.)
Which brings me to my novel Wide Awake.
Certainly, it’s the novel of mine that I’ve been thinking about the most lately, and I’ve been hearing from other people who’ve been thinking about it, too. To those of you not familiar with the book, it’s about the election of the first gay, Jewish president of the United States, and also about how the protagonists (two high-school boyfriends and their group) go to Kansas to defend that election in a mass protest when it’s called into question. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say the protest works. The best man wins.
In a way, I feel like I’m caught in a loop. Wide Awake is my rewrite of the 2000 election, where, because of the painstaking length of the post-election process, we did not see the mass protests on the scale that I anticipate we’ll see this weekend. I wrote the book as a protest after the results of the 2004, which were in many ways more dispiriting than the 2000 results, because in 2004 Bush won fair and square (i.e. with the majority of votes.) And I wrote it to be out in time for the 2006 midterm elections, hoping that a protest novel could have the same force of a protest song. What I didn’t realize was that I was actually writing a book about the 2008 election, with Obama’s candidacy and message reflecting (sometimes word-for-word) that of my fictional gay, Jewish president. For eight years, I could focus on that. Now, in 2017, I’m back to thinking about the protest part.
I won’t be marching in DC this weekend because I will be at the American Library Association convention in Atlanta. But I will be marching there, hopefully surrounded by librarians, because I have found that when you want to engage in social justice, librarians are very effective people to have at your side. I am jealous of Duncan and Jimmy, the main characters in Wide Awake, because they are protesting in order to defend something, in order to force an actual change. I am under no illusion that marching this weekend will create a change. Trump is going to be president. Pence will be vice-president. Their cabinet will be the cabinet. But a protest still matters, even if it doesn’t cause a reversal.
Why? I can only speak for myself, and what I say is this: The reasons I want to march are very much in line with the reasons Duncan and Jimmy march in Wide Awake. I am over denial – there’s no place for it anymore. I am stepping away from anger, in no small part because it is the oxygen that fed this fire, and the integrity of my beliefs demands that they be offered with reason, not rage. I am refusing to bargain, because bargaining must be predicated on fairness, and I have seen no fairness here. And as for election-related feelings of depression – this trap has been set for us as much as anger, so we must march out of it, and find the counterbalance that comes from being surrounded and reinforced by kindred souls. Most of all, I will march to make perfectly clear: There is no acceptance here. There has not been. There will not be.
Do you want to know what has inspired me these past two months? I have seen, in so many friends and so many strangers, a loud, active refusal to be complacent. If you are looking for hope, find it there. I did not feel it like this in 2000 or 2004. I felt I needed to invent it on a grand scale for Wide Awake. But it is here, in our country, among a majority of the people – reality, on a grand scale. We may still grapple with denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. But we are nowhere near acceptance.
True story: This year I happened to be reading the third book in Congressman John Lewis’s autobiographical March trilogy on Election Day. As I stood in line for the polls, I was reading about the Voting Rights Act, and what it took to get there. And when the election results took their turn that night, I clung to that book on my way to work the next morning. The lesson I kept repeating to myself was: People have been through far worse than this. And: When the time comes, you better march.
Another reason I am jealous of my characters: They all get to live in a safer past, or if they live in the future, it’s in a future that I created for them, not this one. In Wide Awake, at the very least, they have to struggle. That is, in fact, one of the key messages of the book: In order to get the change we want, we have to band together and use our voices to get it. So that is what we’ll do. Sometimes the voices will come out as fiction that shows us a way to navigate. And sometimes the voices will come out as truths spoken out loud. We all have that to contribute, and should accept nothing less.