Sunday, June 26, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Sequel to Switching Well

Kids who like a book often ask for a sequel. So far the only book I've felt I might could write a sequel for is 11,000 Years Lost, and apparently sales figures didn't justify it, though never say never (it would be about Telabat). The one I've been asked for the most is my little Energizer bunny, still grinding out a few hundred dollars in royalties every year, Switching Well.

Since I don't expect every person who runs across this blog has read Switching Well: it's about two girls, Ada and Amber, who swap places across time when they make wishes in an old well in a vacant lot, one to live "a hundred years from now" and the other to live "a hundred years ago." I don't think it's too spoilery to say that the story wraps up when they figure out how to swap back.

And as far as I'm concerned, they're both done. I don't have another story about Ada or Amber, and I'm sure not going to fall into the common sequel trap of telling the same story in a slightly different dress. So if I were to do a sequel, I'd have to shift to one of the other characters, and there's no question in my mind who that character would be.

Everybody who has expressed an opinion on the subject, myself included, has the same favorite character: Violet, who takes the bewildered Ada under her wing in the emergency shelter. Violet is a tough, savvy girl manipulating the system. her special needs sister is fine as long as her mother can stay home with her, but her poorly-educated father is unemployed and, under the rules of the welfare system circa 1991 (if anything, it's probably worse by now), if he lives with his family, they can't get enough in benefits to cover their needs, so he "abandons" them to prevent the sister from having to be institutionalized and lose all her hard-won independence. But once their grandmother dies, the benefits are further reduced, and can no longer support both sisters. So Violet takes her cue from her dad and begins a life of "running away," appearing at different shelters around the city at different times with different identifying information, grabbing her education on the fly. She's tough, she's smart, she's cynical, and she becomes Ada's staunchest friend.

Yes, American "child welfare" laws really are written badly enough to split up families and provide the worst possible (and often most publicly expensive) options to the families they're supposed to help. I'll spare you the rant. You can provide it for yourself if you care to research the topic. The character of Violet is a direct result of that research, providing Ada with a much-needed guide to the late twentieth-century and me a tangible, non-story-wrecking outlet for the rage and frustration my research left with me.

Anyway, Ada does her best to give Violet and her family a leg up at the end of the book. But Violet does not live in a world of easy solutions. And the thought follows me around sometimes: She knows where that wishing well is, and she knows it works. Is someone as cannily opportunistic as Violet not going to use that?

I think she's too smart to wish for money. It's finite. Power over her situation is what she wants, but that's too vague to form a wish about. The quickest route out of her family's troubles would be to wish her sister's special needs away. But it can't all be roses after that, or there's no story.

OMG, look at the pitfalls. First and foremost, by putting the sister front and center like that, I'd be running the risk of writing an "issue driven" book, which is crap.

More crucially, I don't have anything like the intimate contact and experience with people - look, I'll tell you how bad this is. I'm actually sitting here trying to think of the current polite way to describe Rosesharon's original condition.

Large chunks of the book would have to be from her POV. If I can't even put an honest, straightforward name on that, how am I going to track and express the changes she endures, much less depict her reaction to them? When I'm in a character, I'm in the character - seated right behind her eyes, in total harmony with the way she approaches the world even while I'm wincing and allowing her to make her necessary mistakes. This doesn't mean I can only write about people like me, but it does mean I have to do massive amounts of research in order to find the starting point that will enable me to to find a comfortable seat in the heads of those who are unlike me. And Rosesharon's difference lies exactly in the spot where I would have to sit.

Violet's wish, in essence, would be to make Rosesharon more like me. The character is violated at the outset.

No way I can write this book. If I tried, I'd probably come up with a third-rate Flowers for Algernon rip-off. No one wants that.

Nobody else can write this book either, of course. Violet and her family are my intellectual property.

But if you happen to have the "in" that will let you write about someone wired sufficiently differently from the mainstream as to face her family members with the choice of making huge sacrifices for her, or sacrificing her to an institution - don't be afraid to go there. If you succeed, it will be brilliant and groundbreaking.

And isn't that worth the risk of failure?


  1. I was not satisfied by Flowers for Algernon, and I suspect it would take a special education teacher to write a really lifelike story about awakening from mental retardation -- and I would never ask one to look directly at such a painfully impossible fantasy.

    Then again, it would have some similarities with the experiences of my Ethiopian children, who were intelligent but whose education had been limited -- especially in how they were able to catch up in some things, but not all.

  2. Hi Peni,

    You left a comment on my blog a little ways back and I'm not sure you saw my response, but: I just wanted to let you know how surprised and delighted I was to learn that you were the author of Switching Well! I read that book when it first came out, when I was in middle school, and I still apparently think of it all these 16+ years later. Literally days before your comment, I found myself out of nowhere recalling specific bits from the book-- the watery skim milk, the idea of cars as suffocating metal boxes, "divorce" being a scandalous word that only grownups knew. How uncanny!

    So it seems your story is still popping its head up around in my brain somewhere, and it's a treat to run into your internet self as well!

  3. John, I think the difference between "uneducated" and "unable-to-educate" would show up drastically in a direct comparison. The thing about mental retardation is, that the mental processes work so differently that it's impossible to tell if terms like "intelligence" and "stupidity" even apply. An experienced retarded person is capable of some pretty canny behavior, if allowed to develop his own strengths; which is one reason people like Rosesharon do better in families than in institutions.

    And oh, hi, Margo! I'd completely forgotten I'd posted on your BACC. I'm kind of a drive-by commenter, so I'm glad you sought me out. Makes me feel valued and all. Ramona is getting even more Ramonaish, I see! Love Arlo's hair.