To write her latest YA novel, Laurie Halse Anderson tapped into some dark corners of her past. In The Impossible Knife of Memory, due from Viking January 7 with a 250,000-copy first printing, 18-year-old Hayley and her Iraq veteran father abandon their peripatetic life on the road and move to his hometown so she can attend school. As her father resorts to alcohol and drugs to cope with his PTSD, Hayley watches, helpless, and tries to adjust to her new life, new friends, and new love. In a conversation with PW, Anderson shared some of the experiences and recollections that helped shape the book, and offered insight into her writing process.
The first sentence of the letter you wrote to accompany the ARC mailing of The Impossible Knife of Memory says a great deal in just three words: “This is personal.”
Yes, it does. My own father, who I’ve just this week moved to an assisted living community near me, so he’s been on my mind a lot, inspired the novel. In 1945, after he graduated from high school, he was drafted into the Army, and was sent to Dachau. He arrived shortly after the concentration camp opened, and his unit’s responsibilities included burial detail and keeping peace amid a lot of craziness. Like so many soldiers, he came home changed, and echoes of what he experienced in Dachau are still being passed down in our family.
What happened when he returned to the U.S.?
His biggest ambition after he graduated from high school was to open a gas station. But he decided to become a Methodist minister after the horrors of the war led him to explore what it means to be a human being. He felt called to make the world a better place by becoming a minister. He was a good one. Eventually, he became a chaplain at Syracuse University, and for a number of years was big man on campus. But he was drinking too much, and ended up quitting the ministry. When I was a teenager, there were a couple of years when Dad was a mean, ugly drunk. He was suicidal and woke up at night screaming, reliving all he had seen and smelled during the war.
Did he manage to turn his life around?
After going AWOL for a while, somehow he pulled himself together. I think my Mom read him the riot act. He opened up a counseling center, and was really good at counseling others, which we always thought was quite ironic. After about six years he went back into ministry, not on campus but in small country churches, which was very healing for him. He didn’t retire until 1989.
The lingering effects of his PTSD clearly affected your childhood.
As a kid you bumble through your life and often don’t know what’s happening. Everything should be all right and it’s not. My Mom worked herself to the bone to keep a roof over our heads. And when I was assaulted, which was the basis for Speak, I didn’t tell anyone about it. My father was off the hook at the time and I was afraid he’d shoot the boy responsible. I have a vivid memory of helping Mom move Dad’s passed-out body after a dinner party, but that wasn’t up for discussion. We just didn’t talk about things.
I was angry with my Dad for a long time, and didn’t understand PTSD. Seeing the experiences of soldiers coming back from Iraq made a light bulb go off in my head. I began to understand the experience of soldiers who came back home 50 or 60 years ago with nothing except a bottle of whiskey.
And recognizing that parallel led you to write about an Iraqi vet with PTSD?
Sometimes when I find myself very irritated about a topic, I know it’s my next book. I think how veterans are treated in our country is an abomination. We don’t have the draft any more, which is why so many soldiers come from working-class – rather than middle- or high-income – families. Those wealthier families aren’t affected, so they’re not agitating for change. Soldiers come home broken and we don’t help them heal. It’s horrifying to think that for every veteran today who needs help and can’t get a job, there’s a family attached. There are 20 million American veterans alive today – think about how many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that means. I am super proud of being an American, but we fail our veterans every day.
Due to her father’s condition, Hayley has to grow up too fast. Do you hope that The Impossible Knife of Memory speaks to teens who have to deal with other kinds of harsh realities?
I never really think of things like that when I’m working on a book, since I’m focused on writing a good story and that is deeply internal. Now I’m beginning to think, if I had had a book like this at 16, what would that have done for me? I probably would have had less confusion and possibly more empathy for my Dad.
I do hope the book will touch more than veterans’ kids. Kids from families dealing with substance abuse issues, chronic disease, bad divorces, or loss of their home leave childhood too early, and there’s a gap in time before they become adults. Parents often don’t know how to talk to their kids about what is happening, and I hope this book helps teens in those situations. And I hope it helps readers understand issues, things like sexual assault or eating disorders, which their friends may be going through. That’s what literature does: it makes sense of our lives and brings the world into our hearts. And we need the world to help us grow up.
Was this novel cathartic for you to write?
It was incredibly cathartic. I don’t think I could have written this book earlier in my life. I had to be old enough to understand what it might be like to be that parent who is so broken.
In 2005, I moved my parents up here to the town we live in, north of Syracuse and right off Lake Ontario. My mother died in 2009, and I’m so grateful I was able to take care of her in her last years. Daddy, too. Even though I’ve been taking care of my parents at the end of their lives, they were actually taking care of me. The love and time we shared wiped out all the old pain and the ghosts for me.
What was it that inspired you to add the love angle to The Impossible Knife of Memory and bring Hayley and Finn together?
Well, I’ve never done a love story before, and it felt right. There are some very dark moments in the book, and it was nice that the story unfolded in a way that Hayley had an amazing young man to help her when things got rough. As with my other YA books, I spend some time pondering the topic of this novel, and I didn’t start writing till I heard the characters whispering to me and I had their opening lines. When I heard Hayley talking, I tried not to look directly at her, but just eavesdrop. I thought the book would be all about Hayley and her dad, and suddenly this boy walks into the cafeteria – and ba-boom! That was totally unexpected, and my heart went pitter-patter.
In addition to your contemporary novels, you also write historical fiction. Is your method similar for both?
I find that with my historical novels, I have a completely different writing process than with my YA books. They are so closely tied to historical events and places that I fanatically outline and know where I’m going, so those I don’t have to revise so much. But my YA novels are so organic that it’s not till the end of the last draft that I even know where I’m going. I tell kids it’s kind of like musicians pushing buttons on a mixing board to create a song. I always have to go back and tinker with things – the unfolding of plot, the pacing, do I waste time on setting a scene or do I need to push it along with dialogue?
So did you spend a good deal of time revising The Impossible Knife of Memory?
Yes, the book took me about 18 months to finish. I find the revising part so rewarding – massaging the story, and months later finding you have something you’re proud of. I do love revision. Here, I ended up with two strong plot lines, and added some subplots. I tinkered so much that my editor got sick of me! And I opened a door to the father’s experiences in the war with flashbacks. That was the first time I’d written in the voice of an adult. It can be boring doing the same thing over and over again, so this was fun for me, and it upped my game.
How did you decide on The Impossible Knife of Memory as your title?
I felt that I’d got painted into a corner with the one-word titles and I don’t like being painted into a corner! For my last book, Wintergirls, I made up a new word for the title. In this book, there is the whole “memories” theme. The father can’t stop thinking about the past, and it’s killing him. Hayley, too, is trapped in the past and has trouble moving forward. The title just fell out of the sky. When I first presented it to some of the sales and marketing people at Penguin, they were skeptical. And then, by the time I submitted a list of 12 one-word titles instead – they were all pretty bad – everyone had grown to like the title. That was exciting for me, because I knew that the title said what I wanted it to say.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m getting ready for my 15-city tour in January. While on the road, I’ll be poking at two projects. I’m writing the script for the graphic novel of Speak, and am also working on Ashes, the final book in my trilogy about the American Revolution. And I’m thinking about issues that I might write about in my next YA book.
Where have those thoughts led you?
I’m thinking I might write about some of the terrible things teens in America have to deal with. We treat our teens so badly, with all that the corporate culture does to manipulate them. We’re good at taking care of little kids, and spend a lot of energy teaching them things like how to read. But when kids get as tall as their parents and can look them in the eyes, we tend to drop the ball – at a time they most need a loving consistent community of adults, be it parents, aunts, uncles, or others. We need to be there to listen and help teens figure all this mess out. I hear from so many kids who have been hurt for whatever reason and it breaks my heart. I’d like kids to read a book take away from it, “This is what I want to avoid,” or “This is what I should get help for.” Books have to encourage kids to speak up and to get help if they’ve struggling. We’ve got to do a better job helping out our teens in this country.
Well, given your YA bibliography, it seems you are more than doing your part.
You know, I’m trying. I’m really trying.
The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson. Viking, $18.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-670-01209-1