Alison McGhee is a prolific author of picture books and novels for children, young adults, and adults. In her new YA novel, What I Leave Behind, McGhee crafts an emotionally raw story about the exceptionally kind 16-year-old Will, who walks at night through the streets of Los Angeles and attempts to heal his own pain by helping those around him. PW spoke with McGhee about her new novel, how she creates a narrative framework, and writing with her heart on the line.
What I Leave Behind is your first young adult novel in nearly 10 years. What inspired you to return to this audience and to tell this story?
First, it shocks me that it has been almost 10 years. And second, young adult and adult is my most natural voice. Even for adults I often create a younger narrator, and a coming-of-age story is my favorite to read and to write.
This story came to me first as a feeling of someone who is at such an impasse and can feel and absorb the pain of others. And in order to cope with that intensity he tries to make their lives better. Rather than protect himself he goes into the sorrow of others and transforms them with his kindness. Will is so fundamentally kind. And I had this vision that this 15- or 16-year-old boy, I wasn’t sure which yet, would work at the Dollar Store, and that he would be observing the lonely people perusing the shelves. I went to a Dollar Store and I took a couple hundred photos with my phone. And I thought maybe I can make a strange little book with these photos on one side and essays in the voice of this boy on the other.
The book clearly morphed, but I kept that general theme. I wanted to create a brief but intense read so that it was a novel with the same emotional punch as some of my most favorite poems. Poems are my most favorite thing in the world. And I wanted it to feel like what Emily Dickinson wrote: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” So I created a near verse novel. And it felt very powerful. I was overwhelmed with emotion as I wrote it, as if I was condensing all the pain and sorrow I have felt in my life into this condensed book. And I was so transformed by the act of writing it, more so than any of my other novels.
The narrative of the novel is distinct, with 100 chapters each with 100 words. How and why did you choose this structure?
I always impose an arbitrary framework on my work. In one instance, I made random lists of objects that all had to go in the story. In one picture book I set myself the challenge of creating a book as a sistina. Initially I wrote very short passages. And then I thought about the Dollar Store and how a dollar has 100 pennies and the Chinese blessings store [in the novel] gives 100 blessings, so I decided to make every chapter 100 words, and to include exactly 100 passages. I worried that it would be too short but I had this goal to write a novel in a poem. It was a fiendish little challenge but I found that it forced me to compress further and further. It was an exercise in precision and I loved it.
How and why did you choose the David Bowie lyrics for the novel?
Oh Bowie, I love Bowie. I chose that song [“Space Oddity”] because it always makes me feel a certain way. I think it expresses both everyone’s essential loneliness—because no matter how loved, adored, and happy you are there is always inside ourselves a loneliness, and [the song] expresses that to me. But at the same time, it also captures our connectedness. It captures either end of the spectrum—the profound loneliness and profound connectedness—and that is what the book feels like to me.
Will’s emotions are extremely raw in this novel as he grieves for his father and worries that he might be partially responsible for his friend’s rape. How did you achieve this emotional vulnerability?
I am such a private person and I have worked so hard to keep my private life private. But Will is the character closest to how I was than anyone else I’ve ever written. And as I wrote I thought what if that were me and responded how I would. I found that I could access a certain kind of pain and tenderness and at times that was overwhelming. Every day I was writing I told myself to put my heart on the line.
What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee. Atheneum/Dlouhy, $17.99 May ISBN 978-1-4814-7656-0