In the literature biz, there is no rush like a debut. Before that first book hits, anything seems possible, the improbable feels likely, and that proposed media blitz seems like it might just actually work. Also: that starlet with the production company could (let no doubts linger) love your plot and—even more flatteringly—your prose. That photographer charged with freezing your face for all time will (there’s no stopping hope) trick your age out with the lights. The airport bookstores will stock your book, Trevor Noah will slot you in for an interview, conference organizers will rain their keynotes down upon you, and there are just so many prizes to be had.
Indeed, there’s no rush like a debut.
It’s the aftermath of the debut that crowds the heart and head—not all the time, but mostly. It’s then when we writers take stock: we stumbled or we didn’t; we were seen or we were not; we were loved, we were not loved, we were neglected; our emails were answered or they were ignored. Failure is one thing. Success is something else. Success breeds the need for an even better next book.
All of which requires hyped writers embarking on their next books to find a quiet room in the house inside their heads—a place where the imagination has not been spent, diffused, defected, defeated, harassed, minimized, bullied, or drowned out by the story already told, the book already made, the praise already compressed, the expectations already sparked, and the rumors of other superstar writers who somehow wavered in the shocking aftermaths of success. What, after all, kept Harper Lee from finishing a second novel for all that time? How much, precisely, did F. Scott Fitzgerald suffer in the afterglow of early fame?
There are writers, of course, who escape the curse—who publish, succeed, and publish on, steady (to all appearances) as they go, taking this gain, this loss, this writerly existence in stride. I think of Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, Alice McDermott, Toni Morrison, Elizabeth’s Strout, and John Updike. I think, too, of series writers—authors such as Suzanne Collins, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, and J.R.R. Tolkien—who tangle and extend established characters and plot lines for an audience curated, enhanced, solidified, and finally well maneuvered by exacting marketing frames.
But what if the writers of series grow desperate to move to a new writing room inside their heads? I’m not suggesting that all do, of course, but, what if? What if what they want to do next is not precisely within their lucrative, reliable brand? What if their next is, to the Ps and the Ls, a most terrifying risk? How does it feel to escape the known for the unknown—to begin, without felt fanfare or pressure, again?
This is the question I asked myself while writing my new middle grade novel, The Great Upending. The novel features a young brother and sister who live together on a drought-afflicted farm with parents who cannot afford the life-saving surgery their daughter, diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, needs. The novel also features an old artist who has produced two resplendent wordless picture books that have met with nearly unbearable acclaim. He has come to the farm in search of that quiet room inside his head. Still, among the goats and pigs, the sun and dust, he is chased by the brand he has—unwittingly—become. He is chased by the machinery of a publishing world that places a premium upon the surest, most readily calculated next.
The Great Upending may ask universal questions about the imagination and to whom it finally belongs, but it is the kids, in these pages, who assert the proper outrage. It’s the kids who want to live in a world in which writers and artists are not chased by the mechanical crunch of publishing or the tyranny of brands or the first-book echoes inside their heads. It’s the kids who wonder what might be done to protect the quiet rooms where ideas live, so that we might all, in the end, share precisely the tales we most wish to tell.