“Me and Harry Potter,” by Rafe Martin
Yes, it is a catchy title. But it is grounded in reality. It is true. I’ll tell you what I mean.
I am now finishing my first young adult novel titled, Birdwing. It is a mythic, adventurous, mysterious, and sometimes funny story which has been bought by Arthur A. Levine. Now, who, you may well ask, is Arthur A. Levine? Look at your Harry Potter books! Each one is an Arthur A. Levine book. Arthur is my editor and is not only now the most sought after editor in the world, but also the best. Why? It is simple, really. He trusts his own heart and vision. When the first Harry Potter book was being sold all the editors in the U.S. were offered it at auction. All the other editors dutifully went to their marketing and accounting people who told them, “It is British whimsical fantasy. It won’t sell in the States. Let it alone.” Arthur stuck his neck out and bid the highest and bought the book—and the series. It was a risky move that could have, depending on the outcome, either made or broken him. Well, you know what happened.
When Arthur gives talks these days and is asked, “How did you know that Harry Potter would be so amazingly successful.” (Actually he tells me they also ask him that about my book, The Rough-Face Girl as well—Arthur has been my editor since 1990), he sighs and says, “Don’t you get it? I didn’t know. I just liked it.” He told me this over lunch a few months ago and I could see that it troubled him. “How cynical Americans have become,” he added. “Everyone is thinking only of money and marketing. How few, today, remember to trust their own hearts”—which is, after all, what writing and storytelling are really about—finding our own images, trusting our own vision and hearts. Arthur is a great editor because he continues to do this simple, but in our complex and chaotic times, increasingly rare thing—he trusts his own heart.
For me writing and storytelling are ways to empower each of us—writer, storyteller, teachers and students together, to find our own hearts and vision. We must each discover our own images if the story is to live. The storyteller can only make sounds on the air, after all. The writer only makes squiggles on a page. But the reader and listener SEES. Stories in words remain the only tools, the only technology, we have, even today, that can give us the gift of our own creativity, our own uniquely personal images. They alone have the power to put us in touch with what our own minds create and what our own hearts feel. TV, movies, computers all make us see the same things. Without stories in words we are, ironically, as adrift as all those children’s book editors who failed to trust their own responses to the manuscript of Harry Potter, and, so, let a golden chance go by.
Now as to my novel. For me, part of the thrill of it is that Arthur not only bought it, but that he bought it from a three-page proposal saying, “This is a brilliant idea. I know you can make it work. I’m buying it.”
After that, to be honest, I became somewhat terrified. Can someone be somewhat terrified? Doesn’t terrified imply a complete and total experience of overwhelming fear. Well, I found I could be somewhat terrified. I still can. Gulp. Now I’ve got to actually write the book! Someone is paying me for it! The dream had suddenly become hard reality.
Though I had been thinking about the novel and jotting down ideas on it for close to two years, I didn’t start actually writing until this March. As I began, flood-gates seemed to open and characters and scenes poured forth. Characters emerged, took on their own voices, and began to speak their truths and reveal their emotions. Scenes took form, each claiming its own landscape—mountain, forest, or tundra—each with its own skies, clouds, rivers, and animals and skies.
Well and good. Then the truly hard moment came when I had to move from the first draft to the second. It meant no longer moving along the now relatively easy road of accumulating detail and bringing the work to a polished fulfillment. Instead it required a difficult transition and deep initiation. I found that to make the book really work as a novel, and not just be a well-written sequence of events, I would have to abandon a good portion of my initial inspiration—some of which I still held in a kind of reverent awe. After all, where had these events and scenes and characters all come from? Were they mine or were they the offspring of some deep zone of the psyche? If so, should I dare mess with that?
I found that I would have to. So I began the hard, gritty, risky, real work of writing. Which means, rewriting. I had to begin the journey from those sweet flashes of initial inspiration to those difficult, daily doses of perspiration, the sweat and tears that, in the end, could alone ground the book and make it live. Make it a read. I had to roll up my sleeves and cut scenes that I truly loved but, which I now saw, didn’t contribute enough to the development of the story as a whole. It meant moving scenes from one place in the story to another in order to increase their contribution to the drama and conflict. It meant creating entirely new scenes to deepen characters and plot. It even meant throwing away the entire first four chapters and writing a totally new opening, one that would draw the reader immediately and deeply into the unfolding tale, make them want to read on and, at the same time, motivate the characters themselves to really make things happen, rather than just allowing events to take place. It was arduous, demanding, exciting work. I loved it!
The book is now through its fourth draft. Writing it has been like a powerful, mythic journey, an exciting adventure, and a hard-won education all in one. The characters and places of it have become real to me. It has been like rediscovering places and people I always knew, only, until I actually wrote the book, I didn’t know that I knew them.
I look forward very much to seeing Birdwing head out on its own into the world. I sense that all my previous books have actually been the apprenticeship for this one. I look forward to sharing, too, my deepened understanding of writing and writing process, gained day by somewhat terrifying day, over the course of these last six amazing, demanding, exciting, and very special months.
All that was five years ago. Countless hours of re-imagining, re-seeing, re-thinking and endless rewriting have passed since, and only now is Birdwing finally and truly done. So much for youthful optimism! But it is at last the book I hoped it would be. Watch for its publication in the Summer of 2005. Arthur Levine plans for it to have a stirring, dramatic cover.
Meanwhile I am hard at work—two years into it—on my UFO, alien-abduction, motorcycle, and ancient Irish myth novel—The Spaceship of Impossibly Bad Dreams.
Writing such long stories, discovering new terrains and characters, is a compelling journey deep into the imagination. Even the once dreaded anguish and toil of continual re-writing becomes a pleasure and an addiction, hard, once truly embarked upon, to give up. New territory continues to unroll before the mindÌs eye and, what is more, one’s skills to communicate what one has seen become wonderfully honed in the process.
So, for now, no turning back. But onward, to books yet to come!