Years ago, I was at a writer’s conference chatting with a New York book editor. He asked me who my favorite YA writer was. I named her, and he said rather dismissively, “Yes, she’s good, but she always writes the same book.” To which I replied, “But it’s such a good book.” In fact, there was a theme or pattern that ran through many of her works at the time. Older teen woman by choice or circumstance leaves home and becomes part of new community in which she builds authentic connections and finds her way to adulthood.
Now that I’m working on my third novel, I’ve begun to see some familiar patterns and themes in my own work. In large part, they stem from my own experiences. My sisters and I grew up with a single parent dad in a household where there was a definite script we were supposed to follow for our lives. Our father was well-intentioned, but I was thirty years old when the therapist I’d begun seeing asked me: “What do you want?” I was startled and amazed at the question. I could not recall having ever been asked this question—not only by my father, but by anyone in my family.
Not surprisingly, this is coming out in my work. Although the settings and plot lines of my books are quite different, a central challenge for the protagonist in each book is figuring out who she is and what she wants as distinct from the messages she’s received on the home front. In my novel, While I Danced, Cass’s father doesn’t want her to pursue a career in dance, which is her passion. And he certainly doesn’t want her finding out the truth about her mother, which she’s determined to do. In It Should Have Been You, Clara’s murdered twin, a piano prodigy, was the star in her musical parents’ universe. The message she’s consistently gotten at home is that she is the lesser twin, more or less an afterthought for her family, since her interests and gifts are not musical. And in Gone, the novel I’m currently working on, Leisha’s African-American grandfather opposes her interest in pursuing vocal music as well as her romantic relationship. After all, it was when her late mother sang at a “low life” night club and got mixed up with a white man that her life went on a downward spiral.
The other pattern I’ve noticed is that in each novel, love is transformative, consistent with my own experience. After some romantic disappointments, Cass, Clara, and Leisha all end up becoming involved with boys who are first and foremost caring and supportive friends. These guys don’t rescue and they don’t solve Cass, Clara, or Leisha’s problems. But they sure do make the journey a whole lot sweeter.
So, am I writing the same book over and over? In one sense, yes. But my hope is that my stories connect with readers because they deal with universal themes and rites of passage we all go through. It is never easy to grow up and differentiate from parents and cope with the myriad of messages we get about what we’re supposed to look like, act like, or be interested in. And we all dream and hope to find that special person who not only sends our pulse into overdrive, but who is a genuinely caring friend.
My hope is that if indeed, I am writing the same book over and over, it’s a good one. And if I’ve told an entertaining story and touched a heart or two along the way? Mission accomplished.
P.S. Reply button above, which I mention because I’d love to hear from you! What kinds of messages are you getting or did you get from parents?
Also, are there authors whose books you return to again and again, even though (or maybe because) you’re aware they have an underlying similarity?