The Answers, Part One

***WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE SWEET FAR THING. IF YOU HAVE NOT YET READ THE BOOK AND STILL WANT TO BE SURPRISED, DO NOT READ THIS POST. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. SERIOUSLY. I’M NOT KIDDING!****

I’ve taken the past few days to read through and process your questions. I am so very humbled by your responses, by how invested you are in the book(s) and the characters, by what you bring to the reading experience. No author could ask for more. What a gift you have given me. Thank you for that.

 

And a special thank you to the reader who posted this: “i know the truth. i know why you killed him. You are an eco friendly femmebot who sustains herself with teenage girls’ tears. Do not fret, with the tears i’ve shed you will be able to last years.”

 

That was possibly my favorite. Yes, you have seen through my onion-skin façade into my evil heart—mwahahahaha!!!! *drinks tears, stays eternally young*

 

But seriously. There is much asked and only so much I think I can or should answer, and so, in this post I would like to give a few thoughts on what seemed to be the overwhelming question: “WHY?”

 

And here is the best answer I can give: Because.

 

Because sometimes, life is damned unfair.

Because sometimes, we lose people we love and it hurts deeply.

Because sometimes, as the writer, you have to put your characters in harm’s way and be willing to go there if it is the right thing for your book, even if it grieves you to do it.

Because sometimes there aren’t really answers to our questions except for what we discover, the meaning we assign them over time.

Because acceptance is yet another of life’s “here’s a side of hurt” lessons and it is never truly acceptance unless it has cost us something to arrive there.

Why, you ask? Because, I answer.

Inadequate yet true.

 

You have asked, “Did you always mean for Kartik to die?”

Yes. I knew it would happen that way, and no, I didn’t like it. I began to get inklings that this would be the case in Rebel Angels, a growing fatalism. And I put my fingers in my ears and said, “La-la-la-la, I’m not listening!” because I didn’t want to think about it. But deep in my gut, I knew it was necessary. In fact, the end was the first scene I drafted in TSFT. It set the tone for the rest of the book, and I wondered at times if I would be brave enough to be true to this ending. I’m sure that’s part of what was so hard about writing it.

 

“Did you cry when you wrote it?”

Yes, I did. I cried quite a lot during the writing of this book. Maybe it was the stress and the pace and the diet of sugar and caffeine. But maybe, just maybe, it was that this book surprised me many times with what it brought up for me personally, how it snuck up on me like an emotional mugger. Maybe it was that it took me deeper into the murk of my own soul than I’d gone before. Maybe it was that it demanded hard truths and one of those truths was the sacrifice of a much-loved character. All I know for certain is that I should have taken stock in Kleenex before I started.

 

“WHY? OMG WHY DID HE HAVE TO DIE?”

Because…

 

I know how you feel. Truly, I do. When Cathy died in Wuthering Heights, I was heartbroken. Ditto when Mary went blind in the Little House on the Prairie series. Two of my favorite books have deaths that devastated me, and knowing that they were necessary didn’t help one bit at the time. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson’s death knocked the breath out of me. I was enraged with Harper Lee—how could she let that innocent, good man die? Why? Because it was truth and therefore right for it to happen in the book. But I will tell you that I saw the world differently after I read that book. It gave me new eyes, and I couldn’t have gotten there without the pain and injustice of his death. And in The Hotel New Hampshire, a book I love with a vengeance, there is a tragic, unexpected turn of events that had me sobbing with the capricious nature of life and the aching sorrow of it all (no pun intended. If you read the book you will understand the meaning of the phrase, “Sorrow floats.”). So hard, so necessary. As my friend Maureen Leary, a wonderful writer, once said of a much-praised book, “I felt as if it didn’t cost {the author} anything to write it.” It is a benchmark I try to remember when writing. When we are true to our books, they cost us.

 

A few months ago, my son and I sat on the sofa watching “Bridge to Terabithia.” And when that terrible moment came and Lesley drowned, he turned to me, his eyes wide. “She…died?” he asked, practically begging me to say it wasn’t so, to lie.

“Yes, honey,” I said, barely holding back tears.

“But…how? WHY?”

Why. The unanswerable grief in that one word.

“Because,” I said, holding him closer so I could smell the reassuring scent—the sweet alive-ness—of his head. “Sometimes terrible things happen.”

“But it’s not fair!”

“No, it’s not. Not at all.”

We sat there for a while and as the final credits rolled, he said, “What if she’s not really dead? What if she’s just hiding and they find her later in the forest? What if she went to the art museum? What if she’s just pretending?”

 

What if. The foundation of all magical thinking that begins in childhood and that we say we put away as we grow older, but we never really do: What if we never grow old? What if we never have to lose anyone we love? What if things could stay the way they are and never have to change? What if the sheer power of our will can change what we cannot tolerate? What if love really does conquer all?

 

What if. Those two words hold magic within them. They are keys that open the portal to imagination and hope when we need them. Use them as you see fit. Use them to say, “Well, together, Gemma and Kartik changed the magic of the realms, so perhaps that leaves a loophole? Perhaps he can be saved?” Or put them away and choose to believe that a certain character is gone but not forgotten.

 

Some of you have said, “But we didn’t see it coming!”

I would argue that the signs have been there all along. Kartik and Gemma have a long-running debate about Fate versus Free Will. Kartik believes strongly in fate while Gemma comes down on the side of free will, and, in essence, they each follow the paths set out by these beliefs. Kartik has found a sense of destiny in his act.

 

It bears mentioning that there is a war in TSFT, and war carries great costs always. We live in a world (we have always lived in a world) in which terrible things happen—war, torture, oppression, enslavement, racism, entrenched poverty, etc. Sometimes there are natural disasters, and the poorest among us are hit hardest because they have no access to the resources that could help them or they are forgotten by those in power because, being poor, they are horribly, unjustly considered to be not worth saving. Perhaps you will find parallels between the Victorian world/the realms and our own. Perhaps not. It is true that human beings are capable of great cruelty and terrible deeds. It is also true that human beings are capable of extraordinary acts of love and grace. “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

 

The Gandhi quote is one of my favorites and perhaps comes closest to expressing my own philosophy. And it is my hope that the characters embody that change by the trilogy’s end. Along the way, they make bad choices and even terrible mistakes. They do the wrong things for the right reasons and the right things for the wrong reasons. They make sacrifices for those they love. They grow and hurt. They take risks and run away from them. They are fully human—complicated and often frustrating. I, personally, have never known any uncomplicated people, only the complicated kind. J  Part of our challenge in life is learning to accept life’s many shades of gray, to find our own internal compasses in this world. It reminds me of one of my favorite Stephen Sondheim musicals, “Into the Woods” (the other fave being “Sweeney Todd,” though Sondheim is perhaps more forgiving in “Into the Woods.”)

 

Sondheim deconstructs the happily ever after of the fairy tale. It is hard going and painful but also beautiful in its brutal honesty and, I feel, quite hopeful. After all, despite the things that happen on the path, we learn that “No One Is Alone.” My favorite lines of the song are, “People make mistakes/Fathers, Mothers/People make mistakes/Holding to their own/Honor their mistakes/Everybody makes/Fight for their mistakes/One another’s terrible mistakes/Witches can be right, Giants can be good/You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good.”

 

And so you must. That is your job, the job of the reader, and I would not take that important job away from you. My job is finished now. I have written three books in this Victorian fantasy world and loved every minute of it (well, most of it…) but now it is time for me to move on and for your work, the work of the reader to begin.

 

It will be YOUR job to assign futures to Gemma and her friends, to imagine what roads they travel, what adventures they might have next, whether they find love and success and contentment, and if they do, to imagine what forms that happiness takes. It will rest with you to determine what the future holds for the realms and those who live there now and what happens with the ever-changing magic and the alliance. It will be your job to decide whether Kartik is now a part of the realms or of the world beyond the realms, whether he lives or dies, whether he and Gemma are reunited or not. I cannot see the future, and if I could, I would still say nothing. It is your job to interpret and assign meaning. As Sondheim says, “You decide alone.”

 

And so, there are only two matters left for me to address today. One is a question from a reader that felt important to me, and I wanted to address it here. The other is, I confess, something I find troubling—a question I have for YOU, if you choose to answer it.

 

The question asked was, “Why does Kartik, the only Indian character, have to die?”

Issues of class and race are extremely important to this trilogy. Even the realms are not immune from oppression and prejudice, as evidenced by the tight control of the magic, by a system that leaves the populace with little control over/say in the power and by the infighting amongst the tribes. In the Victorian world, we see these issues of class and race played out in many ways and especially through the treatment of Kartik and of the Gypsies, the references to empire, to India, to socialism.

 

One of the reasons I mentioned the Sepoy Rebellion in TSFT is that it is the beginning of the end of British rule and of the beginning of the struggle for Indian independence that culminates in victory in 1948, hence the Gandhi quote that begins Act V. One could say that Kartik is symbolic of this struggle and his taking on the Winterlands power, of essentially becoming one with it, is a harbinger of the changes to come. For once Gemma and Kartik play their roles, the land is reborn into something new in which everyone has a say, a part. I felt it was important to say that as I thought long and hard about Kartik’s race vis-à-vis his death and what it had to say.

 

Trust me when I say that race was not at all a factor in Kartik and Gemma’s not being together in the end. I’m a rules breaker—by nature, not by design. If that had been the path for them, I would have chosen it.

 

Now, to my question for you.

 

I’ve read through your many posts now, and I am surprised to see so many that ask, “How can Gemma live without Kartik?” or “He was the best part of the book!”

 

Really? I mean, really really?

 

I admit to being somewhat distressed by these sentiments. There are many strong female characters in this book—women who, to me, are every bit as important as a certain young man from the Rakshana whom I also happen to love. But the story is, ultimately, Gemma’s, after all. I hope that within these roughly 2,000 pages is a tale about women searching for their place in the world, coming to terms with themselves, fighting for change, accepting their power, dealing with issues of friendship, family, responsibility, sexuality, and identity, struggling with fears and doubts, hope and longing, oppression and desire. I hope.

 

And yet, it seems as if the prevailing sentiment is, The only thing that matters is the man/is having a man. Am I mistaken? Am I reading this incorrectly? I’m asking.

 

Love and romance are certainly important. I get that. I like romance, too, though it’s more of a Billy Wilder kind of romance than a Harlequin kind of romance. I would wager that we all want to share our lives with a partner. I have been happily married for many years in a relationship that I treasure and that has forced me to grow up many, many times over. I won’t bore you with my thoughts about the first blush of romantic love versus the sort of work that is necessary for a mature, lasting love and partnership (suffice to say that when the baby is vomiting at 2:00 a.m. and the heat’s gone out again, it is not about hearts and roses and eyes like pools of mud…)

 

But I say this because I really am trying to understand. What I’m reading over and over again feels somehow like it carries the message that girls and women aren’t important in and of themselves. What a terrible irony that would be after all is said and done.

 

To hear, “I hope Gemma never marries” or “How will she go on without Kartik?”, well, I for one certainly hope that Gemma will have a long and productive life and that she will not be frozen in time like some magical Miss Havisham. The greatest tribute we can ever pay to the departed is to keep living. To survive and thrive. If Gemma does not go on, then Kartik’s sacrifice has been rather in vain, hasn’t it?

 

I would like to know your thoughts on this if you get two seconds between watching the ball drop and eating Chinese food. (Okay, my New Year’s plans.)

Anyway, this post is waaaay longer than I meant it to be, but I wanted to give a considered answer—or as considered as I could manage—to your #1 question. Tomorrow, I will answer a few more and I should post complete tour info by Thursday. I can’t wait to see you all on the road and answer more of your questions.

 I wish you all a safe and happy New Year’s Eve!

Xoxo

 

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