“‘You can feel him.’ I’m still looking, spotting the fallen tree, the reeds broken and crushed into a hollow around it, where there could be anything, any hidden thing. ‘Go ahead, close ’em. He’s just standing there.’
I shut my eyes. Kincaid sounds hushed, close to my ear, words running together like they do when he’s excited. ‘You can make out his head right there, under those branches, and his shoulders . . . Jesus, he’s huge. It’s like he’s ready to charge us, but he’s not moving.’ A pause. ‘That long, scraggly stuff like moss, or willow leaves? That’s his hair. See it?'” -pg. 92
Recollecting THE MISSING SEASON is like opening a creaking closet door to a single bare bulb circled by moths . . . like straining to see a maybe-human shape through charcoal dusk . . . like remembering the surreal natural exhilaration of first lust, first touch, first time you catch a glimpse of something beyond childhood, some overwhelming sense of what’s to come.
My memories of writing THE MISSING SEASON are as hazy and distorted as an evening spent in the fictional Mumbler’s Marsh of the book. Looking back, I think I experienced a crash of sorts after the insane changes my family and I had gone through over the previous two years, including the incredibly good fortune of signing two book contracts with HarperCollins, moving house while pregnant and toting a two-year-old, the fear and numbing disbelief of having a baby–to whom the book is dedicated–with health problems immediately after birth (he’s a completely healthy, robust, hilarious four-year-old now, so not to worry), and finally buying our first home of our own while feeling that I had to get through it all without screwing up this chance I’d been given to earn us a better life than we’d known pre-publication. My terror of failure was all-encompassing.
Maybe you’ve been through something similar in your life. I would say living through this pandemic definitely qualifies. I think since we have no choice but to soldier through these times, especially when we have children and significant others and mortgages relying on us, the emotional impact can be delayed, pushed aside until the room is quiet and the word document is in front of you and you suddenly wonder if you can write this story you pitched months ago when your life felt so incredibly different than it does right now. At lot of the running down dark, wooded, mazelike paths and the inability to see clearly through half-light in this story is a direct result of my emotional state at the time I sat down to write the book in earnest.
If nothing else, I hope all this turmoil added to the strange, cockeyed humor I intended for the book; TMS is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, an homage to horror movie tropes and high school drudgery and the general near-hysterical sense of boredom one feels in their teen years, when your body is ready to explode with energy and hormones, yet your average day is so rigidly blocked with classes and hot lunch and sports practice that sometimes you truly feel on the brink of doing something desperate, maybe even shocking. Talk about the banality of evil.
Sometimes I wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off joining the Peace Corps or Greenpeace or something, harnessing that youthful energy to travel, broaden our horizons, make real change in the world and skip the whole high school experience entirely. I know there are teens out there who do buck convention, and my hat is off to them. I honestly think I would’ve been too scared to do much other than what I did–tow the line. Which is a large piece of what this book is about: finding the strange, the dangerous, the beautiful in our everyday, even if we have to invent it. It’s a salute to urban legends, to graffiti art, to allowing yourself to fall under the spell of a season where jack-o’-lanterns leer from doorsteps and the night holds the rare power to transform, to mystify, to make us daring if only for a brief time.
The release of this book also taught me some valuable lessons about the growth of a writing career. THE LIES THEY TELL was a big book for me–it still outsells all my other titles, and the entire experience left me feeling like I could only go up from there. But few writer’s careers actually have a purely vertical trajectory, gaining more accolades, more sales with each release. I now think of it more like the growth of a child: a baby and toddler’s development wanders all over the map, seeming so-o-o-o close to crawling one week, then drifting away from that to work on a new tooth we didn’t even know they were getting in the next. It can seem like a loss of focus, direction. Then, one day, our baby is five years old, with all major faculties in place, and you realize that they developed exactly how they needed to, and not all who wander are lost. The journey of both a book and a writer are like that. Sometimes keeping the faith that you’ll eventually end up where you need to be can be the toughest challenge of all.
I hope you’ll read on for few words on the true-life tidbits from the book (I feel like the writerly goals I set for myself while drafting are so entwined with the real stuff that a separate section isn’t really needed this time around. Plus I’m writing this while my older boys are wrestling each other off the couch and my baby is teething on the remote; time is so very short):
THE MISSING SEASON
Where It Came From:
High School Malaise: TMS is the most high school-centric of all my YA books–as I’ve mentioned in the past, I didn’t like school, so my teen stories have all taken place during summer vacation (except for the manuscript I finished in December, which involves a tiny, alternative schoolhouse) in order to avoid feeling like I was trapped back in that grind again myself–but since this tale was happening during the Halloween season, I needed to portray the protagonist, new kid in town Clara, slogging through her classes in order to burst out into the cool, crisp air of freedom at two-fifteen so she can run to the skate park with her friends and explore the reputedly cursed woods and salt marsh beyond.
I’m not blaming anyone else for the fact that school was not for me. I like learning. It’s pretty simple: I’m a person who enjoys making her own routine. I absolutely hate a repetitive schedule, and I always felt that’s what traditional public schooling is all about–learning how to follow the rules there day after day without getting yourself into trouble, whereas the rest of your life will bear very little resemblance to this model. Even a basic cashiering job requires some independence of thought and ability to roll with the punches (I’ve worked many of these jobs, so I feel qualified to make that statement). I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just want to bake chocolate chip cookies or look out the window at an interesting bird or maybe even go for a walk because it’s beautiful and life is short (this was before kids/mothering responsibilities, of course, which is a whole ‘nother ball of wax) without anyone reaming me for not waiting for a designated break time to do so. I’m self-disciplined for the most part, so setting myself deadlines and expectations to get things done isn’t really a problem. Being my own boss is ideal. Hence, school and I never mixed. No ill will meant towards anyone.
That said, there was a lot of death in our high school. A LOT. Like, completely disproportionate to the size of the school population, which was around two-hundred-and-fifty kids, middle school included. Everybody knew everybody to some extent. On average I’d say we lost one-to-two kids a year from my seventh grade year through graduation. Mostly car crashes, but also cancer and suicide. That changes you, even if you’re lucky enough for tragedy not to strike members of your own family, like I was. It casts long shadows over even the most purely fun time, teaches you to fear an unexpected phone call, a sudden homeroom teacher announcement. It just does.
In a way, having to revisit my school days was a good thing for TMS. I was forced to mine my own admittedly foggy memories of school (ahem, I’m old), remember the routines, the way patterned classroom floor tiles can hypnotize, how study hall feels when the heat is cranked, rain is pattering the windows, and you can barely keep your eyes open; the smell of pencil shavings and reams of paper and asbestos ceilings (again: old) in the small Maine school I graduated from. Rancid hot lunch and pointless cruelty and backbiting cliques aren’t so bad viewed through a warped lens, and the good, exhilarating times with friends and crushes look even better, so little distortions helped make the process more fun for me as a writer: giving teachers bizarre surnames, creating a cadaver-like Vincent Price-style principal, and following sidewinding sidewalks through the residential areas of a former mill town whispering with autumn leaves and the ghostly footsteps of generations of trick-or-treaters who walked them before.
I ended up mashing together the towns of Searsport and Winterport to get the general backdrop I was looking for, including the Winterport housing development I spent a lot of time in with friends, as well as the Frankfort salt marsh, but the overall appearance I wanted for my fictional town of Pender was a general area I’ve written about before, and also the town I most associate with trick-or-treating as a kid: Bucksport.
Urban Legends and Graffiti: I’ve always loved spooky stories–I don’t even know how many times I reread the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz growing up–but I particularly enjoy a good urban or small town legend, told again and again and embellished from one generation to the next. I have a vivid memory from high school of going over to a friend’s house, along with a guy friend of ours who she had a crush on. After dark, the three of us went outside to jump from hay bale to hay bale in her field (in the moment, you never think you’ll look back at your teen years as simpler times, but in some ways. . .wow), then later told ghost stories in the ancient barn, which is where I heard the Jersey Devil stories for the first time. It fascinates me how urban legends like these are rites of passage, how they change over time yet manage to remain essentially the same.
Also, there are huge rocky embankments in Prospect, just down Rt. 1 from my parents’ house, which have been used as a canvas for young people’s graffiti since long before my time. Profanity, declarations of love 4EVA, initials, pot leaves. Whenever we’d drive past, I ‘d always look for new additions, and there often were–imagining the intrepid artist sneaking out under the cover of darkness, can of spray paint in hand, hiding from the headlights of passing cars. The ultimate guerilla art. Hence the rocks of Mumbler’s Marsh in the book. I love the idea of a timeless form of youthful expression, the same universal messages of love, lust, hate, or pure, simple absurdity. Basically, the teenage lifeforce.
Thank you for reading, friends. I hope you’re keeping well, trying to do those small, silly things which give us joy and are so vital to keeping our sanity. Some of mine are consuming caffeine and chocolate along with UK crime dramas or grainy soap operas from my childhood on YouTube. Make no apologies for yours; there are no guilty pleasures. Wishing you all the best.
As always, if you’ve read the book and liked it, I would so appreciate it if you left a review on Amazon or Goodreads! They really help a book find new readers; just a sentence or two means a lot.
And this is pretty much the perfect song to pair with the book: