Yesterday, a friend called and said, “Come with me this afternoon to hear Lois Ruby at Watermark.” (Watermark is an independent bookstore in Wichita; Lois Ruby is a YA author whose books include Steal Away Home, The Secret of Laurel Oaks, and her most recent, Rebel Spirits.)
So I went. I love hearing authors speak and always have, ever since I was in fourth grade and the biggest thing that could have happened to me, did: my favorite author, Bill Brittain, came to my school and gave a workshop and signed books for us. It was magical. It was fantastic. I got to ask him a question. I still remember it: “Why do you write about the supernatural?” His answer, which I still (mostly) remember, was this: “Why does Judy Blume write about teenagers? I do it because it’s what interests me. It’s what I want to write about.”
Keep that thought in mind . . .
Lois Ruby was a wonderful person: enthusiastic, gracious, genuinely grateful that we were there. She remembered my friend (she’d come to my friend’s class on a few occasions), and listened to me prattle on about my own books for far too long. But what she had to say during her talk surprised me. A lot.
As I mentioned earlier, her newest book is Rebel Spirits. I was really interested in it because it’s a YA paranormal romance involving a ghost, which is what I write about, too. In this case, the ghost is a Union soldier, murdered during the Battle of Gettysburg. Union soldier? So why is it called Rebel Spirits, then? Because Lois didn’t name it.
Yup, that’s right: she didn’t get to name it. In fact, she was given the basic premise by her publisher, and then had carte blanche to come up with the characters, setting, etc. It was very frustrating for her, because even the cover art wasn’t correct!
I still have all of Bill Brittain’s books, signed to me. All the Money in the World. Who Knew There’d Be Ghosts? The Wish Giver. I think Wish Giver was my favorite — it was so dark, so eerie — although I know I read Ghosts at least fifty times that summer. He wrote the books he wanted to write, and it showed.
Lois Ruby admitted she doesn’t believe in ghosts, though she came to care for the characters she created for Rebel Spirits. Then she talked about a book she painstakingly researched and wrote — I won’t give away the plot here, but it’s a historical YA — that has yet to find a publisher. They like it, but they want changes. One wanted the protagonist to be older, so she changed it. Then the next editor wanted him to be younger. And so forth. They like it, but they fear it won’t sell well.
As she put it, she writes the books she doesn’t want to write so she can write the books she does want to write.
I wonder at what point we as writers begin to lose the “want to” and instead embrace the “need to.” I write about the supernatural because I want to. I’ll never forge the fierceness in Bill Brittain’s eyes as he said that, standing on the tiny stage in our rural school, his voice echoing through the gym. I felt almost like he was mad at me for asking such a dumb question, but now I realize he was simply defending his decision — and telling us that we shouldn’t bow to the mainstream.
The world of publishing has changed in the thirty years since then. I get that.l I really do. But at what point is it simply not worth it? I’m beginning to see why e-publishing is so enticing to so many writers. Being able to maintain control over your stories, writing what you want to write . . . not having to worry so much about numbers and sales and all that (though of course that’s important, too). We write what we want to write, and then we put it on Amazon or Smashwords, and hope it finds an audience. If we’ve done the job well, it will. But we get to remain in creative control.
Write what you want to write.