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The long and winding road that led to my novel Firefly Hollow began with some photocopied paintings that arrived in the mail one day. They were by an artist named Christopher Denise, and I spread them out on my big wooden dining table and stood there studying each one.

The idea was that I would write a picture book to go along with them. I love an assignment, but this one intimidated me. The paintings were just so damn beautiful. There was a vole wearing a little sailor's cap, and there was a cricket, and there was a boat and a river. There was the night sky and moonlight and the colors in each painting were like jewels.

Could I write a picture book worthy of those paintings? I wanted to, and I tried. For about a year and half, I tried. But everything I wrote—and I wrote a lot—kept spiraling out into more story than a picture book, with its tiny word count and strict page limit, could handle.

So I gave up. "I'm so sorry. I could probably write a novel around these paintings, but I can't seem to do a picture book."

But it turned out that the artist was okay with the idea of a novel. Hello! I went back to the paintings and studied them with new, novelistic eyes.

What did I love most about them?

The colors. The tenderness in Vole's eyes, the gentle way he bent toward the tiny cricket. The boat and the river and the moonlight. I dreamed of writing a classic novel, one for all ages. I held in my mind the images of Charlotte's Web and Wind in the Willows and My Side of the Mountain. (If you're going to dream, I say dream big.) Because I had room to roam now, I made up two new characters, a firefly named Firefly and a boy named Peter, and I got to work. For years.

Four? Five? More? I honestly don't remember. What I do remember is writing three entirely separate books about Firefly and Peter and Cricket and Vole, and none of them worked. They were dark, heavy, full of anger and fear, at least in my memory, and memory will have to suffice, because I don't feel like unearthing those drafts for verification. The idea of them makes me tired.

I gave up on each of those drafts in turn. Put the paintings away. Took them out again. Put them away. Took them out.

What was the book itself about? What did the book want to be about, on its own terms? Where was its heart and soul?

The answers came to me slowly: Loneliness. Love. Longing.

All things that I remember so clearly from childhood. The enormous thoughts and worries and dreams that children hold inside them. Children live such deep, searching lives. Too often the grownups around them don't give them credit for that. They have forgotten, maybe.

So back to the beginning I went, determined to write a book about loneliness and love and longing. I gathered together three totems: a little wooden cricket, an illustration from the transcendent film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, and Fall and Spring: to a Young Child, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poem I first read as a child and which has haunted me ever since.

FIREFLY HOLLOW


I kept the totems on the table as I worked—yet another try at this novel that I could sense somewhere in the ether, this novel that I so wanted to write—and gradually, over another year or so, the book took shape. The firefly and the cricket and the boy told me separately how lonely they were, and why, and how they each longed for a real friend.

Vole was harder. I had to figure him out slowly, over time.

In fact, everything about the making of Firefly Hollow was slow. The heart and soul of the book revealed itself to me only in the fullness of time, only on its own slow terms, not the faster ones I would've chosen. I even, for the first time in my life, had to ask for an extension on my deadline.

But here we are. Five-plus years from start to finish, my hope now is the same as it was in the beginning: to have written a classic book, one worthy of those tender, beautiful paintings.
Posted by elena at 08:08 AM
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