Author Interview: Corey Ann Haydu on Lawless Spaces

Corey Ann Haydu author photoLawless Spaces is Corey Ann Haydu’s first novel in verse. It’s also one of the best (and one of my favorite) novels to come out in 2022. Haydu fires on all cylinders with this sophisticated, unflinching, and ultimately incredibly hopeful story. I have been gushing about this one since I read it last fall and now I’m so excited to have Corey here to answer a few questions about her latest gem.

Miss Print: What was the inspiration for Lawless Spaces?

Corey Ann Haydu: I had been wanting to write a story about mothers and daughters for a really long time, maybe partly because of my love of Gilmore Girls, and originally assumed I would just write one mother and her daughter, and walk with them through their teenage years in different time periods. But I had been challenged by an editor of a different book of mine to write something they hadn’t seen before (what a challenge to lay out!!) and because of that push, I started trying to imagine the story as bigger and bigger and bigger, and it evolved into this multi-generational tale, though there were MANY different versions with different types of plot points before this one. Including a whole murder and royalty plot at one time!

Miss Print: Lawless Spaces is your first (but hopefully not last) novel in verse. It also balances multiple characters in different time periods as you unpack both Mimi’s immediate story and the larger story of the Dovewick women. Did you always know that poetry was the best way to tell this story? Did writing in verse change your process?

Corey Ann Haydu: I was always using verse for this story. I don’t think I could cover this much territory in prose, and verse really let me focus in on singular moments and build story through that sort of intimacy rather than trying to write an explosive plot. Writing in verse changed my process a LOT. It was a much more… romantic sort of process than my usual one. I wrote in a variety of beautiful notebooks and really let the vibe be exploratory and flexible and ongoing. It wasn’t under contract for a very long time, so I just worked on it randomly, when the mood struck, and without any particular plan, just really trying to get to know the characters organically. When it was time to really pin down plot and focus, it was the beginning of the pandemic, and so the process was different because of that too. I wrote in the super early mornings before everyone woke up, and it was sort of my happy place during that really trying time. Verse was also perfect for that moment– I couldn’t hold much in my head at once, and verse let me zone in on one thing at a time, which was about all I could handle.

Miss Print: Lawless Spaces has a narrative that shifts in time as Mimi deals with her complicated relationship with her mother while also reading the diaries of her grandmother and great-grandmother, among others. How did you balance these different plot threads and voices?

Corey Ann Haydu: I think because of all the upfront, exploratory time I took– years really of just getting to know the characters and their stories and who I needed them to be– it came really naturally by the time the more intensive work came along. I knew them so well and knew which parts of their stories mattered most to me, and when I finally decided Mimi would be the sort of central figure, it became easy to tie their stories to hers. I hadn’t known there would be a central figure at first, and unlocking that made all the difference. It gave the other stories something to bounce off of, and helped clarify everyone’s role in the narrative.

Miss Print: A big moment in this story is Mimi’s sixteenth birthday when she gets her own notebook to start writing about her life–something the women in her family have done for generations. What was your sixteenth birthday like? What’s something you wish you could have been told by a family member (in a notebook or in person) when you were Mimi’s age?

Corey Ann Haydu: Oh what a great question! What a strange 16th birthday I had, honestly. I had a tough time in high school– I had a toxic boyfriend and was pretty isolated from friends and had a lot going on at home, so it was a lonely time. Somehow I had a joint 16th birthday with two other girls. I only remember one of them right now– they weren’t close friends or anything, it was more a birthday of convenience I guess. We all liked a local band, and the band came and played for our birthday. It so deeply did not match up with my actual experience of being 16– which was lonely and sad and hard. My birthday was so…. splashy and book-worthy, and would make it seem like I was a social butterfly, when really I was thrown out of my social circle when I was 14, never to be allowed to return. I wonder if there’s anything I could have been told that would help. Maybe it would have been nice to have had the experience validated– yep this sounds awful!- instead of people telling me it was fine. I would have liked to know other people going through something serious. And I wish someone could have gotten me out of that bad relationship, and let me know that there would be better relationships and friendships in the future. But mostly don’t we all just want someone to agree with how much something sucks? I needed to hear that what I was going through was real, and difficult, and that I was surviving it as best I could, and that that was enough.

Miss Print: In Lawless Spaces readers will see Mimi looking back on the pandemic and quarantine period in 2020 as she thinks about ways her life has changed since then and the ways it hasn’t. In the same vein, how did your routine as an author change because of the pandemic?

Corey Ann Haydu: Ah, I answered this a bit above but when the pandemic hit my daughter had just turned two. My husband was furloughed, so theoretically I could have gotten writing done at any time of day for the months he was home. But we live in an apartment where there isn’t anywhere to go, and my kid could not handle me being in a different room with her when she was awake. It became clear it just wasn’t possible for me to work during the day, not with the focus it required. Luckily at that time she wasn’t getting up too early, so I started waking up at 5am to write. I’d never done that before. And now it’s my absolute favorite thing, and my number one tip for most parents. I’ve found that I’m at my best before I’ve had to turn on my parenting brain. Once the adrenaline of navigating tantrums and fixing breakfast and arguing about how many times we are going to listen to Let It Go kicks in, I’m less clear and writing is more of a struggle. If I start writing after I get my daughter to school (since she’s back in school these days), I struggle all day long to get a thousand words, and often settle for a hard won 500. But today, for instance, I got up at 5 and wrote 3000 words before my kid woke up. It’s a HUGE thing I’ve learned about myself– especially myself as a parent-writer, and I do have the pandemic to thank for handing me that valuable information. That said, I was always a write-in-a-coffee-shop person, and I’ve had to shift into a write-at-home person, and I am less thrilled with that change in routine. I miss the energy and fun and purpose of being out at a café.

Miss Print: 2022 has been a big book year for you with two book releases so far. Can you tell me a little about your other recent titles or what else you have in the works?

Corey Ann Haydu: Ironically, my biggest two years of publishing have been these covid years. My entire chapter book series– HAND ME DOWN MAGIC— came out, all four books, as well as a middle grade title and two YAs. I hope more kids get to discover my chapter books– they feature two cousins who have differing views on their maybe-magical family life and maybe-magical family-run second hand shop, and they feature a character based on my own daughter, the girls’ young cousin, Evie, who demands attention and makes everything fun. My recent middle grade, ONE JAR OF MAGIC, is about a lot of things I spend time thinking about and trying to heal– jealousy, what it means to be told you’ll be special and feel you’re not living up to that, and family secrets. All with a twist of magic, of course. As for what’s next, I’ll be expanding into a new age category once again (!!!) with a book that hasn’t yet been announced. And I’m currently working on my next middle grade novel, which is Greek mythology inspired and focused on toxic friendship. I’m also leaving my heart and mind open for inspiration for what my next novel in verse might be, because I have fallen so so in love with the form, which honestly felt like returning to an old friend.

Thanks again to Corey for this great interview!

You can see more about Corey and her books on her website.

You can also check out my review of Lawless Spaces.

Lawless Spaces: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

It is
too much and
I get a zap
of when we were in quarantine
and I missed both the life I had been living
and the future one that felt impossible
and the ones I’d never lived but should have. I had so
much time
for
missing

Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann HayduThe Dovewick women have always had complicated relationships with their pasts. Maybe that’s why the tradition of the notebooks started. No one knows anymore. It’s expected, though.

As Mimi struggles to find a way to connect with her mother–always withdrawn, always a little cold–she wonders if being a Dovewick daughter is another name for being a disappointment. No wonder she prefers to be @MimiDove. She can curate who she is online. She can show people the best pieces. The ones that don’t make anyone ask her why she’s so short, why she wore that top; online Mimi can share the pieces that won’t ever show how she turned sixteen alone, how her mother’s boyfriend barely tolerates her presence.

Mimi has always known about the notebooks kept by every woman in her family. She’s seen them all lined up on the mantle. All the girls in all the pictures that bleed together as background noise.

Writing in her own notebook is daunting. But it’s also a place where, finally, Mimi can present an unvarnished version of herself. One that is allowed to be scared and hurt, one that is allowed to miss all of the things she never really had.

Mimi doesn’t like to think about the past. She doesn’t like to think about what happened before or what her mother said after. She tries to ignore the sexual assault case that’s all over the news, tries to make it more background noise. Until her mother comes forward as an accuser.

Suddenly, Mimi feels like she doesn’t recognize her mother or her own life. As she digs through the old notebooks she finds her mother’s story, her grandmother’s, her great-grandmother’s. So many Dovewick women. All navigating the same confusing space between girl and woman, absorbing the same hurts as daughters, hoping they’ll learn how to be better mothers.

Looking to the past gives Mimi strength to understand a lot of truths about her own life and her relationship with her mother. But before she can look ahead, she’ll have to decide who she wants to be and how she wants to navigate this confusing world in Lawless Spaces (2022) by Corey Ann Haydu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lawless Spaces is a standalone novel in verse. The primary story follows Mimi in 2022. Readers also encounter Mimi’s ancestors as Mimi unearths stories from Betty (1954) and Tiffany (1999), among others. Mimi and her family are white. Despite tackling so many voices and time periods, each girl’s voice remains as distinct as her story–even as common themes like loneliness begin to come through.

Through Mimi and her family, Haydu’s sophisticated verse addresses the damaging legacy of the male gaze while looking through a smaller lens focused on the fractured relationship between a daughter and her mother. It’s a story about what happens when you realize you have to save yourself because the grownups who were supposed to keep you safe can’t even protect themselves.

Lawless Spaces is a timely, forward-facing story that tackles the isolation and loss of the pandemic while also telling an entirely different story about what it means to carry generational trauma. Powerful, ultimately healing, and very highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, Unbecoming by Jenny Downham, You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #MeToo Stories by Janet Gurtler, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins, 13 Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, Seton Girls by Charlene Thomas, In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

You can also check out my interview with Corey about this book.

Ever Cursed: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ever Cursed by Corey Ann HayduEveryone loves a lost girl, no one more so than the kingdom of Ever. The kingdom still mourns the Princess Who Was Lost decades ago, still demands justice for her.

Ever is slower to save the princess who still have a chance of being rescued.

Five years ago, a young witch named Reagan cursed all of Ever’s princesses with the Spell of Without. Jane has not been able to eat anything since that day. Her sister’s curses all began on their thirteenth birthdays. Nora can’t love, Alice cannot sleep, Grace can’t remember and soon, on her birthday, Eden will be without hope.

Ever is as it always was with the royals on their side of the mote and their subjects at a safe distance, their queen trapped in a glass box, and their princesses suffering. When Reagan forces the girls out of the castle for their one chance to break the Spell of Without, Jane begins to wonder if the way things are is really the way things have to be–for either the princesses or their subjects.

A princess without a curse on her is an ordinary girl. And no one cares about an ordinary girl. A witch without her spells is just a girl alone in the woods. And no one wants to be a girl alone in the woods. But as Jane and Reagan come closer to unraveling the spell before it becomes True, both girls will realize there is much more to Ever, its secrets, and themselves than either of them realized in Ever Cursed (2020) by Corey Ann Haydu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ever Cursed is a standalone fantasy. Despite the relatively short length, there’s a lot to unpack with this one particularly in the context of the political climate (post 2016 US election) that may have helped to inspire it. Alternating chapters focus on Jane and Reagan’s first person narrations. It’s not a spoiler to say that something is rotten in Ever and Haydu, throughout the story, confronts the deep-seated misogyny and rape culture in the kingdom including discussions of sexual assault and a scene of attempted assault.

Jane’s narration is, appropriately, very focused on her mortality. The Spell of Without has carved her down to nothing and, should the spell become True, will have fatal consequences for herself and for Alice who is physically incapable of sleep. Readers with a history of disordered eating should pick this one up with caution and read the content warning Haydu includes at the beginning of the book before proceeding.

Ever Cursed is an interesting examination of what it means to be an ally and to be complicit. Both Jane and Reagan have to unpack the privilege they’ve had in being able to look away from the day-to-day problems in Ever while focusing on their own (more personally pressing) problems of being royals and witches. Jane in particular unpacks what it means to benefit from years of her family being in power and abusing that power even when she herself is not complicit.

These conversations about privilege are important ones to have while dismantling white supremacy and male privilege however combining them with a fantasy setting where the consequences are very real instead of allegorical doesn’t always lead to ideal handling of the material. Because of how the Spell of Without works, the idea of complicit privilege distills to children being punished in a very literal way for their father’s transgressions. That another young girl (Reagan) is the one meting out this punishment in order to see the king suffer in retaliation for her own mother’s pain adds even more complexity to this conversation and exposes the deeply internalized misogyny at Ever’s center.

As a feminist allegory disguised as a fairy tale, Ever Cursed is very successful. As a feminist fairy tale it is less so. The world building is thinly sketched and sometimes haphazard with fantastic imagery (witches wearing cumbersome skirts for ever spell they cast so that they always carry the consequences) that doesn’t hold up to any internal logic.

Ever Cursed has the bones of a truly sensational story that ultimately would have benefited from a bit more length to give proper space to both the world building and its characters; a fascinating if sometimes underdeveloped picture. Recommended for readers with an equal interest in feminism (or feminist theory) and fairy tales.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

The Careful Undressing of Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I’ve been waiting for one thing, but love can be anything.”

“When there’s nothing left to salvage, we have to save ourselves.”

The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann HayduEveryone knows that Devonairre Street in Brooklyn is cursed. Being loved by a Devonairre Street girl ends in tragedy. Just look at the number of war widows on the street or the concentration of Affected families left without husbands and fathers after the Times Square Bombing in 2001.

Lorna Ryder and her mother have never put much stock in the curse even though they pretend to play along. Lorna celebrates a shared birthday along with Cruz, his sister Isla, Charlotte, and Delilah. She keeps her hair long and wears a key around her neck. She does everything she is supposed to just the way Angelika has advised since Lorna was a child.

But none of it seems to be enough when Delilah’s boyfriend Jack is killed in the wake of the grief and confusion surrounding another terrorist attack across the country. Lorna and her friends are shocked by Jack’s sudden death. Grieving and shaken, Lorna has to decide what this new loss means about the veracity of the curse and her own future as a part of Devonairre Street and away from it in The Careful Undressing of Love (2017) by Corey Ann Haydu.

The Careful Undressing of Love is Haydu’s latest standalone YA novel. Lorna narrates this novel with a breezy nonchalance that soon turns to fear and doubt as everything she previously believed about love and the curse on Devonairre Street is thrown into question. The style and tone work well with Haydu’s world building to create an alternate history that is simultaneously timeless and strikingly immediate.

Haydu’s characters are realistically inclusive and diverse. An argument could be made that it’s problematic that Delilah and Isla (the Devonairre Street girls who are not white) are the ones who suffer more over the course of this novel filled with loss and snap judgements by an insensitive public. But the same argument could be made that privilege makes this outcome sadly inevitable–a contradiction that Lorna notes herself when she begins to unpack her own privileges of being white contrasted with the burdens she has under the weight of the supposed curse and living as one of the Affected.

This story is complicated and filled with philosophical questions about grief and fear as well as love and feminism. While there is room for a bit more closure, the fate of Devonairre Street and its residents ultimately becomes irrelevant compared with Lorna’s need to break away to protect herself and her own future.

A quiet, wrenching story about the bonds of love and friendship and the ways in which they can break; a commentary on the stresses and pressures of being a girl in the modern world; and a story about self-preservation first. The Careful Undressing of Love is smart and strange, frank and raw, and devastating. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, But Then I Came Back by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

You can also read my interview with the author about this book!

Author Interview: Corey Ann Haydu on The Careful Undressing of Love

Corey Ann Haydu author photoCorey Ann Haydu is one of the smartest, most thoughtful authors I’ve had the pleasure to get to know through both her books and her online persona (by which I mean Twitter). Life By Committee remains one of the most personally important books I’ve read so I was, of course, pretty excited when I heard Corey had a new YA novel coming out. The Careful Undressing of Love is a haunting story about self-preservation, magic, and the dangerous bonds of friendship and love. I read this book in early January and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I’m delighted to have Corey here today to answer some questions about her latest YA novel.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Corey Ann Haydu (CAH): I was always a big journaler and someone who loved writing, but for a long time it was my secondary passion. I was originally an actress and about five years out of college realized I was on the wrong path. I quit acting and took an internship with a literary agency that happened to represent children’s literature. It had never occurred to me to write YA and MG, but I fell in love while working that job. I eventually went to grad school for writing for children and was lucky to sell my first book, OCD LOVE STORY, at that time. It’s been an interesting journey since then, with a LOT of ups and downs, but I’ve been really lucky that I’ve been able to work with people who support me growing and taking on new challenges in my work. THE CAREFUL UNDRESSING OF LOVE is really representative of that– it is a project that pushed me and I learned from and I’m so pleased that even though publishing can be very rocky, I’ve been able to explore new, complicated ideas like this one.

MP: What was the inspiration for The Careful Undressing of Love?

CAH: When I was younger, a woman working at a bakery took one look at me and told me I’d be a “heartbreaker”. She sounded angry when she said it, and I really internalized the moment. I carried that feeling with me and I wondered what it would be like if a proclamation like that was taken very literally. As I got further into the idea, it became clear it was a place where I could really explore the roles girls play and the impossible expectations we put on them. I was also influenced by 9/11 and the experience of living in New York City during the terrible period of time. I wasn’t interested in writing about that experience in particular, but I felt I could draw on some of those memories and some of the feelings that time brought up for me.

MP: Unlike your previous YA novels, this one is not a straight contemporary. Instead, The Careful Undressing of Love includes elements of (possible) magic on the shortest street in Brooklyn and an eerie alternate history for New York City–both of which work to create a very distinct sense of place. Which came first during your drafting: the setting or the story?

CAH: They actually really happened in tandem. When I started working on this story I had just moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and after nine years in Manhattan that was a HUGE change for me. I was really inspired by that move, so it was natural for me to use that inspiration for this story. I can’t start writing anything at all without a setting, so the story didn’t come into focus until I decided where it would be set.

MP: A lot of Lorna’s development as a character centers on the growing rift between Lorna and her friends. There’s a question of belief as Lorna moves between doubt and fear about the curse. How did you go about integrating these threads into the novel while keeping the story focused on your plot and characters rather than any specific answers (for Lorna or for readers)?

CAH: I think this book was really written in layers. I wrote SO many drafts of it  over the years that I was able to uncover many different elements through all those drafts. I had to play with how much belief or lack of belief was in the story, and honestly different drafts had different choices. Lorna’s journey with belief was one of the hardest things to pin down, and I had to get to know her very intimately before figuring out what made sense for her as a character. With so much of this book, it was only through making mistakes that I learned what would actually work for the story I wanted to tell. Sometimes you have to enter the story from a lot of different angles before you find the right starting point.

MP: The Careful Undressing of Love features the poem “Valentine” by Carol Ann Duffy at the beginning of the book (and the title also references a line in the poem of course). At what point did you connect this poem to your novel? How did the title come about?

CAH: I have to give credit to my amazing editor, Andrew Karre, for so much of this novel, and that includes the title. I had written Lorna’s father as a poetry-loving man and at one point Andrew asked me what poems he might have had in his collection. I loved the question and built a list that included “Valentine” as one of his favorite poems. As soon as we both read the poem a few times, we knew the title was in there. It’s got so many beautiful, unusual lines that really speak to what I wanted to explore.

MP: Were any of the locations you mention in The Careful Undressing of Love inspired by actual places? (I ask this after doing some online searches to confirm that Devonairre Street isn’t a real feature of Brooklyn because it felt so real!)

CAH: I’m so glad Devonairre felt real! It feels real to me at this point too. The neighborhood in general was inspired a little bit by South Slope. Bistro is based a little bit on a bistro I love in the East Village, Jules. the bakery is based a little on a coffee place I used to go every single morning for the most incredible chocolate croissants I’d ever eaten. It was called Parco. And Julia’s was loosely based on a coffee house turned bar in Cobble Hill that I wrote a lot of the book in.

MP: The Careful Undressing of Love is very focused on characters. Did you have a favorite character to write in this novel? What about one you most resemble (or wish you did)? Anyone you’re especially excited for readers to meet?

CAH: I tend to write main characters who feel somewhat close to me, so I would say Lorna is the closest to me. But there’s a bit of me in every character. Delilah was probably my favorite to write because she goes on a huge journey and that’s always exciting to tackle. I love her playfulness with language and I think her experience of grief is unique. I also really loved writing Angelika, because you so rarely get to write an older character in YA. It took me a long time to get a handle on her, but when I did– after watching a documentary about someone who cultivated a real devotion and belief from his followers– it was thrilling.

MP: I can’t say too much because it’s near the end, but one of my absolute favorite scenes in your book includes the line “When there’s nothing left to salvage, we have to save ourselves.” Do you have a favorite scene or a scene you are excited for readers to discover?

CAH: There’s a scene with a male teacher at school that I’m really proud of. In many of my books there are scenes where I let the main characters really experience the flawed humanity of the adults around them. I enjoy writing those scenes, because they feel real to me. I’m not interested in perfect characters or perfect authority figures or perfect love or anything perfect really. And I think the scene with the male teacher at school encompasses a lot of what the book is about– fear and grief and gender roles and sexuality and the unfairness of being a girl in the world.

MP: Can you tell me anything about your next project?

CAH: My next book THE SOMEDAY SUITCASE comes out in June. It’s a MG project that I’m very excited about. It’s about a girl named Clover and her best friend Danny. When Danny gets a mysterious illness, Clover takes it on herself to figure out how to fix him. It’s also a book that straddles the line between realism and magic.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

CAH: The best advice is always to keep going. There will be rejections. I never got a piece published in my high school literary magazine. I got rejected the first time I applied to my college’s creative writing workshop. I get rejected still, we all do! So you have to find the love and the joy in the midst of that, and not give up, Keep going, keep challenging yourself, and try to locate the joy as best you can.

Thanks again to Corey for this great interview!

You can see more about Corey and her books on her website.

You can also check out my review of The Careful Undressing of Love.

Poetically Speaking with Corey Ann Haydu

poeticallyspeaking2

Corey Ann Haydu is the author of the wonderful YA novels OCD Love Story, Life by Committee and Making Pretty as well as her middle grade debut Rules for Stealing Stars.

Today Corey is discussing her favorite poem by Slyvia Plath, Elm.

On Elm

In 2001, I was in theatre school, which is the exact right place to be if you have a love of poetry and a thousand questions about your place in the world, and a comfort with rolling around on the ground in yoga pants or screaming “I HAVE NO APOLOGIES” at the top of your lungs a few floors above Union Square in the wake of the wrong boyfriend and the unimaginable things that sometimes take hold of a family or, in the case of 2001 in New York, a city.

Sometime in our first year, our movement teacher, Ted, asked us to bring in a line of text that meant something to us and we would be using it for our work together. This would mean repeating it, over and over and over again, until the words forced our feelings to spill out and our bodies to release into some extra-emoting state. I knew exactly what to pick.

For all my love of Neruda and Sexton and Shakespeare and Mary Oliver, my true soulmate at eighteen was Sylvia Plath. I loved THE BELL JAR. I loved ARIEL. I loved her collected diaries. Most of all, I loved the poem ELM. Most of all, I loved the first stanza of the poem:

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:   

It is what you fear.

I do not fear it: I have been there.

I’m using the past tense, but the way I feel about this stanza is a present tense reality.

Who I was at eighteen is past tense, though. I asked a friend once, what their first impression of me was on our first day of classes. “Tuberculosis patient,” he said. I wasn’t sick from tuberculosis, but from fear and the wrong kind of love and worrying about things back home and a lack of interest in eating.

One of the few things I have in common with my eighteen year old self is the love of this poem, this stanza.

The stanza was too long for our movement class exercise, so I shortened it to that last line, “I do not fear it; I have been there”. In flared yoga pants of the early 2000s variety and an array of pink and purple tank tops with built in bras, I spoke those lines day after day in movement class. I wandered the room—dusty wooden floors, the smell of sweat and someone’s hangover, sometimes mine—mumbling, then speaking, then shouting, then weeping those words. Ted had floppy hair and a devilish smile and his voice was deep. He demonstrated how to speak our lines of text from our bellies, with circling our shoulders, trying to open up that place below our ribs where we hold all the pain of the world.

It didn’t take long for me to let go with that line.

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:   

It is what you fear.

I do not fear it: I have been there.

In that line is all the pain and power of the world. At eighteen, I was focused on the pain of it. The heartbreak of having to go through something that no one else in the room is going through. The way early struggles are different than the ones that come later in life. When the worst things happen at young ages, you are often on your own, knowing that terrible things will happen to other people later on, but that right now, no one totally gets it. Any room of eighteen-year-olds is crowded with heartbreak, but at the time I was confronting the way addiction infects families and lives and my heart’s own ability to trust the world.

I knew the bottom.

I was obsessed with the bottom.

I was obsessed with those words, and the way they were mine.

I’m thirty-three now, and the poem is more about the power.

I know the bottom, sure.

But I do not fear it, because I have already been there.

The poem now is about the strength that comes from that deep dive down, that lonely encounter with the darkest side of life.

At eighteen, it seemed so unfair to have gone through my reality.

At thirty-three I’m filled with a gratitude that comes from having gone through something impossible so early.

I know the bottom! I do not fear it! I have been there!

Thirty-three is great, because you know more things are to come, wonderful things and terrible things, things that will hit you in the face and shock you and make the world seem intolerable or fantastic. But thirty-three for me comes with the knowledge that if I did it before, I can do it again. That the world can keep pushing me down but I already know the way back up.

This is all well and good, except that between the time she wrote the poem, and I discovered it, Sylvia Plath went on to kill herself.

The things that I got from Plath—the power, the strength, the feeling of not being alone—were things she lost sight of herself, at some point.

The poem is beautiful, through and through, but the rest of it never resonated with me in the same way as that first line did. It didn’t matter to me. I took what I needed—the acknowledgment of the pain and the powerful idea that I could defeat it—and I moved on.

I didn’t spend much time with this stanza:

I am terrified by this dark thing   

That sleeps in me;

All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

I didn’t want to hear about the way pain could continue to eat you up and infect you. I didn’t want to hear about her fear, when I’d already heard that she didn’t have any.

I always think I’m writing a love note, and it always turns out I’m writing an apology.

I’m sorry that we lost a soul like Plath, and that her words saved me but couldn’t save her. I’m sorry that I found it hard, sometimes pointless, frustrating, painful to read past the lines that I loved.

I’m sorry to not have more of her words, to not know what her surviving her depression and her worst demons would have looked like.

And still: in the nights that are the worst or the days that I lose sight of the big picture, I return to that stanza, and it becomes mine again.

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:

It is what you fear.

I do not fear it; I have been there.

In the whole world of literature, there has never been a collection of words that meant this much to me, that I memorized in my brain and heart and hands and soul. There has never been another line that didn’t just float around in my psyche but actually changed the way I am capable of feeling:

Pride in the things we survive, try to survive, sometimes or often or occasionally give in to, and try to survive again—without Plath, without ELM, I wouldn’t know that kind of pride existed. Flawed pride. Pride anyway.

Back in Ted’s movement class, I was congratulated for the way I broke open with the recitation of the words. I miss the days when hysterical crying and wild rage and sinking your body into the floor and letting your limbs flail was the goal, was what I needed to do in order to succeed.

Life isn’t like that, and, as I would find out, neither is art.

But. If you ever see me walking the streets of Cobble Hill or Greenwich Village—my favorite places to cry-walk, know that I am probably listening to Counting Crows and probably, eventually, reciting Plath’s lines. I am not feeling sorry for myself. I am feeling sorry for anyone who doesn’t know the bottom yet. And I am hoping that when they reach it, it stops feeling so terrifying.

I have been there.

Thank you again to Corey for this incredible post.

If you’d like to learn more about Corey and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.coreyannhaydu.com

You can also read my review of Life by Committee here on the blog.

Life by Committee: A Review

lifebycommitteeIt isn’t Tabitha’s fault that her breasts are bigger now. It isn’t her fault that she likes wearing makeup as much as she likes reading margin notes in used books. It isn’t her fault that Joe seems to like talking to her more than he likes talking to his crazy-eccentric-special-snowflake girlfriend Sasha Cotton.

But it might be Tabitha’s fault when she kisses Joe. And when she does it again.

Normally, Tabitha would so not be that girl. But with the help of a website called Life by Committee, Tabitha starts doing a lot of things she wouldn’t normally do in the spirit of being more. At first sharing secrets and completing assignments to keep those secrets safe is easy. The assignments are empowering and push her limits.

When Tabby becomes more involved in the site, and the stakes get much higher, she has to decide how far she is willing to go, and who she is willing to hurt, to be more in Life by Committee (2014) by Corey Ann Haydu.

Find it on Bookshop.

Life by Committee is Haydu’s sophomore novel.

Tabitha is a great heroine. She struggles with a lot of things throughout Life by Committee. Obviously, there is the morality issue with cheating. But Tabitha is also trying to understand her place in a world where the rules are constantly changing not because of anything she has done but simply because of how she looks. (And sometimes not even that in the case of her changing home life.) The way Tabby, through Haydu’s prose, grapples with feminism and slut shaming and loneliness–problems she can’t always articulate, or even give a proper name–is shattering.

Tabitha is incredibly lonely at the start of the novel. She tries to reshape her life without the friends she had assumed were a given but it’s hard. Then Tabitha stumbles upon Life by Committee. LBC is an anonymous online community where users share secrets and complete assignments (more like dares) in the name of being more and leading their best lives. The wisdom in joining such a site is, of course, debatable. But Haydu does such an excellent job of bringing Tabitha and her hurt to life that it makes sense. Readers begin to understand how Tabitha might become this person who is completely consumed by people she has never met.

The great thing about Tabitha is that she knows exactly who she is and who she would like to be. When Tabitha gets involved with LBC, she starts to question a lot of the ideas she has about herself. Sometimes that leads to empowering moments. Unfortunately it also leads to some heart wrenching decisions that are so obviously Bad Ideas they become painful to read.

Those choices, the power and allure of LBC, are hard to understand at times. Unless you remember being that lonely high school (or college) student trying to find your way. Unless you remember the thrill that can come with telling everything that matters to someone who will never meet you, never be able to really judge you. Life by Committee captures that heady mix of connection and anonymity found on the Internet so very well.

Life by Committee also subtly highlights the pitfalls that can come from such a scenario. It’s wonderful to have friends online saying “yes!” to every risk you want to take. But without the context that comes from knowing a person in real life, it’s also difficult to ever adequately understand the consequences and the aftermath of those risks.

At the end of Life by Committee it’s safe to say that Tabitha comes out a little wiser and a lot stronger. Because this book is on the short side (304 pages hardcover) readers don’t get to see all of the payoff after Tabitha realizes she can find her own way, all by herself, but the development is there. The growth and the hint at something more–LBC-inspired or not–is there in the final pages.

Although she has her stumbling blocks, Tabitha remains a smart and capable heroine throughout. While she doesn’t always make the best decisions, she always learns. And that, really, is all anyone can hope for. Life by Committee is a shrewd, clever read that raises all of the right questions for its characters and readers. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhatena, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anna Heltzel, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, In Real Life by Jessica Love, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, Kissing in America by Margo RabbThe Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker

*A review copy of this book was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2014*