By Alix Reid, editorial director of Carolrhoda Lab
On April 1, Carolrhoda Lab will publish Pointe, Claw, a brilliant new novel by Amber Keyser, author of The Way Back from Broken. The story is a tale of magical realism in which two best friends—Jessie, who wants to be a professional ballerina no matter what pain she has to endure, and Dawn, who is having blackouts and fugues, and is experiencing changes in her body and language that she doesn’t understand. The girls’ intense relationship becomes a way for them to confront society’s narrow definition of what a female body should look like, and allows them the strength to embrace their own wildness, discovering there’s nothing unfeminine about embracing a new definition of femininity. The book has already received two starred reviews, which praise it for its raw and unsparing look at what it means to be a young woman.
I had the great privilege of being the editor of this book, and I wanted to take the opportunity to interview Amber about how she came to write this unique and unexpected book, which takes the reader on an unexpected journey, to a conclusion that is unforgettable.
Amber, can you tell us about how the idea for Pointe, Claw came to you?
My debut novel, The Way Back from Broken, is based on the hardest, saddest thing that ever happened to me—the death of my daughter. Pointe, Claw is about the second hardest thing that ever happened to me—losing ballet.
I guess that means you draw on personal experience. Can you tell us more?
Amber as a young ballerina
From seventh grade through high school, ballet was everything to me. I danced six days a week, often riding the bus for an hour and a half to get to the studio. I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer with a ravenous, all-consuming, bone-aching desire. My entire identity revolved around dance. When my ballet career ground to a soul-crushing end (long story), I thought it might kill me. In fact, it almost did. The year that followed was a dark cocktail of depression, drug use,
isolation, and abuse.
What motivated you to write the book?
I wrote Pointe, Claw to wrestle with big themes for which ballet is a pointed metaphor. What is the relationship between a girl and her body? Can she fully inhabit her own skin? How is she navigating the pushpullshove of an exacting art, adults with their own baggage, and a society that imposes impossible ideals on what it means to be a girl?
What was it like writing the book? Did you find it came easily to you?
Pointe, Claw is the most ambitious book I have ever written. Structurally it is much more complex than The Way Back from Broken. Thematically, it is more ambiguous and contradictory. I completely rewrote the book three times before I had a draft with the right bones. Honestly, it was a painful process, but I’m proud of it now. I feel like I got close to my original vision.
You have two main protagonists in the book. What was it like to write two different voices?
Ack! Jessie was easy. There is so much of me in her. Dawn was another story. I found it impossible to switch back and forth between the two. Jessie’s voice took over everything if I did that. Dawn’s narrative fell into place when I forced myself to work exclusively on her sections. I did one whole pass through the novel writing and revising Dawn’s sections then I went back through and pieced in Jessie.
It’s always fascinating to hear about how an author actually sits down and writes a book. Did you write a certain number of pages or hours a day? Did you revise as you went along, or complete a first draft before revising?
Amber and her dog
My kids leave for school at 7:00 am. I pour a cup of coffee, open Scrivener, and get right to work. My goal when drafting is to get 1000 words on the page each day. That is a very modest goal. I would say typically I draft about 1500 words a day. That can take a couple hours or a lot more depending on the day. At the draft stage, I tweak sentences but don’t fuss too much with big picture revision. I want the raw material to work with. When I’m revising, I go for butt-in-chair hours. Sometimes it will take all day to revise a single page. Whether I’m drafting or revising, my super cute dog comes to the computer about 9:30 and whines until we go for a walk. I’m usually ready for a break! Post-walk, I draft or revise for a few more hours and then turn to the biz stuff—social media, events, and the like.
What was the editorial process like? Did you share the manuscript with a writing group as well as your editor?
Well… I have this great editor…
Seriously though, you are a genius editor. I loved that you really got what I was trying to do with this book even in the beginning when it was a giant, hot mess. I really appreciate that you ask lots and lots of questions as part of your editorial work. Typically, that is far more useful for me than specific solutions to problems. I think talented editors use questions like knives to cut to the beating heart of a scene.
I have a wonderful writing group, the Viva Scrivas, who read early drafts of all my work. They are super smart and bring so much insight to the page.
How do you approach revisions?
There is always a stage in every book where I have to tear it apart. (True confessions: that happened three times with Pointe, Claw). Every single time, I am convinced that the book will go Humpty-Dumpty on me, and I’ll never be able to put it back together again. Luckily, I have enough books under my belt (both unpublished novels and published nonfiction) to avoid despair. I’ve learned that heart-racing panic precedes the moment when I unlock the puzzle and everything falls into place. After I have the bones right, I revise in multiple iterations: voice, sensory, timeline, consistency. I used to hate revising, but I have come, somewhat grudgingly, to love it because it is satisfying to watch the work get better.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about Pointe, Claw?
I want to say a couple of things about the ending (without giving anything away). Before I even started writing, I knew what the final scene in the book should be. I wrote toward that ending, but what happens is weird and fierce, and I was scared of it. I’d been writing around and around the ending, trying to hedge my bets and never fully committing to going all the way there. Two re-writes in, we had an editorial conversation on the phone. You gave me the courage to pull out all the stops and commit. I am so grateful to you. Without that ending, I’m not sure I would have ever felt right about the book.
Oh… and one other thing… readers should know that Carolrhoda Lab prints a secret message on the hardcover under the dust jacket of each book. Mine is perfect.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us, Amber! I personally can’t wait to read your next book!