Two Authors of Feminist Books for Teens on Tour [Guest Post by Amber J. Keyser]

Elana K. Arnold and Amber J. Keyser

YA author Amber J. Keyser writes about feminist books for teens and her “Feminism and the Female Body” book tour with Elana K. Arnold, author of National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Longlist title What Girls Are Made Of. 

A shorter version of this post appeared in this week’s Book Riot’s “What’s Up in YA” September 18 newsletter. 
Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser
As soon as I heard about Elana K. Arnold’s most recent novel, What Girls Are Made Of
, I knew we had to tour together. Her book is a visceral dissection of the enormous pressures on teenage girls. It demands to know why girls are considered consumable objects—sugar and spice—to be devoured by the nearest hungry mouth. She felt similarly about my novel, Pointe, Claw, also a ferocious exploration of the territory of the female body and what sacrifices must be made to claim it as one’s own.
Read More

Q&A with Pointe, Claw Author Amber J. Keyser

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 doesnt understand. The girlsintense relationship becomes a way for them to confront societys narrow definition of what a female body should look like, and allows them the strength to embrace their own wildness, discovering theres 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.
Its 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 youd 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 cant wait to read your next book!

From Personal Loss to Novel: One Author’s Path (Guest Post by Amber J. Keyser)

Today on the blog, author Amber J. Keyser shares how she began writing The Way Back from Broken, her young adult debut novel.

The Way Back from Broken begins with a quote from “The Epigrams of Lusin,” translated by Lin Yutang.

Hope is like a road in the country: There was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence. 

A novel is much the same. It begins with an idea, a seed, a feeling, but the author must walk many miles with the story before a book comes into existence.

Five years ago, I knew I was going to write about being shattered by loss and finding the strength to put the pieces together again. I knew I would be writing from experience, from the deep well of grief I knew after the death of my first daughter, but I also knew that I didn’t want the story to be about me.

But whose story was I going to write?

Five years ago, on my birthday of all days, I was walking up my long dirt driveway to get the mail, feeling sad about turning forty and full of heartache about the daughter that I never got to know. Unbidden and unexpected, a boy’s voice filled me.

Look—I’m telling you. Everybody’s life is just a let-down, dumb-ass mess of compromises. Try to prove me wrong. I’m not gonna be holding my breath or anything.

This boy told me his name—Rakmen. And I could see him. I knew his dad was black and his mom was Latina. And the shards of his heart sliced into my own. I would be writing Rakmen’s story. I would be writing about how we learn to live when we have been broken. I would be peeling the story from my own guts and giving it to Rakmen to carry.

This boy was different from me in many ways. His grief brought silence. My grief brought loquacity. His family sundered. Mine drew together. He was comfortable on city streets. I require wilderness. His grief was fresh, the blood barely dry. Mine was well-worn and familiar.

I took this boy—this deeply wounded boy—and I threw him to the wolves. I put Rakmen in a place that terrified him with people he disliked. I pushed him beyond every limit, and I gave him an impossibly heavy burden. I forced him to find his way through the dumb-ass mess.

Together Rakmen and I made a story. It took most of the last five years. And as we walked together, a strange and remarkable thing happened. When Rakmen shouldered his loss and grief, my own weight was lifted. As he found his way, I found clarity. Under our very feet, a path did indeed come into existence and it was the way back from broken.

And as you can see from the pictures of my family this summer, it was worth it.

The author and her husband
The author’s son and second daughter

Thanks, Amber.

The Way Back from Broken is a recent ALAN Pick and also has a starred review from Booklist. Look for it on October 1 in bookstores near you. 

To read more from Amber J. Keyser, you can visit her website, follow her on Twitter, and check out a Q&A with her we did last April on the blog.  

Author Hot Seat: Amber J. Keyser

We were lucky enough to get Amber J. Keyser, author of Sneaker Century: A History of Athletic Shoes and The Way Back from Broken (coming October 2015), in the author hot seat! Below are her answers to questions about her favorite books, her writing process, and the first book she ever authored (teaser: the cover was crocheted!). 
What was your favorite book you read growing up?
Hands down, it was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis. I’ve probably read it thirty times. Oh, how I love Reepicheep! Close on the heels of this book comes My Side of the Mountainby Jean Craighead George. I always wanted my own Frightful.
What are some of your favorite childrens/young adult books that youve read recently?
Okay for Now  by Gary Schmidt, El Deafo by Cece Bell, Rollergirlby Victoria Jamieson, Nation by Terry Pratchett, and Ill Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.
Who are your favorite contemporary fellow authors?
I can’t believe you are making me choose! That is a very cruel thing to do to a reader!
Right now I’m still gushing over Gary Schmidt. I admire the subtle ways he allows his characters to reveal deep emotional truths. A. S. King does this too. The writing of both Jandy Nelson and Laini Taylor has a pell-mell, technicolor intensity that I love. Nancy Farmer is a bomb story-teller, and she can do anything from survival stories in Africa to Vikings to alternate reality drug dealers.
Why did you start writing?
Before I was a writer, I was an evolutionary biologist. These might seem like really different jobs, but at the core, they are the same. I’m an observer. I want to understand how the world works and what makes people tick. Doing science and writing books are both ways to do this.
What are the hardest/easiest parts of writing for you?
The hardest part is when I let myself get emotionally invested in all the parts of the writing business that are out of my control: reviews, book sales, contracts, awards, etc. The easiest part is committing myself whole-heartedly to the story. That is what matters most.
How do you gather ideas for your books?
Ideas are easy. They are everywhere for the gathering. The trick is getting enough ideas to glom together into a book. Anything that interests me gets added to a list in my GTD software (The Hit List) called “Book Ideas.” Right now it has 28 entries including horse genetics, bronc-rider George Fletcher, and something called The Doom Dimension. For the current book, several of these ideas developed a magnetic attraction and BOOM! Suddenly there was enough bubbling out of the explosion to make a whole novel.
Do you have a writing routine?
As soon as my kids get on the bus, I’m at my desk. I take 15 minutes or so to glance at my email and check in on Twitter (@amberjkeyser) then I open Scrivener and get to work. When drafting, I try to hit 1,000 words before I take a break. When revising I try to work for at least three hours. Break time usually means a walk in the forest with our new puppy, Gilda. After lunch, I buckle down for another two hours.
How do you deal with self-doubt or writing blocks?
When the writing gets tough and I’m agonizing over every word, I have to ask myself what kind of “stuck” am I experiencing. Am I struggling because my batteries are depleted and I need to take care of myself? Or is it hard because writing is painful and I need to keep trying? When it is the former, I go for a run in the forest. Otherwise, I stay at my desk and remind myself that even if what I write isn’t great, I will fix it in revision.
Sneaker Century and The Way Back from Broken are really different books. How do you manage to write both nonfiction and fiction?
For me, writing any book requires the same things: free-flowing nonlinear creativity, deep research into the core elements of the story, detailed to-do lists on how to execute the plan for the book, and disciplined, grind-it-out time in front of the computer. They may occur in different proportions, but the ingredients are always the consistent. No matter the book, I have the same tasks: find the right structure to tell the story, create a voice that makes you want to read on, and bring the world to life with details you can sink your teeth into.
Do your kids influence your writing? If so, how?
Sometimes I write about very difficult subjects. You might assume that I would steer away from the edge for fear of what my children will think, but the opposite is true. They need me to be brave, incisive, and above all, deeply honest.
Tell us something we don’t know about you!

My very first book, penned in 2nd or 3rd grade, was called Anatomy of a Bruise. I remember one particular illustration that I was very proud of. It depicted the inevitable consequences of an apple falling off a table and smacking the ground. Another showed a time lapse series of a bruise healing from purple to greenish-yellow to gone. Also, I crocheted the cover with orange and turquoise yarn. Clearly, I was a yarn bomber way ahead of my time!
Pick up Sneaker Century today, and look for The Way Back from Broken and another blog post from Amber this fall. Thanks for stopping by the blog, Amber!