Last Tuesday, I attended an event at the Cambridge Public Library in celebration of the release of Kristin Cashore’s latest book, Bitterblue.
Before I say anything about the event and meeting the lovely Kristin Cashore, I thought it would be appropriate to mention some of the reasons why I love Kristin Cashore both as a writer and as a human being.
It’s been almost four years since I read Graceling for the first time on a long bus ride from Boston to upstate New York (given to me by my friend who worked at Houghton Mifflin at the time, who told me to prepare myself for a disarmingly hot male character), and although I’ve been pressing it on people almost continually since then, some of the details of the story have become foggy in my mind. So before allowing myself to dive into Bitterblue, I decided to revisit Graceling. I set out with the intention of just skimming it in order to reacquaint myself with some of the details of the story, but I couldn’t keep myself from rereading the book in its entirety. I hadn’t forgotten how good Graceling is but I’d forgotten precisely why I love it so much. Here are some of the reasons why I love Graceling:
Katsa is such a refreshing lead female heroine. I love how complex she is, how humane she is, how fierce, and maybe more than anything, I love how much she values her own autonomy. The relationship between Katsa and Po is one of my favorite romantic literary relationships. I love that they first encounter one another as opponents, become best friends and then how they both respond when they ultimately fall in love. I love Katsa’s crisis when she realizes how she feels about Po, her utter unwillingness to give up her freedom. I love the description of Katsa refusing to belong to anyone but herself. “Katsa sat in the darkness of the Sunderan forest and understood three truths. She loved Po. She wanted Po. And she could never be anyone’s but her own.” THANK YOU! Thank you, Kristin Cashore, for writing about a relationship that does not fall victim to the romantic myth, for reminding us that love can exist without forsaking freedom and will, that love can be mutual, that love in its true form is an understanding that both partners will work to nurture each others’ growth. Basically, this book is the OPPOSITE of Twilight. And I love it for that with all my heart. Also, my friend was right to warn me. Po is arguably one of the hottest literary figures to ever grace the page. Those gold and silver eyes? That easy smile? THOSE ARM TATTOOS! Needless to say, I am extremely eager, and now feel fully prepared, to begin reading Bitterblue.
So back to the event.
I was pleased that Kristin Cashore was celebrating with us in Cambridge on the day of the book’s release and she remarked herself that she was delighted to be kicking off the book’s tour in her very own library. The Cambridge Public Library is beautiful. It sits just outside Harvard Square and was recently remodeled in 2009 to preserve the original building (constructed in 1888) but with an elegant and spacious addition that more than triples the square footage of the older part of the library. The new addition is made almost entirely of glass so during the day, light streams into the building and warms the polished wood interior. Cashore spoke to an audience of eager fans in the library’s beautiful lecture hall.
She opened up by reading some selections from Bitterblue and then went on to talk about what it was like writing this particular book. The theme of her talk, she told us, was failure. She told us that Bitterblue took her three years to write and went through not three, not four, but five drafts before the finished product was sent to the publisher’s. After giving the first draft to her editor, the suggestion she gave Kristin was that she start over from the beginning and re-write the entire manuscript. She showed us scanned pages of the original draft that she had gone over painstakingly line by line and crossed out and re-written in the spaces between the crossed-out lines.
Her point in telling us all this was to emphasize the hard work that goes into completing a finished creative product. It’s so easy to look at a beautiful work of art and assume it came naturally to the artist, that the process was effortless and quick, when in fact so much of what makes good art good is all the mess and disaster that doesn’t show on the surface—all the mistakes, all the horrible first drafts. She showed us scanned pages from even earlier drafts, hand-written pages where encouragements were scrawled in the margins, things like, “The only way out is through!” and, “This is bad, but don’t worry, it will get better. Just keep going!”
I was so heartened to see this because no matter how many times I hear it, it’s always a shock to remember that my favorite artists are human too, that they also write terrible first drafts and have days where it feels like nothing is working, days where they question whether all the suffering is worth it. It was so inspiring to hear someone whose writing I really respect sit before me and describe the same frustration and doubt that I feel when I pick up a pen. It gave me hope that one day I could look back on a finished product and assert with confidence that all the hard work was worth it. It’s always helpful to hear about another artist’s creative process, whether it’s similar to or different from your own, and it’s especially helpful when the artist shares their mistakes as well as their triumphs. What made her talk so moving was how humble she was in describing her own failure and how willing she was to show us evidence of her struggle. Giving us such a detailed glimpse into her creative process was an extremely generous thing to do.
When you read a book, you know an author in an intense way because you are experiencing a deep part of what makes them who they are. I felt like I knew Kristin Cashore in some sense before I met her in person because of what I like so much in her writing, but I can now confirm that what I saw of her up there on stage was just as warm, just as intelligent, just as full of empathy and humor as what I’ve come to love in her books.
One last thing: speaking of Cashore’s generosity, here is a link to a recent post on her blog where she has shared a collection of letters written between the title characters of Bitterblue and Graceling set just before the events of Bitterblue take place. Enjoy! And look for a review of Bitterblue on this blog very soon.