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Armageddon Summer

JANE: Our YA novel, Armageddon Summer (Harcourt Brace) began years ago when I read about some millenialist group or another declaring that the world was going to end on a certain date and at a specific time. These news stories pop up every year, and not just when we are heading downhill precipitously toward a millennium.

The old storyteller’s what-if kicked in. And I began noodling—that’s a writer’s technical term for thinking about a subject as a possible book project. I asked myself: What if a teenage girl is dragged to a mountain top by her family under the influence of a religious millenialist cult and there meets a teenage boy also brought up the mountain kicking and screaming. Would there be a summer camp romance? Would they be Romeo and Juliet, dying at the end? Or would the whole cult go down, like the Titanic? Would the world end? Or would it begin?

I thought a lot about writing the book.

I even talked to a couple of editors at editorial lunches, when I ran lists of ideas past them. But this was long before I really considered myself a novelist. (Most of the time I am a short form writer. Long novels tend to give me nosebleeds!) So I was not ready to attempt such a big and difficult story. Because big and difficult it threatened to be. It had to deal with love, death, matters of faith, family dynamics—and the end of the world.

The years ground on. And the millennium crept closer.

I remembered my novel idea every time a new crazy cult—led by a Jim Jones or a David Koresh—hit the news.

But I wasn’t ready. I was writing YA novels now, and had even done some adult novels, but this one scared me. In some ways it was bigger than anything I had yet tackled. In some ways more intimate. The millennium crept closer still.

And then one day I called my best friend Bruce Coville. And I said…

BRUCE: Well, as I remember it, what she said was, “I was in the shower this morning and I had an idea for something we should do together.”

How was I supposed to know she was talking about a book?

Anyway, it turned out that the idea was not for the book itself—as Jane notes above, she had had the basic concept for a long time. The idea was that we should write it together, a double first person story with Jane writing in the girl’s voice, and me writing for the boy.

(We could have done it the other way around, I suppose, but why make things harder than they need to be?)

Now, Jane and I have been close friends for years, and while the idea of writing with her was delicious. But it was also a prospect fraught with peril, since we are both stubborn, opinionated, (JANE: He is opinionated, I have deep thoughts!) and highly protective of our own work. Whenever I had collaborated in the past, it has been with someone who provided either pictures or music to go with my words. I had never had to share control of the words themselves before.

The idea was terrifying.

Naturally, I said yes.

JANE: Bruce and I have been friends for what feels like ages. Actually it is about 18 years. We have remained friends even though I was the editor for three of Bruce’s novels and one short story collection, he has edited a number of short stories (and a poem) of mine in his own anthologies as well as directing me in an audio book project.

But it turns out that writing a novel together is a very different proposition.

For one thing—whose name comes first? Mine. Because it was my idea. Not—as Bruce has suggested to some people—because I am the oldest! (BRUCE: I have never said this. Must be your conscience speaking!)

For another—who has final say on matters of style (me); punctuation, grammar and spelling (the copyeditor); character motivation (Bruce); story—Well that’s still not clear.

For a third—which editor did we both trust and already worked successfully with? Not completely an author’s call. There was a book auction, but I think it’s safe to say that we are both overwhelmingly delighted with how things turned out. Thank you, Michael Stearns.

Fourth—do we plot the book tightly (Bruce’s favorite method) or do we let the characters dictate the action (mine.) Let’s just say that we plotted the last four chapters carefully. Very carefully. You can make up your own minds as to whose will was the stronger.

BRUCE: Huh? And I have memories of us wrangling and negotiating on all of the above. (JANE: Remember—we are both fantasists!) But I also think we had an unspoken agreement that we would (a) make all the suggestions we wanted about the other’s work and (b) leave final say on our individual sections to the person who wrote them.

One of the things that I think is interesting about this collaboration is that, despite the fact that something like this can be done from two totally different locations, we wrote almost the entire book in close proximity to each other.

The opening few chapters were done when we were both teaching at a writer’s conference in Washington State. It was challenge writing, of a sort. Jane would write a chapter, hand it to me, and I would respond with a chapter of my own the next day. They were short chapters, and what we were really trying to do was find the voices for our characters.

Our plan was that when we returned home we would continue to swap chapters by email. The one problem with this was that I tend to run perpetually behind on deadlines, (JANE: while I tend to run ahead of them, a personality tic Bruce can never forgive me for) which means I write in a state of constant crisis. And because we had determined we would finish this book =before= we took it to market, there was no deadline—and thus no crisis. (Look, I’m not saying this is a good way to do things; I’m just showing you my dirty laundry here.)

But I still desperately wanted to do the book. Finally we decided that the best way to get me back in harness would be for me to drive to Jane’s house—she lives about five hours east of me—where we would spend a week working together on the book.

Which is exactly what we did. In January of 1996 I went to Jane’s, and we rolled up our sleeves and went to work. It was some of the most intense writing I’ve ever done. A couple of things fueled the process. The first is that Jane and I are ever so slightly competitive. (JANE: Slightly? Slightly? We are enormously competitive.) The second is that we were devoting ourselves completely to this project, shutting out the outside world and moving into our own world on top of the mountain where the Believers had gone to await the end of the world.

If our first swapping of chapters and ideas had been about building our characters, now we were trying to build that world, to visualize the place where the story would take place, and work out the logistics of how this band of Believers would actually organize their camp to wait for the end of the world.

Underlying the question of logistics was an even more interesting and challenging question, that of psychology. What would it be like to believe—to really believe—that the world was about to end, and only you and the tiny group of people around you, would survive the holocaust? What were these people thinking? What were they =feeling?= More specifically, what were our two young protagonists—one a believer, one not—thinking and feeling while all this was going on?

We wrangled considerably over the details.

JANE: I wrote on the third floor in my attic my writing room, which I call the Aerie. Bruce set up his laptop on the desk in my son Jason’s old room. The stairs got worn as we alternately tromped up and down. Lunch became sandwiches with plot talk. Breakfast was cereal with characterization. Even on our necessary long walk—breaks we talked about the book.

In some ways, our writing times brought out the very best in me—invigorated and challenged me. I found myself energized and stimulated and pushed to the limit. By the end of our sessions my fingers were worn down to the nubs.

Sometimes what Bruce wrote changed the direction of our thinking. Sometimes I sent us off in new directions. For example, he was the one who brought up the problem of the “Eves”—that is with so few young women of child-bearing age and so many men, the thought about what would happen after the fires of Armageddon had to be dealt with. But I was the one who ran with the idea and it formed one smashing scene between the two characters.

BRUCE: And we wrote. In my case I turned out as much in four days as I sometimes do in a month.

It was exhilarating.

And then it was time for me to go home.

As might be expected, the tyranny of deadlines reclaimed their position in my life, and the project began to languish. But what we had was too good to let go of, too exciting, too fresh. We continued to talk.

For a year.

In January of 1997 I returned to chez Yolen-Stemple (which is actually one of my favorite places on Earth) and we dug in again. Usually writers put in a few hours of intense writing in a day. But with the end in sight, with the ferment of ideas driving us on, swapping chapters as we wrote, revising each other’s text, passing them back for rewrites and new drafts, we put in marathon days, including one day when we wrote for fourteen hours.

And we had a book.

So, to the common question that kids always ask, “How long did it take to write this book?” the answer is either three years, or three weeks, depending on how you count. Though the gaps in the actual writing were lengthy, during those periods the project was growing in our minds, getting richer and deeper.

That time frame doesn’t count revisions, of course, an incredibly intense process where much of our best work was done. That part of things, I am pleased to report, we were able to carry on from our separate abodes, FAXing scribbled on or rewritten pages back and forth several times a day.

JANE: My voice character in ARMAGEDDON SUMMER is Marina Marlow (named after my wonderful agent, Marilyn Marlow.) In many ways Marina is me: full of passionately-held beliefs that are often contradictory; loyal to family and friends but able to see others with a clear eye; a big reader and quoter of poetry which means her language is elevated, sonorous, elliptical, metaphoric. Marina goes in the novel from a teenager full of religious fervor to someone who has a kind of naive questioning of faith. I had gone that same path, having been raised with no religion at all, then when I was 13, I asked to go to Sunday School, then became the first girl to read from the torah in the history of the temple. That quickly escalated into my becoming head of the temple youth group which I led with an efficiency a Mussolini might have admired. Next I minored in religion at Smith College. Then I had a major flirtation with Quakerism in my early 30s. Now I am a kind of neo-deist who enjoys ritual but despises theology.

Bruce’s character Jed is a wise-guy. who disguises his deeply felt feelings about family and his intense intellectual preoccupation with sass. He is Bruce at an earlier stage, though Bruce—a church-going Unitarian—has already made the passage that Jed is going through in the book. Jed is cooperative when he thinks he might learn something, surprised at goodness found where he least expects it, and is willing to entertain the possibility of change. He is passionate, as adolescents are, about a variety of things which we adults often forget once we leave our teens. Bruce has never forgotten.

BRUCE: Jane is a source of wisdom and comfort to me on many matters, but on one matter in this book I was quite confident she was wrong. Early on she said to me she thought it was going to be a short book, maybe a little over a hundred pages, and that it wouldn’t take that long for us to write it. I think I knew better than she did herself at that point the strength of the idea that she had come up with.

Part of that strength was in what the story let us talk about. For I think that the last taboo in children’s books these days, and one that needs desperately to be shattered, is religion. Right now it seems we have two ways of dealing with religion in stories for young people. We either proselytize, primarily in stories published by specifically Christian or Jewish presses, or we pretend that the subject simply does not exist. Mainstream writers hesitate to talk about religion at all for fear of seeming to proselytize.

This leaves a strange void in our books for young readers, and is no more real or sensible than all of us choosing to write stories in which no one has cars.

JANE: We both understand where this comes from—the emphasis of selling to the school market which is terrified of addressing matters of religion and faith because of the ban on school prayer. But school is a place where everything should be discussed. Especially those things which have driven humankind since the beginning.

BRUCE: Besides, we should not ignore the reality of children’s lives, which is that most of them do indeed think about matters of faith, of the spirit. They do wrestle with what their relationship to organized religion is going to be. More so than many adults, for they are still alive to wonder. If we refuse to acknowledge this in our books for young readers, we leave a glaring hole in our work, and deny the truth of their own lives.

JANE: Still, we do understand the fear of teachers and librarians about addressing this issue. We understand it—but refuse NOT to deal with it. (However at least one publisher decided not to bid on the finished book because of that perceived lack of audience in the schools.)

BRUCE: In ARMAGEDDON SUMMER Marina struggles with her urge to believe, and Jed struggles with the conflict between his intellectual desire to =not= believe, and his innate sense that there is something bigger, grander, stronger, and stranger in the universe than he can actually name or understand.

But it’s a delicate dance. I resolved early on that one of the things I really wanted to do in this book was present a rounded portrait of the minister who headed this group. Though I did not subscribe to his point of view myself, neither did I want to make him a buffoon or a charlatan.

Lord knows it would have been easy to go that way. Both Jane and I have been vilified often enough by the religious right…

JANE: I, in fact, have been called a “tool of Satan.” And Bruce’s lovely and moving JEREMY THATCHER, DRAGON HATCHER has been the subject of several school board fights while my novel about the Holocaust, THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC has been banned in some places because the word “Devil” is in the title. I kid you not.

BRUCE: Getting a little of our own back would have been fun. But it would also have been cheap, and ultimately harmful to the book. One of the things that I learned long ago in my battles with fundamentalists is that there is a wide range of beliefs within the fundamentalist community, and that many of them are actually on my side in my battles with censors.

JANE: So we took the faith—and the characters—seriously. By doing so, we both knew we were taking a big chance. But as all writers know, if you do not take chances in your fiction, you die. You may still be alive and writing, but you are dead as an artist.

Besides, what if Reverend Beelson—what if all the Reverend Beelsons—are actually right?

It’s the biggest What If a storyteller has to deal with.

BRUCE: The idea of the millennium is seeded deep within the western consciousness. I have long felt that the increasing number of censorship cases we have to deal with has to do with what I call “creeping millennialism”, a tide of uneasiness rising within many people of faith.

Actually it is not just the people of faith who ,feel this uneasiness. The infamous “Year 2K” computer problem is an interesting manifestation of the situation. If it had not existed, we would have had to invent something to take its place. As it is, it provides a way for people who are not religious to vent their feelings of fear and uneasiness about the approaching turn of the calendar, a high-tech doomsday scenario that lets non-Believers fret about the millennium along with everyone else, that gives perfect expression to the deep-seated belief in western society that when the millennium rolls around, Something huge and horrible is going to happen.

JANE: Looking at the finished book, I know I could never have written it alone. In the first place the character of Jed is so… Bruce… In the second place, it is much longer than I could have managed on my own. In the third place, those moments of absolute hilarity—as in the radio announcer scenes—are beyond my capability. But mostly the novel is the result of a strange and interesting cross-pollination of our talents.

Would I write another book with Bruce? In a heartbeat.

BRUCE: I think it’s a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Certainly working with Jane on this pushed me to a new place in my writing, challenged me to go to places I don’t usually go.

And, having survived writing with my best friend about the turn of the millennium, do I fear what will happen when the year 2000 actually does arrive?

Not really. I suspect there may be a great deal of man-made chaos and uproar. But I figure the world will roll on, just as it always has.

And with luck, one day not long after, Jane will call and say, “I was in the shower this morning and I had an idea…”

I’ll be waiting.

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