Accepting the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction, author Tim Wynne-Jones delivered this speech on September 30, 2011.
It is a great thrill and honor to be here today—to be here, at Simmons, a biblioasis if ever there was one. I’d like to thank the wonderful people at the Horn Book for their support over the years and for being a beacon in the choppy waters of children’s literature. I’d also like to thank my fabulous peeps at Candlewick for all that they do and for flying me all the way back from the UK to be here today. I can’t think of a better way to have one’s unpaid sabbatical overseas interrupted. And I want to say how happy I am to look out and see so many wonderful friends, new and old. A man could get quite maudlin.
Winning an award is very gratifying, but it can also be a humbling experience. All I have to think about to be humbled is the manuscript I sent to Liz Bicknell at Candlewick on the last day of March 2009. It was called “Blink.” It was rather a slim manuscript: 170 pages, 49,000 words. More of a novella. In my cover letter, however, I mentioned a possible companion piece. Here’s what I wrote:
Were these two stories to be published together, maybe it could be one of those books, in which you read one story and then flip it over and read the other—a book with two covers. A novelty item. With a toy thrown in, maybe? Kidding…
But let’s go back a few months from the letter accompanying that slim manuscript. The part about being a writer I like best is the time between books. It’s when you allow yourself to imagine that the next book will really be good; the next book will be the one you were meant to write. No story is as full of promise as the one that’s in your head. You get over this heady sensation soon enough, once you actually start writing, but the time before writing is…well, it’s rather like being in love. Or I should say being in love with love. You are open to anything. Every idea that comes along is like a date! And you hate being single, you long to be married. So with each date—each story—you are saying to yourself, Can I imagine living with this one forever? Well, okay, not forever but a year or two? So maybe I should abandon the married part of the metaphor. Still…
When you are in the throes of writing, a story is Love; it eats you up, eats your every waking hour and plays havoc with your sleep. Your dreams are not your dreams anymore; their provenance is murky. You are living the multiple lives of your characters. Who is dreaming whom?
In the fall of 2008, two ideas wrestled for my attention. A story, tentatively entitled “Glide,” about a girl who steals her drug-dealer boyfriend’s money and tries to kick-start her life in a new city. But “Glide” was really about the famous “Gimli Glider” incident. On the 23rd of July, 1983, Air Canada flight 143, from Montreal to Edmonton, ran completely out of fuel at 41,000 feet over the boreal forests of northern Ontario. It was at the time that Canada was switching from imperial measurement to metric, and someone got mixed up in refueling. Miraculously, the pilot glided that Boeing 767 into a former Air Force base in the nowhere town of Gimli, Manitoba. There were sixty-one passengers aboard. I wanted my protagonist to be one of those passengers. I wanted her to be this bad girl en route from a bad life to an even “badder” life carrying the cash from a big dope deal. I wanted this aviation incident to be the turning point in her life. And, of course, I wanted that very bad boyfriend to come looking for her.
And then there was this other story about a street kid who just wants breakfast and ends up witnessing something that doesn’t make sense to him but fires what remains of his sense of curiosity, his sense of connection to the world. And which, subsequently, gets him way over his head in a fraudulent scheme.
So whom was I going to marry? Here’s my “Blink” journal entry for early February 2009, except the story wasn’t called “Blink” yet.
“Push” began life very early, around 3:00 a.m., last Thursday, January 29th. By the weekend I learned of the new movie called Push that has just come out, and I was blue all Sunday (Super Bowl Sunday) because I had been really happy with the idea of this street kid named Push and was not happy about having to give up the title. (I also wasn’t happy about the Cardinals losing to bloody Pittsburgh.) By Monday I’d changed the boy’s name to Shuck. I liked the connotations of that word: one shucks corn, stripping it down to its inner goodness and sweetness.
I love and am frightened by the quickening that occurs when you make the decision to go the distance with a story. When you choose. I can’t start from an outline. What I need is a vivid opening scene, one that will encourage me to go on. And so Blink blinked himself into existence. As for the girl on the Gimli Glider? She had no name. I couldn’t get her in focus. It was the plane I was in love with—the extraordinary heroism of the pilot and crew. And I couldn’t get 1983 in focus, anyway. I kind of missed the eighties.
“Blink” was ready to send out only a couple of months later. Pretty quick. Too quick, as it turned out. Here’s another excerpt from my journal:
It is June 17, 2009. Liz doesn’t like “Blink.” I think she likes the boy; she doesn’t like the book. But we talked for forty-five minutes on the phone, and I felt strangely elated afterwards. It’s partially relief; the shoe has fallen and you’re not dead. A headache will follow.
What Liz didn’t like, as I recall, was that there was no one on Blink’s side. In that earliest draft the character Alyson Niven turned on Blink, tricked him. Liz really didn’t like that, compassionate soul that she is—that no one was there to go into battle with the boy. Her anger exhilarated me.
I got off the phone thrilled at the prospect of giving Blink an ally. That girl I couldn’t get in focus from “Glide.” Suddenly, when I got rid of the aviation incident (and 1983), I could see her. And by June 24th, just one week after Liz’s phone call, she had a name: Caution Pettigrew. For she represented not a companion piece, not another story, really; she was part of the same story: the other strand of what would become a kind of double helix, the other necessary bit of DNA that the story needed in order to come to life.
If Blink and Caution are helical backbones coiling around each other, they are stabilized by forces of attraction, bonds of need and circumstance. Each of them is made stronger by reaching out to the other. And each of them, through this urgent coupling, is rescued, redeemed, given another chance. And speaking of urgent couplings, the very first scene I wrote with Caution in it was the awkward not-quite-a-love scene between Blink and Caution after they escaped the hunting lodge. Now all I had to do was get them to meet!
Because I have written for adults, I am often asked how it is different from a novel for young readers. I like to say that a book for kids is about getting a grip; a book for adults is about letting go. A book for kids says, “Live—go on. You can do it. I dare you.” A book for adults says, “Hey, you’re going to die. Make whatever minor adjustments you can that will add comfort and meaning to the process, but get over it.”
Blink is certainly a boy who needs to get a grip. And very early in the book, he does just that. Hiding in the ice-machine room across the hall from a hotel room where something very odd is going on, the narrator says to Blink:
You open the door of the little room and the door of 1616 clicks open like a mirror image directly across the hall. You step backward—fall backward—like you’ve been hit, fall into the low rumbling of the ice making, but you don’t quite let go of the door, because something in you says that letting go is going to make more noise than holding on.
I wrote that the very first morning I clambered out of bed at 3:00 a.m. and started this book. The sentence hasn’t changed in all of the rewrites.
…but you don’t quite let go of the door, because something in you says that letting go is going to make more noise than holding on.
I don’t ever consciously know what my theme is when I start a book; I often don’t know what it is until I read a review. But what the narrator says here is an overarching theme, for me. Letting go is not the answer. Hold fast. And if possible, hold the door open.
A moment’s thought will lead you to see that my little squib about getting a grip versus letting go doesn’t really hold up to intense scrutiny. Letting go is often a prerequisite to getting a grip. And certainly, Caution Pettigrew is someone who needs to let go.
Here is another quote: “Why was I so determined to hold on to life? I’ve so often wished I could stop breathing and let go.” No, it’s not from Blink & Caution, as at least one person in this room will recognize. It’s a line spoken by Briony Larkin in Franny Billingsley’s beautiful book Chime. Briony also says, “It’s strange how a person can have a distinct distaste for herself, but still she clutches on to life.” Like Briony, my Caution hates herself. In fact it’s a little eerie how many things these two characters have in common. Franny noticed it, too and wrote the following in an e-mail:
…girls who have burnt hands, girls who feel responsible for a sibling’s death/disability…
To which she added, as a fellow instructor at Vermont College of
What’s in the Vermont water?
Something in the water or something in the zeitgeist? I don’t know. And maybe getting a grip and letting go are not so dissimilar, when the holding on or the letting go is all part of moving on—getting on with it. Getting on with the difficult and dizzying business of living.
Jennifer M. Brabander, senior editor of The Horn Book Magazine, introduces Tim Wynne-Jones, who accepts the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction for Blink & Caution, at the September 30th BGHB award ceremony at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.