One of the best reading surprises of the year for me was Alison McGhee‘s new novel FALLING BOY, a slim tale of a paraplegic teen’s move to a new city where he meets a little girl who fervently, absolutely believes he is a superhero. McGhee’s in New York tonight for a reading at the B&N in Chelsea, and no doubt she’ll discuss the superhero aspects of the book in greater detail at that time, but the publishing history of McGhee’s career and FALLING BOY are particularly fascinating.
Just start with the book itself, which Picador issued as a trade paperback original with french flaps. “They put the decision to me,” McGhee explained in a recent telephone interview in advance of the signing. “I love trade paperbacks – I tend to buy them myself because hardcovers can be so freaking expensive! So once I thought it over I was all for publishing in trade paperback. Picador did a fantastic job with the look and especially the cover. Now it’s one of my favorites.”
FALLING BOY is marketed primarily as a novel for adults, but its focus on childhood fears and longings has attracted a strong teenage fan base thus far. McGhee, who’s written for adults, young adults, middle grades and very young readers, resists any attempt at classification. “I don’t really know the difference between YA and adult books,” she said. “20 years ago there was really no such thing as a ‘tween’ market and I’m not sure why age groups should be narrowly segmented.” Indeed, McGhee approaches writing for young readers the same way she would for adults, and doesn’t distinguish between writing fiction or non-fiction, either. “I’ve never felt the slightest constraint, nor have I been told to write only for one readership. It’s natural for human beings to want to express themselves in writing – classification is a marketing thing. I’d happily write a picture book as I would a biography of Lincoln.”
But how does McGhee slip so naturally into a child’s voice, rendering Joseph, the sixteen year old protagonist of FALLING BOY, so believably? “It’s a confusing question for me. I tend to think of it like the way telephones worked in the 1940s – phone the operator, plug panels into the cord and the voices just exist simultaneously and there we go.” Helping out some was her 15 year old son, who helped educate McGhee – already a longtime comics fan – on all things superhero. “He gave me the greatest piece of advice in order to write the book, because in early drafts I strugged to find the core conflict. Then my son said that the most important aspect of a superhero story is that there must be a supervillain. And that’s when it hit me: what if there was no supervillain, what would happen? You end up with a tremendous amount of longing and a very human story.”
Aside from crossing genres left and right, McGhee also teaches at Hamline University‘s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, one of the few programs devoted exclusively to writing for younger readers. “Writing is my vocation, but teaching is in my bones (though on a very part time basis,” McGhee said. “It keeps me grounded and attached to the world. When you’re writing alone and spinning worlds, sometimes it doesn’t always go well. Teaching gives me a sense of balance and engagement.” And while she wasn’t going to get drawn into the perennial for-against MFA debate, she did point to why the program is unique. “Here all the students have the same goal: to write for younger readers. In an adult MFA program, there may be a handful and their work would be viewed as an aberration. Which is odd because as marginalized and ghettoized as kids’ lit is, the books that people remember the most are those they read as children. It’s embedded in people’s bones!”