the scariest part of publishing a book

I was giving a talk this weekend about … myself, really. How I’ve come to know what I know, research what I research, and write what I write. I talked about all of my books, and read from the first few pages of Not Your Mary Sue, and gave a teaser about what happens in the rest of the book. And then one of the audience members raised a hand and asked if Marcy falls in love with Jay.

And I didn’t answer.

It seems like a simple question, right? Either she does or she doesn’t, so yes or no.

You might even think that you’d be able to ask the character herself. Maybe she says it somewhere I could quote and cite and all the rest, except … it’s also possible that characters don’t always want to admit the truth. (If you were the daughter of a famous televangelist who’d been stuck on an island with a confessed serial killer for weeks as he told you his life story and was rescued in such a condition where you were taken straight to the hospital, would you ever conceive of a situation where you’d say “Yes”?)

Except … I know how I wrote it.

But I also know not everyone reads it that way.

And I know that, once it’s published, the book isn’t yours anymore.

Look, I engage in literary criticism myself. I’ve analyzed books about Jack the Ripper and I’ve analyzed books by Stephen King. I’ve heard how Tony Magistrale gave a presentation about one of King’s short stories and King himself was in the audience, stood up at the end, and told him he was wrong … and how Tony told him that, whatever King thought, Tony was able to find evidence to support his point. (This was of course back when Stephen King attended conferences where people talked about him and his work, but I’m not sure how close it was to when he stopped this practice.)

Once you publish a book, it’s no longer your own … and maybe it’s only when other people read it that you realize exactly how much of yourself you put between the pages, and how many things you said without fully intending to say them.

On the one hand it’s great fun to see how other people read your work.

I had people I knew from high school catching teachers’ names or telling me they couldn’t stop picturing our high school choir director. (Who looks nothing like Jay. If you need to remember, this is the portrait of Jay I commissioned. That particular reader sighed with relief, stopped picturing our old choir director, and was able to move ahead.)

My own mother-in-law told me she cracked up on the very first page when Marcy starts to realize something’s weird not just because of the manacle around her ankle, but because her toothbrush is on the wrong side of the sink.

My high school kids were reading selections from Bird by Bird and asked how, exactly, authors can tell the truth if they’re writing fiction, so I read them those same first pages and asked them to call out how much of that was me.

There are things that I meant, and things that I’ve realized since publication, and – I’m sure – things I still have no idea about.

But I told them that I can’t actually tell them whether Marcy falls in love with Jay.

I do have an idea about that one. I know what I believe and I know how I meant it, but that doesn’t mean that’s how you read it.

This is actually something I have very strong feelings about, but I also don’t think it’s really my right to tell you, outside of the book, what the right answer is.

If you read the book, and find evidence for a different answer than the one I feel, then I can’t really tell you that you’re wrong. I might want to point out all this other evidence that argues my side, but that doesn’t mean the evidence you found isn’t there.

It’s complex. And it’s not just mine anymore.

And that, for me, is the scariest thing.


What do you think: was Marcy in love with Jay? (Was Jay in love with Marcy?) And do you, personally, feel like your readers might indeed sometimes be wrong?

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