Today, we’re going to travel in time. Our time machine is the book Lament by Maggie Stiefvater. Go on, pick it up. It’s right there. Pick it up, open it, and breathe in that smell.
That’s it. We’re back. Let’s have a look at what we can see.
Look — it’s me! I’m thirteen years old. I’m in year nine at school, finally leaving behind my frustrating form group who were always getting put in class detentions to join 9c, leading to a far calmer and better behaved year of school. My brother’s in his second year at BRIT school, and my sister is in her second year of university. Both of my grandparents are still alive.
I’ve been Irish dancing for less than two months. I’m obsessed with all things Irish — the entire summer was spent watching Lord of the Dance, listening to the soundtrack on repeat, and trying to persuade my parents to let me take up dancing, which they eventually did. My favourite track on the Lord of the Dance CD is a violin piece called “Lament”. I’m reading books about mythology, gathering ideas that will later feed into my writing.
But I haven’t written it yet. I’m trying. I’ve all but given up on a piece I was working on, a proto-novel called The Tenth Hostage that got stuck at about 25k, like everything I wrote back then. I’ve written a 15k novella. I even tried to find an agent for it, though I was unsuccessful. I’m about three months into a love affair with Protagonize.com, the writing website where I met my best friend and co-writer Charley.
Charley and I have been friends for about a month.
At this stage my best friend at school is a girl called Annie. She’s clever, fairly quiet, into the Science subjects. We’re from very different home backgrounds (her parents don’t speak English, for a start). Later I’ll persuade her to join Protagonize, but with mixed success. I’m becoming friendly with a guy called Allan, gravitating as I always did towards male friends.
I’m astonishingly innocent, vehemently non-political, still considering the idea of being a musician, interested in writing, more interested in reading. I have more male friends than female ones (and I secretly fancy a guy in my class; I’m unsubtle about conveying this). I’m very, very young. Looking back, I don’t see me. That Miriam is a prototype, very different from the person I am today.
I’m on an orchestral course with the London Symphony Orchestra, playing the violin, and after one of the rehearsals my dad takes me to the bookshop Foyles in central London. It’s the first time I’ve been there, and I’m astonished at the size. He leaves me in the YA section and goes off to look at something — probably the sheet music, a couple of floors above. I’m happy with this arrangement.
I’m browsing the shelves, my violin case beside me, when I see something. Lament. My mind flicks to my favourite piece from the Lord of the Dance soundtrack, instantly connecting the two, and I notice that there’s a four-leaf clover or something on the spine of the book. The paperback stands out as being a couple of millimetres taller than the ones next to it. (I later discover that it’s the US edition, hence the difference in sizing.)
There’s a dagger on the front, and when I look inside at the blurb on the first page, I discover that it’s about fairies and harpists and all the things that fascinate me, as a lover of Celtic-inspired literature and as a musician. I read the opening chapter and decide to buy the book. It becomes one of my favourites.
A couple of weeks after reading it, I start my first novel (a couple of weeks after that, I finish it). My parents buy me the sequel, Ballad, and just a week or so after reading that I’m prompted to start writing what became the first book in the Death and Fairies trilogy, which will form the basis for book six in the expanded series.
You see, that’s how things start.
We’re back. Well, nearly — it’s yesterday. I’m in my room at home (it’s got more books in it than it did back then). I’m eighteen years old. I’m in my final year at school, approaching university. My brother and sister have both moved out and they have jobs. My grandparents have both passed away. I’ve been doing ballet for over three years. I’m still obsessed with all things Irish, though I’ve widened my interest to all the Celtic countries and their history. I plan to study ‘Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic’ at university, and all the books on mythology I’ve accumulated will come in useful.
I’ve written a number of novels, published a couple of poetry collections, co-written a novel with Charley and a guy called Mark that I ran into via his blog, and I’m about to start seeking an agent for a novel of mine. In September, it’ll be five years since Charley and I became friends.
I’m no longer innocent, in many ways. I’m outspokenly political, set on becoming a writer, trying to find time to read. I’ve got far more female friends than male ones. I’ve got no immediate interest in relationships, and I identify mostly as homoromantic asexual, so I’ve certainly got no crushes on guys in my classes. I’m young, but I’ve grown up a lot.
And now I’m frustrated with revision. There’s too much to learn, not enough time to learn it, and I just want to read a novel. Nothing complicated, nothing intense, just pure, unadulterated escapism. Something I’ve read half a dozen times before, so I don’t have to expend more than the barest energy on concentrating. I glance over my shelves and pick up Lament. It sits next to its sequel, Ballad, as well as three of Maggie Stiefvater’s other books.
Thirteen-year-old me looks out at me through the pages, but more, this book looks out at me through everything that younger version of me wrote. The way she behaved, the ideas she had.
At eighteen, I’m capable of recognising all the accidental plagiarism in my early writing. I’m also capable of seeing that this novel isn’t perfect. I can see younger versions of myself in the main character, versions of acquaintances in those she meets, and sometimes it makes me uncomfortable to realise the extent to which the relationship depicted there later influenced my own relationships, and not in a positive way*.
I’m not the girl who first read that book. I’m reading through lenses tinted by experience — every word passes through a filter of my life, five years thicker than the same filter the first time. In the past, all those words passed straight through. Now, some of them get stuck, and I have to pick them out of the sludge of bad experiences and throw them into the river myself.
Because I drank it five years ago, so I’ll drink it now. But this time I know why those words get stuck.
(Nowadays, I can’t help writing with those same filters on. I’m always painfully aware of the impression my own books might leave on an impressionable, innocent girl of thirteen, like the one I used to be. I’m terribly afraid of presenting unhealthy relationships in a romantic light, or sending a negative message to the people who most need to hear something affirming. My books are an amalgamation of all my political and social ideas, but no matter how carefully I write them, somebody’s always going to misinterpret it.)
Of course I still love Lament. It was too much of a formative influence on me for me not to, for a start. It impacted so hugely on my interests and my writing. I can accept that it’s not perfect, and that won’t stop me loving it.
But I can’t open it without being taken back to the past, and seeing all the versions of me who read it. 13-year-old me, interested in Ireland and musicians. 14-year-old me, fascinated by faeries. 15-year-old me, caught in an awkward love triangle involving my best friend. 18-year-old me, seeking escape from A-Levels.
And in the end, that’s to be expected, really, with books, isn’t it? As it says in Inkheart:
‘Books are like flypaper — memories cling to the printed pages better than anything else.’
— — — — — — —
*I’m not necessarily saying that Dee and Luke’s relationship is unhealthy (though it’s not great) — simply that young teenagers looking for a mysterious older guy will be disappointed when he’s just a jerk and not a soulless faerie assassin. Even if he’s less likely to kill you, you’ve let yourself get too close in trying to see something deeper in him. There’s nothing deeper. Honestly. And he’ll ruin your friendships, so don’t even go there. Also, why are you even interested in soulless faerie assassins? They kill people. Seriously, sort your life out.