You claim that Eelgrass is your first novel, but I don’t believe you. Do you have any stories about your embarrassing trunk novels?
Well, ignoring how cruel it is to drag my past out into the light… you’re kind of right.
Eelgrass is only my second (third?) completed novel. I’ve been writing forever, and when I was unbelievably tiny, I was determined to be first the Youngest Published Novelist, then the Youngest Bestseller, and so on. There was a period of my life marked by starting a new notebook, writing a beautiful cover page, and then going immediately to the back for a self-portrait and an About the Author. “Tori was inspired to write Sapphire’s Story, a tale about the hopes, dreams, and heartbreaks of a 9-year-old girl growing up in New York City, by the lack of books written for and by 9-year-olds.”
“Oh, yes,” my endlessly supportive fiancée, B, says. “That extremely valuable nine-year-old #ownvoices fiction.”
There were, in retrospect, a lot of fun ideas and a lot of terrifying ones. The diary of a girl much like Eliza Thornberry, who travels with her family all the time and is homeschooled and falls desperately in love, I think, with some pretty Parisian high school girl. A portal fantasy, shamelessly stealing every idea I could from Young Wizards and Heralds of Valdemar, in which a sad bullied fifth grader switches places with a princess. A horrifying epistolary sci fi in which, at the end of the world, rational adults make the inexplicable decision to send twenty children under the age of thirteen, by themselves, to go colonize a distant planet and repopulate the human race. (I can only imagine my earnest ten-year-old face, “It’s biologically possible to start having children at thirteen, you know,” while all of the adults around me sobbed into their pillows and, I don’t know, considered running away to the Yukon to spend the rest of their lives in blessed solitude.)
At about twelve, I developed a modicum of self-awareness, by which I mean that I realized that I was no longer young enough to be notable on those grounds alone, but still so young that, ultimately, I wrote like a kid and would probably be embarrassed by any success I managed to achieve.
So while I never stopped writing, I stopped worrying as much about trying to Complete A Novel. I participated in NaNoWriMo every year, and started winning but not generally finishing. (A score of princesses at finishing school get bored, sneak out the castle gates using a combination of bedsheets and Rapunzelry, and go on adventures and/or fall in lesbians. A freshman at a highly competitive high school for investigative journalism is initiated into a brilliant and glamorous clique whose members commit blood sacrifices in exchange for the ability to read minds. A ne’er-do-well discovers that the beautiful young woman he’s been hooking up with on his uncle’s yacht has the ability to alter reality… and really wants to watch some people die.)
And then I turned 17 and (slowly, agonizingly, over the course of about two years) wrote my first novel.
It was, to put it simply, horrible, and it was mostly because I listened to my insecurities instead of my instincts. I started with a character I had only been writing for a while, but wanted to know more about: a sullen, reserved, brilliant doctor who specializes in treating people who aren’t human. (This is, I still think, a fascinating and under-explored direction for SFF.)
She came out of a lot of messy feelings I had about my life, as many novels do. I had just dropped out of college as a failed Biochemistry major, and was trying to come to terms with the reality that not only wasn’t I going to be a doctor, but I probably would have been miserable if I’d succeeded. It was nice to write about a doctor who was, in fact, deeply unhappy, but I also loved the speculative elements. What aspects of patient care would change if your patients were not, strictly speaking, human? In a world where people of other species are marginalized, what types of people would choose this specialty? How frustrating would it be to be interested in nonhuman care for the variety and challenge, when many of your colleagues were more interested in the low expectations and competition?
Then I told myself, “Even fantasy readers do not want to read a novel about a doctor navigating the medical needs of twelve different species. It’s cliché. It’s juvenile. They’ll be able to tell you came up with half of this mythology when you were eleven. Stop looking at that True Blood gifset on tumblr and go write the kind of novel that people might actually want to read.”
The resulting novel was a mess. I excised the speculative elements entirely, and stretched the remaining aspects of my main character across a narrative structure in basically the same way that you might pin a dissected animal. You couldn’t tell that it was set in present-day Virginia, much less what that might be like. I learned a lot from that novel about the way that a story feels, and how a novel comes together. But Eelgrass was the novel where I remembered to be brave, and that you’re supposed to have fun.