By Beth Kephart
I think, when I write, about voice. I begin there. Not with the color of the characters’ eyes, nor with the plot. Not with a sweet synopsis or even a one-page outline that points from here to there.
Sometimes I wish I started with those things. Sometimes I wish I were more organized. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a process that had me whispering (like a crazy lady) to myself out loud—trying to get a purchase on cadence, prepositions, word order, slang.
But what I’ve got, what I work on first, is voice.
Voice liberates me and also (in some ways) condemns me. It gives me the canvas, but it also gives me the frame. And frames, in the end, have boundaries.
You Are My Only (Laura Geringer/Egmont, 2011) was originally a book written for adults starring a 40ish protagonist, Sophie, who had grown up with a strange mother, moving from town to town, perpetually cloistered. We saw but glimpses of the child Sophie in the book I originally wrote, and the narration was delivered by way of a close over-the-shoulder third person. I thought of it as flute and bird song.
When I decided to tell the story of Sophie as a fourteen year old—and to alternate her story with the story of a young mother whose baby is stolen—I needed an entirely different sound for this book. I needed, obviously, two sounds.
My fourteen-year-old Sophie has not been out in the real world when we first meet her. She’s locked in a world of homeschooling with a beleaguered mom who moves her from town to town. Her voice hasn’t been buffed or shined or slanged by school lessons or schoolyard talk. It’s been informed by library books and loneliness and a resilient imagination. It sounds, when we meet Sophie, like this:
My house is a storybook house. A huff-and-a-puff-and-they’ll-blow-it-down-house. The roof is soft; it’s tumbled. There are bushes growing tall past the sills. A single sprouted tree leans in from high above the cracked slate path, torpedoing acorns to the ground.
|Photo by William Sulit|
The voice of Emmy, the bereft young mother, comes from another place. She’s not book smart. She’s not widely read. She turns verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs, she repeats herself, sometimes, but she’s a poet.
Creating Emmy’s voice made me happy. Forcing myself to tell her story made me sad. I fell in love with her, wanted to protect her, but I could not. Her voice kept taking me down an inevitable path. When we first meet her, she sounds like this:
The baby is missing. The baby is not where I left her—checked the rope and strapped her in, pulled my weight into the branch above, and said out loud, “This is good and nice and sturdy.”
Sophie’s voice—cloistered but resilient. Emmy’s voice—big-hearted, broken. This is what I had. This was the music in my ears. It was a privilege to write this book—not once, but several times. I never do get it right the first time.
From the promotional copy: “In You Are My Only, Beth Kephart tells the story of a young girl ripped from the life meant for her as a child and raised in captivity with honesty, fairness, tenderness, and most of all hope. It’s a story of unusual circumstances with universal application–no matter how dark and difficult life may seem the hope for something more is always within reach. Breathtaking in its beauty and with great heart, You Are My Only brings readers the story of a kidnapped young girl that they will never want to forget.”