Book Clubs, “The Beginning of After,” and the many faces of one novel

In June, the lovely ladies of Epic Reads selected “The Beginning of After” for their monthly Book Club, and HarperCollins created a terrific Book Club Discussion Guide for it. You can download the guide from Scribd at this link. It’s pretty and filled with questions that make you go hmmmm.

Now that TBOA is out in paperback and more likely to be a book club choice in general, I’ve been thinking about how no two people will read the same novel the same way. It’s an amazing thing, when you think about it. The printed words on the page are identical for each person, but that person’s unique life experiences and emotional state of being, his or her sensibilities at that moment in time, will own those words differently. As a reader, I’ve always known this. But it wasn’t until I became an author and watched “The Beginning of After” make its way into the world that I understood the power of it.

Obviously, I have my own relationship with my book. I know what it means to me, and how the process of writing it changed me…not just on the outside with career-y stuff but deep down, where Laurel will always live and show me new things about myself. But since the story’s been out there, I’ve had the privilege of seeing — from online reviews, chatting with readers in person, and emails I’ve received — what this book becomes to other people.

For many, this is a book about grief and how to cope with it. The college student who stumbled upon “The Beginning of After” in a bookstore, still reeling from the death of her best friend in a drunk driving accident. The young woman who lost her dad when she was twelve years old and thought nobody would ever understand what that felt like. The girl whose sister is dying from cancer, trying to figure out how to say goodbye. The thought that this book helped any of these readers who shared the pain of their losses with me — well, that means everything. And more.

For others, this is a book mainly about love. The love between Laurel and Nana. Laurel and Meg. Laurel and her family. And, of course, Laurel and certain boys in her life. (There’s a special place in my heart for the readers who just want to talk to me about David. Yes! David! David! David!)

Then for many readers, this is a book that celebrates hope and strength. They focus on Laurel’s struggle to create her “After” and how that resonated for them. Maybe they haven’t lost someone, but they’ve made it to the other side of something big: an illness, a divorce, an addiction. They are survivors. Hear them roar.

I got to experience this range of interpretation first-hand when I was the guest of honor at a local book club gathering to discuss “The Beginning of After.” There were eight women there of various ages. They each had a story that somehow lined up with Laurel’s, yet each story was completely different. How cool was that for me? I actually can’t tell you. It was that cool.

I’ve also done Skype chats with book clubs that are not local. These were very fun. I would do them again, as my schedule allows. If you’re reading “The Beginning of After” in your book club (or classroom, or school/library reading program), please don’t hesitate to contact me about my availability.

Oh, and for any book club gathering, may I recommend this recipe for Noodle Kugel that comes straight from Nana herself. It’s ridiculously easy and gratuitously sweet, and Nana wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Great Big “My Book Is Out Today” Post

“You Look Different in Real Life” is out. In the world. That’s cool. (I’m masking how utterly verklempt and grateful I am.)

People I made, with the book I made.

On Release Day you’re supposed to, you know, talk up your book in a whole lot of different places in a professionally sanctioned me-a-thon. I’ve done some of that. It feels unterrible. I’ll do just a bit more with this list of “story behind the story” notions I would like to share with you.

1) There’s much of me in Justine, and vice versa. While I gave Laurel from “The Beginning of After” my good-girl-itis and the instinct to keep emotions pressure-cooking inside, Justine got my snark, my body image struggles, and my love of sneakers. I adore her. I adore that she’s not perfect, and that readers may not fall for her right away. Because I believe a character has got to earn that, dammit.

2) I watched a lot of documentaries for research, especially ones about teens. Here are five which had particular impact and still stay with me:

“7 Up,” “14 Up,” and “21 Up.” Michael Apted’s brilliant series, now clocking in at “56 Up,” obviously inspired this book’s premise. These first three movies are plain stinkin’ fascinating, and they include the cutest accents and haircuts.

“The Education of Shelby Knox.” Shot over the span of several years, Texas teenager Shelby Knox evolves from a conservative Southern Baptist to discovering her voice and calling as a liberal women’s activist. I was riveted.

“Billy the Kid.” Filmed “character” portraits don’t get much better than this. I watched this long after Rory was alive and breathing on the page, but you might notice a resemblance of quirk.

3) The character of filmmaker Lance is named for Lance Loud, from the 1971 PBS documentary series “An American Family.” You can’t see this series anywhere but in a few bootleg YouTube videos (although you can enjoy “Cinema Verite,” the HBO dramatic film version), but I did a lot of research on it as I was developing the story. If you’re unfamiliar, “An American Family” is widely considered a precursor to reality TV in America, documenting several months in the lives of an upperclass Santa Barbara family called the Louds. It was pretty epic. Bill and Pat Loud broke up on camera. Their oldest son Lance was one of the first openly gay people to appear on U.S. national television (and went on to be a magazine columnist and musician). Thinking about the Loud kids, who were mostly teens when the series was shot, and how this experience might have shaped their lives, drove a great deal of my early brainstorming. I also learned some intriguing stuff about the filmmaker-subject relationship and you see some of that with Lance, Leslie, and the gang in the book.

4) I love that because of the book’s premise — that these teens were chosen by documentary filmmakers when they were six years old — I could hand-pick certain character “stereotypes,” because that’s what the filmmakers would have done in order to maximize their range of subjects. The fun part was shaking those stereotypes up, then breaking them open to see what was really inside.

5) When I was writing this, I didn’t expect to later be writing a companion short story from Keira’s point-of-view. But Holy Character Development, am I glad to have been given this opportunity. Read “Playing Keira” before you read YLDIRL and you’ll have inside information that Justine does not; read it after, and I think it’ll close a nice circle. Either way, it’s only 99 cents and you’ll never look at a pineapple the same way again.

6) And finally. Documentary film premise or not, for me this book is about two things: self-identity and friendship. Probably because they’re two things I thought I’d have all figured out by now, but…well, sh*t. So what can I take, for myself, from the experience of writing this book? I’ve learned that the insecurities and drama of friendship don’t go away when you “grow up.” They get even more complex, actually, and that sucks. But I think, with experience, you just get better at recognizing which relationships are worth fighting for. And also, every person you get close to, no matter how long she or he stays in your life, has something to give. Sometimes we have to dig a little for that, but it’s always worth the dirty fingernails.

When it comes to identity, I look at this book and my journey with it, and am reminded that (fortunately) the way we see ourselves is not the whole picture of who we are. We’re slightly different to each person we share the world with, whether it’s intimately or casually or randomly online. Put all those versions together, and it’s still not anything absolute. It’s just information. I guess the trick is to stay curious about who we are, to never stop trying to figure it all out. In the end, that’s what keeps us spiritually alive.

Justine, Felix, Rory, Nate, and Keira belong to you now. Go forth and read! But first, enjoy the brand new “You Look Different in Real Life” trailer. It makes me smile and tap my toes, and I hope it does the same for you.


Now in paperback

Books have chapters, and lives have chapters, and the lives of books have, well, chapters. I know that’s awkward circular logic, but I’m going with it. Because that’s exactly what it feels like today, the day my debut novel “The Beginning of After” is released in paperback.

I wanted to sit down and compose some meaningful thoughts about this occasion. At first, the only notion I came up with was that I’m just grateful the new edition will carry my book into the hands of more readers. After yesterday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, my head’s been swirling with many of the same thoughts that originally drew me to a story about tragedy, survival, strength and hope, and the bonds we share in spite of, or perhaps because of, the very very bad things that can happen to any of us in this life. But I don’t feel able to articulate anything further, because I’m still messed up about these events, as I imagine we all are.

However, I’ve been blogging for over two years now, and my archives are full of some interesting posts I’ve written about TBOA. I’m going to use this book re-birthday as an excuse to share them again, as well as some other links I’d love for readers to be aware of.

In Praise of “Standalone” Novels
My response to the frequent inquiry about whether or not there will be a TBOA sequel.

“The Beginning of After” Blog Tour
The Before and After of nine game-changing events in my own life. I hope all these links still work. I love these posts and still can’t believe how personal I got. Yikes!

YA Fiction and the “Death Cliche”
Some thoughts.

About that cover
An element of the book’s success so far is due to this gorgeous, eye-catching cover. I was not always a fan. Read on.

Also, if you check out the Facebook page for “The Beginning of After,” you’ll see a photo album of guys who readers tell me they picture as David. It’s fun and delicious. Feel free to suggest your own!

I recently created this YouTube playlist of all the songs I listened to while brainstorming and writing the book. Each one inspired me in a different way. When I hear this music, it’s like hanging out with Laurel again.

And finally, I need to share this book trailer my awesome friend author Phoebe North created. Because it’s beautiful, and it makes me verklempt.

“The Beginning of After” by Jennifer Castle – Book Trailer from Jennifer Castle on Vimeo.

Thinking of all those Afters in Boston today, sending warmth and light northward.