What Paper Valentine Means to Me: an Essay in Three Parts

I.

I never remember to talk about my books.

II.

This is weird, because I think about them a lot, and not just while I’m writing them. I think about structure and nuance and what things mean, and how I think something should look in order to communicate efficiently or illustrate a point I want to make.

This is because, as much time as I’ve spent inventing made-up people, as much as I love to submerge myself in imaginary worlds, the thing I have always cared more about than anything else in the entire storytelling world is THEME.

And I know that even the broadest, most universal theme can’t sustain a story all by itself—that theme is not the same thing as plot. Themes are not characters. They’re not story arcs or scenes. Maybe most importantly, they aren’t morals or lessons or platitudes or personal statements. Themes illustrate abstract concepts, but they don’t tell you what to think (you have to deal with that part on your own).

I’ve always been like this—aggressively focused on the significance and the symbolism, the underlying implications, and I think now that the root cause of this is very simple. It’s because underneath the fancy English-classness of it, themes are really just ideas.

You already know this about me—I know you do—but I’ll say it again, because repetition is a useful rhetorical device and because I never get tired of saying it : I love ideas.

I love them and collect and hoard them and cuddle up to them like warm, fuzzy fleece blankets that are also made of sunshine and happiness. I would eat them, sleep on them, bathe in them, if there were any way that could result in me not withering away to nothing while simultaneously being sleep-deprived and really unhygienic.

What I’m trying to say is that theme matters to me, because much like the nucleotides that form DNA, theme is one of the most basic building blocks of what something is about.

III.

Now, here is where I describe the book—not what it says on the jacketflap or the website, or even what I say on panels and in interviews when people ask me what the story is.

Paper Valentine has murder in it, but it’s not a murder mystery. It has ghosts, but it’s not a horror novel or a supernatural thriller. It has kissing, but it’s not a romance, and it has grief and loss and bullying and disordered eating, but it’s not an issues book and it’s not an after-school special. And you are one-hundred-million percent absolutely free to read it and consider it and then disagree with me wildly on every single claim I’ve just made, because books are made by writers, but they are understood to by readers, and any time I start tossing around lofty blanket decrees and announcing what something is NOT about, I can and will be … wrong.

No matter how much I might want to, no matter how hard I try, I can’t tell you what my book will be for you. All I can do is tell you what it is for me, and here is the heart and soul of it:

Paper Valentine is a love story about two best friends, and one of them is dead.

There. That’s it. One sentence. And all the ghosts, murders, kissing, social scuffling and jockeying and backbiting—those things are there, they’re story, and story is gorgeously, vitally important. But it’s different from DNA.

So now here’s my longer answer, because there’s always a longer answer (don’t let anyone tell you there isn’t). Paper Valentine is the book I wrote because ever since high school, I’ve never stopped thinking about all the varied and intricate ways that the world can be dangerous to girls—physically, socially, emotionally, psychologically, and how you can arrange those dangerous ideas to make a spiral. A BAD spiral. An eerie, prickly spiral that’s hard to see, but can still exert a tremendous amount of influence, making its own little house of mirrors as it goes, so that death reflects love, which reflects separation and autonomy, which reflects violence and power and sex, which reflects control and hierarchies and expectations, and you walk along it, knowing that every step of the way will mean peril.

Paper Valentine is about peril, and about choosing to move forward anyway, because your life is your life and letting someone else impose a role on you—any role you didn’t choose yourself—is just one more insidious and ill-defined danger.

That. That is what the book is about.

Also, anything else you might feel is happening anyplace in those pages. It’s probably that, too.

(And look at me—for possibly the first time in my life, I just talked all about my book with NO SPOILERS. I think this means I should probably eat some cake.)

9 thoughts on “What Paper Valentine Means to Me: an Essay in Three Parts

  1. This was the absolute perfect time to post this! I’m about midway through Paper Valentine right now (and am loving it, while simultaneously dreading finishing it and being done with Hannah’s world), so I’ve been thinking about a lot of what you’ve mentioned here.
    Just a question- you say it illustrates the love between Hannah and Lillian, though Hannah herself says that when Lillian was alive, she used to treat her (somewhat) awfully and made her cry (though presumably, the crying was a result of her death). My question is, what is the truth behind Hannah and Lillian’s friendship?
    *Note: I am not yet done the book and this is merely a prediction of what will happen and an interpretation of what has happened.
    And another thing you didn’t talk about here but I love about PV: Hannah and Finny’s relationship. I will be the first to admit that I was initially wary of him, though the way you have mapped out and illustrated the relationship makes me incredibly happy to see (or read) them together.

    • you say it illustrates the love between Hannah and Lillian, though Hannah herself says that when Lillian was alive, she used to treat her (somewhat) awfully

      This is actually a really important question, and something I thought about a LOT while I was writing. Because while there is no doubt in my mind that Hannah and Lillian love each other very much, their relationship is also incredibly toxic.

      In fact, in a lot of ways, it illustrates an array of dangers we tend to associate with girl-relationships (all the pressures and judging and competition and lack of honest confrontation) and one of my main goals was to sort through all the broken parts of their friendship and get down to the true, worthwhile core of it—the loyalty and compassion and mutual admiration—because to me, those are the aspects that will help the characters overcome these roles they’ve let themselves fall into.

      So they have a lot of resolving to do, and it was really important to me to come at it from an angle that says these are problems that can still be fixable—that I’m optimistic, because here are two people who have always loved each other through their faults, and are now finally starting to learn how to do that while actually setting boundaries.

      Aaaand that got long really fast. Because in case you hadn’t notice, I will talk ideas all day. Also, if this had been face-to-face, I would probably have been going on for 20 minutes already, and STILL BE TALKING. To sum up: Girl friendships are complicated! And important! And broken doesn’t have to stay broken, and sometimes that means communicating better, and sometimes it means drawing a line in the sand!

      (I’m really glad you like Finny!)

      • Thank you so much for taking the time to answer this! And no, I don’t mind the long post and would love the chance to talk books, writing and ideas with you face to face- any more touring dates?

  2. Brenna, I always enjoy your posts because they are interesting and thoughtful in ways that a lot of other stuff isn’t. Your commentary toward the end really stood out to me:

    “I’ve never stopped thinking about all the varied and intricate ways that the world can be dangerous to girls—physically, socially, emotionally, psychologically, and how you can arrange those dangerous ideas to make a spiral. A BAD spiral. An eerie, prickly spiral that’s hard to see, but can still exert a tremendous amount of influence, making its own little house of mirrors as it goes, so that death reflects love, which reflects separation and autonomy, which reflects violence and power and sex, which reflects control and hierarchies and expectations, and you walk along it, knowing that every step of the way will mean peril.

    Paper Valentine is about peril, and about choosing to move forward anyway, because your life is your life and letting someone else impose a role on you—any role you didn’t choose yourself—is just one more insidious and ill-defined danger.”

    It actually made me wonder if you’ve ever played “The Path,” a short horror game by Tale of Tales. It’s based on Little Red Riding Hood, and I feel like it’s pretty much about everything you said here in terms of girlhood and those double-edged desires.

  3. First off, I want to share a quote with you that I thought up on the ride back home from Costco: “We tend to associate the broken with evil and the seemingly unbroken with good, normal, safe, but it’s not until we learn that everyone is broken that we realize everyone has evil in them.” I think it could use work, but there it is.
    I honestly didn’t expect to get so into Paper Valentine when I decided to check it out from the library. I figured it would be just one of the books that I get, read maybe the first 20/100 pages, and just never get around to finishing (that tends to happen ((a lot)) these days and I admit it happened with The Replacement too, but now I’m thinking of giving it a second chance), but I was happily surprised and sucked into Hannah’s character. It’s been a while since I’ve really gotten into a book. I stayed up until 5 reading it and slept until 11, woke up, and started reading again. I just finished it today a while ago and now I’m kind of sad that it’s over, but I’m more happy that I read your amazing book.
    I love how you mentioned Emilie Autumn (I seriously had to pause for a while and marvel over that–I even took a few pictures) and Spirited Away. I love Hannah. I love Finny. Their romance made my heart swoon SOOOO much. I can’t remember the last YA couple that really made me gush that much. I love how they’re a mismatched couple, but they’re as perfect and imperfect as they can be for each other. I kind of started wishing I had my own Finny, and here I thought I didn’t desire a relationship (or not very strongly, at least)! Lillian and Hannah’s relationship was very complicated, but at the end, I understood that they loved each other, but that wasn’t the theme I got out of it.
    I relearned the age-old saying “don’t judge a book by its over”. I feel stupid that I didn’t figure out who was the killer until I finally flipped the page and found out. And now it’s so blatantly obvious! (WARNING! WARNING! SPOLIER-Y!) No girl (or most girls, anyway) would have follow a guy who looks like Nick or Finny to see a nest of bunnies. They only followed the One/guy/killer/you-know-who, because he was good-looking and made their heart flutter and, most importantly, because he looked “safe”. We’re so blinded by beauty representing goodness and we should all be second-guessing that, because I know I will. Looks aren’t everything. It’s a phrase I hold close to my heart. I love how you went into that with Finny and everyone.
    Gosh, sorry. This is long, but I just had to. Brenna, I look forward to reading your other current books and your future books!

  4. Agh, sorry, I forgot to add: I loved how you describe their first kiss: “This is more like seeing a star fall–thrilling and soundless and then over.” And how Hannah whispered “Are you waiting for someone to come and get you?” before they kissed. I think they should have had a final, third kiss at the end though.
    And NOW I’m finished.

  5. Fack, I forgot to add this, too: If you haven’t, you should check out the band, The Birthday Massacre–one of the few groups out there that has never created a song that I didn’t like and I loved how Paper Valentines made me think of their music and their lyrics.
    Excuse me now…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s