I never remember to talk about my books.
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.
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.)