Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory is, in many ways, a departure for the best-selling author. First, she says, this story’s personal. Like her novel’s teen character Haley, Anderson is the daughter of a veteran who suffered from the aftershocks of war; watching her relatives return home from Iraq started her thinking again about the challenges confronted by soldiers and their families.
“I’m drawn to issues faced by American teens, and I realize that this is an issue that will face a huge number of them,” Anderson says. “Just looking at the math, there are going to be so many teens coming up who will have a parent veteran. Medical science has evolved to the point where we will have a lot more walking wounded. So all this was cooking in the back of my head and clearly also touching on my own experiences as a teenager.”
And then the magic happened. “There’s a magic moment in the creation of every story when a character starts talking,” and when she first heard Haley Kincain’s distinctive voice (which Kirkus praises as “strong, wryly vulnerable”) she knew she’d found her story. Here, Anderson explores war’s long-term, often heart-breaking effects on family; we witness Haley, forced by her father’s PTSD into a hyper-vigilant caretaker’s role, coping with her father’s grief, substance abuse and dangerous depression—all while falling in love for the first time.
Anderson often tackles controversial subjects that frighten the parents of her teen audience, and she understands the parental impulse to protect kids from life’s difficulties. “But the reality is everybody hits hard times at some point. Our goal should be not to protect teens but to prepare them.” Besides, she points out, even those who make it through unscathed are going to encounter others who didn’t. “To be prepared, to have empathy for others, they need to understand the kinds of lives these folks have lived,” Anderson says. “My reply has always been, especially when people try to censor my books, that storytelling—literature—is the age-old traditional way of passing on information and values from one generation to the next.”
This is also Anderson’s first love story—something she says was sparked by a conversation with a teen reader on one of her book tours. “She’d read all my books to that point and she looked up at me and said. ‘Miss, are you ok?’ She was so sweet and concerned! ‘All your books are so depressing!’ That really struck me. Because actually I am ok. I have an amazing husband and I’m deeply in love. And I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I need to balance this a little bit!’ ”
Anderson is very tuned in to her teen audience (she’s often amazed at Facebook and Tumblr’s power to connect writers and readers); her Mad Woman in the Forest blog offers lively insights on the process of writing. “You should know that I hated English class in high school!” she laughs. “I never read the assigned books, and I certainly did not plan to be a writer. Oh God, no. I was reading everything in the library, but in class they kept handing me books that had no connection to my life—I was a teen in pain, and I found nothing in The Old Man and the Sea that addressed my needs.” Not until she had kids of her own and became a journalist did she think about writing, and “even then, I didn’t think about this revision thing,” she admits.
Her responsiveness to her audience arises partly from a protective instinct—Anderson feels that America’s consumerist culture is not very supportive of teenagers, who she says lack long-term positive adult mentors. “I get that we live in a capitalist society; I understand that consumerism’s all about making the viewer feel bad about him or herself, creating a need, a sense of, ‘something’s wrong with me so I’ll just buy this product and then I’ll fit in,’ ” she says. “Teens are already inherently occupying that frame of mind, so they’re especially vulnerable to those pitches. And of course there’s nothing you can buy that’s going to help you fit in or feel happy.”
The book’s intriguing title is also something new. Anderson says the phrase “the impossible knife of memory” “just kind of dropped out of the sky” into her head. “And I wrote it down and said, ‘Whoa…that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with this book,’ though at the time I didn’t know what it meant. And,” she adds, “in all honesty, I was a little frustrated with everyone expecting me to always churn out those one-word titles! One of the joys of being a writer is you don’t have to do the same thing over and over again! I’ve heard some feedback from people who said, ‘What? What do you mean it’s more than one word!’ ”
One of the book’s most important themes has to do with the transition from childhood to adulthood, with the role of memory in our lives. “All parents want their kids to have good memories. We know what a source of comfort that can be as an adult—pull out those childhood memories, the good ones, and you wrap them around you when times are tough,” she says. “But that knife cuts both ways. If you have a parent struggling with PTSD or substance abuse, then you’re running from those memories. Memory is something we need to hold onto and we have to figure out how to cope with the bad ones and put them to rest so we can focus on the good.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.