There’s a school of thought in literary criticism that maintains that it’s impossible to understand an author’s intent—it’s actually called the “intentional fallacy.” As a book critic, I mostly subscribe to it; to me, what the author may have been trying to do is a lot less important than what the book actually does and how readers might understand it. But as I was reading Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds, I found myself desperate to understand his intent in writing it.
In a way, the book is all about authorial intent. It chronicles the adventures of teen Lizzie Scofield, who crosses over to the afterlife during a terrorist attack and falls for Yamaraj, an ancient Hindu death god. It also recounts the experiences of teen Darcy Patel, the author of Lizzie’s story, who decides to forgo college and move to New York when her novel and a yet-unwritten sequel are signed by a major publisher. Each story unfolds in alternating chapters, and readers are given a rare opportunity to watch the writer at work as Westerfeld plants clues in both narratives that show how Darcy’s experiences inform Lizzie’s.
Happily, I was able to wield my power as children’s and teen editor of Kirkus to arrange an interview with Westerfeld in order to indulge my rabid curiosity.
The book, he explained, grew out of his fascination with the current generation of thoroughly networked teen readers. What with Goodreads, fanfiction, NaNoWriMo and the new accessibility of authors via their blogs and Twitter, teens are engaging with ferocious immediacy with their literature. “This is a generation of writers,” he says, “so it struck me that…a YA novel that’s some wish-fulfillment, some scary stuff about what it’s like to be a writer and a fair amount of technical stuff would be something they would just eat up.”
I was interested in how he approached the Lizzie story, Darcy’s paranormal romance. “It’s not a Scott Westerfeld story,” he says right up front. “There were a few places where I was like, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t write this—but Darcy would.” He pointed out that whenever you’re writing a novel, you’re always writing in character to some extent, and this wasn’t too different. “But I did find it sometimes a little frustrating that I couldn’t blow something up, because Darcy wouldn’t blow something up.” Did he plant flaws in it so it would seem like an authentic debut? “I probably used a few more verbs of utterance than I would—not that I’m totally against them,” he hastens to add.
One element of Darcy’s story is her rather belated anxiety about cultural appropriation, something that doesn’t occur to her till her very first YA Drinks Night in New York City. A white Australian author whose star is on the wane and whose work is grounded in aboriginal mythology rather bitterly points out that she “never used anyone’s god for purposes of YA hotness.” This sends the ethnic but nonpracticing Hindu Darcy into a spiral of self-doubt that persists throughout the book. Was Westerfeld concerned about cultural appropriation? “I definitely, like her, wanted to get it right. And I wanted to show her struggling to get it right as well. When you borrow something, you need to leave it with its dignity, which her text doesn’t always do. I’m really interested to see how people respond to this issue. I’m almost more interested in other people’s responses than my own.”
I was fascinated that his anxiety was centered on his/Darcy’s use of Yamaraj, the death god of the Vedas, and not one bit on his writing in the Darcy story from the point of view of a lapsed Hindu teenage girl, which Westerfeld is definitely not. He laughed. “I write about teenage girls all the time, so that’s not the axis of problematization for this book.” He thought some more. “I’m writing about her issues, which are also my issues when it comes to being a writer.”
Westerfeld wrote both stories simultaneously, rather than one and then the other, I was interested to learn. In that way he was able to “seed things” in Darcy’s story that would show up later in Lizzie’s story, or vice versa. The process also yielded a bounty of bonus material, like Darcy’s oft-referred-to “horrible second chapter.” One of the real joys of the book is watching over Darcy’s shoulder as she drafts. Westerfeld confides that “Darcy’s editorial letter is simply me saying to myself that, boy, the second third chapters really suck.”
I confessed my initial disappointment that Darcy’s debut is really actually quite good. Having read what feels like more than my fair share of teen debuts rushed to market, I was ready for a scathing satire. But in the end, I am not the book’s audience, which makes my admiration for Westerfeld’s accomplishment all the greater. He loves and respects Darcy, and by extension his audience, too much to treat them so shabbily. He has taught and mentored young writers and is even working on a writing manual. He waxes poetic about debuts. “I love the ways they’re broken, I love the ways they’re good. They’re like imperfect masterpieces, which I prefer to a perfect OK book.”
What is Afterworlds? Not a satire, not a roman à clef (despite its marketing), but a veteran writer reaching out through a fictional frame to his younger peers. That’s a pretty fabulous intent.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.