A Song Called Home
California, sisters, and my new book
On June 15th, I woke up in Mendocino County in an inn on the coast, north of Mendo, north of Ft. Bragg, north of…everything, just before Highway 1 surrenders its impossible curves and makes the inland journey to 101. Coffee cup in hand, I cut across a field to a beach where, once upon a time, loggers floated redwoods out to ships that would take them down to San Francisco. And once upon a time before that, the Pomo people and other coastal tribes lived and hunted and fished.
It was my first trip since Everything that wasn’t just a drive between SLC and the SF Peninsula, my two homes. And the first trip I’ve taken with my sister in a few years. On past sister trips we’ve seen Banff, lounged in Ketchum, ID, hiked Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, met up in Vegas, and had some time wandering NYC.
Right before I left for this trip, I got word that the final cover of my next book would be up soon on my publisher’s site, so this was my chance to share it directly. And here it is! A Song Called Home is my first middle-grade novel and though this character is certainly not me, her story is a deeply fictionalized version of my own. Louisa/Lou/Lu is a city kid with an older sister and a single mom and an alcoholic dad and a brand new stepdad. The marriage means they have to move to the suburbs in the middle of fifth grade. Lu doesn’t want to, but what can you do? Nothing, if you’re 11.
The helplessness of being a kid is one of the things that makes writing young characters so challenging in realism, anyway. The younger they are, the harder it is. Creating a small story in a big world, giving the characters a chance to exist in and explore that world while still allowing them some foundational sense of safety, even coziness—and yet be dealing with real-world problems—is so much of what writing this age is about. Unlike with my teen characters, I can’t stick them in a car or at a job or in a coffee shop.
Yesterday, my sister and I woke up in Monte Rio, a little town on the Russian River and down the coast from where we’d been for the previous couple of days. It had been a rough night—we’d had to share a bed in a small room and each accused the other of egregious snoring, and throughout the trip it was hard to find a rhythm of sustained getting along. Even when you’re friends with your sister, you’re still also sisters.
The sibling dynamic is one of my favorites to explore in my novels. It’s such a mix of love and exasperation and over-familiarity (though perhaps only with past versions of each other), trying to assert who you are apart from the other, and who you are together, all at the same time. I hope I was able to capture this a little with Lu and her sister, Casey.
The too-small hotel room was just a few miles from a campground where our new stepfather took us and our mom for several summers. That warm, redwood-infused air of the Russian River area is the same almost forty years later; I don’t remember much else. Maybe: the rattle of my stepdad’s truck camper, the sound of my mother’s voice saying, “Sebastopol!”—because when we hit Sebastopol, we knew we were close.
I’m getting used to those unsettling midlife flashes and fragments of memory where all you can pin down is a smell, a color, a feeling in the air. I’ve been getting a lot of those this last year as we’ve been in California more often than not, specifically in the very town we moved to upon my mother’s remarriage and the very town Lu moves to. As I worked on the book, I walked the streets of the neighborhood in SF where we grew up. And I only had to lean a little way out my present-day window to see the middle school I transferred into when I was around Lu’s age.
I’ve been around my mother and my sister more, too, leading to more memories and also more questions. We know memory isn’t like a recording device. And recording devices aren’t memory. And altogether I think it’s next to impossible to really know who we were at eleven or eight or fifteen, or twenty-six or forty-two or last Tuesday. I still have a home in SLC yet it’s hard to remember the me who lived there full-time less than a year ago. Here in California, that pre-Utah version of me seems to have been waiting for my return.
That’s another thing that’s hard to write. How a place makes you, the you that gets left behind when you go somewhere else, the person you are with your oldest friend, the person you are with your newest. These are all ideas that lurk on and around the pages of A Song Called Home, along with the more direct story of Lu and her family and how the changes in their lives are creating both sadness and excitement.
Don’t panic—it’s not out until February, 2022, and I’ll let you know when it’s the optimal time to pre-order, if you like doing that. Meanwhile, I’m on summer social media austerity, so if you want to make sure you get all the news, be sure to subscribe if you aren’t already.