by Marsha Qualey
Woodstock, 1969 has been in the news quite a lot lately. I’ve read the print and online articles and listened and watched the broadcasts with a combination of amusement, sorrow, and skepticism. 1969 was a turning-point year in my own life, and I’ve written two YA novels that begin in that summer. I understand the media’s fascination with those long-ago events.
Ironically, I was barely aware of any of it at the time. Yes, I watched the moonwalk (on a tiny snowy-screen portable TV with foil-wrapped rabbit’s ears), but I was with my parents and their friends at someone’s lake cabin and I assure you the whole time Neil Armstrong cavorted I was wondering how I could get away to a beach party across the lake I’d been invited to. When the Manson murders hit the news I was again at the lake, getting ready to leave for my first-ever canoe trip into the boundary waters and the Quetico. Even if there’d been a television or radio in our tiny rental cottage, I wouldn’t have been paying attention. And by the time people were reveling in the mud and rain and music at Woodstock, I was back home, my canoe trip aborted after the fourth day when my parents sent a search plane to get me off the trail. My oldest brother had been killed in action in Vietnam, and they wanted me at home.
I’ve never touched or alluded to the Manson story in my fiction, but I’ve used the rest of it in my two 60’s novels, Come in from the Cold and Too Big a Storm. And because both of those books are directly connected to/inspired by four of my other novels, I think it’s fair to say that, for me, 1969 has been major source material. So yeah, when the press obsesses over 1969, I get it.
Do teen readers? Well, here’s a full and humbling disclosure: Neither of my 60’s novels has sold well. Come in from the Cold, true, has had a long life. It garnered nice notice by adult reviewers and has stayed in print since 1994 and was recently reissued in paperback with a terrific cover and has just been nominated for ALA Popular Paperbacks. All very nice, of course, but … the royalty checks have never been big. Too Big a Storm also had nice reviews, and it was a Junior Literary Guild selection, a BBYA nominee, and it has been a finalist on a few state kids’ choice-type reading lists. Even so, the book has sold fewer copies than my first novel.
This writer’s response? Do it again! For my first YA project in five years I am returning to the 1960s. 1967 this time, the so-called Summer of Love.
I’m a firm believer that you can absolutely jinx a work-in-process by talking too much about it. So I won’t give away much more except to say that yes, once again this story is connected to a couple of my earlier books and that the protagonist is a teen runaway, a girl trying to survive on the streets of Minneapolis while others of her generation turn into flower children. And unless you count one or two characters that prey on throw-away kids, there’s not a vampire in sight.
Clearly, writing this novel is not a wise business decision. So why do it?
They may not have produced much income, but my sixties novels have generated the most interesting and heartfelt letters and emails I’ve received from young readers. And the correspondence has had a prevailing theme, as in this one from a high school student who was assigned Too Big a Storm in a history (!) class: “Reading your book helped me to understand more about what it would be like to have someone I love go to war.”
Bingo. Understanding “what it would be like” is the impulse driving most writers, whether our stories are set in the past or present and in real or imagined worlds. What’s it like to be a straight arrow when it seems the world around you has gone psychedelic? What’s it like to be so enraged about a war that you’d blow up a building? What’s it like to be a Vietnam veteran when other nineteen year olds are protesting the war? What’s it like to be hunting for a safe place to sleep when other teens are hunting for a high?
Digging back into history—personal and general—is delicate, challenging work. It’s so easy to get it wrong. And the easiest mistake to make is to bring too much of the present back to the past. There’s a wonderful Horn Book article by children’s literature scholar Anne Scott McCleod that’s available on the Horn Book archive that addresses just this issue. McCleod says, “Yet many narratives play to modern sensibilities. Their protagonists experience their own societies as though they were time-travelers, noting racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and outmoded belief as outsiders, not as people of and in their cultures.”
I’ve been wrestling with just that. At the risk of jinxing my work-in-progress I’ll tell you that my main character has run away from home rather than face a return to a private mental health clinic where she’s undergone aversion therapy—involving electric shock and drugs—intended to ‘cure’ her homosexuality. Her parents sent her the first time and are complicit in the court-ordered return.
It’s so easy now to be horrified. It’s so easy now, forty years later, to wag a finger at those parents and say, How could you! But doing that doesn’t interest me, not least because if I do, then I’d be writing about 2009, not 1967.
More than the drugs, the protests, the moon walks and the music, it is the prevailing confusion and perplexity of the 1960s that fascinates me. Sexuality, feminism, civil rights, war, men on the moon–a world was upended. Collectively and individually new identities were taking shape, and that’s why I think the era is a perfect cauldron for YA fiction and why I returned to it this time, and will, I suspect, in the future.
And one more thing: In my work in progress, The Summer of Love, (jinx!) there’s a suspicious death, and my protagonist, Julie (jinx!), plays cat-and-mouse with the cops as she and a friend get to the bottom of the murder (double jinx!). 60’s and revolution, yes, but with a dollop of murder and mystery; I try not to be a total fool when it comes to storytelling.
Marsha Qualey is the author of several young adult novels and is on the faculty of Hamline University’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Her books have appeared on numerous best-of-the-year lists, including ALA Quick Picks and Best Books for Young Adults, IRA Young Adults’ Choices, New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age, and School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her novel Thin Ice was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America.