Answering Letters from Readers: An Exercise in Self-Knowledge

The following blog post was contributed by CWILL BC member Alex Van Tol. To learn more about Alex and her writing, please check out her blog.

Every so often, I surprise myself by remembering that somehow, somewhere during the past year and a half, I became an author. I mean, weird, right?

I was reminded of this new identity when I got a couple of emails from students who have recently read my books. And in answering their notes, I learned a little bit more about my writing process, and why I write the stuff I do.

One guy named Aaron wanted to tell me he thought Viral was awesome. He was wondering whether there would be a sequel. So I wrote back, and said, no, no sequel, but maybe I’d bring one of the characters back in another book. And then I thought some more about that, and realized that yeah — that’s something I’d actually really like to do. So Aaron, if you’re reading this, thanks for that idea.


Another reader, 13-year-old Hannah, had a few questions about my first book, Knifepoint. I love what she asks:

Now, I would like to ask you some questions. Why did it have to be Jill stuck with James? Why not Carrie? Why did you have Jill keep going and not go back, so they know she is out on a ride?

Good questions. She was asking them as though Jill is an actual person with her own mind, instead of a character I manufactured. But that’s one of the best things an author can hope for: that his or her characters will seem so alive to readers.

So I explained to Hannah that, in order to make the story work and in order to show Jill growing as a person, I had to make her do certain things. Writing a book is kind of like making a map, I said. If you need to start at A and get to Z, and if your map is going to work properly (i.e. if the story is going to be believable), then you have to make your characters do certain things to get there. Sometimes those things can be stupid things, like taking a stranger out on a trail ride deep in the mountains without telling anyone where you’re going. Even real people make bad choices sometimes – and it’s interesting to put made-up characters into those kinds of choices and then watch what they do.
Hannah had another question, too:

What made you want to write about Jill almost getting raped and dying?

I had to really think about this one. If Hannah had asked me this a few months ago, before I had more clearly thought through my identity as a fiction writer, I might have had more trouble answering it. I wouldn’t have been able to explain why I created such a monstrous guy in Darren, nor would I have been able to clearly determine why I created such a frightening ordeal for Jill. But because I’ve recently had the experience of interviewing and writing about New York Times bestselling thriller author Chevy Stevens, I’ve thought a lot about what Stevens says about pursuing those darkest parts of the human psyche. People’s minds are generally really interesting places, she says. There’s a lot to explore in human nature – and sometimes it’s hard to look at. As a writer, you don’t ever want to hang around those places too long.

I agree. But if you’ve got the courage to spend some time down there, feeling your way around and experiencing the fear inside the murk, you come up with stuff that really catches readers by the throat. And while it’s sometimes scary to explore the darkest human motivations, it’s also important to remember that everybody has their black thoughts and terrible urges and mean tendencies. Most of us, however, are capable of containing our evil, which contributes to a sane and functioning society. But when the odd person lets that control slip, we all watch in fascination and horror – and a deep-seated self-recognition that we don’t usually want to spend time looking at. That’s what fiction writers are for.

I also told Hannah what one of my high school English teachers taught us: that good writing should evoke emotion in the reader – whether that’s anger, revulsion, joy, fear, sadness, surprise. (I’m missing one. Darn it. There are seven basic human emotions that all other feelings derive from. What is the seventh??)

And while I tend to gravitate toward thriller-type writing (I did read a lotta Stephen King when I was a kid, remember), I also have other areas of interest that I hope to explore in the coming years. But no matter what I’m writing about, the stories will be driven by those things that complicate us as humans.


Here. I’m going to leave you with a quote – a beautiful quote – by poet Mary Oliver. I’m not huge into poetry, but I do know a powerful verse when I see one:

Let the world have its way with you,
luminous as it is
With mystery and pain –
graced as it is with the ordinary.

That thing that she says at the end? About the mystery, pain, and grace of the ordinary?

That’s what makes our stories so worth telling.

Thanks for making me think, Hannah and Aaron.

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