Ask the Expert speaks with Christa Avampato, author of the young adult novel Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters, about the experience of writing and publishing her first novel…and, (spoiler alert) why so many adults love YA lit!
Your first novel Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters has just been released by Thumbkin Prints! As a writer, you have made successful forays into many written formats including journalism and even playwriting. When did you decide that you wanted to tackle the novel?
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” ~Rumi
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~Leonard Cohen
These two quotes gave me the title for my young adult book, Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters. But what the title doesn’t tell you is that there was a long and winding road, often painful and treacherous, that brought me to Emerson. For me, she’s not just a character derived from my imagination. She is the manifestation of a journey that showed me that we are stronger, braver, and more courageous than any of us can ever imagine. To me, she is the very definition of life.
In the five years leading up to when I first put pen to paper to write her story, I had been struggling with the effects of PTSD. On September 5, 2009, one of my neighbors in New York City blew up her gas stove. She had been cooking, oil spilled, and rather than shut off the gas, she just ran out of the building. I was in my apartment on the fourth floor. I had just gotten out of the shower and noticed that radiator in my kitchen was hot and making a ticking sound. I looked down at the floor around the radiator and saw the tiles heaving up and down. Something was terribly wrong, but I didn’t know what. I grabbed my keys (which now seems completely futile) and went out of my apartment to knock on my neighbor’s door downstairs. They had been doing construction on that apartment and I thought that may be causing the tile and radiator issue. I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
The second I walked out of my apartment, I was consumed by an unending cloud of black smoke. Noxious and heavy, it felt oily on my skin and in my lungs. All I could think about was the old Dick Van Dyke commercial about stop, drop, and roll. I crouched down as low as I could and literally ran for my life, scrambling down three flights of stairs and out the front door of the building. I never felt my feet hit the stairs; it felt as if I was carried. I would later learn that eventually the fire in that first-floor apartment became so hot that it burned the door off its hinges and spilled into the hallway that I used to get out of the building. Had I waited even a few minutes longer, I would have run right into the flames.
I remember getting to the sidewalk and looking back at the building feeling completely helpless. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. The owner of the barber shop next door offered to let me use his restroom. I didn’t know why he was offering that and had to be persuaded to go with him. When I looked in the mirror in the bathroom, I understood why he offered to let me use it. My face was covered in soot, as was my hair, my legs, and my arms. It hadn’t even registered. Eight years later, I can still close my eyes and fill my nose with that smell as if I’m right back in that building.
Though the flames never reached my apartment, I would lose nearly everything I owned to smoke damage, save for a few boxes that were sealed and stuffed into the back of a closet. I had just moved into the apartment three weeks before the fire.
I had a good job, good friends, and enough savings to move into a new apartment a week later thanks to a referral from a friend who read about my fire on Facebook. Many individuals—my angels– helped as I started to rebuild. A loaner air mattress along with two CVS plastic bags of salvaged belongings were my possessions. A co-worker made sure that I got renter’s insurance…A few weeks after my fire, I found myself sitting on the sidewalk crying. I didn’t remember how I got there or where I was going. A man came up to me, touched my shoulder, and asked if I was okay. I just stared at him blankly and said, “I don’t know.” That was the truth. I felt like I was falling into madness and had no idea how to catch myself. I told a friend about this incident, but then in the next breath insisted I was fine. He insisted I go to his therapist, Brian, at least once, because though I was strong I was clearly not fine. He was an angel. And Brian, who I primarily first went to see just to make my friend happy, was another angel.
Over the next three years, Brian and I would uncover many incidents of trauma that I had been harboring from the time I was a small child. I had driven them way down into my gut, hoping to bury them. Those many traumas from my childhood manifested as insomnia, intense anxiety, fear, and crippling self-doubt. I hid them all, and hid them so well that even my very closest friends had no idea how tormented I was. I was, by all accounts, an exceptional actress.
But eventually, every actress leaves the stage. In my case, the stage was burned out from under me, literally and figuratively. I was drowning and thought I had nothing to cling to. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that in my darkest moments, I wondered if this whole thing called life was really worth it. On one particularly frightening night, I had a terrible nightmare that I had decided to dive right off the roof of my building. I woke with a start as I hit the pavement in my dream. When I sat up in bed, the moon shone so brightly that it was almost blinding. I went to my window and saw the silhouettes of the water towers on the upper west side of NewYork in the distance. They reminded me of soldiers, standing guard, protecting me from myself. In that moment, the seed of Emerson Page was planted in my imagination. The moon and those water towers brought her to me.
What I didn’t know then, what I couldn’t possibly know, is that what seemed like the worst day of my life would turn out to be the best. The day that looked to everyone, myself included, like the day on which I lost everything was actually the day on which I gained everything. Working with Brian, I came home to myself, in my own skin, after wandering around in the world lost, alone, and afraid. Brian helped me to find and stand in my own light, even in my darkest hours. A wizard, he helped me to create peace in a world in which I never thought I’d find it. And it has endured.
I began to sketch the outline of Emerson’s story over the five years after my fire. Her story will be published on November 1, 2017, exactly three years after I started to write the prose that would eventually become my book as part of NaNoWriMo 2014.
Emerson struggles with the effects of PTSD from the loss of her mother and the insecurity so inherent in our teenage years as we come of age. Her father, Oliver, and family friend, Samuel, are reeling from grief caused by the loss of loved ones. Her friend, Truman, struggles with depression after having aged out of the foster care system. My message in the constant thread of mental health issues throughout the book is to show that we all struggle at some point with these afflictions. They are very much a part of life, as much as joy and love and friendship. We will all eventually hit rough waters, and yet, we will hide it from people. We will pretend we’re fine, as I did for so many years, because we have our pride and because we refuse to be the person who brings other people down with our troubles. The stigma of mental illness is alive and well, especially among our young people, and part of my reason for writing this book is to help all who read it to feel less alone. To have hope. To have faith. I see you. I hear you. I feel your pain as real as I feel my own.
And, it doesn’t end there. I stand before you, my book stands before you, as an unfailing reminder that if you are willing to do the hard work of recognizing your wounds with the help of professionals like Brian, if you will stand up and speak your truth, even if your voice shakes and sputters, if you will honor the cracks in you rather than trying to spackle them shut, there is so much light that awaits you. That light will flood your mind and heart and hands in a way that you never imagined possible. That light, however small, lives in you now. Your job, your only job, is to fan it into a flame that the whole world can see through the masterpiece that is your life. You matter. Your story matters. It matters so damn much.
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote a passage that speaks loudly to me every day:
“Toni Morrison said, “The function of freedom is to free someone else,” and if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else.”
After my fire, I freed myself. From guilt and shame and regret and disappointment, and the million other traumas of everyday life that break us down. My fire broke me down, completely. It stripped me bare so that I could see what I was made of at my core. And that was the beginning of everything.
When you hold my book in your hands, that’s a piece of my soul. It’s the piece that not only survived that fire and the traumas that came before it, but the piece that learned how to thrive in their aftermath. I wrote it for you. I wanted you to know my story, and Emerson’s story, so that you would feel free to write yours. And I hope you will because I can’t wait to read it.
The reflections you’ve shared on your creative life are really intriguing. You’ve said: “I make a living in business and make my life as a writer, artist and yogi.” and also, that you’re “a recovering multitasker.” Many writers have to make significant choices in their lives just to make time to write let alone actually bring a completed work into the world. How would you advise an aspiring author in this regard?
It’s a matter of priorities. There will always be tough choices to make regarding our time because time is the most precious resource we have because we only get a certain amount of it. There’s no way to make more or buy more. There’s no way to replenish it. The best we can do is decide how we want to spend it. For me, writing is a priority. I make time for it every single day. And it means there are other things that I don’t do. Writing is a choice. I’m not saying the choice is easy to make, and you must make it over and over again every single day. But it’s not complicated. It’s a binary decision: you either do it, or you don’t.
Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters is categorized as a youth oriented book with elements of what the industry would call fantasy, adventure and coming of age. We know that young adults are avid readers of YA books but a lesser discussed topic is why some adult readers are drawn to YA lit. Can you share your insight on this phenomenon?
Believe it or not, adults are actually the largest audience of YA literature. By some estimates, 70% of all YA books are purchased by adults. Now yes, a healthy percentage of that number are purchasing books for readers in their lives who are between the ages of 12 and 18. However, many readers between 12 and 18 can and do make their own purchasing decisions for items like books so the adult readership of YA is enormous. (More info on these figures here: https://www.thebalance.com/the-young-adult-book-market-2799954)
Author Sandra Cisneros has a beautiful quote that we are every age we’ve ever been. There’s a part of us that will also be a teenager. We identify with those emotions and situations because we’ve all been there. Teenagers are remarkably complex. They see the world through fresh eyes, and that perspective is intriguing for readers and writers alike. It’s no wonder that the genre has exploded in terms of titles and readership.
YA literature also involves very complex themes that often drive social commentary. and these are building blocks of fascinating stories.
Where is your favorite place to write, and why?
I do 99% of my writing at home. It’s where I’m most comfortable. I like to spread out and be efficient with index cards, notes, reliable internet, my kitchen nearby, and my sweet dog, Phineas. That said, bits of dialogue, scenes, and ideas do come to me when I’m taking the subway, walking around New York and walking my dog, having dinner with friends, attending events, and traveling. I get those bits down in the moment, and figure out how to incorporate them into my stories when I get home. Also, I’ve had very vivid dreams when I’m deep in the writing process. I keep a notebook and pen on my nightstand so I can scribble them down in the middle of the night and make sense of them in the morning.
You’ve written about your love for New York City—the city where you live—and its myriad museums and sites, describing it as a strong source of inspiration for Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters. That urban environment will figure into all of the books in the Emerson Page series that you’re planning. How does a writer create an engaging sense of place?
For me it’s very easy to create an engaging sense of place because I live in New York City. I walk out my door and inspiration is swirling around me. I live on the Upper West Side, which is my favorite neighborhood in the city. (And believe me, I thank my lucky stars every single day that I live here. I never take it for granted.) It’s the most vibrant city I’ve ever been to, and I’m so fortunate to call this place home. My book, and Emerson’s whole series, is really a love letter to New York.
Though I didn’t move here until after college, living in New York City has been the dream of my life since I was a kid. And as difficult (and expensive!) as it can be to live here, there’s not a day that I’m not grateful for the creativity that lives and breathes around every corner. In my book, I showcase a lot of that magic found on, above, and below these streets. That theme will continue through Emerson’s series. Her story began here, blossoms here, and will end here (8 books from now.) She’ll travel to far-flung lands, find herself in wild situations, and meet dozens of people who can best be described as true characters. And as much as she’ll love those travels and adventures, she’ll always find her way back here to New York like so many of us do. Like a magnet, it draws us in. Once we’re in its orbit, it has us forever.
Now, that said, not all of my work is based in New York City. I’m at the very early stages of working on another book that is set in a very small town in the Hudson Valley of New York state that’s similar to the hometown where I grew up. In that case, the town isn’t as big a character as New York City is in Emerson’s story. However, it’s still very relevant because small towns have their own quirks that can create interesting backgrounds for characters’ actions.
They key to a great setting is to find a way to make it set the stage for action. There are interesting stories that take place all over the world. Find the details that make your setting special, and that make it integral to the story.
Emerson Page has been a focus of your attention and energy for eight years and, as of November 2017, it’s published and available to the entire world! How does a professional writer prepare for the big reveal?
It’s an enormous lift. I’ve been doing marketing for the book for over a year, before I had a publisher, before the book was even finished. I’ve been sending the book to reviewers and influencers, and I will continue to do that until the next book comes out. I’m constantly networking and meeting people, in real life and online. I love to connect with writers and readers from all walks of life. I regularly talk about my writing life because it’s the most important work I do and because I want my work and process to inspire others to tell their stories. Really, writing is a service to others. I take that responsibility very seriously. My biggest goal with my writing is for it to make someone else’s life better. It’s not for me; it’s for everyone else. It’s my gift to the world, and I’m grateful to be able to share it.
What is one thing that would tell/has told you you’ve “made it” as an author?
You know, you would think that it’s being published. And while that’s a wonderful thing, that’s not what gets me jazzed. It’s a big shiny, enormous dream come true though the best part of being a writer, for me, is when someone says, “Thanks for writing that. It’s what I needed to hear today.” Now that kind of comment is everything. I tear up just thinking about it. Being a writer is one of the greatest honors of my life.
Christa Avampato was born on a retired apple farm in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and pursued her passion for theater by managing Broadway shows and national theater tours. After getting her MBA at the Darden School at the University of Virginia, she spent five years in corporate America and then started her own boutique consulting practice to work with education-based nonprofits such as Sesame Workshop, PBS, and the New York Public Library. During that time, she grew her writing career as a freelancer for publications including The Washington Post, HuffPost, and Royal Media Partners magazines. She has been an invited speaker on the power of the imagination at SXSW, Games for Change, New York University, and Columbia University. Additionally, Christa is a Director of Product Development for a technology company that builds management software for performing arts organizations and museums. Dedicated to helping young people find their own voices, Christa has served as a volunteer middle school and high school teacher for New York City public schools through Junior Achievement and a creative writing workshop facilitator for chapters of 826national.org. She’s been called the happiest New Yorker and tries to live up to that title every day. Follow her on Twitter @christanyc and Instagram @christarosenyc, or visit her online at christaavampato.com.