“It’s never the changes we want that change everything.”
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
This was the first quote that I chose for Away From Here, not only because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was never far from me while I was writing over the course of three years, but also because, like so many things in that masterpiece of a book, it’s applicable to so many things in life. In a brief sentence Diaz captures a sentiment that we can all relate to on so many levels. In the context of Wao, it relates to the revelation that one of the main character’s mothers discovers a lump in her breast, and I’ll leave its particular application to your own life to you, but here I’ll speak a little bit about why I chose it as a quotation in Away From Here.
One of the central themes of the book isn’t just the particulars of love, or mental illness, or adolescence itself, but rather that so much of what we have to deal with in life isn’t of our choosing, and, in fact, the circumstances we’re faced with have their origins literal generations into the past. For Logan that is expressed by the Bleh, Annalise’s name for depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues, but it goes far deeper than a whimsical name. Logan is the son of a severely depressed mom, who was herself the daughter of a severely mentally ill mom, who earned her Bleh from a crazy dad who lost his mind at the turn of the century. Now if that isn’t some cosmic bullshit, I certainly don’t know what is, but it doesn’t matter, does it?
What I wanted to capture in the story, and in many ways what I lived myself, is that we’re often the recipients of change that we don’t want, and, as Diaz so perfectly captures, it’s those very things that alter the course of our lives for good or for bad. It’s Logan’s lot in life to deal with the ramifications of his parent’s divorce, which is described in detail in chapter 4. Part of the reason I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of someone who was the age I was when much of that happened in my own life was because teens, maybe more than any other age group, are subject to changes outside of their control that impact their lives. And, unlike small children, they’re mostly cognizant of those forces acting upon them, and aware of the ramifications they can cause. College decisions, parent’s decisions, the decisions of boyfriends or girlfriends - all of these external things can control our fate, determine the next step in our life’s journey, and ultimately shift the entire course of where we’re headed. Logan has a few of these in the book, some of which I’ve already mentioned, but then again, so does Annalise.
We never get to see Annalise on her own terms, and that was by design. It’s the side effect of first person writing, and something that I chose very much on purpose in Away From Here - namely that we get to see all the characters through one character’s eyes. We don’t get to hear Logan’s mom’s interpretation of events, or Pete’s take on the Comic Con thing, and most glaringly perhaps, we never get to hear Anna’s side of the story. To tell you the truth, I’d love to hear it. I’d love to hear how she really felt about the dad who she never knew, or about the drama with her own mother, or about her struggles with her mental health, but we don’t get to have those conversations. But even on the terms we get her in the book, namely Logan’s, Anna’s life has been a series of changes that changed everything, none of which were in her control. She’s the middle daughter of a Peruvian immigrant, has two half siblings, one of whom she fights with and other of whom she’s a second mother to, and she lives in a poor neighborhood in a small apartment that shouldn’t fit so many people. She didn’t choose to never know her dad, or have her mom move from a more prosperous area in Peru to a small apartment in the United States, or to live in poverty, or even to meet Logan. All of those things happened, and she navigates that life with the only tools at her disposal, however rudimentary and screwed up they may be.
The takeaway here is this: this isn’t a story about a bunch of people who are victims to an unknowable universe. It’s a story about people like all of us - flawed, complex, and very human characters who, despite the changes that change everything, try to find a way to live - not survive, as Annalise says, but to live, despite their shortcomings, and using the best tools at their disposal. It’s what we all do. It’s all we can do. But ultimately it isn’t the ‘what’ of the story, but the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ that separate these characters that I love so much: how do they navigate their lives, why do they make the decisions that they make, and where does that lead them in the end, and beyond. And yes, there is a beyond past the closing pages of the book. For some, it’s right where we left them, living Here as best they can. And for others, it’s a place Away From Here that holds the keys to the future.
.“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known,
When I was young and dreamed of glory,
You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story. . .”
The writing of Away From Here was something that I had to do. No choice, voices in my head that needed to get let out. Wait, that makes me sound crazy, doesn’t it? Damn. Okay, do over. Scratch the ‘voices in my head’ part. . .let’s just say I had a story to tell, and it was no longer content to live on a three year old file on my computer. But it’s done. I’ve told the story, and my part is done. Now my focus is on your, my readers.
Art - whether it be writing, film, music, or any other forum - takes on a life of its own when you let it free into the world, and even though the book is a few months from being available, I’m getting amazing advanced reader feedback. It’s truly been overwhelming, with people connecting to the characters and the story in ways that I in no way could have anticipated three years ago, when this was just an idea in my head.
For those who haven’t turned past the final page of the story, I encourage readers to share their stories with me, and with anyone else. So that’s what we’re going to do here. The book touches upon a lot of different issues - mental illness, first loves, parent-child relationships, adolescence, high school, having an epic best friends, loving or hating school, and a host of other things.
Leave a comment below telling your story, or a part of your story, or even just an aspect of Away From Here that connected with you on some level. The comments can be long, short, personal, or not personal - whatever you want to write, and whatever will help others. Like I said, my part is done, now I look forward to reading your experiences. . .
Away from Here, which had a three-year working title of “Annalise to be published” on my computer, is something so personal and semi-autobiographical to me that it’s hard to even capture in words. But, then again, that’s kind of what I do, so here goes. The story itself is narrated by a man named Logan Santiago, who’s looking back on one of the most impactful years of his entire life - his senior year of high school when he was a self-described “. . .mixed up mixed kid. . .”, a kid with a Spanish mom and a white dad who’s very much like a lot of teens at that age: confused, a little angry, sarcastic as all hell, hating his way through the last year of school, and desperately hoping to talk to the girl of his dreams (don’t worry, we’ll get to Our Girl shortly). But what’s less common is that Logan is also dealing with the recent divorce of his parents, and the crippling depression and anxiety that’s rendered his mom home bound and not really functional for the last two years. All at once he went from your average teenager to his mom’s seventeen year old caretaker, with all the normal stress to boot, and no one there to help with his new adult responsibilities. Finding himself in a household that no longer seems like the same place he grew up, he years for a relief, something he stands in his bathtub (don’t worry it makes sense in the book...not really, but it’s explained anyhow) and prays for. But it’s at that exact moment that he meets his Goddess (as he likes to call her), a girl he’s had his eye on from afar his entire junior year, and today might be the day he finally talks to her...
Now about me. . .
I, too was a mixed up mixed kid - fake Spanish (as Logan likes to call himself), getting made fun of all the time for my mixed racial and ethnic background, and my general interest in all things comic book related. That’s right, I was a nerd. I am a nerd, I just make it work for me now, and I grew up in a household very much like I describe in the book. Part of the reason I wanted to tell this story through Logan’s eyes is because while there are a lot of books (hundreds probably) that deal with themes of mental illness, or have mentally ill characters, the struggle we read about is always their own. We read about a main character who’s depressed, and how that affects their lives, but less often do we see a story from the perspective of the person being effected by mental illness, and even rarer when that person is the child of the afflicted. That was me. That was my life. And I’ve always wanted to get the challenges of being a young person who was surrounded by mental illness, yet not that way himself, down on paper in a way that makes people understand the challenges of that situation. But hell, doesn’t that sound (no pun) depressing as all hell? Who wants to read that for a whole book? Well, fear not, that’s just the set up; the perspective; the context in which our love story takes place. Enter Annalise - Logan’s Peruvian Goddess - the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who might just save his drowning teenaged soul, if that’s even possible.
Anna’s an interesting human being - she’s Logan’s goddess - the girl he’s built up to almost mythical levels in his mind for a whole year, but when he finally ends of speaking to her after a crazy day at school (and a series of French fries thrown at his face by his best friend ... again, all in the book), he finally gets to see the real Anna, the complex, messed up, wonderful girl whose life is very similar to his own. She’s weird, she’s not the prom queen, and she also comes from a home with no small amount of drama. Together they find solace in one another, and they forge a relationship that changes Logan forever.
Those are the broad strokes of course. There’s more. A lot more. More characters, more scenes, and, of course, a whole story, but that will have to wait for April. In the meantime I wanted to give you a little of the book’s history, which is a story all its own. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it’s been three years. It was actually a work I abandoned for three reasons that in hindsight seem really silly: first, I had never published a book before and I was both ignorant of the process and insecure that anyone would care. Second, it was emotionally exhausting to write, mostly because of some of the very personal emotions and experiences I had to revisit to capture certain scenes in an authentic way. And, lastly, I started publishing my contemporary books. The last one is interesting because, at first, that became my excuse to put Away From Here (or ‘Annalise’) to the side, and it made perfect sense. But after I build a following (I hope....Jesus, what if no one’s even reading this!), I realized that I should pick up that book again, and give it the attention I always knew it deserved. This is a story that I needed to tell, no matter what else anyone thinks of it, and I’m proud to have it be a work of mine. When I say that I poured more time, effort, self-editing, and thought into this one I’m not exaggerating at all. This one took something out of me to finish. But, then again, anything of value should do just that. Hopefully it gives more that it took.
Those are the specifics of the story (sort of), but like any creative work, I hit upon themes that are absolutely universal to anyone reading, whether they can relate to the life experiences of the characters or not. Belonging, parent-child relationships and their complexities, first loves, adolescence, uncertainty about the future, finding salvation in another human being, experiencing the pain of loss – these are all thing that are a part of our lives – books just reflect those themes.
As far as the practicalities (when is it out? Where can I get it?), Amazon has finally decided to end my yearlong banishment from pre-orders, so I will be able to upload the file for pre-order as of March 24th. Before that I’ll be releasing Noah, the 4th book in the New York City’s Finest series. And then my focus will be 100 percent on getting Away From Here in front of people’s eyes - giveaways, samples, buzz, merch - the whole nine yards (and those coming to the Gettysburg signing might have an early surprise...). It’ll be available on Amazon, as always, and the release date will be Tuesday, April 24th. I can’t wait, and I don’t say that often.
So I hope I’ve captured your attention, and at the very least whet your appetite for a book that I can easily say is different from everything else I’ve ever written. I love my usual books, and contemporary romance in general, and I have many releases planned for this year, but it’s nice to step out every once and a while and do something truly different; something special; something I think people will love as much as I do. I hope that you take that journey with me, and encourage others to do the same. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
More to come. . .but I think it would be better to hear from Logan instead of me. He’s a cool guy, and he’s more equipped to talk about all this than me, of course. I just write down what he says. I’ll text him but he’s hard to get in touch with – he’s always writing. But I’m sure you’ll meet him soon enough.
*Check out the first trailer by the always amazing Jessica Hildreth below - more to come!