My first novel, MADAPPLE, is coming out this May from Alfred A. Knopf. The publisher sent out advance copies of MADAPPLE to book buyers and reviewers. A surprisingly large number of these readers have asked me: “Why is this a teen book?” “Did you write it for teens?” “Shouldn’t the book be categorized as adult fiction?” Truth be told, I didn’t write MADAPPLE for a specific audience. I just wrote the book I wanted to write. My editor sees MADAPPLE as a “crossover” book—that is, a book that spans the genres of adult literary fiction and young adult (“YA”). Yet, because of the way the publishing industry works, the book must be categorized as one genre or the other. Hence, it is being marketed as YA with the hope that it will reach adults as well.
When I was a teenager, J.D. Salinger, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hesse, Harper Lee and Sylvia Plath were among my favorite authors. I was captivated by the antics of Harper Lee’s Scout. I identified with Salinger’s Franny. Were these authors thought of as YA authors? No. Yet, today, I think some of their books certainly would be categorized as YA. The question: Does it matter? The answer: I’m not sure.
As a teenager, I was transformed by literature. I was not yet juggling the responsibilities of job and family, and I was not entrenched in my belief system. Rather, I was curious about and welcoming of new experiences and ways of thinking. I longed to understand the world and my place in it. And I had time to be curious! Reading was a way to learn about the world. It also was a means of escaping the world, during those awkward teenage moments when I needed to escape. Even today, some of the books that are most dear to me are books I read first as a teen, including Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Salinger’s Franny & Zooey, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Those books became part of the fabric of who I am as a person.
For this reason, when I first learned MADAPPLE would be published as a YA novel, I was excited—and somewhat overwhelmed. It seemed both an awesome and daunting opportunity. I was thrilled by the prospect of reaching a population of people for whom reading is potentially transformative, yet I felt the responsibility of this as well. MADAPPLE is arguably controversial. It certainly has mature themes. I tried very hard to address these themes with sensitivity. And I certainly did not write the book seeking controversy. That said, I did write the book with the hope that it would spur thought.
Like many first-time novelists, writing was not my day job. When I began writing MADAPPLE, I was a litigator. I spent my days formulating arguments for my clients, selecting and emphasizing those facts that supported my positions. In each case, opposing counsel would do the same, emphasizing the facts that behooved his or her client. In theory, truth somehow filtered through: the judge or jury would sort through the relatively extreme arguments and parse out what was fair and true. In actuality, each argument oversimplified reality, and the ending result, while perhaps as fair as was feasible, often had little to do with truth.
In writing MADAPPLE, I hoped to build on my experience as a litigator and explore ways in which we humans, in our attempt to understand the world, at times simplify it and thereby distort it. I wanted to think about how we create categories, based on what we want or have felt or believe is socially acceptable, and then divide the world into these categories.
Specifically, I wanted to explore the dichotomy between science and religion. As Aslaug, the protagonist of MADAPPLE, says, “Science describes the world, it doesn’t explain it: it can describe the universe’s formation, but it can’t explain…how something can come from nothing. That’s the miracle.” Yet religion absent science also seems insufficient. If God exists, would not nature be a means by which to understand God? The more I researched the natural world in my writing of MADAPPLE, the more I appreciated Einstein’s belief that genuine religiosity lies not in blind faith but in a “striving after rational knowledge.”
Ultimately, I hoped MADAPPLE would be a contemplation on faith: faith in God; faith in science; and the way in which faith can both open the mind and confine it. And I hoped Aslaug would be an embodiment of this contemplation on faith. An isolated girl whose daily existence is utterly dependent on the natural world—on foraging—and who interprets the world through this lens; but whose emotional life, due to extraordinary circumstances, becomes fueled by religion and mythology. When these two ways of seeing the world collide in Aslaug’s trial for murder, the reader must ask: Is the devil in the details, or is it God?
In the end, the categories fail: the answer is both.
Thanks for reading!