Thursday, February 28, 2008

Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Acceptance for Fire, November 22, 2010

The following is my acceptance of the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award for Fire. I presented these remarks on November 22, 2010 at NCTE-ALAN's annual conference in Orlando, Florida.

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One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that it isn’t just that I get to have the joy and pride of winning this awardI also get the joy of sharing it. My parents are here today, as is my sister Catherine. My favorite part of this process was the moment when I got to call my family members and tell them that that Fire had won this award. So I want to thank with all my heart the members of the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award committee for giving me this gift of an opportunity not only to be proud myself but to make my family proud.

I wanted to talk a little about where Fire came from, but I think it’s essentially an impossible thing to do very well—because Fire, like most books, came from too many places to name, it’s wasn’t linear, and also, when you’re writing a book, you’re busy writing it. You’re not stopping to record your process just in case there’s an award acceptance speech in your future; you’re not asking yourself, “Oh, but where did I get that idea?” And so, the truth is that I don’t particularly know or remember how I wrote Fire… But I have isolated six unrelated places Fire came from, and I’m going to share them with all of you today.

NUMBER ONE. On the most practical level, Fire, which was my second book, came from a line in my first book, Graceling. My character Po is telling my character Katsa the story of where a third character, Leck, came from, and Po says to Katsa, “One day, a boy came to court, begging and telling stories in return for food and money. The servants took him in, for he told such wonderful stories—wild stories about a place beyond the seven kingdoms, where monsters come out of the sea and air, and armies burst out of holes in the mountains, and the people are different from anyone we’ve ever known.”

Now, when I wrote that line about the place beyond the seven kingdoms with the monsters and the armies, it was kind of a throwaway line. I needed Leck’s stories to be about something, so why not monsters and armies. But then, for some reason, as I continued to write Graceling, that line stuck with me, and I started asking myself questions. What does that mean, monsters coming out of the sea and air, what are these monsters? How can an army burst out of a mountain? Leck—the character of Leck—is sort of a pathological liar, so it would be normal to assume that he made up those stories—but I started to ask myself, what if he didn’t? What if this is the one thing he was telling the truth about? What if this place really exists, and thirty-some years ago, Leck was there as a boy? I knew I didn’t want to write a book with Leck as a main character, because that would make for the most disturbing year of my life… but I already had this other person in my head, this young woman who was kind of knocking on the door of my mind and trying to get my attention… and when I combined this woman with the notion of this other land, she fit there. She fit in that land. And that’s one of the ways Fire started to grow.

NUMBER TWO. Fire came from—or, at least, a little corner of Fire came from—a scene in the third Lord of the Rings movie, Return of the King. It’s that scene where Gandalf is riding his horse across a plain at the head of Faramir’s army, his robes and his white hair are flying, and he’s holding his staff before him in the air—and light is coming from his staff, shining into the skyand that light fends off these terrifying winged creatures that are the mounts of the Nazgul who are trying to kill Gandalf and Faramir’s army. I saw that scene, with the flowing hair and the staff of light and the flying monsters, and the beauty and the power of it imprinted itself in my brain, and I said to myself, “My girl could do that. She could be that person on that horse, defending an army.” I didn’t know how to make that happen, or when, or where, or how to make it unique. But I knew I wanted to try it. If you’ve read Fire, then maybe you remember the scene in which Fire protects her enemies, essentially, from raptor monsters, by riding out on her horse and drawing the monsters to herself with the sight of her hair. That was my Gandalf moment.

NUMBER THREE. Fire came from my experience as a woman navigating a world in which women are so often, and so instantly sometimes, objectified, their personhood dismissed, and their value measured against some sort of weird, messed-up, unhealthy standard of attractiveness. Fire came from a lot of questions I and maybe some of you have. Like, for example, why can’t a woman walk down the street wearing tight pants and a low-cut top with her cleavage hanging out, why can’t she do this with no shame, no apology, no embarrassment, no need to hide herself—and have no men disrespect her, and no women back-stab or trash-talk her? Why can’t she do that if she wants to? And on the other extreme, why can’t a woman walk down the street in a burqa, completely covered except for her eyes, without being told that she’s repressed, or victimized, or hiding from the world? What if she’s wearing it because she wants to, because she prefers to be judged by what she says and does, not by what she looks like, and her dress is a statement of that? Couldn’t that be just as strong an expression of self-esteem as the woman who dresses like a street walker and doesn’t apologize for it? Why do we expect women to be all things at once, but only if they follow very specific societal rules about how to do that, and when and where, and operate within very particular margins? There was a line in the Los Angeles Times’s review of Fire that read, “Having created an exaggeration of female experience in Fire's monster form, Cashore can be brutally honest about the realities of girls' lives.” That line made me so happy, because my desire to do just that is one of the places Fire came from.

NUMBER FOUR. Fire came from a ratty piece of paper that I referred to fairly often as I was writing. The title at the top of this piece of paper read, “Page of Important Points,” and it was basically a list of feelings that I wanted this book to convey. I’m a big one for throwing things away once I no longer need them, but luckily, I hung onto this piece of paper, so I can tell you some of the words that are written on it. It says: “Monsters are ruthless… weather and terrain are wild. Insomnia. Trust and mistrust. Lies. Loss, desolation, waste, the bleakness of the future, death, childlessness, loneliness, solitude, the burden of guilt, the damage of humiliation.”

Now, I hope those of you who haven’t read Fire and were considering doing so haven’t changed your minds now on the grounds that it’s apparently the most depressing book ever written, and this strikes me as an appropriate moment to remind you that one of the criteria for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award is that it be a book that offers hope. I am particularly touched and gratified that the award committee found the hope in my dark tale. I think there’s humor in it, too, and lightness—I hope my readers are able to find those things in there.

NUMBER FIVE. Fire came from an evening my sister Catherine and I spent once piling tinsel on top of our heads and then admiring the beeeyootiful effect in the mirror. My sister Catherine is my best friend. Fire is dedicated to her. And she and I have very different… taste… in Christmas decorations. My taste in Christmas decorations pretty much runs to no decorations at all, whereas I think that if Catherine had the time and resources, she would turn her house into a big, house-sized glitter Santa Claus and you’d have to, like, walk through his mouth to get inside, and as you walked in you’d hear him saying HO-HO-HO! all around you, and inside the house there would be shiny things everywhere. Stars and icicles and jingle bells and tinsel. I think, ideally, that’s how it would be… it would be pretty spectacular.

So. One day, I went to Catherine, and I said, “Catherine, do you have any tinsel?” So Catherine went away for a few minutes, and then she came back with, like, mountains of tinsel in red, green, blue, gold, silver, et cetera, which was just what I was hoping she would do. So, I took one of them, let’s say it was the green, and I piled it on top of my head, and I stood in front of the mirror. And then I was like, “Catherine, do you mind trying one?” and I piled the blue tinsel on top of her head, and we admired that for a while, and then we piled the blue on me and the green on her and the silver on me and the gold on her and so on… because the thing is, I was having a really hard time picturing the way the colors would work together with my monsters in Fire. I didn’t know what color hair and eyes to give to my two human monsters, Fire and Cansrel. And Catherine and I have different colored eyes from each other, so we did this tinsel thing because I was trying to see how various bizarre colors of hair look with various colors of eyes. I was trying to make something that was just an idea more solid, so that I could get to an answer. And my sister is a lovely person, but I still think it’s a testament to the powers of my imagination that when we piled red tinsel on her head, I was able to look at my green-eyed sister with her red-tinsel turban and say, Huh. Fire, the most beeeyootiful woman in the Dells, clearly has blood red hair and green eyes.

Catherine, incidentally, didn’t ask me once why we were doing this. I think this is partly because it didn’t matter. It was fun, it was Christmas in June, so who cares. But I’m guessing she also suspected that, like most of my weirder behavior, this had something to do with some book I was thinking about, and she knew, in her wonderful, supportive-without-being-nosy way, not to pry. She knew I’d tell her if I wanted to. I didn’t tell her. I didn’t tell anyone a thing about Fire until it was pretty much done. She put the tinsel away once we’d tried it all, and went back to whatever she’d been doing before, and that was that. I don’t know if she even remembers it, but it’s one of my favorite Fire-related memories.

NUMBER SIX. Fire came from a hard time in my life. It’s hard sometimes to know whether your life becomes dark because the book you’re writing is dark—Fire’s head was not a particularly comfortable head to be stuck in for a year and a half while I was drafting—or whether the book you’re writing becomes dark because your life is dark, but either way, while I was writing Fire, my life was changing in a lot of ways that were beyond my control and that were overwhelming to me, and I was a little bit lost in my own life. Fire was lost in hers, too. I’m not anymore. I’m not lost in my life. And I don’t think Fire is either. I think Fire has found her place. But it’s a very human condition, you know? Every one of us knows what it’s like to be lost.

When I found out that I’d won this award and that there was a cash prize, I consulted my sister Catherine about what I should do with this money. Catherine is a therapist for children in the Jacksonville, Florida school district. She helps children who are lost, of which there are many in many different ways, and in addition to her job, she volunteers at a camp that operates in association with Northeast Florida Community Hospice. It’s a weekend-long camp for young people between the ages of 7 and 17 who are bereaved. Kids who’ve lost a parent or a sibling or loved one of some kind go to this camp and take part in activities to help them remember those they’ve lost, acknowledge their own grief, and take steps toward healing. This camp has the coolest name ever: Camp Healing Powers. It is a program that is about loss but also about hope. With Fire, I was trying to say something about loss and being lost, about grief, and about hope and finding yourself, and choosing life, and that’s why I’ve decided to donate the money I’m receiving today to Camp Healing Powers.

I want to close today with a heartfelt thank you to a few people without whom my book would have been nothing and gone nowhere: my wonderful editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, Kathy Dawson; my wonderful agent, Faye Bender; and my team at Penguin who did such a beautiful job getting this book out into the world and who’ve shown me so much support. I’d also like to thank a few people without whom I would be nothing: my sisters Catherine and Dorothy, and my mother and father, Nedda and Mike Cashore. I’ve had the opportunity to say this before in Q&As and in interviews, but I’ve never had the opportunity, before today, to say it while my parents are present: when I’m feeling discouraged with my writing and just want to give up because it’s too hard, I channel my mother. And when I’m terrified, I channel my father. I believe that if it weren’t for the example of my mother’s particular brand of strength, I never would have finished a book and I never would have tried to get it published. And if it weren’t for the example of my father’s particular brand of strength, I never would have been able to handle the tumult when getting that first book deal took my life and shook it around and turned it upside down. I am so very lucky to have them.

One more big thank you to the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Committee. And finally, thank you to all of you in the audience for being here today to celebrate my book with me!