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Rita Williams-Garcia A session in St. James is one of the best and most important books of 2021, and it goes against everything she promised herself as a writer. She didn’t want to write a book about the Civil War era Black YA because they are so common and the stories of black lives are so much broader.
And yet, she chose to do it in this book, and indeed, it is a Civil War Black YA book.
It is also a lot not that kind of book. He follows a single household in the Creole country of Louisiana, led by a white matriarch, sons who fought to inherit the plantation estate, and a multitude of black slaves, ranging from cooks to personal assistants, as well as Métis children who make and don’t have family claims (depending on who you ask).
Another knockout book that has hit shelves this year is Malinda Lo’s History. Last night at the Telegraph Club. Set in 1950s San Francisco at the height of the Red Scare, the book follows Chinese-American Lily as she falls in love with a white girl named Kath. It’s a gender shift for Lo, but the incredible research she’s done for time and its socio-political and economic realities is a wonder.
Although they present two very different eras and two very different stories, one thing unites these two books: the most astonishing, to be read in the form of an author’s note.
We want the meat and the potatoes of a story when we pick up a novel. It’s easy to skip the extra pages before a story begins, and certainly easy to close the book before going through an extra paratext. For non-fiction, that leap can be even more appealing as we rush to absorb what we’ve come for. We want information, not information about information.
The author’s note is like the preamble to a blog recipe: it’s the story of history, an opportunity especially for historically under-represented groups to put their own voice on the page. Many may call it “too much”, imploring to “get right to the point”, but it is in itself a work worth studying.
But the author’s note is, without a doubt, my favorite part of a book.
Author Notes come in many different forms, but in almost every case, this is a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of making a book. The authors will share what inspired them to tell this particular story and how it relates to something in their own lives. An author could disclose his experiences with mental illness, for example, and how it encouraged him to explore it creatively through his story. They can provide resources that have helped them find the words for an experience, as well as resources for those who might be facing a particular challenge addressed by the book.
In the cases of Williams-Garcia and Lo’s books, both offered an incredible array of contexts for their stories. We think we know about the civil war, about the war to end slavery, but what do we know about the life of the Creoles during this time? For me, the answer is virtually nothing, and the novel offered insight I never knew I didn’t know. When I delved into the author’s note, Williams-Garcia shared her own lack of knowledge and the work she devoted to research and learning, plus how she used these information to give more context to the story.
For Lo, it was about learning the history of the Red Scare and how Americans of Chinese descent, especially in the Bay Area, became targets through the implementation of the Law on the Red Scare. exclusion of the Chinese and its political degradation. What would be possible to navigate under the radars of the anti-communist app and what would arouse suspicion and possibly damage the fine threads that hold the relationship together?
Reading the author’s notes in Williams-Garcia and Lo, as well as in hundreds of other titles, offers a whole second story. It’s the story of how the story came about, and the story of how the author knew that was the story he wanted to tell. It is a path towards learning and knowledge, towards curiosity and creativity. While not plot driven, it is a character study, as well as a rich treasure trove of details that only enhance what happened in the previous pages.
Many times the reading list is strong enough to offer more than a college-level senior seminar on a topic. It is an invitation to continue the story.
An author’s note is given directly to you, the reader. An opportunity to break the fourth wall, it invites readers into the mind and process of the author, without compromising the integrity of the work itself. In most cases, this reinforces this integrity, initiating a trust and bond between the author and the reader.
Here’s how you know I got those details as accurate as possible, dear reader, and here’s what I hope you can take away from the story..
Those were my goals, and this is how I pursued them.
I thought that was the story I was telling, but it turns out that this particular story had a lot more to teach me.
The author’s note is also a trade statement. This is where the nooks and crannies of how the writing came together are explored, providing the “how” behind the textual example. Here’s how the author managed to weave those threads into a narrative and how the author managed to maintain or change the outlook on 200, 400, 800+ pages. Writers can gain as much from reading these perspectives as they can by dissecting sentences and passages that move them.
I especially like the author notes that preface a new edition of a backlist title. What has changed in the last 10, 20, 40 years since the book was first published? In what ways have modifications been made consciously to bring the book to a contemporary audience, and why have some details remained exactly the same?
As readers we see how much we ourselves have changed in what we accept from a book and what we will never let go of.
We hear the voices of those who have too often had their voices crushed.
I want to know more when I open or close a story, not less. While I am interested in developing my own opinion on a text, it is extremely useful to see what an author thinks about the text and what he is about to do. It gives me a deeper sense for the reader to understand the intent of a text, its impact, and whether or not it achieved its goals. beyond my personal opinion, a crucial skill in today’s world.
It is perhaps not surprising to discover that my favorite end-of-year books are not necessarily the ones that I enjoyed reading the most or that I personally loved. Rather often it’s those books where I know the story behind the story and I can objectively say that they were successful in what they intended to do. These are books that last. They are good reads and they are good at doing what they set out to do.
The establishment of this standard is largely thanks to the power of the author’s note.
Please, dear reader, do not skip them. Savor them little by little and let yourself explore the wonder of story building alongside the story creator.