“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” —Neil Gaiman
I wrote “Find Layla” a couple of years ago. I wrote it as something of an exorcism; I wanted some rotten things that happened to me when I was very young out of my heart. I wanted to set them at a distance where I could look at them and examine them where they didn’t affect me as much anymore. Fiction (the truth inside the lie) can give that distance.
Even still, this book is terribly personal to me. It’s not memoir. I didn’t have access to YouTube as a child, and that’s probably for the best. “Find Layla” is the story of a fourteen year old girl who makes a video inside her own house. The video shows the terrible conditions in which she lives: a flooded house that grows black mold and indoor mushrooms, where the lights are always off. She uploads it to the internet to show the world who she is. Fortunately or unfortunately, the world pays attention and her life falls apart.
I read constantly as a child and a young teenager, but I rarely if ever saw lives like mine in books. I read about very poor children (“Blue Willow” Doris Gates, 1940) but the worst adversity they faced was mitigated by protective and loving parents. I read about kids with terrible parents (The Great Gilly Hopkins” Katherine Paterson, 1978) who were rescued in the end by someone who cared about them. I read and read, always looking for kids like me who had no money and no parents, nowhere to live or nothing to eat, and had to handle life for themselves. Aside from the occasional adventure in the wilderness or the Met museum, I had a hard time finding stories about children who were well and truly on their own.
Many of you may not know this about me, but I was on my own quite young. I got my first job at 14, and worked as an au pair to avoid sleeping on the street not long thereafter. That’s where it becomes obvious, but I was on my own long before then. I signed my own school slips and solved my own problems from the time I was about nine. I wanted to write about a kid like me.
So I wrote Layla. Layla is as tough as she needs to be. She doesn’t trust easily. She knows how to catch a nap in a 24 hour laundromat and how to talk her way on to a bus with no cash and no pass. She says the Latin names of living things when she needs to calm herself down. She’s an adept forger and a world-class liar. She’s a survivor.
This isn’t a science fiction story, or a fantasy story. This is young adult contemporary fiction. And having it become real in the world feels like walking down the street naked. I’ve rarely felt this exposed by anything that I’ve written, and I hope that means I’m starting to get it right.
“Find Layla” will be out published August 4th, 2020 by Skyscape. You can preorder it here.