My lovely friend Kathi Appelt and I wrote a novel together, Maybe a Fox, here on Indiebound and here on Amazon, which was published last week. It began as a lark (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase, so thank you for letting me do so here), sparked by our friendship and a poem we both loved, but it took us one helluva long time to write it, as you will see if you read the below post we wrote about the process. The book has so far gotten a bunch of starred reviews, which makes us happy, given that at a few points we were close to throwing in the towel (on the book, not our friendship).
Maybe a Fox has also just been published in audio form. For better and for worse, I did the recording. Click here for a sample of the audio version. Recording a book on audio is weird and fascinating. The booth is silent and you have to sit perfectly still. You have to physically place your hands where you want them before you say a word, for example, because the sound mics are so sensitive that the tiny touch of your finger on your jeans will sound like wind. You can see the producer and the sound engineer beyond the soundproof window, chatting and drinking coffee and eating malted milk balls, but everything’s silent where you are. This was such a cool experience.
How in the world do you write a novel with another person? Kathi and I just jumped in and figured it out as we went along (and along and along and along and along).
The collaboration that would become Maybe a Fox began many years ago in a freezing and dingy dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we were new both to the faculty and to each other. Alison’s roller bag had gone missing at the airport, and she remembers Kathi tilting her head in sympathy and offering, in that beautiful Texas accent of hers, to lend her a pair of pajamas. Kathi doesn’t remember that, but she does remember breakfast the next day, when the two of us loaded up our trays and scuttled to sit together at a small table between two huge pillars in the drafty dining hall, a table we sat at every day, three times a day, for each of the residencies we shared.
It was friend-love at first sight, and it was that very first week, when we were eating one of the many meals we ate together Between the Pillars, that Kathi suggested we write a book together.
“What kind of book?” Alison said.
“A book about two sisters,” Kathi answered.
Both of us had many other projects that occupied us, and the idea was tabled, although one of us would occasionally bring it up over the years. Then, about five years ago, Alison sent out a poem about a small red fox in snow as her Poem of the Week. Something about that little fox ignited both of us, and we decided to take the plunge and begin our book.
The ground rules:
- The book would be about two sisters who were somehow separated, and it would also contain a small red fox.
- Each of us would take on a new challenge in the writing, something she’d never done before as a writer.
- We would each write in a separate viewpoint, with chapters alternating between those viewpoints.
After considering the sister possibilities –twins separated at birth? Sisters each living with one parent? One sister in prison and the other not? One sister alive and the other not?—we left it vague. Sisters, separated somehow. We figured the fox would appear on its own terms, when the time was right, so we didn’t worry about that. As for the personal writing challenge, Kathi decided to write in first person, since she hadn’t before, and Alison decided to write in the voice of the fox, since up until then she’d stayed strictly with humans.
We began the book by trading chapters weekly, sometimes more often if the muse struck. We worked wildly fast, most of the time, and the story gathered ground and impetus week by week. Kathi was fascinated by the fact that some rare rivers disappear underground. Alison was fascinated by the idea of an animal that could sense things from a world beyond this one. We tossed ideas back and forth, tried them out week by week, abandoned them if they were dead ends, followed them as far as we could if they felt powerful.
Eventually we realized that we were writing a book about maybes, about the way we as human beings try to answer unanswerable questions –what happens when we die? What happens with grief too big to stand? What happens when you can’t find the answers to what you most need to know?—and that sense, of both possibility and heartbroken wonder, became the core of the novel.
We wrote an entire, unwieldy mess of a draft in half a year. With the ongoing help of our wonderful agent and the massive efforts of our beloved editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, we rewrote that mess of a draft countless (literally, we have no idea at this point how many times we rewrote that book) times over the next four years. What began as an alternating-chapter, alternating-point of view method turned into a we’ll-work-on-the-whole-thing-together method. Where Alison once was the sole writer of the fox chapters, and Kathi the sole writer of the Jules chapters, we can no longer point to any voice or passage or chapter as belonging to either of us. We moved from emailed chapters to simultaneous Google doc revisions to taking turns separately revising the entire book (over and over).
At one point early on, Kathi flew up from Texas and we sat on Alison’s porch in Minneapolis and took turns reading chapters out loud to each other, pencils in hands, marking up places to revise. We laughed. We cried. We talked through every aspect of plot and character. We never once, strangely enough, argued. Kathi flew back to Texas and the rewrites continued for another three years. At some point along the way we began sending each other fox totems: a fox necklace, a framed fox photograph, a felt basket with a fox on it, fox notecards. Alison now sees foxes wherever she goes; like the characters in Maybe a Fox, she considers them good luck.
Maybe a Fox is so much a part of our hearts and souls at this point that we privately admit to each other we have no idea if it’s any good or not; it just is. We do know that we still, each of us, cry when we read the ending. Just like Jules and Sylvie in Maybe a Fox, we consider ourselves sisters. Sister Kathi, Sister Alison. Our book is made out of wonder and longing and struggle and love. We hope it finds a good place in the world.
I just listened to the audio chapter. Knowing what happens, it made me sad … you read it beautifully.
Your friendship with Kathi ….. also beautiful.