“Maybe a Fox”

Maybe a FoxMy 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:

  1. The book would be about two sisters who were somehow separated, and it would also contain a small red fox.
  2. Each of us would take on a new challenge in the writing, something she’d never done before as a writer.
  3. 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.

Bookstore visits, March 7-10

Maybe a Fox

Greetings, anyone and everyone who lives within driving distance of the below bookshops! My lovely, funny, talented friend and novel-writing collaborator Kathi Appelt and I are embarking on a whirlwind tour next week, visiting bookstores to read from Maybe a Fox and chitchat with y’all (I’m channeling Kathi’s Texas drawl, can you tell?) about books and reading and your favorite cocktail (kidding) (but not really – I’m always on the lookout for a tasty new cocktail).

Maybe a Fox has gotten a bunch of starred reviews and great press and those who’ve read advance copies seem to be fans. It’s a book about two sisters, one of them gone forever, and how their lives intertwine with a baby girl fox. Set in Vermont, in the woods by a rushing river, it’s also a story about grief, memory, love, hope and wonderment. We would LOVE to see you next week if you’re around. We’ll also be appearing in Los Angeles (both of us), Texas again (Kathi) and Dubai (Alison) next month, so check for updates if you’re interested.

Monday, March 7—Milwaukee, WI

Oak Creek Public Library—6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, March 8—Naperville, IL

Anderson’s Bookshop—6:00 p.m.

Wednesday, March 9—Houston, TX

Blue Willow Bookshop—5 p.m.

Thursday, March 10—College Station, TX

Jacque’s Toys and Books—5:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 20–Tustin, CA (Alison only)

Once Upon a Storybook, 11 a.m.

Hope to see you there!


What I'm Reading, November 2015

Reading list, November 2015My son recently returned from a year trekking in Nepal and Australia, where he migrated from hostel to tent to hammock to hostel, living out of a single backpack and waiting tables, bartending, reading and writing nonstop. Each month he would post a photo of his current book supply lined up on a wooden floor. I loved those photos, which is why I’m totally stealing the idea from him.

1. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elana Ferrante. This is the fourth and final of a quartet of novels set in Naples (translated from the original Italian) about the intense, lifelong, always-challenging friendship between two women. From girlhood to old age, these books track their lives against the backdrop of a gritty neighborhood in a gritty city in a rapidly changing country. I was obsessed with these novels and read them one after another as fast as I could (which is not fast; I’m a slow reader). I can’t even tell you why they absorbed me so utterly; they tell instead of show, they are full of minute, step by step description of action, both women frequently annoyed me . . . and yet I couldn’t put them down and will never forget them. Highly recommend.

2. We Forgot Brock! I picked this book up at a book conference in Los Angeles at the end of October, read it through on the spot, and immediately began gnashing my teeth that I hadn’t thought this idea up myself –about a little kid and his invisible friend, both of whom are hilarious beyond measure– and written this book myself, so that then I could look at it and feel full of happiness that I had done something worthwhile with my life, instead of looking at it and feeling jealous that nooooo, somebody named Carter Goodrich had written it. AND illustrated it. Curses! Carter Goodrich happened to be sitting at the table next to me at the time, and I told him how jealous I was, and he turned out to be a really great and funny guy, which was even worse because I couldn’t be pissed at him. Go out and read this book because I guarantee you will love it.

3. A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler. I have been reading Anne Tyler novels all my life. She’s one of my favorite writers. This one was a tough read for me, different from her others in a way I can’t pinpoint. Maybe because it felt too close to some aspects of old age as I have observed them? Not sure. I recommend it anyway.

4. Yes, Please! by Amy Poehler. A few years ago, when Bossypants (by Tina Fey) came out, I lay on a window seat in my friends’ house in Canada and read it straight through, laughing out loud the entire way. Amy’s book is a worthy successor, or maybe a lady-in-waiting, to the throne of Hilarious Badass Women Who Write Disjointed All Over the Map Books. Amy and Tina are fearless and confident in the way I want all girls to be fearless and confident.

5. All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. I was at the launch reading of this book, at an old church-turned-public-library in Greenwich Village, at the end of October, and I was electrified by the reading. This book is co-written in two voices, a black teen and a white teen. It takes as its central event the brutal beating of the black teen and spirals out from there into a personal exploration of what it means to be white and what it means to be black in the  same school, same neighborhood, same city. A fast and intense and thought-provoking read.

6. Between Me and the World, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 150 slim pages of pure, intense, distilled thinking and experience of race, the assumptions of human beings on what race is, and how those assumptions play out in the everyday life of those considered by themselves and others to be black or white. All of which serves as the framework and context for the murder of Coates’ friend Prince Jones. This is an astonishing, disturbing, brilliant and profound book told in eerily calm words, a letter from a black man to his black son, written and framed in terms of the physical body, on what it means to live in this country.

7. Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and me. I read this thing for the seven zillionth time this week, changing a few pronouns and swapping out the word “gulped” for anything else that would make sense in its place. (How many times can one smallish novel contain the word gulped? Not nearly as many as we had, I can tell you that.) My lovely friend Kathi and I, inspired by 1) a poem about a fox and 2) the fact that we adore each other, started writing this book together a bunch of years ago, and I just went through it for the last –please dear God let us hope– time, because it goes to print next week. How many times did we re-write this sucker? We have no idea. We don’t even want to know. Suffice it to say that our eyes are glazed over, our brains are fried, and we are both in need of strong drink.








Kathi and April are both doing it, so why shouldn't she?

clam-man-sylvan-beach1She copies her friends and decides to write a poemish thing a day for a month. After all, if they told her to jump off a bridge, sure, she would jump off a bridge. Why not?

Good Lord,  I’ve got to write a poemish thing, she tells her daughter. They are sitting in a semi-grimy motel room on Day Four of a 1500-mile road trip. It’s check-out time.

Like right now, she says to her daughter. Quick, give me a topic.

Fruit! says the daughter.

Fruit? Too general. Too broad. Despite the fact that for some reason all she can picture is Minnie Pearl in a fruit hat with the price tag dangling off.

Give me a specific fruit, she says to her daughter.


Her daughter sounds so sprightly. Fruit! Apple! That’s what happens when you’re a child, packed and ready to go and eating a pre-packaged sweet roll of indeterminate age while watching morning television in a semi-grimy motel  room. You become sprightly.

Sprightly or not,  the daughter said apple and apple it shall be.

Apple. What can possibly be poemized about an apple that won’t make her weep with cliche?

Eve ate one and all the trouble began: the new clothes, the shame, the forcible exit from the garden. But was  it so great in that garden, really? The whole idea always strikes her as the equivalent of the white clouds and harps and halos in the New Yorker cartoon heavens, those blah middle-aged paunchy angels peering down at the lost world below.

* * *


Is it fun, with all that peace up there? Do you look down on us, you who used to be us, down here amongst the grit and the grime, you who no longer eat anything, let alone apples, peering down from your clouds on we who do, and shake your heads knowingly, glad to be done with it all and safe up on your clouds?

Or do you wish you were still here? Do you secretly wish you could trade places with, say, me, still eating apples, like this one, warm in my hand from a tree warmed by September sunshine?

I would, if I were you. Look at this apple, and look at me eating it. Look at me, with this crunch and this color and this flavor flooding my mouth.

Give me dirt. Give me tears, and a throat sore from crying. Give me laughter that makes my stomach hurt. Give me sex. Give me this wide brown churning river outside this grimy hotel window. Give me these muscles and bone and blood still dripping from this cut thumb. Give me a mountain that makes my legs ache. Give me this beating heart that hurts in a thousand ways. Give me this child, that man, this dog and the sun glinting off that hurrying river.

Give me fear,  and give me wonder.

Keep your clouds and your harps and your halos,  poor sad jealous angels peering down from your whiteness, and give me this world, this enormous world with its dirt, and its bruises, and its worms, yeah, I’ll take them too.

* * *