“Dares, Diseases, and Decisions: How Wreck Came to Be” Trigger Warning: Death, Assisted Suicide
In the summer of 2015, an editor said to me, “You know, I’ve never seen a YA novel about assisted suicide.” And I thought, “Game on,” because I’m a dumbass, of course. In hindsight, it was a completely stupid idea to tackle. It was hard and huge. But I knew I had a lot of grief I could loan to a book like that, so I had the emotional resonance I’d need to create a character who was dealing with such a huge topic. But outside the necessary emotional knowledge? Big shrug. How the hell could a person write about that topic? After the editor’s dare (she had no idea was a dare), the idea for WRECK came to me in a big gush, while I was working with students at my college. I went to the library in between registration events and wrote a paragraph that outlined the idea. I knew it would be a father/daughter book, and I knew the dad needed a reason for assisted suicide, but I didn’t know what it was.
My first thought: active dude, marathon runner, then he suddenly can’t run. That would make anyone despondent. However, my agent at that time was a very wise, kind woman who acquired a disability in her 30s. She was very clear that Steve couldn’t just have a car accident and want to die—it’s unfair and unethical to suggest that acquiring a disability should mean you should kill yourself. She was exactly right, of course. So then I had to figure out an illness or situation where an awful end was inevitable. Then the dad’s choice would be a decision about agency, and retaining control in an uncontrollable future.
I decided early on not to write about cancer. The loved ones I’ve had with cancer have recovered. I had a loved one with Alzheimer’s, which does, in fact, lead to a horrible end, but it’salso a slow end. To be realistic, the book would have to cover years of time. But then a writing group member was telling me about her friend whose father had ALS, which is maybe more devastating than all of the terrible illnesses combined. I started doing research, and developed the utmost respect for the tenacity ALS patients and families show in the face of an infuriating, destructive, and relentlessly shitty illness.
Before I talked with the man whose dad had ALS, I had been doing different research about assisted suicide, and ran across an article about an academic (one I remember studying, as an undergrad), who decided to end her life early because she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The New York Times did a story about her decision, and as I read it, I thought, “Here we go. This is what my character’s dad can do.” I knew how to hasten my character’s inevitable, awful end.
Then I had all my story elements: a teen and her dad, an illness to cause a horrific demise, and a way for the dad to carry out his decision. But I still didn’t have a place to set everything.
A few weeks after I scribbled that initial paragraph, we went on our annual family vacation to Duluth, and the light bulb went off again. No matter how many times I stick my feet into Lake Superior, I’m always shocked by how brutally cold the water is. And that cold became a metaphor. Then we spent some time on a beach on Park Point, where I saw an old, beat-up house among all the mansions. Suddenly Tobin and Steve had a place to live.
And then I had to write it. And it was horrifying. All of the emotional resonance I had with grief came in handy. When I wrote the most intense scene between Tobin and her dad, I had to cry for about twenty minutes before I could even get a word on the page. I had more than one weep session, in the process of the book, but none as intense as that one.
Even through all the sadness, the book got shaped, and then the editor who dared me to write it decided against it, and then it got shaped a few more times, and then it found another home, then it lost its second editor, then it found another, and . . . yeah. It was a process, as all books are. But it was the hardest, saddest book I’ve written. It used to be called THE SADDEST BOOK IN THE WORLD, but who’d buy that book?
This book caused more stress and heartache than most of my novels, but I’m proud of WRECK. I found a place to put my grief, I did justice to the father-daughter relationship between Tobin and Steve, and I wrote about one of the most beautiful places in the country. Gut-wrenching tears or not, I’m glad I did it.
More About Wreck by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Steve’s life as a paramedic and a runner comes to an abrupt halt just as Tobin is preparing her application for a scholarship to art school. With the help of Steve’s personal care assistant (and family friend) Ike, Tobin attends to both her photography and to Steve as his brain unexpectedly fails right along with his body.
Tobin struggles to find a “normal” life, especially as Steve makes choices about how his own will end, and though she fights hard, Tobin comes to realize that respecting her father’s decision is the ultimate act of love.
About the author
Kirstin Cronn-Mills is a writer and teacher. Her novel Beautiful Music for Ugly Children won the 2014 Stonewall Award from the American Library Association, and several of her books have received both state and national recognition. She lives with her family and her goofball animals in southern Minnesota, which is entirely too far from Lake Superior. Her website is: http://kirstincronn-mills.com.
“Wreck wrecked me. Kirstin Cronn-Mills has a singular way of getting inside characters heads and making their stories come to life. This book will make you cry.” —Bill Konigsberg, award-winning author of The Music of What Happens?
“A provocative, unflinching, and emotionally-complex deep dive into mortality and loss while Tobin and her father grapple with almost unfathomable decisions. A wrenching and empathetic look at the tumultuous waters and seemingly bottomless grief that can interrupt an otherwise placid life.” —Amanda MacGregor, Teen Librarian Toolbox
“This book has heart and empathy as vast and deep as the Great Lake on which it’s set.” —Geoff Herbach, award-winning author of Stupid Fast and Hooper
“Every so often a book comes along that is so sharp, so moving, so real, and so good, you want to press it into everyone’s hands and say, Read this! READ THIS!” —Courtney Summers, author of Cracked Up to Be, on Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
“A kind and satisfyingly executed portrait.” —Kirkus Reviews
Thank you, Kristin, for your post about going from an idea to a novel!
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