Val Emmich on MAYBE WE’RE ELECTRIC

People. From a distance, we have no trouble summing them up. The rude stranger online is a bigoted jerk. The driver who cut us off is a danger to society and deserves eternal damnation in hell.

Move closer. The flat figures gain dimension. The shadows grow features. Things were simple from afar. Our hate for @lifeisamazing was clean and uncomplicated. Now she has a face—she—standing in front of us, acting all human and everything. We’re forced to see her anew.

How inconvenient. Who has the time and energy to reconsider a person about whom we’ve already made up our minds at a distance? It’s a gift—the act of granting time to a stranger. Today, when division, distraction, and intolerance run rampant, it’s an enormous ask. It was a big ask twenty years ago when I was growing up.

As a teenager, I desperately wanted someone to take the time to really know me. I was convinced that the image my peers had of me (popular, privileged, unburdened) was inaccurate and unfair, and I was unwilling and unable to show them how wrong they were. My family life was a mess and that was a well-kept secret. I was riddled with anxiety and resentment and that was a well-kept secret. As much as I claimed to loathe the perception of me, I went to great lengths to maintain it. I became a perfectionist, intolerant of my own flaws and those of others. I wanted to get closer to people, but I pushed them away; then I’d become enraged when they didn’t chase after me and I’d daydream about taking revenge on them. While this storm raged inside me, I did my best to look unfazed on the outside.

You don’t know me. You think you do, but you don’t. Please know me. I won’t make it easy for you. But please try. I beg you.

This was my inner monologue. It still is today. I can appear unapproachable. But come close and I’ll melt in your arms.

I created two characters who share this core need to be known (truly) and accepted (fully) and whose many contradictions conceal and distort those simple needs. Their names are Tegan and Mac. Both are sixteen.

I remember my friend Z and I met at a pond in our New Jersey town when we were sixteen. As we watched ducks glide in the water, I revealed to her that my father had just tried to end his life. Not for the first time either. The part I really needed to get off my chest: I wish he’d actually done it. I wanted it to be over already. I expected Z to respond with compassion. She didn’t. She called me selfish. Her disgust was palpable. It was the beginning of her own confession. She had parent trauma that she was in the middle of processing. It felt like we had both dumped our toxins into that peaceful pond. Poor ducks.

I guess in that moment I had convinced myself that I alone felt pain. Pain is everywhere, of course. Maybe it’s easy to forget that because it’s so often in hiding. By revealing my own pain that day, I welcomed Z to reveal hers. If I wanted someone to know me, I realized, I ought to be open to knowing them back. It’s only fair.

That interaction was the seed from which I grew the relationship between Tegan and Mac in my novel Maybe We’re Electric. My two protagonists have endured a lot in their young lives and they’re ready to acknowledge this to at least one other person—and to themselves. They can’t pretend anymore. All is not fine. They are not fine. And they are not alone in their not-fineness.

For one night, at least. In order to make this happen for Tegan and Mac, I needed something big to put their lives on hold. I opted for a snowstorm. I also took away their devices—left one at home and drained the other of its charge. I made for them a little cocoon inside of which they could undergo a transformation.

I was thinking about the John Hughes movies of my youth, many of which take place in a single day and location. Breakfast Club, obviously. In the lesser known Career Opportunities, a guy and girl from different social strata get locked overnight in a Target. There’s also Richard Linklater’s “Before” Trilogy—each film tracks a single night or afternoon.

In terms of literature, my editor Farrin Jacobs sent me Nina LaCour’s 2017 novel We Are Okay and that proved influential. The sense of restraint in its prose. The courage and skill of its structure. It’s beautiful brevity (I was determined to get Maybe We’re Electric under three hundred pages). And the insight the novel offered me in terms of what is possible in the Young Adult genre.

Art, like electricity, can help light the way. When we connect with it, we feel understood. It’s as if a total stranger has seen us up close and has refused to turn away from what they’ve seen. That stranger has given us the gift of their time. Maybe my book can do that for others.