Karla's Question


Karla, who just read Into the Beautiful North in school, asked some good questions about the book. I thought they were really sharp, and I wanted to answer them here. Thanks for this, Karla--it adds to the general conversation I have with readers and fellowwriters all the time. You are the kind of reader I hope for. And your questions are good.

Like why do some people in class find the end of the book unfinished? I say this: because they are not paying attention. It is a common thing for students to think a story is left hanging or is not finished because they need a wrapped-up "neat" ending. The princess marries the prince. They all lived happily ever after. Life's not like that. Neither is literature. What you're after in a piece of fiction is a sense of a cpompleted narrative pattern. Think of a Persian rug. You don't study the rug; it's just there under your feet. But the pattern is complete. If the pattern weren't complete, you would feel uneasy or even dizzy. So, imagine if Nayeli started down the street to her father's house and the book ended. THAT is incomplete. What does happen (don't want to spoil those who have not read it yet), is the completion of the narrative pattern: she has an answer, and it is what it is. She has to grow up. She has to take her place now as an adult. This is the traditional and mythic story of the warrior on a quest. It just happens to be a young woman. People want pink hearts and frou-frou snuggles for girls, but that short-changes and insults the pain, yearning, hope and sorrow of real people. That ain't Art. I could have Nayeli find a rich boyfriend, win the lottery, save a drowning kitten, and become President of Mexico. But...no.

Now, the sense of suspension at the end was not an error. But the book is in no way unfinished. It reflects the unfinished business in all their lives, and on the border. Now what some of your pals may be responding to is the sense that the ending is abrupt. That may well be. A couple of critics felt that was so, yet later wrote me personal letters saying what they really wanted was another book. A series? Maybe. I can tell you that there was a longer, much more involved ending. But both my editor and I felt that it violated the integrity of Nayeli to give readers false and cheesy resolutions. You have to look at her as a person, and see that the gesture she makes is dignified, hard, and devastating. People who cry at this ending are having true feelings rather than goosed up get-your-hankies romance movie tears. I mean, I could have had ET in there, and he could have died, but Nayeli's love could have re-ignited his love-light and he could have then come back to life. Or I could have had a toruble-making puppy die. Then we could have called the waaaa-mbulance and cried a lot. Honestly, I wish I had because I would have sold a lot more copies. But at the end of the day, I have to live with myself and not be ashamed of the words I write.

Even as it is,some people say the book is a sell-out and a let-down. But I will always write what I need to write the way it needs to be written. It's been a weird feature of my career that every book I do, someone points out thast it was "all right" but certainly not as good as the book that came before! Ha ha! I love this. This means that Beautiful North will soon be much better than the next book I ahve coming out!

I don't know what to say about Yolo and Matt. This comes up often when I teach Fiction. They want to know what happened to Garp after the book ended, or what happened to Tarzan or the Little House on the Prairie girls. I feel like a real creep saying this to readers, but, um, Yolo and Matt don't exist. So, what happens to Yolo and Matt on the page IS what happens to Yolo and Matt. If we are looking at the shifting, uncertain relationship between immigant and host nation, between citizens of different countries, between friends and lovers, between Mexican and American, male and female, then Matt and Yolo are exactly what is happening in the book. They are trying to work out the relationship. Again, those wanting a pat answer are simply lazy readers. Because literautre is not made to answer your questions--it is there to post the question. The books with lists of answers in the back are text books, and you look back there to study for a quiz. Oddly, there would be no question in this case without the story being there first. See what I mean? It's ABOUT these questions. The border isn't easy to solve. Thus, the novel. (And, by the way, maybe the big issue is not Matt and Yolo, but what happens with Matt and his struggle with God and religion?)

Finally, why Atomiko at the end? because when we hear "I am Atomiko," it means a couple of things: 1. I have solved the plot point of whether he will follow or not (see The Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven), 2. he's my favorite character and, dang it, I wanted to see him again, and 3. THE BAD GUYS ARE ABOUT TO GET THEIR ASSES WHIPPED.

Yeah! If you're tuned in to a book, then you and the writer have made a deal between the two of you and you pick up clues and "get" whole other stories. We used to call this "The Indirect Means of Telling a Story" at Harvard. A story is told on one level--the way your pals might be reading it. But it is also implied, echoed, hinted and partially co-written by the reader, as you are clearly reading it. It's like a friend who can look at you in a crowd and cock an eyebrow and you somehow know this means, "Hey, remember that creeper that bothered us at the dance last year? Well this idiot in the Izod shirt reminds me so much of him!" And you get it.

You and I, in other words, work in a partnership. It is not my job to spoon-feed TV watchers easy solutions, but to set off shadows, laughs, fear, echoes, prayers and colors in your mind. We're dancing. The fact that they have questions is good for me. It means I am doing my work.

The answers in the book, by the way, are about humanity, friendship, love. Stuff like that.

Hope this answered your excellent questions. Thank you for reading my book! You rock.

love, L


coffeewithcarl (not verified)

"...but, um, Yolo and Matt don't exist." - Whaaaat??? They're not real??? L!

What did happen to Tarzan?

Excellent point about it 'maybe' being about his relationship to God! (This is one of my favorite things about you, man!)

I feel like I owe you money for this post! What an awesome lesson and invaluable insight about the book from the author himself! How do you put a price on that? You can't!

What a blessing her questions were and what a blessing that you answered them!

You both rock!


Katy (not verified)

Before I started reading "Into the Beautiful North," I saw a couple of reader reviews that mentioned the ending being abrupt or somehow unfinished. And then I read the book. And then I got to the end. And I thought, "What were they talking about? Of COURSE that's a real ending!" It didn't feel unfinished to me in the least! But then, I'm a librarian and a huge reader (145 books in 2009 alone (yes, I kept track because I'm a geek like that)) and I'm used to and understand "the indirect means of telling a story." Did I wonder how Yolo and Matt worked things out? Of course! Did I wonder how and why Atomiko decided to follow along? Of course! But I understand that such things are meant for the reader to imagine rather than the writer to specify.

lakshmi (not verified)

Luis! xxxooo
I love this post. It feels like eavesdropping--both on the conversation you're having with your reader, but also on the conversations you have with yourself about writing books. I never heard of 'The Indirect Means of Telling a Story' but I have always been suspicious of such a thing. HA! It's true--we do write in code and then the reader must have a secret decoder-brain to fully 'get-it.'
That is very awesome. My book just breached the 40,000 word mark. !!!!!! It’s official, I’m writing a ‘novel’ and not a short story or novella. How cool is that? :> :>:>

el poquito (not verified)

thanks for this little teaching here, Luis. Very interesting hearing and being privy to the inner/underlying thoughts.

ps: where'd your twitter go? always interesting tidbits/leads there.

bermudaonion (not verified)

I love it! I love that Karla is so sharp and that's she following up on this and I love your answer too!

Karla (not verified)

Haha, I sent this link to my teacher, who MAY make this a writting topic for us..maybe.
Thank You for answering

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Book club members have been some of my most enthusiastic and careful readers. I’m thrilled to share my work with you, answer your questions and tell you some of the stories behind the stories. This is our spot, just for us. Here, we can chat:  If I’m nearby, I’ll come and visit your club. Otherwise, we can Skype, talk over the phone or email. Sometimes, I’ll send surprises or hold contests.

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