Kelly Braffet on the Enduring Appeal of Youth in Writing
Editor's Note: Kelly Braffet is the author of Josie and Jack and Last Seen Leaving. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, where she received her MFA. Kelly lives in upstate New York with her husband, the writer Owen King. Here, Braffet discusses the appeal of young protagonists, and why she returns to them in her writing again and again. Her latest novel, Save Yourself, is now available.
I live in a college town, and I love it. The college keeps the town vibrant, and wards off some of the Ye Olde Village Cuteness that afflicts so many of our neighbors: There are hanging baskets of flowers up and down Main Street, but there's also a little graffiti. And those who live next door to an eight-person share two blocks from campus might be less charmed, but I love seeing the students around town. I love watching them flirt in the coffee shop. I love seeing awkward morning-after diner breakfasts, or couples holding hands in that sweet, shy way you never really recapture. Once I rounded a corner in the grocery store to find a girl in head-to-toe steampunk gear, as if she'd just parked her time traveling airship by the vegan sorbet. The young people, in short, are awesome.
And yet, I would not trade places with one of them for all the money ever printed. For everything that's new and shiny about being young, there are three things that are terrifying and unpredictable. Perhaps that's why I'm drawn to write about them, again and again: Of the six protagonists of my three published novels, only one is over thirty, two are actual teenagers, and the rest are in their twenties. Writing about young people has never been a conscious choice; these are just the stories that occur to me to tell, and the people who happen to be in them. Some writers lean toward epiphany when choosing their stories, but I lean toward moments of decision and crisis, which, to me, make youth a natural target. You're not sure who you are and you're not sure who you want to be. Your relationships, your living situation, and your finances are often unsettled and precarious; you might want to change your life, but you probably don't know how, and the result is a weird state of panicked doldrums. No wonder I wouldn't go back. You probably wouldn't, either. Not for all the shy hand-holding and unwrinkled skin in the world.
Unfortunately, I think there are plenty of readers out there who feel the same way regarding novels about younger characters. Meh, they think, reading the jacket. Those aren't my problems anymore. We've all been young. Whatever our personal version of steampunk goggles might have been, we've probably worn it all to the grocery store, and we've moved past these-goggles-are-who-I-am to wow-I-wish-I-could-see-better. We feel justified in dismissing people based on their age in a way that we would (ideally) never feel comfortable dismissing people based on their gender or cultural background; we feel we have a right to, because we've been there.
It's easy to grow complacent, to say I've been your age, you haven't been mine, and decide that's the end of it. But when we do that, we're effectively deciding that there's no value in seeing the world through the eyes of someone who happens to be younger than we are. At its best, though, fiction is about showing us what we fail to see, even when we don't want to see it. We may have lived our youth, but we haven't lived everybody's youth. Even as an official grown-up, I still find the world baffling more often than I'd like to admit. Steampunk Girl is out there, in that world -- in my grocery store! -- and maybe if I come a little closer to understanding her, the rest of the world will make a little more sense, too.