Laurie Halse Anderson is a familiar name in the world of children's and young adult literature with a prodigious output ranging from picture books (e.g. The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School) to historical fiction (e.g. Chains the first title in her Seeds of America series) and young adult works (e.g. Speak). In her latest, The Impossible Knife of Memory, we meet 17 year-old Hayley Kincaid whose mother died when she was small and who has spent the past five years homeschooling herself while traveling with her trucker father, a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recognizing Haley's need for a real school and home, they have now settled into her father's hometown where he struggles with post traumatic stress disorder. Having been away from others her own age for so long, school is a mixed bag for Haley; however, one major plus is her appealing classmate Finn. Deftly balancing Haley's worry and care of her father with her own needs and evolving romance, Anderson offers readers a powerful exploration into the impact of PTSD on parents and young people today.
Interested to know more about the background for the book I was pleased when the author graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions:
What was your inspiration for The Impossible Knife of Memory?
When my father was 18 years old, his Army unit was sent to Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp which had just been liberated. What he experienced there (burying the dead and trying to help the living) changed his life forever. He tried to lock away the memories, but they haunted him.
His PTSD worsened as I grew up. When I entered middle school, his drinking took over and our lives imploded. Dad lost his job and was deeply suicidal. I remember coming home from school and stopping just inside the front door to listen, afraid he'd be dead and just as afraid that he'd be alive and angry. Bills went unpaid; the electricity was turned off. My parents borrowed money from friends and relatives, and then cut off contact with them because they were ashamed they couldn't repay the loans.
The most confusing thing was that we didn't talk about any of this. I think silence was the only way my parents could cope. I bumbled my way through school feeling lost and alone. My memories of a happy childhood hurt so much, I tried to forget them.
It wasn't until our soldiers began to return home from Afghanistan and Iraq that I had the perspective to see my dad's suffering as a legacy of the war. Knowing how PTSD affects the children of soldiers, I began to ponder how to write this book.
What sort of research and preparation did you do to write the book?
Because the main character's issues with her father came from my emotional truth, I didn't need to research this book as much as I had for others. However, two sources proved enormously helpful. Dr. Jonathan Shay's Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming gave me important insight into the challenges faced by returning vets. I also benefitted from corresponding with a dozen homeschooled and unschooled students who shared their world with me. Understanding how they felt when they entered a traditional school setting was very helpful.
Hayley is a wonderful protagonist, especially in her incredible, but realistic caring and worry about her father. How did she come into being?
Like all the best characters, she showed up one day and started whispering in my ear. I wanted her to be strong and brave and smart, but also unsure of how to get by in the social world of high school and definitely not ready to fall in love. While all of her worries focused on her father, she needed to learn about her own trauma. Hayley was just as wounded by the past as her father. Until she came to terms with that, she'd couldn't start planning for the future.
The title The Impossible Knife of Memory is incredibly powerful. How did you arrive at it?
The working title was KNIFE because I knew this was going to be a story that had pain in it. However, I wanted to move beyond my traditional one-word title. Change is good! The final title dropped in my head once I understood that if the good memories of Hayley and her father had become painful, and that until they started dealing with their past, it wouldn't let them go.
Your books capture adolescent issues in a timely and pitch perfect way. This is especially evident from the moving stories you have shared in person and online of young people communicating with you after reading one of your books. With some advanced copies of this one out before the book was published, has it already made its way to young readers and, if so, what are they saying to you about it?
The feedback has been quite lovely. A few readers have already written saying the book gave them new insight into their parents. On the lighter side, a number said they're smitten with Finn and really enjoyed his relationship with Hayley. My favorite comments say that the book made them laugh and cry. I don't think there is any greater praise than that.
Is there anything else you would like to say about this book, young people today, the issues surrounding them that you explore in this book and others, or something else?
Having to parent your mother or father is a challenge that way too many teens have to deal with. Teens whose parents are dealing with substance abuse, financial hardship, job loss, mental illness and divorce deserve our love, support, and compassion. I wish America would stop judging and criticizing teens and instead, try to understand the battles they have to fight every day.