The release of A World Without You — the first contemporary YA novel from local author Beth Revis — comes at a busy time. To start, the addition of a child to her household (her son Jack is now 1 year old) has made her writing life more interesting. As she’s working on her current project, a fantasy novel dealing with necromancy — the dark art of raising of people from the dead — “My son will crawl up and say, ‘Hey, Mommy!’” she says. “And I say, ‘I’ve got to write my death story now — sorry, innocent baby!’”
Child rearing isn’t Revis’ only new endeavor since finishing her Across the Universe series. With novelist Jake Bible, she hosts the Asheville/WNC Writers Coffeehouse, and she’s partnering with author Cristin Terrell on retreats that offer aspiring writers an intensive, live-in workshop experience. Revis will launch A World Without You at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, July 19. The event includes a Q&A with local writer Alexa Duncan.
A former teacher, Revis learns by teaching. “That’s the reason I wrote Paper Hearts,” she says of her three-volume series on writing advice. “The more I wrote about writing, the more I understood about writing.” Asked what she’s learned, she turns to voice, which she defines as the authentic writing that arises when an author trusts her own work.
For Revis, an authentic voice goes hand in hand with a vision of writing as a process of discovery, a process that was at work in the writing of A World Without You. The novel is the story of Bo, a mentally ill teen whose delusions that he can travel through time prevent him from dealing with his girlfriend’s death and threaten his relationship with his family. World also tells of Phoebe, Bo’s sister, and her struggle to come to terms with the effects of Bo’s illness on her life and family.
That’s not how Revis first envisioned the book, however. “When I originally pitched it, it was just a twisty story where a kid thinks he has powers,” Revis says. Whether or not those powers were real — and whether Bo was in a mental institution or an X-Men-type academy — would be left up to the reader.
As she got further into the novel, however, Revis realized that she had to resolve the reality of Bo’s situation. Then, one day she found herself writing a scene in which Bo overhears his sister talking about her deepest fears. Although the sister character didn’t have a name at that point, Revis realized that those fictional fears echoed her own real-life feelings growing up with Luke, her mentally ill brother.
“I’m usually not a ‘the muse touched me’ type of person,” Revis says, “but once she started voicing her fears — which were really my fears — it became something I wanted to explore.” Soon the sister had a name — Phoebe, after Holden Caulfield’s sibling in A Catcher in the Rye — and, as her role expanded, World transformed from paranormal to contemporary realism.
The story is not meant to be autobiographical. Revis’ parents, she says, provided much more support to her and Luke than Bo’s parents can provide to him and Phoebe. Yet it’s clear that the author’s experience deepens the book’s central conflict. And for Revis, this connection was made more poignant because her brother died several years ago, and she wrote much of World while she was pregnant with her son. She says the choice of time travel as Bo’s power was due in part to a desire to reach the now-absent Luke, “and so writing about this brother who ultimately died, while this new life was growing inside me — it was a weird and surreal mixture of death and life and past and future.”
Writing a contemporary novel presented special challenges. Revis couldn’t rely on science fiction tropes, and exploring her personal history (“I don’t like to do that as much,” she says) made the writing all the more difficult. Early response to World, in particular from those familiar with mental illness, has reassured her, however. She hopes readers will take note of the way Bo’s illness also grants him a unique insight and strengthens his bond with Phoebe. “We can shift what we consider weakness to power,” Revis says. “Things that hurt us can also be sources of strength in ways we didn’t really know.”
WHAT: Beth Revis presents A World Without You in a conversation with Alexa Duncan
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, July 19, at 7 p.m. Free