Newbery Honor Author, New York Times Bestseller, Time Traveler
I am so honored to re-introduce Susan Hill Long to you today. Due to my being a complete bumble brain, I messed up my first effort to introduce Susan to you. So please, meet this lovely woman and do read her amazing book. If you are a writer yourself, be sure to study the first chapter of Whistle in The Dark, which may be as close to perfection as I’ve ever read: every element of the entire story is encapsulated in that chapter.
Susan Hill Long, captured at home by her daughter, Molly
What’s It like?
When I was a little girl, my family used to play a simple game called What’s it Like? Here’s how to play: one person has in mind an object in the room, and the other players guess what it is. Let’s say the object was that brown afghan, with the popcorn stitch. The game begins like so:
“What’s it like?” someone asks. It’s me.
(Now comes the part that always made me feel very odd, very peculiar.)
“It’s like you.” (It’s like me?) “It’s like you because it’s knobby.”
One guess, and then the question comes again from the next in line, “What’s it like?” and the round goes on, the players gathering clues until the secret object is discovered.
But I’m not knobby, my young self would think. I’m not made of wool.I’m not those things at all.
On some level, the game would make me question my very knowledge of myself, which even then (especially then?) I knew to be a slippery business. I’d go and climb on the step-stool and look in the mirror and wonder: Who am I? Am I really me? I’d pinch myself—yes, real—and watch for clues.
In a scene cut from Whistle in the Dark, the characters Clem and Esther play What’s It Like. Esther asks the question and gathers Clem’s replies and before long guesses correctly his miner’s cap lamp.
I don’t recall why I ended up cutting the game from the book. Probably it didn’t do the work I needed the scene to do, though it would seem to offer some potential—feel free to use it. But the question – what’s it like?—and especially the weird and challenging refrain, it’s like you…, gets at something interesting about writing. In order to write, a person probably needs to want to make a study of all kinds of things, and appreciate the curious, provoking ways in which they collide or connect. To take another look, to collect, to sort by color, by texture, by contrast, by feel and by feeling, and then to shake the gunnysack and sort it all again.
To take what is green about the object, what is blue about yourself —and to ask, what’s it like? What’s it really like? And then, be open to surprise.
Thank you, Sue, for sharing this bit of the behind-the-scenes process of book creating. Clem and Lindy will stay with me for a long, long time, and I, for one, will be re-reading this book to analyze how you so deftly wove in historical details and never once left me feeling I was being fed information. That is a real gift.