After nearly a decade of intermittent writing and winning a local unpublished novel contest, Mary Lou Hall saw her manuscript finally catch the eye of a well-known publisher.
“She sat with it for five months and called out of the blue,” says Hall, an assistant professor of writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She said she felt like the novel was too dark for adults. But young adult fiction can go edgier and darker.”
Counterintuitive as that might seem, one trend in young adult fiction is toward more reality-based stories. Hall’s, with nary a vampire or wizard in sight, fits the bill.
“It didn’t seem logical to me in some ways,” she says. “But when I started thinking about a younger audience, it made me happy to reach people it could help, which wouldn’t necessarily be the older audience.”
The novel, “Wirewalker,” Hall’s first, takes place in the Mayfair Heights neighborhood of a fictional Jackson City. Hall says it was based on her experience living in Fulton Hill for some years, and an early draft had it set in Richmond.
“There was an image in the neighborhood that I encountered that stayed with me,” she says. “I was dabbling with that, and the story started to extend itself.”
The titular walker of wires is a 14-year-old boy named Clarence Feather, toeing the fine line of influences on his youth. His mother was killed by gunfire a few years ago, and his father has fallen under the sway of Johnnyprice, a crack-dealing, dog-fighting friend. Clarence’s father loans the boy out to run drugs for Johnnyprice, until a rival drug dealer offers more.
Concurrently, Clarence is starting high school, where his writing and good grades earn him the attention of teachers. He befriends a local store owner and the albino Great Dane of a neighbor, clinging to memories of his mother’s encouragement and hopes for his future.
The book and its marketing are self-conscious about race, touting Clarence’s biracial background and his life as what nonprofit grant applications would label at-risk. He’s a recent graduate of Stonewall Jackson Middle School and starts high school at Robert E. Lee. Clarence, of course, is trapped between his desire to be a good person and his need for protection against his alcoholic father and Johnnyprice.
Hall’s conversations with editors at her publisher, Viking Books for Young Readers, convinced her to age the originally 11-year-old protagonist in early drafts.
“They asked me to bump him up to a young 14, and I had to sit with that for a few weeks,” says Hall, who lives in the North Side. “But at the time, I had two nephews who were 14. And I could see that their sensibilities, even in these tween bodies, were very boyish. I didn’t feel like I had to tweak a lot of Clarence’s interior life.”
Hall hopes the book will entice readers of the same age. “I remember novels I read at that age that were these moments in time for me,” she says. “It’s exciting that the audience is these humans on the cusp of everything they’re going to become, not people in armchairs with coffee. It feels more energized that way.”
She also knows much of the market for young adult fiction is older than the teenage protagonists at the center of books by her and others.
“That’s half the market. I think it’s encouraging,” Hall says. “The literary world is so serious about itself, in my opinion, but [young adult] seems so egalitarian. It doesn’t denigrate any subgenres. There’s a place for you, no matter what.”
And Hall sees value in the modern reading habits of the genre’s fans. “They’re all over the web discussing these books, I’ve learned in the last month,” she says. “You don’t see that with older readers. It’s wildly encouraging that these discussions aren’t isolated to universities.” S
“Wirewalker” comes out Sept. 6. Mary Lou Hall will be at a launch party at Balliceaux that evening at 6:30 p.m.