The file name for the first draft of If I Stay was Why Not? It’s not that Why Not? was ever a title I had in mind for the book. It was more that when I first started writing, I was not sure if what I was writing was a novel, a young-adult novel, a viable anything. Also, at that point, even though I’d published a couple of books, including a YA novel (Sisters in Sanity, which I think about twelve people had read) and a travel memoir (You Can’t Get There From Here: A Year On The Fringes of a Shrinking World, read by slightly more than twelve), I did not have a literary agent (mine had quit agenting) and my editor had left her job, which meant I really didn’t have a publisher either. I had a half-written novel, which was being re-written as a YA novel, and that was not working in YA any better than it had been working in adult form. So basically, I felt like I was starting from square one in the publishing business, even though I’d been working as a journalist and author for ten years.
So this is where I was when I got the idea for If I Stay, and the idea really came as a question (semi spoiler alert): What would you do if you knew that your family had died and you’d been left behind? It’s something I’d thought about a lot, for years. But suddenly, this character, Mia—this 17-year-old cello player popped into my head, fully formed, even though I knew nada about cello—and demanded my attention. She was here to answer that question for me.
When I started writing, I had no idea where she would take me, what the answer would be, what her decision would be. I also had no idea if what I was doing was for my own gratification or edification, or if it was meant to be a book that people might read. Because really? A young-adult novel, about an out-of-body teen cello player having to decide between life and death? This did not seem like a Good Idea. And I did not have all the usual people—agent, editor, etc.—to run it past.
Instead, I didn’t do any of that. I mentioned the idea to one friend. She started to cry. I started to cry. A day or two later, I started writing. I saved the file as Why Not? I did not tell anybody what I was doing, not my friends, not my usual group of writer pals who read my works in progress, not even my husband for a while. Nobody. I just kept going, which is hugely uncharacteristic for a blabbermouth like me.
I got so completely swept up in the story that the question of whether or not the book was a book or who it was meant for or whether it was too heavy or depressing to be YA, none of that mattered. I just wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I figured I would worry about the other stuff later. And in a weird way, it didn’t matter. Writing it was such an emotional experience, such a—and I know this sound cheesy—transcendent one, that it was gratification and reward enough.
So given all that uncertainty and secrecy and not even thinking of this as novel, it has made what’s happened to it all the more surreal. This thing that started as Why Not? in total privacy is being published in the far corners of the world and I get emails from people responding to it in the most personal of ways, which both blows my mind and fills my heart.
Maybe there’s some lesson in that. Something about following a path with no obvious outcome, about it being okay to ask questions that you might not have answers to. Hey, why not?
Thanks so much, Gayle! :)