Behind the Book: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

Editor’s Note from Kristen Beverly, HPB Buyer:

I was on a phone call with booksellers from across the country when someone said, “Have any of you read The Astonishing Color of After? I just read the first 50 pages and it’s phenomenal. You haaave to read it!” So, I went home that night, picked it up and thus began my love affair with this book. I was so enraptured by Emily X.R. Pan’s writing that I read the entire thing in two mind-blowing days. The story starts out with the main character’s mother appearing to her as a red bird. I had the opportunity to meet Emily earlier this year at a bookseller’s conference. The first thing I asked her was, “Where exactly did the inspiration for that red bird come from?” Apparently, I’m not the only one who wondered. Here’s the scoop from Emily herself – the story behind the book.

astonishing-cover-debut-novelPeople like to ask me why the mother in my story turns into a bird. “Why this giant red bird, of all things?”

It’s a tricky question for me to answer, because I’m not totally certain of it myself. But I’ll try to make my best guess. To do that, I first need to tell you a bit about my story development process:

It’s like I’m sitting in a boat, out in the middle of the ocean, scanning the surface of the sea for pieces of wreckage that drift past. Those pieces might be characters, concepts, settings, plot twists — any tiny component of a story that has flitted into my consciousness at some point and then decided to stay.

That ocean is my brain. And sometimes it takes years for me to realize that a few specific pieces that have been floating around totally separately could actually come together in the most perfect and interesting way — and that’s when I finally sit down and begin writing the story.

So back to that bird. I’d always known that I wanted to write a story of a person transforming into a bird. I wasn’t sure of the circumstances. I just knew: At some point a human being was going to become a bird.

I started writing The Astonishing Color of After back in 2010. It had a different title, and a different cast of characters, and it definitely had no bird. I tried rewriting that story many different ways, in many different voices and even in different age categories. And it was literally years later that it occurred to me that instead of having the mother die by pneumonia and just be plain old dead…she could turn into a bird.

Not long after I started toying with that idea in my head, I lost my aunt to suicide. I couldn’t stop thinking about her death and its impact on my family. I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily that could’ve been my own mother, who struggles with many of the same things my aunt battled.

A long time after that, I sat down to rewrite the novel from scratch yet again, and the opening pages poured out. I knew that this was the story I had been trying to puzzle together all along.

At first, I couldn’t figure out the importance of the red bird. But later I realized why she was so crucial in this story. My Buddhist family taught me that after death comes a transition—whether that’s reincarnation, or a journey to a different place, or something else. That transition might take up to 49 days, and the spirit of the person might stay near us before the transition occurs. So the bird, I realized, was my way of clearly visualizing a spirit being stuck in that limbo.

When the book begins, the bird is still here in our human world, still tangible. She seems like she’s free. But she’s not. She’s waiting. The bird’s freedom comes only when the main character, her daughter Leigh, has figured out some very important things.

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Emily X.R. Pan is a debut young adult author who currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @exrpan. Her debut YA novel The Astonishing Color of After is available in Half Price Books stores and online at HPB.com while supplies last.