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Debuting with Death, a guest post by Jessica Vitalis

When I was drafting what would turn out to be my debut novel, “The Wolf’s Curse,” I couldn’t have predicted that it would come out during a worldwide pandemic. With the entire world facing unimaginable levels of loss and grief, a Grim Reaper retelling might not seem like an auspicious beginning for my career.

But if it’s one thing writing this story taught me, it’s that processing grief isn’t only about resilience: It’s about rituals. It’s about community. It’s about hope –– the possibility that we might heal and, in so doing, find some measure of future happiness.

How we do that varies not only from person to person but from culture to culture. In North America, burials and cremations are the norm, along with funerals that allow loved ones to gather in remembrance of the departed. These rituals are part of our attempts to say goodbye, to come to terms with our grief. Having grown up in the United States, I thought these rituals were more or less the norm around the world.  But in researching death rituals while writing “The Wolf’s Curse,” I learned that they vary widely across cultures.

For example, some Tibetan Buddhists practice sky burials, where their bodies are left outside for birds and animals, thereby freeing the soul and continuing the circle of life. The Malagasy people of Madagascar have joyful ceremonies known as the “Turning of the Bones,” where approximately every five years, they perfume and/or rewrap their dead in fresh shrouds and dance near the tombs, and the Tinguian dress their dead in finery and seat them in a chair with a lit cigarette. One South American tribe is said to eat pieces of their dead to absorb their spirit, and the people of Kirbati exhume the skulls of the deceased to preserve and display in their homes.

Despite the many different traditions around the world, the rituals I encountered all share one common element: They bring comfort to the living. This realization was pivotal to writing “The Wolf’s Curse,” which is set in an early Renaissance-era seaside village. 

In my fictional world, the people believe that stars are actually lanterns lit by their loved ones once they reach the Sea-in-the-Sky and sail into eternity. The deceased are buried in boats with feathers, fishing gear and the other supplies they’ll need to make their journey. When my 12-year-old character loses his grandpapá and embarks on a journey to complete the old man’s Release ceremony, he’s stalked by a mythical Great White Wolf and ends up learning life-changing truths about the Wolf –– and about the nature of death.

The story is a twist on a Grim Reaper narrative, and it certainly explores grief and loss, but it also explores community, friendship and, most of all, the hope that comes with healing. The traditions and rituals might look different than the ones you and I are used to, but the emotions — the need for human connection and healing — are universal. Although I never could have foreseen the trials this year would bring, I’m grateful for the chance to share a story that might infuse a little more of this connection and healing in all our lives.

Meet the author

Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer. She brings her experience growing up in a nontraditional childhood to her stories, exploring themes such as death and grief, domestic violence, and socio-economic disparities. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters. She loves traveling, sailing and scuba diving, but when she’s at home, she can usually be found reading a book or changing the batteries in her heated socks. “The Wolf’s Curse” is her debut novel.

About The Wolf’s Curse

Shunned by his fearful village, a twelve-year-old apprentice embarks on a surprising quest to clear his name, with a mythic—and dangerous—wolf following closely at his heels. Jessica Vitalis’s debut is a gorgeous, voice-driven literary fantasy about family, fate, and long-held traditions. The Wolf’s Cursewill engross readers of The Girl Who Drank the Moon and A Wish in the Dark.

Gauge’s life has been cursed since the day he cried Wolf and was accused of witchcraft. The Great White Wolf brings only death, Gauge’s superstitious village believes. If Gauge can see the Wolf, then he must be in league with it.

So instead of playing with friends in the streets or becoming his grandpapa’s partner in the carpentry shop, Gauge must hide and pretend he doesn’t exist. But then the Wolf comes for his grandpapa. And for the first time, Gauge is left all alone, with a bounty on his head and the Wolf at his heels.

A young feather collector named Roux offers Gauge assistance, and he is eager for the help. But soon the two—both recently orphaned—are questioning everything they have ever believed about their village, about the Wolf, and about death itself. 

Narrated by the sly, crafty Wolf, Jessica Vitalis’s debut novel is a vivid and literary tale about family, friendship, belonging, and grief. The Wolf’s Curse will captivate readers of Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Islandand Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy.

ISBN-13: 9780063067417
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/21/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Writing Pains: Steps of the writing process that torment us the most, a guest post by Class of 2K21 Books

“Do the thing you think you cannot do.”

–Eleanor Roosevelt

When we picture our favorite authors creating their masterpieces, we envision words flowing like magic from their fingers, vibrant characters leaping off the page, and tension building with slow and steady perfection as light streams through their plant-filled offices.

But when talking to authors, you see that the reality is often punctuated by false starts and hiccups, self-doubt, and lots of caffeine. It means writing over stolen moments amid the juggle of life and deferred showering as deadlines loom. It means fear. The truth is, the writer’s journey is filled with phases of slog, insecurity, and a specific kind of literary torture. 🙂

Below, several Class of 2kBooks authors share aspects of the writing process they find the most daunting, along with ways to overcome those fears in order to unlock the story within. Read on to hear from fab authors Shakirah Bourne (Josephine Against the Sea), Kalena Miller (The Night When No One Had Sex), Jessica S. Olson (Sing Me Forgotten), Sam Taylor (We are the Fire), and Jennifer Adam (The Last Windwitch).

Sam Taylor: For me, the first draft is the hardest part. I always outline and complete quite a bit of research and planning prior to starting, but still it is so, so hard to create an entire book from a blank page! I’ve started keeping my first drafts (or Draft Zero, as I call them) to myself. This gives me the freedom to explore my story and get to know my characters, without worrying about making sense to someone else. I consider Draft Zero a reality-check for my outline. It’s my chance to figure out which of my initial ideas are working, and which need more development. Most importantly, my best and most creative ideas come while I’m working through Draft Zero. Here, I have the chance to explore them. In revision, I can get all those loose threads cleaned up and presentable for my first round of readers.

Jennifer Adam: There are two distinct parts of my writing process that I find deeply challenging. The first is just getting an initial draft done. I struggle with perfectionism that sometimes manifests as a temptation to procrastinate (if I can’t do it perfectly, maybe I shouldn’t do it at all) or as the urge to endlessly fidget with the words I’ve already written rather than just moving forward. I’ve definitely gotten better at pushing through – mostly because there are so many stories I want to tell and I know I’ll never get to them if I don’t get things done! – but that first draft is still such a slog for me. It’s hard to create something from nothing.

The other part I find difficult is diving into any major edits. I LOVE digging deep into a story, tearing it apart and rebuilding it more strongly, adding layers and depth and texture. I love seeing how a story can evolve and take on a clearer, sharper shape. But starting edits makes me so anxious – I’m always scared I’ll break the story or make a bigger mess. It takes me several days of thinking and brainstorming just to get up the courage to start making changes. Once I do, though, I have a marvelous time because it starts to feel like working on a puzzle, and that moment all the pieces click is pure magic.

Jessica S. Olson: The hardest part of the writing process for me is always the beginning. Nailing down an outline and then writing the first draft. Especially now that I’ve written several books, it’s always so daunting to begin, because it’s like staring up at this massive mountain I’ve hiked before and knowing just how difficult it’s going to be to reach the top and just how long it’s going to take. I’ve also learned that so much of what I outline and what goes into the first draft ends up getting changed in future drafts. Rewritten. Altered. Deleted. So every word in that first draft feels pointless sometimes because I know that most of those words won’t make it to the final draft. But these messy first drafts are so vital, and they have to be written! You can’t revise what you don’t have. Every masterpiece has to start somewhere–so we push through!

Kalena Miller: Perhaps I’m unusual, but I love first drafts. Staring at a blank piece of paper is the best part of the process. For me, revising tends to be more difficult. Once I have a complete draft, my brain balks at the idea of messing it up because I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of putting it back together. However, working with an editor on THE NIGHT WHEN NO ONE HAD SEX has really helped me overcome this fear. Getting to work alongside another professional who’s just as invested in my book as I am was an amazing experience. Not that revising wasn’t still an overwhelming process (I definitely cried a few times, but that’s not particularly unusual for me), but knowing my editor shared my vision for the book was the motivation I needed to get it done. 

Shakirah Bourne: I’m pretty sure my version of hell is staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page. Writing a first draft is so painful for me–I feel the weight of irrational expectations, fear of failure, and frustration that the wonderfully-crafted story in my head does not magically appear on the page. I get through it by reminding myself that the first draft doesn’t have to be good, but finished. I also make sure that I have a detailed outline before writing to help avoid excessive procrastination and prevent writer’s block. Some days, drafting is enjoyable and fun, and when I re-read I’m pleasantly surprised that the writing isn’t as awful as I imagined, but to maintain motivation I have to visualise the moment I write the final line in the last chapter. I love doing edits and revisions so I’m always very excited when I get to that stage.

As we can see, writing involves avoidance, stress, and self-doubt. It means carving out time in the dead of the night or the first light of dawn, juggling jobs and family amid fears and expectations. For some of us, anxiety lies in the early blank page stages, while for others it’s the later layers, the developmental reworkings that are most dreaded.

But no matter our kryptonite, we can each find our courage. We dive into the fulcrum of our hearts, that quiet place within where the magic begins. We come to see that in our fears and fallibilities lies strength, a quiet belief that helps us do that thing we thought we could not do.

Thank you so much for being with us here on TLT.  The links to some of our books can be ordered/pre-ordered and added to your Goodreads, so check us out below.

Wishing you the strength to tackle the tough as you work toward your dreams!

With gratitude,

The Class of 2k21 Books

https://www.shakirahbourne.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54776548-josephine-against-the-sea

https://www.kalenamiller.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/56989110

https://www.samtaylorwrites.com/books

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43839832-we-are-the-fire?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=VIXztTTGTB&rank=1

https://www.jessicasolson.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53176389-sing-me-forgotten

https://www.jenniferfrancesadam.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/54496121

Writing What Haunts You, a guest post by Anuradha Rajurkar and the Class of 2kBooks

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at,
what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
-Joan Didion

Often, the germ of an idea for a story materializes from themes that haunt us for years, though we may not realize it at first. Writing helps us explore our deepest fears, our burning questions, and can ultimately serve as the beating heart of our stories. My debut, AMERICAN BETIYA, for example, explores cultural conflict within our most intimate relationships—a theme that rose from having grown up in predominantly white spaces as the daughter of first-generation Asian immigrant parents. I was initially drawn to the idea of the many ways teens are often under close scrutiny, despite the fact that our identities at that stage are still very much under construction—and how these pressures can lead to escapism in various forms. But soon, my writing delved deep into issues that only later did I realize had haunted me for decades.

I asked my fellow Class of 2k Books authors to share what issues just wouldn’t let go, leading to the writing of their debuts. Their answers were as thoughtful and compelling as their novels…

Megan Freeman: I certainly never imagined that ALONE, my book about surviving in total isolation, would come out during a pandemic. Yikes. But the idea of being isolated from other people has always fascinated/haunted me. I love the movie CASTAWAY and I was fascinated by books like ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS and MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN and HATCHET. I used to think being in prison and forcibly kept away from my family would be the worst thing I could imagine, but then one day I thought about people who go into witness protection programs and can never see their friends or family ever again, and that seemed even worse. Clearly, my connections to loved ones are central to some sense of security, and the threat of losing that connection is rich fodder for my creative imagination. 

Sam Taylor: After grad school, I worked at a job with some people who turned out to be very corrupt. It was a really thorny situation; I often had no idea how to fix matters at work, or what was the right thing to do. I turned to writing in the evenings as a way to vent out my feelings. I needed a story that captured the dilemma of wanting to make situations better, but not knowing how to do that. I wanted to explore the struggle of every option coming with steep cost–because the right choice often doesn’t come without a price. I wanted to show unlikely allies coming together, as I experienced during my own situation. Most of all, I wanted to show my characters overcoming the seemingly impossible odds stacked against them.

Jessica S. Olson: It’s a funny thing, because I didn’t realize what it was that drove me to write this story until well after it was finished. All I knew was that I connected deeply to the Phantom character in the Phantom of the Opera, and I wanted to tell a version of his story and explore what could drive someone to such a dark, lonely place. It wasn’t until later on that I realized that the reason I’d been so passionate about his story was because I identified with him. I was born with a medical eye condition that affects my appearance, and I grew up being bullied and teased and treated as “other” because of it. There were many times when I wished I could hide from a world that felt very cruel–and so I saw myself in the Phantom. I understood how it felt to be ostracized for your appearance and how desperate the desire can sometimes be to be loved for the aspects of us that aren’t readily apparent at first glance. Telling a female Phantom’s story meant drawing on my own experiences, my own anger, my own hope, and asking the world to look beyond someone’s face when deciding whether they’re valid or whether they deserve love.

Xiran Jay Zhao: My book IRON WIDOW, a Pacific Rim meets THE HANDMAID’S TALE reimagining of the only female emperor in Chinese history, is basically 400 pages of female rage. Around the time I wrote it, I kept hearing about women’s rights backsliding in so many places. I also happened to be taking 4 university courses in different subjects ranging from political science to gerontology, yet all 4 had info on how women are disproportionately expected to take on certain burdens and responsibilities, yet get no proper credit or recognition for them. Work that is traditionally more female-dominated is consistently overlooked and undervalued compared to work that is traditionally more male-dominated. I wrote Iron Widow not only to vent my rage through the character of Zetian, but to explore the kind of societal pressures that force girls to doubt their own worth and accept this kind of thankless work.

Anuradha D. Rajurkar:

Judging from these thoughts from my fellow Class of 2kbooks authors, it seems that some of the most impactful stories are born from themes that have haunted our minds for years. Since high school, I personally was so affected by the idea that the way we see ourselves is often at odds with how others see us. For me, researching and writing AMERICAN BETIYA helped reveal the ways microaggressions, cultural fetishization, and racial gaslighting occur with regularity—even in our closest relationships. And because trust is foundational in these relationships, it’s easy to overlook their signs. Writing my debut helped me acknowledge the silences we’ve been taught to hold, and that our friendships, family and internal strength can line the path to our empowerment.

Don’t be afraid to write what haunts you. It might just be what sets you free.

Buy links and more

Order ALONE by Megan Freeman
Add ALONE to your Goodreads


Order WE ARE THE FIRE by Sam Taylor
Add WE ARE THE FIRE to your Goodreads


Order SING ME FORGOTTEN by Jessica S. Olson
Add SING ME FORGOTTEN to your Goodreads


Pre-order IRON WIDOW
Add IRON WIDOW to your Goodreads


Order AMERICAN BETIYA

Add AMERICAN BETIYA to your Goodreads