The Compulsive Reader: Melanie Crowder on Verse Novels and Audacity

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Melanie Crowder on Verse Novels and Audacity

Melanie Crowder is the author of Parched, an educator, and a Vermont College of Fine Arts grad. Her second book, Audacity, is the story of activist Clara Lemlich, and it's out today! It's also a novel in verse, and so Melanie is on the blog to discuss why she wrote Clara's story in verse!

Here's Melanie!

When you get a group of writers in a room, chances are we’re either wringing our hands over our newest project / struggle / bane of our existence, or we’re celebrating our recently completed project / triumph / reason for our entire existence. When we’re through with all the angsty stuff, we’ve probably moved on to discussing and debating some aspect of the craft of writing. A topic that comes up over and over again is: Why verse novels? Why not tell your story in traditional prose?

My new book is a verse novel, so I get this question a lot. To answer, I have to tell you a little about it. Audacity is the story of real life labor activist Clara Lemlich. Her family escaped the Russian Empire in the wake of murderous pogroms and settled in New York City. Clara was intelligent, ambitious, a dreamer, and a very intense person. For her, prose simply fell flat. It wasn’t enough. But in free verse—the elevated language, and the image-rich lines allowed me to capture her passions, aspirations, her crushing defeats and triumphs on the page.

But beyond this one story, why do writers choose verse novels? If you’re thinking it seems like a lot of work to write an entire novel in free verse, to endlessly search for the balance between the needs of the story and the needs of each individual poem, it is. If you think we’re gluttons for punishment, we most definitely are.

However, there are some books that just have to be told in verse. Something about the rhythms of the words on the page, or the tone of the story, or the main character’s way of seeing the world demands broken lines galloping down the page. When you close one of those literary gems after savoring the final poem, you’re left with a feeling of inevitability—that story had to be told in free verse. 
Of course, that’s subjective. Here’s something a little less so. If you wander into your local bookstore, gather a stack of verse novels and skim the jacket copy, you’ll find commonality in many of them. Immigrant stories. Books about other cultures. Books about people on the fringes of society. The protagonists of verse novels are often people in transition, occupying the liminal space between what they were and what they are becoming. The form can be a mirror for the character. 
Audacity’s audience is teens. Young people who aren’t really kids anymore, but who are not quite adults either. They live in the borderlands between the two; in the liminal space. A verse novel, likewise, is neither prose nor poetry, but some amalgamation of the two. The form can be a mirror for the reader.

Two out of the last four years, the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature has been awarded to a verse novel. It seems the genre is really coming into its own—being celebrated as a popular and powerful form of modern storytelling. Verse novels at their best are breathless, intimate encounters with intense, compelling characters. As a novelist, reaching for that makes all the work worth it.
Audacity is out today! Pick up your copy now!


Anna Jordan said...

Love the explanation of the liminal spaces provided for both character and reader by the novel in verse structure. Thank you for another beautifully written book. I keep checking my mailbox for my copy!

Helen said...

An articulate, impassioned and enlightening piece. Now I understand why you chose verse, and I am more excited than ever to read your version of Clara's story. I also plan to use your comments in the creative writing classes I teach to educate my students! Thank you, Melanie.