THE BOOK I WAS MEANT TO WRITE
I don’t have a trunk. I don’t have a box under the bed. I have file cabinets, but The April Tree wasn’t stored in them, because every time I waded into this novel, I wound up throwing away what I’d written. It took me decades of false starts and self-doubt before I felt ready to tackle the story. During those decades, the only place the book existed was in my mind.
The first time I tried to write The April Tree (although that wasn’t its title then), I was twelve years old. I feverishly scribbled the story into a spiral-bound notebook. What I’d written sucked—even at twelve, I was a pretty good judge of my writing—and I chucked the notebook into the trash. I started the book a second time in college (with some other title I no longer remember), typing it on my Smith-Corona portable manual typewriter. I’m not sure what happened to that version, except that by the time I graduated, it no longer existed. I started it again about ten years later, when I had a computer and troublesome projects were easy to delete. I wrote a few pages and deleted them, tried again, deleted again, approached, retreated.
The April Tree, in its many incarnations and under its many working titles, was different from anything else I’d ever attempted. Not commercial fiction. Not romance. It didn’t follow a standard story arc, with intensifying conflicts and black moments and neat resolutions. It contemplated life-and-death issues, but not in a heart-thumping-thriller way. During the years the book incubated inside me, life handed me some rough times and some sad times, all of which helped to inform the story.
Last year, I finally wrote The April Tree from beginning to end. I guess it took me all those years to grow into it, to find the right way to tell it. Writing it wrung me out, but I did it, and I was satisfied with it, and after dithering for a couple of months, I sent it to my editor. She recently emailed me to say she loved it.
So maybe, all those decades after I first struggled to put this story into words, it might wind up published. If my publisher ultimately passes on it, I can publish it myself as an e-book. Now that, at long last, it’s written, I want to share it with readers.
The April Tree is about how four people deal with the sudden, accidental death of a high school girl. Two of the people are the girl’s best friends. One is a classmate who revolves within their orbit. The fourth is the boy who is in a significant way responsible for the accident. The book is dark and intense, exploring the way we use faith and ritual to make sense of the universe’s random cruelty.
Here is how it begins:
It was not his fault.
He willed himself to unclench his fingers, which were curled so tightly around the steering wheel they'd practically fused with the plastic. He imagined that if he ever let go, his hands would leave behind a shadow imprint, like the shadows left on the sidewalks where people had been standing in Hiroshima when the bomb fell. He'd heard about that somewhere, he didn't know where, that people were incinerated where they stood, dissolved into fire, and when the fire died their shadows remained on the sidewalks like photographs of their souls.
He'd heard lots of things, and he didn't believe any of them.
For instance, he didn't believe that this wasn't his fault. He knew it wasn't. But knowing was different from believing.
Remember everything. Remember it so you'll be able to believe it someday. Remember because this is your life, from this point forward. Nothing else counts. This is it.
Sunlight spilled across the windshield, silver and liquid. Through the glaze he saw trees, the foliage a dozen shades of green except for one rust-colored red maple, the trunks gray. Why did little kids always use brown crayons to draw tree trunks? Like lime lollipops with brown sticks. He used to draw trees that way, too.
But it wasn't true. Tree trunks were gray.
Remember this, he ordered himself.
The road wasn't gray or black. It was an inky blue and the double-stripe running down the center was school-bus yellow. The tennis ball was the nauseating green of anti-freeze. If only he'd seen it sooner—but he couldn't have, because he'd been on the other side of the hill.
Remember that, too. You were on the other side of the hill. You couldn't see anything until it was too late. This isn't your fault.
The girls were a muddle of bare shoulders and slender, golden legs. They were wearing shorts, unnaturally white sneakers and sleeveless white tops. He counted three of them standing, but they seemed bound together, moving as one six-legged creature with three heads. He couldn't see the fourth girl, which was probably just as well.
Not your fault, he told himself. Not your fault. You came up over the hill, and she was running, she ran right into you, you swerved but it wasn't enough. She ran into you and there was that noise, that horrible thunk of metal that resonated in your chest like your heart imploding. It wasn't your fault.
He was a long way from believing.
Judith Arnold’s current release, GOODBYE TO ALL THAT, has hit multiple bestseller lists on Amazon. Unlike THE APRIL TREE, it’s a comedy. You can find links to it and all of Judith’s available books at her web site: www.juditharnold.com.