Matt Posner, author of Sara Ghost, answers a question about voice.
(For more student questions and Matt Posner's responses about this book and writing, scroll down)
Q: Matt, what makes Sara's voice distinctive?
A: When I was at Florida State, majoring in creative writing, Prof. Bonnie Braendlin (now retired) told me that I was erring in my way of writing about teenagers because I was unironic. I told teenage stories as if the teenagers had a clear perspective, and she felt that teenagers always have to be shown to be in error and always have to have a learning experience about growing up. I was angry with Bonnie for saying it, but of course I understand now. The story "A&P" by John Updike is an example of the kind of story she was thinking of. You read and you see that the teen does not fully understand herself.
Some successful teen fiction, such as the Hunger Games series, is un-ironic, and the teenagers are righteous. However, I like the idea of showing a teen who is learning as the audience watches.
Sara embodies a contradiction. She is self-destructive, but full of vitality at the same time, as Dr. Chatterjee tells her in an earlier scene. The self-destructiveness is part of her spirit trying to force her to make a change. Late in the story, she is able to channel that vitality to fight back against her oppressors, and to make some important realizations about the people in her life.
Sara's voice reflects the opposing forces within her, as she repeats her negatives like a tape recording at the same time that she moves toward a positive alternative view of herself and her life. Any teenager will feel, as I did in my teenage years, a certain amount of self-doubt and identity crisis, and such a reader will see, through an awareness of Sara's negativity, how unnecessary that negativity is.
Scene One from Sara Ghost
by Matt Posner
"Perhaps you are concerned that I will tell your parents."
I nod. He presses his lips together.
"So are you going to?" I ask him, a bit too shrilly. I'm a heavy girl, but I have a high-pitched voice.
"No," he says calmly. "I am bringing to you two very fine students of mine, and your care will be theirs, and all decisions theirs."
"You're going to tell other kids?" I shout.
"Not precisely," he says. "You will tell them. I will not be further involved."
"I have raised three children, and none have thought so. Their minds are strong. So is yours. Despite your expressed desire for secrecy, your spirit has reached out to mine and has created for you the opportunity for change. Your behavior is a sign that you have
suffered great loss or harm. However, you are in good health and able to speak for yourself. Ergo, you are strong and prepared to do your share to assist yourself. My two students will suffice to help you."
"Two special ed kids are going to help me?" I yell.
"Indeed," says Dr. Chatterjee. "You doubt now, but not for long. The education at School of the Ages is indeed special, since it is education in magic. These students are apprentice magicians with significant perception and ability."
"What? What? Apprentice magicians? You're crazy!"
He smiled just slightly. "The healed injury on your arm is evidence that I am not crazy. So is my perception, upon your entering the classroom, that you practice
I'm about to demand he tell me what that is, but then I realize it's a fancy word for cutting. We sit quietly for a while. Then the door opens, and they come in.
The boy is the handsomest boy I ever saw in my life. His eyes are really deep and he looks both hard and soft at once. He's short and slim and dark and his hair and skin are beautiful. There's a curved red scar on his cheek that looks like it isn't going to go away, but it doesn't make him any less amazing -- maybe more amazing. He's wearing jeans and a School of the Ages t-shirt.
The girl with him is tall and has long brown hair, creamy skin and green-gold eyes. She's pale with a kind of classic beauty, like a marble statue of a Greek goddess. She's wearing a Dior blouse and shirt, pearl earrings and a diamond engagement ring. She moves like
she wants to come into the room first, but she lets him go first all the same.
Once the girl is inside, she sees I'm bloody and steps in front of the boy and touches my arm. Her eyes turn more gentle, but then she gets a look of strong concentration as she lifts my hand and looks at my palm, tracing the lines with her manicured nail. She speaks with a British accent. "Difficult early years. Almost no union line, not much companionship. Life line isn't too bad. Nice Venus Girdle, you're perceptive. No, you should be all right at some point. I'm Goldberry, by-the-by." She lets go my hand.
I can't stop looking at the boy. The curve of his cheek as he talks to Dr. Chatterjee is just sensational. He works his hands in and out of fists. He's a man of action. The teacher leaves and I barely notice.
"I asked your name," says Goldberry, touching my chin to turn my face so I'm looking at
"Sara Ghost," I say.
"Simon! She says she's a ghost."
"You're not a ghost," he says. His voice sounds like it has recently changed from a boy's to a man's. It's commanding. No one like this has ever talked to me before.
"I know ghosts," Simon continues. "I've carried ghosts close to my heart. I've fought them, bound them, destroyed them. You're not one." He looks off to the corner of the room, remembering something. He's strong, and he's sensitive too. He's perfect. I really wish not to be so ugly, or at least not bloody, because I want him to want to hold me.
"What's your name?" Goldberry asks again, adjusting my gaze with the same finger on my chin. "Come on, don't be dull."
"Sara," I say. "Ghosh," I add.
She lifts my arm, moving her hand from my chin to touch the freshly healed wound with her palm. "Well, you've been a bloody idiot, haven't you?" She realizes she's misspoken. "Sorry, didn't mean it that way." Her touch is feather-soft. "Not to worry. We'll sort it out, whatever it is."
At first I think she has no problems at all. Tall, glamorous, talented, glorious. Total teenage movie actress. Then I remember how she wanted to come in first, but she let Simon do it. Why's she getting out of his way? Why should she get out of anyone's way?
Getting out of people's way is what I do. People don't even notice when I move.
This girl turns the dingy little nurse's room into a stage and she's the star. Enter Goldberry.
Line: "We'll sort it out." End of act one. Curtain falls. Act two. Curtain rises on Sara Ghost, hidden in the shadows, where no one can see the rolls around her middle or the six inch long scab on her inside forearm. Go on, you phantom, you less than a shadow. Speak your line.
"How can you help?" I ask. It's a setup for the star, but I keep going. Let them push me around. It's okay. "I don't care what that teacher said. No one can help me."
Goldberry's ready for this one. Her confidence shines like the moon on a clear night. "She doesn't know my reputation, of course," she says. "Tell her the rhyme, Simon."
"You have memorized it, haven't you?"
"Yes," he answers, then calmly recites.
"Daughter of Rosemary, Butcher's Child,
Sweet as flowers, fierce and wild.
Kind to friend and death to foe.
Nothing known she cannot know."
I look at Goldberry carefully. She's deadly serious. Then I say, "You have your own nursery rhyme?"
"If you like," she answers. "Came to me in a dream, after I let Simon's friend Balaram feed me his wretched handmade goat biryani."
"Our friend," Simon says.
"Not mine, since the goat biryani."
"Whatever." He looks off into space again. These two know each other well, but something is wrong between them. She's acting bossy, but he could shut her down with a word. They aren't a couple, but they have a lot of history anyway.
"So you're like a fairy tale princess," I say. A little too bitterly.
She's stung. "Not at all. I'm not waiting for a prince to save me. I fight my own battles." Her eyes narrow. "Don't I, Simon?"
Simon doesn't answer. He freezes, she freezes, they stare at each other, and then the tense moment passes, and he comes closer to me. I want him to touch me, but he doesn't. "Tell us your problem," he says. "We'll solve it." His voice has confidence, and I want to believe him, and he is so gorgeous I can't stand it. All three of these School
of the Ages people, including Dr. Chatterjee who has left, just seem so much... So much better than other people I've met.
So I say, "It's all right. I'll be fine. You guys go. I promise I won't cut myself any more. Okay?" I look at Goldberry. I misjudged her before. She's not a princess. She's a girl like me, and the only difference is that she does what she wants, and all I do is hide. I don't belong with someone like her. "I'll be fine, okay?" It's my final try, my last effort to get them off my case.
"You're a horrible liar," Goldberry answers. "Just from your palm, I can tell you're lonely and your parents are bollocks. There must be more. Go on, tell it, and don't make me go back to school for my crystal ball."
"Really," I begin. "I promise I won't." I stop. "You have a crystal ball?"
"But that's so... You don't really believe those work?"
"They do when I use them," Goldberry says. "I'll arrange for you to see it if... Well, you
I look into her eyes. She isn't lying. Now I'm starting to understand. She sounds mean, but her eyes tell me she's not.
"I'm scared," I say. I look at Simon. I shouldn't, but I'm selfish, for a moment. "Maybe I'll be okay if he holds my hand."
They look at each other. She gets annoyed, he frowns. I realize they're talking some way that I can't hear. Then, finally, he takes my hand in his. My right hand, away from the scar. Warm, soft, perfect hands. His touch thrills me, but he just looks embarrassed.
"I know I'm ugly," I whisper. "It's okay. I know it doesn't mean anything. I'm making a fool of myself, right?"
"You're not ugly," he says. "We're friends now. It's okay to be scared. I... I was scared,
"What scared you?" I whisper.
"A monster," he says. "Don't ask me to tell. I can't tell anyone."
(end of scene)
Scene Two from Sara Ghost
by Matt Posner
Goldberry has brought Sara to her own home and is sharing her magical knowledge of the future.
“You’re not staying there,” Goldberry says. “You won’t, I’m certain of it.”
“It’s my house!” I shout. “It’s my parents! I can’t just leave!”
She looks at me, waiting for the next thing I’m going to say.
“How do you know?” I shout.
Looks at me.
I get up, spin around, charge across the lobby, crash into a mirrored wall. I hit it with my fist, but the mirror doesn’t crack as it shows me sobbingly ugly, my face puffy and shiny, my fat arms swelling out of the long-sleeved blouse Goldberry bought for me. She’s
behind me. She touches my shoulders, then gathers me in, holding me around the
arms and body, not tightly. I turn, raise my hands like I’m going to bring them
down on her face.
“I need a bathroom,” I say. I lower my hands.
She walks me to a lobby bathroom, follows me inside. She knows what I want to do. It’s not fair. No one has ever seen me before, and now someone does, and I can’t do what I need to do.
I go into a stall and sit down to pee. The stall door is shut. I can hear Goldberry pacing on the tile floor outside. I dig in my schoolbag, find and put on the wristband, and feel inside it. I find what I want: a broken piece of razor blade with masking tape wrapped around the end. A tool for cutting yourself, made like the ones professional wrestlers use. Perfect. I press it against my arm. It would be easy, just to move it a little to get to my right wrist, as soft and yielding as a piece of fish on a plate. A very deep cut, and all I have to do is avoid crying out and keep the blood from flowing out of the stall. I can put my hand in the toilet bowl and the blood will flow into the water and not get on the
No more Sara Ghost.
No more Sara Ghosh.
No more Sara.
Goldberry is there, but she can’t really stop me.
No one can guard me forever.
No one can stop me from doing what I must do, and now I must cut deep, deeper than ever, because life only ever gets worse, and it’s harder and harder for me to be real.
I hear the bathroom door swing open and then shut again. Goldberry is gone. She left me, just as I knew she would. Now I can do what I need to do. I did it, I got rid of her, and now I am just me, just with me, just the flesh and the blade. I flush, stand, pull up my skirt, sit again. Then I lower the piece of razor, press down.
And it twists between my sweaty fingers and slips out of my hand and slides along the floor out of the stall.
I go on all fours and crawl out of the stall, pushing the door open with my shoulder as I feel on the tiles for my blade. I see a pair of black leather half-boots, one of them pressing down firmly on something that has to be the razor.
Goldberry is there. She didn’t leave.
“You used magic to hide,” I accuse.
“And to be sure you dropped your little toy,” she says.
“You can’t stop me every time,” I say as I get up. I consider whether I could somehow wrestle her down and take the razor away. It’s a totally stupid idea.
“I know I can’t,” she says. She kneels and takes the blade from the floor, weighing it in her hand.
“Careful,” I say.
“Now that’s funny,” she says.
“Listen, Sara. I know I can’t always be at hand to stop you, and I know I probably can’t convince you to give up trying. I’m not so good at persuading people, and I’ve not had a non-magical friend since I was twelve. Most times I can just turn some tarot cards or read a teacup, and I’m believed. But those won’t help you. I do feel wretched, honestly. I can't stand the thought of you hurting yourself." She looks at me, and I think that I see light coming from her pupils. At last she nods. "Come on. Let’s go and see your mother, as quickly as we can. And don’t tell Simon, when you see him. He’s said we mustn’t go back today.”
She throws away my razor into a sewer grate as we walk outside. We don’t talk much on the bus across Central Park or the uptown bus we take after that. I have more blades in my dresser at home. Maybe I can get her to wait outside, in front of the house, and then get another razor and go out into the back yard, under the tree.
But I don’t like this plan. I look at her worried face. I don’t want to hurt her, to make her feel like she failed. She talks a lot, but she does care, though I don’t know why.
(end of scene)
Scene Three from Sara Ghost by Matt Posner
My dad told me to run around but not bother anyone. There was nowhere to run around to with so many people spread out all over, so many people I would bother if I ran past them, so I just sat on the grass and listened to my parents talk. He talked about India and she talked about Brooklyn. They didn't listen to each other. It was two one-sided
conversations that just took turns.
Sometimes I wonder if there was ever a chance for them to fall in love.
I know my dad's a dumb crook with a beer belly who forgets to wipe the dal out of his mustache, but shouldn't he be lonely? He has no friends, just people he knows from business, and his cheap fake porno can't be a replacement for having someone touch him. He wears those cheap collar shirts with the tail hanging out of wrinkled gray slacks, and he runs his fat fingers over the bald spot in his gray hair, and he burps and sips his beer, and he's got to be the most miserable, useless man I ever met anywhere. What does he do it for? What's the money for if you have no life at all?
My mom was more than just a drug addict. She used to sing in high school, and then she did backup for some no-name Red Hook hip-hop wannabe. Now she doesn't sing. She mumbles lyrics a little, and her voice cracks, and she gives up. Enough downers and she doesn't even know where she is, but even then, she won't sleep in the same room with my dad. Nobody in her family likes her since she married this Indian guy. And why
They met in newspaper personal ads. She was looking for a handsome black businessman to take care of her. My dad wrote to her PO box and said he was "Harry G." She met him at Sylvia's, the famous soul food restaurant in Harlem. First thing she said was, "You ain't no Harry." But they shared a platter of black-eyed peas and he laid out his whole plan to make big money in imports once he got his green card. He said they'd own their own home in five years. They met two more times and he proposed to her at the third meeting. He gave her a really small diamond and promised her a bigger one
later. She said, "Nah, that's okay. This the first diamond I ever had." And he answered, "Good, then we'll save the money for something else." She thought, "Lord, what kind of man did I say yes to?" But she went ahead and married him at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Joralemon Street.
My mom wasn't so fat then. She started to get fat after she slipped on an icy sidewalk and cracked her jaw. The doctor put her on painkillers and she got hooked. I remember the first time I saw her out cold. She was at the table, and when she passed out, her forehead fell into a plate of macaroni and cheese. There were flecks of cheese in her
long, glossy hair. I couldn't wake her up for hours. It was around that time that she stopped talking to my dad except to ask for pills. I think once I heard him yelling at her to quit, but she yelled back louder, that big back-up singer voice of hers, and he backed off.
Then he drank more beer, and she just ate and slept, and I ate whatever I could find, and we all got fat.
Q & A with Matt Posner
I have no personal experience with a cutter. I have read about the phenomenon over the years and tried to understand it through my reading. The element of trancelike euphoria has been mentioned to me a few times since the publication of "Sara Ghost," as something it would have been worthy to include, and might be worth including next time I write about the subject. Still, the principle of verisimilitude applies to a degree here: it is not necessary to be strictly truthful, but rather it is best to create a feeling of truthfulness using artistry. I don't relate to cutting per se, but I am, like most people, familiar with feeling low and going to dark places within myself during bad times, and I chose to draw upon that universal aspect of human experience to create Sara.
Where did you get the inspiration for this story in terms of mixing real-world elements and magic?
It's a highlight of the School of the Ages series. My goal in the books has been to depict a version of magic that is triggered by real-world paranormal events and magical philosophy and culture. I didn't want to create a hidden society, like in Harry Potter, but rather a community of magicians who go about their daily business just as we do and go to the same places and deal with the same problems.