“Best Books for Kids & Teens” – Canadian Children’s Book Centre 2006
Split started out as something very different – a series of vignettes or portraits about the mother (the character who vanishes in the book). They were of the mother sun-tanning at a friend’s flat and ignoring her daughter, of her disappointment when a new washing machine arrived, of her feelings about being pregnant. As you can tell, it didn’t start off as a Young Adult novel. It was about a woman’s life. The real vignette, the one from my own life, was the sun-tanning one. When I was little, my parents had had an argument, and my mother went up to the third floor flat of a friend to sun bathe. She was lying out on the tiny balcony, way up high, and I kept rolling skating under her, trying to get her attention. But she wanted to shut the family out that day and she ignored me. When I went home, my father was doing the funniest thing – sweeping the kitchen floor. I told him that my mother had been ignoring me and he told me to just leave her alone. Then he swept the crumbs up into the shovel and that was that. The oddity of that day, which was never repeated, must have stayed with me. I guess I wondered what would have happened if she had taken her anger, or her unhappiness of that day, further and left altogether. Split is the story of a mother who does that.
In this book, I was able to use a lot of my own father’s background, his growing up in Germany during the Nazi era – not a pretty time! The first time I visited his family home, he did show my sister and I a hole down in the root cellar where he said they could hide if they had to, for any reason. This hole, which terrified me in real life, became the central symbol in the book. Every member of the family is hiding out in a sort of hole, hiding their emotions from one another. Their communication skills are extremely poor, if they exist at all. That’s not too untypical of some families, sadly. When I’d finished writing it, I was surprised to discover so many references to stairs and ladders – the cellar, the boxcar, the Catholic church, Mount Royal, and others. I suppose the act of climbing up or down works as a metaphor for discovery and Sandra certainly discovers a lot about herself and her parents over the course of the story.
When I first sent this book out, it was in a much different form, with the vignettes still in it. An early editorial response put the idea of writing it as YA in my mind, which is what I eventually did, reworking it for my second book at Lorimer. I also took out the section that was written from the mother’s perspective, in the form of a long letter to Sandra, explaining why she left. I then had to weave all the details into the narrative, from Sandra’s perspective, which was tricky since Sandra doesn’t really know why her mother left. I also developed the sub-plot of Sandra’s relationship with Danny more, drawing her away from him and into her own person more. To me, the book is very much about a girl who learns to rely on herself, rather than other people, which is important in life. She also learns how to connect, in a healthy way, with another human being.
Readers have had various reactions to the ending. Some want more closure, some like it the way it is. Without giving the ending away, let’s just say I felt it was as far as I could take it. It’s not exactly ambiguous but it does allow the reader to imagine what might have come next.
Split is a good testament to the art of tenacity. It took 15 years to write and get right – and then publish. It’s odd that it’s the first book I ever wrote, but only the second published, although I’m sure that’s not an unusual story.
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