Rita Williams-Garcia’s A Sitting in St. James is one of the best and most important books of 2021, and it goes against all she’d promised herself as a writer. She didn’t want to write a Civil War Era Black YA book because they’re so common and the stories of Black lives so much wider.
And yet, she chose to do so in this book, and indeed, it is a Civil War Black YA book.
It’s also very much not that kind of book. It follows a single household in Creole country Louisiana, headed by a white matriarch, sons at battle for inheriting the plantation estate, and a wealth of Black enslaved people, ranging from cooks to personal assistants, as well as mixed-race children who do and do not have family claims (depending upon who you ask).
Another knockout book that hit shelves this year is Malinda Lo’s historical Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Set in the 1950s in San Francisco at the height of the Red Scare, the book follows Chinese American Lily as she falls in love with a white girl named Kath. It’s a departure in genre for Lo, but the incredible research she put into getting the time and its sociopolitical and economic realities right is a marvel.
Though they showcase two very different timeframes and two very different stories, one thing units these two books: the most amazing, required reading in the form of an author’s note.
We want the meat and potatoes of a story when we pick up a novel. It’s easy to skip the extra pages before a story begins and definitely easy to close the book before wading through any additional paratext. For nonfiction, that skipping can be even more appealing as we hurry to absorb what it is for which we came. We want the information, not the information about the information.
The author’s note is like the preamble to a blog recipe: it is the story of the story, an opportunity especially for historically underrepresented groups to put their own voice on the page. Many may call it “too much,” beg to “get to the point,” but it is in and of itself a work worth studying.
But the author’s note is, without question, my favorite part of a book.
Author’s notes come in so many different forms, but in nearly every case, it’s a fascinating peek behind the curtain of a book’s creation. Authors will share what inspired them to tell this particular story and how it ties into something in their own lives. An author might divulge their experiences with mental illness, for example, and how that encouraged them to creatively explore it through their story. They may provide resources that helped them find the words for an experience, as well as resources for those who might be going through a particular challenge that the book tackled.
In the cases of Williams-Garcia and Lo’s books, both offered an incredible array of context for their stories. We think we know about the Civil War, about the war to end slavery, but how much do we know going in about the lives of Creole people during that time? For me, the answer is virtually nothing, and the novel offered insight I’d never knew I didn’t know. When I delved into the author’s note, Williams-Garcia shared her own lack of knowledge and the work she put into researching and learning, with the addition of how she used that information to give more context to the story.
For Lo, it was about learning the history of the Red Scare and how Chinese Americans, particularly in the Bay area, became targets thanks to how the Chinese Exclusion Act had been implemented and chipped away at politically. What would be possible to sail beneath the radars of anti-communist enforcement and what would raise suspicion and potentially damage the fine threads holding relationships together?
Reading the author’s notes in both Williams-Garcia’s and Lo’s, as well as hundreds of other titles, offers an entire second story. It is the story of how the story came to be, and the story of how the author knew this was the story they wished to tell. It is a pathway into learning and knowledge, to curiosity and creativity. While it may not be plot-driven, it is a character study, as well as a rich treasure of details that only enhance what happened in the prior pages.
Many times, the reading list is robust enough to offer more than a college-level senior seminar in a topic. It is an invitation to continue the story.
An author’s note is given directly to you, the reader. An opportunity to break the fourth wall, it invites readers into the mind and process of the author, without compromising the integrity of the work itself. In most cases, it enhances that integrity, initiating a trust and bond between author and reader.
Here is how you know I got these details as accurate as possible, dear reader, and here is what I hope you can take away from the story.
These were my goals, and here is how I pursued them.
I thought this was the story I was telling, but it turns out, there was a lot more for this particular story to teach me.
The author’s note is also a declaration of craft. It’s here the nooks and crannies of how the writing came together are explored, providing the “how” behind the textual example. Here’s how the author managed to weave these threads into a narrative and how the author managed to maintain or shift perspectives throughout 200, 400, 800+ pages. Writers can take away as much from reading these perspectives as they can from dissecting sentences and passages that stir them.
I’m especially fond of author’s notes that preface a new edition of a backlist title. How much has changed in the last 10, 20, 40 years since the book’s first publication? In what ways were edits consciously made to bring the book to a contemporary audience and why did some details remain exactly the same?
As readers, we see how much we ourselves have changed in what we accept from a book and what it is we will no longer let pass by.
We hear the voices of those who have too often had their voices squashed.
I want to know more when I open or close a story, not less. While I’m interested in developing my own opinion of a text, there’s tremendous value in seeing what an author feels about the text and what it is they set out to do. It gives me a reader a deeper sense of understanding a text’s intent, its impact, and whether or not it achieved its goals beyond my personal opinion, a crucial skill in today’s world.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to discover, then, my favorite books at the end of the year aren’t the ones I necessarily had the most fun reading or that I loved personally. They’re instead often those books where I know the story behind the story and can objectively say that they succeeded in what they set out to do. These are the books which endure. They are good reads, and they are good at doing what they intend to do.
Establishing this standard is thanks in no small part to the power of the author’s note.
I beg you, dear reader, don’t skip them. Savor them, bit by bit, and let yourself explore the wonder of building the story right alongside the story’s creator.