The Big Idea: Gabrielle Zevin

The Big Idea is predicated on the idea that most books have one big idea (or maybe a couple), around which everything else in the book coalesces. But to read author Gabrielle Zevin on the subject, you get the feeling that just one big idea might not be enough — that you might have to think bigger (or at least more numerously) than that. Zevin explains more on the subject, and how it informed her latest novel, All These Things I’ve Done.


Come October, I’ll be on book tour again, and that means speaking at schools.When it’s time to ask questions, the students always want to know how much money I make and then, once that’s out of the way, they get down to the less important business of where ideas come from. I will tell them that I get ideas everywhere. I will tell them that it’s key to read a lot, which it is. I am certainly not above teacher-friendly clichés like,write what you know and imagine the rest. I will usually conclude with the only slightly disingenuous notion that any one of them can write a book.

What I ought to tell them is this: In order to write a book, you do not need one idea. You need ten ideas every day. And for one of those ideas to be a book, one hundred or so other ideas will need to cluster onto that first idea, cancer-style. And you ought to read some current events every now and again. And you ought to read books that aren’t necessarily the kind of things you like. (Because it turns out that literature occasionally aspires to a goal other than to make you like it.) And, if you really, really want to write a book, you’ll probably need to discover an aptitude for being alone and you might even have to get off the Internet a couple of hours a day. FACT: Books take slightly longer than tweets to write.

But I digress. My point is that book ideas for me are messy, bloody, fractious, bumptious, pretentious creatures. I am not the type of author who has ever had an idea come to me like a lightning bolt or had a magical dream of sparkly vampires. (I’m surely the poorer for this.) Indeed, I have never come up with a book idea when I was anything but fully awake and usually slightly caffeinated. The challenge for me isn’t particularly a shortage of potential ideas, it’s committing to any given one of them.

All These Things I’ve Done is an organized crime family saga that takes place in a near future where chocolate is illegal. The book has the semi-misfortune of being smacked across the face with the dystopian label, because people like to call things dystopian without, or so it seems to me, more than a hazy notion of what that means.  (I recently saw a pair of shoes described in catalog copy as having a “dystopian finish.” I took this to mean “distressed” and/or looking like something that Helena Bonham Carter might wear. But I digress again.)

My future New York has become as dirty and crime-filled as New York City in the 1970s. The change is not a result of a cataclysmic environmental event or a nuclear apocalypse or an authoritarian government. It’s a future that has more in common with the past, a future predicated on warped societal priorities and an increasingly dismal economy. I imagined what would happen if we stopped funding the museums and the parks, if we continued fracking and let water supplies become contaminated, if we stopped developing new technologies, if we allowed powerful lobbies and special interest groups to determine the products we eat and can buy, if we kept building banks and bars instead of bookstores. It’s a future where everything gets a little worse every year instead of a little better.

At heart though, All These Things I’ve Done really is a family saga. The main character is Anya Balanchine, the daughter of a slain mob boss, a teenager and a narcissist. Though chocolate and a handful of other things are illegal in her world, she doesn’t spend a great deal of time wondering why things are this way. She is not a historian or a political scientist. I think of that quote from The Truman Show that “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.”

The concept came from a combination of things I love and things I fear:


–          Organized crime stories like The Godfather and Casino. (sub-idea: the lack of females in leadership positions in mafia stories)
–          Prohibition as historical period (sub-idea: the failure of Proposition 19 in California)
–          Dickensian family sagas


–          The enormous power food lobbies have over what we eat (sub-idea: The power all lobbies have in determining what is legal or illegal.)
–          The market dominance of book series writing (sub-idea: the literary possibilities for the series as form have been under-exploited)
–          The recession and the likely infrastructure problems to come (sub-idea: What happens to the museums, the parks, and the school systems when the money runs out?)

I have to love a concept enough to want to write it, but love is not enough. The fear is what keeps me engaged at two in the morning. Yeah, I’m probably a messed up person, but most writers are. But let’s bring it back around to those kids I’ll meet on tour: I really should tell them that the book fairy only bestows ideas on the truly neurotic.

By the way, I’ve been playing with another origin story for All These Things I’ve Done – my version of a sparkly vampire dream. It involves an epically terrible chocolate-induced migraine I had the summer I started writing the book. Chocolate is powerful! I’ll say. And then the idea came to me like a flash: what if it were illegal? It’s an almost true story, and it takes a lot less time to explain.


All These Things I’ve Done: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

11 Comments on “The Big Idea: Gabrielle Zevin”

  1. Love this. That book sounds wonderful. The cover is beautiful.

    I laughed out loud at ‘dystopian finish.’ Personally, I think Carter would wear something called Dystopian Bohemian, but that’s just me.

    Really enjoyed this post. :) Thank you both!

  2. The way you describe your future New York makes it sound like you have a political agenda for your book (something along the lines of “big business will destroy us all!”) but I get the feeling that’s not actually the case. It just sounds like a fascinating world. Especially with chocolate being illegal. I’d probably have to turn to a life of crime in a world like that.

  3. A world in which chocolate is illegal is a world we need to avoid having. I mean seriously: what would be the point of going on?

  4. “The main character is… [a] daughter…, a teenager and a narcissist.

    Narcissist is redundant when used in conjunction with “main character”, “daughter” and “teenager”.

    See The Hunger Games, the Twilight series, etc.

  5. The enormous power food lobbies have over what we eat (sub-idea: The power all lobbies have in determining what is legal or illegal.)

    Any inspiration from the San Francisco bans on Happy Meals?

  6. I read Elsewhere last year after my teenage daughters did; as I haven’t yet gotten round to Zoe’s Tale, it was my first YA with a first-person girl narrator. It was quite well done but inherently stand-alone. I can see why Ms. Zevin is stating on the title page of this one that it’s “Birthright: Book the First” and why she is explicitly afraid of the “market dominance of book series writing.”

    If Robert Heinlein were writing his “boys’ books” today, the publisher would require a series with continuing characters – and we would all be poorer as a result. (Actually Heinlein did start out with this intention but changed his mind; as mentioned in Grumbles from the Grave in a letter to his agent, Rocket Ship Galileo would have been the first book in a “Young Atomic Engineers” series.)

  7. Anybody who underestimates the power of the food lobbies has never ordered a hamburger.

    “Would you like cheese on that?

    “Did I order a cheeseburger, YOU STUPID $^$%& BRAINWASHED &((%@!) ???”

    They’ve practically made lactose intolerance onto a social stigma.

  8. I really should tell them that the book fairy only bestows ideas on the truly neurotic.

    I feel this is true in science. The science fairy only bestows (great) ideas on the truly neurotic.

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