The Big Idea: Nancy Werlin
Missing conventions in these unprecedented times? So is New York Times best-selling author Nancy Werlin. Follow along as Werlin takes you on a tour through her train of thought in creating her newest novel, Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good, which began with a convention.
The Big Idea: I just want to hang out at the con with my friends!
Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good was born from love; from the memory of a con I went to a long time ago. I was planning to room with some other women I’d met online, on something called a listserv. (We later discovered our listserv was run by a fifteen year old boy on a file server in his bedroom, which is another story.)
My very first con! We called it a convention then. I’d kept my travel a secret from my parents. Sure, I was post-college, living on my own, but usually I told them where I was going—God forbid they should worry! This time I was cagey, though, because: You’re going to share a hotel room with people you met on the Internet?! (We capitalized “internet” then.)
After that weekend, my therapist commented: “Nancy, I have to say, you sound like you’ve fallen in love.”
“Not exactly,” I said, excitedly. “But I’ve met my people! We write books for kids! We read books for kids! We talk about books for kids! It’s—see—they’re my people! They exist!”
It felt like a miracle then, and by now I know it really was, because those friendships are still going strong and deep. (Thanks, internet! Thanks, listserv! Thanks, Ryan, you super-competent teenage liar, you.)
I wanted to write about the feeling of that weekend and that first year with my new friends, my soulmates, my best beloveds. The shared obsession. The neurotic moments. The crazy random happenstances. The in-jokes. The sheer joy of getting to know each other and of belonging.
“So this new book, it’s about a group of older teenagers. They’re fans of this TV show, Bleeders,” I told my editor. “They go to cons together. They stay up and talk all night. They geek out about their show, and they cosplay. They eat Twizzlers. They play Cards Against Humanity. They go to a panel about Princess Leia. They fret about college plans—some of them are already in college, but my main girl, Zoe, she’s a senior in high school. It’s going to be episodic—they meet at a different con every month. Zoe lies about it, though.”
“She’s a liar?”
“And a sneak, but very relatable! She’s kind of neurotic. She’s ashamed of being a fan, for reasons having to do with her Lawful Good boyfriend. But she just can’t resist her show. Bleeders! The fans call themselves Bloodygits. It’s all spaceships and robots and very gory special effects. Female doctors on a ship called the Mae Jemison. Kind of a cross between MAS*H and Firefly.”
“Go back to her being a liar.”
“Well, yeah. It’s very innocent to start with, I promise, or sort of—well, maybe not quite—she’s a control freak—but basically one tiny lie leads to another. You know how that goes? Anyway. Oh, also! There’s a cat.”
“Uh . . why?”
“I just really want to put a cat in this book.”
“I . . . see. You said ‘episodic.’ Is there a plot? At all?”
“Well, Zoe’s life gets messy because of her sneaking off to the cons—but the complications of that are offstage. I don’t really want a plot per se. They group is going to hang out and be themselves. It’s about that—hanging out, getting to know each other, talking about the meaning of life and being scared of the future, and your hopes and dreams and longing for love. Or not. And . . . just everything. They get together at con after con after con. They’re also trying to save their show from cancelation. That’s the plot, such as it is.”
“It sounds pretty nerdy.”
“Exactly! Oh, did I mention the cat? She’s mad at the cat. Zoe is.”
“You did . . . mention the cat.”
Possibly I didn’t do such a great job of matching Zoe with that particular editor, but an entirely different editor, the right editor, totally got it. She laughed with me about my favorite line—a wail from Zoe’s chaotic heart: “Everything came down to this one truth: I had traded in my boyfriend for a TV show.” We started in on edits.
Then the universe threw the Covid-19 curve ball.
Of course, the pandemic affected my personal world, as it has affected everyone’s. As a writer, however, I was fascinated to see how it changed the way in which Zoe-the-book reads, and how it feels. The contents were the same but they had shifted in terms of emotional impact. For one thing, the thought of cramming into a hotel room with a bunch of strangers became nostalgic, wistful, a vision of the world as it used to be, and as it might still have been—on a timeline other than ours.
Also, there’s something I didn’t mention before. The show within the book, Bleeders, concerns a deadly virus to which humanoids are uniquely vulnerable. The renegade doctors (also vicious fighters wielding stethoscope-garrotes) are trying to devise a vaccine.
So there you have it. I wrote Zoe in one world of laughter and joy and innocence, in which such a virus was a plot point and togetherness was something I took for granted. But we edited the book for publication in an opposite world.
Today, as Zoe publishes, the past world shimmers into possibility once more, thanks to our own medical and scientific heroes. Our new reality won’t be the same as the old; nor should it be, I suppose. And we can’t know exactly what it will be like. But I have lots of hope that it will be again be full of real-life togetherness.
See you at the con, my friends. We’ll catch up and and laugh and cry and talk about everything.