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No Words: Chapter 13


Wow.

I took a long pull from the water bottle, then said, “No, I’m not named after Jo March, as a matter of fact. My parents were huge fans of the musician Joe Cocker, so they named me after him, only they left off the e at the end because they thought that made it feminine. But since you brought her up, let’s get this out of the way right now, since it’s one of the most important questions in all of feminist literature. Who should Jo in Little Women have ended up with, Laurie or Professor Bhaer?”

Will’s grin went from enigmatic to genuinely warm. “That’s a trick question. The answer is obviously neither of them, since Louisa May Alcott herself remained single all her life, and was famously quoted saying that she never wanted Jo to end up married. She only did it because so many of her young female readers wrote to her asking her whom Jo was going to marry, assuming that marriage was the only conceivable happy ending for a woman. And economically, it was for most women at the time Alcott was writing.”

I frowned, impressed. Bonus points for Mr. Price. He had done some reading. Or perhaps watched the latest film based on Little Women, possibly with his sister or because he’d been trapped with nothing else to do on a plane.

“But my personal feeling is Laurie,” he went on. “Bhaer didn’t respect the thing that mattered most to Jo, her writing, and Laurie did.”

I was appalled.

“That is completely untrue,” I said. “Professor Bhaer did respect Jo’s work. He simply felt that her writing would be better if she wrote from the heart about the things that truly mattered to her, women’s issues and family life, as opposed to the tales of mystery and horror she was writing under a pen name. And, strictly from a financial point of view, he turned out to be right, since her books on those subjects became her most successful.”

“Which brings me to a question I’ve been wanting to ask you.” Will’s gaze was very dark and intent on mine—well, on the lenses of my sunglasses. “Have you ever felt that advice might apply to you?”

What was going on here? “What advice?”

“That instead of writing the stories you write—about talking cats—you might want to try writing from the heart about things that truly matter to you.”

I was so stunned by this that for a moment I couldn’t reply. I think the audience was stunned, too. I couldn’t hear a sound from them—not so much as the rustle of plastic peeled back from a cookie purchased from a Snappette. At the very least, I’d have expected to hear a bark of outrage from Frannie, whose husband, Saul, had been writing quite successfully about gory vampire and ghost attacks for nearly forty years.

But . . . nothing.

Of course, it was possible they’d all left, bored to tears by our bickering. I still couldn’t see a thing beyond the edge of the stage.

“I’m sorry,” I said, when I could finally find my voice. “Are you implying that my bestselling children’s books about a talking cat who helps the young kittens she babysits through major life difficulties like their parents getting divorced, and moving, and friendship troubles, and bullying, and sibling rivalry, and crushes, and going away to summer camp—just to name a few—aren’t written from my heart and don’t really matter?”

I could feel my body temperature rising, and the spotlights weren’t helping the situation. The lenses of my sunglasses were beginning to fog up so that I couldn’t even see Will anymore. I had to whip them off.

“That isn’t what I—” Will began, but I was so annoyed, I forgot my promise to myself to be gracious to him in front of his adopted hometown audience, and interrupted.

“They may not matter much to you, but I can assure you that those subjects matter quite a lot to kids.”

“I’m sure they do. I just wondered if—” Will appeared to be turning as pale beneath the spotlights as I was turning red.

“And when the tips on how to navigate them are delivered by a cute talking cat and her friends as opposed to printed out on some crappy pamphlet from the school counselor’s office, they become a lot more palatable and accessible to those kids, especially for reluctant readers, which a lot of kids are.”

My tirade had sent Will slowly sinking back into his chair, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly ajar.

“Sure,” he said. “Of course. I know that. More than you can imagine. That—that isn’t at all what I meant—”

Boy, he had not been kidding last night when he’d said that he wasn’t good with words. “Well, then what did you mean?”

Instead of answering me, Will shaded his eyes with one hand so he could see out into the crowd. “I think now might be a good time to take some questions from the audience, don’t you? Does anyone out there have anything they’d like to ask Ms. Wright or myself? I think we’ve got some members of the high school dance team moving along the aisles with microphones, so if there’s something you’d like to ask, feel free to raise your hand, and one of them will be along to hand you a mic.”

Ha! Way to save your fur from the fire, Mr. Price.

“Yes, please go ahead,” I said into my microphone as, with my other hand, I slid my sunglasses back over my eyes, hoping they’d help me to see the Snappettes and their busy microphone maneuvers—and hide the anger I was still feeling toward Mr. Price. “I promise we’ll be a lot nicer to you than we’ve been to each other so far.”

This got another chuckle from the audience. I caught Will’s eye, and was surprised to see him smile at me. This was his most genuine smile yet—no fake fan-friendliness, just unease. He seemed—well, he seemed almost nice.

“Uh, yeah, hi, my name is Lauren.”

Whoops, yep, there she was. Lauren, right there in the middle of the audience, clutching the handheld mic that Chloe—it certainly looked like Chloe, her short blond bob gleaming in the houselights, which they’d turned up so that we could see who was talking—had handed to her. Today Lauren’s hair was as flat-ironed as ever, and she was wearing an off-the-shoulder boho-chic top. Her friends Jasmine and Cassidy sat on either side of her, giggling and egging her on.

“So I just wanted to thank you both,” Lauren said, in a high-pitched voice that trembled with nervousness. “It’s been really great sitting here and listening to you. I’m an aspiring writer, and, uh, I feel totally inspired and, uh, empowered.”

“Thank you, Lauren,” I said warmly into my mic. I needed to make sure she knew all my antipathy was for Will, not her. “That is so sweet of you.”

“Yes, uh, thank you, Lauren.” Will didn’t appear to have the slightest memory of having met Lauren yesterday. In fact, he kept looking at me and not her, which I found odd.

He glanced away as soon as my gaze met his, however.

“Thanks,” Lauren said. “Well, what I wanted to ask both of you was how do you create such, um, realistic characters? Because both of you are so good at that. Your characters seem like real people. Or cats, in your case, Miss Wright.”

I laughed along with the rest of the audience. Then I looked at Will, who was—again—looking at me. What was his deal?

“Would you like to answer first?” I asked him politely.

“Oh, no,” he said. “Ladies first, please.”

“Fine.” I looked back at Lauren. “I think one reason readers find Kitty Katz realistic even though she’s a cat is that she makes mistakes. She isn’t perfect—or purr-fect, as she likes to say—but in the end, she always tries to do the right thing. I think if you write about characters who are perfect, they have no room to grow or improve during the course of the story, and then what do they learn about themselves? Characters learning new things about themselves is part of what makes the story entertaining. But if the character is already perfect, they have no room to grow. So then you have no story. Do you understand what I mean?”

Lauren nodded eagerly. “I do. That totally makes sense.”

I looked questioningly at Will, and found him still staring at me. Now, this was just getting weird. “Will, do you have anything you’d like to add?”

“Uh, no,” he said. “Just that what Miss Wright said is correct, Lauren. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes. My books are excellent examples of that. Jo mentioned earlier that my female characters find empowerment by being rescued by men, but I’ve never actually seen it that way. I’ve always considered that the male characters in my books, who are very far from perfect, find redemption through the love of smart, beautiful, complicated females . . . women like Ms. Wright, actually.”

What? Had he just called me . . . ?

“So, in answer to your question, Lauren, yes, to create realistic characters, make them imperfect—but if you want your readers to like them, also make them sorry for their actions,” he went on. “And perhaps also have your other characters find some way in their hearts to forgive them. Really, if you write stories that are anything like Ms. Wright’s excellent books, you’ll be fine.”

Wait. Will Price had just called my books excellent? And me smart? Complicated? And beautiful?

Was this for the benefit of the audience and cameras, or for real? Maybe it was simply to make up for having stuck his foot in his mouth so badly before. I honestly couldn’t tell.

Still, something in his dark eyes looked sincere.

Could he possibly really mean what he was saying? What—

“Sorry!”

One of the side doors to the auditorium burst open. I tore my gaze away from Will’s face and saw Bernadette come running up the steps along the side of the stage.

“Sorry, sorry, I’m late, everyone!” She waved apologetically at the audience. “Family emergency, but it’s all good now.”

She threw herself, panting, into the seat beside Will. Then she picked up her mic, turned it on, and asked, grinning, “So. What’d I miss?”


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