I often walk around with books that are preoccupying me and dip into them whenever time allows: on bus commutes, standing in line, lingering at a coffee shop. Since I regard all works as instructional texts for my own efforts, there is frequent underlining and scribbling of marginalia – which often later proves a challenge to decipher. I get asked, "What class is that for?" It's heartening that my studiousness apparently passes me off as, well, a student, which I am, of a sort. Or, "Looks interesting. What’s it about?" For Michele Young-Stone’s second novel, Above Us Only Sky, I offer, “It’s about a family from Lithuania whose female members possess a genetic quirk: they’re born with wings. Or vestigial remnants of them. Oh, and there's terrible violence, too.” It’s about more than that, of course, but this is enough to get them interested. And you can find out for yourself from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday (March 1), at the Northside Grille, where the Young-Stone will sign copies at this public launching, presented by Chop Suey Books.
I wrote about the writer in 2010 as part of her Theresa Pollak arts honors by this publication.
The inspiration for her first novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, came from a moment of her life: as a youngster, getting blasted by lightning in the driveway of her home in Chester.
Above Us Only Sky also has a magical quality to it, and manages to persuade us of these unusual or supernatural occurrences in quite a real world of Soviet pogroms and Nazi invasion, of family rifts and the unaccountable way people drift in and out of a person’s life, and the enduring qualities of love. And although these women are born with wings, they are unable to fly away to escape often terrible circumstances. Except in one instance, when the youthful Daina Vilkas finds herself in the clutches of the Soviet secret police. Her wings can’t physically lift her out, but they provide a revelation experience.
The story appeared as an image in her head – Young-Stone also paints and makes collages.
“This kid [gets] on a bus carrying artificial wings, and they are her birthright. And she’s sitting next to a snotty-nosed kid. I can’t remember how Lithuania came into it, except that in 2004, while I was pregnant with my son, a man I knew and respected, Valys Zilius, a professor of linguistics and Russian language and literature, died." Then in September 2005, when Young-Stone was seven months pregnant, her Berlin-born surrogate grandmother, Rosemarie Kischel McGarrity, also passed away. They both had an intense dislike for the Soviet Russians. It was kind of strange when Zilius told her that in comparison, the Soviets were worse than the Nazis. Stalin’s forced starvation of some 7 million Ukrainians in the 1930s and the deportation to Siberia from the Baltic nations of intellectuals, teachers and owners of property were horrific. “Which is why some Lithuanians, whose families had been liquidated, stood in the streets and waved Nazi flags when they rolled in,” Young-Stone says.
In Lithuania, some local authorities aided the Nazis in the rounding up of Jews. The nation’s president officially apologized in 1995 for the actions of collaborators who allowed or participated in the killing of some 195,000 Jews, half of the country’s Jewish population.
Young-Stone committed to extensive research to give her characters' lives and histories. For more of her thoughts on this topic, see her article "It's Complicated: The Tangled Relationship between Russia and Eastern Europe."
“I read all these first-hand accounts of people who watched others die and starve and freeze to death. I had nightmares. I find I’m writing it for a reason. People in Lithuania faced with certain death held hands and sang. It was so vivid when I wrote it. Everything I write [that] I imagine happening, I go through with my characters.”
The story,( or rather, thread of related stories), that deftly shifts between the perceptions of characters and shuttles through history didn’t start out that way. “I had to work to get there,” Young-Stone recalls. “The whole novel was third person omniscient, then Sarah Knight, my editor at Simon & Schuster, suggested a first person from adult Prudence’s point of view – and she was totally dead on. The process – I thought I’d die before I finished. The summer before last I figured I’d just quit writing altogether.”
To get through these tough stretches, she’d make art and listen over and over to The Beatles’ White Album, with “Dear Prudence” and “Blackbird.” Prudence is the name of Young-Stone’s contemporary protagonist who, due to advanced medical techniques, had her little wings surgically removed while a child. The lines from “Blackbird” — “take these broken wings and learn to fly” — proved a powerful symbol. “This was the soundtrack for the novel. I found out later that James Joyce always had the music playing that would’ve been familiar to his characters while he wrote. So it seems to have worked for him.”
Young-Stone’s research, and her empathy for what her characters are going through, has made some readers wonder if she or her family experienced a similar situation. “My marketing person at Simon & Schuster, who is Latvian, thought I was Lithuanian.”
She composed all these gruesome and beautiful pieces of the story at home on North Carolina's Outer Banks, where she, her husband and son moved in 2012. She regularly returns home to see family and friends.
The Big Lesson she learned in writing Above Us Only Sky was to take her time in developing scenes. She’s not fearful of cutting hundreds of pages or rewrites. “I’ve always loved economic writing – the whole ‘less is more,’ but like the scenes in the novel, Daina’s wings appear when she’s in that cell, and every single thing changes.”
It’s an adventure worth taking and you’ll be lifted from your own reality, whether you’re on a bus, or standing in line, or on a patio while the surf pounds the beach. Here's a recent review.