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The Black Box
Turning around to face it
Today Lit Hub published the most deeply personal nonfiction work I’ve ever dared to release into the world. This newsletter is my safe space, where I’ve finally opened up about being a survivor of abuse, but I’ve never dug into it quite the way that I have in this essay. It took me months of searching for a publisher and revising and cutting to get it there. It deals with one of my great loves, the philosophy of quantum physics—which I am certainly no expert in—and how it has helped me to navigate the labyrinth of something I am unfortunately more than expert in—the recovery from trauma.
Both of those things, the physics, and the landscape of a trauma survivor, are integral to my latest novel, The Library of Broken Worlds. Lord knows you’ve all heard me mention it plenty of times by now, but a novel is its own universe and I hope you’ll indulge me as I explore its different facets over the next month. One thing that I haven’t mentioned here is how long it took me to admit that Freida, my main character, was a trauma survivor. Now that might seem like a strange thing for a writer to say, considering that Freida is my character and her life history is whatever I decide that it is. And I suppose that is technically true, but for me novel writing can sometimes feel more like the work of an archaeologist than a sculptor. I am digging carefully, brushing the dirt off of indifferent lumps, attempting to uncover the shape, the story, of what’s beneath without blundering through and breaking something. It takes me years to do this, and sometimes I find myself stubbornly ignoring a part of my excavation that quite clearly wants to take a certain shape. I leave it beneath the mud, cut it from my diagrams, and tell myself that it’s superfluous to the main story. That was what happened to Freida’s history of sexual assault at first. It was a part of the landscape of her story long before I wanted to admit it.
But years into the process, right before I was about to turn in my first big draft, I faced myself, looked at my story, and realized: of course that happened to her. And of course I had to write it. I would be lying to myself, to my audience, and —perhaps worst of all— to Freida, who was as generous a main character as any writer could dream over these years of creation. So I put it in. I did so flinching, shaking, barely able to look at the screen as my fingers typed the words that made everything make sense. It took some rewriting to fully integrate it into her story—flinching is not conducive to clear narrative control—but it felt right. It was not a truth I could turn away from. If I could make it easier for someone else, especially a young reader struggling through the same morass of self-doubt and self-blame; if my realization that it was real could be Freida’s and then travel like fire into someone else’s life, then it was worth it.
It is worth it.
I hope you enjoy the essay. Please share with anyone who might need it.
The Library of Broken Worlds is now available wherever books are sold in the US and the UK (PLUS it’s this month’s Locked Library pick, and good LORD does that special edition look beautiful)! Buy from your local indie, recommend it to your local library, leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or just text a friend.
And if you’d like someone else besides me to tell you that the book is worth your time, Molly Templeton at Tor.com wrote the most generous, insightful review of Freida’s story that made me cry with joy.
Open The Library of Broken Worlds to just about any page and you will find rich storytelling that ranges from the practical (every food detail is a delight) to the explosive, from the intimate details of Freida’s life to the story of how her world came to be. Johnson layers myths on histories on gods on planets, and it feels as if there’s enough world—or worlds—here to sustain countless more tales. But this one alone is a feast, artful, imaginative, and unmatched.
Thank you so much for reading A Stranger Comes Home.
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