Author Lily Brooks-Dalton's post-apocalyptic novel "Good Morning, Midnight" is all about beginnings and endings and the uncertainty in between, so it's no surprise that her Lake Oswego Reads presentation on Tuesday challenged audience members to think about their own lives.
At one point, in fact, she asked attendees in the packed Lake Oswego High School auditorium to close their eyes and imagine waking up from a deep slumber, knowing the world was about to end.
What would their day look like? What would they do? What would they say? And who would they spend their remaining time with?
"Endings can be overwhelming, tragic and confusing," she said. "And so we deal with all of that by telling stories, by attempting to navigate it all in a collective way. But the truth is that we all get to choose our own ending. Embrace that, and think about the stories we tell ourselves."
Brooks-Dalton came to town this week as the guest of Lake Oswego Reads, which is celebrating her novel with a month of exhibits, workshops, lectures and more. She spent part of Tuesday meeting with artists who created work inspired by "Good Morning, Midnight," and with eighth-graders who crafted "found poems" with her words.
She said she is always touched by the way readers respond to "Good Morning, Midnight," precisely because of its uncertain ending. The story is about two outsiders who find themselves on the fringes of civilization with no idea about what has happened, but the lack of a tidy conclusion to the novel frustrates some people.
"But that's what life is. At least that's my experience with the world," Brooks-Dalton said. "So I left my characters in limbo, with unanswered questions. You can choose whatever ending you want — happy, or tragic. Or just sit with that uncertainty. It's up to you. You have a choice."
On Tuesday morning, Brooks-Dalton visited Lakeridge Junior High and met with 40 eighth-grade language arts students who had read "Good Morning, Midnight."
As an assignment, teacher Holly Dottarar had the students create "found poems" based on their impressions of the book. Each took a page or passage from "Good Morning, Midnight" and blacked out selected words to create a poem of their own.
The students asked Brooks-Dalton about the writing process: how long it took to write the book, the publishing process, how she developed the characters, if she experienced writer's block and other questions.
"I write a backstory, or a history, to each person," she told them in explaining her character development. "It helps me get to know them better and determine what the reader needs to know about them. And once I get the characters figured out, I know how the book will end."
She said she didn't experience writer's block when writing "Good Morning, Midnight" because "it just wanted to be written," but she did throw out the first 50 pages she wrote and started over after deciding that the story just didn't work.
Brooks-Dalton told the students that images influence her choice of words and that their poetry assignment was an example of how words and images work together. She said she always outlines her work, using notecards and Post-it notes.
"I use Post-its to capture thoughts on the themes and the characters and then move them around as the story develops," she said. "Outlining is just a guide. When I am working on something as long as a book, I need a framework or storyline to follow. The outline keeps the story organized."
When the first full draft of "Good Morning, Midnight" was completed, Brooks-Dalton said, she first shared it with her mother.
"I knew she would be critical, but not too much because she is my mom," she said. "The first time you show something, you want it to land somewhere safe."
The publishing process takes "three times longer than you expect," she said, and once a book is published, "it is no longer your own. I don't read reviews ... I don't look to them for help growing my writing skills. That comes from other sources."
Many writers have influenced her work, she said; most notable was Portland author Ursula K. LeGuin, who died Jan. 22 after advancing the genre of science fiction during her long career.
"Read a lot and read everything," Brooks-Dalton told the aspiring writers. "Write a lot — even if you write badly! Just keep writing. And finish things. And then make it good."