The Remarkable Now of Shana Youngdahl

Kenny Brechner -- May 23rd, 2019

A Now of Shana.

Awareness of bias adds a subtle undercurrent of tension to one’s reading experience. In the case of As Many Nows As I Can Get, a YA debut by Shana Youngdahl which is coming out this August from Dial, the danger came in the form of positive bias. Shana is a professor at the local University of Maine at Farmington. Even worse she is a long-time customer, and a decidedly good egg, who I know and like.

My predisposition to like the book was strong. It is also true  that I was shamed and embarrassed to have had the existence of the book first brought to my attention by a third party: Summer, during our interview with her two weeks ago. The need for me to take strong steps toward critical objectivity was obvious at this point.

What I found in the pages of As Many Nows As I Can Get, however, made a mockery of my critical precautions. The book had such a dynamic immediacy, a skillfully intricate narrative structure, and a challenging, open ended engagement with its protagonists, that any notion of bias was subsumed in the obvious excellence of the book.

The story is narrated by Scarlett, a big fish in a small Colorado town, with a passion for physics. The book’s power partially derives from the reader’s strong attachment to a character who embarks on a string of incredibly painful bad decisions. Scarlett is a subtly unreliable narrator. Her perception of herself as a careful person who doesn’t ordinarily make impulsive mistakes, the reader comes to realize, is slightly off center. Scarlett’s journey is counterpointed by her friend, and at times lover, David, who is a viscerally tragic figure.

Another exceptional element of the book derives from Scarlett’s adherence to Einstein’s understanding of the simultaneity of the past, present and future, an illusion of linear progression but in fact a perpetual series of nows. Shana takes Scarlett’s notion of time to create a narrative whose constant temporal shifts accentuates the power of the story.

To find out more about the now we are sharing with her new book I asked her to rally round for an interview.

Kenny: Before we dip into the book ,can you take a moment and share your bookselling history with us?

Shana: Sure! My first bookselling job was in college at a great little used store in Eureka, Calif, called The Booklegger. I’m told I got the job because I said Waiting for Guffman was my favorite movie and one of the owners, Jen, figured we’d have a similar sense of humor. I have yet to have a job where I rolled on the floor with laughter as much. It was excellent. Unfortunately, I only worked there for about a year because I transferred to Mills College in Oakland to finish my degree. Back in the Bay Area I worked as an events staff member at the famous and dearly missed Cody’s Books in Berkeley. That was an amazing job. I introduced great writers and thinkers like bell hooks, and held books open for Barbara Kingsolver to sign. I remember leaving events pinching myself because I’d gotten paid to do something that I would have likely done for free. Bookselling was at least half of my education in literature, maybe more. In the end I worked at six bookstores in three states. I’m pretty busy with writing and my job at the University, but if you ever need someone to fill in….

Kenny: Joe DiMaggio has the record for base hits in consecutive baseball games. In the August before going off to college Scarlett made a similarly impressive run of serious, cringeworthy mistakes. Was love a factor in her August form or was it fueled by a different kind of physics entirely?

Shana: Scarlett is wondering, if she avoids this question, will she still pass the exam?

But as her creator, I have to say yes. Love for her town, family, David, Cody and all she feels like she’s leaving behind contribute to her rather impressive near-eclipse. A larger factor than love, although they are necessarily related, is the pressure of expectation. Scarlett’s expectations for herself are so high they present their own stumbling blocks. Because of her elevated expectations, she has trouble believing that others don’t expect near-perfection from her as well, and this colors her ability to see herself as someone who makes mistakes, as well as impairs her ability to navigate those mistakes. David also struggles with expectations, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Kenny: At one point, Scarlett, after quoting Einstein, notes that she imagines time “like a flip-book—each image still there but only moving because we turn the pages to see it. Some people would say that we return in our memories to important events because they’ve brought us to where we are today, but I think we flip back because they’re still happening. The past is not gone, it’s just not being witnessed.” High quality science fiction time travel books with concrete physics backgrounds such as Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter and Recursion, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, and Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. consider the physics of time and memory in exactly that way. Does your book’s intricate temporal narrative structure make it part of the current time travel genre?

Another Now of Shana.

Shana: If it means my name will appear with these writers more often, or if sci-fi readers might consider picking it up, can I say yes?

There isn’t any actual time travel in the book. It is more the human hope for it, and the possibility of other times still happening around us, that provide thematic closure to Scarlett’s bumpy road. Scarlett, up until this point in her life, hasn’t had to say goodbye to much, and so is particularly caught up in this idea as she is confronted with some major partings. The idea that she is still somewhere with David is a comfort to her even if that isn’t what she is experiencing in her present “now.”

That’s why I chose to structure the book in a way that mirrors Scarlett’s understanding of time—because it connects to how memory works. Who doesn’t have a person, or a place or a moment they wouldn’t want to return to if just for one afternoon? And when we endure loss, isn’t it a kind of solace to think that those moments we love might still be real? Not gone, just not being witnessed?

When we think about the important, and formative, events of our lives, it’s rarely a linear story. It is one moment jumping into another. But of course it isn’t just the cause and effect that is important but how we see those events connected to one another that ultimately leads us to our understanding of ourselves and the world. That’s why it became so important to have Scarlett telling her story from one timeline that was removed from major events in the book but that threaded the narrative nonetheless.

Kenny: Parenting plays a crucial role in As Many Nows As I Can Get. For example after the deer- related car crash, Scarlet’s mother intervenes in the opioid prescription while David’s parents are oblivious to what amounts to sending a lighted match into a powder keg. Do you consider parents as an audience for your book, and how did being a parent, on top of being an ex teen, influence telling a story set far beyond the age of your own children?

Shana: I would love it if teens and parents both read this book—although I certainly wasn’t thinking about this as a book for parents when I started writing it. It was about my own struggles with loss, and knowing people who were once on one track in life but jumped onto another, and it felt like young adults would be the ones most interested in this story. But the truth is, we see this kind of narrative happen not just when people are young. Sometimes people at all ages lose the ability to navigate cosmic collisions.

So much of the book is about what we can hide, or sometimes don’t know about those we are supposed to be closest to—our parents, children, best friends. I think this question of what it means to be close and to know another person both as a daughter and a mother was a seed in the book. I know there are many things my children won’t tell me as they grow into adolescents and adults. It hurts but it’s also part of the necessary individuation that will allow them to function in the world without me. Though I dearly hope they never hide from me as much as Scarlett does from her parents.

I feel for the parents in the book, especially Scarlett’s mom, who has tried really hard to have this open relationship with her daughter and manages to protect and inform her about the risks of opioids. But Scarlett remains closed off despite evidence of pretty good parenting. And David’s parents, while clueless and a bit micromanaging, are certainly not the direct cause of his spiral, even if they contribute to his sense of being not-good-enough. Parenting is hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and there is no perfect formula to ensure that your children talk to you, don’t spiral, end up happy, healthy and self-sufficient. I remember when I brought my first daughter home from the hospital; she was so beautiful and perfect. All I remember thinking was “Please, please let me do this right so you don’t grow up to hate me because the love I feel for you is impossibly big.” And about a year later I remember discussing college savings with a friend and I said, “Well, I just want to make sure the money doesn’t go somewhere that she can blow it on cocaine and a muscle car.” My friend looked at me like considering this outcome for my cherubic daughter was close to child abuse. And sure, I tend toward catastrophic thinking, but one thing that my own coming of age and my experience working with college students has taught me is that parenting can contribute to spirals but it is reductive to see it as the cause. But I also think, as parents, knowing that it is possible that loved children can make terrible choices and accepting that is an important part of the task.

Kenny: School is an important setting throughout the book. One element of the story is something I have thought about and taken notice of for many years. Students like David, who excel at school in a rural high school without having to make any effort, often find, when they go off to a rigorous liberal arts college, that they can’t shift gears, and end up back home in short order. Ironically it is Scarlett who is misapprehended as having that issue. Did that really play a role in David’s fate or is that just a superficial element?

Shana: This absolutely played a role in David’s fate. I imagine when he got to Stanford, and already was kind of a lit powder keg as you put it, being surrounded by all of these wealthy, competitive and really smart people completely freaked him out. There wasn’t just Scarlett there to compete with like there was at home, but hundreds of smart, motivated people, and his sense of loss at never being able to live up to the expectations of his town and family I imagine really grew from there.

Kenny: Speaking of David’s fate, Scarlett spends a lot of time wondering whether she could have altered his trajectory by changing her actions at given critical points. Do you think fulcrum points, those junctures found in Robert Frost’s woods, are really instruments of change or is it more about the harder slog of surviving mistakes and evolving?

Shana: Ultimately I think it is both. Though I’m not sure if Scarlett could have altered David’s trajectory. Rather, part of loss is reconsidering all the possibilities, wishing that we had this power because there is always an “if,” and Scarlett really doesn’t try very hard to address David’s spiral or help him. She allows her paralysis to keep her from reaching out to someone she really cares about, and she needs to contend with that. Considering what she could have done differently is an important part of her growth, so she can approach things differently going forward. Identifying the fulcrum points is part of how she grows by the end and accepts herself as someone who is imperfect and makes mistakes, as a friend, scholar, person. But it is also, ultimately, how she learns to navigate the world. I hope that is part of the takeaway of this book—that all of us will make mistakes in our lives and learning how to get through the storms, both those we create for ourselves and those that happen to us, is the great task of living.

Kenny: Thanks, Shana.

Shana: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure, and now that you pretty much have my bookselling resume, if you ever need me to fill in at at the store . . .

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