The writing process for Honors Program Assistant Alyssa Hollingsworth’s debut novel is a story within a story
By Kristen Ziccarelli
For most of us, publishing our written work is outside our comfort zone – but for author Alyssa Hollingsworth, writing in a style outside of her comfort zone wasn’t an unimaginable challenge. It was the raw ingredients of her debut novel.
Last Tuesday saw the release of CNU Honors Assistant Alyssa Hollingsworth’s debut novel, The Eleventh Trade. Set in the city of Boston, her contemporary middle grade novel revolves around a refugee boy’s journey to find his grandfather’s lost instrument.
Hollingsworth’s own path to publication is as riveting as the plot itself. Her book began in 2014 in response to an assignment to write outside of her comfort zone – however, literature and writing were close companions since childhood.
“I grew up in a Southern family that was big on oral tradition, so we did lots of family stories, Hollingsworth said. “I really grew up on stories and knew I wanted to be a writer as long as I knew I could be whatever I wanted.”
Hollingsworth cites inspiration from authors such as Tolkien, Lewis and Austin. Although those stories were a large part of her childhood, she has greatly expanded her book repertoire. Since only this year, Hollingsworth has read 85 books, citing Katherine Rundell’s Where the Watermelons Grows as a recent favorite.
Cultivating such a repertoire is only part of the writing and publishing experience. Her debut novel required an expanse of research in the form of a trip to Boston. In her presentation about literary research with author Sarah Driver (author of the Huntress Trilogy), Hollingsworth expressed the importance of research in expressing detail and creating an immersive sense within a story.
“Research offers exploration of multiple senses instead of just sitting behind a screen,” Hollingsworth said.
During her trip, she visited various locations in Boston to refine where her characters could economically afford to pay rent. She also visited local tea shops in an effort to capture life and culture from a multisensory perspective.
Before the research even began, Hollingsworth felt an emotional connection to Boston after she had visited the city only once after the death of her grandmother.
“The city kind of absorbed this weird, beautiful sad feeling for me,” Hollingswoth said. “When I was thinking of the feeling that I wanted this book to have, I wanted it to be that kind of sad hopeful feeling so it made sense to kind of return to the place where I felt like that.”
Just as Hollingsworth collected the characteristic details of Boston to piece together her story, she relied on fragments of information from a diverse group of experts all throughout the writing process.
“Even though it was so far out of my comfort zone, it was very humbling and cathartic in a way to be in a position where I got to approach people that know their stuff,” Hollingsworth said. “I felt like [I was] collecting all these little webs of people’s stories and putting them together in a way that sometimes felt magical.”
For Hollingsworth, the experience highlighted the “community aspect” of writing. Throughout the revision process, various readers critiqued the text from the angle of soccer, Islam and other elements.
As a writer and avid reader, Hollingsworth immersed the herself in the middle grade genre, but also found a distinct voice to mark her literary contribution.
“It really informed me in respecting people in my genre and how hard it is for this particular age group,” Hollingsworth said. “Not to steal people’s ideas but to take what you’ve done and sort of put my own spin on it.”
According to her contemporaries, Hollingsworth not only possesses a unique voice, but has many layers of content that set her story apart in the expansive genre.
“I’ve been told that my voice is really unique, but I don’t see or hear or view it intentionally,” Hollingsworth said. “It has a very fun and engaging plot that has a series of traits where my character is trying to get this instrument back, but it has an underbelly of really serious topics like the refugee crisis, PTSD, trauma and grief and trying to find a home and memory and memory loss.”
The multilayered complexity of The Eleventh Trade has already garnered attention from homeschooled parents and students alike. With family connections in the homeschool community, Hollingsworth has already received positive feedback from parents who have used the book as a gateway to learn about important issues.
Although Hollingsworth emphasized that her novel is not an issues book, she believes its capacity to open doors.
“That’s why this book exists,” Hollingsworth said. “I want people to ask questions.”
While the reading process can certainly be one of questioning, Hollingsworth’s writing process was not one of comfort regarding the complexity of the issues in her book.
“A lot of people say, write what you know, which i think is good advice but i think the better advice is actually write what you question,” Hollingsworth said. “Ask yourself, what don’t I understand about whatever and how can I understand that better.”
Sometimes, understanding is only achieved through the writing process itself.
This book is about how do you deal with it when you lose something that’s irreplaceable and what’s the answer to dealing with this kind of loss,” Hollingsworth said. “It was really interesting writing the book not really knowing what the answer was until I got to the end.”