Cynthia Hand Unearthed

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By Meaghan Menzel
Elm Staff Writer   

“I had written fantasy as a high school student,” said young adult writer Cynthia Hand. “I had always been interested in writing stories about teens…and I like the fantastical. You really should write what you like to read.”

Hand was the first speaker at the Rose O’Neill Literary House for Washington College’s spring series: Writing For and About Young Adults.

“While much of the programming at the Literary House focuses on underrepresented perspectives such as Jewish Voices [and] Writing in Wartime, other seasons are designed to acknowledge our students’ primary concerns and interests,” said Professor Jehanne Dubrow, director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House.

This season’s events will deal with young adult literature.

Hand was born in Idaho but now lives in southern California, where she teaches creative writing at Pepperdine University. She is the author of the “Unearthly” series and is currently working on another, more contemporary book.

“In the ‘Unearthly’ series, Hand tells the story of Clara, a teenage girl who’s part angel and who must discover her purpose, what we might describe as her calling or her reason for being on earth,” Dubrow said.

“Hand’s writing is clean, direct, elegant,” she added. “She creates a rich, textured back story, explaining how angels and humans first came together, what it feels like to be a fallen angel.”

Hand said she has been writing since she could first pick up a pen or pencil. She loved to write fantasy stories about aliens attacking an island of unicorns as well as fan fiction about “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.” English, though, was not Hand’s first choice for her studies. She attended the University of Idaho to earn a law degree, but she realized later in her education that she wanted to be a writer. She started applying for Master of Fine Arts programs, but she had to submit a short story, something she had never written.

“Everything that I had written was either super autobiographical…or it was fantasy,” Hand said.

She quickly wrote some stories, sent them off to several MFA programs, and was just accepted into Boise State University.

“I was really lucky to end up there because it is a really super program,” Hand said. Before at the University of Idaho, Hand’s creative writing experience had been more workshopping and less reading and theory. That was not the case at Boise State University, and it left Hand feeling very underprepared.

“I was the youngest [person in the program] at 22, and everyone else was at least 25 or 26, had life experience, all that stuff, and I had read nothing,” Hand said. “I had hardly written anything.”

Hand eventually developed a system for catching up with the rest of her classmates by writing down the names of authors they talked about and then reading them when she got home.

Hand went on to earn her Ph.D. at University of Nebraska-Lincoln around the same time Dubrow received hers in the same program.

“The Ph.D. was much more focused on understanding myself as a writer and sort of finding my place and my voice there,” Hand said. During her time in the program, Hand published her first short story and met her first agent and future husband, writer John Struloeff. He is the author of the poetry collection “The Man I was Supposed to Be.”

Hand said there are ups and downs to having a writer for a husband.

“The good part is that he is an amazing editor,” Hand said. He reads everything she writes and helps her with problems with her stories.

“The downside of it is we do struggle over who’s going to take care of the kids while the other one writes,” Hand said. It all comes down to whose writing is more important at the time.

“When I hit The New York Times, he was like, ‘Oh no, here we go,’” Hand said.

Hand is recognized for her fantasy-based “Unearthly” series, but the publishing industry is moving more toward contemporary literature.

“It’s hard for me because I have a temptation to write that stuff…my next novel is contemporary and I like it, but to write without anything sort of cool being in it, I don’t know,” Hand said. “I like the sort of mysterious and the fantastical.”

In writing her stories, Hand does a lot of research.

“I think it’s part of the fun,” she said. “I always keep a huge corkboard in my house where I pin up stuff I need for research.”

For the “Unearthly” series, Hand kept a map with details about the landscape, town, and streets. She did a vast amount of research on her setting, visiting Wyoming and even going to Jackson Hole High School to talk to the principal and students. She researched angel lore from several cultures, not just Judeo-Christian, as it turns out that many other religions have their own versions of angels.

“I got to sort of cherry pick from all that,” Hand said. “I would find different things I liked or different figures that I thought were interesting.”

When she started writing “Unearthly,” she had no idea her main character Clara was an angel. She did not even know she was writing young adult fiction. All she knew was that she was writing fantasy and that Clara was special in some extraordinary way.

Finally, Hand said, “I remembered this one little passage from the Bible that had always sort of blown my mind.”

“‘The Nephilim were on earth in those days— and also afterward— when the angels went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were heroes of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:4)’”

“The minute that I thought that being the solution to the problem, it all sort of beautifully came together, and the story kind of unrolled like a carpet that I just walked down,” Hand said.

“I confessed that I read the entire ‘Unearthly’ series in the span of three days, staying up all night to see what would happen on the next page,” said Dubrow. “We watch Clara fall in love for the first time, we watch her struggle with college applications. She may be part angel, but what makes Clara so compelling is that her narrative remains so human and familiar.”

Hand read excerpts from “Unearthly” at the Lit House as well as a chapter from the book she is currently writing. It tells the story of a math student who thinks mostly in terms of numbers and statistics but is starting to see the ghost of her brother. The next series she wants to work on is more dystopian, but Hand admits it will be hard to sell considering the publishing market is only accepting contemporary at this point.

At the end of the day, though, “You got to write what you love and what interests you,” she said, “and have faith in it.”

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