Syd and Miranda have always been a duo.
Both have absent mothers. Both hope to escape their small hometown in New Mexico. And both feel they don’t quite fit in amongst their classmates in high school.
For Syd, it’s a conscious choice. She’s dedicated herself to defying the odds by creating the résumé of any college applicant’s dreams, complete with Advanced Placement math and science classes, top-ranking grades and stellar extracurriculars. She also doles out snarky quips with a superior attitude, intentionally keeping her distance from most of her peers.
Miranda is much less self-assured: “I had very little experience giving pep talks to Syd,” she observes after Syd laments the silence from Stanford over early admission. “Syd was usually the one giving them to me.”
Still reeling from the abject humiliation of getting stood up for prom last year in the self-dubbed Nick Allison Event, Miranda dutifully follows Syd’s plan as best she can for herself, relishing the acceptance she enjoys simply by being best friends with Syd.
Until, that is, Syd disappears.
There’s no warning, just a simple note: “I’m gone. I’m not missing.”
Austinite Carrie Fountain expertly charts both the splintering of a friendship and the blossoming of a first love over the course of “I’m Not Missing” (Flatiron/Macmillan, $18.99), her debut novel for young adults.
The author of two collections of poetry whose poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Fountain says while some writers might shy away from the young adult genre for fear it’s not “literary” enough, she intentionally embraces that audience.
“I always wanted to write YA,” she says. “I was a really big reader as a kid, and I loved reading YA, stories from writers like Judy Blume – those were the ones that kept me up at night.”
Adolescence is an ideal setting for fiction, she notes, with its tectonic paradigm shifts of separating from the familiar into the unknown. So during her time at the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers, where she earned her MFA and where she now serves as a visiting professor, she wrote plenty of fiction that centered on teenage characters.
“I’ve always been interested in looking at the end of a friendship,” she says. “Here are these two girls, and one of them is really going off the rails.”
Deciding to tackle a novel meant tapping into different skills from the ones she uses when writing poetry.
“Poetry takes something big and makes it essential, and a novel takes something essential and makes it big,” she explains. So for her, the tools she relied on for penning poems weren’t the same ones she’d need for writing a full-length novel.
Fountain’s first versions of “Missing” – the one that arrives on shelves Tuesday was her 23rd draft — dug deep into the characters but were light on plot. The upside was that character-driven novels “keep your plot honest,” she says, so she revisited the characters to consider what might happen to them in different scenarios. (An offhand joke she made in a conversation with former Michener Center head James Magnuson later provided the impetus for one of the twists, she confides.)
All those many revisions later, Fountain has birthed a story that informs and surprises. Miranda discovers what happened to Syd, but more importantly, she decides what will happen in her own future. Revisiting her relationship with Nick, digging deeper into her mother’s past and discovering the secret Syd was keeping are all part of Miranda’s journey of self-discovery as she maps her next steps beyond high school.
As in the fictional arc of “Missing,” readers will find Miranda an increasingly complex and enticing character once she is out of Syd’s shadow. Fountain’s skill in capturing the dust storm of teen emotions is evident in keen observations and authentic dialogue, from the chaos of a teen party out in the desert to the irritation Miranda feels when Nick connects with her dad in ways she doesn’t.
“I saw Nick smile a little when my dad said this,” she thinks, after her dad teases her about her sour mood. “How different things were for the two of us. In Nick’s house, there was no teasing, no joking. It was a different planet. A cold, weird, lonely planet. Why should I begrudge Nick his share of my father’s corniness?”
Fountain has created something both big and essential with “Missing.” While Miranda’s circumstances might be unique, her struggle with the challenges of growing up is universal — which makes “Missing” a must-read for teenagers and the adults who hope to understand them.
Carrie Fountain reads from and signs “I’m Not Missing”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
Tickets: Free, but only books purchased at BookPeople will be signed.