This blog was written by mentee Sylvi Stein about her experience hearing Ali Benjamin’s craft talk at our recent workshop on suspense fiction.
When I arrived at Suite 1000 for the first Girls Write Now Writing and Mentoring workshop of the year—suspense fiction!—and scanned the packet, the first thing I spotted was the author and title staring out at me under the heading CRAFT SPEAKERS: Ali Benjamin, author of The Thing About Jellyfish. I had seen the book before in Barnes and Noble, and I owned a copy of it somewhere in the enormous stack of books that is my need-to-read pile. But how could a book about jellyfish possibly relate to suspense fiction? It was that weekend, curled up under the covers (still reading, hours after my brothers had fallen asleep) that I learned the answer: Ali Benjamin’s writing had everything to do with suspense. Through the tale she wove in her novel, this author managed to capture the suspense we live in every day, the suspense of every moment, every breath, of not knowing what happens next in this crazy life.
The Thing About Jellyfish is a young adult novel, but it is also much more than that. It is a novel about grief, about friendship, about growing up, and (of course) about jellyfish. The plot centers on Suzy, a girl whose best friend, Franny, has just drowned. To try to make sense of how something so unbelievable and terrible could happen, Suzy resolves to try to find answers in the form of blame: she believes she can prove that it was a jellyfish that killed her best friend. The story is told in alternating chapters, switching between the present (in the aftermath of the tragedy) and the past (when Franny was still alive). The reader does not witness solely the wake of the event, but the events leading up to it as well—painting a portrait not only of anguish but of coming of age, of emotion as a whole.
In her craft talk, Ali Benjamin spoke about her motivation for writing The Thing About Jellyfish. “In writing this book I was seeking answers to questions I had about the world,” she explained. “Questions like, ‘Why do these things just happen?’ And in writing this book I was wrestling with these questions. I was learning to live in a world without all the answers.” This is the universal suspense we are all living in. Why do bad things happen? Suspense is defined by Merriam-Webster as “The state of being suspended; a mental uncertainty.” We are always uncertain about a million ‘why’s’, but we must all learn how to accept the fact that there are often no answers. That is why suspense fiction, especially the kind in The Thing About Jellyfish, is important to read, and important to write. In doing so, we are learning about ourselves and about the world around us. We are learning that, although we will never know the ‘why’ of everything, we are not alone in our desire for closure, and in our search for reason.