In her new novel, Zen and Gone, Emily France tells the story of two Colorado teens from very different families who begin exploring Buddhism together.
The young adult tale—which was named a Best Book for Young Readers by the Washington Post—follows Essa McKree, whose mother’s tumultuous personal life, along with her increasing dependence on pot, often leaves Essa with the responsibility of running the household and making sure her little sister, Puck, has everything she needs. Her many responsibilities were part of the reason she was instantly distrustful when she meets Oliver, a teen visiting Boulder from Chicago. But through the intervention of Puck, the two begin going on long hikes and discussing some of life’s big questions at the local Zen center. When Puck goes missing during a camping trip, the pair realizes that they have to rely on each other and their newfound spirituality if they want to save her.
Tricycle talked with France about her new novel and why she thinks it’s important for teens be able to see themselves in fiction.
This book explores some pretty heavy themes. We have two teen main characters who have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives. What made you decide to create a character like Oliver, who we soon discover has a troubled family?
Yes, they are big themes. Similar to Oliver, I have members of my family who have severe mental illness. And I played a big role helping out with family members when I was 16. That was definitely the most formative year of my life, and I do think it forms my characters. It seems to be that every teen character that comes to me has rather large problems. I’m sure that comes out of my life experience.
As for Essa, she is basically a second mom to her sibling because her mother is a drug addict. Do you think that a story like this could be a source of comfort for teens who see themselves in Essa and Oliver?
I certainly hope so. There are several types of diversity in this story. There is certainly spiritual diversity and racial diversity, but there’s also economic diversity. Oliver comes from a pretty privileged background, but Essa does not. I hope that readers can find a home for themselves in this story and see themselves reflected in it.
The heart of it is that whatever suffering anyone is having in life—and I think everyone has some—I hope that the Buddhist lessons on how to view the world are comforting.
How did you start writing?
I have always wanted to be a writer. According to family lore, my parents asked me when I was five years old, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I said, “I want to be a writer.” I wrote stories from that age on. So it’s always been my passion, and if I go too many days without doing it, I feel off-center. It’s who I am.
When did your relationship with Buddhism begin?
I had been practicing meditation since 2005, attending dharma talks given by several different teachers. But when I found the Boulder Zen Center in 2015, my practice and faith blossomed. I immediately connected with a teacher, Ryokan Gary Hardin, an ordained priest in the Soto Zen lineage of Zentatsu Baker Roshi. His dharma talks hit me in a profound way. So I began practicing with him and joined that sangha [community].
Can you tell us a bit more about the aspects of your teacher’s philosophy that you felt a particular connection to?
When I found my teacher, I was going through incredible hardship in my personal life: loss, grief, chronic illness in my family. I felt like happiness was out of reach. And then I met my teacher. As a result of his guidance, ineffable moments of joy began to bloom in my life. Some of the first lessons he taught me were about considering mind and location; how we often suffer with an “elsewhere located mind.” He taught me to practice
with the phrases, “Just this” or “This very mind is Buddha.” My way of being in the world began to change, and with that came joy. The moments caught me off guard at first. My mind might be swirling with distressing thoughts, and I would find myself looking at a flower, practicing. Just this. This very mind is Buddha.
How did you weave Buddhism into your story in a way that made it feel natural even for those who aren’t familiar with Zen practices?
Buddhist teachings are the heart and organizing principles of my novel. The story is broken into four parts, and each begins with and explores one of Buddhism’s four noble truths. In Part I, the reader is introduced to the first noble truth—the existence of dukkha [suffering]—which can be described as a “thirst for not less than everything,” or the human condition of never being satisfied. My novel introduces characters who are all trying to quench this craving and find satisfaction in various ways. For example, Essa’s mother attempts to ease discomfort by escaping through legal marijuana. Another character tries to escape dukkha by going into the wilderness whenever possible. Another tries to buckle down, to be serious and hyper-responsible in an effort to feel more in control, more secure. Of course, none of their strategies work.
Through the course of the novel, the characters are exposed to the rest of the four noble truths, to two Zen koans, and other Buddhist teachings about how to address this craving and suffering at the root of the human condition.
Ultimately, what do you want your readers to take away from Zen and Gone?
I think the biggest thing—and this is what I have taken away from my practice—is that joy is possible even in the midst of suffering. There is comfort in the present moment if we slow down and are mindful of the things around us.
I think in our society we are told to look for joy and comfort outside of ourselves and to look for that in acquiring things and getting things and achieving things. I hope the book’s focus on human beings rather than human doings is something that readers take home with them.
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