The dawn of the New Year brought Robin Benway back to the coffeehouse counter where she writes, following a couple of tumultuous months celebrating a big win: the 2017 National Book Award for Far From the Tree (HarperTeen). The California-based novelist has just signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins for her next two YA novels.
Small wrinkle: she hasn’t started either book yet.
“Far from the Tree came out in October but it had taken me a really long time to figure out how to tell that story so by the time it was done, I had to recharge,” said Benway. “I had told myself, ‘I’ll get back to work after it comes out.’ ”
Instead, in October, her novel was named an NBA finalist for Young People’s Literature, and in November it won the prize, to the author’s astonishment. “We were seated at a big round table with [fellow finalist] Rita Williams-Garcia, and my mom, and when they said the title, everyone pushed back from the table. It was like watching the tide rush out. I was the only one who didn’t move because I was so stunned,” Benway said. “The best thing was that I had all these friends and relatives who were watching the ceremony on the livestream, so winning made the hours they spent watching worth their while.”
The novel, about three siblings who grew up in separate settings and meet for the first time as teenagers, made the New York Times bestseller list in December. Rights have now been sold in 11 territories, including sales to Indonesia, Italy, Turkey, and China, after the NBA win. Benway says it has been incredibly gratifying to hear from readers who had their own stories about the circumstances that led them to give up a baby for adoption.
“I have had so many emails not only from younger women but from women in their 60s and 70s who wrote to say they had connected with Grace [her main character] so deeply,” Benway said. “That’s a big emotional intake and as a writer you want your books to really connect with people, so it’s hard when they do to step away from their stories and your characters.”
The original idea came to her when she heard a song on her car radio while in a Costco parking lot. She’ll be looking for similar serendipity again. “What works best for me is to just not think about it too much but let the idea come to me naturally,” Benway said. “It doesn’t work to force it. I have to be patient and have faith in the process.”
HarperTeen executive editor Kristen Pettit, who has shepherded all six of Benway’s novels into print, isn’t worried. “I know Robin will continue to wring readers’ hearts, and make them soar, with her emotionally driven, highly relatable stories,” said Pettit, who is hoping for a 2020 release for the next book. “She and I have been working together since her debut and I have been in awe of her storytelling ever since.”