This July, Soho Teen is publishing Zen and Gone by the prodigiously talented Emily France.
France graduated from Brown University and holds an MFA in creative writing as well as a JD. Her debut, Signs of You, was a critically acclaimed young adult novel published in 2016,
France considers her Zen practice to be the taproot of her inspiration, which explains why Zen and Gone achieves an achingly human deep-dive into spirituality.
In advance of the book’s release, we asked the author to share some insights about her writing process and what drew her to the book’s account of mindfulness and exploring the state of Colorado.
What’s your new book about?
In some ways, Zen and Gone is about a girl named Essa: a Boulder teenager who struggles with her pothead mom, who falls in love with a boy from Chicago, and who must find her little sister lost in the Colorado wilderness. But underneath all that, for me, the book is about mindfulness and how to find happiness even in the midst of suffering.
What attracted you to the idea/concept of the book?
There are small, ineffable moments of joy I have had in Boulder: standing in the garden outside a Zendo, sitting on a cushion listening to a Dharma talk, drinking lapsang souchong in the sun. Joy, during incredible hardship in my personal life. That’s what attracted me to this story: those moments and what led me to them.
What kind of research was required?
I’ve hiked many miles in the Colorado wilderness, but I’ve never gotten lost in it. I did a lot of survival research so I could describe the experience of being lost in the mountains. As for the spiritual aspects in the novel, I practice Zen Buddhism, but I also read many books about Zen and mindfulness as well. While reading about those topics is helpful, it’s a little like sitting down in a library to research swimming. I learn the most from actually jumping in the water.
Which books or authors influenced you while writing this book?
There are two books that have had a profound impact on my life as well as on this novel: Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh, and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.
Did anything not make it into the book that readers might find surprising or interesting?
Essa’s tattoo kept changing as my understanding of her changed. Once I finally understood what she wanted most in the world—to be connected to the universe, at home wherever she was—I knew what she had chosen to ink on her skin.
When readers finish the book, what do you hope they will think and feel?
I hope readers will feel like they’ve been to the Colorado Essa sees and loves. I hope they feel like they’ve hung out on the streets of Boulder, ducked into the kite shop on Pearl Street, found a soul mate by a bonfire, traipsed up mountains, been close to the sun. And I hope, like Essa, they have a moment of joy, of finding refuge in the present, a safe space in the midst of suffering.
“Zen and Gone reminds us that we are all connected, we all matter, and we are all loved. By lifting up others, we lift up ourselves.”
—New York Times bestselling author Lauren Myracle