No life should be reduced to a narrative.
It's too tempting to tie up the loose ends. To miss the minutiae that make each of us human. To find reason where there is none.
So the abrupt, far too early end of author Bridget Zinn's life doesn't need to make sense. It leaves you frustrated and baffled and wanting, because her life — like her work — was beautiful and artful and immense. And then it was finished.
Her story, though, has just begun.
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In December 2007, a year and a half before she was diagnosed with cancer at age 31, Zinn was living with her boyfriend, Barrett Dowell, in Madison, Wis., and working as a librarian. Inspired by a lifelong love of reading, a decadelong desire to become a published author and a crystal-clear dream about a teenage master potion-maker, she started to write her debut novel.
She and Dowell moved to Portland, Ore., in 2008, where Zinn continued to write, through migraines and blurred vision and other troubling symptoms that would, in March 2009, be revealed as stage 4 colon cancer.
She signed with an agent. She wrote. She underwent surgeries and chemotherapy and endless tests. She married Dowell in her hospital bed. She wrote.
The fruits of her labor, "Poison," was released this month by Hyperion. It's a middle-grade fantasy about Kyra, a 16-year-old potions master who is forced to poison her former best friend in order to save her kingdom. She is accompanied by her little pig sidekick and Fred, the guy she's crushing on, big time.
"It's a rom-com, basically," says Michael Stearns, Zinn's agent at New York-based Upstart Crow Literary. "If Meg Cabot were to write a Tamora Pierce novel, this is the one she'd write."
(Cabot being the author of paranormal and romantic fiction for teens, including "The Princess Diaries," and Pierce being the author of young adult feminist heroine novels, including "The Song of the Lioness" series.)
"'Poison' is the book Bridget wanted to read but wasn't finding," says Stearns. "Tamora Pierce novels are amazing and dense with these fantastical worlds, but they're much more serious than Bridget wanted to be. She took the 'Princess Diaries' element and married the two things."
"She knew the genre," says Stearns. "People think they can write for kids because it's easier. Bridget understood that it's a great responsibility, and part of that responsibility is knowing what's gone before you and fitting your story into kind of a larger story. She knew that."
Now that same literary community, the one she spent years studying and celebrating, is rallying around "Poison," determined to have its reception live up to Zinn's legacy.
Her fellow authors and Dowell have coordinated an all-out "Poison" fest to get the book in front of as many readers as possible. They're urging bloggers to write about their own firsts — first novel, first post, first anything, really — in honor of Zinn's debut. They've urged Twitter users to tweet about #Poison and Facebook folks to post pictures of themselves holding "Poison."
"When she passed away, everyone immediately said, 'We want to support this book and we want everyone to be able to read it,'" says Suzanne Young, author of "A Need So Beautiful," who met Zinn through a writers group in Portland.
"Bridget was so kind and gentle, and yet she was so smart and witty," says Young. "Her book has that same perfect blend of charm and romance and humor. I really hope people, in a way, get to meet her through her words."
Young adult fiction author Inara Scott last month blogged a host of ideas for getting the word out, a post that quickly spread to other authors' social media feeds.
"If you're an author, consider mentioning 'Poison,'" Scott wrote. "If you're doing an event, consider giving a piece of your time to the story of Bridget and 'Poison.' If you're a librarian, spread the word about 'Poison.' If you're a reader who loves 'Poison,' please post a review.
"If you're the parent of a teen who might like 'Poison,' take them to the library to check it out, put it on hold or buy them a copy," Scott implored. "We, her family and friends, are so grateful for the kindness of readers to help share her work with the world. She was a writer and a reader but, above all, a true friend of good books and readers everywhere."
Dowell is touched, though not particularly astonished by the outpouring of support for his late wife's work.
"Her brightness drew people to her," he says. "She was very authentic in her joy and positivity. Bridget was very open and honest about what she was going through and she saw the world in a way that not many people did."
Zinn blogged throughout her cancer battle, from the time she was diagnosed in March 2009 through May 2011, when she passed away. During the ordeal, friends and fellow writers teamed up to offset Zinn's medical expenses through auctions and other fundraisers. They dropped by with cake.
They read her words.
She acknowledged them, frequently, in her blog posts and credited them with brightening her world, even during the darkest, most painful hours of abdominal infections and sinking hemoglobin levels and back-to-back-to-back emergency room visits.
"The thing is, when you're sick, you sort of just want to curl up in a hole and hide from everyone," she wrote on Dec. 14, 2010, in a post titled "Bridget's Surefire Guide to Keeping up With Your Friends so That They Don't Forget How Fun You Are."
"Don't curl up in a hole!" she wrote. "They are cold, nasty places and you will have to live with badgers and not the cute kind, the mean snarly ones like those statues in the capitol building in Madison. Plus, keeping in touch with your friends and family will make you feel better."
She wore indigo blue wigs and compared her cancer team to a cast of Harry Potter characters.
"Ever since I found out that Dumbledore, my oncologist, is moving to retirement, the perfect nanny song from 'Mary Poppins' has been going through my head," she wrote on Jan. 27, 2011. "Except instead of 'plays games, all sorts' and 'rosy cheeks,' it's switched up a bit. Like 'super smart' and 'doesn't try to kill me.' I am on board with wanting a cheery disposition though."
Her "neutral," she liked to point out, was happy.
"I don't know if I was born that way or if it was a product of reading too many Zen Buddhism books at a young age," she wrote on Nov. 13, 2010. "I remember being so blown away by the eternal now, but then thinking, 'Hey, if it's always now, I don't have to wait until later to be happy.'"
Dowell says Zinn felt a responsibility to bring that spirit to her work.
"One of the things she wanted to do, and realized was her purpose, was to bring joy to other people," he says. "She was a huge believer that teens didn't want to read just dark stories. Her favorite books were the ones that had pockets of warmth."
Her own book, of course, includes many such pockets. As did her life.
On May 18, seven days before she passed away, Zinn sent out her final tweet:
"Sunshine and a brand new book. Perfect."
The book, Dowell recalls, was "What Happened to Goodbye" by Sarah Dessen.
"I bought it for Bridget as a surprise earlier that week," he says. "On the evening of May 24 Bridget was in a lot of pain and was given morphine to help ease it. She started having really bad hallucinations, and we called in the nurse on duty. Bridget told the nurse she didn't want any more painkillers and that she wanted to be here with this guy and held my hand. I sat next to her bed and rested my hand on her leg and began to read where she had left off.
"We finished reading the book just before 2 a.m. on May 25," he says. "I told her she was safe and kissed her goodnight and a few hours later a nurse woke me up to tell me Bridget had passed. There are books and moments you never forget, and I will always remember that one."
Martha Brockenbrough, author of young adult novel "Devine Intervention," says Zinn's friends and fellow authors are finding solace in the release of "Poison."
"So I guess this is a story about the endurance of love and literature," says Brockenbrough. "Death claims us all eventually. But the hope and happiness we find in stories can carry on."
Heidi Stevens is a Tribune lifestyle reporter.
By Bridget Zinn, Hyperion, 288 pages, $16.99, ages 12 and up
'Poison' on blog tour
More than 100 writers signed on for the "Poison" blog tour, pledging to write posts inspired by Bridget Zinn. New posts are scheduled to roll out through Thursday. (Find the full schedule at inarascott.com/2013/03/poison-blog-tour-dates).
Several authors blogged about various firsts, in honor of Zinn's debut novel. Martha Brockenbrough, author of "Devine Intervention" wrote about her first handstand. A portion is excerpted below:
I'd try. Oh, I would. But there was no magic in me. I'd kick one leg up. Gravity and its emotional twin, fear, would pull it back down. While everyone around me was upside down, I was earthbound and despondent.
In yoga, you aren't supposed to care about this. You're just supposed to inhabit your body experiencing each moment as though it is a gem in a glittering necklace of time ... not judging, just experiencing.
This is a lot easier said than done, especially when everyone else seems to (be) able to easily do that thing you can't. Teachers tried to help. They'd offer advice and some encouragement. Some would literally lift my feet until I was in a handstand.
"There!" they'd say. "You're doing it!"
Because I am no longer three years old, this did not fool me. I appreciated the effort, though.
I made things worse for myself by connecting the handstand to another long-term goal: writing a novel. This was another mysterious thing that people around me seemed to manage. Friends could do it. I'd read their drafts and published books, some of which had flown out of their fingertips in a matter of weeks. Likewise, strangers could do it. I regularly surrounded myself with their works as I walked through bookstores. I wept in delight, wonder, and, admittedly, some sadness as I read the pages and fell into their miraculous worlds.