I wasn’t sure what to label this post today it’s a kind of hybrid between a guest post and an excerpt as the bit that I have for you to look at ultimately didn’t make it into the book, you’ll have to read on to find out why.
Best friends Marine Duval and Kate Sanders have trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School since childhood, where they’ve formed an inseparable bond forged by respective family tragedies and a fierce love for dance. When the body of a student is found in the dorms just before the start of their final year, Marine and Kate begin to ask themselves what they would do to win the ultimate prize: to be the one girl selected to join the Opera’s prestigious corps de ballet. Would they die? Cheat? Seduce the most talented boy in the school, dubbed the Demigod, hoping his magic would make them shine, too? Neither girl is sure.
But then Kate gets closer to the Demigod, even as Marine has begun to capture his heart. And as selection day draws near, the competition—for the prize, for the Demigod—becomes fiercer, and Marine and Kate realize they have everything to lose, including each other.
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Bright Burning Stars will be published 21st May 2019.
When I first began drafting Bright Burning Stars, I thought of myself as a literary and women’s fiction writer so the first draft was in 3rd person close and the prologue was an omniscient type of voice preparing the reader for the journey, but the more I wrote and revised, the more I shifted gears and eventually turned the story a young adult market. The prologue had to be cut. I do still love it!
Imagine a contemporary building filled with rats. Not the kind of rats you’re imagining. Student-dancers, ages eight to seventeen. Their building sits on two acres of land twenty minutes west of Paris in a suburb called Nanterre. The only critical detail you must retain about the suburb is that it has a direct RER line to the Paris Opera metro station. The building’s architecture is modern, light, and divided into three distinctive wings—the dormitories and the academic and dance annexes. A courtyard bordered by mature oaks and weeping willows hides behind the wings while a cement wall encircles the perimeter. It is well known that gaining admission to this facility is nearly impossible. Exiting it presents other challenges.
But don’t let that dampen your curiosity. Visualize the wings and make your way first past the iron-gate, and then walk to the center, to the dance annex, the heart of the structure. Inside this annex is a spiral staircase crowded with the rats making their way to various studios. The bustle tells you it’s early afternoon. Stop at the bottom of the stairs. Look around. Take it all in.
Let the young dancer, the baby rat dressed in a pink leotard and jeans—yes, the one to your right with the big grin—approach you. Let her introduce herself as one of the Sixth Division trainees, and then let her guide you to the uppermost floor, the place she is not allowed to visit unless she’s touring the wing with someone important. Listen to what she has to say. Let her explain her dream: to climb to First Division and to take ballet on the top floor.
Watch her hold her breath as she opens the door and peeks inside the forbidden space. Go ahead, glance in there with her. The studio’s shape is what distinguishes it from all the other studios. Circular, warehouse-vast, and airy, it has a skylight cut into the ceiling, letting rain or sunrays—depending on the seasons—batter thick glass. Scan the bare walls and bay windows, the barres snaking around. Scratched floors of linoleum and vinyl; boxes of resin strewn along the side. Notice the mirrors. All the mirrors. Listen to notes flying through the air. Watch the pianist sway, head bowed over the keys. Her fingers speak an “adagio” to the dancers.
Ah, the dancers. The oldest of the rats.
Focus on them. Hear their collective breath. Inhale the faint scent of damp skin mixed with hairspray. Inhale sandalwood and clove, the sticky resinous sap rubbed beneath the soles of pointe shoes. Feel heat and ambition rising from the floor. Taste brine.
Now pause. Say goodbye to your guide, whose side presses into the door to keep it propped open and whose eyes have grown as big as disks. Wave to her as she retreats backward down the corridor toward her own studio, determined to watch the most honored students at work for as long as she can.
Now turn back to the class. Count heads. Boy, girl, boy, eight of each, fingertips resting on the barre, feet in fifth position, forming a perfect ring. Listen to the thump of the cane, the ballet master a metronome. See the girls dressed not in baby pink but in ivory leotards—the signature of the school’s highest and most coveted division. Note the girls’ buns, as round and tight as peaches. Do not overlook the boys. Ah, the rat-boys. White t-shirts tucked neatly inside gray tights, black demi-pointes, and brilliantine in stiff, glossy hair. You see it now: this place is not your usual neighborhood dance school.
You have entered the training facilities of the most famous French ballet school, L’École de Danse de L’opéra de Paris.
Welcome to the world’s heartbeat of dance.
Welcome to First Division, the final and most advanced domain of the petit-rats.
Would you like to know a secret about them? Along with the girls’ ivory and the boys’ gray comes authority. These sixteen rats have excelled past the baby pink, the pale blue, the minty green, the lavender, and for the boys the black. It’s taken them six years of dancing three hundred forty-four days a year from two to six hours a day to get here. In this division, the oldest rat is seventeen, the youngest fifteen. Another secret? All of them are French, except for one. Her odds of making it to the last division of the school as a foreigner are as minuscule as winning the Mega Million lottery. Another dancer is missing a toe, the reason he began to dance in the first place. Someone else is missing entirely.
Watch the girls’ pointe shoes simultaneously strike the ground. The seams of their tights shoot down the back of their legs like arrows. Can you guess who the foreigner rat-girl is, guess which is the rich, mean one, discern who the most gifted is? Probably not. You can tell that their faces are gaunt, their shoulders slender, the tips of their fingers light as wind, and their concentration as hard as the barre they hold. Each girl gracefully tilts her head up, gaze focused past her fingernails while the ballet master dictates positions. The boys, more diverse in size, execute the same movements as the girls but with a bit more muscular virility. Theyare not as hard to distinguish.
Why are these dancers here?You might ask yourself. What’s in it for them?
Easy. The reward: the acceptance letter sealed with a red wax stamp inviting them to join the legendary company at the end of the school year. Also the process: controlling every inch of their bodies in a multidimensional world.
Here is a final secret: only one girl and one boy from this floor will be rewarded.
The fourteen others who have been competing through every division will be ejected into the dance community like pilots falling from airplanes with nothing more than the most admirable ballet technique in the world as their parachute. The losers will leave the circular studio with the skylight. They will relinquish their sanctuary, like an unspoken gift, to the next rats in line.
That is the tradition. New rats will rise. Maybe even your tour guide some day. They always do. And like the others—the ones currently warming up in the studio, the ones you will become intimate with if you choose to linger on the top floor—this fresh group will hone their skills day in and day out, their balletic aspirations, the one and only religion they will ever believe in.
So? What will it be? Are you staying or leaving?
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A.K. Small is thrilled for her debut novel, BRIGHT BURNING STARS, to come out May 21, 2019 through publisher Algonquin Young Readers. Her talent for writing and passion for classical ballet fuse together in this novel and earned A.K. Small the honor of an Entertainment Weekly review.
In addition to BRIGHT BURNING STARS, A.K. Small spends time on short stories. Her short story, Anthrocon, 2017 was just nominated for a Pushcart prize by the Bellevue Literary Review. Other stories such as the Flour Baby and The Interior Designer were also nominated or runner-up to prizes.
She also ran a column titled, “A French Girl’s View Du Monde” at Barrelhouse Magazine.
A.K. Small graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2009 with an MFA in fiction. When she’s not reading her favorite authors (Rainbow Rowell, Angie Thomas, Anna Gavalda, Jandy Nelson, Ann Hood, Sue Miller, Anais Nin, Tayari Jones, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Wright, and J.R.R. Tolkien, to name a few!), she’s studying her favorite dancers: Sylvie Guillem, Noella Pontois, Marie-Agnes Gillot, and Aurelie Dupont.
A.K. Small grew up near the Sacré Coeur in Paris and married her Tobagonian soul mate. She has three gorgeous daughters and owns a min-chi named Dallas.