In Hollywood, sequels are nearly always cynical attempts to cash in on the popularity of a hit movie. Studio executives light a joss stick in front of vintage 007 poster and offer up prayers that they can turn one success into a profitable franchise. The business plan is:
1. sign a few of the actors from the first movie,
2. bang out a screenplay by Friday, and
3. sling it into the marketplace while 15-year-olds can still remember what they liked last summer.
Novelists can’t be quite so cavalier, but anybody who writes a follow-on story knows that sequels nearly always stand in the shadow of a successful elder sibling. We know that readers are hungry for more of whatever made the first book appealing. They want to spend more time with the characters, and to find out what happened next. At the same time, we know from our own reading lives that sequels usually suck.
That experience is so common that two kinds of readers will actively avoid a sequel. Those who weren’t that crazy about the first book, and those who loved it so much they don’t dare risk reading anything that will undermine their happy memories of the original. I’ve heard from both kinds of readers, regarding Children of God. Mercifully few people have gotten in touch to say that they were so horrified and revolted by The Sparrow, they’d rather pull their own eyeballs out than read Children of God. Okay. Fair enough. Lots of books in the library. Nobody loves them all. But it’s more frustrating when somebody says, “I just couldn’t bring myself to try the sequel. I was afraid it would spoil The Sparrow for me.”
Writing Children of God was not a cynical exercise. I tried hard not to repeat The Sparrow. I felt it was important to take the story further: to follow the characters into their future without simply repeating a formula that had worked before. The Sparrow was a courtroom drama; Children of God was a three-generation family saga — on two planets with three species. The Sparrow was intimate, full of one-on-one conversations, and moments of reflection. Children of God was more epic – full of political intrigue and conflict.
I’m proud of Children of God. It’s a good sequel and many readers have said they actually preferred it to The Sparrow, and yet… even I fail to mention it when I’m called upon to talk about my novels in public. In all honesty, I haven’t thought about the book in years.
In 2010, while I was pondering whether to pursue this project, I read Mary Doria Russell‘s magnificent sci-fi novel Children of God. Near the end I came across this line: “It will be well, he told himself, and let the universe take care of itself while he took care of one apt and eager student.” This single, beautiful sentence nudged me closer to committing and still serves as a guiding principle. Is it possible to change the world one child at a time? I don’t know, but I can’t think of a better way to try.
I can’t remember writing that line. I have no idea what its context was. But my quietest literary child is out there on its own, making friends and doing its own work and … not sucking. Makes me happy to know that.