The opening images of Sari Wilson’s debut novel came to her unbidden, during a free-writing session. “The little ballet girls putting on their tights and their leotards and their hairpieces, getting ready for ballet class like they’re going to battle,” she said. “That came to me. And then I cried, and I thought, ‘Wow, what is that?’ ”
At first Wilson thought these memories of her childhood as a ballet-loving girl in New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s would inspire a short story, but the material just kept coming. “It was very frustrating,” she said. “It would never behave.” The result is “Girl Through Glass,” which Wilson said “doesn’t feel like my first book because I wrote and rewrote it so many times along the way.”
Like Wilson, the book’s main character is a child growing up “in a very complicated urban landscape,” navigating life as a young dancer. Brooklyn in the 1970s, Wilson remembered, was grittier than it is today. “The actual infrastructure of the city was sort of crumbling,” she said. Parents warned their children about flashers and kidnappers.
Ballet was its own world. “I loved the sense of order, the sense of ritual,” Wilson said, adding “the spaces that you dance in seemed to me completely magical. There weren’t any other spaces like that in New York City in that period. They were open; they were light.”
Wilson, who left ballet in mid-adolescence, said she often sees dancers at her readings. “I’ve had people tell me this book is the story of their lives,” she said. “It’s very moving to me.” She can spot those who are still dancing, she added, but even when people haven’t danced in years, “you can’t see it in their bodies, but it’s still inside them.”
Wilson will read 7 p.m. Friday at Harvard Book Store, in conversation with Joanna Rakoff (“My Salinger Year”).