Annie Gaughen talks about her new book — and her new lease on sight
To celebrate her birthday in November, Annie Gaughen did something uncharacteristic: She splurged. When she and a friend learned that a new block of “Hamilton” tickets were available beginning with a show on Gaughen’s birthday, it felt like a sign.
So they bought tickets and went to New York City. While there, Gaughen stopped by her publisher’s office. As it happened, they’d just received the finished copies of her new book, “Reign the Earth,” the first in a new young-adult fantasy series called “The Elementae.”
“When I went in, it was a perfect November day,” Gaughen recalls. “When I left, it was pouring.” She had to tuck copies of her book — “my beautiful new babies” — under her jacket “and book it five blocks back to my hotel.”
Gaughen, a rising star in the world of YA fiction, has faced plenty of challenges on the road to pursuing her dream. Having earned two master’s degrees, including one in education from Harvard, she still holds a full-time job for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, developing enrichment programs and diversity and inclusion training — creating, as she explains, “the moments when girls figure out how to be leaders.”
More urgently, while writing “Reign the Earth,” her fourth book, Gaughen faced the awful prospect of going blind.
For nearly a year, Gaughen battled the worst effects of diabetic retinopathy, in which chronically high blood sugar damages blood vessels in the eye, causing hemorrhaging. She underwent multiple laser treatments, injections, and surgeries. As she explains in the acknowledgments section of her new book, she “spent a month not lifting my head because to do so would disrupt a gas bubble that was keeping my retina attached.
“Let me repeat,” she writes. “I looked at the floor for a month,” as she was working on edits for her new book. “It’s virtually impossible,’’ she continues, to “explain what a dark time that was for me, and the kinds of fear and depression I wrestled with.’’
Now she’s sitting in a coffee shop in Somerville, settled back into her apartment after living by necessity with her mother on the South Shore for a few months. She no longer needs the padded head support her older brother rented for her, and when she goes to the movies she can sit upright and look directly at the screen.
To help her cope with the condition, Gaughen’s younger brother brought her (and her medical equipment) to see several movies. Because she had to wear eye patches, “there were a lot of jokes about ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ” she recalls.
The fantasy world has intrigued Gaughen from a young age. As a voracious reader, she turned to adult novels around age 11, but she soon decided she preferred books for young adults.
“At 14 or 15, I went back to young-adult books, and I just never left,” says Gaughen, who is 33. Her parents were always encouraging. Her mother worked at a bookstore with an extensive children’s section, and her father was a science fiction fan who is still trying to get her to read Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
From the time she began blogging, after earning her MFA at St. Andrews University in Scotland, Gaughen has published not as “Annie” but under the name A.C. Gaughen. In choosing a gender-neutral name, she was inspired in part by S.E. Hinton (“The Outsiders”) and J.K. Rowling, whose first “Harry Potter” book came out when Gaughen was in high school.
After completing the three-book arc of her debut “Scarlet” series, which reimagined the Robin Hood legend through the eyes of a fearless young woman posing as one of Robin’s male thieves, Gaughen introduces a new milieu and set of characters in “The Elementae.” Set in a desert kingdom, “Reign the Earth” describes a young woman with supernatural powers who enters an arranged marriage in order to save her tribe.
Gaughen has always been attuned to her power as a communicator, says Leah Moschella, founder and president of Boston GLOW (Girls’ Leadership and Organized Women). Gaughen is on the board of directors; the two friends attended Notre Dame Academy in Hingham together.
“She understands there’s a very certain somebody reading the words she’s writing,” Moschella says, “someone who can be inspired by her characters. It’s the coolest thing.”
Like the Scarlet series, the new book examines “what it means to be a woman grappling with power,” Gaughen says. The fact that strong women are speaking out in the current cultural moment about the things that concern them gives the book a certain relevancy, she thinks.
“Silence has been synonymous with a lot of women’s experiences throughout history,” she says.
She still deals with insecurities. (“I definitely have that impostor syndrome feeling.”) When her first book was coming out, Gaughen fretted that her publisher could decide to pull the plug right up “until the day it hit the shelves.”
And she still worries about her health. When her eyesight began to fail, “not just the rug, but the floor was pulled out from under me. I totally lost sense of the ground beneath me.”
Now she’s back on her feet, successfully managing her diabetes and enjoying the launch of her second book series. When she was first told her blood sugar could make her go blind, “it felt like one of those things you say to kids.”
But she’s got so much more than that to say to them.