Anhalt '11 debuts with novel ‘Freefall' in December

by Caitlin Kennedy | 11/29/09 11:00pm

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by Courtesy of Ariela Anhalt / The Dartmouth

In her first two years at Dartmouth, Ariela Anhalt '11 has already landed a literary agent, received book offers and fielded copy-edits (during midterms, no less), while also juggling the academic and extracurricular commitments that come with being a Dartmouth student. Her novel "Freefall" the compelling tale of teenager Luke Prescott, who witnesses a terrible tragedy and must decide the fate of his best friend will hit shelves in mid-December.

Publishing a full-length novel is no small feat for a Dartmouth student. It helped, of course, that Anhalt entered Dartmouth with a draft in hand. Anhalt began writing "Freefall" during her freshman year of high school and has been editing it ever since.

"When I started out, I was writing it for fun," Anhalt said, explaining that she originally did not intend to write an entire novel.

Anhalt said she began by writing a prologue, which has since been cut from the novel. All in all, the first draft took a little over a year, she said.

"I really like to write and it's a really fun process for me," Anhalt said. "The actual making of the story was just a fun project a fun struggle."

The version of "Freefall" that will be released in December is actually the 10th draft, Anhalt said. She said that many years of editing, first self-editing and later editing with the help of an editor from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, have resulted in major changes in both the plot and style of "Freefall."

"The book is very, very different from first draft," Anhalt said. "The writing is a lot stronger. The tone shifted. It got more serious. I was a lot younger [when I completed the first draft], so the tone was a lot younger."

Even the ending of "Freefall," which has major implications for the novel as a whole, has been completely reversed, Anhalt said.

Much of the book builds up to a dramatic climax, in which Luke must decide in court whether the actions of his best friend who pushed another student during a fencing team initiation ceremony, causing him to lose his balance and fall off of a cliff constitute a horrific accident or premeditated murder. Luke is the sole witness of the tragedy, and his testimony is therefore crucial to the outcome of the trial.

Anhalt described the original ending of her novel as "juvenile" and "an easy way out." She said she believes that Luke makes a more mature and responsible decision in the newer drafts.

"Over the course of the book the narrator grows up a lot, and I was growing up while I was writing the book," Anhalt said.

While Anhalt said her novel is "not autobiographical at all," she said it does deal with "things I was thinking about in my own life" and that the main characters display either "accentuated or diminished" versions of her own traits.

Luke's best friend Hayden Applegate, for example, is a popular and charming teen who responds to trouble in his family and competition at school with violence and aggression. Anhalt said Hayden could be seen as "me without any impulse control."

Furthermore, Anhalt incorporated settings that she was very familiar with into her novel. "Freefall" takes place at Briar Academy, an elite private boarding school, and much of the action involves Briar's highly competitive fencing team. Although Anhalt said her own private high school was "not a lot like Briar Academy," she said that attending a prep school and competing on her high school fencing team made writing about the setting of the novel much easier. It helped to have those familiar elements since the rest of the book was not autobiographical, she said.

Anhalt's years of experience editing "Freefall" appear to have served her well in the classroom. Creative writing professor Ernest Hebert, who taught Anhalt's introductory creative writing class, described her ability to critique other students' writing and her insights on their work as "brilliant."

Hebert praised Anhalt's writing abilities as well, describing her prose as "clear" and "unadorned." He said that Anhalt is "very much a realist" and that he was struck by her insights into human nature.

"I was really impressed by all of her writing and the level of seriousness she took to it," Hebert said. "She didn't really need the class she was already a writer."

And indeed, with her book slated for publication before year's end, Anhalt will soon be a writer not only in name, but print as well. Hebert said he would be anxious that such success would go to some students' heads, but that he has no qualms about Anhalt, who he described as "a quality writer and a quality person."

"She's really got a good head on her shoulders, and she's not going to get spooked. . . She will grow from this experience," Hebert said.