SALT LAKE CITY — Marius Woodward survived a house fire in Romania that burned 75% of his body. He lost his nose, eyelids, fingers and, worst of all, his parents.
Students from Brigham Young University met Woodward, now 20, while volunteering at the hospital he was in. They helped him move to the United States for treatment, where he was eventually adopted by friends of Deseret News columnist and local author Erin Stewart.
“I was so struck by him,” Stewart said. “He just had this amazing belief that he was so much more than his injuries and so much more than his scars.”
And that’s what inspired Stewart to write her debut novel, a story that could give hope through tragedy. “Scars Like Wings” (Delacorte Press, 379 pages, ages 12 and up) comes out Oct. 1 and tells the story of teenage Ava Lee, who loses her parents and cousin in a house fire.
Ava’s large, visible scars make her anything but hopeful when her doctor and aunt encourage her to go back to high school and reintegrate with society. She does eventually make friends with a fellow burn survivor, Piper, and joins the drama club. But Piper is facing demons of her own, and Ava will have to decide if she will retreat back behind her scars or let the people who love her help her soar.
At first, Stewart was too intimidated to write a story about a burn survivor, especially since she wasn’t a burn survivor herself. So when she decided to start writing novels eight years ago, she first wrote a science fiction story that she claimed was “really terrible” — but she did manage to pick up a literary agent for it.
That manuscript never sold to publishers. Stewart eventually parted ways with her first agent and began querying again, this time with “Scars Like Wings.” Six months later, Stewart found new representation in Brianne Johnson, who sold “Scars Like Wings” in three days.
“It was all very slow, then it was all very fast,” Stewart said. “It’d been years of toiling quietly in my office, and then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got this offer.’”
When it came to writing “Scars Like Wings,” Stewart said it was of utmost importance to portray burn survivors in an accurate and respectful way. So she talked to Woodward to get his perspective on it. Much about Ava’s physical appearance — including her toe-to-hand transplant — came from Woodward’s story.
Stewart also talked to other burn survivors, and therapists at the University of Utah burn center.
“They helped me walk through how someone gets from being scared and isolated and alone to having a community and feeling worthy of love,” she said.
Stewart also had to work hard not to make the story too dark.
“What Ava goes through is awful, so it was a challenge to balance the dark with the light,” she said. “I wanted Ava to be funny. … I wanted her to be a full person, not just the burned girl.”
She knew Ava’s scars could never go away, but Stewart did want to make the story hopeful.
“The thing I really want people to take away is that the amount of love we let into our lives and give out in return can define our lives more than our tragedy,” she said. “Not every teenager who reads this book is going to be a burn survivor — very few have lived through something like that, but I think every teenager is recovering from something. That’s what being a teenager is — it’s just constantly recovering from trauma. So I feel like any teenager could pick this up, and it’s a story that could help them find a new normal.”
When she asked Woodward how he was able to keep going after all he went through, he said it was easy because every time he wanted to give up, someone was there to help him choose to live.
“It’s not about the scars. It’s not about the fire,” said Stewart, who is now working on a novel about anxiety and mental health. “It’s about the people around us who help us choose to let love in when we could easily push it away.”
If you go …
What: Erin Stewart book signing
When: Thursday, Oct. 3, 7 p.m.
Where: Provo Library, 500 N. University Ave., Provo
When: Friday, Oct. 4, 7 p.m.
Where: Orem Library, 58 N. State, Orem