On Not Writing Fiction During The Pandemic

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I’m not sure I can write fiction anymore. I don’t know how to write a psychological thriller set here and now in this pandemic, this lockdown.

I think of those movies made during World War II that completely ignored the war. Were they set during a slightly earlier or slightly later time? Or an alternative universe?

Should I do that? I don’t think I can do that.

It’s Saturday afternoon in NYC. It’s 20c (68f) and the sun is shining, the air is crystalline, conversations and laughter (!) drift up from the street below, cars drive by, music blares. NYC sounds like NYC.

We’re in the sixth week of the lockdown.1 NYC shouldn’t sound like NYC. NYC shouldn’t be jumping. There shouldn’t be so many people out on the streets. Hundreds of people are still dying here every day. We’re supposed to be quarantining.

I haven’t been outside since Tuesday. My autoimmune disease has been in full flare. I was hoping to go out for a walk today. But, no, it’s impossible. There are too many people on my street.

It’s nothing compared to how busy the streets would have been pre-shut down. It’s our first sunny day after several days of cold and rain. Before the streets would have been jammed. The numbers that are freaking me out are tiny.

There’s no where in the USA it’s harder to maintain distance. NYC is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Our footpaths are too narrow, so we spill out onto the roads. Many of which are also too narrow. Especially today when there’s more cars cruising around than I’ve seen since this started.

It’s not that people are ignoring the lockdown. We’re allowed to go out to exercise, to shop for essentials. I look out the window: most are wearing masks, they’re trying to distance. But it’s impossible.

I’m hearing a lot of sirens today.

I stay inside and work. But I don’t turn to rewriting the YA psychological thriller or the adult one I’ve written ten chapters of. I haven’t touched either since before I spent the summer in Sydney. The summer of a million fires. The summer of having to wear masks to go outside because the air was unbreathable.

Back then I didn’t work on them because I didn’t know if I should include the fires, by which I mean climate disasters. Neither book, though supposedly set in this world, even touched upon how much hotter, more dangerous and unlivable our world is becoming. Leaving those realities out felt wrong.

The adult thriller begins on a plane. As did my last novel, My Sister Rosa. I love writing scenes on planes. It’s so contained, so intense. The characters are jammed in with hundreds of others, yet also in a tiny bubble.

But the airline industry may not exist the way I wrote it, after this pandemic is over. It may change as dramatically as it did after 9/11, or more dramatically.

I don’t know how to write fiction set in this world.

I work instead on non-fiction book proposals. Books that don’t ignore this world of bushfires, floods, tsunamis and hurricanes and all the other disasters made worse and more frequent by industrialization, by the steady rise in carbon emissions.

But these non-fiction books don’t touch on the pandemic, on this lockdown, on my world right now. That book can’t be written until this over, not well. Besides I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books.

When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

I can’t even read too much about it now. I follow the immediate news, I read a few articles, I listen to the ABC’s Coronacast, but too much of that and I start to freak out. Mostly I read books about the history and future of the fashion industry and talk about it with folks on Instagram.

My account there is a huge part of my mental health regime. It’s where I found a worldwide community of people, who care passionately about transforming the fashion industry from one of the world’s biggest polluters and exploiters of workers, into a sustainable, clean, and ethical one. A deeply important mission done while wearing gorgeous vintage and responsibly made clothes. That’s my kind of revolution.

Maybe when this pandemic is over I’ll write a novel set in that world.

  1. Or is it the seventh? I’m losing track of time. I know it’s Saturday because we do the weekend quiz with the family back in Sydney every Friday and Saturday night. We did the first weekend quiz last night. Thus Saturday. []

The Problem With Making the Cut

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I did not love Making the Cut as I did not love Project Runway before it and for similar reasons: they favour the least interesting designers, who for some mysterious reason are almost always white.

I’ll admit straight up that I only watched two seasons of Project Runway and bowed out once they got rid of the interesting designers. So I’m not an expert on that show. Maybe it got better.

My reaction to Making the Cut was also coloured by having watched Next In Fashion shortly before it, which I loved. LOVED.

What was so refreshing about Next was that most of the interesting designers made it deep into the competition and the best designer won! Honestly, I almost fainted.

Also there was an episode on Next In Fashion where they actually discussed whether the judges might have some racial bias, and then they changed their decision because of it. I had to watch it again to believe it.

There were zero discussions of race or class or gender or anything else on Making the Cut. I felt like it’d gone back in time.

Next touched on issues around sustainability–not nearly enough–but Making never discussed fashion’s horrendous impact on the planet. The words organic, sustainable, circular economy, recycling, pollution were never mentioned. Unlike the seasons of Project Runway I watched which had a recycling challenge.

All the winning looks were available primarily in synthetics, which damage the planet in production, as well as every single time they’re washed. And those clothes were available for price points so low, there’s no way everyone in the supply and production chain were paid fairly.

The ethics of fashion was never discussed. On either show.

The winning collection from Next was also primarily synthetic and, while more expensive than Making, the prices were still too low for everyone involved to be paid fairly.

I loved that Next, especially in the latter episodes, showed far more of the process of designing and making the clothes, which is what these shows are supposedly about. I want to see more of them sweating the designs. I wanted more process. I wanted more of them dealing with one another. I really felt that I knew the Next contestants–far more than those on Making.

Making seemed to think viewers would be more interested in Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum fencing. This viewer was not remotely interested in the Tim and Heidi antics. Though I did enjoy watching Tim pack. I love seeing neat and tidy people being neat and tidy. Organisation is hot. I wish there was a show entirely devoted to different packing techniques from around the world. Ask me how I feel about Marie Kondo. #Swoon

Ultimately I don’t think Making the Cut knew what it was. It was looking for the next global brand and kept emphasising accessibility, but then designers would not make the cut for lack of originality.

Yet the show was won by one of the least interesting designers. Megan, who was cut, had everything they claimed Johnny had: her clothes were accessible, comfortable, and could be worn by a wide variety of body types. She was the one designer who fit the show’s unstated parameters: make clothes that look cool but not too intimidating. Be edgy but accessible.

I was not wild about Esther’s clothes. I don’t like all black. To me it screams arrested development. Leaven it with colour. You’ll look better. Truly.

That said, I thought her last collection was by far her best. She was robbed. As was Sander. Both of them deserved to win. And so did Megan.

In my reboot, Naomi Campbell is the only judge I’d keep. I loved her, not least for fighting for Megan. I’m not wild about Heidi, she reminds me of all the blonde school bullies I dealt with, but she redeemed herself by voting for Esther.

I’m waiting for the fashion design contest that looks for the most sustainable designs produced in the most ethical way. That lays bare the entire supply chain. We got to see that Johnny has his clothes made in Indonesia, but there was no discussion of why. That why is huge.

Watching these shows in the midst of a global pandemic, where there’s a huge campaign to get the biggest fashion brands in the world to actually pay their suppliers for clothes already made, so that garment workers in Bangladesh etc don’t starve to death, well, both Next in Fashion and Making the Cut seemed like they were set in Fairyland.

Prescience? Nah.

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A friend recently told me they’d been thinking about my story “Elegy” because it predicted our currently distanced,1 isolated existence, stuck at home, avoiding our neighbours, occasionally venturing out to walk along empty streets. It’s like you knew, they texted me. Your dark fable predicted everything.

I laughed.

So many people knew: epidemiologists, virologists, futurists, novelists like me who’ve been making notes towards their end-of-the-world opus for decades, pretty much anyone who’s done more than ten minutes research on the likely causes of the end of humanity, will have learnt that it was likely to be a pandemic and/or climate change.

I’m not saying this is the end of our species. I’m quite sure we’ll survive this.

As for my story predicting our current lockdown, we’ve also known for a long time that the best way to control a pandemic–before there’s a vaccine–is to isolate. In 1918, more than a century ago, the city of St Louis came out of that flu pandemic with a lower death toll because the authorities implemented a lockdown, much as cities, states and countries are doing across the world now. Meanwhile Philadelphia was hit particularly hard because of its failure to do likewise. Just as we’re seeing dire consequences for regions that didn’t implement social controls quickly enough, or at all, in various parts of the world.

It requires zero prescience to have predicted these outcomes, just a glancing familiarity with humanity’s history. There have been many pandemics. In the fourteenth century it’s estimated that as much as a third of the world’s population died from the Bubonic Plague. European colonisation of the Americas and Australia introduced an array of deadly diseases devastating the indigenous populations there.

This will not be the last pandemic either. There will be more.

My story uses physical disease as a metaphor for depression, for the way it feels like something that consumes us, something over which we have no control, and our fear that it’s contagious.

At least that was my intent. Obviously other people will read it differently, but it’s no kind of prescient, unless you consider it prescient to predict that in the future there will be floods, droughts, and locust plagues. Somewhere all of those are happening right now.

Our planet is vast. Bad shit is always happening somewhere. What’s different about this pandemic, is that for the first time in a century, for the first time in a world with truly global, instantaneous communications, we’re all experiencing this together. But not equally. COVID-19 is, as pandemics always have, hitting the poorest with the least resources hardest.

That’s what we have to change. I want to believe we can.

  1. I’m not calling it socially distancing because, c’mon, it’s physical distancing. Many of us are doing our damnedest, via the internet, to make sure we’re not socially distanced. []

Life In NYC In The Time Of COVID-19

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In Sydney the seven-year-old niece has cut her own hair. It looks pretty good. The kid has style.

Here on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I’m lying in bed at 6am, straining to hear the sounds of the city, but there’s no planes above, no helicopters, no horns honking, no sirens–despite all the reports that say sirens are constant–no cars rolling by with canciones played ear-bleedingly loud, no yelling or laughter floating up from the street below.

No one I know has died of the virus or been hospitalised. Yet. But plenty of my friends have had it. Close friends. All their cases, but one, confirmed by their GP in a video call. There’s no where near enough testing here.

Their cases have ranged from losing taste and smell for a few days, to three weeks of fever, exhaustion, and a crushing vise on their lungs and knife in their heart. Both ends of that spectrum are officially described as mild.

If you don’t wind up in hospital on a ventilator, it’s mild.

I’m in full flare, unable to get out of bed. It’s my usual chronic illness, not the dreaded virus. It feels ridiculous to be lying in bed weeping over an illness that won’t kill me and isn’t contagious. Yet here I am.

Friends of mine have lost relatives–an uncle and a grandfather, so far. I know that list will grow. I pray the beloved elders and ill and immunocompromised in my life, of which there are many, will not join it.

I am, of course, one of them.

This flare has terrified me. Not because of the pain–I’m used to that–but because it’s reminding me forcefully of how vulnerable I am. How vulnerable so many of us are.

I’ve been going out for long walks early every morning: across the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges into Brooklyn and back, along the East River Parkway and the mostly empty streets of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, the Financial District, Soho, the East Village.

Sometimes I walk for hours, masked and gloved, making sure that I’m home by eight am. If I walk any later than that there are too many people jogging the bridges and the Parkway, six feet of distance becomes impossible. Joggers run past almost touching me. I recoil.

I avoid the west side of the island altogether. Too crowded.

I’m not sure if I’ll be brave enough to go outside again. I don’t think my body can cope with even a mild iteration of the virus on top of the illness currently ravaging me.

The last time I hung out with a friend in real life was back in early March. I visited Julia at her hat shop on Seventh Street in the East Village, sitting on a stool more than six feet away from her. We disinfected our hands and anything we touched.

We hadn’t seen each other in months, I’d been in Sydney, where I retreat each year for three months to see family and friends and avoid NYC’s winter. I hate the cold and lack of sunlight.

I told her about living through the bushfires, she caught me up on her life here in the city.

Showing far more foresight than is usual for me, I bought a turban. As my hair gets longer and more unruly without its once-every-four-weeks maintenance from Chereen in NYC and Julianne in Sydney, I’m wearing that turban more and more. As my hair turns into a mullet–*shudder*–I’m contemplating copying the niece and hacking at it myself.

I was with Julia in her gorgeous shop for more than four hours. Two people came in. One was getting the final touches on her hat for a formal occasion in May. (So not going to happen.)

She was annoyed by all the fuss about the virus and everything being closed. “Everyone’s over reacting. It’s just like the flu. It will only affect old people and sick people.”

As one of those sick people, I bristled.

Also? She was at least in her sixties. How did she not see that she’s in the endangered demographic?

The second person to come in was a delightful vintage hat collector, who was bringing some recent finds for Julia to repair. I collect vintage clothes. He was my kind of people.

He kept almost touching his face and stopping, muttering, Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face.

The same admonition echoes through my head all day long.

I admired the gorgeous vintage brown wool Borsalino porkpie from the sixties he was wearing, flecked with gold and orange, and asked him hat questions, while he danced on the spot, not meeting my eyes, replying succinctly.

He kept his distance, touching nothing. He doused his hands in sanitizer twice in the short time he was in the shop.

The woman meanwhile did not keep her distance and touched everything with the surgeon’s gloves she’d clearly been wearing for hours. She did not once use hand sanitizer.

After she left we disinfected everything.

It seems a long time ago. I bet her attitude has changed. She lives in the city. She’ll know people who’ve had the virus, who’ve died. She may have had it herself.

At first it was hard for any of us to believe this was real.

Now everyone wears masks and keeps their distance. We give each other thumbs up and say, Stay safe. We all know someone who’s had it.

Increasingly many of us New Yorkers have had it ourselves and are wondering if that makes us immune. No one knows for sure.

No one knows much of anything about the virus. How many people are asymptomatic? Do masks help or give a false sense of security? I know I feel safer with a mask on. Should I?

We do know this will go on longer than any of us hoped. There will be no formal events in May. No WNBA season. No Olympics in July. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll get to do my annual sojourn in the city of my birth come December. Will the airline industry recover? Should it?

When do we get our lives back? Do we get our lives back? Money earning opportunities disintegrate, we lose jobs and insurance and shelter and hope. Friends and family are remote and the internet only partially bridges that gap.

NYC is the epicentre of this plague in the USA, of the world.1 Yet here in my part of the city I can’t see the makeshift hospitals in Javits or Central Park, the hospital ship in the harbour, or the refrigerated death trucks.

If anything there are fewer homeless people on the streets.2 Only a handful of people have begged me for money since I got home. I don’t carry cash anymore. It’s too dangerous. All I can do is say sorry and donate to the organisations helping them.

I take the stairs to reduce my viral load. I’ve not seen anyone else in the stairwell. I rarely see my neighbours, or hear them cough, and when I do we nod to each other from different ends of the corridor. This catastrophe is happening behind closed doors.

We don’t ask how we’re doing. We don’t chat. We’re scared of each other now. We’re scared of everyone.

They could be dying in their apartments and I wouldn’t know.

It’s a lonely apocalypse. The only people I’ve talked to are my building’s lovely super and the masked and gloved clerks at Essex market during the early morning times reserved for the old and the sick.

I disinfect everything I buy. I keep running out of bleach. My hands have developed eczema. It seems a small price to pay.

I thought the bushfires were terrible and they were: the choking smoke blanketing my beloved Sydney, filling the hospitals with people who can’t breathe. Those fires are also part of a global crisis, of climate change, but one that hasn’t yet affected everyone.

But this silent, invisible COVID-19 disaster, has completely transformed all our lives. It’s isolating us, sickening us, and killing us.

And bringing us together. People I haven’t heard from in years have been reaching out, checking up on me. I’ve been bonding with strangers online about vintage, sustainable, and circular-economy clothing.

This really is the worst of times, all over the world, and I know that no amount of dressing up in beautiful clothes changes that. But at the same time many of us privileged enough to shelter at home are being sustained by beauty, by laughter, and joy.

We’re finding new rituals to sustain us as we cope with isolation and disease. We make music and art and reconnect.

There are new sounds in NYC: bird song, louder and more frequent than I’ve ever heard it here, and the new ritual of the 7pm whistles and cheers and banging of pots for the health workers’ shift change. I well up every time I hear it but I smile too.

Suddenly I’m connected to my neighbours: seeing them on their roof tops, balconies, at their windows, down on the street, all of us full of gratitude for the ones working so hard to save this city, to allow it to be crowded and noisy and overwhelming once more.

The way it’s meant to be.

  1. Though do we really know that? So many countries are barely testing and are under reporting infection numbers. Do we really know what’s going on in Iran? In North Korea? []
  2. Which could be for scary reasons: surely the homeless are amongst the most vulnerable to this disease? []

Justine’s Guide to Increasing the Lifetime of Your Clothes

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When I was eleven, my mother gave me my own laundry basket, and taught me how to use the washing machine. I was delighted. Best birthday present ever!

I’ve been doing my own laundry ever since. Few things give me more satisfaction and joy than getting out a really stubborn stain.

No, I’m not joking. I love doing the laundry.

The years I lived in NYC without a washing machine were pure torment.

Here are my tips to longer-lasting clothes:1

Other than underwear:2 wash them less, WAY less. Unless you’ve sweated all over them, clothes don’t need to be washed after every wear.3

I deploy the smell test. Does it pong? If no, don’t wash. If yes, wash immediately!

Jeans should be washed once or twice a year. Tops. AND NEVER IRONED.

I have some coats and jackets that have never been anything other than spot cleaned.

Cold or lukewarm water is better for your clothes and the environment. Ditto with slower spin cycles. Slow good. Fast bad.

Gentle, non-toxic-for-the-environment detergents are best. As an Aussie, I’m a big believer in eucalyptus wash. Anything that smells like eucalyptus is automatically good. It is known.

I swear by Eucalan no-rinse, delicate wash. Yes, I use it for machine washing too. A little goes a long way.

Also, when handwashing? That no-rinse claim? Absolutely true! You don’t have to waste water endlessly rinsing the detergent out. Unfortunately COVID-19 means it is currently unavailable. If anyone knows of a no-rinse alternative, hit me!

Spot clean.

If you spill soy sauce/coffee/oil/whatever, wash that spot as soon as you can, before it can stain. If you’re out (lol) rinse it with cold water in the bathroom pat dry with a paper towel. Never wring! Never rub! Nine times out of ten you’ll rinse out the spill before it becomes a stain.

If there’s still a stain, the internet will tell you how to get it out from whatever the fabric is. I don’t know how I removed stains before the internet. It was a terrible time.

Fabric matters. Silk behaves differently from cotton or the various different blends and synthetics.

Do not despair if you discover an old stain on a favourite piece. While it’s always best to deal with a stain straight away, I’ve gotten some stains out that were years old. Decades old even. And if there was ever a time to finally see if you can nuke that long-standing stain you’ve been hiding with a brooch, that time is now!

Some stains, though, are forever. Le sadness. My new approach is to embroider over the top of them. Visible mending for the win. Do an image search on sashiko. It’s stunning. No, I’m not there yet, but practice makes perfect or, at least, less shit. Now is the perfect time to learn to embroider.

Just because you had to wash that one spot doesn’t mean you have to wash the entire garment.

I handwash (or, if there’s no other way, dry clean) most of my vintage clothes and many of my other clothes too. If I love it I usually handwash it.

I get that most people have neither the time nor inclination for that. Invest in lingerie washing bags. Lately I’ve been recommending guppyfriend washing bags, which reduce fabric shredding. Use the gentle wash cycle, setting it to cold.

I handwash bras. A lingerie washing bag will protect them some, but machine washing them will reduce a bra’s lifetime. The elastic dies faster, wires get bent, embroidery and other embellishments unravel.

Handwashing isn’t as hard as people think. It’s mostly soaking and the occasional gentle agitating. The hard work is in the rinsing, and if you can get hold of a good no-rinse handwashing detergent, you take that out of the equation.

Never rub your clothes vigorously. It’s terrible for the fabric. Never wring them either. To dry them, very gently squeeze water out, then roll them in a dry towel and press. It’s astonishing how much water you get out.

If at all possible line dry.

Dryers are the devil. You heard me. They destroy clothes.

Yes, even in your tiny NYC flat, it’s possible to line dry.

Hang clothes to dry in the bathroom. Or in your closet. Just make sure they’re not touching the dry clothes.

Look, I get it. Back when I flat shared, I didn’t hang my clothes to dry in the bathroom. Ewww! Flatmates couldn’t be trusted.

For a long time in the city I was too time and space poor to clean my clothes properly. I would drop them at the laundry. (Never any of my precious clothes or bras.) They would go through the dryer. They would fall apart. It was horrible.

Now I have a wooden folding drying rack. It is joy. Nothing goes in the dryer.

If hanging your clothes up to dry isn’t an option always set the dryer to the lowest heat.

Thus endeth Justine’s guide to longer-lived clothes. You’re welcome!

  1. I understand that some of you are not able-bodied enough to do any of this. I have a chronic illness myself. Some days I don’t have the spoons to get out of bed. []
  2. For some unfathomable reason, some folks rarely wash their bras. Eek! You should probably wash your bra after every 7-10 wears. Obviously this depends on how sweaty you are. []
  3. Yes, I understand that some people are very sweaty. []

Vintage Style Not Vintage Values

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I’m not nostalgic. I don’t miss the days of my childhood, teens, or young adulthood.

I don’t love vintage because I long for white picket fences or white supremacy. For everything that’s terrible about the world now, there’s a tonne that’s improved. The past is mostly not a good place for indigenous people, people of colour, most white women.

There are indigenous TV programs on Australian TV. Representation is better in Australia and the USA than it’s ever been. (It’s a very low bar though.)

Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby are in jail. Me too is a thing. Thank you, Tarana Burke, and so many other courageous women.

There are racist, misogynist, climate change denying, (wannabe) autocrats in power in too many places. White people still live longest and have the most wealth and power. Indigenous resistance struggles like the tremendous #ShutDownCanada movement is barely covered in the mainstream media. The world is still shit. Just not as shit.

I wear thirties clothes because I love the lines, colours, patterns–not because I’m hot for fascism.

I wear fifties sundresses because they’re comfy, flattering and gorgeous–not because I wish to be a modest Stepford wife. I don’t long for men to be men and women women. Whatever that means.

Like Alok Vaid-Menon, I know there are many more than two genders. I’ve known folks who were neither male nor female since I was little. I wrote my PhD about the absurd reductiveness of the binary.

#VintageStyleNotVintageValues sums up my vintage aesthetics: beauty, glamour, joy, and dresses for whoever wants them.

I will continue dressing up most days, even through this time of COVID-19 and social distancing, because that is who I am.

Wear what you want. Wherever you want. Whenever you want. (Unless it’s harmful.) It’s what Emma Goldman would have wanted.

(Except espadrilles because ewww! Don’t @ me.)

Where Do You Want Your Money To Go?

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One of my favourite newer(ish) designers is Clare Waight Keller, who is the Artistic Director of Givenchy for whom she produces some jaw-droppingly beautiful clothes, which I will never buy new. Because a) too expensive b) I don’t want to give LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Moet, Hennessy) my money.

It’s hard, but I try not to contribute to multinationals. I fail constantly. Pharmaceutical companies alone make it impossible.

It’s probably only fashion where I can avoid giving my money to the likes of LVMH or Kering (Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent. Alexander McQueen etc) or Richemont (Azzedine Alaïa, Cartier and Chloe etc). By only shopping vintage and small, independent, ethical, sustainable designers I avoid giving money to men in suits, who control fashion, and hire and fire some of the most creative people in the world.

I get why folks like Waight Keller go with the money. Making beautiful clothes is expensive. All the haute couture houses, and many of the high-end ready-to-wear brands, run at a loss, making up for it with perfume and handbag sales. Their top of the range clothes are an extremely expensive ad for accessories and scents.

Very few of the big-name labels are independent and/or still controlled by their original creator. When multinationals take over they often wind up firing the creators: eg Halston and Ungaro.

It weirds me out that since 2013 clothes labelled Ann Demeulemeester weren’t designed by her. Or that Christian Dior hasn’t been designed by Christian Dior since 1957 (though, yes, it would have been weirder if he kept on designing, given that he died in 1957). The revival of Elsa Schiaparelli’s and Madeleine Vionnet’s brands squicks me out.

Imagine if Jane Austen novels were still being published or Victor Hugo’s? Post-mortem creations shouldn’t be a thing and they definitely shouldn’t bankroll multinationals for generations, making the executives richer than the creatives, without whom the companies wouldn’t exist.

But if Christian Dior’s company hadn’t outlived him what would have happened to the women workers of his atelier? Writers typically don’t employ hundreds in our businesses . . .

When Dior was alive he wasn’t doing six or more shows a year, which leads me to the more important reason I don’t want to give my money to the fashion juggernauts: the ridiculous schedule the big brands’ creative directors are kept to. It’s not sustainable.

Do we really need Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter and Cruise/Resort and Pre-Fall and Pre-Spring collections? Not to mention the many capsule collections. It’s exhausting.

It’s terrible for creativity–that ridiculous schedule is why John Galliano1 and others have cracked up–and even worse for the planet. We don’t need that many new clothes every year. Especially when so many of them don’t sell.

The big-brand fashion cycle is deeply broken: from overworking designers to making clothes unsustainably and exploiting garment workers. I can’t support it.

  1. I believe Galliano’s crack up exposed the anti-Semitism he’d previously managed to hide. []

Women of a Certain Very Stylish Age

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I was inspired to start my public Instagram, @DrJustineFancyPants, by Sheryl Roberts of @indigostylevintage, Shelley of @fcfashionista, Jean and Valerie of @idiosyncraticfashionistas, and the glorious Lee Lin Chin and by the many other stylish women over forty, who just by being them, are putting paid to the lie that style and beauty are only for the young.

And by my mother, who is one of the most stylish people I know, and has always been the biggest style influence on me. She’s all about colour and comfort and has never feared mixing patterns.

It’s absurd that society keeps touting the stylishness of the very young. Let’s be real, most young people aren’t particularly stylish,1 and usually don’t feel they’ve found styles that work for them until later in life, if ever. That’s cool. I sure didn’t. But, hey, experimentation is fun.

When I was a teen, I didn’t always have the courage to dress how I wanted. I’d wear vintage and be laughed at for my “nana” dresses. It didn’t occur to me back then to point out that some of the most stylish women in the world are nanas. I swung back and forth between caring deeply about what my peers thought and saying, bugger it, and wearing what I wanted.

I’m much more confident in my sense of style, my sense of self, now than I was as a young adult. I don’t care about being the only one in the room who’s dressed up. I’m (mostly) not dressing to blend in; I’m dressing for joy.

I don’t care about arbitrary fashion rules. I will mix patterns. (You all need to check out the glorious Mis Papelicos for top-notch pattern mixing. She is the queen.) I will wear black and navy blue together, pink and red, black and brown. I will wear horizontal stripes (true fact: they actually make you look narrower, look up the Helmholtz effect–thank you @house_of_edgertor for that tidbit). I will wear multiple bold colours at the same time. I’ll wear red lipstick whenever I feel like it and no makeup likewise. I’ll mix gold and silver jewellery. I’ll wear clogs with evening wear, western boots with anything at all and eschew high heels altogether (except for the occasional photo).

There’s nothing I won’t wear because it’s supposedly too young for me. Mutton dressed up as lamb? Ageist, misogynist expressions like that are pathetic. I dress for me and for my fellow lovers of gorgeous clothes. We appreciate each other.

I’ll wear whatever I damn well please whenever I want. Including the occasional trip to the corner shop/bodega in my pyjamas and/or a ball gown. Because I can. Because it’s fun. Because it brings me joy.

  1. There are some fabulous exceptions. A friend’s son has been ridiculously stylish since he was, like, four. He’s given to wearing blazers and hats with striped leggings. []

Miss Manners Says: DON’T SHAKE HANDS DURING A PANDEMIC!

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COVID 19 (coronavirus) is a big deal. It’s highly contagious and people over 70 and those who have chronic illnesses are particularly at risk.

People like me. I have a chronic illness. I guarantee you there are folks around you who seem perfectly well, who also have chronic illnesses. We are many. And we are vulnerable to COVID 19, to viruses and bacteria. That’s why we won’t shake your hand, or accept your kisses or hugs. We want to live.

We should all be washing our hands for at least twenty seconds. THOROUGHLY. That means back of hand, between fingers, wrists. Dry your hands thoroughly.

Wash your hands before and after going to the toilet, before and after touching food, before and after going outside, before and after being in any public space. If you can’t wash your hands, use a hand sanitiser, remembering that washing your hands is better.

Don’t touch your face! But if you do: WASH YOUR HANDS!

And really, really, really DON’T TOUCH MY FACE! Or anyone else’s that you’re not intimate with.

This should be everyone’s practise all the time. If we all did this flu deaths would plummet. But during a pandemic!? DON’T TOUCH ANYONE! WASH YOUR HANDS!

Come on, people, we can do this!

I’m Still Not Active On Twitter; Come Join Me On Instagram

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This is for all the lovely friends texting me to ask when I’m coming back to Twitter. First up: Awwww! Thank you! I miss youse too.

I miss Twitter. I truly do. I miss the goofy convos. I miss tweeting cricket and basketball games live with other obsessives. I’ve met so many amazing people through Twitter. I’m so grateful. Twitter has given me so much. I’ll definitely be back.

But not yet. My mental health is so much better since I took this break. I don’t miss the trolls. I don’t miss the frequent petty and not at all petty fights. I don’t miss the drama. I’m not ready to return.

Meanwhile, there are lovely convos starting to happen on my brand-new vintage and sustainable fashion and mending instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants. Come join me there! We’re having a lot of fun.

Dr Justine Fancy Pants

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.

I’m taking my obsessions with contemporary fashion, vintage clothes, and saving the world to a public Instagram account: DrJustineFancyPants.

You’ll be able to follow my journey through my various vintage finds, my latest designer, fashion historian, photographer, model and textile technician crushes, and watch (and laugh) as I learn to mend and embroider, and investigate what’s happening in the world of recycled, upcycled, organic, biodegradable, magic pixie dust, circular-economy fashion.

I’ll also be dispensing what-to-wear advice and railing against gladiator sandals, espadrilles, and other fashion atrocities.

Come join me, won’t you? (Apologies to Karina Longworth.)

On Packages and Space-Time Anomalies

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I’ve been having a surreal experience with Australia Post. They claimed to have delivered a package from the UK to me last Friday. There was no package. There was no card in my mailbox saying to pick it up at the post office. Yet there it was on the tracking info: delivered.

The nice man at the post office, when he couldn’t find my parcel, helped me put in a missing parcel claim. When he looked up the tracking number at his end it said my parcel had an incomplete address: it was missing the flat (apartment) number.

Hmmmm, I thought, but the UK tracking has the flat number. Why would it disappear from the package on its journey from the Royal Mail in London to Australia Post in Sydney?

On the way home, a charming man from Australia Post rang to assure me that they were on it, and that most packages were found. I imagined a crack team of Australia Post sleuths on the case. I was vastly reassured.

I woke to an email from Australia Post letting me know that the package had been returned to sender. I wrote to the sender in London warning them my package might be on its way back. They were all, “But how? There’s no return address on the package.” This was somewhat perturbing.

An hour later I got an email from Australia Post saying my package was either in my mailbox or at the post office. I checked. It was in neither place. I was beginning to feel like Australia Post was gaslighting me.

Then an hour later, I got a generic email from Australia Post assuring me they were on the case and would find my package. I was not reassured. I was starting to lose faith in Australia Post’s sleuths.

I decided to phone them, to find out if the parcel had a) been returned to sender despite there being no return address, b) been delivered to a Justine Larbalestier in a parallel universe, or c) was in a happy liminal space about to be tracked down by the valiant sleuths at Australia Post.

After thirty minutes negotiating the endless, confusing phone tree, I got through to the delightful Tracy, who looked at all the info from my claim no. and spluttered “ZOMG! This is ridiculous. It says it’s been delivered TWICE! There’s nothing here about it being returned to sender. Where on earth did that come from? It says there’s no flat number. THE FLAT NUMBER IS RIGHT HERE! It can’t be all these things at the same time! And there’s an update saying it’s on a truck on its way to you now. How could that be if it was delivered last Friday and this morning? Ridiculous! I will sort this for you! I will make this happen!” she said, typing furiously.

I admit that I was half way in love with Tracy at this point. I hung up and did various chores before receiving yet another Australia Post email claiming my parcel had been delivered for a third time. I confess that, despite the fabulous Tracy, I doubted this claim. My buzzer hadn’t rung and there’d been so many false alarms. I trudged down to the lobby, with little hope. But lo and behold, my parcel–with my full address–including the flat number–was there in my mailbox.

Hilariously, the vintage eighties silk shirt inside was made in W. Germany: a non-existent country. Maybe that non-existence disturbed the space-time continuum and created intermingled timelines in which all parcels were in all states of delivery?

Thank you, Australia Post, and especially Tracy, for tackling this space-time anomaly and making my parcel reappear. I’m most grateful and the shirt from the non-existent country is gorgeous.

Monday’s Post on Friday. What are Days Anyway? Climate Change is Fact.

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This post was supposed to go up Monday after that night’s Q & A. Non-Australians you can click on that link to see what the TV show is or you can accept my brief description: the ABC’s Q & A is a TV panel discussion show, which is usually profoundly enraging, because they insist on having politicians on, who mostly obfuscate, lie, and completely avoid answering questions.

Monday night’s Q & A was the first show of the year, and the topic was Australia’s bushfire crisis, because that is always the topic here because, you know, apocalypse. You can listen to it here.

And here is my rant. Enjoy! I know I have several fans who live for me to rant. Well, here you both go:

Last Monday’s Q & A was excellent. Mostly. But it enraged me and I wrote the rant below and then was so exhausted by my rage and by writing that I neglected to press the publish button before passing out. Having a chronic illness has taught me that things I didn’t used to think of as exhausting now are. Though why I didn’t realise that writing or being furious were exhausting is a total mystery.

Except for the host, Hamish Macdonald, running with that axiom of bad journalism that all views must be respected, even when they’re wrong.

Macdonald chided the jovial US climate change scientist, Michael Mann, for saying that federal NSW Liberal1 senator James Molan’s brain had fallen out of his head, when Molan refused to admit that the science of climate change is settled and that we know that the accelerating catastrophic climate events of the last few decades were caused by humans. Up to and including our bushfire crisis.

James Molan said he was keeping an open mind on the causes of climate change, to a chorus of groans from the studio audience. He also literally said that he was ignoring the evidence. To groans and derisive laughter and that sound people make that basically means “no shit.” The studio audience and everyone else on the planet know that keeping an open mind on climate change is like keeping an open mind on gravity or water being wet. So the expert made the comment about his brain falling out.

At which point Hamish Macdonald said that our terrible, climate-change-disaster-obfuscating government had been elected by millions of Australians, who were in agreement with this government’s views, did that mean the climate change expert was saying everyone who had voted for them’s brains had fallen out?

Frankly, Hamish, I think that’s a more generous explanation than that those voters cared more about getting bigger tax breaks than preventing the apocalypse. But here we are.

Climate change, Hamish, is real and caused by us humans. We know this. You know this! There’s decades of evidence. Every reputable scientist says so. Anyone who denies these facts, including James Molan and the rest of the governing coalition, is functioning as if they have neither knowledge, nor memory, nor literacy, nor the capacity to process facts.

Believing climate change is either not real, or not caused by humans, is equivalent to believing the earth is flat or that Elvis is alive and misgoverning the USA from inside a Donald Trump suit.

Must we humour the people who believe that Elvis is Trump too, Hamish? You know, on account of that is as completely wrong as denying that we humans have irreversibly buggered up this beautiful planet of ours. Why do we have to resist mocking the people with completely wrong views about the causes of our climate crisis? Those views are contributing to how incredibly fast we are making our planet uninhabitable.

Actually the sweet climate scientist, Michael Mann, was more optimistic than me: he thinks we can save this planet.

My pessimism comes from media types like Hamish Macdonald spending more time chiding experts for being “mean” to lying politicians in the pocket of the fossil fuel lobby than on challenging our political leaders for being wrong.

Fact checking, Hamish, that’s your job, not being a politeness monitor. And, honestly, under the circumstances saying Molan’s brain had fallen out was much politer than calling him a corrupt, lying tool of the fossil fuel industry.

The truth is frequently very impolite.

And now I’m exhausted again.

  1. in Australia the Liberal party is a conservative party []

Learning How To Outline

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I’m not an outliner. I use my first drafts–zero drafts–to figure out characters, plot, setting etc.

But lately that method has not been working for me. My chronic illness caused me to lose my executive function for months. I could not make decisions. Novels are nothing but decisions.

My executive function returned as I learned to manage being sick, but I’m still not as sharp as I was. The parts of novel writing I once found relatively easy, I now struggle with, and the parts that were once hard? Well, you can imagine. This illness has changed my brain.

On top of that I now tire quickly. Writing leaves me exhausted. Turns out that outlining requires fewer spoons than exploratory drafting. Or maybe it’s just that doing something in a different way is energising?

I’m not an outliner. I’ve tried to outline before. Many times. And failed. Outlining felt like scratching at nerve endings. We hates it.

But this time instead of giving up in annoyance after a day or two of struggle, I pushed through to understand what it is about outlining I find so difficult. Why does it set my teeth on edge? Why does it make me shouty? Why do I hate it?

I finally figured it out.

All my novels start with the characters. Even Liar. Although I had the idea of writing a book from the point of view of a pathological/compulsive liar first. I was unable to start writing it until I knew who that liar was. Micah emerged strongly as I drafted. Once I knew her the plot started happening.

Characters first; plot later.

If I don’t know who my characters are, how do I know what they’re capable of? How can I know what kind of plot they’ll generate?

Bingo.

I stopped attempting to outline. I’d already charted the novel’s opening and first few scenes so I started writing them. I wrote chapter after chapter, getting to know my two pov characters, and the people in their lives, which started to generate story, and allowed me to get back to the outlining.

When I can’t go any further with the outline I go back to drafting until I know enough to continue.

I know the end of this novel.

I’ve never known the end of any of my novels before I wrote them. It’s very strange. I worry that I’ve spoiled myself, that I won’t want to actually write it. But every time I go back to drafting after being stuck, it’s so much fun! I love learning more about these characters and what they want and why they kill. The outline is bare bones. It’s not heart or soul.

I don’t have a full outline yet–my illness makes me so very slow–but I have more of an outline than I’ve ever had. It’s wild. Did I mention that I know how this book ends? I know what happens for the first third.

My old reason for not outlining was that standard one: if I know what happens and write it all out then why would I write the whole novel? I’d bore myself to tears.

It’s not true, though.

Even this detailed outline I’m constructing is not like writing the novel. There’s an ocean between: She switches seats on the plane to allow a separated couple to sit together and finds herself next to a stylish Grace Kelly type, looking all patrician and better than you and the actual descriptive passage detailing that event, which reveals her thoughts, so the reader knows and understands why she hates WASPy blondes and why she wants to get drunk and why she fantasises about committing murder.

Outlines and novels are not the same genre. Outlines are barely writing at all. They’re more like notes, than novel writing. It’s the to-do list, not that which is done. It’s the incomplete recipe, not the actual meal. Outlines are mere potential. Novels are life.

It might be that I’ll never just wing it again. That I’ll be all outlines all the time. It feels very strange. But whatever is necessary for me to write novels again.

I’m a novelist. Writing novels has been central to my identity for decades now. It has been agony not being able to write. I thought I had lost myself. Being able to write novels again is everything to me. No matter how slow. No matter how different my methods are. The writing is the thing.

Tweets I Would Tweet If I Were Still on Twitter

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I may not be on Twitter at the moment, but I still sometimes think in tweets. What can I say? I was on Twitter for ten years. It warps your brain. So here are some tweets that I’d’ve tweeted if I were still there. In no particular order . . .

The Conversation says those wombat are not heroes rescuing other critters from the fires, they’re just tolerating unwanted guests. Excuse me? Tolerating unwanted guests in your home is top-notch heroism.

What I miss most about Twitter is the conversations with folks all over the world; what I miss least is being shouted at by folks/bots all over the world.

This is bloody marvellous news. The WNBA players are getting better revenue sharing, pay, maternity leave etc. Yay! And yet . . . I love the @WNBA but they deserve first class. No, they deserve flying chariots drawn by magic horses.1 But this is a fabulous first step.

This is my favourite bananas bushfire season conspiracy theory. Some are claiming the fires were set deliberately to create a corridor for fast trains. I admit I snort laughed. I would love me some fast trains all over Australia, though. Think of the carbon emissions that wouldn’t happen! Trains over planes. ALWAYS.

And here we have a faux tweet that you have to click through for because I don’t have the energy to figure out how to do an image + comment faux tweet in the middle of a blog post. My spoons are too low today for any complicated stuff. Or, let’s get real, pretty basic stuff . . .

I miss fashion twitter . . . Though fashion and vintage instagram are way better. I’m learning so much on there.

Ooooh! Look at The New Yorker appreciating one of the best living writers! Go, Nora! Seriously, if you haven’t read any N. K. Jemisin yet, get on that!

Please. Even if arson was the immediate cause of most of the fires–it wasn’t–that doesn’t contradict the fact that the conditions for this season’s catastrophic fires were created by climate change. It’s not complicated. Also: you’re lying. Most fires this season were started by lightning.

Could someone please fix the tag on Rashid’s jersey? Thank you! Adelaide @StrikersBBL #BBL09

I miss cricket Twitter . . .

Just when you think this Morrison govt can’t get more ridiculous they decide the most urgent matter in Australia today is not our apocalyptic bushfire season, but enforcing a dress code for citizenship ceremonies. At my citizenship ceremony I dressed up–a McQueen jacket over a silk dress with cowboy boots–as did everyone else that day. Citizenship ceremonies are a huge deal, you ignorant twats. People dress up for them!

Mostly, people dress up for them. I remember a friend telling me years ago that a couple of tipsy Englishmen turned up for their citizenship ceremony in stubbies, singlets and thongs with cork hats because they thought it would be hilarious. Their hilarity was not shared by anyone else present and they were asked to leave. To be clear: because drunk, not because of what they were wearing.

It’s wet and falling out of the sky. I’m confused. What is?

Something amazing that has come out of these bushfires: First Nations aquatic technologies further revealed.

I mean, sure, except for the part where the Greens have never objected to hazard burning. Also did you read where multiple fireys said the hazard burns weren’t that effective this year? The monster fires just blew past them.

The upside to being a spoonie: feeling zero guilt for lying in bed reading all day, then getting up to inhale a whole season of whatever I want!

This made me cry. The wollemi pines are awe inspiring.

I love my @ABCaustralia. (Except for Counterpoint.) This bushfire season, they’ve been saving lives.

You’re welcome, world! Carbon emissions go up because of Australia’s bushfires.

I know I’ve only been off Twitter for two months but already I’m getting more writing done and feeling less anxious. No, I have no immediate plans to return to Twitter. But I do see this as a break, not a permanent exit. I don’t think I could have handled the fire hose of Twitter this bushfire season.

The benefits of not being on Twitter right now definitely balances out no longer being in contact with so many fabulous folks. Hey, I’m still alive! You can text me! Or DM on instagram! Or email me! Or leave comments here!

The Fire Relief Fund for First Nations Communities is still going. First Nations Australians are getting a much smaller slice of the donations to the mainstream charities. They need our support.

  1. Lower emissions that way. []

Quotidian Climate Catastrophe

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Screen shot from RFS’s fires near me visualisation. Blue means the fire is contained. No yellow or red is good. No fires at all would be better.

My sister is texting to find out how we make the niece scrambled eggs. I ask Scott how and text his response. Outside the sky is grey and the AQI is at 155. Unhealthy. We’ll be doing our walk in the evening when the smoky air is supposed to clear. Though we were supposed to wake up to clear air. The AQI projections are sometimes wrong.

The niece rejects the eggs. My sister didn’t have butter and used olive oil instead.

Butter is better, I text her. Our father chimes into the group family chat to agree: Butter is absolutely essential for eggs!

Tomatoes, lime, sorrel, sage and marjoram from our garden.

Coincidentally I made me and Scott scrambled eggs this morning with ingredients I picked from our small garden on the deck wearing my P2 mask and the eggs, cheese and butter I bought from farmers at the Eveleigh Street markets. Last Saturday was the first one of 2020. Lots of the regular vendors were missing.

Overnight a firey died in Victoria. The good news is that most of the fires are under control. The temperature dropped here in NSW. There’s even been some isolated rain. No where near enough. The bad news is that under control doesn’t mean put out. There are still hundreds of fires and it’s due to get hot again in a few days. It’s possible more firies will die. The vast majority of them volunteers.

How many weeks are we now into the worst bushfire season Australia has ever seen? I’ve lost count.

The fires started in September in Queensland and New South Wales, but it didn’t seem worse than usual then. Except that it was September. Though the year before the fires started in August. The fire season starting in spring seems more normal than in the middle of winter. Fires burning in ever state, though? That’s new.

Me wearing a P2 mask on our deck.

Living in an ongoing climate change catastrophe is starting to seem normal. We wake up, check the Fires Near Me app and then the AQI and the government health warning to see if we can go outside without masks. Hey, NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment,1 could you please make an AQI app for us citizens of this fine state? Though we don’t really need the apps, turns out if you can smell smoke, the purifier needs to be on, and so does your P2 mask if you venture outside. Next we check the bushfire coverage online and on TV and radio.

Then I text the folks I know most directly affected to find out how they are doing. Have you been able to go outside down there in Canberra? Have you got an air purifier yet down there in Melbourne? Have you managed to convince your asthmatic teen daughter to wear a mask?

A friend is in Kangaroo Valley. So far she’s been lucky. But she’s not taking chances, she and her partner are down there doing everything they can to make their holiday home more fire proof and removing anything they can’t bear to lose. She rents it out to folks over the school holidays and weekends during the rest of the year. She cancelled some of this summer bookings and had folks irate at her even after she pointed out how close the fires are. She and her partner plan to retire there.

Checking the AQI has become routine. As it is for many around the world. In Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Urumqi (China), Noida (India) New Dehli, and Belgrade (Serbia). The majority of the cities in this hour’s worst AQI cities are in China and India, but then there’s three South Korean cities sneaking in, oh and Canberra, right here in Australia. It’s spent quite a lot of time at no. 1 on this list. Sydney held that honour on 19 November.

On the scale of the horrible things that are happening here in Australia this season, we’re doing fine. Being confined to home and having to run an air purifier and wear P2 masks does not compare with being burnt out and losing friends and neighbours, being in the middle of those utterly destroyed landscapes. But it’s not about the bad air, it’s not even about the fires, it’s about climate change. What we humans have wrought upon ourselves and what we now must reckon with.

Because we are all living in a climate change catastrophe. The smoke from here effects NZ. The emissions from here helps raise temperatures and sea levels and drown our many island neighbours, who we then don’t give nearly enough aid to. Living (dying) in a climate catastrophe is normal.

Until this bushfire season, I was one of the insulated ones, knowing climate change was real, but not being affected by it in a big way. I’d seen bushfire skies. Smoke had come into the city a few times, but this? Nancy Cushing, an air pollution historian, writing for The Conversation says,

The New South Wales government’s Air Quality Index data has shown that since late October, days when the index was higher than 100 – signalling exposure is unhealthy – have outnumbered clear days in Sydney, Newcastle and the Illawarra.

If you’d’ve asked me, I would have told you that most days we’re fine here in Sydney. A few really bad days, but on the whole, fine. In my defence, my part of Sydney hasn’t copped the brunt of it as often as they have in the west and south of the city. But it’s also me minimising what we’re going through.

We know this isn’t normal. We talk about it daily, but we also can’t quite believe it’s happening, still happening. It’s January. This unbreathable air started in November.

James Bradley, writing in The Guardian, points out that we’re not alone:

Overseas the story is the same. In the middle of last year, fires spread through the Arctic, igniting not just grassland but boreal peatlands dried out by unusually high temperatures in the region. In Brazil fires destroyed nearly 10,000 sq km of rainforest, prompting warnings from scientists that the Amazon is now close to a tipping point, beyond which its collapse will be unstoppable. In March Cyclone Idai left more than 1,300 people dead in Madagascar, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Indeed one report by British charity Christian Aid suggests the changing climate amplified the effects of no less than 15 major disasters in 2019, while in July last year the UN warned climate change is now causing an average of one disaster a week.

I’m ashamed to say that despite all the apocalypses around the world, it took this bushfire season, here in Australia, for me to truly take in that the blasted future climate change hellscape is already here. It’s impacted my entire life without me fully realising. This despite my friends around the world, who’ve been affected by other climate change disasters: fires in California and Brasil, floods in Queensland, extreme cold weather events in the USA.

I kept on living my life, planning for a future that somehow would be not that much different from what my life now: writing novels, getting on planes to promote them, getting on planes to visit family and friends. At a minimum, every year for more than twenty years now, I have flown back and forth between Sydney and New York City once a year.

That’s a lot of carbon emissions.

I would even say to people with a straight face that I had a pretty low carbon footprint, flying aside. I mean I pay offsets! Surely that makes it okay? A few flights a year can’t be as bad as someone who drives a car every day, can it? Turns out the answer to that question is complicated.2

I recycle! I walk or take public transport everywhere. Only riding in taxis in emergencies. I rarely put the AC on and always have it at a reasonable temperature so it doesn’t have to work too hard. In NYC there’s no turning on the heat because the building does that in a super efficient low carbon way. Lately I’ve been even more virtuous: only buying vintage or circular economy clothing, reducing the plastic in my life. I’ve even given up liquid soap!

All while flying at least once a year. It is to laugh.

The aviation industry is one of the biggest carbon emitters. On 11 September 2001, only military planes flew in the USA for several days. All other aviation was grounded. Scientists were able to use that data to see the effects of aviation on mainland USA. When the planes weren’t flying, high and low temperatures narrowed across the USA. On top of carbon emissions’ long-term damage, there are immediate effects of aircraft contrails that we only barely understand.

Those of us living with a climate catastrophe, think about it every day. On the family group chat today we’ve been trading photos of how smoky it is outside and my dad just texted that he and mum have now donated to the Fire Relief Fund for First Nations Communities.

We’ve all been hearing the reports that a lot of the relief money and goods are bypassing Indigenous people and this one that an Elder was actively turned away from an evacuation centre by a racist. First Nations communities around the world have been living with climate catastrophe brought on by invaders for generations.

If we–and by we I mean all of us folks who know climate change is real, who have lived through unbreathable polluted air, terrifying floods, rains, fires, cyclones, hurricanes, muds slides, unbreathable air etc.–downed tools and became full-time climate activists, clogging the streets all around the world outside our houses of parliament, our seats of government, demanding real change, demanding we clean up polluting industries, switch to renewable energy, phase out fossil fuels and earth-destroying agricultural practices, clean up our waters, ground all unnecessary air travel, pour money into better, cleaner train networks, bring back international sea travel–if we did that in our millions, we would see real change. It would happen.

Hell, our prime minister, Scott Morrison has started to say that he and his government might possibly maybe change their carbon emissions targets. Presumably from the current magical numbers–where Australia doesn’t have to do anything and carbon emissions keep climbing–to real targets. I’m not holding my breath though. But he’s definitely frightened that if he doesn’t do something he’ll lose the next election. Or be deposed as PM as soon as parliament returns. Whether by those in his party who want more done on climate change or the extremists who want nothing done. His first poll numbers came out. They weren’t good. Unfortunately, it looks like the government is merely changing its strategy. They’re still going to do next to nothing to curb emissions, but they’ll no longer deny climate change is real while doing it. Yay?

We international community of the millions, who know that climate change is real, won’t quit our current jobs in huge numbers to make this the central cause of the rest of our lives. We should, but we won’t. I’m deeply grateful to do those of you who already have or about to. We need you climate change activists!

I won’t because I have a chronic illness. In my last essay I said I’d go to the climate protest here on Friday. I didn’t make it.3 Fortunately, thirty thousand others made it.

I wouldn’t even if I was healthy. I’m not an organiser. I’m not, in all honesty, any kind of doer. I watch and I research and I write. I can bear witness. I can document it. I can donate money. I can go to protests. I can watch in awe and support the people who do give up everything to save our planet.

As she often points out, Greta Thunberg isn’t the only young activist in the world. Ridhima Pandey is one of many activists in India. Elizabeth Wanjiru Wathuti, Oladosu Adenike and Vanessa Nakate are activists from Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, respectively. All under thirty.

There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t have climate activists doggedly fighting the most important fight of humanity’s existence day after day. There are activists who have been doing so since before most of us were born. The knowledge that industrialisation is making humans sick and changing the planet for the worse has been with us for decades.

But most people dealing with the peripheral effects of climate catastrophes, the bad air, dodgy water, the intermittent electricity etc. continue to live their everyday lives. They wear masks, boil water, only go outside when necessary. We humans are really good at adapting.

But we all have snapping points. The protests last Friday were full of folks who’ve never been to a protest before. For whom this bushfire season has been too much. Now they’re doing something: making their voices heard. There were folks there who lost everything in the fires. Everyone was angry.4

It’s hard to convey to people, who haven’t lived through an ongoing catastrophe, what it’s like.

I’ve had several texted conversations with friends overseas that kind of go like this:

Them: Are you okay? The coverage is terrifying! Is Sydney burning down?

Me: The fires are far. I’m fine. My family and friends are fine. We just have to deal with smoky air.

Them: Will you be evacuating?

Me: Lol. No. Does NYC or LA evacuate when the smog’s bad?

Them: How are you otherwise? Other than all this stuff?

Me:

I tend to put my phone down when that happens. I mean how do I answer that question? “How are you doing other than your entire country burning and the air being unbreathable for millions for months on end?”

But what I want to text them is:

NOTHING! THERE IS NOTHING GOING ON BUT FIRE AND SMOKE AND WATCHING ENTIRE SPECIES HURTLE TOWARDS EXTINCTION AND ETERNAL CLIMATE CATASTROPHE. WE’RE WATCHING THE WORLD END! WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM!?

But of course that’s not entirely true. This bushfire season dominates everything. It’s at the top of the news cycle here. We all talk about it. We donate. We volunteer. We wear masks. Use air purifiers. But we’re also living our lives.

Sometimes I’m watching the cricket, and being amazed by Glenn Maxwell, and reminding myself to get tickets for the women’s T20 World Cup in February, and eating ice cream, and not thinking about the bushfires at all, but then the commentators will mention what the latest bid for Shane Warne’s baggy green cap is, proceeds going to the Australian Red Cross, and there it is back again: this bushfire season.

We’re all in mourning for our country, some stage of it: shock, denial, rage . . .

This climate catastrophe, which is just one of too many. This country that I love, with obscenely high per capita carbon emissions, which is, right now, part of the problem, not the solution. And I read yet another article by a climate scientist looking for hope and finding tears and despair. Then I read Ross Garnaut’s book on how Australia could turn it all around and become a renewable energy superpower and I’m filled with hope again.

One of my friends has two daughters, who are becoming engineers, so they can work on climate change solutions. There are folks in the fashion industry inventing new textiles that have zero carbon footprint. I heard on a podcast that folks are working on future solar powered passenger planes. It’s theoretical now but in the future. Drones are being trained to plant trees on a massive scale. There’s a lot of people working on truly amazing solutions and ways to get the world to zero carbon emissions.5

There’s a lot to be hopeful about.

But the coverage of our fires and unbreathable air is off the front pages in the USA and UK. I’m not complaining. We got more attention and for longer than any other ongoing climate catastrophe because of koalas and kangaroos. Though I can’t help noting how many news organisations are giving way more coverage to the latest British royal family brouhaha than they ever did to our fires.

I get it. Royal soap opera is a lot more fun than glaring signs of the end of humanity. The bushfires are slipping from the focus of our news organisations too. The urgency to fix this will fade, here and in the many other countries who are also doing nothing to slow down climate change. Climate catastrophes are becoming normal, everyday, quotidian.

This is our world now. We have to fix it, but I very much fear we won’t.

  1. No conflicts of interests there, eh? []
  2. But basically if you drive a hybrid or an electric car, and you have passengers, then your carbon footprint is way smaller than even an occasional flyer. As for flying, long flights are actually better than lots of small flights, but they’re all terrible. []
  3. That was a bad day. Food became vomit. Migraine screamed. Muscles and joints decided to take a day off from functioning. []
  4. Well, except my seven-year-old niece. When I asked her about the protest the next day she said it was terrible. Too loud and too many people and she was tired and hungry and just wanted to go home. []
  5. You would not believe how many different ways I spell “emissions”. Is it actually even a word? []

Australia is on Fire

Note: I’m not on Twitter. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.

This screenshot comes from the WA government’s My Fire Watch site. The BBC notes some problems with it. It is, however, a good rough guide to the extent of the fires. For scale Australia is roughly the same size as the USA (minus Hawaii and Alaska).

The front pages of newspapers worldwide are showing the catastrophic fires burning in Australia. I’ve been getting texts and emails and pings from friends overseas, wondering if I’m okay.1

I’m okay. So’s Scott.

Where we live in Sydney is a long way from the fires.2 The air here is worse than it’s ever been, but it’s not as bad as it was at it’s worst in Canberra.3 No one I know has died or lost their home. (Though friends with asthma and other respiratory diseases are having a pretty rough time.)

We’re keeping plenty of clean water on our deck for the parched birdlife to drink and bathe in. At night we’ve been getting exhausted flying foxes resting in our tiny gum trees. It feels good to do something other than just donating money to this GoFundMe for First Nations communities affected by the fire as well as wildlife rescue and the Rural Fire Service.4

I’m not okay.

Nothing scares me more than bushfires.

When I was a kid, we drove from Sydney to Newcastle through a bushfire. We must have been the last ones to get through before they closed the old Pacific Highway. I don’t remember any cars behind us or in front.

I was riding shotgun. My little sister had her head buried in Mum’s lap in the backseat. The smoke built up gradually, slowly hiding the trees. Then out of nowhere flames leapt the road, the smoke became so thick we could barely see. I remember the white lines in the middle of the road and orange coloured smoke.

My dad drove on the white line in the middle of the road, leaning forward, clutching the steering wheel. We passed only one car, on the side of the road, its wheels burning. I couldn’t see if anyone was inside. None of us spoke.

When we finally got through, what felt like hours later, I burst into tears, my sister cheered, my mum laughed and Dad swore. As we drove away cars passed us heading into the fire. I kept screaming at them between sobs to turn around.

I’ve never forgotten. For weeks I had nightmares of running on a never ending road through fire, of people and cars burning, of the whole world burning. Now my nightmares are on our screens daily. Across the entire country. Every state. Every territory.

It’s estimated that half a billion wildlife have been killed.That’s just for my state of New South Wales. It’s likely that some endangered species may now be extinct.

Half a billion.

I keep staring at that number and not comprehending. But I can imagine individual creatures burning. Kangaroos and koalas in flames. I’ve seen the photos. I’ve driven through those flames.

Millions of hectares have burned. People are dead. Homes reduced to ashes. On a terrifying number of days we haven’t been able to go outside without a P2 mask. On the days that are only supposed to be tough for folks who are particularly sensitive, our eyes sting, our noses run, our skin itches.5 It’s draining, sapping away the few spoons I have. Now imagine what it’s like for the elderly, for babies with their tiny new lungs, for those with respiratory illnesses.

Fires have burned out of control in every state. The worst in my home state of NSW, Victoria and South Australia. (The devastation of Kangaroo island is hard to comprehend.) Our fire season started in September. The year before, the fires started in August, but weren’t anywhere near as bad as this bushfire season.

Me on our deck this morning wearing a P2 mask. Normally you can see the city skyline clearly. But not on this over 200 AQI day.

We can’t breathe. Here in Sydney we’ve had our AQI (air quality index) up into the 200s, the unhealthy range, which means you shouldn’t go outside without a mask. Melbourne’s been in the unhealthy range for the last few days. A good AQI is from 0 to 50. In Canberra and surrounding areas, it reached beyond the index, into the thousands, giving Canberra the crown of most polluted city in the world multiple times. A few weeks ago, Sydney had that honour. Yay?

Before this summer I’d never heard of the AQI. Usually Australian cities have some of the cleanest urban air in the world. Not no more. Now I consult an air quality app to decide whether it’s safe to go outside and whether I need to turn the air purifier on.

I’d never owned an air purifier either. I’d never seen orange brown bushfire skies for more than two days in a row. I’d never had to stay indoors because the air was so bad you can’t go outside without a P2 mask. Sydney beaches had never been covered in ash. Apocalypse now . . .

I’ve seen multiple reports, here and overseas, characterise this as “one of” the worst bushfire seasons on record.

No.

It’s the worst.

There’s never been a fire season this catastrophic, this widespread, that’s lasted this long. There are fires in Victoria that are predicted to not burn out for another eight weeks. That means they’ll still be burning in March. September to March is half the year, and there’s no guarantee the fires will stop burning then. Welcome, to the all-year-round bushfire season.

Yes, Australia is the driest country on earth. There are bush fires in summer. Totally normal. The one I drove through as a kid was a dead standard ordinary one. The kind that happen every summer. Not that much damage, relatively easily brought under control. What is happening this summer is off the charts.

We used to be able to predict when fires would happen and prepare for them. Now they’re unpredictable, can happen any time of year, anywhere– even rainforests–and are bigger and travel faster and happen everywhere. Everything is worse.

How did we get here?

A long-running drought + deforestation + high winds + hottest weather on record = BOOM! You can read a more detailed explanation from the Climate Council.

To make matters worse, we have a climate change denying government, who came into power on the back of many horrible election promises, including getting rid of the previous government, the Labor Party’s, carbon tax, which had already started to reduce emissions.

When the conservative party, the Liberal/National Party coalition (LNP), won office they did as promised and scrapped the tax. Our emissions climbed. Per capita we’re the world’s biggest polluters.

When asked about their climate change denialism, they claim that everything is fine: “We’re meeting and beating our Kyoto targets,” the Prime Minister keeps repeating over and over and over. He might as well be saying, “War is peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is strength!”

Spoiler: They’re not meeting the Kyoto targets. They are doing basically nothing to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

Before this bushfire season, they were working to introduce legislation that would criminalise anyone who protested their inaction on climate change. Oh, and to increase coal mining.

No, I’m not kidding. Our current Prime minister, Scott Morrison,6 once brought a lump of coal to parliament to show that coal is our friend. Nothing to be frightened of.

I can’t speak for all Australians but I, for one, am DEFINITELY SCARED OF THIS GOVERNMENT’S COAL OBSESSION AND TERRIFIED OF A FUTURE OF UNBREATHABLE AIR, HARDLY ANY FLORA AND FAUNA, ALL-YEAR ROUND BUSHFIRES AND CONTINUED DENIALS FROM OUR FEDERAL GOVERNMENT THAT ANY OF THIS IS HAPPENING.

Morrison claims his government was fully prepared for this apocalyptic summer. Um, tell that to the organisation of retired fire fighter chiefs who tried to get a meeting with the PM to present their plan on how to prepare for the coming bushfire season. You know, this fire season, which many experts predicted would be our worst ever, and is, in fact, our worst ever. He refused to see them. No one in government would meet with them. Because they believe climate change isn’t real and experts are just meanies. Or something.

Guess what? Those fire chiefs were right. How about that? The experts were correct about their area of expertise. Makes you think, doesn’t it?7

I don’t know about you, but I would like governments to make their policy decisions with the guidance of the people who’ve spent their lives studying those particular areas, and not some tool down the pub, who has a feeling because they met this bloke once, who reckoned all these bushfires were being faked, and did you know that Elvis is alive and well and living in Coober Pedy?

Fortunately most Australians know that climate change is real. While our federal government has been obstructionist on fighting climate change, civilians have the highest residential uptake of solar energy in the world. Twenty-one per cent of homes in Australia have solar and that percentage is increasing rapidly.

It makes sense. We are a sunburnt country. We don’t want for lack of sun. Well, except for recently, when the sun’s been almost blotted out by the smoke and turned an eerie orange black, and yes, the UV rays are reduced, which, yay, less skin cancer, but, boo, you kind of need the sun for things to grow and stay alive and for solar energy to work . . .

The smoke from our fires is so immense it’s been blotting out the sun in South America. They’re thousands of kilometres away . . . After leaving Australia, the smoke hit New Zealand first. Sorry, NZ. Here we are once again being the unfortunate neighbour you wish you could avoid. Watch how many Australians will want to move over there to escape this apocalypse. I say send us back home. Just like we did to some of yours.

It’s apocalypse now, but our federal government is more concerned with deporting people it deems undesirable, locking up asylum seekers and denying them adequate health care, and getting rid of gender neutral bathrooms than it is in dealing with these fires. Since the scale of this national disaster became apparent, Prime Minister Morrison has repeatedly shown himself to be more interested in PR and finding someone else to blame than in leadership.

Most of the time I can’t believe this summer is real. I can’t process it. Half a billion animals. Millions of hectares gone.

I don’t know how Australia will recover.

The amount of carbon dioxide released by the burning forests undoes any limited progress made by our spectacular uptake of solar. It also makes “meeting and beating” the Kyoto targets–which we weren’t even close to doing–impossible.

We’ve lost huge swathes of our wildlife and national parks–my favourite walk in the Blue Mountains was burnt out. And if this white Australian of not that many generations is feeling this loss how are the First Nations people feeling?

We’re looking at billions of dollars of property destroyed and much of the agriculture in NSW and Victoria has been gutted.8 We won’t know the full extent of the damage until all the fires are out. We don’t know when all the fires will be out.

Then there’s the long-term health effects. Lungs have been damaged throughout the most populous parts of Australia. Our biggest cities–Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra–have all had extended days of unhealthy air with more to come. Such as today. *points at photo of me in P2 mask above*

And what about our mental health? We’ve only just begun to process. Or have we? Can you process in the middle of a catastrophe? This one isn’t even over yet. We’re probably not yet half way through this horror season . . . There are still hundreds of fires burning. In NSW they’re currently under control but high temperatures and winds are predicted for the weekend. Click here for the Rural Fire Services Fires Near Me map. You can also download it as a map.

People are rallying all over the country with donations pouring in. Folks are offering up their homes to those who’ve lost theirs. It’s heartwarming but it shouldn’t be necessary. It shouldn’t have happened like this. If our government had listened and taken climate change seriously . . .

How do we make sure we never live through a bushfire season like this again?

Do we redirect our armed forces to fire fighting and reforestation? But how can forests grow when there’s no water? Rain isn’t predicted in any meaningful amounts for months and then it’ll likely be floods washing more of the top soil away.

Even if this government was to do a complete turn around and introduce every single one of the Climate Council’s measures–SPOILER: they won’t–having government and industry switch to solar and wind, phasing out coal mining and coal power stations etc. etc., it’s already too late. It won’t bring back the forests, it won’t bring back the wildlife. It won’t shorten the bushfire season or bring back the rain.

The time to do all of that was decades ago. Each successive government, Labor and the LNP, but let’s get real, especially the LNP, have failed us by not doing enough. We have failed us by not fighting harder and louder, because we didn’t believe in climate change, or we did believe, but couldn’t comprehend how soon these experts warnings would come to pass. Most of us humans are terrible at imagining the future.

Tim Flanagan says Australia is committing suicide. He’s right. This apocalypse we’ve created, this armageddon, is slower than those usually imagined by us story tellers. As Omar Sakr puts it, this “apocalypse, having begun long since, might last for the entirety of our lifetimes; we could live through this slow worsening, the poisoning of sky, water, land, and mind as the world heats up, resources become more scarce, and violent conflict spreads.”

Australia’s future is bleak. The land won’t die, not completely, but most of what’s living on it, us humans and quokkas and fingerlime bushes, and all the many other creatures and flora and landscapes that make me love this country, are looking doomed right now.

So, yeah, I’m not okay, and neither is Australia. Neither is the world.

But I’m not giving into despair. We might not be able to save our country, but I can hope we can mitigate some of the damage, learn from this catastrophic bushfire season, so we’re better prepared for the next one. Perhaps we can delay the very worst of this armageddon.

It helps me to do little things to minimise my carbon footprint. I’m reducing my consumption of single-use plastics, using less water,9 only buying clothes that are vintage and/or made from recycled and sustainable textiles,10 planting trees, taking public transport not taxis,11 trying to fly less,12 donating to the organisations that are fighting for a cleaner, better world, here and overseas.

And protesting.

I’ll be at the protest this Friday, 13 January. They’re happening all over the country. In Sydney it starts at 5:30PM at Sydney Town Hall.

I hope to see those of you in Sydney there. Let’s be loud and fight our federal government’s negligence, malfeasance, and incompetence together.

  1. Which I really appreciate. Thank you for caring! No, I’m not returning to my other home of NYC early. []
  2. Well, except there was a grass fire on Bunnerong Road, which is 11k from here. It’s out now. []
  3. Thinking of you, all my lovely Canberra people. []
  4. You can also bid on Shane Warne’s baggy green. Lol. All proceeds go to the Australian Red Cross. There’s fundraising wherever you go. At the Sydney Uni Flames games and at the Operation Ouch show at the Opera House we took the niece to buckets went round. []
  5. Fun facts I have learnt about smoke-filled unhealthy air: it triggers migraines and makes my dermatitis and rosacea worse. Also nauseating. []
  6. It’s Australia, we run through PMs pretty quickly, so that could change by the time I post this. Or it would if parliament was sitting. []
  7. I wish it did because then all the climate change denialists would disappear. I take some hope from op eds by folks who were all in with this government until this catastrophe made them realise that mitigating climate change is more important than tax breaks. But honestly what took them so long? []
  8. Such as the wine industry: smoke taints grapes. Smoke tainted grapes can’t be made into wine. []
  9. We’re on level 2 water restrictions in NSW because of the drought. I’m trying to do better than that. It’s really hard. []
  10. I know, I know, it’s not much of a sacrifice given how much I love vintage clothes. I bought some pieces from Audrey Scarlett because all proceeds are going to WIRES and Victoria’s fireys. []
  11. I know a lot of this isn’t possible for many people. Do what you can. []
  12. But I’m not ready to do what Yael Stone is doing. She’s right. It is unethical to live in both Australia and the USA but I just can’t. Not yet. []

Why I Left Twitter, or, the Last Day of 2019

Note: I’m not on Twitter. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.

This has been a horrible year for me.1 Or, rather, it’s been a horrible two years–more than two years.

In June 2017, I woke up feeling weird. It was the beginnings of this chronic, incurable, non-fatal illness that now holds huge sway over my life.

Over the next few months, more symptoms manifested, the worst of which was losing my executive function. I couldn’t make decisions. Do you know what activity requires lots of decisions?

Writing novels.

I couldn’t do my job.

I’ve never had writer’s block. Ever.

Not being able to write, not being able to decide what to wear, or whether to leave the house, or pretty much anything, was a nightmare. I became depressed.

When I became ill, I’d written two thirds of a novel from the pov of a psychopath. It was already doing my head in writing the thoughts of a character who considered other humans to be pawns, not people.

After I got sick it was worse.

I’d be stuck reading the one scene, passage or sentence over and over, hating what I was reading, trying to find a way forward, failing, switching to a different scene, passage, sentence, clause, failing again, feeling worse and worse.

Every day I’d doggedly try to do my job. The words I’d already written, led me to choices I was no longer capable of making. Bleak choices. I’d stare, read and reread, and type nothing.

My depression deepened.

I broke out of it when we learned how to manage my illness. As my executive function slowly returned, I tentatively wrote again. Instead of plunging back into the novel, I went back to basics.

I turned to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Le Guin is stern. I needed her strong, unrelenting, unforgiving voice to guide me.2 I did the writing exercises she laid out exactly as she told me to.

Every day I sat, read a chapter, tried the exercise. It was brutal. But gradually my fluency returned. The exercises started turned into stories.3

My agent, Jill Grinberg, who’s been amazingly supportive throughout, read the stories, said encouraging things, suggested one of them would work as a novel. So I did what she said. Being told what to do helped a lot.4

That exercise turned into a novel. Not a very good one. But definitely a novel-shaped text, with characters and exposition, a beginning, middle and end.

I’m currently rewriting that mess. It’s slow going–slower than I’ve ever written–but I’m writing.

I’ve learnt (yet again) that I’m happiest when I write. If I’m not writing, I’m not wholly me. I’ve learnt to work around my illness.

I’m not going to name it or talk about the many other symptoms. I don’t want to talk about it.

That’s not true.

Since June 2017, there have been many times when it’s all I can talk about. I’ve told random people on trams, trains and planes about it. Blurted out my symptoms to startled wait staff, acquaintances and strangers at weddings, parties, conferences and fundraisers.

I discovered that many of my friends and acquaintances have chronic diseases. Is anyone truly able bodied?

My friend with Hashimoto’s doesn’t really think about it that much–except when the price of meds goes up. God Bless the USA.5 Another friend doesn’t think about her illness except when she winds up in hospital.

I had no idea.

Why didn’t they tell me? Why have I stopped telling people?

So many reasons! Because:

Lots of able-bodied people don’t get it, we’re sick of talking about it, we don’t want your pity or revulsion, we’re sick of well-meaning people recommending treatments we’ve already tried or are pure quackery. No, being immunised did not cause this.6

Also we’re past the crisis stage, when we’re desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and it’s all we think about.

We’re in the management phase. We know what meds to take, what diet/exercise/therapies work.

My family and friends know what’s going on. I love that they check in with me and support me and mostly treat me the way they always did. That’s enough.7

I no longer enjoy talking about my chronic illness.8 I talk about it far less. Though I have one friend with similar symptoms. We check in with each other regularly. She gets it and never says, “Hope you get well soon! I’m glad you’re getting better!”

What part of “chronic” and “incurable” do people not understand!?

I know, I know, our language around illness is rubbish. Folks mean well. Before I joined the ranks of the spoonies I said ridiculous stuff like that too.

I’m so sorry.

More than two years into this chronic, incurable, though not fatal, illness, I’m still learning how to cope with so few spoons. I still think like an able-bodied person, but I’m not. I’m a spoonie.

That’s why I left Twitter.

Things that were easy are now hard. Much of my resilience is gone.

I love Twitter. The conversations I’ve had on there with people all over the world have taught me so much and made me laugh and changed me.9

But after my illness, I started to hate Twitter. I lost my ability to brush off unjust criticism, to think through just criticism, or to tell the difference between the two. Even benign comments in my mentions upset me.

Twitter was wiping out all my spoons. I couldn’t tweet and write. Some days I couldn’t tweet and get out of bed.

So in November I walked away. I don’t know when I’ll return or if I’ll return. I’ve been doing better without it, though I miss the conversations around cricket and basketball and fashion and books and politics and TV. I miss my Twitter community.

I’ve been writing more, and getting out more, and learning about the new vintage clothes world on Instagram via my private account there.

Who knows? Maybe as I become better adjusted to so few spoons, I’ll return to Twitter. Or maybe I’ll start blogging regularly-ish in 2020?

I used to blog every day.

I used to write a recap of my year every 31 December and point forward to what I was publishing in the coming year.

I couldn’t do that in 2018. I published nothing and sold nothing. I couldn’t decide whether to get out of bed or not. I certainly couldn’t decide what to blog.

As it happens, I did publish this year. A bleak short story called “Elegy” for Emily X R Pan and Nova Ren Suma‘s YA anthology, Foreshadow. It’s an incredible anthology with many fabulous stories.

I will have a new story published next year. It’s called “When I was White” and will be in Adi Alsaid‘s YA anthology on immigration, Come On In published by Inkyard Press in October 2020.10

I wrote this year and I’ll write in 2020.

I have no idea when there’ll be a new novel from me. But given that I’m months from finishing this rewrite, it would be published in 2024 at the earliest, and there’s no guarantee it will find a publisher.11

All of which is huge progress from where I was a year ago, but It’s terrible compared to where I was ten years ago.

Things don’t always get better, but if we’re lucky, and have support from those who love us,12 we have a shot at learning to manage.

  1. And the world. I write this in Sydney, on a day when the entire South coast of NSW is on fire. Lives and homes and national parks and agriculture are going up in flames. Smoke from the bushfires is so thick here in the city there’s a Poor Air Quality Forecast from the NSW government and we’re being advised to stay indoors. It’s been like that off and on for weeks.

    Currently our AQI of 124 is worse than Beijing’s. All we talk about here is the drought, air masks, purifiers, and what we can personally do to ameliorate climate change and force our governments to do likewise. There are worse fires in the Amazon. There are environmental disasters everywhere. []

  2. It was also a way of mourning her death. She is a foundational writer for me. []
  3. Stories Le Guin would have considered woeful, but no matter. []
  4. Hilariously. I’ve always hated being told what to do. []
  5. Do not get me started on the US healthcare system. []
  6. I’m not interested in answering questions or hearing miracle cures unless they’re thoroughly peer reviewed and even then odds are I’ve already heard about it. Yes, I’ve tried acupuncture. I consider Chinese medicine to be peer reviewed and as (in)fallible as Western medicine. For me acupuncture works great at bringing swelling down and various other things. It hasn’t worked on this illness. But then neither has western medicine. Both have helped manage the symptoms. []
  7. My seven-year-old niece’s concern breaks my heart. []
  8. Yes, in the beginning, when we had no idea what was going on, and my symptoms were weird, and weren’t disrupting my work or play, it was kind of fun to talk about, and shock folks with photos of the weirdness. []
  9. I found the people who think cricket is as funny as I do. []
  10. All you editors, who over the years have asked me for short stories, and I said I don’t write them? Turns out I write short stories now. Hit me up! []
  11. Fortunately, I’m working on other novels. So who knows? Maybe in 2030 there’ll be four from me at once. []
  12. Scott and my family have been incredible. I love them so much. []

Elegy, New Short Story by Justine Larbalestier, i.e. me, is Online Now

“Elegy” is my first publication since My Sister Rosa. It was tough to write and, I have to be honest, it’s a tough read too. I seriously advise you not to read it if you’re feeling low.

“Elegy” publishes in the tenth issue of the wonderful new anthology, Foreshadow, which is the baby of the fabulously talented, Emily X R Pan and Nova Ren Suma. Each month they publish some of the best authors in Young Adult literature alongside brand new authors. The quality is astonishing so I’m deeply honoured to have been invited to contribute. Working with them as well as with Denise Conejo and Diane Telgen has been an absolute pleasure.

“Elegy” is a psychological horror story about the end of the world. It is not a hopeful story. It felt good to get some of my bleakest thoughts down on the page. I will fully understand if you don’t feel up to reading it. I frequently felt the same throughout the writing and editing process. But I’ll never forget how much bleak, depressing stories meant to me when I was a teen. They made me feel so much less alone. I hope this story will do the same for someone out there who needs it.

Street Harassment: 2003 Viewed with 2018 Eyes

Fifteen years ago I wrote this and then never posted it because I never finished it.

I post it here now because, frankly, I’m a bit freaked out by how blasé I am about harassment. Why now it only happens a few times a week. That’s awful, fifteen-years-ago Justine!

I hated being harassed then and I hate being harassed now, yes, even though it’s even less frequent now.1 And I REALLY hated being harassed when I was a teen and felt completely powerless in the face of the constant barrage.

What I say about Sydney being the worst is hooey. Street harassment happens everywhere. I was right that I thought Sydney the worst because I spent my teens/twenties there.

But I left out the other reason I was harassed far less in my thirties: because I was with my husband pretty much everywhere I went. The only times I’ve been harassed since I married was when alone. I left it out because I didn’t realise that’s what was going on until much later.

I was single or dating women during my twenties. Funnily enough being with your female partner doesn’t stop harassment the way being with your male one does. I wonder why . . .2

The headphones thing still works. Back then I listened to music, now it’s podcasts. They still form an excellent shield. But, damn, WHY DO WE NEED A SHIELD?! Fix theyself, world of shitty men.

For the first time in my life, I’m feeling something akin to optimism about sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement makes me weakly hopeful that some day, not soon, but maybe in a few hundred years, this horrible harassment will finally end. Sadly, I fear the planet will be uninhabitable for humans sooner.

What? That’s way more optimistic than I was fifteen years ago.

In the meantime, let’s keep talking and raging and fighting harassment. Men have to stop.

Sexual Harassment on the Street (2003)

This is always a difficult one to talk about. There’s still this weird idea that if you mention guys calling out to you in the street, you’re somehow boasting about it. “Hey, I am so damn hot, that this paralytically drunk guy with no teeth lurched across the street, vomited in front of me, and said: ‘Show us your tits, love.’ Boy, was I thrilled. Someone out there finds little old me attractive. My day, no, my life, is now complete.”

So let’s just skip that crap, eh? You know and I know that most of the time men you’ve never met before in your life feeling free to comment on your appearance (negatively or positively: I’ve had several blokes in Sydney feel moved to tell me how ugly I am) is a pain in the arse. You’ve just lost your favourite jacket, your job, your best friend, and some charming bloke thinks it’s his duty to say, “Give us a smile, darls.” Now there’s a killing offence. And even when they don’t say anything there’s that horrible prickling feeling along your skin that you are being looked at, and at any moment someone may be moved to demand you show off your mammaries or perform sexual favours for them.

I hate to say this about my beloved home city but the harassment there is world class. I and my friends have heard more choice misogynist nastinessess in the glowing Emerald City than we’ve ever heard anywhere else in the world. Gross, scary things. Now it could be that that’s because we couldn’t understand what was being yelled in Tel Aviv or Bangkok, or because we lived in Sydney during the peak period of a girl’s life for copping this crap. It’s possible. Let’s just say that none of us, despite being told that one day we would miss the catcalls and invitations to suck a total stranger’s bed flute, are experiencing said sadness as we get older and hear less of those oh-so-flattering invitations.

Why now I’m blessed to be harassed only a handful of times a week. I know many won’t believe me but it’s SUCH a relief.

In the parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan and I and my friends live the harassment is much less nasty than Sydney. Like I said this could be because me and my peer group are longer in the tooth than we once were. Maybe the seventeen year olds are copping it every bit as bad as me and my mates did at that age. I hope not. Or maybe we’re more sure of ourselves and less intimidated. I hope so.

That said, there’s a lot more of it. A woman on her own walking down those beautiful New York City footpaths is hit with dazzling smiles, lots of hellos, how’re you doings (yeah, yeah, I know, that’s just friendly, but seriously, people, it’s almost never friendly), and hears a lot of the kinds of noises people make to attract the attention of their cat.

If she responds in any way, the guy will elaborate further with comments on her hair, skin and clothing. (Including the dreaded, “Show us a smile, sweetheart”.) Or possibly a suggestion that they make some form of love together.

New Yorkers altogether seem more inclined to talk to people they don’t know. Women in NYC often comment on the clothing of strangers. Always positively, sometimes a little too positively. One woman on the subway, after telling me that she loved my coat, offered to buy it from me. “Er, no”, said I. “Thanks though, quite happy with coat”. I have even been so bold as to tell the occasional resplendent stranger in this fine and well-dressed city how fab their coat/dress/hair/tattoo is though I always keep walking to make it clear it’s a strings-free compliment.

I’ve got nothing against compliments, me. Just, you know, as long as a fella doesn’t think it entitles them to anything. But randomly yelling at a stranger on the street is not a compliment. Why is that so hard do understand?

I wish they just wouldn’t. I know. That will never happen. In the meantime: headphones are my solution of choice. I lose myself in music when walking so I don’t even notice or hear the harassment.

  1. I’ve only been street harassed once this year. []
  2. Spoiler: I don’t wonder why. []

New(ish) US paperback cover of My Sister Rosa + Scott news

It published on 26 December 2017 but I was too cold and frozen fingered to blog about it so here it is now in all its glory. SoHo Teen have done Rosa proud:

My Sister Rosa has been shortlisted for the Adelaide Writers Festival Book Awards in the YA category. I’m thrilled. They only give these awards out every two years so we’re all up against twenty-four months of amazing books. Making the shortlist is such an honour! Congrats to everyone else. Especially the fabulous Lili Wilkinson and Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff for their amazing books. (I’m sure the others are great too but haven’t had a chance to read them yet.)

Other recent news from my household: Scott is writing four new Uglies books. Find out about them and view the incredible book trailer here. The first one is called Impostors and it is incredible. You can buy it in September of this year! So. Very. Soon.

A belated happy new year to you all!

xo

Justine

Bye, Bye Twitter (For a bit)

Late Sunday night I realised I hadn’t looked at Twitter all day. That never happens. I’m a Twitter addict.

Sunday was wonderful. We cycled from the East Village to Red Hook and back, via Vinegar Hill and Dumbo, taking breaks to eat and explore the various neighbourhoods along the way. It was splendid and I didn’t look at Twitter once.

This is very weird for me. I look at Twitter every day. Multiple times a day. Sometimes I feel like I live my life on Twitter. But there I was, not having looked at it once, and, well, I also realised I wasn’t feeling anxious. There wasn’t a heavy weight on my shoulders or a stone in my gut. So I decided not to look at Twitter again until after the Memorial Day weekend was over.

I spent yesterday writing. I wrote more than I have in a day for ages. About halfway through the day I decided to take a whole week off from Twitter. Just to see how it goes and to see if I feel like Twitter’s taking more away than it’s giving me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Twitter. It’s the only social media I’ve ever loved. I hated MySpace. I never even signed up for FaceBook because it seemed too much like MySpace and the initial invites I received were all from people I haven’t seen in years for very good reasons.

I love the brevity of Twitter. Perversely, I also love people’s long Twitter threads. I love having conversations with people all over the world about a myriad different things. I love the activism of Twitter. I love how much I’ve learned from Twitter. About history, politics, People of Color in European Art, Whores of Yore. So. Many. Things. I love, too, occasionally being able to teach.

But last year my writing slowed. The endless lead up to the US election was painful because of the way the racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia of this country was spelled out in vivid colour daily. The Southern Poverty Law Center says there are 917 hate groups in the USA. There are 47 of those in my state of New York. Hate won and we have the Hater in Chief in the White House.

Like many others I’ve struggled to write while the world is this horrible. Especially with news stories about hate crimes, corruption, treason etc. breaking, what feels like, every few hours.

Twitter amplifies that effect. It also provides welcome distraction from it. But for me lately the first has been overwhelming the second.

I’ve been working on the first draft of this novel for two years now. Which, for me, is ridiculous. I can’t go on like this because writing novels is how I make a living. I have to get back into the rhythm of productive writing. There are more than ten novels in my writing queue. I have to finish this one and get to them.

So, no Twitter for a week and then, depending on how that goes, I’ll try to modify my use to only an hour or so a day. Let’s see if I can become a restrained Twitter user and if separation from Twitter will snap me out of my post-election despair at long last.

Don’t worry, I’ll still be calling my reps and staying informed. I’m not opting out of civic life just out of Twitter for awhile.

Wish me luck finishing this bloody novel! (Let me tell you it doesn’t help that this novel is about a psychopath in this brave new world of ours.)

xo

Justine

PS If you need to contact me you can do so here.

The Faddishness of Publishing

NB: Every example I give in this post will soon be out of date. I’m only talking Young Adult publishing in the USA. What follows may be a tad exaggerated.

Publishing may be an old and crusty industry, that sometimes still runs on handshakes, but it is also flighty and driven by fads.

Right now it is the kiss of death to say that your manuscript is post-apocalyptic.1 Which is interesting given the resurgence of sales for books like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale and, I’m really hoping, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.2 I’d’ve thought the demand for post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA would be huge right now. Teens have always been big consumers of dystopian tales largely because high school is all too often a dystopia.

When I asked why post-apocalyptic is anathema I was told, “They don’t sell.” When I point out that books like The Giver, Uglies, Hunger Games do still sell, it was pointed out that those are old books. It’s the new ones that don’t sell.

When I pointed out a more recent one that does seem to be selling, they then said that’s really time travel. Whatever my example, I was informed that it wasn’t really post-apocalyptic, it was fantasy or space opera or a romance. Okay, then.

The lesson I took from these conversations was that it is still possible to sell a post-apocalyptic novel but you best not call it that. That is pretty much the lesson I always take out of these conversations. “Vampires are dead! Oh, your book isn’t about vampires it’s about hemo-addicts? No problem then.”

The other word that YA agents and editors are particularly averse to right now is trilogy. When I asked an agent friend about it, they shuddered, “Oh, God, no. Just say it’s a duology. At most.”

This confused me as there are lots of trilogies selling well right now. Before I could start listing them I was told there are far more that aren’t selling, which makes it too risky to buy a trilogy up front.

That’s publishing logic for you.

Tragically, the dirty truth is that no matter what the genre there are always more books that aren’t selling well than that are. I know this because I have been publishing YA since the beginning of the huge YA boom. The majority of books, including mine, weren’t selling like Twilight. It didn’t seem to stop publishers from buying them.

Right now YA publishers will buy the first book in what might possibly be a trilogy, and sometimes they’ll buy the first two, but only if they sell well, will they ask for a third. Most publishers are not paying for a trilogy up front anymore except for a handful of bestselling authors.

Publishing is always risk averse but right now with books sales down across the board they are more risk averse than usual. They see the word trilogy or post-apocalyptic (or whatever) and what they hear is great big risk. They are scared. They back away from the scary words. They also back away from the scary new books that aren’t like anything else out there. *sigh* As an agent friend of mine put it, “Publishers are looking for the books that are kind of different but not too different that most closely resemble previous bestsellers.”

Now that you’ve finished reading this publishers will probably no longer be scared of “trilogy” or “post-apocalyptic.”

I love publishing. Truly, I do.

  1. Some agents I asked said the same goes for dystopian. []
  2. Of those three Parable is the one that’s most prescient about this particular historical moment. []

On Writing a Good, Kind, Nice, Empathetic Main Character

What’s the hardest part of writing has to be one of the most frequently asked questions. For me the answer to that question depends on what I’m writing. I don’t just mean whether I’m writing a blog post or a novel. It changes with each particular piece of writing.

My latest novel, My Sister Rosa, is about a 17 year old teen who realises his 10 year old sister is a psychopath. Wow, did I struggle to find the voice of the narrator, Che Taylor. I struggled A LOT.

I didn’t struggle because Che’s a boy. I’ve written from male povs before. It’s no big deal. I struggled because Che’s genuinely nice.

Readers are often suspicious of nice characters. They use phrases like “sickly sweet” to describe them. We, in the English speaking world, on the whole, are more interested in anti-heroes and sometimes in flat-out villains. Somehow we’ve decided in the world of stories that nice people are boring and never charismatic.1

In the first draft of the novel Che was a girl. That didn’t last long. I couldn’t get the older sister protag to work so I made her a he. I suspect part of the problem was me imagining the reader response to such a loving, kind older sister. I’ve seen readers complain about the noxious niceness2 of many female characters. I have hated such characters myself. I wanted to see if we readers would be kinder to a really nice boy protag.

So far Che is my most loved and least hated main character.3 Though wow do too many readers love Rosa. Including my own father! This is me judging youse.

That could be because of my writing or it could be the baked in misogyny of this world. I suspect it’s more of the latter.

I’d like to think my writing had something to do with it because I worked hard to get Che’s voice right. Early readers complained that Che moaned too much, that he was annoying, too eager to please, and not very smart about his sister or anyone else. One reader used the word pathetic. Ouch.

How was I going to make this character with a psychopathic little sister no one believed him about, stuck in a collapsing family, likeable?

I did it by showing him in a number of different relationships, with his old friends back in Sydney, and his new friends in NYC. You get to see him through other people’s eyes. You see him charming new people but he doesn’t do it with the flashy, shallow charisma of his sister. He does it by genuinely listening, being interested, and making them laugh. If the snarky fun character, Leilani, likes him then, hopefully, most readers will too.4

As I wrote him into more friendships I got to know him better. A huge part of who we are is the people we chose in our lives. I needed to show just who Che was via his many friendships.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to do that in novels. In real life there are people with multiple close friendships, but in fiction that seems unrealistic or, at least, unwieldy. I had early readers suggest I cut the number of friends. I didn’t. But I did drastically cut the number of their interactions. You can find some of the outtakes here.

Another key to discovering Che’s voice was contrasting him with his psychopathic little sister Rosa. The conversations Che and Rosa have about right and wrong, about ethics, are the heart of the novel. Illustrating her twisty way of turning Che’s attempts to teach her to be an ethical human being into a game of promises shows the reader just what Che is up against.

Rosa weaponises Che’s lessons in ethics to manipulate Che in ways he doesn’t always see. But I had to show that without making Che seem dim. It was hard. They are unequal opponents because Che cares about Rosa. He cares about all the people around him. He cares about truth and justice. Rosa doesn’t. It was my hope that Che’s open, caring heart on display in these conversations would also make him likeable.

For some readers it didn’t. For some readers Rosa is the most appealing character in the book. *sigh*

STOP LIKING PSYCHOPATHS, PEOPLE! THEY’RE BAD FOR YOU AND THEY’RE BAD FOR THE WORLD.

I don’t blame those readers. There is something seductive about Rosa’s view of the world. As we see in the real world almost every day. Rosa fascinates me too and alarms me. She is why the book I’m writing now is from the point of view of a psychopath. Because I want to understand what it’s like to live in this world without empathy or remorse. I want to know how we can help people like that and how we can protect ourselves from them.5

In the meantime, I’m thankful for all the books about nice, good people changing the world in big and small ways. They make me hopeful. As do those people in the real world. There are so many of them. I’m grateful to them all. Even if they are very hard to write.

  1. Meanwhile in the real world some of the nicest people I’ve known are charismatic and not in the least bit boring. []
  2. How is that a thing? []
  3. I confess when I see a reviewer complaining about Che I want to hug them. Even though I love Che—I love all my characters. []
  4. Any reader who doesn’t like Leilani may not sit by me. []
  5. I’m aware these goals will not be achieved by a novel. []

Me at NYC Teen Author Festival

The NYC Teen Author Festival begins this Sunday. I will be at the opening event on Sunday to cheer everyone on.

Here’s my schedule for the rest of the festival:

Wednesday, 22 March, 42nd St NYPL, South Court, 6-8:
Writing New York City
A gathering of writers who’ve written about New York City talking about (and reading about) New York City.
Laurie Halse Anderson
Coe Booth
Libba Bray
Michael Buckley
Jocelyn Davies
Justine Larbalestier
David Levithan
Lois Metzger
Sarah Mylnowski
Gae Polisner
Adam Silvera
Jennifer E Smith

Daunting much? So many have written about NYC over the years. I’m tempted to read someone else writing about the city. Like, say, Jacqueline Woodson or Dawn Powell.

Friday 24 March, Symposium (42nd Street NYPL, South Court, 2-6):
2:00 – Introduction
2:10-2:50: The Flavours of Human Evil
A discussion of putting a face to human evil in YA fiction, and how human monsters are the most terrifying of them all.
Laurie Halse Anderson
Tiffany Jackson
Justine Larbalestier

It’s going to be so hard to keep this conversation to forty minutes. All three of us have so much to say. Running the gamut from slavery to psychopathy to the evil choices everyday people make.

Sunday 26 March: Our No-Foolin’ Mega-Signing at Books of Wonder (Books of Wonder, 1-4):2:30-3:00
Bill Konigsberg
Gordon Korman
Pamela L. Laskin
Justine Larbalestier
David Levithan
Sarah Darer Littman
Barry Lyga
Wendy Mass
Brian Meehl
Lois Metzger
Rafi Mittlefehdt
Meredith Moore
Garth Nix

Quite the company for me to be signing in, eh? Hope to see some of you there!

The Problem with “Boy Books”

Every time I hear someone talking about the lack of boy books I die a little inside. Books have no gender. The lack of boy books is not a problem1; the problem is adults assuming boys will only read books about boys.

Here are two terrible assumptions embedded in that one little phrase boy books:

1) The assumption is that boys are only interested in boys and thus have zero interest in girls. That’s a terrible assumption because in assuming it we teach it.

2) Boys are all the same. When we think boys are all the same we mostly imagine that they’re white, straight, able-bodied, cisgendered and interested only in stereotypical boy things like sports. What about all the boys who don’t fit those categories? Children’s and YA publishing remains overwhelmingly white.

In this never-ending debate about getting boys reading it’s often forgotten that there are also girls who don’t read, as well as non-gender conforming kids. What about them?

If we want to get more boys reading we need to start by broadening that to wanting more kids reading. It turns out that the main thing kids who don’t read have in common is that they come from families that don’t read. They grow up in households without books. They’re not read to regularly before they learn to read themselves.2

Beyond that every teacher and librarian and literacy specialist I’ve spoken to says the key to getting kids to read is to find out what they’re interested in.

The second key is to broaden what you count as reading. Non-fiction, comics, manga–it’s all reading. Airplane manuals, magazines, blogs, tumblrs—IT’S ALL READING.

It will probably turn out some of the kids you don’t think are reading actually are.

Tailor your book recommendations accordingly. If they like superheroes, give them Ms. Marvel. If they like airplanes and astronauts give them non-fiction about women in those fields. Etc. This is one of the many amazing things that librarians do so well.

Also do not get me started on those who tell kids what they’re reading isn’t challenging or complex enough. Let kids read what they want! Especially as the notion of complexity usually has to do with page count and some ridiculous formula about lexical density. Neither of which measures the complexity of the meaning of the words on the page. Do you know what’s a really simple game? Go. Thousands of years old and it took computers longer to learn how to be grandmasters of Go than the supposedly more complex chess. Do not get me started on the spuriousness of complexity as a virtue.3 Ooops. Too late.

Studies show novels teach empathy. But if someone’s only reading novels about white, middle class folks, well, I wonder. If you want boys to become more empathetic encourage them to read books by and about girls, about boys who aren’t like them, about transkids.

I recommend this for everyone. Especially white middle class folks like me. Truly, a steady diet of books/TV/movies/fakenews about folks like us is unhealthy and leads to disastrous election results.

I’m convinced much of the panic about boys not reading is really a panic about how many more books there are about girls these days. For which, hurrah! And yet picture books and early reader books still overwhelmingly have male protagonists. Middle grade is still more than fifty percent male.

It’s only YA that’s dominated by female protagonists and we panic. Just think about that. Male protagonists dominate movies particularly animated movies4, TV, graphic novels, non-fiction, toys, games, and yet we’re all, What about the boys?!

Some days I just can’t. At all.

Me go do my job now of writing genderless novels for anyone who cares to read them.

Note: Thanks to Sarah Park Dahlen for her comments on a draft of this. And thanks to Sarah and to Edi Campbell, Angie Manfredi, Debbie Reese and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas for influencing my thoughts on this subject.

  1. There is no such lack. []
  2. Loads of research has been done on this. You can find some of it in Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne (E.F.) McKechnie, and Paulette M. Rothbauer. []
  3. Or simplicity for that matter. []
  4. Shannon Hale has been tracking those numbers for years. Thank you so much, Shannon! []

Edgar Award Nomination and My Sister Rosa Extras

My Sister Rosa has been nominated for an Edgar Award. The Edgars are the Mystery Writers of America awards. They are named for Edgar Allen Poe. I am ecstatic.

Let me explain, when I was little Edgar Allen Poe was one of my absolute favourite writers. I read his short stories over and over. They terrified me. I suspect my claustrophobia was at the very least exacerbated by his buried alive stories. Yeah, that’s right I blame Edgar Allen Poe for being claustrophobic. I bet I’m not alone.

I have always been a reader of crime fiction. I was obsessed with Patricia Highsmith, Walter Mosley, and Raymond Chandler as a teen and they have been a huge influence on my three crime novels: Liar, Razorhurst and My Sister Rosa.

To celebrate my Edgar award nomination joy I have put up some extras from My Sister Rosa: a couple of chapters that were cut. Enjoy! Or not. They were cut for a reason.

Religion in My Sister Rosa

One of the characters in My Sister Rosa, Sojourner Ida Davis, is a deeply religious progressive Christian. This has elicited a range of responses from readers: from horror from the non-religious: Ewwww! Why is there religion in this book? To horror from conservative Christians, some of whom have expressed grave doubts that Christians like Sojourner exist. To thanks from progressive Christians who tell me they rarely see themselves represented in YA.

Why did I write Sojourner?

I’m an Australian atheist. In the US context it’s probably more accurate to call myself non-religious since my atheism has never been a big part of my identity. I grew up in secular communities where religion was rarely discussed. It just wasn’t a thing. Pretty much everyone I knew was also an atheist. I was curious about religion but knew little about it. My father’s an atheist Jew. So I learned a bit about Judaism from his family. Particularly my grandmother. I picked up bits and pieces about Christianity. But not much. For the first year of my BA I did Religious Studies because I felt so ignorant.

When I moved to NYC one of the biggest differences was how much more religious my NYC friends are compared to my Sydney friends. I hadn’t really met progressive Christians and religious Jews before. (My Jewish family are very conservative. I knew progressive secular Jews.) I thought being religious meant being conservative. I was wrong.

I wrote Sojourner because I have met many New Yorkers like her and because I don’t think it’s accurate to write books set in the US with no religion. Not only are there few religious people in YA, there are even fewer progressive religious characters. They’re mostly extremely conservative. But the political and social beliefs of religious people in the real world are as varied as those of non-religious people. I wanted to reflect that.

The church in the novel is based on a real church in my neighbourhood of NYC. The only thing that’s changed since I wrote Rosa is there’s now security checking everyone before they’re allowed in. Yes, because of Charleston.

Several of my religious US friends do not swear. I come from a very sweary people and I find the few non-swearers I’ve met fascinating. It became clear to me early in writing Sojourner that she too would not swear and she most definitely would not blaspheme. It was one of the hardest linguistic decisions I’ve made in a book. Swear words kept slipping into her dialogue. Apparently, swears words are invisible to me. Eeek! I did searches on every new draft to weed out my slips. I thought, with the help of my editors, copyeditors and proofreaders, that I had succeeded!

Nope.

Recently a reviewer on GoodReads pointed out that Sojourner does blaspheme.1 On one page she uses both hell and damn.2 I missed it; my editors in Australia and the US missed it; copyeditors missed it; proofreaders missed it. My response was to, of course, swear. LOUDLY. That little slip of mine undermines Sojourner’s character.

This really bad error is now being changed in all editions for the next reprint. That includes the audio book—they’re bringing the actor back in to re-record those two lines–thank you, Blackstone audio!—as well as the foreign editions.

  1. I’d link to the review but I can’t find it. Thank you, Katy Jane! []
  2. If you’re curious it’s page 114 in the Australian edition and page 88 in the US edition. []

Last Day of 2016

I almost didn’t write this post. It’s been such an awful year in so many ways. As a US citizen the election was particularly foul. People I care about had awful things happen to them. Some favourite celebrities died.1

But I am a creature of superstition and I’m convinced if I don’t write this post, which I have been doing annually since 2005, something even worse will happen.

So here it is my my annual recap of how the year was for my career and a look ahead at what’s gunna happen in 2017. (And my annual reminder that, yes, in Australia and many other parts of the world it is already New Year’s Eve. We’re not all in the same timezone or the same season. Shocking, I know. Come join me, it’s summer here!)

How My Books Did in 2016

My eleventh book and eighth novel, My Sister Rosa, about a seventeen-year-old boy who realises that his ten-year-old sister is a psychopath, came out in Australia at the end of January and in the USA in November. Thus neatly bookending the year.

I was lucky enough to do multiple events in both countries to promote it. Wow, are people fascinated by psychopaths. I mean, I knew that, but now I really know that. Every time I’d describe the book, there’d be an Oooooooh response and so many questions. Then there were all the stories of the psychopaths in people’s lives. Siblings, parents, partners, spouses, but most commonly, bosses and coaches.

Rosa is my first book to earn five starred reviews in the USA. Meanwhile in Australia, it made the long list for the Australian Indie Book Awards, a first for me.

Rosa is my bestselling novel since Liar. Good reviews and award nominations are lovely, but sales are best of all. It looks like Rosa‘s strong sales have also helped Razorhurst‘s sales pick up in the US. Though that could be the rejacketing Soho did in the US, which everyone seems to love. The covers for Rosa in both Australia and the USA are also getting a lot of love. I’m very lucky. Thank you, Allen and Unwin and Soho Teen.

Thank you to everyone who bought My Sister Rosa, or ordered it for their library, or borrowed it, and talked it up to your friends. Thanks also to everyone who reviewed it. Even the bad reviews help.

Books Out in 2017

The US edition of Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy will be published by Simon and Schuster in the USA in March.

This anthology is truly amazing. It’s a collaboration between Indian and Australian writers and artists and includes graphic stories as well as regular ones. There’s not a dud in the book. I’m honoured to be part of it. Eat the Sky has been published in India and Australia. Here’s hoping it gets the same fabulous reception in the USA it received in those two countries.

And that’s it. Sorry. No new novels from me in 2017. I’ve gone from attempting to be a two-novels-a-year kind of writer to being a one-novel-every-two-years kind of writer. No one is more bummed about that than I am.

What I Wrote in 2016

This year I struggled to write. Worse even than last year, when I at least had illness to blame. This year the increasing swing of most of the world to the right did my head in. India, the Phillipines, Hungary, Russia, the UK—SO MANY COUNTRIES. And, of course, my two homelands, Australian and the USA. I despaired. When I despair I find it very hard to write.

It wasn’t just despair that made writing tough—it was my compulsive need to understand what was happening. On top of reading as much immediate journalism as I could, I found myself reading a vast amount of non-fiction to try and make sense of what was happening to my two countries and the rest of the world. While that reading helped me enormously, and will feed into my writing, for a long stretch there I was reading instead of writing.

What little writing I did (about forty thousand words) was on my novel from the point of view of a psychopath, which I’m now calling Psychopath in Love. It’s a contemporary and I had, without realising it, been setting it in a world where Clinton won the election. One of the many things that slowed my writing was realising I had to rewrite with the new realpolitik in mind.

To be clear: who the president is isn’t a plot point. It’s about the mood and feel of the novel. For example My Sister Rosa is set in 2015 under an Obama presidency. There’s nothing directly about that in the novel. The year is not named nor is Obama. But it does indirectly affect the novel. People have conversations they wouldn’t if there were a different president and a different national mood.

That wasn’t the first time I realised I had to rewrite the unfinished first draft of Psychopath in Love. Sigh. I may have only written forty thousand words this year but I deleted at least that many . . .

Hmmm, I’ve made it sound like writing this novel has been nothing but struggle. Not really. The ease with which I found the voice was reassuring after the massive struggles I had to find Che’s voice in My Sister Rosa. My psychopath is so direct, so uncluttered. She has no doubts. Imagine how much easier a doubt-free life must be! I’m almost jealous. She is SO easy to write.

That ease is one of the problems with the novel at the moment. Basically I have seventy thousand words of a psychopath’s view of the world and pithy observations about how pathetic we normals are and not so much with a plot. Don’t be alarmed. First drafts are always the hardest part for me as is, unsurprisingly, plotting. I guess it comes of not outlining. Maybe I’ll outline my next novel. Hahahahahahah.

No, this novel has not been sold yet, and thus has no publication date. I’ll sell it when it has a plot and I’m happy with it.

Writing Plans for 2017

I hope to finish Psychopath in Love. The aim is to have a solid draft by the beginning of March. I believe I can do it. I will do it!

Then I plan to get started on this super cool idea for a psychological thriller I got while having lunch with my agent. She asked what I was going to work on next. I told her two separate ideas. As I told her I realised they’d work really well together. And, of course, it instantly became the only thing in the world that I want to write.

Other than this other really cool idea. Why can’t I just have one idea at a time? Waaaah! This one came out of a conversation with Scott, who is always the best person to talk writing with. It is so unbelievably cool, that for the first time ever, I understand the writers who won’t say what they’re working on for fear someone’ll steal their super cool idea. So this is me zipping my lips. I haven’t even told my agent about this one.

Travel in 2016

This year instead of just boringly travelling in Australia and the USA, as I have been doing pretty much every year since 1999, we went to Buenos Aires! The entire family. We rented a house and my niece was in heaven having all her favourite people together: her grandparents, mother, uncle and aunt. We were all there to celebrate her fourth birthday. It was my highlight of the year.2

What I Read in 2016

So much. I’ll do a separate post on my favourite novels of the year. But here I’ll suggest one title that helped me a lot this year: Carol Anderson’s White Rage.

It began as an article in The Washington Post trying to make sense of Ferguson, which will give you a feel for the book. I recommend reading it first if you think you don’t have time to read a whole book.

That said, the book is short and you don’t need a university degree to understand it.3 I read it in a day. In it Anderson cogently argues that white rage against black emancipation and rights of any kind has fuelled legal and extra-legal actions for centuries. The evidence is overwhelming.

If you want to understand the USA right now White Rage is a great place to start.

Next year is not going be a better year for the world. 2017’s going to be worse. I hope as many of us as possible survive and fight back loud and long and strong. I hope we remember those who love and sustain us. I am very lucky to have an amazing family and many wonderful friends all over the world. Thanks to all of you.

And to everyone who reads my books, blogs and words on social media. You sustain us. Without readers we writers have nothing.

Happy new year!

  1. I still can’t listen to Prince without crying. []
  2. Other than seeing Hamilton twice. YES, I SAW HAMILTON TWICE. OMG. []
  3. I’ve been trying to read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and regretting my lack of a degree in philosophy with every page. []

Guest Post: Ambelin Kwaymullina: Thoughts on Being an Ally of Indigenous Writers

ambelin-bgToday Ambelin Kwaymullina, who is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people, has generously allowed me to publish this essay.

I’ve been an admirer of Ambelin Kwaymullina’s work for some time. Not just her wonderful dystopian trilogy about a far future Australia, The Tribe series, but her thoughtful essays. She has become one of the most important Australian voices speaking out about diversity and Own Voices.

This essay is particularly important now that so much of the world is shifting to right-wing, racist governance. The work of people like Kwaymullina show us ways to fight back and make our voices heard.

Thank you, Ambelin Kwaymullina.

Thoughts on Being an Ally of Indigenous Writers (and other marginalised writers) in the Kids Lit Space

I’m increasingly being asked about how to be an ally of Indigenous writers—so here’s a few thoughts on some of what it takes.

1. Be able to articulate and interrogate your position—especially your privilege.

We all have a location in this world. Indigenous peoples are accustomed to identifying our position—our homeland, our people—and recognising the boundaries that position places upon us. For example, it is a rule common to all Aboriginal nations of Australia that no one can speak for someone else’s homeland (Country), and there are many other boundaries on who can tell what stories in Indigenous cultures.

The privileging of Whiteness means that ‘White’ has not historically been viewed as one location amongst many but rather as a kind of default normal; the universal lens through which which all other experiences of the world are to be interpreted and judged. Male privilege, and heteronormativity and ableism, work in the same way. And being an ally of others requires being able to articulate and interrogate the position that you hold and the privilege that it gives you.

All non-Indigenous peoples are to some degree privileged in relation to Indigenous peoples, because all who came here post-colonisation benefited from the dispossession of those who were here before. This means that non-Indigenous peoples writing about Indigenous peoples are doing so from the fraught position of holding a privilege that emerged from—and is in some ways sustained by—the marginalisation of the peoples they write about.

For White writers, this colonial privilege is reinforced by White privilege, and there are numerous useful online resources surrounding White privilege, including the work of Dr Robin DiAngelo. I suggest anyone seeking to be an ally familiarises themselves with her work on White fragility and the White rules of engagement. I also suggest reflecting on these two posts from Justine Larbalestier. And for the ongoing interrogation of Whiteness and children’s literature, tune in to the US blog Reading While White—good starting points are these posts from Elisa Gall, Nina Lindsay, Angie ​Manfredi, Ernie Cox, Megan Schliesman, Allie Jane Bruce, Sam Bloom and K T Horning.

While these resources relate to White privilege, they can also have a broader relevance. For example, as an Aboriginal writer, I’ve found it useful to reflect on the White rules of engagement both to understand the reactions I encounter from some White colleagues and also to prompt consideration of how I should engage with marginalised groups to which I do not belong. I’m not suggesting that different forms of marginalisation equate; merely that its been helpful to me to consider the invasive patterns of behaviour DiAngelo identifies so as to ensure that I do not replicate similar patterns in different contexts.

Interrogating position and privilege also leads to the question of what stories can (or should) be told, and by whom? And in this respect, it is not a numbers game. I’ve had the view put to me before that there aren’t a sufficient number of Indigenous people to write ‘enough’ books and therefore White writers must step in to fill the story-space.

My response to this is that a lack of diversity in kids lit is not a ‘diversity problem’. It is a privilege problem, in that it is caused by structures, behaviours and attitudes that consistently privilege one set of voices over another. This means that it cannot be solved by yet more privileged voices writing about the experiences of the marginalised.

If writers of privilege do not proceed with considerable caution, they will become not liberators, but an occupying force whose presence in the field prevents Indigenous stories from being told and heard. This is why I have said that one boundary I believe non-Indigenous writers should observe is not to tell Indigenous stories from first person or deep third. I accept the same boundary in relation to writing of experiences of marginalisation not my own.

Beyond this, its extraordinarily difficult to write of other peoples, even when observing respectful boundaries. It requires time, research, reflection, and advice—and this is not solely an author responsibility. It’s publishers as well. I know of instances when White authors have been horrified to find that they have unwittingly included harmful stereotypes about Indigenous peoples in a novel. These things can be more difficult to spot than you might think. I’ve said before that words written about marginalised peoples have a weight and a cost, but if you don’t come from that group, then the weight is not one that you carry and the cost is not one that you pay. And that means it can sometimes be hard to see when you are contributing to harm. Authors rely on editors to guide us and challenge us and question us—but how many editors truly have the expertise to either spot a representation issue, or to realise when they need to seek specialist advice from someone who does have the expertise? I’m not saying authors shouldn’t take responsibility, but publishers have a responsibility too. And there are some amazing people in Australian publishing who are proactive in informing themselves about the issues and who continually strive to improve their practice. But we need a lot more people to do this if the industry is going to achieve sustained change.

2. Ask yourself why

Why do you wish to support others? It can be easy (for anyone) to fall prey to the perils of saviourism; the seductive allure of being the person who ‘helps’. But in many ways the goal of any good ally (or advocate) should be not to make yourself more useful, but less—the idea is to be so good at ally-ship/advocacy that you become redundant. I look forward to the day when I no longer need to speak out on diversity in children’s literature because the industry has reached the point when all voices are heard equally and all voices have an equal opportunity to be heard.

I believe supporting others requires a rights-based, strength-based approach. Rights-based, in that I recognise that the denial of anyone’s rights, and the diminishment of anyone’s humanity, diminishes and denies my own. No one should therefore be grateful to me for any support I offer; their fate and mine are intertwined. Strengths-based, in that I am not ‘fixing’ the deficit of others but challenging the barriers—including the lived impact of those barriers—that prevent others from being able to actualise their strength and realise their potential. And let me be clear here: I am not suggesting I have a ‘right’ to tell someone else’s stories. I am saying that the exclusion of marginalised voices harms me whether or not it is the exclusion of a group to which I belong, and the way to address that harm is to challenge the barriers that prevent the strength of those voices from being heard.

3. Identify (and if necessary change) your personal narrative

Most of us would like to think of ourselves as good people. But when it comes to dealing ethically and equitably with others, having a view of ourselves as a ‘good person’ can be counter-productive. For example, as a straight, cis gendered woman who wishes to support LGBTI writers, having a personal narrative of ‘I am a good person and therefore I cannot be homophobic’ is both inaccurate and unhelpful.

We are all capable of absorbing harmful attitudes and enacting harmful behaviours; ‘good’ means being aware enough to identify the attitudes/behaviours either on our own or through having them pointed out by others. And if someone does point out we’ve caused harm, the appropriate reaction is not to be angry with that other person but to make a genuine apology and to be grateful for the insight being offered into someone else’s world.

4. Inform yourself

Anyone truly interested in supporting others should take the time to find out something about about the peoples they wish to support—and with Indigenous peoples, everyone can start with some of the quality resources available free and online. These include, in relation to Indigenous cultures and histories, the exhibitions and other information available at the AIATSIS website; the resources on Indigenous civil rights and land rights at the National Museum of Australia; the Bringing Them Home report and associated resources; and the Share Our Pride module on the Reconciliation Australia website.

People can also inform themselves about common stereotypes by reading publications such as the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Face the Facts and Reconciliation Australia’s Beyond the Myths. They can familiarise themselves with the many ethical protocols that apply to dealing with Indigenous peoples including the Australia Council for the Arts protocols and the AIATSIS Ethical Research and Ethical Publishing protocols, as well as with the overarching rights-based framework of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

People can learn appropriate terminology by accessing one of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander terminology guides produced by Australian universities and government departments (google Indigenous terminology guide, and you’ll find a heap).

All this is only a starting point beyond this, and especially for anyone with a love of books, I think one of the best ways to engage with the diverse cultures, histories and experiences of Indigenous Australia is to read our stories. And for kids lit, the publisher with the biggest list of Australian Indigenous stories is Indigenous publisher Magabala Books.

5. Use your power

If I had a dollar for every time someone in literature has told me they’d like to do more for diverse writers if only they had the power, I would even now be using my many dollars to establish an Own Voices prize in Australian kids lit (‘Own Voices’ is shorthand for books written by marginalised writers about their own marginalisation). I understand that resources are few—but the level of our individual power (and therefore our individual responsibility) can only ever be measured by reference to those who have less choices than we do, not those who have more.

Judged by that standard, the vast majority of people associated with Australian literature are immensely powerful. Besides which, in the age of the internet, everyone is able to realise their individual power in ways that weren’t possible before the arrival of the worldwide web. Anyone can tweet, share, review and otherwise promote books written by Indigenous writers. Anyone can draw on online resources—such as those provided by the Racism. It Stops with Me campaign—to train themselves to be aware of discrimination at individual and systemic levels, and to say something if they see something (provided it is safe to do so).

Everyone can read and engage with the nuanced and multi-faceted conversation coming out of the US on diversity in kids lit (and anyone with an interest in Indigenous issues in this regard should be following American Indians in Children’s Literature). Everyone can raise up their voice, whether through the net or otherwise, to demand that marginalised voices be heard.

And in so doing, we can all be part of something larger and greater than ourselves.

My Sister Rosa USA Tour (updated)

my-sister-rosa-covMy eighth novel (and eleventh book), My Sister Rosa, publishes on Tuesday 15 November. These are my tour dates. I’ll be in Charleston, New York City, Chicago (area), Columbus, Ohio, and Atlanta.

If you’re in New York City we’re having a launch party on Sunday the 13th at Book Court. Details below. Would be lovely to see you there!

If you’re going to YallFest in Charleston come say hi! Come to my signing on Saturday at Blue Bicycle books!

If you’re in NYC, Chicago or Columbus, Ohio come see me talk about psychopaths and evil women with Scott Westerfeld, Mikki Kendall and John Scalzi.

While you wait the few days till the tour starts you can do a quiz to see if you’re a psychopath. Spoiler alert you aren’t. People who love novels never are.

Chicago Area

Tuesday, 15 November 2016, 7PM
Anderson’s Bookshop La Grange
26 S La Grange Rd, La Grange, IL 60525
Yes, Chicago, you get to cheer My Sister Rosa on the day it officially publishes!

Thursday, 17 November 2016, 7PM
Meeting Room at Cook Park Library
413 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville, IL
Talking psychopaths and My Sister Rosa
with Mikki Kendall
Free event RSVP here

Columbus, Ohio

Friday, 18 November 2016, 6:30PM
Book Loft
631 S 3rd St,
Columbus, Ohio
Where I am interviewed by John Scalzi
about psychopaths and My Sister Rosa
Event is free but limited space so RSVP here

Atlanta

19-22 November 2016
I’ll be at ALAN
Atlanta, Georgia, USA

New York City

Friday, 16 December, 6PM
Books of Wonder,
18 W 18th St, New York, NY
Me with Kass Morgan and Neal Shusterman

Finished Events

Was so lovely seeing everyone at Yallfest. What an amazing community!

And thanks SO MUCH to everyone who came out for the NYC book launch!

Charleston

11-12 November, 2016
I’ll be appearing at YallFest
Charleston, South Carolina, USA

FRIDAY, 11 NOVEMBER, 3:00 PM
Fierce Friday Preview
Charleston Museum

SATURDAY, 12 NOVEMBER, 11:00 AM
I’ll be signing with Scott Westerfeld
BLUE BICYCLE BOOKS — COURTYARD
420 King Street

12:00 PM
Panel: UNLIKABLE FEMALE PROTAGONISTS
Charleston Museum

1:00 PM KEEP YA WEIRD
American Theater — Ballroom

New York City

Sunday, 13 November 2016, 6PM
Book Court
163 Court St,
Brooklyn, NY
Official My Sister Rosa Book launch!
with Scott Westerfeld
There will be cheese and wine! Yes, it’s a launch party!

On Putting Your Work Out There

The authors copies of my eighth novel, My Sister Rosa, arrived today. It publishes in the US and Canada in less than a month. I’ve been through this eight times, eleven times if I count my non-fiction book and anthologies, yet it never stops being exciting and it never stops being scary.
img_9991
All I ever wanted to be was a novelist. Every time a new book of mine is published I have a moment where I hold my breath and ask myself if this is real. Did I dream every book I ever published? Then I hold the real, solid book in my hands and let the breath out.

It never gets old.1 I doubt I’ll ever stop being delighted that something I wrote became a real, honest-to-goodness book!

It never stops being scary either. What if everyone hates it?!

It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve already published, that moment of showing what you’ve written to someone else for the first time is nervous-making. My Sister Rosa has already had multiple positive reviews in Australia and New Zealand, and now in the USA and Canada, but I’m still nervous about what’s going to happen when it publishes here on the 15th of November.

One of my superstitions is that there’s a correlation between how much I enjoyed writing a book and its reception. This despite the fact that my best-selling novel, Liar, was tough to write and the one I had the most fun writing, Team Human with Sarah Rees Brennan, sold horribly.

I struggled to write My Sister Rosa. It took me more drafts than I care to think about to nail the voice of the main character. I also got sick with pneumonia and missed several deadlines. All of which makes me nervous. So far, it’s done well in Australia and New Zealand. Fingers crossed for North America.2

I’m aware it’s an absurd superstition. People who read our books don’t know what we were going through when we wrote them, and even if they do, they soon forget as they get engrossed in the book or put it down cause they hated it. Mostly readers don’t think about the author; they think about the book.

I used to wish that one day I’d stop being nervous about what other people think of my books. That one day I’d stop caring. I no longer wish that. Partly because I’ve toughened up: I now enjoy many of the bad reviews in a way I certainly didn’t for my first four or five or six books. But mostly because I enjoy having an audience.

It’s true that I’d keep writing even if I never sold another book but it would be tougher without an audience. I not only care what the people who read my books say about them; they help shape the next books I write. I pay attention to what people liked, what they hated, what bored them, what made them laugh, what drove them up the wall, what made them cry. All those responses add to my next book. Even the ones I completely disagree with.

I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the people who read my books, who edit and critique and review them, who write me or tell me about them. My books would not be as good as I can make them without all of you.

Thank you. I’m very grateful.

  1. Though I have long since learned not to open the book up because without fail I find a typo. Blergh. []
  2. I’m having much more fun writing my current psychopath book, which is from the point of view of a psychopath and not of a good person like Che. Yes, that reflects poorly on me. []

Accompanying Scott Westerfeld on His US Tour

For the next two weeks I’ll be accompanying Scott on his US tour. We’ll be hitting the San Francisco/Bay Area (Menlo Park, Santa Rosa, and SF), LA, the Phoenix/Tempe area, Chicago, Princeton NJ, and New York City. Do say hello and if you’ve got anything you’d like me to sign I’m more than happy to do so. Details here.

I’ll be having a mini-tour of my own in November when My Sister Rosa publishes in North America. Full details as soon as I have them. In the meantime I’ll definitely be at YallFest and at the ALAN workshop. Hope to see you!

my-sister-rosa-cov

Launching Wai Chim’s Freedom Swimmer

Tomorrow, Friday 16th of September I have the great honour of launching Wai Chim’s first YA novel, Freedom Swimmer, and it’s a corker. The book was inspired by Wai’s father’s escape from Mao’s China by swimming to Hong Kong.

Wai tells a story of privation and love and friendship. The central relationship between Ming and Li, one of the city boys sent to his village to learn to be proper communists, is deeply moving. The book is warm and funny and sad. It’s also educational: The Cultural Revolution in China is a period of history I know little about. I learned a great deal because this book sent me down a trail of reading more because Freedom Swimmer is so fascinating. Youse all need to read it.

Launch details:

Friday 16 September
6pm for 6.30pm
Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road
Glebe, Sydney, Australia
RSVP here

Hope to see you there. This book is so worth it. And Wai Chim is a delight.

Brisbane Writers Festival! This Weekend! I am in you!

Hello, Brisbanites, I will be in your fine city this weekend doing the following things at the Brisbane Writers Festival. All my events are on site.

SATURDAY 10 SEPTEMBER
11.30am – 12.30pm
Panel: Psycho
Auditorium 2, SLQ
Justine Larbalestier, Caroline Overington, Caroline Kepnes moderated by Meg Vann
Nothing I love more than talking about psychopaths. This will be the best. I have so many theories about the fascination with psychopaths.

SUNDAY 11 SEPTEMBER
11.30am – 12.30pm
In Conversation: My Sister Rosa
GOMACinemaB
Justine Larbalestier
Belinda Jeffrey
Even if you haven’t read the book you should attend cause I’ll be talking about psychopaths some more, which is really a conversation about what makes us human and what counts as human. Who doesn’t want to talk about that?

THE RE[a]D BOX
1:30pm – 2:00pm
In which I crash Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s reading of ILLUMINAE

3:00pm – 3:30pm
In which I am supposed to do my own reading but will probably just talk about psychopaths. Cause, seriously, there’s SO MUCH TO SAY!

Looking forward to talking about psychopaths with youse all! See you very soon, Brisbane!

My WisCon 40 Guest of Honour Speech

Today in honour of James Tiptree, Jr.’s birthday I’m publishing my guest of honour speech from this year’s WisCon. WisCon is the longest-running feminist science fiction convention in the world. It’s an amazing con.

My fellow guests of honour, Nalo Hopkinson and Sofia Samatar, will also be publishing their speeches. Both speeches are amazing. Check them out!

I’d like to thank you all for inviting me here and especially Tempest Bradford for taking such good care of me and being such a good friend. I’m honoured to be GoH along side Sofia Samatar and Nalo Hopkinson. Especially Nalo, who has been a long-term mentor of mine, even if she didn’t know it, and a wonderful friend. Thank you.

My life as a YA writer

I used to write respectable scholarly work on feminist science fiction for adults. I have two published tomes that attest to that fact. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and Daughters of Earth.

That work led me here twenty years ago to this feminist science fiction paradise. I love WisCon. I love youse all.

I used to be a WisCon hometown girl. I used to organise the academic track and then the readings track.

I once spent an entire WisCon weekend attempting to interview the wonderful Judith Merril, which involved much running after Judy in her extremely fast motorised wheel chair. I miss her.

I also miss my dear friend, Jenna A. Felice, who died far too young.

This convention is full of memories for me, happy and sad.

And humiliating. I once made a total fool of myself here in front of Ursula Le Guin. I’m blushing thinking about it. If I could go back in time to fix one of my fucks ups that’s the one. Not the one where I threw a glass of Guinness in an ex’s face, which also happened here.

I admit—and I wouldn’t have admitted it back then—I used to dream that one day I’d be a guest of honour here. But then in 2003 I sold a novel and had the following conversation multiple times here at WisCon:

ME: I sold a novel! To Penguin! Three novels, actually!
Them: Wow. That’s fantastic! Fantasy or science fiction? Will you be working with Ginjer Buchanan?
Me: Fantasy. No.
Them: What’s your book about?
Me: A teenager who discovers a door that’s a portal between Sydney and New York and that magic is real and totally fucked up.
Them: A teenager? As in teen fiction?
Me: Yup. They call it YA these days. As in Young Adult.
Them: Teenagers? Young Adult? Wow. Is that the time? I must dash.

Folks who’d been following my work for years apologetically confided that they would not be reading my novels.

It stung more than a little. Especially as it meant my dream of one day being Queen of WisCon aka GoH was now gone. I looked over the list of past guests to double check yup none of them wrote only YA. Most of them wrote no YA at all.

Yes, sure, Ursula wrote A Wizard of Earthsea and Tehanu but she also wrote The Left Hand of Darkness among many other classics of real science fiction and fantasy so it’s all good.

WisCon still hasn’t had a GoH who is mostly known for their YA. Tamora Pierce has never been a Guest of Honour here. Shocking, I know.

Even I have those two non-YA books, which, I suspect are a big part of why I’m guest of honour today. Hey, I’ll take it! My two scholarly books are not who I am now, I will never write more, but I’m still proud of them.

Adults Hate Teens
Turns out it wasn’t just the SFF crowd who aren’t fans of YA. (Though I suspect that SFF folk have particularly painful memories of being a teen and being oppressed by other teens.) I heard the following a lot: “Teens are awful. Being a teen was awful. Why on Earth would you write about them?” Often accompanied by visible shuddering.

It was starting to dawn on me that the horrified reaction to my writing Young Adult had little to do with the books and a whole lot to do with lack of interest in, as well as fear and hatred of, teenagers. Much as dislike of Romance is often more about misogyny than the books themselves.

It’s a mystery to me how I failed to notice that many adults hate teens. I’d certainly been aware of it when I was a teen. But somehow I forgot.

I also realised that adults hating teen wasn’t just a personal thing it was also a societal thing. There are, in fact, laws against teenagers in many jurisdictions. There are stores and even whole malls that won’t let teens in unsupervised by adults.

Why? I wondered. Why do we hate teens so much. I mean sure some of them are arseholes but so are some adults. What’s going on?

I started reading up on teenagers. (Brace yourself specialist historians for some pretty reductive, cringe-inducing history.)

What is a teenager?
When did the teenage years become a social category in the West, that sits in between childhood and adulthood?

To be clear adolescence, the biological stage, involving puberty and growth spurts and the rewiring of brains, has been a known thing for ages. The word adolescence is first used in English, borrowed from the French, in 1425. Meanwhile the word “teen age” doesn’t appear until 1921 with a space between teen and age and quote marks like tongs around it. Teen-ager in 1941. Teen-agedness in 1952 and teenaged in 1953. All of this is not to prove that I can use the OED like a fiend but that “teenage” and it’s variation are not even a century old yet!

Teenagers as a social category, that could be studied, marketed to, and blamed for society’s ills, didn’t exist until last century. In the West you were a child and then you were an adult working, depending on your time period, on the farm, on your back, in the mills, in the navy, in factories, in the streets, in someone else’s home.

If you were born a slave there was no childhood. The richer you were the longer you could be a child.

The spread of education and schools beyond the wealthy, caused lengthened childhood. This was reflected in legislation. For example in Britain the workday for eleven to eighteen year-olds was shortened to 12 hours in 1833. The minimum age of marriage was raised to sixteen in 1929.
All of these changes are deeply connected to the shift from agrarian society to capitalism and the related shift from extended family to nuclear family and the emergence of white supremacy and advertising and psychopathy and . . . MANY THINGS.

In the 1930s we get teenagers. Bobbysoxers and teen hysteria. By the 1950s Hollywood is churning out movies about this newly invented menace to society—Rebel Without A Cause (1955) being the most famous and one of the few with actual teenagers in it although James Dean was 23, Natalie Wood was 16, Sal Mineo 15, and Dennis Hopper 18. The Wild One (1952) was one of the most ludicrous and starred the twenty-eight year old Marlon Brando. You keep being you, Hollywood.

Moral panics about teenagers and what they like began almost as soon as there were teenagers. There were panics about flappers and bobbysoxers and their obsession with that ne’er do well Frank Sinatra. Then there was the freak out about rock’n’roll and Elvis Presley in the 50s. The 1960s was nothing but a moral panic: drugs! Hippies! Teenaged druggy hippies! Psychedelia! Then there was skateboards, heavy metal, rap music, satanism, file sharing, hoodies, video games, MySpace, Snapchat. Many of which were restricted or banned because teens liked them.
Teens apparently are the worst. We do everything we can to control them and keep them away from us.

Adults Love Teens
Teens are also the best, inhabiting this fabulous parallel universe where they are the top earning models in the world, the stars of many movies and TV shows (albeit mostly played by actors who are no longer teens). When popular culture isn’t portraying them as out of control monsters, it’s showing them leading carefree happy times of exploration and freedom, menstruating blue ink for the very first time, buying cool fashions, making music, hanging out with other beautiful, perfect-skinned teens at diners, malls and clubs.

Without teenagers consuming them fashions and movies and video games—and books—rarely take off.

Adults Love YA
Teens have made YA the second most profitable fiction category in the USA—after romance. Twelve years ago I mostly had to explain what YA is. These days not so much. Some of those folks who were bewildered as to why anyone would write YA back then, now read it, and some of them even write it. YA advances are, on average, higher than those for SFF writers.

Most of the top-selling SFF books in the USA are YA, not adult. Many YA books sell millions of copies all over the world. Not my YA books, alas. Can’t have everything.

YA, of course, could not be this huge if only teens were reading it. The Hunger Games trilogy sold far more copies in the USA than there are teenagers. Adults are reading YA in huge numbers. Adults are making YA super profitable for publishers.

But it was teens that started the YA explosion. They were the ones who pushed the Harry Potter, then Twilight, then Hunger Games series on their parents and teachers and other adults in their lives. Pretty much every mega-hit YA book starts out that way.

You’d think the shared bond of loving books would diminish the hatred and suspicion of teenagers and the things they like.

You’d be wrong.

There’s now a whole genre of op ed pieces about how YA is destroying the minds of the adults foolish enough to read it, turning them into blithering, infantalised ninkompoops who will never grow up. At the same time we YA writers are also corrupting the teens who read our books. Multi-tasking!

We YA writers are purveyors of soul-destroying darkness and filth, who lead teens away from reading joy-filled, life-affirming texts like Hamlet, Macbeth, The Scarlett Letter, Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby, which all feature on lists of books most commonly taught in US high schools.

YA books have joined the long list of things teens like that must be banned and/or set on fire. Do we legislate against what teens like because we envy their unwrinkled skin and carefree existence?

Problem is outside the imaginary teen utopias of popular culture teens have little freedom.
One of the most consistent complaints about my books from teen readers is that they’re unrealistic. Not because of the magic, or the fairies or the zombies or the vampires. No, teens consider my books unrealistic because my characters walk to school by themselves, because characters in my books have time with their friends unsupervised by adults.

Teens right now, especially in the USA, are the most surveilled generation ever.
I could go into more detail but read Danah Boyd‘s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens published by Yale University Press but also available online for free. She demonstrates this fact in exhaustive and depressing detail and concludes that teens spend so much time online because that is pretty much the only space left where they can hang out with their friends unsupervised.

Who Gets to be a Teen?
Teens live in a dystopia, which may have a thing or two to do with how popular dystopias tend to be with teens. Even when publishing declares the dystopia to be dead.

But some teens’ dystopias are a lot worse than other teens’ dystopias.

One of my first big book events was in the Bronx in NYC. Students from economically disadvantaged high schools were given a free book. They got to choose either my Magic or Madness or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. We stood up on a stage in front of several hundred teens of colour and told them about our books and writing and they asked questions.

It rapidly became apparent that the majority of the students had chosen my book even though Scott’s book had sold vastly more copies. At the end we did a signing. I asked why they chose my book. Most students gave the same answer: “Because the girl on the cover seemed like she might look like me.”

They wanted to see themselves.

One of the PoV characters in Magic or Madness is an Hispanic teenager from the Bronx. Back then there weren’t many YAs with a character like that. Back then the vast majority of YA books had white teens on the cover. The same is true today.

When you google image “teenager” the images are overwhelmingly of white teens. Where are the black teens? The Asian teens? The Native American teens? The Hispanic teens?

Last year roughly 80% of YA was about white teens and written and published by white adults. And of that that 20% that isn’t about whites most of it is also written by whites. Whites like me writing from the point of view of Indigenous, Hispanic, African and Asian-American teens. (My figures come from The Children’s Cooperative Book Center, which is located right here in Madison, Wisconsin. They do an annual breakdown of the books it receives by race. They keep track of the race of the authors/illustrators as well as the main characters. In 2015 the majority of YA and children’s books with main characters who were African-American or Native American were written by white authors. The majority of books about Asian and Pacific Americans and Latinos were actually written by those peoples. However, those books made up fewer than 7% of all books.)

I have been told over and over again by teens of colour how much it means to them to read about teens like them. To see faces like theirs on the covers of books. But they’re even more excited when they turn to the author photo and see someone who looks like them.

Why does this matter?
It matters because books and movies and tv teach us to understand other people. They teach us to recognise who counts as a human being.

When our popular culture only shows a small percentage of the population being represented as three dimensional human beings we’re being taught that those who don’t fit that image don’t count.

That matters because of Trayvon Martin, Carey Smith-Viramontes, Michael Brown, Karen Cifuentes, Diana Showman, Jessica Hernandez, and right here in Madison, Tony Robinson.

What’s at stake?
Disparaging YA as inferior because it’s about and for teenagers matters because what’s at stake here is who counts as human.

What those op eds and laws that corral teens are saying is that teenagers don’t count. Yet being a teenager does afford some privileges. However, those privileges are not afforded to all teens.

White teens are less likely to be arrested than teens of colour, and when they are arrested they’re less likely to be charged, and when charged they are less likely to be convicted, and when convicted they are more likely to be given lenient sentences.

White teens are far less likely to be tried as adults. That’s right, the coveted adult category is bestowed on teens of colour most often when tried before the law so they can face harsher penalties.

Dystopia indeed.

Eighteen year old Michael Brown was called a monster and a demon with superhuman strength by adult cops. Meanwhile white young adults up into their twenties still get to be boys when accused of wrongdoing. Especially when accused of rape: “He was just a boy. He didn’t know what he was doing. He deserves another chance. We can’t let this one little mistake ruin his life.”

All too often that “little mistake” is another human being.

I’ve focussed on race today but the privilege of that “real” teen, the one who gets to make mistakes, rests not just on his race and sex, but on his heterosexuality, his ablebodiedness, his neurotypicalness, his Christianity, his cisgenderedness, his economic privilege, and all too often, his athletic prowess.

We here at WisCon pride ourselves on our work towards social justice. We use science fiction and fantasy as a lens on the world. As does SFF YA.

This historically new stage of life—teenagers—which is the matter of YA, not just its supposed audience–is a nexus for a lot of the things we do and discuss here—social justice work around identity: race and class and gender and sexuality and religion and politics and surveillance and so on. The Black Lives Matter movement has a large teen contingent, who were there from the beginning in Ferguson.

Loads of recent SFF YA has been grappling directly with these issues. Read last year’s GoH, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Love is the Drug. Or Sherri L Smith’s Orleans. Or D. J. Older’s Shadowshaper. Or . . . I could go on all day.

I’ve been rereading Octavia Butler lately, who has been a huge influence not just on adult SFF, but on YA, and on some of the writers I just mentioned, as well as on me. I was reminded yet again, that so much of Butler’s work is explicitly about power imbalances, about privilege, and who wields it. Guess who else understands a lot about how power imbalances work?

Teenagers.

And that’s one of the many reasons that they matter.

White Fragility post + posting WisCon GoH Speech soon

Last week I had a guest post over at the fabulous Reading While White blog. (I would have posted about it sooner but I’m on a writing holiday.) As you will have noticed from posts like these white folks and race is something I think about a lot. If you haven’t already seen it do check out the post over there. There’s been a very strong response so far. Thanks to everyone who commented on the blog, on Twitter and shared the link. We really appreciate it.

On the 24th of August I’ll be posting my WisCon 40 Guest of Honour speech and links to the speeches of the other GoHs, Nalo Hopkinson and Sofia Samatar. It was Sofia’s idea that we three GoHs post our speeches on the same day. She chose the 24th because it’s James Tiptree, Jr.’s birthday. Perfect.

I would share my view as I write this but you’d all die of envy. Writing holidays are the best.

Lili Wilkinson’s The Boundless Sublime

This Tuesday, 9 August 2016, at 6 PM I have the great pleasure of launching Lili Wilkinson’s amazing new novel, The Boundless Sublime at Kinokuniya in Sydney.

The Boundless Sublime is a chilling thriller that deals with death, grief, brainwashing, cults, psychopaths, guilt, empathy, resilience and survival. Ruby Jane Galbraith’s brother has died under tragic circumstances that she thinks are her fault. Her grief and pain are so overwhelming she can barely function. It’s in this vulnerable state that she finds herself becoming involved with an, at first, loving community who turn out to be terrifying.

Too many of us are convinced that we are too smart to ever be conned or recruited for a cult but it turns out being smart offers no protection. All of us can be recruited when we’re vulnerable and no one is more vulnerable than someone grieving.

Join me and Lili as she talks about her brilliant book and all the research that went into it. She’ll teach you how to avoid being caught up in a cult!

How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White

Step One: Ask Yourself Why

Why are you writing this book? Why have you decided to write a protagonist whose background is different from your own?

Is it because you want to make the world a better place? Because doing so seems to be the cool new thing? Because you lived for many years in a foreign country and you think that writing about it from that outsider’s perspective is voyeuristic and exploitative? Because you have the imagination and understanding to do so? Because you’re the reincarnation of an African king? Because you came across a cool story in the local newspaper and only you can do justice to that story? Because you’ve been part of the community you’re writing about since birth? Because the voice of the character came to you in a dream?

Once you’ve figured out why you’re going to write an Indigenous protagonist or Protagonist of Colour and can explain your motivations clearly you can move on to:

Step Two: Research

Writing from the point of view of someone from a community that gets less representation in mainstream culture than your own is hard. Especially when what representation they do get is largely negative and/or stereotyped. If you do not know people in that community, and have not spent time in that community, it will be an uphill battle to write from that point of view believably.

Which is why you must research.

As much as you can avoid accounts written by outsiders—all you’ll learn is how outsiders see them, not how they see themselves. Read books written by the people of that community. Watch TV and movies created by them. Look at what they write about themselves on social media. Listen to their podcasts.

Confusingly, you will find many of their accounts of themselves and their communities contradictory. Take a moment to think about that. Is it really confusing to have a wide range of opinions within the one community?

Consider the histories and novels that have been written about your community. It’s likely they’re every bit as contradictory. There is no completely unified community that agrees about everything. You know, other than, say, The Borg.

Ask the people you know well in that community questions. Listen to their answers.

If you don’t know anyone well from the community you’re writing about go back to step one, Why are you writing this book?

Do not jump onto social media to ask strangers about their community. Though some may be kind enough to respond it is not their job to teach you.

Step Three: Find Sensitivity Readers

When you have finished your diligent research, and have a complete manuscript you’re happy with, you need to have people from the community you’ve chosen to represent look at your book. Approach these readers in good faith and pay them for their work. Because it is hard work.

When someone critiques your book about their community it’s called a sensitivity reading. It’s called that because they’re reading to see if you have been sensitive to the community you’re writing about. If you have instead written stereotyped caricatures then critiquing your book is going to be even harder work. For some readers it will be painful work.

It’s best to have more than one sensitivity reader. Some readers might tell you the book’s fine, or only find a few minor problems with it, while others will find major problems. No community agrees on everything. Listen carefully and rewrite your book accordingly.

I had two of my readers tell me they found some of the dialogue of the black characters in Liar jarring. While other readers had no problem with it. I opted to change it. None of those readers had a problem with Micah’s use of the word “nappy” to describe her hair, though they agreed it might be a problem that I, a white writer, was using it. After publication some readers found it offensive. I discuss that at greater length here.

No amount of careful rewriting based on your sensitivity readers’ critiques will shield you from criticism. That is not what sensitivity readings are for. They are to show you how to write your book as accurately and as sensitively as possible.

And there you have it in three easy steps you now know how to write from the point of view of a Person of Colour or an Indigenous person. What could go wrong?

What’s Wrong With This Guide

Sadly, a lot goes wrong, particularly at step one.

Let me speak from my own experience, having written six books from the points of view of Teens of colour and an Indigenous teen. I went wrong at that first step. I did not ask myself why I was doing this. It did not occur to me that writing from an Indigenous or PoC point view was problematic.

If I had asked myself, these are the reasons I probably would have given: that I wanted to examine racism, and that I was trying to make YA more diverse.

My old belief that I couldn’t write about racism from a white point of view is garbage. Certainly books like To Kill a Mockingbird show that. But books like Mockingbird have other problems. Racism in Mockingbird is something that good white people save black people from. Racism is something that bad whites do, not a system of oppression that benefits all whites. There need to be more books in YA that examine white complicity in systemic racism.

I also thought I was saving YA by writing PoC and Indigenous main characters. It’s a notion that is dangerously close to the idea of the white saviour.

Once I’d proffered those two woeful reasons I would have explained that I was qualified to write these books because I spent part of my childhood living on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory of Australia and because I have many friends who aren’t white. At the time I doubt I’d have realised I was literally saying, “Some of my best friends are black”. Yes, I’m ashamed.

Arrogantly, I did not let what I didn’t know about my Aboriginal and PoC protagonists be a bar to writing them. I made my protags of the same class and gender as me, which I figured would give me enough commonality to write them convincingly. Spoiler: it doesn’t. I did not consider how much I didn’t know about the ways in which race and ethnicity shape class and gender. It is impossible to know what you don’t know, which also makes it incredibly hard to write believable characters’ whose experiences are far from your own.

All writers need to have the ego it requires to write. But we white writers also need to step back from feeling we have the right to write the stories of people with less power than ourselves. Especially because every year more books by whites are published than by any other race. In YA, not only are the majority of books by white people, so are the majority of books about PoC and Native peoples. When we write these books we are literally keeping books by PoC and Native writers off the shelves.

Outside of my books with multiple protags, I now only write white protagonists because I realised that I was part of the problem of lack of diversity in YA, not the solution.

There are books by white writers with PoC protagonists that are loved by some people in those communities. But I think we white writers can do more good by calling attention to the books by PoC and Indigenous writers and by thinking about PoC and Indigenous readers.

In answering the question of why you want to write a book about someone else’s community try to think of those readers before you think about yourself. Think about who is better qualified to tell their stories: you or them?

Misusing Sensitivity Readers
In the last few years I have heard multiple stories about white writers in the YA, Romance and SFF communities misusing and abusing sensitivity writers. Writers who have employed sensitivity readers in bad faith, only wanting these readers to give them the Indigenous or PoC seal of approval. Spoiler: there is no such thing.

Sensitivity readers do not read your manuscript to give you cover. They read to show you how to make it better, how to make it not offensive. If they think that’s not possible they will tell you to kill the project.

Listen to them.

Writers who keep getting the same critique from sensitivity readers and ignoring it are acting in bad faith. If more than one person finds the same problem with your manuscript LISTEN TO THEM. And if it’s more than five or ten or, as in one case I heard about, twenty people pointing out the same problem? And you continue to ignore them and send your manuscript to yet another sensitivity reader? You need to stop. You need to burn the manuscript and go all the way back to step one and realise that you had no good reason for writing that book.

You also need to realise that you have trashed your good name in the community. People talk. People know what you’re doing and they’re appalled.

If you can’t take critique from the people who know the life experiences of your protagonist better than you do then STOP.

Pointing to the good reviews your book received once it was published, the prizes it won, is irrelevant. The vast majority of trade reviewers are white. The vast majority of major literary prizes come from white institutions. We white folk are not the best judges of accurate representations of any communities other than our own.

Nor is pointing to the Indigenous readers and Readers of Colour who’ve told you that they love your work. All too often they are so starved for representation that many have learned to be generous readers of even the worst representations. All too often I have heard teenagers say they’re just grateful to see themselves on their cover, to be able to read a book about someone like them, even if it doesn’t ring true.

Read the thoughtful analyses of books on Edi Campbell’s blog or on Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature. Some of the problematic books they discuss received multiple starred reviews and prizes.

What makes Edi and Debbie’s work powerful is that it is so clearly about the children and teenagers in their communities. Their mission is not to castigate white writers; it is to find books they can recommend wholeheartedly to those readers.

That is all the readers of any community that has been historically stereotyped and underrepresented wants: to read books that won’t make them roll their eyes, wince, or put the book down because reading it is too painful in the very worst way.

It’s Not About Us

Their work is not about us white writers. This debate about diversity in literature is not about us white writers. The only way to fix what’s wrong with publishing is systemic change at every point within the industry: from the CEOs of publishing companies through to the writers and editors and agents and sales reps and booksellers and librarians. Right now the majority are white. That has to change.

But we white writers keep centring ourselves. As Patrick Jones does in his recent article,
Writing While White, published in the June 2016 issue of Voya where he discusses writing PoC teen protags as a white man:

I shared the first few chapters with two award-winning black female authors who said, more or less, “No, you—as a white male—can’t tell this story.” I also asked a black female librarian from Flint to pre-read it. Her comment-slash-question, “Why didn’t you have them eating fried chicken and watermelon?”

Chasing told one black girl’s story; the pre-reader saw it as a white retelling a stereotypical story. I caved, but at the time, I didn’t think it was the best move. I understood the arguments about writing outside of race, but I didn’t accept them. So Tonisha became Christy.

Jones did the right thing in that he asked knowledgable readers to critique his book and they said, don’t do this. So he changed “Tonisha into Christy.” Well and good. Except that Jones does not seem grateful for their critiques nor does he acknowledge their hard work. He seems to have wanted his sensitivity readers to give him the PoC seal of approval and is annoyed that they didn’t.

Jones also doesn’t seem to understood what they told him. Maybe they did say to him, “No white man can write this story.” But it also seems like they were saying, “You, Patrick Jones, cannot write this story. You have not created a believable black girl living in Flint. You have created a stereotypical caricature of a black teenage girl living in Flint, who might as well be eating fried chicken and watermelon.”

He presents their thoughtful critiques as bad advice that he caved to. He says he understood their arguments but that he didn’t accept them. He describes the long-running debate about racism and the need for more diversity in YA as noise.

That’s the language of someone who is not listening. Someone who mischaracterises this vital movement to change YA as being about whether white people are allowed to write PoC protagonists. This is a common misconception.

Later in the article Jones says he’s decided to stop writing PoC protags because he worries Teens of Colour might view his books as “perpetuat[ing] stereotypes.” But then he undercuts that central concern by saying he’s stopping because it’s all “too complicated and stressful” making it about him again.

He’s not alone. Indeed VOYA’s Editor-in-Chief RoseMary Honnold told Fusion that

she didn’t expect Jones’ piece to spark controversy. “Patrick Jones is a highly respected member of the YA library community and the YA lit community,” she wrote in an email. “The first person account of his own journey of questioning the efficacy of his writing about POC, extrapolated to that topic, in general, brings a human dimension to the article for his many admirers and colleagues in the field.” When asked if she had concerns about the headline before publication, she said she did “not at all.”

This is a complicated and stressful debate but the central question is not whether whites like me and Jones can write PoC protagonists. No one is stopping us white writers writing whatever we want. Let me repeat: the majority of books in YA in the USA with PoC or Native protags are written by white writers.

We whites have to stop hijacking the debate to talk about us.

By all means grapple with this question on your own, as Jones has done, as I have done.
But we have to stop taking up space on Twitter, in Voya, and elsewhere to do so. If you read all the other articles in that issue of Voya you’ll find work by Debbie Reese, Edith Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, Amina Chadhri, Marieke Nijkamp and others on the truly central issues around Native American and PoC and other communities’ access, safety, autonomy, constructions of intersectional identity and so forth.

But PoC Writers Get to Write About Whites It’s Only Fair We Get to Write About Them
We whites do not know as much about Indigenous people and People of Colour as they know about us. This is a large part of why when we write from their points of views we all too often get it wrong.

Yes, we’re all human. Yes, we all have the same physiology. We all experience love and hate and desire and jealousy. We all need to eat and go to the toilet. But I’m no longer sure that our white imaginations are enough to fill in what we don’t know about loving and hating and existing as an Indigenous person or Person of Colour in a world where whiteness is prized and white people hold most of the power. In a world where the vast majority of our publishing, film and television industries, and other media is run by, produced for, and about white people.

On Twitter writer Justina Ireland has talked about how:

Every PoC lives with a dual consciousness. It’s the idea that PoC have to take on two identities in order to survive in a hostile society. Meaning: we learn how to act white in order to be successful. At school, in jobs, and in publishing. We know what it takes to be white. Which is why PoC can write white characters effortlessly. Because we’ve all played a white person at one time or another. . . Bottom line: the oppressed are forced to learn to identify with their oppressors, it rarely happens in the other direction.—Justine Ireland.

White people do not have to take on two identities to survive in a hostile society. Our society is not hostile to white people.1

In a recent discussion writer Doselle Young put the difference more strongly, talking about:

the reality of what “playing white” entails. From my PoV, it’s about learning to instinctively bundle up, separate, partition and obscure almost every element of one’s cultural identity at the drop of a hat. To set aside the body language, dialect, the physicality, the casual modes of communication, and the unspoken values that all those things are used to express, as a daily act of survival. It’s about learning to do something monumental with casual ease. The fact, however, remains that this is actually anything but casual. It can often feel like a low-level but ever present source of stress.

If anyone thinks otherwise, take a gander at white folks’ reactions when a beloved celebrity of color decides not to obscure their cultural identity.

White people lose their damned minds.2

What happens when we reverse that? Do we, as white people, have the same kind of insights into POC experiences, that PoC have into what it is to be white? We do not.

How would you respond if someone you didn’t know started telling you about your identity? As Doselle Young puts it:

Would you, as a writer, really expect someone else to do better job with the most telling details of YOUR autobiography? What forces would they need to marshal in order to pull that off? How many interview hours, how much research, thought, blood, sweat and tears would it take to get YOUR story right?

Everyone’s identity is complicated. All of us belong to different religions, cultures, subcultures, groups, clubs, kinship networks. We all come from particular families. One of the most common complaints I hear about white people writing Indigenous and PoC characters is that we leave out their families and friendships with people like them. We tend to give them absent brown families and present white friends.

All of which leads back to step one: Why are you writing this book?

Maybe you shouldn’t.

TL:DR: Think long and hard before you write a book about a community not your own. Listen to your sensitivity readers. Whose story are you really trying to tell?

NOTE: Thank you to Mikki Kendall, Scott Westerfeld and Doselle Young for all your hard work, brilliant writing, and wonderful conversation, and for your truly excellent notes on this post. Any remaining lack of clarity etc. is all on me. Thank you also to the too many people to name in the YA, SFF and Romance communities who have shaped my thinking. I.e. pretty much all the folks I follow on Twitter.

  1. Though it can certainly be hostile to other parts of our identities as many white women and most LBGTIQA and disabled and poor and working class and fat whites can attest. But our society is not hostile to our whiteness. []
  2. As an example of what Doselle is referring to think of the furore over the Obama’s “terrorist” fist bump. []

Paperback US edition of Razorhurst in and My Sister Rosa News

9781616956257Razorhurst is now available in the USA as a paperback, with a whole new look. The new cover is getting a very strong response.

As a bonus, this brand-new paperback includes the first two chapters of My Sister Rosa. Cool, huh? You folks of the USA and Canada will get a teaser to get you even more excited for My Sister Rosa publishing in your countries in November.

My Sister Rosa will be published by Record in Brasil. I’m super thrilled with this as they have published many of my other books and I got to hang out with them a few years back and they are the best. Especially Ana Lima.

Rosa will also have a North American audio book produced by Blackstone Audio. They’re the ones who did the fantastic all-Australian audio book ofRazorhurst. So far all of my novels have had audio books. These means a lot to me because I know how important they are for my blind fans.

Me in Madison, Wisconsin

This weekend I’ll be a Guest of Honour at WisCon in Madison Wisconsin. WisCon is the longest running feminist science fiction convention in the USA.

I used to be a regular attendee and always had an amazing time. This will be my first time back in ten years. Pretty cool to return as a Guest of Honour, eh? I’m thrilled. Disbelieving, but thrilled, and in such company: Nalo Hopkinson is one of the finest writers of science fiction and fantasy ever. Sofia Samatar is an astonishing new voice. Her debut novel was rapturously received.

In addition to my convention schedule I’ll be doing one event open to the public:

Thursday, May 26, 2016 – 5:00pm to 6:45pm
WisCon Guest of Honour Reception and Reading
A Room Of One’s Own
315 W. Gorham Street,
Madison, Wisconsin
Nalo Hopkinson, Justine Larbalestier, Sofia Samatar

As well as my Guest of Honour duties of speechifying etc. I’ll be on the following panels:

Fri, 9:00–10:15 pm
Genre Blending
Whether it’s a steampunk fairytale or an end of the world love story between science and magic or a Hong Kong-style revenge space opera, stories are spilling over the edges of genre. When is it done well? What is left to explore?
M: Rebecca Holden. Alex Jennings, Justine Larbalestier, Loren Rhoads, Kristine Smith, Brooke Wonders

Sat, 10:00–11:15 am
AMA with GOHs
Have a question for Guests of Honor Sofia Samatar, Justine Larbalestier, or Nalo Hopkinson about writing craft, writing life, or their fiction? Come to this Ask Me Anything session with your questions!
M: K. Tempest Bradford. Nalo Hopkinson, Justine Larbalestier, Sofia Samatar

Sat, 1:00–2:15 pm
#KeepYAKind and Other Nice Tools of the Oppressor
There is always a point in the midst of heated Internet discussions where someone lifts their voice to make a call for Kindness, Niceness, Civility, or any other adjacent concept. These calls often go up when the issue at hand concerns an individual with privilege being called out by folks with significantly less privilege or cultural power. And Kind, Nice, and Civil become synonyms for Keep Your Mouth Shut. When this happens again, what tools can we use to dismantle this toxic dynamic and get back to the core matter? Are there secret code words we can deploy to neutralize the terms?
M: K. Tempest Bradford. Becky Allen, Betsy Haibel, Justine Larbalestier, Mark Oshiro

Sat, 2:30–3:45 pm
Science Fiction and Social Change
Many people believe science fiction/fantasy is escape from reality into made up worlds. But all sci fi is based and rooted in this world’s problems and issues, and will reflect those back. Often times mainstream science fiction reflects back visions of the future or alternative realities that reinforce systems of power. But throughout history science fiction has been used as a means of envisioning progressive new worlds, and has also been used by those organizing to transform power dynamics and create a more fair and equitable today, rooted in the experiences of those who have been marginalized and silenced historically. Come hear a panel of presenters discuss the ways science fiction is being used on the ground to create social change.
M: Jacquelyn Gill. Carlie Forsythe, Justine Larbalestier, Fred Schepartz, Sheree Renée Thomas

Sun, 10:00–11:15 am
Women Can Be Evil Too
Mikki Kendall and Justine Larbalestier discuss their research on women serial killers and psychopaths long thought to not exist.
M: Tanya D.. Mikki Kendall, Justine Larbalestier

Sun, 1:00–2:15 pm
GOH Kaeseklatsch: Justine Larbalestier
Come hang out with Guest of Honour Justine Larbalestier and talk about whatever comes to mind! In honour of Wisconsin, we will sample cheeses. Note: Since this is in a parlor room, it may get crowded and attendance may be limited. Sign up at the Registration desk to reserve a seat.

Sun, 2:30–3:45 pm
Women Writing SFF, All Around The World!
A reading recommendation panel! What books would be of interest to WisCon members? Whether Anglophone, in translation, or in different languages, from Indigenous to diaspora works, let’s share SFF we’ve read recently that encourages USian WisCon members to step out of our cultural bubbles.
M: Jaymee Goh. Jackie Hatton, Arrate Hidalgo, Emily Jiang, Justine Larbalestier

Sunday 4:00-5:15 PM
How Not To Think About Women Characters
Debbie Notkin, Becky Allen, Megan Arkenberg, Claire Humphrey, Justine Larbalestier
“She’s such a Mary Sue.” “She’s only there to serve the story of a male character.” “Her characterization is so inconsistent” or “She’s too flat to be interesting.” As consumers of media;even feminist consumers;we have a whole language at our disposal when we need to justify disinterest or dislike towards a woman character. But as often as these idioms are accurate criticisms of a work, they can also be ways to avoid actually talking about the character AS a character. Some questions to consider: Do the ways in which we critique women characters result in a denial of their agency? Is describing women characters as “inconsistently characterized” a way to avoid seeking out their motivations? Is being a “foil” or a parallel always a subordinate role?

Quite the schedule, eh? I’m especially excited about talking evil women with Mikki Kendall. But I reckon they’ll all be fun.

If you’re going to be at WisCon I look forward to seeing/meeting you. I’ll be at the big sign out on Monday and am happy to sign whatever you want. Well, almost anything.

See you soon, Madison! I’ve missed you!

Which of My Books to Read First (Updated)

This post is so I have somewhere to send people when they ask me which book of mine they should read first. Click on the links to learn more about each book.

Authors who sensibly only write the one kind of book don’t have to write guides like this. I’m not envious. Honest.

Update:
There’s a bonus section at the end for those who’ve read one of my books and are wondering which one to read next, assuming that you want to read the book most like it.

WARNING: If you consider knowing whether a book has a happy or a sad ending to be a spoiler do not read this!

Novels and stories with unambiguously happy endings:
How To Ditch Your Fairy
Team Human
“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell (though I consider this novella to have a happy ending many readers disagree with me)

Novels and stories with endings that might make you tear your hair out:
Liar
Razorhurst
My Sister Rosa
“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell (though I consider this novella to have a happy ending many readers disagree with me)

Novels and stories with endings that might make you cry in a sad way:
Razorhurst
My Sister Rosa
“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell (Beats me why, but many readers have reported crying.)
“Elegy” in Foreshadow

Novels that just end, with no resolution, and WHY DID YOU DO THAT, JUSTINE?!
Liar (Though, come on, people, it’s called Liar! Novels that are built on lies about a liar cannot be resolved. This is a scientific fact.)

Fantasies:
Magic or Madness trilogy (contemporary with magic)1
How to Ditch Your Fairy (contemporary, different world, very mild superpowers)2
Liar (contemporary [redacted] because it might be a lie)
“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell (contemporary with faerie)
Zombies v Unicorns (self-explanatory)
Team Human (contemporary, vampires and zombies)
Razorhurst (historical, ghosts)

Science Fiction:
How to Ditch Your Fairy (Very few readers have realised this one is science fiction possibly because I left out the part about the fairies being micropscopic alien invaders.)
“Little Red Suit” in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (post-apocalyptic Sydney)
“Elegy” in Foreshadow

Realism:
Liar (Though some don’t think so. See fantasy section.)
My Sister Rosa (Though I could mount a strong argument that the figure of the psychopath is frequently deployed in fiction as a monster.)
“When I Was White” in Come On In (This is straight up realism.)

Historicals:
Razorhurst (1932 Sydney)
“When I Was White” in Come On In (1932 Sydney and New York City)

Thrillers/Crime:
Liar (psychological)
Razorhurst (gangsters and cops trying to kill protags)
My Sister Rosa (psychological)

Humorous:
How To Ditch Your Fairy
Team Human
Zombies v Unicorns (Mine and Holly Black’s bantering in between the short stories is funny and so are some of the stories.)

Novels and stories with sex:
Magic or Madness trilogy
Liar
Razorhurst (very little)
My Sister Rosa
“Elegy” in Foreshadow
“When I Was White” in Come On In (1932 Sydney and New York City)

Novels and stories without sex:
How To Ditch Your Fairy
Team Human

Novels without Swearing
How To Ditch Your Fairy (There’s no swearing from our world. They have their own deeply adorable swear words.)
Team Human

Anthologies/Short stories:
Daughters of Earth (I edited this collection of 20th century feminist science fiction with accompanying essays by feminist scholars)
Zombies v Unicorns (I edited this one with Holly Black)
“Thinner than Water” in Love is Hell
“Little Red Suit” in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean
You can find other short stories by me here. They’re all fantasy except for Pashin’ which is realism and gross.
“Elegy” in Foreshadow
“When I Was White” in Come On In (1932 Sydney and New York City)

Non-fiction:
Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction
Daughters of Earth

What to Read Next:
If you loved Liar then read My Sister Rosa next. And vice versa. Though the protag of My Sister Rosa is not unreliable like Micah from Liar, My Sister Rosa is as twisty and dark as Liar. After you’ve read those two if you still want dark and twisty try Razorhurst, remembering that it’s set in 1932 and there are ghosts. So if historicals or supernatural elements are not your thing you might want to skip it. If you want to really dive into the bleakness that is a part of Liar read “Elegy” in Foreshadow, which is the bleakest thing I have ever written.

If you loved How To Ditch Your Fairy because it’s light and funny then read Team Human. And vice versa.

If you loved the star-crossed lovers of “Thinner than Water” then try My Sister Rosa. Remembering that it has no faerie or magic and the emphasis is not on the romance. You could also wait for the novel I’m working on now, Psychopath In Love, with the star-crossed lovers are more at the centre.3 If it was the world of “Thinner than Water” that grabbed you then see if you can find copies of the Magic or Madness trilogy or wait till I finally finish my epic 1930s NYC book(s) cause it’s basically all star-crossed lovers with magic.4

If you loved Razorhurst and want to read another historical from me you then read “When I Was White” in Come On In which is a straight up historical set in Sydney and NYC in 1932. You could also try “Thinner than Water” which has a kind of historical-y feel to it. Or wait for my 1930s NYC historical with magic that I’ve been working on forever and may never finish. Lucky heaps of other authors write historicals, eh? If you were more taken with the thriller aspect then read My Sister Rosa or
Liar.

  1. Out of print. I include the trilogy to be complete and who knows one day it might be back in print. []
  2. I can also make an argument that this one is science fiction. Most readers disagree []
  3. I would not wait for this one as it’s years since I last worked on it. []
  4. Another novel I’ve not worked on in years. Sorry. []

Getting Started is Hard

My biggest writing struggle is getting started. The novel I’m writing right now which I think of as the Psychopath Book because, unlike My Sister Rosa, it’s from the point of view of a psychoath, rather than just being about a psychopath. It was going pretty well until Rosa was published in Australia and New Zealand. Suddenly there was promotion to be done, interviews, book launches, travelling.

I’ve been for home more than a week and this is how it’s gone:

Day One: I catch up on admin, which includes interview questions, paying bills, laundry etc as well as tweeting. Because Twitter is a vital part of my process. *cough*

Day Two: More admin. How does admin build up so quickly? Why can’t bills pay themselves? Why can’t Twitter pay my bills?

Day Three: More admin. More tweeting. I open Psychopath Book file. I have no idea who any of these characters are or what this book is about. Not entirely convinced I wrote these words. Who has been messing with my computer while I was away? I ask Twitter. Answers are unsatisfactory.

Day Four: More admin. Way more tweeting. I stare at Pyschopath Book file and read some of it and recoil in horror. Why is this so hard? There are plenty of writers with full time jobs, who are carers for children and elderly parents, who write ten books a year. I am the worst. I ask Twitter. Twitter overwhelmingly confirms my worst-ness.

Day Five: I ignore admin. Time to get back to actually writing this damn book. After I’ve delivered a very important rant on Twitter and commiserated with friends over the dread ways in which Twitter algorithms are trying to destroy Twitter. I read my notes on Psychopath Book. They don’t make any sense. Staring at this stalled novel fills me with despair. I watch Attack the Block for the millionth time. Surely it will inspire me? It does. To write an entirely different book.

Day Six: I continue to ignore admin but not Twitter. I make myself read more Psychopath Book. I edit some sentences. Some of them are okay. Most are not. I start to have vague memories about these characters. I marvel at the many ways I have misspelled pyschopath. It’s impressive.

Day Seven: I continue to ignore admin and am on Twitter slightly less than usual. I blog. What? It’s important for an author with a new book out to stay abreast of social media and blog the rants that are too long for Twitter. It’s also important to watch the cricket in case I one day get around to writing that highly commercial cricket novel I’ve been thinking about writing for years.

Day Eight: I finally write some actual new sentence of the Psychopath Book. They’re total shite.

Day Nine: I write more shitey sentences of the Psychopath Book. I know who these characters are! I can write this book! Shitely! I just have to make sure I never take more than a day or two off ever again.

And repeat. A lot.

TL;DR:
Getting started is really hard.

How do Awful People Create Beautiful Books?

I think we’ve all had the experience of meeting one of your favourite writers and them turning out to be horrible. They bark at their fans, they’re rude to their publicists. Sometimes you don’t even have to meet them. They launch online attacks on anyone who doesn’t give them five-star reviews, tweet racist “jokes”, or they’re arrested for beating up their partner.

Some writers are truly awful people. Yet some of those truly awful people write brilliant books. How?!

One of my favourite writers is Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer, who deservedly won the Nobel Prize in 1920. His 1890 novel Hunger blew my teenaged mind. I’ve read it many times since and still find it amazing. It’s about a bloke wandering around Oslo (then called Christiania) starving. It should be boring; it isn’t. I keep rereading it to try and figure out why. All I’ve got is compelling character + amazing writing.

Hamsun was also a card-carrying fascist. He thought Hitler totally had the right idea. He was tried for being a traitor to Norway after World War 2 and found guilty. You know, because he was.

How could Hamsun, who wrote moving, beautiful, psychologically insightful books, be a fascist? I don’t know. I have theories though.

The first is the fairly obvious one. People compartmentalise. They decide whole groups of people aren’t really people. They only see the psychological complexity of people like them and that’s who they write about: the ones they see as fully human. I suspect that’s what was going on with Hamsun. White Scandinavian/German people = yes. Everyone else = no.

My other theories are a bit more woo woo.

Sometimes something extraordinary happens in the process of creating. I’m convinced that even the worst people can produce magic because of it.

It’s hard to describe, but most creatives will know what I’m talking about. There are times when the writing is going so well it feels like words are pouring out of me, that they have nothing to do with me, even though obviously, I’m the one typing.1 When I’m in that magical zone I can write for hours and have almost no memory of what I wrote.2 It’s almost an out-of-body experience, like being high.3

There are other times when the writing is going well, and the words are flowing, when I’m fully aware of what I’m writing, but somehow I’m making connections I wasn’t previously and I’m smarter. I can see more, and write deeper, and truly understand all the characters, even the villains. This is my favourite kind of writing zone.

During those moments it feels like the act of creating has changed me. I’ve become my best self, full of empathy and insight that I don’t always have. I assume this happens for other writers. Even the evil ones. Because I have met some truly horrible human beings whose books are wonderful. Magic is the only explanation.

TL;DR: Writing is so magical it can even transform nasty people into empathetic souls.

  1. To be clear. This is pretty rare. Most writing days are more sweating and yelling than magicking. []
  2. This does not, alas, means those words are always perfect. I wish. []
  3. I imagine. As someone who writes for teenagers I obviously have no first-hand experience. *cough* []

My Sister Rosa in Shops Today in Australia and New Zealand!

MySisterRosa_RCcvr.inddToday’s the day you can buy My Sister Rosa in Australia and New Zealand! Woo hoo! A new book by me! Out today! *dances*

I hope you enjoy this charming tale of seventeen-year-old Australian Che Taylor’s adventures in New York City looking after his precocious psychopathic sister, Rosa Klein.1 Already critics are calling it, “Heartwarming and touching.” Would you believe they called it “Adorable”? Okay, fine, no one is calling it heartwarming, touching or adorable. More like “Creepy” and “soul-destroying.” But, remember, it’s a fine line between heartwarming and soul-destroying.2

You can read the first chapter here and about what inspired the book here.

This is also release day for Kirsty Eagar’s fabulous Summer Skin, which is a sexy contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet set amongst Queensland university students. It’s funny and hot and wonderful. You are in for such a treat with this book.

We will be celebrating their release next week:

Thursday, 4 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Kirsty Eagar and me will discuss our books
and talk of Sex and Psychopaths
And answer all your questions for we love Q&A!
Kinokuniya
Level 2, The Galleries,
500 George St,
Sydney, NSW

Hope to see you there, Sydney!

Fear not, lovely Melbourne peeps, we will be there doing our double launch with extra bonus Ellie Marney introducing us a week later on the tenth. And while we’re having our Sydney launch, if you’re in Melbourne, you can go to Leanne Hall’s launch for Iris and the Tiger. I’ve heard nothing but good things. Can’t wait to read it!

  1. She has their mum’s last name, Rosa has their father’s. Just like me and my sister. Except with no psychopathy. []
  2. Not really. []

My Sister Rosa USA Cover! (Updated)

My US publisher, Soho Teen, have come up with an amazing cover for My Sister Rosa. Feast your eyes:

Rosa_HC REV

What do you think? I love it. I love the echoes of the famous Silence of the Lambs poster. It also reminds me of the cover of my parents’ edition of John Fowles’ The Collector, which I read as a kid, which I can’t find online. Boo! Which also had a pinned butterfly. It’s a wonderful evocation of psychopathy. Well done!

I honestly can’t decide which cover I like best: the Australian one or the US one.

My Sister Rosa will be out in the US in November. You can read the first chapter here and more about where I got the idea here.

Meanwhile it will be out in Australia and New Zealand in two weeks. SO SOON!

Update: I forgot to say who the cover designer is. Vanessa Han. Doesn’t she do fab work?

Should I Give Up On This Novel?

Recently I critiqued two unpublished novels. Their authors wanted to know whether they should give up or not.

There’s no clear cut answer to that question. Some great novels had unspeakably bad early drafts.1 Some that their author never feels happy with, and are never published, have pretty good early drafts. Who am I to say this particular novel has no hope of one day being excellent?

I have novels started years ago I’ve never managed to get into a publishable state. But who knows? Some day I might. I never give up on a novel. I just kind of abandon them for, um, a while. Sometimes a really long while.

It’s also true that I rarely go back to these abandoned novels. There’s always a newer, more shiny novel to write.

Other writers do go back to them. I know someone who only got an agent after they pulled out a long forgotten novel, rewrote it, and sent that out. It was exactly what the agent they most wanted was looking for.

However, I would definitely suggest you give up on a novel (however temporarily) if you’ve been writing and rewriting it for years. Particularly if it’s the only novel you’ve ever written. It’s more than past time to write a new one. Who knows maybe in the process of writing a second novel you’ll figure out what was wrong with the first one?

Almost every novelist I know has given up on a novel.2 The important thing to remember is that writing that novel was not a waste. What you learned writing the abandoned novel will help with the next one. Bigger than that: YOU WROTE A NOVEL. You did it once so odds are good you can do it again.

Sadly, the lessons learnt from writing the previous novels don’t always directly apply to the next novel. Usually the lessons are more of a what-not-to-do kind of a thing. You’ve learned not to write novels with only one character locked in an empty room. Maybe you’ve learned about creating believable characters, but sadly not much about world building or setting, because you only had that one empty room to describe.3

Each novel tends to present different problems.4 They do this in order to keep things interesting. Thanks, novels.

So, yes, feel free to give up on a novel. But only once you have a complete draft.

If you’ve never finished a novel before, no matter how much you hate it, no matter how convinced you are that it will never work, you need to see it through to a complete draft. Especially if you’ve never completed a draft before.5 Scott has some cogent words to say on the necessity of writing endings as well as beginnings and middles.

It’s also good to keep trying to make a novel work. I know too many (mostly) unpublished novelists who don’t rewrite. Instead of continuing to work on the newly completed draft to make it work they move on to a brand new novel. The problem with doing that is rewriting requires a different set of skills from first drafting. You’ll never write a good novel if you can’t stand to work past that initial draft.

“But I don’t know how to rewrite!” I hear you cry.

For your convenience I have written this handy guide to rewriting. You’re welcome.

Whatever decision you make it’s going to be okay.

TL;DR There is no definitive answer on whether you should give up on your novel or not. It all depends.

  1. None of these novels were unspeakably bad. []
  2. Or two, or twenty, or a hundred. []
  3. There are many first novels sent in the one room with hardly andy characters that don’t go anywhere. Funny that. About the only successful novel set in one room I can think of is Emma Emma Donoghue’s Room, which totally pulls it off. But then not the entire novel is set in the room. []
  4. Unless you’re one of those writers who writes the same book over and over again. If that one book is super popular. Congrats! You are a sure-fire commercial success. We readers love authors who are consistent and don’t freak us out by writing totally different books in completely different genres. []
  5. Once you’ve finished a bunch of novels you’ll have a better sense of whether a novel isn’t going anywhere and can put it aside if it’s really not working. []

Last Day of 2015

This is my annual recap of the year that was as well as a squiz at what’s gunna happen in 2016.1 By which I mean what’s going to happen in my publishing life. I am not Nostradamus. (Actually neither was Nostradamus. He was not an accurate prognosticator.) Nor would I want to be. I’m convinced being able to tell the future is the worst superpower. I’d rather be invisible and being invisible never ends well. Just read H. G. Wells!

Um, I digress:

Reading and Watching in 2015

One of the good things about being really sick is that I read a lot more than I usually do this year. I read so many wonderful books I don’t know where to start. I tweet about books and tv shows I love so if you’re looking for more recommendations you can check my Twitter feed.

As mentioned above I discovered the writing of Kirsty Eagar this year and was blown away. Everyone needs to read her NOW. I know many consider, Raw Blue, to be her best book, and don’t get me wrong, it’s excellent, but my favourite is Night Beach which is one of the best explorations of teenage female desire I’ve read.2 Night Beach takes on one of the dominant tropes in YA: teen girl lusting after a little bit older hot guy. The teen girl is not punished for this desire. She is not seen as freakish or slut-shamed. I could hug this book.

In Eagar’s version the guy turns out to not be perfect. He is not a wish fulfilment, but a real person with flaws, some of them misogynistic. I’ve been working on my own take on this trope and getting no where with it for years and years. Eagar has written the book I haven’t been able to and it’s amazing. She manages to write about the toxicity of masculinity, while portraying believable, not villainous, male characters. She shows how that toxic mix of masculinity and misogyny is harmful to men as well as women.

Another favourite huge favourite this year was Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda‘s Monstress. Wow. Words fail. The writing. The art. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read and we’re only two issues in. MORE PLEASE.

Then there was Nnedi Okorafor‘s Lagoon. I’ve never read a book like it before. Big and sprawling with a million points of view, including sea creatures. It’s about an alien invasion that starts in Lagos, Nigeria but, really, that’s just the starting point. It’s about much more than that. It’s one of those books you’ll get something different out of ever time you read it. Yes, I’ve already read it twice.

I also loved Ashley Hope Perez’s heartbreaking Out of Darkness set in late the 1930s in a small town Texas. It should win all the YA awards.

This year I decided to read something I normally hate: a cosy mystery. You know one of those mysteries where everything is tidily wrapped up at the end and everyone lives happily ever after? An Agatha Christie kind of mystery. They are so not my thing. But then someone was raving about Barbara Neely’s Blanche White books and they sounded interesting. I read the first one, Blanche on the Lam about a black domestic worker who escapes after a judge gives her a custodial sentence for being late paying a fine. She winds up being housekeeper to a deeply dysfunctional wealthy white family, and solving their assorted crimes, while delivering much pungent, and often funny, commentary on racism and misogyny while resisting her employers’ desires to turn her into a mammy. I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

I also read much non-fiction this year. I re-read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It’s a book every one should read, particularly Americans, as the USA is her primary focus. Her book demonstrates that white is not universal, that white is not neutral, that it has a history, which she eloquently delineates. It’s not often you finish a book understanding how the world operates better than before you read it.

I was wowed by Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negroland, which is about growing up black and privileged in Chicago in the fifties and sixties. It was a window into an alien world. Obviously, I’m not black, but what was really alien to me was her family’s focus on respectability. I was never taught when to wear white gloves, what length skirt is appropriate. The only reason I’ve ever had to wear a hat is to avoid skin cancer. But I’ve known white Australian girls from wealthy families who were sent to posh private schools, who knew all of that stuff, and I think would recognise much in Jefferson’s book. What I related to most strongly was the sexism and misogyny she had to battle.

One of my fave new TV shows is Into the Badlands because martial arts staged well and magically and saturated colours and eye candy and coherent plot and world building. It has a strong diverse cast. Except, well, I’ve been noticing this a lot lately in US TV shows and movies, even when several of the big roles are given to PoC, the extras are still overwhelmingly white. And there’s never any world-building to explain why in the future the world is 90% white.

I also enjoyed Ready For This, which was created by the people behind Dance Academy and Redfern Now, and really it’s what you’d get if you crossed Redfern Now with Dance Academy. I.e. heaven.

How my books did in 2015

resized_9781743319789_224_297_FitSquareAt the beginning of the year my story, “Little Red Suit,” in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, was published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin.

The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy. We critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker: future Masterchef. I chortled. There’s not a single dud in Eat the Sky.3

RazorhurstUSIn March Soho Teen published the North American edition of Razorhurst. It received four starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus and em>The Bulletin of The Center for Children’s Books (BCCB). As well as making the Tayshas 2016 list.

Meanwhile in Australia Razorhurst was shortlisted for the following awards: Adelaide Festival Award 2016, Young Adult Fiction Award, New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards 2015, Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2015, Golden Inky Award, Queensland Literary Awards 2015, The Griffith University Young Adult Book Awardand the Norma K. Hemming Award 2015. Razorhurst won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel.

The acclaim for Razorhurst means even more to me than usual because, let’s be honest, Razorhurst is weird. It sits uneasily in a bunch of different genres. Some said it wasn’t really YA. Thus making the shortlist for the Inkys—entirely voted on by teen readers—was particularly gratifying. We struggled figuring out how to market the book. I worried it was going to disappear without a trace. So as you can imagine the enthusiastic reception has been way beyond what I let myself hope for. For awhile there all I let myself hope for was that Razorhurst would get published.

Books Out in 2016

MySisterRosa_RCcvr.inddA year ago I thought my next novel would be out already. But then I had a nasty bout of pneumonia in January and it took forever to recover. Lungs, they do not like to be messed with. I give pneumonia one star and that’s for the silent p.

My Sister Rosa was bumped from the schedule. None of my books has ever been bumped before. It freaked me out. OMG! I’m never going to finish this book! It’s never going to be published! My career is over! But—spoiler—I finished the book. Turns out it’s better to take the time to write the best book possible than to rush into print something half-baked. In the end, I’m proud of Rosa but it was the most gruelling writing experience of my career.

My Sister Rosa is my eleventh book, my eighth novel, and seventh solo novel. It’s my sixth book with my Australian/New Zealand publisher, Allen and Unwin, which makes them the publisher I’ve been with the longest anywhere in the world. Thank you, Allen and Unwin, for sticking with me! Youse mob are a joy to work with.

For those of you who don’t know, My Sister Rosa is my take on the bad seed told from the point of view a seventeen year old boy whose ten year old sister is a psychopath. Spoiler: this does not lead to fun times. You can read the first chapter here and how I came to write it here. It’s my first novel that I can accurately describe in one short sentence. High concept! I finally managed it.

IMG_5796The Australian edition will hit shops at the end of January. So soon! The finished book is gorgeous. Look at that cover. It’s beautiful and creepy, which is perfect. Also it has the popping-est spine.

Okay, I admit it doesn’t look that popping in this photo, but trust me, in real life it totally pops. People are going to see it on shelves and be compelled to pick it up and take it home. It is the Pied Piper of book spines.

There will be not one, but two, My Sister Rosa launches. For the first time I’ll be launching with someone else. Kirsty Eagar’s brilliant new book Summer Skin publishes on the same day. I’m a huge Eagar fan so launching our books together is going to be amazing. The first launch is in Sydney, the second in Melbourne:

Thursday, 4 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Double book launch My Sister Rosa/Summer Skin book launch
with the fabulous Kirsty Eagar
We will discuss
Sex and Psychopaths
And answer all your questions for we love Q&A!
Kinokuniya
Level 2, The Galleries,
500 George St,
Sydney, NSW

Wednesday 10 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Double book launch of My Sister Rosa/Summer Skin
With the brilliant Kirsty Eagar
By the wonderful Ellie Marney
Readings
309 Lygon St,
Carlton, Victoria

Hope to see you some of you there!

My Sister Rosa will be published in the USA and Canada by Soho Press in November 2016. That’s my second book with them. So far it’s been a very enjoyable experience working with the lovely folk at Soho. Wait till you see Rosa’s Soho cover! It’s every bit as good (and grey) as the Allen and Unwin cover but also very different. I’ve been blessed by the cover gods on this book.

What I wrote in 2015

I spent this year writing and rewriting and rewriting and going through copyedits and proofs of My Sister Rosa. This took longer than I thought it would and not just because of the pneumonia. Rosa was a tough book to write. For the first time in my writing life I struggled to find the voice of my protagonist. I didn’t get it right until I was well into the second or third draft. (Or was it the fourth? It’s all a blur now.) Since I’d already sold the book it was pretty terrifying. I had a finished draft and yet the narrative voice didn’t work. What even?!

Since this is my first book told entirely from the point of view of a boy some assumed it was his maleness that made finding his voice difficult. Not at all. It was how nice he is. Che Taylor is possibly the nicest point of view character I’ve ever written. He genuinely thinks the best of everyone. Even his psychopathic sister. Writing someone that nice is hard. Ridiculously hard.

I suspect this reflects poorly on me. I’m sure other writers have no difficulties writing nice. Oh, well. We all have our flaws. I got there in the end and the early responses to Che are very positive. So far no one finds him so nice they want to throw up. Phew.

I also wrote forty thousand words of a new novel this year. It’s told from the point of view of the least nice character I’ve ever written. She’s a psychopath. Yup, having written from Che’s point of view about living with a psychopath, and doing all the research to make that convincing, I started writing a novel from the monster’s point of view. It has its own difficulties but, I’m ashamed to say, it’s much easier writing from a psychopath’s point of view than from that of their empathetic opposite.

I continued blogging, but between illness and deadlines, did not manage to blog nearly as much as last year. I’m hoping to do better in 2016. I love blogging, even though apparently it’s still dying, and hate it when I have too much going on to do so regularly.

So, yeah, I plan to blog more next year, illness, weather, deadlines willing. Blogging, I love you no matter how out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*

Writing Plans for 2016

I plan to finish the psychopath novel. It’s unsold so I can’t tell you when it will be published. My experience with My Sister Rosa showed me, once again, that I have a much easier time of it if I sell my novels after I finish them, not before. I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I’m able to do that. I think I’ve finally learned to stop worrying about how big the gaps are between my novels’ publication.

All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. Being ill did make it worse. The fitter I am, the less trouble I have with it, and I lost a lot of fitness this year. But I’m almost back to being able to write as much as six hours a day now.

Travel in 2015

I was in the USA in April and May to promote Razorhurst and had a wonderful time. The Houston Teen Book Con was amazing. If you’re ever invited, fellow YA authors, go. It’s the first YA con I’ve been to that was overwhelming populated by teens. Wonderful!

For my travel plans in 2016 go here. I’ll be in the USA in May for the paperback publication of Razorhurst and to be guest of honour (!) at Wiscon. I’ll return in November for the North American publication of My Sister Rosa (and to complain about how cold it is).

2015 was awful but there’s always hope

I was sicker this year than I’ve been in years. It made everything else much harder. I spent the year behind on deadlines and everything else. It’s only now in December that I feel even slightly caught up. 2016 has to be better.

2015 was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. But then more awful shit happens and nothing is done to stop it from repeating. History, we are not learning from it.

In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. The new PM, Turnbull, while a vast improvement on his predecessor is not doing much, if anything, to slow that process done. Sure, he’s less anti-science and anti-culture than Abbott, but low bar, and there’s not a lot to show for it beyond rhetoric. We still have disgraceful policies on asylum seekers and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.

Last year I wrote: May you have a wonderful 2016 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way towards doing that. At least that’s what I hope.

I feel the same way now. Happy new year! May 2016 not be vile.

  1. Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. Time zones. Who knew? []
  2. I’ve not yet read Saltwater Vampires I’m saving that as a reward for after I finish the books I have in my critique queue. []
  3. It’ll be published in North America but I don’t have more details on that yet. []

My First Publication

This poem was first published when I was nine. First in the Newcastle Morning Herald and then later in the feminist magazine, Refractory Girl.1

I can fly.
They say I can’t.
They don’t exist.

I can fly.
They won’t believe me.
They aren’t real.

They can’t understand me
They won’t understand me
They don’t understand me

They say I’m mad
no-one can fly.

I can fly
They’re dead.

The day after it published in the local newspaper some of the kids at school demanded that I fly for them. They recited the poem back at me and laughed in my face. I spent the day wishing I’d never written it but also basking in my teachers’ praise.

The next day the other kids had forgotten about it but the teachers were still praising me. Yup, I was still buzzing about being an actual published poet. I enjoyed and was weirded out by the publication and attention thing. Praise = good! Kids laughing at me = oogie!

It was an early lesson in the gap between writing and publication. The writing part is private and often wonderful. Publication and public responses to the writing is a whole other thing. I’ve been doing my best to keep that in mind ever since.

  1. My mother, Jan Larbalestier was part of the Refractory Girl collective. Yup, nepotism got my poem republished. For the record, I didn’t know anyone at the Herald. []