This Thursday at 6:30PM in the glorious city of Sydney the wonderful Melina Marchetta will be launching my new book, Razorhurst.
Here’s hoping you can attend. I have SO MUCH to say about this book. It was some of the most fun research I’ve ever done. Razors! Women mobsters! Walking every street of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Kings Cross! Wearing 30s clothes! Studying enforcers!1
In other also super exciting news Liar is now available in Brasil under the title Confesso Que Menti. Here’s what it looks like:
Hope my fans in Brasil like it even though it’s very different to my other books that have been published there.
One last thing: I know I have not blogged for several weeks thus, breaking my promise to blog at least once a week, but I was travelling and it was not possible. There will be much more bloggage from here on out. In the meantime you can always find me blathering away on Twitter.
From a very safe distance in a way that they wouldn’t notice with a mask on. [↩]
It is now TEN WHOLE YEARS since I became a freelance writer.
I know, right? How did that happen? Ten years!
And one more time because truly my disbelief is high:
I HAVE BEEN A FULL-TIME, FREELANCE WRITER FOR TEN WHOLE YEARS.
I know it’s also April Fool’s day but I truly did begin this novel-writing career of mine on the 1st of April. What better day to do something so very foolish? Back in 2003, having sold only one short story, I took the plunge. The first year did not go AT ALL well, but since then it’s mostly worked out.
Books sold: 9: One non-fiction tome, two anthologies (one co-edited with Holly Black), six young adult novels (one co-written with Sarah Rees Brennan)
Books published: 9
Countries books have been sold in: 15 (Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and USA.)
Countries said books have been written in: 6 (Argentina, Australia, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and USA.)
Published words of fiction: 450,000 (Roughly.)1
Unpublished words of fiction that aren’t terrible: 530,000
Unpublished words of fiction that are so bad to call them bad would be insulting bad: 1,900,045 (Guestimate.)
Books written but not sold: 2 (One I hope will be some day. The other NEVER.)
Books started but not finished: 32 (Guestimate.)
Books about to be finished: 1
Books started that are likely to be finished: 4
Ideas collected: 4,979,934 (Precise measurement. I have an ideaometer.)
For six years I published a new book every single year. In 2006 I even had two books out, Magic Lessons and Daughters of Earth. Not lately.
I’ve slowed down. A lot. There will be no new novel from me this year. And probably not next year.2
Years and years of loads and loads of typing pretty much every single day takes a physical toll.3 I suspect most writers wind up slowing down. Either through injury or just because they’re getting older. Or because they’re so rich they don’t have to write anymore. Ha ha! Just kidding.
I’m not only a slower writer I’m also a writer with a different attitude to writing, to publishing and the whole business of it. I look back on ten-years-ago me and well, I cannot believe how giddy I was. How naive.
Actually I can totally believe it. I totally remember it. I still have many of those feelings including the sporadic disbelief that I’m a working author. It still fills my heart with joy that I can make a living by making stuff up and writing it down. I mean, seriously, how amazing is that?
But so much has changed since then.
My Career, It Has Not Been How I Thought It Would Be
For starters, I am now a cranky old pro.4 *waves walking stick at the young ‘un writers* I wrote this piece eight years ago about how I had no place in the room at a discussion for mid-career writers because back then I had only one published novel and didn’t know anything about the struggles of writers further along with their careers.
My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, are out of print in Australia. Only the first volume is available as a paper book in the USA. (You can get all three electronically in the USA but nowhere else in the English-speaking world.)
Obviously, I knew ten years ago that not all books stayed in print forever. But somehow I couldn’t quite imagine my own books going out of print. The truism that every book is out of print at some stage hadn’t sunk in.
It has now.
Though at the same time the ebook explosion means that fewer books are going out of print because they don’t require warehouses the way printed books (mostly) do. Unfortunately, this non-going-out-of-print of ebooks raises a whole bunch of other issues. Such as protracted arguments over precisely when an ebook can be deemed out of print.
I’d also assumed I would have the one editor and one publisher in my main markets of Australia and the USA for my entire career. That I would be with the publishers of my trilogy, Penguin Australia and Penguin USA forever.
I am now published by Allen & Unwin in Australia. They’ve published my last four books. All with the one fabulous editor/publisher, Jodie Webster,5 and I have high hopes it will stay that way because I love working with her.
In the USA there’s been no such constancy. I have been published by Bloomsbury (Liar and HTDYF) and Simon & Schuster (ZvU) and Harper Collins (Team Human). I’ve worked with several different editors. Only one of those editors is still with the same publishing house. The others have moved to a different house or left the industry altogether. Constant flux, thy name art publishing. I have no idea which US house will publish my next book or who my editor will be. I have only fond wishes.6
Every one of these editors has taught me a great deal about writing. Yes, even when I disagreed with their comments, they forced me to think through why I disagreed and how I could strengthen my book to address their concerns. Being well-edited is a joyous experience.7
Back then I assumed that foreign language publishers having bought one of your books would, naturally, buy all of them. Ha ha ha! Books of mine have tanked all over the world leading, unsurprisingly, to no further sales. My first novel, Magic or Madness, remains my most translated book and thus also the book that has tanked in the most markets around the world.
It also means that some of my books have different publishers in the one country. I’ve had more than one publisher in France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan.
Australia and the USA are the only countries to have published all my novels. And that is why I am a citizen of both those fine nations. *hugs them to my chest*
The USA is the only place in the world where my non-fiction is published. And, interestingly, those twotomes remain in print. Bless you, Wesleyan University Press. I hope that answers those darling few who ask me if I’m ever going to write a follow up to Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. My desire to continue eating and have a roof over my head preclude any such future scholarly efforts. Sorry.8
The constant professional relationship in most writers lives is with their agent. Jill Grinberg has been my agent since early 2005. She is the best. I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through some moments of the last eight years without her. Thank you, Jill.
YA Publishing Has Changed
Back in 2003 almost no one was talking about ebooks, self-publishing was not seen as a viable or attractive option by most novelists, and very few, even within publishing, had heard of YA or Teen Fiction as it is also frequently called.9
Back then I didn’t know a single soul who’d gotten a six-figure advance. The idea that you could get one for a YA novel was ludicrous. I remember the buzz and disbelief around Stephenie Meyer’s huge advance for Twilight.10 Many were saying back then that Little, Brown had overspent. It is to laugh.
There’s more money in YA publishing now than there was back in 2003. Back then only one YA author, J. K. Rowling, was on the list of richest authors in the world. On the 2012 list there were four: Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Rick Riordan.
They are still outliers. It’s just that YA now has more of them than ever before.
I received $13,500 per book from Penugin USA for my first three novels. At the time I thought that was an amazing advance. And it was. Most of the people I knew then were getting less. I know first-time YA novelists who are still only getting between $10,000 and $15,000 advances. And I know many YA novelists with many books under their belt who have never been within coo-ee of a six-figure advance.
So, yes, there is more money around now. But it is unevenly spread. The difference is that back in 2003 aspiring to be a millionaire YA novelist was like aspiring to be a millionaire garbage collector. Did they even exist? Now, it’s like aspiring to be a millionaire rockstar. Still very unlikely but, hey, at least they’re a real thing.
YA Has Changed
I caught myself fairly recently launching into my standard speil about the freedom of YA: how you can write any genre but as long as it has a teen protag it’s YA . . . when I stopped.
That’s not true anymore. The Balkanisation of YA has kind of taken over. You walk into Barnes & Noble in the USA and there’s Paranormal Romance,11 then there’s the Fantasy & Adventure section, and then there’s the rest of YA. It’s not just the big chains either. Over the years I have seen many smaller chains and independents move towards separate sections within YA. Usually it’s Fantasy & Science Fiction separated out from the rest of YA, which gets called a range of different things. But I’ve also seen separate Christian YA, YA Crime and YA Romance.12
(Of course, the rapid increase of people who purchase their books (ebook and print) online makes the physical weight of these categories less of a problem. It is one of the beauties of online book shopping. If you buy one book by an author you are usually hit with exhortations to buy other books by the same author. I appreciate that as a reader and as an author.)
For those of us who write a variety of different genres it’s alarming. We worry that each of our books are winding up in different sections from the other. So if a person loved one of our books and wanted to read another they can’t find it. Or that they’re all in the one section, which is misleading for the books that don’t belong there. It is a sadness. But apparently many customers find it useful.
New writers wanting to break into YA are being advised they should stick to just one of the many subgenres of YA. That doing so is the best way to have a sustainable career. No one was giving that advice when I started out. Back then advice like that would have made no sense.
I hope it’s terrible advice. But I worry that it’s good advice.
Many in my industry argue that the huge success of the big books by the likes of Collins, Rowling, Meyers and Riordan, (a positive thing which is why YA publishing keeps growing every year), coupled with the rise of ebooks, and the general THE SKY IS FALLING freak out by big publishers because of the emergence of Amazon as a publishing threat and the increasing viability for big authors of self-publishing is leading to many more “safe” books being purchased and less books that are innovative and don’t have an obvious audience.
I heard someone recently opine that the big mainstream publishers are only buying two kinds of YA books (and I suspect this might be true of most genres):
commercial high-concept books they think will be bestsellers
gorgeously written books they think will win prizes
Best of all, of course, is the book that does both.
Of course, neither of those things can be predicted. So the publisher is taking a punt as publishers have always done. They just seem increasingly reluctant to take a punt on the majority of books because they fear that most books are unlikely to do either.
This means that it’s harder than ever to get published by mainstream presses. Fortunately there are far more options now than there used to be. The mainstream houses are no longer the only show in town.
Decline of Non-Virtual Book Shops
There are also, of course, far fewer physical book shops in both Australia and the USA than when I started my career. Almost every one of my favourite second-hand bookshops are gone. However, so far most of my favourite independents are still with us. Abbeys, Better Read than Dead and Gleebooks are still alive and well in Sydney. Pulp Fiction in Brisbane. Readings in Melbourne.
But several big chains have collapsed in both countries. Angus and Robertson is gone, which had such a long and storied history in Australia. As is Borders in the USA.
I fear there will be more bookshop closures in our future. Ebooks are becoming more and more popular as are online retailers of physical books.
I admit that I’m part of the problem. While I am buying more books than ever, most of them are ebooks. I only buy physical books when that’s the only edition available, when it’s a research book, and when I loved a book so much I want a physical copy as well. Who knows if I’ll be able to read all these ebooks five, ten years from now when the formats and devices for reading them have changed?
I do think bookshops are going to survive for many more years but I can’t help looking around and seeing how few music stores are left. The ones that have survived often specialise in vinyl records and cater to collectors.
It Was Ever Thus
I sound depressed about my industry and my genre, don’t I?
I’m not. Publishing has always been in flux, or crisis if you want to put it more strongly. There have been countless booms and busts. There have been paperback booms. The horror boom of the 1980s. In the 1990s the CD-Rom was going to doom publishing. Spoiler: It didn’t.
I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s and, wow, was publishing convulsing then. What with the depression and the complete absence of money and like that. Lots of people in the industry lost their jobs. As they also did in the 1980s up to the present with the takeover of publishers by big media conglomerates and with the merging of the big publishers.
There have been hysterical claims that the advent of radio and television and the internet would kill reading as we know it. Um, no.
In fact, in the USA and Australia and elsewhere, more teenagers are reading than ever. And every year YA grows with more books, more sales, and more readers. It’s the adults we should be worried about.13
Right now publishing is more exciting than it ever has been. We authors have alternatives in a way we never had before. Electronic publishing really has changed everything. We don’t have to stick with the mainstream publishers. We can rescue our out of print backlists with an ease that a decade ago was unimaginable. We can publish those strange unclassifiable projects of ours that publishers so often baulk at.
Every year new and amazing books are being published in my genre. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince published this year truly is unlike anything else out there. It’s a daring, ambitious, beautiful, addictively readable book and it’s published by a mainstream press, Scholastic, who also publish the Harry Potter books. If you want a one-book snapshop of where my genre is at right now that’s the book I’d recommend.
But for me the writing is the thing. I love writing stories even more now than I did ten years ago. I’m better at it and happier doing it now than then. Though perversely I find it much harder. It takes more work to get my novels to a standard I’m happy with than it did. I think that’s mainly because my standards are higher and because with every new book I give myself harder challenges. Can’t get bored now, can I?
All the sturm and drung of publishing expanding, shrinking, freaking out, is just noise that on many levels has zero to do with what I write. Or to put it another way the more time I spend paying attention to YA publishing trends—Crap! Should I be writing a book about a kid with cancer?!—the less able I am to write. When I write I am much much happier than when I am angsting about what I should be writing.
Back in 2003 I knew a lot less about publishing but I was also a lot more nervous about it. I was hearing the tales of publishing’s demise for the very first time. Foolishly I believed them! I was hearing that the Harry Potter fad was over and YA was doomed, that nobody wanted [insert particular subgenre that I happened to be writing at the time here] anymore.
At the beginning of my career I was terrified I would never sell anything. That fear was so paralysing that for the first year of freelancery I barely wrote a word and I blew my first ever writing gig.
And even after I sold the trilogy there were so many fears. What if these books are my last? What if I don’t earn out? What if everyone hates my book? What if publishing collapses around my ears?
Now I’ve had books that haven’t earned out, books that have been remaindered, books that haven’t won awards or even been shortlisted, books that have received few reviews,14 books with scathing reviews.15 I have had calendar years without a new novel by me. I have missed deadlines with my publishers.
All those things I had been afraid of? They have all happened and I’m still standing and I still have a career.
None of that matters. It really is just noise. What matters is that I write the best books I possibly can. And if injury means that I can’t deliver that book when I said I would then so be it. My health is more important.
My writing is more important.
I have in the past rushed to get books in on time and they were not as, um, good16 as they could have been. Luckily I had editors who demanded extensive rewrites. That’s why I have never had a book I’m ashamed of in print. But I could have and back then I believed that wasn’t as big a deal as not having a book out every year.
I was wrong.
Now I believe that is the worst possible thing that could happen to my career.17 To have in print a book with my name on it that I am not proud of. A book that is not as good as it could have been.
Now, I don’t care about the market.18 I don’t care about supposed saleability. I no longer sell my books until they are finished, which is much kinder to me. Racing to meet a deadline when you have shooting pain running up your arms is less than optimal. Selling my books only when finished is also better for the publisher who wants to know when to realistically schedule the book. I am, of course, extremely lucky to be able to wait to sell my books.
I write what I want to write. I have a backlist, I have a reputation, I am known for writing a wide variety of books. So when I turn in an historical set in the 1890s from the point of view of the first telephone in use in the quaint town of Shuberesterville no one’s going to bat an eyelid.19
If they don’t want it, well, brand new world of ebook self-publishing, here I come! I know just which freelance editors and copyeditors and proof readers and cover designers I’m going to hire to work on it.
To be clear: I’d much rather stay with mainstream publishing. Wow, is self publishing hard work. I have so much admiration for those self-publishers, like Courtney Milan, who do it so amazingly well.
Being a writer can be a very lonely business. Just you and your computer and an ocean of doubt. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have never been alone with my writing. My mother, father and sister have always been supportive and proud of my writing. Without Jan, John and Niki as early readers and a cheering squad, well, I don’t like to think about it. They are the best.
One of the great pleasures of the last ten years has been discovering the YA community both here in Australia but also in the USA. I have met and become friends with some of the most amazing teens, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, parents, agents and others in this fabulous community like the publicists and marketers and sales reps and folks from the art department, and of course editors and publishers. They’ve all made me feel welcome and at home and they all care about YA even more passionately than I do. Protip: You want to talk to a real expert on YA? Don’t talk to the writers, talk to the specialist YA librarians.
The relationships that have been a huge source of strength for me in this strange career are those with other writers of whom20 there are far too many to name.21 Honestly, without other writers to gossip and giggle with, to ask for advice from and, lately, give advice to, this would be a lonely, miserable profession.
Our conversations and arguments have led to the creation of whole new novels and Zombie versus Unicorn anthologies. You are all amazing. I love youse. Even when you’re totally wrong about certain best-selling novels or the importance of the word “effulgent”.
My best writer friend is Scott Westerfeld. It was he who suggested I go freelance ten years ago even though we were stone cold broke back then. Even though I’d only sold one short story. Even though I was really scared. Mad man! It’s he who looks smug now at what a great suggestion it was. Thank you, Scott. For everything.
Here’s to another ten years of writing novels for a living. Here’s to YA continuing to grow and be successful! Wish me and my genre luck!
Or one of Cassandra Clare’s books. Just kidding. Two of Cassie’s. [↩]
I have, however, been writing a lot. I’ve almost finished the Sydney novel. It’s only a few drafts away from being ready to go out to publishers. And I have several other novels on the boil. Including the 1930s NYC novel of which I have more than 100,000 words. Sadly I also seem to be no more than a third of the way into that story. Le sigh. [↩]
Obviously the typing dates back much longer than a mere ten years. [↩]
I have many novelist friends who are laughing right now. Because they have been doing this for twenty years or more and consider me to still be a baby neophyte. [↩]
Those job titles work differently in Australia. [↩]
And in my experience the editors last way longer than the publicists and people in marketing. [↩]
Even when you want to kill them. “But, but, but, I meant the ending not to make any sense. Fixing it will be hard!” *swears a lot* *stomps* *fixes ending* [↩]
Not really. Writing Battle of the Sexes was a TOTAL NIGHTMARE. But I’m genuinely happy that the book has been useful to so many. It was my PhD thesis written for an audience of, like, three. [↩]
Within publishing houses almost everyone calls it YA. But I’ve noticed that many booksellers call it Teen Fiction. [↩]
Twilight was published the same year as my first novel, 2005. [↩]
I’d never heard the word “paranormal” when I started out. [↩]
There are, of course, even more YA categories for books at online book shops. I’ve seen Substance Abuse, Peer Pressure, Dark Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic etc. etc. But somehow online they seem less restrictive than they do in a bricks and mortar book shop. [↩]
Just kidding. A huge number of adults read YA. [↩]
In the trade publications, that is. The blessing of the internet is that these days somewhere, somehow your books are going to be reviewed by bloggers or on Barnes & Noble/Amazon/Goodreads etc. (Though, um, aren’t Amazon and GoodReads the same thing now?) A book receiving not a single review is a rarity these days. [↩]
That would be all of them. Every single one of my books has had at least a handful of this-book-sucks reviews. Turns out this is true for all books ever. [↩]
Worst thing I have control over, obviously. No one can stop a falling piano. [↩]
Which isn’t to say that I’m not fascinated by it. My name is Justine Larbalestier and I am a publishing geek. I’m very curious to see if the big swing against paranormal and fantasy I’m hearing so many people predict really does happen. I’m a bit skeptical. [↩]
Yesterday the prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, gave a stirring, passionate and inspiring speech about misogyny and sexism in the Australian parliament and in particular the misogyny and sexism of the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott: Continue reading →
The last three weddings I attended were heterosexual. At each hopes for marriage equality were expressed and the audience applauded.
In Australia pro marriage equality sentiments are polling at more than 60%. In the USA it’s now over 50%. It’s all happening much faster than I thought it would and I’m glad. There are many places in the world where same-sex marriage is legal. I truly did not think I would see that in my lifetime.
I want everyone to be able to marry if they want to. And just as importantly if they think marriage is an antiquated institution of social control then they should be able to say, “Hell, no! I don’t need no stinking government or church to control my love life!” Without anyone rolling their eyes and saying, “Whatever. You’re not even allowed to get married.”
Everyone, gay, lesbian or straight should be free to marry and also free to defy the pressure to get married, have kids, and all that jazz.
Me, I love being married. But I never wanted to be married. I just happened to fall for a foreigner and it was the only way we could be together.
The amount of privilege marriage affords you is ridiculous. I had no idea. I have seen newly weds taken more seriously than a defacto couple who have been together for more than twenty years and have children. What now?
As a married woman I am treated as more of a grown up than I ever was before. Sadly, I don’t think being married has made me any more mature. Fart jokes remain very, very funny.
What marriage does is smooth our path. No one ever questions me and my husband being together in almost any situation. Just saying the words “my husband” can get things happening in ways that “my boyfriend” or “I” never did. Oh, sexist world. *sigh*
Being married makes life easier.
So, yes, I believe in marriage equality. But I also believe civil unions should carry the same weight as marriage and have the same privileges. I would love it if we had a system where best friends or siblings who live together could also be legally recognised when it comes to all the major decisions that are covered by marriage.
For many of us our most enduring important bonds are not romantic ones. I’d love for the law and society to recognise that too.
I’d love it if we had rituals and ceremonies to recognise BFFs as well as couples. I love weddings. But I bet I would love a BFFs twentieth anniversary ceremony too.
Every time I’m at a wedding I’m sad about the lack of ceremony in our lives. Let’s make more of them!
My last post may have given the impression that I am not a fan of rewriting. So not true! I loves it.
For me the first draft is the least fun because I’m never quite sure I have a novel until there’s a complete draft. The Sekrit Project is the first solo novel I’ve finished since 2008 so finishing this year was a HUGE RELIEF. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would. If I knew how to write novels anymore. That made the first draft—even the most fun times of writing it—stressful.
So no matter how unfun some parts of the rewriting process are I have none of that anxiety: because I have a manuscript. I mean, yes, it’s a less than optimal manuscript but I now know I’m going to finish and make it the best book I can. I will figure out how to make it better.
I really enjoy taking shitty sentences and engoodening them, tweaking character’s arcs until they make sense to people other than me. It’s very satisfying. And when I get stuck on one bit of the book there are countless other bits to fix.
I also LOVE finally being able to talk about the book with other people. Other than Scott, I mostly don’t show people my books until I have a complete draft. So it’s just me and the book. Getting other people’s takes on it is so important. I can only go so far on my own. Other people frequently show me in about ten seconds what I’ve been blind to for months. Gah! But also: AWESOME.1
I also enjoy how hard rewriting is. Keeping track of a complete novel is keeping track of an entire world and its people. I love that feeling of total immersion. I love the power of life and death! I can KILL YOU ALL! *cough* I love pushing myself to the limits of my ability.
Sekrit Project is the most challenging book I’ve written so far.2 It required an enormous amount of research. The plotting is much trickier than any other book. Several of the characters push me WAY outside my comfort zone. I love it! So exhilarating and fun.
Went for a long walk yesterday through Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Paddington, Rushcutters Bay. It’s spring here and almost everywhere smelt like jasmine.1 The sounds weren’t quite as lovely. Spring seems to be the season of renovations in Paddington so the hills were alive with the sound of jackhammers. That and really pissed off birds. One of which shat right in front of me: had I been a fraction faster . . . splat of eww on my head.2
Mostly I was thinking about Sekrit Project, which I’ve been rewriting since THE DAWN OF TIME and seems to be getting no closer to as GOOD AS IT IS IN MY HEAD.
Hence the walk. I figured change of environment, a bit of movement, colour, jasmine, jackhammers, and the way to fix this book would become clear. Not so much.
Got back home with no clear plan for the broken chapters, nibbled around the edges of them, tinkering at the sentence level, which helps pretty much not at all given most of those sentences will be nuked. After an hour of frustration and little forward momentum I stomped off for another long walk. This time with Scott.
And it was fun. Much talk was talked. Yummy food was eaten. Centennial Park was admired.
Plan to fix book was not hatched.
My early readers—including Scott—were unanimous that the second point of view character does not have their first pov chapter until too late in the book. It’s taken weeks of ignoring that suggestion and several long walks for me to realise that, yes, they’re probably right and if I fix that then solutions to some of the other problems may be clearer.
Or might not. But the first third of the book will definitely be in better shape.
Yesterday I was annoyed I hadn’t just made the changes as soon as they were suggested. Today I figure it took as long as it took to realise they were necessary. I can’t make changes I don’t believe will fix the book.
Maybe changing the pov early on was not the solution I needed a few weeks ago. I’ve fixed many other problems in the book since my first readers got back to me. Could be I wasn’t able to see that the pov needed changing until the other fixes had been made.
This is why I find it so crucial to have other people read and comment on my first drafts. Even if I think their reading of my manuscript is loopy. Their responses let me gauge how close my book is to what I intended. As I rewrite I’m moving closer to my vision of the novel as bounced off the reactions of those early readers. Some of their comments that I dismissed as irrelevant wind up being very relavant the deeper into the rewrites I go.
This last week I wasted a lot of time banging my head and getting no where and waiting for an epiphany: a flash of genius that would magically show me how to fix that which is broken. Which did not happen. I’m sure they do happen for other writers but I seem to be more of a Slow Realiser than a Receiver of Epiphanies.
Yet despite having written multiple novels I still have it in my stupid head that when I’m stuck there’ll be an epiphany that will fix everything. I think I’ve seen too many cartoons where ideas manifest as electric bulbs over characters’ heads.
Sadly, my writing life seems to be electric-bulb-over-the-head-free. For me it’s always been this fix leads to this bit being changed which leads to this other fix being needed which leads to this other change which means the front bit has to be moved which means . . . cascades of changes.
It’s less easy than it looks. I keep wishing it were the other way around.
Me and Scott took the day off last week to go to the movies. I cannot remember the last time we did that. Sat down in an actual cinema with actual other people and watched a movie. It was a great audience. We mocked the Australian-Mining-Will-Save-the-Environment ad together. Then we laughed and cried and cheered our way through The Sapphires.
The Sapphires restored my faith in movies. I was on the verge of sticking to TV and never bothering with movies again. The Sapphires pulled me back from that brink. I walked out of that cinema elated and happy and almost a week later the feeing hasn’t worn off yet.
For those not in Australia, The Sapphires is a new movie about an Aboriginal girl group who performed for the US troops in Vietnam in the late 60s. It is now screening in Australia and France and will be released in NZ in October and UK in November. It will also be screening in the USA but I haven’t been able to find out when yet.
If you get a chance to see it DO SO.
The Sapphires is a biopic in that it is based on the lives of a real Aboriginal girl group who performed in Vietnam in the 1960s. But unlike so many biopics, such as Ray, there’s no boring bit after they get famous and take to drugs/alcohol and then are redeemed because The Sapphires don’t become famous. It’s not that movie.
It’s also astonishingly gorgeous. The cinematography by Warwick Thornton, the director of the also visually stunning Samson and Delilah, makes everything and everyone glow. When I discovered the budget was less than a million dollars, which for those of you who don’t know is a microscopic budget for a feature-length film, I almost fell over.
Deborah Mailman is, as usual, the standout. She’s been my favourite Australian actor ever since Radiance in 1998. I would even go see her in a Woody Allen movie1 that is how great my love for her is. Wherever Mailman is on screen that’s where you’re looking. And no matter who she’s playing I find myself on her side. She could play Jack the Ripper and I’d still be on her side.
The Sapphires is a movie where you see the effects of systemic racism AND you get joy and hope and MUSIC. The movie was upbeat and heartbreaking and funny and left me full of optimism for the entire world. Things do get better! Amazing things can be achieved even in the face of racism and sexism.
The movie manages to convey how the civil rights movement in the USA was important to Aboriginal people in Australia deftly and economically. (I had just been reading about Marcus Garvey’s influence on indigenous politics here in the 1930s, which was an excellent reminder that Australia’s civil rights movement goes back much earlier than most people realise.) It covers a great deal of the terrain of racial politics in Australia in the 1960s without ever losing sight of its genre.
This appears to be a problem for many of the reviewers in Australian newspapers. The reviews are all weirdly tepid in their praise. They refer to The Sapphires as a “feel good” movie and a “crowd pleaser” as if that were a bug not a feature. Um, what? It’s like they went in expecting Samson and Delilah—a great film don’t get me wrong—and are mildly annoyed that this one didn’t rip their heart out and stomp on it. The thinking seems to go: I walked out of The Sapphires wanting to burst into song. It must be lightweight fluff.
The Sapphires is a movie that aims to make you laugh, fill you with joy, jerk some tears from you and to maybe make you think, if you’re white Australian like me, about how deep seated racism is in this country. It succeeds in all of those goals. How does that make it “merely” entertaining? Gah!
I will never understand the attitude that says serious = deep, funny = shallow. It is a widespread view. Take a look at all the award-winning books and films. Very few of them are funny. Or could be described as light. What’s up with that?
I have a list of books and movies I turn to when I’m down. What they have in common is that they are excellently well-made and they make me feel good. It’s a lot harder to write one of those books or make one of those movies than you’d think.
A friend of mine, a librarian and blogger and reviewer, has had a handful of authors attack her because she wrote what they considered to be bad reviews of their books.1 She did not enjoy it.
This is not an isolated incident. Reviewers have had authors dummy spit2 at them, sic their fans on them, and generally make them wonder why they’re bothering to write reviews.
What can bloggers do when wrathful authors and their hordes descend up on them?
Here’s what my friend did. She took down those reviews. Good idea.
What these authors don’t realise is that their worst enemy is not critical reviews; it’s obscurity. No reviews is way, way, way worse than bad reviews.
Someone hates your book? That’s a good thing because it means they actually read it. (Even better you got a passionate response!) No one reading it. No responses? That’s the fast track to out of print and gone and forgotten.
That’s what I fear: not being able to sell my books because I have no audience. I do not fear people hating my books. Jane Austen is hated. Every writer I love is hated. It’s a feature, not a bug!3
So here’s my advice: if an author has a go at you for a less than gushing review of their book—take it down. And if it’s possible leave a polite note explaining why. Something like:
This space was occupied by a review of X by Cranky Author. Cranky Author was incensed by the review so I have removed it and will no longer review anything by Cranky Author.
See? Everyone’s happy. Cranky Author’s eyeballs are no longer assailed by your shocking blindness to their genius.4 You don’t have to deal with their crankiness.
And maybe if everyone does this, those authors—and fortunately they are small in number—will get the message and knock it off.
As a general rule, authors, do not respond to reviews.5 They’re not for you, they’re for readers. And especially do not attack the authors of those reviews! Leave reviewers alone!
Mostly, of course, these were not bad reviews but more like three-star, has-some-good-points-has-some-bad-points kind of reviews. [↩]
USians: look it up! You are online. You can find out the meaning of any unfamiliar word or phrase in heartbeat. Embrace this gorgeous future we live in. [↩]
Hell, I even have favourite bad reviews of my books. I have quite the collection for Liar. Wow, do the people who hate it REALLY hate it. It’s also, so far, my best-selling novel. Take from that what you will. [↩]
As I may have mentioned, once or twice, I recently finished the first draft of my Sekrit Project novel. And, yay verily, I was full of joy. There was dancing. Bouncing. Happiness and even more joy.
After the joy I spent a few days tinkering with it, fixing the egregiously rubbishy bits, adding things that needed adding, moving chapters around. As you do.
Then I sent it off to my wondrous, fabulous, worth-more-than-their-weight-in-mangosteens-and-other-precious-things first readers.
Then I kicked back and watched loads of Olympics and blogged and did many things that have nothing to do with Sekrit Project. And there was more joy.
After a week there was still some joy on account of OLYMPICS OH HOW I LOVE THE OLYMPICS but there was also creeping OMG THEY ALL HATE IT WHY HASN’T ANYONE GOTTEN BACK TO ME ABOUT IT NOT EVEN MY OWN HUSBAND IS IT REALLY THAT BAD thoughts.
Then yesterday one of my readers got back to me. She liked it! PHEW.1
But more importantly Meg had really smart, useful notes for me. And I got to talk with someone who was not me about Sekrit Project and most especially about the second half of the book and the ending.2
I think I got a little giddy. It was such a pleasure to finally talk about it. Poor Meg. I plied her with a million and one questions. And she answered them all for me in really useful ways. I have a much better idea of what is and isn’t working and how to fix it. Scott also came through with notes on the first half of the book. There was bouncing and dancing.
Both Meg and Scott’s notes were full of questions about character’s motivations, aspects of the worldbuilding that didn’t make sense to them, why certain things happen when they do and so on. Questions that make me realise that I had not achieved what I thought I had. All too often the book was too subtle, too opaque, too confusing. All of which I am now brimming with ideas for how to fix.
This world and people I have created changes once other people have seen them. Meg and Scott’s comments and questions have changed how I see them too. I love this part. I love how it gives me a million and one ideas for making the book better.
Have I mentioned that rewriting is my favourite part of the writing process? This is why.
I know there are lots of writers who can figure out all this stuff for themselves. But I really depend on feedback. I need to know how readers respond to what I’ve written because all too often what I think is there is not there. And I can’t discover that by reading and rewriting my book over and over again. I can’t do it alone.
So now I can rewrite to deal with all those problems and work towards the general embetterment of the book. And once that’s done I send it off to my agent. Then when both she and I are happy it gets sent out to editors. Who will in turn send me their own notes.
At least that is how I do it.
Trust me, every writer has their own methods. Some never show anyone anything other than their agent and editor. Some talk constantly about their book and what happens in it as they write and have several people read it as they go along. Some, like me, only let people read it once they have a complete draft. Some have everyone in the world read it and comment. Others none.
Whatever works for you is how to do it.
Yes, no matter how many books I’ve written I am always nervous about how the people whose opinions I value most will respond to my latest one especially in its raw state. [↩]
Usually as I write the first draft I read chapters out loud to scott every three or four days. But this time he only got to hear the first half because he was overseas while I wrote the second half and totally rewrote the first half and he has not yet finished reading the complete draft. [↩]
When I talk with women friends about sexual harassment it turns out that we’ve all experienced it at some point. But almost none of us have ever reported it. I have never been raped but I have friends who have been. None of them reported it.
The women who do report their rapes often say that it was like being raped all over. They were made to feel like they were the criminal, interrogated about what they wore, how they behaved, how they “provoked” the attack. Somehow the assault must have been their fault. Many say that if they could have a do over they would not report it.
Many of us no longer go to certain places—night clubs, friend’s places, science fiction conventions etc. etc., way too many places to list them all—because we don’t feel safe. Our best friend’s husband/brother/friend/nephew always finds a way to touch us in ways that creep us out. The bouncer at our favourite night club stands too close and won’t take no for an answer. The big name writer/fan/artist keeps following us around and no one will believe us when we complain. We’ve quit jobs to get away from harassers and stalkers.
Some of us have tried to report it and been silenced. “That’s not real harassment.” “You should learn to relax.” “He was just being friendly.” Or even worse, “Look, I know he’s an arsehole but he’s such a big name if we did something about him it would be disastrous.”
The punishment for women who report their harassers is ferocious. I know women who’ve lost their jobs, their health, their confidence, had to move cities. Who because they were brave enough to report the man who harassed them have suffered far more than the man they reported.
So most women don’t report it. We tell each other who the gropers and creepers are. For years women fans warned other fans to stay away from Isaac Asimov’s groping hands. Stories are still told about him. Humorous stories. Because ha ha that loveable Asimov and his wandering hands. What a silly duffer flirt! Harmless, of course. Didn’t mean anything by it.
Almost every job we’ve ever had we’ve been warned about someone. Almost every convention we’ve been to we’ve heard the rumours about who to avoid.
Bummer for the women who aren’t warned and don’t know who to stay away from.
If only these men were punished for making women’s lives a misery. Then we wouldn’t have to rely on gossip to stay safe. If only they were the ones who were fired and not invited back to conventions etc.
That’s why so few women report their harassers and rapists.
Because we live in a culture of apologists. We live in a culture that looks everywhere: at a woman’s clothes, body, behaviour, her being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the reason for why harassment, abuse, rape take place. Everywhere, that is, except at the perpetrator and the culture that enables him.
The culture that teaches the harasser, the rapist, that women’s bodies are up for grabs. Look at how she’s dressed! She’s totally asking for it! Teaches him that a woman who says no to him doesn’t really mean it or is a lesbian or frigid or a bitch and thus deserves whatever happens to her. That a woman who says yes and changes her mind is a tease. That a woman who says yes is a whore and doesn’t deserve her wishes and desires respected beyond that yes. That sex workers can never say no and mean it and so can never be raped and always get what they deserve.
I have heard people make these arguments who I thought were my friends. Who I thought were smarter and better than that. Who I thought shared my values and politics. They did not get those ideas out of nowhere. They are in the air we breathe. Every bit of culture we consume.
How the hell do we change this shithouse world we live in? This world where women’s and children’s word on sexual harassment and abuse is ALWAYS doubted.
Every time we’re brave enough to report our harassers and stalkers and rapists we’re standing up to rape culture. We’re making the world a tiny bit safer. But it is UNBELIEVABLY HARD to do so. I’ve never been brave enough.
We need men to do the reporting too. Men witness their friends harassing women. They need to STOP THEM. They have to speak up when other men make rape jokes. They have to stop laughing when their mates tells a story about sleeping with an unconscious woman or otherwise coercing a woman into sex when she clearly didn’t want it.
I know men who do fight back against rape culture. There need to be more of them. So many more.
I have also seen men change their behaviour. I’ve seen them realise that what they’d been doing was not okay. Despite the fact that their mates and their bosses and their culture said it was. Who realise that the advice they’d been given that “women like to be pursued” that “they don’t mean it when they say no” was crap and making the women they went after’s lives a misery. Not to mention their own lives.
Overwhelmingly it is women and children who are sexually harassed and assaulted and raped. But it does happen to men. Particularly in gaol. And because we live in such a misogynist world, where for a man to be in anyway aligned with a woman is the worst thing ever, those men who are raped are also largely silent and not taken seriously. Because, the twisted logic goes, if they were real men it never would have happened. Clearly they are effeminate and thus were asking for it. Misogyny doing what it does best: making everyone’s life wretched.
Yes, way too many people crawled out of the woodwork to explain away the harasser’s behaviour but far more people were moved to action. To support Genevieve and to demolish those stupid apologist arguments. Valentine has a couple of follow-ups on what’s been happening that are well worth reading.
I hate the world we live in. But I also love it. I do think things are getting better. But, oh, so very slowly. But at least we’re having this conversation. When my mother was a girl we weren’t. Hell, when I was a girl it wasn’t the loud and persistent conversation that it is now. That’s something. Not enough, but something.
Comments on this post: Any rape apologies, “harassers are misunderstood,” “why are you trying to ban flirting” etc. comments are going to be nuked. You’ve been warned.
Yesterday I did my first school visits in Sydney.1 I went to Willoughby Girls High and Ravenswood Girls School on the North Shore.2 I was dreading it as I always am when I have to speak in front of people I don’t know. Why can’t I stay home and write?! Waaah! I hate public speaking! I hate school visits! Etc.
But then, as always, I got to Willoughby Girls High and everyone was lovely, especially the school librarian, and my talk on how Team Human went from idea to finished book didn’t seem to put anyone to sleep. Not even the teachers.3 I didn’t faint or vomit or drop my water or show the wrong images and best of all the question and answer portion of proceedings went exceedingly well.
I love Q & A.4 That’s the part where I get to hear what other people are thinking. I know what I think. I spend all day listening to my thoughts. I rarely get to hear what schools girls on the North Shore are thinking and interested in. Willoughby Girls High Years 8 and 9 did not disappoint asking many smart questions.5 I think we were all disappointed when the bell went that we couldn’t keep on asking and answering questions for a few more hours. Though that might be because their next class was maths.6
In fact, yesterday’s talk was inspired by questions I’d been asked at previous such talks. People outside publishing are always bewildered by how long it takes for a book to go from sold to a publisher to being in the bookshops. I’m frequently asked how long it takes me to write a book, and how I made my books’ covers. So I took them through the whole process. And I even brought some cover elves along to demonstrate how a cover is made. They went over a treat.
Afterwards me and the librarians and some of the teachers were talking about how we’d never had author visits back when we were in school and how lucky these kids were. Back in the day we hadn’t even been aware that people who wrote books were alive. Much less someone you could meet and ask question of.
Then on the way home I remembered that I had in fact had an author come to my school. I was stunned I’d forgotten about it because it was totally scarifying. In a good way. When I was in Year 10 at the Australian International Independent School7 there were two boys in our class who were on the verge of getting into serious trouble. They were at the minor breaking of the law stage. But they had started to steal cars and go for joy rides. Our teacher decided to scare them straight by getting the author of the book that the movie Hoodwink was based on to come in and talk about life as a prisoner.8
This guy was the leanest, hardest looking bloke I’d ever seen. He walked into that room and we all went quiet and we were a noisy lot. He told his story. That he’d been a bank robber, that he’d gotten caught and been sent to prison. Loads of time. He said being sent inside was not an occupational hazard but an occupational certainty. He didn’t know any bank robbers who weren’t done eventually. He’d gotten early release by pretending to go blind and fooling everyone including eye specialists. He had a bit of a grin on his face describing it. It’s an amazing story and we were amazed.
He talked in great detail about how awful it is in gaol. How it breaks you and hardens you. He spared us no details. He talked about how the young blokes were always raped. You could feel the air go out of the room when he said that. When we got to the Q and A part he went out of his way to deglamorise every aspect of his outlaw life. What living in hiding is like. How you make almost no money from being a bank robber. And even when you do get a big haul and get away with it you get busted as soon as you spend it. Etc.
I raised my hand to ask what it was like in women’s prisons. Surely that wasn’t as bad as the men’s? No, he said, it’s much, much worse and went into detail about just how awful it was.
I don’t know about the two boys at risk but that author visit certainly scared me into total law abidingness.
In conclusion: Don’t rob banks! Read books! Author/school visits are educational and fun and sometimes scary! Ask questions!
Did any of you have an author visit that has had a big impact on you?
Actually, they were my first visits as an author to any school in Australia. That’s because for the duration of my writing career I have mostly been in Australia during the summer when schools are not in session. [↩]
Or as we inner city types think of it Here Be Dragons. [↩]
True fact. I have seen teachers nod off during these things. Yes, while I was talking. [↩]
So much that every Monday I find myself watching the ABC’s Q and A and yelling at the television set and swearing that I will never watch that damn show again. And yet there I am the following Monday yelling at the tellie. [↩]
Unfortunately, I got the timing wrong at Ravenswood and there was no time for Q and A. My bad. [↩]
Seriously, high school students everywhere, maths will be really useful later on and if you’re like me and paid no attention whatsoever and are a maths moron you will be lost at tax time and understanding stuff like royalties and other number related things that are important to you and oh, how you will regret your decision that maths was stupid lo those many years ago. /lecture [↩]
A hippy school at North Ryde that was all about internationalism and peace studies. It was excellent. But full of kids who’d been chucked out of other schools or were gently asked to leave. *cough* [↩]
I have done some limited googling and failed to find the name of the book or the author that the film was based on. If you know please to tell me! [↩]
Yesterday I listed some of my favourite recent US TV shows. It got me wondering what your favourite shows are and why? Because I’m just about to finish the first season of Legend of Korra and will have to find something else to watch that’s every bit as wonderful.
I only noticed that I watch completely different kinds of TV in Australia than I do in the US. Here in Australia I watch lots of non-fiction: Australian Story, Four Corners, pretty much all the cooking shows, lots of sport, Rockwiz. Stuff like that. My US shows as listed yesterday are mostly fiction, genius shows like The Wire and Deadwood.
So what are you watching wherever in the world you are? Yes, anime counts. Please to tell me!
But I would sell my soul for any one of my books to be turned into a Hollywood TV show.
US TV is in a golden age. How many shows are there on right now that I enjoy? Let me see: Legend of Korra, Scandal, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Revenge, Louis, Bunheads, Justified, Nurse Jackie, Community and I’m sure there are others I’m not thinking of. Do I think they are all perfect? As diverse as I would like them to be? Not hardly. But they are a million times better than any recent Hollywood movie. Frankly, even formulaic TV like Drop Dead Diva1 is way smarter and more thoughtful and just plain better than 99% of the movies that come out of Hollywood.
Here’s the thing. Many of my friends have had their books optioned and have had meetings with Hollywood movie types and their overwhelming reaction walking away from those meetings is hysterical laughter and/or despair. “So they love my book—you know, the one that reworks the little mermaid—but they’re wondering if it wouldn’t be better if they were secretly robots controlled by a master villian on a secret island hideout. They worried there wasn’t enough conflict.” Or, “So they say they love my book but they’d prefer my teen black female protagonist was white and male and thirty-five. But he could have a teen daughter who’s best friend was black.” Etc.
Hollywood has their rule book of how movies should be. They will take your book and cram it into those set of rules and spew out their sausage movie product. They will raise the stakes until the fate of the world is at the movie’s centre. You know just like every other summer blockbuster. They will make almost everyone white. They will reduce complexity and make the ending unambiguously happy: the boy and the girl will kiss! Even if in the original book it was a girl and a girl.
It’s no surprise that the YA adaptations that have been the most successful are the ones that are most faithful to the books they’re based on. The ones that have been turned into Ye Olde Hollywood Sausage Movie die on their arses. It amazes me that no one in Hollywood has noticed that. Yet they keep optioning hugely successful books, oops, I mean, “properties” and trying to turn them into Ye Olde Hollywood Sausage Movies. Gah!
Meanwhile every year there are several wonderful new TV shows. Most of which aren’t like anything else that is on TV.
So, yes, given a choice between the two you betcha I’d prefer to have a TV show. At this point I should reveal my dread shame: only one of my books has ever been optioned and that was for the huge amount of ZERO dollars. I know it can seem like all YA books ever are instantly optioned but sadly this is not true. Also of all those books that are optioned the vast majority never makes it to the screen. I have a friend, well, husband really, who has had all of his books optioned multiple times. Nope they have never made it on to the big or small screens. Might happen. One day.
Though should Hollywood people offer me buckets of money to adapt a book of mine for the big screen I would not say no. Fabulous ballgowns don’t buy themselves, you know! Besides, as mentioned, the vast majority of optioned books never get made into movies. Especially right now when the DVD stream of revenue has completely dried up. So I could safely say yes with little fear of seeing my book desecrated on the big screen.
My secret vice or it would be if I kept it secret. What? I love Margaret Cho. Shut up. [↩]
I hear this is a big deal over in the US of A. Given that many of my readers are from there and that I myself am now also a citizen of your fine country—dual nationalities for the win!—I thought I should blog in a USian way or about the USA on your day of celebrating being a nation.1
First I thought why don’t I tell you everything I think is wrong with that mighty nation. But given that I haven’t even been USian for a whole year it seems a bit premature. It’s all very well for me to go off on the dread wrongnesses of Australia2 as I have been Australian for quite some time. But as a mere eight-month old USian I shall keep it positive for at least another year.
So instead I will share with you some of what I love about the USA. Yes, folks, there are many good things about the United States of America.
The music. Seriously, people, this is the country that produced Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, Billie Holliday, Blossom Dearie, Big Mama Thornton, Aaron Copland, Kanye, George Gershwin, Gangstagrass, Missy Elliot, Salt’n’Pepa, Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, Una Mae Carlisle, Dixie Chicks, Bix Beiderbeck, Jean Grae, Chuck Brown, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan . . .3
Oh, good grief. There are too many amazing musicians across too many genres! It’s completely impossible to even list 0.01% of my favourites. I mean I’m looking at that list and thinking what about Lucinda Williams? What about Janelle Monae? Gillian Welch? Mahalia Jackson? Johnny Cash? How could I have forgotten them?! What is wrong with me?
You know, even if the USA had given nothing else to the rest of the world it’s music is more than enough. But then there’s all the amazing literature. Geniuses like Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, Flannery O’Conner, Zora Neale Hurston, Dawn Powell, James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith and many, many others. I’m only listing dead writers. That way my genius writer friends won’t be insulted when I leave them off the list. Interestingly almost all my favourite US genre writers are still alive. Excellent, eh?
Then there’s all the wonderful movies. I am an obsessive devotee of Hollywood movies of the thirties and forties. Way too many to list. And then in the last decade or so there’s been an explosion of extraordinary television for which I am insanely grateful. *hugs The Wire to chest*
Of course none of this art happens in a vacuum. The USA is a hungry beast absorbing cultural influences from all over the world. Personally, I think that’s how the best art happens. Though it’s a long continuum and at one end is US artists going to, say, Brazil, and ripping off artists there and taking it back and selling it in the USA and not even crediting the source except with generalised mumbling such as: “You know, Brazil, is, like, so inspiring.”
What never stops amazing me about the USA is how big it is. How almost everything you can say about that country—good or bad—is true. They have the worst and best health care.4 Ditto food. Ditto music. Ditto, well, pretty much everything.
But I guess the main thing I love about the USA is New York City, which has given me so many opportunities and wonderful friendships and, er, a husband, and completely changed my life. Kisses and hugs to you, NYC! Never change!5
It is still the fourth of July there even though we Australians have already moved on to the fifth of July. [↩]
Oh, I’m just kidding. We Aussies know that Australia is perfect in every way and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Don’t say “detention centres” or “asylum seeker deaths at sea” or “deaths in custody.” Shush! [↩]
You’ll let me know, won’t you, if one of them turns out to actually be Canadian? [↩]
And that best in the world health care can easily be yours. All you have to do is be really rich or have an amazing job with amazing health insurance. Simple! [↩]
Well, actually, NYC, I’d kind of like you to quit it with the stop-and-frisk program and it would be awesome if you created more low-income housing in Manhattan so it doesn’t totally turn into a theme park for the rich and if you . . . *cough* Positive. I’m keeping things positive. [↩]
Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*
Here it is:
Monsters I Have Loved
Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson
Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.
Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.
Excellently recursive, yes?
I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.
Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.
Nah, not really.
When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:
Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis
Am I right?
I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.
Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.
Me and Elvis
My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.
The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.
I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.
I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).
Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.
(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)
I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.
That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”
What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.
What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3
It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.
My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.
I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.
My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.
This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.
Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4
Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.
The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.
I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.
I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.
Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.
Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)
They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?
Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:
I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.
Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.
Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6
Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?
Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?
Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?
Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.
But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.
I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.
Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.
My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.
Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7
In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.
He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”
“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”
He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?
It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.
At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8
And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.
Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.
But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.
I am no more original than Elvis.
Can Feminists Love Elvis?
But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?
He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.
How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)
In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.
No! Yes! Um, maybe.
Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.
Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.
I adore it.
US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.
Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.
I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.
You all make up stories that go with songs, right?
That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)
Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.
I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.
But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.
So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11
As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.
And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.
My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .
Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.
At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. [↩]
I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. [↩]
What I want to briefly comment on here is the notion that to write about rape or war or any other terrible thing is to automatically condone it. Cassie writes:
[T]he most important point to be made here is that to depict something is not to condone it. This is a mistake that is made all the time by people who you would think would know better. Megan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, excoriated YA books for being too dark, zoning in specifically on “Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling Hunger Games trilogy” and Lauren Myracle’s Shine, which depicts a hate crime against a gay teenager. Anyone paying any attention, of course, can tell that while violence is depicted in the Hunger Games, it is hardly endorsed. It is, in fact, a treatise against violence and war, just as Shine is a treatise against violence and hate crimes. Gurdon notes only the content of the books and ignores the context, which is a unfortunate mistake for a book reviewer. If the only people in the book who approve of something are the villains (nobody but the bad guys thinks the Hunger Games are anything but a moral evil) then it is a fair bet the book is about how that thing is bad.
What Cassie said. If you follow that argument through to its logical conclusion than we who write books marketed at teenagers must not write about conflict. We must only write upbeat, happy books in which no one is hurt or upset and nothing bad ever happens. But even that would not be enough because I have seen books like Maureen Johnson’s The Bermudez Triangle described as “dark.” A gentle, funny, wry book about two girls who fall in love is dark? I’ve seen other upbeat, happy books described as “dark” because the protags have (barely described at all) sex.
The complaint that YA books are too “dark” usually does not come from teenagers. Teenagers write and complain to me that there’s no sequel to my standalone books, that there should be four or five books in my trilogy, that I take too long to write books, that I’m mean about unicorns, that zombies DO NOT rule, that they hated that I don’t make it clear what really happened in Liar, that Liar made them throw the book across the room,1 that their name is Esmeralda/Jason/Andrew so why did I have to make the character with that name in my books so mean, that one of the Fibonacci numbers in Magic Lessons isn’t, in fact, a Fibonacci.2 I also get the occasional complaint that their teacher made them read my book when it SUCKED OUT LOUD. People, that is SO NOT MY FAULT! BLAME YOUR TEACHER!3
But I digress the most annoying part of the “you wrote about it therefore you must approve of it” argument is that it shuts down discussion. If to write about rape or war is to approve of it than there’s nothing else to be said. The actual debate should be about how such fraught parts of human existence are written about.
Which is to agree again with Cassie. Context is everything. Arguing that merely depicting something means condoning it strips away all context, strips away the why and how of the depiction. It says that a book like Toni Morrison’s Beloved is exactly the same as any of John Norman’s Gor books. After all there’s rape and slavery in both of them.
Complaint letters about Liar make up the bulk of the specific complaints I get. [↩]
True fact, I goofed. And since there wasn’t a second edition it’s never been fixed. [↩]
Mostly though teenagers don’t write to complain, which is why I write for them. Just kidding. Sort of. [↩]
Team Human has its first piece of fan art and it hasn’t even been published yet! I am beside myself with excitement. Seriously, I screamed when Sarah Rees Brennan tweeted it.
Unlike many of my YA author friends, my books do not attract a lot of fan art. It would be more accurate to say that they attract almost no fan art at all. Seriously click on the fan art category for this blog and see how little there is. Now go over to Scott’s blog and check out his Fan Art Fridays. Or check out the paucity on deviantART.1
I’ve put it below the cut because it’s spoilery and if you’re anything like me you don’t want to read anything that might even possibly lead to the vague chance of spoilification. So really don’t look at it! Continue reading →
Not that I do that and not that I weep salty tears when I don’t do that. [↩]
This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life in that year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2012. I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” tag.)
This was not a fabulous year for me but it was a whole lot worse for so many other people around the world that whingeing would be tacky. I’ll focus on the good:
Finally, finally, finally we were able to announce, Sarah Rees Brennan and I, that we wrote a book together, Team Human, which is all about how having your best friend fall in love with a vampire SUCKS.1 We had to keep that secret for well over a year and it nearly killed us. It comes out in July in Australia (with Allen & Unwin) and in the United States of America (with Harper Collins). Oh, and it’s totally a real book and not a hoax despite what that lying minx Maureen Johnson says. See, actual real people have read it!
Sarah Rees Brennan has been crazy busy. Not only did she write a book with me but she also sold a whole new trilogy. The first book, Unspoken, will be out in September 2012. (Yes, she has two books out within three months of each other. Yes, she has superpowers.)
It’s SRB’s best book so far. I loved her Demon trilogy2 but Unspoken is even better. I cannot wait for more people to read it so we can all talk about the fantastic things she does with all those delicious Gothic tropes. Seriously, it’s wonderful and I’m convinced that SRB is going to start a Gothic revival.3 In fact, SRB’s made me want to write my own Gothic, which obviously I will have to dedicate to her. It will have an insane house that . . . oh, actually, I think Shirley Jackson wrote that book. Hmmm. I guess I should update that list of writing goals to include Gothic.
Books out this year
There were no new books by me in 2011. It was the first time since 2005 that I went book-less. Turns out I am no longer capable of a book a year. And to think I once attempted two books a year. It is to laugh! From now on it’s more likely to be a book every five years. Maybe.
Books out in 2012 and 2013
Well, except that I will have a book a year for the next two years: Team Human and Team Human: The Sequel of Awesomeness.
Thank you, SRB, for being the best and hardest working and paitentest collaborator a writer could hope for. Without you it would have been an eighteen year gap between my last book, Zombies versus Unicorns in 2010—another collaborative book—you do all see how my lovely writer friends are saving my career, right? Thank you, Holly Black—and my next solo book in 2028.4
Often after a new post from me I get a few people saying, “OMG! You’re writing again! You’re all cured! That’s awesome!”
To which, thanks! It’s really lovely to know that my online jibberings have been missed. But, sadly, no, I am not cured. Still with the RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). Alas and alack. I’m pretty much where I was when I wrote about it a year ago.
What I’m doing is managing the RSI. Figuring out how to get the maximum amount of writing done with the minimum amount of pain, which involves a lot of time and money. I swear I practically have my own staff: physiotherapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, masseur, trainer, pilates instructor.5
I am extremely grateful to all of them while also resentful of the time it takes to buy me a few hours of writing. It does get me down. On the days when I don’t type I have virtually no pain at all. On the days I do type, even if only for a short while, there’s pain. For some strange reason feedback like that is more conducive to lying in bed feeling sorry for yourself than it is to writing.6
Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely fortunate. There are plenty of people who have neither the time nor the money to be able to deal with the ailments that are making their life hellish. Whose ailments are far worse than mine, whose symptoms cannot be managed. I know writers who write with multiple sclerosis, while recovering from strokes, with serious heart conditions, with cancer and so forth.
There are people out there getting all sorts of amazing things done despite the most horrendous obstacles in their way. I admire each and every one of them.
Other Things I am Asked About
Q: How’s your 1930s book going?
A: I am still at work on my 1930s novel. Slowly but surely. I even read a small section of it at the lovely Sirens conference I attended this year. The reception was most pleasing. If you ever have an opportunity to go to Sirens—Do. A smarter, more interesting crowd of readers and writers does not exist.
But, no, the 1930s novel is not any closer to being finished. Best, really to forget I ever mentioned it. Instead watch the wonderful new US tv show SRB said I had to see: Revenge. The heroine is a wicked Nancy Drew, who’s in the Hamptons to revenge her unjustly imprisioned father and she has ninja super powers and the people she gets revenge on are, like, hedge fund managers. I love her so much!
Q: How’s your garden?
A: My garden is doing great. Thanks!
Well, there was the small matter of the accidental drought when the battery went on the irrigation system. But most of the plants survived. It was kind of amazing. All the native violets laid down and died and then the second they felt sweet, sweet water they sprang up and were green and flowering again. Life, I tell you, it’s a miracle.
Those few plants that died I replaced with passionfruit. Because, well, yum. Also it turns out that passionfruit are like triffids. They move when you’re not looking and grow REALLY fast. Though, so far they have not attempted to eat me.
And the drought made my poor freaked out where-has-all-the-water-gone Tahitian lime tree fruit for the first time. Fruit! On a tree! In my garden! Um, yes, I am excited.
And I am starting to win my battle against the slugs. Apparently, they love corn meal. EVEN THOUGH IT KILLS THEM. Mwahahahahah!:
What? They totally deserve it. They were killing my basil and my poor benighted flowering eucalyptus! I have to KILL THEM ALL. NO OTHER PUNISHMENT IS ENOUGH. And, no, I’m not channelling Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke from Revenge because she would think that merely ruining the slugs was sufficient. SHE WOULD BE WRONG. THEY MUST ALL DIE.7
Slugs and accidental droughts aside, my garden is one of the great pleasures in my life. We use the herbs daily. Currently, thyme, rosemary, mint, bay leaves, majoram, oregano, kaffir lime leaves, sage, basil and parsley. There are native bees and rainbow lorikeets sipping from our grevillea flowers. It looks and smells amazing. Every time I get stuck I walk out there breathe deep, kill a few caterpillars, smell a few flowers, chew on some mint and everything is just fine.
Happy new year, everyone! Here’s hoping 2012 will be what you want it to be.
Update: I forgot to put my usual disclaimer at the bottom of this post, which led a few folks to write and suggest I use voice recognition software. So here it is:
This post brought to you by demonic voice misrecognition annoyingware. Apologies for brevity, wrong word choices, weird syntax and occasional incomprehensible swearing.
A question for you, dear readers: what are your favourite long-running series?
Mine is probably Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series. Because it got better and better with each book. The characters and the world grew. It never felt like Mosley was churning them out for a buck. They more than stand up to rereading.
To define my terms: I consider a series long-running if it has six or more books in it. A series can tell one continuous story like Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond books or have same character(s) but different stories in each book.
One of the results of my recent injury, which has meant that I spend no more than four hours at my computer each day, is that I’ve been reading a tonne more. Here are some jetlagged thoughts, without any spoilers, on stuff (of all genres, not just YA) what I have read and loved recently:1
Battle Royale Koushun Takami: Do not read this book if high school students murdering each other in graphic detail appalls you. And let’s be frank, it should appall you. I’m appalled that I was not appalled. But then I kind of like boxing too so clearly I have no moral compass at all. Um, yes, I loved this book. I could not put it down and kind of loved all the characters. It’s the kind of wonderfully well done crackalong pulptastic experience that I think Taratino frequently goes for (but in my opinion largely fails at). Actually, I thought I’d already read this book but it turned out I’d just seen the movie, which is not anywhere near as good. A few people are accusing Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series of being a rip off Battle Royale, which is silly. It’s an old, old plot and her version is very different. I hope that clears things up and people will stop with the dumbarse plagiarism charges. Aside from anything else even if she had deliberately set out to do a YA version of Battle Royale it would still not be plagiarism. Borrowing a plot is not plagiarism. I’m not just saying that cause I had planned to write a YA Battle Royale.2
Bride of the Water God Yun Mi-kyung: I wrote about this manhwa series after I’d finished vol. 2. I said at the time that it has some of the most gorgeous art I’ve ever seen. After five volumes I stand by that. If anything it’s been getting even more beautiful. I also said I didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on. I stand by that too. I love this series. I enjoy it in a clueless haze.
Bury Me Deep Megan Abbott: This crime novel is set in the 1930s thus it was research. W00t! Awesome novel by a writer who’s new to me. I’ll be reading more of her stuff. Lyrical, intense, with gripping plot. Just my cup of tea. If only it had been set in NYC and not LA, it would have been perfect. (For research purposes, I mean.)
Dreaming of Amelia Jaclyn Moriarty: I’m a huge Moriarty fan and this latest addition to her series which began with Feeling Sorry for Celia about a bunch of high school students at two high schools in Sydney, one posh, one not. The beauty of this series is that you can read them out of order without any ill effect but if you read them in order there even better. My faves are this one and Bindy McKenzie. All the books in the series are told from multiple points of view via letters, notes on the fridge, legal depositions, etc etc. They’re technically stunning. It is very hard to tell a gripping, moving story that way. Yet Moriarty not only does it but does it so seamlessly you stop noticing that these are not conventional novels. I love these books.
Enchanted Glass Diana Wynne Jones: I love pretty much everything Wynne Jones has ever written. She is a genius and this is one of my fave books of hers in ages. She’s funny and moving and, well, I just worship her. My only quibble was that the ending was a tad abrupt. But who cares. It was Diana Wynne Jones. More, please!
Pluto Naoki Urasawa: I cannot decide which of the three Urasawa manga series that I’ve read I like best. I love Monster. It’s a bad seed story, what’s not to love? But on the other hand 20th Century Boys is pretty amazing too. And now Pluto is blowing me away. Maybe I’ll have to wait until I’ve finished all of these series to decide.
Piper’s Son Melina Marchetta: Melina’s first adult novel. A kind of sequel to Saving Francesca. This is my favourite book of hers to date. I love love love love loved it. Read it in one sitting and balled my eyes out.3 Walk, don’t run!
The Right Mistake Walter Mosley: I’m yet to dislike a single Walter Mosley book. This was no exception. Though I’ll admit I was nervous. I’m not a big short story person and am quite suspicious of long narratives told in a series of short stories. They’re incredibly hard to pull off. Mosley does it.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II Douglas A. Blackmon. Another research book. This one non-fiction. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on Jim Crow and the colour line for my 1930s book. Right now I would like to make everyone with even the slightest interest in the history of the USA read this book. It absolutely debunks any notion that slavery ended in 1865, try 1945. It makes me even angrier at the waves of Southern propoganda about the Civil War and Reconstruction embodied by books and movies like Gone with the Wind. This book made me want to go back in time and do something to persuade the North not to abandon the South, for Reconstruction to have lasted, say, fifty, or even a hundred years, rather than a mere twelve. Or maybe all that was needed was to put different people on the Supreme Court, who wouldn’t have gutted the Civil Rights amendments in 1883 or ruled wrong on Plessy v Ferguson. For me this was an eye-opening book and has forever changed how I think about US history.
Wench Dolen Perkins-Valdez: This has been getting a lot of buzz online. All of it is deserved. Set in the 1840s and 1850s in the USA about four slave women who are taken to an Ohio resort by their masters. This was another one-sitting read. It’s gorgeously written, incredibly moving, and had me in tears more than once. This book was made even more poignant for me because I read it immediately after Slavery by Another Name and couldn’t help but worry about what was going to happen to these women after Reconstruction.
I loved all of these books and highly recommend them. Be very interested to hear from others who’ve read ‘em. What did you think?
My apologies for how bad that sentence is. And for the bad ones which follow. [↩]
First up here’s one of our lovely Eucalyptus ficifolia or flowering gum. They’re incredibly common here in Sydney. I swear almost every street in Surry Hills is lined with ficifolia. I miss them like crazy when I’m in NYC. Hence the need to have some on the deck:
Isn’t that adorable? Baby ficifolia reminds me of a puppy dog whose feet are way bigger than the rest of it. Only it’s the leaves that are outsized compared to the currently spindly trunk and branches. I do wonder how those branches manage to support the weight of the jumbo leaves. (Why, yes, that is a stake holding it upright.)
Did you notice the native violets (Viola hederacaea) underneath? Eventually those lovely violets will go cascading over the sides of the pots. It will be so gorgeous!
Here’s a close up on some NEW GROWTH. (Um, yes, I am kind of obsessed with the garden. I am aware that plants tend to grow.)
But still that’s actual new growth that happened while it was on our deck. Can you see why it fills my heart with such joy? I swear every morning when I go out to check that they’ve survived the night (*cough* *cough*) I find a new tiny spurt. *sigh of happiness*
Though I also tend to find that some evil beastie has been doing some munching! Grrr.
If I find the culprit I destroys it. How dare it eat our garden?! The outrage! Okay, yes, I know that it’s all part of the beautiful cycle of life and blah blah blah but they can go eat someone else’s baby ficifolia.
I wasn’t sure about having grass trees. They’re so amazing in the wild that I wasn’t convinced they’d look okay confined to a wee pot. But they look incredible. I spend hours on the deck just watching the wind move through their fronds. I think I am in love with our grass trees.
Lastly here is the new view from our bedroom:
That’s Syzygium luehmannii or as it’s more commonly known lilli pilli. There’s now a wall of it guarding our bedroom and giving us good dreams. Bless you, lilli pilli.
And for me to gaze at longingly when I’m far from here. [↩]
As some of you know Alexander McQueen committed suicide earlier this year. He was one of my favourite living designers. I own a shirt, two jackets and a skirt of his. I have gotten a great deal of wear out of them and yet they still look new. They’re gorgeous, exquisitely cut, not to mention comfortable. When I wear them I feel taller and stronger and more stylish. They make me happy.
It’s hard to explain to people with zero interest in fashion why designers like McQueen have such loyal followers. Why his death made me cry. It’s even harder to explain it to people who actively hate fashion. But I want to try.
Clothes like the ones Alexander McQueen made are both something you can wear and what’s more fundamental than clothing? Food, water, shelter, clothing. Those are the basics for keeping us alive. Everyone has some kind of stake in clothing whether they give a damn about their appearance or not. Now, obviously, very few people are buying McQueen just to say warm. His clothes are expensive in the extreme. But the point is that they are wearable. Their performance as clothing is spot on.1
This is one of the most beautiful dresses I’ve ever seen.
McQueen’s clothes at their best are jaw droppingly beautiful. I have the same visceral response to them that I do to any other art that moves me: great paintings, sculpture, music, writing. It’s the same feeling that overwhelms me when I see a truly gorgeous sunset or a spectacular view.
The fact that its wearable art just makes it more extraordinary.
I love the sweep of McQueen’s clothes, the use of so many vibrant beautiful colours. I love me a designer unafraid of colour. But as you can see from the first image above and the first one below he could also rock black and white and grey. I love his attention to detail. When you see these clothes up close you see the care that’s taken at every level, the buttons, the lining, and the fabric. Like Issey Miyake, McQueen’s fabrics were right at the technological cutting edge. Many of the clothes in McQueen’s final collection are printed with digitised images from European art over several centuries. Scott has a shirt of McQueens’ which is a digitised pattern of a baroque jacket. It’s exquisite. Photos of that shirt do not do it justice. As I’m sure these photos don’t come anywhere close to showing just how beautiful McQueen’s final collection was.
I love that McQueen was greatly influenced by fashion of the twenties, thirties and forties. (My favourite fashion decades of the 20th century.) I love that his influences went broader than that. I love how truly inventive he was.
All my McQueen pieces were bought on sale. If I’d been able to, I’d have bought many many more pieces of his, but most of his work was well out of my price range (as they are well out of the reach of the vast majority of the world’s population). One of the major objections to high fashion is that it is obscenely expensive. Who can afford a $10-$1000k (or more) dress? Very few of us. But then who can afford to have an original Modigliani on the wall or have Zaha Hadid design their home?
An artist’s impact is not just in their original art. It is in the light they cast, the inspiration they give, the effect that their work’s existence has on the world. I understand clothing and textiles differently because of Alexander McQueen’s work. More to the point so do other designers and makers of clothes at every level of the fashion industry from Haute Couture through to the High Street.
His influence on my understanding of fashion was strong long before I was lucky enough to buy a few of his pieces. I loved gorgeous fashion long before I could afford to buy any. I adore the work of Vionnet. I own nothing by her. Her clothes, on the rare occasions they’re available, are prohibitevely expensive. They’re often purchased by museums, which I wholeheartedly support. If they’re in private collectors’ hands my and your odds of seeing them drop exponentially. But museums are open to everyone.3
Back to Alexander McQueen. He was a great artist and he will be missed.
I’ll leave you with the last look of his collection. Apparently it made people in the audience cry. I’m with them.
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Kristin Cashore is one of the bright new stars of YA fantasy. I met her at a Books of Wonder event last year and we had a lovely time gossiping talking of serious matters and have been pen pals1 ever since.
- – -
Kristin Cashore is the author of the fantasy novels Graceling and Fire and is working on her third book, Bitterblue. She’s lived in an awful lot of places but has recently moved back to Massachusetts, where she writes in a green armchair with an enormous cup of tea at her elbow. Kristin says:
(A friendly warning to any readers who are afraid of heights: this post and its pictures might be uncomfortable!)
A few trapeze lessons ago, I was up on the platform, getting ready to swing. Now, for a beginning flyer like me, what this means is that I was leaning perilously over the edge of the platform, reaching for the trapeze bar, while an instructor behind me held onto my belt to keep me from falling down into the net. The instructor, Kaz, was giving me my instructions — stomach out, shoulders back, lean forward — and I wanted to do what he said — I even thought I was doing what he said — but actually I wasn’t, not really, not entirely, because, well, as it happens, on occasion, my body has an adverse reaction to the concept of leaning out over a void.
Then Kaz, holding my belt, said a single word: “Trust.” Words are powerful, aren’t they? That word made me understand everything all at once: what I was doing, what I wasn’t doing, what I was afraid of. I understood that Kaz wasn’t going to let go of my belt and drop me; that Steve, holding my lines on the floor below, wasn’t going to drop me either; and that Jon, swinging in the catch trap on the other side of the void, was going to do everything in his power to catch me when the time came. I trusted these guys. So I leaned myself out the way I was supposed to, and when I heard my call . . . I jumped, swung, and FLEW.
I’ve been thinking a lot about trust. Nothing in the world works without it, but even when it’s working, it doesn’t always make sense, does it? Trust is one of those words that means what it means, but also means the opposite of what it means, if you get what I mean. In other words, trust is about choosing to believe in something, even while knowing it might not exist. It’s about throwing yourself into something wholeheartedly, deciding to be certain about something, despite your uncertainty. Have you heard the saying, “Leap, and the net will appear?”
(They really shouldn’t let writers on the flying trapeze. There are too many impossible-to-resist metaphors.)
In my current work in progress, my protagonist, Bitterblue, a very young queen, doesn’t know whom to trust. She’s so turned around that she doesn’t even trust her own instincts about trust. Trust is stupid, she thinks at one point. What’s the true reason I’ve decided to trust [this person]? Certainly his work recommends him, his choice of friends; but isn’t it just as much his voice? I like to hear him say words. I trust the deep way he says, “Yes, Lady Queen.”
Why do I trust the instructors at my trapeze school? There’s something about their focus, their no-nonsense instructions, their calm demeanors, and the way they are completely accepting of people who are frightened or people who struggle. I keep expecting the instructors at trapeze school to tell me I don’t belong there. To make fun of me when I wipe out. To tell me I’m not learning fast enough. Instead, they explain that it doesn’t matter how slowly I learn. They tell me that my lessons will always be tailored to me, to my own personal abilities and limits. They are all superior athletes; they could flip circles around me on the trapeze. I have never considered myself an athlete, not once in my entire life, and I have a lot of strength and flexibility work to do if I truly want to advance on the trapeze. But they’re okay with that. They get that I, and most of my classmates, are baby trapezers. They treat us with respect despite how little we can do. And lo and behold, I reciprocate — by trusting them, quite literally, with my life.
Why do you trust the people you trust?
Writing is also about trust, of course. For example, I trust my early readers with my manuscripts; I choose them as early readers because I trust them to be honest, but respectful. I trust my editor because we’ve been through enough rounds of manuscripts and editorial letters and revisions and re-revisions for me to understand that she trusts me. And I also trust her because I trust myself; I trust myself to figure out when I agree with her and when I disagree, and I trust myself not to cave under pressure if I feel strongly about something. And I trust her opinions, even when I disagree, to be well-worth pondering and playing around with. I trust her to have good reasons for her criticisms.
Are you a writer? Do you feel discouraged sometimes, and wonder if you have any right to be writing? Are you depressed by the pile of crap you wrote yesterday? Well, for the record, I’m depressed by the pile of crap I wrote yesterday, too :), and just so you know, I get it. I know just how hard it is to keep faith in yourself when you’re writing. Will you trust me when I tell you that I believe in you? That the pile of crap is fixable, and writing is learnable, and being the creator of something is a risk — a leap — worth taking?
I don’t have anything profound to say about trust here… just that I think about it a lot, in my own life, in my characters’ lives, in my writing, in my relationships, in the car when I’m surrounded by crazy drivers — and on the trapeze. And I’m curious to hear any thoughts y’all have about it!
I’ll close with an illustration of the trapeze triangle of trust.
As you gaze upon the picture above, no doubt you’re admiring my socks and the chalk all over my ass, but what I’d really like you to notice is the disembodied arm in the right background. That arm belongs to the instructor on the platform, who, during this particular swing, was Jon. Jon helped me during my takeoff, reminding me of my form, giving me tips for the trick I was about to do, and holding my belt, pre-takeoff, so I didn’t fall off.
Perhaps, like me, you’re impressed with the photographer who took the photo above. Notice my hands? Somehow, the photographer managed to capture the exact moment in this trick where I let go of the trapeze in preparation for straightening myself out to be caught by the catcher. However, what I really want you notice is the carabiner attached to the belt around my waist. That carabiner, and another on the other side hidden behind my whooshing pony-tail, is connected to my rope lines, which pass through loops in the ceiling and back down to the floor, straight into the strong and capable hands of the instructor standing there, who happened to be Theresa when this picture was taken. If I miss my catch, or do anything wrong at any moment, Theresa will pull on the lines to break my fall into the net so that I land safely.
Finally, while you are no doubt fascinated by the view up my nose in the photo above, what I’d really like you to focus on are the hands reaching from the left, snatching me out of thin air. Those hands belong to Mike, who is swinging back and forth from his knees, upside down, in the catch trapeze. If I hadn’t trusted Mike to be there? I wouldn’t have flung myself off the trapeze with enough aggression. But I did trust him, and there he was.
BTW, I know these tricks can be pretty hard to parse from still photographs. If you care to see what this trick, called the “set straddle whip,” looks like in action, go to this page, scroll down, and watch the short video. That’s not me, and that’s not my trapeze school, but it’s pretty much what I was doing.
One last BTW — For anyone interested in flying, there are schools all over the world — you might be surprised to find one near you! I can vouch that TSNY has schools in New York, Boston, Washington DC, and Los Angeles.
I love the phrase “pen pal.” It’s so corny. Espcially as I have not used a pen to write a letter since I was a kid. “Pal” also has a deliciously archaic sound to me. Seriously who calls their friends their “pals”? [↩]
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today’s guest blogger is Baby Power Dyke whose blog I discovered last year and instantly fell in love with. She’s rude, smart and funny. We have shared crushes on Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Lacewell. So, clearly, she has excellent tase. She is my kind of a gal.
- – -
Baby Power Dyke is a smartass. She’s an actor in New York City who is terrible about auditions. She lives in Brooklyn with the love of her life, who is also an actor and is muchMUCH better about auditions. Nonprofitting supports her blogging and acting habits. She loves cheese. She was born on April Fool’s Day and thinks that because of that, she receives the best birthday presents ever. She’s terrible about mail. Her personal theme songs are “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” by Barbra Streisand.
It is Black History Month and boy am I feeling the love.
Just yesterday Rush Limbaugh (or as I like to think of him, the Phantom Menace) derisively referred to the health care reform bill which is swimming its way upstream through Congress as a “civil rights bill” and “reparations.” To be clear, what he means by using “civil rights bill” and “reparations” as a pejorative is “this health care bill is another attempt by the lowly, lazy, complaining Black folk to take bread from the mouths of hard-working honest White Americans. First they took February, what’s next? March?.”
Last week the fine gentlemen of Pi Kappa Alpha decided to throw a party to “honor” Black History Month which included a very helpful how-to for the ladies so that they might properly comport themselves as “Ghetto chicks.”
Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes—they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red. They look and act similar to Shenaynay, and speak very loudly, while rolling their neck, and waving their finger in your face. Ghetto chicks have a very limited vocabulary, and attempt to make up for it, by forming new words, such as “constipulated”, or simply cursing persistently, or using other types of vulgarities, and making noises, such as “hmmg!”, or smacking their lips, and making other angry noises,grunts, and faces.
But it was John Mayer (singer, songwriter, Poor Man’s Stevie Ray Vaughn) that got the month started off right with an interview that he did for Playboy where he proved that he doesn’t have the good sense (or graces) that God gave Kanye West.
MAYER: Star magazine at one point said I was writing a tell-all book for $10 million. On Star’s cover it said what a rat! My entire life I’ve tried to be a nice guy.
PLAYBOY: Do black women throw themselves at you?
MAYER: I don’t think I open myself to it. My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.
PLAYBOY: Let’s put some names out there. Let’s get specific.
MAYER: I always thought Holly Robinson Peete was gorgeous. Every white dude loved Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And Kerry Washington. She’s superhot, and she’s also white-girl crazy. Kerry Washington would break your heart like a white girl. Just all of a sudden she’d be like, “Yeah, I sucked his dick. Whatever.” And you’d be like, “What? We weren’t talking about that.”
That’s an official Nice Guy FAIL.
These harbingers of Black History Month can get a girl a little down.
But not me. I am thankful that I have a partner who loves and cherishes me for the supreme delight that I am.
I am also thankful for the amazing strong black women (SBW) that I have in my life as role-models. Without my mother, Oprah Winfrey and Barbra Streisand, my confidence in my smokingness (both intellectual and physical) might have been dimmed by that young-man whose mother must be really ashamed of him right now and who is actually making me sympathize with that Jennifer Aniston person.
But lately I realize that I’ve been leaving out one deserving woman in my SBW list of might: RuPaul.
Nownownow, I know what you’re saying, “But BPD, RuPaul’s been around since forever how come it’s taken you so long?” Really, I have no excuse.
From the revelatory, Super Model, with its clarion cry that got me through many a grueling show choir rehearsal (damn you mirrored gym) to the present RuPaul’s Drag Race—which is not about cars1 —RuPaul has given me the balls to get through the tough times. RuPaul has made me the man I am today. And by man, I mean small black lesbian gay-dandy.2
When I’m about to do something that seems super important, I think, “You better work, bitch!” I chant, “It’s time to lip-synch for your life!” when it’s time for me to move mountains.
RuPaul is about knowing who you are and owning your fabulousness. RuPaul is about ripping people’s faces off with your fierceness and leaping in your stilettos over the shit. Most importantly RuPaul is not about some trifling mess of a boy that even Ghandi would slap.
With Ru and the other SBW in my life, I know my worth. I’m not even going to sweat it. Because I know, that despite how hurtful and how hateful what John Mayer said was, it’s not about me. It’s not about any other woman of color (or woman, frankly) in the world. It’s about him and the dick-shrivel that he is. I’m not waiting for the world to change. I am the change that I seek in the world. I am the light that I want to see. I am fabulous. I am fierce. I am magnificent.
Come for me, bitches.
But just . . . can we all agree that if RuPaul hosted a muscle car show with, say, Joan Rivers or Tina Turner—that pair would be a mother-fucking wig-off—that show would be ridiculously awesome. [↩]
2010 is the year of the bow-tie. Look out people! [↩]
First a confession: I love Sir Kingsley Amis. That’s why the heading of this post says “Kingsley & I” rather than “Kingsley & me” (which is my preference cause I reckon it sounds better) but not old Kingsley, he was a sucker for good grammar.1 I does not wish to offend him.2
I love Kingsley Amis for so many reasons. Because he’s dead funny, because he wrote in pretty much every genre, and because his main writing concerns were story and characterisation. Thus one of my favourite anecdotes about him goes like this:
Kingsley Amis is listening to a radio interview with his son Martin Amis, in which Amis Junior says of his latest novel that it really must be read twice in order to be fully appreciated. At which point Amis Senior says, “Well, then he’s buggered it up, hasn’t he?”
Too right. In case you’re worried about animosity between father and son, by all accounts they got on well, and there was much affection between them. They just had very different outlooks on writing. It happens.
I first came across Sir Kingsley when I was researching my PhD thesis on science fiction. His New Maps of Hell from 1960 was by far the wittiest, smartest, and most enjoyable book on science fiction I came across.3 That it was written by an established non-genre writer was astounding. It’s hard in these oh-so-much-more-tolerant days to convey just how much contempt was felt by the literati for us lowly genre writers. Why, back then even crime fiction (which Amis also loved) carried a stigma. But Kingsley Amis cared not a jot and wrote whatever he pleased: mysteries, science fiction, books about James Bond. I would love him for this alone.
Like me, he had an opinion on pretty much everything.4 (Though, um, his would only rarely, if ever, line up with mine.) In fact, I think he would have made a fabulous blogger. His non-fiction writing, espcially in newspapers, is chatty, unpretentious and instantly disarming:
Only one reader by her own account a hotelier and Tory [conservative] activist who’s also been a probation officer, took serious issue with me. “Your writing,” she stated, “is getting more and more biased and entrenched in reactionary fuddy-duddyism.” An excellent summing-up, I thought, of my contribution to the eighties’ cultural scene.
The quote comes from his writing on booze. Sir Kingsley was a boozer. He wrote three books on the subject, which are now handily collected in the one volume, Everyday Drinking, The Distilled Kingsley Amis. It’s wonderful and I say this as someone who pretty much disagrees with every word.
Sir Kingsley Amis’ drinks of choice were spirits and beer. He also had an inordinate fondness for cocktails and the book includes many recipes, including one for a Lucky Jim.5 I am a wine drinker,6 with little taste for cocktails, spirits or beer. Kingsley loved gin. I loathe it. Kingsley considered the Piña Colada a “disgusting concoction” and an “atrocity.” I love a properly made piña with fresh pineapple juice, fresh coconut milk and cream, and a dash of dark rum. Though really I just love coconut and pineapple—I’d happily skip the rum. He also considered combining beer and limes to be an “exit application from the human race” whereas I consider lime to be the only thing that makes most beer even vaguely palatable.
I also adore the French white wines he hates the most:
But the dry ones are mostly too dry to suit me, whether with food or solo. That’s if dry is the right word. I mean more than the absence of sweetness—I mean the quality that makes the saliva spurt into my mouth as soon as the wine arrives there. Perhaps I mean what wine experts call crispness or fintiness or even acidity, which for some mysterious reason they think is a good thing in wine. But whatever you call it, I don’t want it. Chablis, the average white Mâcon, Muscadet, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé—not today, thank you.
That’s fine, Kingsley. I’ll drink them!7 Well, not the average ones. Only the best, please!
He has scathing things to say about the Irish. Doesn’t think they could possibly have invented the process of making whiskey.8 Boo, Kingsley! Some of my best friends are Irish. Snobby, pommy bastard, you!9
So what was I doing reading a book I kept yelling “boo” at? Have I mentioned how funny Kingsley is? Here he is discussing the essentials for a good home bar kit:
1. A refrigerator. All to yourself, I mean. There is really no way around this. Wives and such are constantly filling any refigerator they have a claim on, even its ice-compartment, with irrelevant rubblish like food.
8. A really very sharp knife. (If you want to finish the evening with your usual number of fingers, do any cutting-up, peel-slicing and the like before you have more than a couple of drinks, perferably before your first.)
Oh, Kingsley! How did you cope with those pesky wives and such?10 And food, irrelevant? My heart is so sad for you. I will go eat a nectarine. *gobbles* Ah, better.
Then once he’s given you his list of ten essentials he tells you what he ommitted:
Half the point of the above list is what it leaves out. The most important and controversial of your non-needs is a cocktail shaker. With all respect to James Bond, a martini should be stirred, not shaken. The case is a little different with drinks that include the heavier fruit-juices and liqueurs, but I have always found that an extra minute’s stirring does the trick well enough. The only mixture that does genuinely need shaking is one containing eggs, and if that is your sort of thing, then clear off and buy youself a shaker any time you fancy. The trouble with the things is that they are messy pourers and, much more important, they are far too small, holding half a dozen drinks at the outside. A shaker about the size of a hatbox might be worth pondering, but I have never seen or heard of such.
I am now trying to imagine operating a hatbox-sized cocktail shaker. Maybe if Yao Ming was the bartender? Which, oddly enough, is something I would like to see.
I also greatly enjoyed his instructions for making sugar syrup (simple syrup):
A bottle of sugar syrup, a preperation continually called for in mixed-drink books. To have a supply of it will save you a lot of time. . . Concoct it yourself by the following simple method:
Down a stiff drink and keep another by you to see you through the ordeal. . . [instructions] Your bottleful will last for months, and you will have been constantly patting yourself on the back for your wisdom and far-sightedness.
Reading Kingsley on booze is like reading novels from the 1930s-1950s. The adults are drinking all the time. With breakfast, lunch, before dinner, during dinner, after dinner, before bed (night cap!). Was anyone ever sober? It is a miracle that anything at all was achieved in those decades in the US, UK or Australia.11
Sir Kingsley sadly discusses the growing ubiquitousness of wine. But I can’t help thinking that the largely lower alcoholic content of wine (lower than spirits and cocktails anyways) combined with the prevelance of it being drunk with food, is a good thing. Wine cultures tend not to have as much alcoholism as, say, vodka cultures. Compare and contrast France with Russia.
Kingsley explains his own lack of wine appreciation12 thus:
Now we reach the point at which my credentials become slightly less than impeccable. With all those drinks I have got through, what I have not done is drink first-rate table wines at their place of origin, work my way through classic vintages and develop an educated palate. To do that, what you really need, shorn of the talk, is a rich father, and I missed it.
I missed that one, too, Sir Kingsley. But I’ve muddled along okay without. I may not know much about the very best Bourdeaux but I does know which wines I like, you know, like a good Pouilly-Fume. Or “pooey fumes” as me and my classy friends call it.
Anyways, bless you, Sir Kingsley Amis, for poking fun at yourself, at wine and booze, and almost everything else. For your classy deployment of sarcasm, irony, and out-and-out wit. Tonight I will raise a glass of the wine you hated most in your honour.13
He would be appalled by my grammar, spelling, and punctuation skills. Or lack thereof. Sorry, Kingsley. [↩]
Though I do feel free to use his first name. I guess I’ve been reading him for so long I feel that we are now mates. A very safe feeling what with him being dead and all. [↩]
I disagreed with much of it, but that’s neither here nor there. [↩]
Toilet paper goes over the roll, people, not under! [↩]
Many people believe that Amis’ Lucky Jim was one of the funniest British novels of the 20th century. I’d definitely put it up there with Cold Comfort Farm. [↩]
I mean if I were a drinker that’s what I would drink. Though obviously as as writer of YA I don’t drink. So clearly everything in this post is on the hypothetical side. [↩]
Er, in my mind, I will. Not in real life. YA writer. [↩]
My romance reading project continues and I realise that I haven’t explained what the project is. Very remiss of me! A few of the many books I’m writing at the moment are romances. I’m using that term very broadly to mean not just the publishing genre, but pretty much any book in which the romance between two or more characters is a big part of the overall story. To put it in fandom terms, I guess I’m talking about the kinds of stories that lend themselves to shipping.
For a long while now I’ve been aware that writing romance is not my strong point. While I love many of them as a reader, somehow I’m not quite able to write that magic myself. So I decided to school myself in the ways of good romance writing. Which involves me reading and thinking about my favourite romances, like those by Jane Austen. And now I am on to the marvellous Margaret Mahy, who, along with Diana Wynne Jones, is my favourite YA writer. They’re two of my faves across any genre. Unusual, awkward but beautiful romances are Mahy’s specialty. I heart them.
Now I can assume that most people have read all of Jane Austen’s novels or at least seen the movies and so know the plots.1 But I can’t make such an assumption with Margaret Mahy’s oeuvre. Although she is one of the most influential YA writers of all time, there are still an astonishing number of mad keen YA readers and writers who don’t know her work. Seriously, people, you need to fix that. If you have not read Margaret Mahy or Diana Wynne Jones than there’s a ginormous hole in your understanding of the genre.
Okay, I’m off the soap box now. But if you have not read The Changeover (1984) you need to go away now. I am about to spoil you something rotten.
Every time I re-read one of Mahy’s books I’m struck all over again by what a gorgeous writer she is and I decide that whichever book I’m re-reading is my fave. But The Changeover really is my favourite. The family life is so vivid and real. The Chant family reminds me of many families I’ve known even a little bit of my own. All of Mahy’s characters are vivid and real. The relationship between Laura Chant and her single working mum, Kate, is perfectly drawn as is the relationship between Laura and her wee brother, Jacko, whose magically induced illness is at the heart of the book. And it’s funny. Mahy’s wit is sly and clever and warm. Oh, and scary and chilling. The moment when the evil Carmody Braque stamps poor Jacko is creepy as hell.
But I’m here to talk about Laura Chant and Sorenson (Sorry) Carlisle. I mentioned in my comments on Persuasion that one of the things I love so much about Anne & Wentworth is that they are equals. What about Laura & Sorry. For starters Sorry is 18 and Laura 14. He’s a knowledgeable witch from a family of them. Laura’s only just discovering her powers. Her decision to become a witch is one of the changeovers referred to by the title. So he’s older, more knowledgeable, and possibly wiser. (Though only in some areas). He’s also broken and Laura is not. One of the more moving changeovers is Sorry’s gradual transformation into someone who can feel again.
I also love that The Changeover is all getting-to-know-you romantic tension. You see them falling for each other, but Laura and Sorry do not get together at the end of the book. At the end Sorry goes off to work with wildlife and Laura continues on at school. Which, well, good. She’s fourteen! She can settle down later, say in ten or twenty years time. Most of us do not meet our one true love when we are fourteen.2
Together forever or not, Laura & Sorry are one of my favourite YA couples. Up there with Sophie & Howl.
So what do I take away from this re-read? Nothing particularly new. Just more confirmation that for this reader a romance only truly works if the characters are warmly and convincingly written. I need to know and care about them to care about them in order to care about their love life. I also need to see and believe that they would fall for each other and that it’s more than physical desire. (Northanger Abbey did not work for me on that front.)
What’s your take on Laura & Sorry?
Though, people, seeing any of the movies—even the good ones without Gwyneth Paltrow in them—is NOT the same as reading the books. [↩]
Actually, most of us never meet them. I know that sounds cynical but it’s true. [↩]
I recently read House of Mirth by Edith Wharton for the first time and I was gutted. Unlike, most USians, who’ve at least some inkling of what to expect from a Wharton book I had zero expectations or, rather, zero correct expectations. Wharton is not nearly so well known here as she is in her native country. Those Aussies who do know Wharton tend to know her from the Hollywood adaptations of her novels. I have managed to see none of them. So, I went in to the House of Mirth blind, like a lamb to the slaughter. Let me tell you: There was NO mirth.
I also went in kind of expecting her to be the USA’s Jane Austen. I have no idea why. It was a wrong expectation. For starters there was no happy ending. It was the bleakest most horrible ending imaginable. And the awfulness started about half way through the book, which is when I first started weeping. But it kept getting worse. And worse and even worse. Until it had the worst ending of all time and I was crying so hard snot was pouring out of my nose.
Thanks a bunch, Edith Wharton! If you weren’t already dead . . .
Have I mentioned that it’s a wonderful book? That Wharton is a brilliant writer? That Lily Bart’s dilemma is what ties her to Jane Austen? For there is a connection even across an ocean and nearly a century: their books are about the same matter: what are the options for women of a certain class? Women who are expected to marry “well”?
Marriage, or dependence on relatives, or ruin, or attempting to work at crappy jobs despite never being trained to be anything but ornamental. It’s grim. And Wharton shows just how grim.
I will definitely be reading more Wharton but I’m not exactly looking forward to it. Miserable endings are difficult. And I say that as someone whose has many favourite books that do not end at all well1 I have to steel myself to read them or I have to be in the mood for a good cry.
There’s something very vulnerable about reading. When I am immersed in a good book I feel so utterly consumed by it that an unhappy ending, the death of a favourite character can totally wreck me. My defenses are down. I cannot cope with the enormity of loss and grief and sorrow. Even though it’s not real. Movies, theatre and television never affect me so badly.2 But there’s something about the intimacy and privacy of reading that increases the emotional impact of a story.
Which is why I understand those readers who won’t read books with unhappy endings. I am in total sympathy with the need for reading that doesn’t take you to a scary, uncomfortable, or painful place. I was not quite in the right place for House of Mirth. I imagine it will be some time before I am brave enough to read it again.
How about youse lot? How many of you need a happy ending? Do any of you read the end first to see if it’s safe?
To be expected when two of your favourite writers are Toni Morrison and Jean Rhys. [↩]
Though they all make me cry on occasion. I am a massive sook. [↩]
Well, that was pure unalloyed pleasure. Though I wish I’d written this post immediately after finishing Persuasion, rather than now, when I’m still in post traumatic stress from having just read House of Mirth for the first time.1
Heh hem. Persuasion. Love it. Remains my favourite Jane Austen. With Pride & Prejudice only slightly behind. As I’m doing all this (re)reading in order to think about romance and heroines let’s start there.
The Romance: This books seethes. It’s full of glances, almost everything between Anne & Wentworth is unspoken. Until they get to Bath that is, which doesn’t happen until at least two thirds into the book. The scene where Wentworth writes his passionate letter remains one of my favourites in any book ever. I first read Anne’s speech as a littlie but I still hug it to my chest. Here’s a fave bit:
“If you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
I love that Wentworth is not of noble birth. I love that Anne learns that who you are is much more important than what you were born. Though it does seem she never cared about birth or status because she was more than happy to marry Wentworth at 19. It was smelly Lady Russell who talked her out of it. I like to think that Russell learns at the end of the book that you can be born a prince and still be a vulgar moron, like Anne Elliot’s father, but I find myself not entirely believing it. She’s just a bit too smug and satisfied by her own opinions for my liking. Yet unlike Sir Walter or Anne’s sisters she’s smart so there’s less excuse for it.
One thing I was struck by in this read was Jane Austen’s critique of the artificial means by which romances keep their lovers apart. At the time I’m not sure it was the staple of romance that is now.2 But I can’t tell you how many Romances I’ve read or romcoms I’ve watched where the stupid misunderstanding/transparent lie by “best friend”/missdelivered letter/whatever that has kept the lovers apart is tissue thin and unbelievable. In Persuasion I believe it. Yet here is Wentworth realising they could have been together sooner:
“But I too have been thinking over the past, and a question has suggested itself, whether there may not have been one person more my enemy even than that lady? My own self. Tell me if, when I returned to England in the year eight, with a few thousand pounds, and was posted into the Laconia, if I had then written to you, would you have answered my letter? Would you, in short, have renewed the engagement then?”
“Would I!” was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough.
I can’t help reading that as a swipe at all the dumb misunderstandings that are used over and over that could be so simply resolved. But, of course, in Persuasion Wentworth’s reasons for not trying to reconcile sooner are perfectly clear: He thinks his chances are zero. The Elliots and Lady Russell were perfectly vile. They persuaded the love of his life to dump his arse. And BEING DUMPED? It takes a while to recover. Only the Mr Collineses of the world keep on trying and that’s only because they don’t get they’ve been dumped. As soon as they do they’re off with the nearest Charlotte.
I love Anne and Wentworth’s relationship. I love that it’s agony to them when they are not able to speak and when they are at last, the words come gushing out. There is so much to share, so much to tell that only the other would understand. I love Anne’s restraint and well, manliness. And Wentworth’s womanly passion. It’s he that’s always trembling with emotion, not Anne. LOVE THAT.
I’d also forgotten how funny Persuasion is, you know, in between the seething passion. This bit where Sir Elliot is unhappy with the women and men of Bath cracks me up. Tell me you haven’t known someone like this:
“He hoped she might make some amends for the many very plain faces he was continually passing in the streets. The worst of Bath was the number of its plain women. He did not mean to say that there were no pretty women, but the number of the plain was out of all proportion. He had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thirty, or five-and-thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop on Bond Street, he had counted eighty-seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them. It had been a frosty morning, to be sure, a sharp frost, which hardly one woman in a thousand could stand the test of. But still, there certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced. He had never walked anywhere arm-in-arm with Colonel Wallis (who was a fine military figure, though sandy-haired) without observing that every woman’s eye was upon him; every woman’s eye was sure to be upon Colonel Wallis.” Modest Sir Walter! He was not allowed to escape, however. His daughter and Mrs Clay united in hinting that Colonel Wallis’s companion might have as good a figure as Colonel Wallis, and certainly was not sandy-haired.
I know that’s a long quote but I could not resist. Modest Sir Walter, indeed.
In conclusion: Persuasion rocks out loud. And if I ever write a romantic heroine as strong and principled and honourable yet not boring or annoying as Anne Elliot then I will die a very happy writer. Persuasion is an incredible contrast with House of Mirth. Both Anne and Lily Bart’s existence are constrained by expectations of their class and sex. Anne cannot sail off to sea to make her fortune without forfeiting everything. And Lily can be disgraced as a whore, while still a virgin. I ached for both of them. My compassion for Charlotte and her dreadful marriage in Pride and Prejudice embiggened once again. I’m so glad I was born when I was and not when they were.
Note: This is not the place to declare your hatred of Jane Austen. We’re here to discuss our love. I’m sure there’s a Jane Austen haters forum you can find somewhere to share your hate. Yes, your hate will be deleted. Yes, I had to delete quite a number of JA haters from the Northanger Abbey discussion.
More on that in another post. Complete with a detailed description of just how hard I wish to shake Selden and Lily Bart. Aaargh! [↩]
At the time there was no Romance with a capital R . . . [↩]
Well, that was a long break, wasn’t it? I return refreshed and ready to resume blogging activities.
First boring admin: I have yet to tackle my mail, given all the totally urgent work on my plate, I won’t get to it until the new year. Resend if urgent. I do try to answer all mail so if I still don’t answer in January could be my spam filters ate it.
It’s a very interesting discussion of covers. I’ve been working on a big fat post about covers for a while now. One of the things I talk about the divide between the way people who’ve read a book see the cover as opposed to those who have not. People forget that most covers designs are aimed at the people who haven’t read the book and haven’t heard of the author. Cassandra Mortmain’s1 discussion of the rejacketing of the Ruby Oliver books perfectly illustrates that divide. She’s unhappy with the new jackets but also hopes that it will bring in new readers. Her and me both.
I’ve thought for ages that the Ruby Oliver books were being overlooked. Just because they’re fluffy and light does not mean that they don’t also have a lot to say about sex and gender in high school. It bugs me how often light books that tackle serious subjects just don’t register with many critics and award committees. For my money every one of the Ruby books should be garlanded with every award going. Cassandra Mortmain agrees with me. Most pleasing.
If you haven’t read the Ruby Oliver books. I strongly recommend that you do so. Rather than me explaining them, let Ruby tell you about the first book, The Boyfriend List:
WHAT HAPPENED, YOU WANT TO KNOW?
In the same ten days I —
lost my boyfriend (boy #13)
lost my best friend
lost all my other friends
learned gory details about my now-ex boyfriend’s sexual adventures
did something shockingly advanced with boy #15
did something suspicious with boy #10
had an argument with boy #14
drank my first beer
got caught by my mom
lost a lacrosse game
failed a math test
hurt Meghan’s feelings
became a leper
and became a famous slut.
Enough to give anyone panic attacks, right?
I was so overwhelmed by the horror of the whole debacle that I had to skip school for a day to read mystery novels, cry, and eat spearmint jelly candies.
The Ruby Oliver book in order are: The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map of Boys, Real Live Boyfriends (out next year). Read them!
That is all.
This is a pen name. For those of you who don’t know Cassandra Mortmain is the protag of the marvellous I Capture the Castle. Yes, my feet are in the sink as I write this. [↩]
I have fallen in love with yet another city. Istanbul is glorious. We have met with our lovely agent here, Asli Ermiş, who took us to meet our publishers, Omer Yenici at Epsilon (who will be publishing Leviathan) and Ilgin Toydemir at Artemis (who will be publishing Liar and already publish Midnighters). They in turn took us out for fabulous lunches.
A baklava shop, which sells many sweet and wondrous things. Yes, we bought and we ate.
The Egyptian spice market.
I am of the school that finds Turkish Delight delightful. In fact, even Scott liked the Turkish Delight here and he claims to hate it on account of its grandma soap taste. The Turkish Delight in Istanbul is the best I’ve ever had.
Ciya, my favourite restaurant so far. So many things I’d never tasted before in my life. All of it really good. If I could live at Ciya, I would. A multi-course meal for the two of us cost under forty USD (that’s together, not each). And we ate an INSANE amount of food, and drank mulberry and other fruit juices of wonder.
Brunch at the Four Seasons. This is the dessert station.
Once again my apologies for not posting or responding to mail and comments. We are too busy eating and seeing the glorious sights. This is the first real holiday I’ve had in a long time and I’m enjoying it muchly.
Today (yesterday) I had my last school events of the Liar tour at Joliet West High School and Glenbard South High School in the outer suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. The students at both schools were amazing and asked many smart, engaged, funny questions. It was a total pleasure to meet you all. Thank you.
Wow, huh? Cristina also had to write an essay about the painting and I couldn’t help laughing when she wrote this:
Honestly, the hardest part of the project was the ESSAY. I mean, I think I finally understand** why authors moan so much about the “where do you get your ideas” “how did you came up with X idea” kind of question. Because it IS hard to answer!
That’s exactly it. So much easier to write a novel then to explain where it came from. I’ve spent the last few weeks explaining where Liar came from. And honestly? It was mostly bunkum. I don’t really know where it came from. It just is. I can talk to you all day long about the process of writing with lots of singing the praises of Scrivener but ideas? Ideas are magic. No one knows where they come from.
Today Louisville’s Courier-Journal has a most excellent article about adults reading YA by Erin Keane. I don’t just say that because I was interviewed for it, but because the article is smart and non-sensationalist, and includes some actual facts:
Young adult fiction’s appeal has grown way beyond the school library. What was once considered entertainment for kids has become big business for adults, who are increasingly turning to the children’s section for their own reading pleasure, according to publishing experts.
Nielsen’s BookScan predicted U.S. book sales will remain flat this year, but amid this industry slump, sales of young-adult titles are expected to continue to rise. It’s not only teenagers who are browsing the shelves
There’s no hint of panic about this anywhere in the article. In fact, you get the impression that adults reading the amazingly wonderful YA books out there is a good thing.
In the last few weeks I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the writing of Liar and making much use of jigsaws as a metaphor to describe said writing. Turns out that Margaret Drabble has also been thinking long and hard about jigsaw puzzles—longer and harder than me, truth be told—1 and has written a whole book on the subject: The Pattern In The Carpet, which I am now longing to read.
You all need to listen to this interview with Margaret Drabble about her personal history with jigsaws. Romana Koval is one of my favourite interviewers and the whole thing is utterly delightful from start to finish. Though Drabble does maintain that there are no similarities between jigsaws and novels. Thus she rather handily demolishes the whole premise of my presentation about the writing of Liar. Thank you very much, Dame Margaret.
She’s wrong about that, okay?
And if you’re in Philadelphia I will explain to you in detail why she is wrong on Thursday night:
Thursday, 29 October, 7:00 pm
551 Carpenter Ln
Now go listen to the Dame being witty and (mostly) wise.
In other news the Austin Teen Book Festival was truly wondrous and I’ll explain to you in detail why at some point in the future when my brain is fully functional.
For those asking about all those posts I promised to write way back when:
b) the rest of those posts are still brewing but they will appear here before too long,
c) the Srivener and Liar post is getting closer to postability. Talking about writing Liar with Scrivener in the past few weeks has changed the shape of the post somewhat,
d) It’s astonishing how hard it is to blog on tour what with the variable connectivity and the extreme fatigue,
e) I’ll still take requests but may not fulfill them until tour is over.
Lovely to meet so many of you over the past few weeks. I look forward to meeting Philly and Chicago peeps and answering all your questions. Maybe I’ll finally get an audience who have all read Liar and thus be able to tell you the true ending. Fingers crossed!
Though can truth be told when I’m discussing Liar? [↩]
Today, as I’m sure you know, is the official release day of Scott Westerfeld‘s latest novel, Leviathan. I am completely biased about this book. As I am about Scott. He’s my husband, my best friend, my first reader, my ally, my So Many Things. We read and critique every word each other writes. His books are my books and vice versa. So, um, you can totally grain-of-salt what I’m about to say.
I think this trilogy is the best YA Scott has written.1 I’ve loved it ever since he first started talking about it five or more years ago. An alternative universe of Darwinists and Clankers. Message lizards! Whale airships! An aristocrat passing as a commoner, a girl passing as a boy. These are so many of my favourite things.
But best of all is Derryn Sharp the aforementioned girl passing as a boy so she can serve on an air ship. She’s smart, funny, warm, brave, wonderful and curses marvellously and inventively! Barking spiders, I adore her. Here is a speech she imagines while floating high above London having her air sense tested:
“Hey, all you sods, I can fly and you can’t! A natural airman, in case you haven’t noticed. And in conclusion, I’d like to add that I’m a girl and you can all get stuffed!”
I love her. I guarantee you will too.
And if a new book from Scott, which is way better than Uglies,2 isn’t enough for you. This one is illustrated with the most jaw dropingly fabulous art ever. Mr Keith Thompson is a genius.
There you have it: Leviathan is not only a wonderful story but a gorgeous object d’art. Just wait till you see the endpapers!
I may be slightly jumping the gun because I’ve only read the first two books, Leviathan and Behemoth (which will be out this time next year). [↩]
Actually I think all Scott’s YA is better than the Uglies series. It’s my leave favourite of his. I still love it though. Just not as much. [↩]
Several months ago, the agent Kristin Nelson got in contact with me via my agent to ask if I would take a look at the debut novel of one of her clients with a view to blurbing it. I agreed to do so, mostly because I love Nelson’s blog, but warned that I rarely blurb cause I only do so when I’m excited about a book. I am picky.
But the book—Megan Crewe’s Give Up the Ghost—hit all my sweet spots. For starters it was a ghost story. I adore a good ghost story. Secondly, it wasn’t the same old, same old ghost story. It surprised me. It was fresh, original and sweet and I cried when it ended. So, yeah, I blurbed it.
Yesterday, was the release day for Give Up the Ghost so in order to let people know that a really beautiful and moving ghost story is now available for them to read, I tweeted it. Unfortunately, I had not had a good night’s sleep. In my first tweet I got Megan’s name and the name of her book wrong. In my second corrective tweet I got only the name of her book wrong. Aarrgh.
I would like to hereby formally apologise to Megan Crewe, who I’ve never met, but might be wondering how someone as hopeless as me can even manage to tie up her own shoe laces. (Hey, I wonder that too.) I am so sorry, Megan! Your book is wonderful and did not deserve me mangling both your name and its name.
I have never ever wanted to learn to fly, yet Sheri L. Smith‘s Flygirl almost had me calling up flight schools.1 Ida Mae Jones lives to fly. So much so that she passes as a white woman in order to become a WASP during World War II. The book is about race, class, gender, about friendship, obsession (for flying), love, and family.
I has one. Back in May I mentioned that I wanted one on account of all the elecronic documents I read. I tried reading on my iPhone but it did not work out: too small and awkward.
After talking to friends and hearing what youse lot think I wound up getting a Sony 505. While it’s not perfect and lacks many features I want,1 it’s made a huge difference. While flying home to Sydney, I did not have to carry the usual 5 books in my backpack on top of the entire suitcase of books. All I carried was the eReader. My back thanks me. Profusely.
It turned out that the incompatibility with my Mac was not a problem thanks to this fabulous software, Calibre, which is incredibly easy to use and is yet to fail me in any way shape or form. Bless you, Calibre.
As predicted I’ve been using it to read manuscripts by friends, books I’ve been asked to blurb, and public-domain research and comfort books. (I’m yet to buy an ebook.) My eyes don’t get nearly as sore as they do when reading onscreen with my computer and I can curl up with my eReader, which I can’t do with my computer even though it’s wee (for a computer).
So, yes, I’m very happy I bought an eReader. However, I’m still waiting for the iPhone to have its own native eReader which is not tied to any particular retailer. Because I would like to have my portable electonic needs—music, mail, podcasts, camera, ebooks, texting, phone calls (ugh)—in the one location. I want an iPHone that’s roughly the same size as my Sony Reader. When that happens I’ll start buying ebooks.2
In the meantime, being able to read Pride & Prejudice, My Brilliant Career, Anne of Green Gables, Alice in Wonderland, The Getting of Wisdom and Ivanhoe whenever I want to is vastly happy making. I’m off to go make a donation to Project Gutenberg for making that possible (and to Calibre as well). Bless!
It does not produce mangosteens whenever I want them or set off fireworks. Honestly! [↩]
Though I’m not going to buy ebooks without being able to preview what I’m buying. There are still too many companies not providing previews. I’ve had several friends who buy ebooks report that are still companies out there selling ebooks that are poorly proofed scans. Sometimes of paper texts. Not good enough. [↩]
And a tiny little wee birdie smaller than the palm of my hand that I haven’t been able to identify. Zips by too fast for me to even figure out what colour it is. I’d love to hear any suggestions as to what it might be. I am new to this birdwatching caper.
Here’s this morning’s sunrise:
First bird I heard this morning: rainbow lorikeet. They really do have the happiest-making calls.
Like Scalzi and Nora, my first fiction sale was to Strange Horizons way back in 2001. At the time I had been trying to sell one of my short stories for just about a gazillion years. I thought it would never happen. So I would love them for that alone. But that is not even close to the best thing about Strange Horizons I love it and read it because it is a breath of fresh air in the stale and fusty world of adult genre. N. K. Jemisin puts it this way:
I love the speculative fiction genre, but it’s sick.1 Not dying—that’s crap—but not healthy either. The problem is societal, but because SF is the genre of society’s idealism, the symptoms of the sickness tend to be more visible here than in mainstream fiction. The cure for this sickness is, IMO, for the genre to take some collective purgative and restorative measures, like jettisoning old business models that don’t work and old attitudes that are actively harmful, and try something new.
SH represents this newness. They’re a new-paradigm speculative fiction market in every sense of the word: online not print; nonprofit not commercial; collaborative and not One Single Editor’s vision; weekly not monthly/quarterly/whenever the people involved get around to it. They actively seek out voices within the SF community that don’t get heard enough, whether those voices be newbies or PoC or writers from non-Western countries or literary writers or socialists or whatever. The fact that they’ve managed to stick around this long, in an era when SF magazines are dropping like flies, speaks volumes to me about the sustainability of their model. They offer a desired service to the community, ergo they’re still in business. And the fact that their authors (and the magazine itself) keep winning awards speaks to the quality of their work.
This, to me, is what an SF magazine should be and do.
I love Strange Horizons‘ diversity—in all senses of that word. So many adult genre anthos and magazines are the same voices over and over again. I quit reading them. I never know what I’m going to get when I read SH. That goes for the fiction as well as the non-fiction. It really is the best.
Do I think it’s perfect? No. For obvious reasons I wish they did a better job covering the world of Young Adult and children’s as well as manga and graphic novels. However, I’m well aware that they are an entirely volunteer organisation and they can’t do everything and what they do they do better than any other publication out there.
Bless you, Strange Horizons.
I actually don’t think the whole genre is sick. I agree that the adult literary wing of the genre is in trouble. Children’s and YA are doing great, manga and graphic novels ditto. [↩]
My last week in NYC I was invited to visit the studio where the audio book of Liar was being recorded. Even though I had a gazillion million things to do I made sure to get there. I’m so glad I did. It was an amazing experience.
I’d never had my prose read out loud by a talented actor like Channie Waites before. It was a revelation. I know it’s a cliche but she really did make my book come alive. Bits that I hadn’t realised were funny, she rendered funny. (In a good way!) It was strange and wonderful and gave me chills. And as you can see I’m really struggling to articulate how incredible it felt to listen to Micah brought to life.
Channie Waites in the booth behind the glass and Lisa Cahn reflected in the glass
Channie Waites in the booth and Jeffrey Kawalek doing his sound engineering thing
Let me instead talk about the nitty gritty. There were three people in the studio: Channie Waites in the recording booth, then the engineer, Jeffrey Kawalek, who’d call a halt to proceedings anytime he heard a P or T pop or the rustle of Channie’s clothing (those mics are crazy sensitive) who fiddled with knobs and dials and, lastly, Lisa Cahn, the producer, who would stop the recording to ask Channie to read it with more or less emphasis and so on. It was unbelievably hard to keep my mouth shut and not interrupt with my own suggestions, but I managed, and after a few minutes was able to relax and just enjoy hearing someone else’s interpretation of my book and my characters.
Channie Waites in the recording booth
Both Channie and Lisa had really interesting theories and questions about the book. I wrote Liar to be read in at least two different ways, but the responses I’m getting are showing me that there are way more than just two interpretations. I love hearing them all. Especially Channie’s and Lisa’s because they’d both read it very closely indeed. The finished recording is eight hours long but it takes at least double that to do the recording. That’s a long time to spend reading one book. I can’t wait to hear the whole thing.
The Liar recording was produced by Brilliance Audio and the How To Ditch Your Fairy one was produced by Bolinda Audio. Each will be available from the other company because of their cunning co-production. Liar will go on sale in each country at the same time as the print edition.
Sometimes when people read a book of mine and tell me it reminds them of some other book, especially if I have not read that book, I get in a snit. I am well aware that this reflects very poorly upon me. Please don’t judge.1 So when I was told that Liar was reminiscent of Jacqueline Woodson‘s If You Come Softly2 my first reaction was pursed lipped muttering to myself about the special petal-ness of Liar and how it’s not like any other book ever.3
But after the snit phase comes the getting curious phase. I grabbed a copy of Woodson’s If You Come Softly and read it on the plane back home to Sydney.
Wow. Just wow. I wept for about an hour after finishing. Actually, not true, I started weeping before I finished it. If You Come Softly is an exquisitely written, beautiful, deeply moving and heartfelt book. Much of it is set in areas of New York City that I have at least glancing familiarity with.4 Woodson gets it all right and does so astonishingly economically. This is one of those jewels of a book with nary a word out of place. Yes, beautiful writing makes me cry. I am a sap.
That anyone would even think of Softly in the same sentence as anything I’ve ever written is extremely flattering. I am even more ashamed of my snit fit.
I don’t want to tell you too much about the book except to say that it’s a love story. As long time readers of my blog will know I have a total paranoia about spoilers. I much prefer to know as little about a book going in as possible and I assume my readers feel the same.5 No spoiling it in the comments either!
If you haven’t already read Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly get hold of a copy immediately. It’s a wee slip of a book and won’t take you long to read but I guarantee that it will stay with you for a very long time. I plan to get hold of the sequel, Behind You, as soon as I can.
As you’ve probably heard by now Liar is getting a new cover for its publication in October.1 First Bloomsbury considered going with the Australian jacket of Liar and specifically with the black and red version you can see here because that would be the easiest thing to do. The design already exists after all and the window to make the change was very narrow.
However, given the paucity of black faces on YA covers, and the intensity of the debate around the original Liar cover, Bloomsbury felt really strongly that a more representative approach was needed. Rather than using a stock photo, Bloomsbury went the whole hog and did a photo shoot. The gorgeous design is by Danielle Delaney (who’s also responsible for the fabulous paperback How To Ditch Your Fairy cover).
Here’s the result:
I am extremely happy to have a North American cover that is true to the book I wrote. I hope you like it as much as I do. I also hope we can prove (again) that it’s simply not true that a YA cover with a black face on the cover won’t sell. But let’s also put it to the test with books written by people of color. You don’t have to wait to grab your copy of Coe Booth’s Kendra2 or any of the many fabulous books recommended by Color Online etc.
Update: I have turned comments off because there has been an uptick in people attempting to comment merely to berate others.
Because I’m in transit,1 I asked Ari if she would step in for me today and tomorrow, and she kindly said yes. Thanks, Ari!
A little bit about Ari MissAttitude: I’m a teenager who loves to read, dance, laugh, listen to music and just live! I also love my fine brown skin =) I started my blog Reading in Color because I would visit teen book blogs and I never saw reviews of books with poc (people of color). This frustrated me so I decided to start my own blog in an attempt to slightly fill in this gap. I review multicultural fiction about girls and guys, gay or straight, which means books about African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, I cover them all. I highly encourage everyone to look at their reading habits and evaluate if your reading is really that diverse. Read in Color!
Suggested reading from Ari
Hello everyone! Justine invited me to guest blog for her which is pretty exciting! Justine told me that lots of readers have been emailing her asking for suggestions about books to read with poc (people of color) for YA. I’ve compiled a list of books by gender and ethnicity because it was just easier to organize. Also, just because a book is listed under the ‘for guys’ section or the ‘Latino’ section, doesn’t mean that a Asian girl can’t read it. I highly encourage everyone to read at least a few books with people who look different from them.
There is crossposting, all the guy (or girl) books fit under another category, although I don’t always specify. I did some genres as well (only historical and sci fi, the rest are realistic fiction). In making this list, I realized that I have read almost no books about Native Americans so I definitely need to work on that. I realize that I’m probably going to be leaving off some author or book and I apologize for that, but I can’t get them all. Feel free to leave a comment with a book suggestion, I’ll be sure to add it to my tbr pile!
For guys:Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, The Hoopster by Alan Lawrence Sitomer, Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos, Tyrell by Coe Booth, The Making of Dr. Truelove by Derrick Barnes, First Semester by Cecil Cross, Sammy & Julianna in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, The Contender by Robert Lipstye, Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers
For girls (chick lit, cliques or about girls dealing with cliques): Hotlanta series by Denee Miller & Mitzi Miller, It Chicks series by Tia Williams (more substance than GG), the Del Rio Bay Clique series by Paula Chase (no spoiled rich kids in these books), the Kayla Chronicles by Sherri Winston, Honey-Blonde Chica series by Michelle Serros, Haters by Alicia Valdes-Rodriguez
Sci Fi:A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott, The Black Canary by Jane Louise Curry, 47 by Walter Mosley, The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okroafor-mbachu (check out another one of her books Zarah the Windseeker), Rogelia’s House of Magic by Jamie Martinez Wood, City trilogy by Laurence Yep
Historical Fiction:Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis, Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith, The New Boy by Julian Houston, Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons by Ann Rinaldi, Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper, Wolf by the Ears by Ann Rinaldi, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson (series) (all AA, some biracial. I would love to have suggestions of Latino/Asian/Native American historical fiction)
Native Americans:The Brave and The Chief (both by Robert Lipstye), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Latinos:Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa, White Bread Competition by Jo Ann Yolanda Hernandez, Estrella’s Quinceanera by Malin Alegria (she has other really good books), La Linea by Ann Jaramillo, What the Moon Saw by Laura Resau, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (she has many, many books and they’re all fantastic! really, read any of them), Graffitti Girl by Kelly Parra, The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees, Adios to My Old Life by Caridad Ferrer, The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales, Amor and Summer Secrets by Diana Rodriguez Wallach (series)
Asians:Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen Headley, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, Sold by Patricia McCormick, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa-Abdel Fattah, First Daughter:Extreme American Makeover by Mitali Perkins (read any of her books they’re great! ), Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Sherri L. Smith, The Fold by Anna Na, Good Enough by Paula Yoo
African American:Kendra by Coe Booth, The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake, Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia, Jason & Kyra by Dana Davidson, My Life as A Rhombus by Varian Johnson, Romiette & Julio by Sharon Draper, When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright, Hip Hop High School by Alan Lawrence Sitomer, Drama High series by L. Divine, Hot Girl by Dream Jordan, Can’t Stop the Shine by Joyce E. Davis
These two guest posts are timed to post while I’m travelling. If your comments get stuck in moderation you’ll have to be patient. Sorry. [↩]
Um, can someone help me with an anime rec? I watched one episode a long time ago and I can’t remember what it was called but it was recommended to me.
It starts with a girl falling through the sky. then there are all these kids at a school — they’re angels, with little wings and halos. And they are cleaning up in a library that has what looks like a giant cocoon in it. And then you see inside the cocoon and the girl who was falling is inside of it.
Anyone know what series she’s talking about?
And thanks everyone for all the amazing anime recs. I can’t wait to start watching. I’m particularly excited about Read or Die cause I love the manga and didn’t know there was an anime.
This year my favourite show is Avatar. Scott and me watched all three seasons in a greedy one-week rush. Loved it, loved it, loved it. If you haven’t seen it you really really should.
Ever since I’ve been wanting to watch something that hits the same spot. Thus far without a lot of success. Miyazake’s films, which I adore, have some of the same feel, but I’m in the mood for a series, not a standalone movies. I want interesting world building, plots that make sense, strong female characters.
The last is particularly important to me. We’ve been watching Death Note and while there’s a lot I like about it, the main female character, Misa Amane, is absolutely appalling—clingy, immature, stupid, annoying. Ever since her first appearance I’ve been steadily losing interest. I cannot stress how much I never ever want to watch a show with a character like Misa Amane in it. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been so irritated by anyone—character or real person. I loved the character of Naomi Misora but sadly she was only in a few episodes. A show all about her would be awesome.
Fire away with recommendations, please.
And does anyone have an opinion on whether the Naruto anime is as good as the manga?
Charles N. Brown was the publisher of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field. He was well known throughout the SFF world for this love and support for the field and his enormous generosity.
I first met him at the 1993 World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis1 when I was researching my PhD thesis. He was extremely enthusiastic about my research and gave me many leads and suggestions including inviting me to make use of his insanely extensive library in Oakland. His help was invaluable. He knew everyone and pretty much everything about SFF in the USA. We remained friends even after my defection to YA. My case is not unique. Over the years he has helped many young researchers and writers and editors and fans of the genre.
My thoughts go out to everyone at Locus and everyone who cared about Charles.