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I’m not sure I can write fiction anymore. I don’t know how to write a psychological thriller set here and now in this pandemic, this lockdown.
I think of those movies made during World War II that completely ignored the war. Were they set during a slightly earlier or slightly later time? Or an alternative universe?
Should I do that? I don’t think I can do that.
It’s Saturday afternoon in NYC. It’s 20c (68f) and the sun is shining, the air is crystalline, conversations and laughter (!) drift up from the street below, cars drive by, music blares. NYC sounds like NYC.
We’re in the sixth week of the lockdown.1 NYC shouldn’t sound like NYC. NYC shouldn’t be jumping. There shouldn’t be so many people out on the streets. Hundreds of people are still dying here every day. We’re supposed to be quarantining.
I haven’t been outside since Tuesday. My autoimmune disease has been in full flare. I was hoping to go out for a walk today. But, no, it’s impossible. There are too many people on my street.
It’s nothing compared to how busy the streets would have been pre-shut down. It’s our first sunny day after several days of cold and rain. Before the streets would have been jammed. The numbers that are freaking me out are tiny.
There’s no where in the USA it’s harder to maintain distance. NYC is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Our footpaths are too narrow, so we spill out onto the roads. Many of which are also too narrow. Especially today when there’s more cars cruising around than I’ve seen since this started.
It’s not that people are ignoring the lockdown. We’re allowed to go out to exercise, to shop for essentials. I look out the window: most are wearing masks, they’re trying to distance. But it’s impossible.
I’m hearing a lot of sirens today.
I stay inside and work. But I don’t turn to rewriting the YA psychological thriller or the adult one I’ve written ten chapters of. I haven’t touched either since before I spent the summer in Sydney. The summer of a million fires. The summer of having to wear masks to go outside because the air was unbreathable.
Back then I didn’t work on them because I didn’t know if I should include the fires, by which I mean climate disasters. Neither book, though supposedly set in this world, even touched upon how much hotter, more dangerous and unlivable our world is becoming. Leaving those realities out felt wrong.
The adult thriller begins on a plane. As did my last novel, My Sister Rosa. I love writing scenes on planes. It’s so contained, so intense. The characters are jammed in with hundreds of others, yet also in a tiny bubble.
But the airline industry may not exist the way I wrote it, after this pandemic is over. It may change as dramatically as it did after 9/11, or more dramatically.
I don’t know how to write fiction set in this world.
I work instead on non-fiction book proposals. Books that don’t ignore this world of bushfires, floods, tsunamis and hurricanes and all the other disasters made worse and more frequent by industrialization, by the steady rise in carbon emissions.
But these non-fiction books don’t touch on the pandemic, on this lockdown, on my world right now. That book can’t be written until this over, not well. Besides I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books.
When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?
I can’t even read too much about it now. I follow the immediate news, I read a few articles, I listen to the ABC’s Coronacast, but too much of that and I start to freak out. Mostly I read books about the history and future of the fashion industry and talk about it with folks on Instagram.
My account there is a huge part of my mental health regime. It’s where I found a worldwide community of people, who care passionately about transforming the fashion industry from one of the world’s biggest polluters and exploiters of workers, into a sustainable, clean, and ethical one. A deeply important mission done while wearing gorgeous vintage and responsibly made clothes. That’s my kind of revolution.
Maybe when this pandemic is over I’ll write a novel set in that world.
Or is it the seventh? I’m losing track of time. I know it’s Saturday because we do the weekend quiz with the family back in Sydney every Friday and Saturday night. We did the first weekend quiz last night. Thus Saturday. [↩]
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A friend recently told me they’d been thinking about my story “Elegy” because it predicted our currently distanced,1 isolated existence, stuck at home, avoiding our neighbours, occasionally venturing out to walk along empty streets. It’s like you knew, they texted me. Your dark fable predicted everything.
So many people knew: epidemiologists, virologists, futurists, novelists like me who’ve been making notes towards their end-of-the-world opus for decades, pretty much anyone who’s done more than ten minutes research on the likely causes of the end of humanity, will have learnt that it was likely to be a pandemic and/or climate change.
I’m not saying this is the end of our species. I’m quite sure we’ll survive this.
As for my story predicting our current lockdown, we’ve also known for a long time that the best way to control a pandemic–before there’s a vaccine–is to isolate. In 1918, more than a century ago, the city of St Louis came out of that flu pandemic with a lower death toll because the authorities implemented a lockdown, much as cities, states and countries are doing across the world now. Meanwhile Philadelphia was hit particularly hard because of its failure to do likewise. Just as we’re seeing dire consequences for regions that didn’t implement social controls quickly enough, or at all, in various parts of the world.
It requires zero prescience to have predicted these outcomes, just a glancing familiarity with humanity’s history. There have been many pandemics. In the fourteenth century it’s estimated that as much as a third of the world’s population died from the Bubonic Plague. European colonisation of the Americas and Australia introduced an array of deadly diseases devastating the indigenous populations there.
This will not be the last pandemic either. There will be more.
My story uses physical disease as a metaphor for depression, for the way it feels like something that consumes us, something over which we have no control, and our fear that it’s contagious.
At least that was my intent. Obviously other people will read it differently, but it’s no kind of prescient, unless you consider it prescient to predict that in the future there will be floods, droughts, and locust plagues. Somewhere all of those are happening right now.
Our planet is vast. Bad shit is always happening somewhere. What’s different about this pandemic, is that for the first time in a century, for the first time in a world with truly global, instantaneous communications, we’re all experiencing this together. But not equally. COVID-19 is, as pandemics always have, hitting the poorest with the least resources hardest.
That’s what we have to change. I want to believe we can.
I’m not calling it socially distancing because, c’mon, it’s physical distancing. Many of us are doing our damnedest, via the internet, to make sure we’re not socially distanced. [↩]
Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants
In Sydney the seven-year-old niece has cut her own hair. It looks pretty good. The kid has style.
Here on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I’m lying in bed at 6am, straining to hear the sounds of the city, but there’s no planes above, no helicopters, no horns honking, no sirens–despite all the reports that say sirens are constant–no cars rolling by with canciones played ear-bleedingly loud, no yelling or laughter floating up from the street below.
No one I know has died of the virus or been hospitalised. Yet. But plenty of my friends have had it. Close friends. All their cases, but one, confirmed by their GP in a video call. There’s no where near enough testing here.
Their cases have ranged from losing taste and smell for a few days, to three weeks of fever, exhaustion, and a crushing vise on their lungs and knife in their heart. Both ends of that spectrum are officially described as mild.
If you don’t wind up in hospital on a ventilator, it’s mild.
I’m in full flare, unable to get out of bed. It’s my usual chronic illness, not the dreaded virus. It feels ridiculous to be lying in bed weeping over an illness that won’t kill me and isn’t contagious. Yet here I am.
Friends of mine have lost relatives–an uncle and a grandfather, so far. I know that list will grow. I pray the beloved elders and ill and immunocompromised in my life, of which there are many, will not join it.
I am, of course, one of them.
This flare has terrified me. Not because of the pain–I’m used to that–but because it’s reminding me forcefully of how vulnerable I am. How vulnerable so many of us are.
I’ve been going out for long walks early every morning: across the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges into Brooklyn and back, along the East River Parkway and the mostly empty streets of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, the Financial District, Soho, the East Village.
Sometimes I walk for hours, masked and gloved, making sure that I’m home by eight am. If I walk any later than that there are too many people jogging the bridges and the Parkway, six feet of distance becomes impossible. Joggers run past almost touching me. I recoil.
I avoid the west side of the island altogether. Too crowded.
I’m not sure if I’ll be brave enough to go outside again. I don’t think my body can cope with even a mild iteration of the virus on top of the illness currently ravaging me.
The last time I hung out with a friend in real life was back in early March. I visited Julia at her hat shop on Seventh Street in the East Village, sitting on a stool more than six feet away from her. We disinfected our hands and anything we touched.
We hadn’t seen each other in months, I’d been in Sydney, where I retreat each year for three months to see family and friends and avoid NYC’s winter. I hate the cold and lack of sunlight.
I told her about living through the bushfires, she caught me up on her life here in the city.
Showing far more foresight than is usual for me, I bought a turban. As my hair gets longer and more unruly without its once-every-four-weeks maintenance from Chereen in NYC and Julianne in Sydney, I’m wearing that turban more and more. As my hair turns into a mullet–*shudder*–I’m contemplating copying the niece and hacking at it myself.
I was with Julia in her gorgeous shop for more than four hours. Two people came in. One was getting the final touches on her hat for a formal occasion in May. (So not going to happen.)
She was annoyed by all the fuss about the virus and everything being closed. “Everyone’s over reacting. It’s just like the flu. It will only affect old people and sick people.”
As one of those sick people, I bristled.
Also? She was at least in her sixties. How did she not see that she’s in the endangered demographic?
The second person to come in was a delightful vintage hat collector, who was bringing some recent finds for Julia to repair. I collect vintage clothes. He was my kind of people.
He kept almost touching his face and stopping, muttering, Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face.
The same admonition echoes through my head all day long.
I admired the gorgeous vintage brown wool Borsalino porkpie from the sixties he was wearing, flecked with gold and orange, and asked him hat questions, while he danced on the spot, not meeting my eyes, replying succinctly.
He kept his distance, touching nothing. He doused his hands in sanitizer twice in the short time he was in the shop.
The woman meanwhile did not keep her distance and touched everything with the surgeon’s gloves she’d clearly been wearing for hours. She did not once use hand sanitizer.
After she left we disinfected everything.
It seems a long time ago. I bet her attitude has changed. She lives in the city. She’ll know people who’ve had the virus, who’ve died. She may have had it herself.
At first it was hard for any of us to believe this was real.
Now everyone wears masks and keeps their distance. We give each other thumbs up and say, Stay safe. We all know someone who’s had it.
Increasingly many of us New Yorkers have had it ourselves and are wondering if that makes us immune. No one knows for sure.
No one knows much of anything about the virus. How many people are asymptomatic? Do masks help or give a false sense of security? I know I feel safer with a mask on. Should I?
We do know this will go on longer than any of us hoped. There will be no formal events in May. No WNBA season. No Olympics in July. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll get to do my annual sojourn in the city of my birth come December. Will the airline industry recover? Should it?
When do we get our lives back? Do we get our lives back? Money earning opportunities disintegrate, we lose jobs and insurance and shelter and hope. Friends and family are remote and the internet only partially bridges that gap.
NYC is the epicentre of this plague in the USA, of the world.1 Yet here in my part of the city I can’t see the makeshift hospitals in Javits or Central Park, the hospital ship in the harbour, or the refrigerated death trucks.
If anything there are fewer homeless people on the streets.2 Only a handful of people have begged me for money since I got home. I don’t carry cash anymore. It’s too dangerous. All I can do is say sorry and donate to the organisations helping them.
I take the stairs to reduce my viral load. I’ve not seen anyone else in the stairwell. I rarely see my neighbours, or hear them cough, and when I do we nod to each other from different ends of the corridor. This catastrophe is happening behind closed doors.
We don’t ask how we’re doing. We don’t chat. We’re scared of each other now. We’re scared of everyone.
They could be dying in their apartments and I wouldn’t know.
It’s a lonely apocalypse. The only people I’ve talked to are my building’s lovely super and the masked and gloved clerks at Essex market during the early morning times reserved for the old and the sick.
I disinfect everything I buy. I keep running out of bleach. My hands have developed eczema. It seems a small price to pay.
I thought the bushfires were terrible and they were: the choking smoke blanketing my beloved Sydney, filling the hospitals with people who can’t breathe. Those fires are also part of a global crisis, of climate change, but one that hasn’t yet affected everyone.
But this silent, invisible COVID-19 disaster, has completely transformed all our lives. It’s isolating us, sickening us, and killing us.
And bringing us together. People I haven’t heard from in years have been reaching out, checking up on me. I’ve been bonding with strangers online about vintage, sustainable, and circular-economy clothing.
This really is the worst of times, all over the world, and I know that no amount of dressing up in beautiful clothes changes that. But at the same time many of us privileged enough to shelter at home are being sustained by beauty, by laughter, and joy.
We’re finding new rituals to sustain us as we cope with isolation and disease. We make music and art and reconnect.
There are new sounds in NYC: bird song, louder and more frequent than I’ve ever heard it here, and the new ritual of the 7pm whistles and cheers and banging of pots for the health workers’ shift change. I well up every time I hear it but I smile too.
Suddenly I’m connected to my neighbours: seeing them on their roof tops, balconies, at their windows, down on the street, all of us full of gratitude for the ones working so hard to save this city, to allow it to be crowded and noisy and overwhelming once more.
The way it’s meant to be.
Though do we really know that? So many countries are barely testing and are under reporting infection numbers. Do we really know what’s going on in Iran? In North Korea? [↩]
Which could be for scary reasons: surely the homeless are amongst the most vulnerable to this disease? [↩]
Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants
When I was eleven, my mother gave me my own laundry basket, and taught me how to use the washing machine. I was delighted. Best birthday present ever!
I’ve been doing my own laundry ever since. Few things give me more satisfaction and joy than getting out a really stubborn stain.
No, I’m not joking. I love doing the laundry.
The years I lived in NYC without a washing machine were pure torment.
Also, when handwashing? That no-rinse claim? Absolutely true! You don’t have to waste water endlessly rinsing the detergent out. Unfortunately COVID-19 means it is currently unavailable. If anyone knows of a no-rinse alternative, hit me!
If you spill soy sauce/coffee/oil/whatever, wash that spot as soon as you can, before it can stain. If you’re out (lol) rinse it with cold water in the bathroom pat dry with a paper towel. Never wring! Never rub! Nine times out of ten you’ll rinse out the spill before it becomes a stain.
If there’s still a stain, the internet will tell you how to get it out from whatever the fabric is. I don’t know how I removed stains before the internet. It was a terrible time.
Fabric matters. Silk behaves differently from cotton or the various different blends and synthetics.
Do not despair if you discover an old stain on a favourite piece. While it’s always best to deal with a stain straight away, I’ve gotten some stains out that were years old. Decades old even. And if there was ever a time to finally see if you can nuke that long-standing stain you’ve been hiding with a brooch, that time is now!
Some stains, though, are forever. Le sadness. My new approach is to embroider over the top of them. Visible mending for the win. Do an image search on sashiko. It’s stunning. No, I’m not there yet, but practice makes perfect or, at least, less shit. Now is the perfect time to learn to embroider.
Just because you had to wash that one spot doesn’t mean you have to wash the entire garment.
I handwash (or, if there’s no other way, dry clean) most of my vintage clothes and many of my other clothes too. If I love it I usually handwash it.
I get that most people have neither the time nor inclination for that. Invest in lingerie washing bags. Lately I’ve been recommending guppyfriend washing bags, which reduce fabric shredding. Use the gentle wash cycle, setting it to cold.
I handwash bras. A lingerie washing bag will protect them some, but machine washing them will reduce a bra’s lifetime. The elastic dies faster, wires get bent, embroidery and other embellishments unravel.
Handwashing isn’t as hard as people think. It’s mostly soaking and the occasional gentle agitating. The hard work is in the rinsing, and if you can get hold of a good no-rinse handwashing detergent, you take that out of the equation.
Never rub your clothes vigorously. It’s terrible for the fabric. Never wring them either. To dry them, very gently squeeze water out, then roll them in a dry towel and press. It’s astonishing how much water you get out.
If at all possible line dry.
Dryers are the devil. You heard me. They destroy clothes.
Yes, even in your tiny NYC flat, it’s possible to line dry.
Hang clothes to dry in the bathroom. Or in your closet. Just make sure they’re not touching the dry clothes.
Look, I get it. Back when I flat shared, I didn’t hang my clothes to dry in the bathroom. Ewww! Flatmates couldn’t be trusted.
For a long time in the city I was too time and space poor to clean my clothes properly. I would drop them at the laundry. (Never any of my precious clothes or bras.) They would go through the dryer. They would fall apart. It was horrible.
Now I have a wooden folding drying rack. It is joy. Nothing goes in the dryer.
If hanging your clothes up to dry isn’t an option always set the dryer to the lowest heat.
Thus endeth Justine’s guide to longer-lived clothes. You’re welcome!
I understand that some of you are not able-bodied enough to do any of this. I have a chronic illness myself. Some days I don’t have the spoons to get out of bed. [↩]
For some unfathomable reason, some folks rarely wash their bras. Eek! You should probably wash your bra after every 7-10 wears. Obviously this depends on how sweaty you are. [↩]
Yes, I understand that some people are very sweaty. [↩]
Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants
COVID 19 (coronavirus) is a big deal. It’s highly contagious and people over 70 and those who have chronic illnesses are particularly at risk.
People like me. I have a chronic illness. I guarantee you there are folks around you who seem perfectly well, who also have chronic illnesses. We are many. And we are vulnerable to COVID 19, to viruses and bacteria. That’s why we won’t shake your hand, or accept your kisses or hugs. We want to live.
We should all be washing our hands for at least twenty seconds. THOROUGHLY. That means back of hand, between fingers, wrists. Dry your hands thoroughly.
Wash your hands before and after going to the toilet, before and after touching food, before and after going outside, before and after being in any public space. If you can’t wash your hands, use a hand sanitiser, remembering that washing your hands is better.
Don’t touch your face! But if you do: WASH YOUR HANDS!
And really, really, really DON’T TOUCH MY FACE! Or anyone else’s that you’re not intimate with.
This should be everyone’s practise all the time. If we all did this flu deaths would plummet. But during a pandemic!? DON’T TOUCH ANYONE! WASH YOUR HANDS!
Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.
I may not be on Twitter at the moment, but I still sometimes think in tweets. What can I say? I was on Twitter for ten years. It warps your brain. So here are some tweets that I’d’ve tweeted if I were still there. In no particular order . . .
What I miss most about Twitter is the conversations with folks all over the world; what I miss least is being shouted at by folks/bots all over the world.
This is bloody marvellous news. The WNBA players are getting better revenue sharing, pay, maternity leave etc. Yay! And yet . . . I love the @WNBA but they deserve first class. No, they deserve flying chariots drawn by magic horses.1 But this is a fabulous first step.
And here we have a faux tweet that you have to click through for because I don’t have the energy to figure out how to do an image + comment faux tweet in the middle of a blog post. My spoons are too low today for any complicated stuff. Or, let’s get real, pretty basic stuff . . .
I miss fashion twitter . . . Though fashion and vintage instagram are way better. I’m learning so much on there.
Could someone please fix the tag on Rashid’s jersey? Thank you! Adelaide @StrikersBBL #BBL09
I miss cricket Twitter . . .
Just when you think this Morrison govt can’t get more ridiculous they decide the most urgent matter in Australia today is not our apocalyptic bushfire season, but enforcing a dress code for citizenship ceremonies. At my citizenship ceremony I dressed up–a McQueen jacket over a silk dress with cowboy boots–as did everyone else that day. Citizenship ceremonies are a huge deal, you ignorant twats. People dress up for them!
Mostly, people dress up for them. I remember a friend telling me years ago that a couple of tipsy Englishmen turned up for their citizenship ceremony in stubbies, singlets and thongs with cork hats because they thought it would be hilarious. Their hilarity was not shared by anyone else present and they were asked to leave. To be clear: because drunk, not because of what they were wearing.
It’s wet and falling out of the sky. I’m confused. What is?
I know I’ve only been off Twitter for two months but already I’m getting more writing done and feeling less anxious. No, I have no immediate plans to return to Twitter. But I do see this as a break, not a permanent exit. I don’t think I could have handled the fire hose of Twitter this bushfire season.
The benefits of not being on Twitter right now definitely balances out no longer being in contact with so many fabulous folks. Hey, I’m still alive! You can text me! Or DM on instagram! Or email me! Or leave comments here!
Note: I’m not on Twitter. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond.
This has been a horrible year for me.1 Or, rather, it’s been a horrible two years–more than two years.
In June 2017, I woke up feeling weird. It was the beginnings of this chronic, incurable, non-fatal illness that now holds huge sway over my life.
Over the next few months, more symptoms manifested, the worst of which was losing my executive function. I couldn’t make decisions. Do you know what activity requires lots of decisions?
I couldn’t do my job.
I’ve never had writer’s block. Ever.
Not being able to write, not being able to decide what to wear, or whether to leave the house, or pretty much anything, was a nightmare. I became depressed.
When I became ill, I’d written two thirds of a novel from the pov of a psychopath. It was already doing my head in writing the thoughts of a character who considered other humans to be pawns, not people.
After I got sick it was worse.
I’d be stuck reading the one scene, passage or sentence over and over, hating what I was reading, trying to find a way forward, failing, switching to a different scene, passage, sentence, clause, failing again, feeling worse and worse.
Every day I’d doggedly try to do my job. The words I’d already written, led me to choices I was no longer capable of making. Bleak choices. I’d stare, read and reread, and type nothing.
My depression deepened.
I broke out of it when we learned how to manage my illness. As my executive function slowly returned, I tentatively wrote again. Instead of plunging back into the novel, I went back to basics.
I turned to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Le Guin is stern. I needed her strong, unrelenting, unforgiving voice to guide me.2 I did the writing exercises she laid out exactly as she told me to.
Every day I sat, read a chapter, tried the exercise. It was brutal. But gradually my fluency returned. The exercises started turned into stories.3
My agent, Jill Grinberg, who’s been amazingly supportive throughout, read the stories, said encouraging things, suggested one of them would work as a novel. So I did what she said. Being told what to do helped a lot.4
That exercise turned into a novel. Not a very good one. But definitely a novel-shaped text, with characters and exposition, a beginning, middle and end.
I’m currently rewriting that mess. It’s slow going–slower than I’ve ever written–but I’m writing.
I’ve learnt (yet again) that I’m happiest when I write. If I’m not writing, I’m not wholly me. I’ve learnt to work around my illness.
I’m not going to name it or talk about the many other symptoms. I don’t want to talk about it.
That’s not true.
Since June 2017, there have been many times when it’s all I can talk about. I’ve told random people on trams, trains and planes about it. Blurted out my symptoms to startled wait staff, acquaintances and strangers at weddings, parties, conferences and fundraisers.
I discovered that many of my friends and acquaintances have chronic diseases. Is anyone truly able bodied?
My friend with Hashimoto’s doesn’t really think about it that much–except when the price of meds goes up. God Bless the USA.5 Another friend doesn’t think about her illness except when she winds up in hospital.
I had no idea.
Why didn’t they tell me? Why have I stopped telling people?
So many reasons! Because:
Lots of able-bodied people don’t get it, we’re sick of talking about it, we don’t want your pity or revulsion, we’re sick of well-meaning people recommending treatments we’ve already tried or are pure quackery. No, being immunised did not cause this.6
Also we’re past the crisis stage, when we’re desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and it’s all we think about.
We’re in the management phase. We know what meds to take, what diet/exercise/therapies work.
My family and friends know what’s going on. I love that they check in with me and support me and mostly treat me the way they always did. That’s enough.7
I no longer enjoy talking about my chronic illness.8 I talk about it far less. Though I have one friend with similar symptoms. We check in with each other regularly. She gets it and never says, “Hope you get well soon! I’m glad you’re getting better!”
What part of “chronic” and “incurable” do people not understand!?
I know, I know, our language around illness is rubbish. Folks mean well. Before I joined the ranks of the spoonies I said ridiculous stuff like that too.
I’m so sorry.
More than two years into this chronic, incurable, though not fatal, illness, I’m still learning how to cope with so few spoons. I still think like an able-bodied person, but I’m not. I’m a spoonie.
That’s why I left Twitter.
Things that were easy are now hard. Much of my resilience is gone.
I love Twitter. The conversations I’ve had on there with people all over the world have taught me so much and made me laugh and changed me.9
But after my illness, I started to hate Twitter. I lost my ability to brush off unjust criticism, to think through just criticism, or to tell the difference between the two. Even benign comments in my mentions upset me.
Twitter was wiping out all my spoons. I couldn’t tweet and write. Some days I couldn’t tweet and get out of bed.
So in November I walked away. I don’t know when I’ll return or if I’ll return. I’ve been doing better without it, though I miss the conversations around cricket and basketball and fashion and books and politics and TV. I miss my Twitter community.
I’ve been writing more, and getting out more, and learning about the new vintage clothes world on Instagram via my private account there.
Who knows? Maybe as I become better adjusted to so few spoons, I’ll return to Twitter. Or maybe I’ll start blogging regularly-ish in 2020?
I used to blog every day.
I used to write a recap of my year every 31 December and point forward to what I was publishing in the coming year.
I couldn’t do that in 2018. I published nothing and sold nothing. I couldn’t decide whether to get out of bed or not. I certainly couldn’t decide what to blog.
I will have a new story published next year. It’s called “When I was White” and will be in Adi Alsaid‘s YA anthology on immigration, Come On In published by Inkyard Press in October 2020.10
I wrote this year and I’ll write in 2020.
I have no idea when there’ll be a new novel from me. But given that I’m months from finishing this rewrite, it would be published in 2024 at the earliest, and there’s no guarantee it will find a publisher.11
All of which is huge progress from where I was a year ago, but It’s terrible compared to where I was ten years ago.
Things don’t always get better, but if we’re lucky, and have support from those who love us,12 we have a shot at learning to manage.
And the world. I write this in Sydney, on a day when the entire South coast of NSW is on fire. Lives and homes and national parks and agriculture are going up in flames. Smoke from the bushfires is so thick here in the city there’s a Poor Air Quality Forecast from the NSW government and we’re being advised to stay indoors. It’s been like that off and on for weeks.
Currently our AQI of 124 is worse than Beijing’s. All we talk about here is the drought, air masks, purifiers, and what we can personally do to ameliorate climate change and force our governments to do likewise. There are worse fires in the Amazon. There are environmental disasters everywhere. [↩]
It was also a way of mourning her death. She is a foundational writer for me. [↩]
Stories Le Guin would have considered woeful, but no matter. [↩]
Hilariously. I’ve always hated being told what to do. [↩]
Do not get me started on the US healthcare system. [↩]
I’m not interested in answering questions or hearing miracle cures unless they’re thoroughly peer reviewed and even then odds are I’ve already heard about it. Yes, I’ve tried acupuncture. I consider Chinese medicine to be peer reviewed and as (in)fallible as Western medicine. For me acupuncture works great at bringing swelling down and various other things. It hasn’t worked on this illness. But then neither has western medicine. Both have helped manage the symptoms. [↩]
My seven-year-old niece’s concern breaks my heart. [↩]
Yes, in the beginning, when we had no idea what was going on, and my symptoms were weird, and weren’t disrupting my work or play, it was kind of fun to talk about, and shock folks with photos of the weirdness. [↩]
I found the people who think cricket is as funny as I do. [↩]
All you editors, who over the years have asked me for short stories, and I said I don’t write them? Turns out I write short stories now. Hit me up! [↩]
Fortunately, I’m working on other novels. So who knows? Maybe in 2030 there’ll be four from me at once. [↩]
Scott and my family have been incredible. I love them so much. [↩]
Fifteen years ago I wrote this and then never posted it because I never finished it.
I post it here now because, frankly, I’m a bit freaked out by how blasé I am about harassment. Why now it only happens a few times a week. That’s awful, fifteen-years-ago Justine!
I hated being harassed then and I hate being harassed now, yes, even though it’s even less frequent now.1 And I REALLY hated being harassed when I was a teen and felt completely powerless in the face of the constant barrage.
What I say about Sydney being the worst is hooey. Street harassment happens everywhere. I was right that I thought Sydney the worst because I spent my teens/twenties there.
But I left out the other reason I was harassed far less in my thirties: because I was with my husband pretty much everywhere I went. The only times I’ve been harassed since I married was when alone. I left it out because I didn’t realise that’s what was going on until much later.
I was single or dating women during my twenties. Funnily enough being with your female partner doesn’t stop harassment the way being with your male one does. I wonder why . . .2
The headphones thing still works. Back then I listened to music, now it’s podcasts. They still form an excellent shield. But, damn, WHY DO WE NEED A SHIELD?! Fix theyself, world of shitty men.
For the first time in my life, I’m feeling something akin to optimism about sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement makes me weakly hopeful that some day, not soon, but maybe in a few hundred years, this horrible harassment will finally end. Sadly, I fear the planet will be uninhabitable for humans sooner.
What? That’s way more optimistic than I was fifteen years ago.
In the meantime, let’s keep talking and raging and fighting harassment. Men have to stop.
Sexual Harassment on the Street (2003)
This is always a difficult one to talk about. There’s still this weird idea that if you mention guys calling out to you in the street, you’re somehow boasting about it. “Hey, I am so damn hot, that this paralytically drunk guy with no teeth lurched across the street, vomited in front of me, and said: ‘Show us your tits, love.’ Boy, was I thrilled. Someone out there finds little old me attractive. My day, no, my life, is now complete.”
So let’s just skip that crap, eh? You know and I know that most of the time men you’ve never met before in your life feeling free to comment on your appearance (negatively or positively: I’ve had several blokes in Sydney feel moved to tell me how ugly I am) is a pain in the arse. You’ve just lost your favourite jacket, your job, your best friend, and some charming bloke thinks it’s his duty to say, “Give us a smile, darls.” Now there’s a killing offence. And even when they don’t say anything there’s that horrible prickling feeling along your skin that you are being looked at, and at any moment someone may be moved to demand you show off your mammaries or perform sexual favours for them.
I hate to say this about my beloved home city but the harassment there is world class. I and my friends have heard more choice misogynist nastinessess in the glowing Emerald City than we’ve ever heard anywhere else in the world. Gross, scary things. Now it could be that that’s because we couldn’t understand what was being yelled in Tel Aviv or Bangkok, or because we lived in Sydney during the peak period of a girl’s life for copping this crap. It’s possible. Let’s just say that none of us, despite being told that one day we would miss the catcalls and invitations to suck a total stranger’s bed flute, are experiencing said sadness as we get older and hear less of those oh-so-flattering invitations.
Why now I’m blessed to be harassed only a handful of times a week. I know many won’t believe me but it’s SUCH a relief.
In the parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan and I and my friends live the harassment is much less nasty than Sydney. Like I said this could be because me and my peer group are longer in the tooth than we once were. Maybe the seventeen year olds are copping it every bit as bad as me and my mates did at that age. I hope not. Or maybe we’re more sure of ourselves and less intimidated. I hope so.
That said, there’s a lot more of it. A woman on her own walking down those beautiful New York City footpaths is hit with dazzling smiles, lots of hellos, how’re you doings (yeah, yeah, I know, that’s just friendly, but seriously, people, it’s almost never friendly), and hears a lot of the kinds of noises people make to attract the attention of their cat.
If she responds in any way, the guy will elaborate further with comments on her hair, skin and clothing. (Including the dreaded, “Show us a smile, sweetheart”.) Or possibly a suggestion that they make some form of love together.
New Yorkers altogether seem more inclined to talk to people they don’t know. Women in NYC often comment on the clothing of strangers. Always positively, sometimes a little too positively. One woman on the subway, after telling me that she loved my coat, offered to buy it from me. “Er, no”, said I. “Thanks though, quite happy with coat”. I have even been so bold as to tell the occasional resplendent stranger in this fine and well-dressed city how fab their coat/dress/hair/tattoo is though I always keep walking to make it clear it’s a strings-free compliment.
I’ve got nothing against compliments, me. Just, you know, as long as a fella doesn’t think it entitles them to anything. But randomly yelling at a stranger on the street is not a compliment. Why is that so hard do understand?
I wish they just wouldn’t. I know. That will never happen. In the meantime: headphones are my solution of choice. I lose myself in music when walking so I don’t even notice or hear the harassment.
I’ve only been street harassed once this year. [↩]
NB: Every example I give in this post will soon be out of date. I’m only talking Young Adult publishing in the USA. What follows may be a tad exaggerated.
Publishing may be an old and crusty industry, that sometimes still runs on handshakes, but it is also flighty and driven by fads.
Right now it is the kiss of death to say that your manuscript is post-apocalyptic.1 Which is interesting given the resurgence of sales for books like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale and, I’m really hoping, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.2 I’d’ve thought the demand for post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA would be huge right now. Teens have always been big consumers of dystopian tales largely because high school is all too often a dystopia.
When I asked why post-apocalyptic is anathema I was told, “They don’t sell.” When I point out that books like The Giver, Uglies, Hunger Games do still sell, it was pointed out that those are old books. It’s the new ones that don’t sell.
When I pointed out a more recent one that does seem to be selling, they then said that’s really time travel. Whatever my example, I was informed that it wasn’t really post-apocalyptic, it was fantasy or space opera or a romance. Okay, then.
The lesson I took from these conversations was that it is still possible to sell a post-apocalyptic novel but you best not call it that. That is pretty much the lesson I always take out of these conversations. “Vampires are dead! Oh, your book isn’t about vampires it’s about hemo-addicts? No problem then.”
The other word that YA agents and editors are particularly averse to right now is trilogy. When I asked an agent friend about it, they shuddered, “Oh, God, no. Just say it’s a duology. At most.”
This confused me as there are lots of trilogies selling well right now. Before I could start listing them I was told there are far more that aren’t selling, which makes it too risky to buy a trilogy up front.
That’s publishing logic for you.
Tragically, the dirty truth is that no matter what the genre there are always more books that aren’t selling well than that are. I know this because I have been publishing YA since the beginning of the huge YA boom. The majority of books, including mine, weren’t selling like Twilight. It didn’t seem to stop publishers from buying them.
Right now YA publishers will buy the first book in what might possibly be a trilogy, and sometimes they’ll buy the first two, but only if they sell well, will they ask for a third. Most publishers are not paying for a trilogy up front anymore except for a handful of bestselling authors.
Publishing is always risk averse but right now with books sales down across the board they are more risk averse than usual. They see the word trilogy or post-apocalyptic (or whatever) and what they hear is great big risk. They are scared. They back away from the scary words. They also back away from the scary new books that aren’t like anything else out there. *sigh* As an agent friend of mine put it, “Publishers are looking for the books that are kind of different but not too different that most closely resemble previous bestsellers.”
Now that you’ve finished reading this publishers will probably no longer be scared of “trilogy” or “post-apocalyptic.”
I love publishing. Truly, I do.
Some agents I asked said the same goes for dystopian. [↩]
Of those three Parable is the one that’s most prescient about this particular historical moment. [↩]
Wednesday, 22 March, 42nd St NYPL, South Court, 6-8: Writing New York City
A gathering of writers who’ve written about New York City talking about (and reading about) New York City.
Laurie Halse Anderson
Jennifer E Smith
Daunting much? So many have written about NYC over the years. I’m tempted to read someone else writing about the city. Like, say, Jacqueline Woodson or Dawn Powell.
Friday 24 March, Symposium (42nd Street NYPL, South Court, 2-6):
2:00 – Introduction
2:10-2:50: The Flavours of Human Evil
A discussion of putting a face to human evil in YA fiction, and how human monsters are the most terrifying of them all.
Laurie Halse Anderson
It’s going to be so hard to keep this conversation to forty minutes. All three of us have so much to say. Running the gamut from slavery to psychopathy to the evil choices everyday people make.
One of the characters in My Sister Rosa, Sojourner Ida Davis, is a deeply religious progressive Christian. This has elicited a range of responses from readers: from horror from the non-religious: Ewwww! Why is there religion in this book? To horror from conservative Christians, some of whom have expressed grave doubts that Christians like Sojourner exist. To thanks from progressive Christians who tell me they rarely see themselves represented in YA.
Why did I write Sojourner?
I’m an Australian atheist. In the US context it’s probably more accurate to call myself non-religious since my atheism has never been a big part of my identity. I grew up in secular communities where religion was rarely discussed. It just wasn’t a thing. Pretty much everyone I knew was also an atheist. I was curious about religion but knew little about it. My father’s an atheist Jew. So I learned a bit about Judaism from his family. Particularly my grandmother. I picked up bits and pieces about Christianity. But not much. For the first year of my BA I did Religious Studies because I felt so ignorant.
When I moved to NYC one of the biggest differences was how much more religious my NYC friends are compared to my Sydney friends. I hadn’t really met progressive Christians and religious Jews before. (My Jewish family are very conservative. I knew progressive secular Jews.) I thought being religious meant being conservative. I was wrong.
I wrote Sojourner because I have met many New Yorkers like her and because I don’t think it’s accurate to write books set in the US with no religion. Not only are there few religious people in YA, there are even fewer progressive religious characters. They’re mostly extremely conservative. But the political and social beliefs of religious people in the real world are as varied as those of non-religious people. I wanted to reflect that.
The church in the novel is based on a real church in my neighbourhood of NYC. The only thing that’s changed since I wrote Rosa is there’s now security checking everyone before they’re allowed in. Yes, because of Charleston.
Several of my religious US friends do not swear. I come from a very sweary people and I find the few non-swearers I’ve met fascinating. It became clear to me early in writing Sojourner that she too would not swear and she most definitely would not blaspheme. It was one of the hardest linguistic decisions I’ve made in a book. Swear words kept slipping into her dialogue. Apparently, swears words are invisible to me. Eeek! I did searches on every new draft to weed out my slips. I thought, with the help of my editors, copyeditors and proofreaders, that I had succeeded!
Recently a reviewer on GoodReads pointed out that Sojourner does blaspheme.1 On one page she uses both hell and damn.2 I missed it; my editors in Australia and the US missed it; copyeditors missed it; proofreaders missed it. My response was to, of course, swear. LOUDLY. That little slip of mine undermines Sojourner’s character.
This really bad error is now being changed in all editions for the next reprint. That includes the audio book—they’re bringing the actor back in to re-record those two lines–thank you, Blackstone audio!—as well as the foreign editions.
I’d link to the review but I can’t find it. Thank you, Katy Jane! [↩]
If you’re curious it’s page 114 in the Australian edition and page 88 in the US edition. [↩]
For the next two weeks I’ll be accompanying Scott on his US tour. We’ll be hitting the San Francisco/Bay Area (Menlo Park, Santa Rosa, and SF), LA, the Phoenix/Tempe area, Chicago, Princeton NJ, and New York City. Do say hello and if you’ve got anything you’d like me to sign I’m more than happy to do so. Details here.
I’ll be having a mini-tour of my own in November when My Sister Rosa publishes in North America. Full details as soon as I have them. In the meantime I’ll definitely be at YallFest and at the ALAN workshop. Hope to see you!
What do you think? I love it. I love the echoes of the famous Silence of the Lambs poster. It also reminds me of the cover of my parents’ edition of John Fowles’ The Collector, which I read as a kid, which I can’t find online. Boo! Which also had a pinned butterfly. It’s a wonderful evocation of psychopathy. Well done!
This is my annual recap of the year that was as well as a squiz at what’s gunna happen in 2016.1 By which I mean what’s going to happen in my publishing life. I am not Nostradamus. (Actually neither was Nostradamus. He was not an accurate prognosticator.) Nor would I want to be. I’m convinced being able to tell the future is the worst superpower. I’d rather be invisible and being invisible never ends well. Just read H. G. Wells!
Um, I digress:
Reading and Watching in 2015
One of the good things about being really sick is that I read a lot more than I usually do this year. I read so many wonderful books I don’t know where to start. I tweet about books and tv shows I love so if you’re looking for more recommendations you can check my Twitter feed.
As mentioned above I discovered the writing of Kirsty Eagar this year and was blown away. Everyone needs to read her NOW. I know many consider, Raw Blue, to be her best book, and don’t get me wrong, it’s excellent, but my favourite is Night Beach which is one of the best explorations of teenage female desire I’ve read.2Night Beach takes on one of the dominant tropes in YA: teen girl lusting after a little bit older hot guy. The teen girl is not punished for this desire. She is not seen as freakish or slut-shamed. I could hug this book.
In Eagar’s version the guy turns out to not be perfect. He is not a wish fulfilment, but a real person with flaws, some of them misogynistic. I’ve been working on my own take on this trope and getting no where with it for years and years. Eagar has written the book I haven’t been able to and it’s amazing. She manages to write about the toxicity of masculinity, while portraying believable, not villainous, male characters. She shows how that toxic mix of masculinity and misogyny is harmful to men as well as women.
Another favourite huge favourite this year was Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda‘s Monstress. Wow. Words fail. The writing. The art. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read and we’re only two issues in. MORE PLEASE.
Then there was Nnedi Okorafor‘s Lagoon. I’ve never read a book like it before. Big and sprawling with a million points of view, including sea creatures. It’s about an alien invasion that starts in Lagos, Nigeria but, really, that’s just the starting point. It’s about much more than that. It’s one of those books you’ll get something different out of ever time you read it. Yes, I’ve already read it twice.
I also loved Ashley Hope Perez’s heartbreaking Out of Darkness set in late the 1930s in a small town Texas. It should win all the YA awards.
This year I decided to read something I normally hate: a cosy mystery. You know one of those mysteries where everything is tidily wrapped up at the end and everyone lives happily ever after? An Agatha Christie kind of mystery. They are so not my thing. But then someone was raving about Barbara Neely’s Blanche White books and they sounded interesting. I read the first one, Blanche on the Lam about a black domestic worker who escapes after a judge gives her a custodial sentence for being late paying a fine. She winds up being housekeeper to a deeply dysfunctional wealthy white family, and solving their assorted crimes, while delivering much pungent, and often funny, commentary on racism and misogyny while resisting her employers’ desires to turn her into a mammy. I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.
I also read much non-fiction this year. I re-read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It’s a book every one should read, particularly Americans, as the USA is her primary focus. Her book demonstrates that white is not universal, that white is not neutral, that it has a history, which she eloquently delineates. It’s not often you finish a book understanding how the world operates better than before you read it.
I was wowed by Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negroland, which is about growing up black and privileged in Chicago in the fifties and sixties. It was a window into an alien world. Obviously, I’m not black, but what was really alien to me was her family’s focus on respectability. I was never taught when to wear white gloves, what length skirt is appropriate. The only reason I’ve ever had to wear a hat is to avoid skin cancer. But I’ve known white Australian girls from wealthy families who were sent to posh private schools, who knew all of that stuff, and I think would recognise much in Jefferson’s book. What I related to most strongly was the sexism and misogyny she had to battle.
One of my fave new TV shows is Into the Badlands because martial arts staged well and magically and saturated colours and eye candy and coherent plot and world building. It has a strong diverse cast. Except, well, I’ve been noticing this a lot lately in US TV shows and movies, even when several of the big roles are given to PoC, the extras are still overwhelmingly white. And there’s never any world-building to explain why in the future the world is 90% white.
I also enjoyed Ready For This, which was created by the people behind Dance Academy and Redfern Now, and really it’s what you’d get if you crossed Redfern Now with Dance Academy. I.e. heaven.
The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy. We critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker: future Masterchef. I chortled. There’s not a single dud in Eat the Sky.3
In March Soho Teen published the North American edition of Razorhurst. It received four starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus and em>The Bulletin of The Center for Children’s Books (BCCB). As well as making the Tayshas 2016 list.
The acclaim for Razorhurst means even more to me than usual because, let’s be honest, Razorhurst is weird. It sits uneasily in a bunch of different genres. Some said it wasn’t really YA. Thus making the shortlist for the Inkys—entirely voted on by teen readers—was particularly gratifying. We struggled figuring out how to market the book. I worried it was going to disappear without a trace. So as you can imagine the enthusiastic reception has been way beyond what I let myself hope for. For awhile there all I let myself hope for was that Razorhurst would get published.
Books Out in 2016
A year ago I thought my next novel would be out already. But then I had a nasty bout of pneumonia in January and it took forever to recover. Lungs, they do not like to be messed with. I give pneumonia one star and that’s for the silent p.
My Sister Rosa was bumped from the schedule. None of my books has ever been bumped before. It freaked me out. OMG! I’m never going to finish this book! It’s never going to be published! My career is over! But—spoiler—I finished the book. Turns out it’s better to take the time to write the best book possible than to rush into print something half-baked. In the end, I’m proud of Rosa but it was the most gruelling writing experience of my career.
My Sister Rosa is my eleventh book, my eighth novel, and seventh solo novel. It’s my sixth book with my Australian/New Zealand publisher, Allen and Unwin, which makes them the publisher I’ve been with the longest anywhere in the world. Thank you, Allen and Unwin, for sticking with me! Youse mob are a joy to work with.
For those of you who don’t know, My Sister Rosa is my take on the bad seed told from the point of view a seventeen year old boy whose ten year old sister is a psychopath. Spoiler: this does not lead to fun times. You can read the first chapter here and how I came to write it here. It’s my first novel that I can accurately describe in one short sentence. High concept! I finally managed it.
The Australian edition will hit shops at the end of January. So soon! The finished book is gorgeous. Look at that cover. It’s beautiful and creepy, which is perfect. Also it has the popping-est spine.
Okay, I admit it doesn’t look that popping in this photo, but trust me, in real life it totally pops. People are going to see it on shelves and be compelled to pick it up and take it home. It is the Pied Piper of book spines.
There will be not one, but two, My Sister Rosa launches. For the first time I’ll be launching with someone else. Kirsty Eagar’s brilliant new book Summer Skin publishes on the same day. I’m a huge Eagar fan so launching our books together is going to be amazing. The first launch is in Sydney, the second in Melbourne:
Thursday, 4 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Double book launch My Sister Rosa/Summer Skin book launch
with the fabulous Kirsty Eagar
We will discuss
Sex and Psychopaths
And answer all your questions for we love Q&A! Kinokuniya
Level 2, The Galleries,
500 George St,
Wednesday 10 February 2016 at 6:00pm for a 6:30pm
Double book launch of My Sister Rosa/Summer Skin
With the brilliant Kirsty Eagar
By the wonderful Ellie Marney Readings
309 Lygon St,
Hope to see you some of you there!
My Sister Rosa will be published in the USA and Canada by Soho Press in November 2016. That’s my second book with them. So far it’s been a very enjoyable experience working with the lovely folk at Soho. Wait till you see Rosa’s Soho cover! It’s every bit as good (and grey) as the Allen and Unwin cover but also very different. I’ve been blessed by the cover gods on this book.
What I wrote in 2015
I spent this year writing and rewriting and rewriting and going through copyedits and proofs of My Sister Rosa. This took longer than I thought it would and not just because of the pneumonia. Rosa was a tough book to write. For the first time in my writing life I struggled to find the voice of my protagonist. I didn’t get it right until I was well into the second or third draft. (Or was it the fourth? It’s all a blur now.) Since I’d already sold the book it was pretty terrifying. I had a finished draft and yet the narrative voice didn’t work. What even?!
Since this is my first book told entirely from the point of view of a boy some assumed it was his maleness that made finding his voice difficult. Not at all. It was how nice he is. Che Taylor is possibly the nicest point of view character I’ve ever written. He genuinely thinks the best of everyone. Even his psychopathic sister. Writing someone that nice is hard. Ridiculously hard.
I suspect this reflects poorly on me. I’m sure other writers have no difficulties writing nice. Oh, well. We all have our flaws. I got there in the end and the early responses to Che are very positive. So far no one finds him so nice they want to throw up. Phew.
I also wrote forty thousand words of a new novel this year. It’s told from the point of view of the least nice character I’ve ever written. She’s a psychopath. Yup, having written from Che’s point of view about living with a psychopath, and doing all the research to make that convincing, I started writing a novel from the monster’s point of view. It has its own difficulties but, I’m ashamed to say, it’s much easier writing from a psychopath’s point of view than from that of their empathetic opposite.
I continued blogging, but between illness and deadlines, did not manage to blog nearly as much as last year. I’m hoping to do better in 2016. I love blogging, even though apparently it’s still dying, and hate it when I have too much going on to do so regularly.
So, yeah, I plan to blog more next year, illness, weather, deadlines willing. Blogging, I love you no matter how out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*
Writing Plans for 2016
I plan to finish the psychopath novel. It’s unsold so I can’t tell you when it will be published. My experience with My Sister Rosa showed me, once again, that I have a much easier time of it if I sell my novels after I finish them, not before. I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I’m able to do that. I think I’ve finally learned to stop worrying about how big the gaps are between my novels’ publication.
All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. Being ill did make it worse. The fitter I am, the less trouble I have with it, and I lost a lot of fitness this year. But I’m almost back to being able to write as much as six hours a day now.
Travel in 2015
I was in the USA in April and May to promote Razorhurst and had a wonderful time. The Houston Teen Book Con was amazing. If you’re ever invited, fellow YA authors, go. It’s the first YA con I’ve been to that was overwhelming populated by teens. Wonderful!
For my travel plans in 2016 go here. I’ll be in the USA in May for the paperback publication of Razorhurst and to be guest of honour (!) at Wiscon. I’ll return in November for the North American publication of My Sister Rosa (and to complain about how cold it is).
2015 was awful but there’s always hope
I was sicker this year than I’ve been in years. It made everything else much harder. I spent the year behind on deadlines and everything else. It’s only now in December that I feel even slightly caught up. 2016 has to be better.
2015 was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. But then more awful shit happens and nothing is done to stop it from repeating. History, we are not learning from it.
In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. The new PM, Turnbull, while a vast improvement on his predecessor is not doing much, if anything, to slow that process done. Sure, he’s less anti-science and anti-culture than Abbott, but low bar, and there’s not a lot to show for it beyond rhetoric. We still have disgraceful policies on asylum seekers and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.
Last year I wrote: May you have a wonderful 2016 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way towards doing that. At least that’s what I hope.
I feel the same way now. Happy new year! May 2016 not be vile.
Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. Time zones. Who knew? [↩]
I’ve not yet read Saltwater Vampires I’m saving that as a reward for after I finish the books I have in my critique queue. [↩]
It’ll be published in North America but I don’t have more details on that yet. [↩]
Not all of them, obviously. Like adults, some are lovely, some are complete shitheads, and some are a bit meh. But unlike the majority of adults, teens mostly don’t temper their enthusiasms, they haven’t had their enthusiasms squashed down for them yet. Yes, some have a wall of fuck-you, but when you break through that wall of fuck you, it stays broken.
On my first book tour, for How To Ditch Your Fairy, I was sent around the USA to talk to mostly years 6, 7 and 8. In the US they segregate those years into what they call middle schools. Middle schools are notoriously hellish. All my YA/middle grade writer friends, who were veterans of many tours, were deeply sympathetic and told me horror stories of being pelted with rotten fruit and being asked probing literary questions such as, “Why are your clothes so shit?”1
Thanks, you bastard writer friends, for filling my heart with terror.
On that first tour I visited gazillions of middle schools. They were all fabulous. Not a single projectile was thrown and my western boots were beloved. So was my accent. I highly recommend touring the US if you have a non US English-as-a-native-language accent and cool boots.
A quick aside: what I was meant to be doing was flogging my books, which was pointless as most teens do not show up at school with the money to buy books. (The only exception is the insanely rich private schools with stables and croquet courts where each kids has an expense account and three hundred copies of my book sold in a day. STABLES, people!) What I actually did was not talk about my book much at all.2
My favourite visit of the entire tour was at a public school (without a hint of a stable) in the Midwest.3 I was abandoned in the library by my publicist and the librarian in front of three classes of mostly 13 and 14 year olds. There were at least 60 teens and me. Every writer in this situation develops an if-all-else-fails move. Mine is vomit stories. This is the story I told them. Their response was to ask me to tell more vomit stories. Much fun was had.
When we got to Q&A they wanted to know everything there is to know about Australians, a people with whom they clearly had a lot in common. So I may or may not have told them that wombats fly and echolocate and aerate the earth, which, is, in fact, why they’re called “wombats” because they’re a cross between a worm and a bat. The questions and answers went on in that mode. We all laughed our arses off.
You’ll be pleased to hear they DID NOT BELIEVE A SINGLE WORD. One actually said, “You are the best liar ever.”
I conceded that, yes, bullshit is an art and that I have studied with the very best.
They all cheered.
Sadly, I praised the fine art of bullshitting just as the librarian and publicist walked back in. They were unswayed by the approval of my audience.
Cue lecture on not swearing in front of students. To which I did not respond by pointing out that in my culture shit does not count as swearing. Mainly because I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure I hadn’t said any of the words that count as swearing for all cultures ever. Their main concern, of course, was not the students, it was the parents. The librarian really didn’t want to deal with all the complaints they were sure they were going to get because of my praise of bullshit.
No teen has ever told me not to swear or complained about the shits and fucks and arseholes in my books.4 Nor have they ever complained about the sex. Or violence. They have, however, complained that my books start too slow, that no teen would ever be allowed the freedom that the teens in my books have, and that I don’t write fast enough, what am I? The laziest writer in the world?
Teens also, you’ll be stunned to hear, do not complain about the so-called fact that teens don’t read.
My hairdresser does. He has apparently read every single one of the gazillion panicked articles about the the current generation’s total lack of literacy. Seriously every time I go in he will say, once we’ve gotten past all the neighbourhood gossip, “I hear kids aren’t reading much these days.”
And I will say for the gazillionth time, “Actually, teens today read more than any previous generation of teens. They are readaholics. They are a huge part of why the genre I write, YA, is such a huge seller with double digit growth every year for well over a decade.”
“My kids only read comic books.”
“That’s reading! Reading graphic novels and manga requires a level of literacy with images and language that many adult readers struggle with. Furthermore, not only are teens reading more than ever before. They are also writing more. They write novels! Did you write a novel when you were thirteen? I didn’t. Teens today are a literacy advocate’s wet dream. Also, my lovely hairdresser, you need to stop reading the [redacted name of tabloid newspaper].”
This is why I love teens. They don’t get their information from [redacted name of tabloid newspaper]. Most of them are a lot better at spotting bullshit than your average adult and they’re way less prone to repeating the warmed over moral panics of the last hundred years. The sheer breadth of their reading is astonishing. They read novels, and comic books—sometimes backwards—and airplane manuals and games reviews and they write songs and poetry and stories and novels and think about words and language and invent slang in ways that most adults have long since ceased to do.
Can you imagine a better audience?
That last question was actually asked on a tour of the UK, not the US. In the questioner’s defence the writer in question really does wear shit clothes. Most writers are poor, yo. [↩]
I wonder why I was only ever sent out on one other tour? It is very puzzling. [↩]
I think it was an M state. But it could have been a vowel state. My memory is now hazy. [↩]
For the record none of those words appear in How To Ditch Your Fairy the book I was promoting. [↩]
My next novel, My Sister Rosa, will be out from Allen & Unwin in February 2016 in Australia and New Zealand and from Soho Teen in North America in November 2016.
Here’s what the Allen & Unwin cover looks like:
Pretty creepy eh? What is she going to do to that poor wee little sparrow?
My Sister Rosa is not a cheerful tale of a happy family. Nope. It’s a novel of misery and woe told from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old boy whose ten-year-old sister, Rosa, is a psychopath.
It’s up to Che to protect Rosa from the world; and the world from Rosa.
[Cue ominous music.]
My Sister Rosa is my take on the bad seed narrative, which I’ve always been fascinated by. Creepy children? What’s not to love? Research for this book consisted of reading as many bad seed novels as I could. Including, of course, William March’sThe Bad Seed. I also read many books on psychopathy and, following a suggestion from Lili Wilkinson, books on empathy because you can’t understand psychopaths without understanding what they lack: empathy.
All that research has left me seeing psychopaths everywhere. The world is even scarier than I thought. Get my book when it comes out and you’ll be seeing psychopaths everywhere too. You’re welcome.
Look at that star-studded line up! It shall be a wonderful night. I’ll be reading a very short amusing bit from Razorhurst. Yes, even a book that’s been repeatedly described as “bloody” and “blood-soaked” and just won the Aurealis award for best Australian horror novel1 has funny bits. Honest.
Me and the old man will talk about our latest books, what books are coming next, what it’s like living with another writer—HELL ON EARTH! heavenly—and many other things.
We’ll also be at the Romantic Times Conference in Dallas in May. Where we’ll both be reading our juvenilia to an audience that may regret attending that particular session. I found a demented Raymond Chandler pastiche from when I was around fourteen. Breathtakingly awful. You’ll laugh till you expire.
Here’s hoping I get to see some of you soon!
Adult or Young Adult, I’ll have you know. Go, Razorhurst! [↩]
Today is the official publication of Razorhurst in the USA and Canada by Soho Press. For those of you who have been waiting since last July when it was published in Australia and New Zealand the wait is over!
For those of who you have no idea what I’m talking about: Razorhurst takes place on a winter’s day in 1932 when Dymphna Campbell, a gangster’s moll, and Kelpie, a street urchin who can see ghosts, tip the balance in a bloody underworld power struggle. As you do . . . You can read the first chapter here.
Razorhurst is my first solo novel since Liar in 2009. Loads of extremely fun research went into the writing of it. I walked every street in the inner-city Sydney suburbs of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, and Kings Cross, trying to imagine what they looked like, smelled like, tasted like, back in 1932 when, according to Sydney tabloid Truth, the streets were crowded with “bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers, gunmen and every brand of racecourse parasite.”
I talk more about my influences here and here on Scalzi’s Whatever. Alert readers may notice that I contradict myself in those two pieces. What can I say? The influences on this book were many! But in short: blood, razors and ghosts.
So far the response in the USA has been pretty stellar1 with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal and Kirkus (“a dark, unforgettable and blood-soaked tale of outlaws and masterminds”). The Horn Book Magazine said this: “Yoking paranormal thriller, roman noir, and historical fiction, Razorhurst teems with precisely realized period details and an expansive cast of unsavory characters, as well as numerous allusions to the films noirs and Sydney history that inspired Larbalestier . . . intensely lucid and sharp.” Yes, I am blushing.
Razorhurst was just named as one of Publishers WeeklyBooks of the Week along side the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro. Double blush! It’s also one of the twenty books picked for Amazon’s Big Spring Books: Teen & Young Adult. Really thrilled to be on that list alongside books like Courtney Summers’ brilliant All the Rage. I may spend the rest of my life blushing.
Go forth and borrow or purchase from your favourite library or bookshop. Here’s hoping you enjoy!2
Note: For those wondering why I’ve not been responding to tweets, emails, comments here etc. I’m still not 100% recovered and have to save my keyboard time for rewriting my next novel, which publishes in the US a year from now and in Australia in November. I still love you all and hope to be less silent soon.
Then, best of all, earlier this month I learned that Razorhurst has made the shortlist of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Young Adult), which is one of the biggest YA prizes in Australia.3
So, yeah, I’m more than happy with how Razorhurst has been received. Pinching myself, in fact.
Books Out in 2015 and 2016
I will have three books out in 2015. Two novels and a short story in a wonderful new anthology.
In India this month my story, “Little Red Suit,” was published in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, but I’m going to pretend that’s 2015, as it will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in February. Isn’t that cover divine?
The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some of them worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy and we critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker. I can’t wait to see the finished book.
“Little Red Suit,” is a post-apocalyptic retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Fairy tales were the first stories I ever told so it was lovely to return to the form. As I’ve mentioned, once or twice, I am not a natural short story writer. They are much more of a challenge for me than writing novels. So much so that I kind of want to turn this story into a novel. (Almost all of my short stories are secretly novels.) I hope you enjoy it.
In March Soho Teen will publish the US edition of Razorhurst. I am very excited and will be over there in the US doing events in California and New York and Texas and possibly some other states. I will keep you posted. Yes, the Soho Teen edition will be available in Canada too.
Then in November I’ll have a brand new novel out with Allen and Unwin.
Let’s pause for a moment to digest that: in November there will be a brand new Justine Larbalestier novel, only a year later than my last one.
I know, brand new novels two years in a row! I’ve become a writing machine!
The new novel hasn’t been formally announced yet so I can’t tell you much about it other than it’s realism set in New York City, told from the point of view of a seventeen-year old Australian boy named Che.
The new novel will be published in the USA by Soho Press in March 2016.
What I wrote in 2014
I spent this year writing and rewriting the new novel. As well as rewrites, copyedits and etc. of Razorhurst. My novels, they go through many drafts.
And, me being me, I started a brand new novel out of nowhere, inspired by . . . you know what, it’s still a tiny whisper of a novel. I’ll wait until there’s a bit more before I start talking about it in public.
Then just a week or so ago I got the idea for yet another novel. So who knows which of those I’ll wind up finishing this year.
I continued blogging and managed to blog roughly once a week for most of the year. The most fun I had blogging this year was doing the Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club with Kate Elliott. I was very bummed when deadlines and travel forced us to call it quits. Here’s hoping we can get it started again some time in 2015.
I plan to blog even more next year. Er, tomorrow. Blogging, I love you no matter out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*
Writing Plans for 2015
Well, obviously, there’ll be more rewrites and copyedits and etc for the new novel.
Then I plan to finish one of the novels that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows? Will I finally get back to the New York Depression-era novel(s)? The snow-boarding werewolves? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere? Given that my last three novels came out of nowhere that would be the safest bet.
All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. I’m continuing to be able to write as much as six hours a day. The few times I’ve written longer than that I have paid for it. It’s good to know my limits.
Travel in 2014
I was in the US briefly in June and then again in Sept-Nov, accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. It felt like we went everywhere. Both coasts! Or all three if you count Texas as the third coast. Also Canada. It went fabulously well. Scott’s fans turned out in great numbers and many book sold and I met heaps of wonderful librarians and booksellers and readers and writers and some of them had already read Razorhurst thanks to my wonderful publicist at Soho Press, Meredith Barnes. It will be fun to go out on the road again in March.
Reading and Watching in 2014
My favourite new writers are Brandy Colbert and Courtney Summers, who both write realist contemporary YA, which I’ve gotta be honest is not my thing. That’s why I read a tonne of it this year: to learn and to grow. Both Colbert and Summers are dark and uncompromising almost bleak writers. Their books made me weep buckets. But there’s heart and hope in their novels too. I’m really looking forward to more from both of them. Courtney’s next book, All the Rage, will be out in early 2015.
I also read heaps of non-fiction this year. A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs is a wonderful history of passing in the USA, which centres those who chose not to pass as much as those who did, and looks closely at the reason for deciding either way and how they changed over time. African-American family life is at the centre of this excellent history.
One of my fave new TV shows is Faking It because it’s silly and funny and kind of reminds me of my high school days at an alternative school though, you know, more scripted. I also love Cara Fi created and written by a dear friend, Sarah Dollard, who is a mighty talent. It’s set in Wales and is sweet and funny and feminist and touching and you should all watch it.
2014 was awful but there’s always hope
Although 2014 was a wonderful year for me professionally it was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. The movement that has grown out of the protests in Ferguson is inspiring and should fill us all with optimism. But then it happens all over again.
In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. This is the most anti-science, anti-culture and, well, anti-people government we’ve ever had. The already disgraceful policy on asylum seekers has gotten even worse and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.
Argh. Make it stop!
May you have a wonderful 2015 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way to doing that. At least that’s what I hope.
Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. I’m sorry that you live in the past. [↩]
Yes, I had a co-edited anthology and a co-written novel in those five years but you would be amazed by how many people do not count collaborations as being a real novel by an author. I don’t get it either. [↩]
If you’re from the US think Printz or National Book Award only plus money. That’s right in Australia if you win a literary award they give you money. Bizarre, I know. [↩]
I’ve not been blogging much because I’m accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. So far we’ve been to Raleigh, Lexington, Louisville, Philadelphia, Washington DC, St Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee. And there’s much more to come. Check out the rest of the tour here. I’d be delighted to sign anything you want signed but mostly I’m just happy to say hi and chat.
We’ve had many adventures so far including staying in what I swear was a haunted hotel. Uncannily cold temperatures? Check. Eerie cold winds that came rushing out of the elevators/lifts? Check. Strange rustling sounds in the hotel room in the middle of the night? Check.
If you haven’t read Afterworlds yet you should. It’s definitely Scott’s best book so far.
I’m super excited to reveal what Razorhurst will look like when Soho Teen publish it in the USA next March. Quite a contrast to the Australian cover, eh? Yet at the same time they both have that gorgeous, strong font treatment.
I adore that font and those colours. I hope you do too. Everyone who’s seen this cover has been wildly enthusiastic uttering comments like, “I would buy that in a heartbeat.” “Utterly beautiful.” “Wow, that’s so commercial.” All of it music to my ears.
Soho’s edition will have a bonus glossary. Yes, you US readers are going to be spoiled. It also means the USA Razorhurst will be my first novel to have both a glossary and a map.1 That’s right, Soho are keeping the beautiful map used in the Allen and Unwin edition. Still gorgeous, isn’t it?
Map designed by Hannah Janzen
Map plus glossary? What could be cooler? Nothing. I can’t wait until all my US readers can get their hands on Razorhurst. March is so soon, youse guys!
Razorhurst is my fifth novel with a glossary. Because I love them: Words, definitions, dictionaries, glossaries, they are all my dearest loves. [↩]
The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.
But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?
In order to respond I need to break it down:
I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.
What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.
Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.
Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.
When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.
For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.
I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”
I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.
All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”
White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.
When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.
I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.
All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.
That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.
When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.
When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.
That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.
As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.
There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.
Writing to an Audience
But white people who are ignorant about racism are never the audience I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.
Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.
It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.
My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.
Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.
I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.
When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference. [↩]
Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist. [↩]
First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003. [↩]
Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published. [↩]
The next book for Kate Elliott and mine’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club is Patricia Highsmith’s Carol.
The book was originally published under the title Price of Salt and under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as a Bantam paperback original in 1952. Although it did not sell well as a hardcover it sold nearly a million copies as a Bantam paperback and become a lesbian classic. Highsmith didn’t publicly admit the book was hers until the 1980s. This lovely article by Terry Castle at Slate gives some more context for the book.
It’s one of my favourite Highsmith novels and the one least like her other books. No one’s murdered, there are no psychopaths,1 and the ending does not fill your heart with despair.
You can join in the conversation by commenting on the post where Kate and I share our thoughts which will go up next Monday/Tuesday and/or by joining in the twitter discussion with #BWFBC
Kate and I look forward to discussing it with you on on Monday 28 Jul at 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time and on Tuesday 29 July noon Eastern Standard Australian time.2
Update: I got some facts wrong about the book and corrected them. My source is the note that Highsmith wrote for a reprint of the book in 1989.
No, obvious ones anyways. I think Carol’s husband could be one. [↩]
A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.
All the words below are hers:
My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.
Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).
The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.
In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.
I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.
I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.1
Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).
In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream2 YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.
There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.
Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:
No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
Nothing too complex.
Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.
Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?
I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?
Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
Young adults are unintelligent.
Young adults have no adults in their lives.
Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.
Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.
When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”
Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.
I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.
You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.
I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.
How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.
Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?
Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.
Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.
More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.
Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.
Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.
We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.
We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.
I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.
Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.
Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.
But I don’t want to quit.
The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.
YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.
If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.
We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.
My next novel, Razorhurst, will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in July. That’s right, its publication is a mere five months away! Which is practically right now.
I’m delighted to be working with Allen & Unwin on Razorhurst. They have published all but three of my books of fiction. Razorhurst is my fifth novel with them, which means they are now the publisher with which I’ve had the longest association. It’s really wonderful to have such a great home for my books in Australia.
Meanwhile in the USA Razorhust is going to be published by Soho Teen (an imprint of Soho Press) in March 2015! Which is only slightly more than a year away, which is basically almost tomorrow. Time moves very, very quickly these days. Especially in North America. I believe the Time Speed Up was caused by the Polar Vortex. Or something. *cough*
Soho Teen only publish twelve books a year and they put their full promotional weight behind each one. I’ve been hearing great things for awhile now and am very excited to be working with them.
Here is the Australian cover of Razorhurst:
Pretty fabulous, isn’t it? I think it screams pick me up and read me.
What is Razorhurst about?
Here’s how Allen & Unwin are describing it:
The setting: Razorhurst, 1932. The fragile peace between two competing mob bosses—Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson—is crumbling. Loyalties are shifting. Betrayals threaten.
Kelpie knows the dangers of the Sydney streets. Ghosts have kept her alive, steering her to food and safety, but they are also her torment.
Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s ‘best girl’, experienced in surviving the criminal world, but she doesn’t know what this day has in store for her.
When Dymphna meets Kelpie over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s latest boyfriend, she pronounces herself Kelpie’s new protector. But Dymphna’s life is in danger too, and she needs an ally. And while Jimmy’s ghost wants to help, the dead cannot protect the living . . .
Razorhurst is my bloodiest book with the highest body count.1 It was a very violent time in Sydney’s history and my book reflects that. There’s also loads of friendship and love and, um, rose petals in it.
Why is it called Razorhurst?
Razorhurst was the name Sydney’s tabloid newspaper Truth gave the inner-city Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. However, the crimes that outraged the paper also took place in Surry Hills, King’s Cross, and other parts of inner-city Sydney. Here’s a little snippet of Truth‘s September 1928 cri de coeur for tougher anti-crime laws:
Razorhurst, Gunhurst, Bottlehurst, Dopehurst—it used to be Darlinghurst, one of the finest quarters of a rich and beautiful city; today it is a plague spot where the spawn of the gutter grow and fatten on official apathy . . .
Inadequate policing and an out-of-date Crimes Act are the fertilisers of this Field of Evil. Truth demands that Razorhurst be swept off the map, and the Darlinghurst we knew in betters days be restored . . .
Recall the human beasts that, lurking cheek by jowl with crime—bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers, gunmen and every brand of racecourse parasite. What an army of arrogant and uncontrolled vice!
As a result of what goes on daily—thanks to the Crimes Act, thanks to under-policing—Razorhurst grows more and more undesirable as a place of residence for the peaceful and the industrious. Unceasingly it attracts to its cesspool every form of life that is vile.
Isn’t that fabulous? Such rabble rousing fury. I could go on quoting Truth all day long. It’s the most entertaining tabloid I’ve ever read and certainly the one most addicted to alliteration. Sample headline: Maudlin Magistrates Who Molly-coddle Mobsters.2 Doing the research for Razorhurst meant reading quite a bit of Truth. And even though it’s only available on microfiche, which means you have to squint and constantly readjust the focus, it was still so much fun to read. Tabloids are not what they used to be.
What inspired you to write Razorhurst?
I moved to the inner-city Sydney suburb of Surry Hills and started learning more about its notorious history.3 Our home is around the corner from Frog Hollow, which was once one of Sydney’s most notorious slums. And we’re only a few streets away from where crime boss and Queen of Surry Hills, Kate Leigh, once lived.
I read Larry Writer’s Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs, a non-fiction account of inner-city Sydney’s razor gangs in the twenties and thirties. Around the same time I came across Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle and City of Shadows by Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams. These are two books of Sydney Police photographs from 1912-1960. The photos of crime scenes, criminals, victims, missing persons and suspects are extraordinarily vivid black and white pictures which evoke the dark side of Sydney more richly than any other resource I have come across. You can look at them here. Or if you’re in Sydney you can go see them at the Justice and Police Museum. The exhibition is on until the end of the year.
TL;DR: My next novel, Razorhurst, is out in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014; and in the USA in March 2015. There is blood.
Mind you, that was not hard to achieve given that no one dies in my trilogy or in How To Ditch Your Fairy or Team Human and the death in Liar takes place before the book starts. (Or does it? And was there really only one death in Liar? I could be lying but only because I’m contractually obligated to do so.) So, really, a body count of one means that Razorhurst is bloodier than my other novels. [↩]
It’s Banned Books Week and today I discovered via Texas ACLU’s annual banned book report that mine and Holly Black‘s Zombies versus Unicorns has been banned there. I immediately tweeted about it. Proudly because also on the list is one of the best writers of all time: Shirley Jackson. Also I have many Texas connections, including a husband, so I kind of feel like an honorary Texan. Not to mention: I adore Texan librarians. They are seriously the best.
The responses I got were divided between Woo hoos! and people worried that the people of Texas could no longer get hold of the books on the list. So here are my quick responses.
As far as I know states in the USA no longer ban books. Nor does the government of the USA. This list of the top ten banned books in Texas is of those removed from schools in Texas. It’s also not just a top ten list it’s the list of all books that were banned in Texas in 2012-13. That’s right only ten were banned. Book bannings are actually going down in Texas. ZvU was only banned from one school. See how misleading my headline for this post is?
Don’t get me wrong though even one book banned is one book too many.
Throughout the USA I have only had my books banned from a handful of schools and from a juvenile detention centre. That I know of.
The “that I know of” is the key part. Books are banned from schools all the time in the USA but often we never hear about it. I only know about ZvU being banned because of Texas ACLU’s report on it. It’s the reason we have Banned Books Week so that the fact that books are being banned in this day and age is known about, so that we can fight back.
There’s a common misapprehension that a book being banned is a license to print money. Au contraire. A book being banned is a loss of sales. It means that book is not being stocked in that school’s library or taught at that school. So there are no sales of that book to that school.
Mostly when a book is banned it quietly disappears from the shelves without so much as a murmur. And even when a book’s banning is widely publicised it doesn’t necessarily lead to increased sales. Many of my author friends have had books banned with loads of publicity and yet they all report the banning of their books had little or no impact on sales.
So while we authors joke about wishing we were banned the sad truth is all we get out of it is disappeared books and dubious bragging rights.
One of the best things you can do to fight back is to go out and buy or borrow one of those banned books. Talk about the banning of books with your friends. Kick up a stink when you hear about a book being banned from your school.
As part of teaching at the Alpha Teen Workshop, I’ll be appearing in Greensburg, PA. Scott will also be there on account of we’re teaching the workshop together. Along with the fabulous Theodora Goss and Tamora Pierce. Stellar company, eh?
Hope to see some of you there. It’s ages since either one of us did an event in the USA. We are very excited.
I have never been to Pittsburgh before. Is there anything in particular I should make sure to see? Tell me of Pittsburgh, oh Pittsburghians.
Given the date I imagine the entire event will be in French. I’m pretty sure I can still count to ten in French and ask where the window is. Which is all you need, right? Oh, apparently it is not. My French-speaking sister has just informed me that I am forbidden to mangle that fine language. English, it is then. [↩]
After Scott put up this post about his appearances for the rest of this year, I realised I should do likewise because most of those places he is, I will be also. An eerie coincidence, I know.
Most of the events are in Australia. Sorry, rest of the world, who may have some interest in saying hello. We’ll always have Twitter.
I’ll be interviewing the brilliant and wonderful Nalo Hopkinson on Saturday, 27 April (i.e. two days away) at 2:30PM, Forrest Room 1 & 2 at the Rydges Capital Hill. (Do come say hi. Unless I’m, like, on stage or in the ladies room or something.) Conference site.
INTERNET DEAD ZONE
I am turning off the internet for this whole week. No twitter, no nothing. It’s going to be AWESOME. The mental hygiene, I needs it. Oh, okay, I’m just turning it off for me, yours will still chug along. (Probably.)
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. [↩]
My mate Diana Peterfreund had an excellent post on some truly terrible publishing advice doing the rounds at the moment. In passing she mentions that “as someone who has now published with four NY publishers and the aforementioned small presses—every publisher does things a little differently.”
I have not seen that pointed out very often. I’ve seen oodles of folk point to how writers all write differently. That there are as many ways to write a novel as there are novels. But in most discussions about publishing the assumption is that all publishers are the same. Or at least the only differences is between small presses and big presses. Between the Big Six1 and everyone else. Between traditional publishing and self-publishing.
What Diana says is so so so so true. Let me repeat it: every publisher does things a little differently.
Like Diana I’ve published books with several different publishers in the USA: Bloomsbury, Harper Collins, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, Wesleyan University Press. I also have a close working relationship with Allen and Unwin in Australia.2 So that’s six publishers I’ve been through the whole publishing process with.3
The biggest shock for me was going from Penguin to Bloomsbury. So many things I assumed were standard to all publishers turned out not to be.4 Fortunately Bloomsbury has5 a welcome letter for its new authors where it lays out how it does things. Most useful document!
One of the biggest differences between houses is their culture. Some are far more corporate than others. Some are more like families. It takes a while as a new author to get a handle on your new house’s culture, which of course, also varies within publishing houses. A big publishing house is not one entity. There’s also variation between the adult and children’s divisions and between the various different imprints within each publishing house and how those imprints interact with sales, marketing, and all the other departments. Some publishing houses are more like a feudal country than a corporation or a family.
Every publishing house has different procedures for editing, proofing and copyedits. Some do hard copy, some electronic, some a mixture. Some are done in house. Some not. Some allow quite a long time to get those edits done. Others want a two-minute turn around. This is related to how big a lead time the house has, which also varies widely. It also varies a lot from editor to editor.
Each publishing houses has a standard contract. In which their preferences on various thing are laid out. Stuff like how advances are divided up. For some publishers the standard split is into thirds. Some advances are split into sixths. And there are other variations depending on the house and how negotiations go with the agent. Some houses offer bonuses (to some of the books they sign) if they list in the New York Times or USA Today or win certain prestigious prizes. That’s only happened to me with one deal and boy did I feel fancy despite none of those bonuses ever coming into play. I’m sure there are further variations I’ve never heard of. For those of you who don’t know what an advance is I explain in this post.
Then there’s the speed with which publishers pay you, which also varies a lot. There’s one house that used to be notorious for having the slowest contracts department in the known universe. There are other publishers whose accountants departments have been equally notorious. I know of one publishing house which sometimes pays its authors within a week or less of signing them.6 Any freelancer in any trade at all will know how this goes.
Some publishing houses have separate marketing and sales departments. But the sales department at one house doesn’t always do the same things as a sales department at another house. Many of the smaller houses have one person doing all the sales, marketing, and publicity. Over the last ten years or so the majority of publishers have been getting smaller and their sales, marketing, publicity and other departments have been contracting. So who handles what has been changing.
Every house I’ve been with has had its positives and its negatives. But given the speed with which publishing has been changing and contracting. What I know about how, say, Penguin, operates probably isn’t true anymore since I haven’t been published by them since 2007.
The growth of ebooks and Amazon and independent publishing and the disappearance of so many book shops both here in Australia and in the USA—though ebooks are still a much bigger deal over there—has transformed publishing in ways I could never have imagined when I sold my first novel back in 2003. What I know about publishing is mostly about the Big Six New York City publishers, who are not as dominant as they once were.7
The internet is so much more important to publishing now than it was back in 2005 when my first novel came out. I remember being asked back then, by someone quite senior in publishing, “What’s a blog?” These days the idea of a publicity campaign without the internet is, well, inconceivable.8
All of this is why, I suspect, so many discussion about publishing between those who work for or are published by the Big Six and those who are part of the independent, self-publishing explosion so often go awry. Our publishing worlds are different so our assumptions are different. But I’ve also seen authors published only by one house have conversations at total cross purposes with other authors who’ve published with more than one mainstream house.
Publishing is big and confusing no matter which part of it you live in. When I became an author I had no prior experience in publishing. My friends who worked in publishing first have a much better understanding of how it all works than I do. But even they are frequently confused. Coming from editorial doesn’t mean you understand how other departments operate and vice versa.
In conclusion: Publishing is complicated! Not everything is the same! Things change! Boxing is awesome!
Hachette; Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group/Macmillan; Penguin Group; HarperCollins; Random House; Simon & Schuster [↩]
Although Penguin Australia published the Magic or Madness trilogy they bought it from Penguin USA so all the editing was done in the USA. [↩]
While I’ve met some of my non-English language publishers and have occasionally been consulted about translation questions and so on I mostly hear very little in between saying yes to the sale and the translated book showing up. [↩]
Going from Wesleyan University Press to Penguin was not a shock. I assumed a big fancy publisher would be different from a small university press. I was right. [↩]
Or maybe had? I don’t know if they do that anymore. [↩]
I know a tiny handful of people who have not the tiniest speck of humility or modesty and—this is the important part—are not obnoxious. They are good people.
What they have is a sense of their own worth and talents that is directly proportional to those talents and worth. They do not sell themselves short, nor do they overestimate their abilities. They have the self confidence and belief to neither indulge in false modesty nor to be crippled by doubt. They know they would not be where they are if those talents had not been nurtured by others or if they had not worked hard.
It is remarkably refreshing and I envy them.
Humility and modesty are possibly the most annoying virtues. Too often the truly modest are neurotic, self-doubters who don’t know their own worth and I want to shake them. YES, YOU ARE TALENTED AND AMAZING! STOP SAYING YOU’RE NOT!
Undervaluing yourself is not a virtue. At its worst self doubt keeps people from doing what they are talented at. I can’t tell you how many brilliant writers I’ve known over the years who’ve never finished a novel because of their lack of self belief, because they are humble, and do not recognise their own talent. That’s a loss to every one of us who would love to read their work. A huge loss.
At the other end of the scale is false modesty: those who live by the humble brag.1 Those who’ve been told they mustn’t talk of their achievements nor blow their own horn, they must be humble and modest but they’re not so they try to disguise their longing to boast by saying, “Oh, this little thing.” “Oh, I don’t know why they wanted me to be the support act for Prince.” Blah blah blah.
Don’t know about you but I’d much rather they were all: “Look at my new dress! I made it! Isn’t it the best thing ever? I love it to death!” Or “OMG! I’m the support act for Prince! This is something I’ve worked towards my ENTIRE LIFE. And now it’s happening! I am so happy! YAY!”
You achieved something amazing. You get to tell people. You get to be excited. You get to jump up and down. Only mean-spirited poo brains would begrudge you your joy. Who cares what they think?
So those confident—but not obnoxious—folk I mentioned at the beginning of this post? All but one are USians. All white. Mostly from loving, supportive families. Mostly male. Mostly not working class. The one non-USian is from a wealthy Australian family. It is amazing how much confidence growing up loved and without the slightest bit of want can give you. Growing up with money does not, of course, guarantee that you’ll be confident. The love part is essential. Sometimes I think the worst start in life anyone can suffer is growing up unloved.
Growing up in Australia I learned that talking positively about your own achievements was one of the worst sins ever.2 “Don’t write tickets on yourself,” should be our national motto. Getting too big for your bootstraps is a national crime and leads to all sorts of contortions as far too many people fall over themselves to seem less smart, talented, and interesting than they are. Not a pretty sight. On the other hand it does lead to some gorgeously self-deprecating wit.
Meanwhile in my other country of citizenship they’re mostly being taught to boast their arses off. Truly, I do enjoy US confidence. It’s so refreshing compared to Australia. But, oh my, when that confidence is married to ignorance and stupidity and blind self belief? Things get very ugly indeed.
These are, of course, caricatures that are mightily affected by intersections of race, class, gender etc and how loving the families we grew up in were. Both countries have folks hiding their lights under bushels.3 They both have less talented folks under the sad delusion that they are The Most Talented People in the Entire Universe.
What we need is a mix of the two cultures so we wind up with the happy medium I started this post with. Nations of people who know their own value and feel neither the urge to constantly boast about it: I AM NUMBER ONE AT EVERYTHING EVER! Or to pretend that their ability to whip up a divine, multilayered, delicate-as-air, intricately decorated cake out of almost nothing is no big thing.
So I’ll end this post telling you something I’m proud of: I’m proud of the book I’m almost finished rewriting. It feels like a big step forward and that makes me happy and proud.4
Though quite a few of the tweets labelled “humble brags” aren’t. Many with big breasts do not find them so wonderful as the world imagines they do. I’ve known way too many big breasted women who’ve longed for smaller breasts. Not to mention several who’ve had breast reductions because the back and shoulder pain was unendurable. [↩]
Especially if you’re female or working class or not white—but the rule applies to everyone. [↩]
If I wasn’t out of keystrokes for the day I would so finally look that expression up. Where on earth does it come from? Lights? Bushels? So weird. [↩]
And this is me suppressing the urge to undercut that boast, er, I mean factual statement with a self-deprecating comment to indictate that I’m not really up myself and you shouldn’t hate me. Aargh. *sitting on my hands now* [↩]
During the course of my PhD research for the book that became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction I had to learn a lot about ye olden day beliefs about sex and sexuality, including conception. For instance I came across this in Thomas Laqueur’s book Making Sex:
Samuel Farr, in the first legal-medicine text to be written in English (1785), argued that “without an excitation of lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” Whatever a woman might claim to have felt or whatever resistance she might have put up, conception in itself betrayed desire or at least a sufficient measure of acquiescence for her to enjoy the venereal act. This is a very old argument. Soranus had said in second-century Rome that “if some women who were forced to have intercourse conceived . . . the emotion of sexual appetite existed in them too, but was obscured by mental resolve,” and no one before the second half of the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century question the physiological basis of this judgement. The 1756 edition of Burn’s Justice of the Peace, the standard guide for English magistrates, cites authorities back to the Institutes of Justinian to the effect that “a woman can not conceive unless she doth consent.” It does, however, go on to point out that as matter of law, if not of biology, this doctrine is dubious. Another writer argued that pregnancy ought to be taken as proof of acquiescence since the fear, terror, and aversion that accompany a true rape would prevent an orgasm from occurring and thus make conception unlikely.
I have been called an expat because I have lived in New York City on and off since 1999. The off time was spent living here in Sydney. I live in two countries and I am not an expat.
When someone in Australia calls me that they’re usually saying I don’t have the authority to comment on what’s happening here because I’ve been away too long. People like Germaine Greer1 and Clive James are called expats. Often with a sneer.
I am not an expat.
I am not an expat in the sense that Australians use it: “Someone who has abandoned Australia and has no clue about it anymore.”
I have never lived outside Australia for more than a year.
I am not an expat in the sense that many others use it either.
I have no Australian friends in NYC. I do not go to Australia clubs to hang out with the other Australians. I don’t eat at Australian restaurants. To me that is expat behaviour. To go to another country and try to live there as much as you can like you were still back home.
Now, part of my not seeking out other Australians in NYC is because I also live in Sydney and there are quite a few Australians here. When we’re in Sydney we’re with our Sydney friends, most of whom are Australian. In NYC we’re with our New Yorker friends, none of whom are originally Australian.
I admit I’m puzzled by people who want to live in another country but once there only hang out with people from their own country. Why not stay home?
Yet, that is what my grandparents did.
But they were refugees. They ran from the Nazis and landed in Australia.2 They did learn English, but it took a long time, and they were never comfortable speaking it.3 All their friends were East European refugees like them. They weren’t wild about Australian food. Sometimes I got the feeling they weren’t too impressed by Australians either.
But, you know what, they lost almost their entire families, almost everyone they’d ever known or loved. They were forced to leave their home. Refugees get a pass.
And their children and their children’s children are very much Australians.
Refugees can’t be expats. To be an expat you have to have chosen to leave your home country; not be fleeing certain persecution.
Those who move to another country to live, who engage with that country, rather than perch on top of it, are migrants, not expats.
I’m a migrant, not an expat. Some of us migrants go back home. A lot. Some of us live in more than one country.
Ever since I started living in two different countries I’ve met more and more people who do the same. I’ve met even more people who would love to do that but simply can’t afford it.4 The old path of migration meaning you left your country forever and ever amen is not the only path.
I have a friend in NYC, originally from Guatemala, who goes back there for a few months every year. I’ve met many Mexican-Americans who go back and forth between Mexico and the US. And Indonesian-Australians who go back and forth between Indonesia and Australia. The closer your country is to the other country you live in the easier it is. Not that I’m jealous . . .
I know loads of mixed national couples like me and Scott who alternate what country they live in. Even couples with kids who do that. Though they tend to do years-long chunks in each country. The Belgian/Australian couple I met recently have just spent five years here and now are moving there with their two children where the kids will be attending a trilingual school.
In conclusion: do not call me an expat! Or something . . .
I don’t think I’ll ever understand why Germaine Greer is so hated here. Mostly by men. I love her. She’s hilarious and has been amazingly important to feminism. Yes, she can be wrong. Yes, I disagree with her as often as I agree. So? She’s a possum stirrer. Always has been. It’s a noble pursuit. Though it sure does seem to be more admired in men than women. [↩]
They would have preferred Argentina but the Australian visas came through first. [↩]
I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.
I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.
Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.
For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.
And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.
The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.
The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.
By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.
It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.
I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.
Procrastination is good
The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.
Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.
Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.
Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.
Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.
Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.1
Many books at once
I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.
The first words I wrote of Liar are:
I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.
That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar four years later.
At the time I was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.
Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.2
Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.
If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.
If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.3
In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you.4 Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.
It’s a sekrit project for no particular reason. I just really enjoy having sekrit projects. Makes me feel like a spy. What? I get to have fun! [↩]
That’s one of the many reasons I don’t like writing books under contract. A contract for one book just makes all the uncontracted novel ideas seem that much more shiny. [↩]
Co-incidentally, or not really, me and Sarah Rees Brennan started writing Team Human at another point when I was overwhelmed by the NYC novel. I suspect there will be one or two more other novels before I finish the damn thing. [↩]
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. [↩]
So yesterday I came across this tumblr, Underground New York Public Library. And, fellow readers, it is marvellous! Glory in the gazillions of photos of people reading books on the subway. Complete with the names of the books. It is a truly glorious portrait of New York City. Of what I love about that city.
I am sure if you read this blog you are like me: when you are on public transport you cannot stop yourself from trying to figure out what people are reading.
I have been known to accidentally on purpose drop things so I can bend down to pick them up and thus read the title of the book that’s being held too low for me to read otherwise. Yes, I am one of those dreadful people who reads over people’s shoulders on public transport. I’m just curious is all. Not creepy. Honest!
I love to know what people are reading. Then along comes this tumblr to satisfy my curiosity. And, wow, what a wide range of books. Almost every genre under the sun. Though not that many romances. I figure those are mostly on ereaders. It’s a shame that means they don’t represent in the vast numbers they are being read.
Don’t get me wrong I love being able to read books electronically.1 But it does make it that much harder to figure out what people are reading. And has massively increased my already obnoxious habit of reading over people’s shoulders.
On the other hand it means I will never again have some arsehole being all judgey because I dare to read in public a romance or YA or some other genre certain people like to sneer at. Yes, I have had people say rude stuff to me because I was reading a book they did not deem to be good. Get over yourself, judgey poo heads! I bet you read Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski. I am sorry you are so insecure in your masculinity you have to read misogynist dross like that to make you feel better. Um, *cough* judging people for what they read is wrong.2
I was particularly filled with joy by this picture of two men reading books by women. See? There are men who are brave enough to do that! In public!
This tumblr made my heart almost explode with joy. And, um, lose several hours pouring over every photos and reading every comment. What? I’m on a break between first and second draft of novel. So it’s not even procrastination.
Happy reading, everyone! What’s the best book you’re read recently? And why did you love it?
Mine’s Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful He Might Hear You which I adored because it has sharply written dialogue and so evocatively brings 1930s Sydney to life. Also it is heartbreaking. Everyone should read it if only for a masterclass in how to write great dialogue.
In my case I read them on my phone and don’t have an ereader, but, you know, same thing. [↩]
Do not get me started on those who read Ayn Rand in a non-campy way. [↩]
There’s an argument I get into about Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, which is set in England in the early 1800s. When I criticise the book’s racism the defender often says, “But they’re just reflecting the racism of the time.”
Here’s the problem with that argument for The Grand Sophy (or for Gone With the Wind for that matter). They were not written during the period they were depicting. They do successfully evoke the racism of their particular periods. However, a distinction has to be made between depicting the racism of a particular time and being complicit with that racism.
For instance, The Grand Sophy was written and published after World War II. That is, the book was written and published after there’d been an appalling demonstration of the logical end of anti-semitism: the Holocaust. Heyer is not critiquing racism in The Grand Sophy she’s re-inforcing it. Her Jew is not human, he’s a grasping monster. That’s not even as sophisticated a portrait as Shakespeare’s in The Merchant of Venice several hundred years earlier. So, yes, I have huge problems with it and haven’t been able to read that book for many, many years.
The fact that those attitudes were historically accurate for the period she’s writing about is irrelevant. You can show racism without condoning it. Heyer not only condones it, she revels in it. It’s clear that she thinks Jews are bad people, not that she’s showing that many people of the Regency period believed that Jews were bad people. That’s a huge difference.
Compare Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench both depict the racism of the period they’re writing about, but Mitchell’s text looks back on slavery with nostalgia, Perkins-Valdez absolutely condemns it while not reading like a twenty-first condemnation of the nineteenth century. Wench is one of the best historicals I’ve read.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I research and write a novel set in the early 1930s in New York City. A period when racism and sexism were everywhere.
In the 1930s NYC was even more segregated that it is now. People in Harlem lived in third-world conditions with much higher unemployment than the rest of the city. The only jobs available to most black women were as domestic help. But when the depression hit many white families could no longer afford help and those that could increasingly hired white women. There were black men and women with professional degrees, but few whites would employ them. They had to go into business on their own—tricky given that no bank would loan them money—or work in capacities well below their skills.
Racism pure and simple.
Some of my characters are white. Most have the racial attitudes of their time. If I depict them accurately they can only be read as villains by contemporary readers. But if I depict them as thinking and acting like a twenty-first century liberal white USian then I create a very unrealistic depiction of the time and place. Which makes me wonder why bother writing an historical?
That’s not to say that there weren’t white campaigners against racism at the time. There were. But they were white anti-racism campaigners of the 1930s. They did not think about racism in the same ways that many of us do now. Actually, they may not have thought about “racism” at all as the word was newly minted in the 1930s and did not become widespread until decades later. Reading some of the letters and lectures of these campaigners now can be horrifying. To say they are often paternalistic would be a kind assessment.
It’s a fine line. Obviously, it’s impossible to write an historical that’s a hundred per cent faithful to the time and place. I wasn’t around then. All my information is second hand. All of it is informed by my time and place. But I want to avoid truly egregious false notes. People saying and doing things that were not thinkable at the time.
But in doing that you can wind up in trouble with your contemporary audience. Someone I know, a white writer, wrote a book set in the 19th century and received a lot of criticism for not using the term “African-American.” Despite the fact that the term did not exist then. They were also criticised for using the n-word, which was in common use at the time.
The last word is a major problem. It is a hateful word bearing the weight of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow laws and continuing racism today. For many reading it in any context at all feels like a slap in the face. So is historical accuracy more important than the hurt of people reading your book?
During the period and place I’m talking about—NYC in the 1930s—it’s a word that was used a lot by most classes. Though a nice upper class white lady would not have sullied her lips with. However, when she hears it said, she’s supposed to be shocked not because it’s racist, but because it’s vulgar.
I think many white writers are reluctant to be accurate in their depiction of racism for fear of being seen as racists themselves.1 I fear it. I want to be a good person. But racism exists and white writers are part of it. The ways in which we write about race and racism are important because we can help shape thinking about them. And depicting the past as a magical wonderland full of enlightened, kind, good white people is not only wishful thinking it does not help us understand and combat racism right now in the real world.
I have no conclusions about any of this. But I would love to hear your thoughts.
Update: I seem to have managed with this post to give theimpression that I am writing an all-white novel. I am not! I have never in my entire career done so! I will never do so! I was mentioning the white characters in this post because they are the ones who will be read as villians if I give them the racial attitudes that were prevalent at the time. Sorry for being unclear.
And there are an awful lot of white people who seem obsessed with that particular word and seem to look for any excuse at all to be able to use it. To which, well, uggh. [↩]
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. [↩]
So, it turns out I really don’t have a lot to say about Australian slang. Or rather I don’t have anything to say that wouldn’t bore you. I did start writing this post and it rapidly turned into an old person cranky rant about how US slang is overtaking Australian slang. For example:
Why do Oz teenagers not know that “rooting for your team” is not something Aussies do because typically it’s not an activity that helps other people. I mean not unless they’re taking part, which, well, let’s not go there. Aussies “barrack” for their team. Except that I keep hearing Aussies under twenty-five using “root” in the US meaning of the word. AND IT FILLS MY HEART WITH DESPAIR. Why take on the language of the Yankee infidels? Why abandon your own rich and glorious venacular?! What is wrong with you?!
Which was only going to end with me waving my cane around and screaming at kids to get off my non-existent lawn. Not to mention fill me with shame because tedious adults were ranting about the exact same thing when I was a kid. And according to older friends of mine, not to mention my parents, they where hearing rants about insidious US English taking over the Australian vernacular from the 1940s onwards.
I so do not want to be that person. *shudder* I rejoice in the vibrant living, changing thing that is language.
Not to mention that some of our words are spreading out beyond our shores. “Bogan” for instance is now in the OED:
An unfashionable, uncouth, or unsophisticated person, esp. regarded as being of low social status
And apparently not only has “bogan” spread from Victoria to the rest of the country but it’s made the leap over the Tasman to New Zealand. Hey, Kiwis, are there old cranky people waving their canes and yelling at you lot not to start using Aussie slang? Or do they just rant against US slang too?
Though I would argue with that definition of “bogan.” While there’s definitely a class component to it. I don’t think it neatly fits with whether the person labelled thus is poor or not. I.e. of “low social status”. There are many people who would get called “bogan” who are very well off indeed. Though I guess the modification of “cashed up” takes care of that.
What are your favourite examples of Australian slang? Living or dead examples. I admit to loving “smoodge,” “drongo,” “as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike,” “zambuck,” “daggy,” “date,” and “bosker”. Some of which are so obsolete you probably won’t be able to google them and others of which I say on a daily basis. And, no, not giving you definitions. Research! It’s good for you.
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. [↩]
I have been very pleased that so many of you are concerned that our Sydney garden will suffer in our absence. Thanks for writing and let me know! Nice to know I am not alone in loving that garden. Oh, how I misses it . . .
To reassure you: the garden has an automatic irrigation system. On top of that my parents and my sister are keeping a close eye on it and handwatering any of the plants that seem in need. They’re also killing any caterpillars or other evil beasties they come across. Do I not have the best family ever?
Here is the last photo I took of my beloved garden:
Look at the gorgeous new leaves on the gum tree. So pretty. And the grevillea. Gorgeous!
I think I shall go to the famers’ market and buy some herbs that can survive on a window sill. So far the only one I’ve had success with has been marjoram. Anyone else successfully grown other herbs on the window sill in teeny tiny pots in a very polluted city? Please to advise me!
You are not reading too much into my question. It is indeed related to my reading of Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name or, rather it’s related to the research I’ve been doing for my book set in the early years of the 1930s in New York City. I asked about Harris because I’d never heard of him and only vaguely knew what the Uncle Remus stories were. Yet his name kept coming up in a lot of reading I’ve been doing. I was curious to know whether he was still being read and how he fits into modern USians reading histories.1
How did I get there?
I began my research reading everything I could set in, or about, the early 1930s in NYC. I expanded backwards to read about the Crash, the beginning of Prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance.
But it soon became apparent that there was loads I wasn’t understanding because I didn’t know enough even earlier US history. For example, while reading Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South edited by William Henry Chafe, Raymond Gavins & Robert Korstad (which I highly recommend) I realised that I didn’t know when or how the Jim Crow laws originated. I didn’t know if they were federal, or state, or local, or all three. I didn’t know if they were restricted to the South. They weren’t and New York was, in fact, the worst of the Northern states. Though there were restrictions on where African-Americans live throughout the entire country. The color line was more of a wall. (Don’t believe me? Read this excellent account, Jim Crow in New York by Erika Wood and Liz Budnitz with Garima Malhotra from the Brennan Centre for Justice. You can download it for free.)
Before I started my research for this book I didn’t know very much about the Civil Rights struggle in the North. For those of you who are interested I highly recommend Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Thomas J. Sugrue. Reading that book side by side with Or Does it Explode: Black Harlem in the Great Depression by Cheryl Lynn Greenburg (yet another wonderful book) has done an enormous amount to widen my understanding and (I hope) improve the book I’m writing.
Finding out the answers to my many questions meant reading further back in time and realising that I didn’t really know a lot about Reconstruction or how Reconstruction ended and the North ceded control of the South. It also meant learning about how the myth of the Antebellum South emerged—you know that magical place of happy black slaves and beautiful white women worshipped by gallant white men, where the only poor whites were mean and trashy and deserved to be poor?—which was so pivotal to cultural understandings of race in the USA after the Civil War and Reconstruction. A myth that was as much constructed in the North as the South. A myth that overrode facts, such as that the crime wave in the wake of the Civil War was almost entirely the doing of renegade whites, not of black slaves gone mad with freedom. A myth that will not go away.
I realised pretty quickly that I needed to know a lot more about how 19th (and then early 20th century) USians thought about race, which led to learning about “scientific” explanations of race and the so-called science of raciology. It meant learning more about Physical Anthropology as well as 19th century theories of Biology. And the way in which Darwin’s theories of Evolution were co-opted by white supremacists.
It also meant learning about the different political and philosphical positions of Booker T. Washington and W. E. Du Bois and many other black thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Marcus Garvey. If you haven’t read Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk I highly recommend it.2 You can download it from Project Gutenberg.
That’s what happens with research. It grows and blossoms and one path leads to another, which leads to another and so on and so on.
That is how I wound up reading Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. That is why I am currently reading The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars by Elazar Barkan.
And that is why I may never finish this book. But, hey, I’m learning a lot writing it . . .
I am aware that my methods of finding out are not exactly scientific. [↩]
You’re unlikely to get anything sensible out of me for awhile. This will be brief. First, thanks for all the responses yesterday. That was truly fascinating.
Second, we recently finished watching Fullmetal Alchemist and Read or Die and LOVED them both with a fiery burning passion. Thanks everyone who recommended them. What should we watch next? And why do you recommend it?
Third, without googling how many have you heard of Joel Chandler Harris? And what do you know about him? And where are you from? (I suspect how old you are is pertinent also.)
If you’re in NYC you can see me and Scott reading this Saturday:
Tuesday, 6 April, Doors open 6:30 PM, event begins at 7:00 PM
SoHo Gallery for Digital Art 138 Sullivan Street (between Houston & Prince St.)
Admission is by a $5 donation. (If circumstances make this a hardship, let them know and they will accommodate you.)
Me and Scott will be taking part in the Read This Books for NYC Schools Day on the 10th of April. Read This collects books for people who need them, especially schools without libraries, hospitals, homeless shelters, troops overseas, etc.
The price of admission? Your donation of two or more new or gently used board books through grade 12.
The readings will be short. Just five minutes each.1 I’ll be reading a letter from the 1930s novel (the novel I’m mostly working on right now) by my favourite character, Lizzy.2 Scott may or may not be reading a sneak preview from Goliath. He says it will depend on the crowd and his jetlag.
There’s a lot of shockingly bad advice about how to get published online. Much of it comes from unpublished people who know nothing about the publishing industry and are bitter about their own inability to get published.1 But some of it is from actual published writers with careers, who have a bug up their arse about the evil of agents, or small presses, or big presses, or whatever, because of a particularly bad experience they’ve had. Or who are coming out of one genre and acting like their advice applies to all genres.2
Then I read this very sensible piece by Jay Lake, which solidified for me something I’ve been trying to say for awhile now, which basically goes like this: before you take someone’s advice pay careful attention to where that person is coming from. Are they qualified to be giving this particular advice?
Now, it’s pretty obvious that if you wish to be published taking advice from some who has never been published is usually not wise. But Jay’s bigger advice is that often taking the advice of someone with a thriving career is also not wise because too many times what they can tell you is how they broke into the field. Problem is that happened ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years ago and the field has changed since then.
So that when an established writer tells you that you don’t need an agent to get published they’re not lying. Back in the day when they were first published you didn’t. They’re also not lying when they say they continue to be published without an agent. But they’re neglecting to mention that that’s because they are known by those publishers. Someone looking to sell their first novel is not and given that so many of the big publishing houses are closed to submissions an agent is usually a first-time author’s best bet for getting published at a big house.
Any advice I give about getting published has to be taken with a large grain of salt by anyone who isn’t trying to break in to YA in the US. I have no idea how to get published in Australia—even though I’m Australian. I wasn’t published there until after I sold in the US. I still know far more about publishing in the US than I do about my own country. Nor do I know much about any market in the world except YA in the USA. If you’re trying to break into Romance or Crime or Literachure I’m useless to you.
That said, I’m probably not the most useful person to you for breaking into YA in the US either. I know about half a dozen agents well. There are way more reputable ones than that. I follow all the publishing news, far more than most YA writers, but I still don’t know that much about what goes on in those publishing houses and what all the editors are looking for. I know many editors, but I’ve only worked with a handful. You only really know an editor well when you’ve worked with them.
I know I said above that you shouldn’t be taking an unpublished person’s advice, but there are some great blogs by such writers detailing the process of trying to get published, which have very sensible things to say about query letters and the nuts and bolts of submitting to various different publishers when you don’t have an agent. All stuff that I know very little about. I have not written a query letter in a decade. Someone who’s actively trying to get published right now knows way more about query letters than I do.
I can talk about what it’s llike being a journeyman YA author. I can give you an author’s view on how you get published in more than one country and a variety of other topics that have to do with being a YA author with five novels under her belt. But take what I say about breaking into this field with a grain of salt. For that you’ll get better advice from agents and editors and brand new YA authors and from those on the verge of being published.
Before you yell at me for this statement you should know that I spent twenty years trying to break into mainstream publishing. I know how it feels. Also very few of those unpublished writers are bitter about it and decide that the big publishers are evil. Most suck it up and keep trying. [↩]
No, the way to break into YA is not to publish short stories first. That may apply to science fiction (though not nearly as much as it used to) but there is no YA short story market except for anthologies that you don’t get invited to submit to you unless you’re already published. I got my first anthology invitation after having three novels published. [↩]
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.
Today’s guest, Carol Cooper, is one of an increasingly rare breed, a working journalist. I have known her for many, many years now. I suspect since my first visit to NYC back in 1993.1 She’s a wonderful writer and friend and knows what she’s talking about on many, many, many topics, but most especially journalism. All heed what she has to say.
As soon as our ever gracious host Justine offered me this guest spot, I started agonizing over how best to use it. I’m sure my concern is an occupational hazard, since the job of a freelance journalist is to pitch her editors the most compelling story of the moment . . . ideally before any other journalist has already written about it.
But . . . as you may have heard . . . rules and opportunities in the news game have, well, changed. Not long ago one of the papers I still sometimes work for ran a cover story they chose to illustrate with a little zombie paperboy dressed in Depression-era drag under the headline: “Print is Undead.” In a similar mood of gallows humor, the same publication also ran an education story which paraphrased the musical question: “I just graduated from J-school . . . what WAS I thinking?”
In the past few years the precipitous decline in print media advertising and circulation has forced even the most famous newspapers and magazines—like the New York Times and the Kirkus book review organ—to the brink of economic extinction. Established daily newspapers in big cities like Detroit, Chicago and San Francisco have already bitten the dust, and even online-only news and lifestyle publications continue to shrink and die due to staff cuts on a daily basis.
Now I don’t cover the war/politics/police-blotter/hard copy beats that normally put the “news” in newspapers . . . I’m a pop-culture reporter. And I’ve discovered it’s not really pop-culture reporting that suffers when printed publications vanish. What suffers—especially when online versions of respected newspapers fail to make any money by offering reportorial content on a daily basis, is a factual, archivable and informed analysis of economic and political events in real life as it happens.
Web-based information sources get plenty of traffic to sources of gossip, entertainment and opinion. But far fewer readers flock to .gov sites to read a thousand pages of a health care reform bill for pleasure. Even the less intimidating summary of such important information is harder to find and consume than the average Twitter feed or celebrity blog. The web makes it too easy to narrow our focus to only those subjects you already like or know about. And the web is a much greater time-gobbler than any print publication. What a good newspaper or magazine using a large diverse staff of writers is supposed to do is design a seductive, well-researched, and easily portable package of information providing insightful glimpses into every possible area of human interest.
The music, book, film, and nightlife reporting I like to do needs to be part of that larger package to have the kind of impact I want my work to have. Art, philosophy, and culture (to me) are innately political, and must be understood within the context of every other societal factor to be fully appreciated. When it comes to topical brain food, an all-candy diet is no better than an all-tuna or all-spinach diet if you want to live a long, healthy life.
So . . . while I continue to labor in an industry that appears to be burning down around me, I cling with giddy optimism to the fact that television didn’t kill radio; that YouTube hasn’t killed commercial TV; that video games have yet to replace the movies; and that old, seemingly obsolete media like vinyl singles and albums, remain collectible and are even being re-manufactured now as prestige items on the international scene. So—am I a paper chauvinist? I’d have to say ‘yes’ . . . even with one foot firmly planted on the other side of the digital divide!
I’ve been recruited to write for online sites since the early 1990s, and I still gotta say . . . paper is way better. Ever since some duplicitous staffer at the now defunct SonicNet e-zine put her own name on a great feature-review I wrote for them about Tupac Shakur, I don’t trust the online world to respect the integrity of my byline the same way “hard copy” does. Ah yes, the sweet sanctity of the byline. Honey, I’d go back to writing in cuniform on clay tablets if it would protect my byline!!!
Meanwhile, my being tempted to migrate into book-length fiction or historical biography in a world where the predictive quality of Orson Scott Card’s Ender series and the inspirational quality of Carolyn Burke’s bio of surrealist muse and photographer Lee Miller rival anything investigative journalism can do, is a strong possibility. If I resist the golden allure of series television,2 I might eventually abandon periodical literature to write those kinds of printed matter. But we’re still talking PRINTED matter here. And between recycled newsprint and paper made out of all kinds of sustainable non-arboreal sources (not to mention the sustainable soft-pine grown abundantly on my grandfather’s land in Texas) this NYC-based freelancer will defend the survival of print media until you pry her back-issues of The New Musical Express, The Negro Digest, and Locus from her cold, dead hands.
Momentary pause while Justine contemplates the weirdness and fastness of time. It is, indeed, a peculiar item. [↩]
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.
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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! [↩]
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.
Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight was one of my favourite YA novels of 2009. I still can’t believe no mainstream publisher picked it up and I am hoping the book’s re-realease by Amazon will get this wonderful book into many more hands. Zetta’s blog is also a must read. (And not just because it’s named for the great Octavia Butler’s last published novel.)
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Zetta Elliott is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She is the author of the award-winning picture book, Bird (Lee & Low); her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in February 2010.
Some Preliminary Thoughts on Race and Reviews
I had insomnia last night and so for hours I lay awake wondering if I should stop writing reviews for my blog. I am an author, so I’m under no real obligation to review other people’s work. Generally I only write about books that I love, and have thus far refused occasional requests from authors who hope I’ll feature them on my blog. Trouble is, even though I was trained to “lead with what I like,” I do often mention the limitations I found in a book. And apparently, for some, this breaks an unspoken rule in the kidlit blogging community: never critique another author’s book. I have some friends who won’t write a review at all unless they can honestly admit they loved the book. Others insist that books by fellow authors must be praised (whether they deserve it or not) in order to preserve professional solidarity (and sales). And then, of course, there is the expectation that when the time comes, your book will be reviewed with equal enthusiasm, so “do unto others”—or else!
I’m new to this particular community and I only follow about a dozen blogs, so maybe I’ve got this wrong. But when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. To critique a book doesn’t mean you rip it to shreds. You start with its strengths and then move on to its flaws or areas that could use improvement. And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel? Well, because there is a serious power imbalance in the children’s publishing industry, and publicly pointing out weaknesses in a book is, for some of us, like openly criticizing the President.
Right now I’m reading The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill, and I’m struck by the similarities between the arena of politics and the arena of publishing. Both have unspoken codes of conduct, and there can be serious consequences when you go against the grain or dare to suggest a new paradigm. Both arenas also require people of color to navigate a sea of shifting alliances. Now, I am in no way comparing myself to President Obama (and he’s not the only black politician featured in Ifill’s book), but I think it’s interesting to consider the strengths and limitations of “groupthink” in the 21st century. Do black people owe this particular president their unconditional devotion? Do critiques of the President’s policies strengthen his administration, or bolster the opposition (which has done nothing to distance itself from far-right racists)? Ifill points out that candidate Obama walked a fine line when it came to the issue of race; he couldn’t win the confidence of white voters (and the election itself) by presenting himself as a black man—instead he needed to be viewed as a man who happened to be black. Candidate Obama had to assure white voters that he was neither angry nor bitter about the nation’s history of racial oppression, and no mention was ever made of the unearned advantages that come with being white. Fortunately, I’m not running for political office. And I assure you that at times I am angry and bitter, and I must insist that we talk about white privilege.
The practice of never criticizing another author’s book has particular ramifications for people of color. Since we are already marginalized as authors and seriously underrepresented on editorial boards, a negative review can be devastating—especially if that review comes from another person of color. This is due, in part, to complicated notions of authenticity. Many people (of all races) believe that being black automatically makes you an expert on all things relating to black history, culture, politics, etc. When a black author writes a book that features black characters, there is often an assumption that the story is “authentic” due to the author’s inherent, intuitive understanding of her subject. The same is not true when a white author chooses to write about people of color. Then the assumption is that the author completed exhaustive research in order to “capture the essence” of her black characters. There is one such book out right now that has been getting rave reviews from white bloggers, yet two of my black blogger friends think it’s one of the worst books they’ve ever read. A third black blogger quite enjoyed it. So who’s right? Or, more importantly, whose opinion carries the most weight?
I must confess that lately, the only white-authored books I read are those about people of color. I sometimes feel obligated to read these books in order to ascertain whether or not black people are being misrepresented by white authors who mean well, but don’t really have a clue. I generally expect white authors to get it wrong, but sometimes they do surprise me (Liar would be one example; Octavian Nothing Vol. 1 is another) so it’s important to keep an open mind. Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone. I appreciate their desire to be inclusive, but statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that there are more books about African Americans than by African Americans. This brings to mind a documentary I saw on PBS not too long ago about the white anthropologist Melville Herskovits. His contribution to the understanding of black culture and identity formation was significant and lasting, but this white Jewish man became “the” expert on black people at the expense of qualified black scholars who lacked the same privilege and access to resources. That said, I can imagine how desolate my childhood might have been without the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. Yet it’s hard to fully appreciate the efforts of well-intending white authors when I know that authors from my own community are being shut out of the industry altogether. And, ultimately, being able to write about anyone from anywhere is a privilege reserved primarily for whites.
So what’s a black author to do? After a decade of rejection, I chose to self-publish some of my books. My young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, is being re-released this month by AmazonEncore. As an immigrant and a mixed-race woman, I often confront challenges to my own authenticity. How could I possibly know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned teenage girl growing up in a low-income area of Brooklyn? When I was pitching my novel to editors and agents, I stressed my years of experience teaching black children throughout NYC; I mentioned that I had a PhD in American Studies and that my research was on representations of racial violence in African American literature. Does that make me an expert on all things black? No. Does it bother me that editors who are outside my community and ignorant of my cultural history get the final say on whether or not my work deserves to be published and/or reviewed? YES. Developing competence in a culture not your own takes time, patience, and humility. I suspect that most white editors have little to no training in Asian, Native American, Latino, or African American literature. They are unlikely, therefore, to situate a manuscript within those particular storytelling traditions. And without a sense of various cultural standards, they wrongly assume their particular standard for what constitutes a good story is “universal.” The same might be said of some professional reviewers and award committee members—a point made brilliantly by Percival Everett in his satirical novel, Erasure.
Of course, you don’t need a PhD to review a book on your blog. And I certainly don’t want to vindicate those timid bloggers who only review white-authored books because they feel they’re not “qualified” to review books by people of color. It’s ok to step outside your comfort zone, and there are lots of great bloggers who can show you how it’s done—Jill over at Rhapsody in Books regularly provides historical and political context for the books she reviews. You can also check in with bloggers of color to see how their reception of a book might differ from yours. That doesn’t mean you can’t trust your own opinion—it means you can strengthen your own position by recognizing and engaging with other points of view.
I’m sorry to say I don’t really have a conclusion for this post. I want to be able to write openly and honestly about the books that I read, though this may not be advisable. I certainly don’t mean to sabotage other authors, and books I found to be flawed have gone on to win major awards so it’s not like my single opinion counts for much. I like to think I can accept fair critiques of my own work, and I feel that thoughtful, constructive critiques can enhance our ability to read, write, and review books. What I want most is excellence and equity in children’s literature, but I feel the current system and codes of conduct aren’t leading us in that direction. And I don’t believe that not talking about the problem will lead to a breakthrough . . .