Wednesday, October 15, 2014

rivers and rain: letter from St. Johns

Hello old friends!

It has been a long while.

I have fallen into a hole of sorts; a hole made of music practice and ferns and creaky floorboards and stubs of incense.

Here is where I am living now:


My house is in the mist, on the far side of the bridge. If you listen carefully, you can just make out the drone of a tambura and the water-drop warble of a tabla being played. If you can't hear that, it means I am in the garden, shoveling a mountain of dirt from one place to another for no apparent reason.

There is a mysterious truck in my neighborhood where the duck and chicken man lives with his duck and chickens. Here is a picture of them foraging outside the post office (the tall, red-legged duck is me):


I have not been writing very much lately. I sleep one night out of every two. I've been trying to figure out some big questions, and it's funny where figuring can lead you: sometimes down a rabbit trail you could not have conceived of months or years before, sometimes back to the very place you started from but forgot about along the way.

Here is a picture of the Chinese pagodas that live under my floor (the red shoe in the corner belongs to the duck in Figure 2.):


Mostly, they are covered by a rug, but now and then I lift it and peer down at them: pagodas! And cherry blossoms too, all year round. It's nice to know that there are many layers to this world, that there are springtime pagodas hiding just beneath the dusty rug. 

The red-bearded man some of you remember as Techie Boyfriend has just peered over my shoulder. He laughs: "Mostly YOU'RE covered by a rug," an unfair statement as I am currently only wearing one out of the two sweaters I wrested away from the hobo spiders this morning.

Friends, I hope you are all doing wonderfully and writing great stories. See you in the rain...




Thursday, November 14, 2013

dha dhin dhin dha: letter from Portland

Dear friends,

It is strange to be living in a city again after a several years of mountain cabins and forest shacks. Techie Boyfriend and I are living in a room in a sprawling house owned by a hippie real estate baron. We have twelve roommates. If you have ever lived in a hippie house with twelve roommates, you can probably tick them off your fingers like reindeer: Stoner Roommate, New Age Roommate, Loud Sex Roommate, Friendly Roommate, Roommate Nobody In the House Has Actually Met. Occasionally, a stranger will appear on the front porch and announce that they are "the new roommate." Our landlady is fond of dumping people into the house like fish into a bowl, and seeing if they fight, make peace, or need to be removed with a net a few days later.

Despite the crowdedness, things are actually quite harmonious most of the time. We live a block away from a donut shop and a pizzeria, so somebody is always bringing home giant bags of free food they scored in the alley. Plus, Friendly Roommate works at a cidery, so there are always a few bottles of apple cider lying around with which to numb the pain when someone's late-night ukelele jam is driving you insane.

Before I became a writer, I thought I might be a musician. Over the past five years, I had more or less given up music in order to devote my time to blogging, editing, and writing books. But on the day WILD AWAKE came out, I started taking music lessons again. And even though I still spend most of my time writing, a big part of my daily existence has returned to the study of music.

This is the instrument I am playing:



(The small drum on the left is called a tabla, and the big one on the right is called a bayan. Together, you just call them "tabla.")

When I'm not working on Novel 2, I am practicing the tabla or accompanying Techie Boyfriend's raga lessons (yes, we are studying compatible instruments. Barf if you must.) For me, music feels like a return to childhood. I get to leave the part of my brain that spends all day plotting and scheming and trying to make all the pieces of a novel work, and go to this very simple place of sound and rhythm that feels to me like pure delight. After Novel 2 is done, I just might run away to join a Qawwali group and give the next five years to music (or however long it takes for writing to claim my brain again.)

Speaking of writing, some humble news-ish items to conclude this missive:

-First, I will be in Boston from November 21-23 for the National Convention of Teachers of English. If you are a Teacher of English who is going to be there, please come say hello at HarperCollins Booth #1008, Hynes Convention Center, from 2:00-3:00 PM on Friday. (If you are not a Teacher of English, maybe you can sneak in anyway if you put on a tweed jacket and academic-y glasses.)

-The Canadian Children's Book Centre has selected WILD AWAKE as a Best Canadian Book for Kids and Teens 2013. I remember seeing this logo in elementary school, so it feels pretty cool to have them pick my book.

-WILD AWAKE was also selected as a Best Books of November in the Australia/New Zealand iBookstore. If you are in that part of the world, you can download it here.

*
Friends, I am on a December 1st deadline for this draft of Novel 2, so I will scuttle off to the library and attend to that.

Am sending you all warm thoughts even if I haven't been interacting much online. If you are ever in Portland and want to jam, you know how to get in touch.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

an interview with the Rejectionist

Back when I was INTERN, one of my very first blogging-friends was the Rejectionist, who was toiling as a literary agent's assistant at the time and now writes as Sarah McCarry. Her exquisite novel ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS comes out today. 



How did you become the Rejectionist? I don't mean how did you start a blog, but what combination of life circumstances/cosmic influences/formative events went into making you the politically engaged, opinionated, and highly distinctive voice the internet has come to know and love? Have you always been highly engaged + critical of mainstream culture, or was there a specific turning point (or series of turning points) for you?

Ha ha ha, shameless flattery will get you EVERYWHERE with me! I have certainly been quite opinionated, and quite uninhibited about informing other persons of my opinions, from a very early age, and my parents encouraged my outspokenness, which I think they maybe later came to regret. But in terms of my actual politics, I started working in domestic violence shelters when I was nineteen, and that was a hugely formative experience for me; it was the first time in my life I came face-to-face with structural oppression and injustice and the very real and very violent impact those forces have on people's lives. I went into that work extremely ignorant and came out of it a fundamentally altered person. So that, I think, is where a lot of my politics come from, and the friendships I made doing that work continue to push me toward a politics of compassion and resistance. 

ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS is not your typical YA novel, and I could just as easily picture it in the "adult" literary fiction section of a bookstore. What have you enjoyed the most about the publishing process? What has frustrated you? In what ways are categories such as "YA" and "adult" helpful, and in what ways are they a hindrance?

Well! As I think you know, I have a great many feelings about this! I do find the category of "YA" problematic, and at this point ultimately meaningless--it's just as likely to mean "a book about a teenage girl" as "a book actually written for a teenage audience." Because obviously, the only people who would want to read about teenage girls are other teenage girls, whereas stories about teenage boys are universal coming-of-age narratives that everyone can appreciate. And it's frustrating in the sense that, unless you are a white dude named John Green, if your book is published as YA it will absolutely be taken less seriously by the larger critical apparatus outside of trade reviews. I mean, if you look at the VIDA statistics, those are depressing enough, and those are women writing "real," "grownup" books. It's exhausting, regardless of one's opinion of the institutions doing the dismissing, to have one's work dismissed out of the gate. And those barriers are infinitely worse for writers of color, women of color in particular, many of whom are not able to get published in the first place. 

There is also a weird cultural assumption that if a book is published as young adult it is obligated to provide some sort of moral instruction to its audience, which is deeply bizarre to me--more than just the value of stories reflecting the diversity of bodies and lived experiences of their readers, which many people have already written about beautifully, that kind of expectation seems to me totally antithetical to the nature and purpose of literature. It is not my job as a writer to instill Christian values in schoolchildren, regardless of how my book is marketed, nor is that a project that is remotely interesting to me. We are extremely uncomfortable as a culture with the idea of teenagers, in particular teenage girls, having sex, but that's not really an appropriate anxiety with which to burden either teenage girls or writers. 

The flip side of all of that is that there are a lot of very savvy and very smart editors--my editor most definitely among them--who recognize that, under the vast umbrella of "YA," they can publish a lot of books that are weird or dark or don't fit into easily marketable categories. I'm tremendously lucky; I've heard horror story after horror story from other writers--again, in particular but certainly not exclusively, queer women writers of color--who were told to make their books less gay, or their characters less brown, or their sex scenes less complicated, or their female narrators less human and more "likeable." I love my agent, who has been incredibly supportive of me. And I love my editor; working with her has been a dream and she has given me total free rein to write books that are as goth and queer as I want, and she has never once asked me to change anything that was not an actual flaw in the story. That kind of trust in a writer is really rare in Big 6 (or 5 or 4 or whatever it is now) publishing. So whatever my larger frustrations with the industry, which are legion, I am incredibly happy and incredibly lucky to be where I am, and I worked in publishing long enough to recognize that my experience is an exceptional one and is due as much to extraordinary good fortune as it is to hard work on my part.

As a sometimes-Pacific Northwesterner, your descriptions of Seattle had me nodding and thinking YES on pretty much every page. I think it's interesting that we both set our first novels in places we lived at formative times in our lives, and I'm curious to know to what extent ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS is autobiographical, whether in terms of events, characters/relationships, or less tangible things like emotional truth.

Aw, thank you! It's really not autobiographical at all in terms of events or characters, much as I dearly would have loved it to be when I was myself seventeen. (My friend described the book as "the fantasy of adolescence I had when I was an adolescent," which I think is pretty much spot-on.) I did grow up outside Seattle and I did go to a lot of shows and I did do a lot of hiking. I did my best to do a lot of drugs, with limited success while I was still a teenager; my parents were considerably less tolerant than Cass. Otherwise, it's all fairly untrue.

But in terms of emotional truth, yes, absolutely: the outsize emotions and the impulse towards the transcendent and the desire to get outside of your body, and also the very visceral experience of music, which I miss a lot. It still happens to me sometimes, but I think the barriers between the self and the ecstatic are a lot more permeable when you are a teenager--or they were for me, anyway. And in terms of place, the Seattle of the book does not exist anymore, and never really existed at all, but the mythology of the Northwest is certainly very present in the book, and is another mythology that I grew up with. For me the Northwest is as much a character as any of the people, and in my real life it's a character with whom I have a very complicated relationship and about whom I think I'll probably be writing for a long time.

ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS has garnered comparisons to writers like Angela Carter and Francesca Lia Block. Have you always been drawn to the fantastical? What are some of your favorite stories and books from this mode?

I have, for sure. I read a lot of epic fantasy when I was little--I mean literally little; I was probably in third or fourth grade when I started reading these immense door-stopper books. If it had a dragon on the cover, I was sold. And I always really loved the old, very dark stuff: the original Grimm's fairytales, which are pretty brutal, and Greek mythology, which is also quite laden with murder and incest and rape and the dismemberment and consumption of one's children. 

When I got a little older I found the writers who were interleaving the fantastical and the real--like the narrator of All Our Pretty Songs, I've reread Pamela Dean's Tam Lin and Donna Tartt's The Secret History about a thousand times each. Elizabeth Hand was a huge, and I'm sure very obvious, influence on me. Likewise with Francesca Lia Block. Emma Donoghue's story collection Kissing the Witch was another book I reread constantly. I don't really read straight fantasy anymore--although I'll occasionally reread stuff I loved when I was a kid; I'm going back through Louise Cooper's Indigo series, and Tad Williams's Dragonbone Chair trilogy, both of which totally hold up--but I am still very much drawn to writers working with the fantastical. Both Liz Hand and Francesca Lia Block keep putting out great, gorgeous, stunning books; I think Kelly Link is probably one of the most brilliant writers currently working; I loved The September Girls, which is Bennett Madison's take on The Little Mermaid. Steph Kuehn's book, Charm & Strange, is a very dark and beautiful spin on the fantastical; I loved Jo Walton's Among Others... I could keep going for a long time.

Who is your ideal reader for ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS?

You know, I have no idea. I am so single-minded when I write that I don't think at all about who will read it, but it's not a "fuck the audience" impulse so much as a total faith in my audience, and faith in my audience's faith in me. Every day I wake up grateful that I get to do this, and that people want to read what I write, and as long as that keeps working I'm not going to ask the universe too many questions.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

scorpion days, rotten log nights: letter from san francisco


If you asked me where I've been over the past three weeks, my face would take on the apologetic puzzlement of a person attempting to recall a series of numbers heard in a dream. I know I slept one night in leaf litter at the side of a forest road, and several in the house of a kindly witch who kept candles burning at all hours, and Portland was in there somewhere, and our old neighbors' house in Mendocino County, with a scorpion in a jar, and a bowl of feverish strawberries sweating under a purple towel. Now, I am in San Francisco for a week—at least, I think I am—staying in a friend's room while he is away. I've lost track of where my belongings are, and feel almost as scattered myself—like I've been shuttling around so much there's no hope of ever getting all the pieces of myself back in one place again.

Bookwise, I feel oddly serene. I didn't realize how much I'd been holding in, and what a relief it would be to have WILD AWAKE become an artifact, something not-me, an object I could sign a stack of in a store and then walk away from. The truth is, the book has all but disappeared from my mind, and for the first time in two years I feel free. There's a great sweeping space, deliciously empty, where the book used to live in my head, and new things are bubbling up there, like the first ferns curling out of the earth after a forest fire. I'm happy—of course I'm happy—about everything that's happening, the Australian edition cover I am so in love with, and the first reader e-mails sprouting in my inbox. But mostly I feel a readiness inside myself, deep and certain, like something waiting to be harvested. I'm ready to get moving again. I'm ready to plunge into something completely mysterious and new. For readers, a book's pub date is a hello; for writers, it's a goodbye—a curiously delay in the transmission, like a star whose light isn't visible from the earth until the star itself has long ago burned out.

I don't know where I'll be over the next few weeks and months—asleep under the roadside maples, or curled up in the scorpion jar. But wherever it is, I feel certain it will matter later, will be something I sift through again and again, as if searching for those lost pieces I'm so sure I saw.

If you see me, say hello. Or just look between the pages, the one place I can promise I will always be.
Australia-New Zealand cover



Thursday, May 30, 2013

INTERN'S BOOK IS OUT!






"Everyone does something to be okay, Skunk. That's how the world is. At least the only things you need to muffle to survive are the voices in your head. Some people muffle their hearts."








Dedicated with love and gratitude to all of you who knew me as INTERN.





Sunday, May 26, 2013

the monk in the garden: notes on mental difference

I went to the Lan Su Chinese Gardens in Portland this afternoon, and was sitting under a pagoda feeling annoyed and disappointed that the tiny sanctuary intended to make you "feel as if you've traveled through time to another era in a faraway world" was instead crowded with so many people wielding cameras and smartphones that you couldn't take a single step without interrupting someone's shot, when I was approached by a young man in a hand-woven poncho and a Salish hat, with a leather medicine bag around his neck. He sat down beside me, took out a set of tingsha which he began to swing around, and started talking about Zen. It emerged that he was both a monk and a shaman and a traveler who had followed the river to Portland in search of a girl he had seen only in dreams. His life work was to restore balance to the universe; to achieve this, he often played his tingsha in the produce section of grocery stores.

He asked me if I was enjoying the garden. I grimaced slightly. "It's kind of—overstimulating," I said, waving at the iPhone hordes. 

Instead of joining me in my griping, he beamed and started telling me about Chinese garden design, pointing out the symmetry of the bridges, the interplay of light and shadow in the latticework, and the pruning of the trees. We spoke for a few minutes more. Now and then, I felt something begin to strain inside of me—the usual how-am-I-going-to-extract-myself-from-this-crazy-person's-company response. I stayed, partly because he was so young and seemed so fragile, and partly out of a desire to rebel against the iPhone-wielding hit-and-run spirit that had annoyed me so much when I entered the garden. If I really had traveled through time to another era in a faraway world, I reasoned, there would certainly be mad monks in the garden. And isn't that the kind of world I've been yearning for?

*

When I walked away, the whole garden looked different and more beautiful—not just the ponds and pagodas, but the people with their gadgets too, who suddenly appeared like the wondrous manifestations of an unfolding universe that they really were. I ended up spending another hour there, marveling at all the details I'd overlooked before. 

Encounters with people who exist outside the realm of consensus reality aren't always so uplifting—on the contrary, they're often awkward and anxiety-producing. As I was biking home from the garden, I wondered what had made this one so different. It wasn't just that he was young—young people experiencing reality disturbances can be plenty frightening. And it wasn't even the fact that his monologues were filled with starlight and river dreams instead of conspiracy theories.

It was that he seemed loved. 

He had come to the garden with a friend. He spoke fondly of his parents and teachers, and a brother with a honey and beehive store in a different part of town. He was clothed and sheltered, and seemed healthy, sober, and addiction-free. 

How much of the awkwardness, discomfort, and fear we feel around  people with mental differences is actually a discomfort with addiction or homelessness?

How many more starry-eyed monks would we have, I wondered, if we simply made room for them in the garden?




Thursday, May 23, 2013

a torn map, a candle stub: writing mental illness


WILD AWAKE is coming out in five days. I've been hiding from the internet, but Techie Boyfriend informs me that there are already more words written about WILD AWAKE (in reviews, comments, note-comparing, and general chitter-chatter) than the 75,000 in the novel itself. I know this is just what happens with books in the internet age, but the speed and intensity still feels like one of those elevator rides where the ground rushes toward you in a stomach-dropping whoosh while you're still saying not ready! not ready!

I realize I've been rather secretive about basic WILD AWAKE questions like "What is it about?"—less from actual secrecy than from the bewilderment that comes when you get so used to waiting for your novel to come out that when it finally does, it catches you off-guard.

Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, I'd like to belatedly and somewhat redundantly tell you that WILD AWAKE is a story about a teen musician who has a summer of chaos, first love, mystery and adventure while her parents are away on vacation. It's a story about family; a story about grief; and yes, a story about mental illness, although you won't find that term in the book.

Many people experience some kind of mental Thing (to use Kiri's word) at some point in their lives, whether they self-identify with a word like "bipolar" or "schizophrenic" or not. As most of you already know, I am one of them. Mental illness can make you feel alone and terrified, especially as a young adult—like you're on a distant planet where nobody can reach you. Novels like Janet Frame's The Edge of the Alphabet saved me from that terror by giving voice to the strangeness, horror, and profound beauty of that place.

When people find out that I've written about mental illness, they often tell me about their friends and loved ones who didn't make it. They always use that expression—"didn't make it"—which I've always found interesting for its connotations of journeys and quests. Not everyone who gets called to the underworld makes it back alive. Not everyone who wrestles with the Minotaur wins.

The better I get to know my own underworld, the more I believe that the stories we tell ourselves about mental illness are a crucial factor in determining how many people do make it. Our songs, poems, and metaphors—the language available to us for talking about experiences which are more complex than almost anyone is willing to acknowledge—these things matter both for our survival as a society and as individuals.

I used to think that mental illness had clear answers, that you could take it apart like an IKEA desk and spread the pieces out neatly on the floor. Now, I'm not so sure. What I do know is that stories are powerful, and the right one can make the difference between coming back from the underworld and getting consumed by it. The right story can act like a torn map or a candlestub: imperfect, but maybe just enough to light the way.