Wednesday, February 18, 2015

should bloggers be novelists? INTERN looks back

I remember when all the writing and publishing bloggers I knew began to “graduate,” posting book deal announcements and slowly (or quickly) abandoning their blogs to the cobwebs as the novels gobbled up more of the available time and energy. At the time, it seemed like a natural progression: build an audience, leverage it into a book deal, emerge from the cocoon of the blog into the sunshine of a “real” writing career, leaving the blog’s dried up husk behind to look on fondly and occasionally climb back into for old times’ sake. And why not? Weren’t the book deals what we wanted? And weren’t they proof that we knew what we were talking about when we posted advice on revising scenes and developing characters? We wanted to be novelists, didn’t we? The blogs were just vehicles—lovely, meaningful, intelligent vehicles, but still vehicles—weren’t they?

I have a friend who worked at a coffee shop for years. She talked to customers all day, read their tarot cards, learned the names of their pets and children, gave them spider plant cuttings and relationship advice. She was such a good employee they gave her a raise and promoted her to manager, upon which she grew very unhappy. She had moved up in the world, but now she was isolated, and her best talents were lying fallow as she attended to the supposedly more desirable job of running the shop. The world sets up all sorts of confusing situations for us. It is especially confusing when the reward for doing something well is to be allowed to do a different something you are perhaps less suited for. If you are an excellent barista, why should it follow that you will be happy as a manager? If you love blogging, why should it follow that you will want to publish novels?

This is not me admitting that writing novels has been a terrible mistake, although I know it might sound that way. I don’t regret a single minute I spent writing WILD AWAKE and a SENSE OF THE INFINITE, strange and difficult as some of those minutes were, and I’ll certainly write more books. But I do question whether the “graduation” model is the best thing for every blogger, every time, and if the prestige we place on having a published novel is an outdated relic that will soon fade out of importance as other forms of writing become more and more valued.

As I approach the conclusion of my own two book deal (a deal that happened as a direct result of writing the INTERN blog), I have been spending a lot of time pondering my next steps as a writer and trying to figure out who I really am. There are a lot of voices in my head. “You should write literary fiction,” says the part of me that still wants to be the next Janet Frame. “You should write another YA,” says the part of me that has a nice home in YA-land and doesn’t want to move. “You should quit writing altogether,” says the part of me that is tired of trying to figure out how to write a book without ripping it apart a dozen times. Then a few days ago, I got an e-mail from an old INTERN reader and another voice whispered, “Maybe you should  blog.”

There’s no moving back into your old cocoon, and no adventure in doing the same thing forever just because it works. But if you’re happiest being the person who makes the coffee and hands out spider plant cuttings, that’s a wonderful thing, a worthy thing—and perhaps not a thing to abandon when you get a promotion.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Earth to YA, Part 2: songs and dances

This summer, Techie Boyfriend and I bought four acres of land for a little over three thousand dollars. Here is a picture:

The land has a nine foot swimming hole, a creek where crawfish live among the rocks, a babbling waterfall, and soft flat stones for hopping on. It has bigleaf maples, cedars, and ferns. It has deer and birds and bugs. And it was ours for less than the price of a used car.

I haven't gotten used to being a land owner yet. "I own this cedar," I think to myself, and the thought is uncanny and absurd. I walk around the land, experimenting: "I own this giant maple." "I own these boulders." "I own the ground this beetle burrows in."

If I wanted to, I could cut down the trees, rip out the ferns, squash the bugs, and sell the boulders to a landscaping company. If I wanted to, it would be within my legal rights to turn the place into this:

Or, with a few permits, into this:

I could go up there with a chainsaw this afternoon and lay waste to the place, and there would be nothing you could do about it except spit in my coffee the next time I stopped in at the local diner, or chain yourself to the last big maple and get hauled to jail. In other words, I am legally permitted to be a savage--even rewarded for it, if you consider the economic benefits I would gain from "developing" the land's resources. When it comes to these four acres of the biosphere, there is almost nothing forbidden to me, short of dumping gasoline in the creek and setting it on fire.

This, dear readers, is what they call a mindfuck.


A long, long time ago, all land was sacred land. There wasn't some land designated for "preservation" and some land designated for strip malls. It was all alive and rich with significance--you couldn't point to a single inch of the earth and say, "This part doesn't matter."

A thousand years ago, all art was sacred art. The Salish didn't have one type of dance they did for the gods, and another kind of dance for getting on TV. The Vikings didn't tell one kind of story to explain the origins of the universe, and another kind of story to make money. If someone sang, danced, or told a story, it was an act of communication with the divine--you couldn't point to a single moment of it and say "This part has no spiritual significance."

And I can't help but wonder what it means that we live in a world where you can buy a waterfall on craigslist, and sell your stories on the internet, and do your dances on TV. That our songs are no longer intended to make rain fall, our stories no longer function as thinly veiled maps of the underworld, and our land is a thing to be ransacked, paved over and ignored instead of a true and living friend. 

And I wonder how much richer, how much more miraculous our work would be if we were audacious enough to reach past our industrial roles as producers of entertainment and act as if our stories mattered--not just on a human level, but for the benefit of all beings.


I think about the creek land often. It enters my thoughts the way a friend does whom you love dearly but don't see every day. I go out my front door and wonder what it used to be like here before someone decided this land was an appropriate place to cut down all the trees and build a town. Then I go back to my writing room and sit at my desk, wondering what I can possibly type on this keyboard to call the old songs and dances back again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Earth to YA, Part 1: Environmental Ethics and the Young Adult Author

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of distress about the destruction of wild places, and my own part in that. I wonder if my new book is worth the trees it’s going to be printed on. I wonder if all the writing and publishing advice I’ve posted here over the years has done nothing but validate the smash and grab mentality that dominates our culture—get the book deal, get the movie deal, ten easy steps, let’s go! I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be successful, as an author or in any career, and the more I think about it, the louder the words of David W. Orr repeat themselves in my head:

The truth is that without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more efficient vandals of the earth.”

            In other words, the “success” for which we educate young people and to which we ourselves aspire is associated with exponentially higher levels of environmental destruction. And that really sucks.
            If you are a “successful” real estate developer, you bulldoze far more acres of forest or wetland than an unsuccessful one.
            If you are a “successful” YA author, you might take dozens of flights, sleep in dozens of corporate hotels, cause the production of thousands or even millions of junky tote bags, action figures, DVDs, pens, bookmarks, and other “swag” which will eventually end up in a landfill.
As authors, our motivation is to make friends with Barnes and Noble, not express distress at the way our landscapes have been turned into shopping malls. We’re supposed to be flattered if our publishers fly us places or go to the expense of making promotional materials, not perturbed at the waste it represents.
We talk about our responsibility to young readers, and the important work we do in reaching out to teens who are dealing with bullying, depression, eating disorders and rape—but too often we give a free pass to the consumer culture that turns even the most sincere among us into vandals. We leave it unquestioned. Or we don’t recognize the urgency of questioning it at all.
            My goal is not to make people feel guilty, or throw cold water on anybody’s success. On the contrary, I want to point out a fabulous opportunity.
Our books have the potential to influence generations of readers, and if we give them characters who love the wild earth, who reject the system that ties success to vandalism, who question and resist the destructive culture they’ve inherited—and not only in the context of flashy dystopias, but in contemporary fiction too—our world might have a chance.
And as role models for future generations of writers, we YA authors have a responsibility to challenge the culture we will eventually hand down to them, whether that means resisting cover whitewashing, rejecting wasteful practices in the publishing industry, or writing stories that provoke teens to fight for what really matters.

            Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be using this space to conduct a survey on Young Adult literature and the earth. 
             Let's just hope it's not successful.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I have written a new novel. Harper has made a cover for it. Here is the cover:

It feels weird to see my name on it--like coming across your name splashed across a cereal box. "Why is my name on the corn puffs?!" I want to say. "I don't even EAT corn puffs." But there it is. Name on cover that distant publisher has made. Name on cover of book that I keep forgetting is actually coming out.

There is an apartment building a few blocks away from my house that has been under construction ever since I moved to my neighborhood. I have never known it except as big crazy structure with chain link fences around it and dark windows with dark rooms behind them. It didn't occur to me until just this morning that in a couple of months, the windows will have lights on, and people will be moving into it, and you will be able to walk on the sidewalk because the fences will be gone. It scares me that people are already walking in and out of this book--making it a cover and tagline and an Amazon description, printing up ARCS, turning on the lights and running the water. Part of me wants it to be an empty apartment building forever, mine to haunt, mine to control. Mine to demolish, if I felt like it. Mine to hole up in like a gremlin and never come out. 

Lately I've been feeling more and more unnerved by industrialization--the speed of it, and the distance. I would like to write one book every two hundred years, seek revision advice from a circle of wise Book Elders I'd known since childhood, print it on paper made of dried ferns, and leave it in a hollow tree for everybody or nobody to read. Any comments or discussion with readers could take the form of leisurely handwritten correspondence. In short, I don't want to power the machine--but I do. And I will. 

This new book I've written is partly about that machine, the damage it causes, and the growth and renewal that sneaks through the cracks. You won't find that on the back cover, but it's true (at least in my mind--but I'm always giving people incoherent and overly fretful explanations of my books, when it would be easier to say "boy and girl ride bicycles, start band"). 

My laptop is out of battery, so I am ending this post. To the friends who commented last time: it warms my heart to hear from each of you. When I make my dried-fern manuscript, you will be the first to know.

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.