June 29, 2007
Isn't that the way all history is born?
There's an actual RSVP list to this thing and everything. So, if you're a blogger who reads/writes/blogs about young adults and children's lit, go and meet the people who actually do the same thing as you!
History in the making -- it's kind of fascinating.
A "YAY!" for today:
I have something like that, let's call it a "YAY!" for today, and my "YAY!" is NOT that the Spice Girls are reuniting, although I'm sure that is cause for wild-eyed celebration in some quarters. No, this "YAY!" is a lot more cool than that. The Extended Day Girls are on TV!!! Alanah, Alicia, Allandra, Amanda S., Amanda D., Elaine, Jahatu, Samara, Shaianne, Tyla, and their teachers Ms. Shubitz and Ms. Rodriguez are the authors of DEAL WITH IT! Powerful Words from Smart, Young Women, and Ms. Shubitz kindly emailed us last night to let me know I can see the girls in action here on CBS News!
The other "YAY!" is that it's Friday, and not only that, Poetry Friday. Hosted by the martini-riffic Bond-girl at Shaken & Stirred, today's poems run the gamut of themes - summertime heat, holidays, war, cats, salads and more. My contribution is just as eclectic -- a beautifully evocative poem of summertime... and the summertime of the past.
by Mark Jarman
Is nothing real but when I was fifteen,
Going on sixteen, like a corny song?
Read the rest of this eloquent poem that speaks of writing and memory here.
June 28, 2007
Toon Thursday: More On Bloggers
That's MORE ON bloggers, not moron bloggers, people. And yeah, I know I keep beating this subject to death, but what can I say? I'm just having way too much fun. Plus nobody pays me for this, so I get to write whatever I want. Thppppt!
Yes, I realize I'm becoming incredibly self-indulgent and self-referential around here. I make no promises that this is going to stop anytime soon. So there! As I mentioned above, Thppppt!
June 27, 2007
Cherries Galore: Another M.E.M. - Best Friend's Pet Photography and on I-505 "Fresh, Local Cherries's." Methinks that once cherry season has ebbed, the fruit world will breathe a much sweetened sigh of relief. (Incidentally, lest you think I am unfairly mocking fruit-growers, the same sign advertised pistachios, which was spelled impeccably.)
Our (original) Jane: Another thing which has made me laugh is Salon's review of the All Things Austen summer which we seem to be having. Aside from the news that PBS is creating Sundays With Jane, a film series of Austen's books in a four month celebration beginning January 2008, the most recent news, of course, is 2006's Enthusiasm, and this year's gloriously as-of-yet-jealously-unread Austenland. The idea of a theme park for Austen-lovers in the Austenland novel is second in ...sublime ridiculousness only to the whole Potterland Theme Park thing... to quote the article: "No, it's not one in which if you don't marry a man of means by 25 you're branded a spinster and forced to live off the kindness of family for the rest of your life! (Coming soon: Woolf-Wharton Water Park, where visitors wade into a stream with pockets full of rocks and can be swept down a river of laudanum! Wheee!)"
Possibly there could also be a Jane Eyre theme park, where one could lock one's mad(dening) relatives in an attic and... Mmm, perhaps not.
The most salient point of the Salon piece is that despite all of the fun of the movies and spin-off books one must always go back to the original books. In them, one will find a Jane Austen who is unsentimental, anti-mushy, and sharply -- and I mean sharply, complete with catty comments -- amused by people who obsessed all day over men.
Viva la Jane.
More Than Meets the Eye: Ohh, if you didn't actually ever watch the highly silly dubbed-over Japanese television show, this summer's ridiculously high-action blockbuster, Transformers might just seem like, "Hm. Trucks. Robots." But the fact that the name Optimus Prime (!!) is one I actually know... worries me. The truth is,Everything I Need to Know About (Real) Robots I Learned From Transformers... yep.
Inside The Place
Laura's father has vanished, and, with nothing left of him but instructions, she creates an assistant from some old family magic, and does the unthinkable within dreams. Her Aunt, Grace, is infuriated with her, her aunt Marta and The Great Patriarch leave her to the nuns, and Rose -- her dear Rose -- has turned her back. But Laura did what she did because she had to... didn't she? Only Nown, her trusted servant, now set free, understands, and even his comprehension is incomplete.
The compelling, labyrinthine tale winds to a conclusion with an almost audible 'pop!' as worlds tremble and things change -- perhaps for good, perhaps only ...impermanently. Readers will be satisfied with a thoroughly intelligent story - and I simply can't tell you anything more without spoiling even tiny bits of it. Though it may seem a little slow at the outset, my advice is to continue through the Dreamhunter Duet, and you'll be curious, driven, and finally, satisfied -- mostly. Elizabeth Knox has created a very unique world.
Waking The Place
Laura and Rose are almost of age to make an official Try to cross the border from their home in Southlands to The Place -- which is where dreams come from. Rose's mother, Grace, dreams at the Opera House built in her honor. On a raised dais, her golden bed awaits, and as she sleeps, she releases beautiful, pleasant, and sometimes amorous dreams which she has "caught" in The Place, and brought back to be shared. Laura's father works for the Government. The dreams he "catches" are used in sanitariums to sooth the sick and to cure them, and in prisons... to reach those whose minds are deemed by the state as 'incorrigible.'
Dreams are very powerful in Laura and Rose's world. The Grand Patriarch of the Church speaks out against them. Some families deny their children the entertainment, for fear of sullying their minds, but most people enjoy them immensely. Dreams are a way of being somewhere else for awhile, of taking in adventure or romance while remaining perfectly safe in one's bed.
But what else can dreams be for?
Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox is a hugely detailed, imaginative novel that almost defies description. From the prologue, the reader's interest is piqued and led on with a trail of crumbs. There aren't too many huge surprises, but a series of small "Oh!" type of discoveries... which lead the reader nicely onward to the next volume!
June 26, 2007
It's only Grandma's Sewing Circle... right?
Sylvia is horribly sad that the only thing that can get her back home is her grandfather's death. She always hoped to be able to get back to the house where she grew up, where she was raised by the kindest people in the world, after her mother died, but she could never make her way back. She had her reasons, of course, and the distance was important -- vital, even, but no one would understand.
Big, hulking Lynn Hall is the same as it always was, and Sylvia is ...frankly, shocked. Isn't home supposed to look smaller when you've grown up and gone away? Shouldn't Solstice Wood, the copse of trees outside of her family home, look smaller, less... deep and threatening? And shouldn't her grandmother stop watching her like a hawk? After all, she's a grown woman now. What began as a terribly sad duty becomes a bewildering reunion, as her grandmother brings together her sewing circle to welcome her granddaughter home. The realization that it isn't simple stitching that her grandmother does chills her to the bone.
Sylvia has to figure out a way out of this mess -- before she's entirely hemmed in.
Fly Away Free
A chance meeting with a strange Welsh girl in the woods allows her a strange new companion -- one who seems to be able to read her mind. But can she help Lady Edith figure out what she wants?
Oh, my words!
* gay (56x)
* lesbian (21x)
* pain (3x)
* hell (2x)
* sex (1x)
I'm assuming we didn't use them all in the same sentence!?
Our Jane is away in Scotland - where it is pouring buckets on her summer - and she is having her joy of word counts. I, too, hate word counts. Even in school I was horrible at them -- we had a professor who required us randomly to write a 40-page paper or a 3000 word essay on an unnamed topic -- "Just write," he would tell us. I loathed him. I can either be wordy, or I can be brief, but having strictures put on word count just puts me in knots.
I had to write a synopsis of my own novel this past week - and I had to count words. That's enough to remind you of all of the awful college English professors in the world - and I had good ones, for the most part. I've discovered that there are some things I'm awful with -- the Evil Synopsis, the first line, and the novel conclusion. I wrestled for three days with the three sentences that ended my last piece. And eventually you hope something like that pays off -- like it did for these authors. Congratulations to them for having superb first lines!
Via Eve @ the Disco M's, we find a very funny link to Editorial Anonymous that teaches us what those between-the-lines editorial letters really mean. We read, laugh, and groan -- and hope for an editor -- together!
In all the hubbub of last week, I forgot to mention a small review of a picture book that made me a little misty. The Chronicle reviewed Fred Stays With Me!, which received a starred review from the School Library Journal. The first lines tell the whole story: “Sometimes I live with my mom. Sometimes I live with my dad. My dog, Fred, stays with me.”
Hope you're keeping close what you love this week.
June 25, 2007
The Big Comedown
It's sad, because I so badly wanted to have all of it done by--oh, the 16th of June, to be exact. TadMack and I had set this arbitrary deadline on the 16th of May, when I was about a fourth of the way into the revision and going strong. Then a whole bunch of other stuff happened, as is the way of things. But I still see this getting done before I leave for various conferences and such on July 21st. To quote the Little Engine That Could (a book I MUST get for my 2-year-old nephew, who is vehicle-obsessed), I think I can, I think I can...
Beyond His Birthright
It's always kind of sad to get to the end of a trilogy, and Amanda Hemingway's Sangreal books (reviews of part 1 here and part 2 here) have been one of my favorite recent fantasy trilogies. The first two books really drew me into the story of Nathan Ward and his strange connection to other worlds and otherworldly beings, and the third book, The Poisoned Crown, reveals the true reason why the Grandir has been watching Nathan through a mysterious unmoving star in the night sky--a reason that readers may have suspected all along, but was a surprise to Nathan.
The concluding volume also gives us the end to his mother Annie's story--for this is nearly as much her story as Nathan's, and she is inextricably involved in his destiny. When the three sacred artifacts of grail, sword, and crown are finally found, the Great Spell can be performed to save what remains of the Grandir's universe--but Nathan and his mother must ultimately decide whether to choose their own destiny, their own role in the momentous events, or let it be chosen for them.
I can't say too much without giving it all away, but this was a generally satisfying ending to the three-part story. I was very taken with all of the main characters, but I was so much in love with the first two books that, in a way, it would have been almost impossible to NOT be disappointed. Still, I highly recommend the entire trilogy for a unique take on alternate-universe fantasy in a modern-day setting.
June 23, 2007
Streamers trailing, brain's mushy; party's over...
Here are a few crumbs and streamers littering the floor of my brain:
ChickenSpaghetti, linked to La Bloga, where they're talkin' multicultural books, which brought to mind our recent discussion with the ever-awesome Julie Anne Peters, about which groups should write which literature for whom. If the only books children see about Hispanic culture include piñatas and parties, the only books for Chinese-American children include dragons and moon cakes, and the only stories for African American children include watermelon and double-dutch... well, you see the problem? So, the only pictures we have of gay and lesbian children and teens should portray... what? And be written by whom?
(Random point: I have had people tell me that all stereotypes are based in some fact, so maybe we should all just give up and let stereotypes at least give people an entrance into the various cultures. I'm sure you already know my opinion on THAT -- two words. Cop and out.)
The "bad" news is, the internet is once again destroying our culture, and we're going to the dogs, er, the rabbits (via Original Content) - at least that's what yet another alarmist has said. The good news is, the Carnival is in town! Check out the offerings at A Year of Reading. I love the little newspaper dealies they concocted. Very cool.
Salon's talking graphic novels, and NPR This Morning interviewed Shannon Hale about Austenland. Shriek! MUST read that book! I'm so jealous of EVERYONE WHO ALREADY HAS. (Ahem, LW and whichever other of my bookstore/librarian Cybils sisters who have been DISCUSSING IT WITHOUT ME. Ahem!)
It's time again for another M.E.M. report - the Most Egregious Misuse of the English language I saw today was on 9th Street in my Very Own Town. Some civic-minded people have taken it upon themselves to plant signs in their front lawns, advising others to drive carefully. "Slow it Down!" one sign urges. "Drive Safe."
My kingdom for an adverb. L-Y. Is it really that hard!?
Of course not, but we most often hear that phrase, and it no longer matters that for that misuse I got red check-marks on my papers in school. Okay. I can accept that. It's wrong, but I can accept that.
At any rate, I had to save my most annoyed huffing for the next house. Its pastel-painted sign read, "15 mph~! Drive neighborly!"
There are no WORDS. I mean, I guess it could have been worse if they'd tried to parse it "Drive neighborly-ly," but... OY. Adverbs: the most misused part of speech yet.
All right, coming down off the soapbox until next time.
Thank y'all for contributing to a great week.
The Summer Blog Blast Tour Concludes: Justina Chen Headley
Justina Chen Headley's been out and about throughout the 'blogosphere' this week. At HipWriterMama's place, we learned she doesn't always write the greatest pf titles, and once, she had to name a book in just three days. (She rocked it, though: Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) is a pretty cool title.) At Big A, little a, Justina let us in on the name of her brother's vineyard (Patton Valley!) and introduced us to the idea of REAL green tea frappucinos. Sounds like they could be tasty.
And here at Finding Wonderland, we're really pleased to welcome our final Summer Blog Blast Tour interviewee, Justina Chen Headley, to our humble treehouse, and we beg you to forgive us for forgetting, and to remember yourselves: Patty Ho is Taiwanese. Taiwanese. Don't forget, okay? We won't either.
FW: With the Nothing But the Truth Scholarship Essay contest, and your donation to the American Optometrics Association's InfantSEE program from the proceeds you earned from The Patch, you’ve really lived the idea that every writer should give back to the world, not just with words but with actions. Why is philanthropy so important to you, and what do you see as the writer’s role within the larger community?
My job as a writer is to write down the truth—in all its silly, improbable, joyous, crazy, and ugly truth. But personally, I want to be more than a truth-scribe. I want to be an ambassador for the truths I feel passionately about. That’s what my mom taught me.
Put it this way: if I’ve devoted a year (or more) to writing a book and exploring a specific theme, then I’m usually fired up when I’m finished. I *have* to do something about what I’ve learned—put actions behind my words.
So why not help a worthy teen with a college scholarship—when my parents had to sacrifice to put me through college? Why not promote awareness for the need for childhood eye exams—when I myself had no idea that babies are supposed to be tested! And why not inspire teens to change their world with a Challenge Grant that I’m co-sponsoring with Burton Snowboards in honor of my forthcoming novel, Girl Overboard?
FW: Many people are uneasy with the idea of confronting racism in their fiction and in themselves. How have people responded to Patty Ho’s rage, which her friend Jasmine seems to encourage?
To be honest, when adults talk to me about my debut novel, Patty’s anger rarely—very rarely—comes up. Instead, they describe the book as “fun” and “funny.” I’m glad—because certainly I hoped my novel would be a pleasure to read while still exploring deeper questions, such as self-identity and self-esteem in the aftermath of racism. But I am truly baffled that so few adults even reference the spitting scene, which is neither fun nor funny.
That said, my teen readers will talk specifically about racism with me—whether they found the spitting scene shocking (they had no idea that stuff like this happens) or that it was therapeutic (because something like this had happened to them). I find that openness extremely heartening.
FW:Mark Scranton and Steve Kosanko are two racist characters who humiliate Patty and keep after her about her Asian heritage. Patty is angry with them, but most of her anger turns inward as humiliation. Do you feel that anger/humiliation have fueled creative responses to racism in your own life?
I hate confrontation, and to this day, I struggle with the right response when people cut in line, when I see a friend’s kid talk back to her, when someone says something hurtful. I am not quick on my feet; I need time to deliberate, which is why I love writing and rewriting. I get to mull the situation over. I get to play with different scenarios. I get to react across a spectrum of responses.
The problem is, life is real-time.
So I do have to say, the things that have happened to me—whether it was being spit upon or called racist epithets while I lived in Australia for a year—inspired this book. I’m rewriting history. I’m not sugar-coating it, but I am giving it a more fulfilling ending.
FW:The Mama Lecture Series is hysterical, and certainly bypasses all ethnicities and cultural boundaries to unite us all in groaning loathing at being preached at. In your own experience as a Mom, have you felt that lecture series creeping up on you as part of your parenting?
It is terrible to hear The Mommy Lecture Series spewing from my mouth.
Lecture 1: Your room is a pigsty.
Lecture 2: You have two feet; get it yourself.
Lecture 3: When you take something out, put it back. In the same place. Now.
So, yes, I am guilty of reciting my own set of lectures. I can only imagine what my children will write if they ever choose to become novelists.
FW: Attitude is a big deal in NBtT. At one point, Patty wonders if it’s only her attitude holding her back. “Is attitude truly the only thing separating embarrassment from triumph? That a little sass could turn you from a social zero to a social hero? (page 174)” Can you talk a little about that little bit of “sass” in terms of dealing with racial discrimination? Is sass a way to survive?
Let’s face it: in certain situations nowadays it’s better and safer to walk away. And in some cases, to run away. Running away sometimes takes more courage than confrontation.
That said, sass is certainly a way to maintain your self-esteem when you’ve been trod upon. I may live to regret it, but I do encourage my kids to practice sassiness. In the right circumstances. Sassy humor—getting someone to laugh in the midst of a heated argument—now, that’s a gift.
FW:Many people feel empowered by the reclamation of a word. ‘Hapa’ means “half,” and is a word of Hawaiian origin. How have people responded to your non-Hawaiian use of the word ‘hapa’? or, Have people suggested other words to suggest ‘half’ or a biracial origin?
Some wonderful women at Swirl, a mixed race organization, warned me that there would be people who would not take kindly to my use of the word “hapa.” So, yes, one Hawaiian has expressed—shall we say, displeasure over my use of that word. The nice thing is that 99.9% of readers have agreed that in the case of this novel, hapa was the right word to use.
See, what Patty learns is that labels are just that: labels. They’re just manufactured syllables, no different from the words she creates. Or the ones that naming company creates for a huge paycheck.
We all have the power to define ourselves, using whatever words—real, made-up, co-opted—that feel right and good to us.
FW: In choosing to write about a mixed-race protagonist in NBtT, you had various choices to make, such as giving her a strict first-generation Chinese mother rather than someone more culturally assimilated. What made you decide on the specifics of Patty Ho’s background? Are there real-life people or events that inspired her character?
(Egads! Taiwanese, not Chinese, ladies! You can bet that Patty’s Taiwanese mom is having an ultra-conniption now!)
Anyway, I wanted to emphasize the experience of feeling other —- not fitting in to one community or another. That’s why I decided to have a first-generation (Taiwanese) mother.
So the characters—every last one—has a tiny piece of me inside him/her. Even the awful characters.
FW: NBtT was, in part, about finding one’s place in the world, whether that involves blazing your own trail or finding kindred spirits to make the journey easier. Do you think this story will help mixed-race and/or Asian-American youth to find their own place? Do you plan to write other stories with similar themes?
Books help people find their own place, understand their experiences, identify their dreams. Growing up, I didn’t have books featuring girls who looked like me. That’s one of the reasons why Janet Wong (TWIST), Grace Lin (The Year of the Dog), and I went on our Hi-YAH! Tour last spring. We wanted to encourage more mixed-race and Asian-American youth to write about their experiences and to share their stories.
My next novel, GIRL OVERBOARD, coming out in January, 2008, also explores the notion of finding your place in this vast world—but from the viewpoint of a snowboard girl who seemingly has the Midas touch. After all, her dad is a billionaire. And still with all her open doors and all her golden opportunities, Syrah has this overwhelming sense that she doesn’t belong. That she’s not good enough. That she’s not worthy. And that impostor feeling is something, I think, we have all experienced.
FW: In light of your role as one of the readergirlz, what do you see as the advantages of virtual meeting places such as MySpace in promoting literature—and literacy—among teens?
People who care about teen literacy—whether authors or publishers or librarians—need to make literature as accessible as possible. And that means being where teens are. These social networking places are today’s community centers. That’s why the readergirlz co-founders—YA novelists Dia Calhoun, Janet Lee Carey, Lorie Ann Grover and I—decided we needed to have a strong presence on MySpace. 70% of girls are on MySpace! And in September, we’ll be rolling out our profile on Facebook since so many college students have been clamoring for readergirlz.
That’s why to support YALSA’s Teen Read Week in October, readergirlz will be rolling out a new program on MySpace called “31 Flavorite Authors.” Every day throughout October, a different, acclaimed YA author will be available to chat with readers for an hour on our readergirlz group forum—groups.myspace.com/readergirlz.
I love being able to connect readers to authors. I love being able to talk to my own readership about my books and learn how my words have impacted them. These virtual meeting places made it easy and immediate…and best of all, they create community.
Unless you've been hiding under a big rock, you know that one of Justina's ongoing books-to-readers babies is found at readergirlz, which kicked off this past year. Questions about who they are and what they do can be answered here, and here. For more on Justina's philosophy of philanthropy, click here.
June 22, 2007
Patty Ho is NOT a snack!
The Summer Blog Blast Tour rolls onward to its last fabulous day as Justina Chen Headley makes one more stop on her blog tour. We discuss bananas, twinkies, eggs and all those things that make us unique. Don't miss!
Summer Blog Blast Tour: Julie Anne Peters
Julie Anne Peters is a rare treasure in the world of children's and YA writing—as prolific in fiction for young readers as in YA, as facile with writing about mainstream kids as she is with teens on the fringe, and equally talented in telling stories about a variety of lifestyles—straight, gay, lesbian, transgendered. And all this from a former systems engineer! As she points out on her website, "To the utter amazement and absolute shock of everyone I know – including me – I became an author."
It doesn't seem like so much of a shock when you read one of her books—the tragic but compelling Luna, about a transgendered teen; or Define Normal, about a goody-goody girl's friendship with her dyed-and-pierced opposite number. It quickly becomes clear that Peters has a real talent for conveying positive messages of acceptance and support for teens, without hitting her readers over the head or being didactic. It's even less of a surprise when you look at the accolades she has garnered for her work: Between Mom and Jo was a Lambda Literary Award Winner and a Cybil Award Finalist, and Luna's gotten an almost unbelievable list of honors, including Finalist for the National Book Award and a 2005 Stonewall Honor Book. Writing and Julie Anne Peters—it's like it was meant to be.
And once we interviewed her for the SBBT, we found that the woman behind the awards is just as funny, down-to-earth, and encouraging as her writing is. "First off," she told us, "those were HARD questions. Second off, REALLY hard." Well, we did come up with some real doozies, we'll admit that; but we were blown away by the answers, too. As we discovered in the interview, it isn't easy to be considered an "issue writer." TadMack points out that if you're a writer and you're perceived as part of a particular group, people expect a lot out of you when you write, and expect you to carry their flag. The minority experience. The Christian experience. The female experience. The lesbian experience. Peters feels it's important to retain authenticity, but just as crucial is remaining true to your characters and their individual stories. As fellow writers, we agree wholeheartedly.
FW: Congratulations on winning the Lambda Literary Award, and also on Between Mom & Jo being nominated for a Cybils Award. Between Mom & Jo was probably one of the most wrenching novels I've ever read about a family divorcing – because this novel truly shows the ugly impact of Jo and Mom's divorce and the impact of their subsequent choices on Nick. Who was your audience for this novel, and where did you draw your inspiration for Nick?
My audience is you, or any person who reads my work and Feels. The. Pain. Twelve years ago when I was a poorer starving artist than I am today, I took a part-time job as a teacher’s aide for at-risk students. One day in the lounge I overheard a conversation between these four elementary school teachers. Parent-teacher conferences were coming up and one teacher said, "Well, I made this special award for any dads who come tonight. Who do I give it to if both Nick's moms come?"
Another said, "I know. I was going to teach a family unit and now I have Nick in my class so I can't."
Why? I wondered. Why can't you? The whole tone of the conversation was disgust. It stayed with me. Ten years later I'd worked up enough anger about it to write Nick's story. What kind of family would be acceptable to this teacher? Supported? Embraced? If not a same-sex couple, how about bi-racial? Foster families, single-parent families, were they validated at this school? What about a kid who lived with his grandparents or guardians? We don't get to choose our parents.
Discrimination first manifests in a child's life with adults. Parents—same-sex parents especially—are often oblivious to the fact that their children have to defend them. Throw in a gut-wrenching family dissolution and you have a novel.
FW: Your previous novels for 'tweens and Middle Grade readers, including The Snob Squad, How Do You Spell Geek? and Love Me, Love My Broccoli, have no characters who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Do you feel that there is an appropriate time to introduce LGBT characters into books for younger readers? Do you think you will ever write middle grade novels incorporating LGBT characters?
Wow, you really do your research. If you read my work with a knowing eye, you'll see how every story has a lesbian subtext. (This was pointed out to me by a lesbian who, I believe, wanted to see it there.) Actually, Max in the Snob Squad series is gay. She hasn't declared her "alt" identity, but young readers have certainly picked up on it.
The decision whether to star gay characters in novels has more to do with story and purpose. Cultural readiness plays a role, of course. Since we've broken through the mainstream barrier in YA, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't introduce "out" gay characters in younger lit. Most young gaysters don't acknowledge their difference until they're 10 or thereabouts, so it may not be believable to have a flaming kindergartner. Although, if you ask me, Junie B. Jones...
FW: You have rarely mentioned your time as a fifth-grade teacher except to identify it as a disaster worthy of a write up in the Guinness Book of World Records. Do you think you'd be a better teacher now as opposed to when you were just leaving systems engineering? What was the best thing about teaching, and the biggest thing you learned?
I learned I'm a crappy teacher. I'd be a worse teacher now because I have even less patience. Only if capital punishment were reinstated would I consider going back. The best thing about teaching was learning how to deal with failure in my life. Teaching was all I ever wanted to do, and I was horrible at it. The greatest lesson learned was that my first choice of career, and my second, and maybe even my third may only be stepping stones to self-actualization.
FW: You're a writer who also keeps a blog. What about blogging appeals to you as a writer? What got you started, and what do you see as the role or purpose of your blog in relation to yourself and your readers?
The appeal of blogging is that I can say stuff people would slap me for in public. (Barbara Park is looking up my address as we speak.) There's a false sense of freedom in blabbing over cyberspace. You never think anyone is listening. Now that I've moved my blog to MySpace, I find I'm being more cautious about what I say. I actually have readers. And they're young. I better watch my mouth.
What I do know is that young people need adult role models. Whether it's true or not, I believe young people feel they have very few trusted adults they can talk to. LGBTQ youth, in particular, need to feel they have a future; that they can dream; that their dreams and goals are achievable; that they can be successful in life and love.
In my blog I talk about my life with my partner, Sherri, because it's so ordinary. Sherri and I have been together for 33 years now, and young people need to see how same-sex relationships work. LGBTQ youth harbor so many fears about what their lives will be like if they don't marry, have 2.5 kids, a house and a dog. I tell them they can have all those things (though cats are preferable.) The American Dream is not out of reach. Marriage for Sherri and me, though differently defined, is an institution built on love.
I talk about writing because I want aspiring writers to know the truth. Writing is hard. As a job, writing is a relentless taskmaster. Sure, you get to work in men's loungewear, but the end of one book means you'd better have another on the burner.
I talk about my neighbors because I'm always wondering what's going on behind closed doors. Call me Harriet the Spy.
I talk about books and articles I'm reading and loving. Only the ones I love. Writers have enough critics in the world. I don't want to be a critic. I support writers in whatever way I can.
I talk about reality TV. Don't get me started. I'm obsessed, okay? Since I write realistic, contemporary fiction I justify my excessive TV viewing by claiming crapola is pop culture research.
I talk about emotional and physical health issues because young people are so self-destructive. I want them to be happier in life, more optimistic.
Occasionally, I talk about my upcoming books because I had better prostitute—er, promote—myself if I want to work for a living.
FW: Your website and blog show you're very open about your life and work process. Your blog also displays a lot of sometimes self-effacing humor. Has your ability to look at life with a sense of humor made big events like changing careers or coming out easier to deal with? Does it affect, or even assist, your writing process?
Yes on both counts.
FW: It was really nice to see a small town embrace Mike in Far From Xanadu, instead of ostracizing her. What role do you think your books play in allowing others outside the LGBT community to learn acceptance? Do you feel that the current is changing with regard to societies accepting their LGBT teens, or do you feel that more openness has encouraged people like Xanadu, maliciously curious and 'baiting' those in the LGBT community?
Eek. That's an enormous question. Yes, I do feel acceptance and support for LGBTQ people is increasing, propelled by a youth culture who values diversity in all aspects of life. Positive portrayals of gay people in the media have certainly hastened the process. Having grown up in the 70's and 80's when it was still illegal to be homosexual makes everything look rosy to me.
The movement toward equality is advancing at lightning speed today. Young people may not feel it, especially if the climate in their school or home is hostile, but when they come out in today's world, they'll find love and support, as well as unlimited opportunities to share their gifts and talents with the world.
I think because we're gay we have interesting stories to tell. Our slant on life is unique. For example, a straight girl baiting a gay girl. How fun is that? If there's an equivalent in the straight community, I don't know what it is. Relationship issues expand exponentially when you're shifting between sexuality and gender lines. For a writer, it's a burbling cauldron of story possibility.
Lesbian baiting is nothing new to our community. Based on the anecdotal evidence from my reader mail, I'd say there are growing numbers of girls (and boys) identifying as bisexual these days, and/or playing "gay for a day." The universal theme in FFX is how obsession and manipulation feed off each other. Who hasn't fallen for the wrong person, for someone who can't, or won't, love them back?
FW: Luna is an amazing novel in that it manages to be both funny and painful, sad and silly. Did you ever feel that writing a funny novel about a transgender person was a bad idea? Is there anything "sacred" to you that you don't feel should be written about with humor?
Growing into yourself is painful no matter where you start and end. There's a need to buoy that experience with humor. We should all lighten up sometimes, you know? What I felt was a bad idea in Luna, and what made me quit the book halfway through, was writing in her voice. I'm not a transgender person, so there's no way I'll ever fully understand the depth of that reality. If I ever feel I'm exploiting someone's pain for my gain, I don't think I could live with myself. All I know is that one day in the middle of Luna I set down my pen and said, "I can't do this." My notes, my sketches, my two years of research, books, interviews, psychological studies, all got shoved into a plastic crate and carted to the closet.
The next day I read an article in the newspaper about Fred C. Martinez, Jr., a 16-year-old Navajo who'd been brutally murdered in Cortez, Colorado. The reporter was calling the killing a hate crime because Fred (known as F.C.) was gay. As I read the testimonials from F.C.'s friends, who said things like, "She was the funnest girlfriend we ever had," I looked at the picture of this kid and thought, F.C. isn't gay. She's trans. It never would have occurred to me to even question the reporter’s assumption if I hadn't educated myself.
F.C.'s murder was like a sign that this story had been given to me for a reason. As a writer, I could bring voice to the transgender experience. Readers would listen and know.
Immediately I dragged out that crate and began again. With new vision, new eyes and renewed fervor. I started the story over from the point of view of Luna's younger sister, Regan. The moment she spoke on the page, the emotional honesty of the story felt authentic and real.
Luna was still Luna, with her sarcastic, acerbic wit. Her humor saved her, as it does so many of us.
Are there topics I wouldn't poke with a funny stick? Sure. Sexual abuse. Rape. Murder. Reality TV.
FW: The question, "Dude, are you gay?" is something you address repeatedly. How important is that, really, in terms of your writing in general? Do you feel that makes you a more reliable narrator for books directed toward the LGBT community, or does it seem as if it is marginalizing being known as "the lesbian YA author"? And as a follow up, do you believe that people outside of that community should not write LGBT characters? Do you feel a greater amount of pressure writing novels with LGBT characters? Is there a greater pressure to "get it right" and that you, in a way, "represent" for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons?
This is a topic for a dissertation. Okay, I confess to a stubborn bias for authenticity in LGBTQ literature. I'm not crazy about straight people writing the gay experience. Not that queer characters shouldn't be hangin' in da hood. It's just that I want my gay writers to be gay. BUT THAT'S JUST ME.
One of my fears about writing Keeping You a Secret—which my editor, Megan Tingley, suggested to me: "Julie, why don’t you write me a lesbian love story?" "Megan, why do you have a death wish for me?" —was that I’d be labeled a "gay" writer. I'd never be able to work outside the proverbial box again. Even if my books were banned or I was personally blacklisted, my own community would expect me to carry the rainbow flag. I'm proud to do that, make no mistake. The day may come, however, when a story explodes from me that has nothing to do with gay themes. That day has come. The book scheduled for spring 2008, though subversive and controversial, will not be banned for gay content.
One of the first letters I received after Between Mom and Jo (a story about a boy with lesbian moms, to refresh your memory) was from a lesbian mom who wrote, "Well. That wasn't a very positive portrayal of gay parenting." I screamed. I literally beat my head against the wall. It wasn’t unexpected, and never is, that my books won't resonate with every reader, but at that moment I felt I was somehow expected to write The Gay Way. Sound check. There is no Gay Way.
Our lives aren't perfect. We are wildly dysfunctional and diverse—in our lifestyles, politics, religions, attitudes, opinions, philosophies, fashion sense. The queer community is anything but homogeneous (and we’d argue that point). I'm writing what I know; what I feel in my heart to be true, to a character, to his or her story. If you don't like what I'm saying, write your own damn story. Then come on over for potluck, hon.
FW: Clueless moment: what exactly does a systems engineer do? And how did you bridge the gap between that, and sitting down one day and saying, "Okay, I'm going to be a writer now?"
A systems engineer takes a faulty system, typically human made, and redesigns it so that time, resources, and managerial profit are maximized. Historically, systems analysts were the geeks who converted manual business routines to computer systems.
The logic of flowcharting a system, figuring out how all the pieces and parts are interrelated, and making it work without having to manipulate the cranks is the exact same process as writing a book. My left lobe serves me well when plotting a novel; figuring out the weak links; fitting all the scenes and sequences together.
I hated the work of systems engineering. After ten years, I was completely burned out. My partner came home one day and I said, "I quit my job today. I'm going to be a writer."
She did a slow eye waffle. "Okaaaay," she said. "Have you ever written anything?"
I said, "No. But I can learn." The first thing you learn as a writer is how quickly you spiral into poverty.
All I knew was that writing seemed as far away from systems engineering as any other work in the world. Someone could've told me it's the EXACT SAME WORK.
FW: Congratulations on your soon-to-be released book, grl2grl, which is all short stories. Are you resting on your laurels, or are you already hard at work on something else? How much time do you spend "resting" between books, or do you? Can you talk a little about your ongoing projects?
My laurels are sticker bushes that, when rested upon, remind me the mortgage is due. If I thought about it too long, I'd be scared witless to be a writer. The time between projects is...there’s time between projects?
Right now I'm frantic because I'm working on a draft of an idea and it's not setting my soul on fire. Earlier this year I finished and sold two novels, one for a 2008 release and another for 2009. The second one, Rage: A Love Story, was in revision for four years. I could not figure out what that book meant. Thematically. The story was there, the characters were strong. It just didn’t say anything. So I dumped it on my critique group with a whiny, "Help." They did, God bless 'em. My critique group has saved my ass too many times to acknowledge.
The book coming out next year, By the Time You Read This I'll Be Dead, was written during a two-week trance during which I was completely possessed. I woke up one day and had this finished manuscript sitting on my desk. When I read it, I thought, Holy shit. This is the best work I've ever done—if I did it. (I'm having graphoanalysis experts verify the handwriting as we speak.)
I always want to believe that the book I just wrote is the best work I've ever done. If I don't (like the project I'm tepid about at the moment), I'll likely abandon ship. In each new work I want to challenge myself to push farther, to incorporate different techniques, to explore the essence of story and humanity and life on this planet. Maybe I'll go where no lesbian has gone before.
I never talk about what I'm working on. Surely that drives my agent and editor nuts. A manuscript shows up on their doorstep out of the blue. Thud. Talking about my current project, though, rather than focusing my energy on writing it down, sucks the wind right out of my sails. A ship without sails? Sinker.
One lesson I've learned in the 18 years I've sustained myself as a writer is to trust that it'll come—IT being a compelling story or a compulsive character. Like love, inspiration strikes when you least expect it. You jes gotta keep the faith.
All right. We thought we just loved her books. Now we want to be invited over for that potluck! Excellent interview, and our thanks go to Julie Anne Peters for her thoughtful answers and participation in the SBBT. Tune in tomorrow for our concluding interview of the week with the author of Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) and Readergirlz diva, Justina Chen Headley.
More Information about Julie Anne Peters
Julie Anne Peters' very informative, very entertaining website
Julie's blog on MySpace
Read an excerpt of Grl2Grl, Julie's upcoming novel
TadMack’s review of Define Normal on our sister site, Readers’ Rants
The JAP Mafia, her MySpace fan club
Julie Anne Peters in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
Stonewall Book Awards, sponsored by the ALA's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table
Lambda Literary Foundation
June 21, 2007
Honesty, Humility, Humor
Summer Blog Blast Tour: Chris Crutcher
in open letter on censorship, Dec. 20, 2005
No one who really knows YA lit doesn’t know his name, and most who hear his name have some kind of a reaction – either clear affection and respect or the most vituperative hatred.
Chris Crutcher – the man who inspires students to stand up for the right to read, who speaks to packed auditoriums wherever he travels, who is an advocate for abused children and speaks in support of young adult athletics -- is also the man whose books are banned or challenged at least five or six times a year.
Chris grew up with what can only be called "old-fashioned values" – hard work, hard play and a more ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ style of life than many teens have today. Living in such a small town, the mistakes he made were… noticeable, so Chris knows what it feels like to be known for your reputation – and to have people talk. As a boy, Chris remembers his father shaking his head at the blurring of church and state when they added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance back in 1954, and this may have been the beginnings of the strong opinions on religion in the public sector which reappear in some of his books. Coming to the Bay Area in the 70’s with degrees in psychology and sociology further fed his curious mind, and as Chris began teaching, he encountered the multicultural world that fueled his later stories.
In so many ways, the story of Chris Crutcher could be folksy and sweet, but somehow, some way, the buck-toothed kid with a coonskin hat from a tiny logging town in Idaho grew up and managed to be controversial. Really controversial.
He writes about race. Censorship. Child abuse. Abortion and teen sexuality. He writes about the harsh realities of the lives of some young adults, the unrealistic expectations and unattainable standards to which others are held, and he uses the language they might use – full-force and undiluted. He does not lie, nor indulge in the swaddling, cushioning myths about God and sex and success and failure and patriotism that many adults use to ‘protect’ the younger generation from reality. And left right and center, his books are banned.
"He does that on purpose," some people grumble. "Being controversial sells books," others assert. Maybe. But no writer of his caliber spends all his time thinking about anything but the way he’s going to tell a story. There are no easy endings to the books Crutcher writes. There is no ‘happily ever afters’ that promise rose-strewn highways ahead. But there is …survival. And in some small way, triumph. Crutcher leads readers to learn to relish that ‘I am not alone, and I will survive’ mentality. And that is no small thing.
Years ago I had the opportunity to hear Chris Crutcher speak at a conference in Los Angeles. I discovered his books just after college, and having been raised at times with some unspoken but rigid Christian ideas, what he said in his books just seemed so huge to me. I had so much I wanted to say to him, so much to express that I could say nothing at all. Too shy to actually approach him, I instead trailed him around the huge conference center, watching as he interacted with librarians, teachers, parents and star-struck amateur writers (Okay, yes. The LAPD might call that "stalking." Just hush-it and listen to the story, all right?!) I observed him as genuine, direct, funny, off-the-cuff casual and even cute. (You know you’re all trying to picture him in that Speedo.) It is a tremendous honor to have been given this interview. Chris Crutcher will talk to just about anybody with honesty and candor, and will even answer fan email in his spare time. FW is still honored to present this very complex, interesting author, Chris Crutcher.
FW: "Chris Crutchers are a dime a dozen," Billy says in The Sledding Hill, but we think maybe Mr. Crutcher is the only one who believes that! You have had an impact on a generation of readers and thinkers. Who inspires you to read and think?
If I have had that impact I feel truly blessed. Any good book inspires me. I've never picked up a Vonnegut book that I didn't come away full of wonder. Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I could go on all day.
FW: The Sledding Hill is mostly, if not entirely, free of profanity, unlike many of your other books. Is there a reason for this choice?
Yeah, I did that on purpose. Neither Billy or Eddie are particularly tough kids and neither has had a truly rough life leading up to the story, so there's not a need for the language, but the big reason I did it was to take away the B.S. excuse the censors often use for attacking books. They make a big deal about language, which by the way, never hurt anybody. I thought I'd draw them out and make them take on the issues.
FW: Your novels include a lot of very clear and unflinching contrasts between good parents and bad parents, especially dads. How has your career in Child Protection and as a child and family therapist influenced your writing over the years? What percentage of your time is still spent working in counseling?
It's true a lot of my parents, both "good" and "bad" are inspired by my years of work as a therapist in the world of abuse and neglect. All my writing has been influenced by my life; my experiences and things I've seen. I don't spend a lot of time counseling any more. I do some consulting, and I'm still the chairperson of the original Spokane Child Protection Team, but I travel so much that a client has to have a very flexible schedule to see me.I do still see a few, but I do it all pro-bono, partly because I feel hugely fortunate to be able to make a living writing and talking and partly because I'd never to be able to follow a client as closely as some need to be followed.
FW:. Recently, The Sledding Hill has been crafted to be put on as a stage play; Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Whale Talk, The Crazy Horse Electric Game and The Sledding Hill are being developed into film by Riverrock Entertainment. How do you feel about the adaptation of your novels to performance? Which of your books have you most wanted to see in film or presented on stage?
I'm pretty removed from any feelings about adaptations. I pretty much hang my hat on the book, and let the directors and writers of the other media hang theirs on what they do. I am involved with RiverRock, so I have quite a bit of say about any of my projects with them, and I've done some writing with them, but in the end I'm quite aware that a movie belongs to the director. I'm working with an amazing writer now who is working on Sarah Byrnes and I believe he's going to get it right. The head of RiverRock also focuses on getting the story from the book to the screen, so I feel pretty fortunate. I'd feel more fortunate if something actually got made. (And I'd get closer to a fortune.)
FW: Many of your books contain people who profess a Christian faith but are closed-minded, petty, and cruel. An example to the contrary is T.J. in Whale Talk, whose faith is quieter and more matter-of-fact. A third, entirely different character is Dillon Hemingway in Chinese Handcuffs, whose spirituality seems connected to testing his physical boundaries. Could you talk a bit about your portrayals of religion, Christianity, and faith/spirituality in general in your writing? Are you trying to convey any particular messages to young readers, Christian or otherwise?
Mostly I'm trying to portray the truth that says inflexibility is toxic. Belief in God isn't what makes the likes of Brittain in Sarah Byrnes such an unbecoming character. It's his black and white, right and wrong look at the world. We are a trial and error species; we learn by our mistakes. When we start calling those mistakes sins, we make ourselves sick. T.J, Ellerby, Dillon, have a different take on spirituality, as do a number of my adult characters. Those adult characters - Lemry, Mr. Nak, Max, to name a few - reflect my spiritual take on things. I think there is huge spirituality to be found in testing physical boundaries. I have come to many conclusions in a state of near exhaustion.
FW: Some of your books are set in small towns or otherwise insular environments, where seemingly outdated prejudices can still loom larger than life, such as the mixed-race issues and other forms of difference from the norm in Whale Talk. What led you to choose these types of settings to tell your stories? Were you influenced by any experiences in your own life?
I've been quite influenced by my own history. I grew up in a town of 943 people, so I know that isolated life. It has as many positive things to say for it as it does negative ones. But I live in Spokane, Washington now, and I travel all over the country, sometimes the world, and I can find those outdated prejudices almost anywhere. People are more careful of showing them, but if you hang around and pay attention, they are there. I think there has been a lot of progress in the area of race relations and bigotry, but we have a long way to go and we need to get with it. Bigotry is as toxic a thing as there is.
FW: In The Sledding Hill, Eddie’s friend Billy says, of Chris Crutcher, "He’s scared too. But he’s not scared to tell his stories. That’s probably the only place he’s not scared." How do you feel that you evolved past that point of fear in your writing? Especially in light of how vociferously people have reacted against what you have said? How do you avoid that fear in your writing?
That happened from the start; from the very first book. You're insulated writing a story. It's just you and the computer and you can be as brave as you want to be because it will be a while before anyone else sees it. And when you write there is nothing but the story. The story drives everything, so you have passed by all the fears by the time you sit down to tell it. Plus, those vociferous people don't scare me a bit, and they never did. They speak from ignorance. They know almost nothing about child development, and they make up things to be afraid of. If they weren't scared they wouldn't be so loud. I have seen some amazing atrocities and some amazing generosities in my life as a therapist and in my life as a regular ol' human, and I feel a need to portray those things as I see them. They are truths - truths from my perspective to be sure - but truths all the same. When I try to portray some bit of heroism I've witnessed, it's hugely important that I do it in spades. The fears Billy talks about are Chris Crutcher's fears of not being a good enough human being; fears of being too selfish or of not easing pain when I could; the same fears everyone has. I was born with survivor's guilt. I've often said that the only places I'm not afraid in the world are as a writer and as a therapist. There is no story I won't tell, and no place I won't go with a client, if that client is willing, because if they trust me, I owe them that.
FW: You contribute to the blog AS IF!, Young Adult Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom. What do you see as the role of AS IF! in the national discussion on intellectual freedom, especially with respect to what young adults are "allowed" to read? How do you feel that concerned parents can deal with their fears for what their children read while still allowing them the intellectual freedom to choose? Would you support content labels (such as music and music ratings) to alert readers to potentially objectionable content?
I don't support content labels because they're subjective. I love it when I see that something has "adult language." What the hell is adult language? Kids use that language as much as adults do. It's just language. It's expression. If something exists in the world, it deserves to be talked about. That isn't to say I don't think people can do that badly, but something talked about is far better than something not talked about. The monster out of the closet is a lot less scary than the one hidden in there. Parents have the right to censor things for their kids and I wouldn't change that. I would, however, encourage any parent I work with as a therapist to think at least twice before doing that. It's the fastest way in the world to show your kids what you are afraid of and to create that fear in them. And it's a great way to take yourself off the short list of people to turn to when a crisis comes.
FW: Being true to yourself seems to be part of the message of many of your books, which share the characteristics of strong main characters with a lot of potential who choose to seek their own paths rather than conform to what some of the adults around them expect—for instance, with respect to playing high school sports, or carrying on an established prejudice, or embracing a spiritual belief system. Do you see these as coming-of-age novels? What do you hope young readers will take away from reading your work
I see them as coming of age novels because that's what society calls them. Most of the people I've worked with who are having "mid-life crisis" say, "I'm acting just like a teenager. I don't understand it." I do. Most of us don't resolve a lot of the issues that come up in our teenage years and end up dealing with them later on. We see many of those issues as teenagers for the first time, but any thinking adult will tell you they pop back up again and again. So I guess I just see them as stories. They get marketed to people "coming of age," but the truth is, we're all coming of age. Developmental stages don't stop until we die. We all have one thing in common: we're as old as we've ever been. It's as true of a teenager as it is a seventy year old. We have our histories, which we know, and our futures which we don't. We're all have a lot more in common than we're sometimes willing to admit.
Did we already say we are honored? If not – Mr. Crutcher, we truly are. Thank-you.
We are also honored to have possession of Chris Crutcher's latest book, Deadline, helpfully facilitated by his awesome assistant, Kelly Milner Halls, a full-time freelance writer in her own right. Thanks, Kelly! Since Deadline emerges unto the reading public in the fall, you can look forward to our review at that time, but until then, Bookshelves O' Doom has, with dampened keyboard, given you just a taste. Don't miss the mini-movie book trailer here, where you can whet your curiosity bef0re it goes on sale. And you can also figure out many boxes of tissue you need to put on order... And hey, wanna do something neat? (Insert sinister chuckle here.) Drop by CafePress for ironic Crutcher-wear. It's what all the coon-capped kids are wearing.
Did you know that Chris Crutcher once upon a time wrote a novel for adults? Suspense readers might want to check out The Deep End. It looks seriously scary to me.
Chris Crutcher is one heck of an opinionated guy. CC sounds off occasionally, every once in awhile gets out to his MySpace page, and he’s not afraid to talk back to censors, or the passing politician, either.
More than an author, in his capacity as a family therapist, Chris Crutcher is a resource to parents. iParenting has an online Q&A in hyperspace where parents can leave him a question. Chris also has an in-print presence in Family Energy, and helpfully lends his thoughts to exploring his books in a classroom setting, complete with a teaching guide.
June 20, 2007
Books, Thoughts, & Banning
And they read.
Some of them read, and were ecstatic, breathless, inspired. They said "Heck yeah!" a lot, and stabbed at the air with their fingers, and called people up to read them certain lines.
Some spent time snuffling and going back to pages marked with tissues. Quietly.
Some wished they had read long before.
Some crossed out every single "adult" word. Then went to their public library and crossed out every, single "adult" word. Then they went to the circulation desk and demanded that the book be removed. Then they went to the school board and snooped around reading lists and raised their very pernicious brand of hell to get every book removed that might have some kind of "filth" in it.
(They hadn't read, of course. Just... guessed. X-ray eyes peering between book covers. Osmosis. Superpowers nobody else has.)
Others were really, reeeeally nervous. And went away.
And thought with great seriousness. And tried not to be afraid.
Join us tomorrow for the Chris Crutcher interview, Thursday, when the Summer Blog Blast continues!
Summer Blog Blast Tour: Svetlana Chmakova
Meet Christie and Bethany—two young women who are making their own comic and hoping to market it at the Yatta Anime Convention. This is Christie's second year attending, and she not only encounters her idol, Lida, but also a whole array of unpredictable career obstacles, crazed fans, and the enigmatic but compelling Matt. In my review of Svetlana Chmakova's Dramacon Vol. 2 for our sister site Readers' Rants, I described it as "charming, funny, [and] surprisingly deep" with some really nice manga-style artwork.
Vol. 2 went on to become one of the final five in the Cybil Graphic Novel Awards 13-and-up category, but this is by no means the only honor that the Dramacon series has received. It was nominated for both a 2006 Harvey and a 2007 Eisner award, won the 2006 Mangacast Yomi award, made it on the 2005 list of Best Comics of 2005 by Publishers Weekly (who referred to it as "a little gem"), and was picked for YALSA's 2007 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.
Still, Svetlana remains modest about her accomplishments, despite being quite prolific in the world of comics: she has drawn for manga art and tutorial books, RPG books, toy designs, animation, book covers, and web comics, besides penning Dramacon and, for a spell, the "Adventures of CG!" comic in CosmoGIRL! magazine. As manga grows in international popularity, it's less of a surprise--and we're glad about that!--that a Russian-born Canadian woman would be kicking so much butt in the traditionally male-dominated world of comics.
FW: The atmosphere and characters at the comics convention are vividly depicted, with a lot of detail and humor. Are there any autobiographical aspects of Dramacon? For instance, are the comic-con scenes or the fledgling writer/artist storylines drawn from your own experiences?
The book is entirely fictional and none of the characters are based on me or other real people. However, the environment and the spirit of the book are heavily inspired by my own experiences at cons, and by stories I've heard from my friends. In short, I tried to write the book as it may have happened. The fledging writer/artist story in Dramacon is fictional, too--unlike Christie and Bethany, I can both draw and write. (Or can't, depending on who you listen to, hee...) So my path was different, though it shares some of the basic elements (webcomic, peddling my art at cons, meeting awesome pros who took the time to say a few kind words about it).
FW: What do you see as the advantages of the graphic novel form for first-person narratives such as yours, which remains very closely in Christine's head as the story is told?
The advantage is exactly that--we get a chance to see the story through Christie's eyes and really be close to what she goes through. It's one of the many things I enjoy so much in manga, the sense of being so involved with the characters, instead of merely observing them. That being said, I probably will stay away from first-person narrative in my next series, Nightschool--I also like having the reader wonder about what’s going on in the protagonist's head. First-person narrative fit for Christie's character, since she is so open and wears her heart on her sleeve. Alex is... Quite different.
FW: Conversely, what have been some of the greatest challenges of this project?
All of it, frankly. Haha! Dramacon is my first full-length series and I'd never before written or drawn 160-180 page books. It was a big change from webcomics, to have to plan my story out completely instead of just feeling my way along and making it up as I go. It's a big challenge to stay on task, too. Creators are, by their nature, incurable slackers; getting yourself in gear and tackling the enormous work involved in producing that many pages of art and story is very difficult.
FW: We've noticed that Dramacon Vol. 3 is in the works. Is this going to stay a trilogy, or are you planning future installments?
The current story arc will finish with the third volume. There is much more story I would love to tell and there is a possibility of more volumes... But I am not sure when--my next series "Nightschool" has already been picked up by Yen Press and I will be starting work on that as soon as I am finished with the third volume of Dramacon.
FW: You use many visual elements characteristic of Japanese manga, such as chibis, the childlike depictions of characters used for humorous or expressive purposes. What aspect of manga do you find most appealing as a form, as a means of expression?
I couldn't possibly pick just one... I am still trying to figure out what exactly is it about manga that appeals to me so much, though chibies and manga's versatile visual vocabulary are probably at the very top. In a tie with the cinematic and up-close-and-personal way of storytelling. Second only to that would be the stylish b&w look of the inks and screentones, plus the unique and iconic approach to character design. The range of manga styles is truly staggering--the flexibility of that area of comics language, the way it adapts so wonderfully to the type of story it carries to the reader. I mean, in most cases you can immediately tell a shojo manga from a shonen manga just by the art/panel arrangement alone. How amazing is that?
/end love letter to manga
FW: Are you influenced by Japanese shojo manga, which is marketed specifically to girls? What types of manga have influenced you?
I am influenced by both shojo and shonen manga, as well as a fair bit of seinen and josei. The biggest manga influence on my own work were the creations of Rumiko Takahashi ("Ranma ½", "Mermaid Scar"), Fuyumi Soryo ("MARS"), and Kosuke Fujishima ("Ah! My Goddess", "You're Under Arrest!")
FW: What, or who, are some of your non-manga influences? What are some of your favorite children's/young adult books (either comics or not)? Why?
My major non-manga influences are Sailor Moon the animated TV series, Slayers, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the work of Warren Ellis. Also, The Comic That Made Me Love Comics is ElfQuest, by Richard and Wendy Pini. I was too young a writer to be influenced by it, but it lit the fire, so to speak.
My favourite children’s/young adult books... Most of them are Russian, since that is where I grew up to be almost 16. English favourites include Harry Potter, Naruto, Full Metal Alchemist, The Chronicles of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, the Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin (does that count as young adult?...) and many more that I can't recall right now. I've always been a bookworm.
FW: How far back does your interest in comics and manga extend? When did you first start drawing comics?
I've always drawn comics in some form, I just didn't realize it. I drew illustrations for the notes our family would leave for each other; I made up my own stories and drew illustrations for those, sometimes even in sequence. The book that really crystallized my yearning to make comics was ElfQuest, by Richard and Wendy Pini. I found the first issue (Russian translation) on a trip to Moscow, by chance, really. I read it until it started falling apart, I was so taken with it.
After my family came to Canada, I had better access to comics and to a much bigger variety of them. That's when I really started drawing sequential art in earnest and studying the medium. I attempted to hand in a comic for my independent study in creative writing class, hee hee... I didn't finish it, but I still have it somewhere.
FW: You contribute an ongoing comic to the magazine CosmoGIRL. How did you get involved in that, and what do you enjoy most about that project?
Actually, I might as well mention here that I am no longer with the project--the issue that is on the stands now (June/July) has my last comic for them. It was an absolutely wonderful project and I really enjoyed working with the magazine and playing with their characters. The best part about it was probably the creative challenge! Like the Dramacon book, the Adventures of CG! really made me grow--I found it difficult to write/draw a complete story in just one page, so managing to pull it off each time was immensely satisfying and taught me a lot. Also, I really loved the characters, especially Taylor.
How I got involved in the project initially--CosmoGIRL editors approached TOKYOPOP about re-imagining their comic strip as a manga and I was picked in a sort of art audition to be the person for that. The relationship worked out so well, I ended up doing it for 2 years.
FW: The "On the Set" and "Svetlana Makes a Manga" sections at the back of Dramacon provide readers with a glimpse into your working process, and are especially encouraging for aspiring young comics creators. What advice you would give to young women who are interested in breaking into comics writing or art?
Practice and study like fiends. There are no shortcuts in art--to be good, you need to put in the work hours. School is great and will give you much more than just an art education--it's an invaluable life and people experience, as well. Another excellent step to take would be to start a webcomic and see how you do with updates and if you can handle the grind of having to produce pages for a storyline. Anyone can get a few pages out, but few can do so on a regular basis AND keep up the quality. Also, webcomics are a great way to earn credibility, an audience and to get noticed by publishers--that's how it happened with me. I had two webcomics running (Chasing Rainbows on www.girlamatic.com and Night Silver on www.wirepop.com) and TOKYOPOP just wrote me one day out of the blue, saying that they saw my work and would like to work with me.
Also, don't lose heart if your work is not quite finding its audience just yet, and keep working on improving. I failed at getting comics work at 3 publishing houses before TOKYOPOP offered me a job, and I couldn’t give my comics away at cons back then. Looks like that was not an indication of my chances of success in the field! So far, anyway... *fingers crossed*
Happy writing and drawing! Make sure to enjoy it, that really is the main thing.
Great advice, and a wonderful interview! Our thanks to Svetlana for sharing her experiences as well as her enthusiasm, and don't forget to drop by her awesome website. Tune in tomorrow for a change of pace back to prose, when FW interviews the redoubtable Chris Crutcher, author of Whale Talk, Chinese Handcuffs, and a host of other gripping -- and often protested, challenged and banned -- YA novels.
More Information about Svetlana Chmakova and Dramacon
Svetlana’s blog on LiveJournal
Adventures of CG! on CosmoGIRL!
Night Silver and Svetlania Wheneverly, two of Svetlana’s webcomics on WirePop Online Manga
Information about Dramacon Vol. 2
a. fortis's review of Dramacon Vol. 2 on our sister blog, Readers' Rants
Review of Dramacon Vol. 1 on IGN Comics
Information about Manga from Wikipedia, including types of manga