Ahhhh… you know what I missed being able to do while I was working on the sequel? READ. Ye gods. I felt guilty any time I did, and even when I had time and leisure it was hard to really dig into anything. I just didn’t have the energy and mental resources to spare, so what I read slid off me, water off a duck’s back (the exception being non-fiction, which I would read because it was relevant).
Now I am afflicted with Cookie Monster Brain. I don’t merely want books, I want to eat them noisily and get crumbs all over everything. I want to take them apart and put them together in odd configurations, little Frankenbooks staggering about under their own power. I want to smash them together like stones and make tools, or music, or fire!
So I read V. – as I mentioned – but in the last couple weeks I have also read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (enjoyed the heck out of that), Raiders of the Nile by Stephen Saylor (I don’t like these young Gordianus prequel books as much as other books in the series; somehow Saylor has simplified the voice to reflect that he’s younger, but he’s also less interesting that way), and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (which I have decided perfectly encapsulates where Gaiman and I diverge, mythologically; I want to write a paper on this, or dissect it with a scalpel). I also have two manuscripts from friends to read, one of which is done, the other of which I need to start before my commentary becomes irrelevant. And then I just started The God Engines by John Scalzi, but I’m not far enough in to say much.
I know that doesn’t sound like very many books, but I am a SLOW READER, and for me it is a lot. Especially when you consider that for the last week I’ve been waking up at 5am thinking about literary criticism. Part of that is that it’s getting light very early now, but it’s also my brain going, “Hey. HEY! Remember that thing you read yesterday? Guess what guess what! I had some ideas about it.” And then off we go. My brain has to explain everything it thought while I was lazily sleeping, and then cross-reference all the other thoughts I’ve been having about anything and everything.
It is simultaneously annoying and glorious. I suspect my voraciousness right now is a symptom of just how gravely the well of my mind had run dry.
In other news, here’s my favourite song from choir this quarter, although this is not the arrangement we’re singing. It’s Owain Phyfe, though, so I couldn’t resist. I like his voice a lot.
I read this article at Paris Review about a high school student in 1963 who surveyed famous writers about their use of symbolism. The impetus seems to have been an argument with his English teacher about whether writers put symbols into their work intentionally. The answers the writers give are varied and fascinating, and I think I want this quote from Ray Bradbury tattooed on my bicep:
I trust my subconscious implicitly. It is my good pet. I try to keep it well fed with information through all my senses, but never look directly at it. If I did, it would refuse to do its creative tricks for me. So I pretend to look off at the horizon and the next thing I know my subconscious is giving me stories, actions, and.. ..by God, now. .symbols!
(Those are Bradbury’s eccentric ellipses! I’m just copying stuff down, here.)
That article led me to “Settling the Colonel’s Hash” by Mary McCarthy, which was also fascinating. It’s under copyright, and I don’t feel comfortable linking to pirated versions here, but here’s a discussion of it I found at Of Books and Bicycles.
That post doesn’t talk about the most fascinating part of the essay (to my mind) which was the way we make symbols of ourselves in real-life interactions.
The chief moral or meaning (what I learned, in other words from this experience) was that you cannot be a universal unless you accept the fact that you are a singular, that is, a Jew or an artist or whathave-you. What the colonel and I were discussing, and at the same time illustrating and enacting, was the definition of a human being; I was trying to be something better than a human being; I was trying to be the voice of pure reason; and pride went before a fall. The colonel, without trying, was being something worse than a human being, and somehow we found ourselves on the same plane -facing each other, like mutually repellent twins. Or, put in another way: it is dangerous to be drawn into discussions of the Jews with anti-Semites: you delude yourself that you are spreading light, but you are really sinking into muck; if you endeavor to be dispassionate, you are really claiming for yourself a privileged position, a little mountain top, from which you look down, impartially, on both the Jews and the colonel.
She goes on to talk about how she understood none of this in the moment, how it is only afterwards that we are able to really understand the full extent of what was going on with ourselves during an experience — and it’s the same with a story. You don’t sit down to write something you understand already; there’s no point. The process of writing is one of discovery, much like the process of living.
And now I must deal with the dishwasher repairman, who is at this moment emblematic of all the household tasks I let slide while I was working on the sequel…
Hello darlings! It is time once again for our ongoing series of Morris nominee interviews, and today is my lucky day, because it’s finally my turn to introduce you all to Stephanie Kuehn (pronounced “Keen”).
Kuehn’s debut novel is Charm and Strange. Here’s the summary from Goodreads:
No one really knows who Andrew Winston Winters is. Least of all himself. He is part Win, a lonely teenager exiled to a remote boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts the whole world out, no matter the cost, because his darkest fear is of himself …of the wolfish predator within. But he’s also part Drew, the angry boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who, one fateful summer, was part of something so terrible it came close to destroying him. A deftly woven, elegant, unnerving psychological thriller about a boy at war with himself. Charm and Strange is a masterful exploration of one of the greatest taboos.
Intrigued? It’s a devilishly hard book to blurb, I think, because so much hinges on the revelation of a terrible secret. I had to prance around lightly in my own review, so as not to spoil it:
1) I stayed up til 2 to finish it, which just doesn’t happen to me.
2) I bawled like a baby, which is also pretty rare.
I don’t want to spoil it. Part of the experience is that you’re unfolding the truth at the same time Win is (well, a little faster probably, because you’re able to admit possibilities he can’t). It’s a gut-wrenching exploration of dissociation, sanity, and the purpose of metaphor. Win looks crazy to the people around him, but the story is told in such a humane and sympathetic way that you realize he’s this way for a reason, that it’s the way he preserved his sanity and survived.
Well-written and devastating. Possible trigger warning, if you’re expecting a paranormal. NOT paranormal, in the usual sense of the word.
I have also written a spoiler-ful review over at Someday My Printz Will Come. Don’t look at that unless you’ve read the book, because this is one that really deserves not to be spoiled. The book is a harrowing read, but hopeful and life-affirming in the end.
All righty then! On to what you really came for, Ms. Stephanie Kuehn in her own words:
1) Charm & Strange is a difficult book to discuss without spoiling, in large part because the book is about recovering memories and integrating the past and present. The reader learns the truth along with Win, and it would be a shame to pre-empt that. What is your go-to, spoiler-free description when someone wants a quick summary?
It’s the story of a boy who believes that he is a monster. And it’s about understanding why.
2) I loved the book, but it deals with some very difficult, painful, and upsetting topics. In my review on GoodReads, I almost felt I should give some kind of trigger warning, but that’s hard to do without spoiling. How have readers reacted to this book?
Thank you! I don’t totally know how people have reacted to the book. I get the feeling it’s something people either really, really connect with or they hate. Or they liked aspects of it but wish they hadn’t read it? I can understand all of those viewpoints, I suppose. It is an upsetting story and a very sad one.
More than anything, I’ve enjoyed hearing from readers, and I so appreciate everyone who has reached out to me and shared their own stories. Knowing that people have found the book meaningful is a special thing. It’s everything, really.
3) You study clinical psychology, which would seem to have a clear connection to this story. What are the roots of this novel, and how did it grow?
Yes, I think it’s obviously a very psychologically driven story, or at least told as one. I know that when I was writing it I was exploring some of my own ideas about how—from science to myth—we develop a sense of ourselves, and under what circumstances change can occur.
I think I was also affected at the time by how quickly angry young children (especially boys) are labeled as “bad” and what this does to their self-perception. The anger of others can be hard to contain. It’s an emotion that’s easier to push away or minimize than it is to accept. But as adults, I believe it is up to us to hold the anger of children and not ask them to keep it inside. It is up to us to try and understand why they’re hurting.
4) I’m also interested – maybe even more interested, because it’s less obvious – in whether your background in linguistics also plays into the story. There’s a moment where Win talks about Wittgenstein – and then a quote from Wittgenstein near the end – that make me suspect a preoccupation with language itself, how we make ourselves understood and how to find the words for the most terrible of experiences. Was it hard to find the right words for Win? What were the challenges in fostering reader empathy, as opposed to pity or revulsion?
On a philosophical level, I’ve always been drawn to Wittgenstein’s private language argument, the notion that a language known to only one person really isn’t a language at all. In the words of Saul Kripke (from On Rules and Private Language): “the sceptical solution does not allow us to speak of a single individual, considered by himself and in isolation, as ever meaning anything.” When I was writing the book, that abstraction of a private language felt like the perfect metaphor to represent someone who has endured unspeakable trauma and has been made to feel as if no one else experiences the world the way that he does. If there are no words to communicate one’s reality, what is there? If you can’t connect with others, what are you?
The beginning of Charm & Strange finds Win trying his best not to communicate with others at all. This is because he fears hurting and he fears being hurt. In this way his suffering has dehumanized him. It’s an awful thing, his loneliness, and much of Win’s journey is about accepting that a positive connection to humanity is part of what makes him human. Ultimately, it’s the friendship and empathy of others that become his catalysts for change. These are two of the strongest forces I know.
On fostering empathy: I believe empathy comes from understanding what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, and I tried to write the story closely from Win’s point of view so that the world is experienced as he perceives it. In that way, I hoped readers would connect with how his struggles come from a place of strength and resilience, not weakness.
On finding the right words for Win: It wasn’t hard to find his words. Win speaks through his own lens, but he tells his truth openly. “I feel dark,” he says. “I feel used.”
5) You touched on a particular preoccupation of mine, which is metaphor. Win has created an entire mental schema with which to understand what has happened to him, but to me, approaching from outside, it looks like a metaphor. One of the reasons I write fantasy is because it enables me to couch real struggles in metaphorical terms, to examine problems one step removed from their painful immediacy. Some summaries of Charm & Strange make it sound like it’s going to be a paranormal story, which it very much is not. What is your take on the role of metaphor in fiction and in life? How can art help heal our traumas?
That’s really interesting to think about. It’s true that the use of fantasy in Charm & Strange represents a form of dissociation and coping for the narrator. It’s also true that I chose the mental schema I did so that I could play with genre in a certain way, both as a metaphor for painful truths, and as a way of keeping the reader in Win’s mind. And it is fascinating to consider how we, as a culture, use metaphor to distance and deconstruct complex realities, not just in literature, but in all forms of storytelling. As actual psychological processes, however, I do think there are big differences between what is an individual’s trauma reaction versus a voluntary artistic choice or social allegory.
Culturally, we use fantasy and metaphor in other ways, too: For many people, Santa Claus is a symbol of faith and childhood innocence. In the book, letting go of that particular innocence is a milestone of growing up that Drew marks. Later in his life, Win’s letting go of the magic he needed to endure his childhood becomes a different sort of innocence lost. It marks the integration of his past and his present, as well as his stepping out onto his path toward healing—the magic he gives up is his belief in his own badness.
6) How long did it take to write this book, and what was it like to live with these characters and this particular story? Was it ever overwhelming? What kind of coping strategies did you have to develop?
The book was published almost exactly two years after I sat down to write the first sentence (which has never changed), so in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t take very long. And yes, on an emotional level, it was hard to work on this story. There’s pain that comes from being attached to characters whose hurt you can’t fix. That’s probably a metaphor, too.
I was also going to say that the process of writing the book made me sad, but I actually think I was in a dark place when I started it. Sometimes writing is a way of coping.
a) Morning or night?
b) Cats or dogs?
Both! I love all animals. Sadly, we lost our old doggy this past fall, but we have a young dog and two sweet cats.
c) Sherlock or Watson?
d) Weirdest thing you ever ate on purpose:
Ohhh. I’m sure I’ve eaten some things other people would consider weird, but I don’t tend to eat things I think of as weird on purpose. Maybe a peanut butter and cheddar cheese sandwich? Those are really good, I swear!
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Rachel! I really appreciate it.
Thank you, my dear. I loved the book. It made me think, which is what I look for most in literature.
Today’s fabulous Morris nominee interview is up! John Corey Whaley talks to Carrie Mesrobian about her first novel, Sex and Violence.
And be sure to tune in Monday, when Stephanie Kuehn graciously answers my impertinent questions about Charm and Strange.
In other news: did I mention I’m on deadline? I reckon I did. Sorry to be so absent, but it’s eaten my entire brain. I will just say, it continues to go well, although I’m getting a bit tired. This has been quite the sustained effort, for me. I throw it back at Jim in just over two weeks, and then I’m FREE — until the next go-round. And there will be one, because that’s the way we work.
But hey, it’s getting better all the time. Let that encourage you.
Nafiza at The Book Wars posted an interview with me yesterday (thanks again, Nafiza, for the wonderful opportunity!). I get a bit chatty there, partly because I’m in a good mood, and partly because she was asking questions from slightly different angles than I’m used to. That’s good for waking up the brain!
Coming soon: I’m going to be the one asking questions, which is a first for me! Yes, it’s time once again for the YALSA Morris Awards, and for that annual tradition – begun by inaugural Morris winner Elizabeth C. Bunce – of Morris winners interviewing this year’s nominees. Here’s the schedule of events. I will link to the interviews individually as they happen. The first one’s tomorrow, Blythe Woolston interviewing Evan Roskos.
I have the great honour of interviewing Stephanie Kuehn (pronounced “Keen”), author of Charm and Strange, on the 20th. I’ll review the book a day or two beforehand, but let me just say right now: it’s a difficult book on an upsetting subject, and very much worth reading. Highly recommended.
[The following contains hyperbolic silliness and should not be taken literally. I do not consider children or children's literature unworthy. I write it because I love it and believe in it. Also: don't mistake my tone for anger. This is me laughing merrily. I feel a bit silly explaining myself in such detail, but this is the internet. Tone is hard to hear on the internet.]
Ah, my darlings, the winter bear has been prodded from her slumber.
First there was an article about how Kent University was ‘penitent’ for belittling children’s literature. “Huh,” I said to myself. “Is that Kent University in Canterbury? I played cello at a Messiah workshop there, long ago.”
Indeed it was, or one of their campuses, anyway. Close enough. Satisfied, I went back to sleep.
But then we get this follow-up article today: Children’s Fiction is not Great Literature.
I have to admit, I scoffed at first. However, I have come away transformed. I am a convert. Permit me to explain.
“Great adult literature aims to confront the full range of genuine human experience,” quoth the article. Of course it does! Except for children’s experience, which isn’t genuine experience after all. It’s barely what we’d call human. As some fellow on The Simpsons once said, “You kids don’t know what you want! That’s why you’re still kids! Because you’re stupid!”
It’s not like serious adult literature has never explored the experiences of childhood. I always thought James Joyce’s description of wetting the bed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was particularly sublime. Nobody understands bed-wetting like an adult, though, and this is the entire point! Children do things without understanding the nuances! They only discern black, white, good, evil, and bright cartoonish things. When Joyce wets the bed, it has gravitas. Pathos. Introspection. Of course, James Joyce was far too Great to spend an entire book wetting the bed. He grew up, as any sensible person ought, and moved on to genuine human experiences like sexual urges, fear of hellfire, and spiritual epiphany. None of which children have the faintest notion of. Don’t tell me they do. I can’t hear you, lalala.
Now, does this mean that any individual work Great Literature must encompass the entirely of human experience? Of course not. That would be silly. Nobody has time for that. No, no, Great Literature merely has to be capable of containing anything. As the article explains: “a novel written for children omits certain adult-world elements which you would expect to find in a novel aimed squarely at grown-up readers.” So you see, virtue lies in not omitting – in omitting to omit, if you will – those elements of the adult world which would disturb, confuse, or just plain bore a child to tears. All the really genuine stuff, in other words.
Greatness in literature is like the load-bearing capacity of a bridge: nobody’s really going to drive a ten-billion-ton truck over your bridge, but it has to be strong enough, just in case. Because seriously, you never know. Somebody might have a truck that’s beyond your feeble imagination. We must allow for the full range of possible trucks, even the ones that don’t exist.
Children’s books, on the other hand, are like little wobbly rope bridges, capable of carrying only the wee-est, twee-est widdle emotions, only the fluffiest kittens of experience. Is there anything more futile and ridiculous than a fluffy kitten of experience? Surely the universe could get on quite well without fluffy kittens at all. No one would miss them. Stop blubbing, you.
It is therefore self-evident that the more Human Complexity a work is capable of containing, the Greater it can be. This is why (self-evidently) more greatness may be found in epic poetry than in sonnets. There’s only so much complexity you can cram into a sonnet, especially if you’re being strict with the rhyme scheme (I prefer English, myself). And don’t even get me started on haiku. How much Genuine Human Experience can 17 syllables possibly hold? I’ve had complex adult emotions with more syllables than that. I had one just now. It was self-congratulatory-dyspeptic-smugtasticrabby-glibberishness. Haiku that, darlings.
In sum: it’s not enough to write children’s emotions or experiences well because they are inherently unworthy of literary consideration. A Great book potentially contains anything (except silly kid stuff). The problem with Harry Potter (which I think we all agree exemplifies the entirety of children’s literature) is not that there isn’t anything Complex and Genuine in such books, but that there can’t be, by definition. QED, thank you, and goodnight.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have many librarian friends who raved endlessly about When You Reach Me, and then found Liar and Spy kind of a let-down afterwards. It was with this in mind that I decided I should read Liar and Spy first, to give it a chance NOT to disappoint me.
Boy, was I ever NOT disappointed.
In fact, I love this book with all my (admittedly shrivelled) heart. If When You Reach Me really is that much better… well, maybe I shouldn’t read it. Maybe it would make me give up writing in despair.
A little caveat first: this book is very quiet and small. Very quiet. Very small. If you’re not into quiet books, you can say to yourself, “Well, at least it’s small!” You can read it in an afternoon, even if you are an abysmally slow reader like myself.
Here’s where it’s awesome: theme. Everything fits and interweaves and interplays so beautifully. It’s like a Bach fugue — a really quiet one. Not that the pipe organ lends itself to quiet. Even the simple fact that Georges’s name has a silent “s” at the end resonates with the theme. It’s about the known and the unknown, the things we can and can’t, do and don’t perceive. The lies we tell and the things we refuse to see. Even the title plays into that.
My god it’s like a beautiful painting, and I could stare at it for hours. I am gnawing my own wrist with envy, which I realize is maybe not the cleverest thing I ever did.
Read it. Love it. I might not ever get around to When You Reach Me. I might not be able to handle it. We shall see.