This interview with Cassie Clare and Maggie Steifvater is circulating on the Twitters today, and I found it thought-provoking. Writers do indeed have kind of a peculiar relationship with readers in this day and age, and when readership crosses over into fandom it can become even more fraught.
(I know Cassie Clare is a particularly polarizing figure – I remember this from my Goodreads days – but she’s also a human being trying to juggle the conflicting demands of fame and creativity, and as such she has my interest and my sympathy.)
There have always been reclusive writers; Salinger comes to mind, but he’s hardly the only one. I totally get that impulse. Fame can be anathema to creativity, for some of us. I want to say it’s an introversion thing, but who knows. I need more data to make that claim. There’s a special kind of scrutiny reserved for writers, however; we are expected to be wise and witty at all times. For me (and I don’t believe I’m alone in this), the idea that people are watching expectantly, waiting for me to be brilliant, is death to brilliance. My wit is, in my experience, a bit like Michigan J Frog:
That is to say: busting out all over when left to its own devices, limp and croaking when a funny dance is demanded of it. I am happy to perform – I quite enjoy an audience – but it has to be in my time and on my terms.
This doesn’t mean no one should scrutinize my work or attempt to engage me. More that I can explain my own rules for the “wedding math” Stiefvater mentions: I will smile back if I have the energy to spare, if you’ve caught me at the right time, but that isn’t always the case. If I don’t engage, it has everything to do with me being self-protective of that recalcitrant singing frog. It’s nothing personal. I love you all and deeply appreciate your enthusiasm. My first duty, however, is to my health and work.
So I did an interview with Lauren Zurchin at Lytherus. It’s long, but go listen if you like, and by all means enter the Shadow Scale giveaway. Thanks to Lauren for the good talk and the opportunity!
Before you watch it, I experienced a moment of intense brain-farting during this interview as I was talking about my trans friends, and I am worried that my clumsiness will make folks (real people, who matter to me) feel hurt or unloved. It was one of those times when you say something and it just doesn’t sound right, and then you flail around like the proverbial bull, knocking porcelain shepherdesses off the shelves. I am thoroughly embarrassed by it, and I’m sorry to be such a verbal klutz (there’s a reason I’m a writer and not a talker).
Here’s a little lesson in the use of the word “trans” today (as I understand it, as was outlined for me by the patient friend I turned to as soon as this interview was over, because I knew I’d screwed up). Usage is evolving, which is kind of exciting really, but it means that if you’re as old as me, and were actually alive during the time of the Roman Empire, it’s easy to get confused and stumble. Trans is not just a prefix anymore, but is becoming a stand-alone adjective. “Use it the way you would use queer,” said my friend, and that’s a useful guideline.
Because here was my brain-fart: I uttered the phrase “trans friends,” and my sad, wee brain thought “transfriends,” with trans as a prefix. It means something slightly different as a prefix, when it’s used in words like transubstantiation or trans-unsaturated fatty acids or Trans-Siberian Orchestra. As a prefix, it means “across,” and so I got absurdly snagged on the idea of how one could be an across-friend.
It may seem like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but 1) I really don’t want to hurt people with my bungling, 2) I really am embarrassed, in particular because I knew this and knew better, 3) the only way, in my experience, not to get hung up on words that are emotionally or politically charged is to say them more often. To practice. Alas, practice means sometimes hitting wrong notes along the way.
If you watch the video, you may find that there’s some other place I’ve dropped the ball without even noticing (we two Southern white ladies talk about diversity and PoC characters and we do our best but there’s so much potential there). Do not be afraid to let me know. This is why we came down from the trees (as another friend of mine likes to say), so we can talk and work and make things better.
…I was on The Morning Show Toronto to talk about Shadow Scale. Before I went on there was one other guest waiting his turn, a gregarious black man who introduced himself as Chad, asked me about myself and the book, and then took a picture and had one of his assistants post it to Instagram. The whole time I’m thinking, “His voice sounds really familiar! I feel like I should know who he is. He’s not Isaac Hayes, because Isaac Hayes is dead — but who is he?”
I quietly asked one of his assistants, embarrassed for the man himself to know I couldn’t place him, and she was like, “Ever watch The Wire?” No, I’ve never watched The Wire. “How about The Walking Dead?”
I love The Walking Dead. He’d played Tyreese. I felt pretty silly, but in a way it was nice because we’d had an actual conversation without me fangirling all over him.
Anyway, that’s my little brush with fame for today. At least I managed not to be too embarrassing. I’ve had fans of my book worry that they said something silly in front of me — please don’t feel self-conscious about that! We all do it, and I think I was only prevented by not knowing who he was for most of the time. Sometimes it really is better to have a slow reveal.
I want to write about Terry Pratchett, and I don’t even know where to begin. He wrote so many wonderful and consoling things about death (or, y’know, Death) that I feel the tiniest bit guilty for being so very sad he’s gone. I feel like I should be able to face it with some kind of humorous equanimity, something like:
“DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING, said Death. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.” — Good Omens
Ahahahaha! And yet. I has all the sad. I’m afraid I’m going to have to play it straight.
I never read any of his books until I moved to Canada, and even then I had several false starts. I tried reading The Colour of Magic and I didn’t get very far. It looked like a pile of undifferentiated jokes to me, and while the jokes were individually hilarious, in a heap they were rather overwhelming. It was like eating nothing but cake, all the time. Another one that I remember disliking was Maskerade, which as far as I could tell was nothing but a send-up of Phantom of the Opera. It was funny enough, for what it was, but I honestly couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
I’m not sure why I kept trying.
Well, that’s not quite true. I kept trying because I had just moved to a foreign country where I knew no one outside my own household. I kept trying because I missed my friends back in Philly, and I’m pretty sure they were the ones who’d recommended Pratchett to me in the first place. I kept trying because I really, really needed a friend right then, and miraculously, I found one.
Going Postal was the book that finally opened the door for me, the one that made me realize there was a human behind the mountains of jokes, a human who was preoccupied with many of the same things I was. The Tiffany Aching books followed close on its heels, as well as Thud!, and by the time I’d gotten through those I felt like I knew exactly who I was dealing with.
And he was something remarkable, something I’d never quite seen before. He was using the twin fists of humour and fantasy to punch the world in the face. These were, in fact, extremely serious books about difficult and hard-hitting subjects, but he’d disguised it so cleverly that you couldn’t quite tell. I think the mask did slip a bit in his later years, and that was why I found his more recent books more accessible. I find it easier to read the early ones now that I’ve glimpsed the wellsprings beneath them; his preoccupations have been the same all along, and now that I know what to look for I see them everywhere, shining like diamonds.
I wrote a little tribute to him on the Terry Pratchett Appreciation Tumblr a couple years ago, and I don’t think I can sum up his influence on my writing any more perfectly than this:
Nothing was out of bounds, not death, love, politics, or religion. A fantasy writer could say exactly what needed to be said and could run any thought experiment conceivable. It was a revelation, and it set me free.
I cried when I learned that he had died, and I cried again later that day when a middle-school student asked me who my favourite writer was. “Isn’t it amazing,” I said, “how deeply books can move you, and what a strong connection we can feel to someone we never met?”
I used to call him, only half-jokingly, my long-lost time-travelling twin, or my spiritual uncle, because we were preoccupied with so many of the same kinds of questions. We didn’t always come to the same conclusions, but his were always humane, hilarious, and well worth considering.
“Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” —Reaper Man
Thank you for everything, old friend. I’m going to miss you.
It’s been a long day and I have to get up early to fly to Seattle, but I just wanted to say that the party at Kidsbooks was just wonderful. Thanks to everyone who came out for it. My husband didn’t take a lot of pictures because our friend Liz was taking a LOT of pictures and her pictures are the best. But here’s one of me pontificating:
I also got some flowers from the lovely folks at Doubleday Canada. Thank you Amy, Pamela, and Trish!
That’s not very coherent, but it’s all I’ve got tonight. Thank you everyone who sent me kind notes or happy tweets today. It was the best book birthday ever.
It’s super exciting, although for some reason I still have to do laundry and clean my kitchen. I had hoped that maybe by this point in my career those things would magically happen by themselves, but they don’t seem to.
Be that as it may, here’s an amusement to tide you over: a lovely conversation I had with Christopher Paolini about Shadow Scale, writing, dragons, and music. And probably other stuff, too. It turns out I do babble on. The interview also contains my trademark giggling in copious quantities, so you really don’t want to miss out on that.
(Seriously: I laugh a lot. If you ever meet me, you will notice. If you meet me and I’m not laughing, chances are I’m storing it up for later.)
See you tomorrow, friends. Thank you all for your support, your patience, and your high tolerance for silliness.
Yesterday I went and spoke at my good friend Susin Nielsen‘s class. I’ve done this before; I go in and she asks me a few questions and I tell the convoluted tale of my road to publication. It was nothing I’d usually be nervous about, but I must have been a little bit worried because I had an anxiety dream the night before.
It began as the most hackneyed of all anxiety dreams: the one where you suddenly realize you have to take the final exam but you haven’t been attending the class. Maybe you forgot. Maybe you hadn’t realized you were enrolled. Whatever the reason, it’s too late now, the final is here and you’re going to flunk it.
In this dream, however, I was able to go talk to the professor beforehand. Lo and behold, the professor was John Oliver! So I thought to myself (in the dream), “Y’know, I’m not completely ignorant of World History. I might be able to fake my way through this exam. And he’s a comedian, so if I write really funny answers, maybe he’ll overlook the lack of facts.”
Then I thought, cheekily, “After grades are in, I wonder if he’d go out with me?”
Alas, the dream ended there, so I never did get to find out whether Professor John Oliver would go out with undergrad me. It’s probably just as well. What really strikes me about the whole thing was that I walked into a classic anxiety dream and then turned it on its ear. I was going to boldly bluff my way through the dreaded exam and then, ye gods, the gall of me.
I sometimes feel like I move in circles. Here I go again, toward another book launch; Brian’s comment on yesterday’s post made me realize that I’m coming toward it from a different mental angle than before. Maybe the dream was about my Shadow Scale tour, and not about Susin’s class at all.
One of her students asked a relevant question, about how to avoid feeling discouraged when a story doesn’t turn out as beautifully on paper as it seemed in your head. I gave her my mother’s analogy, how writing is like portrait painting: you have to compose very generally at first, figure out the basic shapes and where everything goes. Then you add greater detail with each subsequent pass, and only at the very end do you add the finest details, like eyelashes. The key is to be patient, and to remember that you will be going over the whole thing again and again, making it better each time.
Circling back around. This time you see more clearly; this time you understand more about what you’re doing. It’s very Groundhog Day. We get chances to do better all the time.
And so here I am, also, working on the first draft of the next thing, trying to roll with it and not worry. It really is a question of being patient and trusting that it will work the way it has always worked, and even if it doesn’t, that I’m capable and can fake my way out in a pinch.
It’s still hard to be patient, though, even when you see the point.