Because it seems not to have Februaried on this blog. Hm. Extraordinary.
I’m not really here. Or more accurately: I am here but briefly, giving myself a break from writing. As if blogging weren’t writing.
I hit my Jan. 31st deadline hard, with a hammer, and then I was tired. I rested for a couple-or-three weeks, until my editor started slipping me revisions again. They’re GOOD revisions, and I can’t underscore what a relief that is. However, that means I am in the throes of work again, at least until early May.
I have precious little extra brainspace for blogging right now. However, be not dismayed! I am working, and working HAPPILY, which is pretty much the most wonderful news I could possibly have.
The real reason I’m popping in today is because I ran across two blog posts recently that struck me as important: Myra McEntire’s The Shame of Depression, and Libba Bray’s Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land. Both are about writers dealing with depression (as you might have gleaned from the first title, at least), and they are honest, heartfelt, and powerful.
I went through a depression writing this sequel. I’d love to say, “But now I’m over it, forever and ever, ta-DAA!” but depression teaches you not to make those kinds of grandiose promises. There’s always the chance it’s going to pop back up, like a horror movie villain, no matter how thoroughly you stabbed it in the chest. I think I can safely say, “I’m doing very well, I find joy in writing again, and may the beast stay in remission, touch wood.”
I’m seeing depressed writers everywhere – on Twitter, on blogs, through the grapevine. I don’t know whether some critical mass has been reached, where people finally feel safe admitting it, or if I’m attuned to it because of my own experience, or if now is a particularly stressful time to be a writer. Maybe it’s all three, in varying degrees. But I hope these writers are seeing it too, and taking some comfort in the not-aloneness. I wish I could reach through the computer and give everyone a hug.
For me, depression didn’t manifest as sadness so much as incapacity. I felt incapable. Stupid. Muted. I was half convinced I had early-onset Alzheimer’s, or perhaps, like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, I was waning into dullness after a flash of false brilliance. What ability I’d possessed had clearly been ephemeral.
My advice is to be as honest as you can about it, with everyone you love and work with. People care about you; it’s ok to let them. It’s ok to take the time you need to take care of yourself.
My favourite quote from Bray’s post is, “I would argue that artistic expression is not a symptom of depression so much as a response to it. I see writing as an act of resistance against an occupying enemy who means to kill me.” If you can write, do it. There was a while where I couldn’t, however, where writing WAS the source of stress, but it was still art that helped dig me out of that hole. I joined a second choir and sang my way out. If writing is too hard right now, don’t panic. It won’t always be. There may be some other art form that suits you better these days, something no one’s demanding you be good at.
All right, speaking of writing, I’d better get back to it. I’m EAGER to get back to it. When will you see me again? Who knows? It’ll be a nice surprise.
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.
Last week a friend told me an interesting idea about art, and I think I need to write it down. She’d told me before and it fell right out of my head. Clearly, there’s too much in my head if stuff this interesting is falling out, but the blog is just going to have to be my auxiliary brain for the moment.
The idea, most simply put, is that art is medicine.
It doesn’t sound so earth-shattering put that way, though. And what does that even mean? Art therapy? That’s not a new idea.
Art therapy tends to focus on doing art, though, which can indeed be a very healing activity. My friend’s angle was slightly different: when we make art we are not just healing ourselves, we are facilitating other people’s healing. It can take so many different forms: a blanket around someone’s shoulders; a forceful blow to the diaphragm that will dislodge airway obstructions; a strengthening elixir.
(Note: this is not the only thing art can do, and not all art does it. But it’s an interesting reason to make art, I think, and an interesting by-product sometimes when you think you’re doing something else)
Whatever we’re suffering, someone else is suffering too, has suffered before, will suffer again. We think we’re isolated and alone and unrelatable, but we’re not. We’re non-unique in the best possible way (to paraphrase John Green in An Abundance of Katherines)(My favourite John Green book for precisely this reason: Colin and I have suffered many of the same doubts and revelations).
Anyway. Just laying that out there to remind me, because this is something I’ve forgotten before. If it jogs an idea loose in you as well, hooray, and welcome.
We already celebrated Thanksgiving here in Canada, but I wanted to be sure to wish our southern neighbours a merry day of feasting as well. We need some kind of late November holiday up here, I think, because the stretch from October to Saturnalia is unrelentingly grey and grim. Of course, I say that every year, and the answer always seems to be, “Yes! Now organize something, Rachel!” And of course I don’t, due to being massively busy (and lazy, simultaneously).
However, in the spirit of the day, I would like to say how very thankful I am for you, my readers. I know that’s cheesy, but y’know what? I love cheese. What to do? There’s no getting around it.
I am thankful for all the people who’ve taken the time to read the odd products of my wee tiny brain, for all the people who enjoyed it and took the time to tell me so, for all the super interesting people I’ve met on this journey, for all the wonderful individuals in publishing and bookselling who helped Seraphina be the very best it could be.
Okay, whew! Gorgonzola!
I now return my nose to the grindstone. Someone was just asking me about the sequel: I am still writing it. My books are built in layers; the first layer of this one was structurally sound, but pretty dark. This second has a lot more texture and some glimmering glimpses of light. I’m loving it and finally (I think) understanding the book. (yes, I know, I’m a weirdo, but I don’t always know what I’m writing about until after I’ve done an awful lot of writing. I mean, I think I know. I go in with an idea. But the subconscious wants what it wants, and it doesn’t always like to tell me what it wants. It likes to make me work for it. I try to be easy-going about this, because there seems to be little I can do to change it.)
It’s November, darlings! Anyone doing NaNo this year? If you want to buddy me, I’m “amyunbounded”.
I’m only sort of NaNo-ing, though. To be perfectly honest, I’m cheating most egregiously. I’m not really counting words, because I’m revising and I CAN’T. I’m logging hours spent, only I have to convert them into words (through an algorithm of my own devising) or the graph won’t graph it properly. If I work for the (arbitrary) number of hours I’ve set for myself, I credit myself as having made par on the word count. Today I worked longer than my goal. Woo Hoo.
I am, as always, in it for the camaraderie and whining. Also, a little public accountability is nice. Also, also: keeping track of how much I work helps me see that I really am working, even on days when it feels like I got nothing done. Which is distressingly often.
And look, I exceeded my goal AND there’s time left over to blog and go to the store! OK, so I got started ridiculously early because I have a cold and couldn’t sleep, but still! It feels good to be off to a roaring start!
Anyway. Camaraderie! Whining! Who’s writing this month?
I only have one event today, and no travel, so I slept in until (almost) eight. Yes, that counts as sleeping in for me.
I can walk to Pike Place Market from my hotel, so that’s what I did for breakfast. I had never been there before, but was eager to see it. I love public markets. I know they get a little touristy, but I don’t care. I love the pyramids of produce, the crush of the crowd (something I’m not fond of in other contexts, but it somehow seems right in this one), the inevitable buskers and hustlers. This market reminded me more of the one in Philly than the one at Granville Island in Vancouver; they’ve kept the old hand-painted and neon signs, many of which are eccentric and inadvertently humourous. There’s a big sign proclaiming Sanitary Public Market, for example, and that you could get Sanitary Water, Milk, and Produce. Of course that’s what one wants, but for some reason it made me giggle.
There were several very good street musicians, in fact, particularly the fiddle player (near the big bronze pig) and the banjo hipster (near Starbucks). There was a dude who had brought his own piano, and was banging away ferociously. I ended up giving my change to a lonely guy at the far end of the market, though, who was playing guitar and singing Jethro Tull’s “Farm on the Freeway”. There was a certain pathos to him.
But you see, this always happens: now I’m thinking about markets, and wondering whether any part of my opus-in-progress could have more market action to it. I’ve been to many markets – in Greece and Mexico, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, boot sales in England – and there’s something so vibrant and vital about them. It’s a very human place, the agora. I wonder whether I could adequately capture the essence of it in words.
The spam sure does accumulate when you’re not at home, doesn’t it? I knew I should have had someone picking up my mail and watering the plants.
(Pause a moment while I try to work out which part of the blog corresponds to plants. Some metaphors just don’t work.)
We visited my in-laws in the midwest. They threw a lovely party where extended family and old friends (including several of my husband’s high-school teachers) brought books for me to sign. I just heard that Seraphina is back on the NYT bestsellers list after a week off. My big extended family surely contributed to that! I signed about thirty books.
We also got to go to a Cardinals game. It was a nice, relaxing trip, a good chance to catch my breath after a busy July and fortify myself before an even busier September.
I have a few nearly-empty weeks to work on my sequel revisions. Excuse me if the posting here is light. I am going to need all the time-management tricks at my disposal, all the discipline I can scrape together to get this thing done in a timely manner. The good news is, I’m enjoying it much more this time through. It’s funny how you can work and work and not quite understand what you’re doing. I thought I was writing one book, but it turns out I’m writing a slightly different one, a book that was lying latent under the surface of the first but never quite revealing itself. It was only visible with a bit of time and distance — and the help of a sharp-sighted editor and a friend who asks irritatingly pointed questions.
Heh. Now it’s a whaling expedition. My editor cries, “Thar she blows!” and I hurl the question-harpoons after it.
The answer is always there. My brain is smarter than I am, and it knows what it’s doing. Sometimes it’s hard to have faith in that.
I seem to be on some kind of Breton music kick. I blame my husband for this. Anyway, today’s theme song is Tri Yann’s Hañvezh ar bonedoú ruz. Isn’t it merry? The “Lalalala lalenola” chorus is almost madrigalesque in its silly cheerfulness.
Er. Never mind that the song seems to be about some sort of rebellion with people being hanged and all.
In other news: I am reading through the sequel! Parts of it are glorious! Parts of it are, uh, sub-par. But! I will fix those parts and make them glorious! I am using up all my exclamation marks here because Captain Horatio Editorpants always makes me weed them all out if I put them in the manuscript!
I am feeling highly optimistic about handing it over soon, however. Then maybe I can finally play Skyrim, hahaha. I heard it’s good.
So if you Google “second book syndrome“, a friend pointed out to me on Monday, quite a number of hits come up. Apparently the second book, just by virtue of being second, presents challenges that the first did not.
Sometimes “second book syndrome” is going to refer to the middle book of a trilogy, of course. That’s a structure issue, in part, particular to trilogies. I’m not writing a trilogy. I’m just trying to write a sequel that doesn’t make everyone who read the first book say, “Gee, she had so much potential. I guess we were wrong.”
I don’t know whether this happens to everyone, but it’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to my son. You happily go on a carnival ride – a rollercoaster, say – not really knowing what you’re in for. You live through it, obviously. Even so, even though you now know for sure that it’s not going to kill you, you’re too scared to get back on it again. You’re MORE scared than before you ever went on it.
That’s a bit what writing the second book is like. I was too ignorant to be scared the first time around. I didn’t understand all there was to lose, or how painful the process could be.
There is also significant pressure that wasn’t there before. The pressure to write something as good as the first one. The pressure to get it done quickly so that your demanding readers (and I already have some! And I’m not sorry I do!) can be satisfied sooner. The pressure to not let everyone down — and “everyone” is so much bigger than it used to be! It used to be if I choked I let down myself, and maybe my sisters (including Josh) who were getting a chapter each month. Now everyone is a large publishing house, librarians, bookstore owners, readers… everyone is potentially EVERYONE. How scary is that?
I might even let myself down. Somehow even that is more daunting than it used to be.
So that’s the elephant I’ve been carrying on my marathon. But you know what? It is an entirely self-generated elephant. I really do have the option – now that I see it, now that I’ve identified it – of putting it down and stepping away. I did that this weekend, in fact, without really meaning to. I was exhausted. I said, “Bite me, book!” and I slept in, played D&D with friends, and generally ignored all of it for a while.
And as I was walking to the post office one afternoon, I had a… a vision. I don’t know what else to call it. But it was like the clouds (of my mind) parted and I saw the promised land (of my book) spread out before me. A golden thread wound through it all, holding everything together, and I realized that the book was possible. All right, I realize that sounds goofy, but I saw it for one shining moment and felt my faith restored.
Faith is an interesting thing. I am not a religious person, not by a long shot, but boy do I need to believe. For a glorious instant, I believed in this book. The vision evaporated, as they do, and the next day I was back to banging my head on the keyboard in frustration. But I know, from experience, that if I’ve seen it once, I will see it again and all the more clearly.
The book is possible. I am setting down the elephant. Everything is going to be okay.
But just for a moment! I wouldn’t want to be all greedy about breathing or anything.
Today is the last day of April, the day I intended to have this revision finished. It’s not finished. I’m trying not to let that feel like failure, but it’s not easy. I worked hard, which was the entire point of setting a fake deadline for myself, and that is nothing to belittle.
I can’t help but feel, however, that writing this sequel has been much, much harder than it needs to be. Writing a book is always like running a marathon, but this time it has been like running a marathon while carrying an elephant.
Thing is, I feel virtually certain it’s an unnecessary elephant. What IS it, exactly? Why am I carrying it? How do I set it down? Can I at least get it to stop trumpeting in my ear?
These are questions I can’t seem to answer. I just keep staggering on, hoping eventually my arms will give out and I’ll just drop the damn thing.