Don’t squeeze me, I’m perfect!

An Ode to Summer Delights

While I’m an author and this blog is normally devoted to books and other writerly pursuits, it’s time to take a break and celebrate summer and Real Tomatoes.

I have frissons of existential fear every time I wander past the news headlines these days. There is only one explanation for what is going on today – either the world has gone mad or I have gone quietly insane and I’m the one hanging by a thin thread, gibbering into the void. The words “hell” and “handbasket” come to mind. Frequently.

But then, I went to Joe’s Garden.

We were introduced to it several years ago by friends who smugly knew what a treasure they were introducing us to. We’ve been in the orbit of this place for years and years and years.

You walk into the little building between their fields and their greenhouses, and you fall into punnets of flowers, into ranks of tin pots holding handfuls of scented bouquets of sweetpeas and daisies and lavender, you walk with an expression of silly ecstasy past tables bearing zucchinis twice as big as their puny brothers in supermarkets, past heads of lettuce still damp from their last watering and barely out of the ground, past stout heads of garlic and three different kinds of onions, past carrots which are just imperfect enough to let you know that they haven’t been factory-produced, past punnets of blueberries and strawberries and blackberries and strawberries, past (when they are in season) the best apples ever grown (the Gravensteins), past shelves of hand-bottled honey, of free-range eggs.

You walk past peaches which bear signs that say “Don’t squeeze me, I’m perfect!”

There is a story here, because this place is on the way to Hospice House, where my father spent his last days, the place where he ate his last perfect peach of the last days of his last summer, taken from these luscious piles of summer fruit straight to his bedside. This was, perhaps, his last taste of life. I do not forget this, I never can.
But life goes on, even after that. And then, today, there was a large tabletop above a sign that said “REAL tomatoes!”

And oh, there was a pile of them. And oh, they were.

Real.

Pile of summer tomatoesThey smelled real. They were ridged and misshapen and not always completely and uniformly red like their gas-ripened cousins always are. But oh, oh, oh, the smell of them.

Just smell that,” I said to a complete stranger standing beside me staring at the bounty on the table.

And she, holding a tomato, brought it up to her nose and inhaled, and we exchanged a blissful smile.

I bought more tomatoes than I probably need because I could not bear to leave any behind. My eyes devoured them way before my teeth could sink into them, before my taste buds could swoon, before the juices ran red and sweet in my mouth.
I brought them home and I sliced into them and we ate them, fresh and red and sweet and ripe with the sun of summer.

And for a little while I could close my eyes and let my soul unclench. It is summer. In this mad whirling world there is still a summer. And it existed in the bright slices of REAL tomatoes which reminded me that sometimes it’s just okay to take a moment… and live.

~~~~~
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Refugees of war

Wars, refugees and the twilight of the spirit

Wars seem to come naturally to our species. Too naturally. I once read that we and a handful of species of ants are the only creatures on earth that actually WAGE WAR upon others like ourselves, for whatever reason – booty, territory, the not-us syndrome, the if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us syndrome.

I don’t know about the ants. Maybe they have their own problems. But us humans… we’ve always fought, with something, with somebody, against some “foreign” idea or some person who looked different from ourselves. It’s always been easy to pick a fight, and even easier to roar defiance in response and accept a challenge flung – and off we all go again chasing each other with increasingly lethal weapons.

Wars began with armies. You had a Battle of [Something], and places gained fame throughout history by being associated with particular locales. You will recognize them. Agincourt. Hattin. Culloden. Crimea. Gettysburg. Khyber Pass. Passchendaele. The Somme. Gallipoli. The Western Front.

You declared a war; you got an army together and often made them wear ridiculous uniforms (red coats, anyone?); your opponent got an army together, and made them wear some other ridiculous uniform to differentiate them from your guys. And then, like little boys with their little tin soldiers, the generals would move their armies across fields, facing one another – deciding on who would lead the van, how the enemy could be outflanked, where the charge would be released.

The armies fought and died on those fields, man against man, using increasingly sophisticated weaponry – bows and arrows, swords and daggers, spears, lances, halberds, axes, muskets, rifles, bayonets, machine guns, cannon, grenades. But by and large, it was army against army, men killing other men upon orders of yet more men, nations resolving disputes on the battlefield by throwing the cream of their manhood at one another and abiding by the battle outcomes.

The collateral damage of these wars has always been present – when men fight there are always those who aren’t combatants but who get in the way. The women, the children, the old, the crippled and the disabled – the ones who get run over when armies fight. The ones who get left to starve after their menfolk vanish into the battlefield blood and mire. The ones who get abandoned alongside fallow fields they can no longer till, or in houses from which they are turfed out because they cannot pay the rent, or who have to run because their side lost and they are now behind enemy lines in enemy territory and they speak the wrong language or worship the wrong god.

The refugees, ones who flee, the ones who are driven to run without pity and who run without hope, they have always been with us. There are enough accounts of them, enough drawings of them, enough paintings, enough evidence remains.

But they were always the flotsam and jetsam that washed up on the tide, where the tide was the greater war.

Until recently.

When war changed, I am not entirely sure – but it became prevalent during WW2 when everyone began bombing cities filled with civilians, including women and children… and worse. Think of the horror that was Stalingrad. It was no longer a question of an army against an army with civilians suffering the side effects of the wa. Now it was no longer armies. Now war was being fought on the backs of those civilians, directly. People were killed or maimed, their homes, fields and livelihoods deliberately destroyed as a PART of war, not as unintended consequences.

Now… now we no longer need an army facing an army, a sword facing a sword, a rifle facing a rifle. Now we have other things. Now we have landmines. Now we have aircraft – the ones that strafe from above, and the ones who drop anonymous bombs which don’t care if they devastate an army on a battlefield or destroy a city – and even worse, we have drones “flown” by “pilots” thousands of miles away who kill as easily as if their targets are only pixels in a computer game . Now we have white phosphorus and napalm and depleted uranium. Now we have the looming threat of nuclear war – and we know about what that is like because one nation on this globe (and only one) has used nukes against cities and civilians already.

Now the refugees who flee all this are endemic. They are everywhere. They are no longer running to escape a war, because war can no longer be escaped – things are burning everywhere. Now they’re running to see if their ten-year-old child has any hope of seeing his eleventh birthday, or if their twelve-year-old daughter can escape being raped and murdered by the wayside. Now they run with no more than the hope that they might end up somewhere that is better than the place they leave behind – now they run because the places they leave behind are being obliterated as they leave them.

Not only is there nowhere to run, these days – there’s nowhere to run from, because as soon as you turn your back on your home and your past it somehow ceases to exist.
Human beings are being driven into a twilight of the spirit – there are more and more of these refugees every day. Some leave literal dust and ashes behind; others run because there is no longer a way to coexist with others who happen to be holding power in their home and who no longer wish to take the time to talk to anyone, not when they can throw a bomb at them instead.

Some end up hopeless and apathetic in refugee camps across the globe. Others radicalize and return to get revenge. They in turn will displace other refugees. It is a vicious self-perpetuating spiral, and it leads down into more and more human misery and human despair.

I have never fled from actual rubble and fire – never been hungry – never been forced to deny my history, my family, my culture, my name, if I wanted to accept help which is sometimes offered conditionally. But I know people who have. I think the world is getting to a place where most of us know someone like that, or know someone else who does – I don’t think there is a greater gap than those two degrees of separation.

Some of us who have been born into a quiet and peaceful place and who have lived in comfort and safety all of our lives will find it hard to even begin to understand the mindset of somebody who has lost half their family and most of their possessions and who is grateful for a bowl of what we might consider to be inedible food for their supper. But it would take so little – so little! – for that person we cannot understand… to be ourselves. So little. The margins are so, so small. There but for the grace of God go all of us, every last one of us.

Something you can do

For some of us over here in the safe and comfortable enclaves, it is hard to look over there, hard to see, hard to comprehend, and when we do steal an appalled glance, the problem seems so huge, so intractable, so impossible, that we cringe away and wring our hands and say, but what can we do? It is so much bigger than ourselves.
But there are things you can do. There are always things you can do.

children of a different sky coverOne such thing is the anthology “Children of a Different Sky”, a collection of twelve stories and two poems from a group of authors who range from multiple award winners to writers who are seeing their first published work on these pages. The profits from the sales of this book will go directly to two charities working with refugees and migrants, both internationally (the International Medical Corps) and within the United States (Center for New Americans).

The problem is too big for any one of us to tackle alone – but those of us who can tell stories can tell in fiction stories which illuminate that lost and bewildered and abandoned state of mind and how to overcome it.

The readers who pick up this book and read those stories are both picking up a treasure-house of tales which will deeply touch them, and supporting a cause which will directly help those who are living many such stories right now.

The problem is big. We, the storytellers, are trying to do our part. Our readers will also be doing something tangible. Their purchase of a copy of the non-profit anthology “Children of a Different Sky” will mean they will be directly sending aid to charities who work with refuges who need help so desperately.. You can make the world a better place… by buying a book.

~~~
“Children of a Different Sky” can be preordered, ebook or paperback, HERE 

~~~~~
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What can fairy tales possibly teach us?

I didn’t get to go to Disneyland until I was a grown woman – and I was wholly unprepared for the rushing feelings that swept over me as I stood there and watched the real-life incarnations of some of my childhood fairy-tale iconic images come dancing down the road in the parade. I was practically in tears watching Sleeping Beauty wave from her float, preceded by those three ditzy fairy guardians in their little pointed hats and color-coordinated outfits.

But the Disney princesses were just the most obvious, most prevalent, most visible and recognizable avatars of stories which, for me, had far deeper roots.

When I was young, I read the actual fairy tales. The fearsome, bloody, no-holds-barred, emotional ones. In my childhood fairy tales, Cinderella’s stepsisters sliced off bits of their feet to fit into the glass slipper. In my childhood tales Sleeping Beauty wasn’t just wakened with a kiss, but something far more visceral than that.

And in my childhood I wept over the tale of the Little Mermaid – and perhaps it was this that crystallized it for me because to this day I can’t watch what Disney has done to it. Hans Christian Andersen’s original story is full of power and drama and pathos and poignancy – and I simply cannot bring myself to accept a singing lobster sidekick with a Caribbean accent.

I read Oscar Wilde’s wonderful dark fairy tales, when I was a little older, and there were things in there that pierced me to the heart, just like the rose thorn did his immortal nightingale.

I think that fairy tales are a deep and visceral influence, and they are handed out to young minds which they then help shape. A famous paraphrase of a G K Chesterton quote applies – Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. The lessons of fairy tales start with that – with courage. They also teach wisdom, and strength, and compassion, and an obstinate refusal to give up hope, because in fairy tales even the worst possible things that happen work out in the end. In some way.

Maybe not the obvious way – not in Hans Christian Andersen, at least – but in some way. It might sound overblown if fairy tales are credited with the formation of the inner moral creature of the human adult by shaping the still malleable stuff that is the child, but in some ways that is exactly what they do. That is what they are for.

It has become fashionable to shield and shelter the child from many things and this is where the Disney Princesses come from, a sanitized and often saccharinised version of a more rough-hewn and visceral original tale. But there are generations who grew up with those older and rawer stories and who didn’t end up damaged by them. Children have far more strength and intelligence than they are given credit for. In some ways it is a regression when they grow up through all the Disney fluff and fairy dust and end up faced with grittier life realities afterwards, anyway, inevitably, as we all are.

When I was growing up with fairy tales I was not shielded from the bitterness and pathos of “The Little Match Girl” because some adult did not wish me to know that it was possible for a child to die cold and hungry in the street.

The best fairy tales had a hint of a happy ending, not just a happily ever after slam where everything just ended on a nice high note and nobody ever questioned the ever-after. I learned young to question the “happy ending” as such – because I had an early suspicion that somebody had to lose for someone else to win absolutely everything. Yes, every story has an ending and you have to be able to close the book in a satisfying way when you are reading the tale to your child and say, yes, here we conclude and here this story is ended.

But fairy tales, the best fairy tales, are not just pieces of cake which exist separately and are delicately snacked on one at a time. They are a part of a greater fabric of Story, and they are formative, when they are encountered at a young age.

We learn how the world works from inside a fairy tale. We learn that the world isn’t always fair. We learn what we are supposed to want in order to make us happy – but we also learn that on the way to that handsome Prince, the Princess-in-waiting first has to have friends and allies, be they a fairy godmother, a bunch of dwarves, or animals who can communicate only with her. It’s okay to be offered help. It’s okay to accept it. There are a lot of smaller moments of happiness on the way to the happily-ever-after.

I wept at the Disney parade because it brought fairy tales – their own versions of it, which I don’t always agree with but still – to life, and breathed existence, actual existence, into characters which had hitherto lived only in the imagination. But it is in that imagination that the real power remains. Those stories read by flashlight under the covers when you were very young – or were read to you by people who loved you – remain with you. Always.

You carry the fairy tales of your childhood into the adult world with you. And they will always be your friends – even the dragons which they have shown you how to defeat – because a fairy tale is a fundamental building block of the world. With them, we build ourselves.

~~~~~
Faerie Magazine cover

This article first appeared in Faerie Magazine, a quarterly print magazine celebrating enchantment.

It’s website is HERE

 

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Where are the women?

Why can’t a woman save the world?

I watched the first episode of a new disaster TV series, ‘Salvation’, and while I was entertained enough to keep watching, there was something that bothered me.

Take a look at the place, the time, and the protagonists. The dateline is “present day” America. , . Your world. Your everyday real world. They’ve added a potential catastrophic asteroid impact in 186 days – but other than that, we’re fine, folks, this is our world, nothing to see here.

Protagonists:

Handsome maverick rich guy/entrepreneur/tech wizard who’s out there with a (somewhat selfish but eh) vision to save the world from itself: a hetero white male.

Bright young genius MIT student who falls into this because, you know, he’s a genius and he’s the only one doing this research which is really boring and all that but oh hey there’s an asteroid coming and who ends up as the above maverick’s sidekick – handsome, adorable, with the BEST pick-up lines ever, quirky, witty, sexy, fun, and did I mention preternaturally BRIGHT: a hetero white male.

Powerful government figure – deputy secretary of defense – high-falutin’ political type with all the proper tentacles, er, connections, in the highest circles of government: a hetero white male.

In the other corner:

The efficient press secretary/press release writer/sophisticated media personality, blonde and vivacious, and in a secret affair with the Head Political Guy: a blonde white female

The young sidekick’s girl – the one he picked up with that adorable line and immediately bedded – quirky, pretty, savvy, a writer of science fiction (dear god at least they didn’t make her write Harry Potter fantasy): a white female.

A spunky journalist type with moxie and connections, one who looks slated to be “trouble”: a slightly darker female.

ALL the women are pretty, *TWO* of them find an occasion to slip into something slinky and sexy for an “Embassy ball” halfway through the episode (and the third one, by that time, is wearing nothing at all because she’s already between the sheets with Genius Boy With The Good Pickup Line. All of them are gorgeous, and all of them appear to have a head for no more than just the feminine stuff.

You know, words. While the men get on with the actual IDEAS, with THINKING, with ACTION. The women merely get to write about those things. They’re important, to be sure – because without them how else is all that masculine excellence going to get communicated to the audience who need to see and admire it?

There is a certain sense of a dynamic here – the powerful man and his relationship with the beautiful but subordinate arm candy woman (the politician and the PR flack) – which would admittedly be harder to sell if the politician, for instance, was a woman and the flack a man.

But it’s been done, if only rarely. Take a look at something like “Expanse”, with that oh so ruthless and powerful female political star in that heaven, and you see it can be done.

But even if you leave that alone – why couldn’t the grad student, for instance, have been female? And why couldn’t she have been appreciated for what she did and what she understood rather than for the fact that she might have been REALLY HOT once she took off the obligatory pair of scientist spectacles which she would no doubt have been made to wear in the beginning, just to establish that she was, you know, scholarly, a nerd, a geek?

In one sense I know I am giving a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

There is indeed the version of the stereotype where the girl scientist is all nerdy and geeky and unattractive because, you know, the hot girls really don’t DO this kind of thing with their lives – or else she’s EITHER just pretend-geeky and once she shakes down that severely pinned up hair into cascading curls and takes off those glasses she’s a rocks star, OR she’s just a rock star to begin with, a scientist with a body of a Playboy centerfold and the face of Boticelli’s Venus who also just happens to have two PhDs in relevant disciplines plus a stray Master’s degree in Russian, just for funsies.

And more often than not, if we DO get a female scientist thrown in, she’s either the bossyboots who terrorizes everyone else into doing the right thing, or else she’s the one who drops the ball on whatever is being done, and then stands there and SCREAMS…

Yes, I know, I know, it’s all fiction and I am being a curmudgeon. But somehow these things never arise when it comes to male figures of power. They CAN be brilliant and good looking at once and nobody bats an eyelid or makes any snarky comments (much like the ones I was making).

But remember this – men age gracefully. An older man with graying temples is actually believable as a scientist of standing or a power figure and yes, he can STILL be sexy.

While the Hollywood standard has – as has been described by someone whose identity I now don’t recall – precisely three levels of roles for women. The sexy ingénue, someone’s mother, and Driving Miss Daisy. In recent years it might have been expanded – marginally – to suit-wearing corporate bitch (or genre equivalent).

But nowhere in there does an older woman with a touch of gray and a quiet sense of power have a place to stand. Nowhere there does an intelligent younger woman stand, either, one who might have stepped into that Grad Student Sidekick’s shoes. SHE, you see, would have had to fall back into ingénue – she would be young enough for Hollywood to demand that she had to be pretty and easy on the eyes, all other qualifications be damned.

Anyone who’s ever known a grad student in the advanced stages of pursuing a PhD could tell you that those people usually look rumpled, bleary-eyed, carrying the weight of two worlds in the bags under their eyes, wearing clothes they might have slept in (and probably have done at least once), with way more than five o’clock shadow if they’re men and hair that hasn’t been brushed for a while if they’re women, basically focused on what they are doing rather on what they look like or whether they own a tux (or a fetching evening gown) to show up at an Embassy ball in.

I think I may have to go an WRITE the kind of thing I want to see on the screen. The only problem is that then I will never see it on the screen. Because the kind of character I write… is way too real for the fiction that people are apparently willing to accept.

All I can say is, keep soldiering on, the female half of humanity.

Even though nobody wants to know that you’re doing it. If a real asteroid comes hurtling down to this planet… we’re probably going to bungle things badly enough to destroy ourselves anyway, whoever is in charge, but it’s likely to have been the old boys’ club.

We might never know what could have happened if they’d let a girl scientist whip off her glasses and release her hair and save the world.

~~~~~

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How do you…

… get your ideas/write a book?’

One of the perennial questions posed to authors in many many many interviews is the fabled “Where do you get your ideas?

I too often answer with a snarky quip…”Off the Idea Tree in my backyard.” The true answer is simply, “Everywhere.”

A much harder question is “How do you write a book?

The “you” is generally generic. The questioner might mean how does anyone write a book, or how can s/he write a book, or how do I, Alma Alexander, write a book.

The first answer to that is another question: “Which book?” Because one of the fundamental truths of the craft is that there are a lot different kinds of writers.

One kind is the writer who tends to write the same book over and over again. Different characters, different settings, but very similar plots.

Barbara Cartland, who wrote 723 mostly romance novels, comes to mind. Writing things like category romances or the average mystery tends to be a fairly regimented process because of the often rigid set of rules which governs the finished product. If you’re writing your third, tenth, twenty seventh book, you’ve got it honed down to a fine art. You can probably churn out a decent story within a month – you’re putting together a product very similar to something you’ve done before and familiarity breeds speed and confidence.

Another kind is the writer of a fabulously successful series that his/her fans want more of, sometime even if s/he wants to go on to something else. The author of a series is constrained by a certain amount of stuff already established in previous books – a certain setting, a certain character, things you can’t just arbitrarily shift because you’ve now made it canon and the reader will roar in outrage if you futz with canon.

A third kind of writer is like me. Even if the fundamentals of our approach to worldbuilding, to style, remains basically unaltered, even if we continue to write in our favorite genre (fantasy for me), EVERY book we write is different.

How does that happen? It depends on our initial approach to a specific book. What was the inspiration? What were we trying to do? What kind of story were we intending to tell?

Let me illustrate that by offering you a quiz about a few of my own books. Here’s a selection of paths by which I arrived at specific books. If you have read a book or two of mine, or are a fan who has read several, see if you can match the initial inspiration I describe here to the book that was published.

1) I wrote a single scene featuring the protagonist and a handful of the main characters. I liked the scene, and set out to write the book in which it would appear. But when I started writing the story, and I began to write it fairly linearly, from the beginning, it took me literally 2/3 of the tale to actually GET TO THE FRIGGING SCENE WHICH STARTED IT ALL.

If I asked you to pick the scene I am talking about, all y’all would probably pick a different scene. Truth is, it’s integral to the plot, to the book, and it is impossible, once the story was done, to actually pry that one single brick out of the mortared wall. It is impossible to tell that the entire wall once hinged on the existence of that one single brick, or which brick it was. The whole effort took… years. At least a year to write, and then more years before it saw publication.

2) I wrote down a list of ten characters. Nameless, milieu-free characters. Just a short paragraph about each. When I showed it to my husband, he asked me what it was.

“My next novel.”

“What’s it about?”

“I have no idea?

It was the simple truth. At that point I had NO clue what the story was that these characters wanted to tell. Then somebody sent me a newspaper article about a real-life situation – and the fantasy which involved that news story and those characters blossomed into my mind, fully formed, with the characters taking on a vivid and brilliant life and literally dictating the book to me,

I wrote 200,000 words in three months. I didn’t stop to think, to breathe, practically not to sleep or eat – I wrote it at a white-hot fury. What’s more the draft I wrote down was not draft zero or even draft one. It was pretty much the finished thing, with a few tweaks but no major changes. It was a miracle book that was sold worldwide in 13 languages.

3) After finishing the miracle book, I was asked if there was a sequel. I denied it, right until the moment… there was one. An editor was involved with this one right from the start; we discussed the bones of the book, I presented a loose sack of ideas, she approved them, and I wrote the book. It came back to me with an editorial fiat that unequivocally demanded that I rewrite the ending completely. I did. It still worked and the book was published.

4) A combination of a series of ideas culled out of frustrations with the popular culture, a real-life but rather larger-than-life character I wanted to write about, and a desire to explore a different magic gelled to produce a story about a youngster coming into her potential through fraught circumstances.

It was a difficult story to write because it was more structured than some of my other tales were – and I don’t work well to outlines. But while I tried to stick to the original proposal, my OWN jaw drops at the difference between what I proposed to the finished series. 

This story took me longer to write than anything I had written before. In pure
wordage, it adds up to not THAT much more than Book 2 above – but while that took me three months, this series took several years. 

5) This book started life as a short story for a themed anthology. When I was almost 5000 words into the “short story” *and was still worldbuilding, I realized I was writing a book. And if I fitted certain things together in a certain way… I had a considerable amount of story I didn’t know I had. In the end I had a powerful trilogy.

So, then. You want to know how I write a book?

WHICH BOOK?!? They are all different for me. Every. Single. One. I reinvent myself as a writer with every single manuscript I produce.The answer that vexed question is that there IS no single way that a book can be written or has to be written. If it works for you, and produces something good, it all comes out even in the end.

Stop worrying whether you’re writing a book “the right way”. There IS no right way. No two books are exactly alike. Listen to them, and they’ll tell you what their preferred process is. And after that… just TRUST them. Your stories know what they are doing.

Were you able to figure out which of my published books came from the paths described above? They are:

1) Hidden Queen/Changer of Days
2) The Secrets of Jin-shei
3) Embers of Heaven
4) Worldweavers trilogy – (“Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage”, “Dawn of Magic.”)
5) The Were Chronicles (“Random”,”Wolf”, “Shifter”)

~~~~~

Wings of Fire coverA copy of my latest book, Wings of Fire,

is up for a giveaway. If you want to get

on the list

Sign up HERE

~~~~~
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YA and the ‘Real World’

The Were Chronicles: “Random”, “Wolf”, “Shifter”

At a certain level, the line between YA and adult literature becomes so fine as to be totally irrelevant.

Yes, there are always some readers whose worlds are so cushioned, so protected, so absolutely walled off from reality that they can can find reading about real problems to be distancing and completely alien. But those readers are very few, And even they, growing up, have to deal with SOME issues in their lives no matter how gilded they are.

There are books which are labelled YA that deal with a lot of subjects which might be considered difficult. Subjects like suicide, like discrimination, like loss, like fear, like helplessness.

The books aren’t there to exacerbate or underline a reader’s own issues. As with all literature, they exist primarily to tell a story. At least, the best of them do. They don’t moralize, they don’t frighten or terrorize, they don’t stroke a love of violence

But they do have real power. It lies in the fact that they let readers know that they are not alone, that they aren’t the only ones to suffer such things or feel such feelings. That can be empowering for the reader. Sometimes it is safer to sublimate such feelings into the pages of a powerful story, to learn how to deal with one’s own situation through the prism of storytelling, than it is to blunder about trying to solve overwhelming problems.

YA literature isn’t sweetness and light. It can be harrowing. Because young people can sometimes live harrowing lives.

When Weres become human

The Were Chronicles logoWhen I set out to write The Were Chronicles books, the whole thing started as a light-hearted thing. The project began as a short story intended for a Were-creatures anthology which wanted something other than the traditional wolves. So I pulled an odd creation out of the story-cauldron, something I’d never seen anyone play with before – a Random Were, a creature which can literally become the last living warm-blooded thing they see just before the Turn comes upon them. The idea had immense comic possibilities. In fact – as I put it in the first book – due to an “unfortunate farmyard accident”, my main protagonist’s mother is a Were-Chicken.

But while I was clucking to myself about that… the story changed under my touch, became bigger and darker. What was originally a short story became abook – and the book became series. It changed into that most amazing thing, a YA story but also a story about what it means to be human.

My Weres became a persecuted minority in society, and themes of discrimination and bullying reared up and demanded to be addressed. What do you do when your peers are bullying and threatening you and making you miserable, because you are “different”? That’s hard enough as and of itself, but what happens if those attitudes are then taken up by people in authority over you, whom you aren’t in a position to question or to fight?

My Weres touched off a nerve – because they explored, in my fantasy setting what it means *in our own world* for people to be a different color, or a different faith, or a different sexual orientation. I wrote about the power of persecution, and the power of spirit necessary to rise against and above that.

And then the themes multiplied. What does it mean to be considered an abject failure at something – by your own peers, your own class? How far would you be willing to go to prove yourself worthy? What things, what people, what ideas in your life are you willing to fight and die for? What happens if you are the only one of your kind, and you don’t know where you came from, or what is going to happen to you because there is no precedent for what you are?

The story unwound in a powerful and explosive way, the same story seen through the POV of three different characters who play a major part in the tale, a story seen through three separate prisms which thus acquires a certain three-dimensionality which was never before so obvious in any of my stories.

This is a work of fiction, a work of FANTASY no less, but its world… is our world, and it matters. It matters deeply. These are some of my most beloved, most astonishing characters, avatars of so many out there who face pain with courage and with knowledge and with earned wisdom.

The power of story

That is part of the power of story – this identification with a protagonist, who somehow arrives out of nowhere ready to completely understand our own innermost feelings and secrets. For adult readers who have had years of living under their belt, who have been working to acquire that necessary wisdom for a long time, stories like this may be memories – a look back into a time when things were difficult for themselves, and a recollection (with or without pain) of how they dealt with those situations.

For young readers, stories like these are part of that acquisition of wisdom and experience. If there is a good reason for a YA label at all then this is it – stories of people LIKE THE YOUNG READER, characters who are potential friends, but also potential role models in how they react and respond to fictional situations that the reader might find something to identify with. The best such stories are not moralizing or didactic or arrive with a knuckle-rapping “lesson” embedded inside – the best such stories are involving, enveloping, enfolding, they are things in which you can wrap yourself, and come out of wearing them as armour against the realities which might be out there waiting to assault you.

The best “lessons” are not the ones that are forcefully and insistently taught, but those answers which you find within yourself when a story like this helps you ask the right questions. What, then, would you do? In that story, in similar circumstances, what then would you do? How would you overcome?

The story gives you the pieces, the hints, but they don’t add up to anything that is a overweening Answer To Everything. Those pieces are different for every reader. They combine with pieces you bring to the story yourself. And every book connects with every reader in a different way, and the answers are always YOURS, deeply and personally yours, because every reader is unique and there are no two questions out there about people’s identity or their life situation which are exactly alike.

Stories are powerful. And stories aimed at, and read by, young readers are amongst the most powerful stories of all. We may read many books during the course of our lives – but by the time we get to be forty, fifty, sixty years old and half a century has rolled away from underneath us… for all too many of us, it is the books we read when we were sixteen which somehow remain with us, and in which we finds the roots of many things that we grew up to become.

You can find the first book in The Were Chronicles, Random, HERE

Wolf is HERE

Shifter is HERE

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Letters tell the story

The epistolary novel in the digital age

The story-in-correspondence found in epistolary novels is by no means a new thing. It’s been going on for centuries.

Letter writing to people who mattered but who were not close enough to speak to every day was once an art form, both in content and in execution. Some people sat at a kitchen table writing letters with a pencil. Others sat at a writing desk with inlaid leather surfaces touched with gilt, dipping quill pens into silver inkpots, writing in elegant cursive about the important things that mattered to the heart and the soul, as well as about what one had for dinner and whom one invited to share it.

Then came email….

But I digress. Stick a pin in that for the moment.

Stories told in the form an exchange of letters had a strange quality of intimacy, as though the reader had somehow gained access into the innermost citadel of the keep of someone’s life, suddenly privy to their hidden thoughts and feelings, because you HAVE to have access to those, if you’re writing a letter, if you’re writing from the heart. Letters were a glimpse inside a soul.

That is why those books caught on – because the letters are an invitation to become a part of the letter-writer’s world, and then share the sensation of being stamped and mailed, sometimes sent across the globe, the glory of that journey being a part of the glory of the communication. The waiting for a reply was part of it, too. It was a slower, more delicate time, a golden gleam, a communication in nuance where people took the time.

Then came email.,..

But stick a pin in that again.

I still remember special onion-skin notepads which one used to write “airmail” letters, because the thin paper meant cheaper postage. I recognized the red-and-blue-edged “airmail” envelopes – and those were special, they meant letters from far away. Probably not one kid today would know what one of those envelopes on your hallway table meant, the excitement of an OVERSEAS letter from someone so very far away.

But letter writing withered when the concept of distance disappeared with the Internet.

These days you write an email from one coast of America and it is instantly received on the other — or in Europe, or Japan, or anywhere someone is with a laptop and a hotstpot connection to the Internet. Time and space disappear in the blink of an eye. Instead of waiting weeks or months for a reply, in gleeful anticipation or grim foreboding both made bigger and more intense by WAITING, you get impatient when you don’t get a response IMMEDIATELY. What could anyone else possibly be doing that they cannot answer your email the moment it pops into their inbox? I mean, how RUDE.

And yet there is a nuance that can linger in emails too. I treasure a four-word email from my then hospitalized husband:”Need socks. Love you.”

Letters from the Fire coverEpistolary novels have always existed – but these days the communication can be electronic, too. I co-wrote an epistolary novel with the man I later married, with the two of us “writing” to each other, in email, in character, to create a story of two people who moved from enmity to friendship to love at digital speed when the Internet connected them as their nations went to war.

That’s how ‘Letters from the Fire‘, was born, an epistolary novel in which a lifetime of living is encapsulated in an exchange of emails which covers a period of time measured in days, not years.

In the era of email, we’re still writing letters, still reaching for each other’s souls. These days, it’s just faster, that’s all.

If you think that it’s also shallower, more perfunctory, more ‘surface glitz’ than anything that went before – well – there is something to be said for the handwritten letter inscribed by a fountain pen in an elegant hand. But story and emotion can transcend that.

Write a letter.

Read a book of letters that others wrote.

It is part of what it means to be human.

My epistolary novel, ‘Letters from the Fire’, can be bought HERE

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epistolary novels illusttrationThe Guardian takes a look at 10 other modern epistolary novels. See them all HERE

 

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Quote of the Day

Writing fiction is like remembering what never happened” ~ Novelist/Poet Siri Hustvedt

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