Eva Jurczyk writes at The Awl:
...what if I, in my capacity as a book reviewer, have the power to shift the ratio of rubbish pirate books by dudes to meaningful literature by women? The publishing houses will keep putting out books about buccaneers and they’ll keep appearing on my monthly review list but what if I don’t expend any mental energy or spill a drop of ink about them? This wouldn’t change the number of books by women that are published every year, nor the total number of books that Publisher’s Weekly reviews—some eight thousand per year, mostly for librarians, the media, and booksellers—but if someone is reserving all of their mental energy and all of their ink for female-authored books, then perhaps these books will be covered sooner, the gems among them celebrated louder, and the publishing industry will slowly adjust the definition of the type of book that is deemed worthy of attention. It seems like a better strategy than doing nothing, so moving forward, I’m only going to review books written by women.
This is such a good piece. Go read it. Look at any of our Mail Call posts and you'll see that there's a real problem in the publishing industry with male bias. Most of the books we receive in the mail are written by white men. Most of the books in most of the catalogs we receive are written by white men. Jurczyk is right; someone needs to make a stand. This matters.
Congratulations are due to Chris Higashi, the director of the Washington Center for the Book. Mary Ann Gwinn at the Seattle Times reports that Higashi is receiving this year's Sherry Prowda Literary Champion Award, which is a prize celebrating a person who champions the Seattle literary community. Higashi is a powerhouse who curates the library's reading series and many of the library's wonderful literacy programs. She is exactly the kind of person the library should be emulating; let's hope this award underlines that fact.
Here's a very neat project: "Web Safe 2k16 is a literary/graphic project exploring our memories of the pre-broadband Internet and related technologies." Organizers are asking 216 different writers to offer 216 words on each of the 216 Web Safe colors. So far, only a handful of colors have been claimed. Go read them all.
It was apparently very hard to find pirated comics last week. Why is that? Bleeding Cool explains that the one British person who uploads the vast majority of all pirated scans of comics — was busy "moving house. "Nemesis43 has become so ubiquitous in the comic book pirating scene that everyone else has, basically, stopped," Bleeding Cool reports.
The US military has blocked a shipment of printed material, including the new Molly Crabapple book, from reaching Chelsea Manning, BuzzFeed's CJ Claramella reports. Seattle Review of Books cofounder Martin McClellan reviewed Crabapple's book back in December.
moon’s waning crescent like
a grandmother’s toothless smile,
the man at the bar who’s having another,
a sailor writing love letters to a woman
he’s just said goodbye to.
the sky connects my father and me.
orion watches us watch him on a
september night, the smell of hay
reaches our nostrils, smelling something
so close and looking at something
very, very far away how the senses
bring worlds together how
we fill our houses with plants we
buy telescopes and microscopes to
feel closer to things we can never
i can never touch you, you
are too hot for my delicate fingers.
Seattle Poet and writer Esther Altshul Helfgott returns as this week's sponsor, and we're thrilled to have her. She's going to be appearing March 6th in an event featuring the music of Mozart intersersed with Esther reading from her book Listening to Mozart: poems of Alzheimer's.
Find out more on our sponsors page, and read the first part of Esther's Listening to Mozart, to get a feel for her direct, and lyrical, approach to processing pain and loss.
If you're a small publisher, writer, poet, or foundation that is looking to back our work, and advertise your own in an inexpensive and expressive way, take a look at our open dates. We'd love to talk to you about opportunities to sponsor us.
MONDAY Elliott Bay Book Company kicks off your Week in Readings. Mo Daviau reads from her debut novel, which is titled Every Anxious Wave. Kirkus described it as a ”punk-rock-time-travel story for the ages.” It’s about a person who finds a time-warp in his closet, which he then leases out to people so they can go back in time and watch their favorite bands play.
TUESDAY Beloved Seattle young adult author Sean Beaudoin debuts his new short story collection, Welcome Thieves, in a release party at Hugo House. Beaudoin promises “Music, cheap booze, a slideshow. Not the usual routine.” Welcome Thieves is his first book for adults.
WEDNESDAY It’s time for a big name: Jon Krakauer reads at Town Hall. His latest, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, is about the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses around the country. Have you seen this video of Krakauer shutting down a questioner last year? It’s very worth your time:
THURSDAY Tonight, Seattle Review of Books cofounders Martin McClellan and Paul Constant will present our book club picks at the beautiful Bainbridge Island bookstore Eagle Harbor Book Company. We invite you to come talk books with us.
But because we always offer additional events when there’s an SRoB-related happening, your ALTERNATE THURSDAY event is the very last Cheap Beer and Prose at the old Hugo House. It’s quite a lineup, too: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Hanna Brooks Olsen, Jessica Mooney, and Jason Schmidt. This will be your last chance to buy $1 PBRs from the Hugo House bar. Make it count. (By “make it count,” I mean “drink until you start sobbing and clutching a column in the Hugo House while vowing to never let it go,” obviously.)
FRIDAY At the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library, Dr. Damon Tweedy will read from his new book, Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine. We know that African-Americans receive very poor health care in this country, but up until now, I’m not sure that anyone has really explored, in-depth, how people treat our African-American health care providers. This looks fascinating.
SATURDAY The African-American Writers Alliance group reading has become a tradition at Elliott Bay Book Company; the reading started over two decades ago, and it moved to Capitol Hill with the bookstore a few years back. Tonight’s readers: Alliniece Andino, Margaret Barrie, Jaye Ware, Gaylloyd Sisson, Minnie Collins, Lola Peters, Monique Franklin, Santiago Vega, Helen Collier, and event organizer Georgia S. McDade.
SUNDAY Celebrated tiny comic convention Exterminator City returns in a new location: Ballard’s Push/Pull, at the corner of Market & 24th. About two dozen Seattle cartoonists will be around to sell and discuss their very latest books.
The extraordinarily nutso piece by Elspeth Reeve that everybody was talking about this week.
Each social media network creates a particular kind of teenage star: Those blessed with early-onset hotness are drawn to YouTube, the fashionable and seemingly wealthy post to Instagram, the most charismatic actors, dancers, and comedians thrive on Vine. On Facebook, every link you share and photo you post is a statement of your identity. Tumblr is the social network that, based on my reporting, is seen by teens as the most uncool. A telling post from 2014: “I picked joining Tumblr and staying active on here because: 1. I’m not attractive enough to be a Youtuber 2. Not popular enough for twitter 3. Facebook is dumb.” You don’t tell people your Tumblr URL, you aren’t logging the banalities of your day—you aren’t even you. On Tumblr, you can revel in anonymity, say whatever you want without fear of it going on your permanent record. You can start as many Tumblrs as you like, one for each slice of your personality, whether that’s gymnastics fandom (how I got into Tumblr) or Barack Obama-Harry Styles slashfic (it exists) or akoisexual identity (when your feelings of sexual attraction fade once they’re reciprocated). A Tumblr staffer pointed me to a blog called Dolph Lundgren & His Action Nips, which is just shirtless photos of the actor with his nipples turned into blinking GIFs.
I try not to link to the same source twice in one weekend, but when one of my favorite writers (Paul Ford — you read his "What is Code" from last year, right?) takes on one of our favorite topics, Amazon, I can't just ignore it, can I?
I don’t have a good mental model for thinking across nine million objects, nor for exploring 80 million opinions. This is what people are talking about when they say “big data,” of course: No one knows what’s actually inside there, no one can make sense of all that stuff. No single human being could possibly read all of the reviews on Amazon in a single lifetime, and even reading the names of all the products would take six or seven months. Big data, for the most part, is made by humans—it is the record of what we clicked on, the banner ads we viewed, our paths through a site, multiplied by humanity. Sometimes it is seismic data or star charts too, but mostly what people are talking about with big data is data about human behavior that can be mined to create better predictive models for future human behavior.
After just finishing our class teaching book reviewing at Hugo House, I've been thinking a lot about not only the nature and history of reviews, but what compells us to write them. Karan Mahajan's look at Michael A. Orthofer, and his the Complete Review, tease out some of the themes we love to linger on.
The Complete Review, “a selectively comprehensive, objectively opinionated survey of books old and new,” sits on the margins of the literary world, where it has flourished for sixteen years. As of last Friday, according to an analog counter on the site’s decidedly unglamorous homepage, it had reviewed three thousand six hundred and eighty-seven books, from a hundred different countries, originally published in sixty-eight different languages—an average of two hundred and thirty books a year. Virtually all of this criticism, and everything else on the Complete Review, is the work of Michael A. Orthofer, a fifty-one-year-old lawyer who was born in Graz, Austria, and brought up in New York City. Orthofer built the site—it took about five months; he coded it with basic HTML—on a P.C. at his home, in Manhattan, in 1999. For years, his name did not appear on the site, which claimed to be run by an “Editorial Board.” In 2009, on the site’s tenth anniversary, he began signing some reviews; the next year, he unmasked himself, discreetly, on the “About” page. In April, the retiring Orthofer will make his first serious bid for mainstream respectability, by publishing a book with the Columbia University Press. “The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction” is the culmination of his work so far, as well as a continuation and a promise.
Sally McGrane brings you one of those rare moments where you have to reconsider everything you thought you knew about a topic, to have your brain cracked clean open. Also… looks around, whispers at you you know, Ents—.
PRESENTING scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.
For an tall-building and architecture nerd like me, Paul Roberts great Crosscut article is a delightful read. Curious about the future of the Seattle skyline? Wondering why we don't have 110 story towers coming soon to downtown (hint: it has to do with one of our city's nicknames, Jet City)? Wondering what the heck is going to happen on that corner that just got the hurricane fencing put up? Then, friends, this is a must read:
Consider: there are currently 13 high-rise apartment or condo buildings of at least 24 stories in development or planning in the downtown area. The average is 39 stories. Another 24 high-rises are in the proposal pipeline, according to city and industry reports.
Not all the proposed towers will be built, of course, but those that are “launched” will represent a shift in downtown housing that is unprecedented not only in size but also in socioeconomics. Like 4/C, many are being “amenitized” for an upscale market. To be profitable, they will need rents of around fifty percent above the city average, according to several industry estimates. What’s more, to judge by the heavy emphasis on studios and one-bedroom units, developers are anticipating a downtown population that is childless and even single.
Every week, the Seattle Review of Books backs a Kickstarter, and writes up why we picked that particular project. Read more about the project here. Suggest a project by writing to kickstarter at this domain, or by using our contact form.
What's the project this week?
Comics days. We've put $20 in as a non-reward backer
Who is the Creator?
What do they have to say about the project?
Comics days in Vilnius is the first international comics festival in Lithuania that will be held on 14 - 16 of April 2016.
What caught your eye?
Independant comics festivals are the best. It's important for creators to have a place to gather and share their art, and talk to like-minded people to learn and make community. Think about how vibrant our own Short Run Comix and Arts Festival is.
So here are some folks trying to stage an international comics festival in Lithuania, called Comics Days, and it will be the first of its kind over there. That's a project we can get behind.
Why should I back it?
I'm guessing most of you reading this aren't in Lithuania, or aren't planning to visit for the festival. So, this raises the important question: what's in it for me?
Art and comics! Look at their rewards. For as little as $5 you can get a sticker pack. There are posters, comics, and even original art. And the branded gear is beautiful, as are the posters. I know a few of you reading this salivate at the idea of some rare, cool foreign art in your collections. Here's your opportunity to snag some.
Not to mention you're helping creators overseas get their community going. That's worth a few bucks.
How's the project doing?
21 days to go, and they've only raised about 18% of their $4,500 goal. So, they need the help. Pitch a bit in, let your friends know — those emails that a friend just backed a project on Kickstarter are pretty powerful. Let's see if we can't give them a little bit of a boost.
Do they have a video?
Italian news sources are reporting that author Umberto Eco has passed away. He turned 84 years old last month. Eco is the author of two global bestsellers: Foucault's Pendulum, a playful conspiracy thriller; and The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in a Benedictine monastery. I especially enjoyed Eco's underrated 2004 novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, a deeply personal tribute to the comics and pulp literature of Eco's youth, as well as a rumination on memory and aging. Eco's novels were always fun and elegant and rewarding on multiple levels; he created beautiful labyrinths.
Between this news and Harper Lee's passing, this has been a very sad day for literature.
Alex Balk at The Awl published a brief post against longform nonfiction storytelling. Here's a quote from the piece, which I think gets the point across with even more brevity: "Are there some stories so intricate that they actually demand tens of thousands of words to tell them? Sure. Maybe six or seven a year. Everything else you read is padding or awards-bait."
It's purposefully incendiary stuff, and obviously a broad generalization. Personally, I tend to prize pieces of a certain length; here at the Seattle Review of Books, we rarely publish reviews that are shorter than a thousand words, because we think anything less tends to fully fail to develop an idea. I recently wrote a piece for the site that was over three thousand words, but I hope to cut it down a little bit in the editing process.
But in general, I tend to agree with Balk; I've read a lot of longform pieces that have wasted my time. I'm fine with digressions and taking your time to tell a story, but a story should be exactly as long as it needs to be. We've all read magazine articles that have been puffed out to book-length; we all agree that those are terrible. When that happens, we feel manipulated, and it sours the reading experience. Same with longform. That said, I am always in favor of more writers writing more, and if longform is the vessel that gets readers in front of writing, that's a-okay with me.
But rather than arguing about a nonexistent perfect metric for exactly how long a piece should be, I'd rather everyone read this great post by Chuck Wendig about why paying writers is so important. It's titled "Scream It Until Their Ears Bleed: Pay the Fucking Writers," and it's in response to an idiotic Huffington Post editor's bullshit claims that paying writers is "not a real authentic way of presenting copy," that because Huffington Post bloggers write out of passion, their writing somehow has more merit. I don't know how many words Wendig's post is, but I can tell you it's exactly as long as it should be.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
I absolutely love Tintin. I have since I was a kid, and still just fall for his outrageous antics. But oh my god, is it racist. So horrible! And, you know, all about white conquest. Do I have to give him up?
Let's not be histrionic. Lewis Carroll was a monogamous pedophile, Flannery O'Connor was a devout Catholic and Ayn Rand claimed to be human. Even beloved children’s entertainer Ernest Hemingway believed that women have more holes for plugging than spiders have eyes, an old-fashioned but tenacious belief that has been empirically proven untrue without the aid of a high-powered drill.
My point is, if you start eliminating books, ideas, and people whose views make you uncomfortable, what's left? Whale sounds, cottage cheese, and more corpses than a bullfighting birthday party, that’s what.
Sure, Tintin is racist. It's certainly not the most racist thing to come out of 20th century entertainment, and even as it makes contemporary, less racist (fingers crossed) audiences uncomfortable, it's an important historical marker of the sentiment of the times. Ignoring our racist history doesn't erase racism, so feel free to keep cringing your way through Tintin in the Congo. And if you want to assuage your (presumably) white guilt, try tithing to a nonprofit group geared towards battling entrenched racism, groups like Dream Defenders or Black Youth Project 100.
Those who believe the Great American Novel is a singular experience have it wrong; there are many Great American Novels, each a timeless snapshot of a particular moment in American history. Of that tradition of Great American Novels, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the very best, because it delivered the America that we all — Northern or Southern, black or white, woman or man — aspire to create. In one book, Harper Lee gave us the possibility and the promise of America. We could never possibly begin repay her for that tremendous achievement.
Christine Marie Larsen is off for the next few weeks, no doubt hand-assembling brushes from rarified animal hairs, gathering pigment from the mineraled rocks atop the highest peaks, and making paper from the miraculous cotton rags used to clean the paintings of the old masters in the Louvre.
In her absence, you can always see her work in our archive of the Portrait Gallery. She'll see you all in a few weeks.
Seattle author Matt Ruff’s new novel Lovecraft Country is a thoughtful, rewarding examination of the connection between genre and American racism. Specifically, it’s a story that juxtaposes America’s shameful history of systemic racism with the racist history of American science fiction. While the former is well-documented, sci-fi’s racist past is much less overt.
The pivot-point for the novel is arguably the most famous racist in American literary history: HP Lovecraft, the cult horror writer who was an unabashed white supremacist. Lovecraft Country holds Lovecraft accountable for his beliefs. By centering the book on the family of an African-American man named Atticus Turner, Ruff is handing Lovecraft’s legacy off to a new protagonist, one who Lovecraft, by all accounts, would have loathed. The resulting narrative is fascinating, illuminating, and surprisingly fun.
On Tuesday of this week, I interviewed Ruff as part of his book release party at Elliott Bay Book Company. We discussed the book’s origins — it began as a pitch for a TV series — and the idea of Lovecraft Country as a secret history of science fiction’s racist roots. With Lovecraft Country, Ruff is thoughtfully rejecting that tradition, and trying to build something new.
I really enjoyed this book. I've enjoyed every book that you've written, but this one is really something special, so thank you for writing it.
Well, thank you.
First I just want you to start by telling us your history with H.P. Lovecraft as a reader.
I first read them when I was younger, and Lovecraft initially for me was one of those writers where I actually think I liked his imitators better than him. He's known for using very archaic and ornate language, and he does tend to go on sometimes. I think when I was young I liked the spirit of Lovecraft more than the reality of Lovecraft.
Then as I got older I tried him again. There are still some of his stories that don't work for me, but when he works, he really does work. I really like At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Call of Cthulhu.
He gives good dread. One of the characteristics of a typical Lovecraft story is that the monster either doesn't show up at all or only shows up in the last paragraph. It's all about being in a place where you don't belong and you are seeing all of these signs and portents of doom — there are people or monsters who mean you ill, and at some point they're going to come out and get you.
Obviously, one way to read the Cthulhu mythos is as a parable or an allegory for Lovecraft's white supremacist belief system. The Cthulhu mythos is all about how once upon a time aliens from beyond space ruled the planet. They went into decline and either retreated back beyond the stars or into the deep ocean. Now humanity is having its day in the sun, but someday when the stars are right the aliens are going to come back and wipe us all out.
Lovecraft believed that what he called Teutonic Aryans were the pinnacle of human cultural evolution, but that was a temporary situation. Eventually some other group, maybe the Chinese, maybe the Japanese, were going to come and take over. They would have their turn until some other race knocked them off, and eventually all life on earth would die and the uncaring universe would go on without us.
One way to read the Cthulhu mythos is this fictionalized version of the fragility of white supremacy, and Lovecraft's fears about that, and his need to be on guard against miscegenation and race mixing and democracy and liberal ideas about all people being created equal. What's interesting about it is in part because white supremacy generates legitimate fear of other people. If the Klan's coming for you, you're going to be just as scared as the Klan maybe is about the fall of white supremacy. The stories work both ways. You don't have to share his belief system to understand what it's like to stop at a town overnight and suddenly find yourself a target of a lynch mob. It's interesting stuff.
You must have been pretty close to the end of the process with this book when the controversy over the World Fantasy Award happened.
For those of you who don't know, there was a controversy over the fact that the World Fantasy Award was a bust of H.P. Lovecraft.
Has been for 40 years or something.
Yeah, and so they finally changed it. It's no longer H.P. Lovecraft's face. Were you paying attention to all that when it happened? It's certainly brought him to the forefront of the sci-fi community again.
Yeah, I heard about it. I have the internet.
I wasn't sure what your writing process was.
I follow these things. I've learned from experience not to comment on them generally when they're going on because there's just no good to be had there. [The anger over Lovecraft] makes perfect sense. The science fiction/fantasy world right now is undergoing this cultural upheaval as, very belatedly, people of color and women are demanding their place in the sun, demanding more stories featuring them as characters. This created a PR problem for the face of World Fantasy being a guy who compared black people to farm animals.
It was Nnedi Okorafor, who had won a World Fantasy Award and wrote a blog post saying she was just appalled to have won this honor where she got to have H.P. Lovecraft's head in her house, looking at her. It made sense that, yes, they would get rid of that, but of course it's a controversy because for a lot of people, they like artists for what they like and ignore the parts of them they don't care about. I think there are a lot of people that just felt like, “well, yes, he's got these horrible views, but I just like the stories. Why are you bringing these politics into it?” It became a controversy, but it's a no-brainer.
In many ways, to me, it feels like the title Lovecraft Country is almost a feint because this book is interested in all sorts of sci-fi. In the piece you just read, Ray Bradbury is mentioned multiple times. H.G. Wells is name-checked, L. Ron Hubbard. There's a story that's a riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Mort Weisenger-era Superman, and things like that. This book, to me, feels sort of steeped in science fiction history. To me, it feels almost like you're providing an alternate history of science fiction. I was wondering if you would agree or disagree with that reading.
Part of what I wanted to do was take stories that Atticus might have enjoyed reading, but that would never feature people of color as protagonists, and give them a chance to star in those stories. It would be a case of being careful of what you wish for because, of course, these aren't necessarily fun stories to find yourself a part of.
It was typically the idea that each character in the story would have their own mini-adventure, their own weird tale. I would start by taking a classic story — like, somebody buys a haunted house or somebody finds themselves being chased by an animated doll. First of all, how does this happen to my protagonist and how does having a black protagonist change the nature of the story?
For example, in the haunted house story, Atticus has a friend named Letitia who comes into some money and decides she wants to buy a house in a white neighborhood, because she wants a nice house and that's what you have to do is get a house in a white neighborhood. She gets a surprisingly good deal, and of course it's because the house is haunted. The ghost is white too and doesn't want her there any more than the neighbors do, so she's got to find a way to play the dead off against the living. In some ways, it's taking a story that's been told many times but putting this new twist on it, and at the same time giving you a chance to talk about the real life difficulties of what it would entail to try and just buy a decent house with the money you have at the time. That was definitely part of the process — to tell stories that might have existed had the country been more open, had history been different. These are the kinds of stories that might have existed back then.
That partially answers my next question — about whether it was necessary to structure the book as a novel in stories. Because you do have all these perspectives in the book, and each one is a different riff on different sci-fi themes. Did you ever try to break it out into a single novel or did it always come to you in this episodic format?
This was actually one of the reasons it took me as long as it did to write the book, because with [my most recent novel, also based on a TV pitch] The Mirage, what I was able to do was take this idea for a TV show I'd had — I’d come up with three seasons' worth of subplots — and I could just strip out all of the side stuff and focus on the central mystery of the story. That gave me a story very much like that of a traditional novel.
But in Lovecraft Country, part of the point of the story was to allow these characters to star in their own weird tales. I wanted to spend more time on the character development as well. In television terms, the monster-of-the-week episodes were as integral to the concept as the mythology episodes. That suggested a novel in stories, which is not a phrase that publishers, and I think maybe readers, are necessarily enthusiastic about.
For awhile I was like, “yeah, do I really want to do that?” Then at the end of 2010 I found myself in my then-editor's office. He was saying “The Mirage is coming out. Do you know what you want to write next?” I'm like, "Well, yeah, I've got this idea, but it's a novel in stories, so I don't know." At that point I really knew: yeah, that is what I'm doing. If I'm still thinking about this, I've got to figure out a way to do it.
What I ended up doing was stealing a different metaphor from Netflix — this idea that yes, reading the book would be like binge-watching a full season of TV. It would be episodic, but each chapter would begin with a cold open, a cool bit of business that would grab the reader's attention right away, even if you didn't get necessarily how this fit into everything else you'd been reading.
Then as the monster-of-the-week thing unfolded, eventually the connections would click into place. Now we've got another piece of the mythology as well. You would get to know each of these individuals, because I wanted to spend time with the characters. Then, when you were done you would have this family who you knew, and you would have this complete story about the mystery of Ardham Village and the... I won't spoil it. You would have this complete epic story that had been told in episodes.
That was how I had to do it. I think it works. We spent a lot of time in the editing [process] smoothing the transitions and just making sure that it felt less like separate short stories and more like pieces of a puzzle that you could see how they fit together as you were going along. Hopefully that comes through.
Well, also, the history of science fiction did tend to lean more toward short stories more than other forms. Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles was short stories.
Yeah, the Martian Chronicles are built up of short stories. Exactly.
It’s interesting to me that you are so open about talking about TV and your ideas coming from TV and mimicking the story structure of Netflix, which I think is something that a lot of novelists should start thinking about, because it is a different form. The new TV model is adopted from novels, and so novels need to respond to that. I also think that had you started your career ten years later, you could very well be working for Netflix now, because when you pitched the idea that became Lovecraft Country, that was back when there were three series that were doing this intensive narrative work, but now they're all over the place.
Yeah, and I think that, part of it, the idea caught up with the time enough that it can work now. Certainly that affects how people receive the book too, so maybe it will make it easier to get into it than if I'd written this in 1990 or something.
There are obviously a lot of potential pitfalls for this kind of a book as a white man writing about the African-American experience. The cultural lens has fallen more onto representation, and also, as you said earlier, letting people speak for themselves. I was wondering if you could share your process in writing about these topics? Because it's tricky business. I think most people would agree that white people should not just write about white people, but there are a lot of places where something like this could have gone wrong.
But it's good to be a little nervous. It keeps you awake. My novels are all over the place. Those of you who have read them, they're all over the place in terms of subject matter. I like using fiction to see and experience other people's worldviews and see how other people think and cope with problems. They may have the same temperament as me and some of the same interests, but they have a whole different set of challenges. I find that really interesting and fascinating. I don't know, I seem to have a knack for it.
The process always starts the same way. I work up a history for the character I'm working on. I think about what has their life been life up to this point. What do they want? What do they do? How did they get here? The goal is to work up a psychological model that lets me intuit how they would react in different situations, and I can tell when it's working, when it feels psychologically realistic. The other thing, too, is when you talk about the black experience — there's not one, there's a different one at least for every African-American. That's just the real people. Then you get into fictional characters and that you can have dozens of, or millions of, different possible experiences.
I'm not trying to make a grand statement of how everybody lives. I want to have a set of individuals and who feel like real people and who come at things in a different way and are interesting to write about. If it's an ensemble piece like [Lovecraft Country], how are the characters going to view each other, and how does one person's view of why he's doing something match somebody else's?
I have enough that I can start writing and feel comfortable in knowing how they'll behave and how they'll talk. Then that gets refined as I go along. Typically what will happen is I'll come to a point in the story where I need a character to do something for plot-related reasons, and so I know why I want them to do something, but I haven't figured out why they would do it.
This is an issue. In particular this comes up a lot in horror, where you frequently need to have characters do things that are just stupid. “I'm going to go check out that noise in the basement. The batteries in my flashlight are dying, so I don't think I'll turn it on until I'm in the really dark part of the basement.”
In some ways it was easier with this background because people who are oppressed don't have a lot of options. In a lot of cases in Lovecraft Country, the answer to why are they doing this crazy thing is because this is the only chance they have to get the thing they want. Even if the game is rigged and they know they're probably not going to get it anyways, you either try or you just give up in despair, so they're going to try.
In some ways it just made it easier sometimes to answer the question, but I love that feeling of figuring people out and making sense of other people's behavior. It just helps me understand the world better. Yes, the track record for white folks writing about people of color is not stellar, but I think a lot of the explanation for that is not you can't do it. It's just that a lot of folks don't care to. They aren't interested. They either haven't found a reason to be interested or they just aren't interested. It's when you treat it as a chore or something — “well, I don't really want to do that, but I guess I've got to put a black character in there” — that you could do bad, lazy work. People reach for clichés when that happens. But I really wanted to write this book and I wanted to get to know these characters. That makes it much easier to do a good job. That's the answer, I guess.
If you were to ask me to nominate one cartoonist to create a comic book adaptation of a Todd Solondz film, I would, without a second thought, choose Nick Drnaso. Like Solondz's films, the world in Drnaso’s new collection Beverly is ugly and mundane; unattractive Americans live their boring lives in bland surroundings — cut-rate hotel rooms, tract housing. Drnaso draws his figures with simple lines, often at the middle distance. He rarely employs close-ups; his characters lack detail or much by the way of physical nuance. It’s a kind of bland suburban hell.
Put simply, Drnaso tells the stories of creeps. A young boy embarrasses himself in spectacular, sexual fashion on a family vacation. A lonely man gets a massage. A young woman reports a horrible crime that puts the community on edge, though the details start to fall apart on closer investigation. You wouldn’t want to spend any time with the people in Beverly. At best, they’re bumbling and a little bit slow. At worst, you’d move away from them if they tried to sit next to you on the bus.
And yet, Drnaso is a masterful storyteller. With great economy and supreme confidence, he constructs whole worlds — worlds of mundanity, filled in with rainbows of beige — and he populates them with people who don’t experience desires so much as vague fumbling in the general direction of happiness. The most innocuous protagonist is a mother who is excited to take part in a television market research survey; it’s such a small want that when it collapses in disappointment, the sadness somehow feels even more profound.
Beverly will make its readers uncomfortable. That must be part of Drnaso’s plan. Rather than skip through the awkward sitcom the aforementioned woman is excited to watch as part of her marketing survey, Drnaso lays the whole TV show out in tiny panels, and it’s just as bad as the most mediocre TV show you’ve ever watched. ”Sorry for the way I acted earlier,” the bland father says to his bland wife as they get into bed at the end of the show. “You and the kids are too good to me.” His wife replies, “Oh, honey, you’re too good to us!” Turns out, you can make a comic that’s just as awkward as bad network television. All it takes is a whole lot of talent and a ferocious willingness to maintain a chilly distance between you and your readers. Like the worst television, you can’t look away from Beverly — you’re hypnotized by all the horrible beauty.
We here at the Seattle Review of Books are incredibly excited for Link Light Rail to open to Capitol Hill and the University District. (Fun fact: light rail opens on the exact same weekend as the APRIL Festival's big book fair at the Hugo House! That's your Sunday, March 20th all sorted for you.) And this video from Sound Transit profiling Seattle cartoonist Ellen Forney is only getting us more excited about launch-day, especially because it's got plenty of footage of the installation of Forney's beautiful illustrations of giant hands in the Capitol Hill station.
This is big news: independent comics publisher Image Comics — home of some of the best ongoing comics series in America today including Saga, The Walking Dead, and Bitch Planet — just announced that they're going to host Image Expo, their new-title showcase, at Emerald City Comicon this year. This is the first time they've partnered with a pre-existing convention for the Expo, and it's also the first time the Expo will take place in Seattle. Bleeding Cool reports:
They’ve allied themselves with ReedPOP to be part of the Emerald City Comicon this year in Seattle on Wednesday, April 6th, from 10 am to 6 pm at the Showbox Market theater... They’ve already announced Leila del Duca, Joe Harris, Rick Remender, Alison Sampson and Jonathan Hickman with more to come and they always have surprises they roll out on the day.
This is a significant nerd coup for Seattle. And it's followed by a spring formal dance, apparently, which sounds kinda incredible. Tickets are available now.
Published February 17, 2016, at 12:00pm
Juliet Jacques documented her transition from male to female in a Guardian column, collected and expanded into a recent memoir. What does she have to tell us, in the modern day, about that transition?