April 6th, 2011

This and That

A few articles of interest that I came across recently:

  • In the Washington Post, Sarah Pekkanen takes up the “gender divide” issue in YA lit. Girls, of course, will read all kinds of books. Boys, of course, won’t. Sigh.
  • Here’s a nice roundup of all the books nominated in the children’s and young adult category for the Lambda Literary Awards, including Love Drugged by James Klise and Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde.
  • And the ALA came out with their annual Rainbow Project List in January. These titles “reflect significant gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans-gendered/queer-questioning (glbtq) experience for young people from birth to age 18.” It looks like a great list, so check it out.
  • And finally, there’s a new online YA literary magazine out, called Verbal Pyrotechnics! The first issue is now posted. It includes a great short story by my friend Bernard Lumpkin! Give it a read.
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March 28th, 2011

Author Interview: Cris Beam

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Cris Beam’s debut novel, I Am J, which came out this month out from Little, Brown. I was thrilled to give the book a blurb, since I truly thought the book was something special. I am not alone in that thought. The book has received rave reviews. In a starred review in Booklist, a reviewer nicely sums up what makes I Am J so great: “Beam has written easily the best book to date about the complicated condition of being a transsexual teen, not only sharing important information that is artfully woven into the plot but also creating, in J, a multilayered, absolutely believable character whose pain readers will share. Perhaps most importantly, the author brings clarity and charity to a state of being that has too long been misunderstood, ignored, and deplored.”

Cris Beam was kind enough to respond to some questions I sent her. I hope you enjoy the following interview. And, please, go pick up a copy of I Am J very soon! You can find more information about Cris and her book here.

Your first book, Transparent, was a nonfiction book for adults about transgender teenagers. Is it safe to say that I AM J grew out of this book?

Yes, in a way. When I was first working on Transparent, I interviewed a lot of transboys, thinking that they would be a part of the book too. But as Transparent took shape, I realized I wanted to go deep rather than broad, and focus on a core group of friends over a prolonged period of time. My main subjects happened to be all girls. The boys, and their stories, stayed in my mind though, and I wanted to return to them. I also wanted to write a book for teenagers, rather than just about them.

This may overlap with the prior question, but did you have to do any research before you wrote I AM J?

I guess I’m always doing informal research into current transgender politics and literature and ideas because the two people in my immediate family—my partner and my foster daughter—are trans. That’s the wonderful part of my life and work. The ugly part is more experiential in that, through them, I see the ways transphobia operates at so many levels in our culture, and I often feel pretty impotent. All of the scenework in I Am J is fiction, but culled from actual experience with friends and family, so I wouldn’t call that research per se. I worked for two and a half years at a school in LA for GLBT teenagers, and taught a class for a few semesters at a similar school here in New York, so I’ve spent a lot of time with kids who are queer and struggling with their families of origin. And then, at multiple stages in the manuscript’s progression, I asked both trans- and cisgender guys to read it for accuracy and resonance, so I suppose that’s a form of research too.

A lot of people don’t understand people who are “transgender.” As a gay man, I liked to think I was sympathetic to the problems that transsexuals face, and that I understood more about transgender people than the average heterosexual person. But I admit I didn’t really always “get it,” as they say. Many things baffled me—it was just so foreign. But after I read I AM J, I felt like I had just been given an invaluable glimpse into a world that I had previously never truly understood. Was it your intention in writing I AM J to clear up many misconceptions? What are the biggest misconceptions people have about people who are transgender? Did you yourself learn something while writing the book?

Wow, that’s a lot of questions in one! I didn’t write the book to clear anything up, really. I wrote it because J was a character knocking around in my head looking for a way out. If the book is clarifying, I’m glad, but that’s also a risky idea for me—because J is just one person, and he doesn’t speak to or for a generalized transgender experience. As for misconceptions, different people have different ones—depending on who they are, how they were raised, where they live, whether they’re gay or straight or trans or cisgender and on and on. I guess one misconception—and one that I struggled with writing the book—is the idea that trans or gender variant people experience themselves as one gender: an opposite gender to the one assigned to them at birth. I thought a lot about this when I was writing J, because my partner, for instance, often feels like neither gender or like both. So I considered writing J as a boy who identified as a third gender. But he just wouldn’t stay that way on the page. That’s what I learned while writing the book—that my characters surprised me. I went into it thinking I had control (and I know a lot of authors say this) but the writing worked better when I let the scenes lead themselves.

Cris Beam

J is a painfully complex character, and though he might represent all transgender teenagers, he is also a fully formed individual. How did you tackle this particular challenge?

Yeah, that tricky representation idea again! For me, J doesn’t represent all transgender teenagers. At least I hope he doesn’t, or that readers don’t think of him that way. I think that in smaller genres, like trans lit, there’s a tremendous pressure to be representative, to be a lot of things to a lot of people. I was acutely aware of this because it’s a responsibility as well as a pressure; I had the privilege of being a writer with a major publishing house backing a teen transgender story, so I wanted to get some things right. And yet, I wanted to give J room to be a kid—an individual, imperfect, courageous, terrified, talented, regular kid. He’s just one voice among many—and, while there’s some wonderful transgender writing out there already, there’s so much more room on the shelves!

I AM J is an important novel, one that a lot of people can benefit from reading. But it’s not just a novel that deals with an important topic—it’s a wonderfully written, complex, moving story. Can you talk about your writing background? Did you always want to write novels?

Thanks for the compliment! I’ve always written, but my background is really in nonfiction. bell hooks said once that all writing is creative writing, and essentially I agree with her—it takes creativity and courage to face that crazy empty page from any direction. But I was surprised to discover how similar the writing processes really are: in both, you’re looking for great characters and plot and dialogue, and while you might know where you want to get by the end of a chapter or a book, you don’t always know how you’re going to get there. The people, the characters, are at the heart of it all.

Have you heard from any transgender teenagers since the book has appeared? Have you heard from any parents of transgender kids?

Yes, I’ve heard from both. The wonderful (and often terrifying) truth about the internet is that you get feedback in real time. And the feedback has been really positive. I love hearing from teenagers especially.

What are you working on now? Are there any more YA novels in your future?

I’ve been working on a nonfiction book about the state of foster care in New York City, and how it connects to child welfare overall. I’m really excited about this book, because I’ve followed several families over several years to track the cracks in the system through really personal and powerful stories. But yes, I’d like to return to YA. If I have a pattern, I’ll probably write a YA book about foster kids sometime soon!

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March 6th, 2011

Literature’s Gender Gap

A few weeks ago, Laura Miller penned an interesting piece in Salon about the gap between the number of women being published and reviewed in the literary world (in literary magazines, in books reviews, etc.) versus the number of men. She was reporting on findings by Vida (an organization for “women in literary arts”), which discovered that in most literary publications (e.g., The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House), men far outweigh women in representation. Miller’s piece goes into all sorts of questions related to this issue, but one of the most interesting tangents of the whole story is the assertion (or assumption?) that men read more literary works by men, whereas women read works by both men and women. Although the evidence for this may be, as Miller notes, anecdotal, in general I tend to think this is true.

But it is not true of every male writer, of course—including yours truly. Indeed, reading the piece, I wanted to stand up and shout: “Not me, not me!” Still, overall, if we’re going to generalize (and why not?), then I think it is the case for many male writers—they largely just read books by other men.

And why is this? In asking, I don’t claim to have any answers.

This gender gap, sadly, is also true of the YA world. I know young women read a lot of novels by women—but they also read works by men. I know this because I’ve gotten plenty of emails and comments from the wonderful world of female YA bloggers who’ve read my novel. But do boys read works by women, books about girls? Not usually. And as Miller notes, this bias, which starts young, might extend into adulthood.

Some anecdotal evidence of my own: During my grad school years (over ten years ago), the small graduate workshop was made up of about seven men and five women. If you asked any of the men who their favorites writers were, they’d reel off a list of men, barely mentioning a female writer. Barry Hannah, Tim O’Brien, Thom Jones, Denis Johnson, Hemingway, Faulkner—those were the writers most mentioned, as I recall. (Writers that I, too, love, but not to the exclusion of other writers.) Meanwhile, the females—true to the above-mentioned thesis—would mention some of those male writers, but also writers like Willa Cather, Alice Munro, Ann Beattie, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, and Joy Williams. (Flannery O’Connor was the one female writer that I recall getting bisexual support. But this was the south, and one of our teachers was obsessed with O’Connor, so that made sense.)

Anne Tyler

Why was this? Why is this? Why do so many men shy away from female writers?

This topic got me thinking about my favorite writers. I professed to love female writers as much as male writers, if not more—but was this ultimately the case? I’d never made an official list of favorite writers, though I do keep a list of my favorite books.

So, this got me thinking: Who are my favorite writers? I made a list. I might as well break them down by gender. First, the females, in mostly random order: Alice Munro, Anne Tyler, Hilary Mantel, Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, Deborah Eisenberg, Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Egan, Julie Hecht, Willa Cather, and Jane Austen. For the men, it’s William Faulkner, William Maxwell, David Gates, Allan Gurganus, Keith Banner, E.M. Forster, William Trevor, Robert Cormier, Vladimir Nabokov, Raymond Carver, J. D. Salinger, and Tobias Wolff.

Twelve women. Twelve men. Evenly divided. But ask me for my top two, and it becomes all about the women: Alice Munro and Anne Tyler are, without a doubt, my Top Two.

Why, then, do my tastes run to the more “feminine”? It is because I’m gay? I do know a number of gay male writers who share my affections for many of the female writers mentioned above, especially Tyler and Munro. And I think it’s true, as a whole, that more gay men list female writers in their list of favorites. But, again, this is anecdotal evidence on my part.

Explaining why I love Munro and Tyler so much—why I connect with their work, their writing styles—begs for a longer essay. Some people might describe them as writers who are more concerned with “domestic” and emotional matters—family, relationships, heartbreak, love. (This is not to say that men don’t write about these things, of course.) And perhaps that’s what I’m most attracted to, both as a writer and a reader.

So, back to my original query: Why don’t men read female writers? Is it just how we’re wired? Do we prefer to read about experiences that more reflect our own lives? There are not simple answers to these questions, of course. But I will always remember a male classmate who, when I told him I loved Alice Munro and that he should check her work out, replied scornfully that he found her work “boring.” “It’s just all that female stuff,” he said. I tried to argue him out of that narrow view—sure, it’s often about “female stuff,” but it’s really about so much more. To me, it’s the opposite of boring—it’s thrilling and invigorating, sentence after sentence of pleasure. But in the end I gave up and just thought to myself: “It’s your loss, buddy.” And indeed, I know this is true: My reading life—and thus my writing life—would be severely impoverished if I just read writers who share my gender.

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December 22nd, 2010

2010: Year in Review

Another year draws to a close. I had planned to write about how 2010 sucked. But then the more I thought about, the more I realized that this wasn’t entirely true. Sure, 2010—like every year, surely—had its sucky moments (which I won’t go into). But overall, a lot of great things happened this year: the paperback of my novel was published, I appeared in OUT Magazine, and I won the Alabama Author Award. But the biggest thing I accomplished was turning in the draft of my second novel. It was also a year of some good reads, a few good movies, and a decent bit of good TV. Before we head into 2011, a few reflections on some of the highlights of the 2010.

Many of the books I read are for work or else for my YA book club. Thus, I don’t usually have much time to devote to the hot new reads of 2010, like Freedom by Jonathan Franzen or any of the other much-hyped books of the year (with one exception, as I’ll discuss below). Still, I have read, so far, just over fifty books this year. To avoid any professional awkwardness, I won’t single out any books I worked on this year as part of my day job, though there were plenty that constitute highlights. Moving on with that caveat…

Hands down, my two favorites novels of the year were A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. These books blew me away. I’m lucky to read one such book a year. So I’m quite happy that encountered two such staggering achievements in one year. I wrote about Goon Squad earlier this year. Still, even when I talk about it or read stray passages in reviews, I’m reminded of its emotional hold over me. In its finest moments, it’s downright miraculous. It’s a book that I will reread each year for many years to come. I’m still haunted by Sasha, Rob, Rhea, Jocelyn, Rolf, and many of the other characters.

Wolf Hall was published in 2009, so it was a book everyone raved about last year. I finally got around to it this year. I discovered Mantel a few years ago and loved the two books I read: a dark and humorous pair of novels, Every Day Is Mother’s Day and Vacant Possessions. Her style is hard to describe—odd, flinty, darkly humorous, peppered with startling but lovely descriptions—but on the basis of those two novels alone, Mantel had already joined the shortlist of writers whose entire bodies of work I will hunt down and consume (Egan, of course, is also on this list). But Wolf HallWolf Hall! What a novel! The novels tells the story of the turmoil surrounding Henry VIII when he wanted to dump his first wife to marry Anne Boleyn, told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, who became one of his most trusted and powerful advisers to the king. It’s a familiar historical story, but Mantel, as one reviewer wrote, manages to invest the story with thrilling amount of suspense. Most historians have viewed Cromwell in a negative light, while casting Sir Thomas More as the sympathetic martyr. Mantel reverses this viewpoint, brilliantly. By the end, I had grown to love Cromwell, whereas More came across as a bitter, snide, pompous, bigoted religious hardliner. Mantel made history come alive more than any writer I can remember. I am dying for the promised sequel, which will follow Cromwell to his death. The sequel can’t come soon enough. Meanwhile, Mantel’s backlist awaits, including another historical novel, this one about the French Revolution. Forget Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (sorry, Oprah)—I’m going to read Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety.

The year brought other reading delights, of course. On the YA front, I loved Franciso X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, Adam Rapp’s Punkzilla, and my dear friend Helen Ellis’s The Turning: What Curiosity Kills. I was thrilled to finally read two classics that truly deserve that lofty designation: S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Judy Blume’s Forever. I was also thrilled to be asked to read and give a blurb for a YA novel that won’t appear until 2011: I Am J by Cris Beam. It’s a tough, gritty, sad, and lovely story about a young man who just happened to be born in the body of a female. It’s a powerful tale about a character not often represented in literature: a female-to-male transgender teenager. It’s an important book that will make a real difference to young people, and I expect it to get a lot of rave reviews next year.

I also fell in love with the poetry of Kay Ryan. Indeed, thanks to Ryan, I got over my long-held resistance to poetry and have started reading collections on a regular basis. I finally read—and loved—William Golding’s dark masterpiece, The Lord of the Flies. I finally finished The Stories of John Cheever, which I’d started last year. It’s a fat tome filled with plenty of the best short stories ever written. I was also blown away by Daniel Woodrell’s haunting novel of the Ozarks, Winter’s Bone (I also enjoyed the movie version, but it still pales next to the book). I also loved The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s borne aloft by its boisterous storytelling and language, a true contribution to our national literature. I also read plenty of Alice Munro, who still may be my favorite writer of all time. I never tire of reading her brilliant short stories. And just a few days ago, I finished a beautifully quirky novel called Sisters by a River by a little-known British writer, Barbara Comyns. It’s out of print, as are most of her novels, but I had read and loved an earlier one, The Vet’s Daughter, a few years ago, when it was reissued by the awesome New York Review of Books Classics, and so I tracked down much of her backlist online, ordering used copies from various outlets. The good news is that another small publisher, called Dorothy, has just republished another Comyns novel, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Here’s hoping a Comyns renaissance is in the offing!

I must mention two short stories I read this year, both by Irish writers—and both of which appeared in The New Yorker. Say what you will about the uneven quality of the fiction in The New Yorker—sometimes they publish pieces that are truly spectacular. Claire Keegan’s story “Foster” broke my heart. Beautifully written, it packs an emotional punch that is rare in short fiction—in any fiction, really. If you only read one short story this year, read this one. It’s a beauty. Kevin Barry is another great discovery. His story, “Fjord of Killary,” was a delight. I had been aware of Keegan’s fine work, but Barry is one to look out for.

Sadly, I didn’t see too many movies this year. Right about now, there are about ten movies I want to see—including The Social Network, Black Swan, Blue Valentine, The King’s Speech—and haven’t made time for yet. Hopefully I can take those in over the next few weeks. So my “best of” list would be highly inadequate. (Did I even see ten movies in a theater this year?) But two standouts were The Kids Are All Right and Let Me In. Annette Benning, who plays one half of a couple of lesbian mothers in the hilarious but very moving The Kids Are All Right, was just amazing in a role that could have easily been unsympathetic. She’s the higher strung half of the couple, a wine-swilling doctor, fierce, driven, and protective mother who fights hard to keep her family together. She’s not always pleasant, but she’s a heartbreakingly real person.

Let Me In was an American remake of the Swedish movie Let the Right One In. I saw the original and found it creepy and haunting. I didn’t expect an American remake to be any good, but I have to say that I liked Let Me In even more than the Swedish original (blasphemy? Whatever, film snobs). It’s still creepy and haunting, but also emotionally stunning, graced by two sensitive, lovely performances by Chloë Grace Moretz as a vampire trapped in the body of a young girl, and Kodi Smith-McPhee as the lonely and bullied boy who befriends her. At times it was a bit too violent, a bit too gory, but overall it was a thrilling story that also packed an emotional wallop. And it’s gorgeously shot.

I suppose I didn’t see a ton of movies in the theater because mainly I watched movies on DVD at home. The whole experience of going to the movies can be a blast, but more often than not it’s all about dodging big crowds and big lines. And with big crowds, you get annoying and chatty and distracting people in the theaters, and sometimes lousy seats. Plus, in New York at least, movies are expensive. So why not just stay home? That said, I do love sitting in a dark theater (with overpriced but delicious popcorn!), watching a film, getting lost and transfixed in a cinematic world. I suppose I just get lazy and don’t want to deal with the hassle. I need to get over that in the next few weeks so I can go see the above-mentioned movies. I did just watch Toy Story 3 on DVD, and yep, everyone’s right—it’s wonderful. And it made this “grown man” cry.

Most of the buzz and excitement centers, nowadays, on TV, far more so than movies. Or at least it does in the circles I run in! One of my favorites TV shows, Lost, ended its run this year. If the final season and the finale itself were somewhat of a letdown, Lost will still go down as one of the best shows to ever air on television. It was one of those rare shows that I had to watch the same night it aired. I anticipated each episode much more than I’ve anticipated any movie opening. Mad Men is also one of the top-notch shows, and maybe the best one that I watched all year. The episode with Peggy and Don—in which Peggy’s engagement crumbles and Don’s long-time friend in California dies—was an edge-of-your-seat emotional rollercoaster. The series is a fascinating glimpse at our recent past; I can’t wait to see where it goes next. Though it’s not a perfect show, I loved every minute of The Walking Dead. It’s a brilliant concept—zombie movie expanded into a full-length series—that just might bet better and better. It sure is unlike anything else on TV—like a mini horror movie each week, but with a little more emotional heft.

So there it all is, the cultural highlights of 2010. I could go on and discuss what music I listened to, but my taste is terribly unhip. I made a few discoveries, but mainly I like the usual crap that everyone likes. So here’s to 2010, a not-bad year. And here’s to 2011, which will hopefully be even better! Happy holidays, and see you next year!

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December 14th, 2010

A Few Words on a Few Classics

Classics. They can be categorized in many ways. They’re not always appreciated when initially published, but over the years their reputations grow and grow. Moby Dick anyone? Some eventual classics are appreciated and sell plenty of copies, but they don’t always win the awards or the accolades. Still, they last, and eventually earn the label. And then there are the classics whose status as such might be debated, but they are books that deserve the label all the same. For example, many may argue that this book is pure trash (including me!), but I’d still argue that Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews is, in many ways, a “classic,” because it has done what many books fail to do: Stood the test of time. Even though many might lament this, people are still reading this book. Sure, it’s not Tolstoy, but it has stuck around.

That, I think, is one of the signs of a classic. They’re not always the best novels ever written, nor are they the most successful. But something about these books has struck a chord with readers through the years, and somehow they persist.

Recently, I read a few classic YA novels. Two for the first time, one for perhaps the fourth time. Two are well-known. One still isn’t. But I’m still calling them classics, because they are.

My book club, which only reads YA books, decided on a classics double-header a few months ago. We selected The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton and Forever by Judy Blume—two books that I had never read, despite their classic status.

The Outsiders, written by Hinton when she was just a teenager herself, is gritty yet also innocent, set as it is the fifties (or maybe sixties), when wearing a leather jacket was a sign of toughness and not just a fashion statement. It’s a raw, powerful novel about fitting in, or not fitting in, as the case may be. It’s an indictment of social inequality, a comment on how people judge each other unfairly based on stereotypes and preconceptions. But more than that, it’s just a great story about a group of lost boys, trying to find their places in the world. Ponyboy, Johnny, Dallas, Sodapop—who can forget these names, these characters? Reading it, I was struck by its honesty and the spare power of its language. Sure, some of it can seem dated and corny, but it was revolutionary for its time, and is still a moving and powerful work.

I had read bits of Forever when I was a teenager—and by bits, I mean the “dirty” parts. My fiend Shelly had a well-worn copy. Maybe it was even a library copy. I can’t remember. I just remember thumbing through the underlined “dirty” passages about sex. I think, at the time, I was shocked that such frank sexual matter appeared in a book written expressly for teenagers. But none of the information—that is, the scenes and descriptions of them “doing it”—was news to me. After all, Shelly’s family had pay cable. We’d watched plenty of soft-core porn on Cinemax. I knew what sex was all about, even if I’d never had it myself. Still, finding such things in a book was a thrill, and felt, somehow, even more transgressive than watching an R-rated movie.

Reading Forever as an adult—as someone who’d himself written a relatively sexually charged YA novel—I was more impressed by Blume’s storytelling ease and her directness, her ability to create such realistic characters in Katherine and Michael. The prose is unfussy, unfancy. The story zips along like a good pageturner. Blume makes her accomplishment look easy, even artless. But any writer knows that writing a book like this isn’t easy at all. Such a streamlined, tight, and entertaining piece of work can only spring from an immensely talented writer. Forever, as far as I know, never won any huge accolades (though Blume herself has since become an award-winning icon) when it first came out. But it has surely outlived many other books of the era, and it still holds up as an honest, heartfelt, funny, but also sad depiction of first love and first sex.

I’ve written about John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. a few times before. The novel had long been out of print. This year, however, Flux reissued the novel in a 25th-anniversay edition. I was thrilled to contribute a back-of-the-book to this edition, along with contributions from Donovan’s niece, Stacey, and authors Brent Hartinger and Kathleen T. Horning. Like The Outsiders and Forever, I came to I’ll Get There. later in life, well after my actual teenage years. But reading it for the first time—and then again and again over the years—I knew that it was a classic, a lovely story that deserved to last. Not just because it was a groundbreaking work—the first YA novel to deal with gay characters—but because it was a beautifully written novel. Even though it’s not a widely known blockbuster like The Outsiders or Forever, it’s still a classic, one of those obscure gems that manage to find new fans and admirers through the years. Thanks to Flux, Donovan’s novel has new life, and here’s hoping it stays in print for years to come.

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December 10th, 2010

Awards Season

Award season is soon upon us, at least in the YA world, where the ALA will announce their big prizes (Newberry, Printz) in January. Last month, the National Book Award was bestowed on Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird (not be confused with the megahit Mockingjay!). And earlier this week YALSA announced the finalists for the William C. Morris Award, which honors a book written by a previously unpublished author. That designation is tricky, because many “debut novelists” have written other types of books before (nonfiction, an adult book, an educational work-for-hire, you name it), and are thus disqualified from consideration.

The Morris finalists are below. I admit I hadn’t really heard of many of these, but they all sound intriguing. Some may have to be added to my ever-growing to-be-read pile. What do you think of the finalists? What stellar debuts are missing from this list? Share your thoughts in the comments!

YALSA is also giving an award for the best nonfiction title. Which makes sense, because more and more excellent nonfiction books geared to young people are being published. I’m actually currently reading Susan Bartoletti’s They Called Themselves the K.K.K., so it’s nice to se this stellar book among the finalists for the excellence in nonfiction prize. I’ll post those finalists below as well.

The winners will be announced on January 10th. Congrats to all the finalists! More info on the Morris Award can be found here.

2011 Morris Finalists

HushGuardian of the DeadHold Me Closer, NecromancerCrossing the TracksThe Freak Observer
Hush

By Eishes Chayil, published by Walker Publishing Company, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

Growing up in her insular Chassidic Jewish community has always made Gittel feel secure and given her a sense of belonging. But when her best friend, Devory, hangs herself after being sexually abused, her faith in the group is challenged and only gradually does she find ways to express her desire for the community to deal with the issue.

Guardian of the Dead

By Karen Healey, published by Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group

Seventeen-year-old Ellie Spencer is just trying to make it through her last year of high school, but a chance interaction with the school’s weirdo, Mark Nolan, puts her on a very different path filled with Maori legends come to life.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

By Lish McBride, published by Henry Holt

Sam thinks his life working in a fast food restaurant is awful. But when he’s confronted by a powerful necromancer, he learns that everything he thought was true about his life — isn’t.

Crossing the Tracks

By Barbara Stuber, published by Margaret McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division

In the 1920s, Iris’ emotionally distant father sends her to rural Missouri to act as a companion to an elderly woman while he heads to Kansas City with his fiance. Iris’ mother died when she was five, and it takes her some time to learn to care for Mrs. Nesbitt and see her own future with optimism.

The Freak Observer

By Blythe Woolston, published by Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group

Loa, a strong, intelligent, hardworking sixteen-year-old experiences a year of loss: the death of her sister who was born with a genetic disorder, her lifelong friend who was killed in an accident, her best friend who has gone to Europe, and even her dog. While trying to take care of her family and make it through school she ponders the laws of physics and tries to understand what can never make sense.

2011 Nonfiction Finalists

Janis Joplin: Rise Up SingingThey Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist GroupSpies of Mississippi:  The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights MovementDark Game: True Spy Stories Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing

By Ann Angel, published by Amulet/Abrams

Janis Joplin, a true “fish out of water” in Port Arthur, TX, follows her own path to become an icon of American music in her short, tragic life.

They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group

By Susan Campbell Bartoletti, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Bartoletti provides readers with an in-depth look at the formation of the KKK and its subsequent evolution into a violent organization. With primary source material, she details the horrific history of the Ku Klux Klan and the people who fell victim to its reign of terror.

Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement

By Rick Bowers, published by National Geographic Society

In 1958, the state of Mississippi began an undercover operation, The Sovereignty Commission, to spy on and potentially squelch the Civil Rights movement. Bowers’ expose of this unknown organization reveals the extent to which some were willing to go to see segregation remain the law of the state.

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories

By Paul Janeczko, published by Candlewick Press

This compilation of different spies carries readers from the Revolutionary War through the infamous Cold War era. Delve into stories about the Choctaw Code Talkers of WWI, Soviet moles, Mata Hari and more as you uncover just how they changed the course of history.

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates

By Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw, published by Charlesbridge

Through fieldwork, laboratory analysis, and scientific debate, the bones of Turkana Boy, Lapede Child, Kennewick Man and Iceman are used to tell the fascinating stories of four member of the human family tree. Maps, photographs, and news headlines add to our understanding of archeology’s cutting edge science.

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October 11th, 2010

On Finishing a Draft of My Second Novel

Yes, it is true: I am finished with my second novel!!!

Well, finished with a draft.

Because “finished” isn’t truly apt until I turn in the final manuscript to my editor, after who knows how many rounds of edits it will need. But the hardest part, I think, is done. And I feel like a free man.

I started trying to write this second novel about three years ago, soon after I turned in the final edits of my first novel. My contract stipulated that I had to submit three chapters of a proposed novel idea to my editor, which she then had to approve before I went forward. I went through three rounds of this, and each time the novel idea was rejected. This process consumed an entire year, if I remember correctly. But my editor was right–those ideas were not that great. So as deflated as I felt each time an idea was rejected, I knew this was the right decision.

You may think it’s easy to come up with new idea after new idea, but it isn’t. Especially a few years ago, when I had very few ideas in my “idea pipeline.” (That pipeline, currently, has a healthy population, at the moment–almost too many ideas to narrow down.) Before I begin a novel, I have to live with my characters for a while, I have to think about them, figure them out. Sure, the more you write, the more you get to know them. But to even begin writing, I have to have a decent idea of who they are and what makes them tick. That takes time and can’t be rushed.

The fourth idea was the charm, but even then I had to restart the novel that I had started. That is, I had to chunk about 50 pages and start over. But finally, finally, when I rewrote those pages, I was on my way. From that point, I think it took me about a year and a half. That is not a speedy pace, but it’s not glacial either. Unlike some writers, I have a day job, so my writing time usually takes place on the weekends, or stray mornings here and there. I even managed to write a few hours after work sometimes. But it never feels like enough time. And the time when I wasn’t writing–well, I often felt guilty then, like I was being a lazy, no-good bum.

But you know what? I’m not going to complain anymore. I’m not going to talk about how exhausting the process was. Because the truth is I am getting paid to do this. Not huge sums, mind you. But still. I get to do what I love, and my books, eventually, find their way into the world. And for that I feel very lucky and fortunate.

So for now I will take a few weeks off to be lazy, to bask in the glow of having reached a milestone. And soon the edits will pour in, and then I will go back to work. But I’m also going to start attacking the other ideas I have in the aforementioned idea pipeline. Because even though it’s exhausting, and hard work, and sometimes thankless, writing is what I love.

Novel Number Three, here I come! (Well, after I rest my brain a bit.)

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September 21st, 2010

End Times

Granted, I was never the most active blogger to begin with. But I’ve been pretty quiet on here lately. Hopefully that will change next month. But right now I am in the midst of finishing my second novel. And I am almost done! I am making a mad dash to turn in a draft to my editor by around October 14th. And that leaves little time for much extra. So, until then, you may not hear from me. (Though I do have perhaps have one blog post I want to bang out. Maybe.)

So, until then, be well. I’ll be writing.

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August 22nd, 2010

What’s In a Name?

My friend Amy recently wrote a fun story about TV writers and how they get revenge–on diva actors, on those who tormented them as children, on annoying TV executives, and so on.

This got me thinking: Do novelists do this too?

Well, of course we do. Novels are full of thinly–or not so thinly–veiled depictions of people who writers have encountered in their lives, not always in a positive manner. Sometimes they even share names, though just as often they do not.

I must say, in my case, I didn’t set out with any axes to grind. Though I have what you might consider “villains” in my books, I don’t really view any character in such a simplistic, black-and-white fashion. Even the biggest creep on earth has some moment where you realize he’s a human being, though flawed, capable of depth of feeling. But certain people with certain names will always carry connotations, be they negative or positive. I’ve never known a Jared who wasn’t a bully. I can’t ever imagine naming a “hero” by that name. A few other names–to remain unmentioned here–are ruined to me forever. On the flip side, it seems like I’ve always had fond feelings for people named Matt or Matthew. I can’t think of a creep in the bunch.

I’d actually have to go back and read my book to see how guilty I am of doing this–that is, taking revenge out on someone by naming them in a novel. Some of the naming in my first book was a product of the subconscious. I know that sounds like a lame excuse. But when one is creating a fictional world, one gets totally wrapped up in it. And a “Betty Smith,” though she may share a name with an actual Betty Smith, pretty much becomes the fictional creation and stops having much of a connection to any actual, real person. Sometimes a real name acts as a simple placeholder, a kind of visual aid for the type of person you are hoping to create.

So, thinking of my own novel, for instance. Have I known a Tyler? Yes. A Valerie? Yes. A Clare? Yes. Do these characters look anything like the actual people who share those names in the real world? To be honest, not at all. Well, okay, Valerie may look exactly like the Valerie I knew in high school. But she is a tiny, minor character (a positive one at that), so it hardly seems like I have committed a grave offense by appropriating her name and appearance. As for Tyler and Clare, the names are the only things these characters share with the people I know who have these names. Seriously. Indeed, none of the major characters in What They Always Tell Us look like actual people I know or have known. (In other words, no, I don’t envision myself when I envision Alex.) What’s more honest is to say that they look like people I’ve glimpsed here and there throughout my life, but then they are given further shading and shaping by my imagination.

The one character in WTATU who people think they “know” is based on someone real is Jack Pembroke, who does share a first name and many characteristics with a prominent (or should I say “prominent”?) person in my home town. But despite the similarities and coincidences, Jack Pembroke is Jack Pembroke, a made-up character. Someone I created out of scraps and bits and turned into a different person altogether.

With apologies to any offended Jacks or Tylers, that is the joy–and mystery–of writing fiction. Taking those scraps and bits, those names, those faces, and crafting them all into something completely different, something of your own making.

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July 21st, 2010

Author Interview: Helen Ellis

My dear pal and fellow writer (and fellow former Tuscaloosan) Helen Ellis recently took the time to answer some questions I had for her about her fantastic and super-fun YA novel, The Turning: What Curisoity Kills. Below is our exhange. After you read, do yourself a favor and buy here book! And you can check her web site here, where she posts a lot of fun videos (some of which have starred yours truly).

Well, dearest Helen, thanks for answering my questions on my little ole blog. I really loved The Turning: What Curiosity Kills. Or is it What Curiosity Kills: The Turning? Either way, it was a great read, packed with sparkling humor and wit, suspense, fantastical set pieces, and intriguing and colorful characters. In fact, I thought every character, no matter how minor, was packed with such personality. That might be what I loved most about the book. There is not a generic line or person in the entire book. That’s quite hard to pull off. And how can one not love a book with a character named Ling Ling Lebowitz? But I’ll stop gushing and get to the questions:

Now, this novel is the first of a trilogy, right? You end on a definite cliffhanger, so can you spill any dirt about what happens next?

Surely. Book Two of The Turning is called Swing the Dead. A rash of murdered teens sweeps Manhattan and a citywide curfew is enforced. While trying to solve the crimes, Mary is forced to choose which turn side she will rule: domestics or strays. But then she finds out that there are more than two sides.

I kind of hate this question, but I must ask it, because the premise of your novel is so unique. How did you come up with this idea of teenagers turning into cats?

I wrote what I knew. I remember what it’s like to be a teenager and I live with two cats. Also, I had a dream that I woke up and went to my bathroom sink to wash my face. When I looked in the medicine cabinet mirror, I found that my face was not my own. It was inhuman and needed serious electrolysis.

What was the hardest part about pulling this off? Were the “turning” scenes hard to write, or were they the fun part?

The turning scenes were pretty easy for me. When there aren’t popularly known guidelines, like there are with vampires (no garlic, no light) and werewolves (no anger, no full moon), I can just make stuff up. And I did. And it was fun.

The hardest part was teenage angst. It’s no fun to relive puberty.

The novel nicely evokes the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Why did you choose to set the novel there? Why not Alabama, where we both grew up?

I set my first novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat in our hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama – where you set your wonderful novel, What They Always Tell Us. I’d been there, done that. So, again, I took a look around me and I wrote what I knew.

I’ve lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for well over ten years. In What Curiosity Kills, I wanted to show my Upper East Side – not the glitzy version you see on TV and in the movies.

You basically create this entire “turning” subculture, which clearly sprung from your rich (and twisted!) imagination. But did you do any research to guide you into this world of feline-to-human craziness?

Nope. I did absolutely no research. I’ve had cats for most of my life, so I know how they behave. They’re fastidious, they like to sleep, they like to be pet, and they are curious. Also, the strays in the back of the novel’s Lower East Side salon, Kropps & Bobbers, are real. The salon, too. And when my husband, who is Greek, and I travel to Greece we find the mainland and islands overrun with stray cats. When I started writing, I realized I’d been surrounded my domestics and strays my whole life. I remembered, watched, and wrote.

You clearly love cats, since you have two adorable boy kitties yourself. What is it about cats that attracts and intrigues you?

Cats are comfortably selfish. They want something – affection, food, a fight – they go for it.

Your first novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat (there’s that “cat” word again!), came out about ten years ago. It was written for adults and was quite a success, as I recall. What have you been working on since then, and how did you come to write for teens?

For the past ten years, I’ve been writing and failing to publish. I wrote a second book and my agent couldn’t get a publisher. I poured my soul into a third book for a new agent who, after taking it on, decided she didn’t really like it, after all. Without an agent, I started a fourth book, because I am a writer, and that’s what writers do.

I had that dream about the cat face – remember? I wrote sixty pages and an editor friend asked to see them. He made me an offer before the book was halfway finished. This editor worked for the teen imprint Fire at Sourcebooks. I never intentionally wrote the book aimed at young adults. My characters just happened to be in high school (as they were in Eating the Cheshire Cat). Good stories are good stories. I write for everyone.

What, in your experience, is the difference between writing for adults and teenagers? Do you prefer one over the other?

No, no preference. The only difference I found between writing for adults and teens was in the editing process, where more graphic bits of sensuality and violence were taken out. I didn’t mind because the gist of the book wasn’t changed. And as Mama used to tell me as a teenager, “For heaven’s sake, button your blouse, Helen Michelle, leave a little something to be desired.”

What books and authors have inspired you? And what kind of books do you read for “fun”?

Here are the top three books that I’ve read and that have inspired me this year:

The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

Roses by Leila Meacham

When it comes to reading for fun, all the books I read are for fun. I’m not in school anymore. I’m all grown up and can do what I wanna do. So all the books I read are my choice. And even if the subject matter is difficult or sad, I’m still reading because the act of reading is a good time. And even in our book club, when a book is chosen that I don’t end up enjoying, I’m still having fun because I love talking about books.

Yay, books!

What else are you working on, besides the rest of the Turning books?

I’m working on the first of a cozy mystery series, Rebecca Starling, about a 1930’s starlet who moves to Hollywood and gets mixed up in murder. I’m also revising a shelved adult novel, The Mossy Queen, about a woman who murders her planter husband and turns his plantation into a house of prostitution. Oh dear, what will Mama say about that one?

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