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Writing and Reading
It’s the time of year for lists. Wish lists, of course but also Best Of lists. Specifically, best BOOKS OF lists. Goodreads Choice Awards. Huffington Post Best Books of 2013. Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2013. Barnes & Noble Best Books of 2013. And those lists will go on and on, as we start counting down toward ALA in January, when the medals and awards are handed out.
To be honest–I never know what to make of these lists. Meaning, I don’t know if, as a reader, I can trust them 100%. Who makes these lists, after all? Do they really include the best books, or just the ones that were most visible? Who gets to decide? If a book shows up on multiple lists, does that mean it really is that good, or does it just mean it got sent out to all the right people? Does “best” mean “most beloved by the masses,” or “most well-written”? Because, in my opinion, there is often a really big difference.
Not that I completely discount these lists, either. (Anything that has George Saunders’ Tenth of December on it for 2013 I will trust, because that book is literary genius boiled down to its purest, sparkliest form.) It’s just that the past has made me a little skeptical. (And I’m not just talking about the year “Slumdog Millionaire” won a thousand Oscars.) For example, I have a friend who, every December, polls other people for the most essential album of the year. As someone who usually just listens to compilations made by her friends, and who buys perhaps two new albums a year, I am woefully behind on what’s being released, so when the poll comes around, I usually offer up something pathetic like, “Well I heard this really nice girl named Mozella on NPR . . .” Every once in awhile, I’ll find something new that really grabs me, and feels ESSENTIAL. I’ll get excited about having something to submit to the poll. And then I’ll find out it came out in 2009.
There are lots of other people who participate in this list, however, and they have their fingers on the music pulse. When first invited to participate, I was thrilled, not just to be involved, but because I thought, “Now here‘s a group that will help me find really interesting new music.” Which was, in a way, true. I did discover a lot of new things, thanks to this poll. After a couple of years, however, (because I was paying more attention, thanks to this poll), I started feeling as though 80% of the winners list reflected what I’d already seen at the Virgin Megastore’s (back when there was a Virgin Megastore) Top Indie Picks, or Rolling Stone’s Alternative Best of the Year. Rather than being a list injected with unique personality and distinction, this felt, largely, fueled by marketing. And it’s when I started to get suspicious.
Not that all lists are the same, of course. There are several out there that will lead you to the unexpected (and, I think, high-quality, though I haven’t read near enough books on them to tell). Flavorwire’s 50 Books that Define The Past 5 Years in Literature has made me curious, due both to the number of books I’ve never heard of on it, plus the ones I have, and Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2013 list has got some uncommonly good gems, even if there are also several of the predictables there. PW’s list is intriguing, to me, and the Children’s Book Council 2014 Teen Choice Book of the Year nominee list has some surprising inclusions too.
I’m not trying to say that reading what everyone else is reading is a bad thing, either. There’s something wonderful about participating in a community of readers, all talking about a book they love. (It’s why I lead two book clubs, and am a member of two others. It’s part of what makes my job at Little Shop of Stories so great.) It’s just that I wonder, sometimes, if we all really love these books, or if what we love is being in a group of people saying we love it? And if we’re all reading the same things, all the time, and those things are the ones mainly put in front of us thanks to good marketing (read: corporations) . . . well, that’s what starts to give me the heebejeebies.
Perhaps what I need among all these BEST OF lists is the “Hey I Read This and Thought it was Amazing, and You Will Probably Not Come Across it Another Way so Here You Go” lists. The underdog list. The What-You’d-Find-Randomly-Grabbing-in-A-Used-Bookstore list. Which is why I’m grateful for Slate, and their “Overlooked and Underrated Books of 2013” list. Not all of them may be THE BEST, but at least they’ll help round out my library.
Of course, I know as well as you know, that all these lists are primarily like pirate code: a guide. They are other people’s opinions. Sometimes lots and lots of other people’s opinions, but still, just that.
And the only true way to decide what’s the best and what isn’t is, of course, to read and think for yourself.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorites. Besides the food, and the fun, and the truly-becoming-winter weather, what I love most about Thanksgiving is taking the time to think about all the things I’m thankful for, and offering up some heartfelt gratitude for it. I try to say thanks every single day, but there’s something terrific about having a whole holiday built around it.
So today, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I want to say thanks to you. Thanks for reading my books, and thinking about them, sharing your thoughts with me or with someone else. Thanks for having me at your school or in your library, asking me questions, and being curious about my writing life. Thank you, most of all, for giving me the opportunity to continue to practice one of my very favorite things in the world: trying to articulate this beautiful human experience in one of its highest art forms, writing.
Thank you. So much. And happy Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I love taking time to think about all the blessings in my life, and offering up sincere thanks for them. Being able to choose whatever I want to eat, whenever I’m hungry, to afford organic produce, hormone-free meats . . . to be choosy about what I put in my mouth . . . I find this an amazing gift that I am grateful for every day.
So when it rolls around to the holiday where we all eat even more than usual, where food is the focus, I think especially hard about those who don’t have anything to eat at all. With recent cuts to food stamps, there will be even more families struggling with hunger this year, which is why I’m so glad that Little Shop of Stories is conducting a food drive from now until November 17th:
OTSP Food Drive and Community Service Day
Friday, November 1st | to November 17th
In our On The Same Page book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, the Valley of Fruitless Mountain is barren and the people have to work hard to grow rice in the stubborn land. There are people in our community who, like Minli and her village, do not have enough food. This year, On The Same Page will be partnering with the Atlanta Community Food Bank to help change the fortune of people in our community! Drop off canned or non-perishable foods at Little Shop of Stories from November 1st through 17th. Visit acfb.org for a full list of items needed.
In conjunction with the food drive, On The Same Page will also be having a Community Volunteer Day at the Atlanta Community Food Bank (732 Joseph E Lowery Blvd NW, Atlanta) on Saturday, November 16th from 1pm to 4 pm. Volunteers must be at least eight years old in order to participate. We will be working in the Product Resource Center to inspect, sort, and pack food donations. We will also take a tour of the warehouse facility and learn about ways to help people in need. Space is limited so please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign your family up.
For those of you who can’t get to Little Shop of Stories, I encourage you to use this time of fullness to find ways to reach out and help your struggling neighbor. It doesn’t take much –you don’t have to give millions, or even a fraction of that– but it really does make a difference. What better way to show our thanks for what we have, than by sharing it with others?
As a bookseller, it feels a little silly that we put the Christmas books out as soon as Halloween is over, so showing you the cover of a book that won’t be out until July of next year is possibly preposterous, but I am SO excited, I can’t help it!! Here’s the cover to IN DEEP, my YA novel coming out July 2014. Huge, huge thanks to Meredith Kaffel, Patrick Price, and Regina Flath for all the help with this.
Take a look, and tell me what YOU think!
Whenever I’m out and about discussing books with people, I often get asked about content, and whether anything is or should be “off topic” for young adults. To this I usually say something along the lines of, “Intense issues are in young adult books because young adults are dealing with intense issues.” Whether it’s cutting, or anorexia, or suicide, or drugs, or sexual violence . . . real teens are facing these issues, and therefore I fiercely believe they should have books that help them navigate those rough waters
Which is why I’m so glad to be sharing Christa Desir’s debut novel, Fault Line. This is a book that will most certainly make you flinch, but more importantly will make you want to talk. I had the honor and pleasure of talking with Christa about this daring and important book, but first here’s the summary:
Ben could date anyone he wants, but he only has eyes for the new girl—sarcastic, free-spirited Ani. Luckily for Ben, Ani wants him, too. She’s everything Ben could ever imagine. Everything he could ever want.
But that all changes after the party. The one Ben misses. The one Ani goes to alone.
Now Ani isn’t the girl she used to be, and Ben can’t sort out the truth from the lies. What really happened, and who is to blame?
Ben wants to help Ani, but the more she pushes him away, the more he wonders if there’s anything he can do to save the girl he loves in this powerful, gut-wrenching debut novel.
Christa was also kind enough to sign a copy of the ARC I received months ago (and read voraciously in one sitting), and I’d love to pass it on to one of you. Please tweet “Talk about fault and FAULT LINE with @ChristaDesir and @TerraMcVoy at www.terraelan.com” to be entered to win. Closes at midnight Friday 10/18/2013.
Please note that there is some (non-graphic) talk about rape in this interview, for those who may need a trigger warning.
But let’s hear what Christa had to say:
TEM: From the things I get exposed to, rape seems a primarily girl-oriented issue, but in Fault Line you chose a male narrator. Can you just . . . talk about that?
CD: Yes, I did this because I really feel like the way to change is to start engaging boys and men in the issue. So many of them want to help but don’t know what to do. I feel like systematically dismantling rape culture is all of our responsibilities and men can do a lot. For me, the men in my life have been amazing and supportive. I think most guys are good guys or at least have good intentions. And I wanted to write a book where guys could read it and say, “Yeah, I’d be like him. I’d feel like that.” Ben does some really dumb things in the book, but his intentions are to help. I think most guys have that intention. I also wanted to explore the fact that rape has a huge impact on more than just the survivor. This is something that everyone around a survivor struggles with as well. So it was Ben’s story I wanted to tell the most.
TEM: You begin Fault Line with an incredibly grim scene, and the bulk of the book explains what has happened to led up to it. Why did you decide to go with this narrative arc?
CD: Well, to be honest, I thought if I started with the love story, boys would stop reading. I very much want boys and girls to read this book and I started from that scene because I thought it would force guys to power through mustard-y kisses to figure out how Ben and Ani ended up there. I know what all of us are up against when it comes to engaging teens in reading, particularly reluctant readers. So my choice was very much a bold move to say, “This is what you’re going to get; I’m not sugar coating this for you”. And thankfully my agent and editors were right there with me.
TEM: What’s heartbreakingly wonderful about Fault Line is that, in spite of the tragedy at its center, it is also a great romance between Ben and Ani. How was it, writing these lovely scenes, when you knew what was ultimately going to happen to both of them?
CD: I felt that we needed the romance so that we really knew the cost, what they’d lose. I wanted everyone to love them as a couple so that they understood that something like this could impact you in a very drastic way. And I desperately wanted a reason for Ben to stay. Because guys often don’t.
TEM: Secondary characters are always so interesting to me, and I thought that Kevin and Kate were particularly moving as they both struggled to deal with what happened to Ani. I know this isn’t really a question, but can you talk about them as characters, and the challenges of supporting people in this kind of situation?
CD: I liked both of them because I think that they also had really good intentions that were so different from Ben’s. I think people react in so many different ways to sexual violence, particularly when it’s a friend. And I wanted Kevin to be able to see something that Ben couldn’t, even in all his BS bravado, he knew that this wasn’t Ben’s problem to fix. I also felt like I wanted Kate because I wanted us to think critically of the role of bystanders. There’s a lot of focus on bystander involvement. Lots of curriculum is now based on being an “active bystander” so you don’t just let things happen. But the thing is, that’s so easy for adults to say from an outside place, from this strong moral foundation that is solidly grounded. But I remembered how hard it was for me as a teen to stand up for myself, let alone anyone else. How I desperately wanted to fit in. How I never wanted to be the buzz kill of any situation. It is hard to be the one who is willing to step in and intervene. Particularly in Kate’s case when Ani so adamantly didn’t want Kate’s help. I once had a teen say to me, “Yeah, I have to play the ‘hate me now, thank me later’ game a lot. It’s hard, but I do it. But it doesn’t always make me the easiest friend or the guy you want to come along.” This is so very telling for anyone witnessing this sort of thing.
TEM: You recently helped raise $6000 for a writing workshop for rape survivors. Can you tell us about the project and its importance to you?
My book came out of my participation in the first survivor testimonial writing workshop. It is an incredible two days of reading and writing. It is about sharing stories and healing and getting political and engaging in change for this issue. I sat in a room with formidable incredible women who had harrowing stories that stole my breath and had all managed to find a place to survive. And this workshop ended up connecting us all in ways that only shared trauma could. It’s not counseling. It’s finding your voice and telling your story in your words. Learning how powerful testimony can be. Fault Line isn’t my story, but it held universal truths about survivors. So when I wrote this book, I decided to donate half my proceeds back to the organization (The Voices and Faces Project) so that more survivors could have writing workshops. And then I had 2 friends who wanted to help and get involved too, so I went even further. We did an IndieGoGo campaign to have a workshop in NY in February 2014. I will say that we raised a lot of this money because of the writing community. I have gotten buckets of support in doing this from all avenues (agents, editors, friends, etc). It has been huge and made me so grateful to be in this community.
TEM: In the version I read before its release, the ending of Fault Line is so abrupt (even though we see it coming) and so devastating. What do you imagine for Ben and Ani beyond the pages of this book?
CD: What’s funny about this is that it is less abrupt in the final book. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on people wondering about the abruptness of the ending in the ARC. And I had a very good writer friend help me figure out what was wrong. I wanted it to be open-ended. I wanted readers to understand that rape isn’t solved for anyone, that it doesn’t just go away. And I wanted readers left teetering a little on the edge of “I’m not sure this is going to be okay” because the reality is that healing from rape is a lifelong process and there are still days in my life now 30 years later where I wonder if it’s all going to be okay. I really felt like Ben’s arc finished in that last scene. But my friend pointed out that the ending in the ARC didn’t fulfill its responsibility in terms of Ben’s emotional arc. So I added a little bit more. And now I think it’s better. It’s still open, but less abrupt. Readers hopefully have a better pulse on his emotional landscape with the new ending. (This should also teach bloggers that you can’t judge a book by its ARC). And maybe one day, I’ll send you the seven epilogues for this book that ended up in the trash bin.
TEM: Fault Line is not necessarily what you would call a “commercial” book, but it’s also so important. How does it feel, debuting in such a way?
CD: It feels deeply personal. But I imagine every book does to every author. Because there’s something of all of us in everything we write. For me, it’s a bit tricky because I am “out” as a survivor and advocate. This puts me in a place where people disclose to me because I am a sister to them and I will listen and I will believe. That is tricky for a debut when you have all the other “debut” stuff going on. And yet, that keeps me grounded. That reminds me that I’m an activist before all, that I wrote this book for teenagers and adults who need it and maybe won’t feel so alone. And I wrote it to start a conversation. I have beautiful and terrible reviews. This I expected. It’s a very polarizing book. But I honestly have an army of people around me who want this book in the world and that has been the greatest gift.
TEM: Sofia comes in late in the game as a survivor voice and also a support to Ben. Can you talk about her character, and maybe where she came from in terms of the work that you yourself have done in this realm?
CD: Sofia is the voice of possible. She is what Ben wants for Ani. And I wanted that in there so we all could feel that there is a way out. That you can integrate something horrible into who you are and turn it into something beautiful. (SPOILER) I knew I wasn’t going to do this for Ani so I felt like we needed Sofia. Because the reality is that sometimes we lose rape victims, but sometimes we don’t. And that is just as important, if not more so. Sofia is every woman who sat in that survivor writing workshop with me. And Ani is every woman who couldn’t.
TEM: Your Day Job Identity is as an editor. What’s it like straddling life as a writer and life as someone who helps other people be better writers?
CD: I love it. It makes me a better writer, but I also deeply love partnering with authors to make their work awesome. It is so incredibly gratifying watching their success. It feels a bit like my own and I just love that part. I also am a caretaker by nature and there is a lot of caretaking involved in editing.
TEM: The word “fault” appears many times in Fault Line, including, of course, the title. Anything you want to say about the word’s malleability and/or significance?
CD: I did because I hate the word. I think culpability is such a tricky thing for survivors. We are the first to blame ourselves, you know. We find all the things we did wrong so that this happened to us. Part of that is because this is how we were raised. (What were you wearing? What were you drinking? Who were you hanging out with?) But I had this terrible thing happen to me when I was five and I blamed myself and didn’t disclose for ten years. I was five. It’s almost absurd that I thought it was my fault, but I did. So now I hate that word. And I love how often it’s used in the book and I love it on the title because it makes people really look at how we feel about difficult things. Particularly the murkiness of sexual assault that isn’t “clean” or “simple”. I had this great friend read the book and say that she loved it because she was so uncomfortable with herself as a feminist afterwards. Because she really did have to decide if Ani afterwards was culpable, not for the assault but for her behavior. And it made my friend exam how long we allow trauma to excuse things. And I loved that so much of this came up, because the bottom line is everyone played a part in where that story ended up.
TEM: What do you most hope readers of Fault Line will come away with?
CD: Conversation. Always. I want this book to make people go, “Dude, you have to read this so we can TALK about it, because OMG.” I want the polarizing view points. I want people to hate it and love it and work through the tough stuff so that they can honestly consider where they stand in this. Of course we’re against rape, but how much responsibility does Ben have? Kate? Kevin? Ani? Ani’s mom? These are big questions. I want the gloves to come off and people to be honest. Because that’s when we’ll start realizing that we need to help teens understand what rape is, when consent needs to happen, when they need to step in, what their responsibility is, etc.
TEM: What are the best resources you’ve found in your work for victims of rape and the people who want to help them?
CD I have them in the back of my book!! There’s a huge list. It’s also on my blog (so are other resources for that matter). But before every presentation that I ever give, I have teens save the number for RAINN in their phones (1-800-656-HOPE). Because at the very least, if something happens to them or one of their friends, they’ll have a hotline number on hand to call to figure out how to get help.
Thank you so much, Christa, for this discussion and for Fault Line. Remember, Tweet “Talk about fault and FAULT LINE with @TerraMcVoy and Christa at @ChristaDesir at www.terraelan.com”) to be entered to win a signed copy of the ARC. Closes midnight 10/18/2013.