Archive for ‘Magic’

April 28, 2011

viruses, prions and how we decide

by Sara Gran
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I’ve been thinking a lot about viruses lately. I think Douglas Rushkoff coined the term “media virus,” or at least he was the first to publish a book with that name. This was a pretty big idea in the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s–before Rushkoff’s book viruses were already a bit of a counterculture meme due to William Burrough’s fascination with them (which I won’t pretend to understand). The idea Rushkoff presents in the book is, if I remember right, somewhat different than the way it was often repeated–a media virus isn’t just a thing that replicates itself. It’s a kind of Trojan Horse that repeats itself without you knowing, under the cover of something else. For example, every few years Calvin Klein comes out with an ad campaign so shocking, risque, and child-porn-y that the ads generate protest and are pulled from TV and magazines. This isn’t an accident. The people who do advertising for Calvin Klein know exactly where that line is, and they cross it on purpose. Your media immune system wouldn’t let in just any old Calvin Klien ad, becuase you’re too hip for that, right? But your immune system will, maybe, let in a story about censorship or child pornography. So it lets in the news about the Calvin Klein ad. But you’re infected all the same–now in the back of your head is forever the idea that Calvin Klien is so groundbreaking and daring their ads get banned from TV. Last year’s media flu shot included the technology to fight “advertising,” but you didn’t get the shot innoculating you from “news items.” Does that make sense? Calvin Klein is using this idea for not-so-productive ends (advertising blue jeans and underwear), but all of us in media and the arts can use this idea for our own ends, too.

Grant Morrison, comic book artist and all-around magician, took this idea a step further: in an interview I read with him he said he wanted his work to be not like a virus, but like a prion. A prion is the thing that causes Mad Cow Disease. A prion is similar to a virus, but deadlier–it can do its damage for years before you even know you have it, and by the time you find out, your brain is permanently altered. There’s no going back. It’s a virus times a thousand.

As many of you know I’m a conspiracy buff.  Generally when we talk about conspiracies we talk about bad conspiracies–people working behind the scenes, in the shadows, to kill presidents and control the world economy and plant stupid ideas about Calvin Klein in our head. But there are good conspiracies, too–people working to plant viruses and prions in our culture that will help us expand our consciousness and expand our conception of what’s possible. I like thinking that we can take technology and tools designed to narrow our perspective and sell us crap and instead use those tools to expand ourselves. I like the idea that even out of the dumbest corporate stuff–a Calvin Klein ad campaign–we can find something to help us change the world.

A few years ago I felt like I was floundering a little and I decided to make a mission statement for my work, which came down to defining my virus. I write my novels because I love to, and I write other stuff for money (and I love writing that stuff, too), but I felt like I needed some clarity about what my mission was. Why was I writing all this shit? To give the world a peak into my filthy little nutjob subconscious? To make money? That’s not a very satisfying plan for life! I think we need something a bit meatier than that to be happy! When I was young and depressed I had a lot of ideas about how literature can offer solace and friendship, and I still have those ideas, but that’s not something you can happen on purpose–you just bare your soul and hope that someone out there, someday, feels less lonely for having seen it. That’s not really a goal you can work towards. And important as that is, I needed something more immediate than that to make sense of my life and my work.

So I made a mission statement like business people do. I’m not gonna tell you what that mission is, because that would take all the fun out of it. But it’s not about business or money. It’s about how (and when) we think and how we understand the world around us. So now, even when I’m working on something for hire–that is, not my original stuff but stuff I’m getting paid to do–I know what my mission is and I sneak my little virus/prion in there when I can. To be clear, I’m not talking about an overt or “subtle” (quotes ’cause it’s never really subtle, is it?) political or social message in my work. I think that almost never works. Instead I’m talking more about spreading a certain point of view about the possibility of things and the nature of the world and its boundaries. Knowing my mission (to spread my virus) has made working more enjoyable and made it easier to make decisions about which projects to take on and what direction to go on in the projects I’m already working on. For example, when I’m offered the chance to work on big mass media projects where I’ll have some creative freedom, that’s almost an automatic “yes” for me, because spreading my virus to the widest possible audience is on mission. And while making money is not the core of my mission, my mission is better served if I’m solvent. I always have a million things I want to write about, and I’ve always been a little frustrated about having to narrow these impulses down–there just isn’t time for me to pursue every creative project I’d like to. Now that’s much easier; of all my ideas (assuming I’m attracted to all of them equally) I pick the ideas that are on mission to work with. If I’m overwhelmed in a book and don’t know where I’m going, my first question is how the story is best served. But if there’s more than one answer to that question, as there often is, I can narrow it down further by asking which direction best serves my mission.

Of course, if I really wanted to work on an idea that didn’t align with my mission, I wouldn’t hesitate–the point of this exercise is to serve my writing process, not hinder it. As I’ve said before, my New Year’s resolution this year was to put my intuition first in all decisions, and I’ve been sticking to it. And I treat my writing as an art as much as a craft, so my inspiration is also up there in my decision making. So my decision-making hierarchy would be something like survival-> inspiration -> intuition ->  virus-spreading. If all of those things are in line, sweet. If not, I know survival comes first (if I’m living under a bridge that’s not very good for my mission!), then inspiration (in other words, what I feel like doing), than gut instinct/intuition (the two are closely related, so presenting “inspiration” and “intuition” as two categories here isn’t quite correct, but it’s the closest I can come), then the chance to spread my virus. Of course, other factors also come into play–possible collaborators, time and space constraints, obviously money–and the math on every project is slightly different. Knowing my mission–to spread my virus–helps make all these decisions easier. If it seems like I should make these decisions based on profitability rather than esoteric instincts, well, that’s actually not possible–it’s pretty hard to predict which projects will bring you out ahead financially in the long term.  So while that’s certainly a factor, it falls more under “intuition” than anything else.

Writers, artists, anyone else out there have a mission statement? Or a virus/prion they use? If not, how do you decide what to do when you hit a fork in the road, creatively and financially?

April 19, 2011

Escape from New York v. Sweet Valley High: young adults, class and books

by Sara Gran
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I’m going to begin by telling you that I had an uncommon upbringing. I went to a strange experimental private school in Brooklyn for first through twelfth grade–when I gradutated, there were 40-odd kids in my grade, and that was the biggest it had ever been. The school was a kind of hippie-eugenist hybrid run by a charismatic man who was at times brilliant (he had us reading, and loving, Greek classics in eighth grade) and at times idiotic (racial and gender equality were not part of the program) and at many times just crazy. I liked him. I didn’t like the school. Despite the theatrics, our lives were fairly narrow. We were supposed to be “gifted,” to be intellectually inquisitive (but not so inquisitive about the real-life Brooklyn around us), and to take our place among the upper, if eccentric, classes. The school was in Brooklyn Heights, a genteel, WASP-y little outpost where Mayflower decendants lived on Garden Place and Roosevelts lived on the water and you could almost forget that most of Brooklyn was poor, diverse, and pissed-off.

At home, I grew up on a block of brownstones that had been owned, mostly, by people who worked on the  Gowanus Canal, with a few artists, middle-class adventurers for Manhattan, and white-collar workers mixed in. My closest neighbors were, I kid you not, Mohawks who worked in high steel. Other than the newcomers like us, the men in these families worked for someone else and the women stayed home and cooked and cleaned. And cooked and cleaned and cooked and cleaned. (Jesus, how clean can one house be?)  My mother was not that kind of mother and my father was not that kind of father. My father had his own firm in the city and my mother worked for him, wrote, and stayed home and  did not clean and when she did cook made sushi or coq au vin. Our working class neighbors probably had more cash than us most of the time, but they didn’t have the aspirations for their children that my parents had for me. They didn’t expect their kids to go to college or become professionals. They thought their kids would work in the same kind of working-class union jobs they did–of course, by the time their kids were grown those jobs were gone, but that’s a whole other story.

So I didn’t really fit in at school, and I didn’t really fit in around the neighborhood, where everyone was poorer than me, and I didn’t really fit in at home, being substantially smaller and quieter than the rest of my family (who I love to death, lest that be misunderstood). I don’t think my parents, who are not from New York, ever really understood that they were raising their kids in Brooklyn.  They seemed to think we could be in it, but not of it–somehow we would live in New York City but it would be the New York City of Columbia of Greenwich Village, not the New York I actually lived in, and came to love, of graffiti and broken subways.

Young adult (YA) books were for me very mixed up in this mess of shifting class boundaries and overheated academics and the general oversexualization of everything in the seventies and eighties.  At the fancy private school we did  not read YA books. YA books were for public school kids. YA books were not for kids who read the classics. We were reading Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austin and Hemmingway (all great writers, but why anyone would do that to an eleven year old girl is a whole other question). There was a small window–say, 10-13–when a little Judy Blume or Norma Klien were acceptable and encouraged. It was wordlessly acknowledged that us girls needed help understanding, oh, you know, tampons and bras and groping hands and all the other accoutrements of young adult life, and Norma and Judy, with their good college-bound little white girls, could guide us somewhat (not to knock Blume or Klien, who were wonderful). And there was a campiness and luridness (and, probably, sexiness) to V.C. Andrews, Judith Krantz, and other adult-but-loved-by-teens writers that made it seem foolish but acceptable–everyone needs some light reading, right? But Sweet Valley High? At home or at school that would have been beyond the pale. It would have been more acceptable for me to read Lolita at twelve than a Sweet Valley High book.

So guess which one I wanted to read? In fact, a Sweet Valley High book was probably my first teen contraband. Long before I started stealing sips of liquor and pocketing stray pills and hanging out with the “bad” kids, my first trangression against my class boundaries was I think a Sweet Valley High paperback. A public school friend who read them all (her parents were just happy she was reading!) lent me one to take home. God was it boring! Boring in the most fascinating way possible. Suburbs, gentiles, cars, blondes–Sweet Valley High was another world. I still remember one scene in that book–a boy drives the girl home from a football game or pep rally, they get caught in the rain, and she takes their letter jackets in and her mother puts them in the dryer for them. Every word in that sentence could have been Greek for all it applied to my life–cars, moms, dryers, games. I didn’t read another SVH novel. But it stayed with me, not entirely pleasantly.

But there was another line of YA books that did relate to my life, if in a roundabout way. I’ve written before about what I will hereby officially deem the New York City Feedback Loop–the strange experience of growing up in Brooklyn while watching The Warriorsand Escape from New York and twenty-five thousand made-for-tv movies and sit-com episodes about  the dangers of New York City.  It didn’t exactly lead to a sense of safety in everyday life. And while these movies and books were of course highly exaggerated, they did portray a gritty, genuinely frightening aspect of living in the city back then. It certainly wasn’t The Warriors. But the dads in Sweet Valley didn’t sleep with a shotgun in the closet because the last time they called 911, with a burglar actually in the house, the cops never came. So Escape from New York was a fantasy I could relate to more than the SVH fantasy. And of course, better to take pride in making it through another day in the most dangerous city in America than to sheepishly tag along as the weirdo wearing all black at Sweet Valley High, right? Now I’m a little more selective about how I choose my identity, but I think that’s asking a lot from a twelve-year-old.

The YA versions of Panic in Needle Park  were books about kids in trouble who ran away to New York City where, generally, terrible things happened to them. That made sense to me. We saw these people sometimes, these people who weren’t from New York City, tourists on the subway wearing light colors with big bellies and their wallets ripe for the taking in the rear hip pocket, where no New Yorker would keep a paperclip. It made sense to me that when these people came to the city bad things happened to them. Bad things happened to us, and we were real New Yorkers. If we sometimes couldn’t safely navigate our way through the streets, those people from out of town, always looking up, up, up at the height of Manhattan, didn’t have a chance.

Besides, I didn’t want to be one of Norma Klein or Judy Blume’s nice girls. Sure, they got all the period stuff straightened out and learned how to deal with that scoliosis brace, but what did they do next? Did those girls ever leave their house? Their neighborhoods? Did they ever talk to kids who weren’t white and middle-class? Meet interesting people and see miracles and eat snails and travel on airplanes and wear sexy clothes? Travel around the world in a yacht? Ride trains with hobos? Did one of those girls ever just turn down a street they’d never turned down before on the way to school and find themselves in a new world? Not to my memory, although I haven’t reread them to find out (and again, no disrespect intended to two wonderful writers). My feeling is that these girls went right from middle school to high school to college to a brief career-gal turn in the city and then got married and started all over agin. No thanks! And the kids in Sweet Valley High were, I was almost certain, aliens. So the genre of YA books that resonated for me were the stories about teens who, generally, moved to New York City (or another big city) and became hookers or otherwise got into trouble. These were the kids wearing cool clothes and having adventures, and at least they were meeting people who didn’t live on their cul-de-sac or in their brownstone. Sure, they got VD and were cut on a regular basis by razor-wielding tricks, but at least they weren’t bored to death. (Death before disinterest!) Boys had Jack London, S.E. Hinton, and other tales of adventure. We had Nancy Drew (lovely, but beyond outdated) and baby prostitutes in Times Square. I’ll take the Time Square baby hookers, thanks.

By seventh or eighth grade I’d stopped reading the books assigned me in school (hippie school=not  a whole lot of discipline) and picked up V.C. Andrews and Go Ask Alice. A few years later I started reading the “trashy” books my parents read when they took a break from “real” books–celebrity bios and hard-boiled mysteries. Very slowly, I started to understand who I was, and that it wasn’t who I as supposed to be. Well, who is?

One YA kid-in-trouble book was different. I can’t for the life of me remember the author, title, or even the cover. Maybe you can help me find it again (hey kids! a real life mystery!). This book, probably from the early-mid-seventies, was about a girl around 16 who moved from the suburbs to New York City and did not become a hooker. She also didn’t become an addict, get raped (almost!), get cut, get VD, or otherwise sustain harm. She stayed at a “crash pad” for a while, then got a job and got an apartment in the East Village. She looked up an old friend who’d moved to the city from their Squaresville suburb and they reconnected and the friend helped her out. Scary things happened–she was mugged, she was broke, she was frightened–but she knew what she wanted out of life and she stayed the course.  And things turned out good for her. She got a steady job and a tiny apartment. She even got a cool serene hippie boyfriend, who got her back in touch with her parents so they’d stop worrying and she could start her new life as a free, responsible, adult. The hardships were there but she was tough and smart and made it work.

I think we needed more books like that.  My suspicion is that, with the explosion of quality (and trashy) YA literature over the past few years, kids today have them.

Now I’m 40, and some of my friend’s kids are approaching YA age. I try to tell these kids, when their parents aren’t listening, that they don’t have to be someone else. They don’t have to try to find a box, or a category of books, and fit into it. They can make their own category. If they’re supposed to be a good little genius like I was supposed to be be, they can throw that away for a life of V.C. Andrews and pulp fiction and bad spelling. It’s OK if they want to read Evelyn Waugh and Proust and OK if they don’t.  You really can choose your own adventure. They never believe me, but I have faith that someday they will remember their crazy aunt’s advice and make a wrong turn on the way to school one day, and veer off the Judy Blume cul-de-sac and into the rest of the world, where all good things await.

April 18, 2011

the shadow knows: an appreciation of lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

In the process of writing my upcoming novel, The End of Everything, I had this strange experience of return. All my books prior were set in the past, a time before I was born, and were set in milieus (organized crime, Hollywood, gambling, party girls), I’d likely never have known otherwise. To find me, or my life, in them, one would have to look very hard, at least I would. But, about two years ago, I decided to try my hand at a book set in a world I knew, in a time and place I knew.

The book is from the point of view of a 13 year old, specifically a 13 year old in a Midwestern suburb in the 1980s. Writing it, I found myself drawing on all the sense memories of that time, especially my late elementary school years, many of which were spent in the home of my best friend, Meg.  She had two older teen sisters and a teen brother and I remember as far back as age nine or ten trawling their cluttered, shag-carpeted bedrooms. The whole upstairs of Meg’s house made of pale blue wood panels, all kinds of alcoves and niches and built-ins into which treasures could be tucked. We found Playboy hidden in the eaves her brother’s room and, always, fat glittery paperbacks (with those sinister, tantalizing keyhole covers) of V.C. Andrews stuffed under her sisters’ pillows.

I never read much young adult fiction, and there certainly weren’t a fraction the number of YA novels as there are today (nor the array of options within them). As a result, with the notable, stirring exception of Flowers in the Attic (and, of course, Judy Blume), I jumped to adult books, which promised a peek into the grownup world for which I was unprepared (sex ed courtesy of John Irving and Irwin Shaw).

But there was one author whose books utterly entranced me. I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Lois Duncan, but I do know I first found one of her books—either Summer of Fear or Stranger with My Face—doing one of my grade-school prowls through Meg’s house, arrested by the covers (remember those painted covers of so many novels then? Of long-haired girls with limpid eyes and mouths arrested with fear, confusion, suspicion, longing?), reading breathlessly the plot description on the back. And I remember it was exactly these covers (above and below) that fixated me.

Duncan’s books felt dark, strange, taboo—much like V.C. Andrews. Except when you read V.C. Andrews, you feel the frantic, sexed crazy on her. And her world is very foreign from yours (I didn’t know any girl imprisoned in the attic of a mansion, starved and tortured and whipped by mother and grandmother, dangerously beloved by her own very handsome brother), which is part of their appeal. It’s total, compulsive, dirty fantasy.

The heroines of Lois Duncan, however, were girls I knew—prettier than me, more comfortable in their skin (at the start), with an easier way of navigating life—but definitely a part of my world. Yet everything that happened to them was bewildering, terrifying, perilous, thrilling—in short, everything I wanted. Astral projection, witchcraft, voodoo, ESP, possession, patricide.

Both Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face, I now see, bear similarities to the female gothic novel, in particular the pulse at the center of those novels: the Dark Other. In Summer of Fear, the heroine, Rachel, realizes that Julia, her mysterious witchy cousin from the Ozarks, aims to steal Rachel’s her best friend and boyfriend but her whole life. In the end (cue V.C. Andrews and the entire Freud playlist), we learn Julia’s true goal is not Rachel’s boyfriend but Rachel’s father (“You mean—you can’t mean—you plan to marry Dad!”).

In Stranger with My Face, teenage Laurie Stratton is haunted by the presence of another, someone who looks just like her. Laurie—whose dark features never matched her family’s sunny ones—turns out to be adopted, permitting full play of pre-adolescent and adolescent fantasies of orphanage and mysterious ancestry—and a reason for feeling different, out of place. When her dark double first appears, it’s a moment that, for me now, gives me the same spiky shiver and horror I experienced when first reading Sara’s magnificent Come Closer:

‘Can you see me?’ asked a voice by my bed.

I opened my eyes. The moon had risen now above the level of my window, and the room was very dark. …

‘Are you the one with my face?’ I whispered.

‘I came first,’ she answered with a little laugh. ‘It’s you who have my face.’

‘Who are you?’ I asked her.

‘You must know that. We are two sides of a coin. We floated together in the same sea before birth. Didn’t you know I would be coming for you one day?’

There was a movement by the pillow. I felt the air stir against my face, and something as slight and soft as the breast feather of a gull brushed my forehead.

These dark doubles call to mind Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and seem to serve just the same function. These shadowed women do what the heroines can’t—they get angry, they shout, they fight, they demand things. They demand to be heard. To want things and take them. To go mad.

The retrospective quality of both books also mirrors the narrative structure of Rebecca (the narrator beginning that book, famously, with her dream of return to the house where everything happened, everything changed forever), to similar effect. These are books narrated by someone a few years past the events but changed by them forever (I now, just now, writing this, wonder if that was in my mind with The End of Everything, which begins similarly).

There is not even space enough to talk about what was my favorite Duncan novel, Daughters of Eve, the tale of a charismatic teacher and her young protégées—a Jean Brodie for the post-feminist 1980s.

No supernatural elements here—the complexities of female power and powerlessness laid bare and one for the most shocking murder scenes I’ve ever read in any book. I never forgot it.

The endings of these books, when happy (as in, order restored, threat expunged), have the dreamlike, haunting, unreal happiness of the endings of Carrie or the original, masterful Nightmare on Elm Street. Or any fairy tale at all. You can’t have a happy ending after you’ve torn the seam that separates light from dark, the world we live in from the world we know, under our skin.

Next up: My interview with Lois Duncan and our book giveaway.

Highly recommended: Lizzie Skurnick’s essays on Summer and Stranger.



April 17, 2011

the deep bottom drawer: an interview with lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

I’m just beginning to realize the flickering presence Lois Duncan’s books still play in my imagination, decades after discovering them.

Most of my reading life, age nine to twelve especially, seemed to be in search of books that somehow conveyed for me, as movies did, a world as dark and tangled and mysterious as the one I glimpsed in my fevered girl head. These were books of shadows, books where the every day—banging school lockers, fights with siblings, sprawling out on the carpet and watching TV—could, at any moment, give way to darkness, beauty, terror, a Grimm’s fairy tale of precipice-peering and descent. The same things I found, and clung to, in true crime and noir.

It was not until a few years ago that I discovered her non-fiction recounting of her daughter’s (still officially unsolved) murder and its aftermath, Who Killed My Daughter?, which is wrenching, unforgettable book. It’s hard to talk about such a personal book, written by a grieving mother, in objective terms, but, to try, it’s also a fascinating book as Duncan undertakes her own investigations, both traditional and untraditional, including working with a psychic.

Now, with the reissuing and updating of ten of Duncan’s YA books, including my favorites, I was fortunate enough to interview the author herself last week. On a personal level, there’s something deeply satisfying and more than a little uncanny about it because, as with so many interviews, I came to feel I was revealing (or at least realizing) as much about myself (maybe more) as the author herself was. Most of all, though, I came away feeling deeply inspired by her path as a female author with such a long career in a famously punishing business. The author of 50 books, she has endured countless “revolutions” in publishing and never let any of it stop her from creating, from experimenting, from, well, telling the stories she wanted to tell.

Speaking via a series of emails, we began by talking about the new editions. She told me how exciting it was for her to update the new editions, adding, “I’ve been astonished to realize how well the characters and plots have transcended the years. All I really had to do was tweak the stories in order to change hair styles and dress and give my protagonists access to the technical toys of today—cell phones, computers, digital cameras, etc. That gave me a sense of power. It was like rebirthing my children and being able to provide them with wings.”

The interview followed:

Megan: I am a tremendous fan, and have been since I first found your books in the early 1980s, as a young girl in suburban Michigan. It’s a big thrill to see these reissues and to get to revisit these wonderful books and also, somehow, the 10-year-old me who so savored them.

One of the things that strike me now, re-reading them, is how they managed to mingle the everyday (family chores, pesky siblings) and identifiable with the strange, the paranormal, darkness itself. I think it can speak to young girls’ sense that they want to be invited into a book (e.g., a heroine they feel is like them), but they also want to visit murky places. Explore, uncover the unknown. Was that “mix” one of your aims when you wrote them? How could you be sure the darker themes would be speak to readers?

Lois Duncan: I wasn’t sure. And, at first, my editors weren’t either. A Gift of Magic (my first novel that involved ESP) was rejected seven times before Little, Brown daringly published it. The other publishers were certain that young readers would not be interested. I get great satisfaction from the fact that the book, originally published in 1971, has never gone out of print and becomes more and more popular.

As far as my style goes—I think the fact that the books involve “normal” kids in “normal” life situations creates a realistic format that the average reader easily relates to. As paranormal events begin to occur, the viewpoint character finds them just as bewildering as the reader. Then, as that character begins to accept them, the reader does so also, because he or she is following the same thought process.

Megan: That makes so much sense, and explains the uncanny quality—everything feels so familiar except something is off, something is just slightly askew, and the heroine must push further, pursue. Her pursuit mirrors ours.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how powerful “doubling” appears in your books, especially Summer of Fear and Stranger With My Face. Reading them now it feels like the double almost serves as this valve or outlet for the heroine. She does some of the things the heroine would be afraid to do (and feels things—like anger—that the heroines may not feel comfortable expressing). These doubles get what they want, or nearly do. In Stranger, Laurie, ironically, starts to make positive changes in her life (dumping her spoiled boyfriend and his mean clique) after the dangerous double enters her life—as if the double empowers her in some strange way.

Do you think teen readers (or teen girl readers) might especially respond to this idea of a double, someone like us but not quite?

LD: This reminds me of when I was in my 40s and teaching magazine writing for the Journalism Department at the University of New Mexico. I was hired on a fluke. The professor who was scheduled to teach the course became ill, so the chair of the department, my personal friend Tony Hillerman, asked me to fill in for a semester. Tony knew I’d never been to college and didn’t care; he just knew I’d written successfully for magazines for years. The original professor never returned, and someone else replaced Tony as Chair and automatically kept me on. I discovered I loved teaching writing and started to get worried that my deep dark secret, (no college!) might be discovered, so I began taking courses under my married name, Lois Arquette, hoping I could get a degree before someone “outed” me. In the course of that endeavor, I took a juvenile literature class where they were studying “Lois Duncan books.” My fellow students were excitedly writing A-plus papers about how many of my books were based on Greek myths. I had never even read those myths!

Often the reader finds in a book what that reader is looking for, which may not be at all what the author meant to put there. The author-reader relationship is a two-way street. The receiver who interprets the story is as important as the person who created it.

Megan: I think you’re so right about the reader-writer relationship. I think one of the gifts of your books is the way readers keep finding the things they need in them. And that your books deal with so many primal, eternal themes—especially ones that speak to young people, like identify confusion. And I also think that’s why the reissues make so much sense. Your books don’t seem “trapped in amber” at all. As you say, it was mostly the “accessories” that needed updating. I wonder if some books from the 70s and even the 80s might require more “corrections” in terms of the strength of the female characters. You really give so many of your female characters a great deal of power, to take action, to drive action. To save themselves, in many cases, even if part of that means finding the right person to join their efforts. Was that important to you, as a woman? A mother? Or did it just come naturally?

LD: It came naturally. I came from a family of strong women.

Megan: What did you enjoy reading as a young woman? And did that influence you and/or your writing?

LD: I read (and wrote) a lot of poetry. I loved books about magic—The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc. Animal stories like Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka. And the family-oriented series books that were so popular back then—the Louisa May Alcott books, the Little Colonel series, etc. Actually, I read everything I could get my hands on.

But, remember, I didn’t have much choice about what I read. That was an era before YA literature existed and readers leapt directly from children’s books to adult novels.

When I started writing teenage novels I followed that
same pattern. My first book, Debutante Hill, was published in 1957 and the editor made me revise it because I had a young man of 19 (the “bad boy” in the story) drink a beer. I continued writing gentle, sticky-sweet romances until I got sick of them and decided to try writing the kind of books I wished I’d had access to when I was in junior high and high school— books that were exciting, suspenseful, and kept readers on the edges of their chairs.

My break-through book was Ransom, (Doubleday, 1966). It was about five teenagers who were kidnapped by their school bus driver, and one of them actually got shot. That book is still in print and selling well today!

Megan: Ah, so you wrote the books you wished you had been able to read, and we’re all the luckier for it!

In terms of that pre-YA era, do you think that the publishers (or parents) at that time simply didn’t want to believe interests of young readers might be more complex, reflect more curiosity about the unknown? Or was it merely a lack of awareness of the market?

Given how dark and mysterious even fairy tales beloved by children are I often marvel at the notion that young adults might want only want sweet romances or adventure tales.

LD: I have no idea. I understand the craft of writing, because it’s who and what I am. The commercial world of publishing, both in the past and today, is an ongoing mystery to me. Fads are constantly changing.

When I wrote my YA ghost story, Down a Dark Hall, in 1974, it was returned to me for revisions because the victims were female and the ghosts were male, and my publisher thought feminists would object to that. When I changed the ghost of poet Alan Seeger to Emily Bronte, all was well.

Killing Mr. Griffin has been banned in certain places because of complaints from parents who (not having read the book, just going by the title) thought it would cause children to kill their teachers. Yet those are often the same parents who encourage their children to read the Bible without the slightest concern that the story of Cain and Abel might encourage them to kill their siblings.

I’ve had rejected manuscripts, yellowing in the bottom drawer of my desk for years, which I’ve then brought out, resubmitted to the very same publishers, and had snatched up, because they fell into a currently popular niche in the market that hadn’t existed when I previously submitted them.

Megan: It’s that instinctual quality that so comes through in the books, which feel organic rather than targeted, “packaged.” I actually read very few YA books as a young girl. So many seemed only interested in issues like popularity, cliques, a particular view of young love. But yours were so different—-mysterious, haunting, murky, exciting, so much more my experience of adolescence.

And they also seemed to present female relationships that were so much more complex than the usual rivalries-over-boys, homecoming queen tales.

My favorite was Daughters of Eve, which I read so many times it became dog-eared. I’d never read anything like it. The charismatic teacher and her protégées. (I now think it’s probably played a role in the book I’m finishing now, all these years later, which is about a cheerleading coach and her squad!).

What inspired you to write that book?

LD: I was inspired to write it because I wanted to write something different from anything I’d done before. The idea I got was that I would have a fanatical, charismatic adult exerting influence upon vulnerable kids who looked up to and respected that adult. I wanted it to be in a setting where other adults such as parents wouldn’t be aware of what was happening. My first idea was to have it a church youth group with the adult a charismatic male Sunday school teacher. I actually wrote five chapters and then it struck me that if Killing Mr. Griffin was being challenged by parents who thought it would make their kids violent, those same parents would claim this new book’s purpose was to keep their children from going to church. So I started over and used the same theme but steered clear of religion.

Ironically, when it was released in 1979 it was challenged by feminists who thought it was anti-feminist and by anti-feminists who thought it was feminist. I was trying to walk a nice gray line but people who feel strongly about a subject don’t want a gray line. They want it to be all black or all white.

Megan: It seems like so much of your career you’ve had to defend your writerly choices, both within publishing and without. Or perhaps “defend” is not the right word. It seems as though you had to confront many doubts that what you were writing would speak to readers, despite all evidence of the contrary. Something in your work unsettles, provokes, stirs—and I think it’s that power that also speaks to readers across generations.

I wonder if, given some of these obstacles you had to overcome in terms of publishing the books you wanted to write, if you faced any such resistance when you wrote Who Killed My Daughter?, your book about your search for the truth about your daughter’s murder. It is such a moving, powerful, painful book.

LD: My books are not nearly as controversial as many, and you can’t please everybody. A writer has to develop a hide like a rhino. If we allow ourselves to get upset every time a book is challenged we’d all be basket cases.

Mostly I’ve just written books that I wanted to write, and if publishers wanted them, great, and if they didn’t, the manuscripts went into that “deep bottom drawer,” to be pulled out, perhaps re-polished, and resubmitted at another date.

Who Killed My Daughter? was accepted by Delacorte within four days. My (then) agent was stunned, because she’d told me the book would never sell because it had no ending. I knew differently—that book was destined to be published. I also knew that I hadn’t written it myself; what I did was channeling. I sat down at the computer, placed my fingers on the keys, and “took dictation” from some ethereal source that wanted Kait’s story to be told. It’s the one book I’ve ever written in which I never altered a word. Even my editors couldn’t find a thing they wanted changed. It fell onto the pages exactly as it was supposed to.

Megan: I think that rhino’s hide is part of what I’m talking about—it feels like it comes from your internal sense that what you were interested in, the stories and characters that engaged you, would engage others.

That feeling is so strong in Who Killed My Daughter? It makes sense to me that it was a “channeling” for you, because one of its powers (its urgency, its intensity) is the feeling the reader has that it came from some deep internal (unconscious?) feeling or instinct that there was no other way to tell the story. It had to be like this.

I read on your website that you are writing a sequel now. If so, is the process different? How so?

LD: Very different. The first book was written with my heart, the sequel with my brain. The sequel will be a step by step account of our family’s personal search for Kait’s killers after the police washed their hands of the case.

Megan: I imagine you are still hearing from those affected by the original book.

LD: Constantly. In fact, we’ve heard from so many other families in similar situations that my husband and I created and maintain the Real Crimes website to help keep those other cases from becoming buried. I interview the victims’ families and help them word their stories, and Don links the documentation, (crime scene photos, autopsy reports, excerpts from police reports, etc.) That page has become a valued resource for investigative reporters and true crime shows. We do this pro bono as a way to give Kait’s short life meaning.

Megan: The responses I’ve seen to your book and to the website from families in similar situations, must feel so gratifying—though I’m sure unbearably frustrating too, to see other families suffering the same way and trying to keep investigations going.

LD: It’s heartbreaking. But don’t get me started on a diatribe about the flaws in the Great American Justice System.

Megan: Yes, it’s true. The response to your book shows the power of writing, to be sure.

So, last question, and the one writers sometimes hate to answer. Among your novels, which is your favorite and why?

 LD: Over the years I’ve written 50 books, which include among other things adult fiction and non-fiction, poetry, text for pre-school picture books, humorous books for elementary age children (Hotel for Dogs, News for Dogs and Movie for Dogs in particular), lyrics for a book/CD of original lullabies, and a couple of biographies. Choosing my favorites among so many “apples and onions” would be impossible.

But if we limit it to YA suspense novels, I think it would probably be Stranger With My Face. I find the subject of astral projection fascinating, and I think that novel is also one of my best written.


Megan: Well, I just want to say you’ve fulfilled a big girlhood dream of mine, this opportunity to speak with you. Your books meant so much to me, and revisiting them has been a gift. I can’t thank you enough.

LD: Thank you, Megan. This interview has been fun for me. You’ve asked some in-depth questions that caused me to really have to think.

Visit Lois Duncan’s website or follow her on Twitter.

Excerpts from “A Visit with Lois Duncan,” a 35 minute DVD, created specifically for classroom use, can be viewed here

Click here for The Shadow Knows: An Appreciation of Lois Duncan.

 



April 6, 2011

Wolves & wolfmen; Red Riding Hood, girls, and uncomfortable critics

by Sara Gran
Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated in a 1927 ...

Image via Wikipedia

There’s this town I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s somewhere on the border of England and Germany, right about where France meets Ireland. This town is deep in the woods–almost more of a settlement–where people live in stone houses with kitchen herb  gardens and chickens and goats roam in the town square. In this town it is always between, say 1400 and 1700. Wise old women brew herbal concoctions at the full moon (before they were all burned as witches, of course) and brave young boys and girls explore the woods. Farmers plant in accordance with moon and while there might be a Christian whitewash, this town is definitely pagan. If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed–it’s just the May Queen. In the spring there are maypoles and at yuletide there’s hot stew and divination for the new year with bones and sticks.

Of course, this place doesn’t exist, and it never really did. From what I gather, Ye Olde Europe was never really that cute, and the Druids weren’t necessarily so smart. And while Europe was, surely, pagan, those people burned as witches weren’t necessarily wise women or cunning folk or magicians–they were just the town oddballs, scapegoats, and wackjobs. But despite its lack of actual existence, this little Medieval town looms large in our psyche and our popular culture. Led Zepplin sang about it, Wicker Man took place there, and modern-day witches created a religion (Wicca) after it. This place–and I think most of all, its close proximity to the woods–fills some kind of a hole for us, a fantasy past-future where people lived in harmony with the phases of the moon and understood plants and spoke the language of birds and had yet to be corrupted by citified ways. And for those of us of European ancestry, it’s a way to indulge in these fantasies without any issues of appropriation or cultural theft spoiling the fun, as some of us might indulge in “othering” fantasies about, say, Native Americans. To be clear, though, although it’s an easy thing to make fun of, I think these fantasies are healthy.  I think it’s good for us to imagine a way of life different from this one, and I think it’s useful to envision how others might have done it before. We shape our reality around our daydreams, and this is a particularly charming one. I wouldn’t at all mind if it were real.

Which is why I think the critics, as they so often do, completely missed the point of Red Riding Hood, which I saw a few weeks ago and thought was a swell good-bad film. It certainly wasn’t high art, but I enjoy a bad movie that enjoys its badness and lack of pretention. But the critical reaction had a nasty edge to it that seems reserved for movies that hit a nerve (as the wonderful Ray Banks cracked to me on Twitter the other day, “Hope Peeping Tom doesn’t ruin your career like it did Michael Powell’s.”). For example, lot of critics commented on Red Riding Hood’s “unrealistic” sets. “Unrealistic” of what? Not a realistic representation of your fantasy Europe? There’s no “real” to adhere to here. It’s a fantasy of a myth, and the movie should be forgiven for having some fun with that. Likewise, the comparisons to Twilight (same director) completely missed the mark–sure, a young woman with two love interests does suggest a Twilight reference, but are people really that simplistic (I’m referring both to the characters and the critics here)? The real Twilight comparison, if you can come to terms with the fact that all young women are not interchangeable, is Catherine Hardwicke‘s lovely sense of trees, fog, and water, and her understanding of the agency, intelligence, and curiosity of young women, even in a silly, entertaining, fantasy.

Yes, like Wicker Man, it is a movie that enjoys its camp and fantasy. More interesting to me was the psychosexual relationship between Riding Hood and the wolf, who is in this movie a wolfman–a big distinction, especially for Riding Hood! The wolf doesn’t just want to eat Red, he wants to take her away and live with her–and when this comes out, Red is, as us girls often are, put to shame for the sin of being more attractive than we ought to be. In a haunting scene in this admitted fluff-fest, an iron mask is put on Red’s face, her riding cape–now her “harlot’s robe” –over her shoulders. When the true identity of the wolf is revealed it makes a sad, sick kind of sense, one you wish you didn’t recognize but ladies, you will. And when you see who Red ends up with–again, it makes sense in a way you sort of wish it didn’t. “Bad” movies and books (yes, I will again refer to V.C. Andrews!) often seem to be able to sneak this stuff in under the radar in a way that hits home more than “high art” can. And this seems to make critics squirm in their seats and bring out the scalpel.

People smarter than me have commented lately on the strong young women in recent films. When I was a girl, girls and women in movies and on TV often weren’t exactly people. They were deaf, mute, and blind; they were purely passive, receptors of desire with no agency, no hopes, and no backtalk–perhaps one reason so many of us ladies were drawn to the movies of the thirties and forties. Whenever I think of this topic I think of Three’s Company, a TV show I could write a book about (and will someday!)–it was constantly on in reruns when I was a child and I’m sure I’ve seen every episode a few times. Chrissie on Three’s Company (the highly intelligent Suzanne Sommers, who now writes somewhat technical books on alternative cancer treatments) was a pure incarnation of this type of female–people would make comments about her abundant breasts directly in front of her, to her face, and she seemed neither to hear nor understand them (is there some fancy academic/critical  name for this phenomena of female deaf-muteness?). it was as if her attractiveness was a physical or mental disability. I’m glad girls in movies and tv shows have sentience now, at least as much as anyone in mass media does. Now, maybe the critics could start trying to tell them apart…

April 1, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club Special Field Trip: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

by Sara Gran
Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan

Image via Wikipedia

Megan and a few other smart folks suggested that to understand DePalma, you’d want to watch Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. So I did. Wow. As most of you know (I’ve realized most of my readers have a much better film education than I do), this is a movie about a filmmaker, warped by a psychologist father with a sharp gaze, who does some very nasty things in his free time. The DePalma influence is pretty obvious: filming, fathers, girls, murder, pornography, psychology, tension, random murderous phallic symbols (in all senses of the term, I think).

Here’s what you don’t know. I’ve been working on a few Unnanounced Media Projects, as I’ve mentioned before. This is pretty common when you’re a writer with some years and sales and/or attention and/or luck under your belt–people hire you to write stuff that hasn’t been officially announced, so you can’t tell anyone about it. (irrelevant but odd: most of these projects never see the light of day, and since the copyright is usually held by whoever hired you, these projects often dissappear into a black hole of never-happened and never-read). These projects could be comic books, films, advertising projects, ghostwriting–you can imagine the rest.

So I’ve been working on one Unannounced Media Project for about six months now, and the work has picked up speed the past few months–just about the time I’ve been immersing myself in Brian DePalma. But I hadn’t seen Peeping Tom until about a week ago. And in my project, I wrote: three characters who had the same professions and perversions of characters in Peeping Tom, three strange and specific items that are seen in Peeping Tom (I’m sure it will be OK if I say one is a jeweled brooch in the shape of an insect, to give an idea of the level of specificity I’m talking about), and a character who shares a not-everyday name with a character in Peeping Tom, and a number of harder-to-name similarities in tone, style, POV, and pace. One scene in particular could have been entirely lifted from Peeping Tom. Except, of course, I’d never seen it.

For a few years I’ve been interested in the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (who I can’t read at all, because I find him impossible to understand, so I just read about), and in particular one book by a Lacanian psychologist named Annie Rogers called The Unsayable–I’ve mentioned it often. This all reminded me of a story from the book: there was a family where the mother had a terrible secret, one she’d never told anyone, from her childhood. Years later she had a teenaged daughter, and the whole family was in therapy with Annie Rogers, and the mother finally confessed her secret. And the daughter burst out that she’d been having dreams about the incident all of her life.

I think it’s kind of incredible how we’re never saying what we think we’re saying, and we’re never hearing what we think we’re hearing. No matter how conscious you are, we seem to be incapable of really understanding the conversation we’re having with each other and with the world around us. And that’s probably for the best. Until you wake one day and realize you’ve been entirely wrong about exactly every second of your life, which happens pretty often and is always a little odd.

March 17, 2011

Contracts & Magic

by Sara Gran
Land sales contract. Sumerian clay tablet, ca....

Image via Wikipedia

I used to think contracts were boring. As soon as I got to a point in career where I had agents, lawyers, and accountants, I tossed it all in their laps and walked away.

Then, about nine months ago, two of my books went out of print. I thought I’d ask for the rights back and the publisher would give them. I had contracts! I thought contracts were magic, and I was right. But I was wrong about the kind of magic that contracts are. I thought contracts were a paper shield that would protect me from anyone who wanted to do me harm. When my publisher started arguing that the books were in print, because, see, you could buy them from this one website if you hit it at just the right time and asked nice, I thought all I had to do was wave my contract around. It would issue its white light of protection, the enemy would be vanquished, and I would ride away with my rights intact.

But that’s not the kind of magic contracts are. A contract is not an amulet of protection. A contract is a long, very detailed magic spell, cast by a coven of interested parties to create certain future events. A contract is created in exactly the same way as any other spell. First, you write down what you want. As Grant Morrison has famously said, that’s why it’s called spelling–the written word is believed by many to have magic powers of its own. In many mystical schools alphabets themselves –Sankskrit, runes, Hebrew–are believed to be extraordinarily powerful; for example in some understandings of Hebrew, the letters that compose the name of God are thought to be too powerful to say out loud or spell on paper; in Sanskrit, we use mantras, the repetitions of certain combinations of letters and words, to change reality (or, maybe more accurately, to ask the powers of the universe to change it for us). The next step in a spell is to  use some kind of ritual to make your words real. This is how you communicate to the universe that you want these words to be real (and of course, we don’t do this with our novels, because we don’t want them to become real!) You can burn what you’ve written, bury it, dip it honey, burn a candle over it, hand it over to a saint, or, in the case of contracts, sign it. Then you reap your rewards.

I was, to put it mildly, not happy with my publisher’s approach–all I have in life that’s worth anything financially are the rights to my books, my laptop, and a fifteen year old car. I’ve made many sacrifices for these rights and I don’t take them lightly. (Bookstores sell books. Writers sell rights.) So I read my contract. Then I read it again. And again and again and again. It took about 15 reads before I really understood it–I’d never read a contract quite that closely before, and this was a particularly complicated one. I didn’t have the protection I thought I did, but the more I read the contract, I found other ways of protecting myself–see, that’s the amazing thing about a contract, and why its magic is so complex.  It’s a ten-thousand word spell. The magic isn’t in the words as they stand alone in this particular type of spell–it’s in how the words can combine, both within and without of the contract.  So although I didn’t  have the protection I thought I did, by examining some different combinations of these magical and powerful letters, I found new ways to protect myself. They weren’t in violation of the clause I’d assumed–but there were enough other violations there that I had a pretty good leg to stand on. See, publishers don’t read contracts very closely either, and if you look close enough, they are almost always in violation of something–they don’t understand these magical, powerful spells any better than we do (or did, because you get it now, right?).  The publishers were thinking like I was thinking: we have contracts! Yeah, you did–but like me, you didn’t really know what they said.

In the end, my brilliant deductions didn’t matter for this particular case–my agent got them to reprint the books by sheer force of will, another form of magic (generally speaking, whoever doesn’t give up wins. Wish I knew that one twenty years ago!). But now I eagerly read each and every contract cover to cover. And I’ve actually started to enjoy it. I’ve realized that every single possible combination of meaning to be found in a contract not only can, but likely will, come into reality to some day. After all, you’ve virtually asked it to do so. So these are not boring legal documents that cover a bunch of whiny bullshit possibilities that will never happen. They are magical blueprints of the future you are inviting into your life. Every word in a contract you sign is a possible future for you–a turn of reality you are likely to inhabit if you choose this road. You are ceremonially announcing to the universe: Yes, let’s make this my future.  Choose every letter carefully.

(And by the way: DOPE is now back in print from Berkeley and COME CLOSER is coming back in April from Soho Press.)

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