Sunday, January 3, 2016

Leah Thomas: Morris Award Interview

Welcome to this year's Morris Interview series.Today we kick things off with Leah Thomas. I'll add a post with links to all of the 2016 nominee interviews as they accumulate.

Because You'll Never Meet Me

Bloomsbury USA Childrens 2015
ISBN 978-1-61963-590-6
Ollie and Moritz are are best friends, but they can never meet.

Ollie is deathly allergic to electricity, while Moritz's weak heart would stop beating without the pulses of his electronic pacemaker. Meeting in real life? It could kill them.

Through an exchange of letters, the two boys develop a strong bond which becomes a lifeline during dark times—until Moritz reveals that he holds the key to their shared, sinister past, and has been keeping it from Ollie all along.

A story of impossible friendship and hope under strange circumstances, this debut is powerful, dark and humorous in equal measure. These extraordinary voices bring readers into the hearts and minds of two special boys who, like many teens, are just waiting for their moment to shine. 

How did you hear that Because You’ll Never Meet Me was nominated for the Morris? Did you know about the award before your book was nominated?
Living on California time when the majority of the publishing world is operating from the East Coast is a mixed blessing – it means I can’t send emails after 1pm, but it also means that sometimes I wake up to amazing news. I rolled out of bed (knocking my cat askew) and got the news from a blinking phone, in ALL-CAPS from my editor:

CONGRATULATIONS!! (please imagine confetti bursting out of this word.)”
Here’s what I’ll say about awards awareness: since my book’s been out, I’ve avoided almost everything related to YA news as a precautionary measure against my oversensitive baby brain. I blocked goodreads on my computer, I deleted my twitter account, I refuse to read reviews or articles (unless I have a sad relapse and trawl through the corners of the internet as a form of self-punishment). But things leak in all the same, awards whisperings and the like, the Morris among them: I just never thought these whisperings would apply to this odd little book (I could think of numerous other books who would certainly be finalists, and some of them are finalists!). It was the best kind of wallop, this recognition. It’s sort of knocked me back into the public writing world. 

Did you intend to write a YA novel? In other words, were you thinking of young adult readers as the eventual audience for your book?  

Yes, I always intended to write a YA novel. A YA science fiction novel, to be precise, or science fantasy, or just plain weird. Because while I read all kinds of things, the books that have been formative to me, both as a teen and now in my twenties, remain YA books. I’ve always wanted to be a part of that tradition. I think YA allows for amazing voices, and diverse voices, and human voices, and genre becomes secondary to character, which I adore. And even though I make myself a hermit, the YA community of writers and readers and librarians and booksellers is beautiful and supportive.

 At a panel during NCTE, our moderator asked us a question that yielded really amusing results:“What makes you think YOU can write for teens?” I answered, “As far as I know, teens are people. And I think writers may also sometimes be people.”                           

Your book contains startling and beautiful descriptions of invisible energies: “X-rays emit rich scarlet ringlets.” Because you can do that, please tell me how your brain looks while it is writing.

Whoa, it’s getting abstract in here. We’re going full meta. But I like this question!

 Let’s see: I’m definitely a visual learner, and whenever I’m writing descriptions like that, I’m actively imagining what those things look like: I’m watching ribbon curls, I’m seeing glitter fall, seeing the cotton candy haze of mixing puffs of color – it’s like someone’s vision of a Disney birthday party nightmare, maybe. 

I’m also in the habit of drawing my characters and settings, either during drafting as doodles or afterwards. I’m not a visual artist by any means (I took one art class in high school!) but it’s something I love. At one point two years ago I was really gunning for illustrating a middle grade book I’d written about ghost kids living in a Florida trailer park, even knowing full-well that there are talented illustrators out there who could do a much better job. I think that’s just my brain living and breathing the book, making it concrete in every possible way. It’s part of the process!

When people ask me about whether I’d ever want a movie adaptation, I say, “NO, NEVER – UNLESS IT’S DONE IN STOP MOTION OKAY” because a) I adore stop-motion animation for being beautiful, handmade, and tangible and b) though I love movies, I also really dislike that moment when characters, who readers imagine however they wish to, are assigned a single human face.

So this ramble is what my brain looks like, maybe: a hodge-podge Michel Gondry music video. This question! It’s zany! Thank you!

Do you think the experience of reading spec-fic makes different demands on the reader than realistic or historical fiction? How were you introduced to spec-fic? As a reader, do you prefer it to other genres? 

Full of Easter-Eggish Goodness!
My gosh, I never thought it would! But it seems to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed to learn that readers feel tricked by the “genre-switch” in this book. Which is to say, to me it was always apparent that I was writing a work of science fiction (there’s no such thing as an allergy to electricity, for instance, because our very selves are electric), but it’s also very apparent now that many people trust me, as a writer, not to mislead them, and in tying realism so closely with the goofy scifi elements, I may have done so. I’ve got a lot of growing to do.

It’s been a learning process, for sure, and I think part of the confusion I feel comes from my long-standing love for speculative fiction and my refusal to see it as any different from any other genre, raised as I was by one parent who adores Philip K. Dick and another parent who adores Jane Austen—I’ve always loved things that blur the line! And I’ve always had a weakness for whimsy. While I think I’ll always have speculative fiction leanings as a writer, I don’t always prefer scifi. I love characters, in any genre, and that’s all it takes to really woo me.

As I read about Moritz’s use of echolocation to experience the world I was struck by the way so much of our communication is emitting signals and waiting to hear an echo or reply. Is your book a part of a bigger conversation among stories? Have there been any unexpected responses to the book?

What a wonderful question, and one I think that most authors would answer “yes!” to. You’re shouting into the void when you put out a book, and hoping to hear echoes, and certainly you do. This story is a response to so many things: books and comics and family and mental illness and growing up and studying German and playing in band and…everything. And the responses I’ve gotten from the book, the ones that have been wonderful and unexpected, come from people who relate to the book on a very personal level. One of the first messages to make me cry came from a girl who has epilepsy, who said she’d never seen herself in a book before. My father has epilepsy. I bawled, in the nicest way one can bawl. 

Flash questions

Do you write to music? If so, what did you listen to as you wrote your book?
I’m such a dork about this. I can’t write without music. I thanked musicians in my acknowledgements to BYNMM: Perfume Genius, Owen Pallett, Los Campesinos!, Youth Lagoon. 

Writing advice in five words or less...

Make writing like toothbrushing: necessary.

Do you have a day job? How does it fit with your creative work?
I have two day jobs, in fact! Hooray for America!
For one of my jobs I tutor elementary schoolers in a college prep program for children who’ll be the first generation in their families to go to college, and they help keep me creative! 
 I write before and after work, and on my days off, because for me writing is obsessive, and given the choice between socializing and writing, often writing wins out. My characters aren’t the only hermits I know…who needs sleep, what is sleep.

Three movies you think are worth watching, maybe more than once...
Ugh, I love movies! Let me try to be succinct for once:


BONUS: Leah on cosplay. . .

(From left to right: Maria from Metropolis, Brienne from Game of Thrones, Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, Christopher Johnson from District 9, Edward from Edward Scissorhands, Unit 01 from Neon Genesis Evangelion.)
Again, I’m a visual learner! And I really like the act of creating things by hand, and celebrating mutual love for characters. Cosplaying is the marriage of those things, and it’s also a wonderful way to connect with people. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Learning to Read: "The White Cat" (c. 1903?) Jealousy! Deceit! All the cream!

This is an illustration from The Temple Literary Reader, Book 1


Devious Advice! 

If. . .forgiveness! But the important thing is I GET ALL THE CREAM!

I'm prepping for an event to celebrate an exhibit at my local public library. 
I have taken "Hand-Me-Down Love: The Books in Our Hearts" as my topic.
It's a great excuse to spend time with some of my own favorite books.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Not-A-Review: Crit Cultures

I find that I want to think and write about the books, films, and whatnot I experience, but I also find that I am reluctant to do so. While trying to understand my own ambivalence, I realized that at least one of the factors is the nature of social-media review and criticism.
I'll start by saying I recognize that social-media and the technologies that underpin them have changed what and how we encounter and read things. (I use the vague "things" here because "books, films, and television" is too circumscribed and a complete list would be stupid-long: . . . museum exhibits, software, tags on railroad cars, political advertising, closets. . . like I said the list is stupid, long, and stupid-long.)
To begin though, I'm going to focus on a few institutions and "crit cultures" using books as examples.

Commercial Vendors: Amazon is a an example.
"Reviews" here serve as least two functions: 1) They help advertise and move product; 2) They provide an engagement point for the consumer. To be blunt, both of these are essentially about making money for the vendor, but they operate in different ways.
The first purpose raises the exposure of a product to prospective customers. This is hit-and-miss in my experience. Algorithms crunch purchase and search history data and offer things it imagines will please you. Sometimes I just want to pat those little algorithms on the head and say, I can see you are trying very hard, dear. Maybe a nap?  (I'm still trying to figure out why the algorithm at Pinterest thought I should put Venus Williams on my Dead Boyfriends page.) Even without the confounding glitchyness, there is a deep disconnect between my heart's desires and the ratings/reviews on commercial sites.
The second role of the reviews on commercial sites is to provide an outlet for customer frustration: "The delivery was left on my porch and it rained and the book got soggy." or "This arrived late!" or "I haven't read this book, but I understand it is bad. Buy my friend's book XXX because it is good."
I haven't left a review on Amazon or any other site for a very long time. I'm not certain that they can achieve the tipping point that changes the "rating" of a book.
I won't even get into the "paid review" racket.

Consumer Communities: GoodReads is an example, but I could also cite YELP etc.
The culture depends on the community—that must be admitted. There is a difference between one 4çhan thread and another. Sometimes there be dragons. Sometimes there be pissants. I vacated GoodReads a while ago (four? five years?) for a couple of reasons. First of all, I was only giving five stars to the books I listed. Second—going to verify the truth of my claims. Verified—the books I was evaluating were esoteric and not exactly GoodReads fodder. I wasn't contributing to the community, and I understood that was likely to be true in the future. This was way before I published any of my own books, BTW.
 via GIPHY
Occasionally I still visit GoodReads, but not to find books I might like to read. My interests are more perverse. Worst thing I've seen develop lately: GIF based reviews that don't mention any specifics about the book under discussion.  Feels a bit like YouTube poops, but those reviews are not, to me at least, useful.

Book Bloggers: I've been online long enough to see these evolve. Some of them are triumphs. There are some book bloggers I will always love, not because they gave me glowing reviews, but because they reveal who they are and why they read. There is something exquisitely personal and fundamentally trustworthy about my best-beloved bloggers. They make me a better reader and writer.

Click-Baiters: I don't even know if these mouse-turdists belong on this list. I get that they are paid by the click and that YA fiction, in particular, is clickbait, but the sensationalism and reductionism is. . . It  makes me want to lie down with a bottle of Jack is what. Most recently, an expert on cookbooks on . . .  No. I can't. I just can't. I won't give these people the clicks.

Industry Reviewers: These are the publications that have enough readership, heritage, and clout to change the course of the general readership. They help shape library collections. They compile best-sellers lists. Some of them are straight-up artists of opinion. (Pauline Kael and Dorothy Parker are good examples of dead ones.)

I'm running out of steam, so I'll bring this to a close. As I write about things I want to be personal, insightful, and honest about my own subjectivities.

Up next: My thoughts on OUT OF DARKNESS by Ashley Hope Perez.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Historical Authenticity

If I want 1910 (the book I'm writing) to work, I have to hit not just a voice, but period authentic discourse.
This is where you can imagine I gave you the whole blahblah discourses, but to get right to the quintessence, here is a sample...
You little owl...
You sentimental ass!
That's authentic historical voice.  

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Chronotopes and Sites

I saw a film recently, BELLA VISTA, that is encouraging me to think about the way time and space get made in a story.

And I'm indexing a book right now. . .

Site Reading offers a new method of literary and cultural interpretation and a new theory of narrative setting by examining five sites (supermarkets, dumps, roads, ruins, and asylums) that have been crucial to American literature and visual art since the mid-twentieth century. Against the traditional understanding of setting as a static background for narrative action and character development, this book argues that sites figure in novels as social agents. Engaging a wide range of social and cultural theorists, especially Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman, Site Reading examines how the literary figuration of real, material environments reorients our sense of social relations. 
Given MARTian's setting, I anticipate reading about supermarkets as social and literary spaces. Look! Shopping carts.

PS Books are nonhuman actants.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Othering the Martians

I am about to take something out of this story about 1910 (time is so important in 1910), but I wanted you all to see it, because it shows an aspect of Othering. I also want you to see the elegant animals of Mars that DON'T resemble giant Scandinavians.

By Marconi Transatlantic Wireless Telegraph to The New York Times
February 21, 1909


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Writing for a living

My partner is a writer—non-fiction, mostly science/medicine and travel writing. His work is immeasurably harder than mine. He recently had a bunch of tiny pieces to write. When I heard he needed to to the Pacific Ocean in 250 words, I wrote this...
Assignment: Pacific Ocean
250 words or less
Make it snappy and full of high surf. Remember that it is essentially life on earth and extends from one pole to another, from cold to hot to cold again. Simply don’t compare. The Atlantic and the Continents Drifting belong elsewhere. Stick to the plastic ducks along the current
His work is harder than mine. This is the truth.