Recently, a reader asked me if I’d intentionally set out for my new book, What We Left Behind, to have an almost entirely LGBTQ cast. The answer to that question is no, not really ― it wasn’t until I was on the seventh or so revision that I realized how few straight, cisgender characters have actual speaking roles in WWLB ― but his question really got me thinking.
What We Left Behind is very different from my first book, Lies We Tell Ourselves. Lies was set in 1959 Virginia. Both of its main characters, Sarah and Linda, are on the queer spectrum (in my mind, they’re both bisexual, but being that the only sex ed they’ve ever received is the 1950s public-school edition, these characters don’t have terminology for their identities beyond “That one girl makes me feel kind of funny”). They have no awareness of any other LGBTQIA+ people existing in their world. They assume that by default, everyone they know is straight and cis. (Again, in my head, there’s one other gay character in the book ― their choir teacher ― but Sarah and Linda aren’t aware of that, so it isn’t on the page.)
But What We Left Behind is set in the present day. It starts out in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where the lead characters are from. Then the setting moves back and forth between the two college campuses where they’re starting their respective freshman years ― Harvard, and NYU.
All three of those settings are considered hotbeds of liberalism by the Fox News types. And, well, they’re not entirely wrong. Toni and Gretchen, the two 18-year-old protagonists of What We Left Behind, have been out to various degrees about their queer identities for years. When they arrive at their new schools, they both find communities of classmates who are on the LGBTQ spectrum, too. And for Toni, who identifies as genderqueer at the start of the book, becoming part of a group of trans* friends opens up a whole new world that just might change everything.
Writing a book with an almost entirely queer-identified cast was so much fun I don’t even have the words for it. Now that we’re safely living in the 21st century, for some LGBTQIA+ people ― and yes, I was one of them ― college is the first place where you can really be part of a community of friends who get what it’s like to be you.
I get to keep indulging in queer communities after this book, too. The book I’m working on next, As I Descended ― which is also set in the here and now, though it’s more on the SF/F side of things (it’s a retelling of Macbeth set at a haunted Virginia boarding school) ― also has a lead cast made up entirely of gay and bi folks.
It’s awesome to get to write about more-or-less out-and-proud teenagers after spending years dwelling on the repressive world that was 1950s America. But more than that, there’s something unique and exciting in writing about queer communities, specifically. That’s also something that I feel has been lacking in YA. Sure, YA has been short on LGBTQIA+ representation (and marginalized community representation across the board) since its inception, and the numbers show that we’re nowhere close to rectifying that today. But even in many YA books with LGBTQIA+ protagonists, it’s still pretty common for just that one character, plus maybe a BFF and/or love interest, to be the only non-straight, non-cis people around.
And that’s certainly a common experience for a lot of teens on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. That’s basically what it was like for me in high school in the 1990s. But it’s not the only reality, especially in today’s social-media-connected world. And for me, writing ― and reading ― about queer teens who are plugged into that bigger world is both fun and fascinating.
But even when they’re living in relative isolation, like in my first book, I’m still more interested in writing about LGBTQIA+ characters than straight, cisgender folks, at least when it comes to protagonists. It’s partly that I relate to the sexuality aspect of their identities, being queer myself. But I think it’s also because, to some degree or other, these characters are operating outside cultural expectations. It may not be the 1950s anymore, but we still very much live in a world where straight and cisgender are the default. And for now at least, I’m most interested in writing about characters who don’t conform to that assumption.
Never say never, of course. Someday a straight, cis character might pop into my head whose story I simply can’t wait to tell.
But for now… I’m sticking with lesbian Macbeth.
Robin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves (September 2014) and What We Left Behind (October 2015), grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin now lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at www.robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley.
I began my literary life as a storyteller visiting classrooms across the UK. I found in the major cities — London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, pupils in one class might collectively know up to fifteen languages. In these same classrooms there would be children of amazingly mixed backgrounds — Turkish-Pakistani, Nigerian-Polish, third generation hyphenated Jamaican-Ghanaian-English-Irish children.
This hybridity is not an exclusively UK phenomenon. In Hong Kong I met third generation Indian-Chinese; in Lebanon I’ve met Nigerian bartenders who spoke fluent English having picked it up from American movies but who also spoke fluent Arabic and were engaged to Lebanese women. I’ve met Kashmiri villagers in Pakistan who spoke Scottish-English on account of Britain’s colonial ventures there hundreds of years ago!
Black identity is endlessly complex once you start to look up close. And to compound that complexity, culture (which forms a significant part of identity) is never static — it’s always on the move: absorbing new influences, throwing off the old. This is nothing new. I once traced a story that originated with the Mende people of Sudan and moved down into West Africa in different versions and which has now spread across to the Caribbean. In each location the story adapted itself, absorbing local influences. Hybridity is as old as the African hills.
Overlaying this aspect of hybridity and the resulting diversity of identity is the negative phenomenon of racism. Racism’s effect tends to be a flattening of the uniqueness of individuals and of the shifting variegation of cultures and their replacement with a monotone stereotype. Racism takes away individuation; it impresses its own images on individuals and communities. So Being Me tries to push back by exploring and celebrating the many complexities and ambiguities that black identity possesses.
In Being Me, Adele has an Ethiopian grandmother, a father who identifies as Italian and a white Liverpudlian mother. Adele considers herself black on account of her grandmother, but her father, who has a fine line in racism (see my first YA novel, The Silent Striker) considers her English-Italian. Adele occasionally speaks a form of urban slang which she attributes to her black grandmother. It is her confused way of boosting her ‘blackness’, as a means of pushing back against her father. Her frenemy Mikaela meanwhile has darker skin and two dark skinned parents. When annoyed, Mikaela rejects Adele’s attempt to identify as black and ridicules her for it. But if we hold the mirror up to Mikalea, Mikaela’s black identity is not ‘normal’ either. Mikaela’s parents are rich lawyers. Mikaela would prefer them to be poor in keeping with the stereotype of urban black families that she considers would make her look cool at school. To make things even more complicated, Mikaela’s parents were once Black Power militants and still champion the radical voices involved in anti-racism and pro-refugee campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and #refugeeswelcome. The whole bag of assumptions and expectations get thrown in the air in Being Me when Adele’s historically racist father inexplicably starts an affair with Mikaela’s mum.
To return to the source, as a storyteller, I would go into classrooms, tell a story or two from my life, then ask: what is blackness? Is it the way someone speaks? The way they walk? Is it where they are born? Their family? One story I would tell them from my own adolescence was of how a white skinned Jamaican man arrived in Manchester, UK and set up a kung fu class popular with second generation Jamaican children. We were astonished when this white man opened his mouth and spoke more fluent Jamaican nation-language (patois) than any second generation UK born Jamaican kid. It had us all re-examining our understanding of Jamaican-ness, which at the time, was the coolest kind of blackness.
The school students loved debating this stuff and teachers said it was the first time they had had an opportunity within school to talk like this, there were no YA novels that gave UK black identity anything more than a token examination.
Coming back to Being Me, in the background of the novel, the questions I am considering (we novelists never have any answers — only questions!) relate to the nature of black consciousness as a lived experience. Does a black kid think any differently to a white kid? If so, when? All the time? If not all the time, then in what circumstances?
Take a math problem as an example. You might think on the surface everyone looks at a math question in the same way. Yet a black kid might go into class with reservations. One of racism’s early messages was that African people are not adept at scientific thinking. This translates down as black people cannot do math. When entering the math classroom, what examples of black scientific successes has the black kid seen, what role models of people good at math has she or he picked up, how does their black peer group see the idea of being good at math and what cultural influences have affected that wider peer group?
Add all this up and a black kid by the age of 14 may have been delivered a sufficiently negative message about their math ability as to be much more hesitant going into a math class.
So a simple task — the square root of nine — may be contemplated with completely different attitudes by a black kid and a white kid. That’s without any reference to the actual mathematical processing brain work that the task requires. The reverse might happen at Physical Education. Black people are expected to be good at that. How does it feel if you’re black and actually rubbish at sports or dancing or any of the other stereotypical things we are meant to be good at?
So much for being black in school. How about daily life? The UK born black journalist Gary Younge stayed for 12 years in the USA writing news reports for major UK newspapers, including the Guardian. He wrote recently about his decision to return from the USA, describing how his very young son did not want to walk down a certain street because he felt threatened. His son, even at that early age, was already adjusting his thinking and his behaviour to the fact of his blackness. Do all black kids come to learn which streets it is not safe to walk down, both literally and metaphorically?
Some might say, what about our common humanity? Surely we have more in common than that which separates us? Extending this reasoning, some writers consider that black consciousness (if I can use that phrase in a narrow sense of being aware of being black in society) is not central to the black child’s personality or experience of life: black awareness is an intermittent experience. It’s an argument that may hold some truth.
Such writers could therefore presumably write black characters as white and merely swap the name John for Kwame and, with a few extra touches here and there, arrive at a convincing black YA character.
To take the other extreme, if blackness or racism determined every aspect of a character’s life, what room would there be for individualisation, for showing the deeply felt unique emotions and distinctive intellectual life which we each have as individuals — is all that flattened out by racism? Does racism make us all the same?
The Holy Grail for a writer concerned with black identity is to create a black character who has a deeply felt emotional life, a highly individualized experience of the world and a fully active intellectual life, while not ignoring the societal structures which impinge on their world. Ultimately, I guess the emphases you choose as a writer when depicting black characters depends on your own experiences, observations and judgements.
With my own two YA novels I’ve plunged in and given two different takes on black identity. In The Silent Striker Marcus has a vociferous white mum who is a trainee magician and a proudly Nigerian postal worker dad who wants to be pop singer only he has a voice like a cat with its tail caught in a door. Marcus suffers racial bullying by a teacher and some of his classmates. In his own, Marcus looks set to go under. But his true friends rally round (including Adele, his sort of girlfriend) and in a ‘Spartacus’ moment help him oppose his scapegoating, lift his chin and get his dreams back on track.
In Being Me, Adele and Mikaela are best friends and worst enemies. Mikaela calls out Adele’s ‘skin privilege’ — the way Adele’s life is easier as she is lighter-skinned than Mikaela. Adele herself longs to be what she considers more authentically black but has wrong-headed ideas about what being black means. Teen life is a time of working out who you are. For Adele and Mikaela, bumping up against assumptions, trying out stereotypes and challenging expectations is part of their growing up. It is their enduring friendship that pulls them through it all.
Those are my two tales. Two approaches. There is room for a whole range of other takes on black identity. Currently there are very few YA novels with contemporary black characters published by mainstream publishers whether in the US or the UK.
As evidence of that I recently visited a Manchester branch of Britain’s leading bookshop chain. I randomly chose some YA stories that looked as if they were set in the UK in the 21st century and wrote down the first girl’s name I came across. Here’s the list.
A very white list. To find a black character anywhere on those YA shelves I had to leave contemporary YA fiction and look among books set either in a distant time, a distant land or in a fantasy universe. It’s time for YA fiction to fearlessly place black characters in the now. We are part of this world. We belong.
Peter Kalu is well known as a poet, novelist, playwright and script writer. He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date. In 2002 he won the Kodak/Liverpool Film Festival Award for his script, No Trace. In March 2003 he won the BBC/Contact Theatre’s Dangeorus Comedy Script Award for his play, Pants. He has lived in Hulme/ Moss Side/ Didsbury, Manchester; Edinburgh, Scotland; Leeds, Yorkshire; Lagos and Abia State (briefly), Nigeria; and San Francisco, USA. He has a degree in Law and further qualifications in software programming, Internet coding and Marketing. He runs a Hulme based Carnival Band called Moko Jumbi (Ghosts of the Gods) which takes to the streets at Manchester Carnival every year in July on three feet high stilts! He is learning to tightrope walk.
When I first created Kimberley Rey, the heroine of Wishing for You, I knew she was struggling with her college decision and that her friend Sean had a terminal illness. What I didn’t know yet was that Kimberley had a disability.
It wasn’t until I was plotting her relationship with Sean that I could see it. He wanted to keep his cancer a secret as long as possible, and Kimberley was the only friend he’d told. When I thought about why that was true, I realized that it was partly because she’d had cancer too. And I knew exactly which kind.
Many years ago, I met a little girl on a bone marrow transplant unit, in the room next door to my nephew’s. Dana was happy, healthy, and cured of leukemia. However, the chemotherapy had damaged her short-term memory. Over time, we learned that the memory loss was permanent. She would fight a life-long battle to remember details, stay organized, and make decisions. Dana became the inspiration for Kimberley.
The realities of a memory disability sent the book down new paths.
Kimberley’s college choice changed from tough to intensely difficult — even terrifying. For many teens, cost is a constraining factor in their college search. But once they know their budget, they get to consider academic programs, social life, sports, and how far away they want to go. People who are neuro-atypical have other priorities. They have to think about accommodations, access to health care, safety, and how close they are to home.
I know how it feels to be an anxious parent and watch my kids wrestle with this decision. My older daughter has several chronic health issues, including depression. Her younger sister has a developmental disability. I’ve come to understand how important it is to find the right college — and what can happen when you get it wrong.
Kimberley’s disability also meant that she was completely unprepared for moving away to college. She’d been sheltered, with justification, by her overprotective parents. Her character arc had to include lessons in independence, like cooking without causing a fire or crossing a street without stepping into oncoming traffic. Her goals were small, tame, and absolutely necessary for her.
But too many scenes with mundane achievements would make for a boring book. So I experimented with the story structure, lightening up on the action plot and focusing instead on the more emotional subplots. She’s still the protagonist, the force driving the action forward, yet always with someone from her “supporting cast” nearby. It doesn’t take long for her friendship with Sean to become the heart of the story. While he encourages Kimberley along her journey of discovery, she helps him to laugh and forget.
“Strange how knowing our story had no happy ending had freed us to live in the moment. We weren’t guy and girl. We weren’t damaged and terminal. We were just now.”
Writing this book gave me unexpected insight into the rules of YA fiction. To get Kimberley right, I had to play around with genre conventions, tropes, and what’s expected of a good protagonist. I couldn’t send this heroine on a quest because she’d get lost. Involved parents were critical to her survival. And the consistent presence of friends provided the security she needed to grow. By the time I’d finished her story, I’d learned how to write around any rules that got in Kimberley’s way. It makes me wonder how much the rules have become a barrier to creating characters with disabilities.
As I wrote Wishing for You, I worried if I’d done enough research, kept Kimberley realistic, or strayed too far from the rules. But I never doubted the idea of telling her story, because I believe that YA readers are open to embracing all kinds of heroes.
Elizabeth Langston lives in North Carolina, halfway between the beaches and the mountains. She has two twenty-something daughters and one old, geeky husband. When she’s not writing software or stories, Elizabeth loves to travel with her family, watch dance reality shows on TV, and dream about which restaurant ought to get her business that night. Wishing for You is the second book in her I Wish series.
In Weird Girl and What’s His Name by Meagan Brothers, Rory and Lula are definitely not the cool kids, but they don’t care. They’re best friends who share everything from their “messed-up parent situation” to their obsessive love of The X-Files. But when Lula finds out that Rory, who’s gay, has been secretly dating his middle-aged boss, their friendship comes apart. In the aftermath, both of them will discover what it means to be friends, to be family, to be in love, and to be themselves.
I don’t know why I even went into Target in the first place, but it was too late to turn back now. I was frozen in the aisle next to the Home Electronics section, beside a pop-up kiosk full of DVDs. I was trying to talk myself out of the inevitable. Nope. No way. I’m not going back to all that. I’m a perfectly normal person now. No way is that DVD going into this shopping cart. No way – no – I said no – what are you doing? Put that down! I’m not kidding!
But it was too late. The damage was done. A quick trip through the express line and I was the proud owner of a two-DVD set called The X-Files: Revelations, the “Essential Guide to The X-Files Movie,” featuring “8 Critical Episodes Handpicked by the Series Creator.” Critical Episodes! So what if I had no money to spare and I’d already seen almost every episode of The X-Files at least twice? This was critical.
Actually, the only thing that was truly critical was this new story I was writing. It was growing every day at an alarming (dare I say supernatural) rate. It had started a couple of weeks before, in June of 2008, when I’d gone to see the new X-Files movie on opening night. The last time I’d spent a Friday night alone with Mulder and Scully, I was 19. Despite the fact that this new X-Files movie wasn’t the franchise’s greatest cinematic achievement, its effect on my psyche was downright Proustian. A few days after the premiere, this story about two friends obsessed with the show started coming to me, and I started writing it down as quickly as I could.
But if we’re being completely accurate, this obsession – and this story – really started back in the early spring of 1995, during my junior year of high school. My friend Liz, who shared her classic Twilight Zone episodes on VHS with me and knew my penchant for quirky TV like Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, casually mentioned that I should check out this show on Friday nights called The X-Files. I was immediately hooked. From the first episode, this dark, obsessive little show caused me to vibrate on heretofore unknown frequencies. For a 17-year-old who spent much of her spare time down in the basement, pecking out bad poetry and odd little vampire stories on the family computer, The X-Files was everything. Our hero, Fox Mulder, was literally and figuratively alienated, a brilliant agent exiled to the basement of the FBI because of his all-consuming quest to find his sister, who he swore was abducted by UFOs. His partner, Dana Scully, was sent to spy on him and discredit him, but became his biggest ally. Together, they investigated the strange, the disturbing, and the inexplicable, traipsing about in misty nighttime forests against the backdrop of an atmospheric synth score. Here was a show about loneliness, about devotion, about friendship and faith. Here was a show aimed directly at the heart of a moody little weirdo like me.
I became, in the parlance of the fandom, an X-Phile.
I spent the next few years taping every episode I could. I bought any magazine that promised even the tiniest hint of an X-Files article. When we went off to college, Liz bought me an “I Want To Believe” poster for my dorm room wall. I remained a die-hard fan for the next few years, until graduation gave way to a more time-consuming life in the “real world” and the show, in its final seasons, became a bit mired in retcon and muddled mythology. Unexpectedly, I found myself in Phile Apostasy, even giving away my treasured box of taped-from-TV VHS episodes to a guy named Moon Pie who worked with my mom. He was a down on his luck sort who drove an ancient Chevrolet Celebrity wagon with a sheet of plastic covering the perpetually busted-out back window. My mom somehow found out that he didn’t have cable or a TV antenna at home, just a TV set with a VCR, and he spent his weekends trolling the flea markets and thrift stores for budget entertainment. Already a veteran thrifter myself, I felt for the guy, so I gave him my X-Files collection, which was just sitting around gathering dust. A year or two later, Moon Pie won $100,000 in the lottery. He ditched the Chevy, but I hope that he still kept my “X-Files Miscellaneous” VHS with the Simpsons crossover episode and David Duchovny hosting Saturday Night Live. Because, as I now know, that’s the sort of thing that no amount of money can replace.
Which brings us back to Target, and the summer of 2008. I was in the feverish throes of this story, but I knew that, to tell the story of these two best friends whose love for each other was matched only by their love of The X-Files, I would have to get back into the show. This show had already taken over my life once, when I was a teenager whose main worry was that I was failing algebra. Now I was an adult with a relationship, a job, and a burgeoning writing career. No time for TV love, Dr. Jones. And, beyond that, this weird thing had happened and I was actually sort of cool now. I’d been in a band. People in town who knew me knew me as “the guitar player from that band.” I’d been introduced to other actually cool people in actual cool bands as “the guitar player from that band.” I’d been on tour in a van. I’d worked as a record store clerk and on indie movie sets. I’d written a YA novel that got some nice notices and I was finishing another one. I was a cool person doing cool things. Why would I need to devote myself to sitting around, obsessively watching some TV show? What could be more uncool?
Well, that’s one angle to the story. But, brace yourself for the big confession: I was never actually cool! Not even for a minute! That person in the cheap sunglasses throwing the guitar around and trying to be a badass was never separate from the insecure kid with the terrible math grades and the I Want to Believe poster. (I know. It was a shock to me, too.)
So I’d bought my little 8-episode set, and I wrote my little story. Which actually wasn’t very little at all – it ended up being almost fifty manuscript pages. Way too long for any magazine or anthology that published short stories. What the heck was I supposed to do with fifty pages of X-Files nerd lore? Leave it to gather dust in a desk drawer, that’s what. Oh well. That was fun. I guess.
I ignored the story for a year while I finished rewrites on my second novel and tried to dive into a third, a Big Serious Adult Novel. But something about that too-long short story wouldn’t leave me alone. So I dove back into this little saga of these two friends, Rory and Lula, joined by their impossible love of a television show. I started watching the show again myself. Somewhere along the way, I stopped caring whether people would think I was cool or not. I’d already written one book that was inspired by my own Debbie Harry fandom – if I could weather the slings and arrows of my serious music snob friends and their eye-rolling disdain for Blondie, a mere pop band, then I could deal with people thinking I was a nerd for loving The X-Files. I stopped caring whether people thought I was serious enough, or literary enough. I was doing something I loved.
I loved writing this story. It was a story about loving something that I actually loved. And when you love a thing, or a person, or a song, or a TV show, then it doesn’t matter what other people think. You just love that thing to death and worry about the rest later. It took almost five years for this book to get published. But that’s okay. Not everybody is going to love what you love in the way that you love it. It takes patience. People might try to think up all kinds of ways to try and make you feel bad for loving what you love. Don’t listen to them. Just don’t. Love is a truth that vibrates in every fiber of your being, and that is not a hyperbole. It is truer than whatever name-calling or petty ugliness can be conjured up by people outside of your love. Your love may not make you any money, or get you any awards, but who cares? Those things all fall away in time, anyway. What’s going to matter is that point at the end where you are tired and jaded and old and you look back on your love and you vibrate and light up and it feels like something supernatural is happening to you but in fact all it is is recognition. That’s all love is. It isn’t badass. It isn’t cool. It’s human beings, isolated and lonesome, waving to each other from across some nameless void, saying hello, I see you! And you see me! Thank God, you see me! Hello! I see you! I love you! Hello!
Meagan Brothers is the author of two previous novels for young adults, Debbie Harry Sings in French and Supergirl Mixtapes. She has also been, variously, a musician, a performing poet, a record store clerk, and an adjunct professor of creative writing at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. A native Carolinian, she currently lives and works in New York City.
Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel, Carry On, tells the story of Simon Snow, a boy wizard at a British boarding school — with a twist. Carry On is about characters that Rainbow first created for her novel Fangirl, but Fangirl wasn’t about those characters (well, not exactly). In Fangirl, college freshman Cath Avery spends much of her time writing fan fiction about Simon and his roommate Baz, who come from a Harry Potter-like series of novels written by the fictional Gemma T. Leslie. Cath’s magnum opus is also titled Carry On, but Rainbow’s novel isn’t Cath’s novel; it’s Rainbow’s version of the Simon Snow books.
Confused? Then forget about my attempt to explain Carry On’s meta origins, because you don’t have to understand any of that to enjoy this book. Carry On is a fantasy novel about a boy wizard named Simon, set in a fantasy world that is much like our own but with several key differences (magic being one of them). It’s about Simon’s identity as a chosen one, and how he struggles with that responsibility. It’s also about Simon’s first love, his roommate Baz, who happens to be a vampire. Their love story is a central element in Carry On, and it’s their love story that makes it clear that this is a Rainbow Rowell book.
Recently I had the pleasure of reading Carry On and asking Rainbow a few questions about her latest novel.
Malinda Lo: How would you describe Carry On?
Rainbow Rowell:Carry On is a chosen one story that’s also about chosen one stories. I think my UK editor Rachel Petty summed it up better than anyone else so far: “It’s is a love story to love stories and the power of words — it’s an homage to every ‘chosen one’ who ever had more on his mind than saving the world.”
ML:Carry On is your first full-length fantasy novel, though you wrote several Simon/Baz scenes in Fangirl and you’ve also written fan fiction based on fantasy novels. However, you’re best known for your realistic fiction. What did you find to be the biggest challenges in writing fantasy instead of realistic fiction? And what aspects of fantasy came most easily for you?
RR: I’ve always read more fantasy and sci-fi than realistic fiction, but I never thought I could write it myself. It seemed too much to get my head around. When you write realistic fiction, all the walls are already built, in a way. The laws of gravity apply. Plus I was a newspaper journalist for so long that even realistic fiction felt like too much lying at first.
I think that the Simon Snow scenes in Fangirl were a way for me to experiment with writing fantasy without risking too much. To splash around in the water without leaving dry land.
But those were my favorite parts of the book to write. And the first six months of writing Carry On were the happiest I’ve been as an author.
I have read so much fantasy in my life. I realized that there were so many tropes and magical situations that I wanted to play with. Carry On was supposed to be a short story about Simon and Baz falling in love, but it quickly became this whole big story with eight different narrators.
The most challenging part was definitely the plot. This book reads like one of my books; it’s character driven and relationship-driven. But I wanted it to have a big plotty engine under the hood. And I wanted the plot to make sense. (Even though I love so many fantasies with plots that disintegrate when you look at them too closely…)
ML: Obviously, one aspect of fantasy that is not present in realistic fiction is magic. In Carry On, rather than turning magic spells into Latin words the way J. K. Rowling does in Harry Potter, you use everyday English phrases that are heavily weighted with meaning. The students at Watford in Carry On even take a class called Magic Words to teach them how to construct their spells with phrases ranging from “U can’t touch this” (only relevant if the target of the spell knows the song) to nursery rhymes. How did you develop this idea? It seems so ingenious and I wish I had thought of it! Words do have power, even in our world without magic.
RR: Thank you! Well, it’s a familiar idea, I think, that there’s magic in belief and recognition. In Peter Pan, it’s our belief in fairies that keeps Tinker Bell alive. And in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Bill Willingham’s Fables, regular people give gods and fairy tale characters power by telling their stories.
I don’t know how I came to this exactly — the idea that certain phrases would be more powerful the more that normal people say them.
It was so freeing to build the foundation for Carry On — the magical rules and the way the society worked — while I was writing Fangirl. Because there was no pressure! I felt like I was playing.
Once I had the Magic Words idea, it was so much fun to come up with the spells, and to think about what would make a powerful magician in Simon’s world. Like, one of the reasons Simon is such a crap mage is that, even though he has infinite power, he trips over his words.
Probably it’s not that surprising that someone like me would imagine a world where words are the most powerful currency. They’re my only currency!
ML: If the World of Mages existed and we lived it and you could do magic, what spell would you use to get through a difficult writing day?
RR: Ohhhh … Maybe “Coin a phrase!” That would be a super powerful spell. Like a wish for more wishes.
ML: You’re well known for the romances in your realistic novels, which are all heterosexual. The central romance in Carry On is between two boys. Did you have any worries (writing craft-wise or otherwise) about writing a same-sex love story?
RR: Well, I wanted to be thoughtful about it. I knew how I didn’t want it to feel: like a homoerotic tease, all subtext and nothing real; or fetishized.
But mostly I just wrote Simon and Baz falling in love the way I always write characters falling in love. I want my love stories to feel real. I want them to have depth and texture.
ML: As you and probably everybody out there knows, same-sex love stories hardly ever make it onto the bestseller lists. David Levithan and John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson did, but only for a short time. Given your fan base, Carry On really does have a shot at making it onto those lists, and if it does, it certainly is poised to change a lot of publishers’ minds about same-sex stories. How do you feel about this?
RR: I hope it’s successful, of course. (I mean, of course.) And I’d love for it to be part of a huge wave of bestselling books about queer characters. But I try really hard not to think about the lists.
I wrote my two most popular books when I was in a place of not caring at all what would be successful — and not having any hope for success. After my first book, Attachments, didn’t do anything sales-wise, I wrote Eleanor & Park and especially Fangirl, feeling like I may as well write whatever I wanted because I couldn’t afford to keep going. I’d used up all my spare time and money and my family’s good will, and it felt very final.
Only later did people say things to me like, “Eighties stories don’t sell” and “Asian characters don’t sell” and “Fanfiction is a dirty word in publishing.” I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing!
So the publishing lesson for me has been: Keep your head down. Don’t listen to conventional wisdom. Write the book that you want to spend a year of your life on.
Carry On was that book for me.
ML:Carry On isn’t exactly fan fiction since you created the story, but it is definitely a metafiction of some sort. So I have to ask you a meta question. Fandom often generates a lot of love for secondary characters — Draco in the Harry Potter series is one of the biggest examples of this. If someone were to write fan fiction based on Carry On, which secondary characters do you think would generate the most (and unexpected) fandom love? (My money’s on Ebb. Honestly, I’d like to read some fanfic about her.)
RR: Yes! I love that about fanfiction! I really think people are motivated to read and write fic because of what they don’t see in the stories they love. It’s about filling gaps and exploring the unexplored.
And, oh, I’m glad you like Ebb! I loved writing the adult characters. And I’ve already thought about writing more about Baz’s aunt and her ex. Like, how they hook up again and become vampire-hunters.
I’d also like to write a story about Ebb’s true love, and how that person reacts after the events of the book. (That was a hard sentence to write without spoilers.)
ML: Oh, I would so love to read that story! Will you be writing more fantasy in the future, or is it back to realism for you?
RR: Oh God, I don’t know. This is the first time in my writing career that I haven’t had at least the first draft of my next book written when my book was coming out. The future is wide open, I guess.
But my next project is a graphic novel. I have two outlines — one fantasy, one sci-fi.
I think I’d like to stay flexible, writing about teens sometimes and adults sometimes, and moving between genres and media. I want to keep feeling completely engaged by whatever I’m working on.
ML: I have one more question, and it’s a selfish one for me. You now write across adult and YA, fantasy and realistic fiction. I think that genre and category boundaries are useful for readers in terms of finding books, but how do they affect the way you write, if at all?
RR: I agree, they are useful for readers — and useful for marketing; you don’t want people to be confused about what you’re selling. Unfortunately, categories and genre don’t seem to be useful for me as a writer.
When I get done writing a book, the last thing I want is to start something similar. I want fresh air and a new challenge. And my ideas are all over the place.
So I’ve decided to just write what I feel driven to write, and to hope that my readers follow me — or that new readers find me.
I think I’m going to be a sharper creative person and a happier person if I keep moving.
Some of this comes, I think, out of my career so far. I was a newspaper columnist. Then I was an advertising creative director. I’m really glad that I kept taking risks and trying new things.
I’ve been lucky to work with a literary agent and editor who support and encourage me on this path.
* “Diverse” = a book with a non-Western setting or inspired by a non-Western culture; or with a main character who is non-white/non-Western, LGBTQ+, and or disabled
iwouldrobabanktosavemylibrary said: Hi! Thanks so much for doing this. What suggestions/resources do you have for a white writer writing other races? I’ve found the writingwithcolor tumblr, know I need to find some beta readers, listen and process, and do more and more research, but do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help? Especially ones that have intersectionality? Most of my MCs are not white (and I am), so I’m trying to find everything I can to write as genuine a character as possible. Thanks!
daybreaksgaze said: In regards to writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy, how does one go about researching cultures other than their own (if they’re using other cultures)? And how do you know when ‘enough is enough’ in regards to research?
Questions about how to do research are among the most common questions I hear when it comes to writing books based on non-white cultures. Often the questions are like the first one: “do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help?” (emphasis mine) The answer is: no. There is no guarantee that any resources will be universally seen as true and right. The first thing you should do is forget about hoping for a 100% accurate resource. The second thing you should do is forget about the word “genuine” when it comes to writing a character, because “genuine” implies “authentic.” It implies that there is a true way to be something (e.g., an “authentic” Chinese person), and in reality, everybody is different. You should aim to write a character who is multifaceted, complex, and human.
That said, it is certainly very important to research the cultures you’re writing about, and although many writers know that they need to do research, they often seem flummoxed by how to do it, as the second question illustrates. That’s why I’ve put together this beginner’s guide to How To Do Research. It is truly a beginner’s guide, so if you feel like you have a handle on how to do this, the post may not be for you. Toward the end of the post there are some more advanced research ideas, as well as links to further reading.
One thing I want to stress is that this is a long process that takes a lot of work. If you want to write about cultures you know little about, you have to put in a lot of time. You cannot expect to get all your answers from one person or one website or even one day at the library. There are no shortcuts to doing research properly. If you’re not willing to put in the time, then it might not be a good idea for you to write this kind of book.
A second thing I want to say up front is this: If you’re interested in writing about a culture different from your own, do you have any friends who are from that culture? I mean relatively close friends — someone you can talk to about your families. If not, then why do you want to write about that culture? I fear that if a writer has no personal knowledge of that culture via at least a close friendship, they may have a difficult time seeing the culture as a living experience. Research can tell you a lot, but shared, personal experiences between you and a close friend can tell you a lot more.
gogglor said: Suppose your sci-fi universe is more accepting of people with marginalized identities. Does portraying a universe like this run the risk of downplaying or erasing the prejudices that people with marginalized identities today have to face? For instance, if a black character faces very little racism in this future-society, is that in a way an insult to black readers today who face a great deal of prejudice?
writingandbooksandthings said: I’m having troubles with deciding how I want LGBT+ people to be perceived in my fantasy world. I want to show the struggle/issues so it would be relatable to people, but part of me wonders if it would be better to show a world where sexuality, gender, etc. isn’t seen as an issue by almost anyone. I feel like doing so would make readers see it really can be considered “normal” by a society and with no consequences. At the same time, I feel obligated to acknowledge real issues. What do you think?
These questions, like many questions about writing diversity, are framed in a way that hopes for a yes/no answer. However, the answer to the vast majority of questions about writing diversity is maybe. There simply are no black-and-white answers to writing fiction with characters who are traditionally marginalized, and the first thing writers should do is accept this. Whatever choice you make as a writer can be questioned by readers and critics, especially when it comes to writing diversity, which has often been done poorly and thoughtlessly. Again, whatever choice you make can be questioned, so it’s important to think carefully about why you made those choices, keeping in mind that your book is yours, and your duty as a writer is to be true to the story you want to tell.
It is not inherently insulting or wrong to write a book in which people of color and LGBTQ+ people are considered normal. It is a choice you can make as a writer of science fiction and fantasy — a choice that writers of realistic fiction simply do not have. If a book is set in the real world, people of color and LGBTQ+ people are not considered normal by the majority of people. Any realistic book that includes characters with these marginalized identities has a responsibility to incorporate that inequality in some way.
However, in fantasy and science fiction, things are different. That is one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction can be so liberating and wonderful: We don’t have to create fictional worlds that are exactly like the real one. We can imagine a world in which it is normal to be non-white or LGBTQ+. I dare say that would be a better one.
One thing I find extremely frustrating about a lot of fantasy and science fiction is that many writers don’t seem to realize that everything in a secondary world is up for re-imagining. If you’re going to put unicorns or faster-than-light spaceships in your book, you can certainly also have equality for people of color and LGBTQ+ people.
Sometimes folks believe that equality for marginalized identities is unrealistic. When my first novel, Ash, was published, I was on a panel at a fantasy convention in which an audience member commented that it was unrealistic to have a fairy tale in which lesbians were normal. I responded, “There are also fairies in the book. Do you think fairies are more realistic than lesbians?”
That said, creating a fantasy or science fiction world in which people of color and LGBTQ+ people are normal does not mean you can simply wave your magic wand and everything becomes a shiny happy rainbow of equality and perfect joy. You have to build this equality into your world from the ground up.
For example, let’s think about a fantasy novel set in a preindustrial past, before the advent of modern science. If LGBTQ+ people are normal, you have to consider very basic biological things, such as how do LGBTQ+ people have children? Do they adopt others’ children? Do they have children with the assistance of magic? Do they not have children at all? Is there a place in this society for childless queer people? If you’re writing about rulers in this fantasy world, one of the most important thing to think about is heirs — how would a gay king choose an heir, if he hasn’t fathered any children? Additionally, if LGBTQ+ people are normal, how will you describe them? If it’s normal, would people even discern between those in same-sex relationships and those in opposite-sex ones? Will you use the word “gay” at all, especially because “gay” is a very specific English word with a clear history?
In a science fiction novel set in the future, other questions may also arise. If people of color in your futuristic world are normal, would they remain in separate racial enclaves (Black people in this part of town, Asians in that part of town), or would they have interracial relationships? And if they are in interracial relationships and have children, that does not mean their children all become a nice shade of tan; nor do they necessarily act like contemporary white people. Children in mixed race families do not always look the same, and you need to consider genetic inheritance and what a mixed race population would realistically look like. Additionally, cultures are passed down through generations and undergo changes. People always will have ancestral practices, so even if Chinese people are normal in the future, they probably are still going to retain specific Chinese cultural practices. Those practices also may have seeped into the wider popular culture. How would they be practiced by people who don’t have ancestors of that heritage?
Basically, normal does not mean white and straight. It’s very important to remember that, because if you normalize people of color and LGBTQ+ characters and then essentially turn them into white and straight-acting characters, that would be an insult. But if you normalize these marginalized identities in a thoughtful way that is built into the world itself, I think it can be a truly liberating experience to read.
Marginalized people in the real world don’t get very many opportunities to read books in which their identities are normal — and not erased. It is totally possible to do that in fantasy and science fiction, and I think that’s one of the best qualities of this genre.
Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, most recently the duology Adaptation, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013, and Inheritance, winner of the 2014 Bisexual Book Award. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog, and her website is www.malindalo.com.