the written world: of comfort

my husband doesn’t re-read books or re-watch movies, as a rule. and yet he married me, a person who could happily sit down to watch The Last Jedi at literally any time of the day or night; a person who finished Uprooted and simply turned back to the first page and continued as if nothing happened; a person who appears to have a good memory for quotes and passages, but has actually just driven them into her brain through staggering repetition.

i re-read things like it’s my job. like somebody important sat me down as a small child and said, solemnly, “it is your task on this earth to live, to love, and to read Watership Down at least twenty-five times before you’re thirty.” when i read too many new books in a row i get an anxious, dangerous feeling behind my breastbone, as if i’m edging closer and closer to an invisible precipice. sooner or later i have to turn around and run for home.

i don’t pick my re-reads casually; in a lifetime of reading i have a relatively short list of books i can return to again and again. it’s not really about the objective goodness of the book, if there’s even any such thing as objective quality. there are lots of phenomenal books i’ve only read two or three times, mostly because they’re too much work (The Brothers Karamazov), or they hurt too much (Beloved), or they had a clever gimmick that’s more fun the first time (The City & The City), or I’m afraid I’ve outgrown them and they won’t fit anymore (The Catcher in the Rye), or just because I never seem to be in the mood (all of cormac mccarthy).

the ideal book for re-reading has a sort of glow to it. a warmth, like sunshine, or a heat, like love. it has to feel like sitting in a squashy armchair with my legs tucked under me in winter or lying on a towel at the edge of a pool in the summer. anyway, given [gestures at the global pandemic and careening economy and cruel capitalist rhetoric] all this, i thought i’d share some of the books with which i’m constructing my personal blanket fort:

  • everything robin mckinley has ever written, but especially The Blue Sword and Spindle’s End and Deerskin. they offer: girls with swords; girls in love with good boys; girls caught in the spiderweb glimmer of fairy tales they can’t quite escape. also, good dogs.

  • if you dig robin mckinley, you probably also dig naomi novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver, and katherine arden’s Winternight trilogy. again: girls with magic and swords.

  • everything lois mcmaster bujold has ever written, but especially Cordelia’s Honor and The Curse of Chalion. cordelia’s honor contains the first two books in the Vorkosigan Saga, and i just love them so damn much. the curse of chalion is an unbearably slow political (or maybe theological?) fantasy with a heart of purest gold.

  • casey mcquiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue. a straight-up romance, y’all. contains the phrase bitch mcconnell, which i think we all need.

  • chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. even though this is a crushing book full of hurt and anguish, it still feels like escape? maybe because it’s about escape, when we need it most.

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. look. i know it’s 900 pages. i know it has footnotes. but that’s because it’s not a book so much as a place you can go, a world which will swallow you whole and leave you listening for the distant sound of bells.

  • nicola griffith’s Ammonite. an insufficient number of people have read this book. it’s about a planet of women on the precipice of genocide and the anthropologist who becomes a traveling storyteller and falls in love and saves everybody??

  • n.k. jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. is The Fifth Season technically superior? yes. but 100k Kingdoms has a superior number of hot gods and matriarchies, so???

  • Circe. a retold set of myths full of longing and magic and anger transmuted slowly and beautifully into hope. i’ve only read it once, but i can already feel the re-read coming.

anyway. tell me your re-reads. give me the books that feel like perfect cups of coffee or old-fashioned letters in the mail, the books that leave your heart high and aching.

other reading

  • kentucky’s new governor is doing an amazing job during this crisis. he gives these calm, comforting daily addresses where he gently lectures the businesses that refuse to close down (looking at you, Pike County bingo hall). but i’m not sharing those daily addresses; i’m sharing this facebook post from a kentucky mayor, which begins “listen up dipshits” and improves from there. i choose to believe this mayor is andy beshear’s anger translator.

  • lindsay king-miller has a new essay up at Electric Lit called “writing doesn’t have to hurt” and honestly i think we should all read it? my favorite line: “bleeding on the page mostly just makes a mess.”

  • i just finished andrea stewart’s Bone Shard Daughter, out this September, and if you ever loved the classic big sprawling epic fantasies of the 90s--the complex systems of magic and the dozens of viewpoint characters and the tangled politics--this is like that but actually good. smart, efficient, buttery smooth. i loved it.

news

it feels like the book-world has stopped spinning--the bookstores are closed and the airports are closed and the publishers are working from home and amazon’s not shipping books right now--but anyway the paperback of The Ten Thousand Doors of Januaryis out on May 14th??? and you can preorder The Once and Future Witches? i would encourage you to go through your local indie, if you can. lots of them are surviving on online orders right now.

other than that...i’ve got a first draft done of my Tor.com novella (sleeping beauty meets spider-verse, lots of princesses crash together to get out of their shitty stories), and the very earliest beginnings of what i desperately hope will be my next book. it’s way too early to tell, but it might have a kind of glow to it.

the written world: of snakes and tails

the best part of Knives Out (there are many best parts of Knives Out; it is a movie comprised exclusively of best-parts glued together with a southern drawl and a sly wink) is the coffee mug. in the opening shot of the movie the camera lingers on a mug with the words “my house, my rules, my coffee” in goofy red font. it catches your eye because it’s so tacky, because the rest of the set is all class and money and there’s this ugly-ass dollar-store mug proclaiming power in a way that the genuinely powerful rarely do because they don’t have to.

you don’t think about that mug again until the final scene, when (SPOILER) the former maid takes a slow sip from it as she contemplates everything that now belongs to her: the coffee, the house, the rules themselves.

i think i might have cackled out loud when i saw it. i might have fist-pumped. partly it was the simple but pure delight of seeing undeserving rich people stripped of their wealth--another best part of Knives Out is the reading of the will--but partly it was the deep satisfaction of watching a wild sprawl of story resolve itself into a perfect, clean circle.

i feel like there’s probably a term for this that i don’t know because i’ve never taken a writing class. it’s the thing where a story echoes with itself, where every stray hair is tucked neatly into place, nothing wasted, nothing forgotten. it sounds like it would feel contrived or mechanical, and maybe it does when it’s done poorly. but done right--there’s nothing like it. it’s a key in a lock, a snake swallowing its own tail. 

there’s not very much writing that really, truly feels like this. i seem to find it more often in short stories and film, probably because word limits encourage a certain economy. my best example right now is Paddington 2 (i’m serious). it’s like a perfect little music box of a movie, where every action ripples and repeats and every character trait exists for a reason. or the first Pirates of the Caribbean (i’m still serious), which is terrible and absurd but also invents its own mythology and believes in it with admirable, self-referential abandon. the pirate’s code. parley. leverage. will turner’s unlikely but useful ability to throw swords in such a way that they bury themselves point-first in wooden objects. even the soundtrack plays along, repeating the same adventurous notes every time someone is about to do something incredibly stupid.

i don’t have a lesson here, except that i want to do that. i want my stories to echo against themselves and i don’t know how. (if any of you know the secret, please do tell me. i will make an embarrassing fortune writing perfect stories and mention you in the acknowledgements of all my books). i bet it take lots of rewriting--returning to the beginning and weaving your endings into the opening, tucking away every stray hair of story. i bet it helps to look at what you’ve already written as you write. to pull from your own mythology rather than constantly, exhaustively inventing new things and places and people.

i bet it’s one of those things you do best when you’re not trying too hard, like ping pong or baking. i am haunted by the memory of salinger’s glass brothers playing marbles in the magic hour before dusk, and seymour advising his brother: “could you try not aiming so much?” bastard. he was probably right.

news

there’s a lot this month! i am compelled to use many more exclamation points than i normally would!! in an effort to communicate the anxious, guilty glee i feel toward my own good fortune!!! The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. this means that mary robinette kowal (mary robinette kowal) called me on the phone (the phone) and i cried (while on the phone with mary robinette kowal). 2019 was a phenomenal year in SFF publishing, and it’s an absurd honor to be nominated alongside arkady martine, tamsyn muir, sarah pinsker, silvia moreno-garcia, and charles gannon.

also….my next title and cover were revealed at bookriot!! and it’s. so. beautiful. it’s tangled and thorned, with venom hidden among the vines, and i can’t tell you how well it suits the book i wrote. it was designed by lisa marie pompilio at Orbit Books, and reader? i would die for her.

The Once and Future Witches comes out in October of this year (this year). i talked a little more about the book here.

other reading

  • this tweet and accompanying video--a compilation of all the bananapants questions asked on the 90s show Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction--is maybe the funniest thing i’ve ever seen. the internet was leading up to this point, and it’s all downhill from here.

  • i’m supposed to be reading a bunch of exciting books for blurbing, but instead i got swallowed whole by tasha suri’s Books of Ambha series: Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash. they were both absolutely fucking great. the perfect combination of indulgent, heart-fluttery romance and high-stakes epic fantasy. sometimes (always) all i want in the world is to watch a woman save (or destroy) an empire while falling for a gentle, tortured man trying desperately to be good in a cruel world.

the written world: of love

recently i’ve been reading two things i’ve never read before: romance and fanfiction. 

i’d like to think it wasn’t sheer snottiness that kept me away, but it probably was. i had a vague, well-meaning protectiveness toward fanfiction, borne of many friends who have written and read it, but i somehow never picked it up myself. i had an awed respect for romance writers, having been on book-twitter long enough to know that one of the cardinal rules of book-twitter is thou shalt not fuck with the romance writers--but i never actually read them.

i write to you now having read Red, White, and Royal Blue, four books of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series, and no fewer than three novel-length fics about space wizards. Reader: i regret every second of time i wasted not reading this shit. it’s joyful and smart and indulgent and wise, and i was a fool and a snob.

i’m aware that “romance is good, actually” is a room-temperature take at best. nothing i’m saying is particularly novel; lots of writers before me have figured out that--surprise!--one of the most popular and beloved literary genres has something to teach us all. but this newsletter is my reading journal, not breaking news, so indulge me while i think about what made these books so damn delightful.

lesson #1: hearts first, everything else second

romances are a little like SFF books turned inside out. instead of prioritizing plot and concept and structure, romance prioritizes character. and not what’s done to them or what challenges they face, but just how they feel. the stakes are rarely higher than a single human heart. entire scenes exist simply to move our heroine from irritated to intrigued; whole three-act-structures are built around the slow accumulation of trust. 

it was revelatory--and honestly pretty radical--to see so much attention paid to the interior lives of women. to see their fears and fantasies given weight, the fulfillment of their needs prioritized over literally everything else. so many narratives only care what is done to women characters, or what they do to and for men; romance cares what they want.

when i brainstorm books and outline plots i’m often thinking of things my characters will do, things that will happen to them. it’s often only deep in the drafting process that i unearth all those pesky whys and what-fors and wants, the beating hearts inside my poor puppets. what if i started first with their hearts, and built the stage around them?

lesson #2: readers first

maybe even more than the hearts of its characters, romance cares about the hearts of its readers. i’ve never felt so indulged, so cared-for. it was like falling asleep with an absolute guarantee that my dreams would be good ones. i knew, knew, i was going to get the kiss, the proposal, the triumph over (sometimes hilariously contrived) obstacles, the happily ever after.

until i read romance and fanfiction i didn’t realize how often i read with my heart braced, my armor half-on, never sure if the hands i’m in are good ones. i wonder now if that’s why i re-read books so often: because it’s exhausting to read with my breath held.

my second book is a lot darker than my first; i struggled to write it. i veered too heavy and then too light again, caught between the hideous realities of women’s history and the wonder of witching. in the end i returned to the reason i write fantasy in the first place: because it’s better than reality, just a little. because i want the truth, but not unvarnished. because i don’t want to read with my armor on.

other reading

  • i regret to inform you all that i’m a regular listener to John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. it’s pretentious; it’s slow; it sounds like something Parks and Rec would invent to make fun of NPR. and yet i’m generally brought to tears at least once an episode because i am exactly the kind of overwrought angsty millennial for whom this show is made. last episode, it was a quote from Donald Hall’s memorial essay for his wife, titled “The Third Thing.”

  • i finished Camilla Bruce’s forthcoming You Let Me In, about a little girl who speaks with faeries or maybe just invents them to survive. it’s cold, harsh, cutting, vicious, dark, cruel--everything i just said i didn’t want. and yet i can’t stop thinking about it. in the end i think it actually was the truth rendered a little bit better--it’s just that the truth, in this case, is so crushingly bleak.

  • i adored Gerwig’s Little Women, and this account of her artistic and literary influences was honestly a delight. the seriousness and attention she brings to the inner lives of young women is not unlike the romance genre as a whole, now that i’m thinking of it.

news

  • i’ll be doing a little Q&A and signing at the Shelby County Public Library on thursday, february 13th, from 6-7 pm

  • i have a story coming out in the next issue of Fireside Magazine (along with a bunch of other writers)! it’s basically labyrinth mixed with the ransom of red chief, and it’s only 1500 words.

the written world: of heroes

as anyone who follows me on twitter knows, i have a near-obsession with Madeline Miller’s Circe and Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer books. there are a thousand things that make them so effing great: the echoes of ancient stories in Circe, the voices of women rising like oil to the surface; the effortless storyteller’s prose in Strange the Dreamer, the rhythm of repetition (witch-light, spring-not-summer blue). but that’s not why my next tattoo is going to be the moth from the cover of Strange; that’s not why i pester my mom about Circe every time we talk.

i think it’s what these books have to say about heroism. fantasy and myth are genres saturated with heroes—your knights and warriors, your chosen ones and space wizards, your kings once and future. and i have immense affection for them! truly! i love to see a great evil thrown down by a greater good; i especially love it when that greater good isn’t white and straight and dude-ly, and i look forward to years and years and years of watching the hero’s journey reworked and reclaimed by marginalized voices.

but what Taylor and Miller are doing is a different, perhaps rarer kind of reclamation: they question the concept of heroism itself. they look at these (masculine, typically western) stories of righteous vengeance and glorious war, these grand conquests and prophesied duels that so often culminate in bodies strewn across a battlefield and a single bloody hand around the hilt of a sword—and reject them entirely.

Strange the Dreamer stars Lazlo Strange, a young librarian who journeys to find a lost city for no other reason than the wistful wonder in his heart. what he finds is a mournful, grief-stricken landscape, a people who have thrown off their oppressors but still bear the scars: missing children, stolen memories and forgotten horrors, constant nightmares—the very real traumas of conquest and rebellion. the two books in the series are essentially a slow and painful reckoning with that trauma.

it’s almost like an epic fantasy set after a different, traditional epic fantasy series ended. the true villains are already dead and gone, the conquerors vanquished. eril-fane, who would have been the classic protagonist of that other-series, is now thirty-something and haunted by his own great deeds. there is no problem that can be solved by the drawing of swords of training montages. the climax is a series of empathies, of things-forgiven, of open hands extended. the hero they need turns out not to be a man with a sword, but Lazlo Strange: a wistful librarian, and a kind man.

Circe is the story of one of the numberless nymphs of Greek mythology, clinging to the ugly fringes of her own divinity. exiled for witchcraft, she makes a life for herself among the woods and beasts of her island. circe rubs up against a dozen other myths—odysseus, obviously, but also the minotaur, icharus, prometheus, scylla—and sees not just their heroic climaxes, but their bitter afterwards. she comes to see the careless cruelty of the gods, the violent delights of men, and to rejects them. the finale of the book—which i won’t spoil but desperately, constantly want to talk about—is simply a man refusing an offer. it’s an un-choice, a standing-down from the demands of mythological narrative. it’s a testament to the brilliance of the book that a man denying his destiny is made into an act of bravery and wisdom; an act of heroism.

i don’t think there’s a lesson here, other than admiration. other than a hope that i can look harder at my own narratives, and question the stories i both tell and am told. i hope i can find heroism in the humble and kind, can look more closely at destinies and afterwards. i hope my sons grow up with different kinds of heroes.

other reading

  • this essay by jeannette ng in uncanny magazine is brilliant. it’s about showing vs. telling in fiction and the way that hard-and-fast rule can exclude marginalized voices from the mainstream. and the simple joy of replicating culture and documenting idiosyncrasies—not because a writer has to, but because they want to. because “diversity deserves documentation.”

  • i have no lofty or valid defense for this, but i recently fell into a small adam driver obsession?? i don’t know why! his face is like a cro-magnon hipster!! the dimensions of his body are more baffling than attractive! and yet i read every word of this new yorker profile and loved it.

  • i’m reading The Secret Commonwealth and having a lot of feelings about it. please feel free to talk to me in literally any context about those feelings.

  • the rise of skywalker marketing machine is very strong, and it got me with this one. i think when alan tudyk showed up is when i knew i was about to run downstairs and force my husband to watch it.

news

my book has been out for three months (this is apparently simple math and not sorcery). it’s gone into its fourth printing in the US and third in the UK. there are a lot of small and not-small things which i can’t tell anyone yet. i literally could not be happier about the people who have found and read and shared and loved The Ten Thousand Doors. someone got a tattoo!!!!!! someone commissioned art!!!!!

it’s still on sale for $2.99 in every digital format, in the US and UK, just fyi.

oh, and i’ll be in conversation with Erin Morgenstern (she says casually) at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington KY on Saturday, January 11th @ 6:00PM.

the written world: of deadlines

i’m not writing a real newsletter this month because i have a deadline in ten days and i don’t have the spare word-meat. my fields are barren, my pastures empty, my cellars plundered. i’m rewriting my entire second novel down to the last em dash and overwrought simile, and there’s nothing left in my skull but laundry lint and tumbleweeds and, for some reason, the lyrics to the entire animated Robin Hood soundtrack.

i have no writerly insights to offer, except maybe lesson #1: all writing is rewriting, and all rewriting is hell. until it isn’t, i guess.

it feels like an orchestra warming up. like a first draft is this teeth-jarring jangle of sound that will never be right. and then slowly the second violins get their shit together and the cellos stop effing around and the noise becomes a note, a resonance in the air, a voice saying yesssssss in your ear. and honestly all that jangling horrorshow is worth it just for the sound of that yessssssssss.

news

hey The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a Goodreads Choice Award nominee! and it made it to the final round in the debut category! and my name is right there on al gore’s internet beside Coates and Holmes and McQuiston and it feels profoundly unlikely! go vote, if you are so moved!

it’s also the season of Nominating Things, so i note casually that The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a 2019 fantasy novel written for adults, and that i had one (1) short story published this year: “Do Not Look Back, My Lion,” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a meditation on motherhood, matriarchy, and empire.

oh, and also i’ll be talking with Gwenda Bond (author of the first official Stranger Things novel!!!!!) at Joseph-Beth Books in Lexington, KY on Dec. 3rd @ 6:30PM. if you happen to want a signed or personalized copy of my book, you can order one through them.

other reading

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