This week I visited the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, which is a retreat center for children’s and YA writers, to be a special guest speaker at a Whole Novel Workshop. My task was to do a lecture on something craft-related (my choice), something hopefully inspiring, and then the next day read from my upcoming book The Walls Around Us, and soak in some of the good writing energy while there.
Just calling it a “lecture” made me unsteady. Doing a reading from my book is easier—all the words are already down on the page; I put them there. I can read them, make eye contact every once in a while, and just have the book speak for me. Talking about something smart is a whole other animal. Lectures are so very serious. Lectures are done by experts. What am I an “expert” in, distracting myself on Twitter and revising paragraphs 101 times before I can move on to the next paragraph?
I spent days trying to figure out what I would say. My topic kept shifting. Then, in a bundle of nerves, I asked for advice from Libba Bray, who a few years ago I saw give a talk at the annual SCBWI winter conference in New York City that made me crack up laughing and ended with me in tears. I felt so connected to her after she did that keynote, though this was before I had ever met her in person, and it was because she made us laugh with her and at ourselves, she blew our minds with brilliant writing advice, and then she brought it in close to herself and touched our hearts. She’s an incredible speaker… wise and eloquent and hilarious. I knew I couldn’t steal her away in my suitcase to Pennsylvania and have her pretend to be me up at the podium, but still I asked if she had any advice about how I could go about giving this lecture.
She told me that the best lectures about writing aren’t the ones just about craft. They’re the ones that combine a craft talk with something more personal. This gives the audience something to connect to—and it’s true, I think I connected to her talk years ago because of this. When it’s just writing advice coming at me, no matter how brilliant, I know sometimes I fade out and lose focus. (Rewind many years to me lying down on my aching back in the rear of the auditorium during Robert McKee’s STORY workshop, which I was forced to attend by my day job, and which I am kind of thankful for now, but that’s another story. Story, hah. Anyway, the point is, it was a lot of lecturing, and my brain shut down.)
I went home after talking to Libba and starting writing what I would tell these Highlights writers, hoping I had something worthy to tell them. I thought of all the books I’ve written, and not just the ones I published, and the craft lessons I learned through each one, because each book for me is a different beast. Each one put me through a new struggle, and gave me a new life and writing lesson along the way. …Even, possibly especially, the ones I never published.
I really do believe you grow from this process of writing, even when the end note isn’t your book on the shelf of a bookstore or library but in a box under the bed, where two of my unpublished novels still live, along with over eight years’ worth of my life spent writing them. These are not failures. It’s just a part of the process.
I’ve learned through the mistakes and missteps and I’ve learned from the glitzy successes and the high, high moments in which I felt like I was soaring and would never come down, until I came down. I learned a lot about having patience and listening to myself as a writer and trusting myself. And none of this came easy. Is anything worth doing ever easy?
The lecture went so well, and so did the reading, and I was proud of myself for making it through. The writers asked me so many wonderful, thought-provoking questions, and I felt very honored to be there speaking to them. (Special thanks to Sarah Aronson for inviting me to speak at her Whole Novel Workshop, and to the rest of the faculty: Nancy Werlin, A.M. Jenkins, Nicole Valentine, and Rob Costello. And thank you to the Highlights staff for being so helpful and accommodating! I only regret I didn’t stay longer.)
With that, my short visit to the Highlights Foundation was over, and I was being driven back home, to Manhattan, over the George Washington Bridge. I was wondering what possible life & craft lesson I’m in the midst of right now, writing this new novel that’s got me stuck, that’s challenging me, because I do want every new book I write to be a challenge, and yet that’s not always such a glorious experience when you’re deep in it tearing out chunks of your own hair. It’s impossible to know how best to handle myself at this point—nothing ever makes sense to me except in retrospect.
All I know is that if I look back on this year, this time in my life and in my career, I may just see it as the year I pushed myself, publicly.
Lectures and talks. Readings and more readings. Taking on every teaching opportunity offered me—and pursuing many more, some of which involve people never ever answering my emails and some of which involve people actually giving me a shot and allowing me to rise to the challenge, which is what I’m striving for right now.
I know what kind of working author I want to be. It’s just a matter of finding a way to get myself there.
(Oh and finishing my book, of course. Back to it.)
If you are near Tempe, AZ, I will be at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe on Wednesday, September 17 at 7pm. Author Elizabeth Fama is joining me! Please come.
My next workshop and retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program will be in June 2015. Applications aren’t due until February, but if you’re itching to apply now, the announcement is now up and we are accepting applications!
The ARCs of The Walls Around Us are now available—and look for a giveaway through my publisher next week to get a signed ARC of your own!
My new novel, 17 & Gone, comes out this week on March 21, and to mark the release of this story about a 17-year-old girl haunted by the missing, I’ve asked some authors I know to join me in answering this question… What haunted YOU at 17? Here’s Libba Bray revealing her disturbing fears when she was 17 years old…
Guest post by Libba Bray
“We were just young and restless and bored.”
—“Night Moves” Bob Seger
We were seventeen, and sex was everywhere.
It was a constant, high-pitched whine to which our ears had just become attuned, and now we couldn’t stop hearing. On the back row of the midnight movie. In the parking lot of the Pizza Hut. Walking through lake-side parties with plastic cups of beer in one hand. Nestled into backseats in cars with fogged windows. Stretched out on the night-cool grass in the city park with a view of the silent steeple of the First Baptist Church. Navigating the high school hallways, every encounter at the lockers or water fountain or classroom an unspoken invitation to a possible kiss, a probable more.
Our town was small and dusty and unexciting, and the current of our collective yearning was as palpable as electricity crackling along power lines: You don’t see it, but you know it’s there. Sex. My older brother’s friends had gone from protesting my presence to offering me weed and rides to the Sonic in cars with killer sound systems. I watched their fingers strumming guitars and imagined those fingers entwined in my hair, stroking along my collarbone. The lanky, confident strides of long-haired boys loping into record stores, thumbs hooked through Levi’s belt loops was an aphrodisiac. Tanned, muscular arms swooping suds over the hoods of beat-up Impalas and Ford trucks parked in oil-stained driveways brought on fits of girl-klatch giggles. Sometimes, we’d sit on the curb in front of my friend Charlotte’s house baking in the Texas heat, just waiting for a glimpse of John Collins who lived two houses down. When we were lucky, the garage door would rise robotically, and he’d emerge with his amplifier in hand, those long, Robert Plant–worthy curls a gleaming advertisement for our girlish fantasies.
Sex. Romance. Desire. Fear.
It wasn’t always welcome. When my BFF, Eleanor, and I went to the county fair that summer, a toothless, tattooed carny leaned in to secure the metal bar on our Ferris wheel seat and flicked his tongue suggestively at us. “I like to eat pussy,” he said with a cackle and sent us skyward, around and around, pinned and helpless. There was the married businessman at the community theatre who made a habit of cornering teenaged girls at wrap parties. Once, as I perched on the edge of a chair, he surreptitiously stroked his palm up the inside my thigh, under my dress, venturing higher and higher while I said nothing. Truth: It was wrong of him. Other truth: I liked it. I took that wandering hand as proof of my desirability.
I was seventeen and haunted by the idea that I was inherently unlovable. Undesirable. Unwanted. Sometimes, I’d lie on the bed with a hand mirror, examining my nascent woman-face by degrees: freckled, full cheeks. Possibly promising pout. The natural arch of an eyebrow, the only hint of glamour. My face was a prairie—open, plain, colorless, solid and friendly, if not exciting or exotic. I’d lower my eyelids to half-mast, part my lips, fan my hair out on the pillow and try to imagine what I would look like in the throes of passion. Ridiculous? Amazing? Embarrassing? Sexy? Ordinary? Forgettable? I’d study pictures of Debbie Harry and Kate Bush, slapping on gobs of rainbow-palette makeup, then taking it all off again as if I already knew it was a hollow attempt at an enchantment I could never really own. Would I ever be enough as myself, or would I always be chasing an ideal that was not my birthright?
Jokes and sarcasm, these were my twin shields against attachment and a lust I felt deeply but also feared. “No need to look my way, kids, I’m just here for the laughs.” If I really was a joke, I wanted to laugh first.
Occasionally, I dressed up my needs in elaborate role-play fantasies, like the time I went to the Kimball Art Museum to see an Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit with the object of my infatuation, Greg. I’d already spun out an entire fantasy dating life for Greg and me in which we attended theater festivals and drank gin-and-tonics like modern Salinger characters. My body hummed from the nearness of him. That afternoon, as we passed photograph after photograph, I peered into the eyes of the subjects in those black-and-white squares of stark realism placed evenly and carefully apart on the wall and wished that they could answer my questions: “Does he like me? Will he kiss me? Am I enough?” We stood with our hands hanging at our sides, dangerously free, daringly close, our heads cocked at the same angle, and he confessed his crush on my best friend and asked for my help in wooing her. I had not been enough, after all. On the ride home across the flatline of I-35W, The Cars “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” filling the front seat, I felt a mixture of regret and relief. There was nothing to tie me to this dead-end place, after all—for if there was anything more terrifying than sex, it was the idea of the ordinary.
At seventeen, my friends were all doing it. I was the last virgin standing. Giggling, eyes bright and hopeful, they talked incessantly and in detail of their sexual assignations. Names. Dates. Sounds. Smells. Frequency. Facial expressions. Idiosyncrasies. Annoyances. Shortcomings. All the things men secretly fear we talk about when they’re not around. I’d sit on the bed listening, taking mental notes but not truly comprehending. It was like rushing a sorority years before they’d actually consider my application.
My first—and only—high school boyfriend had broken up with me that December. John was a terrific guy, a philosophical, gentle giant of a drummer who’d taken my adolescent hormones to warp speed. After months of backseat fumbling and painfully protracted groping sessions, it was time. I went to the Planned Parenthood located, ironically, next to the town’s one Catholic church, and spent five hours watching sex ed films in order to gain access to the free birth control pills. “You have to start on the first day of your next period,” the nurse informed me. “Then it’ll take a full month before you’re safe.” By my calculations, we were looking at a six-week waiting period. Jesus. I’d explode before then. Some kind of spontaneous sexual combustion. But if there was anything that scared me more than sex and my mother, it was unwanted pregnancy. So wait I did. And when the calendar-circled day finally arrived, I dabbed some Love’s Baby Soft behind my ears and waved goodbye to Eleanor giving me a thumbs up at her bedroom window as I walked out to John’s car.
Except that it turns out I wasn’t ready after all. That night, as we parked in his car in sight of the town’s green-and-white water tower, I picked a fight and we parted ways, him feeling hurt and bewildered, me feeling scared and asinine, knowing I’d ruined everything. A month later, the inevitable break-up followed. I lay on the bed examining my tear-streaked prairie face in the mirror. “There’s something wrong with you,” I said and turned away to cry into my pillow.
June, 1981. My pal, Richard’s, parents were out of town. A few of us decided to gobble down Black Mollies, chase it with beer, and speed our way through his birthday pool party. That’s where I ran into Bob. I’d met him several times before at other parties where we traded banter and outrageously silly dance moves. Tall, dark-eyed, with a quick wit and a Dracula cape—yes, an actual cape—Bob was a perfect candidate for my romantic yearnings. He was aloof. Unattainable. If I could make him want me, then it had to prove how incredibly irresistible I was. How worthy. It was insurance for my gun-shy heart.
Men didn’t leave irresistible women. This is what I told myself at seventeen. When my father came out to us, packed his suitcase and left for Dallas, taking up later with a lover who would become a second dad to me, I blamed my mother. If only she’d been prettier. Sexier. If she’d done some impossible, unnamable thing differently, my father would still love her, I told myself. It was absurd, of course, childish and unsympathetic, and it carried within it the warped DNA of self-loathing. This was the thing I wanted to deny, the truth hiding behind the smile of every boy I longed to kiss: If she could be left, so could I. And why would you open your heart and your arms, take a boy inside you, only to watch him go?
In the living room of Richard’s house, the New Wave kids pogo-d to The Cure, The Clash, Gary Numan. “I need to talk to you,” I said to Richard and motioned him outside by the pool. The speed buzzed in my veins like New Year’s resolutions. Bold and hopeful, it muzzled my inhibitions.
“I really, really like Bob. Can you find out if he likes me?”
Richard glanced through the sliding glass doors at the dance party. The frenetic beats of Rock Lobster. Down, down, down… “You don’t want to do that,” he said in a hedging way I interpreted as both kind and pitying. I felt mortified and strangely validated, as if this rejection offered proof of my fears: Ah, you see? No boy wants to slay a dragon for you. Back to the stable with you, wench! Remember your place.
Ordinarily, my pride would have required a joke at that point to cover my hurt. But the beer and drugs had worn down my defenses. I was raw need, no chaser.
“Why not?” was all I could ask, hating myself for even that much of a follow-up.
“It’s just not a good idea,” he said.
I nodded. “Okay.” Because there was nothing else to say.
Of course, I ignored his advice, following Bob from room to room, letting my shirt slump provocatively off one shoulder, Flashdance style, doing my best to seem alluring until he finally left abruptly, and I drowned my misery in more beer.
It had never dawned on me that Bob was gay; Richard, too. Or that my frequent attraction to gay men was both an Oedipal Circus and an unconscious need to “play house” sexually with boys who might require cover of their own. I was only seventeen and could not yet conceive of the ways in which our hearts, those faulty compasses, those magnificent frigates, conspire at times to keep us at sea, hopeful and searching.
Later that night, Eleanor and I were stopped by a cop on the way home from the party at 2:00 a.m. We’d crossed a median in front of the Denny’s, and after some furious eyelash batting and “Oh my gosh”-ing—sexual politics again—he let us off with just a warning. Terrified and jittery, we swore off drugs forever, a hollow promise as it turned out, and we sat on her bed by lamplight rehashing the night. Greg had finally made his move. They’d nearly done it in Richard’s darkened bedroom while on the other side of the door, the party raged on. I told her about Bob’s rejection and Richard’s discomfiting advice, and she assured me, in the way that sleepy best friends do, that it had nothing to do with me.
But I remained unconvinced.
Libba Bray is the New York Times bestselling author of The Gemma Doyle trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, The Sweet Far Thing); the Michael L. Printz Award–winning Going Bovine; Beauty Queens, an LA Times Book Prize finalist; and The Diviners series. She is originally from Texas but makes her home in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, son, and two sociopathic cats.
Want to win a signed hardcover of 17 & Gone, some swag, and a signed hardcover of Imaginary Girls to keep it company? Every commenter on this Haunted at 17 post will be entered to win. You can also enter by filling out this entry form.
The giveaway is international. Closes 11:59 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 28. Two winners will be chosen.
MORE 17 & GONE NEWS:
If you’ll be in New York City for the NYC Teen Author Festival, come see me and get a signed copy of the book! Full schedule here—look out for me on Friday, March 22 at the Union Square Barnes & Noble or Saturday, March 23 at McNally Jackson or Sunday, March 24 at Books of Wonder!
The YA blog WORD for Teens has interviewed me about 17 & Gone. Here’s what I think about blogging as an author, why boy characters are so tricky for me to name, and moving to Mars (random, but I really do think about it).
I shared the places where I wrote 17 & Gone—with photos!—including a cluttered corner of my apartment, two artist colonies, my favorite café, and my beautiful writing space overlooking lower Broadway. Check out my In Search of the Write Space post on Meagan Spooner’s site, and be sure to enter the giveaway… I think you have just one day left to enter!
I’m touched and honored to say that Courtney Summers is holding a giveaway for 17 & Goneright now—she’s been so kind and supportive, which means extra-much to me because I admire her like whoa! She’s giving away 17 & Gone (along with an ARC of the anthology Defy the Dark). Enter her Facebook giveaway.
If you’ve pre-ordered 17 & Gone or plan to buy it this week (thank you so much for your support! it means the world to me!) and can’t be in New York City to get it signed, I have a way to sign your book from afar. Leave a comment on this photo on my Facebook author page and I may just mail you a signed and personalized bookplate.
Feel inspired and want to share what haunted YOU at 17? If you write a post on your blog, leave a link or tweet it to me. I’ll send you some 17 & GONE swag!
There are few things I love more than a good scare.
Wait, before you sneak up behind me and grab my neck, let me clarify: I don’t mean scared in the sense of, “Wait, did I forget to file my taxes?” or “What’s that spot on my leg?” I mean a proper scare courtesy of masterful horror—the sort of gray, October sky, leaves-skittering-across-a-sidewalk, impending doom feeling that has you pushing up your collar and hurrying your steps for no reason you can really name and wait, was that someone standing at the upstairs window in that old house on the corner, the one no one’s lived in for thirty years…not since…the murder?
Oh, yeah. I’m there.
Horror has always been my genre of choice. The creepy, the spooky, the phantasmagorical—all catnip to me. Summers when I visited my superstitious, Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandmother, she would regale me with ghost stories about my great-great-great-grandmother, an undertaker’s wife and psychic who could, allegedly, see and speak to the dead. Then she’d send me to sleep in the attic. This is why I have issues.
I watched Dark Shadows every afternoon and Hammer Horror films whenever I could, thrilling to the gothic, Pinewood Studios sets and anachronistic beehive hairdos. Dario Argento’s Suspiria gave me gorgeous Technicolor nightmares and a healthy fear of stained-glass ceilings. I read horror comics that I hid under my bed and, when I was older, I gobbled up stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King. Salem’s Lot is the book I have reread above all others.
But the thing that always made me look over my shoulder, more than the prospect of vampires, clowns, zombies, strangers in scarecrow hoods, or Olan Mills family photography, is anything having to do with the occult. Satan in particular. Beelzebub, baby. You know, He Who Pwns All.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the church (I’m a PK), or the fact that the mid-1970s of my childhood were rife with Satanic movies, books, cults, and fears, but anything remotely demonic scared the…well, BeJesus out of me. And yet, I craved those stories. I mean, dude! Let other people go head-to-head with Jason, Freddie, and Michael Myers. Battling The Big D? Go big or go home. That’s my motto.
The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Sentinel, Satan’s School for Girls—this is my terror turf, the sort of thing that makes me want to put on my Bruce Campbell outfit, fire up the chainsaw, and say, “Groovy.” When I was twelve, I went to see The Omen with a friend, and she and I stayed up half the night hiding in her closet, surrounded by anything that looked vaguely religious—a Bible, Popsicle sticks which could be made into a cross in a snap (It is a well-known fact that the Dark Lord does not like frozen ice treats), “holy” water in a Snoopy glass that we had blessed ourselves. A collection of scarves. (Even at twelve, I understood the importance of accessorizing.) We were terrified. We were also thrilled. It never dawned on us that Old Scratch probably had better places to visit than a closet in Denton, Texas. I mean, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were just thirty miles away.
Our twelve-year-old logic was this: You can outrun, outwit, or out-wait some crazy psychopath in a hockey mask. But Lucifer’s got game. The Dude’s not going anywhere until your soul is his or you’ve made a grand gesture of offing yourself in the name of can’t-be-turned holiness—or you’ve figured out his weak spot. The stakes are high. Too high for a horror gambler to leave the table. And along the way, Satan will possess your cat, make the walls bleed, kill people in hideously mysterious ways, play Carmina Burana out of nowhere when you are walking in the woods even when you say, “Quit it, Satan! That’s, like, super creepy!”, order ominous nannies to your house, record Led Zeppelin albums, do the freaky backwards voices on conveniently running tape recorders that when played will make you soil yourself, send his demons to eat the last Little Debbie snack cake, and just generally mess with you in ways that have you and everyone else doubting your sanity. And he’ll probably look good doing it, too. I mean, Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart? Hot.
So what’s a girl to do? Meet Satan for dinner to talk it out? Here’s how I imagine that conversation going:
(Satan and I are in a restaurant. Satan has ordered the filet mignon, naturally. It’s perfectly medium rare and paired with a nice Cabernet. I am having pizza that keeps hissing, “Your soul is stained! STAINED!” It’s difficult to eat pizza that’s talking to you. I’m just saying.)
ME: Dude, this is not a fair fight.
SATAN: Why not?
ME: You’re Satan.
SATAN: Ah. So I am. (Dabs lips with a damask napkin) You could always forfeit and give me your soul.
ME: Yeah, gotta say, that seems to lack dramatic tension.
SATAN: Agreed. Could you pass the steak sauce?
ME:(Passing sauce. Note that Satan needs a manicure.) Besides, if I give in to you, my head will swivel on my neck, I’ll have the eyes of a rabid dog, and my sinuses will produce vomity-hair gel snot.
SATAN: Not always. Rupert Murdoch looks good. Very nice suits. Here, try the beef. It’s outstanding.
ME: I’m not falling for that.
SATAN: Falling for what? It’s just steak. And it’s perfectly seasoned. (shrugs) Suit yourself. Look, there’s always a chance you’ll defeat me.
ME: For realz?
SATAN:(laughs) No. False hope. I manufactured that. See: Boston Red Sox, 1918–2004. (pats cheek) Face it—you will be a vessel for evil. Which is much better than being a vessel for, say, olive oil. Celebrate the little things. That’s what we say in hell. We say it between screams, but you know. It’s the thought.
When I was younger, I thought that movies about demonic possession were terrifying object lessons in “You better not pout, you better not cry, you better not shout or SATAN CLAUS WILL DRAG YOU TO HELL!” (Please also see: Fear of Christmas.) But as I got older, I began to see these movies as representations of our fears about a loss of identity and individualism. I mean, you can be POSSESSED! Through no fault of your own! “Honest, Father O’Brien, I was just sitting here playing with this here Ouija Board while listening to Black Sabbath and burning my flesh with the hot wax of midnight mass candles and the Devil done invaded my soul without even an Evite from me. Gettin’ to be that a body don’t even feel safe drinking from her I Heart Goats mug, anymore.” It’s the fear that your humanity can be stripped from you bit by horrible-convulsions-on-the-bed-head-turning-completely-around-doing-icky-things-with-a-crucifix bit by some amorphous, invisible, malevolent force with whom there is no reasoning. You know, kind of like the current political climate.
So when October rolls around and the sky darkens, when the wind howls like the last cry of a doomed man and children in Halloween costumes run past laughing those little-kid laughs that sometimes make you wonder if said children were made in a test tube by an escaped Nazi bent on overthrowing the world order, you’ll find me nestled on my couch watching Rosemary’s Baby, and hoping against hope that she’ll win the ultimate fight. But I’ll have my Popsicle sticks with me. Because, you know, I’m not taking any chances.
Libba Bray is hard at work on The Diviners, the first book in a four-book series that is full of the creepy. She’s listening to “Tubular Bells” while she writes.
Comment on this guest blog and you’ll gain an extra entry for the big Halloween giveaway that opens TODAY, October 31, containing prize packs of signed books plus books and ARCs donated by my publisher Penguin Teen!
You can keep track of all the “What Scares You?” guest blogs with this tag.