Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mapping routes to legitimacy

Earlier this week an author announced her first book publication anniversary, and I realized I've been involved in the YA blogging community in some capacity or another for at least seven years. In blogger time I am old as the sun. I have seen stars be born and die.

We had the argument about YA versus Adult Literary Fiction seven years ago. (And every year since.) Writing an impassioned defence of YA is a rite of passage. Congratulations, a whole new class of you are now graduates.

This is not a defence of YA, if you were wondering. This is a commencement address from an alumni.

I often get asked how I got my job in the way that authors get asked how they got published—it's a request for a map to the treasure chest, a walkthrough to completing the game of legitimacy.

Everyone asks the question hoping for a how-to answer. I can't give you one. The inspiring response as to why is because there is only the map you are creating. The more honest response is when you're standing in the centre, it's hard to remember how far out that treeline was.

But I can tell you what years and years in the publicity forest of YA has helped me understand.

The purpose of enjoying something is not to try to convince people who don't enjoy it that they're wrong. Enjoy the thing you enjoy—unless it is serial murder or cannibalism or oppression or violating boundaries or other illegal acts—and understand the value you ascribe to something is not diminished or threatened by what people who aren't you think.

Value—the kind we give to favourite stories and our interests—is a subjective thing. It's fire within us. White-hot in a place between our ribs. And if it dims, flickers, because someone else doesn't feel it... that is a fault within our ability to tend the flame.

When you understand that—when someone puts it in words that penetrate your skull and defeat your ego, then it's an easy logic leap to understand bookselling isn't about you. It's about the reader to whom you are selling. Empathy is the greatest superpower a bookseller can have, and you get more of it from consuming more stories about people who aren't you.

This is the secret to surviving as a bookseller and blogger and person who engages in the business of publishing: There's a a book for every reader, and there's a reader for every book.

Your favourite book is a story someone else didn't enjoy. And that doesn't matter, and it shouldn't affect your ability to get what you need from stories in whatever medium you choose to get them.

Stories are stories are stories. You are the one who gives them value and meaning and names them important to you. When you can grasp this concept—hold it securely in your mind—your hands are free for more important battles.

My battle is against the misconception that there are stories whose audience is everyone and stories whose audience is no one. I fight by helping people find the stories they want. That's the guiding star I use. That's the map I've been making. You're welcome to it. Or you're welcome to make your own.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater

It's easiest to describe Maggie Stiefvater's SINNER as a story about sharp-edged love. A story about the wolves who live in our heads and hearts let loose in the fantasy that is Los Angeles. It’s a song of summer and being in love and running from the fall; it sounds like Overdose by LittleDaylight, Prime by Allie X, and Pompeii by Bastille.

Well, actually, it sounds most like this.

I fell in love with SINNER when I read its opening line of “I am a werewolf in L.A.” Ok, that’s not entirely true. I have loved SINNER through the playlist that is its pulse from before I even knew what this book was.

Now that I’m finished reading and can talk about it? SINNER is everything I wanted. It is funny, and smart, and sexy, and in places devastatingly honest. It knows how to put on a show, and it doesn’t feel it has to play nice with your expectations. It has music and cars and kissing and LA sunsets.

Maybe you know Cole St. Clair and Isabel Culpeper from Stiefvater’s previous trilogy of Shiver, Linger, and Forever. Cole and Isabel are two complicated people with an equally complicated relationship. But you don't need to know them to read SINNER. You'll meet them again, and watch their struggle to maintain that relationship when neither of them believe themselves easy people to love.

But SINNER is more than just the love story of Cole and Isabel. It's about the love the people in their lives have for them, whether they see/understand/appreciate it or not. It is the ever-present devotion of Sofia to Isabel. The steady quiet Leon offers to Cole. The way Jeremy knows when to make peace and when to stand aside. How the connections people make result in them being better than they would've been alone.

It's also about loving a place even if it's not always easy to live there. SINNER captured Los Angeles—not only in tactile details—it has the intangible sense of being these people in that city. The hopeful and the hopeless; all their maniac highs and their desperate lows.

At the frantic, racing heart of this magnificent book is a story about addiction to people and places and things. Walking that razor edge between love and obsession. But it is also a story about being more than just the wanting. And I adored every page of it, even the ones that cut as I held them.

I wish I could’ve given this book to a younger me, oscillating between anger and joy and sadness and hope in that city of sinners while most of the people she knew were building their lives somewhere else. I wish she could've read what Isabel says about making connections in LA and felt understood. Maybe she would've made more of an effort to make connections sooner. Maybe.

I know you will not read the same book I read when you read SINNER, because you are not me. But if you are also someone who needs this book, I hope it finds you. I hope it helps you feel understood, too.

While I do not want to spoil anything for you, SINNER is one of the few books that is honest about how the biggest epiphanies we have are often over simple things. Those realizations irrevocably change us, but they don't radically alter the world around us.

There are so many in SINNER. I want to mention this one: We are not always who we think we are; we are not who everyone else thinks we are, and we are not only that constantly shifting space between the two where we keep the parts of ourselves we don't want to acknowledge or are afraid to share.

Knowing this doesn't stop love from being difficult for some of us—but it makes it so you understand the struggle is worth it. Even sharp-edged things have a way to hold them; you just have to want to learn how.