Friday, September 25, 2015

The Anatomy of Curiosity

Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff are three accomplished authors and critique partners who form the Merry Sisters of Fate. For four years, they alternated posting a short story each week online. Many of these are collected in The Curiosities, which doubles as an anthology and a look at the critique process that went into those stories. (Notes from the author as well as her critique partners introduce each story and are sprinkled through the text as footnotes.) In recent months selected stories have been shared on Tumblr, as part of the lead up to the release of The Anatomy of Curiosity.

Much like their first collection, this one can be read as a trio of novellas and as a trio of approaches to the writing process. Stiefvater focuses on characters, Gratton focuses on world, and Yovanoff focuses on the idea. The collection begins with an introduction of intent from the authors and their thoughts on the three elements. Additional material—notes on revisions, facing doubt, and the concept of "write what you know"— is also included.

Stiefvater's Ladylike is an elegant and dark tale of an unusual friendship between a shy young woman and a composed older woman. In addition to its intriguing and compelling characters, Ladylike also explores the idea of being—surprise—a lady. Who defines what beauty and refinement mean? Is the traditional notion of "dignified" behaviour a trap or a means to hide what we don't want others to see? Can it also be a way to reveal our best features? Ladylike is not so much a story of how one affects class, as it is a story of how one grows confidence. (There is a reading about who benefits from ideas of what is proper behaviour, but the author notes focus on the intent of overcoming shyness.)

Stiefvater is, frankly, a master of writing characters who are both awful and admirable—often at the same time. Her stories are frequent practitioners of complex morality; people who make bad decisions for good reasons—do the wrong thing with the right intent. However, they also possess a unifying undercurrent of people coming together, finding the good in each other, and growing positively through the support and strength their friendships provide. Ladylike expertly displays this kind of character growth while staggering its arcs to have the most impact through the narrative. I don't know that I would say Ladylike is a happy story, but it's an optimistic one about the valour of kindness.

Gratton's Desert Canticle is a richly imagined and well-crafted love story across cultures set in a desert landscape that is both dangerous and gorgeous. Gratton notes the story was inspired by IEDs (improvised explosive devices,) and the idea of magic bombs led to creating a world in which they would exist. A world where the desert hums with power and explosions are shaped like flowers. A world with its own food, beliefs, and linguistic tics. Gratton's strength is in how she doesn't settle for free-floating concepts of cultures; she sinks her worlds all the way down.

There's also Gratton's economy of prose in building her worlds. After finishing Desert Canticle, I felt like I had read an entire novel. Her process notes cover everything from creating tension to layering meaning to using the world details as reinforcement for the theme. She's so good at storycraft and presenting how it's done in a way that is easy to follow. This peek into how she writes these stories that make a reader feel good about the world—without ever sacrificing consequence—is invaluable.

Yovanoff takes a slightly different approach in Drowning Variations; she creates a fictional version of herself to tell the story of trying to write the same story over a number of years and through various iterations. The story she's using appeared in the first Merry Fates collection, but this retelling effectively shows her writing process. When considered as "look what you can do with structure to tell a story better," it's the strongest example in the collection.

The idea of the story that we are always telling, the one that grows with us—changes as we do—is something I find fascinating. Yovanoff manages to deconstruct what writing the story only you can means, as well as illustrating how revision is key to refining an idea. This fictionalized memoir through revision is a great example of how her work is often more than one genre knitted together in a way that makes it look deceptively easy to do. All authors take narrative risks, but Yovanoff takes them in an unconventional way.

I love the characters and the worlds and the ideas in all three stories; seeing the different approaches allows for a much greater appreciation of not only what Stiefvater, Gratton, and Yovanoff each do—but what they are learning to do from each other.

The other thing that unites these novellas is the ease with which all three authors convey a sense of wonder, of horror, of the world being awesome. While their stories tackle real issues in metaphorical ways, they never lose sight of how magic can be found in people and places and ideas. In the act of being curious enough to look for it.

The Anatomy of Curiosity is available from Carolrhoda LAB at your local bookstore,,, and Kobo. An ARC was obtained from the publisher at BEA thanks to Read and Riot and Lost In A Great Book.

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