thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Posts Tagged ‘interviews’

An Interview with Elizabeth Wein, Author of “Code Name Verity”

In books on April 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

codenamecoverElizabeth Wein has had quite a year. Since her World War II-era spy novel Code Name Verity came out last spring, it’s racked up young adult book awards right and left, as well as accolades from publications like The New York Times and NPR.

All that acclaim couldn’t go to a more deserving book: Code Name Verity is a ferocious, dazzling tale of the friendship between two young women who also happen to be ace British spies, and the courage they summon under terrible circumstances. I stayed up late into the night finishing the book all in one gulp, and the next day, I started reading it over again. After that, I still wasn’t ready to let go of the world Wein had created, so I sat down and emailed Wein herself–who graciously agreed to an email interview with Girls Like Giants. Read on for her thoughts on villains, best friends, facing your fears, and what learning to fly a plane taught her about feminism. –Sarah Todd

‘Verity’ (aka Queenie) and Maddie are such distinctive, vivid characters. Were they inspired by particular people you’ve known or read about?

The things they do were inspired by real people—I read a lot about women of the Special Operations Executive and the Air Transport Auxiliary when I was doing the research for CNV, and I made altered use of some of their experiences. But the characters of Queenie and Maddie are totally original and developed as the book developed. They really aren’t like anyone I know—they are just themselves.

Often books about female friendships seem to focus on the jealousies and tensions between women. But Queenie and Maddie’s love for each other is pure–maybe because they become friends during wartime and establish that baseline level of trust from the get-go. Do you have a best friend? What’s your own perspective on female friendships been?

I have had several best friends at different points in my life, and there has occasionally been some jealousy involved (Queenie and Maddie do actually admit that they are sometimes secretly jealous of each other, and Maddie now and then expresses her irritation out loud to Queenie). But basically I *love* having a best friend—several different people have filled that role at different times in my life. Writing CNV was partly a celebration of that. When my closest friends live far away, as they do now, I really miss that easy and close-knit interaction.

Although I wouldn’t say the friendship in CNV is based on any ONE of my friends, the development of Queenie and Maddie’s friendship was consciously patterned on my friendship with Amanda Banks, who was enrolled in the same PhD program as me (CNV is dedicated to her). At the time we lived about 100 miles apart and only got to see each other every couple of weeks, and we really lived for those brief meetings. Also, we were under a lot of stress studying for our PhD exams and struggling with some academic backstabbing issues in our department—add to the mix a dorm fire at 2 a.m. and the two of us having to usher all the undergraduates out from the fifth floor—it wasn’t wartime, but our friendship developed very quickly sunder stress, a small bit of danger, and in spite of physical distance. So you can maybe see the parallels. Read the rest of this entry »

Choose Your Own Adventure: Talking “Treasure Island!!!” with Sara Levine

In books on August 28, 2012 at 6:00 am

Sarah T.

“When had I ever dreamed a scheme? When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act? When had I ever, like Jim Hawkins, broke from my friends, raced for the beach, stolen a boat, killed a man, or eliminated an obstacle that stood in the way of my getting a hunk of gold?”

With those words, the unnamed 25-year-old protagonist of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! decides to change course. Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s timeless tale, she’s determined to shake off the shackles of her suburban life — though not by leaving the suburbs. Instead, she pursues the Core Values of BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING while navigating her day job at The Pet Library and an assortment of friends and family confused by her single-minded passion for a classic of boy’s adventure fiction.

Of course, there are bound to be a few hiccups along the path of any grand adventure. In the narrator’s case, these include embezzlement, an extremely annoying parrot, moving back in with her parents, encounters with poison, and even a stabbing. No matter: she keeps her head up throughout Levine’s laugh-out-loud satire.

Filled with love for a coming-of-age novel that’s less about lessons learned than lessons–boldly!–refused, I asked Levine to talk about her acclaimed debut. Grab your nearest bottle of rum and read on for her thoughts on the Core Values of Little Women, how book reception seems to differ for male and female authors, and the American desire for self-reinvention.

The narrator wants so badly to learn capital-L Lessons from Treasure Island. Her take-aways are questionable and her execution of the Core Values is decidedly slapdash—embezzling, negligent parrot-parenting, etc. But I think a lot of bookworms can relate to the feeling of wanting the books we love to tell us how to live. Is that too much pressure to put on a paperback? And are there books that have inspired a Treasure Island level of devotion in you?

 No book has inspired that level of devotion in me. I can’t imagine committing to a single book with such fervor.  But I’m well aware of my tendency to hope that something—not necessarily a book, but an object, or a practice—will have the power to change my life. And I’m interested in the American obsession with re-inventing selfhood.  Remodel your living room, redo your wardrobe, make a new you!  Why do we always think it’s possible, even desirable, to start over? 

The Core Values the narrator decides to live her life by are boldness, resolution, independence, and horn-blowing. Does that last one mean tooting your own horn (something at which the narrator excels) or taking up the euphonium?

Yes, blowing your own horn means saying what you do well.  But let’s not rule out euphonium lessons for any of the ladies. I understand the solo euphonium repertoire has expanded dramatically in recent years.  It’s no longer necessary to be an ensemble player.

Several of the Treasure Island!!! reviews I read (all of which were very admiring!) praised the book for putting such an unsympathetic character at the center. But I kind of loved her. She’s selfish and oblivious and misguided, sure, and she hurts the people who care about her. But I also found her wild over-confidence and single-mindedness endearing, especially as the cracks in her armor start to show. Am I a patsy?

You are not a patsy.  You are a spiritually evolved human being. Do you know the Buddhist parable of the poisoned tree?  When we encounter a mean, selfish, off-kilter person, most of us want to get away as quickly as possible.  Others, like yourself, they can witness the mess and not run away screaming.  I commend you for approaching the dregs of humanity with compassion and amusement. I apologize if I sound as if I am speaking from a mountaintop.

Relatedly, your self-interview at The Nervous Breakdown brings up the specter of the autobiographical question. (“How much you have in common with your narrator?”) But nobody as un-self-aware as the narrator ever could have written her. Did it surprise you that people were asking that question?

Thanks.  It did surprise me, though probably it shouldn’t have.  People usually write first novels based on their own lives, and it would be ridiculous to expect people to do any homework on me. But I was taken aback by a number of people who failed to see the gap between me and the narrator.  They seemed ill equipped to read the voice. I keep hearing their morally indignant sputters: “She thinks she’s being bold, but really she’s being self-centered!”  Tell me something I don’t know, girlfriend.  And then there was the interviewer who asked me point-blank if I had ever worked in a pet store.      Read the rest of this entry »

Interview: Author Leigh Stein Sends a “Dispatch From the Future”

In books on July 24, 2012 at 9:47 am

Sarah T.

The future is notoriously hard to predict, but it’s a safe bet that it holds big things for Leigh Stein. The 27-year-old poet and novelist has published two witty, wonderful books in the last year alone. Her first, The Fallback Plan, is a coming-of-age novel about a college graduate spending a confused summer at home in the suburbs.  In her new book of poems, Dispatch from the Future, Stein plays fast and loose with the rules of time and space, not to mention poetic conventions — all to dazzling effect.

Beneath Dispatch‘s irreverent wisecracks and pop culture references are big concerns:  love, loneliness, revenge, freedom, endless choice. Stein has a knack for asking real humdingers of questions. “What’s the future/of your emergency?” is a funny way for an operator to answer the phone, but it’s also a puzzle anyone who’s ever gotten themselves out of a bad situation has had to solve.

Girls Like Giants’ questions aren’t nearly as mull-worthy; luckily, Stein agreed to an email interview anyway. Read on for her thoughts on The Bachelorette as poetic muse, why writing a novel is like working in the mines, and how to win back your ex-boyfriend after he leaves you for a Lithuanian model.

The opening poem in Dispatch from the Future warns, “If you read this book sequentially, / bad things may happen to you, but only as bad / as the things that would have happened to you anyway.” But it also warns that not reading sequentially will feel like being on a sunken pirate ship. For me, this was kind of like watching the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz point both ways, which was an awesome and trippy way to enter into your book. How did you want your readers to go about reading your poems?

What a great question! The first section of Dispatch is very inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure series, and instead of preparing people for what they typically would expect from a book of poetry, I wanted to prepare people for a dangerous adventure. Of course you can read the book sequentially (and I ordered the poems intentionally) but the pleasure of reading a poetry collection is getting to jump around, just as you would in a CYOA book, where finishing the book means risking death. Read the rest of this entry »

An Interview with Dodie Bellamy

In activism, gender on April 17, 2012 at 9:35 am

Sarah T.

Dodie Bellamy is a force to be reckoned with: an experimental feminist writer and poet whose work pushes against boundaries of genre, form, and literary and social conventions. The author of the acclaimed The Letters of Mina Harker and numerous other works, Bellamy recently gained a passel of new admirers (including me) with the publication of her confessional memoir the buddhist.

the buddhist draws from Bellamy’s blog Belladodie to explore the emotional aftermath of her relationship with an unnamed, and perhaps unknowable, man. Writing about the memoir for Emily Books, Sady Doyle describes it as an effort “to reconcile the person you thought you knew with the damage you know you’ve suffered — to ‘integrate the trauma into acknowledged memory,’ as they say.” This effort, Doyle says, “can, under some circumstances, be a struggle to live.”

The vitality of the buddhist comes from the struggle that unfolds as Bellamy questions, fights, assures, and arm-wrestles herself and her memories. Not wanting the story that refuses to end to end for me as a reader — at least not just yet — I reached out to Bellamy to see if she would answer a few questions for Girls Like Giants. Happily, she obliged. Read on for Bellamy’s thoughts on blogging, boldness, and Charlotte Brontë.

One of the things I love about the buddhist is how you document your resistance to telling your story as you tell it. What was the value, for you, in pushing back against that resistance?

Beyond technical prowess, what makes writing compelling is the energy behind it, the tension, the charge.  I often write about material I feel resistance to, material that makes me uncomfortable, because that creates a charge for me, a sort of erotics of disclosure.

You’re one of the originators of the New Narrative movement [Ed: this is inaccurate! See below]. What relationship you see between the New Narrative and personal blogging—particularly in terms of writing about other people?

I’m not one of the originators of New Narrative, though I was a student of those originators when I was a young writer.  New Narrative was very much about using the personal in writing, and about forefronting the position of the writer, rather than he/she hiding like the Wizard of Oz behind a screen, pulling all the switches and levers.  New Narrative was also very interested in writing communities, how we’re not writing alone but among a community of peers, as well as historical communities of previous texts.  So, this emphasis on the personal and community make New Narrative highly compatible with personal blogging.  But there also was a focus on various experimental strategies in the work that’s more akin to poetry than what you see in most personal blogs.  It’s been a long hard road for me to feel okay about the sort of straightforwardness I perform in the buddhist.

Do you know if the buddhist himself has read your blog or book, or if he knew that you were writing about him? Does that matter to you?

Approximately four months before I finished the book, I told him in an email that I’d been blogging about him and was writing the book.  He said he hadn’t read the blog and that our worlds were so different, he was fine with my writing about him.  This was a brief exchange that surprised me, his permission, but it was very helpful for me, psychologically, in finishing the project.  To my knowledge, he hasn’t read the blog or the book, but I don’t really know.  When I was writing the blog, at first there was the fantasy of him reading it, that I was somehow communicating to him.  Now, no, it does not matter to me if he’s read any of this.  In an odd way, the project no longer feels about him, there have been so many layers of mediation in the writing of it. Read the rest of this entry »

Engaging Television: An Interview with Writer Jacob Clifton

In gender, girl culture, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars on March 7, 2012 at 9:59 am

Sarah Todd

“Why bother watching the show when the recaps are so amazing?” my friend Ali emailed me in 2008. We were talking about the Television Without Pity recaps of Gossip Girl, a show then in its headband-wearing, Met-steps-lunching glory days. The in-depth recaps, written by Jacob Clifton with a killer combination of fiery passion, arch humor, and wide-ranging cultural references, were an essential part of the Gossip Girl experience.

Jacob’s recaps didn’t just help us see things about the show that we might not have spotted otherwise. They also influenced the way we thought about friendships and power dynamics and teenagers and surveillance—and, of course, how we thought about television.

I’ve looked forward to Jacob’s weekly Gossip Girl recaps ever since, along with his writing on True Blood and Pretty Little Liars. He’s one of the few writers I’ve followed quite so faithfully. The author of novels The Urges and Mondegreen, he currently recaps American IdolThe Good Wife, and more for Television Without Pity.

Jacob graciously agreed to talk with Girls Like Giants about recapping, teen dramas, feminism, the power of stories, and why Elena from The Vampire Diaries is way under-rated. Come join the conversation in the comments.

How did you start writing for Television Without Pity?

The internet, in 2001, was a very different place! TWoP (MightyBigTV, back then) was a small enough concern that I was able to lobby for some small, one-off assignments that, over a few years, turned into regular assignments. It was a very empowering, very encouraging chance to be given, and I’m still very grateful to the editors at that time for giving me a shot.

You have a very distinctive and dynamic recapping style. A recap of Pretty Little Liars might have made-up dialogue that highlights Aria’s crazy pants (and the fact that she is crazypants), followed by a Jungian analysis of how the four main characters’ personalities complement each other, followed by a mini-treatise on bullying. How do you approach writing your recaps? What do you want them to be, and how has that developed over the course of your career?

I think that, for me, it’s about capturing the sort of tangents and thoughts and jokes that you might go through on the couch, just watching anything. For shows like PLL, that obviously brings up a lot of stuff and thoughts that I feel like are worth representing on the page: This is what it was like for me watching this show, what was it like for you?

I mean, obviously I have my preoccupations — critical, philosophical, political, feminist — and I don’t really hesitate to bring those to bear on whatever’s actually happening on the show, but I trust myself to know the line as far as what’s worth saying and what’s just blabber or personal axe-grinding. (I also cross it regularly, of course.) But that’s what it means to me: A sort of taking shorthand minutes on where the show takes me as a particular person.

However, I do think there’s a certain amount of workshopping that goes on when you’re forced to pay such close attention to a show over such a long period of time. I don’t know if my writing has improved, but I definitely understand television and storytelling a lot more than I did ten years ago — and part of my mission is to bring that into it as well. The opportunity to turn our brains off, or to reject a show or episode for false reasons, is always there. So by bringing out the storytelling qualities, or the writing tricks, or the production values, the hope is that readers can find new ways to enjoy their television shows in a more interactive way. Read the rest of this entry »

Interview: YA Author Lauren McLaughlin on “Scored”

In gender, race on February 21, 2012 at 11:46 am

Sarah Todd

The hyper-competitive college admissions game can turn any high school student into an insecure, anxiety-ridden puddle. But what if kids spent their whole lives knowing exactly how they measured up, aware that every move could make or break their futures? That’s the scenario Lauren McLaughlin explores in her deeply compelling young adult novel Scored.

In Scored‘s not-so-distant future, a computerized surveillance system ranks students according to their academic performance and selected social behaviors. High scores guarantee them college scholarships and stable jobs. The lower their scores are, the narrower their options.

Imani LeMonde, a bright teenager from a working-class, mixed-race family, is exactly the kind of student who’s supposed to benefit from scoring. The system was created in the aftermath of a Second Depression that wiped out the middle class and made upward mobility virtually impossible. Merit-based scoring offers students access to higher education regardless of their income—though the rich can still buy their way into college if necessary.

At the novel’s outset, Imani’s dream of going to college and becoming a marine biologist seems secure. But when her score plummets unexpectedly, she must choose between her future and her friendships. Soon, she begins to question the system she’s grown up with, asking whether scoring has only exchanged one form of inequality for another.

Smart, socially-relevant young adult books are currently riding a wave of well-deserved enthusiasm on the success of The Hunger Games trilogy. Scored stands out from the crowd, interweaving a fast-paced plot with complex characters and thoughtful discussions of race, class, politics, and history.

Author Lauren McLaughlin graciously agreed to talk to Girls Like Giants about her novel, which was published by Random House in October 2011. Read on for her thoughts on standardized testing, status obsession, and the secret ingredient for great young adult fiction.

In Scored, Imani begins to question the standardized rankings and surveillance culture she’s grown up with. Do you think there’s a natural connection between dystopian stories and young adult fiction? How can young protagonists explore and challenge their societies in unique ways?  

I do think it’s very interesting that dystopian fiction is having a big moment right now with teens. Personally, I can’t help but speculate as to whether it may have something to do with the fact that we are living in very trying, even dystopian, times. Many aspects of our society are crumbling. Our economy has hit a brick wall and many believe our democracy itself is at risk of collapsing under the weight of extreme corruption. Perhaps the authors of dystopian fiction are hoping to channel the revolutionary inside every teenager in hopes of turning things around. I know I am. I sincerely hope today’s teenagers do a better job of managing society than we’ve done. We messed some things up.

How did current events inform your depiction of the world Imani lives in? Did any personal experiences with standardized testing and surveillance influence the novel?

I graduated from high school at a time when the standardized-test-taking experience was comparatively benign. Of course I got nervous taking the SAT’s, but back then (in the ancient eighties) college admission wasn’t nearly as competitive as it is now. I was very much influenced by the stories I heard of young people with good grades and real talents being kept out of college because of weak SAT’s and ACT’s. That seemed outrageous to me. I think we’ve become so obsessed with status and ranking that we’ve allowed it to warp the entire educational experience.

Are there similarities between Somerton, the blue-collar Massachusetts town in which the novel takes place, and Wenham, the Massachusetts town where you grew up?

Somerton is more similar to Essex Massachusetts, which was home to the marina where my Dad kept his boat. Geographically, I basically just used my exact memories of Essex to create Somerton then added bits and bobs here and there. But the socio-economic status of Somerton is entirely my creation. As far as I know, Essex is still doing quite well, whereas Somerton, as with the rest of the nation in the world of Scored, has fallen on extremely hard times.

What would you say Imani has in common with some of your own favorite female protagonists, and what sets her apart?

Like all good protagonists, Imani has a big dream, or quest. In her case it’s to go to college, study marine biology, then return home to save the dying fisheries and shoreline. What gets in her way isn’t so much the evil actions of Score Corp, but her own conflicted conscience. I’m always drawn to protagonists whose make-or-break moments hinge on an internal realignment of their own morality. I think of Katniss choosing to sacrifice her own life to protect her sister. The whole Hunger Games trilogy hinges on this essentially moral plot line, which I think elevates it above many other dystopian stories. The risk with dystopian fiction is that you make the world itself so dark that the protagonist can only ever be seen as a sainted victim. It’s much more interesting when the protagonist’s own morals are engaged. Read the rest of this entry »

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