Today’s guest on “What Are You Writing?” Friday is Rachel Lauve! Rachel is a senior English Education major and Creative Writing minor here at BSU. So tell me about your writing style. Which genres…
My love for Percy Jackson and the Olympians has never been a secret.
I mention it frequently in blog posts, I’m so obsessed that I’m writing my undergraduate honors thesis over how the series makes mythology accessible for reluctant readers, and, although I love Harry Potter, I’ve always considered PJO one of the most formative book series in my life for a few reasons:
- It was one of the first book series my brother and I both enjoyed. Jacob has never been a particularly avid reader (with a few exceptions), but he got me to read the first book and I spent the night cackling over Percy’s narration.
- Annabeth Chase is, to this day, all that I aspire to be. I live for intelligent female characters who tell the boys exactly what to do, and, for some reason, Annabeth always stuck with me more than Hermione ever did. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re both blonde.
- Most of my lasting friendships began over a shared love of PJO, and it was these friendships that helped me get through my first few days of college.
So when I had the chance to see Rick Riordan in person, you better believe I jumped on it, especially when I saw that a few of his Hammer of Thor tour stops were going to be over my fall break.
After over nine hours in the car (although blessedly broken up) from Indianapolis to St. Paul, we arrived, and I fidgeted with anxious excitement as I saw staff unpacking all of the signed books that we were to receive after the event.
And there, right by the tables with all of the books, was the standup sign for the event with Hammer of Thor cover art, a little picture of Mr. Riordan, and the event information. Being the obsessed honors-thesis-writing person that I am, I have Rick Riordan on tweet notifications, I’d seen him retweeting people taking pictures in front of that sign over the past few days, and had my dad take a picture of Jacob and me in front of it too, thinking it would be a cute little picture to post on Instagram/Facebook. Then I thought, Hey, why not post this on Twitter, too? That’s an act of literary citizenship, right?, decided that that was a great idea despite the fact that my CHB shirt is so obviously homemade, and tagged him in the tweet without a second thought.
Just a few minutes later was when my world exploded. After posting it, I went to show Jacob something on my phone (I can’t even remember what), and then that little Twitter notification popped up and, with shaking hands, I checked to see if it was the kind of notification I thought it was. I about screamed, “RICK RIORDAN RETWEETED MY PICTURE!” to my dad and Jacob as I practically curled into a fetal position while standing, trying not to cry. My phone was blowing up with notifications, and I realized that this was actually happening, I was actually one of the people that Rick Riordan retweeted.
I spent the rest of the time before they opened the doors nervously laughing to myself as my phone kept buzzing, telling me that someone had liked my tweet. I saw a few of my friends from Ball State liking it (y’all are the real MVPs), but for the most part, it was people I didn’t know, and it was incredibly surreal.
The rest of the event was such a delight, as Mr. Riordan talked about what he had been working on and what we could look forward to, told jokes, and otherwise lived up to his reputation as Uncle Rick – there were so many more kids than I would have expected, but as someone who’s going to spend her life as an English teacher, I was thrilled to see so many young people enthusiastic about reading. I didn’t get the chance to ask my question during the Q&A (about what his research process is like and how his background as a teacher influences how he adapts these ancient figures; I was simultaneously simply curious and trying to do thesis research, what can I say), and neither did Jacob (about how he goes about writing the diverse characters that are now at the forefront of his books, more so than they ever were in PJO, e.g., a deaf elf, the most badass Muslim valkyrie you’ve ever seen, and others, both in Magnus Chase and in Heroes of Olympus), but I got great sound bites recorded on my phone of Mr. Riordan talking about how he was a reluctant reader until he was in eighth grade when his teacher changed his life, about a deleted scene from The Last Olympian, and about the homeless kids he had in his classroom that inspired Magnus.
Mr. Riordan, if you read this, thank you for your books. They’ve changed my life and countless others’, and if you’re within driving distance for your next book tour, I’ll be there.
Mumtaz is a monster, I tell myself. Only a monster could do
what she does to innocent girls.
But I wonder. If the crying of a young girl is the same to me
as the bleating of the horns in the street below, what have
Patricia McCormick is a two-time finalist for the National Book Award, and in Sold, nominated in 2006 for the award in Young People’s Literature, it is easy to see why.
Readers are immediately taken beyond what most are familiar with to thirteen-year-old Lakshmi’s village in Nepal. Here, Lakshmi lives in poverty with a gambling stepfather, a loving mother, and a younger brother who might not survive the year, hoping that one day, her family might be able to afford a tin roof for their home. Their situation only worsens when a monsoon destroys their crops, and, in order to support her family, Lakshmi is forced to take a job as a maid in the city.
Or so she thinks.
In what is a stunningly poetic, but still simplistic, novel, drawing upon stories from real Nepalese survivors, Lakshmi is instead sold away into sexual slavery, taken far from her village to India, where she quickly finds herself face to face with the reality that in order to pay off her family’s debt, she must work as a prostitute. What does not become clear to Lakshmi until it is too late, though, is the fact that Mumtaz, who runs the brothel, is cheating her of her earnings by charging her for rent, for food, and is keeping her trapped.
While Lakshmi bonds with the young women also trapped in this life, she still conspires to pay off this debt so that she may leave — but how can anyone survive this nightmare?
The nightmare of sexual slavery is an abhorrent reality. McCormick excels in using quantifiable information as well as imagery to convey this reality in lines such as the following:
Thirty rupees.That is the price of a bottle of Coca-Cola at Bajai Sita’s store.That is what he paid for me.
Then I catch sight of a girl in the mirror.She has blackened tiger eyes and bleary chili pepper lips.She looks back at me full of sadness and scorn and says,You have become one of them.
Readers will hope against hope for Lakshmi’s survival and escape, will be stunned with anger with the realization that 30 rupees is less than 50 cents, and will be rocked emotionally in ways they never thought possible.
To learn more about survivors of sex trafficking, look into the documentary The Price of Sex by Mimi Chakarova, which details the horrors in Eastern Europe.
Sold has also been adapted into a film directed by Jeffrey Brown and executive produced by Emma Thompson. Click here to watch the trailer.
Here are the U.S. State Department’s 15 ways we can help fight sexual trafficking.
But above all — if Lakshmi’s story moves you, champion the novel, support survivors, and start researching.
Last fall, I took a class called “Teaching Writing in Secondary Schools.” While that may not sound exciting to some, it’s obviously quite crucial for someone who’s going to be an English teacher.
This semester, I’m the TA for that very same class, and in both of those semesters, one of the first activities is to make a list of our writing territories.
Translation? We compiled our own lists of topics we’d like to write about, genres we’d like to try, and audiences we’d like to write for. As I was looking through my old notes from the first time I was a part of the class, I saw that for genres I’d like to try, I wrote “poetry.”
This semester, I also wrote “poetry” on that genre list.
On Sunday, not only did I have a completed poem waiting on my Evernote, but I read that poem out loud and tried to control my shaking hands. I did what I set out to do, and, goodness, it was simultaneously the most thrilling and nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done.
“But Rachel,” you’ve started asking, “You’re going to be a teacher — you must be a good writer. How could you be scared of sharing your writing like that? And you know you’re going to have to share your other writing with your students, right?”
Whether or not I’m a good writer is a question I find myself frequently agonizing over, but it wasn’t a matter of whether or not I thought the poem was good (side note — poetry is hard; I struggle more with poetry than any other kind of writing) — it was a matter of the content and the delivery.
My poem (which might make its way to Reacting Out Loud’s YouTube channel if the audio came through; open mic night without a mic was certainly an exercise in projecting, but it made the night infinitely more intimate, I think, as I found myself really listening to the many talented poets that read and shared their work) was about fatness. And mermaids and the goddess Aphrodite, but primarily about fatness.
This was what made the night so nerve-wracking.
I rarely call myself fat because the term scares me. I have heard the word thrown around like a curse, like something to be whispered because obviously this person isn’t aware that they’re bigger than you, and like something to be screamed as an insult. I had never heard the word used positively and without judgment until this year.
The content, here, the very word “fat,” is something I agonized over. I have always used the word “overweight” to describe myself, and I found myself using the word “plump” in my poem, but the word that was repeated most in the poem was “fat.” I called myself fat and described what it feels like to be fat, but not that fat and not that skinny, while standing on a stage, on a little platform where people could see exactly how big I was.
There, the delivery becomes terrifying. I could not hide behind my words because I was my words. This was me on the page (um, app, really, since I didn’t print out my poem) and I was asking people to accept that.
And they did.
One of the key components of Reacting Out Loud is, simply, reacting out loud. Vocalizing when you hear lines you like, snapping and showing the poet that you appreciate their craft and appreciate what they’re doing.
I was petrified that Two Cats Cafe would be deadly silent as I read, but instead, I was so supported that even as my hands were shaking so violently that I was afraid I’d drop my phone, I knew that I had to keep going because people were listening to me and cared about what I was saying. They were snapping and hollering and I had to continue onwards.
When I stepped off stage, the applause was thunderous, and I almost collapsed in on myself in relief. I had made my way back to my table and yet still people were clapping. People came up to me afterwards and said that they loved my poem; I received hugs and handshakes, and I was still shaking, but I was the good kind of shaky.
I had entered a world that I had previously only admired from afar, and I felt welcomed. I felt as if I was one step closer to becoming a goddess.
Julie Murphy lives in North Texas with her husband who loves her, her dog who adores her, and her cats who tolerate her. When she’s not writing or trying to catch stray cats, she can be found reading, traveling, or watching movies so bad they’re good. Her debut contemporary young adult novel, Side Effects May Vary, is out from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins and has been well-received by Kirkus, School Library Journal, VOYA, Booklist, Seventeen Magazine, and Teen Vogue. Dumplin’, Julie’s sophomore novel has received glowing reviews including two stars from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Film rights have been optioned by Disney.
(This interview was conducted at this year’s Midwest Writer’s Workshop and focuses primarily on SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY. A separate interview with Julie about DUMPLIN’ is available to read on Amanda Byk’s blog.)
RL: If Alice and Harvey went to Hogwarts, which house would each of them have been sorted into and why?
JM: Oh, mhm, this is a good question. It’s been a long time since I’ve written this book. Okay, I would have to say that Harvey is totally…hang on, oh my gosh. This is such a good question.
RL: [laughing] I’m putting you on the spot for their Hogwarts houses.
JM: No, no, no, I’m obsessed with Harry Potter, so this is a great question. Okay, so Harvey’s a Gryffindor, right? Harvey is such a Gryffindor. And not even because he necessarily meets the requirements of a Gryffindor, but Harvey is the person who would put the Sorting Hat on and ask the Sorting Hat to put him in Gryffindor. And I think that for those same reasons, Alice is a Slytherin. I think there are lots of thing about Alice that don’t necessarily make her Slytherin, but I think that she is one of those people who would self-select and be like, “Put me in Slytherin.” But she’s also manipulative and a little conniving, I say that like those are bad things — I’m also Slytherin.
RL: I saw on your Twitter profile! I’m a Ravenclaw.
JM: I used to say that I was a Slytherclaw, but I’m pretty solidly Slytherin. But I think those two would self-select; I think they would have a clear idea of what they want.
RL: And it’s like a good match, since they’re at odds so much, but still kind of fit together.
JM: Yeah, yeah! It’s like Draco/Harry, like slash-fic, but with Alice and Harvey.
RL: Kind of going off Alice’s manipulations and such, then, I’ve read in other interviews where you talk about how Alice acts as her own antagonist, which I really love — but do you think that’s just her as a character or do you think it’s just a side effect of all of the experiences that she’s gone through, with her cancer and everything?
JM: I think Alice — Alice is sort of like, “What if the worst case scenario happened to someone who is already a prickly person?” You know what I mean? Someone who already is very specific about the people they hang out with, is very specific about everything they do, and everything they say. So I think that it’s a little bit of both. I think that her circumstances, like her mother cheating and her being diagnosed with cancer, have sort of created this caricature version of Alice. It’s sorted of created this worst-case-scenario, villainous version of Alice where normally this prickly version of Alice can navigate the world, and for the most part, not kill anyone. But when her world is exploding, that’s just not possible anymore.
RL: In what ways do you think you relate to both Alice and Harvey, since you tell it from both of their points-of-view?
JM: You know, I think that a younger version of myself relates a lot to Harvey because I have been in that position where I let someone else dictate a relationship, and I let them take advantage of me. And what was horrible about that position is that I’ve always felt like such an Alice. You know what I mean?
(At this point in the interview, Natalie C. Parker walked into the green room where we were recording, and Julie joked that she couldn’t be smart around Natalie. The previous question was repeated and picked back up after Natalie left — post-best friend banter between the two.)
JM: So I definitely feel like I have been a Harvey in the past, but what made being a Harvey so bad is that internally I’ve always been such an Alice, and I was aware that I was being manipulated, but love and infatuation and lust let you — no matter how strong of a person you are or no matter how aggressive of a person you are, you can be manipulated by those things. I think that those are some of the strongest passions that we have, you know? So I’ve been a little bit of both, but I think at heart I’m an Alice, like I’m a very cool — hopefully — a very cool, down, like leveled version of Alice, maybe a little bit like her mom, you know.
RL: Alice after she learns and grows!
JM: Yeah, Alice after the storm, I hope.
RL: If you had the power to travel to a different time, when would you travel and why, what would you do when you got there?
JM: You’re asking really difficult questions! Okay, so, I think, so this is a horrible answer and you guys probably don’t even know what I’m talking about ’cause you’re young and pretty — I am obsessed with Steel Magnolias. Okay? So I think if I could time travel back in time, let’s pretend that Steel Magnolias is its own alternate universe, in 80s Louisiana, with Dolly Parton. That’s what I would travel back to — I would just live in that little salon with Dolly Parton and gossip with everyone forever for the rest of my life. So it’s not real history, but —
RL: It’s like an alternative history; I totally accept it. As writers, alternative universes are our thing.
RL: How did your writing process change from Side Effects May Vary to Dumplin’?
JM: So. Freaking. Much. So Side Effects May Vary, after I published this book, I got a lot of questions about like, “How did you handle the dual points of view? And the two various timelines? Like, how did you possibly do this?” And the answer to that question is that I didn’t — I didn’t know that was I was doing was difficult and I didn’t know any better. Because it was really easy for me as I was writing to write an Alice scene in the present and then for that Alice scene to then present questions that only a Harvey scene in the past could answer. So it sort of — it’s a horrible answer because I’m telling you it was a really lazy way that I came about it? Does that make sense? But it was also, like, a totally amateur — like, I was hungry for that story, and I was trying to fill in the blanks for that story, and I think everyone has this experience at least once when they’re writing a book where it’s just — you feel like you’re a savage, you just have to write this book because you want to know what happens next. And it’s not that I don’t like everything that I write now, but this is the only time I’ve ever felt like “If I don’t keep writing, I’m going to turn into a monster, and I have to keep writing this story right now.” And that’s part of the thing with the two timelines and the two points of view, is that I was coming up with these questions that I had to answer, and that was the only way that I could answer those questions.
RL: I had another question just about how you met Molly, because I’m her assistant [at the workshop], but you kind of answered that in the agent/author panel, so it’s a redundant question, I don’t want to make you talk about it twice. But were you thinking about how your novel might be received in response to the “sick lit” sub-genre of YA as you were writing it? Post-TFiOS?
JM: So Side Effects came out after out after The Fault in Our Stars, what’s funny about — everyone thinks that I’m going to be somehow upset about The Fault in Our Stars, or annoyed by it, but what’s actually wonderful about The Fault in Our Stars is it created a space for my book to sell very quickly. Because I queried — so The Fault in Our Stars came out in like January, right? Of whatever — of like, 2012? Yeah, whatever year it was, it came out in January of that year, and I queried in February of that year, and so I think the term “sick lit” is gross and disgusting, but people were looking for books about teenagers who were dealing with terminal illnesses, and so when I queried, it was like wild fire. And I think that Molly and I still would have found each other, ’cause she loves that book — I could take cancer out of that book, and she would still love that book, ’cause she loves that book for Alice, and she loves that book for Harvey, so the cancer is sort of like a moot point in that book. You could replace cancer with “Alice thought she was going to move out of town, and she ends up not moving at the very last minute.” So I understand why it gets categorized as “sick lit,” but I don’t think it’s necessarily defined by that term.
RL: I don’t like that term either, ’cause it just like — it puts everything into a box, and then the term “sick” itself is just kind of a bad term, and then it makes it sound like books within that society-created genre are bad, and it’s like, “No, books aren’t bad!”
JM: No, they’re not bad — and I don’t think — it’s such an exploitive term, it makes it sound like I’m in some way exploiting people who’ve had cancer, but I think that — I mean that Molly would have found that book no matter what, and I think that, you know, the cancer thing is just the vehicle for the story, I think it could be replaced by something else. Hopefully all of the cancer and all of that stuff in the book is realistic, but I think it’s replaceable in the book, or at least I hope it is.
RL: Yeah, ’cause I was thinking when I was reading the book for the first time — it’s not even that much of a focal point. It’s something that affects Alice, but it’s like, you get Alice in the first chapter finding out and about her mom, but then by chapter three, in her next point of view chapter, you find out she’s in remission, so it’s not about her finding out or anything, it’s about dealing with the consequences and the side effects.
JM: Yeah, and I think that we — I was talking about this in my YA intensive class, there’s a lot of discussions about at what point should you start a book? Do you start a book when your character’s world changes? Or do you start a book when your character’s arc changes in response to their world changing? Do you know what I mean? So do I start the book when Alice is diagnosed with cancer, do I start the book — no, you start the book when she has to start reacting to the world around her, and that’s when — there are two specific arcs in the book, and that’s when she finds out her mom is cheating and when she finds out she’s in remission. That’s when Alice has her real emotional shifts in this book.
In my last blog post, I described how terrifying the cursor over a blank page is, and now I’m facing that same dilemma. That same dilemma even though I have so much to say about MWW and so much love in my heart for the entire conference (from the insightful panels to photo booth fun with the loves of my life, AKA my fellow agent assistants).
Where to start?
At the conference, I worked as the agent assistant for the incomparable Molly Jaffa, and let me just tell you all how much I admire her — I wish I could say I asked super insightful questions during downtime between her pitches, but I felt so tongue-tied (awkward and anxious person that I am) because she’s so good at what she does and that was simultaneously inspiring and intimidating.
Even though I didn’t ask as many questions as I so desperately wanted to but failed to think of, I learned so much just from sitting at her table, and here are just a few of these things that I learned both from Molly and the conference as a whole:
— Middle grade novels focus more on literal monsters, whereas YA tends to be more like “I am the monster because of my feelings” and about the emotional arc of the characters. Sitting in on pitches was so enlightening, especially as someone who’s always been on the verge of starting a YA novel, because everyone wants to write YA. It’s popular now, and that’s great, but don’t write it just because it sells. Middle grade is just as important and might actually be a better fit for the plot and characters you have.
— The majority of YA is in first person because YA is about immediacy, about as few differences as possible between the reader and the character. Don’t be afraid of third person YA, just know that this is why you see so much first person YA. (Also — maybe try your hand at second person in your writing as a disguised form of first person. I learned so much on this subject from Tom Williams‘ panel on second person POV; if you want my notes, I’m more than happy to give them to you!)
— If you weren’t already aware, I’m going to shout this from the rooftops — we need diverse representation in our literature. Molly is a huge proponent of this — one of the first things she said at the agent panel on the Friday I met her was a description of a book she’d signed about a girl who’s out as a lesbian but not out as a witch in Salem. How cool is that? And how important will that be for teenagers who haven’t come out of the closet? Be a proponent of diversity and equality in what you read, write, and share with the world. This is what Natalie C. Parker (whose books I can’t wait to start reading!) said was a reason she was so drawn to Molly as an agent above others, and it bears repeating.
— On that same note — sensitivity readers. Find them. If you’re going to write diversely, don’t do it because it’s a trend, because it’s not (at his buttonhole table, Jim McCarthy explained this is one of the things he’s tired of seeing in his inbox). Try to attain authenticity instead of appropriation.
— Literature, YA especially, works as windows and mirrors. Windows to see others, mirrors to see ourselves. I can’t tell you how much I’d loved hearing Molly ask a writer for a full manuscript about a girl with Down Syndrome, and I can’t tell you how difficult it was not to cry during Julie Murphy’s Keynote when she talked about seeing the movie Spy starring Melissa McCarthy. “Sometimes you don’t realize how hungry you are for your own reflection until you finally see it,” Julie said — and if you’re thinking that all I learned about was diversity at this conference, it wasn’t, but I think using this space to talk so much about diversity is crucial. I could talk about how much fun I had goofing around with the other agent assistants, because I had the best time in the world, but the pictures speak for that; to achieve diversity, we have to actively speak about it and champion it.
— On a final note — paper hats are great at putting people at ease, and Molly makes great ones.
Get your paper hats ready for next year, everyone — I’m sure it’s going to be equally (if not more) amazing, and I can’t wait to see familiar faces and new faces alike there!