I geek out

Confession time: Sometimes I realize what a massive nerd I really am, and I revel in it.

When I was 15, my friend Garrett told me about a book. Well, he told me about a lot of books. And movies. Garrett was the guy I went to for that sort of thing. But this one book in particular stuck with me. We were hanging out at his house one day and he said, “Hey, you know what you need to read? House of Leaves.”

I’d tell you what it’s about, but the best way I can describe it is by saying that at the reading I went to last night, Mark Danielewski said, “It’s a book about a movie,” and the audience cracked up. I mean, sure. But it’s about more than that.

All of this is to say that last night I headed off to Blackwell’s to listen to him read and I had major butterflies. I’ve been reading his work (what little of it is out there, the man has a long and intense creative process) since I was 15. House of Leaves is, to this day, the only book to scare me so badly I still get chills when I think about it. He takes on simple moment – a book falling off a bookshelf – and makes it so scary I am freaking out a little right now just because I thought about it.

One of the things he was talking about last night was the way he wants his work to really play with media and form, how he wants it to exist in the space between image and text, the way he wants to challenge the basic idea of what can be done with text. His work is often called experimental, but he really sees himself as part of a longer tradition of writers who seek to use visual cues to clarify and intensify the reading experience (including the likes of Faulkner, before anybody thinks he’s only referencing obscure, avant garde writers).

And this is where I get to the part about me being a massive nerd. When I go to readings (and I’ve been trying to go to as many as I can lately – that’s one amazing thing about Edinburgh, there are readings just about every week), there is always a question and answer period that I do not participate in. You see, for as extroverted and social as I am, inside I’m the nervous little girl who got picked on in school. I worry that I’ll say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, ask the stupid question, and so I let this weird pressure from 12 year olds that only exist in my memory anymore stop me from asking a question I find interesting. Last week I heard Eleanor Catton read from The Luminaries and refused to ask anything because I was so nervous I’d be judged for asking a simple question, rather than something literary and complex. I just wanted to know how she handled her process – the book is meticulously plotted, the structure is intense, so was there room for surprise? Did anything in the book happen before she realized what was going on, and did it make her worry about the structure at all?

But this time I refused to be nervous. Okay, that’s a lie. This time, I refused to let my nervousness keep me from asking a question. When the floor was opened up for questions, I raised my hand. I asked my question. And nobody laughed. Nobody judged me. In fact, another girl in the audience (who had written her dissertation on House of Leaves so you know she cares deeply about his work) complimented me on it.

And this is what I realized – I’m here because I care about writing. I’m here because I want to be around other people that care about it as much as I do. I chose Edinburgh specifically because it’s a city with a deep literary tradition. I chose it because it’s the center of Scottish publishing. I chose it because every day of every week of every year there is an event going on that’s related to books. To literature. I chose a city where I could immerse myself in things like this, and the other people at these events probably feel the same way I do. The girl who wrote her dissertation on House of Leaves was truly excited to have him sign a copy of the book. I was so nervous about asking my question I had butterflies in my stomach, and when I got my copy of his new book signed and we chatted about Singlish, I had an adrenaline rush for an hour afterwards.

These are the celebrities I care about. People talk about movie stars and musicians, and I understand how they’d be exciting to meet (especially musicians that write their own music, not the people who are solely performers – what can I say? I value creativity). The people I want to meet don’t have their pictures everywhere – I wouldn’t have recognized Mark Danielewski if I saw him on the street – but they care deeply about the things I care about, and they’re passionate about their work, and their minds work in ways I want to understand.

Maybe one day I’ll sit where he was sitting, maybe not. But if so, I hope that when somebody in the front row is sitting there, too scared to raise their hand all the way for fear they actually be called on, I give their question as much consideration and respect as he gave mine.

Books I Adore #2: Trumpet

Holy cow, you guys. I did not expect to write another one of these posts so soon, but when you find a book like this, you have to talk about it.

I’m taking a course on Scottish Women’s Fiction and the books have been lovely. O CaledoniaThe Ballad of Peckham Rye, just wonderful books. But Trumpet by Jackie Kay is on an entirely different level for me. The other books were good and I enjoyed them, but this one? I want to sleep with this book under my pillow in the hopes that I will absorb the language, the characters, the completely perfect way Kay describes her characters and allows them to breathe.

It’s a book about secrets, about the lives we live when we decide the most important thing is to be true to ourselves. The families we create, the passions we follow. It’s also about how people react when the life they assumed we were living is not the life we led.

Joss Moody is a famous trumpet player from a small town in Scotland, where he grew up as Josephine Moore. As an adult, Joss got married, adopted a child, had friends and a home and holidays at the beach. Upon his death, however, his female genitalia is discovered and he is outed. The book follows the people closest to him as they process this information and try to keep on living in the wake of their loss.

There are lines in this book that are so perfect I had to stop and put the book down and just let myself absorb them. “Hindsight is a different light. It makes everything change shape…. I didn’t feel like I was living a lie. I felt like I was living a life. Hindsight is a lie.” Just stop and let that sit with you for a minute. Who of us would say any differently? Who wouldn’t say that the life they live, no matter what other people might think when they found out, is a lie? No. It is a life. It is our life, ours to define and live as we need to. 

And this, from the very beginning – I think anybody who has ever lost somebody they cared about will understand Mrs. Moody’s sense that “The space next to me bristles with silence. The emptiness is palpable. Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence.” Look at what she’s done there. Those small sentences, those concrete ideas, all of them could be strung together. “The space next to me bristles with silence, the emptiness is palpable; loss isn’t an absence after all, it is a presence.” But no. This character can’t think like that, can’t string together long sentences. She can barely breathe. She can just barely get through the days and just the sheer simplicity of the sentence structure brings that to light. The thoughts hit her boom boom boom and all she can do is let them strike.

And, okay, one more because I just can’t stand to let this world go. “He paused before he ticked ‘female’ on the death certificate, then handed the pen to her; it was as if the pen was asking her to dance. She took the pen carefully and looked at it, twirling it around slowly as she did so…. She looked as if she was praying as she wrote.” See what I was saying about sentence structure earlier? It’s not that Kay does not write in long, flowing sentences. She allows the character’s emotional state to dictate the language. The character focused on here works at the registrar’s office and takes pride in his work. He fills out birth certificates, marriage certificates, and death certificates, and does it with precision. He wants everything to be beautiful and to be true, and he appreciates Mrs. Moody’s care in signing her name, in her reverence of the moment. He appreciates the way she acknowledges the kindness he tries to show her – he says he cannot tick ‘male’ because it would be a lie. But he uses the name ‘Joss Moody’ instead of ‘Josephine Moore’ and gives his life and his choices as much validation as he can. The interaction between the two of them is small and beautiful and full of kindness.

Okay, I could go on and on, but really, at the heart of things is this: if you love good writing, read this book. If you want to see more stories being told, better representation of queer characters, of minority characters, of the things people struggle with that many of us never have to think about, read this book. If you care about people, read this book. Read this book. Read this book. Read this book.

Books I Adore #1: The Handmaid’s Tale

You guys. This book.

I re-read this for approximately the 17th time the other day and it struck me, once again, how much I love Margaret Atwood. She is amazing and you should all worship her. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

The world has gone crazy and the US has been taken over by religious zealots who restrict women’s access to reading, writing, and true community. These are women without agency, controlled by men, and given rank based on past choices and fertility. The world Atwood creates is terrifying because she shows the tiny steps taken to get to this horrifying world, the slow slide and sudden stop of a culture headed somewhere truly dangerous.

Man, no wonder I turned into a raging feminist. I read this book for the first time when I was around 14 and it nestled its way into my heart, reminding me that I did not ever want to be Offred or Serena Joy or Moira, forcing me to speak up for fear of having my voice taken away from me.

But reading it this time was something special. I am working on my Master’s in Creative Writing (I’ll admit here that I don’t actually know if I’m supposed to capitalize any/all of that, so I just do it because it looks important) and the thing I hear consistently from one of my tutors is that I need to be more descriptive. I need to show the world, to immerse readers in it and help them connect to my characters. It makes sense, when you think about it, but we are a generation of people raised shouting into the void of the Internet and words have been my salvation since childhood. Heck, I don’t even really think in images or remember them particularly strongly. When I meet guys I don’t think about their eyes or remember their face – I remember the impression they gave me, the things they said, whether they made me laugh. I pay attention to general attractiveness, sure, but unless it gets brought up I won’t even notice the colour of their eyes.

So to be a descriptive writer is, to me, a kind of magic. How do writers use words to create images that stick with me when I can’t even really remember how things look in real life? I don’t have to look any farther than Atwood’s prose to see how this can be done well. Re-reading it this time, I was struck by the sheer amount of physical detail. I have a clear sense of the house Offred lives in, the town she wanders around, the oppressiveness of the Rachel and Leah Center. A new character is introduced early on in the book with the following description: She walks demurely, head down, red-gloved hands clasped in front, with short little steps like a trained pig’s on its hind legs. I mean, look at that. Look at it! Physical description that informs the reader about both the woman (“She walks demurely” and “short little steps…”) and the world they live in (“red-gloved hands”), that combine to make a judgement on the way women must live (“like a trained pig’s…”).

Even just straight physical description gives readers an idea of the character’s mental state and the world around them. The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer winecups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards. The flowers are not just flowers. This comes right after we see women mourning a child lost in the womb and just before Offred’s trip to the doctor’s office, and it shows us what is at stake. The women are blooming, especially the red women, forced up into the world, but they are empty. Birth rates have dropped dangerously low and Offred exists in this community for one reason: to breed. What, then, will happen if she cannot? This one passage about flowers in the garden gives readers an idea what Offred thinks will happen, what she worries about. It is not explicitly stated, this relationship between flower and woman, and yet it is woven through the text. The images she uses highlights important emotional moments and, in this way, plot and description and character development all merge into one glorious being.

If reading makes you a better writer, writing makes you a better reader, too. So I’m sorry, Ms. Atwood, that I have never appreciated your book the way I needed to. That I didn’t see the skill. I saw only the surface, a beautiful book with an incredible story, an unsettling look at the world we could become. I’m sorry that even now I don’t appreciate it the way I will in ten more years, or ten years after that. But I promise to keep reading, because if I know anything in this world, it is that truly great books stay in your heart and your head for years and change as you change. I can’t wait to see what Offred and Gilead are like the next time I encounter them.