Writing Tuesday: Meeting a Writing Hero

Listen, it's fine if you don't know who Leigh Bardugo is... Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

Wait, wait, I can't do this. I can't start out this post with a lie! It is not fine if you don't know who Leigh Bardugo is, so I'm here to tell you some things about her: first, she's an incredible writer of young adult literature. She has penned several novels in the Grishaverse, a fantasy world entirely of her own making; plus, she was one of four YA authors tapped by DC to write coming-of-age stories of some DC Heroes (hers? None but WONDER WOMAN Y'ALL). So she's kind of a big deal. Like, the amount of talent she has for storytelling and world building is just, like...I want it.

Another thing to know about Leigh is that she's committed to writing diverse books. She's a white Jewish woman, but she incorporates characters of varying colors, religions and sexualities in order to create a world that similarly parallels our own. She also writes characters with disabilities; as someone who has dealt with chronic pain and psychical disability herself, Leigh hasn't shied away from showing that in her fiction. And that's incredible.

All of this is stuff you could find with a quick Google search of her name. But today I want to share a personal story, about how much of an incredible person Leigh Bardugo is. And it all started with her book, WONDER WOMAN: WARBRINGER, which was released earlier in September.

It all started then because, of course, Leigh was going on tour for that book; and, fortunately for me, that tour included a stop in New York City. In case you've missed it, THAT'S WHERE I LIVE!

Now, the last event I went to at a New York Barnes & Noble was the Jojo Moyes/Emilia Clarke signing last year, so I got my butt out of the house seven hours before the event was to begin and trekked to Union Square for a wristband. Fortunately, they were still in stock.

As the seconds ticked ever closer to 7 p.m., my heart began to race a little more. I was excited because this event included a conversation between Leigh and Daniel Jose Older, another incredible writer; book signing with personalization, yo; and a chance to take a picture (seen above)! Because I'm a dolt, I showed up just a few minutes before 7, and grabbed a seat towards the back of the auditorium. Sitting in the back of the class was a winning strategy all through college, so I didn't figure it would hurt.

Except of course, they let you line up to meet Leigh by row.

Now, thanks to my job as a barista, I go to bed around, oh, 9 p.m....if I'm staying up late. Usually, I'm in bed by 8:30 p.m. Last Wednesday, I didn't even line up to meet Leigh until 9:15. This is how committed I was to meeting her.

I was nervous, though. What do you say when you meet someone you adore, who's writing has meant the world to you? I had submitted interview questions to Leigh a few weeks earlier through her publicist; should I mention that? Should I go with my gut and say, "Hey, how are ya?" and when she responded with, "Good, and you?" say, "Starstruck"?

Cause I was. I was completely struck by her dazzling stardom. I mean, she was so great on stage. Funny, self-possessed yet modest, full of wisdom. And then there's me, small and terrified and without a book deal to my name.

Turns out I didn't have to worry about it, because as soon as she saw the little Post-It that said "Karis" attached to my book, Leigh smiled and said, "Oh, are you the same Karis...?"

SHE RECOGNIZED MY NAME Y'ALL!!

And then — then!

She held out her arms and, when I hesitated, said, "Are you a hugger?"

HECK YEAH I'M A HUGGER LEIGH BARDUGO, I'LL GIVE YOU A HUG!

Wow. I was amazed. While she signed my book, I took a deep breath and told her what I'd mentioned in the interview questions: that I read the Six of Crows duology during a desperately miserable depressive episode, and they helped me survive. I teared up a little. I told her "thank you."

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She wrote a little note in my book, we took a picture, and I went on my way.

I didn't sleep all night. I was still too riled up, too excited.

And now, to get to the point of this story: Leigh is not only an incredibly talented writer, one who cares about diversity — she's a real human. One who cares. She recognized my name and remembered it, knew who I was...and I'm not the only one. I saw her greet so many other fans with recognition, like she'd met them before and was excited to see them. And I believe she was — excited to see them, to remember them.

I think it's that she just cares, y'all. On a human level, she gives a crap about the people who read her books and the people she meets. And she remembers them.

And that's my writing lesson for the week. No matter how good you are, how successful, how amazing...never stop caring about people. About readers and non-readers and everyone in-between. Because if we don't care about people...what the heck are we even writing for?

The best writers, it turns out, don't do it for the glory or the recognition. They do it because the care about people; stories can honestly change lives, and to be a part of that, to do something like that...you have to care about the people reading your words.

I'm so grateful for writers like Leigh who care. And when I grow up...I want to be just like her.

Fab Book Friday: MASK OF SHADOWS by Linsey Miller

  Welcome, welcome, to the first installment since the rebirth of Fab Book Friday!!!

Basically, more than a year ago I started this thing where I picked a book and raved about it every Friday. And by "started this thing" I mean I did it, like, twice, and then stopped. But I'm trying to get back into it! So basically, every Friday you can expect a new post with me raving (never ranting) about a book I've read recently. Because I believe in uplifting the things I love.

So I recently received an ARC (advance reader copy) of MASK OF SHADOWS by Linsey Miller, which I didn't remember requesting but was excited to receive because I'd been hearing buzz about it. The premise is that Sal Leon is a gender fluid thief who wants revenge upon people for reasons that will be explained in the book. They find their opportunity when Auditions open for a spot on The Left Hand, this super elite group of assassins that are the Queen's closest confidantes and whom I kinda wanna be besties with. Shenanigans ensue.

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I was intrigued by the premise and by the fact that Sal is gender fluid, an identity many people I know claim but that I haven't really seen in books. In MASK OF SHADOWS, this fluidity is presented by the fact that Sal chooses to dress either as a girl (and go by female pronouns), a boy (and male pronouns) or androgynously (in which they go by gender-neutral pronouns).

I honestly thought it was going to be confusing, but as it turned out, Sal's gender identity was the least interesting thing about them. It was just a state of being, an accepted fact.

Which I kind of loved?

I mean, we live in a time period where the way we choose to identify ourselves is one of our defining characteristics. And I'm not blaming this on anyone, but it is true that from all sides of the spectrum, our identity, be it gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or whatnot, is huge.

But there are things about us that are more or equally important, just as there are things about Sal that are just as important as their gender fluidity. Some of these things include:

  • They are a very good thief-turned-assessin. This is v. important and we should honestly focus on it. Sal is quick and quiet and ruthless. They are bent on revenge and willing to do whatever it takes to get it. This leads to the next thing, which is:
  • They are angry. I won't tell you why, but Sal is very angry. They have a beef with a lot of people, and are willing to do whatever it takes to even the slate. I feel that. I don't live in a fantasy world and the same things that happened to Sal didn't happen to me, but I have a lot of anger. It was interesting to see a character who represented that part of myself, especially because of the next point, which is also true of me:
  • They are hurting. Sal was wounded as a child and they carry their hurt, masking it as anger. Again — wow. Could be me. I relate so hard. And yet, despite their assassin-ness and anger and hurt, it's also true that:
  • They are somehow naive. I know, this seems odd, right? That an assassin could be naive. But it makes sense. MASK OF SHADOWS is, after all, a young-adult novel, and Sal is meant to be about 16 or 17, I believe. They fiercely love and believe in a certain thing, to the point of naivete, and it's...so truthful.

And that's what I loved about MASK OF SHADOWS. It is true that there were parts of the book that were hard to follow (the world-building is complicated and kind of rushed in places), but I related hard to Sal and actually believed them as a teenage character. Which can be hard to find in YA fantasy, because a lot of times the characters are 16-going-on-45. And of course Sal had to grow up fast because of their situation, but they still act like a teenager. That was refreshingly real.

IMG_4062All in all, this book is in "Fab Book" Friday for a reason. Because I loved it. I honestly felt my heart race at the end of every chapter, and wanted to keep going. But I was buddy-reading it with a friend and we'd promised to read 50 pages a day so, alas, I often had to stop. Of course, now I'm anxious for book two, and whatever other books Linsey has up her sleeve.

Cheers! :)

Doing important work and being adorable: a profile of Sandhya Menon

When Sandhya Menon moved to America at age 15, she imagined the transition would be easy. She had, after all, spent her childhood bouncing between her home country of India and various other Middle Eastern countries. "Boy, was I wrong!" she said. "It was a huge culture shock...I had a hard time understanding American turns of phrase, especially while I was in high school. But once I acclimated, I really began to love being part of the diaspora here in the US."

I've been a fan of Sandhya's since her upcoming debut, WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI, first crossed my Twitter feed last fall. The book, which I've had the pleasure of reading, is an adorable story about first love, pursuing your passions, and what happens when generations get their signals crossed. It's cute; it's funny; and it showcases character growth through pretty much every single person in the pages. It's a great work of young adult literature, and I highly encourage everyone to go, NOW, and pre-order it.

(I'll wait.)

(In the meantime, look at the beautiful cover!)

WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI front

Did you buy it? Good. Now let's talk some more about Sandhya.

In true adorable-human fashion, she cited as her greatest accomplishment her family before her work (although both made the cut).

"My very happy fifteen-year marriage, the fact that I have two healthy, happy kids, and my books all come to mind!" she said.

As for the hardest thing about writing, "I never wish I could quit," she answered. "That probably sounds so saccharine and idiotic, but it's true! I love this gig and the freedom/honor/privilege of making stories for others to read."

She did acquiesce that there is one technical aspect that's difficult: the first revision she has to work on after a draft is completed, the one she has to do on her own before the book is ready to be seen by anyone else.

"It always feels slightly overwhelming," she said. But she loves "losing myself in the universe of the characters." She quoted Stephen King and added, "I love that feeling of having to remind myself that I belong in this world rather than the one I was just romping around in!"

Sandhya Menon With Filter_Large

During the childhood years she spent in India, Sandhya said she remembers "throwing rocks up at mangoes so we could eat them once they fell!" She lived in Mumbai, also known as Bombay, where her neighborhood was full of trees and parks.

And once she learned the art of writing as a kindergarten student, well, she was hooked.

"I began to write stories and poems," she said. "It's all I ever knew!"

Although she doesn't remember a particular "first story" that spurred her writing, she does remember one incident of taking a real-life event and fictionalizing it.

"The possibility that life itself was full of stories totally fired me up," she said, "and led to a lot more stories."

One such story is that of Dimple and Rishi. It's a young adult contemporary novel about two Indian-American teenagers whose parents want to arrange their marriage. Rishi, traditional and family-oriented, is all about it. He wants to please his parents. Dimple, passionate about coding and fiercely independent, is less enthused. When they meet at a summer coding camp, well...let's just say things don't go over as well as Rishi would have dreamed.

But WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI is a romance. That's all I'll say about what happens next, other than...guys, this book is so good. It's one you want on your shelves, believe me. Not only is it physically beautiful, it's full of heart, laughter, fun...and some uncomfortable scenes.

"Something that I struggled with was acknowledging casual racism in the story," Sandhya said. There's one scene where the two protagonists are at a restaurant and are faced with some really terrible, tone-deaf, racist comments. "Once I wrote [that] scene...I sent my editor an email asking if she thought some people would have a hard time buying it. All of those comments are things I have personally experienced, but to someone who isn't a child of immigrant parents or living in the diaspora, they might seem completely overblown."

Fortunately, Sandhya's editor, also the child of immigrants, encouraged her to leave the scene as-is. "Since then," she said, "I've gotten quite a few messages about that scene resonating with readers...so I'm glad she did!"

I asked Sandhya if she thinks her work is groundbreaking. If you tap, for just a few minutes, into the discussions online about the YA book community, you'll find a ton of talk about diversity and representation in literature, and how hard it can be for people of color (or any other marginalization) to get their work published.

And here is Sandhya, Indian, immigrant, writing a book about two brown children of immigrants that's getting a ton of buzz and is being published by Simon & Schuster, one of the "Big 5." She's doing huge things. So I wanted to know if she recognizes the huge things she's doing.

First off, she clarified that this book isn't just "hers." It's her story, yes, the one she wrote, but she credits the Simon & Schuster team as well as her agent and beta readers, as well.

"I think of "my work"...as groundbreaking in that it's a book about two brown teens just living their best lives, falling in love, chasing their dreams, and having a happy ending," she said. "The media is full of the "bad" or "brave" brown/black/gay/disabled/trans person narrative, and I feel like there are so many other stories we have to tell.

"We are not just villains or tragic characters," she added. "We have just as much depth and breadth as anyone else."

Ollie snow 8 weeks

To me, that's a powerful, important sentiment. Sandhya is such a sweet, fun person, and it was a pleasure to get to know her a little bit through this piece. If you're not satisfied and want to hear more from her, follow her on Twitter or Instagram (which is full of cute pictures of her puppy!) and sign up for her newsletter.

And if you want more of her talking, check out her episode of the podcast 88 Cups of Tea, an incredible writing podcast she was featured on recently.

 

Writing hope: Beth Revis — GIVEAWAY INCLUDED

Last fall, a book about mental illness made me realize I — even I — held stigmas against mentally ill people. That book was A World Without You, by Beth Revis, and her unflinching and real portrayal of a boy with delusions that had far-reaching consequences captivated me. I still think about it sometimes, the way that book snagged my heart and made me feel all the feels. Beth is also the author of the fantasy series Across the Universewhich involves space travel and being woken up out of time and all sorts of fun stuff like that. She's an accomplished writer, and you'll definitely want to look out for her next book — Rebel Risingaka a young adult novel about Jyn Erso, the star of Rogue One — which comes out May 2 and is for sure on the top of my TBR list.

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She grew up in rural North Carolina, daughter to a New Jersey Yankee who tried to keep the Southern accent away...but Beth says, "I still pronounce my 'i's long and cannot say 'can't' correctly." Nature vs. nurture, I guess.

As a kid, Beth was more Hermione Granger than anything else — she recalls taking money from her savings pile to buy books and hiding under the bed in order to fit in more reading time.

Her long, long hair is a tribute to Princess Leia because Beth has always been a Star Wars fangirl, so the fact that she's writing and publishing a YA novel that's part of the franchise's canon is huge. She said, "Every moment of working on that book was surreal and amazing."

And why is she drawn to young adult as a genre? you may ask.

"YA has everything," she answers. "You have books about space beside books about Queen Victoria. Tragedy beside comedy, and many with both tragedy and comedy. It's infinite possibilities."

She adds that the most important thing to show in these novels for younger readers is reality; "Even in books with magic or spaceships," she says. "There's a heart that's real."

And one aspect of reality is that there is darkness. Beth referenced the famous G.K. Chesterton quote about fairy tales existing not to teach children that dragons are real, but to show them they can be vanquished, and added, "The books aren't about darkness. They're about the light in the darkness. They're about hope."

Hope in books is important because "it reminds us that there is still hope in real life."

She adds that recommendations for these sorts of hopeful books vary depending on who's doing the reading and in what situation they're looking for hope.

"The Handmaid's Tale, for example, is not that hopeful of a book," she said, "but if you happen to be a society where--and this is a totally random example--but if you're in a society where a fascist, ill-informed, orange-toned misogynist is in control of your dwindling democracy, reading Margaret Atwood's book and thinking of the phrase 'Illegitimi non carborundum' may be just the hope you need to keep fighting." [I love it when authors are politically aware and funny, in addition to being great writers, you know?]

Beth's books chronicle hope; A World Without You, for example, gives hope that reality can be OK, even if it's not as great as the fantasy.

AWWY-2An interesting factoid about that book is that it wasn't originally meant to be a contemporary novel; Beth said she began writing it as a straight-up time-travel story.

"It wasn't until I'd almost finished that the reality started leaking through the pages--not unlike in my own main character's life," she said. "[That] reality was more along the lines of my real life peeking into the story, not the other way around. When I described the emotions, for example, that Phoebe has, they were the same emotions that I had when I was her age."

And the hardest thing about writing?

A World Without You, Beth says.

"All of it. It was simultaneously a complicated work involving time travel and mental illness, but also a personal work that drained me emotionally as its inspiration was rooted in my own past and my brother's struggle with mental illness."

Personally, I'm grateful to Beth for doing the hard work of writing this book; it taught me a lot. It's one you should definitely read if you can.

And make sure to follow Beth. Rebel Rising is bound not to be the last exciting work she produces, and you'll want to see what comes out next. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook, check out her website and sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date on everything!

AND, if you'd like the chance to win a SIGNED hardcover of "A World Without You," aka the book that moved me and stung my conscience, enter the giveaway below (just follow the link)! Trust me — you want this book! (US only, though).

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