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When I was in high school, I was in the marching band. Depending on the venue, I played either the baritone saxophone or the bass saxophone. All 5’5″ and 90 lbs. of me, so it was no easy feat. During my sophomore year, we traveled to an away game that would decide whether the football team went on to the state championships for our division.

During that game it rained, it sleeted, it snowed. The marching band performed valiantly, and the football team a little less so. We lost to a team whose quarterback would become my brother-in-law a few years later. By the time we loaded onto the bus for the long ride home, the marching band was mostly frozen into our uniforms. We were lucky they were heavy wool, because although we were all soaked and frozen, we were fairly warm sealed up inside that wet wool. I spent most of the ride home with the harness for the bass sax still attached, because my hair was frozen to it.

On the drive there, we’d done much cheering and chanting, but the ride home was more subdued. A well-meaning, but misguided cheerleader started up a familiar cheer. At the point in the cheer when the audience was supposed to respond with “We’re Number One!” I answered in my loudest, crowd-piercing voice: “We’re Number Two!” I got some glares, but the tired and frozen brass section behind me took up the chant. Honestly, we weren’t bitter. The team had made it further than anyone expected us to. There was no shame in having come in second.

atuawt-cover-w-goodreads-badgeThat’s how I feel this morning, upon being informed that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things received the second highest number of votes in the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Fiction. 27,000 people voted my book! I got more votes than Jodi Picoult (mind=boggled).

So in honor of all the second place runners up, I am celebrating!

I’m Number Two!

And thank you to everybody who voted for me! If you’d like to celebrate with me, please consider leaving me a review on your preferred online venue. Reviews really do make a huge difference.

I’ve had a not-so-secret dread of family gatherings ever since I was a child, and the holidays are a special kind of hell. For most of my life, Thanksgiving and Christmas involved herds of people who had some blood claim on me, crowded into a too-small house for hours on end. As a child, I can remember hiding out in a variety of places to avoid being forcibly squeezed in between a burly cousin who liked to tickle me, and an aunt who liked to pick scabs. It’s been my experience that it’s your family who most often feel totally okay about violating your consent with forcible contact.

all-the-cousinsFamily gatherings have always seemed like a recipe for an introvert’s nervous breakdown. Being forced to socialize, make pleasantries, endure hugs and kisses, be quizzed about your life, your love life, your profession, your very existence.

Over the years, my family herd has thinned, as the elderly members died, and my generation failed to reproduce in the numbers necessary to pack a room. As those blood relations died, we replaced them in smaller numbers with friends, until this Thanksgiving, there were more non-relatives than relatives. Someone remarked on this, and on the importance of being able to form your own family from people you’re not related to.

This struck me as wildly funny, since that is the very nature of marriage: forming a family with someone you’re not related to. It’s what we do, so why does it so often strike us as strange or modern to bring outsiders to our family table? After all, we’re building families around strangers, when we marry them. To me, the joy of holidays with non-relatives is that I’m allowed to set boundaries with people who aren’t my family.

I think about this today, sandwiched as it is between Thanksgiving and Christmas, because of the deleted scene from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things that I’m sending out in my December newsletter. It’s about what happens after that awkward Christmas dinner at which Wavy’s ragtag family is reunited. It’s about making truces, setting boundaries, and agreeing on ground rules for all the future gatherings you have to face with people you don’t particularly like, but who are your family.

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A tale of two evils

During the 2000 election, I was living in Florida. A lot of talk was made about Al Gore being the lesser of two evils. Like the Clintons, he was deeply connected with Big Banking, Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Guns, and Big Prisons. In short, despite his pro-environment talk, Al Gore was in bed with all the moneyed interests that have worked so hard to turn America into an oligarchy. He was influence and controlled by the same powers controlling Bush.

Looking around at the problems that existed in America in 2000, I decided I didn’t want more of the same. I didn’t want an oligarchy. I didn’t want the kind of welfare reform and “tough on crime” nonsense that was a thin cover for the ongoing oppression of black people in this country. I wanted change, radical change. (The same reason I supported Bernie through the primaries this year. I still want change.)

ralph-nader-buttonI supported Nader, and not just at the voting booth. I campaigned for him. I knocked doors and rang phones for him. He was by no means a perfect candidate, but he was not part of the oligarchy.

On Election Day 2000, I voted for Nader. In Florida. I justified it to myself with the excuse that Gore was the lesser of two evils, and in doing so, I overlooked the fact that a lesser evil is inherently less evil.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is. You vote however your conscience or your pragmatism tells you to vote today, but remember Florida in 2000.

Hindsight, being what it is, how many of us Nader supporters think Gore would have been a worse president than Bush? More than 537 of us?

Did I dress up for Halloween? Not really. I always wear black and I’m wearing black today, so I basically look the same as I do every other day of the year. My costume is on the inside.

I had a couple of interviews published over the weekend, and in the comments of one, a reader tried to inform me that I was in error to have a “personal” interpretation of a piece of literature. This reader informed me that I was missing or ignoring the “universal meaning” of the book in question. Well, holy shit. My surprised face, let me show you it.

This idea is not new to me. After all, I have a couple literature degrees, so I’ve spent plenty of years in intellectual servitude to the “universal meaning” of literature that any given professor espoused. When it was for a grade, I could regurgitate the meaning I was supposed to have absorbed from a novel, play, poem. I could reproduce the meaning traditionally ascribed to the author of the piece.

Once I got free, however, I started having my own interpretations of meaning that didn’t require me to check in with anybody else, including the author. It was a pretty radical experience, even inside my head, to not check in with the dominant cultural point of view as I read. Having been trained to view books from that POV, though, it’s easy to slip back into that mode. To have discussions about literature based on the perspective of middle-aged upper class white men.

vittorio-reggianini-poetry-reading

I almost let it happen this weekend, but then I remembered that I hadn’t read Lolita as a middle-aged upper class white man. I read Lolita as a working class pre-pubescent girl. While it’s all well and good for Nabokov to have had specific intentions, I was under no obligation to feel what he wanted me to feel. I experienced the book from my own particular perspective, one distinctly different from the received wisdom about the “meaning” of Lolita.

So today, on the inside, I’m the default reader. My interpretation of a book’s meaning is valid. If you want, you can join me in being the default reader. It’s easy and it doesn’t require grease paint. Just go through the day feeling confident that your perspective and interpretation of any piece of literature is correct. If we make it through today, we’ll try again tomorrow, until it’s not a costume.

And if you’re curious, my two interviews are here:

For the Kansas City Star‘s FYI Book Club (jointly hosted by the Star and the Kansas City Public Library.)
On Writer Unboxed, interviewed by Liz Michalski, author of Evenfall.

My November newsletter goes out tomorrow with more deleted scenes from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. There’s still time to sign up.

radiojornalismoAlmost three months on from the release of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I’ve done quite a few interviews, but yesterday I got to do one where I was finally asked to discuss one of the issues at the heart of the novel. I’ve talked a little about it at live book events, but this one finally gave me the terrifying chance to talk on the record about consent.

If you’re curious, you can listen to the whole interview here or you can read excerpts from it here. (That second link comes with bonus, maximum-80s picture of me at 13.)

One of the things that I talked about in the interview is the fact that our laws are of necessity based on very black and white ideas of right and wrong, but that we have to acknowledge gray areas. We want the issue of underage sex to be so clear cut that no decent person could get involved in it. That’s the way we like to see it in the news, some great maw in the moral foundation. We want to believe that we stand on one side–the right one–and squint toward the other side, the one where pedophiles gather in shadows.

I say that as someone who not only existed in a gray area, but who thrived and was happy in a gray area. When I was a young teenager, I was in a loving relationship with a much older man. That relationship was sexual, it was consenting, and it was secret. Not just while I was in it, but even once I was an adult. Obviously, it was secret at the time, because it was illegal, but why did it continue to be secret long after it was over, and long after I was an adult?

I kept it a secret, because I got tired of having my narrative overruled by well-meaning people who were more comfortable shaming me than believing that I had been capable of consent. Prior to the release of this novel, I had only told a few people about that relationship, and every time was disastrous. One intimate partner, the one who had goaded me into talking about my earliest sexual experiences, told me, “You’re wrong. You were a victim and that man was a pedophile.”

It was devastating to be told that my personal feelings were irrelevant. In many ways, it was as terrible as the time I tried to report a sexual assault and the police sent me home without writing down a word, after they calmly informed me that I hadn’t actually been raped. They weren’t even two sides of the same coin. They were the same side of the coin. I was being silenced and robbed of my narrative agency. You were a victim, you weren’t a victim, you don’t even know what happened to you. Except I did. Of course, I did.

What scares me about all of this is that we continue to treat people this way. We continue to disbelieve what people say about what happened to them. The John Geoghans and the Jerry Sanduskys of the world are made possible, because when the first child came forward to tell someone what had been done to them, they weren’t believed. Either because they were accusing someone in a position of authority, or because their ability to discern what had happened wasn’t respected.

The thing is, consent isn’t black or white. It’s a long procession of gray areas. A child doesn’t magically become capable of consent when they reach the birthday the legislature in their state has deemed gives them the power of consent. (The fact that it varies by geographical location should be a hint that it’s not as tidy a process as we’d like.)

If you tell me that I was incapable of consenting at 13, then you’re also telling me that I was incapable of refusing consent. The message there is that a 13-year-old’s body doesn’t even belong to them, but to their parents, to the state, to the church.

People become capable of consent, when we teach them what it means to consent, and when their consent is respected. When we actually listen when a child says yes or no, we empower and protect them.

Last week, there was a bit of a dust up about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things on social media. I did my best to stay out of it, but having stayed out of it, I’d like to address the issue very briefly here and without naming names.

It’s okay to hate my book. Not every book is for everybody.

If you read my book and you hate it, that’s fine. We’re square, you and me. I brought myself to the book. You brought yourself to the book. Perhaps we’re just not compatible. That’s cool.

If you choose not to read my book, because of things you have heard about it, that’s okay, too. I often give books a pass if they sound like something I wouldn’t want to read.

If you choose not to read my book, but then publicly express your hatred for it and for anyone who enjoyed it, understand that your hatred is coming from a place of ignorance. Are you comfortable with being that person? Someone who hates something out of ignorance? Someone who judges people without knowing who they are or what they’ve been through?

On a nearly daily basis, I am called upon by strangers to defend All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. And if they were merely asking me to defend my book, I might not be so troubled, but this morning, I have yet another email that asks, “Why would you write a book like this?”

I suspect that the real question is Why do you exist? Within that question about my existence, there are these questions: Why did you choose to have a drug dealer as your father? Why did you experience things that make me uncomfortable? Why do you think you have a right to tell stories that reflect your life? Why don’t you shut up?

The answer is simple. I won’t shut up, because if people like you have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what you’ve experienced, people like me have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what we’ve experienced. I’m going to keep doing that.

night-sky-for-custom-book-plates

I thought there was a good chance I’d better get more deleted scenes ready to send out in my October newsletter. With only five days left in September, we are thisclose to two more deleted scenes. Just six more reviews on GR to hit 1100 reviews, and 12 more to hit 200 on Amazon. That means two more deleted scenes, and probably a little something extra.

For anyone who needs motivation, here’s a little teaser of the next Donal scene.

May 1989

“Goddamn Liam,” Sean said. He was like Mama that way, always complaining about Liam. I mean how funny was that? Liam had been dead six years, and Sean was still going on and on about how everything was his fault.

“Lousy twenty grand. That’s all it woulda took to put me back on my feet. Woulda cleared me with the Leffer brothers. And all this–all this–” He waved his arms around wild enough that other people on the sidewalk stepped out of his way. People did that now that he’d lost his front teeth. You wouldn’t think four teeth would make that big a difference, but it really did. He just looked scarier without them, the way his mouth sagged in.

We were walking to see “this guy,” who Sean said could get him some work. Well, I don’t know if Sean had ever used the word work in his life, but he said this guy could him some money, so it was a job. Sean was supposed to go down to Mexico on the bus and drive a car back. That’s how the guy, whose name was Dougie, described it: “Just go down and drive the car back.”

As soon as we got off the bus in Mexicali and I saw the car, I knew exactly what it was. What Kellen used to call making a run. Because the car was just a car. It wasn’t anything special. Not the kind of car you go to the trouble to send some guy to Mexico to get. Unless the car had drugs in it, which I figured it did. I didn’t look. As soon as we got the car, I thought we should turn right around and head back, but Sean, being Sean, wanted to dick around.

“Let’s stop and get some tacos,” he said. “When are you gonna get real Mexican tacos?”

Right, tacos. But he was driving, so when he pulled off at this little roadside place, I took the money he gave me and went inside to get tacos. I figured you’d have to have pesos to buy tacos in Mexico, but they took my dollars.

When I came back to the car, Sean was slumped over in the backseat with a fucking needle in his arm.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Right out here in the open?”

He didn’t answer, because as always he was wrecked. I sat there for about half an hour, long enough to eat my tacos. Then I got to worrying that we were just sitting by the side of the road in Mexico with a bunch of dope in the trunk, waiting to get robbed.

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