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Posts Tagged ‘All the Ugly and Wonderful Things’

August 9th has been something special to me for quite a long time. When I was 24, August 9th was the day I arrived in Japan to start my adventure teaching English in a Japanese high school. I spent my first day participating in the nationwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

I was a long way from home, and I spoke to my grandfather that night to try to calm my nerves. He had always been reticent to talk about his experiences in World War 2, but that night, separated by thousands of miles, he talked about his own time in Japan. He arrived there in early September 1945, with orders to help rebuild Yokohama, which like much of Tokyo had been destroyed by US bombing raids. (We think of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as extraordinarily destructive, but the firebombing of Tokyo destroyed half the city and killed 100,000 people. The firebombing of Yokohama killed 35,000 and left every major building in the city destroyed or damaged.)

Until the war, my grandfather had been a farmer, and for much of the war, he was a radio repairman for Navajo codetalkers in the Pacific Theater. Following Japan’s surrender, he was repurposed again as an engineer and construction supervisor. While I was in Japan, I went to Yokohama, where I was able to visit a grade school and a hospital that dated to 1946, and almost certainly would have been reconstruction projects that he oversaw. Sadly I wasn’t able to meet one of the Japanese people he worked closely with, as he had passed away a few years before.

In Japan, I taught at Nagaoka High School, which was the alma mater of Admiral Yamamoto. While I wasn’t teaching, I wandered the countryside and wrote. I wrote so many things, including first drafts of two different novels. Japan is the place where I swore that if it was possible to write books, sell them, and get paid for the work, I would do whatever I could to get there.

It doesn’t hurt that when you’re snowed in somewhere between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range with only 3 television channels, you have plenty of time for writing. The first winter I was in Niigata Prefecture, it snowed over 40 feet. No, that’s not a typo. Snow fall was really in excess of 480″. It snowed every day for four months, anywhere from a couple inches to dozens of inches.

When I learned that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things would be released on August 9, 2016, I was happy, even though it was too late to share that joy with my grandfather, who was the most bookish adult in my life as a child. That day will always carry the ghosts of those who died in Nagasaki, but it also holds a lot of powerful memories for me, including the bond with my grandfather, and now the day my publishing career was well and truly launched.

On this day I often think of the resiliency of humans, and our capacity to rise above obstacles and limitations. I think of my grandfather, far from his wife and newborn son, charged with a task that he was wholly untrained for. Handed a set of blue prints and assigned a Japanese translator and a crew of men, he helped build schools and hospitals. I think of those men, too, and their families, living in the aftermath of a devastating war. My grandfather was part of an occupying army, and yet those men treated him with respect and invited him into their homes, where he shared the modest wealth of his rations and their hope for a better future.

So many things in life are not easy. There is pain, suffering, disappointment, but there is also joy, success, and the bond we share with other people. I hope we can all remember that today.

Bryn and 3 students standing under a cherry tree

Celebrating the end of winter

(If you’re curious a what good old fashioned Nagaoka snow storm looks like, here‘s some footage from 1963 that’s even worse than what I experienced.)

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As I’ve confessed before, I’m a very chaotic writer. I start in the middle and write my way out in the most spectacularly messy and unorganized way. The thing that guides me–since I never know what the plot will be–is character development and motivations. As I write scenes, I’m always asking, “What decision will this character make and why?” Sometimes I come up with different answers for the same character and the same scene. As a writer, I have the power to let a character investigate different choices, even if it splits the story in two.

While writing All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, the world split in two fairly early on. In Part 2, Chapter 5, Kellen is presented with a decision that strikes at the heart of his uncertainty about his place in the world. A one night stand with a woman he barely knows, or an evening spent with someone he truly cares about.

On its surface, it looks like such a minor choice. One night out of so many. An act of self-indulgence that nobody could blame him for. Well, almost nobody. But when I wrote that other choice, it changed the angle of so many things in Kellen’s life. It changed so many things in Wavy’s life. It changed the whole book.

 

That’s what’s going out in my newsletter this week: the first part of that alternate version. The one in which Kellen makes a different decision and the planets change their alignment. If you’re curious about how such a minor choice can change Wavy and Kellen, or if you’re curious about how I investigate my characters during the writing process, you can read this months newsletter here, or you can sign up for the newsletter here.

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I have spent a lot of time this week dreading talking about this, but knowing that I absolutely must talk about the deluge of revelations about sexual assault in the news, including a woman accusing Judge Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was fourteen years old. Having written a book in which a grown man has sexual contact with a fourteen-year-old girl, I don’t get to take a pass on talking about this.

To have this conversation requires me to ask you to accept that I am simultaneously two contradictory things. I am a woman who has been sexually assaulted, as an adult and as a child, but I am also a woman who at the age of thirteen had a loving and consensual relationship that involved sexual contact with a man more than a decade older than me.

I will never argue that relationship wasn’t illegal. Of course it was. He knew better. Hell, I knew better, but thirty years later, I have no regrets. Quite the opposite, I have very fond memories of a relationship in which my consent was respected in a way it has never been since. It was my first sexual experience, and I got exactly what I wanted, and was never pressured into doing things I didn’t want to do. In fact, that relationship taught me about the importance of consent and about my right to refuse anything I didn’t want.

Despite my personal feelings about my relationship, I will never suggest that it shouldn’t have been illegal. There’s a reason I wrote a novel in which the man involved in such a relationship goes to prison. We need age of consent laws to protect young people from predation. While I felt capable of consenting at thirteen, most thirteen year olds are not. We need the laws to be black and white, even as a whole lot of gray exists in the world. We also need to enforce those laws, but for that to happen, we have to listen to victims of sexual assault and believe them. The laws are meaningless if we don’t listen every time.

The first time I was assaulted as a child, I told exactly one person. That person didn’t believe me. I didn’t tell anyone else. The second time it happened, I didn’t tell anyone, because I had learned that no one would believe me. This has been my experience as an adult, too. People refusing to believe me when I say I wasn’t a victim at thirteen. Police officers explaining to me at nineteen that I hadn’t “really” been raped. The second time I was raped as an adult, the only person I told was a counselor at an abortion clinic. She was literally the first person who believed what I had to say.

I tell you all of this to acknowledge that my personal experiences and the novel I wrote are troubling and problematic. I write these kinds of books, because they reflect my lived experiences.

I tell you all of this to affirm that when someone tells me what has happened to them, my default is always to believe them. I would rather learn later that my faith and compassion were misplaced than fail to offer them in the first place. If we truly want to protect people from sexual harassment and assault, the first step is to believe that these things happen. And they happen without regard for whether the accuser has a “troubled past” and without regard for whether the accused is liked or respected in their field. If we’re tired of people coming forward ten, twenty, thirty years after the fact, we have to make it possible for people to come forward immediately. That starts with listening and believing.

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To celebrate the release of the paperback edition of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things on October 3rd, I’m giving away temporary tattoos that I had designed. Kellen’s tattoo becomes one of the things that define him in different ways for different characters all through the book. Aunt Brenda is horrified, Amy is mesmerized, and Wavy is protective over that tattoo, so I thought it would be fun to have people wear them. If you’d like to get a free temporary tattoo, just shoot me a message with your name and address. (North American only right now, as this is for the NA paperback release.)

On the topic of tattoos, I went in to see my tattoo artist for a little work last Friday, and met someone who got me thinking again about how mainstream acceptance of tattooing is butting up against traditional tattoo culture. My father owns a couple tattoo shops, and two of my sisters have worked on and off as tattoo artists for most of their adult lives. I grew up knowing I wanted tattoos as part of my cultural heritage, but also being told that they would harm my career and my dating prospects. As a result of those conflicting messages, all of my tattoos are in what we call “the employment zone.” They’re all easily hidden by the clothes I wear to work, and most people are surprised to find out I have multiple tattoos, because I’m “so clean looking.”

I’m not kidding, I have had employers and coworkers use those exact words to describe their dismay at learning that I have tattoos. I guess they think people with visible tattoos are “dirty looking”? Over the course of my life, though, I’ve watched tattooing get more and more mainstream, and people with tattoos be accepted as normal members of society. This is good. What I find strange, though, are the attempts to gentrify tattoo culture itself.

The woman I met on Friday was there as a walk-in to get what she described as a “small, personal tattoo.” (I think this means mine are large, personal tattoos?) I heard her on talking with the artist who was going to do the work. “Can it be smaller?” she asked, then again, “Smaller.” And a few minutes later, as he tweaked the design: “But smaller.” I never saw the tattoo, but I started to imagine it like one of those pictures painted on a grain of rice.

Not surprisingly, with something so small, it was done in a matter of minutes, and it was cheap. The woman opened her purse and took out … a credit card. The tattoo artist looked at her like she’d farted in church. Honestly, all of us there looked at her that way. The sign clearly says CASH ONLY. I’m sure there are tattoo shops in the world that accept credit cards or checks or maybe even chickens as trade. I have never been to one. When this woman was informed that it was cash only, just like the sign says, she got very angry.

Why don’t you take cards? Everybody takes cards. I don’t carry cash around.

Cash only, lady.

Instead of apologizing and making a plan to get cash, she doubled down.

I’m a small business owner and I can never imagine doing business this way. It’s outrageous. (She really said outrageous, like the artist had demanded part of her soul as payment.)

She ended up leaving her driver’s license there as surety, while she went to an ATM to get cash. When she came back to pay, she spent another few minutes lecturing the tattoo artist about how to do better as a small business owner.

After she was gone, the artists took turns telling stories about people who didn’t realize there are actual rules of etiquette around tattooing. They’re stories I’ve heard plenty of times from my father. People who bring in pics of other artists’ original work and wanted it duplicated. (Flash is one thing, but real original tattoos, no.) People who demand to see final, full color renderings of their tattoos before their appointment. (The art is in producing work on the skin, not drawings on paper or computer.) People who want to micromanage an original piece. (The whole point of an original piece is that it’s collaborative. The artist and the recipient work together to produce the final image.) People who want to be reassured that it can be removed later with a laser! (!!!!)

With tattooing going mainstream, it’s an inevitable clash of cultures. With all things, you have your choice of how to interact with a different culture. You can demand it on your terms, and no doubt there are tattoo shops who specialize in such things. Places where you can demand a full color mockup of your final design and pay for it with your credit card. I’ve heard there are places that offer numbing creams to make the process less painful.

Or you can accept that getting a tattoo is a cultural experience, not a product. Leave your cultural expectations at the door and embrace what it means to get a tattoo: receiving a permanent, collaborative, painful work of art that is your own.

Or you can ask me for one of these badass custom Tattly temporary tattoos. 😉

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This weekend while thrifting, I found this little piece of American history: the moon landing. It made me think, as it always does, about the incredible bravery required to undertake a thing like that. I also laughed a little, remembering how I used to get rid of overly pushy guys at college parties by telling them I thought the moon landing was a hoax. This worked in the 80s. I think now you’d either find yourself in a debate or worse, talking to a true believer. (When the flat earth society is a real thing again, there seem to be more and more folks who truly believe in a lot of oddball conspiracy theories.)

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The Apollo 11 plate also made me think about a question I frequently get from readers of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things: how did I create Wavy? I always wish that I had a simple answer, or even a complex but straightforward answer. The truth is that my characters mainly create themselves out of the random detritus that fills my brain. For example, Wavy’s name is an amalgam of two real people. I had a great-great-aunt whose nickname was Wavy and a babysitter whose name was Wyvonna. Put those two things together in my head for 40 years, and when a strange little girl stepped out of hayfield to watch a man on a motorcycle ride past, her name was Wavy. I didn’t consciously give her the name. That was just her name, from the very first draft of the first scene I wrote. When Kellen wrecked his bike and sent this little girl to call for help, he asked for her name. Before I knew anything about her, her answer was Wavonna. I also knew that Kellen, concussed and bleeding, heard only the first syllable, and so misunderstood her name and subsequently gave her a nickname that stuck. I didn’t plan any of that or make any conscious decisions about it. It just was.

I know absolutely that Wavy’s grandmother had this plate in her house. Lots of people had this plate, but not many of them would have viewed it as magical. For Wavy, six years old, thrust into a new house again, living with another stranger, the discovery of this plate connected her to her old life.

She was born on July 19, 1969, so to find a plate that marked the day after and marked such an important milestone in space exploration, it seemed like a sign to her. Proof that this was going to be her home, that her grandmother was someone she could trust.

What of that old life? Where did Wavy’s original connection to the stars come from? Her neighbor Mr. Arsenikos, who first taught her the constellations. That connection is very much about the seemingly minor detail of Wavy’s birthday as well. That first day she met Mr. Arsenikos, she was a small girl, just four, and afraid to be at home while her parents fought. Imagine knowing it’s your birthday, but having no one in your life act like it’s important, until you stumble across the old man living next door, for whom that day is also special. As Wavy notes, Mr. Arsenikos was a sailor aboard the WWI-era USS San Diego which struck a German mine and sank on July 19, 1918. The day is important to them for different reasons, but all the same, it creates a bond that is the start of Wavy’s love of astronomy.

That connection is at the heart of why she forges a bond with Kellen, a stranger who wrecks his bike right in front of her. It’s another birthday, forgotten by all by Wavy, this time made special by the universe delivering an injured giant in conjunction with the rare planetary alignment that assisted the Voyager 1 and 2 launches that same summer. For someone like Wavy, it’s another sign that she’s supposed to make that great leap of trusting someone new. She doesn’t necessarily know why it’s important, but she feels it.

This is how characters come to life for me, out of bits and pieces that ultimately fit together and mean something to the character. Rarely do I know anything about a character until they’ve walked into a scene and spoken. (Or not spoken, as the case may be.) It’s part of the magic of writing for me.

(July 19th is also Lizzie Borden’s birthday and the day in 1595 when astronomer Johannes Kepler developed a geometrical theory to explain the movement of the planets.)

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I’m just two weeks late in giving a wrap-up of my trip to New York City to be on a panel at Book Expo, but I’m operating under the idea that blog posts are not like organ transplants, and so it’s better late than never.

The panel was about how my publisher used Goodreads to market my book, increase sales, and get it on the New York Times bestseller list, which is definitely something writers fantasize about. (Not all of them, but many.) The write up is here, on Goodreads’ blog. It’s heavy on stats, and shows the long view of my publisher’s plans for my book release.

Because Goodreads was bringing me to NYC anyway, I got to do a kind of victory lap: meeting with my publisher in his corner office of the Flatiron Building, lunch with my editor, my publicist, and the Director of Marketing at St. Martin’s Press, stopping off at various bookstores to sign stock, meeting readers at Book Expo, and generally doing things that are incredibly exhausting to introverts like myself. Hence the caveat about things some writers fantasize about. My writerly fantasies usually focus on selling enough books to quit my day job, although I could definitely get used to having a driver to schlep me around.

While I was in NYC, I also got name-checked by The New Yorker in its snippish coverage of the new Amazon bookstore: Amazon’s Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Are Not Built for People Who Actually Read. (With a headline like that, you can’t kid yourself that they’re impressed, but they did note that I’m one of only six authors in the G’s in Fiction.)

Over all, I had a lovely trip, even if I did come home and need to sleep and be alone for about three days solid.

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I’ve talked publicly about my hate mail, but today I want to talk about something that continues to give me joy, and renders hate mail irrelevant. Fan mail is great. It’s lovely to get letters from folks who connected with the book and wrestled with the issues it tackles.

The letters that get to me, though, aren’t necessarily fan mail. They’re usually longer than my other letters and emails, because these stories require more words. These are from people who didn’t just sympathize with Wavy and Kellen. These are from people who say, “This was me.”

People who know what it’s like to be in a relationship that everybody else looks down on. What it’s like to be in love with someone who is way too young or way too old for you, according to our society’s standards. What it’s like to lie about that relationship for years or sometimes your whole life. What it’s like to lose that relationship. What it’s like to finally make it legitimate.

People who’ve had to listen while others lectured them. Who’ve been told they must be confused, because they were too young to consent or even understand their feelings. Who’ve been told they need counseling. People who’ve been forcibly labeled a victim, and even as adults been refused even the most basic dignity of being believed.

If you’re out there, feeling those things, you’re not the only one.

When I met him, I was ten and he was nineteen, starts one of the letters I’ve received. I knew immediately that he was The One, even though it took us more than fifteen years to be together.

From another letter: We were twelve years apart and we never got to be together, because everyone said I was too young.

And another: On my eighteenth birthday, I went to his house and said, “I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen years old.” He said, “I know. I’ve been waiting for you.” We got married three years later–it took us that long to bring my parents around. In February, we celebrated his fortieth birthday and our fifth anniversary.

Not all of them go the way you think they will: She was twenty-five and I was fourteen. She moved away because she was ashamed. She thought it was wrong to feel that way about me. Two years ago, I found her and wrote a letter. She had been married and divorced twice. She said she never got over me. If I wasn’t in prison, we would be together now.

Some of them just about break my heart. I felt like a horrible old pervert when I fell in love with her. Like in Lolita. She was only thirteen and I was over thirty. We were fast friends all through her high school years, and I always played the avuncular neighbor. She got married in my backyard. I’m her son’s godfather. When she was thirty-two she was diagnosed with cancer. After her health declined, she moved back home, next door to me. One day I brought by food and flowers from my backyard. Her parents went to the store and left us alone together. She confessed that she had always been in love with me, but her mother had shamed her out of saying so on the eve of her wedding a decade before. You can probably imagine what my answer was. Two weeks later, I lost the only woman I’ve ever loved to cancer. There is still a hole in my heart from everything that was destroyed by doubt and fear. I’m seventy-three now, still a bachelor. She would be fifty-five, and no one would give us so much as a sideways glance if we were married.

These are just a few of the stories people have shared with me (and agreed to have shared), and the reason they shared them with me is simple. My book has let them know that they’re not alone. They’re not the only one who has experienced this kind of relationship. Some of my readers have carried that shame or heartbreak or even joy in secret for years.

This is one more reminder that stories matter, especially stories that we see ourselves in. It’s a reminder, too, that writing is risk. When I wrote All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I didn’t know what people would think. I knew that some people would hate the book and me by extension, but I also know the story was true for me. I told it as honestly as I could, and I knew that alongside the haters, there would also be readers for whom the story was true. I knew I wasn’t the only one.

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