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Posts Tagged ‘love’

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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I’ve seen a lot of writers lately who are bemoaning their failure to write “what publishing wants.” They keep writing books that they can’t sell, and they’re feeling like it’s because what they’re writing doesn’t appeal to agents or editors. I empathize with them, because I am something of an expert on this.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things followed the same path as all my other books. A whole lot of people said, “Hey, that’s something you’ve got there, but I don’t think anyone will buy it.” That continued until two people decided, “Yeah, I think people will buy this.” Completely random. Completely unexpected. A book that was unsaleable for three years became saleable.

I’m not saying what you feel is invalid, when you’re staring at another rejection and shouting, “WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE WANT?” That feeling you have is totally real, and it fucking sucks. What I’m saying is that publishing is a.) random, b.) cyclical, c.) not always great at figuring out what people want to read, either. If they were always right about what books will succeed, you’d never see books flop.

The other thing that I’m saying is you have to love the thing you’re writing and love it in secret. This is particularly true, because maybe nobody else will ever love this book you’re writing. Maybe you’re the only one who will ever be capable of looking at it and feeling joy. You have to love it like a monster baby hidden in the attic. You can’t look around and think, “Oh, look at all these kids on the playground. They’re so much prettier and smarter and less monstrous than my baby.” So what if that’s true? It’s still your baby. Love your monster baby. You gave it life and it needs your love. Maybe it’s never going to see the light of day, or maybe 5 years from now, monsters will be popular, and your hideous baby will be class president.

This is true even when we’re talking about own voices stories from diverse authors. It’s popular lately to complain about how agents and editors are treating diverse books like a trend, but if you already have diverse, own voices novels sitting in your drawer, how is this trend not a bonus for you? Break out those monster babies and send them to all the agents! Don’t dismiss this opportunity as a trend. After all, I used to hear people talk about vampire novels as a trend, but they haven’t gone away, have they? That door is still open. If you don’t have finished books in your trunk, that’s on you as a writer. Don’t wait to write your masterpiece until someone publishes the book that will open the door to your work. Have your work ready when that door opens.

(This post brought to you with love, by analogies gone wrong. And remember, on The Simpsons, they kept the wrong twin in the attic.)

Hugo

Hugo

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It’s one of the best Valentine’s Day gifts I’ve ever received: a box of advance reader copies of my new book.
bookfort

Naturally, having received the love from my publisher, I want to spread the love on to my readers. So this blog post kicks off a series of giveaways that I’ll be doing over the next six months as I wait for the book to be released.

To see all the ways you can enter to win the first ARC and a trinket–your choice of a necklace or a keychain–visit the full giveaway site.

But the first step starts here. If you follow my blog, you can enter by commenting on this post and telling me what your favorite love story is. Do you love tragic and doomed like Romeo and Juliet? Do you love tragic but then requited like Maurice? Are you a Pride and Prejudice reader or a fan of Gone with the Wind? Wuthering Heights or Like Water for Chocolate?

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is ultimately a love story, because for me, those are often the stories that shape our lives. Who we love, how we love, what we’ll do to be with the one we love. So tell me about yours and you might win a copy.

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Writing about The City of Lost Children and little girls’ notions of romance has made me think about a star-crossed love affair from my own childhood.

I thought I was over the loss, but I wasn’t.  When what you had was a secret and what you lost equally secret, you don’t ever get to grieve.

To avoid grieving, I’d half-convinced myself I never felt the things I felt.  When I finally acknowledged it, I was like Doubting Thomas, touching the wound in my own side for proof.  I thought it would be unbearably painful, but it wasn’t.  It turned out to be a relief and full of joy.

My Secret Twin

My Secret Twin

I thought I would never be able to do justice to the story.  I thought I would not be able to reveal the Truth and have it believed.   The man I loved is long dead and defenseless, and I feared it would open him to ridicule or blame or condemnation.  As a writer, you can doubt your skills, but don’t doubt the power of your story to convey Truth to your readers.  Stories carry themselves.  The handful of people I’ve told the story to now…they understand in a way I didn’t really hope for.

I thought all secrets were bad.  They’re not.  Some are beautiful.  Some are so beautiful you want to share them with people.  Others are so beautiful you want to keep them secret.

If kept long enough, I assumed all secrets went one of two ways: dissolved like a baby tooth in cola or burst like a swollen appendix, leaking poison into your body.  Many of them do, but others turn to scars, badges of honor on your skin.  Others yet turn into fantastical things, like an absorbed twin encased within you.  Strange, yes.  Disturbing, yes.  Still, somehow wonderful: a fellow traveler you’ve carried in your flesh.

Of this secret, I have wondered if it were a little bundle of hair and teeth, sealed up inside me, my fetus in fetu.  Or perhaps it’s more that I’m a chimera.  The only thing left of that younger me is her blood running in my veins.

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In the context of our current cultural attitudes, it sounds creepy to talk about little girls and romance, but the truth is that little girls like romance.  Not your standard, adult romance, with flowers and champagne.  Romance for little girls is often dark, scary, snatched out of the teeth of death.  Fairy tales are full of it: young girls being alternately wooed and terrorized by men they fear and/or long for. Take your pick: Beauty and the Beast, The Seven Swan Brothers, The Little Mermaid, who felt as though she walked upon knives, all for the love of a man. Pair them easily, not with the sugar-coated Disney versions, but with movies like Labyrinth, where a mysterious man offers dancing, jewels, glittering admiration, oh, but at a cost.

A pall of sexuality hangs over little girls, threatening and bizarre. You know that it does. Even if you want to look away, it’s there when you’re not looking.  I don’t believe the threatening nature of sex ever dissipates; it’s just that as little girls grow up, we acclimate ourselves to its dark nature.  We learn to avert our eyes and open our legs.

City of Lost Children

City of Lost Children

If you’re curious, I’ll add another movie to your roster of romantic films for little girls: The City of Lost Children.  I’m sure many people won’t approve of me thinking this is a children’s movie, just as people were horrified by my suggestion that Pan’s Labyrinth would be suitable for a certain kind of child. The things is, I remember how dark childhood was, how unsatisfied I was with saccharine family movies, how false they were.  I loved movies like Labyrinth, Legend, and The Dark Crystal, but often wished they were darker, more romantic.

The City of Lost Children, oddly enough, is the sort of movie I longed for at the age of ten.  Directed by Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (the twisted pair that brought you Delicatessen), it often gets described as having a convoluted plot, even an impenetrable plot.  This is only true if you try to watch the movie in an adult frame of mind, if you grasp at all the random threads and try to tie them up into some macramé whole. Use your child mind and the plot is really quite simple.

Man loses his brother.  Man meets girl.   Girl helps him.  Girl dies.   Man is heartbroken, but wait!  Girl isn’t dead.  Reunion.   Man and Girl fall in love, form a family, save his brother.

All the other stuff is stage dressing: mad scientist, clones, a brain in a fish tank, evil conjoined twins, child pickpockets, stolen dreams, Santa Claus nightmares.  Fascinating, bizarre stage dressing, but not essential to the basic plot.

Miette and One

Miette and One

If “Man and Girl fall in love” disturbs you, ask yourself, “What are little girls looking for?”  Especially little girls who are fatherless.   The girl in the movie, Miette, is an orphan, but in this day and age, even girls who aren’t orphans are fatherless.   It affects their lives in myriad ways, but most importantly in the way they choose the men they love.  When she meets a circus strongman, named One, who is often simply referred to as “the big moron,” there is an immediate connection.  He needs her help, but why does she offer it?

It’s as simple as desire.  She desires him.   She desires what he represents: strength, gentleness, a big man crying over a lost little boy.   Who has cried over her?  If he is a man-child, enormous but not terribly bright or sophisticated, she is certainly a girl-woman, old before her time and jaded.

Perfect Man

Perfect Man

What makes it so romantic is that the movie doesn’t shy from it.   It doesn’t place a paternal Hollywood distance between the two mismatched characters, but dares to show a physical intimacy between them that is both childlike and portentous of adult physicality.   It dares to show a thing you’ll hardly see between two adults in a Hollywood film–a man giving a woman a foot massage.  Hovering in the periphery are further suggestions: during a visit to a tattoo parlor (seeking a map), One gets a tattoo of a heart reading “Miette pour la vie.”  Miette forever.  The sort of tattoo a sailor gets for his sweetheart.  As One rubs her feet, she asks what he plans to do after he finds his brother.  A job, he answers.  A house.  A wife What kind of wife? she asks. There is plenty of time, he assures her, to figure that out.  Plenty of time for her to grow up into that wife.

Radiateur

Radiateur

Miette is a dark-haired girl in a red dress, and after her alleged death, One goes on a drinking binge with a dark-haired prostitute in a red dress–an adult Miette.  When the real Miette arrives, she is alive but sour with jealousy.  On the darker side, when One turns against Miette and tries to kill her (this is part of the elaborate plot, with fleas armed with a brutal potion that produces violence at the sound of an organ box grinder), the violence has the quality of a wedding night deflowering.  One doesn’t want to hurt her, but he has to, is driven to it by a force he can’t control.  Miette simply accepts it, as though she expects such a thing or deserves it.  After one particularly visceral slap across the face, she gets up, crying, and waits to receive another.  When he begins to choke her, she hardly resists.

Ultimately, of course, he will save her.  She will save him.  Together they will rescue the little brother and be a family.  That’s what little girls want.

Happy Ending

Happy Ending

(As an aside, let me note that one of my favorite actors, Ron Perlman, plays the strongman One. His French is serviceable, any deficiencies in pronunciation nicely hidden under a Russian accent. The little girl playing opposite him is Judith Vittet, 9 at the time of filming, and she’s charming, cynical, broken, and strong by turns.)

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