Libba Bray's Blog

December 4, 2013

The folks over at The Book Cellar is giving away a paperback copy of "The Diviners" and a tote bag, "tote"ally awesome! You have 15 days left from today to sign yourself up for a free copy.
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Published on December 04, 2013 00:57 • 1,395 views

November 28, 2013

Libba's team had to write this song for YAll Fest 2013! Don't know how much time they had, but entertaining. Didn't seem like there was that much rehearsing.

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Published on November 28, 2013 01:19 • 279 views

November 26, 2013

Here's a recent review of Beauty Queens by Maree Anderson, She hits the nail right on the head. Succinctly put:

"It’s hard to describe the allure of this book to someone who’s not a fan of choke-on-laughter and snort-out-loud satire. And if you’re not a fan, then you should probably avoid this book: consider yourselves duly warned!"
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Published on November 26, 2013 02:21 • 190 views
You can see the excerpt and more details about it on the Locus Online website. Here's a small excerpt from that website:

"I wrote The Diviners because I wanted to write another series, something historical, but also supernatural. I’m a huge horror fan. That was my reading of choice when I was young – I read everything from horror comics to Stephen King and Shirley Jackson..."

It seems like you have to buy the magazine to read the entire interview. If you go to, you should see a link on the right side to buy the magazine or the digital version.
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Published on November 26, 2013 00:06 • 197 views

November 25, 2013

Here's an entertaining interview Libba's latest book, The Diviners! Enjoy it guys.

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Published on November 25, 2013 00:25 • 309 views
Hey, this is an unofficial fan page for Libba Bray. You can visit the official website at The goal is to keep post updates on Libba from around the internet! If you have something that you think is worth sharing about Libba, let me know.
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Published on November 25, 2013 00:16 • 223 views

July 20, 2012

I’m supposed to be working on a draft of DIVINERS BOOK #2 this morning, but I’m finding it hard to concentrate after hearing the news out of Aurora, Colorado. Last night—or early this morning, rather—a gunman walked into a midnight showing of BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, threw canisters of tear gas and in the ensuing confusion and chaos, began gunning people down. As of this morning, there are twelve reported dead and thirty wounded, with the youngest victim being only three months old.

This happened far from me. It did not happen to anyone I know personally. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel loss and sadness about it. And it is a loss, not just for those families, for that community, but for the larger world, for we are all touched by such terrible acts. We lose a sense of safety and security, yes. But we also feel small chips scraped away from our collective humanity. How could such a thing happen? What does this say about us? What is wrong with the world?

It is very hard to understand what makes someone open fire in a crowded movie theater filled with people just wanting to watch a movie, an activity that most of us consider not only safe but downright cozy. It is something we do for pleasure. It is a coming together for a common purpose, a communal enjoyment. The answer, of course, is that someone who commits such an atrocious act is not in his right mind. He is sick. Agonizingly unwell. And, hard as it is to conjure, he needs our compassion. The world needs our compassion. Not a shirking of justice, of course. But compassion? Yes.

True confession: There is violence in my soul. When some seemingly entitled asshole cuts me off in the airport kiosk line, my initial feeling isn’t, “Why, sir, I can see that you are harried and in your harried-ness, you have forgotten the rules of polite society. Please, do go first so that you may feel less anxious. Safe travels to you, good sir!” No. My inner Samuel L. Jackson boils up in full “Pulp Fiction” mode, and in my head, I am squinting daggers at the dude while shouting, “EZEKIEL 25: 17, ‘The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men!’” And then the martial arts start, because in this fantasy, I can climb walls and hang in the air for a full thirty seconds of lag time before unleashing a "Matrix"-worthy six-pack of whup-ass.

That is my feeling. That is my reaction. Part of what civilization compels us to do is to whisper to that gut reaction: “Lawyers. Jail. Body cavity search.” That’s what keeps us in line, sure. But then, there is a step further—the thing I call B.E.A.D.: The Bad-Ass Evolutionary Development. And that is not just a stifling of the impulse but the taking of a deep breath (because this is very, very hard sometimes. Okay, most of the time) allowing me to step outside of my own head, my own selfish world, and try to offer that person whatever understanding and kindness I’ve got on tap at that moment.

Empathy and compassion might just be the most bad-ass moves we’ve got.

It doesn’t mean we don’t have the “I will cut a bitch!” feelings. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel angry, annoyed, even violent. What it means is that we make a choice. We examine our responses. We try, though it is very, very, very hard, to understand that the other person has a whole world going on inside him that has nothing to do with us: A plane that if not caught will mean missing the school play. A romance on the verge of collapse. A sick child. A cup of coffee spilled on a shirt that was just dry-cleaned for naught. A hundred small paper cuts of daily living, perhaps. It takes extraordinary strength to respond in such instances instead with the most genuine smile you can muster and a kind, “You look like you’re really in a hurry. You go first.”

It is—and I am ashamed to admit this—rather like that Liberty Mutual commercial (I think it’s for insurance. Please don’t let it be for a bank.) in which witnessing one small act of kindness inspires kindness in the observer and so on and so on, a contagion of kindness. Kindness, empathy, compassion, love—these things can be learned. In fact, they have to be learned. They have to be practiced. They are, in fact, the true mark of a superhero. As my pal Jo Knowles said recently, “Make love your superpower.”

Where am I going with this? What does this have to do with a terrible shooting in Colorado?

When terrible things happen, when we feel lost in the face of such senseless violence, but we are still not powerless in the world. We have choices. We have understanding. We have love. We have empathy and compassion. We have the ability not to be lost to the undertow of violence and terror. That is the stronger arsenal. It’s a little like a moment from the last "Batman" movie in which a prisoner on a ferry, given a detonator and the choice to blow up another ferry in order to save himself and his fellow passengers, opts instead for the only sane choice: He throws the detonator overboard thereby safeguarding his humanity and the humanity of everyone on that ferry.

I suppose this is what I’m thinking about this morning as I try to clear my head enough to put words on paper, to tell a story, which is always how I try to make sense of an often senseless world and of my own chaotic, warring soul. I’m thinking about kindness. About trying to find the strength to respond to the world with as much love and understanding as we can personally muster, whatever that may be, whether that is taking an opportunity to let the possible asshole with the attitude problem go first in line or volunteering to mentor kids at a homeless shelter or offering hugs to our downhearted comrades or even when waking to news of horrific violence, choosing to go about the day with a renewed sense of love and empathy.

For today, we must be the superheroes of kindness a weary world needs.

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Published on July 20, 2012 06:45 • 1,452 views

June 15, 2012

Welcome, ladies!

I’m so glad you could come over today. Help yourself to some Triscuit-and-cheese snacks. There’s Sanka in the kitchen. Big thanks to Mary Beth for the decorations. You know, friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about all the recent legislation regarding lady parts. So much interest in the Lady Parts! My, my, my. Every time I read the news, I feel like there’s a piñata in my privates. Wheee! All of this AND I can still earn 72 cents on the dollar? Wow! Sign me up!

While I know that we are all super appreciative that there are so many legislative gynecologists out there (good to know that if we ever run out of Monistat, we can just shimmy on up to the drive-thru at Capitol Hill for a refill), I’m sensing that the lawmakers introducing these bills haven’t really thought it through. That’s why I called this little meeting today, and big ups to Sally Jo for letting us use her rec room. You rock, Sally Jo!

Ladies, I’m talking about the Transvaginal Ultrasounds. I’m talking about a woman’s right to choose…her wand.

This is AMURRRICA, dammit, and we are all about the free-market economy! We are about CHOICE—as long as that choice does not involve the womenfolk and their irrational uteruses. Then, we are all about “protection.” Put a burka on that shit, ladies. Tell your vagina it doesn’t have the right to drive. Roll over, Beethoven, and give your ovaries the news. (Tabitha, this coffee is rad! How’d you make it? With gin? Love it! Mmmm…)

Seriously, though: Ladies, put down your knitting needles, let the cake sit, stop wiping down the woodwork with a Kotex soaked in linseed oil for just a moment, and gather close for this little Coffee Klatsch Quimtastic Summit. See, our economy is in trouble—oh, as an American Lady Person with sensitive feelings, it hurts my heart to admit it. But it’s true. And we can help this great nation of ours that has yet to ratify the ERA giving us equal protection as citizens under the law! Yes, us! I know! Wipe away those tears and wave those flags of freedom. They were on sale at Wal*Mart.

This is a golden marketing opportunity just waiting to take off—like Tupperware and Mary Kay and Scientology. Today, I’d like to introduce to you LadyOptions in Personal Wanding™, a business opportunity and helpful guide to your choices in Transvaginal Ultrasound and beyond. A woman’s right to choose just took on a whole new meaning.

Let’s open up the LadyOptions in Personal Wanding brochure and take a gander,+ shall we?

1. The OB-GYN Kenobi. Tie Fighter one on and slip into the stirrups for an experience that’s Star Wars meets Handmaid’s Tale! Use the Force of this super-smooth number that fronts like a Jedi but is as smooth as a Sith Lord. When you’ve only got one shot at making your Death Star go kablooey, use the force—of the OB-GYN Kenobi” *No longer available on Alderaan.

2. The Foster Friess. The only Transvaginal Wand you’ll ever “knee-d”, the Foster Friess model comes in an attractive, patriotic red, white and blue packaged with a bottle of Bayer aspirin. *Side effects include nausea, banging your head against a wall until you pass out, throwing the remote at your TV, and the strange sense that you’re living through the 1950s.

3. The Republic of Gilead. For the dystopian crowd comes this sleek, theocratic little number that’ll have you shouting, “Mayday!”

4. At Your Cervix. Do you like screwball comedies? I like screwball comedies! They’re ever so delightful! I’m saying this very, very, very fast in a Mid-Atlantic accent that makes me adorable yet ditzy, like someone who might need the care of an older, wiser Congressman to tell me just what to do with my reproductive organs and sex life but, oh, darling, it’s-ever-so-alright because raaallly, he’s just ducky, and in the end, we’ll all be Bringing Up Baby thanks to all of those simply boffo social programs aimed at helping lower-income women and those living below the poverty line, the Forgotten {Wo}Man, who are the hardest-hit by just such draconian legislation and…hmm? What’s that, my darling? There…ARE…no more social programs? Godfrey! A martini, please! And put that olive right between my knees!

5. The Optimus Probe. Transform your forced ultrasound into a juggernaut of simulated fiery explosions! A true 3-D experience, the Optimus Probe is perfect for the woman who has ever said, “Hey, wait…a minute ago, wasn’t that big-ass robot of right-wing destruction a “Right of Privacy” clause?” * A Michael Bay production

6. The Santorum. When you want something in your uterus that will make no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, you need the strength and conviction of the Santorum. If you’re a gal who knows that contraception is “not okay,” (just like the ladies having The Sex and being prepared for The Sex is so “not okay”), trust in the Senator from PA to patrol your inner sanctum Santorum. *Offered in two sizes: small and extra-small.

Oh my gosh! This is so exciting! Veronica, could we get some more of those Xanax-N-Blankets snacks? They’re fab! Okay. So. Loved the first set of options, but ladies, there’s more! Maybe you’re feeling a little state pride—am I right? Then you’ll want to show your colors with one of these beauties:

The Texas Two-Step. While other states have flirted with the Transvaginal Ultrasound law, Texas is an early adopter! (What up, my home state!) It seems only fair that there should be a wand named after our, um, second-biggest state. (Now, Texas, size isn’t everything…) With the Texas Two-Step: "A patient must make two visits…during the first visit the doctor who is going to perform the abortion must perform the ultrasound. The doctor must display the ultrasound image to the woman. She can look away but the doctor must describe the image. If there is cardiac activity that suggests a heartbeat the doctor is required to turn up the audio so the woman can hear it."++ Lights! Sound! Slide Show! Ladies, all of this and Rick Perry, too. Of course, we know you have a choice when it comes to Transvaginal Ultrasound—haha! Just kidding—and we thank you for choosing the Texas Two-Step. *Not available for purchase with Title X funding.

The Oh-No Idaho. From the state that gave you the potato and fringe survivalist groups comes the bill that “gives {a woman} a window into her womb.” So thoughtful, Idaho! In New York real estate, we’d kill for a window into our wombs instead of, say, an airshaft where someone is cranking Slayer at 10 PM. But Idaho, I don’t think you’ve really thought this through: Will there be treatments for those windows into our wombs, because, just saying, those do not come cheap. I mean if you want quality and options—privacy lining? Eco-friendly bamboo? Top-down or tie backs?—you’re going to have to shell out the bucks. Still in development, the Oh-No Idaho looks to be an exciting new entry into the booming business of Personal Wanding™.

The Illinois: The “Ultrasound Opportunity Act” advanced by the House Agriculture Committee gives every woman the chance to know just where she registers in the national consciousness. I mean, usually, they are busy presiding over matters related to hunting and farming but they cared SO MUCH that they took time away from those concerns to look into our wombs. A moment, please. So sweet. Apparently, the farmer and the rancher can be friends—but only when it comes to rescinding women’s rights. Hooray for peace! Remember ladies: It’s not a violation; it’s an opportunity. Spin the wheel, and this frisky filly will play a variety of delightful livestock sounds or the Illinois Transvag theme song: “Old MacDonald had a bunch of old men…”

The Michigan: Sorry, we can’t even tell you about this one. Talking about (whispers) ladyparts upsets the lads on the floor. #VagiNO

Pennsylvania: Ladies, the state of brotherly love cares about you and your rights. That’s why they introduced the “Women’s Right to Know Act”. They want you to know that you have the right…to have a large plastic probe inserted up your vaginal highway. Not only that, but in PA, doctors will need to give you copies of the results to take home and pour over before making your decision. Who doesn’t love an ultrasound swag bag? Ladies, keep your eye on this one—it’s the little “Transducer Seducer” that could.

The Virginia: From the state that put transvaginal ultrasound on the map. Ladies, you know how important building codes are for women’s health clinics? I mean, when you’ve driven fifty miles to the closest clinic to find out if you might have cervical cancer or if that lump in your breast is just, please God, a cyst, you do NOT want your shui all fenged by the wrong number of janitor closets in the building. I mean, seriously, woman-to-woman, when you’re lying there in the stirrups, do you want the added anxiety of wondering whether or not the heating vents are positioned just so or there are enough parking spaces? Relax and scoot on down, because Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is ON that for you, closing down any women’s health centers that don’t meet the brand-new list of arcane building codes just invented for them or, like, have a fern near the front door or whatnot. Yes, Virginia, there IS an insanity clause—and it’s coming for your womb. Yay! (Mary Beth--another round, please?) 

The Georgia: Do you hear the banjos playing? Rep. Terry England, R. is a-pickin'! He wants ladies to know that even if their high-risk pregnancy has life-threatening consequences for them, or if the fetus they are carrying is already dead, they should buck up and deliver on schedule rather than terminate the pregnancy, you know, just like cows and pigs do. The “Women as Livestock” Law is deliciously edgy, detached from humanity, and borderline BDSM, like a David Fincher movie for your uterus—perfect for those crazy hipster gals who find compassion for women making agonizing decisions about termination, so, like, 1973. *For a limited time only, will come with a free “Ask me about my udders!” sticker.

The Arizona House Bill 2625. Oh, Arizona. Swoon! You’re so mavericky! Who else would think up something like this: “House Bill 2625…allows any employer to refuse to cover contraception that will be used ‘for contraceptive, abortifacient, abortion or sterilization purposes.’ If a woman wants the cost of her contraception covered, she has to ‘submit a claim’ to her employer providing evidence of a medical condition, such as endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome, that can be treated with birth control’…the law would give Arizona employers the green light to fire a woman upon finding out that she took birth control for the purpose of preventing pregnancy.”+++ Take all of the office supplies you can fit in your purses, ladies. Just don’t even think of taking the pill. Gives a whole new meaning to pink slip.

Oh my. Mary Beth, I think these PatrollingThePink Cocktails have made me giggly! Don’t be silly, Mary Beth—OF COURSE it’s okay to say “cocktails.” It’s lady parts we can’t talk about.

Anyhoo-hoo…Hey. Can I tell y’all something? Because you’re, like, my besties and shit, and I love you soooo much? See, I’m a lifelong romantic, and I kinda want to introduce my own bill: The Put A Ring on It Law. (Sally Jo, you dropped your aspirin! Put it back! Quick!) Basically, any senator, congressman, mayor, governor or garbage collector who wants to control my lady business has to court me first and prove he's husband material. I mean, fellas, if you’re all about old-fashioned values like Bayer aspirin between the knees and the recall of the equal pay act, then before you get near my PunanyPrecious with your Frisky Wands of Mordor, I want dinners, walks on the beach, porch swing confessions over a good old-fashioned glass of lemonade, sweet love songs about rescinding my rights to own myself and make my own decisions as guided by my conscience, my faith, and my medical provider. Also roses. Chicks dig roses. That makes everything better. Naturally, you’ll meet my parents and make your intentions clear. You’ll even ask my father’s permission. He’s dead, so it might take a while for him to get back to you. Just be patient—and keep a Bayer aspirin between…well, being a lady, I don’t like to say. This is going to keep you fellas really, really busy, I think. I mean, I'm sorry to say, but it might make it hard for you to pass further legislation what with all the making honest women of us. But clearly, it's the right thing to do. Because you care so much. We can see that now. We can see just how valuable we are. 

Oh my gosh. Look at me! I’m such a mess. I’m crying! What a sentimental sap. Can you believe I’m crying? 

No, I have no idea why, either.

+ I would’ve said goose, but that makes some folks think of “vagina” which is, like soooo not appropriate.

++ Rochelle Tafolla, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, explain, via Associated Press


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Published on June 15, 2012 08:45 • 1,675 views

May 9, 2012

I had intended to name the winner of yesterday’s free copy of SEE YOU AT HARRY’S, by Jo Knowles. I will do that tomorrow. I have something to talk about today.

Yesterday was a research day for me. I spent a few hours exploring the far-reaching effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 on the shaping of America. Then I came home to see news reports that in North Carolina, Amendment One had passed. 

And for a moment, I wondered in which time period I was living.

In researching DIVINERS, again and again, I have come up against America’s uncomfortable relationship with its national identity, a fractious, “Fight Club”esque twinned self of progress and regression that has produced some truly terrible laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens and only allowed in certain classes of immigrants. As Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts said of the Act, it was “nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination.”Okay. Thanks for riding along through the quick history lesson. Now, let's jump ahead to 1963 and Loving v. Virginia.

Mildred Jeter, an African-American woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, traveled to Washington, D.C., to marry since they couldn’t do that in their home state of Virginia where it was illegal. When they returned to Virginia years later, the police raided their home, caught them together, and charged them with a felony under the state's Racial Integrity Act of 1924. They challenged the decades-old racist law as a violation of their rights as citizens guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”What does all of this have to do with yesterday’s vote, you may ask?

History is a beast with many tentacles, and it's good to keep your eye on them. History proves that sometimes laws are bad, that they can be enacted by scared, ignorant, and/or hateful people for terrible, racist, bigoted reasons. This seems to be a pattern in our history--to take away and take away, an erosion of the rights of a group of marginalized people which then becomes an erosion of the very soul of our nation. 

In 2012, nearly a century after the Racial Integrity Act and 130 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act, we are still talking about denying American citizens--AMERICAN CITIZENS!--full rights under the law

Recently, I read a quote from activist and self-professed "gender outlaw" Kate Bornstein aimed at helping LGBTQ youth who were considering suicide (one of those many tentacles snaking out from laws which tell you you are not worthy, not equal, that you are shameful.) She said, "You can do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living...just don't be mean."

And this law isn’t simply bad or wrong or bigoted or, frankly, illegal. It’s just plain mean. Because same-sex marriage is ALREADY banned in North Carolina. But this law goes further. Here's the official language of the amendment: "A Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State."

Under that language, the amendment denies ALL civil unions and domestic partnerships, gay and straight. Legal scholars are concerned that this legislation could affect child custody cases and nullify insurance coverage for many children. It could leave victims of domestic violence unprotected.Wills and trusts could be invalidated; partners could be barred from seeing one another in hospital as they would not legally be considered "family." 

Most importantly, on a fundamental level, it makes LGBTQ citizens into a powerless faction whose rights are subject to a popular vote. Certain rights are inalienable. They are not up for a vote. If reading the various historical acts above doesn't convince you of that, then I'm not quite able to penetrate the walls of your pretty sugar castle surrounded by a moat of chocolate pudding.

So how does this continue to happen? Well, very often—well, actually about 99% of the time—God and the Bible are offered as rationale. This, to me, is a bit like using unicorn lore as a basis for legislation. Your religious beliefs are your own, but do not use them to take away the rights of others. God is not our President. He is not a Congressman from North Carolina. 

"You don't rewrite the nature of God's design based on the demands of a group of adults,” argued Tami Fitzgerald, head of the pro-amendment group Vote FOR Marriage NC.

Demands? Demands. You mean a "demand" for equality? The “demand” not to be treated like pariahs by the state? The “demand” to be allowed to love the person you love and to forge a legally recognized union with that person, to build a life, possibly raise children with that person while enjoying the same rights and privileges afforded heterosexual American citizens? Yes, these do seem like the sorts of “demands” adults would ask for. And other adults, it seems to me, would recognize the fairness of these “demands.”

I’m not sure if I believe in God or not, but as a minister’s daughter, I have been exposed to the Bible here and there. And if the Bible is to be invoked, then let me invoke First Corinthians, 1-13. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, odds are good you’ve heard this one:

"But now remains faith, hope, love, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.”

It would seem to me that this carries “God’s design” and that it is North Carolina’s 

legislators (and, sadly, 61% of its voters) who would like to “rewrite” that design.

Ironically, yesterday as I was researching hate legislation masquerading as “protective measures,” I was spending time with my good friends Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, who married in Massachusetts as soon as it was legal. They bantered and playfully bickered as married couples are wont to do. Theirs is a true marriage and it made me happy to be in their presence just as it saddens me to think that there are people who would work against their happiness. And to what end? To what purpose? In a world in which senseless, horrible acts take place every day, a world in which children go hungry, families can be blown up in market places, and a teenager can be shot and killed over a bag of Skittles—why, why, why would you legislate against love?

But why not listen to the words of Mildred Jeter Loving herself, who had this to say about same-sex marriage: “

"Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people's civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about."

I like to think that you cannot stop love. That it will burn through hate given time and the perseverance of those who will fight for justice, of those whose love—righteous, hopeful, “the greatest of these”—will not be denied by the bigoted, wrong-headed ideas of the fearful and ignorant whose same fears and ignorance can be manipulated by those who stand to gain from such manipulation.

This morning, I made a contribution to the Human Rights Campaign. It can’t erase yesterday’s terribly disappointing vote, but it’s a step toward fairness. It’s an act of faith and hope on the path toward equality and love for all.

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Published on May 09, 2012 12:14 • 621 views

May 8, 2012

If life were a teen movie, Jo Knowles would be the kind, smart, somewhat shy girl in the back row who offers the new kid half of her sandwich at lunch, then stands up to the bullies who try to take his hat. (She’d get that hat back without ever throwing a punch.) Then later, she’d bust out a poem in English class that had everybody going, “Whoa.”

In her career, Jo has faced down book banners and fought for intellectual freedom. She’s also been writing beautiful, quietly powerful books, which are testaments to humanity in all its flawed, impossible, hopeful glory. In case you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of hers, and not just because she makes a mean chocolate chip scone. 

Jo’s new book, SEE YOU AT HARRY’S, comes out today.

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it, “pitch-perfect…Prescient writing, fully developed characters and completely, tragically believable situations elevate this sad, gripping tale to a must-read level.” Word, Kirkus Reviews, word. You can also enter to win a free copy of SEE YOU AT HARRY’S simply by leaving a comment in the comments section. Winners will be selected by random number generator. Think of it like the claw game in Toy Story.

I sat down with Jo to talk about her new novel, her writing process, censorship, and compulsive hair touching. These were her answers.

(*Note: Sorry for the formatting issues. It has taken me 1 1/2 hours to try to format this %*&* thing. LiveJournal sucks. Also, I am the least tech savvy person on the planet. Please do not leave me irritated comments about the crappy formatting. Those comments will NOT be chosen by the Loving Claw of Possible Book Winning. You have been warned.*)  

LB: This book should come with a warning about the tear-shedding quotient. I mean, seriously—I went through a lot of tissues, Jo. There was a small snot-rag mountain by my bed. Why do you like to make us sad? Why? And what do you think your punishment should be for this?

JK: I do not like to make you sad! I promise!!!

You know, I set out to write a humorous novel about growing up in the restaurant business, per request by your husband/my agent. I really did. I thought, This is going to be a tribute to my brother. I’m going to incorporate a bunch of funny stories from our childhood, and then I’m going to reinvent the past and give us a happy ending. Well I guess you know that didn’t happen. While I had no trouble moving the story away from our literal truth, I couldn’t steer it away from our emotional one: loss. That is not the book I wanted to write. But it turned out to be the one I had to.  It was the most painful thing I’ve ever written, and also the most cathartic.

As for punishment: Make me buy stock in Kleenex?

LB: I really love the familial relationships in the book. There’s snark and in-fighting as well as a surprising amount of love and support, and all of it feels unique to this family yet universal. Did you draw from your own sibling relationships in any way?

JK: Oh yes. There was a lot of snark and infighting in our household. But there was also so much love. It took me a very long time to realize just how much love there was. I was the youngest of three. My brother was 5 years older than me, my sister 3. My sister and brother fought like maniacs. And my sister and I had our moments too--I still have a scar from our worst battle. But we also loved each other just as fiercely. We stood up for each other. I think we had that sense that it was OK for us to throw insults at each other, but damned if anyone else did.

LB: You are a very compassionate author. (Not surprising as you’re one of the most compassionate people I know. Lucky me. J ) I once heard George Saunders, my personal writing deity, defending heart in novels. (I think he was answering a jab about being sentimental.) In our post-modern-with-a-side-of-ironic-foam world, do you think there is a place for books that proudly wear their hearts on their sleeves? How do you find the heart of your novels? And what, for you, makes a story stay with you?

JK: First, thank you. <3 Second, I love your way with words. “Post-modern-ironic-foam world!” *dies* Ummmm YES! There is a place for books with hearts up and down their sleeves, spines, jacket flaps. We NEED books with heart. We need more compassion in the world. My God. When a book like the Hunger Games can feel a little too possible, you just know it’s time to get back to Charlotte’s Web and find some Humble. To remember what friendship is. And love. To remember what it’s like to cheer for Fern and that helpless runt Wilbur. The more books we read, the more compassionate we become. The more thoughtful. The more introspective. The more, well, aware of each other and each others’ feelings. 

I think since I am a fairly open person who does where her heart on her sleeve, the heart in my books just tends to be there. It’s not something I’m conscious of trying to expose. I have a feeling that makes no sense. So… I’m not sure how to answer?

Books that stay with me are ones that feel real. That I believe in. Books that don’t try to be beautiful or pretty, but whose beauty and humanity comes through in the honesty of the telling. Marcus Zusak is a master at this.

LB: The emotionally tone-deaf dad embarrasses his children mightily in HARRY’S. The scene in which they have to make the TV commercial is cringe-worthy. What embarrasses you? What embarrassing family or teen stories do you have? C’mon, Jo. Open up. Humiliate yourself. It’s only the Internet.

JK: My list of embarrassing moments is kind of endless. When I was in high school, some of my friends even had a phrase for times when they did something embarrassing that reflected back on me because I was apparently the queen of it all. So, for example, if they spilled chocolate pudding down their shirt, or tripped in front of a cute senior, they would say, “Oops, I just did a Jo.” I’m not lying. Here are a few examples of how this came to be: My dad once ran over my foot with his car. In gym, I was trying to pull off one of those ridiculous mesh things that shows which team you’re on and by mistake I pulled my shirt off too, revealing that I still wore an undershirt and not a bra. It even had a little bow at the chest. During a basketball game, the elastic on my underwear broke and my undies were slipping off under my shorts. Jeez Lib. Must I go on? Thanks for bringing up all of these suppressed moments of horror. *waves to Internet*

LB: You’re not only a writer but you’ve also been a teacher. You’ve taught teens, adults, and you’ve taught at a women’s prison. What do you find rewarding about teaching? How does it inform your writing? Any advice for those of us in the trenches?

JK: This is going to come out sounding a little chest-puffy, but I love being able to give students the freedom to simply write. Here’s an example: I can give a writing prompt to a group of students and say, “You have 7 minutes. Go!” And they all just start writing! And then when they share their work, I’m just blown away! Everyone comes up with completely different pieces. There is a room full of stories that didn’t exist 7 minutes earlier. Talk about rewarding. Even more rewarding is when someone is so inspired by what they wrote from a prompt I gave that they create a whole novel or picture book out of it. That’s just the best. And it reminds me to try these techniques, too. I tend to forget that it’s important to have FUN with writing and not just focus on whatever novel I’m struggling with. Writing exercises can remind us jaded writers that writing is actually enjoyable! Sometimes, I think we forget that.

My advice: When someone gives you a writing prompt, don’t poo-poo it. Try it!

LB: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of being a writer? The most rewarding?

JK: I sweat the stuff I can’t really control, even though I know there’s nothing I can do about it. Like reviews and publisher support or publicity stuff. I think there’s so much easy-access to book chatter, authors can get bogged down in career comparisons and stuff they really shouldn’t be worrying about. The most rewarding aspect has to be hearing from readers, especially reluctant ones. The first time a teen told me my book was the first novel she’d ever finished I cried. As a reluctant reader myself, knowing that I helped a person reach that kind of milestone feels pretty darn great. The other one that always gets me is when a teen tells me he or she feels less alone after reading one of my books. That’s really what it’s all about. Connecting.

LB: I know you’ve taken up the guitar recently. I’m not going to ask you to bust your best Angus Young moves—though I’m sure you could work that school boy outfit just fine. But I do want to ask you what would be playing on the jukebox at Harry’s Restaurant? Did you have a playlist for the book? 

JK: What? You aren’t going to let me play my rendition of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”? *cries* Oh wait. That’s Neil Young. Never mind.

I’m going to sound like an old fogey but there would be a lot of Grateful Dead, UB40, and Bob Marley. When I was in high school I worked at this little health food restaurant called “For Every Season and this is the music that was always playing in the background, so these are the songs that came to me as I was imagining Fern’s family and what their background music would be. In truth, I listen to Vermont Public Radio all day. I work at home alone and it makes me feel less lonely to hear people talking in the background. Please don’t judge.

LB: Let’s talk about book banning. I think we’re both in agreement that it’s a bad idea. You’ve been banned a few times and had to face down those who think Farenheit 451 is a how-to manual rather than a cautionary tale. What do you say to those who want to ban books, especially books for young readers? What do you think we can do to fight back?

JK: Oh gosh. Book banning. It’s so crazy! WHY, people? WHY????  PLEASE STOP IT. I think a lot of people are terrified. They want to protect their kids and they unwisely think that keeping their kids from reading books that expose them to the real world will help do that. Actually, I think it does the opposite. As I always say, books shed light on the darkness, they don’t perpetuate it. Censorship does that. The more we write books that reflect reality, the more conversations we start, the more light we shed, the more we make that reality better. If anything, so-called “dark books” are preventative. When one kids says, “I feel less alone now,” and maybe even gets the courage to finally tell someone what’s going on in his or her life, and asks for help, we’ve done the right thing. That’s how we fight back.

LB: You also have written a fair number of LGBTQ characters. In SEE YOU AT HARRY’S, Holden, Fern’s 14-year-old brother, is gay and faces bullying. Can you tell us about the importance of writing LGBTQ characters? What are some of your favorite LGBTQ-friendly books?

JK: Well, my brother was gay, and so was one of my best friends growing up. I really wish they’d had books with gay characters in them when we were kids. I think they would have felt less alone, too. Less “different.” I like to depict gay kids being kids. Getting by just like everyone else. But I also have to be realistic. It’s not easy being gay. And that sucks. There are a lot of gay kids in the world and a lot of them feel pretty scared and isolated. One way for them to feel a little less so is in a book.  My favorite LGBTQ books are by David Levithan. I love his honesty, and hope.

LB: I am not going to give any spoilers, but something truly terrible and unexpected takes place in the book and shatters the family, making a sharp line between “before” and “after.” There is a great deal of shame and guilt along with the guilt. I was reminded a little bit of Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe, which also deals with issues of guilt, blame, rebuilding, and, ultimately, redemption. I think many of us, especially in our teen years, have experienced overwhelming shame/guilt at times, and it can cripple. Have you ever experienced something that divided your world into a before and after, something that crippled you emotionally, if that’s not too simplistic? How did you cope?

JK: There have been two big moments in my life where I felt these things. The first was when I was in high school and a classmate committed suicide. I felt, and still feel, tremendous guilt about his death. Why didn’t we know he was hurting? What stupid thing might I have said in those dark teen years that might have confirmed his own dark thoughts? I don’t know. I will never know. It still eats me up.

The second is when my brother died. We didn’t really know how truly sick he was. He was living in Chicago at the time and when he went into the hospital, we thought he had pneumonia, and would get well. But he had AIDS. And he didn’t. When his doctor called to tell us we should get out there, my mom and I got on the first available plane, but we were too late. He died while we were in flight. I will never forgive myself for not pushing harder to find out just how ill he really was. There are so many “what if’s” with death. So many should haves and could haves and if only’s. I still haven’t learned to cope effectively. But I cling to our final conversations on the phone. The “You know I love you, right?” sort of things we said to each other. That’s all I have.

LB: Was there a book or books that defined you as a teenager? A book that saved you or made you feel less alone? Which characters spoke to you?

JK: Robert Cormier’s THE CHOCOLATE WAR, for sure. And John Knowles’s A SEPARATE PEACE. And of course J.D. Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE. I cringe that those are all by men. But those were the ones that got me. They were so much about facing the ugly, the gritty truth, you know? About what people are capable of, and finding a way to say no to it all. Each of the main characters in those books were so utterly misunderstood, and that’s how I felt a lot of the time, too. But when I read those books, I felt less so for the first time.

LB: Have you ever wanted to touch my hair? Be honest.

JK: Yes. Yes I have. *reaches*

LB: The lovely and delightful Nova Ren Suma wanted me to ask you which of your books was the easiest to write? Which was the hardest? (She also wanted to know if you know just how awesome and amazing you are.)

JK: Oh, Nova Ren Suma! When will we meet? YOU are amazing.

As far as easy and hard, none have been easy. But certainly SEE YOU AT HARRY’S was the most emotional. I re-opened a lot of wounds with this one. But I also found myself remembering a lot of great times with my family, too. Writing this book turned out to be a truly necessary step in understanding and learning to live with my own grief.

LB: Fern feels unnoticed and lost in the shuffle. She doesn’t have superpowers. She’s not particularly snarky or beautiful or crazy talented. She’s a very decent, searching person. Her bravery is of the hard-won, quiet sort. You do such a nice job of giving voice to characters who ride along just under the radar quietly trying to make sense of themselves and the world. What is it about these extraordinarily ordinary characters that draws you to them? Were you such a child/teen? And what would you want to say to teens who might feel the same way?

JK: This is one of the nicest things anyone has said about my work. Thank you! Fern has a lot of the qualities I had as a kid: Quiet. Trying to be good. Feeling invisible. Noticing too much about my world for my own good and getting a little depressed by it. I think I was never as “good” as Fern but I wanted to be. I wanted to be the hero who stood up for her brother. Who didn’t put up with unkind people. I was far less brave. I guess she’s my ideal me.

I would say to teens who feel the same: You have the ability to make your world less dark. It’s actually not so hard. Start by being a good friend to someone who needs it and go from there. It doesn’t take much to spread some light. Make kindness your superpower.

LB: One of the things I marvel at in your writing is how spare it is—it’s so restrained, yet so much is said in the unsaid. It’s quite beautiful. Reading PEARL and SEE YOU AT HARRY’S reminds me of an Andrew Wyeth exhibit I saw once; there is a cumulative power in those spare images, the clean lines. That you’re both New Englanders seems interesting to me. Do you think that’s a New England thing? A Jo Knowles thing? How do you approach writing? Do you do a lot of revision/editing to skim the fat?

JK: That is a really interesting question. You know, the word “spare” has been used a lot in reviews of my work and I’ve always thought it was a nice way of saying “simple.” But we’ve talked about this, and you, Robin and Holly have all assured me that’s not what it means. I’m grateful for  that! Honestly I just write what I see and feel as I imagine each scene playing out. My style isn’t intentional. It’s just me.

LB: Where and when are you at your happiest?

JK: 1. Reading to my son as we sit on the deck at our house on a perfect summer day.

2. Spending an evening with my family, making dinner together and then snuggling in to watch a movie. I know it sounds boring, but I love those together times.

3. Searching for sea glass with my extended family during our vacations in Maine, laughing and basking in the sea air.

4. Writing across the room from you, dear Libba. J

LB: What is your #1 pet peeve?

JK: Hypocrisy.

LB: Is there a book you’re dying to write? A medium you’d love to try?

JK: I’ve been toying with a project for many years (had the initial idea 8 years ago), and I’ve finally started to work on it a bit. There are ten points of view, so it’s very challenging. But I’m having a lot of fun.

LB: You are willing to take on tough issues, and you do it with nuance, respect, and refreshing honesty. JUMPING OFF SWINGS deals with teen pregnancy and with female sexuality. LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL explores the murky boundaries of power and dominance within friendships, the slippery slope into abuse. PEARL deals with sexual identity, family secrets, and the lasting impact of self-loathing. HARRY’S also explores sexual identity as well as familial negligence and forgiveness.

What drives you to write about these difficult issues? (Full disclosure: If somebody asked me that question, I would want to drive my head through a window. Please don’t drive your head through a window, though, Jo. It’s such a nice head. And smart.)

JK: *pulls glass shards out of head* Be right back. I need a band-aid…

…Hi! I don’t know how to answer this, to tell the truth. I don’t really set out to write about an issue, necessarily. I just get these story ideas in my head and start writing. Well, back up. That’s not totally true. I think I get a character with a problem in my head and can’t get her/him back out. I think a lot about the character’s plight, and how he or she got into the situation, and how he or she will get out. I tend to explore what could have made a person do something, or say something, or be a certain way. The more questions I have, the more curious I get. For me, writing is the process of learning more about a character and helping him or her find a way through. 

LB: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

JK: Lost.

LB: What’s next for you?

JK: I’ve written a companion novel to JUMPING OFF SWINGS, which is in the “final” stages of revision. It’s currently called LIVING WITH JACKIE CHAN, but I don’t know if it’ll keep that title. It follows the character of Josh his senior year, when he goes to live with his uncle. Of all the characters in JUMPING OFF SWINGS, readers most often ask what happened to Josh. I decided I wanted to know, too.

It has been really great talking with you, Libba! Thanks for the thoughtful questions and for making me think about all this stuff. It’s been fun! Can I touch your hair now? 

Yes. Yes, you can, Jo. *waits for Jo's magical touch*

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Published on May 08, 2012 06:04 • 380 views