My fall break happily coincided with the St. Paul stop on Malinda Lo’s book tour for her just-released YA novel, A Scatter of Light. (It’s set in 2013–does that make it contemporary or historical? :P) When I learned she was coming to Red Balloon Bookshop (where I had my release parties) and would be in conversation with her editor, Andrew Karre, I reserved my spot, well, on the spot. I’ve read nearly all of Lo’s books (which encompass fantasy and science fiction, contemporary and historical), and Karre is the editor of several other authors whose books I love, including Kristin Cashore and E.K. Johnston. Plus, he’s a Minnesotan!
The event took place on a brisk Sunday afternoon. I arrived a little early to pick up my preordered copy of A Scatter of Light, which Lo had already signed. Then Lo and Karre took the stage and launched into a discussion of how much art (and information about art) Lo had consumed in order to write her books. The protagonist of her earlier novel A Line in the Dark, which I’ve also read, is a comic book artist, and the heroine’s grandmother in A Scatter of Light is an artist and photographer. The main character also develops (oh, no, a pun) an interest in photography while she spends the summer with her grandmother in Marin County. Lo talked about how her research into art (for the grandmother character) led her to abstract expressionism, which she liked, and contemporary abstract art, and this special type of camera with two lenses that facilitates taking double exposures, and at one point she remarked that this was getting very esoteric, but I don’t think anyone minded.
Fairly early on, Karre made the comment that non-writers are frequently horrified to learn what an inefficient process writing a book is, and a lot of us laughed, possibly in partial commiseration. As Lo told us, she began working on A Scatter of Light in 2013. She wrote a great post about this book’s journey to publication that makes it clear it wasn’t just because writing books is an inefficient process that A Scatter of Light didn’t hit shelves for nearly a decade (basically, it was because the publishing industry wasn’t ready for such a book yet). But it was still sort of comforting to me as someone who is now revising a book whose genesis dates back to over a decade ago now! I’ve been working on it since before I wrote Wildings.
Lo joked that we should ask Karre all our hard questions about things like themes in her books because he had those answers. There was a funny moment where he was describing how the layout of the lesbian bar in Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Lo’s previous novel) mirrored the main character Lily’s experience: you first enter through this narrow passage, and then the space opens up to something much wider. Lo exclaimed that she’d never thought of that before, and Karre applauded her subconscious.
After Lo and Karre talked back and forth for a while, it was time for audience questions. The first was from an English teacher sitting in the front row who wanted to hear more about themes because she asks her students to talk about the themes the authors had woven into the texts they read all the time. Something in the way she asked her question made me think, Oh, no! because there was an implication that students had to look for the meaning that the author had put into the work, and this was a stumbling block for me in English class. My junior year of high school, I somehow reached the epiphany (possibly thanks to my teacher!) that it didn’t matter what the author had intended; the reader could discern meaning in the text, and this meaning was real whether the author meant to put it there or not (assuming the reader could point to some textual evidence). All of a sudden, literary analysis made sense to me and actually seemed potentially interesting, worthwhile, and exciting (I still never wanted to be an English major). Anyway, coming back to the book event, both Lo and Karre gave excellent answers with which I agreed wholeheartedly. Lo said she never thought about themes or what lessons she wanted the reader to get from her books when she wrote them, though she allowed that some writers might consider these things. I think she also said that what the author intended or meant didn’t matter once the book was out in the world. Karre said he believed that authors crafted “pattern-rich spaces” within which readers created their own meaning based in part on their own experiences. I thought this made a lot of sense. I think it was Lo who said that what her perspective as an author was didn’t mean that English teachers couldn’t ask their students to talk about what they thought a text meant or was doing.
The next questions were from Shannon Gibney, a Twin Cities author I was pretty sure I’d spotted in the audience at the beginning of the event. She was curious about Lo’s approach to genre, given how many she’s written in, and also about what it meant that A Scatter of Light was called a companion to Last Night at the Telegraph Club. With respect to genre, Lo said that once she determines the genre of the book she’s writing, she does think about the conventions of that genre and what readers’ expectations of that genre are, just so that she can adhere to or subvert these conventions and expectations in a conscious way. Essentially, she does practice genre awareness for a given project.
Lo and Karre both said that the companion designation was a publishing term or a marketing strategy. I interpreted this to mean that labeling A Scatter of Light a companion to Last Night at the Telegraph Club was meant to capitalize on the success of the latter–fans of Telegraph Club will be on the lookout for more of what they loved, including familiar characters! We’re told that in A Scatter of Light we’ll find out stuff about Lily and Kath 60 years later. Plus the books do have other elements in common: first love, queer coming-of-age, etc. Karre added (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) that adolescents’ tumultuous lives don’t realistically lend themselves to pat endings and he doesn’t like it when YA novels tie things up too neatly, but at that same time, readers kind of want to know what happened to the characters! So if you can give a glimpse of how someone’s story turned out in another book, that can be a very nice touch. Lo made reference to Madeleine L’Engle’s novels, which she grew up reading and which feature a large cast of characters who walk in and out of one another’s stories.
Another audience member said she’d loved Lo’s first novel, Ash, as a teen and loved her more recent books too and was curious how Lo felt her writing had changed over time (I think?). Lo talked about genre again and how as she switched from fantasy to conteporary sci-fi/thrillers, she had to adjust her prose style. Similarly, switching from a third person to a first person POV necessitated adjustments too (e.g. inhabiting the character’s voice). But she still thinks all her books have something in common because they were written by her.
What I believe was the last question was more of a comment: someone shared their theory that Aunt Judy from Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Lily’s aunt and a computer at the Jet Propulsion Lab, was gay too. Lo and Karre were both struck by this; it didn’t seem to have occurred to either of them before, but they were game. Also, somehow the topic of grandmothers came up again (and I might be misplacing this in the chronology). Lo said that her grandmother (not sure which one) was amazing and had written a book (I think) about the family’s experience during the Cultural Revolution and had gone on PBS, something Lo herself has not achieved. She said she thought her grandmother would have been flattered to be compared to Aunt Judy (and maybe another character?) but that after thinking about it for a while she’d have said she wasn’t anything like her.
After the Q & A, we could get our books personalized; I’d brought my copy of Last Night at the Telegraph Club for Lo to sign in addition to my newly acquired copy of A Scatter of Light. I told her I was looking forward to reading about a mixed Chinese American protagonist in this newest book because I didn’t encounter a lot of them. She said she didn’t either! As soon as I finish reading it, I’ll add it to my (non-comprehensive) list of books with mixed Asian main characters.