Tag Archive | friendship

Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor@Grinnell

Earlier this month I attended the Writers@Grinnell afternoon roundtable with novelists Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor. Greenwell’s latest novel is Cleanness, and Taylor’s debut novel is Real Life. I first saw Greenwell last fall in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado at her reading at Praire Lights in Iowa City.

I took notes at the event, but I don’t have them with me now, so this will be from memory, and not entirely chronological. The roundtable began with Greenwell and Taylor asking each other a couple of questions. Greenwell asked Taylor how he’d decided on the compressed time frame of his novel (a long weekend), as well as the structure and the shifting tense (present vs. past) and POV (first person vs. third person). The tense and POV came naturally, almost subconsciously, and once Taylor realized what he was writing in he didn’t want to go back and change it. This line of questioning also led to musing on one’s weaknesses as a writer and writing–indeed, creating art–from one’s infirmities (I think).

Both authors’ novels seem to mirror their own lives in a lot of ways, but I was drawn to Taylor’s because its protagonist is trying to survive grad school (I think he has it a lot worse than I did). Taylor himself wrote the novel in grad school, I believe, and in the Q & A a student asked him about his interest in both science (he studied biochemistry) and writing and literature. Taylor saw lots of commonalities between these two fields or pursuits. For instance, both as a scientist and as a novelist you can spend years of your life working on something and not know whether it’ll come to anything (how reassuring).

Greenwell and Taylor both talked about not being able to watch TV shows because they’re uninterested in serial stories that just continue and never end. It’s boring when every episode ends in a cliffhanger intended to lure you back for more. Greenwell said that a story can only have a shape if it has an ending, and I suppose the serial nature of TV, and the perpetual hope of another season, makes that impossible. (I wouldn’t really know; I don’t watch TV either, though not for that reason.) He said he liked works of literature that laid out the whole plot at the beginning, so you knew the shape of the story. My interpretation was that he was much more interested in execution than plot or even storytelling (in a conventional sense).

Another student asked Greenwell how he could write so bravely and unflinchingly; this student sometimes wrote things and then was filled with the sense that they should never write about such things again. In his response, Greenwell talked about shame as an intrinsic aspect of growing up gay, or queer, in the U.S. I think he meant one should do something with that shame rather than deny it? I believe both authors concluded that writers shouldn’t let anyone else hold them back from writing what they want to express.

The most heartwarming aspect of the roundtable were their comments about their friendship, to which they returned again and again. Basically, they seem to have the ideal literary friendship. Greenwell alluded to Taylor making living in Iowa City bearable for him. It sounds as though they meet up in coffee shops almost daily. Taylor also talked about the importance of having that one friend who will instantly get your Jane Austen reference, who will know just what obscure character you mean and share your feelings about them. In fact, they ended the whole roundtable by saying, “Friendship!” in unison, with a kind of ironically sentimental intonation. But at the same time you knew at some level they really meant it.

Carmen Maria Machado at Prairie Lights

About a week and a half ago I ventured to Iowa City for the first time. One of my new colleagues at Grinnell lives there, and it seemed like a literary paradise, with readings practically every day at the evocatively named Prairie Lights bookstore. Iowa City is home to the celebrated Iowa Writers Workshop, after all, and it’s also a UNESCO City of Literature. What finally convinced me to make a trip was Carmen Maria Machado’s appearance; I was seeing lots of positive press about her new memoir, In the Dream House, so I decided to make her reading my first excursion to Prairie Lights.

I made the one-hour-and-a-bit drive and had to wander around to find parking, but it turned out to be a good thing, because walking west toward Prairie Lights, I ran right into the Iowa City Public Library. I had lots of time before the reading, so of course I went in. They had my books!

And in the lobby, there was a Literary Kiosk: a machine which, at the press of a button, prints on receipt paper a piece of writing for your enjoyment. The concept and the machine were developed in France. At this kiosk, you could choose between World Writers and Local Writers. I chose Local and received an excerpt from “The Farm at Holstein Dip,” a memoir by Caroll Engelhart.

I hastened on to Prairie Lights, which I discovered boasts three floors and a café. I bought a copy of In the Dream House, checked out the children’s and young adult books in the basement, and then climbed to the top floor where I spent a long time in the SFF section. There I experienced a moment of despair contemplating how many more wonderful books there are than I have time to read.

The top floor began to fill up for the reading. I snagged a seat in the middle of a middle row of chairs, and my colleague later joined me when she arrived. By the time the event began, the place was packed the way Skylight Books was when I saw Roxane Gay there.

A bookseller and Writers Workshop student introduced Machado, who then read excerpts from her book. In the Dream House recounts her abusive relationship with a woman she met when she herself was a student in the Iowa Writers Workshop. Each chapter corresponds to a particular genre or trope, such as Myth, Spy Thriller, Second Chances, or Choose Your Own Adventure. I finished the book last week, and it is indeed dazzlingly written. I admired many a deft bit of figurative language. I liked the reflections on how archival silence can make people feel alone, and I was touched by the gestures of care offered by Machado’s roommates John and Laura and by her uncle.

After the reading, the author Garth Greenwell joined Machado for a conversation about her memoir and how it came to be. This part was great, but the moment that had the deepest impact on me was when Greenwell asked her what the role of friendship was in her life as an artist. (I’m always up for a good conversation about friendship.) In replying, Machado mentioned that her mother used to tell her she always made such good friends. This struck me as an excellent quality–an enviable quality–to have.

A Couple of Recent Links

Sparkers and Wildings have popped up in a couple of places recently:

First, A Mighty Girl included Sparkers on the list “No Romance Required: 30 Books About Girl-Boy Friendships.” For what it’s worth, Wildings would be at home on that list too.

Second, Northwest Asian Weekly featured Wildings in a piece on books by Asian authors that encourage questioning the status quo. And as the review notes, Sparkers also falls into that category.


Spring in Los Angeles means the LA Times Festival of Books and the YA festival YALLWEST, both of which I have attended several years in a row. This year, the Festival of Books was the same weekend as the West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, which my department was hosting and which I presented at, but I still managed to get to the festival on Sunday. The highlight of my afternoon was when Gayle Forman smiled at me. I was sitting on the grass pretty far back from the YA stage, writing in my journal as the Culture & Belonging panel was wrapping up, when two women approached from behind me. I glanced up, and one of them, wearing a straw hat, glanced down and smiled at me. And I thought, That’s Gayle Forman!

A few weeks later, Isabelle and I returned to Santa Monica High School for YALLWEST. Publisher’s Weekly has a photo essay on this year’s festival, and we’re in the first picture! I’ll bet you can’t find us.

Upon arriving, we visited the Mysterious Galaxy stand, where all the authors’ books were being sold. I’d brought my copy of Spinning so I could get it signed by Tillie Walden, but at the stand I discovered two other comic books by her, I love this part and The End of Summer. After going back and forth a bit, I bought both of them. After one panel, we came back to the booth area for Tillie Walden’s signing. It was lovely to meet her, and she drew illustrations in all my books! You should check out her gorgeous, poignant work.

Next we went to a panel that Tamora Pierce was on. I read tons of Tamora Pierce when I was younger, and I met her and asked her a question once at the Edina Barnes & Noble when I was in eighth grade or so. It was funny walking around the festival and spotting famous YA authors around every corner.

We headed to the choir room for a panel entitled Singularities. The funny thing about YALLWEST is the panel titles are all a bit obscure, and the panelists don’t always know themselves how to interpret them. This was one of those panels. It was moderated by John Corey Whaley. One of the authors, Hilary Reyl, had a novel, Kids Like Us, about a Californian boy on the autism spectrum who winds up in rural France because his mother makes films. He apparently speaks French and goes to French school (like me!) and adores and quotes Proust (not like me!). Another panelist was Ally Condie. She described her middle grade novel Summerlost, and I didn’t recognize it even though I’ve read it and it’s on my Hapa Book List! It didn’t click until she started talking about how she’s from this small town in Utah that has…a Shakespeare festival! Yes, she’s from Cedar City, where we roadtripped last summer. Emily X.R. Pan was also on this panel; she’d been on the YA panel at the LA Times Festival of Books too. More on her anon.

The next panel was the one I’d been most excited for: Friendships! It was in the student art gallery. One of the authors joked early on that “we write novels because we’re not succinct and concise.” Well, that was relatable. I learned that Libba Bray’s best friend is Gayle Forman. Arvin Ahmadi said he sometimes finds himself wondering of his closest friends, What if we had never met?! I found that relatable too. There was plenty of discussion of how friendships can be as close and intense as romantic relationships and how these particular authors for the most part didn’t much like writing toxic friendships. They’d rather write wonderful ones!

Our penultimate panel was the Fantasy/History panel. Emily X.R. Pan was on this one as well, and she finally spoke about something I’d been wondering about. Her debut novel is The Astonishing Color of After, which has been on my radar for a while and which I’m interested in reading. The protagonist, Leigh, is multiracial: her father is white, and her mother is from Taiwan. In the story, after her mother’s death, Leigh goes to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents. Emily X.R. Pan is not mixed race, and so I’d wondered why she made Leigh mixed race. On the Fantasy/History panel, she addressed this, saying that while she wasn’t mixed herself, she’d grown up in mostly white communities and felt out of place among Asian(-American?) peers. She’d wanted to write a character who experienced this sense of displacement, so she made Leigh multiracial. While I appreciate the potential similarities of these experiences, I didn’t see why Pan had to make Leigh mixed race to accomplish her goal. She said that she herself had felt out of place (perhaps conflicted about her sense of belonging) as a monoracial Taiwanese-American growing up in largely white communities, so if she wanted to convey that experience, why not write about a character like her? I’m not saying authors should only write characters like themselves. I’m just saying that Pan didn’t need to make Leigh multiracial to do what she wanted, and I also think the multiracial experience is distinct.


It’s Like Being in Love, Discovering Your Best Friend

If you recognize the quotation I stole for the title of this post, you’ve probably read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. That much-hyped 2012 YA novel is the WWII story of two young British women, one a spy and one a pilot, whose mission in Nazi-occupied France goes devastatingly wrong. One of the most beautiful parts of the novel is the fast friendship between Maddie, the pilot from a working class Jewish family, and Julie, the spy from an aristocratic Scottish family. I don’t mean to denigrate the book by calling it “much-hyped”; I thought it was wonderful, and having reread it this year I can attest that it holds up.

Elizabeth Wein followed up Code Name Verity with the equally, if not more, impressive Rose Under Fire, about Rose Justice, a young American pilot and poet who winds up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and Black Dove, White Raven, about two more young pilots in 1935 Ethiopia. (Can I just say that when I realized the author of Code Name Verity was also the author of the series that included A Coalition of Lions and that combined Arthurian legend with the history of the kingdom of Aksum–a series that I read and enjoyed when I was much younger–my mind was blown?) And this year, Wein published The Pearl Thief, a mystery and prequel to Code Name Verity that stars a younger Julie in her native Scotland and features Scottish river pearls and Scottish Travellers. I loved The Pearl Thief, and when I finished it I discovered I had Thoughts.

From here on out, spoilers abound.

In The Pearl Thief, we learn that Julie is bisexual. She spends her sixteenth summer flirting with an older man for fun, but she also falls somewhat in love with Ellen, a Scottish Traveller girl. (As an aside, I loved Julie and Ellen’s friendship almost as much as I loved Julie and Maddie’s friendship.) As I said, I really liked The Pearl Thief, but after reading it I wondered if I was supposed to reinterpret the central friendship in Code Name Verity in light of Julie’s bisexuality. Out of curiosity, I went hunting around the internet to see what folks might have said about the two books in relation to each other. Some people said that in Code Name Verity it was already obvious (or at least lurking in the subtext) that Julie was queer. This was news to me, but I can be obtuse about such things. So Julie and Maddie share this marvelous friendship, but maybe Julie is also (a little) in love with Maddie? She is the one who writes, “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”

I found myself wondering if I was disappointed that Julie and Maddie’s friendship in Code Name Verity might not be “just” a friendship. I don’t think I was, exactly. I think one can interpret Code Name Verity in many ways, and different interpretations can be right. Also, I recognize that the distinctions between different kinds of love can be hazy, and that’s something that is in itself worth portraying in literature. But the reason I felt this twinge of potential disappointment was because I want there to be stories about close friendships that are “just” friendships and don’t veer towards romance, or have a romantic subtext, or involve romantic feelings on the part of at least one of the friends. I don’t even like saying “just” friendship because friendship isn’t something less than! I truly was disappointed when the friendship in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe turned into “something more” (again, why more?! Let’s say “something different”), even though I also loved that book. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about. I just want friendships that are friendships and are infinitely precious for being so!

I don’t know how Elizabeth Wein conceived of Julie and Maddie’s relationship in Code Name Verity. Whatever she thought is valid for her, and however anyone else reads it is valid for them. I also don’t think Wein wrote The Pearl Thief in order to make people look at Code Name Verity and see its central friendship differently (although I can’t pretend to know what any author’s intentions actually were). Part of the reason I wouldn’t say I was really disappointed is because the possibility of romantic feelings on Julie’s part doesn’t negate the beauty of the friendship she and Maddie share. Both can exist at once. They are friends, and I think that’s the core of their relationship. In The Pearl Thief too, Julie and Ellen are friends, whatever else they might feel for each other.

I can’t even complain too much because I myself have written stories with these sorts of ambiguous friendships (i.e. friendships that might also be romances but maybe aren’t). I do think there’s a place for them. There’s room for everything in stories! So I do like to read about ambiguous relationships, but I’d also like there to be stories where it’s clear that what two characters share is purely friendship. I tried to think of examples, and all I’ve come up with is Siobhan and Owen in E. K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen and Prairie Fire (fantastic books, by the way). Bard Siobhan and dragon slayer Owen are friends, and there is no doubt they are very close and love each other deeply. If you can offer more examples of close fictional friendships, particularly in YA (I’m sure there are some, including ones I’m just forgetting), I’d like to hear them. I’m also curious if anyone else has thoughts on this general subject.