Stereotyping and writing questions

31 January 2004 | Comments Off

Honestly, I’ve wanted to write to you since I finished Solitaire several months ago, back in August of 2003. My only excuses for not sending in a Virtual Pint comment immediately upon finishing your novel are procrastination…and a lack of anything worthwhile and meaningful to say.

Solitaire is definitely one of my top ten favorite books of all time. You created a believable world that seemed beautiful and peaceful, despite all of Jackal’s unfortunate circumstances.

I especially liked how you didn’t revert to stereotypes when describing and introducing your characters. As a female, and a racial minority, I admire writers that can look beyond differences in race, language, and sexuality to create characters that are actually realistic. Although the protagonist was a woman, she wasn’t a pushover and she wasn’t “masculine,” as some media characterizes women that have relationships with other women. Frankly, I’m quite sick of popular media that exoticizes people who aren’t straight, white, American, and Catholic. Even Snow, who seemed to be a very sweet, reticent young woman at first, didn’t turn out to be a typical female ditz. I admit that I was surprised when I realized that Jackal and Snow were actually lovers. I thought it provided an interesting twist to the book, because the two women were very different and yet compatible.

The male characters in the book showed how large the spectrum of human personality is –” Carlos was the comforting father, Neill was the businessman with a soft side, and Scully was immediately likable…like an older brother. And I can’t forget Tiger, who was, surprisingly, my favorite character in the book. You were able to build his character in a very short amount of time, which I thought was amazing. I mean, when I started reading the book, I could tell that he actually cared about Jackal and was a nice guy with a lot of weaknesses underneath all of the smirks and perversion. But I didn’t mind that you killed him off early –” because, in many books I enjoy, my favorite character dies.

Overall, I loved Solitaire and will be looking for your next book. I’m glad you aren’t doing a sequel, though, because you provided a good closure to the story. I’m also glad that I bought the hardcover edition, because I find its cover much more appealing than the paperback edition’s. The new cover is edgy, and certainly interesting, but I prefer the abstract beauty of the first.

Anyway, I’ve noticed that a lot of writers with websites don’t like to communicate with their readers (sadly). That’s why I was pleased when I discovered the Virtual Pint Index. There are a number of questions I’ve always wanted to ask a successful, published writer…so please, forgive me for the numerous questions that follow. I am quite young and naive, though I rarely admit it.

* When did you start writing, and when did you decide it would be your career (that is, if you even did ‘decide’ to become a professional writer)?

* How does it feel being a published writer, with a book that has sold well and received outstanding reviews?

* Do you have any advice for aspiring writers (such as myself) on finding a decent literary agent and publisher…or just writing in general?

* How long did it take you to finish Solitaire, and when and how did you get the idea for it?

* Do you write daily?

Well, thanks for reading this. It means a lot to me…and I wish you luck on everything you’re working on right now.


Fasten your seat belt, because I’m going to answer all these questions….

But first, thanks for sharing your observations about the book. I particularly appreciate that you found the male characters varied and human. I’ve had some criticism that they’re weak, which perplexes me and makes me wonder if I’m revealing some wacky unconscious prejudice. That’s disturbing –” I prefer to be aware of my biases and express them with intention. But I didn’t think they were weak when I wrote them, and I still don’t. They’re just doing their best, like the rest of us. I wonder sometimes if what bothers some people is that, with the exception of Tiger, none of the men are overtly sexual, and with the exception of Neill, none of them are overtly powerful.

I’m also glad that you didn’t find the characters stereotypical or exoticized. I put conscious work into that; it’s way too easy for writers who are (even partial) members of a majority culture to forget that our assumptions about skin color, sexuality, etc. aren’t the default setting of humanity. I’ve seen so many books and stories by white writers in which all the white characters are just “people with blue eyes” while characters of color are “coffee-colored, slender African-American women” or “graceful Latino men with bedroom eyes.” Really, ick. I’ve done it myself (big ick). I’m working on improving. As a sociological aside, you know what’s really interesting? Being a white person in a group of white people and describing someone across the room by saying, “That white woman in the green dress.” People raise their eyebrows or look puzzled, and some become downright uncomfortable.

I began to learn this lesson as a human from my parents and their friends, but I didn’t begin to learn it as a writer until Samuel R. Delany taught me at Clarion. I disliked the experience, but it was worth it. Nicola also helps me pay attention to this aspect of my work, along with so many others (she’s expressed her thoughts on stereotyping in this essay).

There is nothing wrong with being naïve. It’s my experience that I learn a lot more when I cop to not knowing. I don’t understand why our culture values “knowing” over learning and teaching, but there you go, just one more thing that I don’t know (smile). Besides, knowing is the easy part: doing, now, that’s where the game gets interesting.

When did you start writing, and when did you decide it would be your career (that is, if you even did ‘decide’ to become a professional writer)?

I started writing poetry when I was about eight. A few years later I was fortunate to have teacher who was passionate about classic poetry forms, and taught me the structure, rhythms and rhymes of sonnets, haiku, cinquain, sijo, ballad… there may have even been villanelle in there, I don’t remember. She was the first person besides my parents who actively encouraged me.

And I read everything. My parents did without to buy me all the books I wanted, even trashy comic books, and I read them until they fell apart. The only book they ever withheld from me was a thriller about an incestuous, sadistic, psychotic, serial-killing family with torture and/or sex on just about every page. (I know this because I climbed a nine-foot bookshelf to pull it from its hiding place one afternoon, and was thoroughly grossed out for days afterward).

I wrote a couple of stories as a child, mostly imitations of whatever I was reading at the time. But I didn’t write prose with any serious commitment until I was in my mid-twenties. I went to Clarion at age 28, and published professionally for the first time at age 30.

I think it’s possible to be a professional writer without having, or even wanting, a writing career. To me, “professional” means a) being capable of work that professional markets will publish, and b) producing regularly, even if slowly. To me, “career” means not just that writing is my primary job, but also, and just as importantly, that I have a vision for my work, long-term goals, a definition of success that extends beyond “please god, let someone buy this story.” I was a professional when I wrote Solitaire, but writing wasn’t my career. It took me longer than I expected to decide that it should be, and to make that commitment.

How does it feel being a published writer, with a book that has sold well and received outstanding reviews?

I’m proud of all my short fiction, and of Solitaire. After more than 15 years of writing seriously, I see myself as an expert short story writer, and believe that I can become an expert novelist if I choose to do the work. Expert doesn’t mean the product is perfect, only that the results are conscious and shaped, rather than a splatter of hope, energy, desire held together by fledgling skills and a prayer, which is how I used to approach my work (and is to some extent how I approached Solitaire, at least the first few years that I worked on it). The hope, energy, desire are still there, but now the skills are driving the train. I like this way better. It’s exhilarating to sit down and know how to work. Some days are not so much fun, but I no longer have that creeping, acid fear at the back of my heart that I will never really be a writer. Working on the new novel is a little more fraught than writing stories, because I have so much more to learn about the structure and rhythms of novels; but I’m confident of my ability to learn these things consciously, to develop skill and craft so that I don’t just have to rely on talent. Talent’s not enough, nor is its baby sister, inspiration. In fact, part of the “career” choice I made is to stop caring about inspiration.

There are ways of being published that wouldn’t feel good to me at all. I won’t be specific, because some writers choose to take those paths and that’s fine –” it’s their choice, and I don’t see it as my place to be critical. I don’t think there’s “one true way” to be a published writer, but there are ways that are right for me. I think that developing one’s own definition of “career” includes making some of these decisions. I’m feeling good about my choices right now.

I’m delighted with the good reviews of Solitaire, and not nearly as gutted by the bad ones as I’d expected to be. The good review in the New York Times and the New York Times Notable Book nod are very good for the new edition and for the next phase of my career, as is the Borders Original Voices designation. The negative Publishers Weekly and Kirkus reviews probably hurt my sales, and certainly didn’t give my reputation as a novelist the glowing start I’d hoped for with booksellers and reviewers. Hardcover sales aren’t as good as I had hoped, and that could also be an obstacle for my next book if the major chains perceive that I don’t sell well. We’ll have to see how the trade paperback does.

Maybe you were just expecting me to say, “It feels great” (grin). And it does. But the reality of Solitaire is a mixed bag. That’s okay. It still feels great. There’s a big piece of my heart in the book, and all the skill I had at the time, and a huge amount of hope. Seeing it out in the world, knowing that it’s connecting with people, makes me feel like someone just plucked a cello string in my stomach, a deep, happy hum.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers (such as myself) on finding a decent literary agent and publisher…or just writing in general?

If you’ve read this far, then you know I probably do (laughing). One of the things I enjoy about the virtual pub is getting to be expansive in the way of that second or third round, when the day’s rough edges are smoothing and it’s fine to settle back in my chair and say Well, I might have a couple of ideas.

I’ve answered this question enough in other circumstances that I actually have something already written about it. I don’t know if it’s the kind of information you’re looking for, but start here. If this doesn’t do it, write me again with more specific questions and I will do my best to give you my opinion.

Please bear in mind that my opinions on writing and publishing work really well for me, but your mileage may vary.

How long did it take you to finish Solitaire, and when and how did you get the idea for it?

It took eight years, in fits and starts. Ideas came from all over the place. It was influenced by two stories I wrote at Clarion, Somewhere Down the Diamondback Road and an unpublished novella called Distance about a mother and daughter in a post-apocalyptic beach town. It was also influenced by my corporate jobs in Atlanta and Seattle, by music and television and other people’s books, by the things I liked and didn’t like about my life. I once had to throw out an entire year’s writing, somewhere around 15,000 words (if I remember correctly) because I had taken a wrong turn. That wouldn’t happen now; I have more skill. I despaired of ever finishing it, and sometimes I felt small and lazy because I wasn’t working faster, or working at all. But it’s a better book for having taken that time, and maybe if I’d rushed it I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you about all those lovely reviews. Who knows? I hope that for the new book I have enough experience to shorten the curve, that awareness and skill can substitute for just pounding away long enough to get somewhere…..

Do you write daily?

Yes, at the moment. I haven’t always, and I may not always. Some of the work is thinking, and that doesn’t always happen best in front of the computer. But I’m in a phase right now of showing up every day, putting my butt in the chair, and writing. Some days it’s just a job, and some days it’s a very great joy indeed.