Interview with Sarah Rees Brennan

UntoldPlease welcome Sarah Rees Brennan to Rich in Color! Untold, the second book in the Lynburn Legacy series, is out today, and we are excited to have Sarah on our blog to talk about diversity in young adult literature. Sarah has also provided us with a ton of great resources on diversity that you should check out.

Why is diversity in young adult fiction important to you?

Caring about diversity seems to me like the absolute bare minimum standard of decency.

I remember when I was still in school, I went to a gathering of people in my city, an informal fantasy nerds book group. So, we were all talking about books, and the subject of this one book series with a gay romance in it arose, and I began to tear it to pieces: I thought it was terribly written, I had to let everybody know how just so, so bad it was. And a girl who I hadn’t met before that day looked me dead in the eyes and said: “Those books saved my life.”

I sat there and stared at her, until I found my voice and said: “Wow, I’m so sorry, I was being an asshole.” She was very nice about it: she went “Eh, yeah” and then I asked her for some book recommendations and she asked me for some.

I was describing Unspoken to another writer, and I won’t say who they were but they are New York Times bestselling, and she reacted to the diverse elements of it saying “I wouldn’t do that: you can’t afford to do that with the sales of your last series, you can do those things after you’re successful” and I couldn’t help but remember that girl saying “Those books saved my life” and feel sick that anyone would ever say that. So I wrote the book the way I planned. I’m not saying I did a good job, or even a sufficient job, and it’s no excuse for the things I got wrong, but I did always remember that even doing what I’d thought was a lousy job, those books helped people by having representation. There’s no excuse for not trying.

I’m worried this story makes me sound self-congratulatory or big-headed: I don’t mean it that way. Nobody should ever be congratulated for having basic empathy. It’s normal to want to throw up if someone says something terrible to you. Other authors do a much better job of writing diversely than me–still more other authors, who don’t get the chance to be published because of institutional prejudice, would do a much better job than me. I’m just using the story to illustrate why I think diversity should be important to everyone. I just want to write good stories–and that means stories that are inclusive–and try not to be an irredeemable jerk. (Sometimes I fail at both those things.)

YA readers deserve it, too. The readers of YA tend, pretty naturally, to be younger than the readers of other genres. (Though older YA readers are v. welcome too!) It’s because of younger people who are actively engaged with social justice and working toward social change that the general attitude toward gay marriage has been altered. The 18-29 age bracket (in which I am myself, just ;)) is 81% in favour of gay marriage, and in response all the other age brackets have become increasingly in favour too.

It doesn’t mean that the fight for gay rights is over, or even a tenth of the way there, but it does show the effect of people talking of, fighting toward and believing in change.

Those same people are reading YA, and talking about its lacks, and doing so with energy, knowing that they matter and their opinions matter, and that they can be world-changing. Readers change how you write: readers asked me why the hero of my first book was a boy, and that and other reader responses made me sure that when I wrote a trilogy centred on one character, I wanted to centre it on a girl of colour. Books for these readers have been getting better, and should be getting better still.

Both Mel from Team Human and Kami from the Lynburn Legacy series are amateur sleuths. What do you like about mysteries and the ladies who solve them?

What don’t I like about mysteries and the ladies who solve them! I’ve loved mysteries (loved–I liked them before, but this is how love came to me) ever since I read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and went ‘Oh the NARRATOR is UNRELIABLE!’ I won’t spoil you all for it, but it encouraged me to think of almost every story as a mystery, whether you’re solving a specific crime, setting up as an investigator, finding out your own feelings or about someone else’s.

So I’m always writing mysteries. The narrators of the Lexicon series were trying to solve mysteries, too: mainly the mystery of Which Other Character Was Lying This Time.

I never really thought about Mel and Kami as doing anything alike until other people pointed it out! They’re so different. Mel investigates a mystery, and her primary focus is helping a friend. Kami investigates a mystery and her primary focus is intellectual curiosity and a love of adventure. Both of them care about justice, but I think Kami really would grow up to be a reporter, as she wants. I think Mel would do well as a police officer, because her real drives are to protect the community she cares about, to rally around, and Kami’s are to go questing.

Giving someone a problem to solve, a course of action to choose to take, is a way to make sure they have agency. So I’m into lady sleuths.

Which books would you recommend for someone new to gothic novels and/or mysteries?

I actually did a series of parodies of Gothic novels on my blog, which catalogue some of my favourite Gothic novels from my year of reading Gothics. One of my very favourites is the Woman In White. I also have a deep love for Barbara Michaels. Diverse representation is thin on the ground in Gothics, but there is a biracial heroine in Merlin’s Keep by Madeleine Brent (who was secretly a dude).

My Own Worst Frenemy by Kimberly Reid is a fun mystery, like a more-diverse book Veronica Mars. Megan Abbott writes amazing noir mysteries with a feminist twist. And for those who fancy historical mysteries, I recommend Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January Mysteries, centred on the 1800s black community in New Orleans, and Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey series, which has a gay protagonist.

What kind of research did you do to create the world of the Lynburn Legacy trilogy?

The first thing I did was read a whole bookcase worth of Gothic novels. Many of them were out of print and I had to buy them used: many of them were coco bananas. The one about the cat possessed by the Devil who steals letters is a standout.

I went to England, to the Cotswolds: my aunt lives there and I always thought it seemed idyllic and thus a perfect place for murders. I went around visiting towns with manors and feudal traditions attached. Gothic novels have so much about class in them: the big manor, like the Tall Dark Stranger, is both a threat and a promise, terrifying but attractive in its power. It was interesting to see what remained, to think about what if that power was literalised–and how they’d react to someone with more power than them.

My heroine’s never been to Japan but is of Japanese descent: I went to Japan and the people who worked in the embassy there were shining wonders to me. Lots of people showed me around, told me mythology stories. My Japanese editor for the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy talked to me about her sister’s marriage to a white American guy, and her children’s experience living there, and we discussed how you can be taught a language when really young (in her nieces’ and nephews’ case Japanese, in my case Irish) and still be so far from fluent, and common linguistic mistakes you make and mistaken ideas you have, when you feel at a remove from a culture. (Obviously, being Irish and Japanese are very different things–I have white privilege–but it was interesting to talk about the commonalities and differences.) The lady whose ryokan (a traditional Japanse inn) I stayed in in Kyoto told me a lot about religion, history, different attitudes to certain things, mythology again. I wasn’t sitting there with a notebook demanding information–a lot of what people shared with me I only realised I wanted to put in a book later–but it was an invaluable experience.

And one thing to remember is that research is never over–you should do it during writing and during editing. Sarah Jae-Jones, who works at St Martin’s Press and is generally amazing, read the book and gave me feedback on how she thought Kami would feel about her looks, and I went did more reading and adjusted. Delia Sherman gave me notes about physicality and sexuality–went, did more reading, adjusted!

You seem to enjoy playing with and subverting tropes (bad boys in The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, the meddling best friend in Team Human, and mind reading/soulmates in Unspoken). What tropes do you want to explore in the future?

Oh, I’d like to do bad girls. A full-bore, does-bad-things, doesn’t-care-if-you-don’t-like-her bad girl as a heroine instead of an antagonist (say, Catwoman).

I’d like to explore mental illness. I was diagnosed this year and it’s been a very rough year, and it’s got me thinking more on the subject. In SFF, characters undergo huge traumas, and yet walk away unscathed when you’d think at least a few more of them would have, and exhibit clear signs of, PTSD. What if, for instance, someone with anxiety already had SFF-type trauma happen to them? Cat in Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life and The Pinhoe Egg is written as autistic, though not diagnosed–I don’t think they have diagnoses in his fantasyland. Michael, an important secondary character in Michelle Sagara’s Silence, is explicitly autistic. But there are too few, and the message there is troubling–real heroes wouldn’t suffer from PTSD?

I’m currently finishing a book called Tell The Wind and Fire which is inspired by A Tale of Two Cities, so that was fun: going through it and saying ‘what-if’ at every turn and at every trope, plus adding magic.

Unspoken ended by ripping out your readers’ hearts. How dead will your readers be after they finish reading Untold?

‘Thank you!’ is now my automatic response to people telling me I’ve ripped out their hearts. That probably says some worrying things about me. I have actually reached a point where I’m confused by people telling me they enjoyed the book. ‘Mwhaahaha, your tears are delicious!’ I say. Then: ‘Wait, what?’

I tried to top the ending to Unspoken with Untold, but it’s also a very different ending, so it may hit some people much less hard and some people harder. I admit, my editor actually made me soften the ending to Untold. ‘You’ve gone too far this time, Rees Brennan!’ seemed to be her stance on the matter. I just got carried away I suppose. So if my readers feel dead after finishing reading Untold… they have the comfort of knowing it could have been worse.

… It may not be very much of a comfort.

You’ve collaborated with both Justine Larbalestier (Team Human) and Cassandra Clare (The Bane Chronicles). What did you enjoy most about collaborating? What were some of the challenges you faced?

They’re both really talented writers and I felt lucky they wanted to work with me. Usually, as I live in Ireland, I was in a different time zone, which made things difficult sometimes! It’s always magical to have someone to help you out with the writing itself, or have new fresh thoughts about the direction, and they both provided so much expertise. Team Human’s my first book set in America, and Justine has lived there a lot longer than I ever have. Cassandra created the characters I get to play with in the Bane Chronicles: which meant one challenge was that I worried about letting down her fans who love Magnus Bane. There were clashes of course, but they enhanced everything they touched.

What advice do you have for writers who want to include diverse characters in their books?

I am not the best person to ask here, as I do not have primary experience and do not want to present myself as an authority. I wanted to use this opportunity to signalboost what other smarter people, far more qualified than me to talk on this subject, have said: some of them writers, and some not, and some discussion of specific media by fans which I think also make larger points.

A Few Tips and Resources for Writing PoC Characters – there’s a lot of great advice given in this post, and also a collection of amazing links.

How to Write About Black Women – lists some of the many mistakes that people make writing about black women

Write from the Gut, Not from Fear of Prejudice – quote: ‘This is what I think you should say when people tell you it’s harder to publish a book with non-”mainstream” themes or characters: SO WHAT.’

Avoiding LGBTQ Stereotypes in YA Fiction, Part 1 – more Malinda Lo, this a wonderful geared-toward-YA guide on writing LGBTQ characters.

Transracial Writing for the Sincere – by the brilliant Nisi Shawl, whose books I highly recommend getting ahold of, which has many tips for how to do your best, and states again that the biggest mistake of all is exclusion.

An essay focusing on the 2009 Star Trek movie and its woman of colour lead Nyota Uhura, which brings up many important issues of the representation of women of colour and their sexuality in the media.

Part 1 and Part 2 – Mary Anne Mohanraj’s two-part essay with writing advice, giving hard facts about science fiction and fantasy and representation, and advice on how to conduct yourself online and offline.

Racism School – a great reference tool.

Stephen King’s Super-Duper Magical Negroes – quote from Nnedi Okorafor: ‘Art and life affect and feed off of each other; that makes entertainment always more than its definition.’

Ghost Girls: A Review of M+O4EVR by Tonya Cherie Hegamin – a look at the growing LGBTQ presence in YA, a critique of lack of intersectionality, plus a review of a very cool book

Alaya Dawn Johnson on not being trapped by the expectations of the publishing marketplace.

Thoughts on having a black Guinevere in Merlin, with additional commentary on Dr Who–what it means to have a racebent character from a famous legend, and the problems still inherent in her portrayal. I found this through another discussion of Guinevere and stereotypes in media.

Ellen Oh on the prejudice which PoC authors face, which is important for everyone to keep in mind always: reminding us why supporting PoC authors is a hugely important part of diversity.

Sarah Diemer on reclaiming stories from the straight default.

Discussions of intersection and representation, and especially twists on gender tropes, in the movie Pacific Rim, which again I think apply to many stories. Plus here are some fans discussing the thoughtful details of the relationship between two PoCs in the movie.

K. Tempest Bradford: ‘People aren’t going to ignore your sexism just because you work against racism. People are not going to ignore your racism because you campaigned for marriage equality.’

Marissa Lee on racebending, analysing the reaction to Lucy Liu’s casting as Watson in CBS’s Elementary, and the opportunities for new stories offered by it–opportunities for new stories that are worth thinking about as regards one’s own writing.

Amy Stern talking about treatment of teen sexuality.

Sherman Alexie’s famous article on privileged notions of children’s literature, and the misguided attitudes towards protecting teens, can’t be linked to often enough: it’s something to think on when you consider what people mean when they say ‘think of the children’ and pressure is put on to ‘clean up’ your YA writing.

As a lady who writes in what is seen as a ladyrriffic genre, I am told to shut up all the time (often with ‘you stupid bitch’ attached or implied), so my kneejerk response on being told to shut up is to go ‘NO! NEVER!’: but on subjects of LGBTQ prejudice or racism, sometimes I should shut up. Sometimes not, because it’s important to speak out. But sometimes YES, because other people, better-informed and who have been silenced too often, should be speaking and you should be listening. How to know when to shut up and when to speak out? I wish I knew, but here’s a smart and relevant discussion of a recent example of intersectionality fail where feminists have ignored issues of racism which might give you some ideas on signalboosting others and speaking out.

Karnythia: ‘when POC have teaching moments? It costs us. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. It’s a sacrifice that we choose to make in an effort to improve things.’ Something to remember when educated: your education comes at a price to others and when people seem angry with you it’s because they have a right to be.

Vahini Naidoo, with different thoughts on the centrality of whiteness, the privileges white authors possess, and certain things she wants to see more of and is tired of seeing.

Ways to Describe Characters of Color – N.K. Jemisin, part 1 of a great series, and check out the comments where other writers share their writing.

Ari at readingincolor has a lot of great posts, and this is just one, discussing what she wants to see in diverse YA fiction and what she isn’t seeing.

From my own experience all I can say: holy God, you are going to make mistakes, and you are going to feel terrible. It’s important to keep trying. It’s important to listen to readers: to everyone who you can find who’s willing to talk about these things. Do not listen only to published writers, because institutionalised prejudice means that fewer people with lived experience are going to be given the false authority of publishing. I was online for years before I was ever published, and there’s a lot to learn there, with fewer gatekeepers. It’s hard to establish dialogues, of course, especially when you do have that false authority. I’ve made the mistake of talking too much when I should’ve been listening many times, and the only thing to do is apologise, mean it, and try to learn something from it. It’s scary–I worry because getting involved and making mistakes means people see you making mistakes and might think you’re terrible. More importantly I worry about inflicting hurt on people who have already been hurt. But it’s a lot less scary than the actual fabric of society being set up to crush people. It’s a lot more scary for people with less privilege than me. My only real advice is to honestly try. And read those links, and find more.

Which authors have been your biggest influences? Which authors do you look to for great stories about diverse characters?

Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy and Robin McKinley and Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and Tamora Pierce were huge influences on me as a kid, and I still love them now.

The writers who critique me, who I go on writing retreats with, and talk about my writing to, and talk about their writing with them–Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Robin Wasserman, Maureen Johnson, Cindy Pon, Kelley Armstrong, Melissa Marr, Ally Carter, Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Malinda Lo, Delia Sherman, Kelly Link, Saundra Mitchell–they obviously influence me a lot and I love their writing.

Megan Whalen Turner, I love her, I’ve never met her, I possibly shouldn’t, it might get creepy. Coe Booth’s a genius: I met her once in Paris and just stared at her and put a whole pancake in my face to disguise the fact I was shy. I also poured soup on Tamora Pierce. Basically I should be put away. I trust Michelle Sagara and Seanan McGuire to deliver great stories. There are newer authors I love too: Kendare Blake, Stephanie Perkins. Outside my genre, my romance favourites are Sherry Thomas and Courtney Milan; my literary favourites are Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters. I look to them all for great stories about diverse characters.

Which diverse YA books are you most looking forward to getting your hands on?

Malinda Lo’s Inheritance, the sequel to Adaptation, is out this September. It features a love triangle that is girl/girl/boy (and the boy is a person of colour), and it’s inspired by the X Files, which I was fixated on when I was younger. I love the inversion of tropes in this out-of-the-ordinary love triangle, and I have a special love for the character of Amber. I’m rooting for you, Amber! (Or am I rooting for threesomes? Well, that’s still rooting for Amber, right?)

The rest of Sarwat Chadda’s Ash Mistry series. It’s actually middle grade, but I found Sarwat through his YA novel Devil’s Kiss, so I’m keeping him. I was at the launch for the third book in the series in July, and picked up the first, and now I NEED the other two. Here’s Sarwat when he was announcing the Ash Mistry series. Ash’s a great character and the books also have an unusual love triangle, I think I really like love triangles so long as they’re a little off the beaten track.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, which was described by Alaya in one of the links above. It came out in March, and I bought it as soon as it came out, but this has been a furiously busy year for me, and I want to give myself space to enjoy it. I adore her books set in alternate 1920s New York, starting with Moonshine.

Same deal with Saundra Mitchell’s The Elementals. I have it! I am super excited for a historical genderqueer character! Saundra Mitchell writes historical fiction with a wealth of accurate detail like a boss. Soon, my pretty, I murmur to it, caressing its cover as if it was the white cat to my melodramatic villain.

Y.S. Lee’s Rivals In the City. It doesn’t have a release date quite yet, as the author had some personal problems while writing about it which she super bravely talks about here. (I tell you what, if I ever had a baby, and I don’t plan on it, I don’t know if I’d be able to finish a book for years and years). I was lucky enough to get the first two books sent to me and I bought the third as soon as it came out. My favourite’s the second, The Body At The Tower, because our plucky historical sleuthing heroine Mary CROSS-DRESSES FOR GREAT JUSTICE and people espy her and the hero and think he has a preference for far-too-young boys, and I love historical cross-dressing. I love it. I have a problem: it’s called historical cross-dressing, I’ll read anything with it in, these books are very good, I can’t wait for the thrilling conclusion.

Steve Berman’s Red Caps, which is coming out February 2014. Steve’s a wonderful writer, and I love a story turned on its head: in this case a collection of new twists on fairy tales.

Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Rules finishes up with The Forever Song in 2014. I have a particular love for Allie, the vampire heroine, who gets to be tough and to be despairing and conflicted about being a vampire in a way only boys do.

Marie Lu’s Champion is out in November, the last in a series ending with Legend. A stern lady of the law (kind of… given she’s a teen… MORALLY OF THE LAW) chases down a genius criminal lad. There are a lot of YA dystopians about. This is the best one. It’s just the best. The characters are the best, the world is the best. I mean, wait, I’m not an oracle. I like it the best. Read it and make up your own minds. 😉

If anyone is reading this (after this very long post, if anyone is still reading, you’re a hero) and thinking ‘well, Sarah’s books look pretty good, but these other books she’s talking about sound good too, decisions decisions…’ the other books I mentioned looking forward to are written by people with life experience I don’t have, and supporting them is important. Plus, well, you know. They’re really great. 😉

Sarah Rees BrennanSarah Rees Brennan was born and raised in Ireland by the sea, where her teachers valiantly tried to make her fluent in Irish (she wants you to know it’s not called Gaelic) but she chose to read books under her desk in class instead. The books most often found under her desk were Jane Austen, Margaret Mahy, Anthony Trollope, Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, and she still loves them all today.

After college she lived briefly in New York and somehow survived in spite of her habit of hitching lifts in fire engines. She began working on The Demon’s Lexicon while doing a Creative Writing MA and library work in Surrey, England. Since then she has returned to Ireland to write and use as a home base for future adventures. Her Irish is still woeful, but she feels the books under the desk were worth it.