News & Events
In 1998, Eastern Washington University’s Press and the Creative Writing Department sponsored a literary festival that would become Get Lit! At the time, I was a graduate student, and couldn’t afford to pay $10 for the events, so we worked the box office instead. That year Denis Johnson read from Jesus’ Son. It was one of the most extraordinary readings I’ve ever experienced. I was 23, thinking about stories and poetry as radical acts, and here’s this dude reading wild, comical, gruesome pieces of revelation and redemption with a main character named Fuckhead.
The year Kurt Vonnegut headlined at Get Lit! I couldn’t go because I’d been scheduled for surgery. After years of inexplicable illness, the doctors had found masses and were going to remove them. During prep, my doctor told me he had tickets to see Vonnegut that weekend. He said literature is how he thought about the body. We were all stories. I feel like both of them saved me. The doctor and Vonnegut.
When I worked at Auntie’s Bookstore, we covered the Get Lit! events, and I got to meet Jonathan Lethem at a midnight reading that Jess Walter called the subversive headlining event of the year. Lethem’s gorgeous essay about using pop culture to survive the death of his mother is still a piece I can’t think about without feeling kicked in the belly.
This year, I get to talk about Young Adult Literature with a panel of writers at Get Lit! 2014 on Saturday, April 12th. Later that same afternoon, I’ll be reading from Giraffe People. Stories and poetry as radical acts: Get Lit! Join me, Spokane.Read More
I have such love for this group of middle schoolers. They’ve just finished their Capri Sun and their cheese and crackers. We’re here to do a writing exercise, to talk about how to create characters.
I tell them that writing saved me. That I knew I was queer when I was five and that I knew I lived in a family hostile to the truth about me. That I would not be safe if I were honest. I needed the outlet of writing, the world I could create there for myself, but I had to be safe. So I created characters. I wrote poems. The world as imagined. The character as shield and knight.
“Maybe you create someone heroic,” I tell the kids. “Maybe someone quick-witted and brave. Someone who always knows what to do. Or maybe you create a villain. Someone to experience the dark on your behalf. Maybe you create a mouse. Someone unnoticed — a quiet observer. Maybe you create a character made up of 5 of your favorite people.”
They pour themselves into the sheets of construction paper. They’re so earnest. I remember middle school as a time when we tried not to be earnest. When we were embarrassed by our enthusiasms. But these kids are not like we were. One of them keeps administering hugs. She asks first, whenever someone seems sad. They keep reassuring each other, “This is a safe space.”
A place perhaps where a character mask isn’t necessary. Whatever that may feel like. To be you at rest. Essential you. Undiluted you. Full of yearning. Your character. Not as shield or knight, but as solace, as community, as nurturer. Your self creating. You’re self-creating.Read More
It’s a curious experience to consider well-intentioned attempts at censorship. I don’t mean the assholes who object to the word vagina, or to children being empowered to think for themselves, or to uppity talking animals. I mean the mother of the only black child at the school whose daughter says she feels like she’s being punched every time she hears the n-word while the class reads Huckleberry Finn. How many times do we have to read the rape scene from Tess of D’Urbervilles, or Streetcar Named Desire? Or the romanticized felony relationships in Wuthering Heights, Twilight, Beauty and the Beast? Of course it’s troubling to be inside the mind of a pedophile in Lolita.
Sometimes books make us feel uncomfortable. I’ve thrown books across the room. I’ve put them in the car so I don’t have to sleep near them. I’ve gotten into vicious arguments over themes and viewpoints.
I feel for the mother of that child. Nobody should be put into the position where you HAVE to educate the people around you on their privilege.
Which is why we have books. It is. Books exist to tell the story of human experience. All those experiences. And any given book may only speak to some of the kids in the class. To some of the people in the book club. To a handful at work. But that makes them more vital, not less so. Books are meant to spark discussion not pat your head and tuck you in. The ones that bug the shit out of me — the ones I can’t bear to touch — those are the stories I need to read most. Precisely because they require that I reconcile my objections. That I think critically. They inspire debate. They require that I consider the whole of humanity, not just my own experience.
I can go the rest of my life without reading stories of World War II, or anything with a rape. These stories bother me more than they used to. And not the good bother, but the kind with a trigger. I don’t know what I would do if she were my daughter. But I know it would involve more books and not fewer of them. I would surround her with stories that used words that didn’t feel like punches, but felt like ladders and pathways and wings. This is why we need an arena and not a hallway. We need more viewpoints and more stories.
The world won’t improve if we gut the libraries. It’ll improve if we educate ourselves. If we become more enlightened than we have previously been.Read More
In my interview with Merry Gangemi on Woman-Stirred Radio, one of the most interesting discussions is about the character of Meghan. Merry Gangemi, an astute and fascinating interviewer, held the perspective that Meghan is irritating and doesn’t know her self. I’ve spent the week considering this, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about why Meghan is important. Why her character is valuable despite the fact that for much of the book she behaves like a shithead.
Meghan has chosen a career at odds with her values. She’s working to get into West Point, sponsored by a chaplain’s family that she admires, aware of the military’s (and the sponsoring family’s) stance on homosexuality. She knows these things and attempts to navigate what is expected of her, despite her desire. She’s young, 18, and ambitious, the ideal role model for Cole’s parents to foist on Cole, except that Meghan is a lesbian.
And this is what I like best about Meghan. She really is all these things. A role model. A person with honor. A cadet. An overachiever. But none of that matters if she’s gay. In the time of the novel — 1990-1991 — if she’s gay, she gets kicked out of the military, she gets dumped by her sponsor family, she compromises her potential because she wants a girl rather than a boy.
If you understood that, and realized how arbitrary and nonsensical that is, how would you behave?
I have such affinity for Meghan. For the honorable person of whom dishonorable things are demanded. It’s her choice though, right? Nobody is forcing her to go into the military. Right. But it’s an absurd requirement. You don’t need to be straight to sacrifice for your country. Now we admit as much; Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is dead, and the military is the better for it, as the Pentagon reported earlier this year.
Meghan is weak, which is to say human. I love her because she struggles and gets it wrong and is determined to self correct. I love her because externally she’s the golden girl for whom life should be lemon meringue pie. Except that she loves this girl. And determines to do something about her love: to make herself worthy of it. I love her because she found a way to make vocabulary lists love letters.Read More
One of the many reasons I’m drawn to teen protagonists is that they have the benefit of being unformed while still deserving our sympathy. We expect teenagers to be selfish and egocentric. It is all about them. And if they can work through that shit while they’re teenagers, they’ll be less likely to be libertarians later.
How do you go about voicing a teen? I was asked that this weekend at my reading. Did I research them? Well, yes. I was a teen and I’m around teens. I listen to them. I still remember what it felt like to be surrounded by people and chatter and deadlines and feel entirely alone. I remember the awful pressure of constant expectations. I think you’ll be a writer, they said from the time I was in second grade.
We think when we’re finally done with high school that we’ll be free of a community comprised in some part of assholes and fuckwads. That we can just hang with people who get us, and do important work that we enjoy. But we’re being taught invaluable skills in spite of ourselves. There are assholes everywhere. We will have to be civil even when we’re cranky. At some point we may learn that the money is less important than the quality of our lives. That what we find most beautiful will strike us, over and over, like a flint stone.
We will learn to separate. To form a whole and complete self. To differentiate from our parents and values we don’t share. If teenagers have read my work before, they’ve never told me, but they’re reading it now. I wrote Giraffe People because I wanted to be blessed. I wanted to write about forming a sense of self in the maelstrom. About how we must. We must build ourselves. Without shame. Without guilt. Without fear.
You must nurture and you must begin with yourself. That’s how you build the resources to nurture those around you. To seek out need and bring aid. You learn grace by applying it to yourself. Your dark ignorant selfishness. You are worthy of love. And so are the rest of us.
The teen protagonist compels us to self-evaluate. Have I caught the voice? You tell me. Check out this rad review of Giraffe People from Out in Print.Read More
On the panel of Place in Fiction with Judith Katz and Elana Dykewomon, Elana says that lesbian culture is like the diaspora but without our families. And the odd thing is that in my nomadic life, I’ve never considered that we’re all displaced. That so many lesbians had to leave their homes in order to radicalize, in order to survive authentically. To realize themselves.
For three years, I’ve been having frustrating roundabout conversations with older lesbians wherein I’m accused of abandoning lesbian stories. Of forsaking lesbian mythology. Crossover stories are, apparently, what I write. I believe I write human stories about people who happen to be lesbians. How that’s a crossover, I can’t imagine. Why are we so determined to hold ground? Why do we want to stay on the periphery instead of drawing the center toward ourselves as Toni Morrison suggests?
But now, talking with Judith and Elana, I think I’ve had it wrong. I think I’ve had a circular conversation with women who are angry to feel less and less relevant rather than the women who want to see our stories recorded and expanded. To see our culture survive our wanderings.
I’m too old to be an acolyte, but I’m ready to run with the baton. I’m ready to carry your stories and my own. I’m ready. I see at last what it means to have this culture survive. To build our cities and protest our displacement. To champion our voices. I see how important our connection to one another is. I see at last. And I’m sorry that it took me so long. I’m sorry that my isolation, innate after 38 years, failed to recognize yours. We can build air balloons with our stories. We can build planets and landscapes. I’ll walk to where you are and learn your story. I’ll remember you and tell how it was. How it is. How we’ll make it. How we created our lives as though from scratch and didn’t have to go on remaking them each time from bone because we found paper and pen instead. Because our stories are built to last.Read More
Tonight I’m talking with the Queer Theory class at Eastern Washington University. Tomorrow at dawn, Mary and I fly to New Orleans for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. It’ll be our first plane trip together to the city where I became certain I’d marry her. The city of Zombie Brides.
My ideas about this book and marriage equality and being queer have a cohesion I hadn’t expected. Coming out is a second adolescence but there’s something else, there’s something so vital about coming out — about the universal experience of recognizing and naming your sexual self. This is true about me, we say. This is the story of where I was when I woke. When I startled up and broke open. Straight people have been telling me that they can relate to the story because they came out, too. Of course they did. We all name our sexual selves.
The difference here, for the queer person, is coming out and being in the statistical minority. Coming out and having to push against assumption and inequity and bigots. Of maybe taking longer to sort out your sexual self than your culture is comfortable with. But you like boys, right? So how are you a lesbian? Technically, you’re bisexual, aren’t you? I love you, but I just don’t get why you’re choosing to live like this.
How gay are you? How gay is gay enough? You keep using that word and I don’t think it means what you think it means. Enough. You get to name your sexual self. And you get to name it for the rest of your life. It may vary and it may not. It may terrify you. It may be the purest vanilla. It’s yours, love. Nobody gets to feed it to you. Nobody gets to confine it, rename it, inhibit it. Name your sexual self without shame. Let it surprise you. Let its wingspan seem improbable. Let it be whatever beauty it is.
We talk about sex like we all agree. How fortunate that we don’t.Read More
I used to dread the question: What’s your book about?
Um. It’s a kind of love story. (Red Audrey.) It’s a tragedy. About martyrdom. And family.(Field Guide.) Yes. Yes, way to pitch, Jill Malone. But now, I look forward to you asking because fuck, I’m excited. I’m so excited. Giraffe People is the book I hoped to write. The story I meant to tell you.
The one about being young and striving, about being human and messy, about the way childhood as military dependents felt like we were veterans, too. About the way love burns in that scathing, lovely way so that you’re aware, maybe for the first time, of your arm bones and your ribs, of the way your breath rushes in and out. You’re aware of the center of you. The relentless light.
Praise what you love. Praise it! We don’t have time to quibble and mumble to our shoes. I want you to read this book. I want to read this book to you. Remember what it felt like to be young. To want in that way before we knew better. To be free from knowing better. Remember how tentative love felt. How fragile. How we thought it was inexperience that made it feel so new, but really that was just love breaking us open the way love will.
Giraffe People will be in stores in three weeks. My wife says, “The novel has an adolescent protagonist, and is an internal coming-out story focusing on what it means to be queer in an evangelical family and also within the military culture during DADT.” And all of that’s true, but it’s also about the zing — the sonic, flaying zing — of being lit up the first time by that person. You know. That one.Read More
Many thanks to Women and Words for posting my guest blog about Giraffe People today. This has been quite a week. My second novel, A Field Guide to Deception, won the Great Northwest Book Festival, which is particularly exciting because I can’t think about Spokane without thinking about that novel. Young family. Young adulthood. The horrible cost of getting away with things.
I’ve been ill with the joint-aching sinus-infection thing that’s going around, and yesterday I helped the second graders paint their dinosaur models in the hallway, sort of on butcher paper. Some had paint in their hair, on their ears, down their shins, and they were so gleeful about the opportunity to paint their animals — made from recycled cardboard — that they each kept up a running monologue of all progress. “Look! I’m painting the tail! And next I’m probably going to paint that leg. And then that one!”
“Mine has three eyes,” Gavin said. “Its name is Oddosaurus.”
Yes. Yes, quite. Joy in every direction. I’m grateful for the stories that exist, and the stories forming. Tomorrow we have a date for the Dinosaur Museum where Gavin will take us on a tour of painted dinosaurs, drawn dinosaurs, dinosaur research papers and 3-D dinosaur exhibits. I will think of the little boy who whispered, “My dad is going to kill me.”
“This shirt is new.”
“I promise all that paint will wash out.”
“Will you tell him? Maybe you could write him a note?”Read More
My love for Wonder Woman has more to do with Lynda Carter than anything else. And last night, in the stellar documentary, Wonder Women!, Carter said that when she got the role, people warned her women would hate her as Wonder Woman. “Why?” she wondered. And then she decided to insure women wouldn’t hate her and she deliberately created a character that behaved toward women with compassion. Even the villains.
She subverted the drama by being powerful. Right? That’s what she’s saying. And one of the reasons she was so perfectly cast is that she is powerful. She has aged in that amazing way where you can’t look away. It’s not just that she’s gorgeous, but that she’s fucking powerful. Like Anne Bancroft. I never could look away from her. She’s commanding.
One of the essential things about heroines, one of the things so often missing in stories with female protagonists is the role of the general. Is she moving the story or is the story happening to her? Is she responding to the action or is she directing it?
I have heard parents lament the violence of Hunger Games, and I marvel at their response. We are a country at war, and we have been at war for a decade now. Are you under the impression that children haven’t noticed? At the center of Hunger Games, like Harry Potter, is a humanist argument about what is acceptable in wartime. It’s a story about mercy. It’s a story about how to fight without losing your humanity.
If your adversary is lawless, what are you? What are you?
Are you responding or directing? One of the many things that Buffy has so right is that she’s a general. And she gets to be wrong and right and fail and succeed. The way we do. The way we all do. The time for our stories has never been so pressing. We need them. We need to write them. We need to tell them. The whole of humanity, not just the men of steel.
And speaking of stories, tune in tomorrow with Rebecca Swartz for a look inside The Next Big Thing.Read More