“Because sometimes the better the story, the greater the restlessness that comes when it ends and the listener has to go on, imagining the story continuing somewhere, but untold and out of sight.” -Kate Milford, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book
Probably no author envisioned that one day, a book they’d worked for years on would be released…during a pandemic. When libraries and bookstores are open on a limited basis, and certainly not hosting in-person events. However, authors, booksellers, and librarians are all making the best of it, and in some ways, author events and book launches have become more accessible: plenty of readers who couldn’t attend an in-person event in New York or Boston or San Diego in ordinary times can now attend via zoom, crowdcast, or other platforms – and attendance isn’t limited by fire code! Lots of authors are still doing signings and working with independent bookstores to get books to readers. Here are summaries of three author events – one adult, one YA, and one middle grade – I’ve attended in the last few months:
Deb Gorlin and Eula Biss at Hampshire College, December 2020
I’ve been following Eula Biss’s writing since I got a galley of On Immunity: An Inoculation back in 2014 (she said during this interview that she “would love for that book to become obsolete,” but if you know anyone asking themselves “to vaccinate or not to vaccinate?” please buy them a copy). Eula joined writing instructor and Emerita Senior Faculty Associate Deb Gorlin to discuss her writing career and her newest book, Having and Being Had.
They talked about “personal foundational texts,” books you return to over and over again, books that become part of you, that guide you. (I wrote about some of my personal foundational picture books recently, and am mulling over a piece about non-PB foundational texts.)
Eula said, “I do better and more interesting thinking when I believe that I’m in the margins.” She said that if Hampshire teaches any one thing to all its students, it may be how to draw connections between any two (or more) apparently disparate things. (I can say from my own personal experience that this is true, and led more or less directly to my invention – while waiting for the R train – of a game called Guess the Thing. In short: Person 1 thinks of a thing. Person 2 and 3 each guess a thing. Person 1 says which thing is closest to the thing they were thinking of, and why. The person whose thing was chosen gets to pick the next thing. Repeat until train arrives.)
Kristin Cashore and Malinda Lo in conversation with Tui Sutherland at Mysterious Galaxy, January 2021
Hearing from Kristin, Malinda, and Tui was perhaps less academic but more fun. I was thrilled to hear that Kristin was publishing a new Graceling Realm book; I have since read Winterkeep and it is amazing. Fans of the original three books will likely love it, and I think it works as a stand-alone as well: it’s got amazing world-building, complicated characters, and plenty of action. (And, yes, telepathic foxes.) I requested Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, from the library, and while I was waiting for my copy to come in, I read her brilliant essays on the craft of writing on her blog, Lo & Behold. I read Tui’s first Wings of Fire book as well, The Dragonet Prophecy – I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, because that series was incredibly popular at the last library where I worked – as it is in many places – and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Now I see! More excellent world-building, strong characters to root for, and a lot of action (and violence – like, Hunger Games levels of violence). I could have sworn I took notes on this event – I take notes on everything – but I can’t find them anywhere. However, I can recommend these books, as well as any future author events these three do together – it was so fun to be a fly on the wall.
Books from Other Worlds: A Conversation with Kate Milford & Melissa Albert, March 2021
If we’ve met in real life, probably I have talked your ear off about Kate Milford’s Greenglass House books. Her kind of world-building is one of my favorite kinds: our world, but different. And the ways that it’s different are so inventive and compelling to me, from Nagspeake’s shifting iron and the Skidwrack river to the existence of roamers, a culture of smuggling, and an evil catalog company. Plus, the structure of her books is excellent, and nearly always features an ensemble cast of interesting characters, many of whom cross between books – basically, David Mitchell for middle grade, but completely her own. And her newest book, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, is actually the book that Milo (main character of Greenglass House) reads – so Kate invented a book-within-a-book, then wrote that book. And like Greenglass House, it’s an Agatha Christie-style strangers-stuck-in-a-house-together setup.
Melissa Albert pulled off a similar trick with Tales of the Hinterland, which she first dreamed up within the context of The Hazel Wood. Tales is a book of dark fairytales that is out of print and hard to access, adding to its mystery and allure. As a reader and a writer, I am in awe: it’s hard enough to invent a creative work that exists for your characters within the world of the book, like Nick Hornby does in Juliet, Naked and David Mitchell does in Utopia Avenue. This piece of art exists for the characters, and grows in the reader’s imagination until it has nearly mythological status. So then, to write that book – and have it meet or exceed expectations – takes immense bravery and talent. Brava!