Tuesday, July 30, 2013

an interview with the Rejectionist

Back when I was INTERN, one of my very first blogging-friends was the Rejectionist, who was toiling as a literary agent's assistant at the time and now writes as Sarah McCarry. Her exquisite novel ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS comes out today. 

How did you become the Rejectionist? I don't mean how did you start a blog, but what combination of life circumstances/cosmic influences/formative events went into making you the politically engaged, opinionated, and highly distinctive voice the internet has come to know and love? Have you always been highly engaged + critical of mainstream culture, or was there a specific turning point (or series of turning points) for you?

Ha ha ha, shameless flattery will get you EVERYWHERE with me! I have certainly been quite opinionated, and quite uninhibited about informing other persons of my opinions, from a very early age, and my parents encouraged my outspokenness, which I think they maybe later came to regret. But in terms of my actual politics, I started working in domestic violence shelters when I was nineteen, and that was a hugely formative experience for me; it was the first time in my life I came face-to-face with structural oppression and injustice and the very real and very violent impact those forces have on people's lives. I went into that work extremely ignorant and came out of it a fundamentally altered person. So that, I think, is where a lot of my politics come from, and the friendships I made doing that work continue to push me toward a politics of compassion and resistance. 

ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS is not your typical YA novel, and I could just as easily picture it in the "adult" literary fiction section of a bookstore. What have you enjoyed the most about the publishing process? What has frustrated you? In what ways are categories such as "YA" and "adult" helpful, and in what ways are they a hindrance?

Well! As I think you know, I have a great many feelings about this! I do find the category of "YA" problematic, and at this point ultimately meaningless--it's just as likely to mean "a book about a teenage girl" as "a book actually written for a teenage audience." Because obviously, the only people who would want to read about teenage girls are other teenage girls, whereas stories about teenage boys are universal coming-of-age narratives that everyone can appreciate. And it's frustrating in the sense that, unless you are a white dude named John Green, if your book is published as YA it will absolutely be taken less seriously by the larger critical apparatus outside of trade reviews. I mean, if you look at the VIDA statistics, those are depressing enough, and those are women writing "real," "grownup" books. It's exhausting, regardless of one's opinion of the institutions doing the dismissing, to have one's work dismissed out of the gate. And those barriers are infinitely worse for writers of color, women of color in particular, many of whom are not able to get published in the first place. 

There is also a weird cultural assumption that if a book is published as young adult it is obligated to provide some sort of moral instruction to its audience, which is deeply bizarre to me--more than just the value of stories reflecting the diversity of bodies and lived experiences of their readers, which many people have already written about beautifully, that kind of expectation seems to me totally antithetical to the nature and purpose of literature. It is not my job as a writer to instill Christian values in schoolchildren, regardless of how my book is marketed, nor is that a project that is remotely interesting to me. We are extremely uncomfortable as a culture with the idea of teenagers, in particular teenage girls, having sex, but that's not really an appropriate anxiety with which to burden either teenage girls or writers. 

The flip side of all of that is that there are a lot of very savvy and very smart editors--my editor most definitely among them--who recognize that, under the vast umbrella of "YA," they can publish a lot of books that are weird or dark or don't fit into easily marketable categories. I'm tremendously lucky; I've heard horror story after horror story from other writers--again, in particular but certainly not exclusively, queer women writers of color--who were told to make their books less gay, or their characters less brown, or their sex scenes less complicated, or their female narrators less human and more "likeable." I love my agent, who has been incredibly supportive of me. And I love my editor; working with her has been a dream and she has given me total free rein to write books that are as goth and queer as I want, and she has never once asked me to change anything that was not an actual flaw in the story. That kind of trust in a writer is really rare in Big 6 (or 5 or 4 or whatever it is now) publishing. So whatever my larger frustrations with the industry, which are legion, I am incredibly happy and incredibly lucky to be where I am, and I worked in publishing long enough to recognize that my experience is an exceptional one and is due as much to extraordinary good fortune as it is to hard work on my part.

As a sometimes-Pacific Northwesterner, your descriptions of Seattle had me nodding and thinking YES on pretty much every page. I think it's interesting that we both set our first novels in places we lived at formative times in our lives, and I'm curious to know to what extent ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS is autobiographical, whether in terms of events, characters/relationships, or less tangible things like emotional truth.

Aw, thank you! It's really not autobiographical at all in terms of events or characters, much as I dearly would have loved it to be when I was myself seventeen. (My friend described the book as "the fantasy of adolescence I had when I was an adolescent," which I think is pretty much spot-on.) I did grow up outside Seattle and I did go to a lot of shows and I did do a lot of hiking. I did my best to do a lot of drugs, with limited success while I was still a teenager; my parents were considerably less tolerant than Cass. Otherwise, it's all fairly untrue.

But in terms of emotional truth, yes, absolutely: the outsize emotions and the impulse towards the transcendent and the desire to get outside of your body, and also the very visceral experience of music, which I miss a lot. It still happens to me sometimes, but I think the barriers between the self and the ecstatic are a lot more permeable when you are a teenager--or they were for me, anyway. And in terms of place, the Seattle of the book does not exist anymore, and never really existed at all, but the mythology of the Northwest is certainly very present in the book, and is another mythology that I grew up with. For me the Northwest is as much a character as any of the people, and in my real life it's a character with whom I have a very complicated relationship and about whom I think I'll probably be writing for a long time.

ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS has garnered comparisons to writers like Angela Carter and Francesca Lia Block. Have you always been drawn to the fantastical? What are some of your favorite stories and books from this mode?

I have, for sure. I read a lot of epic fantasy when I was little--I mean literally little; I was probably in third or fourth grade when I started reading these immense door-stopper books. If it had a dragon on the cover, I was sold. And I always really loved the old, very dark stuff: the original Grimm's fairytales, which are pretty brutal, and Greek mythology, which is also quite laden with murder and incest and rape and the dismemberment and consumption of one's children. 

When I got a little older I found the writers who were interleaving the fantastical and the real--like the narrator of All Our Pretty Songs, I've reread Pamela Dean's Tam Lin and Donna Tartt's The Secret History about a thousand times each. Elizabeth Hand was a huge, and I'm sure very obvious, influence on me. Likewise with Francesca Lia Block. Emma Donoghue's story collection Kissing the Witch was another book I reread constantly. I don't really read straight fantasy anymore--although I'll occasionally reread stuff I loved when I was a kid; I'm going back through Louise Cooper's Indigo series, and Tad Williams's Dragonbone Chair trilogy, both of which totally hold up--but I am still very much drawn to writers working with the fantastical. Both Liz Hand and Francesca Lia Block keep putting out great, gorgeous, stunning books; I think Kelly Link is probably one of the most brilliant writers currently working; I loved The September Girls, which is Bennett Madison's take on The Little Mermaid. Steph Kuehn's book, Charm & Strange, is a very dark and beautiful spin on the fantastical; I loved Jo Walton's Among Others... I could keep going for a long time.

Who is your ideal reader for ALL OUR PRETTY SONGS?

You know, I have no idea. I am so single-minded when I write that I don't think at all about who will read it, but it's not a "fuck the audience" impulse so much as a total faith in my audience, and faith in my audience's faith in me. Every day I wake up grateful that I get to do this, and that people want to read what I write, and as long as that keeps working I'm not going to ask the universe too many questions.

1 comment:

  1. "I don't think at all about who will read it, but it's not a "fuck the audience" impulse so much as a total faith in my audience, and faith in my audience's faith in me. Every day I wake up grateful that I get to do this, and that people want to read what I write, and as long as that keeps working I'm not going to ask the universe too many questions."

    A million times yes. :)

    Great interview, you two!