Thursday, February 26, 2015

Our Evolving Language

As a Social-Security-eligible baby boomer, I am constantly struggling to accept the changes I cannot unchange. I accept, for example, that all things new do not suck. I accept that a single space between sentences is sufficient. But certain aspects of our evolving language present challenges that have me shouting into the gale. I have ranted previously about the fugly misuse of terms such as “begs the question,” and “ultimate.” I accept that such terms will continue to be misused, and I try not to judge those who do, and I accept the word “fugly.”

But sometimes my calcified mind fails to adjust, as in the case of the headline “Wife of Billionaire Demands 1M Per Month in Child Support.”

My thought upon reading that is, A thousand bucks a month? Why so little? Of course, when I succumb to the clickbait headline, I find that the wife is asking for a million bucks a month, which is far less interesting than a thousand.
Until maybe twenty-five years ago, “1M” was generally understood to mean 1000, “M” being the Roman numeral for 1000. Twenty-five years ago if one wanted to abbreviate 1,000,000, one would write 1MM.

Why did this change? Where did the other M go? And why am I having so much trouble adapting?

I blame the “K,” as in kilo, the metric prefix for 1000. We run a 10K (ten times 1000 meters), we talk about things like annual salaries and the cost of cars in terms of Ks. And once K entered the language as shorthand for 1000, people stopped using M so much and sort of forgot what it meant.

Then computers and email happened, and the world went crazy for acronyms and abbreviations. The people using this new technology were relatively young and they had not learned their Roman numerals, so when they needed to shorten the word “million” they used the letter (not the Roman numeral) M.

Okay, that’s reasonable. Roman numerals are rather pretentious and not terribly useful. Language changes. Maybe this baby boomer brain can change too.

Oh, but it burns!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Elusive Edge

A few days ago I found myself involved in a twitter conversation with Teri Lesesne, A.S. King, and several other authors and librarians about “edginess” in YA fiction. It was a far-ranging and hard-to-follow (for me) string of tweets loosely gathered around the question of what “limits” librarians and other gatekeepers (including authors) observe when it comes to “edgy” teen fiction. I suggested that one must have a "limit" to have an "edge." The words edgy and limit soon became confusing—we were all using the terms in different ways, but it was valuable conversation nonetheless. 
Deciding what books should be in a middle school library is tough. We authors have it easy—we start with "Include my book!" and go from there. Librarians face a far more complex calculation.
Anyway, that twitter conversation reminded me of a short article I wrote back in 2005, shortly after the publication of Godless. I’m reprinting it here, with a couple of minor edits.

The Elusive Edge
The Maiden Rock
There is a short section of the Upper Mississippi between Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the river swells for form a two mile wide, twenty mile long body of water known as Lake Pepin. Tall limestone bluffs overlook the lake on either side. It is arguably the most scenic part of the 2000-mile-long river.
Mary Logue and I have a small second home in the town of Stockholm, population 66, on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Pepin. We go there often—nearly every weekend during the summer—to hide out and recharge.
About three miles upstream of Stockholm is a particularly tall and beautiful bluff known as the Maiden Rock. The Maiden Rock is a sheer limestone cliff that drops 200 feet before hitting the steep, forested talus slope that forms its base. The slope is interrupted briefly by a two lane highway and a railroad track, and then continues all the way down to the shore of Lake Pepin.
The bluff was named for a local legend. A Chippewa girl, it is said, once fell in love with a young man from a neighboring tribe, but she was ordered by her parents to marry another man. In despair, the girl leapt to her death from the tallest cliff she could find—the Maiden Rock.
I am drawn to high places. Heights scare me, but at the same time I love the thrill of the precipice. I visited the Grand Canyon a few years back and tried to walk right up to the edge. As I got closer I found myself crouching and doing this sort of sidling ape-walk. When I couldn’t go any farther I got down on my hands and knees and crawled until I could hang my head over the edge and look straight down. It was...memorable.
So, of course, when I finally visited the Maiden Rock from above, I went looking for the edge of the precipice. I wanted to stand on it like that kid in the movie Titanic on the prow of the ship.
I could see what looked like the edge—an abrupt end to a grassy field. But as I walked toward it I saw that what I had thought was the edge of the precipice was not really the edge at all. There was another grassy shelf, about fifteen feet wide and four feet lower, just beyond it. I let myself down onto the second ledge. From there I could see the highway below, and beyond it the lake. I ape-walked toward the brink, leading with my right foot. When I was about halfway there, I saw yet another shelf, a rocky platform about three feet below the brink. I sat down with my legs dangling over the rock, then let myself down onto the third shelf, which was about the size of two queen-size beds end to end.
That was the point at which I began to crawl. I could see the outermost edge of the forested slope below. But the edge was not the sharp, abrupt brink that it appeared to be from below. It was a rounded, shrubby, uneven transition that kept getting steeper. I went as far as I could, but I still could not see the face of the cliff.
And that is what a height junkie really wants to see: The glass and steel face of the building, the sheer rock surface of the cliff, the underside of the overhang.
Very few authors set out to write risky or aggravating novels. Most of us write in hopes of attracting a large, faithful, and enthusiastic audience. You don’t accomplish that by writing things that make people feel bad.
On the other hand, if one is writing so safely that there is not even a hint of discomfort, one risks being both bored and boring.
So what we do is write at the periphery our comfort zone. We push the outer edges of the zone, hoping to convince our readers to share our thrill at flirting with the unknown.
I do not consider myself to be a particularly edgy or dangerous writer. A few of my novels have succeeded in alarming some teachers and parents—Mr. Was contains some graphic violence, No Limit shows the allure of gambling addiction, and Godless is about some kids who start their own religion worshipping a water tower. I certainly don’t push the envelope as vigorously as Judy Blume did back in the 1970s, or as do writers such as A.S. King do today. But I have written about addiction, obsession, domestic violence, suicide, goth culture, idolatry, mental illness, and so forth—topics that may seem “edgy” to some, but are by no means unfamiliar to most teens, or to most readers.
Why did I chose such topics? Each book has its own origin tale, but the one thing they all share is that they deal with matters that were of utmost importance to me when I was a teenager.
Graham Greene once said, speaking of writers, “Our childhoods are our credit balances.” I used to resent having been brought up in a stable, suburban, middle class, environment. Why wasn’t I raised by missionaries in the Congo, or by circus clowns, or by Joan Crawford? How will I ever become a writer if I have no astonishing, exotic, terrifying experiences to write about?
Because I viewed my life as mundane, I read books that let me experience things outside my personal history—war, sex, death, agony, ecstasy, horror, etc. I wanted to know about life on the edge. I wanted to experience the whole human package, from birth to death, and I wanted it NOW.
Teenagers who are bored out of their skulls (by which I mean most of them, much of the time) are compelled to do interesting things, including such old standbys as driving fast, using mind-altering substances, practicing the art of procreation, and performing remarkable stunts on skateboards.
They also perform dangerous intellectual stunts, including hero worship, competitive apathy, extreme narcissism, and abrupt reordering of the universe in the form of sudden religious conversion—which was what I dealt with in Godless.
In fact, most of my YA work is drawn directly from those five or six boring, embarrassing, mind-numbing, awkward, adolescent years—it’s all still there in a midden at the back of my head. I mine that midden—my credit balance—on a daily basis.
Godless, in fact, came straight out of that pile of teenage memories. One summer day I was hanging out with two friends beneath the local water tower. Our boredom led us to debate our respective religions. I was raised Catholic. My friends were Jewish and Lutheran. Our discussion, as I recall it, was something of an irreverence competition, with each of us making the case for our own religion being the worst.
After some discussion, we decided to bag our old religions and make up one of our own. But what to worship? We looked up at the belly of the tank sixty feet above our heads. Our choice was clear: the water tower would serve as our god.
We stole bits and pieces from the great religions of the world. We wrote our own ten commandments, and we bowed to the ten-legged one three times a day. Our mock religion was a great success by teenage standards. It alarmed our parents and kept us entertained for about a week and a half, at which time we became distracted by some other variety of teenage idiocy, and we left our new religion behind.
All of these peculiar things that teenagers do are seductive for the same reason—they push the boundaries of the permissible. In other words, they seek, find, and redefine that elusive and ever-shifting edge.
Which is exactly what we teen novelists do—or try to do—with every book we write. Find something a little thrilling, a little dangerous, a little off-center, and a little scary. Find that brink and sidle up to it. Get as close as you can. Find that place where the air gets thin and your stomach does flip-flops and you realize that you really, really do not want to die. Remind yourself what it feels like to be alive.
Just like a kid.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

End Times Update

It's official. 

The End of the World is scheduled for Sunday, April 26, 2015, at 2:00 p.m. 

Bryan Bliss (I spelled it right this time, B!) and I will be reading from our doomsday cult novels on the same stage at the Loft Literary Center. Probably we should read simultaneously on account of, y'know, the apocalypse. But more likely we will take turns.

This is part of the Second Story Reading Series, curated by the dynamic duo Heather Bouwman and Swati Avasthi. Every couple of months they pair up a couple writers for a short reading and Q&A. I've been to several. It's always a fun event with lots of book people of all ages, and Theme Treats. Not sure what the Theme Treats will be for our reading. Possibly refrigerator leftovers because, y'know, End of Days.

In the meantime, you have three months to expiate your sins. Don't wait till the last minute!


(If you can't wait for April, check out the upcoming Second Story event on February 8 at 2 p.m., featuring Margi Preus and Lise Lunge-Larsen. Their event isn't yet listed on the Loft website, but I'm sure it will be up any moment now.)

The End is Nigh, and Nigh

Back in 2009, a few months before How to Steal a Car was published, a bearded man wearing a funny stocking cap accosted me on an escalator. “So, Hautman, I hear you stole my idea,” he said.

The man was author and "retired YA guru" Patrick Jones, whose novel Stolen Car was about to be released. Both books featured a teenage girl protagonist who steals a car. Patrick and I have known each other for some time—we both live in the Twin Cities—and he was kidding about me stealing his idea. Both Patrick and I have more ideas than we will ever have time to put down on paper, so we don’t need to poach. In terms of story, plot, character, and voice, Stolen Car and How to Steal a Car are very different books built around a similar kernel of an idea. You should read them both!

This year, I’m looking forward to the publication of Eden West, a story about a teen involved in a religious cult preparing for the apocalypse. My book comes out on April 14.

But Lo and Behold! YA author Bryan Bliss’s debut novel, No Parking at the End Times (Feb 24), is about a teen involved in a religious cult preparing for the apocalypse. 

Synchronicity happens. And then it happens again.

Bryan, also lives in the Twin Cities. Apparently, we Twin Cities writers are pilfering each other's ideas right and left. Bryan was kind enough to give me an advance look at End Times. It’s an excellent book, and it’s going to get noticed. And to my relief, it’s nothing at all like Eden West. You should read them both!

Bryan and I are hoping to do a reading together this spring at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis—an apocalypse double header! I’ll let you know if it happens.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Emergency Chicken Soup

The Crud has descended upon the Hautman/Logue household. Time for chicken soup. Chicken soup is a serious business here. Canned is not an option.

Usually I begin by roasting a couple of whole chickens, as free-range and organic as I can find (and afford). I usually throw in a bunch of gizzards or necks, too. The roasted chickens are then disassembled. The bones, giblets,* and most of the skin go into a cauldron with three gallons of water to simmer for four hours, with roasted onions, celery, carrots, and a few herbs and spices added during the last hour. It is then strained through a flour sack dishtowel, defatted, and boiled down to about half of its original volume. The result is a clear, gelatinous, very flavorful stock.

Half of the reduced stock is frozen for future use (sometimes I reduce a portion of it further to make a basic chicken demi-glace), the rest, with chicken meat from the thighs and legs (use the white meat for something else, like chicken salad), vegetables (I always include carrots, parsnips, celery, and onions), and some sort of starch (noodles, dumplings, potatoes, wild rice—choose one) becomes, after another forty-five minutes of simmering, chicken soup. Total time elapsed: 7-8 hours.

But this is an emergency. I need soup fast, so I start with a roasted chicken from the grocery store.

1. Remove meat from chicken.
2. Add bones and skin to three quarts of water. Throw in some carrot, onion, and celery trimmings. Maybe a slice of ginger root. Simmer for at least an hour.
3. Saute onions, celery, and carrots in butter. Add S&P, herbs, garlic, and a whole chili pepper.
4. Strain broth (you can skim off the fat if you wish) over vegetables. Add chicken. Bring to a simmer. Add noodles. Cook about fifteen minutes, or until noodles are done.

Total time elapsed: About 90 minutes.

Do this every day for seven days. The cold will be gone, and you won’t want chicken soup again until the next time you get sick.

* Do NOT use the liver for stock. Give it to the cat.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bully Pulpit

Yeah, I know—"bullying" isn't such a hot topic now that we've moved on to "diversity," but I'm going to write about it (again) anyway.

In my teens, my friends and I spent a lot of time at dance clubs, bowling alleys, keggers, house parties, and other places where we could do whatever we felt like doing with minimal adult interference. Sometimes we had fun, more often it was boring, and occasionally things got scary. I was never a tough guy. I tried to avoid trouble. But when you are a teenage boy and you hang out with a bunch of young men in an unsupervised situation, sooner or later someone will want to punch you in the face and kick you in the balls. This is a fact of life.

For those of you who have been blessed with a life sheltered from face-punching ball-kicking young men, here is how it happens. The exact words might vary, but the overall structure of the interaction is, I think, universal.

“Hey, asswipe!”
“Who, me?”
Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction
“Yeah, you. You insulted my girlfriend!”
“I don’t know your girlfriend!”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“No, I just…look, I didn’t say anything to anybody. I was just leaving.”
“Damn right you’re leaving, you piece of shit.”
“Okay, whatever, I’m a piece of shit.”
“You swearing at me, dickhead?”
“No, I—”
Face punch; crotch kick.

This ritual confused me. I didn’t understand why the bully wanted to have a conversation before beating the crap out of me. And it’s always the same—two young men rarely fight without a ceremonial verbal prelude.

Eventually I came to accept that this is the way it is, and once the ritual conversation is underway, it’s run or fight. I learned strategies for avoiding such situations before the talking begins, but it was years before the core motivation became clear to me.

Satan Exulting Over Eve - Wm. Blake
Everything we do, everything we say, is moderated by the need to feel good about ourselves. We have these hormone-driven primal urges—eat, copulate, kill—but at the same time, there is an overriding need to protect our self image, and I believe that urge predates civilization, religion, and language. I think maybe dogs have it. Whatever we do, we need to make ourselves believe, if only for the moment it takes to do whatever questionable thing we are about to do, that we are good.

I think about this a lot when I’m writing about “bad guys” in my novels. However reprehensible their acts, there must be an internal, or external, or implied rationale for their acts. Even Satan has his self image to consider.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving Post, or How to Strain a Metaphor

Michael Cart’s recent article about religion in YA books reminded me that Thanksgiving is coming.

Our Thanksgiving celebration this year will be rather large, somewhere between twenty and thirty people, mostly relatives. There will be hundreds of brief conversations. We will talk about the weather (brrr!), the food (yum!), our jobs (or lack thereof), our physical ailments (plentiful), recent amusing or dramatic events, pets, and many other mundane things of general interest. 

We will avoid talking about religion, politics, sex, or money.

That’s kind of like the situation in Young Adult literature. There are things we don’t talk about. Check out the YA section in your local bookstore. The largest subcategories will be “sci-fi/fantasy” and “paranormal,” and most of these books that take place in a fantasy environment in which there might be gods, but no God. Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah do not exist in these worlds, or if they do, their existence is largely ignored. Same goes for “realistic” YA, where most characters exist in a world where religion is never mentioned, which is not realistic at all.

Yes, there are YA novels that deal directly with religion—I could name thirty or forty of them without looking too hard—but considering the tens of thousands of YA novels that have been published over the past three decades, such books are relatively rare.

It comes down to economics, I suppose. A writer who makes his or her readers uncomfortable doesn’t sell very many books, and we readers are uncomfortable when encountering views on religion that conflict with our own.

It used to be that we didn’t talk about sex and sexual orientation in YA. That’s changing fast. But religion? It’s pretty much the same don’t-go-there attitude as was prevalent when I first started publishing.

I’m bringing this up now because my next book, Eden West, is about a boy who grows up in a close-knit and insular doomsday cult, and what happens when an outsider infects his worldview.

I started working on Eden West around the same time I started work on Godless, about twelve years ago. Not sure why it took so long to finish. I changed course a few times, and made an unusual (for me) number of top-to-bottom revisions, but still, twelve years is a long time. Anyway, it’s done. Eden West will be showing up in bookstores next April—like an inappropriate uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

48 Hours Later: Prolonging the Cringe

There has been a surfeit of commentary about Daniel Handler’s ghastly faux pas at the National Book Awardsbanquet after Jacqueline Woodson received the NBA for her book Brown Girl Dreaming. Naturally, I feel the urge to add to the noise.

Like pretty much everyone watching Handler’s remarks, I winced as the words left his mouth, and my first thought was, There, but for me, go I. Because I have been steeped in —isms from birth, as have we all. I’ve laughed at racist/sexist/ablest/homophobic jokes; I’ve made assumptions about strangers based only on their physical appearance; I’ve patted myself on the back for accomplishments that are mostly or entirely the result of being white, male, heterosexual, and physically unimpaired; I’ve discounted the feelings of those whose life experience I do not fully comprehend.

I cringe to remember insensitive jokes and remarks I made forty or thirty or twenty or ten years ago. Or last month. I hope I get better every day—I try. Life is a constant struggle to overcome our preconceptions and prejudices. All of us fail at times, as did Daniel Handler last Wednesday evening.

And he knew it, in the moment. You can see it on his face. In that ten seconds he went from one of the highlights of his career—hosting the National Book Awards—to his greatest professional embarrassment. It is agonizing to watch, both for Handler and for Jackie Woodson. I feel bad for both of them.

But Daniel Handler is a smart guy. He knows he screwed up, and he has taken steps to make things better. No backpedaling, no justification, just a straight-up mea culpa, an admission that his comments were racist, and a penance in the form of cold hard cash. I am not big a fan of Handler’s brash, self-consciously clever public persona, but I think he’s sincere this time, and he has done what he can to make things right. I would guess that Jackie Woodson appreciates his effort, even though there is no way he can truly undo the mortification he has wrought.

There is a bright side to all of this: We Need DiverseBooks has raised far in excess of $100,000 (plus the extra $100,000 promised by Handler), Jacqueline Woodson’s extraordinary Brown Girl Dreaming is being read by people who might not otherwise have heard of it, and Daniel Handler has been handed a life lesson of incalculable value—I hope.

Addendum: There is a very smart and rather painful discussion going on in the comments section at Horn Book about an article written by Roger Sutton. Roger makes some of the same points as I made in my post above, and man, is he taking it on the chin! The main point of those who chimed in is that Roger is giving too much sympathy to Daniel Handler without giving Jacqueline Woodson and every other person of color their due. Perhaps true, and I may be guilty of the same. If so, well, I'm working on it.

Addendum Two: Nice article by Woodson in the NYT. Kind of painful to read, but heartfelt and well-said.