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.