My poem, “Demeter Sails the Stars”, is now available online at Ideomancer!

The story of Persephone’s descent into the underworld is one of the world’s most enduring myths. It has been retold in countless ways over the years and no two versions are exactly alike. In some, Persephone is abducted by Hades and tricked into becoming his bride for half the year. In others, she is a psychopomp queen in her own right.

Being the kind of person that I am, I prefer the tales in which Persephone chooses the crown. But how would her mother react to this choice? Would she understand Persephone’s desire for power and her love for a creature shrouded in darkness?

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“Proserpine” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

It is that narrative I chose to explore in my poem. I hope you enjoy it!

In writing the second draft of my Middle Grade novel, one of the questions I’ve been asking myself concerns content. What can we “get away with” in children’s literature? What is and isn’t considered inappropriate? I was honestly started to despair that my particular story (which deals with a living doll living in WWII era Krakow) would pass the test because of how heavily I was drawing from the non-“Disney-fied” versions of fairy tales and folklore. Then I happened across a miniseries recently produced by Cartoon Network called Over the Garden Wall, which was very dissimilar to the Disney formula in style and content.

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I am by no means dismissing Disney entirely; most of the early films of the studio’s “Renaissance” are legitimately good. Beauty and the Beast, with its breathtaking animation, enchanting songs, and clever dialogue was worthy of the Oscar it was almost awarded. But the Walt Disney Company’s mid-90s decision to (for the most part) treat the target audience of children as children and not as tiny people capable of responding to complex emotional stories shows. It was Studio Ghibli and movies produced by Pixar (which Disney did acquire in 2006) who picked up the slack in that area with movies like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Up. The latter two are certainly children’s stories, but they deal with heavy topics–self-reliance, grief, environmentalism, and parental abandonment among them.

I was surprised to discover that Over the Garden Wall is firmly in the camp of Up, Beauty and the Beast, and Spirited Away rather than Pocahontas (questionable Oscar bait that it was) or Spongebob Squarepants.

Over the Garden Wall understands that it is a (decidedly American) fairy tale and that fairy tales need their teeth intact to be effective narratives. It even has a worthy Hansel and Gretel premise, featuring two brothers who become lost in “the Unknown” and encounter a wide range of tricksters, monsters, and magical creatures in their quest to return to their home. It’s a smart series, peppered with references to Dante’s Inferno, Southern gothic literature, and the whimsy of the early 20th century Little Nemo cartoon strips. And it’s beautifully animated in the bargain. The series respects its child audience and that is exactly what children need from fiction.

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In other words, kids are people too. They have internal lives, they have hopes and fears, and they have their own distinct perceptions about the world. We need to follow Over the Garden Wall’s example and keep writing stories for them that reflect that.

Stephen King recently did in an interview in Rolling Stone in which he discussed the novels he’s least satisfied with and I noticed a pattern that reflects my own habits as an author. When King was desperate to write anything just to feel like he was being productive, even if he was suffering from severe physical and/or mental health problems, the work he produced wasn’t up to his usual quality.

2010 and 2011 were difficult years for me, and I wrote very little in the way of fiction during that time period as a result. By the end of 2011, I wanted to throw in the towel when it came to writing. I would study English literature, psychology, even basket weaving, but I was done with creating. Yet six months later, I started telling stories again. Being a writer gives you the power to reorder the universe however you like, which can be a great way to channel anger–and I was very angry about the things that were happening in the world back then.

I regularly wrote 8,000 words a day while pulling 40 hours a week at my day job. I wrote on my phone every day while taking the bus to work. I wrote on napkins and in the margins of magazines. I wrote what I still consider to be a really chilling piece of horror in the back of a car while the driver put “Call Me Maybe” on loop for an hour. I toppled governments, pursed criminals across seas of stars, brought about the end of the world with zombies carrying the Black Death, and saved girls from monsters.

I was on fire.

Or so I thought. I failed to realize that depression that often manifests as futile anger.

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Churchill called depression the “black dog”. It seems accurate to me.

(Art by Rives Alexis)

From late 2012 to early 2013, one of the things I worked on was a novel I would elevator pitch as a fusion between Doctor Who, the fairy tale Bluebeard, and Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth”. I looked it over recently after letting it languish for over a year. On a craft level, it’s fairly solid. The characters are interesting, the prose is reasonably good for a first draft, and the plot is serviceable.

It’s also a book I never want to touch again.

The message–that the people you love most are the ones who will betray you in the end–is the antithesis of what I want to put out there. It’s also not a message that’s indicative of my actual worldview. What it is indicative of is how I was in a bad frame of mind when I wrote it, regardless of how ostensibly “productive” I was being. This novel and many of my other books from that period feel like they were written by a stranger; they’re essentially bitter stories that lack a heart, and readers notice that.

Perhaps those stories saved me in their own way because they gave me an outlet for what was going on inside my head. There was certainly a time last fall when, after losing a friend, I found refuge in telling even the grimmest of tales. But the books I wrote back then aren’t ones I’m proud of and I’ve since rescued many of those characters from the dark woods and placed them into better worlds.

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Case in point: these two time travelers 

If we find that we hate everything that we write consistently, if we start to think that what we’re writing no longer sounds like it comes from the heart or if we’re ill, it can be valuable to step back from our work. And if we have to shelve our current project for the moment and do something else that will bring us joy, that’s not a failing. The characters and worlds will still be waiting for us when we come back.

Because we’re writers, and we will come back.

We always do.

catventures

November 13, 2014

I wasn’t always a cat person and I rarely thought about the mythological importance of the animal. Then, I met Ilsa.

In 2011, I decided I needed a companion animal and since I wasn’t home enough to care for a dog, a cat seemed like the natural choice. So, I adopted a shy, silver tabby kitten named Ilsa from the Miami Humane Society. Within days, we underwent a trial by fire together when she managed to find the hole under my sink and nest in the wall between my condo and the next. Being a cat, she couldn’t figure out how to get out of said hole and eyed me pitifully from the shadows, as if demanding that I bend time and space to ensure she never got stuck in the first place. That story ends with me using a hammer to break her out, thus earning her undying loyal through that strange twist of fate. From then on, Ilsa would groom my hair when I was upset, followed me everywhere, and waited by the door for me about half an hour before I was scheduled to arrive home from work. I loved Ilsa.

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Ilsa in 2012. I took this photo while writing a novel about a dystopian society ruled by faeries that contained a number of magical cats

Then she was diagnosed with FIP–which has no cure and no real means of prevention–and I was heartbroken.

I didn’t let what happened to Ilsa deter me from adopting again, however. Shortly after Ilsa passed away, I went to the ASPCA to look for another feline companion. There, I found the ugliest cat I’d ever seen: a huge, black Maine Coon with a scarred face, comically long legs, and half-lidded yellow eyes who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Salem Saberhagen puppet from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. “We found him up a tree being attacked by crows,” the ASPCA volunteer told me. “He was probably feral, but he’s a real sweetheart.”

Colonel Brandon, AKA Book, turned out to be just that. He’s a highly vocal lap cat with the problem solving skills of a toddler. In many ways, he’s the exact opposite of little Ilsa. But I call him my familiar for a reason.

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Boo acting as moral support while I edited a short story last summer

I’m temporarily back in Miami with Boo now, who is currently watching the steady process of people walking towards the beach. But he’s not the only cat I’m looking after. A few days after I arrived, I found a feral colony living in the building across the street and started to feed the six cats I often saw sunning themselves on the pavement. I soon discovered a litter of kittens nearby and making sure all of them have food and fresh water has become an item on my daily to-do list.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources here to do more than that, as much as I would love to.

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Snow White, the friendliest of the feral cats. In a piece of fiction I’m working on, she helps the heroine escape from Baba Yaga

There are thousands of feral cats here in the Miami, the result of careless owners who either abandoned their pets or refused to spay and neuter them. Ilsa and Boo both began their life in one of colonies like the one I’m trying to care for, and that has made me protective of them.

As you may have noticed, almost every story I write now featured a cat in it. Why? Because they make for great characters, especially as a fantasy author–they’re entrenched in our ideas about magic. Historically, cats have been goddesses, witches, and soothsayers. They catch evil spirits as easily as they catch rats and spiders, and move in and out of Faerie with greater ease than any mortal. Cats are revered in Islam and welcomed into sacred spaces, and they are considered lucky in Russia, China, and Japan.

What can you do to help these magical creatures? For one, you can adopt from or volunteer at the Humane Society, ASPCA or, if you’re in the Miami-Dade area, the Cat Network. If you’re have transportation of your own, you can also trap feral cats and bring them to a low-cost clinic to be spayed or neutered and prevent overpopulation. And, of course, you can feed them and give them water to help make the lives of the animals in feral colonies lives a little less difficult.

Live your life like you’re in a fairy tale and help a cat today. You’ll be rewarded with a little magic–I can guarantee you that.

I’m currently working on a short story about a Cuban woman in Miami who discovers that Baba Yaga, the infamous cannibal witch, has taken up residence across the street from her. The inspiration for the piece came from my own fascination with Slavic folklore and the sudden influx of Russians into Miami in the last three years. If the Russians now found Miami appealing, I thought to myself, why shouldn’t their gods and monsters develop a love for it themselves?

Because the story takes place in a major city, I should immediately have classified it as urban fantasy, but I shied away from the label. The story is about Miami and its changing demographics as much as it is about witches and firebirds, which did not seem to fit the urban fantasy formula that has become increasingly popular in the last decade.

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Hotel..or palace for an alien princess, depending on your perspective

“When I first started paying attention to things like sub-genre definitions (early 1990’s), the term urban fantasy usually labeled stories in a contemporary setting with traditionally fantastical elements,” writes Carrie Vaugh in her timeline of urban fantasy. Indeed, the sub-genre was once dedicated to exploring the magic of place and in it, urban environments became characters in and of themselves. Sometimes, they were literally personified; other times, it was only the protagonist’s feelings about a city that animated it for the reader. But place was the key element to these stories–and a powerful one at that. It is Francesca Lia Block and Neil Gaiman who embody the best of this type of urban fantasy, two authors whose work I fell in love with during my teenage years.

Block’s Los Angeles is equal parts grime and glitter; it overloads the senses and intoxicates. Block’s L.A. contains “the ruins of Houdini’s magic mansion, […] stained-glass Marilyn Monroes shining in the trees, leopard-spotted cars, gardens full of pink poison oleander and the Mediterranean villa on the hill where Joni Mitchell once lived, dreaming about clouds and carousels and guarded by stone lions.” It is full of the fantastical yet wholly grounded in the real world. While she is not afraid to talk about the dire poverty faced by many there nor does she sugarcoat the extreme materialism and toxic beauty culture of the area, Block’s earliest novels are nonetheless love poems to the city of angels.

Gaiman’s Neverwhere is similarly an ode to London and its many conflicting identities, from ancient city to modern metropolis. “There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber. There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere–it doesn’t all get used up at once,” he writes. The central idea behind Neverwhere–that there is a secret London only a few can see and interact with–makes perfect sense to anyone who has ever visited or live there. Rounding a corner can seem like time travel in a city where the past and present duel for dominance.

Magical things happen in Gaiman’s London and Block’s L.A. because they are inherently magical places, cities where the centuries brush up against each other or dreams can be fashioned out of 9.5 millimeter film. We believe angels and genies can exist in the same sphere as bankers, movie stars and shopkeepers; these ordinary people are, after all, immersed in the enchantment themselves.

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Here be gods.

I would categorize myself as a student of “old school” urban fantasy and I think the sub-genre as a whole could benefit from returning to its roots by focusing more on place. What is it about this particular setting that attracted a specific subset of supernatural creatures? How has living in New York or London informed the main character’s perception of the world and of magic itself? What is it that speaks to you as the author about the city you’ve dropped your characters into? These questions, I believe, can make for a much stronger sense of place–and thus, a much stronger story.

Marian Rosarum:

Among Others was recommended to me by one of my Stonecoast mentors, since I was (and still am!) working on a story featuring faeries.

It has since become an extremely important novel to me, and I constantly revisit it in my mind to try and decide just what my take on the story is. It seems that the various cover artists have done the same, only via a visual medium. In this post, a friend of mine analyzes each international cover of Among Others, and how it depicts Walton’s book.

Just what type of story is Among Others? Is it a true fantasy, is or it merely an exercise in magical thinking? Pick up the book for yourself and decide…

Originally posted on perfect worry:

My fiend and I have this thing about Among Others. Neither of us can decide if we like it. I liked parts of it and didn’t like other parts of it, and I’m not sure I’ll ever reconcile those bits into a book I have a definite opinion about. We’ve talked about this a lot, so when I saw the Japanese edition for sale at Village Vanguard, I snapped a photo and sent it to her.

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I thought it was a strange design choice, because it doesn’t hint at all about the fantastic/magical realism elements that make this book this book. Instead, it looks like a school story; I get an almost Anne of Green Gables-ish vibe out of these. My friend said they looked much “younger” than the book; I think this is just “kawaii” in action.

Among OthersI read this in ebook format originally, and thus I…

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I realized today that a story I’ve been writing wasn’t working the way I wanted it to because I had the wrong setting. Having previously lived in Miami and backpacked across Europe, I’ve come to love international cities and feel a real kinship with them. But this story was not intended to take place in Berlin, or Paris, or even my beloved Miami.

It was meant to take place in Virginia.

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A stained glass window in downtown Charlottesville

I never thought I would ever live in the American South. Growing up in a liberal college town at the base of the Rocky Mountains, that particular area of the United Sates always seemed like a foreign country to me, as if I was living in an alternate history in which the Confederacy had secured its independence and a physical border existed. But one thing led to another and three years ago, I found myself in Maryland, next door to Appalachia.

I remember losing my way on a walk shortly after I moved, and being a 21st century lady, I sent a photo of the area I’d found myself in to a friend. “Where I am?!” I texted, only half joking. He responded with: “You’ve wandered into an alternate universe and are now in District 12. May the odds be ever in your favor.”

As it would turn out, he was fairly on the mark.

In the weeks that followed, I regularly went between Maryland to Virginia to visit a friend’s parents, passing through West Virginia on the way. On those long drives, the dystopia of Suzanne Collin’s imagination began to ring true for me in the form of the grey mountainside, the poverty that scarred it, the way I was always tripping over Civil War bones, the sight of old pest-houses nestled in the lush greenery. It was a haunted area and my writing, the stories I sought out, and even the music I listened to began to reflect my fascination with it.

No, I didn’t belong in my new home–I felt that very keenly. But I wanted to try to understand it.

Things became even more surreal when I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia six months later. I would walk home from work through the University of Virginia’s campus, marveling at Thomas Jefferson’s neo-classical architecture and wondering what inspiration Edgar Allen Poe had drawn from his time there. The grocery store down the road from my apartment was located at the site of a Civil War battle, and for reasons that are now hilariously absurd, my former housemates and I spent two hours trying to find out whether or not present day Route 29 mirrored the path of supply lines in 1864. When a man walked into that same grocery store with a rifle, my first thought was that he must be a Confederate soldier displaced in time and space. (Disappointingly, he was only practicing his GOP-given right to carry a weapon in public, and his rifle inspired terrified shoppers to flee the store en masse) It was easy to imagine seeing faerie lights in the trees if I ventured out after dusk.

I like to think I live in a kind of fairy tale now, but I would describe my life between 2012 and early 2014 as a Southern Gothic. It was characterized by my attempts to navigate a social order that bewildered me, the people I befriended who were often demonized because they stood in defiance of that social order, and the constant echoes of the past I was surrounded by. I struggled with a lot of questions related to power and justice and what it was like to be an outsider living amid all that. And perhaps I wouldn’t have thought to ask those things in the first place if I had stayed in Miami.

Being a writer, I tried to process those questions through my work. I wrote about wicked gentlemen who abused their power. I wrote about a couple forced to exist on the fringes of their society as they spoke out against an unjust system (that just happened to be governed by faeries). I wrote about monstrous children and lost spirits who did not see themselves as grotesque and only wanted to have a place in the world. I wrote about demons whose kisses spread yellow fever, people who had fallen through time and could not get home again to their original century, and girls on the run.

I said goodbye to Virginia in January, having decided that Mo Willems was right and I had been in the wrong story all along. But I believe my ghost stories will always be set in the American South, because it was there that I came across so many ghosts myself.

I am haunted by them, still.

Gretel in darkness

September 4, 2014

In “Who Watches the Historians?”, one of her essays from the collection Indistinguishable From Magic, Catherynne Valente contemplates why World War II holds such a fascination for speculative fiction authors. She theorizes that WWII is far more simple in mortal terms than the other wars the West has been involved in, a conflict in which the Allies were unambiguously the “Good Guys”, whereas the Nazis have become synonymous with evil in the Western imagination. “Is there a comic book villain that isn’t either Hitler or Mengele in modern drag?” Valente asks us.

I know I’d be hard pressed to find one.

I too am guilty of setting a sizable portion of my fiction during the war. Not because of blind veneration of the greatest generation, but because my father was stationed in Germany during the late 1970s. His job as an infantryman in the US Army was to buy enough time for the base to be evacuated should the Soviet Union decide to invade West Germany–which is to say that he was to die gloriously in battle facing off with hundreds of the Russian tanks while the diplomats and officers fled the country.

 

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My father used to carry around this cartoon for a reason.

Despite this, he has always looked back on his time in Germany fondly. I grew up on his tales of American GIs stealing laundry from the wash lines of German housewives as part of training exercises, ghostly knights who charged guard towers only to disburse into the Bavarian mist, and the palpable sense of pain radiating from the hastily white washed walls of barracks that had once been part of a concentration camp. To me, WWII was multifaceted and tangible in a way that it may not to other budding fantasy writers, and so were the German people themselves. They were hardly different than the citizens of any other Western country, and that adds to the magnitude of what took place between 1933 and 1945.

Perhaps that’s why I continue to set stories during that period–and why I’m drawn to films and novels that do not portray the war in simple, black and white terms. The Book ThiefEverything Is Illuminated, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Briar Rose stand out as some of my favorite pieces of fiction.

 

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Hänsel and Gretel by Sybille Schenker

(The following review contains minor spoilers)

Goodreads recommended me Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville after I praised The Book Thief, and I devoured it in a matter of days. The novel tells two stories that eventually–and surprisingly–converge: one of a woman who claims to be both a time traveler and a machine, and another of a troubled German child named Krysta.

Strangely for me, I was drawn to the more mundane Krysta, who is both a monstrous little girl and a victim all at once. The daughter of a concentration camp physician, she is not only oblivious to her father’s work, but rude, spoiled, and constantly hungers for the bloody fairy tales her former nanny Greet told her.

She is the sort of female protagonist others might label as being unlikable, yet Krysta has become one of my favorite characters. Throughout the novel, she uses fantasy as the empowering lens through which she views her increasingly grim reality, with the all too human monsters in Krysta’s life becoming dressed in the trappings of her imagination. She sees the camp guards as mirrors of the witch in the candy house intent on devouring her, and its fiendish administrator in even housed in the highest room of the tallest tower, turning her into an unfortunate Rapunzel. And, recognizing the power of stories to save us more clearly than any heroine save Mori from Jo Walton’s Among Others, she gives them to the suffering children and adults around. Like the fairy tale Gretel, who she models herself on in many of her fantasies, she is resilient, violent, and even kind in equal measure.

Fundamentally, fairy tales and the monsters that inhabit them reflect our fears and instruct us on how to survive them, and I greatly appreciated Granville’s approach to the archetype of the fairy tale witch. Witches are wicked creatures who abuse their personal power and glut themselves at the expense of others–traits which can apply to a person of any gender–and I’ve long thought that the archetypes needs to be updated for a modern audience as so many others have. As I mentioned earlier, Krysta’s witches are both men and women, and her visualization of them as such is based on the cruelty of their actions rather than on their appearances.

Stories change to accommodate our needs so that they do not become stale and obsolete, but when told well, their hearts always remain the same. Granville’s Gretel and the Dark does just that.

(As a caution, I would add trigger warnings regarding physical and sexual child abuse to Gretel and the Dark)

on saving yourself

August 7, 2014

During my last Stonecoast residency in July, I attended a panel called: “Mental Health For Writers.” After the professor who was going to lead it came down with the flu, the presentation became a community discussion about how to maintain the right environment–physically and mentally–for writing.

I had been looking forward to the original presentation, but I feel I got a lot out of the conversation nonetheless. Guided by the program director, we covered topics ranging from how to motivate yourself to write when daily life has worn you down, how to stick to a project when inspiration seems to have run dry, and (of course) the mental health issues we as writer’s face.

I see writing as an escape. It offers me the opportunity to not only remove myself from my own problems, albeit temporarily, but to craft an ideal world. Though not right away–the heroes have to strive for it before they can reach it, and overcome demons both personal and very real. I wouldn’t write speculative fiction if their existential crises didn’t manifest physically, now would i?

One of the most important lessons I learned during my second semester at Stonecoast was that writing saves me every time, an idea echoed by many in the community discussion.

 

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Acción Poética Colombia

In the beginning of my career as a graduate student, I tried to write grittier fantasy fiction, but it never quite worked out the way I hoped it would. At the end of 2013, I turned instead to fairy tales, which I’ve always been fascinated with; they have been a means to discuss difficult, even controversial topics for centuries, and in the guise of entertainment no less. And perhaps more than any other type of story, they have an agenda–for the best celebrate not conformity, but how clever people can beat back the dark.

Initially, I was afraid I was wasting my time and I wondered if words could ever be enough. Really, what sort of weapons were homemade fairy tales against the dark? What impact could such stories have on my own heart and those of other people? But for me, fairy tales became a means of engaging in real life acts of katabasis and renewal. Through them, I could write the happy ending denied to me, and to many of the people I am closest to.

On the page, I have the freedom I normally do not have in my ordinary life to speak my mind.

I just choose do so through talking dolls and kind dragons.

Slate.com published what many are calling a “clickbait” article about YA fiction in which the author demanded that adults who read the genre to be embarrassed by their lack of intellectual maturity. Author Ruth Graham went so far as to imply that YA fiction stunts the emotional growth of adults and in order to be truly be mature, one must embrace the messiness of untidy endings in fiction, since we so rarely have neat endings in life. Naturally, many people were offended by the article.

I feel C.S. Lewis says it best: “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

I will be the first to admit that much of YA fiction is derivative and poorly written, and that it often frustrates me. I think that teens deserve better than a thousand and one knock offs of popular series such as Twilight and The Hunger Games. But a sea of bad novels exists in any genre, and I’m not able to disparage anyone’s love for a book. (Unless you liked Atlas Shrugged, in which case I reserve the right to judge you) If it resonates with you, embrace it, share it with your friends, write blog posts about how important it is to you.

Protesters against the military coup in Thailand have adopted the three-fingered salute of the Districts as a means of peacefully defying their government. Many of my fourteen-year-old sister’s friends use Factions they think they would choose as a means of self-identification. I’ve seen people my age who have found quotes by Albus Dumbledore so meaningful to them that they had them permanently inked on their bodies. YA fiction does inspire people in positive ways.

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By Made With Magic on Etsy

For authors however, what we read is a different matter. To be a writer, you can never read only in one genre, be that literary fiction, YA, SFF, or romance. You must read widely and you must read often, as Stephen King advises in his craft book On Writing. I prefer SFF and slipstream over realistic fiction, but that doesn’t stop me from picking up books like Goldfinch or listing Everything Is Illuminated as one of my favorite–and most formative–novels.

We writers must be open to new experiences, be they out in the world or in our imaginations. We have the unique gift of transforming pain into beauty, after all. I no way agree with Graham; no one should be ashamed for loving YA or even reading mostly in that genre. But there is something to be said about broadening our horizons and leaving our comfort zones as writers.