Monday, February 20, 2012

The Future of Publishing: A Meditation on the Purging of VHS Tapes

Recently we moved.

Goodbye, friends. Imma download you.
Instead of wisely and slowly sifting through our possessions first, and taking only what we wanted to keep, we paid movers to pack everything into boxes and bring it here, to the new house, where we would dutifully sort as we unpacked. We moved in a hurry. Living in that old house after our new one was bought seemed like continuing to live with that guy you've broken up with already, just because you had a lease together. And moving things bit by bit in an orderly fashion to the new house was like surreptitiously trying to date someone new at the same time you're still living with that guy. Even though it's not really cheating, you still sneak. And because you're not Jennifer Aniston and he's not Vince Vaughn, you don't end up falling back in love, you just move out at the end of the lease, and it's not funny, it's just awkward. And you forget everything that was in the bathroom, and you don't go back for it.

Anyway, we moved.

In the mountain of stuff we no longer want that is now sitting grumpily in our new house, there are a mazillion VHS tapes. These are objects that should have been purged years ago. We haven't watched any of them since we moved the last time. We don't even have a VCR connected to our TV. If we did hook up a VCR, and managed to remember what the button "Rewind" does, I guarantee the tapes would look awful in 1080 resolution. It's at a point with these VHS tapes that I don't even think the Salvation Army wants them. I don't think anyone wants them. But every time we began to hustle them into bags to push them out the door, we got all oogly about it. Here's our copy of "The Long Kiss Goodnight," which we watched and rewound several times. Here's "Household Saints," one of the first movies I ever owned. "Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael." "Go." "Four Rooms." "Sweetie." Here's that copy of "City of Lost Children" that was almost impossible to get. "Evita." Shut up, I have the whole thing memorized. I have a romantic attachment to these objects -- they remind me of when we were younger, poorer, and dumber, when I was working at a 1/2 porn video store during graduate school, when our TV was small and given to fits of rage instead of large and austere and firmly in control of itself.

So I put them, all, ruthlessly in the trash. I kept the ultrasound videos from my kids. I kept a couple of other personal things. But anything that I can get on DVD or download, I tossed.


This was not the cover.
But I wish it had been.
Because this cover's badass.
I have a romantic attachment to my books too. But I don't need to tell you that. You know I have the first paperback edition of Moby Dick I read in high school, with all my scrawled little teenaged marginal notes. You know I have the Candide I got in college, the used Italo Calvino I got in Milan, all my signed copies of friends' books, including stuff you can't hardly find ever like My Horse and Other Stories by Stacey Levine and You're a Bad Man Aren't You by Susannah Breslin. I like books. I have a lot. And I will never, ever, ever get rid of them. EVER.

But will my children? Will their children? Will publishing really change forever like everyone is saying it will, so that we'll all be walking around in future times with retinal projectors that allow us to store small libraries behind our ear drums and books will seem dumb like VCRs and twisty knobs on televisions, and jello molds? If I throw away these tapes, will I tomorrow throw away my Gormenghast novels? With the same reckless abandon? Will I?

Moment of panic. Moment of almost pulling those VHS tapes back out of the trash. Then, relief.

Here's what I realized. Books are not like VHS. They're not like DVDs or film canisters or analog recordings or vinyl. You can't say "Well, I can get my books on my Kindle" just like you can say "Well, I can get my songs on my iPod." They're not like that. Here's what they're really like: Theater. Live concerts. You can make them work just with your eyes. You can make all the parts function just by looking at them. It's not a product, it's an entertainment. It's not an object, it's an experience. An experience you can collect, and keep in pretty rows, and share, and and have again and again. And then I felt much better.

I felt better because not only did I NOT have to keep all those VHS tapes, and not only did I NOT have to get rid of all my books and start buying up eBooks on Google, but this: publishers are going to be okay. They really are. Call me Pollyanna or a crack addict or in denial or call me ignorant but here's what I'm saying: Books aren't going anywhere. 

Things may change, in publishing. E-books rise. Paperbacks fall. Publishers will try fetishizing, and niche marketing, and different production models. Fine. But people will still go to the theater. People will still go to live music shows. And people are still going to have books, want books, read books, hoard books, dive into books, and love books. Believe it.

Some of my favorite books.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Visit from Joshilyn Jackson

My excellent friend and NYT bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson was in town this weekend for a visit and some book events promoting her awesome new book, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty! We have been friends since graduate school, but since we normally go away together to hole up in the mountains and write, we have not seen each other's children in forever. It was very nice to have her here and witness my actual life when I'm not stuffing sticks into my hair and foaming at the mouth in the middle of novel production. The children loved her. The dog loved her. She saw my new house. She saw my old house. And there was rejoicing.

We started out in Richmond at The Woman's Club. Joshilyn did a talk and Q&A hosted by Fountain Bookstore. Here she is talking:

Here we are in the bathroom, wondering what's in that abandoned glass on the counter:

Here's Joshilyn with fantastic bookseller Kelly Justice from Fountain Bookstore:

And here we are afterward at the British pub around the corner, eating sausage rolles, Cornish pasties, and absolutely dreadful fish that was full of bones and fail:

Finally, here's Joshilyn at her reading at Prince Books in Norfolk. This morning she rolled out in her orange car to travel back to Atlanta. I miss her already!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pure by Julianna Baggott

Pure is brutal, layered, and new. Its world is bleak and strange, its characters are flawed, complicated, beautiful, and damned, every single one of them. This book is highly original, with a plot you could never predict and a climax you'll never see coming. You have not read a book like this -- you may think you have, but this is different.

Reviewers are comparing Pure to The Hunger Games. Alright, let's talk about that. I've read The Hunger Games. At the base of it, the idea is simple: People are cruel. War is hell. Power corrupts. Compelling engines, but not exactly ripping the lid off anything new. A spunky heroine takes on the cruel world. This is familiar.

Pure explodes more interesting questions. Where does humanity begin and end? What is absolute ruin, beyond which point you cannot be saved? and what does redemption look like, for people beyond that point? Where is the point of no return? What happens after that? These characters have no precedent -- they're not salvageable, they can't be cleaned up and put right or dressed properly and put in a parade, and that's what makes them so interesting. Meet Pressia, who has a doll head fused to her hand, so it is part of her. Meet Bradwell, who has living birds embedded in his back. Meet El Capitan, whose brother Helmud is permanently affixed to him in a life-and-death piggy-back ride. They cannot be extricated. Since it cannot end well for these characters, how will it end?

Baggott takes every question too far, and then asks it anyway. She's got her fist around a full throttle and she's burning every drop of gas in the tank. I have absolute respect for the scope of her vision, I'm totally obsessed with these fascinating characters, and I can't believe I have to wait so long to read the next book in the series.


I met Julianna Baggott in person at ABA Winter Institute. I had been a fan since my son decided her The Ever Breath was a stay-up-all-night must-read during a time he was only reading books about space. So after I finished reading Pure, I sent her an email with the one burning question I was dying to ask. Here's the question and her response.

Lydia: My favorite character was El Capitan. He is so original, so complicated. He had my full attention from the first time he came on the scene. Talk to me about the evolution of this guy. Did he emerge from your imagination as fused with his brother -- was that the beginning of the idea of his character? When did his backstory come to you? Did you always know that Helmud would be on some level separately sentient or did that happen during the writing? I'm so interested in how these layers evolved and how he came to be... anything you can share about your process in creating him, without giving too much away?  

Julianna: I was a small child. Abnormally small and the youngest of four kids. And so I was always hoisted on shoulders, piggybacked. I complained to my mother that the other kids in kindergarten were always picking me up. I was the smallest in my school for years. I remember when I finally got ONTO the doctor's charts at all, as undersized. A real feat. My 16 year old daughter will now often walk up to me and instead of a hug, she'll pick me right up off the ground. I also grew up in the era of doubling people on the backs of bikes, on handle bars. There were packs of kids all over the place and we rode in packs on bikes and someone was always short a bike. I was the one on the back of the bike, never strong enough to peddle. 
In other words, I was, in fact, Helmud, El Capitan's younger brother, the one who was fused to him when the Detonations hit, while he was doubling Helmud on the back of his motorbike. El Capitan is doomed to carry his brother for the rest of his life. I'm that brother. El Capitan loves his brother and is deeply burdened by him. This is how I was raised -- by my siblings at least -- sometimes cute sometimes a terrible burden.
I love El Capitan. He began for me as purely evil. He had no point of view. But as soon as he showed up eating a tin of chicken, his brother bobbing over his shoulder, I felt for him. Once he started having his own voice, I was in. No characters in the novel surprised me more than El Capitan.

Pressia with her doll-head fist came first to my mind, along with Our Good Mother, fused to her child. In fact, Our Good Mother may have come first. The fusings, in general, come in large part from having offspring -- oddly named, because in those early years, they don't spring off. They are Velcro-ed to the body, attached, fused. Partridge was next. Bradwell, too. He's Marquez-influenced. I had the concept of Beasts, Dusts, and Groupies wandering the scorched earth, and I wanted a groupie as an important set of characters. He' ain't heavy; he's my brother... Yeah, I know the song. Not well, but those lines are there in my head.
It felt like the quintessential story of brothers -- literally bound. I wanted to explore that relationship and then, of course, Helmud surprised me greatly, and, of course, El Capitan's response to his brother's surprise was completely and absolutely natural. (I think is what you meant by "without giving much away.")
The fact is that I can't write a character who's purely evil -- not if I get into their point of view. I don't know anyone who thinks they're the evil in the world. El Capitan is a strong character, a survivor, a protector, and as I got to know him, I learned how very, very tender he is. 
I'm deep into book II edits, FUSE, and looking closely at this relationship. I love them both. But of the two, yes, I'm Helmud. No doubt about it.


Thank you, Julianna, for that window into your head. I recommend Pure for the kid that loved The Hunger Games and wants more, or for the adult that's ready for smart post-apocalyptic fiction with more of a purpose than just grossing you out.