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A real female

LydiaLee

It has been a long time since I posted last. In light of recent policies of exclusion regarding transgender Americans, I think it’s time I publish a response I drafted recently about my third book.

Dear _______, 

I will reply openly rather than sharing your original post, because I do not wish any backlash to befall you, and because I feel your concerns were both earnestly heartfelt and important to address.

Yours was a very kind note and I am so happy you enjoyed my books and even more happy that you read them with your grandson in a book club. I admire and applaud you for being involved in your grandson’s life. Modeling engaged, enthusiastic literacy is beautiful.

Your note came to a point when you expressed disappointment that I had chosen to include a small role for a woman of color who happened to be transgender. You expressed concern that seeing a trans character would cause gender dysphoria in young readers. The character was one of many that my main characters took under their protection while defending the city from monsters. Her monsters happened to be human.

“The hate/fear attack would be just as realistic and actually a more likely occurrence if Lydia Lee was simply a real female…” you wrote.

What you mean, of course, is that a lesson about not hating and fearing people would be more realistic if Lydia Lee were “cisgender.” (The word “real” implies that trans women don’t exist). And you are right in that there ARE more cisgender women than transgender woman by far. It IS statistically far more likely to come across a cis woman than a trans woman. You’re right that lessons about abused cis women would strike a real chord, as would lessons about abused women of color. You’re right that children ARE ready and able to learn that women of color are sometimes victims of terrible bigotry, and you seem to agree with me that it is appropriate to teach young minds to stand up for them. You seem to agree that that inclusion has value. What we include in literature affects students.

But your letter expressed the clear wish that she had not been transgender, too. What that tells me is that you are concerned about a society that stigmatizes women and people of color—but not about a society that stigmatizes transgendered people. What we avoid in literature affects students, too.

82% of transgender youth report feeling unsafe at school. They are real. Yes, there are more cis women than transgender women—but that’s just the point. Minorities are marginalized. Trans kids are subjected to horrible abuse on a daily basis, and that abuse is legitimized by authories who stigmatize their identity. When TV shows or novels include a trans character—simply acknowledging that they exist—those writers are often accused of pushing a political agenda. The very existence of this minority offends. So what do those students internalize? What do their bullies internalize?

As a teacher of young adults, I have had several transgender students in my classes. In my first year, I witnessed firsthand as a pair of bullies walked past one of my students and, to their face, vomited a litany of transphobic slurs. I was shaking. It was awful and ugly and dehumanizing. I caught up with the bullies and laid into them with absolute certainty that their hate speech was not welcome, and if I ever saw it again I would personally pursue their expulsion.

Then I caught up with my trans student and asked if they were okay.

“Yeah. I’m okay. That was nothing. I went through a lot worse at my old school.”

The response bespoke enormous fortitude, but also turned over a rock and revealed to me an infestation of ugliness that I had not realized was part of my community. That student later shared with me that at their old school, school staff had never done anything to protect them. A few teachers had even suggested that they brought it on themselves, provoking bullies by dressing that way.

That is reality for many trans young adults. It may be why I have had trans readers tell me that they were reduced to tears upon reading that same scene you wish I had not included, because it was the first time they had ever seen a cis character defend a trans character in popular lit.

Society as a whole rejects misogyny. It rejects racism. As my trans students know, however, society as a whole does not reject hatred toward LGBTQ individuals, least of all transphobia. Society often hates them just for existing. But they exist. They are real.

That may be why LGBTQ students—unsupported, undefended, and hated by much of their own society—are eight times more likely to attempt suicide. Sadly, I have firsthand experience with that, as well. One of my amazing, vivacious trans students made an attempt a couple years ago. Thankfully they survived. When they returned, their friends flooded them with love and support, and I personally hugged them and told them how happy I was that they were back. They graduated this year. I am so proud of them and of my community for showing them they matter—even if it was almost too late. I will never stop worrying about the world I send them off into next.

That’s why I am proud to include Lydia Lee in my cast of characters. She is strong and proud and brave, and she is an excellent female role model for my leading lady. She is fictional, but what she represents is very real.

Reading teaches empathy. Your grandson will be a better person thanks to all the books you have shared with him, and thanks to your own caring example. I am so happy that you selected my books among the many that will shape his outlook on the world, and I am all the happier with my decision to include Miss Lee. 

I am confident that having a trans character in the same universe as your grandson has not caused him great emotional distress. I hope that, in some small way, reading about Miss Lee helped him feel more confident being himself and more comfortable respecting the diversity he will encounter in the world he is inheriting from us.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for writing. Keep raising a thoughtful, literate, empathetic young man. The world he is entering will need him at his very best.

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Badgers do care.

hogwarts

I’ve been reading Deathly Hallows with the boys, and thinking a lot about the Professors. Voldemort had risen. The ministry had fallen. Power had shifted in Hogwarts, yet the professors remained at their posts… for the students. When it is safest to run and boldest to fight, sometimes the strongest people are called to do something much harder. They are called—for the sake of others—to hold the ruins on their backs so that those beneath them are not crushed by the wreckage. They are called to endure and lift up. It calls for a sacrifice of one’s pride and prestige, the hardest thing for a Slytherin. It calls for one to knowingly enter into a situation any intelligent mind must realize will not end well, counterintuitive to a Ravenclaw. It calls for one to suppress one’s passions and instincts to act rashly, the Achilles heel of any Gryffindor. It is a time to be the strongest and kindest of all the houses. When conditions are at their worst, when the Battle of Hogwarts is on the horizon, it is a time to be Hufflepuffs. Together.

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What I DESERVE.

A video surfaced recently denouncing inclusive literature. It was a very entitled and deeply offensive diatribe against diversity in publishing. I will not link to it in the interest of not adding fuel to a garbage fire. Instead, here’s a link to the awesome WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS website. The good news is, that video sparked conversations—lots of them—that I believe will do more good than the video did damage. Keep talking.

I’m a white male author. I work my butt off. I write good stories. I have EARNED the success I’ve seen, but that does not mean that I DESERVE it, and that’s a key distinction. I don’t DESERVE sh*t. I’m not ENTITLED to a single book contract or royalty check. I work hard, but there are people who work harder and don’t get published. I am talented, but there are people who are more talented who don’t get published. I’m nice and easy to work with, but there are nicer people out there who don’t get published. The fact is, no matter how good I am, I’m also LUCKY, and a big part of my luck is my inherited identity.

Fellow white authors, we are running a race. I’m tired and sweaty and exhausted, just like you, and so when I look over and see the crowd cheering on a black runner and offering her water, it’s easy for me to say “Hey—no fair! Cheer for ME, not her!” It’s easy because I don’t see the fact that that she is running on a rougher track, or that she has cheap, broken shoes, or that she’s carrying with her heavy baggage containing essential supplies to help an underprivileged community waiting for her at the finish line. I don’t have those problems, so I don’t see them. All I see is that the race is hard for me, and if nobody is making it easier for ME, then they shouldn’t make it easier for ANYONE.

tired-runner
Photo Credit: ostill / 123RF Stock Photo

That line of thinking is bullsh*t, and my privilege means it’s easier for me to say that that’s bullsh*t because it’s not piled on top of me. I’m not a woman, so I won’t be accused of just being a feminazi. I’m not black, so I won’t be accused of being an angry black man. I’m not LGBTQ, so I won’t be accused of having a gay agenda. I won’t be as easily dismissed—and that’s one of the many results of my privilege. It also means that as a privileged man, it falls more heavily on me to use that privilege ethically.

I benefit from my privilege. I’m not ashamed of who I am. I’m not at fault for having privilege… but I’m also not so afraid of my privilege that I feel the need to deny it or play the victim just because I’m NOT a minority. I have power by virtue of my birth. Power is not fault, but power IS responsibility. I have power, so I try to use it responsibly. I try to deserve it.

If I write a character that resonates as offensive to readers in spite of my best efforts—does that mean they’re just oversensitive social justice warriors? NO IT DOES NOT. Mark Twain was a noble abolitionist fighting for African Americans to be respected in the South. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t also sometimes straight up racist. CALL THAT SH*T OUT. It’s okay. Mark Twain would understand. So will I.

Twain

If my flawed efforts at making the world better through my books sparks a heated conversation that I didn’t anticipate, GOOD! Have that conversation! Let the critical conversation do the good that my book failed to do! Critical thinkers make the world better one disagreement at a time.

The world needs diverse books by diverse authors. Unique perspectives and cultures are lost every time a publisher buys another white male protagonist while turning down a brilliant manuscript by a minority purely because they’re not looking for an “ethnic” book this season. I’ll get published or I won’t. The minority author querying at the same time won’t change that.

Those books are not my competitors. Those authors are not the enemy. They are simply the ones that will reach readers in ways that I don’t. We’re in it together, growing readers and making the world a better place. Together.

So, fellow white writers—you’re exhausted, I get it. Me too. Don’t jeer at the other runners—that’s petty and ugly—try to cheer them on, instead. See one of them struggling in broken sneakers? Offer them your spare set. See one who has fallen? Help them up. You might find that when we support each other the whole race becomes a much more pleasant experience.

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Media quickie

GHOSTLY ECHOES officially released this week, which has come with loads of new pieces out there in the media that I keep not getting around to sharing, so here is a quick stack of them all together!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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F*** IT. ZOMBIES (Or: Why my editor needs an aspirin)

Sometimes doing exactly what you want to do is hard. I write fanciful novels about a magical detective. I love them. They’re silly and meaningful and ridiculous and fun. Also, sometimes, they’re hard. Writing a book, it turns out, is a lot of writing. When the pressure of deadlines and the slog of getting sh* done starts to make what I love feel like a JOB (gasp)… I’ve found that I have three options:

  1. Fortify and do your damn job.
  2. Abandon your dreams and drink heavily.
  3. F* it. Have fun.

A colleague of mine arranged for the author Jacquelyn Mitchard to visit our students last year. Mitchard spoke about her debut The Deep End of The Ocean being selected as Oprah’s first ever Book Club book. She talked about her process and was generally a very intelligent and engaging guest. My favorite moment was her reply to the classic, “What do you do when you get writer’s block?” question. Her response.

I don’t.
I don’t believe in writer’s block.
A plumber doesn’t get plumber’s block.
The President doesn’t get president’s block.
It’s a job. You just do it.

I think that philosophy is awesome. If you’re the kind of artist who waits for inspiration to strike, you will get writer’s block A LOT. You will get it pretty much constantly. Sometimes you just have to do the damn work. Mitchard’s stance on that pairs nicely with a Pablo Picasso quote I like to toss at my writing students from time to time, too:

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

So I do the work. I write, and most of the time, I am really grateful that I have the luxury of doing what I love. While all that is true—there still come times when I begin to resent it. I shouldn’t, I know. It’s the work I WANT to be doing. I CHOSE this, but that doesn’t magically make it less hard.

I remind myself that it’s option 1—do the work, or option 2—don’t. Go get a desk job and figure out how to be a grown up. Every once in while, though, I allow myself option 3.

Option 3 generally emerges in a sort of late-night “Hold my beer. Now watch this…” kind of foolish writing haze. The plot has been planned out neatly. My editors have approved my outlines. I have the work laid out in front of me… and the click of the keys gradually slows down. And  then it stops. And I want to set my laptop on fire just to see colors again.

And then, suddenly… BAM. That other part of my brain kicks in—the part that decided I was going to write about a magical detective in the first place, instead of growing up and learning how to use Excel—and that part decides it’s had enough. “F* it,” my brain says. “Zombies. What if there were zombies in this scene? Wouldn’t that be so much cooler than dialogue? No, wait. UNICORNS! Yes! Let’s freakin’ DO this!”And then, suddenly, the keys are clicking again.

The zombies and unicorns don’t always make it to the final draft. Sometimes that part of my brain is an idiot, lets be honest—but every once in a while it does help me find the thing that was missing from the page—the thing that made me start writing in the first place: fun. Those passages are frequently my very favorite parts of my books, and they are definitely my favorite part of writing.

So my advice: do the damn work. Don’t give up on the dream. But remember: it’s okay to have fun, too.

f_it_Zombies

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Lady Science!

There are a lot of things that I can’t believe are still things in the 21st century. The KKK. Homophobia. Tab cola. Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the gender gap, another inexplicable thing that’s still a thing. You know the one—it’s that thing where 50% of the population are so poorly represented that they qualify as a minority. I’ve been thinking about the gender gap in the sciences in particular.

The fact is, women may have long since won the rights to vote, to have careers, and to wear stylish yet functional bedazzled pants, but men still hold 70% of all careers in science and engineering. White men alone hold the majority of these positions, but men of every demographic outnumber women of the same category. All women of color combined barely add up to a tenth of the total professional scientific population.

Graph

In my novels, I write about a young woman living a century ago with a background in science. While writing, I constantly need to remind myself that it wasn’t the norm. It comes far too naturally to me to envision scientifically-minded women. I’ve learned plenty about Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale and Irene Curie, but more than that, my own grandmother, Mary Campbell, practically wrote the book on Medical Mycology. In fact… she DID write the book, and if you studied medical mycology at university, chances are it was on your required reading list. Incidentally, if you studied Medical Mycology at university, you are probably also doing more important things with your life than writing novels that feature a magical detective. Good for you.

MedMycMary

My family is full of female professors, nurses, veterinarians, computer analysts, and research scientists; when I was growing up, I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a smart woman. I know. I tried. My sisters tattled and I got grounded for it. It continues to shock me, therefore, that the image of a woman as an intelligent professional is a concept that needs normalizing.

The trouble is ingrained in our culture. Women are encouraged to be supporters while men are pushed to be competitive. If that’s not blatant enough, loads of brilliant successful women have been actively cheated out of their notoriety by male colleagues.

3 Women Scientists Whose Discoveries Were Credited to Men

6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism

8 Inventions by Women that Dudes got Credit For

ScienceLady.jpg

“Who cares?” one might argue. “Those men probably stole credit from other men, too, that’s just the cutthroat nature of the field.” But when there are so few women in the field to begin with, each overlooked achievement represents a greater loss.

The problem with the erasure of women is that as a result, countless women just don’t get to see a future for themselves in the sciences in the same ways men do, and that matters. With good role models, possibilities blossom, and limitations drop away. Without any, invisible walls grow and self-doubt takes hold.

A few years back, my sister followed in the footsteps of Medical Mycology Mary and co-authored a book called THE ULTIMATE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO SCIENCE.

Girls Guide Science

Her role models mattered to her, and in turn she has became that role model through books and camps that she helps run for kids. Her latest project is the culmination of years of research that is both practical and awesome and involves fire… and also happens to be literally rocket science. Her Kickstarter for the ROCKET MASS HEATER GUIDE has just a few days left if you want to support an awesome woman in science RIGHT NOW, by the way, although she has already doubled her goal because the concept is just so damn cool!

Erica

Women are a part of the scientific community. They just are. Awesome though their accomplishments might be, the fact that they exist should be the most boring thing in the world. Sadly, it’s STILL an anomaly in the 21st century for a woman to be seen as a scientist. I don’t want writers of historical fiction a hundred years from now to look back at 2016 and find themselves astonished at how unusual it was for women in our time to be recognized for their contributions.

So, let’s share a little recognition right now—who are your favorite female faces in the field of science and engineering?

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I Know What He Wants.

Okay. So, we watched STAR WARS: The Force Awakens before bed.

Yes, the Chewbacca and BB-8 plushies are adorable, but focus! This post isn’t about that!

Last night, my ten-year-old sat bolt upright from a dead sleep. “I KNOW WHAT HE WANTS!” He yelled, eyes wide, panting.

“What?!” I said. “Who?”

“I know,” he repeated more quietly, but with fervor, “what he wants.”

“Are you still asleep?” I asked. “What WHO wants?”

His eyes, still wild but already closing under heavy lids, finally found me in the chair across from his bed. “Luke Skywalker.”

He was asleep again before I thought to follow up with the next obvious question. It ate away at me for several long minutes as he began breathing evenly again. I could not imagine that any prophet had ever had more conviction in his voice than my son had just demonstrated in his Star Wars fueled dream-revelation. I needed to know. What DID Luke Skywalker want? I seriously considered waking him up.

I was about to leave when he woke again with a cough. I hurried over to his bed.

“You awake?” I said. “I have a very important question.”

“Hm?” His eyes were mostly open.

“What,” I said earnestly “does Luke Skywalker want?”

“Oh,” he mumbled. “Um… Peace.”

* * *

Okay, so I understand that perhaps I was stupid tired, and I had just watched Force Awakens not an hour before, but THAT FELT LIKE SOME PROFOUND SH**.

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