This is it! The final part of the interview with Sarah Rees Brennan! It’s been such a pleasure corresponding with her and having her writing on our blog. I’m so grateful that she took the time out to answer my questions so precisely and so thoughtfully.
Hope you guys enjoy this last bit! If you’d like to read the previous parts, click here for part 1 and here for part 2.
Happy Boxing Day, unicorns!
Between the completion of The Lynburn Legacy and the publication of “Wings in the Morning” in Monstrous Affections, you’ve written a whole novel online for fans to enjoy. As a published writer, how do you think fandoms and social media has affected the way that the (YA) publishing industry functions, if at all?
Well, there have always been fandoms! When the Gothic novel The Woman In White was being published in 1859, there were bets going at the gentlemen’s clubs about what the villain’s dark secret was, and people were buying Woman in White perfume. There has never been a time in human history that people weren’t getting excited about stories. Social media has just made it easier for those excited people to talk to each other, and to the people telling the stories.
I think interactions between fandom and publishing have changed in that I think the (always overlapping) relationship of audience and creators is in a constant state of evolution. Certainly 50 Shades of Grey changed the way the publishing industry viewed fanfiction.
BEFORE 50 SHADES, THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY: We don’t know what ‘fanfiction’ is.
BEFORE 50 SHADES, FANDOM: Publishing fanfiction, even if the names are changed, will definitely get you sued and maybe killed and eaten.
AFTER 50 SHADES, BOTH FANDOM AND THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY: … Huh.
I don’t think YA publishing has been affected as much as romance or erotica, but it has been affected– it’s all become a lot more open. Authors who have been published for years and years, like the amazing Lois McMaster Bujold, wrote fanfiction– but it wasn’t something that got talked about. Countless authors I know or know of secretly wrote fanfiction: now you hear Rainbow Rowell or Sarah J. Maas or Marissa Meyer talking on panels about how they wrote or still write it. The next step is having people say ‘I wrote this particular one, and that’s cool’– which is a risk, always (partly because people tend to like the first thing you wrote that they read best, which is a funny thing but definitely true, and partly because fanfiction is usually unedited juvenilia, which can be embarrassing!), but it’s a risk I think more people will take, and I hope it will not go too badly for them. I think it’s becoming less taboo: it’s becoming seen as the natural thing it always was. Teenage girls who are really into stories and writing … sometimes make up, and even write, stories about the characters they love? You shock me! It’s the most obvious thing!
I wrote some Enid Blyton fanfiction when I was about ten. Just on paper. I wasn’t aware of the internet yet. It’s gold though.
Fandom isn’t solely teenage girls, of course. The things grown men are doing with My Little Ponies. I cannot speak of them. If you do not know what I mean, it is better that way! But I think a lot of the reason that fandom gets flak, from both within and without (things are ALWAYS coming at people from both within and without!) is because it’s seen as a girl’s thing, and that leads to all that nonsense of ‘she wrote it but she shouldn’t have written it/she wrote it but she didn’t really write it/she wrote it but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art.’
As for me, I sure did write a whole free novel– The Turn of the Story— and put it online on my blog. Which was, you know, a strange thing for me to do! And it does link up with fandom, in an odd way, and not just because it was free and on my blog. 😉
I used to write Harry Potter fanfiction, from the age of about 17 to about 23, and tragically I was aware of the internet by then, so I put it online. I have been pretty open about that, always– people know which stories I wrote. I was very naive at the start of it all– I just went ‘Hi, guys on my blog who like my writing! omigosh this is my real name and I have a book deal, yay let’s celebrate!’– And it meant there were weird responses to my books right away. From without, people were like ‘How odd. Did she get her book deal because of that? (No … why on earth would I? But people are always looking for the Reason You Got Your Book Deal.) Is her book that? She can’t be very good…’ and from within fanfiction, there was a sense of ‘well, she’s got above herself, hasn’t she? I bet the book isn’t very good …’
I’ve had seven books published now, and there’s still a contingent of people– people in fandom, who read fanfiction, though not everyone, of course– who keep saying both ‘her books are fanfiction, therefore they’re terrible’ and ‘her fanfiction was good, but her books are terrible.’ (Yes the two things taken together don’t make a lot of sense, but there you have it.) Every book release, they’ll be there going ‘She should stick to what she’s good at’ (scuba diving?) and ‘Here’s why this character is actually this character/this scene is actually that scene from Harry Potter/a TV show I don’t watch.’ It’s very upsetting, obviously: it’s meant to upset me and take me down a peg.
But there was always a part of me going ‘Well, what if they’re right? What if my books are crappy and I can only write fanfiction? That sucks– I don’t want to write it anymore! I’ve wanted to write books since I was five!’ I never felt tempted to write any more fanfiction, but I did think about whether I should just go be a goat herder in the lonely mountains. When enough people are telling you something, it seems true. It was so hard: it was heartbreakingly hard. I’ve only felt able to talk properly about how hard it was and continues to be, this year.
Then I had the idea for The Turn of the Story. It was not meant to be book-length … that’s just the way it turned out! But I did know it was going to be about things fandom likes: boys and their feelings, and (more or less) magic school. It’s much more influenced by Tamora Pierce and Narnia than Harry Potter, but it’s part of the same subgenre.
I think a lot of people have been wary of writing about ‘getting trained up in magic’, because they didn’t want any more comparisons to Harry Potter than every fantasy novel gets. But in keeping with 2014 being the year where everyone said ‘Screw it’ (more on that later) I’ve seen several people writing or announcing they’re going to write about magic school in the last year. I’m the only dummy who wrote a free book about magic school, but a lot of people are doing it: trained up in magic is a rich, fun subgenre. Harry Potter didn’t come up with it: before it, we had Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Eva Ibbotson’s Which Witch and The Secret at Platform 13 (The Secret at Platform 13 has a ton of commonalities with Harry Potter, like a secret train station platform that leads a humble and badly treated orphan boy with a magical destiny to Magiclandia, and wouldn’t you know, it came first), Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic, Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, I could keep listing them but these answers are atrociously long already. Percy Jackson is of course in that subgenre too, though they came after Harry Potter. There are loads of books, and there will be loads more, and the fact people act like Harry Potter is the only one is mystifying to me as saying the most popular kid in school is the only kid in school. (The school would shut down, folks.)
The fact people let guys like Philip Pullman and Lev Grossman engage with, say, Narnia in their fiction, while for some reason it’s wrong if certain ladies do it … is a fact everyone should maybe consider.
Subject matter is a matter of personal preference. Some people like stories about dragons. Some people like stories about rockets. This doesn’t make stories about dragons superior to stories about rockets. But people think it does. Personally, I like stories about both dragons and rockets, about both boys and girls, vampires and magic school, and I want to write both. I wanted to write this story about boys and feelings and getting trained up in magic land– I love all those things– and I decided I’d do it for free … and I was curious to see how it was received.
So I wrote The Turn of the Story. And a lot of the people who get on my case did like it, just as I’d suspected they might! They would comment, and tell me how good it was– and how bad my books were. They would write up glowing recommendations of it which they would link me to– and make sure to stick the knife in about how my books were lousy. As if my writing magically improved because it had a subject matter they liked, and it was free on my blog. As if it was better, and morally I was better. Not that I could be permitted to get above myself again– many of them said the story was fanfiction (because it was free?) or that the characters were Harry Potter characters (I mean, point me to the cranky bisexuals and dudes with wings in Harry Potter, by all means …) but that was good, too, because it meant I knew my place again.
Suddenly, these people were telling me I had talent again. And this time it was when I was, despite their claims, writing in my own world, writing about my own characters. Obviously, my characters, my worlds and my writing hadn’t ever been the problem. Valuing myself– saying my books might be worth money, and choosing what I wanted to write about– that was the problem.
I realised these people don’t want me to be worth anything– they have this strange, apparently irresistible urge to tell me I’m worth nothing, even when they’re enjoying something I made. (How hard would it be to just say ‘I enjoyed this’? But no: they have to put down my books. There’s something very telling there.)
This is dark, man. SO DARK. But I don’t mean to be dark. I think there’s a message of hope to be found here.
Even while I was upset about the ugly things these people were saying, I was gaining more confidence in myself and my writing. Perhaps it’s wrong to say, but there was a certain joy in going ‘Oh, you like that? You do? You think I made something good, and I know it’s all my own? Hmmm. Fancy that. Tell me one more time how this magically appearing and disappearing talent of mine works? Wait … don’t bother.’
You can’t do anything about the people who insist you’re worthless. You can try to be awesome and hope they change their minds, but mostly they won’t: what you have to do is never let them convince you. Never let them stop you.
As Nora Ephron said, above all else, be the heroine of your own life. That means doing things– accomplishing what you want, believing in yourself against the odds. People try to bring you down? Don’t even let them slow you down. It’s hard, but believe you’re the hero and they’re the obstacles to overcome.
To move away from being all about meeeeee and to talk about 2014 being the year a lot of women in the media said ‘Screw it–tell me one more time about all the reasons that I suck, I DARE YOU’, I love seeing the sea change in how women in the media are discussing and defying the terrible ways that they are treated and talked about. Beyonce, everybody’s queen, had to deal with sexist and racist critique of how she called her own 2013 tour by her own name, which she’d chosen herself–‘The Mrs Carter Show.’ And in an implicit response to people saying that wasn’t feminist, she performed this year at the VMAs with the giant word ‘FEMINIST’ emblazoned behind her.
Taylor Swift responded to the gross endless remarks on how she dates people and then writes songs, sometimes about her romantic life (unlike all the male singers in the known universe … oh wait) by writing lines in her own songs addressing these charges head on: ‘I go on too many dates, but I can’t make them stay, at least that’s what people say’ and ‘I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me’– not to mention the music video of the song Blank Space, in which she plays out the role the media assigned to her of this strange siren who drew men in with sweetness and then drove them dramatically away– embracing both the power of it, and displaying the inherent absurdity of it. Taylor Swift dancing on a horse’s back both makes you go ‘whoa, that’s amazing’ and ‘Right, of course real people don’t act like that!’
Cate Blanchett ducked down to the level of a camera panning up her body at the Oscars, and pointed out ‘You don’t do this to the men, do you?’ Girl in a Country Song, dissecting how women are treated as sexy objects in men’s country music, hit number one and annoyed a lot of male country music singers. The video shows men posing in cutoff shorts and sexy tops, spraying themselves with water and swinging themselves on swings and it is hilarious genius. (Yeah baby.) Laverne Cox has spoken out about transmisogyny and racism, as well as acting a role that addresses these issues, and deserved every 2014 Influential People award possible and also for more to be invented for her. Anita Sarkeesian has been persecuted by gamers for discussing feminism in video games— and the gamers have only proven her point.
I do not mean to compare myself to legends and goddesses such as these: except to say that I too think that there is a real value in speaking out against being mistreated. I used to swallow people saying all kinds of nasty things about me, and grovel to people to get them to think kindly of me– but that doesn’t stop anyone mistreating you. Where that leaves you is on the floor, where it’s easier for people to kick you. I think fury at being treated badly can fuel powerful art, and empower people.
By speaking out, these women are giving girls who admire them, girls who want to grow up to be singers and actresses and writers, a script for defending other women and themselves–language to talk about this unfair situation. Social media gives those us a way to spread that language and to effect real change in the way girls see and talk about each other. And as a writer, of course I want to see words being given power: language being put like a weapon into the hands of people who need weapons.
I do see the effect of speaking out. I see teen readers, with The Turn of the Story and in comments about my published works as well, when I’m attacked, going ‘Why would you talk to her that way?’ and ‘Why would you say that?’– both standing up for me, which is really sweet of them, but also just not able to see why having written fanfiction once means someone should be vilified or disrespected. It’s just normal to them … as it should be! And women who won’t take it are normal to them, as well. It makes me want to live up to their expectations.
The thing is, I could never have written the story and just said ‘Mwhaha, this is for people who hate me’– it wouldn’t have worked! How could anyone have done it? I could never have written the whole book that way. I did write the story going ‘I wonder how people from fandom who treat me badly will react’ but I mostly wrote it thinking that I loved the characters and I had this story to tell, and I wanted to give my kind readers a gift. When the people who hate me made writing difficult, I’d struggle on thinking ‘I hope this person comments on the chapter, I just love them’ or ‘I hope this makes that girl I met Saturday happy.’ I’d meet people at events who told me how much they enjoyed the story and what a treat it was to have something they loved arrive like a surprise via computer every few weeks for a year–like a surprise gift from someone who cared about them. And I do care about them, and it’s a privilege to be able to show that affection. There were a lot of sweethearts (some of them from fandom) who kept me going.
Love carries you through: your love for others, their love for you, and your love for and belief in yourself. And it’s a value to give people the language to express that love, to defend the women they love and defend themselves, to pinpoint the elements that are gross in the way society treats women.
Fandoms originally come from a place of love– people gather to talk about the media property they adore and can’t get enough of! Recently I wrote up some parodies of the 100, a sci-fi CW show I’m really enjoying, and several people were like ‘Oh, you’re funny, you like the thing I like, I’m going to read your books.’ And I was both pleased and touched, to see the goodwill between people that can come from genuine shared affection for media.
I think talking about what’s wrong with women’s treatment is absolutely necessary and world-changing. I hope I made it easier for the writers who come after me: I think I maybe did. I mentioned Rainbow Rowell, earlier: I don’t see her getting sneered at as writing fanfiction. (I do see her get sneered at in the way all successful women are: this changing landscape is very much a work in progress.) I hope to God she doesn’t get treated that way, not ever. I selfishly hope that I personally get treated as worth nothing less and less. I hope girls’ hobbies, girls’ work, and girls in the media get denigrated less and less.
Fandom’s not a kind place to girls, but it could be. I hope it becomes one. I hope the changing conversation keeps changing, that the sparks catch fire, and that social media continues to be a powerful engine for changing the way we see the world.
What does a day in the life of Sarah Rees Brennan look like? Do you have a regular routine for writing? A favourite place to work at? Particular music you listen to?
Well, I fear I may have already embarrassingly made this clear, but Taylor Swift. Don’t think I had to look up any of those lyrics quoted above: I did not. I knew them. I’m not ashamed.
I travel a lot, so often most of my work is done at a writing retreat with friends (writing: a social activity!) and I currently do not have a fixed abode. (I’m living in London, but I won’t be next month!) In London my writing time was divided between a) a coffee shop near my friends b) a coffee shop with a fancy outdoor garden where Russell Brand came one glorious day and c) a coffee shop with Ferrero Rocher brownies and triple chocolate blondies by which I mean, obviously, BRAIN FUEL. I have never acquired any of the internet passwords for these coffee shops. That’s the key to productivity.
Another key to productivity is deadlines, when suddenly I don’t need food or sleep or coffee shops or anything but to sit, sweaty and pallid in my pjs, on my sofa and work until my eyeballs turn into little raisins and drop out my nose.
I’m a burner of midnight oil, so my bedtime is never and my alarm clock basically pleads ‘Oh please God, try to get up earlier than usual.’
Once a very famous author stood in a bar holding her leopardskin high heels and advised me on my life, and was like: Get up at 6 am and start writing then. Get regular exercise. Go outdoors. It was too much to remember all at once. I sit on the sofa with tea and biscuits and contemplate her wise words often, though.
BONUS QUESTION! What book (that isn’t your own) are you currently reading/excited about?
Currently I am reading Carrie Ryan’s Daughter of Deep Silence. Carrie is one of my many beautiful and beautifully talented writer friends. I delayed on reading it. I admit it. I’m trash. I talked above about really wanting to write a Bad Girl heroine, just as cruel and intent on revenge as a young Heathcliff, and when Carrie told me she was writing a revenge-bent heroine I was all down at the mouth going ‘Oh, man, but I can’t write my monstrous girl series yet! I’m so mad and jealous, Ms Ryan!’ But I love Carrie’s writing so much, and I know the book is going to be so great. It already is: there’s this one description of being shipwrecked that absolutely wowed me. I can’t stay mad at you, beautiful book! You’re too pretty, dammit. And I shouldn’t talk about it anymore, because it’s not out till June, and I am a spoiler queen. I will ruin every book, every TV show, every movie. One day I will acquire the power of foresight, and spoil everyone’s future lives for them relentlessly.
But I’m excited about it, and you should be too!