Making Space for Real Connections

As many of you know, the last year has been a challenge for me. I’ve been driven (kicking and screaming) into activism. This intense immersion in news and politics is new for me. New and overwhelming. As a writer my most important skill is empathy, but as a newbie activist, my empathy can be crippling.

Several of you have reached out to ask if I’m okay.
Yes and no.
I’m not deeply depressed, but I am deeply wounded by this broken world.

The hardest days are the ones when I feel powerless against my congressman, against corporate money in politics, against the racist history of America, against violence of all kinds, and against the men calling the shots at the highest levels of government—men who don’t care at all about me or mine.

This powerless has bled into my writing life. There are days when I question everything I’m doing. I ask myself hard questions: Does this book matter? Do I have anything relevant to say? How can I spend my days creating worlds when the real world is burning around us?

I have struggled more than ever with my relationship to social media. There are huge benefits online. Thanks to Twitter I can listen to activists around the world. I can learn from people of color. I can broaden my experience of the world far beyond my small, predominantly white, rural town. I don’t want to disengage from that learning, but there are also some huge downsides. I am often inundated by heartbreak and suffering and cruelty to such an extent that I begin to believe our American culture is damaged beyond repair.

At those moments, I would be wise to close Facebook and to shut down Twitter.
And yet…
I don’t.
Why is that?

Not because of masochism, I assure you. It’s because of hope. It is because you are out there. You and good people like you. I keep scrolling because I am hoping to see you—a bright pinprick of light in a dark tide. I keep looking for the connections we make, the lifelines that keep us above the water, the way we reach out our hands to one another.

So this is the purpose of my missives from here on out—connection.
I want to entwine our fingers.
I want to reach together to the brightness.
I want to work and learn and listen and stretch.

And I want to carve out a space for human connection that is outside of the social media networks, which increasingly control our lives. So I will write you letters and hold this  space, outside of the flood of bad news and calls to action, where we can talk if you want to. Maybe you could tell me how social media is impacting your life for good or ill these days.

I’ll leave you with another thought from Cedric Wright (1889-195). He was a violinist and wilderness photographer dedicated the preservation of the High Sierra. He mentored Ansel Adams, if that tells you anything. He was also a poet.

Our lives like dreams endure
and reach out over the universe.
Nothing real is to itself alone.
There are side streams to rivers; there are overtones to thought.
Great love reaches out
and is involved in the world’s purposes.

– Cedric Wright

 

 

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Editorial Cross-Pollination: Alix Reid from Carolrhoda Lab

My recent novel POINTE, CLAW came out the same day as WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF, a powerful novel about love and anti-love, female power and self-sabotage by Elana K. Arnold. She and I recently completed a West Coast book tour for these two books. We hit cities from LA to Seattle talking about  Feminism and the Female Body. You can read our notes from the road here and here and here.

Our novels are twins of a sort. Not only did they come out on the same day but both are heart-wrenching and rage-y explorations of what it means to be a girl in a girl’s body at this time and place in history, when the physical and emotional well-being of women is under assault. Elana and I also share an editor,  Alix Reid, the Executive Editor of Carolrhoda Books and Carolrhoda Lab, whose insights shaped our stories.

We asked Alix what it was like to work on these two books at the same time. Here’s what she said:

It was so exciting for me to have two books on my list, POINTE, CLAW and WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF, that both dealt with how young women are boxed into narrow definitions of what it means to be female and feminine and feminine “enough.” Although entirely different in content, the themes of each book touched on one another and made me ever more aware of how important it is to speak UP and speak OUT about ways in which girls are put in boxes, are silenced, are made to feel less than.

Both books show how ingrained patriarchy is, buried even in the girls themselves, so that they are the ones who are monitoring their own femininity as much as the outside world. I think that was one of the richest parts of working on these books for me—both Amber and Elana understood that what can pose the most danger to young women’s sense of themselves is that they unconsciously absorb false messages about what it means to be a girl the world around them—that they are they become their own jailers, in some sense, inflicting punishment on themselves if they feel they are not somehow matching an external definition of femininity.

We need books like POINTE, CLAW and WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF to show readers the dangers inherent in what continues to be a patriarchal culture, and we continue to need stories of girls who transcend the narrow definitions of femininity that can bind them and restrict them. Books like these two give girls ways of seeing they are not alone, show them how easy it is to get caught up in false definitions of femininity, and give them ways of thinking differently about themselves in ways that aren’t preachy or heavy-handed.

Editing these two books brought back many memories from when I was a teenager, and reminded me of by my own doubts and fears about whether I was a “good girl.” I wish I’d had these books to read back then—I know they would have helped me!

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Book Tour: Bay Area Edition

Finally, I’m getting a chance to post some fun pictures from phase two of the West Coast tour I was on with Elana K. Arnold to promote our new young adult and middle grade novels. We were hosted by Elana’s sister and nephew, who I fell in love with. Plus, I got to see one of my cousins too. I loved hearing about her geology dissertation project! (Be scared of earthquakes, people!) Here are some highlights from our Bay Area swing!

#1

We did a school visit at a lovely school in Davis, California, called The Peregrine School. Fun fact: The Saw Whet School in Elana’s book,  A BOY CALLED BAT, was based on Peregrine. The kids were great and so was the paper mache sloth in the entry way!

#2

We had a very lively and slightly argumentative crowd at Logos Books, which is a nonprofit bookstore that benefits the Davis Public Library. Ask us sometime over a drink (hint, hint).

#3

We took this picture with a giraffe for Heidi Schulz because we love her and her book GIRAFFES RUIN EVERYTHING!

#4

Avid Reader in Davis did an amazing window display for our middle grade event, which was attended by a very enthusiastic young girl and her parents. (Yeah, just one! Sometimes that’s how it goes.) Elana and I thought she was the bomb!

#5

Stephanie Kuehn is exactly as smart and insightful as everyone says. We had an amazing discussion in Oakland at A Great Good Place for Books. But you should know that I bought a copy of her book THE SMALLER EVIL and it freaked me out. (Read it! You’ll see!)

And that, my friends, is how we rolled on Book Tour: Bay Area Edition. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you have a chance to go on tour with Elana, TAKE IT! She couldn’t be more delightful to travel with! XO

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Q3: Is POINTE, CLAW a love story?

As POINTE, CLAW leaps into the world, I thought I might answer some questions posed by readers…

Q3: Is POINTE, CLAW a love story?

In POINTE, CLAW, I wanted to explore intimate female friendships and the way in which the lines between friend and lover can shift and blur. Friendships between women can have a depth and an intensity that is really remarkable.

In a “typical” love story (whatever that is), attraction often comes first. There’s surging physical electricity that compels two people to want to spend time together and to want to know each other better. But the reverse can be true as well. Friendship can deepen and emotional intimacy can lead to attraction and then physical intimacy.

The relationship between Jessie and Dawn in POINTE, CLAW is intense. They knew each other as children and reconnect on the verge of adulthood. They careen back together when each is at an absolutely crucial moment that will determine the course of the rest of their lives. The deep connection they share drives the choices they make moving forward.

In my mind, it is a love story, although not in the way you might think. I don’t want to say more for risk of spoilers, but let me just say that I was really happy to see POINTE, CLAW recommended by The Horn Book as a love story for Pride Month. Reviewer Katie Bircher called the book an “intense nonlinear exploration of love and loss.” Read more here.

 

 

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I Will Wear Orange

When I was a kid I loved everything about going to elk camp—the campfires, the crisp mornings, the star-blanketed night skies. Usually I was the only kid, and my mom was often the only woman along with my father and his friends.

One of my earliest memories is from elk camp. I remember in vivid fragments, a child’s view. On a hill. Yellow aspens, the burn of their leaves, their rustling talk. All of us quiet, watching, waiting, listening, hoping. And then we see her—a cow elk below us and far away. A hushed thrill races through us. The adults raise their rifles. I hold my breath and cover my ears.

One by one the men take aim and shoot and miss. The elk is running now. She’s almost gone. My mother squints through the sight on her rifle. My ears are still covered. She pulls the trigger.

The elk falls silently. Maybe we are all holding our breath.

The men congratulate my mom, rubbing their necks and tucking their chins. And then we hiked down to the still warm animal, I watch my mother field dress it. She’s never done this before. My dad tells her where to place the knife and how to cut. He shows me the heart, the lungs, the liver. I am fascinated. My mother does every single step herself. I’ve never been so proud of anyone. This is my mother. She can do anything. The elk feeds us all winter.

I am no longer a child. We no longer go to elk camp. But that memory of my mother sticks and sparkles. I’m a biologist, maybe because of that still-warm anatomy lesson. I’m a mother, who has lost a child. I’m the mother of two still-living children. We are environmentalists. We are progressives. We are gun owners. My children know how to safely handle and shoot a gun. We own a safe. They do not know the combination.

This Friday, on June 2nd, I will wear orange for National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

I will wear orange because over 20,000 Americans commit suicide with guns every year.

I will wear orange because dozens of American toddlers find guns and kill people with them every year.

I will wear orange because hundreds of thousands of women are threatened, injured and killed by husbands, fathers, boyfriends, and sons with guns.

I will wear orange because I am a grieving mother and I know the pain of the parents whose children have died from gun violence.

I will wear orange because the gun industry puts profits far above people.

I will wear orange because the NRA has blocked the collection of data on gun violence.

I will wear orange because no moral society allows the fear and greed of some to result in the death of so many.

I will wear orange because we expect proficiency and safety from drivers, from food handlers, from the operators of heavy machinery, and from members of the military but not from a person who owns a gun.

I will wear orange because gun homicides in the US are six times higher than in any other Western country.

I will wear orange because honoring the Second Amendment does not mean that you have a right to amass a personal arsenal capable of mass destruction.

I will wear orange because there is a not a single piece of proposed gun safety legislation that would prevent you from taking your daughter to elk camp and teaching her to hunt.

I will wear orange.

Will you?

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Book Tour: Southern California Edition

This spring, I have teamed up with the lovely author Elana K. Arnold for a book tour. We’re a great match up because we both have new middle grade novels (A BOY CALLED BAT and the QUARTZ CREEK RANCH series) as well as new young adult novels (WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF and POINTE, CLAW). For each stop on our tour, we are doing both a middle grade event and a YA event. I’ve just returned from the Southern California leg of our tour, and I am bubbly with things to report!

#1

Elana has a bird named Bird, a cat, and two dogs, including this endearing fluffball, who won my heart even though she ate my toothbrush!

#2

The Getty Museum is an architectural marvel perched on a hill overlooking Los Angeles. The paintings inside and the gardens outside were spectacular.

#3

Highland Park has vegan tacos and vegan donuts and men in high-waisted plaid pants. The Pop-Hop is a very cool bookstore, and I got to hang out with Antonio Sacre, one of my favorite writer-storytellers.


#4

Once Upon a Storybook in Tustin has reading nooks, a mouse door, and a wall of fame for authors to sign. I saw lots of my fav books on the shelves including VOLCANO RISING, THE MUSIC OF LIFE, THE SOMEDAY BIRDS, and RAMBLER STEALS HOME.


#5

Gatsby Books in Long Beach has a store cat, a Carrie Fisher super fan, and was hosting a Night Vale event right after Elana and I talked about Feminism and the Female Body. I regret that I did not buy a t-shirt!

#6

Planning an extra play day turned out to be a stroke of brilliance. The beach had whales and dolphins and lots of teeny-tiny bath suit bottoms.

#7

We ate at Snow Monster, and I found my new life motto.

#8

Being with Elana K. Arnold is incredibly inspiring. She’s a brilliant, deep thinker, and her books are some of the best I’ve ever read. We wrote together every day,  talked about our new WIPs, and debriefed this weird business we work in. She fed me donuts and let me hang out with her super cool family. I am grateful to call her my friend.

#9

We are coming for you in the Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle. Click here to go to my events page for details.

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When You Don’t Win

(Photo by Laura Stanfill)
At the Oregon Book Award

I have attended the Oregon Book Awards for years. I love being in the Gerding Theater when it’s packed with other people who love stories and who understand what it takes to create a life of words.

I was thrilled when THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN was selected as a finalist for the young adult literature award. And of course, as the awards ceremony approached, I thought about winning. I wanted to stand on the stage and be acknowledged as a valued member of the Oregon writing community. I wanted to get a little more love for a book that hasn’t sold as well as I had hoped. And most of all I wanted to share it with the family and friends that have been in the trenches with me.

When the awards ceremony finally rolled around, I was nervous. I picked my outfit careful. I invited my people, who came in a rowdy, optimistic crowd. I wrote a  speech. My anxiety was subtle but present. I wanted the book to be recognized, and I feared that if it weren’t then I might somehow think less of my own work.

As it turned out, I did not win.

Was I disappointed? Yes. Not a lot, but a little. It never feels good to be passed over. It always hurts a little to have your work judged and found wanting. So yeah, I felt a little bad, and I worried about letting down my family and friends who came to the awards ceremony ready to cheer for me.

But the next day, I visited a class at one of Portland’s alternative high schools. The students had just finished a unit based on THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN. We had a really good conversation about the book. These teens, whose lives are anything but easy, connected to Rakmen and his story. They got what I was trying to do.  And this ultimately is what really matters to me—that a reader who needs a story like this finds it.

I didn’t win, but losing didn’t make me feel any different about my book. I wrote the book I need to write and I put it out into the world. That feels like an accomplishment. So in honor of that, I’m going to share with you the speech I wrote but did not get to give on the stage at the Gerding. I mean every word of it.

I wrote a book about the saddest, hardest thing that ever happened to me—the death of my daughter, Esther Rose. It took 10 years to be ready to write it. It took me another five to actually write it. 

That I’m standing here, that I survived much less that I wrote a book is a testament to those who held space for my grief as well as my writing: my husband, my parents, my other children, my writing group, my closest friends, my agent. Most of them are here tonight.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe it was my moral responsibility to make meaning out of tragedy. THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN contains everything I know about grief and loss and the healing power of wilderness. 

It turned out that the writing of this book was my own way back from broken. And that’s a good thing. I’m proud of the book, but it exists because my daughter died. And the complex, sweet pain of that is staggering. 

Such is the power of story, and I am so grateful to share it with each of you.

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Q2: The Brutality of Ballet

As POINTE, CLAW leaps into the world, I thought I might answer some questions posed by readers…

Q2: Is ballet really that competitive?

Yes.

At least at the elite levels it is.

Ballet is very much a metaphor for being female in this society. Little girls take ballet and fall in love with dance and tutus and pink tights and sparkles. As they grow, they are further indoctrinated (yes, I use that word on purpose) into believing that they can become ballerinas. They compete with each other and are brutal on themselves (dieting, purging, starving) all so they can achieve a dream (like being the “perfect” woman).

The dream is actually impossible for all but the smallest fraction of women because of factors completely outside our control: genetics and physiology. As teens, our bodies go wildly out of control (like Dawn’s in POINTE, CLAW) and most of us discover that we will never be “perfect” because that definition is so narrow, but by then, we are so firmly brainwashed that we keep trying to match what we see on stage (or on magazine covers).

As long as women continue to buy into the idea of the “perfect woman,” we will continue to do violence to ourselves and other women. This is POINTE, CLAW.

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Q1: On the Meaning of Names

As POINTE, CLAW leaps into the world, I thought I might answer some questions posed by readers…

Q1: What are the significance (if any) of the names in the story, particularly Jessie and Dawn?

This book began with two visceral images.

The first—a dancer taking off her pointe shoes and seeing that they are full of blood. This happened. The dancer was me. The blood was mine. Jessie contains so much of my real life that I gave her a version of my middle name, Jessen.

The second image—a girl disappearing into the forest at at daybreak. The sun rises through mist and birdsong. The end of this book is the beginning of a new day, a new life. Even though she is a carnal and earthy character, Dawn is dawn—full of promise.

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POINTE, CLAW – a rallying cry

This week Novel Novice, one of my favorite book blogs, posted a really great review of POINTE, CLAW. It’s the kind of review that makes me blush a little but also fist-pump the air because when a reader really gets what you are trying to do as a writer, it feels like victory!

Here’s the whole thing:

A cutting look at the many ways teen girls’ bodies and lives are viewed as objects, Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser is the rallying cry for young women everywhere to stand up and own their voices, their bodies, and their selves.

Steeped in a subtle, barely-there magic realism, Pointe, Claw is at times surreal, at times jarring, but always poignant and relevant. Keyser has written a bold and unforgiving look at the lives of teen girls today, told through the dual narratives of Jessie and Dawn. Connected by a childhood friendship, their stories are both starkly different and eerily similar.

A book that feels more important now than ever before, Pointe, Claw forces the reader to face the reality of life as a young woman today and consider the unique challenges and expectations they/we face on a regular basis. So regular, in fact, that we often forget to question it. Dawn and Jessie forget to question it.

Until they do question it.

Until they break free and start pushing for something more. Pointe, Claw follows these girls on a journey to self awareness, acceptance, strength, and freedom. We see what can happen through the power of grace and self-ownership. It’s only through letting go that these characters can move forward, and it’s a powerful, startling thing to witness.

With barely-there touches of magic realism and superbly wrought prose, Keyser invokes a powerful and unforgiving set of emotions. Regardless of how you feel after reading this book, it will make you feel. And isn’t that the sign of a truly remarkable book?

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