I have three kids, so I don't often get to go to writers' events. Once in a while, I'll go to an author reading, but it will have to be pretty darn special to lure me out. For example, one of my literary heroines giving a talk in New York City – that would do it. Especially if that speaker were Margaret Atwood.
I first read Ms. Atwood's writing when I was a teenager – I started out with her best-known novel, The Handmaid's Tale. I won't spoil it for those who haven't read it, since I think it's a must-read, but it's a chilling tale about cultural, social and religious trends carried too far.
So when I found out a few weeks ago that Margaret Atwood would be one of the speakers at BookCon, I signed up at the last minute and asked my sister to accompany me (who is also a fan of Ms. Atwood).
Ms. Atwood's panel was near the end of the day, but there were so many fantastic writers there that it was hard to choose which panels to attend. I'm going to break up this blog post into four parts – one for each panel I went to. There was a lot of great advice, plenty of humor, and a sneak peek into the writing and publishing trends of today.
Within the past year, I've started writing a new genre – romance. And being half-Japanese, I like to include diversity in my stories. So a natural panel for me to attend was called "Diversifying Love." It was packed with eight romance writers from a variety of backgrounds and styles. They are pictured below.
From left to right: Sarah MacLean (moderator), Tracey Livesay, Seth King, Mara White, Nicole Blades, K.M. Jackson, Cecilia Tan, Denny Bryce.
When I take notes at an event, I write it out longhand in a notebook, and I must say I'm not always the fastest transcriber around. I paraphrased the questions/answers that I didn’t manage to write down verbatim, but I tried to stick as closely as possible to what was asked/answered. Anything in quotes is straight out of the horse's mouth. All questions were asked by the moderator, Sarah MacLean, with the exception of the audience questions at the end.
Question: Why write romance?
Tracey – "I write romance because it's what I love to read. … I believe in happily ever after. … I believe in love. … It's what makes the world a better place, honestly."
Seth – "It's an essentially human thing."
Mara – "No matter what I was reading … it was the relationship that spoke to me the most."
Nicole – [Romance is] "… the search for ourselves."
K.M. – "I was always drawn to the love story, no matter what genre I read. … Romance was an easy fit for me."
Cecilia – "Started out as a science fiction writer. … I always wrote to change the world. … It's [writing romance] the most effective tool in making the world a better place."
Denny – "Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fic … led me to writing romance." [This got a big cheer from the audience.]
Question: Talk a little bit about the kind of stories you go for – what are your core stories?
Seth – "Death." It stays with you. He's moved by the darker stories, the macabre – it makes things more powerful. "I remember what devastated me."
K.M. – "I always go back to the stories of hope and redemption and forgiveness in my stories. I like to have battles between my characters, break them apart, bring them back together."
Mara – "Culture clashes."
Tracey – "Overcoming issues in your childhood" because she "watched a lot of Oprah" growing up.
Denny – "Family, trust and status. … I love tortured heroes, I love tropes."
Nicole – "Identity, family, for sure, and the search for our best selves and through that comes up the top of reinvention … compassion … I'm very, very interested in that."
Question: Do you feel like you're imbuing your work with your politics, the way you want the world to be?
Cecilia – "Yes!" [Got a laugh from the audience.]
Tracy – "The personal is political." Race isn't the central conflict, other things are. Race is background.
K.M. – "I'm not writing about the way the world should be, but the way it is." Puts in African American women having fun, lighter rom coms – why not? It's normal. "That might come up as being political … that's just life."
Cecilia – "Marginalized people … mainstream [fiction] only wants to see their pain. … Romance isn't about that. … Happiness is a part of our story, too."
Question: What's the power of happily ever after and what's the power of NOT happily ever after?
Cecilia – Happy ever after is the "safe space."
Tracey – "Women like me are worthy of the happy ever after."
Seth – "I like to make room for reality and show things the way they are in order to make them better." NOT happy ever afters.
Nicole – "I don't think I'm against the happy ending. … In life, you don't always get the happy ending." She goes "where the characters take me."
K.M. – "Romance was always an escape, a way of self care. … I look for those happy endings," but don't like them TOO sweet.
Question: How do readers respond to happy ever after versus not happy ever after?
K.M. – "I like dark books. I love the struggle. … Whatever it is you want to read, it's being written."
Question: Let's talk about sex. This is where romance sort of lives. We are the genre that produces it.
Cecilia – "My core story is sex as transformation … sex as the way you escape the box that society tries to put you in."
Mara – "Personally, as a writer, it's more of the buildup to the sex rather than the actual act itself."
K.M. – "There's nothing worse than reading a bad sex scene. … Writing the sex scenes are the hardest part. … Often romance gets trashed for the sex scene and that just burns me." It's hard to do well.
Tracey – "It's not about the sex, it's about women being pleasured in sex. … That's the problem … that we're writing about [is] women enjoying sex."
Question: Where do we go from here? What do we think should come next?
Seth – "Forward. … More stories are coming into the center. Forward is where I'd like to go."
Cecilia – "Writers … and readers … go outside your comfort zone. … You vote with your dollars."
Mara – "Having books that reflect the world we live in."
K.M. – "I'd like to see a lot more choice for readers."
Question: Do you believe there can be too much diversity?
Everyone on the panel – "No!"
Question: How to move forward with so much hostility nowadays towards marginalized communities?
Seth – He has a book cover with two men kissing. "If you have to resort to shock value, then do it." Haters will hate.
K.M. – She tweets #weneeddiverseromance. Her books are sold side by side with white writers, not separated. Before, black writers would be market together and white writers together. Now, she's just another name on the list of both black and white writers.
Question: To Seth – have you experienced any hostility from religious people, etc.?
Seth – "Yes, I got death threats … [but] if you can reach even one person, it's worth every death threat."
Question: Nowadays, there is an assault on first amendment rights. What to do?
Cecilia – "Fiction writers are a bit more protected than journalists … [we] can say it's only a story, but that's why stories are so important."
Question: What about writing diversity if you're not diverse?
Nicole – "Something to be said for writing what you don't know. It forces you out of your comfort zone … and to look at human beings as human beings."
Question: Recommend your most impactful romances you read?
[Unfortunately, I didn’t hear every writer's answer. But here are a few that were recommended.]
Seth – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.
Nicole – Nicola Yoon.
K.M. – Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, Farrah Rochon, Phyllis Bourne, Synithia Williams.
Cecilia – Alisha Rai/Alicia Rae?, L.A. Witt.
Denny – Romance Novels in Color – a good resource run by Laurel Cremant.
Tracey – Nalini Singh.
NEXT BLOG POST: Part 2 will be about the Tor Science Fiction and Fantasy Panel, which was focused on resistance in science fiction.
Who the heck is Alison McBain?
I am a freelance writer and poet with nearly a hundred short pieces published in magazines and anthologies. If the Walking Dead isn't on, I draw pictures and do origami meditation in Connecticut, where I live with my family. If the Walking Dead is on... shhhh! The Walking Dead is on! For more info, please check out my "About Me" page.
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