Just A Little Analysis of how 80’s Pop Culture Icons Have Made A Mess of Things

I was talking this morning about Billy Joel, and how his toxic masculinity narratives got sold as love ballads (if you don’t believe me, go visit the video for Uptown Girl which somehow manages to be a rip off of the Thriller video but with entitled white men as the zombies) (or the lyrics of Just The Way You Are which can basically be translated as “who else would love this monster, but I do, because I’m super enlightened, though baby, don’t talk, no, no clever conversation, just listen to me”) (or how about She’s Always A Woman To Me, in which said woman ruins your life with her casual lies and her desire for free gifts.) Discussion culminated in a legitimate speculation on just how much the songs of Billy Joel shaped a generation’s views of relationships, entitlement, and hierarchy, and thus… our current political climate.

This led to a random consideration of other bits of 80’s pop culture that shaped this moment in American political life.

It’s time for a slightly goofy but also weirdly relevant discourse on the late 80’s icon, Spuds MacKenzie.

Stay with me.

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Spuds MacKenzie was the symbol of Budweiser in the late 80’s, if you don’t know – a bull terrier who was never referred to as a dog, but as a “fabulously wealthy executive” who traveled with a posse of models called the Spudettes.

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Budweiser rented limos and hotel rooms, and Spuds often wore a tux. The narrative of masculine privilege was a huge part of this – and it was combined with the idea that YOU could *also* drink a beer with Spuds and his sexy ladies. Spuds was not only powerful, he was a little bit dumb, but jolly, very relatable, and most of all, Successful. Spuds could party. If you hung out with Spuds, you’d probably get laid.

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Here’s where I get large with this situation.

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The brand of Spuds Mackenzie was almost identical to the similarly timed development of the brand of our current President.

Part of the joke of Spuds MacKenzie, of course was that he was clearly a dog. This paragon of privilege was non-sentient and worshipped by women anyway. The women in the above photo were billed as his conquests.

All this is to say: American society is incredibly weird. Budweiser managed to convince America that the highest status position for an American man was to be a hyper-masculine-branded dog.

No, really, look at this video. It’s surreal. It’s worse even than I remember.

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When Spuds Mackenzie was outed as a female dog named Honey Tree Evil Eye (surely the most glorious name for a female dog who had represented all of American Goal Masculinity for 18 months at that point) it was a national scandal. People magazine actually printed the address of Honey Tree Evil Eye’s owners.

To be in a position of peak symbolic masculinity and actually be a female dog was something that caused a nationwide betrayed freakout.

All this, of course, has bearing on our current national toxic situation regarding trans* rights, and the way that the patriarchy depends increasingly on a rigid assessment of who is male and who is not, who is female and who is not – the binaries support the hierarchy and keep straight white cisgendered men in power. The notion of gender fluidity, and especially of accepted gender fluidity causes a panic in the power structure, given that it depends on rigidity.

It also has bearing on the way narratives of power are sold. Look at the man in the tuxedo here.

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Why does he have power? Because he has shaped his own narrative into one very like the one Budweiser created for Spuds MacKenzie. A little dumb, but fun to party with. Successful. Surrounded by hot women. If you hang with him, you might get some success too. Money. Women. Limos. Hotels. A place on the National Security Council. A capacity to play with big bombs.

If you watched the Super Bowl this year, you might have seen Spuds MacKenzie in ghost dog format.  Thirty years after the debut of the most successful dog in America, the  commercial generally bewildered anyone who wasn’t around in the 80’s, but it was relevant. The ghost dog isn’t a ghost. The ghost dog is still with us. It’s reasonable that Budweiser saw fit to bring that thing around again in this moment. We have a Very Successful Man making the rounds.

In this case, sadly, the man in question is not secretly a woman named Honey Tree Evil Eye. (Oh, it would be glorious, but no.)

He is, however, a dog in a man suit.

He does not represent leadership. His suit and tie and entourage, his “money” and “success” signify power only to a society that has been brainwashed so hard by patriarchal structure that it was possible for us to see a bull terrier in a tuxedo as the man all men wanted to be, and to miss the fact that Spuds MacKenzie was a joke, not a goal.

 

THINGS I PUBLISHED IN 2016

Greetings from December, and a very snarly world full of work and wrath. It’s been a year of it, and there are more to come. Still, the writing continues, and if it didn’t, I’d be less useful in any fight. I’ve been working on all kinds of things – from a queer superhero/supervillain young adult novel for HarperCollins, to a bunch of stories for 2017, including one about daguerreotypes and Edgar Allan Poe’s soul.

But in 2016, I published lots of things of various kinds! A novel, a couple novelettes, 3 short stories. (I think I got them all. But I’m not sure!! I hope so. Hmm. )

This is a things-I-published post, for awards-eligibility reasons, or just for your reading pleasure. I

NOVEL

AERIE

October 2016, YA Fantasy Novel, HarperCollins.

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The stunning sequel to Maria Dahvana Headley’s critically acclaimed Magonia tells the story of one girl who must make an impossible choice between two families, two homes—and two versions of herself.
Aza Ray is back on earth. Her boyfriend, Jason, is overjoyed. Her family is healed. She’s living a normal life, or as normal as it can be if you’ve spent the past year dying, waking up on a sky ship, and discovering that your song can change the world.
As in, not normal. Part of Aza still yearns for the clouds, no matter how much she loves the people on the ground.
When Jason’s paranoia over Aza’s safety causes him to make a terrible mistake, Aza finds herself a fugitive in Magonia, tasked with opposing her radical, bloodthirsty, recently escaped mother, Zal Quel, and her singing partner, Dai. She must travel to the edge of the world in search of a legendary weapon, the Flock, in a journey through fire and identity that will transform her forever.

NOVELETTES

THE VIRGIN PLAYED BASS

Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2016, 8694 Words

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This one’s a riff on the Musicians of Bremen, sort of mashed together with my feelings about war zones, fascism, Bulgakov and Bruno Schulz. It’s crazy and dark, and sexy, and if you like fairy tales, you might like this one. It has a giant talking cat in it, as well as an accordion player.

The Pet was one life into nine when I met him, more as we went along. Somewhere along the line he’d begun to believe himself to be some kind of embodiment of the real deal, and now he felt impervious to danger.

“Where are we going?” I asked the Pet.

“Brementown,” he said. “Bremen’s where we’re always going, until there’s no Bremen to go to. If we ever get to Bremen, you’ll know we’ve touched the end of things.”

I didn’t know where Bremen was, but it seemed as good a destination as any. I wanted something other than death. I wanted life and a wife. I wanted to play music in rooms with fireplaces. I didn’t want to be killed at Christmas.

I followed the white cat in his stolen green, and we made our way down the road.

The first time I resurrected was a few months later. I died for a while, then concluded I hadn’t died, and thought I must not have been shot at all. When I looked beneath my vest I found a bullet wound, and inside it a bullet, still hot from the gun. The police had found me with a lot of money from one of the taverns we’d just left, and decided I should be dead. I wasn’t.

Soon thereafter, the wound was gone, and I wasn’t bleeding from anything. I wiped the blood away and looked at the new pink skin. The Pet, whose fault the whole thing was, green–gazed at me, shrugged, threw back another drink, and ordered a platter of sausages.

“Eight lives left, fuckface,” he said, as I touched my own chest in bewilderment and awe. “Now you’re part of my band.”

LEDGE BANTS
co-written with China Miéville
March, 2016/ 7739 words
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The Dead Letters anthology (edited by Conrad Williams) involves a piece of purportedly lost mail being sent to each contributor. China and I decided to merge our mail, and make a modern-day Arthurian myth about the problematic adventures of Merlin and Nimue, the London Crossrail, and stoats. Comment here if you need me to email you this story. It’s not online.

I chant a single powerful word, and my body shrinks. I wriggle up from a heap of jacket and trousers, flipping myself through the cloth. I rather can’t breathe, and my skin hurts, and my eyes are bulging, to my alarm. I look out from my man clothes, and discover Adam staring at me, his stoat teeth bared.

‘Fishie?’ croons Adam, with savage longing.

I can feel my scales. Errors! I shout another word, before he leaps. Panic subsides: I’m ermined.

 

STORIES:

MR. DOORNAIL

Children of Lovecraft Anth, September, 2016, 6085 Words

Edited by Ellen Datlow. This  horror story is a riff on Garcia Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, except that it also contains a tentacled monster. Comment here if you need me to email you this story for awards consideration – it’s not online.

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Bernardine, the newly widowed mistress of the house, wafted over the polished floors, vibrating with triumph.  Oh, she was delighted. The servants knew it. Everyone knew it.

No marriage of forty-three years was without its revulsions, but particularly not a marriage in which one party had sold a piece of the other without the other’s permission. Sharing a house with a man whose heart you’ve fed to a monster was nothing nice.

It was only a small ritual, the theft of the heart, taken one night with a sharp knife and a spell made of wax and twine, the heart wrapped in cotton and bundled into a copper pot, boiled with saffron and delivered to Mr. Doornail. Unfortunately, the old man roused partway through it and in half sleep, bespelled and bemused, he told Bernardine that he’d never forgive her, and that this was the end of their marital conversation.

Those were the last words she heard him speak, but he stayed alive out of perversity.

LITTLE WIDOW

What the #@&% Is That?, October 2016, 6810 words

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This story is from the What the #@&% Is That, anth, edited by Douglas Cohen and John Joseph Adams – concurrent with Nightmare Magazine.  It’s a tale of teenage girls who survive a cult suicide, and it’s weird and funny, no matter how that sounds to you. There are dinosaurs in it too.

I was fourteen and at a sleepover when the cult drank poison. The sleepover mom turned on the TV and said “Oh my lord, Mary, would you look at this? It’s the feds is what, and a bomb, right out there where you come from.”

But it wasn’t the feds, and it wasn’t a bomb. It was us. We were destined to die. I watched it burn, and listened to the news call us a cult, which was not what we called ourselves. We called ourselves Heaven’s Avengers. I watched it for a while, and then I threw up hamburger casserole.

SEE THE UNSEEABLE, KNOW THE UNKNOWABLE

Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016/ 4995 words

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A sort of Bradbury + le Guin + Denis Johnson story about a circus, a woman on the run, and a cat named Susurrus.

No one on Earth wants to know the unknowable anymore. There are plenty of things to know already. The world is too full and brains can only hold so much. Headlines flash across foreheads. Sometimes the guilt of information is too much to bear, and people hide inside their houses, burrowing under the covers, trying not to listen to the news. Whole countries are dying out there. The sky is falling. Some of the birds have stopped singing, and no one knows whether that’s been true for years, or has only just happened. There is too much noise, and it’s hard to tell who hasn’t been heard from in a while.

HIS POTENTIAL, HER EVERYTHING: A post about the Stanford Swimmer & His Victim

HUGE TRIGGER WARNING (BOTH IN THIS POST I’VE WRITTEN, AND IN THE LINK), BUT THE LINK IS ABSOLUTELY WORTH READING

This link is, in its entirety, the letter written by the woman raped behind a dumpster by a Stanford swimmer. He was found guilty of 3 felonies, and sentenced to only 6 months in a county jail because of…SAY IT WITH ME: PRIVILEGE AND RAPE CULTURE. The whole thing is maddening. And if you read this, you’ll be mad.

 
I read the whole thing and cried with fury and recognition the entire time. She read it in court, to him, and it made me feel better to imagine these words spoken aloud with him in the room, but not enough better. Nothing is right about this crime or about this failure of punishment. The letter is enraging, righteous, devastating, furious, and educational. The victim of this crime has written a damning, brilliant statement that should be required reading in orientation week at college, and should also impact sentencing for rape, which is notoriously pitiful.

 
I remember thinking when I was young that there were ways one could avoid being assaulted, things one could do to keep from being seen as prey. I didn’t think this because I was an idiot: I thought this because society has long insisted that rape is the victim’s fault. I thought, back then, that it was entirely my fault that I was frequently – FREQUENTLY, as in more than once a week – groped, grabbed, and shown things I didn’t want to see. My teens and twenties were full of assaults and terrors of varying kinds, from exposures – once a man stalked me up a hill and lay naked and erect across the sidewalk in Boise, jerking off as I, panicked, stepped over him. I had not known he was behind me, nor had I known he was about to hop out of the bushes. I was only walking home. In NYC, in my early 20’s, men crept behind me, leapt out of doorways, told me they could climb in my windows, broke into my apartment and watched me sleep, grabbed me from behind in the dark, jerked off on my clothing in broad daylight on crowded subways, shoved their hands down my pants in the same situations, and regularly told me that no one would save me if I needed help, because I was not pretty enough to be believed (who would rape you?) /so pretty I had made them lose control (it’s not rape if you’re sexy, you wanted it).

 

It has nothing to do with pretty, of course. It has to do with power.

 

Thus none of their actions were their responsibility, but mine. They couldn’t help it.
In the last few years in this city – I came back here because I dearly love New York, for all the things about it that are glory, and I figured I could deal with the things that aren’t – they are everywhere – I’ve been shoved by a man on a dancefloor for being “too sexy” and thus looked at by other men, driven places I didn’t want to be driven, stalked by men I didn’t know, who took pains to let me know they knew which window was my bedroom, and they could climb my fire escape from the street if they felt like it, anytime. I’ve been followed for blocks by men who then stood outside my apartment for 12 hours, waiting for night. I’ve gone to police to report these things and been hit on in police stations and told that all this was just because I drove the boys crazy. For a year or so, because I was very sad, I was especially attractive to predators, and finally, I was so exhausted and scared that I moved apartments. The whole time, people told me I had done this to myself by being a friendly person in the world, by smiling at other people and saying good morning, by wearing lipstick and having long hair, by being a woman. By being a vibrant person with a lot of energy, by having big eyes, by being 5’3″, by working in coffeeshops, by laughing in public, by being outspoken.

Everything. Every reason.

 

Just before I went to college, I was assaulted by a man I knew very well, as he was a member of my extended family, with language similar to the language used throughout this letter, by people excusing the rapist.

“It’s not my fault. You’re doing this to me.”

I was sleeping. He had previously attempted to seduce and have sex with me, and denied, he crept over to my bedside and jerked off across my face while I slept.
I did not report this. Perhaps because of exactly what the woman in this article details. Imagine what would have happened in my life had I reported myself assaulted by a very intelligent, powerful, privileged man? I was 18 and about to go to college. I had no money, no resources, and he did. I was terrified that I would lose not only my reputation, but the part of my family he was married into (I did – he accused me of trying to seduce him.) I must have been asking for it. In fact, I probably tried to seduce him because I wanted to share in his privilege by using my body as a barter. I was trying to buy power from him. See how this works? Surely this was not his choice, and surely it was not his fault. It was entirely my doing. I was young and nubile and near. Surely I wanted to open my eyes and see him above me. Who wouldn’t?

 

In fact, though it was horrible, I didn’t even see it as assault at that time, but as a normal and horrific part of every woman’s life. Awful surprises, and then one recovers. Now, of course, I feel differently. Not only did this man (and the rape culture he was a mascot and typical representative of) destroy for years my ability to trust even (or perhaps especially) men I loved, he also made me feel uncertain as to my capacity to live in the world at all. How could I stay safe, if had been born prey? If I might, at any moment, be shoved up against a wall and blamed for the bruises? If at any time a man could claim that he had raped or even killed me because I was a sex witch of some kind, a thief of male agency?
This has got to change. Everything about it. Everything about a society that says the rapist is not at fault. (The series of questions directed at the victim here is particularly profound and particularly typical.) EverythingHI about a society that says unconsciousness is consent. Everything about a society that ranks a rapist’s potential achievements over his victim’s…everything.

 

This system is broken. Voices like this woman’s are brave, fierce, and working at fixing it. Let us all help her.

THINGS I PUBLISHED IN 2015

Just posting this so they’re all in one place, in case you want to read, nominate anything for awards, shriek with fear because some of the stories are scary, laugh because some are funny…That kind of thing!

It was a good writing year. I published 7 short stories, a bonus flash story just for fun, and a novel. I finally got to the dream version, which is publishing both books for adults and for teenagers. I like to have a career where I get to do lots of things, and this year brought it. (I sold a new book to FSG this year, and it’s an adult novel, and I got to write YA at the same time. What a pleasure!)

NOVEL

MAGONIA

My young adult debut came out from HarperCollins in May 2015. It’s a fantasy about sickness, death, love, and skyships. It comes from some medieval folklore but mostly I made it up, grabbing things from sky lore from all over the place, and also inventing a bunch. Aza Ray, the protagonist, is 16 years old and dying since she remembers…until one day she finds herself first dead, and then…very not dead, and on a skyship in her home country, Magonia. People have said many nice things about it, comparing it to Laini Taylor, Neil Gaiman, Hayao Miyazaki, among others.

It hit the New York Times-bestseller list, which is a spectacular glory! My first time on the list as an author. It was also one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2015, and it was on a bunch of other Best Books lists as well. The sequel to Magonia, AERIE, comes out in October 2016, and I’m very excited for that one too. I just finished up the last round of edits, and ARCS will soon be hitting the wild.

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SHORT STORIES

Most of the shorts I published this year can be read in about 20 minutes to half an hour. A good number of them have audio versions too, if you want someone to read them aloud to you. Overall, I was thinking a lot about American mythology this year, the idea of larger than life folkloric characters, and the way they’ve shaped American notions of ourselves as “good.” (Needless to say, I have notes.) I wrote a lot about war, a lot about small town legends. As ever, I genre-hopped like crazy. None of these are particularly categorizable as one thing or another.

 

The Thirteen Mercies

came out from F & SF magazine in their Nov/December issue. It’s a dark fantasy story about war crimes, the torture memos, and crocodiles, with a great deal of magic in it. It’s reminded a lot of people of Borges, which is what I was going for, so that makes me happy. It’s 5467 words. It’s not available online, but if you want to read it for awards purposes, comment here. You can also buy the whole issue, here.

Out in the jungle where it rains in perpetuity, there’s a woman who’s lived for seven hundred years.

We were informed on the first day of our deployment that she’d looped a spell around us like a corral and that we’d suffer here for our sins. This was the arrangement the military court had come to.

General Steng ordered us not to disrespect the directive, though he laughed himself, in his tent. We all heard him, and we laughed, too.

We felt encouraged, held in the gentle hands of our government, given a false punishment that’d look real to the public, a pseudo-imprisonment on a verdant island. We expected that the sun would rise a hundred times and then we’d be returned to the world. This was only a joke. An old woman. What could an old woman do to us? What could an old woman do to anything?

Some Gods of El Paso

came out from Tor.com in November. It’s an imaginary history of a couple based on Bonnie & Clyde, who deal in blackmarket emotions in the 1920’s Gulf of Mexico. It’s fantasy, with quite a bit of dark, but it’s more lighthearted than some of the other things I published this year, because it’s a love story, and it’s quite stylized. It got a recommended from Locus. It’s 4198 words.  Read it here.

After that, everybody knew that Lorna and Vix came as a set. They got spotted at diner counters time to time, drinking coffee, tea, and lemonade, eating sandwiches just like regular folks, but Vix and Lorna weren’t regular.

It was a myth, as Lorna and Vix already knew, that everyone who sorrowed longed specifically and only for joy. Many people wanted darker medicine. Prohibition of alcohol had created a countrywide yearning for other forms of depressant—though no one referred to alcohol as such—and by the time Lorna and Vix met, ten years into Temperance, everything to do with high and low had become illegal. People were supposed to be living in the middle, but nobody liked the middle. New cures for pain were being distilled in basements and bathtubs.

Solder & Seam 

came out from Lightspeed in October. It’s science fiction, though you won’t know that for quite a bit of the story, as it’s mostly set on earth, even though it’s about space travel, aliens, and revolutionary warfare on another planet. It’s also about a man building a giant whale in the middle of a field in America. 4555 words. Read it here.

In a snowbound diner in Nevada he drank a cup of something hot. A waitress looked at his face and said, “How come I’m not going with you?”

“Don’t know,” he said, summoning the right language with only a little effort.

“I like that big fish you got,” she said. She was as old as he was, a wide mouth with a scar beside it. An arrow pointing toward her ear.

She ran a finger over the tattoos on his cheek, and started when she felt things beneath them moving.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Everyone left,” he said, being honest. He was never honest.

She leaned back and looked at the pie case. “I guess I hear that,” she said. “My family’s all up there. My kids are with their dad. I don’t know what I’m doing except waiting to see what happens. You been up?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I figured,” she said and went back to filling ketchup. “You got the look of one of those.”

The Cellar Dweller

came out from Nightmare Magazine in June. It’s the only thing I published this year that I think might need a content warning, because it’s in part about child abuse, though it’s not terribly graphic. It’s mostly about grit and about friendships with good monsters. It’s a riff on the “most beautiful words in the English language” – cellar door. 4732 words.  Read it here.

The Banisher’s ten when she banishes a horde of tiny awful things from the basement of a neighbor. The things are nothing terrifying to look at. They’re an inheritance, a collection of ivory netsuke, but by the time the Banisher meets them, they are occupied with their own agendas. They’re only little creatures, but when the household sleeps, they take to the stairs, doing damage, killing mice and swarming the occasional pet. The neighbor’s tidied them away into a box, but the box can’t contain them, and when the Banisher opens it, the tissue they’re wrapped in is flecked with blood, and all of them bare their teeth at her.

The Banisher picks them up by their scruffs and drops them into a tin formerly used for cookies, now lined with a washcloth. The Banisher isn’t cruel.

“Where will you take them?” the neighbor asks, looking worried.

“Out,” the Banisher says. In her hand, the tin buzzes and clacks.

She asks the neighbor for her sandwich and then she puts the tin of awful things into her bicycle basket.

The Scavenger’s Nursery

came out at Shimmer Magazine in March.  It’s a story about a garbage monster plague, with a good deal of sympathy for the monsters. It’s also about environmental collapse, micro plastics, love and science. It’s going to be in Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror this year. 4430 words. Read it here.

A heap of cell phone parts glimmers green as beetle shells. Children sort them. A goat minces its way through a thousand ghost voices, recorded messages crushed into oblivion, texts, naked photos, emails, and pleadings. The goat’s white-yellow fur is splashed with turquoise powder from a festival that’s now over. It nibbles at a bit of metal, faintly annoyed at the new thing rising from the heap of broken. Children crouch on their heels and watch as a newborn creature stands, twelve feet tall, flashing in the sun. It opens its mouth and screams, and all across the sky, satellites tremble.

Ivory Darts, Golden Arrows

came out at Uncanny Magazine in February. This is the lightest, most fun item I did this year, largely because it’s totally a Valentine’s Day lark I wrote in a couple of days. It’s full of Cupid, snail mating rituals, weird science, and crazy, crazy goofy fantasy. 3666 words. Read it here.

On the eastern mountain there was a colony of children who sent away for prizes, and she delivered them in sacks, heavy shipments of tiny monsters, X-ray glasses, and skipping ropes that could, when properly used, render the skipper capable of skipping time and space. Miss Kisseal worried a bit about those children. Occasionally one would disappear and months later come walking back into the village, skinny and covered in paint or dirt. They had no parents, and maybe never had, as certainly no one on the peaks was minded toward love, but they called for their mail nonetheless. They seemed to live on shipments of cereal.

Miss Kisseal put on her sensible boots, freezing even in her double woolens. She wished for a stagecoach, but there was none. There wasn’t even a donkey. Things were sliding in Fley. There’d been three avalanches, and her post office had a new roof of snow.

She tugged her coat over her shoulders. Her nose felt blue. February was meant to be solitary, and instead it was full of deliveries.

And the Winners Will Be Swept Out To Sea

came out in February from Lightspeed Magazine.  This one is a dark fantasy about water nymphs, other kinds of sea monsters, complicated and difficult love, and a festival involving sacrifice. It’s probably the most lyrical of this years bunch, and also probably the saddest, though it’s ultimately about the different ways love can save you. 5718 words. Read it here.

A few years ago, I lived for a while in a sushi restaurant, the dish in the fish, on my back in the tank, allowing algae to grow beneath me. Sometimes people looked at me funny, but mostly they didn’t notice. I’d talk to them occasionally, tell fortunes or lies. This is how I met you. You were the vegetarian at the sushi bar. You looked into my tank and said, “What the hell?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

You tried to mobilize the chef, all the waiters, but I was comfortable. I wasn’t planning on leaving. If someone selected me for dinner, I thought I’d be happy to be served, but a lot of customers thought I was poisonous, and even the ones who loved risk were too scared.

“You’re not fine. You’re getting out of that tank,” you said, and put your arms in up to the elbows, working your fingers in at my sides. “That’s what we know. That tank, among other things, isn’t big enough.”

“I’m fine,” I protested again. I had grown to the glass and my skin felt delicate, but you dislodged me, wrapped me in napkins, and took me home.

BONUS:  OLDEN CAUL

I tweeted a little flash fiction horror story on Halloween, and later put it up on my blog. It’s Catcher in the Rye + Werewolves, yo. It was basically just ridiculously fun to write, and so I put it here for your entertainment. 1395 words. Read it here.

If you want to know the short version, that’s how I ended up back in New York City, on a wolfing rampage. It was that kind of crazy night. New York was full of tourists and none of them knew we were coming for them around the Rock Center tree.

“Olden Caul,” said the girl when we paused midway through chewing up some guy from Florida. “That’s a certain kind of name.”

“Old family,” I told her. “Someone got on the lousy side of a wolf back before the Mayflower, and here we are.”

“I got bitten at the Bronx Zoo when I was six,” she said. “I climbed the fence and dropped into the enclosure.”

She wasn’t a bad sort of girl.

Taking Writing Risks, New Adult Novel Sold to FSG, and More!

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So in Publisher’s Weekly today there’s this small announcement.

Best-selling Magonia author, Maria Dahvana Headley’s THE MERE WIFE, a ferocious, sexy, and politically topical literary adaptation of Beowulf set in present-day New York, to Sean McDonald at FSG at auction by Stephanie Cabot at The Gernert Company (NA).

And then there is me shrieking with joy all over the universe. Because this is the book I wrote on the mountaintop in September. The one everyone who follows me on social media kept seeing wordcount updates about. The one that made me look like I had gone a little nuts? This is that book.

So, this is a story about the long game, and about the short game at once.

I thought of a part of this idea when I was at the MacDowell Colony in the woods 8 years ago. The first little chunk of it I wrote two years ago at my sister Molly Cathline’s house, when she had a newborn baby, Jasper, and he and I together wrote through the night. The rest, I wrote in Italy on Mt. Subasio in September. As in, like 80,000 words. Pell mell. Inspired by hunting hounds and fellow artists, late night conversations, a gorgeous black cat named Neroni, a waterfall with a pool for swimming…(See photo.)
This book is two gorgeous artists colonies and a newborn. Both extremes of writing life.
I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know if it would work. It is the weirdest, most rapturous, most fire-filled thing I’ve ever written. It’s about monsters and love and war and revolution and parenthood and fury and marriage and poverty and hunger and loss and being caught in the suburbs. I think this is the thing I’ve been working up to writing for 20 years. All this time Beowulf has been in my skull, rattling, wanting to be translated not as a literal translation but as a shapeshift.
I felt wild-eyed and joyful just for having managed to get that book out onto the page in the 3 weeks I had to do it. And then..my amazing agent Stephanie went forth and sold it. There were lots of magnificent people & editors involved with that sale and auction and I’m not tagging them here, though they know they have every drop of my gratitude. The acknowledgment section on this book is going to be long, and I owe a lot of magnificent folks in the field long pours of champagne, and me praising them to the stars. I couldn’t be more grateful and more fortunate to have so many extraordinary people who believe in me and in my work.
The book ended up landing at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which, in a rather beautiful turn of events, is the publisher my 8-year-old self first imprinted on . My mom bought me Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle In Time trilogy (best birthday ever) and and I was OBSESSED with their weird grabbing of myth and lore from everywhere, combining of SF with Fantasy with Real Life – suffice it to say that they’re a huge part of what made me this kind of writer. I thoroughly remember the feeling of 1) There are living authors who are girls, WHAT?! and 2) Look at who published her! Look at those romantic sounding names! They sound like an imaginary kingdom! I want to meet that kingdom!
Precisely 30 years later? I’m part of that kingdom.
It’s not every day things turn out like this.
I want to say thank you to everyone who cheered me on, too – which is lots of you! You gave me this satisfaction. Which is epic. I can’t wait for this book to come out! Probably Spring 2017 – and in the meantime you can read the Magonia paperback which comes out from HarperCollins in June, and the Magonia Sequel which comes out Fall 2016, and no doubt countless other things. I’ve had a pretty glorious few years productivity wise, and I’m not slowing down.
Just to be clear: I’m going to keep writing YA books, AND adult books too. And short stories! And editing things! For me, it turns out that the best version is full speed in several directions at once. I used to think super intense focus was the only way to be a writer. I think now that focus on several dear to my soul projects is MY only way to be a writer. This has been an amazing few months. Magonia was listed on the Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of 2015 last week. Unnatural Creatures hit #1 on the NYT Bestseller list in September. I have 3 short stories up in different magazines right now, and all of it, every single one of these projects? Is exactly what I want to be doing. They are all strange birds. I am a strange bird myself.
If you’re reading this and you’re wondering how to move forward as an artist, the best advice I can offer is that you go as hard as you can in the direction of your first experience of creative joy. All of these projects are direct reflections of my first moments as a writer, translated through years of experience and work. Be as weird as you are. Push your own strange glee. Do the work you love. Do work for the people you love.
This is what living the dream as a writer looks like. It’s a complicated dream. I’ve been broke as I’ve ever been at points over the past 3 years, and dear friends have helped me out financially, emotionally, everything-ily. People paid my health insurance. People fed me dinner. People listened to me freak out over the wires, and if you think iIm immune to self-doubt, I’m not. It’s been a very intense period of my life, and it was a lot of reinventing. People picked me up off the floor and told me they loved me and that they knew working this hard was going to work. Magnificent editors of mine in other parts of my career, at HarperCollins, at many magazines that’ve published my short stories? They also told me I could do this, and were classy as anything about the fact that I was writing all over the place, in all kinds of styles. People on Twitter told me i could do this. People on Facebook told me I could do this. You gave me strength when I was scared and uncertain. Some of you are strangers and some of you have known me professionally, and some of you have known me since we were in 2nd grade together and had my face in a book and my mouth running off anyway, and man, i’m grateful to all of you.
I was at the brokest and most panicked when I I applied to this Italy colony, (Arte Studio Ginestrelle, in case you’re wondering, and you can apply too!) but I dug my heels in and decided to write something that was a leap.

The leap was worth it.

OLDEN CAUL – A HALLOWEEN STORY

I tweeted a story on Halloween, and here it is in full, so that you can actually read it. It’s one port werewolf, one part Catcher in the Rye. It was, unsurprisingly, very damn fun to write. Sometimes i love trying on a voice that isn’t remotely mine.

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OLDEN CAUL

If you want to know the truth, sometimes I think I was born with a silver bullet already lodged in my heart, that’s how lousy I feel.

I was going through a general terrible goddam year of all kinds of torment and failure, and my parents got some idea that Central Park and I were up to no good.

They sent me to psychoanalysis. I was lousy with secrets, but I didn’t tell Doctor Abari much more than that I felt sort of rotten as hell, and that it was all the fault of everyone in New York City. One day I was standing on the F train, and a guy came up to me and said Hey Buddy, and I said Hey, I’m not your buddy, and the guy punched me in the stomach.

Boy, without any warning, not to him, and not to myself either, I just sort of lurched up like a madman and inserted my teeth into his ear, which he didn’t like on any level, if you want to know the truth and so he punched me again, this time in the jaw.

I got up out of the subway and there it was, full moon, big and white and dangerous as a glass of milk with bourbon at the bottom.

I told Doctor Abari about the silver bullet feeling and he looked at me, steady as anything, and said “Olden, that’s a silver spoon you’re feeling,” which sort of offended me, given I’d be as happy living in a cold water walk up all by myself as I am in my bedroom on Fifth Avenue.

“It’s a silver spoon caught in your craw,” he said. “The only difference between you and most rich people, Olden, is that you swallowed the fork too.”

I went to the barber and got a haircut and a pretty close shave – my hair has recently grown six and a half inches – went down the street to get my shoes polished, then went to my father’s office. I’d gotten sent to the clink for three hours for public intoxication after I bit the guy, and I owed my dad bail money. I went to my grandma’s place, and she gave me the cash in tens, patted me on the cheek, and told me my hair looked nice. It was already getting long again. I tolerated tea, and then I was off to my dad’s firm, smelling of Shalimar.

Instead of taking the money, though, my dad told me “you’re going back to the Academy, Olden Caul. New York City’s no good for you, and you’re no good for your mother’s nerves.”

I instantly felt that lousy silver bullet feeling. I said goodbye to my kid sister Fee, who looked at me very much like she didn’t trust me to behave.

The train was packed full of college girls, and since I figured they were the last girls I’d ever see, chattering in their cardigans and crinoline skirts, drinking in the cocktail car, I watched them from the door. The bartender was a fucking phony who’d never let me in.

“Get along with you, boy,” he told me, and I said “I’m not a boy,” which caused him to pass me a Coke. I spit out the window, just before I took one of the girl’s gin and tonics and swallowed that instead.

“Get that monster out of here,” said the girl.

“What is his problem, anyway?” I heard the girls muttering as I left the cocktail car.

“I’M A GODDAM WEREWOLF!” I shouted.

“Give it a rest!” one shouted back. “You’re a little baby in your school shoes.”

The conductor came and evicted me, but one of those girls looked out the café window and howled right at me, and that was a victory over something. She wasn’t good looking, all nose and eyebrows, but we sort of struck up a howl together before the train was gone.

Then I was there with my suitcase, the goddam moon overhead, looking down from its perch like a fat old baby. Anyway, it was December, and all, and it was freezing out. We could talk witch teats, but what it felt like was hell. Somebody’d stolen my coat, and my gloves were gone. Is it any wonder the pelt came over me?

I walked into the Academy at midnight already wolved out, even though I’d had every intention of putting on my uniform. If you want to know the truth, the place was full of phonies, but it was worse than that, because in my full moon fever, I saw a room full of ponies, and I went in looking for trouble.

I looked out over the rugby field some point in the night, and I saw that girl from the train, and she howled once, twice. She’d taken off her cardigan and folded it nicely, but she was still wearing her sweater clips. Otherwise, she was a pretty convincing wolf. I was full of blood, and so I went after her.

If you want to know the short version, that’s how I ended up back in New York City, on a wolfing rampage. It was that kind of crazy night. New York was full of tourists and none of them knew we were coming for them around the Rock Center tree.

“Olden Caul,” said the girl when we paused midway through chewing up some guy from Florida. “That’s a certain kind of name.”

“Old family,” I told her. “Someone got on the lousy side of a wolf back before the Mayflower, and here we are.”

“I got bitten at the Bronx Zoo when I was six,” she said. “I climbed the fence and dropped into the enclosure.”

She wasn’t a bad sort of girl.

We ran all the way through Central Park, having already taken out several fucking phonies who’d crossed our paths. She’d savaged a cocker, I’d eaten a retriever of pedigree.

“Olden,” she said, when we stopped at Rock Center. I have no wind. I don’t pretend I do. I’m a smoker, and so is she. She was back in her cardigan, chainsmoking. I’d been into the liquor store in wolf form begging like I was some kind of Saint Bernard. Now I had a stack of tiny bottles because some nice lady in there didn’t know anything about breeding.

“Yes,” I said.

“You want to go iceskating?”

I’d had a dream for a long time about a bunch of little kids playing, me at the bottom of the cliff, just catching them when they fell. It turned out she had it too. We weren’t planning to bite them or anything. We were just planning to keep them from hitting the ground. Same with the skaters. Things go wrong, though.

“You want to go live in the wilderness later tonight?” I asked her. “Or go out West?”

“I came from there already,” she said. “My parents are at 86th and Amsterdam. Everybody here is a werewolf, Olden Caul. They just pretend they’re not.”

She was taking off her cardigan, this girl, this girl in the garnet sweaterclips, and I followed her onto the ice, both of us skating, both of us wolves.

A little kid was in front of me, teetering on his blades, and I came up behind, yelling, in my wolf voice, “Don’t worry, kid, I’ll catch you.”

The little kid turned around, and there was my sister Fee Caul, not in wolf form, but feral all the same. Fee was ready. Fee was prepared.

“Oh, Olden,” she said, and pointed the family pistol with the tranquilizers.

If you want to know the truth, I didn’t even feel it. I’d been lousy so long, it was a relief to be unpelted, and left in the middle of the rink, my sister loading me onto a sled and dragging me up Fifth Avenue in the middle of a sudden snow.

The girl, I don’t know, last I saw she was being taken by animal control, but when I think about her, I miss her.

The best wolves are the ones who never let phoniness overtake them, the ones who act like normal dogs, but keep their teeth sharp. That’s what Fee says.

She also says, “don’t ever tell anybody you’re a werewolf, Olden. You’ll just end up biting them.”

THE END

YES, NO, MAYBE SO: OR, Congratulations, Your Book Is Coming Out Again, But Written By Someone Else!

A little story about strangely full circle writing careers and saying yes for you.

In the summer of 2004, I was 27 years old, and at the Breadloaf Writer’s conference, where I was boring an editor to tears by talking about my short story collection. No editor wants to hear those words, particularly not out of the mouth of a mostly-unpublished writer. In some desperation, I decided that maybe I could save the meeting by making him laugh, and so I started to tell stories about my “Year of Yes,” a year in which I’d accepted every invitation to go on a date – or random experience, as it turned out – in New York City. I did a lot of things that year, including swimming at Coney Island in February with a subway conductor, because hey, NYC. It was, in fact, how I met my then-husband. The editor perked up, and said, “I’d buy that. That sounds like a book.”

A few months later, I had an agent at William Morris, and I’d sold The Year of Yes at auction, not to that original editor, but to Hyperion. It was my first book, and I wrote it in a wild-eyed few months. Tons of my experiences from that year, mostly done in a comedic way, and discussion of how saying yes to all of this changed my life utterly.

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It came out to a lot of fanfare in January 2006. (It typically takes a year or thereabouts from sale of a book to the book hitting the shelves.)The day it came out, I went on The Today Show and got interviewed by Katie Couric. I did lots of other national TV too (Remember Keith Olbermann? I did his show on MSNBC), as well as tours, international appearances (I appeared on Australian TV against a green screen, while wearing a green sweater, and I sincerely hope that there’s no video of the brief floating head crisis that ensued), newspaper articles, radio…in short, the giant, easy publicity publicists dream of. Everywhere I went, I talked about saying yes for a year to every invitation. Everywhere I went, I said The Year of Yes, over and over, so many times that I got sick of myself, and felt like I was a strange string-pull story doll, telling this one-year 5 question version of my life. That’s one of the things that is weird about publishing a book about yourself. Another one is that people feel compelled to review YOU, rather than the book. The whole thing was a swift education in how people felt about young women saying yes instead of no, as well as in the many ways in which people could mis-hear a title. The Year of Ass, anyone? Er, no.

It’s nearly 10 years later, and I still hear from people who read it, saw me on TV or read about my book, started doing their own yes years and even fell in love, married and had babies with people they’d never have dated before reading THE YEAR OF YES. It had a pretty great cultural impact, and it continues to, at least if my inbox is any indication. Lots of people remember it. I’ve done tons of other things, and even now, that’s the one the most people know about.

Since that first book, I’ve written in other genres. QUEEN OF KINGS, a novel about Cleopatra, monsters and gods, the short novel THE END OF THE SENTENCE, co-written with Kat Howard, and just last month, I published MAGONIA, a young adult novel, with Harper Collins. I’ve been a working writer in the book world, at this point, for 11 years, and in the world of theater, which is where I started, since I was 17. So, this is my 20th year in this strange profession, that of the writer in many forms and genres. So far, I’ve written and published poetry, erotica, plays, nonfiction, literary fiction, science-fiction, horror, fantasy, YA, and co-edited Unnatural Creatures, a book of YA monster stories benefitting 826DC, with Neil Gaiman. That hit the NYT list. I’ve been very lucky, because unlike a lot of writers, I’ve had the kind of career wherein nearly all of the things I’ve done have been seen by lots of people, beginning with that first book, The Year of Yes. All kinds of things have happened over the years. Award nominations and bestseller lists, crazy interviews, beautiful letters from people who’ve read the things I’ve written. Life is pretty good.

But all this time The Year of Yes has been rolling along in Hollywood, unlikely as that is.

Upon publication, my agents immediately optioned the book to the then-partnership of Jinks/Cohen at Paramount, for a film, and they met with every actress you can think of. This was ten years ago, though, and it was a different time for female leads in big Hollywood films. The past ten years have changed not-everything, but a lot in this regard, both in TV and in film. The model for sexy female-driven TV back then was Sex & The City, and this wasn’t that. So, there was a lot of confusion.

The reality of Hollywood and the book world is that lots of books get optioned, and few things get made. Any writer who’s been writing a while knows this. Still, though, the book was shopped all over Hollywood, everywhere, and deals were announced in Variety, as well as across the internet. In 2008 or so, after a couple years of option and development, we shopped and optioned the book again, this time to Barry Josephson at 20th Century Fox for TV, and there was another round of development and dealmaking. The book has never died in Hollywood, which is unusual, and kind of great. People kept calling my agents up. A couple of years ago, another round yielded a TV option at the WB, which died in the dissolution of a producing partnership. So, we optioned it again last year, this time to NBC. All this time, things have been getting easier for female protagonists on TV, and at last, it seemed as though maybe we could get it going.

Fast forward to yesterday, June 2nd. Lo, suddenly, I got a lot of excited emails and tweets and Facebook messages. People congratulating me on AT LAST, The Year of Yes being adapted for TV. By a really famous person, no less!

I was like…REALLY? THAT WOULD BE AWESOME.

Except, oh, careful readers, the articles these emails referenced weren’t talking about my book, nor even about a TV show. They were talking about the announcements, all over the news, of someone famous from the TV world, Shonda Rhimes, creator and showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy, and her book deal at Simon & Schuster, for…

YEAR OF YES.

 HER memoir about a year in which she accepted every invitation offered her.

So, yeah, I kinda wrote that book already. It was no wonder lots of people assumed she’d optioned my book and decided to make a show about it. That’s something that had happened before, after all.

Of course Shonda Rimes can write anything she wants to about her life. She needs no permission from me, nor from anyone. I have a few questions as to the decision-making process on the part of her publisher that resulted in her book having both the same title AND nearly the same concept, but that said, I can’t fault the logic of the product! It was, after all, a successful book the first time around. Why not do it again, this time with a famous person at the center, rather than an unknown writer?

So, when I watch Shonda Rhime’s version of Year of Yes become a giant bestseller, (and I suspect eventually a really successful TV series,) I’ll be like, yeah, I know. It’s commercially viable, that title combined with that idea. I should know! I had it eleven years ago.

Since it’s come up, I’ll bring it up too. YES MAN, by Danny Wallace. Yeah, that book exists as well, and no, I didn’t steal my idea from it. Yes Man came out in July, 2005, and was later made into a film starring Jim Carrey. My Year of Yes, which I sold in 2004, came out in January 2006, but Wallace and I sold the books to our publishers around the same time and the events depicted in mine took place in ’98-99. Funny man, funny book, and clearly we’ve got things in common world-view wise, but I didn’t know anything about him when I sold my book, and I’m sure he knew nothing about me either. We were just zeitgeistily yessing. Zeitgeistily? Is that a word?

Wallace was on tour in America about the same time I was, and everywhere I went, people told me that a)he was lovely and b) the room might explode (hopefully in a good way) if we were in it at the same time.

There’s a difference between the 2006 Zeitgeist version and that one, of course, and it is that we’re now years later, with the whole internet at our beck and call. Any quick Google search for the title Year of Yes since 2006 would reveal that there’s already been a successful book with that title, and indeed, that it is very similar to Rhimes’ version. That same search would reveal Yes Man too, I imagine, and also reveal that it too is very similar. Any publisher who didn’t do that search would be…weird. Check it out this morning, for example:

Screenshot 2015-06-03 17.09.39

But the world is weird.

I saw Danny Wallace’s very amusing response on Twitter this morning, a poster for his next major project, him starring in SCANDALOUS, from the writer of Yes Man & Green’s Anatomy.

As for me, I tweeted that my next book would be called Grey’s Anatomy and it’d be set in an NYC hospital wherein the surgeons stole patient’s organs. TOTALLY DIFFERENT from the existing version.

Er, actually, that’d be a pretty good book. Maybe I’ll write the horror version.

PS: There’s actually a third book with this title, a self-published situation from 2014 called The Year of Yes! (Exclamation point is intended.) It has a semi-naked woman on the cover, and she looks happy. The subtitle is What if you said YES! to everything your Soul told you to do for one year? Some explicit things, apparently. Yet another genre!

I’M CELEBRATING MAGONIA’s RELEASE WITH #SHEISTHECAPTAIN – Join me!

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It’s the 28th of April, and Magonia is out in the world! I’ve been waiting so long to share this book with you, and man, I’m very excited. I’m currently about to get on a plane on the way to Chicago for the first event of the Epic Reads Spring Tour, with Katie Cotugno (99 Days) and Susane Colasanti (City Love). Event schedule here: We’ll be in Chicago, Oakland, Vegas, and Nashville over the next week, and then on the 6th of May, 6:30pm I’ll be at McNally Jackson in NYC with Nova Ren Suma (The Walls Around Us) and Camille DeAngelis (Bones & All) talking about weird fiction, ghosts, cannibals, ballerinas, and skyships. I’m ridiculously excited for all of it, and especially to meet some of the people who’ve been reading Magonia already, and sending me their wild eyes and giddiness. I mean…HOW BEAUTIFUL IS THIS LIFE? Pretty beautiful!

Feast your eyes on this beauty too – it’s the official trailer. EEEE!

Magonia’s full of powerful women, both on earth and in the sky, because hello! I want a world in which women get credit for their accomplishments. I want a world in which women and girls are treated equally, are safe, and are respected. This shouldn’t be too much to ask, because it’s basic, but every day on Earth, massively biased things happen to women. It fills me with rage, and it also fills me with even more appreciation for the courage, skills, and ferocity of women in the face of a world that often treats us like we’re nothing.

In Magonia, women are captains of ships, pirates, fighters, commanders of fleets, and fierce sailors and singers. On Earth, the women are pretty hard core as well. Aza Ray, the main character, is a bright brain in a failing body, and she’s been fighting for her life her whole life, while simultaneously consuming the world in all its complexity and glory. Her mom is a respected immunologist. Jason, the other main character, has two badass moms, one who’s a doctor, and one who is a botanist.

Why? Because my life is full of women like that.

We are so much more than nothing. We – each of us – are changing the world daily.

When my agent Stephanie Cabot (who regularly goes on massive international walking expeditions, has a dairy farm in NH, and simultaneously sells books across all genres), sent my amazing editor Kristen Pettit (who just won an award for her gun control activism while being a mom of two and an Executive Editor of bestsellers) this book, we’d already taken a few leaps of faith. This is my first YA book, and it’s a crazy, wild ride, but both these women believed in it. And then…more did.

So…when I went into my first meeting at my new publisher’s office, there were about 40 loudmouth women in the room, Kristen & me, along with HarperChildrens’ President and Publisher, Susan Katz; Associate Publisher & Editor-in-Chief Kate Morgan Jackson, and Editorial Director Jennifer Klonsky. This ship had a bunch of Captains. We all worked together. Everyone was miraculously onboard, and we sailed forth into the world of Magonia.

In that meeting, we talked about everything I’m talking about today, and we raised our fists in the air to the good fortune of being on such a great voyage together.

So, today, lifelong loudmouth that I am, and lifelong appreciator of the achievements of the many astonishing women I know – and the ones I don’t, I want to have a public celebration of the women and girls in your lives who are captains of their own ships. Join me!

#SheIsTheCaptain is the hashtag, and today I’ll be tweeting (from my account @MariaDahvana) some of the accomplishments, achievements, and glories of the women I know, alongside those of the women in history and in the world to whom I raise my champagne glass on the regular. I wouldn’t be here, writing these books, selling imaginary countries, without the many blazing imaginations I’ve been privileged to encounter.*

I know there are women and girls you’d like to salute. We are the captains of our ships and lives, and all the women I know have rocked the world in so many ways. Was your grandma amazing? Is your best friend? How about your daughter? How about that one girl you knew in 9th grade who was fearless and inspired you to raise your hand when you knew the answer, instead of waiting for someone else to do it first?  Tell us about them. Tell us about about the women scientists and writers and activists who inspire you, about everyone from Amelia Earhart to Aphra Behn, from Toni Morrison to Angela Carter to LaVerne Cox, to your great aunt the saxophonist, to your doctor, to your baker. Anyone. (And anyone is welcome to join in – you don’t have to be a girl or woman to do so.)

Let’s give it up for everyone from the rockstars to the acapella singers, the glittering to the invisible, the glorious to the notorious.  Let’s give it up today for the women and girls who are the captains of our ships. #SheIsTheCaptain

xxxxx

Maria

(Thank you for listening! Thank you for reading Magonia! Thank you for letting me be a person who publishes stories! It’s a privilege to get to do this for a living!)

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*Note. As always here, women & girls means everyone who identifies as a woman, or as a girl. I do know that not all people who identify as women use the “she” pronoun. I don’t mean at all to be exclusionary. This has to do with the gnarliness of a hashtag orphaned from its context. I’m about to get on a book tour plane, so I fear that happening without me being able to weigh in. So, I promise, I mean no exclusion. Come join! Tweet about the women in your life who are non-binary. You’re welcome here! I just couldn’t figure out a better wording for the hashtag in the 140 character medium.  I want you to join in. Please do!

TWO NEW STORIES FOR FEBRUARY, EMPIRE STATE BEAUTY, HAPPY THINGS!

It’s currently too cold to go outside, and I’m too deadlined to be in the world, but so far this month has been extraordinary. I went to North Carolina to ABA Winter Institute to talk to a bunch of wonderful independent booksellers about MAGONIA, my soon-to-be-YA-debut, and while I was there I hung out with so many amazing authors I can’t even count them, but they included Nova Ren Suma, Gwenda Bond, Kelly Link, Michele Filgate, and more.

Here’s a photo from Winter Institute, taken by Michele. I look happy because I am levitating. I can’t WAIT for Magonia to be out, and I was having so much damn fun.

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Life is sweet.

Last night I got to do something stunning involving a rooftop covered in snow, champagne and steam, so I’m in a glad mood. Also, the Empire State Building was wearing Valentine’s Day lights, which in this case were red and had heartbeats. Here’s a link to the video I took, and a still as well.

https://www.tumblr.com/video/mariadahvanaheadley/111104785935/500/

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And if you like that, of course, you should look at my last year’s Valentine’s Day story, THE TALLEST DOLL IN NEW YORK CITY. This image of the Empire State Building could be from the story itself.

AND HERE, two new and free stories for February!

The first is a giddy loopy romance for Valentine’s Day, involving snails, mail, mythology, love letters, an albino elephant named Lemon, and me enjoying myself by screwing around with the irritatingly gendered tropes of true love.

IVORY DARTS, GOLDEN ARROWS

“…Embedded in a tree, though, there was an arrow, and this a hundred years past those first wars. Fletched with a red feather, and bearing a golden tip. She tugged it from the bark and considered it. It was very, very sharp.
“I’m the postmistress!” she shouted. “Don’t shoot!”
Miss Kisseal squinted. “You’ve received a letter down in Fley,” she said. “I’m only trying to deliver it to you. You might try to behave yourself, whoever you are.”
Miss Kisseal took a cautious step. Feathers, yes, a mess of them. White, pink, and red, like those accursed lovebirds. The feather wearer raised its face and smiled. It had eyes the shade of violets, and lips the color of roses. It had been made for loving. She’d never seen anything so beautiful.
“What are you, then?” asked Miss Kisseal, somewhat taken aback.
“A monster stranded by snow,” it said, and quick as that it had somehow shot another arrow, this time hitting Miss Kisseal’s mail sack, no doubt spearing X-ray glasses, or damaging someone’s paper crown. She looked at this arrow. Silver tip. Ostrich plume. The creature was showy if nothing else.”

READ IT ALL AT UNCANNY MAGAZINE: http://uncannymagazine.com/ivory-darts-golden-arrows-maria-dahvana-headley/

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The second story is a love story too, but a sadder one. Water nymph, monster in the ocean, impossible, intoxicating love, and a festival of sacrifices:

AND THE WINNERS WILL BE SWEPT OUT TO SEA

“Sometimes, when I sit out there, I see the monster under the surface, the tension scraping over its scales. It’s big. What I can see of it is only a spine, or a tail, sometimes, and then it’s gone. I sit on that rock, looking over the edge, and think about how I used to love swimming. When I was a girl, I could hold my breath for a month. I’d sit on the bottom of a river in the mud, or on the pebbles, and wait for the season to change. Once I tried to come up but the river had frozen, and I ended up swimming just under the surface for a while, waiting, waiting, until I found a fisherman by seeing his shadow. The fisherman had made a hole in the ice. He was crouched beside it, with a thermos and a fishing pole, and I rose up naked from beneath him. I took him in my arms, and he screamed with such terror that ice cracked elsewhere, a spiderweb of fractures, trees black and leaning, wolves howling, and his blood in my mouth. I was not sorry.”

READ IT ALL AT LIGHTSPEED: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/winners-will-swept-sea/

And here’s an interview I did about the story: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/nonfiction/author-spotlight-maria-davana-headley/

BEST OF EVERYTHING 2014: THE ECSTASTROPHE EDITION

I don’t usually do best of lists, because I love too many categories and because I also have no capacity to declare Favorites. I would be a terrible creature on a prize jury, loudly calling out that I loved all the finalists (and as loudly calling out that there were things I hated on principle that ought never be given prizes). So, this is a Best Of Everything list instead, or, perhaps just a scattershot list of things I loved this year. I spent most of 2014 writing, not reading, which drove me crazy. One of the things I wanted most was time to read, but I’d require an extra month to do it, so on this list are things I fell into reading while on subways. Subways are my Sundays.

This year, my tastes in art ran to the crossed genres, song cycles in which grief creates the ecstatic, books in which death creates space for last bits of beauty. I spent a lot of the year sad, and a lot of it furious, often both at once. I also spent a lot of the year surrounded by love, and impacted by the passion and curiosity of the people I know, the way they engage with their communities, the way they work at changing the world.  It’s been a year of social revelation and revolution in America, much of it painful. We lived this year theoretically in 2014, but much of our custom and action dates to the shivering shit of centuries past. There was injustice, cruelty, and failure to parse even simple truths. There was also passion, bravery, ferocity, and dialogue, all of which are the best parts of living human here on earth. So, some of my favorite things this year were about those topics too.

I’ve been thinking about the old hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing? It’s from 1869, written by the American Baptist Minister Robert Lowry. The original isn’t entirely my sort of thing, because it’s very rooted in Christianity. But it got some new verses in 1950.

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?

Pete Seeger covered it, and made it into a famous folk song. This version is very much my kind of hymn: it acknowledges pain, injustice, and suffering, while also acknowledging the possibility of joy and shifts in current realities. Here is the Springsteen version of it.

I’ve been especially interested this year in traditional narratives given new spins, old materials transformed into new stories set in our present surroundings. I’ve been wrangling with folklore – not fairy tales so much, but stories that are more prosaic, the ones about magic solving nothing, but existing anyway. I spent the year reading a lot of history and a lot of tales categorized as history, but…not.

Here’s a wild-eyed selection, much reduced, of some of my favorite things from 2014.

I’ll put them under the heading ECSTASTROPHE, a combination of ecstasy and catastrophe. That’s what this year has been for me at least, and it’s the art that speaks to me too.

BOOKS

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel rocked my soul.

It’s beautiful writing about (in part) life in the traveling theater post-plague, and given two of my first obsessions as a teenager were rat-borne catastrophic plague and Shakespeare, well, essentially this book was written to my personal specs. It’s elegiac while remaining energetic, which is something I rarely see in contemporary lit. I think we’re all, at this moment  in history, engaged in a state of perpetual goodbye, and this book is about that condition, while also dealing with what it means to begin again with damaged hope in a changed world.

The Book of Miracles, Taschen. I got this as a gift last January, and it inspired me all year.

It’s a facsimile version of a stunningly beautiful illustrated manuscript dating to about 1550, and it depicts apocalyptic weather and eerie celestial phenomena painted in a style that reminds me of the Surrealists mixed with, say, the paintings of William Blake. Rains of blood, and suns like decapitated heads, exuberant colors, naive outlines.

It’s a depiction of shock, and of the creation of beauty in the midst of it. It made me cry the first time I opened it, handed sheepishly across a table to me by someone who said, “I had to buy it for you. There was nothing else to be done.” Yes. And so, everything I wrote all year was ecstatic catastrophe. But that’s about right for this moment.

STORIES

The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado in Granta. A ghost story, but much as I said above, it falls into the category of energetic elegy, and it also has a classic feel while being rooted firmly in our world, this moment, the particularities of our present system of injustice and misogyny. My favorite kind of ghost story, this one mourns a life as it is lived. It’s sexy as hell, and complicated as hell, and it has the following line in it, which made me make a noise of empathy for former lives of my own. Maybe this is simply often what it means to live as a woman in this world, with the structure of the world designed to accommodate the needs of men rather than women.

I look at the face of my husband, the beginning and end of his desires all etched there. He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all.

This is a story about how good men can destroy women with their normal desires, their wishes for a life lived to be gloried in by men instead of a life survivable (or perhaps even enjoyable) by women. It’s about living a whole life while being mortally wounded. I’m a Machado fan full stop, but this one is particularly brilliant.

A Girl Who Comes Out Of A Chamber at Regular Intervals by Sofia Samatar in Lackington’s Quarterly. This story is a searingly political and feminist riff on automata. Read in conjunction with the Machado story above, you’ll come out feeling bruised, but renewed by language and content.  This story is an automaton’s dream of the present day, the world consumed in war and vengeance, combined with a list of tasks assigned to a woman made of gears. It’s blistering.

What is the nature of things? The mechanism works perfectly for years; then one day it breaks…That’s how it happens. One day something springs loose, and the clock stops. The clock is bleeding.

I’m a big Samatar fan both personally and professionally. She is simultaneously ferocious and kind, and her work is as well. This story is no exception. I’ve been thinking about it for months.

Polynia by China Miéville at Tor.UK. This one’s a bit of a gimme, because I edited several versions of it. That said, it’s always been exactly the kind of story I love, and it’s on point with my best of Ecstastrophe theme. Because I got to work on it, it also inspired me through months of my own writing this year. It’s a story about icebergs in the sky over London, and an expedition that goes up in an attempt to assess them. It’s also about life on the ground among children. It’s a story about loss and complex resurrection.

In Stepney a newsagent was taking every other publication out of his shop window and filling it with, of all things, copies of New Scientist. ‘I tell them,’ he kept shouting to someone inside. ‘I keep tell them.’ He waved a magazine at me jovially. ‘Look,’ he said.

On the cover were photographs from an arctic mission which took place years before I was born, icebergs rising from the water. Next to each of those images was one of a mass over London. The frozen slopes and slices and cracks were the same. The crags overhead were close to identical to those that had once floated in the Antarctic.

‘Look, they melt!’ he said. ‘First they melt and now look they come back.’

The icebergs are ghostbergs, reconstituted in the air after their disappearance from Earth. And this story, about ice, itself always a potential ghost object, something that can change form and disappear with only a touch of warmth, well, this is a story about everything I’ve been thinking about this year. China often writes about wonder paralysis, the moments in childhood when the world, normal to those who’ve been in it, looks like unspeakable magic to those new to a place or a lifetime. This story is full of that, and is as well a confession of typical cruelties, but done in such a way that it is an earth-wide confession of the accumulation of typical cruelties and the effects of same on, well, life on Earth.

NONFICTION

I read lots of nonfiction this year, and am most annoyed with myself, because I have no idea at this point what I read. It was often frenzied clicking, and so much of it was beautiful and topical. These two things stick in my brain here at the end of the year, but there were many more.

A Resourceful Woman by Jeff Sharlet on Instagram. Hybrid photoessay about Mary Mazur, living in a motel and telling some stories about her life to this point. It’s about America, eating and trying to eat, listening to the people upstairs whether or not they’re real. It hurts. It’s vital.

“They think I can’t do nothing,” says Mary. “But they don’t know.” They: The three brothers she says live upstairs, the three ding dongs, she calls them. Her three children—rather, she insists, the children she bore—gone, but some ghosts won’t leave. “They turn off my lights, they change my channels.” She makes her hands into fists. Grins. Stands on her one good foot

Some Regulations for Your Rage by V.V. Ganeshananthan

I watched this being tweeted last August as Ferguson grieved the murder of Michael Brown. I spent that afternoon feeling a bunch of similar rage and re-tweeting it myself. It’s furious and funny, satiric and so not. It’s a manual for life in this moment, and I love it for its reality as much as I love it for its immediacy, elegantly done in extreme short form.

Your rage should be constructive and look for solutions, rather than simply existing for itself.

Your rage can be something when it grows up.

Please make sure your rage is logical rather than emotional. Your rage will have a hard time if it is overly sensitive.

We would advise your rage that it should bring along a resume and/or CV with a timeline of proof.

If only your rage had had two parents. Think what it could have done!

THEATER

Ghost Quartet by Dave Malloy. This is a song cycle based in old lore, the English murder ballad The Wind and the Rain, much altered. It also mashes a lot of other stuff into its wild couple of hours, including Poe, 1001 Nights, a contemporary subway murder, a story about a bear and an astronomer… Yes. It’s a compendium, with an underlying story about ghosts, guilt, and love, attempts to atone over centuries combined with attempts to avenge over centuries.

I love the way you see the world.

I love the way your soul sings.

I wish that I could sing like you.

I wish that I could feel things.

Part of Ghost Quartet is performed in pitch black. There’s something about listening to a show that way, feeling it move around you, and there were warnings about the dark in the program, but for me, it was an unadulterated joy to feel heavenly song rise around me while I sat on some bleachers on earth, holding hands with a guy with whom I was in the process of drinking some serious whiskey. A sister kills her sister. The dead sister is washed up and her bones are made into a violin. Now let us listen to it play.

Tristan & Yseult by Knee High Theater Company, directed by Emma Rice. Medieval love triangle done with both hilarity and empathy. I’ve never seen something in which a classic story of a cheating bride, a cuckolded husband, and a hot lover is treated with so much love and loyalty for all parties, but it is here. That’s the only way this tragedy works. Everyone has to love everyone else.

This is a story about real love. Also, there’s a rendition of Emily Dickinson’s Wild Nights, done as a song, that could just kill everyone in the theater with its beauty. It’s stunningly staged, and man, it’s very sexy. I love sexy theater.  I love non-naturalistic theater. As time goes by, I find myself increasingly taken with theatrical productions that don’t attempt anything close to echoes of reality, but instead go with swings suspended over audiences, and high notes that, if heard in life, would cause one to call for emergency services (as heard in Ghost Quartet.)

Kontakhof, Tanztheater Wupperthal, Pina Bausch Company. This is a 1978 examination of courtship ritual on a dance floor, love and other humiliations, repetetive acts of hope and violence in human interaction. 

I saw this one twice, actually, once from the floor and once from the balcony. It’s a long show. Sometimes I regretted seeing it twice, because I was driven crazy occasionally, but that was the point. From the floor the show is vastly more playful and sexy than it is when seen from above, from which vantage the movement across the stage looks like pain, high heels look broken, and repetition, purposefully engaged in to examine the pain inherent in pleasure, shows something deeper about aging and attempting to find faith in love. Perhaps this is the difficulty of the god spot. Were we all watching from on high, maybe we’d have more empathy for the ridiculous and kaleidoscopic patterns of attraction, and more than that, even, the similar patterns of warfare. This Pina Bausch piece is a timely view given the last year in crowd-sourced misogyny. There’s a notable long section involving a woman being initially of minor sexual interest, and then of too much interest, poked and prodded by a crowd of men. There’s also lively love, though, a young couple disrobing shyly and slowly from across the stage from one another, again paralyzed by awe in admiration of one another’s stunning flesh. Ultimately, the piece left me twitching with uncertainty, and longing for a dance with clear steps, or an improvisation with follow through, which I think was exactly what it meant to do.

MUSIC

I listen to tons of music while I write, so my appreciation of it is all about whether or not it cues my brain to leap into a writing state, which for me is actually a pretty ecstatic place to be. The perfect writing songs, it follows, are made of distilled emotion. I like many things, though, and have many musician friends, so the distilled emotion ends up being a range from furious feminist rap to peculiar new klezmer songs, at least lately.

Rival Dealer –  Burial. This came out in the last days of 2013, but I didn’t hear it til 2014, so it’s listed here.

A million layers of everything from dreamy electronica to percussion combined with a repetition, over and over in the first song of the phrase “I’m gonna love you more than anyone.” (sampled from…something Gavin DeGraw, but what the hell, we have a theme here). We have sitar and pouring rain and a painful joyful excerpt from Lana Wachowski’s speech about being transgender. The whole thing listens like a broken dream of half-remembered childhood degrading tape deck Mannheim Steamroller run over by a fast car in a thunderstorm and the longed-for sound of a drive in movie screen three miles away playing Golden Age films to an audience of no one. End of the world noises, but full of hope and themes of love. The final song on the EP repeats the phrase “you are not alone.” Basically, it’s just transcendently beautiful.

D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah, Really Love. Whole album, really, but the way this one starts all whispers and Spanish guitar and turns into rapturous declarations of love. Come on. It’s irresistible. The rest of the album is full of fever and spike, and there’s nothing like a voice like this declaring anything. It works. This is more than a sexy album. It’s an angry beautiful album, and that’s the criteria here.

Ben Holmes & Patrick Farrell, Gold Dust – So, yes, an accordion & trumpet duo. Listening to this album in conjunction with this one wrote a very crazy 8000 word story about Bremen for me, basically, and I particularly note the song Black Handkerchief, with which I am obsessed. It starts out slow and mournful and rolls into something that is both a dance and a triumphant arrival of ferocious animals in careful procession. Or so it sounds to me. Before this year, I’d never listened to much in this category, and now I’m not sure what was wrong with me. Lately I’ve been sitting in dark rooms listening to extraordinary musicians playing music drawn from about ten traditions at once, and it’s a pleasure. It’s like reading a great lore anthologies, but the living, breathing, weird-improv version.

Phox – Evil. This is a vengeance song, done sweetly, with brass and flash. It has been a soundtrack, because within its pretty, it contains the words “I know that evil will find its own demise.”

I do. But I always think that evil can be helped along a bit on its way out, by art, by invention, by innovation.

By ecstastrophic creation, making new things in the face of collapse and sorrow. Lighting the world brighter, sharing one’s love. My last few months have been impacted by generous strangers right and left, people taking my hands on the streets of my city. I look around me, at these people I don’t even know, and, here, at the end of 2014, how can I keep from singing?

I look at cruelty being exposed, at injustice being discussed, at some of the wrong assumptions and horrible truths being shown to people who never knew about them before. I look at people marching with their neighbors. I look at people realizing that they are part of the solution.

How can I keep from singing?

I look at this art, on this list and not, things I read and heard and saw and didn’t manage to list here, my friends creating astonishing things all year long, and how can I keep from singing?

Thank you, terribly beautiful world. You are worth living and loving in.