Friday, June 4, 2010

Book Events: Karen Healey at Books of Wonder

When I read Guardian of the Dead last month, it was totally love at first sight. It not only leaped onto my 'Best of 2010' list, but leaped to the front of my reviewing queue. So as I was looking for book-related events to attend, when I saw that the author would be appearing at my favorite book store, Books of Wonder, I knew I had to be there. Also attending? Printz-award winner Libba Bray.

Libba started the event by introducing Karen and the book - her husband represents Karen so it's not like they just randomly pulled in the nearest Printz winner or anything, there was a reason for Libba's presence. Libba described Ellie, the main character, as "fierce, unapologetic, and very very interesting" and said she couldn't put the book down. Always glad to know I have something in common with a Printz-winning author!

Can I take a quick moment to be totally shallow and say I'm totally jealous of both of their hairstyles? I seriously love them both and wish my hair would be half as cool

Karen began her presentation by saying (in the world's most AWESOME New Zealand accent) that the question writers always get is about where they get their inspiration from, so since the real answer is "in my head," she just makes up outrageous lies. She then told us three outrageous lies, about dragons and zombies and treasure from Atlantis, that allegedly explained where the plot for Guardian of the Dead came from. But really, she explained, she's always been inspired by other stories (as evidenced by the fact that all of her outrageous lies even borrowed from other stories). Later on she rattled off a number of authors that specifically inspired her, either to write in general or parts of Guardian of the Dead

Next she read a bit from the novel, a delightfully creepy bit with Ellie confronting Reka after a long, crappy day, and then the floor opened up for questions. It was a rather small group, and it's always hard to get started when it's a small gathering (maybe a dozen of us there?), but there were some great questions and answers from Karen.

The Books of Wonder manager got the ball rolling with some basic questions about where the book was published first (sold in US but published simultaneously in Australia & New Zealand as well) and whether this was Karen's debut (it is). Then Libba Bray jumped in with some questions. She noted that Guardian of the Dead is fantastically creepy and a little bit of a horror novel on top of everything else, so she wondered if Karen was a big horror fan or if she'd read a lot of horror books as a kid. Karen confessed that the most horror she'd really read was Christopher Pike when she was a teenager, and she'd always thought she was writing a pretty straightforward fantasy. She thinks she missed the horror aspect because of course she knows what's going to end up happening to everyone, and the suspense and mystery is part of what makes something scary for a reader. Also, her next book is going to be a horror/thriller/paranormal story that should be publishing in September 2011 (I CAN'T WAIT).

Libba jumped in with another question next, this time about gender, noting again that Ellie is unapologetic, and asking for Karen to talk a bit about gender. What caught my attention in this answer was Karen noting that Ellie is in fact supposed to be read as a fat character. She said that a lot of readers have been put off by Ellie's weight because they think that as the protagonist she must be thin. I don't know if anyone's actually said that or if that's just Karen's interpretation of reader reactions, but I know I certainly didn't reject the idea that Ellie could be fat because of her status as a main character. I rejected the idea of Ellie as fat because I don't recall the text ever actually telling us that. Like I noted in my original review, Ellie constantly complains about her body, but since she's quite physically active (used to do martial arts), without something explicit in the text saying "yes she's fat" the complaints come across as the usual female body image insecurity that is all too common.

Karen said she had lots of fun writing Ellie, but she actually wasn't her favorite character - that honor goes to Iris.

Then I got to ask about the multi-cultural nature of the cast, since that was something that excited me almost as much as the feminism. Karen shared a couple of facts about New Zealand, like around 27% of New Zealanders are born outside of the country, but the society has only recently begun moving towards really embracing its multicultural identity. She was terrified she would screw up the details of the various cultures so she had cultural consultants. She also views the novel as something like her contribution to the conversation on the need for more non-white characters in YA/science fiction literature. It was important that she create a diverse and well-rounded cast so no one would fall into token territory.

The last question of the night (or at least the last one I managed to write down) was regarding Kevin's sexuality. Kevin is Ellie's best friend at boarding school, and is totally asexual. Karen's reason for including him is totally brilliant and I'm glad this was the last question of the night because my mind was blown. Kevin is a reaction to the trope of the damsel in distress. Often in fairy tales, there's a beautiful damsel locked away somewhere, and she is considered good because she's chaste and pure. Then she is awarded as a bride to whatever knight or prince rescues her - despite the fact that she's never shown any interest in sex. So with Kevin, it's now a dude rather than a damsel in distress, and his lack of interest in sex isn't forced or feigned - it's an integral part of who he is.

Seriously. There's a twist on a fairy tale I'd never considered. Can someone now write a Rapunzel story where Rapunzel doesn't fall for her rescuer?

It was a seriously fabulous night, and I'm so glad Books of Wonder was able to host this event!


Anonymous said...

It was so great to see you, and I'm glad you enjoyed the event!

One thing: I did say that the other reason people seem to think Ellie isn't fat - which she does actually say she is - is that she's a martial artist, which is a misconception encouraged by all the teeny action girls on TV. Being fat is not a bar to being physically active: the martial artist who advised me on all the fight scenes is a fat woman, and incredibly fierce.

Madigan McGillicuddy said...

Books of Wonder... sounds like a really cool event. Thanks for reporting, for those of us not lucky enough to live near New York.

Miss Piggy is the original fat martial artist femme fatal, right? I love that about her.

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