Things in Print Thursday :: on a book talk by the authors of Zeroes

1 Oct

By drift partner.

I only go to book talks and book signings every year or every other year, generally. I love listening to good authors talk about their books, but generally I don’t make the effort to go to an author event unless I feel very strongly about the author. Scott Westerfeld is one of three people I am willing to make a significant effort for, since he has consistently proved himself to be a great, compassionate writer and an interesting person. I met him in 2009 and it stands out as one of the best “celebrity” experiences I have had, because he took the time to chat with not only me, but everyone in line.

So when I heard that he and his coauthors Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti were stopping in the Seattle area to sign their book Zeroes, I got excited. Zeroes is about six superpowered teens whose powers all have some communal element to them (for example, one character can detect electronic signals and selectively target and crash them; another has the ability to both transmit emotional states into groups of people and feed off the emotional state of a group, generally creating a feedback loop). The plot…I am a little fuzzy on, honestly, but it seems to have something to do with finding more powered people and/or possibly stopping crime. Quite frankly, I think Westerfeld could write a treatise on the history of embroidery machines and I would read it and love it, so I’m biased. And I have read Lanagan’s novel Tender Morsels, a dark retelling of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red that has lovely prose – and surprise incest and rape in the first few chapters that really soured me on the rest of the book, unfortunately. I’m willing to give her another chance, though. Biancotti’s two short story collections seem to have not been published in the US, just her native Australia, but I want to track them down.

The three of them together were warm, funny, and clever, passing the mic between them and insisting that each other answer certain questions. In multi-author groups where one author is significantly more well-known/experienced than the others, you might expect the experienced author to hog the mic, but that didn’t happen here. All three were generous to each other, bantering playfully about their planning process for the novel, their writing styles (Biancotti teased Lanagan for being a “pretentious” writer), and their nerdiness or lack thereof. While in the early stages of the novel, they explained, they went and sat in a pub every week for hours discussing superpowers and the possibilities therein. One moment I found especially amusing was when they mentioned the 20000 words they wrote about the six characters playing video games and little else – “this is why Margo wins literary awards,” joked Westerfeld, “because she loves writing pages and pages that sound gorgeous but nothing really happens.”

They also talked a little bit about the differences between writing in a group vs. writing alone, and the inspiration for them to work together. Lanagan apparently went to a writing workshop that involved a TV writers’ style pitch group where, as she put it, “we wrote an episode of Homeland because obviously we were brilliant and the Homeland people were going to hire us.” She described the process as wild, saying that six strangers together coming up with ideas quickly escalates into who can suggest the most ridiculous thing. So, since the three of them were friends and lived close, they decided to collaborate. Someone asked during the Q&A whether writer’s block happened while writing with partners, and all three said it didn’t because when writing with more than one person, you can email your co-writers and ask for help with X plot point or ask if Y was something you’d all agreed on. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, and while I’m still not in love with the idea of collaborating in general, it certainly seems like a significant perk.

Finally, the actual signing was lovely. Lanagan asked my friend if she knew her from somewhere, and my friend joked that no she didn’t, but they could be friends! Which prompted the author to sign “to my friend” in her book. I talked a bit with Biancotti and promised to look up her stories, which she seemed happy about. Westerfeld was lovely with both my friend and me, and when I asked him about a queer romance plot in one of his books (I won’t say which, it’s a spoiler, but it’s one of the more recent ones) he said it wasn’t quite his intention but that it just sort of happened. Which is how I prefer straight writers to write queer relationships, really.

My day was less than stellar, and this was a lovely event that made up for a lot of it. I don’t buy many books new anymore, but I feel good about my choice to support these writers (and the lovely independent bookstore, Third Place Books, at which their talk was held).

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