S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: The first version of any scene I write is kind of the lifeless version in which people are just being very reasonable and sensible and everybody’s just getting along fine. And then sometimes I go to the opposite extreme. I’ll rewrite the scene. So it’s just like people screaming and throwing things. And I’m like, OK, that’s also not the interesting version of the scene. I have to kind of find the right pitch. And oftentimes it’s like acting the scene out in my head a few times.
S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host Rumaan
S1: Alam and I’m your other host, June Thomas
S3: June. At the top of this episode, we heard someone talking about writing a scene. So I think we can guess that your guest this week is a writer, but fill us in.
S1: Yeah, that was Charlie Jane Anders, who is indeed a writer known mostly for science fiction or speculative fiction. Her books have great titles, and those titles include Victories Greater Than Death, All The Birds in the Sky and the City in the Middle of the Night.
S3: One of the great things about this show is that we don’t always have a news peg. We just look for interesting people and we talk to them. But Charlie Jason does have a new book. It’s out in the world very, very soon. Can you tell me a little bit about Never Say You Can’t Survive, which, as you say, is a really good title.
S1: It’s yeah, it’s a super practical book. Good advice about and this is from the introduction, how you can use creative writing to survive the worst things history can throw at you. She is very clear that she’s not in the business of providing rules, but she does a great job of sharing some lessons that she’s learned over the course of her writing career. And it’s full of exercises and wisdom. I’m not a writer of fiction, but I found it very useful because it’s just really down to earth. It’s all about demystifying the writing process.
S3: Well, I’m very excited to hear your charts, and I understand that Slate plus subscribers will get a little something extra this week.
S1: Yes. And never say you can’t survive. Charlie Jason talks about the difference between the imaginary reader and the inner critic. So I asked her to elaborate on that. And she also told me how she comes up with those titles
S3: so I could really use some advice on titling books. Bonus segments like these are really just one of so many reasons that you should join Slate. Plus, today, you get this members only content, but you also get access to everything on site dotcom without ever having a paywall. Zero ads on any Slate podcast and bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danny Lowry’s big mouthed little mood. Most importantly, of course, you’ll be supporting our colleagues, journalism and the work that we do here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up. Got a slate dotcom slash working plus. Now, let’s listen in to Jones conversation with the writer Charlie Jane Anders.
S1: Who are you and what do you do?
S2: My name is Charlie Jane Anders, I’m a writer and organizer and sometime journalist and I have written a couple of books recently, a young adults space fantasy book in the sort of vein of Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy called Victory is Greater than Death. And then I now have a new book that’s just out called Never Say You Can’t Survive. And that’s about how to use creative writing to get through really challenging tough times in history and in the world.
S1: Yes. And that is why I wanted to have you on working, because it’s a show about the creative process and you have an entire book about the creative process. As you say, it’s out on August 17th and is full of really great advice and really practical exercises, some of which we’ll talk about. But I wonder if you could read the first two paragraphs of the book’s introduction. I want to warn listeners that it’s kind of heavy and it’s a real gut punch, but it really does set up the kind of galvanizing aspect of this book, the bit that really I’m thinking of when you said, you know, you gave your second kind of identity as organizer, like, yeah, that makes sense in the context of the first couple of paragraphs.
S2: Yeah. So here we go. 20-20 was the worst year of my life, the same as for many other people. My father died of covid-19 and this was part of a death toll that felt seismic, as if the landscape itself was being churned by overwhelming loss. I was coping with a cluster of family crises and struggling to finish a late book manuscript while trying to keep a dozen other commitments. And the world around me was nine kinds of messed up. One thing got me through that whole year dreaming up imaginary worlds and larger than life people who never lived.
S1: So clearly you believe that creative writing can be a sort of shield against hard times. Can you explain why?
S2: Yeah, I mean, I think that sort of there’s a thing that we naturally do when we’re in the middle of hardship and, you know, political torment, which is that we kind of retreat into our imaginations. And I think that that’s a really healthy coping mechanism. I think it’s a healthy process that we do. And, you know, from a very young age, I was doing that all the time. I was very prone to daydreaming and the more kind of school was giving me a hard time, the more I just wanted to lose myself. My own daydreams. And the reason why I’m, you know, able to do anything now is because I had one teacher in particular who saw that daydreaming that I was doing and decided to lean into it and use it to try to help me to get better at school instead of treating it as a problem that needed to be solved. But I think that, you know, what happens when you kind of intentionally lean into that sort of daydreaming in that, you know, imagination and that kind of, you know, escapist impulse is that you can create your own fictional worlds in your own fictional characters, that even if this is actually true, even if you’re doing creative nonfiction, if you’re writing a memoir, you’re still kind of using your imagination and transport yourself to another time and place. And you’re kind of lost in another reality in a way that is kind of a you can form a little bubble of imagination around yourself. And I sort of talked a lot in the book about how when you create a fictional character, you’re kind of making yourself an imaginary friend who you can hang out with and kind of live vicariously through and also kind of get sucked into their adventures and kind of root for them and kind of also think about the challenges that they might be facing. And that’s just like a really good alternative to the real life challenges that we all are having to deal with. And finally, I think that, you know, the thing that we do when we’re reading where we get lost in the story and we’re just like dying to know what happens next and kind of immersed in the world, I think that if you’re having a really good writing day, you get that. But a little bit extra to you get a little bit more of that because you’re kind of some part of your brain is really activated and you’re really kind of like trying to weave this story around yourself. And it can be just really a really powerful way to survive stuff and possibly to help others just survive as well.
S1: Sometimes it’s actually pretty reasonable to feel overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world, is that a good time to write? Like should you push through depression or anger in order to write this? Does it work at any time?
S2: I mean, I think that creativity and imagination can be a bomb at any time. I also think that, you know, when we start thinking of it in terms of like, you know, push through the pain or, you know, if you’re like if you’re running, you know, a 10K and you get a stitch on your side, you’re like, I’m just going to run through the pain. I don’t think that that’s always necessarily healthy. It’s obviously very individual. But I think that if you start thinking in those terms, you’re kind of losing some of the good of it and you’re also just kind of making it into an obligation and saying that you’re forcing yourself to do. And I’ve had a lot of really tough conversations recently with people who are just like, you know, the more I feel like I should be writing, the less I want to write or the more I feel like, you know, this is my job and I’m you know, I’m shirking my my duties that the less that they want to write. And I one of the pieces of advice they give in the book is, you know, if there’s something that you want to do that’s creative, that’s maybe not the thing you think you should be doing. Just do that. Even if it’s, you know, even if it doesn’t result in words on a page that you could show to anybody else or get published or whatever, even if it’s just like fan fiction or just like, you know, your own fanciful musings about something, even if it’s just something completely frivolous and weird and silly, that’s just kind of like you. Goofing off in your own way, whatever is going to just help you to kind of distract yourself, I think is really good. And so, you know, I think that I’m very anti the idea that, like, you know, we should no pain, no gain or whatever. I think that, you know, actually in the long term, you know, no pain is probably a lot better. It probably means more pain. And a lot of ways they’re definitely if you’re on deadline, if you’ve signed a book contract and you’re like, I promised to get this book done by a certain date, then, you know, you got to do what you’ve got to do. But I think for most of us, most of the time, this is part of self care. It’s not all of self care. And I think the other parts of self care are also very important.
S1: So you have really great advice. I thought about starting a project. You said that for you things often start with curiosity. How do you mean?
S2: I think curiosity is almost the whole ballgame for me in a way, especially when I’m writing a first draft. And like I was saying before, the thing when you’re reading a story and you’re just like getting immersed in it and you want to know what’s happens next, and you’re like, I hope this character is going to be OK. Oh, my gosh. What’s this character going to do when they find out that this other character, you know, totally went behind their back and, you know, stole the magic pretzel from, like the pretzel bakery or whatever? You keep reading because you want to know what happens next and because you want to know more about these characters and because you want to understand their world. And I find that when I’m writing, it’s the exact same thing. If I’m not curious about the characters and about what’s coming next, even if I have an outline, even if I’m like, OK, well, I know roughly that we’re going here. We’re going here. You know, there’s the thing of like, well, you could know that in real life we often know that something is bound to happen. Like we know that there’s an election coming up. We know that it’s back to school. As you and I are talking, it’s August. It’s going to be back to school time soon. We know about things that are coming up, but we’re still kind of curious and possibly a little bit apprehensive about what what’s going to happen when these things arrive. And I think it’s the same thing when you’re writing. Even if you have an outline, you’re still really curious about where things are going. And for me, you know, how I build the characters and how I build the world and how I build all of that stuff is not by like, you know, so much imposing my will, like as a some kind of benign dictator sitting on a, you know, top of a mountain somewhere. It’s getting curious and just asking a bunch of questions to try to find answers that lead to more questions. You know, I feel like if the answer to a question is like, OK, that makes sense. Now, I don’t need to know anymore, then that’s probably not a good answer because, you know, it’s like, OK, why does this character carry around a watch today with no pocketwatch? Well, you know, there could be a boring answer, like they lost their pocket watch and they just haven’t gotten around to getting rid of their part state. Or it could be they’ve suffered a terrible tragedy 20 years ago and they carry this watch to remind them, oh, what was that tragedy? I want to know more about that. The more you can keep peeling layers and finding more stuff to wonder about, the more you’re going to keep digging. And I think that that’s that’s how I get really sucked into writing. Just the same way I get sucked into reading is I’m like, OK, that I want to know more about that.
S1: When it comes to creating characters, which you’ve talked about a little bit, you wrote, I often find that when a character isn’t clicking, it’s because I’m avoiding the biggest pain points, because nobody likes to dwell on unpleasant things that really struck me. Can you give some examples of the kind of pain points that you’re talking about for people who might be, you know, facing similar problems with characters?
S2: Yeah, I mean, you know, pain points. It’s usually the really obvious stuff. Like if something really bad happens and people don’t kind of react to it in the way that you kind of would expect them to if they’re just like, oh, OK, you know, that bad thing happened. And like, I’m just going to go with it because what can I do? And that’s that’s not how people react in real life. It’s not really, you know, how you want your characters to react. I actually had this literally the other day. I’m working on another adult novel and I don’t want to give to any spoilers. It hasn’t even been announced yet. But it’s a fantasy novel and the main character’s partner has something kind of bad happen to them because the main character was keeping a huge kind of magical secret from them. And then they go to try to figure out what happened. And I kind of was underplaying, like not kind of I was definitely underplaying the partner’s reaction. The partner was kind of being way too reasonable about this bad thing that happened to them as a result of their partner basically lying to them. And I was like, yeah, this is the wonder of these scenes. They’re feeling lifeless. No wonder I’m losing interest in these characters. They’re not having realistic reactions because I identify so strongly with this main character. I don’t want her to be in trouble for the bad things she did. I want her to get a free pass because I would want a free pass of that situation. And so I just unconsciously being like, oh, it’s fine. It’s fine. You didn’t you didn’t mess up that badly. It’s fine. I like in fact, no, she did mess up that badly and she needs to be in real trouble. And as soon as I kind of confronted that, the story kind of came, it roared back to life. It was like, oh, right. That’s right. Gosh, this is where the story has to go now because this person has to confront or, you know, acknowledge the consequences of their actions. I feel like, you know, people I often want my characters to be nicer people than they really are. Like, I want them to just not bear grudges or have resentments or, you know, obsess about stuff that they really might be obsessing about. I also just, you know, I feel like it’s just it’s sort of natural. I’m a very conflict averse person in real life. I don’t like to confront people. I don’t like to get into fights. Yeah. So I feel like, you know, I bring that to my fiction and then I always have to take a step back. And really, you know, and often the first version of any scene I write is kind of the lifeless version, which people are just being very reasonable and sensible and everybody’s just getting along fine. And then suddenly I go to the opposite extreme. I’ll rewrite the scene. So it’s just like people screaming and throwing things. And I’m like, OK, that’s also not the interesting version of the scene because that just feels over-the-top and ridiculous. I have to kind of find the right pitch. And oftentimes it’s like acting the scene out in my head a few times to find like, what does this person really feeling in this scene? What do they know as they go into the scene? What do they find out? How does this kind of hit them?
S1: You know, yeah, it’s interesting for me to hear you say that you identify with many of your characters. You like them. You want them to you know, you want them to be reasonable. You want them to, like, have a nice day, have a nice life. But another thing that struck me as I was reading the book was how strange the relationship is between a creator and their characters. So, for example, but I was reading I highlighted give your protagonist a goal they can never have, which like. Yeah, I can see that’s awesome advice for like trying to create drama. You know, that makes that’s an interesting character point. But you’ve really laid it bare, like are the characters your friends, are they your puppets? How do you think of that relationship?
S2: I mean, you really do have to have a kind of double consciousness because they’re your friends and your puppets and you need to think of them in both ways. You need to kind of think of them as you know. And I also talk in the book about how you’re kind of the torturer, but you’re also the tortured. Yeah. You know, and you’re like you’re coming up with fresh treatments for these people who you love and identify with and think of as extensions of yourself. It’s a really weird relationship that you have to these fictional people. And I do think that, you know, in real life, there’s a part of me that stands back and analyzes everything from like this weird, great distance. And then there’s also a part of me that’s right there in it. And those two parts coexist in real life, in my actual world. So I feel like it’s not unfamiliar for me to be doing that in fiction. But there is a part of me that definitely stands back and thinks about like, OK, what do these characters actually want? What’s the most interesting thing they could want? And you can’t just make a character what anything. It has to make sense. It has to kind of be a thing that they actually are going to that’s going to kind of go with the version of their lives in your head. But you can totally change your mind. About what? A character wants if the goal that you gave them is too easy or too boring or whatever you can be like, OK, well, you know, what would make sense is if this character really wants a thing that’s kind of unattainable or, you know, they they haven’t really thought it through, like what it would mean to have this thing that they want. And, you know, maybe it’s the thing that they could achieve, but it would be really bad if they got what they wanted for them and for everybody else. Yeah. And, you know, I think in the book I talk a lot about it, Ralph, because I’m obsessed with wreck it. Ralph noticed and I think wreck it. Ralph is like I can say, this is the book. It’s a masterclass in motivation. You know, from the beginning that his goal of getting like a little ribbon that says hero is is not what he should be wanting. It’s not it’s not a healthy goal for him. And it’s not going to give him what he really wants deep down. But you can’t stop rooting for him to have it, even though you know he shouldn’t have it. Kind of.
S3: We’ll be back with more of John’s conversation with writer Charlie Jane Anders after this. Every week on working, we talk to interesting people about their jobs, but one of our goals for this show is to help our listeners, you, with your creative process, ask us about anything getting inspired, getting paid, getting better at whatever it is you do. You can reach us at working at Slate Dotcom or leave us a message at three zero four nine three three work. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now let’s hear more of Jones conversation with the writer Charlie Jane Anders.
S1: Maybe the thing that most stuck with me from the book was when you mentioned how watching TV has conditioned you to think of how, you know, you build a TV show, you know, with these standing sets. So like Frasier has the apartment, the radio station studio, the coffee shop, and you think of similar sorts of places when you’re starting a new story. I’d never heard of that concept outside the world of TV before, and I love it. Tell me more.
S2: I mean, to some extent, this is me confessing my limitations as a writer, which is that, you know, I feel like most of the time I can bring a handful of locations to life, like fully to life in the course of a story. And, you know, it really varies, depends on the type of story, depends on, you know, how many viewpoint characters there are and how sprawling the story is. But, you know, I feel like there are always for me personally, there are always like a handful of locations that I keep coming back to. And ideally, what happens is those locations get invested with emotional weight as much as the people in them. And you wish that you could hang out with them and that, you know, they are places that you kind of feel attached to. And they’re not sort of generic. They’re not just like, oh, it’s a restaurant with like tables and plates and, you know, people with aprons or whatever. It’s these are things that feel really vivid and unusual and interesting. And like you want to spend time in them and you feel like they’re your home in a way. And I feel like a good setting is a place that has a few vivid spots. And like I think that we can all think of like books we’ve read where there was like one or two like places where the characters spent a lot of their time, like the restaurant or bar or cafe where they would hang out on their off hours, you know, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the bronze, where they the first few seasons, they always go out to the bronze and kind of go dancing. And, you know, I actually have a original bar stool from that stuck in my kitchen. Wow. Which I got at a yard. It’s a long story, but I got it very they were they were selling off all the props from that show, very cheap, but it ended well.
S1: But yeah,
S2: I feel like, you know, you want places that you feel like you could hang out, where you could feel like you could actually go and spend time and it would be like your hangout. Yeah. And the more detail and specificity you can put into those places and the more you can keep coming back to them again and again, the more the reader is going to feel like, OK, these are my hangouts now.
S1: Kind of I found the chapter on imposter syndrome really interesting. The question of who gets to be a writer or whatever the creative role is or who gets to think of themselves that way, comes up a lot on this show. And I love that you placed it in the context of competition, among other things. But context, something like I often don’t feel like I can call myself a writer because I’m not Stephen King. I’m not Margaret Atwood, I’m not Charlie Jane Anders you wrote really interestingly about that. Can you kind of summarize your views on competition and how how people can kind of avoid getting into that trap?
S2: Yeah, I mean, I think unfortunately, we all have this natural tendency to compare ourselves to other people. And, you know, there are always going to be other writers, other authors who are getting acclaim or awards or getting on the bestseller list. And it’s like, you know, it makes you feel less than if you sort of want to put yourself next time. I feel like I was watching a thing recently where I think it was Tracy Don was talking about like basically like keep your eyes on your own paper. Don’t look at anybody else’s paper. Don’t don’t worry about what other people are doing, what we worry about, what you’re doing. And, you know, I think that there’s like kind of an angel and a devil on her shoulder at all times in the writing world. And the angel is kind of telling us that we’re all in this together. We’re all part of a community. We’re all just trying to, like, get people more excited about books generally, because if people read your books, they might read my books next verses. If they don’t read your books, they might not read any books. Like they might just be like, well, I mean, I’m not going to read anything for a while. And, you know, the more we support a healthy, friendly book culture, the better off everybody is. But then the devil on your shoulder is is sort of, you know, urging you to kind of envy other people’s success or to feel insecure or, you know, if you do the part of the other part of the imposter syndrome is that if you do achieve any kind of recognition or success, you start feeling more insecure because you’re like, well, obviously they don’t realize that I’m a fraud and that, you know, I didn’t earn any of those cookies. Those cookies really belong to someone else and I stole them. And people are going to find out. And I’m going to be like dragooned. I don’t even know what it means to be dragooned. It seems like a dragon and their goons are like in a rough you up. I don’t know. But you have to kind of listen to the angel and not the devil, because I think it’s good to just make it harder for you to write, among other things. But I think that, unfortunately, people will remind you. People will come up to you or people will, you know, ping you and be like, oh, you know, here’s the thing that you did that you’re getting ready to claim and yay for you or, you know, oh, you’re not doing so well or whatever, people will actually kind of tell you your place of what they think is the pecking order, which I find kind of a little frustrating sometimes.
S1: Yes, no kidding. Before the pandemic, I should preface, I first became aware of you, not really because of your fiction or your journalism, but because on Twitter you always seem to be organising readings and off the get togethers in San Francisco. You clearly put a lot of time and energy into that. Why is that kind of gathering important to you,
S2: referring back to the stuff about the angel and the devil? I think that the more we have community and the more you know, the more writing. Is not this like solitary act that we do in a Gabal or a garret or whatever. You know, the more that we’re out there in the world with other authors and the more we’re kind of, I don’t know, cross fertilizing and sharing and hearing vastly different approaches to writing all the time from other people, the healthier the ecosystem is going to be. And I just feel like this is a huge part. And I really miss I’ve missed it a lot during the pandemic and unfortunately, I haven’t found that. Zoome events are quite as good of a substitute as I’d like for various reasons, which I’m still sad about. And I’m sorry that people who love Zoome events, I mean, I think that they’re great in a lot of ways, but I really love, you know, being in a space where people are just like getting exposed to lots of different voices and kind of discovering new favorite writers. And, you know, a thing that I tried to do with my events, particularly writers with drinks, which was this event I’ve been organizing for a very long time, this kind of bring together different genres, different scenes, different kind of styles and different different cliques, I guess different kind of groups of people to try and make them listen to each other. And sort of, you know, you might show up because you love Audrey Niffenegger, but you’re going to hear an amazing poet. You’re going to hear a science fiction person. You’re going to hear, you know, maybe somebody doing stand up comedy and you’re going to discover voices that you weren’t aware of before. And I don’t know. That’s really that’s really important. I’m really passionate about and I feel like book community or, you know, the literary world is always a little bit in danger of being kind of pushed to the margins by other stuff. And we just especially nowadays, we really need to find ways to show up for each other.
S1: You also say that you encourage people to read their work out loud as often as they can in front of an audience. Why is that important?
S2: For me? That’s really a part of finding your voice as a writer and like literally finding your voice because. But you’re outstanding when you’re reading your work aloud. Stuff that seemed one way on the page is going to seem very different. When you read it out loud. It’s going to just the sentences are going to have a different shape. They’re kind of a different flow. You might find yourself emphasizing things that you didn’t think we’re going to be emphasized. You might possibly be doing the voices of the different characters, which can be really fun and interesting. You’re going to see the audience reacting if there’s any kind of audience, even if it’s your cat. I read to my cat sometimes, you know, you get to see the audience react and like what the audience thinks is funny or dramatic or intense, you know, that’s going to tell you something about the work, but also just about your your writing in general. And I feel like, you know, a huge part of how I got better as a writer and also found what worked for me as a writer was just relentlessly reading my work to audiences and and getting to kind of get that feedback in real time in a very different way than somebody, you know, reading it and giving you notes or whatever.
S1: Speaking of reading out loud, you narrated the audiobook version of your book, which I listened to, and you did a great job and well, thank you. We on another episode of Working, we spoke with Abby Creedon, who’s an amazing audiobook narrator, and she mostly reads fiction and she mostly reads romance is actually an incredible job with them. But I was really impressed because I am a big fan of this this nonfiction book that you’ve just released that we’re talking about. But I think it must be harder to read nonfiction because, you know, you don’t have that propulsion of a journey of adventures or characters or so. First of all, how was the experience? And second, how did you kind of manage that, you know, to bring a lot of variation and just to keep it so interesting? Because it definitely was.
S2: Well, thank you. I really appreciate that. You know, I was very nervous about doing this. I’ve never done an audiobook before. I’d never done anything of that nature, really, except for, you know, I read my stuff on podcasts a couple of times, but mostly fiction. And so this was definitely new to me. And I definitely was very nervous about it. Also, you know, as a trans person, I have a little bit of, you know, anxiety about my voice sometimes. So that was that was very nerve wracking, but. Once I got into it, I really enjoyed it, I was recording it Women’s Audio Machine, which is a wonderful studio here in San Francisco that’s kind of a non-profit that particularly caters to, you know, women, trans and non binary folks, and is you know, it’s kind of a feminist audio space. And they have like an incredible studio set up. Wow. Laila, the engineer there, was incredibly great. And also Kimberly Wetherall, I think her name is was was the director who was in my ear the entire time giving me feedback. So that was great. And that was that made you feel a lot more secure. But, you know, it was just one of those things where I had to really just, you know, think about the words all over again. And this like like I said before, this was the second time I’d read the entire book out loud because I did it when I was editing it and I did a TED talk at a TED talk. And when I did the TED talk, they actually paid for me to have a session with a speech coach or a an elocution coach or whatever, who gave me a lot of feedback about pauses and kind of how to emphasize words and how to kind of do all that kind of stuff. Yeah, and I use that a lot now. Like, I feel like that really changed how I do public speaking in general. And so that was a huge plus. So I just tried to draw in all of that. But it was you know, I feel like even if it’s essay type nonfiction, I think good or, you know, interesting nonfiction, I should say, has a narrative quality to it and has a through line. Yeah. And, you know, tried to find like where is this section leading towards what’s the interesting part of this section and how can I kind of bring that out? I try to sort of think about that a little bit, but it was definitely forcing me to think about all of these words that I put down in a different way, for sure. Yeah, yeah. But I’m so glad you liked it. Thank you.
S1: You’re very clear in the book that you are not at all in the business of disseminating writing rules, but is there one piece of advice or insight in this book that feels especially important for aspiring or active writers, for that matter, to know and to keep in mind?
S2: I mean, the one piece of advice that I always give everybody is to find community. And that’s a thing that we just talked about that. But I think that is the number one thing for me. I think that having other writers around and having, you know, and interacting with readers as well will make you a better writer. But it also just will help you to to stay grounded and keep going through this and to listen to the agent rather than the devil on your shoulder. And, you know, think of yourself as part of, like. A whole group of people who are all trying to do this impossible, amazing, weird thing, you know.
S1: Yeah, well, you also talk, though, about community in your fiction. So, you know, I worldbuilding is this phrase that mostly gets associated with speculative fiction, science fiction. But obviously, any bit of fiction demands that a world be built. But you talked about building a community into the worlds that you invent. How do you do that? Is that just. Well, you don’t just have one person. You have more than one person. Like it’s more than that. Right.
S2: You know, I’m usually happiest when I’m writing about people who have roots or who have people and places that are important to them. And it kind of gets back to that like we were talking about of like the three sets that you build. But also just like, you know, I feel like I get impatient, I should say, with fiction, where there’s just like a rugged individual who belongs to nothing and has no and is just hasn’t got any kind of cultural background that they come from. And it’s just like they’re kind of just like. A sui generis person against a backdrop of a world that’s like maybe homogenous and they are not part of in some way, I think that people who belong to communities and who have ties to groups of people are just much more interesting. And, you know, obviously, you could be at odds with your community. You know, a tried and true storytelling thing is people who come from one sort of community or what kind of background and then reject that or move beyond it and find a new kind of quote unquote, chosen family that they can belong to. And that’s also a legit form of community for sure. And it’s not always great. It’s not you know, sometimes when you belong to a community, people are going to have expectations of you. And like, you know, I always say if you’re if you’re a goth, people look at me like you can’t wear pink. You’re a Goth. You’re just you know, you don’t wear that. You can’t listen to Taylor Swift and be a Goth. You know, that’s not allowed. Right. And so people are going to have their own ideas about what it means to be a member of a community. And I think that there’s a lot of interesting conflict and story to be founded that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with exploring that. But I do think that people who don’t have a community that they belong to or that they’re discovering or whatever, they tend to be a bit boring.
S1: Charlie, Jean, thank you so much for the book and also for your time, it’s been really great to talk with you.
S2: Thank you for having me.
S3: June, I’m so curious about Charlie Jean’s new book, which sounds like it’s really specifically advice for the writer working in a creative mode, you know, she’s dispensing the wisdom that she’s learned specific to her field. But I’m wondering whether you found something in the book that was relevant to the work that you do that isn’t about writing in a creative writing fiction.
S1: Yeah, I mean, the book is definitely focused on the strange process of inventing people and situations and stories. But I did get a lot out of the book for my own nonfiction writing. She really stresses the importance of keeping the reader in mind and what you can do to keep them engaged, how to best serve their needs and their desires. And she has a lot of tips about what you can do to keep the reader gripped by the stories. You’re telling them whatever kind of stories they are.
S3: Because I write for a living, I’m not sure that I had ever really considered what Charlie Jason talks about early in this conversation, that writing can help you as a sort of outlet, a coping strategy, a way to engage that can be actually as transporting as reading a good book. You know, I know that to be true. I just hadn’t thought of it in those terms for a while. But it really is absolutely true. Sometimes I feel great after just getting something done on paper, no matter what it is. In a strange way, that doesn’t have a lot to do with my career. It has to do with kind of like self care in a strange way. And maybe that sort of speaks to a fundamental human impulse towards storytelling, towards creative outlet.
S1: Absolutely. I know just what you mean. And Charlie Jane has a real talent for communicating like the joy of writing, reading. Never say you can’t survive. It really made me want to write fiction, you know, not a novel, not for publication, but just for fun, just to entertain my cat like it. It really does a great job of just giving. Wouldn’t this be a fun thing to do? And it’s awesome to have that kind of challenge, but also something that just seems just pleasurable.
S3: Charlie just seems like a writer who’s very attuned to her reader or attuned to what it is to read at all. She describes the imperative of curiosity as she writes, and she she likens it to what makes the reader turn the page. And hearing her talk about that was so interesting to me because it wasn’t about being curious in a range of subjects. You know, it wasn’t saying like, oh, I’m curious about science or I’m curious about genetics. I’m curious about math. It was saying, I’m curious about what’s going to happen in this fictional world that’s being built and in a way that sort of remembering the essence of the thing that you’re creating and how it’s for an audience. And that seems very generous.
S1: Yeah, the concept of curiosity, it comes up a lot over the course of the book, and it does feel like an essential element in the creative process that sometimes forgotten or at least underplayed. And I think it goes back to her emphasis on taking pleasure in writing the more fun the writer has, inventing and figuring out a narrative and just kind of running with their curiosity, the more likely readers are to have fun experiencing that story.
S3: I notice that Charlie Jane Anders book of herself as an organizer as well as a writer, which suggests that that’s really an important part of her work. She hosts a salon which she mentioned in your conversation, and it’s clear that there’s a sincere commitment on her part to building a community of writers. And I was reminded that in twenty sixteen, I believe before I published my first book, I did a sort of an event with Charlie Jason and another writer. And she was so nice to me. She was so nice to me. And I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people in this business. I think that the default mode is kindness more than it’s not. But I remember Charlie Jean saying to me, like, hey, if you’re ever outlets like you have to come to my salon. I do this thing. I have all kinds of writers. I would love to have you. And, you know, it never works out timing wise, but just a simple offer was so generous and has really stayed with me. So when I hear her talk about that as a part of her career, I really understand that. And they really value that. As the two of you discussed, the pandemic has really disrupted that kind of thing. But at the same time, there are virtual literary events, you know, online every single night. And I was wondering whether you have attended any of those?
S1: I have a few. The pandemic taught me that my Hermitude isn’t really about not wanting to go out. Even when I was staying at home, I still didn’t do very much. I think it’s more about me just wanting my own company rather than not wanting to leave the house. But I was glad to be able to attend a few readings, most memorably an event that was organized by. Sinister wisdom, the Lesbian Quarterly that was celebrating a new book from poet Lenny Bruce Pratt, and maybe it’s because poetry always feels very intimate, at least to me. But, you know, just the experience of being on my couch in my, you know, surrounded by all my things, this place, you know, my home and many Bruce is reading from her new poetry to me. And it did feel like it was just to me that was a really great feeling. I think over the course of the you know, the time we’ve been doing the show, we’ve talked about, you know, which has been the pandemic time. We talked to a few things that are, you know, maybe democratizing or things that have been made possible. And that felt like a very special time that maybe wouldn’t have been possible in the normal’s.
S3: Yeah, I think you have to look at the silver lining because there are so many dark clouds and the ability to pop into a literary event that’s happening at an independent bookstore in Oklahoma, for example, is kind of wonderful. And it’s kind of, you know, I think anyone who’s listening, who hasn’t avail themselves of that opportunity during this pandemic, you’re really off to just to see just to, as you said, have that sort of intimate experience of having a writer read directly to you while you’re in your living room.
S1: Yeah, absolutely.
S3: Your conversation touched on imposter syndrome a little bit. And this is a theme that has really emerged in the conversations we’ve had on the show in the past year. So many people seem plagued by the feeling that they’re phonies, that they don’t deserve to be a part of whatever industry they’ve chosen. I don’t really know how you inoculate yourself against that kind of feeling. And at this point, I’ve actually come to believe that feeling like an imposter might be a necessity for making good work, that if you don’t actually have a little self doubt, you might be worried. But I guess if you don’t have any self doubt, it would never occur to you that maybe overconfidence is your problem.
S1: Yeah, it is true. It this feeling that we call imposter syndrome, it’s overwhelming for so many people. But I really like Charlie Jane Anders approach. You know, she emphasizes that writing isn’t about competition, it’s about community. And she says you should find the people who support your writing and encourage you and who you can support and encourage. And I’ve never had the experience of writing being a group activity. But I have to say that just sends a message that, again, that just sounds like fun. Um Rumaan. Before we say goodbye this week, I want to ask you a couple of things about your piece mirror writing a profile of Jason Reynolds that was published in The New Yorker this week. First, I mean, it’s beautiful. We talked about it a bit while you were writing it. So I knew it was coming. But since I’d not read Reynolds work, I figured, you know, be a piece that would expose me to something I didn’t know about, you know, and it did. But it was so much more than that. I was really moved by it. You know, when I finished it, I was left with some really powerful images the way that I might after reading a really great short story. And those images were about parenting, about Jason’s father getting him ready for school and he was a kid or his relationship with his mom today, the way he talks to kids and why he treats them that way and, of course, your relationship to your son. So thank you for just a lovely piece. Thank you. I guess my first question is maybe kind of banal, but it always strikes me when I read a really informed profile. And so I just have to ask you, how many people did you talk to and how did you figure out the structure of the profile at how much you were going to keep of each person? And which seems to include
S3: well, obviously, like when you are writing about someone’s life, you want to talk to as many people as possible. You want to talk to people who know that person on an intimate kind of human level, their friends, their family. And then to situate the work that Jason does, I had to talk to people who work in the same business, who have a perspective on it, like the Librarian of Congress or Jackie Woodson or Judy Blume. I did a lot of reporting for this piece. There was a lot of material that couldn’t make it in because you really only have four thousand, five thousand words to work with. And those words do go quickly. But all of that reporting is really helpful to me to help me get my mind around the person I’m writing about. It’s a tough it’s a tough ask to fix a person in a few thousand words. And so I think maybe it’s sort of comforting to do a lot of research and make sure you’ve covered your bases.
S1: And I’m curious, I admit, about the experience of writing a big piece for The New Yorker. I mean, I know you’ve written for a lot of magazines, America’s finest magazines, but. Let’s face it, The New Yorker is the pinnacle of print, was the experience of writing and being edited different there?
S3: It did feel like a very special experience, there’s a level of attention to detail and rigour that I really appreciated my editor on this piece as your former colleague and your friend, Jessica Winter, who is an extraordinary editor, she’s a friend of mine. She’s a tough editor. She’s very rigorous. She understands what she wants of the piece, but she understands what I want of the piece. And, you know, it’s a collegial relationship where you’re trying to both make the thing as good as it possibly can be. For me, one of the things that was most special about the experience of working with this magazine was seeing the care in the copyediting and in the fact checking. I had an extraordinary fact checker, a young reporter who worked very closely with me on just really making sure that everything in the piece was accurate and that the way the language reflected the facts was accurate. And to have a copy editor tally up the number of times you use a certain verb and say, OK, let’s let’s address this, let’s sort of find some synonyms here, it feels great. That level of attention feels really wonderful. And, you know, my byline goes on the piece in The New Yorker sort of famously publishes no masthead, but there are so many hands involved in the making of good work. As know, that’s always the case. And so I’m really grateful that I had those hands holding me up.
S1: Now I really recommend it to everyone. I realize, too, that we have not said probably most of the people know who he is and ignores me. But Jason Reynolds who you profiled is a would you what would you call make children’s rights for children, for young people.
S3: He is at this point in his career, he is known as a writer for children and young people, although as I established in the piece, that is probably not going to be long in the case. He’s writing for even younger children now. He’s writing a picture book and he is working on a novel for adults. So at some point we’ll just be able to speak of him as Jason Reynolds, the American writer. And so it was kind of like a great privilege to talk to him just on the cusp of that being true.
S1: Yeah, yeah, totally. Well, everybody should check it out. The piece is called Mirror Writing. It’s by this guy, Rumaan Alam, and it’s in The New Yorker.
S3: We hope you’ve enjoyed the show, and if you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And I’m going to give you one final slate. Plus pitch slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast, access to every article and sitcom without ever hitting a paywall bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danny Labrys new show, Big Move, Little Mood. But I also hope you’d like to support the work that we do here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to sitcom slash working.
S1: Plus, thanks to Charlie Jane Anders for being our guest this week to Grace Woodruff, who has provided tons of incredibly valuable research help with working over the course of the summer. And as always, to our producer, the stupendous Cameron Drus. Make sure to tune in next week for Isaac’s conversation with playwright Antoinette Shinomiya, anyone who until then get back to work. Hastily plus, members, thank you so much for your support. We appreciate it. I asked Charlie, Jason a couple of questions for your ears only. You talk at one point in the book about writing for an imaginary reader. Tell me how an imaginary reader is different from an inner critic.
S2: The imaginary reader in my head is the person who is kind of, you know, paying attention to what the story is doing and is kind of it’s that curiosity in a way. But it’s also more than that. It’s the person who’s kind of like, oh, OK, I’ll give this a shot. What’s this about? Oh, oh, now there’s this happening, OK? And part of it is I think I just maybe because of my long practice of reading my work out loud to audiences where you really you can kind of tell if you’re losing the audience. And this is a terrible thing to say, but you can kind of tell if they’re attached to starting to drift. They’re starting to like, you know, look at the football scores on their phone or, you know, talk amongst themselves or whatever. If they’re starting to lose interest in what you’re doing, you can kind of tell. So I have this thing in the back of my mind, probably from that, but also from other stuff of like how do I keep the reader engaged in what’s going on? And I do think of myself as kind of trying to draw them in and hold them in the story through just like keeping it interesting to them and keeping like putting out enough information that they’re going to keep being curious, but also just like weaving a a reality that’s going to kind of draw them forward. And and I I really you know, there’s a bit of hucksterism about it, a bit of like showmanship, a bit of like, you know, step up, step up, you know, ladies and germs and, you know, possibly also other kinds of pathogens. You know, here’s I mean, to tell you a story. And so I think that it actually is probably is not helpful to everybody to think that way. But it’s helpful to me to think in terms of this imaginary reader who is not hostile, who is not, you know, Anzhi, the story is not, you know, kind of actively looking at their watch or like. But but I do feel like I have to kind of keep them entertained. And again, if that’s not helpful to you, I don’t think in those terms, please. But I find it helpful to think that way because it helps me to stay to notice the clues that I’m putting down that the imaginary inner reader is going to be noticing. And I’m like, OK, I mentioned that there’s a secret society of, you know, troublemakers. And we’re going to come back to that later because, you know, they’re running around with blowtorches like a caramel. And this is going to lead to something exciting later in the story. Some kind of creme brulee disaster is going to happen. And so dropping little pieces, little by little hints and little clues keeps that imaginary reader in my head interested in the story, but also keeps me kind of thinking about, like, what am I laying down that I can pick up again later? So it’s really just an extension of me. The inner critic is a total asshole and you should ignore them and they suck. The inner critic is basically an extension of imposter syndrome, kind of they’re the person who is just saying that your work sucks and that you’re garbage and that you’re doing it wrong and that you’re making a mess and that you’re doing you’re you’re you’re creating something terrible and that you should be ashamed of yourself. That voice inside your head needs to just be expunged or ignored. At least it needs to be ignored. And I feel like that’s a helpful distinction to be personally that the inner the imaginary reader is is curious and interested and wants to know more and is like kind of digging where the story is going but but is like has to stay engaged and has to be entertained by what I’m putting down. But they’re willing to be entertained. Yeah. The theater critic is just an asshole.
S1: Yeah. So it’s like the the imaginary reader appreciates your creme brulee crumbs and the inner critic just wants to sweep them up because it’s just a mess on the floor.
S2: Yeah, exactly. The inner critic is like, what is this, Tremblay’s secret society garbage. And, you know, you’re just you’re just this is so derivative of like the know the Dessert Chef Diaries Vol. 29 and or whatever.
S1: And is the imaginary reader like a specific person? Is it or is it a generic reader? Because I noticed around that time you talk about like it’s good to be writing for your own community if you belong to a particular community, most of us do in one way or another, like, by all means, have that right for your own people.
S2: Yeah. I mean, I think that at its most basic, the imaginary reader is it is what determines what genre and what type of book you’re writing in a way. Like part of what makes something a science fiction book is that the imaginary reader of that science fiction book is someone who read science fiction. They’re probably kind of a nerd. They like science. They’re curious to read about, you know, orbital mechanics or, you know, alien biology. They want to know more about, you know, how things work on a spaceship. If you’re writing a romance, you’re a measure reader is a romance reader. And you know you know what robots readers are interested in. And you’re going to try to give the romance reader romance and, you know, so on and so forth. So I think that that’s part of it is that, you know, part of what we think of as genres is really just the audiences that the books are aimed at. And, you know, part of why it’s useful to be part of a community is that, you know what? If you hang out with romance readers, you’ll hear them say, well, I love when this happens in the book, I just when this happens, it really throws me out of the story. And you can have that in the back of your mind. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not being a craven, you know, kind of pandering, you know, whatever. You’re just keeping in mind the community that you belong to and what they do and don’t respond to. But the thing about specific communities, I think that’s important is for those of us who are from marginalized communities who are you know, I think that if you don’t have, like an imaginary reader who belongs to your community in your head, you could get sucked into writing for the mythical. And I want to emphasize, this is a mythical beast, but the mythical kind of quote unquote, mainstream reader. There’s all the air quotes around that who you know, who perhaps is maybe not as comfortable with the stuff that you want to write about as somebody from a marginalized group. So, you know, sometimes what I’m writing about trans characters or queer characters, I do think about trans and queer people that I know and what they would get out of this story and what I can what I can put the story that they’re going to appreciate. And so my imaginary reader is maybe not this mythical beast who is just like, you know, a completely generic representation of the entire population of the United States in miniature or whatever. But it’s it’s more specifically someone from my community who I can speak to their level of understanding of trans people and not worry quite so much about, like, you know, trying to please everybody. So I think that’s another helpful thing.
S1: You come up with great book titles. What’s your secret?
S2: Oh, man, I am so bad at titles. Those are the worst. And I actually have a Google doc where I just scribble down titles sometimes and I never find the right. Like sometimes I find a title that I’m just like, oh, that’s such a great title and I never find the story that could use that title. Unfortunately, it’s really bad. Like I don’t think I’ve ever used one of the titles that I just write down that I think is a great title. I feel like I have a few hacks for fighting titles. One is if there’s like a really fun line in a story or a book, this is a thing that this literary magazine editor kind of taught me years ago. You could just take like a line of dialogue or a line from, like the narration and turn that into your title. I do that a lot. That’s how I found the title of all the birds in the Sky. That’s how I found the title of Victory is Greater than Death. It’s just something that somebody said in the story. And I was like, Oh, that’s actually that could be a cool title. And it’s from the story. So that’s cool. The failure mode with my titles is that they’re very on the nose and then they kind of the story does what it says on the tin. Yeah. Yeah. And that it’s just like here’s a story about X and so the title is going to be X and you know, for example, the the original working title of all the words this guy was mad scientist versus which whatever mad scientist and which and then it turned into indestructible friends, which is also a thing that they say in the book. But so I kind of like it’s about their friendship and how their friendship is indestructible. And people were like, that’s way too on the nose. And so I feel like I often have to kind of dig a little bit deeper to find a good title. And I never really feel like I’ve nailed it, to be honest. But usually if it’s something that’s sort of poetic and evocative, that doesn’t really kind of tell you what the story is, but kind of gives you a mood. Yeah, I feel like that’s a good title.
S1: That’s it for this week. Once again, we appreciate your support from Young. So.