14 August 2014

And The Winner Is...

...Danielle Duerr! Congrats!

You guys, thank you so much for your huge and overwhelming response to this giveaway! I am honored and grateful. Double thanks to everyone who left comments -- I loved hearing from you! 

If you happen to be in or around the Twin Cities, you should come hang out with me next month, when I'll be reading with Julie Schumacher as part of the Second Story series at The Loft Literary Center on Sunday, September 28.

If you've always wondered about The Princesses of Iowa's gorgeous cover, you can get the scoop on Melissa Walker's Cover Stories blog

And if you've never heard me tell the story of how I once caught a squirrel, my sneaky friend Claire tricked me into telling it on her blog Zulkey.com

05 August 2014

Happy Paperback Launch Day, Princesses of Iowa!

Trumpets! Fireworks! A whole mountain made of cookies! The Princesses of Iowa is out in paperback today! YAYYY!
Isn't it pretty?

To celebrate this momentous occasion, I am giving away an ANNOTATED COPY of The Princesses of Iowa to one lucky winner. Or maybe two. Depending on how saucy I'm feeling.

You have until 11:59 pm on Tuesday, August 12, to enter! Entry form is at the bottom of this post.

It's been a long, crazy ride since The Princesses of Iowa first came out in hardcover, and I owe it all to you. Thank you for reading. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for coming out to readings, for bringing me to your libraries and schools and bookstores, for showing up in a million wonderful ways. Thank you for the emails and cards and tweets. Thank you for coming up after readings and asking me to sign your book and apologizing for fangirling and a special thanks to the 8th graders who told me I looked like Emma Stone. :-) Thank you for for supporting independent bookstores! Thank you for writing. Thank you for all of it.


PS. In case you missed it, this is the single greatest gift the internet has ever given me. I adore these girls! 

Contest is over! Thanks for entering.

18 June 2014

Just Hit the Rabbit

It’s late, and everyone is having fun except me. There are five of us: my housemates Ali, Jamie, and Nancy, our friend Mary, and me. They’re all giggling and trading insults and doing all kinds of obnoxious rumpus as if they haven’t even noticed how thick the fog has gotten, how invisible the road is before us. Meanwhile, I’m hunched over the steering wheel, fingers clenched, eyes straining to see more than a few feet through the darkness ahead of us.

It’s the August before our senior year in college and we’ve spent the whole summer in Grinnell, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, and by this point we’re so restless that tonight we decided to make the hundred mile round trip to Iowa City to see a shitty movie—America’s Sweethearts, totally not worth the trip—but of course the movie wasn’t the point, the point was the novelty of getting out of town and sitting in a real theater and eating buttery popcorn and not spending yet another night at the dingy college pub we’ve basically lived in all summer.

But now it’s late and we’re driving on a dark two lane country road and I can’t see anything and I’m doing my best to keep everyone alive, because at the beginning of the summer I almost killed us all.

Two months earlier, same car, same group of friends. I was driving and they were doing rumpus and we were going to Des Moines for some reason, probably the same reason: that we were bored, that it seemed like a good way to pass a summer afternoon. That time, we were on I-80, going fast—75 or 80, probably—when something ran out in front of me. A rabbit, maybe. Or a fox. It all happened so fast. I swerved to avoid hitting it and lost control of the car and we went swinging wildly, sickeningly, across the lane and off the road, down into the weeds and wildflowers on the side of the highway, and finally came to a stop inches from a telephone pole.

Two inches more, and I would have killed everyone in my house.

We fell out of the car in dazed relief, stumbling through the goldenrod and phlox, milkweed and blackeyed susans, clutching at their stems to reassure ourselves that we were still here.

A state trooper had been behind me and caught the whole thing on his car camera. “Next time?” he told me. “Just hit the rabbit.”

“Just hit the rabbit,” I repeated. I could see myself in his aviator glasses. I looked like a ghost.

He smiled at me. “Just hit the rabbit.”

I understood. Except… I didn’t want to hit the rabbit.

My parents are both very nature-oriented, and they taught me from an early age to look out the windows, to pay attention, to see nature. That’s a red winged blackbird, see the red on its wings? Those are sandhill cranes; they often fly in pairs. Come to the window; there’s a fox in the yard. My mom taught me to scan the treeline at dusk for deer; they like to hang out on the edges of cornfields. My dad taught me to see red tail hawks along the highway and told me that when you see a hawk, it’s a sign that everything is going to be okay.

Now, I see wildlife everywhere, even in the city. There are woodpeckers and cardinals and peregrine falcons and great blue herons and turtles and muskrats and coyotes and opossums and raccoons and rabbits. My friends tease me that spotting wildlife is one of my super powers. Sometimes it feels like a different way of being in the world entirely. Other people don’t see what I see.

A few months ago, I drove to Iowa and saw vultures the whole way. Three hundred miles from Madison to Des Moines, through the road cuts in southern Wisconsin, above the Mississippi River bluffs, over the modest curves of central Iowa. In groups of three and five, fingered wings outspread, circling circling against the bright spring sky. They were there as my friend Cam and I drove to dinner one night. “It’s a big weekend for vultures, huh?” I joked.

“What do you mean?”

I looked at him. “Are you kidding me? We’ve seen probably fifteen vultures in the last ten minutes.”

“I didn’t see any,” he said.

“What? How is that even possible? They’re everywhere.”

He shrugged. “I was looking at the road.”

I look at the road, too. And the treeline, and the telephone poles, and the sky, and the river. Last summer I saw a young buck wading across a stream at twilight and it felt like a gift. And every time I see a red tailed hawk, it feels like a message from the world that things will be okay.

“Just hit the rabbit,” the state trooper told me, and my friends picked it up, half joke, half not-joke. I understood it intellectually: that the lives of your best friends are not worth sacrificing for the life of one wild rabbit. I came from a place where that was never a question. Where I come from, parents are at least as worried about their teens hitting deer as they are about drinking and driving. Country roads are strewn with roadkill: farm cats and coyotes and deer. When people tell stories about hitting deer with their cars, they focus on the damage to their cars, how lucky they were to walk away relatively unscathed. No one ever feels sorry for the deer.

The first time I ever hit anything with my car was freshman year of college. Ali was with me that time, too. She had come home with me for Thanksgiving and we were on a dark country road outside of my small Wisconsin town, and something – an opossum I think – ran in front of my car and then it was under my car and we both felt it hit the undercarriage, bump bump, and it was awful and it made my heart hurt and there was nothing to do but drive on so that’s what I did. Because sometimes you hit things with your car. That’s life, right?

Sometimes when I’m in a bad place, rawer than usual, depressed, sad, I drive past roadkill and think about the moments right before they died: the hard asphalt under their feet, bright headlights rushing at them, the crush of metal against feathers and bone.

When I told Cam this, he was horrified. “You have to stop doing that.”

“I don’t know how,” I said.

Sometimes it seems like we don’t have a choice in this world: that harming the earth is part of the bargain we’ve struck and it’s best not to think about it too much. When you go to the grocery store and you forget your cloth tote bags, you can’t let yourself think about how sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them and die. When you’re filling your car up with gas, you can’t get too fixated on the number of otters and seals and seabirds who have died in oil spills. You can’t hold it all in your heart and make it through the day alive.

Sometimes you have to hit the rabbit.

For the rest of that summer, I practiced every time I drove. I would go around a curve in the road and think, “Ok, pretend there’s a rabbit. Keep going straight. Don’t swerve. Don’t jerk the steering wheel.” I imagined that I could be a different kind of person, the kind who asks about damage to the car first and the deer later, the kind who drives straight and true, the kind who keeps her eyes on the road and doesn’t get sentimental about the casualties of the modern world. A pragmatist. A realist. I tried to adopt a little bit of macho swagger. Yeah, I could hit the rabbit if I had to. So what?

And maybe it was even true. Maybe I could. I do have a streak of Midwestern pragmatism in me. Given the choice between the lives of my friends and the life of one wild rabbit, I knew I should sacrifice the rabbit. But I resented the hell out of that choice.

I wanted to find another way of living in the world. One where I didn’t have to choose between humans and animals. I wanted to believe we all have an equal right to be here. I wanted to choose both. I wanted to protect us all.

It’s late August and it’s after midnight and it’s foggy as hell and I am peering through the darkness so hard my eyes are starting to hurt. And then it happens, as I knew it would: a blue flash in the darkness.

I hit the brakes.

My friends stop laughing. “What? What is it?”

“I thought I saw something.”

As if it’s scripted, they all yell together. “JUST HIT THE RABBIT!”

And it’s a joke and it’s not a joke and it’s the state trooper and a summer of practicing for this moment and a lifetime of pragmatic country people and I get it. I know. All my friends are in the car and it’s my job to protect them and I should just hit the goddamn rabbit.

But I don’t.

I slow the car to a crawl and we creep through the darkness and then the fog parts and there it is: a cat. It’s a cat, and it’s sitting in the middle of the country highway, motionless, staring at us.

“I knew I saw something,” I say, vindicated, and my friends say, “A CAT? GODDDDD” and the cat watches us as we inch past it, and my friends wait for me to speed up again but I don’t because I’m still nervous about the cat, the way it sat in the road, the way it watched us, the way its eyes caught our light and bounced it back at us like two small moons.

We creep around the curve and the thick summer fog swirls like something living. The road is full of shadows and the fog twists and rolls and lifts and I stomp on the brakes once more.

“What now?” my friends ask, but I don’t answer because they’re right there, five feet in front of us: an entire herd of deer. They’re perfectly still, silent, each over 100 pounds, standing like dark ghosts in the middle of the highway. An entire herd of deer.

Five feet more, and I would have killed everyone in my house. Not to mention the deer.

That cat saved our lives.

Not hitting the rabbit saved our lives.

So. Sometimes you have to hit the rabbit, it’s true.

But sometimes you just have to see the rabbit. See it soon enough and you don’t have to hit it at all. You see it and you slow down in time and that night you both get home safely.

It’s another way of being in the world.

06 May 2014

Please Stop Complaining About Harry Potter

"The novel is dead," announces a Great Man of Literature.

"Well, the Serious Literary Novel is," he amends. "The 'kidult boywizardsroman' is doing just fine." He mentions this as if it supports his original contention, as if the massive popularity of a series of books written for children is proof of the downfall of global literary culture.


I am so dreadfully bored of hearing Serious Literary Writers complain about Harry Potter (and children's literature in general, but for some reason Harry Potter seems to irk them in particular).

For one thing, it is boring to hear people who only sell some novels complain about people who sell many novels. As Roxane Gay says, James Franco did not get your book deal. J.K. Rowling did not steal your readers. Another writer's success is not your failure.

In fact, Great Man of Literature, another writer's success might actually be your success. To grow a lifelong reader, you need literature for a reader's entire life, which generally looks something like this: picture books to early readers to chapter books to middle grade novels to young adult literature to literary fiction. Baby's First Kafka aside, most of us don't graduate directly from picture books to Great Works of Literary Note. Middle grade and young adult literature -- and yes, that would include Harry Potter -- is the bridge that helps readers travel from The Cat in the Hat to Mrs. Dalloway.

And there is truly great children's literature out there, GMoL. Wait, remind me of your definition of Serious & Worthy Literature?
The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.
So basically, Serious Literature uses words to help readers get inside the minds and hearts of fictional characters, to explore the ways those characters interact with each other, to describe settings that seem realistic and familiar or to create new worlds entirely, and occasionally goes all meta and comments on itself as an artform and/or describes other types of art.

Dude. Children's and young adult literature totally does that.

Beyond the astonishing fact that kidlit can indeed use words -- arranged sequentially, even -- to create characters who think and move and talk and feel and interact just like humans, so much so that readers grow to love them and celebrate their successes and suffer their losses (I myself am still in therapy over the devastating deaths of Old Dan & Little Ann, and my eighth graders wanted to sue Harper Lee for letting Tom Robinson die), children's literature can also -- and I know this is going to sound crazy -- use words to invent new worlds, like, oh... pick one at random... a magical world where wizards get to go to boarding school.

(And for the record, children's literature can also enact self-analysis.)

You want "difficult"? (We're not even going to unpack the idea that "difficult" is the same as "worthwhile.") Read Code Name Verity. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. When You Reach Me, for heaven's sake.

But look, even if you're staunchly opposed to the idea that books written for children could possibly qualify as Serious Literature, even if you cannot let go of the (imaginary) link between popularity and garbage (though ironically you seem to be arguing that the Serious Literary Novel is dead because not enough people read? But if more people read it, it wouldn't be Serious or Literary anymore? And also possibly no one has published a Real Serious Literary Novel since Finnegan's Wake in 1939 and every novel published in the last 75 years has been a "zombie novel" seriously, sir, WTF), even if you insist on mourning the Good Old Days when the Serious Literary Novel was at the center of the cultural consciousness, aka the twenty minutes between the rise of literacy rates due to increasingly widespread public secondary education in the early twentieth century and, you know, the apparent death of the novel in 1939 -- even given all that -- SO WHAT?

So what if people are reading about boy wizards? Or vampires? Or whatever popular thing is the current symbol of the downfall of literary culture? So what?

Readers are readers. Most folks who truly love reading will dive into all kinds of books, as long as they offer vivid, complex, interesting characters and a richly-drawn world and a compelling story. People read for all kinds of reasons -- to lose themselves, to explore other worlds, to amuse themselves on airplanes, to see what the fuss is all about, to fall in love, to study the craft of fiction. What do their reasons matter to you? That they're reading Gone Girl and not Ulysses on the train home says absolutely nothing about their worth or value as readers, thinkers, members of the culture, or humans.

So please stop complaining about Harry Potter.

07 April 2014

I Said a Blog Hop, the Bloggy to the Bloggy to the Blog Blog Hop (& etc)

My good friend (& owner of Zia's brother-from-another-mother twin greyhound Briscoe) Claire Zulkey has passed me the Blog Hop Baton, which means I'm answering the same questions Claire answered last Monday and her friend Annie Logue answered two weeks ago & so forth back into the darkest days of last month or whatever.

Claire pitched it as "a great way to generate content for your blog!" and not "Jesus Backes, you haven't updated since Christmas," which was awfully kind of her. She's a good friend.

What are you working on?
I'm in the early stages of a brand-new YA project, which is very exciting because it's the first true first draft I've had on my desk in years. It's still at the pure potential stage. It's also exciting because last year was not a big writing year for me, so to be back in the groove & actually be making progress on something feels pretty great. Last week I had coffee with my old friend & mentor Mark Baechtel, and he asked, "Are you writing?" and I said, "YES!" and he reached across the table and high-fived me, and I've been smiling about that moment ever since.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I'm not totally sure how to answer this, other than to say that no one else has ever lived this life of mine, and so no one but me can write about the world as I know it. One of my goals in this current project is to get as close to capturing communication and dialogue between friends and family as I actually experience it rather than as it seems to happen in popular literature -- that is, I'm trying to write people who sound less like characters and more like people I actually know. It's been a fun challenge.

Why do you write what you do?
I find the teenage experience to be so compelling -- teens have many of the same experiences and emotions as adults, but because they're experiencing it for the first time, they have a much smaller life context or framework through which to view that experience, and less of an emotional certainty that they'll survive whatever they're going through. I love being able to re-visit that immediacy and rawness of going through things for the first time. It makes for fun fiction.

How does your writing process work? 
It keeps changing. These days, I try to write a little bit every day, because I find that by touching base with my story every day -- if only for 15 minutes -- my brain stays focused on questions of character and plot, and in my freetime it dreams about what should happen next. When I go a few days without writing, however, my brain starts asking much more destructive questions -- instead of "what happens next?" it starts asking "what's the point?"

For me, the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down to do it. By writing every day, I keep the path back to the page well-traveled, and it's easier to get there again the next day.

 Next week, authors Christa DesirHeather Demetrios will pick up the baton & tackle the same questions on their own blogs. Bookmark their pages now!