The story is the most important thing.

Every year on November 5, I post Valerie’s Letter from V for Vendetta. I never meant for it to be a tradition — one year it was a whim, and for a few years after that that someone would ask about it or say they looked forward to it, and then it just became a thing.

Some years, I’ve just posted the letter. Some years, I’ve written more. But no year has been quite like this year, and I’ve been noodling at the edges of this post for months. Don’t get excited about that. That doesn’t necessarily herald fine writing, probably quite the opposite. It’s just a way of saying 2016 has been a long, strange, horrible slog for me too. And then on Tuesday we vote.

If you follow my Twitter you know I talk about this election a lot and work with data regards it, as I have for many elections previous. You probably also know that I love politics as a sport, and suffer from the same disease  much of our media does — a bias towards strong narrative, towards anxiety, towards running up to the cliff edge but not going over it.

Which makes it pretty hard to say, This is election is really scary. This is not hyperbole. You need to pay attention. Especially when half of the discussions about Trump seem to come down to whether he’s an actual fascist or just stylistically fascist as if one of those scenarios is going to turn out totally okay if he wins the presidency.

Look, 2016 has been a weird year full of heartbreak and loss. Change too — some of it good, and none of it that I’m ready for yet. Over and over again, terror felt like my watch word – medical terror, financial terror, political terror. The terror too of being left behind. Of not being enough. Of failing. And failure.

Meanwhile, Brexit’s a nightmare; Trump is unthinkable; and a regional political scandal involving someone I went to university with has forced me to relive the very chunk of time in which I first encountered V for Vendetta. That, too, was not a good year.

Valerie’s Letter – and Valerie herself – always fascinated me for how it, and she, are a demand for humanity against all evidence to the contrary. It is certitude in the face of gaslighting, identity in the face of how easily our bodies are discounted, dissembled, and dissolved. Valerie’s letter says, No. I am not who you say I am. I am who I say I am. I am who my story says I am. I may be a writer, but that is something very hard for me.

Writing is swimming against the tide.

It is for me I know I know I know I am not a person and I know I know I know I am not good and I know I know it is because I am queer and have a cunt and believe I am something other than the things that have happened to me and have a right to say all of it regardless of your contempt or the lack of simplicity and purity in anything that I’ve ever done or anything that I ever am.

It’s the drowning breath. It’s not yet. It is the reminder I am nowhere as near okay or as functional as I can mostly pretend to be. It is about mortality and precariousness.

So here’s what I want to say about Valerie’s Letter this year: The story is the most important thing. Your story is the most important thing.

Because stories are weapons. And shields. Tools. Strategies and tactics. And I believe they can help save us from all sorts of things – from this particular tide of political darkness sweeping increasingly from country to country, from the hatred of our neighbors, from our own self-doubt, and from our own despair. I believe stories are what give us the power to fight when there are no other options, and I believe they are succor against the coming dark when there are even fewer options than that.

How will stories matter as this year comes to a close? As 2017 dawns as a messy aftermath or a darker road? I don’t know. In a year like 2016 — when I’m just trying to get through, when we’re all just trying to get through — I am not really sure that I care.

But I do know that I still exist.

And so do you.

And so does Valerie.

If you are a person with a say in your government, please use it.

Please vote.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

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Let the Right One In: The Nothing That Lives Next Door

On Saturday night, I went to see Let the Right One In at St. Ann’s Warehouse in NYC. Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist‘s novel and film, both by the same name, the play tells the story of a peculiar friendship between Oskar, a young boy, and Eli, who seems like a young girl who lives next door.

Odds are, you know what happens next.  The film was something of a minor sensation when it came out, and you probably recall that the girl is actually a vampire.

Except, not really.

For one thing, she’s not exactly a girl.  “I’m not a girl. I’m not a boy. I’m not anything, I’m nothing!” she says at one point.  And she might not be a vampire either.  That word is never uttered in the course of the play, and at the moment it’s about to be she insists ferociously that she’s “Not that! Never that!”

The piece is filled with unanswered questions — about Eli’s gender both now and in the past, about what she is and how she got that way, about the reasons for her flat and abrasive affect, and about her motives.  One of the most weirdly shocking moments of the piece is when she insists to Oskar she has money, and then proves it by pulling a Faberge egg out of the trunk in which she sleeps.  The egg is never addressed further and barely explained (“What’s it for?” Oskar asks.  “For having,” Eli says, both disinterested and certain). But despite its mystery, that egg feels indicative of the great wrongness that has led to the current circumstances of murder in a small town, isolation, and the desperation of friendship.

Presented in a dreamy movement-heavy manner with a filmic score, Let the Right One In is consistently seductive, but in a manner completely inconsistent with vampire mythos.  There is no desire for glamor or eternal life here.  Instead the desire engendered by the play focuses on the methodical nature life in a small town, the strength to do what it is necessary, and the silencing power of snow.

Oskar’s encounters with bullies that help drive an otherwise languid narrative towards a jarring conclusion may be difficult for some audience members to endure. A significant number of effects involve copious stage blood, and one — thanks to the addition of excellent light and sound work — is genuinely terrifying thanks to the startle factor.

The performances are uniformly brave, but Rebecca Benson‘s demanding work as Eli possesses a disturbing intricacy that gyrates between flat and fey.

Ultimately, the show is driven by silence and physical language. And while the audience engages it as an often amused collective (Both Oskar and Eli are, at times, hilarious; and we are addressed in turn as concerned citizens and frightened children by police authorities as the murders in the town are investigated), after it was over it was difficult to speak, as if over its two-and-a-half hours we had all moved from identifying with Oskar to becoming something just a little bit like Eli.

Strange, hard to describe theater, but wildly recommended.  The show was supposed to have closed this past weekend, but is now running at St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 8.

Talking about American Horror Story

For those of you who couldn’t make it out to Bonnie & Maude’s “All of Them Witches” at The Bell House, my talk on AHS: Coven is now available as a podcast. The rest of the presentations from that evening are also in the process of being rolled out and you can and should grab them all (there are two up right now and more are coming).

Meanwhile, I spent a little bit of time waxing poetic about my surprisingly emotional response to AHS: Freak Show. One o the things I didn’t have a chance to talk about there was the genius of the anachronistic song choices the show has been using. Freaks — as used in this show to represent a range of marginalizations through camp, queerness, and disability — are, as the show frames them, the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to art both art and violence as consumers, victims, and perpetrators. This is one of those shows audiences are going to have radically different responses too, but it hits me — despite the horror elements which are the least interest to me — in a place of sorrow and wonder and loneliness like I’m still struggling to describe.

The Normal Heart, Penny Dreadful, and prepping for BEA

Thanks for all the kind words about Pretty Kitty in various social media.

Now that I’ve had a week at home, it’s been an intense media week. I’m finally up to date on Game of Thrones again and am still apparently all about Littlefinger, no matter how creepy he gets or how broadly Aidan Gillan’s accent wanders.

I also have my latest recap of Penny Dreadful up at Romance @ Random. Last night’s episode was more information dump than action, which served me well, as I actually wrote that recap after watching HBO’s The Normal Heart.

If you follow me on Tumblr, you probably know I’m still in a place where I can’t really talk about The Normal Heart which basically felt like 2 hours of PTSD for me (complete with dizzy spells), even as its events are those that mostly take place right before my own stories about being a teen in New York in the 80s.

But it was interesting to watch that film (A film, in which, by the way, every performance is astounding, and regarding which I would like someone that has complaints about Ryan Murphy’s admittedly unsubtle direction to explain me how on earth you’re supposed to go subtle with that subject matter and with a script penned by Larry Kramer. Please use very small words.) and then follow it up with a Frankenstein-heavy episode of Penny Dreadful in which everyone monologues on love and responsibility and abandonment and the ways in which brutal experiences make us brutal.

Certainly, it is not news that we use SF/F and horror content to speak of the world as it is. And that vampires, zombies, werewolves, and the Creature have all been long used to tell stories about contagion and the search for love when othered. But the juxtaposition was so direct, at least on my own laptop last night, that I’m still reeling from it a bit.

For those of you who don’t check in regularly at Avian30, where Erin and I blog together about our co-written works, there’s a bunch of new content up. Of the most interest to readers here is the Paley Center event I went to featuring Ken Burns and Beau Willimon.

Meanwhile, BEA starts Wednesday, so it’s another business and seemingly endless week around here.

What are you watching? What should I be watching? And what books and booths must I absolutely track down at BEA this year?

Starling, and now Doves

Since I anounced that Starling will be out from Torquere on September 10, 2014 there’s more news! Its sequel, Doves, will be out on January 21, 2015 also from Torquere.

While working frantically on more projects (seriously, I have a lot coming at you in multiple genres, I’m just waiting for the okay to speak to several of them) we’ve just started to plan some promotional stuff around Starling‘s release.

Erin and I will be on The Hummingbird Place, a romance novel podcast on August 18, 2014; we’ll be talking about characterization, which is the theme of the episode, which will feature several other great guests.

We’ll also be doing an interview with Raine O’Tierney at The Hat Party on September 10, 2014.  We’ll have giveaways around both, and I can tell you that the one for the The Hat Party will involve an actual hat crafted by Erin like the one that serves as a plot point in Starling.

For those of you that are members of Romance Writers of America’s NYC chapter or thinking about it, I’ll be the author of the month at their meeting on October 11, 2014. The topic will be collaboration.  As an aside, I can’t recommend the group highly enough.  They’ve been a huge asset in helping navigate this very fast moving process.  Meanwhile, I have a quick piece up on their blog about Velvet Goldmine, writing, and stardom.

As we move towards a cover reveal for Starling (this summer), Erin and I are putting together a joint blog for our coauthored work.  We’ll announce that soon, once we populate it with some content.

In the meantime, Glee‘s back, I desperately need to catch up on Vikings, and I need to do some serious processing with you all about House of Cards and various patron saints.  I know all the content right now is like “New content soon!” but truly, New content soon!

Starling

Some of you who follow me on Tumblr may have noticed an increase in random photos of birds, white bedrooms, and gingers.  This is not due to a new pet, a house remodel, or a sudden crush.  It’s actually because Erin McRae and I have written a novel, which we’re happy to report will be published by Torquere Press in 2014 (note: for those of you not familiar, Torquere is a long-time publisher of LGBT romances and there may be some images on that site you may not wish to click through to at work).

Our book, Starling, is a fairy tale about fame and everything that goes right, and ridiculously wrong, when you’re the kid who effectively gets discovered in a diner.  Set in Los Angeles amongst an incestuous group of friends during next year’s television season, Starling is about figuring out how to do life when it feels like the whole world is watching.

Starling is just one of many things in the hopper around here.  I’ve got a bunch of other projects at hand, some with announcements sooner and some with announcements later.  Erin’s working on a ton of stuff too.

Meanwhile, funny story for you:  Always. Check. Your. Spam. Filter.  Because if we had checked ours sooner, we would have been telling you this story a month ago.

Oooopsie.

Luckily, the team at Torquere is lovely.

When we have a specific release date for Starling we will let you know.

 

American Horror Story: Wounds as weapons

Sometimes, I feel like the loneliest person in fandom.  When Tumblr asks Who in the Glee cast would you most like to have lunch with? I always say Ryan Murphy.  That’s not just about avoiding the awkward about cute boys and the intensity of various fandom factions.  I really, really am a huge Ryan Murhy fan, which is a little bit like being a Russel T. Davies fan if you watch British TV — people wonder what’s wrong with you, even as they’re all watching the guy’s show(s).

Being a Ryan Murphy fan and being someone who struggles with the horror genre is, however, particularly frustrating right now.  Because he’s definitely doing some of his most intellectually interesting and uncomfortably confronting work on American Horror Story.  The problem is, I can barely watch it. Not because it’s gory, but because his imagination brings my deepest, darkest intrusive thoughts to visual life with far too much regularity.

I still haven’t, despite strong personal interest, watched AHS: Asylum because of the degree to which medicalized punishment for Otherness is pretty much the one narrative place I don’t quite have the endurance to go.  Mainly, because even if it didn’t happen like that, it still really happened.  It still does.

AHS: Coven, which I am watching, is by Murphy’s own admission, a campier, funnier show.  But it’s still horrifying — and again, not for the gore. This is particularly clear in the way it showcases a litany of female focused horrors: self-injury, deceitful competition between women, the non-metaphorical links between sex and death, the false redemption fame and objectification are meant to promise us.

At its heart, of course, all of Murphy’s work is, arguably, about trauma survivors.  It is as clear in Gabourey Sibide’s Queenie on AHS as it is in Chris Colfer’s Kurt Hummel on Glee.  It’s hardly surprising.  After all, Murphy is also working on bringing The Normal Heart to HBO.  Because while marginalized people are always, arguably, trauma survivors, the tight generational bond some of us share because of queerness and AIDS and activism is particularly illustrative.  It is one of the other things that often makes me feel lonely in fandom; I burst into tears every time I see the All My Friends Are Dead dinosaur, and yet when I try to talk about these experiences I often get the message — from myself as well as others — that I shouldn’t.

Weirdly, however, Murphy’s obsession with trauma and its transformative nature may be something he most clearly articulated during the nearly unwatchable, often annoying, and now cancelled reality TV show The Glee Project, in which contestants competed for a role on the FOX show.  With the exception of Alex Newell, the most interesting performers didn’t win (I’m looking at you, Charlie Lubeck).  But in the sea of all that, one interesting thing Murphy always seemed to ask the contestants, over and over again, was What is your wound?

Most often, this generated people talking about the things in their lives and the reception of their identities and experiences that most hurt.  It led to more than a few Tumblr conversations where people tried to identify and craft elevator pitches for their own wounds.

But last night, when I watched Queenie slash her own throat and dip her hand in a glass of acid to inflict the wounds produced on others, I finally understood.  When Ryan Murphy asks his potential actors What is your wound? what he means is How are you going to kill me?