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Transcript: Kristen Lepionka and Kekla Magoon

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 5 Episode 7.

AD READ: Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke

JENN

You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.

In today’s episode, Kristen Lepionka chose Seven Moves by Carol Anshaw, and Kekla Magoon chose Being of Two Minds by Pamela F. Service.

JENN

KRISTEN LEPIONKA is the Shamus Award-winning and Anthony and Macavity Award-nominated author of The Last Place You Look and What You Want to See. She grew up mostly in her local public library, where she could be found with a big stack of adult mysteries before she was out of middle school. She is a co-founder of the feminist podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Her latest novel, The Stories You Tell, is the heart-pounding third novel  in the Roxane Weary series, that will keep readers on the edge of their seats with her signature twists and mile-high stakes.

GUEST 1

My name is Kristen Lepionka and Seven Moves by Carol Anshaw is my recommended.

Seven Moves … it is not a mystery, which makes it kind of an interesting book because it does concern the disappearance of a woman, and there’s some police involvement, but it’s not at its heart a mystery. It’s like a literary/women’s fiction featuring a lesbian character as the protagonist, and so this is really a book about this woman Christine Snow, whose live-in girlfriend Taylor goes missing after they’ve had an argument. The book is really about what Christine herself goes through. It’s not ultimately about finding Taylor, but about Chris’ journey through sort of grieving for someone who you don’t really know where they are.

This book has incredibly realistic characters, especially really great queer women characters, in a way that I feel like we don’t get to see all that often. This book was written in the mid-nineties, so at the time that it came out I can only imagine how groundbreaking it was to have sort of this domestic drama playing out through queer women, rather than the classic domestic drama type of book, which is a straight woman married to a man.

It’s quite a short book. It’s only … looking here, it’s just over 200 pages. So it’s a really slim volume but it just like packs such an emotional punch into those pages, because you really feel like you’re going on this journey with Chris as she figures out what she’s supposed to do about Taylor. It’s in the early stages she feels like Taylor has up and left her, so she’s angry, and then she’s like kind of worried, and then she’s afraid that something terrible has happened to Taylor. As time goes by her feelings about all of it start to kind of change as more information comes out, but it’s very much a book about Chris herself, not specifically about the disappearance, which I think is kind of an interesting way to tell a story like this.

So I was introduced to this book and to Carol Anshaw’s work by my girlfriend, Joanna, who is a big fan of Carol Anshaw. I had never read her before. I believe that this was the first of hers that I read, maybe eight years ago, and she has other books as well and they’re all fantastic. She’s like a writer that is so underrated. I wish that more people knew about her. Joanna recommended this to me because I love mysteries and crime, and even though it doesn’t fall into that genre it sort of flirts with it around the edges, so it was sort of an automatic … “Oh, this is the type of thing that you’ll like,” and it totally was.

It was such a perfect recommendation for me just because the way the story is told, but also just the quality of the writing is beautiful, and it’s so … you feel like these people are so real to you, and I know that all good book have that going on. A book without good characterization isn’t really a good book, but the characterization and the way that Carol Anshaw writes about people is just … it’s so clear and it’s just perfect.

I tried writing a book like that and … this was before I had my literary agent, so I was trying to find an agent, and I got a lot of feedback that was sort of like, “This isn’t quite a mystery but it isn’t quite not a mystery, so we don’t really know what this is.” And so I think that it’s something … it’s really difficult to do it well, and Carol Anshaw does it so well. I don’t know how exactly she managed to do it so well, that it doesn’t feel like it falls through the gaps between two genres. It feels like it just encompasses two kind of at the same time, if that makes sense.

It hadn’t really occurred to me to write a mystery with a queer main character before I read this. Or perhaps I hadn’t seen enough examples of it done well, to see like a book that has a queer main character that is not specifically a book about queerness, but it’s about people and relationships. And so after I read this it really did kind of change the types of stories that I wanted to tell, because as someone who has always loved mysteries … that means I’ve read a lot of mysteries with straight white guys as the main character. So the first few manuscripts that I wrote were sort of in that vein because it was like this is what mysteries are, this is how it works.

And so it was kind of an evolution for me to realize, “Oh, actually I can write whatever kind of mystery I want. I can use the mystery genre kind of as an entry point to tell stories about people and characters that mean something to me and to readers hopefully.” So it was kind of like an ah-ha moment that this is something that can exist, like this idea of a mystery that is set against a specific community, or with a queer character that isn’t like a book that would get slotted into the queer mystery shelf of a book store, where it’s like a mainstream story that just happens to have this as an element of the main characters life.

I wouldn’t quite call this book domestic suspense, but it’s definitely like a domestic drama. Domestic suspense now is a humongous sort of industry within publishing, like there are tons of domestic suspense books out and there still are not all that many that feature queer women. So that’s one thing about this book that I love so much, is that how it really focuses on this community and it has incredibly well drawn, believable characters. It’s so rich and immersive.

I recommend it all the time, especially to people who are interested in reading more queer women, because it’s just like such a … How do I even want to say it? Like the way that she draws these characters … and the book is full of queer women. It’s such a well created, realistic feeling community, and in publishing that’s not always the way that queer characters are treated. There’s maybe like here’s a random queer person in this story, you know, it’s not really part of the story. It’s not organic, it’s just kind of like slapped on there. Or there are so many books where there are no queer characters, so to have a book that’s basically full of queer women is just really exciting.

It’s such a perfect book for people who are interested in … How do I want to say it? I guess part of what makes crime fiction so interesting to me is that people’s true colors come out when they’re in these really dramatic, terrible, serious, life-threatening situations, so a lot of interesting storytelling can be done around that type of thing. So this book sort of leverages that without getting tangled up in the idea of this is a mystery plot, and it has to have clues, and it has to have like a whodunit element, or else it doesn’t work. It’s just really like set against a backdrop of the situation, but it’s very much still about the people, and as someone who loves character driven novels it’s just one of my absolute favorites.

JENN

That was Kristen Lepionka recommending Seven Moves by Carol Anshaw. Her mystery The Stories You Tell, published by Minotaur Books, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at KMLwrites, that’s K M L w r i t e s.

AD READ: By Any Means Necessary by Candice Montgomery

JENN

Kekla Magoon is the author of several books for young adults, including 37 Things I Love, the Coretta Scott King Honor/John Steptoe Award-winning The Rock and the River, and the Coretta Scott King Honor book How It Went Down. She has also contributed to the anthology Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love. Her latest novel, Light It Up, is about the police shooting of an unarmed 13-year-old girl, told in multiple viewpoints. It’s a story about injustice and strength, and an incredible follow-up to her highly-acclaimed novel How It Went Down.

GUEST 2

Hi, my name is Kekla Magoon, and Being of Two Minds by Pamela F Service is my recommended book. Being of Two Minds was a book that I loved and returned to over and over again when I was in, I would say, middle school and probably into high school. I still own a copy that I have returned to a couple of times, even in adulthood. Once, when I was doing my MFA program, to see is this still a good book? What do I think about it now that I understand how to talk about literature in a different way? And I still love it every time I read it. It’s about a girl named Connie and a boy named Rudy. Connie and Rudy live in two different parts of the world. Connie lives in the U.S., in I think California, and Rudy is the crown prince of Thulgaria, a tiny little European Kingdom. They have this strange quirk of sharing one brain.

So, while they’re two separate people living two separate lives on either side of the world, they occasionally will sort of pass out, or black out in their real life, and slide into the brain of the other person across the world. Ever since they were little kids, they’ve had the experience of being of two minds, hence the title. So, they’re both, in a sense, California teenage girls, and European crown princes. They’re still two separate individuals, but they know when the other one slides into their brain, so it’s this sort of really intense friendship and relationship, because they’re sort of in each other’s bodies, and they can see and experience everything that the other person sees and experiences. And those sort of mental visits have been just a really special thing about part of their lives. They’ve never met in person, because they live across the world from each other. When they were little, they tried to tell their family and friends, “My friend, Rudy, who lives on the other side of the world,” and everyone thought it was an imaginary thing.

Eventually, they realized that they’re different, and it was a secret, so they don’t tell anybody. Nobody knows about this except for each other, so they have this really cool friendship where they’re best friends and they can talk to each other in really slow, sort of delayed conversations. Like Rudy would look in the mirror and talk to himself while Connie’s in his head, but she can’t speak to him. And then, when is in her head later in California, she can look in the mirror and talk back to him. So, they have these long, almost like correspondence conversations where they share a lot of things.

But then, the actual plot of the story is about Rudy, who is the crown prince of Thulgaria. He gets kidnapped while Connie’s in his head, so she feels like she’s the only one who can save him, but of course, nobody believes her about this knowledge that she has about his whereabouts, because she was in his head when he was kidnapped, so she can see, through his eyes, where he was taken. And not entirely who has him, it’s part of the mystery of the story, but she has clues that nobody else has, so she has to fly to Thulgaria and try to rescue him, and all sorts of cool stuff happens. So, it’s this big adventure, and also, with this underpinning of this incredible friendship. I love it so much.

I’m sure I took it out from my local library, because my mom used to take us to the library every week, and I loved just going to the paperback rack of books. The kind that swivels awkwardly and creaks as you turn it around. It had a lot of series books, and it had a lot of paperbacks, and you could just pull out anything and take it home. So, I remember spinning those things around for hours at a time and picking the ones that I hadn’t read. I loved series books as well, so I would go to the rack looking for the ones in the series that I hadn’t read, and I tried to read everything in order. And if I couldn’t read it in order, I tried to make sure that I had read every title in the series. And every once in a while, in the mix of that, there would be an individual book that would jump out at me. This was one of the ones that I pulled from that stack, and I’m sure I checked it out probably a dozen times when I was a kid. I never owned a copy when I was a kid, I always had a library copy. And then, I bought a copy when I was in my 20s, because I missed that book and I wanted it in my house.

I think it could appeal to a lot of different types of readers, because it has that sort of adventure component, and it has a real emotional component that’s kind of subtle, and a lot of, “Nobody believes me. I have this important thing to say, and this important contribution to make to the world, and nobody believes me because it’s too weird. And I’m a kid and nobody believes that a teenage girl from California is going to be able to help save a kidnapped prince in Europe.” So, that sense of being young, and knowing that you have information or an ability to help in a situation, and nobody believes you, that was very familiar to me, as well. That sense of being underestimated, or that sense of being just a little bit different, and that difference can be really powerful, but it also can be distancing, right? Because they’re both regarded as ill in some way, because nobody, even though they try to explain to people why they are different … She passes out at school and has to be taken to the nurse’s office probably like once a month or something. And he also passes out in the castle that he lives in, so he’s regarded as maybe not fit to be the heir, and she’s regarded as this weird kid who passes out, so it’s hard for them to make friends in the regular world.

That aspect, that sense that, “I’m really different for a lot of reasons that you don’t understand, but I have some things really specific to offer the world.” That means something to me as well.

I was a really lonely kid, and the idea of having a sort of built-in friend who would always be there for you, who would understand everything you’ve gone through and you have no secrets from, because at any given time, that person could be in your life. So, they know what’s hard for you, they know what’s fun for you, they know what’s really painful for you, and you don’t ever sort of have to tell them. That was such a fantasy to me, so I just loved that concept.

I find it to be such a challenging thing to recommend books that I love to other people, because it’s such a sort of intimate thing, the books that you love, and what woos you about them. So, even when I do school visits and I’m asked constantly, “What’s your favorite book?” or, “What books do you recommend?” I choose books that I want to recommend for lots of other reasons than they were necessarily the most personal and special book to me. So, it took me a long time to even admit that I read this book and tell people that I cared about it, because it felt like such a revealing thing to say what my favorite book is, because it tells a lot about me. It tells some of the things that are most important to me, it tells some of the things that I struggled with as a kid, which was namely feeling lonely.

I felt like nobody really knew who I was, and I didn’t know how to share who I was with anybody, so the idea of having had that kind of relationship from birth felt like such a powerful fantasy. And they love each other so much, and they’re just best friends, and they’ll always be best friends. And when they do meet in person in the course of the book, or very early in the book, he comes to Chicago on a royal tour, and Connie gets to go and sort of sneak over there and see him. And then, of course, she goes to Thulgaria later, but it’s a mystery as to whether she will be able to save him or not.

Anyway. I like the idea that you could have something like that. Seemed really powerful to me. So, while I have always loved this book and when people ask me, “What’s your favorite book?” it always pops into my mind. It’s not always, or even very often, what I actually say out loud.

I think reading this book has informed my writing in that I ultimately want to write something that has that kind of impact on readers. I’ve never figured out how to write my version of this book, if that makes sense. Like how to write something that speaks to those same sort of issues, or same needs, or same emotions that I felt as a kid that this book responded to, or that this book filled for me. I have never felt like anything I wrote myself fills those same gaps in the same way that this book does for me. I would like to hope that some of my books could fill this gap for somebody else, or have them have that kind of reaction, just a really powerful connection to the book, and feeling like a book offers a glimpse at what life could be, or the opposite of who you are, et cetera, but I haven’t figured out how to write sort of my version of this narrative. And I think I might eventually figure that out. I feel like it would be a great achievement. Creatively, not necessarily like the book would be a great achievement, but for me, personally, it would be an achievement to feel like I could delve into that subject matter in as effective a way.

JENN

That was Kekla Magoon recommending Being of Two Minds by Pamela F Service. Her novel Light It Up, published by Henry Holt & Company, will be available on October 22, 2019, and you can preorder it now. You can follow her on Twitter at keklamagoon, that’s k e k l a m a g o o n.

JENN

Many thanks to Kristen Lepionka and Kekla Magoon for joining us and sharing some favorite reads.

Thanks also go out to our sponsors for making today’s episode possible. If you like what you’re hearing, please stop by on Apple Podcasts to leave us a rating or a review. We’re always happy to see the feedback, and reviews help other bookish listeners find our show. You can find shownotes, including titles mentioned, at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us feedback, personal favorites, and suggestions at recommended@bookriot.com.

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