Transcript: Malinda Lo and Jason Reynolds

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 1 Episode 7.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Malinda Lo, discussing Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters:

MALINDA LO:

It completely changed the way I thought about writing and about what could be done in a book. At the time, I was beginning to write my first novel. I think that seeing Sarah Waters tell this story about a lesbian was just totally eye-opening to me. I had never seen it done this way before, ever.

JENN:

And Jason Reynolds, who picked The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin:

JASON REYNOLDS:

He strikes this strange balance that’s really hard to do, where you’re like, “I’m writing for the people on the corner, on 125th and Lennox and I’m writing for the people at Harvard”, and the difference between those people … that difference isn’t as vast as we tend to believe.

JENN:

Malinda Lo is the author of several young adult novels, including Ash, Huntress, Adaptation, and Inheritance. She has been a three-time finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Her newest novel, A Line in the Dark, is a psychological thriller that explores friendship, unrequited love, Chinese-American identity, and the dark and twisty side of relationships.

LO:

My name is Malinda Lo, and “Tipping the Velvet” by Sarah Waters is my recommended. “Tipping the Velvet” is set in 1890s London, and it’s the story of this girl from a small seaside town. Her name is Nancy Astley at the beginning of the book. She becomes infatuated with this male impersonator Kitty Butler, who performs sort of a cabaret routine on stage. Kitty and Nan then sort of become friends, and when Kitty is invited to perform in London, she brings Nan with her. The two women fall in love and end up performing together on stage in drag. The book is basically all about Nan’s coming of age and her sexual awakening.

Tipping the Velvet” was the first Sarah Waters book I read. I totally remember a friend of mine literally taking it off her bookshelf and giving it to me, and saying that she thought I would really enjoy this. So the book was first published in 1998. I don’t think I read it until the early 2000s, so it had been out a couple years and it had already gotten quite a lot of buzz by then.

I don’t remember whether I read it all in one read. I do remember thinking this was an unusual book for me to read because at the time, I mostly read crime fiction. I was a huge crime fiction fan. I still absolutely love crime fiction, and “Tipping the Velvet” was a historical literary novel, which is not something I normally pick up. I actually didn’t know if I would like it at all, but I was drawn in from the start. I do remember feeling that it was a completely transformative book. It completely changed the way I thought about writing and about what could be done in a book. At the time, I was beginning to write my first novel. I think that seeing Sarah Waters tell this story about a lesbian was just totally eye-opening to me. I had never seen it done this way before, ever.

I knew that there would books in which there were lesbian main characters. There’s a very lively and vibrant LGBT publishing industry, and I knew about those books but I don’t remember reading and connecting with them in the way that I did with “Tipping the Velvet.” Sarah Waters is just a brilliant writer. This is her first novel, and I absolutely think that she has become an even better writer since then, but this was just amazing to read, to read her confidence in telling the story. She held nothing back. It was lusty, it was no holds barred. I was completely floored by it.

I recommend “Tipping the Velvet” all the time. I recommend all her books to people. When I talk to younger emerging queer writers, especially young women who are writing, obviously I recommend that they read Sarah Waters I think because for me, she has just been such a model for me in my own career. There are very few lesbian writers out there who have the sort of renown that she does. I have found her just very inspiring in general just looking at her career.

Before my first novel was published, my first novel “Ash” is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. At the time, I was this entertainment reporter working for a lesbian entertainment website, and I would talk to people about it and they would all suggest I try to sell it to an LGBT press. I just didn’t want to do that because I did not want to be kind of limited by a smaller market. Sarah Waters was really the only writer I knew of at that time who had written an unapologetically queer novel published by the mainstream to such success. Looking at her and her books over the years has always inspired me to continue to reach for that.

I still talk to young writers today, young queer writers who think that they need to submit to an LGBT press, and that is certainly a valid option and there are some LGBT presses who are publishing great stuff, but I always want young writers to think beyond their marginalization. I don’t think there’s any reason that books about queer women cannot be published by the mainstream and have an equal amount of success. I can always point to Sarah Waters to show that.

There are very few lesbian writers who have a successful career and go on to write multiple critically-acclaimed literary novels. There is Sarah Waters, there’s Emma Donoghue, there’s Jeanette Winterson, but Jeanette Winterson and Emma Donoghue are sort of different because they don’t always write about queer women. Sarah Waters has also written one novel that is not ostensibly about a queer woman, but I think it is anyway. There are not very many authors like her, and she definitely has a very distinct voice.

When I recommend “Tipping the Velvet” to someone who I knew is queer, there’s very little I have to say. I mean, I just tell them, “Lesbians. Victorian London. On the stage in drag.” That gets them every time. There’s no other book like that really. For readers who are straight, I think I tend to pitch the historical elements, her brilliant writing, the love story in it. I really don’t know how to describe it. It’s such a specific book and yet kind of difficult to describe.

I have re-read this book a few times. I remember reading it very closely when I was writing my second novel “Huntress” because in “Huntress,” I was trying to tell a slow burn love story. I had no idea how to do it. It was a slow burn love story between two girls, and I couldn’t remember reading one that I really connected with. I picked up “Tipping the Velvet” again and I was like, “Well, there are several love stories in this book. How does she do it?” I literally went through this book and tried to pick apart how she built sexual tension. Then I tried very hard to apply it.

I don’t know if I figured it out, but I learned a lot from reading this book closely. I learned that when something happens on page 300, you start building it up on page 2. That is what I learned. I learned that the ultimate act, like a kiss or an act of love-making or whatever, it can actually be very short in its description. A paragraph maybe, but there’s like 20 pages of buildup before you get there. By time you get there, it feels like it’s been going on for 20 pages and it has an immense impact on you. I think I had never really understood that before I sat down and tried to figure out what she was doing in this book.

I have met Sarah Waters a couple of times. I’ve interviewed her a couple of times. Before I was a novelist, I was an entertainment reporter working for a lesbian entertainment website, so I actually did interview her a couple of times for that site. Then I had the amazing honor of doing an event with her a few years ago at Booksmith in San Francisco. I probably, this was not the first time I had met her but it was the first time I had done an event with her as a fellow writer. It was a really incredible experience. I hope I didn’t come off as a total nerd. I probably did. I just wanted to get her to tell me everything she does in terms of craft so that I can steal her tricks. That was my main goal.

JENN:

Thanks again to Malinda Lo for joining us and recommending Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. Her new novel A Line in the Dark, published by Dutton Books, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at malindalo.

AD READ:

Fierce Reads is the exclusive sponsor of this season of Recommended, and they are hosting a huge giveaway for Recommended listeners, so go to FierceReadsRecommended.com to enter for a chance to win a bunch of great books.

Included in that giveaway is Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore.

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Our thanks to Wild Beauty and Anna-Marie McLemore for making Recommended possible.

JENN:

Jason Reynolds is a New York Times bestselling author, a Walter Dean Myers Award winner, and an NAACP Image Award Winner. His newest book, Long Way Down, takes place in just sixty seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.

REYNOLDS:

My name is Jason Reynolds and ‘The Fire Next Time’ by James Baldwin is my recommended.

I’m pretty sure somebody gave it to me, but I don’t remember who. I know I was nineteen years old, I believe but I don’t remember who gave me the book.

So here’s the thing, right, so I had the book, and this is probably going to be inappropriate. But, what actually ended up happening was. I actually was in the bathroom. I was in the bathroom. And for those who know the book, it’s not a big book, there’s not much there. Um, there’s a lot there, but there’s not a lot of heft to the book, in terms of pages. And I was sitting there and I was reading it, and I read the first two pages and then I just stayed in the bathroom for the next two hours. I just had a moment and stayed in the bathroom and I could have easily just left the bathroom and gone to another part of the house and finished it. But I literally could not get up from…I couldn’t get up from the toilet. I mean, and just that’s not a pleasant visual, but the truth.

And I’m pretty sure my mom was like, “Uhh, is everything okay in there?”, one of those types of situations. Right?

And I’m like, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

That was my first experience with Baldwin. And it broke me open and sort of started me on this path.

At the time I was really heavy into poetry. That’s what I wanted to be, I wanted to be Langston Hughes. Um, more than anything. I never thought I would write prose. I always said that I would never write a novel. Like that was a big mantra of mine, I would never write a novel. Or essays or anything other than poetry, that was the only thing I wanted to write. And I think that may be sort of the attraction to Baldwin, is that his language is so poetic. Right? It is super super poetic it’s really, really lush. Yet he strikes this strange balance between something that’s really vivid and really textured and sophisticated and elevated and at the same time, really, really eye-level. Right? He strikes this strange balance that’s really hard to do, where you’re like, “I’m writing for the people on the corner, on 125th and Lennox and I’m writing for the people at Harvard”, and the difference between those people … that difference isn’t as vast as we tend to believe.

So the beginning of the edition that I had was um, “Letter to my nephew”.
And that piece, to me, sets the tone, not just for “The Fire Next Time”, but it also sets the tone for um, it’s weird it encapsulated literally the conversation that I was getting ready to begin having with all of my friends and all the people that, when I was school, and my par… my mom specifically, um and that conversation has been, has now sort of become, you know, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Right? And Ibram Kendi’s “Stamped From the Beginning” and all these other books that have come out of this, I believe, come out this particular piece, “Letter to my Nephew”, which is basically just James Baldwin talking to his nephew about what it is that he is going to face as a young, black man in America.

And there’s something about that, that in that moment as a nineteen-year-old, at a predominantly white institution, from an all-black neighborhood and an all-black family, that emboldened me.

Like that sort of, this idea that they don’t have to accept you. And if you’re not accepted, you better not fold up to be accepted. Right? You need not bend or cower, or shrink in order to make people feel more comfortable about your existence. Right? And that, for me, going to class every day and dealing with what I was dealing with… university, and trying to figure out how to get my point across. And fighting and fighting and arguing with professors and students about how my traditions and literature are just as important as their traditions and literature. That piece, that letter, which was not very long, by the way, that letter was life-changing. Chemically, chemically changed me on the inside.

And it still resonates, it still resonates and I … there’s also something loving about Baldwin. So even though he’s sort of telling his nephew, “Hey, the world is ugly,” and, “Racism is ugly,” and, “You’re going to be treated ugly,” um, ” You can’t allow yourself to be hateful. You can’t allow pain and the anger and fear to metastasize into hatred.” And that has always, that’s the other part of it right? Where it’s like… I want to be, I want to allow myself to be so mad that I can return the hate, but I know that that does nothing but poison me, right? And it’s this sort of… it’s me pushing against, it’s me both pushing against the human part of who I am, right? My carnal need of retaliation or whatever it is that you want to call it, and me sort-of accepting my own identity and my personal character and integrity, which is that of love and forgiveness and acceptance and that, you know what I mean? Right?

And it’s sort of this weird sort of thing that Baldwin does, and he does this in all of his work, right? He’s always, all of his work ends with the idea of love. Some people criticize that. That’s their critique. But for me, I feel like it speaks to my natural inclination, it speaks to who I am as a person in terms of my personality and it forces me to grapple with who I am in terms of my integrity. And who I am in terms of my core basic sort of instinct.

I think Baldwin does a good job at even just exploring that in a way that I am, that I was then and am still very very much so grateful for.

Yes, Baldwin is a classic, and he is a legend, and we could argue that it seems as though Baldwin is ubiquitous. But the truth is, that there are still so many places in the academy that don’t use his work.

It’s a travesty.

As book people we tend to believe that Baldwin sort of has…he is the cream that has risen to the top. But, the truth of the matter is that he not nearly a part of the American lexicon like we think he is.

And so I believe that he still should be recommended. I believe that he should be recommended in High School. Honestly, some of it, I think there are ways for us to draw parallels and correlations. I think we should do more comparatively using Baldwin. And I think we could pick between his fiction … pick between his essays. I think we should study why Baldwin chose to write “Giovanni’s Room” and how big of a deal it was, for a black man to write about something other than a black person.

We should be studying all of this. Right? Not just Baldwin as a literary icon, but Baldwin as a mind and as a man. And I think that we’re just not doing enough of that.

People should read as much Baldwin as they can. And people shouldn’t read it as Kool-Aid or as sort of, medicine, but they should read it critically. We should all be reading him critically and thinking about what it is he’s saying. And arguing about whether or not we even agree. Right? I think that’s important to note that we don’t have to take it in as scripture. We can read it, and the parts we disagree with, we should then argue and start forming our own opinions, but if we want to talk about a place to start the ideas of critical thought around society, this is a very very … we’re a modern society. This is a very very very good place to start.

JENN:

Thanks again to Jason Reynolds for joining us and recommending The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. His novel Long Way Down, published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, is now available wherever books are sold. You can find out more about him at jasonwritesbooks.com.

JENN:

Thanks to Fierce Reads for sponsoring the show on behalf of Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore. Be sure to check out the Recommended Season 1 giveaway at FierceReadsRecommended.com.

Next week on Recommended, an author talks about the book that helped her write her first novel:

UNNAMED AUTHOR

I don’t know how to explain it. I love this book so much that I just … It’s like a bible for me, and just as if you would go back to read old Bible verses that you already know because it kind of lifts you up, I literally feel that way about this book and the novel.