Transcript: Seanan McGuire and Rumaan Alam

This is a transcript for Recommended Season 2 Episode 1.

JENN: This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Seanan McGuire who picked In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan and Rumaan Alam who picked Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

REBECCA: This episode of Recommended is sponsored in part by Oothar the Blue by Brandon Reese. Oothar the Barbarian is blue. He just doesn’t feel like slaying dragons today. He can’t bring himself to banish uberwraiths to the ninth dimension. His gauntlet of a thousand souls has lost its luster. What is a melancholy barbarian to do? Join Oothar on his quest for happiness and maybe find a new purpose of your own. An original children’s picture book from CubHouse, written & Illustrated by Brandon Reese, on sale now wherever great books are sold!

JENN: SEANAN McGUIRE is the author of the October Daye urban fantasy series, the InCryptid series, and other works. She also writes darker fiction as Mira Grant. She was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo ballot. Her most recent book, Beneath the Sugar Sky, is the third book in the Wayward Children series, and returns to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in a standalone contemporary fantasy for fans of all ages.

SEANAN MCGUIRE : Hi my name is Seanan McGuire and “In Other Lands” by Sarah Rees Brennan is my recommended.

So Sarah, who is a delightful human being, several years ago back when live journal was still a thing decided that she needed to say thank you to her readers in some way for supporting her. Which is an ideology that I strongly adhere to so I really appreciated it. And she began writing and giving away a story she called “The Turn of the Story”. Which was about portals and adventures and snarky teenagers having snarky teenage adventures through portals. And it was splendid and I loved it. And we got it in these 10,000 word chunks. It was just like following fanfic only rather than having a pre-existing fandom, we had Sarah being her absolute most Sarah and she and I are friends. So I spent about 2/3 of the publication period of “Turn of the Story” complaining to her that it did not exist in print and I could not buy it at a book store and this was unfair and how could she do this to me.

And Sarah, who is Irish and delightful would go, “Aw Petal. It’s cute how you think anyone would want to print this.” And then several years later I got a ping from Sarah going, “Aw Petal guess what I’ve done?” And that is actually how I encountered “In Other Lands”. I first met it in a different form when it was “The Turn of the Story” but the core of it has stayed the same and I love it even more now than I did then. Which I would not necessarily have said was possible.

My favorite is actually Elliot Schafer he’s our lead. Which is a bit odd for me. I’m not normally that interested in the lead character because the lead character always has to sort of be virtuous and accessible and sort of the grilled cheese sandwich of characters. You know everyone likes a grilled cheese sandwich and you want everyone to like your protagonist and Sarah pretty much went, “Well yeah but what if no one likes my protagonist? Wouldn’t that be awfully more fun?” So we have Elliot and Elliot is so cranky and so much smarter than everyone around him and so bad at understanding at why you shouldn’t tell people this. Which is a problem that I had as a teenager. I didn’t get why people wouldn’t want to know that I was smarter than them because I was a resource. “Why are you mad at me? That doesn’t make any … Oh okay.”

Elliot is so relatable. He’s so understandable as just that cranky kid that I used to be. He is also bisexual written as a bisexual teen character and is allowed over the course of the book which spans basically his entire school career. It’d be as if J.K. Rowling had decided to do Harry Potter as a single very thick volume. He is able to have relationships with both men and women without ever being judged by the text for it. There’s no point where Sarah as author and the author is, to a certain degree, telling you how you’re supposed to think when you read and it could be very difficult to get past that. There’s no point where Sarah as author says, “Wow. You know that Elliot boy he’s easy isn’t he? Isn’t it inappropriate how …” No she’s just Elliot loves who he loves and Elliot loves the idea of being loved and I again really really empathized with that because that’s sort of me in high school.
Elliot Schafer is a very grumpy teenage male version of myself. And I just adore that.

I’m a bit frustrating if you don’t like having books recommended to you because I read so much and I have fallen prey to the childhood bibliophiles curse. Which is that when I was a child I had no money, infinite time, and no standards because I wanted to be reading something that I hadn’t read before so badly. I would read anything that you could hand me. And now I am a grown adult who gets to make my own spending decisions. I’m a working author so I still don’t have much money but what I do have I can spend 100% on books if that is what is going to make me happy. And I have so much trouble finding something I actually want to read. It’s actually really upsetting to me.

So when I do find something where I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Oh. Oh. Oh this changes everything. Oh this is majestic.” I do everything short of take out a billboard. I get mad at the author. I yell about it on Twitter. I push it on all of my friend’s until they start going, ” Yes you already recommended that to me. You brought me home a signed copy from Ireland. Please stop. Just please stop. I need to rest.”

“In Other Lands” is not strictly YA it sort of exists in that hinterland place where you can hand it to an adult or you can hand it to a YA audience and both will be equally content with it. I believe that is in part, not because of the contents of the book, but because the publisher that did eventually pick it up to whom I am sincerely grateful, is not strictly a YA publisher so they wouldn’t think to market it that way. I will recommend it to anyone. I think it’s an important book for adults to read for a lot of reasons. I think it’s an important book for teens to read. It does not have an excessive amount of swearing or actual sexual content.

So I would even hand it to a 12 year old that I knew was very, I’ve forgotten the word, where you’re, very precocious in their reading. You know? And not worry that they wouldn’t be able to understand what they were getting at. But one thing that it’s kind of easy to gloss over when I’m talking about how this is such a fun book, and it’s such a fluffy book, and it’s such a delightful book with such a wonderfully snarky main character and, “Oh I just love it.” Is how it is such an important book. Elliot is presented without question he’s just Elliot. And yes there are people that don’t like him because he’s Elliot but I think that’s kind of important too. Because we’re back to not everybody’s gonna like you.

All of the characters are like there are gay characters that are explicitly gay in addition to Elliot who is explicitly bi.

I wish I’d have this book when I was in high school. I thought there was something wrong with me for the longest time because we all kind of knew that gay kids existed, but if you were a gay kid you only liked people like yourself and I didn’t just like that. I liked boys and I liked girls and I thought I was broken. I thought there was something seriously wrong with me and no one was ever gonna love me. And it took until I found an old Elfquest graphic novel to actually encounter the idea that bisexuality happened. That it wasn’t just me. You know?

And there are issues with the way that we culturally deal with bisexuality absolutely. They were there when I was in high school they’re there now. I keep hoping we’ll be done with them and they keep not being over, but even knowing a thing exists is so powerful and so important and this is one of the few books I have encountered that was not erotica. And there is nothing wrong with erotica, I love good erotica, but this is not erotica. That was not erotica, that was not an issues book. It was not a very special episode where we find out one of the kids on Degrassi is actually bi. It was just here is a kid having adventures in a portal world like kids do and p.s. he likes both boys and girls.

It’s just Elliot. Elliot is also Jewish and when is the last time you encountered a book YA or not where a queer Jewish character was that central and again it wasn’t erotica. It wasn’t a romance it was just straight kids get to go on adventures in magical portal fantasy worlds and that’s cool. Guess what queer kids are going to do it too.

So it’s super important and I’m so glad that kids and people, ’cause adults need this too. You know we’ve all been starving for representation it doesn’t matter how old you are but I think you’re more likely to be encountering that concept for the first time when you are a teenager or when you are a kid and I’m just so glad that kids today, that teenagers are gonna have the chance to read this book and see someone that they recognize from their mirror being healthy, and strong, and awesome, and loved.

JENN: Thanks again to Seanan McGuire for joining us and recommending In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan. Her novel Beneath the Sugar Sky, published by Tor.com, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at seananmcguire.

REBECCA: This episode is also sponsored by To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo. Princess Lira is siren royalty. With the hearts of seventeen princes in her collection, she is revered across the sea—until she’s forced to kill one of her own. As punishment, the Sea Queen transforms Lira into a human. Robbed of her song, Lira must deliver Prince Elian’s heart or remain human forever. The ocean is the only place Prince Elian calls home. Hunting sirens is more than a hobby—it’s his calling. So when he rescues a woman from drowning and she promises to help him destroy all of sirenkind for good, he’ll risk everything to protect his people… but can he trust her?

JENN: Rumaan Alam is the author of Rich and Pretty. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, New York Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere. He studied at Oberlin College, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. His newest novel, That Kind of Mother, was named A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018 BY Buzzfeed, The Boston Globe, The Millions, InStyle, Southern Living, and Vogue. The novel is about the families we fight to build and those we fight to keep.

RUMAAN ALAM: My name is Rumaan Alam, and ‘Harriet the Spy’ is my recommended.

I probably first read ‘Harriet the Spy’ when I was eight years old. I have a vague memory of borrowing it from the third grade class library. It was a book that I loved immediately, and then I’m sure I pressured my parents into buying me my own copy. I no longer have that copy, but I remember it very well. It was a very thick oversized paperback, and it kind of had a lilac cover. The one that I have now is probably 20 years old. I don’t even know how it first came into my possession. It is a book that I have read and re-read so many times, it’s completely falling apart.

I certainly remember as a young kid, that I would read a book through and then there were certain books that I loved so much, that as soon as I closed them, I would open them up again. ‘Harriet the Spy’ was one of those. Another one of those is ‘Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself.’ I read a lot in the bathtub, or I have a lot of memories of reading in the bathtub, which is so hilarious to me to picture an eight year old kid lounging in a hot tub reading a book, but I know I did it; because I remember ruining several books that I loved that way.

I’m … hard pressed to explain what it is about ‘Harriet the Spy’ that is so compelling, that was compelling to me as a young kid and remains compelling to me now. It is a book that you hear a lot of writers talk about, because in many ways, it is a book about being a writer. Harriet is a spy. She runs around New York City spying on colorful neighbors, but the heart of the book really is this narrative that she writes in her journal. ‘Harriet the Spy’ inspired me and undoubtedly many other young writers to begin keeping a notebook.

I think if there’s a character I connected with, it’s probably Harriet. Part of what is so great about it is that everyone in the book feels very alive. There’s her nanny, Ole Golly, who is sort of the foil to Harriet. She has a romance with this little Italian grocery delivery man, and he is somehow very realized. Harriet’s parents, who are kind of WASP-y, wealthy Upper East Side New Yorkers, are also very finely drawn. Then of course, all of the people Harriet spies on, on her route; this eccentric old lady who has taken to bed in her Manhattan brownstone. There’s … another grocery delivery guy who is always eating sandwiches. Then, there’s an artist who lives in this loft and makes bird cages, and has all these cats.

There’s something very eccentric and thorough about all of these little portraits. As a kid, and probably still as an adult, I’m so fascinated by other people’s lives. Harriet indulges in that and watches these adults. I think maybe all kids feel that way, that adults are such a mystery. They want to watch them and take notes, and figure out what it is about them that … what makes them tick, you know?

I get really burnt out, either from writing or from reading, both of which are my jobs. I need to kind of reset my pleasure centers, and find a book that’s going to just feel like joy and not tedium. That’s one of the challenges with reading new books, right? We all have these huge ‘to read’ piles, and you want to … There are great books being published every week, and you want to sort of stay on top of what’s current in the literary conversation. We all have huge gaps in our reading. I’ve never read anything by Herman Melville, for example.

There is always so much to be read. Rereading feels like a very particular kind of cop out, or betrayal. Yet, there are these moments where I feel really depleted or really unenthusiastic as a reader. What I need to reset is … that feeling of a text that just brings me pure pleasure. I would say I read ‘Harriet the Spy’ as like a mental palate cleanser, probably once a year.

I would say that ‘Harriet the Spy’ is one of the rare texts in my life that I can revisit purely from the point of view of pleasure; because when I’m reading it, really what I’m remembering is having read it so many times over the course of my life.

I’m thinking less about how Louise Fitzhugh made this novel work because I’m so entranced by the workings of the novel itself. The novel works on me and so I can’t actually analyze how it’s working.

Louise Fitzhugh is a very interesting human being. She was … a sort of eccentric lesbian who was part of a community of lesbian artists and writers here in New York City and on Long Island.

There is some literary history connected to this story. There’s also … There’s the story of queer history here. There is something about gay and lesbian lives that tended to get sort of overlooked in previous generations. I’m not only the reader. There are many readers who talk about ‘Harriet the Spy’ as a book of sort of queer liberation or queer defiance, that there’s something very … There’s a lot of gayness encoded into this text. It’s a book that meant a lot to a lot of writers, or a lot of adults who are now gay.

Harriet’s kind of … She is the daughter of privilege on the Upper East Side, but when she goes out to be a spy, she puts on this kind of androgynous outfit that’s sort of like her spy clothes, her spy gear. It’s kind of … it’s more boyish, let’s say. I think there are readers who see that as the sort of drag of … the drag of childhood … I think readers who are lesbians feel they were girls in the estimation of their parents. They were prim and proper girls, but in reality, they wanted to put on these boy clothes and go out and be themselves.

I think there’s a lot packed into this book that you can pull in lots of different ways, as is the case with every rich text.

I have such tremendous affection for Louise Fitzhugh and what she accomplished in this book, which is a classic for a reason. People still read it and then talk about it. Young kids still come to it every year. I love to imagine the kid who is like me reading this book, and finishing it, and then turning back to page one and starting all over again.

I am usually one of those adults who is … completely disinterested in reading YA or children’s literature. I know there are many adult readers who love to read that kind of thing. It’s not something that’s of interest to me. I read children’s books with my children, but I don’t read them for my own edification. It’s not because I don’t think children’s literature is a robust and interesting body of work. It’s just it’s not something that engages me.

I suppose the reason I wanted to talk about it on this show is to talk to other adults who, like me, don’t always feel engaged by literature for children and to point out that this is actually … This is a strange exception. My fondness for it has to do with my own childhood, but it is also a really remarkable book with some pretty adult thinking. I do think that a reader who was 32 could come to it for the first time and still really appreciate what Louise Fitzhugh was doing in this book

Because writers are all thieves, I am confident that there’s something I have stolen from ‘Harriet the Spy,’ and from ‘The Long Secret.’ I’m just unclear on what exactly that thing is. After I published my first book, I was sort of toying with the idea of having an epigraph at the beginning of the book. I didn’t have one in mind. It’s not like there was some guiding thought in my mind, but when it came time to look for one, I looked at ‘The Long Secret,’ because I thought there’s a real similarity between the premise of my first novel and ‘The Long Secret,’ because it is a book … They’re both books about the friendship between women. They’re both books about the friendship between women being forged at a kind of awkward age in girlhood. They’re both books in which the friendship is complicated by dynamics of beauty and wealth.

I don’t know if I lifted that wholesale from Louise Fitzhugh, or if Louie Fitzhugh happened to write about something that I am inherently interested in. It’s really hard to say. I feel confident I owe her some kind of debt, even though I don’t know what that debt is.

JENN: Thanks again to Rumaan Alam for joining us and recommending Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. His novel That Kind of Mother, published by Ecco, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at @rumaan.

JENN: Next week on Recommended, one author discusses the changing landscape of rom coms:

UNNAMED AUTHOR: “I feel like now there’s this kind of movement where people are more willing to say, this is the kind of thing I like and this is why it’s okay. And especially with diverse rom coms, you know, whether it’s ethnically diverse or with gay characters becoming very popular and gaining a lot of traction, I feel like there’s this larger conversation going on which I love about how even marginalized characters deserve to have light, fluffy, happy stories that are not necessarily about anything deeper, or darker, or about the struggle of being a minority. Which, I think is great, and I do think that was lacking from the rom com genre in general.”

JENN: Thanks to our sponsors Oothar the Blue by Brandon Reese and To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo for sponsoring today’s episode. Like what you heard? Please take a moment to review and rate us on Apple Podcasts. We love to hear your feedback and it helps other folks to find the show. You can find shownotes at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us at recommended@bookriot.com.