A Warhol Girl with Banksy Talent

First published on The Daily Beast, August 3, 2014. Read the original here.

Forever ago in the mid ’60s, a sylph of a girl named Edie Sedgwick captivated the world—or at least Andy Warhol, and through his Factory and his films and his photos, everything and everyone else that mattered. She was the American art world’s “It Girl,” the source material for numerous plays, books, and movies, even the alleged inspiration for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Perhaps that’s part of what inspired the name of the eponymous heroine in Adele Griffin’s addictive new YA novel, The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone. In a phone interview, Griffin says the book is, in part, homage to Sedgwick, whom Griffin stumbled upon as a child when a library mis-shelved the biography Edie: American Girl in between the Nancy Drews and theHardy Boys.

“It sounds like it could have been a kid’s book, right?” says the two-time National Book Award finalist with a sly laugh. “But … I knew it wasn’t.”

Sedgwick has haunted Griffin ever since. “There was no one in my neighborhood who lived this kind of fabulous, decadent life,” she recalls of her childhood, which she spent mostly on Army bases. “It set my mind on fire.”

That blaze of childhood adulation burst into full flame in the character of Addison Stone, a post-millennial Edie Sedgwick who is “more gorgeous, more reckless, more tragic, more talented” than the original. And this time, she’s also her own Warhol, making her own art, creating her own image. Or as Griffin puts it, Stone is “Edie as Banksy,” referring to the British graffiti and installation artist whose work routinely pushes the boundaries of what high art is and says.

Griffin’s book pushes genre boundaries as well. Conceived of as a “docu-novel,” the story is told entirely in interview segments, as an attempt to reconstruct the meteoric rise and terrible fall (both literal and figurative) of Addison Stone. Griffin is herself a character in the novel, the invisible hand on the other end of the tape recorder in all the interviews. Stone is a precocious artist who goes from lower-middle-class suburbia, to the Whitney Biennial, to her own mysterious death in just a few short years. Along the way, she manages to pick up a Victorian ghost, a wealthy patron, a sleazy agent, two not-always-good-for-her boyfriends, and a cast of trust fund friends that one could easily imagine are the Rich Kids of Instagram.

The main challenge for Griffin was to imbue this art-world story with enough energy to work as young adult fiction, where everything is bigger, brighter, and more. “I needed less of my trip to Frieze with my husband,” Griffin jokes, and more of a young girl’s fantasy life. Luckily for Griffin, that life literally walked into her kitchen one day, when a friend brought over up-and-coming model Giza Lagarce.

“She was so stunning, and so … Edie,” Griffin recalls. “I thought, ‘More of that! More of that!’”

Lagarce became the embodiment of Stone, bringing with her not just her stunning looks, but her wealth of Facebook photos, which Griffin began to “write into” in order to breath the necessary life into the novel. She cites finding Lagarce as the “major rewrite” of the process, and the resulting meld of obviously real images with supposedly real interviews helps to further shatter the line between fake and fact in her story.

But Lagarce isn’t Addison Stone’s only real world analogue. Griffin mined the portfolios of four artists to create the vast collection of images that dot the book. The particulars of the plot, Griffin says, emerged from the interplay between the Sedgwick story she imagined, and the artworks that captivated her. Sophie, a minor character, was created specifically so that Stone could use a portrait by Michelle Rawlings of a young girl with a bloody nose—a portrait she now owns, along with a few of the other “Addison Stone” pieces from the book.

Yet despite all of the photos and paintings and interviews, Stone remains an enigma—this isn’t a mystery novel with a stunning twist at the end, which may disappoint some readers. The mystery here is Stone herself, not what happened to her. But what rises unexpectedly from reading the novel is a lesson that all teenagers would do well to learn: We are all of us mysteries. As characters debate the true nature of Addison Stone, they reveal just how little they know each other and themselves, and how much they project their own beliefs, fears, and hopes onto the world. Stone might shine a little brighter, take up a little more of the oxygen in the room, but she is no more mysterious than anyone else—there are just more people asking questions.

Smells Like Teen Terror

First published on The Daily Beast, August 3, 2014. Read the original, with photos, here.

Once, after the midnight premiere of a summer blockbuster, I got trapped on the top floor of a giant multiplex. Three packed showings let out simultaneously, and the theater, in all its infinite parsimony, had shut down everything but the bare minimum required to allow us to exit: one narrow stairwell plunging down four flights, lit mostly by dim emergency lighting.

It didn’t take long for a bottleneck to form at the top of the stairs, which quickly became an impatient crowd, all of us punchy with exhaustion and excitement. Soon people were shouting. Then shoving. The crowd began to lurch violently, as small motions rippled out into panicked attempts to break away. Thankfully, before a full-fledged riot could begin, people pulled down the stanchions and velvet ropes that blocked off the other stairs, and we exploded safely outward in a dozen different directions.

But that visceral experience of the crowd as a capricious-yet-mindless entity has stayed with me ever since. It is this feeling that Dayna Lorentz’s bestselling YA series No Safety in Numbers conjures up in its readers. It’s not just fear or panic, but that sickening moment of inversion where a familiar setting becomes dangerous, and normal people become deadly.

The third book in the series, No Dawn Without Darkness, follows an ensemble of teens quarantined in a mall after a terrorist attack releases a highly contagious, extremely deadly flu virus. The four main protagonists are Ryan, a perfect high school jock hiding a brutal home life; Shay, a beautiful young girl trying to protect her sister and grandmother; Lexi, the computer nerd whose mother, a U.S. senator, is trying to maintain some fragile order; and Marco, the loner struggling to survive in the shadows. With them are thousands of other hapless mall-goers, descending rapidly into deadly anarchy. By book three, not only are they trapped, sick, and terrified, they are starving, cut off from any outside communication, and plunged into pitch-blackness.

Thankfully, in Lorentz’s hands, the books never devolve into terrorism porn or some kind of teen-James Bond spy romp. “It’s much more about these characters,” she says, than the situation. “Terrorism gives me an opportunity to put people through an emotional experience.”

That’s not to say that you won’t find characters turning a wide variety of mall goods into incendiary devices. Indeed, Lorentz jokes that her research for the books has definitely put her on some terrorism watch lists. But the stories she tells from within the mall focus on the most basic job of all teenagers, regardless of their circumstances: surviving and becoming an adult. Lorentz shows us how these particular conditions—lack of supervision, imminent threat of death—merely serve to hasten and distort a process that all young people must go through. This is not a book about a bomb; rather, it is a book about children stumbling toward adulthood through an almost literal minefield.

“A lot of extremity you see in YA is merely attempting to capture the intensity” of being a teen, Lorentz says. “You go to high school and it’s a fight for survival to get through the day. No one is on your side.”

Some adults focus on the terrorism and violence in the series, Lorentz says, and question if it’s too much for teen readers. Teens, on the other hand, read it as a perfect metaphor for what they already experience on a daily basis. And if we’re looking at the question of violence or emotionally disturbing material, No Dawn Without Darkness is not that far removed from YA novels set in World War II, during slavery, or on the frontier.

“I’ve never heard a teenager say ‘This book was too violent for me,’” Lorentz says. Instead, most of the responses she’s gotten are from boys, who are excited to read about “football players who aren’t automatically the bad guy.”

Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the story is watching the male characters struggle with the meaning of manhood. Perhaps because the YA audience is predominantly female, it’s rare to come across a series that so sensitively explores the many fraught routes that the “average” American boy can take to adulthood, and the concurrent violence they both experience and enact along the way. The title No Dawn Without Darkness might refer to the literal dark-and-dawn experienced by the denizens of the mall in this book, but it is also a reminder that light and dark live within all of us, even kids—even “good” kids. Lorentz is not afraid to explore the best and the worst in her protagonists. In an interesting twist in this age of dystopian fiction, her narrators are, in the end, able to go back home, where they face perhaps their hardest challenge yet: to reconcile who they have become with who they were, and who they want to be. It’s a challenge even teens who haven’t been trapped in a terrorist attack will understand very well.

The Power of Queer Books

First published on The Daily Beast, August 1, 2014. Read the original, with photos, here. Written with Sassafras Lowrey.

SASSAFRAS LOWREY: When I was seventeen, the adults I lived with went through my bedroom and found the lesbian books I’d secretly checked out from my county library. I kept them stacked between my high school math and social studies textbooks. Just six months before, I’d run away from my mom’s house and among the items I brought with me were two gay books I’d secretly purchased from the bookstore at the mall. The adults I stayed with found those books, too, and read my journal. They called my school, had me paged to the office, and told me never to come back. I knew then that queer words were powerful.

Three days after I was kicked out, I was crashing on a friend’s couch. I had no idea where to go, or what was going to become of me. I went to my county library looking for answers. I looked at every book shelved under “homosexuality.”  I was searching for answers about what it meant to be young, queer, and on my own.  That day, I didn’t find any books that could help me. Sitting on the floor of that library, I made a promise to myself that if I survived, I would somehow find a way to write the kind of queer books that I was searching for.

Then last summer I got a message on Facebook from a reader and artist named Michelle Brennan. She and I had friends in common but had never met, never spoken. She had heard about my novel Roving Pack and read it after being diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing chemo she began an art project. Taking a shoebox and a little doll, she brought my novel to life, the way that as children in school we did “book in a box” book reports. She mailed it to me as a gift. Opening that box was overwhelming. As an author, I’m living the promise I made to myself as a homeless queer youth that someday I would write the kinds of stories that I needed. That I would write stories that I still need, which bring queer lives to life on the page. Receiving that diorama from Michelle was the ultimate confirmation that I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing. Queer books aren’t just important for queer youth. Queer adults need queer books. We need to see our lives, desires, bodies, relationships reflected back at us in books.

When I received Michelle’s diorama in the mail, I was in awe and immediately posted pictures of it online. So many people got excited, and began talking about the power of queer books in their own lives, the books that had inspired them to come out, and the books that inspire them today. They talked about wanting to make art in honor of these books.

* *

HUGH RYAN: When I was nine, a teacher took Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire away from me because it was “inappropriate.” Perhaps so, but it was also the only book I’d ever found with queer characters, even if they were immortal, immoral vampires whose lives bore no resemblance to mine in the suburbs in the early 80s. Without it, I was reduced to looking up “homosexuality” in the card catalog of my small public school library. When all that got me were books on Greco-Roman art, I looked up “sex,” which left me piecing together an understanding of my desires from a book on feline reproduction.

Thankfully, within a few years I started working after school and in the summers, and began to buy, borrow, or steal any queer book I could get my hands on. I was lucky enough to come of age in a time when there were books available. But I’ll never forget that feeling of being alone, not just in my town, but seemingly throughout space and time—so alone that there wasn’t even a book to guide me.

When I founded the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, which is a nonprofit that helps local communities around the country develop art shows to illuminate LGBTQ history, I was primarily concerned with sharing knowledge, spreading those small bits of our history that are hard to find elsewhere. But I quickly came to realize that the act of sharing was, in and of itself, just as important as the information being shared. As adults, we rarely are given the chance to consume, analyze, and give back information on topics we love. That time is relegated (at best) to school, where queer people often don’t feel able to be open and honest. Without having the chance to look at and analyze our own culture, our own history, and the things that matter to us, we are left depending on the analyses of others, which have often portrayed queers and queerness in a negative light.

When Sassafras showed me Michelle’s diorama, I realized this was a powerful way to share important stories that resonated in queer lives, in a format that wouldn’t feel intimidating and was almost endlessly malleable. Together, Sassafras and I wrote a call inviting people to create a diorama based on a book that was meaningful to them in their development of their queer identity. The books could be anything—gay, straight, picture books, math textbooks – so long as the author could explain how it was important to them. After announcing the show, we received nearly 100 proposals from around the world‚—including Canada, South Africa, Ireland, and the Czech Republic—for dioramas that ranged from pocket-sized to life-sized, on everything from picture books to dense philosophy.

Had we not been limited by the space of the gallery, we would have included all of them! In the end, we chose proposals based on a number of criteria: the clarity of the connection between the book and the personal experience; the artistic vision presented (although not the exhibit maker’s artistic training, as we are open to individuals at all levels of skill and experience in art making); and the creation of a well-rounded final show. A few books were proposed so many times that we knew they needed to be included, such as Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde (unfortunately, the artist making this diorama had to drop out of the show at the last minute), Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran, and The Beebo Brinker Chronicles by Ann Bannon. The resulting exhibits explode what the form is or could be, and range from classic “book in a box” shoebox dioramas to translucent towers built on a lightbox.

It has been amazing to see the outpouring of inspiration expressed in the proposals we received, as well as the crucial institutional support from the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, the Lambda Literary Foundation, MIX NYC, and the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library! In our own small way, this show is a gift to the community and an offering to all other queers who like us stood before a card catalogue or library shelf looking for belonging.

The Fiction Writer Shirley Jackson Stars in Her Own Novel

First published on The Daily Beast, June 18, 2014. Read the original here.

German seems to have a word for every screwed-up specific emotion. If I were to pick one to describe the strangely compelling, deeply unsettling fiction of Shirley Jackson, it would be unheimlich. Freud coined the term to describe the uncomfortable feeling of the familiar suddenly turned foreign. Technically, it means un-home-like, but a better English translation might be uncanny, as in the “uncanny valley,” which refers to the sudden sharp jump in creepiness that occurs when computer animation gets too close to looking human. Jackson, best known today for her short story “The Lottery,” in which a sweet, semi-rural town gathers for a harvest festival / ritual stoning, seems to live in the uncanny valley. All throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s, as Americans embraced normal like it was our job, Jackson insisted on showing us the cracks at the margins of our communities, our sanity, and our very reality.

Perhaps this accounts for the ebb and flow of her popularity. While often critically acclaimed and considered a “writer’s writer,” Jackson has faded from the public eye over time. She was too strange for the ’50s, and too apolitical and classically domestic (in her own way) for the radicals of the ’60s and ’70s. In the last few decades, the ho-hum short fiction of small epiphanies—MFA stories about cancer and divorce—have reigned supreme, and Jackson’s folkloric tales of the unexplained and unexplainable have been looked at with a jaundiced eye. If I were to compare her to anyone in contemporary American fiction, it would be Joyce Carol Oates, another prolific virtuoso of the strange.

There are signs, however, that the pendulum of public reception has begun to swing the other way for Jackson. In 2007, the Shirley Jackson Awards “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic” was created. In 2010, a musical version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre. In the last year, Penguin Classics has reissued seven of Jackson’s books in beautiful black-spine editions, while this April saw the publication of a previously unknown Jackson story in The New Yorker.

This week, Blue Rider Press releases Shirley, a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell that imagines its protagonist—a 19-year-old newlywed named Rose Nemser—living in Jackson’s chaotic Bennington, Vermont, home in the last year of Jackson’s life. Although it was just published, Shirley has already been optioned by HBO for a two-hour movie.

As the novel opens, Rose and her husband, Frank, are a young, striving couple, moving to Bennington so Frank can begin his teaching career under the tutelage of Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley Jackson’s husband. The couple ends up living in the Hyman-Jackson home, where Rose becomes obsessively involved with Jackson, her family, and her stories. For those new to Jackson’s work, Rose’s exploration of her writing provides a great reading list, adding a bit of extra-textual pleasure toShirley.

Apropos to Jackson herself, Merrell’s novel walks a seemingly contradictory line. It is simultaneously a precisely accurate look at the sexual and intellectual failures that real love must allow for and survive, and a darkly fantastical meditation on magic, revenge, love, and reality. It is at turns dreamlike and hyper-realistic.

“I had this particular interest in domestic fiction, but I wasn’t interested in the fiction of domesticity,” Merrell says of the novel, which she began while at graduate school in Bennington (full disclosure: we were in the same year, though in different disciplines). “I am very much interested in this discomfort in the ways that people try to understand their own domestic lives.” This is the central question that Rose finds herself contemplating throughout Shirley: how to live happily in her own life, despite its problems. Or as Rose puts it while explaining what draws readers to Jackson’s work, how to “understand imperfection and know how to live with it and appreciate it.”

Merrell’s first novel, A Member of the Family, explored a foreign adoption gone disturbing and sad, so this fraught family territory isn’t new to her. But originally, she had started doing serious research toward publishing a Jackson biography. “When I actually went to the Library of Congress to look at her papers I wasn’t even exactly sure why,” she says, except that she was drawn to Jackson’s story. There she started reading the love letters between Jackson and Hyman, her brilliant, philandering, infuriating, and yet much-beloved husband.

Soon Merrell knew she wanted to explore the complicated dynamics of their relationship, which was a partnership-of-equals that stretched back to when they were just college kids, utterly infatuated with each other and their own stellar potential. But somewhere along the line, they’d gotten twisted up. They were often cruel and thoughtless to one another, regardless of their complete commitment to their family. Or as Rose puts it: “Despite the terrible things they did, the ways they hurt each other, they needed one another at the core.”

Shirley, at its core, is about exactly that kind of connection: the one that endures despite all else. From the outside, these relationships can look like duty or desperation or simply two people who have given up on finding real happiness in exchange for certitude. The brilliance of Jackson’s life and Merrell’s writing is that they convey the depth and beauty of this kind of connection, showing that it isn’t an endurance exercise, but rather the scarred-but-surviving tree that grows from a root of unrivaled strength: Love. Like Jackson herself, love endures. In the end, Shirley is a love story, albeit an unexpected and uncomfortable one—perhaps the only kind that could ever be told by or about Shirley Jackson.