Friday, March 2, 2018

Why I wrote a YA novel about a boy raised by white nationalists

I began my latest book, THE STRAW MAN FALLACY, immediately after the election of Donald Trump. The story is about a 17-year old boy, raised from birth by white nationalist parents, and tells what happens when his worldview, built on paranoia, fear, racism, and parental love, is exposed for the first time, to the disinfecting light of real America.

Days after the 2016 Presidential Election, at the National Policy Institute’s annual convention in Washington D.C., Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right,” stood onstage and shouted, “Heil Trump.” A roomful of attendees, most—if not all—white male, responded with the Nazi salute as they repeated his words back to him. 

I knew then that I wanted to write a YA book about the “alt-right.” 

In the past we would have called these people Neo-nazis, skin heads, or white supremacists—but their new identity of choice “alt-right”—was designed specifically to normalize them. While most Americans would have dismissed this collection of two hundred as a fringe element, Richard Spencer and his ilk viewed the election of Donald Trump as their opening into mainstream politics. In the new president, they saw, if not a supporter, at least someone who would elevate sympathizers of their cause to positions of power in the White House. By January, they had their foot in the door with the installment of white nationalists in the cabinet, and by summer, they were marching in Charlottesville, carrying lit torches and Confederate flags, chanting Nazi slogans in German, and shouting, “Jews will not replace us.”

White supremacy had just gone mainstream in America.

Before the rise of Trump, white supremacists existed on the very fringes of society. They were branded as terrorist organizations. They harkened images of swastikas, white capes, burning crosses, and flying Confederate flags. And we—the mainstream public—didn’t take them seriously.  We didn’t know they were standing among us, in our schools, our workplaces, in the check-out line at the grocery store. And there was something pathetic about them, too, to think of a group of people that were so backwards, they would willingly make themselves a target in order to hate other people. But that was before.

Now, white supremacists have rebranded themselves as white nationalists and the “alt-right.” Gone are the white capes and pointed hats, the “white power” tattoos and shaved heads. In their place are polo shirts, chinos, and Barbour jackets. Clean-cut, mostly male, young, and often well-educated—the new “alt-right” crawled out of their corners and into the mainstream. This newly empowered group viciously attacks feminism and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, they mock even the idea of social justice by calling liberals “snowflakes” and “SJWs” (Social Justice Warriors).

They succeed because they pin their arguments to the claim that they are not racists. That slavery was “a catastrophe.” That the white race isn’t even the smartest race. They claim to disown Nazism. They tell boldfaced lies, like that the followers who made Nazi salutes were being “ironic,” that humankind’s greatest advancements were all made by white civilizations, and that ancient Egyptians were actually white. Perhaps their greatest lie of all is the repeated insistence that the most discriminated person in the United States is the white man. They are piggybacking on President Trump’s popularity to convert his followers to their cause, claiming that white nationalists and President Trump are the only ones who still respect and honor our country’s white men. Charlottesville proved their strategy is working. The president defended the marchers, and refused to condemn, or even utter the phrase “white nationalism.” Since the march, or since the president’s inaction, even making statements like “Resist White Supremacy” can get a person, or business, trolled. 

And many of us have been left wondering, what can we do next?

As a white author, I initially struggled with the best way to find my role in this fight. It isn’t enough for white people to stand on the sidelines and merely disagree with the “alt-right.” When I read about the founder of a fledgling “alt-right” organization who lived in a trailer with his wife and toddler, I got the idea to write from the perspective of a teenage boy raised from birth by white nationalist parents. From there, I realized I could be an ally to the movement by using my book to school white people about racism. Too often, black people are asked to expend too much time and energy answering well-intended, but problematic, questions from white people. (“What’s wrong with saying, ‘All lives matter?’”) More white people need to speak out in support of movements like Black Lives Matter, to challenge people who claim to support equality but refuse to condemn the staggeringly high numbers of police shootings of black men. I wanted my book to confront white readers and make them question their belief in the status quo. To examine their privilege and ask themselves what truly makes America great. 

For several months, I researched hate groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, reading their forums, watching interviews, and following the Twitter feeds of the groups’ leaders. I read American Swastika, by Pete Simi and Robert Futrell (university professors who have spent years studying the white power movement), and Aryan Cowboys, by Evelyn A. Schlatter, who did exhaustive research on the white supremacist movement during the pivotal period from 1970-2000. I read dozens of articles in the New York TimesThe AtlanticThe New YorkerSlate, and others, and listened to many podcasts, notably On The Media (WNYC), which ran a series of shows about the “alt-right.”

The more I read, the more I was able to understand how a shift towards the “alt-right” became possible. Candidate Trump set the stage by telling white Americans they were discriminated against under President Obama. He told them they had been ignored, forgotten, and forced to accept the liberal agenda. In many white communities, this dovetailed with a loss of identity. What was the world coming to when gay people could get married and transgender people could use the bathroom of their choice? As Arlie Hochschild beautifully portrays in her book, they felt like strangers in their own land. For white nationalists, Trump’s base was ripe for conversion. The majority of Trump supporters would be disgusted by the KKK, but by claiming they aren’t racists, white nationalist leaders have been able to pit white, working- and middleclass men against minorities. White nationalists gave them permission to feel angry at other races with the full confidence that they are not racists.

Just as David Duke left the KKK in the 1970s to run for office, today’s white supremacists are disguising themselves to make their message more palatable. In fact, this homegrown terrorist group puts young, white, American men at risk in much the same way that ISIS puts young Muslim men at risk.

White supremacy is intact in the “alt-right,” but not overt. Instead of blatant use of the N-word, for example, racial slurs are encoded. For those in the know, memes like Pepe the Frog are symbols that have been embraced by the “alt-right” to symbolize white supremacy, as are photos of white men drinking milk (because many people of color are lactose intolerant). Double parentheses around a word or name is shorthand for Jewish slurs. But they deny being racist because they believe they are defending white culture, not attacking other races. They deny the existence of white privilege. They believe they’ve earned everything they’ve attained. They believe we are a post-racial society.

Unfortunately, we are not a post-racial society. When every white American benefits from institutional racism, it is difficult to come to a place where racism doesn’t exist, even in the most open and forward-thinking of minds. Institutional racism built this country from the start—from the moment the colonists felt entitled to land owned by Native people—and then, decided they could own the people, as well. There was a time in our history when any wealthy person, in the South or the North, could own people freely, even when slavery was illegal in other countries, like England. Our Founding Fathers owned human beings. Enslaved people built the White House. Southern wealth was built on unpaid labor. The promise of forty acres and a mule for freed slaves was overturned a year after it was made. Yet the small number of freed slaves who were white actually did get reparations, as well as citizenship.

Long after slavery was abolished, racist laws continued to hold back anyone who wasn’t white. Public education was designed for white children only. The Homestead Act of 1862 excluded black people. Redlining restructured our cities and decimated black family wealth for generations. The majority of black Americans didn’t qualify for social security in the early years. The GI Bill was administered at the local level, which meant black veterans in areas with Jim Crow laws didn’t get to go to college. The narrative continues in our movies, our books, in the abysmally low number of non-white CEOs in our companies and elected officials in our government offices. Imagining our country free from the legacy of slavery is like imagining a fictional African country that has never been colonized. It’s a beautiful idea, but our reality is an ugly scar that lasts and compounds through the centuries. 

With our shared history in mind, and our current state of affairs, I wanted to start a conversation about the so-called “alt-right” that would enable young white people to question, and eventually dismantle, their own prejudice. A book that would apply, not just to children of the “alt-right,” but to children of the many white Americans who don’t see themselves as racist.

I wrote this book for the children of parents who say they aren’t racist, but make offhand racist comments. Who fly a Confederate flag in the name of “southern pride.” Who object to the removal of Confederate statues out of respect for the white version of southern history. There are parents who aren’t overtly racist, but who say, “I don’t see race,” or who sit on the sidelines when someone makes a racist joke. Who refuse to acknowledge the existence of white privilege. The majority of white Americans probably can’t see the breadth of their own white privilege (myself included) and don’t understand the difference between racism and prejudice, and therefore equate their own struggles—growing up poor, for example—with the struggle of growing up black in America.

Like my main character, Asher, most children’s worldviews are so woven into their parents’ that they can’t separate them. How does a child separate their own beliefs from their parents’ narrative that racism doesn’t exist anymore because we had a black president? Or the argument that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, so why can’t others? My goal in writing this book was to give children, and adults, a toolbox for recognizing and dismantling prejudice. White nationalism is no longer an extremist group. It’s infiltrated our mainstream, and if we don’t actively call it out, we won’t be able to take it down. We could lose a generation of young white people if we aren’t able to shift the narrative. As our country turns demographically more diverse, so the shrinking number of young white people who grew up expecting a good life because they have white skin, and are now angry because others are achieving more, put us all at risk for sliding us back into the days of Jim Crow. Of racial violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported over 900 acts of racial intolerance in the ten days after Donald Trump was elected president.

The reason a character like Asher is relevant isn’t because he’s a white nationalist boy. It’s because a lot of non-extremist white boys (and girls) will see their own beliefs mirrored in his. As they see Asher’s capacity for change, so can they open up to their own change, to seeing the truth and fallacies in their own beliefs, and those around them. Only then will they be able to work with others to help change society.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Pitch Wars 2017

Pitch Wars is back! 

I am SO ready!


Here's what my story is about: 
Today's white supremacists aren't in white sheets. They look you in the eye and swear they aren't racists. They just want their own homeland, and a ban on immigration, and on Muslims. They intentionally mask their hatred with code words. They make a concerted effort to come off as rational and educated. They hate non-whites, non-Christians, LGBTQ, and women, especially feminists. Yet they are starting to become mainstream in our country. After the election, after the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a rise in hate groups, after said hate groups went on Twitter to claim this election was proof of their ascendancy, I put aside my WIP and started writing a YA Contemporary about a seventeen-year old boy raised by a family of white nationalists. I've been writing steadily, I've got some terrific critique partners, I've been editing for the past two months, and I'm ready. Not that I'm counting, but I think this might be my fourth attempt at Pitch Wars. During this time, I've met a great community of writers and I've written five books! So, yay!

My Pitch:
In THE STRAW MAN FALLACY, seventeen-year old Asher, son of an alt-right terrorist, must choose family loyalty or come to grips with the fact that his life has been based on ignorance and lies. 

The day his front door was broken down by federal agents was the worst day of Asher’s life. “Don’t let them brainwash you,” were his father’s last words before they took him away in handcuffs. Asher vows to keep his father’s white nationalist organization alive. But that’s hard to do when his new guardian, an aunt he’s never met, throws him into a school full of the people his dad called “snowflakes.” Asher’s racist, sexist upbringing is immediately challenged when he meets Angelica, an African-American girl who bests him in every class.

Despite his promise to his father, Asher keeps quiet about his beliefs in his new school. As he develops friendships with students of various backgrounds, his confidence in his parents’ “truth” falters. Asher’s father continues to exert control over his disciples from prison, and everyone expects Asher to pick up the mantle and carry on his family’s work. Asher doesn’t want to give up his new life, his friends, or his shot at college. But *nobody* leaves White Pride, especially not the leader’s son. Asher must break free from his father and his paranoid adherents, or fall back into his old life of preparation for Armageddon. 

Here's a little about me: Introvert, politics junkie, mom, reader, oil painter, walker, occasional runner, podcast listener, audiologist, lover of old homes who lives in a ranch because she wanted a bigger kitchen. I earned my BFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn NY. I got my Master's in audiology from The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. (Albuquerque and Brooklyn are two of my favorite places in the world).

Holder of dead-end jobs in her twenties. (The nice thing about dead end jobs is that there's no money in them, so it's okay to quit to travel the world with your savings.)

Audiologist in her thirties. (I love having a job that directly helps people. Every day I made someone's life better in some way because of my skill set. What a high).

Indie author in her forties. (I couldn't find an agent for two novels I wrote in my thirties. I self-published my second novel on Amazon and it sold 25,000 copies in ten months. Two other novels, mysteries, each sold 20,000 copies in their first year.)

Now, I'd like to be published traditionally. I've been writing and querying four different books for the past four or five years, but so far I haven't been picked up. I'm hopeful my latest will be my breakthrough novel.

If you pick me...

I'm a very hard-worker. I will always give you 100%.  I'm also a fast writer, and I have amazing people in my life who will help me juggle everything around so I can devote myself to Pitch War revisions. I'm dedicated to my writing and, thanks to four years of art school, I can handle criticism. In fact, when a critique resonates with me, there is nothing I love more than digging back into my manuscript and making big changes.


And here is a link to our #pimpmybio host, Lana Pattinson, and other Pitch War hopefuls. Check them out!  http://www.lanapattinson.com/pitch-wars-2017-pimpmybio-contestant-blog-hop/







Monday, February 13, 2017

Son of a Pitch!

Hi. Thank you for checking out my pitch. May the force be with you all!

In the spirit of Star Wars, here's a picture of a dresser I painted for my seven-year old son a couple of Christmas's ago. I let him pick any characters he wanted, and he chose Rey, Finn, and that evil guy who's name I can't remember.


Title: AFTER
Genre: YA speculative fiction
Word count: 57,000

Query

Dear Fabulous Agent,

Dead at seventeen, Prea Río knows she doesn’t quite fit into the afterlife. She always assumed death would end her problems, but now she’s got an ugly secret about how she died. Still, life is way better here than back on lonely Earth. Prea has her boyfriend back, the one who died when he was fifteen, and she’s searching for her mom, who was killed when she was a baby.

So when Prea discovers she may not actually be dead, and might even have taken another person’s slot in the afterlife, her nearly perfect world is threatened. She knows the so-called “heavenly” thing to do is to leave, but all Prea really wants is to steal someone else’s paradise for her own shot at reconnecting with her mom. Besides, the pearly gates don’t exactly come with an elevator back down to Earth. Then Prea discovers a way to leave, but while she tries to choose between doing the right thing or staying to be with her mom, her boyfriend is about to discover her terrible secret. If the truth comes out, she could lose all the relationships she’s recovered in her afterlife, and even ruin the life she might have to live out back on Earth.

Readers of WE WERE LIARS and IF I STAY will enjoy AFTER. I have self-published three books, (THE TRUTH ABOUT DATING, MURDER BEYOND WORDS, and MURDER WITH ART), each of which sold 20,000 copies in their first year of publication.

Sincerely,

And now, the first 250 words of AFTER.


Chapter One

So, I guess this is Heaven.
I was on a cloud in the middle of outer space, and I could breathe fine, sans space suit. The cloud was about the size of my school’s football field, but instead of a goalpost at the end line, there were these enormous white gates rising up out of the mist. Hundreds of people were swarming them, but I was off to the side, watching. The sky was black and everything was eerily silent, like we had all lost our voice boxes on the trip up from Earth.
I wondered if it was just Earthlings in the crowd or if the life forms were from all over the universe. Heaven was supposed to be where all your burning questions were answered, but no old guy in a robe was showing up to explain anything. I squinted at the crowd, hoping to see aliens but expecting old men with their hospital gowns hanging open in the back, maybe a couple of people carrying their limbs. I couldn’t make out any details at all. Everyone was just blurry lights, like human glow sticks. Maybe alien glow sticks. I looked down at my legs and I was kind of lit up, too.
I should be glad to be here because, a) my family never went to church, and b) back on Earth I didn’t even believe in God or Heaven. My bad.
I made my way over to the gates, but I couldn’t see beyond the shimmering, pearly bars. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

NaNoWriMo is back and I've already learned so much!

It’s November, and that means it’s NaNoWriMo.  National Novel Writing Month has been around since 1999 but I firmly paid it no mind when it came onto my radar a few years ago.  I mean, seriously, what a dumb idea.  No one can write a novel in a month.  Except a hack. 

But last year, on November 6th, On Point, my favorite NPR show of all time, did a show, “Do you NaNoWriMo?” 

Stupid show.  I almost didn’t listen.  Except I always listen to On Point. 

Coincidentally, I already had a young adult murder mystery planned out in my head.  I wasn’t ready to start writing it yet, because I was busy working on a screenplay for another book of mine, The Truth About Dating, but my young adult heroine was always knocking things over in the back of my brain to get attention.  She was who I thought about when I woke up at 3:34AM and couldn’t fall back asleep.  But I couldn’t start a book until the screenplay was done.  And then about three quarters of the way through the radio show I suddenly decided that I WAS going to NaNoWriMo!  I was going to write that novel in the month of November!  It was such an abrupt turn-around.  One minute, no, one second I was scoffing and scorning and then next second I was 100% on board. 

I started Murder in Suburbia that day, November sixth.  I wrote 1499 words.  The next day I wrote 3650 words.  By day three I had over ten thousand words!  I hit a wall at day 13.  I was up to 40,553 words and I didn’t know how in the word to get ten thousand more.  For three days I let the story gel.  But at the time, I didn’t know I was letting things gel.  I thought, “I’m not going to finish!”  That is the big problem with NaNoWriMo.  You feel panic-stricken most of the time because you only have a month!!!!!  That’s also the reason NaNoWriMo is so fantastic.  I have to keep writing or I won’t win.  Right???  So after three days I noticed a little hole in the wall, and when I scratched it, some bricks fell out and I wrote 3972 more words.  Now I was at 44,525 words.  At this point in my novel, my teenage sleuth had everything she needed to solve the crime but I needed some kind of spectacular, nail-biting, brilliant finale.  I wanted my young adult readers to see our heroine cleverly escape from mortal danger.  She wasn’t magic.  She didn’t have a mutant skill set.  She couldn’t fight like a vampire slayer and she couldn’t kill like a vampire.  She had to do it like a regular teen.  My readers had to be able to save themselves in just the same way (in the unlikely event that a killer lived on their block).  I was only 5,000 words from my “win” so I took a day to think it through.  I like to plan things out in my head before opening up my laptop to write.  So I thought about the plot while I raked the leaves and went to work and made pumpkin pie.

On my nineteenth day (November 25), I put in a marathon session and wrote 7,975 words to complete my story at 52,500 words. 

I had just written a young adult murder mystery in 19 days.  Mind blown. 

Then I sent it to my mom and she LOVED it!

Over the next five months I revised, mainly by bulking up the story.  It’s about 66,000 words now.  But very little of what I’d written during NaNoWriMo got thrown out. 

This year, I’m doing it again.  From the start of my first book I planned to write a sequel from the best friend’s point of view.  I plotted in my head.  I wrote down a few scenes I didn’t want to forget.  But I knew I’d start the real writing this month.  In November.  And things are really different the second time around.   I’m not worried I won’t finish so I’m taking the time to write in all the details now.  I’m not sure, but I suspect I’ll have a lot less revisions at the end.

Isabel Allende always starts her new books on January 8.  I don’t plan to only write my books in November.  But the timing worked out this year.  And I learned something important.  For the first four days I was so unbelievably bored from my writing that I didn’t think I had this book in me after all.  I would have stopped, but I couldn’t.  It was NaNoWriMo.  So I kept writing.  And eventually, everything clicked.  Suddenly, I had all these great ideas for my character.  I couldn’t wait to sit down to write her story.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her when I was getting the kids off the bus, making dinner, and helping with homework.  Looking back on the past five months, I realize I was saving this book for November.  I tried to write it several times in the spring but I hadn’t immersed myself enough in the character to make her three-dimensional.  So she bored me.  So I stopped. 

But you can’t NaNoWriMo without being immersed.  It’s too time intensive.  Before this month, I was sticking a (kind of lazy) toe in the water.  NaNoWriMo makes you dive.  And the water is freezing.  So you have to swim.

Try it.  It's exhilarating.  


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Parenting is like writing...

Parenting is most fun when you get to teach a life lesson with something that you are already doing yourself.  It’s kind of like the first rule in writing: don’t tell, show.  Last week one of my kids had a disagreement with a playmate at school.  Now that playmate is causing my kid a little grief.  It’s elementary school stuff, so as an adult my first thought was to take it with a grain of salt.  On the other hand, kids feel the same pain as adults, even if the crime is that so-and-so broke the orange crayon.  And at this age, kids will do dumb, sometimes mean things, but it doesn’t mean they are mean.  They are just kids. 

When adults aren’t nice, you could decide the same rules don’t apply.  Or you could wish them well and move on.  That’s what I do with wearisome adults and it works beautifully.  I don’t waste any energy on these people and this week I got to teach my kid the same thing.  In the end, it makes everyone’s lives easier.  You teach your kids to forget about difficult people instead of being reactive.  No matter what gripe they have with someone, people are still people and worthy of kindness.   You don't have to be a punching bag, just remember that bullies are mean because something isn't going well in their lives, and take anything they say or do with a grain of salt.  Then forget them.