Belonging. Or Not.

When I was little, I blamed it on the dresses.

This, of course, made no sense. Back then, most little girls wore dresses. I had long dark hair and bangs, and my mother would put my hair in pony tails and put me in beautiful knee-length cotton things. I was probably adorable, as little kids went.

But I hated dresses. I’m not sure why. All I remember is that I loathed dressing up.

My most vivid memory around dresses is of the first day of second grade, when a girl I had just met told me I looked pregnant. I said to her “I’m seven,” and she shrugged.  She had frizzy blonde hair and pierced ears and was wearing a dress of her own, and after that exchange I flatly refused to wear dresses to school.

I blamed it on the dresses, but getting rid of them didn’t help. I was still the misfit, still the strange one. Not that I didn’t have friends. I fell madly in love with one girl who was rather horrible. She was a classic Queen Bee, collecting all of us like figurines, and when she was bored she would point to one of us and direct the others to attack. I never knew, from one day to the next, if I would be favored or not, if my day would go smoothly, or if I would be spending recess hiding from people who the day before had been my closest friends.

I don’t remember if I attacked when it was someone else’s turn. I don’t believe I did. I hope I didn’t. But every single time, when my turn was over, I forgave this girl, and let myself believe it wouldn’t happen again.

So for a while, it was the Queen Bee’s fault I didn’t belong.

By the time junior high rolled around, I’d given up on the idea of fitting in. I had a small circle of fiercely good friends—the Queen Bee had moved on to greener pastures by then—and we were all more or less united by the ordeal of surviving the day. High school was slightly better, but not much. When you live in the same town for your whole life, when you are going through puberty and growing up with people you knew in kindergarten, there’s nowhere to hide and no way to start over.

No way to belong, if you’ve never belonged.

I was different. I’m still different. We are all different, of course, and I don’t discount the possibility that everybody feels it the same as I do. All I know is it’s always been true for me, and what I’m feeling now is familiar.

I assume, sometimes, that I don’t fit in these days because of my age. Among other things, it is mystifying—and bloody annoying—to have people assuming I’m technically illiterate because I’m over fifty. Some of that is my fault. I talk about not having a cell phone, and people for whom they have always been critical tools of organization assume it’s some form of gadgetphobia or Ludditism. The reality is much simpler: I hate talking on the phone. I’m sure I’ll bow to necessity at some point, but in the meantime I claim cheapness and bad reception and anything else I can think of, and I let people think I’m old and stupid because it’s easier than discussing telephone anxiety with strangers.

But I don’t really think my age is at fault, any more than it was the Queen Bee’s fault or the fault of the poofy dresses I wore as a little girl.

A friend of mine was lamenting once that she knew a person who had tons of friends—twenty or thirty—and wondered what she was doing wrong because she did not have so many. I ventured the theory that the person she envied used a different definition of “friend” than she did. The word “friend” gets overloaded, I think; we use it for people we see daily at work or running errands, people with whom we can exchange small talk or even trade sob stories, but who we’d never think to call on a weekend when we were looking for something to do. We use it for people we haven’t seen in years (like the woman who started this paragraph, who I lost track of a decade ago). And we use it for people who are the first ones we think of when something good—or bad—happens to us, who we can count on to listen with kindness and tell us what we need to hear without being either too harsh or too careful, who we check in on if we haven’t had a word in a while.

When I use the word “friend”, it’s the last sort of person I think of. And no matter my age, I’ve never had many of those.

And sometimes that’s hard.

I like people, as a general rule. I’m an introvert, which means I need a fair amount of time to myself—two and a half hours at The Kid’s crowded gym once a week makes me want to retreat to a desert island—but people make me laugh and think and hope. In aggregate, humans seem rather horrible, but when I pay attention to individuals the world seems like a much, much nicer place, and sometimes I can believe it won’t all fall to pieces. Most of the time I soak up people passively, listening in on conversations in the coffee shop or in the checkout line, but sometimes I’ll chat myself. Usually I babble, and sometimes I get That Look from the others, like the toaster has suddenly become animated and spoken up.

It’s not age. I always got That Look from people. All the way back to kindergarten, as far back as I can remember, I got That Look.

It puts me in a bad feedback loop sometimes. I use it, when I can. There’s a reason most of the characters I write about—certainly the ones I love the best—are lonely people, clinging for dear life to anyone who understands, even a little. But childhood is never far away, and I’m so much more self-aware now, and I still find myself bewildered so much of the time. The world seems to work differently for some people. I’m sure there’s a reason, but it’s like a sort of colorblindness: I’ll never see it, and if I could see it, I wouldn’t be different.

And maybe we are all different. Maybe none of us can see.

56 Days Later

The night before THE COLD BETWEEN was released, I jotted down some of my eve-of-publication impressions.

I’m glad I did that, because my memory of feeling that way is entirely intellectual. That odd sense of pre-vulnerability is lost to me now, and I’m here, in the world where the book has been out for eight weeks today. The book I wrote and rewrote and despaired of and wept over and finally saw published. This thing I’ve wanted since I was a kid: my name on a book in an actual bookstore.

At my local B&N, the book was on the new paperbacks table next to Joe Abercrombie. JOE ABERCROMBIE. How is that not awesome?

book_table

Later, on the SFF shelf, it was shelved facing out next to Robert Jackson Bennett. It is hanging out with some serious writers.

So, Liz, how does it feel now that the book is finally out there?

Mostly…weird.

It’s one thing to have these people living in my head. It’s another to have them immutably on the page for the first time in their imaginary lives. It’s quite another to hear what other people find in the story, and I’m often surprised by my own reaction.

Here’s where I admit I don’t generally read reviews. Someone (can’t remember who) referred to reviews as a dialog between readers that doesn’t include the author. In one way, I feel reviews are none of my business. In another…the book is what it is, and it’s not going to change, and there are things I don’t need to know.

But despite that, I’ve had questions from readers, and I’ve run into the odd internet comment here and there, and it’s…weird, even when people like the book. I’m constantly surprised by what people think to comment on. People find themes I didn’t intend (or that were unconscious), make assumptions about my intent, respond differently to different characters, have guesses about What Happens Next.

Like reviews, I don’t respond to comments unless they are addressed directly to me. (In one particular case, that was really, really hard.) For people to be talking about the story is wonderful. For people to be talking about my characters is wonderful. Even when I disagree, even when people are bothered, strangers discussing my story is a good thing.

But also: weird.

And yes, I’m fragile. But mostly? This is the book. If someone produces a detailed critique of everything wrong with it, the book won’t change. Also, REMNANTS OF TRUST is pretty much locked down, so it won’t change based on anyone’s critique of THE COLD BETWEEN either. And given where I am with Book 3…well, you get the idea. Reviews are for readers, and I shall leave them there and hope people find them useful.

I think, sometimes, about where my characters came from, these people whose histories I have now put into print. Elena was created first, but she hasn’t always been Elena, and she’s still hard for me to know sometimes. Greg was two people, and ended up with the best and worst bits of both. Trey started out thirty years younger and much less jaded. Jessica started life as an extra with no lines.

But nobody reading the book knows any of this. (Well, you do, if you’re reading this.) To them, my characters started out exactly as they are. The readers don’t know how the characters came to be who they are in this book, and sometimes I’m surprised by what people assume. (Trey gets younger when people talk about him. This is okay with me, because I adore him and he is a hero. But for the record, he’s 57 years old.) It’s like edits, sometimes: Come on, you know s/he isn’t like that! But of course they don’t know, because that’s not what’s on the page. In my head, the evolution of these people started a long time ago; for the reader, evolution begins on page 1.

Intellectually, all of this is fascinating. Emotionally, it gets difficult, and I’m still processing all of that. Of all the stories I’ve noodled with throughout my life, this is the one that made it into print. If I could go back and choose, would I choose this one? If I had known, when I started writing it, that this would be the one I’d keep and polish and query, would I have kept on writing? Would I have tried to write something Significant instead?

Why this story? Why now?

Six years ago we went to Disney World and blithely climbed aboard a ride called Expedition Everest. (I had investigated it enough to know that it didn’t go upside down, which is my dealbreaker for coasters.) The Kid and I ended up in the front seat. It starts out as a pretty typical coaster, with the swoops and the drops, and I screamed my head off for all of it. And then you get to the bit where the track ends, and the coaster stops, and then it goes backwards in the dark and makes some twists and turns before you emerge again.

Which is an imperfect analogy for how I’m feeling, so I think I’ll just stick with weird.

(By the way, the automated photo of me and The Kid on that coaster is the one coastercam shot my spouse has ever purchased of me, and it was absolutely worth the bucks.)