900 Words about Vox

As someone who is a loud supporter of reading for fun and the joys of happy story endings, it came as a complete shock to me that I very much enjoyed reading a dystopian novel that had me yelling out loud and, at one point (sorry, colleagues!) throwing the book across the room. Literally threw it like it was on fire. One of the most powerful books I’ve read this summer is set in a dystopia. I’m still grappling with this reality.

Dystopian novels are not known for happiness and wit, but the discerning reader can find both in Vox by Christina Dalcher.

This dystopian mind-f*ck posits a creepily plausible near future where the American government has created a series of laws restricting women. Women are no longer allowed to travel outside the United States. They can’t work or hold political office and their daughters are only taught basic math and home keeping in schools. Their brothers, however, get a robust education including religious indoctrination and bias-affirming readings that brainwash them into seriously believing men are superior to women and that keeping women silenced and in the home is for the betterment of society.

The absolute worst part? All American women (yup, kids and babies too) now have to wear a locked wrist device that monitors their words. Each female is allowed 100 words per day–this includes sign language, gestures, and other non-verbal communication. If you speak past 100 words before your device resets at midnight you get a shock. Another word? Another shock–only stronger this time.

It’s a damn nightmare.

The book is told through the eyes of Dr. Jean McClellan. Before the silencing, she was a well-respected linguistic scientist. During the silencing Jean is like every other American woman, which is to say she is held hostage in her new role: being a nearly-wordless woman whose only job is to serve her husband and raise her kids. When the book opens we’re about a year into the silencing and though Jean feels that bucking the system is an impossibility, she is strong of spirit and still possesses the quick-witted mind that made her the incredibly renowned linguistic expert she was before society imploded. She wants a better life for all women, but especially for her three-year-old daughter who is growing up with this as her reality.

The narrative switches back and forth from present day to the past. I often find this jarring in books but Dalcher does this nearly seamlessly and the slow burn reveals of the past, along with foreshadowing of the horrors that are to come, keep the suspense building even when you think you know what’s going on.

Jean reflects throughout the book on her previous complete political apathy. Back in college she scoffed at her roommate’s attempts to get her involved in grassroots political rallies against social injustice, preferring instead to study and focus on her boyfriend, her future. She bathed in privilege but, as privilege goes, was so cocooned from marginalized and concerned folks that she didn’t even realize how sheltered she was. Her future was guaranteed, so why should she spend time worrying about it or fighting against the mere possibility that future society could go sideways? She thought it was pointless to vote–a waste of precious time–and considered it completely unlikely anyone so overzealous would be voted into the Presidency in modern times.

Jean also discovers that monsters aren’t born, they’re made–and often through no ill intentions, but through apathy. In particular, she’s horrified to recognize her oldest son has evolved into a monster. In flashbacks we see him slowly over time vocalizing increasingly demeaning opinions about the girls in his class and women in general. Back when she could talk, sometimes Jean would challenge him at the dinner table. He’d then mention the readings they were doing in school and how religion is now a required class. Jean would think “School is weird now” but never questioned the school administration about requiring misogynistic opinion to be taught as the law of nature or why one specific religion was taught as a required class in a public school

Her husband wasn’t much help either. He often brushed off Jean’s comments as ‘boys will be boys’ but the saying silence is acceptance proves true here. By the time Jean realizes what her son has started to believe, she literally doesn’t have enough words to talk him back off the ledge because she’s required to wear that damn wrist device. Like Jean, I refuse to call it a bracelet and diminish the horrifying evil the device represents: both in the physical pain it creates but especially in representing the completely upside-down reality that made this device a legislated mandate.

This is all to say that the flashbacks peppered in with the book’s current reality are a great way to let the reader see how the dystopian society got to where it is and allows us to draw parallels between that fictional America and the one we’re living in today.

Creepily. Plausible. Near. Future.

Despite this dark tone, the very first line of the book gives you hope throughout this thrilling adventure through a desolate society. If it seems unlikely that one essentially enslaved woman among millions would be able to bring about the downfall of a patriarchal society, well, dear reader…just pick this one up and thank me later.

Bookstagram, Publishing, and the Castrati: We Chat with YA Author Jennifer Bardsley

Readers, I have a special treat for you today! As the library ramps up in preparation for her March 4th (2pm!) visit to the downtown library as part of the Everett Reads! community reading series, I caught up with local YA author and Everett Herald columnist Jennifer Bardsley to talk about everything bookish! For a primer on her incredibly addicting Blank Slate series, check out my review of book 1, Genesis Girl.

big-picture jennifer bardsley

 

First, tell me about you! What’s your background, and how did you get into writing?

In 2007 I was a stay-at-home mom who wrote a blog called Teachingmybabytoread.com as a way to keep my skills as a former elementary school teacher fresh. I loved blogging since it was a way to connect with people all over the world. I also enjoyed reading my local newspaper, The Edmonds Beacon, but noticed that none of the columnists represented the “mom demographic.” My limited success as a blogger gave me the idea to pitch The Edmonds Beacon with a column idea about what it was like to be a modern mom. I wrote up five sample columns and an introductory email, pitched them my concept and waited. And waited. And waited. They never emailed me back. Crushed, I filed those columns away in a drawer.

A month or two later, I saw a copy of The Weekly Herald and decided to brave it. I gathered up my courage to submit my idea to them instead. That’s how my column “I Brake for Moms” was born. After four months in The Weekly Herald, “I Brake for Moms” moved to The Everett Daily Herald where it has been for almost five years.

In the middle of all that column writing, I also wrote fiction. In 2013 my manuscript landed me my agent, Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency, and in 2014 Genesis Girl sold to Georgia McBride of Month9Books in a two-book deal.

genesis girl jennifer bardsleyHow did you get the idea for Blanca, a character who has never used the internet nor had her image ever posted online?

Prepare to be grossed out. I based the concept of Blanca and her Vestal Brethren on the castrati from opera’s shady past. In the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, some young boys in Italy were castrated in the hopes that they would become famous opera stars who could sing the highest notes. They were sent away to special schools where they lived and breathed music. Most of the castrati did not become famous. They were sent home in disgrace, scarred for life. But the castrati who succeeded were superstars. 

Yikes!  Even aside from that, the whole Blank Slate world is so eerie! I can see this becoming a distant reality.

I know, right? From computers to car phones, to cell phones, to smartphones; it’s only a matter of time before there is a technology advancement that is user-friendly in a way we can’t yet imagine. Maybe it will be like finger chips, maybe not, but it will be cool.

What books or authors would you recommend for readers like me who enjoyed reading Genesis Girl and Damaged Goods?

A classic SciFi book that I love is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. There’s a new television show based on it coming to Hulu that I’m excited about too. A SciFi series I enjoyed that came out recently is Survival Colony 9 by Joshua David Bellin. It’s cli-fi, meaning climate change meets science fiction.

damaged goods jennifer bardsleyI’ve always wondered about something. Is it more difficult to write the first book in a series or the second?

Damaged Goods was way easier to write than Genesis Girl because I had already done the hard work developing the characters. I wrote out an outline, turned on my computer, and banged the book out in four months. Then I spent the next year revising it.

What sort of advice would you offer a writer aspiring to make the leap to becoming a published author?

If you are writing fiction and you want to be traditionally published, you need to write the entire book first before you query agents to represent you. Agents then take the book on submission to publishing houses. If a house buys your book, it takes two to three years for your manuscript to be published.

However, with nonfiction it’s entirely different. You write a thirty to fifty-page outline and marketing plan for your proposal, and send that directly to publishers.

The quick way to bypass all of those steps is to self-publish. There are lots of indie authors who earn a ton of money because agility helps them capture hungry markets. Instead of guessing what topic will be popular with readers in three years, indie authors can write and publish books that are hot at that moment.

Bookstagramming is a big part of your presence online, one that I really enjoy following. How do you get your ideas for your beautiful layouts?

I love your account too! Instagram is a great way to meet new friends.

I keep a box of random knickknacks in my library that made it easy to style photos. Winter is tricky, but once the weather warms up I cut foliage from my garden to use in photos. My friend Jenn Eagan of @jennegan26 gave me good advice. “On bookstagram, more is more. If you think there are enough objects in your photo, add a few more just in case.”

Do you have different approaches for writing your column and your novels? Or does the process tend to be about the same?

Having a newspaper column has taught me a lot about discipline because I have a due date every week. I keep a notebook in my purse to jot down ideas if I get inspired, but generally I have a topic rattling around in my mind for a few weeks before I write it out on paper. Then a few days later, I revise it.

With fiction, I spend months and even years coming up with a concept first, before I start writing a book. The traditional publishing market is so competitive, that unless you have a killer idea, it feels like you are doomed.

I’m so curious about your writing environment! Do you have a dedicated office or workspace?

I used to have a dedicated writing space in our home library, but then my poodle Merlin took over that room and now it smells like dog. Luckily it’s the only room in the house that smells poodly, but it’s no longer my preferred place to write. These days I am much more likely to type on the computer in the niche next to our kitchen.

Do you have any other upcoming projects? You know I’m eagerly anticipating more Blank Slate novels!

Damaged Goods has a conclusive end, with just enough wiggle room to write a third book if my publisher is interested. It all depends on how this second book does. Stress!

author event march 4 jennifer bardsley

 

What can our readers expect when you come to the library on March 4th?

I have a game prepared that involves dice, fake money, information about the path to publication, and some inside secrets about what it’s like to be an author. I’ll follow up with questions from the audience.

Thank you so much, Jennifer, for taking the time to chat with me! I can’t wait for your visit March 4th at the main library!

Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me!