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About a month ago I delivered the final re-writes of a new collection of stories for ninth-graders to the Swedish publishers Natur och Kultur. This is the third book in this particular series I’ve worked on, and it’s been a demanding but rewarding commission.

As I’ve said before, writing for young people in short formats is not the most glamorous work an author can do.  Nonetheless, young people need tightly crafted stories that will help them learn about the world and their role in it –– while at the same time helping them develop as readers and people.  I believe young people have an even greater need than adults for skilfully written stories, so to me the format is far less important than doing work with the potential to help shape the next generation of thinkers.

In addition, I’ve also had a great time working with my editors on the project.  While it’s true that authors and editors sometimes have opposing interests, while working on six books for this publisher, I’ve come to understand that the editorial discussions we’ve had over structure, linguistics, and subjects have always produced stronger books.

The book goes to press in the spring of 2017, and its title sounds to me like a science-fiction novel: Wings 9.

This week I was reading through a book of stories with a group of young people.  They wanted to discuss a story about a musician whose older brother calls him ‘Idiot’, a name which the musician then uses as his stage name and persona.

One of the girls said, “I want to look up Idiot and listen to his music.”

Another girl said, “You can’t.  He’s made up.”

“No, he’s real.  He’s here in this book, there’s a picture and everything.”

“You don’t get it.”  The girl pointed at me.  “He’s ‘Idiot’.  Him.  He made this story up, his name is right here on the cover.”

“Oh, really?  That’s too bad, it sounded so real.  Almost like a real writer wrote it.”

Yesterday when I got home, I found an envelope in the mailbox.  I took a bread knife and slit it open: a royalty statement from my publisher, a month’s salary for a group of stories published for young people.  In all honesty, I’ve been so busy writing new ones, I’d forgotten all about them.

I started earning money for my writing when I was seventeen, selling work to Ohio newspapers.  I’ve been lucky.  On the other hand I’ve also been hard-working, sleep-deprived, chronically rejected, and in doubt about what I was doing with my life.

There are two ways to get paid as a writer: informal recognition, which leads to pride in knowing you’re doing important work; and formal recognition, such as numbers in an envelope you slit open with a bread knife –– numbers that pay the rent, put food on your table, and help you to justify the time you spend alone with your words.

There’ve been many times when I felt like an idiot.  This week I felt like a writer.

Litteraturrecensioner i all ära, vem recenserar förlag? Folk som jobbar i eller har kopplingar till bokbranschen förstår det att det inte bara är författaren som gör litteratur, utan det behövs även skickliga redaktörer, förläggare, korrläsare, layoutare, omslagsmakare, översättare, marknadsfolk, säljare, o.s.v. På småförlag blir de anställda mångsysslare eller så anlitas frilansare; på stora förlag blir de anställda mer specialiserade. (Egenutgivare får sköta allt själv och då blir det mindre tid över till att skriva.)

Det finns en hierarchi inom bokbranschen, precis som i alla andra branscher. Högstatusförlag ogillar att dela hyllorna på biblioteket och bokhandlare med lågstatusförlag. På Bokmässan i Göteborg tävlar de med varandra om den tjusigaste montern, den finaste festen m.m.

Sen finns de uppstickarförlagen som plötsligt bara finns där på bokhyllan som en självklarhet, som om de och deras böcker alltid varit en del av samhällets litterära självbild. Jag tänker just nu på det nyetablerade svenska förlag Sadura och två av förlagets böcker: Emma Karinsdotters Och himlarna ska falla himlarna ska falla himlarna ska falla när jag rör vid dig (2013 ) och Maria Rostotskys Låt oss tala om barnet och kvinnorna och landet.

Både skrivna av musiker som tillämpar lyriska språkstilar med atypisk svensk, komplex meningsbyggnad och sätt att leka med ord. Både utgivna i snygga, dyrtryckta utgåvor med genomtänkta omslag och grafisk känsla. Både böckerna välredigerade – det märks att manusen är genomarbetade med fokus på form och språk – och både erbjuder läsaren ett nytt sätt, bortom den sedvanliga svenska naturrealism, att uppleva världen. Det kommer så mycket svensk litteratur som aspirerar på att vara filmmanus i stället för litteratur med poetiska inslag.

Inte så Rostotskys och Karinsdotters böcker i Saduras tappning.

When my Swedish publisher asked me in the spring of 2014 to write a story for their middle school English reader Wings 7, I didn’t understand what I was getting into.  I had just finished writing a collection of short stories and other texts for high school English classes published under the title Echo: Main Issues 6 (my second book for Natur och Kultur), and I was in the process of writing new stories –– and re-writing and editing other people’s stories –– for their vocational book in the same series.  I was also several months past deadline on a teacher’s manual (which I wrote the week after school let out). I put as much work into the story as I could, sent it off, made some changes my editors asked for, and forgot about it.

Having grown up in the States, I’d never heard of the Wings series –– I had no idea it’s been around since I myself was in middle school, has been through several revised editions, and has been reprinted nearly once a year for decades.  I had no idea my oldest son would soon bring home a Wings 7 from school. Well, soon my editors asked me for a whole bunch more stories. Then they told me about Wings 8 and Wings 9.

When people hear I write stories for students, they often say in a skeptical tone, ”Textbooks?”  But around other authors, the reaction is more like, ”Dang, sounds like a sweet gig.” While it’s true that writing short-short stories isn’t the only thing I want to do as a writer, young people do need good stories, and I’m proud to be writing them.  It’s an important job –– I still remember the stories I read in my very first textbooks, don’t you? When I write for young readers, my goal is to give them stories that will mean something in their lives.  I’m going to spend my summer working on a new batch.

Besides trying to write better stories for young people, one of my goals here in Sweden is to improve young people’s lives through reading and writing in the classroom.  Literature was one of the main things that made my life bearable as a teenager, and luckily I had teachers who understood and encouraged that.  But I don’t see reading and writing prioritized in Swedish high schools, at least not in English classes –– often the texts are too short, the books too boring, and the teachers afraid to let their students write or share their work. Also teachers don’t understand how much English students already know.  Social media and online gaming put young people into direct contact with the language for hours a day.  They’re quite simply capable of far more than we give them credit for, and their capabilities are going to waste while we drag them through rudimentary exercises.

Over the years I’ve surveyed my students on whether –– and if so, what –– they read outside the classroom.  One trend has remained consistent: fantasy.  While I was boring them with The Great Gatsby, they were busy at home ploughing through The Lord of the Rings.  After writing a master’s thesis on the developmental function of fantasy, I finally realized that we don’t have to beat Fitzgerald into our students –– we can join them in studying Tolkien, both his literature and literary theories.

I’ll be holding a seminar on Tolkien’s literary theories for English teachers at the publishers Natur och Kultur on Karlavägen, Stockholm April 22nd at 5:00 pm. I’ll also be presenting examples of student work which use his theories to analyze other fantasy tales.

Det fiffiga med noveller är just att de är så korta och behändiga; samtidigt är kortheten novellformens nackdel. Vem orkar sätta sig in i nya karaktärer och platser, tidsepoker och idéer, när vi vet att illusionen bara kommer att vara i några få sidor? Om jag ska lägga ner det arbetet som krävs för att komma in i berättelsens värld vill jag gärna få valuta för pengar, berättelse för tankekraft. Läsning är enligt mig teater som vi med textens hjälp spelar upp i fantasin; då ska det löna sig att bygga upp pjäsens scenografi, kostymer, språkmönster, psykologi, m.m.

Därför brottas novellsamlingar med ett alldeles eget problem: att de erbjuder den lata läsaren (eller den hopplöst långsamma, som jag) flera tillfällen att sluta mitt i, och ändå känna att vi fått kläm på boken. För mig, till exempel, krävs det utomordentligt skickliga noveller om jag ska sträckläsa en samling.

Det gör jag just nu med Selene Hellströms Våra händer stickande, kliande från Lejd förlag (2011). Noveller är inte perfekta, fler känns oavslutade eller ofärdiga, andra känns opåbörjade. Som om författaren glömt berätta för sina karaktärer att det är dags att dra igång nu, och i brist på vägledning gör de precis ingenting – förutom det de alltid gjort, vilket allt som oftast räcker. Det som är perfekt är Selene Hellström sätt att leka med och utforskar perspektiv, hon använder novellformen som ett elektronmikroskop för att studerar sina berättare. Nu när jag kommit halvvägs känns det jobbigt att ha fastnat – jag hade kanske hellre läst 157 sidor av en roman i stället för dessa 20 litterära munsbitar.

Men kanske inte. Jag har själv gett ut en hel del kort-korta noveller de senast åren. Kanske just därför uppskattar jag Hellströms fina hantverk.

High school English teachers in Sweden sometimes ask me why they should buy the Echo books for their classes.  My answer is in two parts –– firstly, why we English teachers should invest in textbooks in general, and secondly why the ones I wrote might be a better investment than the others.

Firstly, why invest in textbooks at all?  It’s a fair question.  I myself taught for years without textbooks, and now that my students have English textbooks, we still don’t use them every lesson.  But I’ve grudgingly come to understand that the right books are worth requesting funds from your department head or principal.

Why are high-quality textbooks worth purchasing?

 Develop a common understanding: I support students’ freedom to choose novels to read (this increases their interest in reading them); however sometimes the whole class benefits from reading and discussing shorter texts together, to help us develop a common understanding.

2  Help for both struggling and bored student: Both struggling and bored students benefit from having textbooks to turn to, struggling students because the book serves as an extra resource, bored students because the books serve as intellectual stimulation when they have already grasped concepts.

3  Students trying to catch up appreciate textbooks: For students trying to catch up with coursework, textbooks help.  It’s helpful to be able to refer them to a specific chapter first, and then later answer any questions they might still have.

4  Textbooks are designed to fit course goals: Textbook authors and editors spend months, sometimes years, planning, writing, editing and fine-tuning texts and exercises to fit the national curriculum’s course goals –– which means that if we use textbooks (or parts of them) efficiently, we spend more time teaching, and less time scrambling to meet curriculum goals.

Why buy Echo: Main Issues, specifically? 

1  Designed and written for Gy11  My editor Åsa and I designed every aspect of the books with the course goals in mind. (Other books still being sold were originally written for the old curriculum).

2  Purpose-written texts.  I’ve designed the texts in each book to be psychologically engaging and offer a complete reading experience –– unlike the extracts or adaptations to be found in other books.  (Yes, I wrote all the texts in Main Issues 5 & 6, even if they appear be be written by other people.)

3  Integrated linguistic exercises –– I wrote the exercises together with the texts, so they are fully integrated with one another.

4  Respectful writing workshops: Other books encourage students to criticize each other’s text in a peer-response process.  Unfortunately this leads to poor textual analysis –– and hurt feelings.  Echo: Main Issues follws the same guidelines I use with my college students: analysis of how a texts works for us, structurally and linguistically, without any value judgments or helpful suggestions. And the author remains silent and listens, in order to avoid unnecessary apologies, explanations, corrections, and arguments.  It’s a tried-and-true method, and very helpful.

4  Natur och Kultur’s democratic mission: Natur och Kultur Publishers is a non-profit foundation whose mission is to work for peace and democracy.  Thus the stories and other texts I wrote have a democratic purpose –– they deal with issues like bullying, football hooliganism, racism, poverty, gun violence, women’s rights, etc.

5  Professional experience. I bring professional experience to these books.  I’ve been publishing professionally since I was seventeen –– working for newspapers, magazines, as a translator and editor, and as a fiction and non-fiction author since 1987.  I also have a double-masters in English Literature and Education, and I’ve been teaching since the 1990s.  In addition to high-school English, I also teach creative writing at a college in Stockholm.  So for intance the reference sections of the books that deal with various types of texts and writing feedback –– these are issues I’ve been working with professionally for decades.

At the final workshop of Creative Writing and Narrative Theory, I got a few questions about next term.  Here are the links and dates:

Creative Writing and Narrative Theory: February 9th-April 20th (ten Monday evenings, every week).  In this intro course I teach skills for expanding linguistic style, narrative mechanics, and range of subjects.

Novel Workshop: January 29th-May 7th (eight Thursday evenings, every other week).  In the novel workshop we analyze longer texts that tend to be part of extended projects.  We also work on theoretical issues.  This course may be repeated if desired.

The free trial evening will be January 14th; the info hasn’t been posted yet.

The Short Story Workshop weekend course has not been posted yet, either.

Finally, anyone interested in hearing me talk about using fantasy and fairytale theory in the classroom is welcome to sign up for my talk on the 11th of December at Natur och Kultur, Karlvägen, Stockholm.  I’ll also be talking about the books I’ve written for Natur och Kultur, and why I wrote the stories the way I did, etc.  I rarely discuss these projects on this blog, even though I’ve spent the past few years working on them.  So feel free to come and listen.

Yesterday evening in Östersund I met a dozen engaged English teachers.  We discussed literature and young people, course plans, course books, grading criteria, new ways of working, and fantasy and fairy tales.  I promised to post some fantasy and fairy tale ideas on this blog.  Here goes:

 

Three ideas from Tolkien’s On Faerie Stories:

1 Fairy tales are the oldest, most highly evolved form of literature

2 Most old fairy tales are broken or fragmented; therefore we need new ones

3 Eucatastrophe (‘beneficial death’): Tolkien invented this Greek term for characters dying and coming back to life for a good cause (Gandalf, The Little Mermaid).

 

Modern fantasy evolved from modern fairy tales written by E.T.A. Hoffman (‘Sandman’, ‘The Nutcracker’), H.C. Andersen (‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’), and others. Many people consider the first fantasy novel to be Phantastes (1858) by the Scottish Christian Socialist George MacDonald.

Fantasy means any story in which the laws of physics are broken. There are three main types:

Fantasy –– magic

Science Fiction –– science

Supernatural Fiction –– religion

 

Fantasy worlds:

High fantasy: stories take pace in another world (Middle Earth). Often social or political, using fantasy worlds to comment on our world.

Low fantasy: stories start in our world, move a secondary world, and return to our world. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Often psychological, using the journey between worlds as a chance for characters to grow.

Reverse low fantasy: stories start in a secondary world, move to our world, and return to the secondary world. (Monsters Inc,; the book Howl’s Moving Castle, but not the film)

Heterotopia: stories move between multiple worlds. Sometimes we don’t know which is the primary world and which are the secondary worlds. (Harry Potter)

 

Vladimir Propp was a Russian folktale researcher. His ideas were similar to Tolkien’s, but because of the Iron Curtain, Propp’s work was unknown in the West until the 1970s. Propp’s doctoral thesis from the 1920s The Morphology of the Folktale contains several main ideas:

1 It’s what the characters do –– not what a story or its characters are called –– that defines a story. Multiple characters can share the same function, and each character can have multiple functions (The Little Mermaid can be both a hero to the prince, and a villain to herself).

2 There are a limited number of things characters do in folktales.

3 Characters do things in the same order in every story, though not everything happens in every story.

 

Some standard characters in folktales:

  1. Hero (often reluctant)
  2. Helper
  3. Giver/donor
  4. Seeker (the other possible hero, who fails)
  5. Victim
  6. Magician
  7. Villain
  8. Obstructer
  9. Royalty (King, Queen, Prince, Princess)
  10. Family member
  11. Witch
  12. Monster
  13. Princess
  14. Dragon
  15. Horse
  16. Captives

And Propp’s stage props:

  1. Talisman (magical object or idea)
  2. Treasure

The hero and the villain: Propp points out that the hero and the villain usually meet twice: first the villain seeks out the hero; then the hero seeks out the villain.

Brains vs. Brawn:

Another folklore theorist named U.C. Knoepflmacher points out that heroes in African, European, and Asian tales solve problems using their brains; in American tales, heroes use brawn (physical strength).

One of my students recently pointed out that this difference is apparent in the Disney re-write of The Little Mermaid.