Ben Tanzer talks with Russell, Goldberg, & Newman about their new YA novels, belonging, & writing about young women during the #MeToo era.
It was with great pleasure that I recently connected via email with the authors B. B. Russell, Lee Matthew Goldberg, and Barbara Newman (full-disclosure: I work with all three on the marketing of their books) to talk about their new YA novels, Kindreds; Runaway Train; and The Dreamcatcher Codes, respectively. It was a far-ranging discussion that speaks to the power of youth and the possibility that both young women and literature can change the world.
BEN TANZER: Please introduce yourself and the pitch for your forthcoming work.
B. B. RUSSELL: Hi! I’m B. B. Russell and the author of Kindreds, a young-adult fantasy novel. It’s the first book in the Nolianna series, and was released on June 15, 2021. In this book, 16-year-old Lilah must decide if she should follow her heart and newfound love, Joey, into Carnival Nolianna, a secret, disappearing world run only by foster children that is recruiting new members, or if she should listen to her head and follow the clues that Nolianna may not be what is seems. When Sebastian, the future leader of Nolianna sets his sights on having her join the carnival, will she even have a choice? With time ticking away and a few kindred spirits to help her through, Lilah must decide if love is enough to keep Joey and her together in Nolianna, or if she can rely on what she knows to be true and save them from disappearing for good.
LEE MATTHEW GOLDBERG: Hi, I’m Lee Matthew Goldberg, and my new novel, Runaway Train, is my first young-adult book and will also be the first in a series. It’s about a teenage girl in the 1990s whose sister dies unexpectedly and sends her off the rails. Her home life isn’t great, so she runs away to do all the bucket list items that her sister would never be able to do, culminating in becoming a grunge music singer and hopefully meeting her idol Kurt Cobain.
BARBARA NEWMAN: Hi, I’m Barbara Newman, the author of The Dreamcatcher Codes, a young-adult eco-fantasy that will be coming out on August 17, 2021. The story begins 17,000 years ago in a cave in France, where the first painting of a horse meets its destiny, and where a sacred Crystal Horseshoe begins its journey around the world. We are now in the present time and the mystic Sophia Rose, is the guardian of this powerful crystal, an ancient talisman that holds the Codes of Nature. One night under the powerful energy of the full moon, Sophia is attacked by a raging storm, a Fire Cloud, a symbol of pollution driven by human greed. The Crystal Horseshoe breaks and is snatched by a Giant Black Raven. Without the Codes of Nature, the key to the planet’s survival is at stake. Sophia calls upon Maia from the North, to gather and lead a new younger generation to find stolen crystal. Four girls, from the four directions, join forces on this daring quest into the unknown. Powered by cowgirl spirit, the elements earth, air, fire, and water, secret messages from mystical dreamcatchers, they are up against time. The bees are dying. The oceans are filled with plastic. Humanity has lost its way. And the girls’ search is threatened by shapeshifters in the sky who want the crystal destroyed. Will this fierce cowgirl sisterhood, mythic horses by their side, overcome the destructive forces of greed and heal Mother Earth? Guided by the ancestors, wisdom from river and rock, symbols and stones, and the plant and animal kingdoms, each girl must rely on her own courageous spirit in order to protect the future of the planet she loves.
Please define what a Young-Adult (YA) novel is (or can be) from your perspective and why you chose this genre to express the ideas underlying your new work.
RUSSELL: Young-adult novels are truly unique in my opinion. They are the places of first loves, enormous possibilities, great loss, impossible journeys, and unwavering kindred spirits. Books help us in ways we aren’t expecting and are often a place we turn when we want to experience something new. I believe young-adult novels help us move into adulthood, bring humor, and connection in ways we all need. The funny thing is, Kindreds didn’t start out as a young-adult book! I actually set out to write something completely different. But each time I sat to write, it took me back to Lilah’s story of loss, connection, and belonging. Eventually, I just gave in and wrote it. It ended up being a journey into two worlds (one of reality and one fantasy), but also into Lilah’s heart and head. So often, the distance between our heart and our head is the longest one we will ever have to make. It is a journey we often begin in young adulthood and continues as we age, so what better place than in a YA book!
GOLDBERG: While I’m primarily a writer of adult thrillers, I wanted to challenge myself with something new. I had an idea about a teenage girl involved in the 90s grunge music scene, and it seemed perfect to try my hand at young-adult fiction. I’d been hesitant to write a YA book that takes place now, since I’m far removed from being a teenager, but I was that age in the 90s, so it was fun to relive a nostalgic time. For me, the difference between adult and YA was really getting in the headspace of my main character and not writing in third person like I usually do. There’s also a responsibility with YA authors because you will have young readers. I’ve written about some terrible people in my thrillers doing terrible things, but for YA, it was important to make my character a role model. She may mess up, but will realize her mistakes and become better because of it. Since the book is also set in a past era, I hope it introduces teens today to the music from back then. So, the book is for people my age who’d want to look back, but also for young people now who are curious about what life was like before cell phones and social media.
NEWMAN: YA is hard to define because a good story can appeal to a wide range of ages. But I do feel that YA books have common and important themes: coming of age, finding one’s voice, readers seeing themselves and discovering that they are not alone, they have similar feelings and fears, desires and hopes, and questions, big questions about their identity and place in the world. The Dreamcatcher Codes speaks to two issues that I deeply care about — girls finding their power, and the state of our environment. We are also in a time when finding the threads that connect us is critical. We are all human and sharing the same planet. I created characters that are super diverse. One girl is Lakota, another is Jewish and biracial. Another is adopted from China. They all find a sense of belonging through shared loss, pain, generational genocide, and not knowing where they belong. This generation is angry. They’ve been left with an ecological mess, well, how does one heal that? So, while the magical, mystical and mythic are the vehicle, the emotional underpinnings are very grounded in the real.
As I read the line, “They all find a sense of belonging through shared loss, pain, generational genocide, and not knowing where they belong,” I thought: it’s really all about belonging at that age, and your characters are all seeking that in some form or another. Please take a(nother) beat to talk about the importance of belonging in your books and how you tried to evoke that feeling in your work.
RUSSELL: Belonging is a theme that can be found in all of my writing. During adolescence, we are tasked with the challenge of figuring out who we are, what we want, and whom we want around us. So often at this stage of life, we spend more time fitting in rather than belonging. Belonging forces us to be who we are, no apologies, no excuses. Fitting in is more about doing whatever everyone else is and not trying to stand out. In Kindreds, all of the young-adult characters are trying to figure out where they belong, if they can trust their own judgment of what is going on in Carnival Nolianna, and if they should or shouldn’t join. Lilah refuses to simply fit in and follow the crowd. By doing this, she is even more sought after by the leadership of Nolianna to become a member of their secret world. Lilah is clear that she has her own dreams of going to college and that she would only join the carnival to be with Joey, her childhood friend and newfound love. In the story, Lilah must decide and defend her decision to belong to herself and make up her own mind about whether or not to join and subsequently disappear for a year. While belonging is a major theme of the book (and series to come), it is evoked indirectly through Lilah’s inner dialogue, kindred connections with Ginger and Ox, and trial and error of whom she can trust or not. Belonging is a journey of self that ultimately connects us with our authenticity, honesty, and true path in life.
GOLDBERG: Belonging is something we all crave, at any age, but even more so as teenagers when we are discovering who we are. The pressure to fit in can be overwhelming, especially for someone who feels like they are on the outside looking in. In Runaway Train, all the characters are striving to belong. For the main character, Nico, she dreams of becoming a singer but is too afraid to get up on a stage. She’ll meet others in the grunge music scene who help her get over her fear. With her best friend, Winter, she drinks and smokes too much pot, not caring about school because she considers herself an outcast, so it’s not worth it for her to try and be more than that. And for their friend, Jeremy, he’s the only gay boy at their school in 1994. All three are running away from themselves because they haven’t quite figured out who they are yet and where they belong. The book becomes a journey to self-discovery and fulfillment.
NEWMAN: Belonging is a deep human need. It’s about feeling connected, and part of something greater than oneself. We all want to be accepted, it’s human nature. And we’re all vulnerable, even as adults. But imagine being 14. The questions swirl. Am I weird, am I nerdy, am I too much of this or not enough of that. Will I fit in. Who am I? All of my characters are struggling with identity. Falcon is a privileged girl from New York City. Her mom is white; her dad is Black. And she has a girl crush. At one point she says to Yue, “There’s no club for me at school.” She says, “In New York, I fit in, in other places, not so much.” Falcon found herself in the forest, in nature, where she didn’t feel separate. We can’t feel separate from nature because we are nature. So Falcon belonged to place. And now she finds herself part of this young “tribe,” a sisterhood, a circle of four, with a shared purpose. They come from all walks of life, from very diverse traditions. These girls find themselves in each other, threads of connection weave their commonality and sense of belonging. Building cultural bridges is an important theme in this story.
You’ve all written about young women, and in the era of #MeToo, and in light of the recent allegations against author Blake Bailey (and countless others) around grooming and assault, I’m curious about the challenges of writing about young women at this time, but also the opportunities.
NEWMAN: What an interesting question. I’ve been a victim of #MeToo way too many times, mostly in my twenties and thirties when I was a Creative Director in the advertising world. It was “glamorous and fast,” not unlike Madmen. I won’t go into detail here, but I could write a book on the experiences I had and didn’t report. I stood up, and they stood down. I have no idea where I found my strength, but I did. When my daughter was in eighth grade, she asked to go to an all-girls high school. (Imagine if she were at Lusher.) She really wanted to be in an international, culturally diverse environment that focused on leadership, not makeup. It was then that I made the choice to shift my work. I began creating projects around strong women, and became an advocate for girls finding their courage, authenticity, and ultimately, their power and voice. I brought that personal mission to The Dreamcatcher Codes. Writing strong characters wasn’t a challenge — inspiring readers through fierce action aligned with my values. Writing diverse girls was not something I consciously thought about; it was a natural part of my world, through my daughter. I’m glad to see strong female role models taking their rightful places. They’re on the rise. Hollywood is slowly catching up. So is politics. More corporations boast female founders and CEOs. And we have Greta, Malala, and Kamala. Amanda, AOC and RBG. My husband always says, “If only women ran the world …” In The Dreamcatcher Codes, they won’t run the world, but they might just save it. (((PS.))) Shame on Blake Bailey, who says in Vanity Fair, “My behavior was deplorable, but I did nothing illegal.” Shame on J. D. Salinger, who “groomed” my friend, the author Joyce Maynard. She was 18. He was 53.
GOLDBERG: It was important for me to write a strong female character in this era, or in any other. The majority of all my other books that aren’t YA had been in the POV of a man, so writing in the voice of a girl was a challenge certainly — however, the book needed to be told through Nico’s voice. Nico is someone who stands up for herself and, despite the many setbacks she faces, is focused on following her dreams. I wanted to be as respectful as possible in giving an honest portrayal of a 16-year old in 1994. I can certainly remember what it was like for me back then, but I’m aware that it would’ve been very different for a girl, so I relied on a lot of beta readers to make sure I created a character whom teens now would want to root for. She’s not perfect, and she makes mistakes, but she learns and grows. In the second book, Grenade Bouquets, she becomes a famous singer in a band, so she has to wrestle with being a role model, even though it’s hard for her to imagine herself that way. There’s a character of a record executive whom she stands up to when he attempts to groom her, and she finds her strength in severing the contract rather than to be beholden to him. In light of the allegations against Blake Bailey and countless others, it’s good to see a reckoning, but it’s horrible to think about what happens in industries that don’t center around public personalities in order to get the same attention. Hopefully, this becomes not just a movement but the norm against any groomers or assaulters, so future generations don’t have to put up with what others in the past went through.
RUSSELL: As I sat at my son’s sports practice two nights ago, I overheard two male spectators who both had sons trying out for the team. Ignoring the fact that they were surrounded by other adults and children, they decided to (loudly) share their opinions that girls have no business playing on boys’ sports teams, and proceeded to laugh about how they liked to watch ‘girl on girl’ action, just not on a sports field. I would love to say that things have changed in our society and women are treated with the same dignity, respect, and opportunities as men, but as these two (expletive) men quickly reminded me, we have a long way to go. Their words angered me, their callous comments angered me, the fact that they even think this way angered me, but what disgusted me the most was that these men are fathers whose children would also be subjected to their offensive, misogynistic, and frankly repulsive beliefs. In the time of the #MeToo movement, I would love to say that I didn’t consciously choose to write Kindreds from the perspective of a strong, smart, quick-witted, independent female character, but that would be a lie. In a world where sexism can still be played off as someone who is ‘just joking’ when they make comments regarding women being less capable than men and are highly sexualized even at young ages, young-adult books of today need a diverse pool of characters, authors, books, narratives, and stories from women of all ages, races, ethnicities, shapes, abilities, sizes, and orientations. Maybe through a more wide array of writing, advocacy, and people who refuse to be quiet, girls will begin to believe that who they are is just as important as anyone else, that they can accomplish anything, and that they belong on any sports field (or ANYWHERE) a man is. I believe right now, for me as an author, it is a time for humility and for action. These are two things that people do not associate, and yet in order to have change, we need to be humble in what we don’t know, allow others to share who they are as fully as we share who we are, and heed the call of action not to accept anything less. While this is a time of great opportunity for young girls to dream big, they still will experience more hoops to jump through than boys. With men who still think like the two men at the sporting event, the challenges for young women continue to be immense despite progress, and there is a long road ahead of us in the fight.
One read of your responses to that last question is to see that you believe girls can save the world. Do you also believe that literature can save the world, or if not save it, transform it? And if so, how?
NEWMAN: Literature, and most art, for that matter, is an expression of the human experience. Storytelling mirrors life. It makes us think, feel, question. It heals. It hurts. It teaches. It illuminates. Think about the great poets and writers: Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver, David Whyte. You can’t read their work without being changed in some way. Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” uplifted the entire world, even for those 2.5 minutes. When my son was 13, he read Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust. Did it transform him? You bet. We transform the world one person at a time. Literature has the power to inspire change.
RUSSELL: I absolutely believe that literature can (help) save the world. Books open us to worlds, people, and experiences we never would have been exposed to unless someone took the time to share them with us. Literature expands our knowledge, tugs at our heart strings, challenges us to face our biases, and connects us to ourselves through others’ stories. There is no other place that can do that so simply and humbly.
GOLDBERG: I think literature has a chance to save the world. I mean, it’s a daunting task, but it could certainly help. Art in general can be a first instance into seeing things from a different light or perspective. Also, the potential reach of literature can make it transformative. Books have always been a forefront to changing minds. I’m not religious at all, but go back to the Bible or the Quran or the Torah for example. And I believe publishers right now are trying to be as inclusive as possible, so they can showcase all kinds of stories from different cultures and perspectives, not just the same we’ve heard over and over. So, saving the world, who knows …? But a book can be exactly what someone needs at a certain moment in their life that could send them down a different path they never thought possible.
This is actually two questions (and apologies for that). Lee responded to the last question by saying, “But a book can be exactly what someone needs at a certain moment in their life that could send them down a different path they never thought possible.” What path do you hope your readers will go down after reading your book? And do you have a book in your life that sent you down a different path (and why)?
RUSSELL: When readers finish Kindreds, I hope they will see that being authentic and honest about who they are will bring them closer to people who help them feel loved and supported. I want the readers to see themselves in Lilah: her messy emotions, quest for belonging, and trusting herself above all else. I hope it validates that it’s okay to cry when they are sad, question something when it doesn’t feel right, and let others in when they need help. Being kindreds means connecting with others who appreciate us here and now, who we are at this exact moment, with no need to change or expectation to be different. I hope every reader finds a kindred soul to go through life with. A book that sent me down a different path was Anne of Green Gables. I found myself in Anne and knew one day I would write a book because of her, and I did!
GOLDBERG: The path I hope readers go on with Runaway Train depends on where they are in their life. For adults, I hope the trip back to the 90s is a nostalgic one filled with references and music they might have forgotten. Our current times are not ideal, so the book can become a break from the pandemic to a time in life that was easier. For young adults reading the book, on a surface level it can teach them about the era, or maybe even change some of their music tastes, so they can learn about grunge. But on a more important level, if any readers are going through similar problems as Nico, I’d hope it gives them a character they can relate to. From mourning her sister, to experimentation with drugs and alcohol, to not feeling like she matters to her parents, Nico finds a way to love herself again and not give in to her dark impulses. I wanted to write a book that straddles the line between fun and serious, so it could be something different for each reader. The book in my life that sent me down another path was definitely The Great Gatsby. I read it my sophomore year in high school, and it made me want to write a book that good. I’d written stories before reading it, but nothing solidified what I wanted to do in life more than that novel. It’s perfect from start to finish, each sentence like a jewel, and I’ve reread it more than any other title.
NEWMAN: I hope that the readers of The Dreamcatcher Codes will see the natural world through new and wondrous eyes — awakened eyes — aware of the sacred geometry in it, the patterns, the “codes” so to speak, the interconnectedness of all living things. When my readers fall in love with Mother Earth — they will want to protect her, fight for her rights. So hopefully, they will become climate “optimists” through action, and in walking that path, discover that their voices matter. I read two books early on that took me down a new path. One was Many Lives, Many Masters, by Dr. Brian Weiss, and the other was How to Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay. Louise’s book taught me about the mind/body connection and how dis-ease shows up and why. Many Lives, Many Masters made me feel differently about death. I don’t fear it, or even the loss of a loved one. There’s a freedom in that, a peace. I also remember sneaking The Feminine Mystique from my mother’s nightstand. I was maybe 12. That impacted me.
What have I overlooked and/or what do you want the readers to know that we didn’t discuss?
RUSSELL: Writing a book is hard. Sharing with others may be even more difficult. Inside the pages of each book are the thoughts, insights, creativity, and heart of an author. While there are so many things I would like each reader to take away from reading Kindreds, I truly hope that each person who reads it sees a piece of themselves in a character or story line. Reading can help us escape to a different place, and if nothing else, I want each reader to enjoy Lilah’s journey. I look forward to hearing from readers what they like about Kindreds, how they think the story will continue, and what Kindreds inspires in them.
GOLDBERG: The last thing I’d want readers to know is that I tried a new genre with Runaway Train. Having always written thrillers, it was a challenge, but I thrive on challenges and never want my writing to become stale. There’s a thought in the publishing industry to always “stick to your lane,” but I don’t want to become complacent. I want to meld genres and try new ones. Beyond Runaway Train being a three-book series, I’ll continue to write YA throughout my career. I’m just getting started!
NEWMAN: This has nothing to do with my book but it’s been swirling around — (although my book is girl-centric). More women and girls are being portrayed in the media as strong, intelligent, and capable, but somehow it still feels “remarkable.” Our smartest journalists and leaders are constantly scrutinized. Botox? Implants? And really, we’re going to talk about Kamala’s choice of shoes? Vogue made a big deal about her Converses. Kamala is cool because Kamala is cool. With or without trendy sneakers.