The Big Idea: Leah Bobet

When it comes to the creative impulse, never underestimate the power of watching someone else get something wrong. Author Leah Bobet, whose debut novel Above hits stores today, found her inspiration when she got aggravated at what she was seeing in her television set. And just as a bit of sand in an oyster shell becomes a pearl, so did this irritation become in time a novel. Here’s how it happened.

LEAH BOBET:

I didn’t exactly start writing Above intending to write a book about being marginalized, intersectionality, and cultural trauma.

I started it because I was pissed off at a TV show.  An old one.  From 1987.

(Yeah, let’s think about that for a second.)

I’m an engineer’s kid; it means I’m a bit of a know-it-all sometimes. There’s always a part of my brain that sees the underpinnings of some genre trope or assumption and hollers But that’s not how it would really work!  And Ron Perlman and his friends below the sewers of New York in Beauty and the Beast, using nothing but dramatic black capes to pass on the streets?  Not notably worrying about the state of their plumbing or, well, scurvy?  That was not how it would really work.

So I started playing around.  With how it might really work.

Some of the answers to those questions were pure logistics: things like ventilation; how you’d pirate off the power grid; the social organization that’d emerge in a community where food was constantly rationed.  But the bigger ones quickly became about who would live there: What would have to be going on in your life to plausibly look at the choice between living in a cave underground or gritting your teeth and bearing it for one more day to make the cave the better option?  Well, you wouldn’t be people with cool superpowers, forced to flee because your claws were just too cool and kept distracting motorists.  You’d be people who potentially have enough threat and marginalization and barriers to flee; the people our society’s not so good at being built for.  The people we actively let down enough that they might just say, Screw this.  I’ll live in the dark if it means I don’t have to deal with that.

–and before I knew it, the underground community of Safe was populated by people with psychiatric diagnoses from schizophrenia to psychosis; people with physical disabilities that were either invisible enough to be scoffed at, or visible enough that nobody took them seriously when they said no, this is what I need; survivors of child abuse and institutional neglect.  People ostracized for how their bodies were put together, whether that was something fantastical like your arms growing back as crab claws or something fairly common, like intersex.

It also said something about the minds inside those bodies: The kinds of personalities who would make that choice instead of working within the system or becoming advocates; instead of just putting their energy into whole other parts of their lives and becoming musicians or tax accountants.  People who would have chosen to go down, below the subways and sewers, and live in a place that’s a secret.

That meant trauma.  A whole community living with, and built around, and creating their mythologies out of trauma.

The stories they’d tell about the world they left would be terrible.

Two things occurred to that wiseguy insisting on realism in her fantasy at this point:

First, it couldn’t last.  There’s only so long you can keep people united with the threat of an outside enemy, and even secret underground societies are made up of people.  They’d be back to drawing battle lines sooner or later: I’d end up with a whole group of marginalized people, marginalizing each other even more because of that hierarchy-beast inside our heads.

Second: Now, what would it be like to grow up there?

I have some experience with cultural trauma.  My grandfather on one side was a concentration camp survivor; my grandmother on the other was evacuated, as a child, from London during the Blitz.  There are little habits in how I was raised and educated that overstepped the bounds of normal familial concern: a sneaking, violent distrust of formal institutions; a whole family that was convinced that unless we were in sight — or telephone reach — at all times, something terrible was going to happen; a tendency to hoard food.  I was never a hungry kid, and I still feel obscurely less anxious when I have a full fridge.

This is ridiculous and does not make sense in the context of my own life.

But when your parents are brought up by people for whom yeah, children can and did go around the corner and just disappear, and enforced famine was a reality?  The idea of normal shifts.  All those reaction behaviours built up to keep you alive when things are bad twine around everything else, and they become the new normal, and your own kids treat that as the way to raise a child and pass the whole thing on.

After enough time goes by, and enough changes?  Some of those behaviours get downright weird and maladaptive.

That is what it’d be like to grow up in Safe: It would mean having a toolset to deal with the wider world that just didn’t apply when you got up there and had your first real look around.  It would mean being afraid of things that weren’t there anymore.  Being not afraid enough, maybe, of some of the things living right in your own pocket.  Having to get over the idea of Us vs. Them if you wanted to get anywhere at all with anything.

Having to, somehow, go back among the people who raised you and love you, and recognize their mistakes.  And not repeat them.  Without becoming a traitor.

–and that is how I wrote a book about cultural trauma, and having compassion and respect for the things your parents lived through without having to agree about how the world is, and the terrible balance between redress for having been victimized and starting to victimize other people too.  About complicated, tangled, late-stage Growing Up.

And people with crab claws.  And living shadow-creatures.  And a girl who turns into a honeybee, and a boy who grew up underground.

Because Beauty and the Beast was getting it wrong.

…go figure.

—-

Above: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.

22 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Leah Bobet

  1. It’s a lovely book (yes I’ve read it; it came out last month in Canada), and reading this deepens my understanding of it. Thanks.

  2. I am SO kicking myself for passing this up at the library. It’s just that I have so much in my reading pile…

    Methinks I have to go back and get it and just push it up to my #1 slot.

  3. I was totally addicted to Beauty and the Beast and even as a child, the stupid inconsistencies bothered me too! I am going to go find this book today, hopefully it is on the kindle.

  4. Sounds good. I always wince, however, whenever schizophrenia appears in books or TV, because the writers so often get THAT wrong. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe I should do my own thing with that. Good luck, Leah!

  5. This book sounds really interesting… I’ll have to add it to my much too long “things to read” list. In general, this blog feature has just exploded my “things to read” list.

    The “but that’s not how it would REALLY work” thing reminds me of two experiences, both around movies:

    1. Seeing Total Recall at Doc Films (the film society at the U of C). In the scene where they get sucked out onto the Martian surface, someone yelled “that’s not what would happen!” and then proceeded to explain what WOULD really happen. And we all laughed, because that was just part of going to see a movie like that at Doc. And the guy was right.

    2. Going to see Jurassic Park with a bunch of biologists and biochemists, and walking out of the theater with people arguing that it was STUPID to use amphibian DNA because everyone knows they can sex shift, and anyway birds would have been a closer match.

    Good times. And now I’m married to an engineer from the other side of the world, and we still pick Sci-Fi movies apart from time to time. To me, it is part of the fun.

  6. Cloud: I married my husband, in large part, because he was the only man I could find in my peer group who’s actually smarter than I am. And I say that in all modesty. It was a real mood-killer for me when I’d be on a date with somebody, and I’d start talking about some obscure subject, and within a minute or two I’d see their eyes begin to glaze over. When hubby and I talk, we actually learn things from each other. We also have the habit of watching the same movies/reading the same books, and “picking them apart, as part of the fun”. We’ve had such different life experiences that we frequently focus on different things. When we discuss a movie or a book, it’s not unusual for one of us to say “What about this part?” and the other person will say “Where was that? I don’t remember that at all!” It’s made for some very interesting conversations over the last 8.5 years.

    :-)

  7. @ Cloud

    And now I’m married to an engineer from the other side of the world, and we still pick Sci-Fi movies apart from time to time. To me, it is part of the fun.

    I must to admit, I have to basically switch off my internal technical critic when I see SF movies and TV. I just consider 99.99% of sci-fi movies/TV to be science fantasy and focus on whether the “magic” system is internally consistent and makes any sense at all. I’m less successful at this when it comes to SF literature, especially if the author vouches for the scientific bona fides of the story. The little “teleportation is just around the corner” essay at the front of Michael Crichton’s book Timeline was the most egregious example I can recall off the top of my head, but there have been many.

  8. @ Gulliver: My first thought was, why teleport around the corner? Wouldn’t it be easier to just walk? Must slow down and read all the words…

  9. @Jennifer – I can’t imagine being married to someone who wasn’t as smart as me, and who wasn’t comfortable with me being smart! That second bit ruled out quite a few guys I dated, actually.

    @Gulliver- I can enjoy Sci-Fi that gets the science wrong, but I can’t help notice it. I still laugh when I think about the Star Trek Next Generation episode that had someone say “A foreign T cell has invaded his DNA”. For someone trained in biochemistry, ignoring this would be like ignoring someone saying “A semi-truck just invaded a moped.” I can’t do it! But I still enjoy watching Star Trek- even that episode. But I’m like you in that what really bugs me is when the system described isn’t internally consistent. It is one thing to make me ignore my science training. But to ask me to turn off my logic? It takes a really compelling story to keep me going through that.

  10. Aw, come on, Vincent and the others Below had Helpers Above giving them food and supplies and, one supposes, vitamins! (My problem was Linda Hamilton as a brilliant attorney, but I digress.)

    Sounds like a wonderful story! *makes note to self*

  11. Well this has just jumped firmly onto my (very long like everyone else’s) to-read list. Must go find out if I can get my hands on it before leaving on vacation in 36 hours.

    I am in agreement with Cloud and Gulliver. Lack of internal consistency is the thing that will make me crazy faster than anything else.

  12. @ Cloud

    I can’t imagine being married to someone who wasn’t as smart as me, and who wasn’t comfortable with me being smart! That second bit ruled out quite a few guys I dated, actually.

    I’ve heard that a lot from women I know. It just baffles me. How can stupidity be attractive?!! For me, my worry whenever I dated someone smart enough to draw my interest was whether I was smart enough to keep her interested. Perhaps that’s part of why some guys avoid braniacs (I consider that term complimentary and don’t mean to offend anyone), insecurity about their own intellect the same way some guys are intimidated by women they find physically attractive? But no matter how much it concerned me, I could never settle for someone without at least comparable intelligence (since I happen to hold with the Multiple Intelligences school of thought), and indefatigable curiosity to match my own.

    I still laugh when I think about the Star Trek Next Generation episode that had someone say “A foreign T cell has invaded his DNA”. For someone trained in biochemistry, ignoring this would be like ignoring someone saying “A semi-truck just invaded a moped.”

    Heck, that’s just basic biology! Wasn’t that little snafu from one of the second season Dr. Pulaski episodes. I liked her character, but the writers never seemed to work as hard on her lines as Dr. Crusher. Then again, splitting hairs with the original particle of the week show is probably a losing proposition.

    I can’t do it! But I still enjoy watching Star Trek- even that episode.

    Your talking to someone who memorized Star Trek encyclopedias as a kid. I’m as dyed in the wool of a trekkie as you can get without wearing costumes, going to conventions and learning Klingon (though I do have to stop myself from wishing people qapla’ and earning mystified looks).

    But I’m like you in that what really bugs me is when the system described isn’t internally consistent. It is one thing to make me ignore my science training. But to ask me to turn off my logic? It takes a really compelling story to keep me going through that.

    Yeah, it’s one thing to be scientifically illiterate. That’s mere ignorance. But to be unable to keep track of your own show or film’s underpinnings is just plain lazy or stupid.

    My guilty pleasure, the new Russell T Davies era Doctor Who, constantly torments me. But how could I say no to David Tennant? I’m watching the Matt Smith incarnation on the fumes of pure loyalty and the last season episode The Doctor’s Wife. Every once in a while the show is as good as it used to be, but overall it’s fallen a long, long way since An Unearthly Child. One thing I’m certain of is that Neil Gaiman needs to do his national duty and become a regular writer for the show. I wonder if the BBC would consider instituting conscription…

  13. Is this a standalone novel or the beginning of a series? I ask because so often book 1 doesn’t say book 1, and I promised myself I wouldn’t start YET ANOTHER incomplete series. If this is a standalone, I’d love to check it out. If it’s a series, I’ll put it on my list for when it’s complete.

  14. Many of the things Ms.Bobet says about the inhabitants of her world, how they got there, what they must do to leave that world, and the absence of permanence of it all, were also considered and brilliantly written about in a novel called Haiku, by Andrew Vachss, published in 2009. He’s better known as the author of the Burke books. Run, don’t walk, to get your hands on a copy, if you like Ms. Bobet’s work.

  15. I don’t know if the author is reading the comments at this late date, but the library only just got the book in… and AMAZING. Beautiful, lyrical, and powerful. I will find _someone_ on my book gift list (my own shelves being far too full) to buy it for.

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