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Reader Request Week 2022 #6: High School Reunions

Laura S asks:

My 50 year high school reunion was last fall. Actually 50+1 because of COVID. Have you attended any high school reunions? Or have you kept in touch with childhood friends post high school?

I’ve been to several high school reunions: Specifically the 5th, the 10th, the 20th and the 30th, and I have plans to attend my 35th, which as it happens falls on the centennial celebration of the founding of my high school, so it will be a big ol’ to-do. That said, most of the class reunions are an at-least-medium-sized to-do, since the way my school does it is to group alumni by five-year anniversaries, so when we went back for the 30th, others were there for their 10th, 20th, 40th, 50th and also their 5th, 15th, 25th and so on. My experience is that the reunions that end with “0” get more people at them than the ones that end with “5” (see my own attendance), but regardless the attendance is pretty solid, because many alumni live within driving distance of the school, and because it’s Just That Sort of School.

And why are The Webb Schools of California (my high school alma mater) Just That Kind of School? Lots of reasons, including small class sizes, so you know everyone and everyone knows you in a way that a school with a thousand kids per class can’t provide, and because it was a boarding school, which means that for four years everyone was up in everyone else’s business; even the “day students” spent far more time on campus than most kids at non-boarding schools. Also, as a college prep school, regardless of our backgrounds coming into the school, as alumni most of us inhabit a largely homogeneous social class, which aids in class cohesion. Finally, Webb goes out of its way to develop and encourage alumni outreach, between it and between alumni, for its benefit and ours — we get a useful and congenial alumni network, and Webb (among other things) gets alumni giving. The result is admirable alumni connectivity, both within graduating classes and among the alumni in general.

Given all that, I don’t suppose it’s surprising for me to say that I kept in touch with a pretty large number of friends from high school. Even now, a large number of my friend cohort is from that time in my life, including several of the people I would class into the “best friend” category. In the before times, we would keep in touch through phone and things like alumni notes; these days Facebook and other social media do the trick. On one hand, the persistence of our alumni connections mean that there are very few surprises at reunions; we all know what each other have been up to, in an at least basic sense. But on the other hand it’s nice to have those connections be a constant.

Indeed, one of the things I would say that has been a pleasant surprise over time is that these days, on average, I am probably closer to more of the classmates I went to school with (and other alumni from my school) than I was when we attended Webb together. When you’re in high school, you’re a teenager, with the attendant teenage angst and drama and everything else. I’m not snarking on teenage angst and drama — that’s part of what being a teenager is for — but it does generate alienation and conflict even within a small cohort of people. Everyone I went to high school with is now rather more settled, generally, and most of the conflicts we might have had in high school are either resolved, or at the very least so far in the past that we can’t remember what they were, so why bother hauling them up to the present day.

But beyond that, well, I just mostly like the people I went to school with. They’re pretty excellent folks, by and large, and the sort of people I would probably want to know even if I had not gone to high school with them and had that shared history. Inasmuch as we did share that history, however, I suppose one of the things that does incline me to like them is that the school did actually attempt to instill values in us: Service, and community feeling, and trying to be a just and decent person even when other people aren’t looking or you will see an immediate benefit from doing so. If you like who I am as a person, a non-trivial part of my ethical make-up comes from the values Webb tried to instill in us. I suspect I’m not the only one for whom those values still resonate and matter.

(That said, allow me to be the first to admit that my generally very positive experience with Webb is not universal. I know people who had not great experiences there, and also, aside from any purported values the school would instill, it was still high school in the 80s, with the inequities and questionable behaviors, from students and staff, of that era. It wasn’t a perfect place, filled with perfect people, he said, in an understatement. It was, however, good for me, and I believe the foundation for much of my future successes in life, personally and professionally, was laid there.)

I’m happy to know today the people I went to high school with, and expect I will be happy to know them all of our respective lives. I’m looking forward to seeing some of them at our 35th reunion this year. We’ll laugh and hug and talk and be glad we still get to have the connections we do. I like who we all got to be. I like that we get to be those people together.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Reader Request Week 2022 #5: The Clawback of Rights in the USA

Nellie asks:

I’d love to get your perspective specifically on the rash of anti-trans legislation getting pushed all over the US right now – Alabama just today passed their version, making it a felony to help someone transition under the age of 19, and there are a LOT of bills under consideration in other states as well.

Not to mention, we’re already starting to see the pivot from focusing specifically on transgender people to more broadly targeting LGBTQ+ people in general…

Well, mind you, it’s not just trans people or LGBTQ+ folks; let’s not forget that Republican-led states are actively passing laws to take away the ability of women (and other folks who can get pregnant) to have abortions, up to and including criminalizing having one, and the whole of the Republican Party has been making hay about “Critical Race Theory,” which very few of them understand, or at the very least, will admit to understanding. We have GOP senators blithely saying out loud that fundamental Supreme Court decisions establishing nationwide rights for women, minorities and LGBTQ+ folks were wrongly decided. It’s very clear that here in 2022 the GOP sees curtailing the rights of everyone who is not a straight white cis Christian man as a winning strategy, and in the short run is seeing some success with it. If the Supreme Court does not in fact overturn Roe v. Wade, as it is almost certain to do, it will at the very least whittle down its efficacy to the point where it will be entirely useless.

In fact the Supreme Court is why all these horrible laws are being passed: because the GOP, for the first time in 60 years, is confident that the highest court in the land is more than willing to overturn decades of court precedent on the flimsiest and most-poorly reasoned of legal arguments, thereby clawing back the rights of hundreds of millions of Americans, and in doing so, subject them to legal and social harassment for trying to live their lives with the same sort of liberties that the GOP arrogates solely to straight white cis Christian men. The GOP probably doesn’t expect all of these laws to pass constitutional muster, but at least some of them will, according to this current court.

Every one of those laws that does, establishes a precedent and means that every group that is not comprised primarily of straight white cis Christian men will have to expend their time and energy fighting these fights again. Which is one of the goals: If you have to spend your time fighting the laws favoring straight white cis Christian men, you can’t spend time competing with straight white cis Christian men on equal standing.

(Hashtag NotAllStraightWhiteCisChristianMen, and also hashtag SomePeopleInRightsThreatenedGroupsDontCare, but let’s not pretend who is the primary beneficiary of this hobbling of the established rights of others, please and thank you.)

That said, why the anti-trans legislation, right now? The short answer is: Because trans people are one of the groups least understood and sympathized with, not only by straight white cis Christian folks, but by other folks as well; because they are a very small group, relative to others, and easier to push around; because their ability to exercise the same rights as others has only recently been established and thus is easier to take away; because decades of political and media portrayal of them as deviants and mentally ill makes them vulnerable to attack.

And also: the GOP understands that the best way to start the clawback of rights of people who are not straight white cis Christian men is to pretend it cares about children. Why keep people from having abortions? Because they are saving the babies! Why ban books about, and the teaching of, race or sexuality? Because it’s not age appropriate for children, and white kids are having their feelings hurt, and also gay people are groomers! Why pass legislation targeting trans people — and trans children in particular? Because gender-affirming therapies are child abuse and also what if your child went to the bathroom and there was a trans person in there and also what if your child had to compete against a trans athlete it isn’t fair!

Let’s be clear: As a matter of policy, the modern Republican party doesn’t give a damn about children in the United States except as a way to weaponize parental fears into restricting the rights of others. If the modern GOP actually cared about children, their policy portfolio would be rather different than it is today. When a GOP politician publicly grouses about the well-being of children, it usually either means they want to take away the rights of some group, or they want to make public education in the United States worse (because the children of the groups they want to take rights benefit from public schools).

Also, very specifically, if the GOP cared about children, then they would care about trans children and their well-being. They have made it clear they do not, just as they have made it clear with “don’t say gay” bills that they don’t care about other LGBTQ+ children, and as they have made it very clear with the anti-CRT nonsense and book banning that they don’t care about black children or the children in other racial groups. Children are not just straight white cis Christian children — or more accurately just some of them, since the GOP will make a minor carry a baby to term, even the straight white cis Christian ones, which is not about the need of the child in question.

But even then, they don’t care about the straight white cis Christian kids, either. Here’s a news flash: There’s a very good chance that at least some of those straight white cis Christian kids are friends with the kids the GOP is currently actively legislating against. They like them, and may even love them, and may consider them part of their family. They know the GOP isn’t doing these horrible things for them, even if they are using them as the excuse to do them. And they’ll remember: who was doing it, and to whom, and for what reasons. In the long run — too long, unfortunately, for all the children whose lives they are working to ruin in the interim — I suspect that’s not going to be great for the GOP.

But for now, that’s why the anti-trans (and anti-other LGBTQ+, and anti-minority, and anti-woman) laws are being passed: because the GOP has a Supreme Court that is very likely anti-everything-not-straight-white-cis-Christian-male, and it needs to get this stuff on the books while it can. They’re not doing it for the children. The GOP spent decades working toward this moment. The rest of us have to decide how long we’re willing to have this moment last.

That, we can do for the children. And for us.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Nancy Werlin

Hey, do you remember the 90s? Nancy Werlin does, and one of the reasons she does involves her latest novel, Healer & Witch. Her latest novel… but perhaps not her most recent novel. Werlin is here now to explain how that works, and why she’s delighted this novel is now out in the world.

NANCY WERLIN:

Healer & Witch is being published now, but I wrote it in 1996. I had a clandestine love affair with it when I was supposed to be monogamously involved with a contemporary young adult thriller. Healer & Witch is a historical fantasy set in 16th century France for ages 9-12—in other words, it wasn’t remotely a YA thriller.

I didn’t care.

I was in love with Sylvie, a teenage village healer who with a touch of her hands could locate and destroy pieces of a person’s memories—only her own power terrifies her and she needs to learn how to restore what she can take away—and with her barefoot companion, eight-year-old Martin, a headstrong farrier’s child who wants to see the world. Could they trust the bastard caste-climbing young merchant, Monsieur Chouinard? What was Ceciline the wisewoman planning for Sylvie, and why? What about the fanatic inquisitor newly come to Lyon? Also, how was I going to work Italian double-entry bookkeeping into the plot? The underground tunnels of Lyon?

I wrote longhand, which was not my usual method, at a breathless pace and finished a draft in months. Overcome with joy, I showed it to my editor, who’d been waiting patiently, years, for that thriller. Surprise!

Heartbreak was gently delivered unto me; Healer & Witch was too much like another middle-grade historical novel they had recently published. (It wasn’t!) But what about that thriller? Wouldn’t it be a more appropriate follow-up to my first YA, and shouldn’t I think about building a career, and not just about following my whims? (Oh.)

To the young writer that I was, that all made sense. It makes sense still . . . except in the ways that it doesn’t. But I was then too inexperienced to fully understand how to work with my creative needs.  

And so, Healer & Witch went into my file cabinet. Just for now, I thought. And it turned out that the break had done me good; I finally found my way into The Killer’s Cousin and loved it too, and it eventually won an Edgar award. My editor and publisher then wanted another thriller.

Time passed, a great deal of it. I wrote and published YA novels, 11 of them, and I loved each one.

But at the same time, I buried the Nancy Werlin who wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, with a book of herbs and poisons by her side for ready reference, and her French dictionary, and her historian college roommate on speed dial. The Nancy who’d pinned up a map of France to track the course of Monsieur Chouinard’s caravan, and another map of the underground tunnels of Lyon (which, sadly, I did not end up able to incorporate into the plot).

I had also set aside the Nancy who was inspired by the adult historical fiction of Dorothy Dunnett and wanted to engage with it as writers do. Dunnett’s invisible hand is on the shoulder of the writer that I was and am. I can’t speak of her work without awe. Her books have it all: Unforgettable characters. Twisty plotting that makes your head hurt. Meticulous yet creatively inspired use of historical detail. Action scenes to give you a heart attack. Prose at once beautiful and precise, and dense with multiple meanings that reward close attention and re-reads.

In Healer & Witch, I had tried to evoke for younger readers what Dunnett had for me as an adult reader: intellectual and emotional absorption in another time and place, with life and death stakes, and accurate attention to the political, religious, and economic realities of the period. Only feminist, too, and also with a bit of magic, for I play looser than she, and for a younger audience.

That Nancy spent 25 years in a file cabinet.

Then, as the pandemic dawned in 2020, I was homebound. I was scared. I sought comfort, diving deep into reading old, beloved books. One day, I looked in that file cabinet and saw a paper manuscript. It was the only copy I had of Healer & Witch.

I read it. I had no expectations. I remembered being the Nancy who’d written this story, but I had no certainty about her passion or reliability. I felt the way you might when, after many years, you meet your teenage love. You don’t know if intense emotions will reignite, or if you will smile and shake your head.

But as I read, my breath caught; heart beat faster. It was 25 years later, but I was still in love with courageous, desperate Sylvie. I still cared about her predicament, and her friends and enemies, and her world. And I thought I had told her story very well indeed.

And so, I retyped. I needed another opinion; one I trusted. I sent the manuscript to my new editor at my new publisher. She had minored in medieval history at college.  Within a week, she emailed me with a few exciting suggestions for revision.

And an offer.

Publishing Healer & Witch makes me feel as if my character Sylvie has touched me with her healing hands, and restored my past self to me.


Healer & Witch: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Audible

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Facebook.

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