All posts by kathleenmkellett

Well, Bless My Soul

So. It sure has been a long time since I’ve blogged!

Full transparency, I’m mostly popping back on here because I’m getting up on the ol’ querying horse again, and if anyone actually follows up on the “you can find me online” paragraph, I don’t want them to think that I died a year and a half ago and they’re receiving queries from a ghost. (Although that would be a decent marketing angle …) I feel like 2020 either made people become even more terminally online or made them abandon the internet entirely; somehow, I think I managed to do both? But yeah, sharing my thoughts with the world lost a bit of its appeal due to *all-encompassing gesture*. I do, however, still exist, and I’ve got some updates:

  • I passed my qualifying exams and my dissertation proposal hearing, so I’m a PhD ~*~candidate~*~ now. Living that ABD life by waiting impatiently for my IRB proposal to be processed so I can begin my dissertation research.
  • As previously mentioned, I’m now querying middle-grade story (aka SKY CHILD). Appreciate your thoughts and prayers, etc.
  • I’m working on a new YA manuscript tentatively titled OUR NECROPOLIS. I’m attempting some very fancy POV tricks that half the time are super fun and the other half make me want to pitch my laptop out the window.
    • I love it.
  • And finally, the best update and the saving grace of my personal 2020: Turns Out I’m Bi! Who knew? Not me! Even better, turns out that I have excellent taste in women as evidenced by my wonderful, wonderful girlfriend.
    • Happy belated Pride!

So that brings us back to this blog post. I feel like half the posts on this site are me making plans for what I’m going to write on here and then not doing it, so I’ll refrain from that this time. Instead, I want to talk about hobbies, passion, creativity, and productivity – and how this past year has shifted my mindset about all of them.

2020 was the least creative year of my adult life. It wasn’t the least productive; see above bullet point about exams. I read a truly outrageous amount of academic literature and produced painstakingly planned, drafted, and reworked exam papers – and I did a damn good job, if I do say so myself. But after mid-March, I wrote very little fiction. Once a habitual early riser, my quarantine sleep schedule shifted to accommodate the hours of mindless YouTube I’d watch until I was exhausted enough to sleep without lying awake thinking about the state of the world. I’d then wake up later in the morning than I had since college, mad at myself for “wasting” valuable daylight time. (I still haven’t successfully pushed this schedule back to where it was in the Before Times.)

Conventional wisdom for unpublished writers is that you have to treat your writing like a job until it is a job – all while having another job that actually pays you in money. And I have, for a long time. I would bristle if anyone referred to my writing as a “hobby.” First of all, hobbies imply fun, and writing isn’t always. Don’t get me wrong, I love it – and I have little patience for writers who only ever complain about how much they hate writing – but a lot of the time you’re chipping away at the block of marble with little to show for it except sore arms and, well, just slightly misshapen marble. If I only wrote when it was purely fun, I would never even get to a second draft. Secondly, and more importantly, hobbies don’t have an end goal. I write to complete stories that can turn into books. I’m out here trying to get published, but hobbies are … unproductive.

So no, writing has never been my hobby; it’s my passion. Passion is much more important, much more serious, much more justifiable. Why else would I do something so hard and for (thus far) so little reward?

Besides, passion implies a drive, a need. Passion is what creative people have when they create. Creativity plants worlds in my head, and passion coaxes them into bloom. I have always been creative, have always been passionate. That’s how people described me as a child. That has been my identity since I can remember.

And then 2020 rolled around, and I wasn’t creative or passionate at all.

This has happened before, at various points in the winding, pothole-ridden mountain road that is my mental health journey. But it had been a while, and I had started the year – the new decade – with such lofty goals that I was sure I could achieve. Many of those goals were academic, and I met those ones. I was so much luckier this past year than many other people were. I didn’t lose anyone to the pandemic. I kept my paycheck. I worked on things I cared about, and even produced some good pieces of writing.

But the writing wasn’t stories. I had no stories in me.

On New Year’s Eve, my girlfriend and I watched Pixar’s Soul. I had just finished my exams about two weeks prior. I’d exchanged Christmas presents in my driveway with my masked family before we retreated to our respective houses to eat dinner together via Zoom. The numbers were sky high again, but vaccines were on the horizon, and the worst outcome of the election had been avoided. The mixture of uncertainty, fear, relief, and tentative hope felt oddly appropriate for New Year’s Eve. It was less a celebration than a long exhale, and I was glad to share it with my girlfriend, especially because we had just exchanged our first “I love you’s” on Christmas Eve.

And then Soul came out and hit me over the head with a baseball bat.

If you haven’t watched it (you MUST), Soul is about Joe, a music teacher with much grander ambitions. He’s a creative person, a passionate person. And then he falls down a manhole and dies.

Except, hey, wait! He didn’t achieve all the things that his creativity and passion demand of him yet! He can’t die!

In his refusal to bow to fate, Joe winds up the unwitting mentor to an as-yet-unused soul who doesn’t see the appeal of this whole life-on-Earth thing. Seems like way more trouble than its worth, and besides, she’s never clicked with any of the myriad available passions in the pre-Earth training grounds. So what would even be the point?

It would have been easy (especially for a Disney-owned property) to turn this premise into a tale about finding your dreams and following them, but that’s not what this movie does. Speaking to one of the otherworldly beings that govern the souls, Joe makes a remark that conflates a soul’s “spark” (or passion) with their purpose, and he is laughingly corrected: “A spark isn’t a soul’s purpose.” This barely computes for him; surely everyone needs a raison d’être. Nope, says Soul. The “être” part is raison enough. Later in the movie, another musician, wiser than Joe, gives him some food for thought: “I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ says the older fish. ‘That’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This?’ says the younger fish. ‘This is water. What I want is the ocean.’”

Yeah. Still not over that one. Probably never will be.

I’ve written a lot more this year than I did last year. OUR NECROPOLIS, as you may have gleaned from the title, is about, uh, death, so it’s proving cathartic if nothing else. It’s populated with a bunch of scared, snarlingly angry characters who don’t know what to do with all their excess love, and getting to put jokes and curses in their mouths and grace in their deeds gets me through all the why-won’t-this-marble-turn-into-a-real-shape parts of writing. 2021 has many of the same horrors in it that 2020 did, so I’m still scared and snarlingly angry, too. But as my creativity returns, I’m also showing myself some of that grace.

Passionate and productive aren’t the same thing, and hobby isn’t a dirty word. Do I still want my writing to lead to something? Of course I do; I wouldn’t be putting myself through querying again if I didn’t. I want kids to read my books. I truly believe there are people out there who will find them meaningful, and I want to provide some young people with the comfort and joy that my favorite books gave me growing up. (And, if anyone’s still reading from the “you can find me online” paragraph, I’ve always been fantastic with a deadline; just ask my dissertation committee.) But until then, I’m not wasting time if I sleep late or watch YouTube. I’m not falling down on the job if I prioritize fun over the hustle. I can enjoy my stories more if I’m not mad about what the world hasn’t given me yet, and if my creativity flees again, I can trust it to come back eventually without worrying about losing my identity as a passionate person. I think I’ll be a better writer for all of that, but that isn’t even the point. The point is I’ll appreciate the ocean I’m already in.


A Cup of Kindness

Why, hello! I haven’t blogged since August!

This semester has truly been the most exhausting and hectic academic term of my life. I started off with back-to-back illnesses (food poisoning followed immediately by an interminable chest cold), then had a perfect storm of time consuming coursework and travel (a really fun Monday night Camden/Tuesday morning New Brunswick/Tuesday night Camden schedule), two conferences (one international), lots of grading, and quite a few brand new (to me) theories that took just my whole entire brain to understand. Plus, you know, the annual energy-sapping effects of the ol’ seasonal affective nonsense. I feel like I’ve been sprinting flat out since Labor Day.

I’m still really glad I’m in this program. So that’s a nice sign.

One oft-repeated truth about grad school is that it’s isolating, and that’s been especially true this term, just because I haven’t had time to do anything. This has been frustrating, because I think I’m actually becoming less of an introvert as I get older? I definitely couldn’t do Hermit Life again. But luckily the combined circumstances of next term look like they won’t be QUITE as intense as this one (please let me not have just jinxed that), so I’m looking forward to communicating with other human beings on a more regular basis. Part of that mission includes reviving this ever-neglected blog, at least throughout winter break. I’m excited to talk about some of the highs of this past term (guest lecturing! Monsters conference in Prague!), as well as more media, writing, children/childhood, and current event thoughts. I sometimes joke (“joke”) that I am 100% Strong Opinions By Volume, and I’ve accumulated a lot of pent-up opinions to share over the past few busy, somewhat lonely months. (Shout out to any of my fellow Childhood Studies colleagues reading this, especially my astonishingly wonderful cohort, for being there and keeping me functional since September. Literally don’t think I could do this if I didn’t enjoy being around you all so much.)

But first, as is traditional, for my last post of the year (and decade!), I wanted to do a little round up of media that I was grateful for over the past year, plus a little bit of my own writing. The first part of this post will be very easy; despite the dearth of posts on this blog over the last year, I did manage to review three of my favorite viewing experiences of 2019 (Schitt’s Creek, Rocketman, Hadestown). Another movie favorite from the beginning of this year was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which I went to see as a 30th birthday present to myself. All of these stories make me fall further in love with our messy human condition, which is all I really want a story to do; as I mentioned in my Rocketman review, I’m always after Big Emotions in fiction.

Two of my guiding principles as a writer and a person are that a) fondness may seem quiet and soft but is actually deeply profound and sustaining and b) despair is the death of creativity. Therefore, while a story can have moments where it is as dark as dark can be (see: Hadestown and also most of what I write), ultimately cynicism will never a good story make, so you always need to give characters and audiences something to care about and keep caring about. To reiterate my Hadestown review, the things and people we care about don’t necessarily fix or save our world, but that’s never what made them matter in the first place. Human connection, art, storytelling, celebration, love — they matter in their own right. To continue that thought, I think we need all those things to sustain us if we’re going to engage in the work of fixing and saving. I know I do. So I guess that’s what I was after in this last year of the decade, and what I’ll be taking into the new one: stories that remind me of the things that matter most, so I can happily continue to care, create, and contribute to the world’s well-being in whatever small ways that I can.

A small extra note about Schitt’s Creek, just because it’s the story that fully dominated my 2019: I’ve been joking (again, “joking”) that that show is responsible for a good 70% of my mental stability as a graduate student, and goddamn am I grateful for it. Anyone who hasn’t watched it yet and is dealing with literally any form of stress in your lives, do yourselves a favor and indulge in this Absolute Delight of a show. I’m so pumped for the sixth season, and yet I’ll be ridiculously distraught when it ends, even though I respect the hell out of Dan Levy for giving his story a proper ending. (I respect the hell out of all of Dan Levy’s storytelling decisions. I can only humbly pay fealty to the undisputed king of slow-burn showing-not-telling character development.) I entitled my review of that show “Disasters Learning To Love,” and I can only hope to find more stories with that most evergreen of meaningful plots in 2020.

Sadly, I don’t have much in the way of book recommendations from this year — which is not to say that I didn’t read novels that I enjoyed, but I didn’t happen on any Big New Favorites. (I did get quite a few books for Christmas, though, so watch this space.) (Also, Anna, if you’re reading this, I am going to read Gideon The Ninth over break, you don’t need to yell at me again.) I did get to write about plenty of books that I care about this year, though. The highlight was definitely talking about monstrous doubling in Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, Patrick Ness’s Release, and Eden Robinson’s Trickster series, all of which I could not recommend highly enough. That paper, which is the one I presented in Prague, was entitled “With Love from Self to Self: Monstrous Doubling and an Ethics of Care in Adolescent Literature.” I talked about this pattern I’ve been noticing in stories with sympathetic monsters in which the trope of the monstrous body splitting, duplicating, fragmenting, or containing multiple disparate aspects is used as a means of exploring a sort of desperate (and sometimes defiant) self-care in the face of a hostile society.

It’s no accident that this concept appeals to me so much, since I’ve actually written it myself, in MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES. It was exciting to realize that multiple authors whom I really admire are playing with similar ideas and to analyze what these narratives have the potential to communicate about the needs of marginalized young people. I closed that talk out by saying, “Monstrous care from self to self is not sufficient on its own; instead, it is the beginning of the story. It is the first acknowledgement, extended from within, that marginalized, scapegoated, and unstable selves are worth caring for and caring with.” So that’s another guiding thought I’m taking with me into the new year.

Finally, re: my own writing, since this is ostensibly a writing blog: I’ve officially been Writing Seriously (i.e., trying to write novels worthy of publication in a methodical manner) for a little over a decade. If you’d told 20-year-old me that I still wouldn’t actually be published at this time, she’d have been, uhhh … really sad. A lot of things haven’t exactly gone right in my writing career, and I’ve been dealing with the frustration, jealousy, and disappointment of that for a while now. But if things had gone differently, who knows if I’d be getting my PhD right now? I might have just kept on with a day job I liked less, instead of pursuing this additional path. In that case, who knows if I’d be living in a place I really like, so close to my sister and my NEPHEW, who is the most perfect thing to happen in 2019? I can’t take a peek into those alternate universes, but I do know that I’m doing work that I really like, and I’ve learned so much in the last three semesters, and all of it’s going to make my future writing better. Plus, I want the ’20s to be a decade of prioritizing relationships, and so I’m glad to be near my family. So I’ll continue to Write Seriously and embrace all the other opportunities and connections that crop up along the way.

Meanwhile, to everyone who’s read any of my writing (creative, academic, or sporadically blogged) and enjoyed it over the past 10 years, thank you so much. It means the absolute world to me when I find out I’ve written something that’s made another person happy. And you know what? I’m good at it. I’ve worked hard enough in the 2010s to have earned the right to say that. So, beneath the cut, please enjoy a selection of some of my favorite scenes from stories I’ve written this decade. Happy New Year to all!

Continue reading A Cup of Kindness

We’re Gonna Sing It Again

So I rounded out the summer by having a full on religious experience in a theater.

In other words, I saw Hadestown with my family a week and a half ago, and it was incredible. I loved it; I ugly-cried. When I was younger, I cried all the time at media, but now it takes more to really set me off. This show tore down any and all defenses I have. It destroyed me, in the best possible way.

For those of you who don’t know, Hadestown is a bluesy musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Written by Anaïs Mitchell, it has an arresting Depression-esque aesthetic and a cast that may actually be made up of demigods. (Seriously, click that link. And then also click this one, because the first one doesn’t have Patrick Page as Hades in it and you need to experience his voice.) They really were all incredible, but for me, Amber Gray as Persephone was a standout. In one number, she bends 90 degrees at the waist as she stomp-dances, which was both wildly impressive and deeply visually distressing (as was appropriate, in context). The staging and design breathtaking, as well; I never knew I could get so emotional over factory light choreography.

But I’ve seen plenty of shows with great acting and music and visual storytelling. I’ve loved plenty of shows with those ingredients, ever since my musical-loving parents started toting their kids along to nights in the city. (I’ve even seen some shows that had slightly tighter pacing than Hadestown, if I were to be incredibly nitpicky.) Yet precious few would prompt me to begin a blog by facetiously-but-not-really claiming a RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. So what was different about Hadestown?

I realize that not everyone is my specific type of nerd and therefore didn’t go through a big old mythology phase circa age 11, but I’m not spoiling the millennia-old story by telling you it’s a tragedy (especially since the first song of Hadestown tells you, too). I didn’t ugly-cry because I wasn’t expecting the ending. The way they told the story — that’s what was so meaningful to me. Mitchell’s magnum opus has been in the works for well over a decade now (it’s original incarnation was a concept album), but it could not have felt more timely. It reworks the ancient themes to comment on the destructiveness of capitalism (including allusions to climate change), the desperation of poverty, and the deep uncertainty that the future holds in dark times. It doesn’t pretend that everything will always be all right. How could it? After all, “it’s a sad tale; it’s a tragedy.”


All right, here’s where I talk about the last two songs, which cut me open and held my heart in their beautiful terrible hands. If you want to listen to the album or see the show for yourself without hearing me talk about the ending, this is your warning.

So what is the point of art in such hard times? When even the most beautiful songs can’t guarantee a happy ending? What is the point of love, even, when it can’t do the same? There’s nothing and no one that can fully protect us from failing, from losing, from dying. From breaking our hearts.

But we haven’t stopped creating and appreciating art, have we? Even when it hasn’t saved us. We still turn to the Muses, after all these years and years and years. Love still needs its expression, and for so many of us, that’s art. Because we haven’t stopped loving, either! Even when it hasn’t saved us.

From the penultimate song:

It’s a love song
It’s a tale of love from long ago
It’s a sad song
We keep singing even so

Listen, I’m a person who got “with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah” tattooed on my body. Of course, of course, of course, this all matters. It doesn’t have to save us to matter. That was never why it mattered in the first place.

After the curtain call, the once embittered, now tentatively vulnerable Persephone leads us in a toast. Eurydice joins her.

Some birds sing when the sun shines bright
Our praise is not for them
But the ones who sing in the dead of night
We raise our cups to them

So let’s all be worthy of Persephone’s toast, yes? Let’s sing the songs.

A Breath

Not a lot of people read this blog. Transparently speaking, it more or less exists to prove to any publishing professionals who might go looking someday that I’m a real person who thinks seriously about this whole storytelling thing. It’s also often fun to blather about whatever’s on my mind that month to the handful of friends and family who do check in. Every few months, I get an email notification that a stranger liked a post, which is neat. But for the most part, I’m writing into a sparsely populated void.

Sometimes this frustrates me. I have a lot of opinions and ideas that I want to share more widely. I think about what I could do for the causes I care about if more people followed my Twitter or whatever. Unfortunately, I both am bad at and generally dislike using social media most of the time, so I don’t feel a whole lot of incentive to invest my time in getting better at it, aside from the vague guilt that tells me I should be Doing More. But I think my efforts are probably a bit better spent on my creative and academic work, which hopefully one day will help some people in some small way. Meanwhile, I just continue to support organizations that have a much larger reach than I do.

All of this is to say that I’m resisting the urge to talk about the Week this country has had (in a long string of Weeks), because I don’t have anyone but a choir to preach to. I haven’t really been in the mood to talk about my writing or write a review or do other standard blog fare, though. So instead, for my over-a-week-late July post, I’m going to make a list of little anecdotes or things I like about my family. I’m just going to write them as they come to me. For the few people who read this, I hope they make you happy and make you think about the things you appreciate about your own loved ones. If you want to share any of your own favorite things about people with me, I’d love that.

This can just be a breath, shared among a small handful of people. I kind of need to take a breath.

  • My mother’s mother always sounds startled when she laughs, like even at nearly 92, each moment of amusement is still a delightful surprise.
  • When I was maybe around eight-ish, I was at my paternal grandparents’ house with my sister while my parents were at a wedding. We played Go Fish with this large children’s deck of cards with actual cartoon fish on them instead of suits and numbers. I can perfectly picture the goldfish in particular, but I can’t remember anything about the conversation the four of us had. All I remember is the feeling that I was starting to experience my grandparents not just as beloved relatives to a little kid, but as their own people to whom I could be a friend as well as a granddaughter. I can recall a shared sly sense of humor even though I don’t remember any of the comments or jokes that were made. I don’t think you always notice when relationships begin to evolve, but I did that day. My grandpa died when I was nine, and my grandma when I was ten. Both times I remembered the game of Go Fish and was so grateful for it.
  • Three years ago, my great-aunt left me a birthday voicemail that begins with, in a very high pitch and a very strong Staten Island accent, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KATHALEENIE. If you keep having birthdays, you’re going to be as old as me! ….This is Aunt Cathy.” AS THOUGH THERE WERE ANY DOUBT. I had to turn my face to the wall at work so no one would notice I was laughing.
  • My uncle has a pigeon coop. One year, I was at their house when a bunch of eggs had just hatched over the previous week. He carefully carried out each hideously ugly chick to show us how to pinpoint newborn pigeon age to the day.
  • When I was a hermit in the woods for six months, my mom came to visit me and took me to the movies. There was nothing that I wanted to see except for Jupiter Ascending, which I warned her she wouldn’t like. She saw it with me anyway, and my (completely unironic) delight at lines like “BEES NATURALLY RECOGNIZE ROYALTY” was increased tenfold at the utter bafflement on my mom’s face.
  • My sister and I used to divvy up parts of songs from musicals to sing together in the car or just upstairs in the guest room. I generally sang the dude parts because her voice is a thousand times better than mine. I can’t hear a song from Aida or Rent without automatically assuming the parts I used to take as a kid.
  • Not a dissimilar memory: my sister and I used to lip sync dramatically at each other in the backseat of the car to see who would laugh first. (I generally lost.) I once cried laughing at her pitch-perfect emo face journey at the lines, “I miss your purple haaaair, I miss the way you taaaaaaste” from “Somewhere Out There” by Our Lady Peace. (I just had to Google I miss your purple hair lyrics for that title and band.) Our parents were annoyed because we wouldn’t tell them why we were laughing.
  • My parents also let us listen to NSYNC for an entire car ride to and from New Hampshire, so now I’m thinking I owe them an apology for all the music they endured during our adolescence.
  • know I owe my dad an apology for taking us to see the Pokemon movie, because he never misses an opportunity to remind us that he did that.
  • My dad was a really good middle school softball coach. Parents always joke about the amusement inherent in embarrassing their kids, but I don’t actually ever remember being embarrassed when he was my coach, even though that’s everyone’s automatic assumption when they hear about a parent being involved in your activities in middle school. Everyone whose opinion I actually cared about (which was honestly too broad a category; see again: middle school) liked and respected him, and I knew that was no less than he deserved.
  • My aunt and uncle (the one with the pigeons) are excellent swing dancers.
  • Another aunt collects stuffed animals, which officially made her the coolest adult I knew as a little kid. We had a few parties at her house with all of them, and there’s a home video from one in which my sister and I still have baby New York accents. Also we watched The Sound of Music for the first time at that party, and I was utterly enthralled even though I hadn’t known that movies could actually be so long and I was pretty tired by the end.
  • Even though my sister and I lost our baby New York accents, we still catch each other’s eye every time we hear a Fun Accent Moment, which happens a lot when we’re at family functions, although it also happened when she came to visit me in the Midwest and a waitress offered us saaaalads with the flattest A I’ve ever heard in my life. Now as a speech language pathologist and the first of us to defect to South Jersey, she tutors me in the intricacies of the Philly area accent.
  • Before I moved to Boston to start my Master’s program when I was 22, my family had Chinese food and my fortune cookie said, “The current year will bring you much happiness.” My mom spirited it away, framed it, and presented it to me as a housewarming gift. I’ve lived in a variety of apartments and states since then, and it’s lived in every one.

I’m going to think of a million more, but various errands and responsibilities demand my attention, so I’ll end my post here. If you are one of the few who read this, please comment either here or on my Twitter or Facebook links with Fond Thoughts of your own! We can all use some, I think.

On Such a Timeless Flight

As far as forms of storytelling go, I’m pretty one-note. I’m a novelist. Honestly, I’ve never really tried my hand at anything else. Sure, in college I had to write short stories for workshops, but I mostly cheated and used pieces of longer ideas that I had. Some forms don’t really personally interest me; others have been placed in the “maybe at some point” file; still others fascinate me but seem particularly difficult. I mean, novels are hard and all, but have you ever tried to write a genuinely good picture book? (Not that I’m exactly taking it easy on myself over here. My current project has multiple in-world first-person POVs, plus a couple of other “primary sources” including POETRY, which I don’t even write, with one character compiling and annotating this document. Because I’m a masochist, apparently.)

One form towards which I’ve generally had the attitude of “won’t catch me attempting that” is the biopic. I don’t just think that biopics are difficult; I think they’re inherently impossible. Try as you might, you can’t actually shoehorn a life into two hours, nor can you make it conform to a three-act structure. To quote the inimitable Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “life doesn’t make narrative sense.” Trying to force it to do so requires lots of cutting and altering, while still trying to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. That isn’t even meant as disparaging, because the filmmakers have to cut and alter; otherwise, the movie would be an unwatchable mess. But viewers know that life doesn’t make narrative sense, so the formula of biopics too often seems thin and dishonest. Often you’ll be left with the frustrating thought of I know there was more to it than that, and it was probably more interesting. 

All of that to say, I really liked Rocketman.

I saw it with my mom and sister the other day, and all of us had high opinions of it. My mom mentioned that one of her friends hadn’t realized going in that it’s actually a jukebox musical instead of just a straight biopic. Apparently, her friend hadn’t liked the fantastical and surreal musical numbers, prompting me to ask, “Does she not enjoy FUN?” Which is not to say that all of the songs are fun; some are, while others are heartbreaking. All of them, however, were emotionally overwhelming, totally immersing the viewer in the inner world of Elton John.

As far as I’m concerned, all would-be biopic filmmakers and screenwriters should go and take notes. Rocketman did not try to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. Songs were used wherever they’d be most emotionally relevant, with no regard for the actual chronology of Elton John’s catalog. This is obvious from the beginning, as his child self sings The Bitch is Back while his orange-devil-suited older self looks on. There’s no point in asking “is this how it really happened,” because the answer is obviously no. “This is a constructed narrative!” the movie brazenly shouts from the opening frames. That allows the typical anxiously maintained facade of based-on-a-true-story to fall away (indeed, the tagline of the movie is literally “based on a true fantasy”), leaving the screenwriter and director (Lee Hall and Dexter Fletcher, respectively) to focus on emotional as opposed to historical accuracy.

I am all for this style of storytelling about real people. After all, we all construct our lives in various ways. We have our favored anecdotes and the influences we decided in hindsight were formative. We streamline our memories and allow most quieter moments to dissipate, if only because we don’t have room to hold them all. But every person knows their own inner complexity, the desire and passion and ambition and love and disappointment and fear and sheer cussed stubbornness that define us to ourselves. I’m only 30 and have had a far less interesting life than Elton John, and I’d still have a hell of a time putting my whole emotional universe into two hours and deciding which life events were “major” enough to include in the right order and trying to trick an audience into believing that that’s exactly how it all unfolded. Rocketman is still technically a biopic, so it has to do a bit of the picking and choosing, but in dispensing entirely with the pretense of realism, it can focus the vast majority of its energy on Feelings. It wears its bruised heart on its sparkly sleeve. It still can’t put Elton John’s whole universe into two hours, but it can give us an awfully moving glimpse.

In general, I am more and more interested in stories that are unabashedly about Feelings over everything else. For example, after a good long run as a fan of the MCU, I think I’m officially superhero-ed out. Too much Action, too many Twists, not nearly enough time spent on Emotions beyond what the valiant actors managed to wear on their faces. And, I mean, I’m literally a fantasy author, so I can’t exactly dispense with plot — nor would I want to — but I want every detail to be in service of this is how it feels to be human. Biopics, when they creatively bypass the restrictions of its form, can show us this is how it feels to be this human. And though I’m still quite certain that I’d never try to write a biopic myself, I’d certainly go to see more if they can pull this off as gorgeously as Rocketman does.

Things I Never Seem To Learn When Starting A Story

This month’s blog post is in honor of reaching my first do-over of my current project. Now, I have accepted that I’m not a very good outliner. I can’t seem to gauge if a plot will make sense until I try to write it; what may seem logical in bulleted form often turns out to be nightmarish in prose. Plus, I often don’t know what the characters really need until I’ve really gotten to know them, and the best way to do that is also by writing them. Sure, I can fill out all the character questionnaires in the world, but that won’t tell me anything about their actual voices. (I do love a good character questionnaire, though. They’re fun as hell, and they’re the best kind of guilt-free procrastination fodder because they feel semi-productive, even though they’re mostly not for me.) In any case, I love rewriting. Circling closer and closer, draft after draft, to something that feels Right and Good is the best part of the whole process for me.

That means, of course, that first drafts are the worst part. Mostly, I just have to grit my teeth and remind myself that I do actually love writing while I produce garbage sentences and plot holes the size of the Marianas Trench. Moments of delight alleviate the frustration when I learn something important about a character or I happen upon a turn of phrase that works well, but overall it’s a slog. That’s fine. It can’t all be fun, and at least I know that trudging my way through the first bit will bring me to the good stuff eventually.

Still, it would behoove me to learn some things from my past first draft mistakes, if only so I can make different ones. After the first 30K words of this project, it has become clear to me that I should write this down so I can avoid painting myself into these particular corners again:

  • For the love of god, stop placing all of your characters literally miles apart from one another at the beginning of the story. When you do that, you will then spend ALL of your time simply schlepping them from one place to another so they can interact, which eats many, many words without actually moving the plot or being interesting.
    • Seriously, stop doing this. I don’t think you’ve ever not done this on the first go-round. You’re on your fourth novel, Kathleen, get it together.
  • On a somewhat similar note, a decent number of your major players need to know each other before the story starts. They can’t all be brand new acquaintances, or, again, you’re just going to hemorrhage words introducing everyone.
  • LINE. In terms of characterization, sure, complicated and messy is the way to go (only awful babies need apply), but in terms of plot, try to give everyone one main goal at a time. Preferably, several of them should share that goal. Once they get there, then that can give way to the next goal.
    • Like who are you even trying to be over here, George R.R. Martin? No. No, you are not. You respect yourself more than that.
    • With that said, the characters are going to feel weird about their goas, or get distracted from them, or figure out they were wrong. Pay attention when this happens, because that’s what will be important in the subsequent drafts. You know, the ones that are actually good.
      • (Full disclosure, I have an upper limit of how streamlined my plotting ever really gets, and I know that limit sometimes falls short of conventional wisdom. But Fast-Paced Plot is quite a few tiers below Characters Who Feel Real for me as both a writer and a reader, so sometimes detours must be made. Just not quite as many detours as I took in the first 30K of this story, lord help me.)
    • And finally, an evergreen reminder: if you find a character explaining, in great detail, why something makes sense, that means that it doesn’t.
      • Let the finale of the first season of the reboot of The X-Files be your guide. Even the unparalleled menace of the Cigarette Smoking Man couldn’t make his five-minute long monologue about “why this plot twist totally works” anything other than cringeworthy.

So off I go to draft 1.5, with an outline that probably still has tons of nonsense in it, but hopefully not the specific aforementioned nonsense. Wish me luck, friends! Because as irritated as I currently am with this story, I am very excited to get it to the place where other people can read it. It’s about death, the characters are terrors, and there’s gonna be footnotes. Can’t wait to get to the good part.

Gods and Monsters Presentation

Hello, class and also readers of my blog! I am hilariously inept at technology, so this is my convoluted way of supplying a link to my PowerPoint for the class where the narration will still works, because I don’t know how to make presentations in anything other than PowerPoint and, since it’s finals time, didn’t have time to learn. So this is a download link for Dr. Salyer and anyone else who’s interested in hearing me talk about monster teens!

Reclaiming Weaponized Narratives

How To Respect Young Readers And Also Stop Annoying Me: A Field Guide

Dear everyone: stop pitching me your picture book ideas.

The first and frankly best reason for this is that I don’t write picture books! I had to try my hand at it for a workshop in my Master’s program, and while the experiment was kind of fun, the end result was very bad. don’t have any ideas for picture books, and I have no desire to offer my feedback on anyone else’s.

Yet, far too often, when a new acquaintance outside of my writing or academic circles hears that I’m a children’s lit person, I’ll get, “Oh, I’ve always had this idea for a kid’s book …” Cut to some long-winded explanation of a picture book idea, a so-what-do-you-think look, and my awkward excuse of, “So I actually write for adolescents …”

I say “excuse” because I generally use that line to get out of saying what I really think, which is that nine times out of ten, these picture book ideas are very, very bad.

The number of people who have full on drafted a picture book without looking up, like, how many pages a picture book needs to be is genuinely astonishing. (Interestingly, usually they dramatically undershoot it, which makes me want to ask: have you ever held a picture book in your own physical hands? Have you ever read one to an actual human child.) (Also, no, just spreading out the words you have over the appropriate number of pages won’t fix things, because then you’re going to have a nightmare of pacing on your hands.) But, honestly, folks who want to describe your picture books to random children’s lit people you don’t know, please first ask yourself this: do you actually like and respect children at all, or do you just think you have something to teach them?

Listen, writers write because they think they have something worth saying. My own ethics and beliefs are all up in my fiction. I’m not saying you can’t have any kind of message in what you write. But if you’re just thinking about ~imparting your wisdom on young readers (and in this case, very young readers) without also considering what they might find genuinely entertaining, please immediately delete your Word document with the incorrect number of pages and leave the picture books to people who don’t see kids as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with morality tales. In fact, anyone who starts sentences with “kids don’t know …” or “kids don’t understand …” should step away from children’s media entirely.

With all of that said, I think pretty much anyone who gives me their boring pitch about, like, sharing or whatever is no longer in any danger of receiving the Worst Idea Award. That trophy has been (hopefully permanently) handed to a recent Unfortunate First Date. I have been on many Unfortunate First Dates (someone save me), but usually they’re unfortunate in just a tedious, no connection sort of way. This one, at least, was unfortunate in a way that entertained me at the UFD’s expense.

(It’s possible that I’m getting meaner now that I’m 30? Eh, hopefully that’ll appeal to someone along the way.)

The conversation went more or less as follows:

UFD: There’s actually a series of picture books that I’ve always wanted to write, but I’m not really much of a writer …

Me: (rictus grin) Oh?

UFD: Yeah, they would be “project management for kids.”

Me: (laughing, because surely this is a weird joke that I don’t yet get) What?

UFD: Like using the skills of project management to make playtime more effective. (NB: “make playtime more effective” is verbatim from this actual human man’s mouth. I couldn’t make that up.)

Me: (still laughing) What?

UFD: (blinks)

Me: (realizes that he is, in fact, not joking)

At this point, I made a few decisions very quickly. One: there wasn’t gonna be a second date. Two: there was no way out of the sitcom-level “laughed until I realized you were serious” mess that just happened, so I might as well just lean into the moment and continue laughing. Three: this fellow needed to know this was not a good idea. Not that something like this is in any danger of getting published — at least, I sure hope not — but just, like, on behalf of children everywhere, he needed to know.

Me: What age is your audience for this??

UFD: Like three- and four-year-olds. Before they can read on their own, so their parents would read this to them.

Me: What.

UFD: (warming to his explanation, lord love him) And it would teach them things like how they shouldn’t build sandcastles near the water at low tide, things like that. There would be different examples of how to plan, like … (At this point he launched into explanations that included words like “agile,” “waterfall,” and “scope.”)

Me: (hands on face in incredulous horror) And you would … include this vocabulary … in your book for toddlers?

UFD: Well, yeah, so then they can use those tools to (and I can’t emphasize enough that these were his exact, repeated words) make playtime more effective.

Me: Why does playtime need to be ~~~~effective? (I’m pretty sure my tone conveyed the tildes.) Can’t they just learn things through trial and error?

UFD: Well, with a little planning upfront (VERBATIM), they could have a better time.

Me: Could they?

UFD: Yeah, I actually tried writing one, but it came out kind of boring.

Me: (I swear I’m not a total jerk, but you try not laughing in someone’s face at that)

UFD: It had this whole character arc, where a kid was kidnapped by pirates, but they were all really bad at being pirates, so he teaches them how to be better …

Me: … with project management?

UFD: Exactly!

Okay, so I think the whole incompetent pirate angle actually has potential as a funny story (sans agile and scope and whatever), which I did tell him, so I’m not a complete asshole. But THEN:

UFD: Yeah, but I don’t really think kids that age are interested in characterization.

Me: (several seconds of wide-eyed horror that’s edging into delight at this point, because if I’ve gotta have a bad date, at least I get a can-you-believe-this-guy story) Buddy, I’m pretty sure most kids are more interested in CHARACTERS than PROJECT MANAGEMENT.

UFD: (with genuine, honest to god bemusement) Really?

SO YEAH. That all happened. Funnily enough, I am a TA for an intro to childhood studies course right now, and literally one day before this date, the topic of conversation had been about how children receive very early pressure to Prepare For The Workforce, so basically every professional opinion I have hated this idea. But honestly, is there a more egregious example of just having no respect for your audience? Deeply embedded in this idea is the assumption that children are dumb, that they have to be led to solutions, that they can’t solve problems on their own, that learning has to be explicit and forced and direct. Who on earth would want to read a book by an author who thinks that way about you? I sure wouldn’t!

So please. Spread the word to anyone who’s never written a picture book but thinks they should. First off, google some industry standards before declaring you’ve got something publishable. Maybe read a few picture books before diving into your own. But much more importantly, stop thinking about what kids don’t know or understand, and start talking to them and realizing what they do. Ask them what they like and what they care about. Actually listen. Because there is no such thing as good art that doesn’t respect its audience. And if you think that a phrase like “good art” is misplaced or too pretentious in a discussion about books for toddlers … for the love of god, don’t write one.

At the very least, please don’t tell me about it.

Disasters Learning To Love

What should I write my blog about this month? I asked myself when I woke up this morning and realized it was the last day of February. I answered that question with another question: Well, what’s just about the only thing you’ve thought or cared about this month aside from all the schoolwork you have to do? And the answer to that, gentle blog readers, was my new favorite sitcom of all time, Schitt’s Creek. If you have not already done so, please get thee to Netflix, where the first four seasons are waiting to delight you and also probably take up more time than you have to spend. (I have recently taken to literally unplugging my router to make myself stop rewatching favorite scenes and do my work.) (It’s open in another tab right now, god help me.)

Before you binge away, though, you can continue reading this blog, because I’m not really going to be talking about the specifics of the show’s plot. Instead, I want to discuss the reasons that stories like this one are so attractive to me. I commented in a Twitter conversation about the show that, to me, Disasters Learning To Love is the story type to which I keep returning. (Actually, what I really said was that it’s the only type of story that matters and is worth telling, because hyperbole is where I live, but also was I really being hyperbolic? Nah.) For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, Schitt’s Creek is about a filthy rich family that loses their fortune after their business manager embezzles everything away, and the one asset remaining to them is the titular rural town that they bought as a joke. Obviously, the resulting culture shock is … significant.

Basically all the major characters in this show qualify as awful babies, a term coined by my dear Anna to describe the best type of fictional character. I can’t remember if I’ve ever used this perfect turn of phrase on this blog before, so for the uninitiated (i.e., those of you who somehow haven’t heard me expound upon this in real life), awful babies are characters who are very bad at their own emotions (Anna once used the metaphor of “flailing ineffectually against the current of their feelings”) and are consequently Terrible. Not all awful babies are created equal, and plenty of different personality types can translate into awfulness. If I may be so arrogant as to use my own work as an example, I really enjoy creating characters who are very different from one another, but I exclusively write awful babies. In fact, “all your characters are assholes kathleen” (also from Anna) is one of the greatest texts I’ve ever received, and high on the list of my most prized compliments about my writing.

With all of that said, it may seem a contradiction to admit that when it comes to sitcoms, I really only like those with characters whose company I think I’d actually enjoy in real life. For example, I’ve never been a Seinfeld person, simply because I’d last about thirty seconds in a room with those characters before walking right out the door again. (I also fully understand that that was part of the point, don’t @ me.) But there’s a very important distinction between an awful baby and a just plain gross human being. The former do have the ability to experience personal growth — or, more accurately, to drag their own selves into personal growth kicking and screaming. That’s the story that makes me laugh and makes me care. After all, what can be more (often alarmingly) relatable?

My parents have the same sitcom sensibilities as I do, and after watching the first two episodes of Schitt’s Creek on my recommendation, they were unsure why I recommended it, because they mistook these incredible awful babies for gross human beings. I have been flat-out begging them to trust me, because this show has some of the best slow-burn character development I’ve seen in a long, long time. That’s also why I’ve refused to show them any of the scenes that I know would convince them that these characters are worth investing in, because they have to see them earn it. Everything is so much more satisfying when it’s that hard-won! I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that are Relevant To My Research Interests, which means I can’t just stop reading them when they fail to fully engage me. Honestly, one of my main complaints with fiction that bores me is when the main characters a) aren’t awful enough, which means that b) they don’t have to work hard enough for their victories.

Dan Levy, who is the showrunner and one of the stars of Schitt’s Creek and is now my latest creative idol, is committed to storytelling without cynicism. The many interviews I’ve been reading (those are two good ones) make this clear, but so does the work itself. And to me, being an awful baby aficionado as both a writer and a consumer of fiction is rooted in compassion and delight for people in general. We’re so dumb, bless us! We’re so bad at so many things, especially managing our own messy, scary, ridiculous lives. I love finding points of comparison between my own strand of melodramatic, vain, recalcitrant awfulness (that I hide, for the most part, relatively well (or at least I hope I do)) with fictional characters who are flailing just as wildly as I am towards something like happiness. Towards the ability to love, and love well. That’s a hard journey, but if you like people, it can also be a deeply funny journey.

I’m personally not a comedy writer. My stuff is just a wee bit too dark for that. (My newest project is about, um, death.) But that’s not to say my characters don’t make me laugh, especially when they’re at their awfullest, and I really hope that they’ll inspire the same kind of tender, indulgent fondness that I feel about the characters from Schitt’s Creek. Because you know what that does? It allows people to feel the same tender, indulgent fondness about themselves. And that’s what makes the stories worth telling.

Kathleen Will Never Shut Up About Les Mis, Part II: Anger Edition

You may recall that when the BBC’s Les Miserables miniseries was announced, I had a bit of a wish list. All I really wanted was a few trifles, really: constant symbolic light imagery, radical politics, and a transformative moral and spiritual experience. Now, I knew that I would not get everything I desired. For one thing, the book is too long to be condensed faithfully into a mere six hours, and even I realized that the literal halos were probably too big of an ask. Also, with each passing interview that Andrew Davies gave, I became more concerned with his takes on some of the characters and themes. But surely, I thought, there would be plenty of good along with the bad. I may be an adaptation grinch, but this is Les Mis we’re talking about. Just by virtue of being this story that I’ve loved for *checks watch* two-thirds of my life, it was sure to move me on some level.

Well, I wasn’t wrong. I was moved. To rage.

As with my last Les Mis post, I humbly ask you to bear with me even if you don’t care about Les Mis itself. What I’m really going to be talking about here is My Thoughts On Storytelling. Also, I will give credit where it’s due. I wasn’t filled with rage during every moment of this adaptation; in particular, I thought the last episode was the least bad — and yes, I am deliberately damning with faint praise here, but I actually did get choked up a couple of times. Also, the set design was very good, and the acting was uniformly excellent even when the characterization was not. Honestly, one of the biggest bummers of this adaptation has been imagining how great this cast could have been with a script that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out.

So here’s why I’m angry.

I have been describing this adaptation to those who ask me about it as “Grimdark Les Mis.” Until just now when I went looking for that wikipedia article to link, I had never read an “official” definition of the term grimdark; I’d just come across it in various internet nerd circles and intuited its meaning from context. When pressed to explain it, I have personally been defining it as “self-importantly bleak, with a side of toxic masculinity,” which betrays my own biases. I am just not about that grimdark life.

Now, an adaptation of Les Mis was never going to be cheerful. As I noted in my last post on the subject, the title kind of precludes that. (As does the high percentage of characters who die before the end.) However, there is a difference in my mind between haunting and bleak. The Brick is the former. Its depictions of poverty and injustice are troubling, devastating, morally harrowing. The reader wants those images to go away. The text dares the reader to make them go away by doing something. Only then can the ghosts and demons of our society that it reveals lay themselves to rest. (Or only then could they rest; the work of this story and stories like it is nowhere near done, as Hugo himself foretold in his preface.)

Bleakness, on the other hand, is fatalistic. It doesn’t trouble readers (or viewers) with attention-demanding specters; it simply drags them down and leaves them cold. Haunting stories say, “People suffer and they shouldn’t, because people deserve better.” Bleak stories say, “People suffer because they suck.” Bleakness allows — more than that, it invites — cynicism.

I refuse that. I refuse.

Not every character individually sucked as a person in this adaptation, but the script was reluctant to allow them to be their best selves, either. This was particularly noticeable in the treatment of Jean Valjean, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster. In this version, he was very shouty. And aggressive. And controlling. This … was a problem.

Now, I don’t think that Jean Valjean should be angelic, and I think that he can be too perfect in some actors’ hands. Jean Valjean has to continually struggle for his morality; that is a large part of the point of that character. I thought that Nehal Joshi’s take on JVJ in the 2014 Dallas Theater Center’s production of the musical was a goddamn revelation, mainly because he laid this struggle bare in a way that most actors don’t. (Highlight reel here, but, uh, hit me up if you want to see more. I don’t want to just openly post a link — not that I have illusions about this blog being well-trafficked, and I know that Joshi in particular has given his tacit approval to bootlegs, bless him — but yeah, I didn’t travel to Dallas to see this production but have still managed to watch the whole thing, and you can, too!)

Still, for the love of God, Jean Valjean is not a good candidate for a transformation into a gritty antihero! He’s kind. A word that comes to mind when I think of Jean Valjean is grace. He’s sad and he’s hurting; he doubts and he internalizes all sorts of awful narratives; he often does not know how best to love his daughter and the world and least of all himself; but still he loves. He tries to understand, and he forgives. He does not manhandle Gavroche when he delivers Marius’s letter. He ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT manhandle Cosette, ever, under any circumstances. He doesn’t roar wordlessly (?!) at the Bishop, even though that is at the very beginning of his journey! He doesn’t fire Fantine on purpose and shout at her that she’s untrustworthy! What! Were all of these choices!!!

I felt like this adaptation just didn’t trust the audience to be invested in a protagonist whose Darkness isn’t simmering right on the surface 24/7. Either that or it couldn’t imagine expressions of pain that don’t look like anger. Both of those options are a real problem for me as both a Les Mis fan and a storyteller. And listen: I’ve got some angry characters! I recently received some notes on middle-grade story, and one that I dismissed outright was that my main character should be less mad all the time. (Disclaimer: of course it’s important to listen to criticism, but sometimes you just gotta say, “sorry, but you’ll pry my irritated 12-year-old disaster child from my cold dead hands.”) But I also operate on the assumption that people are interested in the good that my characters want and try to do. am interested in that aspect of storytelling, because that’s what I actually want to see play out in the world.

When Jean Valjean lets Javert go at the barricade, I want it to feel hard but earned. This moment of understanding and pity has to be enough to undo Javert, after all. In this adaptation, I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine why this Valjean would let this Javert walk free. Compassion can’t just be flicked on like a switch; if your character is going to make this kind of self-sacrificing move, you have to start establishing it in their behavior well before they actually go through with it.

Davies also made some real strange choices with Javert. Honestly, I’d say that JVJ and his antagonist were the least like their original counterparts, which is a surefire way to make Les Mis not feel like Les Mis. Davies was clearly primarily interested in the cat-and-mouse aspect of the story, but he reduced Javert’s obsessive pursuit of JVJ to an all-encompassing personal obsession with the man, instead of a symptom of his unyielding belief that The System Can’t Be Wrong. This led to some bizarre and unintentionally funny moments (since when does Javert wholeheartedly believe that JVJ is behind all the revolutionary activity in Paris??), but it also severely undercut the political impact of a character like Javert.

Again, I want to stress that I hold none of this against the actors. I’m a big fan of David Oyelowo, and I think he did a great job with the script he had. This is also perhaps a good time to discuss the racial implications of the casting. I am 1000000% for making Les Mis less white in adaptations, and despite what some newspaper articles have insinuated, there’s actually nothing unrealistic about a police inspector being Black at this time in French history. However, here’s a list of major and/or plot important characters who were white in this adaptation: Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Enjolras, the Bishop. Here are the main characters who were people of color: Javert and Thenardier. In other words, the two characters who have the most negative impacts on the rest of the (white) characters were not white. That’s … not the choice I would have made, especially considering the fact that Les Mis should always reflect current systems of injustice whenever it is retold. Depicting white people all suffering under the abuses of POC really does not do that.

Of course, Thenardier being a person of color meant that his children were, as well, so there was some non-antagonistic representation. As far as Gavroche goes, no notes, other than I wish he’d had more screen time! He was Good.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the treatment of Eponine. I knew going in it wasn’t gonna be great, considering Davies had run his mouth about how great it was that Hugo has Eponine “teasing Marius with her sexuality” when they meet, which is a Very Bad Take. Oh, and then Davies decided to augment that supposed sexual tension with Marius having a wet dream about Eponine. And then Marius sees her again working in a brothel when Grantaire and Courfeyrac take him?? To said brothel?? Which: holy shit why. Neither the wet dream nor the brothel are things that remotely happen in the book, and I cannot begin to express how much I hated these choices. First of all, the fact that Marius does not objectify Eponine in the book is a significant reason why this exploited teenager falls for him so hard! And in placing all of the importance of Eponine’s “sexuality” onto how it affects Marius, Davies objectifies her even more, which means the viewer watching this unfold is put into the position to do so, as well. I very much do not want to do that! Ever!!

Eponine (again, as the adaptation’s most prominent woman of color) got the worst of the script’s sexism, but Fantine and Cosette didn’t escape it, either. Fantine’s descent is never pretty, nor should it be, but this script really didn’t allow her to experience any emotion that isn’t crushing misery from the moment Tholomyes leaves her. It didn’t go into her backstory as a street kid who managed to retain her optimism and begin to make a life for herself, and it didn’t allow her to hold onto some strange, startling charm even when she’s dying in the hospital. She was more just Suffering Woman than vibrantly, specifically Fantine.

The treatment of Cosette, meanwhile, suffered a great deal from her juxtaposition with Angry!Valjean; instead of having a loving relationship with her father, they are at constant odds as he tries to keep her from experiencing anything of the world. Davies made his disdain for Cosette from the book clear in interviews, which, first of all, is boring. Sure, she’s a 19th century heroine, so she can be underwritten and undercut by the author’s own frequently-not-great gender politics, but she does have plenty of her own specific character traits and emotionally nuanced moments. Davies’s approach also once again demonstrates his lack of interest in compassion as a driving character motivation — and, once again, I disagree. A father and daughter smiling and pretending for each other’s sake that they aren’t both lonely because they don’t want the other to be sad is far more poignant to me than that father bodily wrestling his daughter away from the front door as she shouts at him that she hates him.

Like I said before, this adaptation did have its moments. Dismissing the breadwinners from the barricade was done really well and completely gutted me, as did every interaction between Enjolras and Courfeyrac once the barricade was taken. I already sang Gavroche’s praises, and I adored the Bishop. Also, not that I actually like this character, but Gillenormand was right on target. A lot of very talented people were involved in this production, and I could see how much they all cared about the project.

I just wish that the script had believed in more. Showcasing misery will never be enough. You have to love the miserable ones. That’s what hurts, and that’s what haunts you. That’s what will make you act.