On this episode of The Desk Set, we’re talking about two 10 to Try categories: Books Made into a Movie or TV Show and Books With Titles Longer than 4 Words. Author Matt Ruff joins us to talk about his book Lovecraft Country. Inspired by mid-century African-American travel guides as well as classic sci-fi and horror, the book is being adapted in a miniseries for HBO. Then, we talk about book-to-screen adaptations: the ones we love, the ones we hate, and the ones we can't wait to see. Kim Fu, author of The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore visits us in the studio to talk about her book, why children make interesting characters, and the difference between writing poetry and prose. Plus, we recommend movies to watch on the library's new streaming service Kanopy and a few more books with very long titles.
A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.
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The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. Most of the audio heard on the podcast was recorded at the ideaX Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics Club. Other music provided by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive.
Emily Calkins: You're listening to The Desk Set.
Britta Barrett: A bookish podcast for reading broadly.
Emily Calkins: We're your hosts, Emily Calkins ...
Britta Barrett: And Britta Barrett.
Emily Calkins: In each episode, we'll talk about two themes from our 2018 Reading Challenge, 10 to Try. Learn more about the challenge and see a list of all the categories at KCLS.org/10totry.
Emily Calkins: On this episode of The Desk Set, we're talking about two 10 to Try categories: Books made into movies or TV shows, and books with titles longer than four words. Which might be this year's trickiest category, at least to search for.
Britta Barrett: Author Matt Ruff joins us to talk about his book, Lovecraft Country. Inspired by mid-century African American travel guides and classic sci-fi and horror, this book is being adapted into an HBO miniseries with Jordan Peele producing.
Emily Calkins: Then, we talk about the best and worst book-to-screen adaptations, and the stories we'd most like to see on screen.
Britta Barrett: Finally, we're joined by Kim Fu, author of The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore ... that's six words, in case you didn't count ... to talk about why children make interesting characters, and the difference between writing poetry and prose.
Britta Barrett: Matt Ruff writes speculative fiction and horror. His latest novel, Lovecraft County, follows an African American family in the 1950s through a series of strange and stranger occurrences. It's being turned into a TV series for HBO, produced by Jordan Peele.
Britta Barrett: He joined us in the studio to talk about his inspiration for the book, and what it's like to have a book adapted for the screen.
Matt Ruff: I'm Matt Ruff. I'm a novelist probably best known for Fool on the Hill, and I've written six novels in total. And my most recent one is Lovecraft Country.
Britta Barrett: For listeners who haven't read the book yet, what is Lovecraft Country about?
Matt Ruff: It's a story about a black family who own a travel agency in Chicago in 1954, and the travel agency publishes a guide called The Safe Negro Travel Guide that lists and reviews hotels and restaurants across the country that serve black customers. And this was inspired by real guidebooks that existed at the time.
Matt Ruff: And the main protagonist, Atticus Turner, is a 26-year-old son of the family, just back from fighting in the Korean War. Ends up working as a field researcher for the guide, so it's his job to sort of drive around looking for places that will take his business. And Atticus and his Uncle George, who publishes the guide, are also both big science fiction and fantasy and horror nerds. And so the story is about how they and their extended family get drawn into a series of real-life weird tales.
Matt Ruff: So you can kind of think of it like The X-Files, if Mulder and Scully were black travel writers living in the Jim Crow era.
Britta Barrett: Yeah, and what kind of research on the Jim Crow era did you do to prepare for the book?
Matt Ruff: A lot of it was just going back, and there are some very interesting books compiling all the laws, segregation laws, at the time. So it was basically familiarizing myself with the kinds of things that you would have to put up with in various different parts of the country.
Matt Ruff: I read about a year's worth of back issues of the Chicago Defender, which is the big Black newspaper in Chicago at the time. And other research that came up along the way. And I just spent a lot of time thinking about what my character's lives were like, and what kind of instincts they'd have developed to sort of deal with it.
Emily Calkins: So you talked about how Atticus and George are huge sci-fi and fantasy nerds. And there's a scene early on in the book when Atticus is pulled over by a white trooper. And when he sees the science fiction books in the car, he doubts that they belong to Atticus, and he makes him get out of the car so he can do the pat-down and kind of harass him.
Emily Calkins: This moment really invokes the way that a lot of genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy and horror, has either been implicitly or explicitly created by and for a White audience. Did you as a writer think about creating a more welcoming space for your readers, or were you grappling with that history?
Matt Ruff: That's what's so funny, is when my research, when I would go back, like the Defender would have ... every week would have ... you know, there was a page about Hollywood and what's going on there, and book reviews. And a lot of it, even though this was 70 years ago, a lot of it could come right out of Social Justice Twitter of today in terms of what people were asking for, is just give us some movies for us to include us in the story.
Matt Ruff: And part of this just came out of my whole life, I've had friends who've just felt kind of excluded from the genre. And so it was just sort of natural to bring that in. And I think I mentioned in the notes at the end of the novel about Pam Knowles wrote an essay called Shame. I think around ... she wrote it back in 2004 or so. And she talks about what it was like as a young Black girl going to see Star Wars for the first time. And at one level, like, geeking out completely the same way that everybody does. It was like a religious experience if you're old enough to have seen it back in the 70s. But at the same time, sort of dawning realization that it was an almost entirely White universe that Lucas had imagined, and feeling left out and crushed at the same time.
Matt Ruff: And when I was starting to think about the novel, that was one of the things that sort of I went back to, was just her talk about that, that weird feeling of both loving it and not feeling loved in return. So that certainly played into the novel.
Britta Barrett: Lovecraft, in the title of your book, is also an author who leaves behind a complicated legacy.
Matt Ruff: I mean, I don't know how complicated it is. He was just a very vocal White supremacist. And even by the standards of his day, he was just really out there on the racist fringe edge. And I just think a lot of ... but a lot of the people who fell in love with his work kind of overlook that, the way you do when you've got somebody you love otherwise. You just sort of overlook or ignore certain aspects of the work. Which is easier to do if you're not the person being personally insulted by the ... it's much easier to sort of pass stuff by, or say, "Well, you know ..."
Matt Ruff: And again, now, it's just we're coming to a point where it's harder to overlook that and not have somebody put a hand up and say, "Well, wait a minute ..."
Britta Barrett: I think it was Nnedi Okorafor who won an award that was like, the bust of his head?
Matt Ruff: It was the World Fantasy Award, and yeah, Nnedi won ... yeah. The award was a bust of Lovecraft's head. And she was just kind of unhappy about that. Because there were people who understood that it's just kind of a rude way to, you know, reward somebody with the picture of basically a curio of someone who would've hated your guts and thought you were an animal. And other people who were like, "Well, but, you know, that's just the way we've always done it. Why do we have to change?" And they changed the award, and now I think it's a really cool figure of a tree and the moon caught in the branches.
Matt Ruff: But I think part of this is that science fiction has always patted itself on the back for being forward-thinking and open minded, and when you think of yourself that way, you don't necessarily ... especially if you're not listening to people who are trying to point out stuff you're overlooking, it's easy to get the idea that, yes, we are really enlightened and ahead of the game. And then you don't question yourself, and then you don't see what you're missing.
Britta Barrett: And for a lot of my favorite horror films, especially, I feel like the inherent horror is more interesting than the supernatural, like the human stories that are behind them. In The Babadook recently, I feel like that's really a story abut post-partum depression more than, like, a spooky guy in the corner. And Get Out, for sure, like, body swapping, super scary. White supremacy? Much more terrifying.
Matt Ruff: No, yeah, I mean, I like them both. But obviously, yeah, that was sort of ... the title of Lovecraft Country is a double entendre, because ... and that's the thing. Like, it started at as more of an X-Files type idea. I kind of came to Lovecraft for the back door, where I wanted a title that would sort of combine the idea of paranormal horror with the horror of White supremacy, and sort of play with, well, which is worse, and which is creepier? And of course, it's the real-world stuff that you actually have to deal with that's creepier.
Matt Ruff: But I also try to resist the idea that you've got to pick one or the other. I kind of like both. It's like, Stephen King's The Shining is another one where people will constantly point out, "Well, that's really what it's like to be married to an abusive alcoholic." Well, it is, but it's also a really effective, scary haunted house story, and a haunted hotel story. And I don't think you have to choose, necessarily.
Matt Ruff: I like hybrid works. I like being able to combine different pieces of, you know, the best of what you can do with supernatural and science fiction with the more rigorous grounding in realism, and ... particularly, you want characters who are believable and who feel like real people, because then the stakes feel more real.
Matt Ruff: And I guess part of what I wanted to do with Lovecraft Country, too, was take sort of classic genre tropes that had even been done to death, but that had never really properly featured anybody but a White protagonist, and see what happened or what changed when you put in a Black protagonist, particularly in that era of American History.
Matt Ruff: The one example I like to use is the Dreams of the Witch House, where Atticus' friend Letitia comes into some money and decides to buy a house. And so one one level, it's this sort of classic first-time home buyer gets a deal on a house that's too good to be true, and it turns out to be haunted. And that's been done a million times. But in this case, it's a Black woman buying a house in a White neighborhood. So in addition to the ghost, she's also gotta deal with neighbors who are looking to burn her out. And that together just takes it somewhere that I hadn't seen before.
Matt Ruff: I had originally come up with the idea of Lovecraft Country as a TV series pitch back in ... I think it was 2007, I was invited the pitch ideas to some people from Fox Studios. And one of the ideas was Lovecraft Country. And they were like, "Well, you know ..." It's a period piece, it's an almost entirely Black cast, and it's as much about the horrors of racism as about horror. And I think this was just a little too beyond foreseeable on television at that time.
Emily Calkins: So it didn't get picked up, and you turned it into a novel instead. And then later, it turned out that there might be some interest after all?
Matt Ruff: One of the people who was interested was Jordan Peele. And what was funny ... this was before Get Out had even been announced. By my CAA (Creative Arts Agency) guy called and said, "Well, yeah, one of the people that wants to meet you is Jordan Peele. And he's mostly known for comedy, but apparently he wants to get into horror, so ..." And I said, "Fine. Let me talk to him." And then I find out Misha Green, who did Underground, was also gonna be in the call. And then I started to get really excited. And it was one of the best phone calls I've ever had with folks from Hollywood, because they got what I had been trying to do, and they really wanted to do it, too.
Matt Ruff: And then, Get Out happened, and as soon as I saw the trailer for Get Out, I started laughing, because it was like, "Oh, okay. Now I know why Jordan Peele likes this novel." And I also was excited, because I knew that the movie was going to be very successful, and that would make it much, much easier to pitch the TV series idea. And again, that was truer than I realized.
Matt Ruff: The part about HBO picking it up, that I learned about maybe 24 hours before the rest of the world did. So I was still bouncing off the walls when the news broke. But it's ... yeah. It's been an amazing ride so far.
Emily Calkins: So speaking of rides, there's a whole range of how involved an author can be. Like, sometimes I think a book sells, then it goes away, and the author's totally hands-off. And sometimes it's like, they're writing the script and they're on the set. Are you like, involved at all, or do you get a peek at what's going on?
Matt Ruff: At this point, I'm sort of on the fringes looking in. I mean, I'm listed as a consulting producer, so I'm a resource to be drawn on if they need me. And early on, I sent a lot of research stuff to Misha Green when she was getting ready to write the pilot. But I'm not in the writer's room. And I'm not planning to relocate to Chicago where they're doing the filming.
Matt Ruff: So it'll probably be more a thing of they'll get in touch if they want to bounce ideas off me, and if they don't, that's fine, too. My version of the story is already done. And there is part of me that's kind of exciting to see what they're gonna do differently and where they're going to take it beyond that.
Matt Ruff: So I think I will probably get to visit the filming on set sometime next month, but beyond that, I'm really not sure how much involvement I'm gonna have. And, you know, so ... but it's kind of exciting. I'm sorry I don't have more to tell you, but ...
Kim Fu: No, that's okay.
Matt Ruff: I'm still sort of discovering sort of exactly what ... yeah.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, I mean, I was looking, you know, in getting ready to talk to you, I was doing some Googling. And they're still, like, announcing casting. I think it was just a couple ... like last week, maybe? That Courtney B. Vance is gonna be ...
Matt Ruff: Yeah, Aunjanue Ellis, and ...
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Matt Ruff: Yeah, it's ... that's the best part, is the ... these things can just still surprise me, too. So I'll be working on something else, or doing something entirely different, and my wife will call up, "Oh, guess what just dropped on Twitter? We got another cast member." And so it's ... yeah. It's like the best advent calendar ever.
Emily Calkins: Are there any scenes, without spoiling too much, that you are really excited to see? Or anything that you're especially apprehensive about?
Matt Ruff: No, not really. I'm mostly just curious to see ... I mean, part of it is, I've never had anything I've done filmed before. And I know that there will inevitably be differences. So that's going to be odd. Dialog, in particular, if ... it'll be odd having people say stuff that's kind of like what I wrote, but different. And probably in a different tone of voice than I imagined.
Matt Ruff: But another part I'm just really excited to see what changes they bring on, and what they decide to make different. But I think that's just gonna be a lot of fun. I mean, one of the things I liked about the idea of Lovecraft Country is it's an idea that you can really ... it can support multiple interpretations. So it's gonna be neat to see what they do, where they go.
Britta Barrett: And horror as a genre, I feel like some of my favorite writers are really good at just sort of gesturing at like, what's in the shadows, or down the hallway, or under the bed, and like, letting your mind fill in all of these blanks. And there's something so powerful about that, that you don't necessarily get when you watch a version of it that's on film or television.
Emily Calkins: Right, the monster's scarier ...
Britta Barrett: Yeah.
Emily Calkins: ... before you see it.
Britta Barrett: Exactly. Is there anything, if you could give advice on the subject, about balancing what you show and what you tell?
Matt Ruff: No, because a lot of that really depends on what the director's vision is gonna be about. I mean, you can still get the best of both worlds with that, too, of like, just, you know ... like, I'm very curious, there's ... one of the stories in the book is about a devil doll coming to life. And I'll be very curious to see what they do with that. But I have a feeling that's gonna be show and scare the crap out of people.
Matt Ruff: And beyond that, no. I don't really ... far be it from me to give advice, because I'm not an expert on film at all. I know what I like, and I know when something works for me. But there's just so many different ways you can go with it. So I'll just be curious to see what they do.
Britta Barrett: Are there any recent films, books, in the horror genre that you've been really excited about lately?
Emily Calkins: Just, like, anything you're reading right now that's interesting?
Matt Ruff: Well, actually, it's funny. This is actually something I've read before, but I will go ahead and recommend it again, because it was a big influence on Lovecraft Country. In fact, gave me the initial idea. It was a book by James Loewen, James W. Loewen, called Sundown Towns. And the new edition has just come out, and his editor is sending me a copy.
Matt Ruff: And it's a story about the history of White settlement communities in America. It's a fascinating sort of lost history, mostly ... this is the thing, when you say Sundown Town, people think that's a Southern thing. And it's not. It's mostly in the North and the West, because the South in America kind of embraced the fact that it was racist, whereas the North and far West was just as much into segregation, but people were in denial about what they were doing, what was happening. So it was like they'd drive all the Black people out of town, and then forget that that had happened.
Matt Ruff: And basically, the book explains why there are states and cities and neighborhoods, you know, like whole states in the North where you don't expect to see a Black face. And it didn't happen because the Black people decided that they didn't want to live there. It was just because they were terrorized out of the community when they tried to live there.
Matt Ruff: And so, it's like this forgotten history of how the United States came to look the way it does demographically. And in passing, he talks about the Green Book, which was the real-life version of The Safe Negro Travel Guide. Anyway, that's coming out in a new edition, and it's definitely worth your time to read.
Emily Calkins: That is something that I had not ... I'd never heard of a Sundown Town before I started Lovecraft Country. And I was like, "It's a what?" And I had to pause and do a little research.
Matt Ruff: So yeah, the name, for people who don't know, comes from the idea, it's a town that, traditionally, if you are Black, you should not be found there after dark. If you are, you are summarily ... you know, you're subject to be summarily executed or at least treated very badly.
Matt Ruff: And in a lot of places, I mean, you were not particularly well-treated during the daytime, either. But there are definitely places where that was the custom, was you got warned once as it started to get dark, and if you were still there afterwards, you're in trouble.
Matt Ruff: So yeah, and that ... it's not an isolated incident. It was ... I think Loewen in the book says something like the vast majority of incorporated places basically had a standing policy against African Americans being there. And some excluded other groups, as well. But Black folks really were singled out for special treatment in that regard.
Matt Ruff: Part of the reason that I set the novel largely in the North was because you have the same level of racism in the South, but there's this additional level of paranoia, where people will be lying to your face, that, "Of course that's the reason you can't stay here, but I'm not gonna tell you that. I'm gonna tell you that we've rented the last room, or ..." So it's sort of all of the worst aspects of segregation, plus you're made crazy in the bargain. And that, to me, seemed to sort of match the whole concept of horror, and in a way that's sort of Lovecraftian, cosmic horror, too.
Matt Ruff: And yeah, also, it's a story that not as many people have heard, so ...
Matt Ruff: And it's yeah, also it's a story that not as many people have heard, so I thought that was worth telling.
Britta Barrett: So next we're gonna talk about something that's a little more controversial in the world of libraries and books.
Britta Barrett: Is the book always better than the movie?
Emily Calkins: I'm going to go ahead and say no. The book is not always better than the movie.
Britta Barrett: Give me facts. What is an example of a film that's better than a book?
Emily Calkins: Jurassic Park. I actually have read Jurassic Park probably six or seven times. I loved it as a young teenager but the movie is basically perfect. It's so exciting. That scene with the raptor in the kitchen is, I believe, a formative experience for a generation.
Britta Barrett: That's a great example. And so that's a book that turned into a film that you loved, are there any that you hated?
Emily Calkins: Oh boy. (Laughing). There are some that I hated. This might also be controversial. I don't love the first two Harry Potter movies.
Britta Barrett: But the third is so good.
Emily Calkins: The third is good, the fourth is excellent, but the first one in particular has a lot of kooky angle shots to show that we're worried about something. Of course I saw it anyway, but I think that was the beginning of my decision not to see some things made, some books that I love made into movies, because once you've seen a movie of something, I feel like your own image of the book kind of gets erased in some ways.
Britta Barrett: So a funny story. I saw the trailer for the movie, Never Let Me Go, which is based on a book of the same title before I'd read the book. So I was like, "Alright. I have to read it first and then I'll see it." But when I saw the trailer I saw Kiera Knightly and Carrie Mulligan and got it in my mind that they were the inverse of the characters.
Emily Calkins: Oh no.
Britta Barrett: So the whole time I was reading, I was hearing and picturing one of them in the other role, and when I finally watched the movie, I was just like, "No it's wrong. It's so wrong."
Emily Calkins: (Laughing).
Britta Barrett: I feel like that was true with Harry Potter too, it's like as soon as I got to know Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert I couldn't help but see and hear them as I was reading along with those later books.
Emily Calkins: Yeah I totally agree. It really shapes the way that your reading experience goes if you've seen the movie. For that reason I have refused to see, Bridge to Terabithia, which is one of my all time favorite books that I love so deeply for its really nuanced and thoughtful exploration of grief in childhood. The movie did not look like it was going to go there, so I did not see it.
Britta Barrett: Yeah and there's a few beloved childhood classics that I feel like flopped at the box office because they couldn't deliver on that experience you had. I'm thinking of The Giver, The Gold Compass, these are books that people loved and when they got to the screen, they were like, "It wasn't like I remember."
Emily Calkins: Yeah. I think even, A Wrinkle in Time, which was really successful had that same issue that people don't always want to see something that they've held in their own mind, turned into somebody else's vision.
Britta Barrett: Are there any books that you'd love to see get translated to the screen?
Emily Calkins: So I am fully on board with the current resurgence of romantic comedies and the things that I want to see on screen are well in that vein. Basically every romance novel. You may know that Shonda Rhimes is producing a series for Netflix based on Julia Quinn's Regency romance series The Bridgertons. I am very excited about that.
Britta Barrett: I didn't know that but I'm here for literally anything she puts her name on.
Emily Calkins: Yeah, agreed. It's such an exciting combination. I cannot wait.
Britta Barrett: Something I can't wait to come out is being made for Hulu and it's an adaptation of Lindy West's Shrill.
Emily Calkins: Oh nice!
Britta Barrett: And I'm so excited because Aidy Briant is the main character-
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Britta Barrett: -and in the writing room we not only have Lindy but one of my other favorite writers, Samantha Irby.
Emily Calkins: Oh awesome.
Britta Barrett: They're both so funny and I can't wait to see them bring that to life.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. I also love historical fiction translated to screen because that's something where it's hard for my mind to fill in the blanks. I don't necessarily know what the style of dress is or what the appropriate period house would look like.
Emily Calkins: So there's a novel called, The Summer Before The War, that I would love to see produced by the BBC. It's set in this, 1914, the summer before World War I. Obviously it would fill the early season Downtown Abbey-shaped hole in my heart.
Britta Barrett: (Laughing).
Emily Calkins: It also has like a really slow burn romance which I think is something that usually translates well to the screen because you can get a lot of longing glances. Basically I just want longing glances in period costumes.
Britta Barrett: Speaking of longing glances I feel like we couldn't talk about book adaptations without mentioning, Twilight, and subsequently, Fifty Shades of Gray.
Emily Calkins: Absolutely.
Britta Barrett: So those were two that had their audience and beloved fans but was largely critically panned. Do you think erotic tension is different in theater of the imagination?
Emily Calkins: Yes and I think those novels in particular but in general, romantic comedies, or romances not comedies like those require the viewer to be able to get inside the skin of the main character and really feel those emotions and be able to imagine themselves. I think Fifty Shades of Gray, in particular, is really sort of like wish fulfillment right? It's like imagining yourself-
Britta Barrett: Someone's wish.
Emily Calkins: (Laughing). Imagining yourself getting swept away by a billionaire right? And if you can't for whatever reason, because you don't like the actress, or you can't identify with her-
Britta Barrett: Or their chemistry is terrible.
Emily Calkins: -Or their chemistry is really terrible, they're just much more dependent on those kinds of things. Like what translates well to screen? I actually think the Hunger Games movies work really well.
Britta Barrett: Yeah.
Emily Calkins: I think they take advantage of the technology to reflect some stuff that Susan Collins was thinking about but couldn't necessarily show because of the first person of those books. I think they sort of make the changes that are necessary to give, to maintain the tone and the feeling which is really, I think, why people read.
Emily Calkins: But I think that's an example of where the book, the tone is captured. And I think for me that's kind of the key. Like did you get, not the plot points, not how the character looks, but what the book is about? Like what's the feeling of it?
Emily Calkins: One thing that I think is sort of interesting to think about is what's the difference between a faithful adaptation and an update, or a translation or some other kind of play?
Emily Calkins: This happens a ton with Shakespeare right? We have all of those Kenneth Branagh updates. We have the Baz Luhrmann, 1996 Romeo and Juliet, which is the greatest film of all time. I feel comfortable saying that.
Britta Barrett: (Laughing).
Emily Calkins: No it's not but it's so good and I think, again, if the raptors in the kitchen, is one cultural touchstone for women in their thirties then this one is another. But because it's out of copyright and it's been played with so much before there's kind of this permission to do whatever you want with it. And I love that and I wish we got to see more of it. I think there are a lot of reasons that we don't.
Britta Barrett: So my only drawback that I can really see about adapting books to films is that frequently it means that we're just telling the same stories over and over again.
Emily Calkins: Right.
Britta Barrett: And I kinda want to see new stories that we haven't heard at all before.
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Britta Barrett: But that re-interpretation I think opens up a huge new genre of possibilities.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. I think that when you think about Sherlock Holmes, just in the last decade I guess, the BBC Sherlock, which is so popular and is certainly one sort of modern take. But there's also a show on CBS in which the Watson character is played by Lucy Liu and it's like really great. It's maybe not as sort of stylish as the BBC Sherlock, but it's really wonderful. And we see this in books too right? These stories that people keep playing with and re-inventing so that they're not just telling the same old stories. On the other end of that is the Hobbit movies.
Britta Barrett: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)
Emily Calkins: I think. I love The Lord of The Rings movies very much but I feel like what happened was they were super successful and then they were like, "Oh we need to just keep telling this story". And so instead of one Hobbit movie, which is what we probably should have gotten, we got three Hobbit movies. And now there's a TV series in development just to sort of, I think build off that Game of Thrones popularity and all of that. And that's where you are. You're just telling the same story over and over again and we're not necessarily getting different points of view or different places or...
Britta Barrett: And that's definitely true of the Marvel/DC Comics universe. I'm not sure I need any more of those. (Laughing).
Emily Calkins: I agree with you except I just saw the trailer for Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson as this pilot who's maybe an alien? I don't know. I read the comic books but it was a long time ago. I was like "Oh, okay."
Britta Barrett: Okay. Maybe I'll give it another shot.
Emily Calkins: (Laughing). But I agree. So many superhero movies. And really, there are so many other stories to tell.
Britta Barrett: Are there any movies that are based on books that you think people would be surprised to learn started out with book origins?
Emily Calkins: Oh gosh. Yes.
Britta Barrett: I think, Ten Things I Hate About you, is the one that comes to mind for me.
Emily Calkins: Right.
Britta Barrett: Which was based on?
Emily Calkins: The Taming of the Shrew.
Britta Barrett: Exactly, and so Clueless also has literary origins.
Emily Calkins: Yes.
Britta Barrett: That was based on? Emma? (Laughing)
Emily Calkins: Emma? Yes. (Laughing).
Emily Calkins: Oh, here's one that I think people know is a book sort of, but definitely the movie is more well known and that's, The Princess Bride.
Britta Barrett: I didn't know that was a book.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. It is a book! The movie is based on the book and the book is mostly the fairytale so the framing device of the grandfather isn't in the book but the fairytale has all of these sort of, asides. So it's very, again, totally similar. It's really fun. I recommend it if you are a fan of, The Princess Bride.
Emily Calkins: So to wrap up, your favorite book to screen adaptation? Like one that you think everyone should see.
Britta Barrett: Ghost World.
Emily Calkins: Oh! That's a great pick.
Britta Barrett: It's one of my favorite comics and the movie just captures this ennui of like teenage girl conversations in the Suburbs so perfectly.
Emily Calkins: So my pick isn't gonna rock anyone's world. But I think that the 1996 BBC version of, Pride and Prejudice, is basically a perfect movie, or book to screen, adaptation.
Britta Barrett: Is that the one with Colin Firth? (Laughing).
Emily Calkins: It is the one with Colin Firth.
Britta Barrett: So if you love film you totally have to check out this new streaming service that the library has called, Kanopy.
Emily Calkins: Tell me about Kanopy.
Britta Barrett: It's kind of like if Netflix had all the best Indie films, documentaries, Criterion collection movies and classic and foreign films.
Emily Calkins: Nice, so I haven't explored it that much. Can you give a couple of examples of what might be in there?
Britta Barrett: Breakfast at Tiffany's, the Audrey Hepburn classic based on the Truman Capote book.
Emily Calkins: Sure.
Britta Barrett: And, I Am Not Your Negro, which was inspired by an unfinished manuscript from James Baldwin.
Emily Calkins: Huh. That's kind of an usual combination of titles.
Britta Barrett: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Especially because, the latter, explores institutionalized racism in America and the former is maybe more known for perpetuating it.
Britta Barrett: Breakfast at Tiffany's is a classic but there are some uncomfortable aspects to the film like the yellow face of a white actor portraying an Asian character. And what I love about Kanopy is that it goes above and beyond just giving plot descriptions to viewers.
Britta Barrett: Actually has this really wonderful contextualizing editor's note about how the director in retrospect, really owns up to the fact that this was a bad choice and also provides these other documentaries you should watch about Asian representation on film.
Emily Calkins: Fascinating.
Britta Barrett: Yeah I can't recommend it enough. If you wanna start streaming go to kcls.org/kanopy with a "K" and try that out today.
Emily Calkins: Kim Fu is a novelist and a poet. Her most recent book, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, follows five girls at a summer camp who end up stranded alone on an island and looks at the way that that event echos through their lives for years to come.
Emily Calkins: Kim's writing has appeared in all kinds of cool places. Like The Atlantic, The New York Times and Hazlitt. She was born in Canada but now lives in the Seattle area and we are happy to have her join us at the Bellevue library makerspace, to talk about her work.
Kim Fu: My name is Kim Fu and I'm a poet and a novelist. I live in Seattle. And my latest book is called, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. It starts in an all girls sleep-away camp in the Pacific NorthWest and, where they hike and go on outdoor adventures and learn survival skills.
Kim Fu: And one feature of this camp is that they go on an overnight kayaking trip where the concept is they just kayak to a nearby island, stay overnight and come back. But for one group of girls it goes a little awry and they end up stranded and alone with no adults to help them.
Kim Fu: And then the book follows these girls through this event and then as well through their lives beyond the camp.
Britta Barrett: So you grew up in suburban Vancouver and the story is set in like coastal B.C, and you live in Seattle now. Could you speak to how living in the Pacific North West shaped how you wrote this story?
Kim Fu: Sure. The location of the camp is actually left purposefully ambiguous, like it's kinda of just somewhere along this coast. I've heard people interpret it as B.C. or Washington or Oregon. But the landscape is all made up because I didn't wanna be locked into the particular geography of the coastline in any of those places.
Kim Fu: And for me, that landscape is really important like obviously, you know because it's where I've grown up and where I live now and where I spend so much of my life, it's you know, in me. But I thought it suited the story because I feel like we forget living here sometimes that it is dangerous and wild in part cause you know the weather is really mild and then sort of everyone is really outdoorsy, like everyone you meet is, you know, goes hiking, kayaking every weekend. And it's just right there, right?
Kim Fu: And then sometimes people never come back. And it's just not something we think about. And so I feel like it has, the wilderness here has a specific feel to it. Also because it feels very untameable kinda to me. It's very lush and green here and a lot of it is wild if you're kind of always beating it back sort of. It feels like a force.
Britta Barrett: And when you were a kid did you go to summer camp or did you consider yourself an indoor or an outdoor kid?
Kim Fu: I would have described myself as an indoor kid. Like a book reading, video fame loving kid. But where I lived was kind of up in the mountain near Vancouver so even though I was not an outdoorsy kid, it was kind of just by nature of being there. You'd see bears wandering through your backyard and you would end up going hiking and stuff.
Kim Fu: And I didn't go to a camp like this one but my public elementary school had an outdoor school. So we'd go for a few days and it was very similar to that idea. Like there was hiking and outdoor rock climbing and things like this.
Kim Fu: And one time we almost got stuck on a peninsula when the tide came in. And that memory definitely fed into this concept.
Britta Barrett: And the plot invites a kind of easy if imperfect comparison to, Lord of the Flies, but with girls. And I don't know if you guys read last fall, there was this article, I think in The New Yorker that imagined what an all girl Lord of the Flies plot-
Emily Calkins: Oh yeah.
Britta Barrett: -would look like. And it was so funny. There was this part where someone says, "Simone staggered out of the woods, her hair matted and muddy. She wore a crude garment that she had fashioned out of leaves, her eyes wild."
Britta Barrett: -"Simone!" cried Roger, "I love your dress!"
Britta Barrett: -"Thanks." Simone said gesturing, "It has pockets." (Laughing).
Britta Barrett: I just love that and it started this conversation with other people chiming in like Jessica Valenti, described this situation as like a bunch of girls apologizing to each other until they died. (Laughing)
Britta Barrett: And I'm just wondering, like that's funny of course but what people get wrong about how the dynamics, that situation would change in an all-girl setting?
Kim Fu: One thing I always think of is, I have a niece, she's older now. When she about this age what would happen if she was in a room with closed door with her friends and you walked in they would all look at you and there was this moment where you knew like you where interrupting something serious. Like there's something there hiding from you.
Kim Fu: And I do feel like little girls, I mean children of that age in general, create very complex kind of social hierarchies and worlds with their own rules that they keep hidden from adults. And, spoiler alert for the book a little bit...
Kim Fu: Spoiler alert for the book a little bit. There's not enough of them, they're not stranded long enough to form a new society, but I do think I had similar aims in the sense of the forces that animate them are similar to the forces in society. They do echo ... they do echo the structures that they grow up into and that already existed around them and they had already internalized them by that point, as in Lord of the Flies. But I do think that their experience is very ... is definitely shaped by gender and especially the response when they come back, I think, and how other people interpret those events and how other people see it and kind of the narrative they're told about what happened as opposed to what actually happened, and that narrative bakes into them and sort of forms a part of their life too.
Kim Fu: Because even though they remember on one side, they also ... I think they also internalize that version the adults had afterward of "Oh, these poor helpless little girls. They were stranded in the woods and then they were found by pure chance. Wasn't that lucky?" As opposed to what actually happens.
Britta Barrett: There are all these descriptions in the book that feel so specific to childhood, really real and vivid and I had forgotten what that was actually like until I was reading your words and especially about the powerlessness that kids can feel, that lack of autonomy and just ... I was just curious if you still have access to diaries from childhood or journals or if that's all just really fresh in your mind still.
Kim Fu: I did keep diaries as a kid, and I think that helped. Even though I don't reference them now, I think just the act of writing everything down sort of cements it in a different way inside you. To me, the way you write childhood is very different than the way you write adulthood. I think if you write a child's experience just moment to moment, it feels very fraught and it feels very intense, because I think that's how children experience the world, like everything that's happening is brand new, whereas when I write about adults, it tends to be more episodic or like a collection of stories that forms patterns but there's ... there's long stretches that aren't relevant. If I was writing about a kid I would never write like, three years later, or something like that the way I would about adulthood, where a story can take that form.
Kim Fu: But yeah, I think journaling helps but not in that way, not by referencing it directly, but I think it cements it in you.
Britta Barrett: Is there anything you'd like adults with children in their lives to take away from reading "Lost Girls," to remember about what it was like to be young?
Kim Fu: I think children are different than adults, as opposed to lesser or undeveloped adults. I think they have ... they sort of have different powers that I think we lose a lot of the time. I think it's tempting to think of children sometimes as like dumb little adults, which I think is not the case. I think they experience the world in a totally different way and with an intensity that is difficult to access again as an adult. I think it's especially noticeable if you look at the art of children and teenagers, because every idea feels to them like they're the first person whose ever had it and there's like a rawness and a confidence that most people never have again, I think.
Kim Fu: There is a book by Lynda Barry, it was a graphic collection, it was a collection of graphic vignettes called "One Hundred Demons" and one of them is called "Resilience" and when I ... I read this book as a teenager, like a long time ago, in my early 20s, and then I read it again recently and I saw that that vignette had a lot of influence on the book in a way I hadn't noticed before. The major idea of that vignette was that the resilience of children is like a fantasy that adults have, the idea that because they forget things they're not affected by them or that we only think about the effects and trauma in really obvious ways, like we think of being traumatized as being a very particular thing, a very particular response, whereas it could be very subtle or something unconscious, something you're not aware of, and you can still be affected by things that you have "forgotten."
Kim Fu: I think the value of that, of how huge and formative experiences can be, even when they seem really inconsequential to you as an adult, because you come with a lifetime of knowledge that they don't have, yeah, just remembering that, how different that experience is when you're in it.
Britta Barrett: Are there other authors you admire you think get childhood, girlhood, womanhood right?
Kim Fu: There's a recent book by Claire Messud, I don't know how to say her name. I think that's right. "The Burning Girl," and that book was interesting to me because I feel like the girlhood she chose to write about was sort of unremarkable in a way. It was very straight down the road in so many ways, she's White and she's in an upper middle class suburb and sort of nothing that terrible happens to her, and yet, it's kind of a nightmare. It's just this totally ordinary, totally privileged adolescence and it feels moment to moment kind of like a horror story, because I think that is how it feels. Adding on top any other marginalization, and so that book was fascinating to me for that reason that just was like the most banal girlhood is still kind of horrifying.
Emily Calkins: It's interesting too when you say that everything feels really immediate, because I think some of my most vivid memories from childhood are things that are not very ... like in the grand scheme of my life, they don't seem like they should be the things that shaped me, but it's like, "Oh, I really remember one time that I got in trouble for not sitting in my chair the right way," or whatever. It's sort of interesting to think about what's the impact of that in all of these subtle ways and how does that come back to your life much more than things like my family took a big trip or my grandparent died, not that the big things, like being left alone on an island, can't also shape you. But that sort of immediacy can come out in all kinds of interesting ways.
Kim Fu: Yeah. I think for a lot of people it's hard to admit that too, like to say. It feels silly sometimes to be like, "I'm still holding onto this thing," or, "This thing had a huge impact on me," because it's hard to explain now as an adult or to other adults, just as it was then to explain to other adults why this event was so upsetting. But I definitely think it shapes how people are.
Emily Calkins: Does that make you more interested in writing about childhood, like trying to get back to that or explore that idea? Is that what draws you to it?
Kim Fu: Yeah. I'm definitely not done with that, especially that particular age. I feel like age nine to eleven, to me it's a really interestingly divergent age. Again, my niece, she does ballet so her ballet school orders by age and so you watch the show and it's like the four-year-olds dance and the five and six and seven, then eight. They all kind of look the same in the first few ages, they're all like about the same height and they're toddling around. Then at about age nine, it just explodes. They're suddenly all over the place like developmentally and I think that that's true both physically but also in terms of maturity and just sort of mental development. I feel like suddenly everyone's kind of all over the place and some people are really empathetic and some people are really like socially adept or even manipulative and some people are still just like wide-eyed little children and I feel like that age is kind of a mess for that reason.
Britta Barrett: Did you identify most strongly with any one of the characters in the book?
Kim Fu: I identified with each one very strongly while I was writing her section and I kind of needed to write it that way and I kind of felt like people had to read it that way too, like you needed to spend a long time with each one. Yeah, I think there is an aspect to each of them that I relate to very strongly. Then when I look back at the book it's always hard to answer that question because it's like who's your favorite child kind of ... because yeah, I feel like I went through something really intense with each one.
Britta Barrett: This is your second novel and you've also published a book of poetry. What do you enjoy about working in each of those mediums and what's different about the experience?
Kim Fu: Poetry for me comes much more naturally. I feel like it's also harder for me to explain my process. I feel like I sit down and I write poems, whereas fiction I go into it with a lot more intentionality. It's also the way I read too. I feel like I just read books of poetry, whereas I seek out certain kinds of fiction and I do a lot of research and I try to learn from everything I read. Then fiction for me is a bit of a grind. I do a ton of drafts, I do a ton of experimenting, I throw away lots of stuff. I depend a lot on other people to read and give me feedback and it's like ... it's more of a workhorse kind of thing, whereas poetry is more something I do by myself and it again is very mysterious sort of, even to me. I also think the reason I write fiction is for other people to read it. I want to tell a story to other people and I want them to respond to it. I think the great pleasure I get of poetry is the process of writing it, and if I was the last person on earth, I would still write poetry, whereas I might not write fiction if there was no one to share it with.
Britta Barrett: What are you reading these days?
Kim Fu: I just finished "That Kind of Mother" by Rumaan Alam, is that right?
Emily Calkins: Rumaan Alam.
Kim Fu: Alam, yeah. That is an intense book. It also kind of ... I read it in one day. The minutia of mothering and parenting written about that way in a moment to moment way was really fascinating somehow in addition to its portrait of Whiteness I guess, was really insightful. Then again it was just a book I couldn't put down. I literally read it in a day. I just started "Number One Chinese Restaurant" by Lillian Li and it is very entertaining so far, but I've just started. Yeah, there's so many books that I'm excited about. It feels like a good year.
Emily Calkins: I also loved "That Kind of Mother," and had sort of the same experience of finding it really gripping, even though not that much really happens, and in fact, the parts that are sort of the most action-y are like given the least amount of space and consideration. It's like all of this minutia of parenthood is exactly right and then it's like, "Oh, and we adopted this child of a different race," and then all of the sort of meditative stuff about who she is and how she's writing and yeah, the big moments are not the focus of the novel, and yet, it manages to be really compelling.
Kim Fu: I think because it's so close in on her perspective. I think he meant it to be a little claustrophobic and a little maddening sort of, because you're really trapped in what she sees of the world, so you know that these really important things are happening kind of just off camera for her, because she's not paying attention to them and it makes her all the more maddening and rich as a character. It's a great book.
Emily Calkins: Yeah. It is.
Britta Barrett: Speaking of motherhood, I loved the way you drew Nita and her relationship with her child, especially there's this tender moment where they sort of share a secret telling each other that "I love you and I hate you" when no one else is around to listen. But she's such an interesting mother and an unlikely mother in some ways. What were you thinking about motherhood when you wrote her part?
Kim Fu: I think Nita's experience was very heavily shaped by her very specific type of intelligence, that she's kind of hyper-rational and very good at retaining and processing large amounts of information and maybe not so emotionally intelligent or empathetic and that especially because she was a woman and more specifically like a woman of color that she ... like having this kind of intelligence sort of shaped her in a specific way and made it feel very frustrating to her, and I think when she sees that intelligence in her child, her son, she's both a little jealous but also hopeful.
Kim Fu: And then I also think ... I think for both ... this is a weird way to put this, but I think for both children and for readers sometimes it's hard to see mothers as complex individuals who are coming to the role with misgivings or baggage or who just don't ... or with less than unbridled joy because the stakes are so high, because it's their job that the child survives that for someone to do it halfheartedly or to be like ... to feel resentments or complications is sort of inherently a little frightening, even though it's the reality I think 100% of the time. So I feel like Nita, that was naturally heightened, so that was interesting to me.
Britta Barrett: In some ways your book is not what I picture when I imagine a summertime fun beach read, but it's also perfect for that. I could devour it in a day in some sort of natural setting. Do you have any other favorite books that are like that? Maybe not prime candidates for frothy sea foam, but a more serious, very bingeable sort of summer read?
Kim Fu: My favorite summer binge reads are Edith Wharton's books and then Sarah Waters' books, her historical romances. I think both of those books ... both of those authors, their writing is literary but it's also fun and juicy and you can't help blowing through it and it does have like an airy summer feel to them.
Britta Barrett: Thanks so much for coming in.
Kim Fu: Yeah, it was my pleasure.
Britta Barrett: I don't know what it is about a collection of short essays with an incredibly long name, but they're always some of my favorites. There's a lot of books that fit this pattern, like David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," or Miranda July's "No One Belongs Here More Than You." My favorite book to come out in the last year, Samantha Irby's, "We Are Never Meeting in Real Life." They're all a mouthful and wonderful and I've got a 12-word long title for you.
Emily Calkins: Oh my god. Give it to me.
Emily Calkins: "One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter." It's a book by Scaachi Koul who's a writer for BuzzFeed and a person totally worth following on Twitter. It's her debut essay collection and she shares these experiences as the millennial daughter of Indian immigrants growing up in Western culture. She's got this sharp wit and candid humor. She confronts broader issues of racism and sexism, self image, love, and family, and she's able to hit me right in the feels just as easily as she makes me laugh.
Emily Calkins: Sounds awesome.
Britta Barrett: Another mouthful of a title is "Text Me When You Get Home." It's a book about the evolution and triumph of modern female friendships. The author, Kayleen Schaefer, cites herself as this unlikely chronicler of the subject because she's the one who grew up seeing other women as competition, trying to be like the Gillian Flynn style cool girl that's so often described, and someone who really wanted to be accepted by men, and it wasn't until she decided not to marry her long term boyfriend that she came to see these really important female friendships in her life and wanted to explore that subject. The book mixes anecdotes from her life, some cultural analysis, historical research, and interviews with other fascinating women to explore the history and importance of bonds between besties. So this is a book that I would suggest reading and then passing on to your best friend.
Emily Calkins: I love it. I have a non-essay collection with a very long title to talk about. It's a British murder mystery set in a country house, so already well within my wheelhouse, but it has the added fun of being sort of a Groundhog Day situation so when the narrator wakes up on the first page, he doesn't remember anything except for a single name, and every day he wakes up in a new body for eight days until he can solve this murder that happens on the evening of this big party happening at the house. It's a very creepy, very fascinating mystery. I've never read anything like it. Full disclosure, I'm not done yet. I don't know who did it and I have no idea, but I'm really enjoying the reading experience. That's "The Seven-1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle."
Britta Barrett: Thanks for listening. You can find all the books mentioned in today's episodes in our show notes.
Emily Calkins: The Desk Set is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, produced by Britta Barrett and brought to you by the King County Library System.
Britta Barrett: If you like the show, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us on Apple podcasts.