Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World is the Young Adult feminist anthology I didn’t know I needed as a teen, but am glad I got to read as an adult. As the last stop for her book tour, editor Kelly Jensen was at BookPeople in Austin, and I was lucky enough to sit down with her before the event.
Midsummer Reads: Hi
Kelly Jensen: Hi
MR: Thanks for agreeing to do this
KJ: Of course
MR: So, let’s just jump right in, when did you first get the idea to do this anthology?
KJ: So, I’d been doing a blog series on stacked for a few years about girls and reading, and why it is we talk about boys and reading but never the opposite. I had for a number of years invited different people in the book world (authors, editors, agents) to write about girls and reading in different aspects in YA fiction and I found I really loved curating these essays and putting together these series, so I wanted to do something similar but do it in a format that teenagers could pick up. Because a teenager is probably not going to read a blog, some will, who are super into it, they will. But I want that kid who is walking around the library looking for something to read. That sort of inspired the idea of doing an anthology and I’d always been fascinated by the conversations that go on online about feminism and it just sort of felt like a good fit to marry the two.
MR: What made it really start coming together, this book in particular? Was there a catalyst?
KJ: I didn’t think that I would be able to do it, in part, because I didn’t have an agent. So, I had no idea how to go about pitching an anthology with literally, like nothing. Nothing to show, except for my own writing. I actually tweeted about it, and my now editor reached out to me and said, “we should talk.” So, we talked and she brought in another editor from Algonquin, we all had a really great conversation, we were on the same page about what we wanted this to look like, both in terms of content and also visually.
MR: Visually, it looks great, it’s really cool.
KJ: They did a great job, they killed it. It was at that point that Elise said, “well, write me a proposal” so I wrote a proposal and then I waited and then I had a contract. And after that I had so many questions through the whole process because I didn’t have an agent, so I couldn’t ask contract questions. They had suggested then, that I find an agent. Apparently, you can do that, after you’ve sold the book
MR: What is the editing process like for something like this?
KJ: I was surprised. I edited the pieces as they came into me and each person had a totally different style and different thing that they needed in terms of editing. It was really neat to see people who wanted to have my input, or bounce ideas off me, the whole way through and then the people that turned in a draft that was pretty much perfect the first time and trying to provide feedback to both of them in a way that is substantial. I really liked seeing how people – their processes are so different. You know, when you’re working with 40 different people and you have 40 different processes, it’s really – it makes you feel better about your own process. When I turned in my manuscript to my editors, there really wasn’t a whole lot in terms of what they had to edit, it was mostly making sure we fit within a page. We had something like 9 or 10 pages over what they can print, so we just had to go and find the places that could be shortened or cut.
MR: So how did you go about getting the authors and their stories? Were there some that you knew you absolutely wanted?
KJ: So, I made two lists. One list was writers who I know had talked about feminism or had some interest in feminism that would at least open an email. And then there’s this dream list of people who weren’t necessarily in the book world but who would have a really interesting perspective. Because from the start we had talked about doing this anthology as making sure it wasn’t just YA writers, so any reader could pick it up and be like, oh this isn’t just in one world, this impact everybody. So, I make this dream list of people I’d like to have in there. I thought to myself well, Wendy Davis really – was a lot of fun to work with. She’s so smart and articulate. When she responded, I didn’t actually expect that to happen, so that was awesome. Some of the pieces are reprint so I just found stuff I liked and then I went through the process of getting the rights to print them. That was nice in terms of rounding out topics and issues and voices, a little of everything. And then as pieces started to come together, I could see where there were holes or places that could use a little bit more or another perspective. It was nice to have this massive list of people, to find someone else. The contributors also suggested other people and that was really helpful to give a broad picture. I got to work with some people who I hadn’t heard of before and that was fun.
MR: One of the stories I really connected with was “Girl Lessons” by Sarah McCarry and I remember reading it, sitting outside on my lunch break just reading and I started crying because I connected so much with this story. Were there any that you really connected with like that?
KJ: Hers is so good. Hers was one that as soon as I read it, I got that feeling as well. The one that really got me, and I was sort of surprised – reading as an editor is totally different than reading as a reader, in terms of, yes, you get the same impact of what a story is trying to tell, but you’re trying make that story have that real “pow” for the reader. So, it wasn’t until I was reading pass pages, I was reading everything out loud, and this time as a reader instead of an editor. I got halfway through the book when Jessica Luthor’s piece comes up. Hers is about her relationship with her husband, she’d been with him for a long time, and sort of how different they are in the relationship as individuals and the relationship together has changed over the course of their time together. I just started crying my eyes out, this is such a nice piece and I related to a lot of what she said in it. I thought it was a beautiful piece about what relationships are like and that’s the type of conversation you don’t have when you’re younger and it’s nice for her to be like, it’s work. This doesn’t happen magically, it takes work and it takes compromise and sometimes terrible things happen and you get through it if you work together.
MR: I remember hers, and I remember at the end she says, this is my relationship, it’s not going to be the same for everyone, I thought that was a really great addition to that piece.
MR: One of the other things that really struck me was me was the conversation with Courtney Summers and Laurie Halse Anderson, specifically how people call stories like theirs “rape stories.” Could you speak a little bit about why when men write women getting raped for the sake of their stories and why those aren’t called “rape stories?”
KJ: You know, it seems to me that whenever there’s a girl at the center of a story and it’s written by a woman, it’s a book that is for girls and women and it’s very geared towards that specific readership and it gets marketed that way and we don’t see the same thing when men write about women and girls. We don’t see the same thing when men write these epic fantasies and do very similar things. Culturally we see it as a women’s issue and we don’t see the broader impact. It’s an issue of frustration. There is this idea that we already have a rape book, we don’t need another one. And yet, you get 12 fantasies in a row written by men with rape scenes that are just there with no purpose other than to develop the male character and devalue the female character. And that’s an issue. Culturally, outside of reading, that’s a thing that we are really complacent in. [insert really long tangent about Game of Thrones and how dudes should just stop writing]
MR: Speaking of Courtney Summers, though, her other piece was about unlikeable girls. What are some of your favorite unlikeable girls in media?
KJ: I like Theo, in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, she’s just this really complex character and not particularly likeable, and she’s working through so much internal [stuff] that it sometimes manifests in not likeable ways. But that’s also reality. I regularly say that I’m not likeable person, and most of the time I’m not and that’s fine.
MR: You don’t have to be
KJ: Exactly, I think that’s just how you survive in the world. There are ways to be competent and respectful and pleasant but-
MR: You don’t always have to be nice
KJ: Right, like we’re complex, we’re not one-dimensional people. In music, I don’t know if you know Marina and the Diamonds?
KJ: She’s super, at least in the persona that she gives, not likeable but yet I love her and I know so many other women love her. I think because she represents this idea of like, here’s what you think women are, and yet this is not reality.
MR: So, what is next for you?
KJ: I am working on another anthology, it’s another YA anthology on mental health. I’ve got 20 contributors so far. The pieces that they have been submitting are out of this world good. It’s hard, it’s such a different topic than feminism. As much as they are personal stories in feminism, it’s a little bit different –
MR: Mental health stuff – you have to be in the right headspace to go through that kind of stuff.
KJ: Right, and I can only read one at a time and I need so much space between them. Because it’s so much about – how do you tell someone, “can you talk about this terrible time a little bit more?”
MR: Like, “I need you to push a little deeper”
KJ: Yeah, it’s like they’re probably already at that limit. And I also don’t want myself to be so impacted that I can’t work now. It has been interesting in terms of editing since these are people that we are having an open conversation about mental health and we can say, “listen, things aren’t good right now and it’s going to take me a little extra time.” And it’s nice to be able to know that that’s the reason and be okay with it and know that it will get done without pushing.
MR: That sounds great, I’m excited for that. Thank you so much for this!
KJ: Yeah, you’re welcome, this was fun.