3.22.23 Living in the gray areas, with more questions than answers
On March 10, 2023 I gave a virtual talk before an audience of members of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. Here’s a version of that talk, based on my notes (I’m sure I went off script a couple of times, but this is the gist).
Greetings, everyone! Thanks to the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society for hosting me this evening – and thanks to all of you who’re phoning in and spending some of your valuable Friday here tonight!
I wanted to get started tonight by asking everyone here to do a bit of a thought exercise. I’d like you to think about gray areas. Not a gray area on your living room rug that won’t come out no matter how hard you deep-clean it – I’m referring to the gray areas of our everyday life. The interstitials. The in-betweens. The a little bit of this – and a little bit of that. OK, got that fixed in your mind?
Cool. We’ll come back to that in just a short while.
Confession: While I’ve been on a lot of panels and done a lot of readings of my work, I don’t do a lot of open-ended “talk about anything” … talks. So when I was trying to figure out what might be interesting about me that I could want to share with you—a roomful of people I may never have met before, who I will be speaking to virtually—I got a bit stymied.
Absolutely, I can waffle on with the best if necessary. I could dive into telling you all about my debut novel, Tune in Tomorrow, which published last August. I could tell you that it’s about a reality TV show run by mythical creatures, for mythical creatures – starring humans. And I could tell you that it’s both based on my long years of experience writing about TV and movies – and that it’s hilarious. Hey, people seem to think so! And all of those things would be true.
But tonight I’m going to divert from that slightly. See, this week, a couple of things in my life all seemed to converge – and I wanted to talk about them with someone. Hi there, all you someones!
This will be about writing – somewhat. But I don’t think it will be very funny. You may know some of the subjects I’m talking about but don’t name directly, and that’s fine. What I want to address is more of a big-picture question that we as writers, and we as humans, may be facing more of these days.
So – with my throat well and truly cleared, here we go.
This week, I had some excellent news for me, the writer: Tune in Tomorrow is going to be published in Russia! In Russian!
Also this week, I had some concerning news for me, the human: Tune in Tomorrow is going to be published in Russia! In Russian!
Contracts are signed, and there will be e-book and audio book editions. It’s a done deal. And one of the things that actually tickled me about this deal is that the translator is going to have to tackle Tune in Tomorrow and its very long sub-title. The entire title of the book is Tune in Tomorrow: The Curious, Calamitous, Cockamamie Story Of Starr Weatherby And The Greatest Mythic Reality Show Ever. I can’t wait to see how the word “cockamamie” gets translated into another language.
But when I received the original notice from my sub-agent – everyone in this room probably knows what those are, but in case not, they’re agents who work with my literary agency to get international deals done – he anticipated my concerns about this otherwise delightful piece of news.
Specifically, there were two issues raised in the initial letter:
One: Am I even legally allowed to do business with Russia?
Turns out the answer is yes. (If not, this would be a fairly pointless discussion.) There are sanctions going on between the U.S. and Russia right now over the war in Ukraine, but per the Association of Literary Agents, they only apply to financial, energy and defense businesses – and their connections to the government or the banks.
Truly, when I sat down to write about a funny, fantastical reality TV show, I had no idea I’d one day be concerned about sanctions.
In any case, the legality was a given, in my mind: Why would they put an illegal offer in front of me? So, I continued reading and the next part addressed my real concern.
Namely: Is it moral to work with Russia right now?
Remember my asking you to think about gray areas? Keep doing that.
And I didn’t have a good answer. Part of me, the selfish little writer, thought, I worked for this! I should get whatever is coming to my years of labor. And a bigger part of me thought: You aren’t owed anything by anybody. And an even bigger part of me thought, Maybe I shouldn’t sign. Maybe I should stand up and say I can’t morally do this.
But as you know, I signed.
What tipped me over were several things:
1) the sub-agent email noted that by publishing my book in Russia and in Russian, it’s a way to underscore that there are cultures and ways of thinking that are youtside the party line. An open exchange of ideas is always important – perhaps especially now.
2) I do not have beef with the Russian people. You know, the ones who are actually likely to listen to or read my book.
3) The idea of slipping under the radar with “cockamamie” is only one part of this: Tune in Tomorrow has non-binary characters and at least one gay relationship within its pages. I am happy to get those out into the world, particularly in a place where LGBTQ+ expression is basically outlawed.
So, I signed.
Welcome to the gray area.
Now, this came to pass in the same week that I considered some other big moral questions, closer to home.
Laws have recently been passed, or are in the process of passing, in our country that would make life more dangerous for a huge subset of Americans – from transgender people to cis women to people of color. It has always been dangerous for many of those groups, and the trend lately has been to turn the clock back and make things even harder, even deadlier.
So what is my role in supporting those governments? Those states? Those measures that actively harm people I know and love and care for?
The questions don’t stop coming once you start asking them of yourself. Where do we make a stand? What is the line beyond which we refuse to step? Does it happen by opting out – or opting in?
I’m currently scheduled to attend a convention later this year in a state that has recently passed some repressive laws against at least one of those groups. I’ve never been to this convention, and I already knew it would be a little less … shall we say, progressive than many of the ones I usually attend. But I wanted to meet all possible readers of Tune in Tomorrow. I wanted to see for myself. After all, I shouldn’t be judgmental of a place I’ve never been and of people I’ve never met.
But once that legislation passed, I started thinking: Should I go? Does one person choosing not to attend a convention in a state that’s legislated about what people can and can’t wear in public – a gross simplification – matter? What if I decide that my stand is to not have anything to do with another state, whose governor has decided it’s his job to run his jurisdiction as an autocracy?
Do I make a difference?
So I started thinking wider. Maybe one person in this case can’t make a huge difference. Perhaps some of the organizations I’m a member of – who, admittedly, are not political – could also release some kind of statement. There’s power in numbers. I arranged a call with a friend and fellow author who’s also had experience in one of these writer-based groups, and asked him what he thought. And he made some salient points: Opting out is not likely to get the attention of those who can make change. Opting out means the money I choose not to spend hurts local businesses – from the hotel to the restaurants to the transportation I use there. And the big sticking point is that if enough of us refuse to go, it hurts the conventions – and cons are usually one of the few safer spaces for marginalized genre fans.
I think I will go to the convention, and others after it.
I think I will use the money from signing the translation contract for Tune in Tomorrow for a cause other than my own wallet.
Those are decisions that work for me. They are not precisely … decisive, and should not be confused with advice.
What still sticks with me is this: I hope I’m not just looking for ways to justify my behavior. When we’re kids – and often all the way into our late 20s – the world is a monochrome. There’s good, there’s bad and you’re just being a sellout if you imagine there’s something between. A gray area.
As adults, we learn that gray areas are where life actually happens – but embracing them also allows us to be weaselly from time to time. If something bothers you and you can talk yourself out of it, then … bully for you – but how do you know if you’re just self-justifying? Have you just found the right weasel words to talk yourself out of acting? Of making a difference?
Is that what I’m doing now with my choices?
I want to wrap up this evening with another thing that happened in my life earlier this week. I was invited to a screening of a new limited TV series that’ll air on National Geographic in May called A Small Light. It’s the story of Miep Gies, the Austrian-born, Dutch citizen who was instrumental in helping hide Anne Frank and her family, along with several others. She was their liaison with the outside world.
In the first episodes – I saw the first two – Otto Frank, who’s played by Liev Schreiber – sits Miep down in his office. She’s been working as his secretary for years, and is a friend of the family. He asks her for help in hiding his family, and making sure that they get the supplies and invisibility they need to out wait the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. He asks her to think about it, then come back and give her answer. She immediately says yes. She’s clear-eyed and resolute – though obviously can’t know all of the dangers that will come.
Now, I know this is not a documentary. Maybe the real-life Miep took a few days, or even a few hours. Regardless, she still made her stand and risked so much to help others. And as I watched her say she would help, I got emotional. There I sat in that screening room in the hindsight of history. Every moment of the series is bittersweet: On the one hand, it’s stirring to see this frail young woman be a heroine. She is, after all, the person we hope we would be – or the person who would help us – doing the right thing without second guessing. On the other hand, we know that this life-endangering choice she makes is made without knowing what we, the audience know: That in a matter of years the Nazis will be gone from the Netherlands, but it won’t be in time to save the Franks.
I’m a Jew. I’ve lived most of my life with a minor obsession with what went on in Europe during World War II. When I was younger, I would wonder: How would I have escaped? Would I have escaped? Would I have confused everybody as a blonde, blue-eyed Jew? These days, I have conversations with my husband and we wonder: Will we know if we have to leave our own country? How will we know it? Is it 1938 yet?
On a daily basis, life is a gray area. We can’t know if we’re Miep in the chair, agreeing to the risk despite not knowing the future. We can’t know if it’s 1933 or 1938 or 1942 – or that 1945 is coming. Will we look back in five, ten, fifteen years and feel like the choices we’ve made are ones we can live with? Or did we put forth weasel words to take the easy route, go with the flow and maintain a status quo that needles us every day?
As I say, once the questions start, they’re hard to stop. I don’t have answers. I like to think I know when the time is to say “yes,” when the time is to say “no” or “no more,” and when the time is to say “enough.” But I live in the gray area.
As ultimately, we all do.
Order Tune in Tomorrow on Amazon.
Order Tune in Tomorrow on B&N.
Like what you’re reading? Donate here!
Want to get your book featured on my blog? Contact me here!
Want to get my newsletter (and a free book)? Sign up here!
So glad I had the opportunity to read this speech and think about the gray areas with you, Randee. You are spot on!
Lots of good questions. Thanks for a post that asks things we should all be thinking – so many answers are not always a clear path. And congratulations on being published in Russia! I’m currently reading your book but keep getting distracted by this stock market.
Thanks, Sue — for reading the blog and the book — and keeping your eyes on the market!
Two of my books are going to be published in Russia, and my husband and I decided we would donate the money to help Ukraine.
Congratulations on the publication — and I’m with you on what to do with the proceeds!
Hi Randee, Thought provoking articles like this are wonderful to see. I look forward to watching you gain momentum and I hope you will continue this type conversation regarding the struggles and opportunities life makes available. Be well, happy, and please keep posting🤗