Episode 67! What Would Julian Do?, Conversation with Ali Benjamin
Welcome to episode 67 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, author Ali Benjamin and Grace Lin discuss Ali’s essay, What Would Julian Do?, which can be heard in episode 66 .
On today's podcast you will hear:
Ali Benjamin is the New York Times bestselling author of THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, which was a National Book Award finalist. The book earned five starred reviews and was named a best book of the year by Amazon, TIME Magazine, NPR, Publisher's Weekly, School Library Journal, the New York Public Library, the New York Times, and more. The book has been translated into 20+ languages in more than 30 foreign territories. OddLot Entertainment recently nabbed the film rights, with Reese Witherspoon, Gigi Pritzker, and Bruna Papandrea producing. Ali was also the co-writer for Tim Howard's New York Times bestseller THE KEEPER and Paige Rawl's POSITIVE. Her next book The Next Great Paulie Fink coms out on Apr 16, 2019.
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist and her most recent picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star, was awarded the Caldecott Honor. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.
Grace: Hello. This is Grace Lin, and I'm here talking with Ali Benjamin, the author of The Thing About Jellyfish, and we're talking about her essay, What Would Julian Do? Hi, Ali.
Ali: Hi, Grace.
Grace: thanks so much for being on this podcast. Your essay was really poignant for so many readers, me especially. I know that you had a lot of hesitation writing something for Kidlit Women, and it's pretty amazing that you wrote something that was so poignant when you had so much hesitation.
Ali: Well, thank you.
Grace: Why did you hesitate so much about writing?
Ali: I think it's an ongoing struggle that I have, which is trying to determine what about my particular voice is useful. I think Kidlit Women was outstanding. I think it was ... I really put a lot into perspective. For me, I think it was important and poignant, and I saw so many women saying such great things and they all resonated. Then I kept saying, "Well, I don't have anything better to say than that. I don't have anything better to say than that." So I kept thinking, "Why not lift other voices?"
Grace: Well, I think in your essay, you talk about how Jackie, one of our members of our writing group, really put you in your place and said, "Of course, you have something to write." It's pretty much your essay where you pretty much had to call upon this alter ego Julian to help you write this essay. Tell us a little bit about Julian.
Ali: So Julian came to me. I have struggled ... The Thing About Jellyfish I've said before, I wrote believing that it would never be anything other than a stack of pages. I wrote it for myself I think more than for the world, and then it had this shocking life in the world, and I'm still processing that. Now, people are saying, "Well, what are you writing next? What are you writing next?" I went through a period of about a year of every time I sat down to write something I would freeze up. I would just absolutely freeze up, and I would begin this spiral of self-doubt and self-criticism.
Ali: I went away actually by myself for a week to Vermont, and I can't say I wrote anything particularly good while I was in Vermont. But while I was there, I did have this experience where I felt this ... I don't want to say presence, but I started imagining this guy, and he was young, and he was confident, and he had all the confidence that I didn't have, and he also was writing something, and he didn't have any doubt about what he had to say. He wasn't engaging in all of that self-criticism and self-doubt.
Ali: I tried to imagine my way into his head and imagine like, "What would it feel like to be him with a blank piece of paper in front of me?" I think that is the most useful thing that I got out of that week in Vermont. I can't say that any of the words that I put down are great, but I had this experience of imagining myself without the self-criticism, and that has carried me farther than I knew it would at the time.
Grace: Well, what I think is so interesting, and you addressed this in your essay too, is that the person who came as your alter ego, the one with all the confidence was a man. So why do you think that was?
Ali: There's a lot to unpack there. I think I was just trying to imagine myself into a place where ... I mean, my whole life, I'm 47 right now, and my whole life I've seen men elevated as the rock stars and men elevated as the voices we need to listen to, and I certainly think I internalized a lot of that. As much as I was telling myself for a long time I wasn't, I think I did internalize that, and it was just nice to imagine what it would be like to have just been elevated and been confident elevating myself from a very young age and to not have stuff that I had to unlearn.
Grace: It's the things to unlearn that's so hard.
Ali: Yeah, one the lines ... Pardon me. One of the lines that I used was that I could spend the rest of my life trying to unravel all that's gotten knotted up inside my head just strand by strand trying to pick it apart, and I don't think I would ever be done, and it's because I did have this life. I was born in 1970, and I grew up in a very, very different world, and I saw a lot of misogyny. I experienced it, and a lot of it was just the way the world was, and that's the frame of reference that I had.
Ali: I think one of the things that's been so incredible about the last few years and the MeToo movement and Kidlit Women, all these conversations that we're having is I'm starting to see things that happened to me as part of a bigger pattern, and it's not even about me. It's about certain power dynamics that exist in the world. So I think Julian was just my way of imagining that I went through life experiencing totally different power dynamics.
Grace: Well, in your essay, you talk about all the things that you want to say, but you're not ready to talk about yet. Were there other things that you were thinking about writing for this essay besides about Julian? We love the Julian's ... the essay, but what were the other topics that you were thinking about writing about?
Ali: I mean, wow. Boy, if I had the words, I think I would've put them down already. Can I answer that with just a different story?
Grace: Of course.
Ali: It's a story of being out with it ... I was the only author there. It was within the last couple of years and there were two male authors, one of whom is a super big rockstar. Then there was a publicist who was with us, who was just great, and she was working, and she was having fun, and she was terrific. But we all wound up at this bar, and it was this dive bar behind an airport. We were some of the only people there and it was dark and abandoned. There was this one customer there, a man who didn't know us, and he was really pretty drunk and really pretty creepy with this publicist.
Ali: At one point, she turned to me during the evening and just looked at me and said, "Please don't leave me here." I said, "I won't." I mean, I would not have even considered it because I'm 47 now, but I've been that 20-something woman out in a setting with mostly men who not having walked through the world as anything other than men. It's not that they're doing anything wrong, but they may not know how to intuit situations that are getting uncomfortable.
Grace: So did the authors that you were with, the two male authors. Do you think they even picked up on how she was so uncomfortable with this other man's attention?
Ali: I don't know. I don't know. It wasn't ... I mean, it certainly wasn't something that they talked about. I don't think that they would have abandoned her there. But there is this sort of wariness that she had to have about just making sure that nobody was going to leave her alone and that she wasn't going to have to go down this particular hallway by herself at any point or I don't know. It's just this way of walking through the world that if you haven't had to do it, you might not be able to see other people doing it. I don't know.
Ali: By the same token, I would say I have walked through the world with my own skin color, and I've walked through the world as somebody who has been part of the gender binary, and there are lots of things that I myself wouldn't be able to intuit, and I think the best any of us can do is just listen and learn.
Grace: Yeah, and I guess that ties into another question I was going to ask you, which is, what do you think of your whole essay? What are you most afraid? What were you most afraid to write about? Or what were you most worried about?
Ali: Well, I was very aware when I was writing it that I was writing it as somebody who has been on the gender binary forever. I was writing from one end of that binary, and I was writing about getting this visitation from somebody on the other end of that binary, and I was aware of that, and I was trying to think about that with the use of some of my language. It would not surprise me if I didn't get it all right, and I certainly will listen to anybody who tells me that I didn't. I just tried to tell it from my experience as best as I was able, and that's really what I was trying to represent that I have this one experience in the world that comes from being me, and it is by no means inclusive of ...
Grace: Of everyone.
Ali: Of everyone. No, no.
Grace: I think that's the best we can all do really as authors is tell our story the best we can.
Ali: No. I mean, but I was aware of that, and I was thinking about that, and I was aware that I was coming from this place of a binary, and I don't know. It really is my hope that another generation comes to it with a very, very, very different perspective.
Grace: Yeah, because even though we can only tell the story the best we can, we also have to be aware that there's others too. So, I understand. It's completely really ... It's a hard thing to navigate, but it's definitely worth trying to.
Ali: I'm a part of a world that has certain power dynamics, and I can't step outside of those power dynamics, and the best I can do or the best I feel capable of doing right now is trying to think about them and listen and learn.
Grace: All right. So, for your essay, what are you afraid that people might misunderstand about your essay or get wrong? Is there anything that you think they might misunderstand?
Ali: I don't know. I mean, I'm not even sure what that means exactly, misunderstanding. I think my essay will be read by people who come to the world with different experiences than I have. So I don't want to say that they have a misunderstanding. I think that they might just see it from a different angle.
Grace: Maybe the better question is what do you hope people take from your essay? I think that's a better question.
Ali: Oh, Wow. I hope they take from my essay. Well, so, I would say two things. I would say, one, I genuinely hope that a generation from now people don't understand what I'm talking about, that the power dynamics have so shifted that they scratch their head and they say, "Well, this seems really ... I don't get it. I think that would be just fantastic." The other thing I'll say is that if there's anybody out there who is engaged in this process of self-doubt and self-criticism and they wonder at all if that's a learned thing, I would encourage them to borrow Julian and to just try experiencing the world as Julian experiences it, which is that, of course, his voice is one that should be listened to.
Ali: Julian, to be fair, is a stereotype, but he's not a specific person. He's just somebody I imagined who got to be free from all of this BS.
Grace: How often do you call up Julian?
Ali: At first, I did a fair amount. I feel like I don't need him quite as much anymore. Once in a while when I really ... When I engage in a really negative self-talk, I do call on him, but I will say, like when he first showed up, I drew on him a lot, and I'd be like, "Oh, but what would you Julian do? What would Julian do?" You know what? Julian would just put words down, and he wouldn't stop himself from putting words down.
Grace: But it's interesting. You said you don't call him up as much anymore. Do you think there's a specific reason why you don't call him up so much anymore?
Ali: Wow, that's a good question. I think what I needed was that glimpse of freedom, and once you have it and you can imagine what that feels like, you are able to go toward it a little more.
Grace: Awesome. All right, well, thank you very much, Ali. I just have two more questions for you to end our lovely conversation.
Grace: The first question is of course very easy. It's like, what are you working on or what's your latest book? What book would you that of your work would you like the audience to know about?
Ali: Well, okay, I can now say that I am nearing the end of a manuscript that is another middle grade book, following The Thing About Jellyfish, and it is the book that I really did not think I would ever write because I thought, "Well, I don't know that I have anything else to say." It is called The Next Great Paulie Fink. It is a little bit about the collision of negative self-talk that we do on the inside with our reality TV self-branding world.
Grace: Julian's not in it, is he?
Ali: Julian is ... No, no. Not exactly. Yeah, so that's what I'm working on. It should be out in 2019 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. They have been unbelievably patient with me, and I will be forever grateful to them, yes.
Grace: All right, and now my final question, which everybody knows, it's, what is your biggest publishing dream? Like I say all the time, this publishing dream is supposed to be your dream that you're almost too embarrassed to say. It should be completely shallow and completely out of this world because the idea of being that we shouldn't be ashamed of what we want. So, Ali Benjamin, what is your biggest publishing dream?
Ali: Well, I'm going to say two things. I'm going to say number one, I love live theater. I think that there's nothing like live theater, and I would love, love, love to imagine something I've written becoming a Broadway musical where you'd sit down in the theater. It goes dark and then the lights come up on stage and there are characters that I created.
Grace: Any particular actors or actresses you want star into this?
Ali: Whoa. Oh God. Wow. Wow. Lin-Manuel Miranda could be on stage. That would be fantastic. No, I guess I hadn't thought that far. I just like the idea of imagining that darkened theater lights coming up. Then the other thing I'll say, it's interesting because it's a dream that I reached once, and it was so overwhelming and scary to me I didn't know how to appreciate it, which is The Thing About Jellyfish hit the New York Times bestseller list.
Ali: When it hit that list, it was so scary and overwhelming to me. It felt like a just freight train coming straight at me that I didn't know how to talk about it. I didn't know how to ... I didn't post anything about it. I went totally quiet and totally dark because it was just nothing I ever expected, and I felt like a deer in headlights like, "Oh my gosh. This book isn't just out in the world," and I would like that to happen again and have me ready to actually take it in and-
Grace: Enjoy it.
Ali: ... be able to say, "I did this." I think that would feel really, really good.
Grace: Yes, enjoy your accomplishment. I think that would be great, too. I'm sure we'll see your name on that list again soon. So, thanks so much, Ali.
Ali: Thank you, Grace.