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Discussed in this episode
Blood Works by Ellene Glenn Moore
Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse by Jane Yolen
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (Ellene is really enjoying this one on audio)
Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver
Libertie by Kaitlyn GreenidgeHow
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Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to Ellene Glenn Moore. Ellene is a writer living in Philadelphia. Her book, How Blood Works, won the 2020 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and will be published by Kent State University Press later this year. Ellene’s poetry, lyric non-fiction and critical work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Best New Poets, West Branch, Poetry Northwest, Brevity, and elsewhere. Today, Ellene joins me to talk about why Bitterblue, a YA fantasy by Kristin Cashore, is the Best Book Ever.
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Now back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Ellene! Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Ellene Glenn Moore: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
JS: Ellene, listen: books are the most important thing in the world. We all know that’s true. But I’m going to ask you about the second most important thing in the world, which is pie. Mainly because you wrote in your podcast application that you make a great pie. So we’re going to start there. Give me your go-to pie recipe.
EGM: Well, my go-to pie recipe is a blackberry pie with dried unsweetened dried cranberries, that rehydrate when you bake it. So they become plump and juicy, but also draw in some of the liquid that the blackberries release. And then my very favorite thing to do with this pie, and a few other pies, is to line the bottom of the crust, between the crust and the filling, with flattened marzipan. It’s so good.
JS: Unsweetened cranberries, those are hard to find though, aren’t they>
EGM: I often find them at Whole Foods or local groceries and co-ops and things. But if you want to make this and you can only find sweetened, dried cranberries, just cut the sugar to taste.
JS: Oh my God. That sounds so good. Did you half/half?
EGM: No, usually I will do expected amount of blackberries for the filling, and then I’ll throw in half a cup to three quarter cups of the cranberries. They’re just this extra little burst of something, unexpected tartness.
JS: The marzipan is a brilliant idea. How good that would be in an apple pie?
EGM: Yes. And peach pie is something I do it with. It’s great.
JS: Oh my gosh. Okay. Well, back to the real, most important thing in the world: I’m thrilled that you’re here to talk about this book. Yet again, a book that I never would have picked up on my own. And I’m delighted to get to talk to you about it. Can we start with the role that reading plays in your life?
EGM: Yeah, well I think on a professional level, as a writer, reading is sort of a critical endeavor. Not just to understand the craft of it, but also to put things into the well. So you have to keep replenishing as much as you can. I write mostly poetry and essays, but I think that you can learn something about all genres from all genres. So I try to read as widely as I possibly can. But on a personal level, I think it’s sort of one of the most foundational pleasures of life to be able to transport yourself through language. And the more we can all share in that experience, I think, the better.
JS: How did you get to poetry? Because I have found so many readers and writers who feel a fear of poetry. They think it’s hard. I’m always interested. Was it a teacher? Just the exact right teacher who got you to the exact right poem?
EGM: I recall writing what, at the time, I thought of as poems, but I might now call verses. I remember writing things like this from a pretty young age. I was almost always trying to emulate something I had read. Shel Silverstein was somebody I loved as a child. Ogden Nash poems. And I think that when people think of poetry who are not writers of poetry, they often think of that kind of poetry, the light verses, the rhyme, the playfulness of it. And they make the mistake, I think, of writing it off as sort of light and unserious. But actually, I think that that kind of writing is a very serious endeavor because it gets to the heart of something really important about language, which is the playfulness and the chime of the sound of it. And you know, how it hits your ear and how it feels to say it. And so I think that I was drawn into poetry for the joy of those things. That was what I loved writing as a child; figuring out rhymes and realizing that there was a mathematics to it if you wanted there to be. I think that as writers mature in their craft, they learn about lots of other tools as well. But I think that’s where I started, with just the pleasure of the sound of poetry.
JS: In my head, I have a very reductive sort of spectrum of writers. It is completely wrong, and I’m aware that it’s wrong, I’m telling you that right now. But when I think of writers, I think of poets on this end and fantasy writers on this end. I think poets are all about shaving it down to the precise right word. They are as parsimonious with words as you can be. And then I think about fantasy writers and I think of them as sort of the opposite. They are so expansive with their language and their storytelling. And I know that is not correct, by the way. I know that fantasy writers are just as careful about their word choices. But I would love to know, are you a big fantasy reader in general?
EGM: Yes. Specifically YA fantasy, but yes, in general, I would say the bulk of my reading in my life has been in fantasy.
JS: As a poet, as someone who is so focused on the precision of words and language, tell me what it is that you like so much about fantasy.
EGM: Well, I think that there is a particular kind of contract between the fantasy writer and the fantasy reader that we are together entering into something that was not there before we started. Um, and, and, and. You know, certainly there are differences between poetry and fantasy novels, but I think that then as a writer approaching the craft of writing poetry, that’s a consideration: what is the contract between this work and whoever may be reading it, and what is being built that wasn’t there before? I don’t think that it’s such a polar opposite interest that I enjoy fantasy for that reason. Also, I’ll point out that a few years ago, Jane Yolen, who was when I was a kid, she was huge in children’s fantasy. And I suspect that she is still venerated in the genre. She published a book in verse on Baba Yaga, the fabled witch of Russia and Eastern European mythology. So, presumably, poetry has its uses even in the world of fantasy.
JS: I have really been surprised, in the year and a half that I’ve been doing this podcast, how much crossover there is. I never would have guessed that. Because in my very simplistic placement of what people like, I’ve always sort of, and it’s just not true at all. I don’t know. I have to do a poll or something. But I think poets like fantasy, and fantasy writers like poetry more than everyone else. I there’s some sort of connection between the two genres that I just think is fascinating.
JS: So tell me, how did you find this book that we’re discussing today, Bitterblue?
EGM: Well, this is the third book in a series, although I think that they stand on their own as standalone books. I first read the first one in the series, and I came to that book because I had just been rereading one of my other very favorite young adult fantasy series, and I was craving more, waiting for the next book to come out. I had read on a forum, oh, in this other fantasy series, there’s a character that’s very similar to a beloved character. I looked it up and that book, Graceling, introduces us to two characters that we see in Bitterblue, Katsa and Po. It’s sort of their story. Some of the things that you learn about them in Bitterblue, you have a foundation for if you read that first book. So I read that and I loved it. The second book was not available at my library, so I went straight to Bitterblue, and I realized that I was dealing with something very different here than with a sort of the simple adventure story that was Graceling, the first one. And this was as an adult, by the way, that I was reading these books. I picked it up and I just, I mean, it was quite an quite an experience. I’ve now gone back and read the second book. Some of the mysteries that are hinted at in Bitterblue can be answered if you read the second book. And I’m so grateful that I hadn’t yet, because I realized now that in a lot of ways, I had some of the same experiences with the story that the main character, Bitterblue has, where she’s trying to puzzle things out. And I was sort of there with her, trying to puzzle things out. And it was, it was a very unique experience reading this book.
JS: That’s a really bold choice for the author to have left those mysteries without trying to wrap it up neatly for someone who may pick up Bitterblue.
EGM: Yeah, I think it must be intentional, having read more of this author’s work. It must be intentional. And I think that one reason I keep coming back to this book is the fact that this confusion and de-centering that Bitterblue experiences is not ever completely resolved. And there was something so comforting in that, to know that there can be huge swaths of memory and experience that don’t make sense and don’t seem to fit, particularly from childhood, that don’t seem to fit into what you hope to build as an adult. And that confusion is okay; it doesn’t have to tie up neatly. You just sort of have to contend with it and then move forward.
JS: Can you just describe the plot of this for my listeners who haven’t come across it? You’re the one who knows YA fantasy, but you said that you think she’s a criminally underrated author in your note to me. So I have a feeling this is one book that not even fantasy readers maybe haven’t come across. Is that your impression?
EGM: It is my impression. I think that it has is a very loyal following, but I haven’t seen it really discussed more widely. So, yes, I would love to give a summary of the book. The book takes place in one of seven kingdoms in this fantasy world. And the kingdom has just come out of a multiple decade reign of terror. The offending king, King Leck, was the main character’s father, and he had an ability, in a world where some people have fantastical, strange abilities, he had an ability which was the ability to speak words to people and have them become truth. He could alter people’s perception of reality. He could tell a story and it would become reality. So he used this ability with his own sick, sadistic whims, to just sort of take over this kingdom and keep it in a fog for 30, 40 years. And so Bitterblue, as a young girl, was saved from that experience. Her father is killed. And now as an 18-year-old queen, we are joining her on and her journey to make sense of what happened to her, to make sense of what is still happening in her kingdom, to puzzle it together. All of the things that people won’t tell her, don’t want to tell her, don’t want to remember themselves about the atrocities committed during her father’s reign, and ultimately find a way to help her country heal and become the leader that she wants to be.
JS: I did not look at the copyright date until after I had read it. My first reaction was this book was written in response to what we’ve just gone through as a country, where we are debating the very nature of what is true. Which I still can’t get my head around that we’re talking about that. And then I looked at it and saw that it was written in 2012, which stunned me because it felt so immediate.
EGM: Yes. That’s an interesting point. I had read it before the last four years. I think it’s interesting that some of what we experienced on a national level, this disagreement, I guess, over what the truth is, over what words mean, over what stories are going to be disseminated, and what stories are going to be suppressed, that was enacted on a national level, on a national stage in our national consciousness. And yet it’s also something that many, many people experience in their personal lives and think that they’re alone in that experience. It would be astonishing to look at the data and realize that this was not a response to that national theater. It is perhaps a response to something that Kristin Cashore had experienced in her own personal life, perhaps not, but certainly something that I think many people do experience.
JS: She definitely had the foresight. I mean, I certainly hope she didn’t experience this kind of emotional trauma, but she definitely has the foresight to understand the way these things, the way trauma goes forward. And after a certain event or after a long-term event, that it doesn’t just end, which I found fascinating. May I ask why this book affected you so personally?
EGM: This book came into my life at a time in my mid-twenties, which is a turbulent time for a lot of people. It came to me at a time when I was really starting to interrogate what my childhood had been, the stories that I had grown up, hearing the things that I had experienced, the way that those experience shaped my worldview. Really, it was at the beginning of my starting to turn towards those memories and experiences and stories with a much more critical eye and to ask myself, what is true? And even what do I mean by that question? What is true and how do I take something from my childhood that can serve me and move forward? And so, when I read this book, while I was asking myself those questions, I felt such a kinship with Bitterblue, and in particularly in her sort of perennial experience, especially in the first part of the book, of feeling like everybody around her is insane. That they’re crackpots, that nothing makes sense, that people are behaving in ways that she just can’t understand. And also her self-doubt, that there might be something wrong with her. That there’s something flawed and uncanny in her own memory, which I think is a direct reflection of sense of self, because our memories are what we use to construct our sense of self every single day. I was so moved that right at that moment in my life, I could have this dialogue with somebody in a book who was experiencing some of the same things, on a much grander and fantastical level. That is part of what fantasy does. It shows us ourselves in these strange, uncanny, fantastical ways.
JS: There’s something so universally terrifying, I think, about this. have a suspicion that we all feel like we could probably endure great physical pain. I don’t know about you, but that sensation of what we now call gaslighting, where you cannot trust your own brain, chills me. I find that absolutely terrifying when I can’t get a sense of what is true in any given situation. There’s something about not having full grip on your own memory, that is, I think, just a universally terrifying feeling.
EGM: It is. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. The idea that we can be betrayed by our own minds and by our own bodies is something of sort of constant disappointment to me, that I find very disturbing and is something that I, I have tried to tackle in my own writing. It is very frightening. I think even more so when you’re in an unstable environment, as Bitterblue is, as I have often felt. My childhood was punctuated with moments of extreme instability, where you have a sense that you can’t trust yourself, but also that you can’t entirely trust the people around you. That there’s a question of why are they acting the way they’re acting and not being able to put your finger on what’s wrong about it. I mean, she executes that so beautifully in this book. Really astonishing to read. And something else that I think this is said explicitly in the earlier books, and I think it’s really only hinted at here, but a particular facet of her father’s ability was that if somebody repeated something that he said, that those words themselves out of his mouth out of his presence also carried that same power to alter reality. Somebody could be in his kingdom and travel halfway across the world and speak a lie that he has spoken, and it will forever alter the person who hears it. Which, I mean, I’m getting chills right now, thinking about this, just the power that words have and the power, specifically, that the words of abusers have and how they just, they’re able to change the reality of everybody that those words come in contact with. It’s a really fascinating portrait of abuse and trauma for so many nuanced reasons.
JS: Did you have a better sense of who she could trust given that you had read the first book? Because that was the part that I found very chilling, was all of the advisors of her father that she inherited, but it down to everyone. Like when she snuck out, and that’s not a spoiler, she sneaks out pretty early on in the book. Even then I was thinking, I don’t know that you can trust this person, any of these people. Did you have a better sense of who she could trust given that you had read the first book?
EGM: Well, I think that in itself, this book expects us to believe in Katsa, believe in Po, believe in Gideon believe in Helga. And those are all people that we know from the first book. So I did have experience with those characters and I had no reason to think that she couldn’t trust them. But I also think as a standalone, I think that they’re clearly positioned as removed from Leck’s reign and therefore, not involved in what she calls the crackpots, like all of the advisors, into the people lying to her sometimes, do make sense. There is a reason for the lies, and the continued lies on the part of her advisors, and those reasons have to do with their own pain and shame at what they experienced. Are those good reasons, are they good enough to forgive them? I think that’s something everybody has to contend with for themselves. But they have those reasons, which are not things that Katsa and Po get in those other people. They didn’t experience that, not being in the kingdom at the time. I think it’s safe to say that any reader coming into this, I wouldn’t say that you have to read the earlier books. I think that what you need is there in this book.
JS: Yes. The book that I have specifically says that it’s a standalone. So you definitely can go into it without reading the others. I just thought it was a fascinating experience to have absolutely no sense of who was reliable. And I didn’t trust anybody at the beginning, every new character I thought. Nope. Nope. And that I guess reflects a lot more on my mistrustful nature.
EGM: When I first read Bitterblue, this is one of the things that I alluded to before I was with Bitterblue puzzling through these bizarre choices that her father had made to rename the river to build bizarre structures, these bridges, doing these gruesome “medical tests,” as he puts them, on people and animals that are so cruel and disgusting to the point of just being completely incomprehensible. That was how I experienced it the first time I read it. I still find them cruel and disgusting, of course. But having read the second book, you start to see this is an insane, sadistic person with an obsession with recreating the world exactly how he wants it to be. And it’s not enough for him that he can just say lies and have them believe. He also has to get his hands in there and break things, and break people, and physically remake the world. It is quite disturbing.
JS: Now I really want to read that one. I think the other thing she does really well is that the seed of the monster is always a little bit appealing. I did have moments where I went, who wouldn’t love that power? To be able to make whatever we say true? And of course in this book, it’s already morphed into monstrosity. Now I really want to read the second one.
EGM: Yeah. The second book, I highly recommend it. You should read it. It’s just another remarkable book from a remarkable writer.
JS: So tell me, what are you reading right now? What are you into these?
EGM: Well, I’ve always got a few things going, so while I walk the dog in the evening, I’m listening to One Last Stop, which is Casey McQuiston’s new book.
JS: Oh yeah. Is that good?
EGM: It’s delightful. It’s delightful. I have been turning to Upstream by Mary Oliver. It’s one of her many beautiful essay collections, or some of them feel like prose poems to me, but, um, yeah, just meditation.
JS: Is that on audio?
EGM: No I’ve been reading it, but, what an idea, maybe I’ll get it on audio so I have something for the dog walking once I finish One Last Stop.
JS: How, how does poetry translate to audio? Do you think it works well in that format?
EGM: I’ve never tried that. I don’t know. I mean, there are, there’s obviously spoken word. And there is verse that is written that is always meant to be read aloud. I guess you could argue that all poems are meant to be read out loud. But do I necessarily want somebody reading them to me in my ear, one after the other? I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it before. I really have never reached for poetry on audio books. I’ll have to give it a try so I can decide what I think about it.
JS: Yeah. I I’ve never thought about it either. And my first, my gut reaction is, well, it would have to be the author reading it. Right? You can’t hire an actor.
EGM: Although I havet been to a lot of really bad poetry readings, so I might not be convinced that the author is always the best person to read the work. But maybe. Certainly if the author has a specific vision, then he, or she is the best person to read it. But, gosh, I don’t know. I always think that with a poem, all the direction that you need to read it out loud should be embedded in the line. I took a class on Shakespeare’s comedies and romances my freshman year of college and something that my professor was really interested in was the fact that Shakespeare used almost no stage direction. It may be, they exited; he enters. I mean, there’s the very famous “exit pursued by a bear,” of course. But my professor contended that from a stagecraft standpoint, the direction and the appropriate readings of the lines and the staging could all be intuited from just the language itself. And I think the same applies to poetry. Everything that you need to know how it ought to be read should really be right there in the language, in the line breaks, lineated in the rhythm.
JS: Bad writing, to me, is not trusting the reader to be able to figure it out. Which is something I really like about this book because I wasn’t spoonfed. She trusted me a lot with the backstory that I didn’t fully get, but it was still made for a great read.
EGM: Yeah. And I think it comes back to this idea of there being a contract between writer and reader. That to disrespect that contract is sort of like a very profound kind of disrespect. And I also love that about this book. There’s a trust there, but there’s also an experience of decentering as you read it, which I think is appropriate to the material. You come around in the end. I think you’re recentered without it having to be a pat ending. Which is, I mean, it’s incredible that she can do that.
JS: Yeah. So, I interrupted the books that you are in the middle of.
EGM: Oh, okay. Something that I haven’t had a chance to pick up in a while, but I’m eager to get back to is Libertie by Kaitlin Greenidge,
JS: I thave it right there! I haven’t opened it yet. I just got it at the library.
EGM: Well, it’s great. It’s really fantastic. It’s about a young woman living with her mother, who’s a female Black doctor. It starts off before the Civil War, Then, the Civil War happens and now we’re sort of following Libertie as she’s growing up and figuring out what her identity is going to be as a Black woman, as a free Black woman, as the daughter of a doctor, a female doctor, the only female doctor that she knows. It seems to me that she’s about to chart her own path, which I’m very excited to see.
JS: Can you tell my listeners where they can find you and your work?
EGM: Yes. You can visit me online at my website, which is dot net. It used to be dot com, until I got pregnant, had a baby, and let everything lapse and somebody bought up the domain name.
JS: What? Ellene Glenn Moore cannot possibly be a common name. What happened?
EGM: I don’t know. I assume that they wanted me to buy it back from them, so I tried to, but nobody ever responded.
JS: So rude.
EGM: So rude. Yeah. So you can check out any recently published or forthcoming work there. I’m on Instagram. I would love if anybody wants to connect, I am there on the internet waiting for you.
JS: This has been a delight talking to you. I’m so glad you joined me and I hope you’ll come back anytime you have a book you want to discuss, because this has really been fun. Thank you for joining me today.
EGM: Thank you so much.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, go to our website. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram as JulieWroteABook.
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Thanks for joining me today I will see you at the library.