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Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

One of the wonderful things about residency is meeting the Writers in Residence.  A few days ago, Peter talked about visiting author/illustrator Marla Frazee. Today, I will bring you highlights from a Q&A that I did with Libba Bray last week in which she talks about writing process, humor, and the well-plated NECI food.

What are some of the challenges you face when you write?

The hardest thing for me is to accept that my process is my process. Because my process is chaos. I look at someone like Holly Black, who is such a genius… She’s like the matter to my anti-matter. And I look at that and think, “Why can I not be more like Holly?” But the answer is, because I’m not Holly. This is how I write. This is how I do things.

What do you do to try to accept your process?

The number one thing that I do, and you guys are building it here, is having a community of writers that you can turn to when you’re at that point when you cannot see your way clear. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with dear friends like, Gayle Foreman or Barry Lyga or Robin Wasserman or Jo Knowles and said, “Let me just talk this out.  Help me talk myself off the ledge.”* In the process of talking it through, you discover a lot more than you think that you will.

I know that people have a lot of questions about humor. We’ve had a few lectures this residency about it. In your work you have a natural tendency towards humor, how did you find your voice?

I grew up in a very funny family. Humor was so integral to who we were. If you made someone laugh, then that was a good thing. They were a tough audience. I remember reading, Woody Allen, Tom Robbins and Douglas Adams, and of course Monty Python was huge. I really enjoyed Absurdist humor and satire.

Whatever story you are writing, dictates how humor is used.  So, in the Victorian Trilogy, it’s Victorian and it has a British sensibility, so the humor is, if you excuse the pun, corseted.  It has to serve the story. It was really fun for me to write Bovine and Beauty Queens, which is like putting on my favorite pair of jeans.  That’s more in line with how I tend to see the world on a daily basis. I tend to be over the top.

In recent semesters we’ve been discussing the writer’s responsibility when writing about someone else’s culture. How did you approach this when writing Beauty Queens?

I interviewed people, such as a friend who is African American and had gone through the pageant system.  I called her up and we had a nice long conversation about everything from the pageant system and racism to African-American hair care.

Ultimately, it comes down to, as always, doing your due diligence of finding out who your characters are, finding the heart and the humanity. Be an observer of the world–can you just imagine how something feels? It always gets back to human nature.

You’ve been in Vermont for 24 hours. What were your first impressions of the college, the community, the food?

The food is well-plated.

I was jokingly saying Vermont College is like Brigadoon, because I’d heard about it but I’d never been here. It always felt like this mystical place. I know a lot of Vermont College grads, so I was really nervous about going. I didn’t know if I got game to be at Vermont College. I’m a little jealous because I’ve never had that experience, so it’s amazing to be here. It’s like being fed in this community. Everyone is so friendly and incredibly smart and there’s a sense of camaraderie. I’m so looking forward to being here for a few days.

What do you hope to bring to your discussion to the students?

I really believe in being present and listening. Really, I don’t come to something with an agenda.  One of the hardest things, is that I feel that I’m not worthy because I don’t have teaching experience and I never really feel like I have the authority.  My answer would just be, “That thing you are writing is awesome. Write that thing you are writing.”

So, I hope that I can be responsive to whatever people might personally want to know.  That lecture that April gave about outer yearning and inner yearning, sometimes I think that there is an outer question and underneath there is an inner question.  So I hope to be useful.


Indeed, she was.  Libba immersed herself in student life, participating in Q&A lunches with students, in workshops and lectures, and really got to know us one on one. By the end of her stay, she seemed to know everyone’s name.  I know that people appreciated her authenticity and wisdom.

*Many thanks to Ingrid and Tristan for talking me off the ledge.

Melanie Fishbane is a third semester at VCFA Writing for Children’s and Young Adults program.