A Conversation with Marjorie M. Liu

One of the joys of blogging for Fantastic Fangirls is the opportunity to talk with the creators whose work I love. I first encountered Marjorie Liu’s work in the authorized X-Men tie-in novel, Dark Mirror, which was a delight. When I saw her name on NYX: No Way Home I had to pick it up. I wasn’t sorry.

This past weekend a conversation developed on Twitter, under the hashtag #YASaves. The conversation was a response to the Wall Street Journal article, Darkeness Too Visible, by Meghan Cox Gurdon. The article asserts that “dark” teen and Young Adult fiction harms kids — “that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.” The #YASaves tweets refute that claim. Marjorie Liu participated in this tweeting, and I opened our conversation by asking about her interest in the topic of YA and “dark” themes.

Sigrid Ellis: So, I see you retweeting a lot of remarks regarding the #YASaves hashtag on Twitter. What are your views on #YASaves? And on the dark themes in teen lit?

Marjorie Liu: Listen, kids are smart. I think people tend to forget that. Kids are really, really smart. Not only that, they’re hungry for knowledge and experience, hope and possibility. Books, YA Lit, provide that in heaping, beautiful doses. I had a stable, wonderful upbringing — but I read very dark books, and they didn’t warp me. They let me see outside the bubble of my life, and encouraged empathy and compassion, and a desire to help those who suffered.

For those who are suffering, who are abused…and who, perhaps, read a book about someone who is also suffering…how is that bad? Instead, it’s a sympathetic echo, a shoulder to lean on in the form of a book. Books are friends, for so many. Books are teachers. Shut a book, shut your mind and heart.

As for the assertion that some teen will read a book about self-harm — and say, “Wow, that’s a great way to let out my pain and angst! Let’s go try that!” — my reply is, “Give me a break.” No, really. That’s dumb. If you are in such despair that you want to hurt yourself, reading a book will not inspire you to root through the kitchen drawers for a knife. Trust me, you’ll come up with that all on your own.

But reading about someone who hurts themselves, and comes out of it — who heals themselves of the pain? Who triumphs over despair and abuse? That should be the focus of these nitwits who put down these so-called ‘dark’ novels.

As Chuck Wendig twittered: “Do we really believe that teens don’t embrace darkness to make sense of darkness? To see the power that comes from mastering it?”

Or, this, from Charlene Teglia: “Wish there’d be as much uproar over saving women and children from rapists as there is over saving them from books.”

Amen!

SE: Yes! As I said in the #YASaves conversation, access to multiple possible futures opens up a sense of what one can do, of where one wants to go. But the impulse to deflect, defend, or justify one’s position as being “not that bad” is very strong. A diversity of models of dysfunction can help people, not just teens, identify what is happening in their lives. Dark YA reduces the ability of predators, abusers, and manipulators to lie to potential victims — the more an adolescent knows, they easier time they have identifying falsehood.

ML: Yes, exactly.

SE: So let’s talk about this in your own work. In the last two issues of X-23 you have focused heavily on Laura Kinney’s emotional life. You have unflinchingly portrayed her previously established habit of self-harm, and you have written her as explaining her plan for suicide to Jubilee. Why have you chosen to focus on this? What is important about explicitly discussing self-harm and suicidal ideation in comics?

ML: You should also check out the one shot I did for X-23 during the Women of Marvel series. I also discussed her issues of self-harm there, as well.

SE: I did! That’s what made me enthusiastic when I heard you were writing the X-23 title.

ML: That was an interesting book, in that I started it…and then the story fell by the wayside when I began work on Dark Wolverine. When the Women of Marvel series began, the script was resurrected. I believe it was the reason I was given the X-23 gig.

X-23 was conditioned to have no identity, no free will, no emotion. Nothing. The men and women who raised her wanted a blank slate — a robot, a thing that would be easily controlled. They failed, obviously, but the damage was still done — X-23 was fed pain and violence as a child. Not love. Not compassion, except in small doses from her biological mother.

Taken from that perspective, and given her canon history as a self-harmer, how could I not focus on it at some point? I didn’t want it to be exploitative, but this is a real issue for her. She doesn’t know how to process certain parts of her life, because she was conditioned not to. She was punished with pain, and so pain is a fall-back position — in some ways, what she knows best. She knows how to feel pain, but not love. She knows how to feel pain, but not regret or sorrow.

Pain is easy. The rest is hard. Hard, and frightening. X-23 needs to learn that she doesn’t need to be frightened of her emotions. She won’t be punished for feeling things, or acting on those feelings.

SE: It seems to me that Laura uses pain both as a means of expressing all strong emotions, as you say, and as a means of exerting control. She lives at risk of having control of her body taken from her at any moment. Do you have plans — without going into details — for her to learn other options for these things?

ML: Yes, but much of that will come from learning how to express her emotions, and place her trust in others — and herself.

SE: Speaking of trusting others, in the past two issues of X-23 you have written Gambit specifically calling out Wolverine for the way her treats the different teenage girls who idolize him. Wolverine has always established paternal relationships with the teen women of the X-Men. Why are you calling him out on it now? What do you think it brings to the four characters in this arc, Logan, Laura, Remy, and Jubilee?

ML: I couldn’t address it in the first arc, given that it wasn’t really Wolverine she was dealing with…but now seemed like the right time, and something that needed to be done. X-23, despite her lack of social skills, is not an idiot when it comes to relationships between people. In fact, her understanding is probably clearer than most — she’s got that gut instinct — a clear, primal understanding of body language, tone, scent, eye contact — the silent language between people. She knows that Wolverine cares about Jubilee. She also knows that, while he might care about her, that it’s with some discomfort and reservation. She feels the distance, and what else is she going to do but blame the fact that she’s a clone, or unworthy in some other way?

SE: Which is, of course, an extremely common response of a child to a parent.

ML: For sure. Now Remy, who has been kicked around, and been unwanted — a lot — gets this. He sees the difference, and he’s been with X-23 long enough that he knows beneath that tough exterior there’s this lonely, intelligent, deeply caring girl who just hurts like hell all the time. He was the only one to see this and step up to the plate…and I think it makes him angry that Wolverine didn’t take on that responsibility, or even realize that she needed that special care.

Airing all this out, though…I think it will bring them closer together. For me, the X-Men have always been about family…the family you make, through deep bonds of friendship and trust. Remy, Wolverine, and Jubilee have a long history together. As a comic book fan, there are plenty of core relationships in the X-Universe, and for me, these three form one such core (as retro as that might be). Bringing X-23 into that fold was important to me, because I think it gives her some stability — emotional stability, a place to fall that she can trust. She needs to know that there will be people in the world who she can lean on. She doesn’t have to face everything alone. That’s a huge step for her. Because even when she was in a team setting, I always felt that she was isolated. She still felt like a soldier. An outsider, living on the edge of some big joke that everyone understood but her.

SE: Honestly, I stopped getting X-Force after a few issues, because of how Laura was treated. I couldn’t make it fit, in my head, that the X-Men would further objectify her in that way. But you as a writer, you work with what you have. In the two issues I’ve seen, you go a long way towards making Wolverine’s acceptance of Laura on the X-Force team work for me.

ML: I’m not sure Wolverine will ever be able to make himself vulnerable to X-23 in the same way he has Jubilee or Kitty Pryde (or others), but I think as long as he’s simply there for her…that will be enough. X-23 is finding the emotional help she needs in Remy (and Jubilee, to some degree), and her circle of friends will only continue to grow. In future arcs, she’ll find mother figures in unexpected places, and this pain she carries with her, while it won’t entirely go away, will matter less as she begins to fill her life with better experiences and people.

SE: It’s interesting to me that you describe Wolverine’s relationships with Kitty and Jubilee as “vulnerable.” How so?

ML: Vulnerable in the sense that, in the past, I think he’s opened up emotionally to Kitty and Jubilee in ways that he hasn’t yet with X-23. That might change, of course.

Really, the entire message of X-23 is hope and the power of choice and friendship.

SE: Your comics stories tend to feature action-laden plots that are motivated by the inner emotional lives of the lead characters, Daken and Laura respectively. Why do you think this works for you? Can you talk about your process, how these arcs and plots form before you pitch them?

ML: I don’t know why it works for me — it’s just what I like to write. I think that action, or our reaction to the big events in our lives, comes from an emotional place. Why do we fight? Because we’re angry or afraid? Why are we angry or afraid? That’s the interesting question, and I think you have to answer that, or touch on it, before you get to the action. Or rather, you don’t have to…but as a writer, I feel that I need to know those things…and if I need to know them, then so do the readers.

My process is fairly simple. I have an idea. I float it past my editor, we chat about it, and then I get to work. Sometimes it’s just a concept that gets refined with a few simple questions — the big one being, what does this mean for X-23, and how will it help her grow?

SE: In a panel at Wiscon, a feminist science fiction convention, a distinction was made between writing romance novels and writing science fiction, namely that relationships in romance novels are expected to have happy endings. Comics are, by their nature, an ongoing medium. Whatever endings you make won’t last. How do you construct your comics stories and romance novels differently? How do you think about your interpretation of Marvel’s intellectual property, knowing your work will likely be undone in five years?

ML: I don’t think about the fact that my work will be undone! I know it will, of course, but I’m worried about the here and now of the story, and not the future. I don’t own the characters, but I care about doing some good with them, while I have the opportunity.

As for how I construct the stories — comics versus romances — that’s like comparing apples and oranges. It’s still storytelling, but the mediums require a different focus.

SE: In the recent Twitter conversation about YA, you also retweeted a remark about the romance genre, and how it is perennially sneered at. How does this affect you as a romance writer? Does it factor into your self-image or your sense of success at all? Which is the worse ghetto, publicity-wise, romance or comics?

ML: It doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t factor into my self-image or my sense of success. I love writing romance, and I’ll keep doing so. Do I get irritated when people sneer at the romance genre? Sure. More so when the comments come from those who have never read a romance, and really have no clue what the books are all about. But at the end of the day I just say, “Whatever, dude.”

SE: The vast majority of disparaging remarks I see do seem to come from people with a limited exposure to the concept disparaged.

ML: Well, and I don’t think there’s any bad publicity, really, when it comes to a particular genre. I suppose it depends on who your target audience is, at any given moment.

SE: I do have to say, it was my love of your comics writing that led me to read the first Dirk and Steele novel Tiger Eye. Which I loved, by the way.

ML: Thank you!

SE: You’re most welcome. Moving from romance to fanfiction —

As you are fairly out about your fanfic past, what have you brought with you from it? What are the favorite bits of fanon you know you had to leave behind? What can you tell me about the relationship between your fannish writing and curating career and your pro-fic status now?

ML: I can honestly say that I rarely think about the fan-fic I wrote (it’s been almost ten years), but now that you’ve got me contemplating this, there are characters I loved before that I still love now — and that are showing up in my stories. Gambit, for one…Wolverine, Jubilee, Cecelia Reyes…

But I’m also not the same writer now that I was then, and I’d say that the only relationship between the past and present is my love for those characters, and the comic book universe that I’ve been given the opportunity to play in.

SE: Oh, and one more thing — BODY SWAP FIC. In the authorized novel Dark Mirror you wrote X-Men body swap fic in which Jean Grey is a black man. How to ask this — did the story originally push sex and gender boundaries even further? Were there parts of the story too hot for Marvel? The audacity of this makes me cackle with glee every time I tell people about it.

ML: Ha! I loved writing that book. I was allowed to keep almost everything I wrote, except for one scene in which Wolverine warns Cyclops (who is now a woman) that he better be careful about being intimate with Jean, because he might get PREGNANT. I think, too, there was a scene in which Cyclops, trying to prove that he loves Jean — no matter what body she’s wearing — kisses her. I can’t remember if that stayed in the book, but there was something along those lines that might have been removed — because it could squick out “thirteen-year-old boys.”

SE: Hah! Well, whether it would or would not squick out thirteen-year-old boys, it delighted me.

It has been an absolute pleasure, Ms. Liu, talking with you about these issues. I really appreciate it, and I look forward to your future works. And I have all the rest of those Dirk and Steele novels to read …

Thank you again!

ML: No, thank you!

by Sigrid

Email: sigrid @ fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: sigridellis

  • scott

    i love this b;pg

  • Monica

    Awesome interview! I love how Marjorie Liu defends ‘dark’ YA literature. Her respect for the intelligence of young readers is commendable. I’ve been thinking of picking up X-23 for a while, but today I’m actually going to do it.