Friday, March 7, 2014

A Conversation with MG Buehrlen on Embracing Your Inner Nerd

Today it is my pleasure to welcome debut author MG Buehrlen to my blog! Her new book, The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare hit shelves this Tuesday. It's a story of past lives and time travel, fitting in and accepting yourself. You can read all about here or on MG's site here--you should totally check it out!

To celebrate the book, MG and I did a very special interview. Rather than just make up questions for her to answer, MG and I wrote back and forth, talking about various different topics that span the YA world and The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare. Read on for our talk, as well as more info on the book!

MG: So, let's talk about EMBRACING YOUR INNER WEIRD. This is something I struggled with so much as a teen — that fear of being ridiculed over something I was deeply passionate about. My passion has always been writing epic adventures and twisty mysteries, but I didn't share that passion with the world until I was much older and much more confident. I was terrified of being teased, so I swept my dream of being an author under the rug. Why is it that girls seem to be criticized more than guys when it comes to expressing their dreams and passions?

BR: Maybe it has something to do more with the nature of the dream than with the dreamer. Because the arts--any arts--are so subjective, there's always the chance that someone won't like the work. If you want to paint a house, there's a clear end-goal in sight, and everyone knows when a house is painted well or not. But if you want to paint someone's portrait, it become a little trickier. Is a photo-realistic portrait of a person "better" than a cubist one? Is something very classical, like the Pre-Raphaelite art, a successful portrait, or is Impressionism? And don't even get me started on Jackson Pollack.
Jackson Pollack art

So, I think it may have less to do with gender lines than it does with the artistic pursuits--perhaps it's just that more women tend to go into the liberal arts than men.

Writing is, in some ways, one of the most soul-crushing dreams to have in the modern world. Successful traditional writing requires many people--an agent, an editor, a publisher, marketing, etc.--to all agree with you that your dream is worthy of success. There are a lot of chances to fail. Add to that the fact that writing requires solitary time--for most people, at least a year to produce a finished work, and nothing to show for it but words. No one expects a painter to sell his first painting in a major gallery, but the first question anyone gets when she's finished a book is, "When will it be published?"

But of course, the thing the writer must do at the end of the day is to stand up, present the work, and hope for the best. When were you able to seize that part of the dream, and how did you find the courage to push past your fears?

MG: That’s a good point. I wasn’t teased when I said I wanted to be a teacher or work with computers. Maybe it wasn’t the profession choice that brought on the fear of being teased, but rather the fear that I wouldn’t be any good. The fear of folks pointing at my painting and saying it was no good.

Honestly, my courage came when I was out on my own in the world, when I was no longer being graded on everything I did (like in school). I pulled back and created in private. I didn’t let anyone critique me for years. It was bliss. It was freedom. No one had a say in my writing except me. Thankfully, I was tough on myself, and I pushed and pushed until I knew I had something worth publishing. That’s when I put my work out there again. I think the difference was that I wanted to be graded on my work instead of being forced to be graded, whether I wanted it or not. The love of the craft had outweighed my fear.

Maybe that’s the heart of the matter. When you’re being bullied and teased, you’re not being allowed to LOVE something with all that’s in you. I think that’s why being a part of a fandom is so important. Within those community walls, you’re allowed to adore something so much that you totally spaz out with ALL THE FEELS. I think we all need that kind of freedom in some area of our lives.

It kind of reminds me of Amy in Across the Universe -- how she never thought she’d miss the sky until she didn’t have one. She was cooped up in that box of a spaceship, with hard and fast rules and walls and boundaries. She didn’t have the freedom she needed to fully live and breathe. I think I felt trapped like that too much as a kid, especially in the public school system. Did you?

BR: YES! I think you've hit the nail on the head entirely. One of the worst things about being bullied and teased is that often, the bullies will tease you for two key things: What you are and cannot help being, and what you want to be. What we are and what we desire are two fundamental parts of our psyche. That's why bullies are so cruel--they're picking on you for things you can't change even if you wanted to. They are the antithesis of acceptance, lovers of conformity, and crushers of our true selves. It's hard enough for someone to be who they want to be on an everyday basis--add to that someone who's constantly telling them that what they want to be is WRONG, and it's little wonder why people get pushed to the edge.

Embracing who you are and what you want out of life so hard that the haters can't make you question yourself is the surest way to escape the vicious cycle of bullying. That or a punch in the face. But I probably shouldn't recommend violence.
Jamestown, site of the "Starving Time"

I loved how you connected this to Amy--so true! The claustrophobia she experiences is so much more than the steel walls around her. Ironically, growing up, I think I put myself in the box, though. I was lucky to not really have many experiences with bullying--but I wanted to belong so much, I willingly tucked myself into a corner of conformity. It wasn't until college--when I moved away from home and started seeing others embrace individuality--that I started to change and become the person I am today. College was a huge transformation for me--and, it should be noted, the first time I started embracing the idea of becoming a writer.

To turn the question back around to you, in your debut, The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare, Alex is teased for something she can't help--slipping back in time to other lives. Even her teachers turn on her--when she argues about a history lesson (because she was there! and knows the teacher is wrong!), I found the teacher's reaction to be even sadder than the kids who tease Alex. Fortunately, though, Alex soon learns what she really is, and comes into her own...

MG: Ha! It's funny you mention Alex's jerky teacher. I modeled that teacher directly after a teacher of mine who seemed to enjoy sucking the life out of me and my passions. I don't think this particular teacher knew they were doing that to me at the time, but I certainly had my share of adult bullies as well as peer bullies. I wrote that scene in 57 Lives partly because it was cathartic, but also because I know there are kids out there who are butting heads with jerky teachers of their own. I wanted to show them that it happens to the best of us, and we do get over it/get past it eventually. I also wanted to show that Alex's world is so much bigger and more important than this one little class with this one little teacher. She has to learn that what that teacher thinks of her doesn't define her.

This version of the print is available here.
That's another thing I struggled with as a teen. Letting others define me. Label me. Get mad at me when I didn't fit into the box they'd created for me.

I think most people have a good college experience like you did, one that opens their minds to individuality. Sadly, I didn't. The more I tried to express myself, the more I was judged. The more I reached for my goals, the more I was told I would never meet them, so I should change my focus. I think I just chose the wrong school, honestly. If I had chosen a more artistic-minded college, my experience might have been better. It wasn't until I took control of my path, and stopped letting others map it for me, that I found my feet.

My mom gave me the best gift ever recently -- a framed print of this quote, "She believed she could, so she did." How true for me, personally. No matter how many times people tried to redirect my dreams, I kept the course I believed in. And I came through the other side. I'm pretty proud of that. :)

BR: As a former educator, hearing that teacher was based on real life makes me want to punch things. How horrid! Not that I'm surprised--I definitely witnessed that with others, both as a student and a teacher. But still: horribly bad.

I think it's true of the world that people want others to fit into a box. Part of it is human nature: we want to understand, but understanding requires a definition of what a thing is. Obviously in some ways this is needed--if you have a medical complaint, it's important, for example, for the doctor to know if you're a boy or a girl, or certain ethnicity, or have a certain background. But on a societal level, a human being is hard to define, and when people buck the definitions expected of them, people panic--they try to force you back into the box, or try to relabel you as something else, something other, something dangerous.

What people often forget, though, is that each and everyone one of us is in a constant state of defining and redefining who and what we are.

That's another thing I really liked about Alex--and it reminds me of the quote your mom gave you, too--that she really came into her own when she decided who and what she wanted to be. She dabbles with trying to cram herself into the box, but rejects others expectations in order to be herself--and once she decides to do that, there's no stopping her.

MG: So true. I guess that's a part of myself that I wrote into Alex. I'm just glad she learns that lesson while still in her teen years (unlike me). And I'll definitely let you do some punching on my behalf. ;-)

Thanks for having me on the blog today, Beth. I certainly wouldn't be here if I hadn't embraced my weird!

Thank you so much for being here! Readers, you can find MG's book, The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare wherever books are sold. Here's a little more about it:

For as long as 17-year-old Alex Wayfare can remember, she has had visions of the past. Visions that make her feel like she’s really on a ship bound for America, living in Jamestown during the Starving Time, or riding the original Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair.

But these brushes with history pull her from her daily life without warning, sometimes leaving her with strange lasting effects and wounds she can’t explain. Trying to excuse away the aftereffects has booked her more time in the principal’s office than in any of her classes and a permanent place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Alex is desperate to find out what her visions mean and get rid of them.

It isn’t until she meets Porter, a stranger who knows more than should be possible about her, that she learns the truth: Her visions aren’t really visions. Alex is a Descender – capable of traveling back in time by accessing Limbo, the space between Life and Afterlife. Alex is one soul with fifty-six past lives, fifty-six histories.

Fifty-six lifetimes to explore: the prospect is irresistible to Alex, especially when the same mysterious boy with soulful blue eyes keeps showing up in each of them. But the more she descends, the more it becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want Alex to travel again. Ever.

And will stop at nothing to make this life her last.

Order links:

About MG Buehrlen:

When she’s not writing, M.G. moonlights as a web designer and social media/creative director. She’s the current web ninja lurking behind the hugely popular website, a social network for YA (and kids!) book lovers. The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare is her debut novel. M.G. lives nestled away in Michigan pines, surrounded by good coffee and good books, with her husband and son and three furbabies. Say hello on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Tumblr.

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