Science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders (Victories Greater Than Death) brought abundant charisma to the stage for her Ci10 keynote. Her hot-pink bob, matching Doc Martens, and neon-confetti-dotted black dress reinforced her energy. She delivered her talk, “Magical Portals Are Real, and I Can Prove It!,” in a conversational and confiding tone, to booksellers who know and recommend her LGBTQ+ fiction.
Alluding to Frank Herbert’s Dune dictum that “the universe is full of doors,” Anders said that we encounter portals in our lives. “I’ve jumped universes three or four times,” she said, acknowledging how she came to recognize her authorial persona and trans identity. “This is definitely not the universe I was born in.”
“Most of us have done it,” she added. “A hole opens up in the fabric of reality and you just saunter right through.” Metaphorically speaking, bookstores are “collections of portals to other realms,” and Anders supplies those entryways, with a focus on uplifting queer readers and content.
Recipient of a Lambda Literary Award (Choir Boys), a Hugo (Six Months, Three Days), and a Nebula (All the Birds in the Sky), Anders also is known for her viral March 2020 TED Talk, “Go Ahead, Dream About the Future.” She came to Ci10 touting her forthcoming YA novel Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak (Tor Teen), book two of the Unstoppable trilogy. During the keynote, she made another announcement: Marvel’s Pride 2022 edition, released on June 22, debuts her trans superhero, a trickster named Escapade who can inhabit others' identities. She created Escapade because “marginalized people need our own heroes right now, we need to be able to see ourselves overcoming obstacles.” (One bookseller attending the keynote contacted his store and learned the comic already had sold out.)
Anders talked about her childhood and her start as an author, recalling, “I was a visibly queer kid with a learning disability,… and the luckiest thing happened to me was that I got identified as a special-needs student.” Elementary school teacher Lynn Pennington, with whom she keeps in touch, “saw I was a daydreamer and decided to use it to help me learn. She met me where I was and turned me into a lifelong writer.” Young Anders also took comfort in something she heard from her father, that “people do not actually grow up, they just get better at faking it. That was super liberating and positive when I heard it as a kid. So: magical portals exist, and adults aren’t real.”
Anders grew up to join San Francisco’s queer performance scene, writing scenes and improvising at happenings like the exceedingly messy, one-time-only “Ballerina Pie Fight”: “Organizing a strange party can be another way of opening a door,” she said. Through it all, she remained a daydreamer, and she still abhors daily word counts, even though other writers swear by numbers for productivity. “Everything good in my life has come from daydreaming,” she said. “When I zone out, I can start drawing connections, because my best writing comes out of my unconscious as well as my conscious mind.” For her, “daydreaming is the opposite of doom-scrolling. I think fear causes us to close off possibilities.”
This is not to say that Anders is whimsical. “I went from writing stories that were random wackiness to creating characters who change and go on an emotional journey,” she said. “And I found I could use playfulness and a sense of absurdity to deal with heartbreaking and upsetting stuff.” Her story collection, Even Greater Mistakes, includes a “straight-up horror story” confronting her fears for trans people’s safety in the U.S. She showed the story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” to trans friends before sending it to her editor, Junot Díaz: “My friends said, ‘I had to lie down after reading it.’ But it’s still one of the funniest stories I ever wrote.” With wit and imagination, she grapples with palpable, serious threats.
Anders addressed this topic in the Q&A, responding to how an author can bear to make terrible things happen to characters they love. “If nothing happens, it’s not really a story,” she mused. She gives herself license, in early drafts, to “go really far in one direction or another: either nothing bad is happening, or the other extreme, everybody’s getting their heads lopped off, and there’s a chainsaw elf, and everybody’s absurdly mean. In revisions I figure out the balance.” While she believes fiction needs to show “people dealing with terrible stuff and surviving,” she also thinks strategically about horrors: “We have a responsibility when we inflict trauma in a story.”
In addition to sharing anecdotes and writing advice, Anders boosted other SFF authors. She directed attendees to her Goodreads site and recommended Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea), Naseem Jamnia (The Bruising of Qilwa), Neil Cochrane (The Story of the Hundred Promises), and Megan Giddings (The Women Could Fly). Her talk, both genuine and generous, received a standing ovation from the audience.