Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.

Who: Kat Zhang, debut author of young adult dystopian speculative fiction.

Recent Work: What’s Left of Me was Kat’s debut novel, and one of Thea’s favorite books of 2012 (because it is fantastic, emotional, and thought-provoking).

Kat Zhang What's Left of Me

Give it up for Kat, everyone!

Art Speaks

Let’s talk about art.

Anything? Anyone want to go first?

Okay, I’ll go first.

I love art. Really, really, love it. I’m the girl who almost cries at the opera and stares giddy at the ballet and can spend hours going on and on about how beautiful a shot is framed in a movie. I have to put down books sometimes because I’m so overwhelmed by someone’s writing — or just by the feel of the story. Once, while reading someone’s ARC, I scribbled the margins full of “OMG MY FEELINGS. MY FEELINGS.”

The thing I’ve come to realize about art is that the more I “get” it, the more I love it. I’ll try to explain, since I know that doesn’t make a ton of sense.

I used to not be a huge film buff. I watched movies, of course, and television, but I preferred my books. Film, I thought, all high-and-mighty. They just…show you everything. And those weird indy films? So boring.

Then one day, I watched a director’s commentary for a film. I can’t even remember which film it was, but the director kept talking about how he’d chosen this one shot for this reason—emotional, thematic, etc, etc — and that shot for another, and how the costume designer had picked these clothes for this character because…and so on. I was utterly captivated.1

Suddenly — just a tiny, tiny bit — I got film. I saw beyond the “product” to the “meaning” behind the product. Does that make sense? Perhaps it still doesn’t. It’s a bit like how I never appreciated runway fashion (“Such weird clothes! Who would ever wear stuff like that! What’s the point?”) until I started reading articles on what the designers were trying so hard to say.

There’s always danger in discussing what an artist is trying to say with a piece of work. For many people, art should stand on its own. For them, a book, a film, a painting “says” things all by itself, and what the creator meant doesn’t matter. In large part, I agree with this, which is why whenever I’m asked in an interview about messages I want people to take away from What’s Left of Me, I always say that messages are up to the reader to figure out for themselves, not for the author to broadcast. I think that’s part of the brilliance of art—different people come to a piece of work and leave with something completely unique.

(And yes, as some people have pointed out to me in emails, if you search through my old blog posts, you will find one in which I expound a bit on the themes of What’s Left of Me, but said post was written quite a time ago, before I was even agented, I think, and the story has changed so much since then. Some of those themes probably still apply, but others don’t—and that’s a cool thing, too, that a story that is mostly the same story can still grow and develop and change themes.)

Art speaks on its own. Sometimes, it says things to certain people that the author never meant to say. I’ve mostly stopped reading reviews, but back when I did, I discovered people who saw things in What’s Left of Me I never imagined anyone would ever see. Some of these things are in accordance with my world views—things I would proudly say in real life. Some are the very opposite of what I actually believe, and initially, I was horrified that anyone would think I ever meant to imply such a thing through my story.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Stories speak. Art speaks. On purpose. By accident. That’s why it can be so powerful. Personally, I believe that as writers/artists/whatever, we do have a responsibility to be careful about what we say—even accidentally. I do spend time thinking, “What sort of message am I sending by having this character do this? Or by having this happen?”

But on the other hand, I will never catch everything. And sometimes things just need to happen. Sometimes the yellow curtains are just yellow because I happened to sit on a yellow crayon while writing, not because of some deep psychological meaning I’m trying to get across.

Somebody (probably many somebodies) will always find some part of my story/characterization and construct it to mean something I never wanted it to mean. But you know what? That’s fine. That’s more than fine. That’s great. Because every time that happens, I learn a little more. I get to see the world through a fresh pair of eyes. I am more careful the next time. Art speaks, and not only to the audience, but to the creator, as well.

Now excuse me while I go and try to rein in Book 2 ;)

Do you pay attention to your themes and possible messages when you write?

Thanks, Kat!

  1. So much so that I’m now taking classes in screenwriting and production!
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One Response to Smugglivus 2012 Guest Author: Kat Zhang

  1. AnimeJune says:

    What a lovely essay. I totally agree that everyone takes their own thing from what they read.

    I think Joss Whedon once said, “Art isn’t your pet, it’s your kid. It’s going to grow up and talk back to you” – meaning that once art is available to the public, it’ll take on a context and a meaning all its own based on what a hundred thousand different opinions take on it.

    Cracked actually posted a fascinating article on the top 6 books whose most commonly accepted interpretations were not what their authors intended:
    http://www.cracked.com/article_18787_6-books-everyone-including-your-english-teacher-got-wrong.html

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