Andromeda: 4.9 Questions for Charlotte Austin, Editorial Director of The Better Bombshell

The Better Bombshell asks writers and artists to answer a simple question: Who is the better bombshell? According to the forthcoming anthology’s website, “The project is centered around a simple void in modern media: the lack of positive, multidimensional female role models. Who do today’s young women admire? Who do today’s men covet? What earns our envy and our celebration, our lust and our love? […] In a sharp contrast to the popular media, we’re asking some of the best creative, intellectual, and artistic minds of our era to do what they do best: provide new insights into the questions that most of us forget to ask. The act of collaboration provides a unique opportunity for writers and artists to engage in the time-tested tradition of letting words and images work together to push both further into the void than either could reach alone. The book will feature the results (both written and visual) of each collaboration, and will be launched at a gallery opening in Seattle in February 2013.”

Charlotte, while this anthology has a truly national or international bent, Alaska is represented more than any other state. Can you list your AK contributors and tell me how so many became involved?

While the project was conceived in Seattle, where the founders live and work, we recruited writers and artists in whose work we believed. This came most naturally from the communities within which we already worked and created. For me, that community was the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) MFA program. I started writing emails and was energized by the enthusiastic responses. I am constantly humbled by the support and enthusiasm I’ve received from the Alaska artistic community.

The Great North is represented heavily in our roster. A handful of our writers live in Alaska (Heather Lende, Nicholas Dighiera, Tim Lash, Eva Saulitis, and Andromeda Romano-Lax), but there’s a much longer list of people who are affiliated with the UAA program: Craig Childs, Valerie Miner, Linda McCarriston, and Carolyn Turgeon are faculty; Allison Williams and Dan Mickelsen are both accomplished writers and students. Even more wonderful Alaskan writers have served as guest bloggers, which has been incredible gift. I love the posts by Sara Loewen (on “momshells”), Rich Chiappone (on women’s roles in fiction), Michael Rauzdis Dinkel (on artistic collaboration), and Vivian Faith Prescott (on Tlingit women telling their stories).

I’ve leaned hard on the Alaskan writing community, and I continue to be grateful for their support. There is both a unique spirit and commitment to the art that this community offers that can’t be found elsewhere. This project wouldn’t be what it is without the encouragement, skill, and playfulness of such a tightly-knit group of people – and I keep crossing my fingers that I’ll get the chance to pay it forward.

You’ve stated the book’s themes clearly, but where did the idea for this anthology spring from, in terms of a specific moment? Your website mentions that you and your two colleagues conceived the book idea in a Seattle café. Were you lamenting some specific media depiction of women, mulling over your own self-constructed identities, or something else?

Our story starts with a conversation: we were brainstorming ways that writing and visual art can work together to reach a broader audience. Visual art can be intimidating for those of us who rely on words to paint pictures, but visual artists often approach their subjects in a way that’s very similar to the way writers approach their work. What is the story? How do you describe the narrative arc? Where does nuance belong, and what carries meaning? Given this similarity in the underlying ethos of these different art forms, we began to believe that an anthology, centered around the act of collaboration between these two art relatives, would be both unique and enlightening. From there, we threw around several ideas – and immediately started honing in on the concept of the better bombshell–we are women with strong ideas of the role of art in the representation of women. We beta-tested the idea with our friends and networks, and it became very clear that women’s roles in modern media are exactly the type of multidimensional topic that can affect everyone – male and female, young and old, straight and gay. It doesn’t matter who you are: there is a woman, somewhere, that you care about very much.

How did the work you got back from the artists change your perceptions? How did it change you?

The work – and the process of living through the project itself – has changed the way I see the world. I wrote the prompts that were sent to the writers and artists, so I was well acquainted with some of the broader directions the creative work would explore. But when the writing and art started to come in, I was overcome. I still tear up with I think about the depth and breadth of the work of our contributors.

Technically speaking, we have a wide variety of genres and mediums: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays are paired with photography, classical paintings, whimsical illustrations, and figurative drawings. None of the pairs address modern female role models obtusely – rather, each team seems to hold up a mirror that illuminates an area of darkness. Individually they reflect beams of light; viewed together, the writing and art refract a chewed-up concept – feminism – into something completely new.

The book is dedicated equally to visual art and text. In most cases, artists and writers worked together in a close, collaborative sense. Can you give us one example of how a visual contribution works alongside a written one?

Some of our collaborating pairs had never met; others are longstanding partners in crime. Rick Bass collaborated with his wife, the painter Elizabeth Bass. Dave Barry worked with a sassy young video game concept development artist. Valerie Miner, accomplished and decidedly West Coast feminist author, was paired with a photographer from the East Coast. Put frankly, we assigned some unexpected pairs.

The ways that the art and the writing interact vary widely between chapters. Some stories were written, then illustrated; some pairs worked backward from a visual image. Other collaborators agreed to a broad concept, then worked individually to interpret the idea in two complementary ways.

One of my favorite examples of this is the collaboration between screenwriter Tim Lash and painter Chris Crites, who told us that they started with a simple question: What has become of the woman as a symbol of power in our society, our culture?

“Turning from the present to the past,” they wrote together, “we agreed to work by way of memory. And so, allowing room for creative dissonance between our separate efforts, each of us composed a portrait – one a piece of historical flash fiction, the other a form of visual biography – to depict a woman of power.” The resulting work: Lash wrote historical flash fiction depicting Yael (of the Hebrew Bible) and Chris painted Angela Davis (1944-present). “Despite the three millennia that stand between their deeds,” the team writes, “[both women] appear in recorded memory as individuals who faced strong adversaries and persevered against them.”

Some anthologies, even those that are well made, seem to disappear quickly. You and your collaborators have taken outreach seriously. What are some of the efforts you’re pursuing to bring attention to this book—keeping in mind that some of our readers are also authors learning to navigate the world of self-publicity and social media?

There’s a funny thing about this book: if we had known the amount of work that a project of this magnitude would require, we would have been petrified, and probably stopped before we started. But we didn’t, so we naively (and boldly!) jumped off the cliff. And we’ve never looked back.
In terms of promotion, we’re in a unique position because the project is structured as a nonprofit. And while we are hungry to put books into the hands of readers, we’re also genuinely motivated to spark a community discussion around a fascinating societal dialogue. For example, we post original on-topic content to our blog at least twice a week – which both encourages a dialogue and raises interest in the project as a whole.

There are a whole host of additional ways that we’re promoting the book, including a trip to AWP in March, an outreach campaign to local and national media, and a book tour to West Cost bookstores, back-room bars, and prisons. We are learning that there’s a science to self-promotion, but we’re more interested in sparking interesting conversations – which, in the end, serves the same purpose. We’re getting more adept at the publicity requirements that come with any self-publishing project, but we’ll never doubt the importance of a deep belief in the work itself.

Thank you, Charlotte!
To read more about Charlotte Austin, visit her contributor page at the Better Bombshell website.

1 thought on “Andromeda: 4.9 Questions for Charlotte Austin, Editorial Director of The Better Bombshell”

  1. Great to see this, as I just heard about this book in passing this week. Nice to hear the behind the scenes.
    I will definitely check it out. Thanks.

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