The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Jessica Sun speaks with Katherine Locke, author of This Rebel Heart (Knopf). Amazon, Bookshop

headshot of Katherine Locke

1. Csilla in This Rebel Heart works at a newspaper and grows into being a journalist/reporter. How can writers, journalists, and artists affect resistance movements?  What is the role of a writer and/or artist in an era of social unrest?
Writers, journalists, artists, poets, musicians have always affected and influenced resistance movements. It’s why one of the first moves autocratic societies make is to limit art in some way with book bannings and censorship. It’s why Soviet Russia had approved authors and musicians and banned authors and musicians—and why the United States government had a blacklist of Communist or left-leaning artists/actors. Because artists and writers have always been in a unique position to speak truth to power, no matter where on the political spectrum that power sits.

When I was doing research on This Rebel Heart, I was struck by the importance of jazz clubs in 1950s Budapest, that jazz in Budapest had been just as important in Budapest at that time, just as political and important as it’d been in the United States, so much so that American clandestine efforts included airing jazz recordings. Jazz was forbidden, and vital. It was a sign of resistance. Writers, journalists, artists, musicians have led the charge in almost every anti-war effort to date. Mainstream and obscure, small papers and big ones. In This Rebel Heart, I wanted to focus on papers and journalism, versus music. It’s a vital part of our society to have this healthy, robust, and independent fourth estate. But not every country has been so blessed to have that, even for a short period of time.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution was short and those first few days of throwing off the yoke of Soviet Russia, there were many competing concerns, but one of the first things that was done was renaming the state paper and reporting on everything that happened. I wanted to capture that priority on paper. But the book also wrestles with telling the truth, and the pressure to tell the truth that benefits only the people in power. Even when the rebels overthrow the Soviet powers, there’s pressure not to share terrible things that the rebels did—and I wanted to be clear that the paper isn’t on anyone’s side but the truth’s. And that’s what journalists and writers ought to be doing. We must hold everyone to account, even when we share their end goals, and that’s how we fight our way toward a more just and equitable society. The role of journalists is so vital though. I think you can see it in Ukraine’s fight today. The real incredible reporting from Ukrainian reporters is powerful. It’s witnessing and fact-reporting at the same time. And yes, some of it is biased, and recognizing that bias is important, but it’s also preventing Putin’s Russia from spinning the facts online. It’s keeping the American public, who has been very susceptible to Putin’s propaganda, fully informed of the truth of the situation which keeps us, the public, on the right side of history, advocating for the safety, rights, and sovereignty of Ukraine to our representatives.

2. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
The biggest threat to free expression today is the rise of Christian nationalism and the far-right who want to steer this country into a rigid, Christian nation-state, stripping queer people of rights, disabled people of access, and BIPOC people of safety.

“I try not to let anything I add to history change history, or erase people from history. It’s a challenge sometimes, and I hope I walk that line well.

3. This Rebel Heart is both devastating and hopeful. What gives you hope?
Readers give me hope. Young activists give me hope. The next generation gives me hope. But I wish we didn’t always say, “the kids will fix this” because we’re the adults in the room. We could fix it, whether that’s police reform, climate action, healthcare. I think that I’ve seen a change recently, at least in my communities, of discussing things like gender identity, racism, sexism, and structural issues more openly. That doesn’t mean we always agree on the way to address these issues in society, but just discussing and being open with the conversation is such a change that it makes me believe that we might actually address some structural issues in our society in my lifetime.

4. What is a moment of frustration that you’ve encountered in the writing process and how did you overcome it?
I almost always want to stop writing around 10,000 words. And then again around 27,000 words. And then again around 35,000 words. Then about 45,000 words. Those are pain points in my process (and they correspond to very clear points in a plot arc, which makes sense, I struggle the most in my first and second acts, and typically write four act books.) I overcome it by knowing that I’ve written books before and they weren’t flukes, so I can do it again, and by knowing my process. Knowing my process is power. I get stuck, I want to stop writing, I want to throw it away and start on the new shiny idea, and then I glance at my word count and go, “Ah. Right. The 27k breakdown. Got it.” I know then that I can push through. First drafts are hard for me, but I can’t fix a book until I’ve written it, so I have to slog through that initial draft.

5. Many of your young adult works up to this point have included magical or fabulist elements. What has drawn you to these elements? Were they part of the works when you first began writing the books, or did they develop later in the process?
Yes, they were all part of the stories when I started writing! I love writing with fabulist and fantastical elements. I love them for a few reasons. First, they’re fun to write. Hard, but fun. I like the challenge of figuring out how magic works in this world. Because I write historical fantasy/fabulism, it’s figuring out how magic works in a setting that already exists. I like to use fantastical elements to illuminate what I’m focusing on, and in This Rebel Heart, that was the revolution, and this moment when people had to decide to fight for a complicated, and sometimes unlovable, idea of a country that hadn’t existed in a long time. I always use fantastical elements to illuminate. I try not to let anything I add to history change history, or erase people from history. It’s a challenge sometimes, and I hope I walk that line well. It’s important to me to make sure that the takeaway isn’t magic would have helped or magic created this outcome but rather, look at this incredible, overlooked moment in history and the people who made it.

6. What’s a piece of art (literary or not) that moves you and mobilizes your work?
What a great question! Are there too many times to mention Bruce Springsteen in a single interview? I really do think about that 1988 concert in East Germany quite a bit. Like more than a single person should, probably. But I would also point at A Wrinkle in Time. A Wrinkle in Time was the first time that as a reader, at age ten or so when I first read that book, I realized the power of fantasy to reflect on something true and real in our world. Madeleine L’Engle was telling me something about my world, but with fantasy and science fiction. I want to capture that feeling for my readers too.

7. If you could claim any writers from the past as part of your own literary genealogy, who would your ancestors be?
I’m trying to only pick writers from the past, but it’s hard because some of my favorite writers who strongly influence my work are definitely still alive and writing! I would say that Madeleine L’Engle is the one who really comes to mind for me. I wouldn’t be the writer I am if not for her.

8. Like Csilla, you are Jewish, queer, and a writer. How does your identity shape your writing? Do you think there such a thing as a “the writer’s identity”?
I think my identity shapes my writing in that I enjoy writing queer Jewish characters. I find it fun and energizing to explore those aspects of my own identity but also those identities in history. Especially in historical fiction for children, we see a lot of Holocaust-centered literature. All three of my YAs touch on the Holocaust, but I also wanted to focus on Jewish characters in other parts of history as well. It feels important to me. Jewish people didn’t only exist between 1933-1945, and we weren’t all killed in the Holocaust. And queerness isn’t a modern invention. Queer people have existed since humans existed. Queer people have shaped history along the way, whether you knew they were queer or not. I suppose in that way, my identity allows me to tell those stories authentically.

It’s worth it even if it feels futile and even if you don’t get to reap the rewards of the world you’re building. Everything we do is a choice, and everything we do makes and shapes the future.

9. In This Rebel Heart, Csilla realizes “memory and forgetting were two weights on a scale of history.” How much did you know about the 1956 Hungarian revolution before writing the book? What was something that you think was “forgotten” or that you were most surprised to learn?
I didn’t know much about the revolution before I started researching for the book, and I’m ashamed to say that. It was such a pivotal moment not just for Hungary but for Eastern Europe. It’s such a powerful moment to learn about. I think the revolution as a whole is quite forgotten, at least in the West (it’s certainly not forgotten in Hungary!). I have a degree in Political Science, and this revolution never came up in all my studies! How?! But it makes me wonder about all the “unsuccessful” revolutions in history. At what point did we decide that unsuccessful meant unimportant? We must separate the judgment of “unsuccessful” from “unimportant.”

10. One important lesson from This Rebel Heart is the power we all have to demand change or to shape the future—including young adults. What advice do you have to young adults today who want to or already are fighting for the future they want to see?
Your fight is worth it. Your energy is worth it. Your work is worth it. It’s worth it even if it feels futile and even if you don’t get to reap the rewards of the world you’re building. Everything we do is a choice, and everything we do makes and shapes the future. There is power in movements. Working together will get us to where we need to be in building a more just, more equitable, more free, and more hopeful society.

Katherine Locke lives and writes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with their feline overlords and their addiction to chai lattes. They are the author of The Girl with the Red Balloon, a 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and 2018 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book, as well as The Spy with the Red Balloon, and the forthcoming This Rebel Heart (April 2022). They are the co-editor and contributor to This is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them and Us, which had three starred reviews and made Kirkus Review’s Best Middle Grade of 2021 list, as well as It’s A Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes and Other Jewish Stories. They also contributed to Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens and Out Now: Queer We Go Again. They are the author of picture books Bedtime for Superheroes, What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns, and the forthcoming Being Friends with Dragons (February 2022).