My writer’s practice took me a long time to establish. The everyday routines of ‘when to write,’ ‘how to allocate my time between free-flow and editing,’ and ‘what holistic habits make the work easier/more comfortable’ took elaborate trial-and-error to perfect. I felt pretty good about the little pulleys and gears I constructed to ensure I’d keep going back to the page.
Yeah, and all that careful tinkering blew up in the pandemic + revolution.
The launch of my second novel, Messenger 93, and the classes I teach had to move online. Huge learning curves. I thought I should raise my voice on social media to ‘please read my story,’ then realized that I had to mute my voice because revolution > book. I’m supposed to be writing Book 3. That’s not happening.
My focus is fractured. My heart and gut and mind are at odds with each other. That third story is knocking at the door, ready to make itself known to me, but I keep standing against it. ‘Can’t you see there are other things going on, Story? There is serious work to do!’ Not feeling as glib as that probably sounds. But the cognitive dissonance of trying to connect with the engines that once served my writing process versus the realities of living in the present day, of possible death on one end of the spectrum and necessary total systemic reconstruction on the other, often manifests as a kind of confused hysteria. Tears, laughter, fear, resolve, leaning, supporting, myself, you, twist in and out of each other, each hour of every day.
How can I create when there are friends and family to check in on, news to consume, letters to send, changes to demand? How can I write when I don’t know where we’re going as a collective? What fictional-posing-as-real world can I create today when the living world will likely (hopefully) look quite different by the time my next story reaches it? Every missed submission deadline for my writing group feels like a mini-crash. Every blank computer page I leave with its blinking cursor feels like a betrayal. But. But some days. Some moments—the medicine finds its way in. I know that the homework of change, the signal of patience, the bated breath of waiting, will take me and Future Story to some deeper place. I believe we humans will come through this seismic shift stronger, better. And I’m sure, I think, that I will also get back to writing the words. Soon. I hope.
Before transitioning to writing, Barbara Radecki was an established Toronto-based actor. Her screenplay, Modern Persuasion, is now a film starring Alicia Witt and Bebe Neuwirth, and premiered at Cannes Marché 2020. Her debut novel, The Darkhouse, was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize 2017. Messenger 93 is her second novel.
This article, written by Barbara Radecki on her book Messenger 93, is presented in partnership with moorehype.
I got the idea for Messenger 93, my second novel, years before I began to write it. It came soon after a teenager told me that her white boyfriend believed he was Jesus reincarnated. From what I could tell, there was no manifestation of Jesus-hood in this boy’s day-to-day life. But that revelation—that here was someone certain he’d come from extraordinary lineage despite any hard evidence, and that he was maybe destined to save the world—became the seed for my next story. I knew that I wanted to explore saviour syndrome.
I sent my protagonist, M, an alienated teen, a message that she must “save her” in order to “save us all.” As M grapples to figure out what the message means, she becomes convinced of a destiny: she must save someone. She runs away from home to search for another runaway, a white girl, her high school enemy.
As I was writing my first draft, I was also following the news about Tina Fontaine’s murder, which was in turn amplifying the tragedy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People across the country, and how governmental and societal systems are failing them. The discussions around her murder also amplified the disconnect between how many Canadians see themselves, and how this country and its governments are structured, and to whose advantage. Tina Fontaine—how she was abandoned by the system when she was alive, then abandoned by the justice system when her murder was brought to trial—exposed the lack of meaningful action in this country when it comes to Indigenous peoples, on whose stolen lands we live. And by “exposed,” of course I mean that it was news to various intersections of privileged Canadians who had never had to question these failings before.
I introduced a Cree (nêhiyaw) character into Messenger 93. M meets him on her journey because he’s also searching for someone—a missing nêhiyaw girl. When M chooses to follow this boy, my saviour syndrome theme became one of white saviour syndrome.
In storytelling, the writer is not obligated to answer the questions at its centre. But if I was going to keep writing this story, I had to answer some foundational ethical questions. Because I inhabit several aspects of unearned privilege (first-gen white settler, middle class, able-bodied, cishet woman), could I write characters who live outside my socialized experience? And if it was possible, how did I go about it without causing further harm? How could I reflect aspects of the ongoing MMIWG2S+ tragedy without appropriating the voices of the people directly in it?
Stories tell us who we are, but they also tell us who others are. For all their glory and worth and delight, stories are also responsible for our stereotypes. We invent stories to uplift ourselves and each other, and also to justify our violence.
Writers are, by our very act of writing, literally centering our own voices.
I decided to find my way through the novel with these characters—along with the promise that I would ask permissions of at every step. I pledged to withdraw the book if any one of them felt I should. (There isn’t space enough to list all of my educators here, but they are listed in my acknowledgements with their permission.) I kept fumbling on because I rebelled against the idea of continuing to create fictional worlds where all the characters are white, default-white, or mirrored-white. I wanted to learn where the various lines were that I could and could not cross—at the time of writing, and to the best of my personal and our collective knowledge. I clung to those learnings to resist the fall into white saviourism myself (for example, consider nuances within words like “save” and “help,” and “support” and “accountability”).
Writing Messenger 93 became hard, mucky work. Not hard in the way that living with injustice and oppression are hard. Not hard to find resources and educators and guidelines. It was hard in the way it is for many creators. Where you question your purpose. You question the worthiness of the work you create. The integrity and honesty of your voice. It’s hard because your inner core is required to upheave and realign. It’s hard because how do you decentralize your own voice when it is trying so hard to get your attention?
If you’re white, white saviourism is a quick and easy route to feeling good about yourself. That’s why it’s so insidious and so prevalent. If you’re a writer, appropriation of voice is a (comparatively) quick and easy way to write. That’s why it has created so many problems in our stories. Untangling deep-rooted biases and relearning your art and craft and then inviting criticism is tough.
Even if we all have different reactions and different strategies within our different environments, I think we can all viscerally feel that there is something wrong with the systems built around us. No wonder so many of us want to be bigger, greater, more impactful than our ordinary selves.
I don’t want to give away the ending of my novel, but it’s probably no surprise that I’m still asking its central question: how do we actually change the world? How do we save us all?
Barbara Radecki started her career as an actor, and is probably best known for voicing Sailor Neptune in the original English dub of the popular Sailor Moon series. She has transitioned to writing, with a focus on full-length fiction and screenplays. She co-wrote a modern adaptation screenplay of Jane Austen’s Persuasion due out in 2020, starring Alicia Witt and Bebe Neuwirth. Her debut novel, The Darkhouse, came out to acclaim in 2016/17, including a Kirkus star and a spot on CBC’s 15 Great Reads for Young Readers (1 of 5 for YA). In 2017, she was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. Her second novel, Messenger 93, came out April 2020.
“Radecki tackles difficult subject matter with grace, and asks tough questions for her readers to reflect upon.”
…The impact of social media is one through line, as are reflections on self-worth and questions of authenticity. Crucially, Radecki also centres a discussion of white privilege and violence against Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People. As she notes in her acknowledgements, she is a “white, able-bodied, middle-class, cisgender woman” who is working to “understand and resist our systems of inequality”. This transparency is crucial, and Radecki’s approach to Indigenous characters and culture feels considerate and careful. For example, a young Cree man named Gray states, “It might not be the best idea for me to lurk around on private property. You heard what happens out here to kids who look like me, right?” In response, M cringes as she recognizes her ability to unthinkingly move through these spaces without the threat of violence. The focus is often on M’s emerging awareness of systemic racism. She reflects upon the harm of media and police bias toward Indigenous communities and confronts how Canada’s colonial system is engrained in her own understanding of the world. For white readers, witnessing M’s recognition of her own complicity is perhaps the most impactful aspect of the novel. Her story reminds us that we must confront the fact that our identity is rooted in the suppression of others, and find ways to question and challenge our biases and expectations.
While the ending may leave some readers perplexed, Messenger 93 is ultimately a novel focused on unpacking assumptions and facing difficulty. It is also about love, mystery, and growth in seemingly impossible, at times implausible, situations. Centring a cast of well-developed and intricate characters, this intense and haunting novel pulls readers along on a complicated quest, and asks critical questions for readers to return to long after M’s journey comes to an end.
“Lyrical prose and magic realism flavour the haunting story of M, a lonely girl who is called upon to find and save her enemy. The ensuing journey goes disastrously awry when M falls for a boy in search of another missing girl. This brave novel by Barbara Radecki tackles bold subjects—missing girls, celebrity culture, white privilege and cultural appropriation—as it explores one girl’s pilgrimage of self-discovery.” – Diane Terrana, acclaimed author of THE WORLD ON EITHER SIDE
“Messenger 93 is a driving story that twists and turns and entertains. Barbara Radecki has written a poignant book that asks hard questions about compassion and belonging.” – Ken Murray, award-winning author of EULOGY
“Radecki’s masterful turns of suspense and mystery send M, and the rest of us, on a thrill ride from downtown to the deep woods. It’s a can’t-put-down, must read adventure!” – Thom Vernon, award-winning author of THE DRIFTS
Messenger 93 released in the middle of a pandemic. We scrambled to replace our brick-and-mortar launch slated for April 22 at Ben McNally Books. Instead we did a virtual launch featuring author-publisher-agent talks, actor-readings, and a Q&A. It was awesome! Check it out here.
“In seven days, she will fall,” say the crows. “As she falls, so do we all.” Who falls? wonders M. The ominous, supernatural message starts M on a quest that could save more than one life. But what if the person in danger happens to be her nemesis? Along the way, M meets up with Gray, a Cree boy with his own hopes of saving a runaway Indigenous girl. As they begin a wild journey through the city and into the bleak northern woods, M grasps for the true meaning behind the crows’ messages and pushes deeper and deeper into worlds she doesn’t know or understand, holding fast to a questionable dream that she might be a modern-day Joan of Arc.
Messenger 93 is the sophomore YA novel from Toronto author Barbara Radecki. Thom Vernon, award-winning author of The Drifts says, “Radecki’s masterful turns of suspense and mystery send M, and the rest of us, on a thrill ride from downtown to the deep woods. It’s a can’t-put-down, must-read adventure!”
Barbara Radecki started her career as an actor and is probably best known for voicing Sailor Neptune in the original English dub of the popular Sailor Moon series. She has transitioned to writing, with a focus on full-length fiction and screenplays. She co-wrote a modern adaptation screenplay of Jane Austen’s Persuasion due out in 2020, starring Alicia Witt and Bebe Neuwirth.
Her debut novel, The Darkhouse, came out to acclaim in 2016/17, including a Kirkus star and spot on CBC’s 15 Great Reads for Young Readers (1 of 5 for YA). In 2017, she was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. Her second novel, Messenger 93, comes out in April 2020.
Radecki answered some questions about her writing and her new novel.
How does symbolism play into the creation of your novel?
A key component of Messenger 93 is the reader-question of whether the events in the story are symbolic or if they are real. This strikes at the original reason I was inspired to write the book: if we believe, for whatever reason, that we are meant to “save someone,” can we? Should we? Is this the foundation for human survival, or is it our egos searching for validation? If it can be one or the other, then where is the line and how do we find it? How have our ideas been fashioned by social constructs? What is the basis of true compassion? So the crows and the messages that appear throughout the book are always floating in and out of that liminal space, asking the reader to ask, “What does it really mean?”
Teenage protagonists have changed a lot since the 1990s. Back then, coming of age meant a whole different thing. What is it like writing for a readership that wasn’t even born when Kurt Cobain killed (1994) himself or even when Winona Ryder, famed mom from Stranger Things (and some other movies) was charged with shoplifting. (2002)?
The most specific change I see is in the portrayals of female protagonists. In years gone by, it seemed necessary for a teen female hero to ride one of two narratives: her goal was love, or she had to be a mirror for the male characters we glorified in stories. That was always constraining to me, even though I value love as a central theme for stories, and even while I cheer on the female warrior. But today’s protagonist doesn’t have to be a warrior to be a hero. She finds her strength in sometimes unlikely or unexpected ways. Characters who must face their deepest selves, learn who they really are, take responsibility in greater society, engage with others in meaningful, authentic ways, these narrative arcs are moving in on the ones about the aimless fascination with excess and success. I think the teen protagonist now has a greater sense that they fit into a bigger world and that the world is controlled by forces they no longer trust or assume to be static and unchangeable. They have more awareness and want to have greater agency in all aspects of our societies.
“Today’s protagonist doesn’t have to be a warrior to be a hero.”
What is your writing process like?
My writing process has changed a lot over the years as I’ve developed my craft. The one constant is the arrival of the idea. It drops in like an unexpected parachute-borne package. But, because the story starts with a galvanizing idea, I then have to figure out how to write my way into it. For my first two novels, The Darkhouse and Messenger 93, I booked off a chunk of time and wrote, virtually stream-of-consciousness, until the stories were done. The Darkhouse in six weeks (ten pages a day!), and Messenger 93 in 4 months. Except that turned out to be a very inefficient way of writing. Both books required dozens of drafts of rewrites before the most effective storylines were revealed. Both laid waste to hundreds of pages of gorgeous (and terrible) prose that never served the arcs. For Book 3, I’m taking my own teaching advice and outlining a fundamental story arc before I write. Outlining allows me to tweak elements that I can see lack function or don’t make sense, so this time I have a (mostly) clear path to explore. As a result, I can sit down with a very broad list of story points necessary for the scenes I’m about to write, and I still have plenty of room for creative flow. Now I have a better sense that I’m not only writing for my own enjoyment but for my readers’ enjoyment too.
“When I’m ready to begin writing, I set aside two hours a day to work in creative free-flow. I’ve found that two hours is usually my limit on any given day for prose-building.”
My refined process is that I begin with an immersion in some necessary research, then I set aside several weeks to plan my main story events and structure. Along the way, I flag character developments, sub-plot events, and thematic points I might want to include. When I’m ready to begin writing, I set aside two hours a day to work in creative free-flow. I’ve found that two hours is usually my limit on any given day for prose-building. But, after that, I can unplug from my inventing power source and plug into my editing power source and find that I have another robust burst of creative energy. I can edit (if time allows) for many more hours than I can free-flow write. And because I know this about myself, I schedule my writing days accordingly. I can interrupt editing with life-errands, but I do like to know that I have that two-hour creative writing block available without interruption. And that said, I’m a huge believer and advocate for “write every day, even if it’s only fifteen minutes,” because writing makes you feel much better than not-writing, and fifteen minutes will still leave you with something on the page, even if it will be edited, or changed, or cut.
How did your work in tv/film influence your own writing?
My work in film and TV has been extremely useful to my fiction writing. On the plus side, I’ve learned that bringing a story to the world is collaborative. In screen work, every production requires a team of creative minds to come together and nurture it from idea to final product. Without the dreamy creation of a story, there is no story, but without the input of an audience of some kind, you can’t know if your ideas have landed. As a writer, I needed to develop my listening skills in order to hear, accept, and celebrate later input by beta-readers, agents, and editors. I also learned from inhabiting characters on set. The importance of aspects like motivation and emotional depth. I learned how key dialogue is, how you don’t waste words on mundane conversation but find the heart of the conflict or connection in every interaction.
What about the rejections? Are publishing and acting similar in that regard?
Working in the film industry has also built up super-muscles for how I handle rejection. Oh, the rejection you face auditioning for roles! I learned how to deflect the “no” and not personalize it. I learned how to persist. I learned how to accept feedback and turn weaknesses into skills. I learned how to reject feedback that didn’t resonate, and to search for other ways to dig deeper into my storytelling.
What is the hardest thing about being a writer?
By far the hardest part about being a writer, for me, is the nebulous space after I’ve written a story and when it’s being launched into the world. I live in a state of anxious worry that readers won’t find it. The possibility that your story will fade away—after so much attention on research and building and writing, after so much thought and analysis and refinement, after years of that work—it’s so sorrowful. The book is a living, breathing entity to you for so long, and then in an instant, it becomes… like a ghost. Misty, intangible, billowing away from your grasp. This is the only stage where the writer has no control. The only way I can resist that distraction and sorrow is by jumping into my next story. Because writing makes you feel much better than not-writing.
Who do you think would like to give Messenger 93 as a gift and why?
I think Messenger 93would make a great gift from parents (or any adults) looking for a page-turning read for their teen daughters or other teens in their lives, who enjoy a dynamic read, but who are also asking big questions. Also adult readers to adult readers who’ve been wondering: “What does it mean to save someone?” And who might want to gift this book as a part of that conversation.
For more information on Messenger 93 and Barbara Radecki, click here.