A very fine collection of books and ARCs to show off this week. Let me know which ones you wish you had in your hands, down there in the comments.
A very fine collection of books and ARCs to show off this week. Let me know which ones you wish you had in your hands, down there in the comments.
Pretty cool looking, I have to say. It’s a wrap-around; the front cover is on the right side of the image. A larger version is here.
And here’s what I think of politics here in 2014: Nnnnnnnnggggggggghhh. Or, to put in perhaps more contemporary terms, 2014: The Year I Literally Just Could Not Even.
Which is not to say that I’m not voting. I am voting. What I mean to say is that this year I don’t really feel anything other than complete fatigue at the whole political process. Broadly speaking, the Republicans are frothing ideologues, the Democrats are incompetent, and it appears that in general the relevant voting public will prefer frothing to incompetent, since FiveThirtyEight thinks there’s a better than 60% chance the Senate majority will go to the GOP in the election — although not by a lot, so, yay, I guess?
What that will mean in real-world terms is a lot of parliamentary blockage and/or presidential vetoes of Republican legislative initiatives for the next two years, which I’m fine with (see my opinion of the general state of the GOP above), but which means another two years of high-level stupid on the federal level. But inasmuch as we will get that even if the Democrats do, in fact, barely manage to keep the Senate: Meh. And, yes, I know it’s rather more complicated than that, but I’m telling you how I feel about it all. This is how I feel.
(Mind you, if the GOP takes the Senate, I think there’s a reasonable chance of the GOP in the House finally voting to impeach Obama for the heinous crime of being Obama, although I’m sure they’ll find something else to pretend it will be about. And then Obama will be acquitted in the Senate trial and we’ll establish the hard fact that the modern GOP, when given the opportunity, will try to oust sitting Democratic presidents via the impeachment process just because. Also, I think Obama would love for the GOP to impeach him. There is pretty much no downside for him if a bunch of a white male GOPers impeach a sitting black president on what will amount to complete bullshit charges. Dear House GOP: Don’t be giving Obama one more rope-a-dope.)
I should note that the federal elections are largely outside of my purview this time around. The only federal-level election I need to vote on is for my House representative, who is now and will continue to be John Boehner, who in his entire OH-8 electoral history has never gotten less than 61% of the vote, and isn’t about to blow that streak this year. I’m not voting for Boehner, but doesn’t mean he won’t win. I am as always comfortably resigned to the fact. There are no Senate races in Ohio this year.
On the state level, it’s almost certain sitting Ohio Governor John Kasich is going to win in a walk, not because the people of Ohio love him (general feeling: meh), but because his opponent Edward FitzGerald is better known for parking with a woman who was not his wife than for any of his policy points. I’m not voting for Kasich, but as I don’t like to reward abject incompetence, I don’t think I’m voting for FitzGerald either. I might vote for the Green Party candidate, just to see what it feels like. To be honest, the only state office race I’m really worked up for is Secretary of State, because incumbent John Husted is a tool who went out of his way to make it harder to vote in Ohio. Fuck you, Husted. I’m voting for your Democratic opponent, Nina Turner (although, again, Husted sits on a comfortable margin and will likely win).
Indeed, because of where I live in Ohio, and because of the general trends in the state and in the national races, it looks like a good(ish) year for GOP in general. I’m not a fan of the current iteration of the GOP, which is putting it mildly, so this does not please me intellectually. But speaking as a straight white man of comfortable income, the GOP isn’t going to do me any harm, personally. It’s everyone else who might eventually feel the pinch. This is where I remind all y’all that folks like me already get a ton of advantages; you don’t have to keep giving us more through the political process.
And I think this is why I find it very difficult to get worked up about this particular election one way or another. It’s basically a status quo election. Things might change, but not by much, and at the end of the day the essential problems of our political classes will not be fixed to any degree. This isn’t an epochal election, it’s just killing time until 2016.
Now, I could be wrong: I’m the first to say that my personal political crystal ball has been notably cloudy in the past. But this election doesn’t feel like there’s much there there. I’ll be voting. But this the least enthusiastic I’ve felt about it since I’ve been able to vote. Maybe that means something. We’ll see.
So a few days ago, it was suggested to a faction of the hot, pathetic misogynist mess known as GamerGate that launching a boycott of Tor Books was a possible “action op” for them. This was quickly shot down, no doubt in part because the person suggesting it was Theodore Beale, and no one at this point actually gives a crap what he thinks about anything. However, last night I went on another Twitter tear on the subject of GamerGate, and I woke up this morning to a few chuckleheads bleating to Tor about what a terrible person I am, in order to, I don’t know, get Tor to talk to me sternly about having opinions on the Internet, because apparently Tor is my dad. So maybe this push to boycott Tor because of me has legs after all! Hooray!
That said, my takeaway from these furtive attempts to make me shut up about the fact that GamerGate is basically a bunch of terrible human beings being shitty to women, up to and including threatening them and publishing their personal information online in an obvious attempt to silence them is to be just a little bit sad. Not because a few of these human-shaped pieces of ambulatory refuse are trying to do it, but because they’re thinking too small about it.
I mean, seriously, boycotting just Tor Books? Why limit yourself? Sure, it’s the largest publisher of science fiction and fantasy books in North America and possibly the world, but it’s just one imprint of Tom Doherty Associates. There are several other imprints, including Forge, Starscape, Tor Teen and Seven Seas. You should boycott those, too. That’ll show me!
But even then, you’d be thinking too small. Tom Doherty Associates is itself just one appendage of the publishing giant known as Macmillan, with offices in 41 countries! It publishes thousands of books a year! What a target! You should boycott all of Macmillan. Man, I’m quaking in my boots just thinking about it. But even then, it’s small potatoes, for Macmillan is just one part of the mighty Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, with annual sales in the billions of euros. Boycott it all! No doubt all of Stuttgart shall fall into a shambles at the thought.
But even then you are not done, boycotters! For you see, I am crafty and have diversified my revenue stream. I have many publishers and many people I work with. You must punish them all for having me in their midst. All of them. And not just the tiny imprint or sub-company that works with me directly. That’s what a coward would do. And are you a coward? Well, yes, probably, because the tactics of GamerGate have been astoundingly cowardly right from the start. But still! Think big, my friends. Your boycott must not just take out a few targets, it must nuke them all from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.
With that in mind, here are your other boycott targets:
In the UK I am published by Gollancz, which is part of Orion Publishing Group, which is in itself part of Hachette, which is part of Lagardère Group. Crush them!
In audio, I am published by Audible, which is owned by Amazon. Surely it is worth giving up your sweet Amazon Prime subscriptions to make Jeff Bezos shake in his chinos!
But wait! We’re still not done. Because as you may know I have TV deals! One is with FX, which is owned by the Fox Entertainment Group, which is part of 21st Century Fox (yes, it’s 21st Century Fox now. Look it up). You will need to boycott it all. Yes, even Fox News. Be strong! It’s for the cause!
Another is with Syfy and Universal Cable Productions, which is part of NBCUniversal, which is itself part of Comcast. So for this one, some of you will have to give up cable, and possibly your Internet connection. Keep your eye on the prize! It will be worth it!
My third TV deal is with Legendary TV, which is part of Legendary Pictures. And you’re thinking, whew, at least they aren’t part of a multinational corporation! True, but they make films that are distributed through a number of film studios, including Warner Bros (basically, all the DC Comics movies) and Universal. They also own both Geek & Sundry and Nerdist Industries. Noooooo! You can’t get your nerd on anymore! Stay focused! Your pain will make victory that much sweeter!
So, in short, in order to effectively punish my business partners for me having thoughts you don’t like, all you need to do is boycott three of the five major US publishers, two of the five major film/television studios (plus selected product of one of the other ones), and the largest single online retailer in the world. Which, well. It will keep you busy, at least.
Which, to be clear, I am fine with. While you are off whining to these corporations about me, perhaps you will be too busy to, you know, threaten death, rape and assault against women who also dare to express thoughts you don’t like. And you know what? I think that’s a fair trade.
So please: If you’re going to boycott a company because of me, at least do it right. Do it big. There are all your targets, laid out for you. Go get ‘em! I’ll be rooting for you, kids!
And in the meantime, just remember this:
Still true, people. Still true.
Superheroes are fun to think about, but superheroes are often sort of one-dimensional, cardboard characters. In the real world superheroes would be more complex — and like real human beings possibly not perfect. For the novel Misshapes, Alex Flynn uses literary x-ray vision to go behind the “super” and look at a world these folks might really live in.
What if superheroes weren’t so super?
I grew up on comic books and movie superheroes who were bastion of justice and goodness. The past decade has seen some darker heroes but they were pretty light in my youth (my Batman did, after all, have nipples on his batsuit and brooded much less). At the same time a lot of my real life heroes when I was younger rarely lived up to these ideals. I was a big Mets fan as a kid and idolized the 86 World Series winning Mets. I still have a Daryl Strawberry signed ball in my childhood bedroom. But after a number of drug busts, assault charges and bleach filled water guns I learned that these weren’t quite the best role models. I feel like a lot of kids who were fans of the NFL after the recent scandals may be experiencing something similar.
When we started the book the great recession had just hit, and the failure of banks and other institutions brought the idea that many of the people in the business community who we once thought of as almost supernatural in their abilities, were not only fallible, but in some cases criminally negligent in their desire to manipulate the system to their own ends. The strains of an increasing class stratified society were starting to show and it was not a pretty sight. People were losing their homes while those responsible got million dollar severance packages and sailed off into their private world of yachts and oceans with no culpability.
When we started writing the book it was just about a girl dealing with rejection from a super school. Like if Harry Potter got kicked out of Hogwarts. We love Harry Potter and other hero stories, but we wanted to hear the tale of the kid that didn’t get in and still made good. But as we built the world, instead of a fantastical utopia with mustache twirling villains, we ended up reconstructing our own world but with people with powers but might not necessarily be super. Based on the way money, power, institutions, business, private schools, celebrity and politics can all interact and corrupt in our world, we started to see how, superheroes wouldn’t necessarily fix these problems, but would likely just get woven into the mix.
We didn’t want to construct a world with rare powers and secret identities, but wanted to build a universe where powers come in degrees, there utility is not based on some standard measure but on how society see their value, and that most of being a “hero” involved the same image management, press, and advertising as being a sports star. In the Misshapes, the town Heroes live in an upscale community above the town and are often involved in less than heroic activities. Also, in a world were real people can fly, instead of action movies, documentaries are really important, although they are more staged—like The Hills or the Kardashians—than true to life.
Also, and the central thrust of the book, there are people who have powers who are not Heroes, because they don’t get into hero academies and society thinks their powers have no value, called Misshapes. This group faces discrimination from society, in part out of resentment of those who have powers, and in part, out of an almost ingrained animosity that resembles racism. We intentionally left the definitions vague because being a Misshape is, like race, gender or class, a socially constructed concept
In our world, and not a clear thing like you often find in fictional works about superheroes. Most villains, usually after they do something wrong, are labeled Misshapes.
Everyone remembers the line from Uncle Ben in Spiderman, oft quoted in freshman philosophy courses “With great power comes great responsibility.” The maxim pre-dates Uncle Ben, and even has biblical antecedents, but we all know if from Ben. The reality is that while the statement is morally accurate, it is not factually accurate. There’s another saying, not often found in comic books, from Lord Acton* “Power corrupts.” This, in turn, is factually true. In the world we find people with power acting with impunity and immorally, even though they should be acting in a more moral fashion.
However, we still hold them up for praise and are shocked when they fall. In part because we want to believe Uncle Ben and want to ignore Lord Acton, instead of learning that we ourselves must be responsible and hold those who wield power accountable. Applying these lessons about the world to a fictional one with superheroes is the big idea of our book.
However, the idea is just the background. On top of that is the great story of one girl learning how powerful she is and how the world she once believed in is not as it appears. Also, there are some pretty damn cool melees with lasers.
*Acton was likely, like Uncle Ben, quoting another source but his succinctly quote is worthy of the attribution. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
It’s the scene with John Perry and General Gau, I expect. It’s by DeviantArt user “Sharksden,” whose art (including this) you can find here.
And that’s it from me here today, because as noted I am traveling to Chicago, where I will be doing my very last official Lock In tour stop, at the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park, Chicago — literally just a couple hundred feet from my old dorm at the University of Chicago (which is no longer there — replaced by the business school. It’s a trade up, I think). If you’re in the area, I’ll be doing my thing at 6pm. Come on by and let’s close out this tour in style. Here are all the details.
“It’s all beautiful and nothing lasts.” It’s a phrase that showed up in a dream of mine last night, as something I said to my wife as we were crossing a street in a big city. The street was where her father’s family’s farm used to be, in the dream — something that had some resonance in the real world, as her father’s family’s farm is now part of the Dayton International Airport. The dream me made the comment not about the farm in particular, but about life in general, prompted by the farm turned city street.
And it’s a true statement. All of it is beautiful, and it doesn’t last. I’m old enough now to be at the point where I see the movement of life, and me through it, to see people I like and love pass away and to see people I like and love grow up and become who they are. People move, stay and move again; houses become homes, and homes become vacant houses once more. Strangers become friends and sometimes become strangers again. Life happens and it’s a gorgeous thing — all of it, even the annoying parts — and it doesn’t last. It’s all temporary and doesn’t stay.
Before you ask: I’m fine. Everyone around me is fine. Even my pets are fine. Indeed, generally speaking, life is very good. If I had to peg a predicate cause for any of this, it would be going to a memorial service of a distant relative yesterday, who I knew only from family reunions, and coming across a comment in a discussion thread from my friend Jay Lake, which because it was part of a back and forth with several other people, momentarily gave the illusion that he was still with us, alive and engaged. But I think it’s just simply more that I’m now aware that life moves, and I do too.
One thing I think is worth noting is how my brain phrased the statement: “It’s all beautiful and nothing lasts.” This is a qualitatively different statement than it would have been if the dream version of me had said “it’s beautiful but nothing lasts.” That to me feels defeatist — what’s the point of acknowledging the beauty of life if it just goes away. That fact that it doesn’t last is why you should acknowledge it: it won’t stay, it will be gone and you will be gone, too. But while you live, that beauty exists and it is there for you to love and cherish, and to be a part of and to add to if you can.
It won’t last. Nothing lasts. But it’s here, and you should be here for it, and in it.
Thank you for being part of it, in this moment. I appreciate it, and the moment we’re sharing. I hope you do too.
And they’ve done an unsurprisingly thorough job of it. If you’ve ever wanted to do your own Kickstarter/crowdfunded project, you’re going to want to read this. What I particularly like is that it emphasizes the fact that Kickstarting a project is a tremendous amount of work, which is a thing I think a lot of people gloss over to wallow in the idea of Kickstarter/crowdfunding as this sort of cosmic ATM that just shoots free money at people. Doesn’t quite work that way, folks. Trust the Doubleclicks on this one.
No? Well, look, I just did.
See you Monday!
Lots of books and ARCs this time around. Tell me which of these you crave, down there in the comments.
Yes, if you’re in or around the University of Chicago — my alma mater — or, heck, just in the city of Chicago in general, come on down and see me. This is the very last official stop of the Lock In tour, and after this I have no more scheduled public appearances until 2015. So if you want to see me this year, this is the time and the place.
Here are all the details. See you there!
My pal (and musician and songwriter) Mark Nevin wrote a song called “Kiteflyer’s Hill” for Eddi Reader, with whom he had been in the band Fairground Attraction, for her solo album Angels and Electricity. He’s recently also done a version of it for his own solo album Beautiful Guitars, which will be out in the next week or so. I have the album, and it’s well worth getting if you’re a fan of genuinely lovely songwriting, and why wouldn’t you be.
“Kiteflyer’s Hill” is simply one of my favorite songs ever — it’s beautiful and wistful and gorgeous and captures what it’s like to remember a love of long ago — and I thought it would be fun to share the song done both by Mark and by Eddi, as a way to contrast how two takes of the same song can have an effect on the feel of the thing. I like them both: Mark’s is low-key, comfortable and lived-in, while Eddi’s soars up like, well, a kite, as it would with her matchless set of pipes. I hope you enjoy both.
First Mark’s version:
And now Eddi’s (note: video is slightly out of sync):
There are many interesting things about Rajan Khanna’s debut novel Falling Sky, but the one that pings my radar is that involves dirigibles, and that (of course!) noted dirigiblist Cory Doctorow plays a key role. Read on to find out how it all connects.
Like most novels, Falling Sky began with a sentence. It was a sentence I had written years ago and filed away, like I do with many of my story ideas. It involved a man, floating in a dirigible, afraid to go down to the ground. At the time I didn’t know why he was afraid, or what possibly lurked beneath him. I just knew he had to descend but didn’t want to.
In 2008, when I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, I took that sentence with me. I wanted to turn it into a story, but I didn’t know where to take it. It was Paul Park, our first week instructor, who pointed me in the right direction. He said something along the lines of, “It can’t be a fantasy. You don’t want every person in this world in their own balloon.” Up until that moment, I thought I might. But I quickly shifted gears and decided it had to be science fiction and that despite the outlandish premise, I would make it as realistic as possible.
What the man in the dirigible was afraid of became a pandemic, an apocalyptic disease that shattered modern society. A virus so contagious that it kept people isolated, afraid of being exposed or infected. The victims became, essentially, off the rack zombies (though in my defense it was late night/early morning as I was pulling this together and I was reaching for the low hanging fruit).
The man in the dirigible became Ben Gold, my protagonist, an airship pilot and survivor, staying in the air for as long as he could until his needs, primarily his hunger, sent him down to the ground to risk his life.
I had my initial hook – a post-apocalyptic setting, a rugged anti-hero in an airship, and a host of slavering, zombie-like creatures waiting below him. And while the story needed a lot of work, the setting seemed to generate some interest, enough that several of my classmates, and our instructor for that week, Mary Rosenblum, encouraged me to expand it into a novel. The other overwhelming bit of feedback was to ditch the zombies and make the disease more nuanced. So, when I revised it, instead of being fatal, the disease regressed humans into a savage and bestial state, robbing them of reason, increasing their hunger and aggression.
The third instructor to weigh in on the story was Cory Doctorow, who admirably went back and read the previous week’s stories. He suggested an extra scene where Ben, a lifelong survivor, is confronted with the horrifying lengths some people will go to in order to survive and it calls his choices into question. This would be very useful to me later.
Years went by and the story remained unpublished and a novel was missing from my mental landscape. I kept returning to the idea and bouncing off of it. It just didn’t have any life. Then one day, I found Ben’s voice. I heard it, in my head, in first person, and everything clicked in that moment.
So I had my high concept (post-apocalyptic adventure with airships) and, remembering what Cory helped me realize, I had my central idea — what it means to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. What is the cost of that survival? What does it mean to eke out existence in a shattered world? What lengths would you go to survive? Is there a point where survival by itself isn’t worth it anymore?
In the animal kingdom the basic point of life is often to live long enough to pass your genes on to the next generation. But is that enough for human beings? What about a world where procreation is often a danger because of the risk of infection? And how much of your humanity can you hold onto, and which parts, in the face of losing it to a disease?
Furthermore, is survival really the point at all? If Ben is the face of survival in the book, Miranda, one of the other main characters, is the face of idealism. At the start of the novel, Ben has joined up with Miranda and her group of scientists, helping to provide them with transport and protection. Miranda is trying to find a cure for the virus and believes that one is possible. In fact she risks her life on a regular basis for that purpose. Ben thinks she’s crazy, that her idealism will get her killed (or infected), but in Miranda’s mind, it’s worth it. In her mind risking your life for something more than just survival is the only thing worth doing. Just keeping on is a losing game.
That conflict, between Miranda and Ben’s viewpoints, is at the heart of Falling Sky both in its constructive and destructive variations. Because remember, horrible things can be done in the name of survival, and terrible things can be done in the name of hope and progress, too.
Also, there are airships. Lots and lots of airships. Because airships are cool.
We’ve been having a pretty good year here at the Scalzi Compound, and we decided to go ahead and splurge on something that Krissy has wanted for a while now. And here it is: A big ol’ hot tub that seats six, and a big ol’ gazebo to cover it. And thus we have become Hot Tub People, who will now have to give ourselves over to the hot tub lifestyle, complete with hot tub friends and hot tub parties, and, I don’t know, possibly hot tub sous vide six course meals (note: probably not that last one).
I’ve not a huge hot tub person myself, but you know what, I’m not going to lie: it’s pretty nice to soak in this baby after a long day of, well, whatever it is I do these days. I suppose there are worse things than become Hot Tub People.
No, don’t just invite yourself over. Wait for the invite, people.
Recently WordPress changed something on the backend relating to how comments are handled (not just here, but globally) and as a result urls for images now embed in comments. Well, I’m not a fan of that; images have the potential to send things off the rails pretty quickly. I’m talking to WordPress about pulling it from the site (they’ve been very helpful), but in the meantime I’m taking the precaution of sending comments with image urls into moderation. If you post one, it’ll get held up until I approve it. I don’t imagine this will be a problem for the vast majority of you.
Mind you, if you try to post an image that annoys me, it won’t make it out of moderation, and if you keep it up, you’ll find yourself in moderation. But, again, I don’t really expect this will be an issue with most of you. Most of you are lovely people.
Yup. I like where I live. Hope you’re enjoying your day too, wherever you might be.
First some tweets, and then some commentary.
There’s something both telling and sad about the sort of dude who literally thinks that a) impugning my masculinity is the worst possible thing they can say about me, b) that it’ll somehow lessen me if they do. On the former, meh. Given the ridiculous ideas that they have regarding masculinity, I’m happy not to meet their definition. On the latter, whatever. They’re idiots. I’m not inclined to care, outside of the opportunities it provides for pointing and laughing.
But I do think it’s useful to publicly mock their stupidity on such subjects, for the amusement and edification of others. I also think it’s particularly useful to mock their definition of masculinity and gender, and their baseline assertion that being male is the apotheosis of the human condition. It’s not; it’s merely one way to be. I’m okay with gender being more than binary; I’m okay with people having a gender other than mine; I’m okay with people shifting their idea of what their gender is over time. Because I don’t think one’s essential value is rooted in gender, and someone else’s gender is nearly always not my business anyway. I am for people being who they are, not who anyone else wants them to be, or demands them to be for their own selfish reasons. I’m for letting the world know that I think such a position is the most correct one to have. I’m for calling out people who try to make difficult for those who don’t conform to their own, usually bigoted, expectations.
Want to declare that because I don’t meet your pointless and stupid definition of “masculinity,” I should identify as another gender entirely? Awesome. I get to create a gender that doesn’t have your jackassedness riddling it front to back. The folks in my gender won’t be focused on being a “real man” or a “real woman” but on being “really me.” My gender will have all the best parties because we can do what we want, free of gender expectations! Because there are no gender expectations! My gender gets to love whoever they want! My gender gets to be whoever they want! My gender doesn’t care what you think my gender should be! My gender rocks. And it doesn’t need you, or care what you think of it.
If only it were as easy for people of every gender to be as free in theirs as I am in mine. Because of course that’s the thing: Even when these idiots declare me “not a real man,” it doesn’t change that I am always seen to be a “real man,” and that I get all the benefits that accrue to me for being biologically male, identifying as a man, and conforming to social standards for what both of those mean. The worst these dudes can do is be mean to me on the Internet. It doesn’t change anything about what I get from the world. And while I can mock them for it and proclaim the new Scalzi Gender in all its awesomeness, let’s just say that I know that it’s easy for me to do so, because in the end society has my back. Not everyone else gets to say the same. We need to be working on that.
Uh oh. Now Sophie Littlefield has gone and done it. She has revealed, in her Big Idea piece for her latest novel The Missing Place, what sort of disreputable persons writers truly are! And she does it through a piece of jewelry!
I often wear a small charm on a chain around my neck. You’ve seen the sort—a little silver ring inscribed with inspirational snippets like “Faith Friends Family.” Except that mine reads “Lie Cheat Steal.” At first it simply amused me, a secret antidote to the occasional tedium of everyday life, but over the years I have come to realize that it is in fact an apt motto for an author. Lying, of course, is the taproot of fiction; but cheating and stealing are its inevitable outgrowths. The authors I admire are thieves of the telling detail, stealing the look in a lover’s eye or the set of a pugnacious jaw, and the best inveigle their way so deeply and artfully into human interactions that their victims may never know what has been taken from them.
I went to Williston, North Dakota in January, 2013 to do research for THE MISSING PLACE, which is set in an oil boom town. I arrived on a small, trembling prop plane. Rented the only car available: dirty, outfitted with a cracked windshield and someone else’s fast food wrappers, with no snow tires on the eve of a major storm. Stopped at a truck stop for lunch; walked to my table under the gaze of thirty men dressed for hard labor and one harried waitress in a pink flannel shirt and a ponytail. Ate my scrambled eggs, watched and listened, and took notes.
“young guys beards, old guys shave”
“Wrangler Levis no upscale brand”
“smell—Aramis/cigarette smoke/rubber?/creosote?/coffee/cleaner, not Windex—industrial?”
“real butter not margarine—melted/re-refrigerated”
“easy listening, Eminem cover (???)”
I hunched over my notebook, not wanting anyone to see what I was doing. There is, for me, a keen sense of shame at being caught spying, because that’s what the early moments of a novel’s creation feel like to me: illicit, invasive, even assaultive. I steal from people—I steal their details, the tiniest pieces of them.
In the movie “Trading Places,” Eddie Murphy explains to Dan Akroyd that he can make a fortune by skimming pennies from financial accounts that contain huge sums of money. It will never be missed, he points out—it’s a virtually victimless crime. Observing people, perhaps, might be viewed the same way: the characters that eventually populate my books were not stolen whole cloth; I can say with confidence that no real person has ever been written into one of my books. But every character is stitched from stolen parts, like scarecrows made from rags of unknown provenance.
Maybe a better analogy is the nests that male bowerbirds, attempting to attract mates, create from anything they can lay their beaks on: leaves and flowers but also bits of cloths and stones and coins and plastic bottle caps and nails and even rifle shells. Anything, in other words, to get the job done—and all of it stolen.
A bird, however, is innocent; a bird simply fulfills its avian purpose, that for which the Creator destined it. An author is different. She is the outlier, possessor of the poisoned gene: normal people interact, attract and repel, but authors cannot leave well enough alone. Conversations overheard become stories germinated. Ordinary people become villains, victims, lovers; subtle clues convince the author they are gifted, misunderstood, endangered, celebrated, feared, doomed.
So I watch and listen and spy; I pilfer and plunder, appropriate and confiscate. You, friend from my past, did that scene between twelve-year-olds not trigger a memory? Or you, from that mortifying OKCupid date when we couldn’t find a single thing to talk about, didn’t you see yourself in the mirror of that fictional hotel room? And you most of all, perhaps, my former spouse, don’t you see yourself in every love story, every breakup and every murder? (I leave you clues, you know; if you read carefully you’ll recognize a shirt I bought you in Chicago or that fender-bender the day after you drove the Camry off the lot.)
A dozen books into my career, I recognize certain facts. One is that you can get away with a lot. Another is that you can get away with almost nothing. The latter refers to the fact that no matter what a critic praises you for, another will excoriate you for the same thing. The former is more interesting: when I take liberties, I’ve learned I’ll rarely be caught, whether it’s a historical inaccuracy or a stolen identity. Perhaps this is because a devoted reader invests the storyteller with her trust at the outset , trading skepticism for full immersion. The more skillfully the author describes, the more easily the reader overlooks the sleight-of-pen. Verisimilitude is more than enough, especially when truth—well, unvarnished truth can be mightily dull, which is why we choose fiction in the first place.
So I scribble on, stealing from you the things you won’t miss—the fake smile that disappeared from your face the second your husband turned away; the muttered threat when you squeezed your child’s arm in Target; that glance you gave the ass of the girl who could be your granddaughter. But also that cheap little cross you wear on a chain that slips over all your tattoos, the little tug you gave your teenaged daughter’s top when she wasn’t looking, the way you weren’t going to let anyone see how those Payless heels were killing your feet as you turned in your job application at the Petco.
All of it, snatched and spirited away and woven together, like the shiny objects in the bowerbird’s nest—to attract you, my dear reader. Like a kleptomaniac, I can’t stop; I’ll keep trying to catch your eye with my stories, to make you wander close. Lying, cheating, stealing: whatever it takes.
I was traveling on October 8, the official anniversary date, but today works just as well for this:
Hey, I’ve been using WordPress’ VIP service to host Whatever for six years now, and it has been consistently great during all that time: The site never goes down, never buckles under traffic or spikes, and on the very rare occasions when I do have a concern or issue, it’s addressed quickly, efficiently and by people who are awesome and easy to work with. Which is to say WordPress VIP takes the aggravation out of having a site and allows me to focus here on what I do best, which is write.
As I do every year, I unreservedly recommend WordPress VIP for folks hoping to run their sites with minimum possible levels of aggravation. It is the best hosting solution I’ve ever had. Likewise, for those folks who just want a corner of the Web to call their own, I can also recommend the standard WordPress offerings.
And, also once again, thanks to the people at WordPress VIP who have helped Whatever be a rock solid presence on the Web for the last six years. You folks are the best.
So, yeah. This was a bunch of fun.