In which I discuss Lock In, writing near-future science fiction and other such topics. Check it out here.
Most of you know by now that for the last couple of years I’ve been working with game studio Industrial Toys to help create a mobile-based video game called Midnight Star, and an accompanying graphic novel (also for mobile devices) called Midnight Rises. During that time we created, and tweaked, and beta-tested and tweaked some more. And people asked: When? When will we see these for ourselves? And I always said: Soon, I hope!
Well, in the case of Midnight Rises, “soon” now has an actual date attached to it: I’m delighted to announced that Midnight Rises will be available for iOS devices on January 29th, i.e., less than a week from now. In less than a week you can meet Charlie Campbell and the crew of science vessel Joplin as they prepare for a secret mission! There will be spaceships! Fights in bars! Sarcasm! And also, technologically speaking, a very nifty way of making a graphic novel work with the mobile interface, not just in it. Midnight Rises was written by me and illustrated by Mike Choi, who did a fantastic job.
Midnight Rises will be available as its own app, and the first chapter of the story will be free for the reading. My understanding is it’ll be available worldwide, but I’ll need to double check with Industrial Toys on that (they will have their own post up about it soon (Update, 12:37pm: Here it is!)). We’re doing iOS first, but I believe other formats will follow.
I’m excited for you to see this graphic novel. It’s my first, and I had fun with it. I think you will too, when you see it next week.
And Midnight Star? When will it be out?
Soon. Really soon now.
Folks have been asking how Ghlaghghee is. In brief: Fading. She’s lost a lot of weight, is unsteady on her feet, and spends most of her time sleeping in this particular place (under an end table in the living room, next to the love seat). I’ve taken her to vet and the verdict is: Not getting better, and not likely to.
We’ve had the discussion about if and when to put her down, and our general thinking is that unless Ghlaghghee is showing obvious signs of pain (which she is not), our plan is to keep her warm, keep her loved, and let her end her days here at home if at all possible rather than at the vet’s. In the meantime, we go on.
So that’s where we are with Ghlaghghee.
Sometimes a book’s big idea is a risky one. And sometimes writing a book and getting it to publication involves one risky idea after another. Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith’s new novel Stranger has risky ideas in it from start to finish — and beyond. They’re here to assess their risks for you.
RACHEL MANIJA BROWN and SHERWOOD SMITH:
We knew it was risky when we started.
The heart of science fiction is the tension between the familiar and the different, between new ideas and much-loved themes. Our post-apocalyptic YA novel, Stranger, features our favorite tropes— mutant powers, colorful alien wildlife, building a new civilization from scratch, man-eating plants, desperate treks through the desert, swordfights, attacks by mutant creatures, towns under siege— but in an unusual context.
Young prospector Ross Juarez comes stumbling through the desert, wounded and delirious, and is rescued by the citizens of Las Anclas, a frontier town whose walls are guarded by armed townspeople and carnivorous roses. He brings with him a hidden treasure, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.
Our risky idea was to base the characters of our post-apocalyptic town on the people of modern Los Angeles. Its real teenagers aren’t the straight white culture-less heroes who inhabit most YA novels. They belong to many races and cultures and religions. Some are gay or lesbian or bisexual. Some are disabled. And few of them ever see people like themselves as the heroes of sf novels.
We knew it was a risk to write a YA novel with protagonists who didn’t fit the mainstream publishing mold. Sure enough, Stranger got caught up in a controversy before it even sold, when an agent offered to represent it on the condition that we make one of the protagonists straight or else remove his romance and all references to his sexual orientation.
We refused. Then we put out a call to other writers to see how common it was to be told to change the identity of their characters. We heard many similar stories from writers who were asked to make gay characters straight or to make characters of color white; you can read them in the comments to this article.
To this day, it is a risk to write protagonists who belong to current minority groups. (It is even more difficult to be a writer who belongs to one or more of those groups.) We were lucky to find a publisher and editor willing to take a chance on our book: Sharyn November at Viking.
But the identity of our protagonists wasn’t our only risk. Most recent YA set in the future is dystopian, and explores our worst fears of what our world might become. In these books, love is outlawed, children are forced to murder each other on television, Big Brother watches everything, and hope is at best a wistful notion and at worst a cruel joke.
We took a chance on a more optimistic future. We chose a post-apocalyptic setting not to explore how grim and cannibalistic life can get, but as an opportunity to create a new landscape here on Earth, full of danger but also full of wonder.
Our creatures and plants came from the Rule of Cool: we first invented whatever we thought would be fun, then created an ecosystem that could encompass them all. Wouldn’t it be awesome if squirrels could teleport sandwiches out of people’s hand? Absolutely! And if they exist, probably other creatures have psychic powers too. Bring on the mind-controlling giant lobsters and illusion-casting rabbits!
Wish-fulfillment is often used as a dirty word. But we took a chance on a world where some prejudices have died out, so two gay teenagers could have relationship angst that has nothing to do with homophobia, and an African-American girl who joins the town’s elite military Rangers wonders if she’s their token… telekinetic.
We enjoy such wish-fulfillment for ourselves; books about the difficulties of being a real-life minority are important and necessary, but they shouldn’t be the only books out there. Sherwood’s wish-fulfillment was a world where old women are respected rather than dismissed and menopause can bring badass powers. Rachel’s wish-fulfillment was a world where the Jews fight invaders and monsters rather than anti-Semitism. And we both enjoyed the chance to create a society without gender stereotypes or sexism, where the sheriff is a woman whose Change gave her super-strength and a skull face, and the male protagonist is the one who gets a makeover.
It’s not a perfect world, even apart from the deadly crystal trees, the chance that a mutation will kill you rather than giving you cool powers, and the nearby tyrant looking to expand his empire. Rachel is a PTSD therapist, and Sherwood has spent a lifetime observing the effects of trauma in the classroom and out of it. We used our experience to make the aftereffects of trauma and battle realistic. PTSD isn’t something you can shrug off, power through, or cure with love. But neither is it something that will destroy your life forever.
Our book is fiction, but we don’t want it to convey messages we don’t believe in. We created a hopeful future because we believe in hope. Nowadays, that may be our most radical idea.
Life imitates art. Our book started with a risky idea and was bought by an editor willing to take a chance on it. Now it’s embarking on yet another risky journey. We decided to self-publish the rest of the books in the series. Sherwood explains our reasons in full in this post.
In short, staying with Viking would mean a minimum of two years between the release of Stranger and its sequel, Hostage, with the likelihood of a similar gap between all subsequent books. We decided to prioritize releasing the books in a more timely fashion and being able to control their price, over keeping the prestige and resources of a traditional publisher. So Stranger is published by Viking, and Hostage is published by the writer’s collective Book View Café.
This risky strategy seems fitting for a series that, from the beginning, has been all about taking chances.
Continuing to catch up on all the new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound since the turn of the year. Here’s today’s batch, and there are some excellent finds in here. What looks good to you? The comment thread hungers for your input.
The headline says it: I’ll be doing my first stand-alone event of 2015 locally, at the Montage Cafe in Greenville, this Friday. The doors open for the event at 6pm, and I’ll start my part of the thing at 7.
What will I be doing? Well, I’ll be reading brand new stuff that I’ve never read before, and I’ll also be probably going through the archives a bit for funny stuff. I’ll also be answering questions and generally chatting. If people bring books, I’ll be signing them. And so on.
The event is open to the public, so if you live in or around Darke and Miami counties here in Ohio, come on by. At the moment, it’s my only scheduled public appearance in Ohio for 2015 (although that may change when we schedule the book tour later in the year). Come on around; I’ll be looking forward to seeing you.
A pretty one tonight. Mind you, I don’t show off the unpretty ones.
And now I’m catching up to new books and ARCs that have arrived here at the Scalzi Compound since the turn of the year. Here’s the first batch! See something that catches your fancy? Tell me what it is in the comments.
I attended the Confusion convention the first time in 2005; Old Man’s War had just come out and I wanted to see what a convention that was not a WorldCon was like. I picked Confusion because it was relatively nearby (3 hours driving, which is nothing to a native Californian) and because it looked interesting. I had a great time, and the people there were lovely to a newbie author such as myself, so I kept going. I haven’t missed one since, including the one that wrapped up today, with Karen Lord as the author guest of honor (she was fantastic).
I tend to think of Confusion as my “home” con (along with Penguicon, another Michigan convention; the two conventions share a lot of staff) which means I treat it differently than many other cons. For example, I will frequently show up to it and do no programming at all; I’ll just hang out in the bar and chat with friends. I did some programming this year, but not a lot. I don’t worry about promoting myself there; I’m just there to relax and be with people I like. In short, it’s the convention I experience as a “fan” just as much — if not more so — as I experience it as a pro.
I brought my Nikon with me this year to take some pictures of the convention and also of a fencing expedition I want on with a few other authors and friends courtesy of Subterranean Press; if you’re curious what this year’s edition of festivities looked like, here’s the photo set. Enjoy.
And yes, I’ll be back next year too — provided they don’t counter-schedule it with Arisia, at which I will be a guest of honor in 2016. Hopefully they won’t; I would hate to miss my home convention.
Sometimes a terrible event can inspire authors not just to create fiction but to look at their environs a whole new way. Douglas Wynne explains how an attack on his town brought about his latest novel Red Equinox — and a reevalution of his city.
On April 19, 2013 I sat at the computer riveted to a live streaming Boston police scanner as authorities closed in on the trailered boat in Watertown where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was holed up. “Watch your mic,” an unidentified officer kept repeating, aware that the world was listening in.
Boston is my adopted city. I moved from NY to “the hub” in the early nineties to attend Berklee College of Music and eventually settled down about an hour north of the city, near my wife’s hometown. I’d spent a good part of the day wondering if the Marathon Bombers were headed north on Route 1 toward our neck of the woods, that part of Massachusetts where H.P. Lovecraft placed his fictional town of Arkham and Miskatonic University.
We’ve become accustomed to the idea that terrorists kill in the name of their gods. They are delusional, of course. Fanatics. But sometime soon after the Marathon Bombings I was struck by the kind of what if that makes a writer explore a horrific scenario simply because the question won’t stop whispering in his ear until he does: What if the hideous acts of a terror cell caused their victims to actually witness their terrible gods walking the earth?
The notion that members of a cult of chaos might live among us, that their nihilistic faith could cost us our lives, is a long-running leitmotif in horror fiction. You can hear strains of it in the eloquent, yet discordant music of H.P. Lovecraft, right on down to that most modern incarnation of the genre—the beating drums of Fox News.
I wanted to bridge the gap between Lovecraft’s xenophobia and the real post 9/11 fears we have to live with now, no matter how liberal our worldview may be. So I invented a modern incarnation of Lovecraft’s Church of Starry Wisdom, an urban religious minority living in flood-ravaged Boston. These aren’t the gibbering inbred hicks of HPL’s forgotten shanty towns. They attend MIT and use 3D printer technology to bring ancient abominations to life. They have a coherent philosophy akin to that of eco terrorists, believing that man’s greatest achievement was raising the sea level high enough to turn coastal cities into a suitable habitat for their dark marine deities, and having accomplished that, he should be eradicated before he destroys the planet.
I got hooked on Lovecraft when as a teenaged Stephen King devotee I started branching out and picked up a cheap paperback of The Lurking Fear and Other Stories with a fantastically lurid cover. I still have it. There’s something about the cosmology and the gorgeous dread that gets under your skin. When I sat down to write Red Equinox, I wanted to pay homage to that influence, but I also wanted to tell a character-driven story because that was what got me hooked on King in the first place and opened the door to the more abstract horrors of Lovecraft, Poe, and Machen.
I started with two lists: the Lovecraftian tropes I wanted to include, and a longer list of the ones I wanted to defy. I could tell right away it was either going to be a train wreck or a hell of a ride, but in any case I was going to write a book I wished I could buy: a cinematic Cthulhu Mythos thriller with character as the engine.
That meant writing about people I find interesting, people I could care about. It meant a cast you won’t find in traditional weird fiction: a female lead with Seasonal Affective Disorder who discovers monsters lurking at the edges of her infrared photography, a homeless African American occultist who wears a Burger King crown and 3D glasses, an immigrant Brazilian street artist, and an Irish American covert agent with a gambling habit. These are my heroes. In short, a ragged band of freaks that waspy old Howard Phillips would have shunned. I even named the hurricane that floods Boston after Lovecraft’s wife and gave my heroine a dog for a sidekick because HPL was a cat person.
Maybe it’s a passive aggressive love letter to Lovecraft. I wanted to thank him for the cosmic dread but not the racism. And I wanted to see if that cosmic dread could coexist with the headlong momentum of an urban thriller.
In the process I fell in love with my adopted city all over again.
The story is set in an alternate Boston, a city on a slightly different historical track from the real one. The angles are a little askew. It’s a place where the words BOSTON STRONG never made it onto T-shirts and bumper stickers because the Marathon Bombings didn’t happen, but the Church of Starry Wisdom did.
Researching the book brought me back to my old stomping grounds more often than I’d been since college and introduced me to some of the city’s weirdest features: the odd acoustics of the Christian Science Center’s Mapparium, the “Halfway to Hell” graffiti that has been repainted on the Harvard Bridge for half a century, the “non-Euclidian” geometry of the Stata Center at MIT, and the cabalistic secrets encoded in monuments built by Freemasons.
There were false starts (I trashed and rewrote the first chapter in the second draft) and backtracks (realizing I still needed a character I’d killed), but the city itself often presented solutions to the twists and turns my plot had taken without a map. At times, the journey felt strange and synchronistic, like I was on the scent of something. After all, my father-in-law is a Freemason named Howard, who lives on Phillips Ave up here in Lovecraft Country. And at the end of the journey, the Big Idea sparked by an act of terrorism turned out to be a myth about light shining against the darkness in the heart of the city I love.
In a past life I was a full-time film critic and still keep up with the field. So every year when the Oscar nominations come out, I predict what will win in the six major categories, first fresh out of the gate, then again just before the ceremony, to factor in changing circumstances. The awards were just announced, so let’s dive in, shall we?
“American Sniper” Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper and Peter Morgan, Producers
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole, Producers
“Boyhood” Richard Linklater and Cathleen Sutherland, Producers
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson, Producers
“The Imitation Game” Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman, Producers
“Selma” Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Producers
“The Theory of Everything” Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce and Anthony McCarten, Producers
“Whiplash” Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook and David Lancaster, Producers
The Academy can nominate up to ten films a year in this category; eight made the cut this year. At this point I usually throw out the films that don’t also have a director nominated as well, because it’s very rare for a film to win Best Picture when the director is not at least nominated. This year, that would leave out Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, Selma and American Sniper. I do think we can chuck out Whiplash and Theory, so out they go. However, I think it would be foolish to entirely discount Sniper this year; it has several other high-profile nominations, and I think people know who Clint Eastwood is as a director (he’s already got two director Oscars). Selma I would have ranked higher but a quick scan tells me it has two nominations total (the other being in Best Original Song), and I think that means it’s done.
I would toss out Budapest next, for the simple fact it’s a comedy and comedy statistically has a rough road to victory in the category. Birdman is also nominally a comedy, but I think its chances are better. For lack of a better way of putting it, it’s fresher than Budapest, which is, essentially, Wes Anderson doing what we all know Wes Anderson does (note: this is not a complaint. I loved Budapest).
At the moment I think four nominees have a decent chance at the Oscar: Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood and Imitation. If I had to rank their chances at the moment, I would do it thusly: 4. Birdman; 3. Boyhood; 2. Sniper; 1. Imitation. I rank Imitation highest not for any special fondness for the film, but because it’s a Weinstein Company film, and if the Weinsteins know anything, it’s Oscar campaign trench warfare. But I don’t think any of these films is out of the running.
If the Oscar were mine to give, I’d probably go with Boyhood, because it’s a marvelous stunt of a film (it was filmed over a dozen years with the same cast) that will likely never be done again, and it was also better than its stunt. That’s worth an Oscar to me.
But yeah, this category I’ll definitely be revisiting later.
Will win: The Imitation Game
Should win: Boyhood
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”
Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”
Miller out first, on account that Foxcatcher isn’t nominated for Best Picture, and a director’s odds are not good at all when that happens (in fact I can’t recall off the top of my head a director winning when their film was not nominated for Best Picture; if it happened it was long long ago).
After that it gets tricky. Tyldum has a chance, and historically the Academy likes to tie in the director and picture awards, and I am nominally giving Imitation the lead in that race at the moment. However, particularly in the last several years the Academy hasn’t been shy in splitting director and picture, and the rest of Tyldum’s resume consists of little-seen (in Hollywood) films in other languages, and there are other people in the category I suspect the Academy might want to award. So I’m hedging my bets on Tyldum.
I think Anderson’s out next, although I suspect there’s a very good chance he’ll be walking away with a different Oscar, which I will detail in a bit. I think, then, it’s going to come down to Iñárritu and Linklater, and of the two, I would put my money on Linklater. As noted before, he’s done something as a director no one else has done; also he’s been nominated for Oscars previously, and it might just be his time. I think he’s got it this year.
Will win: Linklater
Should win: Linklater
Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything”
Julianne Moore in “Still Alice”
Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”
Let me just make this one short and say I will be very surprised if Moore doesn’t take it. She’s been nominated for Oscars four times before (twice in both acting categories), she’s great, it’s her time, and the competition is between two women who have won Oscars already (Cotillard and Witherspoon) and two first-timers (Jones and Pike). This, to me, is an easy call. If Moore doesn’t get it, I’d put money on Jones, followed by, in order, Witherspoon, Cotillard and Pike.
Will win: Moore
Should win: Moore
Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”
With the exception of Redmayne, who I think should probably be happy just to be here, I have no idea how this category will go. Carell has a very good chance by playing against type in a dramatic (and creepy) role and doing a universally acclaimed job of it; Cooper has been previously nominated and this could be Sniper’s big Oscar pickup; Keaton is giving the performance of his career and is the legitimate comeback kid of this crowd; Cumberbatch is as hot as an actor can be at the moment and may benefit from an Imitation Oscar snowball effect. It could go any of these ways. I just don’t know. Someone who tells you they know, or that there’s an easy choice here, is lying.
For the moment, I’m gonna give the edge to Cooper, for no other reason that of this whole crowd, he’s the one closest to the standard idea of a leading man, and yes, that’s an utterly shitty reason, but look, I told you this is a tough category. If the award was mine to give, I’d give it to Keaton, who takes a role that could have been mere parody — Keaton playing an actor who played a superhero, trying to escape that legacy! It’s so meta! — and made something better out of it.
Will win: Cooper
Should win: Keaton
Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood”
Laura Dern in “Wild”
Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game”
Emma Stone in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”
Oh, look, here’s Streep’s annual nomination. They just gave her an Oscar in the lead category; she’s not gonna get this one. I’m not quite feeling it for Stone or Dern, either, although I approve of the nominations in both cases, and if either wins, I think it will say positive things about their filmmate’s chances in the lead categories. I think this will come down to Arquette and Knightley, and of the two I would give edge to Knightley, because of her previous nominations and because of the Weinstein ability to craft Oscar juggernauts. But if Arquette takes it, it could be an early signal of good things for Boyhood generally.
Will win: Knightley
Should win: Arquette
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall in “The Judge”
Ethan Hawke in “Boyhood”
Edward Norton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher”
J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”
Oh, I don’t know. I’m historically bad at guessing this category and this year is no different. My gut tells me that Duvall’s on the slate because Robert Downey Jr., did some campaigning for him, Simmons is in the Richard Jenkins “Guy you know from TV gets a shot” slot, Hawke’s gonna get slighted again, and then Ruffalo and Norton are gonna basically slap fight for it from there, and Norton taking it because it’ll be Birdman’s nod for the year. But I have to tell you, my gut could be really high.
I want them to give it to Hawke, I know that much; for a dude who currently makes most of his income from Screen Gems horror/sci-fi films that show up in the off-brand months of the cinematic year, he sure shows up at the Oscars at lot (two screenwriting nominations and now two supporting nods), and if anyone deserves it this year, it’s him, unless you think doing the same role for a dozen years and making it work is easy.
Yeah, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I think Boyhood should pretty much win all the Oscars this year. Anyway.
Will win: Norton
Should win: Hawke
Screenwriting Oscars are the unofficial “compensatory Oscars” for directors — just ask Orson Welles or Quentin Tarantino — so I think there’s an excellent chance this year that Original Screenplay will go to Wes Anderson, for Budapest (and also as a bit of a career award). If it doesn’t go to Anderson, I expect it to go to Linklater, also nominated in the category. Adapted Screenplay? Maybe the other director named Anderson (Paul Thomas, for Inherent Vice), and it wouldn’t be a bad pick, although Inherent only has one other Oscar nod this year (Costume Design). I suspect Imitation will vacuum up Adapted, via its juggernaut powers. In Animated Feature I expect How to Train Your Dragon 2 will prevail, although Big Hero Six might correct me on my math.
On the science fiction front, Interstellar was nominated in no major categories (unless you count Original Score as a major category), but still racked up five nominations; I would be surprised if it doesn’t at least win Sound Design.
And finally, as a dark horse in the Original Song category, I’m gonna push my chips onto Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” because if you think a musician’s final song, about how Alzheimer’s is slowly robbing him of the memories of the woman he loves, isn’t going to push every single button the Academy has, well, you think differently about the Academy than I do.
Your thoughts on the Oscar nominees this year? Share them in the comments.
In some ways, writing a novel is a bit of magic — you sweep someone away to another time or place using only the power of words. When Greer Macallister was writing The Magicians Lie, about an actual, professional magician, there was another level of magic to consider — as well as some intriguing practicalities.
I write stuff of all sizes, inspired by ideas of all sizes. Some ideas are the right size for short stories, others for poems, other for plays, and so on.
One day a little over five years ago, I was hit upside the head by the Big Idea that became The Magician’s Lie. I knew from the beginning it was a Big Idea, the right size for a novel. I was inspired, actually, by an absence.
Picture a magician doing a trick. Is he pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Shuffling a deck of cards? Cutting a woman in half? Chances are it’s one of the three, and almost certainly, he is a he. We’ve seen countless references to, and images of, a male magician cutting a woman in half. But have you seen anything, ever, about a female magician cutting a man in half? I realized that I hadn’t.
And immediately I realized I wanted to write that book, about that magician.
So The Amazing Arden was born. She would be famous, and infamous, and she would perform an illusion called The Halved Man, and when it seemingly went wrong and a man’s dead body was found under the stage after a performance, she would be suspected of murder.
I knew right away who she would be – but when would she be? I had a choice to make. Would she be a present-day, modern woman, with a Vegas show and a TV special? Or did it make sense to set the story in the past, when stage magic occupied a more central place in the nation’s daily entertainment? After some research, I found I had almost complete freedom. Even today, it’s a rare thing to see a female magician cutting a man in half, and gender politics in the US are, sadly, still retrograde enough that some people would be upset by such a sight. Still, a contemporary setting just didn’t seem right. I found that one of the first famous female magicians performed the world’s most deadly illusion, The Bullet Catch, onstage in New York City in January 1897. I decided to include that real event in my novel to inspire my protagonist.
But I’d never been a historical fiction writer. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know where to find facts, how to select them, and when necessary for the story I wanted to tell, when to ignore them. I got mired in the research, and every time I started a new scene, I’d have to stop writing to go answer basic questions. Would the protagonist, in this particular situation, be wearing a hat? Gloves? How would a person without money get from Baltimore to New York, and how long would it take? Did theaters in the late 1890s and early 1900s have gas lights or electric? What were their precautions against fire? When were sequins invented?
Over the course of five years of writing, I figured out all those things, and more. I discovered I loved writing historical fiction. There’s just something magical about whisking readers away in a compact 320-page time machine. And though I’ve never before spent so long and wept so many tears over writing a novel, I’ve also never been as proud of the ultimate result. My next Big Idea is historical too, and I wonder if all my ideas will fall into that category from here on out. Time, as it does, will tell.
There’s no telling where inspiration will come from, in the end. Any idea might be Big or Small, and you might have thousands or just a handful. Look around you, engage with the world, and let your mind work its magic. You can be inspired by anything you’ve seen – or, as I was, by something you haven’t.
Zeus the cat, shown here being fooled into attacking the underside of a box by the scratching sounds my wife is making, has become quite attached to the self-same box. The box is the one my most recent desktop computer came in; I pulled the computer out of it and the kept the box for a bit just in case something went horribly wrong and I needed to ship the thing back.
As it turns out the computer runs perfectly well, but in the interim Zeus has decided that the box is his spot, i.e., the one place that for him and him alone. If Lopsided Cat dares to sit on it Zeus will thump on him until he moves, and then lie down on it himself as if to reclaim it. It’s kind of adorable, in a cat way.
So although the box now serves no real purpose any more and is in fact a little bit in the way, I think I’ll keep for at least a while longer. It makes Zeus happy and doesn’t hugely inconvenience me, and it’s certainly a cheaper cat seat than many others I might buy (and have). So, enjoy yourself, Zeus. I wouldn’t keep a big pointless box in my office for just anyone, you know.
You ask questions, sure. But have you asked The Question? You know, the question that’s so important it requires capital letters. In this Big Idea, Marcus Sedgwick is addressing The Question, and how it relates to his latest novel, The Gates of Heaven.
“What are we doing here?” A pertinent question at times, for example, when you find yourself trying to shop on 5th Avenue on Christmas Eve, when your car breaks down on the New Jersey turnpike, or when you attend a school reunion. However, even more than that, “what are we doing here?” is one of the most fundamental questions in life, one that everyone must have asked his or herself at some point. You might even argue that it’s The Question.
Very often, The Question first enters our heads during the teenage years; a time apparently calculated for no other reason than to get us worrying about the really big things in life – which we can summarise as being Love and Death. I think The Question defines two kinds of people – that is to say, there are two kinds of reaction to it. The first kind of person is so scared by it, by the potentially nihilistic chasm that yawns wide at its consideration, that he or she then determines never to think about it again, and spends the rest of their life making sure they fill their time and their mind with everything and anything, noble or mundane, to ensure that never happens. The second kind of person spends the rest of their life trying to answer it.
Writers, I guess, belong in the second category, because it’s my belief that all writing is an attempt to find an answer. If that sounds like a big and somewhat pretentious claim, well, so be it. You might argue that not all books seem to be deeply philosophical tomes, but I still argue that even a funny, flippant or feeble book is still trying to work out what it means to be human in some specific way or other, and why the Hell are we here.
So speaking of big and somewhat pretentious ideas, this new book of mine is unashamedly prodding and poking at The Question. You’ll notice I don’t claim it answers it. That’s because I think it’s the job of writers to ask questions, not to provide answers. That’s the job of philosophers, preachers and politicians, and you can take your pick of the ones you trust from that list. But given that I’ve just said that answering The Question is precisely what all writing is trying to do, I should at least give a bit more detail on the particular slant I’ve taken.
Along with love and death, one other thing foisted itself on my psyche when I was a teenager – and it might sound strange but that thing was the rather elusive image of the spiral. A few years after I became a writer (oh Lordy) I started thinking it would be good to write a novel about this image, or symbol, since I had never managed to rid myself of my obsession with it. But, it being patently absurd to write a novel about a geometric shape, it took me a good few years to find an approach to making a book that allowed me to muse upon the meaning of the spiral in the way I wanted to.
So why the spiral? What’s so special about it? Well, as the years went by, I discovered I wasn’t the only one who’s felt that this beautiful image has something very pertinent to say in reference to The Question, to who we are as a species, at what we try to do, and how we try to survive and explore. Cultures from all epochs and all parts of the world have ascribed meaning to the spiral, occasionally with evil connotations, but much more often with more noble aspirations. From primitive cave and rock art, found in countless forms throughout nature, in mathematics and the sciences, and from the smallest scale (think of DNA) up to the immense (we live in a spiral-armed galaxy), the spiral is to be found waiting patiently for us to ascribe it meaning.
So, what is so special about it? I think it’s two things. First, the spiral is simply an innately beautiful shape, but secondly, it’s innately mysterious. The spiral is a symbol of infinity – all other geometric shapes can be depicted in their entirety; the square, the triangle, the circle and so on, but you can only ever depict part of the spiral, and thus the implication of the infinite, and therefore, of the mysterious, and in that most wonderful of words, the ineffable – that which may not be known. And that’s what life ultimately is too – ineffable.
So why are we here? We can only really guess at answers, and amuse ourselves by finding the ones which satisfy us best, unless or until we cross the threshold to the infinite and are rewarded with an answer. Or with that yawning nothingness. And in the meantime, books are pretty much the best way to prod and poke at The Question, either as reader or writer. As Michael Moorcock once wrote, “I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I’d rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas.” Absolutely right. If we only get one trip around the block, I’d rather not waste too much of it on Christmas Eve shopping on 5th Avenue, or breaking down on the sixth busiest road in America. Let’s aim for the stars and in doing so, hope to find some answers that please us while we’re here.
Disorganized because every time I try to organize my thoughts on these topics recently they kind of squirm away. So, fine, disorganized it is, then.
1. As noted in one of the tweets shown above, as a newspaper journalist, as well as, you know, writing here, I’ve done my share of enraging people with words, by mocking ideas that they hold dear, because I thought they deserved mocking. I have had my share of angry responses and even the occasional threat, and my response to those typically has been to poke harder. When I took up the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, that’s what it meant to me. I’ve been that guy.
2. I also recognize that I know almost nothing about Charlie Hebdo, the newspaper, or the tradition of satire and comment that it exemplifies in French culture. From where I sit, a lot of what I’ve seen of it looks kind of racist and terrible. And I understand that Charlie Hebdo didn’t just go after Islamic extremists, and that it went after other groups and people just as hard (and just as obnoxiously). But it reminds me that “we go after everyone equally” doesn’t mean that I feel equally comfortable with all of it, or that it has equal effect. When I say #JeSuisCharlie, it doesn’t mean I want to create or post what I think are racist caricatures and justify them as satire, applied on a presumed equal opportunity basis.
3. But then again my comfort level is about me, not about Charlie Hebdo or anyone else. Free speech, taken as a principle rather than a specific constitutional pratice, means everyone has a right to share their ideas, in their own space, no matter how terrible or obnoxious or racist or stupid or inconsequential I or anyone else think they and their ideas are. I also recognize that satire in particular isn’t about being nice, or kind, or fair. Satire is inherently exaggerated, offensive and unfair, in order to bring the underlying injustice it’s calling attention to into sharper relief. Trust me, I know this. (Satire also has a high failure rate, and the failure mode of satire, like the failure mode of clever, is “asshole.”) A lot of what I’ve seen from Charlie Hebdo isn’t for me and seems questionable, and that’s neither here nor there in terms of whether it should have a right to be published.
4. At the moment there’s an argument about whether news organizations are being cowardly about showing the Charlie Hebdo covers that allegedly were part of the reason it was attacked — the ones with visual depictions of the prophet Muhammad, who many Muslims feel is not supposed to be depicted visually (let us leave aside for the moment the discussion of whether all Muslims feel this way (they don’t) or whether Muhammad has been visually represented in the past even in Muslim art (he has, here and there) and focus on the here and now, in which many Muslims believe he should not be represented visually). The argument seems to be that by not showing the covers (or Muhammad generally), newspapers and other media are giving in to the extremists.
I’m not going to argue that very large media companies don’t have multiple reasons for what they do, including making the realpolitik assessment that displaying a Charlie Hebdo cover puts their employees (and their real estate, and their profits) at risk for an attack. But a relevant point to make here is that aside from the asshole terrorists who murdered a dozen people at Charlie Hebdo, there really are millions of Muslims who are just trying to get through their day like anyone else, who also strongly prefer that Muhammad is not visually represented. It’s not a defeat for either the concept or right of free speech for people or organizations to say they’re factoring these millions or people who neither did nor would do anything wrong into their consideration of the issue.
5. Which is a point that I think tends to get elided at moments like this — free speech, and the robust defense of it — does not oblige everyone to offend, just to show that one can. I can simultaneously say that I absolutely and without reservation have the right to visually depict Muhammad any way I choose (including in some ways devout Muslims, not to mention others, would consider horribly blasphemous), and also that, with regard to depicting Muhammad, as a default I’m going to try to respect the desire of millions of perfectly decent Muslims, and not do it. Because it’s polite, and while I’m perfectly happy not to be polite when it suits me, I usually like to have a reason for it.
6. But isn’t Muslim extremists shooting up a newspaper a perfect reason? For some it may be, and that’s fine for them. But I tend to agree with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar here: shit like this isn’t about religion, it’s about money and recruiting for terrorist groups who use religion, at best, as a very thin binding material for their more prosaic concerns. I’m also persuaded by Malek Merabet, brother of Ahmed Merabet, the policeman and Muslim who was killed by the terrorists. He said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims.” In which case, why offend the good and decent Muslims to get back at two very bad and false Muslims. I’m a reasonably clever writer; I have the capability to make my point regarding these asshole terrorists without a gratuitous display of Muhammad.
7. Hey, did you know that according to the UN, Christian militia in Central African Republic have carried out ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population during the country’s ongoing civil war? And yet I hear nothing from the so-called “good” and “moderate” Christians around me on the matter! Why have the “moderate” Christians not denounced these horrible people and rooted them out from their religion? Is it because maybe the so-called “moderate” Christians are actually all for the brutal slaughter? Christians say their religion is one of peace! And yet! Jesus himself says (Matthew 10:36) that he does not come to bring peace, but the sword! Clearly Christianity is a horrible, brutal murdering religion. And unless every single Christian in the United States denounces these murders in the Central African Republic and apologizes for them, not just to me but to every single Muslim they might ever meet, I see no reason to believe that every Christian I meet isn’t in fact secretly planning to cut the throat of every single non-Christian out there. That’s what goes on in those “churches” of theirs, you know. Secret murder planning sessions, every Sunday! Where they “symbolically” eat human flesh!
Please feel free to cut and paste the above paragraph the next time someone goes on about how all Muslims must do something about their co-religionists (of which there are more than a billion, all of whom apparently they are supposed to have on speed dial), and how Islam is in fact a warrior religion, and look, here are context-free snippets from the Koran, and so on and so forth until you just want to vomit from the stupidity of it all. And don’t worry, there are similar cut-and-pastes for any major religion you might want to name, as well for those who have no religion at all, although I’m not going to bore you with those at the moment.
The point is that, no, in fact, I don’t see why I or anyone else should demand that every Muslim is obliged to denounce and apologize for any bad thing that happens in the world done by someone who claims to be doing it in the name of Allah. As it happens, many prominent Muslims and Muslim organizations did condemn the Charlie Hebdo attacks, just like pretty much everyone else. But silence isn’t complicity or endorsement, and if you demand that it is, you may be an asshole.
8. If there is one silver lining to the horribleness of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it is that people have been confronted with the fact of something they take for granted — the right to say what they want to say, how they want to say it — is something that others will literally kill to punish. That Charlie Hebdo is a problematic example — that is offensive, and intentionally so, and it does make people uncomfortable and angry — is, well, good isn’t the right word. Instructive. Sometimes we have to be reminded that free speech isn’t just for the speech we like, or the speech that’s easy to be reasonable about.
At the same time it’s okay to ask if this welcome outpouring of solidarity is because free speech was attacked, and it was decided that it was worth fighting for, or because a newspaper that mocked Islam was attacked by gunmen purporting to be Muslims, and that this may be less about free speech than another front in a religious/ethnic clash of culture.
My thoughts are that it’s probably some amount of both, and that neither is cleanly delineated. The two men who shot up Charlie Hebdo say they were Muslim; so were some of the people they shot. Those people — the Muslims who died — have been mourned, at least it seems from here, equally with all the other dead. They haven’t been pushed out of frame for a convenient narrative.
And maybe that’s part of the silver lining to this very dark cloud, too — that this isn’t just “us vs. them,” or at least that “us” now contain people in it who might have previously been considered “them.” And that all the people who are saying #JeSuisCharlie, and #JeSuisAhmed, or who are standing for free speech, or any combination of the three, are standing in memory of them as well.
Another possible measure of advancing age: I wrote 15,000 words this week, which was good, but at the end of each day my brain felt a bit wrung out, and today, when I’m not writing on the book but did want to write about politics a bit, my brain was still a bit mush. Whoa there, deep thoughts, it’s saying. Yeah, no, not gonna happen today.
So, sorry. I was going to be all insightful and smart, but then my brain went on strike. Maybe tomorrow.
More than a dozen years ago (yikes) Depeche Mode did a contest where they invited people to remix their then-latest single “I Feel Love,” for some prize I do not remember because, yeah, like I was going to win. Nevertheless I’m a Depeche Mode fan and I thought it would be fun to take a crack at it. I posted the resulting remix before, but now I have the ability to do the little clicky streaming thing, so I thought I’d post again. Here you go.
And for compare and contrast, the original single.
(I did not, in fact, win the contest. Oh, well. At least I had that writing thing to fall back on.)
I’ve been busy! Writing novels!
By way of apology, have this excellent Joan Armatrading song. She’s great.
I was at the dentist’s yesterday to get a small filling done, and while I was there the dentist, his assistant and I had a discussion about painkillers, and the fact that some people — not a huge number but not an infinitesimally small number either — prefer not to use them when getting their teeth drilled. The thinking there, as far as I can tell, is that the momentary displeasure of a high speed drill on your tooth is not worth either a needle being jabbed into your gums, or having half your face numb for a couple of hours, or both.
I personally think this is incomprehensible — please, numb me up and numb me up good — but I’m also aware that my tolerance for pain is not, shall we say, Olympic.
So let me ask you: When at the dentist, do you prefer to be numbed up into oblivion? Or do you prefer to ride it out without the Novocaine? Or does it depend on the procedure? I’m genuinely curious. Let me know in the comments.
Or, what I did with my Wednesday evening.