The Big Idea: Heather Webb

Author Heather Webb knows what people think of creative folks, and their overall mental fitness. But as with nearly everything, there’s more to the story — literally — than common perception. Webb explains why and how her exploration of the theme influenced her novel Rodin’s Lover.

HEATHER WEBB:

Aren’t all creatives a little bit “mad”? This is what many of us assume from centuries of stereotypes and tales of artists and writers doing nutty things. Where is the line drawn between fervor, obsession, and madness—and who decides? Several studies have been conducted to explain the creative’s so-called high proclivity for mental illness. As expected, it’s a difficult tendency to measure, and there aren’t any real answers.

Perhaps artists are “special” or gifted and see the world without filters, with a fine lens that is a constant stimulus to the brain.

Perhaps artists use their gifts as a coping mechanism, a means to expel that which torments them.

Perhaps only a fraction of artists are truly mentally ill, and must overcome their limitations to create because of some inner need, some drive to capture their inspirations.

Or maybe it’s a bunch of hog wash because we’re all a little bit mad.

This is one of the Big Ideas I tackled in my new novel, Rodin’s Lover. My protagonist, Camille Claudel, is the collaborator, student, and lover to the famed Auguste Rodin. (For those of you who don’t know anything about him, he sculpted The Thinker, The Gates of Hell, and dozens of other ground-breaking works during the 1880s.)

Not only was Camille as brilliant as Rodin, but she made waves in the art world with her sensual pieces—women didn’t sculpt from nude models and they certainly didn’t create portraits of naked men and women dancing! (See The Waltz by Claudel, my absolute fav) The ups and downs of garnering reviews and commissions, her kooky family, and her tumultuous love affair with Rodin prompted her mental unraveling. So here we have it—a classic story of an artist going mad. Or is it?

How did I go about this sticky, yet compelling topic?

I peeled back layers of my characters’ psyches to expose their deepest desires. Next, I heightened their motivations by accessing their emotional lenses—the way they viewed their world around them in relation to their pains, hopes, desires. During my revisions, something “crazy” happened. Each character revealed their own bent of madness.

Rodin was driven to create and could think of little else…until he met Camille. Her passion for sculpture flamed his own, and soon, his feelings for her eclipsed his reasoning. What could be a stronger force than love to drive us to distraction? Paul Claudel, (Camille’s playwright brother) found God, and his zeal turned caustic, condemning, and downright punishing. Camille’s senses became heightened, she lashed out irrationally in fits of rage, then inner voices begin to torment her…

Do their unstable moments, their passions and inner demons, make them crazy?
The bigger question is, does it matter? Their obsessions don’t detract from the beauty they’ve created and left behind. I, for one, and thankful for whatever muse inspired them to such masterpieces…But then I’m a writer with my own obsessions. Perhaps you should be the judge.

—-

Rodin’s Lover: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

War changes you, and in the case of the protagonist of Gemini Cell, the new novel by Myke Cole, the changes are more drastic than they are for others. But as drastic as they are, they have their root in a common affliction for those who have gone into combat. Cole explains below.

MYKE COLE:

When you sign up for a hitch in the military, you understand that you might get hurt. Warfighters exist to kill people and destroy property, that’s what they do. You’re ready for privation, for injury.

But it’s one thing to suffer. It’s another thing to change.

You tell yourself that won’t happen. Sure, you may experience horror, but you know who you are. After months in the suck, you take pride in maintaining your sense of self. War is hell, but you haven’t let it make you into a demon.

Then you come home, and something’s off.

It’s in the little ripples you make in the world, the complex web of interactions that extends from the store clerk who bags your groceries to your own spouse and children. You’ve had this experience, and even though you lived through it, it broke something lose inside you, something that can never be put back. The isolation grows and you realize with dawning horror that you have changed in a way that those who’ve never gone to war haven’t, that the change is permanent, that it separates you from everyone else, even those you love the most, forever.

This chasm, this permanent isolation is what we call PTSD, and it’s the big idea behind Gemini Cell.

Warfighters don’t have a monopoly on PTSD. It affects everyone who experiences trauma, from victims of abuse to those raised in poverty, but Gemini Cell is a book about a warfighter, and it’s that brand of PTSD I’m focusing on here.

The protagonist, James Schweitzer, is killed on an op. The story would normally end there, but Schweitzer is summoned back from the dead and put back on the line serving his country. Death has given Schweitzer a lot of advantages: near-immortality, super strength and speed, heightened senses, but it’s also permanently cut him off from the people he once loved and lived alongside. Schweitzer is still a man in every sense save one: he lacks a beating heart.

That’s enough.

Schweitzer left a wife and son behind, and his efforts to reunite with them throw his permanent change into stark relief. The dead can be reanimated, but they can’t be brought back to life. Schweitzer may be able to rejoin his family, but he can never be a husband and father again, not like he was.

Schweitzer’s unlife is a pretty bald stand-in for life with PTSD, the permanent shift that sets you apart from those you love. The challenge of first accepting the change, then charting a new course, a way forward now that the goal posts have all moved, is enormous. For many, it’s insurmountable. It is as if, dead, you walk among the living, who must force a smile and pretend that nothing is wrong.

Many return from war superpowered, able to complete challenging tasks under immense pressure. They are stronger and fitter, undaunted by the fear of death that they have faced so many times. They are disciplined and focused. They get up early. They notice things others might have missed. But these benefits only serve to set them further apart. The loved ones they left behind still want to sleep in, still want to spend their Saturday nights at the loud rock concerts with drumrolls that sound far too much like gunfire.

Those returning from war find themselves swimming upstream, having to navigate job markets that have no use for those whose primary occupation is killing people and destroying property. They are forced to grapple with a world that suddenly has too many choices, a world that looks and smells and sounds familiar, but no longer makes any sense.

It may seem as impossible as a dead man rejoining the living, but military service members do impossible things all the time. The skills that set the warfighter apart in the first place are the same skills they must leverage to cope with being set apart. You can never return life to how it was, but a new life can be built, and it may not be until many years down the road that you realize that it is better than the one you left behind.

Raised from the dead, Schweitzer has plenty of work to do. He must serve on his nation’s front line against a resurgence of magic that threatens to bring destruction to all. But his toughest challenge is in finding a way to exist in a world where he shouldn’t, where his every step is a violation of natural law.

It won’t be easy, but it’s not surprising. This is war, and war is hell.

—-

Gemini Cell: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

John Anderson, RIP

John and Amanda Anderson, and Bruce Springsteen.

I met John Anderson close to nineteen years ago, when I started working at America Online, back in the day when the company was the very cutting edge of social media. I had moved across the entire country for the job, my wife had to stay back in California for a couple of months to finish up a semester of school, and I was literally at loose ends, lost, with no friends and very little idea of what to do with myself. John Anderson was part of a close circle of friends who took me in for trips to the Vienna Pub, late night games of Marathon, arguments about science fiction books and films, and more house parties than I can sensibly remember. When Krissy joined me in Virginia, I think she was glad I had fallen in with this particular crowd. Years later I would dedicate a book to these friends, John among them, in commemoration of their drawing me in and and being friends to me.

John held a special place in the group — the pop culture guru, especially when it came to music. His love for the stuff was simply immense, particularly when it came to Americana, that strain of muscular rock of which Bruce Springsteen was the patron saint (and boy, did John ever love his Bruce). Through him I was introduced to dozens of musical acts, many of whom I still listen to today, and many of whom became friends with John after the fandom wore off (I’m thinking particularly of Matthew Ryan here, though there were others).

What was great about John was that he wasn’t a snob about music when he talked to you about it. He wanted to share the stuff, and he wanted to share it with you, and he was genuinely pleased when you liked what he liked. He was the sort of appreciative, loving and intelligent fan any musician wished they could have.

He was also the sort of friend anyone would wish they could have. He was kind and smart, could talk trash while playing foosball or have a long conversation until the sun came up. He excelled in joy — through music, through reading, through friends and through living, and most of all with through his marriage with Amanda, his wife of nearly a decade.

Some years ago John was diagnosed with ALS, and he shared that news with his friends. The ALS took a physical toll but as far as I can see John continued to excel in joy. He was reading, listening to music and enjoying the company of friends right until the end.

That end, which came yesterday, is not, I suggest, the end of that joy in which John excelled. Those of us who had the joy of knowing him, and of sharing in that joy, will feel it whenever we listen to the music he introduced us to, or the books we read with him, or remember the conversations we had or are in the presence of those who knew him and were known by him.

My heart breaks that John is gone, and for Amanda, and all our friends. But how happy I am we each got our time with him, and shared songs and words and days and nights. I will miss my friend, but I will not miss his friendship. That remains and will remain for as long as I do, or any one of us will.

Thanks, John, for the music, and the company, and for you. Peace be with you, and to everyone who loved you and called you their friend.

John & Amanda, watching Matthew Ryan perform at their home.

John was a guest blogger here a few years back. If you would like to read his post — which make clear his love of music and pop culture — here they are.

Sunset with Sundogs, 1/26/15

The sundogs being the rainbow spots on either side of the sun. I can often get one side but rarely get both. So this is an auspicious day. Also, I suggest looking at the larger version for more detail.

Lock In a Lariat Top 25 Book for 2014

Well, this is a nice thing to discover: The Texas Library Association has put Lock In on the TLA Lariat List for Recommended Adult Fiction, with 24 other eminently worthy entries across several fiction genres. Other science fiction-y entries on the list this year include The Martian from Andy Weir and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel among others. Congratulations to everyone on the list, which I’ve included below from the TLA press release (arranged alphabetically by title):

  • After I’m Gone ~ Lippman, Laura; William Morrow/ HarperCollins Publishers.
  • All the Light We Cannot See ~ Doerr, Anthony; Scribner.
  • Archetype ~ Waters, M.D.; Dutton.
  • The Book of Unknown Americans ~ Henriquez, Cristina; Knopf.
  • The Enchanted ~ Denfeld, Rene; Harper/ HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Everything I Never Told You ~ Ng, Celeste; The Penguin Press/ Penguin.
  • The Girl with All the Gifts ~ Carey, M.R; Hachette Book Group/ Orbit.
  • A Guide for the Perplexed ~ Horn, Dara; W. W. Norton & Company.
  • The Husband’s Secret ~ Moriarty, Liane; Putnam/ Penguin.
  • I Am Pilgrim ~ Hayes, Terry; Atria/Emily Bestler Books.
  • The Invention of Wings ~ Kidd, Sue Monk; Viking Adult/ Penguin.
  • Life After Life ~ Atkinson, Kate, Reagan; Hachette Book Group/ Reagan Arthur Books.
  • Lock In ~ Scalzi, John; Tor Books/ Macmillan.
  • The Martian ~ Weir, Andy; Random House.
  • Neverhome ~ Hunt, Laird; Hachette Book Group/ Little, Brown & Company.
  • Night Film ~ Pessl, Marisha; Random House.
  • The Pearl that Broke Its Shell ~ Hashimi, Nadia; William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers.
  • The Queen of the Tearling ~ Johansen, Erika; Harper/ HarperCollins Publishers.
  • The Sea of Tranquility ~ Millay, Katja; Simon and Schuster.
  • The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing ~ Jacob, Mira; Random House.
  • Stars Go Blue ~ Pritchett, Laura; Counterpoint/ Perseus.
  • Station Eleven ~ St. John Mandel, Emily; Knopf.
  • The Steady Running of the Hour ~ Go, Justin; Simon & Schuster.
  • Terms & Conditions ~ Glancy, Robert; Bloomsbury USA./ Macmillan.
  • To Rise Again at a Decent Hour ~ Ferris, Joshua; Hachette Book Group/ Little Brown & Company.

Many thanks to the TLA folks who sat on this year’s task force committee. You’ve put my book in some excellent company, and I am deeply appreciative.

 

The Next Couple of Weeks Around Whatever

Just as a heads up:

This week (defined as through Thursday) posting is likely to be light because I am trying to finish things before I head off on the JoCo Cruise. But! I’ll be blathering about Midnight Rises (and maybe other things, hint hint), and I’ll have a trio of Big Ideas for you to sink your brains into.

Next week (defined as Friday through February 8) posting is likely to be even lighter as I will be on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean, and honestly, I will have better things to do. No offense. That said, unlike previous JoCo Cruises, where I disconnected entirely, this year I will for business reasons be keeping an Internet connection. So I may — MAY — post some pictures to make you all jealous. Also, there will be one Big Idea piece during this time.

While I am on the boat, I will also be turning on my “I’m ignoring emails” autoresponder, and indeed most emails, excepting certain ones relating to business, will be gleefully not paid any attention to. So, yeah, if I were you I’d either send me a note before Friday, or after the 8th.

Quick Ghlaghghee Followup

First, thank you to everyone for their kind thoughts and notes yesterday, here, on Twitter, in email and in other places. I had a sad day yesterday, and you folks helped get me through it. And it was also nice to have a day where I didn’t do anything but process. I’m still sad today, but I also have things I need to do. So onward.

But I did want to show you where Ghlaghghee is and will be. That’s the backyard maple tree in the picture above; where the small pile of logs is a temporary wood cairn under which you’ll find her. The logs are there both to note the spot (we’ll probably put a small marker of some sort later) and also for the practical matter that there are coyotes and stray dogs in the area and we would like to thwart any of their possible ambitions. Life in the country.

Ghlaghghee unintentionally did us a small kindness by passing away when she did rather than any later, because yesterday morning the ground was clear and it was still warm enough that digging wasn’t a problem. It started snowing almost immediately after we finished burying her. This morning her resting spot is looking very pretty.

In any event, there she is and there she will remain and it’s nice to have her with us. I’m not generally a huge fan of burials — I doubt I will be buried myself — but as I noted yesterday it made sense for this little cat. To the extent that she would think about it at all, I suspect this is what she would prefer. Her whole life was what I can see out my windows. It’s a good thing to be able to look out the window and still see her.

Ghlaghghee, 2003 – 2015

Glaghghee came to us in May of 2003 when my then next-door neighbor Jerry knocked on my door, said, “here’s the kitten your wife said she wanted,” thrust a small, furry thing into my hands, and then walked off. I looked at the small puff of fur, literally no larger than my hand, said “okay” to myself and then took it upstairs with me.

Then I called my wife, who was at work, and the conversation went like this:

Me: You didn’t tell me you ordered a cat.

Krissy: I ordered a what?

Me: A cat.

Krissy: I didn’t order a cat.

Me: Jerry just came over with a kitten that he said you wanted. He mentioned you specifically.

Krissy: Oh, lord. I was talking to him the other day and he said that his cat had had kittens and that he thought that one of them was an albino. I said, “Oh, I’d like to see that.” I didn’t say I wanted it!

Me: In that case, surprise, we have a new kitten.

Also, as an albino cat Ghlaghghee was a bust, because she had markings that made her look like a Himalayan; for all of her life when people saw photos of her they complimented me on what a lovely example of the breed she was. She wasn’t. Her mother, who lived next door, was a mixed breed cat with tortoiseshell markings, and we strongly suspect her father was a Siamese mix feral cat who we would see wandering about the first couple of years we were here. Ghlaghghee, despite appearances, was a common moggie, genetically speaking.

But she was just about adorable, I like cats, and I sensed a real “no takebacks” vibe from Jerry. Deciding to keep her was not really a problem. We also decided that we would let Athena, age four, name the cat. More accurately, Krissy decided it, and I went along, with caveats. Specifically, that we would ask her to think of another name than something dreadfully boring, like “Fluffy,” because, honestly, we were a creative people, we Scalzis, and we could do better.

And this is how that went down:

Me: Athena, we have a new kitten and we’ve decided to let you name it —

(produces kitten)

— but before you do, I want you to try to think of a creative name, not something like —

Athena: I WANT TO NAME IT FLUFFY

Me:crap.

I was not really down with the name “Fluffy,” but you try getting a four-year-old child to change her mind about a new kitten name and see how far you get. In this moment of domestic crisis, I turned, as I so often did, to the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw, who once commented that the English language is so nonsensical in its rules regarding pronunciation that one could spell “fish” as “ghoti” and it could still sound the same.

Well, I could live with “Fluffy” if it was spelled “Ghlaghghee,” so that’s what I did. And thus our cat was named, and also twelve years of people asking how “Ghlaghghee” was pronounced and/or trying to pronounce the word as if their epiglottis was spasming. Which amused me, at least.

Ghlaghghee quickly decided that I was her human, which was fine with me because I like cats and she was both a pretty cat and an exceedingly well-tempered one. She was one of those rare cats who enjoyed being rubbed on her belly, and never complained when she was picked up. I would frequently cradle her like a baby, and she was fine with that; indeed, she often had an expression that I translated as “why yes, I should be carried around and spoiled. I am surprised this is even a question.”

That said, her cuddliness was highly contingent on who you were; she wasn’t much for strangers and even Athena she would sometimes treat as a person below her station. As for the other cats, well. She was the smallest of the three cats we currently have, but there was no doubt which cat ran the household. A prime example of this was the fact that Ghlaghghee had claimed my and Krissy’s bed as her space; if Zeus or Lopsided Cat tried who share it with her, she would make her displeasure with their presumptuousness clear almost instantly. For a decade, the bed was a no-go zone. She got along very well with the other cats, as long as they remembered who was boss.

Ghlaghghee was always popular with Whatever readers, because she was a handsome cat who I would frequently photograph, but she became famous to the entire world in September of 2006, when I taped bacon to her, posted a picture of it here on the site, and for two days that post with a picture of bacon taped to a cat became the most popular thing on the English-language Internet.

Looking back now, it’s difficult to believe that in all the time prior to that moment, no one had thought to tape bacon to a cat, and then put that picture on the Internet, but apparently no one had. The Internet loves bacon; the Internet loves cats. Combining the two was perfect synergy.

For a brief period of time, Ghlaghghee, aka BaconCat, was one of the most famous cats on the Internet and substantially more famous than I was. I had more than one conversation that went like so:

Person I Don’t Know, Who I’ve Just Met: So, what do you do?

Me: Well, I write books. Science fiction books. My most famous one at the moment is called Old Man’s War.

Person: Sorry, I don’t know it.

Me: I also once taped bacon to my cat.

Person (visibly excited): Oh my God! That was you?!? I love that cat!

Ghlaghghee was written up in the New York Times and Wired and several other places; she was unimpressed with them all because she’s a cat and it’s not as if she actually cared about any of that stuff ever, and it never really occurred to me to try to keep my cat’s moment going. Ghlaghghee’s celebrity has long since been eclipsed by the Grumpy Cat and Lil’ Bub and other such creatures, which is fine. Ghlaghghee didn’t seem to mind. A quiet country life, with a few fan club members frequenting Whatever and a Twitter feed, seemed to suit her.

Ghlaghghee always slept with me and Krissy on our bed, and then one morning in December we both realized that she hadn’t come up to sleep with us at all. I went looking for her and she was lethargic and wheezy. I took her to the vet soon after and she told us that Ghlaghghee had suffered from congestive heart failure. Ghlaghghee was not, on balance, a particularly old cat, but congestive heart failure can happen in cats at any point, and more frequently after middle age. Our vet gave us some medicine to help her clear out her lungs, which had been experiencing fluid backup, and let us know that we should be preparing for what comes next.

Cats with congestive heart failure can sometimes live for a couple of years with the condition, but Ghlaghghee was not one of those cats. Literally overnight she went from active to feeble. It was hard to get her to eat or to do anything other than sleep. We did what we could to make her feel safe and loved.

Yesterday it was clear that prolonging her life at this point made no sense. We made an appointment with the vet for Monday. Last night I made her as comfortable as I could, wrapped a towel around her to keep her warm, kissed her on the head and told her good night. I went to sleep and in the night had a dream that she had come to bed with me and Krissy again, sleeping between us as she often did.

I woke up and she was gone.

We buried Ghlaghghee in the back yard, by our maple tree there. She had lived literally her entire life, from the moment of her birth to the moment of her death, within two hundred yards of our house. She belongs here in death, too, in the place she knew, to become part of the landscape and to still be with us.

I’m taking her death badly. I’ve had a month to prepare but as Krissy told me today, preparing isn’t the same thing as being in the moment. Pets are part of your family; you love them and in their way they love you back. Ghlaghghee was indisputably my cat, and I’ve spent a dozen years with her, every day, as part of my life. I knew this was coming and I thought I was ready to say goodbye.

I was, but I wasn’t ready for how much saying goodbye to this particular cat would hurt. I suppose it’s just that I loved her a lot. And it hurts when those you love go away.

Midnight Rises: Out January 29th!

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.

Ghlaghghee Update, 1/23/15

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.

The Big Idea: Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

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.

—-

Stranger: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Brown’s blog. Visit Smith’s blog.

 

New Books/ARCs, 1/21/15

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.

Author Event This Friday at the Montage Cafe, Greenville, OH, 7pm

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.

New Books and ARCs, 1/19/15

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.

Back from Confusion ’15

Krissy, trapped by the insidious Large Inflatable Football Helmet, at Confusion 2015

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.

The Big Idea: Red Equinox

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.

DOUGLAS WYNNE:

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.

—-

Red Equinox: Amazon|Kobo|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

First-Pass Oscar Predictions, 2015

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?

Best Picture

“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

 

Best Director

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

 

Best Actress

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

 

Best Actor

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

 

Other notes:

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.