Daily Archives: April 1, 2008

Tor’s Agent to the Stars Cover (and Spine)

Here it is:

Words are not sufficient to describe how much I like this cover. I was curious how Tor was going to handle it, and I totally wouldn’t have expected this take. But now that I see it, I think it’s awesome. Can’t wait to actually hold it in my hands. Hats off to Irene Gallo at Tor (she’s the art director) and also to illustrator Pascal Blanchet.

Incidentally, the pre-order page for Tor’s trade paperback edition of A2S is now up at Amazon, and it says it has a release date of October 28, 2008. It doesn’t have the cover art up yet. But I imagine it will soon.

Damn, I love being an author!

The Big Idea: Barth Anderson

Just because we’re in the middle of a Reader Request Week, it doesn’t mean we should ignore The Big Idea series. Indeed not — and here’s the awesome Barth Anderson, to talk about his latest novel, The Magician and the Fool, in which an exploration of the history of the Tarot leads the characters in the novel down unexpected roads… and (naturally enough) into danger. Publishers Weekly says “Those willing to surrender themselves to this talented author’s compelling vision will find a fevered dream universe where understanding in the normal sense is probably not possible, nor even necessary.” Which makes perfect sense when dealing with Tarot. And now, Anderson explains how he stacked this particular deck of cards in his novel’s favor.

BARTH ANDERSON

Finding a fresh take on tarot cards’ origins is a tough task. It’s a subject that’s been played out for centuries, after all, but I think I struck a new tune about tarot’s history in my new book, The Magician and The Fool.

Tarot has a compelling, confusing past, full of wannabe occultists and self-styled scholars mucking up the very history they say they’re investigating. One can kind of understand why, because at tarot’s core is a mystery: There is no first, original deck that we know of, or even a reliable etymology of the word “tarot.” Consequently, the subject of tarot’s origins is ripe for people seeing what they want to see in it.

My standards were very high for the tarot content in this book about scholars dabbling in the mystic, because proof of occult origins for tarot is sketchy. The first record that tarot was even used for divination comes nearly one hundred years after their creation. Also, the cards are no older than roughly 1420 at the earliest, created in Italy, and the original, primary purpose of the cards was to play a game called tarocchi, which was probably of Italian origin, too.

So historically speaking, that’s it. That’s the 411. Divination? Gypsies? Masons? Not so much. But I was writing a fantasy mystery, so I was willing to speculate on an occult origin, nonetheless .

But it had it to ring true historically — in particular, I didn’t want to rely on the old chestnut that tarot had Egyptian roots. Tarot has a habit of reflecting popular culture back at itself, and the Egyptian-origin theory is a slice of wishful thinking from Paris circa 1800, when Egypt and tarot were in vogue simultaneously (Napoleon had just sacked Egypt and Josephine was a tarot fan). The very idea that anything wondrous could come out of Italy? Sacre bleu!

After completing my first draft, the narrative had magic Dumpster divers, a menacing, pre-Egyptian god bearing the head of an extinct species of sheep, a mess-with-your-head structure, and a stormy gay relationship between two crazed historians. Fun, but, sadly, still no fresh ideas about tarot’s origins.

So after the first draft was complete, I took my research away from Egypt and started digging in ancient Rome. I chose Rome because the structure of a tarot deck, according to the seminal work of scholar Gertrude Moakley, was designed to imitate the Fifteenth Century triumphal parades in Rome and Milan. These parades were enormously popular (with suited ranks of royalty riding on display) because they re-established the tradition of the ancient Roman “triumph” held for victorious generals.

This Renaissance festival, however, was a bloodless, mundane imitation of the ancient Roman triumph, a rite that reflected on Rome’s most important myth: Its foundation story. Interestingly enough, the triumph also had at its climax the reading of a sacrificed bull’s liver.

So, my theory was (drum roll for the Great Big Fat Idea, please!), tarot cards were evoking this ancient rite and its occult liver-reading, a bit of divination that was critical for ancient Romans because there was a fratricidal murder committed in their founding narrative.

In other words, they had reason to consult the occult.

In the myth, Rome’s founding twins, Romulus and Remus, held a contest of augury (!) to determine where the Eternal City should be built. The contest ended with Romulus slaying Remus and naming the new city after himself. The triumphal parade wound through Rome in such a way as to pass key geographical reminders of the famous twins’ lives (circling the hill where the she-wolf raised them for example), so for the tarot designer(s) to evoke Rome’s ritual parade was to evoke the myth, the augury contest, the ancient murder, and the occult consultation with the divine.

To my knowledge, this connection between tarot and the occult aspect of the triumph of antiquity has never been made before.*

The point of all this? To create a cosmic mystery for one of my book’s crazed scholars to uncover, and to build a solid foundation on which my characters and narrative could dance. Great Big Ideas have to resonate meaningfully in a story or they never rise above the level of wacky scholastics. While this book is about wacky scholastics, in finding Romulus and Remus I’d also found a tragic myth loaded with pain and poetry which could mirror the fiery relationship at the core of the main narrative.

And that’s where the second draft started.

* John C. Miles, one of The Magician and The Fool’s main characters, wrote a letter to the editor of Orbis Tertius Hermeticus magazine, discussing the origins of tarot, which Strange Horizons has graciously agreed to reprint. Watch for it in May or June.

***

Read an except of The Magician and the Fool here. Visit Barth Anderson’s LiveJournal here.

Reader Request Week 2008 #7: Fame or Lack Thereof

Since we seem to be on a kick about my career today, this question from J:

Me and my friend were discussing the type of fame you have, and we decided you have the perfect type of fame. You are unlikely to be mobbed in the streets, however, at certain places (ConFusion, for example, we were on our way there when we had this discussion), you are among the most famous, most recognized, and most well-respected people in the room. Do you agree that this is the perfect fame level, or would being just a little bit more, or even a little bit less, famous suit you better?

Well, before we begin, let us note that to answer a question like this, I have to dispense with any usual mode of modesty. We’re all agreed about that? Good. Let’s begin.

And to begin, J pretty much exactly pegs my level of fame. I am famous in a very constrained and limited way, to a small number of people, who have to go to a certain place at a certain time in order to see me at all: usually a science fiction convention or a book signing. Outside these constrained and limited circumstances, I am distinctly unfamous; indeed, as a late-thirties balding man of modest height, weight and physical attractiveness, I am practically invisible to anyone under the age of 30, and visible to anyone over that age only to the extent that they have to walk around me, or have to have some limited amount of social interaction with me as we stand in a line or some such. Since I’ve been a published author, I have never been recognized by someone unknown to me outside a convention or book signing. And even at conventions, I often go unrecognized, partly because that famously scowly picture of me in my novels gives people the impression that I’m a six-foot, four-inch serious badass, instead of the five-foot, eight-inch goofball that I actually am.

The level of fame I have isn’t actually fame; at best, it’s notability, which means a small chunk of humans know what I do and among them I’m recognized (or my name is, anyway). In my case, I’m known in science fiction circles and in blog circles. Where fans and cognoscenti of both media congregate, I’m occasionally a topic of conversation. Were I to get hit by a bus tomorrow, I’d get a write-up in Locus and Boing Boing and possibly the Dayton Daily News (“Area Author Flattened”).

And this suits me just fine. When I was younger, I wanted to be famous — that is, “people recognizing you in the supermarket”-level famous — and then I actually met people who were that famous, and after a while you notice that it’s actually a hell of a burden and you start to feel sorry for them, despite their celebrity. Really famous people can’t, in fact, go to the supermarket without being accosted, can’t eat at a restaurant with the expectation that they’ll get through the whole meal unmolested, and can’t walk down the street without some idiot texting Gawker about it. Then there are the starfuckers, stalkers, passive-aggressive grovelers, and so on and so forth. Yes, you get to be famous, but you also lose a lot of your life. That seems to be the deal, in any event.

At this point in my life, even if I wanted to be that famous, I doubt I could actually manage it. For one thing, I’m too old; all the really famous people these days started being famous in their early twenties, when they still had hair and/or perky breasts, neither of which I have. For another thing, I’m in the wrong line of work; the genuinely famous in our culture are actors and musicians. There are famous writers, to be sure, but with the exception of four or five megasellers (Rowling, King, Rice, Grisham) their fame accrues to their name, not their face. You could stand next to a best-selling author and not even know it, even if you were reading their book when you were doing it (trust me on this one).

For a final thing — and this is really the key — I don’t want that level of fame. When I did my book tour last year, I had a hell of a lot of fun getting up in front of people and signing books and meeting readers and fans, and when my two hours were done, I was spent. I wanted to hide in my hotel room and not see anyone. When I go to a convention, by the Sunday afternoon of the convention, no matter how much of a good time I’ve had, I am done – I want to go away and be alone and not be on. I am fairly extroverted and socialized for a writer, but eventually I want you all to disappear. And if I was really famous, you all would never go away. This is why celebrities eventually crack up, you know. There’s only so long you can be a monkey on display before you start throwing your poo at people.

So, yes, J: I do have just about the perfect type of “fame” for my own sanity and ego. I’m glad you noticed.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

Reader Request Week 2008 #6: Author Relations

Doggo asks:

There are, in the history of literature, famous friendships, rivalries, and downright animosity between well-known authors.

I’d like to hear your take on what your relationships are like with other professional writers. What’s it like when, at a con, you go out for dinner or a cup of coffee? Are you close(ish) friends with anyone we’d know? Or should I know that already?

Your response to the recent SFWA elections was illuminating, but, I’d like a more intimate (not too intimate) view into the relationships of people engaging in the same pursuits. (I don’t have any close friends who do the same work I do.)

Well, to be clear in the case of the recent SFWA issue, a crux of the matter was that the fellow in question hardly qualifies as a professional writer at all, which makes him a problematic choice to head an organization full of them. And I have other problems with him as well, none of which relate to writing directly (or indirectly). I certainly wouldn’t gauge my relationships with actual professional writers off my relationship with this fellow.

As for my relationships with actual professional writers: Well, you know. Some of them I’m deeply fond of, some of them I like just fine, some of them I don’t like at all and some of them I will actively avoid being in the same room with. And the proportions to which writers fall into each of these bins are more or less equal to the proportions to which everyone else falls into these bins as well. Which is to say that save for the fact that writers write, they’re not that different from any other people, at least in terms in how their personalities interact with mine.

I will note that before I started writing science fiction and attending science fiction conventions, I didn’t know very many authors personally; I’d been writing professionally for a dozen years before then, but my social circle didn’t include many writers, save the occasional journalist friend. At my first science fiction convention (TorCon 3, in 2003) I managed to fall in with a group of up and coming writers which included Cory Doctorow, Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld, Charlie Stross and Nick Sagan. I’m pretty sure I imprinted on them all like a duckling, since I consider all of them pretty good friends to this day (I dedicated The Android’s Dream to the lot of them, in fact).

Aside from those fine folk I now know a fair number of science fiction and fantasy writers, because overall it’s still a fairly small community, and those conventions we have make it easy to congregate. I’ve also corresponded with a fair number of writers online. Most of the writers I’ve met I seem to get along reasonably well with, although you would have to confirm on their end; maybe they’re all just being nice to me when I’m around. I have occasionally gotten into spit fights online with a few writers; most notably on the SFWA private boards Jerry Pournelle and I have gone around and about on a number of issues. But I don’t think that rises to the level of an actual feud, or dislike (we’ve agreed on things, too, so there it is).

I can’t think of any professional writer with whom I have an open and active feud, literary or otherwise, and I’m not really planning to do so. Literary feuds are often between two authors offended that the other — whom they clearly see as a substandard talent — has somehow managed to get published in the same field. But personally I’m not offended when writers with talents substandard to mine get published or even are successful. As noted previously, someone else’s success is not implicitly or explicitly a referendum on my own, so I’m not sure why I should care; also, well. I occasionally read and enjoy trash as well. I can’t be casting that first stone.

As for people who are offended that I am published, and consider my writing to be substandard, fine, whatever. I can’t be bothered to care about that either. Yes, I suck. Moving on.

This lack of concern on either end of things makes it difficult to build and sustain a true literary feud. Which is fine by me. More time for writing, and for being in the company of writers and friends I actually and genuinely like.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

It’s All True

Why yes, there’s a squidpunk anthology, and yes, I’m a contributor. My own piece is an epic poem, “Ode to a Grecian Squid,” a touching tale about the love between a cephalopod and Hephaestus, the Greek God of manufacture, which enrages a jealous Poseidon, all told in Ionic Hexameter. Really, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, about a squid, in verse. And that’s saying something. So go buy it, and if you don’t I will never ever ever speak to any of you ever again. Ever. Seriously, it may be the anthology that saves us all. After reading it, you will never eat calamari again. Unless they cook it really well. With sea salt and lemon on the side. Mmm… lemony squid.

Reader Request Week 2008 #5: Professional Jealousy

Brendan wants to know about:

Dealing with professional jealousy.

I’m not talking about nasty, stalking vendettas or anything, but comparing of yourself to others in your field to an unhealthy degree. Seeing someone else succeed can be a personal motivator, especially if you can learn how they did it, but it can cross the line into harmful obsession when a lot of your emotional well-being gets wrapped up into it. I’d love to be the sort of person who never experiences pangs of real jealousy, but mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

So:

Topic #1: Dealing with your own jealousy of a colleague’s success.

Topic #2: Dealing with a colleague’s jealousy of your success.

I don’t engage much in professional jealousy. The closest I ever came to it was in 2001, when Dave Auburn, with whom I went to college, won the Pulitzer Prize for writing the play Proof. I was at my computer, writing a video game review and feeling pretty smug that I was getting paid to play video games, and then I clicked over to CNN and saw what Dave had been doing with his morning. And in sequence, these were my thoughts:

1. Dude, I know Dave Auburn!

2. Aw, man, I want a Pulitzer, too.

3. But writing video game reviews, while fun, is not the path to Pulitzer goodness.

4. Oh, well.

5. I ought to write Dave an e-mail and congratulate him.

Which is what I did.

At no time during this was I actually jealous of Dave. Partly because, you know, Dave put in the time – he supported himself writing pharmaceutical copy while he learned his craft, if I remember, and then wrote an excellent play (he also won a Tony Award for it). It’s hard to be jealous of people who deserve the acclaim they get. Partly because knowing someone who is being successful is cool; it’s nice to see people I was friendly with at one point in my life doing well. And then partly because, while I didn’t get a Pulitzer (and still haven’t, nor am likely to in the near future), I was still playing video games and getting paid to write about them, and on balance that continued to be a pretty sweet deal. I couldn’t really be jealous if I was actually happy with my life, and I was (and still am). So when I wrote Dave that congratulatory e-mail, I was able to be genuine and genuinely happy for him.

Personally I find being happy with one’s life takes care of nearly all jealousy issues. Jealousy is a cocktail of envy and covetousness and neurosis, but if you have a life in which you are happy, it’s difficult to be either envious or covetous, since that would imply dissatisfaction with your own life (I’m still neurotic from time to time). People sometimes ask me if there were something I could change about my past, what it would be, and I tell them honestly that there’s nothing in my past I’d change, because I wouldn’t want to risk not getting to my present. Jealousy works the same way; being jealous, professionally or otherwise, would suggest I think someone else’s life would be better for me than the one I have. And, well. Just not seeing that.

The other thing about jealousy, particularly of the professional sort, is that I think it’s ultimately predicated on the idea that life is somehow zero-sum: that someone else’s success takes away from whatever success you might have, either in the short term or, if you’re feeling particularly apocalyptic, ever. And I think that’s kind of silly. Lots of people are wildly more successful than I am, and perhaps are more successful than I will ever be; it hasn’t stopped me from being pretty happily successful in my own way. I’m likewise sure that my being successful, to the extent that I am, doesn’t impede the success of anyone else.

(Indeed, I think it’s the opposite. A fellow writer of mine likes to joke that my job is to be successful enough that our mutual publisher can afford to publish someone like him. I don’t suspect I’m anywhere near that successful at the moment (or that this author needs my help), but I like the idea; I would love to be someone who, like Robert Jordan did, helps pour enough money into a publishing house that the house was able to publish a few more authors every year than it would have been able to otherwise.)

As for how do I deal with other folks being jealous of me in a professional sense? Well, mostly, I don’t. The type of people who are jealous of me don’t appear to put themselves in my path with any regularity, so I don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis. Also, you know, what should I do? It’s their karma, not mine. I’m not going to change what I do to make them feel a little less jealous; it’s not my responsibility, and at the end of the day, I still have a mortgage to pay for. So I’ll keep doing what I do. If it makes someone upset or jealous, they’ll just have to live with it.

But I hope for their sake they’ll let it go. Any amount of time and energy they spend on being jealous of me (or anyone else) is less time and energy they have to spend on building success for themselves. In that respect, jealousy really is about a zero-sum game. But they are the person who inevitably loses.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)