Monthly Archives: October 2010

Give Her the Candy and No One Gets Hurt

Athena on “Beggar’s night,” which is a couple of days before Halloween so that kids aren’t running around on the streets on the same night adults are going to Halloween parties and then driving about stupidly. Or so they tell me; personally I prefer my Halloween on Halloween. Either way, the procurement of candy was made, and with a serious “give me candy” face such as above, I doubt there was much resistance. Athena looks devilishly fabulous in any event.

World Fantasy Convention is winding down; there’s the award ceremony this afternoon and then it’s home to the family and pets. I’m looking forward to that.

Saturday Morning Check In

I’ve got a few minutes before I have to go down and run the SFWA business meeting, so I thought I’d check in and say hello. The World Fantasy Convention is going swimmingly; I’m seeing tons of folks I enjoy seeing and on the “I have to be a grown up and not just hang around in the bar” side of things, the SFWA business I’ve been a part of is also coming together nicely. Basically, it’s been a really excellent balance of work and fun so far, which is what you hope for.

And now I’ve completely run out of things to say because my the majority of my brain is working on the business meeting in just over an hour. I’m going to go ahead and let all of my brain work on it now. Catch up with you folks a bit later.

The Big Idea: James A. Owen

Writing is often considered a solitary pursuit – and yet there are examples of writers and other creative sorts banding together, bound by a common place, philosophy or type of output. For those groups, very often the commonality and camaraderie can inspire greater work than isolation. It’s this idea that James A. Owen is thinking about in today’s Big Idea, and how his own experience of camaraderie, first experienced in his early days as an illustrator, expresses itself in his “Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica” series, of which the newly-released The Dragon’s Apprentice is the latest installment.

JAMES A. OWEN:

I have always been fascinated by the idea of artists and writers – creatives – in community. Part of that is due to my upbringing: my mother, a teacher, also painted – but her oldest brother was a full-time artist; the second eldest brother was a printer; and her younger sister was a graphic designer. More, the family history was laden with ancestors who were artists, which also instilled in me an appreciation for a creative heritage. So my senses were already acutely attuned to other examples of creatives in community – and there were plenty to be found.

Artistically, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood stood above the pack, if only because they also defined themselves as a “community”. There was also the Wyeth Dynasty, which actually began with Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, then continued through N.C.’s son Andrew and grandson Jamie. And more recently, there was the Studio quartet of Jeffrey Jones, Barry Windsor-Smith, Berni Wrightson, and Michael Kaluta, who not only inspired me as an illustrator, but also in how they chose to establish a creative space where separately, they could do their work, and collectively, they could midwife a legacy whose myth was larger than the reality.

In literature, there were just as many examples of friendships, associations, and, often, rivalries: Twain and Stevenson; The Shelleys and their circle of poets; Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe; and, most famously, the world famous Inklings. That J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were not only friends but had actively shared their creative processes as they developed The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles Of Narnia was utterly fascinating to me. And that others among their academic and social circle were permitted to share in these discussions was thrilling – because it meant that creating these great works was not something done through unknowable, arcane processes by untouchable demigods, but rather was something done through an entirely human process of trial and error and effort, by fallible men and women who had touched a spark of divinity and fanned it to a flame with the accelerating invocation, “let me tell you a story”.

When I became a professional in the comics field – which happened when I was a lot younger than most people realize – I went into it with the mindset that the best creative work would spring from an environment where I associated with like-minded creators. And so I naturally gravitated towards friendships and professional associations with people who had been in other communities of creatives; artists and writers who had shared studios. Paul Chadwick and Bil Stout became friends of mine, as did the Studio Quartet themselves.

The Self-Publishing crowd of the mid 90’s – Jeff Smith, Dave Sim, Colleen Doran, Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette, Terry Moore, and Paul Pope, among others – helped me define both my public persona and my professional identity. And even now, I can attend a convention in Belgium or Italy or Finland and instantly be united as a community with other guests, because even as Strangers in a Strange Land, we have common reference points of language, and history, and heritage. And bonds created by those shared points of reference can last for a lifetime.

So it was all of that which was the mental landscape in the background of my mind when I took a throwaway line from one of my Mythworld novels and decided to create a series about it. It was in the middle of a description of a fantastic library, and referenced a book of maps of imaginary lands, which had once been owned by H.G. Wells. And it was too good an idea to resist.

I built upon that one idea, and structured around it my love of creatives in community. If Wells had indeed owned such a book, what would he do with it? And more importantly, who would have given it to him? The answer to the second question was easy and fun – another creative, a Caretaker of the atlas (now called the Imaginarium Geographica) would have entrusted it to him, after having found him a worthy guardian of the heritage it represented. And the answer to the second question is how I began the first book in the series of The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, called HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS.

The subsequent books, THE SEARCH FOR THE RED DRAGON, THE INDIGO KING, and THE SHADOW DRAGONS not only took readers into the lands depicted on the maps in the Geographica, but also deepened the concept of what it meant to be a Caretaker, and established the idea that the heritage of the Caretakers was as long as human history. Men and women from the arts and sciences throughout the ages were called upon, enlisted, or sometimes, simply forced to become Caretakers of the greatest open secret in the world. And more, the “real” adventures they had as Caretakers could become the basis for their publicly-known works here in the mundane world. This concept alone allowed me to co-opt all of history, science, art, and literature as source material for my stories. And anyone who has ever seen the afterparty at a comics or SF convention would recognize the gathering of the Caretakers Emeriti in Book Four.

The newest book, fifth in the series, called THE DRAGON’S APPRENTICE, deals with the inevitable transition: eventually, all new Cartakers become old Caretakers. All creatives become, at some point, part of the mythology that inspires the new generation. But still, the heritage is the same. The community endures. And maybe that’s the Big Idea – everyone has a story. Which means that if they choose, anyone can be a part of the community of creatives; anyone could be a Caretaker. All they have to do is invoke that magic phrase that Verne, and Wells, and Tolkien, and Lewis all spoke before them: “Let me tell you a story”.

The rest, as they say, is history. Or at least, it will be.

—-

The Dragon’s Apprentice: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the publisher’s book page, which features book and audio excerpts.

New Monitor is Here

Just in time for me to leave for World Fantasy. Life is like that sometimes.

For those of you into geekation about these things, the monitor is one of these. It’s my second Dell monitor, the first being the one that recently explodinated on me. But then it outlived its warranty and was excellent right up until the moment it went kerplooey, so I can’t complain overly much, and this particular monitor got mostly very good reviews — when it first came out there were some color calibration issues, but they seem to have fixed that, as the color on the one I have is fine. I briefly considered getting a 27-inch monitor, but I have a small desk, which means I would have ended up very likely frying my eyeballs right out of my head, and also it cost twice as much. I believe in buying the best you can (and then running the object into the ground), but my inherent streak of cheapliness kept smacking me around every time I looked in the 27-incher’s direction. Seeing this monster sitting on my desk, I really do think I made the right decision.

And now, as noted, I’m off to the World Fantasy Convention. I leave it to my daughter to break in the new monitor with multiple games of Left 4 Dead 2 and to give me a full report when I get back. Additionally, while I do intend to update from the convention, don’t expect huge numbers of updates. Best to keep up with the Twitter feed, which the astute of you will note is back up in the sidebar.

See you a bit later.

New Look, Etc.

A couple of notes on the new Whatever theme:

1. I like it, so it’s very likely to stay.

2. I’m not quite done tweaking it yet. There are a couple of things I personally prefer (like having the comment link at the bottom of an entry, not the top) that I need to incorporate, and I want to make additional adjustments to the look and feel of the theme.

However, many of these are likely to have to wait until after I get back from World Fantasy Convention, for two reasons. One, so I have time to look at the backend code; two, because the back-up monitor I’m currently using is crappy (the site looks white, not gray, on it) and by that time I’ll have my new monitor.

As for why I decided to change the theme: First, I’ve had the same theme before this for two years, which is the longest time for the site to have the same look, and I was getting bored with it. Second, the old theme, being old, couldn’t incorporate a lot of the new features built into WordPress, while this theme, released as it was just yesterday, can and does. It’s good to have a little more flexibility, both on the front and the back end.

In any event, expect a few more tweaks and changes over the next week or so. But by and large, this is what Whatever will look like for the time being.

Warning: About to Change Themes

Head’s up, folks: I’ve found a new theme I think I like, and I’m going to try installing it. I can’t promise everything won’t blow right up. Also, when I do install it, I will then proceed to fiddle. Do not be surprised if things look a bit hinky afterward. I’ll let you know when everything is done exploding.

Pray for us all.

Just Arrived, 10/27/10

What’s come over the transom this week:

* Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen): Hey, remember that time when you said to yourself, “Man, I wish I had a new Miles Vorkosigan novel right now?” Turns out Lois McMaster Bujold was listening. As if she had a bug right in your brain. Which I’m sure she doesn’t. Because that would be kind of creepy. But it’s like she did, is all I’m saying. Because here is a new Vorkosigan novel. And it’s out now.

* The Dragon’s Apprentice, James A. Owen (Simon & Schuster): The fifth book in The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica , in which the threads of time are unraveling! Stupid threads of time. You think you have them all knotted up and something like this happens. I’ll refrain from saying more since Owen will be here on Friday for a Big Idea. But I will say that the book is out now.

* Journeys, Ian MacLeod (Subterranean Press): A typically handsome SubPress collection of nine MacLeod short stories. This is a limited edition, and is available on the SubPress Web site.

* Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology, Jonathon Keats (Oxford University Press): Keats, who writes the “Jargon Watch” column for Wired Magazine, digs in deep to find the meaning and provenance of some of the more interesting words Teh IntarWeebs have given us, from “Anthropocene” to “w00t.” If you’re a word nerd, you’ll definitely nerd out on this book. Out now.

* Heliopolis, James Scudamore (Europa Editions): A young man plucked from the favelas of Brazil as a boy returns to them to market a supermarket chain and finds his past catching up with him in interesting ways. This novel was nominated for the 2009 Man Booker Prize (which in case you don’t know is a pretty serious literary award in the UK), and will be out on November 2.

*One Good Soldier, Travis Taylor (Baen): The paperback version of the third book in the Tau Ceti Agenda series, in which a secession threatens political union spanning numerous planets. Just out yesterday.

* The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 3, David Drake (Baen): The title pretty much says it all, no? This omnibus edition features two Slammers Novels (The Sharp End and Paying the Piper) and previously uncollected novelette. Out next Tuesday.

The Big Idea: Aliette de Bodard

On occasion I’ve had someone say to me that writing speculative fiction must be easier than writing straight fiction, because you don’t have to worry about being accurate about facts and settings. Well, that’s of course not true at all — and the amount of research that fantasy and science fiction writers do is often both large and deep. To make this point, recent Campbell Award finalist Aliette de Bodard is here to tell us about the work behind Servant of the Underworld, her fantasy murder mystery set in the world of the Aztecs(!) It’s fascinating stuff, about fascinating stuff.

ALIETTE de BODARD:

Servant of the Underworld started out as a historical mystery–albeit a very peculiar one. I love the historical mystery genre, which combines the strong twisting plot of investigations with great immersion into a time period. With this book, I was trying to do was to factor in religious belief.

When you think about it, mythology and religion should be an integral part of the historical setting: a lot of the old myths and legends might seem the stuff of children’s tales now, but there was a time when believing in the gods and magical feats was as natural as breathing. And if gods and goddesses did indeed have presence and power–then this power would manifest in the earthly world not only through divine manifestation, but also through their priests. What I wanted to write was a historical mystery in which the belief system had a real, tangible presence–giving the story a natural fantasy component. Basically, what if Brother Cadfael’s prayers had had an effect on the investigation?

I picked the Aztecs for a combination of reasons. I wanted a non-Western culture because I’d read far too many medieval fantasies and mysteries and wanted to go further afield. I didn’t know much about Aztec culture at the outset, other than their reputation for bloodthirstiness–which seemed to me a bit dodgy once I realised that it came from the  accounts of the conquistadores, who were hardly saints themselves.

As I researched, I found plenty of positive points. The justice system, for instance, was unequal but fairer than in Europe, placing more responsibilities on noblemen than commoners: a commoner who stole was let off with a warning; a nobleman doing the same thing was killed (the idea being that the nobleman had the means to know better and to behave himself, whereas the commoner had neither). It was also, for a medieval society, surprisingly equalitarian between sexes. While men and women had separate spheres, both were equally honoured, and women had strong divorce and property rights.

To stretch my legs, I had first explored the premise with a short story: “Obsidian Shards” was an investigation in the point of view of Acatl, a minor priest who had to deal with magical incursions in his territory. It was well-received (it won Writers of the Future, and was mentioned in the yearly summations), and this encouraged me to take it further.

Of course, this was where it got complicated. For the short story, I hadn’t needed more than a flavouring of Aztec culture; for a whole novel, I was going to need far more research. Accordingly, I invested in several books, and took notes. The short story had been vague as to the historical setting: it was set in a suburb of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, but the time was unspecified. For a novel with an explicit historical component, I couldn’t afford to remain vague. I made a choice of time period for the political background, and documented myself on the city of Tenochtitlan for the setting. I drew maps, and coloured in points of interest; I filled in a glossary with the main Aztec concepts, and gradually fleshed out how the Aztec mythology would apply in my setting.

My main character Acatl retained his original affiliation to Lord Death, the god of funerals and the underworld; but he became High Priest, responsible for investigating deaths that had a magical component . The magic system gradually fleshed itself out: the Aztecs believed blood was all that kept the sun in the sky and the earth fertile. I expanded that belief to make priests capable of casting spells, as long as they had a proper sacrifice and knew the proper hymns to call upon the gods. As High Priest, Acatl could thus access a variety of spells; but the necessity for somewhat large amounts of fresh blood and lengthy preparations restrained his powers, which provided me with built-in limitations for the magic (always a good idea).

Acatl’s powers also have a strong mundane component: the Aztecs had advanced medical knowledge of anatomy and of drugs (such as peyote), which provides a solid backbone of practicality. One of my favourite scenes in the book is when the characters examine a dead body. After a non-magical examination which determines the victim died of drowning, Acatl decides to go into the afterlife to summon their soul (and runs into trouble, of course; but I’ll let you read the book to see what happens). The scene is pitched in the mundane world, but magic and faith are an integral part of it, from the hymns Acatl says over the dead body, to the trip into a supernatural waterworld where only the gods’ word holds sway. Hopefully, the whole book achieves a similar balancing act.

So there you have it. Servant of the Underworld is a mystery–but, like all historical mysteries, it’s also a journey into a strange and alien world, and a chance to discover an unfamiliar society and mythology as the plot unfolds.

And it’s even got fingernail-eating monsters. Seriously, what more could you want?

—-

Servant of the Underworld: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s page, featuring a trailer and a sample. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Damage

One of coincidentally-named Bradford Pears just got its branches handed to it by the windstorm. This was the same tree previously ravaged by the remains of Hurricane Ike when it blew through a couple of years ago, so this is not an entirely surprising turn of events. Even so, a little sad (and annoying, as the broken branches are currently lying across our driveway).

Fortunately at the point there is no other damage to report and it looks as if the worst of the wind storm has moved east of us now. We still have a tornado watch in effect, however, so I’ll be keeping alert until it’s over. If you’re east of me in Ohio and other midwest-y states, be aware it’s on its way and it’s nasty. Be safe.

Hey, You Know What’s Really Scary?

UPDATE, 11:30am: Looks like the column has been taken down at least temporarily. I’ll let you know when/if it goes back up today.

My Filmcritic.com column is up a day early this week — don’t ask me, I just file the things, they decide when to post them — and this week I’m looking at what scares me, existentially speaking, and which films in science fiction have that thing. You know, tied into that Halloween thing all the kids seem to love so much these days. Anyway, it’s my first Filmcritic column in which I namecheck Rene Descartes, so you know you want to get in on that action. As always, feel free to leave comments/thoughts/rants over there.

My Very Sensitive Author Photo

For when I finally ditch this speculative fiction nonsense and buckle down to write a True Work of Mopey Bastardery. Can’t you sense my pain? My sad, bearded pain?

I think this shall be the book that I write for this author photo:

It shall be a stunning examination of the emptiness of the human condition. But with allegory! Because it can’t be a True Work of Mopey Bastardery without allegory. And quiet, desperate alcoholism. Also, meaningful silences. And pie. Allegorical pie.

I’m going to put on some Okkervil River and get right to work! Wish me luck!

The Yard FAQ

Pretty much any time I post a picture of my yard, I get the same several questions in the comment thread from folks who are apparently new around here. After most of a decade, I’m now officially bored with answering the same questions (sorry guys, it’s not you, it’s me), so I’m creating The Yard FAQ to refer people to in the future.

So, questions, in the order they come to my brain:

1. Damn, that’s a lot of lawn. How big is your yard, anyway?

Our property is five acres, and with the exception of the house, driveway and shed, it is entirely lawn. The dimensions of the property, as I understand it, are almost exactly those of a Manhattan city block.

2. How do you mow and how long does it take?

We have a lawn tractor with a 48″ blade, with an outboard attachment that adds an additional 60″ of mowing blades, which means (for those of you who don’t wish to do with math) that we can cut a swath of grass nine feet wide with each pass. The entire yard at that rate takes about four hours.

3. Do you mow your own lawn?

No. I did it off and on for the first couple years and then developed a righteous grass allergy. Since then it’s been done either by Krissy or by my father-in-law, although I think he may be retiring from the mowing game at some point. Athena’s a year or two away from being able to handle the tractor, so for the time being Krissy mows or we hire someone local to do it for us.

4. How do you water and tend your yard?

Water is provided by the sky; i.e., the grass gets watered when it rains. We don’t have sprinklers or any other such thing. If it doesn’t rain, the grass goes brown (as it did earlier in the summer). Beyond that, we contract with TruGreen to have their folks come by every now and then for weed control and aeration, which keeps the yard dandelion free and otherwise generally healthy. We don’t devote a huge amount of time to the yard aside from mowing; it’s grass, it knows what to do.

5. Instead of just having all the grass, you guys should really [insert favorite ecological/esthetic/whatever things for us to do with our yard].

Tell you what, if you want to come over and devote the time/energy/money to do that thing you think I should do with my yard, then we can talk. Otherwise, it’s very likely to remain in its current, yard-like state.

6. What do you do with all that yard?

The dog, child and cats play around in it, we use a small part of it as a garden, and personally speaking every once in a while I go stand in the middle of it and say to myself, Good lord, this is a lot of lawn. That’s pretty much it.

7. Why did you get such a large lawn?

When my wife first told me she wanted to move to Ohio, I was not for it — not because I disliked her family (they’re lovely, actually), but because as a native southern Californian then currently living outside of Washington DC, I didn’t want to move to Ohio. So I thought I would be clever and told her we could move if she found a place with five acres of land, under the reasoning that I could never afford that much acreage. I forgot that Ohio land values are not southern California or suburban DC land values. She found five acres that we could afford pretty easily. This is the five acres (and house) she liked the most. And here we are. With a big damn yard.

8. Do you like your big damn yard?

Yup, especially since I don’t have to mow it. More seriously it’s nice to have a lot of space for Athena to play in, and to be able to let the pets out without worrying about them wandering where they shouldn’t, and to have space between me and my (very nice to be sure) neighbors. I’m not in any real rush to move, and having a nice big yard is part of that.

Those are the basic questions and answers; if you have any more questions drop them in the comments and maybe I’ll provide answers there.

The Big Idea: Kathe Koja

“All the world’s a stage” – and in fiction, this saying is more true than elsewhere, with the author as director, moving her actors in and out of the floodlights, as the story demands. Kathe Koja, however, adds yet another dimension to the saying in her new novel Under the Poppy, in which the stage of the novel holds the stage of the theatre, and much more. Koja looks at how the stage inspires the writing, which in turn has inspired the stage.

KATHE KOJA:

The theatre is the locus of ultimate fiction: the one place on earth where normal everyday people, people you might run into at the café or the grocery store, people you might even know (their names, their fears and loves, the way they toss their underwear not quite into the damn hamper) – people like you, in fact – become indisputably someone else, someone completely different, right before your very eyes.  Change the lights, put on a mask, and voila: instant strange.  And instant license to behave in a way in which the world’s most stringent laws become just another part of the script, to be used, ignored, or flouted at will: under these lights, it’s story that’s paramount.

For a fiction writer, is this not heaven?

And when the actors themselves are puppets, the ultimate playthings and the ultimate in freedom on the stage – they can fly, die, pop off a head, literally break a heart, and come back whole and gleaming for the matinee … well.  Then the only limit is the bedrock challenge of the page: What can you make live here, writer, with your blank space and your choice of words? Let’s put on a show.

Under the Poppy is my response to that enthralling challenge. Set in a darkly shabby avenue of the Victorian age, its story is of Istvan and Rupert, childhood comrades, lovers, and puppeteers, as they make their lives and make their way by the uses and enchantments of theatre, by rendering their puppets of wood and wire so real that people will pay to watch them play at life, so real that when they themselves are parted, by jealousy, anger, and a most intimate betrayal, their only road back to one another leads across the stage: the artifice of approach and retreat, the exquisite humor of making a wooden man with a mocking grin speak for you to the one you love.

And because that stage is set in a brothel – a place called Under the Poppy with its own local reputation for play-acting and fantasy, where the girls and the boy can be whatever you like, as long as you pay the price; watched over by stern madam Decca, who keeps playing her own desperate, crumbling role as war takes over the town – the ante is upped by the unpredictable nature of sex and desire.  As Istvan says to Lucy, one of the working girls, “We are so much alike, you and I … Both of us vendors of the art of the moment, the impermanent pleasure,” which is the pleasure of fiction, too, isn’t it?

Writing this book was different, and special, for me in a lot of ways: my first novel of historical fiction, my longest novel ever, my first work specifically for adults (I also write YA) in over ten years.  As to the story’s theatrical nature, I have never been an actor, worked in stagecraft, or even watched a puppet show before this book, but I knew without question that this story, these people with their stages and feints and plots both before and behind the footlights, was for me.  I loved the research into the period and the puppetry, and I loved the details that I learned and incorporated (and a lot of things I learned and may use later….).  And I loved the writing itself, the absorbing daily act of imagining and making this book.

And when Under the Poppy was completed, I knew that there was even more to this story, more to do.  So I adapted the first half of the novel for a stage presentation, a work of immersive theatre that I and a host of talented collaborators – a filmmaker, a set and costume designer, a musician/composer — are working to bring to the stage in 2011.  Which means that I’m a playwright, now: another act of transformation-by-theatre!

The biggest idea of all here is the pure pleasure and play of imagination: of making believe.  Under the Poppy is a stage of the imagination, and it sits waiting for you to bring yours to the performance, to engage in the willful collusion of reader and writer, participating in this act of theatre-on-the-page, where you and I pretend that words are really people and that what happens here is really real: and as long as we both believe, the show goes on.

—-

Under the Poppy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble| Indiebound

Read an excerpt. See the book trailer. Read Kathe Koja’s blog.

The theatre is the locus of ultimate fiction: the one place on earth where normal everyday people, people you might run into at the café or the grocery store, people you might even know (their names, their fears and loves, the way they toss their underwear not quite into the damn hamper) – people like you, in fact – become indisputably someone else, someone completely different, right before your very eyes.  Change the lights, put on a mask, and voila: instant strange.  And instant license to behave in a way in which the world’s most stringent laws become just another part of the script, to be used, ignored, or flouted at will: under these lights, it’s story that’s paramount.

For a fiction writer, is this not heaven? 

And when the actors themselves are puppets, the ultimate playthings and the ultimate in freedom on the stage – they can fly, die, pop off a head, literally break a heart, and come back whole and gleaming for the matinee … well.  Then the only limit is the bedrock challenge of the page: What can you make live here, writer, with your blank space and your choice of words? Let’s put on a show.

Under the Poppy is my response to that enthralling challenge. Set in a darkly shabby avenue of the Victorian age, its story is of Istvan and Rupert, childhood comrades, lovers, and puppeteers, as they make their lives and make their way by the uses and enchantments of theatre, by rendering their puppets of wood and wire so real that people will pay to watch them play at life, so real that when they themselves are parted, by jealousy, anger, and a most intimate betrayal, their only road back to one another leads across the stage: the artifice of approach and retreat, the exquisite humor of making a wooden man with a mocking grin speak for you to the one you love.

And because that stage is set in a brothel – a place called Under the Poppy with its own local reputation for play-acting and fantasy, where the girls and the boy can be whatever you like, as long as you pay the price; watched over by stern madam Decca, who keeps playing her own desperate, crumbling role as war takes over the town – the ante is upped by the unpredictable nature of sex and desire.  As Istvan says to Lucy, one of the working girls, “We are so much alike, you and I … Both of us vendors of the art of the moment, the impermanent pleasure,” which is the pleasure of fiction, too, isn’t it?

Writing this book was different, and special, for me in a lot of ways: my first novel of historical fiction, my longest novel ever, my first work specifically for adults (I also write YA) in over ten years.  As to the story’s theatrical nature, I have never been an actor, worked in stagecraft, or even watched a puppet show before this book, but I knew without question that this story, these people with their stages and feints and plots both before and behind the footlights, was for me.  I loved the research into the period and the puppetry, and I loved the details that I learned and incorporated (and a lot of things I learned and may use later….).  And I loved the writing itself, the absorbing daily act of imagining and making this book.

And when Under the Poppy was completed, I knew that there was even more to this story, more to do.  So I adapted the first half of the novel for a stage presentation, a work of immersive theatre that I and a host of talented collaborators – a filmmaker, a set and costume designer, a musician/composer — are working to bring to the stage in 2011.  Which means that I’m a playwright, now: another act of transformation-by-theatre!

The biggest idea of all here is the pure pleasure and play of imagination: of making believe. Under the Poppy is a stage of the imagination, and it sits waiting for you to bring yours to the performance, to engage in the willful collusion of reader and writer, participating in this act of theatre-on-the-page, where you and I pretend that words are really people and that what happens here is really real: and as long as we both believe, the show goes on.
The theatre is the locus of ultimate fiction: the one place on earth where normal everyday people, people you might run into at the café or the grocery store, people you might even know (their names, their fears and loves, the way they toss their underwear not quite into the damn hamper) – people like you, in fact – become indisputably someone else, someone completely different, right before your very eyes.  Change the lights, put on a mask, and voila: instant strange.  And instant license to behave in a way in which the world’s most stringent laws become just another part of the script, to be used, ignored, or flouted at will: under these lights, it’s story that’s paramount.

For a fiction writer, is this not heaven?

And when the actors themselves are puppets, the ultimate playthings and the ultimate in freedom on the stage – they can fly, die, pop off a head, literally break a heart, and come back whole and gleaming for the matinee … well.  Then the only limit is the bedrock challenge of the page: What can you make live here, writer, with your blank space and your choice of words? Let’s put on a show.

Under the Poppy is my response to that enthralling challenge. Set in a darkly shabby avenue of the Victorian age, its story is of Istvan and Rupert, childhood comrades, lovers, and puppeteers, as they make their lives and make their way by the uses and enchantments of theatre, by rendering their puppets of wood and wire so real that people will pay to watch them play at life, so real that when they themselves are parted, by jealousy, anger, and a most intimate betrayal, their only road back to one another leads across the stage: the artifice of approach and retreat, the exquisite humor of making a wooden man with a mocking grin speak for you to the one you love.

And because that stage is set in a brothel – a place called Under the Poppy with its own local reputation for play-acting and fantasy, where the girls and the boy can be whatever you like, as long as you pay the price; watched over by stern madam Decca, who keeps playing her own desperate, crumbling role as war takes over the town – the ante is upped by the unpredictable nature of sex and desire.  As Istvan says to Lucy, one of the working girls, “We are so much alike, you and I … Both of us vendors of the art of the moment, the impermanent pleasure,” which is the pleasure of fiction, too, isn’t it?

Writing this book was different, and special, for me in a lot of ways: my first novel of historical fiction, my longest novel ever, my first work specifically for adults (I also write YA) in over ten years.  As to the story’s theatrical nature, I have never been an actor, worked in stagecraft, or even watched a puppet show before this book, but I knew without question that this story, these people with their stages and feints and plots both before and behind the footlights, was for me.  I loved the research into the period and the puppetry, and I loved the details that I learned and incorporated (and a lot of things I learned and may use later….).  And I loved the writing itself, the absorbing daily act of imagining and making this book.

And when Under the Poppy was completed, I knew that there was even more to this story, more to do.  So I adapted the first half of the novel for a stage presentation, a work of immersive theatre that I and a host of talented collaborators – a filmmaker, a set and costume designer, a musician/composer — are working to bring to the stage in 2011.  Which means that I’m a playwright, now: another act of transformation-by-theatre!

The biggest idea of all here is the pure pleasure and play of imagination: of making believe.  Under the Poppy is a stage of the imagination, and it sits waiting for you to bring yours to the performance, to engage in the willful collusion of reader and writer, participating in this act of theatre-on-the-page, where you and I pretend that words are really people and that what happens here is really real: and as long as we both believe, the show goes on.The theatre is the locus of ultimate fiction: the one place on earth where normal everyday people, people you might run into at the café or the grocery store, people you might even know (their names, their fears and loves, the way they toss their underwear not quite into the damn hamper) – people like you, in fact – become indisputably someone else, someone completely different, right before your very eyes.  Change the lights, put on a mask, and voila: instant strange.  And instant license to behave in a way in which the world’s most stringent laws become just another part of the script, to be used, ignored, or flouted at will: under these lights, it’s story that’s paramount.

For a fiction writer, is this not heaven?

And when the actors themselves are puppets, the ultimate playthings and the ultimate in freedom on the stage – they can fly, die, pop off a head, literally break a heart, and come back whole and gleaming for the matinee … well.  Then the only limit is the bedrock challenge of the page: What can you make live here, writer, with your blank space and your choice of words? Let’s put on a show.

Under the Poppy is my response to that enthralling challenge. Set in a darkly shabby avenue of the Victorian age, its story is of Istvan and Rupert, childhood comrades, lovers, and puppeteers, as they make their lives and make their way by the uses and enchantments of theatre, by rendering their puppets of wood and wire so real that people will pay to watch them play at life, so real that when they themselves are parted, by jealousy, anger, and a most intimate betrayal, their only road back to one another leads across the stage: the artifice of approach and retreat, the exquisite humor of making a wooden man with a mocking grin speak for you to the one you love.

And because that stage is set in a brothel – a place called Under the Poppy with its own local reputation for play-acting and fantasy, where the girls and the boy can be whatever you like, as long as you pay the price; watched over by stern madam Decca, who keeps playing her own desperate, crumbling role as war takes over the town – the ante is upped by the unpredictable nature of sex and desire.  As Istvan says to Lucy, one of the working girls, “We are so much alike, you and I … Both of us vendors of the art of the moment, the impermanent pleasure,” which is the pleasure of fiction, too, isn’t it?

Writing this book was different, and special, for me in a lot of ways: my first novel of historical fiction, my longest novel ever, my first work specifically for adults (I also write YA) in over ten years.  As to the story’s theatrical nature, I have never been an actor, worked in stagecraft, or even watched a puppet show before this book, but I knew without question that this story, these people with their stages and feints and plots both before and behind the footlights, was for me.  I loved the research into the period and the puppetry, and I loved the details that I learned and incorporated (and a lot of things I learned and may use later….).  And I loved the writing itself, the absorbing daily act of imagining and making this book.

And when Under the Poppy was completed, I knew that there was even more to this story, more to do.  So I adapted the first half of the novel for a stage presentation, a work of immersive theatre that I and a host of talented collaborators – a filmmaker, a set and costume designer, a musician/composer — are working to bring to the stage in 2011.  Which means that I’m a playwright, now: another act of transformation-by-theatre!

The biggest idea of all here is the pure pleasure and play of imagination: of making believe.  Under the Poppy is a stage of the imagination, and it sits waiting for you to bring yours to the performance, to engage in the willful collusion of reader and writer, participating in this act of theatre-on-the-page, where you and I pretend that words are really people and that what happens here is really real: and as long as we both believe, the show goes on.

Saturday is For Not Being on the Blog

I’ve set up the temporary monitor for my desktop computer — it’s an HP monitor that came from an old Wal-Mart “all in one” computer package we got for Athena a while back, which is so old I had to buy an adapter to get it to work with my computer — and it sucks so very hard that I’m spending the day generating pay copy to justify buying a monitor that does not make me want to cry every single time I look at it.

So, off to the salt mines for me. You kids have fun. I’ll see you later.