What’s eerie about it is how, save for the accent, this cat could be me when I am frustrated by my technology.
For the folks who are saying to themselves “it’s been two days and no new pictures of Daisy,” you can reset your clocks: Here she is via one of the faux-retro cameras that are all the rage on cell phones these days. Note the photo scratches! That’s your assurance of fake authenticity! The picture is of Daisy in her crate; she came crate-trained, which is actually a very good thing.
I’m also happy to say Daisy does now appear to grasp the concept that the cats are full fledged members of the family and not to be hugged using one’s teeth. The cats are still not thrilled by Daisy’s presence but seem to be accepting it with that sort of huffy exasperation they do so well. This counts as material progress, and makes me happy that we’re getting this all resolved before it actually gets cold and the cats basically stay in the house full time because, hey, it’s warm here. That would not be the time for animal personality conflicts.
Also, Daisy snores. It’s cute.
Saturday, October 30, 9 – 10am: SFWA Business Meeting
Yup, that’s it. I have no other programming other than that. Why? Because with the exception of Worldcon and Phoenix Comic Con, this is the year I decided that I was going to take a break from convention programming and just go to conventions to enjoy myself and see friends. And it’ll be my first World Fantasy Convention and I wanted to be able to get a feel for the thing.
So, when I’m not doing SFWA business I’ll be wandering about and also probably hanging around in the bar and visiting parties and so on, and I’ll also be at the awards banquet. If you see me, feel free to say hello.
Allow me to put on my SFWA presidential hat here (it’s a beanie!) and speak to those active members of SFWA reading this blog who will also be attending the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus:
1. Our annual business meeting will be taking place at World Fantasy.
2. It will be on Saturday, October 30, 9 – 10 am in a room to be announced at the convention. It takes place at that time so as not to conflict with regular convention programming.
3. If you come early (8:30 – 9:00), we will feed you. Yes! Free food! That’s the best kind of food there is! Also coffee! Because, well. 8:30 am on a Saturday.
4. If you don’t come and we don’t have a quorum, then we can’t officially have a business meeting AND THE SUN WILL COLLAPSE IN ON ITSELF. So say our top scientists. Top scientists, people.
5. So please attend the business meeting.
6. And also RSVP here, so we know how much food to have on hand, and so we can send you the agenda beforehand.
7. Also let your other SFWA active member friends who will be at World Fantasy know.
Now I’m taking off my SFWA presidential hat. Because that beanie is scratchy.
Stories have their protagonists and their antagonists — their “good guys” and “bad guys” — but in practical terms, what’s often the difference between the two sides? This is a question Helen Lowe asked herself, leading up to the writing of her “The Wall of Night” series, of which The Heir of Night is the debut installment. What answers came to her? Did answers come to her? Lowe walks you through her thought process on the matter.
I have loved epic fantasy since I first discovered the Greek myths and legends as a kid, quickly moving on to the Norse sagas with their twilit darkness shot through with treasure and blood and magic. Later, reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as a young teen, I recognized the debt he owed to those Norse legends and their epic sweep, while fully appreciating the fresh magic he wrought with them. From Tolkien I proceeded to read as much SFF as I could find—and found some great reads.
But even as a younger reader, I experienced a growing dissatisfaction with much of the fantasy that I was picking up, in particular how one dimensional it was in terms of the traditional “good versus evil” storyline. “Bad/evil” tended to be a clearcut and easily recognizable external force, its adherents demonic—or at least ugly—in form and usually wearing some variation on black. “Good” would also be primarily recognizable by simple virtue of standing in opposition to “bad”, the characters’ “goodness” usually demonstrated, not by integrity of behavior, but by actively smiting the ugly crew on the other side—oh yes, and wearing some version of white.
Three things struck me about this. One was that these so-called “good guys” did a lot of questionable stuff, but that was ok, by implication, because they were on the “right” side. Secondly, even as a kid, but increasingly as I participated in the adult world, I realized that “Life’s Not Like That.” And finally, that the genre had moved a long way from its roots in the Greek and Norse myths that had hooked me into fantasy in the first place. In those stories, it is the internal conflict within the protagonists—their struggle between the pressures of self-interest, the socio-political forces in their societies, and the codes they hold to be true and right—that drive the power, drama and tragedy of the narrative.
Real life’s like that, too; the same forces are constantly at play in our lives. Any values of “right” and “true” that we are taught as individuals are constantly under pressure, being eroded even, by self-interest and self-preservation and by societal forces driving to achieve particular outcomes in terms of resource use / allocation and to enforce belief systems. I imagine that most of us try to have “bottom lines” and boundaries that we don’t cross—but we live in a world where boundaries are often blurred and the pressure to push the margins further out, and then just a little further again, is a constant.
So there I was, reading fantasy with all these thought swirling around—but the moment I “stopped dead” was with a story where the “good guys” walled a “bad guy” up alive. Unarguably, this character had done some horrific things. Think about it, though: walling someone up to die of thirst and starvation—that is also an horrific deed. Oh, sorry, what was that? They’re the “good guys”, the one’s wearing the “white hats” so that makes it completely ok?
Sorry, not in my book.
That was the idea that worked away in me until it drove me to write The Heir of Night—to take the kind of epic fantasy story that I love and explore what it is that really makes “good guys” and “bad guys”. So yes, The Heir of Night, which is the first in The Wall of Night quartet, does respect a lot of the epic traditions: it is a fundamentally medieval world (although there are hints of “other”) and it ostensibly sets up a struggle between externally conceived forces of “good” and “evil”. Or does it?
Readers of The Heir of Night may notice certain things: that this book is focused very much on the people known as the Derai and their bleak, twilit world of the barrier mountain range known as The Wall—or Shield-Wall—of Night; and that the Derai, although they believe themselves to be the champions of good and right, are a society that has been fractured by civil war with its legacy of prejudice, suspicion and fear. Another dimension is that both the Derai and their aeons-old enemy, The Swarm, are alien to the world of Haarth in which their conflict is currently being fought out—and the indigenous inhabitants have their own perspective on the Derai and their ways. This introduces an important cultural dimension to the traditionally conceived conflict, one that I have rarely seen explored in the good-versus-evil formula of much epic fantasy.
These, for me, are the two aspects to the Big Idea that drives The Heir of Night and The Wall of Night series: the concept of a society that perceives itself as the defenders of good and yet has a darkly chequered history, and the consequences of that history for the individuals caught within the rigid codes of a “people under arms.” Plus the idea that those from the “other” cultures may have a very different view on a conflict that has been imposed upon their world. There are demons and battles and magic, and protagonists who must undertake their “hero journeys”, because this is still epic fantasy. The epic adversary does exist, as well—but whether it remains traditionally conceived through Books 2 to 4 remains to be seen. I suspect the above may have left a trail of clues in that respect—but then again, no tale, epic or otherwise, is ever over until we reach the final line.
One thing you may be sure of is that good and evil do exist in this story. You won’t recognize them by the color of the characters’ “hats”, though. You will also have to make up your own minds about the characters based on what they do in light of their own codes, not where they stand in relation to a line drawn along the Shield-Wall of Night.
Folks here and elsewhere have asked or speculated on the roots of my “Things I Don’t Have to Think About Today” piece on Monday. The fact is that I don’t have any particular reason for having written it when I did; unlike the “Being Poor” piece, which was written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there wasn’t a single event from which it springs. I’ve just been thinking of this stuff for a bit, and the idea of writing something along this line has been rolling around in my head. This weekend I had some free time, so writing it up seemed like a good way to spend a Sunday evening. I posted it early morning Monday rather than Sunday night because I figured it might get contentious comments, and for moderation purposes I didn’t want to spend the first several hours of the comment thread asleep. That’s pretty much the reason it came out when it did.
As to why I’ve been thinking about this stuff at all, well, again, there’s no particular reason, except possibly for the fact that over the last several weeks I’ve been listening to and reading friends and others dealing with various nonsense that I don’t have to deal with on a personal level. It’s made me aware of just how much pointless crap I manage to avoid due to phenotype, both in a precise sense of the word and in a looser cultural sense. Which, to be clear, I am glad for, since I’m happy to avoid as much pointless crap as I can in day-to-day living. But I’m aware I get to avoid lots of it for reasons that aren’t about me. It seemed a good topic to write on.
Along the way I’ve seen a little bit of discussion on whether I wrote the piece out of white male guilt or to get Internet cookies or because this is me marketing myself so people will buy my stuff. The latter I find a bit clueless (if you want to see me in actual marketing mode, I’ll be happy to outline everything I did for Clash of the Geeks), and as to the former, I’m not well known for feeling guilt or for needing approval. The reason I wrote it really is the simplest explanation: it was on my mind and I decided to write about it. That’s what Whatever is for.
She’s not unwell, thanks for asking. By and large Daisy seems to be getting the hang of the Scalzi family, although there’s still work to be done on the “cats are not for eating” score. She’s very attuned to fast movements and, surprise, the cats move quickly around a new dog, so there’s been some chasing, followed by us grabbing the pup and putting her on her back. She’s a pretty smart dog and already seems to have picked up that we’re displeased when she chases a cat, so hopefully this will get resolved sooner than later. I’m sure the cats hope sooner.
Otherwise: a sweetheart of a dog.
In honor of the new pup, this week at Filmcritic.com I’m talking about dogs and the essential role they play in science fiction film. What, you don’t think they’re essential? Shame on you. How can you say that about man’s best friend? You must like those things, what are they called? Oh, yes. Cats. As always, feel free to leave your comments, questions and gushing about canines over at the Filmcritic.com site.
There you go. No charge!
Mmmm… more books in the mail. What’s up today:
* The Broken Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit): You’ll recall that N.K. Jemisin was a recent guest poster here, but rather more importantly, she writes pretty damn awesome fantasy novels, and this one is the second in her Inheritance Trilogy, which you really should be reading. In this one, someone’s killing gods, and of course the book’s heroine is caught up in the mess. This will be out November 3, which gives you time to check out the first book in the series, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Hint, hint.
* Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks (Orbit): Yay! New Culture novel! Banks is one of those writers who makes me feel smarter for reading him, which is probably more pressure on him than he needs, but like that’s my problem. Also, the cover to the book features a person with Mandelbrot set pupils in their eyes, which is an unintentionally nice memorial to Benoit Mandelbrot, who passed away a couple of days ago. This is already out in the UK, as I understand, and will be out on the 28th in the US.
* Zoo City, Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot): Beukes imagines an alternate reality where the phrase “a monkey on your back” isn’t just a figure of speech, and our non-too-perfect heroine finds herself enmeshed in a missing persons case. The book’s gotten itself a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and the US version will be out in December (the UK version is already out). Beukes will be doing a Big Idea piece around the time of her US release as well.
* Celebrity Chekhov, Ben Greenman (Harper Perennial): A new variation of the “adapting older works” craze, this one redoes Chekov stories by replacing Chekov’s characters with current celebrities. This will inevitably lead to other such things, and with the inevitable “Mel Gibson awoke one morning to find he had been transformed into a dung beetle.” At which point the world will implode. I’m just saying. Out now.
* Selected Shorts and Other Methods of Time Travel, David Goldberg (Blue World Publications): 37 short stories about the perils of commercial time travel. Problems with luggage handling are the least of it, apparently. This book did a little bit of time travel itself to get to me, since it won’t be out until February.
* The Dark Griffin, K.J. Taylor (Ace): The first book in a new fantasy series involving griffins and those who ride them. The three books in the series will be published one month apart, and this one comes out in January.
* The Human Blend, Alan Dean Foster (Del Rey): OH NOES STARBUCKS HAS GONE ONE COFFEE FLAVOR TOO FAR. Oh, wait, that’s not what the title refers to at all. Forget I mentioned it. More accurately, this is the start of a new series by Foster, in a future in which human body modification doesn’t just mean tattoos or scarification. This first book will be out in late November.
Here’s a question for you: How can a book take both ten years — and only four weeks — to write? The answer lies in Hunger, the latest novel by Jackie Morse Kessler. Turns out there’s more to putting together a novel than placing fingers to keyboard, and it also turns out that when it comes to books, the right time to write might be sooner than you think.
JACKIE MORSE KESSLER:
I wasn’t going to write Hunger. It didn’t matter that I’d had the idea for nearly 10 years. And it didn’t matter that this was a book that I dearly wanted to write. I wasn’t going to do it. I’d convinced myself that it wouldn’t appeal to a broad readership, so I’d have to wait until I was a Big Name Author*, whenever that would be. Until then, I’d stick with writing about demons and superheroes—otherwise known as “novels already under contract.”
Then came Albacon 2008. My agent and I got together for lunch, and I casually mentioned to her that my goal was to become a big enough author to write the book I really wanted to write. She wanted to know what book that would be. I said, “An anorexic teenage girl becomes the new Famine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” My agent asked, “Why haven’t you written this yet?” I patiently explained that no one would want to read it. To which she replied, “Are you crazy?”
So I decided to write the book. (Validation? Extremely powerful motivator.)
Hunger has roots in comic books—both Marvel and Archie, if you can believe that combination—but the idea really sprouted when I was in my early twenties, well after my bout with bulimia. I wanted to write a book with a protagonist who not only had an eating disorder but was defined by it, a book that tackled a very real issue through fantastical elements. So as I waited to become a Big Name Author, the idea percolated.
After thinking about something for 10 years, you might assume that once I’d given myself permission to write it, the words would come easily. Nope. I was plagued with false starts. I couldn’t find the right beginning. Should I set it in a hospital, where the protagonist had been confined because of her disease? If I did, how would Famine’s steed—a big black horse named Midnight—make it past the Nurse’s Station? For that matter, did the protagonist even know she was suffering from an eating disorder? Actually…who was the main character? She wasn’t just some person who happened to be anorexic. I needed to understand her, as well as her disorder.
That’s when it hit me: The protagonist would be inspired by someone I had known—specifically, the girl who’d introduced me to bulimia. That girl from my past is gone; I found out about her death many years after we’d gotten into the huge fight that destroyed our friendship. Maybe it was partially out of guilt, or love, or something else only a psychologist could help me understand, but I decided that Hunger would be her story. That’s how the heroine Lisabeth Lewis was born. Once I had the right protagonist, the first sentence appeared like magic: “Lisabeth Lewis didn’t mean to become Famine.” From there, the first three chapters flowed.
I slammed into my next roadblock when I had to figure out the purpose behind the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Given that I have a background writing urban fantasy (not to mention playing Dungeons & Dragons), you’d think the world-building issues would have been tackled sooner. For every other paranormal book or story I’ve written, that’s been the case: I’d come up with the rules of the world first, then I’d put the character in that world. Hunger brushed that aside. This wasn’t a book about the Horseman called Famine, whose anorexia is an afterthought. This story is about an anorexic girl who becomes Famine. It’s extremely character-driven. I could take away the Horsemen elements and still have a story—a very different story, granted, but a story all the same. If I took away the eating disorder, there would be no story left to tell. So when I was starting chapter four and I realized that I didn’t know why there were the Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the first place, I stumbled.
For days, I wrestled with the notion of the Horsemen. Now I’m all for a little death, doom and destruction, but that wasn’t where I wanted to go with the book. The Apocalypse was officially off the table. So why have the Horsemen at all? What was their purpose? My husband, who helps me brainstorm, asked me, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Horsemen weren’t there to bring about the Apocalypse, but to prevent it?”
Yes, I thought, already reaching for my laptop. Very cool.
That wasn’t exactly what I wound up running with, but it was a terrific start. The Horsemen, ultimately, symbolize how we choose to destroy ourselves—and how we can save ourselves as well. Oh, there’s a mythology there, too, one that will come into play over the other three books in The Riders’ Quartet. But for Hunger, I’d finally figured out what the Horsemen were, and what they could do, if they so chose.
Armed with this information, I sat down to finish writing the book. The whole percolating-for-10-years thing finally came into play, because from start to finish, the novel took me four weeks. Granted, Hunger is a very (very) short book. And really, I don’t recommend waiting 10 years to write a book—especially when you have to push aside a contracted novel under deadline to do so. (Couldn’t help it. Every time I tried to write about superheroes, Horsemen kept popping up.)
So I finished it. My agent sold the book to Harcourt—and then she asked me, “So which Horseman are you writing about next?” And that’s how, after 10 years, I not only wrote the book I’d desperately wanted to write; I also moved forward. Rage, the follow-up novel about a teenage self-injurer who becomes the new War, comes out in April 2011. And look at that: no Big Name required. Lesson learned.
To help spread the word about what eating disorders are, and what they’re not, I’m donating a portion of Hunger proceeds to the National Eating Disorders Association. So if you bought a copy of the book, thank you for helping make a difference.
* Big Name Author: When an author’s name on a cover is bigger than the book title. Or, better yet, when someone says the author’s name, the immediate reaction isn’t a blank look followed by, “Who?”
First, please to enjoy the new t-shirt:
The statement will be familiar to this year’s class at Viable Paradise. For the rest of you, it relates to characters who show up in a story and are so entertaining that you forget whatever else is supposed to be going on and just pay attention to them instead. Guilty characters include Falstaff, the devil, and anyone Alan Rickman happens to be playing. Someone suggested I was a bit of a narrative usurper myself, which I don’t know is true (it presumes real life has a definable narrative, and God, whatever his other virtues, is crap at organizing his stories), but is flattering. Me and Alan Rickman, baby! Thus, the shirt. I also made one for Alan. I wonder where I should send it.
Second, thanks everyone for the kind notes about today’s previous entry, both in the comments there and on Twitter, and the various other places I’ve seen comments online. I’m glad the point I was trying to make is coming through. That said, I’ll note this before someone else feels the need to: Please, all, remember that I have shown my ass on the Internet before, and it seems very likely I will do so again in the future — although, of course, I will try not to. But like any number of people who presume to clever, I am often guilty of saying or writing something without first passing it through the “will this make me look like an entitled jackass” filter. And then, surprise, I look like an entitled jackass.
This is my roundabout way of saying that one of the reasons I wrote that last entry is to remind myself to try to be that person, the one who is aware what he gets unearned. In day-to-day life I work on it. Some days I do a better job than others. I’m sure all y’all will let me know when I’m having a bad day of it. I’ll try not to be too petulant when you do.
Today I don’t have to think about those who hear “terrorist” when I speak my faith.
Today I don’t have to think about men who don’t believe no means no.
Today I don’t have to think about how the world is made for people who move differently than I do.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m married, depending on what state I’m in.
Today I don’t have to think about how I’m going to hail a cab past midnight.
Today I don’t have to think about whether store security is tailing me.
Today I don’t have to think about the look on the face of the person about to sit next to me on a plane.
Today I don’t have to think about eyes going to my chest first.
Today I don’t have to think about what people might think if they knew the medicines I took.
Today I don’t have to think about getting kicked out of a mall when I kiss my beloved hello.
Today I don’t have to think about if it’s safe to hold my beloved’s hand.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m being pulled over for anything other than speeding.
Today I don’t have to think about being classified as one of “those people.”
Today I don’t have to think about making less than someone else for the same job at the same place.
Today I don’t have to think about the people who stare, or the people who pretend I don’t exist.
Today I don’t have to think about managing pain that never goes away.
Today I don’t have to think about whether a stranger’s opinion of me would change if I showed them a picture of who I love.
Today I don’t have to think about the chance a store salesmen will ignore me to help someone else.
Today I don’t have to think about the people who’d consider torching my house of prayer a patriotic act.
Today I don’t have to think about a pharmacist telling me his conscience keeps him from filling my prescription.
Today I don’t have to think about being asked if I’m bleeding when I’m just having a bad day.
Today I don’t have to think about whether the one drug that lets me live my life will be taken off the market.
Today I don’t have to think about the odds of getting jumped at the bar I like to go to.
Today I don’t have to think about “vote fraud” theater showing up at my poll station.
Today I don’t have to think about turning on the news to see people planning to burn my holy book.
Today I don’t have to think about others demanding I apologize for hateful people who have nothing to do with me.
Today I don’t have to think about my child being seen as a detriment to my career.
Today I don’t have to think about the irony of people thinking I’m lucky because I can park close to the door.
Today I don’t have to think about memories of being bullied in high school.
Today I don’t have to think about being told to relax, it was just a joke.
Today I don’t have to think about whether someone thinks I’m in this country illegally.
Today I don’t have to think about those who believe that freedom of religion ends with mine.
Today I don’t have to think about how a half-starved 23-year-old being a cultural ideal affects my life.
Today I don’t have to think about how much my life is circumscribed by my body.
Today I don’t have to think about people wanting me cured of loving who I love.
Today I don’t have to think about those who view me an unfit parent because of who I love.
Today I don’t have to think about being told my kind don’t assimilate.
Today I don’t have to think about people blind to the intolerance of their belief lecturing me about my own.
Today I don’t have to think about my body as a political football.
Today I don’t have to think about how much my own needs wear on those I love.
Today I don’t have to think about explaining to others “what happened to me.”
Today I don’t have to think about politicians saying bigoted things about me to win votes.
Today I don’t have to think about those worried that one day people like me will be the majority.
Today I don’t have to think about someone using the name of my religion as a slur.
Today I don’t have to think about so many of the words for me controlling my own life being negatives.
Today I don’t have to think about still not being equal.
Today I don’t have to think about what it takes to keep going.
Today I don’t have to think about how much I still have to hide.
Today I don’t have to think about how much prejudice keeps hold.
Today I don’t have to think about how I’m meant to be grateful that people tolerate my kind.
Today I don’t have to think about all the things I don’t have to think about.
But today I will.
My beloved 24-inch monstrosity of a monitor just experienced fatal explodination — I was sitting here reading something when it suddenly flickered, offered up a load pop and then went dead with only the alarming smell of ozone to mark its passing — and unfortunately the backup monitor I have is incompatible with my desktop computer because all my video cards have digital outputs.
So until I can order a new fancy-pants monitor, this is my set-up: My desktop keyboard hooked up to (and completely dominating) my little netbook. I have other laptops in the house, to be sure, but my wife uses one and my daughter uses the other, and they would be cross if I deprived them of them. And, I don’t know. I find this set-up mildly amusing. Although not so amusing that I’m going to keep it for more than a couple of days.
But spare a moment, if you would, for my departed monitor, bereft as it now is of the magic smoke which made it go. Soon it will off to that great computer recycling center in the sky. It served me well. I shall shed a tear for its glassy remains.
No, I have no idea how it snuck in. But clearly it is there to screw with my mental feng shui. Stupid Pepsi ninjas.
Sit, Daisy! Sit!
What we did with our Saturday: We went and got ourselves a new dog. Her name is Daisy, she’s a two-year-old laborador-mastiff mix, and we got her through a local rescue service. Her previous owners were no longer able to care for her, which had nothing to do with Daisy and everything to do with their own personal situation. Daisy is housetrained and responds to commands and so far seems pretty happy. The cats are extraordinarily pissed, as they of course would be, although Daisy is not at all aggressive toward them so far. We assume they will get over it soon.
And that’s what I have for you at the moment, inasmuch as we’ve had the dog for all of 90 minutes now. More updates as events warrant. In the meantime, however: Say hello to Daisy.
This post is specifically for authors/editors/publicists who have submitted Big Idea requests for November/December: I’m currently looking at and scheduling the latest batch of requests and should send you information by Tuesday. So don’t panic! Thank you.
It’s probably inaccurate to call the writing of fiction “restful” (says the man currently trying to write a new novel), but can it offer a respite? From Graham Hancock, it just may. Hancock is best known as a non-fiction author of highly controversial historical books, and controversies, while sometimes invigorating, have their downside as well. So, when Hancock turned his hand to fiction with his novel Entangled, did the experience offer him a break from that controversy — and a new enthusiasm for writing? Let’s let Hancock spin the tale from here.
Entangled is my first novel, a work of science fiction and fantasy adventure utterly different from anything I’ve ever written before. At its heart are Ria and Leoni, two brave young women, living at opposite ends of history, who are brought together by supernatural forces to do battle with a demon who travels through time. My heroines don’t need a “time machine”. They encounter one another, and the demon, by travelling out of body in altered states of consciousness induced by the consumption of powerful psychedelic drugs.
Before I tell you where this big, strange idea came from I need to give you some backstory.
I’ve been a non-fiction writer all my working life, starting out in mainstream journalism in the early 1970’s and finding my way into books from there. I was always heavily facts-based, even if – as I increasingly came to define my role – I was giving a different take on the facts from the mainstream. An example is my 1989 book Lords of Poverty: The Freewheeling Lifestyles, Power, Prestige and Corruption of the Multi-Billion Dollar Aid Business. It won an H.L. Menken Award honourable mention for an outstanding book of journalism. It was entirely fact based, but it took the same facts the aid industry was using to blow its own trumpet and showed that there was a whole other story lying underneath them — a story not of ‘help’ and ‘kindness’ but of corruption, waste, greed and ego on the part of the donor organisations. Lords of Poverty was the first book really to question foreign aid. A lot of people in the aid business got very angry with me about it, but it struck a chord and is still in print more than twenty years later in the US.
So the same basic approach that I brought to Lords of Poverty I also brought to all my later non-fiction books on historical mysteries such as The Sign and the Seal, Fingerprints of the Gods and Heaven’s Mirror – questioning established facts, reinterpreting them and trying to bring new data to the table. Typically I would refer to a thousand-plus other books for each of my big books of non-fiction, which were all fundamentally works of synthesis. If there was anything truly original in them it lay in creating a novel synthesis, and in asking new questions about the data that perhaps hadn’t been given much thought before.
You should see my office any day when I’m writing non-fiction. Dozens of books relating to the chapter I am working on that day are scattered, open, all over my desk and floor. There are little yellow tags in the pages of these books that remind me of some nugget of information hidden on page 243 or 867. As I write I am constantly inserting footnotes (and I’ve learned that if you don’t do the note, at least in abbreviated form, right away than you can never find it again).
It is a constant fact-grinding operation and after three decades of this I have reached a point where, frankly, I’m exhausted by it. Relentless academic attacks on my non-fiction, most ferocious in the UK, completely wore me out and also forced me to start writing in a more and more boring way. Anticipating every nit-picking critique, and knowing how even the slightest mistake would be spun as ‘fraud’ and ‘bad faith’ by the mainstream, I started bullet-proofing my arguments even as I made them, surrounding them with ever larger amounts of facts, observation and data, trying to iron out every weakness in advance. The result — Underworld. It’s a pretty good book in my opinion. I’m proud of it. Proud of the risks my wife Santha and I were prepared to take to do the dives and bring back the evidence – Santha’s photographs being crucial. Proud of the mass of new data, not previously published, that it unveils. But it is close to 800 pages long and the architecture of facts, and the defensive posture I was forced to adopt, means that many readers have found it hard to wade through it.
As I writer I do, above all, want to be read. So what I gradually came to realise was that the need to respond to scholarly attacks on my work was actually making me more and more unreadable! I began to yearn to get back to the place of adventure and daring I was in when I wrote Fingerprints of the Gods and didn’t give a damn about what the academics thought or said.
But it gradually became clear to me that the intellectual climate within which I must work meant that I could never get back to that place again — in non-fiction in this field. I also came to the conclusion, after Underworld, that I had done everything I could do, as an individual, to shed light on the possibility that there might be a great forgotten episode of high civilisation lost in the night of time. I began to be concerned that if I stayed totally focussed on that subject then I would end up repeating myself and doing nothing new.
It was time to move on.
The result, still non-fiction, was Supernatural. The same reference-based approach reinterpreting existing ‘facts’, and another very long book, but this time not focussed on the lost civilisation mystery.
But something amazing happened to me while I was researching and writing Supernatural. I had my first encounters with the Amazonian shamanistic brew Ayahuasca, the Vine of the Dead, and these encounters completely changed my view of just about everything. The experiences filled me up with a new and invigorating creative urge and I began to think more and more about taking a long sabbatical from non-fiction and taking my narrative gifts — such as they are — in the direction of fiction. What was there to lose, I asked myself, when my critics already described my factual books as fiction?! Besides some facts are SO strange that maybe the only way they can ever be explored properly is through the imagination.
So I thought over this for a long while after my first encounter with the brew in 2003. I have continued to drink Ayahuasca several times a year since then, and have now logged more than thirty journeys. In 2006 I participated in a series of five Ayahuasca sessions over a period of two weeks in Brazil. Before we began the work — and Ayahuasca is WORK — I set an intent. It was to find inspiration for a novel.
The sessions gave me the answer. In a series of intense visions I saw my two main characters, Ria in the Stone Age, Leoni today, entangled in a great cosmic battle of good against evil. Some specific scenes and plot elements presented themselves to me. Others I received — downloaded — but could not immediately bring to conscious recollection. And I received a strong instruction from the blessed spirit of Aya and that instruction was: “WRITE IT. WRITE IT NOW!”
I started writing straight away. It was very slow at first. It took me a year to get eighty pages down to show to my editor. But fortunately he loved it, and bought it on the spot and the result, Entangled, I now place before my readers.
Each day of writing this book (and I am writing the sequel right now) has been a wonderful adventure for me. Because I downloaded the whole thing from the visionary realm I have not worked with any kind of outline but just sit at my desk to write every morning not knowing at all where the story is going to go. It’s all fresh and new to me, discovering events only as my characters discover them, and tremendous fun to do.
And I’m realising more and more that, as a vehicle for exploring extraordinary ideas, fiction has a huge degree of latitude and license that our society simply does not allow to non-fiction authors. And no footnotes! No quotations from learned sources! No angry academics waiting to accuse me of fraud! Just the challenge of the blank screen every morning and the adventure of finding out what I am going to put there today…
This is not say I will never write non-fiction again. I certainly hope I will. But I think I’ve earned a break and hope my readers will come with me on this new adventure.