The Big Idea: Nat Segaloff

When biographer and historian Nat Segaloff sat down to interview science fiction Grand Master Harlan Ellison for his new book A Lit Fuse, he knew that he was in for a challenge. What surprised him about the process was how much it wasn’t just about Ellison, but also about him.

NAT SEGALOFF:

How do you write something new about someone everybody thinks they already know? A writer who is famous for putting so much of his life into his stories that his fans feel that even his most bizarre work is autobiographical? That was the unspoken challenge in late 2013 when I agreed to write Harlan Ellison’s biography, an adventure that is just now seeing daylight with the publican of A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison.

I wrote the book because Harlan wouldn’t. He came close in 2008 when he announced he would write Working Without a Net for “a major publisher,” but he never did. Maybe he figured he’d said enough in his 1700 short stories, essays, and articles he’s published over the last 60 years. It wasn’t as if he was afraid of the truth; he always said he never lies about himself because that way nobody can hold anything against him. That was my challenge.

When we shook hands and I became his biographer, I also became the only person he ever gave permission to quote from his work and take a tour of his life. What I really wanted to do, though, was to explore his mind. What I didn’t expect was that, as I examined his creative process, I would also bare my own.

When you sit down with someone for a conversation, it’s fun; when you sit down with someone for an interview, it’s serious. Harlan has been interviewed countless times and he has always been in control. This time, I was. I had to get him to say stuff that was new, and I had to go beyond where others had stopped.

A Harlan Ellison interview is a performance. He will be quotable, precise, vague, and outrageous. He takes no prisoners. He will run and fetch a comic book, figurine, photograph, or book to illustrate a point, all of which breaks the mood. My job was to get him to sit still and not be “Harlan Ellison” but simply Harlan.

Harlan is one of the few speculative fiction writers (along with Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and a handful of others) who became public figures. Part of this stemmed from the quality of his work but much of it was created by his being, as I kept finding in the clippings, ““fractious,” “famously litigious,” and “argumentative.” Indeed, most of the stories I found during my research could be divided into two categories: “What a wild man Harlan is” and “I alone escaped to tell thee.”

Balderdash. What I discovered was a man who takes his craft seriously and fiercely defends others who labor in the field of words. An attack on them was an attack on him, and an attack on him was not to be deflected but returned in kind. “I don’t mind if you think I’m stupid,” he told one antagonist, “it’s just that I resent it when you talk to me as if I’m stupid.”

Even though I had final cut, I ran whole sections past him to get his reaction. He never flinched. In fact, he challenged me to go deeper. It was almost as if – and don’t take this the wrong way – I was Clarice Starling and he was Hannibal Lecter — the more I asked of Harlan, the more I had to give of myself. Both of us put our blood in the book even though I am the author.

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A Lit Fuse: Amazon|NESFA Press

 

The Big Idea: Cassandra Khaw

Identity issues can sometimes be a bear, as the protagonist of Bearly a Lady finds out — in no small part because author Cassandra Khaw experienced something similar in her real life.

CASSANDRA KHAW:

The first time I came out as bisexual to a partner, it was a mess. What was a passably tolerable relationship became a wasteland of conspiratorial winks, elbow nudges, and endless attempts to convince me to have a threesome with someone, anyone, just pick an attractive person of the same gender.

Thing is, I don’t blame him.

Bisexual representation in media is a fraught topic. More often than not, bisexual people are characterized as wild, promiscuous individuals with thrilling sex lives, perpetually ready to jump into bed with whomever they find attractive. (Not necessarily untrue or even wrong, but that’s a conversation for another space.) Consequently, we end up with people like my ex, who begin quivering with lascivious curiosity the moment they so much as hear the hum of that first syllable.

But we are getting better at it. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has one of my favorite bisexual characters of all times: Darryl Whitefeather, a middle-aged divorcee who comes out mid-season and proceeds to have a stunningly healthy relationship with his new boyfriend. (That show has its problems, but I will forever love the writers for making sure the queer couple is the happy one.) And genre writing is even further ahead in that department. Take Kai Ashante Wilson’s work, for example, which remarks on polyamorous queer relationships without even the barest breath of hesitation. After all, in a world of dragons and technical-minded gods, what is there to fear about a man who loves a man and also a woman?

I’m digressing.

With Bearly a Lady, I’m hoping to build on that canon. Zelda McCartney is a complicated character, for all that she might sometimes appear like an airhead. She’s been out for a long time; this isn’t a self-discovery story. Instead, the book, which goes into some dark places between the lines, interrogates the idea of expectations, labels, and toxic relationships.

And that is because she is a werebear in a human world, a woman endlessly bombarded by external forces, all looking to chip at her self-esteem for the sake of a quick buck or someone else’s emotional fulfillment. It’s no surprise that Zelda has only half an idea as to which box she belongs. Honestly, a lot of people don’t figure that out. Especially those raised outside of liberal communities.

I’d know. For the longest time, that was me.

(Except for the werebear part.)

So, that’s one of the Big Ideas behind Bearly a Lady. I wanted my main character to be full of internal conflict, certain in her identity but uncertain of the words that one might use to define oneself. A mess of paradoxes and imperfections glued together by bad sitcoms and ice-cream. I’m hoping that, one day, Bearly a Lady might be part of some bisexual teenager’s library, another piece in the puzzle as they figure out who they are. Maybe, Zelda will be an example of who they hope not to be. Maybe, they’ll see a bit of themselves in her. Who knows? That’s not up to me.

Bearly a Lady might be a queer paranormal rom-com with werebears, vampires, and billionaire fairies galore, but it’s also a look into the life of a queer woman who doesn’t always get it straight.

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Bearly a Lady: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo

Read an excerpt online. Visit the authors site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Michael F. Haspil

Getting older often gives you a perspective that younger people don’t have. But what happens when you’re immortal? What is your perspective then? It’s a question Michael F. Haspil has considered for his debut novel, Graveyard Shift.

MICHAEL F. HASPIL:

As human beings, we tell ourselves fictions to make it easier to cooperate one with one another.

Sometimes, the fiction is noble. We are all equal and entitled to certain inalienable rights. This story only extends to imaginary lines drawn on a representative map, a different sort of fiction. After all, “We” doesn’t apply to “Them”.

Many times, the fiction is merely useful. This color of light means “go” and another color means “stop”. All drivers must drive on this side of the street. Pieces of paper have value and you can use them to barter for goods. When people stop trusting in those fictions, life becomes hazardous and disagreeable.

All too often, the fiction becomes a source of human polarization. The entertainment we criticize, others adore. The sports tribes we deride are idols to others even though we select them more often due to geography than anything else. Their ties are red, ours our blue, so they are immoral. We don’t understand the methods they use to heal; therefore, they are wicked. They have a different melanin content than we do; their lives aren’t worth as much as ours are. Our god is greater than theirs; therefore, they are evil.

It’s all about tribalism and defining the Other. We tell ourselves stories and then believe them to such an extent we can justify any action.

Viewed from the point of view of hypothetical immortals, or beings so long-lived that for all purposes they may as well be, the numbers of those who belong to their tribe shrink over time, until almost everyone they meet is the Other. Of what concern is any subject when humans change their minds or stop caring about them in a week, a month, a century?

Combine that idea with how many atrocities immortals might witness, as they become more and more detached from those fictions we humans tell ourselves. How many died because they followed the wrong leader? How many burned at the stake because of paranoia? How many mass graves? How many genocides? The immortals would tell themselves a new fiction. Humans don’t matter. They all die, some sooner than others.

The trolley problem is an ethical thought exercise. An observer stands near a switch as a runaway trolley bears down the tracks. On the tracks ahead of the trolley, several people are trapped, unable to move and will die when the trolley reaches them. The observer can pull the switch and divert the trolley to another set of tracks. However, an individual standing nearby will die when the trolley diverts. The problem lies in the observer’s choice of whether to kill one person to save many or do nothing and allow many to die.

As the immortals pass down through the centuries, the trolley problem breaks. Viewed on their timescale, what does it matter if everyone on the tracks dies? Their lives are so short, they are as good as dead anyway. Why should immortals trouble themselves with the lives of beings that end in a relative eye blink? Why should human morals matter? Or human laws? It’s not that immortals are more or less ethical than humans. It’s that over their eternal lives they tell themselves different stories. New fictions, humans aren’t equipped to understand.

Taken from the human point of view, these immortals inevitably become the Other. By comparison, our short lives would not afford us a window of understanding. Their decisions and justifications would be alien to us. What do fruit flies comprehend of human machinations?

If we knew of them at all, we would fear them. We would hate them. We would hunt them.

In my novel, Graveyard Shift, some of my heroes are so long-lived they may as well be immortal and so they share part of the problems I’ve described. Added to their condition, they often make the difficult choices of committing a lesser evil to prevent a greater one. It is a slippery slope. How many times can one justify collateral damage in the name of the greater good before one becomes a new source of evil?

In many other stories, my heroes — a vigilante, a vampire, a shapeshifter, a mummy — would be the villains. As Nietzsche warns, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” But when beings survive for millennia, becoming a monster, may be inevitable.

My characters aren’t nice people. On a good day, they are indifferent to the plight of the everyman. Often throughout the story, they do unpleasant things and they rationalize what they’ve done by convincing themselves it was a necessary evil to prevent something much worse. Most of the time, that’s true.

This was a bit of a struggle for me. How could I convey the apathy of immortals and still portray them as sympathetic heroes?

It ultimately came down to their motivations. The need for atonement drives many of my characters. They view their immortality and their continued service to humankind as a sort of penance for sins committed past and present.

It wouldn’t take much to flip the script and turn them into the true monsters other perceive them to be. This is what Matheson’s Richard Neville discovers at the conclusion of I Am Legend. Often, determining who is and who isn’t a monster, is solely based on the point of view and the fictions we tell ourselves.

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Graveyard Shift: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jason LaPier

Home is where the heart is, but what does “home” mean, and does it mean the same thing for everyon. Author Jason LaPier has thoughts on this topic, and what it means for his latest novel Under Shadows, and the series of books to which it belongs.

JASON LaPIER:

The Dome Trilogy centers on three characters with three very different backgrounds. There’s “Jax” Jackson, who grew up in a dome on planet in the Barnard’s Star system, living a sheltered life and by his late twenties, working as a life support system operator. Stanford Runstom was born in completely unsheltered circumstances; his mother was an undercover detective for years, and when it came time for her to come back in, she opted to live out the next decade in a ship, honing her intelligence networks and staying on the move. Runstom was born in space, and his childhood home was this interstellar craft and the various ports and outposts it had occasion to visit; a life mirrored when he grew up to become a cop. Lastly, Dava was born on Earth, a planet on which human life has divided between plush arcologies and abject poverty. As a child, Dava lived underground until her parents won the “Earth Kin Rescue” lottery and were able to board an ark bound for the colonies. When Dava awoke from hypersleep, she’d become an orphan and was dumped into foster care in the domes. Her erratic upbringing eventually led her to crime.

As these three characters confront their immediate challenges and obstacles, they are distracted from identifying the real things they want for their own lives. But like a system that seeks equilibrium, they each unconsciously unveil their true internal goals. And they are surprised to find those goals have evolved from the obvious to something unexpected.

When Jax was a domer, he lacked drive and ambition. His only goal was to pay his bills. When the false accusation of murdering a block of residents under his watch forces Jax to become a fugitive, his immediate concerns become those of survival and freedom. He gets a taste of domeless life in an independent colony on the moon of a gas giant, and finds inspiration in the vibrancy, diversity, cooperation, and perseverance of the population. This manifests later when Jax is given the chance to do his part in protecting the colony’s way of life. It’s then that he realizes after all his trials, he doesn’t want to go back home to the domes, but instead wants to make a new home.

Runstom dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice, but had trouble advancing his career. Though he’d rather be a detective, he finds himself in a public relations role at the policing-for-hire company he works for. Respecting his mother’s need to stay under the radar, he maintains minimal contact with her. And yet, she sees all, and when they have a chance to be reunited, the stoically independent Runstom realizes how badly he misses his mother’s advice and love. Their separate and nomadic lives become much less bearable to him.

In and out of foster homes, Dava considered herself rescued when crime boss – and fellow ex-Earthling – Moses Down recruited her. From then on, she only concerned herself with being a good right hand to Down. He pushes her into leadership, and under his influence she tries her best. When she has to take the reins and decide what is best for the crime family, she realizes she wants to offer them something different. Moses Down brought the outcasts together and made them into a family, but Dava must find that family a place to call home.

And so the thing that unifies these three very different characters is that eventual goal to create a new home for themselves. Which explicitly means leaving previous notions of home behind, and recognizing the shadows of the past for what they are: merely shadows. This is the defining theme that I used to drive the character arcs through to the conclusion of the trilogy.

I was born in Saratoga, NY, near Albany. At the age of five, I was registered for kindergarten, but I would never attend that school; instead, my parents separated and we moved four hours away, to Elmira, NY. This was the first big shift in my sense of home, but I would spend the next twenty years in this small town. Finally, at the age of twenty-six, I’d had enough of Upstate and moved to Brooklyn in September, 2001. 9/11 came, and I was never able to make NYC my home. After six rough months of being unable to set roots into a disrupted city, I needed to escape from New York, and so I catapulted across the country to Oregon. Lacking in friends, family, and money, this is the part of my life I drew upon when thinking about what it means to learn how to make a home from scratch.

So the Big Idea here is that home is a malleable concept, and what you are born into is not necessarily what you are destined to call home. This became the core internal driver as I brought these three characters to the conclusion of this trilogy: they would each, in their own way, learn to define what home means to them.

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Under Shadows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Christopher Brown

The opening sentence of Christopher Brown’s Big Idea essay for Tropic of Kansas hits awfully close to home these days. Buckle in.

CHRISTOPHER BROWN:

What if the revolutions we watch ripping other countries apart were happening on our own streets?

America as Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela—that core conceit behind Tropic of Kansas drove almost everything else in the book.  It also taught me hard lessons about how speculative counterfactuals dictate the way you tell their story—and how your characters need to show you the path.

As I began to sketch out the book, my big idea was literally outside my door. The Austin leaders of Occupy had made the neon junkyard across the street into their secret base camp. Every day the news showed uprisings across the world, and increasingly stark political divisions at home. The distance between the peaceful protests here and the violent chaos on screen was nearer than geography would suggest.

You could see narratives of revolution lurking all over our pop culture landscape, from YA dystopias like The Hunger Games to the three movies that came out as I started the first draft about people taking over the White House. I wanted to explore that territory in a way that bit into the copper wire, in a mirror reality built from the mundane details of the observed world and charged with the motive power of the revolutionary creation myths we are taught in school. Done right, it would be the literary equivalent of a Syrian war zone smartphone video transposed to St. Louis.

I thought I had the perfect generic material to pull it off, by repurposing tropes of adventure fiction and political thrillers toward more emancipatory ends.  Rogue heroes and whistleblowers—a Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser for the age of Blackwater, a Glanton gang that rides to Washington instead of the border, a Night Manager undercover in dystopia, with old binaries busted to reflect 21st century diversity.  Those action-oriented archetypes seemed an antidote to the way characters in most post-9/11 fiction verbally defenestrated corrupt power but rarely effected real change.

I looked for the territory between the Nazi-fighting grit of 1960s adventure pulps and the grim memoranda of the Senate Torture Report. I found rich character trajectory rereading Eric Hobsbawm’s Bandits, a cross-cultural study of how thieves sometimes morph into social bandits (think Robin Hood) and then revolutionaries. I found an old button that said “Billy Jack for President” and put it on my desk. I made a note to myself on my Tumblr, a photo of three books next to each other: a Frazetta-covered Conan paperback, a post-financial crisis political manifesto, and a treatise on Anthropocene ecology. The caption: “remix your hypotheses.”

I started the remix, with gusto. And the initial result was kind of like when you are a kid and your mom or dad lets you loose in the kitchen to make your own dish, usually involving a lot of food coloring that substitutes for authentic flavor, the solution to which is more sugar. A compelling postulate does not automatically make a believable world, and a fresh archetype does not necessarily make a character anyone cares about. There’s no recipe—you need to intuit your own, using real ingredients available in the pantry of memory.  It’s not easy, and usually takes a few tries.

J.G. Ballard liked to say that the inverted worlds of his realist science fictions were drawn using the same skills he learned as an anatomy student dissecting human cadavers. I thought I understood what he meant until I tried to find my own way in. You have to take the clay of the real world and turn it inside out more than just one time. You have to see the threads that connect all the different pieces into a whole system. You have to figure out how character defines the world, is defined by it, and how the world of your story functions as a kind of meta-character. Outlines only get you so far—you have to write your way through it, and the harder it feels the closer you probably are.

The post-9/11 story I wanted to tell required a world without 9/11, in which all the dark energy of the war on terror was unleashed inside our own borders. The Sadr Cities needed to be run-down suburbs with rebels holed up in bullet-pocked strip malls. The American Spring required an America that looked a lot more like an oligarchic dictatorship than the civil society I lived in.  And the people that inhabited that world had to be found through their shimmering reflections in the liminal spaces of this one.

The oft-quoted Gibsonian aphorism about the uneven distribution of the immanent future is also true of dystopia. The parts of America turned Third World, the Yankee Gaza and DMZ, are there if you look for them. So are their inhabitants. The guy I met who lives in the abandoned building by the frontage road, the lady I know who called me about the deportation trucks rounding up her neighbors, the in-laws who told me about their college friends who got disappeared in the dirty war back home, and even the people grinding away in the corporate offices downtown could all point to the dark mirrors hiding in plain sight.

The land told the story of its own subjugation to industrial agriculture and petrochemical extraction. By finding the world of my book folded into the world around me, I was able to build a real portal to my imagined postulate. I learned how the coupling of realism and speculation can inadvertently produce worlds that seem prescient. And I learned how the injection of humanism into dystopia can help find the light that lurks on the other side of the unjust worlds we make, whether in the safe laboratory of the novel or in real life.

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Tropic of Kansas: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jennifer Stevenson

 

With a title that includes the phrase “coed demon sluts,” you might think that you know all you need to know about Jennifer Stevenson’s series of paranormal women’s fiction. Here’s Stevenson to make the argument that there’s more than meets the eye.

JENNIFER STEVENSON:

The foundation of this series is a question: “Aren’t you tired of doing everything right? Wouldn’t you like a second chance to go back and do it wrong?” Each of the main characters is starting life over by becoming a succubus for hell. I discovered the hard way that it’s a deeply feminist project. And that’s the big idea.

A thorough survey of strangers in convention bars informed me that, while men easily answered the question, “What would make you sign a contract to become a sex demon?” most women had to think hard. If they went for the deal, they said they wanted physical, social, or sexual power, money, a solution to [name a physical issue], a power balance to [name a social injustice], revenge, eternal youth, and, very last, beauty. Not sex.

This was my first women’s fiction, in the main passing the Bechdel test, deeply addressing the grimnesses that make feminism so unfluffy. My usual stories often have serious themes, but they always, always present as fluffy.

The deal:

Thirty antique pieces of silver a month for tempting three individuals; go the distance and you get a nice bonus.

An eternally young, super-strong, horny demon body that can be gumbied into any shape, color, or size.

A car, a credit card, housing, and a team of other succubi.

The job:

We no longer buy souls. We can’t keep all these full-time people. Everyone’s a contractor: you can quit, you can be fired.

Online monthly reporting is hellish—Windows 8, 33 screens of fields per record. You have to tattoo your 88-digit IIDN on the sole of your foot, because who can remember that?

Kiss your old life goodbye. By the time you’re ready to quit, everyone you know may be long gone–and the you they know will be gone.

What was hard about this big idea?

The challenges were what they always are: Write the other. Get into their skin and make people forget how wackshit the story premise is.

It wasn’t hard to imagine how becoming a succubus would affect prissy housewife Beth or beleaguered teen Melitta or 98-year-old bubbe Cricket with her mile-long bucket list.

But Pog’s complicated relationship with food and its relevance to her old life as a plus-size prostitute and her shifting friendships with the other five women took me back to high school in ways I didn’t want to revisit, because I flunked Girl.

While Jee’s childhood in a Bangkok brothel left scars I could trace in my sleep, her Dom relationship to the sluts’ /p/i/m/p/ onsite manager sub was new. I wanted to rebut some of the reader protocols I found in BDSM romance and erotica–most notably that the Dom always knows what they’re doing, and that the sub always falls into the role without protest, never uses their safeword, and puts on the collar for life, not just a sweaty hour in bed. How would Jee feel, dominating their demonic pimp, doing it wrong, realizing why it’s working on him anyway, and then struggling to undo what she’s done and do it again right?

Amanda was hardest. She’s so repressed, she thinks she’s asexual; sex is just her job, and as an athlete she’s used to physical work. Memo to self: Don’t write repressed characters. An Army brat who gave her life to her ailing parents, she never realized she was gay. When they died, she found that her job at a defense contractor had segued imperceptibly into a cubicle in hell. I had to draw her out of her Army shell, wake her up sexually, and get her into bed with a woman. Amanda dragged her feet, unwilling to give up the comforting numbness of her cubicle and afraid of the Army’s rule for women: be invisible. The result was one of my sweetest, happiest books…but oy getting there.

What was easy about this big idea?

I’ve been writing about sex for almost thirty years. With every book I think, What the hell different can I say about sex this time? The answer always has to be different.

Despite the title, this series isn’t about sex. I was frankly overjoyed to plunge into imagining what, aside from their job, sex had to do with these women’s lives. I got to leave out the squishy bits and write the everything-else. From a feminist perspective, this was a total gift.

I write the unexpected and I write it funny. Sometimes that’s a gimme, sometimes it’s hard. I had to challenge the assumption that woman=slut=sex. My girls had to own “slut.” Turning reader expectation on its head meant inventing women with relatable problems, confronting those problems with succubus life, allowing myself to get angry but stay funny, writing a happy end every time that relied on character, not a magical gimmick, and leaving out the sex. The make-you-think part rose up like an onion in the schmaltz.

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Coed Demon Sluts: Beth: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Facebook.

The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

Folks, in discussing her new novel Tomorrow’s Kin, author Nancy Kress has some bad news for you. It’s about your brain. And mine. And everyone’s.

NANCY KRESS:

Your mind does not work the way you think it does.

You probably assume that you consider data and come to rational conclusions. But all too often, people don’t take into account such pesky tendencies as confirmation bias (“This fact confirms what I already believe so it gets more weight”) Or polarization (“This situation is all good/bad”). Or emotionalism (“I feel this so it must be true”), a need for control (“I’m looking at what I can change and nothing else”), presentism (“The future will be like the present only maybe a little more so”), or scapegoating (“If this isn’t as I wish it to be, someone must be to blame!”)

When I set out to extend my novella “Yesterday’s Kin” into the novel Tomorrow’s Kin, which takes the story ten years farther along, I wanted to write about these distortions in your thinking. Oh, not you in particular (how do I know what you’re thinking as you read this—maybe it’s “She doesn’t mean me. I’m different.”) What interested me—especially in the current political climate—is the public mind as it relates to science and the perception of science.

There is not, of course, one “public mind.” People have differing perceptions of everything: football vs. soccer, artificial sweetness, lip piercing, Wonder Woman (I loved it). It’s precisely this lack of unity that creates conflict—and conflict is what drives fiction. No one wants to read a 400-page novel in which everything hums sweetly along for the protagonist. For one thing, we’d die of envy. Conflict swarms around science like ants at a picnic.

How can this group believe we should spend all that money going to Mars?

How can that group be so short-sighted that they don’t see the scientific value of going to Mars?

The characters in Tomorrow’s Kin aren’t going to Mars. They are, in a near-future United States, trying to go to a planet its inhabitants call “World.” Before that, they’re trying to deal with two separate global crises on Earth. And nobody can agree on how to perceive those crises, even though—and this is the heart of my novel—scientific evidence makes very clear what are the facts.

Fact: The aliens who have shown up on Earth are human, descendants of Homo sapiens taken from Terra 140,000 years ago. DNA and tissue analysis confirm this. Many people nonetheless believe that Worlders are the ultimate “other,” a separate invasive species up to no good who should be treated like Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

Fact: The spore cloud that Worlders say is drifting toward Earth exists. Astronomers confirm this, once they know where to look. Worlders say it is carrying a deadly pathogen that has already wiped out two of their own space colonies. Many people prefer to believe there is no cloud and the Worlders are planning to infect Earth with a plague.

Fact: In return for our help, Worlders leave us with the science and the engineering to build starships. Scientists eagerly decipher these and construction begins by both private entrepreneurs and several governments. Many people regard this as a Trojan horse from a race bent on destroying us.

Fact: When the spore cloud arrives, it has unexpected and terrible ecological consequences on Earth. Many people regard this as the Worlders’ fault because the epidemic arrived just after the Worlders left, even though correlation is not the same as causation.

But humanity has a long history of shooting the messenger, as well as of denying scientific fact. The medieval Church preferred the lovely idea that the Earth is the center of the universe to Galileo’s fact that it revolves around the sun. Much of the nineteenth century preferred a 6,000-year-old Earth to Darwin’s unsettling notions about evolution. Current oil-company CEOs prefer to believe that humanity is not causing global warming. And several prominent basketball players have announced their belief that the Earth is flat.

In Tomorrow’s Kin, geneticist Marianne Jenner tries desperately to convince people of scientific facts. Colorful entrepreneur Jonas Stubbins has plans to exploit facts for profit. Some facts are known only to a gifted child, Marianne’s grandson. And some facts lead straight to revenge by governments powerful enough to achieve it—or try to. As Shakespeare pointed out, “For this is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Do you believe something not because of fact but because of confirmation bias, presentism, scapegoating, emotionalism, polarization, or a need for control? No?

Are you sure?

So are the characters in Tomorrow’s Kin. For a while, anyway.

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Tomorrow’s Kin: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Sarah Kuhn

Weddings: Blessed occasion or battleground between the forces of good and evil? Why not both? Sarah Kuhn looks at the Big Day in this Big Idea for her novel Heroine Worship, and how it turns out to be a very fine setting for more than just “I do.”

SARAH KUHN:

I love weddings.

I tear up scrolling through wedding photos of people I only sort of know on Facebook, swoon over very special wedding episodes of TV shows, and if I’m attending a wedding of someone I consider near and dear? Forget it. I still get teased about the embarrassing snuffles I couldn’t suppress when one of my friends walked down the aisle to a string quartet version of “The Imperial March.” (It was beautiful!)

I have a soft, gushy heart and seeing people celebrate their soft, gushy love will always get to me. This doesn’t mean I think everyone needs to get married or has to get married a certain way—I support your right (and think you should have the right) to get married or not get married however and whenever you want. But it does mean I’ve always had a burning desire to write a wedding book—specifically, a Big Fat Supernatural Wedding Book. That book is Heroine Worship, the second in my urban fantasy series about Asian American superheroines saving the world.

One of the Big Ideas behind the whole series was to meld the fantastical and the mundane in a way that felt just a little bit ridiculous, but also incredibly fun. I cite the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Middleman as big influences—those are two creative works that accomplished this particularly well without ever sacrificing earnest emotion. So in Book 1, Heroine Complex, I melded the supernatural with everyday things: demonic cupcakes, superpowered karaoke battles. In Book 2, I did that with seemingly mundane events that are part of the wedding planning process: cake tastings, dress fittings, and the epic battle that is the discount bridal gown sale.

I had a lot of fun with this, with imagining what supernatural wedding-related set piece I could throw in next, but writing my wedding book certainly came with its own unique challenges. For one thing, while I was gleefully envisioning how to make a classically ugly bridesmaid dress actually evil in some way, I had to remember to make sure that all the wedding hijinks weren’t merely hijinks—they needed to be grounded in a solid emotional story arc for my heroine, Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang).

In the book, Aveda is appointed maid of honor by her best friend/co-superheroine Evie Tanaka (the protagonist of Book 1). Aveda is a character with the burning desire to be the absolute best at whatever she’s doing—she blazes ahead, hurricane-like, without thinking about the consequences. It’s always fun to give a character like this major obstacles she has to overcome, but I had to be careful not to pile on obstacles for the sake of wedding-related hilarity, to make sure each of the obstacles I was giving her made sense for her journey.

I eventually settled on the idea that she sees the maid of honor post as a mission like so many of her other superheroic missions. If she succeeds in giving Evie the best wedding ever, she’ll be able to prove herself as a friend (something she was not so hot at in Book 1) and regain the superheroine mojo she seems to have lost. That way, the main wedding storyline was tied directly to her emotional journey. I could trace the arc of both in tandem and it ensured that the wedding shenanigans I kept coming up with were relevant to the story and not just ridiculousness for ridiculousness’ sake.

Another challenge had to do with the fact that my protagonist wasn’t one of the two people getting married—but those two characters, Evie and Nate, still mean a lot to me (and to readers who were invested in their relationship in Book 1). I was super focused on Aveda’s personal arc since this book is from her POV and she’s the character who has to go through the most growth and change. That meant I was sometimes tempted to skim over or shorthand pieces of the wedding process in the story rather than giving them their due.

For example: the proposal. It’s a moment that’s supposed to be funny and sweet, but we’re seeing it through Aveda’s eyes—and her reaction isn’t the “awww” we’d get if we were seeing it from Evie’s POV. That scene initially felt a bit underwritten because I was only thinking of it as another step in Aveda’s arc rather than an important piece of the whole series involving other major characters. I went back and revised it through the final stages of copy-editing the book, taking into account what the other characters in the scene would be thinking and feeling as well, so that (hopefully!) it will give the reader a little “awww” moment.

The final challenge was more personal. Though I love weddings, I was a total stress case while planning my own. The day itself was beautiful, but my own heroine’s journey was fraught with sweaty dress fittings, pressure from relatives to do X tradition, and a sudden obsession with different kinds of cardstock. Writing a wedding book, I couldn’t help but re-live some of that—but like many writers, I dealt with it by using those feelings in the writing, giving them to my characters in a way I hope is authentic.

In the end, I got as emotional over my wedding book as I do at actual weddings—even though there was no string quartet version of “The Imperial March.”

—-

Heroine Worship: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Edward Willett

Edward Willett’s Big Idea post for his new novel The Cityborn references John Calvin, so allow me to suggest that you were predestined to find it and read it. But Willett might argue with me on that, as you will read (of your own free will!) below.

EDWARD WILLETT:

Some novels are born with big ideas, others have big ideas thrust upon them.

The latter was the case with The Cityborn, my new stand-alone science fiction novel from DAW Books: I was a good 60,000 words into it before I realized what I it was really about.

Now, I’m not new at this. The Cityborn is (to my own astonishment) my eighth novel for DAW. (Better yet, it’s under my own name—my last four books were written under pseudonyms, Magebane as Lee Arthur Chane and the Masks of Aygrima trilogy as E.C. Blake). But every book is different, and this was one where the writing process turned out to be as much one of discovery as it was of ex nihilo creation.

Oh, I had good science fiction premise, a fast-moving plot, interesting characters, and a (I hope) fascinating setting. I’d had the idea for the book, I just hadn’t discovered the big idea within the book.

Books can be born many different ways. The Cityborn began with a striking image: that of a young man scavenging for survival on a giant trash heap, outside a great city.

My process for building a novel from such an idea is similar to that of an oyster crafting a pearl around a piece of grit. I ask myself questions: “Why did that rubbish heap form? How big is it? What kind of city created it? Who lives there? Why are some of them reduced to scavenging? Who rules this city, and why do they allow this to continue?” My answers to those questions gave me the skeleton of my story. In The Cityborn’s case, it looks like this:

The metal City towers at the centre of the mountain-ringed Heartland. It straddles the Canyon, filled almost to the brim with centuries’ worth of rubbish and waste, a gigantic trash heap known as the Middens. The City is stratified and authoritarian, ruled by with an iron fist by the First Officer, in the name of the semi-mythical Captain. Armed Provosts enforce the First Officer’s decrees.

The Officers, the ruling class, live in luxury on the Eleventh and Twelfth Tiers, while the poor live hand-to-mouth on the First and Second Tiers. (The middle classes live…wait for it!…in the middle Tiers. Clever, huh?) Criminals and other outcasts fight for survival in the Middens, where the City’s law does not extend and vicious gangs rule.

The young man from my initial vision, Danyl, has been raised in the Middens by an old scavenger, who claims to have found him abandoned as a baby. Meanwhile, Alania, ward of a cold, distant Officer, lives on Twelfth, a pampered prisoner, never permitted to explore the City or the surrounding Heartland.

The plot gets cracking when Alania, fleeing from an unexpected attack on Twelfth, plunges into the Middens—and into Danyl’s life. Suddenly, the Provosts are after both of them, and they don’t know why. As they are pursued down the Canyon, into the Heartland, to the mountains of the north and back again, they learn secrets about who and what they are…and the actions they take in response will determine the fate of the City and everyone who lives there.

That last vague cover-blurb sentence is where I found the Big Idea that grew out of the “little idea” that provided the plot. It came to me in a literal epiphany, one morning while I was writing in Atlantis Coffee in downtown Regina (a favorite haunt of mine; it’s at the corner of Hamilton Street and Victoria Avenue, should you ever be in town and want to check it out. Tell them I sent you).

You see, the reason everyone is chasing Alania and Danyl is that both of them were literally designed to fill an important role within the City: predestined, in a way even John Calvin never dreamed of. Every day of their lives, until they come unexpectedly together, they were being unknowingly guided toward fates determined for them from infancy.

Even after they meet, throwing the proverbial monkey wrench into the machinations of their secret manipulators, they find it almost impossible to deviate from a path they had no say in choosing, whose destination they hate but may not be able to avoid.

The big idea at the heart of The Cityborn, then, is a question: can individuals break the chains forged by the circumstances of their birth, the way they are raised, the expectations and restrictions placed upon them by their society? Can they deviate from their preordained path in life?

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read my other books that my answer to that question was a resounding “Yes!” The value of individuals, the importance of individual liberty (and individual responsibility), is a theme that runs through all my stories, as characters struggle to do what’s right (as they see it) despite the cost, however often they stumble and fail along the way, even if it means renouncing everything they once believed to be true.

Danyl and Alania make difficult choices. They make bad decisions that sometimes make things worse, not better. But they also fight: fight against the fate imposed upon them by those who created and nurtured them, against the chains placed on them by the society into which they were born.

They act, in short, as individuals free to make choices and take action. In the process, they change their world.

Just as, perhaps, we can.

That, it seems to me, is a pretty Big Idea.

—-

The Cityborn: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Sarah Beth Durst

Be warned: in today’s Big Idea post for The Reluctant Queen, author Sarah Beth Durst gets a little… bloody.

SARAH BETH DURST:

This book was born in blood.

Seriously.

I had just arrived at a writing retreat in the Poconos.  Beautiful place.  Every writer was given an adorable wood cabin nestled beneath pine trees.  I was walking up to mine, reveling in the bird song, marveling at the wildflowers, anticipating frolicking with bunnies and deer… and I tripped and fell flat on my face.  Cut my lip.  Tasted blood.  And had the idea that become this series:

Bloodthirsty nature spirits.

The Reluctant Queen is Book Two of The Queens of Renthia, an epic fantasy series set in a world filled with nature spirits.  But these aren’t your sweet pastoral sprites.  These spirits want to kill all humans.  And only certain women — the queens — have the power to control them.

So that was my Big Idea for the world.  I created a gorgeous land filled with towering trees (think Lothlorien or Endor-size trees, with cities nestled in the branches), mountains so tall they pierce the sky, and endless glaciers.  Thanks to the overabundance of nature spirits, it’s a beautiful utopia… except for the constant danger of imminent death.  Given my lack of survival skills, I’d probably last about five minutes before I was ripped apart and eaten.

But that’s not the only Big Idea that went into making this book.  For me, it takes two Big Ideas to birth a book, one for the world and one for the characters — the collision of those two ideas is what propels me from “huh, that’s cool” to “ooh, I want to write that!”  (Side note for any beginning writers out there: one trick that I like for coming up with ideas is to make a list of Things You Think Are Awesome, pluck two items off the list, ram them together, and off you go.)

For this book, there was an idea that I’d been toying with for some time: exploring the concept of the reluctant hero.  The reluctant hero has a rich history in fantasy literature, which makes it wonderful fodder for ripping apart and creating something new.

One of the things that I love about writing fantasy is that there’s such a wealth of history to it.  You’re writing in conversation with hundreds of years of storytelling tradition — and because of this, readers come with a ton of expectations… which means that you as a writer have the marvelously fun chance to either fulfill or subvert those expectations.  Or both!

In The Reluctant Queen, I wanted to write a book in which a character was reluctant to use her power for a very good reason — in other words, not because she’s insecure or shy or lacks an understand of the situation, but because she’s examined the facts and come to the conclusion that using her power would be profoundly stupid.

Naelin is a woodswoman from a remote village who has immense power, but if she uses it, she runs the very real risk of leaving her two small children motherless.  Or worse, causing their deaths by drawing the spirits to them.  She’d rather let the world burn than endanger her children.

At their heart, these books are about power: who has it, who wants it, what you do with it, and what it does with you. The Reluctant Queen continues the story of Daleina (whose tale began in The Queen of Blood) and introduces Naelin — two women with very different approaches to the power they wield.  Together, they are responsible for the fate of their land.

I had (and am having!) such an immensely fun time writing these books.  It’s been an immersive experience, ziplining through the trees and flying on the backs of air spirits.  I’m so very, very excited to share this world and these characters with you!

Welcome to Renthia!  Just watch out for the trees.  They bite.

—-

The Reluctant Queen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: In Search of Lost Time

 

Got time for a Big Idea? Karen Heuler’s involves time itself — that having and getting of it, and what both mean for her latest work, In Search of Lost Time.

KAREN HEULER:

I started taking piano lesson in my mid-thirties because I fell in love with Chopin’s Preludes and I wanted to play them. I got a cheap piano (there are such things) and started taking lessons. But there was a strange thing going on. I couldn’t learn as fast as I wanted to. I wanted to play piano, but I didn’t want to lose time doing so.

Who wants to lose time? Who has enough time?

There’s a line from Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” that I often think of:

But at my back I always hear

Time’s winged chariot hurrying near

Time does indeed seem to be the quintessential Big Idea, the white noise behind all we do. Time happens without our consent, it happens without our noticing. We can do things in the fullness of time, or we can run out of time, or we can allocate time, but there’s never enough. Time is, in fact, our alternate reality. Had we used our time differently, we would have been different.  But there’s only so much time and there’s only so much we can do with it.

But what if we had more time? What if, in fact, we could purchase time? What would you do if you could use someone else’s time, no skin off your teeth, no tipping the hourglass even further? What would you do?

I hope you’d have a moral dilemma there. Yes, we all want to live and our urge to save ourselves overwhelms our urge to save others. But if you could dip here and there—a few minutes, say, from everyone on earth—would you do it? A few minutes? Who would miss a few minutes?

In my latest book, In Search of Lost Time, my main character has the ability to steal time, and possibly also the resources to get it to the people who need those minutes the most—the dying, for instance. To complicate matters, some people know she can steal time. And there’s a market for it. Of course there’s a market for it—time is the most valuable commodity there is. You can go for days without food or water, but not without time.

The sticky part, of course, is that you can’t get more time this way without taking it away from someone else. She’s not a saint but she’s not a murderer either. The underground knows who she is, as do some people who are running out of their own time. Who will she help, and how does the whole thing work, anyway? She’s new to it all. But there just might be someone who knows what to do about this strange ability she has, how to figure out a strategy for the most valuable thing there is. Can she avoid getting even more involved?

But enough about her. What would you do? If the world were starving but you could grab a few grains of rice from everyone else in order to survive, would you do it? Is just a little bit of theft really theft at all? Would you share what you stole—and how? How would you choose who to save?

These questions aren’t answerable for us; they merely let us look at the decisions we do make by looking at the choices we could make. And, by the way, those grains of time or rice don’t just come to you; you have to gather them. You have to see who you’re taking them from. The Big Idea gets personal.

What would you do?

—-

In Search of Lost Time: Amazon|Aqueduct Press

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

The Big Idea: Martha Wells

All good things come to an end, and for The Harbors of the Sun, the last book in Martha Wells’ Raksura series, the author takes a look at how she got here, and what the series, and the journey of writing it, has meant to her.

MARTHA WELLS:

After four novels, and two novella collections, The Harbors of the Sun is the last book in the Books of the Raksura series.

It’s fitting that The Harbors of the Sun is about the end of a journey, because it’s been a long road to its publication. The first book in the series, The Cloud Roads, came out in 2011, after taking two years to find a publisher. It was the book of my heart, a book that in many ways I had always wanted to write.

But at first, nobody seemed to want to publish a book with no humans in it, where the main characters were matriarchal bisexual polyamorous flying shapeshifting lizard-lion-bee people. Go figure!

I always felt that despite having non-human protagonists, the themes of the series were universal. Like finding a family and a home and protecting it against outside attack and environmental pressure. Learning to trust when suspicion, paranoia, and pretending to be anything other than what you are have been your main survival traits. Learning to fit into a complex society and web of relationships that seem almost impossible to understand. How hard it is to leave your past behind. Plus there’s a lot of adventures and exploration and flying and people-eating monsters; who wouldn’t want to read about that?

I put a lot of my own feelings of isolation into the story. I’d been a weird, lonely kid who grew up as an SF/F fan at a time when nobody else I knew liked or cared about it. I also wanted to capture that sense of wonder and possibility, of strange worlds with no boundaries, that I felt while looking at old books with pulp covers in the SF/F corner of the public library. (The corner that I was too young to look at yet but it was their own fault for putting the children’s section next to it.) After years of trying, I felt like I had captured that feeling with the Raksura.

Then finally, despite everything stacked against it, The Cloud Roads was published, and then The Serpent Sea, The Siren Depths, and the two novella collections. And even though I had gotten the Indigo Cloud Court settled in the Reaches and (mostly) happy, I still wanted to explore more of the Three Worlds with these characters. I wanted Moon and Jade and the others to go on an adventure outside the relative safety of the colony trees, and to explore the conflict between the Raksura and the predatory Fell.

In many ways, the Raksura didn’t know very much about their world. I wanted to take the characters and the reader on a journey to find out more. I wanted to push the boundaries as far as I could. And that idea became The Edge of Worlds and The Harbors of the Sun.

So, it’s been a long journey to get to The Harbors of the Sun, the end of the story of Moon, Jade, and the Indigo Cloud Court. This is the most I’ve ever written in one world, and it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to these characters. These are still the books of my heart, and the books I always wanted to write, ever since I was that little kid in the public library.

—-

The Harbors of the Sun: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jean Marie Bauhaus

First books in a series are often easy to write — fresh ideas, new characters, cool situations. What about the second books, where you have to continue with the rules you already set out? How do you keep it fresh for the readers, and the author? It’s a question Jean Marie Bauhaus confronts in her new novel, Kindred Spirits.

JEAN MARIE BAUHAUS:

Sometimes ideas come easy. For example, walking out of a movie theater many moons ago after having seen The Grudge, I had the thought that if being violently murdered can turn someone into a murderous vengeful spirit, then what about the spirits of the people murdered by said vengeful spirit? Wouldn’t they want vengeance, too? What if instead of taking their anger out on innocent people they instead turned on the ghost that killed them in the first place? That idea stuck with me and eventually grew into the plot of my debut novel, Restless Spirits.

When it came to writing a sequel, however, nothing was so easy or clear cut. Kindred Spirits actually took me years to write because although there were a few things I knew for certain, none of those things added up to a story. I knew, for instance, that the spotlight would shift from the first book’s ghostly protagonist to her living sister, medium Chris Wilson. I knew that Chris would purchase and move into the haunted house featured in the first book, where her sister’s spirit still resides. And I knew that living with her overprotective big sister’s ghost would prove to be complicated, and also pretty annoying.

I also knew that I wanted the second book to stand on its own two legs, to be a self-contained story that could be understood and enjoyed without needing to have read its predecessor. This seemed like a tall order.

Despite knowing these details, a story didn’t start to take shape until I conceived of an antagonist who not only didn’t believe in Chris’s abilities but also had the power to seriously complicate her life. That character became Derek Brandt, a cynical TV crime reporter who believes he has a duty to expose Chris as a fraud. Which leads to the question: what would Big Sis do to someone who went after Chris in such a way?

The answer: haunt him, of course. At which point hijinks would ensue.

But that still wasn’t a story. It was only a starting point. Things didn’t really start to come together until I sat myself down and asked myself, what is the central idea of this story?

Restless Spirits developed along the theme that love is a powerful force that gives good people the strength to do what’s necessary to overcome evil, so powerful that it outlasts even death.

It occurred to me that here I had an opportunity to explore the flip side of that idea–that love can be twisted into a destructive force by twisted, broken people, used as both an impetus and an excuse for evil actions. With that central idea in place, other characters quickly came into being and their motivations and goals became clear. Derek Brandt, as it turned out, had good reason for his cynicism and distrust of Chris Wilson and her ilk. He also had a brother, whose unsolved murder became the central plot.

Finally, I had a story to tell.

That story turned out to be quite the mashup. One part ghost story, one part romantic comedy and one part murder mystery with a dash of thriller, served with a liberal sprinkling of a Gilmore Girls-esque relationship between sisters who won’t even let death come between them.

The romance and comedy came naturally, as did the darker supernatural and suspense aspects of the book. As someone who grew up bouncing back and forth between the likes of Lucy Maude Montgomery and Stephen King, I tend to have a wide range of sensibilities that creeps into my writing.

The mystery part, however, challenged me and took me places that as a writer I never expected to go. It turns out that writing a mystery doesn’t simply involve deciding who the killer is and then planting clues for your protagonist to follow like bread crumbs. You also have to do so in such a way that doesn’t make the killer’s identity completely obvious to the reader–which is harder to do than it sounds. Giving the killer layers, with sympathetic motives that make him or her seem like a human being and not a Disney villain, was also a concern.

I think I managed to pull it off, but that’s up to the reader to decide. At any rate, whereas the first book is a love story at its core, so too is this one, but it’s as much a story about how love can become corrupted as it is about its power to heal wounds, overcome darkness and make forgiveness possible. Whether it does one or the other ultimately comes down to the condition of the soul who’s driven by it.

—-

Kindred Spirits: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Administrative Note: All July Big Ideas Scheduled

If you were waiting to hear if you were scheduled for July and have not heard from me, a) Sorry, b) Yup, they’re all scheduled.

Still taking queries for August.

The Big Idea: Desirina Boskovich

Memory and language: Two concepts that Desirinia Boskovich had in mind for her novella Never Now Always. And now, here she is, to remember to you, in words, why they were important to her story.

DESIRINA BOSKOVICH:

There are key moments and motifs in fiction that we latch onto as readers, and as writers. Symbolic scenes that loom large for us because they connect in some deeper way with our own buried nightmares and past traumas.

For me one of those moments is in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, where every single day, bound to that chair, the prince remembers how much he’s forgotten. Fleetingly, he understands he’s a prisoner and also that he can do nothing about it, imprisoned equally by his own enchanted brain.

I was just six or seven when I read this and the horror of it simply overwhelmed me and then infiltrated me: that moment when you know, and simultaneously know the knowledge won’t last.

I think it terrifies me because the vulnerability and powerlessness of that moment is so crushing and absolute.

In Never Now Always, I set out to explore the terror of that moment. And also to face it and conquer it, putting my characters in the same predicament, yet giving them tools to fight.

So the story centers on Lolo, a child who finds herself trapped in a mysterious labyrinth under the supervision of a horde of voiceless alien Caretakers. She is surrounded by many other children, but none of them know how they ended up there, or what happened before. And as the Caretakers subject the children to psychological experiments focused on trauma and memory, their ability to form short-term memories is limited, too. Everything they learn, or think they learn, just slips between their fingers like water.

Then Lolo hits on the concept of writing — scrawling drawings and pictographs as simply as possible, designed to represent these fleeting pieces of story to her future self. Hoping that she stays the same, that her perception persists enough from day to day that when she sees those scribblings later, she’ll still know what they mean.

For me, as the writer of the novella, it was more complicated. The deeper I got into the story, the more I realized how truly challenging it would be to tell a story where the mechanics of narrative are broken, where one thing doesn’t always lead to another and pieces of story don’t necessarily add up.

In some ways every scene felt like a first scene. There are gaps in this story, and continuity errors.

But I also realized that while I wanted my reader to feel somewhat disoriented, I could not let them remain as disoriented as the characters, because that would really not be an enjoyable story to read.

So I also ended up depending heavily on language to do the work — I tried to anchor everything in touch and taste and feelings, always in the present tense, a language reinvented for children whose sense of time is confined to a narrow slice of perpetual now. Everything that’s happening to them is happening in the immediate, and the present is the only moment that matters.

And in that perpetual now is where I think my characters — and I, myself — find redemption and solace. Because love is deeper than language. Because my dog doesn’t need to remember all the days of his life with me to know that with me he’s loved and safe and home; “yesterday” and “tomorrow” don’t actually mean anything. As always, my dog is wiser than I am. So I gave Lolo a dog, too, to help her figure it out.

In the end, the story returns to the one idea I find most comforting: that in this world and the next, life after life, we always make our way back to protect those who’ve protected us, and to be reunited with the souls we’ve loved.

I hope it’s true.

—-

Never Now Always: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Laura Lam

Big Ideas are great for a book (I mean, that’s kind of the whole point of the “Big Idea” pieces). But as Laura Lam explains about her novel Shattered Minds, sometimes the Big Idea is just the jumping off point.

LAURA LAM:

Sometimes you get the big idea for the story. Sometimes that’s not enough, even when you’ve written the damn thing.

My first idea excited me and got that fire of creativity going. I wanted to play with the Dexter notion—the serial killer who feels conflicted about it. A character who loves killing in rather inventive ways, who thrives off violence, but has enough of a glimmer of a conscious to want to change. A serial killer who doesn’t want to kill innocents is sort of like a vampire who doesn’t want to drink human blood—can they suppress that thirst or will they succumb? We as humans love staring into that darkness. It’s why we read about serial killers, about mythological creatures who prey on humans, or it’s why we watch horror. Carina, the protagonist of Shattered Minds, is a serial killer who becomes deliberately addicted to a dream drug called Zeal so she’s only killing people in her imagination.

The first big idea: serial killer lost in dream drugs. I knew this book would be more violent than my other work and have some cool, trippy dream sequences. I also wanted to build on the world I created in False Hearts, which came out last year (the Pacifica novels are a series of standalones set on the West Coast of the formerly United States). This book is set in Los Angeles instead of San Francisco. The series blends psychological thriller and near future tech, with a big nod at 80s and 90s cyberpunk. Shattered Minds has hover cars, floating skyscrapers and mansions, bright moving ads against the sides of buildings. People can change their appearance at will thanks to flesh parlours. Moving tattoos are etched on their skin, and their eyes might glimmer in the dark from extra implants. Pacifica is a shiny ecotopia that’s an ugly dystopia once you scratch the surface.

I wrote Shattered Minds, and the plot worked, for the most part. Carina scared me, but not quite as much as the villain, Roz (if you watch Orphan Black, Rachel is a big inspiration for her). I did a lot of research on serial killers, especially female ones, and neuroscience, hacking, corporate espionage, and more. But something was missing. All the pieces were there, made sense, but it was just . . . lacking. The puzzle pieces had the right images but they weren’t slotting together. And that was terrifying. This was going to be my fifth published book. Shouldn’t I have a better handle on this by now? I’d put in all this work, and I could tell something was wrong. This is where good editors are worth their weight in gold. Together, we found the second big idea to bring the project back to life.

It became a Frankenstein retelling. I struck the thing with lightning, basically (har, har). In the first draft, Carina was a serial killer just because . . . she was. There wasn’t much explanation or reason. No purpose (to use the most overused word said in lectures on the MA in Creative Writing I help teach at Napier in Edinburgh). In the next draft, Roz experimented on Carina when she was a teen, reprogramming her brain to be cool and collected—the perfect unbiased scientist, unbothered by things like empathy or ethics. (Note: this isn’t a spoiler—you find all this out in chapter three after the third murder in a row). However, Roz’s experiment went wrong. Carina started feeling things again, with the side effect of her also wanting to kill everything around her. Now Roz has a much stronger reason to want to take down Carina rather than just greed. Carina is the broken experiment that much be eradicated. The one who got under her skin. The one she couldn’t let go.

The next draft just worked. I loved editing Shattered Minds as much as I had hated writing the first draft. Scenes slotted into place, Carina and Roz finally worked, circling each other like sharks. It was glorious fun to make my dark, bloody book even darker and more twisted.

Sometimes, maybe a book needs more than one big idea. More than just “what if” question. Maybe something is missing in the first draft and you just need to add a little lightning to revitalise the corpse.

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Shattered Minds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Curtis C. Chen

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie… well, if you’re Curtis C. Chen, maybe you think about setting a novel there. Here’s Chen now to explain Kangaroo Too’s lunar connection.

CURTIS C. CHEN:

It is very likely that I set Kangaroo Too on the moon because of The Fifth Element.

In that movie, there’s a throwaway line of dialogue when Korben Dallas’ mother telephones him and complains that he never visits her on the moon. I had totally forgotten this until I went to see a 20th anniversary screening this year (yes, we really are that old), but it must have been stewing in my subconscious all that time.

Because why wouldn’t you put a retirement community on the moon? Gravity there is only one-sixth of Earth’s, so elders with mobility issues will find it easier to get around. Every habitat needs to be pressurized and climate-controlled anyway, so it can be as tropical as residents want. The only downside is that your family will have even more excuses for not visiting. Q.E.D.

Using the moon as a setting also let me put characters in a wider variety of awkward situations. Most of the first novel took place in a single location—a cruise spaceship traveling from Earth to Mars—but each hemisphere of the moon is roughly as wide across as the entire continental United States. Add a futuristic high-speed subway connecting population centers, and a reckless secret agent can get into plenty of trouble all over the place.

One lunar feature I latched onto early in my research was a “crater of eternal darkness.” The moon is tidally locked to the Earth (i.e., one hemisphere always faces toward us), and there are places along the day/night terminator that either always or never see sunlight. If you want continuous free electricity to power a transportation network, put solar panels on mountaintops near the north pole; if you want to keep something hidden, bury it under the deepest crater at the south pole.

And, of course, I had to include visits to at least a couple of Apollo landing sites, which are preserved as historical museums in this future. I’m sure the same thing will happen in reality. As soon as people can affordably travel to other planets, there’s going to be a booming space tourism industry. Everybody wants to stand on the Lunar surface, see the Earth rise over the horizon, and cover that blue marble with their thumb.

But back to aging on the moon. NASA recently conducted a Twins Study in which they followed identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly for one year, while Scott lived aboard the International Space Station and Mark remained on Earth. The final report isn’t out yet, but researchers are already seeing unexpected results (e.g., telomere lengthening) which raise many interesting questions. It seems possible that humans could naturally live longer in low gravity environments.

Of course, the most important scientific question raised in Kangaroo Too is: could we actually keep chickens on the moon, and therefore have fresh eggs? The only way to know for sure is to establish a Lunar base and start breeding livestock up there. Make me a liar, Fish!

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Kangaroo Too: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Linda Nagata

For The Last Good Man, author Linda Nagata decided to take a risk with one of her characters, who is not the usual sort for the literary milieu Nagata has her story inhabit. Who is this character? And what were the repercussions of that risk?

LINDA NAGATA:

For most of my career, I’ve written novels based only on what was intensely interesting to me at the time. In the early days it was nanotechnology, cryonics, the vastness and wonder of space, biotech, and artificial worlds. My settings would regularly shift between near future and far.

And then, abruptly, I abandoned science fiction and took a turn into pure fantasy.

“With magic?” one hard SF writer asked me in dismay.

“Yes, actually.”

So much for author branding. Clearly, market savvy was not part of my process.

But older and wiser, right?

Not exactly. I made another abrupt turn and dove into military science fiction with the Red trilogy—high-tech thrillers published by Saga Press in 2015. The books were well-reviewed. The first volume was a Nebula-award nominee and named as a Publishers Weekly best book.

It seemed logical to follow up on that seeming success so I resolved that for the first time I would approach my next book with a little market savvy. I would write another military-themed story, again with a near-future, high-tech setting. That way, I told myself, I’d have a better chance of holding on to the readers I’d gained with the trilogy because I’d be giving them something similar-but-different.

Next, it occurred to me that if I set the new book even closer to the present time, I might have a chance of pushing beyond the science fiction genre and making inroads into the military thriller market.

Hey, we can all dream.

The Red trilogy was written around a unit of US Army soldiers. Following that similar-but-different philosophy, I decided the new novel would involve a private military company, because that would allow for more freedom with the plot.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, this all still makes sense to me. But in selecting my protagonist, I embarked on a major gamble.

My version of brainstorming is to engage in swiftly typed stream-of-consciousness question-and-answer sessions. It’s the best way I know to develop ideas. I was brainstorming the possible identity of my main protagonist when I typed this:

Hey. Maybe she’s middle aged. (How to kill a novel in one bad move.)

Generally speaking, middle-aged women are not considered to be cool main characters of the sort that commonly inhabit techno-thrillers. So this was a perfect example of the creative and logical parts of my mind contending with one another. The logical part immediately recognized the risk, but the obstinate, defiant, creative part turned out to be in charge. Later on, in the same session, I typed:

Man, I like the retired-army-woman character.

I liked her—at that stage it was just the idea of her—because she was an atypical protagonist for the sort of book I wanted to write.

On Twitter there has often been talk of how middle-aged women don’t exist in science fiction. That’s an exaggeration, of course. Looking back at my own work, the protagonist of the second novel I ever had published was a woman of “mature years.” Still. I felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown down and I wanted to pick it up, accept the challenge, and write a riveting but realistic story about a can-do, older woman. I knew it was a market risk. Nevertheless, I thought I might persuade at least a few readers to go along with me, and besides, it’s fun to kick clichés to the side of the road.

So my “retired-army-woman character” stayed, becoming the Big Idea behind The Last Good Man.

Of course there is a lot more going on in this novel. The Last Good Man is a fast-paced, high-tech, military thriller that deals with autonomous weapons, big data, A.I., surveillance, remote warfare—and their effects on human relationships. But from the first day that the story truly started to take shape, I knew it would be centered on a woman. Specifically, True Brighton, retired US Army soldier, former helicopter pilot with frontline experience, a forty-nine-year-old mother of three who’s been happily married for three decades, and who is not at all ready to retire.

True works for a private military company and despite her husband’s misgivings, she is a valued part of the company’s hostage rescue team. She’s also realistic about the limits that aging will place on her. I’m reasonably athletic, so it was fun to foreshadow those limits, working from my own experience.

Middle age is an interesting time. There can be more freedom as children reach adulthood, but there is also a sense that time is getting short and that old age with all its limitations is just around the corner.

True feels the pressure of time, and she also carries an extra burden. She is haunted by the death of her oldest son, a soldier too, who was brutally killed in the line of duty. When a chance discovery during a hostage rescue mission indicates there is more to his death than she’s been told, a mother’s resolve comes over her to uncover the truth, regardless of the cost.

This was a challenging novel to write, I think in part because deep down, I doubted the marketability of it from the start. Somewhere along the way though, it became a novel I needed to write.

Still, my doubts were not misplaced. New York publishing houses didn’t know what to make of it. No one said specifically, Middle-aged mom? No way! But it was implied that marketing The Last Good Man would be a challenge that no one quite knew how to handle.

So The Last Good Man went out under my own imprint—and I’ll admit to sweet satisfaction when it earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

I hope you’ll give it a try. After all, it’s readers who ultimately decide if a Big Idea is “market savvy.”

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The Last Good Man: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Theodora Goss

In her Big Idea piece for The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, author Theodora Goss makes an observation about classic monster stories that I, personally, never picked up on, but now that she’s pointed it out, seems obvious. It says something about me that I missed it, and something about her that she’s used it as a cornerstone for her novel.

THEODORA GOSS:

“The remains of the half-finished creature, whom I had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being.” –Victor Frankenstein

It’s hard to identify where a novel comes from, but if The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter comes from anyplace specifically, it’s that moment when Frankenstein, having created a female counterpart for his creature, disassembles her. Then, not wanting to leave her remains for the peasants to find, he puts them in a basket, weighs it down with stones, and throws it into the sea. There goes the Bride of Frankenstein…

I was studying Frankenstein and his creature because I was writing a doctoral dissertation on late Victorian gothic monsters–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Count Dracula, the Beast Men on the Island of Dr. Moreau. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t late Victorian, of course, but I wanted to understand this iconic monster narrative so I could apply some of what I learned to those later works. Well, one thing I learned is that there’s almost always a female monster, and she’s almost always destroyed.

Let’s take some examples from the later works I was studying. Some of these you’ll recognized, but some may be obscure enough that you won’t know what I’m talking about. That’s all right! Late Victorian gothic is like a wonderfully fearsome labyrinth. The fun is in exploring . . . So let’s start with Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla, in which the titular vampire is destroyed according to standard vampire protocols for the crime of seducing the innocent Laura and trying to turn her into a vampire as well. (Bonus: lots of sexual subtext from an era when books about same-sex romantic relationships were still banned.)

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was deeply influenced by Carmilla, both vampire Lucy and Dracula’s brides are staked and beheaded. In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, the Puma Woman escapes from Moreau’s terrible House of Pain and kills him, but is herself shot. In Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, the mysterious Helen, who has the power to summon Pan and his minions, is forced to hang herself. You don’t even have to be a technical monster: in H. Rider Haggard’s She, the irresistibly beautiful Ayesha burns in the fire of immortality–which is a good thing, because she was thinking of claiming the British throne. And where would that leave Queen Victoria, I ask you? Ayesha isn’t a monster, but she is monstrous–a woman who has the power to kill with a gesture, and whom no man can resist. No wonder the novel has to get rid of her.

We find the same thing earlier in the century and across the pond with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” the beautiful but poisonous Beatrice, who kills herself so that her lover may live. Beatrice gets more sympathetic treatment than other monstrous women–she is, at least, a romantic heroine. Like Ayesha, she gets to tell part of her own story, although the focus of the narrative is not, finally, on her, despite Hawthorne’s title. But she too dies in the end. They all do. One exception is Queen Tera in Stoker’s less-known novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, where the resurrected Egyptian queen triumphs at the end–but guess what? In the second edition, the ending was rewritten (perhaps by Stoker, perhaps by his editor), and she too is exterminated.

(Perhaps most strangely, women creep into these works even when not officially present . . . In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which contains almost no women at all, Hyde himself is feminized, suffering from “hysteria,” and Jekyll tells us that he finds turning into his alter ego “unmanning.” Of course, Hyde has to die, taking Jekyll with him.)

The field of monster literature is strewn with female bodies. Why? Well, monsters die just in general, so it’s not all about being female. But female monsters are presented as particularly dangerous. Frankenstein does not complete his creation because she might breed with the male monster, and their progeny might outcompete man. Beyond that concrete biological danger, a female monster does not fit the cultural category “female” as it was conceived in the nineteenth century (or earlier: we have a fearsome female monster who must be destroyed in the classical figure of Medusa). Carmilla must be destroyed specifically because she threatens the good women. She might–gasp–turn them into monsters like herself!

So the big idea behind my novel is really very simple: the female monsters did not die. They’re alive, and they’re telling their own stories. That doesn’t mean all the female characters in the novel are good–villainesses are too delicious to dispense with, and anyway, I wanted to make sure that in my narrative, female characters got to be all sorts of things, both good and evil.

But it started with the idea that female monsters have served, throughout literary history, as supporting characters for primarily male stories. They have been the sirens or harpies at the edge of the hero’s journey, the sphinx posing riddles . . . The late nineteenth century was particularly obsessed with monstrous women, as we can see from the many pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic paintings of these mythical figures. (It’s probably not a coincidence that this was also the era of the New Woman and the suffrage movement, when “unnatural” females were agitating for such shocking things as the right to vote or attend university.)

In my novel, the women talk–a lot, sometimes over each other. But hey, they’ve been silent (and silenced) for so long that once I let them start, they had an awful lot to say. They tell us their stories as they really happened. (Jekyll had a daughter! The Puma Woman survived! Frankenstein’s female creature was not disassembled after all!) I wrote The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter because I love the older novels–I can’t imagine a better afternoon than one spent with nineteenth-century monsters, with tea and cookies on a nearby table, while outside the mist and rain create a suitably gothic atmosphere. But this time, I wanted the women to have their say . . .

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Nicky Drayden

Coincidence: Random events that merely give the appearance of being connected, or… something more? Not so coincidentially, Nicky Drayden is thinking about coincidence, and how it plays into her debut novel The Prey of Gods. What are the odds that she will tell you about it here? Pretty good!

NICKY DRAYDEN:

Have you ever been out running errands about town, start thinking about a friend, only to look up and see them standing right in front of you? Is it coincidence, or is there something greater at play? Fate? A master weaver, tangling and entwining our lives together? Maybe there’s someone who’s watching me from above, saying “Hey, Nicky’s been laying on the couch watching Netflix Originals for six hours straight. Clearly, she needs a few threads crossed…”

I often feel like a pawn in my own life. When I was a kid, my parents took me and my brother to the Houston Zoo. We both got silver helium balloons, and my little brother let go of his and cried as it floated away. Later that day, back at home (exactly 26 miles away, I just checked) we’re playing outside in a neighbor’s yard, and I look up and see a balloon floating high over our house. I am not lying when I say that balloon came directly down towards me, right to where I was standing, and all I had to do was reach up and grab it. A silver Mylar balloon with “Houston Zoo” written on it in colorful block lettering. Of course, I kept it rather than giving it back to my brother, since I was kind of a jerky big sis, but still. It happened.

Coincidence? Fate? Maybe it wasn’t even the same balloon, but does that make it less weird, or weirder? This kind of thing happens to me practically every other week, but unfortunately, writing fiction, you can’t rely on coincidence too many times before a reader throws your book across the room. After all, real life doesn’t have to make sense. Fiction kinda does.

So enter the master weaver—me, your mostly humble debut author–here to regale you with my Big Idea, the story behind the threads that make up the tapestry that is The Prey of Gods. When I set about writing this novel, all I had were six random character sketches, most of whom have nothing to do with one another, and a setting, South Africa, because during a college summer break I’d traveled there as a peer counselor for a group of teenagers, and I thought it’d be cool to see how the experiences I had there would translate into a work of speculative fiction set 50 years into the future.

There are of course, the big, bold threads that tie the six point-of-view characters together, moving them all towards the epic battle scenes involving giant robots and angry demigoddesses. (Fun fact, easiest way to upset a demigoddess, have someone show up to the world’s destruction in the same exact dress she’s wearing.) But the true joy of character weaving is tying the tiny, nearly microscopic threads together, and having the characters cross paths in ways they might not even notice.

For example, Riya Natrajan, the sultry pop diva in the book, has attitude for days, and finds herself stuck sharing a robot taxi with a business exec who’s late to a meeting. She’s trying to be incognito, but the guy is onto her—suspecting she’s a celebrity lookalike, but maybe…just maybe it’s really her. Riya denies it of course, but now the guy is jabbering on, practically beside himself with excitement. She commands the robot taxi to play some music for a distraction, and as the master weaver would have it, one of the tracks from her latest album blasts over the speakers.

Small coincidences like this work fine, and even add a little comic relief to tense situations, because the plot isn’t hinging on such minor occurrences. But then the guy tells Riya that he’d just bought tickets to her concert for his brother-in-law, and the careful reader will realize that he’s related to Muzi, the slightly wayward teen, who after a trippy afternoon dabbling with a new hallucinogenic drug, discovers he’s able to control people’s minds. Muzi inadvertently (maybe) uses his new powers to make his best friend Elkin forget the most intimate moment of both their lives. Oh, and Elkin’s drug dealing cousin, the one who bullied them into this whole mess, is in a secret relationship with pop star super sensation Riya Natrajan. Bigger coincidences, threads are crossing, and the weaving is just getting started.

These little knots gain significance as the story moves on, putting more and more tension upon already taut threads. Do the threads pop, or do they hold? Are these chance encounters unrealistic? That’s ultimately up to the reader to decide, but maybe we enjoy these twists of fate in fiction so much because they give us a mechanism to process the absurd coincidences in our own lives.

I owe a lot of people credit for the development of this book, but first and foremost, there is Dr. Joshua Hill to thank, the director of the Renewable Energy and Environmental Protection program who organized and lead our trip to South Africa. Many (many) summers ago, I left my college home of Austin, Texas, leaving my country for the first time as well. I worked nearly all of my amazing experiences I had abroad into the novel, like the mouthwatering beer bread, the intricately carved wood sculptures, and of course the plague of dik-diks.

While in South Africa, I received a letter from my college boyfriend, informing me that he’d had lunch with a random guy up at his summer internship in Virginia, who knew someone who went to the University of Texas (a school of 50,000 students, mind you.) The guy asked my boyfriend if he knew a girl named Nicky. My boyfriend said that he was dating a girl named Nicky, and from a short exchange, they concluded that I was in fact that same Nicky. A coincidence in itself, but the guy who my boyfriend was having lunch with—Dr. Joshua Hill’s son.

Master Weaver, I see you up there. You’re doing a bang-up job. Keep those threads crossing.

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The Prey of Gods: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read Muzi’s excerpt. Read Sydney’s excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.