The Big Idea: Maurice Broaddus

April has been light on Big Idea posts because I’m on tour (don’t worry, May’s gonna be packed), but let’s make sure we don’t get through this last week of the month without a fine piece of work for you to consider. Today: Maurice Broaddus brings you all the details on his new novella Buffal0 Soldier, including who the work is a love letter for.

MAURICE BROADDUS:

My novella, Buffalo Soldier–in fact the entire saga of its hero, Desmond Coke–is essentially one long love letter to my mother.

Growing up, my mother would take any opportunity to regale us with stories from her homeland of Jamaica. ANY opportunity: during family meals, before bedtime, Saturday mornings, during our favorite television shows (not hers though: she had what could only be described as an unhealthy fascination with the show, Hee Haw). She spun all manner of duppy (ghost) stories, even a long running tale of the duppy that haunted our family (which, as it turned out, was the spirit of her grandmother looking out for us).

For some reason she still found it surprising that I grew up to be a writer.

One of the genres I fell in love with was steampunk. Yet many times whenever I read steampunk stories, with their Victorian ethos and imperialist bent, I usually ended up wondering where the black folks were. All of my steamfunk stories (a term for steampunk stories seen through an Afrocentric lens), beginning with “Pimp My Airship,” all take place in the same universe, one where America lost the Revolutionary War and remained a colony of Albion. And my stories follow what some of the black folks might be up to.

My mother has since retired to Jamaica. During one of her visits here, she began telling me about her trip to a part of the island, governed by the Maroon people, only open once a year to outsiders. The British weren’t able to conquer them, so they had agreed allow the Maroon to have a separate government, and the British would colonize the rest of the island. I grew fascinated with the idea of a Maroon-run Jamaica and started playing with the alt-history repercussions of them totally keeping the British out of Jamaica. Leaving the island in control of its resources, its culture, its wealth, and its technology.

Of course Jamaica would become a superpower. Because, well, that’s what my mom would want.

In this Jamaica, undercover agent, Desmond Coke, gets drawn into a web of political intrigue when he stumbles across a young boy, Lij Tafari. As it turns out, Lij is a clone of Haile Selassie, a messiah figure to the Rastafarians, who the government plans to raise as their puppet to control the people. Desmond frees the boy and goes on the run. This is where the story of Buffalo Soldier begins.

In Buffalo Soldier, Desmond Coke and Lij are chased through the nation state of Tejas and into the First Nations territory. As they hide from Jamaican intelligence, they are pursued by business and political interests. As they search for a place to call home, Desmond tells Lij stories. The heart of the novella is about the power of story and how it helps us create a sense of home wherever we go.

Plus shoot outs, giant robots, assassins, and sword fights because that’s what else my mom would want.

Well … probably.

—-

Buffalo Soldier: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Griffin Barber

Never sass Eric Flint about his bestselling “1632” universe — or you might find yourself co-writing a book with him! Or so Griffin Barber tell us in this Big Idea, about the genesis of his collaboration with Flint: 1636: Mission to the Mughals.

GRIFFIN BARBER:

About eight years ago, I met Charles Gannon at The World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Chuck, as his friends call him, had just finished separate collaborations with Steve White and Eric Flint, and was very much on the rise. He was also kind, generous with his time, and excellent company for a drink or three. During the course of the convention, we discovered a shared love of role playing games, history, and science fiction. While we were there, he read some of my work and told me that I should write for The Grantville Gazette the magazine of Eric Flint’s 1632 Universe.

Standing on my vertically challenged high horse, I poo-pooed the very idea, telling him with great certainty, “I don’t even like time travel!”

Two years later, I had seen the light Chuck kept on for me, and had the first short story I ever submitted for publication appear in The Grantville Gazette. The next WorldCon was in Chicago and hosted the 1632 MiniCon, where Eric and the other writers of the 1632 universe get together and discuss plans and the publishing schedule for the next year or so.

Sitting toward the back and considering the fact the Mughals had just begun construction on the Taj Mahal around 1632, I raised my hand and asked Eric and the other novelists and editors, “What’s going on in Mughal India?”

“We don’t know, write it,” Eric quipped.

My first thought was an aggressive: “Challenge me, will you?”

Two years of research and a couple more short stories set in India for the Gazette, and I had Eric’s full attention. I wrote an outline for the novel, which he changed a bit and then approved. Researching still, I began writing the book.

I am sometimes pretty slow on the uptake. Like, walking-into-a-minefield-and-forgetting-which-route-I-used-slow.

It wasn’t until I started really getting into the book that I realized the many pitfalls and hot-button issues I had signed up to navigate:

Three major world religions. Well, four, really. And that doesn’t count the major and minor sects of Islam. The repercussions of the conflicts between these religions and sects are to this day being felt out on the world stage.

The systematic cultural and religious oppression in every aspect of ninety-nine percent of women’s lives.

Slavery on a scale that truly boggles the mind.

The castration of vast numbers of juveniles.

The caste system.

Once I stopped shaking (but not whining to my friends), I decided to tackle some small part of those challenges the best way I knew how:

By working with only the very strongest of female characters who make their place in the world, even against the strongest opposition.

By showing even the most vilified of history’s figures were human, and history might have been different, had their choices been better, the choices they had to make easier, and the cultural framework they were working from had allowed them to see the evil that would follow.

By avoiding the pitfall of making the Up-timers, descendants of white Europeans, the ‘saviors’ of the peoples of India.

And, lastly, by being true to my understanding of the history, religions, cultures, and figures that made all the those horrible things possible yet created monuments and art of such stunning beauty they remain among the most admired to this day.

Once I had written my bit, Eric took over. He polished, corrected, and added to it, making it far better than I could have hoped to do on my own.

What we ended up with was a tale that revolved around Princess Jahanara, eldest daughter of the Emperor Shah Jahan, her role in society, and interactions within the royal family and court. Her actions form the backbone of the book, with the information brought from the future by the up-timers putting the first cracks in foundation of the wall that circumscribes her world.
Cracks she will use to shatter the wall in future books.

Ultimately, we hope to have told a tale that gives readers plenty of adventure and fun while remaining respectful of the history, religions, and people that made Mughal India so fascinating. That said, we hope you will enjoy 1636: Mission to the Mughals.

—-

1636: Mission to the Mughals: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.

The Big Idea: Paul Cornell

Chalk, by Paul Cornell, is in many ways a remarkable book. But it’s not an easy read, and for Cornell, it’s a story that has personal meaning for him, and is a book that has a lot of him in it. He’s here now to tell you more about it, and why as a writer it took him years to get this story right.

PAUL CORNELL:

Chalk is a book that’s been with me for over twenty years. It’s taken that long, and many, varied drafts, to shape the ideas in it into a story that, hopefully, works. That was partly because the subject matter is intensely personal to me in several ways. It’s a book about bullying, about growing up in the 1980s, about Wiltshire’s prehistoric landscape, so often I found myself having to force onto the page material I had found difficult to express in real life. It’s a novel about the interaction between magic, consensus reality and the mind (Isn’t ‘consensus reality’ a strange term, when actually what’s involved is the opposite? A simple majority doesn’t make a consensus. Nobody experiencing a different reality seems to get a vote. For a lot of people, ‘non-consensual reality’ would be closer to the truth).

In the real world, it seems to me that every time the impossible touches the accepted it’s a singular event, something so strange and startling that human efforts to categorise those events (crop circles; the UFO myth; ghosts) have come to feel to me to be missing the point to an almost obscene degree. We encounter the unknown and seek to make it mundane. Which is a different thing to seeking to understand it. So I wanted my story of Waggoner, a child at school who has something terrible done to him, and then has horrifying things from both this world and another take an interest in him, to be rooted entirely in his subjective experience.

Waggoner is split into two boys, both with his name, who live alongside each other. I want to underline that that’s not a metaphor, not a literary device, or if it is, only in the same way that all magic is. The book says it ‘really happened’. The way that reality contorts and fudges things to let the second Waggoner be there is an aspect of the text I feel very strongly about, because I feel, again, that’s how the impossible touches the everyday, on a moment by moment basis, not by laying down a set of rules for itself and keeping to them. That’s physics, and/or fiction that seeks to fulfil different expectations than this book does.

‘Are you an evil twin?’ Waggoner asks the other version of himself at one point. But he’s not. He may be the one who does awful, violent things, but the Waggoner who narrates the story isn’t ‘the good one’. Waggoner tries to make sense of what’s happened to him through writing his own stories, and sometimes imagines what he’s going through to be a revenge plot, with the possibility of victory over his tormentors, but it’s not. It’s a lot harder on him than that. Chalk is a book about cycles of abuse, and as a victim, Waggoner’s only possible heroism is in seeking to break those cycles. That point, that there’s no nobility or ending to anyone’s narrative in acts of revenge, has been at the heart of these twenty years of multiple drafts. It’s a hard thing for me to force myself to accept.

In many ways, Chalk is a book about whose narrative wins. The new Waggoner has aims which are part of a great and noble story of heroism and struggle, and are as horrifying as that sounds. The previously whole Waggoner has the stories he writes, which use every genre he can find in his environment to try to digest what he’s dealing with. Angie Boden, the heroine of the book, has created for herself a whole method of practical magic from the pop charts, and her narrative of the world is based on that. And Waggoner’s Mum and Dad are trying to tell a meaningful story of themselves as failing middle-class people in Thatcher’s Britain.

I’m in there somewhere. I’ve decided it’s a very bad idea to indicate how much of Chalk happened to me. If you’re a fellow survivor of, well, virtually anything, I hope it’s a book which leads you along through a narrative that will wake all that stuff and then slay it. It’s the blues. It’s comfort through reworking. I hope it gives you control. I know you don’t want revenge, not really. Not when you look around and see all the revenge narratives unfolding everywhere.

Who would have thought it would take me twenty years to write a book about right now?

—-

Chalk: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Mishell Baker

Here’s the thing about ghosts: Nearly all of them have one thing in common. Or so author (and current Nebula Best Novel Award finalist) Mishell Baker believes. In today’s Big Idea, she tells you what that thing is, and what it means for her new novel Phanton Pains.

MISHELL BAKER:

Long before I began writing stories about a young woman with two lower limb amputations, I was intrigued by the phenomenon of phantom limbs. The idea that a part of your body could stab you with pain from nerve endings long gone, leaving you no way to soothe what was no longer there, struck me as both fascinating and nightmarish. While my protagonist Millie isn’t troubled by this particular malady in a literal sense, I couldn’t resist finding ways to haunt her with it both supernaturally and psychologically.

The Arcadia Project books are all as much about mental health as they are about magic, and often about the way those two things interact. So in Phantom Pains what I wanted to do was take two alternate forms of metaphorical “phantom pain” – grief and ghosts – and see the ways in which the fuzzy edges of these concepts bleed together.

Nearly every ghost story involves grief, or at least a grievance. Spirits don’t tend to hang around on this plane if they have all their problems resolved. But unlike an angry monster, a wrathful or grieving spirit has no obvious remedy. This has always been my favorite part of a ghost story: the quest to discover how to defeat a foe that swords, fire, stakes and poison can’t touch. A foe that nothing can touch. Every ghost story is a detective story, which is why ghosts lend themselves so well to urban fantasy, a type of fantasy that so often has one foot deeply planted in the mystery genre. Before you can rid yourself of a hostile spirit, you have to understand it. Blind stabs can’t kill something that isn’t there.

In a similar way, every story of grief involves a ghost. The loss of a person, a job, a way of life is a messy thing to heal, because every moment in your life is so strangely full of, haunted by, that new emptiness.

I attended Clarion in 2009, and one of my classmates moved just a couple of streets over from me in Los Angeles not long afterward. We saw each other a couple of times, but mostly I’d just tell myself, “Oh, I should go see Leonard. Maybe next weekend.” In 2012, a few months after my second daughter was born, Leonard was diagnosed with leukemia. He was going to be fine, they said—they’d caught it early. But I still made myself leave my brand-new baby and go visit him in the hospital. I’m glad I did, because the next day he surprised all of us by dying.

The worst part of the grief that followed was that my brain kept throwing that old habit at me: “Oh, I should go see Leonard. Maybe next weekend.” That option had been taken from me now, severed cleanly and unexpectedly, and yet my mind still kept trying to put weight on it. Every time I reached to soothe that guilt with a mental promise to myself that I’d go and visit, there was nothing there to follow up on. No way to ease the pain. I’d been given all the visits I was ever going to get, and I had to live with that.

Anytime we battle the invisible, whether it’s a ghost or something that haunts us psychologically, the only weapon is investigation. Find the source of the pain and hold a mirror to it, create something real and tangible that you can fight in its stead. For physical phantom limb pain, the answer is often a literal mirror. If the amputee holds a mirror in such a way that they can now “see” the missing limb in the proper spot, this is, in many cases, enough to make the discomfort vanish.

What would the equivalent be, I wondered, for the invisible enemy in my story? What supernatural equivalent of a mirror could be held up that could force the invisible to become visible, to bring the hidden into the light where it could be vanquished? This question is at the center of the story, because our heroine—who is also suffering the “phantom pains” of grief, guilt and PTSD from the deaths in the last book—is one of the few to whom this lethal invisible enemy has deigned to show itself. She has very few allies in the fight, because the people in charge have every reason to believe that she’s either flat-out lying or crazy.

I had a fantastic time weaving together the themes of grief and ghosts in this story, because in addition to being creepy and cool, it also had tremendous personal meaning for me. Especially for those of us with mental health challenges, many of the battles we fight in life are invisible. I liked the idea that a battle doesn’t have to destroy a city block in order to be earth-shattering—that sometimes the fate of the world might literally be all in your mind.

That said, in fiction, you’ve always gotta explode something, or someone, right? Otherwise, where’s the fun?

—-

Phantom Pains: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Marshall Ryan Maresca

Stop, thief! In today’s Big Idea, Marshall Ryan Maresca explains why actions we wouldn’t approve of in real life we enjoy in fiction, and what that means for his new novel, The Holver Alley Crew.

MARSHALL RYAN MARESCA:

It’s fascinating how much we love the thief-as-the-hero trope, and we love having them pull a heist.

I mean, in real life, we don’t praise thieves, and we certainly don’t root for them.  I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of any living thieves that we have romantic notions for.  We certainly romanticize the thieves of the past: Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde, but that’s with a distance of history that makes them almost fictional.  And we love fictional thieves.  From Oceans 11 to The Lies of Locke Lamora to Six of Crows to The Fast and the Furious, we can’t get enough of bad guys doing things well.  We love to see stories about thieves pulling some heist or caper, slipping through the fingers of the proper authorities, and heading off into the sunset with their ill-gotten wealth.

Why do we love it, when most of us would never support this in real life?  Do we want to live vicariously through them, getting away with things that we know we would never get away with?  Do we harbor secret fantasies along the lines of, “I would never actually rob a casino… but if I did, this is how”?

I’m no different, because I love that stuff.  So I wrote The Holver Alley Crew, which is flat-out a fantasy heist novel.  Two brothers have a job, so they put together a crew, and they pull the job.  Absolutely, my favorite part of writing this book was coming up with the plans.  I loved writing whole sequences of the characters going, “Here’s what we want to accomplish, what do we need to do?”  I loved coming up with elaborate, “here’s our way in, here’s how we do this, here’s how we get away” plans.   Then I threw wrenches into the works to ruin those plans, so my characters would have to improvise new ones.

I feel part of our love affair with charming thieves and clever rogues we want to believe that if we had to be thieves, if we had to pull a heist, we’d have the smarts and the moxie to pull it off.  But we wouldn’t do it just because we had a passing whim.  We would only do it because we had to.  Only because circumstances made us desperate.

I think we can all understand desperate right now.

It was important to me to make my heist-pulling thieves good guys who want to be law-abiding, legitimate businessmen.  But then a fire comes along and destroys all they were building: home, shop, legitimate life.  With that lost, they have to go back to pulling heists, and they make a point of putting together a crew of people who were also ruined by the fire.  It’s not about just getting back on their own feet, they want to help their neighbors as well.  Just enough to get themselves back on the straight path they were on.

Of course, for any heist, you need a crew:

The Planner:  Asti Rynax, former intelligence officer, forcibly retired.  The one who can figure out all the angles and put together a plan so crazy that no one will see coming.  Deadlier with an apple and a lockpick than most people are with a pair of knives.

The Burglar: Verci Rynax, Asti’s brother.  Gadget-maker, window-cracker, and the only one who can keep Asti grounded.

The Sharpshooter: Helene Kesser, best crossbow shot in all West Maradaine, with a mouth as sharp as her aim.

The Muscle: Julien Kesser, Helene’s cousin.  Strong as an ox, but not allowed to fight, or you’ll answer to Helene.  Loves cheese.

The Driver: Kennith Rill, carriage driver.  Designed an unrobbable carriage, which they now have to rob.

The Apprentice: Mila Kentish.  Teenage beggar girl that no one notices until after their purse is already gone.

The Old Boss: Josie Holt, the boss of North Seleth, who’s willing to give the Rynax boys one last chance for old time’s sake.

Can this crew pull of their heist, charm your socks off and ride off into the sunset?  You’ll have to read it and find out.

—-

The Holver Alley Crew: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

It’s relatively easy to start a book series — you just start writing. But ending a series on a logical and satisfying note? That’s a slightly more complicated trick, which Ryk E. Spoor attempts with Challenges of the Deeps. In this Big Idea, Spoor is here to tell you about sticking this particular dismount.

RYK E. SPOOR:

In two previous Big Idea columns, I wrote about the challenges of first building the larger-than-life universe of Grand Central Arena, and then the scary challenge of following this with an exploration of both adventure and personal understanding in Spheres of Influence. Writing the third Arenaverse novel, Challenges of the Deeps, presented me with a very different set of problems.

These stemmed from a purely practical issue – for various reasons, Challenges might be the last Arenaverse novel for quite some time (until I could write and self-publish another), barring Challenges or my forthcoming magical girl novel Princess Holy Aura suddenly taking off big-time.

That meant that I had to figure out a way to make Challenges of the Deeps a reasonable, if not conclusive, final volume to the series – one that might leave the reader with a lot of questions, but would still, somehow, feel like a conclusion – not leave them frustrated when they closed the book.

I first considered the idea of actually finishing the series – of getting to the true Big Reveal of what the Arena really was, the reason it was built, and what that meant for Humanity and the other Factions. But I quickly concluded this was impossible. There remained so much to do that I simply couldn’t imagine that I could get to that point without at least three books to work in, and more likely five or six if I wanted to really tell the story properly.

When I thought about it that way, I realized that what I was really doing was ending the beginning, while setting up the chance to begin the ending – just as if I was concluding the first book in a trilogy. And just like Phoenix Rising, the first in the Balanced Sword trilogy, the challenge was to figure out what themes and plots had to be brought to a conclusion now in order to provide a moment for the universe to, in effect, take a breath, look around, and prepare for the next great arc in the progression towards the ultimate mysteries.

Put that way, it became clear that the purpose of Challenges of the Deeps was to complete the process of establishing Humanity as a true force in the Arena – not just a group of peculiar newcomers, not just a nine-days’ wonder, but a group that others would ally with, would commit to, would look at and know “these are the people who may change the Arena”.

Looking back through Grand Central Arena and Spheres of Influence, there are of course a huge number of overt and implied plot threads that remained. The overarching one – which I had to accept I was not going to answer in this or even the next book – was the question of the Voidbuilders – who and what they were, why they had made the Arena, and what would happen to those who discovered the answers to those questions. But while I couldn’t answer it, I could – and in fact would have to – provide at least some movement towards obtaining that answer.

Another – present since early in GCA – was the issue of the Molothos. Humanity had been effectively at war with one of the most powerful factions in the Arena practically since their arrival, and I had already planned that it would be in the third book that the Molothos finally found Humanity’s Sphere. But I’d also planned on the Molothos War taking at least one or two more books to resolve. Could I resolve it in one? I knew that if I could, I should; having Humanity survive and resolve a conflict with the most feared of the Great Factions would certainly go a long way to cementing their place in the Arena, and would give the reader a good sense of resolution in plot.

Another dangling thread was Ariane Austin. In Spheres she had been forced to confront her own failures as Leader of the Faction of Humanity, and to decide to really shoulder that burden, but the question of the strange powers sealed away was still left unaddressed, and had been hanging fire since GCA. If I could, I needed to resolve that – let us see Ariane begin to really unlock that power and establish that she needed neither Shadeweaver nor Faith to do so. Fortunately, I’d already set up the opportunity to do that in Spheres, with the mysterious mission into the Deeps that Orphan had asked them to get a crew for.

Similarly, Simon Sandrisson had his mysterious … connection to the Arena that he had only begun to explore and understand, DuQuesne and Wu Kung also had some strange anomalies that needed to be addressed, and other characters such as Oasis and Maria-Susanna were themselves dangling plot threads that needed to be if not tied up, at least brought to a point that they were no longer merely nagging questions.

There were also some personal story arc threads to complete. Wu Kung had suffered a terrible loss of his entire virtual world – which, as AIs in the Arenaverse are as much people as those of meat, meant he had lost his friends and family to the actions of an unknown enemy. That needed resolution, as did the question of the Genasi – the native species of the Arena that now had a chance to become true citizens of the Arena.

And … I really, really needed to start moving the personal relationships along. Ariane, Simon, and DuQuesne had been doing a sort of dance around the issue since the first book – for, admittedly, damned good reason, what with all the sudden-death situations, paradigm shifts, and pressure, not to mention Ariane ending up in the position of commanding officer for both of them. But even with those reasons, it had to come to an end somehow.

The most obvious plot thread, of course, was at the ending of Spheres, when Ariane announced her intention to fulfill her commitment to Orphan and accompany him on a secret mission into the Deeps of the Arena, a mission I knew the purpose of and that was vital to completing part of Ariane’s own arc.

I started thinking about that mission, and suddenly I realized that it provided the opportunity I needed to do everything necessary, if I changed one thing: kept Simon Sandrisson from going on that trip. Originally I’d intended that journey to be an entire book in itself, the three main characters plus Wu Kung traveling with Orphan to his unknown destination, with only minor flashes of what was going on at home, culminating of course with the Molothos discovering the location of Humanity’s Sphere. But seeing everything that needed to be done in this book, it was clear that what I needed was to split Challenges of the Deeps across two locations: the Deeps themselves, where Orphan would take them, and Nexus Arena and Humanity’s Sphere, where all other action was taking place.

Leaving Simon behind was a wonderful opportunity. It threw Ariane and DuQuesne together under circumstances that their relationship could grow, while allowing them to help Orphan address his problem  — and bring Ariane to a place where she could truly learn about what she had become.

More importantly, it put Simon in a position where he had to take charge of his life, without being able to rely on Ariane or DuQuesne to backstop him. The Molothos could discover Humanity’s location early on, and have an honest-to-goodness space-opera style battle of fleets be the final climax of the book – and Simon would be the one who would be heavily involved in defending Humanity. As a character it would force him to become more of what he currently was only in potential.

The resulting book, Challenges of the Deeps, ended up being one of the most densely-packed things I’ve ever written; I start by sending our heroes to a meeting with Orphan, and a chapter later get Wu Kung and Humanity involved in the Genasi’s Challenge to the Great Faction of the Vengeance – and from that Challenge (which is itself one of my favorite sequences I’ve ever written) charge into the Deeps with Ariane, DuQuesne and Wu Kung while throwing Simon in the deep end of the political pool… and set him and Humanity up for warfare, while putting the others in danger from a more personal, but even more mysterious, opponent. Along the way I throw some light on Oasis/K, the Analytic, Maria-Susanna, and finally discover the name of the adversary who murdered four Hyperions and destroyed Wu Kung’s virtual world.

I end the beginning – bringing Humanity to a point where they have true, powerful allies and a victory that leaves no one in doubt of their position. And I also begin the ending, by giving us hints as to some of the deep past and showing, I think, a vague outline of where the ultimate direction of Humanity – and especially Captain Ariane Austin and her friends – will take them.

It was a hell of a lot of fun to write, and I think that it’s as good a temporary stopping point as I could possibly have imagined. I hope the readers agree with me.

—-

Challenges of the Deep: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Randy Henderson

In today’s Big Idea, author Randy Henderson and his protagonist have a chatty conversation about Henderson’s new novel, Smells Like Finn Spirit. Let’s see what they have to say to each other this time, shall we?

RANDY HENDERSON:

Well, Finn, this is it.  A trilogy!  As its main character, how do you feel?

“Like you had three chances to imagine me in a paradise with pizza trees, milkshake rivers, and unlimited sexy time for me and Dawn.  Remind me, which book had that?”

I’m afraid the readers wouldn’t have enjoyed that as much as you.  Well, the sexy time, maybe –

“Which you made as awkward as possible, the little you did allow.”

What, and milkshake rivers would have made it better?  Do I need to remind you what happens when you drink milkshakes?  If you think sexy time in the Land of Dairy Pain would have been–

“Okay!  Aren’t we supposed to be talking about big ideas?”

Yup.  So then, what do you think is the big idea behind Smells Like Finn Spirit?

“Oh, I don’t know.  A number of words come to mind.  Autozombitons.  Waer-Bear Stare.  Merlin-lite.  Groin pain.  Feypocalypse.  None of them make me feel warm and fuzzy for some odd reason.  What do you think the big idea is?”

I guess for me the big idea is how the series and I have evolved over these three books together.  It has been as much a journey for me as for you.

“You say evolved, I say escalated.  I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss when all I faced were gnome mobsters and sasquatch mercenaries.”

Well, Finn Fancy Necromancy was fun, to be sure –

“I didn’t say it was fun.”

— but the sequels needed to offer something a little deeper in the worldbuilding and the characters so that they weren’t just repetitious repeats, and supported a trilogy arc.  And as I look back at them, it is interesting to see how the events in this world, and my life, seeped into that world.

“You mean more so than your questionable taste in music?”

For the hundredth time, Finn, there’s nothing wrong with Milli Vanilli’s music!

“I was actually thinking of Right Said Fred and ‘I’m Too Sexy,’ but you were saying?”

Well, I can look back now, and see how I was channeling some the darkness of the real world into the growing darkness in the books.

“You mean like the growing darkness that culminated in Limp Bizkit’s cover of George Michael’s ‘Faith’?”

No.  Book 3 only goes up to 1992 culturally, you know that.  In 1992 we were riding high on Grunge, there was no way we could have foreseen a future that terrible.

“Then do you mean the growing cultural darkness foreshadowed by the Jerry Springer show?”

No!  What I meant was, Book 2, Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free has elements of racial tension and a group of feyblood rights activists pushing back against the abuse of power.  Bigfootloose was begun at the end of 2013 after the Trayvon Martin decision and a number of other difficult events in our nation, and written over the course of 2014, a year that saw great upheaval in my personal life.  Looking back, it all seems pretty obvious to me how that seeped into my work.

“It also has demonic male underwear models, and yarn bombing sasquatches.  You didn’t exactly write a revolutionary text there.”

Well, no.  I wasn’t writing a political piece, I was trying to give readers a fast-paced and funny fantasy adventure.  But in a series that’s been labeled “dark and quirky,” book two tipped a little more onto the darker side and book one on the quirky side, I’d say.

“So then was book 3, Smells Like Finn Spirit, influenced by Trump’s rise?”

No, at least not the plot.  I actually conceived book 3 in late 2014 well before the Orange One dominated the election season.

“Wait.  You have Arcana Supremacists who are making their big moves to control the arcana government, allying with a traditional foreign enemy under the belief they will get the better of the deal when inevitable betrayal occurs, and risking the equivalence of magical nuclear war in seeking ultimate power – and that’s all coincidence?”

Oddly enough, yes.  There are some strange parallels in retrospect, so maybe I was just tuned on some subconscious level to what was coming.  Like the Oracle from the Matrix!

“More like Season One Deanna Troi.  And you know I love politics even less than I like lentils, and that’s saying something.  So how about you get to the point?

Fine.  Having (I feel) grown as a writer during this journey, and gotten the hang of writing to deadline, I feel that in Smells Like Finn Spirit I successfully blended the humor and pacing of book one, plus the best aspects of world-building and character development from book two, all with half the calories.

“You also made me fight for my life in the Fey Other Realm, and face an apocalypse.”

These things build character.

“I’m already a character.  Literally.  And literally.”

Right.  So in short –

“Too late –”

– I’m pretty dang proud of how this “dark and quirky” urban fantasy trilogy turned out, and our growth together.  And, well, I’m proud of you, Finn.

“Wow.  I, uh, well that’s really – wait a second.  You found out I requested Character Protective Relocation, didn’t you?”

Maaaybe.  But come on, Finn, would you really be happier in some other author’s head?  What if they renamed you, like, Blaine, and put you in a 1600’s love triangle with a vampire and a pirate or something?  I mean, you wouldn’t even have decent plumbing, let alone access to a Commodore 64.

“Well, you did give me a Sega Genesis in this last book.  And all those RPGs: Curse of the Azure Bonds, Bard’s Tale, Ultima, Wasteland –”

That’s right, I did!  And introduced you to Nirvana, Boys II Men, Blur – come on.  Would you really take Dawn away from her music?

Sigh.  “No.  I suppose not.  But if we are staying in your head, then we want –”

Oh, look, the links!  That means it’s time to go.

“Hey!  Don’t think this is the end of –”

Smells Like Finn Spirit: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Tom Merritt

Sometimes, as a fan, you hope your a new book or show or album from your favorite creative people will give you the experience you want. But sometimes it doesn’t. What then? If you’re Tom Merritt, you use that as an inspiration to create a novel. Here’s Merritt now to talk about how his book Pilot X came out of a moment that wasn’t.

TOM MERRITT:

When I was 18 I went off to college, hours from the only house I ever lived in, barely knowing anyone, and scared to death. When I was 23 I moved to Texas with my then-girlfriend, leaving everything in my home state behind, and scared to death. When I was 29, the girlfriend no longer with me, I moved to San Francisco alone, barely knowing anyone, in a job I wasn’t sure I knew how to do, scared to death.

We’ve all felt alone and we’ve all made decisions that felt too big for us. What do we do when there doesn’t seem to be a right decision? Knowing someone else who’s faced the same thing helps, even if that person is fictional.

In 2006, Doctor Who returned to TV. I was captivated by Christopher Eccleston’s lonely, haunted portrayal of the Doctor. I loved that he was the last of the time lords, sole survivor of a time war, driven mad by what he had to do, and running from that past.

When the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who promised to show us the moment that made him that way, when he had to destroy his own people to end a war, I got very excited. Finally, we would see the moment that drove a good man to make an impossible decision.

But that’s not what I got. I enjoyed the episode, don’t get me wrong—it was fun and thrilling in all the right ways. But it didn’t deliver the big moment I was expecting, at least not in the way I wanted.

What should a good person do when faced with a choice between the survival of the universe, and the survival of their own people? How could you live with yourself if you had to destroy everything you knew, to save a universe? Those were the questions I wanted to see explored.

Those questions haunted me for a year.

So, I wrote several pieces of a story about a timeship pilot who had to face that moment. I created a character who did not want fame, did not seek power, but just wanted to do what he enjoyed: flying his ship. Events beyond his control thrust him into a situation where he, and only he, could decide the fate of the universe. He would have to destroy his whole culture and orphan himself or watch everything in existence burn.

I didn’t want any easy outs for him either, so I created strict rules of time travel. If I made it possible to go back in time and assassinate the folks who caused everything to go bad, it would be a short story. Even if our hero didn’t do it, somebody else would have. Besides, I don’t think time travel would work like that.

I think time travel is rigid. If you could go back in time, the effects of everything you did in the past should already be felt in your present. Headache-inducing, I know. Suffice it to say you can’t change the past. What you did in the past already happened. Trying to change the past would be like trying to escape a planet’s gravity—you can’t do it by ordinary means like jumping or even flying. It takes a lot of energy and explosions. Of course, with sufficiently powerful and advanced technology it might still be possible.

I also didn’t want to rip off Doctor Who. The comparisons were close enough as it was. Sure, I was going to have a time traveler, a ship, and race of time travelers, but that was it. No Earth, no companions (I made the ship the companion) no sonic screwdriver, no Daleks, et cetera. The main character is never a doctor, and not a madman in a box. Jelly babies and fezzes do not once make an appearance. There is, however, pie.

All that scene setting, all that character creation, all that work on the mechanics of time travel, served to make one moment inescapable. Pilot X must face the heart-breaking moment when he must destroy everything he knows, to save everything but himself, then try to live with the consequences.

Why does that situation appeal to me so much? I think it has to do with those moments in our life when we have to break with the past. When it feels like we must leave everything behind and no matter what we do, some part of our self will be destroyed. Maybe it’s a metaphor for growing up. When we leave home for the first time we end our childhood. We can’t keep it. We can try to cling to it but it won’t be childhood any more. Or, we can leave it behind and set off to make ourselves something new.

My growing up (if it’s even done) took a long time and I traveled far from home often on my own. I know that feeling of having to leave everything behind and starting over. Granted, I never had to destroy a people or save a universe, but I have felt events force me into making big decisions and then had to face the consequences of those decisions alone. That’s what I saw in the Doctor. That’s what I put into Pilot X.

My hope is that I captured a bit of what I felt back in 2006.

—-

Pilot X: Amazon|Audible|Barnes & Noble

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The Big Idea: Jake Kerr

It’s Thursday! No, not the date (it’s still Monday, sorry about that), but the novel, written by Jake Kerr. And in it, Kerr attempts an update on a classic, if dated, fantasy novel. How hard could it be, right? Well

JAKE KERR:

So, my new novel is about a future Earth where the population escapes the polluted and dying planet by logging into linked virtual reality servers. They take on roles as fantasy characters, live in former time periods, cruise the Tinder server—all in an effort to get away from the sad world where they live. A mysterious group wants to destroy the virtual reality network to force the citizens to wake up and force the corporations and governments to clean up environment. Their belief is that the planet was purposefully polluted to move people to the corporation-controlled virtual reality operating system. Our hero infiltrates the supreme council of this group and finds that her life is constantly in danger as she moves from secret meetings to administration buildings and virtual reality fantasy servers where she is a level 73 mage. Along the way, everyone betrays everyone else and nothing is what it seems.

That is the description of Thursday, and based solely on that you would never know that it is an adaptation of G. K. Chesterton’s classic The Man Who Was Thursday. And therein lies the following tale.

I first read The Man Who Was Thursday in college, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels. The humor. The plot twists. The intrigue. I was entirely enthralled. Michael Moorcock called it one of the top 100 fantasies of all time, and it’s a seminal novel in the thriller genre, with its series of chases and pursuits. It’s an amazing book with one significant problem—it’s very dated.

The humor references have little cultural meaning to many readers today. The surrealist/spiritual metaphors and allegories are highly specific and jarring for many. And the expositional and philosophical prose is far out of fashion. To make matters worse, the frightening bad guys are anarchists, a group that provides little sense of dread today.

It always struck me that this extraordinary novel deserved to be updated in some form or fashion so that a new generation of readers could enjoy Chesterton’s genius. The more I thought of it over the years, the more I considered doing it myself. Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? I thought. Well, I found out when I took on the project last year.

Updating the story wasn’t the hard part. With its surreal nature and the themes of deception and truth, I immediately knew that I wanted to use some kind of virtual reality framework. I’m also a huge fan of Philip K. Dick, and two of his common themes are favorites of mine: What is reality? And what does it mean to be human?

Specifically, I thought of another favorite novel of mine—Dick’s Time Out of Joint, a fifties era paperback that centers on the protagonist living in a world that isn’t what it seems. Taking The Man Who was Thursday and moving it to a virtual reality setting where it’s hard to tell what is real and who is who they say they are while adding AIs who may or may not be considered human seemed like a perfect way to update Chesterton’s tale.

Easy, right? I even mirrored the scenes and chapters.

There was only one problem: It didn’t work.

My first draft was awful. I had stayed too true to Chesterton’s dialogue, and it sounded quaint and anachronistic. I had stripped out nearly all the exposition, and that left threadbare scenes. I had followed the plot so closely that some of the scenes that made sense in 1908 were absurd in a virtual reality setting.

What I thought would be easy was suddenly looking like a formidable challenge.

My friend Matt Mikalatos (who wrote the afterword) basically said I had written “too G. K. Chesterton and not enough Jake Kerr.”

While I grumbled about the hard work ahead of me, the more important concern was that the more I changed, the less I was staying true to the original novel. Yet if I didn’t make significant changes, many of the problematic things I wanted to fix would remain.

I’ve written homages before (namely “The Old Equations” and its thematic tip of the hat to “The Cold Equations”), but this was an adaptation. I needed to keep the connection to the original source alive and clear.

So I waded in with what I hoped was a scalpel and not a machete.

I knew I had to keep the plot, including the sparse and thin scenes without the exposition. I also wanted to mirror the chapter structure to make it feel as close to Chesterton’s novel as possible. Beyond that, however, I realized I had to make significant changes.

I had originally intended to have fun and keep as much of Chesterton’s dialogue as possible and overlay it on the SF setting. I loved the idea, but it just didn’t work. So the first thing I did was re-do practically every line of dialogue. I worked hard to keep some, but only if it made sense. After I finished, I had a much more readable and contemporary-sounding novel. While I didn’t keep the words themselves, I worked hard to keep the spirit of the them.

Now Chesterton’s plot is fantastic and truly one of the best of all time, with twists that build on twists. The trouble was that it is limited by 1908 technology, with trains and pistols and slow travel on horseback. I ended up dramatically changing some scenes, including a tense race against the clock. Chesterton based the scene on the arrival of a train. I had it based on a server pending a maintenance lockdown.

As I noted earlier, Chesterton filled a lot of scenes with expositional philosophical musing. While perfect for his novel, it simply doesn’t work in a contemporary SF novel. So I had to actually flesh out a lot of scenes with action that are only described or mentioned in passing by Chesterton. This happens in the opening chapter when Gabby Simm meets Lucian. For Chesterton it was a philosophical meeting of poets. I added a scene-specific goal for Lucian with Gabby narrating with snark.

I also couldn’t ignore the opposite point-of-view of updating a book—the demands of contemporary genre conventions. You can’t simply adapt a book to a new setting, you need to apply the setting to the book. For example, much of my book is set on a fantasy virtual reality server like Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online. How could I set a thriller in such a setting without having a virtual reality fantasy battle, complete with a castle, spells, NPC warriors, traps, and unique magical items? I made the battle fit within Chesterton’s plot, but it is new and gives the book the contemporary feel it requires.

The final piece was the biggest challenge for me. Chesterton’s background was decidedly religious and based on the secular, frightening, and chaotic anarchist forces in 1908. My background was of a modern world dying from neglect, with virtual reality the way the population escaped this dismal reality. The world is even described as “IRL” and the IRL spaces where people live are delineated as “inside” and “outside.” Making all this work required me to add some scenes and change some of the ways that the characters interacted. For example, the opening scene in my book doesn’t exist in The Man Who Was Thursday.

At its heart, The Man Who Was Thursday is steeped in Catholic symbols and Christian messages, and this is where I am most curious about how the book will be received. I’m an atheist and removed all of those pieces from the novel. Yet I’m convinced that I’ve kept the spirit of the novel enough that if you are religious or a Chesterton fan, you will still see those things there, just not as overtly as Chesterton made them. Christian speaker and author Matt Mikalatos addresses this in the book’s afterword.

Earlier I wrote: Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? The answer turned out to be very hard. I’m not exaggerating in saying that each chapter of Thursday took about as long to write as two chapters in a book that I would create from my own imagination. It was, in no uncertain terms, a significant time commitment. I do believe it was worth it, however. Even if readers hate my book, maybe the spark will be there for them to search for Chesterton. I wouldn’t mind that at all.

—-

Thursday: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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The Big Idea: Cat Sparks

In today’s Big Idea for her novel Lotus Blue, Australian author Cat Sparks talks about the enduring power of stupidity, and what it takes to save the world from it… or not.

CAT SPARKS:

I’ve been a fan of science fiction – in particular, post-apocalyptic narratives – since I was a child. Unsurprising that I eventually turned my hand to writing a novel set in a landscape created by the dismantling of long-term, sane, evidence-based civilization. If a lifelong interest in sci fi has taught me anything, it’s that the genre, at its best, serves as a kind of cultural decoder, telling us what we fear and feel about changes to the here and now.

As much as I loved the fictional and filmic apocalyptic landscapes of adolescence, they never really worried me. They weren’t serious real-life threats because I thought, nobody could ever be that stupid. Had I been paying more attention at school, I might have noticed human history groaning with the weighty burdens of stupidity, from the Treaty of Versailles to whoever cut down that last tree on Easter Island.

One week out from Trump’s inauguration, George Orwell’s 1984 became the best-selling book on Amazon.com. Back in 1948, Orwell was writing satire about the deficiencies and dangerous leanings of his own era. We’re not quite living in Orwell’s future, despite Newspeak cutting closer and closer to the internet’s linguistic bone. North Korea under Kim Jong-un is more aligned with Orwell’s dystopic vision.

My home continent Australia is a vast, inhospitable place with its 24 million residents mostly clinging around its more comfortable coastal fringe. Our mixed market economy relies on agriculture and service sectors, plus mining exports: iron ore, gold, uranium, coal, and liquefied natural gas. And don’t forget tourism: all those lovely golden beaches. Our greatest tourist attraction – the Great Barrier Reef – is bleaching and being killed off as I type.

Future Australia is the landscape of Lotus Blue. Australia got cut off – it’s its own world now. There are no countries, only towns and tribes. Weakened governments, desperate for new solutions to unsolvable problems in an increasingly fragmenting and uncaring international climate, sold off the country’s “useless”, inhospitable interior to anyone who’d pay, granting the buyers carte blanche to do anything they wanted with it, no questions asked.

Such a move is not without historical precedent. In the 50s and 60s the Australian Government permitted the British to test nuclear bombs in our deserts, regardless of the long-term consequences, most famously at Maralinga in South Australia. The indigenous people were shuffled off their traditional lands, and suffered health issues as a result of radiation, as did Australian service personnel, many of whose children died young or were born with severe deformities.

As if that weren’t bad enough, today, Australia is considering importing 3000 tons a year of other countries’ nuclear waste, planning to bury it in the outback — out of sight and out of mind. It’s clear that the government just wants the money and is incredibly short-sighted for the long-term health of our continent and the world. Even worse is the Queensland government’s approval of the infrastructure for a coal mine that will threaten the Great Barrier Reef with massive and continual dredging and dumping – all for an industry with an admittedly limited lifespan.

The real world seems particularly awash with stupid right now: alarming reserves of poorly stored biological toxins, development of lethal autonomous weapons systems against advice from science and industry leaders, a mindboggling denial to accept that manmade climate change is real. A collective refusal by too many governments to rehome the millions of refugees displaced by violent events beyond their control. People across the globe voting against their own best interests for things such as affordable healthcare, public education, environmental regulations and other vital social services. Voting against human rights and equality — or even worse, not bothering to vote at all, believing the future is not our concern or responsibility.

Lotus Blue is set in the future of a world that didn’t listen; a world in which reasonable self-interest and planetary concern was abandoned in favor of short-term profits for the elite. Humans lost control of the deadly, autonomous machines they had invented, as the oceans got warmer and the weather got wilder, the air got hotter and seas rose high, destroying homes, devastating agriculture and resulting in mass transience. A man-made, whole world of stupid.

Everything in the novel is extrapolated from genuine science, technology and current events. Fancifully embroidered, sure, but none of it came out of pure imagination.

We have never known so many ways and means of stupid. There have never been more of us and we have never demanded more from our environment than we do now. The fanciful, perpetual motion machine known as late stage capitalism stands as the greatest stupid in our arsenal, pushing the planet beyond the threshold of sustainability.

Today, eight individual men hold the same wealth as half the planet’s population. Silicon Valley and NYC super rich are reportedly building luxury bunkers and buying up ‘safe haven’ real estate as that doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight. As if any kind of bunker could protect them from the kind of darkness achieved when the lights go out on civilization itself.

In Lotus Blue, we meet the descendants of those bunkered, nervous rich — the powers-that-were, who ignored humanitarian and science-based concerns and kept up their high-grade exploitations until there was nothing left to dig up, farm or sell. Nothing but a vast, toxic expanse crawling with semi-sentient quasi-military hardware left over from other people’s experiments and skirmishes.

Against all odds, some of the hardy, abandoned surface-dwelling poor adapted and survived. Lotus Blue’s protagonist is a girl who discovers her unwelcome connection to the landscape’s deadly past. She must learn to use her resourcefulness to fight for and save the future from even greater stupid.

Which, let’s face it, we’re all going to have to do eventually. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

—-

Lotus Blue: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jack Cheng

As someone who knows the joy of naming a character after a particular astronomer and popularizer of science, I’m delighted that Jack Cheng continues in this tradition with his novel See You in the Cosmos. In his Big Idea, Cheng talks about how our mutual brain crush inspired his story.

JACK CHENG:

I remember the exact moment it happened. I was at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, hanging out in my younger brother’s room, when I saw on his shelf a copy of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. I remembered an episode of a podcast I’d heard years before, in which Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, talked about how the two fell in love as they worked to gather sounds for the Voyager Golden Record. When I woke up the next morning, it was there, like the remnants of a dream: A story about a boy and his dog trying to launch a golden iPod into space, with his own sounds—his own record of life on Earth.

Very quickly I had the idea to tell the story using the iPod itself. The novel would be written as transcriptions of the recordings my main character, Alex, was making for intelligent beings millions of light-years away. But I hadn’t yet realized the implications of the choice. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a choice at the time. It was just the MacGyvering that you do as an author—you try to make full use of what’s already in the story. And this story had a golden iPod bound for the far reaches of space.

As I worked on the novel, I began to notice strange entanglements between Alex’s quest to launch his rocket and my own quest to write the book. I saw how his devotion to his task came from his very human desire to connect with others, and to understand his family’s history and circumstances. The setting was inspired by a solo road trip I’d taken in the Southwestern U.S. in the summer of 2013, but it wasn’t until after spending time with Alex that I remembered one of the main reasons for the trip in the first place: So I could, at the very end, retrace a Greyhound bus ride my father had taken from LA to Detroit when he first arrived in this country.

I found myself again and again in Alex’s story. It seemed even to mirror the very acts of writing, reading, and publishing. Alex embarks on his mission alone—save for his dog—but he eventually comes to meet people who support him and become a kind of found family. And wasn’t this also the journey of an author? Of moving from the solitary experience of writing the first drafts to getting feedback from trusted early readers, to working with agents and editors and so on, until the team around him or her becomes its own kind of found family? Even the book’s opening line—Who are you?—took on new meaning for me. Not only was it the question that Alex was asking of the recipients of his message, and the question he was asking of his father he never knew, it was also, I realized, the question a reader asks of a main character at the beginning of every novel. It was the question that I was asking of my reader, across the vast ocean of fictional space-time. Who are you?

That initial choice to tell the story on the iPod, it turned out, was indeed the Big Idea. Not just because it was a clever and interesting way to tell a story, but because it placed both the myself and the reader on Alex’s Earth and simultaneously away from it—far away—as the eventual recipients of his message. And with this vast distance comes, I think, a deep empathy; when you put yourself in the mind of someone so far away, and then look back on yourself from that person’s perspective—like Carl Sagan encouraged us to do when he described Earth as a “pale blue dot”—you end up seeing the things you have in common with your fellow human beings. You end up seeing your own story in the story of another. And their story in yours.

—-

See You in the Cosmos: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Chuck Wendig

When Chuck Wendig is not drinking Febreeze smoothies or arguing with people about their burrito choices, he writes books! For example: Thunderbird, the newest entry in his Miriam Black series. In today’s Big Idea, Chuck talks about what it took to extend the series into new territory… and how the real world might have caught up with it along the way.

CHUCK WENDIG:

I’ll preface this by saying: I had no idea what was coming.

Two years ago, I wrote the fourth book in my Miriam Black series: Thunderbird. In it, Miriam seeks to end the curse that causes her see how people are going to die, but that path cuts straight through a right-wing militia nesting in Arizona.

It’s a militia, but it’s also a cult of personality, run in part by a charismatic man and his psychic wife. They have visions of an America in ruins, left so in part by those “others” who come across the border or from overseas. They also distrust their own government—these people are paranoid, driven by visions of a new world order or state-sponsored super-flu or other forms of impossible control. They want to break it all down. Blow it all up. They want to heal the divide by eradicating the other side in a civil war that proves their version of justice. They have weapons. They have bombs. They’re going to kill people to—in their minds—save people. And then they have visions of taking over the government that they destroy.

The book comes out this week, and suddenly it seems hopelessly naive. It now seems like a thing less out of fiction – or, at least, less a thing at the fringes and the margins – and is now a very real infection slithering right to the heart of American life and discourse. It’s gone off the pages. It’s gone off the rails. Here we are, in thrall to a cult of personality who sees enemies everywhere, who imagines threats that aren’t real, who seems to distrust the government even as it takes it over. It’s a group that claims that it wants to heal the divide, but its mechanism to do so again seems to be to create unity by destroying those would disagree.

Well, shit.

At the time, I thought, I’m going to talk about this thing, this sickness forming in the roots of the tree, and I was stupid enough to think that’s where it would stay. Trapped in those pages like a prisoner behind paper walls. But here we are. The big idea, the bad idea, has taken over. It’s escaped the prison. It’s gone beyond just the roots—it’s in the trunk of the tree and in the soil around us. I didn’t think the ideas I put forth in the book would become mainstream, in a way. I didn’t know we would climb so high only to fall back so far, so fast, to a broken world.

The Miriam books have always posited a broken world, of course. The characters contained within – save maybe one or two – are never really good people, they’re all just varying shades of bad. Some are bad because they are made that way, some are bad because it serves them. Some are bad because they’re as broken as the world around them, some are bad because they want to break the world further. There’s bad, then there’s real bad, and sometimes, there’s downright motherfucking evil.

I try to look at the book now, long after I wrote it, as it’s coming out onto bookshelves in a world whose own special horrors have exceeded the story’s own in many ways, and now I’m forced to find a different big idea contained within, one that maybe seeks to find hope in the hellmouth. And I’m forced to look at Miriam herself, because though she’s by no means a good person, she still tries to be better. Her capacity to do the right thing when surrounded by wrong is something noble. Her drive to be better even when she knows she’s easily one of the worst people in the room gives me a weird kind of hope. And the fact that even in all the darkness, the book still lets in rays of light—grimy light, light that flickers, but still light that clarifies and chases away shadows—well, I find that hopeful, too.

And sure, it’s just a book. It’s just a story. But like I said, sometimes the things inside books find a way outside the books. Sometimes they were never really the realm of fiction. Sometimes stories know things and tell us things even before we’re really aware of them. So that’s what I’m hoping is happening here. Maybe Thunderbird is showing us not only the reality of the darkness, but also that there’s a way through, too, toward the light. Maybe the big idea is that no matter how bad it gets, we can always make it better.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Erika Lewis

Ghosts! How do they play a role in the genesis of Erika Lewis‘ new novel, Game of Shadows? Lewis is about to tell you. You’ll just have to imagine her telling you, in the dark, with a flashlight illuminating her face from under her chin…

ERIKA LEWIS:

It all started when I was seven. I remember how cold the graveyard felt in the middle of that hot and sticky summer day. Not the entire yard, mind you, but one particular spot. The marker said his name, which I can’t remember, and his age, which I can’t forget. He was seven when he died. Seven. And he died fighting in the Civil War. That’s when it happened. The gentle wave of a little hand that wasn’t really there. Or was it? I ran that day. Scared of what I saw. But that moment was enough to keep me curious for the rest of my life. Did the boy have something he wanted to say? Was that why he was still in that graveyard so long after he’d died? Obviously, I believe in ghosts. Could that incident have been a figment of my imagination? Maybe…

I lost my stepfather when I was seventeen. We were close but I hardly saw him the year he died. So much time spent in and out of hospitals. We never got to say too much, and there were things left unsaid after he was gone. And I wondered if he, like the little boy in the graveyard, would ever wave at me. Or whisper in my ear, letting me know that he was still around, hearing me tell him the things I never got to say, like thank you for being there when others weren’t. But he didn’t. And at seventeen, I stopped believing…for a little while.

Larger than life, my grandmother was my hero. She made life look easy, even when it wasn’t. She never minded a midnight call during my turbulent college years when I needed to bend her ear. She was always there. Always up! The woman never slept until after 3 a.m. After I moved to California, and she became ill, I knew she didn’t have long. I had visited, but she was so sick, it was hard for her to talk. Then one morning, a few months later, before dawn, I knew her soul was moving on. How did I know? Because she told me. Do you know that feeling between sleep and awake, when you don’t know if you’re dreaming or hearing voices? Maybe that’s just me. I doubt it though. That was the last time I saw her, well, heard her. She said, “Lovey,” that’s what she called me, “I have to go now. I want you to know I love you and am so proud of you.” Me, being me, asked, “Is Grandpa here?” Grandma giggled. She did this from time to time, not often, but every once in a while, particularly when she talked about my grandfather who had died when I was eight. So she giggled and said, “oh yes, he’s over there. See? The one with the sexy legs.” Seriously. Sexy legs. God, I loved her.

As you can see The Big Idea behind Game of Shadows was something percolating for a long time. An emotional journey that felt like it needed to start from where we all did, in our youth. Right in the middle of those golden years when you feel invincible. Unbreakable. A time in your life when you never think that anything bad could happen—especially to you. After all, when you’re young, it could never be you who had something left to say, and now can’t, right?

Ethan Makkai is a freshman at Venice High School. He’s in that sweet spot, feeling immortal, but he has something that grounds him. Ethan can see ghosts. He knows life goes on in some form or fashion. Life and death is the ultimate great divide, but is it when you can still talk to those you’ve lost? Can still feel their presence blanketing you, giving you warmth and comfort when you need it them most? Ethan Makkai’s life is touched by death all the time. But it isn’t until he’s dying that he realizes what death would mean, that there would be things left unsaid—by him.

In bringing Game of Shadows to life, I wanted to combine Ethan’s personal story with something else that I found incredibly interesting: Irish Celtic mythology. During the first cycle of Ireland’s history, the Mythological Cycle, bards passed on legends of tragic heroes and great loves. A time when the Tuatha De Danann, the gods and goddesses, walked the Emerald Isle, and their seat of power was at the Hill of Tara, not far from Dublin. It’s still there. You can wander through it if you like. I don’t recommend getting too close to the hawthorn trees through, not without a fairy offering! Anyway, in the legends, when the Tuatha De Danann lost the war with the Milesians, the humans, they departed through the mounds to the Otherworld. But I always wondered: what ever happened to the mythical races and magical Druids that lived in Ireland with them? Well, that’s when I got to thinking. Maybe they’re still here…

TARA

Welcome to Tara, a hidden continent where, post losing the war, the Irish god of the sea sailed their kind, and magically hid the lands so humankind could never, ever find them…

I spent a few years writing, and researching, then writing some more, and then researching some more. I wanted the lands to feel unique, but also connected to what I love so much about the Irish myths, and about Ireland itself. In building out the realms, the landscape, the inhabitants, and magical rules in this new Tara, it all had to be tied to their ancient past, and yet different, brought into present day.

After making the biggest mistake of his life that allows his mother to be kidnapped, Ethan Makkai leaves Los Angeles, the only home he’s ever known, on mission to get her back or die trying. In an epic journey through unfamiliar lands Ethan must rescue his mother before a murdering sorcerer can kill her. He is the quintessential reluctant hero. Not that he’s unwilling to do whatever it takes to save Caitríona Makkai from her terrible fate, but rather unwilling to take on his new destiny, a destiny shaped by the fact that he can see ghosts…

It’s rather amusing in a chilling kind of way that The Big Idea for this story all started with the simple wave of a ghost-boy’s hand that may, or may not have been in that graveyard at all… but it did!

—-

Game of Shadows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Big Idea: Jake Bible

What’s in a name? Sometimes, as Jake Bible relates about his new novel Stone Cold Bastards, there’s quite a lot there indeed.

JAKE BIBLE:

Stone Cold Bastards.

I have no idea the exact date or what influence triggered the name to pop into my head, but I do know I was in bed, it was late, and I had just turned out the light.

Stone Cold Bastards.

I switched the light back on and grabbed my phone to jot it down before I forgot it. My wife didn’t even ask why the light was back on; she was used to me taking random notes at random times on my phone. It’s part of being a writer’s spouse, just like me running last minute, random errands for her is part of being a public school teacher’s spouse. These things happen.

No clue what the novel was going to be about or even if it would become a novel. I have about 200+ titles/ideas/notes on my iPhone that I doubt I’ll ever get to in my lifetime, so there was a distinct possibility that SCB would amount to nothing.

Except that’s not what happened.

On March 16th, 2013 I jotted down a quick description “Like The Dirty Dozen meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets The Omen”.

Damn. That’s one serious mashup right there.

A day later I wrote “Old school, crack military team of gargoyles holds a Sanctuary against a Demon Siege”.

What the hell is an “old school, crack military team of gargoyles”? Were gargoyles in the military? And what’s up with capitalizing “Demon Siege”? My brain is weird.

I eventually fleshed it out some more and added the idea to my pitch sheet. Pitch sheet? Yep. Like I said above, over 200+ notes on my iPhone. I take the ones that refuse to let go of my mind and I add them to a pitch sheet. This is something I can email to publishers if I ever get asked “So, what ideas do you have?” Best to be prepared when opportunity knocks and all that jazz.

I was pretty stoked about this idea and constantly pitched it to publishers. It was gonna be a throwback to the old military movies of the late sixties and early seventies. You know, the ones with the misfit band of soldiers that have to come together and save the day while also sacrificing themselves because, hey, misfits die, it’s what they do.

Except I write genre fiction, so I switched out the human soldiers for gargoyles come to life when the End of Days shows up. I also switched out Nazis for demons. Well, humans possessed by demons. I wanted flesh and blood. I wanted a body count. I needed human bodies that could get hacked and slashed and shot and clubbed and crushed and just completely obliterated by some seriously badass stone fists.

I was in love with the entire idea.

Publishers weren’t.

I pitched it to five or six different publishers and they all passed.

Until I found Bell Bridge Books. They got my pitch sheet and to my complete surprise, Stone Cold Bastards was at the top of the list of what they would like me to write. Holy snack crackers! The Bastards’ time had finally come! Three years after I had originally come up with the idea.

Man, I was ready to get to the writing. Three years of those Bastards in my head meant I knew exactly what I wanted to write. And when I sat down to write the novel, it flowed so easily.

The gargoyles came to life when the Gates of Hell opened. There was a Sanctuary where the last humans left on Earth were being protected. Lots of action, violence, intrigue, snark, and blood. It was perfect.

Except it wasn’t. There is a reason editors exist. A big reason.

You see, I had been so focused on the gargoyles, and creating these badasses made of stone that would fit the title, that I forgot about why they were there in the first place: to protect the last humans. And, man, my human characters? They sucked.

Generic, cardboard cutouts. Unlikable. Boring. I gave the reader zero reason to care at all whether they lived or died. It didn’t matter how much ass the gargoyles kicked if the reason for kicking ass was to save a bunch of losers. The demons had more humanity than the actual humans.

Time to fix that!

I fleshed out the humans, I gave them souls, I gave them lives that readers cared about. I wove relationships and friendships into the story. I brought the gargoyles and the humans closer together. Stone hearts warmed as flesh hearts began to beat like they should have from the beginning. I not only gave the gargoyles a reason to care, but I gave the readers a reason to care.

Which is my job. I should have seen that from the start, but it’s hard when you have a burning idea and that idea eclipses everything else. A killer title. Gargoyles come to life. Demons to kill. End of Days. Except none of it worked without humanity at the core.

A couple more passes and the novel was done. And it was so much more than what I had hoped.

I had set out to write a novel steeped in pulp fiction with a seventies grindhouse ethos, but in the end I had a contemporary fantasy that not only had all of those elements, it had depth and heart and soul. I’ll admit that I grew a little teary when I re-read the ending.

Now it’s out in the wild. The Bastards have been set free.

In a way, so have I.

All because of a title.

All because of Stone Cold Bastards.

—-

Stone Cold Bastards: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Meg Elison

Ideals are a great thing, if you can afford them. In The Book of Etta, award-winning writer Meg Elison takes a look at ideals and what they cost, and who can afford to have them in a world where ideals are very dear indeed.

MEG ELISON:

There comes a time in the life of every idealist when they must come to terms with real life. Many of us find ourselves in this terrifying era with unpleasant tasks ahead: conversations with racist family members on Facebook are just the beginning. Over and over we have to confront the reality that we are not on a non-stop flight, headed inevitably toward progress. A more apt metaphor would be that we are rowing arduously upstream toward progress, and many of our fellow rowers are openly wearing MAGA hats and rowing backward, or else nurturing secret misinformation and grievances and choosing not to row at all.

The Book of Etta is about an idealist. It’s about a fighter, a queer survivor who wants to kill fascists, free slaves, and give no quarter. However, Etta learns to row for progress alongside people who see progress differently, and are willing to obtain it by any means necessary.

That essential conflict is the Big Idea in The Book of Etta that I’d like to share, because it’s one that plagued me while I was writing it and plagues me still.

If you can free a slave by buying them, have you done enough good to negate your own support of the slave trade? If the women in your village are safe and cared for, but not allowed to leave or speak in your presence, are they free? If they’re better off than most, is that enough? If you venerate motherhood and treat all mothers with respect, isn’t that enough to make sure that all women choose that path? If humanity is in danger of extinction, isn’t it only fair to suppress same-sex love?

Etta’s answers to all of the above are no, no, and no. She inhabits a world of absolutes and cannot reconcile herself to compromises or to accepting what is good enough or safe enough or too important to question.

Etta meets Flora, who inhabits a world with no absolutes where each of these questions must be weighed against survival. An apprentice to a slaver herself, Flora understands the trade. A subject to fascist regimes, she makes allowances and avoids conflict as a way to keep out of trouble. Flora would rather live than insist on her principles, while Etta is ready to die on every hill she climbs.

I began as a writer, as a woman, as a person in that idealistic mode. I wanted to be the guy who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square and said no, things must not go on this way. What my public school education did not show me was the aftermath of that moment: Tank Man was dragged into the crowd by friends who knew it was better to live and fight another day than be flattened into another martyr, another statement, another idealist lost.

I had to face the idea that we need each other, that we are better off rowing together, even arrhythmically and begrudgingly, than we are on our own. We are capable of more if our friends keep us from becoming street pizza beneath fascist tanks.

Etta has to learn that, too, but for her the stakes are higher. Etta is born into a world created out of my terror and dread; a world where the tanks just keep rolling and most people row backwards and we all stop fighting the current.

But Etta’s fight never ends, and her book is just beginning.

—-

The Book of Etta: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Matt Ruff

Books are often turned into television series — but what about stories going to the other direction? As Matt Ruff shows you in this Big Idea for Lovecraft Country, stories intended for one medium sometimes find their full flower in another entirely.

MATT RUFF:

Lovecraft Country started out as a TV series pitch. The big idea was to create a show like The X-Files, in which a recurring cast of characters had weekly paranormal adventures—only instead of being white FBI agents, my protagonists are a black family who own a travel agency in 1950s Chicago. The agency publishes a quarterly magazine, The Safe Negro Travel Guide, that lists and reviews hotels and restaurants open to black customers. (Such travel guides actually existed during the Jim Crow era, and contrary to what you might expect, they were most useful to travelers in the northern and western U.S., where discrimination was just as common as in the south but explicit “Whites Only” signs were rarer.)

My lead character, Atticus Turner, is a 22-year-old Army veteran who works as a field researcher for the Guide. Atticus is also a nerd whose familiarity with genre fiction comes in handy when things start to get weird, as they do: It turns out Atticus is the last living descendant of Titus Braithwhite, an 18th-century wizard and slave trader who founded a cabal called the Order of the Ancient Dawn. Now the modern incarnation of the Order has plans for Atticus.

In addition to occult forces, Atticus and his family have to deal with the more mundane terrors of American racism, such as sundown towns. Lovecraft Country’s title is a nod to this duality of horrors—H.P. Lovecraft being known for both his tales of cosmic dread and his embrace of white supremacy.

While transforming my original idea into a novel, I kept the structure of a season of television. The long opening chapter, like a two-hour pilot, introduces the main characters and sends them on a dangerous cross-country journey. Each subsequent chapter offers a self-contained weird tale—a “monster of the week” episode—starring a different member of Atticus’s extended family. In “Dreams of the Which House,” Atticus’s friend Letitia buys a haunted house in a white neighborhood and has to play the dead off against the living to keep what’s hers. In “Abdullah’s Book,” Atticus’s uncle George enlists his Freemasons’ lodge to stop an ancient treatise on magic from falling into the wrong hands. In “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” Atticus’s aunt discovers a portal to another world. In “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” Letitia’s sister Ruby goes home with the wrong guy and wakes up to find that she’s been turned into a white woman. In “The Narrow House,” a dead man forces Atticus’s father to revisit the 1921 Tulsa race riot. In “Horace and the Devil Doll,” corrupt Chicago police detectives use sorcery to terrorize Atticus’s 12-year-old cousin. All of these episodes fit together to form a larger arc story about Atticus’s struggle against the Braithwhite clan and the Order of the Ancient Dawn.

For me, Lovecraft Country demonstrates the real power of diversity in art. By focusing on people who were traditionally excluded from genre fiction, I’m able to do interesting new things with some very old tropes, while simultaneously exploring aspects of our shared history that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Combining fantasy with realism produces a richer story than would be possible with either alone. And despite being set sixty years in the past, this is easily one of the most topical books I’ve written—though that says less about my skills as an author than it does about the state of the country that I live in.

—-

Lovecraft Country: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jacqueline Carey

Shakespeare is a font of inspiration for writers, not only for the words he put to paper, but for the worlds built around the words. For her new novel Miranda and Caliban, Jacqueline Carey explores the world of The Tempest, one of the bard’s greatest plays. What does she find there? Here she is to tell you.

JACQUELINE CAREY:

In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the action of the entire play unfolds over the course of a single day. But what happened in the twelve years on the island leading up to that day? Why does the magus Prospero keep his daughter Miranda ignorant of her history? Why does he take the supposedly monstrous Caliban under his wing, and keep him there after Caliban attempts to rape Miranda?

Telling the story of those twelve years and answering those questions was my Big Idea.

From the beginning, I had a strong sense that this story ought to be told in the alternating narrative voices of the two characters in whom I was most interested, Miranda and Caliban.  I also wanted to work within the structural confines of Shakespeare’s text, which presented an immediate challenge, as we’re told in The Tempest that Caliban didn’t possess the gift of language until Prospero and Miranda taught it to him. But challenges are interesting things, because they force you to stretch and grow as a writer.

I envisioned my Caliban as we first encounter him not as a grown man, but a “wild boy,” as Miranda calls him; essentially, a feral child born on the island and left to fend for himself after the death of his mother. In the course of researching children raised without human contact, I learned that children who had acquired language skills prior to their isolation were in some cases able to reacquire them.

This, then, determined the arc of my two narrative voices. Over the course of the book, Miranda grows from a precocious, tender-hearted six-year-old girl to a frustrated young woman grappling with adult issues she hasn’t been given the tools to understand, and her voice reflects this evolution. By contrast, Caliban’s voice emerges in a halting and tentative fashion, at first a mere handful of words repeated in a rhythmic manner. At times in The Tempest, he sings ditties to himself and I chose to incorporate that element, giving his evolving narrative voice a singsong quality laced with guttural and susurrant notes, a tendency toward onomatopoeia, and an inconsistent grasp of grammar and tense.

I gave him desire.

I gave him anger, too.

Once you start delving under the surface, there are a lot of ideas to be unpacked in The Tempest. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare was influenced by the essays of Michel de Montaigne, one of the early proponents of the “noble savage” notion of humanity, which provided one motive for Prospero’s academic interest in Caliban, a figure raised without the benefit—or taint—of human civilization.

Speaking of Prospero, the nature of his magic was another one of the greatest challenges this book presented me. Although the magus is a distant, cold and controlling character in my vision, I wanted to offer a genuine depiction of a Renaissance magician, so I immersed myself in the study of Renaissance magic.

That shit is mad complicated, you guys.

And the complex chemistry and detailed mathematical calculations involved in alchemy and astronomy don’t lend themselves to good storytelling, so I chose to focus on the one element of Renaissance magic that offered the most vibrant symbolism—the depiction of specific images representing the decans of the thirty-six degrees of the Zodiac utilized to evoke celestial correspondences.

See what I mean?

But it was a decision that allowed me to give my Miranda greater agency within her own story. I made her an artist, a painter, a keen observer of the natural world, able to translate the image of a slit-eyed goat into a proud-necked horse, of a hissing and coiled serpent into a defiant and foot-trodden dragon.

To what end?

That, she does not know.

Yet.

—-

Miranda and Caliban: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook. View the book trailer here.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

I start this Big Idea for The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley, with a disclosure: I liked the book enough to blurb it (you can see the blurb right there on the cover, above). Why did I like it? Well, as it happens, Kameron’s piece today will go a long way to explain.

KAMERON HURLEY:

Humans are not suited for travel between the stars. We are fleshy bags of delicate meat, able to survive within a limited temperature range, and we are particularly sensitive to the circadian rhythms of our own planet; many of us get depressed, angry, even suicidal, when confined to dark, tight spaces. We require clean air, constant nutrition, and water in abundance. These are not optimal survival characteristics for a species that wants to navigate the extremes of space.

The cold equations can be depressing, but we must also discuss the assumptions that led us to make those equations in the first place before we dismiss our options. To make epic space operas work in the past, many writers have relied on advances in powering dead hunks of metal around in a vacuum, hand-waving the laws of physics as we currently understand them and the limitations of our own bodies and psychology to simply get us where we need to go for the story to start. Kim Stanley Robinson addressed these limitations succinctly in his article, “Our Generations Ships will Sink” and explored the issue in his own novel, Aurora.

But as a speculative fiction writer, I have to reject these limitations. I understand that we need to think beyond what we are now and explore what we could be. Equations, after all, are human constructs. I wanted to write a space opera with a gooey living starship that challenged our ideas of how we could navigate through space – and what we would become in order to do it.

The idea behind my massive generation starships in my space opera, The Stars are Legion, then, required me to research not hunks of dead metal but living, breathing organisms and their ecosystems. I looked at parasites and symbiotic relationships between animals and the bacteria in their guts and the creatures on their skin. I found that life was both horrible and wonderful, with parasites that can change the behavior of hosts and eat them alive, but also parasites that can enable hosts to endure the unendurable.

It was this idea of interconnected systems that I used to develop not dead starships, but living world ships, organisms that contained entire ecologies on their various levels that all worked together to sustain themselves. The ships could live, die, and reproduce. The human passengers, too, were just another part of the system, tied to it as we are tied to earth. They weren’t particularly special, just as we are not particularly noteworthy here on earth. They were simply another part of the whole.

To build that legion of worldships also required an eye toward human failings and psychology. As the purpose of the journey faded into memory and worlds began to die around them, petty wars, insurgencies, and alliances would play out among the survivors. The two warring families at the edge of the legion became the subject of the story, each fighting to take control over a worldship with the power to leave the dying legion to places unknown.

As a trained historian, I often look back at the past and consider what people thought was possible five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years ago. And I cast my net into the future and try and look back at us, now, from the vantage of that future. That’s how I create my worlds, not by looking at what is probable or possible according to our current understanding, but what is considered possible by some far-future generation.

Seeking the unreal and challenging the impossible is one of my greatest delights as an author. I chose speculative fiction because I could create other worlds whose only limits were imposed by my own biases, and failures of imagination. When you have the power to shape worlds, you might as well use it.

—-

The Stars Are Legion: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Stephen H. Provost

It can happen that writing a book of one sort can be the genesis for a book of another sort entirely: Writing a non-fiction book inspired Stephen H. Provost to have a big idea for a fictional tale, one that developed into his new novel Memortality. Here’ he explains how he got from the one to the other.

STEPHEN H. PROVOST:

I’m sure you’ve wondered what it would be like to bring someone back from the dead. Who would you bring back?

And what would happen then?

These questions inspired me to write Memortality, the story of a young woman named Minerva who uses her uncanny memory to reconstruct people’s lives – to literally bring them back from the dead. But there’s a catch: She has to keep remembering them, or they’ll slip back into the afterlife and become lost to her forever.

Minerva discovers her gift when her childhood friend Raven, killed in a car crash fifteen years earlier, suddenly materializes out of a dream. He helps her learn to use her gift – which makes her the target of a top-secret government agency and a rogue operative seeking to use it (and her) for their own purposes.

That’s the Big Idea behind Memortality. I wanted to write a new kind of paranormal adventure without any of the usual suspects: vampires, zombies, werewolves and the like.

It’s a paranormal tale, action/adventure and psychological thriller rolled into one, with a dash of romance thrown in. The concept is pure fantasy, but it was inspired by the real-life stories I’ve been telling for thirty years as a journalist and a writer of historical nonfiction.

Most recently, I wrote a history of my hometown (Fresno Growing Up) in 2015, and a book on the history of U.S. Highway 99 that’s due out in June. As I was working on these projects, I realized my number one goal was to bring the past to life. I was doing much more than reciting dead facts; I wanted to create a form of virtual reality and project it onto the mind’s eye. I wanted my readers to feel as though they were experiencing the events as I described them, through the power of shared memories.

Then it occurred to me: What if someone could literally do that? What if someone had the power to reconstruct the past, to make it tangible, through the power of memory? Such a person would have to have a perfect memory – or as close as you could get to one: an eidetic or “photographic” memory. Then she would need a psychic gift that could re-create the subjects of that memory in the here and now.

That’s how Minerva Rus was born.

As a character, Minerva’s a bit like me: a loner who spent a lot of time in her room as a teenager, reading voraciously and creating her own worlds to explore. I do that now as a writer, so not much has changed – although I do venture out into the sunlight more these days.

But in terms of inspiration, Minerva owes more to my mother than to me. If I could bring anyone back from the dead, she’d be the one. During my own adolescent “dark ages,” she was the one person I could confide in, and she’s still the person I admire most, even though she’s been gone more than 20 years.

Mom was unique. She was unlucky enough to be hit by the polio virus as a teenager, just a year before the vaccine came out. Her doctors put her in an iron lung and gave her a 50-50 chance of living; regardless, they said, she’d never walk again.

But she was determined, even though her entire right side was paralyzed as the result of her illness. Not only did she survive, she managed to climb three flights of stairs every day at UCLA and earn a bachelor’s degree. Then she got married and had a son (yours truly) – something else she wasn’t supposed to be able to do.

Minerva does a lot of things she’s not supposed to do, too. She’s not supposed to be able to raise the dead, but she can. And she’s not supposed to overcome her paralysis, but … well, you’ll find out when you read the book.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to underdogs: to people who don’t fit in with society’s expectations, who are shunted to its margins but who have a unique gift to offer if the rest of the world would just pay attention. I revel in the underdog’s triumphs, whether it be in athletics, in life or in fiction. I grew up reading fantasy, with its reluctant heroes and epic quests, and watching explorers like Kirk and Spock go where no one had gone before. I became absorbed in stories of misunderstood superheroes like the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Spider-Man and the Uncanny X-Men.

In a way, Minerva is very much like one of Charles Xavier’s mutants, trying to master a gift that delivers her from society’s disdain … and gives it another reason to spurn her.

The theme is a familiar one, but it inspired me to explore new possibilities as I wrote. I delved into everything from history to mythology to time travel and the depths of the human mind – a blend that led my publisher to describe Memortality as “a genre-breaking new contemporary fantasy.”

It’s hard to find an original idea these days, especially in a market that thrives on reboots and retreads. But as an explorer, I take that as a challenge: I want every story I write to be new and intriguing. I don’t want the reader to know exactly what’s behind the door before it opens. Mysteries, twists and surprises are part of what makes the journey fun.

I certainly had fun writing Memortality. I trust Minerva had fun living it. I hope you have as much fun reading it.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Lara Elena Donnelly

Difficult times are complicated, not only for themselves but what they do to people — who are themselves complicated even at the best of times. Or so Lara Elena Donnelly might argue, both here in this Big Idea piece, and in her novel Amberlough. Is she correct? Read on for her argument.

LARA ELENA DONNELLY:

Amberlough is not a book filled with characters whose moral conviction burns like a fire. These people aren’t going to end up on the right side of history. They’re criminals and collaborators. They commit a multitude of sins from infidelity to murder.

But are they bad people?

It’s a book set in a socially-diverse and democratically-governed country, but that government is riddled with corruption. Exploitative taxation maintains an unequal economic status quo. A nascent fascist movement promises to end corruption, end unfair taxation. The movement’s only price is social conformity.

Which political option is better? Which is worse?

Ambiguity has been a central theme of Amberlough from its inception. It began life as a short story about a city auditor in love with an emcee, in a city sliding inexorably into the grips of a repressive regime. But even as the newspapers showed fascist flags unfurling from capitol buildings, even as police made violent arrests and the government came down hard on vice, the glittering nightlife roared on. People had a good time, got high, got laid. The story existed in a nebulous area between hedonism and totalitarianism.

But in the first draft, the main characters fell utterly flat. Their straightforward love story felt unrealistic in that setting. In the next draft—the one that sold; my first published piece of fiction!—I realized they couldn’t approach their relationship so simply.

Relationships are not easy under the best of circumstances—that had been driven home to me pretty hard during the time I was revising. But when you’re trying to stay in the closet so a fascist mob won’t tear you apart, when you’re fleeing your home to save your life, when you’re separated from your lover by sinister forces beyond your control, how could you love easily? How could you love unconditionally? How could you love at all?

When I asked those questions, lines blurred. Love became awkward, unwanted, an inconvenience, a trap. The story was still a romance, but the “happily ever after” was called into serious question.

The origins of Amberlough stemmed from another short story, too (I was thinking of writing a series.): a theatrical manager turned informant, trying to protect his cast of satirists, queer folk, women, dissidents, and weirdos by selling out other people, earning the goodwill of evil men and another day of dubious safety.

That short didn’t work. The scope was too large to fit into 10,000 words or less. And part of what made it so big was multifaceted reactions from a cast of characters in the midst of an intricate political situation.

Emotional complexity is completely doable in short fiction—in fact, it’s vital. But when emotional complexity is built on events years in the making, when it’s reliant on shifting public opinion and government policy, when it’s extrapolated from characters’ various reactions to those shifts, you need room to flesh it out. The  book got bigger and the spectrum between black and white blurred further to accommodate even more gray.

No one is morally pure in this book. Blackmailed into a corner, secret agent Cyril DePaul turns into a fascist collaborator, sacrificing thousands of lives for his own, and for the slim hope he can save his lover, cabaret emcee Aristide Makricosta.

Aristide, who has hauled himself out of bitter rural destitution on a ladder of sex and ruthlessness, is a blackmarket kingpin who sells drugs, arms, and stolen goods. He’s a man who has finally created an identity for himself that fits, even if he’s done it on the backs of others. He’s a man who will help just about anybody in a tight spot, but never out of the goodness of his heart. Except for Cyril, and maybe Cordelia Lehane.

Stripper and small-time drug dealer, Cordelia doesn’t double-deal and she doesn’t play puppet master. But she breaks hearts and she hurts people who love her. Her mother died of an overdose but she sells narcotics to pay rent. Initially, she’s complicit in Cyril’s collaboration, until the consequences of the new regime strike her personally.

Everyone has good intentions; they all end up hurt. Everyone is selfish, but only because they value their lives and the lives of people they love.

Part of me is ashamed that my view of humans is so cynical: that this tangle of secrets, confusion, and crossed purposes feels more vital, more genuine to me than a short story about true love conquering adversity. But another part of me revels in the messiness of people and their contradictions. We can love someone who hurts us, or hurt someone we love. Sometimes in seeking to do good, we do great evil, or vice versa. We are strange and imperfect and fascinating creatures, and fiction is richer when it explores our ambiguities.

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

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