The Big Idea: Beth Cato

The Earth trembles as Beth Cato appears to talk about her new novel, Breath of Earth! No, seriously, it’s got earthquakes in it — and they’re a big part of the story.

BETH CATO:

As a native Californian, it’s only right that one of my earliest memories is of an earthquake.

I was three-years-old when a devastating earthquake struck Coalinga, about 45-minutes away from my home. As luck would have it, I was in the bathtub. I carry a profound memory of terror as water began to slosh sideways out of the tub without me even moving. I screamed. My mom scooped me up to save me.

A few days later, we drove out to Coalinga to view the destruction firsthand. We weren’t simply playing tourist; my mom used to live there, and my grandparents were driving away from a visit to the town when the quake struck. We saw street after street of buildings with walls sloughed away, exposing the interiors like dollhouses. It was horrible (especially for my mom), but I found it fascinating.

I grew up practicing earthquake drills in school. At home, I learned that if I suspected an earthquake was happening, I should look to the ceiling lamps to see if they swayed. That’s how my family verified that we felt an earthquake in October 1989. We soon found out that the epicenter was in San Francisco, a solid three-hour drive away.

Therefore, it only feels right that my first novel set in California is all about earthquakes. My heroine, Ingrid, is a secretary who is secretly a powerful geomancer. She lives in a world with a vastly different history than ours: the American Civil War ended early due to a Union partnership with the airship-powered might of Japan. They formed an alliance called the Unified Pacific, and as my book opens in April 1906, their combined forces are at war with China.

For Ingrid, earthquakes are not something to fear; they are something to harvest. Geomancers pull in the energy of the earth before it can damage buildings or people. They act as a buffer—but at a cost. Human bodies take in earth magic as heat, and in a major earthquake, the fever can overcome them in minutes. They stay alive by breaking contact with the ground or by immediately transferring the energy to a rare crystal called kermanite. Charged kermanite is what powers autocars, flashlights, even airships. Geomancers are the source of economic and military prosperity.

Women aren’t supposed to inherit geomancy, and Ingrid’s capacity to hold and wield energy is unlike that of anyone else. She is a woman of color, possessing a skill that she dare not reveal, and she bristles at her subservient place in society. She is privately delighted when earthquakes happen–those are brief moments when she knows she is her true, powerful self.

There is a lot of symbolism built into Ingrid and her relationship with both her own power and society at large, but for me there is some personal wish fulfillment there, too. Ingrid can stop earthquakes before damage occurs.

During my childhood in California, I didn’t live in terror of earthquakes as some people do, but I was keenly aware of their destructive might. I had seen it with my own eyes, at a very early age. I still pay attention to the occasional sensational headlines about when the next “Big One” will occur. I worry about my family in my hometown of Hanford, and friends who live across the state.

For all of our modern knowledge of earth science, earthquakes are still a mystical, wild force. For me, the desire to form a magic system, to make earthquakes a controllable entity, doesn’t feel like a stretch of the imagination. It’s something that I wish were real so that I could keep my own loved ones safe.

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Breath of Earth: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kate Milford

The War of 1812 is back! Sort of! In The Left-Handed Fate, author Kate Milford uses that little-remembered war as a backdrop for her story, and her musings on the nature of justice, particularly from the perspective of younger readers.

KATE MILFORD:

Writing about war for kids is difficult, and probably every book that attempts it is difficult in its own unique way. My newest book, The Left-Handed Fate, launches today. It’s a nautical fantasy set during the War of 1812, a time period I chose because it made sense for what I wanted to do (write a fantasy with ships in an era when kids in nautical families could go to sea and get up to adventures at very young ages), not because I was super-excited about writing a story about war. I knew that tackling the realities of children in wartime was going to be a challenge, but in the end it wasn’t a matter of the violence, or the convoluted economics and politics that kept Europe and the Americas at war for decades that made it so. It was the problem of treason and justice.

Kids have finely calibrated senses of justice. It’s one of the ways in which they make sense of the world, society, relationships, and basic interactions. Fairness is one of the laws of the universe–until, of course, they learn that it totally isn’t a law of anything. They also have sensitive rightness meters–another apparent law of the universe when you’re small is that in any altercation between two parties, there will be one party who’s right, and one party who’s wrong. These two beliefs–the belief that in most situations there’s a right side and a wrong side, and that fairness and justice should determine which side is which–persist to some degree or another throughout adolescence and sometimes deep into adulthood. And there’s a third thing that kids believe that sometimes they don’t grow out of quickly enough: the idea of being at the center of things. When you’re a kid, the most natural thing to assume is that that things are about you, or sometimes about things you identify with.

The biggest challenge of this book was to overturn those three basic, world-defining beliefs of childhood in a way that would still tell a satisfying story to a young reader. Because I have been in enough schools and discussed enough books with enough kids to have heard some variation of, “I understand why it had to be that way, but I didn’t like it” a million times. And in the end, while I think it’s nice to wind up with a book that has Something To Say To Young Audiences, mainly I want my readers to fall in love with the characters and their stories. I want them to love the story I tell. If it makes them think and challenges their worldviews, cool. But I want them to want to share it with their friends.

In LHF, I have three point-of-view characters: a British privateer and the also-British natural philosopher that hired her ship to help him build a weapon, and an American midshipman who’s made prize-captain when the privateer is captured. The entire story depends on the American kid deciding to help his enemies, who are mostly concerned with their ongoing war with the French and not about the conflict with America at all. This despite the fact that America was completely justified in declaring war in 1812. Our grievances were real. The American kid could be forgiven for feeling pretty confident that his side was right and Britain was wrong. And yet, I needed to have him come to the realization that the right choice was to side, for this particular adventure, with his enemies. To decide to risk court-martial and maybe death, but certainly to ruin his barely-begun career in the process.

All of this is a problem because it’s not fair, and because it’s hard to argue with the idea that, in this particular conflict, the American kid’s side is the right side. So my difficulty was how to get across to my readership of mostly elementary- and middle-school kids that frequently there’s more than one right side, that often “fair” is meaningless, and that sometimes even when you’re in the right and justice dictates that you should get your way, sometimes there’s a bigger picture that renders all of that irrelevant. That sometimes it’s not about you.

It was helpful that France at the time had some seriously bad stuff going on. It wasn’t hard to paint the Revolutionary generals and later Napoleon as monstrous and make France the greater evil to justify the American kid’s choices, and there’s some pretty dark moments as the privateer and the philosopher work to convince their captor that even though France is technically an American ally, defeating Napoleon should be everyone’s highest priority. (My editor really wanted me to keep the body count low until I wound up having a character talk about his time fighting in the Vendee during a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands even before the Reign of Terror. I think after that she sort of threw up her hands and gave up.)

But the thing that makes the era of constant warfare that includes both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars relevant today is, I think, the insane nationalism and xenophobia that characterized all sides of these conflicts. So although I needed Bonaparte to represent a kind of offstage megavillain, I really wanted to avoid any dangerous oversimplifications that involved painting the entire country as the enemy. There are too many adults today that can’t wrap their heads around the concept that it’s possible you can’t identify people as evil simply by virtue of nationality; I didn’t want to support the idea that geography makes enemies in a book aimed at kids.

Fortunately, kids can handle both darkness and complexity, which is good because the ultimate solutions to my story problems required both acknowledging the intricacies of the various wars at the time and acknowledging the sometimes very frightening events that made the stakes so high on all sides.

But the truth is, it’s hard to ruffle kids in my target age range. Generally, when I go into schools and talk about my work, neither the convoluted politics nor the occasional carnage shock them. What does throw them for a major loop is being told that the United States fought a war that wasn’t particularly important in the global scheme of things, which it didn’t technically win, and in which it got convincingly trounced by Canada. That messes with them.

The Left-Handed Fate: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Bishop O’Connell

What’s in a place? For The Returned, and its author Bishop O’Connell, quite a lot, indeed.

BISHOP O’CONNELL:

Location as a character.

I travel a lot for my day job and because the jobs tend to be longer term, I get a chance to explore new towns all over the country. There’s something special about that moment when you’re no longer a tourist—though not really a local—and you get to see the real magic of a place. You learn the history, get to know the people, and really, truly get to experience the city. The city, while maybe not “your” city, becomes something more; it almost becomes a person. You see the city for all it is, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But hopefully, it’s a place where the complexity and contradictions add to the beauty of it. This is something I worked hard to include in all the books of my American Faerie Tale series. The location of every book wasn’t just randomly chosen. Each was a place I felt I knew well enough to bring it to life on the page and give readers a sense of its complicated beauty.

The Stolen was set in and around Boston. Yes, the book is heavy on Irish myth and legend, which made Boston a perfect choice, but I wanted more than that. The city is old, and has a long history, on both sides of the Revolutionary war. Moreover, the layout of the city hasn’t changed much in that time, which I’m told is one of the reasons traffic is so bad in the city. And it is bad. Really bad. So bad in fact that I invented a magical means of travel to deal with it. For the book I mean, not in real life…or do I?

The second book, The Forgotten, takes places mostly in Seattle. One of the main characters in the book is a homeless teen, and Seattle, unfortunately, has more than its share. However, and to its credit, it’s also one of the better cities helping their homeless kids. I love that it’s called The Emerald City—because of the greenery—but I like to imagine maybe it’s a destination for the hopeful trying to find home. The underground (the original ground floor of the city before it sank) plays an important part in the story, as does one of my favorite fixtures in the city: The Freemont Troll. The troll is a massive concrete sculpture under a bridge, but I write faerie tales, so he’s a real troll in my book. Three Promises, book three (I call it book 2.5) is a short story collection and has pieces in both Seattle and Boston.

For The Returned, I knew the city I wanted to use even before I started writing: New Orleans. I love New Orleans, as long as it isn’t August. Or July. Or, well, summer. The city has a long and storied history. It’s seen oppression, tragedy, violence, disasters (natural and man-made), poverty, injustice, pain, and grief. But the city has a visceral joy to it, a love of life you don’t see in many other places. Maybe all the tragedy has taught New Orleanians (Yats) to appreciate life, or maybe they live so fully to spite all the pain and heartache. I don’t know, and I imagine you’ll get different answers if you ask. Everyone knows about the amazing food and drink you’ll find, but there is so much more. The French Quarter is a tourist haven—locals go to Frenchman Street for live music—but because of the tourists, the street performers gather there, and they are impressive. You’ll find magicians, jugglers, performance artists of all sorts, and musicians. The musicians are incredible. The music you hear for free as you walk the quarter is often better than you’ll pay to listen to in other cities. New Orleans has passion, and life.

Which is what makes their strong connection to death so ironic. New Orleans funerals are a thing to see. The procession to the cemetery is a somber dirge, expressing the grief of the family. But once people have said their goodbyes, the music changes tempo. The belief being that the happiness and joy will release the spirit of the deceased to move on. Then of course there are zombies. No, these aren’t the shuffling, moaning corpses with a penchant for brains that have become so popular. This is the original mythology, imported from Haiti. Zombies have been done to death (ba-dum, ching) in their current pop culture form, so what better place than New Orleans to resurrect (last one, I promise) the old stories? There’s also voodoo/vodun, which just about everyone knows about (albeit a TV/Movie version). But not many people know that New Orleans (and Louisiana) has stories of rougarou, the Acadian version of the French loupgarou, as in werewolves.

Excellent food, a love of drink (the Irish in me approves), great music everywhere you turn (including funerals), plus zombies, voodoo, and werewolves? AND you get all the people of the city, a huge cast of potential characters to choose from. How do you not write a story set here?

Sure, the location can provide ambiance, and potential characters, but it also gives my characters a new way to shine. Like any good character should, the location pushes my existing characters. It drops them in new and unfamiliar situations, forcing them to grow and learn, to find the familiar and build on that, or fail miserably (which they sometimes do). Perhaps most importantly though, I find that using locations as characters shows the inherent connection between us all; Red Sox and Yankees fans notwithstanding. It gives the reader another way to connect with the story, another way in.

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The Returned: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iTunes|Kobo

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The Big Idea: Caroline M. Yoachim

In the writing and collecting of the stories which comprise Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World, author Caroline M. Yoachim discovered the thread that runs through them. What’s the thread and how does it weave into each of the tales? Yoachim is here to explain.

CAROLINE M. YOACHIM:

When I was putting together Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, I noticed something about my short fiction: I write a lot of stories about brains. Not so much the neurons inside our skulls (although there’s certainly some of that), but an examination of what our brains do–the nuances of consciousness, the nature of the human mind.

In Philosophy there’s a thought experiment called Theseus’ paradox that asks: If you replace the boards of a ship one at a time until every board has been replaced, is it still the same ship? It’s a fascinating question because it gets at the nature of identity. What makes something the same ship–are the individual boards important? Does the rate at which boards are replaced matter?

It’s a fun problem to think about in the context of ships, but where it gets really interesting for me is when the thought experiment is applied to people. If a person replaces their body bit by bit, until every cell has been replaced, are they still the same person?

I love writing short stories because you can explore an idea from lots of different angles. What is the nature of human identity? There’s no simple answer to that, so my goal has been to revisit the question in a variety of ways. With science fiction I can deal explicitly with Theseus’ paradox. Several of my stories involve characters whose bodies are replaced, either entirely or only partially. In other stories, my characters abandon their biological bodies entirely or merge their minds into a collective consciousness. At what point do we draw the line and say ‘this is no longer the same person’ or even ‘this is no longer a human at all’?

I draw a lot of inspiration from my academic background in Developmental Psychology. Infants and young children change rapidly as they learn new skills and gain a better understanding of the world around them. I don’t have much in common with my 3-year-old self–the way I think about the world is different, I’m a different size, a different shape. Over the years, most of my cells have been replaced. But despite all that there is a continuity to my existence: all these changes have been gradual, so from one day to the next I am the largely the same person. Three-year-old me was similar to 4-year-old me, 4-year-old me was similar to 5-year-old me, and so on for over three decades…a continuous chain leading up to the version of me that is writing this essay–an essay that my 3-year-old self wouldn’t have been able to read or understand.

In my short stories I try to capture this interplay between continuity and change. When I’m writing fantasy, I often make my characters undergo drastic transformations–a girl made of bamboo rebuilds herself with driftwood, a sugar clown is dissolved in a cauldron and regrown from a seed crystal, a Lovecraftian fish-frog mermaid becomes a beautiful human. Writing about these kinds of transformations has been another way for me to explore what is (and isn’t) important to who we are.

The nature of identity is something that’s important to me on a personal level, too. I’m mixed race, and that’s an aspect of my identity that I’ve struggled with for a long time. Being half Japanese and half white I don’t feel like I fully belong to either group. There’s a degree to which I’m constantly reconstructing my identity, like a chameleon trying to blend in with its surroundings. I wrote a fantasy novelette, original to the collection, that tries to capture my longing to find the place where I fit. “On the Pages of a Sketchbook Universe” is set in a fantasy world where some people are made of watercolor paint and others are made out of pencils. I wanted to write a story that examines what happens when someone falls between those two categories, a character who is a blend of both pencils and paint.

I didn’t initially set out to write a themed collection, but the nature of identity is an idea that I return to again and again, often with more questions than answers: What makes us who we are? Is there some essential core that defines us as individuals? How much of ourselves can we replace before we become something entirely new?

 

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Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Brooke Johnson

To finish up your week, here’s Brooke Johnson to tell you about her new novel The Guild Conspiracy, and how, sometimes, you have to fall to rise again.

BROOKE JOHNSON:

When I was writing the first draft of The Brass Giant back in 2011, I thought it was going to be a standalone novel, a nice and neat, one and done foray into the steampunk genre, and then I’d move on to other things. It wasn’t until I got about three-quarters of the way through my outline before I realized that the story I was writing was much bigger than one single book could tell. For the story to be over, my main character would have to emerge victorious against a villain she didn’t yet know existed, against a plot far more sinister than she yet realized. The closer I got to the end, I had to start asking myself the hard questions: How could a naïve teenage girl topple a conspiracy she hadn’t yet discovered? How could she emerge victorious?

The simplest answer? She couldn’t.

So, at the end of The Brass Giant, Petra fails. Horribly.

The trick then was to figure out what happened next. What happens when the hero fails? What happens when it’s the villain who wins? Where does the story go from there?

That was the story I wanted to explore. I just never realized how deeply personal it would become.

Failure is not something we accept easily—especially those of us who do creative work. To fail at something we poured our souls into… it’s scary.

I tried several times to write this book over the last five years, but I never made it more than halfway through a first draft. I was terrified of getting it wrong, of writing something unworthy of the hypothetical paper it might be printed on. I was afraid that whatever meager talent I had poured into the first book was spent and I’d never write another book for the rest of my life. I wondered if I was wasting my time trying. And then other things came up in my life that forced me to stop working on it—an excuse to never discover if my fears were warranted or not, a streak of bad timing that I started to call a curse. I wanted to write this book—I really did—but I was afraid of it. I was afraid of failure. So I abandoned it, hoping I might one day have the courage to try again.

Fast forward to early 2015, months away from The Brass Giant’s traditional debut, and that fear of failure manifested all over again. But not about the impending book release. I was nervous, sure, but I was confident in what I had done with The Brass Giant under the tutelage of Harper Voyager’s editing team, and I was fairly optimistic about how the book would be received.

What scared me was the fact that my contract with Harper Voyager wasn’t for just one book. It was for three. Which meant that I needed to write the sequel. For real, this time.

So I did what any sane person would do: I took my fear of failure and poured it into the book. If  I could write a character moving past her own failures, then maybe I could get over the fear of mine.

So The Guild Conspiracy is about overcoming that failure, with the main character at her worst, a victim of her own hubris, her own naivety. It’s about starting the fight all over again, striking out on an uphill battle despite every last odd being pitted against her. It’s about mistakes and bad choices and trying desperately to make things right, about recognizing when she’s wrong, recognizing her own weaknesses, and trying to do better.

That all came from a place of personal truth, a place of fear and uncertainty in my own career. But like Petra, I was able to face my fears and forge a path ahead, despite not knowing where the journey would take me. Sometimes, that’s all we can do.

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The Guild Conspiracy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | KoboHarperCollins

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The Big Idea: Jay Kristoff

If Jay Kristoff had managed nothing else with this Big Idea piece for his new novel Nevernight, he would have had arguably one of the most grabbing first sentences in the history of the feature. But there’s more to it than the first sentence, promise.

JAY KRISTOFF:

Nevernight started with an argument about vaginas.

More accurately, an argument between two of my lady friends about a particular curse word we use for vaginas. Friend A asserted that the C-bomb was the most offensive curse word in the English language. Friend B’s thesis was that, unless you’re an idiot, vaginas aren’t any more offensive than any other body part, so curse words denoting them shouldn’t be, either.

It was New Year’s Eve. Everyone was quite soused. Friend B won the argument.

. . . Okay, let me back the truck up. Because you might not have even had your morning coffee yet and you probably wandered in here looking for an article on fantasy books, and hey, surprise vaginas.

At this point in the article, I’m supposed to be talking about the big idea behind my new novel, Nevernight. I could talk about the fact that it’s an epic fantasy set in a trinary star system, meaning the world only gets two weeks of night-time every two and half years, and that makes it really hard to construct a narrative starring an anti-hero/rogue archetype, because typically they get up to all their roguery and anti-heroics when it’s dark, and hey, surprise run-on sentence.

I could talk about flipping the switch on the light vs dark trope, and building a world where the folks in white hats aren’t necessarily the good guys. Or I could talk about the big idea behind Nevernight’s setting, which is kinda like Hogwarts, if Hogwarts was a school where, instead of learning magic and the true value of friendship and painfully British stiff-upperlippedness, you learn to murder the shit out of people instead. Writing a school full of neophyte assassins is actually a real pain in the nethers. It’s difficult to keep your characters sympathetic when they’re all training to become the sort of bastards who murder people for money.

But honestly, the big idea in Nevernight is the heroine, Mia. She’s the beating, bleeding heart of the entire book. After the Great 2013 NYE Vajayjay Debate, I went home and wrote a scene about a boy and girl. The boy tried to convince the girl that the C-bomb was the Worst Word Ever, and the girl smoked a cigarette and explained to him why it wasn’t. At the end of that scene, I was fascinated with this girl. I had no idea who she was or what she wanted, and so I built her a world to find out.

It is a world of perpetual sunlight, where Mia’s ability to manipulate darkness isn’t all that useful. It’s a world where Light conquered Dark, a world that illustrates how badly it can turn out when the good guys get what they want. It’s a world of assassins and cats made out of shadowstuff, murder and betrayal and a bit of smut. But ultimately, a fantasy world is just a stage for a story. And this is a story about a girl and her vengeance, and whether the price she pays for the revenge she craves will be worth it in the end.

Mia is the big idea at the heart of Nevernight.

I hope you find her as intriguing as I did.

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Nevernight: Amazon/Barnes&Noble/Indiebound/Powells/Book Depository

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The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas

The irony of Nick Mamatas’ new novel I Am Providence being released during the week in which the World Fantasy Convention got a spate of criticism over some of its program items is so perfect that I wonder if it wasn’t somehow planned. It’s not, I’m sure (probably). But still. Now, how does the latter event fit with the former? Read on below.

NICK MAMATAS:

A not-so-dirty, not-so-secret but still rarely discussed fact of publishing is this: if you’re even a little well known, one day a publisher may call you and ask you to write a novel. Not just any novel either, but a novel based on idea they already have kicking around. Sometimes you’ll get a new name, a new face, like a secret agent or a witness to a mob murder. Other times, they want you for you.

Jeremy Lassen wanted me for me, for a book he could bring to Skyhorse Publishing in New York. And that book was a parodic novel about E. T., with the kids now in their forties and forever traumatized by their encounter with Keys and the government bureaucracy. I’m the same exact age as Elliott, and when people in publishing think traumatized losers, for some I reason I often come to mind. Then the pesky attorneys got involved and that project was killed.

Later that week, Jeremy called me again and meekly suggested, “Uh…Zombies 11?” He knew that idea—undead Frank Sinatra planning a posthumous heist—was stupid as it was leaving his mouth.

Then, a month later, another contact and another idea.

“Hey Nick, how about something like Bimbos of the Death Sun?”, referring to Sharyn McCrumb’s humorous cozy murder mystery set at a science fiction convention.

“Fuuu—” I began.

“Meets True Detective!” Jeremy finished.

“….uiiine. That sounds fine!” It was 2014. Discerning, intelligent people still liked True Detective.

The project, originally called Madness of the Death Sun, was a perfect fit for me. It’s practically a stage of human psychological development: hit middle age and write a mystery novel about one’s workplace in which the most loathsome employee has been brutally murdered, and all one’s co-workers are suspects.  The author makes himself or herself the sleuth! Novelists work alone, but fandom is pretty much a workplace for pros in the field of fantasy and horror. The True Detective angle of course suggested Lovecraft fandom as a niche within a niche, and who is the most hated person in the Lovecraftian world…?

Ah, it’s me. So our poor victim, Panossian, is me. The me that has Armenian parents, not Greek ones. Who grew up in Massachusetts, not New York. Who wrote one failed novel instead of seven semi-successful ones. The me who never got it together, started a family, or found a real job. The me who isn’t so nice and sweet. Panossian is so changed from me that he wasn’t me at all. Hell, I’d slice his face off too.

Now I needed two other main characters—a murderer, and an amateur detective. I was talking to a Lovecraftian friend of mine while working on the book proposal, and asked her if she would like to be “my” killer, or my vengeful friend the sleuth. She said, “Sleuth, of course! I’m all about Law & Order!”  (She meant the TV show, not the sociopolitical-legal system.) So she got a few personality changes and action heroine upgrades—kung fu, green hair, the ability to examine a faceless head on a mortuary slab without vomiting onto it—and was cast. When I was done, she wasn’t herself at all either, but someone new: Colleen Danzig.

All the other attendees of the Summer Tentacular…well, they are made up. Like the disclaimer at the front of novel says, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious, especially you. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” No more pesky lawyers for me!

In the year since the book, now called I Am Providence, was completed, we’ve experienced a fair share of controversies in fandom: the successful movement, which I supported, to eliminate the bust of Lovecraft as the World Fantasy Award and the creation of a far-right literary award that adopted its own version of a Lovecraft bust; a keynote speech widely regarded as Islamophobic at a major Lovecraftian convention; and the continuing dismissal of women writers working in the Lovecraftian mode and pointedly negative reviews of a women-only Lovecraft anthology. Then there was that horrible second season of True Detective.

Also over this past year, several authors have read I Am Providence in manuscript form and, to a person, they’ve all said the same thing about my tour of the murderous underbelly of organized fandom:

“Nick, you were too kind.”

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I Am Providence: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Melissa F. Olson

In today’s Big Idea, Melissa F. Olson considers vampires, not through the lens of sparkly teenagers, but through the one that involves waking, getting coffee, and going on with your life. How does that work, and how does it work in her novel Nightshades? Let’s find out.

MELISSA F. OLSON:

When people learn that I write about vampires, they often assume that I myself wish to be a vampire, or believe them to be real. At the very least, they take it for granted that I of course must love vampires. All of those suppositions, however, are wrong. What I really love is a dark, exciting, preferably gothic, thought experiment.

That’s what the concept of vampires is to me, and you can blame Bram Stoker for that. I don’t love Dracula—by now, the Victorian techno-thriller is much too dated, to the point of being practically alien in its depictions of human behavior —but like so many others I am fascinated by it.  I think of Stoker as the Dan Brown of his day: a mediocre (at best) writer who stumbled on an idea that was so universally gripping that it achieved literary near-immortality just by its creation. Parasites are interesting. Immortality is interesting. Putting the two together? Practically irresistible.  Stoker may not have been a legendary writer, but he was savvy enough to recognize a legendary idea when he saw one.

Still, the fact that Stoker wasn’t the world’s greatest writer has had interesting repercussions. As Neil Gaiman put it in his introduction to Leslie Klinger’s annotated edition of Dracula, “I suspect the reasons why Dracula lives on, why it succeeds as art, why it lends itself to annotation and to elaboration are paradoxically because of its weaknesses as a novel.”

In other words, by creating a novel that lacks clarity of plot and mythology, Bram Stoker created a “what if” playground that many writers just can’t resist visiting.  What if there was a creature that never aged, and that fed on human blood? What would the creature look like? How would he interact with humans? What would he feel toward them? How would they react to him?

These questions correlate nicely with my own personal guiding principle of writing fantasy, the mantra I chant whenever the geeky part of my brain starts running off on what would be super cool. Okay, I say to myself, but how would this really work?

If vampires were real (and no, I don’t believe that they are), how would that actually work?

This thought experiment is where I have spent the last five years of my life, writing the Old World series for 47North. A few years ago, however, a new thought occurred to me: what if vampires were real…and nobody really cared?

Oh, they might care in theory, at least for a little while. But I really do believe that if the government captured a “live” vampire tomorrow, there would be a month of social media uproar, and then everyone would just go back to their lives.

Because, you see, that’s what we do. We find out that an earthquake has devastated a country on the other side of the world, or the Hugos are rigged or Donald Trump is running for president, and we have a brief period of outrage (which is like a period of mourning but with more Facebook feuds), and then we go back to putting one foot in front of the other. One day in front of the other. Until the next outrage erupts, and the cycle continues.

But not for everyone.

In Nightshades, a “shade” is a vampire-like creature with preternatural strength, a need for human blood, and saliva that causes intense hypnosis in humans. A few years before the book’s events, a shade was captured alive in Washington DC. There was a public panic, and the director of the FBI created an offshoot agency, the Bureau of Preternatural Investigations, in order to appease the frightened citizens.

A little time passed, no more shades surface, and the uproar began to die down. Most of the world’s population simply went back to their lives, while Congress struggled to determine whether the captured shade is considered a citizen or not. In short, we all absorbed the new normal and moved on.

Except for those government agents who suddenly find themselves dealing with a new species and an apathetic public. When a shade near Chicago starts aggressively kidnapping teenagers, those agents who have to figure out how to handle the crisis, even after everyone else has moved on to the next thing. And the understaffed, uninformed, and desperately overmatched Bureau of Preternatural Investigations has to figure out how to hand a brave new world that the general public would sooner pretend not to see.

Nightshades isn’t about a hidden world, and it isn’t about a well-oiled machine of an agency that can confidently address supernatural threats. It’s about the moments right after vampires are first discovered, and how the new agent in charge of Chicago has to think outside of the box to handle it. I wrote it not because I love vampires, or think they’re sparkly and romantic, but because, damn, I am still having a great time in Bram Stoker’s playground of what-ifs.

—-

Nightshades: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBook|Google Play|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: David D. Levine

When Hugo-winning writer David D. Levine went looking for inspiration for his debut novel Arabella of Mars, he chose from some eclectic sources, from a Grand Master of fantasy to one of the most acclaimed nautical novelists of all time. How does it all fit together? Levine is here to tell you.

DAVID D LEVINE:

My first published novel, Arabella of Mars, has been incubating for a long, long time. I started writing it in 2011, finished it in 2013, sold it in 2014, and now it’s finally coming out in 2016… but the Big Idea for it came even earlier. It started with a throwaway line in Gene Wolfe’s The Urth of the New Sun, in which the narrator Severian voyages on a spaceship which is described as having masts and sails. To go out on deck one must don a “cloak of air” against the vacuum, and one sailor cannot hear anything said by another unless the two come so close that their cloaks touch. “I have heard it said,” Severian writes, “that if it were not thus, the roaring of the suns would deafen the universe.”

I probably read Urth of the New Sun when it first came out (1987), and that line just stuck in my head. When I started writing short stories in 1999, after a long hiatus from writing fiction, that line was one of the ones I put in my idea file, where it simmered at the back of my mind’s stove for another ten years or so. The main worldbuilding implication of that idea was plain from the beginning: if the sky were full of air, one could travel to other planets by sailing ship. Space travel without modern technology is an idea I love (I explored it in my short story “Ukaliq and the Great Hunt”) and I was sure I could build a great world on it. But how to turn that idea into a story?

The first approach I had to the idea was to ask: if the sky were full of air, how would humanity have discovered this? After some thought — and, again, considering that Gene Wolfe quote — I figured that it would likely have been discovered during the Age of Enlightenment, with Franklin or Newton noticing an inexplicable, pervasive vibration spoiling his experiments and this leading to the discovery of the “roaring of the suns.” But this wasn’t much of a story in itself — it was backstory at best.

Having begun with the idea of the Age of Enlightenment, I kept thinking about this story as an alternate history. If space travel by sail were possible, it would have become commonplace in the age of sail, and of course humanity would have colonized the planets — which would, of course, be inhabited. Pretty soon I came up with the idea of a troupe of players in the 1700s, traveling to Mars and Venus to entertain the troops in the wars of the era. But, again, this wasn’t quite a story.

While I searched for a story, I was also noodling about the science and technology of this alternate world. At first I thought that I would be able to make just one change — filling the solar system with air — and have the rest be hard SF, with real physics. Well, that turned out not to be possible. For one thing, air isn’t really that transparent; consider how red the sun looks when viewed through only a few miles of the stuff (at the horizon, as opposed to overhead). If there were eight light-minutes of air between here and the Sun, you wouldn’t see more than a dull red glow in that direction. For another thing, there’s the pesky problem of the distances involved being too vast to travel in any reasonable amount of time at sailing-ship speeds. So I fudged: the “interplanetary atmosphere” is something that’s breathable but far more transparent than air, and the size of the solar system is considerably smaller. I also had to tweak the value of G and some other basic physical constants. Wherever possible, though, I used real physics and real technology, and I worked out how to launch and navigate in three dimensions and zero gravity in way too much detail.

During the years when all this was going on in my head, I fell in love with the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian and decided that the Napoleonic Wars were just the thing for drama, excitement, and high stakes. Furthermore, I decided that the main character had to be a girl who dressed as a boy to join the crew of an interplanetary clipper ship. Why a girl? Because women have more problems to overcome than men, which makes them more interesting protagonists. Why dressed as a boy? To interrogate the sexism that means women have more problems to overcome than men! I knew from the start that Arabella — unusually for me, her name was Arabella from the beginning and I never considered changing it — would be a Patrick O’Brian girl fighting against a Jane Austen world.

Eventually, with the help of many friends (thanks especially to Sara Mueller) I figured out why someone in this world would do something that crazy, and then I wrote it all down, and then with more help I made it better and got it accepted for publication. And now, after all that work, you can finally read it for yourself. This is only the first of Arabella’s adventures, and beyond that there’s two hundred years of alternate history in this world to explore. I hope you like it!

—-

Arabella of Mars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Bob Proehl

In today’s Big Idea, for the novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds, author Bob Proehl ponders not only the stories that we have to tell, but the stories we choose to tell — and why the difference between those two matters.

BOB PROEHL:

My book, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is about comic book conventions. It’s about a mother and son. It’s also about how stories work. The stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories we consume. What they reveal and what they hide.

For me, it was about explaining myself to my kids, and all the contradictions that implies. I was a fairly new step-dad when I started the book. My kid was eight, a smidge younger than Alex in the book. From the outset, there were things I couldn’t wait to share with him. It was as if I’d been building a library for a kid my whole life. All my comics, my sci fi novels, my records, had new reasons for being. It was only a matter of picking and choosing which ones and when.

Along with this, and less exciting, were decisions about what personal stories I’d share with him, and how, and when. Would I tell him about being an awkward kid who spent more time with books than with people? The bout of depression that stretched through pretty much all of grad school? Dear god, would I tell him how his mom and I actually met?

The stories I chose to tell him, and how I told them, would shape how he saw me, and inform how he saw himself. I could pick a list of my greatest hits, make myself out to be the conquering hero, or the cool step-dad. I could select moments where I struggled, so that when he struggled he’d know I’d been there too, and that it would pass. Ultimately, this is the meta-story we’re telling our kids when we talk about ourselves: this will pass. In telling him who I was and who I’d been, I’d be telling him something about who he was, and who he could be. This is where sharing difficult stories becomes important, if not imperative. Stories are armor, and armor has to be made of stern stuff.

In the book, these two ideas, sharing stories about ourselves and sharing made-up stories, fused together in the narratives Valerie, our other central character, tells her son, Alex. Valerie used to co-star on an X-Files-esque television show opposite Alex’s dad, and each night to help Alex gets to sleep, she recounts the plot of an episode for him. As the book moves forward, we begin to see what’s really going on. Valerie is carefully choosing the plots, tweaking and adapting them so they carry her own story as well, all of it building toward the reveal of the story she’s been holding back, handed over the moment she knows he needs it. The moment she has to send him out into the world armored in it.

Sharing the stories that were important to us as kids with our kids has that kind of intense biographical component, too. These stories become essential parts of ourselves, reverse-transcripted into our mental and emotional DNA. They’re also a direct line back to who we were then, when we needed these stories to get through being a kid. We can see the weird but familiar reflections of ourselves as kids still shimmering in them, and can show that reflection to our own kids.

When I read aloud to my kid (or try to) from young Wart’s learning troubles in The Once and Future King, or give him a stack of Superman comics, I’m telling him something important about myself. There was a time when I needed these, and I found them. Here they are, in case you need them.

—-

A Hundred Thousand Worlds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Rob Boffard

In today’s Big Idea, author Rob Boffard explains how a quartet of animated Testudines inspired him for his novel Tracer. And what, pray tell, is a Testudinata? Just you wait.

ROB BOFFARD:

It all started with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I’m thirty-one now, and for the past twenty-five years or so, the Turtles have been my heroes. Why wouldn’t they be? The world as I know it is confusing, exasperating and frequently ridiculous, but the Turtles are as straightforward as they come. Even now, when they’ve become an object of nostalgia under the withering gaze of Michael Bay, I still love them. Raphael, since you ask.

I love them because of what they represent. No matter how chaotic things are, no matter how many interdimensional hazards and weird mutations are thrown at them, they’re still a team. Four dudes, up against the world. They’ve each got their own personalities and quirks, but at the end of every episode, they put aside their differences and run a four-way beatdown on Shredder and whichever cackling co-conspirator he’s cooked up that week.

Of the twenty-five years that I’ve loved them, it took me a good twenty-three to work out why. I dug the turtles because I wanted to be a part of their team. I wanted to have my own weapons, my own catchphrases, my own martial arts style. More than anything, I wanted to fight alongside them at the end of each episode, then go back home to our secret base. Screw the fifth Beatle; I wanted to be the fifth Turtle.

Sadly, nobody has invented a radioactive mutagen to turn me into one, so I’m stuck being a regular, pink, squishy, bipedal hominid. But the more I thought about this, the more I realised that the stories I was drawn to my childhood all involved teams. G.I. Joe, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Runaways, Thundercats… Who wouldn’t want to be a part of all that?

When I started thinking about the world of Tracer, that idea was bubbling to the surface – even if I didn’t know yet. I already had my setting: a grimy, rusted, overcrowded, hundred year old space station holding the last of humanity. It was ripe with stories. I could have told the tale of anybody on board – a cop, a plumber, a ship pilot, a politician, hell, a tattoo artist. Any one of them would have had an interesting story to tell. But subconsciously, I gravitated towards that idea of a close-knit team.

It came about when I realised that public transport on my station would be shot to shit. There’s no way it’d still be working after a hundred years. And on a station that size, you’d need ways to get packages and messages around, right? You’d need couriers. Before I knew it, I was writing the story of one particular courier and her crew. If I couldn’t be part of a superhero team, I was going to write about one that was just as cool.

Riley’s our hero. She’s the fast one, the woman you go to when you need to get a package from A to B in a very short time. She’s tough, loyal and not afraid to get her hands dirty. Amira is the team’s leader: stoic, disciplined, deadly in a fight. There’s Carver, the team’s gadget guy, goggles plastered firmly on his forehead, bent over his workbench. Then there are The Twins: the wisecracking, pint-sized Yao Shen and her oversized, taciturn buddy Kevin O’Connell. If you’ve matched them to their total equivalence, you’re thinking like I was. (The Twins are Michelangelo, obviously, his wit and his strength parcelled out onto two people.) And of course, they’ve got a secret base – although this being a working space station, it’s nothing more than a tiny, cramped space between the levels.

The Turtles were the inspiration, but that’s where the similarities end. The story I wrote turned out to be nothing like the colourful, cartoony escapades of our heroes in a half shell. There was no villain of the week. My tracers didn’t get to go back home and share a pizza when the job was done. My space station, Outer Earth, turned out to be a very dangerous place, filled with very dangerous people and the story I wrote ended up being an insane, blisteringly-fast, cinematic action epic – more Mad Max than TMNT.

Tracer is just the first book. There are two more, coming in the next couple of months, continuing the sprawling story. I can’t promise that all the members of my team are going to be around at the end of it. But even now, I still think of them as my team, and I still imagine what it would be like to be a part of them. To run with them, and to know that they’ve got my back just like I’ve got theirs.

While I was writing the story, I kept a few scrawled notes and diagrams in a battered old notebook. At that time, I was doing some contract work at a recording studio in London. One day, I had my notebook open on my desk for some reason, and a colleague walked by and spotted it. In particular, he spotted the badly-drawn diagram of my space station, sketched out so I’d have an idea of where things happened. He didn’t know about my book. All he saw was a childish drawing.

“Is that your secret base, then?” He said, in that peculiarly dismissive tone that people have when their imagination has atrophied beyond repair.

Of course, I laughed along with him – he was responsible for my paycheque, after all – and quickly closed my notebook. But I couldn’t help myself from thinking: maybe it is.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Christopher Husberg

Don’t let Christopher Husberg near a wood chipper. Or, as he explains regarding his novel Duskfall, maybe… do?

CHRISTOPHER HUSBERG:

In some ways, I’ve been writing Duskfall my entire life.

Wait, that sounds too grandiose. It’s not like Duskfall is my darling or anything.

…okay, it is in a way, but more like a Frankenstein-y conglomeration of a bunch of little darlings I’ve killed, put through a wood chipper, and stitched back together. Gruesome, but true.

That fact has actually made it tough for me to choose a “big idea” to talk about. I’ve thrown dozens of them into Duskfall over the years, and the book itself seems to outgrow each one as I’ve revised and edited the thing. One idea does stand out, though, and that’s the magic system of Duskfall: psimancy.

There’s a lot to talk about in regards to psimancy—like the fact that it is psionic in nature, has three distinct branches (a telekinetic branch, a telepathic branch, and a prescient branch), and the roots of the magic system are actually based in Quantum Electrodynamics. But the big idea behind the magic system that I’ll focus on today is a bit more personal in nature.

Many of the characters who use psimancy in the Chaos Queen ‘verse require the ingestion of a narcotic to access that power. The narcotic is highly addictive—one of the major costs of using psimancy. The central character of Duskfall, a young woman named Winter, discovers she can access psimancy through the drug. A large part of the plot then revolves around her attempting—and usually failing—to deal with the addiction that threatens to destroy her and her connection to reality. As is the case with just about every addiction, I try to show how Winter’s dependency on faltira not only destroys herself, but her relationships with all of the people she cares about as well.

I’ll get back to the addiction stuff momentarily, but let me switch gears for a sec. There’s a saying in writerdom to “write what you know.” As someone who writes speculative fiction, I’ve always taken this advice with a grain of salt. It can certainly be helpful, and potentially very powerful, to draw from personal experience and emotion when writing, but I also don’t think it’s entirely necessary. And the strange truth is, it seems readers often connect with the things I simply research or conjure out of my own imagination far more than the things I’ve actually experienced.

Being honest, I didn’t even know I was writing a story about addiction until I was partway through the novel. It was one of those things that crept subconsciously into the storytelling, and into Winter’s character in particular. I realized some time later how much all of the addiction stuff I was trying to express in the novel reflected what I and some people very close to me have experienced. Addiction and its consequences have threatened to destroy my own life as well as the lives of a number of loved ones and close friends, and once I realized how much it affected my writing, addiction seemed almost an inevitable, and certainly an integral, part of Duskfall.

You can imagine my surprise when my agent’s first notes about Duskfall focused heavily on how the addiction sequences in the novel didn’t feel genuine or real at all!

I was shocked and a bit bewildered at first, but listening to how my agent described things, I knew he was right. The addiction sequences weren’t working. They were disjointed and shallow. I’d let my subconscious include them without thinking deeply about how they should all work together in the story, and that was a mistake. So, I went to work.

One of the most difficult aspects to handle was the resolution of Winter’s addiction storyline at the end of the novel. It was problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I wanted some kind of denouement for Duskfall while at the same time leaving the addiction storyline some room to expand into later books—quite a bit of room, actually. But the more immediate problem was how I wanted Winter to feel about choosing to take the drug to access psimancy—given the choice between the immense power she could access in taking the drug, and keeping her relationships with her loved ones and her grip on reality intact, what would she choose? Could she find a balance? And what if choosing the drug was the only way to protect those close to her, but made her lose them in the process?

I won’t spoil it, of course, but I think I found a satisfying conclusion.

Writing about personal experiences—especially difficult, profound, and/or emotional ones—is one of the bigger challenges I’ve faced as a writer. Taking specific, personal experiences, and trying to tell them in such a way that they can be universally applied while still feeling uniquely personal…that’s a tough balancing act, but when it works out, the results are pretty incredible.

So I actually do stand by what I said in the beginning. I’ve been writing DF my entire life— but I think that’s pretty normal. The stories we tell, the things we write for others to read and hear, incubate inside us for a lot longer than perhaps we realize. I think that’s really what all stories are, anyway—conglomerations of emotions, experiences, knowledge, imagination, and little darlings we’ve thrown in the wood chipper.

—-

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

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The Big Idea: E. Catherine Tobler

Family. Most of us have them, does that mean we do well with them? Sometimes we don’t — and as E. Catherine Tobler explains in this Big Idea for The Kraken Sea, that can offer an interesting area to explore in writing.

E. CATHERINE TOBLER:

I’ve never been good at family.

My parents divorced when I was three and when I was older, joint custody meant summers spent with my father and his new family—including a brother I saw no need for. Who was this person? These visits were like marches through enemy territory; I never knew exactly where I was, and never managed to make a reliable map. Likewise, my brother thought I was there to capture his space and his father, who I still thought of as my father. Of course he was—even if he never felt like that, because we remained strangers to each other. Family gatherings contained a plethora of cousins who always knew their place and who they were to each other. I was someone from far away, someone from a branch of the family tree that had been severed.

When I started writing The Kraken Sea, it wasn’t my intent to explore family, though I quickly realized I had been doing that from the start with my circus stories (the first of which appeared in Sci Fiction, in 2005).

Still, I’d never told the story of the man who started the circus, the enigmatic and strange Jackson. He’s in the business for the profit, but beneath the greedy exterior, there’s a curious kindness that he won’t readily explain. His story has been glimpsed on a smaller scale in every short circus story I’ve written, but The Kraken Sea is the first place I actually take it apart and explore. The more I look at it, the more I see pieces of my own childhood.

Maybe it’s something a lot of people do—waiting for your proper family to show up and carry you away. Maybe plenty of people feel like aliens within their own family and think well this is a mistake, my people will be here for me soon. Maybe it’s something speculative fiction writers do more than most.

I’ve always known Jackson was separated from his birth family, having been left on the steps of an orphanage as an infant. The priests and nuns did not hesitate to take him in, despite all evidence that he was Not Quite Right. The priests were certain with the right guidance, Jackson would grow up proper and not at all bizarre. Or evil. Sister Jerome Grace takes a special and specific interest in Jackson: she knows what he cannot, that he is destined for inexplicable things, but that he will also come to make his own family, just as he makes his own fate.

Jackson’s never been very good at family, either. The priests were never fathers to him, and Sister Jerome Grace was never quite a mother. The orphans always maintained an Other quality to them, though for them, Jackson was the outsider. Jackson never wanted to invest in anyone—he likes penny dreadfuls and his personal space because these are both easily defined within the world of the orphanage. Outside those walls, he’s staggered when the whistle of the orphan train feels the same way. Books and my room did the same for me; they gave me a guaranteed place where I knew I could escape, safely.

The Kraken Sea is less about a person finding their place, and more about a person making their place. Of course, this place is never completed, but remains in a constant state of being created. Everywhere Jackson arrives, amid a flurry of new people, there’s a mental map to assemble; there’s territory to navigate and treaties to negotiate. How does he fit, given all he’s stuffed deep under his skin? Metaphorically and not.

How do we fit into the spaces we visit? How do we fit with our families and peers? Are we forever Outsiders, or do we find ways of fitting into circles and society, no matter our perceived strangeness? Or are we forever the child waiting to fly away into lands unknown where our own brother thinks we mean to conquer his people?

It’s no wonder I keep writing circus stories.

—-

The Kraken Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBook|Nook

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

The Big Idea: Curtis C. Chen

Hey! Curtis C. Chen is a former student of mine! And now he has his debut novel, Waypoint Kangaroo! Naturally I take all credit for his success. Now, pay attention while Curtis tells you about his book.

CURTIS C. CHEN:

My debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo exists because of a robot cat from the future. Lemme ‘splain.

Though I grew up in the United States, I was born in Taiwan, and my late paternal grandfather owned a bookshop, so as a young child I had access to a variety of reading materials. One of the book series I discovered and fell in love with as a child was Doraemon, a popular Japanese manga that had been translated into Chinese. It was probably also my first contact with science fiction in book form, and it influenced me pretty deeply.

Oddly enough, Doraemon is still virtually unknown in the Western hemisphere, despite enjoying immense popularity all across Asia since his introduction in 1969–he’s even been called “the Mickey Mouse of Japan.” The good news is, US residents can now watch episodes of the 2005 Doraemon anime on the cable channel Disney XD, where he’s billed as a “Gadget Cat from the Future.”

I won’t get into Doraemon’s backstory here (you can read about that at doraemon.com). The important thing is that Doraemon keeps all his futuristic gadgets in a “4th Dimensional Secret Gadget Pocket,” a pouch built into his belly–and that was the inspiration for my character Kangaroo’s superpower, which he simply calls “the pocket.”

However, since my goal was to write a spy novel for grown-ups, not a comic strip targeted at pre-teen children, I wanted to be more rigorous in terms of how Kangaroo’s pocket works and what its limitations are. I wanted his superpower to be internally consistent and to generally adhere to the laws of physics as we understand them today.

I also didn’t want the pocket to be useful in every situation, which meant coming up with very clear rules for when and how Kangaroo could use it. My friends and fellow writers helped me think through those issues by asking many questions of the “Can he do X? What if he does Y? Why wouldn’t he do Z?” variety.

Here are the basics of what I came up with:

  • Kangaroo can open portals to an empty “pocket universe” which is apparently infinite, making it the perfect place to hide just about anything.
  • But that other universe looks like deep space–no air, no light, no heat–so Kangaroo usually opens the pocket with an optional force-field barrier over the portal, to keep the atmosphere from our universe from escaping into the other one. (The barrier is permeable enough that he can push his arm through to deposit or withdraw items.)
  • Kangaroo can only open the pocket in midair, not inside solid objects or liquids, and therefore the portal can only ever be as large as the empty space around him.
  • The portal must always face toward Kangaroo. He can rotate the portal around the object inside, but only by exactly 180 degrees. (This one is a bit tricky to describe; there’s a longer explanation of “Project Backdoor” early in the novel.)
  • Once a portal is open, it’s locked to Kangaroo’s position in space–i.e., if he turns his head, it moves with him.
  • Last but not least, using the pocket gives Kangaroo a “pocket hangover” roughly proportional to how many portals he’s pulled recently and how large each one has been.

Once I had a general idea of what Kangaroo could and couldn’t do with the pocket, I started thinking about “edge cases.” How do I set up situations where the pocket is the only or best way to solve a certain problem, but it’s going to be a challenge for Kangaro to use it in that particular way? And given that he’s not so great at all the other spy stuff–his bosses really only want to use him as a courier–what does he do when things go sideways in the field, and he can’t use the pocket at all for some reason?

I hope you have as much fun reading about Kangaroo’s adventures as I did making them up. And if you don’t see your favorite “stupid pocket trick” in Waypoint Kangaroo, don’t panic–book two is coming soon!

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Yoon Ha Lee

Within the novel Ninefox Gambit is a battle of wits between two very accomplished characters — and making that struggle work was no small task for author Yoon Ha Lee. What’s the secret? Read on!

YOON HA LEE:

Once upon a time, as a young, impressionable Yoon, my boyfriend-now-husband introduced me to BattleTech. One of the parts that fascinated me about BattleTech’s backstory was the bit where the well-respected Genereal Aleksandr Kerensky was so disgusted with his regime that he and six million followers abandoned the Star League to found their own nation. I was impressed by how charismatic Kerensky would have had to be to pull this off.

Fast forward some years, after I’d decided to write a space opera, as one does. I’d been nosing about the TV Tropes website, specifically my favorite pages, Moral Event Horizon, Chessmaster, and Magnificent Bastard. What if I ran Kerensky backwards, I wondered? Take a charismatic, brilliant general–and instead of him being so well-respected that he could secede from an interstellar nation and take six million people with him, make him feared and reviled. Say that he massacred a million people at his last battle: civilians, the enemy army, and his *own* army.  (How’s that for a Moral Event Horizon?) He’s been preserved as an undead tactician for four centuries because he was just that good, and because they think they’ve tamed him–even though no one *still* knows why he did what he did, or if he just went mad and might do so again.

Ta-da! I had my antagonist, General Shuos Jedao.

And then imagine an infantry captain in her mid-twenties with Jedao as her advisor, trying to make use of him in a hardfought space siege while ensuring that he doesn’t betray her and everything she stands for. My protagonist, Kel Cheris, is smart–even brilliant in her own way–but Jedao may be deadlier than all the enemy soldiers she faces.

Sure, I was going to have battle scenes and bloodthirsty science fantasy weapons and so on, but I knew the most important thing would be selling the tense relationship between Jedao and Cheris. From the beginning I constructed them as complements. Jedao is extroverted, persuasive, intuitive, devious.  So Cheris is introverted, self-contained, calculating, honest.  So far, so good?

Not so fast. Both of them were also supposed to be geniuses: Jedao at tactics and psychological warfare, Cheris at math. It’s possible that writing geniuses is easy when one is a genius oneself; I wouldn’t know, because I’m definitely not a genius. (I have since sworn that maybe the next thing I should do is write slapstick comedy about stupid-ass generals, not brilliant tacticians.)

So I cheated.  A lot. One of the first things I did was to reread James Dunnigan & Albert A. Nofi’s Victory and Deceit: Dirty Tricks at War. I wrote down all the stratagems I liked, then tried to shove all of them into the rough draft. (And then there was too much plot so I had to take some of them out.)  And of course, their opponent also had to be smart. I’d learned this from reading Gordon R. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake, a novel I found infuriating because the “tactical genius” mainly geniused by virtue of the opponent being stupid, which I’m sure happens all the time in real life but makes for unsatisfying narrative. Besides all the military reading I did, I also hit up social engineering and security engineering.

But I still wasn’t done. I had to sell Cheris and Jedao as characters. Characterization has always been the part of writing that I find the most difficult. I also had to portray both characters in such a way that Cheris, while outmatched, wouldn’t be totally overwhelmed. I wanted her to be the underdog, but not to have no chance whatsoever! So part of writing her involved setting up her arc so that she grew into a true ally/opponent.

The other thing that gave me difficulty when writing Cheris is that she’s a woman, and I had to be in her head for large chunks of the novel. I’m trans, identifying as male, and while I try to make a point of writing female POVs in my short fiction, it’s not without its cost. Growing up, I got caught writing trans protagonists in my fiction in middle school, and my teacher notified my mother. This was before I had any vocabulary for this stuff, but when my mother made a concerted effort to shove me into skirts and dresses and get me to behave in more conventionally “feminine” ways, I had a hard time dealing. It wasn’t until much later that I felt comfortable coming out even to people very close to me. Even today, spending extended periods of time writing a female POV is painful not because women are evil–I have a twelve-year-old daughter and I would very much like for her to grow up in a world where she has all sorts of great female role models, fictional and real–but because of my own baggage. Writing male POVs is the only place in my life where I get to “be” male, and it’s hard to give that up. So part of writing Cheris involved working through that.

Jedao was a challenge for a different reason. He’s undead, and part of the complication is that he has no body; he pretty much exists as a disembodied voice. So (with a few exceptions) I couldn’t rely on body language, or facial expressions, or any of that. Everything had to come through on the strength of the dialogue. The good part was that Jedao was an astonishingly cooperative, talkative character and I got a clear sense of his personality pretty quickly. The scary part was that once he got going he wouldn’t shut up. And as Cheris discovers, Jedao may be a mass murderer, but that doesn’t automatically mean that his critiques of their government are automatically wrong.

I don’t know if I succeeded in writing a chessmaster (or two, or three), let alone a Magnificent Bastard, but at least the attempt was fun! You’ll have to let me know how I did.

—-

Ninefox Gambit: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBook|Rebellion Store

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The Big Idea: Laura Lam

Book ideas can come from anywhere — but the time they take to get to an author can, well, vary. In the Big Idea for her novel False Hearts, author Laura Lam traces the path of the idea that became to dual hearts of her story.

LAURA LAM:

Sometimes book ideas hit you in a sudden burst of inspiration. You want to yell “Eureka!” even if you’re at your desk in your day job, or in the middle of the aisle while shopping for food. All the pieces tumble into place and you have a plotted book sitting in your head within a couple of hours or a few days. Other times, it seems to come in frustratingly small dribs and drabs: you love this premise or this idea for a character, but you don’t yet know how to work it into a plot and what world it should take place in, so it ends up percolating for a while before finally coalescing into something you can work with.

False Hearts was more the second process. I had the Eureka premise hit me clear on the side of the head and I was really excited by it, but then the idea had to marinate a little. I can pinpoint to the exact moment I had the idea; it was lunchtime on February 25, 2013, less than a month after my first book, Pantomime, had been released. I’d finished the sequel, Shadowplay, and I was slowly working on the third book, Masquerade, even though it didn’t yet have a contract. I figured I should work on something else, too, just in case.  This proved to be a good move, as the imprint of the publisher that released my first books folded a few months later.

That lunchtime, I read this article on io9 by Annalee Newitz about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Daisy and Violet were conjoined at the hip and famous on the vaudeville circuit. They were sadly treated badly by their family and various managers, and their lives were a series of ups and downs. When vaudeville started winding down, they ended up moving into cinema. The article had a clip from Chained for Life, where both twins have to go on trial for a murder one of them committed.

Wham. Book idea: what if your literal other half was accused of murder, and you weren’t entirely sure whether or not they’d done it? How far would you go to find out the truth?

I have identical twin nephews and see how close they are. They fight, sure, but at the end of the day, they are inseparable. I started researching conjoined twins, watching interviews, documentaries, and reading a lot of nonfic. But it took a while to figure out what I should actually do with that idea—what genre, where it should be set, how everything was going to actually fit. In little dribs and drabs, it came together. With each new snippet, I did more research (subjects included futuristic architecture, possible medical advancements, how mobs work, how cults work, neuroscience, how drugs and dreams affect the brain). In the end, I wrote a thriller set in near-future San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area, but moved to Scotland when I was 21, so it was a nice excuse to go home in my imagination for a while.

The San Francisco of False Hearts looks like a utopia at first glance. Poverty is all but erased. There aren’t any major world-scale wars. Health care is free and advanced. Crime seems a thing of the past. The SF bay glows green at night from the algae they farm to bolster the food supply, along with orchard skyscrapers and vat-grown meat. Everyone has ocular and auditory implants, streaming information directly into their cortex. When pent up emotions grow overwhelming, people go to one of the many Zeal Lounges throughout the city, plugging into the drug that lets you exorcise your dark desires in dreams. They come out of the trip refreshed and soporific. A little more tractable. A little easier to control.

The twins in False Hearts, Taema and Tila, were born conjoined at the chest in a cult set where Muir Woods is now. This cult, Mana’s Hearth, has been completely cut off from modern technology, and they essentially live like 1969 summer of love hippies. Like many cults, there’s a sinister undertone. Changing yourself in anyway is considered sacrilege—if you’re ill, you can use some rudimentary herbs, but otherwise you must bow to the will of the Creator.

At sixteen, when their shared heart starts to fail, Taema and Tila do not bow. They run.

In San Francisco, there is a pressure to fit into the narrow confines of what society considers perfection. Thanks to gene therapy and walk-in flesh parlours, people rarely let themselves age. Society has no idea what to do with conjoined twins, and, though the twins don’t really want to, they are pressured into being separated and fitted with mechanical hearts. Over the next ten years, the sisters subtly drift apart.

Then, one night, Tila stumbles into Taema’s house, covered in someone else’s blood. She’s arrested by the first murder from a civilian in decades. It’s all kept out of the papers, and soon Taema is given a proposal: they think her sister was involved with the Ratel, the underground mob of San Francisco that deal in a dangerous new dream drug called Verve. If Taema takes her sister’s identity and works with an undercover detective and finds out what’s going on in the Ratel, then SFPD might let her sister live rather than being thrown into stasis for her crimes.

Taema can’t stand that her sister has kept such a big secret from her. It eats at her. So she follows her sister into the dark underbelly of San Francisco, and ends up realising they didn’t leave their past as far behind as they’d hoped. At first, Taema is sure that her sister was not capable of murder. The father she falls down the rabbit hole, the less sure she is: and if Taema’s sister is capable of murder, what does that say about her?

—-

False Hearts: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Bryon Quertermous

Sometimes you get what you ask for. What then? It’s a question both for Bryon Quertermous and Dominick Prince, the protagonist of his new novel, Riot Load. Quertermous is here to go into slightly more detail about it.

BRYON QUERTERMOUS:

Very rarely am I able to capture the entire Big Idea of a book in the opening sentence, but for my current book, Riot Load, it happened like this:

I was two hours into my thirty-minute lunch break and taking in a baseball game on a stuffy mid-July day in Detroit when it occurred to me that getting everything I ever wanted was the worst thing that could have happened to me.

I finished my first novel when I was 24 and was immediately ready for literary fame and riches to descend upon me. It didn’t matter that I had already blown a number of great opportunities in my life; I was certain I was ready. Luckily for all involved I was the only one who thought that and it took another 13 years for me to sell my first novel.

By that point I was married, had two kids, a stable job, and a decade worth of experiences and connections to draw upon. I genuinely was ready. Had I been published at 24 with that book and tried to write a Big Idea essay then, it almost certainly would have declared myself the voice of my generation and would have been insufferable to a weaponized degree.

Dominick Prince, the main character in Riot Load, is not so lucky.  He was given a book contract and a lot of money before he was ready as a writer and well before he was ready as a person. When I started writing this book, I tried to put myself in his place and figure out what I would have done with more money than common sense and no direction in my life because the one single thing I had been striving for already happened. The answer of course is nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

That doesn’t make for a very good book though so I gave him one more dream he had been harboring: a marriage to his college crush. That’s when things really got going and I found myself working out a lot of issues of my own through Dominick’s adventures. The novel grew out of a short story I wrote years ago about a sperm bank robbery. The story itself was disgusting and when I pitched the idea to my publisher he was rightly concerned about the market potential of a disgusting book. But as I sold him on a new interpretation of the idea, I was also selling myself on it. A sperm bank robbery turned out to be a great forum to talk about my parenting fears and the weight of legacies humans have a tendency to saddle themselves with.

I did not take to being a parent easily. I was selfish and bitter and all-together insufferable about the whole thing. It wasn’t until my third kid I finally grew the hell up and stopped whining about it. But as I was writing about fatherhood with this book and weaving in this idea of having dreams come true too early I found myself also writing a lot about the idea of tying one’s identity to what they do.

Dominick achieved in a year everything he’d hoped to spend a lifetime pursuing and with that he lost who he was as a person. But with a new wife and an impending child he finds himself with the opportunity to recreate himself as a husband and as a father. He’s just as bad at it as I was, but he also has to deal with his wife being a bounty hunter and her family being in the middle of a struggle for control of their fading criminal empire. I had to deal with losing my dream job.

I’d been an editor for almost as long as I’d been a writer and those two pursuits made up the core of my identity so it was no surprise to me that in the space of three months I was hired to run the new crime fiction imprint of a respected publisher and then sold my first novel. I had absolutely no conflict in my life. I was enjoying two great careers, I had an amazing marriage and I was settling in and finally enjoying being a parent. That made the early writing of this book very hard.

The fates took pity on me though and ripped the job away from me after seven months sending me into a spiral of self-pity and anger. Suddenly I had no problem writing, but everything I wrote came out angry. I’m not an angry person I told myself. I’m easy going and optimistic.  But it turned out Dominick was very angry. While I wasn’t looking this character I had created as an avatar for my wasted years had become his own person independent of the autobiographical traits I had created him with.

And he was exactly the right character for me to be writing at that time.

What happens when you achieve your dreams too early? You find new dreams. The same is true if you fail to achieve a dream. Or if your dream morphs into something else. How a dream is achieved is as an important to the identity of a character, or of a real life person, as the dream itself. I’m lucky the pursuit of my dreams has led to success and failure in equal doses on a time frame that I’ve been able to handle. Dominick Prince has not been as lucky.

But his story is far more interesting to read about.

—-

Riot Load: Amazon.com|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Books-A-Million

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

 

The Big Idea: Adam Rakunas

We’re all connected — although perhaps not to the extreme the people in Adam Rakunas‘ new book Like a Boss are. In this Big Idea, Rakunas muses on the costs and benefits of connection… especially if someone wants to disconnect.

ADAM RAKUNAS:

Three years ago, Paul Graham Raven posted a link to an essay by Venkatesh Rao, and it broke me. Rao’s thesis in The American cloud is that the everyday experiences of our lives are dependent on distant industrial-scale processes that might as well be high up in the sky. Flip a light switch, eat an apple, read a book: all of these are the end points of vast networks of raw materials passing through the hands of many, many people until they get to you.

What would happen if they all went on strike?

For the people of Santee Anchorage, the world of Like a Boss, it would be catastrophic. The little agricultural world is an Information Age outpost on the edge of Super Duper Future society. All of the supply lines are so compressed and interdependent that if one person quits, everything collapses overnight. If the woman who runs the local metal fabrication shop closes up, then the delivery company that depends on her parts will have to close when their carburetors fail, which means that the farmers won’t be able to bring their eggplants to town in time for the Baba Ganoush Festival, which means the family that just opened a pita bread bakery will have a pile of rotting product, which means the neighborhood garbage digester will overfill, which means a sudden increase in the rat population, which means a sudden uptick in ratborne meningitis, which brings the already-stretched medical system to its knees, et cetera.

And that’s just one shop. Imagine everyone walking out.

Padma Mehta, the book’s two-fisted labor organizing heroine, knows that there’s a time and place for a strike, and right now is neither. Santee Anchorage is still recovering from the economic disaster of having its space elevator blown up (by Padma, a fact that everyone is more than happy to remind her every chance they get), and, even though the new elevator has been up and running for the past eight months, people are still on edge. The medicine and technology that the citizenry gets in exchange for its industrial sugarcane is running low, and any disruptions to the local economy will empty those stocks.

Padma’s been too busy digging her way out of debt to want to do anything about it, though. She’s got what she’s always wanted: retirement from her gig as a Union recruiter, ownership of the Old Windswept Rum Distillery, and a life free of people bringing their troubles to her and expecting her to Do Something About it. She did that for long enough, and where did it get her? On the hook for blowing up the space elevator, that’s what. If the Union can’t do anything about fixing Santee’s current mess, then why should she bother?

Because it will get her out of debt, of course. That’s the deal the Union President offers if Padma can head off the looming strike. Everyone’s pissed off, everyone want someone to Do Something About It, and Padma’s just the person with the knowledge, the charm, and the ready right hook to get it done. Will she stop the strike in time?

No. Oh, God, no. Not even close. But you’ll have a hell of a time finding out how.

—-

Like a Boss: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s|Mysterious Galaxy|Elliott Bay Book Company|Kobo

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

Mehta’s former employer.

The Big Idea: Shannon Page

My personal path to publication, in terms of novel writing, was to post my novel on this blog, where it was read by an editor, who made me an offer. Is this the usual way it’s done? No. But is it wholly unusual? Well, as it turns out, there are a lot of ways to be published. Editor Shannon Page has assembled some of these way in her non-fiction anthology The Usual Path to Publication.

SHANNON PAGE:

I love writing workshops. I mean, sure, the internet is great and all, but the way I really learned about how the writing world works—not to mention how I made every writer friend I have—was by going to workshops, as well as their close cousins, conventions. Putting myself out there where lots of writers congregate, to talk about writing stuff, and everything else.

(I even met my husband at a writing convention. But that’s a different Big Idea.)

Imagine my thrill when I “graduated” from attending workshops to being asked to instruct at workshops. I will be the first to admit that I still have plenty to learn about the craft of writing; and as far as the business goes, I have quite obviously not become a household name, nor made even a small fortune. Even so, it was very encouraging to realize that I have learned a thing or two which newer writers might find useful. It’s a joy and an honor to be able to share that knowledge.

Last summer, I was an instructor at the Cascade Writers Workshop, a Milford-style small-group workshop. Cascade is a wonderful group of people dedicated to bringing writers together, giving newer writers a hand up, welcoming everyone into this great community. At one point during the workshop, all the instructors were gathered together in an open panel where the participants could ask us anything. One intrepid audience member raised their hand with a question about the “usual path to publication.”

It grieves me a bit to admit that we all laughed. In our defense, it was nervous laughter, startled laughter, uncomfortable laughter. And then we proceeded to seriously tackle this frankly impossible question. We spoke about the fact that there are as many answers to that as there are published authors. We told our own stories, both in that panel and for the rest of the weekend.

At some point, I realized, This would make a great anthology.

I shrugged it off at first. I had (still have!) too many projects on my plate already. But the idea wouldn’t let go. I talked to a few people about it. Tor editor Claire Eddy, another of the instructors, told me, “That’s a great idea. I’d buy that book. Everyone would buy that book.” By the end of the workshop, I’d decided to go for it. And this project was born.

Over the next few months, I put out a call to as many authors as I could get hold of, asking them for their unusual, amusing, inspirational, bizarre, even dreadful tales of how they actually got published. And, amazingly, so many of them responded. I got a little shiver of delight every time I opened my email to find another submission. The stories are great—charming, funny, painful, inspirational. There are missed connections, dead agents and editors, serendipity, technology woes, ignored advice, and deeply altered expectations. Most of all, there is persistence. If one thread unites all the essays I gathered, it is that these are people who did not give up.

As I began compiling the essays into a book, a second thread became clear: breaking in is only the start of the adventure. As the publishing landscape continues to change, seemingly faster all the time, once-comfortably established writers are having to adapt, often dramatically. Series get canceled, publishing houses merge or vanish altogether, agents and editors quit the business or move to other houses.

And then there is the bold (and terrifying, and exciting) new world of self-publishing. A few of my authors have dabbled there; one has jumped in all the way, and is doing far better than she had imagined possible. If there is ever a Usual Path to Publication Volume II, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it brimming with successful self-published writers.

This is not a how-to book. It’s a how-this-person-and-that-person-and-the-other-person-did-it book, twenty-seven times over. Coincidence and luck and timing and the random forces of nature run strong in these stories. I hope readers find them as enjoyable, entertaining, and inspirational as I do!

—-

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The Big Idea: Na’amen Gobert Tilahun

For today’s Big Idea, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun looked at how people like him are imagined to be, and for his novel The Root, how to make positive the qualities that are often perceived by others to be negatives.

NA’AMEN GOBERT TILAHUN:

A lot of the plot ideas in The Root are actually smaller ideas that become bigger and more expansive in the second and third books of the trilogy. Some deal with family or religion or betrayal or all three. I was struggling to decide which to talk about when I realized that with most of them it would difficult if not impossible to avoid spoilers. So I thought back to the ideas that got me writing The Root in the first place, the two ideas I thought were small and the idea that joined them together. In The Root many of the characters get a few scenes from their point of view, but the two main characters are definitely Errikos Sabastian Allan and Lilliana Blackthorn Johns, or Erik and Lil for short. Both of them started as a bare sketch, a broad idea for a character in response to something.

I’ve been a large black man all of my life and I’ve experienced the fear and suspicion that comes along with that. I’ve had people clutch their bags at the sight of me, tell me seats were taken when they were later given away, even cross the street to get away from me. These are just a few of the assumptions of anger and violence that I experience every single day. One day I thought: What if I wrote a black man whose power came from his anger? What if that angry black man was one of the heroes of the story? What if that angry black man was shown to be so much more than his anger? What if he was allowed to be smart and noble and vulnerable and all the things a hero should be? What would that character look like?

For me, it turned out to look like Erik. Writing him proved difficult because we have so much of the experience of a black man in America in common,, but in other aspects we are completely different. I often found myself having to go back and correct the story so that he would act in a way that was about what Erik would do in that situation, not what I would do. I hadn’t anticipated this problem but I should have, because not only was I crafting a character similar to me but also the kind of character I wanted to see more of as a reader. I also had to resist the urge to make him the perfect hero, because I had been so in need of characters like this. I wanted him to be everything to everyone which is impossible. I had to remember I didn’t want an idealized protagonist, I wanted a real one who was nuanced and could allow people to see him as a fully human person, deserving of all the respect that entails.

I’ve never been a black woman but I have spent most of my life around them as mothers, sisters, friends and cousins, as family who I loved and cared for and an intrinsic part of my community. I’ve also seen them called loud, obnoxious, ugly, stupid and far darker things. Black woman are not respected by our society at all, I’ve watched what we say they are in our media, how we erase them from history, how we ignore the things they contribute to society. And I thought: What if the black woman’s very power lay in her voice? What if you could not silence her no matter what? What if by voice I didn’t just focus on physical voice but also on the way she walked in the world, the things she thought were right, and would not be silent about? What if what she wanted more than anything was the truth? What would she do for it?

And so Lil was born. Writing Lil was challenging for different reasons than Erik. Unlike Erik, when the book opens she still has some bit of innocence left, she clings to her belief in certain people. I knew the first book was going to be a hard road for her because seeing someone lose that belief?

It’s rough.

Both of my characters would have hard journeys because they were trying to save two worlds and that’s no easy task. However, Lil’s story had to be even more nuanced than Erik’s because of my lack of personal experience with that identity. I wanted to show the way she’s dismissed as so many women of color are, her intentions misconstrued, her protestations ignored. I wanted to show Lil’s strength, not some mythical black woman strength that meant she didn’t get hurt or could take more punishment because of her black womanhood, but the strength in knowing what she was doing was right. I had to show this without slipping into any of the tropes and horrors that follow the depictions of black women in our society. I didn’t want Lil’s story or pain to feel exotified of exploitative and the stories told and revered in our society encourage us to use women’s pain as window dressing, as something to spice up a tale. Luckily I have my friends to look to, all the black women in my life that counter this message simply by existing and telling their own stories.

Once I had the ideas for both of these characters the rest of the story began to grow out from them. I didn’t have everything worked out yet but I knew that these two characters, all too rare in speculative fiction for being black and queer and three-dimensional, would be the center of the story I was telling. Then around these two ideas/characters developed another big idea like some delicious flaky crust. These two characters, these reactions to real life stereotypes could and would exist between the covers of an adventurous, fantasy story that was not solely focused on their identity.

Maybe that’s why at first I didn’t think of these things as big ideas. First because it was born of all these smaller ideas coming together to form a story and secondly it’s what I’ve always wanted to write. For Lil and Erik, their pasts affect them and influence their decisions as with any good character, but their identities, the colors of their skin, their sexualities are not all that they are by any means. I wanted to see people like me and my friends concerned with surviving, with fighting bad guys, with saving the world, with falling in love, with living through an urban fantasy landscape that all too often didn’t look urban at all.

I sometimes still hesitate to call that a Big Idea because it seems so obvious to me but from a lot of the reactions I’ve gotten – the anger AND the thankfulness it seems like it’s more of a big idea than I ever thought.

—-

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

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