The Big Idea: Kent Davis

History — or possibly, “history” — is not necessarily as done a deal as it seems in retrospect. Or so Kent Davis might suggest, in reference to his latest novel, A Riddle in Ruby: The Changer’s Key.

KENT DAVIS:

History has never been inevitable.

There’s this apocryphal story that Francis Bacon, one of the trailblazers of Western scientific thinking, died in the 1600s of pneumonia after trying investigate the application of snow to preserve flesh, namely that of a dead goose on the side of the road in a snowstorm. I’ve always thought this story was particularly charming, an example of a kind of ferocity of focus that results in amazing scientific and creative discoveries but also losing oneself in the strange corners of video game landscapes.

Here’s the Big Idea. What IF Bacon hadn’t died? What IF he had discovered a way to harness a kind of internal mojo, bend the laws of chemistry, and then convert the solid snow to gaseous vapor, forestalling the pneumonia and discovering in the process that the arcane science of alchemy could be used for all sorts of cool applications and moreover, was REAL?

There would have been ripples.

This new arcane science might have thrust technology forward. Humans using this alchemical magic to perform actual miracles might have had a profound impact on the religious Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s. They might have also created clocklock pistols and astonishing sources of energy and terrifying gearbeasts and cool-as-hell alchemical automatons.

The world of A Riddle in Ruby is one that attempts to weave the pluck and gumption of the early 1700s American Colonies with the anything-is-possible spirit of the beginning of the industrial revolution. Well, with awesome magic. One of the core Big Ideas of the Ruby series is to propose this:

Just because history says things happened one way doesn’t necessarily mean that they had to.

What IF tall tales of the ferocious ball-tailed cats of the western forests were true? What IF there were powerful secret societies that primed the pump of revolution? What IF an audacious, ferocious, precocious kid carried a secret that could change the face of the world?

I tried to weave this question into the characters of A Riddle in Ruby, as well. Ruby Teach is an apprentice thief and daughter of a fake pirate, but her life is not the sum of her chosen discipline or where she comes from. The choices she makes—to try to rescue her father, to preserve her friends, to carve the path of her life—have profound and lasting effects on the world around her.

The thing I love about the intersection of alternate history and kids’ books is that it offers us the possibility that the shape of the world we live in wasn’t inevitable. That the choices that people and societies made in the past have brought them to where they are now. More importantly, that the choices we make do matter, and that what you choose to do now, as a ten year-old on the playground or as a forty year-old at the ballot box (just saying), could have a profound impact on the shape of our world in years to come.

Book 2 of the A Riddle in Ruby series, The Changer’s Key, comes out today. Choose wisely.

—-

The Changer’s Key: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Miriam Libicki

What happens when you stop doing what people expect of you, and start doing what you expect of yourself? Miriam Libicki knows, and she’s here to tell you in this Big Idea about her new book, Toward a Hot Jew.

MIRIAM LIBICKI: 

Toward a Hot Jew is a collection of drawn essays, originally made as self-published zines over the course of ten years. “Drawn Essays” is my own term for a kind of nonfiction comic, where words and images are combined to make a point, but not always with panels, speech balloons, or direct transitions. As the title suggests, these essays look at culture, identity, and racial and gender roles through an American-Israeli-Canadian and very Jewy sensibility. Why did I make this book?

Like a lot of people, I discovered who I wanted to be by experiencing who I never wanted to be. And I started developing my true artistic voice by being immersed in the art I never wanted to make.

My first few months at art school, I thought I had reached the Promised Land. The kids in my painting class would hang out in the studios all night, layering glaze over glaze, bringing twice-life-size canvases to class worthy of renaissance masters (if renaissance masters ever painted themselves being eaten by dogs). I wanted to be a vessel for whatever these creatures could teach me.

My intro painting professor was even more awe-inspiring. She made tiny oil paintings on wood of impressionistically-rendered hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters. I could stare at these paintings for hours. Then she invited us to the opening of her solo show in a downtown gallery. This was it! The Art World!

Half an hour into the opening, I wanted off The Art World forever. My professor had put up an artist’s statement at the entrance, which was nearly as big as all the paintings combined. It was about taking disasters and turning them into kitsch, how the paintings were an implication of our consumerist tendencies, a commentary on how humanity makes our own terror cute. Which was bullshit. Her paintings weren’t cute, and they certainly weren’t kitsch. They were BEAUTIFUL. She did convey the terror, and she clearly got pleasure out of how lovely her tiny paintings were. But apparently The Art World wouldn’t let her say so. She had to be cynically dismissive of her own skill, in favour of the grand anticapitalist statement.

If I had to choose between the art and the artist’s statement, I chose the art. And if low, commercial art was the place where I could sell my art to people without an adjacent statement permitting them to like it (I could put my actual thoughts in text, right in the artwork), I’d take the low road.

I started to let figures from my comix-fan sketchbooks into my paintings. I got comments during critiques like “narrative” and “decorative”, which were not compliments. In third year, I incorporated the memoir comic I was developing into a big tapestry-like graphite drawing, and got the worst crit of my life.

Classmates said they couldn’t even think about the figures because they had big feet and floating hair. Sticking up for me, a girl said, “the crazy thing is, Miriam can paint amazing realistic portraits.” I was flattered, but confused when people started discussing my art going “in two different directions,” with the implication that the comic stuff was the dumb side, unworthy of someone who could paint a skin tone. The question I was left with was, “You seem like such a smart girl. Why do you draw comics?”

I was attracted to comics because I’d always read them. Comics were accessible and egalitarian. I like the idea that the “original” of a comic book is the mass-printed copy, not some fetishized Mona Lisa under glass. I mused in my journal that night, “maybe if I were more skilled I could stick it out, and make everyone love comics in painted form. But maybe that’s not my job? After all, I keep claiming I like comics for their accessibility, and if cartoony pathos is just not accessible to my classmates, maybe I should take a different angle.”

I did take a different angle that semester. I took the people out of my star drawing, and turned it into a monumental triptych in oils. People liked that a lot better. But I just couldn’t stop comicking. Although I could learn from classical and conceptual art, being acceptable to my peers was not where my heart was at.

In senior year, I spent months making a drawn essay about the Israeli soldier as sex object. It was kind of my way to deal with how I still romanticized Israel, after having gone there, served in the army, had a terrible time, and moved to Canada. Dreading crit, I wrote in my journal, “It’s another one of these projects I seem to like to do, that are ambitious, very close to my heart and…… have an element of combativeness.”

That piece ended up being the title essay of my book, the one I’m supposed to be telling you about. I camouflaged its comicky nature. Though the essay comprised twelve pages, divisible by four like a proper zine, I didn’t bind it.  I blew up the drawings at Kinko’s to 4×5 feet, and hung them around the classroom. Not a comic, an installation!

After my final senior crit, I wrote: “It was generally well received. Everyone thought the drawings were very beautiful. I know Canadians shy away from anything socially uncomfortable, and that was part of the reason I really wanted to make the drawings so attractive, to force people to read things they probably wouldn’t otherwise.”

That was, looking back, the final insight that allowed me to make this book, zine by zine, through marriage and kids and more school, over the next ten years. I don’t have to fit in in The Art World. I don’t have to fit in to The Comics Industry, either. I can make what I want, and if the subject is strange, accessibility can be achieved through proceeding with enough beauty, or humour, or pathos that any viewer can find something to hold onto. That’s my hope anyway.

—-

Toward a Hot Jew is available via the Fantagraphics Web site.

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

The Big Idea: J. Lincoln Fenn

Can you get spooked by your own writing? J. Lincoln Fenn was, by what she wrote for her latest novel Dead Souls. What was the cause of the self-inflicted spooking? Read on… if you dare.

J. LINCOLN FENN:

It’s a strange thing to write a story intended to creep people out, but it’s a stranger thing when your novel creeps you out, and the fine line between art imitating life seems to disappear altogether.

Dead Souls is a “Deal with the Devil” story, a trope that began in the 6th century with an unhappy cleric called Theophilus who sold his soul when someone got a promotion he sorely desired (jealous much?). It was a story that, zombie-like, would not die, and went on to inspire Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Benét’s famous short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, heck, even the movie Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny.

What intrigued me about such a well-worn tale was the way in which it paralleled a Buddhist idea called ‘klesha’, which is the way in which a negative thought can lead to negative actions, actions that then unravel your life in unexpected, and irrecoverable ways. The devil can’t just take a soul ad hoc—the protagonist has to create the opening through which the devil can enter.

In Theophilus’ case, it’s pure jealousy. In Dead Souls, Fiona Dunn suffers from anxiety and jealousy, a toxic klesha that makes her suspect her boyfriend is cheating on her, that leads her to a bar to drink her woes away, and settles her on a stool next to a man who claims to be the devil incarnate, Scratch. As an atheist and a career marketer who knows the many ways of manipulating human psyches, of course she doesn’t take him seriously. At least he’s a sympathetic listener. So when he offers her a trade—her soul in exchange for the power to be invisible so she can see what her boyfriend is really up to—I mean what the heck, why not? That Scratch also requires a favor (to be determined later) hardly seems to matter.

Of course it does.

She suffers the hangover of a lifetime when she wakes up the next day and finds that it is, unbelievably, all true, but at least she’s not alone—there’s a support group of fellow ‘dead souls’ who have also sold their souls on a whim, and they meet weekly in a bar converted from an old church. It’s an opportunity to commiserate, and speculate about which violent news items might actually be favors that the devil has called in. Drone strike that killed a family? Murder/suicide of a father and his three children? All possibilities, unnerving reminders that one day they’ll also have to give the devil his due.

After I submitted the manuscript, I watched the news footage following the November 15th Paris attacks that killed 128 people, and learned that a Frenchman whose wife had perished called the terrorists ‘dead souls’ on Facebook. The word choice gave me a shiver. Then came the 2016 shooting in an Orlando nightclub, which was similar to a favor that Scratch had called in. It began to feel like I had struck something a little too close, like that famous Nietzsche quote, “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Then I got a note from my agent saying that, having finished the book weeks ago, she still found herself unable to do [CAN’T TELL YOU, SPOILER] without feeling creeped out.

What the hell did I write?

It’s not that I think I literally conjured the devil—hypothetically if he did exist, there wouldn’t be much need for him to muck about with humanity since we’re quite capable of violence on our own. But it did make me examine my own kleshas, the doors in which hell, especially the kind we create, could enter. I found a smattering of anxiety, and jealousy, and much more than a smattering of fear.

Where did it come from? How much of it was created by a marketer like Fiona, and fostered by the advertising, and the algorithms, and the constant stream of ‘curated’ stories so we will buy, and vote, and see what someone else wants us to? And how often do we exchange a bit of our soul in the form of data, a trade that doesn’t seem like a trade at all because where that data goes, and what it’s used for, is never revealed? A deal that could come back to haunt us one day in unexpected, and potentially unpleasant, ways.

Maybe Shakespeare got it right when he wrote, “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” Maybe we should all be a little more creeped out than we are.

—-

Dead Souls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: K.C. Alexander

This Big Idea by K.C. Alexander, for her new novel Necrotech, packs a punch. And Alexander, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way. Here’s why.

K.C. ALEXANDER:

In his Big Idea about his most recent novel, Jay Kristoff says it began (more or less) with an argument about vaginas. The anecdote is great. The context, on a broader scale, is the story of my life. As it turns out, having—or not having—a vagina informs the names, epithets, expectations and arguments set for me.

I don’t like boxes. And neither does Necrotech’s protagonist—a type of woman whole sub-sections of societally-minded folk remind us don’t and shouldn’t exist.

Riko is a splatter specialist (that’s Tarantino level of gory mess, in case the title wasn’t clear) with all the agency of a man—and in being this, she tests the boundaries of what a woman in a book is supposed to be in this enlightened age of women’s rights. She is not soft. She is not tender. She would prefer to put a boot in your teeth instead of “work it out”, she lacks all maternal instinct, and her flaws are loaded for bear. With all the swag of a street thug, a policy of pleasing herself first, and a piss-poor temperament for emotions, she’s nobody’s idea of a good girlfriend.

She tends to somewhat proudly think of herself as a bad boyfriend.

And she came from a space of deeply engrained social erasure.

I am Necrotech’s Big Idea. Me, and the people like me who are so often told that we can’t, don’t, shouldn’t. That what we are, what we present, is problematic for the greater society. The cause. The fight.

I am a person with a vagina who will not play the game. Whose choices are decried by those who demand I do.

I am a sexuality too straight for queer and too queer for straight.

I am a body too feminine for masculine respect and a mind too masculine for feminine acceptance.

I am caught in a tangled web of expectation. Whose behaviors and needs and identities are policed by a majority—or a very, very loud minority—and who has finally, finally decided that enough is enough. So I wrote about it.

The Riko we meet at the beginning of Necrotech is ten years past that epiphany, street-hardened and gleefully independent. She lives the life she pleases, and she rolls with the decisions she makes. She makes her choices with zero interest in what she is supposed to do.

It’s a lesson fifteen years in the making. A book informed by a lifetime, and wrapped in the trappings of a future I see coming; the bastard hate-child of Transmetropolitan and forward-facing remnants of vintage cyberpunk. It’s grit on grit, a world trapped in its own technology, a city teeming with the vermin of the human population, and busily enacting the terms of its own demise.

Maybe that much is fluff—albeit fluff made from shattered glass and razor blades. Maybe the scope of Necrotech is bigger than one woman, one Idea. Anyone reading it might think that the real Idea is one of humanity’s obsession with technology, with its own limitations, with the need to breed and squat and defile, or that it’s about our need to feel as if every day is an achievement, encouraged by apps that give gold stars every few moments for every step.

If you read Necrotech and think it has nothing to do with this woman-who-acts-like-a-man, that’s okay. There are enough Ideas in the book, in the series as it will be play out, to talk about, think about, embrace or reject.

Maybe you’ll hate Riko, maybe you’ll love her.

Maybe you’ll hate or love me for writing her, this person with a vagina who has been scarred by the expectations of the world she lives in and is giving a giant middle finger to it all.

I know why I started writing this woman who does not care what you think of her. Whatever else the overarching themes, I know why Riko is the heart of it, the voice of it, the eyes seeing it all unfold.

I am Riko—with my snarl in place to warn away any asshole who wants to tell me how I should behave, my finger upraised to everyone who ever told me I was doing it wrong, my heart wrapped in diamondsteel where nobody can reach it to re-program what is mine. Like Riko, I’m not exactly bulletproof, but I can take it with a bloody smile and still come back to kick ass.

My name used to be Karina Cooper. I wrote what was, in so many ways, expected of me. And when I started Necrotech, I defied every expectation. And because I did, it suffered every rejection—until I realized that the ‘me’ that had been cultivated was not the me I was. That I had spent my life thinking I was strong and individual and independent, only to learn that I was so very wrong. And most of all, that the book I’d written wasn’t Karina’s story to tell.

Now my name is K. C. Alexander. Riko may be me incarnate—cranked to 11—but I like to be called Kace.

My problem has always been that I was not womanly enough for the world that demanded I be.

My Big Idea is that it’s a feature, not a bug.

I’m genderqueer. Both and neither. I am feminine and I am masculine, pansexual and nuanced, and I know women like Riko exist. That they should be allowed to exist, encouraged to exist, written with authority and with sincerity by the people who understand what it is to cross the borders laid down so sternly by gendered gatekeepers.

One of Necrotech’s Big Ideas is that we don’t have to be what we are told we are.

I am an unlikable heroine. An aggressive protagonist. An irredeemable hero.

We exist. We have stories to tell.

Enjoy the bloody gonzo ride.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Tom Crosshill

Speaking as a nerd who took two years of dance in high school, this Big Idea piece by Tom Crosshill, about his novel, The Cat King of Havana, speaks to me. Read on to find out why.

TOM CROSSHILL:

My YA novel The Cat King of Havana is a tale of salsa, lolcats, and revolution. There’s the Cuban secret police, there’s dangerous dancing, there are kittens with jetpacks. But the Big Idea that propelled the book had nothing to do with any of that. Here it is:

Geeks don’t have to be klutzes.

If only I had believed that as a kid.

In junior high, I read five SF books a week, spent my afternoons playing video games, and worked on a novel about a tribe of dwarf magicians who arrived through a portal in Stonehenge to address the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan. I was also a total klutz who sucked at every sport, didn’t know how to talk to people, and got bullied.

I bet that last sentence doesn’t surprise you. It certainly didn’t surprise me.

Society and mainstream media told me repeatedly that geeks were klutzes with no social skills. Geek-friendly media as well as well-meaning adults confirmed that geeks were klutzes with no social skills — and it was okay, because we were each a unique individual with incredible potential, and one day we might change the world. But almost no one seemed to question one key assumption — that geeks had to be klutzy and awkward.

I have friends who started out as nerdy, bullied kids and became not just accomplished runners, roller derby stars and parkour masters but also well-socialized doctors and lawyers — and even schmoozing politicians. Talking to these friends, though, I hear the same story a lot. How they had to fight against incredible opposition — from others’ stereotypes as well as their own self-beliefs — to achieve personal transformation.

I’m not saying all geeks need to get athletic or fire up their social skills. I support a broad spectrum of geeky life choices — whatever makes you happy. I wasn’t happy as a kid, though, and not just because of the (reprehensible) bullying.

I didn’t like sucking at sports. I didn’t like not knowing how to dress well or how to make friends.

I simply didn’t believe I could change.

Developing that belief took years, the encouragement of good friends, and many small, frustrating steps. With The Cat King of Havana, I wanted to help someone develop this belief a little faster.

I knew that preaching — well-meant advice to “just exercise”, “just go out there and meet people”, etc — wouldn’t work. Instead, I set out to portray one kid’s fumbling journey to change as frankly and honestly as I could.

Rick Gutierrez, the Cuban-American teenage protagonist of Cat King, is an SF-quoting, comics-reading cat video tycoon. His site http://www.catotrope.com gets 30% of all non-YouTube cat video traffic. Known as “The Last Catbender” online—and as “That Cat Guy” at school—Rick isn’t cool and he knows it.

When his girlfriend dumps Rick on his sixteenth birthday because she doesn’t want to stay indoors with him all day, he decides she has a point. He no longer wants to live the geek loner stereotype. He wants to be cool.

That’s a tall order for anyone.

In writing Rick’s journey, I kept three points front and center:

1) Change is hard.

Having resolved to try new things, Rick becomes obsessed with salsa dancing. And he really, really sucks. The kind of suck where you trip on your own feet. The kind of suck where girls look panicked when you invite them to dance. For months, he hardly gets any better.

How do you keep going in a situation like that? Everyone’s answer will be different. To me, the important thing was acknowledging that change can be painfully hard, and that it is still worth it.

2) Those around you will resist you.

Rick’s classmates make fun of his new interest. They mock him and post derogatory Facebook comments. If anything, the bullying he faces intensifies.

The people around him have their own idea of who Rick is, and they won’t let it go. It takes a lot for Rick to believe in himself in the face of that.

Well, in fact, he doesn’t always. But he manages to keep going.

3) You will screw up.

Physical klutziness isn’t a geeky boy’s only challenge. Rick also falls for a new girl. Ana Cabrera, smart as well as cute, is one hell of a dancer. And she’s not that into him.

Rick invites Ana to spend a summer with his family in Havana, claiming he just wants to be friends. Under the influence of his cousin Yosvany — a successful ladies’ man ready with a hundred Pick Up Artist tricks — Rick tries every ploy in the book to “get the girl”.

Ana’s tough and smart, and will have none of it. In the process, Rick realizes he’s becoming a dick. He has to deal with the consequences — and figure out what kind of man he wants to be.

I know from personal experience that this kind of growing up can be exquisitely painful (certainly this is not a problem limited just to us geeks). For a boy with limited social skills, figuring out how to form genuine and respectful romantic relationships can be far harder than getting in shape or learning to dance.

Mortifying mistakes are easy to make. These can quickly lead to frustration and self-protective anger. As we can see with the disturbing rise of Gamergaters, MRAs, self-styled “incels” and other men-in-denial, from there it’s just a few steps to objectification and outright misogyny.

In my book, without condemnation or moralizing, I tried to model a different path to male adulthood.

The Cat King of Havana is a story of salsa, lolcats and revolution. It’s also the story of a boy struggling to become a fully-realized, decent young man.

Nothing about Rick’s transformation is easy. Going against societal expectations and limiting self-beliefs is never easy. But if I’ve done my job well, my readers will believe it can be done.

—-

The Cat King of Havana: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Robin Talley

Shakespeare is often reinterpreted, reinvented and remade — but for her novel As I Descended, author Robin Talley discovered that revamping a tale from the bard was not as simple as just slapping on new clothes and modern language. There was a whole lot more going on.

ROBIN TALLEY:

As I Descended is the first book I’ve written that actually has a convenient elevator pitch. “It’s a lesbian retelling of Macbeth, set at a haunted boarding school,” I could say, were I ever in a situation where I was actually expected to describe my book in an elevator. Which hasn’t happened yet, but I’m glad this time around I’m prepared. My first two books both took a paragraph or so to sum up, so they didn’t lend themselves as well to elevators. Or tweets, for that matter.

And maybe this isn’t a coincidence, but this time around, the concept for the book came to me a lot faster than usual, too. I knew I wanted to write a retelling ― I’ve always loved retellings of classic stories, from West Side Story to Malinda Lo’s Ash to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries ― and once it occurred to me that the Scottish Play would work beautifully at a modern high school, the basic pieces of the plot fell into place quickly.

I almost couldn’t believe no one had already written a YA Macbeth with girls in both of the leading roles. The story is a perfect fit for today’s overachieving high school culture, in which so many girls consider themselves failures if they aren’t valedictorian, sports team captain, Prom Queen, student body president, and every other achievement they can dream up all rolled up into one ― while of course also maintaining a “perfect” body and a vibrant social life. And all while making crucial decisions about which absurdly competitive colleges will lead them into the highest-paid hedge fund careers available.

I decided early on that my main characters would be Maria, the second-most-popular girl in school, and her roommate and secret girlfriend, Lily, who dreams of a grand future for them both. Instead of witches, Maria would be manipulated by a team of vindictive ghosts who haunt the 17th-century Virginia plantation that has been remodeled into the exclusive boarding school the characters attend.

(I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, by the way, but they terrify me all the same. When we moved into our old house, my wife had to actively work to convince me that the front bedroom wasn’t inhabited by the spirit of the old woman we’d been told died there a few decades before. To be honest, I’m still not completely sure my wife was right about that one, but thanks to her efforts I did manage to live there without panicking every time the bedroom door opened on its own. (Which it did, by the way. Constantly.))

Those elements came to me right away, but the rest of the book wasn’t so straightforward. I got tripped up on a lot of the specifics of retelling the original story. For example:

  • Macbeth is, obviously, an extremely bloody play. Before I started As I Descended, I’d never even considered killing any of my characters. I’d written dark stuff in other books, sure, but death is so final. Shakespeare was writing about a brave, accomplished medieval warrior who broke character by offing a few specific guys (after a career spent slaughtering presumably less important people). I had to take a contemporary 17-year-old girl whose previous experiences with violence had been limited to a few kicks on the soccer field and make her into a would-be violent criminal. I went through months of false starts before I could figure out how to get Maria (and, to be honest, me) into the necessary emotional place.
  • Shakespeare’s casts tend to be larger than your typical YA novel’s. So after much consternation I wound up combining characters here and there, and scaling others back where I could. In my favorite instance, I fused Banquo and Lady Macduff into one character named Brandon. That meant Brandon and my version of Macduff (I named him Mateo) were now a couple. Brandon and Mateo wound up forming a nice counterpoint to my Macbeth/Lady Macbeth (Maria/Lily) combo, in that their relationship is much less dysfunctional.
  • I also had trouble deciding exactly how direct my retelling would be. Should I match it up scene-for-scene? Did every character in As I Descended have to meet exactly the same fate as their parallel characters in the Scottish Play? I’m generally a fan of retellings sticking as closely to the source material as possible (cough, cough, Disney, yay for some degree of female character empowerment, but that’s still not how The Snow Queen goes), but my story’s setting wound up leading to some divergences. Some of the changes were big and spoilery, but others were smaller, yet necessary. (The porter scene, for example, simply had to go. It’s incredible on stage, but I just couldn’t get it to work in this context. So I named the local bar in the book “Porter’s” instead.)

For months, I carried around a paperback Macbeth that rapidly grew tattered as I constantly flipped through it, searching for relevant lines and pouring over dialogue and soliloquies to figure out exactly what Lady Macbeth was getting at what she muttered that aside, and what Greek myth that weird metaphor about blood referred to. This play has so. Many. Blood metaphors. Dude.) I watched adaptations, too, trying to wrap my head around the way various actors played Macduff, the character I had the hardest time connecting with in the play (though my version, Mateo, wound up being one of my favorite characters in As I Descended by the time I was done writing).

Of the books I’ve written, this one was by far the most fun. I got to indulge my inner lit-major geek. I got to go to the library and read critical essays interpreting the Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech. I also got to write scenes that scared me so much I had to turn on every light on the second floor of my house before I could force myself to edit them at night.

For my next retelling, though, I might stick with a comedy. Less blood. More banter.

Unless it turns out I’ve developed a lingering taste for my characters’ demises after all…

—-

As I Descended: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl’s novel, Everfair, began as a bit of dare — a fine reason for a story to exist. But as Shawl details below, it’s not enough to write something for the challenge… because sooner or later, you’ll need people to want to read that story, too.

NISI SHAWL:

I want to subvert your mind. In a good way.

The impetus for writing Everfair came out of a 2009 World Fantasy Convention panel I was drafted onto. The topic was steampunk; the other participants were Liz Gorinsky, Ann VanderMeer, Michael Swanwick, and Deborah Biancotti. What I didn’t understand going into the panel was why, with my love of Victorian literature and my self-admitted gear kink, I didn’t groove heavily on this genre? The answer I discovered and propounded to the audience: disgust caused by steampunk’s cozy relationship with colonialism. Enough with the be-goggled pith helmets and offscreen resource extraction already, I declared—I was going to write a steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo! Egged on by Swanwick’s shudders and eye-rolling I added:

“And I will make you beg to read it!”

Then I had to figure out how.

My first glimpse of a way forward came in the form of a reference to an abandoned “Utopia” in Brazil called Fordlandia. Fordlandia was Henry Ford’s capitalist experiment in community building. The US automaker wanted to monopolize Brazilian rubber production, and rubber was what drove King Leopold II of Belgium in his shameful tyrannizing over central Africa. So there was a very visible connection between the two men behind these different projects… but what if people who wanted to create a real Utopia had set one up too? Britain’s Fabian Socialists, with whom I was familiar due to my aforementioned fondness for all things Victorian, were likely candidates. What if they’d bought land from Leopold, feeding his greed with the funds that in actuality they used to found the London School of Economics? What if U.S. Civil War veteran George Washington Williams, author of the scathing “Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Léopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo,” had lived a long, activist life instead of dying soon after his investigatory visit to Boma?

As I wrote along the lines these inquiries suggested, I also paid attention to my usual favorites: sensory cues (What does a crashing dirigible sound like? How does a warehouse full of tea and bauxite smell?), characters’ voices (Who asks lots of questions? Who never hears anyone’s answers?), and complications (Would arranging for this one to get what they want mean that one’s dreams were indefinitely deferred?). Because I wanted people to immerse themselves fully in the possibilities of Everfair.

Though millions of people died during Leopold’s brutal reign, many of them horribly, I wanted readers to want to read what I was writing. I wanted to sneak past the defenses we all have in place against pain and suffering, even—or maybe especially—suffering perceived at third or fourth hand. One of my most trusted secret weapons in carrying out this infiltration was Lisette Toutournier.

The model for Lisette, arguably the book’s main character, is my favorite author, Colette. While Colette’s work often conveys the sensual pleasures of nature, I’ve endowed Lisette with my own gear kink. In her sections there are loving descriptions of train engines and steam bicycles and so forth. Lisette finds a tour of a ship’s coal hold a much more romantic gift than a lacy negligée. After indulging with her in the delights technology offers, my audience would be willing to thoughtfully consider the price we pay for those delights. I hoped. Feedback from early readers indicates this ploy is a success.

Now to try it on you.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Adam Heine

For the first Big Idea of September, author Adam Heine talks about Izanami’s Choice, and how, while “cool” is cool, ultimately it’s not quite enough for a great story.

ADAM HEINE:

Samurai vs. robots. It sounds like the Rule of Cool gone bad, right? For instant awesome, add disgruntled ronin, droid assassins, and folding swords.

Oh, I had other ideas I wanted to explore in this story – free will, messing with Three Laws tropes, fear and its role in the greater good – but the truth is that this story started out as “What if Meiji Era Japan had androids instead of guns and there were robots fighting samurai and also a detective and a murder mystery and wouldn’t that be so cool!”

But as much as I swear by the Rule of Cool, relying on that by itself would lead to a weak world, a dull plot, and – if I wasn’t careful – the appropriation and disrespect of an entire culture. I… don’t enjoy writing stories like that.

In order to make this work, I needed artificial intelligence in the 19th century. Gibson and Sterling provided a template for that in The Difference Engine, in which Babbage had succeeded in creating his difference engine, inventing computers a good century before we did. I took that even further. What if Babbage kept improving upon it? What if he collaborated with Darwin on ideas of evolutionary computation? What if logicians of the time codified reasoning as mathematical deduction, and formalized concepts we know under the Church-Turing Thesis? What if – by evaluating competing programs and designs against each other, by revising them at an accelerated rate with advanced analytical engines – 20th-century technologies and even artificial intelligence were invented before their time?

And what if someone created a machine intelligent enough to evaluate and revise its own designs? You’d have the beginnings of a robotic singularity.

Meanwhile (and true to actual history), Commodore Perry shows up in Edo Bay, forcing an end to Japan’s isolationism and catalyzing the events that would lead to the Fall of Edo, the end of the samurai class, and the rise of the Meiji Restoration. But in this world, instead of sparking an industrial revolution, imported Western technology sparks a cybernetic one.

I had a world. Now what about the story? I figured, since I had a nation in love with robots, I should focus on someone who despised them. Shimada Itaru is a former samurai who grew up when the shogunate fell, who was a skilled swordsman when the government made it illegal to carry swords (androids made weaponized humans obsolete, after all), who fought against the androids – and lost everything – in the failed Satsuma Rebellion.

When the Satsuma samurai fell, Itaru didn’t surrender or commit seppuku like most of his kin. He ran. He hid. He forged a new life for himself, despising the droids who’d stripped his sword, his honor, and his country from him. When his son was later killed as the result of an android malfunction, Itaru’s enmity turned into outright loathing.

I put Itaru in a situation where he had to work alongside an android in order to get his life back, and bam. Story.

How to respect history and culture? That will always be an ongoing process, one in which I’m sure I will make mistakes (and God-willing, learn from them). But the main thing I know is this: damn well get it right. I spent a crapload of time – more time than I spent actually writing the book, I think – studying Meiji Era Japan, reading Mikiso Hane and James Clavell, researching historical Tokyo wards, scrolling through hundreds and hundreds of pictures circa 1900, and more. Any mistakes in the book are a result of my humanity, not carelessness.

I still worked in a folding sword, though. Physics shmysics, man, those things are cool.

—-

Izanami’s Choice: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

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.

—-

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

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

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

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

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?

 

—-

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.

—-

The Guild Conspiracy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | KoboHarperCollins

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

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.

—-

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

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

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.”

—-

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.

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

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