The Big Idea: Randy Henderson

Warning: Randy Henderson nameschecks a lot of questionable movies in this Big Idea for Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. But it’s for a good reason! Honest!

RANDY HENDERSON:

“Hey, what’s the Big Idea?” Finn asked.  “Didn’t we do this for Finn Fancy Necromancy?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “But this is to talk about your adventures since then.”

“Adventures?  Ha!  Excitement?  Ha!  A character craves not these things — or at least this character doesn’t.  Yet some sadistic author apparently gets his thrills by making me run from danger to dating to deathiness.”

“Oh, come on,” I said.  “If I’d just let you retire to Character Heaven you would’ve totally missed me.”

“Right.  I so couldn’t live without you.”

“Actually, if you want to get technical –”

“You know what I meant!”  Finn snapped.

“You act like it’s all bad,” I said.  “But if I hadn’t written Bigfootloose, you wouldn’t have gotten to reconnect with your family.”

“Have you met my family?  No.  You just created them, you don’t have to actually deal with them.”

“Okay.  How about catching up on that twenty-five years of pop culture you missed while exiled in the Fey Other Realm?”

“You only caught me up to 1989 in this book.”

“And you’re welcome!  You got to see Star Trek IV, Robocop, Willow, Die Hard — a ton of great movies.”

“And had to listen to ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’!” Finn shouted.  “1988 was, like, the Bog of Eternal Stench of music!”

“How about you just Don’t Worry, Be Happy then?” I said.  “‘Cause I’m never gonna give you up.”

“You suck, Henderson.”

“Fine.  What about this: if I hadn’t written you another adventure, you wouldn’t have gotten sexy time with your girlfriend.”

“…”

“Uh huh,” I said.  “Thought so.”

“Whatever.  Aren’t you supposed to be talking about the Big Idea of Bigfootloose, not my sex life, oh master of my fate?”

“Right.  Well, in book one, the idea was just to have fun.  So I guess the Big Idea for this book was: how do I take a novel I wrote just to be fun, and really build the basis for a series?”

“You could have just suddenly made everyone aliens, like in Highlander 2.”

“Sure!” I said.  “Or I could have stabbed my eyes out with a plastic spoon and saved some time!”

“Fine then.  So would you say Bigfootloose is more like Conan the Destroyer, or Beastmaster 2?”

“Very funny.  Actually, I was trying more for Empire Strikes Back.”

“A bit ambitious for you, don’t you think?” Finn asked.

“Wow.  Thanks.”

“I just meant this isn’t exactly an epic for the ages you’re writing here.  But it is good to dream.  I guess I should just be happy you didn’t say Wrath of Khan.  Not that anyone would mess with that.”

“Ummm …”

“What?  No!  Please tell me nobody dared mess with Khan.  Might as well mess with The Hobbit, or Clash of the Titans.  I mean, once it’s done right –”

I cleared my throat.  “SO, as I was saying, in Bigfootloose I wanted to take the world hinted at in Finn Fancy Necromancy and really dig into it, to expand on the cultures and rules of human magic users and feybloods creatures in our world, and the Fey in the Other Realm, and explore the relationships and tensions between the three groups.  And I wanted to dig a little deeper into the characters, and their relationships.”

“Oh, is THAT what you were doing?” Finn said.  “Because to me, you know, it felt like you were throwing me into the middle of a feyblood rebellion and expecting me to not only save the world but somehow find a date for that sasquatch, Sal, all while trying to figure out my own life.  Silly me for completely stressing out!

“I’m sorry, but people want the adventure, and drama, and sexy time.  Not that you’ve had much of the last bit.”

“Wow.  Just tell the whole world, why don’t you?”

“Finn, you do realize that your life is literally an open book?”

“Okay, that is totally non-non-non-non-heinous.  Just tell me you don’t plan to cut off my hand or freeze me in carbonite or anything crazy, at least.”

“Oh, look,” I said.  “We’ve come to the end of our broadcast day.”

“Dude!  Seriously?  Come on.  I’m, like, your brain baby.  You wouldn’t hurt your brain baby would you?”

“…”

“Whatever.”

—-

Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Lindsay Smith

The folks at Serial Box have been mashing up genres and serializing the results, and thus we have The Witch Who Came In From the Cold: Cold War meets Urban Fantasy. Here’s series co-author Lindsay Smith to catch you up on what’s going down.

LINDSAY SMITH:

The Witch Who Came In From the Cold is a study in duality. Most spy novels are—a delicate game of cat-and-mouse, a waltz between equals, a low moment in which patriot wonders whether they’re fighting for the right side. But with ColdWitch, as we’re calling it, we wanted to go even further.

A political cold war wasn’t enough. We had to go and add magic, too.

Prague is an ancient city with plenty of mystical, magical legends swirling in its foggy streets. In 1970, it’s the iron edge of the curtain, newly absorbed into the Soviet Union but just European enough to safely host Western intelligence services, too. We have plenty of USSR-US conflict simmering over in 1970, from the tail-end of the space race to the delicate maneuvering of arms, technology, and knowledge. Our two leading CIA officers, Gabriel Pritchard and Joshua Toms, are eager to recruit new sources in the soviet Czech government and exfiltrate a Soviet scientist to America for debriefing.

But Gabe has other problems. He picked up a little something in Cairo, something strange and elemental and seemingly bent on making his life miserable. He longs to stay grounded in his mundane world of political chess and slow, steady spycraft, but if he wants to keep his edge, he must confront this magical side of the world, and the more he learns, the more the magic gets its hooks in him.

Problem is, there isn’t just one magical organization in the world. There’s two. And any witch—Russian or American, British or Czech, or more besides—could be aligned with either one.

The Consortium of Ice is a longstanding organization of right-thinking witches, staid and growing more entrenched by the year. They seek to regulate magic for the greater good. A precautionary measure. Keep things nice and organized so the rest of the world doesn’t uncover the magic latent in everything.

The Acolytes of Flame, on the other hand, want to watch the world burn. A good, cleansing fire is just the thing the world needs for their order of powerful witches to ascend.

Tatiana Morozova comes from a long line of Ice witches, and a slightly shorter but no less powerful line of Soviet apparatchiks. When your ritual magic requires witches to work in tandem at all kinds of geographical locales, it helps to be able to move freely, and the KGB lets her do just that. Now she’s got this American, this outsider to the magical world, meddling in her business, attracting attention from the Ice and Flame both. It’s tough enough coordinating with other Ice witches, some of them Westerners, without tipping off the chief of the KGB rezidentura. Now she has to manage this bumbling CIA operative, who assumes she’s just trying to pitch him to spy for the KGB.

Which, in fairness, she might.

The idea of these shifting loyalties, these intersecting and diverging causes really fueled our writing process for Cold Witch. What if the MI6 officer helping you defeat the Russkies is an Acolyte of Flame, waiting for his chance to burn your hard work to the ground? How can you trust your American counterpart in the Ice when he’d do anything to embarrass your government? And is there anyone in this snowy, elementally-charged city who isn’t a witch, a spy, or some combination therein?

And we’ve only cracked the surface of Cold Witch’s potential in Season One. Now that we’ve lined our players up on their chess board, it’s time for the spy games and rituals to really begin.

—-

The Witch Who Came In From the Cold: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iTunes|Kobo|Serial Box

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

The Big Idea: Tanita S. Davis

Sometimes people are uprooted and put in new circumstances. How do we adjust, and can we put down new roots that work well enough for us? In her Big Idea, Tanita S. Davis considers this question and how it relates to her YA novel, Peas and Carrots.

TANITA S. DAVIS:

There is no super power greater than knowing how to gather friendly, open, likeminded people around us, to use our intention to make our own safe place in the world. But when our relatives are rotten, and intentional choosing isn’t a skill available to us, what do we do then? Eventually, we stop thinking in terms of family, and seek other bonds.

My first teaching job out of college was working one-on-one with students housed courtesy of the State. They were a mixed lot: entitled incorrigibles who had smarted off to a truancy officer one time too many; runaways from intolerable home lives who’d ended up in the sex trade as a means of survival; gang-affiliated kids who looked like hard-faced adults, serving time for being accessories to grand theft and drive-by shootings. They all shared the simple human desire to belong somewhere – for their families to take them back, for the tight group they’d left behind to arrive one day and rescue them from my classroom… Every day that I worked with them, I watched their counselors and therapists and parole officers try to impress upon them the importance of making new connections, of finding different stomping grounds and other things to hold dear.

It was not a message which found a receptive audience. Almost every one of my students had some piece of the past they held onto against all comers, some piece of the world which represented to them all that they’d lost, and all that they would need to make the world right again. And, for almost all of those students, that thing was a representation of family. A location which they defended with fierce neighborhood pride. A faded Polaroid taped to the headboard at every new placement. A ratty old cardigan or piece of baby blanket held onto since childhood.  A tattoo, stick pin applied with charcoal and baby oil; the name of a best-beloved boldly claiming the tender skin of a wrist or forearm. A piece of a past, real or imagined, and long vanished.

Could they realistically be asked to let go of that? Obviously, no. And yet, how could they move into the future if they weren’t willing to let the past go?

What I saw work, during my brief years with these kids, was encouraging them to change perspective. Maybe they couldn’t have the crew they used to run with, but they could find literal running mates elsewhere. Some left the group home and get involved with long-distance running, basketball, tournament teams traveling and learning the feel of that inclusivity in teams. One girl embraced her love of arguing and took a semester to first observe, then begin to participate in her new high school’s debate team. We didn’t always get to see the next chapter in the lives of those with whom we worked, but sometimes we’d get a card or a call, or a social worker would bring back word. The kids who survived the destruction of their networks and didn’t return to the scene of the disaster were those who found and formed new connections, and new ways into what they ultimately wanted the most.

The world can be puzzled by these deliberate connections, these bonds we seek to supplement biology. Your new home may not be where any of you live, and your new family may be made up of what other people would consider strangers on the internet. I remember wheeling my through a crowded Costco shopping center when my sister was less than a year old, and encountering the crooned, “Oh, she’s precious! She looks just like you two!” It was, in this case, both ludicrous and …ludicrously wrong, as my youngest sister is an American of Cambodian ancestry, I’m an American of African ancestry, and my husband’s ancestral leanings are English, Scottish, and Irish. Sooo…maybe not just like us? But, I’m pretty sure that between her eye rolls – she’s nineteen now – and her general mien of disaffected snarkiness, there’s at least a family resemblance.

Peas and Carrots is a book marketed to middle grade/young adult readers and explores intentionally choosing people to love, and accepting each other in spite of our differences. At the end of the day, peas and carrots don’t go together because they grow together –  legumes and umbeliers are vastly different plant families – nor do they look alike or taste alike… They go together because we put them together. And so can we put together a family, too. Maybe blood shapes our earliest parts, but the choices of who we invite into our circles define us further down the road. It’s an absolutely huge idea that we can have some power over our own happiness in finding good, true, family-tested-friends. Love – and family, however we assemble it –  can be a lot simpler than we make it.

—-

Peas and Carrots: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Marshall Ryan Maresca

Super heroes are a trope, and fantasy novels are a trope too. So what happens when these tropes collide? Ask Marshall Ryan Maresca — he knows, and The Alchemy of Chaos is the latest installment of just such a mashup.

MARSHALL RYAN MARESCA:

I’m a total super-hero junkie. I have a steamer trunk in my garage filled with the comics of my teenage years. My favorite shows on television right now are Flash and Arrow. Superheroes are in my blood. That my first novel took the shape of a superhero origin story shouldn’t have been a surprise to me.

But when I first started The Thorn of Dentonhill, I wasn’t planning on writing a superhero book. I was writing a fantasy novel about a magic-student who had a secret life tied to the city’s street gangs and drug trade, fighting his own private war against a drug lord.  It took a while before it was clear to me exactly what The Thorn of Dentonhill was. Boiled down to the High Concept Elevator Pitch: Veranix Calbert is a magic student by day, street vigilante by night. Harry Potter as Spider-man.

The Thorn of Dentonhill was the origin story. Veranix started out harassing a drug lord– Fenmere– for entirely personal reasons.  Trying to disrupt a drug shipment, he ends up stealing two magic items. He decides to use in his fight and becomes “The Thorn”– folk hero for the neighborhood, a symbol to everyone who wants to stand up to Fenmere. He gets Great Power.

When I sat down to write The Alchemy of Chaos, I had fully embraced the kind of story I was telling. It’s a pulpy, action-packed fantasy novel, but it is still a superhero story. More importantly, it’s a superhero sequel.  The Alchemy of Chaos is about what it now means for him to be The Thorn. What he needs to do, what he wants to do, and what doing that could cost him. He deals with the Great Responsibility part of the equation.

So I threw everything I had at him.

Veranix is already overburdened from the start. He’s got several exams, as well as assisting on a special project that he is supposed to be devoting all his free time to. He shouldn’t even be going out as The Thorn, but the drug trade is creeping into the neighborhood he swore to protect.

Then come the pranks. Disturbing magical pranks that start as obnoxious and escalate to dangerous. The first prank affects hits Vernix’s dorm, so he’s immediately engaged. But given everything he already has on his plate, he has to ask himself: Is this his problem? Should it be his problem? Shouldn’t he just trust that someone else, someone official, will take care of it?

Of course he’s not going to trust that. No one puts on a cape (or in this case, a magical cloak) because they think that someone else ought to take care of the problem. They do it because they think they have to, that they’re the only one that can.

So Veranix is juggling as much as he possibly can: exams, special project, stop the drug trade from crossing over and figure out who this prankster is and stop them before the tricks turn deadly— and the small matter of the assassins that Fenmere hired.

This would be a terrible time for someone to figure out his secret identity, wouldn’t it? Especially the strident science student who is at the top of Veranix’s list of suspects.

Fortunately, Veranix does not have to face it alone. Harry has Ron and Hermione, Barry has Caitlin and Cisco, and Veranix has Kaiana and Delmin. They’re the ones who keep his head on straight, distract people so he can slip away, patch him up when he gets beat up, and remind him what he’s supposed to be doing. Of course, Kaiana and Delmin have a very different idea what Veranix is supposed to be doing. Veranix’s real problem is that they’re both right. He’s got to deal with all of it: magic, science, action, exams, assassins, street gangs, and fancy dinners. He’s got to take all that havoc and try to craft it into something that will not only keep him alive, but still in school.

That’s the Alchemy of Chaos.

—-

The Alchemy of Chaos: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: J. Kathleen Cheney

And now, from J. Kathleen Cheney, a very touching Big Idea about her new novel, Dreaming Death. As you read the Big Idea, you’ll realize I’ve just made a horrible pun. And I’m sorry. I’m a terrible person. But you should read the piece anyway, because it’s super interesting.

J. KATHLEEN CHENEY:

What happens when someone becomes overly sensitized to touch? That’s what my main character in Dreaming Death endures.

My original idea for this came from a late 1980s Glamour magazine that had a snippet in it about a scientific study that linked pale eyes and shyness. What the study actually claimed was that there was a correlation between pale eyes and ease of over-stimulation. And that got me thinking about my characters’ senses, and what it was like to sense too much.

We frequently see expanded senses in superhero stories: Superman and his x-ray vision, Wolverine and his excellent sense of smell, or Daredevil’s hearing. But we don’t often explore the superhero with an overdeveloped sense of touch.

The sense of touch is a curious thing. The skin is essentially one organ, but not every part of it senses at the same level. Science classes sometimes conduct an experiment where students measure skin’s responsiveness (usually by sticking each other with pins) to create a sensory homunculus. If you look this up online, you’ll see an unappetizing series of drawings and models that show distorted figures with huge hands and lips and tongues, because those are the areas of the skin that are most sensitive to touch.

So when I thought about my character, Shironne, I tried to apply what I knew about the sense of touch and extrapolate what it might be like to endure extreme sensitivity every day.

She feels every speck of dirt she touches, especially with her hands and feet. Her lips and tongue are more sensitive areas, so she’s aware of every impurity in her water and her food. Her face is sensitive, so a dirty breeze smacks her with smoke and fine dust and mist and spit from the man who’s walking past and talking. When her clothes are washed, particles of…well, everything…transfer from one part of her clothing to all the others via the water. Horse manure that got on her hem the day before spreads to her tunic sleeves, and she knows exactly what’s touching her skin. All day long.

(For those of you who are now cringing under your desks and rubbing yourself down with Clorox wipes, I apologize. A lot of people prefer not to think about this kind of thing.)

I can only imagine that an overdeveloped sense of touch would be awful. So until my heroine learned to ignore some stimuli in favor of others, her life would be a horrible and confusing cacophony of signals, some too terrible to contemplate. It’s certainly not a superpower I would want for myself.

I did my best to be aware of it in every scene. This is a curse Shironne has to live with for the rest of her life. She’ll eventually become acclimatized to some stimuli, and learn to set that input aside, like those of us who sleep through our alarm clocks. But I have to admit, I also fudged from time to time, just to keep readers from applying the Clorox wipes to the page.

Hopefully, I struck an acceptable balance.

—-

Dreaming Death: Amazon ǀ Barnes and Noble ǀ IndieBound ǀ Powells

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

The Big Idea: Faith Hunter

For today’s Big Idea, and for her book Blood in Her Veins, author Faith Hunter gets under the skin of her main character, and reveals why that character is often of two mind about many things.

FAITH HUNTER:

Big Ideas are exciting and scary and sometimes dangerous. So, of course, I dare, perhaps far too often, in life and in writing. In life, it’s whitewater kayaking. In writing, I dared to create a series about a character who has two souls and two distinct voices.

Mind you, to me, voice is one of the most important things in writing. Together, authorial voice and character voice create and support so many of the other elements of writing—from tone, to atmosphere, to point of view, and even to character development. Two different voices meant two different … everything. Two different character arcs, two different reactions to conflict, two different thought processes, two different worldviews and two points of view. My two voices weren’t even the same species—the character I envisioned was a human with a mountain lion soul intertwined with hers.

My human character is Jane Yellowrock. She’s a Cherokee skinwalker (the version from the oldest pre-European, Eastern Cherokee, storylines). My fictional take on the old tales made her a being able to assume the shape and form of any animal for which she has sufficient genetic material, always keeping in mind the law of conservation of mass/matter and the peculiarities of genetics. This means that Jane’s magic is best suited to creatures of her own size/mass and gender. I like the physics and the genetics of my magic systems to feel internally consistent.

An orphan, raised in a Christian children’s home, with all the guilt, remorse, sexual hang-ups, and self-reproach that come with that, Jane starts out as a hunter of insane vampires—vamps who attack and kill humans. The series opens with her taking a job for the Master of the City of New Orleans, an apex predator blood-sucker with no hang-ups at all.

My mountain lion character is Beast, a contrary, opinionated cat (also an apex predator, like Jane’s new boss), who has very specific likes and dislikes. She loves hunting and a fresh kill, tolerates thawed steak—raw—and hates cooked meat. She loves lying on a rock in the sun, wants to hunt alligator the moment Jane and she arrive in Louisiana, finds vampires enticing, and likes nothing better than for Jane to go on long rides on her Harley, Bitsa, so she can take in the smells and claim territory, even if just temporarily. She also has strong feelings about Jane’s love life and what kind of person Jane should choose as mate. Beast is feisty, determined, and a killer, without the conscience, contrition, or self-reproach of her human-ish host. Even when she’s in human form, Jane can feel/hear Beast’s opinions, and she both battles and embraces them.

The way these two characters came together is revealed over the course of the series, beginning with a mountain lion attack in 1839. Jane was five years old at the time, but in that fight for her life, she accidentally worked black magic. She stole both the body and soul of the puma who attacked her, and inhabited the big-cat body for two hundred years, her magic keeping them alive far longer than the usual life-span of a Puma concolor. When Jane finally became human again, Beast was trapped within her. And those two diverse voices are what, I think, has given the Jane Yellowrock series an original tone and an audience that is still growing.

One of the ways I dealt with the two character voices in the first book, SKINWALKER, was to mention Beast—but not let her speak, as a separate character, until page twenty-six. Even then, Beast was permitted only one word. Hungry. And that, only moments before Jane shifted into her Beast form for the first time on the page.

When I write in Beast’s voice, she’s an animal who perceives the world the way a young cat might. Sounds are more penetrating, scents are heightened and powerful, colors and the intensity of light are totally different. Beast can’t see the color red. Jane can’t see in the dark as well as her Beast. Jane would describe a vampire as too pale, too demanding, too dangerous to the public, and a pain in the butt. Beast would describe the same vamp as tasty, a good choice as mate, and a good hunter of prey. Jane would say that blood is red. Beast would say that blood smells good-to-eat.

But I can never forget that they’re in the same body, experiencing the same things, no matter who is at the forefront of their consciousness, and whether they are in human or cat form. Over the series there has been an organic evolution where Jane becomes more like a mountain lion and Beast becomes more like a human. They’ve been broken and shattered in the same way and have drawn strength from each other. And in those moments where they come together and depend on each other, the two distinct voices I have worked to create swap DNA and become the same voice or a hybrid voice. I must admit, that was something I did not expect!

In the course of the now New York Times bestselling series (the tenth book, Shadow Rites, will be published in April), there’s been an emergence of different camps of my readers. Yes, Beast has her own fans, which pleases her enormously. She also has her own point-of-view stories in my nineteen story collection, Blood in Her Veins, on sale today.

I’ve been writing for many years, under various names, and Jane/Beast is the character, bar none, who challenges the writer in me most. Jane / Beast are unpredictable, demanding, playful, and hunters of prey, each in their way and own voices. They are, for me, the Big Idea.

—-

Blood in Her Veins: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jennifer Brozek

A question that authors often ask themselves: Who am I writing this book for? For Never Let Me, a compilation volume of novels by Jennifer Brozek, the author discovered who she was writing her series for — which included, among others, a very specific set of people.

JENNIFER BROZEK:

My Big Idea hid from me until I finished writing the last book of the Melissa Allen series. The compilation, Never Let Me, encompasses Never Let Me Sleep, Never Let Me Leave, and Never Let Me Die. It also includes the new short story, “Never Let Me Feel.”

There were two motivating factors behind me writing the young adult novels starring Melissa Allen. The first was: Write what you want to read. In my not-so-humble mind, I liken Never Let Me to “What if Stephen King specifically wrote for teenagers back in the day?” I read a lot of King’s work growing up and loved it. Part of me always wondered what if he had written a story specifically for me as a teen? I pondered what I thought that would look like. Then I wrote it because that’s what I wanted to read.

The second factor was the need to write a flawed, mentally ill character whose mental illness didn’t make them a superhero or a villain. It just was. The illness was one more invisible, personal thing to deal with—like migraines or gastric reflux. Too many times, mentally ill characters are taken to unrealistic extremes—savant, dangerously wicked, innocent to the point of child-like—when, in reality, they are just normal people trying to get through the day. They are medicated, dealing with side effects, and know that even when the chemical cocktail is working today, it might not work tomorrow.

In specific, I watched daughter of one of my friends—her name is Cait—grow up fighting with her illness, dealing with the side effects, and sighing over the issues with her psychiatrist. I helped her as much as I could. I never thought it was enough, but I didn’t know what else I could do.

Cait stuck with me all these years, even after I moved away from her. I knew that she never had a mentally ill protagonist in any young adult book she’d read that she could look up to. I wanted to write this series for her, and for the other teens like her who struggle with mental illness on a daily basis. I wanted her to see the heroine in herself.

I never thought of myself as a heroine. Growing up, I had a lisp and a stutter. I went to three years of speech therapy to bring my speech into something much more acceptable. I’m dyslexic. Also, I am high-functioning autistic. I never saw a protagonist like me in any of the stories I read. For a long time, it didn’t occur to me that someone like me (or Cait) could be a hero. People like us weren’t heroes.

I wanted to change that. At first, it was just for Cait. She was the one I’d written the novels for. She was my ideal reader. Then, as I expanded the stories and the protagonists, I added a character for my mom. This character has a congenital defect in her hand like my mom. My mom didn’t have a hero like her to read about growing up. I thought she deserved one, too. In the end, when I sat back and looked at what I’d written, I realized my Big Idea.

I was the one I had written these novels for… because they were about people like me and about the everyday people around me. I wanted to see fictional heroes that mirrored the real life heroes I looked up to every single day of my life. Including the person I looked at in the mirror. She may have a stutter when she gets excited. She may rock when she’s tired. She may not always understand the expressions she sees on people’s faces. She may have bouts of anxiety… but she is still a hero.

Sometimes, we write the heroes we need to see in ourselves.

Never Let Me: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s|IndieBound  

Read excerpts from Never Let Me Sleep, Never Let Me Leave, or Never Let Me Die. Visit the author’s page or blog. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Big Idea: Charlie Jane Anders

How many times have you heard a new book, or movie or TV show, described as “X meets Y” where the two variables are something super-popular, jammed into one? As Charlie Jane Anders discovered in thinking about her new and already widely-lauded debut novel All the Birds in the Sky, there are limits to all that jamming, especially when you want to make your own mark.

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS:

Genre mashups are everywhere in pop culture these days. Star Wars is a samurai Western in space, with wizards. Adventure Time is a post-apocalyptic fairy tale. And superheroes, of course, are every genre ever, all smushed together.

But I’m here to tell you, as someone who often gets accused of writing genre mashups, that you should avoid them at all costs. Don’t take two genres and smush them together. Instead, it’s way better to take whatever you need from different genres, and create your own brand new story.

At least, that’s what I decided while writing All the Birds in the Sky, my new book about a witch named Patricia and a mad scientist named Laurence. At first, I was thinking of this book as very much a mashup: fantasy meets science fiction. But the deeper I got into the story and the characters, the less helpful it was to think of it in terms of genres.

Instead, I started thinking of it as a story about people from two different worlds, each of which I tried to make as real and grounded as I could.

I had already gotten a rep for smushing together different genres, before I finished All the Birds in the Sky. I wrote “As Good As New,” which was a post-apocalyptic story where a woman named Marisol finds a genie in a bottle. (Because of course a genie in a bottle would survive the apocalypse, and its hiding place would be reduced to rubble. It’s just logic, people.) And my story “Palm Strike’s Last Case” takes a dark, gritty urban superhero and sends him to another planet, where he deals with issues of food scarcity and sustainable farming.

So when I started to write a novel that had a fantasy hero and a science fiction hero, I got excited about including as many tropes from each of those two genres as I could think of. The witch can have runes, spellbooks, wands, dragons, elves, ancient curses, evil wizards, etc. The mad scientist gets aliens, robots, spaceships, rayguns, dinosaurs and so on.

But when you just smush a bunch of genre tropes together, you end up with something kind of spoofy. It starts to feel like you’re just making fun of the genres, instead of exploring what makes them powerful. And instead of bright vivid contrasts, you can easily end up with an indistinct mish-mosh. (Like, an elf is sort of an alien. A dragon is sort of a dinosaur. Unless you really work at developing the aspects that make them different.)

If you’re not careful, a genre mashup can very quickly become just kind of an exercise in meta, commenting on the genres instead of using them to their full potential. When you think of a mashup, what immediately comes to mind is the stereotypical Hollywood executive saying, “It’s Alien meets The Smurfs!” Or “It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Terminator!”

But what’s really interesting about bringing together characters who belong in different worlds—or different types of stories—is the different ways that they look at life.

And with both my witch and my mad scientist, what turned out to be interesting is what they can’t do. Instead of getting lost in all of the cool stuff that could be on their horizons—the starships and spellbooks—the most powerful stories came from their limitations. What can Patricia, the witch, do that Laurence, the mad scientist, can’t? And vice versa? And what’s the thing that’s beyond both of their capabilities? The more I thought of these characters in terms of their limits, the deeper I could get into the emotional core of the story.

And that’s the biggest thing that took me away from thinking of All the Birds in the Sky as some kind of genre chimera. I needed to feel something, to connect to these two main characters and their struggles in my gut as well as my heart. The bells and whistles risked pulling me away from the characters, instead of helping me connect to them.

And in the end, having an emotional core didn’t just mean focusing in on my two main characters and their emotional reality. It also meant recognizing that no matter how many genres I was drawing on, I still had only one story, with one single axis, and everything needed to be part of that.

And once I recognized that, I could focus on what those different genre elements meant to me, and what they represented in my story. I peeled back all of the extra clutter, until I was left with the things that I absolutely needed to make the story work—and then I had to figure out what those elements needed, in terms of worldbuilding, to make them feel real. Like, Patricia, the witch, needed a magic school to go to, that couldn’t just be a Hogwarts clone, and a world of magicians that felt lived-in. Stuff like that.

Once I stripped away all the excess clutter that I had put in when I thought this was a “mashup,” there were big holes in my novel. And those holes turned out to be the places where I was shortchanging my main characters and not giving them enough room to breathe and develop their relationship. When I let go of the idea that this was a book about genres, I was able to start thinking of it more as a book about people.

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All The Birds in the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jake Kerr

Is being the chosen one all it’s cracked up to be? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, and in this Big Idea for Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, author Jake Kerr has choice thoughts on being “chosen” and the choices the chosen ones (and their authors) might have.

JAKE KERR:

When you are writing a four book series, there is a lot of room to pursue ideas, both big and small, and in my Tommy Black series I’m taking full advantage of that. There are subtle things like all of the accurate historical elements I weave into the background, the fact that there is really no real bad guy in book one, and the morally complex role of magic. However, my biggest idea has to be that I’m doing my best to destroy the traditional “chosen one” coming-of-age genre trope. The consequences of that lead to a lot of interesting and fun things.

We’re all familiar with the chosen one—Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and a wide range of heroes going back to the roots of the genre—the young boy who is given a special power or responsibility, and it his his destiny to use it for good. At the beginning of Tommy Black and the Staff of Light, that’s exactly what happens—Tommy is given his grandfather’s magical staff, told that it is his family’s legacy and that he must somehow learn its power to follow in his famous grandfather’s footsteps.

In the process of going down that path, however, Tommy is confronted with several aspects of his legacy that he finds wrong and unacceptable. He decides to re-define it into him working against much of what his family had done in the past. He still has powerful magic, and he is still the chosen one. He has just decided to abandon the legacy part.

That’s all well and good and not entirely groundbreaking, but the events in book two, Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, lead Tommy down a challenging new path—his power starts to become unstable with the unearthing of other magical artifacts and other “chosen ones” wielding them. The result is that his role as hero changes, as do the roles of his friends.

This was actually quite challenging to write. We want our heroes to be heroes, and when they are confronted with challenges, it is disappointing to have someone else save them. Creating a narrative where Tommy fails and yet isn’t a failure made me reconsider how I approach conflict within a novel. For example: Could I take away Tommy’s powers and still give him a chance to shine? How would I do that?

One strategy for dealing with that is to have another character that everyone is rooting for. Luckily for me, I have Naomi. She is Tommy Black’s best friend, and, like Hermione Granger, she is a hard-working and astonishingly skilled magician. Unlike Hermione, however, Naomi is all forward momentum, and as Tommy struggles with the unreliability of his powers, Naomi jumps in and saves the day on a number of occasions.

Cover artist M.S. Corley handled this dynamic perfectly. We have ominous Nazi magicians arrayed against Tommy and Naomi, but the one in front is Naomi. (Corley’s a master, by the way. I highly recommend you check out his work here.)

One of the recurring comments I’ve heard from young readers of Tommy Black and the Staff of Light has been, “I want to see more of Naomi” or “Please have Naomi do more with her magic.” It was as if there was this untapped desire by readers to give the sidekick or the young girl a turn in the spotlight. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

In my case, it is by design, and Naomi is the perfect character to fill that role. She loves magic so much and works so hard at it that she trusts it implicitly. As a result, she barrels ahead with utter faith in her abilities, overwhelming warships at sea, German army units with guns and mortars, and an elite squad of Nazi magicians. Of course that confidence is also a flaw, and that’s part of the fun—watching how the changing power dynamic between Tommy and Naomi is grounded in a foundation of mutual support and friendship. They help each other with their weaknesses.

As the series progresses, that’s really the big idea I am excited about pursuing—Tommy the Chosen One struggling with the knowledge that his true path may be to go back to being the normal boy he was when he started, and the girl whose life he saved growing into the role she has built for herself: a young woman with great power taking over as the true savior of the world. In fact, the fourth book of the Tommy Black series won’t have his name on the cover. It will have Naomi’s.

By the way, “big idea” sounds kind of deep and philosophical. That’s not bad, of course, but don’t forget that this is a fantasy action/adventure series set during World War 2. I have Nazi magicians for goodness’ sake. I want the Tommy Black books to be just as fun as the Edgar Rice Burroughs and J. R. R. Tolkien books I read when I was twelve. If readers don’t walk away with a smile on their face, I’ve failed.

With that in mind, here is an excerpt from chapter twelve, where we see the above big idea happening, while the scene itself is exciting and fun.

In the end, I want Tommy to be a hero that readers cheer and root for, but not because he was chosen or because he received some magical legacy. I want him to be a hero because he’s a good person. And I want Naomi to be cheered as a hero, too, because she works harder than everyone else, and it has made her truly amazing.

—-

Tommy Black and the Staff of Light/Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility: Amazon |Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Kobo|Google|Apple|

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

The Big Idea: Eric James Stone

Welcome to the first Big Idea of 2016! And while the title of Eric James Stone’s novel promises that it will be Unforgettable, Stone asks an opposing question: If you wanted to make a character who was destined to be forgotten, how would you do it, science fictionally speaking?

ERIC JAMES STONE:

When I came up with the idea of a hero who couldn’t be remembered after he was gone, I needed an explanation for what caused that effect.

I’ve had several stories published in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, a market that offers mainly hard science fiction, so I can come up with scientifically rigorous explanations for various story elements. But Unforgettable was not intended to be hard science fiction — it was really more of a superhero novel, albeit with a rather weird superpower.

I toyed with a biological explanation involving pheromones, but eventually decided to use quantum physics.  I’ve always been fascinated by some of the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics, like superposition and wave function collapse. My wife is a high school physics teacher. Before we met for our first date, I told her she would recognize me because I would be wearing a tee-shirt with a physics joke on it. She said, “OK, but if it isn’t funny, I’m leaving.” The tee-shirt showed a wanted poster with a picture of a cat, and it read “Wanted: Dead & Alive — Schrödinger’s Cat.” (Fortunately, she found that funny enough that she didn’t leave.)

I figure most readers of this blog are familiar with the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment (or are capable of looking it up on Wikipedia), so I won’t detail it here. Suffice to say that before the experimenter opens the box, the cat exists in a superposition of aliveness and deadness. After the experimenter opens the box, the probability wave function collapses, and the experimenter sees either a dead cat or a live (and probably very annoyed) cat.

However — and this is where we go beyond the original thought experiment — outside the lab is the experimenter’s colleague. From the colleague’s point of view, the cat’s aliveness is still in superposition, but the experimenter’s mind could also be said to exist in a superposition of two possibilities: having seen a dead cat and having seen a live cat.

All of that is still within the realm of current theoretical physics. But to provide a theoretical basis for my hero’s superpower, I needed to take it one step further. I wondered, what if there were some sort of glitch, and the wave function for the experimenter’s mind collapsed to the version where the cat is dead, while the wave function for the cat itself collapsed to the version where the cat is alive?

Nat Morgan, the hero of my novel Unforgettable, is the personification of such a glitch: he exists in a superposition of being there and not being there, and once he’s gone the wave functions of the minds of everyone he’s met always collapse to the version in which he wasn’t there.

Once I had my theoretical explanation in place, I proceeded to work out the implications of Nat’s superpower. Figuring out the rules for what happened when he interacted with people helped me to develop scenes that showcased the rules, so the reader would come to understand them.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Erin M. Evans

The last Big Idea of the year! And a very interesting one too, as Erin M. Evans goes deep about what it takes to write in already-existing worlds, as she is doing with her novel Ashes of the Tyrant. Think it’s easy to write a tie-in novel? Think again.

ERIN M. EVANS:

I.

“If I had your job,” a writer friend of mine once declared, “I would lose my fucking mind.”

I had just finished describing a city I’d be using in my next book, Djerad Thymar, a hollow pyramid taller than Khufu’s, big enough to house 30,000+ people, and the only city described for a race in Dungeons & Dragons called the dragonborn. Given a series of new constraints, I needed a way for it to have been built in less than eighty years by people who only just got access to magic.  “A wizard did it” wouldn’t fly. “They worked real hard” wouldn’t either.

To some people, like my friend, that’s an intrusion, an impediment to their storytelling. To me, it’s a challenge I can’t help but accept.

Working with setting details you wouldn’t have chosen on your own is inevitability of tie-in fiction. Depending on what kind of media you’re tying in to the difference can be slight or stark. Role-playing games involve a lot of storytelling, a lot of backstory, so there’s often a lot to work with or around—but there are also a lot of cooks in this kitchen and they don’t always agree. Sometimes you get details that are there for the “cool visual” they provide. Sometimes you get hit with things there for mechanical reasons foremost—elves see secret doors because…someone should see secret doors! Sometimes there’s a hole where you’d expect to have answers and sometimes there are six books of background where you’d expect wiggle room.

Sometimes there’s this giant pyramid a bunch of dragon-people built because why not?

This works in a RPG game. It leaves room for the DM to shape the story they need to tell, for the players to find a niche for their characters. Here are the bones of a world. Build something around them.

You can’t always get by with just bones in a novel. It might be easier to lean on those sourcebooks, to only talk to the readers who play the game, but it’s not very satisfying. There’s such a lot of good story to be found between those immovable sourcebook details, and such a lot of inspiration in the contradictions that might otherwise make you lose your fucking mind.

And when it came to dragonborn, the shape around the bones was too wonderful to ignore.

II.

The first time I realized my degree was still good for something, I wrote a short treatise on orcish ritual scarification. I was editing a book for Wizards of the Coast called Sentinelspire by Mark Sehestedt. In it, Mark had created a tribe of orcs to live in the icy corner of the world he’d chosen, and given a half-orc character the ritual of cutting a mourning scar across his heart for his lost blood brother.

Except this is basically the Siberia of the world. Ritual scarification sends a message to the people we interact with: I have lost a comrade and a loved one.  Who’s he sending that message to if he’s bundled up against the cold all year long? (Mark moved the scar to his face and got a very poignant scene out of it).

Like most anthropology majors, I suspect, I thought for sure I was heading for academia. But an undiagnosed anxiety disorder pushed that dream out and out and out and by the time I had my brain back in relative order, I realized I didn’t want that life. But I still love it—and realizing all those books and studies and essays about ritual scarification and burial customs, proscriptions and purity and family structure, they’re all applicable to fantasy worlds. We’re social animals. We organize ourselves to perpetuate ourselves, and in those interactions lie so many of our truths and fears, our taboos and necessities, the pressures that quietly make each of us who we are.

Even if we’re elves. Or orcs. Or dragon-people.

Dragonborn are fairly new to the Forgotten Realms, mostly background players. So here was an excellent opportunity to flesh out those bones, which kicked the story into gear. For example, in the game, they were created by tyrannical dragons to be the perfect slaves, but they rose up and overthrew their far more powerful masters. Out of that, they were thrown into this new world by powerful magic and built a nation out of the rubble….and yet standard perception is they are friendly and curious and honor-bound to a fault.

Which makes sense, I figure, if non-dragonborn can’t read dragonborn facial expressions, if neither group understands the etiquette of the other, and if humans have no idea when a dragonborn is throwing shade, bless their hearts.

III.

From these two angles came the big idea of Ashes of the Tyrant, the fifth book of the Brimstone Angels saga.  In it, Farideh, my tiefling warlock, travels back to Djerad Thymar, the birthplace of her adopted father, Clanless Mehen. Mehen was exiled in his youth for reasons he doesn’t talk about, but now his father’s dead, the new matriarch of his clan wants him back. Mehen wants to be left alone, but at the same time he misses what he lost. For his daughters, Djerad Thymar is a puzzle—the place where all their family customs come from, but where they, as non-dragonborn, don’t belong.

This is a story about the past, about the way we mythologize the past, and what we can do to keep that from stymieing our future. A story about the roles our culture creates for us and how they harm or help, how we reshape ourselves or reshape our roles.  It’s a story about family—what we’re born with and what we build ourselves—and how these things ripple out into our communities.

Also it’s about a demon running around murdering people.

(Come on: it’s still a D&D novel. You build around the bones, after all.)

IV.

So how did the dragonborn build Djerad Thymar? Unfortunately, the answer spawned a major story point, so you’ll have to read Ashes of the Tyrant to find out.

—-

Ashes of the Tyrant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Lawrence M. Schoen

Here in the last week of December 2015 books are still coming out, and here’s a very interesting one indeed: Barsk, by Lawrence M. Schoen. For the Big Idea behind it, Schoen looks at memory, and what it has to do with you, me, and sentient elephant-like creatures on another planet.

LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN:

I like to think there are lots of cool ideas in Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, from using prophecy to travel in time, to showcasing anguish via a character who cannot feel pain. It’s like I was saving up ideas to put them all in this book. But the biggest idea, the one that filters through all the others, is memory as a physical thing distinct from our bodies and yet bound by the laws of physics (even if I had to invent some of those laws myself).

I’ve been a cognitive psychologist for thirty years, complete with the terminal degree, a collection of peer-reviewed journal articles, and a towering stack of teaching evaluations to prove it. So bear with me a moment as I give you some background on a topic that fascinates me: memory.

Memory is more than just the place we put the stuff we later choose to call to mind. In part, because that stuff is actually a myriad kinds of things, that apparently get stored in different ways. Memory for faces is one type, and very different from memory for names. Ditto for the memory of how to do a thing (like riding a bicycle) and knowing what a thing is (ooh, look, that thing with handlebars and wheels, it’s a bicycle!). Memory for words obeys different rules than memory for sounds that are not words. I could go on and on like this for hours, but this isn’t my classroom and I don’t think John will let me give you all a test, so let’s move on.

My point is, psychologists have been carving up the memory pie since the late 19th century when Hermman Ebbinghaus kicked up a fuss looking at what affected his efforts to memorize nonsense syllables. For purposes of my Big Idea (and Barsk) though, I want to focus on two slices of that pie: what are typically called semantic memory and episodic memory.

Semantic memory is the stuff you know. It’s names and dates and facts that you can look up in an encyclopedia or google on your smartphone. It’s objective data. Whereas episodic memory is subjective; it’s your personal experience of something and includes not just the what of memory but also the who and the where and the how did you feel at the time. Knowing who John Scalzi is is semantic memory. Remembering the first time I met him at a Worldcon is episodic. The former type of memory is colorless, the latter is potentially filtered through all sorts of emotional and intellectual states-of-being present at the time the information was encoded, and prone to modification and embellishment each time it’s recalled. And because episodic memory is subjective, even if you were there, in the room at the same time, your memory of the event will be different from mine because we’re different people.

Consider for a moment that this kind of personal memory defines who we are as individuals; each of us is a unique organization of information, collections of experiences, that owe nothing to the basic physicality of our bodies or our longevity. To run with this idea, I only had to fudge a little bit and invent a new subatomic particle, which I named the nefshon, a “particle of personality.”

Imagine that every instant of your life you’re producing nefshons, representing every experience you have. Each particle is a cluster of information that tells your unique story at that moment in time. The people you shared that experience with also produced their own nefshons of the event. Now here’s the fun part: your memory of those people is made possible by sharing nefshons. You received some of theirs, and likewise parted with some of your own. Seen in this light, your identity is made up not just of your experiences but also contains pieces of everyone you’ve ever met.

That’s fine, but so what? Thanks for asking.

If who we are, if the essential thing that is you, is an elaborate and totally unique organization of information encoded on those subatomic particles — unreliant on your meat body —you transcend death. Breathing your last breath and joining the choir invisible does not mean the information that defined you is gone. Your nefshons don’t care about rigor mortis. At most, your being alive held them together in a common cluster, and your death just means they’ll disperse, much like other particles would. A handy analogy for this is starlight. The information contained in each of those points of lights has traveled vast spans of time and distance to reach you and be seen, even if the star they came from is long gone. Like those particles of light, each nefshon still possesses the information it did from its origin, unaffected by time or distance of the wetware from which it sprang.

In Barsk there is a drug that grants its users — let’s call them Speakers — the ability to perceive and manipulate nefshons, to reach out into the ether and summon the bits of information from a specific person. If a Speaker draws enough of your nefshons together, they combine to produce a simulacrum of the original you, one that has your knowledge and personality and in all respects is you, except for the minor fact that it lacks a physical body. My protagonist, Jorl, is one such individual, a historian who can actually conjure up figures out of history and speak to them, or more simply converse with his best friend whom he believes killed himself but won’t say why, and lo, we’re off and running with a major plot thread for the novel.

The Big Idea here is that we aren’t defined by our bodies but rather by our experiences, that each of us is a unique organization of information that transcends mere physicality. Considered in this way, death is not the end of us because it doesn’t unmake that organization. Moreover, like light from a distant star, the information of who we are still exists, just waiting for someone with the means of perceiving us as we spread out through the universe, each of us immortal, waiting to tell our story.

So, forget about aliens learning about us because they’ve watched our television transmissions; if they’ve worked out the technology they’re going to pass on reruns of Gilligan’s Island and zoom in on the highlights of your life. Whether it’s the awe and transformation of holding your child for the first time, or the warm memory of the day your grandfather came to visit and bought you that ice cream cone, or that night in the backseat of the limo after the junior prom when your world changed forever. All your memories will still be out there, long after you’re not.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Carol Berg

How do you know you are you? And if you don’t know, are you really you at all? Carol Berg ponders those questions in her novel Ash and Silver, and in today’s Big Idea.

CAROL BERG:

There are many literary tropes that I love, especially those that characterize fantasy fiction. Mistaken identity, the innocent who discovers great power, the rogue who finds purpose, sentient dragons, magic as rare, the guide/advisor, shapeshifting, magical portals, the fae, the trickster, gods/saints/angels that are discovered to be real, even the occasional quest with a jewel at the end.

The word trope has a bad reputation, having taken on the burden of cliché, stereotype, and dry imitation. I’ve certainly thrown aside many a book because of yet another elf-dwarf-human road trip or another angst-ridden vampire or one more ever-snarky female cowboy/tank driver/longshorewoman who is really a pixie/ghoul/pond sprite with tattoos and a hunky male guardian angel.

But motifs, characters, plots, and metaphors evolve into tropes because we humans find them innately fascinating and deeply satisfying. What is more delicious for the kid in all of us than Platform 9 ¾ – a portal to a world of magic and adventure? What makes our heart ache like the visit to elfland and the irrevocable choice to stay – abandoning our human loves and homely pleasures – or to go home, relinquishing for all time the exquisite passions of magical life? See Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer for a brilliant example.

In my own writing, I consciously embrace certain tropes, but then do my best to embed them in layered worlds and complex characters, twisting them into something that will draw the reader onto unexpected paths into a deeper story. It’s part of my particular pleasure in writing fantasy.

Ash and Silver is told by a man who can’t remember his own name or anything of his own personal past. Yep, hero’s amnesia, one of my favorite tropes. (Remember that splendid case of amnesia that opens Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber?)

But don’t throw the book across the room yet, because Greenshank’s memory loss was not caused by a blow to the head or a car accident or mafia-delivered drugs, but was magically induced when he chose to accept sanctuary in a strict, secretive military order. Mind-altering magic doesn’t work in this world without the consent of the subject. But, of course, my hero can’t remember what circumstances would induce him, a mature man quite obviously untrained in military skills, to seek sanctuary in such a place or submit to such breakage. This question – along with the why – is the igniter for his story.

Magic that can remove, preserve, and restore memory provides wonderful grist for a fantasy writer’s mill. Simply obliterating all knowledge leaves us a character too ignorant to be interesting. Greenshank is well educated, and I need him to have access to his wide knowledge of the world, history, society, customs, his kingdom’s current war of succession and strange skewing of the seasons. But he can have no recollection of tutors, family, friends, lovers, preferences, biases, or the reasons behind the particular academic disciplines he finds most comfortable.

As hints of his past begin pummeling our hero, demanding his attention like hailstones out of the fog, (you knew that would happen) I had to tread carefully, scouring what I wrote for evidence that he knew more than he should, or felt, suspected, or deduced more than he should. Every scene presented choices. Should he feel sorrow at mentions of the family he can’t remember or only loss? When he meets a person from his past, is there any hint of recognition?  Do I want there to be?

Greenshank does know he is a sorcerer, and over two years has become a far more skilled one, because the Order of the Equites Cineré, Knights of the Ashes, fights with magic as well as sword, spear, and fist. But he has no idea of his own particular magical talent – his bent – or how he studied or practiced that talent in the twenty-something years he has forgotten. This implies a precise, almost surgical, excision of memory.

Herein lies the Big Idea or perhaps the Big Question. What part of us remains when our personal past is gone?

Do our experiences shape us as human beings? Undoubtedly. But if we yield the memory of them, do we somehow become someone different? Are we left adrift without the guidance of our growing? Do we lose the emotions connected with lost faces, forgotten relationships, and missing life, or do those somehow linger in our bones? Are our choices based solely on reason and our reactions on solid evidence, or are there resonances of old biases and yearnings still lurking inside?

Greenshank’s commanders at Fortress Evanide say they remove all personal memory so that their trainees can learn without boundaries or preconceptions.  So they can maintain the singular focus on the present that is necessary to survive, because the Order’s training is rigorous and mortally dangerous. Those who survive their years of training can choose to have their past restored and leave with honor (but no memory of the Order itself.)  But those who stay, those who choose to be invested as Knights of the Ashes, must relinquish their past lives forever. Going forward in service to the Order, each must continually forego all personal memory of the great deeds he does, as well. Thus, no glory. No accumulation of power or spoils of war. The new knight commits to a simple life of comradeship, skill, and just purpose. (Whatever could go wrong with that?)

As the writer, I had to shape answers to all these questions in the context of my story, creating a logical, consistent structure. Those answers led me in directions I never imagined. What began as a favorite trope, ripe for renewal, became the struggle at the very heart of Ash and Silver. In a single, chaotic conjunction of murder, politics, enchantment, history, love, family, grief, anger, and corruption, Greenshank discovers that the fate of the world depends on his identity – his ultimate decision about who he actually is and who he yearns to be.

—-

Ash and Silver: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Joseph Wallace

You might think of the end of the world as the end of it all… but as Joseph Wallace explains in this Big Idea for his novel Slavemakers, every end is also a beginning.

JOSEPH WALLACE:

Like a million other kids—probably a million other kids in Brooklyn alone—I always felt like I’d been born in the wrong era.

Sometimes, instead of being stuck in my never-changing neighborhood with its two-story homes and postage-stamp yards, I’d dream of being born a century or two in the future, giving me the chance to explore distant, uncharted worlds. (If P.S. 193 had offered a class whose final required surviving on a dangerous wilderness planet, like the school in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky did, I would have been the first to sign up.)

More often, though, I didn’t yearn to travel forward but backward through time. I desperately wanted to be living a hundred years earlier, or two hundred, during the great Age of Sail. Back when world maps were filled with blank spaces and countries with long-forgotten names and blurry borders. Back when the huge empty oceans bore the legend “Here Be Monsters.”

It wasn’t that I wanted to discover a new territory, plant a flag, found a civilization. The opposite: I was desperate to escape my city home, with its squirrels and pigeons, so I could truly understand what it was like to be just one species among countless others, instead of always the arrogant alpha.

But I was too late. By the time I got to do the traveling I’d always dreamed of, the world was still beautiful…but far from limitless. The empty spaces had almost all been filled in. Even while wandering among the great herds of East Africa or in the Amazon rainforest, I always knew I wasn’t truly alone. I understood that the wilderness still existed only because my species hadn’t yet chosen to destroy and occupy it.

I’ve been a writer almost since I can remember. But it wasn’t until just a year or two ago that I realized I could visit the world I’d dreamed of, if not in real life, then at least in my writing. That’s how Slavemakers was born.

In my previous novel, Invasive Species, I created a scientifically plausible way to bring modern human society to an end. While most of the book takes place in a fictional present, Invasive Species’ epilogue leaps forward to twenty years after the apocalypse. A group of survivors is about to embark on the first great exploration of what they call the Next World…aboard a sailing ship modeled on those that plied the oceans during the Age of Sail.

To explore a world once again filled with empty places. Here Be Monsters.

When I finished writing that epilogue, I thought I was done. I had no intention of creating a follow-up novel. But then the thought started nagging at me: Why did my characters get to embark on an expedition to an unknown world, but I didn’t?

And, on that thought, the plot of Slavemakers presented itself to me. (All at once, whole, as I was in a car heading back from a visit to Cape Cod.) It’s science fiction, it’s a thriller, but at its heart it’s also something else: A book about learning to adapt to, and survive on, a planet we no longer dominate.

What would it feel like to watch nature reclaim what we’ve long considered “ours”? To witness evolution rush in to fill the gaps left behind by our near disappearance, just as it did after the extinction of the dinosaurs? And, most of all, to be born onto that planet, into the Next World, and to start afresh, without the prejudices and preconceptions that led to the apocalypse?

I don’t live in Brooklyn anymore, and by now I understand the world I live in is the one I’m stuck with. But I don’t think it’s always going to be this way—our species is not going to come anywhere near the dinosaurs’ 165-million-year reign—and in Slavemakers I got to imagine what might happen next.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Molly Crabapple

I’ve been an admirer of the art of Molly Crabapple from the moment I saw it — enough so that I commissioned a portrait of my daughter from her, and was honored to have her do a cover for one of my books. But there’s more to Molly Crabapple than her immense talent with pen and brush. She is equally adept with words, and in the last few years has become a unique, globe-traveling journalist, visiting political hotspots around the world and reporting with both words and art. Drawing Blood is a memoir that covers it all — and today, Crabapple explains why “all” is the important thing for her.

MOLLY CRABAPPLE:

I’ve done a lot of jobs in my life.

I’ve painted pigs on the walls of the swankest nightclub in London, and hopelessly passed out chocolates to dieting fashion people, while wearing a high feather headdress on my head. I’ve painted myself white and stood very still at parties, posing as a human statue to earn tips. I’ve drawn kids. I’ve drawn cockaroaches. I once got paid by a conceptual artist to sneak up behind museum goers and whisper “This is the life” into their ears. I’ve been a model, a gogo dancer, an artist, a writer, a journalist, the founder of an international chain of art classes, the girl who paints people’s portraits on the street.

Perhaps the only occupation I haven’t tried is sleep.

I started this writing gig a little over three years ago.

It was a pursuit that took me all over the world, from refugee camps to extremely swank press parties for Donald Trump, where I saw the intricate architecture of his hair up close. Yes, loves, it baffles me as well. Maybe its where Cthulhu hides. While starting with personal essays, I turned later to journalism on prisons, refugees and conflict. Over the last two years, I wrote a book. It was very hard, in ways I never could have suspected.

The month before publication is the time in an author’s life when we must walk the road of The Shilldebeast. We must tell people about our book. About ourselves. We must distill ourselves into a single shining soundbyte, sleek enough for even a pundit to grasp. We must not just be branded, like cattle. We must be The Brand itself.

This simplicity was never my forte. My many jobs point to a taste for wild maximalism… as does the paint stained sequined chaos of my apartment, my wardrobe, my parties, my life.

While doing this little dance, I had a journalist come to my apartment — which is also my studio.

“What do you do???”, the journalist asked.

Now, the apartment is filled with half finished paintings, half drunk whisky bottles, half completed sketchbooks. All sorts of evidence of doing.

I looked at the journalist, confused.

“I mean, you write, you draw, what do you… do?” The journalist continued.

Then I got it. They wanted me to sum myself up with one word. I could not.

Monastic focus is a beautiful thing. There’s something wonderful in the simplicity, in the Japanese ceramic teacup, in the apt, exquisite line. But that perfection was not mine, and it never would be. I have always loved complexity and chaos.

I told the journalist that I was both an artist and writer. But, if I was speaking more deeply, I’d say the two were not really separable.

I’ve drawn since I was old enough to make a mess. I’ve been writing for one month and three years. Art taught me to write. It made me hunger to write because art was mute and vague and whispered where writing was explicit and talked. Art taught me a craftsman’s discipline, a lack of preciousness, a work ethic that brutalized me.

I do too much, maybe? Maybe that was the confusing part?

But the world is too much and this is my one life and yours too. I want to consume the world with greedy gulps, like that first glass of whiskey, when you want to start the night.

A month ago, I was at the Plaza Hotel. I’d been up all night, drinking all that whiskey, and now it was the dregs. It was a party just for women. I sat slumped next to some flax-haired writer who was writing a book that would be justly very big. We spoke about our work.

A half hour later, as I staggered out into the bleary New York street, I thought about how little boundaries mattered – especially in the face of love.

I wasn’t thinking about what we were — in terms of genre or discipline or job. I just knew I loved women. Specifically, women who are bad by virtue of their muchness. These too smart too sharp too strong too beautiful women who have spent the night toasting their own victories, then passed out in the dawn’s weak light, safe amongst each other. I loved them with a ferocious ache, and I wished them all the glory of this city.

If I have one unifying big idea, it might be to embrace that muchness. The world the critics the bosses the everything — they want to shape us into branded properties – serious or frivolous, intellectual or sexy, this or that. What they can never accept is that we are artists – those amoral aesthetic gluttons, who want only to learn and create on this vast, beautiful terrible earth.

My theory? Fuck this. Fuck limits. Fuck deciding this or that. Fuck anything that would confine you.

This is your one life. Life is too precious to cut off pieces of yourself.

—-

Drawing Blood: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Michael Livingston

In his debut novel The Shards of Heaven, author Michael Livingston is hunting some big game indeed. And possibly changing the course of history — and myth — in the bargain.

MICHAEL LIVINGSTON:

My Big Idea in The Shards of Heaven was to make mythic artifacts real — and that meant killing God.

Hold up! Put the pitchforks and torches down, folks. Let me explain.

No. As Inigo Montoya said, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I was one of the many millions who were enthralled by the call of Middle-earth as children, and as an adult I’ve followed Tolkien’s footsteps in becoming a professor of medieval studies. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how Tolkien designed his Middle-earth legendarium to function as a kind of mythic past to our myths — how The Hobbit, for instance, exists “behind” Beowulf.

It’s fascinating stuff. At the same time, it always bothered me how loosely Tolkien’s “mythology behind mythologies” fit into the real world. I can’t actually go to Minas Tirith, and that’s profoundly not cool.

So I set out, in the series that begins with The Shards of Heaven, to create a myth behind myths that would more closely tie to history. In so doing, I hoped I could also collapse the distinction between fantasy and history, which has always been too sharply drawn for my tastes anyway.

There are many twists and turns in the story that I put together for Shards — from the death of Caesar to the rise of his heirs, from the love of Antony and Cleopatra to the horrors of the battle of Actium — but that’s all plot and characters at the surface of the tale. The big stuff, what I like to think is the really juicy stuff, exists underneath all that. The big stuff is that mythology I built out of mythologies in order to explain those very mythologies, and the fantasy I wove into history to explain it all.

And the key to all that, it turned out, was killing God.

I mean, not that I really killed God. Not personally, anyway. That would be inconceivable. Deicide is decidedly above my pay grade. But it’s nevertheless true that within the mythology of the Shards my characters have declared Him, Her, or It to be dead, and that’s probably close enough to pulling the trigger in this case. (Whether or not my characters are actually correct in that declaration, of course, is something that awaits more books!)

Anyway, the plot premise of the series is this: everything history says about the rise of the Roman Empire is true … except it doesn’t tell us everything there is to say. Legendary artifacts of the ancient world — like the Trident of Poseidon and the Ark of the Covenant — are real, and they played a secret role in the shaping of the history we know. Fantasy is thus subsumed into “real” history (or vice versa, I suppose). And along the way, to make it all work — historically, philosophically, even existentially — God had to be real, and God had to die.

Why this is, how this is, and what this means … well, that’s a matter for some serious spoilers in The Shards of Heaven and in its sequels (book two comes out next year).

What I can say for certain is this: I really don’t think there’s any need for you to be gathering all that wood along with your torches. And all that gasoline … nope, I don’t think that’s necessary at all. Unless, well, if you’re going to burn books, please do start rolling the cameras. And call in the media, because that could be positively marvelous for sales.

Now that is a Big Idea.

—-

The Shards of Heaven: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Martin Rose

The politics of modern life are difficult. Are they more difficult when monsters are thrown into the mix? For the answer to that question, we turn to Martin Rose, and My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart.

MARTIN ROSE:

On the surface, My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart looks and seems like carefree pulp, disguised in the antique tropes of noir – complete with angst ridden anti-hero, the rabbit hole of conspiracy, the stock serial killer, and the shadow villain who must be stopped for the sake of humanity.

But I have played a wicked trick, dear Reader. Beneath the camouflage of My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart lurks a bigger idea, buried in the background – the corrosive effects of corruption and violence, and what these twin forces do to ordinary people. This idea lives and breathes in Vitus’s character as its most prominent form – a reformed zombie turned human. It is through the corruption of his governmental family that he is killed and remade into terrible shapes.

The monsters that populate my books are not supernatural forces that defy explanation, or exist in a vacuum we can shrug away as being “the way things are.” Instead, I struck upon the idea of monsters being man-made, an allegory for what nations do to otherwise good people when their violence becomes institutionalized and every day people become oppressed in the extreme, (such as political prisoners) from the old Soviet Union, to the recent Arab Spring and events in Egypt, to the United States and our policies involving rendition and torture.

When we draw citizens into a dragnet and punish them, we create monsters. We create them through violence and oppression, with an official seal of approval. The effect of covert government policies designed to maintain imperial power is a poisoning of the population at large – explicitly referenced by my opening quote from Chalmers Johnson, in which he explains the term we are all coming to know as “blowback.”

It seems there are few subjects so taboo as politics. Yet, people happily talk about monsters and superheroes on television and the movies. Here, the ground is rife with politics, disguised as mere entertainment. And after all, we need places where we can hang our hats and dream a little without worries dogging our every waking hour. The playground of story and imagination has always been a time-tested place to approach topics often too controversial to speak of in other environments. If anything, we love to talk politics – as long as we don’t know we are. In this way, we preserve polite company, but overlook the cost – a human cost in which we fail to look our monsters in the face and recognize they were once human – and we could easily be them, but for a twist of fate.

Writing that very quality is the hardest part. I tasked myself to make clear that the victims in my story are often accidental. They did not sin, they did not deserve the life they stumbled into. Villains come in degrees – we might know who pulled the trigger, but not who ordered the hit. Degrees of responsibility also come into play as I tried to make clear that we often find ourselves in untenable situations, held hostage by good intentions, by love and hope, only to have these qualities double back and bite us. We are all born with these potentials; and my characters explore them, striving to come to terms with the schism that exists between reality and desire.

Nothing is simple, everything is complex. The monsters are attempting to survive in a world that has betrayed them. The figures of authority are corrupted sociopaths, more dangerous than the monsters they created, and in between stands Vitus, who must make the hardest journey of all – to take an ethical accounting of himself, and come to realize the people he trusted are mere frauds, and those he felt certain were his adversaries, might be the only ones worth saving. Most of all, to look inside oneself and have the courage to recognize where one has failed and must martial the strength to do better.

It is not an accident, that in this installment, Vitus is restored to human form in the depths of a prison cell – we start from the humblest beginnings, and endeavor to climb through and journey back to the qualities that make us human – the sensitivity of feeling, the rediscovery of kindness, the vulnerability that is intrinsic to occupying a fragile, human body, and caring for others more than we care for ourselves.

While I make it clear that his biology plays an integral part in this process, being in a human body isn’t enough to qualify alone. It’s how he reacts to his environment – and how he treats it with more consideration, to care more for the people around him and learn to think of them first before himself, to understand fundamental empathy, even for those he must bring to justice – demonstrates his return to a human-centered space. And while he is far from perfect, he is ever learning.

Aren’t we all?

—-

My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s|Indiebound|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Matt Mikalatos

Sometimes the unexpected shows up right in front of you, and as Matt Mikalatos discovered in the writing of Sky Lantern, where it takes you from there can be equally unexpected.

MATT MIKALATOS:

My Big Idea crashed in my front yard.

On a rainy day last November, I found a flattened, burnt-out sky lantern on my driveway. Scrawled across it in magic marker were the words, “Love you, Dad. Miss you so much. Steph.”

Those eight words stabbed me in the heart. I spent the rest of the day turning it over in my mind, thinking about my own three daughters. I found myself on the verge of tears several times that day, thinking of my own kids sending a letter after my death, not expecting a reply.

If my daughters sent a note like that, and some father found it, I would want him to do something.

But what could I do? It’s not like she wrote her email address on the lantern. I didn’t know her last name and “Steph who sent a sky lantern” wasn’t much to go on.

Nevertheless, late that night I pounded out a letter to Steph on my laptop. I didn’t expect it would find her, but I did my best to tell her all the things I suspect most fathers want their children to know. That she was loved. That he was proud of her. That he wanted her to live a good life.

It was a small act of kindness, but there wasn’t much chance she would see it. I thought, best case scenario, maybe someone would remember it one day and show it to my daughters when they needed it.

The next morning I woke to notes from all over the world, as the letter went viral.

For weeks I received emails from people sharing about their dads: good, terrible, absent, dead or dying. I cried every morning reading the stories of kids who had lost their parents when they were young, or moms who were keeping the letter for their kids, so they could have something “from their dad.” A woman in Germany told me she carries the letter in her purse. A woman in Malaysia sent me pictures of the mandala she painted when her dad passed.

It was beautiful and powerful, this reminder of how much we all have in common, and how much pain and loss there is in our world. I was reminded, too, of the beauty in sharing our pain with one another, in acknowledging to one another that all is not as we would like it in the world, and that we wish things could be different. To know we are not alone eased our grief. We are not alone in this. To acknowledge one another’s grief and to say to one another, “You are worthy of love” is a small act of kindness, but it makes an enormous difference.

That’s the Big Idea: Small acts of kindness can make the world better. Remembering we are all human, and thus worthy of love and respect, can bring transformative beauty into the world. The things we have in common as human beings are greater than the things that separate us.

As for writing the book, in many ways it was the hardest book I’ve ever written. It required being vulnerable in a way I hadn’t done before in print. I shared about loss, and grief, and love in the clearest, most honest terms I could and it was beautiful and painful and sometimes I couldn’t see the screen clearly as I typed. I felt completely wrung out when it was done.

Sky Lantern is the story of a small act of kindness. It’s about Steph, and how she found the letter and how we – people who are different in nearly every way it’s possible to be different – became good friends who care deeply about one another.

Writing Sky Lantern brought hope, love and joy into my life. I hope reading it will do the same for you!

—-

Sky Lantern: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

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

(P.S. from the author: “If people are in the Portland Oregon area, the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s is hosting an author signing on November 20th at 7 pm! Steph is going to fly out for it, also.”)

The Big Idea: William Shunn

Author William Shunn has had something happen to him which it seems unlikely has ever happened to you, and that event is the cornerstone of his memoir, The Accidental Terrorist. But as Shunn learned, telling the story of that event was not merely a matter of reciting the facts.

WILLIAM SHUNN:

I was arrested in 1987, when I was a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary.

For terrorism.

In Canada, of all places.

But even before that happened, I had the big idea to write about what it’s really like to be a missionary.

We probably all picture Mormon missionaries as an army of interchangeable young men in white shirts and ties, trudging endlessly from one porch to the next with a message and a holy book. Even growing up Mormon, this was pretty much how I envisioned mission life. It wasn’t until I turned nineteen and was pressed into service myself that I discovered a more colorful reality.

The missionaries I met were anything but homogeneous, and frequently anything but holy. Some were diligent and some were slackers. Some were pious, sure, but more were profane. There was gossip and brownnosing and backstabbing galore. A few of my colleagues seemed to be set on breaking every rule in our little white handbook, not mention a Commandment or two.

I was something of a sheltered kid up to this point, but I was also a budding science fiction writer. I’d attended the Clarion Workshop at Michigan State University only a year earlier. My reaction to the absurd truth of mission life was, inevitably, an intense desire to write about it.

What’s more, I wanted to write about it not in some roundabout, science-fictional way but as a straight first-person memoir. The missionary world would be alien enough to most readers to be interesting all on its own. Taking mental notes for my tell-all book was one of the ways I kept myself sane.

As I said, this was my big idea even before the ill-considered incident that landed me in jail. After I was free again, with a better story than I’d ever imagined, I was all the more eager to get my book underway. But as a faithful young Mormon, every time I tried to start it my worries about church discipline got in the way. After all, the memoir I envisioned wouldn’t exactly be a faith-promoting exercise.

It wasn’t until I was no longer so young and no longer so Mormon that I was finally able to get moving on a first draft of The Accidental Terrorist. The year was 1999. I set myself some ground rules. First, I couldn’t make anything up. Second, I couldn’t go out of my way to make myself look good. Third, I couldn’t poke fun at my younger self, no matter how stupidly I might think I’d behaved as a kid.

As a further challenge, I had to weave enough Mormon history and doctrine into the story that my criminal act would make sense, and not come across as the bad punchline to a worse joke. That’s what led directly to my next big idea—to braid my narrative together with the life story of Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s larger-than-life founding prophet.

It’s tough to explain Mormonism without explaining Joseph Smith. It took a huge infusion of bravado to think I could even try, or that I could put our stories side-by-side without his overwhelming mine. It took even more chutzpah to draw parallels between our two lives, and to think that my experiences could illuminate his as much as his illuminated mine.

That was hard to pull off, but one thing was even harder—writing about myself with sufficient insight and compassion. Despite my best efforts, my earliest drafts dripped with condescension. I managed to write that out in later drafts, but my younger self was still often the butt of the joke. Real understanding continued to elude me.

It took sixteen years and the right editor to get me over that final hump. (A lot of therapy, too—any writer’s best friend.) My editor asked me all the tough, probing questions about emotions and motivations and expectations that I wasn’t sure how to ask myself. This was the spool of thread she armed me with before shoving me into the labyrinth to bring back some warm, bleeding answers.

Two drafts and six months later, we were both satisfied with the result. I’m glad I finally found the words to portray young Elder Shunn in an empathetic light because I owe that kid a lot. Beyond the obvious, he left me one foresightful gift which I only discovered as time was running out to choose a photograph for the book cover.

I stumbled across it while sifting through a box of mission mementos—a photograph of me in a white shirt, tie, and black missionary name tag. I’m posed at the edge of a burning wheat field, deep in thought. I hold a sheaf of tinder in my hand, as if I’ve just set the fire myself.

I’d forgotten this photo existed, but it was the perfect metaphor for my story. Looking at it, I got the eerie feeling that my younger self had been thinking ahead to this very moment and had sent me exactly what I needed.

Like I said, I owe that kid a lot. I owe that kid this book.

—-

The Accidental Terrorist: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: James Renner

I’ve forgotten what I was going to say to introduce James Renner’s new novel. As the novel is called The Great Forgetting, perhaps this is appropriate. And did I really forget… or was I made to forget?

JAMES RENNER:

When I was a kid my father would take me camping at state parks around Ohio. Salt Fork. Pymatuning. Mohican. If you’ve never been, these parks all pretty much look the same: stark, concrete buildings for bathing and gutting fish in the middle of old-growth forests. I asked my dad, once, when the parks were built and he said after the war, meaning World War II.

But the parks looked older to me. I imagined they were hundreds, thousands of years old and that we had only forgotten when they were really constructed.

In college, I learned of a theory called “Phantom Time.”

The idea behind Phantom Time is that, at various moments in history, our great leaders rejiggered the calendar for their personal agendas. Some scholars believe Pope Sylvester II skipped over a hundred years in the official calendar just so that he could be Pope in 1000 A.D. A German historian, Heribert Illig, is convinced much of the Middle Ages never happened at all, specifically the years 614  – 911.

How crazy is that?

We assume the year is 2015. But if we skipped over hundreds of years because someone altered the official calendar, perhaps it’s only 1772. How about this – what if they didn’t always just skip ahead? What if some ruler in the distant past simply deleted historical record? An unaccounted for span of time. Perhaps it’s not 1772. Perhaps it’s really 2115.

It’s enough to make you paranoid, isn’t it?

That idea was the seed for my new novel, The Great Forgetting. In the book, I imagined a world in which the United States turned its back on Europe in World War II. The war was much bigger than what we were told, and raged on until 1964, when we finally defeated the Werhmacht as they pushed into New England. Billions died.

As America began to rebuild, a scientist came forward with an idea: we could forget that we let the Nazis win, if we really wanted to. A new history could be written. And we could reset the calendar. He had this idea for a giant machine that could rewrite our minds to accept a new, shared history in which we were heroes. That initiative was known as The Great Forgetting. We scrubbed 100 years of history from our records.

Eventually, a history teacher from Ohio uncovers the conspiracy. And he is faced with a choice: is it better to forget our mistakes or learn from them so that they’re never repeated?

It’s a heady idea. And maybe not so far fetched.

After all, who wouldn’t want to forget their worst mistake? And how powerful is that urge when it’s an entire country?

The Great Forgetting is available everywhere books are sold, November 10, 2015. Or is that 2115?

—-

The Great Forgetting: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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