Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Katherine Addison

The worlds of fantasy offer up ample space for the imagination to play… but do they also and simultaneously constrict those same imaginations? Author Katherine Addison fears they might, and when it came to her novel The Goblin Emperor, Addison decided on a new world with a difference. She’s here to explain how, and why.

KATHERINE ADDISON:

By the time you finish writing a novel, it’s frequently somewhere between difficult and impossible to remember how you started, but in the case of The Goblin Emperor, I remember exactly: I wanted to write a story with both elves and airships. Because there was no reason I couldn’t, and it seemed like an awesome idea.

Once I’d thought of airships, it was inevitable that I would think of the Hindenburg. Although I love and write science fiction and fantasy–and don’t want to stop!–down at the bottom of my heart, in the darkness among the spiders and ghouls, I’m a horror writer. I tend to be interested in how things go wrong, and I’m drawn to catastrophe.

Everything else in the book came from that first decision to combine elves and airships and catastrophe and trying to think through the ramifications of each subsequent domino as it tipped to knock the domino behind it. As a part of this process, I found myself thinking a lot about science and technology and the conflicted relationship epic fantasy has with both of them.

By “epic fantasy,” I mean what Tolkien called “secondary-world fantasy” (which is a better name, but much more awkward): fantasies that take place entirely in made-up worlds with no reference to the real world at all. Tolkien himself is a prime example, and the genre continues to thrive. To give you some living practitioners, just off the top of my head: Kate Elliott, David Anthony Durham, Martha Wells, Scott Lynch, N. K. Jemisin, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Saladin Ahmed.

I love this genre and have since I was very small, but I do find its attitude towards science and technology frustrating. Somewhere along the line, we got it into our heads that any society with magic would, for some reason, stop advancing somewhere shy of the Industrial Revolution. The implicit (or explicit) assumption often seems to be that magic trumps gunpowder, like some weird game of Rock Paper Scissors. Or there’s been some sort of giant mysterious cataclysm that destroyed all the technology and (apparently) made everybody stupid. And we’ve all been brainwashed by Tolkien into believing that only evil people have (or want) technological advancements past the Spinning Jenny, and that a nostalgic pastoral technology-rejecting Arcadia is obviously better than, oh, I dunno, flush toilets. Or flashlights. Or fire alarms.

So we end up, most often, in some stagnated Hollywood version of “The Dark Ages” with castles and people in robes and no interest in science–because magic!–and the most technology you’ll see is maybe a catapult. Diana Wynne Jones’ brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland skewers this cobbled-together mess of assumptions and lazy thinking like it was a shish-kebab. The very fact that she could do so tells you just how codified this generic fantasy setting has become and how many writers use it.

The thing is, this set of assumptions and valuations becomes a cage. So even if you’re trying to write a society that has both magic and technology, it can be really hard to remember that the cage door isn’t actually closed. I had to keep reminding myself as I was writing The Goblin Emperor that technological progress is not bad, that scientific inquiry is awesome, that I wasn’t violating any genuine taboos by having steamships and factories and astronomers and clockmakers and gas lamps. And the enormous steam-powered drawbridge that the characters spend the whole book arguing about.

I don’t deny the appeal of a pastoral world, one without air-pollution or global warming or oil spills, and I think fantasy does provide a much-needed outlet for that craving of the imagination. I don’t want to do away with that. But fantasy can do so much more. There are so many other ways to imagine our relationship with scientific and technological progress than this Manichean either-or we’ve saddled ourselves with. I would love to see fantasy, as a genre, explore that, instead of cowering in the cage we’ve built ourselves, as it gets smaller and smaller every year.

As well as being a wicked satirist, Diana Wynne Jones was a brilliant fantasist (a propos of this discussion, I believe she was the author who introduced me to the radical idea that you could have magic and trains in the same world). In her short story, “The Sage of Theare,” set in a world hemmed about with rules and restrictions and lists, the anarchic Sage of Dissolution chalks this slogan on a wall: “IF RULES MAKE A FRAMEWORK FOR THE MIND TO CLIMB ABOUT IN, WHY SHOULD THE MIND NOT CLIMB RIGHT OUT, SAYS THE SAGE OF DISSOLUTION.”

Fundamentally, that’s what I want to say. These unwritten rules are a cage, and there is no reason we should not climb right out.

And that’s my Big Idea.

—-

The Goblin Emperor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Elle Cosimano

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 What’s in a name? If you’re author Elle Cosimano, it turns out quite a lot. The name of her protagonist in Nearly Gone was a key to unlocking the character — and the novel itself.

ELLE COSIMANO:

I don’t really feel like I know my characters until I know their names. The early stages of writing a book often feel like walking through a crowd at a party, trying to identify smiling faces that look only vaguely familiar across the room. There’s a comfort in knowing someone’s name, an implied closeness. So when my little brother turned eighteen and changed his name, I questioned whether I’d ever really known him at all.

Shannon had always been small, a wisp of a boy with a mop of hair that was bigger than he was. He was picked on mercilessly for years, for his too-petite size and his too-feminine name. He was the smallest kid on the wrestling team—hell, he was the smallest kid in all of his classes—and yet somehow, he managed to be the loudest and most troublesome, like he spent every waking hour trying to prove to the world that he was big.

The day he left for college must have felt to him like a fresh start. A way to become someone new. Someone stronger. He wrapped himself in the name Sean, burying Shannon inside him, expecting someone larger than life to come bursting through. And while I quipped to him that I didn’t know this boy named Sean, I don’t think I truly understood Shannon—his most deeply rooted fears and insecurities, or the acceptance he yearned for—until he chose to become someone new.

My main character’s name wasn’t always Nearly Boswell. Finding her name was a journey that seemed to mirror my brother’s search for a name that fit him inside. Thumbing through old journals and outlines, I could show you pages of ordinary names I considered: Rachael, Kate, Samantha—but none of these names called forth an image that fit the character I was creating. The girl I pictured in my head was inspired by a former co-worker, a single mother of two adrift in the aftermath of a painful divorce, who spent her lunch hours obsessing over the Missed Connections in the paper. She poked fun at the ads, as though it were only casual entertainment, but when she thought no one was watching, all that humor slipped away. She struck me as deeply lonely, as if she secretly hoped one of the ads had been written for her.

This image in mind, I tried on name after name, hoping one of them would ring true and help me see this character more clearly, but none of them fit. Who was she? What was she looking for?

Determined to find the right name, I started with a character sketch, a loosely scribbled outline of physical and personality traits. Her features were similar to, but not quite the same as her father’s, and while her hair was curly, it wasn’t as curly as her mother’s. She was good at math and science, almost top of her class. And she might have felt pretty sometimes, were it not for her second-hand clothes.

I ended up with a list of glass-half-empty words: almost, not quite, just about, sometimes. I found her name at the bottom of this glass. Here was a girl who was nearly.

Nearly. The word held a heartbreaking connotation that made me feel and relate to her more deeply. Because I’d felt nearly at points in my life, too.  I remembered the frustration of being a B+ student, the shame of being only worth kisses in secret but not being cute enough to date, and the pain of being loved, but not enough to hold my family together when it was tearing at the seams. Nearly became real, because she existed inside me.

Finally, my character had a name. And yet, something still didn’t fit.

Like my brother, I knew Nearly would never be satisfied to wear a name that mirrored her own sense of inadequacy. She wanted to be more. She ached to be enough. This girl, who dreamed big and set goals for herself despite odds and obstacles, would choose her own nickname, maybe even change it if she could.

And she did. As I wrote, Nearly took the nickname “Leigh”, a name that made her feel stronger and less ashamed. That choice helped me know her more deeply, just as my brother’s choice helped me to understand him. Nearly’s vehement rejection of her own name revealed her motivations and self-doubt. She wasn’t just looking for someone. She was looking to fill the void inside her—to feel whole.

My “Big Idea” revealed itself in this almost-missed connection between the significance of a search in the personal ads and the search for Nearly’s identity: that we are all, in some way, nearly—not just looking for someone else, but seeking to be someone else.  Like my brother who wanted to be bigger, Nearly who wanted to be more, and my co-worker pouring over the Missed Connections, we are all searching for our own missing piece.

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Nearly Gone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Adam Christopher

Author Adam Christopher believes two words are incredibly important to any writer, and those two words aren’t “get paid” (they’re important too, to be sure). What are those two words, and how do they relate to his latest novel, The Burning Dark (which, incidentally, received a coveted starred review in Library Journal)? Christopher’s about to tell you.

ADAM CHRISTOPHER:

What if…?

It’s the single most valuable question in a writer’s toolbox. From those two words, an infinite variety of story can flow. I might even go so far as to say it’s the foundation of storytelling.

Except, while you can reverse-engineer that initial question out of each of my first four published novels—Empire State, Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic, Hang Wire—I’m not sure any of those actually started from that point. There are as many ways to come to a story or idea as there are stories or ideas. “What if?” is a powerful tool, and although you’ll be answering that question when you write a book, you don’t necessarily need to be conscious of the fact.

But for The Burning Dark, my first foray into the kind of space opera-tinged science fiction that I grew up adoring, it wasn’t just one “what if?” question that gave me the big idea for the book. It was two.

I like science fiction of the kind that features spaceships and warp drives, federations that embrace a thousand different alien races and cultures, galactic empires that stretch across impossible distances. I was always going to write a book that had a least some of that in it.

But I also like ghost stories. From an early age, they were my favourite kind of story, and as I got older—helped, no doubt, by living right next door to a small library which had a remarkably well-stocked section on the paranormal—I developed into something of an armchair ghosthunter. From creaky old houses filled with shadows and cold spots and doors that open and close all by themselves, to people being thrown out of bed and living rooms trashed by poltergeists, I drank it all in. Whether such phenomena are real or not is beside the point—it’s a fascinating aspect of social and cultural anthropology. And they make for some damn fine stories.

So… what if you had a traditional ghost story, but instead of a haunted house, you had a haunted space station? What would that be like? How much of the trappings of old fashioned supernatural tales could you include, and what would be different?

The Burning Dark was born. Here I had an idea to combine two interests—space and ghosts—into a single story. Sure, it’s not like I’m the first person to have ever thought of that, but it immediately struck me as a fascinating idea. And one as creepy as heck.

I began to build the world. Space opera is science fiction on an epic scale, and while I was writing a small scale ghost story set aboard a decommissioned space station at the edge of nowhere, a larger universe unfolded. From that “what if?” question, I found myself describing the state of the human race a thousand years in the future, and the terrible war they were fighting against a machine intelligence, a hive-mind without reason or motive that was swarming across the galaxy with eight-legged killing machines.

And then I had another “what if?” question burning in my mind.

I don’t remember where I first heard the story, but the “urban” legend of the lost cosmonauts is something that has creeped the bejeezus out of me for years. As the story goes, before Yuri Gagarin’s historic space flight, the Soviets sent up a whole bunch of cosmonauts, each mission ending in failure and death, with capsules either burning up on re-entry or drifting off into the infinite black. It’s a slice of Cold War paranoia, backed up by the Soviet’s Orwellian habit of erasing people they didn’t like from history, literally airbrushing people from photographs and deleting them from records. It’s a scary and terrible story about sending heroes to their deaths, but there’s little evidence to support it.

Except for some audio recordings, made by a pair of Italian brothers, radio enthusiasts who managed to patch into Soviet communications. The recordings are indistinct and poor quality, and, to be totally honest, could be of anything. The most famous recording is of a female cosmonaut dubbed Ludmila, apparently reporting to Soviet mission control as her capsule burns around her. Listening to her is a very weird, even slightly disturbing experience. While there is no doubt that the recording came from the Italians—that the brothers picked up something—whether or not it is what it is supposed to be is, like a good ghost story, irrelevant.

But what if the lost cosmonauts were real? What if Ludmila really did send a mayday to Earth as her mission went fatally wrong?

What if someone, a thousand years later, picked up her signal, trying desperately to answer the call before realising the transmission was an echo from another time?

And… what if Ludmila answered back?

From two different but equally unsettling ideas I had something new, something that was as big as space opera but as claustrophobic and tense as an old ghost story told around a campfire. A story about space marines fighting alien war machines, while confronting an evil far stranger, darker and older than anything they have faced before.

All from two simple words: What… if?

—-

The Burning Dark:Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Bill Quick

It’s the end of the world as we know it — and we do know it, because the end of the world has been essayed enough over the years. How to change it up and make things fresh? That was the question Bill Quick asked himself for his latest novel, Lightning Fall. This is how he decided to do it.

BILL QUICK:

I’ve been writing science fiction for going on fifty years now. I was weaned on the later Golden Age guys like Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Niven, Pournelle, and the man who inspired me face-to-face, Ted Cogswell, who wrote a landmark story called The Spectre General back in the day, to whom I dedicated my first published novel, Dreams of Flesh and Sand.

I still like all these writers. For better or worse, their use of big canvases, themes, and concepts still inspires the way I write and what I choose to write about. In particular, I’ve always been moved by what were once called disaster novels, but now have been sliced and diced into several sub-genres, including apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction.   There aren’t many books I still re-read. Books like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land have not worn well with me, but every few years I pick up an book called Lucifer’s Hammer, written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, turn to page one, and make the trek out of a burning Los Angeles once again.

I’d always intended to try my hand at this sort of epic, but somehow, in the course of writing and selling a few dozen other books, I never quite got around to it. Until now.

EMP (electromagnetic pulse) fiction has become almost a sub-genre of its own. I’ve read several examples, and found one or two impressive, but I noticed that most of them used EMP as a McGuffin: An EMP happens, and that’s the end. Everything else is all about surviving the sudden imposition of an 18th century environment on a technological civilization. A particularly risible example of this approach was a recent TV series, Revolution, which depicted young people contending against threats with steel swords.  Apparently none of the screenwriters had any idea just how much technology was involved in making swords, let alone making and working steel, and how rare that knowledge is in present day society.

My view of modern technological culture is that it is well-nigh impossible to understand how interconnected everything has become. But I wanted to write an EMP disaster novel that tried, as well as I was able, to show the social, political, technological, economic, and cultural brittleness and frailty inherent in the existence we take for granted.

The best way to do so, it seemed to me, was not simply to turn out the lights, but to turn out only some of them – and then tell the tale of the sort of problems modern America would face if somebody or something abruptly removed, say, California from our current scenery.

A book I read a long time ago, The Late, Great State of California, took a similar tack, but handled it as a laundry list of what America would lose if California sank into the ocean after The Big One.

After much thought, I decided that things would be considerably more complicated than that. It took me a couple of years of research and writing to work out those complications, and I discovered in the process that human factors and reactions would likely have at least as much effect, if not more, than the problems created by the technological disaster.

We like to console ourselves that things generally work out for the best, that our leaders usually make intelligent, rational decisions, and that tomorrow will be a better day.  Unfortunately, history teaches us this is not always, or even usually, the case.

Lightning Fall: A Novel of Disaster, is my attempt to explain, in classic hard SF tropes, why and how catastrophe has been such an enduring and intimate feature of human history.

And is there a happy ending?

Well…maybe. Depends on what you mean by happy, I guess.

—-

Lightning Fall: Amazon (Kindle)|Payloadz (ePub)|Createspace (paperback)

Visit the author’s Web site.

The Big Idea: Denise Kiernan

Fiction and non-fiction are different categories of storytelling — but in both cases the author has to decide what to tell and how to tell it, shaping the story so that it is a story, rather than just a leaden bundle of information. When researching the real-life information the would become The Girls of Atomic City, author Denise Kiernan found an interesting idea… now all she had to do was make a tale out of it. Here’s how she did it.

DENISE KIERNAN:

A story without conflict is like an inhibited lover. It just lies there. No matter how hard you try to get turned on, you lose interest. It can’t be over soon enough.

What attracts me as a writer to a particular story, what inspires that chemistry, is often—on the surface at least—unpredictable. Though there may not appear to be much rhyme or reason to my tastes, the one thing that always hooks me is that those tales keep me guessing. Their conversations grab me and I keep coming back to get to know them better, to keep turning their pages.

As a writer, sometimes it is just a look—photos, specifically. That’s what happened with my latest nonfiction book. I came across a vintage, black-and-white photo of some very young women operating some very odd-looking machines. The caption explained that many of these young women were recent high school graduates from rural Tennessee, and that they were enriching uranium for the first atomic bomb. The kicker: they had no idea that that was what they were doing.

Fantastic dramatic tension! I thought. You’re working on the most destructive weapon known to mankind and you have no idea until that very same weapon is revealed to the world? I dove in, and the story kept getting better. People were recruited from all over to live and work in a secret government city not found on any maps. They were highly trained to perform intricate tasks with no idea what larger purpose those tasks served. Better yet, if they asked too many questions, their stay living and working in this mysterious town was over in a hurry.

I was hooked by the Orwellian feel of it all. Looming billboards reminding everyone to keep their lips zipped. Undercover agents and citizen informants stealthily listening in on conversations in dorms and cafeterias. While I felt the story had all the hallmarks of an engaging novel, I figured that when truth seems stranger than fiction, why not stick with the truth?

This presented a couple of challenges. First, my subjects were in their eighties and nineties. If I  was going to write a work of narrative nonfiction, I wanted the women’s experiences to move the story forward. I wanted to stay with their voices and their perspectives. While I was routinely amazed at the level of detail many of them recalled regarding events that had transpired so long ago, there were certainly gaps in everyone’s memories. In order to tell what I considered to be a complete story about the town of Oak Ridge during World War II, I had to use multiple women. There was an incredible amount of time-lining and Post-It shuffling going on all over my living room floor (no computer screen was big enough in the early stages) in order to piece it all together.

Another central challenge revolved around the book’s big idea: Only they didn’t know… I wanted to embrace the “not-knowingness” of those characters, which was going to provide the most juice, dramatically speaking. So while the reader knows the story is headed to the dropping of the world’s first atomic bombs, I still needed a way to let the main characters drive that story, even if they were essentially driving blindfolded.

I considered various approaches. Omitting the entire behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the Manhattan Project officials and scientists kept my female leads in control, in a sense, but it risked leaving the reader too far behind. If he or she knew too little about the history of the Manhattan Project, the real stakes of that moment in history would be lost. Third-person omniscient seemed promising for a bit, but whenever I heard my inner voice beginning to say, Little did they know… I started to feel as though I was writing a cheesy movie trailer instead of a nonfiction book.

So I decided to take a hint from the Manhattan Project itself: I decided to compartmentalize. One of the ways the folks in the know kept a lid on the Manhattan Project was by keeping jobs, responsibilities and access to information as limited and as separate as possible. There were two worlds, really, one in which workers toiled away with little idea what they were working on and a much smaller, more exclusive world in which strings were pulled, strategies were devised and nuclear history was made.

I decided to create two worlds, too. I wrote interstitial chapters that took the readers out of the world of Oak Ridge and gave them a peek at what the was going on at the highest levels of the Manhattan Project. I deliberately kept my women, my characters, out of that world and those chapters. That separation reinforced one of the key strategic elements of the Manhattan Project, kept my characters in control of their piece of the puzzle, while helping the reader understand the larger stakes impacting my characters’ lives.

In the end, this freed up my characters to explore their own wartime dramas, ones I found were filled with the kinds of surprising twists and challenges that we all can relate to. They found loves and lost loved ones. They faced fears and forged unexpected friendships. They wondered what was going on around them, but put their heads down and got to work and I, in turn, got to work for them. They kept me hooked, and I was happy to let them take the lead.

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The Girls of Atomic City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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

The Big Idea: Leah Cypess

In this edition of The Big Idea, author Leah Cypess has a shocking confession about the genesis of her new novel Death Sworn! Which isn’t, uh, actually all that shocking for those of us who are writers, because I think most of us do something like it. I mean, I do. But even so! Remember to be shocked when she confesses! Now!

LEAH CYPESS:

I have a mental list of snarky answers to the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, things that I’d never say but that I sometimes think rather forcefully. Topping the Never Say list is, “I steal them from more popular books.”

I can’t say it for two reasons. First, because people would take me seriously; and second, because there is a germ of truth in it. Reading is my primary source of inspiration, and many of my ideas come from the spaces between other writers’ ideas.

I grew up on a steady, undiluted brew of epic fantasy and golden-age science fiction, but it was clear to me that wasn’t what I was going to write. (Well, it was clear after a few misguided attempts that will never see the light of day.) The ideas that caught my imagination as a writer, rather than a reader, were never those of the main character and his world-saving quest. They were the untold stories of the minor characters, the potential complications hidden in the world-building, the what-ifs that weren’t pursued.

I remember clearly when the idea for Death Sworn came to me. I was in my parents’ home, nursing my seven-month-old daughter while re-reading my much-worn copy of the first book in The Elenium, a trilogy by David Eddings. The main character in the trilogy is a soldier in a religious military order, and one of the secondary characters is a pacifist sorceress sent to tutor the soldiers in the arts of magic.

In Eddings’ books, this works out wonderfully; aside from the occasional icy stare and caustic comment, the knights and the sorceress get along swimmingly. But obviously, this scenario might not work out so well, which is where my “what if” came in. What if the pacifist sorceress wasn’t the slightest bit thrilled about tutoring a group of people she regarded as killers? What if she was being forced to do it, and found them repulsive?

And – because you have to mix in your own ideas, or what’s the fun? — what if she wasn’t really a sorceress at all? What if she had lost her powers, and had to keep that secret from her new students, who were all assassins-in-training?

By the time the baby was fed, the first scene of the book had come alive in my mind: a young woman who had lost everything was approaching an underground assassins’ stronghold, prepared to die. I handed the baby over to her grandparents (for writers with kids, I highly recommend coming up with new ideas when there are grandparents around), and started writing.

Despite that strong start, it took the book a long time to take shape; the seven-month-old is now seven years old. This is partly because ideas are just ideas, and it can take time to flesh them out, think them through, and hammer them into a story. It’s partly because grandparents aren’t around all the time. And it’s partly because my research into the historical sect of Assassins, from whom we derive the word, pulled my story in an entirely new direction.

The typical assassin in a fantasy novel is a murderer-for-hire. If they are the protagonist, the story usually revolves around them, at some point, balking at killing someone. But the historical Assassins didn’t kill for money (or at least, not only for money). Their assassinations were driven by ideology and politics, and their goals were often not understood by their enemies or even their allies.

It was the history and legends of that sect that kept coming to mind as I created my own society of assassins, rather than the lone dagger-wielders with tragic childhoods and hearts of gold I was used to reading about. I soon found myself writing a story very different from the one I had first envisioned.

In Eddings-style epic fantasy there’s good, and there’s evil… and there are, despite frequent diatribes to the contrary, gray areas. But all three tend to be clearly defined, to the reader if not to the characters. In my story, everyone starts out knowing that there’s good and evil, and that they are on the right side of that divide. But while a young sorceress struggles both to stay alive and to redefine who she is without her magic, she will come up against a worldview diametrically opposed to the one she has always believed. And she will discover that confronting other peoples’ certainties can cast doubt upon your own.

Not that I’ve turned my back on my epic fantasy roots. The fate of the world will indeed come into play… in Book Two. (This is a duology.) But Death Sworn is a contained murder mystery that isn’t about the world – not yet. It’s about a claustrophobic underground stronghold where two visions of right and wrong will meet and clash; and where what will be changed is not the world, but one powerless girl’s view of it.

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Death Sworn: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Marjorie M. Liu

Short form intro: Marjorie M. Liu is awesome, and her Hunter’s Kiss series of books is awesome, and now there’s a new book in the series, Labyrinth of Stars. Marjorie takes a moment to look at the series and its heroine and where they both are, after all this time.

MARJORIE M. LIU:

The concept of the Hunter Kiss series is straight-forward:  A young woman is covered head to toe in living tattoos that make her invulnerable by day, and that peel off her body at night to form her own demonic army.  There are a million different ways I could have approached that concept, but as writers we’re often products of a particular moment in our lives.  Back in 2008 when I wrote the first book in the series, The Iron Hunt, I thought what I was trying to create was an urban fantasy about a girl who would solve supernatural mysteries.  Instead, what I wrote was something very different: a series of books about a young woman’s emergence from her mother’s long shadow.

For my heroine, Maxine Kiss, that’s easier said than done.  Those tattoos that protect her have been passed down from mother to daughter for ten thousand years, and it’s a tragic inheritance.  Every mother ultimately dies for her daughter – violently, terribly — and every daughter knows that, and knows she’ll do the same for her daughter, whether she wants to sacrifice herself or not.  That’s the price of their power.

But it sucks.  How do you live your own life, become your own individual self, when the only person you knew as family, — your mother, your world, your source of identity – is sacrificed so that you can go on living?  How do you carve your own path, when you feel compelled to follow the legacy of the woman who died for you?  Beyond all the demons and conspiracies, and otherworldly happenings of the Hunter Kiss series, that is the ultimate question – one I’ve tried to answer over the course of the previous four novels and two novellas.

And now I’ve come to Labyrinth of Stars, which isn’t the end of the road for Maxine – just the beginning, in fact – though it is the end of a particularly long chapter in her life, one that began with her as a daughter still struggling to follow her mother’s footsteps, and that ultimately finds her transformed into a woman about to become a mother herself, with her own legacy to pass down.

Mothers and daughters — the sacrifices we make for each other – the strength it takes to become women in our own right, with our own power: that’s the over-arching idea behind this latest novel, and all the Hunter Kiss books.  But it’s an old story with endless incarnations — and yet, for all of its familiarity, as intimate as skin.

—-

Labyrinth of Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Stephen Leigh

When writers start a book, there’s the idea, person or event that the book centers on. But when the writing starts in earnest, does that initial idea stay at the center? Does it have to? Stephen Leigh confronted these very questions while writing his latest novel, Immortal Muse. Here he is to talk about how it worked out for him… this time. 

STEPHEN LEIGH:

The first spark that resulted in Immortal Muse came in January, 2010. I habitually kick up the BBC’s “Day In Pictures” website in the morning — I love photography, and they always have incredible images. That day, I saw a shot of a woman reflected in curved metal elongating her figure, and that reminded me of my Fine Art undergrad days and dark mornings staring at slides in Art History class, and specifically the work of Amedeo Modigliani. So I googled Modigliani and glanced at several of his portraits. I happened to notice that many of his portraits were of the same person:  Jeanne Hébuterne.

So I googled her…

Ever felt a sudden, strong attraction to a person in a photo? That happened to me with Jeanne. I thought, gee, if I were much younger, unattached, and able to travel back in time, I’d love to hit Paris in 1918 and look her up. That being three successive impossibilities, there was zero chance of this happening, so it was a safe thought.  (You can see a photograph of Jeanne here).

I also read the biography and discovered a tragic and sad love story. Here’s the short, truncated version. Jeanne was Modigliani’s last muse. She met him in 1917; they fell in love. During their affair, Jeanne became pregnant, giving birth to a daughter in 1918.  Jeanne would become pregnant again, but by that time Modigliani was suffering from tubercular meningitis; he would die in January of 1920. Jeanne, eight months pregnant and exhausted from caring for him, was distraught. Her parents had taken her to their home, but the day after Modigliani’s death, Jeanne threw herself from the fifth floor balcony of her parents’ apartment, ending her life and that of her unborn child. She was twenty years old.

The whole story resonated. With novels (at least for me), Big Ideas come from several sources, not one. If you want the whole gory story of the genesis for the novel, it’s here. Suffice it say that I started thinking about a muse who would touch several historical figures… because then I could do something with Jeanne and Amedeo.

I proceeded to draft out the novel… where my muse protagonist shows up everywhere from the late 1300s to contemporary NYC. But I’ll admit that something was already bothering me even as I sent out the initial polished draft to my editor at DAW, Sheila Gilbert. I was hoping that Sheila wouldn’t sense that struggle, and tell me “Oh, this is wonderful and perfect and for you to change a single golden word would be a crime.”

Yeah. Right. I should have known better.

Sheila called after she’d read the draft, telling me how much she liked the overall book, but also (of course) mentioning a few things she felt I needed to work on. Chief among those was the Modigliani section. I’ll paraphrase what Sheila said:  “You have her pregnant twice here, and I know that’s because, historically, she was, but here’s the problem: if your muse can have children, than she should have had kids all throughout history; if she’s had those kids, then if she isn’t concerned with their welfare and their descendant’s welfare and so on, then she becomes a cold, selfish, and unsympathetic character. You don’t want that.”

My answer to Sheila was, well, I sorta gave a hand-wave explanation by saying that this happened because Jeanne was so deeply in love with Amedeo that something inside her shifted and she could become pregnant even though that had never happened before over the centuries, and gosh golly gee doesn’t that work?

There was silence on the other end of the line. Sheila uses silence well.  “OK,” I told her finally. “I don’t buy that either. Let me think about all this, and I’ll get back to you in a few days.”

I thought about it. I thought about it obsessively. I really loved the alternate history that I’d come up for Jeanne, and after all, she’d been the initial spark for the whole damn book.  I considered not giving Jeanne and Amedeo children at all, but for me the kick of writing historical fantasy is in actually using the facts and finding alternate explanations for them. Making Jeanne childless would be bending genuine history far too much for my comfort.

How else could I save this section? How could I make it work? After all, this was over 10,000 words of the novel. It had taken me months to write. I had to save it, right?

And I realized this: I couldn’t. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that the only good writerly choice was to jettison Jeanne entirely — which would involve re-envisioning the structure and much of the plot of the book. Here’s the truth: sometimes the Big Idea doesn’t make it into the book because it doesn’t work with what the book eventually becomes. That precious idea-child of yours has to be cast out and exiled, despite the pain.

Reluctantly, I deleted the section and began the process of re-writing from the beginning.

Well, I deleted the section from the book, but I kept the file. I’d worked on it too much to just toss it in the digital bin. If you’d like to see it, I’ll give you the link in a moment.  Mind you, the section isn’t sufficiently proofed, it’s missing several additional polishing passes the rest of manuscript received, and it also contains spoilers that might affect your reading of the “real” book. Worse, the ‘spoilers’ in the section are wrong — they don’t match events in the final revision.  Bear all this in mind if you decide to take a look. DO NOT CLICK HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS BEFORE READING THE BOOK!  

In the end, Big Ideas are wonderful things, and even though the one that started me on the path for this book didn’t make it between the covers, I’ll always be grateful to Jeanne for being my muse, if only for a time.

—-

Immortal Muse: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Lynne Matson

Having just come back from a weeklong cruise that included stops at tropical islands, I can say they’re lovely to visit. But would I want to live there? Especially if I didn’t exactly choose to be there? It’s a question Lynne Matson considers in NIL — and here, she digs into the story behind a tropical paradise gone (possibly) wrong.

LYNN MATSON:

I can tell you the precise moment the idea for NIL fell into my head.

I had been in Hawaii (the Big Island) with my husband for all of thirty minutes. It was our first real vacation since the arrival of baby boy number four a few years earlier, and the lack of little Matson men under my charge was HUGE. It meant that as we got into our rental car, I didn’t have to wrangle anyone into a carseat, point out a passing bulldozer, or drive one-handed while I blindly fished around on the backseat for a wayward sippy cup (note: don’t do that; it’s NOT safe.) It meant that, for once, I could just look out the window, and relax. And think.

As we left the airport, we drove through miles of ancient lava fields. Broken red rock stretched endlessly both sides, gorgeous and desolate. There were no roads, no buildings, no people–only the eerie sound of wind blowing over the rocks. The silence pressed against us, powerful and real; it had a presence all its own. I specifically remember thinking how much the landscape looked like an alien planet, and thinking how creepy would it be to wake up there, alone, without a clue to tell you where you were? And what if you were a teenager, maybe one who wasn’t well-traveled? And what if–because let’s be honest, isn’t this every person’s worst nightmare?!-–you woke up naked?

NIL was born in that moment. That barren-red-rock visual locked in my head, and that’s what Charley sees when she first opens her eyes on the island of Nil. As soon as we checked into our hotel, I pulled out my laptop and my very-patient husband waited as I typed out the opening scenes of NIL.

From that point forward, the story exploded in my head with the island at the story’s core. I’ve always been fascinated with islands–and yes, I watched WAY too much Gilligan’s Island as a teen. (I was equally fascinated by Ginger’s perfect hair and the Professor’s inability to fashion a working raft even as he built a functioning receiver out of coconuts.) How could a three-hour-tour go so wrong?!

For me, islands offer the perfect mix of paradise and doom. The ocean provides a blatant and ever-present barrier to escape, but at the same time, beaches embody stunning natural beauty. The idea of being trapped in paradise gave me heaps of material to work with as I created the world of NIL . . . especially the idea of a dangerous paradise, one with cracks in the facade. What if there were other beasties trapped on the island too? Some friendly, some not so much? And of course, sometimes humans are the most dangerous creatures of all.

But let me clarify: NIL is not a contemporary Lord of the Flies re-telling; teenage savagery wasn’t my vision. Instead, my vision was one of teen survival: how do teens cling to their hope and humanity when faced with an expiration date?

I gave the teens in NIL a deadline, literally. They each have exactly one year–to escape the island, or die. It’s how the teens choose to spend those days that drives the book.

How do the teens adjust to the shock of arrival? How do they survive in a place they don’t understand, using skills they’ve never had to develop? Do they make connections with other teens, risk growing close to someone or falling in love, knowing that they might not have a future together? Do they choose to hope? Do they choose to help one another, or simply fend for themselves? How does the daily struggle to meet basic needs affect the teens’ broader hunger for understanding of the island itself? How do they fight the unknown? Or do they choose to fight at all? Do they give up? How do they cope every day with the knowledge their personal clock is winding down? I chose a veteran and a newcomer, and using a dual point of view, I worked though all of these questions and came up with different answers.

For all of us here, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. And yet, would you live differently if you knew that you had a finite number of days left to live: a year, perhaps less? And what if you might live–but then again, you might not. So for the teens on the island of Nil, death isn’t guaranteed, but neither is life. And if they do escape, they’ll have to live with the consequences of decisions made back on Nil. Time is a worthy adversary all its own. On Nil, time–especially the lack of it–colors every character’s decision, but each character makes very different choices. Some selfless, some selfish. Some perhaps, a mix of both.

In the end, NIL is a survival story. It’s also a story of love and friendship and above all, hope. Because without hope, we have nothing. Many of my characters felt that way too.

So if you find yourself on the island of Nil, hold your hope tight. Oh, and run. I’ll be rooting for you.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Pamela Ribon

Every time Pamela Ribon does a Big Idea here, I inevitably note she is one of the funniest humans that I know. I note that because a) she is, b) I think at least some of her humor springs from a place I recognize — that is, being a yearny, awkward teen whose internal world of feeling things massively outstripped the ability to express those things in a manner comfortable to one’s self or others.

This is why, even though I am a boy who likes girls, Ribon’s memoir Notes to Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public) is hilariously perfect. It’s a combination of the teenage Ribon’s letters to boys and the adult Ribon’s commentary on the letters, and reading it, I was cringing and laughing simultaneously, because I was there, man, or somewhere close enough to there that I could wave. I’m happy to say we both survived.

Here’s Ribon now with her notes to you on Notes to Boys.

PAMELA RIBON:

High school sucks. It sucked then, it sucks now, it sucks in theory, and it sucks in memory. Those four years stretch time and become infinite. Every day is all the days ever. If you were anything like me, back then you found yourself sitting in Pre-Cal with a million factorial amount of insecurity.

Even worse: this was back when there wasn’t an Internet to reach out to. No world that would listen, no place for me to carve out my “voice.” There was no way to tweet the injustices I suffered in the lunchroom. I couldn’t Tumblr my way out of a broken heart.

All I had was a whole lot of loose-leaf three-hole punch paper, and a handful of crushes.  So, I started writing notes to boys.

Sure, sure. Lots of teenage girls write notes to boys. “Hey. How are you? I’m in English. Bored. Should we see a movie on Friday?”

Not mine. My notes stuck with you.  …Probably because they were sort of stalking you.

“How can I tell you how much you mean to me? Shall I harness the sun to show you how bright my love for you burns? I will do it! Just tell me to do it and I will obey.”

I know I was only thirteen, but I was just so ready to be a woman. I wanted a loving, mature relationship that would help me survive the four years of hell I had before me. I knew if I kept writing, I would one day find the boy – nay, the man! – who was ready and willing to handle all of me. My heart. My brain. My mixtapes. My notes about my mixtapes.

I wrote hundreds of notes to boys, and almost always delivered those notes to those boys – but not before making a copy. The boys got the second, more carefully handwritten draft.  But I saved every scribbly, emotion-soaked, hormonal first draft for myself.

And I still have them.

There’s the eight-page note I’d written to a boy in my homeroom class. He sometimes talked to me on the phone after school while we did our homework and watched television. I wrote asking for advice about a boy I liked – acting like he wasn’t the boy I was talking about – hoping he could help me tell a boy who doesn’t know I like him that I might actually love him. Yeah, I was smooth like that.

Eight pages of awkward love, and then I immediately called that boy and I read him the entire letter.

Over the phone.

Things ended there. So, I spent another month writing notes to other boys I liked, wondering what I’d done wrong with this boy.

Basically, I was Carrie Bradshaw without a nightlife. Veronica Sawyer minus all of the cool.

There’s a giant folder stuffed with handwritten letters I’ve carried from city to city, apartment to house, for decades. I’ve shared some of these letters in the past at stage shows or readings, but this is the first time I’ve ever pieced them all together to try to understand why my teen self needed to share just so much of herself with boys who didn’t really want to handle that much me. I mean, they physically couldn’t: the pagecount alone was probably pretty taxing on their backpacks.

It’s scary to share them in such a permanent way as a book, that’s for sure. But every time I’ve read these letters in public—when I’ve stood in front of people and let them hear what it’s like to be in the middle of such raw, teenaged angst – a funny thing happens. Almost all of them shelter their faces as I talk, as if my words become air daggers, slicing the vulnerable spots. Other people make that gut-deep sound – that horrified moan that turns into a belly laugh – which I love so very much.

But the best part is that at some point someone will come up to me or write to me later to say, “I was just like that. I thought I was the only one. I wish teenage me could’ve been friends with teenage you. I think we would’ve helped each other through it.”

All these retroactive best friends and bodyguards, protective of my younger self. It is both beautiful and humbling. I might have felt alone, but I wasn’t. You were all there, each in your own bedrooms, wondering how you’d ever get out alive.

That’s the big idea behind Notes to Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public). I’ll tell you the most mortifying things I’ve done in the name of teenaged love, and in exchange, I’ll just blindly assume you did pretty much the same. (I mean, we all almost accidentally lost our virginities to a Skinhead, right? No? Just me? It was a small town in Texas, you guys. I didn’t know.)

I’ll remind you of that time when not having the right lunch period could pretty much destroy your social standing. Of those days when your heart could slam into your throat because The One You Love But Does Not Know You Live unexpectedly walked past you in the hall. I will remind you of that time you tried to be a vegan (because you love animals), listened to Metallica (because boys love Metallica), or started an underground newspaper (because you love Pump Up the Volume and Sassy and you are afraid of getting grounded if you put your name on something protesting the dress code).

This is a memoir for the misfits of grunge. For the ones who walked around looking like they’d just left the set of Reality Bites. But it’s also for anybody who is fifteen or was once fifteen or might have to be fifteen someday. It’s both a warning and a little therapy.  I’m sorry it’s so awkward at times. It’s because I didn’t understand how sex worked.

—-

Notes to Boys: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Andy Weir

Congratulations! Humanity has made it to Mars! And now, as they say, the real troubles are about to begin. For Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, the challenge was not in stranding his hero on the red planet. The challenge was making that stranding exciting and fun to read. How did he do it? Partially by what he didn’t do.

ANDY WEIR:

I’ve always had a great love of science, especially anything related to space travel. So it’s little surprise that my first book, The Martian, is about just that. The protagonist, Mark Watney, finds himself abandoned on Mars after his crewmates leave during a critical mission abort. Events conspire to convince the crew and NASA that he died in the disaster, but he is very much alive and needs to work out how to stay that way with the resources he has on hand.

It’s a very simple premise, and certainly one that’s been done before. It’s basically Robinson Crusoe on Mars. In fact, some of you Whatever readers might recall a movie from the 1960’s that was actually called Robinson Crusoe on Mars. That’s how unoriginal the concept is. But my “Big Idea,” such as it is, was to hit that premise with a hard sci-fi approach. I wanted to tackle the question of how a marooned astronaut might actually survive on Mars, using real science to back it up.

That’s where things got fun for me. Being a nerd, I love doing research and science to make sure everything is plausible. Every part of the book is as scientifically accurate as I could make it, from the energy consumption of a rover to the exact process for reducing hydrazine fuel to liberate the hydrogen with which the protagonist could make water.

I spent weeks on research. The hard part was not bragging about it to the reader in the pages of the book itself. “Hey! Reader! I wrote my own software to calculate constant-acceleration orbital trajectories so I could define the path Hermes took to get from Earth to Mars!” It was a constant internal battle to remind myself that the book should be fun to read, not a testament to my ability to do math. So I frustratingly had to leave the bulk of that information out. Though it did make me feel good inside my geeky little soul to know all the math checked out.

And doing all the math had an unexpected and awesome side effect. It provided me with half the plot events in the story. For instance: Mark has to trick out a rover so it has enough power to travel long distances. I could have just hand-waved things and said he made some minor mods like adding a spare battery from the second rover on site. But when I did the math, I discovered that even a backup battery wouldn’t give him enough power to get where he needed to go. That limitation gave Mark a whole new set of problems to tackle and forced him to come up with an ingenious solution that could actually work.

I almost feel like I cheated. I put numbers into equations and plot came out. And of course, poor Mark ended up the victim of every problem I could think of.

Then, there was the issue of exposition. The story features an enormous number of MacGyver-like solutions to complex problems, using space-mission equipment for purposes other than its design. How do I explain all that to the reader? Mark’s on Mars all by himself. He doesn’t have a plucky lab assistant to explain things to and thus inform the audience. The solution I hit on was telling the story mostly through log entries in his journal. And once I started doing that, the novel’s voice immediately fell into place: These were the words of a man who didn’t know if he was going to survive from one day to the next and therefore had no reason to censor himself. I already knew I wanted Mark to be an irreverent smart-ass, but once I had him directly addressing the reader in that format, that voice had found the perfect outlet and the humor started flowing.

I never intended for the book to be as funny as it ended up being, but looking back, I think it had to be—with a premise that has so much potential to be claustrophobic, it’s Mark’s voice and his gallows humor that keep things light and fun for the reader.

In the end, I guess “The Big Idea” is really simplicity: A man is trapped on Mars and wants to survive. Simple as that. It’s something the reader can immediately get behind. And my goal as a writer was equally simple: all I wanted was to do justice to that premise, to play fairly with it and explore all its implications. Following through on that goal ended up giving me all the plot twists and surprises I needed, along with a voice that would keep readers entertained and rooting for my hero.

I’m certainly no more qualified than anyone else to say whether that makes a good book or not, but I do know what I personally like to read—and I think I ended up with a book that readers like me will enjoy.

—-

The Martian: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

It can be a strange thing when the real world intersects with your fiction, particularly when you’re writing a work of fantasy. Myke Cole knows what that’s like, since it happened with his latest, Shadow Ops: Breach Zone. A strange thing — but is it a good thing? Well…

MYKE COLE:

Let’s say you make a mistake. This one’s a whopper. You didn’t just zig when zagging was called for. You left the road, headed out into the bush, dug up about a few good size boulders and made damn sure they covered the way so the person behind you could enjoy them. This one was bad. This one will take you a while to live down.

What do you do?

Most of us are good folks. We might cling to pride for a spell, dig in our heels and argue against a preponderance of the evidence. But us regular folk, we come around in the end. We wring our hands, hang our heads and admit fault. We say we’re sorry. We’ll do better next time.

But what about when you’re not average folk? What happens when your mistakes impact not just yourself or even a few people, but an entire country, a country that you’ve been entrusted to lead? What happens when your errors, should you admit them, could destroy not only your life and your freedom, but your legacy? What do you do when billions of dollars and thousands of lives hinge on the myth that you haven’t done anything wrong?

Do you toe the line and take your licks? Do you stick your fingers in your ears and chant until the angry shouting of the protesters stops? And to prove you’ve done nothing wrong, do you keep moving in the same rut you’ve dug?

Do you double down on error?

What do you do when the chickens of a failed policy come home to roost?

That’s the Big Idea behind Breach Zone.

The Shadow Ops series chronicles a United States desperately attempting to come to grips with the sudden return of magic into the world. That magic is wild and powerful. That magic is a weapon as deadly as a nuclear warhead. That magic threatens the government’s monopoly on force. The government’s reaction makes sense. Magic is dangerous. Magic must be addressed. The McGauer-Linden Act is the framework our leaders come up with. It is the best they know how to do.

It isn’t good enough.

Control Point examined one life caught in the cracks between that policy and the gray shades of reality. Fortress Frontier watches as the tension builds, the dissonance between law and a people who prize freedom above all else, who realize what they have sacrificed to feel safe.

In Breach Zone, the joint comes unglued.

Law is binary. Policy doesn’t work well with vagaries. It knows 0 or 1. Obeyed or broken. And it has to. The whim of the individual cannot govern the lives of millions. We have to have some sense of what to expect.

But people aren’t binary. Life isn’t interested in “zero tolerance.” Sometimes we do things just because. Sometimes the thing we want most is the thing we’ve been told we can’t have.

Sometimes, smart people have a tough time with policy. They want an explanation. “Thou shalt not” doesn’t cut it. They want to know why. They want a chance to argue the case. The Democratic process is slow. It’s easily subverted. There are people with more money and more connections who seem to have an easier time making the wheels turn.

Those smart people see that. It burns them. Sometimes, they’re smart enough to know that flying in the face of that has a price higher than they’re willing to pay.

Sometimes, they’re smart enough to not give a fuck.

I have always avoided political sentiment in my writing. I never set out to write a topical piece. But as Breach Zone came together, the Manning sentence was handed down. The Snowden case broke, our SIGINT program was laid bare, and the people reacted. I watched the government respond. Then I looked down at my manuscript, and I shuddered.

Life imitates art, they say. But the truth is that art takes tiny, subconscious cues from the world the artist lives in. Breach Zone was born in the ferment of a society at war with itself, in a country that is more divided than I, than my father, have ever seen.

I didn’t set out to write a topical piece. But in this final volume of the Shadow Ops series, I might have anyway.

—-

Shadow Ops: Breach Zone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Delilah S. Dawson

Life is a circus — but is the circus all it’s cracked up to be? Delilah S. Dawson ponders this very question, on several different levels, in her latest novel Wicked After Midnight. We now place her in the center ring to address the topic. Here’s your popcorn, and there’s her spotlight…

DELILAH S. DAWSON:

Here is a painful truth: the circus is a magical place only so long as you’re allowed to leave when the show is over.

That’s the first sentence of Wicked After Midnight, and that’s also the Big Idea behind the book. And at the heart of that sentiment is the same thing that’s at the heart of every creature alive, including me: murderous clowns.

Just kidding. It’s actually fear.

And, more importantly, gaining the courage to break past it.

The steampunk fantasy world in which my Blud series takes place was built to be the perfect backdrop for magic, adventure, and sexy romance, and yet the books have deeper, darker themes that explore my own fears and past wounds. One heroine is escaping from rape and parental abandonment, another is nursing her dying grandmother and has just left an abusive relationship to find herself. Demi, the heroine of Wicked After Midnight, was a depressed art history major in our world who went into a coma from alcohol poisoning, woke up in a parallel universe, and was nearly killed by a warren of vampire rabbits.

Um, none of that is in any way autobiographical. At least not the bunnies.

Demi would have died twice had a certain blood-drinking ringmaster not found her and turned her into a Bludman like himself. After six years as a contortionist in a traveling carnival, Demi is an immature vampire caught in arrested development, an older version of Claudia from Interview with the Vampire. Her life seems carefree and exciting. But from her viewpoint behind the velvet curtain, it’s a cage.

Our heroine’s biggest fear is that she’ll be forever the same, so it’s no surprise when Demi escapes the carnival life to seek her destiny. But when her best friend is stolen by slavers during their journey, she has a new fear: losing what she holds dear.

If you’re a parent, perhaps you know this shift, too. When I was young, I thought I would live forever, and I was terrified of living a boring life. Now that I have children, I often feel that I’ve traded possibilities and excitement for safety and security. Losing one of my kids is now my greatest fear. And like Demi, I would fight any fight to save them.

So on one level, Wicked After Midnight is about facing fears and breaking past them. Fear of stasis, fear of moving forward, fear of loving, fear of being caged again, fear of losing what you love most, fearing of opening up to the vulnerability of loving someone with all your heart. And considering it’s the last book in my Blud series, it’s my attempt at facing some of my own lesser fears. When I was writing it, I couldn’t help thinking that it might be my last chance to write stories in a world I’ve come to love. I wanted to make it the biggest, most exciting, most fun adventure to date. But what if people didn’t like it? What if it was too ridiculous? What if I never got another book deal?

So I did what Demi did: faced fear head-on and had as much fun as I possibly could.

This book has cameos from most of my other characters, including the lizard boy and the kilted version of Thor. It has bone-filled catacombs and clockwork foxes and vampire poodles and runaway elephants and breaking into the Louvre and sex acts on a trapeze. It has Easter eggs based on art history and quotes from pop culture and Your Mom jokes. The hero is a person of color, and there’s a loving family with two moms who are cabaret girls. It’s the longest book I’ve ever written, and it’s a testament to feminism, to smashing down the walls of prejudice, to being exactly who you are, and to breaking out of the mold set for you by society.

In short, even if this book doesn’t do well, it’s going to feel like a triumph because I told fear to go screw itself and wrote the wildest adventure I could. Since the first Blud book sold in 2011, I’ve sought experiences to broaden my writing: I’ve flown on the flying trapeze, learned the twirls of Spanish web, and done vaulting on horseback. This series was my circus, and as safe as it felt to play my part behind the curtains, I’ve made peace with pulling down the big top and moving on to the next great adventure. This show is officially over, and as much as I used to fear it, now I’m excited about the future.

In my last e-novella, “The Damsel and the Daggerman,” intrepid journalist Jacinda Harville finds Demi moping around the caravan and tells her, “I very much advise determining the boundaries of your comfort zone and getting the hell out of it.”

This book is what happens when Demi follows her advice.

And every book I write is what happens when I follow it.

—-

Wicked After Midnight: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: James L. Cambias

I can say this with some authority: I’ve known longer than anyone else working in science fiction today that James Cambias is a terrific writer. I know this because when I was editor of my college newspaper, James turned in some fantastic articles about the history of the university and of Chicago, the city our school was in — so good that I was always telling him he needed to write more (he had some degree program that was also taking up his time, alas. Stupid degree program). After our time in school, James made it into science fiction and has since been nominated for the Campbell, the Nebula and the Tiptree.

So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me that James’ debut novel, A Darkling Sea, is racking up the sort of praise it is, including three starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, and comparisons to the work of grand masters like Robert Silverberg and Hal Clement. He’s always been that good, in science fiction and out of it.

Here’s James now, to tell you more about his book, and how one of the great tropes of science fiction plays into it — and why that great trope isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. 

JAMES L. CAMBIAS:

Small groups of people can have a huge impact on history. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought by two “armies” which could easily fit into Radio City Music Hall together, without any need for standing room.

I wanted to tell the story of a tiny, remote outpost which becomes the flashpoint for an interstellar conflict. But I had a problem: most of the reasons for interstellar conflicts in science fiction are actually pretty lame.

Seriously: who’s going to fight over gold mines or thorium deposits when the Universe is full of lifeless worlds with abundant resources? And even if we find worlds with native life, it’s fantastically unlikely that humans will be able to live on them without massive technological support.

So there’s not going to be range wars, or fights over the oilfields, or whatever. The sheer size of the Universe makes conflict difficult and unnecessary.

Which means a war with an alien civilization has to be about something other than material wealth. It has to involve the most dangerous thing we know of: ideology.

In my new novel A Darkling Sea, a band of human scientists are exploring a distant moon called Ilmatar. Like Europa, Ilmatar has an icy surface but an ocean of liquid water deep below. The humans have built a base on the sea bottom in order to study Ilmatar’s native life forms, including the intelligent, tool-using Ilmatarans.

But they aren’t allowed to make contact with the Ilmatarans, because of another star-faring species called the Sholen. The Sholen are more advanced scientifically than humanity, and have adopted a strict hands-off policy regarding pre-technological societies. A policy which they insist the humans follow — or else.

That’s all very well, but there’s a problem with that attitude. The native Ilmatarans aren’t passive beings. They are curious and intelligent. One group in particular are very interested in preserving and expanding scientific knowledge, and it’s that band of scientists who come across a reckless human explorer. He winds up advancing the cause of science in a very unpleasant way, and the violation of the no-contact policy inflames the Sholen suspicions of the humans.

The humans resent what they see as bullying by the Sholen. The Sholen suspect the humans have imperialist ambitions. Tensions keep rising and eventually explode into outright war — a war fought by two dozen individuals on each side, at the bottom of a black ocean under a mile of ice.

Alert readers may notice that the ideology which creates this powderkeg in the first place is nothing less than Star Trek’s famous “Prime Directive” — a noble ideal and a hallmark of science fiction optimism.

I’ve always hated the Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive idea stems from a mix of outrageous arrogance and equally overblown self-loathing, a toxic brew masked by pure and noble rhetoric.

Arrogance, you say? Surely it’s not arrogant to leave people alone in peace? Who are you, Cortez or someone?

No, but the Milky Way Galaxy isn’t 16th-Century Mexico, either. The idea of forswearing contact with other intelligent species “for their own good” is arrogant. It’s arrogant because it ignores the desires of those other species, and denies them the choice to have contact with others.

If Captain Kirk or whoever shows up on your planet and says “I’m from another planet. Let’s talk and maybe exchange genetic material — or not, if you want me to leave just say so,” that’s an infinitely more reasonable and moral act than for Captain Kirk to sneak around watching you without revealing his own existence. The first is an interaction between equals, the second is the attitude of a scientist watching bacteria. Is that really a moral thing to do? Why does having cooler toys than someone else give you the right to treat them like bacteria?

“But what if they come as conquerors?” you ask. “That’s not an interaction of equals!”

That’s entirely true. And of course an aggressive, conquering civilization is hardly going to come up with the idea of a Prime Directive. It’s a rule which can only be invented by people who don’t need it.

Which brings me to the second toxic ingredient: self-loathing. I’d say that only post-World War II Western culture could come up with the Prime Directive, as that’s about the only time in human history we’ve had a civilization with tremendous power that’s also washed in a sense of tremendous shame. Previous powerful civilizations felt they had a right, or even a duty, to conquer others or remake them in their own image. Previous weak civilizations were too busy trying to survive. Only the West after two World Wars worries about its own potential for harm.

The Sholen in my novel have that same sense of shame. Their history holds more horrors than our own, and their civilizational guilt is killing them. They’re naturals for a “Prime Directive” philosophy. For them, humans are an ideal object for their psychological projection. They see all their own worst traits in humans, and assume the worst about the motives and intentions of humanity. The result confirms each side’s fears about the other.

As to what happens then, well, read the book.

—-

A Darkling Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog

The Big Idea: Lillian Stewart Carl

In today’s Big Idea, author Lillian Stewart Carl has a bone to pick with Sherlock Holmes — a bone that informs The Avalon Chanter, the latest novel in her paranormal mystery series. Take that, Sherlock!

LILLIAN STEWART CARL:

In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” Sherlock Holmes proclaims, “This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghost need apply.”

My imagination being what it is, I envision ghosts lined up at a paranormal job fair, muttering about discrimination, perhaps even filing suits against Holmes’s agency with the Equal Employment Commission.

But, I hear Holmes say, ghosts aren’t real.

Really? Ask people who’ve seen one. Or who think they’ve seen one. As my character Jean Fairbairn would say—and does, multiple times—seeing might be believing, but believing is seeing.

No, my Big Idea is not the nature of reality (I’m not that ambitious) but our perception of reality—especially historical reality, where fact slips as easily into legend and myth as ghost stories slips into tourist brochures. It doesn’t matter whether ghosts (or the Loch Ness monster, or the deeds of a historical character) are factual or not, if people believe they are. Because beliefs make people act.

Jean Fairbairn and Alasdair Cameron are the protagonists of seven mystery novels. She’s a former history professor now writing for a Scottish history-and-travel magazine who inadvertently becomes an amateur sleuth. He begins the series as a professional sleuth, a Scottish police detective.

In the first book, The Secret Portrait, Jean sees a ghost and realizes Alasdair, of all people, can see it, too.

Jean looked around, not knowing whether to hug him or hit him. “No snappy comebacks? No skepticism? Or have you known all this time you’re allergic to ghosts, too?”

“Well then,” he said, with a crimp of his mouth that was almost a rueful smile, “I suppose I was wrong about all the ghosts being tired. Not for those with eyes to see and hearts to know.”

The like us hung unspoken in the air.

No surprise that Jean’s stock-in-trade is history and legends, the facts behind them and the way they can be distorted by true believers. Or, as she says, “Where the legend hits the road and blows a tire.” Having a skeptical significant other dovetails neatly with her work, even as it leads to heated discussions and more than a little eye-rolling.

Okay—I hear you backing away slowly and muttering about high school history class, where a football coach between practices droned the textbook out loud. Boring! Irrelevant! Eyeroll.

So how can I hit the road with my Big Idea and not blow a tire on potholes filled with boring?

Because history isn’t boring. It’s gossip shared over time’s back fence: Sex! Scandal! Thud, blunder, and bad choices!

Every day we citizens of the twenty-first century apply these clues from the past, be they fact or be they fantasy, to solve the mystery of just how the heck we ended up here and not down some other rabbit hole of memory and desire.

The muse of history is named Clio. I don’t know whether she’s a proper Athenian miss or a wild-eyed maenad—I only deal with her indirectly. My personal muse is a punk bagpiper wearing an earring, a kilt, and combat boots. When he’s good, he’s very good. And when he’s uncooperative to the point of hostile, I lure him out by offering him the history of Great Britain in general and Scotland in particular.

It’s great sweeping drama and odd little incidents. It’s bravado and lament. It’s my own ancestry, a paradoxical and pixilated blend of Celt, Norseman, and Anglo-Saxon. My maiden name, Stewart, is a rich source of historical material.

For example, I may well be descended from Robert the Bruce, whose grandson was the first Stewart king of Scotland. Do I fume at the Bruce’s depiction in Braveheart? Does my keyboard have an indentation from my forehead?

But then Braveheart, having about five seconds of historical verisimilitude, is an example of the smackdown between fact and fallacy that Jean and I love to write about. Relatively benign conflicts, not the full-bore international disaster of, say, the Nazis’ Aryan Myth.

Historical wishful thinkers make great characters. So do ghosts, who are manifestations of the past lingering into the present, of unresolved mysteries and uneasy memory. And who often depart this Earth thanks to murder.

If that coach had been sharing juicy details about a murder, you’d have stayed awake during class, right?

The victims in my mysteries die because of legends not only about the lost gold of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but about Charles Edward Stewart himself, goat or hero, depending. They die because of the possibility of the Loch Ness monster and the certainty of black magician Aleister Crowley, whose home above Loch Ness still creeps out the local people.

My victims die because of the mytho-babble behind The Da Vinci Code and others of its dent-in-the-keyboard ilk. They die because of legends of witchcraft in the American colonies, because of a decaying estate on the Isle of Skye named for the wee folk, the fairies, and because Edinburgh’s claustrophobic catacombs make good business.

In The Avalon Chanter, I take my odd couple from their usual haunts in Scotland to small Farnaby island just across the border in England. Here my historical maguffins are King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Is Farnaby the Isle of Avalon? Archaeologist Maggie Lauder has personal reasons for trying to prove it is. But (of course) neither the body she finds in a medieval tomb nor the history of her own family are what she believes them to be.

Because history, both in the national and in the personal sense, doesn’t trace a direct line from past to present. It’s interlaced like the patterns decorating the Lindisfarne Gospels, as generations of men and women weave desire with destiny.

And if the thing going bump in the night is doing so only in your imagination, that doesn’t make it any less real—never mind Sherlock Holmes and his flat feet.

—-

The Avalon Chanter: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Like her on Facebook.

 

The Big Idea: Scott Sigler

With a title like Pandemic, you know that things are not going to look good for humanity in this book. But author Scott Sigler isn’t wreaking havoc on the world without a plan — oh, no. He’s got a plan, friends. One that he’s been working on for years.

SCOTT SIGLER:

When I was a little kid, my dad took me to see the ’76 version of King Kong. Ever since that afternoon (once I stopped screaming in fear, of course — I was seven; giant gorillas were terrifying), I’ve been hopelessly addicted to horror movies.

According to the movies I love so much, there are a seemingly infinite number of species that want to kill or enslave humans. As in, all of us. Exterminate, exterminate, indeed. This species-wide genocide comes in several flavors, including the invasion, the plague and the horde. Often movies act like Ben & Jerry on bad acid, combining flavors in various, lethal combinations. An invasion/plague? Andromeda Strain. A plague/horde? The Walking Dead. There’s no end to the fun this Easy Bake Oven provides.

When any of these flavors are present, the demise of peoples tends to come in three stages: the Patient Zero Phase, the National Response Phase, and the Global “Oh, Shit” Phase (a.k.a. “the apocalypse”). Yes, I just made these phases up, but clearly they are 100% accurate and scientifically sound. No peer review necessary.

In any given book or movie, we often get to see one of these phases, sometimes two, but rarely all three. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a Patient Zero film, meaning you see the attack from the earliest stages and go through the process of discovery along with the characters — we don’t really see a national response or know if one happens. In a movie like Outbreak, we see that defining factor of the National Response Phase: a Room Full of Important People watching red circles expand across a map of America, showing the spread of the disease. And there are several examples of the Global “Oh, Shit” Phase, where everything goes to hell in a hand basket, a la Night of the Comet, Lifeforce and many more.

My Big Idea? Write a trilogy that shows all three phases, so you are there at the very beginning, you witness the inevitable spread, and you bleed along with the characters for the final swan song.

I began this quest in 2008 with my novel Infected, which had its very own Big Idea. When a movie’s showing us the Patient Zero Phase, we often see a body count of the faceless masses lost in the “first wave.” Infected does something different: it tells the story of just one of those victims, Perry Dawsey, letting you experience his horror and confusion as an intelligent pathogen colonizes his body and his mind. He doesn’t know what’s happening because no one knows: the world has never seen anything like this. And those books and movies where the small team of victims barely stops the disease from escaping? Infected isn’t one of those — by the time Perry’s story closes, the vector has gone wild.

In the second book, Contagious, the camera rolls back and we see how this pathogen impacts all of America. We see the President try to process an impossible situation, the CDC working to contain the vector, and — yes — we see the Room Full of Important People watching red circles spread across a map of the US. Contagious ends with a bang, and all involved think the disease is gone for good. But as happens in a cataclysmic trilogy, not so much.

For the final novel, Pandemic, we’re in full-on Oh Shit Phase. We watch the human race fighting a losing battle for survival. This disease doesn’t just kill, it turns people into killers, creating a slowly shifting balance that steadily teeters towards the point of no return. Characters from both books return and strive to contain a disease that constantly changes, that thinks, that strategizes, always looking for the way to wipe humanity out forever.

Infected was the first novel I wrote. I finished the first draft some twenty years ago. The concept was simple: I would teach myself how to finish a novel by writing a very straightforward story — one man, alone in his apartment, facing the nightmare of his body turning against him. That first draft was very small town, very much indebted to early Stephen King. It only had a handful of characters and was filled with contrivances that kept away the outside involvement of real-world things like cops and doctors.

That small-town feel is where I’m most at home as a writer. Probably because I grew up in a small town, and that limited cast of characters in an isolated setting feels natural. The endless re-writes of Infected, however, forced the story out of Perry’s apartment and into a Tom Clancy arena where I had no experience and a comfort level of zero. I had to start thinking about how the police, the CDC, the FBI, and the government at large would respond. What I’d intended to be a very simple, laser-focused Patient Zero story set entirely in one poor bastard’s apartment — almost a ‘bottle episode’ of a novel — eventually forced me not only to expand my real-world knowledge, but to learn how to incorporate those real-world structures into a compelling narrative. It was challenging, but it was only the beginning.

When Contagious required the move to the National Phase, I faced new questions. Who actually responds to a new plague that turns people into psychotic murderers? How does something like that go up the chain of command? What governmental agencies have jurisdiction, and how do they react? When the shit truly hits the fan and an administration is looking at catastrophic loss of American life, what laws will our leaders break to stop an outbreak before it expands beyond any hope of control?

Pandemic compounded those complications even further. I had to factor in international relations, global transportation’s effects on vector spread, foreign deployment of US forces (along with when they would strike, with what and how hard), and the most disturbing thing of all: the real effects of a nuclear detonation on a modern city.

Now that the series is done, I don’t think I’ll swim in the global pool again. For future projects, all those pages that had to be used explaining real-world laws and organizations can — at least in part — be used for character and relationship. Hopefully, the small town boy can go back to the small town.

If, that is, there are any towns left after Pandemic.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Kathe Koja

Authors have all sorts of ways into their books and stories. For Kathe Koja, the way into her latest novel, The Mercury Waltz, the sequel to Under the Poppy, was through dance. Appropriately enough!

KATHE KOJA:

To dance well requires two things: skill, the ability to feel and match the tempo, swell, or skitter of the music; and rhythm, the capacity to just let go and trust that music to lead you away. When we consider the waltz, the first seems to make perfect sense for a dance of such structure and formality. (Although the Times of London once “remarked with pain” on that “indecent foreign dance called the Waltz … the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies …” Yowza! Twerk that, Vienna!) But the second, the letting-go – how so?

As on the dance floor, so at the desk . . . Under the Poppy, that tale of wild Victorian love, betrayal, and reunion, came to me as a passionate surprise.  After eight YA novels, the grown-ups were definitely back onstage, tossing dark confetti and parading their dangerous puppets all around. As that novel came to its close, I felt a large and definite pang—goodbye, grimy, lovely, intricate world.

But such a fully theatrical story seemed to beckon for a matching adaptation. So, in company with some very talented actors and collaborators, I wrote and directed a series of immersive (were they ever) performances. Here’s a look at the shows leading up to the grand performance in a Victorian mansion. Writing the scripts and assembling the creative ensemble was a new way of viewing that world of the brothel, its characters and desperations and desires.

But the music was still playing.

The Mercury Waltz is a manner of accidental sequel, nothing I intended to write, nothing I even knew was available to write, until the Poppy came to what I thought was its end. Then that big pile of unused notes, those phrases and sketches, that research, reached a sudden accretion, as if a door had been opened, a turning made to show an entire, and entirely vivid, new bend in the road for those gentlemen of the road, stalwart Rupert and winking Istvan: and the new young gentlemen whose paths cross theirs, the stubborn, poetic, provincial writer Frédéric-Seraphim Blum and the slippery street sharpster Haden St.-Mary, alongside a fierce and mystical young lady called Tilde, whose blue eyes I saw with an immediacy just as vivid and intense.  And their histories, their fears and longings, their hopes, all converged in an aged city on the fatal cusp of change, a place as jittery as badly-tuned clockwork, as bright and false as paste jewels in a mercantile window, a city where a theatre called for Mercury, that god of commerce and tricksters, opens its doors to show the populace some jolly, strange, and truthful puppet plays.

Which is where the dance comes in, and the letting-go.

If, from the beginning, I had suspected that this story was so large, much larger than I guessed in its conception, and so emotionally complicated, that it needed more than one book to tell it, would I have been bold enough to begin? Or would I have backed away in doubt: A sequel? What if I forget plot points, or mix up chronology, what if I don’t have the stamina? What if … If I had considered only the demands on my skills—the long patience required to keep walking, tussling, finding the way, the painstaking attention to be sure no threads were dropped or characters confused (and yes, I used a lot of sticky notes)—the whole project could have been stillborn.

But when the brothel closed, the Mercury Theatre opened, its music gone tinkling and mechanical and fey; and I trusted that music, and I let go. And waltzed.

And now the book is done, and the dance is ready for you to join, as the story of these men, these heroes, continues. And not only in the linear sense of travels accomplished, friends met and dangers faced: for as much as it’s a story of this new city and those new battles and loves, The Mercury Waltz is at its heart the continuing exploration of the shared life of Istvan and Rupert, the pains they carry, and the losses, and the wishes, the boyish glee and professional pride, the whole world their stage and themselves their sweetest audience. They learn what they learn, or cannot learn, from those pains and that sweetness, they keep playing the puppets as the music plays on.

—-

The Mercury Waltz: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Roadswell Editions

View the book trailer. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Rachel Cantor

Love! Time travel! Pizza! All things most of us, at least theoretically, enjoy. But how to tie them all together — with some deeper meaning to boot? Rachel Cantor’s makes the attempt in her new novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. Here and now, she explains how she made those first critical connections.

RACHEL CANTOR:

Leonard is a complaints guy for a national Pythagorean pizza chain. In his world, Whigs, Heraclitans, and other ideologues seek converts through proprietary fast-food chains; Catharites and armed followers of the thirteenth-century scientist and friar Roger Bacon engage in bitter battle to claim the untranslatable Voynich manuscript; and all are vaguely under threat by a neo-Maoist movement that’s trying to radicalize the middle classes.

Into this world arrives Isaac the Blind, a thirteenth-century rabbi who can read people’s souls; he needs Leonard’s help. Leonard’s journey takes him from his White Room, where he relieves Clients-in-Pain with Neetsa Pizza coupons, to the fortress of the Latter-Day Baconians, to thirteenth-century Rome. Along the way, he must save the world with the help of Marco Polo, a rare-book librarian, his cartoon-drawing nephew Felix, and a quivering aleph.

A novel about a million things, seemingly. Yet it arose from one big idea. A big idea that itself arose from an unlikely source.

I attended a silent meditation retreat some fifteen years ago. For about ten days, we sat, we walked, we sat, we walked; we did not speak. The leaders, however, spoke: usually about meditation, but one evening they speculated—for reasons I can no longer remember—about the great flowering of mystical experience in the thirteenth century. The Kabbalah was born around that time, with the help of Isaac the Blind; the Zohar was written around 1280, which is also when the great Abraham Abulafia, said to have magical powers, was developing his eccentric meditative practices, variants of which we were attempting on this retreat. Rumi and other great Sufis were writing mystical poetry, while mystics such as St. Theresa and Meister Eckhart were changing Christianity forever.

What most struck my teachers, who were mostly rabbis, was how this mystical profusion could occur at a time when practitioners from various traditions could not, presumably, communicate with each other.

Or could they? Was there something—some force, some energetic—that connected these mystics around Europe and beyond, supporting their practice and increasing its creativity?

I like to think I always listened to my teachers, but I may have been especially attentive on the night of this talk. I had just published a story about the medieval trader Isaac the Jew (no relation to Isaac the Blind), who’d transported an elephant from the emperor Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad to Charlemagne’s court in Aachen. I was then in the process of writing a novel about Dante’s Vita Nuova, a thirteenth-century work that ends with what can only be called a mystical vision. When my teachers talked about the Middle Ages, I listened especially hard!

For years, I thought about what they’d said. My first notes on the subject were written maybe a year later; they refer, already, to a hotline, to Marco Polo, to Abulafia …

Someone gets a phone call from someone in history, a hotline to history. Folks start communicating with each other through this mediator—s/he becomes an increasingly put-upon message center, which explains the wide, wonderful explosion of creative mysticism around the world during that century. But the secret for communicating with this guy is lost, or perhaps, tired of the interruptions to his life, the demands put on him, he disconnects the phone. What kind of phone would they use? Their mystical experiences clue them in to the existence of this wavelength, only the very accomplished can use it—Abulafia, Dante, Rumi, Marco Polo in his Genoan jail cell using methods he learned from traveling Tibetan monks …

Unlike many ideas, this one stuck. When I finished my Dante novel (Door Number Two, forthcoming from Melville House in 2015), a “realistic” work that concerns themes close to my bones (love, the purpose of art, family relationships), I was ready for something different. Something completely different. I wanted a change, I wanted to write something fun!

I remembered this big idea. I remembered the hotline, the put-upon mediator, Marco Polo in his Genoan jail cell.

Big ideas accrete other ideas—in this case, Pythagorean number theory, a fascination with ghostwriters (Marco Polo had one, Moses de Leon and other mystics claimed their books had been written by others centuries before), the bizarre features of the unreadable Voynich Manuscript (which I learned about in my alumni magazine!), a concern about how ideology can be used by politicians to distract people from serious political or economic concerns, a love for the topography of ancient Rome. All these came into play with A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, as this new book came to be called.

I soon realized, however, as writers are wont to do, that it wasn’t enough to sit Leonard in a room fielding phone calls from mystics! Things had to happen. There had to be incident, conflicts, adventure.

I did some research. In 1280, Abulafia was in Rome, intending to convert the pope by sharing all sorts of signs and wonders with him—it was only the Pope’s death a few days before his visit that saved Abulafia’s life.

Wait, a Jewish mystic thought he could convert the pope? By sharing mystical secrets? I grew up in Rome! I wanted to write about Rome, I loved writing about Rome!

How to get Leonard away from his pizza-complaints hotline? How to make of him not just a put-upon mediator, but a hero, however unlikely?

In this way, the big idea evolved: by the time the book was finished, the mystics I wrote about were not necessarily communicating with each other. They were aware of each other, sure, they could and did travel across time and space to meet with each other, but this was no longer the point. The point was that they had access to mystical knowledge and a desire to share it, even though sharing it would endanger the world! By Part Two, Leonard had left his phone behind for good: he was out in the world. By the end of Part Three he had saved the world not once but three times, and this involved time travel, it involved peril and chases and the development of courage; it involved living by his wits; it involved falling in love. The big idea had become story!

—-

A Highly Unlikely Scenario: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book page, which features an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer is known as a bestselling writer of thrillers and the host of his own television show on History Channel. But today sees the release of two decidedly different books from him: I am Amelia Earhart and I am Abraham Lincoln, both illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, and both aimed at a rather younger audience than Meltzer has aimed for before. There’s a reason why he wrote the books — and a reason, as you will soon discover, why he rewrote them as well.

BRAD MELTZER:

Call this essay “How To Be Outdone By Your Artist on Your New Children’s Book.”

I met him on the Internet. I did. On Twitter.

I don’t remember what he first wrote to me about. Probably something about history: He watched my TV show, the self-importantly and yet perfectly titled Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. So I’ll wager he wrote to me about the Freemasons. Or the Illuminati. Or maybe Abraham Lincoln, if irony had a say.

Either way, I recognized his name and knew his art. Chris Eliopoulos. He’s a cartoonist. A great one. And little did I know, he’d soon change my life.

You see, I was in the midst of a crisis. A parental crisis. I was shopping for clothes with my daughter, and all I could find were T-shirts with images of princesses and more princesses. The only real difference between them was what hair color each princess had. And I started thinking to myself: I know so many better heroes than that.

So what does a loving father do at that point? He turns to a stranger on the internet, of course. I asked Chris to draw a cartoon version of Amelia Earhart. Below the picture, I wrote: I AM AMELIA EARHART. On the back of the shirt, I wrote: I KNOW NO BOUNDS.

That’s how it began. But soon, what started with a T-shirt had turned into an actual book. A children’s book, of all things. I always dreamed of doing a children’s book. And now, instead of just giving my daughter a T-shirt, I’d be able to give her perhaps the best thing of all: Amelia Earhart’s actual story.

From there, I wrote a biographical account of Amelia Earhart’s life, which Chris turned into pages and pages of art. A few weeks later, we handed in the proposal. My agent looked at what Chris drew. Then looked at what I wrote. And then she told me, “You need to make your words match his art.”

I blinked a few times, making sure I heard her right. But in that moment, I knew she was exactly right. Chris’s drawings were playful, fun, and passionate. They evoked my favorites – Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes – cartoons that were alive and full of heart. Indeed, as I flipped through his drawings, I realized that was his superpower. This stranger from the internet, Chris Eliopoulos, did heart like no one else. And best of all, the more I looked at it, the more I felt like a kid again.

Right there, I tore up my entire draft and started from scratch. His breathtaking art forced me to be a better writer.

The result became more than a single book. It became our new line of children’s books, starting today with the publication of I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln. The series was born because of our belief that the current definition of “hero” is broken. Today, so many in our culture celebrate reality TV stars and loud-mouthed sports figures.

I tell my kids all the time: That’s fame. Fame is different than being a hero. I wanted my kids to see real heroes…and real people who are no different than themselves. For that reason, each book tells the story of the hero when THEY were a kid. We see them as children. So it’s not just Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln being famous – but them being just like us.

As for Chris, he of course became part of our family. And I’m part of his. We all went to DisneyWorld. I kid you not. Last week, we went there together. Both our families.

You should’ve seen the way my daughter was giving the stink eye to the princesses.

—-

I am Amelia Earhart: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
I am Abraham Lincoln: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Brad Meltzer’s site. Follow him on Twitter. Visit Chris Eliopoulos‘ site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: PJ Schnyder

On a day to day basis, you might not think about the advantages and disadvantages of shapeshifting, but then, you probably aren’t author PJ Schnyder, for whom the details of such a process are a key aspect of her novel Fighting Kat. She’s here to explain why it matters.

PJ SCHNYDER:

It can take as little as 8 pounds of force to crush the human skull.

Human mandibles exert 120 to 150 pounds of force per square inch (PSI). And according to NASA and MythBusters, average static push strength of a medium-sized male is around 200 pounds of force (close to 1000 Newtons). So a human isn’t going to be crushing another human’s skull any time soon, either by biting or with bare hands.

What about predatory cats? A lion’s bite force is approximately 650 PSI. A tiger’s? Approximately 1050 PSI. A jaguar’s? Approximately 1,350-2,000 PSI.

That’ll do it.

Given the choice, it might seem a better idea to enter a death match as a predatory cat armed with superior bite strength and a full set of slashing claws. But…humans have thumbs. Weighing the pros and cons might take a few seconds.

In Fighting Kat, Kaitlyn Darah is presented with this choice. The ability to shapeshift from human to panther might as well be a super power, really. And considering the advantages, the choice would seem clear—cat-form it is. Right?

But at what cost?

As a shapeshifter, Kaitlyn is on the run from the Terran government. There are standing orders to bring in any and every shape shifter for study. If she wants to remain a free cat, and not a lab rat, she needs to keep her ability a secret.

But she and her lover, Lt. Christopher Rygard of the Terran military, need to form a team and go deep undercover. They’ll be posing as gladiators in a black market fighting arena in order to find captured soldiers and rescue them, if possible.

In order to survive, Kaitlyn must make the choice. If she fights as a human, she and Rygard could die. If she leverages her shape shifting abilities, she might lose her freedom even after they break free of the arenas.

Rygard has to make hard choices too. Follow orders, or stand with the woman he loves.

I created a cast of dynamic characters to support my hero and heroine. Some of them are proven friends and allies. Others aren’t so clear in their roles. There’s a mentor and an anti-mentor—like an anti-hero, only not—and there are people my heroes should be able to trust but can’t.

I wanted to tell a story of strong people in a universe where their choices matter. Where black versus white isn’t absolute and right versus wrong isn’t simple, yet each decision closes the door to a possible future. Where every decision triggers a series of further choices in a cascade of consequences that will lead both Kaitlyn and Rygard to places they’d never have anticipated.

Fighting Kat is a science fiction romance novel encompassing all of these things.

As a reader, I grew up on science fiction and fantasy and I read nonfiction just as avidly. And when I began to seriously delve into the craft of writing, I took a critical look at the structure of my stories. I came to a surprising realization: I write romance.

My stories focus on the development of the relationship between my characters. The romance drives the plot and the decisions my hero and heroine make every step of the way. Kaitlyn and Rygard grow individually and together based on the decisions they make in Fighting Kat.

Plenty of science fiction books contain romantic elements, but there the romance is woven in to spice up the story and not intended to function as the central plot line. You could remove the romantic elements and the plot would still stand on its own.

In my books, the romance is the plot line. If you took it out, it would just be a random series of events and with no driving force behind the actions the characters carry out.

Additionally, I prefer a happy ending. Perhaps not as far as a Happily Ever After, but by the end of the book I want my characters to be “Happy For Now” in a plausible and satisfying way.

These characteristics in my writing make my stories romance. If you’d asked me a decade ago, I wouldn’t have anticipated writing romance in my future. But now? I embraced the decision to write romance and have no regrets. Romance allows me to write science fiction, paranormal, steampunk and more. It’s given me freedom for my creativity and an audience of voracious, open-minded readers willing to try a new type of story.

It led to me creating the universe of the Triton Experiment and to writing Fighting Kat. It’s a science fiction romance and I am in love with it. I hope readers will enjoy it too.

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Fighting Kat: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Google Playstore

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