Superheroes are fun to think about, but superheroes are often sort of one-dimensional, cardboard characters. In the real world superheroes would be more complex — and like real human beings possibly not perfect. For the novel Misshapes, Alex Flynn uses literary x-ray vision to go behind the “super” and look at a world these folks might really live in.
What if superheroes weren’t so super?
I grew up on comic books and movie superheroes who were bastion of justice and goodness. The past decade has seen some darker heroes but they were pretty light in my youth (my Batman did, after all, have nipples on his batsuit and brooded much less). At the same time a lot of my real life heroes when I was younger rarely lived up to these ideals. I was a big Mets fan as a kid and idolized the 86 World Series winning Mets. I still have a Daryl Strawberry signed ball in my childhood bedroom. But after a number of drug busts, assault charges and bleach filled water guns I learned that these weren’t quite the best role models. I feel like a lot of kids who were fans of the NFL after the recent scandals may be experiencing something similar.
When we started the book the great recession had just hit, and the failure of banks and other institutions brought the idea that many of the people in the business community who we once thought of as almost supernatural in their abilities, were not only fallible, but in some cases criminally negligent in their desire to manipulate the system to their own ends. The strains of an increasing class stratified society were starting to show and it was not a pretty sight. People were losing their homes while those responsible got million dollar severance packages and sailed off into their private world of yachts and oceans with no culpability.
When we started writing the book it was just about a girl dealing with rejection from a super school. Like if Harry Potter got kicked out of Hogwarts. We love Harry Potter and other hero stories, but we wanted to hear the tale of the kid that didn’t get in and still made good. But as we built the world, instead of a fantastical utopia with mustache twirling villains, we ended up reconstructing our own world but with people with powers but might not necessarily be super. Based on the way money, power, institutions, business, private schools, celebrity and politics can all interact and corrupt in our world, we started to see how, superheroes wouldn’t necessarily fix these problems, but would likely just get woven into the mix.
We didn’t want to construct a world with rare powers and secret identities, but wanted to build a universe where powers come in degrees, there utility is not based on some standard measure but on how society see their value, and that most of being a “hero” involved the same image management, press, and advertising as being a sports star. In the Misshapes, the town Heroes live in an upscale community above the town and are often involved in less than heroic activities. Also, in a world were real people can fly, instead of action movies, documentaries are really important, although they are more staged—like The Hills or the Kardashians—than true to life.
Also, and the central thrust of the book, there are people who have powers who are not Heroes, because they don’t get into hero academies and society thinks their powers have no value, called Misshapes. This group faces discrimination from society, in part out of resentment of those who have powers, and in part, out of an almost ingrained animosity that resembles racism. We intentionally left the definitions vague because being a Misshape is, like race, gender or class, a socially constructed concept
In our world, and not a clear thing like you often find in fictional works about superheroes. Most villains, usually after they do something wrong, are labeled Misshapes.
Everyone remembers the line from Uncle Ben in Spiderman, oft quoted in freshman philosophy courses “With great power comes great responsibility.” The maxim pre-dates Uncle Ben, and even has biblical antecedents, but we all know if from Ben. The reality is that while the statement is morally accurate, it is not factually accurate. There’s another saying, not often found in comic books, from Lord Acton* “Power corrupts.” This, in turn, is factually true. In the world we find people with power acting with impunity and immorally, even though they should be acting in a more moral fashion.
However, we still hold them up for praise and are shocked when they fall. In part because we want to believe Uncle Ben and want to ignore Lord Acton, instead of learning that we ourselves must be responsible and hold those who wield power accountable. Applying these lessons about the world to a fictional one with superheroes is the big idea of our book.
However, the idea is just the background. On top of that is the great story of one girl learning how powerful she is and how the world she once believed in is not as it appears. Also, there are some pretty damn cool melees with lasers.
*Acton was likely, like Uncle Ben, quoting another source but his succinctly quote is worthy of the attribution. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
There are many interesting things about Rajan Khanna’s debut novel Falling Sky, but the one that pings my radar is that involves dirigibles, and that (of course!) noted dirigiblist Cory Doctorow plays a key role. Read on to find out how it all connects.
Like most novels, Falling Sky began with a sentence. It was a sentence I had written years ago and filed away, like I do with many of my story ideas. It involved a man, floating in a dirigible, afraid to go down to the ground. At the time I didn’t know why he was afraid, or what possibly lurked beneath him. I just knew he had to descend but didn’t want to.
In 2008, when I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, I took that sentence with me. I wanted to turn it into a story, but I didn’t know where to take it. It was Paul Park, our first week instructor, who pointed me in the right direction. He said something along the lines of, “It can’t be a fantasy. You don’t want every person in this world in their own balloon.” Up until that moment, I thought I might. But I quickly shifted gears and decided it had to be science fiction and that despite the outlandish premise, I would make it as realistic as possible.
What the man in the dirigible was afraid of became a pandemic, an apocalyptic disease that shattered modern society. A virus so contagious that it kept people isolated, afraid of being exposed or infected. The victims became, essentially, off the rack zombies (though in my defense it was late night/early morning as I was pulling this together and I was reaching for the low hanging fruit).
The man in the dirigible became Ben Gold, my protagonist, an airship pilot and survivor, staying in the air for as long as he could until his needs, primarily his hunger, sent him down to the ground to risk his life.
I had my initial hook – a post-apocalyptic setting, a rugged anti-hero in an airship, and a host of slavering, zombie-like creatures waiting below him. And while the story needed a lot of work, the setting seemed to generate some interest, enough that several of my classmates, and our instructor for that week, Mary Rosenblum, encouraged me to expand it into a novel. The other overwhelming bit of feedback was to ditch the zombies and make the disease more nuanced. So, when I revised it, instead of being fatal, the disease regressed humans into a savage and bestial state, robbing them of reason, increasing their hunger and aggression.
The third instructor to weigh in on the story was Cory Doctorow, who admirably went back and read the previous week’s stories. He suggested an extra scene where Ben, a lifelong survivor, is confronted with the horrifying lengths some people will go to in order to survive and it calls his choices into question. This would be very useful to me later.
Years went by and the story remained unpublished and a novel was missing from my mental landscape. I kept returning to the idea and bouncing off of it. It just didn’t have any life. Then one day, I found Ben’s voice. I heard it, in my head, in first person, and everything clicked in that moment.
So I had my high concept (post-apocalyptic adventure with airships) and, remembering what Cory helped me realize, I had my central idea — what it means to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. What is the cost of that survival? What does it mean to eke out existence in a shattered world? What lengths would you go to survive? Is there a point where survival by itself isn’t worth it anymore?
In the animal kingdom the basic point of life is often to live long enough to pass your genes on to the next generation. But is that enough for human beings? What about a world where procreation is often a danger because of the risk of infection? And how much of your humanity can you hold onto, and which parts, in the face of losing it to a disease?
Furthermore, is survival really the point at all? If Ben is the face of survival in the book, Miranda, one of the other main characters, is the face of idealism. At the start of the novel, Ben has joined up with Miranda and her group of scientists, helping to provide them with transport and protection. Miranda is trying to find a cure for the virus and believes that one is possible. In fact she risks her life on a regular basis for that purpose. Ben thinks she’s crazy, that her idealism will get her killed (or infected), but in Miranda’s mind, it’s worth it. In her mind risking your life for something more than just survival is the only thing worth doing. Just keeping on is a losing game.
That conflict, between Miranda and Ben’s viewpoints, is at the heart of Falling Sky both in its constructive and destructive variations. Because remember, horrible things can be done in the name of survival, and terrible things can be done in the name of hope and progress, too.
Also, there are airships. Lots and lots of airships. Because airships are cool.
Uh oh. Now Sophie Littlefield has gone and done it. She has revealed, in her Big Idea piece for her latest novel The Missing Place, what sort of disreputable persons writers truly are! And she does it through a piece of jewelry!
I often wear a small charm on a chain around my neck. You’ve seen the sort—a little silver ring inscribed with inspirational snippets like “Faith Friends Family.” Except that mine reads “Lie Cheat Steal.” At first it simply amused me, a secret antidote to the occasional tedium of everyday life, but over the years I have come to realize that it is in fact an apt motto for an author. Lying, of course, is the taproot of fiction; but cheating and stealing are its inevitable outgrowths. The authors I admire are thieves of the telling detail, stealing the look in a lover’s eye or the set of a pugnacious jaw, and the best inveigle their way so deeply and artfully into human interactions that their victims may never know what has been taken from them.
I went to Williston, North Dakota in January, 2013 to do research for THE MISSING PLACE, which is set in an oil boom town. I arrived on a small, trembling prop plane. Rented the only car available: dirty, outfitted with a cracked windshield and someone else’s fast food wrappers, with no snow tires on the eve of a major storm. Stopped at a truck stop for lunch; walked to my table under the gaze of thirty men dressed for hard labor and one harried waitress in a pink flannel shirt and a ponytail. Ate my scrambled eggs, watched and listened, and took notes.
“young guys beards, old guys shave”
“Wrangler Levis no upscale brand”
“smell—Aramis/cigarette smoke/rubber?/creosote?/coffee/cleaner, not Windex—industrial?”
“real butter not margarine—melted/re-refrigerated”
“easy listening, Eminem cover (???)”
I hunched over my notebook, not wanting anyone to see what I was doing. There is, for me, a keen sense of shame at being caught spying, because that’s what the early moments of a novel’s creation feel like to me: illicit, invasive, even assaultive. I steal from people—I steal their details, the tiniest pieces of them.
In the movie “Trading Places,” Eddie Murphy explains to Dan Akroyd that he can make a fortune by skimming pennies from financial accounts that contain huge sums of money. It will never be missed, he points out—it’s a virtually victimless crime. Observing people, perhaps, might be viewed the same way: the characters that eventually populate my books were not stolen whole cloth; I can say with confidence that no real person has ever been written into one of my books. But every character is stitched from stolen parts, like scarecrows made from rags of unknown provenance.
Maybe a better analogy is the nests that male bowerbirds, attempting to attract mates, create from anything they can lay their beaks on: leaves and flowers but also bits of cloths and stones and coins and plastic bottle caps and nails and even rifle shells. Anything, in other words, to get the job done—and all of it stolen.
A bird, however, is innocent; a bird simply fulfills its avian purpose, that for which the Creator destined it. An author is different. She is the outlier, possessor of the poisoned gene: normal people interact, attract and repel, but authors cannot leave well enough alone. Conversations overheard become stories germinated. Ordinary people become villains, victims, lovers; subtle clues convince the author they are gifted, misunderstood, endangered, celebrated, feared, doomed.
So I watch and listen and spy; I pilfer and plunder, appropriate and confiscate. You, friend from my past, did that scene between twelve-year-olds not trigger a memory? Or you, from that mortifying OKCupid date when we couldn’t find a single thing to talk about, didn’t you see yourself in the mirror of that fictional hotel room? And you most of all, perhaps, my former spouse, don’t you see yourself in every love story, every breakup and every murder? (I leave you clues, you know; if you read carefully you’ll recognize a shirt I bought you in Chicago or that fender-bender the day after you drove the Camry off the lot.)
A dozen books into my career, I recognize certain facts. One is that you can get away with a lot. Another is that you can get away with almost nothing. The latter refers to the fact that no matter what a critic praises you for, another will excoriate you for the same thing. The former is more interesting: when I take liberties, I’ve learned I’ll rarely be caught, whether it’s a historical inaccuracy or a stolen identity. Perhaps this is because a devoted reader invests the storyteller with her trust at the outset , trading skepticism for full immersion. The more skillfully the author describes, the more easily the reader overlooks the sleight-of-pen. Verisimilitude is more than enough, especially when truth—well, unvarnished truth can be mightily dull, which is why we choose fiction in the first place.
So I scribble on, stealing from you the things you won’t miss—the fake smile that disappeared from your face the second your husband turned away; the muttered threat when you squeezed your child’s arm in Target; that glance you gave the ass of the girl who could be your granddaughter. But also that cheap little cross you wear on a chain that slips over all your tattoos, the little tug you gave your teenaged daughter’s top when she wasn’t looking, the way you weren’t going to let anyone see how those Payless heels were killing your feet as you turned in your job application at the Petco.
All of it, snatched and spirited away and woven together, like the shiny objects in the bowerbird’s nest—to attract you, my dear reader. Like a kleptomaniac, I can’t stop; I’ll keep trying to catch your eye with my stories, to make you wander close. Lying, cheating, stealing: whatever it takes.
It’s all about the visuals, baby.
I am not and will never be the sort of writer who generates a story because my characters (supposedly) talk to me. I have friends who swear by this method of composition, but frankly, I can’t even fathom how that would work. My stories all come from images, often moving images, like scenes snipped out of context from movies, that stun me with their immediacy. I’m compelled to imagine their history, their implications. And as you might guess from the cover art for my collection, the imagery I’m drawn to tends to derive from the dark side.
Sometimes the inspiring snapshots can simply be things I notice in life, though usually such things must be unusual enough to demand unusual context. Noticing a single shoe left beside the road might cause little more than a momentary mental question mark, but noticing a whole series of forlorn singleton roadside shoes over several days’ time led me to wonder what happened to the missing shoes, and to the humans who owned these permanently separated pairs — which begat my story “Gutter.”
Here’s another real-life snapshot. The first time my wife Anita and I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, a trick of reflected light caught my eye and my imagination — seen from a particular angle, a lighted stained glass church window appeared to be hovering disembodied about twenty feet above the atrium floor. I imagined seeing the same thing in broad daylight in a empty field — and thus arrived my story “The Lead Between the Panes.”
Story-fodder images can come from dreams. When I was a toddler I had a memorable nightmare (at least I assume it was a nightmare, I remember it as if it actually happened) of my beloved, very, very, long-armed Humpty Dumpty doll coming to life in my crib and trying to strangle me. Each time I tossed him out, he righted on all fours and climbed right back in. I don’t remember how the dream ended, but what could I have called my attempt to create a new ending besides “Humpty”?
Music can make me dream up scenes, and as I’m an unabashed, unrepentant, hardcore metalhead (in fact, I’m jamming to Judas Priest as I write this) my music fugues tend to be delightfully twisted. My ultra-apocalyptic story “Let There Be Darkness” is basically my mental music video for the Slayer song “South of Heaven” transcribed into words.
Occasionally these images pop into my head out of nowhere. A few years ago, I tagged along with Anita to a sprawling fabric store set up inside an old schoolhouse. While she shopped, I sat down beside a curious artifact — an RC Cola machine, laid on its face, with all its mechanical guts removed. The owners had filled the shell of this machine almost to the brim with buttons; I could sink my arm into them past the elbow. As I perched there playing with the shiny buttons, a vision came to me — I imagined pulling my arm out to discover that the buttons had attached themselves, and wondered what would happen if I then started to unbutton my own skin. As this visual took hold of me, others rapidly followed, and about 90% of the plot of my Nebula-nominated story “The Button Bin” exploded into my brain right then and there.
There can also be combinations of the above. Even though I had not originally imagined “The Button Bin” as the sort of tale that required a second chapter, I ended up trying to come up with one. (This was a result of an exchange with a movie producer which ultimately lead nowhere in particular, but gave me incentive to revisit the story.) Still, I had no idea how a follow-up would work.
Then, one day, I happened to be listening to “Lux Aeterna.” You’ve heard this composition: it’s the main theme to the movie “Requiem for a Dream,” subsequently repurposed to great effect in the movie trailer for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” I had listened to this piece before without receiving idea encounters of the story kind. But this time, out of the blue, a scene came to me of a man unraveling. And I don’t mean having a mental breakdown. His skin and flesh were spinning off his body the way a broken window shade spins. By the way, this wasn’t producing the burst of blood you might expect. The layers twisting away just revealed more layers, and more, and more, of someone or something clearly human no longer. And from this comforting tableau came my first full-blown novella, “The Quiltmaker,” which is indeed the sequel to “Button Bin.”
Once this sequel existed, the impulse to have the stories paired together in a book naturally followed. Dark fantasy and horror collections have loomed big in my literary life through the years — Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories, Thomas Ligotti’s Grimscribe: His Life and Works, Laird Barron’s The Imago Sequence, Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors. I’ve long had a vague notion of putting out a horror collection of my own, but that notion didn’t become a mission until after “Quiltmaker.”
But there’s another significant way in which imagery generated this book. See, it was originally titled “The Button Bin and Other Horrors,” or variations thereof. Then I got my first look at Danielle Tunstall’s astonishing cover art, and I knew it was perfect, perfect, perfect. And I also knew the original title would never work with that art.
So here’s where my background as a speculative poet came in handy. I started experimenting with one word titles that would fit both my stories and Danielle’s art, until I finally arrived at: “Unseaming? Is that even a word?”
And I checked, and lo and behold, it’s not one in common usage, but a word it is, used most famously by William Shakespeare himself, in just about the same sense that I mean it. Here’s the lines from “Macbeth”:
“Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chaps,
and fix’d his head upon our battlements.”
It’s all about the visuals, baby.
The word “princess” has certain connotations in our culture, not all of them that great. Author M.A. Larson is here to talk about some of them, and how they relate to his new novel, Pennyroyal Academy.
I didn’t have a daughter yet when I started on the long path from idea to publication. I didn’t even really have a Big Idea. I was a film and television writer with what was, in hindsight, a pretty Small Idea.
I went around to some of the studios pitching a cartoon series called “Princess Boot Camp.” It was a straightforward parody of princess culture where I intended to juxtapose frilly pink princesses with hardcore military training. I was banking hard on “princess fatigue” to help me sell the show and build an audience. Now that I think about it, “Princess Fatigues” might have been a pretty good title. But I digress…
The show was optioned and developed, but eventually stalled. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the concept. A friend suggested I try writing it as a book. I was intrigued by the idea, so I decided to go back to the original source material – the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm – to do a little princess research. What I discovered led me to something much more interesting, and more profound, than I had anticipated.
In the story “The Six Swans,” the princess character has such fierce love and compassion for her brothers that she vows not to speak for six years in an attempt to break the curse that has turned them to swans, and even as she is being led up the gallows to be hung, her devotion to them is so great that she doesn’t utter a word. In another story, “The Golden Bird,” a princess is threatened with death, yet bravely risks her life to expose her evil brothers-in-law to the king. Yes, the princess Briar Rose is described as beautiful, but then she is said to be gentle, virtuous, and clever. Snow-White is so kindhearted that seven burly mineworkers and all the creatures of the forest come to mourn at her glass coffin when she is killed. The princess in “The Two Brothers” is faster than any man or woman in the kingdom. And so on and so forth.
These princesses were being described as clever, brave, athletic, and kind. While it wasn’t true in all the stories (there are some nasty princesses in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, too) on the whole they were far more multi-faceted and interesting than the vapid pinkness I thought of when I heard the word “princess.” In modern usage, the P word often seemed to describe a girl who was proud of her laziness, proud to be spoiled and entitled. “Princess,” to me, was just an empty word stitched on sweatpants and emblazoned in sequins on the sides of purses. It did not describe the girls I had been reading about.
And that’s when my Big Idea began to emerge. Could I reclaim the word “princess” from the Paris Hiltons of the world? Could I redefine it so that it meant, to my readers, what it had meant to the Brothers Grimm?
Armed with my new Big Idea, I realized I would need to scrap the entire idea of doing a parody. The princesses of Grimm’s Fairy Tales weren’t to be ridiculed; they were to be admired. I began to strip away the spoofiness, and what emerged was a story far more sincere than the one I had started with.
When my characters enlisted at Pennyroyal Academy, they wouldn’t be there as a tool for me to use to skewer princess culture. These girls would study the great princesses of the past, look to them as examples of how to live in harmony with the world, and learn to use the innate kindness and goodness in the traditional definition of a princess to quite literally fight against the forces of cruelty and evil. Graduates of the Academy wouldn’t sit in towers and wait to be rescued. They would fight their way out using their virtue as a weapon. My goal was to re-establish the princess as a paragon of decency and kindness, and I decided to do that by having my princesses battle witches.
Once I had that central conflict – princesses as the only force in the world capable of defending against witches – the only thing left was the hardest thing: sitting down in a chair and pushing keys. I infused my story with traditional fairy tales as much as I could. I aged it up and made it more sophisticated, just like the princesses I was writing about. With each chapter I added to the stack, I always kept my Big Idea in mind. And the next thing I knew I had a manuscript, and then I sold it, and now here I am writing this. And it’s all thanks to that dreaded P word.
I do have a daughter now, and I’m happy she didn’t see the original version of this project. Back then, I viewed princesses as pink and helpless and unworthy. But now that I’ve written Pennyroyal Academy, my definition of what a princess is has changed dramatically. A princess is courageous. She is compassionate. She is kind. She is disciplined. And if my daughter told me she wanted to be a princess when she grew up, well, nothing would make me happier.
You’ve heard of Shakespeare in the Park, but Shakespeare at the circus? That may be a new one. But that didn’t stop Gwenda Bond from using one of the bard’s most popular plays as one of the inspirations for her new novel, Girl on a Wire. Now she’s here to talk about how to achieve this precarious balancing act.
A sixteen-year-old girl walks on a wire high above a city. She balances—easily, then precariously—on the invisible weight of her family history.
The girl’s name is Jules. She meets a boy, a gifted trapeze flyer named Remy.
The Big Idea then, for Girl on a Wire, as it presented itself: Romeo and Juliet retold in the modern circus, centered on the latest generation of decades-long competing circus dynasties.
A confession: I can’t stand the romance in Romeo and Juliet. But there’s a reason the story sticks around and (I’d argue over dinner) it’s not the tragic ending. It’s the set-up. Two people with a host of reasons not to fall for each other, with the world exerting its influence telling them they better stay apart, but who can’t or won’t. That is something we understand in an instant. If only it was a story about excavating the family drama and dismantling it, but it can be. It’s all there in the set-up. The mystery is why the families hate each other so much.
Fate and choice; we live our lives crossing our fingers for both, at one time or another. We walk on a wire without a net, what we want always a few steps ahead, or maybe far, far away from where we started. We have to keep moving or we’ll fall.
This book started with the flu. New Year’s Eve 2010, as the year rolled over to 2011. I was sick, but we had house guests who didn’t mind my couch moaning and made champagne cocktails (not an actual medical remedy) and—perhaps most importantly—who didn’t mind hanging out on the couch too, watching the entire PBS’ Circus mini-series I’d stockpiled on the DVR, which follows a season of the Big Apple Circus.
Or maybe it started years and years before that, when I was a teen or a pre-teen (actual year hazy, ask again later) and up late watching David Letterman. His guest was a charming high wire walker, Philippe Petit, in what must have been one of his earliest appearances on the show. Of course and undoubtedly, he’s the best known modern wire walker in the world. (Another debate for over dinner, but I’d put Nik Wallenda second.)
It was the first time I’d ever encountered Petit, and he mentioned a book he’d written called On the High Wire. For years, I checked for it in every used bookstore I visited, every library, looked for it online. Never found a copy less than $150. Finally, a half dozen years ago, I realized I could interlibrary loan it. The translation arrived, done by Paul Auster. The book is simple and beautiful, a chronicle of learning to walk the wire. Or is it a host of lessons for making it across the wire of life instead?
Somewhere in the first age of the blog, when I started mine, I had to come up with a one-sentence bio. Without hesitation, I wrote: A writer on the high wire of life.
Or maybe it began with my love of the circus and circus stories. I remember a one-ring circus that set up just outside the elementary school where my dad was principal a couple of years in a row. Small, obviously run by a single family. I was only allowed to go inside once, and what I remember most is the smell of sawdust and horses and sweat.
I amassed a collection of circus books, fiction and nonfiction both. But I never thought I’d write one. I didn’t think I had anything new to add. Until the flu.
And I also had a character in search of a story, the glimmer of her born when one of most glamourous people I know mentioned washing her hair with champagne on a lark, because a book suggested it was good for the hair (especially of children!). And I’ve had a thing for classic screwball comedies ever since my introduction to them more than a decade ago.
I wanted to write a girl who might wash her hair in champagne even though her family couldn’t afford it, who might have watched too many old movies with wise-cracking dames. Jules came from that glimmer.
The provenance of some books is difficult to trace, just as some books come easily and some hard. But looking back, it seems impossible that I would never have written this book. Of course I was always going to.
So… Girl on a Wire: Sixteen-year-old Jules Maroni is a daredevil wire walker from a legendary circus family who has fallen on hard times, and wants nothing more than to join a new show, the Cirque American, that promises to restore the circus to its former glamour and glory. Her family resists, but she convinces them—only to discover upon her arrival that it’s going to be more complicated than she expected. When objects that supposedly possess unlucky magic begin to appear, Jules must team up with Remy Garcia, a member of the Flying Garcias, the chief rivals of the Amazing Maronis, to find the culprit.
It’s a novel about fate and choice, ambition and ethics, poison and passion, life and death. Which is to say, it’s a novel about the circus. From the moment I started writing it, these characters and their world felt absolutely real to me. Step right up. I hope they will for you too.
Aside from anything else, I am just glad there is now, in this world, a book with the title The Penguin Book of Witches, because, really, how cool is that. But editor Katherine Howe has made sure that there is more to the book than just a great title — it’s a book with a point. What’s the point? Howe is here to tell you.
I think we can all agree that witches are a problem.
Okay, you’re right. Maybe they’re not a problem anymore. Perhaps you think witches are awesome. Perhaps you know a witch or two yourself. Perhaps you are a witch yourself? But if witches today wear their pointy hats with impunity and walk amongst us twirling their wands and trailing cats in their wake in broad daylight, it’s safe to say that it wasn’t always so. Until quite recently, witchcraft was a serious problem indeed. Serious enough that it was against the law. Serious enough that it was punishable by death.
I’ve written about witches for a while, usually in novels like The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Conversion, which came out this past summer. And the fascinating problem with witches is that while we can all agree on what a witch looks like, it’s trickier to figure out where she, as a cultural idea, came from. How do we know what witches do? What makes witches so threatening? Why were we so scared of witches that for hundreds of years, we were willing to hang them by the neck until death?
Generally speaking, a “witch” in the early modern period (so around 1400 to around 1700, depending on who you ask) was a person—most often a woman—who was thought to have traded her soul to the Devil in exchange for certain special privileges. She might have the ability to make cattle fall sick, or maybe she could predict when someone was going to die. She might be able to fly through the night seated on a broomstick, or she might have a special imp “familiar”—like a pet—who would go and do her bidding. Maybe she could even send out her spirit from her body and wreak havoc on her neighbors, or she could make her spirit assume the form of her familiar, stalking about in the night in the shape of a cat. She was threatening, on the one hand, because of this special, volatile power she might wield against the people around her. Even more than that, she was threatening because she was an example of an individual person claiming power that belonged more rightfully with God (or, practically speaking, with the power structures of the church or the king. Kings hate it when you try to have more power than they do).
Some early modern skeptics, like Reginald Scot, wondered if we were missing something in this whole “witch” situation. If witches were so powerful, they asked, why was it that most people tried as witches were actually pretty wretched and miserable? They were usually poor, often destitute, sometimes unstable or argumentative. On average, the typical accused and executed witch was a woman at middle age—from her 40s to her 60s—who was on the outs with her society in one way or another, usually economically, but maybe personality-wise as well. She was a pain. She was irritating. She made people uncomfortable. She was always begging for something. She was a problem, and she needed to be gotten rid of.
The first person accused as a witch during the Salem episode was a classic example of this. Tituba Indian was a slave in the household of Samuel Parris, the minister in Salem Village. She had come to Salem with him after being enslaved on his failed plantation in Barbados. Tituba was accused by Betty, Samuel’s daughter, of trading her soul to the Devil and using the special powers he granted her to send Betty into “fits.” Tituba confessed, though some historians think that Parris beat the confession out of her, and went on to pass the blame to other women in the community who were vulnerable in similar ways: Sarah Good, who was destitute and begged from door to door, and Sarah Osburn, who had married her handyman and stopped going to church. The idea of “witchcraft” in the colonial period had a lot to do with regulating women, forcing them to comply with cultural ideas of how they were supposed to behave.
The pointy-hat image of witchcraft has dominated popular culture for such a long time that it can be difficult to tell where the idea of witchcraft originally came from. That’s where The Penguin Book of Witches comes in. The Penguin Book of Witches wants to bring history back into the picture. It’s a collection of primary sources—that is, actual historical documents—about witchcraft in early modern England and English North America, from the 1500s until the 1700s. It includes not only theological arguments, like Reginald Scot (the skeptic) and King James I (who wrote a whole book on demonology), but also trial transcripts of real-life women accused and executed as witches. Reading these trial transcripts is like watching an episode of Law and Order, made all the more chilling by the fact that everything in these records really happened.
It’s tempting to believe that after nineteen people were hanged at Salem by the state for a crime we now believe to be imaginary, our culture suddenly awoke in a fit of reason and stopped believing in witchcraft. But that’s not what happened. Witchcraft stopped being a crime after 1735, but it continued to lurk in our cultural practices and memory long after it vanished from the books. That’s why The Penguin Book of Witches doesn’t stop with Salem, looking at the various ways that witchcraft persisted as an idea, an anxiety, and even a practice until the dawn of the nineteenth century.
Or, perhaps even the dawn of the twenty-first?
(I won’t tell if you won’t.)
For today’s Big Idea, Chrysler Szarlan, author of The Hawley Book of the Dead, is here to explain a bit about running, about making one’s peace with haunted forests, and why one should avoid white vans that appear in unexpected places.
The way I write, big ideas kind of explode in my head every so often, and give shape to the book or story I’m working on. Like fireworks on the 4th of July. Sometimes you have to wait for the next one, sometimes they all come one after the other, pop, pop, pop.
When I began The Hawley Book of the Dead, my first big idea was to run away. That’s the long and the short of it. I was looking for an escape from the novel I was writing at the time, which had started bleeding creepily into my own life, producing fires, floods, and crazy people chasing me with knives (for real, not only in my nightmares). My big idea was to stop that book from becoming TOO REAL AND SCARY. So I rode my horse into the New England forest, which is where I look for ideas. And the main character of The Hawley Book of the Dead, a woman searching for her missing twin daughters, began speaking to me.
Soon, I learned that she was running away, too. That was the next big idea, that my character was running as fast as I was. Running away from a killer who was stalking her. A killer who was responsible for the death of her husband. So she fled with her daughters from Las Vegas, where she had been a famous illusionist, to the place I always felt safest: to the middle of the Hawley Forest. I discovered that Hawley had been the home of her ancestors, a family of women with special powers. Yet another pop of an idea. So I went with those glimmers of story.
Now, Hawley is a real place. A town of 300 people, bisected by this huge state forest. And it is as creepy and beautiful as the town in my book. It has a cemetery smack in the middle of it. It has old cellar holes aplenty. At one time, it held a few hundred people, farmers of the rocky soil. Now it is deserted. And eerie. There are ghost cows there, roaming the wide roads. I have seen them. They made their way into my book.
So how is it that I, and my heroine, Reve, feel safe in this haunted place, where there is a tension between the otherworldly and this world? How is it that we are both comforted by that?
I found that Reve had grown up riding her horse in the forest. She’d grown up in these haunted New England woods, and had made her peace with them. Just like me. She discovered that if you make friends with the spirits around you, you need have no fear of them, and also, that they just might protect you. That’s what I felt all my years of riding and walking and skiing that forest. I felt it would protect me, because I knew it. I felt the pulse of it, I knew it like the back of my hand, every inch of trail, every crumbling rock wall. I knew its terrors and its beauties, and I appreciated them all. I still feel safer there than in my suburban house, surrounded by people.
Reve at times in the book thinks the feeling of safety might be an illusion, her sense of credulity stretched thin, especially when her daughters go missing. Are they being protected by the forest spirits, as she sometimes thinks? Or are they dead, after all, killed by her stalker? It was a fine line to walk, a fine line to try to write.
But then I remembered the white van. You see, you can drive into the Hawley Forest, as well as ride or walk. Hunting is permitted. Most times when I saw a Jeep or a pickup truck, I’d think nothing of it, just turn my horse to let it pass. But in the fall of 2008, just around the time I started the Hawley book, I began seeing a white van driving the forest. And every time I saw it, some instinct made me plunge off the trail, into the woods, coaxing my little horse down into cellar holes even, so as not to be seen. It happened three or four times, over a period of about a month. To this day, I have no idea if the driver of the white van was evil, but that’s what I FELT. And I still believe the spirits of the forest guided me, helped me, at that time. Turned me from some kind of bad intentions.
So the transmutation of experience into fiction began. My big ideas of escape, then of finding protection in the forest, were written into the warp and weft of the book. I ran from one novel, to another novel. But the second novel gave me, and my characters, the protection of the forest to fall back on.
I can’t explain it, I only know I feel it, and that Reve feels it. We believe in magic in the real world, because we’ve been saved by it. That’s our big idea. We run from peril, to the forest place. Not spooky to us. We are New Englanders, after all.
Who would you want as the first speaker to an alien civilization? National Book Award winner William Alexander proposes an intriguing candidate in his middle-grade novel Ambassador, and after reading his Big Idea piece, I can’t say I entirely disagree with him.
I love the word “ambassador.” I remember rolling it around in my eleven-year-old brain while watching Star Trek TNG. Ambassadors command reverence and respect. They defeat villains by knowing what to say and how to listen. They can end wars with words. Supposedly. Federation ambassadors seem to accomplish all of these things offstage, but on board the Enterprise they suffer tragic deaths or are otherwise incapacitated right before a commercial break. Then Picard takes over, quotes Shakespeare, and fixes things. I wondered what an ambassador might actually do if they could just live through the commercials.
“Neoteny” is another favorite word. It means “the retention of juvenile traits in adulthood.” Biologists usually use it to describe physical traits like the muppetish gills that axolotls keep when they refuse to grow up and become salamanders. But neoteny also refers to social and cognitive traits like curiosity, empathy, and the ability to learn new skills or form new social bonds.
Most social creatures ditch those childish things by adulthood. Consider sheep as a random example. Lambs frolic. They explore, play chase games, and taste whatever they can find. Meanwhile the adult sheep stand still and chew. That’s pretty much it. They’ve already learned everything and met everyone they need to know in order to survive, because they have survived, so now the curmudgeonly elders enjoy their right to masticate all day long and grumble about frolicking youth. This makes solid darwinian sense—provided you have a stable environment. But if you happen to live in rapidly changing circumstances, then the set of things you should know by the time you grow up destabilizes accordingly. Curiosity becomes a vital survival trait, even among adults.
Stay childish, everyone. Our continued existence will depend on our neoteny.
You might consider reading kidlit. Or writing some.
A few years ago, at my friend Ivan’s apartment, I paged through a coffee table book about interspecies friendships. Huge photographs documented adorable, improbable bonds between foxes and hounds, gorillas and kittens, crocodiles and parakeets, and so on. Such friendships usually form early, between juveniles.
The words “ambassador” and “neoteny” collided in my brain. Kids have not yet fixed the boundaries of their social worlds, or limited those boundaries to the worlds that they happen to be standing on. Ambassadors between planets should be kids.
I wrote those two favorite words on a scrap of paper and stuffed it in my pocket.
Fast forward to the present. The book Ambassador stars eleven-year-old Gabe Sandro Fuentes. He’s a second-generation Latino immigrant to the United States. (So am I.) He has all of the cognitive, code-switching benefits of a bilingual brain. (I don’t. My family tried very hard to assimilate, so my own command of Spanish atrophied. I miss it.) He knows how to move smoothly between worlds, languages, and cultural expectations. Curiosity, empathy, and skilled communication are his survival traits. And the word “alien” throws off many different kinds of sparks inside his head, both before and after he becomes the ambassador of our planet.
I wish I still had that little scrap of paper. I don’t. It probably went through the laundry and got compressed into a dense nugget of linty pulp. But those two words were too important to forget, and their collision gave me the concept, the protagonist, and the title of Ambassador.
Maybe I’ll call the sequel Neoteny.
There’s the saying that “Freedom isn’t free” — but how to express that concept in a way that makes it more than just a bumper sticker platitude, and fold in some steampunk aweseomeness to boot? With Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, author David Barnett may have just the ticket. Here he is to explain how it all comes together.
America is screaming.
At least, that’s what it sounds like to The Nameless. He isn’t really called The Nameless, of course, but he can’t remember his name. As he tells one character in Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon:
“They call me many things. The Indians call me Spirit, in more ways than I can remember. The witches of New Orleans like to call me Fantôme. The Mormons in New Jerusalem think I’m Satan, and the civilized folk of New York don’t believe in me at all!”
The Nameless is a weird mash-up of Natty Bumpo from Last of the Mohicans and Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, criss-crossing the America of 1890 in search for… well, he doesn’t really know. All he knows for sure is that he woke up on April 18, 1775 with no idea who he was. All he was really sure about was that America was screaming, and somehow he had to put that right.
April 18, 1775 is an important date in the calendar in Gideon Smith’s world. It’s when the British put down a nascent American rebellion and ensured that the country – or at least most of the Eastern seaboard – remained in British control. The Spanish still hold much of what we know as Mexico – New Spain, to them. But their constant war with the French back in Europe means their tentative forays north of the border have had to be scaled back, to the point where they didn’t put up much of a fight in 1868 when a breakaway Japanese faction fetched up in San Francisco, took over and rechristened it Nyu Edo, capital of the newly-established Californian Meiji.
There are other factions and independent settlements in North America, of course – the French nominally hold Louisiana, there’s a Free Florida which is a safe haven for runaway slaves from the Confederacy, and Texas is dotted with fiefdoms run by mostly tyrannical former British governors who decided they were too far away from New York and Boston – and a world away from London – to pay too much heed to what they wanted.
This fractured America is, I suppose, one of the big ideas in this, the second Gideon Smith novel. But though he’s not often on-stage, The Nameless is another big idea, linked closely to this. America, he feels, should not be this patchwork of territories controlled by proxy from far away. And that sort of gave rise to what’s the real Big Idea in Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl – the one that we’re all shackled to something, even if we don’t know it. And that freedom can be achieved, though often at a price.
The British governors in New York and Boston are chained to the whims and fancies of London, thousands of miles away. They can barely keep their cities running with the taxes that have to be paid back to Britain, and they certainly can’t expand into the wide open territories to points west without the resources they need. The Governor of New York, Edward Lyle, knows that his city is in thrall to the coal that keeps the lights on and the traffic moving, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep that happening.
Haruki Serizawa is a scientist working on a top secret project for the Californian Meiji. He and his wife Akiko hoped America would be a new world for them and their daughter Michi, but he is frustrated that the new settlement cannot fully cut its ties to the old country.
Inez Batiste Palomo is the daughter of the Spanish governor of Uvalde, a border town all but forgotten by Ciudad Cortes (Mexico City, to you and me). Her father cleaves tightly to tradition and expects her to do the same, but she’s a modern woman in a world that’s changing fast.
And Gideon Smith is the boy from nowhere, the fisherman appointed to be the Hero of the Empire by Queen Victoria herself. Gideon is shackled to Victorian mores which despise the different, which make it difficult to be anything other than rich, white and male. Yet here he is, in love with a mechanical girl. His society, the one that made his dreams come true, just doesn’t hold with the freedom to love who he wants.
And, I suppose, the book, the whole Gideon Smith series, in fact, is perhaps my own attempt to break free of the constraints – real or perceived – that some feel the “steampunk” genre imposes. I wanted to write a working class hero who didn’t have a double-barrelled name, one who dragged himself up by his boot-straps and demanded the world take him on his merits. One who – once he knows how the world works – has severe misgivings about it. I wanted to create a steampunk world where diversity was celebrated, differences discussed, and expectations challenged, if not overturned.
I’m not sure, as a white male with a roof over his head and a steady job, whether I’ve succeeded in that. But as the characters in Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon find out to varying degrees, freedom rarely comes without some effort.
Hugo and Nebula Award winner Nancy Kress is thinking big about something small: Your genes. In the real world, they connect you, for better or worse, with every other human on the planet. In Kress’ latest, Yesterday’s Kin, they also connect with something else — something surprising.
Yesterday’s Kin is, at its heart, about mitochondrial DNA–which means that it is, at its heart, about what it means to be human.
Can you define humanity by its genes? Maybe not all of human behavior or growth or soul, but since 1981, you can define humanity’s past that way, in order to decide who is related to whom and how.
Somewhere in Earth’s deep past (very, very deep, possibly 1.5 billion years ago), an ancient bacteria merged with an ancient single-celled organism that already possessed a nucleus. It was a good marriage. The DNA in the bacteria evolved into mitochondria, little powerhouses that help convert oxygen into energy in every cell of your body. The DNA in the single-celled organism went on doing what DNA does: creating proteins and replicating itself. Everybody was happy.
However, mitochondria had a pre-nup that many Hollywood actors would envy. In the case of a cell split, a mitochondrion get to keep all its DNA and pass it on, unchanged, to the egg that will become the next generation. Sperm gets almost no mitochondria, and what little it does have is shed with its tail. Thus, all your mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) came from your mother, who got it from her mother, all the way back to the common matrilineal ancestor, “African Eve,” approximately 6,000 generations ago. Humans can be grouped into “haplogroups,” clusters of people defined by their differences in mtDNA.
When I discovered all this, I was fascinated. Coupled with a higher mutation rate relative to nuclear DNA, the inheritance of unchanged mtDNA makes it possible to trace ancestry of a person, or groups of people, through the restless migrations that characterize our species. All sorts of anomalies abound: Why does the Korean sequence turn up regularly in Norway? How did that family on the Russian steppes acquire the mtDNA signature of a Polynesian? And what does any of this have to do with science fiction?
A concept is not a story. To turn my enchantment with mitochondrial DNA into something with the possibility of enchanting anyone else, I needed characters, plot, conflict, setting. This stalled the entire project for a year, while I pondered. Pondering is what writers do best, since it has the virtue of feeling productive without the pain of actually confronting a keyboard. Eventually, however, pondering must end and writing begin. For SF, aliens are often a good place to start.
In Yesterday’s Kin, aliens arrive on Earth. They willingly subject themselves to being sampled and probed: tissue, blood, organs, DNA. The results are conclusive: These aliens are human. Their particular migration reached farther, and deeper into the past, than any other—but how? When? And why are they returning now? The answers to these questions formed my plot.
My protagonist was created from twin desires. First, I wanted to portray contemporary biological science as it is actually done: with sophisticated equipment, as part of an international conversation, with career-impacting mistakes and triumphant corrections. Too often, the “science” in SF is of the cloning-in-a-basement-by-a-mad-scientist type, or else gibberish hand-waving (“If we hook up the actofrabble cycle to the Hartford drive, we can create galaxy-spanning life insurance!”). I have enormous respect for science and scientists (all right, I’m a science groupie) and I wanted to show biological discoveries being made under pressure, with the inevitable competition as well as the teamwork, as realistically as I could.
Second, I wanted a female scientist who (1) was not young, (2) did not tote a blaster, and (3) had a family. Humanity comes, of necessity, in families, at least in the beginning of lives, but from much science fiction, you’d never know this. Protagonists whiz around interstellar space unencumbered by so much as memories of anybody back home, much less the aching concern that most parents never lose for even their grown children. Dr. Marianne Jenner, evolutionary biologist, has three grown children, all of whom carry around the marks and scars of their upbringing. Just like (I fervently hope) real people.
Yesterday’s Kin was absorbing to write. During my research, which was extensive because I am not a scientist, I discovered enough material for several books in several genres. The United Kingdom, for instance, has recently approved the insertion of mtDNA from a donor egg into an egg whose own mtDNA carries inherited mitochondrial diseases. The donor mtDNA replaces the defective mtDNA. When the egg is fertilized in vitro, the resulting child will actually carry DNA from three different people. Legal thriller, anyone? Family saga? Star-crossed romance? (“We can’t marry; you’re my one-third sister.”) However, SF is what I write, and with Yesterday’s Kin, Marianne Jenner’s story is not finished.
Nor are the surprises written in human mtDNA. Your mitochondria supply you with more than physiological energy. They can reveal our shared past and the connections that, to a large extent, make us who we are.
You’ve heard the nursery rhyme, but do you know the real story behind Lizze Borden? Does anybody? This is the jumping off point for Cherie Priest and her novel Maplecroft, which follows the infamous Borden after the real-life events that made her notorious. Do you dare follow?
Like countless others in the last hundred years, I first heard the name “Lizzie Borden” via the jump-rope rhyme. Everyone knows it: Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her father forty whacks… And so forth. Whether or not she ever killed anyone is still up for grabs; she was acquitted of all charges in 1893, but that’s never stopped anyone from speculating about her parents’ murders – and once you’re canonized on the school playground, your legacy is pretty much set.
So what really happened? God only knows. Either she got away with murder, or she was falsely accused and thrown to the bloodthirsty public by an opportunistic media. Like they still say in journalism, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
There was a lot of blood in the Borden house. But that’s not The Big Idea.
The Borden murders were far more interesting, complex, and peculiar than is commonly remembered. Left out of the nursery rhyme are allegations of poisoning, an illegitimate son in search of an inheritance, and a crime scene treated like a theme park before the bodies were even cold.
And more, of course. Much, much more.
After Lizzie’s trial, she and her older sister inherited the family fortune; but rather than leave the state and start fresh someplace else, they bought a big house on the other side of town. Its name was Maplecroft, and there, they quietly lived out their days.
Except that maybe, they didn’t.
A quick google turns up a number of academic texts on the Borden case, as well as a handful of “true crime”-style popular retellings, but my novel Maplecroft isn’t about the murders. It’s about everything that happened afterward. Sort of.
The truth is, Lizzie never spoke to the press – and very little is concretely known about her life, either before or after the events that made her a household name. Oh, but there was plenty of gossip. Why, you should hear about the shenanigans that went down at Maplecroft: witchcraft! wild parties! lesbianism!
To quote the bard, two out of three ain’t bad.
The grand old house definitely saw its share of wild parties, largely at the behest of a young actress named Nance O’Neil. (Her real name was “Gertrude Lamson,” but you can hardly blame her for picking something else.) And there’s a fair measure of circumstantial evidence to suggest that she and Lizzie had a romantic relationship. There’s also plenty to imply that Lizzie’s sister Emma didn’t like it one bit, and they had a big falling out over it…but what can you do?
In short, the more I learned about Lizzie, the more I felt genuinely sorry for her. If she did kill her father and (step)mother, you have to wonder what drove her to it; and if she was innocent, she surely didn’t deserve the ensuing fallout from the media – or from the court of public opinion. So, having become quite comfortable tweaking history for my own nefarious purposes…I thought I’d make her guilty, but give her a damn good motive.
And that was The Big Idea.
I’d been itching to write a gothic horror piece for a while now, and Lizzie Borden collided with that itch, scratched the hell out of it, and gave me a framework for the story I wanted to tell.
Almost every book these days comes with a disclaimer, something like: “This is a work of fiction, and all historical places or people are used fictitiously…” Well, we should probably stick that on the front of this one, rather than inside the cover – because at its core, Maplecroft is about Lizzie Borden fighting Cthulhu with an axe. Or, if you prefer: It’s a 19th century epistolary love letter to Dracula, by way of Lovecraft.
This is the story of the aftermath – the aftermath of Lizzie’s trial, yes; but it’s also about the aftermath of a supernatural tragedy, and a gentle professor’s terrible transformation. This is about what happens when you pray to something terrible, and it hears you. It comes looking for you. And it finds you.
So after a fashion, Maplecroft is both an epilogue and a warning. It’s fiction, and any real persons are used fictitiously, of course.
But there’s truth to be found in the real life strangeness, all the same.
Fresh off winning dual Hugos at this year’s Worldcon, Kameron Hurley is releasing The Mirror Empire, which is quickly garnering some of the best reviews for a fantasy novel this year, in part thanks to its startling and vibrantly original worldbuilding. But as Hurley explains, some of the most intriguing worldbuilding she’s doing here involves who she imagines at the books antagonists — and why it matters that she’s approaching them as she does.
Orcs. Mutants. Zombies. Demons. Monsters. Aliens. Undead. Robots.
The Other is always monstrous. Inhuman.
That makes it easier to kill.
Epic fantasy is often understood as a genre that pits good vs. evil, light vs. dark. Tolkien’s work became the modern template for this, inspiring numerous imitators that pitted the good merry few against the faceless hordes. Grayer-toned fantasy became more popular in the late 90’s with authors like Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin removing the faceless horde (aside from those white walkers, perhaps…) and giving us a fantasy where all the good and evil of the world was contained in people, not faceless creatures. We saw all the light and dark, the grim and hopeful, in our own faces.
My academic background is in the history of resistance movements, in particular in Southern Africa. I know all about the horrific things we’ll do to one another – things we couldn’t even imagine some faceless evil doing. But it was when I expanded the reach of my work into the study of genocide and mass violence – what makes ordinary people kill? – that I realized what my first epic fantasy series was going to be about, at its heart.
Because though we may seek to Other groups of humans to make it easier for us to kill them, the reality is that those who kill, and those being killed, are just the same.
We are all the same.
Oh, certainly, let’s not get too heavy, here. The Mirror Empire has blood mages and flesh eating plants and energy swords that sprout out of people’s wrists, satellite magic and semi-sentient trees, and all that cool, fun stuff we visit fantasy to experience. But the core of it, the big idea behind it, happened a few months after I returned from completing my academic work in South Africa.
Back then, I was thinking big – I was plotting my series arc without actually knowing who the Big Bad was. I knew I had a group of pacifist people fleeing from a force that wanted to destroy them, but I had no idea why this Faceless Horde wanted them dead.
While working out one morning, I had a vision of one of the protagonists traveling across the world, fleeing from these invaders who were wiping out his people, and he goes to a neutral country to sit down and work out a truce. He opens the door to the meeting room…
I remember the room. A stone room. A table. A bank of windows spilling white light, a cityscape with blue tiled roofs. He opens the door, and who does he see?
He sees his dead sister sitting at the table. He sees her rise. Smile. Hold out her hand. Perfectly healthy. Perfectly alive.
I realized who the Bad Guys were, in that moment.
My pacifist people were fighting themselves.
The questions this image provoked were many: how was she alive? How had her own brother not known she was leading this army? And, most importantly: why was she killing her own people?
I could have made up something lazy, of course – she hadn’t really died, it was all a trick, a dream. But a far more interesting possibility presented itself in that moment: two worlds. Reflections of each other. Mirror images. One world is dying. The other sits on top of it, just a slide through the veil between them. But to escape a dying world means murdering all of those who share their faces on the other side.
Killing your doppelgänger. Murdering a world, to save yourself.
The catalyst for this event, I decided, would lie in the heavens. It would be a recurring catastrophe triggered every 2,000 years by the arrival of an erratic satellite in the sky which bestows strange powers on the inhabitants. This heavenly body, unlike the others orbiting the world more regularly, gave specific individuals a very limited power: the ability to open doors between worlds.
Who those newly powerful people turn out to be, who they side with, and who controls them, make up much of the narrative push of the book.
But at its heart, The Mirror Empire is about the Big Idea. It’s just this:
What would you do if you had to kill yourself to live? How much would you destroy to save your own skin? Who would you be, if you gave up your own morality, your sense of self, to survive? Would it be worth it? What would you sacrifice, what would you save, in the face of utter annihilation?
These are questions every single character must answer, in the end.
They’re questions many are faced with every day.
It’s not a good vs. evil question. A light vs. dark question. It’s a human question.
A vital one.
This is the end! Or at least, for Kat Richardson, her new novel Revenant represents the end of a certain part of her writing career. What is it, and how did she know it was time to turn off the light? She’s here to tell you.
Endings. Ah, now, that’s the tricky bit. You build to an ending—the proper ending—that reflects and is indelibly linked to the beginning. And in the course of a long series all the little endings lead, through inevitable change, to the great, big, lollapalooza in the final book—plus some explosions, some gore, sex, death, and general mayhem, of course. And that was were the Big Idea for Revenant came in—because it’s not just a book; it’s The Last Book.
As a writer, you design the whole story for the ending. It doesn’t “just happen.” It’s engineered. Anyone who says otherwise is lying, cheating, or lucky. “I don’t know how it ends,” is not a luxury in which writers can long indulge. Oh, you can get away with it a bit at first, when you’re doing something new and exciting and your instinct is dragging you through the brush and wildfire like rider tied to a mad horse. But eventually—especially with a long-running series—you have to have a destination you mean to reach and go there. It’s not just a road trip through the writer’s imagination—it’s a journey to a specific point in that landscape. No matter how awful, or difficult, or heartbreakingly beautiful, that’s where you’ll take your readers, because you have to and in setting up your series, you promised them that you would.
And so I came to the end that is the beginning, because the word revenant means “that which returns.” The book Revenant came out August 5th and it’s the last novel in the Greywalker series—at least it’s the last for now. Not because the publisher didn’t want more—they did. Not because the sales sucked—they were all right, if not exactly stellar. Not because I was bored or had no ideas left. It’s the end because I’m done. I finished what I started and I took the characters where I wanted to take them.
Essentially the Greywalker saga (as some folks took to calling it) is one long, nine-part novel and, like any story, it has an end that was engineered and intended. That’s where the Big Idea lies—in what I intended and what I hope I accomplished—not in the details of the very last confrontation of the very last book. What I meant to do was to bring the last book back to the beginning and illuminate the main character’s change over the course of the longer arc. Well, and tell a creepy adventure story as well, of course.
When I started, the protagonist, Harper Blaine, was a chilly, stubborn, inflexible loner. She was smart and driven, but she had issues, few friends, and her charm was reserved for getting people to answer her questions. She had what she thought she wanted in life: control. But then someone bashed in her head and that control was taken away from her. Everything she thought she had and was—everything she’d built for herself, by herself—was upended. Over the course of the series, she’s had to figure out a lot—who she is, what’s important enough to fight for, what she’s willing to do, and what she wants to become in spite of what others try to force her into. She’s had to endure a lot: death, disillusion, despair, the loss of friends and lovers, and revelations she didn’t want to have. She’s also had to learn to be a whole person who understands friendship and love and pain rather than avoiding them. Within the larger arc there are three smaller arcs about reclaiming herself, learning to trust others, and finally, forging family links and friendships of her own.
There were also, y’know, ghosts and witches and monsters and mages, kidnapped children, dead wives, devastating earthquakes, world-threatening plots, and a particular vampire who’d been lurking about since the beginning and needed a little fixing, too. Plus a lot of loose ends, lost friends, and family problems that needed to be tied off or cleaned up, not to mention the matter of undead spies that may have started everything….
So I packed the whole kit and caboodle off to Lisbon so I could talk about family and friends and life and death, contrasting one character’s past with another’s, burning them all down and then forcing them all to build something worthwhile out of the wreckage. If I did it right—and I think I did—you should be able to see the beginning of the story reflected in the end and a protagonist who has come back to exactly the right place at last. In the end, we are at the beginning.
Authors go into their books with what they intend to put on the page. But there are also the things that they put in there that take them by surprise — and sometimes those things add a new level to the work. Mary Weber talks about one of these things in Storm Siren — and how it got into the book in the first place.
My big idea didn’t start out as big. In fact, I didn’t realize it was even an “idea” until a friend gave me feedback that went something like: “I love your focus on diversity. It’s cool you incorporated other races and special-needs characters into the book. What made you decide to do that?”
“Huh?” I frowned. She clearly didn’t understand. The big idea was supposed to be female empowerment. You know – slave girl with superpowers discovers her worth isn’t in her status or abilities but in who she is? Yeah, that.
Later, as my shaky hands slipped the story into a few more inboxes, the replies came back with more of the same: “Good job on how diverse it is. How’d you come up with that?”
Um… I didn’t. But I should have. I should have considered the importance of diversity in story. Been intentional. Yeah, that.
Now, in my defense, I did purposefully make my main character’s love interest a hot black man instead of a hot white guy. Because HELLO. He’s hot. But did I add the various individuals and special needs into Storm Siren to make a statement? No. Part of me wishes I had, because that sounds so intentionally awesome. But the truth is much simpler. Perhaps humbler.
I live in the real world.
I work with special needs individuals and their families. Some of my own family members have special needs. And those people and families are the most incredible, passionate, and hardworking that I know.
I also live in a California coastal community that’s a virtual mixing pot of cultures and ethnicities and beautiful beliefs. Rarely have I encountered any shade of skin copping an attitude toward another person’s shade of skin. We simply are who we are. People. Trying to get by as a community of college-agers, professors, lawyers, waste-removal truck drivers, plumbers, dentists, artists, photographers, middle-agers, parents, homeless, wealthy, elderly.
So, I’m not sure it’s really a big idea when those faces weave their way into a fictional story and are “represented” in romance or fairytale, or westerns, or, in my case, fantasy. It’s simply that they are in my community, and therefore, the people who influence my life story. I bet they’re the same type of people who influence yours as well – people who empower us.
In looking at it that way, maybe my earlier big idea wasn’t too far off. Because at the core of female empowerment – heck, at the core of human empowerment – is value. No matter what things make us different or the same, we are each valuable because of the very fact that we exist.
And we add value to each other by the fact that we choose to live life together, sharing with each other, caring for each other. We add value by standing up for the rights of anyone who has to fight harder to have her voice heard.
And if you ask me, that right there is what makes us powerful.
For her novel Dust and Light, author Carol Berg takes a look at some of the more mundane aspects of magic — that’s “mundane” as in “practical,” not as in “boring” — and shows how a story can build from the rules and traditions a writer places on its use.
Going in search of the big idea that drove my new book, Dust and Light, into being got me running in circles. Every novel results from layers of ideas, and this one did so in spades. Here’s how it went:
For years I was convinced that the only way I could develop a novel was to begin with an impression of a character in a difficult situation and grow the story and its events and themes from there. As happens with many certainties, that conviction was eventually splintered. It happened on the day I heard a National Public Radio feature story called The Last Lighthouse. It wasn’t the meat of the essay that got my juices flowing, but the title.
A lighthouse is usually a warning. But it could also be seen as a guide to safe harbor. Or perhaps a house of enlightenment. Whichever kind my lighthouse was, why might it be the last? (You see? Already it was my lighthouse.) That title also led me to recall a Rosemary Sutcliffe novel about a young Roman soldier in Britain, and the vivid scene where he is standing in the lighthouse at Dover watching the last Roman ship leave without him. And I wondered if anyone at that time in history had possessed the breadth of vision to foresee what Rome’s contraction would mean for Western Europe. And as all fantasy writers do at some point, I asked myself, “Well, what if someone did?”
As if it were a gift, here lay the foundation of the deliciously complex world of my Lighthouse Duet: Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone, and its central conceit. As Flesh and Spirit begins, the once prosperous kingdom of Navronne is facing a dark age caused by a disastrous decline in the weather and a raging civil war of succession. Roving bands of fanatics burn and murder, believing that leveling civilization will placate their particular gods. Amid this chaos emerges a group called the Lighthouse Cabal.
That concept simmered for a while, mingling with another that had been nagging at me. As I observed politics and popular culture through the years, I’d noticed how often the children of talented parents followed in one of their parent’s chosen profession/art/sport/industry. Think the Barrymores or the Bridges, the Mozarts or the Strausses, the Carters or the Kennedys, the Unsers or the Pettys, the Johnny Cashes, or Ravi Shankar and Nora Jones. And writer brain whispered, “What if that profession were a person’s only option?”
From this little question arose Navronne’s magical history. Magic is confined to a group of wealthy families, descendants of long-ago invaders. Those born into these families inherit either their father’s bloodline magic or their mother’s. They spend their lives in study and practice until their Head of Family deems them of age and ready for their first contract, for sorcerers have become a commodity made available via contract to the highest bidder – whether that be a city, a noble, a clergyman, a market fair, or even, in a stroke of strange circumstance, a city coroner.
So what are the implications of contractual magic? Marketing hasn’t changed over centuries. First, keep your product valuable; even better, build a mystique about it. Second, maximize customers, ie. keep it independent, available to all varieties of the political spectrum. And lastly, make sure you have a monopoly.
These pureblood families have created a mannered, disciplined subculture. They keep themselves detached from ordinary society and politics, wearing half masks and expensive dress to reinforce their unique position in society. Mystique! They have forged a partnership with the crown that preserves their autonomy. And the contracts that bind them and their grown sons and daughters to clients are very strict – and very lucrative. In exchange for their wealth and comfortable life, their personal choices are strictly limited. From what to wear to whom to marry. From how they address each other to how and when they may express emotions. And most definitely the particular variant of their bloodline magic they practice and for whom.
All well and good. I had lots of ideas and lots of potential. But I wanted to start writing. Where was the story?
I love epic stories that deal with politics and religion, with events that challenge the boundaries of magic, science, and the divine, and mysteries of all kinds. But I also like to view these big stories through a very personal lens that can draw me – and my readers, I hope – right into the story. That’s why the start-with-the-character method had worked well for me. This time I had to search for a protagonist to go adventuring in this crumbling world – to unravel the meaning of the lighthouse and live with the ramifications of this kind of magic.
Fortunately, I found one I loved for the Lighthouse books, a cheerful, pleasure-loving renegade pureblood sorcerer, who despised the rigid life laid out for him so ferociously that he ran away from it. And rebellion is a high crime when magic is a commodity that enriches one’s little corner of the world so profoundly. Valen was so determined to escape what he called “slavery with golden chains” that he chose to abjure all use of magic (except one nasty little addictive enchantment). He was willing to take whatever low-life job he could get, eat whatever he could scrape together, and avoid entanglements that might reveal his past and get him sent back home. Freedom was enough. Choosing his own path was enough, even if that path was, by necessity, dangerous, rocky, and lonely.
I liked where Valen’s story took me – into mystery, adventure, and the mythology of Navronne. But to my chagrin, focusing on a renegade meant there were many aspects of the pureblood culture I never got to explore. Valen’s opinions were colored by the fact that he came from a particularly despicable family, yet I knew there were many worthy aspects of pureblood culture. The purebloods’ neutrality meant that anyone could have access to magic if they had the means to acquire a pureblood contract. If magical families were wealthy, then necessity could not force them into serving masters they deemed criminal or cruel. They had time for study and practice of their extraordinary gifts and discovery of new aspects of talent. Strict marriage laws ensured that magical bloodlines did not die out.
So, I decided that I wanted to go back to Navronne and do some more poking around, but not as a sequel to Valen’s story or a prequel. I wanted to create a parallel story, sort of like viewing the American Revolution from the British side after viewing it from the American side. Thus, for the second time, I started looking for a protagonist, maybe one who believed in the purebloods’ way and saw the benefits of their rules. Someone who valued the magic. I wanted to see the world of purebloods and ordinaries through the eyes of a person who was not a rebel. Rebels shake things up in a flawed world, but ultimately, someone has to have the discipline to know how to put matters right. And there, standing in a crowded street waiting for me, was Lucian de Remeni-Masson, an artist whose magic can imbue portraits with truth.
Lucian has grown up in a large loving family, believing in his bones that his gift for magic comes from the gods, and that it is his duty to learn of it and use it in service to the world. Magic is a glory that fills his life, and he believes that restricted choices are the rightful price for a future that is unique and marvelous. Though he slipped up once as a youth, he has become a model of self-discipline.
Yet, there is an inevitability built into human experience, especially for those brought up in safe, secure, environments where beliefs are so certain. Fate, the gods, perverse nature, or maybe just an ornery fantasy writer throws nasty things at us, forcing us out of the womb of childhood and into a harsher world where rules are not simple, certainties can be shaken, and choices are not clear. A matter of import can be simple justice for a murdered child or the fate of a kingdom. And what happens next comes down to a particular person and how his beliefs, experience, and personality shape his choices of how to deal with those nasty things. What remains of him when the foundations of belief are ground into dust? Yep, the choices will tell. The story still grows from the character after all. And Lucian’s story became Dust and Light.
History isn’t history to the people who are living it — it’s their present, their world and their lives. This is a thought E. Catherine Tobler kept in mind when writing her novel, Rings of Anubis. Here she is to explain what it means for you, the reader.
E. CATHERINE TOBLER:
My interest in all things historical started in elementary school when I discovered a National Geographic book called Secrets From the Past. The book explored tombs of the world, lost cities, and discussed how we could determine what people of the past were like by exploring the things that remained. It wasn’t until high school I heard about the marble Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, removed from the Parthenon in Greece. Many viewed Elgin as no better than a vandal and a thief–even Lord Byron took a position on the matter, the debate concerning the marbles long and fierce. The British Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816 and to this day, they remain in the British Museum.
I wondered, how could people do that? Had archaeologists carried such historical things away, knowingly or not? Surely they had. I knew I couldn’t write about Egypt of 1889 without keeping such events in mind. Within the time frame of Rings of Anubis, Egypt was occupied by the British and many treasures were accidentally and carelessly lost in the haste to discover what lay beneath the dirt. I wanted my heroine, Eleanor Folley, constantly mindful she was exploring a world inhabited by people who had been as real as she was. To make it as personal as possible for her, I placed her in both worlds: an Egyptian-Irish archaeologist, trained by her parents, both archaeologists before her.
Eleanor Folley wasn’t in the business of archaeology for the wealth or fame that came with it; while those who didn’t know her might consider her no better than a vandal and a tomb raider, she never profited from her discoveries. Eleanor Folley was always in search of something else–something more personal than gold or fame.
What would be like to face each tomb with the possibility of something personal beneath the stones? What it would be like to excavate a site and hold your breath as dirt parted to reveal bones that might belong to someone you loved? I wondered how a person might continue such a search in the face of never finding what they sought, how they might struggle if even their own family asked them to stop searching. How do you stop looking for part of yourself and what might you do if you encountered someone else on a similar quest?
The history buried beneath our modern lives isn’t only history. Living, breathing people called the fragmented walls we unearth home before we called them relics. The bones we carefully brush clean are someone who had a name, an occupation; someone who was loved or despised. Mummies aren’t just linen-wrapped bones–they were people who created and dreamed and dared just as we do. What we take from the dirt isn’t simply random debris to be swept away in the quest for wealth and recognition. I wanted to explore the idea that someone buried within the Egyptian desert could be greatly loved by someone still living, someone who, in the end, had no idea what she was about to unearth.
Big ideas sit at the heart of many novels (there’s a reason why I call this feature “the big idea,” after all). But not every good idea — or big idea — makes it through the culling process on the way to the writing of the actual novel. Jon McGoran talks a little about this process in relation to his newst thriller, Deadout.
I love big ideas. Almost everything I write starts out with one. Many writers will say that character is the most important thing, and for the finished product, I think that’s probably true. But nothing gets me excited about a new project like a Big Idea. And one of the things I like best about Big Ideas is the way they lead to other ideas.
As a writer, I love (and sometimes hate) to write. But my favorite phase of any project is that initial Big Idea stage, the honeymoon, when the ideas are coming in a rush, anything is possible, when the early research is leading me off in all sorts of directions. As I start to outline and give the story structure and focus, it gets a little more like work. There is an element of sadness, too, as some of my littler ideas get left by the wayside (with every intention — rarely realized — that I will come back for them some day).
That’s a sadness I deal with often. I’m one of those writers who is constantly having ideas that I think are big. Usually they are story premises that hijack my energy and enthusiasm. (Sometimes, oddly, they are novelty gag items. Go figure.) I write them down or leave a memo on my phone (thank you, iPhone voice recognition!). Then they go in a folder on my computer.
The odds are not good for them. I mostly write novels, and chances are slim that any one of my daily Big Ideas will make the cut and become the focus of a six-, nine- or twelve-month project. It pains me to see them go to waste. So, if I can work in more than one idea — without detracting from the story — so much the better.
The Big Ideas for my novels Drift and its sequel, Deadout, came from my day jobs. For many years, I’ve been involved in writing about and advocating for issues of food and sustainability. Over time, I noticed that the food stories I was writing during the day were becoming more frightening and bizarre than the mysteries and science fiction I was writing at night. It started with things like irradiation, dangerous chemicals, and factory farms. But when genetically modified organisms (GMOs) started taking over our food stream, I realized food politics could be a great theme for a thriller.
Partly this was because GMOs represent such a paradigm shift in how food is grown, because they seem so inadequately tested, and because they’ve quietly taken over so much of the American foodscape. But a lot of it is because GMOs are alive, and once they’re out, they’re out. As a human who eats food, I found it alarming. As a writer who likes Big Ideas, it made me wring my hands and cackle with glee.
The GMO story already reads like a thriller — big corporations using their political and economic power to quietly spread bio-engineered new life forms across the globe and onto unsuspecting consumers’ dinner plates. That’s a great (or terrible) starting point. The more I thought about it, and the more I researched it, the more story ideas I saw.
At the same time, I realized a lot of people didn’t know much about GMOs, how pervasive they are or even that they exist. It was like a perfect storm: a rich premise with lots of potential, and an important issue that begged to be explored.
In addition to GMOs, Deadout focuses on colony collapse disorder, the mysterious syndrome that is causing much of the world’s honeybee population to disappear. It also expands on many of the other themes in Drift, including corporate misbehavior by biotech behemoths and efforts to push GMOs through foreign aid and trade agreements, issues I explore even further in the third book in the series, coming out next year.
These are topics I’ve written about journalistically, and even satirically, but fiction —especially novels — allows a writer to reach different people and explore issues more deeply. Still, while I might love my Big Ideas, I try hard not to let them get in the way of the narrative. Because no one will ever see them if they don’t keep reading. And besides, for me, ultimately, the biggest Big Idea is a good story.
DELILAH S. DAWSON:
Hey, you! Buy my book.
What, you don’t take orders?
Yeah, me neither. I used to, but not anymore.
And neither does Dovey Greenwood, heroine of my Southern Gothic Horror, Servants of the Storm. At first, I thought my Big Idea was loyalty or fighting prejudice in the Deep South, but then I realized that the very root of the entire plot is Dovey’s defiance.
Everyone tells her to take her meds. But one day, because she thinks she sees her dead best friend, she flushes all those pretty white pills down the toilet.
Turns out, she wasn’t on antipsychotics to help her deal with the grief of losing Carly in Hurricane Josephine. Turns out, there’s more lurking around the ruined alleys of Savannah, Georgia than just the usual panhandlers and tourists. Turns out, Josephine is more than just a storm, and now that she’s settled in like a pig in shit, she and her demonic minions want to take everything Dovey has, including her soul.
Dovey’s answer? Hell no.
Once the meds wear off, she’s dead set on finding answers. She stands up to both prejudice and demons and refuses to accept that her destiny has already been determined, even against impossible odds. And one of the reasons I wrote her this way, pig-headed and defiant and suicidally reckless, is because when I was her age, I didn’t say Hell no. I said Yes sir. And it nearly killed me.
I grew up in a house where No wasn’t allowed and Hell no would’ve gotten me smacked and grounded. I was terrified to break a rule, color outside the lines, or speak up when I disagreed. I got all As. I worked thirty hours a week. I did everything I was told to do.
And maybe that’s why I didn’t stand up for myself when I was bullied. Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell anyone when my dad was emotionally abusive. Maybe that’s why I was willing to shrug it off when that ex-boyfriend started stalking me. Maybe that’s why I let him corner me, alone, to talk. Maybe that’s why I didn’t fight back when he raped me at knifepoint. And maybe that’s why I didn’t tell anyone, after. I was too scared to take risks, too scared to get in trouble, too terrified to do more than whisper No because making a man angry meant I could get hurt even worse than I already was.
So when I started writing Servants of the Storm and putting together the pieces of the puzzle, the pictures of Six Flags New Orleans after Katrina and the Spanish moss in Bonaventure Cemetery and the dangerous neighborhoods where my husband grew up in Savannah, the heroine who emerged was tough in ways I had never dreamed of being, defiant in ways I wish I had been, back then. When my instinct as a writer was to take the easy path and let the story move her along, Dovey ran in the other direction, flicking me off.
The truth is, if I had seen a flash of my dead best friend when I was seventeen, I would’ve rushed home for more pills. But Dovey spits her pill out and goes back to wait to see Carly again. She runs down dark, unfamiliar streets chasing a stranger and walks into hell for the chance to save the person she loved most. Sometimes, when I was writing, I felt like I was both Dovey and Carly, like the current me was the brave, strong, tough girl willing to break the rules while the old me, the teen me, was the sad, quiet zombie going through the motions, doing what she was told.
I’m thirty-six now, and Hell no is one of my many indulgences. I would say it’s a battle cry, but it’s more often something I mutter in my head while smiling politely. Nobody can make me do anything I don’t want to do—not anymore. Writing Dovey’s defiance was like looking back to the girl I was and giving her the strength I never had. Every time she plants her feet and refuses to obey, I cheer. Whenever she makes what an adult reader would consider a stupid mistake, I’ll defend her. Because it’s her mistake, and she owns it… and usually pays for it.
Children are born crying and defiant, and we do our best to quell the rebellion and teach civility and courtesy. With teens, every moment is a choice between Hell no and Yes sir. Part of the escape of YA is shrugging the responsibility off our mature shoulders for a while to recall the sudden fire of disobedience, the thrill of running in the wrong direction, or the butterflies of kissing someone when we know we shouldn’t. If you’d like to step into the shoes of a fiercely loyal girl who makes terrible mistakes for all the right reasons agains the backdrop of a beautifully decaying city, I hope you’ll give Servants of the Storm a try.
Also, there’s a demon Basset hound. If the defiance doesn’t lure you, that should do it.
Anthology editors usually come into their projects with a firm idea of what the anthology should be — that’s how they sell the project to a publisher (or on a Kickstarter). But as Alisa Krasnostein learned as she co-edited the Kaleidoscope anthology with Julia Rios, just because you know what you want your anthology to be about, doesn’t mean you always know how the process of building the anthology will work on your point of view.
One of the most fun aspects for me about publishing is going into a project with one perspective and coming out the other side seeing the world completely differently. It can happen through the process of working with a particular writer or in working to make a project like a themed anthology.
The original idea for Kaleidoscope came to me whilst listening to Julia Rios on a episode of The Outer Alliance Podcast about the lack of QUILTBAG characters in YA dystopian novels. The idea that only straight white people would survive an apocalypse angered me. As did thinking about young adult readers with only a few stories that really spoke to them, that reflected who they were, that told their coming of age stories.
I approached Julia about producing a dystopic fiction themed anthology filled with QUILTBAG protagonists. We developed the idea to expand to include a wider variety of diverse protagonists and to include contemporary fantasy as well. We wanted this book to be specifically for young adults reading science fiction and fantasy and looking for heroes that reflected them — we wanted diverse protagonists triumphant in their stories. A book filled with all kinds of people so that everyone might find a story within to relate to.
What I didn’t really expect was quite how much the process of editing Kaleidoscope would affect me as an editor. I don’t relate to the often default characters in science fiction. I’ve spent a long time as an editor looking for and publishing material that specifically advocates for writers and characters outside that “norm”. But I still found this project confronting in terms of what true diversity actually entails; in that not all stories are for me and not all stories will connect with me in ways that they will for others. This really challenged me in assessing what is a “good story”. Working with Julia, who has a different perspective to the world to me in some ways, made the whole process fascinating, engaging and dynamic. We had many discussions about what diversity means, about how stories can still be good even if they don’t reflect your personal coming of age story.
Even now, months after we finished selecting the stories for this collection, I’m still really thinking about what is an important and meaningful story, who decides that and for whom, and what are universal ideas and messages. And why must an idea be universal at all?
We wanted to produce a book that would reach out to readers and explore diversity as beautiful and powerful. We wanted to offer a counter-narrative to a pattern we saw in contemporary young adult fiction where often only straight white characters get to have adventures.
I’m very proud of the book we have produced. This is a collection of stories for young adults about young adult journeys — be they straight, queer, of colour or disabled. Everybody gets to be the hero of their own story. In Kaleidoscope I encountered time traveling ice skaters and disabled superheroes, love spells and fate deals, transgender animal shifters and autistic animal whisperers, urban legends and the myth of true love. All of the stories are wonderful, and each one has shifted my perspective in some way.