Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Mary Anne Mohanraj

The novel The Stars Change takes place in a far-flung future, on a world that is not Earth. But for her story, author Mary Anne Mohanraj reach into our planet’s recent history — and her own.

MARY ANNE MOHANRAJ:

I live in a bifurcated timeline.  Perhaps all immigrants do, but rarely are the differences so dramatic.  In this timeline, the bright one, I have a job, a house, a partner and two healthy kids.  In the darker timeline, I could easily be dead.

My family left Sri Lanka when I was two years old.  They didn’t plan to stay in America; they came here to work, maybe for a few years.  Like many immigrants, they thought they’d save up some money and then go home, but as their kids grew up, went to school, as they settled into their American lives, it became harder and harder to imagine going back.

Still, in 1983, when I was twelve, my parents planned to send me back for a summer, to live with my grandparents, to reconnect.  They were still thinking we might all move back to Sri Lanka.  But then, a few days before my flight, my dad received a telegram.  Don’t send her.  There’s trouble coming.  He cancelled my flight.

It’s called Black July in Sri Lanka.  Riots erupted in Colombo, the capital city, killing thousands of Tamils, the ethnic minority group, the group to which I belong.  Brutal chaos ensued – friends of mine who were there tell horrifying stories.  They saw tires put around men’s necks, saw them lit on fire.  They saw women and children dragged from their homes, pulled from cars to be raped and killed in the street.

I saw none of this, but the stories haunt my fiction.  Whether I’m writing mainstream lit or fantasy or science fiction, I keep coming back to the war in Sri Lanka.  I keep thinking about the life I would have had, if my parents had made different choices.  If we had stayed there, and been killed in the riots.  If I had gotten on that plane.  If we had fled, as so many of my aunts and uncles did, and ended up as refugees in Canada or elsewhere.

When I started writing a science fiction novel, after twenty years of publishing erotica and mainstream lit., I planned to write something light, something fun.  I was going to write about South Asians!  In space!  With lots of sex!  Oh, I’d start with a war, because every story needs some conflict – the first interstellar war, in fact.  People would hear the news, and would take to their beds – a reasonable response to the end of the world.  I was aiming for smutty, funny, maybe even charming.

But as I wrote the book, the tone shifted.  This was, after all, the darker timeline.  The darkest.  I needed a reason for the war, and it turned out that it was the pure humans against everyone else – specifically, both the aliens and the humods, those genetically engineered to be different from human.

Yes, it’s a race metaphor.  Of course it is.  Writers write what troubles them, what disturbs them, and on a fundamental level, I cannot quite believe that there’s a place in the world where complete strangers are willing to kill me because of my perceived race.  Tamils and Sinhalese speak different languages, are typically of different religions (Hindu/Catholic vs. Buddhist).  But I grew up in America, and I can’t tell by looking at a Sri Lankan which ethnic group they belong to.  Can Palestinians tell Israelis by sight?  Do Hutu know Tutsi at a glance?  And even if they can – by the color of their skin, the shape of a face – why is that worth killing for?

When you read the newspapers from lands torn by ethnic conflict, you’ll see rhetoric about purity.  Racial purity, ethnic purity, language and religion and culture.  When a group feels itself under attack, divisions tend to harden, and people tell themselves stories that justify their hatred.  In America today, it’s clear that many conservative white people now feel themselves, their way of life, to be under attack.  Political positions grow rigid, and people harken back to a ‘lost’ way of life, an idyllic time when things were better.  In Sri Lanka, many nationalist Sinhalese still talk about the Tamil ‘invaders’ who took over their island, even though both groups came to Sri Lanka more than two thousand years ago.

The title for The Stars Change comes from a university motto:  Sidere mens eadem mutato:  The stars change, but the mind remains the same.  I think the university meant it to be hopeful, but there’s a darker reading – that even when we go to the stars, we carry our minds, our prejudices and fears and hatreds, with us.

The Stars Change is set at a university, on a planet settled by South Asians.  As with many major university towns, there’s a diverse population, and sometimes, with those differences, conflicts emerge.  There are outside forces, agitating for war (because with war comes profit, among other things).  There are buried resentments that erupt into violence.  There is pain, and fear, and death.  I totally failed to write the light, smutty book that I’d originally aimed for.

But despite the darkness of this timeline, there is brightness too.  There is hope.  In the end, this is a book about frightened, divided individuals, human, humod, and alien.  People who have good reason to fear and even hate each other, yet manage to put aside their differences and come together as a community.  When a missile threatens to obliterate the Warren, the alien ghetto, there are some who would stay safe in their beds and let it burn.  But there are others – there will always be others – who run towards the flames, trying their damnedest to help.

In Sri Lanka, during the riots, there were so many Sinhalese who sheltered their Tamil neighbors from the brutal thugs.  At the risk of their own lives, they stood up to those with hatred burning in their hearts.  In the end, theirs is the story I wanted to tell.  Even in the darkest timelines, I believe a light can burn.

—-

The Stars Change: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Nicola Griffith

What do we think of when we think of history? For author Nicola Griffith, it’s a pertinent question, particularly for her latest novel Hild, which features a protagonist of no little historical import — but also no great historical record…

NICOLA GRIFFITH:

Just before I started work on Hild, I wrote “You’ve been warned,” a blog post in which I vowed that with my next novel I would run my software on your hardware. “I will control what you think and feel, put you right there, right then…give you a life you’ve never had, change the one you live. For a while, when you’re lost in my book, you will be somewhere, somewhen, someone else.”

It was my dagger in the table, a public challenge—to myself. You see, I’d been aiming for Hild for a long time, and I was terrified.

*

In my early twenties I was living in Hull, the rather grim city in north east England where my novel Slow River is set. One weekend I managed to get away for a few days and head north up the coast, to Whitby.

I’d read Dracula, which is set partly in Whitby, so I was expecting the 199 steps up the cliff. I was expecting the great ruined abbey against the skyline. But I didn’t expect what happened next.

When I stepped over the threshold of that ruin it felt as though history fisted up through the turf, and through me. It turned me inside out like a sock. It was like sticking your head in what looks like a perfectly ordinary wardrobe only to find yourself in Narnia. My world changed.

History, I realized, was real. Built by real people with their own dreams, disappointments, and dailyness. I could see it. I could feel it. (I probably stood there with my mouth hanging open.)

After that epiphany I went back every year, sometimes twice year. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey, sitting on the tumbled stones, reading the tourist brochures, imagining how it might have been. Even after I moved to the US I came back as often as I could. Bit by bit I learnt that the abbey was founded by a woman called Hild in the mid-seventh century. That 1350 years ago, in 664 CE, she hosted and facilitated a meeting, the Synod of Whitby, which was a major turning point in English history. She’s now revered as St. Hilda of Whitby.

But when I went looking I couldn’t find any solid information. No scholarly monograph. No saintly Life Of. Not even a novel. The only reason we know Hild existed is a mention in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He tell us Hild’s mother dreamt of her in the womb–she would be the light of the world. Her father was murdered in exile. She was baptised at age 13 and when she was 33 and visiting her older sister in East Anglia, she was recruited to the church. She went on to found Whitby Abbey and hosted the Synod in which so-called Celtic Christianity was ousted in favour of the Roman kind. Oh, and she trained five bishops, was a counsellor to kings, and was instrumental in the creation of the first piece of English literature, Cædmon’s Hymn.

We don’t know what she looked like, whether she married or had children, or even where she was born. But she must have been extraordinary. Think about it. This was the time that used to be called the Dark Ages. In a heroic, occcasionally brutal and certainly illiterate culture (cue music for Xena: Warrior Princess), Hild begins life as the second daughter of a widow, homeless and hunted, yet ends as a powerful advisor to more than one king, leader of a famous centre of learning, and midwife to English literature.

So how did she do that? We don’t know. I wrote this book to find out. I decided to use the same world-building I’d used in science fiction to figure out how. I’d build the seventh century and grow Hild inside.

So I researched. I read everything I could lay my hands on about the late sixth and early seventh century: ethnography, archaeology, poetry, numismatics, jewellery, textile production, languages, food, weapons, trade patterns, even the weather. I read scholarly monographs, narrative histories, blog posts, and strange screeds. Late in the process I stumbled over a new factoid: by one estimate, Anglo-Saxon women spent 65% of their time in the production of textiles. Sixty-five percent. That’s a greater proportion of her day than sleeping, child care, and food preparation combined. Textile production was life-or-death technology for the whole community. I kept returning to it; it fascinated me.

But I didn’t want to write that kind of book. I didn’t want to write about the restrictions of gender. Domesticity makes me claustrophobic. Hearth and home are all very well, but I love an epic canvas: gold and glory, politics and plotting, people wacking each other’s heads off with swords. To avoid feeling trapped I was tempted to make Hild so singular that the restrictions didn’t apply to her. At one point I even had her learn and use a sword, although in reality any woman of that era who picked one up would most likely have been killed out of hand and tossed face-down in a ditch.

I couldn’t make it work. Remember that realisation at Whitby Abbey? History is made by real people; the rules always apply. I despaired.

But there was my dagger, quivering in the table.

In the end I did what any good Anglo-Saxon would: I got drunk, laughed in the face of fear, and charged…

…And discovered what poets have known for millennia, that constraint is freeing. I had nothing to lose, so I committed. And the words came. It felt like magic. It was Hild’s voice…

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Sean Williams

I’m a fan of Sean Williams, and his new novel Twinmaker (known as Jump in Australia, and the first in a series) is a whole bunch of science fictional fun. But I gotta tell you, I’m hesitant about stepping into a matter transmitter. Maybe in this Big Idea he can convince you otherwise.

SEAN WILLIAMS:

Forty-nine years ago, a marvellous device that allowed characters to move from place to place without physically traversing the distance between first appeared in a famous sci-fi TV serial. I’m not talking about the transporters of Star Trek, although “Beam me up, Scotty” is what everyone remembers. Doctor Who got there first, with the travel dials of “The Keys of Marinus”–and in fact Flash Gordon beat them both, way back in 1955.

Matter transmitters have a longer history than most people realize. They’re also a lot more interesting. Although they seem on the surface to be entirely about conveniently moving people around, except for when they break down, there’s a lot more to them than that.

“The Fly” vividly captured the dangers of disintegration-reintegration for a mainstream audience not long after Flash Gordon, but the trope had been mucking around with people’s bodies for almost eighty years before that. The first sfnal use of a matter transmitter in print was in 1877, in a short story by Edward Page Mitchell called “The Man Without a Body”. The trope immediately took off, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle employing it not just once, but twice, and a plethora of writers exploring the consequences of this new technology to highly imaginative effect.

It became immediately apparent that people could be mutated in a variety of strange ways–made hairless and boneless, in two early examples. War and commerce could similarly be transformed, for the act of scanning something leads to the possibility of copying anything ad infinitum, including soldiers. On an even grander scale, our understanding of space and time is unavoidably altered by removing the space between here and there, as are social mores dependent on maintaining that space. No aspect of society would go untouched.

When it comes to transformation, then, the matter transmitter is the ultimate science fiction trope–far more useful, once could argue, than the time machine, which was also first written about by Edward Page Mitchell, ten years before H. G. Wells.

I say all this as someone who has been obsessed with the trope from a very early age. On seeing the Doctor’s companion Sarah Jane Smith transmat from one part of a space station to another (in “The Ark in Space”) and arrive wearing different clothes, the device has been a source of endless fascination. My first, unpublished short story employed the trope to haunt the inventor with a plethora of his own ghosts. My second novel, The Resurrected Man, wondered what happens when a serial killer takes copies of his victims, leaving the originals alive. The number of short stories I’ve had sold exploring the transformative power of the trope is in the double figures. (The latest, “Death & the Hobbyist”, is freely available at Lightspeed as of November 5.) I’ve just finished a PhD on the subject, hence my willingness to bang on about it for hours, if encouraged even mildly.

And then there’s my new novel, Twinmaker, which takes its title from a line written by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. (In their 1982 book The Mind’s I, they refer to a matter transmitter as a “murdering twinmaker” simply for working in the manner it’s supposed to.) Twinmaker is a science fiction novel set in a world where the matter transmitter, which I call d-mat, is the dominant means of transport. It’s also brought the world back from environmental catastrophe by sucking out all the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and created a post-scarcity society thanks to “fabbers”, which can build anything except people . . . because that would be creepy, right?

It sure would be, but there are degrees of creepiness explored in the book. I’m struck by the number of people who swear black and blue that they would never use d-mat for fear of arriving as something other than themselves. These are the same people who willingly strap their loved ones into metal contraptions containing huge amounts of liquid explosive and hurtle around crowded cities full of other such contraptions in the happy expectation that they will survive the experience. People are wonderfully expedient when it comes to things like this. As long as d-mat was mostly safe and people arrived feeling the same as they were, I reckon just about everyone would get over their qualms. Particularly anyone who has to travel for a living.

But not everyone. (I call the people who opt out of using d-mat, and therefore out of this future society, “Abstainers”.) You’d still need assurances, and laws to back up those assurances, and people being people, there’ll always be someone to ruin the party for everyone else.

If someone said that you could game the system and become taller, faster, stronger, smarter, whatever–you’d be tempted, surely? Particularly if you’re a teenager. They all want to be taller, faster, stronger, smarter, whatever. Again, maybe not all. But that’s the premise of Twinmaker in a nutshell. It’s an urban myth writ large. Meme spreads, promising Improvement. Almost certainly fake, but there’s no harm in trying, just in case. Or is there?

It may sound like I’m looking backwards for inspiration, but I sincerely believe that the opposite is the case. With my work in this area, and Twinmaker in particular, I’m attempting to couch thought-provoking philosophical questions in compelling narratives that introduce the trope of the matter transmitter to a younger audience, many of whom know it best from computer games rather than the shows I grew up with. I’m also hoping to revive interest in older readers and writers too, for in our post-cyberpunk world of telepresence robots and drones the trope has never been more relevant. Maybe that’s why it featured in an unusually long aside in an episode of this year’s most anticipated season of television, Breaking Bad.

Will we ever have a working matter transmitter? I don’t know. You can see technologies converging via 3-D printers and quantum teleportation, but the engineering hurdles are immense. Even at the speed we can send data these days, it would take many hundreds of thousands of times longer than the current age of the universe to send a single human brain anywhere. But science fiction isn’t about describing the possible. It’s about imagining the plausible.

Imagining a working matter transmitter is easy. What we do with it . . . that’s a whole other story.

—-

Twinmaker: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Visit the book page to read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

What is best in life? To have a successful book and to have the publishers and fans clamoring for a sequel. But what’s best in life comes with its own set of (admittedly high-end) problems. This Ryk E. Spoor discovered in the creation of Spheres of Influence, the follow-up to his science fiction hit, Grand Central Arena. How did he solve his problem? Let’s find out.

RYK E. SPOOR:

Back in 2007, I had completed my draft of Threshold, the sequel to Boundary, and had – at the time – no contracts other than that for Portal, and that I couldn’t work on until Eric Flint did his work on Threshold, and submitted the final draft. With encouragement from Eric, I began to work up a new proposal for Baen (as they hadn’t shown interest in other work I had ready at the time).

That proposal became Grand Central Arena, my salute to the Golden Age and all my science-fiction inspirations with a special focus on the work of E. E. “Doc” Smith, as most clearly shown by the inclusion of a character named (for very good in-universe reasons) Marc C. DuQuesne.

The development of The Arena, and the reason behind that development – the attempt to re-create the Golden Age “sensawunda” as I had experienced it – I detailed in a prior Big Idea post when Grand Central Arena was released. But at the time Grand Central Arena (henceforth just GCA) was released, I had no idea if it would sell or not. Much of the “fan appeal” could be pretty obscure. I thought the surface story and adventures were good enough, but I couldn’t know if anyone else would think so.

As it turned out, GCA did quite well, and so Baen was happy to accept a proposal to write a sequel.

And for the very first time in my life, as I started working on a book, I felt a touch of fear.

It was really quite alien, and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I’d said before – and I still believed – that I could write in the Arenaverse for twenty years and not get bored, that there was limitless possibility in The Arena. I had a decent, though far from clear at that time, idea of what I wanted to do both in short and long-term – certainly no vaguer an idea than I’d had when I first started writing GCA. I knew I was, if anything, a better writer than I’d been two, three years ago.

So why in the world was I suddenly half-frozen trying to write it, to even write an outline?

I sat down and started re-reading GCA again, enjoying the flow of the novel but really trying to figure out which loose ends I needed to address first, where the plot needed to go, and so on. And as I began to focus on the real question, what I as a reader would want from the sequel, my tension and fear came screaming into focus:

I didn’t know if I could measure up to myself.

Does that sound silly, or maybe even arrogant? I don’t know. But what I was afraid of was not being able to keep the sense of wonder. The first book in any series has a huge advantage there. For all the infodumping and talk-talk-talk that I had to do in GCA, it was the book where we first saw the Arena, the infinite skies filled with storms and possibility, first met clever, scheming Orphan and wise, considered Nyanthus, dueled the Molothos for the sake of our Sphere and faced the Shadeweavers and their impossible powers. GCA had the whole new universe to hit you with, and that was its purpose – to make the reader sit back, periodically, to go “wow!”.

Now that I’d done the Big Reveal, now that Marc C. DuQuesne of Hyperion had unleashed his true self, now that Arian Austin had faced and defeated Amas-Garao with a brilliant last-ditch throw of the dice… how in the world was I going to … not even equal that, but just follow up on it with something that wouldn’t leave the reader – a reader perhaps like I had been, a couple decades ago – feeling vaguely, or perhaps not so vaguely, let down?

I had experienced it before with many books, and movies, whose sequels were pale imitations of the original. Even series that held up reasonably well – the Chronicles of Amber, for instance, or Weber’s Honor Harrington – didn’t quite have the same oomph in the second and subsequent volumes as that first introduction, and I really didn’t (and don’t) feel that I’m at the level of those or other major talents in SF.

That was what was scaring me. It was a novel sensation, because in general, I’m not writing for an audience. I’m writing for me, to read stories I know no one else will, or can, write. In a sense, of course, I still was writing for me… but the part of me that was the reader was warning me that there was this big ol’ pitfall right in front of me.

I didn’t have that problem with Threshold; while that was somewhat similar in that I had invented the universe only a few years prior, I had Eric Flint as a backstop, someone who’d be able to tell me what I might do wrong, how to fix it, and it was a much more limited, defined universe. Hard SF is a pain in the ass to write in some ways, but the fact that the universe draws many of the lines for you is comforting at the same time.

I haven’t experienced it starting the sequel for Phoenix Rising either – but that’s because I’ve spent thirty-five years building the universe, and more than twenty thinking about Phoenix’ basic story. I can actually play with that one, and I am, without worrying; I know the beginning, middle, and end, and no uncertainty about how the world works, or whether I’m forgetting a key detail.

But with Spheres of Influence I had no one backing me up, and instead of three and a half decades of worldbuilding I had three or four partial years. There were a lot of ways to screw up, and no one to keep me from doing so except maybe my beta-readers.

I was tense for another, related reason, I realized. There were a lot of things I wanted to do with this series – a lot! – but there were certain specific things that had to be dealt with before I could get to a lot of them. Would I have to write a boring intermediary book in order to set things up – and kill the point of setting them up?

I finally forced myself to move forward, and to do that I made myself list out the purposes of the book – from the point of view of how it would serve the characters. Simon Sandrisson had to deal with becoming a more active force, and with what had happened to him during the ritual that sealed away Ariane’s newfound powers. DuQuesne had to face his Hyperion past. And Ariane had to really come to grips with being the “Leader of the Faction of Humanity” – even though a lot of people would not at first believe that she had that position, and afterward not feel she was suited for it.

I needed something more, though. I needed something exciting, and not just grim or scary. I needed something cool, and fun, and with more potential for later books. I needed to put Ariane in a position that forced her to, put bluntly, grow up – because Humanity, in 2375, is en masse almost childish.

I didn’t know – exactly – how I would do that, although an idea started to niggle at the back of my brain, touching on some other unanswered questions. But suddenly I did know what I needed for the first problem.

I needed Son Wu Kung, the Monkey King of Hyperion. I needed the laughing trickster, the eternal hero, the Great Sage Equal of Heaven. He was part of DuQuesne’s backstory, mentioned in passing as one of the things that most hurt DuQuesne to lose, one of his great regrets, and one of those that had been safegarded back in GCA during a cryptic meeting by DuQuesne with a “Doctor Davison”.

I needed to tie up some of DuQuesne’s other loose ends, too – his mysterious “K”, the woman it was implied he had loved before he met Ariane, and the other mysterious force, the one DuQuesne was clearly afraid of. I’d known who “K” was all along, although how I wanted to present her wasn’t clear, but the mysterious enemy I only had a vague idea of at first.

And then in a single flash of inspiration I did know who and what she was, why she was designed, for what purpose, how she became one of the worst imaginable enemies, all of it… and I stopped dead. I wasn’t sure I dared do what I knew I ought to do. I didn’t know if I had the skill, or maybe just the king-sized cojones, to try what I’d thought of.

When I described the idea, though, my wife Kathleen immediately said “Yes. Yes, do that. Do exactly that.”

So did my beta group.

So I did; if you read Spheres of Influence, you’ll understand exactly what I was so hesitant about. Yet it fit. It fit the glorious yet utterly self-involved, blinkered, hideous brilliance of Hyperion perfectly, and answered all the questions about who DuQuesne’s enemy was and why, at the same time, he did not, and couldn’t, kill her (for it did have to be a her).

Understanding DuQuesne’s “arc”, so to speak, in the book gave me a foundation. I felt the tension recede – a bit – and that was enough. I was able to see Simon and Ariane’s directions as well, and recognize the part that Son Wu Kung would play in this, and later, adventures. I could sit down, and write.

And I did.

Spheres of Influence is, I think, a better written novel than Grand Central Arena. It may not be – quite – as shiny as GCA, since GCA got to keep a lot of the shiny for itself. But I think – and hope – it is shiny enough, and that it offers more for a reader – more knowledge of the people of the Arena, of the ways the Arena works, and even more about the dark triumph of Hyperion and the world of our solar system in 2375, as well as the adventure of watching Captain Ariane Austin come fully into her own as the Leader of Humanity.

I still have some of that tension, but now it is – mostly – worry about whether the book will do well enough to let me tell the rest of their story, for there are still so many questions to confront – so many answers to discover. Answers that I know, right up to the ultimate ending of the series.

But now… I’m not afraid that I will fail if I get the chance to write those books.

At least, not much.

Thanks for reading, and please come with me and enter the Arena… again.

—-

Spheres of Influence: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Beth Bernobich

Having characters with complicated pasts is, well, complicated, and writing about them in a successful manner can be even more so. In Allegiance, the newest from Beth Bernobich, the past weighs heavily on every character, and offered a unique set of challenges for the author as well. 

BETH BERNOBICH:

Endings, the poet Tanja Duhr once wrote, were deceptive things. No story truly came to a final stop, no poem described the last of the last—they could not, not until the world and the gods and time had ceased to exist. An ending was a literary device. In truth, the end of one story, or one life, carried the seeds for the next.

This is how Allegiance, the third book in my River of Souls trilogy, starts off. But after I wrote that paragraph, I had second thoughts. It was slow, it was old-fashioned, it was… To be honest, my doubts were me being uncertain about the real theme and backbone of my book. So I set this version aside and tried out at least five other openings.

(Unlike the letter Miles Vorkosigan writes in A Civil Campaign, none of my drafts were in rhyme. Nor were they all that abject, either.)

None of the openings were bad. All of them are present in the final version of the book, though in later chapters. But in the end, I went back to the first version because it really did sum up for me what this book and this trilogy are about: second chances. And for me, for these books, second chances meant multiple lives.

You see, in the world of my River of Souls trilogy, reincarnation is a reality. You live, you die, and your soul is reborn.  There’s nothing certain about this new self, by the way. Sex, gender, nationality—all of these can change from life to life. You might have been the queen of Morennioù, then a prince of Károví, then a mercenary and thief. Your enemy can become your ally, possibly your lover.

At the same time, rebirth doesn’t mean you start off as a blank, with no connection to your past. You remember those previous lives through vivid dreams, which can be brief and chaotic fragments—a few words from an important conversation, a confrontation, the image of someone turning away—or they might be long coherent narratives from your past. As you approach death, these dreams become more frequent and more insistent, a reminder of any unfinished business that has pursued you from life to life. And yeah, there is always unfinished business.

When I first started writing this trilogy, I had limited the idea of multiple lives to only two characters. My goal was to show two people entangled by fate throughout history, and how their conflict affected both their kingdoms and their family.

The result was…not a success.

The biggest problem was that these two people weren’t the main characters. (And even the person I thought was the main character, wasn’t. But that’s another issue.) When my attempts to fix the problem didn’t pan out, I started to wonder, why should the main characters clean up someone else’s mess? Why shouldn’t they have their own messes to clean up?

Which meant everyone could have multiple lives, multiple messes, and multiple chances to clean things up. (Or not.)

Eventually I sorted out who the main characters really were. In the process, one of the original pair vanished from the main story. His daughter inherited his backstory, which then overturned my previous preconceptions about the rules for reincarnation.

Anyone could be anyone. Man or woman, ruler or servant, scholar or merchant or poet. Or one young woman determined to create her own life, on her own terms.

Which brings me back to Allegiance and its opening. In this trilogy, Ilse Zhalina, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, flees from a proposed marriage with an abusive man. She ends up in the household of Raul Kosenmark, a former councilor in the Royal Court, where she discovers this is not her first encounter with this man, or with magic, or with international politics.

And here, in Allegiance, she sets off on a journey that is an echo of a journey she undertook years and lives ago.

Second chances, indeed.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

Sometimes reality reads like fiction. And then that reality can inspire fiction. Just ask Max Gladstone about this, and how recent yet almost unbelievable events gave him the the impetus for at least two books, including his newest, Two Serpents Rise.

MAX GLADSTONE:

Do you remember the day the gods died?

You must.  I mean, five years or so back this grand cataclysm tore through an immaterial plane of existence adjacent to our own.  Every few days, it seemed, another ostensibly immortal being that took sustenance from the faith and work of its followers and priests died.  Those that survived starved themselves lean.  Afterward, as the world sunk into recession, the surviving immortals withdrew to Olympus, hoarding the remnants of their power and licking their wounds.  To this day we fault them for their retreat from Earth.

Oh, and let’s not forget the part where a bunch of hardworking folks who communicate in arcane jargon derived from ancient languages spent thousands of billable hours raising fallen deities from the dead.

At least that’s how the 2008 recession and its aftermath looked to yours truly, a half-crazed fantasy novelist recently back in the US from a few years teaching in the Chinese countryside.  That bit of extra distance meant that on returning I read America like a genre book—trying to make sense of the world from clues I was given as I went along.

And the world’s pretty strange, when you think about it for a second.  What’s the Kool-Aid Man but a totemic representation of a vast, inscrutable, and horrifying reality?  What is an org chart but a mandala made with PowerPoint?  Mickey Mouse’s many tentacles spread from Hong Kong to Provo, Utah, and His castles rise over foreign lands.  Don’t even get me started on Collateralized Debt Offerings and Special Purpose Entities.

I couldn’t think of another book dealing with the weird magic of the modern economy, so I decided to write one.  Well.  More than one.  I like telling complete stories in independent books—but as I fleshed out the idea I realized that what I really needed was a mosaic, a number of books showing different angles on a complex reality.

The fact that this approach let me live out my huge writer-crush on Terry Pratchett was a pleasant coincidence.

The first book in the Craft Sequence, Three Parts Dead, came out last year—the story of a junior associate at an international necromancy firm who’s trying to resurrect a dead god.  The main character in that book, Tara, is a fledgling necromancer, which gives her status and power in the world of the books, so long as she’s willing to bill crazy hours and steer clear of certain moral judgments about her less savory clients.

I wanted to change things up a bit with my next book, Two Serpents Rise. I decided for starters to show the world through the eyes of a character with less power.  Caleb is a risk manager for a water utility run by an undead god-killing wizard.  Caleb has skills of his own, and he’s good at his job, but he can’t raise zombies, throw fireballs, or peel off peoples’ faces when needs must.  He’s stuck with his wits, his fists, and some limited ability to manipulate the magic around him.  Where the world looks more like a fantasy setting for Tara, for Caleb it’s a horror setting—he’s a small guy trying to chart his course through a world full of forces that could crush him if they noticed him.

Unfortunately, some of those forces have him in their sights.

I also wanted to show a city living with its past.  In Three Parts Dead, the main characters wanted to raise a dead god before His death affected his city. Stopping crisis was the point.  Two Serpents Rise takes place in a city where the gods have been dead for a while—kicked out, in fact. And their world went on.  The sacred ball game became a spectator sport.  Real estate speculators converted temples to art galleries and office space.  The physical world became an object of exploitation and manipulation, rather than the subject of a relationship with the divine.  Most people like it that way.

Most.

But even though the gods of Caleb’s city died a long time ago, their followers remain, and the dead have a nasty habit of sneaking up on you.

So that’s the Big Idea—an interpretation more than a ‘what if,’ an attempt to make sense of confusion by recasting it, and to do so in a way that let me play with zombies, lich kings, feathered serpents, and deep magic from before the dawn of time.  Because it’s good to have a point, and it’s good to have fun, but it’s better to have fun and a point at once.

—-

Two Serpents Rise: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Richard Kadrey

Short intro: Richard Kadrey is one of my favorite contemporary dark fantasy authors. Dead Set, his newest book, is excellent. It’s also a little bit different than some of his other work, for a couple of reasons. Those reasons? Kadrey explains below.

RICHARD KADREY:

Dead Set is a new kind of book for me. I’ve never written a young adult novel before and before a friend pointed me to authors like Holly Black, my memory of what passed for young adult when I was a kid was something kind of soft and not very sophisticated. Then I read some of the good modern stuff—like Black’s Tithe and some of Neil Gaiman’s work–and it was a reading kick to the head. As I waded into the dark magic, tough situations, and screwed up families I thought that I could have a good time exploring this new territory, so I took the plunge.

There’s another reason I wanted to try Dead Set, too. I write a lot about guys. Guys with power and attitude. My Sandman Slim series is about a magician with vast physical and magical power: James Stark has escaped Hell, come back from the dead (more than once), kicks angels’ asses, and pals around with God and Lucifer. Basically, he’s a guy with a lot going for him. A young adult book seemed like that perfect place to look at a character with little to no power. Up popped Zoe, a sixteen-year-old girl with a recently dead father, little money, and a mother who, like Zoe, is finding her way back from tragedy. Sixteen seemed like the perfect age for my protagonist. A fascinating, frustrating time where you have so many adult responsibilities, but so little adult power.

Dead Set was also a place to explore new mythologies. Over six books, Sandman Slim has developed enough backstory and mythological complexities that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of who I’d killed and who was merely maimed. I needed breakdowns of the magical beings in James Stark’s world. Who his friends and enemies are. Where has he been and what did he find there? Keeping these things straight is sometimes fun, but Sandman Slim’s world, however complicated, is just one world. I wanted to write about other places. Writing Zoe’s story let me do that.

Zoe’s story starts simply. In the year since her father’s death, her life has fallen apart. The insurance money didn’t come through, so she and her mother lost their nice home in the suburbs and had to move into a crappy apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Zoe has left all her friends behind and has to attend a new school where she doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t fit in. Worst of all, her dreams have become haunted.

Before the move, Zoe’s dreams were the one place she felt happy and safe, playing like kids behind her family’s old house with Valentine, her “dream brother.” There, she could forget about her screwed up life for a while. Lately though, the black dogs have appeared, following her through empty streets of her dreams.

While cutting school one day, Zoe wanders into a used record store. Music and old punk bands had always been a big part of her family’s life and when she sees the shop, she can’t help but go in. Inside, she discovers a secret room in the back, one most people can’t find. There, the records are unlabeled and when Zoe holds one up to the light it seems to have a beating heart in the center, with veins and arteries branching away. Emmett, the store owner, explains to her that these records don’t hold music, but human souls—her father’s soul among them. Zoe can have the record and take her father home, if she’ll pay the price. Ultimately, the price forces her to visit a dark city where the dead are trapped forever, unable to go forward or back. She wants to save her father, but quickly realizes she also has to save herself. My editor and I have described the book as a punk Wizard of Oz with dead people instead of munchkins.

As some of you might have guessed, I’m not young and I’m not a woman, so… how did I write the book from a young woman’s point of view? I started my writing career as a journalist, which means I know how to research. I approached writing Zoe the way I would any subject I wanted to know more about: I read up on the subject and most importantly, I went to the experts. Women. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by smart women. My wife is my first reader. My editor, agent, and publicist are all women. I went to friend’s daughters and to young women I’d gone to for book advice while writing Sandman Slim (I don’t keep up with anime the way I used to. It’s nice to know people who do!).

That’s the basic story behind Dead Set. I wanted to try something different and I wanted to get my work in front of new eyes. I wanted to explore new worlds and I wanted to write something that both young adult and older readers could enjoy. And I wanted to find out if Zoe took the shadow man’s offer and what she did with it.

Everyone is sixteen once, both strong and weak, adult and child, focused and confused. I remember all those things. Some parts of Zoe weren’t hard to write at all. The lost family that’s trying to find its way back to shore. The scars that everyone gets in life: the ones you get from exploring the edges of what you know, plus the deeper ones you pick up in the places you know you shouldn’t go but can’t resist. I wanted to look at all those things again and I wanted to do it with someone as smart and resourceful as Zoe.

The land of the dead is a hard place to get to and even harder to come back from. Zoe is frequently in over her head, but we’re all over our heads more times than we’d like to admit. It’s what you do there and how you fight your way back that defines you as a person. And ultimately, that’s Zoe’s story.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Wesley Chu

The good news: That novel, the one you’ve been working on for years, has sold! The ambiguous news: Now they want you to write a sequel! Quick! Uh, yay? What happens when they story you’ve painstakingly handcrafted over time suddenly has to sprout a whole new storyline? What then? It’s something Wesley Chu had to consider with his latest novel, The Deaths of Tao. Here’s how he dealt with it.

WESLEY CHU:

I’m not what you’d call a long term planner. As in if I know I’m going to a buffet for dinner, is it a smart thing to eat a burrito at 3PM? (Hint: I never say no to burritos)

This was especially true when I signed the deal for my debut novel, The Lives of Tao, with the ill-tempered automatons at Angry Robot Books. Before the John Hancock even dried, I was confronted with having to write a sequel in less than a year. Now, at the time, I didn’t think very far past the epilogue of the first book. I always thought of it like The Truman Show where Jim Carrey just takes a bow and exits stage right in an invisible door, and then the credits roll. The director calls everyone together for the martini shot, and then the grip crew starts dismantling the set.

So, what is the Big Idea for the sequel The Deaths of Tao then?

Well, what happens after an epilogue?

See, sequels are tricky things. People who enjoy The Lives of Tao like it for specific reasons. Maybe they think it’s funny, maybe they like the action, or maybe they enjoy Roen the lovable loser’s late coming-of-age story. So the question is, should I keep the fun train rolling and write a similar novel, or should I venture out into the unknown and move in a completely different direction?

A significant portion of the first book was focused on Roen’s training and his transformation from an out-of-shape loser to a svelte agent drafted to fight the evil Genjix in the Quasing War. By the end of the book, he had grown to become a competent and confident field agent.

So for The Deaths of Tao, should I train him some more, like level him up to a Bond-class badass agent and follow a similar path that Lives took to give readers who enjoyed the first book more of what they liked? Or do I turn up the heat, have all hell break loose, and see what Roen’s melting point is after I’ve broken all his favorite toys?

Then it occurred to me: I learned two very important lessons from playing World of Warcraft.

  1. Leading a guild is one of the best teachers for project management training. Nothing prepares a person for leadership like corralling a bunch of immature gamers hot for epic loots.
  2. Playing Warcraft requires a player to hit max level first, and then the player goes raiding.

So what do I do with Roen? I had leveled him up to max in The Lives of Tao. In The Deaths of Tao, I take him raiding.

There’s my Big Idea.

It’s been a few years since the events of first book and everything has changed, mostly for the worse. Roen is no longer the bumbling loveable fool still trying to figure out how to throw a punch and tail a suspect without being caught. He’s now leveled up into a badass with a chip on his shoulder fighting in the thick of the Quasing war.

He’s got his work cut out for him, though. The Prophus have been getting whooped on every front and are in danger of losing the battle for influence of the US government. Coupled with the Genjix controlling the Chinese government, the Prophus are nearing complete capitulation. To make matters worse, the Genjix have a new secret plan that just might kill every living being on this planet.

They’re okay with that.

There’s also a new baddie in town by the name of Enzo. A product of their eugenics Hatchery program, he’s young, brash, and brilliant, and he’ll make sure you know it as he kicks your ass.

Roen will have some help. Jill, his love interest in Lives, has her own Quasing now and is fighting the Genjix on the political front, trying to stave off their takeover of the US government. Not all is peachy with their relationship, though. War is terrible and tends to mess up a couple’s relationship. The two will need to figure out how to work things out and raise a child, all while fighting for the very survival of humanity.

At the end of the day, this is what Roen Tan signed up for in The Lives of Tao. He’s leveled up; now it’s time he goes raiding.

—-

The Deaths of Tao: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: T.L. Morganfield

From Aztec mythology to Clarion West to NaNoWriMo to The Bone Flower Throne, the first of a series of fantasy books. How did T.L. Morganfield get from one to the other to the next? She’s here to guide you through the process.

T. L. MORGANFIELD:

I’m an Aztec geek; whether it’s history or mythology, I devour it all. It’s a love affair that began in college and has taken over my fiction writing life. It gives me immense joy to immerse myself into that world, digging up the forgotten treasures and intrigues, and finding voices and figures my high school history and English classes never bothered to mention.

Like Quetzalpetlatl, the most famous woman no one knows anything about: the woman the gods used to ruin Mesoamerica’s greatest hero.

If first learned of her at Clarion West in 2002, while researching for my week three story. I stumbled upon a university website dedicated to academic information about the god Quetzalcoatl, and there I read my first telling of the life of the legendary Toltec priest-king Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl: after growing up in exile, Topiltzin avenges his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle and establishes the kingdom of Tollan, where he defies the gods and outlaws human sacrifice. To discredit him, the dark sorcerer god Tezcatlipoca gets him so drunk he sleeps with his own sister, and Topiltzin leaves Tollan in disgrace.

I immediately knew this was a story I wanted to explore, but it felt too complex to tackle at the time. As the years passed, I learned that was just one version of Topiltzin’s life–in fact most tribes in Mesoamerica had their own version, each as different as the next–but that particular telling always lingered at the back of my mind. Topiltzin’s sister in particular intrigued me: she had a name–Quetzalpetlatl–but she only appeared in that version of the legend, and disappointingly, she had no history beyond that one mention of Tezcatlipoca using her against Topiltzin. Who was she, and what had her life been like before that fateful end? Why did Tezcatlipoca choose her, and what became of her after all that? None of that was answered.

Those questions led to a four-year journey through many failed drafts and false starts that eventually became The Bone Flower Throne (and the two books to follow). It started as a novelette, and though I received the best personal rejections from both pro and semi-pro editors I’ve ever gotten, it just wasn’t right for anyone. One editor suggested the story was better suited to novel length, so I spent two NaNoWriMos expanding it out into a first draft.

Yet even then, I continued running into the same issues as the original legend: Topiltzin is a bigger-than-life figure, revered as much as the god he’s named after, and Quetzalpetlatl had no motivations that didn’t forward his agendas. Two years and 200k words later, the story was still his, and she was just as manipulated as ever. I had to start all over, and rethink everything.

One of the troubles with Aztec mythology is that it’s a jumble of indigenous thought and Christian gloss, thanks to the Spanish priests who first recorded them in writing; they often added their own spin to the tales, to demonize the native culture and justify the atrocities committed during the Conquest. Taking that into consideration, I zeroed in on what seemed the most “Christianized” aspect of the original narrative: that committing incest with Quetzalpetlatl was the source of Topiltzin’s downfall. It’s a bit of a curiosity, for Aztec royal genealogy shows marriage between close blood relatives being fairly common, at least among the nobility: Cuitlahuac, the second to last emperor, married his niece after her father Motecuhzoma the Younger died at the hands of his own citizens, and after Cuitlahuac perished of small pox, his predecessor Cuauhtemoc married that same girl, his nine-year old first cousin. And none of that was considered peculiar to those involved.

But I couldn’t just cut the incest all together; without it, Quetzalpetlatl doesn’t even appear in the original myth–it’s the only reason she exists. So I needed to turn that aspect on its head.

Initially I was very hesitant to explore a consensual incestuous relationship between Topiltzin and Quetzalpetlatl, for it would surely drive away some readers–and it made me uncomfortable the first time the thought occurred to me. But once I let go of those reservations, the bits and pieces that hadn’t worked before started clicking into place. And when I asked myself about the underlying “why”, all sorts of doors opened, allowing me to fold and transform the mythology in new and unexpected ways. Quetzalpetlatl could now be an active combatant in the conflict between Topiltzin and Tezcatlipoca, rather than just a tool the bad guy uses against the good guy, and I could open the ending up to a whole different set of conflicts that didn’t rely on her being a victim. Instead she would define her own role in Topiltzin’s legacy, and her story would reach far beyond the end of the original legend.

Was it a good choice? When reviewers admit they wanted Quetzalpetlatl and Topiltzin to end up together in spite of their own strongly negative feelings about such relationships, I have to think it pays to put aside our own cultural expectations and explore new routes with an open mind, even when they might make us uncomfortable.

——

The Bone Flower Throne: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s Pinterest page. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Tim Pratt

Fairy tales: You know them all the way from your childhood, and that’s the problem — there’s nothing unexpected about them anymore. Or is there? That’s where Rags & Bones comes in. Anthology co-editor Tim Pratt (with Melissa Marr) shares how the idea to twist familiar tales came to be.

TIM PRATT:

Back in 2010 — for the wheels of publishing grind slow — I was chatting with my friend Melissa Marr on the phone. Melissa is best known for her YA fantasy novels, but is also a great writer of adult fiction, and occasionally edits fantastic anthologies. She’d seen me mention something online about writing a satirical short fiction mash-up of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the children’s TV show Dora the Explorer, and that made her think, “Hmm, maybe Tim would be right for this project I’ve got in mind…”

She had this wonderful idea for an anthology, you see. There’s a reason authors are constantly asked about their influences: it’s because a career as a writer is usually preceded by an intense love of reading. Often writers are able to trace back their passion for a particular genre to reading one story, or book, or poem at exactly the right moment.

Melissa wanted to get together a bunch of talented, savvy writers with a deep knowledge of literature and ask them to think about classic stories that had been important to or influential for them, and to then re-imagine, re-envision, interrogate, or respond to those stories with new short fiction of their own. In our proposal for Rags and Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales, we described it like this: “In this collection, modern, award-winning and bestselling authors take their favorite classic stories, boil them down to the bones, and re-assemble those bones for today’s readers.”

Melissa needed a hand putting the book together, and I was only too happy to help out, since so many of my favorite stories by SF/F authors were written explicitly as responses to earlier works. (Like John Kessel’s “Another Orphan” taking on Moby Dick, or Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” dealing with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels, or Peter Straub’s twist on “Bartleby the Scrivener” in “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff.”) A chance to commission stories like those? No way was I going to miss out on that.

Melissa and I put together our dream list of authors, looking for leading young adult writers, science fiction legends, and exciting up-and-comers, all of whom had demonstrated a deep knowledge of literature — and we were lucky enough to secure just about everyone we wanted. Rags and Bones is an anthology designed to be enjoyable for smart teens and book-loving adults both, with a wide range of approaches and subject matter.

Neil Gaiman delivered a bold and affecting variation on “Sleeping Beauty” with “The Sleeper and the Spindle.” Science fiction grandmaster Gene Wolfe chose the rather obscure “The Caged White Werewolf of the Sarban” by William Seabrook and created “Uncaged,” a strange, elliptical, and chilling piece, as one would expect from Wolfe. Holly Black took Le Fanu’s vampire novella “Carmilla,” and turned it into a heartbreaking story about friendships among teen girls (and vampirism) with “Millcara.”

Saladin Ahmed broke open Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and explored the horror of life inside an allegory in “Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy.” Garth Nix put a twist on Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” with one of his Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz stories, “Losing Her Divinity.” My co-editor Melissa wrote an absolutely brilliant selkie story, “Awakened,” inspired by Kate Chopin’s masterpiece The Awakening. Kami Garcia’s “The Soul Collector” transports a Rumpelstiltskin-like figure to a modern urban world to make dark deals and grim transactions. Margaret Stohl went back to Horace Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle of Otranto for a tale of modern movie-making among the still-potent ruins of the old world, “Sirocco.” Carrie Ryan wrote a sequel (or, rather, a parallax view) of E.M. Forster’s dystopian classic “The Machine Stops” with “That the Machine May Progress Eternally.”

Rick Yancey was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story of science and the quest for human perfection, “The Birthmark,” and wrote a tour-de-force novelette of a far future populated by decadent immortals, “When First We Were Gods.” Kelley Armstrong’s “New Chicago” works changes on W.W. Jacobs’s beloved chiller “The Monkey’s Paw,” this time set in a collapsing urban future. (Though I’m not really worthy to be in the company of those authors, I took on Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” about the ghosts of lives that might have been, with my own “The Cold Corner.”)

That line-up should be enough to tempt anybody who loves short fiction, but if you need more encouragement, I should mention there are six gorgeous illustrations by Charles Vess, each a scene from a different work of fantasy that inspired him. I just got my first copy of the finished book this week, and it is a gorgeous object; the team at Little, Brown absolutely outdid themselves, and they’re a bunch with pretty high standards anyway.

I usually tend toward a certain modesty when I talk about my work in public, but since this book is mostly by other people, and all I did was help with Melissa’s initial vision, I’m comfortable saying it’s one of the strongest anthologies I’ve read in ages, full of wonders and darkness and sorrows and delights. This is a book for anyone who’s ever read a story and loved it so much that it changed their world.

—-

Rags & Bones: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the editors’ sites (PrattMarr). Follow them on Twitter (Marr; Pratt)

The Big Idea: Nicholas Kaufmann

Authors are inspired by great works of art. But is it also possible to be inspires by… not-so-great art as well? Nicholas Kaufmann would argue it is, and explains how a throwaway bit in a B-movie ultimately inspired his latest novel, Dying Is My Business. 

NICHOLAS KAUFMANN:

I think anybody would be hard pressed to argue that Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is the best of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad trilogy. Sure, it’s a passable and occasionally thrilling adventure, but it’s no 7th Voyage, or even Golden Voyage. (Although it does feature a post-Doctor Who Patrick Troughton, so it definitely has that in its favor!) And yet, the film’s influence on Dying Is My Business is enormous in ways I didn’t recognize until late in the process. Believe me, no one was more surprised than I was!

In the novel, magic is a natural, albeit secret, element. It’s also extremely dangerous. You can’t carry magic inside you without it driving you mad. It twists your mind and mutates your body, often into something monstrous and inhuman. This is known as “the infection.” The only safe way to handle magic without becoming infected is by containing safely inside a protected vessel, such as a charm or an artifact. Otherwise, if the magic gets inside you, it corrupts you. There’s no known cure. Unfortunately, there are a lot more infected magicians in the world than uninfected. Our heroes are vastly outnumbered. And yet, for all its inherent danger, magic may be the only way to protect themselves against those already infected by it.

This was where my memories of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger began to drift surreptitiously into the writing process. In the film, the evil sorceress Zenobia chases Sinbad across the ocean, determined to stop him from reaching Hyperborea and saving his friend Prince Kassim. At one point, Zenobia transforms herself into a seagull so she can fly to Sinbad’s ship and spy on him. However, when she returns to her own ship, something goes wrong with the spell meant to transform her back. She manages to become human again, but not completely. She winds up retaining one hideous, clawed seagull foot.

The scene shocked me when I first saw it as a kid. Even then I thought to myself, This never would have happened if Zenobia weren’t messing around with bad magic! Somehow, unexpectedly, that thought came back to me more than three decades later when I was writing Dying Is My Business, even if I didn’t recognize Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger as source material right away. (Once I realized its profound influence, I decided to pay it more direct homage by naming one of the novel’s characters Melanthius, the name of Patrick Troughton’s character in the film.)

But I don’t consider toxic magic to be the novel’s Big Idea. After all, this is hardly the first novel where magic is presented as extremely dangerous. Rather, I consider the reason why magic is so dangerous to be the Big Idea.

Though Dying Is My Business takes place in a contemporary and recognizable New York City, the world of the novel is very different from ours. Their world is watched over by the Guardians, eight immortal beings who, at the dawn of time, were granted dominion over the eight elements: air, earth, water, fire, metal, wood, time, and magic. Their job is to maintain the balance of all things. But a thousand years ago, the Guardian of Magic disappeared. No one knows what happened or where the Guardian went, but the sudden absence caused a cataclysmic event known as the Shift. I’ll let one of the characters, Thornton Redler, explain:

“It’s not safe out there, and it’s getting worse by the day. There are forces at work that are supposed to keep everything in balance, but I’ll be damned if they’re doing their job anymore. Sure, once upon a time everything was supposedly in perfect balance, the light and the dark. Then the Shift happened, and everything went to hell. It tipped the balance. The darkness got stronger, and the light got weaker. Over time, magic grew darker and darker. You can’t carry it inside you anymore the way magicians used to. If magic gets inside you it infects you, corrupts you, turns you dark. It changes you into something wrong. I don’t even know if it can be stopped anymore, or if things can be put back to rights.”

I created a gritty, dangerous world in Dying Is My Business where dark magic turns people into insane, inhuman creatures because a cosmic, godlike entity abandoned his post—and somehow I have a cheesy children’s adventure film from 1977 to thank for it. I always knew I loved Ray Harryhausen’s movies, especially the Sinbad films. I always knew they influenced who I became on some level. I guess I just never realized how much they influenced me, or how deep that influence ran.

——

Dying Is My Business: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Caroline Frechette

As a writer, you can plan and prepare, but then some stories and characters sneak up on you anyway. Caroline Frechette had that happen with Blood Relations — and explains why in this case it was a welcome exception to her usual way of writing.

CAROLINE FRECHETTE:

If you can do good, you should.

Funny words to hear from a criminal, but on top of being one of the biggest ideas behind Blood Relations, it’s also the motto Alex Winters lives by. He’s the kind of character I like to write: strong-willed, resilient, carrying a heavy past and an enormous amount of responsibilities without ever feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he accepts it all readily, because it needs doing, and he can do it, better than most. He was the main idea behind the book, and behind the series. I wanted to talk about him, about the kind of person that takes on responsibilities just because they can, just because they understand that it’s the price of power.

Power, and its price. That’s what this book, this entire series, was supposed to be about, and in a way, it still is. But it’s not at all what the central idea turned out to be, in the end. It changed, because of Mister Lupino, Luke, and Jimmy. Well, I say changed; it didn’t really. It’s what it was always about. It just took me writing it to figure it out, and as soon as I started, it was like it came into focus, like it was there all along and I just didn’t see it. I felt like that about this whole story, actually. Writing this was like nothing I’ve written before. I’m a planner; my characters come to me, yes, I don’t have to sit down and build them, but I still spend an inordinate amount of time planning, outlining, building, making sure everything fits, before ever writing down a single word.

This one just happened. I had a vague idea that I wanted to write about Alex, and I wanted to write a vampire story (though originally this story wasn’t supposed to be about vampires), but when I decided to try writing without a net it just poured out, exactly like what Michelangelo said about his sculptures: they were already there, and all he did was find it; this story was always there, and all I did was reveal it for everyone else to see.

The only characters that were truly defined when I started writing this book were Alex, Erik and Lori. I had a good idea of the others, and knew that they would tell me who they were as I wrote them, but I was blown away by the strength of their personalities. Luke and Jimmy were the first to hint at the concept which was really central to the story, because of their heavy pasts, which meant they had no real, born into family, but were as much Alex’s family as if they had all been born brothers.

In the end, though, it was Mister Lupino who settled it for good. Originally, I only needed him as a supporting character, someone to show what Alex did for a living, but they turned out to be hugely significant in each other’s lives, having a father and son relationship that I didn’t really see coming. It reminded me of a principle that is truly dear to me: the fact that your family doesn’t need to be the people to whom you are linked by birth, or blood; they are the people you care about, the ones that are there with you through thick and thin, and the ones that make you a true priority in their lives.

That’s what Alex and Mister Lupino are to each other: family. It’s what Jimmy and Luke and all the kids Alex took under his wing are to him, too. And it’s what Alex’s story, what all his stories, had to be about. And that is, of course, where the title comes from; family. Family by Choice, for the family that we choose. And Blood Relations, well, of course, that’s a pun. On top of the character of Alex, and themes like family and responsibility which are profoundly important to me, this book is also about vampires.

Why vampires? To tell you the truth, Family by Choice as a series was never really supposed to be about vampires at all. But I’m a fan of horror, and I longed to see vampires return to what they are to me: something dangerous and scary, a predator that needs, and WANTS, to prey on humans. And since the last comment I received from one of my editors was “Thank you for writing a vampire story I can enjoy”, I think it’s safe to say that I reached that goal.

—-

Blood Relations: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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

The Big Idea: Anton Strout

Anton Strout loves his city, even if he expresses it slightly off-center ways. I’ll him explain how it all works, particularly in the context of his latest urban fantasy novel Stonecast.

ANTON STROUT:

Ever since I crushed in a man’s skull and dropped his lifeless body two miles down into Gramercy Park I knew it was love.

But that’s not the only fun of writing a gargoyle driven series, although crushing fleshy humans is certainly high up on The List.

Long have I loved New York City since moving to the borough of Manhattan in 1994. The Big Apple is after all steeped in a long, glorious history, much of it dark and bloody.  Walk around the South Street Seaport when it’s late and practically abandoned and one can easily imagine the shuffling and shambling horrors of the night creeping up the cobblestoned street behind you. It’s easy to see why it’s become the city I’ve set both my urban fantasy series in, and despite the amount of destruction I’ve fictionally caused New York, it does come from a place of love and respect.

My love affair with the City That Never Sleeps started in my first four books that featured paranormal detective Simon Canderous, but it was only with The Spellmason Chronicles—Alchemystic and the just released Stonecast—that the city’s art and architecture literally gets a chance to come to life… in the shape of gargoyles, or as they prefer to be called, grotesques. Am I disturbed that all of my work is about Manhattan, my love for it, and apparently, my unsated desire to destroy it? Not particularly, since there’s a lot here to inspire a writer wanting to blend the macabre, the humorous and the urban.

One of my favorite views of the Big Apple has always been the nighttime panoramic view of Manhattan driving in from Queens over the 59th Street Bridge.  The whole city is spread out in all its colorfully lit glory which even after twenty years I still find breathtaking.  But once actually in Manhattan, that’s where the true beauty lies, especially if you’re hoping to find something fantastical… like, say, the hidden details of gargoyles in the architecture.

I’ve been obsessed with the creatures since college after learning their decorative and functional purposes in real world architectural design.  And once moving to Manhattan it only increased.  I highly recommend checking out GargoylesOfNewYork.com to see some fantastically creepy examples of the myriad figures carved into the skyscrapers here.  Some are full bodied, but many are just the heads and faces of creatures which I can’t help but imagine coming to life, pulling the rest of their bodies free from the building facades. Even now, I look up into the night sky of the city and hope to catch the shadow of open wings racing along the concrete canyons.

So, yes, the idea of silent stone sentinels living through the centuries was easy to imagine and want to bring to life, and not just because I watched Disney’s Gargoyles.  Several years ago the opportunity came up to write a story for an urban fantasy anthology, and I jumped at the chance to tell this one small tale about one particular gargoyle and the family he had been set to watch over centuries ago. In figuring out the moments leading up to that short story and the moments that might follow it, I realized that there was an even grander tale to be told, in novel form.

And thus The Spellmason Chronicles was born, allowing me to bring the actual city of New York to life, infuse it with magic, and yes, destroy it. You always hurt the ones you love, right?  But really: why create such wonderful toys like living stone creatures only to leave them with nothing to smash and destroy?

That’s just cruel.  The Spellmason Chronicles:  Come for the gargoyles, alchemy, and architecture, stay for the smashy smashy.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Alethea Kontis

As any author will tell you, second novels are often even more challenging than first ones — they have special challenges, particularly in the production stage. Alethea Kontis is here to tell you her about her second novel experience with Hero, and it’s definitely an interesting one. The good news is: Second novels still happen!

ALETHEA KONTIS:

My Big Idea for Hero was originally called “Saturday.” (Because Enchanted was originally entitled “Sunday.”)  It was a giant, 20-chapter outline on poster board, with notes. After we sold Enchanted, I typed it up, sent it to my editor, and waited for the money trucks to arrive. All that came back was an email.

They didn’t like the idea. In fact, they didn’t like the idea so much that they saw Enchanted as a stand-alone novel, and I should really just stop trying to pitch them books for the rest of the Woodcutter sisters.

I didn’t want to stop, but why would I write a book that had no hope of being published? So I didn’t. And then Enchanted came along.

Two weeks after the launch and about four days into my fan-funded book tour, I got another email. “Hey, remember how you were going to write books about all the other sisters? You should really do that. BTW, we know you won’t be home until mid-June, but Book 2 is due in October. And we still hate the outline. Have a nice day!”

Every author wonders if they’ll be able to hack it in a trial by fire. Well, this author knows she’s got what it takes. I wrote that manuscript in three months, and when they didn’t like that, I took the fourth month to rewrite the whole thing. But I did it, against all odds, and what came out was magic.

Ironically, this is exactly what Hero is all about.

There’s a fairy tale I grew up with–a picture book by Jay Williams and Friso Henstra called Petronella. It’s a feminist retelling of the Grimms’ tale “Master Maid,” which just so happens to be one of my editor’s favorite stories.

Petronella is the daughter of King Peter and Queen Blossom, youngest of three boys. Even though she isn’t a boy she’s still raised as one, and she is expected to seek her own fortune. She finds out about a prince that’s been captured by a wizard and sets out to save him. She completes all the tasks the wizard gives her and escapes with the prince. The wizard follows. She tries to thwart him, but still he gives chase. When she finally captures him and asks why, the wizard says, “Because you’re clever and I’m in love with you.” In the end (spoiler), Petronella ditches the lazy prince and marries the wizard.

Needless to say, that not exactly how the Grimms’ story ends…but many of the elements remain the same.

Where Sunday Woodcutter was a slightly agoraphobic introvert writer who fell in love with a frog, her older sister Saturday is a tall girl with bright eyes, a magic ax, and a strong work ethic, who can’t tell a story to save her life. She’s annoyed that all of her other siblings possess fey magic, and thinks that because she doesn’t, she’ll never have an adventure of her own.

Fate, of course, proves her wrong. A blind witch mistakes her for her infamous brother Jack, kidnaps her, and traps her in an icy cave at the Top of the World. The witch’s daughter lives there too…only it’s really a man named Peregrine cursed by the real witch’s daughter into taking her place.

Yup — this is a book where the girl wears trousers and the boy wears a skirt, there’s an evil witch and a scary dragon and everyone’s a hero.

I only wish they’d put Peregrine on the cover.

—-

Hero: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt (via Google Preview). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter

The Big Idea: Ann Leckie

Ancilliary Justice, by author Ann Leckie, is getting the sort of press that debut authors dream about, from a starred review in Library Journal to this rave over at io9.com (and also, you will note from the cover picture above, a blurb from me). How did Leckie do it? By taking a sub-genre people love — space opera — and adding a new perspective to elements of it people think they already know, to make it surprising and fascinating all over again. Here she is with the details.

ANN LECKIE:

I began my SF reading career with space opera, and while I came to love all sorts of science fiction, the attraction to space opera’s set of shiny things is still a powerful one. So when I was first playing with the universe that would eventually become the Radch, it was–and in many respects still is–an assemblage of space opera tropes. Galactic empire? Check! Artificially intelligent ships? Check! Hyperspace gates! Destroyed planets! Force fields! Oooh, can I crowbar in a Dyson sphere? If it was shiny I threw it in there. I love that stuff!

Ancillaries–the human bodies slaved to Radchaai ships’ artificial intelligences–are really just a variation on an old space opera trope. I’m not cruel enough to link to TV Tropes, but if you had a few months to kill you could go look at “Meat Puppet” and its subtype “Wetware Body.”

So, I did take my toys out of the common box. But I wanted to do something different with them, even if it was only slightly different. Usually, when I’m looking at story ideas, at pieces of setting or at characters, I ask myself, “What’s the reason this interests me enough for me to sit down and spend hours and days and weeks writing about it?”

Sometimes the wetware body is played for horror, or sometimes for a (IMO overly simplistic) demonstration of the Power of Human Emotion. I wanted some of that horror, but I have qualms about the assumptions behind the Human Emotion trope and besides, it quickly became clear to me that what really interested me about my main character’s situation was the question of identity. The main character of Ancillary Justice is a ship, the troop carrier Justice of Toren. She is also one twenty-body unit of ancillary soldiers, Justice of Toren One Esk. She is also a single segment of that unit, One Esk Nineteen. And that body was someone else entirely before it was Nineteen, before it was One Esk, before it was Justice of Toren.

That’s a lot of different mes in one place, and how do you talk about that? How do you describe someone who’s body isn’t contiguous, who has more than one brain, who can be physically separated from themselves and still be themselves? How do you talk about being a person who might potentially (or actually) be several people? Or, the question that made me slightly queasy when I really started digging into it–who is anybody anyway?

Often, in my experience, the wetware body plot assumes that the “essence” of a person, who someone really is, is something that is separable from that person’s body. For instance, Captain Kirk can find himself transferred to the body of Janice Lester and he’s still Captain Kirk! *

I don’t think that’s possible. There are so many cases where a physical change to the brain causes radical differences in who someone is. Phineas Gage is really only the most notorious of those. Who you are, how you react to things, how you behave, is very much a product of not only your history and the environment surrounding you, but also of the physical state of your brain. In the end, who you are (or who you think of yourself as, because “who you are” isn’t actually a simple matter) isn’t really something like a set of files that could be transferred to another body. Unless that new body is pretty much physically identical to your previous one, you’re not going to be the same person.** (Yes, yes, Theseus’ Paradox, and who is anybody anyway, and I told you that made me queasy so let’s just pass it by, shall we?)

And if I don’t think that’s possible, if I think that who you are is very much a question of your body–your brain being very much a part of your body–how do my ancillaries work? And what is that like, to be a human body that’s part of a ship’s body? And what happens when everything but that one human body is destroyed?

These weren’t the only things I came up with, when I asked myself what about this story interested me. But it was one of the first, one of the most basic questions. Who is this person, anyway? And how can they be who they are and what must that be like?

*And she could totally have had as full a life as any woman! OMG, Star Trek, are you freaking kidding me??

**Yes, actually, while I do enjoy Upload stories, sometimes this aspect bugs me. Emotions, for instance. Emotions are very physical, very based in your body. That punched-in-the-gut feeling you get when something horrible or terrifying happens? Your adrenal glands sit right on top of your kidneys, and when you’re stressed they release a flood of hormones that mess with your blood pressure and, among other things, your gut. Yes, there’s an abstract part of the emotion–neuroscientist Antonio Damasio divides this into the physical “emotion” on the one hand, and on the other hand the “feeling,” the more specific reaction that’s more or less your personal interpretation of and response to that physical emotion. But the emotion has a physical base. Change that–design a body that’s radically different from a human body, or posit a being with no body at all–and the whole experience of emotion changes drastically.

—-

Ancillary Justice: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

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

The Big Idea: Adam Mansbach

The spaces between things have a name — and they have a hold on author Adam Mansbach. He’s here to explain why and how, and what it means for his newest book, the novel The Dead Run.

ADAM MANSBACH:

One of the smartest people in the publishing game is a guy named Chris Jackson. He was my editor for two books, and we had one of those mythical old-school writer/editor relationships, by which I mean that we’d have heated four-hour debates about whether I should rewrite a scene, and I’d do everything I could to convince Chris that he was wrong and the scene was brilliant and perfect it was, and then I’d get off the phone and realize he was right and go rewrite it.

One of Chris’s favorite words in those days was “liminal.” It would appear in his editorial letters to me (also quite lengthy) with alarming frequency – alarming because I didn’t really know what it meant. And for some reason, probably because I’m a cantankerous asshole, I never looked it up.

It turns out, though, that “liminal” is a fantastic word, and I use it all the time now.  Nobody older than nine has any business quoting a dictionary definition in an essay, but liminal basically means in-between, unresolved – a state or a site of possibility and ambiguity, murk and mystery.  Once I learned the word, I realized that damn near everything I’ve ever written has revolved around the liminal, that as a writer I’m instinctively drawn to the spaces and places in our culture where things haven’t settled, where exploration and confusion are most alive. Where people float in the limbo of not-knowing; where rules bend and morals take on a hue of subjectivity. It’s in these spaces that human paradox and complexity – what we’re all trying to explore in stories, regardless of the window-dressing of genre or style – are most alive and on fire, and best dramatized.

That might mean adolescence, or the unseen criminal underbelly of a city, or the complexity of a secret racial identity – all things I’ve written about in previous novels.   In The Dead Run, my first foray into SFF writing, that liminal space is a swath of desert along the Texas-Mexico border, a place that doesn’t appear on any map.  A crime committed there falls under the jurisdiction of whichever country feels like claiming it. Sometimes that’s nobody.  Especially when dead girls start turning up with their hearts torn out.

The Dead Run is set in a second liminal space, too: a kind of hazy, vertiginous pocket-universe in which the poles of right and wrong are demagnetized – where the specter of unspeakable evils seem to justify lesser ones, where ancient prophesies demand that a “righteous messenger” can only be protected by corrupt men, “flanked on all sides by evil,” where only purity can keep you alive but the right murder can be pure as driven snow.

The book’s protagonist, Jess Galvan, wouldn’t be languishing in a Mexican prison if he hadn’t refused to stand idly by while a bunch of cops took advantage of a young drunk girl. And he wouldn’t have been in that bar to begin with if he wasn’t picking up some bearer’s bonds to smuggle into the U.S. And he wouldn’t have started making border runs if he didn’t need cash to win back custody of his daughter from his crazy, cult-member ex-wife.

And if he wasn’t in jail, he wouldn’t have been summoned into the warren of tunnels beneath the prison by El Cucuy, a five-hundred-year-old Aztec priest who needs a moral man to carry the “sacred vessel of the gods” – the still-beating heart of virgin – across the border and deliver it to his son, thus transferring the ancient, stolen powers of a banished god into a new body. That would be a lot easier if the desert wasn’t full of undead girls – the mythical Virgin Army, each one killed by Cucuy, each heart placed into the hands of a man who failed to complete the task now set before Galvan – who sense the presence of the heart and judge its bearer’s righteousness.

Shit gets complicated in the liminal zone.

—-

The Dead Run: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Steven Brust and Skyler White

 

Disclosure: I liked The Incrementalists, the new novel by Steven Brust and Skyler White, enough to blurb it (specifically, the blurb says “Secret societies, immortality, murder mysteries and Las Vegas all in one book? Shut up and take my money.”); it also received a coveted starred review from Booklist, which said “Call it genius at work.” Not bad praise. Here are the aforementioned geniuses, Brust and White, to give you a little long-term perspective on their latest.

STEVEN BRUST & SKYLER WHITE:

If you’re a middle-class American with a conscience, it is easy to look around and say, “No one cares.” It certainly can seem that way. It might seem like you and your immediate circle of real-life and internet friends are the only ones who notice there’s a problem. The very idea of alleviating systematic oppression–much less solving it–might appear to you like a pipe dream. Perhaps you find yourself cursing the greater portion of humanity, calling them stupid, decrying their apathy.

But try taking the long view: Over the course of human history in general, and US history in particular, the trend has been for more equality, more justice. We have built up productive forces to the point where there is no need for anyone to be hungry, or homeless, or without health care. Democracy and equality–though frighteningly threatened–are broadly considered natural rights. As a species, we are still in our infancy, yet we’ve made amazing progress. Progress is a thing. It can be very hard, and certainly there is backward movement at times. But there is no good reason to believe progress will stop.

And we’ve progressed by working together. Yeah, sometimes we screw things up. Sometimes, as we look at history, we wish we’d done better. Sometimes we wish there was someone trustworthy with a long enough view to tell us what “better” even means.

And maybe even someone who could do something about it.

The Incrementalists, a secret society of around 200 people has, since the beginning of human history, been working to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how to do this stretches across nations, races, and time, but they’ve been messing (“meddling”) with people’s heads just as long. Able to draw from a collective experience of over forty thousand years, and skilled in triggering precise emotions in others, they pick pivotal moments to subtly nudge people to maybe do the right thing, or maybe refrain from doing quite as much of the wrong thing.

So, if they were real (and, you know, you can’t prove they aren’t), how are they doing so far? You could say they’re doing pretty well, given all the catastrophes our species has avoided, how much progress we’ve made, and how many terrible things might have been even worse. Or you could say they are utterly ineffective, given how screwed up so many things are. They key word in all of that is: You.

You get to decide. That’s the point, and that’s one of the things that made this project so much fun, because the big idea behind The Incrementalists is a question. It’s the “what if” question that got us writing, but it is also, if we’ve done our job well, a question we’ve seeded in the minds of the readers. Just how do you fit into all of this? How do you choose to engage with the book, with the imaginary world in which it takes place, with the real world that the imaginary world is drawn from?

The Incrementalists often gets singled out as a collaborative project because there are two authors; but every book is a collaborative project. Just as the characters in The Incrementalists cooperate despite annoyances and conflicts, and just as its authors cooperated despite occasionally differing visions and expectations, this book—every book—asks readers to cooperate in the story-telling process. Writers need readers to shape the worlds they sketch, see the characters they imagine, hear what they’ve written and intuit what they’ve suggested.

As has been said many times before by many people, there is no reason to expect what the reader sees to be what we see; indeed, there is no reason to expect what Skyler sees to be what Steve sees. They don’t have to be the same; they can’t be the same. What matters is that they can dance together. The writers, the editors, the art director and everyone in production, the voice actors for the audio book, the readers, and even the reviewers are part of the process that makes a book what it is.

But it goes well beyond fiction. Collaboration, cooperation to make things better, is at the heart of what we human monkeys do. At the end of this book we, as one interviewer put it, “rap on the fourth wall.” And we do that in several other subtler places as well to make the same point – that this story is a metaphor for stories, and that how you want to engage with the book, with the ideas behind it, with the overall concept, and with the characters, is up to you. And that however you engage with it, you’ll be collaborating with us. We’ll be here, on other side, listening in case anyone knocks back.

—-

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

Read an excerpt. Visit Steven Brust’s site. Follow him on Twitter. Visit Skyler White’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Brandon Sanderson

Don’t know if you’ve heard of this Brandon Sanderson kid, but something tells me one day he’s gonna hit the heights. He’s got a new book out called Steelheart, and he’s here today to talk about. And also to talk about being a geek. And how the latter matters to the former.

Watch for this guy! He’s gonna be big!

BRANDON SANDERSON:

Introduction
Early in my life, I knew I was a geek. I just didn’t know what that meant.

For example, I went to a Star Trek convention when I was eleven or twelve. Now, at that point, I’d only seen a handful of TOS episodes. I hadn’t discovered fantasy novels or reading yet. But I went to a Star Trek convention because…well, I was geek, right? That seemed like the sort of thing that geeks did.

Fortunately, it turns out my instincts about myself were right. During the next few years, I blossomed. In geek terms, that means I discovered comic books, role playing, and novels–then retreated to my room to pupate for the next six years, surviving on a steady diet of Anne McCaffrey novels and bags of Cheetos.

STEELHEART
A few years ago, I got an idea. It was a great idea. A really, REALLY great idea.

This isn’t to say it will feel as awesome to you as it did to me. A “great” idea for me is a very individual thing. They aren’t always the ones that come with an accessible, built-in pitch–instead, they are the ideas that boil in my head and turn into a book that I can’t leave alone.

Many writers say that ideas are cheap, and I find this to be mostly true. A writer grows accustomed to coming up with–and discarding–ideas on a daily basis. This idea, however, was one of those powerful ones, precisely because of its undiscardability.

The idea was actually pretty simple. It came as I was driving to a book signing, and was cut off in traffic. I had an immediate, gut response: I thought to the person ahead of me, “You are lucky I don’t have super powers, or I’d totally blow your car up right now.”

This terrified me in ways I can’t explain. It whispered that, if I were to somehow have powers like this, I might not be quite so benevolent with them as heroes from the stories. This spiraled me into wondering what would happen if people started gaining powers, but everyone used them selfishly.

Finally, the idea that made me eager came–it was the idea for a group of regular people who assassinate super-powered individuals. Again, it’s not the pitch, but the entire package that made me excited. Steelheart was a book I was truly, passionately excited to write, and after finishing some thirty books, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. An idea that makes me excited in new ways and captures my imagination is something to grab hold of tightly.

In this case, the idea dredged up passions from my childhood and mixed them with plotting structures I’d been studying in recent films. It prompted a character voice in my head who was individual and distinct.

I had a several hour drive ahead of me. By the end of it, I had Steelheart–almost in its entirety–pictured and held in my mind.

Something about writing the book the way I’d imagined it bothered me, though. And it had to do with my experiences with anthropomorphic turtles.

Geek Culture
In my high school years, we had a gift exchange in my French class. In an interesting parallel to my Star Trek convention experience, the girl who drew my name bought me a comic book. (The one where Superman dies, not first printing, unfortunately.) I’d never mentioned comic books in class, and so far as I knew, this girl and I had never had a conversation. She knew to get me a comic book anyway because…well, I was one of THOSE people.

As a geek in my high school, there were just certain things that you did. You played with computers and video games. You read comic books. You hid in basements and role played. Amusingly, I wasn’t cool enough to be on the school newspaper–which was not actually the domain of the geek, but instead the preppy debate folks.

The previous paragraph might make it sound like I was ostracized, but I didn’t really feel that way. I was quite comfortable in this role–as, I assume, was common for geeks in the ’80s and early ’90s. This was our home. We adopted it, claimed it, and loved it.

We also defended it. As I did constantly in regards to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Now, you have to understand, TMNT was MY comic book. I’d started role playing because of TMNT, and its issues were the first comics I ever read. I discovered the Turtles before I even found fantasy novels, and I continued to role play TMNT games for years into my teens.

And I had a problem with the cartoon show and movies that came after it. Both were actually a lot of fun–except for the way that this new wave of Turtles took MY comic and repackaged it for a more general audience.

I think a lot of us in geek culture have felt this kind of emotion, particularly in recent years. A great deal has been written about geek culture going mainstream.

I’m not going to defend my selfishness in wanting to keep the Turtles for myself. It was an instinctive, emotional reaction from a teenage boy who saw part of what defined him–part of what society had used to define him–being stolen and made (in his eyes) more shallow.

Over the years, though, I had to confront these emotions. What was it that bothered me so much? A thing which brought me joy was now bringing joy to many others. Why had my first instinct been selfishness, as opposed to pleasure? Isn’t the core of geekdom about expertise? Suddenly, I was an expert about something that everyone else was discovering. Why, instead of being happy, had I been so dismissive, even angry?

Steelheart and the Big Idea
Now, I don’t want to belabor the parallel between myself as a teen and my later self and his desire to destroy inconsiderate drivers. I do want to mention the Big Idea here, though. It’s not the idea I had for my book–I’ve talked about how personal that particular idea was.

The Big Idea for me on this book has to do with the importance, for myself, of embracing the larger world as it discovers stories I’ve loved. Yes, maybe those stories will change as they are brought to new mediums. That’s okay.

I feel I spent my youthful geekhood shaking chains and trying to get people to take my passions seriously. Now that many do, I want to celebrate it. I’m sure many of you have made this same transition, or never felt these same emotions in the first place. But this book brought the idea into focus for me.

As a writer, the further I’ve progressed in my career, the more “epic fantasy” I’ve become. Thicker books, more intricate worldbuilding, more sub-plots and hidden allusions relating my books to one another. I do this because that’s what I find exciting about epic fantasy.

Steelheart, as I’d imagined it, was far more accessible. I imagined it like a mainstream movie–one deeply influenced by the comics and stories of my youth, but paced and plotted like modern action films. The book is a fun explosion of a story–set pieces, chase scenes, and super heroes mixed with my own individual blend of worldbuilding.

I spent an undue amount of time wondering, as I worked on the book, if I was doing the very thing I’d worried about in my youth. Was I taking something individual to geek culture and distilling it to a more streamlined package, presenting it for the general masses?

Yes, I was.

And I love that about it.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: V.E. Schwab

In explaining the Big Idea behind her latest novel Vicious, V.E. Schwab notes that the elements (and even characters) that you think are important when you begin the novel are not always the elements that are important when you finish the novel — the writing of the novel itself reveals what’s interesting about the world you’re building.

V.E. SCHWAB:

Vicious started as a lifeboat book.

I’d been riding the publishing waves for a couple of years. My first novel was still months out from hitting shelves, I was working on my second, and I was already having trouble adjusting to the transparency that came with writing under contract. I felt exposed. Instead of working in a dark, comfy shell, I was working in a bubble, intensely aware of my editor’s looming form and impending judgment. And at some point, pinned between deadlines and watching eyes, I remember making a decision.

I was going to write a new book. And I wasn’t going to tell anybody.

It felt so…devious.

And I couldn’t wait to start.

The question was, where to start? If I could turn off the business side of my brain, recently so loud and intrusive with words like sellable and marketable and audience so that the only voice in my head was my own, what would I write?

Superpowers.

Not superheroes, mind you. Not the classic kind from the Golden Age of comics, paragons of self-sacrifice and justice battling their evil counterparts. I’d recently absorbed the Watchmen graphic novel, and was completely taken by the realness of those characters. They weren’t self-identified heroes. They were people. Damaged people. Self-interested, maladjusted, strange, and complicated people. Stories like Watchmen reinforced an idea that I had already pondered and wanted to explore further: real people don’t automatically become superheroes. They just become the same flawed people with superpowers on top. It changed them, yes, but didn’t automatically make them better. If anything, I thought, it would probably make them worse. And as someone who has always liked her people painted in shades of gray, I loved that conceit. I went with it.

This isn’t the part where I say that Vicious spilled out, fully realized and everything I wanted it to be. It didn’t. It wasn’t some brief, passionate affair. A fiction fling. Hell, Vicious wasn’t even Vicious. It started out as the story of a man named Alt. Now, Alt’s not even in Vicious, but I wouldn’t have Vicious without him.

Alt shows up in a city called Merit (which is in the book). He has the ability to see  people’s future in reflective surfaces (it’s kind of killing his love life) and he’s only in Merit for a couple days when two groups try to recruit him. One group called themselves the heroes, and the other group, the villains. The heroes had a sense of purpose, or at least delusion, but the villains only took that name because they were against the heroes. And I was utterly fascinated by the idea that these terms—hero and villain—were meaningless to them, that it wasn’t really a matter of good and evil at all, merely opposition. The villains weren’t against society. Nor would they even consider themselves evil. The members of the villain gang were there only because they had vendettas against the members of the hero gang. It was personal.

The leader of the “heroes” was a man named Eli. The leader of the “villains” was a man named Victor. I started to write a flashback with the two of them as college students, more as an exercise in backstory than anything else. But something happened. Within a few pages, Victor and Eli became immeasurably more interesting than Alt. Theirs was a story of two brilliant, damaged boys and a dangerous idea. A theory turned experiment with disastrous results. A world filled with jealousy, and murder, science and power and revenge. A world without heroes.

The title came the day I opened a fresh document and started to tell their story.

VICIOUS.

Victor and Eli took over everything. They were smart, and cunning, and deranged. They were deeply flawed, and their superpowers, instead of making them better, made them worse.

And they were so damn fun to write.

They never behaved like heroes (whether that automatically makes them villains, you’ll have to decide for yourself), but from the beginning, they both had rules. Victor had cold, hard logic and a level of detachment that allowed him to assess everything rationally, while Eli had a massively distorted moral compass, a sense of God-given purpose. These personal forces guided them as much as any ability (and it’s not about their abilities, really; it’s about what the abilities—the search, the attainment, the aftermath—bring out in them).

Of course, it’s not just their story. The world of Vicious is populated by a variety of other EOs—ExtraOrdinary people—the most important of which is a pair of sisters, Sydney and Serena, who find themselves on opposite sides of the same fight. You might argue that thirteen-year-old Sydney is the only real hero in the book (I would argue there are no heroes in this book).

I spent more than two years building the world of Vicious, writing it down in order—from Victor and Eli’s first interaction sophomore year, through the experiments that changed everything, to their final confrontation in a half-built Merit high-rise ten years later—and then breaking it apart and putting back together in a different shape. By the time you hit the end, you’ll have all the pieces. By the time I hit the end, I wasn’t ready to let go.

My Tor editor and I joke that Victor is my sociopathic supervillain alter ego—we certainly have a similar wardrobe, and we  would both rather observe and assess than engage—but honestly, he probably has more of me in him than I’d like to admit. So does Eli, for that matter. They all do. The cast of Vicious is my best and worst, all the strange and sick (and sickly funny) little quirks, and I love every one of them.

I hope you will, too.

(I eventually told someone else about the book.)

—-

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

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

Lauren Beukes Presents The Spark

A couple of months ago, Lauren Beukes, author of several fantastic books and recent winner of the Clarke Award, contacted me about wanting to do something similar to The Big Idea for her home country of South Africa. I told her I thought this was a great idea and encouraged her to do it, albeit with a different name so there would be no confusion.

Lauren’s followed through on the idea, and now on her Web site presents The Spark, focused on new books from South African authors, who are talking about those books in their own words. The first book featured is Alex Latimer’s Space Race. Others, hopefully, will follow soon. Congratulations to Lauren for getting this off the ground. I look forward to more Sparks.

For the record, I very happily encourage authors and bloggers to take the “Big Idea” concept and adapt it for their local markets and/or fields and/or languages — I started doing it because I wanted to help promote new books and authors. So the more people doing that, in more places and languages and topics of interest than I could ever cover, the better. I do recommend calling the feature something other than “The Big Idea” if only to differentiate between each of us, but the actual idea itself? Take it. Use it. Promote authors and their works. It’s a good thing to do, for the writers and the readers.