The Big Idea: J.A. Pitts
Posted on April 26, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 37 Comments
Sometimes when you write a character, the character don’t just meekly walk off the page when you’re done with the story; they stick around, poking at you and saying “hey, I’m still here. What now?” J.A. Pitts concocted just such a character in his debut novel Black Blade Blues — now here he is to tell you what happened next.
Black Blade Blues is my first published novel. Actually, it comes out tomorrow, so be gentle.
I struggled with the thought of this essay, curious if anyone would really care what my internal theme for the novel was. I mean, the story will stand on its own, right? There is a theme, something I wanted to discuss through the story and characters, and I have it on pretty good authority I pulled it off.
We are a society that bases our self-worth and self-esteem on what we think the world wants us to be, living up to some artificial standard we glean from the media and peer pressure. Unfortunately, few ever learn to look beyond that and live comfortably in their own skin. It is those who defy the common norms and accept themselves for who they are who find true happiness. That’s the idea behind Black Blade Blues: learning to accept the world for what it is, not for what you wish it to be. And with that: learning to accept yourself.
The novel started out as a short story I wrote on spec. I wanted to stand out in the field of competitors, so I decided to follow Wilhelm’s rules and delve deeper, past the obvious choices and reach for the ideas further in the psyche.
The anthology was looking for stories about magic swords, so I decided on the Norse blade, Gram, used to slay the dragon, Fafnir. I thought it a good idea, since I hadn’t seen any new fiction based on Norse mythology. Of course, several good books have come out recently, but I’m pretending they don’t exist.
Next, I considered my main character for this fantasy tale. I wanted a tight-in point-of-view and a character the audience wouldn’t expect. Instead of the typical warrior or wizard, I decided to go a different way. Almost no one writes about the supporting cast. The blacksmith creates the swords and supports the hero. Why not bring the blacksmith out of the background and make her the hero?
Yes, I said her. I decided that the blacksmith should be a woman. A strong woman, a maker who wields fire and steel. That was a heroine worthy of a tale.
Finally, mix in my love of urban fantasy and the setting of modern-day Seattle—it seemed a natural fit.
Now I had something I felt was unique. Urban fantasy, Norse mythology, and a female blacksmith who had to reforge the sword Odin himself shattered, in order to save the day.
Sarah Beauhall came to life in my head — cocky, mid-twenties, loves Doc Martens and punk rock. It wasn’t until I had nearly finished the first draft of the short story that I realized Sarah was a lesbian. A young woman with a sheltered upbringing who struggles to understand the world she lives in and along the way, discovers who she is.
And isn’t that what all stories are about — discovering who we are, and how we deal with the world?
I sold the short story to the anthology Swordplay, which came out in 2009. But the story would not go away. As soon as I wrote it, Sarah clamored for more time on the page. Everyone who read the story wanted more.
Sarah had more to her life than this simple tale of reforging a broken blade. She needed to see the dragons, do battle with the giants and trolls in her life, and learn who she was.
The book sang to me in my sleep and filled my head during my day. It possessed me. Every thing I did became an exercise in how Sarah would handle that situation. I found myself hunting down punk venues and black smithies. Day after day I swam in the waters of Sarah’s world, discovering the pain of her struggle and the intricate web of her life. Along the way she comes to terms with it all in order to save the ones she loves and become the woman she was meant to be.
The story colored everything in my life. I started listening to different music, researching and reading books that I’d dabbled with in college — women’s studies, sexual identity, Norse mythology, on and on.
I made it a point to discuss more openly my understanding and misunderstanding of the GLBT world around me, especially with the friends I’d come to know and care about in the community.
It continued the process I’ve been working through for decades: the expanding of my horizons and the better understanding of the world I live in.
That’s what Sarah has to do. She comes from a narrow background, filled with fear and caution, to discover a world where dragons exist and the world order isn’t what she’d always thought it was.
Paralleling her discovery of magic and dragons is her own struggle to accept her sexuality despite society’s unbending expectations of who she should be.
Along the way I learned more about myself than I thought. I’d always been an open-minded individual, but the process of researching and writing this book allowed me to explore my life and world beyond the boundaries I’d previously put in place. Now I find myself stepping out of the comfort zone to learn things I’d lamented missing as a kid. I’ve joined the Girl Scouts, as an example, and am learning to be an Outdoor Specialist. Recently I finished my Girl Scout/Red Cross certified Wilderness First Aid training. I never thought I’d do anything like this. Sarah taught me that. By writing her journey to self discovery and open her eyes to the way the world was, it allowed me to do the same.
It’s a rocking good tale. I hope you like it.
Black Blade Blues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
“J.A. Pitts concocted just such a character in his debut novel Black Blade Blues — now here he is to tell you what happened next.”
“I’ve joined the Girl Scouts, as an example, and am learning to be an Outdoor Specialist. Recently I finished my Girl Scout/Red Cross certified Wilderness First Aid training.”
I sense… confusion.
Otherwise: an interesting character for such a book. Sounds like a fun read.
Darn! Mr Scalzi, can I ask you to fix my tags please?
Interesting premise and since I like both dragons and punk rock almost certainly one I’ll enjoy reading about, thank you for the introduction.
But I believe there might have been a misunderstanding somewhere, because it seems to me that either Johns opening should read “…her debut novel Black Blade Blues — now here she is…”, or the Girl Scouts have a far more inclusive range of members than I was previously aware :-).
Looks fun–not a lot of blacksmith-female-protagonists out there. And I love Norse mythology-based fantasy.
(And, for those thinking Mr. Scalzi was incorrect in his pronoun use–he was not incorrect.)
“I sense… confusion.”
Huh. Seems the confusion is mine. So the Girl Scouts give membership to guys now?
Folks… it’s 2010. There’s a site called Google. You can use it to search for information. You can type in “JA Pitts” and get results!!!
Really people, come on. It’s silly to spend the time posting here wondering about a fact when finding it out is, literally, at your fingertips.
Dude! Set in Seattle, and the heroine is queer? I am ON THIS. :)
No confusion at all. Guy has kids and he volunteers with the Girl Scouts…good on him! I help out with my son’s Boy Scout Troop and intend to do the same for my daughter if she decides to get involved with scouting. Wish more dads would do the same with their daughters…
From the Girls Scouts’ website, in the section on volunteering:
I’ve seen him (yes, visual sensors confirm the author is a large, hairy man) read a scene from this and I vouch for its awesomeness.
Norse, dragons, queer heroine, blacksmith? I know what my next book purchase is going to be.
Seconds Elizabeth. I, too, have seen the large hairy kilted fellow with my own two eyes.
Speaking of eyes, John’s got a great eye for story and character. I read BBB in its short story and outline form. Good solid stuff.
Kudos to the author, dope slaps to the cover artist.
Puh-leeze! That ain’t a stick on her shoulder, that’s a sword. A two-edged, sharp sword Even if it wasn’t magical, she’d have a deep slash in her shoulder if she carried it that way. Then she’d drop the blade, it would cut deeper, and…. She’s too damn intelligent to do that, so please, Mr. Cover Artist, show some basic respect for a woman’s intelligence. Dumb platinum blondes are so 1970s, and dumb blonde blacksmiths don’t exist, in any gender.
BTW, there’s a written account of someone doing something similar (http://www.thearma.org/essays/nobest.htm). He picked up a (very sharp, two-edged) schiavona, assured the owner he was a sword expert. Mr. Clueless then started doing a katana form with it. Katanas are single-edged, and Mr. Clueless put a 6″ gash in his deltoid. Never forget about that back edge.
Not that this should detract in any way from the undoubtedly wonderful experience we’ll all have reading this novel. I just wish cover artists would stop embarrassing us.
How awesome! I can’t wait to read it.
heteromeles @ 14:
I noticed that myself. Ouch.
Also, I haven’t met a lot of blacksmiths, but I have met some, including one woman blacksmith. More muscles. Even the ones who were of the wiry sort rather than the bulky sort had well-defined musculature.
(Yes, yes, woman tend to have slightly more subcutaneous fat than men, which can make muscles look slightly less defined. And I’m not an artist. But still.)
So does this book continue on from the short story or incorporate it?
Well, I like the cover art. But the other folks did point out practicalities that are correct.
My roommate has done some blacksmithing, and yes, her arms were much better defined then they are now. When we get the new house, she wants a forge.
That ain’t a stick on her shoulder, that’s a sword. A two-edged, sharp sword
forget that, it’s on fire.
Maybe the fire cauterizes all the cuts she gets from carrying it like a caveman club?
and I don’t know why a blacksmith would wear chaps, but I suppose the usual blacksmith attire like a thick leather apron would cover up the exposed female belly button image that is required on so many book covers.
I figured, okay, maybe it’s the not-burn-the-wielder magical fire thing. But I don’t remember seeing a not-cut-the-wielder magical blade thing.
And only Elric could get away with the don’t-need-serious-muscles-to-swing-large-pieces-of-metal. (But the ability came with some rather significant drawbacks. That whole soul-eating thing made for some awkward moments.)
Bearpaw @21: And Severian, at least until the end of book 3.
That just goes to show how badass she is. She can lay a burning sword on its edge on her shoulder.
I assumed her bra strap was armoured and heat-resistant. Probably forged her bra herself. We’ll just have to read the book to find out how accurate the cover art is. I mean, that dragon couldn’t fly, could it?
She should have more muscles, though. 20 years ago I knew a blacksmith woman. Seems there are quite a few of them about.
heh, remember the cover is not supposed to necessarily accurately reflect anything in the book. It’s supposed to make you pick it off the shelf and read the back.
My big idea…
A strong competent capable heterosexual female black smith with a family and friends who is the daintiest little thing ever asked to re-forge the axe that slew Humpapa of Sumerian legend.
(I think it was Humpapa, it’s been awhile since I read the Epic of Gilgamesh.)
Am I making a comment about BBB? Of course. Will I read it? Eventually, but I’m going to have to wait until its out in paperback; so don’t make it phenomenally popular, just extraordinarily popular. :)
Whenever I read “Black Blade” the demonic sword Stormbringer Michael Moorcock armed Elric w/ automatically comes to mind…
It’s against my religion to read books with covers like that.
I think Severian is implied to have at least semi-serious muscles, even if his blade is designed to swing in a certain way.
The belly does seem to have replaced other body parts as the exploitation cover art standard these days. I am sure there are many essays somewhere on the subject. My prediction: the new fashion in low-riding jeans means the next cliche will be female “plumber’s pose.”
crack is whack.
Alan @ 26 Humbaba?
Such nitpicking about the cover. Yes, blacksmiths tend to be muscular. This one is young, in her mid 20s. So she hasn’t been at it very long. Her muscles are acceptable. She’ll looks sturdy and will bulk up more as she ages. Also, muscles gained from hard labor aren’t as obvious or pretty as those on body builders.
As for the sword…looks like the flat of the blade is resting on her body. Plus, many swords aren’t sharpened close to the hilt. The wielder can then grab that section of the blade for increased leverage. Even if it is sharpened, it’s probably more like a chisel edge than a knife edge. I’d expect the leaf blade point to be the really sharp part.
Admittedly, though, it is an odd pose.
Dunno about the fire. I guess magic flames don’t burn.
Despite it’s supposed logical flaws, it’s a very attractive, interesting picture. I don’t know if it will sell books, but I had the original (from Conceptart.com?) as my desktop for quite a while.
I’ll likely get the book.
John – all but the Amazon links to the book lead to Denise Little’s Swordplay.
The blade isn’t sharpened… remember, she uses it as a prop for a movie. Secondly, those flames are for the glyphs on the sword, not because it just had just come out from being forged.
@Cram: “remember” implies we’ve read the book. Since most of these posts were made just when the book came out, and pretty much everyone here had not read the book at the time…
I just finished this book.
I have three words for Mr. Pitts… Sarah Fucking Beauhall!