Road Work

Here’s a needed bit of infrastructure work coming to pass — these dudes repaving our rural road. Now as far as the eye can see we have nothing but flat black asphalt. It’s lovely. Also, watching the repavement was strangely hypnotic; Krissy and I gawked at it for several minutes. There was something almost Zen about it, not counting the asphalt smell.

Reader Request Week 2015 #8: On Being an Egotistical Jackass

MRAL asks:

There are a lot of people who consider you an egotistical jackass. In your opinion, is this accurate?

Maybe?

Some thoughts on this, in no specific order.

* I certainly have an ego, in the common usage of the term, and don’t believe I’ve ever tried to hide that aspect of my personality. I had an ego well before it was adequately warranted on the basis of my work, and now that I have a track record of work behind me that speaks for itself, it continues well apace. I’m good at what I do, I’m successful at what I do, and I don’t have much fake humility about either of those two facts.

So: Ego? You betcha. Egotistical? I think I am less egotistical than I was when I was younger, because I have a better understanding of myself and the context of my ego, but I would also cop to still having occasional moments where my self-regard outpaces a healthy understanding of my talents, ability and self. So yes, sure. From time to time I am egotistical. I think whether you see me as overbearingly so depends on what you think about a number of things, including whether you dislike obvious displays of ego and/or dislike me for other reasons as well. I don’t think it’s difficult to see me as egotistical.

* Likewise, I certainly have been a jackass, and am likely to be so again in the future, because none of us are our best selves every single moment of our lives, and from time to time I can be seen not being my best self out in public. Sorry about that. And again, if you are inclined to think less than charitably of me on a regular basis, then, quite obviously, my moments of public jackassery will stand out for you.

* Have I combined the two and been a public egotistical jackass? Oh, almost certainly. Am I an egotistical jackass all the goddamned time? I hope not, and try not to be, but it’s not really up to me to decide. You have to decide that one for yourself. In your own estimation (or in the estimation of others) the answer might be “Hells yeah, he is, all the time.”

* Which is fine.

* But doesn’t necessarily mean I should care, which, trust me, is a statement that I understand will only confirm my egotistical jackassery to those inclined to see me in that mode. Do understand, however, that I am freely allowed to assess other people, just as they are allowed to freely assess me. A large number of the people who think I am an egotistical jackass I assess to be in the “And I Give a Shit What You Think About This or Anything Else Exactly Why Now” category — which again, only confirms their opinion, since if I had any sense I would be passionately interested in their assessment. But I’m not! And probably won’t ever be! Which just makes them more annoyed still.

* But, I don’t know. If you’re annoyed that I don’t give a shit about your opinion of me, what does that make you?

* The above should be tempered with the realization that your life would be better if there were some people whose opinion you listen to, as regards your behavior and presentation, and that sometimes even someone you don’t know might accurately assess when you’re being an egotistical jackass in a specific instance. Closing yourself off from any opinion that is critical of you or your actions is indeed a very fine way of actually ending up being an egotistical jackass all the time. It helps to be self-aware enough to know that you are fallible, both in your actions and in your self-assessment, and it helps to have people you trust who feel comfortable enough with you to call you out when you show your ass (and it helps if your ego can get out of the way enough for you to listen).

* Obviously, I don’t think having an ego is a problem — a healthy self-assessment of skills and abilities is a good thing, in my book, and I don’t think you should have to minimize those skills or apologize for them just because someone somewhere might have issues with you for it, for whatever reason. The problem is them, not you. Likewise, I don’t think being appropriately rude or dismissive of someone else is a problem, either. It’s not usually what I would suggest leading with, when you meet people or interact with them, but sometimes, when all is said and done, there are some people for whom the best response to them or their antics is “You’re an asshole. Fuck right off,” or some appropriate variation. Sometimes, on the Internet, these folks let you know very quickly when they’re not worth your time. Sometimes it takes a little bit more work.

* Related to this, there are some people who really are egotistical jackasses all the time, at least in terms of how they deal with other people publicly, and think that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s okay to feel sorry for them and avoid them whenever possible. There are others who are making jackasses of themselves, whose egos preclude the possibility of them seeing such a thing, despite the worried intervention of friends. It’s okay to feel sorry for them, and to avoid them too. There are still others whose egotistical feelings have made them act like jackasses. Once again, okay to be sorry for them, and not to bother with them unless you have to. In the latter two circumstances, you can hope that one day soon they pull their heads out and recognize the errors of their ways. In the former case there’s not much to be done, unless you decide you have nothing better with the startlingly few moments of your lifespan than to engage with an unrepentant shitheel of a human being. In which case I wish you happiness in your entertainment choices.

* But overall, again, it’s worth remembering that none of us — and certainly not I — are always our best selves. We have our egotistical moments, our moments of jackassery, our moments of weakness, or neuroticism, or envy, or anger, or pettiness or what have you. They happen and you deal with them. Owning up to them, acknowledging them and trying to do better the next time is a good thing to try to do. If you can work on that, even if you have been an egotistical jackass (or whatever) at some point, then there’s hope that you won’t be that all the time. And that’s a good thing to move toward.

Reader Request Week 2015 #7: My Dream Retirement

Tim H asks:

What’s your dream retirement scenario? Will you carry on writing as long as you can?

I think asking a middle-aged adult what their dream retirement scenario is, is a bit like asking a kid what she wants to be when she grows up: She may have an idea, but that idea is based on her current circumstance and view of the world, which may not apply when she actually grows up. When I was eight, I wanted to be an astronomer. Then at about 13 I realized that math was nothing but confusion to me. Fortunately at 14 I discovered I could write. And what I wanted to do when I grew up changed.

Which is to say that at 46 I don’t know what I will want to do when I’m 70, which seems to me to be my most likely “retirement” age, to the extent that a writer retires at all. I mean, that’s 24 years away, which is a longer amount of time than between the age of 14, when I wrote my first short story — the story that convinced me I should be a writer — and 36, which is when my first novel was published. No offense to the 14 year old, but he couldn’t have possibly imagined what his life would be like at 36. He literally had no idea.

By the same token, I have no idea who I will be at 70 or so, or what my life circumstances will be, so it’s hard to say what will be ideal then. I would like to say I’d be happily on the downslope of a long and prosperous career as a writer, but two and a half decades is a long time from now. Maybe by then they’ll have figured out how to halt aging, I’ll look and feel like I’m 35 and the idea of retiring would just be stupid. I wouldn’t mind that! But who knows? We will see.

That said: The 46 year old me sees the ideal retirement scenario as, simply, one that lets me do what I want to do without worrying about starving. At 46, my needs for “doing anything I want” are relatively simple: I want to see people I like, and write. As I get older I have the urge to travel maybe a bit more than I do, so maybe that will be added onto the schedule. But honestly: Write, see people, maybe travel. That seems doable. What it will require is prudent saving, staying as healthy as possible, and (this is largely not up to me) humanity not destroying itself in a spasm of stupidity. We’ll see what happens in each of these cases.

I don’t really see me retiring from writing, since it’s a thing I like to do even when I’m not getting paid for it. Will I write on the “book a year” schedule I currently hold? I sort of doubt it, but there are a ton of writers at the age of 70 and beyond who crank out books on that schedule, or even faster than that. So, again, who knows? But honestly, the only thing I see keeping me from writing well into my eighth decade and beyond is substantial mental deterioration. I’m hoping that writing on a regular basis will keep that from happening.

Bear in mind that my current retirement scenario — writing, seeing friends, a little travel — bears quite a lot in common with my current life, which in which I write, I am fortunate to see friends, and a travel rather a bit. Which I guess is to say that right now I’d like my retirement life to be like my life. The good news there is, I suspect it’s achievable. I should just keep doing what I’m doing. And, uh, save some money prudently. And maybe take a walk every now and then.

In any event, let’s see what I think when I’m 70.

The Big Idea: Karina Sumner-Smith

We all wish for that big break, whatever that “big break” might mean — but will that big break cause more problems than it solves? It’s a question that Karina Sumner-Smith considers in Defiant. Here she is to explain how it manifests in the world she’s created.

KARINA SUMNER-SMITH:

Imagine you won the lottery.

At one time or another, most of us have imagined what we’d do with that money. Debts eliminated, bills paid without a thought. Buying a house or a car, a bigger house or a better car, a yacht or a new wing for the family mansion with a secret library, a trapdoor, and a bouncy castle. (Or am I alone in that last bit?)

Yet despite the odds against our tickets coming up the big winner, we still dream—because it is, however unlikely, possible. It’s that possibility that keeps people clamoring. It’s hope.

But what if money wasn’t something that you have or earn, but a part of something that you are? What if affluence is as much a biological trait as your skin or hair, the shape of your face or the color of your eyes?

That’s the big idea behind the Towers Trilogy. In this far-future society, magic is everything. A power naturally generated by the human body, magic is used as money and fuel. It heals illness and prolongs life, powers machinery and keeps the lights on, and is a critical part of countless everyday tasks, big and small. The magic-rich reside in living, floating Towers that play out an unending political dance for position and altitude. Yet the people without enough magic end up in the Lower City—a rough, dangerous society that exists in the ruined skyscrapers on the ground.

The first book of the trilogy, Radiant, tells the story of Xhea, a homeless girl in the Lower City who has no magic at all. She can’t buy food or clothing, can’t open doors; she can’t even work the simplest of spells. Then she meets the ghost of a girl who has not died, and everything changes. That ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a person who generates so much magical energy that her body and soul are used as a power plant—even in death. Despite being very different young women from disparate ends of their society, the two form a bond and fight to free Shai from her fate.

The second novel, Defiant, sees the Lower City’s social structure begin to break down. Because in saving Shai, Xhea brings a source of untold wealth to the poorest of the poor. In effect, the people of the Lower City win the lottery—and that sudden influx of power creates more problems than it solves.

I thought, when I started, that I was writing a fun little cross-genre tale about magic, ghosts, and a friendship between two very different young women caught in strange circumstances. It was only when I was neck-deep in story and paused to look around that I realized that I was, of course, writing about inequality and economic disparity.

Because if affluence is a biological trait, a direct result of your ability to generate magic, then so by extension is poverty. “The value of a person” has a very literal meaning—and cascading consequences for concepts of social class and economic mobility within this constructed world.

Dark concepts, all. Yet I’m also just trying to write a fun, different fantasy with ghosts and magic, war and politics and friendship, bounty hunters and sentient buildings, and strange creatures that stalk the ruined streets when night falls.

These books are also, in the end, about hope. Because when we dream about winning the lottery, we’re looking for a huge, outside force to change our lives for the good—to save us from our circumstances and create possibilities that didn’t exist before. Yet that change can come from the  inside, too. There are a myriad ways to defy the fates that biology and money and societal structures create; and people, working together despite terrible odds, can find ways to save themselves.

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

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