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Can’t Brain 2: The Can’t-Brainening

Actually, today it’s not that I didn’t have brain capability, it’s just that it didn’t last past about 1:30pm. I could actually feel my brain shutting down! It was amazing.

Anyway, how are you today?

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Stephanie Diaz

Next time you can, go look at the moon. Pretty innocuous, right? Not for Stephanie Diaz and her Extraction series of books, of which Evolution is the latest installment.

STEPHANIE DIAZ:

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of having adventures in outer space. In fact, the first original words I remember writing were the lyrics of a short song: “Stephanie goes to outer space and all the way! Stephanie goes to outer space at dinner time.” I was six years old at the time, and I already knew I wanted to be an author. (Or an astronaut. But math proved to be too annoying of a subject for me.)

Now I’m twenty-two, and I still dream of someday boarding a space ship and traversing the outermost reaches of the galaxy. Yet in my first eighteen years of scribbling stories in notebooks and on school papers, it never occurred to me to try writing a science fiction story. I think I sort of figured I didn’t know enough science, or maybe I simply didn’t have an intriguing enough plot for a story set in space. Until the idea for the Extraction series (which ends with the upcoming Evolution) fell into my head.

Ever since reading The Hunger Games, I’d been toying with the idea of writing a dystopian novel. I’ve always loved exploring the dark side of humanity, the situations that lead individuals to make impossible choices of death and destruction. But with the market so flooded with dystopian works, I knew I needed something to help my story stand out from the rest. The Star Wars/Firefly geek inside me tugged me in the direction of space and galactic wars.

But it really all started with a moon.

Earth’s moon is pretty cool. It looks super lovely and it works with the sun to create ocean tides, which is great. But one day I started wondering how the world would be different if the moon had a bigger effect on our day-to-day lives—and not just any effect, but a deadly one.

What if the moon were poisonous?

And so Kiel was born, a planet somewhere out in the far-off reaches of the universe. A planet orbited by a giant moon with acid leaking off its surface and swirling down into the atmosphere of Kiel, threatening the lives of the planet’s citizens. Those citizens with more wealth and privilege were able to live in societies underground, while the unprivileged working class lived in concentration camps closer to the Surface, and fought to prove they deserved an escape. I dropped a spunky sixteen-year-old girl on the most dangerous part of the planet and wove the story around her, following her from her escape of one of the concentration camps to her realization that everything she thought she knew about her home world was wrong—including the dangers of the moon.

When I started writing Extraction, I honestly didn’t know where the story was going. But about halfway through I realized there was a twist in store that opened up the possibilities for sequels. See, I’d read other science fiction stories about planets where humans suffered from trauma due to the sun’s radiation, or where supernova exploded and led to an end of a civilization, but they were all a result of natural phenomena. I decided it would be most interesting if the poisonous moon in my story weren’t something natural at all, but a weapon of war. And hardly anyone on Kiel knows it.

The first and second books of the series, Extraction and Rebellion, explore the massive cover up in play on the planet Kiel, and follow Clementine’s attempts with a rebel group to sabotage the leader at the head of the cover up. In Evolution, the warriors behind the moon’s weaponization appear on the stage and the final showdown begins, complete with space ships and aliens and a galactic war on the scale I always wanted.

Extraction started with a poisonous moon. How the story ends…well, you’ll have to read Evolution to find out.

As for me, I’ll probably never get to board a space ship and have adventures on a planet far, far away, but the Extraction series let me have adventures through Clementine and the rest of her rebel crew. And that’s pretty shiny.

—-

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

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

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I Can’t Brain Today

And have decided to stop trying.

And you? Can you brain today?

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Zen Cho

Sugar for your tea? While you have both, Zen Cho is here to explain a little about their physical origins, and why they matter for her novel, Sorcerer to the Crown.

ZEN CHO:

When I started writing what was to become my first published novel, I’d already written two novels. I had to throw them away because they did not work. I was tired of launching upon a new project buoyed by optimism – this will be the one! – only to come crashing down when it turned out to suck.

So I decided to write a book that would definitely not work. At least I’d be prepared for the inevitable tragic end. I would take the Regency romance – a genre I love, exemplified by Georgette Heyer’s spectacularly entertaining novels – and use it to tell a story about the centrality of the colonial territories to Britain. Also there would be magic. And dragons. And vampiresses who weren’t really vampiresses …

What do I mean about the centrality of the colonial territories to Britain? When you read a Jane Austen novel (which you can’t really describe as a Regency romance, but is sort of a deity of the genre, influencing it but residing in a firmament above), or a true Regency romance like one of the classic Heyers, you enter what seems to be a hermetically sealed world. This is a world where the riots of poor men and agitations of politics are never mentioned save in passing; where the wars with France appear to impinge only slightly on the lives of the protagonists; and where the colonies might as well not exist, save insofar as they send back wealthy men to marry the heroines.

It is a world of balls, decorous visits, country pursuits, London intrigues, gossip, and a total absorption in the niceties of polite society. It is a partial view of the world as it was. It has influenced fantasy authors from Susanna Clarke to Kari Sperring, because, seen through modern eyes, it is as much a nice self-contained fantasy world as Middle-earth or Narnia.

But that self-contained quality is deceptive. The tea Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet drinks would have come from China via India. The sugar she puts in it would have been from plantations worked by enslaved Africans. Kashmiri shawls were a popular status item: Lizzy Bennet might not have been able to afford a dress made from them, which wealthier women wore, but she might have had a European-made replica.

I’ve obviously never been a slave or grown tea or woven a paisley shawl, but still, to someone from a former colony who grew up reading the books of authors like Austen and Heyer, these are interesting scraps of history to learn. I have always felt, with these books I love, like a ghost hanging around at the back of the room, peering interestedly at scenes, but conscious that I am out of place. To understand this history is to know that I always belonged in those books. I was a central part of the proceedings all along – whether that was a good thing or not.

Sorcerer to the Crown is about the sort of people whose labour and territory were exploited so that Lizzy Bennet could have her tea with sugar. Only it’s about those people benefiting from the resources of Empire – the wealth, the balls, the magic, the superiority complex, the self-serving imperial guilt. Protagonist Zacharias Wythe is Britain’s first black Sorcerer Royal and he is an emancipated slave. His counterpart, female magical prodigy Prunella Gentleman, is mixed race – one of her parents was Indian. They have their problems, but they both have OK lives, on the whole. It’s fantasy in more than one sense.

So that’s the big idea of the book: making visible what was invisible to a young me, reading Austen and Heyer in an ex-colony. But it’s also about balls, visits, intrigues, gossip, hijinks, and playing with the niceties of polite society. Plus dragons. (I haven’t explained why I included dragons, since the world is made up of people who need no explanation for dragons, and people who will never understand the need for dragons whether you explain it to them or not.)

And it is the book that worked, against all expectations. That is, it worked well enough to get me an agent and eventually a book deal. But whether it actually works is, of course, down to readers to decide.

—-

Sorcerer to the Crown: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Krissy Goes to Chicago

This last weekend Krissy took her mother and her daughter to Chicago, and snapped a few pictures as well. Here are five I especially liked.

Chicago. I love that town.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Cindy Pon

When Cindy Pon turned in her Big Idea for her novel Serpentine, she had titled it “A Guide to Writing Non-Commercial YA Fantasy,” with the notation “Maybe the titles of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely.” Why would she think that? Read on for the explanation.

CINDY PON:

When I was pitching my debut novel, Silver Phoenix in 2008, one of the first editors I met at a local conference read twelve pages and said two things that stuck with me. First: This reads like Crouching, Tiger crossed with The Joy Luck Club. Why is it fantasy? Second: Asian fantasy doesn’t sell.

My internal thought to the first was: But doesn’t Crouching, Tiger have fantastical elements? And why is he saying it like this is a bad thing? My thought to the second was: Oh.

I immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when I was six years old, which means I learned English as a second language. I remember vividly my first grade teacher having to write my name onto the chalkboard because I didn’t know the alphabet. I remember staying home to work on my English while I watched the neighborhood kids play outside. So, when sometime in the third grade I began reading–and reading a lot–it seemed as if magical worlds had been opened to me. I had worked so hard to gain access to these story treasures!

I fell in love with books, and fantasy was one of my favorite genres. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I had never seen a character who looked like me in any of the fantasy novels I had read. That’s why I wrote Silver Phoenix.

It was incredibly disheartening to be told by the first professional editor I’d met as a budding writer: Don’t bother. No one wants this.

Well, Silver Phoenix did sell to Greenwillow Books, and it was published in 2009, a difficult time in publishing, and an even more challenging one for debut authors. That year, my novel was the only Asian-inspired YA fantasy released by a major publisher, and now, six years later, I can still count on one hand the number that are released any given year. There have been strides, but not many.

When I began writing Serpentine, which will be published on Sept. 8, I knew it was a risk. I was writing another fantasy set in my fictitious Kingdom of Xia when the sales numbers for my other books had not been strong. But if you know me personally, you know that no one tells me what to or not to do, and I am a stubborn-headed goat. When I do find a story idea, I always write that novel. Serpentine was on submission for two years, with a handful of editors giving very positive feedback, but asking to see something “entirely different” from me instead.

I was ready to self-publish when Serpentine and its sequel were acquired by Month9Books, and it has been a fantastic journey with this amazing small press. But those two years on submission gave me time to realize all the things that made Serpentine “not commercial” by the standards of what is popular in YA fantasy’s current market.

  1. “Too many Asians”

My novels feature casts that are almost entirely Asian, which is very rarely seen in YA books. I’ve also come to realize that the setting itself, inspired by ancient China, is severely othered by the average Western reader, even those who are enthusiastic fantasy readers. Ancient China is more foreign and seen as less commercial than Mars or the moon.

  1. “Always the handmaid, never the princess”

I’m very familiar with fantasy’s love for royalty, the princes and princesses who must be smart, brave, and persevere to save their kingdoms. I have read and loved many of these fantasy stories, but have never been drawn to writing them myself. My heroines have always been underdogs, and it is no different in Serpentine. Orphaned at birth, the main character Skybright has been a handmaid and companion to her mistress her entire life. She is pragmatic and hardworking, until one night she wakes to find the lower half of her body has morphed into a long serpentine coil. This changes what she thought she knew about herself and her life forever.

  1. “Sisters before misters”

I knew from the outset that I wanted a strong female friendship to be the focus of Serpentine. It was something that was lacking in my Phoenix novels, but also, it was a tribute to all the fabulous women friends I have in my own life, who have boosted and encouraged me in my writing career. And although there is a strong romance between Skybright and a boy she meets, I do believe the core of the story is the friendship between Skybright and Zhen Ni.

  1. “Different but not that different”

I think the true irony is that I always think I am writing to market. Shapeshifters are a popular staple in fantasy, both urban and traditional, and are part of the mythos and lore of many cultures worldwide. But one of my critique readers  found the idea of a serpent demon heroine “gross”, and an editor said that despite my beautiful storytelling, a half serpent with a forked tongue would be a “tough sell” to the YA readership. Well, damn. Why can I never just fit nicely in the YA Fantasy Expectations Box? I blame my fascination with the idea of monstrous beauties, as well as the Greek mythology of Medusa, who was a beautiful woman herself before she was changed into a monster.

As for whether or not Asian fantasy sells, I think that it can, if these titles are given the same strong publicity and marketing push as other Western-inspired YA fantasies. I have yet to see this happen, and when there is strong buzz from the big publishers, it has often been for an Asian-inspired fantasy written by a white author.

So I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to talk about Serpentine. And if you decide to take a chance with a non-commercial YA fantasy, reader, I hope you enjoy Serpentine.

—-

Serpentine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s|iTunes

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

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: David Walton

And now, for your Labor Day delight, here’s David Walton and his book Supersymmetry, explaining how what appears like a detail in one book can become a big idea in the sequel.

DAVID WALTON:

It’s time to tie your mind in knots a second time . . .

Only five months ago, John was kind enough to let me chat here about the Big Idea for Superposition, my quantum physics murder mystery that came out in April.  I compared its mind-twisting layers to the film Inception, and described the real-life jury trial I was on (faked death! Russian mobsters!) that prompted the idea in the first place.  I told you about a technology based on the crazy properties of quantum physics that allowed objects to jump through walls, bullets to diffract, and people to exist in more than one place at a time.

But Superposition was a complete story, a stand-alone novel.  That Big Idea has already been told.  So why am I here, only five months later, telling you about a sequel?

Easy.  At the very end of Superposition, in the very last scene, I left behind an Idea.  The Idea was so fascinating to me, I couldn’t just leave it alone.  One of the characters—a teenage girl named Alessandra—ended the book split in two, with two alternate versions of herself alive at the same time.  It wasn’t a loose end, exactly.  It gave her a twin, a friend who could really understand her, something she had always wanted.  The story was complete.  I hadn’t intended to write a second book.  But I couldn’t let that idea go.

It’s something we can all relate to, at some level.  We wonder what would have happened to if we’d chosen a different school, a different job, a different spouse.  How would our lives be changed?  Would we even be the same person?

I wondered: What would it be like to grow up with a sister who was you, but not you?  A twin, of sorts, but one who, until the age of fourteen, had been the same person?  I imagined both Alessandras looking across the breakfast table every day and seeing the girl each would have been if her life had gone differently at just one point.  How would that affect how they viewed themselves?  Would they get along?  Memories are notoriously malleable . . . what if they started remembering things differently?  What kinds of different choices might they make?

And of course, the biggest question of all… what would happen if the probability wave resolved and they became one person again?

Supersymmetry begins fifteen years after the end of Superposition, when the girls—Alex and Sandra—are twenty-nine, leading two separate lives and following different careers.  Each of them secretly fears that the other is the “real” Alessandra, and that the wave collapse would mean her own annihilation.  Enter Ryan Oronzi, neurotic physicist, with a quantum technology that could make American soldiers invincible in the field.  Before long, the Secretary of Defense is assassinated, it’s Alex who’s holding the gun . . . and her sister is the only person in the world who might believe her.

The story stands alone, so even if you haven’t read Superposition, I hope you’ll give Supersymmetry a try!

—-

Supersymmetry – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | Powells | iTunes

Supersymmetry – Canada: Amazon.ca | Indigo

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Approving Grasshopper Approves

Not only is this grasshopper pretty chill, it totally looks like it’s giving me a “thumbs up.” Thanks, chill grasshopper! You’re pretty awesome yourself!

This is all I’ve got for you today. But by golly, isn’t it enough?!?

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My College Degree: Not So Useless After All

Apparently, if you’re getting a humanities degree and you want to make money, a philosophy degree is the way to go. This is according to PayScale, a company which surveys college graduates about such things:

Although philosophy majors rank 75th on PayScale’s overall list of majors at mid-career earnings, it’s the top humanities bachelors degree in their ranking—from early career all the way to later career.

The idea here is that getting a philosophy degree gives you a certain amount of creative problem-solving abilities other folks might not have, which may come in handy out in the real world.

Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly why I got my philosophy degree.

Although, honestly, it’s not out of line with what I’ve said the advantage of getting that particular degree has been. I learned how to learn, and I also learned how to argue and to evaluate arguments, and in particular I learned how language works and how people use it. All of which has come in handy in my professional work.

I don’t know that I would recommend people get a philosophy degree if they want to make money (note that 75th overall ranking, there), but I certainly think over time I have gotten value out of my degree, and not just for the purposes of making money, although clearly it’s done okay for me in that regard. I mean overall quality of life.

So if you want to make money, go for Petroleum Engineering or an MBA. For the rest of it, including maybe some money on the side? Philosophy’s not so bad.

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Clouds, 9/4/15

Because with clouds like these, we’re not getting a sunset tonight. Enjoy.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Bradley Beaulieu

If there’s a way to encapsulate the thoughts of Bradley Beaulieu with regard to his new novel Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, they might be: “Dying is easy. Tragedy is hard.” Learn what this means below.

BRADLEY BEAULIEU:
Years ago, like any new writer, I was working through ways I might portray tragedy and loss in my stories. Strengthening new muscles, as it were. To the young writer it may seem as though death itself is the ultimate tragedy, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that the actual death isn’t what matters most. It’s the grief left behind, the feelings of loss and impotence and anger. What death leaves in its wake matters so much more than the death itself.

Like a prick from a dirty needle, tragedy can infect the tissue surrounding it, and this got me to thinking. What other types of loss might have the most impact on a reader? Like ticking off topics on a list, my mind worked through the most obvious. Betrayal. Personal failure. Drifting slowly but surely apart from someone you love. Robbing a child of the potential to be great.

Like so many, I’ve been affected by the events of 9/11, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, Arab Spring, the civil uprisings in Syria, and on and on. Society marches forward or backward on those events. They are the hinges of our history. But I cannot think of those larger events without also thinking of the terrible human loss wrapped inside them. I’m fully aware that I’ve grown up in a place where my way of life is protected. I can only wonder what it would be like to live in a place where so much that I take for granted is threatened.

That, in a nutshell, is what I wanted to explore in Twelve Kings, not merely individual or personal loss, but familial loss, societal loss, cultural loss. What grows in soil sown with so much grief? What pain might that new growth lead to? Are there things that might be saved even in terrible tragedy? Things that might be reborn? Is there joy to be found?

When I was first embarking on Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, I had already decided it would be set in a vast desert, that there would be wandering tribes who sail every corner of the desert on sandships, that there would be a melting-pot metropolis ruled by twelve cruel kings. I also knew it was going to be a series, and I wanted a through-line to help guide me toward the end of the first book and beyond. I didn’t want it to be about only big canvas stuff, though. I wanted the larger events to be felt in a such a way that it speaks to the things we all share. Something recognizably human. I wanted, in other words, to marry the the broader, earth-shaking events with deeply personal ones.

The main character in Twelve Kings is a woman named Çeda. She loses her mother at a young age when she’s killed in vicious fashion by the twelve immortal kings of Sharakhai. Çeda vows revenge, but revenge is a short-lived thing if not fueled. Years later, now a pit fighter in Sharakhai’s seedy west end, Çeda finds that fuel in the form of riddles hidden in the book of poems her mother left her. They open the door to much larger secrets, secrets the kings tried to bury on the fateful night long ago when they made a dark bargain with the gods of the desert to secure their power. Their desperation to keep those secrets hidden gives hint to just how terrible that bargain was. And yet the kings have had centuries in which to alter history. It won’t be easy for Çeda to uncover the truth.

As the story moves on, Çeda’s initial thirst for revenge is replaced by a desire to uncover what was lost, and in this I finally felt like I’d found what I was looking for. Çeda’s hopes and fears became very personal for me in the writing of this tale, but I also broadened the lens to give some sense of scope to the things she’s playing with. It made the story so much brighter for me, and I hope it does for you too.

—-

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

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“Being Poor,” Ten Years On

Ten years ago today, I put the essay “Being Poor” on Whatever. I wrote the piece, as I explained later, in a rage at the after-events of Hurricane Katrina, when so many people asked, some genuinely and some less so, why many of the poor people didn’t “just leave” when the hurricane smashed into the Gulf Coast and New Orleans flooded. I wrote it not to offer a direct explanation but to make people understand what it was like to be poor, as I had been at various times in my life, and could therefore speak on with some knowledge. The piece wasn’t about how people became poor, or why there were poor — simply what it was like to be poor, and to then try to get through one’s life on a day-to-day basis.

I posted it because I had to. I was in a rage at what was happening in New Orleans in 2005, but I was also sick, literally physically sick about it, and for days I couldn’t understand why. I had no direct connection to New Orleans and there was no one there I considered a friend, and other, equally terrible disasters had hit the US before and had nowhere near the same effect on me. Ultimately I began to realize the difference this time was that I was aware how differently the disaster affected people along economic lines, and how the lack of useful planning and response to the disaster essentially punished New Orleans’ poor.

I was not of New Orleans and I was not of New Orleans’ poor. But having been poor in my life, I remembered the difficulties being poor imposes, the lack of options it offers, and circumstances it presents, when no way through is a good one. I had been there in my life, and the lack of understanding I saw radiating out from people about the situation made me sick almost to the point of vomiting. I had to do something or I felt like I would explode.

We had donated money, of course. But it wasn’t enough. So I sat down to write something, anything. What I came up with was a list of things from my personal experience and from the experience of people I knew in my life about poverty and what it was like to be in it. Later some people said the piece was a poem, and I can see that, and they might be right. At the time that wasn’t part of my thinking. I just wanted to get what was in my brain out into the world. I cried as I wrote it, putting the rage and sickness I felt into words. Then I posted it up on Whatever.

And it ended up going everywhere.

It was reprinted in the Chicago Tribune and the Dayton Daily News and dozens of other newspapers. It was linked to and pasted onto hundreds of Web sites. It was read out loud on the radio. It was shared in emails and mailing lists. Eventually it made its way into textbooks and other teaching materials. Churches and religious groups by the score asked permission to use it. In an age before Facebook and Twitter (and even MySpace, really), the piece went massively viral. I encouraged this, of course. As famously “pay me” as I am, “Being Poor” is one piece I have never taken money for. I allow it to be freely distributed and when people ask about payment, I tell them to donate to a local hunger or poverty charity. It’s meant to be shared and read, and read as widely as possible.

It continues to be read, a decade on. There hasn’t been a year since it was posted that it hasn’t been one of the most visited entries on Whatever; this year, it’s currently the third most-read piece on the whole site. Year in and year out, people find it, or come back to it. This makes me very happy.

Which is not to say that people didn’t find ways to try to pick it apart. When the piece came out, I didn’t go out of my way to note that the piece was based on my own experience, so a number of people questioned the veracity of the piece, and my right to write it. When I did make it clear that the piece was largely based on my own experience, some folks then wanted to maintain that I hadn’t really been poor, or that “American” poor is not really poor compared to the poverty elsewhere in the world, or they would focus on one particular bit in the piece and declaim how it was in some way inauthentic, therefore throwing out the whole piece. Others simply wanted to blame the poor for being poor in the first place.

There is of course not much to be done in those cases. I lived my poverty; I don’t need other people to decide whether I was poor enough for them. The American version of poverty may be “better” than poverty elsewhere, but it’s bad enough, both objectively and in context. And while I understand some people prefer to believe poor people deserve the poverty they’re in, I know it’s not true, or at the very least, is such a small part of why people are poor. I didn’t deserve to be poor when I was a child; I just was. The people I know now in poverty aren’t there because it’s some sort of cosmic or karmic justice; they work hard and try to better their lives. But the fact of poverty is: It’s a rough climb out, and a steep fall back, and it’s not as if everyone starts out in the same place.

That said, I admit to being an imperfect vessel to speak to poverty in America. I have been poor in my life. I am not now, nor have I been anything close to poor for my entire adult life. In fact I am on the opposite end of the spectrum. You can even say that in many ways my life encapsulates the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” American Dream narrative that we have embedded into our national DNA: Scrappy ambitious kid takes his chances and makes a few breaks for himself and comes out on top. It can happen to you too!

Except the thing I know that gets elided here is that I’m one of the very few “rags to riches” tales I know of. Anecdote is not data, and the data says that it’s tougher to move up the socio-economic ladder here in the US than it is in most other industrialized nations. Not impossible, and I am here to speak to that. But tougher. And I am here to speak to that too — because I know the breaks that I caught, including the fact that I got a scholarship to attend one of the best college preparatory high schools in the country, which I attended while simultaneously living in a trailer park. I was launched into the ranks of the socio-economic elite and I haven’t come back down. But I also know that not every kid in a trailer park gets the break I did, a break contingent on one school deciding to let me in, not a state or national will to make things better for poor children in general.

I have been poor, and am not. That makes me not the best spokesman for poverty. But I continue to see poverty, where I live and in the lives of people I know, and I am in a position where when I talk, people often listen. So this is a thing I will continue to speak on.

And it is a reason why I’m glad “Being Poor” continues to be part of the conversation on poverty. For what it’s done and what it continues to do, I’m proud to have written it. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Rebecca Alexander

Writing can be an adventure or an escape, and it can also be a way of dealing with events around you, and to explore what they mean and do. Ask author Rebecca Alexander, author of The Secrets of Blood and Bone. She’ll tell you. And does, just below.

REBECCA ALEXANDER:

Ten years before I began working on the Secrets trilogy, I dealt with a number of personal losses, and death was a force of nature that I couldn’t understand.  I decided to explore the “big idea” of death through my writing. As a result, most of my main characters are poised on the edge of death, like people often are after desperate illness or trauma. Only in my books, that precarious state is actually connected to the magic of 16th century sorcerers like John Dee, Elizabeth Báthory and Edward Kelley, which modern day practitioners use to artificially extend their lives on “borrowed time.”

I started The Secrets of Life and Death (the first book in the trilogy) a dozen times, trying to find my central protagonist Jackdaw’s character. Jackdaw was balanced on that edge between death and the magic that keeps her alive, sustained by an ancient, bloody ritual but unable to truly live. She stayed in the shadows, afraid to get too close to anyone (besides her trusty wolf-dog) in case they found out about her past, and so in some ways it was as though she was already dead. Now, in The Secrets of Blood and Bone, she has decided to really live. She’s looking after Sadie, a feisty teenager, and she’s begun to fall in love with her scholarly friend Felix. In living a fuller life, her personality emerges to a much stronger degree than ever before.  I found I loved her loyalty and compassion, her warrior instinct. Felix is the brains of the group but Jackdaw’s the hero.

My ideas for the life-extending magic that Jackdaw and other’s use first sprung from my research into the Elizabethan alchemist Dr. John Dee. Dee was a remarkable intellectual, widely published in mathematics, astrology—and the ‘science’ of magic. As faith in religion had waned, the earliest books of science included what we would now think of as magic—alchemy, reanimating corpses and creating life. According to John Dee, he had succeeded in raising the spirits of the dead to tell him about the nature of death. I found John Dee’s necromancy experiments in his books about magic, which ultimately led me to his contemporary Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noble who is reputed to have killed dozens if not hundreds of young girls—all in order to push back ageing and death.

When Dee’s trickster associate Edward Kelley proved more interesting than Dee himself, I started writing from Kelley’s point of view, explaining the magical systems revealed from their channeling angels, as well as consulting many of the other sorcerers and alchemists in Europe.  They travelled through Poland and into Transylvania. Here the landscape was influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of my favorite books. In Eastern Europe at the time, death was difficult to define precisely—you were only completely dead when your corpse had a stake through its heart and your head was cut off.

The magic that evolved from Dee’s and others’ writings used sigils and signs, and mathematical equations that they believed evoked aspects of angels. They sought to save people who were dying, and if their magic worked I think people would still try to find that knowledge. In fact, wouldn’t pharmaceutical companies be interested (including the one run by a centuries-old Elizabeth Báthory)? By the time I wrote The Secrets of Blood and Bone I knew Jack, Sadie, and Felix well enough to test their relationships with each other and with the magic they’ve used, and to bring Edward Kelley face to face with the consequences of his actions in the first book. Re-animating the dead has consequences, for the revenant and those around them.

With The Secrets of Life and Death I played with the idea of being dead/undead at the same time, and in The Secrets of Blood and Bone I explore the idea that people could access a more savage, primal version of themselves as a way to fight against this binary and try to stay alive. Years ago, when my two surviving children and I fled to an island after a family disaster, the only house I could afford had a garden that was growing into the walls itself. That green, brooding inspection through every window of the house left a mark, and I re-invented the garden as a character.

When I wrote the trilogy, we were living in a house high up a hillside, surrounded by a couple of acres of wilderness filled with foxes, deer and badgers. Brambles grew under the back door and trees leaned in to the bedroom windows to tap leaves on the panes. The constant cawing of rooks, jackdaws and crows all made it into the book. They became the soundtrack to the story, very alive yet so associated with death.

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The Secrets of Blood and Bone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.

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New Books and ARCs, 9/2/15 + Reminder: Event in Columbus Tomorrow, 7pm

And now I’m caught up with the new books and ARCs that came in while I was on tour! See something you like here? Tell me about it in the comments.

And if you are in or around Columbus tomorrow, remember that I am coming to the OSU bookstore for my final tour event.  I’ll be there at 7pm. You could be there too! And as always, remember to bring every single person you’ve ever met in your life. Thank you.

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Wrapping Up 2015: A Hugo Awards Open Thread

I’ve had a few people express a desire for an open thread here to discuss this year’s Hugo Awards, to touch on some topics I haven’t specifically addressed; separately, Charles Gannon, who was nominated for the Nebula year, and was just below the cutoff for the Hugo Best Novel award this year, noted something I said in a previous entry about his work and had some thoughts he wanted to post. In both cases I thought it would be useful to give space for folks to comment and discuss, before we (quite properly!) put the Hugos to bed for another season.

So: Here you are, an open thread for discussion whatever you like about the Hugo Awards this year, with Gannon’s long-but-worth-the-read piece in the lead-off comment position. Agree, disagree, add your own thoughts, careen off the thoughts of others, it’s all good.

That said: Remember the comment policy here and keep it wholly; while my plan is to keep my own commenting to a bare minimum in order to let folks have room to discuss, I won’t hesitate to wade in to Mallet people getting out of line. Be polite and respectful to each other and keep the frothing down to a bare minimum, please. I thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Now then. Last call for Hugo Award 2015 thoughts and feelings. Don’t be shy, step up and let’s hear what you have to say.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Adam Rakunas

Pineapple juice in paradise inspires science fiction! That’s the first thing you need to know about Windswept and its author Adam Rakunas. But if you would like to know more — and you do! — Rakunas goes into further detail below.

ADAM RAKUNAS:

It started with a bar.

I was in Hawaii to officiate a wedding, and I had arrived two hours before the rehearsal dinner was supposed to start. We were meeting in a hotel restaurant in Waikiki, and the open-roof bar had a marvelous view of the Pacific Ocean. It was also crammed to the gills with tourists, just like me. Well, not just like me, because I was wearing a suit. Everyone else wore shorts and sunburns, including the cover band and the bartenders.

I looked around, drinking my pineapple juice and wondering: where did everyone come from? Not just the tourists, but the people who worked at this hotel bar. What brought them here? What made them stay? What did they do to make ends meet?

That idea bumped into a story from Carrie Sundra, a college friend who grew up in the US Virgin Islands. When Carrie she was a kid, some tech company tried to set up shop in the VI. I can see the pitch meeting now: “The Islands are beautiful! Our workers will be so happy and productive, and we’ll be a roaring success!”

It was a not a success, roaring or otherwise. The workers were on Island Time, which meant they would get around to stuff when they got around to it. They weren’t lazy. They were just relaxed. The tech company was not relaxed, because it relied on things like schedules and deadlines and people getting to work when they were supposed to. After a year, they had to admit defeat and move to some place where they had a little more control over their employees. The people on the island shrugged and went back to their lives.

I kept rolling those thoughts together as the band murdered “Hotel California” and the bartender brought me more pineapple juice. If you lived in an amazing place, would you get anything done? What would motivate you beyond your basic needs? What would you do all day?

The answer hit me: you’d hustle until you didn’t have to.

And I don’t mean “hustle” as in “running scams” (even though some people would certainly find their calling in the time-honored tradition of ripping off suckers). I mean you would work like mad for a short period of time until you had earned enough to cover your nut. Then you’d travel or write a book or spend your days contemplating your navel, secure in the knowledge that you wouldn’t have to go back to work until you had to. If you were frugal, you could go months, maybe years, without having to seek gainful employment.

But you’d still like to have things like fresh food and clean water and the occasional untainted antibiotic. People need food and medicines, and those come from long supply chains that rely on a whole lot of people and expertise. Even if someone invents replicators and Med-O-Tron 3000s, those machines will need people to fix them. At least, until someone invents AIs to do all our work, though those AIs will probably also need someone to keep them in tune. Our level of civilization requires work, and someone’s got to do it. And that someone would probably want to spend as much free time as possible in a bar as nice as the one I was in, albeit one with much lower prices.

I pulled my phone and my battered Bluetooth keyboard out of my jacket and started writing about a woman who had left her rat race job to come to paradise, even though she still had to work. Everyone still had to work, because this was the broken-down future. The only way to get by was hustling. What was her hustle? What did she want? Who was she? What would she drink? I sipped more pineapple juice, and, by the time the dinner party arrived, I had met the character who would become Padma Mehta. Now it’s your turn.

—-

Windswept: Amazon.com|Barnes & Noble|Mysterious Galaxy|Powell’s Books|Kobo|IndieBound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter. Visit the website of Padma Mehta’s former employer.

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It’s Been a Busy Day at the Scalzi Compound and I Have an Event Tonight So In Lieu of Actual Words, Please Accept This Picture of a Cat

I imagine this will be pleasing to the large majority of you.

And remember, if you are in or near the Dayton area: Tonight! Books & Company at the Greene. 7pm. Be there! Because I will be, and I don’t want to be alone.

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