The Dispatcher is now a New York Times Bestseller

Today the New York Times debuted two new monthly bestseller lists, dealing with audio books: Audio Fiction and Audio Non Fiction. Here’s the link to the Audio Fiction list.

And look at what’s number eight on the list!

Yes, The Dispatcher. That’ll do just fine. The Dispatcher had already been a bestseller (it had topped the Audible Bestseller list on more than one occasion), but of course the New York Times has the bestseller lists of record, as it were. So this is a neat further recognition of its success in entertaining people.

I’ll note the Audio Fiction list is rather heavy with science fiction titles, with a full third of the titles from the genre, including the number one title (which also has a film of it coming out in a week or so, which I suspect helps too). It’s a nice showing for the genre. People seem to like science fiction in their ears.

I’ll also note there is now such a thing as a New York Times bestselling narrator, and that my pal and frequent audio narrator Wil Wheaton is now a “#1 New York Times Bestselling narrator.” Which I love. And so of course Zachary Quinto, who read The Dispatcher, is also a bestselling narrator. I like it when that happens.

Congratulations to everyone else who has made this new NYT list, which among other things shows that audiobooks are a medium that matters. They’ve certainly made a difference in my career, and I’m happy to see them, and these authors and narrators, get recognition for their efforts.

 

Head On Cover Flats

The cover flat for Head On, my next novel

This is a lovely thing to see: The cover flat of Head On, which, when appropriately folded and flapped, will cover the hardcover editions of the book when it comes out in April. It’s very pretty and my name is embossed, which is always a delight. And I continue to very much like the cover design, by Peter Lutjen. Basically, I’m a happy Scalzi right now.

Also I got other good news today but I can’t share it yet. But I will be able to share it tomorrow!

How was your day?

Your Super Large Slice of Ham For the Day: Me Singing “Jack’s Lament”

As part of a Disney sing-along on the JoCo Cruise.

Three things:

1. I am mostly on-key! Go me.

2. Check out that dad bod, ladies.

(and gents.)

(and those of you fluidly gendered.)

3. It should be clear I have absolutely no shame whatsoever.

Art and Entertainment and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson
But is it art? Original photo by Thor Nielsen / NTNU, used under Creative Commons license. Additional art treatments by me.

Yesterday on Twitter, noted astrophysicist and Pluto killer Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote:

And, well. No. I responded:

This excited at least a few people, who were hoping that this meant that me and Tyson would now commence to fight. But sadly for those folks, there will be no fighting. One, despite his Pluto-murdering ways, I am an admirer of Tyson for his tireless championing of astronomy and astrophysics and science in general. Two, I think Tyson is simply falling prey to a common misconception about both art and entertainment, which is that the former is (mostly) exclusive of and (mostly) superior to the latter. In both cases, it’s not true.

To begin, “art” is not a rarified thing, or at least I don’t think it is. It is, simply, the product of the creative exercise. When you write a story or play a song or draw a picture or act on a stage, you are making “art.” Whether it is good art or bad art is another thing entirely — when I write, I can say I am (generally) creating good art, but when I draw, I am mostly creating bad art. But it’s still art, good, bad or indifferent. What makes it art is the act of creative production, not its quality.

Likewise “entertainment” is also not particularly rarified. It’s that which aims to amuse and engage people (or more widely, that which amuses and engages people, whether intentional or not). In a basic sense, if you are writing or composing or drawing or whatever with the intention or hope that other people will apprehend and appreciate what you are doing, that’s entertainment. And again, you can succeed or not succeed, depending on your skill and also the interest and taste of the audience. What makes it entertainment is the intention, not the quality.

It’s worth pointing out here that in the cases of both “art” and “entertainment” there are two, mostly unrelated components: The act of the creator, and the apprehension of the audience. I may create art, or aim to entertain, or both, but it’s generally up to others to decide if I’ve done a good job in either case. I have my own internal critic in both cases, who I think usually has a good bead on both. But ultimately the success of art depends on the individual, and their take on the created thing. We can further declare that someone has good or bad taste, or doesn’t know enough to appreciate art, or whatever, and those are arguments that can take us down a long and contentious road. But at the end of the day, apprehension of art is subjective, and you either accept that or don’t.

Tyson’s formulation of “art” — that it’s somehow effectively better or more challenging than mere “entertainment,” is not that unusual; it’s at the root of the old question “Well, I know I like it, but is it art?” For the person for whom is this is a serious sort of question, the answer of “Yes, it was art the moment the creator started producing it, and your liking it is valid in itself” possibly seems facile and a little vapid. Likewise, the devaluation of “mere” entertainment, as if something that succeeds in amusing and diverting you, and making you happy, cannot have the value of (or inherently has less value than) something that confronts you and aims to make you think.

Well, that seems a bit silly to me. Alt-right trolls aim to “challenge and disrupt my world view” with what passes for their cogitation; it doesn’t mean what they’re doing has an inherently higher artistic value than, say, an essay by Roxane Gay, whose worldview is rather more in alignment with mine. Fascist-aligned punk bands are not inherently more artistic than the Dead Kennedys, who have rather pointed things to say about Nazi punks.

(“But those are extreme examples!” Yes, they are. And? There were no qualification on Tyson’s initial statement; it’s not “Except in cases involving fascists and thugs…” And even if it were, we could still find more than enough examples to dismiss the hypothesis.)

Likewise, the one thing “art” has over “entertainment” is not quality, it’s intentionality. Art results from the creative drive of humans, and a purposeful act of creation. Entertainment can be, but does not have to be, intentionally created. I can be entertained by cats playing or by clouds rolling along in the sky, but neither the cats nor the clouds do what they do in the hopes of entertaining me. On Youtube, you can watch hours of logs burning in a fireplace or trains rolling through Scandinavia. It’s entertainment but I think not really art (unless you count pointing a camera at a fireplace to be art, which, meh).

“Entertainment” is not a lesser state of “art”; they are separate conditions with substantial but not perfect overlap. Much if not most of what we think as entertainment starts off as art; most art we eventually see is intended to have an audience (i.e., is “entertainment”). The subjective entertainment value of something may not be the same as the subjective “artistic” value of the thing. I can recognize art has been finely crafted and speaks well to an audience, and also recognize that audience is not one with me in it (which is to say, not be well entertained by it). I can likewise recognize that something which amuses me vastly can be something I also find sloppy and junky and not something I’d recommend to other people — or alternately, speaks so particularly to me that I don’t expect others to have the same reaction to it.

Also, and importantly, we don’t have to excuse or rationalize or dismiss art that exists within our “world view” (and let me note that I could spend a whole other essay deconstructing that phrase) as “mere” entertainment. One, “entertainment” is not mere — the ability of anything to transport you out of your own worry cycle for even a few minutes is a pretty great thing. Two, that entertainment is (usually) art. And it’s art that is working for you, however it works. Enjoy it and celebrate it. This is why there should be no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.” You shouldn’t feel guilt about enjoying art, whatever it is.

Now, what I think Tyson may have been trying to say, and if so is a thing I would agree with him on, is that one’s entertainment and/or artistic diet shouldn’t be only what you already know that you like — it’s worthwhile to make a stretch here and there and try things that you don’t know if you like, and on occasion to learn more about art (of whatever sort) so that when you approach new and unfamiliar art, you have tools to better understand and apprehend what you’ve got in front of you. Always be reaching for the new and always be learning — and as a result, what art speaks to you, and entertains you, will be a larger set than what’s come before. And sometimes you won’t like the art, and won’t be entertained, but that’s all right, too. You’ll know more about yourself through the process.

This is why, fundamentally, I don’t need to fight Tyson — I’m pretty sure he and I agree on the important things regarding art and entertainment. We’re just using different words (and definitions of words) to say it. Mind you, I think I’ve said it better here. But then, I’ve just used 1,250 words, and he used a tweet.

The Big Idea: Jane Yolen

The cover to A Bear Sat on my Porch Today

Today’s Big Idea post is not about a specific book — although Jane Yolen has two, yes, two, books coming out today — but to celebrate a milestone that Yolen has achieved, right now, as we speak. When having two books out in a single day is only the second most impressive thing about an author’s day, you know it’s a pretty special day indeed.

JANE YOLEN:

My two mottos are BIC and YIC:

Butt in chair. (Or for the finer minds—backside, behind, bottom).

Yes I Can. The answer I give if someone asks if I have time or inclination to write something for their blog, journal, magazine, anthology, publishing house. I can always say no after careful consideration. But an immediate no shuts the door for good.

Both BIC and YIC are variants of my late husband’s motto: Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

However, the word I hate most when a reviewer or introducer are talking about me is prolific. It carries on its old farmer’s back a whiff of a sniff. As if someone is looking own his or her rarified patrician nose and saying, “Well, of course she writes a lot. . .” That’s their dog whistle for inconsequential, not literary kind of stuff, things like kiddy books and verse, scifi and fantasy. Or as my father said when I was years past my fiftieth plus book, “When are you going to grow up and write something real?”

By that he meant adult literary novels or mammoth nonfiction books or Hollywood biographies—the sort of stuff his friends wrote. (Name drop time: Cornelius Ryan, Will Oursler, Ernest Hemingway.)

But I write what I love to read. I write the books  I wish I had had as a child, or want to read as an adult. And yes, I do write a lot.

My 365th book is coming out, and my 366th. . .on the same day (today!). One is a picture book called  A Bear Sat on My Porch Today, which is in bouncy rhyme and celebrates a bear that actually sat on my porch in semi-rural Western Massachusetts. But, along the way it becomes a book that also celebrates inclusion and odd friendships, and toleration. The other book is a devastating Holocaust novel hanging from the armature of the Hansel and Gretel folk tale. And yes you may ask if there is a witch who gets shoved in the oven. And I will remind you: “It’s Hansel and Gretel.” To say more would be a spoiler.

Which one is the actual 365th?  All I will reveal is that:

  1. I do not know
  2. I do not care.
  3. It just means from March 6 on you will be able to read a book a day by me, even on a Leap Year. #Yolen365

Those of you who follow the cobbled-together mathematics of calendars will know that the next Leap Year is 2020. By then I will probably have close to 380 books out.

I am waving at Isaac Asimov, my old friend, who even in his grave still seems to be producing books. A regular industry, he is. I will never catch up. Nor is that my goal. My goal is what it has always been—write the best books I can, the books I want to read–and get better at writing each time.

Why should you care about #Yolen365? Because it’s a fun statistic. We will be celebrating it all around the country. But it will matter to you only if some of them are books you love. Or if they are books that make a difference in your life or the life of a child you know. Oh, and only if they are books that last five years past their year.

I am often asked if I write my books the way I put on my shoes, one at a time. The simple answer is No. Or maybe it’s Yes.

Actually, I am a juggler of ideas. Any one day I might work on a chapter of a big adult novel, a rewrite (for the 20th time) of a picture book, or wrestle with a couple of poems. That’s because besides being a juggler, I also have a very low threshold of boredom. And I know if I’m bored, the reader will be bored, too.

For instance, I might start an essay like this, then look around for some old ideas to tart up. I may also find a magazine article online that shouts out “Story idea” to me. I am a bit like those dogs in the animated movie Up, suddenly in the middle of talking, their heads swivel and they shout, “Squirrel!”

But because of all those wonderful squirrels, I am never in-between projects or stumped. Or (writer word coming up) blocked. If I feel a blockage coming on, I simply spin around and head in another direction. A sniper couldn’t bring me down. It’s just my way of working.

Of course, YMMV. <Your mileage may vary.>

So besides this short essay, what did I do today? Some research in Russian history for a novella for Tachyon, a short dive into some revisions on a non-fiction book about birds for National Geographic, worked on two new poems for my poem-a-day project that has been going on for seven years. Five years ago I started sending the poems to subscribers. (Oops it’s now into the sixth year!). During those five completed years, I flew to exotic places, crashed a computer so badly that no one (not even in the White Room in California) could retrieve its innards, and had a seven-hour back operation where they filleted me like a fish. And I still sent out a poem a day. (If you want to subscribe, go here:  http://eepurl.com/bs28ab)

It keeps me enjoying the writing. And along the way, somehow, the count got up to 365/366.

But the one-book-at-a-time question is not the one most frequently thrown at me. It’s the snarky query that comes from  teachers and fans. “Do you ever sleep?”

Why yes, eight hours a night. Every night. I mean where DO you think I get my best new image or manage to find time to work out my plot problems? I am a hearty dream-rover, and I never miss an opportunity to wake up for a sleepy moment to scribble down a new idea.

For completists, here are the books I have coming out this year:

January 16: Meet Me At the Well with Barbara Diamond Goldin (Charlesbridge): feminist revisionist midrash of the stories about girls and women in the Hebrew Bible, for young readers.

March 6: A Bear Sat On My Porch Today (Handprint/Chronicle).

Mapping the Bones (Philomel/ Penguin).

April:  Monster Academy with Heidi Stemple (Scholastic): picture book.

Mixti-Maxti (Papavaria Press):  adult poems about authors.

On Gull Beach (Cornell Lab of Ornithology): picture book.

Sanctuary: Stone Man Mysteries with Adam Stemple (Lerner): Noir graphic  novel, 2nd book in the trilogy.

Compass Roads (Levellers Press): a book of adult poems about the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts where I  live that I’ve edited.

June 26: How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read (Scholastic): picture book.

Fall: Come Fly with Me with Heidi, Adam, & Jason Stemple, (National Geographic): bird nonfiction with folk tales and poems as well.

Crow Not Crow with Adam Stemple (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) : picture book

Finding Baba Yaga (Tor.com): verse fantasy novel

There are also 12 books under contract, all written, and about 30 others making the rounds. That’s a lot of BIC, a lot of YIC, and a lot of joy in one house. The numbers prove it.

—-

Visit Jane Yolen’s site.

Checking In On the (Lack Of) News

I was sent an email today by a Whatever reader noting that I was notably light on political commentary here these days and being curious as to why that might be. It’s a good question, and the answers are, alas, not that exciting:

1. My previously-noted Trump Quandry is still in effect, in which things happen fast enough that by the time I have what I consider a useful opinion on something, it’s three to seven major political news stories back in the slipstream;

2. The above-mentioned phenomenon means that Twitter is actually the best place for me to do a quick reaction/bit of snark, and having done that, move on to the next thing;

3. Even the longer thoughts I have eventually boil down to “Malign and/or incompetent people are running the country and this latest thing just accentuates that point again,” and there’s only so many ways to play that variation of a theme without getting bored, and I’m kinda bored of it;

4. Hey, there’s a novel I’m writing with a deadline coming up! So that’s a thing, too.

And also there’s the thing that honestly writing a long piece about politics now just fills me with ennui and a desire to take nap, and while naps are objectively great, the ennui part is not so much. Right now, I just don’t wanna, basically. So, I don’t — or don’t as much — and put most of my editorializing on Twitter. It’s not to say that from time to time I won’t have something I want to pursue at a longer length. It simply means I’m having relatively fewer moments like that at the moment.

Honestly I think part of it is that as much as anything else I’m finding this current political moment sad. For example, that fool Sam Nunberg today, a former Trump campaign official who’s been traipsing from one cable outlet to the next, becoming progressively unhinged as he goes along. Sure, he’s a landfill of snarkable moments, and also, underlying that is the increasingly likely possibility our current president is a Russian tool, unwitting or otherwise, and, I don’t know. That kind of ruins the fun for me. Now, maybe that’s temporary — a lot really is contingent on other factors, like actual work I get paid for taking up brain cycles — but right now that’s where I’m at.

So this is why political commentary is sorta sparse here at the moment. In its place: Lots of pictures and reviews of tech and otherwise whatever I feel like writing about — which is why it’s called “Whatever.” I’m pretty sure the urge to write more, and in detail, about politics will come around again. Until then, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.

A Sunbow to Start Your Week

I saw this beaut on the way to the gas station this morning; I pulled over to snap a photo with my phone. As a fun bit of trivia, the place I pulled into was Harris Creek Cemetery, which many of you may recognize as the cemetery at the very beginning of Old Man’s War. Kathy Perry will one day be buried over there to the right. I bumped up the contrast and saturation in the picture so you can see the entire bow better, but I assure you it was pretty impressive in real life, too.

This is one of the nice things about living in the modern era, incidentally: One has a decent camera with one pretty much all the time now. This picture probably would have looked better if I had taken it with my dSLR, but then I’m not lugging it with me when I go to the gas station. As they, the best camera is the one you have one you, and fortunately phone cameras these days do a pretty good job.

Speaking of cameras and things they capture in the sky, here’s a thing if you missed me posting it last night on Twitter:

After I posted this, astronomer Phil Plait told me that reportedly Copernicus himself never caught a glimpse of Mercury, so I had that on him. And I was all, Yeah! Suck it, Copernicus! Sure, he established the heliocentric theory, but I saw the smallest planet with my bare eye! That evens things out! History books should be updated with this equivalence presently.

There, I hope you have enjoyed these views of the sky through my cameras’ eyes. Off you go now into your Monday. Hope it’s a good one.

20 Years of Scalzi.com

Today’s a day some some personal significance: 20 years ago today I secured the “scalzi.com” domain, making it my permanent home on the Web and on the Internet. To some extent it happened out of necessity — I was about to be laid off from AOL and all my email addresses there were about to be discontinued, so I needed to get an email address — but in a larger sense I decided that I needed an online home that I couldn’t suddenly get kicked out of, at the whims of someone else. So long as I paid the domain and ISP fees on an annual basis, I had a place to call my own.

And so it has been this last double decade. AOL is reduced to a tiny sliver of what it once was, Friendster and Myspace and LiveJournal (not to mention AngelFire or Geocities) are similarly gone or greatly reduced, and all manner of sites that existed in the long-lost days of 1998 are now only accessible via the Internet Archive. And yet, here’s scalzi.com, still plugging along. There are of course older sites out there, but in the increasingly thin segment of personal web sites, not all that many.

I’ll note that today is not the 20th anniversary of Whatever, the blog; that comes in September. It took me about six months to get my act together on that score. Instead what was here was collections of writing from when I was at AOL and, before then, at the Fresno Bee — basically a lot of writing samples I could point people to if they wanted to hire me. It worked, inasmuch as I was soon hired to write music and video game reviews, although I never did go back to working as a full-time employee for anyone else.

Lots of good things have come from having this site out there, including selling Old Man’s War, which started me on my way to becoming a full-time novelist. I’ve told that story before and so I don’t think I need to go into great detail about it again right now. Nevertheless one thing I will repeat now and as often as people need to hear it is that especially for creative people having your own domain is really important. Other sites are highly contingent: they come and go, and they may also arbitrarily decide who gets to see your stuff and who doesn’t (see: Facebook, and its annoying tendency not to show everything you post to everyone who follows you).

Even if you have a large following elsewhere, you should always have a place to call your own, that you are in control of, not someone else. So when Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat are dead and buried — and they will be — people can still find you. And email you! There’s something to be said for having the same email address for 20 years.

So: Hooray, 20 years. Scalzi.com is definitely not going anywhere anytime soon. I suspect it’ll be here as long as I am here, and then, probably, well after that.

New Books and ARCs, 3/2/18

A new month and a new stack of books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What in this stack do you want to put into your own “to be read” pile? Tell us in the comments.

The Big Idea: Alan Baxter

 

As any metropolitan partisan will tell you, cities have their own feel and personality — but in Hidden City, author Alan Baxter takes that idea and, shall we say, runs with it. Get ready.

ALAN BAXTER:

Cities are living things. Some are so alive they’re almost sentient. Imagine a brain, made of billions of neurons all interacting to create consciousness. Now picture a city with millions of people, each acting like a bunch of neurons in a brain. Of course, this is massively over-simplified, and will no doubt be making any biologists reading cringe and want to break things. But, in essence, this is the first big idea behind Hidden City.

All cities do, of course, have a living vibe, we imbue them with personality. I’ve always loved noir stories where place and setting are as important as the characters; where, in fact, the city is a character. The fictional city of Cleveport in this book most definitely fulfils that role. But in most noir stories, the city is passive while the people are active, front-and-center. That’s not what I wanted here. And the other thing about this idea was that I didn’t just want a living city. I wanted a city that was sick. Dying, in fact.

That presented an immediate problem. Cleveport, as a central character, had to have a believable personality. It turns out I’d set myself an unenviable task. For a while I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off. How could I make her character shine through? How could she be an active player?

However, for me, a book is never made from just one or two big ideas. Certainly those are often the trigger, as with the idea of Cleveport here, but I need a conglomeration of big and small ideas that keep crashing together until they eventually form a kind of critical mass. That’s when a story is born, kicking and screaming, demanding to be fed — I mean, told. The second set of ideas that really started gelling Hidden City together were focused around magic. If a city was more sentient than most, there’s every chance it would attract magical people, even if they didn’t realize themselves that’s what was happening.

Then I started to think about what might happen to that magic and those people when the city became sick. How would Cleveport’s character show through them? I wondered if the magic would wane, but then something else occurred to me. What if it became inexplicably more potent? And no one realized that was a Bad Thing™. That led me to my next set of problems. I’m not lying when I tell you this book was by far the hardest I’ve ever written in terms of making the ideas work.

The next issue centered on what kind of illness might affect a city? What other sort of symptoms would it present? How would that subsequently affect everything else? I needed effects beyond the strange increase in magic. In the same way that a fever might inhibit a person’s ability to function, it might also show up physically as a rash. Or blistering pustulent sores. Or something. So poor old Cleveport developed an outbreak of parasitic fungus that attacks her population, turning them into violent lunatics. Because, let’s be honest, what better complement to a sick city than homicidal madness?

This fungus and its parasitic lifecycle became something of an obsession for a while. I had to learn a lot to make it work alongside everything else. So I studied. Did you know, for example, that the biggest living organism on Earth is not the blue whale? It’s a mushroom. Well, specifically it’s a honey fungus, apparently very tasty, and there’s one in Oregon that is 2.4 miles across. Yes, miles. One organism. Imagine if that wasn’t tasty, but deadly. And imagine if could spread as fast as people can run. And imagine if it used people as its infection vector. And imagine what it’s like living in my head sometimes.

Anyway, now I had the meat and bones of this novel. Noir, fantasy, magic, horror, action. But plot is not story. Characters are story, and a book needs more than one. Cleveport is certainly the central character in Hidden City, but not the protagonist. That turned out to be a run-down, mildly magical gumshoe called Steven Hines, who specializes in missing persons cases. While authorities start shutting things down and closing the city boundaries, concentrating on the symptoms of the outbreak, only Hines – his talent giving him a clearer than most connection to his city – has spotted the underlying causes. Or at least, he’s spotted that there must be underlying causes.

And something else about story. It’s not just in the characters and how they respond to the immediate threat, but how they respond despite their ongoing lives. Hines didn’t just pop up to deal with the sickness in Cleveport. He’s got shit going on, same as everyone. Through that lens of character – Cleveport, Hines, his buddy Detective Sergeant Abby Jones, and a few key others – I got to explore themes of loss and sacrifice, love and friendship, arrogance and heroism, all while a city suffered. While everyone suffered. And while it was an incredibly difficult book to write, I’m very happy with the way it all came together in the end. Because along with underlying causes, there has to be a root cause, right? And that was the biggest idea of all. But that, of course, would be a spoiler.

—-

Hidden City: Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | Kobo | iBooks | Google Play

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site or read his blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Rachel Hartman

In imagining the story and characters that make up her novel Tess of the Road, author Rachel Hartman had to go places she initially didn’t expect or want to go. She’s here now to explain why she did eventually go there, and what it means for her and her work.

RACHEL HARTMAN:

I can’t discuss the Big Idea behind Tess of the Road, alas, without talking about rape — in the abstract, not in gory detail. If you’re not up for that today and need to go, no worries. You get to choose. You are the protagonist of your own life.

That kind of agency is exactly what rape steals from us.

I like to give a heads-up – it only seems fair, the way you might warn a dinner guest that you have cats, are serving shellfish, or plan to be recreationally stung by bees later. With forewarning we allergic types can take take care of ourselves, popping a Benadryl or declining the invitation.

Pop culture, especially SFF, is full of rape, as anyone with this particular sensitivity can tell you. Even rape that isn’t there – implied, impending, alluded-to, narrowly missed – can be too much on a bad day, and I’m one of the lucky ones. My allergy is pretty mild.

I had no intention of adding to this superabundance. I was working on a happy-go-lucky picaresque road novel about a girl and her quigutl best friend. I knew what would happen if there was rape in the backstory – it would inevitably turn into Thelma and Louise. I love that movie, but no thank you. This was my jolly book!

Then I was struck by subtext in the place I least expected it – my community choir – and I had to rethink my position.

Our choir director gave us the song “Cakes and Ale.” It’s a round by Henry Purcell who, in addition to being the greatest English baroque composer, was also a famous seventeenth century party animal. (Legend has it that he died of pneumonia after his wife locked him out of the house in the rain late one night.) He wrote a lot of bawdy songs; “Cakes and Ale” isn’t even his bawdiest.

The narrator of this particular song talks about plying a woman with alcohol and trinkets in hopes that she’ll be “wondrous merry” with him. That could plausibly mean a variety of things, until he says “merry my cock” and removes all doubt. That wasn’t the part that made me feel sick, however. It was the line, “I thought she was afear’d ‘til she stroked my Beard.”

I know what arguments have popped into your head; they also popped into mine. Afear’d is just meant to rhyme with beard – what else was he going to say? Weird? Engineered? Did “cock” mean cock in the eighteenth century, anyway? And the lady stopped being afraid, didn’t she?

She did, if you trust the assessment of the guy who’d been getting her drunk all evening.

Nine times out of ten, I might have thought Ugh, gross, and not been any more bothered than that. Trauma comes back on you like reflux, though, and mine had been recently bubbling up again. I couldn’t stop thinking about the nameless woman in the song. Had she really stopped being afraid, or had the drink extinguished the light in her eyes? Had she swallowed her fear down and tried make the best of things? The whole scenario made me squirm.

I have had plenty of experience with this kind of discomfort, and I have a variety of things I do to take care of myself. First thing I did was sit down and write a parody of the song. Mock your misery away, is my motto!

He gave her cakes and he gave her gold

And drink both strong and grapey.

You might say, “What the hell, it’s a classic — Purcell!”

But this song is wondrous rapey.

It went downhill from there. Annoyingly, the parodizing didn’t make me feel much better. In fact, it merely clarified the things that had bothered me about the song in the first place.

Is that not what he meant?

A beard-grab’s not consent…

Ugh, gross. It was time to implement Self-Care Phase 2: talking to a friend.

When you’re struggling, choice of friend is important. I generally have good instincts about these things, and I had an intuition that Karen, a new friend, was the one to approach. She was in my choir, and had always struck me as reasonable and level-headed. In fact, she made me think of the hyper-rational, mathematically-minded dragons from my first novel, Seraphina. I had great hopes that she would use impeccable logic to tell me I was overreacting.

She did not disappoint, but promptly logicked me right under the table: “Just going by the statistics…”

Ah! She was going to school me with math and prove that I was too sensitive about this song.

“…it’s highly likely that five or six other singers, at least, feel the same as you, or worse. You just happen to be the most dedicated parodist. I think you should send this to Earle.”

Earle, our director, was a delightful Old Hippie, dedicated to putting the community in community choir. If a song made anyone uncomfortable, for any reason, he would find us something else to sing. He’d done it before.

“I can’t ask him to change songs,” I protested. “People should be able to choose to sing this if they want.”

People,” said Karen gently, “should be able to choose kindness when someone else is hurting. And they can’t choose that, if they don’t know you’re hurt.”

“That’s awfully tender-hearted for a hyper-rational dragon-type person,” I said bitterly.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “And you’ve got this.”

I sent Earle my parody without explanation. He got my drift; one particular line – rapey rapey rapey so goddamn rapey – wasn’t entirely subtle. The next day, he announced on our choir’s Facebook page that “Cakes and Ale” had made someone uncomfortable, so we weren’t going to sing it. He’d bring new music next week.

As you might expect, all hell broke loose on Community Choir Facebook.

I tried to stay out of it; Earle hadn’t named me, and I didn’t need the aggravation. I couldn’t stop reading the comments, though. All the usual epithets came into play: Censorship! Political correctness! Special snowflakes! One older woman went on a lengthy tirade about what fragile prudes today’s youth were (I was over forty; it would have been funny if it hadn’t been mortifying). Back in her day, they had understood bawdy songs – and the occasional ass grab – for what they really were: fun and playful!

Earle interjected: Maybe this person objected due to personal experience, not prudishness.

He was being too subtle for her. The ranting continued; she was particularly incensed that I’d complained anonymously, that I hadn’t had the guts to debate in the open. I was a bully, a harpy, a shrill moralizing bitch imposing my will on everyone else.

She just wanted a choice.

I knew what that was like.

I wrote back: I’m the one who found the song rapey. I told Earle via e-mail because I don’t feel I should have to stand up in front of the whole choir and talk about painful personal experiences.

She backed down. Things looked different when I was someone she knew, and not some hypothetical censorious Millennial out to spoil the Baby Boomers’ fun.

What I didn’t realize right away was that I also looked different to her in light of this knew knowledge. The next week at choir she took special pains to say hello, and ask me how I was doing. Weeks passed, and every time she saw me she’d get this pitying look on her face. Sometimes she’d even try to hug me (I dodged), as if I had been magically transformed into someone broken, wounded, and pathetic.

Fighting online had been galling, but this was worse. Were those my only choices, in her eyes? Avenging fury or shattered victim? I began to get angry for real.

Stories shape our expectations and understandings of what’s possible. Our culture has generally whittled it down to two possibilities for sexual assault survivors. You can be a victim, often dead, frequently erased, the great shipwreck of your life serving only as the impetus for someone else’s story. Or you can be an avenger, out to kill the menz (and spoil everyone else’s chill by not letting them sing bawdy songs). That sounds better, and at some level it is, but it’s not like you have much choice in that scenario either. You life is still all about him, and what he did to you. And hey, if you’re super talented and lucky, you can still end up pretty damn dead, like Thelma and Louise.

That’s not the way I would choose to be the protagonist of my own life. There were so many other roads back to self, so many coping strategies, so much life and beauty even after you think your life has been destroyed. It was frustrating that this woman didn’t have any other mental models to choose from.

And that’s when I knew my road novel – my happy-go-lucky picaresque – was going to have rape in the backstory, and that this would not transform it into Thelma and Louise. Tess would walk, and fall, and get up, and find her way back from trauma, just like so many of us do every day (but with dragons).

We get to be the heroes of our own hearts, because we get to choose.

In the end, I wasn’t sorry we dropped “Cakes and Ale.” Another soprano, a woman in her sixties, came up to me later and whispered, “Thank you. I had been calling it The Date Rape Song.” I smiled, realizing we were veterans of the same war, both of us coping through humor and friendship.

I wrote this book for her. And for you. And for all of us struggling to walk on.

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Tess of the Road: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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