Authors Derryl Murphy and William Shunn weren’t necessarily looking to collaborate on a story. But then a chance encounter on the road set events into motion that would result in Cast a Cold Eye. I’ll let the two of them take it from here.
DERRYL MURPHY and WILLIAM SHUNN:
My mind often wanders to thoughts of Story on long drives. A story I’m writing, a story I want to write, often a story I had no idea existed. The latter happens more often than is healthy, and in the middle of one eight-hour drive with my wife and two (now adult) sons I watched an old truck with a hand-painted sign approach, and as it zipped by I knew I had misread the sign but insisted Jo write down that misreading in my notebook: Spirit Photographer.
At the same time I was wrestling with a few disparate ideas circling the Spanish flu epidemic that had killed a great-grandfather. Perhaps I could tie them together when I got home.
Reader, I could not. I tried and tried, but wasn’t happy with any of the outcomes. At one point I was sure this would be a short story, another time I worried I was looking at a novel. About ready to shelve it and move on to other things, I happened to read a story by Bill Shunn and thought, Gee, I wonder if he might have the key? And so I emailed him.
When Derryl’s email arrived, I was already working on too many projects at once, with too little time for them all – like usual. This was the summer of 2004, and I lived in Queens, New York. I had a novel and a handful of short stories going, not to mention another draft of my seemingly endless memoir project. Derryl is Canadian, but I had become acquainted with him online when he moved to Utah and started hanging out with some of my old writing group friends. I liked him and I admired his work, but jumping into a collaboration with anyone was not high on my list of priorities.
It wasn’t just that I was so busy with my solo projects. I don’t think I trusted the process of collaboration. I had only tried it once before, in the mid ’90s, with a young writer who was on a hot streak and couldn’t seem to not sell every story she wrote. Our collaboration sent her streak careening into a brick wall, and after just two rejections she swallowed some sleeping pills. She was fine – it was only six pills – but my desire ever to collaborate again had suffered a mortal blow.
Or so I thought. Despite myself, something about Derryl’s pitch spoke to me: “It involves photography and spirituality, sorta, which might make for a nice blend between us.” The pitch also involved Luke Bryant, a teenager whose parents were among the many who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, and Annabelle Tupper, a widowed “spirit photographer” who needs an apprentice for the duration of her stay in town.
With no idea what I was really signing up for, I said yes. Soon enough we were brainstorming over email, tossing ideas back and forth until we had a rough plot that we liked. Then Derryl sent me the first chunk of actual text – Luke hiding out in a cemetery where he can feel the statues watching him – and the hard part was underway.
It’s a difficult thing, writing with someone else. Whether it’s more difficult doing so long distance or if you’re in the same room fighting over the keyboard, I don’t know. But while it was a long haul – some four years – it did result in 24,000 words, as opposed to the five or six years it took to write a 5,100-word story with Peter Watts. (Points to the first person who can point out the odd thing Bill and Peter have in common.)
What did that four years get us? Well, I fully believe that Luke Bryant would not be the realized, pained, and desperate young man he became if it wasn’t for Bill. I think working together resulted in a fine line between keeping things real and heavy-duty one-upmanship: we didn’t mess things up for each other, even as we ramped things up more than either of us might have done on our own.
It also got us a damned spooky story. And a damned moving one.
From this remove, it’s hard to remember who was responsible for which elements of Cast a Cold Eye. Certainly Derryl provided all the expertise in early photography, including the eerie detail of Annabelle’s chemically blackened eye. The Nebraska setting was my contribution. Beyond that – the stern uncle and aunt, the gun in the truck, the ghostly buffalo – who can say? One thing I can say for sure, though, is that this slim book would not exist without both of us.
The Big Idea of Cast a Cold Eye, looked at one way, is of a boy plagued by ghosts who learns to see a brighter world – literally – through the lens of a camera. It’s the story of a haunting, yes, but even more so it’s a story about perception.
But looked at another way, it’s a story about two people with their own ways of doing things learning to work together to create something neither one could have created alone. That’s what Luke and Annabelle do in the book. I like to believe that’s what Derryl and I did in learning to tell their story.
We were lucky enough to sell the story, a rejection or two before a fairly quick acceptance from PS Publishing in the UK, which resulted in a gorgeous little hardcover book, in a very limited signed and numbered edition and an only-slightly-less limited unsigned edition. When it was gone, it was gone. An apparition only a few people got to witness.
All these years later, we’re happy we can finally share the story of Luke and Annabelle and the ghosts that haunt them with the wider world.
How scary is too scary? Or not scary enough? And does the calculus change when you’re writing for a younger audience? These are the questions that Christian McKay Heidicker confronted when writing Scary Stories for Young Foxes. Don’t be frightened: His answers await you below.
CHRISTIAN McKAY HEIDICKER:
When I started work on Scary Stories for Young Foxes, a middle-grade novel for ages eight to twelve, I had a tough decision ahead of me.
How scary should I make this thing?
The book is a retelling of classic horror tropes from the perspective of fox kits. Outside of some narratively necessary anthropomorphism (the foxes talk), I tried to make the story as scientifically accurate as possible. So, the zombies are rabies-infected foxes. The ghost is a white-furred predator that’s camouflaged by snow. And the witch is a woman who taxidermies small critters in order to sketch them for her children’s book. (This person was real, by the way. Her name was Beatrix Potter. Apologies if I just ruined your childhood.)
I had a vision and a formula. I just needed to decide how far to push the horror for my tender-aged readers.
Many fox kits don’t survive their first winter. The world is filled with hawks and badgers and tractors and traps that will snuff out their innocent, adorable lives. If I was going to be honest, then young foxes were going to die in this book. This started a tug-of-war in my brain.
Animal deaths in fiction seem to be more difficult for us to cope with than human ones. A good author friend stopped watching Game of Thrones because “They keep killing the direwolves!” Another friend still gets teary-eyed when she talks about Hedwig. Save the Cat, the all-time bestselling book about screenwriting, encourages writers to always, ALWAYS rescue the pet. I was caught between being honest about nature and breaking one of the golden rules of storytelling. So, I started searching for a model for how to be honest about fox experiences without disturbing my young readers beyond reason.
Of course, animal deaths are prevalent in popular children’s fiction: Where the Red Fern Grows, Black Stallion, Old Yeller, The Yearling. But these stories follow a specific formula: the death always comes at the end, and it teaches the reader a Big Lesson, be it about morality, responsibility, or even just introducing kids to the concept of death. But none of these stories qualify as horror. In order to deliver on the promise made by SSFYF’s cover, I’d need to shiver my readers’ whiskers from start to finish. I kept searching.
Fortunately for my book, anthropomorphized deaths seem to be less traumatizing than those of “real” animals, who have little to no agency. Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web was aware of her own mortality, so her death felt more like grandma slipping off to sleep. Aslan from Narnia obviously has his own thing going. And the splatter-horror fest that is Watership Down is mercifully shelved in the adult section.
Disney movies weren’t much help because they tend to exchange Big Lesson deaths for plot device. The Lion King and Bambi kill off parents early in the story so the main character can go on a great adventure. The best example I could find was in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. In the opening scene, the mother fish and ninety-nine percent of her eggs are eaten by a barracuda. It isn’t a lesson or a plot device but a bonding moment between father and son. Even though these are the last characters to die in the movie, the scene infinitely magnifies the threat of the deep, wide ocean our heroes about to get lost in.
Revisiting Finding Nemo emboldened me to make my book slightly scarier and to start poking at the literary norms. Why do we save animals in stories? Are we reasserting the obvious point that innocent creatures don’t deserve to die? Are we trying to convince the audience that we aren’t bad people and would never hurt a cat, not even a pretend one? Or are we just sweeping facts under the rug?
Considering that humans have developed into the type of creature that doesn’t like to know where our food comes from, I’d vote on the latter. We aren’t revolting against animal deaths in media for the animals’ sake—it’s for our own peace of mind. If anything, our ignorance of animal plights puts them in more danger. We only feel guilty drinking from plastic straws after seeing a YouTube video of one being bloodily extracted from a sea turtle. Most people I know tend not to finish these videos. I think this is because we’ve been trained to compartmentalize animal suffering from a young age. But I’m not convinced this does our kids any favors. As Neil Gaiman points out, “. . . if you are keeping people, young people, safe from the darkness . . . you are denying them tools or weapons that they might have needed and could have had.” Scary stories can be healthy for kids. But where was my model for how to tell the scary story I wanted to tell? David Attenborough to the rescue.
Right as I started writing the book, my fiancée introduced the BBC series Planet Earth to her young daughters. Those of you who have seen the show know that it can be harrowing. In one memorable scene, a lone baby iguana scrambles to escape a swelling tide of hungry snakes. My soon-to-be-stepdaughters barely batted an eyelash. In fact, I don’t think they blinked during the entire segment.
Was it scary? Absolutely. Did the girls pinch at their own elbows with worry for the poor baby iguana? You betcha. Did they whimper when some of the iguana’s siblings were caught and devoured? Of course. But did they want to see how it ended? Minecraft itself couldn’t have torn them away.
Most shockingly, the girls didn’t even cry. They’re four and six years old. They cry when I mess up the grilled cheese. But they accepted the iguana’s horrifying reality with quiet stoicism. There seems to be something about nature that kids inherently understand. Prey has to die so the predator can eat. The rain stops, and there isn’t enough water to go around. Humans tear down forests, leaving behind homeless orangutans. And there’s no all-powerful author who read Save the Cat to write them out of it.
Of course, nature documentaries always end on a hopeful note. Life finds a way. There’s no use in telling kids that the Earth is dying if you can’t also tell them there’s something we can do about it. You’ve gotta scrape a little char off that burnt grilled cheese.
After months of tweaking and balancing and adding a lick on the whiskered cheek for every gnash of teeth, I tried to make Scary Stories for Young Foxes land in what I call “Cozy Horror.” So long as there’s balance to the world . . . so long as life continues . . . things can get pretty scary. And instead of disturbing them to sleeplessness, I’m hoping my book will provide readers with tools to face the challenges ahead.
On my walks on my street these days, I pass by a dairy farm. Mostly the cows keep near the barn but yesterday they were down by the road, and they were very very interested in me as I walked by. I kind of wanted to pet them! But I suspect that would have been a bad idea. In any event: Look, cows. Thank you for your attention.
As many of you already know, I will be attending the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, where I will hang out with friends, maybe watch some of them win Hugos, and — oh! By the way! — do a few events as well. Here’s my schedule at the convention.
15 Aug 2019, Thursday 14:00 – 14:50, Level 3 Foyer (KK/LB) (CCD) Kaffeeklatsch: John Scalzi A Kaffeeklatsch is basically when I sit around a table with, like, ten or so fans, and they ask me questions and I answer them. As I understand it, the Kaffeeklatsch sign-ups are first come, first serve, so if this is something you’d like to do, get to the convention early and have your pen ready.
16 Aug 2019, Friday 12:30 – 13:20, Mezzanine – Signing space (Point Square Dublin) Autographs: John Scalzi
I’ll be signing books, and occasionally other things, because sometimes people bring other things.
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 15:00 – 15:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD) GoH talk: a fireside chat with Diane Duane
“John Scalzi sits down to talk with Diane Duane about the ups and downs of a life given over to SFF and genre TV and film. Other topics: crossing the streams of fandom and prodom, the cohabitation of art and married life, the intersection of writing and quirky food habits, and possibly the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, and dogs and cats living together… Actually, maybe the cats more than the dogs. In fact, a whole lot more.”
(Diane is one of the Guests of Honor for the convention, and I’m thrilled that they asked me to talk to her. This conversation will go all over the place, that’s pretty much a guarantee.)
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 22:00 – 01:00, Wicklow Hall 2A (Dances) (CCD) John Scalzi’s ‘Dance Across the Decades’
“Put on your dancing shoes and bring all your friends as award-winning DJ (and occasional author) John Scalzi plays the most danceable tunes from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to today. From the Bee Gees to Bowie to Beyonce and beyond – all the best beats to move your feet. Let’s dance!”
(Yes, I’m DJing another dance. My philosophy for dance parties is basically “all the big hits that everyone knows so the dance floor stays full.” It’ll be fun. Bring yourself! Bring your friends!)
18 Aug 2019, Sunday 12:00 – 12:50, Liffey Room-3 (Readings) (CCD) Reading: John Scalzi
At this reading I’ll be debuting two new things: The prologue chapter of The Last Emperox, and a new, humorous piece from A Very Scalzi Christmas. This will be the first time these things have been read in public anywhere, so you won’t want to miss this. And if there’s time left over, I’ll do a Q&A. Because I know you have questions. Heck, I have questions.
Because I’m thinking about them and might as well get them out now before I focus on nothing else besides novel writing:
* Over at File 770, and on the subject of the Hugo Awards, they’re talking about a proposal that will come up at the WSFS Business Meeting at the Dublin Worldcon, to roll back one of the two measures implemented to blunt slating actions in the wake of the Sad/Rabid Puppies nonsense; namely, to drop the “5/6” change, which allows people to nominate five people/works in any Hugo category, and to have six slots on the final ballot. If passed, the change would have the Hugos go back to a “5/5” setting, i.e., you can nominate five people/things, and there would be five finalists. Note the “5/6” change is scheduled to sunset in 2022 in any event; that was part of the deal when it was passed.
My thought on this matter is that inasmuch as it’s going to sunset in a couple of years anyway, there’s not exactly a pressing need to get rid of it early. The proposal notes that having fewer finalists makes administration of the awards easier, and while I would certainly agree, for example, that having up to 25 (or so) fewer finalists show up at the the pre-awards ceremony would save costs on nibbles, I’m not sure that’s a great argument. Likewise the argument that having six things to read/experience in each category is harder on the voters; I mean, come on, these are Hugo voters we’re talking about here. You don’t really have to force them to read much of anything, especially these days when the Hugo Voters Packet is a thing.
Finally there’s an argument that having six finalists diminishes the cachet of being a Hugo finalist. Well, I’ve been a Hugo finalist under 5/5 and also under 5/6, and I gotta tell you I didn’t really notice a diminishment of cachet. I think I would have noticed. Certainly there’s not been a diminishment in overall quality of the finalist work, as the last couple of years in particular have yielded very strong work across the board.
Looking at who is backing the change, it’s mostly Worldcon/Hugo administrators and other SMOFs saying “we think 5/6 is more work, and we don’t wanna.” Which I entirely sympathize with — I hate extra work myself! — but that extra work was put in to mitigate damage done by slating. I think after the multi-year adventure we had with that silly bullshit, it’s precipitate to roll back changes implemented to stabilize and to restore confidence in the Hugo Awards. Again, 5/6 is going to sunset in 2022 anyway, so the folks proposing this change are going to get their way in a couple of years regardless. In the meantime, it’s fine to let 5/6 continue to do the job it was designed to do, and, as far as I can see, is doing pretty well.
* Speaking of Sad Puppy bullshit, over at Wikipedia, there’s been a push to delete the articles devoted authors Michael Z. Williamson and Sarah Hoyt, on the grounds that neither of them is notable enough to warrant a Wikipedia article. The Puppy Rump (i.e., what’s left of that particular movement, dissolute as it is at the moment) is spinning around in tight, angry circles about this, and Williamson in particular seems to have completely lost his shit about it over on this blog (which I won’t link to because some time ago Mr. Williamson told me he never wanted to have any interaction with me ever again, for reasons, which, you know, fine, I can respect the boundaries he wishes to set, which I take to mean he wouldn’t appreciate a link over to his site from here).
You might think that I, who was the target of much Sad Puppy whining and mewling, would be sitting here happily munching on popcorn while this bit of Wikidrama unfolds. But in fact I think the deletion attempt is a problem. Neither Williamson nor Hoyt are exactly on my Christmas card list at the moment, but you know what? Both of them are solid genre writers who for years have been putting out work through a major genre publisher, and who are both actively publishing today. They are genuinely of note in the field of science fiction and fantasy. One may think their politics, in and out of the genre, are revanchist as all fuck, or that their tenure and association with the Puppy bullshit didn’t do them any favors, or that one just doesn’t care for them on a day-to-day basis for whatever reason. But none of that is here or there regarding whether, on the basis of their genre output, they are notable enough to be the subject of a damn Wikipedia article. They are! Wikipedia notability is kind of a middlin’-height bar, and they get themselves over it pretty well.
Or to flip it around, if neither Williamson nor Hoyt is notable enough for inclusion in Wikipedia, there’s gonna be some bloodletting in the site’s category of science fiction and fantasy writers, because there are a fair number of Wikipedia-article-bearing genre authors who are no more notable than Hoyt or Williamson. If they go, there are legitimately many others on the chopping block as well.
Looking at the disposition of this particular set of nonsense, it does seem like Williamson and Hoyt were targeted for deletion on the basis of their politics and/or association with the Puppy bullshit, and this is, well, silly. Wikipedia isn’t the place to settle this particular set of scores, and honestly, at this point there shouldn’t be any further scores to settle on that incident. The Puppy movement failed badly, exposed most of the people participating in it to shame and ridicule, and it appears to have damaged the careers of several of the participants (note: they will disagree on all these points, but then they would, wouldn’t they). The Puppies have already punched themselves in the face quite enough. Going after them via Wikipedia after all this time, aside from the site being the wrong place for it, just seems like poor form.
So, yeah: Keep Williamson and Hoyt on Wikipedia. They did the work to be there.
Yesterday I flew home from Spain, where I’d spent a week at the Celsius 232 festival in Aviles. It was a lovely time, and the first two legs of the flight — Asturias to Madrid, Madrid to Chicago — went fine. But when I got to Chicago, my flight to Dayton kept getting delayed. After the third delay I should have just tried to rent a car, but I decided to stick it out. For my pains my flight was cancelled at 8:30 and my rescheduled flight wouldn’t be until 10pm the next day, meaning that I wouldn’t get home until after midnight on Tuesday (i.e., today). It’s ridiculous that the leg from Chicago to Dayton would take almost three times longer than the leg from Madrid to Chicago; I decided to rent that car after all.
And found that there was no car rental service in Chicago that would give me a one-way rental to Dayton. That was in itself unusual; I’ve done the one-way rental before when I was stuck in Chicago, and it’s normally not really a problem. But this Sunday it was. I checked the O’Hare car rental services: None. I expanded my search outside O’Hare to other rental locations in Chicago: The locations were either closed or didn’t have one-way rentals.
Finally I went on the American Express site to see if I could rent a car one-way through there. And I could! Literally, there was one car available in all of Chicago, through Hertz. It wouldn’t be available until 7am the next day, but that would still get me home earlier than the flight, and I was going to have to get a hotel room anyway, so fine. I rented it and when I did, I noticed that the pickup was at someplace called Signature Flight Services, not the usual Hertz location. So I called Hertz, gave them my confirmation number, and confirmed with the person on the other end — several times! — that indeed I was meant to go to Signature Flight Services, not the Hertz location at O’Hare. The person on the other end said “yes” each time, so, fine.
The next morning I was at Signature Flight Services bright and early at 7am. At 7:07 I called Hertz and asked where my car was. They said I would have to call the O’Hare Hertz location directly and ask what the deal was, and gave me the number. I called the number, only to discover that if you don’t have the extension number of the specific person you want to reach, you can’t actually call the O’Hare Hertz location directly. So I called the reservation line and pointed out the problem of not having an extension. They said I would have to call the O’Hare Hertz and talk to them about that.
The next bit of dialogue is paraphrased but essentially true to the conversation that followed.
“So, you understand the part where I said that without a specific extension, I can’t actually reach anyone at the O’Hare Hertz, correct?” I asked.
“We don’t have any extensions to give you,” the Hertz person said. “You’ll have to call the local number.”
“So your solution to me not being able to reach anyone at the O’Hare Hertz because I don’t have a specific extension is to give me the number that if I call I can’t use to reach anyone, because I don’t have an extension to call.”
“It’s the only number we have in our system,” the Hertz representative said, sensing my irritation.
“Look, I’m not angry with you,” I said. “But I want you to acknowledge that the way you’re telling me to deal with the problem of a number I can’t use is just to give me that number again.”
At which point I hung up and the very nice people at Signature Flight Services let me take their shuttle over to the actual O’Hare car rental building, where I could to talk to the real live local Hertz people about my rental, and why it wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and if, since I was now there, in front of them, they would give it to me so I could be on my way.
Turns out, they wouldn’t give it to me.
And here is why: Apparently, Signature Flight Services is part of the area where charter flights go through O’Hare. If I had flown in through the graces of a charter flight, then Hertz would have happily given me the one-way car rental. But since I flew into O’Hare on a commercial flight, like a common schmuck, Hertz wouldn’t give me the car, even though they clearly had it to give. Basically, I wasn’t rich enough to rent the car Hertz had allowed me to reserve, so they weren’t going to let me have it. Which, I don’t know. Seems like a real dick move on Hertz’s part, and doesn’t incline me to use them ever again for anything. The dude at the reservation counter seemed to think so too — he checked to see if anything else was available, but otherwise there was nothing he could do. I was out of a car.
And once again, no one else in Chicago — the entire city, as far as I could tell — had a one way rental available. Which seemed ridiculous. It’s the third largest city in the United States. You would think it would be possible. But clearly not.
At this point, because I was frustrated and mostly to grimly amuse myself, I clicked on the Lyft app on my phone and entered my home address to see how much it would cost to take one to from O’Hare to my doorstep, a journey with a grand total of 301 miles.
Turns out it would cost about $330. Which, as it happens, was only a little bit more than what it would have cost for that one-way rental that Hertz wasn’t going to give me even though they had the car.
I considered about it for a minute, and then thought, why the hell not, and scheduled the ride. The worst case scenario in this situation is that no one would take the fare, and I would be no worse off than I already was. After a few seconds, I was matched with a car, and I went out to meet the driver.
I had a suspicion that the app might not tell the driver exactly where I was going, so when the driver — Victor — pulled up, I double-checked with him.
“I want to be absolutely clear what you’re getting into,” I told him. “I’m asking you to drive me to Ohio.”
“The state?” he asked.
He thought about it for a second, consulted his own Lyft app (which hadn’t, in fact, told him the destination, just that it was more than 30 minutes away), and then looked back to me, and sort of shrugged. “I like long trips. This could be fun.” Then he popped the trunk for my luggage.
And you know what? It was fun. Victor, in addition to being a Lyft driver, had been a news editor back in his native country, so he and I talked about writing and history and travel and other subjects, listened to music and otherwise had a pretty enjoyable time over the roughly five hours it took to get me home. When I got home I tipped him hugely, gave him one of my books (The Collapsing Empire) and signed it for him, and otherwise thanked him for getting me home, and doing it in such a pleasant fashion.
Update: Made it home! Meet Victor, the @lyft driver who agreed to take me across three states and 200+ miles. Along the way we talked about European history, rocked out to hair bands, and otherwise had a delightful time. Best carshare ever. pic.twitter.com/3soFdfGlSB
And then I collapsed, because fuck, it had been a long couple of days trying to get home. It’s ridiculous that the longest and most exhausting part of a transatlantic journey was the last three hundred miles, on US soil, but of course it was, why wouldn’t it be. This all confirms my opinion that O’Hare is possibly the worst of all major US airports, and it’s certainly given me the opinion that Hertz should be my last possible option when getting anywhere. On the flip side, I feel more positively about Lyft. I generally use standard cabs when I can, but Lyft is my backup when it’s not feasible. They and Victor came through for me yesterday, and with flying colors. I appreciate it immensely.
In the post-trip Twitter discussion, there was some observation that my decision to take a Lyft all the way home was something not everyone could do, or would feel safe doing. And I can’t argue that. Being able to spend a few hundred dollars to get home via a Lyft simply because one doesn’t want to wait for a rescheduled flight is not something that everyone gets to do. Neither is being able to do it without having to consider whether it’s safe to be in some stranger’s car for five hours, and who will travel three hundred miles with you to drop you off at your house. It’s all true. Welcome to my privilege! I acknowledge it. And also, my privilege in this case would have meant nothing if I hadn’t been fortuitously paired with a driver who thought something like this would be an adventure, rather than just a pain in his ass. I am lucky all the way around this time.
But inasmuch as I am lucky in these respects, I now have a pretty great story of how I took a three-hundred-mile, five-hour Lyft ride because the thought of being stranded at O’Hare one more minute than I really had to be was too much to bear. And since it was part of a business trip (I was at a book festival in Spain, after all!), it’s even tax-deductible. As far as ridiculous travel stories go, this ended up as a best case scenario.
And, of course, best of all: I got to go home. I missed it and everyone there. It was good to be back, however I got there.
For his Big Idea for The Reefs of Time, the first of his Out of Time series, Jeffrey A. Carver talks about structure — of his story, the universe, and other important things.
JEFFREY A. CARVER:
Big ideas are the meat and potatoes of classical science fiction, but sometimes they collide with one another like bowling balls on a pool table. In The Chaos Chronicles, I have played with some pretty cool cosmic ideas: sentient suns and sentient singularities, supernovas and hypernovas started (or stopped) by the likes of humans and their alien friends, the starstream (a cosmic superhighway for star travel), an enormous Shipworld at the edge of the galaxy serving as refuge for species who have lost their home planets… and in my new book, time travel a billion years into the past, via quantum entanglement. I love this sort of thing! They are part of the driving energy of these books.
But long before I rolled any of that into this story, I had a big idea of a very different sort—a grand scheme for how I was going to structure the books. It was very new for me: I was going to make the books small. Short. Quick. Snappy. Entangled with each other, though not necessarily in a quantum sense.
I tend to create long stories—my mind just works that way—maybe not Game of Thrones long, but long enough that I’d completed a number of my books with enormous exhaustion, as well as satisfaction. Unfortunately, I’m also a slow writer. I had to rethink my approach.
Thus was born my crucial idea: Write that long story that’s percolating in your head—you’re going to, anyway—but do it in a string of short, connected-but-self-contained novels. That way you can keep the books coming, but still write long. (I can just hear you muttering, “Say, isn’t that what most people call writing a series?” Well, yes, that’s obvious now. But then, to me, it was a revelation.)
At first, I stuck to the plan. Neptune Crossing was suitably short, and pretty snappy. The books that followed were… not exactly short, but not long, really. And then I took a break to write in a different universe, and Eternity’s End was… the longest book I’d ever written. Uh-oh. By the time I came back to The Chaos Chronicles, my “big idea”—short, quick, snappy—lay in little bitty pieces. Smashed by the bowling balls of my other ideas. Sunborn took seven years. The Reefs of Time took eleven. A lot of people thought I’d quit writing, or died! When it was finished, it was so complex I had to break it into two volumes, though it was still one novel.
So much for my structural “big idea.” But I still had the cosmic gems I mentioned earlier. And they were a big part of why it took so long to write the blasted books.
When you set a story around sentient stars and supernovas and time-entanglement, there’s a central challenge: How do you wrap your people around such things? Part of it is a plotting problem. How do you make the ephemerals and the near-eternals intersect? But more than that, how do you create relationships? The stories I like to read are all about relationships. The cold universe might not care about us, but good stories aren’t just about cold, unfeeling things (or even “cold equations”). Stories are about people clashing and loving and hating and killing and rescuing and winning and losing and finding redemption. And by people, I mean everyone sentient, regardless of species, planet, number of dimensions occupied, or organic status.
I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’m a pretty intuitive writer, meaning I often don’t know what I’m writing until I’ve written it. Oh, I try to plan, but my way forward can be (with a nod to E.L. Doctorow) like driving in the fog at night with one headlight out. There’s a lot of faith involved. Faith that I’ll find the way. Fear that I won’t. Wrong turns. Bridges out. Lucky breaks. That’s how I felt as I threw my people together with cosmic entities.
So you want a character to somehow have a relationship with, maybe even a friendship with, say, a sentient star who lives on a scale so unthinkably different that the human is a mayfly by comparison? In this case (I eventually realized), it is helpful to have a third party who has a special facility for manipulating time. Time fusion. You can’t maintain it for long, but maybe for a brief interaction, the human and the star can connect. Share thoughts. Share feelings. Share joys and pain.
Or, as in Reefs, where the mental and emotional journey backward in time (through something called a ghoststream) is just as important as what you find when you arrive in deep time. I wanted to warn the characters: It’s crucial to notice little things you feel along the way. There might be something alive there, something that matters to you, even if you don’t know it yet. Also, that quantum thread of space-time you’re moving along is fuzzy, as quantum things tend to be. Think of it as yarn, not thread. The edges are uncertain. You might need to make use of that uncertainty to find your way home. You might need the help of unexpected others to find your way home. (I, the author, certainly needed the help of others—for example, my initial readers—to find my way home.)
But for all this, I think the biggest challenge remains the question (or questions) wordlessly posed: Who am I? What am I doing here? What will I do when confronted by, not just the problems I was expecting, but the hard edge of the infinite?
These are questions John Bandicut confronts—again and again, as his story unfolds and one crisis after another looms in his path. Will there be any rest for this man? Any salvation or redemption?
It’s not just John. Everyone who comes into his life, from the noncorporeal alien Charli, to the inscrutable Ik (whose homeworld was destroyed), to the two women he loves (Julie, a human; and Antares, an alien)—each one ends up facing similar questions. Why me? Can’t someone else save the world this time? Can I please rest?
Because you’re here, no, and not yet. And don’t expect to be thanked.
Battered by the winds of destiny, by the forces of chaos, by malice, or even just by ignorance, they have to find a way. It all seems terribly unfair. Who could be expected to rise to the job of (take your pick): preventing a comet from devastating the Earth, stopping a deadly AI from destroying a “Shipworld” vaster than the Earth, redirecting a rogue intelligent stardrive, or stopping a hypernova being engineered by a malicious intelligence? And yet, somehow, they find a way. Because they must.
If the lives of others depend on you, you must change, grow, adapt. Find a way. Because if there’s redemption to be found in this world, maybe that need is the first place to look.
Whenever I take pictures of the moon, I get asked how I did it and what equipment I use. So I wrote a piece about that in the current issue of the fanzine Journey Planet, which is focused on the moon and (also) the moon landing of Apollo XI, which took place 50 years ago today. Yes, I was alive for it, although just barely. The article I wrote also contains several photos of the moon I took, so there are pictures to go with the lecture.
As a well-known pie enthusiast, I believe pretty much all pie is magic. But in Midnight at the Blackbird Café, author Heather Webber takes the “pie is magic” concept even further than that — and in the process opens doors to questions far beyond what might be in the pie filling.
Have you ever mourned someone you loved deeply?
After that person passed away, did you ever dream of them? A dream so real it was like they were still alive?
I have. And it’s those dreams that are driving force behind my new novel, Midnight at the Blackbird Café, where a magical piece of pie can bring a visit from a dearly departed loved one through a dream. Yes, pie. Blackbird* pie, specifically.
You see, this book was inspired by the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” After hearing the song for the first time, I was captivated with the concept of broken wings and how emotional wounds can keep many from being able to metaphorically fly. And if blackbirds could, what would they sing to us in the dead of the night? What do we most want to hear? Blackbird research led me quickly to the Song of Sixpence with its “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” and then a tidbit in Celtic folklore revealed that blackbirds were considered guardians and messengers of the “Other world.” With that, the heart of this book took form. What if blackbirds with their songs could pass messages from dearly departed loved ones through, of all things, pie, to bring comfort and love to those left behind?
Yet, writing about death and its aftermath can be challenging, because everyone has different ways of grieving…and healing. As I wrote, it was a struggle at first to see past my desire have these special dreams heal every broken heart right from the outset. (It is a heartwarming, feel-good book, after all…and I’m a sap.) But I knew it was just as important to explore grief, and its various stages, through my characters’ eyes. A piece of pie wasn’t going to fix everybody, and the downside to these dreams had to be shown as well.
One of my main characters is a young widow searching for answers to the mysterious circumstances surrounding her husband’s death. She believes a visit from him in a dream will bring the closure she needs to move on. But will it? What is closure, exactly?
Another character eats a piece of pie to keep a connection to his wife, who passed on nearly ten years before. Yet is keeping that connection holding him back from living? Doesn’t learning to fly mean letting go?
Believing that loved ones who have passed on are still around in some way is not a new concept. Cardinals, butterflies, pennies, rainbows, feathers—and dreams—are often thought to be signs that heavenly loved ones are near. Are these signs wishful thinking? A coping mechanism? Maybe. Maybe not. If the sign brings a measure of peace and comfort…does it truly matter?
Like the characters in Midnight I want to believe that there might be more to life—and death—than anyone dreams possible. I’d eat a piece of that blackbird pie every chance I could get. Would you?
*Disclaimer: no birds were harmed in the creation of this book—the pies are made with fruit.
I write to you from the past—knowing you’re presently asleep while I’m awake, three hours’ worth of time zone between us—to talk about ideas. It’s tricky to know where to begin; when the most succinct description we can manage of our book clocks in at “epistolary spy vs. spy novella across time and space,” the ideas crowd and clutter.
But I think it all ultimately begins and ends with us. The two of us, becoming friends, and writing each other letters.
Do you remember when we first decided to write something together? I know the fact of it, but I don’t remember the hour, the words—only that we loved each other’s work, wanted to work together, wanted to set a sensible boundary of how and when and for how long to work together. A novella, not a novel or short story; something epistolary, to give our voices space to harmonize in their difference. I remember the plan, scribbled on a paper on the coffee table in my parents’ house, and the season, a cold snowy spring—but I wish I could remember, rather than invent, the moment in which one of us suggested it.
But I do remember the refrain we developed once we’d secured the time and space for a writing retreat at which to work. We spoke of
that we will write
in [mysterious benefactor]’s house.”
We used it as punctuation, as shorthand, and we made jokes of it. Dolphins will speak! The stars will throw down their spears and water heaven with their tears! Because of
that we will write
in [mysterious benefactor]’s house.
We always structured it as hyperbole and line breaks. Ludicrously grand and specific claims capped with a bob and wheel, a promise, a spell. And look, look at this magic we made between us—our book is real, is soaring on red and blue wings, and my heart is a bird on a spit in my chest, as the prophets say.
So that’s how I see it, anyway—our Big Idea was that we wanted to write together. We wanted to find a methodology for blending our styles, for working together
on a novella
that we would write
in [Mysterious Benefactor]’s house
but that’s only the half of it, I think. I’m holding my memory up to the light, but I so badly want to see yours, what colours your own memory will cast against this page. What do you remember, Max? What’s the core of this, for you?
It’s your future as I’m writing this—you still have a few hours of morning left. Enjoy them! Learn from my mistakes! Unfortunately the only mistakes I’m aware of so far today are, as follows: 1. didn’t have protein with breakfast, so I’m peckish now that it’s lunchtime, and 2. spent time on Twitter chatting about queer subtext (not to mention text) in the Great Gatsby. AND I ALONE AM ESCAPED TO TELL THEE!
So, in sum, it’s been okay over here, at least insofar as things-I-can-control are concerned. Wish I had more Future Wisdom to impart! Most of the things I’m discovering right now on a day to day basis have to do with child care, and most of them boil down to the fact that hardly anyone knows hardly anything, and that it’s a wonder and a miracle any of us is alive at all.
But to your question, about memories: I actually remember the initial conversation! I could find the date without much trouble, but since we intend this particular correspondence for outside observers I’m chary of letting others that close to the marrow of the thing. Suffice to say I was on my way home from a long, long tour, a bunch of authors in a single car, and I’d hit New York City dog tired and careworn.
New York is a great city to wash up in. You vanish like a grain of salt into a water glass. I was feeling that weird dry kind of lonesome you get when you’ve been around people too long and all of a sudden they’re gone—you’re worn out and hungry to be alone, but when you are, you feel like you’ve done something wrong. That one day, everyone I knew in the city was busy, or so far away it didn’t make sense for them to come. So I found an Italian restaurant near the Flatiron that had a restaurant week special, sat by myself at the bar, and opened up a folder of your stories to read.
We’d been corresponding for a while by this point, longhand, extremely low-tech. (It still feels weird to write you email! Or to text, even, after such a long entirely paper-based correspondence.) Naturally I’d read your criticism and I’d read The Green Book, but I hadn’t read your other stories; I’m honestly not sure why. I’d been writing you from the tour, but, of course, travel being what it is, I couldn’t get any letters back. I remember struggling to post them, hoping the counter attendants at the tiny B&Bs with their breakfast room TVs showing bad politics would remember to drop them in the mailbox. Anyway—I was starved for replies by this point, and I had a folder of your stories—so there at the bar, I read them all, one after another. Your friend’s story is not entirely your friend—but you can feel them in it, and also there’s a pure self betrayed in the telling of a good story. You learn what someone cares about by learning what they love, or hate, enough to write down.
By the end of the night I was drunk on those stories. They were different from my work—but they were so full, and so finished. I could also see how they meshed, sort of sideways, with my own concerns & projects. Basically I was overcome with a desire to just get out the instruments and jam, high school garage band style. Surely, if we could do something together, the spheres would revolve into harmony, dolphins would speak, all that’s mean and evil in the world would suffer revelation and weep for the harm it caused, and all forms of life would enter into a great colloquy.
I guess there’s a lot of Bill and Ted in that vision, which is appropriate, given what came later.
So, basically: that one night on the walk back to the hotel I grabbed my phone and texted you how we had to write something together. And you said yes! And that’s where it started.
But of course it started further back, didn’t it? With letters. Do you want to talk about the letters?
I’m so grateful for your memory. It’s aligned the tumblers in my own mind’s lock, and the hour and my surroundings spilled out: I remember that conversation, when you read my stories, so clearly! I was standing in my sister’s kitchen, probably staying over—I was especially nomadic that year—when you texted, and I remember glowing more and more brightly, feeling unspeakably happy to be seen.
Which is also my memory of writing letters.
There is, in letter-writing, a tender and terrible vulnerability. To write a letter is to commit one’s naked self to the page, to send it into the future with no more protection than paper and wax, and to place that self in the hands of a person you’re inventing, a person who may or may not actually exist. One can, of course, write at several layers of remove—party invitations, thank you notes, the equivalent of a friendly nod in letter and ink—but cards are not correspondence; that friendly nod is not a tête-à-tête. To write a letter, longhand over pages, is to delve inevitably into one’s own thoughts, to reach for things we don’t know we feel until we’ve dredged up the words for them, and in so doing make a single person’s future self privy to the unbearable intimacy of our present.
“How I love to have no armor here,” writes Red to Blue, as their own correspondence deepens.
I remember that when we started writing to each other, I used whatever I had to hand—sheets of harsh white paper stolen from the printer, jammed into white #10 envelopes, scribbled on with whatever pen was nearest me. The content, I figured, was what was important—but then you started writing back on gorgeous creamy G. Lalo paper, so I got the same brand to match, and I introduced you to sealing wax, and suddenly it felt like our correspondence was robed in sensory magic, easily distinguished at a glance from the press of bank statements and circulars. We’d committed to physicality, to slowness, to something that couldn’t be approximated in email, no matter how swift and effusive the clack of keys beneath our fingers. We’d committed to time travel—and didn’t those letters have a knack of arriving just when we needed them? When the weight of the world pressed against our lungs, and those golden envelopes stamped in colour arrived bearing a space in which to breathe?
Your letter, this one, found me at my gate in the San Francisco airport, minutes before boarding a flight to Seattle, and closed a circle years in the making. Because all this began with you on tour writing to me—and here I am, on a tour launched by the book we wrote together, a book we wrote because we’d written letters to each other, writing you a letter about our book.
It feels fully as magical, to me, as finding words in the rings of a thousand year old tree, or the swirl of tea leaves in a porcelain cup.
Tea leaves, tree rings, and wax seals—when we started writing letters I was surprised by how dangerous the whole project felt.
Even to me that sounds a little weird. After all, what could be more normal than dropping a letter in the mail?
Maybe it was the fact that we both spent a lot of time on the internet and at conventions, participating in Public Discourse in front of the whole world. There’s so much thought in public these days—and so much of that public thought is tactical, designed to accomplish a specific effect, whether that’s gathering a following or even wasting someone else’s time. Lots of good comes from that public conversation, but it’s all so omnivoracious. Twitter wants your every idle thought.
By contrast, writing letters felt like staking out our own territory—a small paper space between the two of us, unscanned, unhindered. The letters were so fragile! Walking to the mailbox in a blizzard I’d find myself thinking how easy they would be to destroy. Dropping one in a puddle would do it. And yet—how many thoughts have I dashed off in seconds and sent whirling off into the void, barely remarked upon except, of course, by a vast silent intelligence that records all I say and do, and uses it to build shareholder value? In a sense those words will last forever—they’ll last as long as capital sees value in unstructured human generated text, anyway—but in a more real sense they’ve been ripped from me altogether. While letters only last as long as paper.
Then again, some paper has lasted longer than capitalism. And, as the man says: manuscripts don’t burn.
The phrase hadn’t yet entered the public consciousness back then, but in a real sense writing letters felt like we were both fighting to reclaim our time. We were carving a few hours a week out to impose some order on our own lives, and offer that to a friend. And I think there’s a bit of that rebellion come through in the book, too—a quest for silence and slow time in a world where all that’s solid melts into air.
And now we’ve made a book. We’ve written the novella we would write at [the mysterious benefactor]’s house. Sending it off to readers feels a bit scary—part of the reason this was such a hard project to title was that for most of its life we referred to it either by the file name, or simply as
we would write
In [the mysterious benefactor]’s house.
It’s scary to think of those words out there as a product! But if a book is a commodity of a sort it’s a kind of letter, too, sent out in a bottle on the waves in search of a reader. Fragile ink on fragile paper, or ephemeral strings of ones and zeroes, here one minute and gone the next, leaving marks in dreams. Now it’s out there in the world. And we’ll have to see what it does there—what further moves it inspires in this great weird Time War we’re all, always, fighting to win. Or to lose.
Where I am a guest of the Celsius 232 Festival. I expect to be mostly busy with that for the next week, but may post a few pictures here and there (and there are a couple Big Idea pieces for you to look forward to this week as well). You kids have fun while I’m away. Don’t wreck the place, I’ll find out.
The New York Times last week ran a piece called What Middle-Class Families Want Politicians to Know, which featured interviews from a number of Americans, discussing their economic concerns and fears. The thing is, the large majority of the households represented in the piece have a six-figure income; while there is one fellow whose reported household income is $75k – $100k annually, the rest have incomes between $120k and $400k.
And, well. In terms of income, “middle class” has a specific meaning (at least, it does to Pew Research, whose definition I’m using here): It means you earn between 67% and 200% of median household income. In the US nationally, that’s between about $40k and $120k a year — which means that nationally speaking, all but one of the “middle class” households in this piece aren’t middle class at all, they’re above that. In specific cities and areas, that “middle class” range moves, sometimes considerably — for example, in super-expensive San Francisco, “middle class household income” is $67k to $200k, whereas in rural Darke County, Ohio, where I live, that range would be between $33.5K and $100k.
When you put that local filter on these reported incomes, what you get is that some of these folks actually are middle class — but most them are in the upper half of that category, and the rest are above the category entirely. The family in Cupertino, CA with a $150k income is indeed middle class, because the median household income in the Land of Apple is $135k. Likewise the family from Stow, MA, who reports an upper range of $200k, because the median income is even higher at $137k. Ironically the fellow in Auburn, GA who reports the high end of his income as $100k is only barely within the upper bound of the “middle class” for his area, because Auburn’s median income is $54k. But the person from Wyomissing, PA reporting a $200k – $400k range is well-off no matter how you slice it: The median income there is $78k. Likewise the one from Austin, MN, who reports the same high range of income where the median income is $48k, and the ones in Kansas City, reporting a low end of $120k where the median household income is $45k.
So, yeah. The New York Times is putting its finger on the scale, here, in terms of reporting what the “middle class” is thinking. The paper interestingly printed a justifying followup on the people and families they included in the piece, which amounts to “we needed to find diverse people in different geographical areas who also had quotable things to say,” which adds context but doesn’t really change the math. Ultimately the NYT is appears to be defaulting back to “if you feel middle-class, you are,” no matter what the numbers actually say about it.
What I think is more interesting, and telling, and concerning, and what the NYT is eliding by insisting these folks represent the “middle class,” is that these are folks who are either in the upper tranches of the middle class or the lower-to-middle tranches of “upper income” — the reported income of the family in Pennsylvania might gain it entry to the 1% for that state — and they are still feeling incredibly economically vulnerable. Back in my day, harumph harumph, being upper middle class or above meant you that while you were not immune to the vicissitudes of the American economy, you had some underlying stability to your situation — you still had to pay your bills and mortgage but you didn’t worry about if you could pay your bills or mortgage. The folks the NYT is visiting are all nervous; they’re waiting for their necks to be on the chopping block. And while we must acknowledge that it’s the choice of the NYT to highlight these particular stories, I don’t think the NYT’s choice of these stories is unrepresentative of folks in these income levels today.
What changed? Well, lots of things, but I think we know some real big ones: Health care, housing and education costs, particularly in urban areas, are all manifestly more expensive today than they were 30 or 40 years ago, and the average American household carries more debt than it did even a couple of decades back (all adjusting for inflation). So even when people are making better than average incomes, their outgoes — in terms of mortgage payments, college loans, medical and other debt — are taking a bigger share of that money.
The security that higher-than-average incomes used to bring is now diminished by how we as a nation have chosen to build our current economy. And while it’s easy for the intentionally obtuse to tut-tut and suggest people just need to stop drinking Starbucks or eating avocado toast or whatever, a coffee and guacamole-free life will not change the fact that we have built the economy for the rich, not the middle — more to the point, we’ve created an economy for people who can carry debt with minimal impact on their day to day lives, or can afford not to take on debt at all. As a result of that, the income level at which economic insecurity becomes a real and daily issue looks to be getting higher as we go along. This is fixable, mind you. But weirdly there’s not a lot of will at the moment to fix it.
And so we have the spectacle of ostensibly well-off people waiting for the other shoe to drop. They’re not wrong to worry. And that is what should be worrying the New York Times, and everyone else.
Author Sean Grigsby has a theory about people. It’s… not terribly optimistic. But it does have relevance for his latest novel, Ash Kickers, which features firefighters in a slightly alternate version of the world. One with dragons!
Whatever catastrophe nature throws at us, people always seem to make it worse.
Not all of us. Some seek to help and not to hurt, to heal instead of destroy. Firefighters are just one example of a few good people trying to make a difference. I’m proud to call myself one. But, like I said, sometimes there are a few hateful assholes standing in our way.
The Smoke Eaters series is about firefighters versus newly-returned dragons, sure, but there are other big ideas at play. In the first book I talk about corrupt government using disasters for their own gain, and replacing first responders with robots. In Ash Kickers, it’s something much worse.
So, the year is 2123. Parthenon City, Ohio is doing great because they’ve discovered that dragon blood can save lives and heal all wounds. The smoke eaters are no longer slaying the scalies, but tranquilizing them and placing them in specialized enclosures to live out their happy, fire-breathing lives.
The miracle of dragon blood has attracted people from all over an ash-covered United States to flock to Ohio, desperately seeking cures for their loved ones and to benefit from the safety of a dragon-free city.
But some people don’t like that. A group forms, calling themselves PC First, led by a man named Duncan Sharp (it was the sleaziest alt-right name I could think of). They consider these immigrants to be “rats” who are going to use up all of the medicine and resources. I think it’s pretty obvious by now on whom I based these fictional jerks.
However, just like in our reality, Parthenon City has actual problems to worry about. A phoenix has emerged and it’s causing the dragons to go bonkers. A string of suicide arsons is also plaguing the city, leaving police and fire marshals baffled as to who is behind it.
PC First, though, is more concerned about hoarding all the things! Just like a dragon. This lack of compassion for fellow humans, this cruel self-importance… well, it just makes things worse. Not only for decent people trying to make their burning world a better place, but also for the schmucks who try to get ahead by shoving others down.
When I’m called to fight a blaze, I rely on my fellow firefighters. No one fights over the attack line. No one complains that they weren’t the one to carry grandma out of the window. Every single person on the fireground is important and works as a team. We have to. If we don’t, someone could die.
I hate to break it to you, but the world out there is on fire right now, and we can either get busy helping or get busy hurting. I’m strapping on my helmet and charging in to quell the flames. I hope you’ll come with, because I can use all the help I can get.