Smudge Watching Spice, Spice Watching Birds
Posted on March 23, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 1 Comment
You know Spring has sprung when the cats station themselves by the windows and chitter, apparently trying to convince the newly-active birds to come closer, for reasons. The birds, it must be said, are generally not convinced, and even if they were the cats still have a pane of glass between them and their feathered would-be friends. That’s best for everyone involved, I suspect.
The Big Idea: Leopoldo Gout
Posted on March 23, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
A beloved part of childhood celebrations has a darker past than most people realize — and for author Leopoldo Gout, this is only one secret that the past holds, which came to be part and parcel of how his novel Piñata came to be.
Piñatas can be seen as a symbol of hiding joy in plain sight. As kids we sang the piñata song and banged those colorful objects in anger and violence to access that joy. To have that rush of joy in that moment that the candy cascades and everyone jumps to grab it like a bizarre wrestling match. How can this object of pure adrenaline and joy have such a dark history?
That is the origin for the big idea behind Piñata. I literally peeled things about its history of where the piñata tradition comes from and how the rituals became what they are today. In this research the truth came far more horrifying than I could ever imagine…
Let me first frame a little about my personal journey. Years ago, I was around ten years old on a trip to Chiapas in the south of Mexico, to visit a banged up old hacienda where my father had been born. This broken-down old property in the mountains of Chiapas was being swallowed by the surrounding tropical forests of the area. They crept in from the property lines, inching forward to retake the land. But even on the crumbling walls there were the memories of rage left by the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Bullets peppered the walls from the battles which tore Chiapas apart. This abandoned hacienda was near to some of the most ancient pyramids in Mexico. All these abandoned buildings dancing through a give and take with nature. Again, echoing this rage and love. When I started Piñata I went to these memories of Chiapas and where I grew up: Mexico City.
I was always aware of the history under the city built on top of the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan. As a kid I often went on visits to ancient ruins under the main square. I thought of the Aztec sculptures trying to break through the pavement of Mexico City to escape their tombs. The city of the underground crying to swallow that above, to free itself from a tortured history. Some of the buildings of modern-day Mexico City are now quite literally sinking back into the earth as the massive metropolis reacts to an ancient forgotten lake where it was built.
But that Chiapas trip was a truly stunning moment because who we had really gone to see in Tuxtla Gutierrez was my great-aunt, Hellen Gout. As a kid I thought she must be 115 years old. In her house, smelling like leather tacky with old honey and dusty bottles of rum, old Hellen showed us a document which changed my perception of myself and my family.
All my life, my father’s family talked about their “French ancestry,” but what great-aunt Hellen showed us was an illustrated genealogical history, our whole family tree with every ancestor drawn and painted. Following the line up from my father with his French ancestry, straight up from his place on the tree, we saw her: an indigenous Zapotec woman. It was incredible. To this day I refuse to take any of those DNA tests because I don’t want to have any chance that its wrong.
According to that document, I have Zapotec blood, the blood of one of the great architect and sculptor indigenous nations. There is a line between myself and all of those ruins and art I adored.
I was struck. My curiosity for pre-invasion Mexico grew as I visited every temple and museum I could and never stopped. The indigenous art of Mexico has always had a deep impact on my work in all mediums. My first novel, Ghost Radio, was directly inspired by that connection as my first attempt to call on those memories to tell a story. Those stories and ideas have matured and evolved through my other projects and into Piñata. I have countless more stories about my lifelong search for further connection with the original ways of Mexico.
I was lucky enough that my late mother, Andrea Valeria, was an avid supporter and great friend to many indigenous artists and families. Every year they would come to our house, bringing with them intricate and beautiful masks they had carved. One of the greatest and most fascinating differences between our cultures that I gleaned from those days was the attribution of value. We might appraise the value of a mask by the intricacy of its design, how much labor it would have taken, the vibrance and skillful application of paint, or the simple beauty of them. They, however attributed value to each mask only by how “danced” they were, quite literally how much one had been worn during the act of dancing determined its value. It was a value determined by the amount of energy which had been poured into an object after its creation, how much life the empty eyes of the mask had seen.
These are just some glimpses into my upbringing which fostered a deep connection with and curiosity for ancient Mexico. These were some of the memories and feelings which drive the pistons in Piñata’s engine. The real crystalized big idea for which came when, during my research, I found that Catholic friars introduced piñatas to Mexico. The Aztecs had something mildly similar, but they had different purposes which is explained in the book. But, what these Spanish friars would do is paint them with images of indigenous gods, what they deemed idolatry, and fill them with food. Then the children, taken from their culture and hungry, would be forced to destroy the image of their gods if they were to get the food within. The image and idea were so extraordinarily horrific I didn’t sleep for days thinking about it. I wrote the beginning story right away and felt transported, like I had been a witness to such horror.
I use all my senses in my work, both as visual artist and writer, and my scent and sensory memory really drive the cathartic horror in Piñata as it focuses so heavily on the memory of the indigenous people of Mexico both past and present. I sought to express the rage inherent in that tortured history, to explore it like the ruins of that old Chiapas hacienda. At the same time though, while trying to dive into that historical anger, I had a young talented daughter growing before my eyes. I ended up in my daily life balancing that immense love and promise of the future with a rage I conjured from the past.
That clash led to the story that is Piñata. It focuses on a family but takes place in a country inextricably linked to a violent past and facing a violent present. It is personal and political, external and internal. It was my attempt to pull these binary oppositions into something cathartic for myself and hopefully for everyone who reads it. So my big idea that catapulted me into Piñata is inside that space between rage and love.
Piñata: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells
Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Trying Out A New Recipe: Iced Lemon Loaf
Posted on March 22, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 22 Comments
I haven’t baked anything in a while, and it was starting to make me sad, so I said to myself, well why don’t I just bake something? So I did! I chose this lemon loaf for a couple different reasons, the first being that I scrolled past it on Instagram and thought it looked good in the moment. The second reason is that it’s from my favorite food blogger! And thirdly, I had all the ingredients.
So, here is Half Baked Harvest’s Iced Lemon Loaf.
Like I said, I happened to have all the ingredients already, which is kind of surprising because there’s one or two things on the list that I normally have to go specifically buy from the store.
It’s a fifty-fifty shot whether I have sour cream or not, the cream cheese is definitely a bit of a rarer ingredient for me to immediately have on hand. The lemons are the only other thing that are what I consider a specialty item for this recipe, but last week I bought a two pound bag for like four bucks so I had that covered. Actually, the recipe calls for Greek yogurt or sour cream, but I only had the latter so that’s what I ended up using. If you make this recipe with the yogurt, I’d be curious to see if it turns out differently.
The first step of the recipe was easy enough, just beat together the butter, honey, and some lemon zest. I was surprised by how much honey was needed for this recipe until I realized there was no granulated sugar in this recipe at all. The honey is the only sweetener for the batter, so it makes sense you’d need a lot.
For the next step, the recipe warned that the mixture would look curdled, but I only expected it to look that way after adding the sour cream. It ended up looking funky after adding just the eggs, though.
Didn’t love the look of that, but the recipe said it was okay so I kept going, and after the sour cream it definitely looked nasty.
After that, all that was left was the dry ingredients, which went right into the same bowl (hooray for fewer dishes!). Once combined, the batter ended up being a weirdly light consistency. It was more like a dough and less like a batter, which is a distinction I don’t think I’d have been able to make until recently. The more you bake, the more you learn about baking! Who would’ve guessed.
Now that the loaf mixture was made, it was time to make the cream cheese mixture that goes into the loaf. It was literally only cream cheese and lemon zest, so I thought it’d be easy, but the cream cheese was evidently not soft enough and immediately all went inside my whisk.
This shit is mad annoying. I got a rubber spatula and got the cream cheese out of the inside and knew what I had to do. I had to go ham on this cream cheese to get it softer, so I hulked out and tried beating the hell out of it. Alas, it was too strong for me, and just kept being a pain in the ass to handle. So I microwaved it for ten seconds. That made it change its tune, and finally it was spreadable.
The recipe says to layer the loaf mixture and cream cheese, starting by putting a third of the loaf mixture into the loaf pan. How the hell am I supposed to know how much a third of it is? It’s batter dude, you just want me to eyeball that shit? Well, I definitely tried to wing it, but a third of the batter didn’t even cover the bottom of the loaf pan! So I said fuck it and poured half the batter into the loaf pan, then used all of the cream cheese mixture instead of half.
Coincidentally, all of the cream cheese mixture ended up covering the first half of the batter perfectly. Then I covered that with the other half of the batter.
The recipe says to bake it for 45 minutes, so I did just that. Once the 45 minutes had passed, it definitely looked done, but when I tested it with a knife, it was most certainly not done. I wanted to let it bake for another five minutes, but I was worried about burning the top because it was already so done on top. Then I remembered the recipe said that you can cover the top with foil to keep it from getting overdone. So I threw some foil on top and let it bake for another five minutes, and then it was actually done!
Of course, I had to make this lemon loaf in my lemon loaf pan:
While that cooled a bit, I whipped up the lemon icing. It was just some powdered sugar, honey, and lemon juice. I don’t know what my issue is lately with powdered sugar, but everything I’ve baked that requires some kind of powdered sugar glaze or icing just doesn’t taste good. Like, the powdered sugar aspect of it always tastes funny to me. It’s definitely not expired, and I figured Domino was a good brand to go with, so I’m not sure what it is lately that makes powdered sugar taste kind of bad to me? Like I honestly think everything I’ve made that calls for a glaze or icing would just be better without it.
Regardless, I still drizzled some onto a slice of the bread. However, the bread was still too warm and immediately melted the glaze.
In the end, it tasted okay! It’s not amazing, but not bad or anything. I was hoping it would be better than Starbuck’s version, but I wouldn’t say it is. Maybe it’s baker’s error, or maybe it would’ve been better if I used Greek yogurt. Honestly, I think it’d be better without the cream cheese. It’s weird texturally inside the bread.
All in all, I don’t regret making it but I doubt I’ll make it again any time soon.
Do you like lemon pastries? Do you think powdered sugar has a funny taste? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
The Big Idea: Blair Austin
Posted on March 21, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 3 Comments
Philip K. Dick once asked if androids dreamed of electric sheep; author Blair Austin wonders about the dreaming habits of another entity entirely in the Big Idea for his first novel, Dioramas.
What if the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition (1906-11) fell asleep and began to dream?
Since I was young, I’ve struggled with the gap between what happens, what things are left behind and how memory reconfigures them. There is an irreconcilable space between what came before and what comes after. When I climb a mountain and pick my building out of the bird’s-eye view, for example, then climb down, go back home and look at the mountain, there appears to be no way to reconcile the two places. The vantage place, from home, is not the same place it was when you stood there looking down at the city. It feels like a mirage. Intellectually, it is the same, but you can’t quite believe it. Sight is like a memory you can’t accept or have failed to process. This is an abstract problem at the juncture of perception and reality that I feel in my bones as a wonder and a deep anxiety. I turned to dioramas, which, though they are quite simple, lie beyond the valley of language.
Dioramas themselves are pictures of reality, constructed scenes that appear more real than life itself. What has gone on, before, to make them so—all that work from the death of the animal, to the removal of its skin, the stamping out of paper leaves, the painting of backgrounds—happens out of sight. The museum diorama contains more than what appears. I felt I could marry these two things, the unseen and the seen, by making the imaginary dioramas in my novel, Dioramas, into blank symbols. A blank symbol is a symbol in a work of fiction (or in life itself) that is destabilized, capable of carrying multiple interpretations. A transparent surface on which different ideas/anxieties may be written, the diorama waits, passive, and we project onto it our notions of what it is and what has happened to make it that way.
The problem was, how to make the scenes that lecturer Wiggins is describing have flexibility so that the diorama might stand in for the Big Ideas we would project onto it. The only way I could figure to do this was to get out of the way and let the old man, thousands of years in the future—describe them.
While writing Dioramas, I began to wonder what would happen if the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition had fallen asleep and begun to dream. I wanted those wood paneled rooms, the tweed, the subject expertise of cloistered scholars, and I wanted the encyclopedia, through the medium of the diorama, to dream the endgame of its colonial project. Over time, I felt I could see a city rise four thousand years in the future, a city built on the ruins of our own cities. Wiggins’s fussy voice came out of this. Just as the scholars of the Britannica focus on the facts as they understood them, Wiggins, the narrator of Dioramas, describes the dioramas he sees. Wiggins, an expert himself, is lost in the fine details—microscopic sometimes—behind the glass. He sees them in the darkened room of his memory, too, and we see them through his eyes.
All the while, he is trying to describe a feeling—an intuition too far down to find words for—and that he will stitch the shape of as he walks the museum halls but which he will never penetrate. He is doing this to get at the feeling of the unnameable—the thing behind the Big Idea. The big idea that would have to come from the reader by way of the book’s roadmap and that would change completely upon a second or a third reading. That was the hope, anyway. When you summited the mountain, closed the last page, what you remembered would not be what was there. You would stand and look back over the experience and not quite be able to say what the ground you’d been standing on had been. Because it had passed already and couldn’t be gotten at except by way of another read-through, which would necessarily change the whole experience once again. The feeling of that, the sense of what was gone from the world, including the moment of our own perception.
Many things can be said about this as an idea. The challenge was to write so that these things could be experienced while reading, experienced in language but also beyond language. So I felt, “literature is an experience beyond words.” Through the marriage of form and language, we feel it. Then it is gone. It has the dead-alive complexity of the diorama, resting there behind the glass to welcome anybody’s approach, till it is moved out, into the basement of the museum as in a dream, to be stored forever out of reach.
Dioramas: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop
Equinox Sunset, 3/20/23
Posted on March 20, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 8 Comments
Welcome to Spring, and longer days. Unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere. In which case, sorry, shorter days for you. Don’t worry, we’ll switch places in about six months.
Krissy and I Have a Band: Introducing OEMAA and “Parking Space”
Posted on March 19, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 61 Comments
During the pandemic, lots of people took on projects to keep themselves busy; mine was building out a music room with an eye toward eventually writing and recording music. Along the way Krissy expressed an interest in bass guitar, so I got her one and told her that she and I would form a band one day. She mentioned that we might be limited by the fact that neither of us could play our instruments very well, to which I responded, well, that’s why punk music exists. We agreed that we would form a punk band, whose musical theme would be venting furiously about the minor annoyances that beset ones such as ourselves, which is to say, comfortable middle-aged folks.
Fast forward to 2023, and right now, and I’m happy to announce that Krissy and I do, in fact, have a punk band in which we bemoan the inconveniences of the hugely privileged. We call ourselves OEMAA (pronounced “wee-ma”), which is an acronym for Outrageously Entitled Middle-Aged Assholes, and our first song, “Parking Space,” is the sonic blast of aggrievement emanating from the soul of a man in an SUV who sees the parking space he’s been hovering over get snapped up by another equally entitled jerk in a Lexus. Hell hath no fury like a dude in an SUV, missing out on a parking opportunity. It’s two minutes flat of pure screaming rage, about something that wouldn’t be a problem if the dude would just walk an extra 20 yards to the store, from a slightly less convenient parking spot. There are a whole lot of F-bombs dropped. I’ll put the lyrics in the first comment.
(Also, to be clear for those who need it, OEMAA is about satirizing such entitlement, not sympathizing with it. That said, whomst among us has not been irritated by someone getting a parking space we’ve been eyeing, etc. Being annoyed with that is fine. Using it as an excuse to go full rage monster is not.)
Krissy is playing her bass here; I’m doing pretty much everything else, including vocals (we have plans for Krissy to do the vocals on a possible future track or two). It’s an extremely simple song (literally one note, played as an octave) and it’s two minutes long because I don’t see how it could, or should, be any longer. I will note that we were originally planning to call ourselves “Minor Annoyance,” but it turns out there’s already a band called that, because of course there is. OEMAA it is. “Parking Space” is debuting here but has already been submitted to the various streaming services, so it should be available there in the next couple of days.
(Update, 3/20: Now up on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and YouTube Music, and Amazon Music, among others.)
Will we do more? That’s the (admittedly vague at this point) plan; lord knows there are more things outrageously entitled middle-aged assholes get furious about. It is, shall we say, a fecund field. And I’m certainly down with playing more rock and roll with Krissy, because she is awesome, and I dig that we now have a band together. How can you not like that?
Friday Night Music: MaryLeigh Roohan
Posted on March 17, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 6 Comments
I met MaryLeigh Roohan on the JoCo Cruise, and I was told she was a musician and then she and I geeked out over Emmylou Harris, so I endeavored to look her up when I got back on land and had a decent internet. And, wow, is she ever a musician; this song “The High Wire” is heartbreakingly lovely. Check it out.
A Big Day For the Church
Posted on March 17, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 12 Comments
It might not look like much, but the picture you see here represents an important milestone in the renovation of The Old Church: That chimney has been capped and tuckpointed, and those white slats have sealed up an area where wind and water could get in, transferring both cold and moisture to the interior of church. With these capped and sealed, the exterior of the church is finally done, as well the interior improvements that required tearing things up, moving things out, or bringing new infrastructure in. The first major phase of improvement is finished.
What’s left? In the interior we need to replaster and repaint the walls, and in the balcony, we’ll need to have bookshelves installed. After those two things, it’s mostly interior decoration that needs to be done, but that’s about aesthetics rather than function. There will always be things that need to be done, mind you — you don’t purchase a nearly 90-year-old church building if you don’t think there will be upkeep — but (knocks on altar wood) the big stuff is over for now. The (more) fun part of the restoration is here.
Brandon Sanderson and the Scalzi Award
Posted on March 17, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 10 Comments
In addition to writing a book or two that you may have heard about, Brandon Sanderson does a number of podcasts, and in this episode of one of them, he talks about many things, including something that is called “The Scalzi Award,” which he, and only he, has. What is the Scalzi Award, and how did he come by it? Brandon tells the tale at 19:20 (it goes on for a few moments), and then the actual award itself shows up at 28:30, followed by another story, which involves me flinging coins at him. It is all true.
It should be noted that Brandon has, uh, done okay for himself in the time between the Scalzi Award and today. Which, honestly, is no surprise to anyone who saw him as he came up in the field. Aside from telling good tales that please large crowds of readers, Brandon has a work ethic surpassed by no one else in the field. This is why he’s now his own cottage industry and by “cottage” I mean “a warehouse full of Brandon Sanderson material, at which he employs literally dozens.”
So, yeah, he’s doing just fine. And I love that for him.
The UK Cover of Starter Villain
Posted on March 16, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 14 Comments
Which is, as you all know, my upcoming novel, to be released this September (September 21 in the UK, to be exact). The UK cover is of a kind with the UK cover of The Kaiju Preservation Society, which I think is pretty nifty, as both books are set in contemporary time, even with their significant science fictional elements. They have things in common. And yes, the book namechecks a number of cinematic villains, you can probably guess one of them by the cover. A Scalzi book referencing pop culture should not be a surprise at this point.
Where’s the US/Canada cover for the book, you may ask? It’s coming. I think you’ll like it when you see it. In the meantime, you have this. It’s pretty nifty, if I do say so myself.
The Big Idea: Jane Hennigan
Posted on March 16, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 5 Comments
In her novel Moths, author Jane Hennigan does a table flip on the world we know to reveal some things that are truths in any world we might happen to live in.
Why did you make the men suffer so much?
Do you just hate men? Is that it? This is the sort of half-joking question I get from men I meet after they ask me what my book is about. Occasionally I get asked – what does your husband think of your book?
I do not hate most men. Nor do I want most men going around feeling constantly bad about themselves due to the fact that they are part of the patriarchy and not at that very moment checking their biases. The fact is, I’m married to a man – a really nice guy. Likewise, my two sons, my stepson, brother-in-law, nephews – all phenomenal people.
I’m a feminist, yes – but then so are many men. I want to reply that feminism is about bringing about equality – its ambition is not to torture men.
My focus on feminism, and in particular how it intersects with class, began when I attended university to study literature and philosophy. I was thirty-four and from a working-class background where claiming to be a feminist would be met with, at best, confusion or ridicule, at worst, hostility, so the course was an eye-opener. Later I became a lecturer for seven years at a further education college (community college in the US). I taught, among other things, feminism in literature. Much of the course looked to redress the bias towards white, rich, male authors which populates many undergraduate English syllabi. Instead, we read Alice Walker, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison.
The students were, in general, working-class women, ranging from their late twenties to early forties. Like me, having missed the opportunity to go to university the first time around due to children or work commitments – they were now taking advantage of the accelerated two-year degrees available at the college, cramming their studies into every spare minute. They’d come into class – exhausted, often straight from a job, or sometimes with a toddler in tow, clutching a copy of The Color Purple and a juice box. Then we’d discuss the themes of endemic violence, power, and why male hegemony mattered.
Initially, it didn’t matter to most of them. The idea that there was some mystical power structure that you couldn’t see, one that men had put there seemingly on purpose to keep women down – that it permeated our language and our institutions, our schools and churches, even our families, seemed ridiculous. Men just aren’t that clever! said one student, to much nodding. Add to this the third-wave ‘choice feminism’ platitude Women! you can be whoever you want to be— nobody’s stopping you—and the whole idea comes across as a bit wayward.
But those were potent books on the syllabus. The way Walker presents Sophia – her wit and strength crushed by institutionalised racism and sexism. How Atwood unpicks men’s microaggressions, and their toxicity towards women and then amplifies both in the dystopian Gilead. Angela Carter’s rewriting of the culturally engrained stories and fairytales which pass on patriarchal configurations of power. Not all the students bought into the idea of institutionalised bias, but some did. They saw their own struggles – implicit, understated, unnamed, reflected back from the pages of those texts. But also, importantly, they had men in their lives. What could they do? – up and leave their partners? Never speak to their misogynistic fathers again? Abandon their sons? They could do anything they wanted – but theoretical feminism is vastly different from navigating the world as it is right now – especially in a working-class environment.
Books that call out the patriarchy sometimes set the narrative at a ‘men are terrible’ stage – a primal feminist scream, understandable, vital even. The early timeline in Moths is exactly this – a brutal rendering of male violence against women, a look at how those men closest to women are statistically the most likely people to hurt them. But I also wanted a way of exploring other ideas – what would a modern matriarchy look like? How would women—vastly underrepresented in STEM fields—rebuild a country after its decimation, how would women, born into a world unencumbered by the male gaze, feel and act? And finally – how would women treat men, when the power dynamic had changed so drastically?
In the second timeline, women run the country and men, when they are considered at all, are valued for their docility and sex appeal. Women are the agents of the world and they treat men similarly to how men in the 1950s treated their secretaries. There is a measure of ironic tongue-in-cheek humour to this, but it’s also meant to defamiliarise the situation.
Flipping the script, replacing patriarchy with matriarchy, highlights the existing gender inequalities. Those lacking power struggle more. In Moths – that’s the men.
Moths: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
My New Current Favorite Picture of Krissy
Posted on March 15, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
Taken last week during the JoCo Cruise. Don’t know if you know, but I think she’s pretty great.
Appearance News: Cabinet of Wonders, April 7 8pm, City Winery, NYC
Posted on March 15, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 6 Comments
If you live in or near New York City and have a hankerin’ to see me live and in person, oh, boy, do I have news for you: I’ll be part of Wesley Stace’s monthly variety show, the Cabinet of Wonders, this April. I will be appearing alongside (deep breath): Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne), Dave Hill, Bill Janovitz (Buffalo Tom), Vicki Peterson (The Bangles), Queen Esther, Kim Richey, and of course, Wesley Stace himself, plus possibly some surprise guests along the way. I’m mildly croggled I get to hang out and perform with these folks for a night.
If you want to get tickets for this very fine show, here is the link. I suggest you get them as early as you can because as I understand it these tickets have a tendency to go fast, and also, as of this second, this is the only time I’m confirmed for an event in NYC this year. That could change later (we haven’t figured out any touring yet for Starter Villain), but right now, this is the only sure thing for me. Plus, you get so many other fabulous performers, for an absurdly reasonable price, I might add. See you there, perhaps!
The Big Idea: Mia Tsai
Posted on March 14, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 4 Comments
Victories are dramatic, but victories don’t have to be the end of the story. In today’s Big Idea for her novel Bitter Medicine, author Mia Tsai looks beyond the usual climax of a tale to find another part of the story.
There are a lot of hooks floating around in Bitter Medicine: xianxia-inspired magic, the blend of mythologies and cultures, the romance, even its plot structure (it’s a two-act, not a three-act), but what often remains in the background is, for me, the biggest idea of all.
Today, I’d like to talk about Asian American women, mental health, and fantasy.
Bitter Medicine, being set in a contemporary world but with a hidden magical world, offered me opportunities to comment on real-world issues while retaining the elements of a fantasy. While contemporary fiction can and does explore the immediate reverberations of critical plot events, oftentimes, in fantasy, we don’t get to see what happens immediately after those events. Climaxes such as confrontations are usually the end of a story or an arc, and if there are lasting effects, they play out in the long term. In a genre like fantasy, it’s not particularly heroic nor propulsive to have a hero laid up in the hospital, spending most of their day in a medicated haze. It’s especially not propulsive for an author to shine a light on those moments.
But I find myself curious about them all the same. The character who triumphs in battle still needs to count the dead the next day. The ferocious joy of winning can be quickly and easily eclipsed by pain and loss, by a body and mind reacting to its situation to protect itself. And that was the part I wanted to highlight in Bitter Medicine, especially with an Asian American woman carrying the loneliness of being diaspora and the burden of family trauma.
What did I do? I granted my character a pyrrhic victory, then trained my lens on her in the ringing hollow after the thunderclap, during the frozen, shocked stillness post-trauma. It’s in these moments where pure emotion carries the story. I wanted to see what happened next, because so rarely are we shown it.
So I wrote toward that. I wanted, more than anything, my character’s friends and family to step up for her, to have community care be the most effective treatment in a reality where mental health services were unavailable. I wanted to know what the other characters would do when one of their own was suffering quietly; I wanted to witness what they would do because they knew she’d back herself out of the spotlight and pretend everything was fine. I wanted to see her loved ones fight for her the way she fought for them. I wanted her to have a group of people who cared for her look at her and it’s tell her it’s their turn, now. It’s okay to rest. It’s okay to grieve what was lost.
Fantasy is, like any other genre, about human emotion. Of course, the allure of the setting beckons—anyone who reads this genre and says they hate magic and wonder is lying. But fantasy is, at its heart, about connections, needs, desires. And that’s the kind of fantasy that draws me the most—stories about people and communities that are wrapped in genre trappings.
This doesn’t appeal to everyone, and I’m sure there are readers out there who would rather the book not slow down in parts to deal with something deeply internal and sit with someone who is so clearly grieving. It can get ugly. Actually, it did; I had to revise to strip out parts that made people too upset. Sometimes, too much verisimilitude is detrimental. Regardless, there is grief and depression in this book, viewed through an unflinching camera that keeps rolling during my character’s worst, most vulnerable moments, and a community that comes together to get her through it rather than demand more of her. And that’s the big idea.
Bitter Medicine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
Quick Note On JoCo
Posted on March 13, 2023 Posted by Athena Scalzi 10 Comments
Hey, everyone! I’m back from my amazing week aboard the JoCo Cruise. And what a week it was! Per usual, it was full of friends, fun, and sun, as well as fantastic events and interesting ports.
This JoCo was my sixth, which meant I already had so many friends from previous years onboard to reconnect with, but I managed to make even more new ones, as well! Also, this year, I brought my cousin. It was her first cruise ever, and she totally loved it! It was awesome to see some of the same performers as last/previous years, but there were also some really awesome new additions that I was so totally stoked to meet. So my time was pretty full up with late nights of talking to friends, new and old, and my cousin, of course.
I honestly don’t have much else to report other than that I had a great time, and that I can’t wait for next year. But I did want to say an extra special thank you to those of you who came up to talk to me to tell me that you like my writing. Getting to chat with you all was really awesome, and I appreciate your readership and support so very much!
I almost wish I had some photos to post, but I generally never take photos on JoCo. I did manage to get this one, though, of a Shirley Temple on my favorite beach.
Anyways, if you were on JoCo, tell me in the comments what your favorite thing was this year! And have a great day!
Everything Everywhere All At Once, and the Gen X Oscars
Posted on March 13, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 29 Comments
One, I’m delighted that it won, it was my favorite film of the last year, and more widely, it was the most “this story could only be done as a movie” movie of 2022, so a win at the awards that are meant to celebrate the singular nature of the medium is pretty great. And I’m especially delighted by Michelle Yeoh’s Best Actress win. She has been terrific in so many things for so long.
Two, I’m also delighted that we’re in a place in the multiverse where a film like this – indie, genre, Asian, immigrant and queer – could win. Not too long ago, this film would have nailed the Film Independent Spirit Awards (and, in fact, did), but would have been kept to a couple categories (mostly technical) at the Oscars at best. Here in 2023, a film like this wins seven Oscars, including three acting categories. Good job, multiverse!
Three, by being its own weird and authentic self, this film stands as a rebuttal to the wave of racist, nativist and homophobic hate that’s sweeping this country, packaged as politics. As Ke Huy Quan suggested as he picked up his own Oscar, after having been away from acting for 20 years, this is the American Dream. It’s a far better American Dream than the one so many right-wing politicians and professional propogandists are trying to shove the country toward, in their own fear and hate and ambition.
Four, hey, Academy, give James Hong an honorary Oscar next year, okay?
Beyond but including EEAAO, this felt like a real Gen X Oscar night: Quan, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis and of course Brendan Fraser are either part of or icons beloved by that generation. This is not to take away from the Millennial-ness of Daniels (who won screenwriting, directing and producing awards, damn), but the night was infused by the pasts of these actors in particular, who Gen X grew up seeing in The Goonies and Encino Man, and in Indiana Jones and slasher films, and in Hong Kong action films that felt like secret knowledge until, suddenly, they weren’t. There was also the fact that these actors were all ignored, minimized or underestimated for large portions of their career, which, well. Feels pretty Gen X, too. I did not expect this collection of actors to ever hoist their Oscars in triumph, much less on a single night. It’s, again, delightful. I’m glad to have been able to see it.
(Edited to add: Oh! And! Sarah Polley! Screenwriting award! GenXer! Who also did a stint as an actress in formative Gen X films and came back on the other side of the camera! Hooray!)
The only miss for me on Oscar night this year is that my pal Pamela Ribon did not get the statuette for her terrific animated film My Year of Dicks. But you know what? She was in the room, and appreciated and celebrated all the way into that room. As someone who was nominated for a major industry award several times before getting to go up on the stage to hoist it and thank people, I can tell you being in the room is a win in itself. I’m pretty confident she will be back. I will cheer for her again when that happens.
Back in the World
Posted on March 12, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 37 Comments
Have returned from the 2023 edition of the JoCo Cruise, which was in many ways one of my favorites of the several I’ve been on. A longer report later, until then enjoy this photo from Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas (the young lady you see in the photo is my niece, who came with us on the cruise and attests to having had a wonderful time).
And yes, I know you’ve all been having an exciting time whilst I have been away, what with bank failures and other wacky events. Don’t feel you need to catch me up in the comments. Tell me about your cats and other happy personal news instead. That would be nice, honestly.
The Big Idea: Elle Marr
Posted on March 7, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 3 Comments
You think you know family, but maybe your family isn’t quite like the family in Elle Marr’s novel The Family Bones. And maybe that’s a good thing, but as Marr explains, this family here makes for interesting reading.
Who among us has never returned from a family event, and wondered at their good fortune—or bad? We all have our “chosen families”—the amalgam of friends, coworkers, and followers with whom we share our deepest thoughts—but none of us has the luxury of choosing our actual relatives or the common traits that we share. We don’t know what dominant or recessive alleles in our genes will determine whether we can make that half-court jump shot or enable us to become the world’s foremost authority in basket weaving.
Perhaps more concerningly, if someone belongs to a family like the Eriksens, no one can predict if they’ll be born with a predisposition toward Anti-Social Personality Disorder—which includes sociopathy and psychopathy—or otherwise gifted with benign normalcy. How much does nature in the “nature versus nurture” debate determine our trajectory?
The Family Bones begins with this big idea, as readers are introduced to a notorious clan in true crime circles: the Eriksens. Given a legacy that includes hidden basement chambers dating back to the Great Depression, Olivia Eriksen confronts her heritage by studying psychology in graduate school. When Olivia receives an invitation to an upcoming family reunion and learns the entire—non-incarcerated—Eriksen family will be there, she must choose whether to attend with her fiancé, or take the proverbial blue pill and continue on in the safety of academia. I know I would down the blue option faster than you can say “neurodivergent,” but for Olivia—and the reader—that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
Another big idea behind The Family Bones is rooted in our latest shared obsession: true crime. I grew up leafing through magazines in the checkout aisle, captivated by the stark headline du jour, and that piqued interest transferred to the small and big screens when fictionalized non-fiction became common to marquees. True crime is a newer genre of fiction, relatively speaking, that has exploded over the last decade. And while books that could be shelved under that category have existed far longer, true crime podcasts have seen their birth and proliferation within the last ten years, starting with the now famed “Serial.”
This phenomenon drives a different storyline in The Family Bones. From the perspective of a stay-at-home-mom—much like the author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara—my podcaster, Birdie Tan conducts her own investigations after her family goes to sleep. Birdie zooms in on Google Earth images and partially photocopied police reports to form new conclusions on cases of minority victims whose murders were never solved. Her passion draws inspiration from real-life examples of armchair detectives, such Michelle McNamara, and podcasters Sarah Koenig and Kate Winkler. These innovators are all examples of the latest big idea to capture our cultural consciousness: we are capable of more than consuming the checkout stand headlines. We can affect them for ourselves.
As a consumer of crime fiction and a former teacher of psychology to university students abroad, I sincerely hope readers sense my love for both in The Family Bones. And, the next time readers attend a family gathering I hope they think of the Eriksens.
The Family Bones: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s
Visit the author’s website. Follow her on twitter and instagram.
Happy 25th Birthday Scalzi.com
Posted on March 4, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 17 Comments
Fun fact: 25 years ago today, I registered Scalzi.com as domain. Why? Because I was about to get laid off from America Online and I needed a new email address, and I figured, what the hell, get my own domain because that way I would never have to change my email again. And guess what? I never have! Well done, me.
Also I figured having my own domain would be useful to point potential freelance clients at, to show them various writing samples I had from the time: Humor and opinion columns from my time at AOL and the Fresno Bee, movie and music reviews and other stuff. It was a real hodgepodge (not like today, harumph, harumph), and all present in grand, hand-rolled HTML. Web 1.0 at its finest! No tables, however. I wasn’t a monster.
This also worked; I started getting freelance work almost immediately after being laid off from AOL, much to my relief. A lot of that work was from AOL, mind you; I was laid off and then people there started wondering how they were going to get the writing they needed done. But some of it was from outside people, too, and the site came in handy for that.
Whatever itself started in September of ’98 and once it got going, the rest of the site became sort of an afterthought to it, enough so that at the moment Scalzi.com goes directly to Whatever rather than having its own landing page. As this is where nearly everyone was coming anyway, it seemed to make sense. Be that as it may, Scalzi.com was and is its own entity, and it’s served me very well for a quarter of a century. Securing that domain name way back in 1998 was one of my smarter professional decisions. Good job, 28-year-old me! You did all right by us both.
The Big Idea: J. Dianne Dotson
Posted on March 3, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 1 Comment
In The Shadow Galaxy: A Collection of Short Stories and Poetry, author J. Dianne Dotson explores spanning multiple genres and styles within a small package.
J. DIANNE DOTSON:
Back in the 1980s, I moved to a place called Gray. Its name essentially summed up my initial ambivalence for it, until I fell in love with the slender train tracks close to my home, the expansive dairy farm next to those tracks, and the strange and tangled little path between them. This was my own private universe, full of mystery and wonder and unsettling shadows, cave-ins, wizened neighbors, and strange tiny tunnels hinting at other realms.
As I explored this rural wonderland, I took note of every leaf and stone and bird, and I came home nicked by briars and stained by vivid purple pokeberry juice (smeared with sticks on everything, marking my territory). I pelted upstairs to a little loft room and began to write. But in that same room, I also began to read more, and some of that reading included Ray Bradbury and a gold-edged book of classic fairy tales. I had a big idea, a grand one, to write an epic space opera. And I did! But I kept coming back to smaller stories.
In a way, living in the country is a collection of short stories. You live at the mercy of seasons, of neighbors either nosy or intimidating in their mystery, of quickly spread rumors, of being thought of as a weird kid (which I was). Gray was in many ways my version of Bradbury’s Greentown, and I felt a kinship to his many tales, some terrifying, some wondrous. In my boredom, I imagined magical realms and creatures, owing to the literary backbone of my book of fairy tales. (Many of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories also seeped in.)
So in between the metaphorical margins of my space opera, I began writing stories and poetry. Some were long and ponderous, some were as maudlin as treacle, some were sharp, like a slammed door. Many of these never saw the light of day, but some of them evolved. Some of them were lost forever in my moves around the country, but I uncovered others tucked away in old college-ruled notebooks also.
I combined some of these with new stories and poems into The Shadow Galaxy: A Collection of Short Stories and Poetry. With this book, I shamelessly blurred the lines of genres. Hey, if Bradbury could do it, why couldn’t I? I wrote about fog-realms, robots awakening to love, deep-space mining horrors, an inter-dimensional mage dropping out of the sky onto, yes, a train track, and more. Some of the stories I deliberately made epiphanic. Others glide to a soft landing…or a hard one.
Short fiction seems to be undergoing a renaissance, and I relish it. It provides expansion and contraction in equal measure. It both forces you to constrain your verbosity and it engages your nimble mind to world-build within a tighter boundary. Bradbury, Baum, the brothers Grimm, and many others before me knew the power of the smaller tale. Pirouetting between and over and around genres only makes such short stories more visceral, more real. There is an entire galaxy of genres to write within, and it makes sense to write short stories to capture them all.
The Shadow Galaxy: A Collection of Short Stories and Poetry: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s Books|Mysterious Galaxy Books
J. Dianne Dotson’s website. Follow Dianne on Twitter and Instagram.
Whatever Everyone Else is Saying