The Big Idea: Suzanne Johnson

Fantasy novels can and do take place in the real world — and when they do, there’s a special responsibility the writer has to reality just as much as to the fantasy she places within it. So former New Orleans resident Suzanne Johnson learned when it came time to write Royal Street, which takes place in the Crescent City, a setting Johnson had reasons for wanting to get right. She’s here to explain the process of keeping it real, for the sake of her fantasy.

SUZANNE JOHNSON:

The big idea behind Royal Street, an urban fantasy set in New Orleans during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, came about—to use a bad pun—as a “perfect storm” of things happened in my life in late 2008.

It is a deceptively simple “what-if” that turned out to be complex in the writing, both structurally and emotionally: What if, when Hurricane Katrina’s winds and storm surge destroyed New Orleans’ fragile levees, it also destroyed the “metaphysical levees” between modern New Orleans and the world Beyond? How could the fantasy genre be used to explore the aftermath of August 29, 2005, and the way New Orleanians learned to come back from the catastrophic flooding that covered eighty percent of the city?

When Hurricane Katrina blew ashore on that August morning, I had been living in New Orleans more than a decade. The next few years of rebuilding eventually blurred into a confusion of heartbreak, anger, cynicism, fear, despair, frustration, elation, and love. A day without tears was a rarity.

So what happened in 2008, when I began writing Royal Street? First, I’d moved away from New Orleans for family reasons. I was horribly homesick. I also had “Katrina withdrawal,” realizing with naïve surprise that people in other parts of the country had moved on. My every day for the previous several years had been preoccupied with nothing but the aftermath of the flood, and suddenly I went days, weeks, months without hearing the word “Katrina.” I was still wrangling with mild post-traumatic stress (which I knew because my employer in New Orleans had us tested periodically). And, finally, I read a fantasy book that tried to take on Katrina, at least in a tangential way, and got it very, very wrong.

I wanted to get it right. And after spending every day of the previous three years writing about Katrina for my day job, I thought I could get it right.

“Getting it right” meant plundering my own memories—some funny, some very painful; reading every issue of the New Orleans Times-Picayune during the days leading up to and the months following the storm; and talking to friends who’d been trapped in the city during the flooding and knew what conditions were like before I came back from the mandatory evacuation.

Where should my characters live? What would the damage to their homes be like? Would they stay in town or evacuate? How could they get back into town with a mandatory evacuation in effect? When did certain neighborhoods drain of floodwater—what could only be reached by boat? What neighborhoods got electricity back first, and when? When was the water deemed potable? How could my characters get food when stores and restaurants were closed?

Even though I was writing urban fantasy, I wanted my characters grounded in life as it was for most people in New Orleans immediately after Katrina, so my worldbuilding—which involves magic and wizardry—needed to severely limit the degree to which my characters could circumvent the real post-flood conditions. I wanted no easy Harry Potter-esque wand-waving to conjure up magical food and water. My characters needed to live as their (unaware) human counterparts had to live—without electricity, reliable water, working traffic signals, or cleared roadways. They needed to find boats to take them into flooded areas, and they needed to get past National Guard security checkpoints to travel around town. Hurricane Rita blew through the city and shut everything down again three weeks after Katrina, reflooding parts of the city, so my plot had to be timed to grind to a halt while yet another hurricane raged.

Most of all, my main character was a New Orleanian at heart. She needed to not only be dealing with the urban fantasy element of missing mentors and voodoo gods and rampaging undead pirates. She needed to feel the gut-wrenching emotion of coming back into a city she loved and seeing it virtually destroyed, because I knew myself that no amount of media coverage could prepare one for seeing it firsthand. She needed to reflect the heart and whacked-out sense of humor and unabashed love of New Orleans that all of us who lived there experienced during that time.

Finally, I faced the challenge of striking the right tone between telling a good story and being respectful of the real-life tragedy going on in the background. More than a thousand people in the Greater New Orleans area died during Katrina and the post-Katrina flooding—many bodies were never identified, and several hundred people were never found. More than a million people were displaced in the metro area alone; it’s estimated that upwards of three-hundred thousand homes were damaged or destroyed in the metro area. The Katrina flooding exposed difficult issues of politics, poverty, class, and race that had to be acknowledged but not exploited.

I knew from the outset there would be readers for whom this setting will be uncomfortable, that it might provoke some controversy. I had a lot of folks in NOLA read the book as it progressed, and talk to me about whether it hit the right notes. I wanted my love for the “hometown of my heart” to show through. I wanted to do it with respect.

I think I got it right. I hope I got it right. Only time will tell.

—-

Royal Street: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a sample. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Saladin Ahmed

Influences aren’t just things as a writer that you pull from — they can also be things that you push against. And sometimes you do both at once. Saladin Ahmed knows about this; in his widely acclaimed debut Throne of the Crescent Moon (which has garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews) he’s looked at his favorite works both as inspiration and things to rebel against. What are those works, and what are their qualities and flaws, as Ahmed sees them? He’s here to tell you.

SALADIN AHMED:

The Big Idea behind Throne of the Crescent Moon had to do with writing something that was both an homage and a response to the heroic fantasy I grew up reading and watching. I was born in post-race riots Detroit at the beginning of the slow social and economic meltdown of that city. I grew up down the street, in the working-class Arab American enclave of Dearborn, MI. My Dad was a union activist and community organizer who instilled in me pride in my Arab heritage and a strong sense of social justice, but also a deep love for fantasy and science fiction.

Fast forward 30 years, and these things are still a big part of my consciousness. Sometimes, over the years, they’ve bumped up against each other, and Throne of the Crescent Moon is my first attempt to…transcribe the sound of that bumping, if that makes any sense.

But concrete examples are sometimes more useful than such abstraction – voila!

– I love Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire. But I don’t like that royalty and nobles – or royals and nobles in disguise – are almost always the main POV heroes in fantasy. So my characters are mostly lowborn.

– I love the Aiel from The Wheel of Time (and that Rand is one by blood!). But I don’t like that Fantasyland’s pseudo-Arabs are usually depicted in a marginalizing manner. So I put the pseudo-Middle East at the center of my series.

– I love Sturm Brightblade from Dragonlance . But I don’t like that fantasy novels have tended to depict holy warriors/paladins as noble and inspiring when wearing pseudo-European garb but scary when wearing pseudo-Muslim garb.

– I love Star Wars (indulge me, please, by calling it fantasy), but I don’t like the way youth and self-discovery are so often the focus on fantasy plots. So I wrote a 60-something main character who damn well knows who he is – and just wants the world to leave him the hell alone.

– I love Aragorn… But I don’t like the way heroic fantasy celebrates hereditary power so uncritically. So I slapped my heroes in the middle of a plot to usurp a dynasty.

And so on. Throne of the Crescent Moon is, in a sense, a tightrope walk. Might be I’ve fallen a few times, but I hope I’ve taken some entertaining – maybe even thrilling – steps along the way.

—-

Throne of the Crescent Moon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Tom Levenson

Issac Newton: You know him as the man who invented calculus and described the physical world with a model that persisted until Einstein. But there was another side of Newton: Crime-fighter! No, he didn’t wear a mask and a cape; it’s not that kind of crime fighting. Rather, in 1695 Newton left the academic life to become Britain’s Warden of the Royal Mint — and in doing so ended up matching wits with a master counterfeiter.

It sounds like fiction, but it just happens to be true, and Tom Levenson’s new book Newton and the Counterfeiter lays out the story for you. And how did Levenson find the story in the first place? It begins with a letter from a man, begging for mercy.

TOM LEVENSON:

This is another one of those books – I think several “Big Idea” essayists have had this experience – that started with something small, just one tile out of place in a room I thought I knew.

My first hint that I would have to write what would become Newton and the Counterfeiter came in 1992 or so. I was researching a book on musical and scientific instruments, and I had reached the point in that narrative where I had to check on Isaac Newton’s thinking about music and nature.  I found some good stuff – my favorite was his attempt to map onto a musical scale the sequence of colors revealed when sunlight passes through a prism.

But I was brought up short by an excerpt of a letter to Newton that I found in one of the older works I consulted. It was a sad, desperate note, in which a condemned man – William Chaloner – groveled, begging for his life.

That stopped me.  It wasn’t relevant to what I was working on.  But still, I wondered, what was a prisoner awaiting execution in Newgate Jail doing writing to a man recognized in his own time the greatest mind of the age?

It was a stray moment of curiosity, just a loose end, and I let it go in the press of getting another book out the door. But I didn’t entirely forget it either, and over the next few years, I kept reading around Newton’s life.  The first-order answer to my question was easy to find:  all the biographies will tell you that Newton left Cambridge in 1696 to take up what was supposed to have been a sinecure as Warden of the Royal Mint – a reward both for being the smartest man alive and for having picked the right side in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that put William and Mary on the throne in place of the last Stuart, James II. It was the Warden’s official duty to track down coiners and counterfeiters – and Chaloner had boasted of having produced counterfeits with a face value of thirty thousand pounds — so there was the formal connection between the two men.

But even so, I was still stuck in the realm of facts; I didn’t know how – or even if – I could come up with what I needed to turn this moment of contact between the criminal and the financial bureaucrat into a story rich enough to produce a book worth writing (and reading).

Getting there took both a stroke of luck and a year of flailing with the writing of what I found.  The luck came when I found the only surviving trove of Newton’s criminal case notes, not catalogued with the bulk of Newton’s official Mint papers. There were over four hundred separate records, with more than a hundred bearing on his pursuit of Chaloner.

With those documents, mostly summaries of depositions given by witnesses, associates, paid agents and informers that Newton was ultimately able to place in Chaloner’s jail cell, I had all the plot I needed to propel a book – complete with some lovely grace notes as well.  I particularly enjoyed the three days it took me to track down just what Chaloner was selling in what one contemporary called “tin watches with dildoes in them.”

And yet, despite this rich lode of material about criminal life and its detection in late seventeenth century London, the book still lacked something, an idea to animate the facts of the case into something larger than just another narrative of crime and retribution.  I started writing anyway – this was in the middle of 2006. I had the material in hand after all, so I thought I could just bull my way through from incident to meaning.  But after about four months and about a quarter of a draft manuscript in hand, I stopped. I had hit a point where whatever I tried to write as the next chapter just didn’t work, and I put it all down to think.

I finally realized what should have been obvious:  the book told the story of Isaac Newton tracking down a criminal.  It was about the man who led the scientific revolution demonstrating what it was like to live such a transformation every day on the streets of London.

Nailed!  I took several months to do some more research, re-organize what I had written to that point, and get on with the rest of the story. But now I had a reason to animate each plot point large and small that moved my tale forward.

Here’s a small one:  at one point I was looking for just a little scene-setting detail, something that would allow me to place Newton in some weather on a particular day, just to get a bit of the feeling of being there.  I discovered on the day that Newton was writing to John Locke, pissed about something that had passed between them, Locke himself had recorded the weather conditions.

That led me to the fact that the man who made Locke’s thermometer was the first to use serial numbers to identify a scientific instrument maker’s products.

And that’s important because one of the critical ideas that Newton himself advanced was that the new science had to come up with a kind of evidentiary hygiene – some way to make sure that measurements made by different observers could be assessed and compared.

For the book as a whole, this notion that I could get a sense of what living the scientific revolution meant to those who were there at the moment gave me a way to connect to the rest of his life the story of Newton tracking down the prolific and dangerous Chaloner.  He organized his questions, gathered evidence, reshaped his web of information into a chain of cause and effect:  this is the familiar Newton, exploiting the method we still use to investigate the material world, not to solve the motion of a comet, but to penetrate a criminal conspiracy.

In the event, Chaloner put up a grand fight.  He evaded Newton’s attempts to capture him for almost two years – a cat and mouse game traced in my book.  But the story ends the way true crime usually does:  with the doomed Chaloner begging his adversary for that one last chance that does not come.

What?  You expected the bad guy to be able to escape the smartest man in history?  Couldn’t happen.

—-

Newton and the Counterfeiter: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the book. Visit Levenson’s blog. In a nice bit of meta, see him discuss writing this Big Idea piece here. Follow Levenson on Twitter.

The Android’s Dream: Chapter One

Happy March 12! As you all undoubtedly know, March 12 is the day that Coca-Cola was first sold in bottles, which means, for a Coca-Cola fiend such as myself, it’s pretty much a national holiday. As you all are no doubt also aware, it is customary on Coca-Cola Bottling Day for science fiction authors to celebrate by decanting an excerpt of their latest work for their thirsty audiences.

With that in mind, allow me to present to you the infamous first chapter of The Android’s Dream, the one which begins with the the immortal line “Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could really fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.”

As it happens, this is an excellent chapter to offer up to you, because I think of it rather like the opening sequence to a James Bond movie — a sequence that is self-contained, and yet starts the ball rolling for the rest of the story. Of course, no James Bond movie ever started with diplomats farting with malicious intent. The world is poorer for that.

In all seriousness, I think as you read this chapter that it’s clear that I as the author had entirely too much fun writing it. I hope you have as much fun with it as I did.

For those of you who have already read and enjoyed The Android’s Dream, this will be a fun rerun. For those of you yet to read it, I hope the chapter gets you excited to find out what comes next in the book. The novel is still out there to get, and I hope you’ll consider picking it up. Also, of course, feel free to point folks here to sample this chapter. It’s fun to share.

The chapter awaits you, behind the cut.

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