The Big Idea: Molly Tanzer

Absinthe makes the brain grow more creative — at least in the case of Molly Tanzer, whose encounter with the spirit helped to inspire her novel Creatures of Will and Temper. Want to find out how? Sit back and pour a stiff one as Tanzer tells you.

MOLLY TANZER:

I’m delighted to do my very first Big Idea for my new novel, Creatures of Will and Temper, because I actually did have a “big idea” that sparked the project and then informed my entire approach to it.

This is the story pretty much as it happened: I was sitting on my porch one summer morning, drinking an absinthe cocktail and reading Oscar Wilde’s Victorian classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray, when I got to this part in the book…

[Dorian’s ] eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. … He flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes, he became absorbed. It was the strangest book he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

…and in my intoxicated state, bewitched by spirituous liquors and addled the strong rays of the sun, I thought to myself, What if Lord Henry Wotton was a diabolist and had given Dorian Gray a “yellow book” that was a demon-summoning manual instead of a novel? That would be dope.

This idea took hold of me like the ideas in the yellow book take hold of Dorian Gray, beguiling me and distracting me from what I was supposed to be doing at the time, whatever that was. I can’t remember—probably all that absinthe. Anyway, the important thing is that I started obsessing over what I’d personally want from a Dorian Gray retelling, were I reading it, not writing it, and that served me well.

I knew I’d need to gender-swap Dorian into Dorina Gray, since I like to write about women and women’s issues, and as I wanted to write something exploring the relationships between women, I knew I’d also need to gender-swap Henry Wotton, who became Lady Henrietta Wotton, aesthete and diabolist.

That put the project off to a good start; at least, I thought so. As I continued to think on it, I decided to focus on one of the less explored aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray—that of mentorship and its various consequences—and for that, I’d need a different take on the Dorian/Lord Henry relationship. In the original, Lord Henry Wotton is not an admirable character, so I decided to instead make Lady Henrietta the Platonic ideal of all the lady teachers I’ve crushed on hard over the years. Similarly, the rather repellent Dorian Gray became Dorina, a mosaic of the artistic young women I went to my small liberal arts high school and college with in prosaic south and central Florida.

But as a lifelong fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I knew I’d also need this motif to be repeated to drive it home—there had to be an “A” plot and a “B” plot that dealt with the same issue in different ways. Dorina’s arc needed a natural counterpart. Thus, enter Evadne Gray, Dorina’s elder sister and a character wholly my creation.

Evadne came to me all at once, just like the idea for this book. I realized that if I wanted to focus on women’s relationships, Dorina needed a sister, not just a mentrix—a sister who was similar to her in terms of her capacity for love and enthusiasm, but so very different in her interests that they’d always be at cats and dogs with one another. Dorina was to be enthusiastic, artistically minded, and socially adroit even while she possessed a healthy dislike of “society”; Evadne needed to be a bit of an awkward jock (fencing is her passion), reserved and concerned with the sort of restrictive propriety that is the last refuge of the born misfit. So often, people cling to that which does not serve them—that had to be Evadne’s core, as an athletic but awkward woman, in contrast to Dorina’s willful rejection of a world that was only too eager to accept her on the basis her youth and beauty, merits she rejects.

Two different misfits who both come to find two different mentors—Evadne finds a fencing tutor as apparently perfect for her as Henry is for Dorina, and every bit as secretly mysterious. And in that way, too, I tried to be “faithful but not” to Wilde’s original novel. Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Creatures of Will and Temper are about what happens when someone is consumed by passion. In the end, I hope mine is a bit more forgiving of its protagonists, and a bit more hopeful, or at least less cynical in its conclusion about the fundamental nature of humanity.

—-

Creatures of Will and Temper: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Tracy Townsend

Take Borges, toss in a library, add a touch of sub-atomic physics, and what do you get? If you’re Tracy Townsend, you get her novel The Nine. Here she is to tell you how all of these came to be a part of her story.

TRACY TOWNSEND:

The best creative decision I ever made was to be bad at my first college job.

I paid for undergraduate in the usual way — a little bit of student loan, some scholarship, and a lot of work-study. I was lucky enough to score a job at the university library, where my employment somehow survived my plot to pretend at total incompetence in the Library of Congress system. There was a method to my madness, of course. When I disappeared for two hours with a single cart of returns, nobody would think twice about my painstaking pace. I mean, it had taken me three tries to pass the shelving exam. (I’d considered throwing the test a fourth time, but that just seemed like gilding the lily.) Truth was, I was dead fast and accurate at re-shelving. I could clear a double-decker cart of volumes distributed over three floors in just over a half-hour. For the remaining hour and a half of my shift, I’d creep to the farthest corner of the reference stacks and start browsing, secure in the time my feigned incompetence had bought.

I love reference books because they’re so eminently browsable. They don’t ask for a reader’s commitment. They’re perfect for those weary moments when you want to feed your mind something, but can’t process a narrative. It was in just such a moment that I picked up  Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. There, I found an entry titled “The Lamed Wufniks.” (I’m embarrassed to admit it first grabbed my attention because I thought the name was cute – lamed wufniks! Poor little wufniks with bum legs! Little did I realize how mercurial Anglicized spellings of Yiddish words are, or that the words didn’t sound at all the way I sounded them out.) Here’s part of what Borges wrote:

On the earth there are, and have always been, thirty-six just men whose mission is to justify the world to God. These are the Lamed Wufniks. . . . If a man comes to realize that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he immediately dies and another man, perhaps in some other corner of the earth, takes his place. These men are, without suspecting it, the secret pillars of the universe. If not for them, God would annihilate the human race. They are our saviors, though they do not know it.

This mystical belief of the Jewish people has been explained by Max Brod.

Its distant roots may be found in Genesis 18, where God says that He will not destroy the city of Sodom if ten just men can be found within it.

The very idea of God carefully studying mankind in such a peculiarly precise, predetermined fashion appealed to every instinct in my lapsed Catholic body. It would make a hell of a story.

Some elements of it would have to go. I dropped the “lamed” portion of these holy test subjects’ name and invented a spelling of “wufniks” that actually reflected its pronunciation: vautneks. Thirty-six was too many characters. Remembering that nines and threes reign supreme across dozens of cultural mythologies, I pared it down to nine. The notion that God would hand-pick His representatives, knowing already they were just, and simply undo the world when He could no longer find the thirty-sixth man to fill up the game day roster just seemed too tidy. I was more interested in the notion of the experiment itself. Could a tiny, totally random sampling of humanity hope to represent the species well? Is there any way for human beings to know that a creator is studying us, and if we did, what would we do? Do we do “right” only because we don’t want to be caught doing wrong? And what, God help us, is actually “right,” anyway?

I teach at the Illinois Math and Science Academy – Hogwarts for Hackers, where students steep in an equal mix of ethical, humanistic sciences and caffeinated meme culture. It’s the right place for me because as much as I’m a child of the humanities, I’ve always been fascinated by the scientific impulse, the urge to know which is fundamental to human reason. Take physics. So much of its finest details still aren’t understood the way we understand the microscopic details of our own bodies. The idea that there is a particle we can’t actually pin down that’s responsible for why objects have mass is fascinating. Essentially, if we take for granted that everything in our universe is mass or energy (and translatable to one another), then the Higgs boson is a creator-particle, a particle that grants us existence itself, the capacity to be measured and judged and understood. It truly is the God-particle.

As a humanist, my work at a STEM-focused, logic-loving institution recalls the age-old tension tension between reason and faith. If the lamed wufniks were the inspiration for The Nine’s plot, then that tension inspired its world. It’s a world where humanity chains faith and religion to observable, measurable data, and transforms the worship of gained and ordered knowledge into the worship of its creator. I made that world to test my skepticism about the limits of empirical knowledge.

What better way to build that world, and to blow it all up, than to go a little Borges and prove to my character that yes, someone really is watching?

If God is an experimenter, a scientist in His own right, He’s got to keep notes somewhere. And that means someone’s bound to find them, sooner or later.

—-

The Nine: Amazon.com|Barnes & Noble.com|Indiebound|Powells

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

The Big Idea: Matthew De Abaitua

Work sucks. In The Red Men, author Matthew De Abaitua has come up with an answer. Uh, maybe. He’s here to explain that whole “maybe” part.

MATTHEW De ABAITUA:

From an early age, I was terrorised by the prospect of getting a proper job. A summer spent working as a security guard on the docks convinced me that my intuition concerning work was correct; it was a desperate exploitative world and not for the likes of me. What if I could somehow accrue all the benefits of going to work – a salary and social status – without having to subordinate myself to its deadening routines?

The big idea of my novel The Red Men comes from this yearning, although it in no way solves it. The novel turns around the question of your collaboration with power, how much of yourself you can trade to get on in the world, or can you deny all attempts by the “real world” to control you and instead live freely and imaginatively.

To explore this question, I invented the Red Men. The Red Men are simulations of real people devised by an artificial intelligence. They are not copies. We will not be able to digitally copy consciousness. Mind cannot be separated from body in that way. Instead, our technology will tell stories about us, based on its observations of our desires and behaviours.

In my novel, these stories are The Red Men and – for a regular subscription fee – they will do your work for you: capable of processing data at light speed, and gifted with your way of seeing the world, your Red Man toils in an office job while you are free to profit from their salary and find more a productive way of using your time.

I was first attracted to the idea of a digital self because it promised an incorporeal immortality. Planning the novel out, I realised that a digital land-of-do-as-you-please wouldn’t work fictively. It would be like writing out a long dream. The readers wouldn’t care about what happened in a realm in which all harm can be undone, all damage reversed. I would need to find a way of making the readers care.

All virtual worlds suffer from being as inconsequential as a dream. That’s why, if you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world – its the only way to make the Matrix matter. The novel may have been born of my immature desire to live in a world governed by the pleasure principle but it could not be told from the point of view of a digital person. Rather, the point of view of the novel had to follow the real people who work with the Red Men, and who suffer from their interaction with simulated people. After years of idle planning, it was this realisation of the narrative point of view that kickstarted my writing.

The Red Men is told from two points of view: Raymond is a down-at-heel poet who is drawn into the customer service department managing the interaction between the Red Men and their subscribers; Nelson is more senior than Raymond, having worked for years for the company Monad that creates the Red Men. So Raymond’s point of view, new to this world, as he discovers Monad and its products, accords to that of the readers. Nelson, who is more steeped in Monad, provides insight into the back story of the technology. Indeed, it is Nelson who first devises the name of the Red Men when he first meets the company’s artificial intelligence, and it is Nelson who is tasked with expanding the program in the middle of the novel, when Monad decide to simulate an entire town to help them predict mass effects and reactions to government policies.

The novel is structured according to this question of whether it is possible to deny the imperatives of the “real world” of jobs, mortgages, health care payments and live in a realm of your own imagining and control. Chekhov once observed of Tolstoy that while he didn’t have the answers, he asked the right questions. A novel shouldn’t be didactic, it is a more exploratory form. Power it with a good question rather than your idea of an answer. The question runs through the heart of Nelson’s relationships – whether he should allow work to take him away from his family – and through Raymond’s troubles, as he is drawn into the work of Monad’s rival company Dyad, which specialises in technology that exploits and inhabits the human unconscious.

When I found my emotional connection to the big idea, I was finally able to write it. Only after I’d spent a few years toiling in an office, subordinated to nonsensical corporate cant and bullshit imperatives, having had the shit bored out of me, was I able to put my big idea on a stage crafted by everyday frustrations and yearnings.

—-

The Red Men: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Leanna Renee Hieber

Yes, my friends, the 80s are back! No, not the 1980s: The 1880s, where author Leanna Renee Hieber has spent much of her creative life, culminating in her new novel The Eterna Solution, the third book in her Eterna Files series. And what has Hieber been doing, back there in the 1880s? Just you wait.

LEANNA RENEE HIEBER:

The big idea behind The Eterna Files series came from my desire to fashion two 1880s X-Files-esque and MI-5 kind of departments chock full of interpersonal drama and lively characters. And then set them against a huge, paranormal evil. Phantasmagorical fireworks ensue.

This is my third Gaslamp Fantasy series and one of two connected series with Tor Books, a house that has been actively reissuing my award-winning and bestselling- but previously out of print- Strangely Beautiful saga.

The Eterna world embraces the importance of personal magic and the resilience of the human spirit. Beloved Gothic traditions are all present but reimagined; Ghosts! Adventure! Mystery and Drama! But for all my Sturm und Drang, I wanted to craft small, practical, meaningful moments of magic. When imbued with personal spirit and private meaning, tiny gestures have a huge protective quality. The quest for understanding, for meaning, for purpose and calling drives all of my characters. That’s what makes their embrace of personal, localized magic very powerful. This is a saga of Wards.

My Eterna Files trilogy culminates this week in the brand new The Eterna Solution. The series features a huge cast of quirky, inclusive characters from London and New York, in an 1882 timeline very much like our own, but in which paranormal aspects dominate the lives of a select few. The first book (The Eterna Files) is a parallel narrative following two teams in New York and London that entwine by the second book (Eterna and Omega).

Spiritualists, policemen, circus performers and secretaries join forces as the Eterna Commission in New York and the Omega Department in London, both created to focus on pursuing immortality, become allies when they realize they’ve been pitted against one another by a vile, secret cabal dealing in foul, malevolent magic.

I started my first novel when I was a pre-teen and it was set in 1888. I’ve been writing about this decade for most of my life. It’s not just a penchant, it’s a calling that drives me on a level that defies even my own understanding. Perhaps I’m like one of the many Spiritualist mediums in my work; channeling an age that whispers its hopes and dreams to me and wants me to tell its stories, all of which feel deeply, inexplicably personal.

Clara Templeton, one of the series stars, was one of the hardest characters I’ve ever written, because she’s the closest to me and there’s a danger there. I had to separate her out from me like untangling a knot of woven hair in order to have any kind of objectivity. The heart and soul of her remains deeply intimate. Alternately, her foil, my stoic London detective Harold Spire is a fierce skeptic and almost a curmudgeon, and yet such an effective teammate despite polar differences. I grew to love him all the more for his opposite nature.

As a New Yorker of over 12 years, and having spent months across many years researching in London, the power of a place is the core of my personal, Ward-driven magic. As a New York City tour guide for Boroughs of the Dead, Manhattan’s highest rated ghost tour company; I tell the stories of New York ghosts as friends of mine, haunts I visit every week. They’re the immortal story my characters seek, and the stages of New York and London are such rich characters in and of themselves.

My characters are unapologetically themselves and seek to be treated with respect and full rights in a society that was extremely limiting, restrictive and compartmentalized. They find allies and community, found families and fellow travelers. Contrary to the rare reader who thinks I, as a modern writer, force feminism, orientation and/or racial equality on my characters in some sort of anachronistic take, my characters’ attitudes reflect actual historic evidence and tracts that date back far earlier than my 1882 setting.

My characters don’t gloss over inequalities in any way, however they have been raised with the idea of respect and inclusion for generations. (Just as one historical example, Victoria Woodhull ran for President in 1872, a decade prior than my setting, with Frederick Douglass (doing great things) as her running mate. She came up from within the broad Spiritualist movement in which I have embedded my main characters, a collective that was entwined with suffrage and civil rights.)

The punk in Steampunk is only earned by questioning power dynamics and institutions, and I’m in the related/parallel genre as a Gaslamp Fantasy novelist. (To make the genre delineation clear: Steampunk is Steam-powered-era Science Fiction in which characters solve problems with SciFi tropes and innovative technology, Gaslamp Fantasy is gas-lit-era Fantasy where characters solve problems with Fantasy tropes and spectral, magical conventions). My characters question their world, chafe against strictures, and seek to be reformers just as many movements did.

Since I’m working in a covert branch environment, paranormal aspects carve out space for all my characters to have as much agency and self-determination as they all deserve and the secret departments allow for workings around societal restrictions. The era itself is rife with conflict, which is always great for storytelling, and as the 19th century was rather obsessed with ghosts, séances, pseudo-sciences and occult goings on, my Eterna world is a phantasmagorical reality not far from our own, and I dearly hope you’ll come along for the action, fancy outfits, adventure, tidbits of actual history, and plenty of murder and mayhem. Cheers and Happy Haunting!

—-

The Eterna Solution: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: K.C. Alexander

Books can take a lot out of you as a writer. And sometimes, as K.C. Alexander explains for Nanoshock, you go through a lot to get to the end of them.

K.C. ALEXANDER:

So here we are, you and I. Back again some year and change later. Last time, I talked about Necrotech, and how writing it inspired me to come out genderqueer—all challenge and angry and defiant.

I chose the Big Idea to do it then because the rage of being taught I was not enough had fueled 110,000 words. At that point…how could I avoid the truth when it was repeatedly jabbing me in the brain? With an ice pick. The Ice Pick of Truth, as it turned out.

So, Riko. Me. Life is art is life.

And another ice pick for the brain.

I got drunk to write this. This will inevitably be the title of my memoirs, but until then, we have the Big Idea. And Nanoshock, Riko’s next installment, and probably the hardest thing I’d ever had to (wanted to) write.

Did you know that I was a year and some change late on this book, too? Maybe a mild exaggeration… but close enough. My editors at Angry Robot Books were extremely, overwhelmingly supportive, and my agent bent over backwards to keep me reassured, but I was late, late, late. The White Rabbit fucking gave up on me, I was so damn late.

Did I mention I got drunk to write this?

A memoir.

You can laugh. It’s totally okay.

Nanoshock’s Riko is an asskicker, but those who live by the ass die by the… wait. Let me start over. Riko is an asskicker, but those who are violent only beget violence, and so she spends much of the previous book bloody. With her memories savaged and her reputation in tatters, Riko’s now dealing with a whole new level of BS: she must figure out WTF went down in those missing memories, WTF she’s the one hauling this shit around, and—to make matters worse—WTF sold her out.

For those of you who need the help: that’s “what”, “why” and “who”, respectively. And a lot of “the fucks” added.

“Sounds like fun,” you say. “What could go wrong?” Well. For Riko? Lots.

For me?

More than I thought would.

Let’s make an abrupt left turn and meander down a different road. Let’s talk about trauma. More specifically, let’s talk about non-combat PTSD.

You know the acronym—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you’re like most, you associate it with survivors of war, soldiers returning home, victims of incredible abuse or an accident survivor. You think blood and gore and broken bones and bullets flying and fists and whatever else comes at one from the ugly side of things.

I think… a man’s raised voice, laced with focused intention. …the pressure of somebody behind me. …sexual advances when I am struggling with my depression. …the subtle unweaving of my success, my confidence, my wants and my needs.

I remember fear in the dead of night and razor blades at dinner. Basically? I am Jessica Jones, and I don’t even have the raw strength to fight the battles I need to.

Listen. There’s a thing called “complex PTSD”, and it’s a disorder caused not by one single event but by the stacking of many. “Non-combat PTSD” is when you have all the same symptoms—flashbacks, panic attacks, disassociation, bone-deep fear, paranoia and more—but you didn’t pick it up at a battlefield or a crime scene or a car crash… You just…

You just lost. You lost everything. Your confidence, your physical safety, your emotional and mental balance. Each brick of your foundation chipped and whittled and shaped into what something else, somebody else, demanded of you. Until one day something happens, something breaks, and if you’re lucky, you surface from that sleepwalking hell into the stark, cold, terrifying reality: you are not the person you thought you were. You aren’t even in the same dimension.

And you aren’t worthy of anything better.

I wish I was Riko. (A smooth shift back onto the main road!) Riko’s coping mechanisms, while unhealthy, are so much easier for me to understand. What I’d give to be able to channel all this bottled in rage and fear and shame and explode it all over some motherfuckers what need educating. I have a list. I’d feel so much better if I could just tick off each line, one by one. “Exploded, bloodied, broken, dead.”

I announce for the cheap seats: I am a struggling buddhist.

Except…

Those who live by violence beget violence. Those who rely on the punch receive more in kind. In my first draft of this book, Riko—my violent, angry, bloodied bitch—became an extension of me. And it wasn’t great.

See, after Necrotech, Riko found herself at the bottom of the food chain. Her life, her sense of security, had been thoroughly shredded. (Spoiler alert: there is blood. So, so much blood. And fleshy, wobbly bits, mostly unattached.) Starting with nothing is daunting at the best of times, but as Nanoshock opened under my furiously typing fingers, I realized:

I, too, was starting over from nothing. Everything I’d built had been stripped away, and not least of which had been my pride as a human being, my sense of self, my confidence, and yes, my voice. Like waking up from a dream I hadn’t realized was so violent in its calm, extremely slow pace, I suddenly surfaced into the real world and saw, felt, understood that I had nothing.

Because I was only allowed to have nothing.

And here I was, trying to set Riko on the path to rebuilding her own life when I didn’t have the first idea of how to rebuild mine. I couldn’t even face my own trauma—and like Riko, I didn’t want to.

Nanoshock is late to the shelves because it took me two years—two years—to fight through the bloody wounds and ragged scars and sheer fucking shame that comes with PTSD. First, I had to acknowledge it.

And then I had to get help.

Two years. I’m still in therapy, and I will be for a long time. It’s like I had to reach this point to understand where Riko needed to go. And I understand enough about her to understand that it’ll take her a lot longer than the time she has to get to where I am working so hard to be.

Sometimes (often?), an author has to know the answers first before they can reverse engineer it back to the beginning.

The schematics of trauma are a mess. But having been there, and struggling every day to cope with the sense of violation, fear, programmed responses and cold uncertainty, I feel so much better equipped to write Riko’s struggle (and by god, it is a struggle).

You see, although it’s taken me years, I have finally been allowed—encouraged, given sanctuary for it—to own my trauma. I can work through it. I can face it head on and slowly, sometimes painfully, take the teeth out where I can.

But Riko? Riko’s journey is harder. A narcissist, proud of her place, having fought tooth and bleeding nail to earn it, and stubborn as all get out, she doesn’t have the support network I needed to resurface. Won’t take it. Won’t bend, won’t forgive. She’s got a lot to learn to deal with. That could have been me.

So here we are, you and I. Back at the Big Idea, where I share all the aspects of my world that fuel the rage and pain and violence and motherfucking demand for hope that makes up Riko’s stories. Redemption for us both on the page; pain all around for free.

Riko’s journey is only just beginning. It seems funny, when I look at it, to think it took me this long to claw my way back into my own skin just to rip Riko out of hers. And unlike me now, but very much like me then, Riko is unable to own her trauma. Until she does, she can’t mend the wounds.

Until those wounds are mended, she will bleed out—bit by bit, emotionally and mentally and yes, even physically. Wounds on the body help. They bring peace. Riko knows this, and it’s an ugly kind of truth.

Does she have the strength to overcome this as she punches, shoots, swears at and otherwise rocks every obstacle in her path?

Well. I did. Sort of.

If I can, then Riko can. And if Riko can, then you can.

See how this works?

Nanoshock, where the darkest shit is yet to come and still, even still, holding on for another day means another day of hope, redemption, and a sense of self.

I got drunk to write this.

A memoir, yes. But also, acknowledgment. Of self and of the arc of trauma. Of the grit that nobody likes to see—not really, not the gritty, filthy, infected stuff that oozes over the veneer and smells like rot. But also, acknowledgement that there is a way back to the light. Grab it where you can. Tomorrow, nursing the hangover, follow through on what it takes.

We got stuff to do, you and I. We have things to accomplish. If I can do it, Riko can.

And if Riko can?

Well, you see where this is going…

As for me? I’m going to therapy. And Riko? She’s going to kick some ass. Between the two of us, there will be a lot of drunk nights. You see, drunk, high, or otherwise jacked up makes the nightmares easier to face.

But sobriety always follows. We’ll fight and fall and claw at the ledge, and there will be some tears. But you know what? That’s okay, too. Growth fucking hurts. But hey. We survived, right? (It’ll take her a bit to realize that… She, unlike me, doesn’t have two years to do it.)

As Riko would say, zen it.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: James Alan Gardner

I’ll start by saying James Alan Gardner’s new novel has my favorite book title of the year. But, of course there’s more going on in All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault than a great title. Gardner’s here to tell you about a world of super beings and what having a world full of them means for those beings, and everybody else.

JAMES ALAN GARDNER:

Superheroes. They’re super and they’re heroes. That’s the Big Idea.

I have loved superheroes since I was seven years old and laid out all my comic books on the front sidewalk, so that my friends and I could admire how many there were. It was one of the few times in my life when I’ve made what anthropologists might call a “status display”. I don’t remember how many comics I actually had at that time, but probably less than twenty. On the other hand, AVENGERS #1 was part of the collection, so what I lacked in quantity, I made up for with quality.

At any rate, I’ve been buying and reading comics since the early days of the Silver Age. They were my gateway into science fiction, fantasy, and geekdom; they taught me about science, myth and morality; they demonstrated how to tell stories, and why stories were important.

Perhaps most importantly, the letter columns in the back of comic books made me aware that these stories didn’t miraculously appear out of nowhere. The stories were created by specific people who essentially just made stuff up. If the creators chose to do A rather than B, it wasn’t because A was true and B was false. It was simply because they thought A was more interesting than B. They charted their course by what they believed would appeal to readers, not by fitting the story to events that actually happened.

This revelation put me on the path to becoming a writer too. However, it was years before I decided to write a superhero book. I did so after I’d published a number of science fiction books, but in a period when my work wasn’t selling any more. Because doing the old stuff looked like a dead end, I asked myself what I’d rather be writing instead…and the answer was superheroes.

They’re super and they’re heroes. What else do you need?

I couldn’t set the book in any of the well-known superhero universes—I didn’t want to make the acquaintance of lawyers from DC, Marvel, Image, etc. So I had to invent my own universe, which suited me just fine. All I had to do was bear in mind the Big Idea of superheroes: they’re super and they’re heroes.

The “super” part was straightforward…but what is a hero these days? What makes someone heroic? Not just beating up criminals. Surely a hero should aim higher: fighting larger injustices. But many of the injustices we face are systemic, not just the deeds of individuals. Could I find some way to dramatize that, while still allowing space for super-ness (i.e. explosions, fisticuffs, and firefights)?

I could. I designed a world where the people in power were clearly a problem. I didn’t want them to be unambiguously evil—that’s too simplistic and would make moral choices too easy. On the other hand, I wanted the people at the top to be enough of a threat that the world would need superheroes.

So here’s the set-up I created for All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. In 1982 (not coincidentally the Reagan years), vampires, werewolves and the like finally ask, “Why are we being so secretive? We’re sitting on a marketable asset.” They offer to make any human into a Darkling like themselves in exchange for ten million dollars. Fast-forward a few decades, and virtually everyone in positions of power around the world are Darklings. Supposedly, they all obey the law—no killing or using supernatural powers for nefarious purposes—but let’s just say there are suspicions of covert misdeeds.

Then, in 2001, superheroes show up…almost as if Fate decided that a counterbalance was needed. Unlike the rich buying their place in the Darkness, any old schlub may become a superhero. All you have to do is touch a glowing meteor, fall in a vat of weird chemicals, or get bitten by a radioactive spider. Heck, you might just be born that way, and discover what you are sometime in your teens.

So in this world, the 1% are Darklings and the 99% are protected by superheroes. It’s a situation guaranteed to create conflicts, but neither side is certain to be right or wrong. Super-folk (generally called Sparks) are ordinary people from all walks of life; they aren’t always good guys, any more than the Darklings are 100% bad.

Once I had this background, all I had to do was write a story in it. Hey, no problem. But again, the Big Idea applies. Super. Heroes. I wanted my lead characters to be truly heroic. Of course, they’d have flaws, but their hearts had to be in the right place. I didn’t want antiheroes; I wanted smart decent people whom I’d care about.

I also wanted heroes who represented the 99% in all its wondrous variety, as opposed to the relative monoculture of the 1%. So I came up with a diverse team of four university students who gain superpowers in a classic lab accident, and who find themselves thrust immediately into dealing with a Darkling conspiracy. The students are each heroic in their own distinctive way. Over the course of a four-book series, I hope to have fun exploring those different versions of heroism…

…while also blowing a lot of stuff up. Because the “super” part is important too. Flashy fights and excitement. A rationale for costumes and masks. Banter. Many jokes. The best of what comics can be.

Over the past few years, more and more superhero books are appearing on the shelves. Some are re-examinations of the genre, asking serious questions about what superhero fantasies say about our culture. Fair enough…but there’s also a place for books that glory in the four-color spectacle.

That’s what I was going for: superness and heroism. I hope the two can still bring the fun.

—-

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Fonda Lee

Family: It’s a thing, for most of us, most of the time. And it certainly for Fonda Lee and her newest novel, Jade City, in which family issues aren’t just fodder for holiday get-togethers, but could determine the future of a nation.

FONDA LEE:

I had a strong vision for Jade City from the start. I knew it would have gangsters and martial arts and magic and culture and history—but I also knew that, at its core, it would be about family. This is the story of the Kaul family. Because family—its history, pressures, obligations—is what ultimately drives these characters in their most selfless and most ruthless moments.

It would seem, upon reflection, that the topic of family and how it shapes personal identity is a recurring one in my work. Jade City is my third novel. (As a former management consultant, I declare that three data points is all you need to start making sweeping generalizations.) I’m noticing unintentional patterns in my own writing, common themes and ideas.

Carr Luka from Zeroboxer, Donovan Reyes from Exo, and now the Kaul siblings of Jade City are extremely different characters, but they all grapple with who they are and what is important to them once they realize that how much the course of their lives has been decided by people and factors outside of their control. They’re torn between gratitude and resentment toward their parents, they’re conflicted about how others view them, they’re weighed down by their own expectations and those of others, and above all, they try to find the strength to make their own decisions (whether those decisions are driven by duty or desire) while also making peace with the fact that much of fate is driven by circumstance.

I suppose this thematic thread in my work shouldn’t be surprising. I’m a second generation Asian-American, the child of a broken marriage, a corporate strategist who left to become a science fiction and fantasy writer, a woman and a mother who’s been the lone female minority in the finance meeting and in the MMA viewing party and on the science fiction panel. I know a bit about conflicted identities and the struggle to carve out who you are against outside pressures.

In Jade City, that struggle becomes a tragic commonality between all the main point-of-view characters—four siblings who are expected to lead the clan their grandfather built but find themselves fighting for survival in a bloody clan war that will determine the fate of their country.

There is something undeniably compelling about family dynamics in a culture where violence is the legitimate and often preferred way to solve problems (as it is among the jade-wielding Green Bone warriors of the fictional island of Kekon). Within the popular genre of mafia stories, The Godfather and The Sopranos stand out as being especially popular and beloved. We forgive, indeed cheer, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano’s violent acts because they’re family men; they act not out of greed but out of love, duty, and vengeance for their respective clans. For similar reasons, stories of family feuds have a powerful hold on our imagination. The Montagues versus the Capulets. The Hatfields versus the McCoys. I think it’s because we all recognize that sometimes family can be so infuriating you really do feel like killing someone.

At the end of the day, though, you’d do anything for them. You would go to war.

Upon reading a draft of Jade City, one of my beta readers astutely pointed out that each of the Kaul siblings struggles with their place in the family. At times they’re close to each other, and at other times, worlds apart. They’re each forced, in ways that seem subtly inevitable, into doing things or taking on roles they didn’t want to. They do it anyway, and they own their choices, even the ones where its seems, given the circumstances, there was no choice at all. Because that’s the Big Idea in Jade City: family and personal identity can’t be disentangled.

As the Green Bones say: the clan is my blood.

—-

Jade City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Hank Early

Hello, folks. This fine day, author Hank Early would like to talk to about Hell. And the End Times. And Heaven’s Crooked Finger. The last of these being his new novel. But the other two of which had some influence on its writing.

HANK EARLY:

When I was eleven, I buried a large, club-like tree branch out on the sixty-four acres my grandmother owned in rural North Georgia. I was with my cousin and we’d spent the day discussing the Book of Revelation and how long we might have left until Jesus came back. We knew the rapture was going to happen sooner than later, and we knew before it happened, things were going to get really, really ugly. Ugly enough that the modern world would collapse, and we’d have to turn to the land, to the old ways for survival. Which was why I was burying the stick. One day—probably in just a few short years—my eleven-year-old self reasoned, I’d need it as a last-ditch way to fend off the hordes of unbelievers who would seek to pervert me.

I wrote my first Earl Marcus novel, Heaven’s Crooked Finger, without thinking even one time of that buried stick. I only remembered it today as I sat down to write this blog post. Yet, I believe it’s a memory that speaks to the impetus and heart of the novel. 

I grew up believing in all manner of dread-inspiring events—the rapture, Armageddon, the coming anti-Christ, and the inevitable mark of the beast. I also believed in the physical reality of hell. 

My grandmother’s preacher saw to that. 

Most of the preacher’s words are lost to me today, all except one: hell. I remember that word the way a cancer survivor remembers chemotherapy, the way a recovering alcoholic remembers morning hangovers. 

Hell, hell, hell, hell, like a bludgeon. Like a harbinger. Or maybe just a slow wind, the kind that whispers words of terror as it rattles the trees.

The preacher must have said that word a hundred times that Sunday, punctuating each utterance by slamming his foot down on the stage hard enough to splinter wood. I don’t pretend to know if he believed in the hell he screamed about or if he simply liked the idea of such a place. What I do know was I believed in it. Like the rapture, I’d learned to believe in hell. I’d learned to believe in it so fully, I would later spend nights lying awake in bed worrying—not about the existential questions, but instead about the existential answers, those that I’d come to see as irrefutable.

Those answers terrified me. Questioning did little good. Any number of true believers in my extended family were quick to point out the obvious signs:

“The blood moon over there. That’s an omen. The Lord is coming back soon.”

“See this symbol on this toothpaste? That’s the mark of the beast.”

“If the Lord would have returned in the middle of our argument, we’d have both gone to hell.”

“Better get right with the Lord. Better not backslide like (fill in the blank with some distant relative’s name).”

Most of these quotes can be attributed to my grandmother, one of the women to whom I dedicated Heaven’s Crooked Finger.

I can see you’re perplexed. Shouldn’t I feel animosity toward the woman who made me fear backsliding as much as I feared death? There’s a long essay right there, but the short answer is no.  

Like my novel’s protagonist, Earl Marcus, I went on my own journey away from fundamentalism and fear. Mine was far less dramatic than the one described in Heaven’s Crooked Finger, but it was no less enlightening. It taught me something crucial, something that all the foot-stomping, tongue-speaking, and end-of-days-prophesying never could. It taught me to forgive. Not only to forgive, but to understand.

Until you’re raised in it, until you’ve sat through those tense and fearful moments as a young child while the world and its foundations shook all around you and until you’ve waited with bated breath, absolutely sure that the skies would part at any moment and when they did, you’d be left behind with all the sinners because you knew somewhere deep inside that this wasn’t working for you, that you wanted no part of this damnation, these convulsions, this kingdom built with bricks of fear and guilt and, yes, even some kind of perverted love. No, until you’ve felt that, and more importantly until you’ve feared that, you can’t understand how hard it is to step away, to turn your back on it all, to become the backslider that you’d been warned about so many times.

Before she was the person who made me fear hell and plan for the imminent rapture, Granny was the woman who loved me unconditionally, the woman, who despite what the scriptures might say about a man being the leader of his household, actually showed me how a woman could do anything a man could do and do it better. Later, when the fear of her faith had begun to lose some of its power over me, she was also the woman who, at 80, left her rural mountain home to move in with me and my mother and father, both of whom were dying of cancer. She took care of us all, and I saw God in that act bigger and brighter and more real than I ever saw Him before. So, there’s the messy truth about Granny, and maybe about us all. And that too, is the big idea of the Heaven’s Crooked Finger. In the end, people are damned complicated, and even the ones that would condemn us to a fiery hell in one breath might love us with the same heat and passion in the next.

Even so, I contend the scars inflicted by our own families are the hardest to overcome, not only because of the ambiguity behind them (the perpetrators nearly always love their victims, sometimes fiercely) but also because of the frequency and ubiquity of the assaults. To walk away from a faith he couldn’t abide, Earl also had to walk away from his family. His home. Heaven’s Crooked Finger tells the story of a return home and a struggle to deal with not only the fallout, but the enduring mystery of that faith and what, if any, truth might be gleaned from it. It’s a mystery that asks far more questions than it answers: Why do we hurt the ones we love? Why, in our most genuine efforts to rise above this earthbound misery, do we saddle our children with such heavy burdens? What happens to our communities when those burdens are shrugged off at last, and the belief in heaven and hell becomes secondary to the love that binds us together in the first place?

You’ll have to decide for yourself how well the novel addresses these issues. The only thing I know for sure was that it was cathartic for me to write. As was this essay.

The best thing to come of it all happened when I was talking to my wife while taking a writing break recently, many of these same issues still fresh on my mind. My fifteen-year-old daughter overheard our conversation and piped up with a question that warms my heart:

“Dad,” she said, “what are the end times?”

Progress.

—-

Heaven’s Crooked Finger: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Tim Pratt

When you get known for writing one thing, it can be a blessing and a curse — a blessing that you have an audience for your wares, but a curse in that you can sometimes feel like you’ve written yourself into a corner. Sometimes making a change in those cases requires a leap of faith. Tim Pratt has made that leap with The Wrong Stars, and today he’s going to talk you through that leap and what came after.

TIM PRATT:

Insofar as I’m known at all, I’m known as a fantasy writer. I’ve published an eleven-book urban fantasy series, written a bunch of sword and sorcery, and done zillions of fantasy short stories. When I’ve dabbled in science fiction it’s mostly been set in the modern era – stories about people traversing the multiverse, a little bit of time travel, weird alien visitors, and the like.

I grew up on widescreen space operatic galaxy-far-away sorts of science fiction, though, from Star Trek to Star Wars to Edmond Hamilton’s Star Wolf to Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers, and I never lost my taste for the stuff. As an adult I devoured Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga and M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract and Peter Watts’s Blindsight, not to mention shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica and GalaxyQuest and The Expanse, video games like the Dead Space series, and more.

I always held the desire to write a space opera series deep in my secret heart, but that kind of science fiction is so different from my usual fantasy work, and I hesitated. Could I write something so far outside my wheelhouse? Would people come with me if I jumped genres that way?

A couple of years ago, as I began winding down my Marla Mason urban fantasy series after over a dozen years, I asked myself: what should my next big project be? What do I want to be the centerpiece of the next decade of my writing life, if all goes well?

It seemed like an important decision. I turned 40 last year. I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years. I am probably in the fullness of my power as a novelist, such as it is. If not now, when? So I decided it was space opera time.

I sat down and made a list of everything I love about spaceships-and-aliens science fiction. There should be a diverse crew of interesting people on a cool spaceship. Bizarre alien technology that violates the known laws of physics for fun, profit, and mayhem. Colony worlds, cosmic threats, weird artificial intelligences, posthumans, space stations, big dumb objects, big smart objects, mysterious inhuman ruins on uncharted planets, space pirates, vast ancient engineering projects of uncertain purpose, baffling but friendly aliens, cold and hostile aliens, murderous robots, biotech monstrosities, first contacts, cryo-sleep chambers, seed ships, and silent explosions.

I wanted to explore space opera themes I love, too: especially what it means to be human in a universe of extreme body modification, intelligent aliens, and far-flung colony worlds. What are the essential things that bind us together as a culture, or even a species, when that culture is spread throughout the galaxy, when we’re changing our bodies in fundamental ways, and when our common experiences have become increasingly uncommon?

I began to sketch out a world six centuries in our future: a network of colony worlds connected by wormhole gates and organized into various corporate, religious, and utopian polities, with a place for outsiders of every variety. There are weird aliens, a species we call “Liars,” who tell contradictory and sometimes patently false stories about themselves and the nature of the universe, but also trade us useful technology. I wanted a vast, looming background threat for my characters to gradually discover and grapple with throughout the series, and created the Axiom — an undiscovered ancient alien race, engaged in long-term universe-altering plans, capable of crushing humanity utterly if they ever noticed our existence and found us inconvenient.

I had a world worth exploring, but it wasn’t enough to put all my influences together to create an enjoyable sandbox. The beating heart of my stories is always the characters, and once I had a sense of the kind of weird, complicated future I wanted to play with, I started creating people who could thrive and strive and fight and suffer in such a world.

My novel The Wrong Stars is about the crew of the White Raven, skip tracers and freight haulers and wreck salvagers operating out on the fringes of our solar system. The crew is captain Callie Machedo, who probably has a heart under her no-nonsense exterior, though it would take a plasma torch to cut your way through; doleful XO and ship’s doctor (and adherent of a mind-altering-chemical-based mystery religion), Stephen; their engineer, a cyborg advocate of radical self-improvement, Ashok; pilot and navigator Drake and Janice, who had a run-in with a bizarre sect of Liars and came out forever changed; the lovelorn ship’s AI, Shall; and the catalyst for the novel’s action, Doctor Elena Oh, cryosleep refugee from the 22nd century, whom the crew discovers in the wreck of a seed-ship launched 500 years earlier.

When they find Elena’s vessel inexplicably floating on the edge of our solar system instead of light-years away, and hear Elena’s harrowing tale of why she’s the only human left on board, the crew discovers a terrible threat to all intelligent life in the galaxy, and for various violent reasons, they’re the only one who can stop it. The Wrong Stars is about dealing with that immediate threat… and the next books in the series, The Dreaming Stars and The Forbidden Stars, will explore more of the endangered universe as the gravity of the threat posed by the Axiom becomes clear.

I love these people. I hope you will, too. I get to write at least three books about them, so far. With luck, there will be more, because there’s a great big universe to explore, full of terrifying wonders and wonderful terrors.

I hope you’ll follow me out into the stars. It turns out I really like it here.

—–

The Wrong Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Is Siege Line the end? For author Myke Cole, no. He will have more books coming. But for a particular trilogy of books, and a phase of Cole’s career, the book represents a final stage. Not with a whimper, though — with a bang, and one that required more of the author than he initially expected.

MYKE COLE:

Apocalypse fiction loves a good wasteland.

Most of us have heard of Ragnarok, the Viking idea of a “Twilight of the Gods” in old Norse mythology, where the world is swept away and the final battle between good and evil is fought. Ragnarok is hardly a unique idea in mythology and religion. Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest recorded faiths, likewise has the world scoured with lava and a final battle between the wicked and the righteous. Christianity has the Book of Revelation, which talks of the final fight between Christ and Antichrist, and Islam has given us the apocalyptic vision of the 12th Imam, who comes to herald the end time, and the final scouring of the wicked from the earth. Buddhism, Hinduism, Rastafarianism. They all have their apocalypse visions, and nearly all have the same central elements: The world scoured, laid waste, heralding the final battle between good and evil.

My favorite visual summary of this idea is in the last of a quartet of paintings by the 19th century American landscape painter Thomas Cole – The Voyage of Life. The paintings depict a soul’s journey through life from birth to death. The final painting, Old Age, shows an old man on his way to heaven. What stands out most is the landscape he leaves behind. At the end, all is stripped bare. Nothing grows, nothing moves, nothing lives. The apocalypse of all these myth-systems echoes in the oils – at the end, there is only wasteland.

We love wastelands for our final showdowns in fiction. By stripping away all distractions, they help focus the narrative on the final conflict at hand. The warring characters come into stark relief, unhindered by background. It’s the literary equivalent of wearing a drab gray suit to a job interview. Undistracted by your clothes, the hope is that the interviewer will focus on your job skills.

But here’s the thing about real wastelands. They’re far from empty.

Deserts teem with life. The “hostile” environment of the arctic features around 3,000 different species of flowering plants alone, and around 130 species of mammal. And this doesn’t even count the human cultures that have flourished in these harsh regions without the benefit of advanced technology. The Bedouin and the Hopi, the Inuit and the Ainu.

When you really dig deep, the truth is that “wasteland” is really two words: “Waste,” which is a term of judgment used by those of us living in temperate zones with the benefit of climate control, and “Land,” with all the species, and human cultural diversity that implies. So, while wastelands may be a useful backdrop for final showdowns in fiction, they’re far from empty, and the “Twilight of the Gods” is likely to have significant fallout for the folks living in the warzone where the ultimate battle is playing out.

And that’s the big idea behind Siege Line.

Siege Line is the 3rd book in my Reawakening prequel trilogy. The Reawakening is the prequel to my military fantasy Shadow Ops trilogy. The six books together represent the first arc of my writing career, staking out my own subgenre, fleshing out my narrative, and seeing it to its conclusion. And like all good myth-systems, mine ends with an apocalypse, a final showdown between the wicked and the righteous, set against the backdrop of the wasteland so popular for these kinds of things. What can I say? I want to go out with a bang.

I chose the harsh subarctic-polar landscape of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and the tiny hamlet of Fort Resolution, nestled on the south shore of the Great Slave Lake. It’s barren by the standards of my comfortable Brooklyn neighborhood, but like all real-life wastelands, it has a vibrant and complex community and ecology, and people living there who go back generations, far earlier than the founding of either America or Canada, and who are fiercely proud of their culture and legacy.

This was the coolest discovery in writing this book, the background I picked refused to be background. The supporting cast swarmed the pages, demanding their voices be heard. With every hour of research I did, the culture and society of Canada’s “NWT” colonized my mind, changing first my perspective, and finally my narrative.

By the time the smoke cleared, my protagonist had been upstaged by the Sherriff of Fort Resolution, an Afghanistan vet and proud Dene woman, Wilma “Mankiller” Plante. Mankiller was unimpressed by my ignorance of her culture and land. If I was going to tell a story in her town, I was going to tell it her way.

It was a pretty sublime experience. Every writer dreams of these moments, when a character is so real, so fully fleshed out, that they literally take over the narrative, leaving the writer as a mere copyist, taking dictation and relaying what they see. Mankiller came alive, and Fort Resolution, the whole Slavey region, came alive with her.

George R. R. Martin has famously divided writers into “gardeners” (pantsers) who just sit down and write, and “architects” (plotters), who meticulously outline and plan before laying down a single word of prose. I have always prided myself on being an UBER-architect. I usually write more than 100 pages of outline before I begin work on a book. Having a book take a left turn when you’re an uber-architect can be frustrating.

But Mankiller wasn’t going to let it lie, and to be honest I’m glad she didn’t.

Can’t wait for you all to meet her, and to step into her world. It’s cold, sure, but there’s a lot more life there than some warmer places I’ve been.

—-

Siege Line: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Gregory Manchess

Every writer has their own process to develop a novel. But for writer/illustrator Gregory Manchess, the process for creating his visual-rich novel Above the Timberline was something rare, arresting, and inspiring.

GREGORY MANCHESS:

I found my own private portal into a future world through a painting called, “Above The Timberline.”

I created the painting on-camera for a documentary about how I work as a freelance illustrator. I know the power of a strong image, how it inspires, how it drives a narrative. That images tell fast what words can only catch up to.

Creating work that makes people curious is probably the most compelling thing to offer them. A picture is it’s own reference, and makes ‘a thousand words’ superfluous. Paintings don’t tell. They show. They build curiosity because we come to them with half the story already. Through our experiences.

A quick visual read, “Above The Timberline” is a man-against-the-elements kind of image, with a slight twist. His pack animals are polar bears. Why is he out there and how does he manage these man-hunting killers? What is he looking for? Even more, ‘what was I trying to get across,’ ‘who is this guy,’ etc. These are the questions put to me after I completed the image in late 2009.

I’d written things my entire life. Children’s stories, articles on the illustration business, poetry, philosophical thoughts about painting, and outlines for film ideas. Could I build a book that combined imagery with words to tell a visual story? Why not write a few thousand words across a hundred paintings?

I hadn’t set out to do this with Above The Timberline, but now I challenged myself to write the story-behind-the-story already inherent in the painting. A story that describes without description. Explains without explanation. Tells without telling.

I wasn’t after a graphic novel. Word balloons clutter the simple clarity a good image can depict. I don’t need to know what a character is accurately thinking because no one thinks accurately. I don’t need countless panels to depict time like film sequences. I wanted a simple, clear, direct passage of storytelling that pulls the reader along with curiosity and payoff.

I’d read books that inspired me to build words and images together: Dutch Treat, Gnomes, a Japanese story from the 1600’s with panel pictures and words. Then James Gurney’s fascinating Dinotopia came along. Turns out he’d been looking at many of the same books and feeling the desire to tell his own stories, too. He got his chance when he painted a compelling image that opened a world for him.

I knew an ex book-buyer, Joe Monti, who became a literary agent and I told him about my idea. He was intrigued, and challenged me further. How much story could I tell in how many paintings over what length. And of course, ‘how are you going to get this done?’ I had no idea. But I looked to my experience in illustration for clues.

Illustration has incredibly short deadlines, with fast turn-around times for advertising or editorial assignments. An illustrator trains to work under pressure on multiple assignments with multiple clients at the same time. To not only hit those deadlines, but be effective, maybe even award-winning, each time. It’s a skill developed over years. And I had 35+ years at it.

To accomplish the feat, I started with very small, postage-sized thumbnail sketches. These gave me story scenes that I wrote. The scenes gave me more image ideas, which gave me more scenes, and so on. I finally sat down and wrote a 300-page novel. Then I did something inconceivable for a writer.

I stripped it of all description. The images would carry that load, thereby paring it down to about 10,000 words. I worked those ideas into sketches. Sketches came and went, sequences appeared and drifted away. Images revised words, and words revised images.

The process wan’t a linear sequence, so my story swung to past events and current events with ease. I knew the reader would be able to go wherever I took them because we all drift backwards and forwards in time. Our thoughts make sense to us even if they’re scattered and random. The brain keeps them all arranged in an overall through-line, based on understanding, not logic.

I worked to maintain one overriding theorem: give every page visual impact, but with words to express what a painting cannot say, and images to show what words cannot easily convey.

Six years of writing and sketching, planning, revising and designing, and the book idea was sold. Eleven months and 122 paintings later, Above The Timberline was complete.

I had found my portal, like opening a wardrobe door, and stepping into a world of snow. It was brutally cold, and oddly comforting. The warmest place I’d known in years.

—-

Above the Timberline: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

See a preview. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook.

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bonesteel

Hey, you know how irritated you get when your internet access goes down? Elizabeth Bonesteel gets you. And so does her latest novel, Breach of Containment. She’s here to explain — provided your connection doesn’t suddenly go out…

ELIZABETH BONESTEEL:

We live in the woods, and that means, among other things, we have the crappiest internet service in the state*.

(*This almost certainly isn’t true. I’ve heard rumors there are towns in the western part of the state that still rely on dialup. I keep hoping that’s an ugly rumor spread by Verizon to keep us all compliant and grateful.)

People in town rely on a mish-mash of solutions. Ours is a T1 line. It’s slow (1.5 Mb up/down), and when it drops it drops for days. There’s nothing quite like the sensation of seeing Netflix give up the ghost, and then pulling up your web browser to see that progress bar just…stall.

It amazes me how much I’ve come to depend on the net—not just for news and cat videos, but for a sense of connection to the rest of the world. When the line goes down, it’s so easy to imagine there’s nothing out there at all anymore—that the silence will go on forever, and we’ll sit here alone in the woods, never discovering what’s happened to the rest of the world.

Within my lifetime, society has become dependent on instant communication.

Breach Of Containment is set roughly a thousand years in the future, where we’ve colonized a (still pretty damn small) part of the galaxy. Despite the distances, everything is elaborately connected. In addition to a network of government and military communications channels, all monitored and encrypted, there are entirely unregulated data streams over which both reliable and unreliable information fly unfettered. Most of my characters live aboard Galileo, a military starship, and they’re never disconnected from the officers giving orders. Neither are they ever free of consequences when they get creative about interpreting those orders (which happens far more often than it should).

At one point, as I was assembling this book, I thought: what if all that gets cut off? What if I dump them in the soup, and sever their access to intelligence, orders, even news of their families?

Structurally, that idea both simplified and complicated the plot. Breach Of Containment is, in many ways, your traditional are-we-preventing-or-starting-a-war adventure story. Galileo is working in an atmosphere of uncertainty and deceit at this point: some of their orders are legit, some are distractions designed to keep them out of the way of internal government intrigue, and they don’t always know which are which. When the communication channels back to Earth are lost, it suddenly stops mattering which commanding officer is trustworthy and which is a seditious traitor. Losing communications meant my characters didn’t need to waste time figuring out whether or not a bunch of tangential folks we don’t care about are on the right side or not.

But severing communications also let me play with people’s heads, and it’s no secret I love the messy character stuff. I’ve got three principals at this point, and Breach Of Containment begins with all of them stretched thin. Elena, formerly Galileo’s chief of engineering, has been out of the Corps for a year, and is feeling rootless and without purpose. Greg, Galileo’s captain, has been dutifully following orders, but is feeling less and less like his years of service have resulted in making any substantive difference for real people. Jessica, Greg’s now-seasoned second-in-command, sees most clearly the tightrope they’re walking between following potentially erroneous orders and dealing with a massive conspiracy that is almost certainly beyond their ability to stop.

Basically, I made sure everybody was tense and cranky, and then I cut their T1 line.

On top of that, I put them on a timer. There’s an armada headed toward Earth, and the big question is whether they’re intending to help, or to invade the vulnerable planet while nobody can warn them. And the only sources of information my happy crew has got? A retired Admiral who’s a gray-hat at best, a rival government’s starship and her relentlessly cheerful captain, and a nervous emissary who’s delivered a cryptic message that she seems convinced makes perfect sense. (Oh, and a talking box. I always forget the talking box.)

When you have no news and you can’t Google, how do you make your decisions?

Here in the real world, I didn’t have a smartphone until last December. (I’m not a Luddite. I’m just cheap.) Since then, the T1 outages have been far less unnerving. It’s comforting to be able to check Twitter and verify the outage isn’t part of some apocalyptic event. Sometimes I’ll even waste some data on a cat video. But every time, in that few seconds before my Twitter feed comes up, I feel that disorienting sense of being unmoored from the rest of the world. It’s not a great state of mind in which to make important decisions…but it’s not a bad catalyst for a plot.

—-

Breach of Containment: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: David Siegel Bernstein

The phrase “science fiction” has two relevant parts to it. In Blockbuster Science, author David Siegel Bernstein delves into the science of the fiction, and separates out the fantasy of the genre from the fact. Here he is to tell you process of his exploration.

DAVID SIEGEL BERNSTEIN:

Science fiction is driven by fear or hope, while science is driven by necessity or curiosity. The overlap between their motivations is huge. Science fiction has always had the power to inspire scientific and technological breakthroughs that change our world. Companies used words like “robot” and “android” after they were popularized in fiction, and today’s STEM experts often say they were first inspired by stories they read when they were young.

To me, what could be a more fun way to explore the world of science than through its use—accurately or fantastically—in science fiction entertainment: movies, books, and TV shows? This question is the big idea behind Blockbuster Science: The Real Science in Science Fiction. So as you may imagine, this book was born from my geeking love for both science and science fiction. This made it incredibly fun to write. How could it not be? I got to explain the science behind popular narrative concepts like time travel, AI, genetic mutation, asteroids, cyborgs, alien invasion, the zombie apocalypse, and more. I also created lists of songs (consider it science and science fiction mood music), movies, and books that highlight chapter topics.

The entire experience of writing this book was different from my fiction writing, where I’m mostly locked inside my head. Blockbuster Science was much more an external journey. I scoured research journals, textbooks, newspapers, and magazines to learn what is old news, where cutting edge research is heading, and new outcomes possible from widely accepted theories. I made my best attempt to explain key scientific principles in jargon-free, easy-to-understand narratives. For the creators of hard-science fiction, I hope this book draws the boundaries that cannot be broken and teases those that are begging to be broken with the right what-if.

I like questions—even ones for which we have no answers, yet. I made sure to season in a lot of question marks throughout each chapter. A lot of recent discoveries have led to questions that scientists never thought to ask before. Curiosity about our world drives fiction authors and filmmakers to explore the realm of possibility. Besides, isn’t science itself all about asking questions? Questions such as, what caused the big bang? Consider how cause comes before effect. In the standard big bang theory, as described in the book, there was no before (i.e., time) before the big bang. Think of searching for the cause of the big bang as being like searching for north while standing at the North Pole. Don’t worry, I address on a few of the newer theories that may provide you with a more satisfying theoretical answer to that question.

Every chapter of Blockbuster Science covers a different topic. Time and space, which are so interwoven that they are cleverly coupled under the moniker spacetime, and quantum mechanics start the learning process. The weirdness of string theory, the origin story called the big bang, parallel worlds, black holes, evolution and biology provide truckloads of building blocks for fictional worlds. Interconnectivity, AI, extraterrestrial life, interstellar communication, energy sources and rocketry buttress those building blocks. Substance, materials, invisibility, the holographic universe and technology spin up more possibilities until everything ends in the chapter that covers the end of everything (the sun, the universe…everything). Is it really the end? I offer up a few “workarounds” based on the science described throughout the book, but I warn you, it will sound like science fiction.

Blockbuster Science isn’t only for science fiction fans who want to know more about the science behind the plot. This book is for the curious—anyone who wants to know more about the natural world and the universe of which they are a part. It’s for the science geek in everyone, especially those who smirk at jokes such as: Schrödinger’s cat walks into a bar, and doesn’t. My kind of people!

—-

Blockbuster Science: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Felicity Banks

Writing alternate history is fun and interesting, but here’s another interesting thing: Every day, we’re making a history too. What happens when the latter crashes into the former? Author Felicity Banks has some thoughts on that and how it affects her new novel The Antipodean Queen.

FELICITY BANKS:

Every time there’s a crocodile attack in Australia’s Northern Territory, tourist rates go up.

That should probably make me fear for humanity, but it just makes me smile. We Australians often laugh at over-the-top depictions of our deadly animals and even deadlier landscapes. I’m a city girl myself, so I know how silly it all is.

Okay, so there was that one time my grandma killed a snake. And the kangaroos hopping around the major roads at night are a bit of a hazard. Sure, there’s that one playground I always check for brown snakes these days. The annual bushfires aren’t great, either. Yes, my backyard has a little bit of a red-back spider breeding program. And it’s a teensy bit creepy that huntsman spiders are so common that the ones living inside have a shared nickname (Fred).

In Australia, nature is constantly reminding us that humans aren’t as impressive as we like to think―and we love it.

I’m quite patriotic, for an Australian. Ever since Europeans invaded, Australian culture has been a curious mixture of British, American, and other cultures. Our manners are more straightforward, and our suspicion of authority runs deep. Most Australians are uneasy with national pride, and not just because it’s a favourite tool of racists. Sometimes we do awful things to try to keep ourselves safe from a perceived threat―and we know it.

A love for one’s country is a curious and complicated thing, and the more history I learn the more complicated it gets. How can I respect the unique prehistory of Australia when my university sprawls cheerfully over a sacred site? How can I be proud of my country when the white middle-class life I know was built on attempted genocide? How can I enjoy Australia’s excellent lamb when I know that flocks of imported sheep permanently devastated vast areas of once-productive land?

These are the questions that flutter around the edges of my writing, dipping into a half-sentence here or there as I write a story that looks like it’s all fun and fantasy.

Here’s the thing: I write with hope, and magic, and optimism. Sometimes it’s not easy, and sometimes it feels closer to outright lies than fiction. But if I can write something better than real life, I believe the power of my imagination can haul that version of Australia closer to reality. If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t go on.

I had my Big Idea of writing Australian alternate history back in 2011, not knowing then that important parts of my history are only now coming to light. As I began to read more deeply about Australia’s colonial era―smiling sometimes, and crying often―I found a few things to be proud of. Part of Australia granted the right for women to vote in state elections in 1861. Back in 2011 I had a vague notion that the second book of the trilogy would be something to do with women’s suffrage. The question was how to make it relevant to modern readers. Surely any character who wanted to silence the political voice of half the population could only come across as cartoonishly evil.

Sigh.

Speaking of cartoonishly evil. . .

Right now, in Australia, our government is risking the safety of thousands of vulnerable LGBTIQ people by making the entire population take an expensive and non-binding postal plebiscite on gay marriage, even though it’s already well established that the majority of Australians support equal rights. I’m bisexual but married to a man, and cushioned by the appearance of heterosexuality. In recent weeks even I have felt the sting of half-heard conversations, advertisements that would usually be classified as hate speech, and an email telling me that as a Christian I should vote ‘No’.

So here I am writing a fantastical version of history while being haunted by the uncomfortable knowledge that real-world history is still being written. I’m heartbroken over the real mistakes of both the past and the present, but I choose to believe that my country can grow to better deserve the love I give it.

Oh, and there’s a crocodile in the book too.

—-

The Antipodean Queen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Hey! It’s Elizabeth Bear! She’s my Hugo-winning pal! She’s awesome! And she has a new fantasy series beginning with The Stone in the Skull! That’s aweseome! She’s here to tell you about it! And that’s awesome too!

ELIZABETH BEAR:

I’m here under false pretenses.

Let’s just get that out of the way. I’m here under false pretenses, because I’m not sure that The Stone in the Skull actually has a single unifying big idea so much as it’s stitched together out of a patchwork tapestry of little ideas that all play off one another, and the story arises from the consequences of those decisions. It is actually natural that it would work that way, because it’s my attempt to meld two of the great traditions of fantasy into one whole. This is a story with sword-and-sorcery roots, and an epic destination.

There are four protagonists in The Stone in the Skull. They include (in the order their points of view arise), the Dead Man, raised from infancy to be the personal guard of a Caliph long since deposed; Mrithuri, the young and brilliant but inexperienced rajni of a small but wealthy kingdom that was once the capitol of a now-fractured empire; the Gage, a brass automaton constructed by a wizard who replaced each piece of a living body with metal, in turn; and Sayeh, the widowed middle-aged rajni of another and poorer empire-remnant, ruling as regent for her young son and desperately trying to cling to power for his sake.

These are disparate people, set in motion by circumstance–or manipulation–faced with questions both of natural catastrophe and political disaster. But they have something in common, and so does the fractured political structure that they’re moving through: they’ve all in the process of facing and dealing with the aftermath of disaster, and the necessity of putting together something new out of the broken fragments of the old. A mosaic. A resurrection.

Which is why I say that the Big Idea of The Stone in the Skull is a lot of little ideas stitched together, I suppose. Because that’s how things–big things, things too huge for one person to do by themself–get built, isn’t it? One piece at a time. One mismatched fragment stitched to another. One fragment in the mosaic, and then another, and then another.

The Big Idea of this book is that you can build big things out of little things–small actions, small choices, small loyalties.

Small people in a big world, with difficult pasts–but all of them, rising up out of some shattering. All of them, in search of a future, and hope.

—-

The Stone in the Skull: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Matt Harry

When Matt Harry set down to write his novel Sorcery for Beginners, he undertook a journey that, as it turns out, had a parallel in the book he was writing. Here he is to tell you about that journey.

MATT HARRY:

This whole thing started because of Einstein.

I know the date exactly, because I take notes on such things. It was 21 April, 2013. I was looking for a little light reading material during my lunch. I scanned the bookshelf, picking up my wife’s copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Einstein. By the time I finished my sandwich, I decided I must somehow be more than a complete idiot. Even with the helpful explanations and jokey sidebars, I still couldn’t grasp the Theory of Relativity.

But flipping through the book gave me an idea. If they can explain something as difficult as theoretical physics to people, I mused, what if they could do the same thing for something impossible? Something that doesn’t exist, like Monster Hunting, or Time Travel, or Magic?

Magic. The concept hit me like a falling apple approaching the speed of light. Enchantments for Morons…Spell Casting for Dummies…okay, so the title doesn’t work yet, but a how-to guide that explains how to do magic, real magic? There’s something there.

I spent the next couple of days fleshing out the story — a lazy teenage protagonist whose parents had just divorced, a mysterious bookseller, a group of bullies tormenting our hero. I also changed the title to Sorcery for Beginners, realizing that ‘Dummies’ might not be the best way to address a potential audience. High on the fumes of a new idea, I pitched the concept to my then-agent—as a screenplay.

“Love it,” he said with the tooth-cracking enthusiasm only an agent can muster. “Great idea, fantastic, just one problem — no one’s buying spec screenplays right now. If you told me this was based on a book, it’d be an immediate sale, six figures easy. But since there’s no book …”

I was frustrated. I’d been repped in Hollywood for a few years at this point. I’d had a couple scripts optioned; an indie movie I wrote had been made and gotten distribution; I’d written projects for some big producers, but nothing had taken off. I was still working a day job and writing on nights and weekends. The time had come to try something new.

So it’d be an immediate sale if it was based on a book, huh? I fumed as I hacked my way back home through LA traffic. Guess I’ll just have to write Sorcery for Beginners as a book and sell it, then. Easy!

This wasn’t completely unknown territory for me. I had actually started as a prose writer, way back when I was a middle-grader myself. My first ‘novel,’ The Great Girl Chase, was written in seventh grade. The title alone should tell you how terrible it was.

Then I focused on plays for awhile, then journalism, then in my sophomore year at Ohio University I took a film analysis class and got hooked. For the next ten years I wrote screenplays and made movies. I had some minor success (see above), but when a good friend of mine got a three-book publishing deal, it inspired me to take up prose again.

I began outlining my first real novel in 2008. I thought it’d be fun to do something in the vein of the books I’d loved as a kid, like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Dark is Rising sequence. Unfortunately, while my finished novel had some cool details and world building, it ultimately wasn’t good enough to get me a lit agent.

But Sorcery would be different, I vowed to myself as my car crept past the Hollywood Bowl at 0.1 mph. I was a better writer now than I was five years ago, and I was more excited about this idea than I’d been about anything in a while. How hard could it be to crank out another book? I threw myself into it with the ferocity of a kirin, and two months later I had a first draft. I sent that off to lit agents, got multiple offers of representation, and a big publishing deal soon followed.

Just kidding. My first draft was only okay. And I had learned enough by that point to realize it was only okay. I sent it to my good friend, got notes, and I started to rewrite. I beefed up the secondary characters. I added more obstacles to the plot. Halfway through the third draft I realized it would be kind of fun if my story about kids finding a magical help guide was formatted like a help guide. That required adding about 15 thousand words of sidebars, spell pages, and fake magical history. Cue additional rewriting.

Somewhere during draft seven, I realized that what I was going through with this book was a perfect theme for the story. We all want things to be easy, but doing anything of value takes work. Owen, the main character, wants sorcery to fix everything in his life. But he needs to realize that only he can change his circumstances, and doing that takes effort. This led to more rewriting.

Finally, I had a draft I felt pretty good about. I queried agents and got a lot of good responses, even a couple offers of representation. Ultimately I went with Inkshares because the CEO Adam Gomolin really believed in this book and vowed to push it as hard as he could.

But even then, the work wasn’t done. My editor at Inkshares suggested increasing the presence of the bad guy Euclideans (who didn’t even have a name until the sixth draft). That required more rewriting, adding a few scenes, and putting a whole new chapter in the beginning. Even the captions for the illustrations went through some finessing. (I should stress here that all of this contributed to making a much better novel, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me through the process.)

Now, four-and-a-half years, 11 drafts, many tossed pages later, my debut novel Sorcery for Beginners is complete. And I’ve learned the same lesson as Owen: that no matter how easy something seems, doing anything of value takes work.

Also, that Einstein was a pretty smart guy.

—-

Sorcery for Beginners: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

 

The Big Idea: Kat Howard

For An Unkindness of Magicians, author Kat Howard decided to go about things… well, just a little differently. She’s here to tell you why doing it that way made sense for her novel.

KAT HOWARD:

This is a book that began with an ending.

Not the ending of the book–No, that took me a number of drafts to actually know. But the ending of magic.

An excantation.

It’s a word so archaic that I had to add it to my computer’s dictionary. I don’t even precisely remember where I first read it – maybe it flashed across my twitter stream  or maybe it popped into my inbox as a word-a-day offering. It’s a kind of disenchantment, done by a countercharm. Magic to end magic. I read that definition, and my hair stood on end, and I knew I had a book. A book about an ending of magic.

Except a book isn’t only an ending. I needed a why: why would magic be ending? I thought about what I knew about magic, about what made magic real and true, about what made magic matter. Magic, I thought, should take work. It should have consequences. To paraphrase Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, magic should not be something you can get by tearing out someone else’s liver.

An Unkindness of Magicians is about what happens when magic is paid for with someone else’s liver.

And not just by one person. By an entire society, for multiple generations.

There is, of course, more to it than that, because even with the why, An Unkindness of Magicians is about more than simply an ending of magic, more than the abomination of magic that led up to the events of the story. People tend to not be happy when their power is taken away, particularly when they see that power as something they deserve.

An Unkindness of Magicians is about many kinds of endings:

  • Of friendship, when you discover a person is not who you thought they were.
  • Of familial bonds, when you learn that who you are matters less than what you could be used for.
  • Of a place that is a prison made sentient.
  • Of a terror that has stalked a community and of a system that simply looks the other way.

And yes, about an ending of magic.

—-

An Unkindness of Magicians: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Walter Jon Williams

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but a cover can still tell you a lot about a book. When I saw the Quillifer cover, I felt like I already knew more than a little bit about Walter Jon Williams‘ titular character. In his Big Idea, Williams confirms my suspicions. Read on to find out who Williams has imagined, and how he fits his illustration.

WALTER JON WILLIAMS:

Ideas for my fiction never arrive from a single place. Some come from my reading an article in a newspaper or magazine; some come from a brainstorming session with friends. Some ideas come from reading other fiction– either I think to myself, “I believe I have discovered an aspect of your premise that you have not considered,” or maybe I get annoyed and think, “Oh my god, I can do better than that!”

Two novels came from dreams– one a brief flash lasting only seconds but setting into motion the first of a series of tumbling imagination-dominoes that resulted, later that day, in the complete plot of a novel. The other novel, Implied Spaces, was the result of the only lucid dream I’ve had in my life– I dreamed the first 100 pages or so, and then awoke with a pretty good sense of where the rest of the book was going.

Quillifer came about because I took a pleasant autumn walk. I live in the Rio Grande Valley, a strip of bright green drawn down the brown, arid expanse of New Mexico. My neighbors are ranchers and farmers, and their fields are irrigated with water drawn from the river. A walk along the irrigation ditches is a perfect way of clearing the mind, ambling along while enjoying the trees, green fields, horses, cattle, and the frogs and fowl that live in the water.

So one afternoon, about ten years ago, I set out for a walk while listening to an audio book of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare. And by the time I came home, some ninety minutes later, I came back with six books plotted and the name of my protagonist.

I have no idea how any of that came about: there must have been something about the day, the trees and the fields and the frogs, and my receptive mind, and Shakespeare, and maybe Peter Ackroyd. But one thought was foremost in my mind as I recorded my ideas later that day.

If I write this, it will be a lot of fun.

There were a number of good reasons why I couldn’t have that fun right away. I was contracted to write some other books before I could start anything new. Then Ralph Vicinanza, my long-time literary agent, passed away, and I had to look for a new agent.

But more importantly, I was known as a science fiction writer, and the six books of the Quillifer series were secondary-world fantasy. (Now I thought that my novel Metropolitan was high fantasy, but readers disagreed– they seemed to think it was some kind of weird science fiction.)

I could toss off one fantasy novel, maybe, without endangering my career as an SF writer– but leaving my primary career for five or six years, while I wrote in another field, would probably put a stake through my SF career, and I wasn’t entirely ready to risk that.

But by and by, I succumbed to the temptation of having a lot of fun, and I started to write. And then I sold the first three books to Joe Monti at Simon & Schuster.

But I hadn’t sacrificed my SF career after all, because I also sold three more books of my far-future Praxis series to another publisher. Fortunately both publishers were willing to let me alternate deliveries of the books, so I’d be writing fantasy and SF in alternate volumes.

Now I could start enjoying myself.

Whether the reader enjoys Quillifer or not will depend entirely on whether or not they find the hero congenial, for the book is narrated entirely in Quillifer’s voice. Quillifer is a young man, lowborn but bumptious and roguish and on the make, an apprentice lawyer and serially in love. Though he finds himself in war and peril, he prefers to skate through life on brains and charm.

In fact he’s the smartest guy in the room. His problem is that he won’t shut up about it. He will cheerfully and eloquently offer solutions to every problem under discussion, and a great many that aren’t. He mocks his enemies, laughs at their pretensions, sleeps with their wives, and satirizes their failures.

Naturally some of these people are not inclined to appreciate his gifts. His cleverness gets him into at least as much trouble as it gets him out of.

But for the most part he has fun. I’m betting that readers might want to have fun along with him.

Fun has been a little hard to find in fantasy of late. Post-Game of Thrones and its well-deserved success, shelves have been so flooded with works that concentrate so exclusively on violence, violation, and despair, that the term “grimdark” has become a commonplace. I decided to provide an alternative.

Not that Quillifer is without tragedy. Its protagonist faces one harrowing situation after another. But I strove for balance, because I simply don’t find it convincing to write a world where only bad things happen and where happiness is impossible. Tragedy and misery may be part of the human condition, but so is laughter, song, and romance, and Quillifer finds his share of all these things.

In his adventurousness youth he is a useful guide to his world, which is not of the Middle Ages but more akin to the Northern European Renaissance. The printing press has ended the monopoly on literacy enjoyed by nobles and monks, and gunpowder has made a common soldier the equal of a knight. Quillifer intends to discover whether, in this changing world, it is possible for a clever, educated commoner to rise in the world. He’s not a lost prince looking for a lost throne, he’s a charming high-flyer looking for the main chance. This brings him into conflict with the established order, much to the latter’s dismay.

Not that Quillifer’s spending all his time on the hustle: there’s a whole world to explore. And I pride myself on some fairly thorough worldbuilding– if there’s one thing taking nearly a decade to write a book will do, it’s being able to think about it a lot, and to do tons of research. (And as an SF guy, I love me some research!)

Though I pride myself on my imagination, the research kept turning up bizarre things that turned out to be far stranger than anything I’d been able to think up on my own. We tend to think of the Middle Ages as fairly static and simple, and of Medieval society as consisting of a number of orderly classes like royalty, nobles, knights, and serfs. In reality the Middle Ages were complicated and weird, as I discovered when I visited Gdansk and discovered King Arthur’s Court, complete with a high gothic building, a round table, and the coats-of-arms of Arthur’s knights.

I had always assumed that King Arthur belonged somewhere in Britain and not in Poland, but discovered that King Arthur’s Court was built in the mid-Fourteenth Century by wealthy local burgesses, who dressed up as knights, called each other by made-up knightly names, and held feasts, fairs, entertainments, and jousting. They were very much like our Society for Creative Anachronism, except that in their case it was Creative Realism. They were cosplaying the Middle Ages during the actual Middle Ages!

Forgive me for thinking that was pretty strange.

People also tend to think of the Renaissance as a period of art, poetry, and humanism. Which it was, but it was also a period where millions of people were killed over the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Enlightenment and invention had created better and more efficient ways of slaughtering people.

What the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had in common was that both eras were great roiling masses of change. People who view the Middle Ages as static forget that the Middle Ages produced eyeglasses, the spinning wheel, the windmill, the blast furnace, the clock, the magnetic compass, distilled liquors, gunpowder, the printing press, and ultimately the Renaissance.

So who can thrive in an era of change? Someone who’s smart, flexible, informed, free to act, and unhampered by obsolete dogma.

Someone not unlike Quillifer.

“Well,” I can hear you thinking, “so far you’ve got a fine historical novel, but I believe this is supposed to be a fantasy.”

Well, yes, I provide fantasy stuff, too, and it’s fantasy stuff that I had nearly a decade to think about, so it’s about as thick and layered as everything else. I don’t want to go into it in detail, because that would easily double the length of this essay, but suffice it to say there are fantastic beasts, exotic humanoids, magic, a cursed weapon, and one tempestuous, vengeful, beautiful goddess whose relationship with Quillifer is, umm, fraught. (It’s one thing to challenge the earthly establishment, but challenging divinity is much harder to do.)

I hope you can tell that I had a lot of fun creating this book. I did my best to make the fun as contagious as I could.

I am sufficiently modest not to praise myself in the terms which I feel I deserve, but egotistical enough to let someone else do it. I shall conclude, therefore, with a quote from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, who very kindly provided a blurb that graces the cover.  “Walter Jon Williams is a visionary of tremendous power and originality . . . He kills every damn time.”

You know, I probably should have led with that.

—-

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

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: David Walton

You want thrown gauntlets? David Walton throws one in the first sentence of this Big Idea piece for this novel, The Genius Plague. Read on to see it, and whether you agree.

DAVID WALTON:

Zombie books just aren’t creepy enough.

They’re exciting, don’t get me wrong. When some drooling dead guy is breaking down your door to sink his teeth into your flesh, it’ll get your blood pumping. But the thing is, he’s dead. He’s not a person anymore. You can shoot him in the head and not even feel guilty about it.

But what if the zombies weren’t mindless? What if they were smarter than you? What if you let them into your house because you didn’t know there was anything wrong, because they didn’t even know they were zombies, and when they stabbed you in the back and infected your family, they truly believed they were doing the right thing?

My zombies aren’t really zombies at all, not in the classic undead sense, although they’ve been infected with a fungus that sends microscopic tendrils to set up shop in their brains. The fungus doesn’t turn them into moaning, decaying corpses, though. It’s much more subtle than that.

At first, it even seems to be beneficial. The fungus streamlines certain pathways of the brain and makes the hosts smarter, with better memory and learning ability and communication skills. Researchers think it could cure Alzheimer’s and dementia. Kids start taking it as a drug to do better on their exams.  But the more beneficial the fungus appears, the more committed its hosts become to protecting it and spreading it to every human on Earth.

And why wouldn’t they? It’s a good thing, right? And if they have to kill anyone that gets in their way, that’s just what’s best for humanity. Or for the fungus. Whatever.

My zombie horde is spreading the plague on purpose, and they’re smarter than you are.

I first thought of this idea when I heard the suggestion that from an evolutionary perspective, wheat is the most successful organism on Earth. After all, wheat has taken humans that used to roam wild and domesticated them, getting them to spread its seeds all over the globe, and then enslaved them to weed out any competing plants and eradicate pests. All so stalks of wheat can grow tall and strong by the trillions.

It’s an amusing notion, and it’s not exactly wrong. But I realized that fungus is even better suited to using humans than wheat is, not because we want to eat it, but because fungus already directly manipulates animals to spread its spores. The zombie ants are the famous ones, of course (go watch the Planet Earth video if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but there are various other ways that fungus subverts animals to do its bidding. And fungus is smarter than you think — some single organisms create vast networks of microscopic tendrils that spread through an entire forest and pass information about where the moisture and nutrients are, basically acting like a giant Internet. Or a giant brain.

So what would you do, if there was a drug that could make you smarter? Or cure your dad of Alzheimer’s? No need to be squeamish about a little fungus living in your brain — you already have trillions of microorganisms living in your mouth, throat, stomach, lungs, and all over your skin. You won’t feel a thing. It’s a simple choice, really, given all the problems you have in your life. There’s not much at stake: just the free will of every human on Earth.

—-

The Genius Plague – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | BAM | IndieBound | Powells

The Genius Plague – Canada: Amazon.ca | Indigo

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

The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas and Molly Tanzer

Drinking and writing: Two activities that have gone together famously (and occasionally, infamously) over the years. Now here’s Nick Mamatas, co-editor of Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader), to add a twist to this celebrated concoction. Yes, I just made a pun. No, I’m not sorry.

NICK MAMATAS:

It’s actually a little idea: very short fiction celebrating cocktails, with recipes and flavor text. There are plenty of cocktail books organized around literary themes, and plenty of fiction titles that include recipes, but the exact formulation of ingredients in Mixed Up Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader) is brand new.

Mixed Up is designed for the food/beverage section of the bookstore, featuring classic and new cocktail recipes, and flash fiction by a cross-genre selection of writers including fantasists Jeff VanderMeer and Carmen Maria Machado, crime writers Jim Nisbet and Libby Cudmore, thriller authors Robert Swartwood and Benjamin Percy, and literary fiction authors Jarret Kobek and Cara Hoffman. (And, as book covers say, “many more.”)

What’s the big idea? Well, once upon a time, there was fiction everywhere: in the magazines full of household tips, and the ones about hot cars and hotter pin-ups. Junior’s little weekly school magazine had short fiction in it, and so did the coffee table magazine for the whole family. Daily newspapers ran occasional fiction as well. And that’s almost entirely gone now, having been replaced by listicles, bullet points, and pie charts. You know, content. My co-editor and I wanted to bring fiction back as an equal partner to non-fiction.

And there’s plenty of good non-fiction being written about cocktails. The origins of the drinks, and their ingredients, are utterly fascinating, as are the life stories of the people who invented and poured them. And of course the tales of those fueled and felled by alcohol are also endlessly compelling.

What’s been missing is the ineffable something that only fiction can provide. Anecdotes tend to simply evaporate before offering an epiphany; historical gossip lacks for climaxes, except for the tragic classic: “And then the famous author drank so much he stopped writing and just died.” We wanted to offer something different—compelling narrative as the central ingredient, not just the garnish.

Mixed Up was not easy to place with a publisher, because it was so…mixed up. Recipes and essays about drinks? Sure! But fiction?

“Where would it go?” editors wanted to know. How do you sell such a book to stores; they’re definitely not going to put it on all applicable shelves at once. Other anthologists twisted up their faces at the idea—“Yeah, but how can you sell to SF and crime and literary readers at the same time?” Our answer was simple: Mixed Up is a cocktail book, and a gift book. We’re reclaiming space for fiction to exist outside the fiction shelves.

We want thirsty readers to open our book and discover not just the amazing recipes perfected by co-editor Molly Tanzer, but also a family of fire-breathers, a midnight crime spree among the kiddie play structures in a suburban backyard, an illicit flask in the hands of a pregnant woman attending an art exhibit, and that really amazing East Village party Vladimir Putin secretly attended back in the year 2000.

We think you’ll like it. And if not, have one more round of your favorite drink, then read the stories again.

 —-

Mixed Up: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the co-editor’s Web site. Follow him on Twitter.