The Big Idea: C.T. Rwizi

Many authors have learned that just because a character comes out of your own head doesn’t mean they won’t fight you from time to time. Author C.T. Rwizi learned this very thing while writing Scarlet Odyssey. The details await you below.

C.T. RWIZI:

The big idea behind Scarlet Odyssey begins at my little sister’s preschool graduation some years ago. All the kids are lined up in front of the seated guests, and we’re at the part where they each introduce themselves and tell us what they aspire to be when they grow up. Most of the girls want to be doctors, scientists and nurses. Most of the boys want to be engineers and police officers. There’s a pilot here and there, a president, and a judge. All the things many African parents wish for their children.

Then one boy breaks the mold and says he wants to be a nurse, like his mother. Instead of applause, he is greeted with a smattering of snickers and scornful laughter. Not from his peers on the stage with him, mind you, but from the adults in the audience.

I’ll never forget the mortified look on that poor kid’s face.

This incident isn’t precisely what inspired me to write Scarlet Odyssey, but it was on my mind as I built the world. I wanted to explore how societies often place arbitrary gender restrictions on roles that, in and of themselves, often have nothing to do with gender. But instead of the very respectable profession of nursing—which is more vital today than ever—I decided to use magic as the vehicle for this exploration. The main character, Salo, is a young man whose affinity with magic, considered womanly in his society, puts him on the outs with his clan and his hypermasculine father, brothers and uncles.

Now, I didn’t want to fall into the stereotype that only gay men choose roles traditionally associated with femininity; this is simply not true. But I felt compelled to extend my exploration of gender roles into an exploration of sexuality, and I also wanted to write a character I’d personally never read before: a gay kid from an African-inspired setting.

So that’s what I did, and I was having a blast. But as I became more serious about the project, I started to get cold feet.

“Come on, Rwizi,” I said to myself. “You live in Africa. In a very Christian neighborhood. What are people going to think of you if you go through with this?”

The truth is, I didn’t want to find out. So I started to change Salo and his story, succumbing to the very same social pressures I was trying to have him face and surmount. I turned his love interest into a brother to remove the romantic component while keeping their relationship close. I made him flirt with young women. I tried to justify my decision by saying, “Well, wouldn’t it be more interesting to write a story about a man who doesn’t conform to his society’s standards of manhood but is actually straight?”

But this was not the story I wanted to tell. This was not my truth. I wanted my book to be free of controversy, however, and I was the author, so I could simply decide to make my main character be whatever I wanted him to be, and if I wanted him to be straight, he’d be straight, and that would be the end of it.

Right?

What I discovered is that once a character becomes alive in your mind, they can develop a personality distinct from yours, the author. They can want things you don’t want them to want. Say things you’d never say. And if you attempt to write them in any other way, you’ll feel like you’re trying to put on a shirt several sizes too small.

The shirt will fight you. Put too much force and it might even tear apart at the seams.

And this is precisely what happened to my story. I developed a serious case of writer’s block. Salo’s scenes in particular became impossible, and never felt right no matter how long I slaved over them. Every time I made him flirt with some young woman, I could almost feel him frowning at me from the shadows of the closet I’d shoved him into, like he disapproved of my attempts to mischaracterize him, to deny him his right to exist as he was.

The sense of guilt I felt was very real.

So, naturally, I decided to do away with his sexuality altogether. Sanitize the whole thing so I didn’t have to deal with it. No love interest, no attraction, no controversy. Problem solved.

Admittedly, I had more success with this approach. I completed the manuscript, and it was good enough to land me an agent and a publishing house. But my editors sensed that something was missing and encouraged me to fill in the blanks. Salo was blurry at the edges, they said, and while they found him sympathetic, I’d deprived him of a certain je ne sais quoi I’d bequeathed to the characters around him. They felt I could do better.

I was forced to finally look him in the eye, and in doing so, look myself in the mirror and admit that there’s such a thing as artistic honesty. It’s not just about writing what you know, but also what you feel, because other people will sense when you’re holding something back.

When you’re not being authentic.

I’d made the conscious choice to deny my character his sexuality so as to avoid courting controversy, and my work suffered as a result. But when I finally allowed myself to be completely honest about who Salo was, I achieved a level of characterization that had previously eluded me, and a more profound exploration of the themes I’d set out to address in the first place.

It was like a weight coming off my shoulders. And while I’d always loved my story and the world I’d built—I couldn’t have finished the work otherwise—now I was completely, wholly, unreservedly in love with it.

I have no regrets.

—-

Scarlet Odyssey: Amazon

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The Big Idea: Alma Alexander

In this week’s Big Idea for The Second Star, author Alma Alexander goes big… and then gets small… and then tells how it’s all connected.

ALMA ALEXANDER:

There isn’t just one Big Idea in The Second Star – there are half a dozen of them, interwoven into a complex story tapestry. This is at once a story about voyaging to the stars and coming home again, about our other selves hidden inside of us, about what people are willing to believe and to endure for the sake of that belief. But what it all boils down to is macro and micro universes.

There is an incredible video which starts with a closeup of a woman’s eye and then spirals out, showing her body on a sward of grass, the park she is lying in, the city, the country, the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the galaxy cluster, into deep space…and then back, into her eye, diving deep inside her body, her veins, her red blood cells, her DNA, her molecules, her atoms.

It is all linked; it is all one; we are starstuff, as we are reminded by the poetically minded scientists (or the scientifically inclined poets) amongst us.

We know almost as little about what goes on in deep space as we really know about what happens inside a human mind, a human soul, and The Second Star is in essence that woman’s eye in that video, vision turned inward and outward, a bridge between two worlds.

This is a story about how something OUT THERE – out amongst the unknowable stars which are still shining in a dangerous here-be-dragons expanse, in which literally anything might be possible – meets something inside a human mind and human soul, misinterprets what it finds, changes everything it touches, and then leaves the shattered human beings to battle with the consequences.

We all love our science fiction aliens – but the truth of it is that a truly ALIEN alien would leave us floundering in a morass of incomprehension because there may not be a way to make one of us understand the other. There could be mistakes made in the way the alien perceives us – which leads to unspeakable consequences, not necessarily because the alien entity wished to hurt us but because it was simply ignorant of what causes us hurt. There could be our own utter misinterpretations of the aliens’ contact with us to the point where we might have built worlds and worldviews on completely misunderstood phenomena (and what would it do to us if a glimmer of true understanding was permitted to spark through?).

The Second Star is science fiction – but in the end, the ‘fiction’ is a story about people, and what they would do when faced with a ‘science’ which changes everything they thought they knew, changes their most deeply held beliefs.  It is the irresistible force of change and of the sheer pure strangeness of the universe, meeting the immovable object of our fundamental humanity and how we might respond to such a shattering stimulus.

In my story, it’s what frightened and intractable authorities (secular and sacred) might do to preserve their hold on power. It’s about how far someone who is ‘just obeying orders’ is willing to go. It’s about how much honorable, dedicated, and empathetic people might be willing to sacrifice on behalf of someone whose care has been placed in their hands.

And finally it’s about what human beings with the immeasurable courage to take their lives into their hands and go out into the universe on behalf of all of us here on the home world would need to face in order to accomplish their task and fulfil their vision, and about the very real possibility that such people may never truly be permitted to return to the place they left behind.

This is a Big Idea novel which is really a bridge spanning several Big Ideas, knitting them into an even bigger whole.

Just remember. We are all starstuff.

—-

The Second Star: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Dorothy A. Winsor

If you think creating a new world for your fiction means you’ve left behind the troubles of this one, you may be right — but now you have to think about the troubles of the new world, and what they mean for your characters. Dorothy A. Winsor have some thoughts about new worlds and their details, and how they apply to her novel The Wysman.

DOROTHY A. WINSOR:

You could say the Big Idea in The Wysman came to me suddenly in the form of the main character, Jarka, a street kid with a crooked foot and the ability to know people’s secrets by reading the wind. Or you could say it came to me only gradually in the form of repeated drafts to figure out why Jarka turned up on my page.

The plot of The Wysman turns on a question that appears in various forms throughout speculative fiction: Who should rule the kingdom? Or the country? Or the star system? I’ve always believed that secondary world stories, like The Wysman, are inherently political because as soon as you create a world, you have to think about power. Who has it? How do they get it? How do they use it?

In The Wysman, the Big Idea turned out to be that the best judge of a ruler is often a person who’s not firmly anchored to a place in the power system. In this case, that’s sixteen-year-old Jarka.

Loss or gain? Jarka was born with a crooked foot and uses a crutch. In the world of the book, Jarka’s disability gives him the ability to read the wind because the gods never take something away without giving something back. I’m a bit of a magpie as I scavenge up ideas for story elements, and I confess I “borrowed” the disability/gift connection from Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan. Miles’s disability doesn’t give him a literal gift like Jarka’s, but his mother encourages him to think of it as something that can make him a deeper person. As with Miles, tension between loss and gain—i.e., an unanchored position—was literally embodied in Jarka himself when he first appeared to me.

(I make no apology for borrowing ideas, by the way. I think stories are mostly magpie nests arranged and shaped in different ways. Borrowed ideas are turned upside down, sideways, or back to front and become something new.)

An unanchored position extends to Jarka’s relation to power because powerful people discover his gift and take him into the castle to train as a Wysman, an advisor to the king. Overnight, this teenaged boy goes from being a street kid to being groomed for one of the most influential positions in the kingdom. Not that he fits easily into his new place. Plenty of people believe he’ll never fit there.

A character living in between. For most of the book, Jarka lives in the nowhere of in-between: between high and low, castle and street, childhood and adulthood, gods and men. This in-between status is what made him show up on my page. It’s what allowed the story to evolve the way it did because when street kids begin to disappear, Jarka can’t stop looking for the monster grabbing them, even when the king orders him to and he desperately wants to avoid being back on the streets. Jarka can’t forget the insight that his in-between positioning gives him. He knows what goes on in the castle; and he knows what goes on in the streets. This leaves him uneasy, and uneasy characters make for compelling stories.

Over the course of writing the book, then, I realized that lurking behind this character who popped up on my page was the idea that a character who’s adrift offers insights and possibilities–if I can see my way to exploring them.

I think it’s often the case that writers learn the possibilities in their stories only gradually, as they write them. That was certainly true for me as I wrote The Wysman.

—-

The Wysman: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Max Booth III

Unusually, today’s Big Idea starts with an author’s note before the main body of the Big Idea piece. As you read, however, I think you’ll see why author Max Booth III thought it important to put it in, and why some aspects of his new novel Touch the Night are almost eerily in sync with the moment.

MAX BOOTH III:

Author’s Note: I turned in this essay to my editor on May 24th, one day before the death of George Floyd. Since then, well…I don’t need to tell you what’s been going on. I just wanted to include this brief note, since I realize how weird it might read given the current moment. As for Touch the Night itself, I started writing it in July 2016 and sent it to Cemetery Dance in June 2019. I do think it’s a strange coincidence that my novel about police brutality would come out now. I feel a little uncomfortable even trying to promote this book right now. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m trying to capitalize on the situation. I’m very proud of this book and I hope people read it. I also hope people are staying safe and healthy and enraged. I would like to end this disclaimer by encouraging everybody to please donate to Black Lives Matter charities and bail funds. Wherever you are right now, find your local mutual aid group. Volunteer. The bigger we are, the weaker they become.

I think every book begins with one moment. A single image too vivid to ignore. It builds up and up and up until you’re on the verge of exploding, and either you finally write that novel, or literally burst like that guy’s head in Scanners.  In the case of my new Cemetery Dance novel, Touch the Night, that “single image” was less of an image and more of a feeling.

The feeling of my head being slammed against the scorching hood of a cop car.

Okay, maybe we should rewind a little bit: back to when I’m twelve years old, and I’m sleeping over at my best friend’s house. There are three of us: myself, Josh, and Ian. It’s Ian’s house we’re staying at. It’s always Ian’s house. Nobody is ever home and we have the freedom to watch videos of people getting hurt on YouTube. We have the freedom to prank call people using celebrity soundboards. We have the freedom to do whippits and grimace at rotten dot com and film ourselves skateboarding into trash cans. There is simply no better place to be than Ian’s house.

On this particular night, it’s well past midnight and the three of us are wide awake. Ian’s mom is out at some bar getting wasted. Fuck it, we decide, let’s go out for a walk, maybe get some pops and chips at the gas station down the street. Who cares what time it is? If anything, the fact that it’s so late makes everything even more exciting. So we sneak out, and we get up to the kind of things stupid twelve-year-old boys tend to do when they’re out past curfew unsupervised. At this time of night, the small town of Lake Station, Indiana, feels hauntingly empty. We throw realtor signs like Frisbees. We hit houses with rocks. We drink Jones Soda in a gas station parking lot and dare each other to do increasingly dumber things.

On the way home, we take a shortcut through the woods. Behind us, a stray dog starts following. Growling at a low volume.

Every small town has at least one knife kid, which is exactly what it sounds like: a kid who always seems to have some kinda knife in his pocket.

I’m a knife kid.

With the dog getting closer behind us, I pull out tonight’s pocketknife and flick the blade open. I have no desire to hurt this animal, but if he charges us, maybe it won’t be a bad idea to have some protection. Luckily, the dog grows disinterested and runs away before anything can get out of control.

That’s when something else starts following us.

Just as we make it in front of Ian’s house, red and blue lights illuminate the street. We freeze. I realize I’m still holding the knife. I let go of it and it lands, blade down, into the grass at my feet. Sticking up from the earth.

Two cops get out of the car. They demand to know what I dropped. “Uh, nothing,” I tell them, which is a lie they quickly bust me on.

They drag me and my two friends to their car and slam our heads against the hood so hard all I can hear is a loud ringing. The car is hot against my face as they search the rest of my pockets (and find nothing). Behind us, the cops call us names like cocksuckers and faggots. They want to know what we’re doing out here at this time of night and going for a walk does not satisfy them. They want to know where we all live, and for some reason Ian tells them he’s my brother, and he lives at my house clear on the other side of town. One of the cops ask if this is true. There is zero hesitation on my part when I nod and confirm him and I are kin.

Seconds later, Ian’s mom comes walking out of their house and asks what’s going on.

The rest of the night isn’t worth getting into too much detail. Everybody’s parents were called. We were giving strong lectures. We were yelled at for hours. Meanwhile, all I could think about was the kind of language the cops had used with us before any adults appeared. The kind of language they had used on children. How violent they had gotten with us so quickly.

This night planted a seed that would grow over time into a deep hatred for authority. It seemed inevitable I would eventually write about it, especially with the number of stories about cops executing unarmed civilians popping up more and more in the news every day. I know the three of us got off incredibly lucky that night. Things could have so easily turned to disaster. I also am positive my experience would have been drastically different had we not been white. I do understand my privilege here, especially here. It’s no secret that the police in the United States have a real disturbing fetish for murdering black kids. And it’s also no secret that this country refuses to make them face the consequences for their actions. Their crimes.

My new novel, Touch the Night, is my reaction to both my own real-life experience and also my frustrations with other, severely more serious cases of police brutality. It begins with two twelve-year-old boys sneaking out in the middle of the night and getting stopped by the police. Only…these kids are not as lucky as my friends and I were. The cops take these boys away…but not to a police station, no, someplace far more sinister than that, and it’s up to their mothers to take the law in their own hands to save them. Things get…uh, pretty dark.

Every book begins with one image. One seed. Over time, it grows and grows and grows.

Getting slammed against a cop car and called every homophobic slur in the book did something to me at such a young age. It forever altered my perspective. I foolishly thought maybe writing Touch the Night would rid this internal rage from my system once and for all.

But of course, I was wrong.

It only made me more pissed off.

—-

Touch the Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Paris Wynters

For Issued, author Paris Wynters looked at marriage and the military, and a speculative way at combining the two of them to create her story.

PARIS WYNTERS:

Writing has always been a way for me to express myself creatively. Ask me to draw, you’ll get stick figures. Color, not so great at that either even if I do stay in the lines. Decorate my living room, it’s as plain as when I moved in. But write a book, I can actually do that. So, when at a gathering with a bunch of friends, many of whom happen to be veterans, the topic of conversation came to dating, divorce, and marriage an idea sparked for a story.

After doing some research (mostly to make sure some of the high figures friends had mentioned were actually true), a big question stuck in my mind over and over: After hearing over and over that if the military wanted you to have a wife, they’d issue you one, I began to wonder what if they actually did issue spouses? Who would actually sign up for a program like that and why?

In doing some research, I found out there were many reasons people married into the military. I remember coming across a story about two friends who got married because one of them needed insurance, another where the military member had gotten married because of increased salary and other perks. But I wanted to go deeper. So, I started asking myself what would make me join a program like that.

One thing came to mind right away. Community. While I have close cousins who’d grown up with a father who was away all the time, aunts running their households and hosting holidays without their husbands present, they always had a built in community. And I loved that. It’s something I have found is hard to find in my own civilian life.

My heroine started to develop and take shape, because belonging is something we can all relate to. Sometimes I think people forget that belonging is an aspect of life adults deal with as well as teens and younger kids, especially as our circumstances change. It’s also an area that some of the veterans I know had mentioned being a reason they missed the military as well. They hadn’t found a comrade, a tribe, like they had when they were active duty.

Once this concept of belonging took hold, it also steered how I wanted to approach my novel. It needed to be focused on home life, not a romantic suspense where the military member and the love interest got caught up in a mission of some sort. One of my favorite TV shows came to mind—Army Wives. And what better reason for a Netflix (or maybe it was Hulu) binge than research. Well, it wasn’t my favorite show when it was actually on TV, it was my mom’s favorite show. And I used the opportunity to spend more time with my mom as we watched it together at her house, something I wished I had done more of with my father before he died.

The hero came together a bit easier for me. Sure, he’s a bit surly like two of my uncles, and is stubborn when it comes to his health (like my dad had been. I mean, he had lung cancer and would “take walks” to “secretly” smoke a cigarette, yet the neighbors would rat him out. Not to mention smelling like cigarette smoke the moment he came back home). I am smiling now as I remember the ways he would come home acting all innocent, the same way I had when I incorporated that part of my dad into the hero. My dad was quite the character.

Writing Issued also forced me to take a look at relationships, including my own. This was probably the toughest part of the book for me, because it caused me to face some of the not great parts and even to examine where I had faults. Like what does it mean to truly accept your spouse? How do you trust someone to see you at your weakest, especially when society dictates you should be strong? And how do you forgive, especially forgiving yourself? For someone who doesn’t trust easily like me, at times this book became hard to write emotionally because I felt like I wasn’t “practicing what I was preaching.”

Overall, I wouldn’t trade the experience I had writing this book for anything, even if it meant I didn’t have to do half of the rewrites my editor asked of me. I came out of the experience having spent more quality time with family members, learning more about their struggles and good times. I got to remember and incorporate my father in some ways into the book. And I came out with a deeper respect for active duty members of the military, their spouses and their families.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Katherine Addison

When Katherine Addison gets hold of the Victorian Era in her new novel The Angel of the Crows, she does things to it that no one expected — possibly most of all herself. Here she is to tell you how and why she’s done what she has, and why she had so much fun with it.

Disclosure: I read this book in galley and liked it enough to provide a blurb for it.

KATHERINE ADDISON:

I started writing The Angel of the Crows when I was in a particularly bad spot. I was depressed, I was stuck, nothing seemed to be working. So I had this goofy idea about Sherlock and angels and said, I’ll never publish this, but I’m sure not writing anything else right now, so what the heck, and started writing.

It very quickly turned not to be about Sherlock at all, but about the original Sherlock Holmes stories, which I have loved since I was a child. They are also stories that have burrowed deeply into our culture, as the proliferation of Sherlock Holmes movies and TV shows and parodies and pastiches shows. That proliferation also shows that there’s a conversation going on about the stories, about the figures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, about the Detective and their Sidekick. This is a conversation in which I’ve listened to a lot of voices, and a conversation in which, it turns out, I have something to say… by means of making Sherlock Holmes a (slightly) fallen angel.

I wasn’t going to publish it. It was obviously too weird. But if it was already too weird, that gave me freedom to throw in anything I wanted to. Angels and vampires and werewolves and steampunk watchdogs and I had to have hell-hounds, and a giant airship mooring tower in the East End of London, and then why not Jack the Ripper? I started calling it my kitchen-sink novel.

When my editor asked me what I was working on, I told the truth.

She lit up like a pinball machine.

Apparently, everything that I thought was fun in a novel, she also thought was fun in a novel, and she didn’t think it was too weird at all.

The novel is built around the Holmes stories, and part of the game I was playing was to see how far I could twist them by putting them in this new context, where people don’t get addicted to opium, they get addicted to vampires, and a hell-hound is actually the most reasonable explanation for what killed Sir Charles Baskerville.

The novel is also built around the historical case of Jack the Ripper. I have done a lot of reading about Jack the Ripper, and this was a chance to pull out an always popular what-if: what if Sherlock Holmes had taken the case of the Whitechapel murderer? It was a chance to put all my reading to good use and a chance to try the tiniest bit of historical fiction. (The Thames Torso Murderer is real, too.) My conclusion from this is that historical fiction is extremely damn hard to write. You have to make choices about things that are historically undecided, like how many victims Jack the Ripper had. (I voted for six.) I followed the historical timeline exactly, and the things Crow reads in the papers about the Whitechapel murderer are things the newspapers really said.

The temporal structure of the novel—the timeline—is Jack the Ripper. The thematic structure is the Sherlock Holmes stories, and combining the two was a complicated venture. It should be acknowledged, though, that I made no attempt to follow any kind of Sherlockian canonical chronology—I’m wrong from the start, since A Study in Scarlet begins in 1878 and I had to move things up a whole decade to get to August of 1888 and the murder of Martha Tabram. (In this world the Second Afghan War drags on for ten years because there are fallen angels and they are very bad news.) And Conan Doyle himself never tried for any kind of continuity between stories (except that “The Adventure of the Empty House” has to take place after “The Final Problem”). So chronology there is what I say it is for the purposes of the larger story.

I used as many Sherlock Holmes stories as I could, starting with A Study in Scarlet and finishing with “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” I took them apart and recombined them; I let them gambol a bit. I increased women’s speaking parts. I repurposed some characters and made up others; I rewrote the Andaman Islander in The Sign of the Four; I mixed in the occasional historical person. This is truly my kitchen-sink novel.

Ultimately, the Big Idea of The Angel of the Crows centers on the Sherlock Holmes stories. By putting the stories in a new setting, and by putting the detective up against a mystery that has baffled real-life detectives for more than 130 years, I’m offering my own commentary on the stories and their late Victorian milieu and the place they continue to have in our culture. And having a lot of fun doing it, too.

—-

The Angel of the Crows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Doug Engstrom

Doug Engstrom is thinking about today’s troubles and woes, and how some of them rely on people one thing and corporations… doing another. From there it’s just a hop, skip and jump to the world of his new novel, Corporate Gunslinger.

DOUG ENGSTROM:

One of the things that’s appalled me as I’ve grown older isn’t seeing young people abandon the virtues I was taught while growing up, but rather seeing those virtues corrupted and weaponized by the people in charge for use against the rest of society, especially young people.

I’ve seen institutions cynically exploit honorable ideas like paying your debts and consistently striving for excellent work to wring more gains from the people they deal with. This use is all the more repugnant when those organizations have no intention of living up to the same standards.

Consider, for example, banks and other financial institutions shirking their obligations or offloading them on the public during the financial crisis, even as the continued viability of their businesses depended on millions of ordinary people regarding their mortgage payments as sacred commitments.

That corruption, and how people are recruited and trained to take part in it, is the Big Idea behind Corporate Gunslinger.

My protagonist, Kira Clark, believes in herself and her acting talent. Unfortunately, she becomes an orphan at nineteen, and without family to help or even advise, that belief manifests as a series of large loans to pay for an MFA and New York living expenses. She’s ultimately compelled to refinance and pledge her freedom as collateral – if she defaults, a “lifetime services contract” will allow her creditors to control every aspect of her life.

When she suffers an unexpected layoff, the final piece falls into place. Her fierce belief in her dignity and freedom make a lifetime of servitude intolerable, so she begins a frantic quest to avoid foreclosure. Help appears in the shape of an offer from TKC Insurance, an offer that includes a signing bonus large enough to square her accounts, and the promise of job that pays well enough to keep them current.

The small complication is that the job involves killing people.

Trial by combat is the final, deadly option offered to citizens shut out of the court system and dissatisfied with the dubious justice of mandatory arbitration. They can choose to face a company representative on a high-tech dueling field, armed with a single-shot pistol and supervised by the scrupulously neutral Association for Dueling.

Kira becomes one of those company representatives, given a year of intensive training that confers an advantage over most citizen opponents that is roughly equivalent to the difference between an NBA player and a basketball enthusiast who plays pickup games on weekends. However, that advantage is far from absolute. Although her chances of dying in any one duel are only one in twenty-five, her odds of surviving enough matches to fulfill the obligation incurred by taking the signing bonus are only about one in three.

So, Kira’s confidence, talent, and optimism have led her into debt, and from there, her desire to be free and lead a dignified life have transformed her into an effective and deadly tool for oppression in the hands of her employers.

Corporate Gunslinger is the story of how that happens, and how Kira reacts once she truly understands her circumstances.

—-

Corporate Gunslinger: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Ryk Spoor

When thinking about epic fantasy, how epic is epic enough? And at what point might things become too epic for a single band of heroes? Author Ryk Spoor has opinions on these questions, and how they helped to inform his latest (epic!) novel, The Mask of Ares.

RYK SPOOR:

Epic fantasy has a lot of common tropes and story elements; to an extent, having many of these elements (a huge threat to a big and engaging world, a small band of heroes who will somehow be key to addressing the threat, grand-scale magic and terrifying monsters, etc.) is one of the keys to the success of the genre; this is what the audience is paying for, so to speak. What makes the different epics worth reading is what the writer personally adds to the base elements – or, often, how they either challenge or change the base elements, to produce something that is still epic fantasy and yet is somehow new at the same time.

My main fantasy world of Zarathan is in a way a distillation – and a deliberate one – of many epic fantasy tropes, with other elements added. For the three major stories I have or will tell in this setting – my prior Balanced Sword trilogy (Phoenix Rising, Phoenix in Shadow, and Phoenix Ascendant), the Godswar dualogy (The Mask of Ares and The Spear of Athena), and the in-progress Spirit Warriors trilogy (Choosing the Players, Move and Countermove, and Master of the Game), there are several key fantasy elements that I’m playing with: the size of the world relative to that of the heroes, the concept of cyclical world-affecting events, the idea of grand-scale villainous masterminds and master plans, and the injection of nonstandard elements – both overt and referential – into the fantasy setting.

The first is perhaps one of the most obvious: can you really expect one group of heroes to do all the world-saving when you have nigh-immortal adversaries planning their diabolical plots for decades, centuries, or even longer? This often has the corollary that the world map for such stories turns out to have only a small number of locations that the heroes don’t  eventually visit during their adventures.

Zarathan is too big for that, and the plans that the main villain (and associates) have set in motion will need more than one group of powerful heroes to address; and even after all three stories are told, there are large sections of Zarathan we will not have visited (and there’s an entire hemisphere or more we haven’t even seen on the map!).

At the same time, to get this concept across to the reader, it is only fair that as a writer I should provide at least a few hints to that effect. In the Balanced Sword trilogy, we in fact see the five heroes of The Spirit Warriors – Xavier and his friends – and they even provide our main characters Kyri, Tobimar, and Poplock with some vital assistance.

But there is also another set of heroes seen in that trilogy, briefly present in the first book and mentioned at intervals in the others: the main characters of Godswar, who are Kyri Vantage’s sister Urelle, her aunt Victoria, and their hired bodyguards Ingram Camp-Bel of Aegeia and Quester, an Iriistiik warrior and sole survivor of his Nest’s destruction.

Similarly, there is more than one recurring pattern that influence the characters and events in the three series. The largest is the succession of Chaoswars, world-devastating events that also cloud the memory of all things past, even to the gods themselves; Chaoswars occur about every twelve thousand years, as mentioned in The Balanced Sword. But the small country of Aegeia has an importance all out of proportion to its size because it, too, has a recurring pattern called the Cycle, in which the two gods of war – Ares, God of War and Passion, and Athena, God of War and Wisdom/Reason – play out the conflict between passion and reason with Aegiea itself as the stage. The Cycle turns out to somehow oppose the power of the Chaoswars, giving Athena and the other gods of Aegeia a greater memory and understanding of things past – and thus a greater possibility to predict and understand the future.

The Cycle of Aegeia is itself central to the events in Godswar; when our heroes realize that some impostor has somehow taken on the guise of the God of War and Passion (thus the title), they also understand that this has the potential to interfere with, or even break, the Cycle – and thus end Aegeia’s unique and precious advantage of knowledge of the past and future.

These events are tied, also, to (as I mentioned earlier) the wide-flung plans of the various malevolent forces at work on Zarathan. The worst of these is of course the King of Wolves, Virigar, the hidden-until-the-end major antagonist of the Balanced Sword, but scarcely less frightening and certainly grander in scale is Kerlamion, the Demon King of All Hells, whose main plan covers most of the continent.

But a key factor in both of these monsters’ plans is the neutralization of Aegeia, which introduces a different if equally deadly opponent for our heroes. Raiagamor, the main adversary for Godswar, inspired the Wolf King’s own personal plan to attain vastly more power than he currently has, and provides the opportunity to keep Aegeia and her gods from interfering in Kerlamion’s great plot of conquest and subjugation. Yet he is doing it for neither of those reasons, but for reasons that are ultimately personal – which, in some ways, makes him worse: he would manipulate an entire country, lead to the downfall of a pantheon of Gods, kill countless innocents… all not for power or glory but for a simple personal achievement: he wants to be acknowledged by his hidden family.

In a sense, this makes him a creepy mirror of Ingram Camp-Bel: self-exiled because he found that even his adopted parents did not consider him truly a member of the Clan, feeling as though he could never measure up to what the Clan demanded of its people… and then, suddenly, finding himself recalled with desperate haste to the side of the Clan he had rejected.

Each of the main heroes has something of this nature about them; Quester does not understand why the Queen of his Nest kept him away, prevented him from trying to defend the Nest, or why he has randomly-surfacing memories of the Queens of the past. Urelle Vantage is trying to prove herself after being rejected by Myrionar, the god that chose her sister Kyri to be its living representative; and Victoria, drawn once more into the field, wonders if an old, retired Adventurer can survive what is beginning to look like a battle between gods, not mortals.

The Mask of Ares also makes clear, I hope, the reason for another common fantasy trope: the need for what amounts to professional heroes, called Adventurers on Zarathan. While the countries described on Zarathan are often very large, they are not, in fact, countries as we understand them – huge spans of mostly civilized and certainly generally safe and controlled land. Instead, they are oases of relative safety connected by the protected Great Roads, bounding wilderness filled with the unknown and often deadly. Quester and Ingram are Guilded Adventurers (an event that is shown in the short story Adventurers), as is Victoria. Such people – invested with the trust of the peoples around them – are a vital part of maintaining the safety and security of people who may not have the opportunity to live within a fortified set of magically maintained defenses.

And they are, of course, the kind of people who throw monkeywrenches into the machinery of any adversary.

That particular metaphor also points up another of the tropes I play with: the crossover of SF and fantasy. In Phoenix Rising, magic intersects with technology in a small but obvious way when little Poplock Duckweed figures out how to make a magical battery for a handheld electronic device owned by Earth native Xavier Ross.

In The Mask of Ares, we learn that the entire Clan Camp-Bel derives from the survivors of a starship that crashed thousands of years ago in Aegeia, and who became loyal supporters of Athena and her people. Ingram Camp-Bel has a few technological devices that he brought with him when he fled, and these play an important role at points of the story. The background and resources of Clan Camp-Bel will play an even greater role in the sequel, The Spear of Athena.

One of the other and in some ways most significant purposes of Godswar is to acknowledge and salute some key influences in my life. I did a similar thing when I wrote Grand Central Arena, which was a nod to Doc Smith and other authors of the Golden and Silver Ages of SF, Princess Holy Aura which was my take on the mahou shoujo genre, and in Polychrome, which was effectively a giant thank-you letter to the spirit of L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz.

Godswar – as indicated by its dedication – is strongly influenced by and a nod to the work of Masami Kurumada, the creator of Saint Seiya. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Saint Seiya led to my marriage; it would be no exaggeration but simple truth to say that working on Saint Seiya fanfiction with my then-fiancee Kathleen taught me a lot about how to write. Without that, and other similar anime influences, I wouldn’t be the author I am.

Godswar is in no way a copy of Saint Seiya, but many of the concepts of the God-Warrior come from that show, and others – Shurato, Yoroiden Samurai Troopers, various other sentai shows. It is my take on that subgenre, however, just as The Balanced Sword was my take on the concept of the Paladin and representative of a god, taking some of the recognizable elements of the source and then refining and revising them to play a part in the world that is Zarathan.

Ultimately, of course, GODSWAR: The Mask of Ares  is the story of four people who find themselves drawn into a conflict vastly larger than they imagined, and how they discover whether they can somehow rise to meet that challenge. Ingram must throw off his self-doubt and eventually face secrets about himself that he does not even suspect; Quester must discover why the Nests of the Iriistiik are being destroyed, and how he represents the potential for salvation of his people; Victoria must bring forth her old skills and hard-won experience to keep herself and her friends alive; and Urelle must learn how to master the power of magic that she had only dabbled in if she is to be able to survive a confrontation with the agents of a god.

I came to care very much for these four as I wrote the story. I hope you will too!

—-

The Mask of Ares: Amazon|Ring of Fire

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

The Big Idea: John P. Murphy

The creative advantages to anger: Are there any at all, ever? John P. Murphy says… perhaps! And explains how they were put to work in his novel Red Noise.

JOHN P. MURPHY:

Red Noise is about anger. I wrote it in 2017, at a time when a lot of us were angry for good reasons. Maybe it’s fitting that it’s coming out when we’re angry again for very good reasons.

We’re conditioned to be wary of anger, even afraid of it. But it’s not just an often healthy emotion, it’s a vital one. I’m not enough of a student of history to definitively state this or that without putting my foot in it, but it seems to me that a lot of progress in our world only happened after people got good and mad about injustice. I have to have faith that the anger we’re all experiencing right now rocks this country good and hard, and paves the way for real change. We owe so much to people who came before us who got angry enough to disregard their own convenience and even safety. But because many of us are so uncomfortable with anger, we don’t like to talk about it, don’t often look directly at the emotion itself and think about it. I didn’t want to either, but in writing Red Noise, I realized I had to.

My book is in the tradition of a number of movies and books going back to Dashiell Hammett’s noir classics Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Those works inspired the director Akira Kurosawa to write and direct a samurai film, Yojimbo, which was in turn remade into a Western by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. Then it was back to gangsters with Last Man Standing and Bruce Willis. It’s had many other iterations. The plots vary, but boil down to this: a nameless protagonist comes to town and finds that town driven into the dirt by fighting gangs, and so this hero, a trickster, pretends to join them as a way of taking them all down. And, of course, does.

It’s common when writing genre stories to talk of being in conversation with what has gone before. It’s a little odd to find oneself in conversation with a single plot. I thought a long time about what lies behind events like these. It’s one thing to read it or watch it, because that goes by so quickly. But writing something new in that vein means answering hard questions: What can drive rivals to hate each other so much they’d rather turn Station 35 into a two-for-one funeral than give an inch? What might push someone who jealously guards her privacy to take a look at such a miserable place and decide to put her life on the line to try and fix it, for strangers? There are many powerful emotions that make people put their lives at risk for others, but this is a job uniquely suited to righteous anger. No matter how cool or jaded the protagonist, without that core it just doesn’t work.

I did a lot of reading and viewing, trying to find my way into this story. Cowboy Bebop; Romeo and Juliet; Sanjuro; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; The Count of Monte Cristo. I read David Morrell’s First Blood, the source for the first Rambo movie (it’s a lot more subtle and interesting than the film, by the way). All of them were fueled by anger in some way, all different. Sublimated, frustrated, betrayed, furious. Anger drives decisions that drive plots.

It is also notorious for driving bad decisions, though, and I was determined to show a competent protagonist. More than that, I refused to believe that being angry was truly inconsistent with being smart. I found a study in my reading that intrigued me: it suggested that anger can actually lead to better decisions. People experiencing anger when they’re trying to come to a decision, it seemed, don’t wait as long, they don’t compromise as much, and they are happier with their decisions later. All together, my reading helped me understand better how this primal emotion drove my plot too, how it helped and hurt the decisions people make, and it helped me see that central anger motive with all its many facets and dangers for the characters.

From the protagonist’s perspective, the story is about being clever and resourceful. But for the gangs and the crooked cops, it’s about being manipulated into self-destruction. And they’d be justifiably angry about that, wouldn’t they? I found I needed more characters. In particular, I introduced a pair of gangsters, Screwball and Ditz, to help me distill those thoughts in a different way from the protagonist. Their journey wound up disrupting how I originally thought about how things had to play out. More than that, I realized that I was wrong about where the tension was coming from. The reader isn’t worried that this badass might lose the fight; we’re afraid of her losing the fire. We’re afraid she’ll stop caring.

Writing this book with anger in mind was useful to me, but sobering too. It made me question why I found these stories so appealing, why in 2017 I needed to write about corruption being pulled apart at the seams. God knows we’ve all found that it’s possible to get tired of being angry. Why add to the pile?

What I realized, after first reading so many stories about anger and then writing one, is that we need the practice. We need to see it through in miniature, get a little taste of a small win. Living out anger on the page doesn’t lessen the fire: it stokes it.

—-

Red Noise: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: A.J. Fitzwater

In today’s Big Idea for their novel No Man’s Land, author A.J. Fitzwater gives a good example why it’s a good idea to support local businesses: because you may find something there that opens a lost world to you.

A.J. FITZWATER:

Books talk.

Within a moment, across the years, decades, centuries.

They speak to each other in agreement or argument, uplift or downfall. Sometimes their crossing of paths is beautiful serendipity.

No Man’s Land speaks to something I didn’t think I had in me – history isn’t my jam. And it also speaks of some of the most important things to me – the invisibilized parts of New Zealand women’s and queer life.

The conversation began in a Christchurch second hand book store, Smith’s in the Tannery. Post-earthquakes, Smith’s had moved from a three storey joyous chaotic warren in the central city to a pared down nook specialising in everything New Zealand. Not usually my cup of tea, but I was trying to give my custom to as many local bookshops as possible.

A shelf of women’s history piqued my interest. One book in particular literally leapt into my hands. The Land Girls: In A Man’s World 1939-45 by Dianne Bardsley (University of Otago Press, 2000). The cover shows a muscular, tanned white woman, sleeves rolled as tidily as her hair, clip shearing a sheep, staring boldly into the camera.

How many times had I heard women weren’t strong enough for trade work or the farm? That was at odds with the amount of rural women I knew (a fair few, who would kick your arse for suggesting as much). I wanted to know how far this patronising myth extended.

Post-war, the New Zealand land girls were ignored by society, the farming community, and the government in an effort to force them back into domestic spheres. Accolades didn’t exist, they weren’t welcome in the VE and VJ day celebrations, it became difficult to be paid what they were owed and to find jobs, and government documents of service were destroyed. What remained became mostly oral history, and Bardsley endeavoured to document some of this history before the generation disappeared.

A title rung like a bell in my mind, luscious with layers: No Man’s Land. The land girls took on the farming jobs the troops left to go to war. They were fighting for their rights, conscious or not, in the liminal space between necessary “manpower” and discrimination. And a number of them were queer – defying gender norms, “spinster aunties” who lived alone or together, too busy with the farm to get married.

This was a story I wanted to tell, with magic for good measure.

What began as a short story, my preferred form, began to blossom out, to demand space, life, breath. I did more research into New Zealand women in war time (the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, and the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service), and tapped into family memories of the area and era. The Bletchley Girls, Rocket Girls, and Hidden Figures stories became popular around the same time; while not explicitly linked to my work, they provided good tangential inspiration for characters and other stories.

What I discovered along the way is that history isn’t my jam because it was designed that way. It was written by the victors – the patriarchy – so I had only a narrow, domestic view of women’s contribution. And how I could even imagine queer heroes or lives when those stories were upheld as tragic figures, or weren’t told at all? Without a view of yesterday, we have to reinvent ourselves, bring our imaginations back to square one, over and over.

With each book on women’s war and STEM history I read, it spoke to another and another, speaking truth back into the space created by the warp of history around the event horizon of women’s contribution and lives.

As with many of my stories, I started with the themes first – isolation, marginalization, found family, discovery of self, fear, sacrifice – then the characters fleshed into those ideas. The townie who knows little about farming but is doing it to escape the spectre of marriage became Dorothy “Tea” Gray (Earl Grey Tea. Hot). Her brother Robbie became a twin in family and magic as a nod to one of my favourite childhood books, Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee. Izzy Larson is the friend who must use her magical abilities to hide multiple parts of her identity in a world she is always at war with, creating layers of thick skin and a sharp tongue. And Grant Stevenson is the token man of the team (as Robbie is on the front lines), scrawny, sickly, quiet, and with an understanding of the feminine that mystifies Tea.

(I will admit it here now, because NO ONE has guessed the Easter egg of Grant’s name; Grant and Robbie are AU pre-serum Steve Rogers and didn’t-get-Winter-Soldiered Bucky Barnes. And…KISS.)

Of course I was going to make this story queer. Very very queer. Queer all over the place. There were always queer people in the war and in rural areas. They ran risks to find each other, to be together, so as not to be so alone, and to show the way for others. Need and identity are forces just as magical and necessary as the shape shifting power than sits in my characters’ skins. Closeted queer hiding within an illegal system often have the ability to shift between the different parts of their identity with different people, sometimes so intuitively it seems like magic. These are stories that speak across generations. Queer oral history, books, and archiving are vitally important to preserve the fact that queers have always been here and you will not send us back to the darkest places.

The last theme I wanted to play with was a sensorium of New Zealand locations. My country is often culturally filtered at a second hand remove (Lord of the Rings), sweeping landscapes and sparse urban grit. I wanted the reader to smell the cold from the Southern Alps, feel the heat and dust of the nor’west wind, discover the ice-born chill of our streams and rivers, taste the humid green of the native bush, and feel the crunch of summer-brown pastures beneath their feet. This isn’t something a photograph, postcard, or a souvenir book can convey. It is something I work very hard on with each New Zealand based story I tell, my books trying to speak to and of the land.

From one book and generation to another. Translated from history to fantasy and delivered back to reality again. Stories speak to stories. The invisible is spoken and spoken and spoken again (as often as it takes, loud, soft, joyous and righteous and angry) into visibility. The Land Girls speaks to No Man’s Land. And maybe, hopefully, my book will speak to you, or another book, another story, another time, and continue the conversation.

—-

No Man’s Land: Amazon | Kobo | Apple Books | Barnes and Noble

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

The Big Idea: C. S. E. Cooney, Jessica P. Wick, Amanda J. McGee, Mike Allen

This Big Idea post for the collection A Sinister Quartet represents an actual record: The largest number of authors co-writing a single Big Idea piece. I’m going to get out of the way here and let them do their thing.

CSE COONEY, JESSICA P. WICK, AMANDA J. McGEE, MIKE ALLEN:

A Sinister Quartet pays tribute to the legacy of collections of dark fantasy and horror novellas like Stephen King’s Different Seasons, the main difference being it’s written by four authors rather than one. The book started life as a duet, with a notion that it might be published with two covers like one of those vintage Ace Doubles, but became a quartet in its final form. We the contributors (C. S. E. Cooney, Jessica P. Wick, Amanda J. McGee, Mike Allen) decided to interview each other about our Big Ideas in the order we appear in the book.

Okay, we start with Claire Cooney—why is your story structured using the language of cinema?

Claire: The idea for “The Twice-Drowned Saint” has been around for years. My first draft was mostly a tone of voice and a series of images—an angel with eleven eyes, a ritual sacrifice turned miracle, a jaded narrator awakening to the horrors and wonders of her world. Perhaps voice and image together meant “cinematic” to me, because in draft two, I began using the language of movies to help me pin the narrative to a specific place and time. I wanted a secondary fantasy world that was experiencing a timeline much like our early twentieth century. I wanted weird angels, sorcery, and fallen gods in conversation with global wars fought with modern weapons, the progression of silent film to talkies and technicolor, plus some really cool motorcycles.

I’m very happy that Mike sparked my deadline fuse and got this story burning again; I’ve never written four drafts of novel-length fiction in a mere four months before. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever attempted, but it also bows to some of my earliest published stories. There’s a sense of personal history here, of inward scope and infinite possibility, that, to me, is pretty breathtaking. And if I am wonderstruck, I hope my readers will be too.

So, Jess. The threat in “An Unkindness” seems to have its roots in a fairyland. Why fairyland?

Jess: First and foremost: Fairyland is my jam. There’s nothing so chilling as the amoral righteousness of fairyland. I grew up imbibing myth and folklore, pretending to bargain with fairies and kelpies who might steal me away—not because they wanted to hurt me in a mean way, but because that’s just what fairies do. There are rules to follow and break and obscure and follow and wield. Secondly, it was important to me the external threat feel beguiling but scary, that most readers—and Ravenna—would immediately judge it “bad.” I wanted a threat that could strike at the heart, because the heart is what I’m chiefly interested in. All of the characters in “An Unkindness” regard themselves as right and knowing best. But they can’t all be—can they? Fairyland is a place that can reveal, obscure, or both; it revels in moral quandaries and ambiguities while at the same time kind of telling us that, no, actually, there are True Things. What better origin for a threat?

Now to Amanda. Why a modern-day retelling of a fairytale?

Amanda: It’s funny you ask, because I originally conceived of this story as a Civil War era retelling. It was also going to be epistolary. So obviously the final story became something very different!

As for why a retelling—I think I’ve always been fascinated with how stories change in their adaptations, but I first really became conscious of how much things transform in adaptation when memorizing lyrics to “Black is the Color” which is an old folk song I first heard covered by Gaelic Storm. I was listening to a radio show on Gaelic and Appalachian music and they played an old Appalachian tune which was clearly derivative, but wildly different. Most of those changes had to do with cultural values evolving. So I wanted to see how a tale set in a different time might evolve and transform itself. Thus, eventually, “Viridian” was born as a modern-day piece. I plan to do a handful of other fairytale retellings in modern times because I really enjoy exploring them in this context. I hope that I’ll bring the true horror of fairytales home to modern readers in a way that’s true to their roots.

Mike, you’re last. Why do you keep writing creepy stories about buttons?

Mike: It’s not the buttons that keep me hooked, so to speak, so much as it is the notion of a predator that craves to learn your deepest, most unpleasant secrets and can assume your identity once it has done so. It just happens that when I was first struck by this idea, it was inextricably visually entwined with the image of a person’s skin being unbuttoned so the monster could access the prize inside, a metaphor literally made flesh. I’m somewhat surprised at how often I’m drawn to revisit this world and further chronicle the fates of the people who encounter these monsters, both those that escape and those that don’t.

My gamble (I admit it is one) is that my novella “The Comforter” (threequel to my horror tales “The Button Bin” and “The Quiltmaker”) is so bizarre that it doesn’t matter what you knew going in, thus it’s a standalone. There are other stories of mine it also ties into, for the first time codifying an “Allenverse,” fun for me but a hazardous place for its populace.

We’ve found that the four stories connect in unexpected ways, even though all were written independently. Shapeshifting of some sort happens in all four stories. The angels in Claire’s story and the monsters in Mike’s have in common chaotic, patchwork forms. Jess’s story has a fairytale feel, while Amanda’s retells a fairytale. Claire’s and Jess’s stories take place in secondary worlds, while Amanda’s and Mike’s are set in present day reality. All the stories have central relationships involving siblings, either familial or found. All use cultural references and genre tropes to set up expectations that then get walloped in the snozz.

Oh, and there’s cannibalism. Many varieties of cannibalism.

—-

A Sinister Quartet: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.

The authors’ web sites: C. S. E. Cooney|Jessica P. Wick|Amanda J. McGee|Mike Allen

The authors’ Twitters: C. S. E. Cooney|Jessica P. Wick|Amanda J. McGee|Mike Allen

The Big Idea: Tim Major

When you have kids, it can really mess with your focus and ability to do things. But can it also be an inspiration? Ask Tim Major, who in this Big Idea for his novel Hope Island, has some thoughts on this very subject.

TIM MAJOR:

Probably, all new parents are entirely preoccupied with the act of parenting. Probably, it’s for the best. Becoming a parent rewires the brain, and the act of parenting distracts you constantly. Again, totally fair. You’ve taken charge of a lifeform singularly incapable of fending for itself. You’ve split your brain right down the middle. Half for you, half for something that has only just begun to exist.

I became a parent in 2013, the same year I began to take writing seriously. My first novella was written during my wife’s pregnancy and I began writing my first novel when my son was a few months old. Almost all of my writing has been grounded in this new status of parenthood, and my new novel, Hope Island, is the most explicitly connected to it yet.

It was a literary editor, Cyril Connolly, who commented: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. I don’t know his circumstances. Perhaps he had a really narrow hall, and kept his pens in one room and his paper in another, with the pram blocking access between them. And his statement isn’t true, anyway. I tell myself often that it’s not true. The pram in the hall is significant, obviously. Children are wild and cruel and they care little about their parents’ ambitions – but becoming a parent can provide motivation rather than sap it. It can force you to channel your available time.

When I became a parent it was soon clear that carving out time to write would be harder. So I dropped other activities, and carved out the time. I conjured new ideas on the commute to work and wrote them up in the half-hour before my colleagues arrived. I didn’t get around to writing. Instead, I just wrote. I allowed my writing to be shitty. I would tidy it up later. I told myself there would be a ‘later’, when my presence of mind would return, and eventually there was. When my second son was born, I resigned from my job and started a freelance editorial business, and so then all four of us were almost always in the house, often laughing together, often clawing at the walls. I still wrote but I don’t know how or when I did so. Everything of that period remains a blur. My wife and I divided our days right down the middle, tagging in and out of childcare and work, passing each other in the corridor, sidestepping the pram in the hall.

These are all practicalities, but something else happens to your mind when you become a parent. I can’t tell you what. I write stories to figure it out. Becoming a parent scrunches up your identity and when it’s finally unscrunched, it’s different. There are holes in it, and crayon doodles on it.

Whenever I sit at my attic desk to write, temporarily free of my responsibilities towards my children, they are still on my mind. I love being a father, but I worry about that not being the case. What if one day I found myself resenting my children? What if things had been different, and I had resented them from the beginning?

When I was planning Hope Island, the thought of writing about creepy children in a remote community seemed just one of those ideas, those tropes with which everyone is allowed to play. I relished its heritage, from John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos onwards. Now it seems ridiculous to imagine that I chose the subject arbitrarily. In my novel, a British mother and her teen daughter, who are already out on a limb on a tiny island off the coast of Maine, struggle due to the tensions between them as much as the terrifying circumstances they face. Hope Island is about my newest fear, now that my children have survived infancy – the fear of a failure to communicate with them as they grow older. In the novel, Nina only reluctantly became a mother to begin with, and she has no support from her absent partner, and the visit to the island represents her last-ditch attempt to reconnect with her daughter.

Hope Island has its fair share of speculative elements, and its fair share of scares. There are ethereal cave songs and uncanny archaeological finds and silent, murderous children. But as far as I’m concerned, the most horrific element is the straining and breaking of the relationship between a parent and child, a daughter drifting away to join an impenetrable group – and, worst of all, a mother who fears losing her child but, equally, fears keeping her, uncertain of her own parental love.

I’ve tested my attitude to parenthood by writing about differing ones, but I’m still afraid about not being the right kind of father to my two sons. It’ll take more years of parenthood, and more years of writing about parenthood, to figure it out.

—-

Hope Island: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kester Grant

A dash of history, a pinch of literary invention, and a soupçon of imagination — all of these combine in The Court of Miracles to create author Kester Grant’s new novel. She’s here now to tell you how all these ingredients came together.

KESTER GRANT:

As I left the cinema after seeing Disney’s latest Jungle Book movie, I was mulling over the plot’s premise: young vulnerable man-cub is adopted into a dangerous jungle of wild animals. The jungle is ruled by a strict hierarchy, and the man-cub must adapt to the animals’ way of life and navigate his way among them.

Then it struck me—if you remove the words animal, jungle, and man-cub, that’s exactly the same premise as Oliver Twista young, naïve boy is adopted into a dangerous criminal world. . . .

Marveling at previously unseen threads of commonality, my brain grabbed the next link in the chain, this time from my favorite classic, Les Misérablesyoung, naïve Cosette is left to the charge of the criminal Thénardier and his gang of murderous burglars.

In Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Cosette is soon rescued by the fugitive Jean Valjean and given a life of safety and comfort. Yet the aspect I had found so compelling in The Jungle Book and Oliver Twist was the characters learning to navigate the dangerous new society. I started to compose a story in which Cosette is thrust into a larger criminal society, and I didn’t have to look much further for more ideas than Hugo’s second most popular work, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

In Paris in the 1600s, a large portion of the population was wretchedly poor. Begging, thievery, and prostitution were rife. The slum districts were known as the “Courts of Miracles” because of the cynical belief that beggars, who faked injuries to gain more alms, could relax their roles there and were thus “miraculously” healed. A popular Parisian urban legend states that in these slums, criminals, migrants, and unwanted people had formed an organized criminal society. Although historically untrue, Hugo adopted these ideas, presenting them as a part of the world of Hunchback.

The underground criminal society, the titular “Miracle Court” of my debut book, came full circle back to The Jungle Book. I extrapolated the animal clans and their customs and strict laws onto a world of criminals, divided into guilds according to crime: Assassins, Thieves, Beggars, Prostitutes . . . I wove the strict rules and hierarchies that they would live by.

But it didn’t seem enough to have them simply exist. I also wanted to create a feeling of rich, layered otherness for the Miracle Court. So I researched countercultures: how they are formed and what makes them different. Our day-to-day language and expressions, our western curses and oaths, and our celebrations and customs often stem from religion or historical events that form our cultural identities.

The first Parisian police chief, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, was tasked with eradicating with the city’s crime problem. He achieved his goal by clearing out the slums, arresting anyone found within no matter whether they had committed a crime. This included the imprisonment and institutionalization of many poor, foreign, and unwanted members of society (the disabled and the sick), as well as a vast swath of criminals. I made this event the birthplace of my Miracle Court, adding Paris’s long history of violent persecution of religious and ethnic minorities to de la Reynie’s purge. I posited that within the dark walls of the city’s prisons, the Wretched, who had been displaced, killed, and institutionalized, formed an underground society in order to protect each other against their powerful enemies.

One of Europe’s oldest folktales is the ballad of Ysengrim the wolf and his long war against the wily fox Rennart. With the Miracle Court’s “birth” in place, I wove a mythology that served as the basis for their counter-society. I created a brother for de la Reynie and had him stand against the purges and so get swept up in them, losing his family, title, and position in de la Reynie’s quest to clean up the city. De la Reynie became Ysengrim the boar, and his brother, Rennart the fox.

Thus, the Wretched don’t curse by the devil but rather say, “Ysengrim take you!” In the mythology of their people’s origin, Ysengrim is the true villain. When surprised they cry “Rennart’s eyes!”—Rennart being one of their founding fathers. When they gather, each member of the court bears a candle in memory of the darkness of the prisons where their people first came together. All their laws are also created to preserve and protect their society. Their Guild of Letters—devoted to spying and white-collar crime—does not exist solely for illegal profit but also to create a vast library of knowledge that might enable them to safely neutralize any of the Miracle Court’s enemies and thereby protect their people.

In order to make Paris a city thick with paranoia and conspiracy, I took one turn from historical truth by having the French Revolution come close to succeeding, but ultimately failing. The leaders heads were mounted on pikes outside the royal palace, and the paranoid nobility was left ever watchful for any signs of further uprising. To this I added another other urban legend of the era—the idea that the nobility was poisoning the city’s wells to keep the numbers of the poor down in order to prevent uprisings. I wove this into the story as fact. Thus, setting up deeply entrenched factions within the city—the nobility who were almost overthrown by the failed revolution had seen the violent retribution the poor would have subjected them to. The Wretched, who knew they could trust neither the nobility nor the average Parisian, formed their own society to protect themselves and the man on the street, some of whom believed in the cause of the revolution.

Into this murky jungle of opposing factions, comes one little girl: Cosette, along with her Bagheera-like mentor Eponine “Nina” Thénardier, Black Cat of the Thieves Guild. The two of them are caught between these societies at odds with each other.

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The Court of Miracles: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Jeremy Szal

War changes people, and in Stormblood, some wars change people more. Author Jeremy Szal is here today to explain how, and why.

JEREMY SZAL:

Blood is thicker than water. Does that still apply when your blood is infused with alien DNA?

Let me explain.

The central idea for Stormblood is that a far-flung, interstellar society has began injecting humans with stormtech, the DNA of an extinct alien race. This biotechnology fuses with a person’s muscles, nervous system, bloodstream, ultimately making them permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression. So when an interstellar war broke out, they shot their soldiers up with this untested, unknown alien DNA, turning them into Reapers: living bioweapons with super-strength and enhanced abilities, literally addicted to their own body chemistry and literally addicted to killing. When Reapers were dumped on the frontlines, the outcome was inevitable. The war was won. The galaxy’s saved.

Except, it wasn’t.

Because these Reapers who’ve been jammed back into a society they no longer recognize still have an alien organism kicking around inside their bodies, demanding adrenaline, demanding danger and demanding prey. Because stormtech has leaked onto the drug market, with millions of citizens addicted. Because there’s now a drug epidemic spreading across the galaxy.

Of course, that’s only half the idea.

I’m interested in the personal, intimate side of my characters. Their relationships. How the stormtech changes that. Which is why I wrote Vakov Fukasawa, my protagonist, in first-person. He’s a broken, wreck of a man who’s desperately trying to do the right thing, even when it hurts. The only way he and his Artyom survived growing up on a backwater planet with an abusive father was by leaning on each other, by showing love and support in their darkest hours. And when Vakov left his brother behind to become a Reaper, that same sense of kinship was transferred to his squadmates. How they were the only people who understood what it’s like to have an alien organism sniffing up your backbone and into your skull. How you got excited when enemy gunfire started chewing your cover away.

Stormblood isn’t set in wartime, but through character, I used it to build upon the central themes of loyalty and brotherhood. How friendship helped these men and women stand together against this terrible darkness. How the desire to do right by the people you love is the most human thing you can do, even when you’ve got a non-human organism twitching in your flesh, your blood, your sweat. These soldiers aren’t just fighting a war; they’re fighting for their humanity. And the battle only became winnable when they stood side by side. I’ve always loved the tropes of a found family, forged by trauma, bonding as they march through hell and back together, so I transferred that passion to my protagonist.

But it doesn’t end there, of course. Because when the war’s over, Vakov is enraged to discover that his former squadmates slowly being killed off, deliberately overdosed by their own body chemistry, and knows he has to find out whoever’s doing it.

Only, the prime suspect is his first brother: Artyom.

I said earlier that I’m interested in the personal and intimate side of stories. I want to get close to the bone, into that little vulnerable area in the heart where things really hurt. And for it to be real, I need to put a bit more than is comfortable on the page. Friendship and brotherhood and loyalty are everything to Vakov, because they’re everything to me. In the war, Vakov promised he’d do right by his Reaper brothers, as they would for him. But he promised he’d protect Artyom, too.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pour myself into Vakov, his heart slowly tearing as he struggles to navigate his loyalties as a brother, a Reaper, and the friends that help him investigate the murder. I allowed Vakov’s emotional arc to drive the narrative, and the more time I spent in his body and head, the more surprised I was by the themes that developed on the page, and how much they meant to me. Not least of all seeing how he emotionally adapts to his body as the danger ramps up, becoming more and more aggressive, to the point where he’s afraid of hurting the people he cares about most. Whether he’s ever in control, if the alien organism’s been manipulating him this whole time.

And keeping that balance wasn’t easy. Not only is Vakov a soldier, he’s bursting with an alien organism that plays havoc with everything from his sweat and saliva to his taste buds and mood swings. That, and he’s got the patience of a cocaine-addled fruit-fly with ADHD. Not sure it’s much of a surprise when I say he doesn’t like playing by the rules. Or listening to authority. Or taking the procedural route. So, when interrogating an alien drug dealer, Vakov’s more inclined to skewer the creature’s face with his fist than have a talk. But afterwards when his friends rub him the wrong way, he’s got to literally force myself not to hurt them. Mapping out Vakov’s internal struggle as he forces himself not to tear apart anyone and anything that rubs him the wrong way was difficult, but it was fun. It also let me get away with some very morbid humour.

Stormblood is a space opera wrapped up in a murder mystery, but it would be nothing without the emotional core of the narrative. What we owe to each other. How the war to maintain your humanity and empathy is a never-ending one. How when we feel broken and worthless, brotherhood and love can pick us up, can make us want to always do better. Putting my characters through hell and making these important to them showed me what’s important to me. I guess I’m saying that parts of this book are autographical. Because, at the end of the day, that’s why we consume stories, right? To see ourselves on the page, broken and messy and utterly human, having wild adventures while trying to figure ourselves out, trying to do the best we can?

Maybe that’s why we write them, too.

—-

Stormblood: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Book Depository

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The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer has gone “back to the future” with his newest novel The Oppenheimer Alternative. But why does he go back at all — and back to this particular Great Man of History? Sawyer is here to explain it all.

ROBERT J. SAWYER:

It’s been obvious since the days of Hugo Gernsback that science fiction could be set in the future, and that’s the standard mode today.

And the field’s progenitors ably demonstrated that science fiction could be set in the present: consider Mary Shelley with her Frankenstein, notably subtitled “The Modern Prometheus,” not the “Futuristic” one, and H.G. Wells with such works as The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man.

But, except for those stories employing time travel or alternate history as their central conceit, rarely has science fiction been set in the past.

I’d spent most of the last decade publishing big-ideas hard-SF set in the present day—from Wake through to Quantum Night—but wanted a new challenge, and found myself drawn to the rarely trod path of setting an honest-to-goodness hard-SF novel in the days of yore.

But who or what to write about? Well, although J. Robert Oppenheimer will forever be praised or damned as “the father of the atomic bomb,” prior to becoming scientific director of the Manhattan Project he was doing research in astrophysics. In fact, it was he, along with his grad student Hartland Snyder, who first proposed what we now call black holes.

Now, yes, others have written fiction about the Manhattan Project, but most of them took the easy way out by having their main character either be wholly fictitious or, if real, so obscure that he or she might as well be.

I set myself the challenges not just of putting Oppenheimer (one of the few Manhattan Project figures who never wrote an autobiography) front and center, but also of having every other character in the book be a well-known real person.

See, normally, a novelist has a get-out-of-jail-free card. When a reader grouses “I don’t think this character would do that,” the writer can reply, quite truthfully, “Actually, I’m the world’s foremost expert on that character and I assure you she would.”

But with a cast consisting entirely of famous people who have been explored in multiple biographies, have been studied in depth by historians, and are still vividly remembered by many alive today, I had to cheerfully concede that I was not now and never would be the world’s leading authority on any of them.

Still, I wanted to make sure that my portrayals—not just of Oppie but also of Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, I.I. Rabi, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Kurt Gödel, Freeman Dyson, Albert Einstein, General Leslie R. Groves, and Wernher von Braun, among others—passed muster with the true experts.

And I didn’t want to tell an alternate history. That is, I didn’t want to say, well, sure, you can gainsay me until this page—the point of divergence—but after that, anything goes. Rather, I decided to tell a secret history: a series of plausible events that were, in themselves, authentic big-ideas hard SF, and have them occur in the lacunae in the public record. I wanted no one to be able to say, “Okay, that was fun, but of course it never happened.”

The more I dug into the research, the more obvious it became that there really was something major beyond what the public record shows of that period.

Deak Parsons, Oppie’s second-in-command at the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Lab, concurred. He told colleagues, concerning Oppie being cut off from classified information after the war, that even President Eisenhower was in the dark about the truth:

“I have to put a stop to it. Ike has to know what’s really going on. This is the biggest mistake the United States could make!” Unfortunately for him—and damn near as much for Oppie—Parsons died the next day of a heart attack before speaking to the president.

Even Freeman Dyson, Oppie’s great post-war colleague at the Institute for Advance Study, who died this year at the age of 96, felt Oppie was hiding something:

“As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.”

Indeed, as Oppie himself declared, “There is a story behind my story. If a reporter digs deep enough he will find that it is a bigger story than my [security-clearance] suspension.” My goal was to tell that bigger story, and to make it one that could only be portrayed in the science-fiction genre.

Oppie has always been an enigmatic character: nonfiction books about him have titles as conflicting as Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (by Charles Thorpe) and The Hope and Vision of J. Robert Oppenheimer (by Michael A. Day), as well as the on-the-nose Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (by Jeremy Bernstein). But that just made it all the more enticing to crawl inside his thundering brain and try to see things from his point of view.

I’ve often said my favorite science-fiction novel is Gateway by the late, great Frederik Pohl, in part because Pohl never cared whether his main character, Robinette Broadhead, was likable but only whether he’d been portrayed with raw psychological truth.

In Oppie, history handed me a similarly flawed person—one that just happened to be an erstwhile astrophysicist who went on to change the world for all time—and I hope I’ve done him justice in The Oppenheimer Alternative.

—-

The Oppenheimer Alternative: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Drew Murray

Author Drew Murray knew he wanted to write a technothriller with his novel Broken Genius — but how to do it in a way that reader would not get lost in the technological weeds? Murray explains his solution for you now.

DREW MURRAY:

Very close on the heels of every technology humans invent is a way to misuse it.

One crisp fall weekend a couple of years ago, I went to visit an old friend I’d last seen in Northern California while on a pilgrimage to see the birthplace of the computer age in Silicon Valley. Over pasta heaped with bacon, he filled me in on his new job in the world of programmatic advertising.

On some level, I knew we all, as consumers, were being watched online. But how much can be found out about us? The answer is a gut-crunching, tingle-down-the-back-of-your-spine feeling of being spied upon. I wondered, What could happen if the collector of said information were to use it for something less benign than advertising?

I had a protagonist in mind who would also be interested in the answer to that question. I’d come up with him for a short story I wrote at a writing conference with the theme, “Murder at the Beach.” I wanted my detective to be a creature of Silicon Valley, but that presented a problem. What would cause someone to leave the lavish tech industry with its catered Michelin-star-rated buffets and eye-watering wealth? Something terrible. I had several ideas. Will Parker ended up being so fascinating to me that I wanted to explore his character in the greater space afforded by a novel.

Writing about current technology requires research to get the details right, or people won’t feel it’s genuine. Writing about distant future technology in a science fiction setting has few boundaries, but must feel familiar enough to the reader to suspend disbelief. Writing about a near-future technology combines both of these challenges. Too much detail and a reader could lose interest. Not enough detail and a reader could fail to believe in the possibilities. Either way, the reader is taken out of the story.

One technology capable of elevating an eerie amount of information collection to frightening and dangerous is a quantum computer. Able to analyze almost limitless amounts of data instantaneously, it’s the hardware that will enable true artificial intelligence. But so far, this technology remains experimental. Explaining the details of how that technology might evolve in the future makes a great science journal article but is snooze-inducing in a novel.

The lifeblood of a thriller is stakes. People being killed to possess this technology is a great start and raises juicy questions. Who wants it? What would they do with it? And who else is in danger? If the answer to the last question is everyone, you’ve hit the gold mine of stakes.

The next challenge I had to keep the tension high was to find action. In some thrillers that comes naturally. In military thrillers, soldiers jet around the world getting into battles. In spy thrillers, secret agents operate under constant threat of capture. Action is everywhere! Tech thrillers have to work harder because the truth is, high-tech work is boring to watch. I spent over twenty years in technology, and most of the time it was people sitting at a computer screen, typing away. At first, it was in cubicles, later in large open spaces, and now at home because everything is connected. Not exactly gripping stuff. I needed a way to get out of the office.

To get the movement I was looking for, it had to be about hardware. A physical device, disconnected so it could move around. Even better, it could be lost, becoming the treasure in a treasure hunt. Something so valuable on the loose and up for grabs would trigger real physical action and a healthy dose of danger, since we’ve established that people are willing to kill for it.

But where would this object, this high-tech McGuffin be lost? For that, I considered what would be a natural and interesting environment for my protagonist, Will Parker. He’s a techie. He’s from California. He’s definitely a fan of science fiction in popular culture. My answer was a Comic Book Convention.

The problem with setting a book at a comic con is that like technology, the level of detail is everything. Not enough detail and it won’t feel authentic, especially to fans that have gone to one (or if they’re like me, lots of them). Too much detail and you get lost in the comic con itself, breaking the tension of the high-tech treasure hunt. What followed was a process of trial and error. It took several revisions to get that level of detail right, and the feedback of a carefully selected panel of early readers with varying levels of experience with comic cons.

The winning strategy was to choose elements of a comic con that are readily understood by someone who’s never been to a one, and then have the story interact with it in some way—such as celebrity autographs. Everyone knows what an autograph signing is, whether it features sports heroes, movie stars, or tech entrepreneurs. By choosing that element, I had only to show how it typically works at a comic con, and then have it play a role in the treasure hunt. Approaching it this way led to surprising and humorous outcomes.

The last piece that brought it all together was to choose a first-person point of view for Will Parker. Being inside Will’s head inherently makes him a guide through the worlds of tech and comic cons, while allowing him to bring his own particular style of commentary to the sights and events as they unfold. His narrative perspective allows me to fine-tune the level of details for readability because of what he focuses his attention on. We trust that he understands the details of technology, so that when he’s fearful over what could happen if this new technology is misused, we share that fear. And who doesn’t want to feel that creepy tingle when reading a thriller?

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Broken Genius: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Margo Orlando Littell

In her latest novel, The Distance From Four Points, author Margo Orlando Littell tests the proposition of whether one can indeed come back home — and whether her protagonist’s experience of doing so can and will differ from her own.

MARGO ORLANDO LITTELL:

Like most novelists, I can say that the finished version of my novel is a completely different novel than it was in early drafts. Plot elements were sliced away; characters asserted themselves or stepped aside. The big questions that led me to write The Distance from Four Points, however, never wavered: what would happen if you were forced to move back home? What if you returned to the place you swore you’d never set foot in again?

I grew up in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, the kind of place where your high school homecoming queen, first-grade teacher, and second-cousin-once-removed are all people you run into regularly at the supermarket. Everybody knows your name and your business. Most people who grow up there don’t leave, settling in the same zip code, or even on the same street, where they were born. This was not my path. I left town for college in Dayton, went on to grad school in New York City, spent years in Barcelona and Sacramento and New Jersey, acquiring a house and family along the way. With my husband’s job in Manhattan and my kids in New Jersey elementary school, moving back to my hometown has never been part of any life plan.

And yet. I’ve always viewed my hometown as a safety net. It hasn’t been home for decades, but it’s home—Robert Frost’s home: “the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” If something were to happen—some crisis, some loss—it would be a soft place to land. It wouldn’t be the life we’d expected, but we’d carry on and be okay.

In my writing, I wasn’t far from home. Fictionalized versions of my hometown are the settings for both of my novels. I could walk the quiet streets and make conversation at the gas station through the characters I created. It felt right to set down roots in my books as I wrote about familiar territory.

Then it got a little too familiar.

The Distance from Four Points takes up the big question of my life directly: what would it be like to actually go back home? Robin, my protagonist, is forced to return to her hometown—Four Points, Pennsylvania—when her husband dies, leaving her with only a few decrepit rental properties he blew their savings on. Robin must become a landlord to make ends meet. Researching the novel, I had a realtor take me into the worst homes available for sale in my hometown—the long-abandoned, much-abused properties available for a song.

These are not ordinary rundown homes. My hometown, an hour south of Pittsburgh, used to be a wealthy hub for coal and coke, and it was once home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. These are houses where the town’s most powerful families lived, and, grotesquely, the opulent details remain: original woodwork amid ripped-up floors; in-tact stained glass amid missing windows; turrets; wraparound porches. Architectural ghosts of better days. One of these homes, a giant yellow-brick beauty too ruined to enter safely, was listed for $10,000 and wasn’t worth half that much, as it was actively crumbling into the ravine behind it.

A romantic-leaning person would feel strongly that these ruined homes had souls.

Not long after my visit, a friend bought one of these homes, and we partnered for a flip. It was a stately, five-bedroom, red-brick landmark with a turret. The project’s purpose was to rescue a town relic and help improve the neighborhood where both sets of our parents still lived. The flip failed. The renovation itself was spectacular—photos went viral on Facebook, with over a million views—but no one could afford to buy it. So we took in tenants, all of whom lied egregiously—we were easy marks, as absentee landlords—and failed to pay rent. Courtrooms and collection agencies entered my life. We lost a lot of money, a lot of sleep. The house we’d meant to save bowed to a new cycle of abuse.

All of this meant that the lifelong fondness I had for my hometown took a beating. Before, I would have described it as having Appalachian charm; I viewed it through the lens of a visitor, someone who’d show up to ride on the bike trail by the river or attend the annual Italian church fair. Now, having invested time and resources, all I could see were tenants who’d punch holes in walls and strew needles in the attic. It was a heartbreaking re-vision. Too gritty, too real.

Worse, for the first time, I felt like a true outsider. During visits, I’d always been welcomed, easily resuming a place that held the shape of my body even after so many years. Now, interacting with tenants by phone and email, I was only an absentee landlord. A stranger.

Meanwhile, in my novel, the path Robin walked was the reverse of mine. Her longstanding revulsion of Four Points evolves; while there, she finds unexpected community. What she believed was the worst of her hometown turns out to be what her affluent suburban life had lacked: unvarnished worldviews, blunt truth-telling, long memories. She sheds her bland existence and reaches for freedom. Though she returned to Four Points kicking and screaming, the acceptance she achieves is a triumph, not capitulation.

Researching this novel gave me an unwelcome look at the other side of this place I once knew, far away from family and childhood memories. Robin gets an answer to my novel’s big question—what would happen if you went back home?—and her contented future is, in those pages, assured. My own attempt to get closer to where I came from, however, to maybe even test the waters for a hypothetical return of my own, came up sadly short of a happy ending.

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The Distance from Four Points: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Swati Teerdhala

It’s said that revenge is sweet — but in this Big Idea for The Archer at Dawn, author Swati Teerdhala argues that the taste may be something else entirely.

SWATI TEERDHALA:

Revenge fantasies are powerful.

We’ve all had one, whether it’s as petty as dripping oil on your annoying neighbor’s fancy loafers at the gas station or drastic, like sideswiping a car that always parks in your parking spot at work. And maybe you’ve gone through with that revenge fantasy. It feels good. No, it feels amazing in the moment.

But revenge is an unusual, cruel thing. It dresses itself up as a balm to your wounds. Something that will soothe you, allow you to evolve past your grievances with the mere act of retribution. It’s the answer to a question you desperately think you need. And in some cases, the desire for revenge can be understood. A good chunk of action movies use revenge as the core motivator for a character––to good and bad results. Even in classic literature, The Count of Monte Cristo is centered on a long, drawn out revenge fantasy. It’s a shorthand that every human on this earth can understand.

You’ve been hurt. You must hurt. But an eye for an eye blinds the world, or so they say. Turn the other cheek, etc. There are any number of sayings or parables that encourage forgiveness as the proper response to a devastation delivered by another. To the hurt and rage and despair that drives someone to revenge.

I wanted to explore this idea, not with a forgiving character, but with someone who has used that rage and anger to shape the core of who they are. How does forgiveness work then? Is it even possible? And what part of yourself do you lose when you allow forgiveness to enter? I wasn’t sure if you could even be the same person anymore. Or if you could truly forgive, especially a crime that has defined your life.

Esha, one of the main characters in The Archer at Dawn, saw her parents murdered in front of her eyes as a kid. The one cruel act has molded her into the person she is––a rebel fighting for what’s right and good. Someone committed to making sure no one else has to endure what she went through as the Pretender King took power of the land. She’s dedicated her whole life to bringing him down. And still, the Pretender King isn’t enough for her revenge. There was someone else who held the sword, who committed the act of killing her parents. When she realizes she has a chance to avenge her parents, she must decide––her past or her future? Taking revenge will ensure that her past is clean, that her rage will diminish, but it could spell doom for her and her land’s future. Forgiveness is the harder path.

Throughout The Archer at Dawn, the characters must deal with their demons in different ways––the thirst for revenge, the desperate need to prove their worth, the unending burden of duty. I delved deep into these ideas, forcing these characters to live through their worst nightmares before offering them a chance to do better, to be more.

Forgiveness was a lantern at the end of a dark tunnel. And hopefully, they’d walk toward it.

The Archer At Dawn: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Bookshop

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on twitter.

The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

In today’s Big Idea, Hugo and Nebula Award winner Nancy Kress takes a look at controversy, science, and change — Sea Change, as a matter of fact.

NANCY KRESS: 

At parties in my city—environmentally conscious, crunchy-granola, high-tech and socially activist Seattle—it is easy to start a flaming argument. Just walk up to a group, tilt your head, and say inquiringly, “What do you think of GMOs?” Then stand back to avoid being scorched.

Genetically modified organisms have passionate denouncers and equally passionate supporters. This is especially true for GMO crops, since the genemod bacteria and animals are usually hidden away in labs, ranches, or manufacturing facilities. But there is GMO food right out front on your table, plated in front of your kids. Everybody has an opinion.

Including me.

But I didn’t want my new novella from Tachyon, Sea Change, to be a polemic for one side of the controversy. I wanted to explore in a balanced way both sides of the myriad questions involved.  In this corner of the boxing ring: GMOs aren’t natural! We don’t know what they do to the human body long-term! GMO crops will contaminate wild flora and/or kill animals, possibly including us!  There are studies! Look at the science!

And in the opposite corner: Neither is most of medical science “natural” to the human body, from Tylenol to heart transplants! There are decades of research already! Not one person has ever died from a GMO! If we don’t engineer crops, climate change and a growing world population will starve billions of people! Those studies have been invalidated! Look at the science!

The pugilistic metaphor is a deliberate choice. It isn’t only in Seattle that “GMO” is a fighting word, and with reason. There is a lot at stake: money, scientific reputations, food security, perhaps the future of the planet. The politics of genetic engineering, of agribusiness, of food regulation are all more complicated than they first appear. Both sides have waged wars of disinformation. Sometimes the war of words has spilled over into actual violence, with test farms attacked and crops destroyed, or Monsanto employees bodily threatened.

I am not a scientist. I think I would make a very bad scientist: not detail-oriented enough, or patient enough, or logical enough. Science fascinates me (forget rock stars and movie actors—I’ve always been a science groupie, sometimes embarrassingly so). But what I find really compelling are people. Why does a given person believe, act, love as they do? This is fortunate, because a writer cannot make a story solely out of controversial arguments. The science needs to happen to characters.

Sea Change happens to Renata Black. As I age, my protagonists get older (eventually I expect to be writing about octogenarians), partly because I get tired of brash, young, badass heroines. So Renata is a middle-aged woman in a near-future Seattle. Her life is not going as expected. She is a mother, a wife in a difficult marriage, an activist in a secret organization. An idealist, but one who recognizes that realizing ideals happens slowly, with effort, imperfectly, and sometimes at great personal cost.

Sea Change also happens to Jake, Renata’s actor husband. To their chess-loving son, Ian. To thirteen-year-old Lisa, a member of the Quinalt Nation. To Kyle, an ex-NFL wide receiver turned teen counselor, who has the unenviable task of trying to hold together a revolutionary cell of talented, utopian-minded misfits.

Finally, the novella is about other things as well as GMOs. Ocean blobs. Legal jurisdiction fights. Love and loss (if I hadn’t thought of it too late, I would have called my story Sea Change: A Love Story). The Quinalt Peninsula northwest of Seattle, which contains the world’s only temperate rainforest: wild, coastal, and beautiful.

A section of the Peninsula belongs to a Native American tribe, the Quinalt Nation, and so they, too, are part of my story.  For this, I had the help of a Native American sensitivity reader. The Quinalt, who have occupied their land for 1,000 years, depend heavily on salmon fishing, which is threatened by modern agricultural run-off, in addition to the host of other threats the outside world poses to Native American cultures.

Sea Change spans twenty-eight years. It begins in 2005, the year that Switzerland banned genetically modified foods and the United States added sugar beets to the GMO foods available to consumers, which already included summer squash, soybeans, papayas, and tomatoes. Renata is in college. When the novella ends, she and the world are both very different. But the battles over science go on.

And, as I read the news each day, it seems that they always will.

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Sea Change: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Jennifer Brody

People have dreams — and then they have the dreams that come after that first set of dreams came true. For Jennifer Brody, who created Spectre Deep 6 with Jules Rivera, her new graphic novel is about the latter.

JENNIFER BRODY:

I always wanted to work in Hollywood. Growing up in a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, movies were my escape. Well, movies and books and TV. Anything that allowed me to travel to different places and worlds and see how other people lived, even if they were fictional characters. My imagination always ran big and wild, especially because I spent a lot of time bored in school. But Hollywood seemed so exotic and far away—so impossible. An acceptance to Harvard got me out of Virginia, and an internship landed me at Disney.

Disney. Pinch me.

Upon graduating, I knew that I was moving to LA one-way without much money or even a job lined up. It was like that back then. You packed up your car and hit the road. You had to have blind faith. You chased after your dream. You lived on ramen. You had a roommate. You got paid $500 bucks a week. You ran errands and answered phones and started at the bottom. My first job was at Michael Bay’s new company Platinum Dunes. The first film we made was a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We were the first to do the remake thing. Everyone thought we were crazy. My parents wondered if my tuition money had gone to waste.

The film was a hit, earning over $80 million at the domestic box office. Within a year of moving West, I landed my dream job working for the executive producer of The Lord of the Rings. Did I mention that I’m a giant nerd? I’d read Tolkien’s classics cover to cover numerous times. A run of book-to-film properties followed on our slate, including The Golden Compass, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Inkheart. Working in Hollywood was a dream come true, albeit a complicated one with its share of workplace toxicity (which has now become quite public).

Despite loving my job, I had an itch that started to grow stronger. It needed scratching. After working on so many wonderful authors’ books and helping bring their worlds to life on the big screen, I found myself wanting to write my own big sci-fi trilogy. It took years and tons of work, but eventually I found the courage to do so. The result was my debut novel The 13th Continuum, the first in what would become the Continuum Trilogy. You never forget certain the things. The first time you hold a galley of your first book in your hands—your words printed on real paper. The first time you read in public. For actual people. The first time you sign a book for a fan.

I love writing and building worlds more than anything. But something was still missing. One of the things I most enjoyed about my old job was working with a team to make a film, especially the director. In cinema, the director is the one who really brings the story to life in a visual medium. I’ve always been driven by collaboration. I love how different creative talents can come together to make something better than the sum of its individual parts. Even just working with a great book editor elevates your work. I was already starting to put my books and stories together for film and TV, but that is a process that takes years and years.

I wanted something that would combine both my love of books and my love of visuals—and that’s when it hit me. I needed to write graphic novels. The medium of comics had exploded since I was a kid fueled by the Marvel and DC Comics media empires, and expanded to include more experimental and diverse storytelling. I realized that I could work with an artist to bring my vision to life, and I didn’t need millions of dollars to shoot the film or TV show (that could come later, right?). This was the perfect middle ground between books and cinema.

I had stories aplenty—I needed an artist. But they don’t just fall out of the sky, or do they?

One fine Saturday, I moderated a panel at AnaCon and a plucky, fiery artist named Jules Rivera. caught my attention. She had green hair (we both had fun hair). She wrote a sci-fi indie comic called Valkyrie Squadron and a feisty web comic called Love Joolz. She had a background in engineering. I hit her up soon after over a sci-fi short story I’d written and published called 200, and then another crazy idea followed about soldiers that died in the line of duty, only to be reanimated by military scientists and brought back as ghosts—actual spectres—to continue to carry out missions for our government in exchange for day passes to haunt their old lives and fix their unfinished business. Spectre Deep 6  was born on an afternoon brainstorming in a hotel lobby in downtown LA (though it could more aptly be named The Secret Lives of Ghosts).

The comics industry can be tough to break into, especially for women. I cautioned her. I thought we’d be lucky to sell one of our proposals. But then my amazing publisher stepped up and offered us a six book deal. Yup, you read that right. Six books! Both series would be built into trilogies. Working in graphic novel proved to be a beautiful middle place between writing prose novels (and trust me, I’m still doing those—my new series Disney Chills publishes in July) and making films. As the artist, Jules takes my words and punches them up and translates them into visuals. It reminds me of working with a director, one who gets your vision.

Jules makes my work better. We work closely together on every aspect of the scripting, character and world designs, visuals, and more. These books—Spectre Deep 6 and 200—are better for our shared imaginations and a touch of insanity. That’s how it should be for any creative work, right? I also know that Jules will be my partner in crime for many more projects.

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Spectre Deep 6: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Bookshop|Turner Bookstore

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.