The Big Idea: Edward Willett

For his novel Worldshaper, author Edward Willett posits another type of authorship entirely… one with literally global implications.

EDWARD WILLETT:

Authors sometimes talk of their fictional worlds as though they lived in them. They’ll speak of characters taking on lives of their own, unexpected plot twists, settings that complexify beyond what was intended.

In reality, of course, all of this happens inside our heads…but what if, in reality, it happened in reality—or, at least, in a version of reality? What if we authors could immerse ourselves in our fictional worlds physically, rather than intellectually, and occasionally even rewrite them while we’re living within them?

That’s the “big idea” behind Worldshaper, my ninth novel for DAW Books, start of a brand-new series, called (you’ll never guess) Worldshapers.

The series will take place within the many worlds of the Labyrinth, an extra-dimensional realm in which people with sufficient will and imagination, called Shapers, can give the worlds of their imaginations physical form, and then take up residence within them.

Each of these worlds is populated with millions or even billions of humans, for whom those worlds are the real world, as ancient and solid and eternal as our own world seems to us—even though none of them have existed for more than a few decades.

The Shapers, having taken up physical residence in their Shaped worlds, can no more leave them of their own volition than a fictional character can exit a novel. The fortunate ones made good choice in Shaping their worlds. Others, alas, embody Psalm 7:15: “Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made.”

A single powerful Shaper, Ygrair, discovered the possibilities of the Labyrinth and opened it to the Shapers. But Ygrair has been weakened by the attack of an enemy, the Adversary (he has his reasons) who has found his way into the Labyrinth. He seeks to execute Ygrair and destroy the Labyrinth. Along the way, he’s turning every world he can get his hands on into a copy of the “perfect” authoritarian realm he Shaped for himself.

As Worldshaper begins, Ygrair’s lieutenant, Karl Yatsar, arrives in yet another in a long string of worlds, seeking a Shaper strong enough to gather and hold the knowledge of as many Shaped worlds as possible and deliver that knowledge to Ygrair, who will be able to use it to secure the Labyrinth against the depredations of her Adversary.

Shawna Keys, an aspiring potter in a small Montana city, turns out to be the Shaper of the world Yatsar has just entered, closely pursued by the Adversary, who, during a brutal attack, successfully collects Shawna’s Shaping knowledge. The adversary is about to kill her to cement his control of her world when, to Yatsar’s astonishment, she apparently resets time by three hours.

Everything goes back to the way it was. The attack never happened—but everyone killed, including Shawna’s best friend, has not only vanished, they’ve been utterly forgotten.

Shawna’s amazing display makes Yatsar think she may the one he seeks…but when he approaches her, he’s shocked to discover that Shawna Keys has forgotten she’s a Shaper: she’s the author of the book of her world, but she doesn’t remember writing it.

With the Adversary after her, though, she has no choice but to trust Karl. They flee to the one place Karl can form a Portal into the next world, with the Adversary in pursuit and working steadily to turn every aspect of Shawna’s world against her.

As the series continues, I look forward to exploring all kinds of questions raised by the big idea of authors living in the worlds they shape.

For example: authors do horrible things to characters all the time. Remorse is fleeting because, after all, the characters aren’t real.

But in the Shaped Worlds, they are. So, if you were an author living inside a world you’d written, would you continue to rewrite the living, breathing “characters” around you for your own selfish ends?

Dystopias, alien invasions, war, plague, and supernatural horrors all make exciting stories. Would we be so willing to create worlds that contain these things if we had to live in them? No? What if we could live in them but be immune to their dangers? Would we still choose to make such worlds, at the expense of those we force to live there?

Shawna’s Shaped world is very close to ours, with a few minor changes: for example, lacrosse is the big professional sport, she once saw The Da Vinci Code: The Musical on Broadway (Hugh Jackman did his best in the Robert Langdon role, but the show sucked), there are colonies on the moon, and the president lives, not in the White House, but in the Emerald Palace.

But as the series continues, Shawna will enter worlds belonging to Shapers with imaginations far different from her own. Like an adventurous reader, she will encounter ideas, characters, and situations she may find abhorrent. Yet, to fulfil Ygrair’s task, she must attempt to save all of the Shaped worlds, even those she hates. Her commitment to the quest, her commitment to what you might call “Freedom of Shaping,” and her own confidence in her ability to Shape things for the better may all erode in the process.

Lest this sound too grim, let me hasten to add that, since Shawna is written in first-person, she has my sense of humour. The result (according to one pleased reviewer) is a “sarcastic wiseass smart-mouthed main female character.”

I can’t live in my fictional world physically like the Shapers can, but in Shawna (and the other characters) you’ll still find bits of me, as you will in the ideas infusing the series, both small…and big.

—-

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

Read an excerptVisit Willett’s site and follow him on Twitter. Check out his podcast, The Worldshapers, featuring conversations with science fiction and fantasy authors about the creative process.

 

The Big Idea: Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law

Today’s Big Idea is a two-fer: editors Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law bring your their own — and their highly divergent — paths to co-editing Shades Within Us, a collection of short stories about migration.

SUSAN FOREST:

I am a fraud.

I’ve never had the guts to move away from my hometown; yet as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I scribble constantly about journeys: space exploration, interplanetary colonization, fantasy kinship groups displaced by war, climate refugees. So what do I know?

But migration is a huge idea in speculative fiction. Whether borders be physical or internal; whether the voyage is forced or embraced; whether people move for political, economic, climate-related, or other reasons, speculative fiction is a fiction about crossing boundaries and becoming immigrants to a new way of living or thinking. So the exploration of this body of fiction through reading, writing—and yes, editing—requires an acquisition of knowledge. Research.

My research has probed limited experience (through travel), primary sources, secondary texts, and personal imagination. When Mars One was announced in 2012, I asked a group of science fiction writer friends, “Seriously: would you go on a one-way voyage to Mars?” OMG, YES! some of them responded. This was a tough concept for me to get my head around. Let alone the fear I would have of all the risks and loneliness and cultural disorientation, contemplating leaving my family and everything I know behind is a non-starter.

But then, I suppose it would be for many people who find themselves crossing these borders. My mother’s mother, at the age of 23, came to Canada with her husband and two small daughters just after World War I to a distant cousin’s prairie homestead, knowing full well she would never see her birth home or family again. And unlike Mars, Western Canada at least has air.

But I may well have to get my head around my own migration. In my dedication to this book, I wrote: “To Heather, who helped me to see how the concerns of migration are close to home,” because we can no longer depend on the assumption that our safe, known worlds will always be with us. Tipping points come suddenly. Though we can all see the collapse of worldwide systems coming—humans have been living far beyond the means of this planet to support our species for a long time—like death, it will come abruptly, and as a surprise. No one will be prepared. Not me.

I think seriously about this. It informs my writing. So when the chance came for me to edit Shades Within Us, the proposal offered me a perfect opportunity for research. These stories of crossing borders, both literal and metaphorical, were not only a joy for me to read and to work with to bring closer to fruition, they offer an incredible range of experiences of moving across, through and within our fractured world. Because these stories brought me into the thinking, experiences, and lives of the characters choosing—or forced—to make those transitions.

 

LUCAS K LAW:

The Big Idea for Shades Within Us was conceived five years ago—along with the themes for the other anthologies we did for Laksa Media. We did not have the current migrant crisis or anti-immigration events in mind at the time. It never occurred to us because the seed for this anthology came from my own history and interest. “Migration” comes from the Latin word migrāre, which means “to move from one place to another.” Unfortunately, these days, there is a quick tendency to associate migrations with refugees and illegal immigrants. There lies the danger.

My maternal grandfather and his brother left China with his father in 1916. They left their sister and family behind to gain opportunities in Malaysia. Later, during the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, he lost all family ties in China. My grandfather spent most of his life in rural plantations and fishing villages, as a shopkeeper, a farmer, and a small business owner, before he retired. When he could no longer care for himself, he moved again, to the city to live with his son and family.

So often, physical movement is the focus of a migration story when it first unfolds. But each move is more than a simple relocation. It is a transformation of time, place, and being. Each decision affects a multiplicity of others.

It is difficult for those who have never faced such decisions to truly comprehend the complexity and conflict that takes place in body, mind, and spirit—what my grandfather and so many others have gone through in such transitions, responding to economic challenges, employment and new opportunities, and finally, to failing health. And these are only a few of the myriad factors affecting the reasons people migrate or relocate.

With such complexity, what are the commonalities? Transition and change. Boundaries, visible or invisible, voluntary or involuntary, internal or external. And the attainment of a new life, a new world, a new reality, for good or ill, for better or worse.

Migrants are much more than just refugees and illegal immigrants.

In Shades Within Us, twenty-one authors explore the struggles and sacrifices, survival and redemption, losses and gains in their Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders. These are not stories of despair, anger, and revenge; these are stories of facing those adversities and challenges with equal determination, resiliency, and humility.

Their stories ask us to open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to understand that each of us may be impacted somewhere along the journeys. Only by sharing our own stories of relocation and by listening to others about their stories, then we might reach a deeper understanding of the word “migration” and its history—its role, impact, and potential opportunity for us and the future generations.

—-

Shades Within Us: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Forest’s site and follow her on Twitter. Vist Law’s site and follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jaine Fenn

Autho Jaine Fenn starts this Big Idea piece with an admission — and then explains how she got around it for her new novel, Hidden Sun.

JAINE FENN:

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a fraud. Most writers have bouts of imposter syndrome, but when it comes to writing scientifically rigorous fiction, I live in special fear of being found out. The gaps in my science education mean I have been known to, shall we say, err on the side of vagueness in my science fiction. Or invoke Clarke’s Third Law. Or ask a grown-up for help.

However, Hidden Sun isn’t science fiction. It’s science fantasy. In my teens, while my teachers were telling me that nice girls don’t do science – early 80s rural England, what can I say? – my reading was moving from fantasy to science fiction, via writers like Anne McCaffrey, Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin. I still liked the feel of classic fantasy – being able to retreat to Middle Earth got me through some difficult times ­– but found myself looking for something more in a story, some shadow of logic and learning, an underpinning of esoteric knowledge of a slightly different flavour to that usually labelled ‘magic’.

Then I went to college (or ‘uni’ as we Brits call it). I did an arts course – like a nice girl – but when I found the ‘astronomy for arts students’ additional module, I was right in there. The course delivered: heaps of cosmology, minimal maths. And it turned out my lecturer was a geek; he’d actually devised the astrophysics Brian Aldiss used in the Helliconia trilogy. My mind was duly blown.

This positive early experience left me with a yen to one day write a book whose protagonist driven to discover how the universe works without the tools or support of a scientific establishment. That half buried desire resurfaced a few years ago and the result is the Shadowlands duology, of which Hidden Sun is the first book.

Rhia is a natural enquirer, part of a diffuse and informal network of proto-scientists living at a renaissance level of technology in isolated pockets of shade – the shadowlands – dotted across a bright, hot, alien world, known as the skyland. The skyland beyond her land’s borders interests Rhia, but the sky overhead fascinates her. She just wants to spend her time observing the stars and coming up with cosmological theories. Unfortunately she has to contend with the politics of a squabbling nobility, the assumption that women don’t have enquiring minds and, most recently, the shocking disappearance of her feckless younger brother.

I loved it when elements of Hidden Sun – the court intrigue, the murder mystery, the skyland with its alien/human symbiotes – came together in a logical yet organic way, accreting like a solar system round a star. And at the heart of the Shadowlands duology is that unconscious desire, building for years, to spend time with a character far smarter than me but without the mentor I had, who is fired up with the desire to unlock the secrets of the universe. And for her to succeed.

I’ve no idea if my old astronomy lecturer will read this post. But I remain indebted to him for the grounding he gave me in the most cosmic of the sciences, which is why it seemed only fitting to dedicate Hidden Sun to him.

—-

Hidden Sun: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

In today’s Big Idea, Michael J. Martinez reminisces back on his college days, and how an offhand comment back then informs MJ-12: Endgame, the finale of his supernatural spy series.

MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ:

I went to a university with a heavy fraternity/sorority presence; the Greek houses were a major hub of campus social life. During my freshman year, a couple of upperclassmen asked me to consider joining their houses. Heady stuff for a newbie from the sticks, right?

Of course, once I delved into the whole process, the hazing thing reared its ugly head. Now, the frat brothers I knew swore up and down it wasn’t hazing per se, but rather simply testing a pledge’s resolve and fitness to join the fraternity.

Even at 18, I wasn’t that stupid. “Look, you’re telling me you want me to join the club,” I remember saying to one of them. “If you want me, why should I then have to go through hell to get in?”

His answer: “Because we’re better than you, until you prove otherwise. I want to give you that chance.”

We’re better than you.

What a terrible sentence, those four little words. Arguably, that single sentiment has caused humanity more pain than any other. It is, I would argue, a fundamental part of human nature and the most dangerous flaw humans have.

How many wars started with that sentiment at the very core? We deserve your territory more than you. Our gods are better than yours. Our color people are superior to your color people. Our economic or political systems are better than yours. We are more, you are less. Submit or we’ll destroy you.

How many interpersonal relationships burn out because of this? At work, at school, at home, you can hear it echo in every little office conflict, every academic rivalry, every little resentment in a relationship. It’s insidious.

And by what measure do you make the claim? Some of it is objectively measurable, sure – wealth, experience, success in careers or relationships. But the problem with that, of course, is that after you measure that, what do you measure it against? What’s wealth to someone who simply doesn’t want it? Is the Wall Street executive better than the artist because of the relative size of their bank accounts? Every religion of the world says it’s the one true way, but nobody’s come down from on high to provide arbitration.

(And wouldn’t it be a cosmic joke if that did happen, and the answer was, like, “It was Marduk all along. You guys have been off for three millennia.” Oops.)

“Better” is a highly subjective measure, and that’s why people fight over it, because everyone is convinced it’s actually objective.

But what if it were, if not exactly measurable, but at least obvious?

What if you had someone who really could say I’m better than you and had something that nobody else had – an ability beyond human measure, one that was demonstrably superior to everyone else?

Ultimately, that entire debate is at the crux of MJ-12: Endgame and, really, the entire MAJESTIC-12 series. On the surface, it’s a cool spies-with-superpowers thriller set during the early days of the Cold War, with teams of Enhanced agents from the Soviet Union and America’s MAJESTIC-12 program facing off against each other around the world.

And yet, the Cold War was also, at its core, all about we’re better than you. And what happens when your superpowered covert agents take a look around at the masses of humanity and start thinking the same thing?

The comic books I grew up with never did a great job with showing that sentiment in their heroes. Superman is actually a pretty great guy. He could rule the world with an iron fist inside of a week, but he doesn’t. He’s nice! He’s arguably the most noble character in pop culture simply because he quashes that innate drive for superiority and control, knowing full well he could act with impunity.

How would you react if you were granted a superpower, though? Would you be altruistic? Would you kick back and let that ability make bank for you so you could be super comfortable? Or would you try to “make things right” because, at the end of the day, you’re better?

That question is at the heart of MJ-12: Endgame, which closes out my MAJESTIC-12 super-powered Cold War series. Even if what you can do is superhuman, does it make you a better person? Are the other people fighting for their beliefs lesser people simple because they don’t share your beliefs? If you have the ability to impose your will on others, should you?

Today, we see so much of this in our daily civil discourse. Some of it is truly horrifying. We’re better than you is the worst impulse of human nature, and the most common, and it’s being fed every single day with more and more fuel.

We’re better than you leads to conflict, war, catastrophe. In MJ-12: Endgame, it brings the world to the very brink. The book is, of course, primarily a fun spy thriller with all sorts of twists and turns and cool powers and stuff. But I hope it also gets people thinking about that sentiment, those four little words full of poison. I hope it gets them to think twice, because no matter who we are and what we do, we are not better than anyone else. Different, sure. But not better.

And for the record, I never joined a frat.

—-

MJ-12: Endgame: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Yeah, okay, Greg Van Eekhout’s Big Idea piece for Voyage of the Dogs got me genuinely choked up. Read it and you’ll figure out why.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book.  Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.

Voyage of the Dogs is a middle-grade novel, meaning it’s marketed to readers aged seven to twelve. It’s about four dogs on a starship. When they wake up from cryosleep, they discover that the ship is badly damaged and the human crew has taken the escape pod and left them behind. The barkonauts struggle with dwindling supplies, cascading disasters, pack dynamics, and the feelings any uplifted, abandoned dog would grapple with. There’s adventure, there’s humor, there’s emotion. There’s also butt sniffing, because dogs.

So, that’s basically the pitch I’ll be using with most audiences, and if you stop reading here you’ll have a good idea what this book is about. But this is Scalzi’s blog, and I know you are a special and sophisticated audience, and I want to go a little deeper and tell you why I wrote this particular book at this particular time. I want to tell you why, after six previous novels, this was the only book I could write.

Life can be really hard sometimes. A few years ago, I went through one of those really hard times. My elderly parents’ health had been wobbly for a while, but it became clear that the wheels were really coming off the cart. If you’ve been through this rite of passage, you know what can be involved: ER visits. Fighting with doctors and insurance companies. Finding caregivers. Finding money to pay for said caregivers. Maintaining your own life while maintaining the lives of other adults. It’s a sad, stressful, laborious bunch of stuff. But I was lucky that I wasn’t alone in this. I had my wife. I had friends. And I had my dog.

Dozer is some kind of small terrier mix. He looks much like Lopside, the dog on the cover of the book. (That’s not an accident.) He eats poop and a few months ago he swallowed an entire dead ground squirrel. He’s obnoxious, scrappy, yearning, earnest, gross, and perfect. He is a very good boy. Petting him lowers my blood pressure. It calms my heart. It loosens my knots and releases the vice squeezing my brain. In fact, Dozer was so helpful during this time that we decided to get another dog, Amelia. Amelia is a mix of corgi, rat terrier, and whatever the heck. She’s yappy. She pees when she gets excited. She growls at me when I dance. She is kind of awful. And she is perfect. A couple of weeks before my mom died I took the dogs to her care facility and put Amelia in bed with her for a cuddle. At this point my mom was usually too weak to talk, but she managed the last words I ever heard her utter. “Sweet. Soft.”

On the day my mom finally passed away, the hospice coordinator asked if I needed anything. I told her I needed a dog, so she brought over the care facility’s house dog, a hairy little thing named Winston. Winston eats entire cups of sour cream, plastic and all. He likes to go into residents’ rooms and knock over their trash bins. I have a picture of me carrying Winston around less than an hour after I lost my mom, and there’s a genuinely happy smile on my face. Winston was my wingman that day.

So, skip ahead a few months. Both my parents are gone. During this whole period of care giving, I’d been working, writing, traveling to book events, fulfilling contractual obligations, but now I was out of contract, no books in the publishing pipeline, no books in any state of completion, and also without an agent because I’d parted ways with mine during all this stuff. I had to work.

I looked at my list of ideas, and I considered the headspace I’d have to occupy for months or more to turn one of those ideas into a completed book. They were all cool, chewy, fun ideas, but all of them dark. And I could not bear occupying a dark space. So, what then, could I bear to write? Something fun but not frivolous. Something hopeful but not packed with sweet lies. Something that could break a reader’s heart but also promised to mend it.

The answer was obvious. I could only write a book fueled by the strength and comfort given to me by Dozer and Amelia and Winston and all the dogs in my neighborhood and all the dogs on the Internet.

We often ask if people deserve dogs? The barkonauts in Voyage of the Dogs ask themselves the same question. I don’t have the answer. But I know I need dogs, and I needed to write this book. I could not have written a different one. I’m grateful for the chance to share it with you.

—-

Voyage of the Dogs: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Michael Mammay

Trust in your friend, colleagues and superiors is a good thing… mostly. In Planetside, author Michael Mammay considers the price of loyalty and the cost of trust, and how both can end up being different than one might expect.

MICHAEL MAMMAY:

The big idea that became Planetside started with a conversation I had with another officer while deployed to Afghanistan. It was early in 2014 and we’d been there six or eight months on that particular tour, and for whatever reason we were sitting in his office one morning and talking about people we’d worked for before, and our list of generals who we’d work for again if they called, no questions asked, no matter the job.

I feel like I need to explain that.

As a relatively senior officer (I had 24 years experience at the time) I’d had the chance to work for some amazing people. Forget the television stereotypes of the uptight or inflexible leader. I’m talking about generals who are so smart, so charismatic, and so driven that you’d literally do anything for them. Leaders who know people, and how they tick. They give an order, and you want to follow. They get the most out of everybody around them, and get everybody moving toward the same goal.

That might sound like a problem, that kind of personal loyalty, but it’s not. The reason that these particular leaders are so good is that you trust them. If they were the type of person who would abuse that trust, then they wouldn’t be on the list in the first place. You trust that they’ll put you in situations where you’re going to be successful, because they know you, your strengths, and your limitations. You trust that they would never ask you to do something that went outside the morals or standards of the organization.

But what if they did?

That was the idea that came to me later that day. It’s not based on any real situation where I saw it happen, but rather the idea that it could happen. What if somebody that you trusted, that you’d do anything for, asked you to do something messed up?

That’s the big idea at the center of Planetside. In the first chapter, Colonel Carl Butler answers a summons from General Serata, one of the generals on his list of people he’d follow anywhere. They’re more than leader/subordinate. They’re friends. So even though he doesn’t understand the details of the mission at the time, when Serata tells him that he’s the right guy to handle it, Butler trusts that. It’s not a job he wants, but he signs on because it’s Serata asking. And he is asking. He could have simply ordered it, but he’s got too much respect for Butler to do that. Butler, while subordinate, is a senior officer who has earned that kind of deference. At the same time, Serata knows him well enough to know that he’ll say yes.

Of course there’s more to the mission than initially meets the eye. I mean, it wouldn’t be much of a book if there wasn’t. As he gets deeper into his investigation and the difficulties present themselves, Butler starts to understand more clearly why Serata chose him for the job. To get to the bottom of things, he needs to be able to maneuver in both the political landscape of the base and in the war-ravaged landscape of the planet itself. He has both skill sets, which is rare. Most people have one or the other. Both locations hold secrets. It’s debatable which is more dangerous.

—-

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

Listen to an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Claire O’Dell

A dash of fan fiction, a smidge of authorial inspiration and a dollop of a world-famous investigator adds up to a brand-new concoction in Claire O’Dell’s novel A Study in Honor. How did this all come about? As O’Dell will tell you, it was elementary.

CLAIRE O’DELL:

A Study in Honor is all Jim Hines’s fault. (Except for the parts that are all my fault.)

Back in 2014, Jim wrote a blog post about his experience writing fanfic. I’d never felt the tug of fanfic before, but after reading about how satisfying and involving it was for him, I decided to take a stab at writing some myself. After all, fiction is a conversation with itself, and what else is fanfic but a very intimate conversation?

Right away, I knew I’d want to write a Watson and Holmes story, but with a few changes. For one thing, I wanted to make them both black women. Why? Several reasons. Most (though not all) of the pastiches I’ve come across show Watson and Holmes as two straight men, or one man and a woman. And in those same stories, Holmes is always a white man.

So, Dr. John Watson became Dr. Janet Watson; Sherlock Holmes became special agent Sara Holmes. Both black. Both queer. One wealthy, and one who needed all her stubbornness to achieve a medical degree.

But the top reason is because of the other changes I made in the story. It’s the mid-twenty-first century when Dr. Janet Watson steps off the train in Union Station in Washington, DC. She’s newly discharged from the war–not the war in Afghanistan, though that would be plausible, but the New Civil War–a New Civil War that came about because the alt-right rebelled against equal rights for people of color, for gays, for women. The right viewpoint for such a war and its consequences logically belongs to a black queer woman.

I also wanted to do a deep dive in Janet Watson’s character, to make her more than an accessory to Holmes. This is a woman who has lost nearly everything in the war. Her parents died in a terrorist bombing. Her beloved abandons her. A sniper’s bullet shattered her arm when the enemy overran her medical unit, and the replacement prosthetic is unreliable.

A surgeon needs two reliable hands, she thinks. Not one of flesh and one of metal and false memories.

Her plan is to argue with the VA for a more modern device, so she can resume her career as a surgeon. She expects to stay in DC only a few days, a week at the most.

Her plans get upended the next day. The war has wreaked havoc with the economy on both sides, the VA tells her, and prosthetic devices such as Janet needs are scarce. She will have to wait her turn. Jobs aren’t easy to come by, however, and housing costs more than she can afford. When a friend tells her about someone who needs a partner to share the rent, Janet reluctantly agrees to meet the person.

That person turns out to be special agent Sara Holmes, a quirky, brilliant woman somewhat given to ignoring boundaries. The apartment in question is #2B at 2809Q Street, in an upscale neighborhood. Janet has reservations, but oh, the apartment would make a lovely refuge.

All of that poured out of me as fast as I could type. By the time I had three chapters written, I knew Janet would not let go of my imagination until I finished her story. She is stubborn and smart and defiant. The war might have left her wounded in body and mind, but she’s not going to give up. As she writes in her journal:

I will have my victory. I will have my life back. I swear it.

—-

A Study In Honor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Theodora Goss

For European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, author Theodora Goss considers a famous Victorian book, character and author for an extended thought on who and what can truly be called a monster. Grab your stakes and let’s hammer this one home, shall we?

THEODORA GOSS:

In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, I brought together a collection of female monsters: Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. They found each other, told each other their stories, and ultimately moved in together, into Mary’s residence at 11 Park Terrace, also known as the Athena Club. There, they live and get along as you would expect five women to: often bickering, sometimes fighting, but supporting each other when it counts.

It’s a good life in a comfortable home, decorated by Beatrice in the latest aesthetic fashion, to the extent a group of women who have to work for their living can afford it, presided over by the redoubtable Mrs. Poole. Right across Regent’s Park are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I could have left them there, to live happily in late nineteenth-century London: Justine could have continued her painting career, Catherine could have continued to write pot-boilers about spider gods and dangerous femmes fatales, Mary could have gone to work each morning for Mr. Holmes, filing his cases and helping solve the occasional mystery. Diana could have continued to be a pain in the arse. But as a writer, I did not want to leave my characters in such peaceful circumstances! I had to make life harder for them . . .

And so, in European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, I send them off to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing.

To be perfectly honest, there wasn’t a single big idea behind this second adventure of the Athena Club—just a collection of smaller ideas that added up to a big, long book. As you may know if you read my Big Idea post for the first book, it started with my doctoral dissertation on late nineteenth-century gothic fiction. While writing that dissertation, I realized that around the turn of the century, mad scientists kept creating female monsters . . . and destroying them. I thought that was not fair, not fair at all. Those female monsters deserved to live and tell their own stories, so I brought them to life in my book. But there was one late nineteenth-century novel that I could not include in my dissertation because it was so long, so complicated, that it would have taken another hundred pages (in addition to the four hundred I had already written) to discuss. That novel was Dracula.

Bram Stoker’s most famous novel is so difficult to write about because it takes all the themes of late nineteenth-century gothic fiction and incorporates them into one very long book. It’s about immigration, the British Empire, the power and importance of wealth, the New Woman and reversed gender roles, evolution and degeneration, the English gentleman, the criminal anthropology of Cesare Lombroso, the emerging field of psychoanalysis . . . even, obliquely, the Irish question. It’s a strange, ambiguous novel. The closer you look at it, the more its multiple narrations collapse, and the more you begin to question who is the monster.

My choice is one of its most complex characters, Abraham Van Helsing, the Dutch vampire-hunter whose first name is Stoker’s own, and whose last name is an anagram for English. He’s the hero of the story, right? After all, he saves civilization and Victorian womanhood by telling his group of male followers to stake and decapitate Lucy Westenra when she has turned into a vampire. That staking scene, which takes place on the night Lucy was supposed to marry her financé Arthur Holmwood, is described in all the lurid detail of a Hammer film, with orgiastic cries and splashing blood.

The problem with a straightforward reading of Dracula is that Stoker was a more complicated writer than he’s given credit for. You can see that in his short stories and less well-known novels, such as The Jewel of Seven Stars and Lair of the White Worm. He may not have been a Henry James stylistically, but he shared James’s tendency to turn stories inside out, so that you’re not entirely sure what you’ve read. The closer my students look at the final scene of Dracula, in which the vampire’s throat is sheared through with a kukri knife while the sun sets over his Transylvanian castle, the less sure they are that he’s been destroyed in the proper, prescribed vampire fashion. Although the Count disintegrates into dust, he’s done that before, on several occasions. And can we really trust the eyewitness account of Mina Murray, who is in Dracula’s power?

Here’s what I think: Van Helsing is a villain, the worst of them all. Dracula and Mina are in league together from the moment he first sucks her blood. And the book, compiled by Mina herself, is fundamentally untrustworthy.

So one of the ideas behind the second book was that I needed to write about the characters and events of Dracula. You simply can’t write about monsters at the end of the nineteenth century without discussing Mina, Van Helsing, his vampire-hunting groupies, and the Count himself. And where would they be, after the events of Dracula? Why, in Budapest of course!

The second idea was to take my characters from the British Empire, which was about to fall apart, to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also about to fall apart. If I was going to write pulp metafiction about the late nineteenth-century, I had to pull out all the stops, and two of those stops are Vienna and Budapest. I particularly wanted to write about Budapest, the city where I was born, which seemed to be the logical place for the headquarters of a secret society of alchemists. After all, Budapest has been associated with both magic and science for centuries—and it is, itself, a beautiful, magical city.

The third idea was that once I had introduced these five young women to one another, they should go have adventures together. It was so much fun writing about Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine, not when they had just met, but when they had known each other for a while and were forced to work together under circumstance that were sometimes exciting, sometimes difficult, and sometimes just plain tedious, as travel can be. I had a lot of fun writing this book, going to Vienna and Budapest to imagine what those cities would have been like in the late nineteenth century.

But in the end, it was all about the central characters. Have they become friends? What do they think about each other and the Athena Club? Has anyone strangled Diana yet? Out of all these ideas came a novel that I hope will be a fun read for anyone who enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and its cast of monstrous gentlewomen.

—-

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Craig DiLouie

One of the great questions in literature, genre or otherwise, is: What makes a person a monster? In One of Us, author Craig DiLouie takes a crack at the question… and the answer.

CRAIG DiLOUIE:

My novel One of Us began as a misunderstood monster novel and ended up a much more ambitious examination of prejudice.

What if monsters lived among us, but were only monstrous in appearance? If they had extraordinary capabilities, would they be admired or feared? If they were abused enough and responded with violence, would that violence be justified?

In One of Us, a disease in the 1970s produced a generation of monstrous children that years later are living as teenagers in orphanages throughout the rural South. Rejected and scorned, they are coming of age without rights or opportunity, while those exhibiting extraordinary powers are exploited by the government.

When they’re pushed too far, they finally react, with horrifying consequences.

The result is a visceral dark fantasy about human monsters and monstrous humans told as a Southern Gothic. Violent, dark, and excessive, this type of lit features prejudice, the grotesque, and a society in decay, making it ripe for this novel.

What I wanted to do with the story was pull the reader into a world where a fantastical, sympathetic group is victimized by extreme prejudice, and then let the reader process it with their gut, not their heads.

The idea behind using monsters was to create an extreme example of a group the reader might find threatening but otherwise have no preconceived notions about, allowing greater empathy as we get to know them as individuals.

Unlike typical monster stories in which the monster is innately evil, in One of Us the monsters turn out to be just like you and me. The story therefore becomes an examination of what makes a monster a monster, and what it means to be human.

One of Us had many inspirations, among them To Kill a Mockingbird, with its theme of prejudice making good people do bad things; The Island of Dr. Moreau, with its questions about what it means to be human or a beast; and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, with its violent, cathartic uprising against slavery. One of the things that makes these works great is a striking question lies at the heart of their big idea.

While the novel has several strong themes that include prejudice, the idea here wasn’t to preach or even put theme in front of the story. There are few clear-cut “good guys” and villains. Like the stories that inspired it, it doesn’t claim to have the answers. These will ultimately come from the reader.

In my view, a novel’s chief purpose is to entertain. But by the end of One of Us, I hope readers will ask: Where does prejudice come from? How does it affect my life? If I feel prejudice, is it based on reality or self-reinforcing myths? Is violence ever justified—either by a group oppressing another, or by that group pushing back? And then apply what they think and feel, with fresh eyes, to their lives and today’s America.

—-

One Of Us: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kali Wallace

City of Islands is author Kali Wallace’s first children’s book, and in writing it, she was thinking about where the balances were in telling a story for children, and still telling a story with some complexity. For her Big Idea, she’s here to talk about finding that balance, especially in today’s times.

KALI WALLACE:

Adults ruin everything.

It’s an abiding theme of children’s stories: to have an adventure, you’ve got to ditch the parents and guardians. It might be a trope, but it’s one I’ve always rather liked. It’s always seemed to me the closest a story can come to capturing the moments a uninhibited, unsupervised make-believe of my 1980s go-play-in-the-ditch-behind-the-house childhood.

Mara, the main character of City of Islands, is a plucky orphan in a children’s fantasy novel. She lives in an archipelago city where magic is sung in music, and she dreams of learning magic herself. But being an orphan doesn’t give her freedom. It means she has to take care of herself, in a world that does not spare a whole lot of compassion for struggling children.

You see, too much supervision is not the only way adults can ruin a child’s story. There is also literally everything else adults do.

This is the first children’s book I’ve written, and I wasn’t quite sure how to balance the lightness and the dark. My agent had to tell me that perhaps opening a children’s novel with a giant pile of corpses did not quite strike the right tone. On a bigger scale, I wasn’t quite sure what kind of villain I needed. I didn’t want an evil overlord. All I wanted was somebody who could get away with his schemes because the other adults were too obsessed with their own status to see a monster among them. But I worried about how monstrous was too monstrous. I worried that a power-hungry villain who tore families apart and locked children in cages might be a little bit over the top. A little too mustache-twirling. A little unbelievable.

I know. I know.

When fantasy writers talk about world-building, we talk about histories, political systems, belief systems, cultural mores, economies, geography. As I was writing, I made many world-building decisions to ensure the story would be welcoming to all kinds of children. The City of Islands is a multicultural port city filled with people from all over the world. There are a variety of skin colors, backgrounds, languages, and economic statuses among the primary characters; same-sex marriage is accepted and normal. There are no kings or gods, but there are imbalances of wealth and power. I wanted the world to feel wondrous and magical and strange, but I also wanted young readers to be able to imagine themselves going along for Mara’s adventures.

But there’s another aspect of this invented society that kept creeping into the story. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until the revision process, because I wasn’t used to thinking about it as a specific aspect of world-building.

I’m talking about the way a society treats its children.

The concept of childhood is neither universal nor static; it’s not even universal or static in the same place and time or in the same person. (Witness: people who demand their children be protected from harm at all costs while at the same time arguing that other children deserve the harm inflicted upon them.) The treatment of children in a society, contradictions and all, is always revelatory and rarely flattering. Through the process of writing and revising, it evolved into one of the central ideas around which I wove my story.

Twelve-year-old Mara must work to survive. She knows that parents and friends can vanish in the blink of an eye. She knows that adults lie, scheme, and betray. She wants to learn but education is largely out of reach for children like her. Experience has taught her there is little room for dreams in a world that considers children to be a cheap, easily replaceable labor force. She dreams anyway.

When I started City of Islands, I thought I was writing the kind of children’s story that can’t be told if there are responsible adults around to ruin the fun. A little dark, yes, and a little rough on its characters, but still a magical, exciting adventure. But it turns out I was actually writing the kind of children’s story that illuminates the ways in which adults fail children. That’s what I had been writing all along. It just took me a while to figure it out.

This is a surreal time to be launching a children’s book. Our world is dark and frightening, and children know that as well as anyone–or better, because they are too often treated as props in the grandstanding of cowardly, dishonest, venal adults. I wrote City of Islands to be a fun, exciting, and enjoyable story for kids, but I also want the darkness in the story to resonate with the children reading it in this very dark world in which we live. It seems like such a small hope, when the problems facing the world’s children are so huge, but I do hope they find a bit of courage and comfort in Mara’s story.

—-

City of Islands: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jason Denzel

Someone once said that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Jason Denzel can relate to that — life certainly happened to him between writing his previous book on his new one, Mystic Dragon. Here’s how he incorporated what was going in his life into the writing.

JASON DENZEL:

There’s that old saying writers hear all the time, “write what you know”, and I never really bought into it until I wrote my second novel, Mystic Dragon. To understand the Big Idea behind this book, you have to first go back to Mystic, the first book in the series.

I wrote Mystic during a secure, happy, and prosperous time of my life, and for the most part, the book reflected that. It showcased a young, bright-eyed protagonist named Pomella who, despite being dealt a rough hand in her culture’s caste system, uses her unrelenting tenacity, talent,  and enthusiasm to achieve her goals. (Sort of).

Before 2015, I could relate to Pomella’s youthful spirit. As a debut author, having an opportunity to be published with Tor was a dream come true. I’d been connected to them, and the entire fantasy community for a long time due to my work on Dragonmount, the ginormous Wheel of Time website, and for a while everything went beautifully. My publisher was excited for the book, there was positive buzz, a tour was planned, and early reviews were positive. Life was good, man.

Then a life-sized mystical dragon, breathing red-hot-fuck-it-all fire, burned my life down.

Mystic Dragon was written during a period in my life in which I went through a painful divorce after 15 years of marriage, was laid off from my tech job I’d been at for the same length, and unexpectedly lost my father to a heart condition. I had to sell my house, rebuild my life, find a new job, deal with a multitude of relationship issues, keep it together for my kids, and still find time to write the next book. A book which had to, in my mind, surpass the first one and also not buckle under the weight of being a middle book in a trilogy.

When life sucked the most, I channeled my pain and sadness into my story. I’d decided years before that I would set Mystic Dragon seven years after the events of the first book. This decision didn’t necessarily follow the standard advice given to writers in this genre, but it felt even more right when I began drafting the manuscript in earnest. Pomella and her childhood friend Sim aren’t teeangers anymore. In this second book, each of them have their own version of a mystical dragon breathing red-hot-fuck-it-all fire onto their lives. While they don’t deal with divorce and unemployment, they deal with their own versions of their worlds burning down around them. (Literally, at some points). And there’s a new character, Shevia, who’s centrally featured on the cover, who coalesced into existence during those inevitable days where I wanted to scream and smash and cry. If Pomella represented my last loss of innocence, then Sim was my sadness and perseverance, and Shevia was my anger at having to deal with it all.

Simply put, all of the characters in Mystic Dragon had to grow with me. We had to find our way out of the smoldering ashes of our old lives in order to find a new sun.

Now, several years removed from that difficult time of my life, and with the book finally complete and on shelves, I’m glad I had it as an outlet for my emotions. For better or worse, Mystic Dragon echoes what I went through during that time in my life. And as I write the concluding volume in the trilogy, Mystic Skies, I can already see that the events of the second book will stay with the characters in a similar way. The wounds might mostly heal, but the experience of it stays with you forever.

—-

Mystic Dragon: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Nicole Kornher-Stace

Nicole Kornher-Stace has some esoteric random influences for her novel Latchkey, which include a classic philosophical work, a popular video game… and a disease. Well, sort of for the last one. Here she is to sort it all out.

NICOLE KORNHER-STACE:

When I was eight years old, I had a teacher with advanced chronic Lyme disease. We knew this because she couldn’t keep our names straight — even by the end of the year — and she kept apologizing for it. She was, I don’t know, early forties at most, and yet her memory was eroding in a way that we, as kids, assumed was the eventual destiny of really really old people, not somebody just a few years the senior of my mom. I remember thinking: this is the most terrifying thing. Having your memory eaten by something you can’t even see. It immediately bumped whatever topped my 8-year-old fear-list down to number two. Tornadoes, maybe.

But I live in upstate New York, where you get Lyme disease like most people get colds. (I just read that a solid 50-something percent of tested ticks from 2017 around here were infected, so THAT’S FUN.) The first time I got Lyme was in my early twenties. I didn’t have the bullseye rash, so in my eternal optimism — the kind that only rears its head when you’re trying to get out of doing something deep down you know you need to — I convinced myself it was a particularly long-lasting nightmare flu, so I didn’t go to the doctor until at some point I emerged from my month-long fever haze and went you know, this probably isn’t normal. Nobody seems to be able to tell me if I still have it or if the antibiotics killed it in time. (Go to the doctor with unexplainable month-long fevers, people! Don’t be me!)

The first thing I thought when I was diagnosed is: oh shit, I’m going to turn out like Ms. ——. Unable to keep twenty names attached to faces anymore even after looking at them six hours a day, five days a week, for ten months. Surely I was too young to forget everything. Then again, so was she. Then again, so is everyone. I don’t care how old you are. That shit is scary.

So for a few years I’d tentatively probe the situation, the way you poke a painful tooth with your tongue. Is my memory crashing and burning or am I just tired? Or is it just because I’m pregnant? Or because I’m chasing a toddler around all day? Or am I too overworked? And so forth.

It entered the mixed bag of random unintentional influences that made up the world and characters of my 2015 YA debut Archivist Wasp and its 2018 sequel, Latchkey. And I do mean random. The most succinctly I can make this point is probably to say: the framework of the protagonist’s world landed in my head of a piece one day while I was reading The Golden Bough and playing Fallout 3 concurrently.

I say the protagonist’s world specifically because in these books there are three worlds in total. One is the Golden Bough-meets-Fallout-3 world in which Wasp, ghosthunter priestess, lives. In Archivist Wasp, she ends up going on a buddy quest into the underworld with a ghost she was supposed to capture and exploit, but instead cuts a deal with; the second world is the one this ghost comes from, a near-future society collapsing into high-tech all-out civil war. The underworld is the third setting in the books, and this underworld — along with the ghosts in it — is literally constructed of memory. Think personalized pocket afterlives sort-of like What Dreams May Come, except more crowdsourced, more interconnected, and you can travel between them easily, if you can find the doors. The memories that shape you as a person acquire physical form in the underworld. An area that’s richly realized, full of detail, is that way because it is built and rebuilt and reinforced out of the memories of many dead together. There are entire buildings, entire cities, based on these communal memories.

But ghosts, too, are made of memory. Here, think of residual self-image as in The Matrix. Except that the longer you stay dead, the longer you wander the underworld, the hazier and more fallible your memories of your life — and yourself — become. Eventually you lose your sense of self, your image of yourself, and you revert to a faceless silvery cutout, like a paper doll the approximate size of you. There are ways of regaining those lost details of your life, but it’s difficult, and almost impossible to do alone. The ghost that Wasp cuts her deal with has forgotten vast swathes of his life and has spent centuries making half-assed guesses at all those lost details, rebuilding the constellation of his past around a few bright remembered stars.

Without spoiling anything, memory plays an even bigger role in the sequel, Latchkey. And, hilariously, it took me until after I drafted the sequel to pinpoint where these books’ fixation on memory, and loss of memory, came from. I still mentally interrogate myself sometimes, giving my own memory little pokes to make sure it’s still running. I don’t really know how I’d know if it wasn’t. My memory seems to be as selective as my kid’s, which retains where you were and what you were doing when you said such-and-such thing, verbatim, but blanks entirely on what he did earlier that school day. For now, mine still has a stranglehold on: story notes, grudges, song lyrics I last heard when I was twelve, way more high school Spanish than I give it credit for, quotes from cartoons that I can insert into conversations at opportune moments of maximum obnoxiousness, etc. and completely drops the ball on: names, dates, what I went into a room for five seconds after entering it, etc. I say this to people and they shrug and go meh, sounds normal to me.

So maybe eight-year-old me was freaking out over nothing. Maybe all our memories are just weird jumbled messes, the mental equivalent of desk clutter or a crowdsourced underworld. For now, mine can hold its shit together long enough to write the exact books I want to be writing, and they’re getting out there and finding their readers, and honestly, that’s all I’d ever want to ask of it.

—-

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

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

 

The Big Idea: James Patrick Kelly

Today, Hugo and Nebula Award winner James Patrick Kelly is here to tell you why you need more short stories in your reading diet. And coincidentally, The Promise of Space and Other Stories, his latest collection of short stories, just happens to be out!

JAMES PATRICK KELLY:

I rise in defense of the humble short story. My Big Idea is that you should be reading more of them. My Other Idea is that my new short story collection, The Promise of Space and Other Stories, might be a place to start. So here’s my case for upping your short fiction intake:

First: this is the Golden Age of short stories. There are more markets and more writers writing at top form than ever before. Yes, ever before. Of course, I know all about that Other Golden Age, which the Science Fiction Encyclopedia puts at roughly 1937 to around 1950. I grew up with a headful of Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Williamson and Pohl. Hell, I even met some of them! I’m not saying that these writers were not some of the greatest of All-Stars. But I’d argue that we can easily match that lineup with a much more diverse roster of writers publishing today. Not only that, but our bench is way, way deeper. In addition to the skill of the current crop of writers, consider the accessibility of their fiction. Lots and lots of it is free. And it comes to you in multiple formats: print, print online and in the last few years, audio. Every month there are upwards of a hundred new stories published, wonderful stories that you may be missing.

Second: Stories are not short novels. Rather they are a different art form altogether. Look, have you ever skipped over a lyrical passage of landscapery in a novel because you wanted to get back to the plot?  Doesn’t happen in a story. Or how about that supporting character in an otherwise enjoyable novel who annoys you but whom the novelist can’t get enough of? No time for that in a story, because the clock runs too fast. Things have to happen ASAP in Storyland. In my revenge story “Soulcatcher,” in which a desperate clone hatches a plot to rescue her kidnapped clone sister, everything goes terribly wrong in about a half an hour of story time. And here’s the thing:  the more stories you read, the better a story reader you become ….

Third: … because a short story puts you to work as a worldbuilder. Because there isn’t time to spend (waste) describing the barren landscape of the desert world, or explaining the wizard’s necromantic rule book, the best short story writers leave hints and point at clues which encourage the reader to make up parts of the story for themselves. Of course, a story has to succeed at its most superficial level and the naïve reader should be able to get 80-90% of it on the first read. But as you improve your story reading skills, working through these subtextual prompts gives you a kind of ownership over the content you’ve added.  In my novelette “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” set among the inscrutable ruins of a long dead alien civilization, the sisters of the title practice a religion based on recognizing Fibonacci sequence patterns in the universe. I’m trying to get you to start thinking about all those Golden Ratio coincidences too.

Fourth: Short stories are the most nimble kind of fiction. It’s possible for story writers to reflect late-breaking developments in our culture in near real time. Suppose there was some horrendous political anomaly and know-nothings found themselves in our seats of power. Story writers would be the first to publish If-This-Goes-On pieces of the literary resistance. What, that couldn’t ever happen? Okay then consider that if aliens land in Ohio next week, short form writers would be submitting work that reflected our new status in the universe while novelists were still sending proposals to their agents. Over the past year or so, I’ve read a lot of hyperventilating journalism about the coming of sexbots. Not that the idea is new, but now that the reality is around the corner, people are paying closer attention. Sean Wallace, my editor at Prime, required that my collection include an original story, so I decided to tiptoe into the minefield of gender politics with “Yukui.”

Fifth:  The best stories will have an unique and visceral impact. It’s not that novels can’t make you bleed, or cry or shout with joy.  They can generate all those amazing reactions, but in a more diffuse way. Every time you look away from a novel and rejoin your life, the dream dissipates. Because a story is most often a continuous and complete experience, you only emerge from it when the writer is done with you, for better or worse. But a good story doesn’t end at the last line. One thing I strive for are stories that resonate after you put them down. Maybe you’re still filling in the world that I sketched, maybe you can’t believe my protagonist would do that thing. Or else something in the denouement, that ending just past the plot’s climax, turns the story on its head. I teach writing and I love it when my students toss a reinterpretation bomb (imprecisely known as a twist ending) in the last paragraph. One of my personal favorite reinterpretation bombs comes at the last line of “Happy Ending 2.0,” a fantasy in which a formerly happily married couple get a chance at a do-over. Hijinks do not ensue.

Understand that I write novels too – six of ‘em, including last year’s Mother Go – but nothing saddens me more as a writer than to hear a reader say that she reads only novels. Don’t be that person, if only because your favorite writer more often than not writes amazing stories too. My Big Idea is that there are many, many strange and wonderful reading experiences that are shorter than 40,000 words. My Other Idea is that The Promise of Space is my sixth collection and that maybe I’m finally getting the hang of writing short.

—-

The Promise of Space: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a story. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Wendy Nikel

People with a familiarity with time travel tropes may have heard of the “grandfather paradox.” But now, author Wendy Nikel proposes a corollary for her newest, The Grandmother Paradox.

WENDY NIKEL:

As an author, I struggle with titles, and I don’t normally settle on one until a story is completely written, usually borrowing from bits of description or dialogue I’ve written within the text. Not so with The Grandmother Paradox. This title was the inspiration and starting point for this second time travel novella in the Place in Time series as I delved deeper within the world I’d created in The Continuum.

A “grandfather paradox” is an event in time travel where altering elements of the past causes inconsistencies in the present. Returning from the past, a traveler may discover that things aren’t as they left them; something they’ve done has caused a ripple of change. The paradox gets its title from the most frequently cited example: A time traveler visits the past, kills their grandfather before their parent was conceived, and thus prevents their own birth.

Some of my favorite time travel stories play with this trope. Think of the original Back to the Future, where Marty must help his parents get together to fix the timeline before he and his siblings fade out of existence. Or the Doctor Who “Father’s Day” episode in the Ninth Doctor’s era, where Rose rescues her father from a car accident, causing all sorts of damage to the timestream.

In The Continuum, professional time traveler Elise Morley travels forward in time and has to face a situation where history seems doomed to repeat itself, but I knew that with the second book in this series, I wanted to send a character into the past and force them to confront another time travel conundrum: whether it’s possible to change the past and – if it is possible – whether they should. Thus, the title of The Grandmother Paradox felt like the perfect fit, and I built the story around that premise, though with the slight alteration that it’s not the protagonist’s ancestor who’s in danger, but the ancestor of someone important to him.

So when Dr. Wells, the head of the Place in Time Travel Agency (PITTA) suspects that someone’s trying to use the concept of the grandfather paradox to eliminate the family line of our first book’s heroine in order to prevent her existence (and thus prevent the events of the previous book from taking place), he’s unable to turn to her for help. Instead, he recruits the very man whose life she saved and who thus has just as much to lose if she ceases to exist.

Former secret agent Chandler, the protagonist of this novella, travels back to the year 1893, where Juliette Argent, Elise’s great-great-grandmother is working as the assistant to a traveling magician. But she’s not an easy person to protect. With her bold and fearless attitude and her fascination with time travel (of all things!), Chandler finds it more and more difficult to keep her safe and keep his purpose there secret.

In The Grandmother Paradox, I was able to explore a fascinating time in history, more deeply examine some of my favorite characters from the first book, and even dabble in a bit of romance. But most of all, like the first book in the series, I enjoyed being able to play around with the twists and turns of time travel, the logic puzzlers and paradoxes that make this subgenre so much fun.

____

The Grandmother Paradox: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | World Weaver Press

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

 

The Big Idea: Raz Greenberg

My first personal awareness of Hayao Miyazaki didn’t occur until I was well into adulthood, but for Raz Greenberg, his journey with the great animator started much earlier, and led him to write a book on the filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator.

RAZ GREENBERG:

The roots of the big idea behind my book, Hayao Miyazaki Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator, go back to a childhood experience I share with many other members of my generation – that is, kids who grew up in Israel of the 1980s. We only had one television channel back then, the national broadcast channel, and it had a very strict, pedagogic agenda about what kids are supposed to be watching. One show that fell into this category, which the channel broadcasted many, many times during that decade (almost every other summer vacation), was known in Hebrew as Halev (“Heart”). It was an animated adaptation of a short story included in Edmondo de Amicis’ classic 1886 children’s novel of the same name, and it followed a courageous boy named Marco on his journey from Italy to Argentina to find his mother, after letters from her stopped coming.

The original novel, with its deep patriotic themes, was already considered a classic in Israel; many young Israeli parents who read it in their childhood were overjoyed to discover it again and watch the show with their children, following Marco’s weekly adventures all the way to the happy end. But there was one element in the show that left both its young Israeli viewers and their parents puzzled: why would a show about an Italian boy travelling to Argentina have Japanese end credits?

Yes, that was my generation’s first major exposure to anime. We’ve had a couple of science fiction shows to watch as well (Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets), but for the most part, we were raised on a healthy diet of Japanese-produced adaptations of classic children’s literature, with Halev being the one show that all the ‘80s children remember.

Flash forward to the end of the ‘90s: my interest in comics led me to the discovery of the world of anime and manga, which in turn led me to major in Asian studies during my BA. It wasn’t long before I became acquainted with the works of Hayao Miyazaki, first through his incredible manga epic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and later through his films. This was a few years after Princess Mononoke made a lot of noise in the Japanese box office, and a few years before Spirited Away made Miyazaki a household name all over the world, a time when little of Miyazaki’s work was actually available in translation, but even the very few items I could get my hands on made me fall completely in love with what I saw. The more I got into Miyazaki’s work, the more I realized that something in his design style feels very familiar. A few searches through the internet revealed that indeed, Miyazaki was one of the animators who worked on Halev.

My initial reaction was “cool!” and that was pretty much it. But when I started working on my MA thesis about childhood in Miyazaki’s films, by which time most of his cinematic filmography became available for the non-Japanese audience, I realized that this filmography actually tells only part of the story. Miyazaki directed his first feature-length film in 1979; during the 16 years that preceded this movie, he worked as an animator in other people’s films and television shows, and also as a director in various televisions projects. There was an entire Miyazaki filmography here to be discovered beyond his familiar cinematic work. At some point, I realized that I want to write a book about it.

I started collecting materials – relevant films, television episodes, comics, books, articles and interviews. As often happens, other stuff got in the way: I was struggling with my PhD thesis (my academic focus now being animation theory in general, rather than Japanese animation), work, other stuff… but when I finally set down, and started writing, I began to understand that it was no coincidence that the animator who worked on a Halev is also responsible for classics like My Neighbor Totoro, other than the very obvious elements of the former that echo in the latter.

Like all great storytellers, Miyazaki’s works are about people – and whether these people come from Japan, Italy or anywhere else, he always takes his audience in an unforgettable journey as they watch his protagonists grow emotionally. Exploring Miyazaki’s early works and seeing how they inspired (as explained in the book’s concluding chapters) his later acclaimed works gave me a fascinating perspective on how Miyazaki himself grew as an artist. I hope readers will find it equally fascinating.

—-

Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Jay Schiffman

What is best in life? If you are, say, Conan the Barbarian, you have one sort of answer. If you are Jay Schiffman, or one of his characters in his novel Game of the Gods, your answer might be very different indeed.

JAY SCHIFFMAN:

There are two aspects of my life that have significantly shaped my worldview, and in turn, influenced my novel Game of the Gods. Family and politics.

Therein lies the big idea.

I’m from a big family, married into a big family, and have created a big family of my own. If numbers matter: my wife and I have 6 kids; my wife is from 6, and I’m from 4. I can fill a small school bus with nieces and nephews and they just keep coming. Even if I wasn’t close with my kin (I am), the sheer volume of siblings, in-laws, cousins, nieces, and nephews would probably define who I am. I can throw a rock and hit a relative.

Similarly, my love of politics, academic background as a political scientist, and my current political obsessions have greatly influenced my work as a writer. I’ll keep my political views to a bare minimum and simply say I’m a political junkie addicted to all things Trump. A New York Times piece about the underbelly of Trump, Inc., coupled with a caffeine chaser, is my drug of choice.

Politics and family lie at the heart of my novel and pump life into its dramatic passages and character development. At its core, my novel is a sci-fi action adventure. The main character, Max Cone, is an accomplished military leader and judge in a futuristic nation that is losing its power. His family is taken and his friends are killed. He assembles an unconventional band of outcasts to help him fight for his loved ones. This talented, but unpredictable group must navigate a dangerous world filled with despots. Action drives the narrative, but what motivates the characters is integral to the story.

If there is a single animating idea tying these disparate characters together it’s the significance of close personal relationships versus collective identities. For some characters in Game of the Gods, the bonds of family are far more important to their human experience than transcendent ties to religion, country, or politics. “Truth” is more likely to come from a child’s hug than from a charismatic clergyman. Some characters know who they are and what’s important to them, while others struggle aimlessly—meandering through different “isms” and oscillating between the terra firma of family and the lofty dogmas of religious movements.

The tension between close family ties and transcendent ones often takes the form of characters questioning what they once believed to be right. For some characters, questions arise about the truthfulness of a father or spouse, and for others it’s their faith in the divine.

Max was once a “True Federate,” an accomplished military commander and the highest judge in the Federacy. But we learn early on of his disillusionment, and soon after, the heartbreaking reasons why. In Max’s case, the love of family and nation are in direct conflict. The Federacy deemed his wife a traitor and punished her harshly as a result. Max recognizes that she was in fact disloyal, but he cannot forgive the Federacy for her punishment. As we follow Max on his adventures, his relationship with his wife, country, and God are called into question and he must come to terms with the authenticity of each.

Max’s group of outcasts faces similar existential concerns. Mavy Sway, a loyal emissary for the world’s most powerful religious leader, the Holy Father, balances the love of her family with her desire to see the truth about God’s purpose. Trace Rollins, a natural cynic, spends much of his life shuffling through different collective identities—revolutionary, partisan, abstainer, dissident. Finally, he gives up and becomes a drug addict. But whereas Mavy has a major crisis of faith in her family and her God, Trace, an otherwise lost soul, never questions his commitment to his loved ones. Each member of Max’s group struggles with questions of identity and meaning.

Except one. Pique Rollins.

Although Pique is only 13 years old, it is not her age that causes her not to question. To the contrary, it is her wisdom.

I should say here that Pique is my favorite character and one that is modeled on women in my family I greatly admire. Pique has all the “answers” to life, but only because she has so few questions. She’s content. She knows herself. There’s no existential crisis. No need for deeper meaning. She finds fulfillment in friends and family.

When Max first interviews Pique to see if she’s worthy of becoming a Federate citizen, she tells him that all he needs to know about her is that she’s a good fighter and she doesn’t lie. To the extent Pique has a guiding moral philosophy, it’s humility about sweeping claims.

In an important exchange between Pique and Mavy, we see their different worldviews, and Max’s take on it:

“Either there’s one righteous path that the Holy Father is leading us down or there isn’t,” Mavy says. “If you prove to me that the Holy Father isn’t the shepherd I believe him to be, then I don’t know what to make of this reality we’re living in. I need to trust him. You hear me. I need to trust him.”

Pique nods her head as if she understands. She doesn’t, but the most important thing for her is that Mavy feels like she does. For Pique, it’s not about Truth with a capital “T.” It never has been. It’s about the little truths people share every day: honesty, caring for loved ones, showing compassion to strangers, being better than our instincts. Her idea of what’s important couldn’t be farther from Mavy’s. “I’m a good fighter and I don’t lie,” Pique tells her. “I don’t understand a lot more than that. I’m not sure I want to. But I know one thing. Someday, I hope you and I can be close. Like sisters. Okay. You and I can be sisters.”

Pique understands what I—and my alter-ego Max Cone—only sometimes appreciate. When you’re surrounded by loving friends and family, there’s little reason to search elsewhere.

—-

Game of the Gods: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ruthanna Emrys

Community matters, even when or if your community is something… eldritch. As Ruthanna Emrys explains in her Big Idea for her newest novel, Deep Roots.

RUTHANNA EMRYS:

I’ve never lived among my own people. This was obvious to me, growing up, and I came to the logical conclusion that I must be an alien. Maybe I was from Pluto? My childhood grasp of comparative planetary ecology wasn’t very clear, but I definitely wasn’t from around here. Occasionally I found snatches of belonging at retreats and summer camps and holiday get-togethers. Eventually I pieced together the commonalities, and realized that I was not so much Plutonian as Jewish, learning to pass among Protestant neighbors and their culture almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the beliefs and assumptions I picked up at home.

Of course, by that time, I didn’t quite fit in with all-Jewish communities either. Instead, I became most comfortable in places with no majority at all. Urban cosmopolities, where no one is expected to be just like anyone else, and we build bonds around the assumption of mutual weirdness. But I always wondered what it would be like to fit in perfectly. To take for granted that my neighbors think and believe just as I do.

Aphra Marsh, the protagonist of Winter Tide and Deep Roots, had that—and lost it. Until she was twelve, all her neighbors learned Enochian alongside English, worshipped together at the Temple of Dagon, and walked down to the beach every evening to welcome their elders from the waves. Then came the raid.

Two decades later, Aphra and her brother were all that remained of the Deep Ones on land. In Winter Tide, they returned to the ruins of Innsmouth to recover a piece of their heritage—and ultimately promised to rebuild their childhood home. So in Deep Roots, they head for New York City, following the rumor of people who carry a trace of their family’s blood. Maybe enough that—if these lost cousins are willing to move back to the place their ancestors fled, and learn the ways once practiced there—their children might be strong enough to go into the waves as elders. Maybe enough that Aphra won’t truly be the last.

Of course, Aphra’s cousins have their own ideas about what they want to do with their lives, and their own communities, some of which aren’t just multicultural but multispecies. The Outer Ones offer the polar opposite of Innsmouth: a life of endless exploration and cosmopolitan conversation, at only the smallest of costs. It’s not what Aphra thinks she wants, but it’s closer to what she’s started to build. I wanted to explore the tension I’ve found in my own life, between the comfort of familiarity, and the risks and joys of living with difference. And, deeper, the ways that comfort can mask brittleness, and seeming risk can mask resilience.

If you do the math, I was writing Deep Roots in 2016. Actually, I was mostly not writing Deep Roots in 2016, an issue that I understand was somewhat common among my fellow authors. I would start on a scene, someone would say something horrible on the news, and I would spend the evening freaking out on Twitter. I figured I’d catch up after the election, when the grand drama of fighting back the Dark Lord would finally resolve and I’d be able to relax.

Obviously, I’d misidentified which book we were up to in the trilogy.

The election infuriated and terrified me. It also brought many things into clearer focus. One of those was how strongly I valued my cosmopolitan community, and the embrace of neighbors who didn’t expect me to fit neatly in a box. But another was how those communities can fail. Sometimes we love our neighbors—and sometimes we only manage a surface civility, without the deeper caring and respect that make relationships work. And so the story began to come together: one about the glories of Innsmouth and of New York, and the things that are hard to find in either place. It’s a story about learning what we really want out of community, and family, at those rare and terrible points where we’ve lost so much that we’re forced—and able—to build something new.

—-

Deep Roots: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

Elsewhere online I’ve been talking about how The Calculating Stars is one of my favorite science fiction novels of the year, and how I expect it’s likely to be remembered when “best of” lists and award nominations crop up. But here, today, author Mary Robinette Kowal is here to tell you about her book, and the Big Idea behind it… which may involve a very large rock.

MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL: 

The Big Idea for The Calculating Stars is pretty simple. Apollo-era science-fiction with women astronauts.

But the real Big Idea actually starts before I wrote the duology, with a story called “Lady Astronaut of Mars.” In that story, I wanted to capture the sheer wonder of what we accomplished during the Apollo era.  This is a time when Bradbury was putting civilizations on Mars, and my dad was programming with punch cards.  I mean, we put people on the moon in a craft that looked like a jiffy-pop container when the entire mechanical computing power of the world was less than in your cell phone.

The Calculating Stars is set in that world and begins about 30 seconds before a meteorite slams into the Earth in 1952.

This is before mechanical computers are prevalent or reliable. The word computer still meant “a person who computes” and those people were predominately women. Computers came up with equations, the algorithms, calculated trajectories, and shaped the early days of space travel. But…men with equivalent degrees and experience became engineers with higher rates of pay and status. The more things change, and all that….

My main character, Dr. Elma York, is a computer. She’s also a pilot, which isn’t a combination that I needed to make up.

You probably know about Hidden Figures, so let me tell you about the Mercury 13. These were a group of women who were put through the same tests as the original astronauts. All of them were pilots, and many were also computers, chemists, or business owners. The people running the program were interested in the fact that women were lighter than men.

At a time when weight factors were a big consideration in the space program, this was very appealing. After WW2 there were over a 1000 Women Airforce Service Pilots, who typically had more logged flight time than their male counterparts. So they called up some of the WASPs to see what they could withstand. When they got into the actual testing, they discovered that women could handle g-forces better, and generally performed better on stress testing. (Since one of them was a mother of eight, I imagine that stress testing was like a vacation.)

But, the testing was shut down by Lyndon B. Johnson because he didn’t think women should go into space. What would have happened if he hadn’t shut that down? What if, say, I dropped a giant rock on D.C.?

Now, if you’ll notice there are actually two big ideas in this book. The first is women astronauts. The second is an accelerated space program.

Here’s the thing… Wernher von Braun, widely regarded as the father of modern rocketry, had a plan to go to Mars in 1947. A viable plan. The principal barrier was funding. To be clear, if executed exactly as written, everyone would have died because he based it on a flawed understanding of Mars’s atmosphere. But if the plan had gone ahead, they would have sent orbiters and probes to the planet and revised it.

He wrote this plan in an era before we’d even gotten a satellite off the planet, much less a person. He wrote this before punchcards. He wrote it when all the math was done by hand.

What would have happened if we had continued to throw money at the space program at the rate we did during the space race? What could we have accomplished if it was an international cooperative effort? What if there was a strong imperative to get off the planet?

What if I dropped a giant rock on D.C.?

So that’s the big idea. Drop a giant rock and get off the planet in jiffy pop-container spaceships guided by smart women with sliderules.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: T.J. Berry

Forgiveness: A complicated topic in any piece of literature, and one that doesn’t necessarily come up that often in science fiction. But it’s in T.J. Berry’s new novel Space Unicorn Blues, and the author is here today to explain why it’s integral to what goes down in the book.

T.J. BERRY:

I believe in second chances. That’s a hard thing to say, because I also believe we have the right to walk away from people who harm us and never look back. Reconciling those two positions is one of the big ideas at the heart of Space Unicorn Blues, and it’s the one that has the most resonance for me.

In the opening of the story, part-unicorn Gary Cobalt is reunited with the starship captain who kidnapped, tortured, and framed him for murder. A decade has gone by since his imprisonment at Jenny Perata’s hands, but he must now decide if he’s willing to give her another chance. Gary wrestles with how to cooperate with a woman he has never trusted. At the same time, Jenny struggles with how to make amends for the horrific things she’s done during a time of war. Gary eventually decides to join her crew, but that moment is only the beginning of their undertaking. Jenny and Gary continue to navigate the turbulent waters of re-forging a civil relationship throughout the book.

I don’t have a template for making amends—it’s a messy, nonlinear process—but I wanted this to be a key idea in the story. Making amends is often an ongoing work-in-progress, not a single apology or act of contrition. It contains elements of restitution, restorative justice, and trust building. It’s more complex than simply handing over cash or serving a prison sentence. Some amends may need to last a lifetime. How do you capture such a nebulous process in a 100,000-word book?

I started by rejecting the “instant forgiveness” narrative. In fact, I really dislike the word “forgiveness.” For me, it focuses on the survivor’s willingness to let go of the past instead of the abusive person undoing the harm they have caused. The burden of action is on the wrong side of the equation. Gary never offers Jenny forgiveness for her actions because she has not yet repaired the damage she has done. How could she possibly make up for a lost decade in prison? For treating Gary’s body like a seam of coal to be mined or a pocket of natural gas to be tapped? Figuring out how to atone for treating Gary as less-than-human is one of Jenny’s main conflicts throughout the book.

There are a lot of apologies in the news lately. Abusers are producing a neatly packaged mea culpas that deftly walk the line between acknowledging their harmful actions while at the same time minimizing them. Most of these apologies, frankly, are garbage. They focus on the perpetrator and their toils, both before and after the abuse. But nearly none of them touch on making amends to the people who were hurt. Sometimes, these “apologies” bypass remorse altogether and slide straight into self-forgiveness .

This is the kind of non-apology I tried to avoid in this book. Jenny admits what she’s done, apologizes for it, and makes clear she’s searching for ways to make up for the harm she’s caused. Gary acknowledges her efforts, but doesn’t ever absolve her of culpability. She doesn’t get an easy forgiveness checklist. At one point she says she doesn’t know how to to make amends, and he kicks the conversation right back to her with, “I hope you figure it out.” Gary’s not here to the do labor on her behalf. Jenny, like all abusers, has to do the work for herself.

Like most of us, I’ve been hurt by people in my life. People I cared for have caused tangible and lasting negative effects due to their carelessness or malice. Sometimes, I’ve cut those people out of my life. Other times, the solution is not so clear. What does it look like when there’s more good to a relationship than bad, but the wrongs still have to be addressed? Where is the template for when we want to rebuild that connection instead of discarding it? We don’t see that narrative depicted as often in books, television, and films.

Indulge me for a moment—because I’m quite fond of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and think of the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie in which Peter Quill learns that his kidnapping by abusive gang leader Yondu was actually a rescue from his even more abusive godlike biological father. Yondu’s appalling treatment of young Peter Quill is instantly forgiven and his storyline gets one of the more poignant endings in the MCU. (I’ll admit, I cried.) But this means never see the nuance of Peter and Yondu walking the thorny path of making amends and rebuilding trust.

This is where I pick up Jenny and Gary’s relationship in Space Unicorn Blues. Gary feels there’s something to be salvaged between them and he’s willing to offer Jenny the chance to do better. Throughout the book, we get to watch Jenny make choices that prove her commitment to lasting change. And when she makes a choice that saves millions of lives while tearing her own family apart, Gary is ready to admit that she’s on the right path.

Just because making amends is the right thing to do, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Not all of us can apologize by writing our wives a single on our platinum-selling album, but every one of us can make changes to become a better person and repair the damage we’ve caused. I don’t offer any tidy solutions in Space Unicorn Blues, but I hope readers are willing to come along with me on this tough and complex journey.

—-

Space Unicorn Blues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Francesco Dimitri

Friendship, magic and a sense of place: All of these are important to Francesco Dimitri, and are the foundation of The Book of Hidden Things, the author’s first book written in English. He’s here to discuss all three, and his novel.

FRANCESCO DIMITRI:

We live in a world full of darkness and grace. There are immortal jellyfish floating in the sea and thousand-year-old woods thriving within cities, friendships which last forever and others which break over a tabletop game, weird legends and even weirder scientific finds. It is a world made of magic, of the good and bad sort. We use rationality as a glue to keep together all the things that we can’t figure out, and it is an important, precious glue, but the building blocks of our world are still all the things that we can’t figure out – the hidden things.

I wanted The Book of Hidden Things to make you feel the magic in the same way that a good joke makes you laugh. I wanted to write an entirely human story with magic as a base note: jokes are about people doing funny things, but they are rarely about people laughing at jokes. Tolkien said that fantasy authors create ‘secondary worlds’, which is a beautiful way to put it. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to play a variation on my own world.

I love books with fireballs (one of my Italian novels had the god Pan, gender-fluid fairies, and flying folks), and yet when I am reading a story and a fireball appears, I am reminded that is a story. This is not bad by itself: if the story is well-crafted, I will still believe that it is true in another world, and I will cry and smile with the characters. But I will not believe that it is true in mine, whereas, when I am reading, say, John Fante’s Ask the Dust, I can believe that the same things might happen to me (absurd as it is). I wanted that. Only, with the supernatural.

TBOHT follows three men in their mid-thirties, friends of a lifetime, who look for the fourth member of their gang, who disappeared. More than investigate, they sniff around the way you would do if there were no trace of your mate and you weren’t sure what to make of it, even considering that your mate has a history of oddness. They set in motion personal consequences they are not ready to deal with, and they find out things about each other which they had tried to keep, well, hidden. You can find a lot of summaries online, but these are the bare bones of the story. There is something about friendship, there is something about the troubles created by a sexist culture, there is something about how hard it is to grow up for real. And there is a sense of magic.

I set the story in a wild, strange, corner of the world: the part of Puglia where I was born, and which I left at 18. Italy is shaped like a boot, and Puglia is the heel of the boot. It is a stark landscape where the reds are very red and the blues couldn’t be more blue. It is as beautiful as unforgiving, blessed and cursed by long hot summers, strong winds, hail. It rarely rains, but when it does, it is often a storm. I wanted this story to convey the landscape, the food, the sex, the wine, how sensuous and excessive everything is down there, and get to the magic through that.

Google ‘Campomarino di Maruggio’ and look at the beaches on which I grew up. Then try ‘ulivi secolari Salento’ and you will see how uncanny olive trees can be. And there is more than visuals. The first warmth in March wakes up the wild flowers and the herbs, and in the smaller villages the air itself is scented throughout spring, 24/7. In summer, you feel the heat on your skin like a physical weight. Flavours are very sweet and very bitter. Not all is good: when Sirocco, the wind from the sea, blows, the air gets damp and your mood too. As local lore has it, Sirocco blows for three days, and for those three days you will be miserable. The sea is miserable too, and the sky. Humans and landscape are joined by breath.

If nature is intense, culture is no less so. There used to be an ancient civilisation, which has been almost entirely wiped away, except for vague traces surviving in ruins, names, folklore. There are small churches and shrines everywhere, in vineyards and barren fields and olive groves, and statues of the Virgin Mary by the beach, with fresh offers left by who knows whom. The local music, la Pizzica, is based on an exorcism ritual which used drums and dance and was still practised in the Sixties. On years even drier than usual, people (well-educated people) will still work what can only be called a magic ritual, dragging tree trunks for miles in the name of Saint Peter, who, so the legend goes, visited there and found a secret spring. It is a place that the Joker would understand: if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stranger.

All I wanted to do was turn up the volume of reality – of friendship, of magic, of pleasure, of fear. I set the story in a place where reality is already loud: I took a land which already borders on the fantastic, and made it slightly more. There are things in the book which might seem made-up (the local mafia called Sacred United Crown) but are real, and others which look real but are made-up (no, I won’t reveal the trick).

And this is all; I won’t say more, not to ruin the punchline.

—-

The Book of Hidden Things: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.