The Big Idea: Jerry Gordon

In today’s Big Idea, author Jerry Gordon tackles truth, pandemics, religious cults and the possible end of world. You know, as you do. Here’s how it all comes together for his novel Breaking the World.

JERRY GORDON:

In 1993, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians predicted the end of the world. What if they were right? That’s the question lurking behind Breaking the World, my apocalyptic thriller set during the largest and longest standoff in law enforcement history.

Twenty-five years ago, over one hundred ATF agents in full body armor stormed the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas. Military helicopters circled overhead as both sides traded gunfire. When the smoke cleared, four agents and six church members were dead. A fifty-one-day standoff followed the botched raid, dominating the news.

At the insistence of the FBI, reporters were kept a mile and a half away from the site of the actual stalemate. This forced the press to depend on the FBI’s daily briefings for all their information about the standoff. Officials portrayed the church as a military-style compound. They branded the Christian congregation, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists, a cult. And David Koresh, the pastor of the church, became a madman with a messiah complex.

This all took place in a time before the Internet and cell phones. Controlling the crime scene meant controlling the flow of information. In the middle of the standoff, desperate church members unfurled a banner fashioned from a white bed sheet. The message, which hung from a third story window, had been spray painted in letters big enough for the news media’s telephoto lenses. It read: WE WANT PRESS.

The Branch Davidians never got their audience with the press. The standoff ended in a tragedy so profound it sparked multiple investigations. Congressional hearings questioned the justification for the raid, autopsies conflicted with official accounts, and enough evidence was lost or destroyed to spark calls for a special prosecutor to look into obstruction of justice charges against agents of the ATF and FBI.

Twenty-five years later, the myth of Waco still eclipses reality.

I’m old enough to remember watching the fifty-one-day standoff play out on CNN. My step-father worked for the FBI as a field agent, so it should come as no surprise that I took the official account at face value. It wasn’t until years later, when I tried to write David Koresh into a short story as a religious boogeyman, that I started to question the myths of Waco. The more I researched Koresh and the Branch Davidians, the more I found reality far different from the official story I had been told.

That’s not to say I found the Branch Davidians without fault. David Koresh and his congregation bore significant responsibility for the tragedy of Waco, but they had been held accountable in a way the ATF and FBI had not. Long after I wrote and sold the short story, I continued to seek out obscure interviews, devour documentaries, and sift through congressional testimony. My questions about the standoff multiplied until they demanded to be answered in a novel.

The story needed to be told from an impartial point of view. I wanted characters that could question, as I do, both the actions of the church and law enforcement–characters in conflict with all sides of the struggle. Luckily, the nurses and lawyers and retired police officers that lived and worshipped at the Branch Davidian church brought something with them genetically designed to question everything: teenagers.

I decided to tell the story from the perspective of three atheist teens, a trinity of nonbelievers dragged to the Christian commune by their born-again parents. Trapped together, these teens would struggle to survive the historic conflict between David Koresh, an erratic FBI, and a pandemic that seems to confirm the worst of the church’s apocalyptic prophecies.

I stumbled onto the big idea for Breaking the World by asking a simple question with profound real and fictional implications. What if David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were right? Not just right about the raid or the injustice of their treatment. What if they were right about the end of the world?

Twenty-five years later, it’s time to find out.

Breaking the World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks|KoboRead an excerpt.

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The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Disclosure: I liked Catherynne Valente’s new book Space Opera so much I gave it a blurb. And as you read the Big Idea below about the book came to be, you might understand why the book appealed so much to me.

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:

Sometimes you plan a book. Carefully. Meticulously. You hone it, prune it, and shepherd it through the publication progress with all the gentleness you’d give to a particularly shy child.

And sometimes a book comes to you. And the book says: I’m happening. Deal with it. I’m happening right now. Just…hold on to something.

Space Opera, you may not be surprised to learn, was the second kind of book.

It’s a ridiculous book. I’m not even going to pretend it isn’t. I never had any intention of writing it. I was quite happily busy with other projects.

The trouble, in the end, always comes down to love. When I love something too much, it inevitably gets me into trouble.

In this case, what I loved was Eurovision.

I have spent a long time already in the trenches, explaining Eurovision to Americans. And now, I suspect, I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life. Here’s the short version: the Eurovision Song Contest is a combination of The Voice, Miss Universe, and WWI. Every year, countries in Europe, and these days, several that are decidedly not in Europe, send a pop singer or group to compete in a musical extravaganza for which the costumes are unspeakably glittery, the special effects tend toward gouts of flame, and the prize is really very little but the right to host the contest next year, and if one is lucky, a middling summer hit.

It’s glorious.

Viewers can vote from home alongside a panel of judges, but the key element is that you can’t vote for your own country, so Eurovision ends up being a glam rock snapshot of the current European political situation in any given year, as alliances come together. The whole point of it in the first place was to unify Europe again after WWII. It’s a bright mirrorball of pop art, but it’s got darkness at its heart.

I love Eurovision. I genuinely believe it’s one of the best things humanity has ever accomplished, and no that’s not a joke. When else has our species ever looked around and thought: we’ve just annihilated each other for a decade. The whole continent is a smoking ruin.You wanna…sing it out?

So two years ago, I was livetweeting it, as you do when you just get so excited at the mere thought of an event that has a bigger global audience than the Super Bowl but no one in your own country knows or cares about it. And one of my Twitter followers joked that hey, I love this weird, bright, dumb, showy thing so much, I should write an SFF version of it.

Do not dare me to do things on Twitter when I am in the middle of a Eurovision drinking contest. I simply cannot be held responsible for my actions in such a situation. Especially when an editor slides into my DMs and offers to buy that book right now.

My agent refers to it as the fastest deal in publishing. It was done and I was committed before I could catch a breath. As I was signing the contract, my fiance asked: “Does it really just say ‘Eurovision in space’? Do you actually have any idea how you’re gonna pull that off?”

“Yes, it does,” I said. “And no, I don’t.”

And I didn’t. Part of me was terrified. How the hell do you even begin to write that? I mean, you can’t play it straight. It’s too absurd. It’s obviously a comedy. Ah, but if you try to write science fiction comedy, the ghost of Douglas Adams appears and asks you with a stern expression if that’s really necessary. And even if it was a comedy, the core of Eurovision is that political darkness and artistic light. You can’t play it totally camp, either. And given the politics all around me, I wasn’t sure I was actually up to singing it out just this minute. What had I agreed to?

But the deadline approached. And I sat down at a blank screen. I laughed nervously.

And then I stopped trying to worry about whether I could do this thing at all and wrote some shit about Enrico Fermi and I was off, and off at breakneck speed.

And that’s how Decibel Jones came to be.

Fast forward just a bit into our future, and Earth finally gets the alien invasion we always dreamed of. It didn’t go exactly as planned. It’s not about gunships and stern admirals and grim battles. There don’t seem to be any admirals at all. But there’s a whole teeming galaxy out there, and they’re extremely suspicious of us. They tore themselves to pieces a centruy ago during the Sentience Wars, and are thus very careful about newly-discovered species. They simply can’t afford any more monsters out there. And humans do have such monstrous habits. We’re a borderline case—we may be sentient, but given our behavior on our own planet recently and historically, we may simply be a particularly unpleasant invasive species.

Fortunately, they’ve got a way to sort this out. Mankind must compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a contest of song and dance in which every sentient civilization performs its most staggering acts of punk rock beauty. All humanity has to do is not come in last, and we’ll be welcomed into the greater interstellar society with open arms.

If not, we’ll be quasi-painlessly exterminated, and Earth is welcome to try again in another million years with dolphins or something, no questions asked.

The trouble is, humans really are rubbish at music, comparatively. It’s embarrassing, honestly. They drew up a list of musicians they thought might have an outside chance at appealing to the finer sensibilities of non-primate cultures, but unfortunately, the Keshet, a race of time traveling red pandas in charge of intelligence gathering, fudged their landing a bit and everyone on the list is tragically dead. Except for one. Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, an early 2020s British glam-trash rock trio headed by a multi-ethnic genderfluid former glitter messiah who only ever managed one hit album when they were at the top of their game. But these days they’re aging into their 40s, a heap of bitterness, a lot of cheap wine and divorces, and particularly humiliating birthday party performances.

And now, they’re going to have to save the planet.

Space Opera is a headlong dive into a wormhole of music and idiocy and human failings and inhuman intelligences and a whole mess of awful costuming choices. It’s a comedy with a molten core of hardcore XXX feelings. And it’s got blue space flamingoes in it.

It’s as unlike what I usually write as it’s possible to get, and I’m so proud of it. I tried so hard with this book, you guys. I tried so hard to make it good enough for you. To pour my bitter, glittery, aging into my 40s on wine and divorces, dumb, hopeful, innocent, needy heart into a wormhole so it can fall out into your living rooms. To make you feel for a page the way Eurovision and Hitchhiker’s Guide and David Bowie and Prince and life on this stupid, terrible, gorgeous planet makes me feel. Even if it’s just one page.

Even if it’s just one paragraph.

So go on. Give my little tune a listen. Put the record on. Side one, track one. 3…2…1…

—-

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The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer

It’s an adage that writers use everything for their writing. In the case of Fire Dance, the follow-up to Ilana C. Meyer’s fantastic debut Last Song Before Night, a trip to Spain laid the floor for her novel to dance upon.

ILANA C. MYER:

The heart of a story doesn’t always come first.

This one began with a visit to Andalusia, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew, watching torchlit Flamenco singers in a courtyard one night, was that I would use it. And had a similar thought on a garden tour in Cordoba, winding through hedge mazes. The palace in Seville with its stonework and grand spaces—I’d use it all. Writers can be obsessive in that way.

In Last Song Before Night I had written about magic based on the art of poetry and music, drawing on the lore of the Celtic poets and the troubadours. A second book could expand on this theme while incorporating another art—the art of dance, inspired by the rich tradition of Flamenco.

And what would the magic in a place like Al Andalus be? For this, I looked to historical sources and medieval Arab cosmology for clues. I decided on magic that would be centered on astronomy, with a structure and clear-cut rules. It would employ equipment such as an observatory, charts, astrolabes. Almanacs which foretell the positioning of stars through the year would be forbidden to the common people, so no one can idly get their hands on such power. Because their magic was never lost—unlike the poet’s enchantments in Last Song—centuries of development have resulted in a refined, sophisticated system in close alliance with the court.

Into this setting I would send Lin Amaristoth, in her new role of Court Poet, to investigate a series of mysterious raids.

The story moves back and forth, between the Academy of poets on its wind-torn Isle, and the exquisite court inspired by Al Andalus. Between lonely enchantments and political intrigue. I envisioned the structure of this book as a dance, back and forth between two worlds. Until those worlds collide.

But sometimes we can have all the elements we need for a book, and still search for its heart. Sometimes the characters must have their say before we know what the book is about. Until then, what you have is not a book, but trappings. I wrote several beginnings to the book, several thousands of words, in the course of that search. With the help of those draft beginnings, I came to realize what I had been missing.

This book is, above everything else, Lin’s story. Beyond war and political intrigue and even magic, Fire Dance is about Lin’s transformation. Being in power means making choices. It also means being tested, sometimes in unbearable ways.

In Last Song, Lin is a survivor. Trauma and depression are her constant companions, each day about staying alive. Finding meaning in the world is her primary motivation. In Fire Dance events have compelled her to move beyond this mindset: she has responsibilities that affect the lives of thousands of people. She doesn’t have time for herself. But she also knows an enchantment is stealing away her life—in a year she’ll be dead. The tension between desire and responsibility have replaced simple survival. The trauma of her past remains, but now there is also rage at the future. Because there is no future. She has been compressed in a sliver of time.

Pure transience—what is dance, if not that?

Once I found the heart of Fire Dance, the elements I had gathered coalesced, took shape in a narrative. The heart of the character, and the heart of the book, had turned out to be one and the same.

—-

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The Big Idea: The Oracle Year

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule

I’m going to make the prediction that you’re going to want to read author Charles Soule’s Big Idea post on The Oracle Year, in which he talks about the future and how each of us makes predictions, every single day of our lives, and what that means for his novel. Am I correct in my prediction? There’s only one way to find out.

CHARLES SOULE:

The future.

What is that, really? It’s not now, and it’s not the past, and that is the sum total of what we know about it.

Everything else is just a guess, a projection based on past events, a calculation of probability. Let’s think about this in terms of a glass of water. (Bear with me – I’m going somewhere with this.)

No, water’s boring. Let’s say… a delectable cocktail (for me, that’s a Manhattan, but YMMV), or a frosty beer on a hot summer’s day, or an ice-filled fountain soda at the movies, or, yes, even a glass of water. You obtain that beverage, and you lift it to take that first sip, and you are certain that what you’re about to drink will be that Manhattan, beer, soda or water.

But why? Primarily because you’ve put together a string of prior events that suggest that it will be what you think it is. You’ve poured the glass of water out of your tap, say. But the city’s water could have been replaced with rubbing alcohol by a nefarious ne’er-do-well, or cosmic rays could have altered the soda from cola to root beer (totally, 100% possible, by the way (I assume)), or your bartender could be trying to poison you, or magic is real and your beer was transformed into something else. We can’t know for sure. Honestly, though, the odds of any of that stuff happening are slim at best, so unlikely that they become pretty much impossible. So, we predict that the drink will be what we think it is, and we go ahead and chug-a-lug without doing an exhausting analysis of the container’s contents.

Just like that drink, every single action we take, every choice we make, is a prediction of the future. We run the odds based on all available information and prior experience that Action A will result in Consequence A (or a range of likely consequences), and we will still be living in a world where the rules of physics apply as they always have, or even bigger, that the world still exists and we are still alive in it.

But hey, there are no guarantees. Anything could happen at any moment. For all we know, an undetected meteor will hit before you finish reading this…

…sentence.

Why am I talking about all of this? Well, I wrote a novel, The Oracle Year, which is concerned almost entirely with the future. It’s about a man in New York City who obtains a hundred and eight specific predictions of future events, large and small, due to occur over about a year’s span of time. He then decides if and how he’ll release the information to humanity, and we see how that changes him, flips the world on its axis, and so on. It’s a twisty-turny thriller, exciting and (hopefully), pretty unpredictable.

In the course of writing The Oracle Year, I had to think extensively about the future and our relationship to it. I’d go so far as to say the future is almost all we ever think about. It’s in the small things, like that automatic, subconscious analysis we do when we’re taking a drink of something, but also the big stuff: wondering about what we’ll do this weekend, who we’ll marry, our career, what our kids will grow up to be, when and how we’ll die.

We make decisions based on our analysis of the future – lots of them. We constantly predict what will happen next on timelines short and long. We have to. It’s the only way to operate, to live.

We’re all prophets, in other words, predicting the arc of our lives moment to moment.

I feel like that’s a given, a premise hard to dispute (although this is, of course, the Internet, which means it’s not impossible to dispute.) Now, here’s the second part of the equation, though – the result on the right side of the equal sign that I came up with after thinking about all of this for, oh, a few years while writing my book.

We’re all, on a very fundamental level, optimists.

After all, if we weren’t, we’d never do anything at all. We’d never drink that drink, because there’s a possibility it’s been magicked into poison. We’d never go to work, we’d never eat food, we’d never ask someone out… because why bother unless the world will continue to exist and we’ll still be alive to see it? We make choices because we assume we’ll get to see at least some not-tiny portion of the future, and human society will exist in a recognizable form therein.

That’s optimism, right? That’s deciding in favor of structure and continuity rather than entropy. Every day, with literally every choice and action we make, we are predicting a future that includes us, and is worth maintaining and building.

How about that, huh? Even in chaotic times (and I think it’s hard to argue that we’re in one of those at the moment), basically every person on Earth is predicting that they’ll still be around tomorrow with every single thing they do.

We’re all prophets, and we’re all optimists.

That, I think, is a pretty Big Idea.

—-

The Oracle Year: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Leo Carew

For his debut novel The Wolf, author Leo Carew considers what it might take to be more human than human — not superhuman, but differently human. And what does it take? Read on, humans!

LEO CAREW:

Our current age is unusual, in that we are the only species of human on earth. For most of our history, we have shared our planet with some interesting evolutionary cousins. I love the thought of how that might have felt – to be walking in a forest, and encounter something that was shaped roughly like you, but also deeply, profoundly alien. What would they have been like, had they survived to an historic age? What kind of society might they have created? And how would that have changed our own identity? My debut novel, The Wolf¸ starts from the Big Idea that more than one species of human survived the Ice Age, and went on to set up their own society.

This idea first came to me as a child, when I realised that every animal of comparable weight seems to be stronger, faster and toothier than we are. That got me wondering about a race of humans who were the wild equals of the deer, the lynx and the wolverine. What would they have looked like? How would they have behaved? So the Anakim – the main alternate race of people in the book – were born. Developing them has probably been the most enjoyable part of writing The Wolf.

It was many years later, during my studies in anthropology, that I discovered why we seem so physically hopeless. When we started farming, we domesticated ourselves just as efficiently as we did cows, sheep and crops. In the blink of an eye (anthropologically speaking), we grew drastically shorter. Our jaws retreated, our brains shrank, our bones became much less dense, and our faces grew charmingly fragile and expressive. We are a domesticated version of Homo sapiens, physically akin to our ancient ancestors as a dog is to a wolf.

That idea fascinated me, and the Anakim are partly inspired by how human beings once were, thousands of years ago. They are taller, more rugged, and more robust. But how could the Anakim have built a complex society, and yet retained their wildness? There seemed to be two options. Either, they did not develop agriculture, and so were never subject to the selective pressures which caused our domestication. Or, they had a social structure which counteracted the effects of agriculture and sedentism, and rewarded high levels of physical robusticity and aggression. I couldn’t choose between these ideas. So I took them both.

In one of my wilder flights of imagination, I thought that maybe that aggressive social structure would have unforeseen consequences. For good measure, I therefore gave the Anakim plates of rust-coloured bone armour beneath their skin. The idea is that their society is so ancient, and so war-like, that they have evolved innate defences to spears, bows and arrows. The rust-coloured bone is due to its high iron content, which was also inspired by nature. There are several species of shrew which have blood red teeth because they’re so full of iron for added strength.

However, physical differences are easy. Much more challenging, and more interesting too, is how the Anakim might have been cognitively. It is difficult to know where to start with this, as your brain is shaping your thought-patterns, even as you try and abstract yourself from them. For inspiration, I turned to the ancient cousins about whom we know most: Neanderthals.

One of the prevailing theories for a while has been that Neanderthals had limited ability to understand symbolism. I think this is wrong, but it’s an idea with interesting consequences. If symbols meant much less to the Anakim, it would change their art (if they had art at all) and perhaps make them physically incapable of developing reading and writing. And what would the result of that be? They’d need a formal means of memorising information. That’s where the idea for the Academy – a sisterhood of historians who commit to memory all Anakim history – came from. They’d need it to maintain a powerful sense of identity, and store all the knowledge that would enable them to progress as a society.

Another interesting idea came from the fact that Neanderthals lived in very small home-ranges, which we know from the isotope signatures in their teeth. They tended to travel very little, while modern humans of the same period were dying hundreds of miles from where they were born. We seem to be something of a pioneer species, with a mindset adapted to long-distance locomotion, which makes sense anecdotally. How many people do you know who don’t enjoy travelling? But I suspect the Neanderthals didn’t. And that got me wondering again about how a species who did not enjoy travelling would have thought about their home-range. Presumably they’d have been unusually attached to it. There might be a new dynamic there, where your home becomes as important as your family. And how would you feel when you then travelled far away from it? Like homesickness, but multiplied tenfold.

The Neanderthals and ancient humans gave me some interesting starting points for physical and mental differences. After a while, other facets of Anakim cognition and society started falling into place. In the same way that characters begin to take on a will of their own, and the story changes because you realise that you’re asking a character to do something that they never would, I developed a strong sense of what the Anakim would and would not do. They would be very austere. And obsessed with wilderness, which was in some way holy to them. Without writing, memory would become very powerful to them. And maybe that would be connected in some way to the land in which they lived.

And eventually, though I’d intended to make them as otherworldly as possible, I started slightly falling in love with these people. They haven’t got everything right, but it seemed to me that by and large, they have a much better sense of perspective than we do. They don’t care about money. Most of them don’t care about status. They only want to be fulfilled, and recognise that is best achieved through self-discipline, rather than self-indulgence. The fact that their symbolic understanding, and ability to read and write is poor, made them kindred spirits. As a dyspraxic, a hopeless artist and someone who didn’t learn to read until very late, I imagined myself fitting right in on that front.

Almost last of all came the name for these people, which I ended up finding in the Bible. It mentioned several giant races: the Rephaim, the Nephilim and the Anakim. I’ve always wondered whether Biblical stories have their origin in cultural legends. Perhaps the story of Noah and the flood is based on some kind of cultural memory of the catastrophic rise in sea-levels after the Ice Age. I wondered the same about these giant races. Maybe (just maybe) those are based on some distant cultural memory of the Neanderthals, or Denisovans – a prehistoric species of man like us, but somehow other. I liked that idea, and the nod it gave to the Neanderthals. The Anakim they became.

With the Anakim society constructed, there was one big question left. How would they react, when they encountered other humans, and vice versa? In The Wolf, I like to think I am not so much making stuff up, as trying to explore the underlying principles of our own world. So what evidence is there for what happened in the past when two human species encountered one another? It seems that interbreeding was pretty common. Modern humans carry DNA from Neanderthals, Denisovans, and probably one more unidentified group of humans. But though interesting, that doesn’t tell us too much. Hybrid children did exist, but under what circumstances they were conceived will likely never be known. There seem to have been more problems with the male offspring than the female offspring though (something else I borrowed for the book). The fact that Neanderthals and Denisovans are both extinct doesn’t tell us much, either. We could have outcompeted them, rather than massacred them. Or their demise might have been more related to a rapidly fluctuating climate, than our arrival.

I had to turn to more contemporary evidence. When modern human groups rub alongside each other, they often exhibit signals to demonstrate allegiance to their own group. The human mind seems to like clarity, and contrast, and when cultures feel threatened, they tend to respond with a renewed display of unity. So the Anakim, and their modern human neighbours might take that to extremes, not being merely different cultures, but different species altogether. They identify themselves by the fact that they are not the other. Stubbornly, the Anakim do not use personal adornment – that is something those other people do. Likewise, the modern humans detest wilderness – that is disorder, inherent to the Anakim. Unfortunately, putting these species together in the same land, the only outcome I could foresee was conflict. But maybe the result would also be greater unity between races of modern human. With this great external threat, perhaps we would focus more on our similarities, rather than our subtle differences.

Developing the Anakim was fun, but it also put a lot into perspective. We are a creature like any other, and there were once many more like us. They were not worse at being human than we are. They may very well have been our cognitive equals (even our superiors). They were just different, and as a species, we too came very close to extinction. We survived more through luck than skill, something we might do well to remember.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: John Schwartz

 

Anyone who knows me knows that I spend I lot of time urging people — particularly writers — to get their financial houses in order. John Schwartz is a writer — a reporter in fact — and the way he got motivated to get his financial ducks in a row was to give himself a writing assignment, which became the book This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order. Hey, whatever works!

JOHN SCHWARTZ:

In writing This Is the Year I Put my Financial Life in Order, I was working through a puzzle: Most of the people who could benefit from a book on personal finance would never read one. I knew this because I was one of those people.

Money scares me. I don’t mean I’m scared of not having money—that’s a fear most people have. And I don’t hate money, or think it’s inherently dirty. It’s not even that I can’t understand money. As a newspaper reporter for the New York Times, I’ve tackled plenty of difficult topics, including space travel, climate change and the hurricane protection for New Orleans. I write about investing for the NYT business section in a quarterly humor column. Give me an assignment and I’ll learn what I need to learn to get the job done.

And I’m not particularly cowardly: I’ve flown (briefly) in a jetpack, gone cattle herding from a helicopter and stood inside a suit of armor while a Tesla coil zapped me with a million volts of electricity.

So it’s none of that. No, it’s just that I’ve always hated thinking about my own money. I got a 401(k) early on, but I could barely bring myself to open the envelopes to see whether the accounts had grown or shrunk. I was already in my mid fifties, but had put off thinking about whether I had enough money to support me and my wife in retirement. I didn’t know whether I had enough insurance. I didn’t even have a will.

It was time. It was past time.

So I forced myself to confront these demons the best way I know how: I wrangled myself an assignment. I got paid to figure out where I stand for retirement. I dove in, did the research and wrote the story, confessing my qualms in the process.

If my inbox was to be believed, there are many, many people out there who share my sluggish fretfulness, who are a little money phobic. Procrastinators. The financially squeamish. A colleague called it “frighteningly familiar.”

And then there was Brian, a neighbor, a great guy in his 30s with a couple of kids. He told me his father sent him a three-by-five index card, his usual epistolary medium, lauding the piece. “Take it to heart,” he wrote. “Before you know it, you are looking at your ability to keep paying for things during the 2nd half of your life.” Brian told me in an email, “I have to say, this is one of the longer written notes I have received from my father in the past several years, or maybe ever.”

There are plenty of personal finance books out there. But if you’ve ever checked the shelf, you know that most of them suck. They overpromise—you’ll get rich!–when what most of us want is security. They claim that they hold arcane secrets, when the principles of providing for retirement are actually pretty straightforward. And they bark orders like some kind of drill instructor, when what we really want is a well-informed friend.

That led me to pitch the book, another assignment to get me to do what I hadn’t been able to do on my own. I spent a year (okay, a little more than a year) figuring out my finances, learning what I should have known about investing and taking care of my unfinished business. And yes, I finally got that will.

This Is the Year I Put my Financial Life in Order goes on sale this week. I have tried to write about the process of learning all of this stuff in a way that readers can follow my example and begin to get their financial lives in order, too. And to ease their fretting. It tells of my own financial misadventures as well as our scarier moments, like buying a New York apartment at the top of the market and then being unable to sell it, and the tenant who refused to leave. Yeah, that guy almost put us into bankruptcy. There’s the offer from my old super to kill the tenant. (Hey, it’s New York.)  And there’s the bankruptcy lawyer who Jeanne still calls “the angel,” who talked me out of filing for bankruptcy. For a while, times were so tight that my regular lunch in the cafeteria at work was French fries with gravy, a filling meal that cost me less than two bucks.

We’re more comfortable now. And we’ve learned some lessons along the way. Maybe readers will learn from our mistakes. I hope, at least, they’ll be entertained by them. After all, who doesn’t enjoy the sweet tang of schadenfreude?

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This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. See the author’s recent bylines. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

The Cover to If Tomorrow Comes by Nancy Kress

Everyone wants to do the right thing — but sometimes knowing what is “right” is not so simple, especially when there there are rules and regulations to consider. Or so Nancy Kress discovered, as she did her research for her new novel, If Tomorrow Comes.

NANCY KRESS:

Much fiction, in both SF and mainstream, is built around a character whose deeply-held values clash with each other. Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s classic, Dune, wants both to avoid immediate violence and to keep humanity from extinguishing itself millennia later; he cannot do both. Binti, in Nnedi Okonafor’s eponymous novel, both wants to remain a member of her native, stay-at-home culture and leave it for the wider world of an interstellar university. The protagonist of  Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” must choose between conceiving a child that she knows will die young and avoiding the pain which that inevitable death will bring. For such emotional choices, there are no formal guidelines, no given laws.

For military choices, however, there are. The rules for disobeying a direct order from a commanding officer are set out in both the Military Code of Justice and the Manual for Courts Martial: It is a crime to willfully disobey a superior officer. It is a crime to attack a superior officer. Making a mutiny is a crime punishable by death, even in peacetime.

A viewpoint character in my novel If Tomorrow Comes faces this clash of values: a deeply held loyalty to the U.S. Army versus obedience to the orders of a superior officer that he cannot, in good conscience, follow, even though those orders are lawful. Corporal Leo Brodie, a sniper assigned in unusual circumstances to a small U.S. Ranger unit on the planet World, has to make some tough decisions. Lives, both Terran and alien, are at stake. Leo doesn’t want to go rogue. He doesn’t want leadership. He certainly doesn’t want to lead any sort of mutiny. And his commanding officer once saved Leo’s life.

Leo Brodie is not the only viewpoint character in If Tomorrow Comes, the sequel to last year’s Tomorrow’s Kin, and his is not the only problem faced by the small band of Terrans who have traveled from Earth to World. Geneticist Marianne Jenner faces an entire continent menaced by a deadly epidemic. Physician Salah Bourgiba struggles with his role in this mission, so much of which went wrong from the beginning. But, I admit, Leo Brodie became my favorite character, and the clash of values that he faces ended up driving the book.

Military disobedience certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, and it hasn’t always had the clear outcomes that the Code of Justice seems to imply. Just a few examples: in WWI Lt. Frank Luke, Jr, an ace airman with the U.S. Army Air Corps, was grounded by his commanding officer and told he would be considered AWOL if he disobeyed. Luke flew anyway, shot down both enemy aircraft and observation balloons, and was eventually forced down and killed by the enemy. Posthumously he was awarded the Medal of Honor. In the Korean War, Lt. David Teich was ordered to leave behind a Ranger company under heavy fire. Instead, Teich led four tanks to the Rangers’ position and rescued sixty-five stranded Rangers—so many that they covered the tanks’ turrets. In Afghanistan, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer disobeyed orders to rescue stranded Afghan soldiers and retrieve the bodies of four American troops.  He, too, received the Medal of Honor.

There are no medals to be awarded on the pacifist planet World, and no one to award them. In addition, each case cited above concerned defying orders to not do something. Leo Brodie not only did that but also formulated a separate, secret military line of action. His clash of values leads him, again and again, farther than he ever anticipated from the military oath he swore on Terra.

As I wrote If Tomorrow Comes, I felt the fear of all writers venturing into unfamiliar territory: Am I going to make a fool of myself? I have never served in the military. No one in my family has served since WWII with the sole exception of my niece, who is a Navy JAG and would probably court-martial Leo Brodie. So I did much research. I read memoirs by Rangers who served in Iraq. I did on-line research for updates. I read the Ranger Handbook: Ranger Training Brigade, United States Army Infantry School (and I can now construct a field antenna, should the need ever arise). I read parts of the Manual for Courts Martial. And then, just to make sure I did not make a fool of myself, I hired an ex-Ranger to read and correct the manuscript. He was incredibly helpful.

Fiction can also, of course, be built around clashing values that exist not within a character’s mind but between different groups. This is why wars are fought. Why alliances honored—or disregarded. Why crimes are committed and investigated (“I value your property, life, body—and so do you”). If Tomorrow Comes includes inter-group clashes, too. Some want to help World, some to destroy it. Some want to preserve a traditional culture, some to change it. Some want to distribute vaccine fairly, some to hoard it. But it is Leo’s struggle that drives the book, and his choices that made me want to write it.

David Teich, who retired as an Army Major, once said, “I’ve got a moral obligation as an officer to do things that are right.” However, it is not always easy to know what those things are. Such decisions may become relevant in our own near future, as a military faces growing international threats in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world.

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If Tomorrow Comes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

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

The Big Idea: Jane Yolen

The cover to A Bear Sat on my Porch Today

Today’s Big Idea post is not about a specific book — although Jane Yolen has two, yes, two, books coming out today — but to celebrate a milestone that Yolen has achieved, right now, as we speak. When having two books out in a single day is only the second most impressive thing about an author’s day, you know it’s a pretty special day indeed.

JANE YOLEN:

My two mottos are BIC and YIC:

Butt in chair. (Or for the finer minds—backside, behind, bottom).

Yes I Can. The answer I give if someone asks if I have time or inclination to write something for their blog, journal, magazine, anthology, publishing house. I can always say no after careful consideration. But an immediate no shuts the door for good.

Both BIC and YIC are variants of my late husband’s motto: Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

However, the word I hate most when a reviewer or introducer are talking about me is prolific. It carries on its old farmer’s back a whiff of a sniff. As if someone is looking own his or her rarified patrician nose and saying, “Well, of course she writes a lot. . .” That’s their dog whistle for inconsequential, not literary kind of stuff, things like kiddy books and verse, scifi and fantasy. Or as my father said when I was years past my fiftieth plus book, “When are you going to grow up and write something real?”

By that he meant adult literary novels or mammoth nonfiction books or Hollywood biographies—the sort of stuff his friends wrote. (Name drop time: Cornelius Ryan, Will Oursler, Ernest Hemingway.)

But I write what I love to read. I write the books  I wish I had had as a child, or want to read as an adult. And yes, I do write a lot.

My 365th book is coming out, and my 366th. . .on the same day (today!). One is a picture book called  A Bear Sat on My Porch Today, which is in bouncy rhyme and celebrates a bear that actually sat on my porch in semi-rural Western Massachusetts. But, along the way it becomes a book that also celebrates inclusion and odd friendships, and toleration. The other book is a devastating Holocaust novel hanging from the armature of the Hansel and Gretel folk tale. And yes you may ask if there is a witch who gets shoved in the oven. And I will remind you: “It’s Hansel and Gretel.” To say more would be a spoiler.

Which one is the actual 365th?  All I will reveal is that:

  1. I do not know
  2. I do not care.
  3. It just means from March 6 on you will be able to read a book a day by me, even on a Leap Year. #Yolen365

Those of you who follow the cobbled-together mathematics of calendars will know that the next Leap Year is 2020. By then I will probably have close to 380 books out.

I am waving at Isaac Asimov, my old friend, who even in his grave still seems to be producing books. A regular industry, he is. I will never catch up. Nor is that my goal. My goal is what it has always been—write the best books I can, the books I want to read–and get better at writing each time.

Why should you care about #Yolen365? Because it’s a fun statistic. We will be celebrating it all around the country. But it will matter to you only if some of them are books you love. Or if they are books that make a difference in your life or the life of a child you know. Oh, and only if they are books that last five years past their year.

I am often asked if I write my books the way I put on my shoes, one at a time. The simple answer is No. Or maybe it’s Yes.

Actually, I am a juggler of ideas. Any one day I might work on a chapter of a big adult novel, a rewrite (for the 20th time) of a picture book, or wrestle with a couple of poems. That’s because besides being a juggler, I also have a very low threshold of boredom. And I know if I’m bored, the reader will be bored, too.

For instance, I might start an essay like this, then look around for some old ideas to tart up. I may also find a magazine article online that shouts out “Story idea” to me. I am a bit like those dogs in the animated movie Up, suddenly in the middle of talking, their heads swivel and they shout, “Squirrel!”

But because of all those wonderful squirrels, I am never in-between projects or stumped. Or (writer word coming up) blocked. If I feel a blockage coming on, I simply spin around and head in another direction. A sniper couldn’t bring me down. It’s just my way of working.

Of course, YMMV. <Your mileage may vary.>

So besides this short essay, what did I do today? Some research in Russian history for a novella for Tachyon, a short dive into some revisions on a non-fiction book about birds for National Geographic, worked on two new poems for my poem-a-day project that has been going on for seven years. Five years ago I started sending the poems to subscribers. (Oops it’s now into the sixth year!). During those five completed years, I flew to exotic places, crashed a computer so badly that no one (not even in the White Room in California) could retrieve its innards, and had a seven-hour back operation where they filleted me like a fish. And I still sent out a poem a day. (If you want to subscribe, go here:  http://eepurl.com/bs28ab)

It keeps me enjoying the writing. And along the way, somehow, the count got up to 365/366.

But the one-book-at-a-time question is not the one most frequently thrown at me. It’s the snarky query that comes from  teachers and fans. “Do you ever sleep?”

Why yes, eight hours a night. Every night. I mean where DO you think I get my best new image or manage to find time to work out my plot problems? I am a hearty dream-rover, and I never miss an opportunity to wake up for a sleepy moment to scribble down a new idea.

For completists, here are the books I have coming out this year:

January 16: Meet Me At the Well with Barbara Diamond Goldin (Charlesbridge): feminist revisionist midrash of the stories about girls and women in the Hebrew Bible, for young readers.

March 6: A Bear Sat On My Porch Today (Handprint/Chronicle).

Mapping the Bones (Philomel/ Penguin).

April:  Monster Academy with Heidi Stemple (Scholastic): picture book.

Mixti-Maxti (Papavaria Press):  adult poems about authors.

On Gull Beach (Cornell Lab of Ornithology): picture book.

Sanctuary: Stone Man Mysteries with Adam Stemple (Lerner): Noir graphic  novel, 2nd book in the trilogy.

Compass Roads (Levellers Press): a book of adult poems about the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts where I  live that I’ve edited.

June 26: How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read (Scholastic): picture book.

Fall: Come Fly with Me with Heidi, Adam, & Jason Stemple, (National Geographic): bird nonfiction with folk tales and poems as well.

Crow Not Crow with Adam Stemple (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) : picture book

Finding Baba Yaga (Tor.com): verse fantasy novel

There are also 12 books under contract, all written, and about 30 others making the rounds. That’s a lot of BIC, a lot of YIC, and a lot of joy in one house. The numbers prove it.

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Visit Jane Yolen’s site.

The Big Idea: Alan Baxter

 

As any metropolitan partisan will tell you, cities have their own feel and personality — but in Hidden City, author Alan Baxter takes that idea and, shall we say, runs with it. Get ready.

ALAN BAXTER:

Cities are living things. Some are so alive they’re almost sentient. Imagine a brain, made of billions of neurons all interacting to create consciousness. Now picture a city with millions of people, each acting like a bunch of neurons in a brain. Of course, this is massively over-simplified, and will no doubt be making any biologists reading cringe and want to break things. But, in essence, this is the first big idea behind Hidden City.

All cities do, of course, have a living vibe, we imbue them with personality. I’ve always loved noir stories where place and setting are as important as the characters; where, in fact, the city is a character. The fictional city of Cleveport in this book most definitely fulfils that role. But in most noir stories, the city is passive while the people are active, front-and-center. That’s not what I wanted here. And the other thing about this idea was that I didn’t just want a living city. I wanted a city that was sick. Dying, in fact.

That presented an immediate problem. Cleveport, as a central character, had to have a believable personality. It turns out I’d set myself an unenviable task. For a while I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off. How could I make her character shine through? How could she be an active player?

However, for me, a book is never made from just one or two big ideas. Certainly those are often the trigger, as with the idea of Cleveport here, but I need a conglomeration of big and small ideas that keep crashing together until they eventually form a kind of critical mass. That’s when a story is born, kicking and screaming, demanding to be fed — I mean, told. The second set of ideas that really started gelling Hidden City together were focused around magic. If a city was more sentient than most, there’s every chance it would attract magical people, even if they didn’t realize themselves that’s what was happening.

Then I started to think about what might happen to that magic and those people when the city became sick. How would Cleveport’s character show through them? I wondered if the magic would wane, but then something else occurred to me. What if it became inexplicably more potent? And no one realized that was a Bad Thing™. That led me to my next set of problems. I’m not lying when I tell you this book was by far the hardest I’ve ever written in terms of making the ideas work.

The next issue centered on what kind of illness might affect a city? What other sort of symptoms would it present? How would that subsequently affect everything else? I needed effects beyond the strange increase in magic. In the same way that a fever might inhibit a person’s ability to function, it might also show up physically as a rash. Or blistering pustulent sores. Or something. So poor old Cleveport developed an outbreak of parasitic fungus that attacks her population, turning them into violent lunatics. Because, let’s be honest, what better complement to a sick city than homicidal madness?

This fungus and its parasitic lifecycle became something of an obsession for a while. I had to learn a lot to make it work alongside everything else. So I studied. Did you know, for example, that the biggest living organism on Earth is not the blue whale? It’s a mushroom. Well, specifically it’s a honey fungus, apparently very tasty, and there’s one in Oregon that is 2.4 miles across. Yes, miles. One organism. Imagine if that wasn’t tasty, but deadly. And imagine if could spread as fast as people can run. And imagine if it used people as its infection vector. And imagine what it’s like living in my head sometimes.

Anyway, now I had the meat and bones of this novel. Noir, fantasy, magic, horror, action. But plot is not story. Characters are story, and a book needs more than one. Cleveport is certainly the central character in Hidden City, but not the protagonist. That turned out to be a run-down, mildly magical gumshoe called Steven Hines, who specializes in missing persons cases. While authorities start shutting things down and closing the city boundaries, concentrating on the symptoms of the outbreak, only Hines – his talent giving him a clearer than most connection to his city – has spotted the underlying causes. Or at least, he’s spotted that there must be underlying causes.

And something else about story. It’s not just in the characters and how they respond to the immediate threat, but how they respond despite their ongoing lives. Hines didn’t just pop up to deal with the sickness in Cleveport. He’s got shit going on, same as everyone. Through that lens of character – Cleveport, Hines, his buddy Detective Sergeant Abby Jones, and a few key others – I got to explore themes of loss and sacrifice, love and friendship, arrogance and heroism, all while a city suffered. While everyone suffered. And while it was an incredibly difficult book to write, I’m very happy with the way it all came together in the end. Because along with underlying causes, there has to be a root cause, right? And that was the biggest idea of all. But that, of course, would be a spoiler.

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Hidden City: Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | Kobo | iBooks | Google Play

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site or read his blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Rachel Hartman

In imagining the story and characters that make up her novel Tess of the Road, author Rachel Hartman had to go places she initially didn’t expect or want to go. She’s here now to explain why she did eventually go there, and what it means for her and her work.

RACHEL HARTMAN:

I can’t discuss the Big Idea behind Tess of the Road, alas, without talking about rape — in the abstract, not in gory detail. If you’re not up for that today and need to go, no worries. You get to choose. You are the protagonist of your own life.

That kind of agency is exactly what rape steals from us.

I like to give a heads-up – it only seems fair, the way you might warn a dinner guest that you have cats, are serving shellfish, or plan to be recreationally stung by bees later. With forewarning we allergic types can take take care of ourselves, popping a Benadryl or declining the invitation.

Pop culture, especially SFF, is full of rape, as anyone with this particular sensitivity can tell you. Even rape that isn’t there – implied, impending, alluded-to, narrowly missed – can be too much on a bad day, and I’m one of the lucky ones. My allergy is pretty mild.

I had no intention of adding to this superabundance. I was working on a happy-go-lucky picaresque road novel about a girl and her quigutl best friend. I knew what would happen if there was rape in the backstory – it would inevitably turn into Thelma and Louise. I love that movie, but no thank you. This was my jolly book!

Then I was struck by subtext in the place I least expected it – my community choir – and I had to rethink my position.

Our choir director gave us the song “Cakes and Ale.” It’s a round by Henry Purcell who, in addition to being the greatest English baroque composer, was also a famous seventeenth century party animal. (Legend has it that he died of pneumonia after his wife locked him out of the house in the rain late one night.) He wrote a lot of bawdy songs; “Cakes and Ale” isn’t even his bawdiest.

The narrator of this particular song talks about plying a woman with alcohol and trinkets in hopes that she’ll be “wondrous merry” with him. That could plausibly mean a variety of things, until he says “merry my cock” and removes all doubt. That wasn’t the part that made me feel sick, however. It was the line, “I thought she was afear’d ‘til she stroked my Beard.”

I know what arguments have popped into your head; they also popped into mine. Afear’d is just meant to rhyme with beard – what else was he going to say? Weird? Engineered? Did “cock” mean cock in the eighteenth century, anyway? And the lady stopped being afraid, didn’t she?

She did, if you trust the assessment of the guy who’d been getting her drunk all evening.

Nine times out of ten, I might have thought Ugh, gross, and not been any more bothered than that. Trauma comes back on you like reflux, though, and mine had been recently bubbling up again. I couldn’t stop thinking about the nameless woman in the song. Had she really stopped being afraid, or had the drink extinguished the light in her eyes? Had she swallowed her fear down and tried make the best of things? The whole scenario made me squirm.

I have had plenty of experience with this kind of discomfort, and I have a variety of things I do to take care of myself. First thing I did was sit down and write a parody of the song. Mock your misery away, is my motto!

He gave her cakes and he gave her gold

And drink both strong and grapey.

You might say, “What the hell, it’s a classic — Purcell!”

But this song is wondrous rapey.

It went downhill from there. Annoyingly, the parodizing didn’t make me feel much better. In fact, it merely clarified the things that had bothered me about the song in the first place.

Is that not what he meant?

A beard-grab’s not consent…

Ugh, gross. It was time to implement Self-Care Phase 2: talking to a friend.

When you’re struggling, choice of friend is important. I generally have good instincts about these things, and I had an intuition that Karen, a new friend, was the one to approach. She was in my choir, and had always struck me as reasonable and level-headed. In fact, she made me think of the hyper-rational, mathematically-minded dragons from my first novel, Seraphina. I had great hopes that she would use impeccable logic to tell me I was overreacting.

She did not disappoint, but promptly logicked me right under the table: “Just going by the statistics…”

Ah! She was going to school me with math and prove that I was too sensitive about this song.

“…it’s highly likely that five or six other singers, at least, feel the same as you, or worse. You just happen to be the most dedicated parodist. I think you should send this to Earle.”

Earle, our director, was a delightful Old Hippie, dedicated to putting the community in community choir. If a song made anyone uncomfortable, for any reason, he would find us something else to sing. He’d done it before.

“I can’t ask him to change songs,” I protested. “People should be able to choose to sing this if they want.”

People,” said Karen gently, “should be able to choose kindness when someone else is hurting. And they can’t choose that, if they don’t know you’re hurt.”

“That’s awfully tender-hearted for a hyper-rational dragon-type person,” I said bitterly.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “And you’ve got this.”

I sent Earle my parody without explanation. He got my drift; one particular line – rapey rapey rapey so goddamn rapey – wasn’t entirely subtle. The next day, he announced on our choir’s Facebook page that “Cakes and Ale” had made someone uncomfortable, so we weren’t going to sing it. He’d bring new music next week.

As you might expect, all hell broke loose on Community Choir Facebook.

I tried to stay out of it; Earle hadn’t named me, and I didn’t need the aggravation. I couldn’t stop reading the comments, though. All the usual epithets came into play: Censorship! Political correctness! Special snowflakes! One older woman went on a lengthy tirade about what fragile prudes today’s youth were (I was over forty; it would have been funny if it hadn’t been mortifying). Back in her day, they had understood bawdy songs – and the occasional ass grab – for what they really were: fun and playful!

Earle interjected: Maybe this person objected due to personal experience, not prudishness.

He was being too subtle for her. The ranting continued; she was particularly incensed that I’d complained anonymously, that I hadn’t had the guts to debate in the open. I was a bully, a harpy, a shrill moralizing bitch imposing my will on everyone else.

She just wanted a choice.

I knew what that was like.

I wrote back: I’m the one who found the song rapey. I told Earle via e-mail because I don’t feel I should have to stand up in front of the whole choir and talk about painful personal experiences.

She backed down. Things looked different when I was someone she knew, and not some hypothetical censorious Millennial out to spoil the Baby Boomers’ fun.

What I didn’t realize right away was that I also looked different to her in light of this knew knowledge. The next week at choir she took special pains to say hello, and ask me how I was doing. Weeks passed, and every time she saw me she’d get this pitying look on her face. Sometimes she’d even try to hug me (I dodged), as if I had been magically transformed into someone broken, wounded, and pathetic.

Fighting online had been galling, but this was worse. Were those my only choices, in her eyes? Avenging fury or shattered victim? I began to get angry for real.

Stories shape our expectations and understandings of what’s possible. Our culture has generally whittled it down to two possibilities for sexual assault survivors. You can be a victim, often dead, frequently erased, the great shipwreck of your life serving only as the impetus for someone else’s story. Or you can be an avenger, out to kill the menz (and spoil everyone else’s chill by not letting them sing bawdy songs). That sounds better, and at some level it is, but it’s not like you have much choice in that scenario either. You life is still all about him, and what he did to you. And hey, if you’re super talented and lucky, you can still end up pretty damn dead, like Thelma and Louise.

That’s not the way I would choose to be the protagonist of my own life. There were so many other roads back to self, so many coping strategies, so much life and beauty even after you think your life has been destroyed. It was frustrating that this woman didn’t have any other mental models to choose from.

And that’s when I knew my road novel – my happy-go-lucky picaresque – was going to have rape in the backstory, and that this would not transform it into Thelma and Louise. Tess would walk, and fall, and get up, and find her way back from trauma, just like so many of us do every day (but with dragons).

We get to be the heroes of our own hearts, because we get to choose.

In the end, I wasn’t sorry we dropped “Cakes and Ale.” Another soprano, a woman in her sixties, came up to me later and whispered, “Thank you. I had been calling it The Date Rape Song.” I smiled, realizing we were veterans of the same war, both of us coping through humor and friendship.

I wrote this book for her. And for you. And for all of us struggling to walk on.

—-

Tess of the Road: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Rachel A. Marks

Cover of Fire and Bone by Rachel A. Marks

Author Rachel A. Marks reached into her own personal mythology to help craft her new novel Fire and Bone — a little bit of early imagination finding its way into a tale in present time.

RACHEL A. MARKS:

I’m going to be honest right up front; the Big Idea for Fire and Bone is a bit wee. It’s even a little childish. But, hey, I was a kid when the seed was planted, so that’s fitting. You see, my imagination has always been more than reality could handle. And, since I can remember, I believed with very little doubt that faeries were real and—hold on to your hats, folks—I was one.

Like, really. I was a faerie.

I didn’t buy into Santa or the Easter Bunny, but I would have bet my life on fae parentage.

In my youthful head, the story went a little like this: My faerie mother was running from something—a mean elvish king, maybe?—and she couldn’t take care of me anymore. So, she left me on the beach (which is obviously why I loved the beach so much), and eventually these two humans stumbled upon me wrapped in kelp and took me home. They just didn’t remember that I wasn’t really theirs, because they’d been put under a spell.

For the doubters, there were a handful of breadcrumbs my kid brain had reasoned out.

Exhibit A: I had green eyes while my parents had blue and brown.

Exhibit B: I didn’t fit in with other kids. At all. I was too different, too quiet, too aware of birds singing in the trees, or the specks of gold reflecting sunlight in the sand. While the other kids played kissing-tag at recess, I collected leaves and made villages for the ants.

Exhibit C: My favorite thing in the world was being submerged in salt water, as deep as I could go. I’d dive down beneath the waves and hold on to the rocks on the ocean floor, blinking at the foggy world of fish and seagrass. So, obviously, I was from the mermaid species of the fae community.

Obviously.

Needless to say, I’ve always been more than a little drawn to folklore, my childhood whimsy morphing into a hunger to study history and legend. Namely, British and Irish. My grandmother was Irish on her mother’s side, disowned for marrying an Englishman, and that family soap opera, told over cinnamon toast and hot chocolate at my grandma’s humble kitchen table, only urged me on in my discoveries. The wilds of the ancient Celts and their pantheons through the ages became one of my favorite things to study, and the fiction that reimagined the mythos over and over became my favorite thing to read. I loved exploring the darker things that terrified even the Romans, sparking them to build Hadrian’s Wall.

Then a little over a year ago I was asked to put together a proposal for my publisher to consider once my debut series ended. As I sat there, mulling over the strange tangles I was managing to pull out of my deadline depleted brain, my only thought was, I wanna write something fun.

*stompy feet*

I needed the equivalent of book comfort food. And what’s my favorite thing to read about?

Faeries!

But not the cute, Disney reimaginings. I wanted the hypnotic, darker myths, the ancient grit I’d found in my research.

Up popped the big idea: I could reawaken those ghosts of Erin and Albion, and bring them to life in a new way in the modern world—the scent of rosemary burning on the brazier, the distinct blue lines of woad on the skin of a warrior—I could watch the ancient things twist and grow into the iron and concrete of the city as legend wove through reality. I could raise the gods from the dead, and watch them walk the streets once more, playing their games with those weak human hearts in all new ways.

I had my mission. But as I began to create the world of Fire and Bone I realized something wasn’t working. My main character’s journey was too simplistic as it formed. I wanted to take it deeper, draw this strange world around her more, make it wider, weightier. Older. I needed the reader to feel the centuries in every dusty corner. I needed an ancient rite, a thousand-year-old secret.

And so, in spite of my looming deadline, I stopped word-counting and let myself play for a few days. I explored the past of my characters even more, searching out details that might spark the right inspiration, or cast a more effective shadow. I stretched at the framework of my world, picking at the threads here and there. And something surprising bubbled up through the layers.

My very own faerie tale was whispering to me.

…in the long summer of wyne, the babe was abandoned within the Caledonian wood by the widow, for she hoped that the fae would take back their trickster gift and the gods could be appeased. But no wolf or beast consumed the child. It lay, surrounded by the arms of ash and birch, and soon was found by a humble monk of unknown title to be raised in seclusion until her twelfth year…

It was like Christmas came early. I’d discovered the fuel I needed to realize my vision more clearly. Plus, a faerie tale!

Everything about my character, my world, suddenly unfolded in front of me. And I dove into the process, head down, fingers flying, imagination buzzing. I knew I could finally create the story I’d been envisioning in foggy pieces. I’d make it stark, I’d make it funny. There’d be beauty, ambiguity, deadly hunger, and ancient secrets. And I’d drag the reader through the madness with pacing abandon. It was going to be beyond epic. Bwahahaha!

*clears throat*

Well, that was the dream, anyway. I certainly had fun playing in my historical sandbox of myth. And any faerie relations have yet to complain.

Fire and Bone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Tobias Buckell

The Cover to The Tangled Lands

In their new novel The Tangled Lands, Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell posit a world where magic is real — and exacts a toll, one different from what one might usually expect. Buckell is here today to expand and expound on that toll, and the parallels that toll has in our real world.

TOBIAS BUCKELL:

What if magic had a price? That isn’t a new idea in fantasy, or even in old stories. There is often a personal price paid for magic, whether it is Ariel dancing on legs that stab her like knives in the original Little Mermaid, exhaustion from casting a spell, or even needing to grind to find all the ingredients like herbs, experience, or spells in a video game in order to cast magic.

But what if magic had a price we all paid?

My latest book is a collaboration with Paolo Bacigalupi called The Tangled Lands. I remember that the moment we lit upon the idea of the bramble (the thorns of which can send you into an eternal deep sleep) and we realized that it would grow as a side effect of magic use, the entire world opened quickly up for us. Everything in the stories we began to write circled around this core struggle: how do people and society deal with the tragedy of the commons?

In The Tangled Lands, whenever magic is cast, there is a side effect: bramble appears. But it doesn’t just appear near where you cast it. It appears somewhere else, randomly,  a while later. It’s just a little, but it grows once it takes root. And it doesn’t take much to be dangerous.

How do you stop people from using it? Do you tell the mother of a child coughing blood she can’t use magic to heal him? Do you tell a mage not to use magic against an attacker?

And then a shopkeeper sweeping up after a long day brushes up against a crevice in a wall, and falls to the ground in a coma. Their son has to burn the bramble out of the walls carefully, then grieve over a parent stuck between life and death.

Who is at fault? How do folks prevent it from happening again? Because everyone has a reason to use magic. Just little charms, here or there. And over time… empires can fall under the choking grip of bramble.

There’s a horror to the almost creeping inevitability of society letting this slow-moving collapse consume us all… so it was intense to create a magical world dealing with the tragedy of the commons because it is a major issue we have faced before and will face over and over again. Whether it is overfishing, clear-cutting, or pollution, society has really struggled with this. But the moment you try to talk about a specific modern concern, people come to it with existing baggage. Examining the core idea without that baggage meant we had tremendous freedom in what stories we told.

Of course, chatting about crazy world building with another author and bouncing ideas off each other is the fun part. For me it’s always the honeymoon of a project like this. But when it comes time to write the book, you have to find a human story that engages.

We told stories about four people: an inventor trying to find a solution to some of these problems, but whose research is used in ways he never wanted, a mother seeking to rescue her children from re-education camps, a brother trying to care for bramble-kissed sister, and a blacksmith struggling to deal with the impact of inequality. But the truth is the story is really all about the land groaning under the weight of all the choices everyone makes on a daily basis about whether their own needs matter more.

I think, sometimes, when looking around at all the creeping inevitabilities heading toward us, we need to talk about them. Somehow. By using this fantasy world, I know I felt I could still tell the stories of individuals persevering against the massiveness of it all without also collapsing into a gibbering mess of despair myself because the real bramble was outside my window. Seeing these characters carry on no matter what, in some small way, gave me a little determination.

—-

The Tangled Lands: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

The Cover of Myke Cole's novel, The Armored Saint

For this Big Idea, author Myke Cole has some thoughts on how people find themselves governed and why — and how these thoughts have resonance for his latest work, The Armored Saint.

MYKE COLE:

Nobody trusts the government.

The single greatest casualty of the political chaos of the past year is our faith in our institutions: from our police to our bureaucracy to our press, scandal after scandal after scandal shakes our foundations. In the vacuum that follows, we routinely bandy around words like “revolution,” and “fascism,” and “dictatorship,” turning to any port in a storm. Teen Vogue surges to the fore of political reportage. Amazon and Berkshire Hathaway flirt with providing healthcare, and we find ourselves leaning on social media to disseminate our numerous cris de coeur.

It’s frightening, but it’s also justified. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, in the US or the UK, nobody can be faulted for saying that their government hasn’t been doing a very good job. Nobody can be blamed for cocking an eyebrow or casting a skeptical glance when the authorities come to town. These authorities have routinely abused their power, routinely hyped fear of the other in order to gain more. Bigger and badder weapons, more pervasive and ruthless surveillance, less and less accountability.

Why should we trust them with anything, ever?

But the truth is always more complicated. And even the most passionate resister will admit, when pressed, that the government we despise isn’t always wrong. That the authorities do protect us from enemies who seek to harm us. And that it is possible to stand up to the institutions that smother us, only to find something much worse lurking in the background.

And that’s the big idea behind The Armored Saint.

Heloise Factor has grown up in a world where the priesthood of the divine Emperor, the Order, keeps the devils confined to hell. The Order pitilessly slaughters anyone who they suspect of harboring those wizards whose dabbling in forbidden arts might rip the veil that keeps our world separate from hell, and set the devils loose among us. Riding under the uncompromising mantra of “Suffer no wizard to live,” the Order burns entire villages, leaving nothing alive, if there is even the hint of wizardry. Countless innocents are routinely caught up in their unthinking crusade, and the world simply shrugs its shoulders and moves on. Heloise is raised with a mantra as chilling as the Order’s, “that’s just the way things are.”

But she is an extraordinary young woman and refuses to live like this. In her brave struggle, she forgets one important possibility.

Just because the Order is cruel and corrupt, doesn’t mean they are wrong.

The Armored Saint was conceived before the present political maelstrom was upon us, but it was absolutely written in the midst of it, and as with all of my work, it has pervaded the text. It grew from a book about a young woman finding herself and challenging a cruel and immutable system into a story grappling with the feeling of being cut adrift in a world where it seems nothing can be trusted, where consequences have consequences, and life is often a succession of choosing between bad or worse. 2018 reminds me that our lives are lived out in the midst of a cascade of choices going back generations, chickens all coming home to roost at once.

I think all authors identify with their protagonists to some extent, but it is amazing how deeply entwined I have felt with Heloise all through this journey, and how with each passing event, I feel her presence more keenly. Like all of us, she is wrestling with a world-gone-mad. And like all of us, she is never truly sure if the decisions she makes are the right ones—if she is seeing far enough down the chain of consequences.

Whether she has or she hasn’t, Heloise is amazing. I have been privileged to know her and tell her story. You’ll be meeting her soon, and I hope you love her as much as I do.

—-

The Armored Saint: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Karen Healey

Author Karen Healey has some very specific advice about the use of apostrophes, and prologues. What is it and how does it have an impact on The Empress of Timbra, the novel she co-wrote with Robyn Fleming? Healey is here to fill you in on the details — with all the apostrophes in the correct place.

KAREN HEALEY:

There are two pieces of high fantasy writing advice, often given, that I think are thoroughly sensible:

  1. Don’t use apostrophes in characters’ names.
  2. Don’t write a prologue.

Don’t use apostrophes in names, because it’s a cliche. You’ll annoy your readers. Don’t write a prologue, because your world-building should be incorporated into the main plot; there’s no point in getting the reader interested in events that happened a generation or a century or a thousand years before your main narrative. You only run the risk they’ll be more intrigued with your prologue than what you’ve decided is the real story.

But just because you’re aware of the guidelines doesn’t mean you won’t convince yourself it’s all right not to follow them, especially when you’ve read enough high fantasy to know stories that have got away with breaking one or both of these rules to spectacular effect.

About a decade ago, my co-writer Robyn Fleming and I wrote an epistolary fantasy novel in the style of the Letter Game, exchanging emails back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Like us, our protagonists were separated by an ocean, and like us, they were two young women who were close friends. But unlike us, they lived in a second-world high fantasy setting. They were discovering a vast conspiracy, getting embroiled in politics and romances, and saving two nations with a combination of smarts, luck, and magic.

They had apostrophes in their names.

We started the story as a game, but we realised pretty early on that we had something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a real novel. So we showed it to some friends.

(For the record: Our apostrophes were meaningful. They were significant. They indicated status, linguistic drift, cultural detail, and history. They were the good kind of apostrophe!)

“Ditch the apostrophes,” our early readers said.

“But they are very important,” we told them, and each other. (The biggest joy–and biggest problem–of having a co-writer is that you can easily reinforce each other’s ideas.) “One might even argue that the apostrophes are essential to the very heart of the narrative! You wouldn’t ask us to cut out the heart of the narrative!”

We took the book to a WisCon writing workshop. Every single critique told us to ditch the apostrophes.

“Fine,” we said. “Fine. We guess the world isn’t ready for our apostrophes.” We cut the goddamn apostrophes. The narrative retained its heart. We learned a valuable lesson about murdering our darlings.

Nobody told us to cut the prologue, and the reason for that was because nobody, including us, actually knew it was a prologue until long after we’d finished the sequel to the first book. The sequel wasn’t told in alternating letters, but in alternating chapters. The protagonists are Elaku and Taver, aged eleven and fourteen, the children of one of the main characters in the first book. The story follows them as they meet for the first time, figure out how to grow up, and, just incidentally, get caught up in a political plot that could destroy their homeland.

We had two protagonists again, and political machinations, and hefty doses of smarts, luck, and magic. We had blacksmithing and dangerous herbivores, religion and treachery, pirates and battles at sea.

This time, we left out the apostrophes.

The Empress of Timbra was undeniably a better book than its predecessor. Our villains were more interesting. Our world-building was stronger. The events of the first novel had sparked a period of rapid social and religious change, and through Taver and Elaku, we were able to explore the implications of that from the perspective of characters who were growing up in a world marked by those changes. And then we wrote a direct sequel to that book, still with Taver and Elaku, and plotted a third and realised… the first book was a 90,000 word prologue.

And we had to cut it.

I don’t regret writing that book. The prologue novel gives a depth and vividness to The Empress of Timbra that makes it feel like part of a larger, older world–which it is. Writing it allowed us to explore some big ideas. But when we gently folded that prologue novel away into a virtual drawer, we were able to concentrate on the even bigger ideas that followed it.

The real story isn’t about the women in that prologue novel. It’s about Taver and Elaku, two bastard half-siblings drawn into dangerous conspiracy in a changing world, relying on their smarts, their magic, their luck, and each other to prevent disaster.

So this is our advice to high fantasy writers who might be starting where we started:

  1. Go ahead and write a prologue. But if it doesn’t help you tell the best version of your story, let it go.
  2. Seriously. Ditch the apostrophes.

—-

The Empress of Timbra: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt (at the Kobo site). Visit the co-author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Sue Burke

The Cover to Semiosis by Sue Burke

Got some houseplants? By the time you finish reading Sue Burke’s Big Idea essay about her novel Semiosis, you’ll never look at them the same way again. That’s pretty much a promise.

SUE BURKE:

Who’s in charge of the planet where you live? Is it you – that is, humans? Maybe. But not everything living on Earth is convinced of that. Some of them think you do their bidding, and I don’t mean your cat.

Let’s evaluate Earth from the point of view of fruit. Apples, for example. Apple trees hope you’ll eat their fruit, then throw away the core with its seeds so apples can expand their range. Or as they view it, so they can take over the world. They don’t entirely trust us, by the way: their seeds are too bitter to eat to make sure we’ll do the job right. How has this worked out? Exceptionally well. We love apples even as they manipulate us. They originated in central Asia and now get tender loving care in orchards all over the world. They dominate Washington State, shaping the economy and the lives of many people. Mission accomplished.

Still, you might feel doubtful. Do plants even know we exist? That’s a reasonable question. The answer is yes. Think about how carefully plants create flowers to cater to specific pollinators. When plants want to, they can even communicate with us humans. Tomatoes, for example, change color to tell you something: eat me! Their uncooked seeds can survive a tour of your alimentary canal, so make yourself a salad. Please.

Plants know you’re watching. We humans – and other animals – are very easy to control with food.

Another example: grass. Most of a grass plant grows underground. It sends up its leaves in a cunning ruse. In America’s Great Plains, bison come and eat the leaves, which are easily replaced, and in the process the bison also eat entire weeds and get rid of them for the prairie grass. This is how grasses wrested dominance over the plains. All they needed to do was encourage the evolution of bison, which took a while, but it was worth the time and effort.

Grass took over American suburbs in sort of the same way, using us and our lawn mowers like weekend bison. Your lawn has you well trained.

The fight between grass and weeds also holds a clue: plants can be horrible, especially to each other. In fact, one botanist, Augustin Pyrame de Candolle said, “All plants of a given place are in a state of war with respect to each other.” They fight primarily over sunlight, which is in limited supply, and they will fight to the death.

Roses, for example, grow thorns so they can sink them into whatever is around them and climb over it. If it’s another plant, and if by stealing all the sunlight they kill that other plant, roses don’t care. This is war – in your garden. Whose side are you on?

Jungles are a constant battle of trees versus lianas and other vines, which can weigh down and smother entire trees as they climb to sunshine. Plants also fight each other with poisons, and some fire-hardy plants, such as ponderosa pine trees in the western United States, will drop dry, oily needles to encourage lightning to kindle a flame. This is one reason we can’t prevent forest fires, no matter how hard we try. The pines are working against us.

So we’re not in charge on Earth, at least not as much as we think. Fortunately, our masters – plants – don’t seem to think very deeply, and they seem pretty willing to share the planet with us. But I write science fiction. What about other planets? What if the plants there were more thoughtful and far too willing?

So I decided to send, via a novel, a group of human colonists to a distant planet where they plan to establish a subsistence agricultural colony. They encounter an unexpected problem: the local dominant vegetation notices their arrival and sees what a clever, busy species they are, and how useful they would be. Meanwhile, these humans need to eat. As individuals, they will face dire choices as they struggle to survive and coexist. Who’s really in charge of their new home?

—-

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

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

 

The Big Idea: Jasmine Gower

Image of the book Moonshine by Jasmine Gower.

Tedium: Sometimes it’s an excellent motivator. Author Jasmine Gower explains how, and how it helped her novel Moonshine come to life.

JASMINE GOWER:

The appeal of fantasy is the satisfying escape into the truly impossible, unattainable adventures beyond the reach of even our most exciting moments in the real world. Fantasy provides an opportunity to bring magic and spectacle into our lives so, naturally, part of my upcoming fantasy novel Moonshine was inspired by perhaps the most unmagical thing that has ever happened to me.

I first conceived of the magical prohibition premise of my novel, Moonshine, way back in my high school days before setting aside the project for a number of years. While it was on hiatus, I studied the 1920s more in-depth, learning about the global reach of the flapper movement, the Lost Generation, early 20th century transgender activism, and the racism faced by legendary African American entertainers like Josephine Baker and Baby Esther.  A story about prohibition—magical or otherwise—has quite a bit of interesting history to draw upon, much of which goes ignored in favor of whitewashing and de-politicizing the events in the United States in the 1920s. (Strangely, TV and movies set during Prohibition rarely seem concerned with the motivations behind the Temperance Movement.)

After high school was also when I moved from my little agricultural hometown to Portland, Oregon, and in my daily life became exposed to the city’s historic 1930s brick architecture and horrible, soul-crushing gentrification. I learned about the histories of Portland’s immigrant communities, the college that fell into the river, and the little volcano located in the middle of the city. Modern-day Portland also provided its own fascinating and often horrifying inspiration for crafting a fantasy city of feminist activism, queer communities, dangerous ecology, and black market dealings. And while all of that ended up shaping Moonshine, for the story of Moonshine’s main character Daisy, nothing was quite as influential as my experience working a dull, repetitive, underpaid off-white-collar job right out of college.

It was a basic data entry position, completely unrelated to my English degree and nominally focused on processing workers comp claims, although in truth I didn’t (and still don’t entirely) understand the point of most of the work I did there. My employers must have been satisfied enough with my work, though, as a few months in they moved me from the dungeon-like concrete basement to the bright and airy second floor of our renovated art deco building. There, I was trained in a new task—auditing the work of overseas remote employees even more underpaid than me.

Once more, I was mystified as to the point of the task assigned me. It seemed that I was training the remote employees in my own job, which was strange given that my employer already had me to do my job. That had me on-edge, and I had never gotten on well with the rigid, chained-to-the-desk environment of that office. The tipping point, however, was when my manager threatened disciplinary action after I, following company procedure to the letter, called in sick for a single day after I had contracted scarlet fever. So, that was pretty much the end of that.

It wasn’t necessarily my worst job, but the particular badness of this job provided a compelling question: What does my place of employment even do? Or it would have been compelling, if the answer wasn’t almost definitely just “process workers comp claims and exploit employees,” but maybe for someone else it could have been a question with a more satisfying answer. Enter Daisy Dell, or an early concept of her, who got to be the surrogate in my “maybe my desk jockey job is secretly interesting” fantasies. Could the company be a front for a secret lab splicing superhero genes? Had they captured a werewolf for research on a highly volatile lycanthrope virus? Whatever it was, there was definitely weird science happening in the basement.

And that was when I remembered my magical prohibition concept from high school.

I suppose it stands to reason that the story I ended up writing was not informed necessarily by fantastical elements from my own life, which has a limited supply to pull from, but from the fantasy I built in my head to survive the mundanity. (There were fewer podcasts then, you see.) Daisy’s boring day job does indeed lead her to run afoul a magical moonshining operation, which turns out to be a stressful experience for her, but it was pretty damn fun for me during those long hours of data entry.

My job eventually led me somewhere, too, once I was on my path away from it. After the scarlet fever incident, I only stayed on long enough to cushion my savings to take a while off of work. And the day I was gone from that tedious, miserable day job? I started writing Moonshine.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: David Mack

What makes a hero? It’s a question that author David Mack had to confront in his novel The Midnight Front. It’s also a question he gives some thought to here in his Big Idea essay.

DAVID MACK:

Heroes are the ones who step up to take the hit for the rest of us.

I know it’s not a new idea in fiction or myth, not by a long shot. But it remains one of the most powerful and effective elements in storytelling. One of the most universal characteristics of characters who are considered to be inspiring or heroic is a willingness to sacrifice themselves for others.

There are lots of ways for characters to be heroic; not all courage involves physical peril. It can take just as much bravery to charge into gunfire as it does to oppose public opinion armed with nothing more than one’s principles. Some might argue the latter action is the more difficult; to die is the pain of but a moment, but to become a pariah, to risk being cast out of one’s community in the name of what’s right and fair — that’s a pain that can last a lifetime.

Ideas such as these guided my thinking as I developed the story for my new epic fantasy novel The Midnight Front. My main character Cade starts out as an ordinary man, one who has no aspirations to heroism. To motivate him into joining the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program, I resorted to a well-worn trope: Nazi sorcerers murder his parents as collateral damage in an attack that is meant to slay Cade at the start of World War II.

What I soon realized, however, was that while revenge can be an understandable and even a relatable motivation for a main character, it is not a heroic one. At its heart, revenge is a selfish motive, one driven by a desire to repay pain with pain, loss with loss. Characters who live for revenge often tell themselves that they are seeking justice, but the truth is that most of them care only about their own pain or wounded egos, and on some level they hope that inflicting retribution upon the ones who wronged them will somehow exorcise their suffering.

But that’s not really how it works, no matter what Hollywood might like us to believe. I love a good revenge story as much as anyone, but even the best vengeance-driven characters tend to wind up as antiheroes: Parker in Richard Stark’s The Hunter (or Porter in Payback, my favorite filmed adaptation of Stark’s novel); William Munny in Unforgiven; Wilson in The Limey. Except for the pulpy goodness of Payback, these stories came to tragic conclusions.

There are notable exceptions, of course. Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride is one, and both Alejandro Murrietta and Don Diego de la Vega in The Mask of Zorro — but in all three of those latter examples, our revenge-driven heroes learn before the end that they must fight for something more noble than assuaging their own pain. Montoya risks his life to save Westley; Alejandro puts the rescue of innocent lives ahead of his vengeance; and de la Vega knows that his true legacy lies not in his revenge, but in training a new Zorro to be a hero for the people.

Consequently, while I was willing to let revenge start Cade on his path in The Midnight Front, I knew that it wouldn’t be enough to make a hero of him. Because true heroism requires sacrifice.

My supporting characters teach that lesson to Cade by showing him what courage looks like. But it’s only after a taste of revenge leaves him feeling hollow that he realizes it is an empty raison d’etre. So it is that when Cade finds himself on a landing craft heading for Normandy on D-day, he understands at last that his parents don’t need and wouldn’t want to be avenged; they would want their son to honor them, by following a nobler path, a more difficult path. A hero’s path.

This is an old lesson that we watch heroes learn over and over again. In those moments when characters embrace their best selves during their darkest hours, we cannot help but be stirred:

  • when Tony Stark risks his life to stop the Chitauri invasion in The Avengers;
  • when the crew of Rogue One lay down their lives, one by one, to steal the Death Star plans for the Rebellion;
  • when Steve Rogers nose-dives the Hydra superbomber to save millions of lives at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger;
  • when Diana dares to charge alone across No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman;
  • when the reprogrammed Terminator tells John Connor to lower him into the molten steel to protect the future at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day;
  • when Spock goes into the reactor room at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan;

…and, last but definitely not least,

  • when The Iron Giant flies toward his fateful rendezvous with a nuclear missile and defines his self-image with his final word: “Superman.”

These are the moments that define the heroes we love. The ones in which they’re asked to give their last full measures of courage and devotion, and they do so without hesitation or protest. In the end, this is what The Midnight Front is all about: teaching one man to take the fall — not for fame, fortune, or romantic love, but for one simple reason: because it’s the right thing to do.

—-

The Midnight Front: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Brooke Bolander

The Cover to Brook Bolander's The Only Harmless Great Thing

I taught Brooke Bolander at the 2011 Clarion Writing Workshop, and while I would dearly like to claim credit for her development into an amazing writer, in fact the talent was always there. It comes to a fruition in the novella The Only Harmless Great Thing; here is Bolander to explain how radium and elephants and fable have all come together in this remarkable story.

BROOKE BOLANDER:

So, here’s a thing to think about the next time you get an itch in your getalong to ask a writer where they get their ideas from. Cool ideas for stories? They’re frickin’ everywhere. They live in science journals and history books. They’re written on sidewalks and subway cars and the faces of people waiting at crosswalks. Every single human being you push past on your way to grab a cup of coffee has a past that is a chain of potentially fascinating stories. We live in an age of unfettered, recklessly spewing information. The Internet is a cool idea fire hose that never, ever shuts off.

All of this is a very rambly, long-winded and onion-on-my-belt way of saying that the seed for The Only Harmless Great Thing came from a random comment on Twitter.

Mystical. How on earth do we do it?

Twitter is a lot of things. It’s a terrible distraction. Sometimes it’s just terrible, full stop. It’s also a great place to gather ideas, because when you throw that many disparate minds together and let them chatter like coked parakeets, you’re gonna come up with some wild stuff. It was 2013, so things were not, shall we say, quite as fraught as they’ve become in recent years. There was a lot more shooting the shit and a lot less dodging it as it was flung at our heads via government-issued trebuchet.

Another writer friend of mine, the talented and lovely Helena Bell, posted a poll asking what she should write about next. There were several choices, but the two I remember (for reasons that will soon become evident) were elephants and radium poisoning. I think painting might have been a choice as well, but again, this was in 2013. Recollections of the intervening years in my head look like they were drawn in crayon by Susie, Age 4. I’m pretty sure I rode a velociraptor to my job down at the Unicorn Fart factory back then.

“Why not combine both?” I said. And then, as ominous Foley board thunder crashed: “Wait, shit. Why don’t I combine both?”

Because in the moment it took to type that sentence fragment, my brain had just smashed two clown cars together to create a compressed, bloody, honking rainbow cube of a story idea. Figuring out which floppy shoe went to what polka-dotted limb would take a hell of a lot longer, but there it sat, composed of two terrible pieces of American history my subconscious had immediately (and disturbingly quickly) dredged up from the depths.

The story of elephants in the good ol’ US of A is, like the histories of many things in the good ol’ US of A, really, really depressing. The first, Old Bet, arrived from Calcutta in 1796 and toured with a circus for 21 years before being shot to death in 1816 by a farmer who thought charging townsfolk fees to gawk at an animal was ’sinful’. That pretty much set the tenor for the next couple hundred years of American/elephantine relations. Elephants were tortured, abused, and made to perform tricks and tasks until the stress broke their incredibly sensitive minds, at which point a rampage often ensued, humans died, and the elephant was shot to death, poisoned, or, on one horrifically memorable occasion, lynched. With the advent of electricity came a new and novel way to snuff the rebels out. A killer elephant in Georgia named Daisy was almost the first, but she was spared only to be shot to death by local police after breaking free to finish what she had started, namely Killing All Humans.

Which brings us to Topsy, who you may know about if only because of that one episode of Bob’s Burgers. Like Old Bet and Daisy before her, Topsy was a circus elephant driven to viciousness by cruel handlers and years of abuse. Her one confirmed kill involved a man burning the tip of her trunk with a lit cigar stub. Her owners sold her to the proprietors of Coney Island’s Luna Park, where she helped haul lumber and building materials for awhile until a handful of incidents involving a drunken trainer convinced management she was too much of a liability to keep. Her execution by electrocution in 1903 was recorded by a film crew from the Edison Manufacturing Movie Company and distributed under the title Electrocuting an Elephant. Contrary to popular legend, Thomas Edison appears to have had little to do with Topsy’s death; he was a notorious asshole for a lot of reasons you can read about elsewhere, but this time he was more or less blameless. Topsy wasn’t a victim of the Current Wars, which had more or less petered out some thirteen years earlier. She was simply the latest and most visible victim in a long and cruel system that had been exploiting her kind for centuries.

But the Edison name and the eerily silent footage of her slowly toppling, smoke billowing from her hide, would be enough to keep Topsy in the public memory for years to come.

So much for the elephant part of the equation. My brain has an encyclopedic knowledge of sad animal stories from history. One of my previous short stories involved Laika, so this wasn’t exactly a new development. An upcoming work involves Benjamin, the last thylacine, and it will hopefully complete the triptych so I can go off and write about happy people drinking steaming mugs of hot chocolate under big fluffy duvets for a change.

The radium craze and the horrific story of the Radium Girls was something I already knew about, but I’m a history major, I know about a lot of things I’m later shocked to learn aren’t common public knowledge. In this case, the fact that more people don’t know that an entire factory of women were more or less poisoned to death by their employers within the lifetime of their grandparents makes me want to burn everything down with cleansing fire. Since arson charges are tricky and prison blows, I decided to write a book about it instead.

After the Curies discovered radium in 1898, it didn’t take long for the element to become a wonder additive applied to everything from soaps and chocolate to condoms. It was radioactive—nobody was quite sure what that meant yet, but it sounded pretty cool in marketing slogans—and when mixed with certain other phosphorescent dyes it made a paint that glowed a faint green in the dark. The advent of World War I and the dark, dirty business of trench warfare meant there was a suddenly a ready market for wrist watches with glowing dials that could be easily read at night. Factories were opened to keep up with demand, and girls were hired to paint them. It was, by the standards of the early 20th century, a clean, desirable job: You were working with an element that was said to be great for your health, it paid fairly well, and the paint was fun to work with. The girls would paint their teeth with it. Their skin glittered and glowed faintly from free-floating paint particulate in the air; they nicknamed them the ‘Shining Girls’ because of this. So long as you kept up your quota of dials painted each day, you were just fine. The fastest girls quickly learned how to ‘tip’ the paint brushes with their lips, bringing the bristles to a fine point. It meant swallowing a lot of paint, but again, for the past thirty years radium had been marketed as a cure for cancer, herpes, indigestion, and pretty much anything else that might conceivably make a quick buck.

Behind the scenes, the scientists manufacturing the paint wore heavy protective gear and were warned about the potential dangers of working with the stuff. The girls on the factory floor weren’t so lucky. The ones with worries were soothed, shushed, and reassured of their safety. Why? Because it was cheaper and more efficient to simply not tell them about the potential side effects, and ‘cheaper and quicker’ has always given capitalists a boner roughly the size of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. What they didn’t know wouldn’t slow the worker’s productivity. Why bother stirring the pot?

Until the girls at last began to sicken and die.

Even that didn’t put the brakes on management, at first. They blamed it on other things. They implied that the girls were contracting syphilis, in the time-honored and ever-ready tradition of the Whores Had It Coming. When a state safety inspector wrote a scathing report about the dangerous conditions at one of the factories, a massive cover-up ensued (it took a woman to eventually blow the lid off). Meanwhile, girls were still falling ill in rapidly growing numbers. Lawsuits came later, and trials, but the wheels of justice move glacially. By the time all was said and done and settlements paid, years had passed. Most of the Radium Girls were already dead.

The factories shuttered. Memories faded. The world moved swiftly on.

Acts of injustice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.

Sixteen years separated the death of Topsy and the employment of the first Radium Girls at a factory in Orange, New Jersey, making their stories more or less of a similar vintage. A little girl could have hypothetically been at Coney Island on that fateful January day as a toddler and grown up to wield a brush at U.S. Radium. All of them died for profit, to save their bosses an extra dollar and to make some in the bargain. Animals and women were considered expendable.

The more I thought about this, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the more I felt that these stories somehow needed to be told together. From an offhand comment on Twitter, something vicious was simmering.

It took another three years for the story to take a shape I was satisfied with, and by that time other things had been rolled up in my story Katamari: the history of uranium, the ongoing project to leave a marker for future generations warning of buried nuclear waste, the history of Coney Island itself. 2016 blew through like a shit hurricane and left me with even more to stew over. I thought a lot about history, how it’s perceived and how it truly is and who gets to tell the narratives that become the memories that become culture. I thought about it as a living, breathing thing that shimmies and shakes and causes ripples that often belie those carefully crafted narratives. I mulled over poison in the ground and in the marrow; how often we forget, the terrible lies we tell ourselves and are told for comfort’s sake. I thought about the ways in which capitalism exploits us, and what we have to gain when we come together in solidarity to fight. And I thought about women—women’s stories, women’s friendships, women’s anger.

I finally sat down and wrote the book very late in 2016. It took me two weeks. It involves an alternate timeline (maybe even an alternate universe) where elephants have been recognized as sentient beings. Of course, that hasn’t stopped their exploitation, because when has it ever? They can speak with sign language, but are not listened to. They can express themselves, but are still more or less slaves of man.

In the aftermath of the Radium Girls incident, circus elephants are bought on the cheap and put to use painting watch dials, being big enough to take a lot of radium before they die and expendable enough that nobody really cares. One of the elephants is Topsy. A factory girl, slowly dying of jaw cancer, is kept on to teach her animal replacement the ropes of the job that has sentenced her to a miserable lingering death. From mutual exploitation they strike up a kind of understanding. Things go from there. Terrible choices are made—choices that will have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future.

Also there are wooly mammoth folk tales of the Furmother and an post-apocalyptic elephantine Greek chorus, because this is a deeply weird little puzzle box of a book. I can’t promise that you’ll like it, or that it’ll be your thing. It’s probably not an airport read. The language can be fiddly (I dig fiddly) and there are three different timelines & numerous POVs to spool up in your brainmeats. There’s every chance it might seem as tangly as Christmas lights upon first read.

But it’s short, and it’s angry, and it’s the book I needed to write, turns out, although I didn’t know that back in 2013 when Twitter initially lobbed those acorns at my head. We can only tell the stories we’re capable of telling and hope against hope they reach the people who need them the most. My dearest wish is that The Only Harmless Great Thing finds its people, and that maybe one of you will be one of them.

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The Only Harmless Great Thing: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: S. Craig Zahler

S. Craig Zahler writes and directs films most of the time, but the story of Hug Chickenpenny was one that called out for written rather than cinematic form. But Zahler found there was a theme that ran through his book writing efforts that ran through all his other efforts as well. He’s here to tell you what it is.

S. CRAIG ZAHLER:

Perseverance is possibly the single most consistent quality that the protagonists have in all of my different pieces, whether science fiction, horror, crime, western, or just, let’s say, this gothic fairy tale that is Hug Chickenpenny.

I originally created this character probably about 20 years ago. At that time, I was reading a lot of Charles Dickens. Also, I was a big fan of David Lynch—and still am—and so I think those sensibilities are there. But, typically, my inspiration isn’t so much that I see something and want to emulate it, it’s more that I think of something I haven’t seen—perhaps in a genre that I have seen—and think of a new way to bring it to life.

So, in the case of Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child, I was interested in doing something that had a Dickensian scope—and it’s an orphan tale, so it bears that relationship—but, at the same time, I knew that I wanted the titular character to be different from any I’d read about, and for the world to be comparably unique. And so it really comes from a place of me wanting to read a story and write a story that I hadn’t quite seen before. But certainly Charles Dickens, David Lynch, and the incredible books by Mervyn Peake– The Gormenghast Trilogy– are all things that influenced what Hug Chickenpenny became.

So, certainly that’s there: Perseverance. Seeing how someone deals with trying situations and how they overcome them as things get harder and harder, whether it is Arthur with the broken leg in Bone Tomahawk still continuing to make the journey towards his wife, or the terrible prison situation that Bradley finds himself in in Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Hug Chickenpenny starts off in a situation worse than either of these people, and how his character develops through it– as well as the effects of his early relationships with George Dodgett and Dr. Hannersby and the other characters– says a lot about who he innately is. So perseverance is there throughout. I am on day 13 of a 28 day work streak, where every day is 14 to 16 hours. Just, in the last five days, I wrote eight soul songs with my songwriting partner that are going to go into a new movie.

And then, after working until 8 in the morning on Sunday through Monday, I came into the editing room, worked until 5 in the morning last night, and I’ll be here just as late tonight. So it’s something I do: I push hard towards the things that I want. I have a lot of drive, and that’s a common trait for the lead characters in pieces I do. Not all of them, but I’d probably say the most common trait is: they persevere.

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Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Jason Franks

In his Big Idea piece for Faerie Apocalypse, author Jason Franks notes he didn’t want this fantasy novel to have a map — and as it turns out, in many ways, in the writing of the book, he found himself in uncharted territory as well.

JASON FRANKS:

A young man travels to Faerie Land looking for a woman based solely on her appearance or other genetic attributes. She has a magical heritage, or royal blood. Of course, she is also beautiful.  In the old days (most of these stories are set in a past era) this was, I guess, considered romantic. By today’s standards it’s creepy at best. What kind of a person does this? This was the Big Idea behind my new book, Faerie Apocalypse.

Initially, I thought it was a short story. I figured out what my protagonist really wanted and I sat down to write it… but once I had begun, I realized that the project was a lot more involved than I had anticipated.

I wanted the engage the sense of whimsy and wonder that makes fairyland stories such a delight for children, and to use that to bring out the darker impulses that makes these stories compelling for adults. I wanted to turn the tropes of the genre against each other.

I needed some distance from the characters in order to maintain sleight of hand and so I made the hard decision not to give most of them names. There’s a story-based reason for this (“Rumplestiltskin!”) but that made it difficult to show enough point-of-view to be engaging. This had knock-on effects that caused me to re-examine the way I write at a nuts-and-bolts level.

My usual prose style is pretty lean (one of my workshop buddies complains that it’s ‘skeletal’), and it didn’t work under these constraints. For this piece I needed something lush, but I didn’t want to let the style get in the way of storytelling. Cormac McCarthy’s work* gave me a good starting point, but mainly I solved this problem through hard graft. I worked it draft after draft, scene after scene, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, until I thought it was right.

As I built out the story I discovered new scenarios and characters. The story grew to encompass other characters with their own missions: a magician, looking for power; an urchin looking for his father; a wage-slave looking for meaning; a faerie queen who grows tired of being the object of someone else’s quest. It was tough to braid all of these stories together, but as I wrote the book I found connections I had neither planned nor expected.  I was halfway through the first draft before I figured out what was really happening to the Realms under my protagonists’ trampling feet. (Hint: it’s in the title.)

It helped that I knew what I didn’t want the story to be. I didn’t want it to be old-timey. I didn’t want period characters—I wanted mortals originating in contemporary settings (1980s to 2020s). I didn’t want a Faerie Land that is just some adjacent reality—I wanted one that has a reflexive relationship with our own, built from our dreams and our stories. I didn’t want the Faerie Folk to be a bunch of gamebook-classifiable races—I wanted them to be as complex and diverse and perverse as humans. Their immortal lives, bound in storybook rules, make them both more and less than we are.

I also knew going in that I didn’t want a map. The geography and climate in this Faerie Land is mutable and will bend itself to accommodate the stories that play across it—or to the will of those who are powerful enough to influence it directly.

The book is quite short, but I wrote probably 50% again as much material as you see in this final version. The final shape of it is dense and non-linear and twisted. I think it’s a fast read, but a challenging one. I hope you’ll find it as rewarding—and unsettling—to read as it was for me to write.

* Fear not—the book is fully punctuated. Overly punctuated, if I’m honest. I hope you like em dashes and semicolons.

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Faerie Apocalypse: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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